After a long drive down Highway 1 the day before, my Volkswagen Beetle thankfully started and I made the slow drive from my hotel to the start line. The road was winding and twisting, passing over gnarled coastal terrain. A preview of what was to come.
Upon arriving at Spooner's Cove, I finally had a chance to look out on the ocean instead of the road in front of me. Gorgeous. Short white cliffs right up to the sea, and a beautiful morning for running. I turned around. Oh my goodness, those hills. I wondered which one we had to climb. Pretty though.
This race didn't have a marathon or half-marathon. The only distances were 5 miles, 7 miles, 25K, and 50K. So you were either doing short, long, or REALLY long. At the gun, there was a large cluster that immediately got in front of me, two of which kept widening the gap. A mile in, I was still running at the back of a group of about six, and two guys were at least 30 seconds ahead. We were running 6:30 miles, and while the terrain was entirely flat, that's still pretty fast for a trail run. Another flat mile later, we were still at the same pace, and those two guys were even farther ahead. I tried not to worry about them. The way I saw it, there were three possibilities:
1. They're not doing the 50K (most likely).
2. They're doing the 50K, but they have no idea how to pace themselves, and they'll fall apart later in the race.
3. They're doing the 50K and they're really that good, in which case I'm not going to beat them anyway.
Two miles in, the hill finally started. Not too bad, some up-and-down, and the steep parts weren't that hard. About a mile later, I passed the guy in red shorts, one of the front-runners. He was struggling mightily with the hill. A lot of that first cluster was still ahead of me, and by now, I had learned that just about all of them were doing the 25K. I was fairly certain that I was leading the 50K crowd.
About halfway up the big hill, the 5-mile course split off and the trail absolutely shot upwards. Not only that, but it became the most ridiculous terrain I've ever seen. Exposed rocks made up the majority of the trail, and loose scree was everywhere. It was all I could do to keep running, which I think would be better described as little hops from one flat spot to the next. Almost everyone else was walking. Already, I half-expected to walk it the next time around.
I finally made it to the summit, grabbed a rubber band, and looked up. We had crested a major ridge and you could see a full range of hills past this one, almost all of them with summits that we could look down on from here. I turned around and looked out at the ocean. It seemed so far away. I remembered I was in a race and ran back down.
Like always, I got passed repeatedly on the ensuing downhill. Wasn't as bad as I had expected, but was still enough that I was unable to take full advantage. There were so many people still around me! In a few other races, I've managed to beat all the half-marathoners to the halfway point, but not today. There were some very talented runners doing the 25K. And it seemed like the field was very young! I think most people were in their 20's. I wondered if it was a running group over at Cal Polytech nearby in San Luis Obispo.
7.4 miles in, arrived at the first aid station. Took in nothing but a little water, then stopped in the bathroom. I probably ate too much last night. Headed back out. The next section of the course was a little longer, but the hill was supposed to be not as bad. I think I got this.
For three miles, a long, long steady incline. No true climbing really, just a very long incline. I started passing people again. I was honestly handling the hill pretty well. At one point, I passed a guy in a grey shirt, who stayed behind me for a little bit. Not long after I passed him, we found ourselves running along some saddle-shaped pass. Looking both left and right, you could see an endless supply of gorgeous California hills.
"Whoa, look at that!" he cried out.
"That's what I live for!" I smiled back.
"Beautiful day for a run!"
I had thought the course headed back once it reached a high point, but we had to run past that for about a mile, descending all the way, before we got to the turnaround point. With such a long out-and-back, this would be a good chance to see how close behind the next 50K guy was. I kept looking for bibs, but the problem was so many people wore them on their shorts, off to the right side. I couldn't read the numbers and therefore had no idea what race most people were in. It wasn't until I'd backtracked a full mile that I saw a guy with a bib starting with 5. That would mean I'm two miles ahead.
