Well, I’ve posted a fair bit about my running on FB and Twitter, mostly just annoying people, but I think this is my first official “race report.” For what it’s worth, the likes and the little comments people post mean a lot to me. You folks help keep me motivated and spur on my “relentless forward progress!”
If you’ve stumbled upon this post in a search for more info on this event, keep in mind, I’m a novice. I’m pretty much the definition of a “rookie.”
I’ve always wanted to run an Ultra distance and seriously started considering it at the beginning of the year. My training had gone to shit and I’d found a plan for running your first 50K and I thought I’d give it a shot. After about a month, I was deluded enough to think I might actually be able to do it. So I projected ahead to see what 50K’s might fall at the end of the 16 week plan.
The first to catch my eye was Big Basin: “The popular Skyline to the Sea Trail runs from the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains at Saratoga Gap through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the oldest park in California (est. 1902), and ends at the Pacific Ocean at Waddell Beach. It travels through tall redwoods and high chaparral along the way.” Besides the word “redwoods” I remember reading some description that included the phrase “mostly downhill.” They had me at “redwoods” but I was truly sold with that “mostly downhill” thing.
My other option was the popular Born to Run Ultra, but it was a loop course, not quite the destination run I was looking for, and being a newbie, I was honestly a bit intimidated by the crowd I’d expect to see there. I liked the idea of getting out of Los Angeles, heading north, and getting my forest on. Not to mention my training got a little sidelined, so it timed out kinda perfectly. Big Basin it was.
Santa Cruz is an expensive place to get a motel on the weekend. I’m just saying. I considered shacking up in Big Basin State Park with a guy who’d gotten a tent cabin there. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I just wanted to be super comfy the night before the biggest race I’d ever run. I worked a little Priceline magic and got a rate I was comfortable with and ended up crashing in Scotts Valley, just north of Santa Cruz and about 25 mins from the bus pickup point that takes you to the race start up in the mountains. Had I stayed in the park, I think I’d have been looking at a 45 min to an hour drive at the least to the bus pickup. No bueno, I’d take the extra sleep time. And without anyone to drop me off at the race start, it was the bus for me.
Quite a bus ride it was. Let’s put it this way, school buses do not haul ass. We left the dirt parking on the side of the PCH at 6:45AM on the nose and got to the race start at about 8:15AM. Bib pickup was scheduled for 8-8:45AM with a race start of 9AM. I heard a rumor that one of the bus drivers didn’t show, so there were a few folks standing on my bus. I sat in the front with a nice guy named Dennis whose back problems forced him to race-walk. A part time accounting teacher, he had an enviable list of races under his belt and helped pass the time chatting the whole way up.
With no advance bib pickup, we got all situated in a small parking lot at the Skyline to the Sea Trailhead. Everybody piled off the buses and formed very long lines at the half dozen or so porta johns that greeted us. Luckily my body was cooperating and my pre-race eating/drinking strategy was paying off. I took a quick leak in the woods down the road, cruised through getting my bib and then deposited my extra clothes and personal items in a plastic bag to be transported to the finish line. The whole process was fairly painless. Let’s just say I was glad I didn’t have to visit the crapper.
Before I knew it, all 239 of us, marathon and 50K runners, were making our way across the road to the starting line. I couldn’t quite make out what the race director was saying over his megaphone, but I think it was mostly about the marking system for the course: Pink ribbons for the main course, polka dot ribbons at intersections, blue ribbons designated the wrong direction at an intersection and finally orange ribbons for the additional mid-marathon 5 mile loop for the 50K racers. Before I knew it, we were off, 9AM sharp.
In my pre-race research, the course, from the looks of things, favored the downhill with some moderate elevation gains spread throughout. I mean your running from the “skyline to the sea” after all. Having run a lot of hills in Griffith Park, I felt pretty darn prepared. If anything I was more concerned about the pounding my knees would take on the downhills and trained for that the best I could. I expected, and have come to accept, that at my level, and at these distances, I’m going to be walking much of the uphills. I was not wrong about this.
It was pretty congested at the start. 239 runners are a lot to fit on single track. I wasn’t in any rush, but I did take opportunities to create some breathing room when I could. I fell into a rhythm with some people I saw intermittently over the next 10 miles.
