Cuyamaca Mountains, view from Green Valley campground
Green Valley campground, 3 miles from the start. Grilled sausage and beans, my camping meal of choice when I’m bacheloring it.
The first time I came through here was 1984 in a Jack Brown Cleaners van that had been converted into the Big Boys touring van. Poison 13 was a band formed by Big Boys guitarist Tim Kerr and Big Boys bassist Chris Gates, and we were driving from El Paso to San Diego, coming in on interstate 8. I woke up as we were somewhere near Alpine, in the middle of Cleveland National Forest. I-8 wasn’t much of freeway then, not the way I remember it, and it seemed to twist and wind a bit through the Cuyamaca Mountains, very different than the Rocky Mountains I grew up with; short, hilly, with big granite boulders. It was a spectacular sunrise.
Last time I was anywhere near here was almost 30 years ago, in 1986, a little further south, actually, in Dulzera, just across the border from Tecate, which glowed through the hills like a UFO; my first experience with light pollution.
Dave Gonzalez, Paladins, Dulzera, California, 1986
This was back in the music days, and I was in Dulzera because there, in an old barn next to a airstream trailer, was a state-of-the-art 1956 all tube 4 track recording studio, and the band I was working with were slightly fanatic purists and wanted to do it right.
It was about the same time of year as it is now, and tube equipment gets hot, so we were mostly recording at night. We’d get a few takes in and then break so that the gear could cool down, sit outside and tell off-color jokes that apparently echoed for miles through the hills, and on the second night of recording the Sheriff paid us a visit. “what’re y’all doin’ out here?” he wanted to know, so we showed him, and played him a few tracks. Rockabilly was not a revival for the Sheriff. He was still enjoying it from the first go ’round, having seemingly missed the 60’s and the 70’s, and the 80’s seemed to be passing him by as well. He dug the tunes. “well hell,” he said. “if ya’ ll were a bunch a punk rockers I’d have to shut you down, but I like those tunes. Just try to keep the jokes clean, and quiet, too. There’s good Christians in these hills.
Now, 29 years later, I was back in the hills, 6:30am on a not-too-hot, not-too-cold, just right Saturday morning, about to run 62 miles. I’d had a difficult few months at work, I hadn’t had a single day off since my FatDog 120 DNF in mid August, and leading up to that I was overstressed and overworked. Now I was overstressed and undertrained, but all I needed, really, was a sub 17 hour finish to qualify for Western States 100. That much, I figured, was possible. I wasn’t hoping for much more. I’d already made my first mistake of the weekend by showing up with only one handheld, which meant I would need to use a hydration pack for the run. Oh well. This went fine with the diminished expectations. I’d gotten to sleep at sundown at the campground 3 miles away by road. I felt well rested for the first time in months. I had a 14:30 finish planned out, but the pace charts looked off, I’d already forgotten the splits, and anyhow, all I was shooting for was sub 17. It would be as easy a day as traveling 62 miles on foot in one day can be.
And we were off.
A half-a-mile in camp, on wide roads, and then the field of near 200 runners had to narrow quickly to fit on singletrack. There was the usual jostling for position, and always early in the races, a handful of slow runners not really giving a rat’s ass that they are holding up the pack. There were a few sprints when clear spots presented themselves so that I could pass five or six runners, and then periods of recovery following those 50 yard bursts of energy. The trail was well marked, rolling hills that headed mostly down for eight-and-a-half miles to the first aid station. A quick refill there, and then five miles of mostly up to Green Valley Campground, the aid station in site 38, about 100 yards from my tent in site 30. The morning was cool, there was a nice breeze, and a significant part of the course had been shaded. The shade would end here, and there would be nearly ten miles of exposed and sometimes rocky climb up to Cuyamaca Peak. I’d taken a four mile leg-stretcher of a run the afternoon before and knew what the first few miles offered.
Between Green Valley and the Peak
At some point between the first and second aid station, on a dusty uphill climb, I’d stopped to tie my shoe laces. Red ants got onto my water bottle and I was bitten in the palm of my right hand. It started throbbing almost immediately. I kept checking an eye on it. If it started to swell, I decided to hide it at aid stations, just in case, but all it did was hurt.
The climb up to the top of Cuyamaca Peak started at about sixteen-and-a-half miles, and headed up, up, up for seven miles, to twenty-two-and-a-half, after which was 3/4 of a mile of steep, steep pavement to the top, covered in radio towers, and an aid station captained by Ang Shartel.
Until that last bit of pavement, the trip up Cuyamaca Peak wasn’t a particularly steep climb but rather gentle, with rolling flat patches and lots of tall yellow grass. This whole area had been burned badly in the 2003 Cedar Fire, which was the largest forest fire in California history. There were patches of poodle dog bush as well, which was a surprise.
