I have yet to really explore the San Gabriels north of LA at all so today seemed like as good as day as any. I’d heard of Chantry Flats and Mt. Wilson so I headed there.
Parking: Total shitshow. So many people. I almost turned around and drove home. I had to park almost a half and a half away. Once I was actually out and running, I was on pavement and swimming through a mass of chubby, spaghetti-strapped bodies and their strollers. It was like Disneyland. All I wanted to do was punch babies.
But, as soon as I got out off that mess and onto single track, they evaporated. Suddenly it was just me alone on some pretty spectacular, fun trails. I was really surprised by the quality of trail. Lots of fun stuff to run, some technical sections. It suddenly felt like I was back in Colorado.
I climbed up past Upper Sturtevant Falls, up to Sturtevant Camp and up Sturtevant Trail to the top of Mt. Wilson at 5,713 feet. It was a pretty burly climb, but the exhilaration of being on brand new trails propelled me up.
Overlooking Angeles National Forest from up top, I plotted the rest of my route. Based on name alone, I shot down the Rim Trail, dropping fast along a super narrow, precarious track all the way down to Devore Camp.
Part of the creek feeding into Sturtevant Falls (and the masses) below
Pretty wonderful trails once you get past all the fleshy crap
The view from the vista point of Mt. Wilson
100-inch and 60-inch telescopes atop Mt. Wilson
The lower parts of Gabrieleno Trail (similar to Rim Trail)
As I hit the junction, a hippish man in his late 40s flagged me down. For context, we were absolutely in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t seen another soul in 7 miles. I’ll spare you all his ramblings, but the basic gist was that his name was Christian, and he was from the East Coast and had been out here but was totally surprised by how rugged the mountains were. He hiked 23 miles the previous day and was out to see the stars comet (which one?). His friend was supposed to meet him this morning but he works at LA Memorial Hospital and couldn’t get out so he was just going to wait for him out here and meet him in the morning. He hadn’t really eaten anything all day (except a ketchup packet and two sugar packs), and he was pretty dizzy and getting lightheaded. Oh yeah, he also hadn’t slept at all for some reason.
So yeah, this dude was out in the middle of BFE with zero food waiting on his friend who had already shafted him once. This was really one of the dumber, crazier things I’ve heard. I kindly handed him my Peanut-Toffee Buzz Cliff Bar and Justin’s Nut Butter Almond Candy Bar (which I was just about to eat dammit). That left me with a couple of gels which I hoped would last me for the rest of the run.
According to Christian, the head ranger knew that he was down there. It all seemed suspicious, but when I asked if there was anything I could for him and or any message or whatever I could relay, he said he’d be fine. Just eat the food and then try to get some sleep.
This section was a little out-and-back up Shortcut Canyon so I told him I’d be back in half an hour to check on him. The trail crisscrossed the creek a dozen times, was littered with fallen and splintered trees and swarming with nasty little flying bugs. Definitely one of those situations when you want to move through it as quickly as possible but are impended by all the reasons you want to move through it quickly. It was slow going.
Luckily for my buddy Christian, as I was passing through the empty West Fork campground, I spied a smattering of oranges that had been discarded at an abandoned campsite. They were a few days old but still good enough to eat, and they’d give him a few more calories. I grabbed what I could carry and headed back towards Christian.
He was grateful for the oranges and said he was already feeling better thanks to the food I’d given him before. We talked a bit more, and I made sure he was OK (bodily at least) before I say goodbye and started my climb back up to Newcomb Pass.
Disturbing some deer in Shortcut Canyon
A carpet of flowers
Looks like it’s Christian’s luck(ish) day
From here it was a fun, easy drop back down to the Sturtevant Camp, followed by a little climb up to the summit of Mt Zion, followed by a drop down Lower Winter Creek, one final, nasty climb up to the parking lot and then down the pavement road and back to my car.
Once again, a perfect 26.2 miles for the second day in a row for a finish to one big, bizarre, fun weekend.
Run the section of the Backbone that I realized I had never run before
Run the hottest, most exposed section of the Backbone to prep for Zion
Run something near Malibu Café, where Liza and I had planned a rendezvous after my run.
Try out my new Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest that I got in the mail the other day
Run a marathon both days this weekend in honor of the LA Marathon.
Considering all these objectives, I decided to start at Kanan, climb up east to Corral Canyon and then drop down to Tapia.
Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest
A mile after leaving the Kanan parking lot, I found myself behind another running wearing SJ Race Vest. Of course we started chatting. Of course he was running the Coyote Cohorts Backbone Race/Run in two weeks. Of course we both ran the Ray Miller 50. Of course I had just run the Backbone three weeks ago. Of course he was running from Tapia to Kanan and back. Of course I was running from Kanan to Tapia and back. So I tagged along and we ran the 12 miles to Tapia together.
The day was hot and burly but having conversation helps immensely. As we started to come down from Bulldog towards Tapia, there was a sea of fog splayed out before us, rising over the pass and then flowing down into the valley behind it like dry ice. It was unbelievably spectacular and definitely cool to share with a random friend I had just made on the trail.
In bloom along the trail
David and I coming down from Corral Canyon
Crazy fog running down into the canyon all afternoon
At Tapia, I said goodbye Adam and thanked him for letting me run with him. The plan was to follow some trails up to the Tapia picnic area to get some water, instead of taking the fair simpler and safer route on roads. That was the plan.
If I’ve learned one thing about running the Backbone it’s that if there’s ever a doubt about your route, don’t try to be a hero. Just get on the road and take the most direct route.
That’s all to say, I ended up bushwhacking through trails up into the mountains that were horribly overgrown and eventually petered out into nothing, far away from my intended destination. Then, I thought I’d figured it out and followed another route, only to end in a barbed wire fence.
I have up 45 minutes later, scratched, bleeding and defeated. The road it is. That ended up being much simpler. Silly me.
Should’ve been a clue
After a quite fill up and snack, I headed up the long 6-mile climb to the top of Corral Canyon. From there, it was more descents and climbs back to my car at Kanan. A perfect 26.2 miles.
The return—solo and without any chatting—was just mean. By the time I finished, I felt like someone had taken baseball bats to my legs. I was totally broken down. Not sure whether it was the heat, the hard-packed trail or my disappointment with my new Ultimate Direction pack (more on that later), but I was effectively tenderized.
Nearing the top of the awesome rock formations at Bulldog
Luckily, Liza and I plans to check out the magical Malibu Café up off Kanan-Dume Road. If you’re ever within an hour of Malibu, this place is absolutely worth the detour. It’s a little magical restaurant/bar/wedding venue/field/pond in the middle of nowhere. And I must say, the legs felt much better after a mint julep and a few beers. Marathon #1 down.
I was in Boulder for two days and used it as an excuse to get out on my old trails. And bonus points for snow. I hadn’t gotten a chance to test out my New Balance 110 Winter Boots yet. It was the perfect storm of trail running awesome.
Of course, I had to climb up to 8,144 feet, having just been at sea level less 12 hours previous. Needless to say, it wasn’t the smoothest run I’ve ever had, but it just felt so good to be back on Boulder trails and back on snow again.
The Backbone captured my imagination the first time I ever heard about it. I remember I was in LA for a shoot about three years ago and snuck off one Saturday to find some soft dirt to run on. I discovered Will Rogers State Park, which led into Topanga State Park. And there—next to a sign warning about mountain lion attacks—was a sign that referenced something called The Backbone Trail. When I got back to my hotel, I looked it up, found a few jimmy-rigged sites and discovered to my amazement that The Backbone is a 68-mile trail system that stretches from Santa Monica all the way up through the Santa Monica Mountain range to past Malibu. And from what I could tell, it was relatively poorly maintained and extremely hard to follow. So in other words, an adventure.
I knew I wanted to run it. And even before I moved to LA, I started going out and running sections of it on spare weekends. I was already planning to run it this year when I got wind of a Coyote attempt at it on February 23. A number of Coyotes tried running it last year but tragically picked the same day as an arsonist did to set fire to part of the trail, and they were stopped around mile 30.
Erin Chavin did an amazing job of setting up this attempt, and a handful of very generous people came out to provide us aid along the way. As opposed to the way I’d always imagined it, we’d be running from northwest at La Jolla to southeast at Will Rogers. The drive up to La Jolla was bizarre mentally because you realize that you have to run back down everything that you’re now driving past. (And I think most people go south-to-north. It’s supposedly easier but also is an issue with parking cars at La Jolla which is gated off overnight.)
So it was on. We gathered in the La Jolla Canyon parking lot, had our finally bathroom visits and said a quick prayer led by my soon-to-be-new friend Balmore. I think it ended with something like, “Please keep us safe and everyone have a great day. Lez do it!”
And with that, we were off. It was 5:10am. And we had 68 miles ahead of us.