It wasn't until I had to run down the long incline that I noticed how technical it was. Lots and lots of embedded rocks in the trail, the kind that hurt when you kick or step on them. It was starting to get pretty crowded too, with lots of people now heading up. A few more people passed me going down, all of them trying to finish strong in the 25K. As I kept dodging rocks and humans, I found solace in the fact that I'd basically have the whole trail to myself later, so that'll probably make it easier. Maybe. At least, that's what I wanted to believe.
When I arrived at the aid station, my watch was showing 16.3 miles. If this were a 50K, it should be about 15.5. Great, so the race is even longer?? What are they trying to do, kill me?!? Downed some more water and a little peanut butter and headed back out to do it all over again...
This time, with no one around, I spent a little more time looking at my surroundings in those first two miles. I can't believe I missed the beautiful coastal scenery last time. More than once, I was sorely tempted to stay in place and watch the waves breaking on the rocks. There were a few more people out going for a hike by this hour. I wasn't doing 6:30 miles this time.
I was doing surprisingly well heading up the big hill the second time. When I got to the steep part, it didn't even seem as bad! Surprisingly, I was able to run up the entire thing without walking. It wasn't until I got to the top that I realized how tired I was. Oh well. 20 miles down, and most of the climbing is done, including the hardest hill of the course. Not bad!
Running down the hill was when things started to go south. I couldn't do much other than plod along, and for some reason, I kept feeling like I really needed to pee, even though I knew I didn't. I stopped four times, and each time, barely anything came out. Then one minute later, I'd have the overwhelming urge to pee again. I finally decided I'd "hold it" until the next aid station.
23 miles in now. I've felt worse before. I wasn't falling apart just yet, but I wasn't at my best either. I took in four dixie cups of water this time. It was hard to get my legs going. I finally didn't feel like I had to pee.
I finally started seeing other people on the course again, maybe one person every five minutes or so, the last few people finishing up the 25K. I realized it was going to be very lonely at the finish line; all the 25K-ers will have already gone home, and I'm likely to be the first 50K-er. And there weren't many people doing the 50K in the first place.
Everything in me started falling apart. I still wasn't walking up the long incline, but everything hurt. My stomach was acting up, my legs were sore, and my feet were a wreck. Not only were my light trail shoes no match for the rugged terrain, but the shoes I was wearing were past their prime and have very little "boing" left in them. By now, it seemed like any irregularity in the trail caused major pain. But most of my trouble appeared to be internal. My insides were aching and it felt like I was just out of energy. Once or twice, I stopped and put my hands on my knees. Weird, because I wasn't so tired I had to walk. I kept turning around to see if anyone was behind me. Once, I could finally see someone in the distance, looked like they were about half a mile back. That got me going. If they've made up 1.5 miles already, and I'm doing this badly, they oughta be able to catch me if I don't get it in gear.
Once I passed the saddle-shaped pass and headed downhill again, I tried opening it up and running hard again, but it didn't quite work. I tried to remind myself of things that convince me to try harder: songs, running mantras, or the idea that I'm running "for" something. And I gotta say, while those can be effective at getting you off the couch to go running when you feel just fine, they have a way of becoming insignificant when your insides hurt that bad.
About a quarter-mile before I made it to the turnaround, a guy on a mountain bike passed me. When I got to the turnaround a few minutes later, he was stopped there, and at about the same time, two other mountain bikers showed up. I stayed in place for a second just to stay in the shade. One of them offered me water.
"So how far are you running?"
"50K. How far back is the next guy?"
"You mean the next mountain bike?"
"Oh, I didn't see any, did you?" he asked another guy.
"No, I haven't seen anyone."
I smiled. That means the next guy is probably three or four miles back! That guy I saw behind me a while ago was probably one of these mountain bikers! I decided I might as well hang out here for a minute and gather my strength for the final assault.
I probably hung out there in the shade for a full two minutes, maybe more, talking to those guys. When I started up again, I walked at first to get my legs to ease into moving. About 20 seconds after I started running, I saw another runner coming the other way. What?!? Oh, so the next guy wasn't three or four miles back. He was right behind me, and I let him catch up. When he ran past, I noticed he was one of the guys who had his bib tucked away to one side so I couldn't read it.
