Somewhere There Is A Door – Sean O’Brien Marathon 2017 Race Recap

At the Sean O'Brien Marathon/50k starting line - 2017
At the Sean O'Brien Marathon/50k starting line - 2017

I’m walking in a room and it’s filled with mud. There are walls everywhere but I know that somewhere there is a door. I just have to keep moving and walking until I find it.

No, it’s not a bad dream. That was my Sean O’Brien Marathon race on Saturday, February 4th at Malibu Creek.

I knew my training was at best lackluster in terms of miles run but I’ve been going through some trying times and that was my strength.

The day started with a foggy, then rainy, then cloud filled drive to Malibu Creek State Park. I had managed to get up on time, beating my alarm and was right on time. I stopped by Starbucks to get a juice and take a pit stop before heading to the race.

Early morning at Malibu Creek State Park
Early morning at Malibu Creek State Park

By the time I got to the park entrance the 50 mile race had already begun and people were mulling around. I spotted some friends and chatted for a bit then checked in with the timing folks to let them know that I was doing the marathon, not the 50k. “And just like that you already saved 6 miles,” said the guy at the timing table. Yeah, I did feel a bit relieved.

Always great running into friends
Always great running into friends. Selfie with Adriana Zapata.

Miles 0-6

Race Director Keira Henninger did the race start and told us that the 50k and Marathon races almost didn’t happen. We were glad she fought to get us out there and then we headed out.

Two years ago as I did the marathon race I found myself running next to Timothy Olson and stayed close to him most of the way over the first little climb, the Angry Chihuahua. This year I decided not to run my fastest mile split on the same portion and knew that people would be bunched up at the stream crossing.

"Conga line" before getting to the creek crossing.
“Conga line” before getting to the creek crossing.

As Keira had said, the stream was roaring and we had to stay upstream of the crossing rope. The water was thigh high. A lot of people were changing out of their socks and such just after the crossing. I just kept on moving.

By the time I got to the top of the big climb I was pretty much in last place with the exception of a couple who were leapfrogging me. I finally caught up to the again at the bench and asked them how far they were going. “We’re going all the way, to Kanan, ” they guy said. I didn’t see race bibs on them so I wasn’t sure if they were actually racing but it didn’t matter too much since I was running my own race. But it was nice to pass someone.

Miles 6-13

They climb to the Corral Canyon aid station seemed tougher then before. At the race start I lined up next to someone who said this was his first ultra and mentioned that they was tougher than the Bulldog because of the continuous 4 mile climb. Another person agreed with him but I’ve always thought this direction was way easier than 3 miles on the Bulldog. Anyways, the person’s opinion must have stuck in my mind because the climb seemed tougher than before. By the way, the guy said he recognized me from my blog post on the Bulldog race and that is how the topic came up.

At Corral Canyon I took a few goodies then made my way down the Backbone Trail. I was eating a Gu every 20-30 minutes and that was working alright but then I started to get fatigued and by mile 8 I felt like I was starting to hit the wall. It wasn’t a full on bonk but I started feeling crappy. My stomach felt bloated and I was moving slow. I was wearing a waist pack and it felt like it was making things worse.

This first three miles is a big descent but then there is a good sized climb. That climb section felt super long. I remember doing that section with my nephew and niece a couple of years ago during a training run and it was kind of hard then an now it was draining me. One high point happened when I saw my friend Chris Pavlakovich cruising up the trail. He was doing the 100k race and looked full of energy as we high fived.

Another mile and half or so and I finally hit the next aid station at mile 11 and change. The aid station had these awesome rice balls and musubis. I took down one of those chubby wonders and felt better after I reloaded with water.

But a mile later I realized that I made a mistake in that I was running off the food from the two previous aid stations and wasn’t taking down my regular GU’s which through me off some.

With a mile left to go before the Kanan aid station turnaround point, I ran into a mud puddle from hell. This was a big turnaround point for a lot of folks and they kept coming at me and I’d step off to the side so that people wouldn’t slide into me. Some people said that it was way better than it was two hours earlier.

I wasn’t too far from the turnaround when I ran into Luisa Rivas and she gave me some encouraging words when I finally got to the end of the mud section.

I was ready to head down to Kanan when I saw a guy with a big smile and a styrofoam cup. I knew what that was. The first thing I did when I got to Kanan was to ask for some yummy noodle soup. “It’s super hot,” the aid station volunteer said as I waited anxiously for the healing soup. “That’s OK, I’m going to add some water to cool it down a bit.” I told her.

Miles 13-17

After digging into the aid station goodies including taking a couple of gels, I headed off with full water bottles and a nice hot coup of noodle soup. After about a half mile up I ran into the marathon couple and told them to keep an eye out for the soup which is not offered to everyone. They thanked me and headed down to towards the turnaround.

Even after only about half an hour, the mud situation was much better. The sun had peaked out for a bit and baked the mud enough that it wasn’t like a Slip and Slide still.

Even though I remember there being an uphill section going down to Kanan now everything seemed to be going uphill on the way back.

It wasn’t going so well. The next few miles to the aid station were long and slow. I finally found a nice dead branch to stip down to a walking stick. It was heavy from the morning rain but I needed something to help me keep moving. I really wish I had used my trekking poles that day.

I made it back to the next aid station but passed on the musubis this time. Ray Barrios was helping to run the aid station and I realized that I had called his brother Gerardo “Ray.” Ray laughed and said that happens all the time. I met the two of them at the Fortius aid station when I volunteered for the Bandit Ultra a couple of years ago.

