I ran the XTERRA Malibu Creek Challenge 22K Trail Run on Saturday and it was hot. The good news was that it wasn’t as hot as it had been all week (high 90’s and low 100’s) but it was still plenty hot in the high 80’s.
This was my first of hopefully many trail races and it was a bit of a beast. I decided to do the race about three weeks ago and only had one chance to check out part of the course. I blogged about that experience in my pre-race report.
Having never tried to tackle the infamous Bulldog Road portion of the course before, I tried to figure out how tough it would be based on runs at similar trails with comparable elevations. But things can vary so much from one mountain trail to another- whether the trail is a fire road or a mostly sandstone trail, whether there is any cover and the layout of the switchbacks. The one thing this attempt at making comparisons did do was to give me confidence that trying this very difficult course at the 22K length wasn’t a totally crazy thing to do. I had run the Boney Mountain XTERRA course and the full Bandit Ultra Trail 30K course in Simi Valley so I felt I could complete it and tried to work out a strategy to do so.
I woke up at 4 a.m. and made myself go back to sleep until the alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. I heated up some coffee and ate a sandwich with almond butter and a thin film of Nutella on Ezekiel bread. This scares away the hunger, is fairly light and doesn’t upset my stomach. After a quick shower I headed out the door and could already tell that the weather report was right on and we wouldn’t be seeing high 90’s. Thank God.
I purchased the parking pass with my registration so I cruised into the lot around 6:10 a.m. and knew that I had to go all the way to the end of the park entrance to get closest to the trail head. As I drove the lot I saw that it was already getting full so I kept driving and I guess people didn’t know where the trail head was so they parked only half way there and I got a primo spot only one row away from the very front and there were still other sports around.
I picked up my race bib, shirt and timing chip, put the bib and chip on and went off to explore the area a bit more. On my pre-race visit, I hadn’t see where the trail came back around to I headed out and found the trail. It was down one of the roads where I had “gotten lost” during my previous visit.
I still had plenty of time for the 7:30 a.m. race so I went to starting line which was down some stairs and up the mountain some. I picked up some dirt and let it fly into the morning air and I told the mountain that I respected it and that I hoped it would give me safe passage.
There was a large course map near the main podium area and a few people were reviewing the course. One person seemed to be familiar with the course so I asked him about the final couple of miles and asked about the bees that tended to hang around that part of the course. He had run the race before and the course many times so he helped a great deal. I later ran into him during the race and we briefly chatted.
As the race was about to start and we were all gathered at the starting line, the race director took a quick poll to see how many people had thought about scratching today because of the high heat. A lot of hands went up. He also asked how many people had thought about dropping down to the 6K race and lots of hands went up again.
Mile 1 -3
The race started in two waves and I went in the second wave. My plan was to run the first 3 miles at a moderate pace even though I figured they’d be the easiest ones to run in the race. I wanted to make sure I didn’t burn out early before tacking Bulldog Road. I referred to Bulldog Road as being “infamous” and it is such an icon of the race course that there is a bulldog on the race shirt. I stuck to the plan and started getting passed by folks who started at the back but were looking to get off to a quick start.
I got lost so much on my pre-race visit that I didn’t notice the grade even at mile two and I already started to walk parts with others at the back of the pack. Just before getting to mile three, there were a couple of people heading back down the mountain, taking a DNF (did not finish). I was carrying a rather large hydration pack and had a little first aid kit and two liters of water so I asked each if they were OK. One young woman had overheated but she said she still had plenty of water. She looked incredibly fit but her face was very red. Another fellow had come into the race with an injury and it wasn’t getting any better so he called it a day.
Before I got to Bulldog Road I took down a GU and chugged some more water. I wasn’t looking back so didn’t have that great of sense of how many people were still behind me at that point. The answer was, “not many.”
Miles 3 – 6
Once I hit Bulldog Road it was pretty much all power walking. The heat started to turn up and after the first mile I started following what a runner in front of me was doing and chilling for a few moments whenever there a spot of shade. During one section a gentleman passed and said, “Keep going, young man!” when he saw me stopped. I had been standing next to him during the race director’s review of the course and the director saw that he was wearing a shirt from the 2003 or 2004 race.
Because of the heat, my pace was much slower than what I had anticipated and there wasn’t much running going on. I got to chat with the other shade-hopping runner a bit and we pushed each other to keep tackling the mountain.
If you look at the elevation map it looks like you’re all downhill from Mile 6 but that’s not the case. This portion of the course is made up of a series of rolling and a few steep hills. My pace picked up on this section but there was still a lot of power walking going on. There are a couple of sections that were so steep that you almost had to scramble up the hill. I managed to catch up to a couple of people who had passed me on Bulldog.
