The Bulldog race at Malibu Creek State Park is not easy, whether you attempt the 25k or the two-loop 50k ultra. If you do things right you reach a certain level of pain as you negotiate the seemingly interminable Bulldog Rd. that goes on for 3.2 miles and nets you over 1,7oo ft of elevation gain for an average grade of 10%. Basically, Bulldog Rd. haunts my dreams and it’s because of that that I always look forward to the challenge of taking it on during a race.
This year I took a look at my training buildup and it was as flat as a pancake in the weeks leading up to the race. That was not good. If I’ve learned anything about trail running this year it is that if you don’t put in the work you shouldn’t expect improvement. I originally signed up for the 50k race a few months ago and when I re-assesed my training a few weeks ago I dropped down to the 25k knowing that it would be super challenging to get in anything more than meager miles leading up to the race. The spirit was willing but training miles don’t lie.
So far this report might sound like a bit of a downer but one always has to assess and create new goals to stay motivated. The 50k was out but I was determined to have a good 25k race. I broke the course down into chunks and my strategy to finish strong was to take it super easy at the start, intermittently hammer the downhills, run walk the flats and have enough strength for the last part of the race and for it not to be a soul-crushing slog.
This was probably the calmest I’ve ever been on race day. The night before I took about an hour to clear out my waist pack and get it ready with GU gels, Cliff bars and some SaltStick caps. I usually use a hydration pack but by the time I load it with water, gels and extra goodies it ends up being pretty heavy. I chose to use the waist pack and it probably saved me a couple of pounds of weight. The morning of the race I got up at 4:15am, fed the dogs, took a shower and was ready to head out by 5:05. I had connected with a couple of people on the Bulldog Trail Run events group and was going to meet up with them to carpool and I forgot how long it usually takes me to get to the Malibu Creek area. Was it 45 minutes or 1 hour 15 minutes? Either way, I made good time getting there and even though there was major construction right at the Las Virgenes Rd. exit, I got there in plenty of time.
Before race I usually have a pb&j sandwich and coffee to get my system going but I didn’t eat a thing this time before leaving the house. On the way to the race I had half a Cliff Bar and when I got to our carpool site which was at a Starbucks, I had a few sips of coffee as I waited. I met up with Simon who was in the carpool and we waited for a while. I made use of the Starbucks restroom facilities and that saved me probably 20 minutes of standing in the restroom line at the race. Our third person in the carpool group was stuck in traffic so Simon and I headed off to the race. We still
As we headed towards the race check-in we saw that there were a ton of people at the starting line. It was 6:43am and the 6:30am 50k race hadn’t kicked off yet. We later learned that there was some crazy traffic situation and it warranted starting things later.
You can find the 50k Race start video below.
Besides getting in a good hard run around Malibu Creek State Park, the other reason I love doing trail races is that I get to meet friends and make new ones. Before the race I ran into Christopher Pavlakovich who has been kicking butt on the ultra scene and taking on some tough races. I also ran into high school classmate Aleni Sunada and chatted with Adriana Zapata who I met while doing the Sean O’Brien marathon in 2015. There were over 100 volunteers at this year’s Bulldog and I briefly chatted with Naomi Ruiz and Lori VanLuven who were volunteers at the shirts table.
Because the 50k race started at 6:45am, the race director Nancy move the start of the 25k race to 7:45am instead of 7:30am. I did some little warm up trots and minor stretching then was ready for the starting line.
I lined up towards the back of the pack and kept a very conservative pace for the first 3 miles. I kept a steady low intensity running pace. It usually takes me a few miles to warm up and I was trying to avoid early cramping. With just the waist pack I felt a bit lighter than I do when I run with an over the shoulder hydration pack. I kept it comfortable and didn’t push too hard on the early little climbs. Once I crossed the bridge and went onto the fun little single track I got a little more energy and picked up the intensity some. I love that section that leads into the M*A*S*H site. I was way towards the back of the pack but I never looked back to see if anyone was behind me. I had my containment strategy and I was going to stick to it.
At the first aid station I was surprised to see that there were actually people behind me and a couple caught up and passed me.
