Leona Divide 30k Race Report 2021


I could take one of two routes as I write this Leona Divide Trail Race report. 

Method number one would be similar to a Stephen Gnoza “A Serious Runner” video approach where he vocalizes the behind the scenes language and behaviors of runners on social media as they try to put their best feet forward for the sake of their follower count and also to keep the ego in tact.

In that race report, I would say that although I started the 50k race with the full intention of doing the 31.9 mile distance, I found that GI issues greatly hampered my race so I smartly dropped down for the 30k finish. For non-runners, “GI issues” refers to the suite of gastrointestinal problems which may arise during an athletic activity. This may range from garden variety stomach aches, to nausea, to a whole host of messy bodily functions. The great thing about saying “GI issues” is that only the most curious reporters or intimate friends would pose follow-up questions for the gory details. 

For my Strava race activity description I wrote that I “salvaged” a race which makes it sound like I did a good thing by bailing on the 50k race.

The second way to report on the race would be to use the George Carlin method with puts a premium on truth.

That race report would be similar to a truthful answering machine message, “Hi, I’m Jesse and for the past week I’ve been eating nervously during this taper and I had the Mexican jalapeño dip 3 nights in a row which I washed down with large quantities of beer. I was in and out of the bushes all day.” Although, this isn’t actually true. I mostly ate the same thing I’ve been eating and I don’t partake of booze that often.

But, I’ll just write the report in my own way.

I had the best of expectations for race day. A cool November race would be a blessing compared to the fiery hot April races that are the norm for Leona Divide trail races. The would cut down of the air fryer effect of running out in the desert, or so I thought.

I arrived early to the community center in Green Valley and was amazed to get a parking spot 100 feet from the mail building, in the actual parking lot. This meant that I wouldn’t have to trudge half a mile to drop off the race shirt or after the race when I had tired feet. 

I checked in and left my drop bag then went back to the car to work on my morning coffee some more as other runners showed up. I eventually met up with Dick from New Basin Blues and snapped a couple of selfies. 

Before the race I spoke with another runner who was doing the 100k distance. He said that he had been up there the day before and that it actually was hot during his run. Temps were not supposed to get over the low 70’s but he said it felt a lot hotter than that. I was concerned because I’ve done zero heat training over the past months. Instead I’ve been doing cool morning runs along the beach and Ojai bike path. But I did keep this in mind.

Finally 6am rolled around and we headed off. I ran with Dick and was delighted when I found that I could actually run up all of the road segment, something I haven’t been able to do in any of the 4 previous races. 

I was bumming off of Dick’s headlamp light, along with a group of 3 lady runners and we pretty much stuck together throughout the road climb and the first part of the trail climb up Spunky Canyon. I ran up ahead for a bit then Dick caught up again. I’ve been following Dick’s training on Strava and he’s been doing a lot of long and tough fast runs so I knew he could do very well in this race so I urged him to not hang back with slowpokes like me.

After 2 miles of solid running I finally slowed down a bit as I started taking down my first GU. Dick continued ahead and after that I was on my own. I used my phone’s light to continue on the path after I passed the first aid station at Spunky Canyon. At that point the three women we were running with were still behind me and I figured there were still a few other runners behind them.

During April races, it’s right around this point when the sun starts to rise and it is invigorating. This time, it was still dark and the stars were shining bright. It was pretty quiet and I could just make out Dick’s headlamp far up ahead and could make out the lite chatter of the women behind me a bit.

I felt great and was running everything except for the short sharp uphills that had only a foot’s worth of trail width. I didn’t want to slide off since I was wearing running shoes and not trail shoes.

I could see a few lights up on the big climb and even though I felt fine, I wanted to be up there already and see how my climbing legs would do. When I finally got to the climb I could hear the ladies get a bit closer and I reminded myself that I was running my own race and not anyone else’s race. I managed to finish off the climb in under a 20-minute pace which was one of my goals for the entire race.

When I got to the top of the mountain I snapped a photo and posted it to my Instagram story then headed to the long descent to Bouquet Canyon. I ran easy and steady. When the drop was steep I took it easy because it would be way to early to burn out my quads. 

