Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sycamore Canyon 50k

Driving down the 101
California here we come
Right back where we started from
- "California" by Phantom Planet, as made popular in "The OC" TV show

It was unexpectedly dark, and we were coming from the North after a detour into the hills, but soon we were back on the Pacific Coast Highway, driving the rented convertible with just enough daylight to see undulating cliffs and mountains blocking us from the left, and the ocean splashing up on the right. We found our way to the campground at Point Mugu State Park: 1.5 miles from the start of the next morning's PCTR series race at Sycamore canyon, and just yards from the ocean, on a cool, starry night.

I could just leave it at that, but full disclosure: we didn't pick up any food to grill, so we were left grilling Peep-S'mores on a weak fire. We were one of the only spots without a camper, in numbered sites separated just a few treeless car lengths from each other and highway traffic. Both poles of my 1.5-person tent were irreparably cracked, leaving a sad Charlie-Brown bivy sack held out just a couple feet from the ground, so Jessica opted to sleep in the car.

But I tell Jessica repeatedly it's all in how you present the story, so in my version, the crashing waves drowned out ambient noise, and my open, flyless tent let me stare at the stars before falling asleep. Which is true.

Morning came. Happy Easter! Wake up, Mike! Wake up, Jessica! Wake up, Jesus! Breakfast was what we brought: Pop Tarts and more Easter candy. This is the first time I was relying on the money I paid for a trail race to provide me with better nutrition options than I had on hand, counting on bananas, oranges, and PB&J. (I was not dissapointed).

Leaving our campsite to park at the race start, the temperature and humidity was remarkably cold. And here I was worried about it being too hot! In shorts and a long-sleeve tech shirt, my teeth were chattering. We were about half an hour early, so we hung around, not stretching, and tried to stay warm as I also tried not to think about coffee. It was cloudy, but I had already forgotten about how "clouds" (water vapor) near the coast don't "move" like they do in the rest of the country: they simply dissipate. Which means that morning clouds don't mean anything.

The race had a bunch of different metric options: 8k, 18k, 30k, and 50k. I thought Jessica might want to hang out on the beach and wait for me to trudge along, but she signed up for the 8k -- her first trail race! I was excited to find out what she thought. Because of the overlapping courses, I had a complicated series of colored ribbons to memorize. (Actually, the system was well-organized and intuitive...mostly). The course had over 5000 feet of climbing, in a variable Konami-code configuration of up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down. The 50k'ers ended doing a full set of loops totalling 30k+, followed by another loop of the 18k+ route. I didn't know how I would feel about this. First, 18k is a weird distance that fundamentally bothers me, and I have a hard time figuring out even sitting here, sober. (Don't try telling me it's a 10k plus 5 miles, either: that's still weird). Second, how would I feel looping back to the start, then knowing I had to repeat another (18*0.62) miles? I've already assumed that multi-lap races would bother and confuse me, so I've never really thought about one.

Anyway, Jessica's race started 15 minutes after mine, but the rest of us were off at 8:30AM like a herd of turtles. We started out on a wide fire road, followed quickly by the first 1000 foot singletrack climb. There was no room to pass, however, so I was soon trapped in a chase group conga line. Reflexively, I was frustrated that I was bleeding minutes, if not hours, off of my planned finished, being stuck behind some headphone and camelback-wearing 30k-ers, but higher parts of my brain tried to remind me that starting out slowly is good, so stop worrying about it.

Eventually we had some room to pass and spread out, with one short (~20 seconds) steep section where walking was nearly efficient, but running could let you pass (if you didn't mind your heart slamming in your chest). And then, the reward: blasting down endless, smooth singletrack. It curved this way and that, and the ocean came into view. Wheeeeeee! Yes, I use to love roller coasters as a kid, but give me the ability to let my legs fly effortlessly on the trail beneath me, and I'm just as happy.

Soon, I was on the skirted heels of the women's leader, as we both passed a guy on some switchbacks.
Which reminds me, pre-race goals...Pretty much some default goals I came up with in the least year:
1. Top 10% overall
2. Top 5 or Top 10, depending on number of entries (and #1, above)
3. Don't get passed after the last aid station
4. Don't get chicked
5. A made-up even number time of sub-4:30

Back to the race: the women's leader was absolutely flying, and I thought that sounded like fun, so I stayed near as she got close to passing another dude. But: my stupid shoelace was untied! Not an uncommon problem for the Brooks Cascadia's, sad to say. I had no choice but to wait for the next flat spot and re-tie, which cost me probably 15 minutes (it felt like, anyway). Soon I was off again, hitting my stride, flying down the hill, and all was good....until the same shoe became untied. Aaargh. Nearest I can figure, if my laces hit some brush on the side of the trail, they slowly loosen over time. I cranked on it and started down the hill again, catching up to the 2 guys that passed me in the previous shoe-tying episode, and started to enjoy the rhythm again...

And I tripped.

I tried to save it, but couldn't, and skidded on my right side. (Oh, I was shirtless already, by the way). I willed my water bottle not to roll down the cliff, and luckily it worked. A quick inventory, and besides some blood, nothing was broken, no muscles were unusually tight or pulled.

Only around 26 miles to go!

Although it seemed a shame to trip that early, in hindsight, I bet that a trip near the end of the race, when the muscles and joints are fatigued, can often be worse. In this case, nothing got worse over the course of the day, so I was lucky.