A little after I got to the aid station, John Vaderport pulled in and took a chair. He didn’t look wrecked or anything but I thought that when I got to Corral Canyon I’d do as John did and sit for a while to get thing together.

Miles 17-21

These next miles were tortuous. My quads were shot, and not in the good Starbucks kind of way, and my shoulders were aching from carrying around that heavy walking stick. You can see the Corral Canyon from miles away and it is perched high up on the mountains. “There’s no way that’s two miles away,” I thought to myself.

For the past few miles I had been trying to figure out mileage and times. Don’t try to do math late in a race. I started to realize that I was getting dangerously close to moving at a pace that would not allow me to get the marathon done within the 14 hour cutoff time. If I did under 30 minutes per mile I’d be Ok. My mile 16 split was 40 minutes and then the sub 14 hour finish started to disappear.

I kept moving and finally made it to Corral Canyon at mile 20.5 or so.

I asked a volunteer if they had any Ibuprofren and she said they couldn’t dispense that but that I might want to ask other runners. A kind woman overheard and asked if I wanted an Aleve. I said Yes and took a couple.

I took the Aleve and took a chair for a couple of minutes. I took a photo of this low point then ate the aid station pretzel and peanut butter cookie, trying to relax my back and shoulders.

Sitting at mile 21
Sitting at mile 21

Miles 21 – Finish (27+ miles)

“Beware the chair” is an old ultra running saying because the chair will eat you up and make you want to quit. I gave the chair my tired body but it did not take away my “ganas.” Before I got up I saw a new trail running friend, Tam, and she was stretching to get ready for the final segment of the race. She was doing the 50k so she had already run 6 miles more than I had. She headed out and I followed shortly afterwards.

The first little climb up the moon rock ridgeline is fairly short but it’s always been draining for me. I usually leave the aid station feeling good then Wham! I start to feel like poo. This time I told myself that the climb isn’t as gradual as it looks and this time I didn’t shoot down the other side as I usually do. For some reason I always smash my foot going down the other side and that slows me way down for a mile or so. I crossed gingerly this time but with purpose.

Tam was up ahead, running alongside with my Aleve angel. I kept them in sight and had picked up my overall pace. When downhills came I ran them.

I ran with a couple of 50 mile guys and a couple of 100k guys for a bit. That was fun. I had stopped looking at my watch and wasn’t concerned about the cutoff time because I felt good and even if I took too much time I would have been Ok with it. No one was out there trying to sweep me off the course and if they did they’d have to drag me off the course.

I was moving well as the sun started to set. After Corral Canyon there are still a few climbs but I felt so good that I didn’t mind them and my back and quads felt fresh. I took out my headlamp and was ready for the big downhills. When the big downhill came I took off down the hill for about a half mile then it was pretty much pitch black except for the small headlamp glow and I almost took a header on the rocky path. I slowed back to a power hike and enjoyed the night.

As the sun sets a new door opens
As the sun sets a new door opens

My breath would shine bright under the headlamp light and every now and then I’d hear some heavy breathing then see a light approach. By the way, I need a headlamp with more lumens because the approaching lights always let up my path much more than my mine.

I finally got to the creek crossing and the cold water felt good. I slipped for a bit even though I still had my walking stick but I managed not to fall all the way in the water. It was getting cold so I finally put my jacket shell back on. I had only been wearing a technical t-shirt for the past 15 miles after the rain stopped. Once I crossed I noticed another headlamp and I stayed around to help light the river for the upcoming runner. Once he crossed I let him pass and he was thankful that I helped out with the light.

There were two miles left and it was a beautiful night. The stars were bright and there were interspersed clouds. The cold air felt good even with wet feet. As I made my way to the Angry Chihuahua I heard something scramble nearby. I turned and there was a big beautiful sandy colored deer about 20 feet away. I could barely make out the shape in the darkness but her eyes were shining. I called at it and it didn’t move. I remembered hearing that deer get jittery when someone gets between them and their little ones so I looked around and decided I should keep moving.

I got to the Angry Chihuahua and a few more people passed me. I had an easy pace and still felt good. I’m usually wrecked by the time I get to this point in the race but not this time. I could hear the cheers from the guys playing basketball at the nearby detention facility. I finally got to the downhill portion and when I got to the edge of the gravel road I ditched my walking stick and started running.

There were volunteers standing along the path and you couldn’t really see them until you got right next to them because they didn’t have headlamps on or anything. “Good job, just keep going straight!” they’d cheer. The race course was brilliantly marked. There were glow sticks along the course and whenever there was a big turn there’d be a big red glow stick and sometimes a flashing pink one to make sure one was on the right path.

I finally got to the last turn and I was still running and came in for the finish and my medal.

My watch had started bleeping that it was low on battery at mile 21 so I had started up Strava on my cellphone. When I got to the finish line  I took out my phone and tried to get to the Strava app to stop it but then my phone battery died as well. When I got to my car the battery was dead but I ran into 100k runner Greg who got me going again.

I want to thank Keira for another great race and to all the volunteers and friends who came out to support runners. You are all the reason I come out to these races even when I’m a bad boy and don’t train as much as I should.

I stitched together my Marathon run on Strava. Check it out and leave a comment then follow me so I can see what you’re up to.

What’s Next?

I have some life changes coming up and I’ll be training for the Leona Divide in April. That will keep me quite busy for the next couple of months. Do you have any sweet races coming up? Let me know.