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OR Coyote Backbone Trail 100

With the months of difficult winter training behind us, Bruce and I headed south to sunny California in March to run the first edition of the Backbone Trail 100. There have already been two previous 68 mile races along this route but this was the first year that the longer distance was offered. All together, there were only 35 folks taking on the 100 mile challenge, toeing the start line beside 168 runners in the 68 mile race.

The Backbone Trail (BBT) has just recently (2016) been awarded status as an established park trail. The trail begins at the northern edge of Los Angeles, at Will Rogers State Park, and runs north along the backbone of the Santa Monica mountain range on the edge of the Pacific coast. It ends 68 miles later, back on the coast in Point Mugu state park, just south of Oxnard. The 68 mile race follows the Backbone Trail from end to end while the 100 mile course adds in the extra 32 miles at the end in three unique loops of Point Mugu park before heading over the ridge and down to the seashore. In true Coyote fashion, race weekend was selected according to the lunar calendar so that we would be able to run through the night under a full moon.

While up in BC, we had been dealing with more than usual snow [in fact we had to dig ourselves out of our driveway again on our way to the airport], southern California had been having record amounts of rainfall. As we began our descent into Los Angeles, we were struck by the Irish emerald-green forests below. We were prepared for torrential downpours, wet feet and plenty of poison oak – but at least it wasn’t snow. We pulled into the Point Mugu group campsite, set up our tent, arranged our race gear and enjoyed our dinner while listening to the ocean waves crash.

‘Early’ on this race day meant 3:45 am. We stumbled out of our tent and over to the sign-in table, gave weary hugs to good ol’ friends and acquired our race bibs before hauling ourselves onto one of the big yellow school buses. The drive to the race start was – you got it – 68 miles long. We arrived at the start line with just enough time to visit the washroom and dump our drop bags before the race briefing began. The race started about 30 minutes late, after some fun Coyote shenanigans, like handing out the prized (or dreaded?) propeller hats to the predicted front-runners and back-of-the-packers. Soon enough we were heading up onto that dusty single track trail.

The pre-race start line photo. 168 runners are running the 68 mile Backbone Trail and 35 runners are rounding up to the nearest 100.

There was much chit-chat and a feeling of comradery between the runners as we headed out for our day of fun. The trails were in great shape, edged with green grasses, a few cookie-dough mud sections and even trickles of creek water under some of the trail bridges. But rain was all a memory by mid-morning. With the sun higher in the sky, the heat turned up and even the local Californians were commenting on the heat. It turned out to be a hot day, even by their standards, but for Bruce and me, it was glorious. This was the hot holiday that had pulled us through the winter months.

The race unfolded as races do. There were climbs and descents, views and valleys, great aid stations and great conversations. I was struck by how remote the trail seemed, considering how close we were to Los Angeles. At one point, I thought I could hear a race car track, with engines revving up and screeching, but soon we popped out on a winding, two-lane back road with cars ripping it up on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning. I think this was Topanga Canyon Blvd which the RD note had warned us about crossing with care and attention. While mostly very secluded and remote, occasionally the trail would give us peeks of elaborate mansions perched on hillsides with ocean views and shock us back into the reality of how others choose to live.

In the heat of the day, I felt strong as the trail took us up a steep, sun-exposed gravel road after Piuma AS (25 miles). Although I was very hot and sweaty, I was managing my food and hydration well. Around this point, I realized that I had made a big error about which drop bag to put my headlamp in. Our choices were the 25 mile or the 52 mile stations and the former had seemed too early so I had placed it in the Mishe Mowka drop bag at 52 miles. Although I was moving well and feeling strong, I could calculate that it would be dark before I reached there. (Luckily I had a back-up handheld light which got me through the dusky hour). When I rolled into the Kanan Dume Rd AS (38 miles – which was listed as a water only but was a full-on, full-service oasis!), the captain there told me that I was the first place woman for the 100 miler. This was news that I didn’t want, especially this early on in the day, and I told her so. I tried to file that information deep in the back of my brain and carried on as if I still had 72+ miles to go.

When I arrived at Mishe Mowka AS (52 miles), I had a made-to-order burrito from an amazing chef and I took off my shoes to deal with the beginnings of a blister. Bruce arrived soon after and, together again, we headed off over Sandstone Peak and into Point Mugu park. We chatted and compared stories of our day so far and were thankful to be in the cooler dark of early evening. Once past Butt-Crack rock, we enjoyed the long descent towards Danielson Ranch, getting briefly disoriented in a creek wash-out area and then back on track. The Danielson Ranch AS (60 miles) is in a cold river valley and it did not take us long to get chilled to the bone. All the staff were dressed in down jackets and toques but cheerily served us spicy Italian Wedding soup and cold grilled cheese sandwiches.