Finally, 7-ish miles in, I grabbed some liquids and breakfast, and we separated from the 18k-ers. Now we were on the backside loop in the prettiest part of the course: the grassy La Jolla valley. Besides verdant singletrack, we ducked through some narrow tree tunnels and rocky stream crossings, along with a rocky, technical climb. I slowly lost contact with the female leader, as I'd catch up on climbs but she'd pull away on descents, but I did catch up with a couple other guys here. On the technical descent back out of the valley, I was in a good mood, keeping a good rhythm and humming to myself while stepping over the bigger rocks. Mentally, it felt good to be heading "back" to the start now.

We were back to the aid station, right at a half marathon. This was the longest stretch, ~9 miles, without aid...and one guy blew past the aid station! After stopping, I caught up to him going up the hill:

"Are you doing the 18k or 30k?" he asked.
"Uh...the 50k."
I looked at his race number, which began with a "1". He had already done 2 miles longer than his planned 18 run...and about 5.5 miles away from the start.
"Sorry dude!"

Back on the front loop, the sun was getting hot now, as the sky was perfectly clear. I enjoyed the mix of 18k, 30k, and 50k folks heading in both directions, and was pleased that all folks deferentially pulled to the side for faster or longer-distance runners. Finally, I was at the top, making my way down, when I saw a guy that looked vaguely familiar from my pre-race googling:
Dean Dobberteen

What was he doing that close to me? Or vice-versa? As he blew by, it was obvious that I started too fast, again. Ah well.

Soon, we reached a confusing junction in the last loop. A sign pointed one way, but ribbons went down the other. I saw two runners go down that way -- which I thought might be the wrong direction -- but I followed them anyway. It seemed we were going down the singletrack which we climbed, and that the return loop had a different route. Why didn't I take 10 seconds to read -- and process the meaning of -- the sign? I passed a hiker going up, and she said 3 or 4 people had passed in front of me, going the same way.

Finally, we were back on the fireroad, at the start/end turnaround. Here, I saw the leader maybe 10 total minutes ahead of me, and 4 other folks, including the lead female. Unless she blew up spectacularly, I wouldn't catch her...but could I catch one other guy to crack the very arbitrary top 5?

Hit the turnaround, refueled, and started out for another 18k loop. And you know what? It didn't bother me. It was somewhat comforting to tackle a known quantity one extra time. My conclusion is this: running something twice doesn't bother me. But counting above 2 is too complicated (this happens on the track sometimes).

Soon, the big climb up the singletrack again. I could see the guy ahead of my walking frequently. He was in a friendly mood, but was bonking pretty bad. Now I just had to hold on for top-5. Felt good climbing again, and then the descent: I was running well and consistently, but nowhere near as fast as the first time out. Again, that means I didn't pace this thing as evenly as I should have.

Finally, the last aid station, and the turnaround back out. Dean, who was running near me in the 2nd half of the race, was now 60 seconds behind first place. Next two were looking good. I headed back up and got a peak behind me, looks like I had a good 5-6 minutes on the next guy, who said "Top Five!" to me, which means he was counting. Which means he was coming after me. So I kept at it as best I could.

Kept running slowly to the top. Cheered on lots of folks still heading out, tried to talk a smiling hiker into trying out trail running sometime. Then started the descent, until the confusing intersection. The sign pointed ahead down the fireroad, and this time I could see other folks there, so I took it. This means at least one of the 2 times, for certain, I took the "wrong" way. But so did some other folks. Confusingly, there were some folks running up this direction as well, which made no sense. In hindsight, this layout made perfect sense: climb up the more technical singletrack, than blaze down the faster fireroad. Both are supposedly the same distance, and the 'wrong' way is more technical.

Finally hit the end in 4:47. Got chicked, but by a very strong European girl, and found out 4:30 was certainly harder than I thought. To do that, I would have needed better training specificity -- hills and trails -- which I hadn't been doing. You can't get somethin' for nothin'. I did feel like I ran better than Salida, and got some good heat training. Winner John Wesselcouch was a minute ahead of Dean, and both had been confused and taken the singletrack down both times. Nobody was too worried about it.

Overall, a fun time on a beautiful course. Dark chocolate and gummi bears at the aid stations, mmmm! Jessica had a fun time too, running all but that short steep section in her first trail race, running a big climb and descent at essentially the same pace she ran a perfectly flat 5 miler in Oklahoma on pavement. Then, by hobbling across the street, you can cool your burning legs off in the ocean.


  1. Nice write up Mike, and I guess if you're gonna get chicked, it's best to be chicked by a butch Euro type. I had you pegged for the win - next time.

    I'm getting the itch for some high ground. Thinking about heading up a little higher this weekend - maybe Crossier, maybe Round, probably not Signal yet. Let me know if you're around/interested.


  2. Thanks, actually the top female was a strong and beautiful runner and happens to be very good and blazing fast downhill (based on the splits and how I saw the others climb, her downhills must have been the same/faster than the leaders).

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, but this race wasn't near soft enough for me to come close to winning -- I need something more obscure. Or, heck, I should train more/better! This one fit the bill for being laid-back, scenic, and close enough to where we were staying in CA.

    I'll email you about this weekend -- I'd be up for something.