I got a little crazy in December and decided to sign up for my first ultra race. After some training I figured it made more sense to do a trail marathon first so with that I changed my registration from the Sean O’Brien 50K to the Marathon race on February 7, 2015.
If you’re not familiar with the Sean O’Brien races, this is the second year for the races, held at Malibu Creek State Park in Agoura Hills. Last year runners could sign up for the Marathon, 50k or the 50 miler. The 50 miler turned into a playground for elite runners seeking to qualify for a coveted Western States 100 spot. This year, a 100k race was added and it is part of the Montrail Ultra Cup Series. Top two men and women get the golden ticket to Western States.
The Marathon race wasn’t a qualifier of any kind but it was a ticket to 5,000+ feet of elevation gain going up and down segments of the beautiful Backbone Trail. I chose to do the Sean O’Brien race because I had already competed in two races on part of the course in 2014 – the XTERRA Malibu Creek Challenge 22K and the Bulldog 25K race.
I got up, had my usual breakfast of almond butter and banana sandwich with coffee, waited to wake up then fed the doggies and before I knew it I was off for the race. I had been checking weather reports all week and they all pointed to rain. The drive to the race was quick and there was no rain, yet. The 100K racers had started at 5 a.m. and the 50 milers started at 6 a.m. I got to the park around 6:15 a.m, hit the latrine then made my way toward the starting line. As soon as I got near I ran into Alan, a member of the Trail and Ultra Running (TAUR) group on Facebook and we chatted until it was time to get ready for the 7 a.m. start.
There were supposed to be other TAUR people at the race but I hadn’t run into any other folks. With about 5 minutes to start Alan and I were near the start of the Marathon and 50K race and I cupped my hands together in front of my mouth and yelled “Marty Barrios, please come to the TAUR section.” I had no idea where Marty was and hadn’t met him IRL but it turns out he was right in front of me and we all laughed. We also met up with Martine who has been a new mommy for four months. She’s a badass trail runner and had a great day.
There were a couple of other folks I was keeping an eye out for but didn’t catch site of them at the start.
Pre-race selfie with Alan
Race director Keira Henninger counted us down from 20 and we were off. I started in the middle of the pack and mostly stayed there for the first portion of the race which is on pavement then leads up to a small set of hills which is at times referred to as the “Angry Chihuahua.” I think the hills got that nickname because on the other side of the park is an unrelenting 3 mile climb on Bulldog Rd. The Angry Chihuahua is much smaller than the Bulldog Rd. climb but when it comes at the end of a long and tough race it seems like it is unending. I think I may have set off a bit too fast because just before the first hills 2013 Western States winner Timothy Olson passed me and I ran a couple of people behind him for most of the short climb.
We hit Dolores road and made our way to Malibu Creek which is actually a good sized creek now that there’s been some rain. Last summer I was able to easily rock hop it and this time the best route was to storm through it. The water came up to my knees and I managed not to slip or trip on rocks. There was a bit of backup there but as we made our way across and up to the start of Backbone Trail portion of the race where we started to thin out some. After the first little portion of Backbone there is a 1,200 ft climb over then next two miles.
Just before starting that big climb I stopped to get some rocks out of my shoes. Halfway up the climb I stopped again to get rid of more rocks and to take off my jacket and tie it to the back of my hydration pack. I tried to make sure that the jacket was tied on well. (During the XTERRA Point Mugu race I put a shirt back there and when I finished the race it was no where to be seen. Luckily the race volunteers believed my story and were kind enough to give me another shirt.)
As the climb continued I told myself that once I got to the top I would dig into my stash of cookies, trail mix, pretzels and honey glazed peanuts. I was basically carrying my own aid station. When I got to the top I tried to take out the zip lock bag but I had over-stuffed my pack and the top of the bag all ripped off. There’s a nice little bench at the top of the climb and I dug into some cookies and put a bunch of goodies in my shorts pockets. As racers passed by I figured it was time to keep moving.
The next few miles are shorter climbs and downhills along the ridge line. There are some amazing rock formations up there that look like they belong on Mars and there is a section that has a bunch of concentric rock circles. I ran the flat parts and downhills and power hiked the uphills. Around this time I power hiked and chatted with someone who was also doing the marathon race. We came to a downhill and I ran while she continued to power hike. After about a mile I turned off the trail to water the local shrubbery and she passed me. After a bit we said hi again and I kept hitting the downhills and passed her again.
I got to the first aid station at Corral Canyon at mile 7.5 and it was like a little party. Someone was banging on pot and there were a lot of great volunteers helping out. At this point there were only runners going out towards them as the 100K and 50 milers were still way off. I got a few snacks, had some electrolytes and then headed off.
From Coral Canyon one can either head up towards Bulldog Rd. or you can go down and continue on the Backbone Trail. The race course heads down at that point and it’s mostly a downhill venture. As I got into this portion I started seeing people already coming back up the mountain. The first of them were other marathon race runners. I knew that the first of them were in full race mode so I did my best to keep out of the way and spent a lot of the next miles moving over to the right to let them storm past. I recognized and cheered on Magdalena Boulet as she raced up the mountain and would eventually win the 100k race.
Around mile 9/10 there is a big climb that was very draining. During a training run that I did with my nephew and niece we hiked through that portion and I was pretty gassed. The same thing happened this time as well.
