Leona Divide 30K Race Report – Crash, no Burn


It’s the day after the Leona Divide trail races, 2023 edition. I got up and went through my morning routine then headed out to the gym, something I hadn’t done in a while. Did some elliptical, then some barbells and finished up with some bench presses on the machine. I went to Kimball Park and did a mile and a half loop. The legs were a little heavy, so I ran in spurts. It felt good to break a light sweat and to start processing my race.

Cut to a couple of hours later and I was watching the last half hour of Rocky. Rocky is in the ring and he’s hanging tough with the world champion who has never gone the distance. When Rocky’s eye is swollen shut he tells Mick to do the only thing that can help him get out of the round – “Cut me, Mick!” He goes on to [spoiler alert] go the full 15 rounds and he hit his goal. Ultrarunner and badass David Goggins loves this scene and uses it for inspiration to keep going when things get rough. I’ll get back to this scene.

At mile 12 of the Leona Divide 30k, I had just left the San Francisquito aid station and had started up the big steep climb. My body felt heavy. The extra water bottle that I was carrying was filled to the brim and it felt like an extra 20 pounds. As I climbed, I started looking for dead branches that I could use as a walking stick. I broke a dead branch and climbed with it for a few steps but it was mostly hollow and broke apart like a large churro. 

Other runners were going in the same direction and were pushing much faster. A runner I had passed on the way down caught up to me and was going at a quick pace. I was hiking at a 30-minute pace and was slowing down. I started looking for shade so I could take small rest stops when other runners zoomed up past me. 

The wheels were falling off.

Now, one of the best mantras I’ve heard for getting through tough spots is to repeat “It doesn’t always get worse.” And sometimes, that does happen. If you can push through, you can get a second wind.

But my brain told me that another metaphor was more apt. When you are eating and eat too much you pretty much know when you’re about to hit your max and after that point only bad things will happen. When I did the 3-Hour race at Veteran’s Park, that was a similar situation. I knew that if I climbed the final 300 feet that I was going to get dizzy and probably barf my guts out and it would be hard to recover way up on that mountain, let alone get help. That day I did get dizzy and am glad Christina was around to drive us back home but that dizziness happened just after I got down from the mountain.

At Leona, I had been tracking elevation gain all morning and I knew that I still had a 1,000 feet of climb left. Even though I only had a total of 7 miles to cover to finish the race and that 2.5 miles of that were all downhill, I didn’t think I could make it up the big climb and not end up compromised. I was already stumbling and off balance. At the Leona Divide 2018 30K, I was in a similar position and did what I had to and eventually got it done. In that instant, I didn’t think I could do that again and would have to be rescued from the top of the mountain which is all single track at that point.

I turned back and everyone who was still going up looked great and confident except for one 50K runner who looked rough. When I got to the aid station I surrendered my bib and looked for a bench. There was another runner there who had dropped, and I told her that we should move the bench over to the shade so we wouldn’t melt as we waited for Mario (volunteers were dressed as Mario Brothers characters) to get us a ride back to the Start/Finish line. A little while after that, the runner who looked rough came back to the aid station with the intent of dropping as well. For whatever reason, the volunteers told him that he was going to head back up again after a short rest. I told him to join us in our shade spot and a volunteered yelled that he was not one of us (a dropper) so to not get too comfortable. He eventually did go back up and I hope he was able to get it done. 

Our ride back showed up and I got dropped off at my car which was a half mile up the road. I thought of zooming straight home with my tail between my legs but then I owned my decision on that mountain and no longer felt bad about my decision. 

I drove over to the Bouquet aid station where our New Basin Blues crew was volunteering. Bouquet is the final turnaround for the 50 mile and 100k runners. I jumped in and started tracking runners who were coming in and leaving then saw a runner who had been sitting nearby. It turns out that her legs were shot and had dropped. I asked her if she was being picked up and she said that she couldn’t even get cell service there but that the ham radio volunteer was working on it. I offered her a ride back and she took me up on the offer. Everyone said that they knew me so not to worry.  I dropped her off and she was able to connect with someone who was going to pick her up from the Start/Finish line. They had expected her to finish much later.

Turning to “service mode” helped me feel better about my DNF but then this morning I started to Monday morning quarterback and say “Well, if I had taken more time at the San Fran aid station maybe I could have rebounded.” 

Then I started second guessing my decision and wished that I had a tougher mindset like Rocky who was determined to make it to the end of the fight at all costs. I knew that I did not have the adequate number of weekly miles under my belt to have a great race but I thought I could muscle through it. I tried to focus my mind on going node to node, aid station to aid station, and just working my way through. That’s how I was able to run all the streets of my town of Santa Paula. That mindset pretty much worked the whole way and I knew that the big climb was going to be an issue so I kept checking elevation gain on my watch and actually enjoyed the first 2,000 feet of elevation. “Yes!” I thought when I hit 2,000, “I only have 1,200 more feet of climbing.” Little did I know that the extra elevation gain would be my final barrier.

So, I’m back to the drawing board and will start a new training block and do what I know needs to be done – increase my weekly mileage. My big race this year is the Mammoth Trail Fest Vertical K in September. I have 5 months to build a strong base and get my climbing muscles and mindset into shape. 

The volunteers were great at the Leona Divide race and I’m glad I was able to help out a tiny bit. This is my first time doing this old course and I got 8.8 new trail miles under my belt so that was super cool. Some of my friends also had battle out there, dropped down a distance and others were able to get it done on a tough day.

I’ll keep doing challenges to keep me motivated and I think I have my next one. That one is trail based.

What’s your next race? Did you run at Leona as well? How did it go?

The Leona Divide race is run on Tataviam land.