During one spot I once gain paused to stop in the shade and an aid station volunteer yelled down, “We have shade up here and lots of water” At the aid station the crew looked a bit concerned and I took a couple of cups of water to drink splash on my legs and on my head. One of the volunteers said that ice cubes would help. I hadn’t tried that before so I tipped my hat and he dropped in a good number of ice cubes then I tipped it back on. As I ran off I almost got a cold headache (like the kind you get from eating too much ice cream or a cold slushie too fast). I took a few cubes out and put them into my pockets so they could melt on my legs. I was pleasantly surprised that the cubes in the hat lasted a good three more miles.
By mile nine I was starting to have a “what the hell am I doing here” moment and pretty much decided that there would be no more “racing.” I was going for my first goal which was to finish this race and not get hurt doing so. This wasn’t a full dampening of my spirit. I was glad to be there but my legs weren’t getting the job done as fast as I wanted.
Throughout the race I had focused on the positives. When I got to the top of another hill I took in the view and was grateful that I had come so far in one year. When I saw another damn hill I would break it down in my head and say that it wasn’t any steeper than X or Y mountain trail that I had already trained on.
I heard a couple of voices coming up on me and overheard them talking about a different race. “I went out too fast on the early miles. Miles 10-20 went by fast, then miles 25-40 got tough and people ran out of water.” I knew I was at the back of the pack so wondered why someone who had taken on a 50+ miler would still be behind me at that point. When they pulled up next to me I saw that they were wearing bright green jackets.
“Are you sweepers?” I asked.
“Yes, but there are still a couple of people behind you. So if they pass you then you should be worried,” one Sweeper said.
If you don’t know what a sweeper is, they run the course a while after everyone has started and either push along the slowest runners or in some case suggest you drop out if you look like you’re in bad shape. One of the sweepers asked what I had in my hydration pack and I told her that I had water but was eating GU as well. She said that I probably wasn’t getting enough salt with all the heat and offered a salt capsule that I took. I hadn’t taken salt supplements before and after I took it down the sweeper said that it also had magnesium and potassium and other stuff. OK, maybe I shouldn’t take pills from people I don’t know.
The two sweepers went ahead and I heard the one woman who gave me the capsule tell the other that too much potassium can kill you. Great. The other sweeper said, “Well, yeah, but you’d have to eat like 150 bananas.” That made me laugh and lightened my mood.
At mile 10 the course heads downhill. I read several race reports and people felt that the downhills were just as painful as the uphills but I started to cruise down. My fastest mile of the entire race was mile 11. I caught up with another runner who had passed me earlier and we were pretty close for a couple of miles along a single track portion of the course. At one point I hopped past him when the single track was wide enough and we helped each other figure out a couple of twists and turns in the course. We went past one section that had more hills and we thought that they might be the dreaded final hills that many were mentioning. Not even close.
At the last water station just before mile 12, I caught up to a couple of women who had passed me way back while I was taking a panoramic shot of the top of Bulldog. I splashed more water on my head and legs then headed out for the final stretch. The women ran off and I followed as I ran up the side road but then my legs rebelled and I slowed way down again.
Miles 12 to Finish
There was another set of low rolling hills and then I finally came upon the final “hill.” What an evil course feature. This wasn’t just one big hill, it was a series of switch backs that went up, up and away into the sky. Are you kidding me? I put on the positive record track and told myself that this segment was like the end of a tough half marathon then tacking on a lap around my favorite local trail hike, Arroyo Verde Park in Ventura.
I could see the other shade hopper runner from earlier, she was a few turns up on the course with another runner who I hadn’t really seen before. I looked back a couple of times and most of the last folks were a few turns behind me. I stopped a few times to take deep breaths and then pushed on. At one point a woman who I had passed around mile 12 caught up and I slowed a bit to let her pass on a single track portion.
I heard the gentleman who had told me to keep going tell other runners behind me that they should hurry up and finish because they wouldn’t want a “77 year old fart” beating them in the race. I chuckled but they were all gaining on me. Moments later I saw that I had reached the top of the hill. After descending the hill, the course turns onto a paved road and I figured that was the same road that I had scouted before the race. I picked up the pace and even though I didn’t think I had any racing left in me I managed to pass two people in the last 100 yards (OK, one was limping) and just like the end of my Arroyo Verde Park runs, finished with a strong sprint.
Two things I forgot to mention are that I carefully monitored my heart rate from miles 3-12. Even if I felt OK, I would slow down if I hit 95% of my maximum heart rate. This was my strategy for keeping from blowing up in the heat. I also forgot to set my Nike Sportswatch for a couple of minutes after starting to run so my miles might not exactly match up with course mile markers.
When I showed my finishers medal to my four-year-old grandniece she said, “I’m so proud you won, Uncle Jesse!” I told her that I didn’t win, that all finishers earned a medal. But I think she was right. I set out to finish the race. Some didn’t take the challenge and some were not able to complete the race on that day. I picked a damn hard course for my first trail race so I did win.