Leona Divide 50 miler. 9,000 feet of climbing, 40 miles of singletrack, 10 miles of fireroad, all rolling hills in the Sierra Pelona Mountains.
My goal for Leona was to run skillfully. What does that mean, exactly? Well, I’ve run some pretty unskillful races before. The one that comes to mind most is Sierra Nevada Endurance Run, where I went out too fast, faded physically in the heat at around the 30 mile mark, and then broke down mentally soon after, resulting in a miserable time that was way off my goal, but was still good enough to earn me second place in my division because everyone else was suffering too in the heat.
The week before Leona Divide, my friend Maggie ran Labor of Love 100 miler, a hilly road race in the Nevada desert. Maggie was the defending women’s champ and is the women’s course record holder. Her crew reports she was running full of joy, like a little kid. That excitement earned her a 3:06 22.5 mile split, which quite probably meant a marathon PR.
The problem was that this was not a marathon but a 100 mile race, and it was hot and exposed out in the desert. By my calculations she was on pace to run a 15 hr 100 miler, late mile slowdown included, taking 5 hours off her own PR and course record, and running the one of the fastest women’s 100 milers in recent years. Her childlike glee at mile 23 was not so evident at mile 45, and at mile 53 she dropped and had to be hospitalized.
This is an extreme example of what I and so many others often do. The legendary Eric Clifton is known for this same crash-and-burn approach. It serves some runners well, and Maggie usually gets away with it, finishing first or second.
I am not a strong enough runner to make that work. That kind of race is not dissimilar to the way I lived my life in my 20s: I’d manage to hustle up barely enough money to last 2 weeks, blow it all on partying and excitement in the first week, and spend the last week with barely enough to eat. It was not a skillful and balanced life. For me, a skillful race would mean a disciplined race.
Shunryu Suzuki wrote “It is necessary for us to keep the constant way. Zen is not some sort of excitement but concentration on our usual everyday routine. If you become too busy and too excited, your mind becomes rough and ragged. This is not good. Try to always be calm and joyful and keep yourself from excitement…If we become interested in some excitement, we will become completely involved in our busy life and we will be lost. But if your mind is calm and constant, you can keep yourself away from the noisy world even though you are in the midst of it.”
I spend all these hours running up in the mountains because I am training for a race, but I also race in order to spend all these hours up in the mountains training for it. The mountains are where I go to get away from the noisy world.
The Lake Hughes Community Center was packed at 5am. A number of people had gone up Friday, enjoyed the pre race dinner, a fun-run hosted by race sponsor Montrail, and a screening of the Western States movie “Unbreakable” All the usual gang was there: George Velasco, Tiffany Guerra, Sally McRae, Jorge Pacheco, Dominic Grossman, Donn Ozaki, along with some of the people I don’t see as frequently, like Eric Clifton. Sada Crawford was making her return after a little more than a year off due to a broken foot. Kista checked in with Keira, snapped photos and talked to friends while I complained about the cold. A bunch of the old running running gang were there: Carlo, Drew, Blair & Omar, all running their first 50K, and Luis, running his second. I haven’t been running with them much this year because my training has been later in the day (for heat) and up in the mountains.
Because Leona Divide is a Montrail Cup race, with automatic entry into Western States for the first and second place male and female winners, it attracts the top ultra runners in the country. Because race director Keira Henninger knows how to put on and promote a good production, because local running store ARC has linked up with Keira, and, finally, because there is a 50K in addition to the 50 miler, there were a lot of road runners running their first ultra.
One of the (many) things that makes ultras special and that distinguishes them from big road events that have 20,000 or more participants, is that the newbies are shoulder to shoulder with the elites. I’m not sure if Omar knew who all the runners he was standing aside (and in front) were, looking in bemusement as he flexed his muscles for the camera, but 4 of them would shatter Ben Hian’s 17-year-old course record. Even if he didn’t know who he was lined up next to, Omar was clearly thrilled to be there.