Martha arriving at Danielson Ranch (mile 60) around 10:30 pm, ready to take on the three loops of Point Mugu park.

Bruce looking strong and happy at Danielson Ranch – mile 60

This aid station is where the 68 and 100 mile races diverge. While most runners had only 8 miles to go, the 100 mile racers had three clover-leaf loops to do, always returning to this aid station between loops. We were told that we were 8th and 9th place in the 100 mile race . As we resupplied, the first place 100 miler came through the aid station, having already completed two of the three loops. We headed out onto the Coyote Loop (7 miles long), finding a few other runners along the way. The ridge of the Three Foxes trail offered warm breezes which finally took the chill out of our bones. But soon, we dropped back down to the cold valley to return to the Ranch AS. As we approached the station, we planned to simply check in and out to avoid getting cold again.

At 12:40 am when we entered the aid station for the second time, Mauricio welcomed us but then gave us the terrible news that we had missed the cut-off for that loop by 10 minutes. We were astonished and, with all the pent-up emotion of the day, I was instantly in tears. How could this be? Weren’t we still in the top 10? Wasn’t I first place woman? The explanation took a long time to sink in and it still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me but, in a race, rules are rules.

With the creation of park status for the Backbone Trail, the state park put more demands on the race organization. They insisted that a state park officer be in place, in uniform and paid an hourly wage at every single aid station along the race route, being paid with our race entry fees and probably RD personal funds. As a result, the cost of putting on this race sky-rocketed and the race committee had no choice but to shorten the opening hours of each station in order to reduce the cost of state park personnel. Although we still had 11 hours to complete the final 50 km, the aid stations between us and the finish line had to close and those cut-off times were put in place in order to keep the race afloat. The cut-off times were well-publicized and it is my own error to have not studied them more carefully. I know full well that I could not have moved faster and, in fact, I had been proud of myself for reigning in my excitement of perhaps placing in a race this long.

But being told that our race was over did not mean that we were done. We were still deep in the hills of Point Mugu park and we still had to climb up and over the ridge and then run the Ray Miller trail to the finish line, 8 miles away. With the energy sapped out of us and confusion still ripe in our heads, we walked and talked, debated and lamented our situation. But, the moon was full and Ray Miller was as gorgeous as ever. We crossed the finish line around 3:00 am but, by then, who was counting. We are very grateful for being credited for finishing the 68 mile event and those bonus 7 miles will simply be a story we will keep to ourselves.

We were up the next morning in time to witness our friend Derrick Carr (far R) and his pacer Scottie Mills crossing the 100 mile finish line in 27:18 and placing 5th (out of 6 finishers).

There are many lessons to be learned from this race experience:

  • Firstly – and most obviously – I need to study the cut-off times, even if they aren’t usually relevant.
  • I can train through a Canadian winter, in short 14 kilometer segments, and still feel great after 75 miles on race day. I’m pretty sure that those last 25 miles would have hurt but I know I could have done them.
  • As any chicken-keeper should know, never think about my placing in a race until three quarters through (at the earliest) since some plans will not hatch. In hindsight, I think I managed the first place excitement pretty well – and I did end up winning first place woman in the little-know 75 mile race.
  • Keep your buddy close. Once again, Bruce was at my side for much of the race, my guide through his old stomping grounds in Pt Mugu and my rock when our race went sideways.

The Backbone Trail is a gem and I am thankful to all the trail users who have worked so hard to piece together this trail system from end-to-end. The co-RDs, Mike Epler and Howard Cohen, put in thousands of hours of work to make the race all come together and we will never know about all the hurdles that they had to overcome. Thank you for the opportunity to enjoy your trails!

Running a 100 miler in March in California – what a delightful idea!

Back in October, as B and I talked ourselves into signing up for the Coyote Backbone Trail 100 Mile event, these are some snippets of conversation that we exchanged:

What a great way to enter into spring! An early season ultra!

It will be a way to escape those last throes of winter!

We’ll miss some of March’s 140+ mm rainfall at home.

March in California brings to mind daytime heat and perfect nighttime running temperatures.

H’ard puts on a great race. I’d love to be part of any event that he organizes.

I fantasize about having to wear shoe gaiters and having foot issues like dust between my toes.

