Full moon, in my tent at the finish line at LA Jolla campground in Pt Mugu. It’s bright outside, which is good because I’ve forgotten my headlamp at home and tomorrow I will use a borrowed one, borrowed from Clare, down from Palo Alto, trail name Curly, she has no idea why. Clare is a biologist. She is faster than me, but these days almost everyone is. This morning I spoke to my friend Heather, who might be the world’s most irreverent deeply Catholic author. We agreed that ultra running is a metaphor for just about everything, and that once you get to be our age all of life reveals itself to be an endurance event. We also agreed that the strategy for dealing with those darks moments must be about how best to prepare for them rather than how to combat them. They are going to come. Don’t fight them. Instead, let them wash over you and pass. No dark moments today, though, unless my tent collapses, which it might – I’ve set it up that badly. I hear the waves smack the beach across PCH. It’s a gentle, warm night, and tomorrow I wake up at 3:30 am. Time for sleep.
Much was made, before the race, of it not being a race.
Instead, it is an event, an event in which clock times would be adjusted based on conduct, amongst other things. If the runners could be entertaining to the aid station volunteers, or bloody themselves, they would get bonus minutes. If, on the other hand, they were excessively sponsored, they might find themselves docked boner minutes. We were urged not to take things too seriously, especially ourselves, and beating others. At the same time, it was not a course to be taken lightly. You had to qualify, more or less – race director Howard Cohen, no slouch of a runner himself, would vet the applicants, and I’d heard it said that the race felt much more like a 100 miler than the 68.7 mile distance suggested it would. The course was meant to be taken seriously. Winning was not.
We started in 2 waves.
Sunrise, mile 4
I was the earlier, slower wave, with a 6am start. Check in was at the finish, where I was already camped, and then we were bussed to the start, at Will Rogers Park. From there we would run up to Hub Junction, down past Eagle Rock, and along the Musch Trail to Trippet Ranch.
I’d never done the miles to Hub Junction before. My runs to Hub from below had all started at the Temescal Canyon entrance a little further west. It was a gradual 5 mile climb, levelling off for about 2 miles, and then heading down into Trippet Ranch and the first aid station, at mile 11.5. It was a beautiful sunrise, and looked to be a gorgeous day.
There is a tree in the first mile out from Trippet Ranch, on a technical stretch of downhill that has me watching the ground. The tree has a thick, thick branch, and I’d knocked myself out smashing into it about a month ago. The scab on my head is still there. I’d finished my run – another 17 miles – gone home, taken a shower, and only headed to the ER the next day, mostly to get a tetanus shot, not realizing how bad the gash was. I was yelled at by the doctor. I did not want to make that mistake again, so I took it easy and paid extra attention until I knew I’d passed the tree. I ran those few miles with a woman who had come from Switzerland for this run.
Backbone Trail / Hub Junction
About the Backbone Trail
The Backbone Trail is not actually a trail but a trail system, a series of trails ranging from singletrack to fireroad, originating as unconnected paths and backcountry roads, that beginning in the early 1980s were connected to form a single trail spanning the length of the Santa Monica Mountains NRA.
According to the National Park Service website, “By 2010, 62 miles of the trail had been completed. It followed ridges, traversed chaparral-covered hillsides, entered oak woodlands, and crossed creeks and valleys…Parts of the trail were old animal paths that became single-track trails; other stretches were converted from fire roads. Only the newest sections have been built to modern trail standards.”
“Because the trail system has been pieced together, trail sections may have different names and not all sections are open to all users. For example, mountain bikes are permitted on most fire roads, but only permitted on some single track trails.”
The next aid station, at Stunt Road, was 6.5 miles away
Those 6.5 miles are mostly shaded, mostly uphill.
The Stunt Road aid station was manned by a crew from the “other” Coyotes – Jimmy Dean’s Westside Running Club. Working there was a runner I’d met at Black Canyon, along with a few other familiar faces.
Me, mile 20
The next stretch, from Stunt Road to Piuma trailhead, was all new to me. It took us down through some amazing sandstone before leveling off in the woods. Most of that 7.3 mile stretch I ran with Gil Blank, who was celebrating his 50th birthday. Gil’s a solid runner, although his claim-to-fame is that he holds the record for slowest AC100 finish. Subsequent finishes have been faster than mine.
