I lurched left then right, like a boxer after taking one too many punches in a heavyweight fight. I used the large makeshift branch trekking pole to help steady myself as I took a few more steps to the next shady spot where I would once again lean over for a couple of more breaths.
“If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”–Winston Churchill
About four weeks ago I saw a Facebook event for a Boney Mountain trail race training run with several groups including Run With Us. It looked cool and I had that day open. My cousin Tini was training for a marathon and needed a good half marathon run. We planned it out and showed up for the run.
After a couple of miles we separated and it was obvious we were in different points in our respective training blocks. I was running lackluster weeks of 10 miles and she was approaching her peak training mileage. By mile 6 I was already done and wanted to just take a massive shortcut so she wouldn’t have to wait too long for me. But, I didn’t like that my quitting mind was taking over and decided to tough it out and keep going. I ran with my buddy Christophe who was helping someone out on their first trail run so we weren’t pushing much as we worked the last big climb up Boney Mountain.
Little did I know, this is the same part of the climb that would undo my race.
The day of the training run we are all layered up and it was a super cool day. I did struggle some on the training run but I decided to sign up for the race, especially since I could rollover to it from a race that was cancelled last year.
To build some confidence for the race I did a road half marathon and it went fairly well. It was chill but I didn’t have to work that hard to cover the distance. But, the following week I checked out Rattlesnake Trail in the Santa Barbara mountains and something curious happened, I had to stop. There is a difficult 2.5 mile climb and for the first tine in a long time I had to stop and take a chill break before getting to the top. I thought it might be my lack of mileage that caused that but there was a new element – it got hot.
I started to worry and plan for the race and the inevitable heat. I went through all my singlets and B would tell me which ones no longer quite fit any more. I picked out my old Standard basketball jersey and that would be the one.
The night before the race, I attended a wedding and found myself having to head out so I could get a few hours of sleep. I wasn’t able to sleep until late and the alarm on my watch buzzed way too soon.
Race start to mile 4
After walking down from the parking area, I met up with Chris, Nic, Ro, Kenneth and other friends to chat and get ready for the race. I was wearing my thin Sean O’Brien hoodie and finally took if off to test the temperature and at 7:30 thing were already heating up. This was expected but not good.
Soon enough it was time to line up and we headed out. I ran with Chris for a while then we separated on the massive downhill paved road. I didn’t want to burn my quads off the start but also knew that there were cutoffs and if I took it too easy I would be hosed. I pushed it some and checked my watch and was under a 9 minute pace for part of it. I passed a few people and was feeling pretty decent.
Once we got to the bottom of the paved road I zoomed by the first aid station and got onto the single trail. Only a couple of miles into the race and I started to feel worked. My legs flat and there was very little run in them. I didn’t want to try to run any of the smaller climbs and a little further up I was run/walking even the little flat sections. After running one little section I checked my watch and my heart rate was in the high 160’s. That was horrible. I continued to run some then walk some.
At this point Ro passed my up and checked on me. I told her my heart rate was a bit high and she wished me luck.
I tried to enjoy this part of the course as it’s truly beautiful. It winds on single track until it finally opens up to see a nearby valley and even the Pacific Ocean. Before I got to that section I was passed by several more folks who were climbing much better than me. I usually don’t look backwards when racing so I didn’t know if anyone else was behind me.
I didn’t feel horrible but realized that I was running about the same or a little worse than the training run day.
Mile 4 to 6
I approached the second aid station and I knew that I was already close to the cutoff time. I head a cheer as I was on the last turn and the when I got to the aid station they helped me out ike an efficient pit crew trying to get their car back onto the track. I was doused in water and Mayra help fix out my Salomon Bob bucket hat with ice and I took off.
The next section is a big downhill run. During the training run I was running with someone else and we were both hauling ass. This time I didn’t run as fast and would occasionally slow down and hike for a few segments. I kept checking my watch and knew I was close to missing the cutoff. But it was downhill so I kept pushing.
As I approached the Danielson aid station, I checked my watch and I was over the cutoff time. Would they say anything? Would they let me slide?
I got a little more water and they were out of ice. I asked how close I was to the cutoff time and they said I was a couple of minutes away. I kind of asked to see if they would say I missed it. I figured they were being kind and told me that I had made it so I could keep going and not have to drop me. I pushed on.
Mile 6 to 9
I had forgotten that we started the race 5 minutes later than we were supposed to so I actually did make it by a couple of minutes.
At this point I had no idea if anyone else was behind me but I didn’t think so. I found a couple of branches that I used ad trekking poles as I worked my way up the climb.
The effect of the heat was multiplying. The hiking easy up the mountain to conserve energy turned into take a few steps and huff and puff. Soon enough someone else did catch up to me – the sweeper.
Ricardo checked on me and called in our location to HQ. We talked some and I kept pushing. I kept stopping and leaning on my branch. My shoulders were super sore and I just didn’t have any energy. I had been sucking down GU’s but I just couldn’t catch a second wind. Then when I stopped to catch my breath things were getting super bright and I was starting to get light headed.
I’ve seen/been in this movie before. The next step would be waves of nausea and I still had over 1,000 feet of climbing.
It was time to bail.
I could either keep climbing another 500 feet and a couple of miles and then take a shortcut at a trail intersection, or I could backtrack all the way to Danielson.
I told Ricardo that I was going to pull the plug and head to Danielson. It would be one big downhill so I thought I could handle that. He called it in and they asked how long it would take. for me to go 1.5 miles to Danielson. He said 45 minutes and I thought that I’d be faster but I wasn’t in the best shape to assess my capabilities at the time.
I made my way down and was able to scoot some of the way down but as the trail flattened out I went slower and slower. At every shade spot I hunched over to be in the shade and to take a break. Things were getting brighter and brighter. If I hadn’t been wearing my shades I would have been almost blind from the brightness.
Since Ricardo was the sweeper, he had picked up the trail confidence ribbons so I had to remember which turn to take. One time I didn’t know which way to go and got lucky and Ricardo had missed a ribbon and that helped me find the way.
I checked my watch as I stumbled towards the last part of the trail to Danielson and I was at around 45 minutes. I saw Tina at the truck and I apologized to her for dragging her out there and she said it was fine because she got to be in the truck’s AC. On the way up to the start line we picked up three other hikers who were having a tough time with the heat. All along the climb we saw dozens of hikers/walkers who were sitting in shade on the big climb.
It was a tough day but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This was not an A race. Leona Divide is my A race and I’m going to need a lot more kicks in the ass like this to get me ready for the desert heat in April.
A big thanks to all the volunteers, to the RD Daniel, and to all my friends who made it a fun day despite my DNF. It was also nice meeting Nadia and Marcus in person and chatting with them a bit. Also a big thanks to B for taking care of me once I got home and vegetated in front of the TV watching the Super Bowl.
I’ll consider this experiences as my kickoff to Leona Divide training. I’m growing my superstitious training beard already. If you see me bare faced on race day you’ll know I’m in trouble. If I’m a fuzzy bear then I’ll be ready to toe the line.
Original photo by Victor via @SoCalTrail.