There were 12 of us attempting the full Backbone—The Dirty Dozen—plus a few extra folks who would be joining us for the first marathon-worth of it. A train of lights jovially marched up Ray Miller in the darkness. By the time we topped out, the sun was just starting to paint the sky ochre.
Ray Miller in the dark
Saying a quick prayer
The dark climb up
The aptly named Boney Mountain at dawn
From there, it was a quick jaunt down Overlook Fire Road, then Wood Canyon Vista to the bottom of Sycamore Canyon. It had been somewhat cold when we first started and had warmed up nicely, but it was all a trap. The bottom of Sycamore was absolutely frigid. The cold sea air pools in low-laying areas like that overnight, and waits to torture poor, unsuspecting runners in the morning. There was frost on the ground. C’mon.
I had planned for a warm day, and I wanted nothing to do with this cold so I sped up to get out of it as soon as I could. Normally the climb up Blue Canyon and Chamberlain would’ve been walked, but I was running it flat-out, just to escape the cold air.
At Butt Rock, I met up with the two folks who were in front of me (running the marathon). We stopped for obligatory pictures and chocolate-gel-consuming before pressing on to Sandstone Peak and the top of the climb. The peak was quiet for the first time ever. (It was only 8:30 in the morning.) We scrambled up and then glided down to Yerba Buena where we kicked around in the bushes for 10 minutes until Jeff unearthed the jugs of water that Erin has stashed the day before.
Butt Rock glowing in the distance
Shredding my sins
Butt Rock sacrifice
The view out to sea
Topping out on Chamberlain, headed towards Sandstone
The view from atop Sandstone Peak
Clearly stoked about Sandstone Peak
Jeff retrieving the hidden water stash from the bushes
Yerba Buena is a good 16 miles in so we waited for everyone to amble down before shoving off again.
The next section follows Yerba Buena on trails and is always longer than I ever remember it (no matter when I run it). By now the sun had decided to make itself known, and things were getting warmer. It was only around mile 20 when I first noticed my legs feeling a little tired.
My new buddy Catherine and I plugged away, traversing Etz Meloy Motorway. This is one of the only sections of The Backbone not technically owned by the parks. Supposedly it may or may not belong to Arnold Schwarzenegger. So that added an extra element of excitement and danger. (But otherwise that section is kind of boring.)
From the top of the Motorway, it’s a wind-y, bike-y, switchback-y drop Encinal Canyon, across Mulholland to our 26-mile aid station at the top of Trancas Canyon. The sun was baking by now, but I felt great. I’ve got to say, it’s nice starting that early in the morning because you can knock out a marathon like that by 11:00 in the morning so it doesn’t feel like you’ve really done much. I was up front with the marathon runners so I got into the aid station and had a leisurely bite to eat. Fistfuls of Kettle Chips, pretzels, Coke, it was awesome. We took things slowly and waited for more people to gather because we didn’t want to get too spread out across the course. It just becomes too unwieldy to coordinate aid stations and make sure everyone’s doing OK.
More people trickled in, and after a solid 40 minutes or so, a few people were chomp at the bit to take off. So off we took.
Jeff, Tiffany, Balmore and I dropped down into Trancas Canyon and then made the climb out and across a network of trails, private properties and fire roads. I’ve run this section a number of times before and gotten miserably lost. It blows. If you don’t know what you’re doing here, it can be very frustrating. Luckily, I did know what I was doing. Balmore and I dropped a few arrows for people and pressed on.
Food, glorious food
Which which is which?
We ticked off the miles. Trancas. Zuma. Kanan. Latigo Canyon. Thirty-odd miles in, and I was feeling really good. The legs were starting to show a little wear but nothing too bad.
Honestly, I was just having a blast—talking, laughing, just messing around. And that was kind of the danger. I realized that I was having such a good time that I wasn’t paying any attention to my nutrition. In a race, I’d normally be anally counting off the half-hours and 45s to eat and take salt tablets. But I was just having fun. Around this point I had to catch myself and start to focus a little bit more unless I wanted to drop dead in a few more miles.
Right around mile 36, I had a thought. If Jimmy and I decide to take on a Back-to-Backbone, it would be what I had just run, plus a hundred-miler on top of it. (Back-to-Backbone is our first of its kind scheme to run the Backbone from Will Rogers up to La Jolla and then back for a total of 136 miles.) And at the moment, it seemed totally doable.