I was about an hour and 22 minutes into the race when the first person in the 50k race climbed back up the trail. I kept dropping down and a few more lead runners shot up. Eventually, I was almost all the way down to the aid station when I saw Dick. I was nervous because I thought something might have happened because I thought he should have been further along. He said he was doing well and thought I was going fast. 

When I got to Bouquet, Stephanie Fraser was one of the volunteers and snapped a photo and said I looked good and was running strong. I still felt good and only picked up some watermelon and a corner of a pg&j and then was back on my way. I crossed paths with the three women as I got back on the trail.

While my uphill running has greatly improved, my power hiking pace is still lacking. I kept moving and made my way up the mountain. At this point I had already eaten 3 GUs and my stomach was starting to feel off. I was probably a couple of miles up the hill when the three ladies power hiked past me. I was still power hiking on steep section. When I got to the next somewhat flat section, I got into my uphill jog mode and then I could feel that even though I had made a pit stop before the race. There would have to be a number 2. See what I did there.

I kept climbing and was now looking for a suitable place to do my business. I knew there were several short trails along the top of the mountain but also remembered that the brush is short as well. I found a spot before getting to the top and used the trail etiquette best practices to do what I needed to do.

After that I felt great and light and finished the climb and snapped another photo.

I shot down the other side of the mountain and only slowed down when I ran into overgrown bushes of which there were many. It wasn’t too bad though. I made it back to the flattish section and was all on my own. After a bit I could see the three women way up ahead going into the aid station and that’s when my stomach started to hurt again. Not again!

There are a whole lot of things that can knock a runner out of a race and this is certainly one of them. I’ve seen several interviews of runners going into races who explain why the DNF’d a previous race and the reporter will usually nod knowingly after the runner says “and the second time I had to duck into a bush….” 

After the stomach started turning, I couldn’t run and push up hill without thinking that I was pushing too much. So, I started power hiking and I could see my stoke race level gauge shoot down to zero. This sucked.

I made it back to the Spunky aid station and slathered my hands in sanitizer then asked volunteers to hand me more watermelon and a couple of pb&j squares. I loaded up my additional water bottle as well. 

This was mile 15.

As much as this was a low point, I did not really consider seeing if I could drop down to the 30k race here.

The Leona Divide 50k route is like a “T” shape. You go up Spunky Canyon then go to the right toward Bouquet Canyon then back to the intersection at Spunky, then you head on the other side of the “T” towards San Francisquito then back to Spunky again.

The 30k race doesn’t not go right on the “T”, it goes left at Spunky, directly to San Francisquito and back.

As I left the aid station, I saw a couple of 30k runners who had come back from San Francisquito. I think I saw them together before the race so they were probably running together. They looked wide-eyed and happy to have made it back. They saw me as I went on to the trail and had an interesting look on their faces. I don’t know if it was a “yikes, good luck” look or if it was a “dang, I kind of wish that I had tackled the 50k look” or maybe it was a combination of the two. 

I power hiked up the first incline then chomped on the watermelon and the first pb&j square. I still was not feeling the stoke but I had just left an aid station so I figured there would be an additional decline in enthusiasm until I got settled in.

When I got to the next small climb and had put away the second pb&j square, I found that I couldn’t climb. My stomach hurt and felt like I was going to have to go again. I powered on.

I started seeing more of the 30k runners come through. Some of them were in rough shape. One runner was about to barf down the trail from me and I told her that the aid station was close. 

I hit mile one from the last aid station. 6 more to get to San Francisquito. More 30k and now some 50k runners were shooting by. The 30k runners were still looking a bit rough. 

At this point I started to sort through my options:

1) I feel like poo but I’m not hurt and can power on to San Francisquito. But there was only a 10% chance that I could make it out of that aid station. I was starting to have bouts of nausea. I’ve been stuck at San Francisquito after a DNF and that sucks big time. Last time I waited there in the heat for like an hour until a guy in a Hulk costume drove me and a couple of other DNF’d runners back to the staring line.