As I mentioned before, it’s hard to say that Bulldog Rd. is fun. If you’re fit you can run up the darn thing but most people power hike it. Some try to run and it has gotten the best of people. Today there was a beautiful cloud cover that last almost until noon. I’ve done 5 races at Malibu Creek and this was the best weather I’ve ever experienced there. My moderate pace and the cloud cover actually made the climb fairly bearable and I never had to stop to take a don’t-pass-out break on my way up the mountain. Shortly after leaving the first aid station I heard the cheers for the first place 50k runner. He was breathing hard but his effort looked sustainable. It was a good number of minutes before the second place 50k runner came up and then the third place runner.
Towards the top of Bulldog I heard someone speaking in Spanish in a loud voice. I wasn’t sure what was going on but it sounded like he was telling someone that he was heading up at 30 minutes per mile. After a couple of switchbacks I caught up to a man who was pushing a bike up the mountain. I chatted with him a bit as he pushed on. He was waiting to see his son who was running the 50k race. He asked how much further he had to go up and I told him he was pretty close and that it was only a couple more switchbacks. I told him that I was going to keep on that I hoped he enjoyed the way down.
With a little to go on the Bulldog Rd. climb I saw two men coming down the mountain.
“Buenos dias.” I greeted them.
“Ya casi estas alli,” they both replied. “You’re almost there.”
“There” being the end of this crazy mountain climb. I recognized one of the men as Adalberto “Flaco” Mendoza who is a Badwater 135 finisher. In case you’re not familiar with the Badwater race it is one of the most difficult road races in the world. I got chills knowing that awesome runners like Flaco were out there casually running the course and helping racers out.
One of the reasons I wanted to take the first half of the race at a moderate pace is that I often bomb out just after the Corral Canyon aid station. A fast race start plus the Bulldog climb usually taxes my system so much that I don’t have a lot left for the race. With my low training miles that could mean a no finish so I didn’t want that to happen. But still, I took advantage of the big first downhill after finishing the Bulldog climb. Just as I started down the first place woman 50k racer blasted by and down the hill and looked super strong.
I’m usually out of water by the time I get to Corral Canyon but this time I still had a good bit of water. One of the volunteers helped me top off and I grabbed some chips and a cookie and I was off. It was nice seeing Randy Shoemaker who was at a volunteer tent just before I headed off. Randy is a race director for some great races in Simi Valley.
I left the aid station feeling good and didn’t try to strain myself too much going up the first little moon rock climb. Last year I had only taken a few steps and it felt like all my energy was zapped. I think that happens there because I usually check my watch to see what my time is and it’s never what I want to see. I still looked at my watch but didn’t care too much and carried on. As I was about to crest the last of the moon rock section there were photographers there and I had to at least look like I was running uphill so picked up the speed. One year I tried to ham it up and stepped wrong and rolled my ankle so I didn’t push too hard.
If you’ve made it this far in the race report you may have figured out that I wasn’t exactly taking a Zach Miller balls-to-the-wall kind of a day. I was trying not to blow up and make it to the end.
Shortly after the moon rock a curious thing happened. I actually caught up to someone. Two someones. We ran together for a bit and they asked if I had run the race before. I told them that I had and then they said “Hey, did you do the 2015 Bulldog video?” I smiled and told them that I had. They said that they had watched it before the race. That was pretty cool. This was a flat section and they pushed on and left me behind as I stopped to take some pictures and video.
By this time tons of 50k runners were passing me on their second loop. I told them “good job” and they wished me luck. I kept looking back whenever I heard someone approach because I knew that badass ultra runner Catra Corbett was doing the 50k and I wanted to say “Hi.”
The beautiful cloud layer was still out.
Once you get down from Bulldog, there are a few more little climbs before you hit the big downhill. The little climbs can seriously zap one’s energy. A lot of the 50k runners took those easy and did some power walking there. I just focused on something different and kept moving.
This is yet another reason I love trail running. The worries and stress of my work week melted away with each bit of sweat that rolled off my brow. Life gets reduced to “take that next step” and that is beautiful simplicity.
Finally I got to the start of one of the big downhills. This is also the trickiest part of the course because if you miss the turnoff you will go down the wrong trail running gleefully and end up at Pepperdine University and then the Pacific Ocean. I made a wrong turn there on a training run and it turned a 10-mile run into an 18 mile run.