At the start of Latigo, I waited on Balmore, and we slogged our way up to Castro Crest and our second real aid station planted atop Corral Canyon. The tough thing about Backbone is there’s really no flat. You’re either headed up a canyon or down one, because you’re traversing across the Santa Monicas, which spread their tentacles down to the sea. And you’re just running across their ridges and canyons. Needless to say, the climb was doable but draining (as I had expected it to be). But for our hard work, we were rewarded with a bountiful aid stations from the truck of Derick’s car.
This is where running the Backbone like this was really a treat. I’ve never run a distance this long as a fun run. It’s always been a race. So to be able to go out, have fun, goof around, lounge and enjoy it, it was absolutely heavenly. Instead of looking over your shoulder the whole time, you’re looking around and taking it all in. And instead of rushing stressfully through aid stations, I kicked off my shoes, ate oranges/chips/ginger snaps, drank water/Coke/whatever, spread out, chatted, basically just hung the eff out. It was wonderful. We must’ve spent 45 minutes or so there relaxing as everyone else came in. Finally, it was time to leave again. Once again, Jeff, Tiffany, Balmore and I took off.
I was 100% sure I had seen the entire Backbone in all my times running it, but apparently I was wrong. Just past Castro lay Corral Canyon and all kinds of amazing rock formations that I had never seen. Then, we dropped down into the canyon, which has spectacular views. Running a course that I thought I knew reasonably well, it was delightful to be surprised by new scenery.
Balmore powering up and out of Kanan
The best discovery of the day: nutellanana
Bulldog rocks and stuff
Balmore striding up Bulldog
Some hippie stuff
The view down into Corral Canyon, yum
Balmore and I pushed on until the parking lot at Tapia. This section is also very tricky with a combination of jumping on roads, off little side trails right off the road and more. I’ve gotten turned around here before as well running north-south. Running back south-north, it was clear that you have to scramble under a bridge, across some creek, up an embankment and come out on the trail. But to repeat, I got really lost going north-south, which happened to be the direction we were pointed today. It was likely a combination of my stubbornness and the wear of the 40-something miles on my brain, but I was convinced we had to find the trail under the bridge. Poor Balmore was pointing the way to get on the road, but I said we had to find the proper trail. In the tangle, we got mixed up and somewhat lost. We jumped on the road, off the road, scampered down an embankment, under a bridge and all kinds of stuff. Still, we seemed lost. Finally, we found ourselves on the right path.
It was really dumb. Probably 1/8 of a mile mix-up. And we probably burned a good 15 minutes on it. In the meantime, Jeff and Tiffany who had been behind us were now (maybe?) ahead of us. So back on the right track on Piuma Ridge, we tried to chase them down. My goal was to see the sunset from the top of Saddle Peak, the huge climb looming in the distance. But my new buddy Balmore had been slowing down a little bit, and I think all the silliness around Tapia wore him down even more. I picked up my pace to catch Tiffany, Jeff and the sunset and left Batlmore. (In retrospect, this was kind of a shitty move. I still feel bad.
In this direction, Saddle Peak is one big-ass climb. It’s actually the second largest of the day after Sandstone Peak. I sprinted up it to catch Jeff and Tiffany and reached them just as it hit the Golden Hour. We were tired and dirty, but the mountain was awash with gold.
Luscious Piuma Ridge
Sunset in progress
Tiffany and the Golden Hour
Almost done with the day
And then came night. Twilight seemed to stretch forever until I looked up, and it was dark. By a stroke of luck (or perhaps planning), we were one night shy of a full moon, and the sky stayed bright. So bright in fact that we didn’t bother to turn on our headlamps. We merely plucked our way up and up and up to the top of Saddle Peak in the silly, magnificent darkness. And the rock formations atop Saddle Peak were all the more magical in the pale moonlight.
But as soon as we crested the peak and pointed down towards Stunt Road, things changed. We switched on our headlamps so pick down the rocky trail. And the air got meaner and colder. It picked up considerably, too. But the time we made it down to our final aid station on Stunt Road at Mile 50, the air was whipping around. My hands and legs were freezing once again.
Jeff had stocked his car full of food and supplies and stashed it on the road to act as the aid station. And on our descent down Saddle I jokingly asking him what kind of pizza we had. Ten minutes later as we trotted into the aid station, three shadowy figured asked us if we wanted pizza. Tiffany and I thought they were kidding. They insisted they weren’t. My mind is still blown by this. I’m still not sure the exact chain of events, but apparently Jeff heard my comment and then called the volunteers and asked them to get us some pizza. I’m still foggy on exactly how this is possible, but I did not care about the logistics at the time. We piled into the car and scarfed several slices of heaven.
