I completed the Bulldog 25K trail race this past weekend, August 23 2014. This was my longest and only second trail race.
After doing the XTERRA Malibu Creek Challenge 22K race in May, I had started eyeing the Bulldog race and immediately started training for it. I took a bit of circuitous route though, doing a series of 5K races including the Father’s Day 5K race and three of the fun “Boogie Nights” 5K races that were held on Wednesday afternoons near Surfer’s Point in Ventura.
The other element that I added was some comprehensive trail running. Between May and August I did a couple of dozen trail runs including more training at Malibu Creek and pretty much the full Bulldog 25K course during a training run two weeks ago.
I also ran around Arroyo Verde Park in Ventura a ton of times. Arroyo Verde is small enough that I can do several laps around it for an intense training session. The 300 foot elevation gains are small compared to Bulldog Road in Malibu Creek State Park but it’s like doing a great mini version of the course. It also has some very steep grades which are probably around 20%.
I got up at around 4:30 am and made an almond butter and banana sandwich on multi-grain bread and took down a big cup of coffee. I jumped in the shower then I fed the dogs, loaded up my hydration pack and stuffed a bunch of gear into my tote bag and was on my way by 5:45 a.m. Despite the race director pleas to carpool, I went straight to Malibu Creek State Park. I like to have lots of time to park, walk around and make sure I make a pit stop or two before the race begins.
I parked at a lot about 100 yards from the race check-in. I got in the long check-in line then picked up my t-shirt. When nature called again I got in the restroom line and talked to a young guy who had just been warming up, running across one of the nearby fields. He said that he had come down from Santa Maria which is just south of San Luis Obispo, about three hours away. I was glad that I only had a 45 minute drive that morning.
It was now time to put on my game face and head over to the starting line to get any last course instructions from the race director. She was using a bullhorn so it was tough to hear her towards the back of the crowd. People had the usually nervous pre-race jitters so they were chatting away. Just before the race was about to start a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I could help someone. A guy standing behind me was trying to get his hydration pack to work but it was mostly dripping. I tried to help fix it and then the race started. I messed with it for a bit then the woman who was also helping out said I should just get started and that the guy should go over to the race director to get some help and that hopefully his time could be adjusted.
I finally set my watch and took off to join the pack of 300 runners.
The starting line for the Bulldog 25K is about 200 yards from the park entrance so the first mile is fairly flat. I kept telling myself not to go out to fast and that if I was going slow enough to slow it down even more. Well I tried to slow it down but I took it at an even jog pace which was 2 minutes per hour faster than I had planned on running it. The first incline on Crags Road helped take care of that and I jog/walked part of mile 2 then got to a medium jog on mile 3.
The course hits Bulldog Road just passed the 3-mile mark. Bulldog Road is divided up into two segments, – pain and lots of pain. “Pain One” is a mile and a half miles of 10% grade with little to no shade. There was an oasis just passed mile 4 with the aid station. They had plenty of snacks, water, Heed, Gatorade and other goodies. I downed some water and Heed and took two electrolyte pills to help replenish salt. I tried not to spend too much time at the aid station then headed back up the mountain.
“Pain Two” is another mile and a half of 15% grade and switchbacks. Every switchback seems like it leads to a steeper and longer segment and you could hear runners (hikers) groan then curse at each turn. I ended up talking with the hydration pack fellow and he reminded me of an old buddy who is also from New Jersey. He asked when we would get to the downhill portion and I broke the news to him that we would hit crazy solid downhills until mile 10 but that the top of Bulldog Road was near. He didn’t manage to get his hydration pack working but he had loaded up with water at the aid station.
The first 50Ker passed me way back around mile 5. I was chugging up Bulldog when I heard this thick heavy breathing, like a locomotive with a particularly thick wool scarf over it and the runner shot by. The sound was kind of scary. It was the kind of noise one makes during some serious labor and that part of the course was probably the toughest part of the whole race for him but he cruised up the mountain and the number two person wasn’t anywhere in sight.
