When race director Keira Henninger sent out the 30K race email and said that the expected high for the day would be 70 degrees F I knew that I had a chance to get it done at the Ray Miller 30K race. After last year’s crash and burn, a finish would be huge.
Leading up to the race I knew that my training had trailed off so I switched from the 50K race to the 30K race about a month ago. It was the right decision. With tons of election work and three active bargaining campaigns at work I was scrambling to get in workouts and ended up doing a lot of very short treadmill sessions. Having to do a lot of work work and meeting strict deadlines can also be an ultra endurance experience and I used that as part of my mental training.
I woke up an hour before the alarm time I had set on my phone. I had my now usual breakfast of a big cup of coffee and a banana. I fed the dogs and played around on social media for a few minutes then showered and was pretty much ready to go. Today’s attire would be, from top to bottom:
- Black Dirtbag Runners hat
- Puma sunglasses
- Patagonia Leona Divide 2016 singlet
- Dirtbag Runners “Bandito” wrap
- Garmin 235HR watch
- Custom made wrist bracelet by my grandniece
- Patagonia Strider Pro shorts
- Osprey Talon 6 2-bottle waist pack
- Target store ankle height running socks
- Hoko One One Cliftons 3
It was nice and chilly as I made my way to the race sign in table. One person asked how I could stand it since I only had on a singlet up top and no sleeves or a jacket. I didn’t think it was that cold and didn’t want to wear any cover to get ready for the race start. I find that I use changing out of warmer wear as an excuse for taking a long stop along the way just after a race start and I didn’t want to do that. With a “shorter” race I wanted to keep up the intensity as long as I could.
I ran into Balderama and his training friend Jackie while waiting to sign up. We had all bumped into each other during one of the Ray Miller training runs. It sounds like they both had a great day out there and crushed the course.
The 30K race started at 7am, 30 minutes after the start of the 50K race so I had a chance to take some video of the 50K race start.
Race start to Mile 5
Keira did her race intro then we were off. I settled in way towards the back and still had a few people behind me as we made our way to the Ray Miller trailhead. It was about half a mile before people started passing me but there was still a bit of a conga line on the single track. I felt good and knew that I was pretty much going as fast as I could with the power hike. By the 2 mile mark pretty much everyone who was behind me had passed me up. I kept a steady pace and with half a mile to go the last few people who were still behind me passed me. By the end of the Ray Miller trail segment there were only one or two people behind me. I was Ok with that and knew I was pretty much close to my ascent PR so I wasn’t slacking off.
My legs and breathing were good and it was cold so I wasn’t drinking much. Leading into the first Hell Hill aid station (we would hit that same aid station three times today) I had taken down two GU gels and was doing well. I ran into the one person who was behind me on the Ray Miller but had passed me on the way to the aid station. She was still at the aid station when I left and figured she’d catch up soon.
Miles 5 to 11
After the first Hell Hill stop, I made my way onto the La Jolla loop, made my turn towards La Jolla Canyon and ran some, then power hiked some. I was still feeling pretty good. The woman who was at the aid station caught up to me around mile 7 as I expected. She was glad to
see someone else out there. At the same time, we ran into a 50K runner. He said that he had done a lot of Ray Miller races in the past. About a mile up from that point I took a nature break and noticed one person running back the way that I had come from but couldn’t see a race bib. I figured it was just another person doing a run in the area, not a racer. As I made my way up the big Mugu Peak trail climb, a couple of more people raced down and they had 30K race bibs. I was confused because this was not an out and back part of the course.
I didn’t ask about trekking pole for this race but the Ray Miller trail is not a good place to have pole when racing because it is single track and there are steep drop offs. But, I do like the help they give me on climbs so I found a dead branch and broke off a couple of little branches then used that for the Mugu Peak climb. This segment is about half a mile on a 15% incline with sections closer to 40%. I kept a steady power hike pace and then two more 30K racers came down. I asked if there was a course change and they said no and that they had taken a wrong turn. Another volunteer fellow who was up at the top of the climb came down and explained that I was good. The other runners had gone the wrong way and were doing the loop the opposite way. I don’t think they were the only ones to do that. When I was making my way done to Hell Hill at around mile four I took a picture and had noticed that it looked like people were running down the La Jolla Valley Fire Road beyond the turn off point. I thought that maybe they were just day hikers and not racers. But maybe there were a bunch of others who had also missed the turn?
When I finally got to the top portion of the Mugu Peak climb I started to run and then the pin pricks started on my calves. Dang it, I could feel that I was getting ready to cramp up. Then I noticed that my right foot was hurting. The one thing I forgot to pack was electrolyte pills. I slowed down, then ran again and the jabs to my calves started again. This segment is usually pretty fun because it is steep and I dig running steep downhills. I ate some dried mangoes and had another GU to see if some nutrient in either of those would help but I could tell that I wasn’t going to be able to run without being in major pain and possibly aggravating things even more.
