After the last two weeks of abnormally hot weather on the Central Coast, things finally cooled down and my running heated up some at the 2014 XTERRA Point Mugu 18K trail race. The race took place today, October 12, 2014, at Point Mugu State Park in Malibu, just a few miles south of Oxnard. It’s been a year and a half since I first started my fitness journey and about a year since running became a big part of that trek. My first trail race was the XTERRA Malibu Creek 22K which was extremely challenging, so much so that I immediately signed up for the Bulldog 25K which pretty much extends the XTERRA race by a couple of miles. After the Bulldog race I pretty much knew I’d run the XTERRA Point Mugu race. In training for the Bulldog race I did a training run on the Point Mugu 11K course and loved it.
As I drove out to Malibu from Santa Paula, there was a huge fog bank just as I got on PCH and figured that the fog could add a huge factor to the race. What if the course was so fogged in that people started getting lost? I didn’t have to ponder that question much as I drove a couple of more miles and the fog lifted.
I wondered what the parking would be like and saw that cars had already gone up quite a ways on PCH so I kept driving to see if there would be more spaces on the east side of the highway, south of the trailhead but there were actually many more cars on that side so I swung around and parked up on the west side back north on PCH. It wasn’t that long a walk so I was glad I had left early enough to beat most of the traffic. As I was researching the course and doing my training runs, I couldn’t quite figure out where the start or finish lines were. It turns out the start is up fairly close to the highway and the finish is just at the start/end of the Ray Miller trail.
I got my t-shirt, bib and timing chip. The line was fairly short so that was good. I put my wallet away and tucked my t-shirt onto the back of my hydration pack. I had parked far enough that I didn’t feel the urge to go all the way back to the car to leave the shirt there. I had seen the t-shirt design the day before the race and it was cool but I could tell it was cotton. I told my wife today that when runners see cotton shirts our instinct is to scoff at them because tech tees are the way to go nowadays. The race announcer made a joke about it after the race and said that in races/years to come there would be tech tees and might also sprinkle in some business suits. Not exactly sure what that means but he got that people weren’t too thrilled with the cotton. I like it though because it’s purple. I read a book about running phenom Steve Prefontaine and even after he had passed away, people would still refer to him in the present tense such as “Pre likes to wear a lot of purple.” Well, Jesse likes to wear a lot of purple as well.
After putting my bib and timing chip on, I proceeded to search for the port-o-pottys. One great benefit of actually training at the race course is that I knew there were a couple of loos just up the hill. As I hoped, one was available and there was no line. Score! Apparently things were a bit behind schedule so we didn’t get started exactly at 7:30 a.m. as planned. There was a guy standing near me who I recognized from a previous race. He is a friendly and chats with people around him. He’s in his 60’s and he gets the job done when the running starts. We didn’t wait too long and then the first wave of us 18K runners took off. I stayed back with the second wave and 4 minutes later we were off as well.
Mile 1 – 2
As I mentioned earlier, the starting line is up near the highway, just where there is a little downhill onto a cemented area. When I did my training runs going up that little area after 6, 7 or 11 miles would seem really long so I was glad we would start running down that thing. The cement turns to trail fairly quickly then we pass the Ray Miller Trailhead and continue on until we get to a dry creek crossing where people were bunched up and actually walking down and up the little creek. That was at about mile 0.3. After that I hiked and walked some as the elevation is starting to increase and my right calf was a little cranky. One strategy here is to burn one’s way up to the front and prepare for the single track but today I knew that would be a bad idea for me.By the time we got to the dry waterfall area around mile 0.8 people were still kind of bunched up. I was on the heels of the person in front of me but it wouldn’t have made much sense to pass her there as things weren’t moving that fast. We were climbing a steep and rocky single track trail so I just made the most of this reduced speed and tried to keep my heartrate down as I pressed on.
By mile 1.3 or so we went back to a wider trail and eventually got to the trail split where La Jolla Canyon Trail connects with the Loop trail. At this point the 18K racers bear left and the 11K racers continue on the La Jolla Canyon trail. The 11K race start was half an hour after us. At this point I was able to run at my own pace and passed a few runners on the downhills that lead to the Mugu Peak Trail where we start some serious climbing. For me serious climbing means power hiking. During training runs I’d stop maybe three times during this ascent and take photos, take down some water and break open a GU pack. This time I stopped for about 10 seconds to let my heartrate go down and kept pushing on. Some of this climb gets up to the 20%+ grade range so yeah, no running for me there. I usually have music going to help motivate me but I didn’t feel like messing with my phone or using my iPod but I was still good.