Piuma Trailhead was mile 25. The next 5 miles, to Corral Canyon aid station, were familiar to me, and my least favorite section of the trail. It was 1pm, and after a mile or so on singletrack we had nearly 4 miles of exposed uphill on fireroad. This is part of the Bulldog course, except they are coming down. It’s hot, and it’s boring. I hooked up with a couple of runners and we slogged it up the hill. Once was not doing well. He’d been ill, probably started the race dehydrated, and was only carrying two handhelds. He was going to run out of water long before the aid station unless other runners gave him some. To make matters worse, a Santa Ana was blowing in, and the air was bone dry – 15% humidity.
Corral Canyon aid station was run by Patagonia, who were also one of the sponsors. The first place male, a little Japanese guy who started 3 hours after we did passed us just before the aid station and was getting doused in ice water. I sat for a few minutes, took in some hot food and some extra water, and rested some. The next section would be hot and exposed and I wanted to cool off a bit before hitting it.
Corral Canyon to Kanan Road
is another stretch I’ve run a few times. It’s not particularly pleasant, but in the middle of this section I’d hit the midpoint of the race, and I was looking forward to that marker. It begins with a few miles of mostly downhill, on singletrack that got rutted in the recent rains. It’s exposed and hot. As the trail reaches the bottom, there’s tree coverage, followed by an exposed climb, some up, some down, a road crossing, more trees, and the Kanan Rd aid station, which was water only, followed by another 6.5 miles to Encinal Road aid station, where there would be food.
I was feeling good. No mental drama, which makes for a boring write-up I’m sure, but made for a much more enjoyable run. Up until Corral Canyon, I’d been mostly running with or near people. After Corral Canyon, I was alone except for occasionally passing or being passed by another runner, which would happen every hour or so at the most.
I don’t remember much of the 6.5 miles from Kanan to Encinal. I’d run part of this section with friends who were training for the Sean O’Brian 50, but Sean O’Brian is a race in which singletrack is used just to link sections of fireroad, sort of the opposite of any race I’d like to run, and the opposite of the Backbone Trail, which is a network of singletrack linked by stretches of fireroad. The section began with a few miles of singletrack, and then turned onto fireroad that Sean O’Brian would follow for about 15 miles. Thankfully, the Backbone Trail picks up again after about a mile (at most) of fireroad, and from there I remember little.
The Encinal Aid station had hot food, and was run by Bill Kee, who I’d met the night before, a slightly grizzled biker in a coyote fur cap, who was manning the grill, making burritos. Bill is also a 4 time AC100 finisher. I was gone before nightfall, but once it got dark Bill pulled out an old National Steel guitar and started playing.
From Encinal came a 9.5 mile climb, mostly gentle, during which night would fall. The sunset came while I was on fireroad. It was a stunning view with the mountains in the immediate foreground, ocean in the middle, and islands on the horizon, in that strange look of 2-D shapes in a 3-D field that always seems to come in the mountains near sundown, like a pop-up book.
The headlamp came out. There was a road crossing manned by a couple who refilled my water and gave me nuts. One of them ran with me for about a half a mile after the crossing, to make sure I found my way, I guess. I appreciated the company and conversation.
I continued on to Mishe Mokwa, mile 53, and hot food. I think I saw two runners on this stretch – one of the 9am starters, who by my estimate was in 5th place and full of good cheer – he stopped to talk for a minute before continuing his climb – and another, who was suffering, and who I would pass, and then later he would pass me.
This aid station had strawberries, fresh from over the hill in Oxnard. Strawberries make me excited. I love strawberries. I probably ate a pound of them before setting back out.
8 miles to the next (and last) aid station, beginning with a steep and technical climb on rocky trail. I kicked a lot more rocks than I’d like to but managed to remain vertical, which is an achievement for me. I’d never run this section and have no idea what it looks like in the day, but at night it was stark and beautiful. I reached Butt Crack Rock, which has an official name and a plaque, and then headed downhill. There were two runners behind me. One passed, and the other – the first place woman, Skye Colclough – stayed behind for a few miles. I’d seen her at Mishe Mokwa, wearing the propellor beanie that the leaders were given. We ran together for a mile or so and talked. She said she’d had the beanie since about the first aid station, when she’d pulled away from the other two women she was running with, and really enjoyed the noise the propellor made. She didn’t want to give it up.