This was probably my low-point of the run. Fifty miles in, and I was feeling pretty thrashed. The worst part was that it just had gotten really, really cold. (Thank God I had decided to bring my jacket and gloves along from my drop bag at mile 38.) The three of us were in semi-rough shape so we were worried that the others might not being doing too hot either. But much to our surprise and happiness, they came bounding up to the aid station just minutes after us, all in high spirits. Wonderful news. So, again, the three of us shoved off. This time we were joined by Marshall who had run up Hondo Canyon from Old Topanga Road. (This is very important as you’ll soon see.)
About a mile across Fossil Ridge and down into Hondo Canyon, I noticed that my light seemed kind of dim. It kept getting dimmer and dimmer until it was barely casting light at all. My headlamp with brand new batteries. Correction: My headlamp with brand new Korean batteries.
A few days before the run I remembered that I should get fresh batteries for my light while I was purchasing beer for Brian’s birthday beer run. I bought two packs off the liquor store. As I was leaving I flipped them over and noticed they were the imported Korean ones. I shrugged, Eh, probably not good but whatever. RIGHT. WHATEVER.
So now found myself barreling down Hondo Canyon without a light. Thank you, Korean batteries. We decided the best ideas was to sandwich me between Tiffany’s light in the front and Marshall’s in the back. So I had a little glimpse of the trail far in front of me and right at my feet, kind of. Miraculously we made it all the way down Hondo without me falling once. I still can’t believe that.
We made another little pit stop for hot chocolate at Marshall’s car at Old Topanga Road, and he graciously gave me his Black Diamond for the read of the run since that was all we was doing.
This was really the last of it. A long day with a long finish, but at least the finish was in sight. We trudged our way up to the water tank (the third and final place on the trail I’ve gotten terribly lost before), past the elementary school, through the nature trail, across the road and up to the creepily empty Dead Horse parking lot.
From here on out, it was just all the same. Miles to put in before we finished. Dead Horse always takes longer than a mile. Trippet Ranch. Musch Trail. Eagle Rock. The Hub.
By the time we made it to The Hub, the wind had picked up considerably and dust was whipping around everywhere. Things were getting pretty cold and lonely. This is one of those times where you just have to grit your teeth and gut it out. Bizarrely enough, it was just around 11:00pm at this point. If this were a 100-miler, we’d still have another 7 hours of night to get through. But luckily, we were just running 68 miles tonight.
Past The Hub is really familiar territory. But it was still windy and nasty. We wanted to be done so we moved as quickly as we could at this point. Two miles out, I glanced down at my watch and realized that if we started a flat-out sprint, we could slide in just at midnight.
Jeff and I took off sprinting. We were 66 miles in and pushing as hard as we possibly could. Down, down, down. I couldn’t believe how fast we were running this. And all for an arbitrary deadline. But at the same time, wasn’t this whole thing just an arbitrary adventure to begin with.
Two miles later, we blasted past the Topanga State Park sign. I looked down at my watch. 12:00:00. We had finished at exact midnight.
We made it home. We had started at 5:10am up at La Jolla Canyon, and 68 miles and 18:50 hours later, at 12:00am midnight, we had finished.
It was a really wonderful day and wonderfully put together. It was a delight to run that course and really have the chance to enjoy it at a leisurely pace. Oddly enough, instead of an introspective run or one where I learned something about myself, the biggest thing I got out of this run was camaraderie. I started running this trail with essentially 15 or so strangers, and I finished the day with a lot of new friends. We shared hours of conversation, laughter and moments with each other, and that’s what I loved most about it. We also had 11 out of 12 people finish the whole course, which is an awesome accomplishment.
Now I’m starting think dangerously about legitimately taking on a Back-to-Backbone. I mean, the name is so good, how could I resist.
I was just clicking around Trail Runner yesterday and saw a little article about the Mt. Jemez 50 I ran last year. I scrolled down, and lo and behold, look who’s running down the Pajarito ski hill in the bottom picture.
“Celebrating my bday tomorrow with beers at sunrise at parker mesa. Let me know if you’re down. Easy jog up starting 5:45, probs stumble down the rabbit hole after.”
That was the text I got from Brian. How could I say no?