This is where the mental part of running kicks in. I felt bummed that I couldn’t run so I touched the little bracelet that my grandniece had made for me and thought to myself that I could make my body reverse the pain. Then I thought that by doing so I could also help send healing thoughts to her and her mom who have had bad coughs the last few days. This feeling of gratitude kept me from getting in a down mood. I could have started getting bummed about my time and how I would miss a finish time that I had in the back of my mind but I stopped myself and instead focused on being grateful that I could be
I only had two and a half miles back to the Hell Hill aid station so I kept and even power hike pace and the time went by faster than I thought it would. I just kept moving and when I got to the little but steep climb back up to the Hell Hill aid station I was trudging a long. I knew that when I got to the aid station I’d get this all sorted out.
My bud Steve Acciarito was working the aid station and I told him that I was “crampy”. He asked if I wanted pickle juice and I told him that I need a salt pill. He pulled out some Salt Sticks and poured some onto a cap. I downed two of them and I thought I packed three more for the next miles. I took some peanut butter filled pretzels, a few salted nuts and refilled my two bottles. I loaded one of my bottles with CarboPro which I have never tried and the other bottle with water. I usually keep my electrolyte drink on the left side of my waist pack but I mixed up the bottle and couldn’t tell which was which. CarboPro is colorless and tasteless so I figured I would just have to take both at the same rate. The only part I worried about was that I usually drink water only after I down a GU to avoid overdoing the nutrients at one time. It didn’t end up being a problem though. Before I left the aid station I took a few chocolate covered espresso beans as rocket fuel. I downed two of them.
Before I shoved off to do Guadalasca loop I heard someone at the aid station say that the cut off was 12:00 p.m. then someone else said that it was 12:30 p.m. I kept this in mind but worrying too much about time can get me into a negative thought pattern. Plus, I had already decided that I was going to finish the entire course even if I didn’t make a cutoff time. If they had to remove or “X” out my bib I was going to finish. This is a public set of trails so they weren’t going to be able to keep me from hiking to the end, even if I didn’t get an official race finish.
Miles 11 to 16
The climb up Guadalasca was uneventful and that was great. I felt good and didn’t have the desire to flop down for a break at the top like I did last year. I had a feeling that my cramping had been addressed with the salt pills and continued to take down GUs. On the big descent which I was able to run some I was surprised to run into another racer. I figured that with my long hike on the downhill after Mugu Peak that everyone had already pulled away. The person was a 50K racer and had started the race late. We checked in with each other then I pulled away because the cutoff time came back into mind. Sure, I would keep going no matter what but it would be nice to actually make the cutoff. At one point is seemed unlikely and I started doing math in my head and I though that I at least had to do the next couple of miles in under 15 minutes each. “I can do 15’s,” I thought. Then I would tackle Hell Hill.
One of the best thoughts I have heard this year is “Things don’t always get worse.” This is a strange bit of advice but if one stays focused and works on solutions there are few situations that can’t get better along the way. The cramping jabs had let up and the pain in my right foot had completely gone away. I guess this is a lesson that I should have applied after doing boogie boarding as a youth. I used to be fearful of the ocean after a near drowning as a child but then I learned that the best way to avoid lethal situations is to stay under water and being patient and not panicking whenever a wave took me down. Sometimes staying under water longer was the best way to go.
One of the most crucial points in the race was the last mile and a half leading up to the start of the Hell Hill climb. Last year I had a couple of course sweepers with me and I wasn’t forceful enough to tackle things in my usual way and that threw me off. This year I knew what I had to do. I took down a GU, the other chocolate espresso bean and looked around for another salt pill. I had taken the two salt pills at the last aid station and one more but I couldn’t find the other two. That worried me some but I didn’t think it would be that crucial for the Hell Hill climb.
I searched around for another dead branch to use as a trekking pole and found one. I had to break off a lot of little branches and managed to do so without cutting the heck out of my hand. It was a little short but I didn’t want to spend too much digging around for fallen branches so I used it. I got to the bottom of Hell Hill and went for it. The day was started to heat up a bit but there was some great shade for the first bit of the climb. I don’t really remember there being that much shade last year. I think that having the race a bit later in the month and Daylight Savings time helped with that.
I analyzed my form and it was awkward since I only had the one pole so I hunted down a second fallen branch and now I had my “two trekking poles” for the rest of the climb. The shaded area finished and I was in full sun on this 16% grade climb and I kept a steady but super slow pace. I stopped once or twice when I did hit shade but remained standing for those brief 2 second stops. Last year I had flopped on the mountain slope and that’s when I got in trouble. I kept trudging up the hill. The two branches were largely psychological because they were really thin and if I had used them the way I use real trekking poles they both would have broken immediately. I was barely putting any force on them but they helped me keep a rhythmic pace. About half way up I heard a truck and saw race c0-coordinator Sarah Mistah drive up. She said “great job” and I have a thumbs up and kept going. At the bottom of the hill I had checked my time and I felt good that I could get to the top before 12:30 p.m. As I got to the top I had 20 minutes left but the top of the hill was still out of sight. I kept my steady pace and eventually got to the top with 15 minutes to spare.