At about 6 miles in, I cruised through the first of 4 humble little aid stations without stopping. I’m not used to aid on my long runs, having gotten in the habit (out of necessity) of carrying both a 2L Camelbak backpack full of water and also a waist pack with a 24oz bottle of my own little go-juice concoction. Also, I get nervous about eating race supplied foods I haven’t trained with and feel more comfortable forgoing Gu and the like for a big baggie of fruit leather, dates and dried apricots. The aid station was pretty slammed so I was happy to pass it up.
Those first 6 miles or so were a sweet shaded gradual descent that periodically crisscrossed the road paralleling the trail. I felt good and kept a nice even pace enjoying the scenery and taking in the people around me. The shade was pretty consistent for the majority of the race, and welcome considering the temperatures were higher than usual for this time of year, in the upper 80’s. I didn’t mind so much, used to the heat in So Cal and having trained a fair bit in it. I sure would have liked it to have been cooler, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt, but I dealt fine.
Leaving the aid station I was introduced to the first consistent chunk of uphill. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not like this race is clear uphill/downhill sections. Though much may be primarily downhill, it’s usually rolling throughout. There were many parts where I could crank into gear and go, but over time I just wasn’t conditioned enough to maintain speed throughout. The knees weren’t having it. I like my knees, so I tried to respect them.
Though I didn’t find it super-technical, I’m not used to that kinda thing, getting mostly fire-roads down here in Los Angeles, the ups and downs of the single track introduced a whole new level for me. I took my time. I’d fallen during some training runs leading up to the race, catching my foot on a root or rock here and there. I was not going to have that happen to me on this run— Yeah, so much for that. Probably about 6 times I nearly took a header. I’m just lucky I got my feet back under me. Needless to say, I spent much of my time focusing on the ground immediately in front of me and reminding myself to pick up my feet.
At about 12 miles in I stopped at the second aid station and filled my Camelbak and topped off my 24oz, diluting my go-juice a bit. I’d mixed it up too strong anyway. The trail traffic had thinned out considerably, and though I ran near people at times, it was pretty open now. I heard some chatter that the first aid station had run out of water. I popped an orange slice into my mouth, dumped a big cup of ice down the back of my shirt, which sat gloriously right behind my backpack, and headed back out.
As far as my time and pace, once I started walking the uphills, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I mostly just watched my heart rate and kept plodding along. I wasn’t out to set any course records. I just wanted to finish the race, not hurt myself and have a good time. I’d just run a 26 mile training run in Griffith Park the month prior in about 6.5hrs, so I was convinced that with this downhill course I’d maybe make a similar time, even though it was longer.
Yeah, not so much.
Somewhere between mile 12 and 15 I remember lamenting that I was barely at the 1/2 way point. I had quite a bit still left to cover. I’d pretty much lost appreciation for my environment at this point, focusing on just moving forward. My knees were speaking up and telling me I really had to dial back the cruise control on the downhills. I just tried to stay focused and present with what I was feeling; no judgment, just observing and taking it in.
The third aid station came along. At this point the 50K-ers were directed to veer off for their added mileage. Over the last mile or so leading up to it I’d noticed there were orange ribbons now mingling in with the pink ones. For some reason I hadn’t put two and two together and recognized why. Of course, this was part of the 50K loop that doubled back on to the main course. Right…. I was beat, but after my ice ritual, and now sucking down a few cups of very watered down electrolyte drink, I embarked on the loop. It’s amazing how those little breaks can lift your spirit and energy. I surely needed it, because that extra loop was a bitch.
For about 2 miles or so you’re going gradually uphill on fire roads. At its apex it gets pretty steep. Everybody around me was walking. Towards the top, the trees opened up and it was way exposed and desert like, lots of white rock and sand. It was not my favorite and the heat became apparent. Even still, this was a small window of exposure in what was mostly a shaded course, but certainly the toughest part that I recall.
Up to this point the balls of my feet were starting to feel a bit raw and I decided to take a foot care break, lest it turn into a real issue. I lost probably about 10 mins or so. But pulling off my shoes, cleaning out the dust and fluffing up the old socks did wonders. It really took the edge off that sand papery feeling I had, and my feet totally came around.