The grass meadows were beautiful.
I’d wondered why, when looking at splits, the trip down from Cuyamaca Peak seemed so slow. Rocky and technical, I was told, and it was, with sections worthy of Zane Grey. This was blast to run down, and I passed a number of folks who’d passed me on the way up.
Rocky trail on the way out of Green Valley
The run down from Cuyamaca Peak was a delight. I love rocky downhills, and arrived at Paso Picacho aid station (mile 28) feeling great. And there I made my second mistake.
We left the aid station on a stretch of pavement. A runner passed my on my left. I tried to keep up but he was taking advantage of the smooth surface and making a move. I followed him. After I’d gone about 3/4 of a mile he was 400 yards ahead, cresting the hill. I hadn’t noticed any orange ribbons. The course had been very well marked thus far. There was a trail about a quarter of a mile below me, and it was not marked at all, which was odd, because all the possible detours had been clearly blocked on the the course. I ran down back down the hill to the couple who didn’t know the course and were just following me. They turned around and started following me back down the hill. There were no other runners, even though the aid station had been fairly full. I found the turn-off, clearly marked. I’d run almost two extra miles. All the people I’d passed coming down Cuyamaca Peak I would have to pass again.
The next aid station was a return to the start at Camp Cuyamaca. The first loop was 32.5 miles – just over a 50K. Without really remembering my planned splits, I had an idea that I was about half-an-hour off my original 14:30 goal, which meant I was running much better than I figured I would. My hand had stopped throbbing about 5 miles back. There was a nice breeze. Things were looking good.
The course consists of 3 distinct loops. The first, which I had just completed, is half the race. The second loop is 13 miles, and the third is 18 miles. They all share about a mile. To avoid confusion, each loop has a different color ribbon, and runners are given wrist bands to match the ribbon color of the loop they are about to run. This transition is handled quickly at the aid station. I headed out on loop 2.
The second loop began with a good climb. There was some rocky, technical uphill, and I do well on those uphills, which really is to say others do less well and are forced to walk. I passed a few folks on the climbs. This stretch topped off with some rolling hills and then a nice fun few miles of downhill. I was feeling good.
The aid stations were great. Many of the folks working them were San Diego area ultra runners, and they were able to tend to the runners with pit-stop efficiency. Christine Bilange helped me at Camp Cuyamaca before the third loop. She warned me to bring something warn as it could get cool at night. We loaded up my pack, which felt very full, and I headed out for a third lap.
Half a mile out of the aid station I realized I’d left without my lights. Another mistake, and another mile added to the already growing course. I headed back to the aid station.
The final lap began anew with a longer-then-I-would-have-liked stretch of fire-road, a flattish up that lasted about 2 miles, and then 4 miles of steeper up on trail before leveling off in another meadow and the Sunrise aid station at mile 52. I’d hoped to get there by dark, and I arrived just as the sun was going down.
I wish I could remember more of the last loop. There were 4.5 miles to the next and final aid station, all gently rolling and very runnable, on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m not a particularly comfortable night runner but a good Fenix handheld along with a head lamp strong enough to make movies with gives me sufficient confidence, and my legs didn’t feel that bad. Still, I was walking more than I needed to until I spotted some headlights behind me. It’s against policy to let myself get passed in the last 10 miles of a race. I turned it on.
The headlights eventually caught up to me. It was a guy I’d been playing leapfrog with for quite a few miles. I told myself it didn’t matter if he passed me since I’d already passed him; this just made us even. Still, I kept him within sight.
As always, whenever I passed someone I would say “How are you doing?” Nobody answered with “Great!” Instead, it was a litany of woes: bad knees, bad stomach, cramping quads… “Sorry to hear that, man,” I would say as I left them behind, making a note not to ever be that guy. I have been, before, feeling like I needed to make an excuse whenever someone passed me, as if to say “normally, I’m better than you; I’m just having a bad day.” I’ve decided not to give voice to those thoughts if I can help it, because all I succeed in doing is darkening everyone’s day, mine included.
I wasn’t exactly sure how much further I had to go on the last stretch; with all the added miles I’d already run further than 100K. There was a long, gentle downhill stretch of fireroad – 4 miles of it – and a handful of runners ahead of me. I’d passed the guy I’d been playing leapfrog with, and wanted to hang on to that. I crossed the finish line in 14:48, age-group second, what would have been a PR had I not added those extra 3 – 4 miles. It was a much better run than I’d expected, on a fun and challenging course. I got into some warm clothes, had some hot food, and felt my body start to shut down in that peculiar way it does almost immediately upon crossing the finish line. It had been a great day.