This was a long downhill – 5 miles or so – much of it not very technical. The technical parts I slowed down to a fast walk/trot so that I could stay upright and hopefully not damage my toe any more than I already had (it was feeling tender after having kicked so many rocks).
Things leveled off and I started to see burn. I don’t know this area well, and had never run this stretch of trail, but the leveling and the burn meant I was in Sycamore Canyon and very near the aid station, although by my estimation (inaccurate, of course) I should have passed it a mile or two back.
The Springs Fire began on May 2, 2013, on the 101 Freeway in Camarillo, probably ignited by sparks from a passing car.
The Ventura County hills were dry like tinder, and the fire spread quickly, heading straight for Malibu before turning abruptly towards Newbury Park, pushed by Santa Ana winds. It was nearly out two days later, but in those two days it burned 24,238 acres.
Keira Henninger’s Ray Miller 50/50 was a Montrail Cup race, the top finishers getting automatic entry into Western States 100. This year it was moved from the Ray Miller Trail to Malibu, and renamed the Sean O’Brian 50/50 after (you guessed it) Sean O’Brian, who mapped out the course. Last year’s inaugural Coyote Cohorts Backbone 68 took place a month or so before the fires.
I ran this area for the first time since the fires about 3 weeks prior to the race. Not quite a year later, the devastation is startling. It is a haunting, desolate beauty, harsh and hard. The ground is silt and ash, without any vegetation cover. It’s dusty. The slightest wind and you breathe the land in.
Ray Miller Trail, dirt dust & burn
Burnt, Overlook, 2 weeks ago
Heading to Overlook, 2 weeks ago
I came down into Sycamore Canyon near midnight, and started to see the burn. It made me happy. It meant I was nearly done. A few miles more through this ghostly terrain and I hit the Danielson Ranch aid station. There were no runners around.
It was hot and windy on the ridges, but cold in the canyon. The temperature dropped at least 20 degrees, and suddenly, too. I was the only runner at the aid station. I had a couple of quesadillas, asked the time (it was getting near midnight), put on a second shirt and headed down the fireroad, running harder than I had been because I wanted to heat up.
The finish was 8 miles away.
I knew this section. After a couple of miles on the fireroad, I headed up a burned singletrack, 2 miles I estimated until I hit Overlook fireroad. The wind picked up with the climb, and I was getting hot. These were bone dry Santa Anas, and my throat was parched. I took off the shirt I put on at Danielson aid station and turned onto the fireroad. The headwind was so strong that I had to fight it on the downhills. Finally I saw the Ray Miller Trail – 2.7 miles of singletrack switchbacks to the finish. There was a headlamp ahead of me – maybe a mile, maybe more, and I seen one behind me as well.
The wind was blowing so hard on the ridge that I thought I was going to get blown off course. I’d run this section during the day a few weeks earlier. At night, by moonlight, with the wind blowing, the drop-offs on trails edge seemed dangerously sheer, especially on the fireroads.
I thought I saw a headlamp down the Ray Miller Trail. I thought I saw a headlamp behind me on Overlook. The top of Ray Miller is 2.7 miles from the finish. Maybe if I ran harder I could catch that headlamp ahead of me, but I could no longer see it. Maybe if I ran harder the headlamp behind me wouldn’t catch up…but I couldn’t see it either.
They looked after me nicely at the finish. The headlamps behind me never materialized, and if anyone had actually been ahead of me, he was in his tent or car by now. Or she was. Or maybe it was all just a glimmer of imaginary light. It didn’t really matter. I ate some pancakes. About 45 minutes later a stream of runners started coming in, including Clare. I congratulated her and then stumbled over to my tent for a few hours sleep.
I was up shortly after sunrise. Coffee and more pancakes as I watched runners still coming in, the last few close to the 28 hour cut-off. Stephanie Fronk, from Santa Barbara, has proven herself a strong, strong runner, with a second place at Bandit 50K just a few months ago. She looked shell shocked at the finish, exhausted and bewildered, and grateful for the runners who let her run with them and got her to the finish line.