I hit the next aid station and was still doing OK but was mostly running/hiking on my own. The aid station cheer and goodies helped my mood some but by the time I was approaching the halfway turnaround point at Kanan Rd. I felt tired and started to doubt whether I wanted to complete this challenge. I wasn’t hurt in any way but by the time I got to the last aid station I saw that I was way off my predicted time. Just as I came into the Kanan aid station I saw Pete from my TAUR group and that started to cheer me up. When I got to the aid station I dug into the goodies, refilled my hydration pack with water and electrolyte and was offered some soup. I’ve never had soup at a trail race but I’ve heard it has magical qualities to bring runners back from the dead. They went to this giant crock pot and filled up a Styrofoam cup with the hot elixir. I took some sips and let it work its magic.
Just before leaving the Kanan aid station, still with the soup cup in my hand, one of the volunteers mentioned that they had “accounted for all of the marathon racers.” As I’ve mentioned before in race reports, I always think that there must be some kind of group of super duper slow runners behind me bringing up the rear. I’m almost always wrong and am often towards the very back of the back of the pack. This time I was totally the last person. That was a bit of a bummer but I felt better with the soup and made my way up the steep rocky hill with the cup of soup still in hand.
It was a beautiful morning, rain and all, and I think I looked like I was on a Saturday stroll. A racer passed me and I told them “Good job!” They turned around and didn’t see my bib number on my shorts and probably saw me casually carrying the cup and he asked, “Are you racing?” I told him that I was and he continued running. I might not have been having a great race time wise but I was determined to at least have a great hike that morning while I was out there. I was still power hiking as fast as I could.
When I got to the next aid station I ran into Marty who caught up to me from his 50K race. He told me to just take my time and that I’d be OK. It made sense the way he said it and that made me feel better. I continued on and hit another large energy sucking climb.
Runners from all races except the marathon continued to pass me and every time they got close I moved to the side and gave them plenty of room. At one point I heard someone coming up and turned to see him. It turned out to be Marvin who I knew was racing the 50k that day. I’ve followed him on Twitter for years and have followed his activities on Stava but have never met him IRL, In Real Life. “Are you Marvin?” I asked and it was him! We hiked together and chatted and then Marty caught up to us and we all ran together for about a mile. By this time it had been raining for a while and my Nike Sportswatch either temporarily shorted or just ran out of juice. Bummer.
Running with Marvin and Marty really improved my mood and I was feeling pretty good. A couple of climbs came up and I told them to go ahead because I was going as fast as I could and they had more legs left so they went on. It was cool, I was in better spirits and continued to make my way.
I eventually hit the Coral Canyon aid station again and was now just 7.5 miles away from the finish. I gobbled some goodies and sucked down more electrolyte drink then made my way. I met Adriana along the way and she was doing the 50k. She told me about her experiences at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in San Francisco in December and how it was a true mudfest. My pace was still slow so I told her not to wait for me and she picked up her pace and headed on. Shortly after that I heard another runner approaching and it was Marvin. He had taken a long stop at the aid station with his Team in Training friends.
Miles 23-Finish (27)
I ran and power hiked the rest of the way with Marvin and I had a blast. It was still raining and my shoes were caked with mud. As we started down the Backbone Trail on our final big descent we heard the traffic and the creek and looked forward to the creek crossing. The last part of Backbone was super muddy and it has some short steep parts. I almost fell several times but managed to stay upright the whole time. It was fun, really. It was like being a little kid out playing in the rain. We hit the creek and a rope had been set up to help with the crossing. That rope was much needed because the creek was surging faster with the rain.
We hit Dolores Rd then went back up the Angry Chihuahua for the final climbs of the day. We were chatting as we power hiked so the climb wasn’t too bad for me. We finally started the descent and Marvin’s friends were around and cheering him on. We got off the hill and ran on the paved road and kept up the run to the finish. During my Bulldog 25K finish I was toally toast and could barely keep up a jog walk on this stretch and here I was speeding the whole way to the finish line.
Tale of the tape
I finished the marathon in 9 hours 47 minutes and 37 seconds. I was 37/38 overall, last male but also 3rd in my age group. In most races getting top three in one’s age group means you get to podium. I’m going to hold onto that accomplishment regardless of overall place. Here are the race results.
More race back story
I also selected this race because I was inspired by the hoopla of last year’s race. Ethan Newberry, known as The Ginger Runner and his friend Billy Yang both created amazing films about last year’s 50k and 50 miler. Here’s The Ginger Runner film and here’s Billy Yang’s film. Billy Yang also used footage from the race as he put together his film Western Time which featured Sally McRae who won second place in the 2014 Sean O’Brien 50 Miler and went on to get top 10 at Western States. I figured if these guys were going to do films about races in my back yard (I live 50 minutes away) then I was going to race it.
I also read a race report by Vicky Petryshyn and she had a great experience at last year’s race and went on to kick ass at Comrades as the top U.S. woman. I had a chance to run into Vicky as she was crushing this year’s 50 miler. Her blog is full of awesome, check it out.
Another reason I did this race was that I heard that race director Keira put on an awesome race and they were right. The aid stations were all well stocked, there were tons of great volunteers and lots of special treats like the magical chicken soup and veggie chili at the end of the race which I didn’t try but looked good.
I’ve read and seen interviews with countless trail runners who tell stories about how they were hurting or not feeling it and were ready to throw in the towel before hitting a turnaround point. For some who race 100 milers or longer they sometimes have several highs and lows along the race. For me, I kept going because I wasn’t hurt at all and because of the encouragement of other racers and friends who I first connected with online. Thank you to all who have kept encouraging me throughout this fitness journey.
Well, I signed up for the Leona Divide 50k in April.That is supposed to be my first ultra race but with this race being 27 miles and not the 26.2 that a marathon is, one could argue that this was technically an ultra. The Leona Divide race is almost entirely run on the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’ve read the book “Wild” or seen the movie then that’s the same Pacific Crest Trail.
What’s your next race or fitness challenge?