Returning to the main course again l ran into Dennis from the bus. He was short on water and not feeling great about the heat. I too was running dry and we both feared that the 3rd aid station might now be out of water. Race-walking, Dennis was also concerned he might not make the 8 hour cut-off at his current pace. I finished my loop with Dennis, revisiting the aid station, and got my “special rubber band,” in purple I’ll have you know. There were now quite a collection of defeated looking people there who were dropping out. The aid station staff was in the process of arranging transport for them back to the finish line. Sitting on the sidelines, it was a pretty sullen looking posse.
Luckily our concerns about water were unfounded. I refilled my Camelbak with electrolyte drink, this time throwing caution to the wind. It was very light, not tasting like much more than water. It hit the spot. Some more ice down the back, rubbed on my neck and top of my head for a bit, and I took off on my own.
There was a decent ascent coming out of that aid station and I could hear someone singing at the top of their lungs up above me somewhere. I couldn’t tell what the heck it was all about, but it faded after a while. I crossed paths with Dennis again who’d set out ahead of me. He told me I had more uphill to look forward to. Good times. After cresting the hill, 20+ miles or so in I started thinking, “…huh, I still have a long way to go.” I kept on, running the flats, carefully picking up on the downhills when I could, and walking most all of the uphill. I passed a map posted along the trail. “You are here.” Wow, and I still need to get there, all the way down there.
Eventually I came across the source of the singing. The peppiest of runners was cheering her friend along, trying to motivate her with all sorts of spontaneous lyrics about running. “Marathon woman…” she sang with bounding enthusiasm, bouncing along the trail. I passed her exhausted friend. “You better catch up, just to shut her up,” I said half jokingly. She glanced up at me through a haze of fatigue, but said to me quite seriously and with the utmost clarity of focus, “She’s keeping me going.”
A few little stream crossings and a guy came lumbering up behind me. He mentioned something about his toes jamming. His feet were hurting him, but he was still making better time on the more technical parts of the trail then I. Catching up with him later on a fire road that makes up a nice chill chunk of the race at about mile 24 or 25, I said to him, “Less than a 10K to go!” He grunted something I couldn’t quite make out. I later learned, running with him for the next few miles, that he’d had a spill crossing a bridge earlier, taking quite a hit to his head and leg. His name was Saba and he’d run the race the previous year. He seemed pretty determined his fall wasn’t going to stop him from finishing. Overall he figured it would set him back about an hour from the his prior finish time. He was knowledgeable about the trail, and since my Garmin was almost out of battery and had lost signal many times, was able to give me a more realistic perspective of how much farther we had to go. I was liking his math better than mine.
We kept on for a few miles, enjoying the cooling air as we got closer and closer to the ocean. We eventually parted ways at the last aid station, 1.8 miles from the finish. I popped a salt capsule, filled up about a 3rd of my Camelbak and set out on the final push to the finish. That’s also about the time my Garmin officially crapped out.
The last mile or so is a steady climb on single track up over the foothills that lead to the ocean. I could feel the trees starting to open up and caught site of some farming land below me. The trail snaked along the hillside. I could hear cheering in the distance. A group of gals, who’d come to the last aid station about the time I arrived, passed me as the trail began its descent. Not much further now… Hikers passed going in the opposite direction. I couldn’t see my destination, but I could hear it. Where does this end exactly? Will I make it all the way to the beach? Some young kids were in the middle of the trail. Just as quickly as they appeared, they darted towards the sounds of the celebration. I turned off the trail and on to a dirt road, small buildings ahead of me. Hand written signs pointed me in the direction of the finish. Some spectators cheered us on. Around a gate, another turn and there it was, a big digital counter proclaiming my time as I crossed the finish line, “07:37:26.”
A walk to the shuttle and short ride back to my car, chatting with a guy who had just done a Spartan Race the day before (Really? I mean, really?), and I was on my way back to Los Angeles.
Overall I had a really positive experience at Big Basin. It’s not a flashy race by any stretch. It’s humble, heartfelt and gets the job done. The scenery is beautiful, the course well marked and the race is deceptively challenging. I think it was a great choice for my first trail ultramarathon.
- Saba made it
- Dennis finished within the cut-off with 8 minutes to spare!
- I’m pretty sure the singer and her friend made the cut as well. I never did get their names, but there were two sets of gals that finished at exactly the same time, within 10 mins of the cut-off. I left very soon afterwards, so I can’t be sure, but I like to think they were one of the two, and they crossed the finish line singing full out.