I lined up at back. I figured it would be better to pass people in the beginning than to get caught up in the excitement nearer the front of the pack.
The race began with a 4 mile climb up a wide fire-road, which was perfect; it allowed the front runners to make their moves past the enthusiastic newbies unsure of trail etiquette. It was an 8 mile climb to the first aid station, and during that climb we passed what would be aid station 2, just setting up. This was an mile loop that would not be repeated on the return. The rest of the course was out-and-back. The second aid station was manned by folks from ARC, one of the local shops, very supportive of local races and the running community and getting behind their first ultra. It was good to see so many familiar faces.
The first 12 miles had been mostly uphill. Past aid station 2 came the first significant downhill – a 3 – 4 mile stretch of singletrack down to the 16 mile mark, and our drop bags. Aid station 3 (which was also aid station 9) was also the one place where runners had access to crews, friends, families, spectators, etc., as it was at the one spot on the course that crossed a road.
Kista, who was originally supposed to run the race before getting sidelined with injury, was volunteering at 3. I asked her about some of our friends: Jorge Pacheco, Sada Crawford, Tiffany Guerra… Jorge’s wife Mari Lemus was there and cheered me on. I was just about 15 minutes ahead of my schedule as I left the aid station and started the first significant climb the race, a 4 mile stretch of narrow singletrack.
I had not anticipated seeing runners on the return quite that soon and was looking down at the ground, which is my habit on uphills, so that I don’t notice the length of the climb. I heard someone yell and jumped out of the way with an apology. It was Sada, scampering down the steep hill, on her way to a very strong 50K win in her first race back after being sidelined over a year with a broken foot. She said hello as she sped past.
As I approached aid staion 4 and the 50K turnaround, I started to see a lot more runners I knew, passing me on their way back in. The trails were about to thin out considerably as half the runners were turning.
I hit aid station 4, still on schedule. The trail leveled out, and started to get particularly beautiful. We were in giant pine cone country, similar to the Angeles National Forest or the San Jacintos. On the way through this, on singletrack, I crossed paths with Jenn Shelton. Jenn is one of the stars of Chris McDougal’s “Born to Run”, an inspiring bestseller that seems to have paved the way for this new barefoot lifestyle trend. Unfortunately, McDougal does not seem to like women all that much and his depictions of the two in the book – the legendary Ann Trason and young upstart Jenn Shelton – are far from flattering. She was effusive in her thanks when I stepped off the trail, and I don’t think I have ever seen anyone look more like they were enjoying life than she did at that moment. Her happiness was infectious, and kept me happy throughout my much longer (in time, not distance) race.
Just behind her on the trail was last year’s second place female Paulette Zillmer from Arizona, who also won AC100. The week before, Paulette won Zane Grey, by all accounts one of the toughest 50 milers in the country. She might have left it on the course in Arizona. She and Jenn held their relative positions to finish 8th and 9th.
The Coyotes 80s themed aid station was somewhere deep in this forest. Coming out of there, things continued up, but an easy up, very runnable even for a slacker like me.
At mile 26 or so we emerged from forest and headed down an exposed fire-road to the turn-around. This was the ugly part of the race. The view below was basically Palmdale or Lancaster, or desert/meth-head flatness. As I started down I saw a number of folks I knew almost finishing their climb back up. Tiffany Guerra and just behind her Sally Mcrae…
I’d been running more-or-less with the same group of people for the last 10 miles. I turned it on a bit on the downhill, and then spent a litle more time than usual at the Hawaiian themed aid station at the bottom.
This was the 50 mile turn around. I looked at my notes one last time. Still slightly ahead of pace. I’d been running steady and hitting my marks.
The climb back up was long, exposed, steep in parts, and there would only be one significant climb after it, coming out of station #9 at the 42 mile point. Much to the frustration of speedster running partners, I walk hills in my training. They say “yes, you’ll walk the hills during races but if you run them in training you’ll become a stronger runner.” They might be right, but since I am going to power walk them during races, I might as well power walk during training, too. It’s a skill just as important to me as, say, knowing how to run technical downhill.
