This previous week-end was dedicated to trail running. And beer drinking, but that's not relevant here, although most trail runners I know also know how to enjoy some good brews!. On Saturday, I participated in the Berry Creek Falls 25k, a trail running race by Coastal Trail Runs, a very nice Bay Area trail running events company. And on Sunday, I volunteered at the Big Basin marathon and 50k, also put together by CTR.
I don't volunteer as often as I would like to, or as often as I race, but I commit myself to doing it once a quarter at least to give a helping hand to the people who organize the races I enjoy as a runner. When I'm out there, I count on their support and on the aid stations so it's only normal to give back!
Even though the start time was 8am for the race on Saturday, there was quite a drive to get there so I had to wake up early. But I'm always surprised to find myself with a smile on my face as I put my shoes on and walk through the door, even at the crack of dawn, knowing I will soon be having fun charging through the woods. The Berry Creek Falls are on the Skyline to the Sea trail, lost somewhere in the middle of the Santa Cruz mountains. Getting there involves driving up highway 9, past Skyline and back down the other side, then through highway 236, which is probably one of the twistiest roads in the area!
Once on site, I found some of the "usual suspects" next to the start/finish area, and after chatting a bit it was time to line up at the start line. All distances (10k, 15k and 25k) would start together. The course consisted in a 15k loop and a 10k loop, both starting and ending at the start/finish area which also happened to be the only aid station on the course. Depending on your distance you would do one or the other, or both.
Wendell, the race director, gave the usual instructions about course markings and we all set off. 15k and 25k runners went left, 10k runners went right, and we were on our way. The beginning of the race was slightly uphill and I surprisingly found myself in the lead pack. After about a mile the lead pack shrank and split off into two small groups. Two 15k runners up ahead, and 3 runners a few hundred yards behind with one 15k runner, one 25k runner and myself running the 25k as well. The three of us stuck together through the downhill section, chasing down the lead 15k runners and generally having a blast running downhill on the Skyline to the Sea trail, chatting about where we're from, the course elevation profile and our upcoming races.
By the time we got to the bottom of the falls I was pulling ahead from the group and eventually caught up and passed one of the 15k runners that were ahead. As we made our way up the steep stairs next to the falls, no one was talking anymore. It was time to focus on going up these stairs as efficiently as possible and keeping the legs fresh for all the uphill that was ahead of us.
Even after the stairs the uphill battle continued. I had to stay smart and walk some of the hills. There were still many hundreds of feet of climbing on the course. But every downhill section increased my lead. I didn't catch up with the 15k leader, but arrived shortly after him back at the start/finish area, and at this point the volunteers at the aid station confirmed I was in the lead of the 25k.
I rarely lead races. Reflecting back on my mindset during the race, I realize how much the perspective changes. In trail races, my main focus has always been to make it to the end, manage my energy and deal with the hills. Whatever my time is at the end I'm happy to have finished and to have spent time on the trails enjoying nature and running (with some non-negligible amount of suffering, but that's quickly forgotten). Leading the race, I was no longer only focused on getting to the end. I know had to hold off the runners chasing me. In the middle of the pack, the people behind you aren't really chasing you down. The second and third place runners though, that's a different story. They are actively pushing hard to catch you.
Pace strategy, which I normally use on road races, now becomes a critical component of my thinking process when analyzing the course ahead of me. What's my buffer? Should I power through that little hill and breathe on the way down? Should I walk it up and push downhill?
The second loop was arguably much tougher. It might be 33% shorter, but it is considerably steeper on its way to a very exposed summit made of solid, heat-reflecting rock. On the hot day like this past Saturday, the radiating heat was dehydrating me faster than several miles worth through the woods. Even the redwood's canopy wasn't enough to keep the forest cool near the summit. And in the distance, the second place runner was closing in!
The second loop was also more difficult to follow. I knew what to expect in the first loop from looking at the map before the race, but I didn't look as closely for the second loop and it turned out to be trickier than expected. The 10k loop started by doing a tiny loop that circled back to a section shared with the 15k loop. Seeing runners finishing their 15k coming down that section made me wonder for a while if I was going in the right direction! The trail then split off and I was confirmed that I was indeed heading up for the summit as I should.
I was walking most of the way up to the Ocean View Summit, jogging the less steep sections - doing 11'/mi is considerably better than 16-18'/mi, even for a short period of time! I was starting to struggle even through the progressive uphill of mile 11 and on the last stretch of uphill, I was probably only 300ft ahead of my pursuer. Remembering the elevation profile, I knew this was the last uphill battle after nearly 3,000ft of climbing over the last 10 miles. The rest was a huge downhill to come back down to the creek and ultimately to the finish line.
As I hit the downhill, I knew this was my last chance to pull ahead. With about three miles to go, I let it rip, using my descent technique and quick foot placement to the max to navigate through the roots and improvised wooden planks bridges. As the course flattened out, I was feeling my quads pretty badly. After all the uphill and the fast downhill, it was expected, but I had to power through. Less than 2 miles left, I could do it!
And then something unexpected happened. I navigate through a quick left/right chicane around a big redwood tree and see something in the distance. Could it be? My watch says 14.5 miles, I'm expecting at least another mile or so until the finish line! But no, there it is, the aid station at the joining of the two loops, and 100ft to the left the finish area! The tree cover and the elevation changes reduced the precision of my GPS watch so much I actually covered more distance than it reported.
Along with discovering an unexpected downhill section (which also happened during the race as the markings split off into a downhill trail to the right instead of keeping going straight up ahead), having the finish line appear out of nowhere right in front of you has to be one of the best feelings in a race. Well, maybe second only to winning the damn thing :)
I crossed the finish line with a huge smile of my face in 2:30'16". I did it. I held off the runners chasing me and took first place in the 25k, also unexpectedly setting a new course record by about 30 seconds. It's ironic that we were actually joking about it with the lead runners during that first downhill section! My pursuer was actually passed on the downhill section by his own pursuer, and they respectively came in 4 and 8 minutes behind me. I honestly have no idea how I pulled up such a lead in the last 3 miles of the race but clearly I negotiated that downhill pretty well.
This makes it my second officially timed race win, which earned me the nice coaster you see in the picture up there. After the race I hung out a little with the other finishers and drove home, having a blast driving back on highway 9 in the process :)