We met at 5:45 and had a nice climb up Los Liones to Parker Mesa as the sun was rising over the water. And then, beer! As we sat on the bench watching the sunrise, I took down a Golden Road Point the Way IPA. Brian elected for the burlier (and much more voluminous) Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti. (It says right on the label, “It’s official: You can now have Yeti for breakfast.” So it was totally OK.)
So, feeling a little more buzzed than I expected to be at 7:00 in the morning, we shot down the infamous Rabbit Hole. It basically cuts the 3.5-mile ascent into 1.5 miles down. So it’s very, very steep. And very, very overgrown. And somehow, miraculously, we made it down and back to our cars without injuring ourselves, despite Brian’s best efforts. (I was not going to be responsible for letting a birthday boy get killed on my watch.)
I think I may have discovered a new tradition. Happy birthday, Brian.
I was ready for redemption. My last time out on a race starting from La Jolla Canyon was my ill-fated Santa Monica Mountain Run that ended 20K short. Today, I was ready to right that mistake.
In just two years, the Ray Miller 50 has grown into a mighty respectable race. With prize money and a sold-out field, it also boasted entries by top runners like Timothy Olson, Hal Koerner and Dylan Bowman. In fact, looking at the crowd on Ultra Signup a few days before the race, I was thinking I’d be happy just to get top 20. But really I had one secret goal that I didn’t want to say out loud but also admitted to myself: As long as I finished and either beat Jimmy Dean Freeman or Brian Fuerst, I’d be happy. A little friendly competition never hurt anybody (I don’t think).
So there we were, toeing the line at 6am, chomping at the bit to go. And bam! We were off.
Some of the 50Kers like Chris Price and Dom Grossman shot ahead. Us slow-poke 50-milers shot ahead too, just ever-so-slightly less quickly. As we made our climb up La Jolla Canyon Trail, Brian and I found we were running in lock step and settled into a comfortable but speedy pace. We’d remain together like this for another 35 miles or so.
Overall, the race was extremely well put-designed and executed. My one teensy annoyance was light. Since we were starting in the pre-dawn hours, it would’ve been awesome to have a light. But, with us not seeing our drop bags until mile 28, very few people (including Brian and I) wanted to carry lights for 5 hours when you only really need them for the first 30 minutes of the race. It would have been nice to have a box at the first aid station that you can simply drop your headlamp in with your name on it. I saw this at last year’s Mt Jemez 50.
But in the absence of such a box, Brian and I pirated light off a runner or two until we simply got ahead of most people and started running blindly in the dark. We were lucky to have done a preview run two weeks prior so we at least had an idea of turns and problem areas.
Finally, the sun appeared as we were rounding Point Mugu like a spectacular orange furnace on the horizon. From here, we pushed the tempo around the Point and across The Loop Trail until the first aid station at mile 6.
From here, I turned off on the Guadalasca Trail—the only section of the course I’d never been on but did know it ended up the infamous Hell Hill. I’d dropped Brian a bit at this point so I continued on, climbing slightly and eating for the first time.
The trail loops around and drops down on some serious switchbacks, which I pounded down since I was feeling good and trying to throw a good distance behind me. (I was something like 6th or 7th at the aid station.) As soon as I reached the bottom of the drop in a near sprint I heard footsteps pounding behind me. “Aw crap. How the heck is someone catching up to me?” A minute later, my chaser appeared: Brian. Phew.
We chatted for a bit until we hit what I could only assume was Hell Hill, a gnarly mile-ish-long climb back up to the first aid station at mile 6, which also doubled as the second aid station at mile 11. Just then, I heard an old familiar sound behind us: Jimmy’s blabbering mouth. It was a regular ole Coyotes fest on the trail. We also made friends with Mandy Hicks who would go on to win the women’s 50K.
After chugging up the hill, we left Jimmy at the aid station and started bombing down Wood Canyon Vista. A short section of connectors, and we found ourselves on the nasty Coyote Trail. This section will take you down a peg, all while it scrapes up your arm/legs/nuts. Luckily, I was still feeling strong (minus that first climb up Hidden Pond).
Coming down Hidden Pond and on the flats of Sin Nombre seemed like a good time to put some jets on, and I picked up some more speed and an extra place. (I figured I was about in 6th now.) After my first aid stop at Danielson, Mandy and I took off up Blue Canyon, the start of the 6-mile climb up to Sandstone Peak that everyone had be dreading.