When it comes to running downhill sections, I’m kind of a madman. I’m a Strava freak and I use the site to upload all of my training and to see how I do on different sections. On most segments that are major climbs I’m usually towards the bottom of the pack but when there is a downhill I am usually in the top half of stats. I can usually pick off a few runners on those segments. I still didn’t want to fry my quads so I ran the downhills in intermittent bits. This is also where people from different races will start to have a tough time. I handed out Salt Stick caps to a couple of runners who were having major cramping issues and caught up to other 25k runners who were having a tough go. I eventually caught up to the two Bulldog video watchers and they wished me luck. I knew that I was going to easy up on the single track part of the Backbone trail at the end of the downhill and that they would eventually catch up to me again. That’s just what happened midway through that section. One of them had a slip and I kept on going after I saw she was OK.
The other tricky part of the course is the section right before the creek crossing. If you take a wrong turn it’s really easy to end up in the back lot of the Las Virgenes Water District parking lot, which is the wrong place to be. The course was very well marked with ribbons so it was not an issue. But if you come out to do a training run and there are no ribbons it’s easy to get lost. That day of the 18 mile oops training run that I mentioned earlier I couldn’t for the life of me find the right path to get back to the main parking lot and had to take the street which is super dangerous.
Miles 13 – Finish
The last aid station for the 25k is at Tapia Park. This is always a very festive stop and it is easy to get caught up in the fun and stay too long. I partially filled my bottles and took a selfie with one of my heroes Alison Sunshine Chavez, who recently finished a crazy list of ultras including the Western States 100 mile endurance run.
By this time in the race I am usually totally spent and basically stagger the flat section leading up to the final climb, the Angry Chihuahua. This time I didn’t feel that bad so I run walked it. The Angry Chihuahua started and I thought of this last miles as a lap around one of my favorite training locations, Arroyo Verde Park. I kept on moving and tons of 50k runners passed me and finally the two video watchers caught me again and passed. The two people who I had supplied with salt tabs passed by and thanked me for getting them going again.
I usually sit my butt down on one of the rocks on the way up the Angry Chihuahua. This time I just kept plodding along one step at a time and didn’t stop. Finally I got to the top and intermittently ran down the hill. The next thing I know I was off the hill and running on the last gravel patch.
I checked my watch and I had just over 12 minutes to run somewhere between half a mile and a mile in order to make it in under 5 hours. I forgot to mention this earlier but this year the Bulldog race course changed. The final run did not use the main Park Entrance road but instead came out through a back trail near a parking lot. I hadn’t studied the new segment so I wasn’t sure how long that part was. The RD Nancy said the course was “shorter” but I didn’t know by how much.
Before the race I had talked to Aleni about one of our high school classmates, David Walker, and how he had paced me in junior high as I tried to complete the running part of the Presidential Fitness Award requirements. I had to run 3 and 3/4 quarter mile laps in 6 minutes and we did it but I stopped there and didn’t go on to continue the full mile. David’s PR had been 6:14 and we would have both broken that but I stopped since my goal was the Presidential award, not an almost 6-minute mile. That still bothers me to this day. Even though I had hit my goal I didn’t pick the additional goal of running my fastest mile. Had I continued on I would have run just over 6 minutes, shaving off way over one minute from my mile PR.
I still had some gas in the tank and I ran as much of the last part as I could, trying not to trip on the unfamiliar segment. I could hear people at the finish line but still could not see it. There was a final little hill that was probably 10 ft high and I shook my head when I saw it. As I came over the top some race finishers cheered me on then also shook their heads and made a comment about that dastardly last tiny hill at the end of the race. I looked at my watch and I was going to make it under 5 hours. I heard a group cheer “Go Jesse!” from the side and I think that was Adriana Zapata’s race crew.
If felt good to finish and although last year was a lackluster performance I shaved off around 25 minutes off that time. Because this is a new course with the finish line change, this is a new PR.
I’m going to feed off this race and see it as the kickoff to my Ray Miller 50k training. The Ray Miller is in mid November. By then I should be able to get my training back on track and be race ready.
Did you do the Bulldog 25k or 50k this year? Have you done either one in the past? How did they go for you? Leave a comment here or Facebook.