When I got to the aid station there were about 15 people there and they cheered. I told them that I was glad because last year I had to be picked up on the hill. Sarah was there and she remembered that she had picked me up then another volunteer also remembered and I asked if she was one of the people dressed as a bag of Skittles and she said yes. We laughed.
I was glad that they hadn’t run out of goodies at the aid station. I loaded up on water and Coke with lots of ice. A few dark clouds had rolled in and covered the sun and that cooled the temperature for the final stretch. Steve let me know that I had about a mile climb and then it would be all down hill. I’ve done this climb a bunch of times so I knew it was closer to 1.5 or 2 miles of climbing but it was nice that he was mentally gearing me up for a good finish.
Miles 16 to 20.7/Finish
Seconds after leaving the aid station for the last time, I heard some cheering and was a bit surprised because I thought it was only me and the 50K runner still left out there and I thought she was a bit behind. I looked back and there was a racer who was dressed mainly in hiking attire. About a half a mile up the climb he caught up to me and we chatted a bit. He asked which race I was doing and I told him I was doing the 30K and he said, “So am I.” He commented that this was the longest “30K” race since an actual 30K race is around 18.6 miles and this one is 20.7 miles.
He didn’t have a visible race bib then I thought back and figured that I might have seen him on the course but had mentally screened him out since he wasn’t showing the bib. “Ok,” I thought. “If I still have legs it’s going to be a race to the end.” I had the feeling that he had hiked the entire thing so far so I didn’t worry too much about finishing before him because I could pass him on the descent. There were a few downhills along the last climb and I ran some to stay somewhat close to him but I was still behind.
You may be wondering why it took me 17 miles to start thinking in race mode but at this point avoiding finishing DFL (Dead F*cking Last) is a bit of an ego thing for a back-of-packer. But in a race like this it’s actually tough to know who is where in the pack or final placement. I figured there might be some 50K runners who dropped down before or during the race so they had a 5oK race bib or some other variation. In those situations the runners may have a faster finish time but they are considered having no race place and they don’t quality for any kinds of awards like getting a podium spot overall or age group awards. I don’t know what the race rules are but those folks who went the wrong way might even be scrubbed from contention for a placement. I think doing the La Jolla loop the way they did it is easier even though the start and finish point is the same and the elevation gain is the same. But that’s neither here nor there.
As I approached the final 2.7 miles of the race at the Ray Miller trail I saw other racers come up from Overlook Trail and shoot up the initial Ray Miller trail climb. When I got to the climb and didn’t attack it and gave myself time to mentally prepare for the intense descent. A 50 mile racer and a 50K racer passed me then I got to the top of the little climb and knew it was time to dig deep to take advantage of my downhill running strength. I was still crampy so my strategy would be to run at a high pace the back off a bit if I felt the drumbeat of crampy calf jabs. As soon as I crested the climb I saw the hiker racer and he was stopped and had his shoe off and was shaking it out. Was he switching shoes so he could get ready to run the heck out of the last big downhill? Or was he just clearing out his shoe? Either way I was going to get down the hill as fast as I could.
I started with a consistent run pace and caught a couple of other racers then the cramping kicked in and I had to throttle back for a bit then carried on running. This went on for about a mile and I finished mile 20 at a 12 minute pace. I saw another 30K racer down the hill and he wasn’t moving that fast. It looked like he was cramping some as well. With about half a mile to go I passed him and maybe another runner or two and I got down to an 8:45 per mile pace. My heart rate was redlining at 195 bpm then the cramping got worse on both calves. With only about 200 meters to go I had to slow down. One 50k runner caught me and said “I’m going to pass you.” I didn’t say anything back since she wasn’t asking me anything. On the final little turn and descent I tried to run it in as fast as I could and with 50 feet to go my left calve twitched into full cramp mode and I temporarily buckled but stayed upright. A few more steps and I crossed the finish line. Success!
I was a little anti-social after the race finish and didn’t walk around much. I had half a sandwich and took down some electrolyte drink. I really like doing races like this where there are different race lengths because you see people who are way more fit who are coming in after you because they are doing the longer races. It is a good “equalizing” feeling and reinforces the fact that we were all out here doing our thing.
All of the volunteers were awesome and they really helped me with the finish. This is one of the best things about Keira Henninger races like this and the Leona Divide where volunteers help out in as many ways as possible to keep you on track and moving strong.
I signed up for the Sean O’Brien 50K race on February 4, 2017. It should be a great day as my buddy Chris is going for a Golden Ticket to Western States.
How about you, what’s in your race horizon? Were you at Ray Miller this year as well? If so, how did it go?
By the Numbers:
Distance: 20.7 miles
Total time: 6:35:03
Total elevation gain: 3,417 ft.
Fastest split: 11:06 per mile rate
Slowest split: 30:12 per mile rate