A small group of volunteers were at the top of Bulldog Road at mile 6.4 or so and the Search and Rescue truck was inching its way up the hill towards that spot. I guess if someone was going to hit a physical distress point that was probably the first spot where it would happen. Two weeks ago when I did the full training run I had stopped right there and contemplated whether or not to go back down the mountain instead of finishing the course. This time I just kept chugging by and enjoyed the little downhill portion that would lead to the next aid station at mile 7.
I believe 805 Bootcamp folks helped run the aid station and they were great. One gentleman helped me get my hydration pack off and loaded it up with fresh water; I downed more Heed and tried a pretzel with peanut butter. I never eat pretzels during races and after I left the aid station and started running the pretzel turned into mush that wouldn’t go down. I finally drank enough water to swallow it down and made my way to a series of climbs along the ridge-line single track.
There was one particular climb around mile 8 where all the runners around me were moving really slow. The section is steep and made of hard sandstone or something that sucks the energy out of you. The first time I went across there during the XTERRA race, I took a long pause at the top and waited for my breath and will to run to come back. This time I knew what was coming so I just kept powering through.
The next steep hills had a sign just before the top and it read that a race photographer was taking photos on the other side. As I went over the ridge, I tried to stand upright and keep good form and hopped down the other side, smiling as I passed the photographer. After I took a few more steps I found that my zeal for a nice race photo made me step the wrong way on the hard rocky ridge and my ankle was hurting. I didn’t recall rolling my ankle but it felt like I had. A few more ginger steps and I thought it might even be a sprain or even a hairline fracture. CRAP.
I power hiked the next mile and a half, not running on the couple of downhills there and just hoped for the best. If I had a little restraint on the little downhills my ankle might bounce back so that I could finish the race in somewhat decent shape. Folks started to pass me and a few 50K racers zoomed by on their second lap of the course.
Just before the ankle incident, a couple of runners had remarked that we were at the two hour mark. That meant that I had done the toughest part of the course in good time and had a shot at finishing the race in under 4 hours.
If you’re interested in getting course details, you can of course check the Trail Run Events site for the Bulldog 25K race and you can check out the geographic flyer-over of the course either here or here. You can also download the official the Malibu Creek Tom Harrison Map using the PDF Maps iPhone app. I paid for the Malibu Creek map since I’ll be going there a lot. I used the PDF Maps app during my training run when I thought I had gone off course. I opened the app, touched the screen and it told me exactly where I was. The map even displays the tiny single track trail that goes to the creek crossing near mile 13.
After the power walking that stretch, the course went onto a softer ridge-line fire road (around mile 9). My foot felt better and after a couple of runners passed me who I had previously passed, I got the urge to pick up the pace and did, but with caution. Between mile 10 and 11 there is a nice steep downhill and I was able to open up a little speed and I passed one of the runners who had passed me. I had some help from the rock that must have jumped into her shoe, which she had stopped to shake out. Just passed mile 11, we made a turn onto another single track area. I was behind a person who was moving at a moderate pace. I could have stormed ahead and passed him as the 50Kers were doing but I wasn’t sure whether I’d jack up my ankle trying to shoot by on the rocky path so I kept a reserved pace up until we crossed the creek and went on to the last aid station at mile 12.5.
During my training run of the course, two weeks earlier, mile 13 was my “done” point. All the run was taken out of me and I power walked the rest of the course. Before heading up the last spur trail during that training run I had seriously looked around to see if there was someone to give me a lift back to the main parking lot. Or maybe one of the kind Las Virgenes Municipal Water District workers (SEIU 721 members) could open up their nearby facility and let me by a giant Coke. But I was dreaming and kept on.
This time I got to the aid station and received a nice high-five and a “Go Cardinal!” from a volunteer who noticed my Stanford basketball jersey. I had a nice cup of Coke waiting for me at the aid station and I took more electrolyte pills and downed more water. I was feeling better but saw people charging passed the station including the young woman who had apparently removed the stone from her shoe and was now booking it down the road past me. I looked around and realized that a lot of the people who were standing around were not taking a long run break; they were all working the aid station so I got back at it.