"Hang in there and we can break five hours!" he exclaimed as he ran past.
I actually did fairly well heading back uphill to the saddle pass, and he caught me just as I got there. I finally walked a section of the course, the very last steep part before the trail heads back down again. He walked it too, but much faster. He was about my height, probably in his 40's, and very slight. I probably have about 10 pounds on him. Just looking at him, you could tell his body is a model of efficiency.
"All we gotta do is get up there and then we can just cruise!" he chirped.
"Yeah, well, that's easy to say..."
He smiled, "Oh, I know! Have a good finish!" as he disappeared away from me.
I walked all the way up to the saddle pass, even the part that smooths out to an incline. Just as I got to the top, three more 50K-ers passed me going the other way, one-by-one, with a minute or so separating each. I was two miles ahead with only three miles to go, and all of my miles were downhill. Normally, that would be a lock, but things weren't going so well. I started my trudge down the hill.
Even going downhill, I was still doing each mile in about 10 minutes. It didn't help that I kept stopping to put my hands on my knees, sometimes for over a minute at a time. Again, it was weird, because I was still jogging, not walking. Why did I feel the need to keep stopping? I tried to suck it up and just make myself get through it. It only kind of worked.
Only about half a mile from the finish, I saw a couple people on horses. Normally I'm supposed to yield to them, but they both got their horses off the trail and told me to go ahead and run through.
"Naw, I'm looking for an excuse to not run," I explained as I slowed to a walk. "Besides, I have no interest in spooking a horse."
"You won't scare them. Hang in there, you're doing great!"
"Ehhhhh...." was my reply to that. "...and I'm not even carrying a human on my back."
Looking at the horses made me realize what a wimp I was being. Such powerful, noble creatures, and they can routinely carry another large animal on their back for hours at a time. I gave each one a pat on the flank as I walked by. I started up running again.
When I crossed the finish line, I immediately found a canvas chair and collapsed in it. A volunteer brought me four consecutive cups of water. Normally, I hit the snacks right away, but not this time. I must've stayed in that chair for about 10 minutes before I even bothered to get up, and it was only for more water. I sat back down for another 10 minutes. I didn't feel cold, but started shivering. I got up again and slowly made my way to my backpack to put on a jacket and jeans. I kept shivering.
"You want some barbecue, Rob?" Wendell asked. I shook my head. "How about a beer?" I shook my head again. "Wow you must really be hurting!" he laughed. I managed a smile.
With some non-painful feeling returning to my legs, I decided I'd get up and stand in the sunshine to try and keep from shivering. But more than my legs or my stomach, it was my head that felt like it was recovering. I think I was getting pretty dehydrated during the race, having only drank nine dixie cups of liquid the entire time. And it was fairly warm and sunny, too. I think something similar may have happened at Coyote Ridge and Cinderella.
A few other 50K-ers had finished by now, and I found myself smiling and joking with a few of them. OK, that means I'm doing fine now. Time for that beer and barbecue!
This being my very last race with Coastal Trail Runs, I was hoping for a win, but it didn't happen today. Of course, there were a lot of "what-ifs" going through my head: what if I hadn't eaten too much the night before, what if I didn't stop in the bathroom, what if I didn't stop to pee four times, what if I hadn't talked to the mountain bikers after they told me no one was behind me, what if I didn't keep stopping to put my hands on my knees, what if I'd drank enough, what if the course wasn't almost two miles longer than a 50K. But as I've said before, everyone can "what-if." I got beat. I was basically my own undoing in this race, and someone else did better.
The third-place finisher, who I'd merely though was short, was 13 years old!!! Holy smokes! I'm impressed that a 13-year-old would even sign up for this, let alone finish, let alone come in third! Watch out for this guy...
Overall, yet another great race put on by Coastal Trail Runs, and I think an alright resolution to my year as a trail runner. Stay tuned for a retrospective look back at my first year of trail running, mostly as it involves the races put on by Coastal Trail Runs.
Official announcement for my next adventure is coming soon...