Now normally, I’d power hike bits of this section, but I was feeling mighty fine and mighty brave so I just kept running. All the way. I bid Mandy farewell at the split for the 50K and continued up Chamberlain alone. The initial climb up there is definitely the worst of it, and I think a lot of people that were planning on doing the 50-miler so this as a chance to call it an early day and turned there.
After the Chamberlain split it’s all more or less runnable (save for one short section). So up, up, up I ran. I passed the crowd-pleasing Butt Rock and drained a chocolate Hammer Gel in its honor.
During that aforementioned steep section, I got passed by both a guy named Neil (who I passed on Sin Nombre) and Tom Nielsen (a SoCal legend). Bummer but I pressed on.
At the top of the climb, the sun was finally out in full force. I drank some water, took another salt tab, ate some Cliff Blocks and pressed on. One final push to crest base of Sandstone Peak, and I was flying down the other (very rocky) side.
Sharp right turn down Mishe Mokwa towards the Yerba Buena aid station
At the lovely Yerba Buena aid station at mile 28, I waved hello to surprise guests Vanessa Runs and Shacky (who looked terrifying in his beard and a big, red dress) before scarfing some goodies and refilling my water. It had almost completely dry on during the long climb up and over the Peak. I was also surprised to see Brian come flying in just a minute or two after me. I was happy to see him, and we exchanged a few grunts. Moments later as I looked up to leave, I saw the undersides of Brian’s shoes a couple hundred feet down the trail already. “Brian!” I shouted after him. “You jumped me, you asshole!” This reaction got a good laugh from all the volunteers.
So off I went, chasing him on the Yerba Buena/Backbone out-and-back. Normally out and backs suck, but when it’s not the whole race it’s really useful to have a section like this where you can get an idea of who’s ahead of you and who’s behind.
Zoom! Dylan shot past me coming from the opposite direction. Zoom! Tim shot past me, right on his heels. A few minutes later, zoom! Hal goes shooting past. I’ve got to say, it was pretty cool to be out on the same course as these monsters. (And hey, I was only four miles behind them.)
By the time I made it to the turn-around, I’d calculated I was in 6th place, with the next three guys all within a quarter-mile striking distance and no one for about three-quarters of a mile behind me. I kept expecting to see Jimmy at any moment, but he was nowhere to be seen. (Later I learned that he was having a bad day and made the decision to drop back at Yerba Buena.)
The sun was really beating down at this point, and the tendinitis in my knee was getting too great to bear. (Yes, the same damn tendinitis that cut my SMMR50K short a few months previous.) I was happy with how well my knee was doing up till this point, but for the last few miles the pain was growing ferociously. And worse, it was cause my gait to be impaired and stiff. I was running like Frankenstein’s monster. I don’t like popping ibuprofens, but there was no way I would’ve been able to finish the race. So, popped two and hoped that would do it.
My running became less labored, and soon I was back at the Yerba Buena aid station. I threw some more food in my pack and took off again.
The climb back up to Sandstone is not easy, and I quickly picked off both Tom and Brian. Brian seemed to be in pretty rough shape at this point. (It was his first 50 for God’s sakes.) The miles were just taking their toll, and he was running out of gas.
But now, in what I assumed was 5th place, I had more confidence to go out and pick off the next guy. Then, it’d just be Dylan/Tim/Hal/me. (Brain is going, “Holy crap” at this point.)
As I passed people along the trail, I kept hearing, “Oh, the guy in front of you is only two minutes ahead.” Two minutes?! I can close that. And I tried. And tried. And tried. I flew down Chamberlain with reckless abandon. Nothing. Then I got on Old Boney, flying. Nothing. Finally I made it to Serrano Valley—only 10 miles left to go. Nothing. I was running my brains out and couldn’t seem to catch this dude. Then, finally, I caught a glimpse of his white shirt just as it was ducking into Serrano Canyon. But he was still l two and half minutes ahead of me and moving really well. At this point, I more or less gave up hope of ever catching him.
But three miles later, as I emerged from the canyon, there he was, standing at the aid station. I quickly filled up my pack with enough water for the last, final climb, grabbed some oranges and Coke and gummy bears and took off. And so did he.
We were running, neck and neck, on Sycamore Canyon Fire Road. Really, it was more like sprinting. All-out sprinting. Awful, terrible, all-out sprinting. But this was it. We knew that one of us was going to beat the other. We couldn’t tie. With 5 miles left, I’d found myself locked in a death race (i.e. a intra-race race that would probably end in my death). We hadn’t even said a word to one another. We were just running as hard as we possibly could.