My powerwalk back up the hill took me past about 5 people. We hit the top, and 20 miles of mostly downhill began. This is where I do best, and what I’d been saving up for. I was feeling fresher than I usually do at the 30 mile mark because I’d held back in the beginning. In my own experience and observation of others, the time gained by putting miles in the bank at the start of a race is always more than eaten up by the slow-down it causes at the end. I started picking people of on the downhill. One after another after another. Most were gracious about moving off the trail to let me pass. Some were not, and after calling out a few times I’d need to wait a half mile or so until I found a wider spot where I could get around them.
Moving faster and in the afternoon sun, parts of the course that seemed uninteresting on the slow climb up became quite beautiful. There was a stretch of tight turns on hardpacked white sand, all exposed, very little vegetation, and it was beautiful. I wondered why I had no recollection of this part of the course on the way up.
It is much easier for me to detach myself from a race’s result than it is for a front-runner, because one thing I never have to attach to is the desire to win, and unlike road races, where conditions are so controlled and uniform that time can translate across races, time is more-or-less irrelevant. A 5 hour finish on one course might be less of an accomplishment than a 7 hour finish on another. That said, there were frequent moments in the race where I would spot another runner ahead of me and think “I’m gonna beat that one”. This was especially true the closer I got to the finish. I would survey the course ahead of us and consider when to make my move. The best time would be right after a climb, when they were tired and when I could quickly put some distance between us. It was kind of thrilling when I realized that no-one was going to have passed my since the turn around, and that I had might have picked off nearly 50 runners.
At mile 42 I passed someone I knew who had 5 or 6 miles on me at the turnaround. I was quick through the aid station and started the last long climb. It was steep, and exposed, and I was hot and tired. It leveled out sooner than I anticipated, and the runnable sections became longer and longer. I passed people power walking, and I passed more running. I came upon a baby rattlesnake stretched across the trail, and stepped carefully around it.
The singletrack spilled out onto fireroad for the last 5 miles. I hit the last aid station, filled up quickly, and powerwalked up the road. I could see a pair of guys up there, one of whom had about 6 miles on me at the turn around. I decided I would pass them on the final 3 mile downhill.
Kista yelled at me for coming in to her aid station with my bottles too full. In the last three miles I could feel I’d underdone it just a bit with nutrition and fluids. I kicked it up a gear with no trouble, but when I tried to take it up a second gear I started to feel cramping in my left hamstring. The solution was to try to keep my stride the same length, pick up my cadence, and weave my way around the ruts without leaping.
One of the guys on the hill decided to give me a bit of a fight. He caught up with me on a slight uphill. We ran together for a minute and then I sped up again on the downhill. This time he stayed behind.
I’d plotted out a rather arbitrary finishing time of 11 hours. I chose that number because it’s the qualifying time for Western States. I finished in 10:31, running negative splits, which placed me at the bottom of the top third. More important, though, is that this was the first race that felt good from start to finish. We all have struggles of some kind in races, but mine, in the past, have almost all been of my own doing. This time I ran a smooth, balanced race, and that allowed me to better deal with the things I could not control, like the heat.
I congratulated friends and was congratulated by friends at the finish. We compared races. Jorge Pacheco said that having 4 guys smash Ben Hian’s 17 year old record was good for the sport, but I thought I heard a bitter-sweetness in his voice.
It took an hour before my legs stopped twitching and we could head home.
Tuesday: Cherry Canyon, Griffth Park: 16 miles
2,400 feet climbing. Wednesday: Cherry Canyon 6 miles
900 feet of climbing Thursday: Treadmill in the rain, 5 miles Saturday: Leona Divide 50 miles
9,000 feet of climbing Sunday: El Prieto w/ Kista 13 miles
3,000 feet of climbing Total: 89 miles, 15,600 feet of climbing