Miles 3 – 6
At mile three we hit the trail split where one can either continue on the Mugu Peak Trail or make the ascent to Point Mugu Peak which is a 266 climb to the flag at the top. During training runs I took the detour up to the peak to get some additional elevation in. The race course continues on the Mugu Peak Trail and there is a nice downhill section here. I started flying down the hill but it might have been a bit early to open up and by the time I got to the Chumash Trail where Mugu Peak Trail ends my legs felt kind of heavy. That wasn’t good since we were barely at mile 4.
The next little stretch on the Chumash trail follows a little single track which is more of a winding rut about a foot wide. It is just wide enough to run in but hard to do so at high speed. After a while this gets a bit tiresome and I slowed down a bit here even though it was downhill. Around mile 5 the rut track ends as it merges onto another segment of the Loop Trail which eventually widens. In previous training runs this part was really hard to run on because it’s a big open valley and I didn’t find it particularly inspiring. In days leading up to the race I tried to come up with some kind of story about the area to help motivate me to run this section. Skyrunner/billy goat Kilian Jornet writes about how he often makes up fantastic stories to keep him moving when things are not quite that exciting. The only thing I could think of was the scene in Gladiator when Maximus is hauling ass on his horse to save his wife and family but that didn’t quite end very well in the movie. I ended up just going with a run/walk strategy and that helped me run at least run parts of it.
Miles 7 – 9
Just passed mile 6 the course turns onto the Overlook Trail which is also part of the Backbone Trail. The Backbone Trail goes along the Santa Monica Mountain range for 60+ miles from Oxnard all the way to Santa Monica. The first part of this Overlook Trail stretch is a big climb. It’s not uncommon to see mountain bikers pushing their bikes up the fire road on the steepest parts. Just as I got onto the Overlook Trail the gentleman who had been chatting with others passed me and started to pull away. He had a group of other racers with him and they were happily chatting away. I know that I’m not the fastest guy out on the trails and often end up at the back of the pack during a tough race but these are my people. It wasn’t an easy race for anyone at this point of the race but everyone was pushing on and helping each other with a shared energy.
I tried to run what I could here, at least to beat my training times which were done at a moderate pace. After reading Matt Fitzgerald’s book “80/20: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower” I decided to try that approach in training for this race. My takeaway from the book was that if I could run more miles, more elevation, then I could improve my racing time. In order to increase volume and elevation I would have to train more at an easy pace. So during training I would walk a lot of uphill portions and just focus on keeping my climbing form. I did some high intensity workouts but either kept them short or mixed them in with easy pace work. In the weeks leading up to the race I was able to get in an average of 2,500 ft elevation gain per week and ended up running over 100 miles in September. For more “advanced” trail runners, these numbers are super modest but they are a decent increase for me and I think that helped me a great deal with this race. The last part of Overlook Trail opens up to a great view of the Pacific Ocean and it’s a great feeling because the next section leads to an even more beautiful section of the course, the Ray Miller Trail.
Miles 10 – Finish
The last 2.7 miles of the race course take place on the Ray Miller Trail which is also part of the larger Backbone Trail network. The Ray Miller Trail is a series of single track switchbacks which wind down to the finish line. Oh, and you can run the heck out of this portion if you have any gas left in your tank. As dead as my legs felt at mile 4 they were reborn when I started shooting down this part of the course. I managed to catch up and pass several racers including the chatty bunch and was glad to see that non racing hikers were polite enough to let me pass them without having to slow down much. My legs were bouncy and were fully ready to cooperate with the trail. There were a couple of times when my brain told me that maybe I should slow down and take a breather but I didn’t listen to that voice and ran at faster than my 5K pace. With less than a tenth of a mile to go I caught up to the two people in front of me but there was no space to pass so I had to shift into a lower gear and that led us to the finish line about .1 seconds apart.
My best time during my training runs was 2 hours 59 minutes and today I was able to finish the race in 2 hours 33. I was last in my age group but did race faster than some younger folks. All in all, I was happy with my performance. The weather was great, no GI issues and last but not least, there was beer at the end! You can see the full results here. I think that the 80/20 training worked for me and now I have a real thirst to rack up elevation gain feet during workouts. I started using Strava.com to track workouts and am following some top runners. Now I can see how these elites don’t just show up and race hard – they train hard. You can follow me on Strava.com here.
So the big question is, “what’s next?” The answer is, I don’t know yet but am looking forward to something challenging and fun. We’ll see where that ends up.