And then, we turned off onto Fireline. Fireline is a nasty little bitch of a climb—right under 1,000 feet in 1 mile. In any other situation (ESPECIALLY 45 miles into a run), I would walk it up. But this was a two-man race as far as we were concerned.
I jockeyed ahead of him on the single-track. I was going to try to break him.
I was going to out-muscle and out-will him and finally just drop him somewhere on this climb. A very bold strategy, I must say, since I had no idea how I was going to keep this pace myself. But onward we went, both totally miserable but not totally miserable enough to let the other guy win.
The problem is, an 1/8 mile or so before the trail dumps out on next fire road, it shoots up at an angle that I can only assume is a 300% grade. I valiantly tried to power hike it, but my short legs were blown on the hill till this point.
I watched him bound up the hill and knew that was it. The problem with trying to break someone is that you can sometimes break yourself.
Once I made it to the fire road, I started moving quickly again. Who know, with four-ish miles left, I could still catch him, right? Plus, after a glance at my watch, I knew that I had a chance to sneak in under the 8-hour mark. Assuming I gutted out a suicidal sprint down Ray Miller. Which, of course I did.
I’m really bummed about this section, only because my GPS watch died at mile 45, and I’d really like to see my splits. I’m pretty sure they were in the low 6:00s, high 5:00s.
Down, down, down, down the most beautiful stretch of single-track you’ll ever see in your life. Twisting, serpentine trails, soft ground underfoot and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean off to one side. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Down, down, down, down. And then, I heard cheering and could see the finish line. And they could see me. Someone yelled my name and howled. I howled back.
Down, down, down, down the shoot and under the banner. 8:01:34. A heart-breaking hair shy of a sub-8, but also my new PR for 50 miles by a whopping 26 minutes. The guy I’d been chasing, Neil, was just 36 seconds in front of me.
Crossing the finish line happy as I’ve ever been
I was absolutely elated. This was a huge race for me. Probably my best performance ever.
For some reason, my brain was a little mixed up and thought I’d gotten 5th, but in actuality, I’d miscounted and was 6th. Still, no matter. The top three places were taken up by Dylan Bowman, Tim Olson and Hal Koerner, so getting 6th place behind those guys, I was pretty damn happy.
I have to chock up my stellar race to three things:
Knowing the course. This was the first race that was on my home turf, and with the preview runs I did, I felt like I could visualize every section of the course at any time. That was huge.
Staying on top of my calories. I did a great job of eating very regularly. I was super proud of myself for that, and it helped me to never feel like I was losing steam.
Having some rabbits. Wanting to beat Brian and Jimmy, thinking I was up in the front, chasing down Neil for the last 1/3 of the race. That definitely pushed me to run faster than I’ve ever run before.
And perhaps #4: This was a great race. Almost every single foot of this course is runnable (except where noted) so you can just fly. That said, it’s still not an easy course. With about 10,000 feet of climbing and some deceptively hot sun, a lot of people got pretty beat up by the end.
But I was lucky to have raced my ass off and felt great all day. This was definitely a huge confidence booster going into the new season. I feel ready to get on some trail and tear them the eff up.
Consider myself redeemed.
Comparing notes with the other Coyotes at the Start/Finish
Part 2. Brian convinced me to join him for the second half the Ray Miller course today. We started from the turnaround point at Yerba Buena Road, headed up over Sandstone Peak and down Chamberlain to Danielson Ranch and then turned around and did it in reverse. I know Brian was hurting a bit, but I felt pretty darn good. Ran all of the climb up to Sandstone.
As we were lounging around after finished he told me that he just realized he ran a 90-mile week, two weeks before his first 50. Ha. So, we’ll see how the race goes. But I feel mighty positive.
Man, what a great day. I got out on the first third and last third (ish) of the Ray Miller 50 course with Brian Fuerst, Keith Yanov, David Villalobos and Brian Lhee.
We headed up La Jolla Canyon, around Point Mugu, down Wood Canyon Vista to Sycamore Canyon, over Two Foxes, up Coyote Trail to Hidden Pond, then across Sin Nombre, over and up Chamberlain, down Serrano Valley and Serrano Canyon, up Fireline and finally back down Ray Miller.
Woo. What a day. We were pretty beat by the end of it. Keith was pushing the pace all day and we just tried to keep up.
We finished off with some sea treats from Neptune’s Net. Pretty frickin’ great day.