2) I remembered that the year I actually completed the 50k, a famous vlogger runner had an off day and started the 50k and dropped down to the 30k race. While I’m not a famous vlogger, there was an outside shot that I could drop down to the 30k.

I was now at mile 17, 2 mile from the Spunky aid station. I stopped in my tracks, leaned over and knew it was decision time. Was I going to go on with a wing and a prayer and see if I could finish this thing with my 10% chance of success? Or was I going to choose to back track to the aid station and throw myself on the mercy of the aid station captain gods. Ok, that was a bit dramatic. 

I decided on door #2. As I wrote, I wasn’t hurt, I just felt like cr@p and couldn’t climb without busting a gut. Even if I was not allowed to drop down in distance, it would put me just over 2 miles away from the starting line on a mostly downhill trajectory. I could easily make it back and would not have to sit around for someone to eventually shuttle me to the starting line. 

The next two miles weren’t that bad. I crossed paths with other 50k runners and one of them looked at me in a confused way as there was no way I had gone all the way to San Francisquito and back. During a race it’s hard to know what’s going on sometimes, especially when there are different races going on. Lots of people drop down so you can’t always tell who is in which race. 

When I got back to Spunky everyone was pretty serious because they knew I had not been gone long enough to do the 14 miles out and back. 

I was now at mile 19.

One of the aid station volunteers asked if I was OK and I told him I had stomach problems and I asked if I could drop down to the 30k. He quickly said yes then he reported it to the HAM radio operator who piped it back to the starting line. He asked again if I was OK, and I said I was. I got more watermelon and another pb&j square. I found a tub of ice water and dunked my hat and slipped in some ice cubes into the hat compartment made just for that. 

I headed out and once I hit a downhill I was able to carry on a jog pace. After half a mile of trail there are a couple of more climbs and I tried to jog those but still had some light gut pains. I power hiked until I got to the last downhill on trail section.

When I got to the road section I was able to run that sucker. I had a nice even pace and then all the road running that I’ve been doing helped me keep a steady pace. I checked my watch and realized that if I made an effort I could actually end up with 30k race course PR although it would be an apples to orange situation in that I ran 3 or 4 miles more than the regular 30 and because I didn’t actually run on the 30k route the whole way. 

Either way, it was enough motivation for me to salvage the day, get a finish and maybe even a race photo to boot. 

As I zoomed for the finish line, folks were cheering and those who knew me were a bit shocked since I was wearing the 50k bib and as soon as I crossed the finish line I told the time keeper that I had dropped down and then I heard the deflated “ohhh” from everyone. No one was trying to be mean or anything and I didn’t take it that way. That was just a natural reaction. It was more funny. I got a similar cheer at the Sean O’Brien 30k but there I had actually crushed the race.

I changed my shirt and pulled up a chair to eat some veggie Subway sandwich and sip on some cold seltzer water. I knew that the day didn’t go how I wanted it to but was glad I was able to finish the 30k race.

I waited a bit to see if Dick would finish but then remembered I had my drop bag at the San Francisquito aid station so headed off to go pick it up. 

I have a lot of takeaways after this race. One is that if I am going tackle more marathon or longer distance races, I need to do tougher and longer long runs. I’ve mostly been maxing out at doing half marathon training long runs and that isn’t enough. I have to do longer runs that have me face the devil and learn how to dig out of hell. The more I practice that and the more sh*tty runs I have, the more ready I will be for obstacles that come up on race day. I think I have enough runner friends who will be more than willing to help me take on those new adventures and look forward to hitting the trails with them.

My Strava time was 6 hours and 17 minutes and 3 seconds for 21.5 miles. I haven’t checked my official time yet. My previous 30k PR time for Leona was 6:31:53 (Strava time) for 19.26 miles. So this was a Leona Divide 30k PR!

I want to end this report with a big thank you to Race Director Keira Henninger for putting on such a great race and thank you to all the volunteers including Sheny, Steph and Jennifer. 

And now it’s time to look for the next race, the next challenge. What on your calendar?