Mile 13-Finish line
I passed one runner who was struggling and asked if he was OK. He was cramping up so I asked if he had been taking salt and he said that he had. He was determined to continue despite his obvious pain. We hit spur trail and I was power hiking but didn’t try to trudge on too fast so I could keep an eye on him. I thought he called out but he must have said something to one of the 50K runners who zoomed by. He seemed like he was still getting along so I made my own tired way up the hill.
Around mile 13.4, after the third or fourth switchback that kept going up and up, I saw a guy at the top of the hill urging runners up the hill. At that point a runner just behind me vocalized what I was thinking, “Oh God, c’mon.” After the next switchback I found a nice butt-level rock and sat down for a bit and then Urging Man came around the corner and prompted me to get up and moving. “Don’t sit, you’ll cramp up. Don’t quit, get up and keep moving.” He was right, so I did.
I forgot to mention that by mile 12 I had just about abandoned my thoughts about making it in less than 4 hours. I almost set my watch from “Pace” to “Elapsed” so that I could run against time but I felt that with my earlier ankle jolt that I might be creating a dangerous situation for myself if I was only working based on time. That might sound like a strange thing to think during a race but time is only one element in this kind of a contest.
The last switchback headed upwards finally appeared and I managed to jog down the last part of the trail and onto the pavement. During the training run I had walked all of this last part. This time I jog walked and was cheered on by folks along the road. “Nice job!” one would say then another would say “pick up the pace, you’re almost done.” As Scotty would say in Star Trek, “I’m giving it all I’ve got, Captain!” At mile 14.4 a runner was ahead of me and walking. I wanted to jog next to him and see if he wanted to jog the rest together but I figured he was just fine walking that last few hundred feet.
My unofficial finish time was 4:08:48, just three minutes behind my XTERRA time which is much better since the the XTERRA race was shorter by over a mile.
Here are my mile splits. (I forgot to stop my Nike Sportswatch until an extra 3 minutes had passed after crossing the finish line.)
Before the race I posted on my social media sites that my race goal was to finish in the “upright position.” I did finish in the upright position but that almost changed. After the race I grabbed a soda and water. I’ve had sodas after long training runs and they are refreshing and pick up my blood sugar some. I walked around for a couple of minutes then saw a nice shady area on the outside of one of the restroom buildings. I sat all the way down on the floor with my knees bent and had a nice conversation with another runner who was waiting for folks to finish the 50K race. I finally remembered to stop my GPS and time for the race and then we chatted a bit longer then both got up. He headed off and when I stood up everything started turning bright.
It was like using Photoshop and turning on the brightness all the way over. Soon I could only see bright blotches. I leaned against the wall, waiting for things to clear up but they kept getting worse. I looked to see if the runner I was speaking with, Reggie,was still around but he had moved on already. I looked around and spotted a couple of people and asked them for help to the medical tent. One of them took my hydration pack that was on the ground and the other took me by the arm. I told him that I could barely see and he led me to the tent, and alerted me to gopher holes along the way.
After sitting down for a few seconds at the medical tent, I started to feel better. It was as if the blood had rushed to my head and now it was subsiding. The shade was nice so I wasn’t in a super big hurry to get up but finally stood up, tested things out then went over to grab some watermelon and more Heed and water. I sat at one of the benches at the food table for a couple of minutes then headed back to the car to go home, in the upright position. There was another runner at the medical tent who was not as fortunate that day. I’m not sure if she had overheated or what had happened. I hope she is OK.
Over the past couple of days I’ve been thinking about the last miles of the race. If I had picked up the pace I could have hit the sub-4 hour mark. That would have been awesome. Some 25K runners who were in my part of the pack still had something left in them to make a final push. But the more I think about it the better I feel about the day. During the training run I had to stop a bunch of times and ended up running almost 2 miles less and that took me 4:30 hours to do so. Then I think about the sound the 50K runner made and wonder if maybe the difference between the two of us is that right now he is able to dig deep and race hard for 50K and I am only able to physically push hard through a fraction of the course. Even in the 5K races that I used to build mental toughness, to train in the summer heat and to build speed, I realized that there was a point that I didn’t try to push beyond. Do I need to push to get to the next level or will I just end up getting injured? Only time will tell.