It is a stretch to picture myself wearing shorts and a t-shirt after months of tights, wool and rain jackets.

I can almost taste those freshly-picked, straight-off-the-plant, local strawberries that will be available at every aid station.

And don’t forget about the avocados that ripen right along the trail!

The views will be awesome. There will be incredible views earned with every climb!

Do I even need to mention the Ray Miller trail? That amazing trail will lead us right to the finish line.

Buoyed by these visions, we each entered the race and ramped up our training.

Me and B all bundled up for our New Year's Day fat ass run. I can't wait to show off my True North Strong and Free white legs in March!

Me and B all bundled up for our New Year’s Day fat ass run. I can’t wait to show off my True North Strong and Free white legs in March!

But soon, the reality of training for an early season ultra hit us hard. Two factors quickly reared their ugly heads.

First – the dark. We live a dozen miles south of the 50th parallel. We are treated to long, long days in the summer where it is light enough to be busy outside without a light until after 10:00 pm. At that time of year, we also get used to the early light of the morning where our rooster begins crowing around 4:30 am and blackout curtains are required for sleep (and earplugs too!).

But, in the depths of winter, it is dark on the way to work at 8:00 am and dark on the drive home at 4:30 pm.

This picture was taken on the Winter Solstice 2015 at 07:50 am. We have some pretty fearless hens!

This picture was taken on the Winter Solstice 2015 at 07:50 am. Our hens ain’t afraid of the dark!

We have never really gotten used to the fact that weekends are the only time we get to enjoy seeing more than those next 10 ft of trail. Although running in the dark is possible, thanks to many lumens of flashlights and headlamps, it does sort of suck the joy out of it. I am constantly telling myself that I will rock the night section of this race since my entire training has been done in the dark.

A typical post-work run

A typical post-work run – at least it is only raining!

Second – the wet. Here, on the Wet Coast of BC, we are awash in rain. It is wet all the time and sometimes it is very wet. But, on the upside for us running folks, you can train in the rain. If you can get yourself into the right head space, you can run probably 360 days of the year on dirt and take just 5 or 6 days off due to our two annual snowfalls.

To some, the idea of a snowfall might sound like fun but here, in our coastal paradise, it is no fun at all. To us, snow is what we call the stuff as it falls from the sky but, as soon as it hits the ground, its name changes to #%@! (I wish I knew the Inuit word for this #%@! kind of snow) It gets wet and heavy – sort of like wet concrete – and then, due to our typical near 0°C temperatures, it melts, freezes, re-melts and re-freezes, making it either slippery slurpee or blocks of solid, immovable ice.

Winter trail running wavers between fancy footwork and having your life flash before your eyes

Winter trail running wavers between fancy footwork and having your life flash before your eyes. It would be easy to go head first into this guy’s maw!

This pattern continues until the next torrential rain storm finally washes the #%@ away. Usually this happens all within a 48 hour time frame. But not this year.

Just last weekend, early January’s dump of snow/ice/concrete finally disappeared and we were able to actually run 30 km on dirt. It was a low elevation run with only minor climbs but it was still a trail run! But today, as we dig ourselves out for the fourth time in two months and prepare for yet another ‘snow day’, I really wonder if it will be possible to run 100 miles after having trained in 10 km snippets with almost no hill work. Almost all our plans for long runs have been thwarted by weather.

Yes, yes - we have opportunities to train in the snow but it is a stretch to go for more than 20 km in this terrain.

Yes, yes – we have opportunities to train in the snow but it is a stretch to go for more than 20 km in these conditions.

During the last dump of snow, I resorted to running 27 loops of our property in an attempt to get a few miles in. This is me, teetering on the brink of madness.

During the last dump of snow, I resorted to running 27 loops of our property in an attempt to get a few miles in. This is me, teetering on the brink of madness.

This is the hard reality of being a non-professional ultra runner who works full-time (in a job that I love and for which I am very very thankful!). But right now, it feels like I have been tapering for this race for more than 3 months!

I heard a saying that goes something like ‘you can suffer through the training or you can suffer on race day‘. Although I can attest to having suffered already through my pitiful training, I know that race day will take it to a new level. You can’t fake it for 100 miles.

So, until then, over the next 4 weeks, I will be motivated by pure fear and that long list of delights that I mentioned above. I sure hope they have plenty of strawberries for me!

Most of our imported strawberries come from Ventura County, CA, minutes from the finish line.

Most of our imported strawberries come from Ventura County, CA, minutes from the finish line.

“Strawberries, you say?! Are they at the end of this snow tunnel?”

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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