John Muir Trail

John Muir Trail

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Red Rock 50 Miler

This past Sunday, I headed down from San Luis Obispo, where I enjoyed a delicious few days of Thanksgiving vacation, to the Santa Barbara mountains to race in the Santa Barbara Red Rock 50.  I was hemming and hawing on whether or not to hit this race up because I'm in the midst of a mileage build-up to the Sean O'Brien (SOB) 100k in February, but I eventually bit the bullet and signed up.   It's a gorgeous and tough course (claimed 15.8kft. of climbing and descent!  Shut up legs!), so with a little peer pressure from my friend Victoria, it wasn't a hard sell.

I have a pretty solid base of mileage built up from a 100-miler earlier this fall, so after I recovered from that race, I began building up mileage again in a less-than-structured way.   I dabbled with some speed and hill climbing work, but had lots of rest days and my total weekly mileage wasn't where I wanted it to be.  After I ran the first and last 20 miles of the Red Rock course with some buddies about a month and a half ago, I decided to write up a schedule for SOB and get some weekly mileage goals on the books.  I hit some 60+ mile weeks with some solid climbing and was feeling good about my training.  The Red Rock 50 was not included in this plan, but when I took the plunge, I was confident that I wouldn't destroy myself, though I think I came into the race a little over-trained.


Early on race week, my legs felt blown from a hard week of running the week before, so I took Monday off and went easy on Tuesday &Wednesday to let the legs feel better.  I wanted to run on Thanksgiving, but decided to rest until the race instead (drinking a bunch of beer for 2 days counts as resting, right?).  I guess this 'rest' didn't do me any favors, because I woke up on Saturday feeling super congested with a runny nose and sore throat.  Total bummer.

Not one to be waylaid by some minor health issues, I had a pint of Enjoy By (12/26 if you're wondering) with my SLO hosts on the way out of town, accompanied by a delicious Firestone Grill Tri-Tip Sandwich.  Excellent pre-race food!

When I arrived at Rancho Oso, the privately owned horse camp/ranch camp that the race was to start/finish at, I was greeted by cheers coming from up the hill where the beer mile was finishing up.  I was disappointed that I had missed it, but I later learned that it's a fixture at all of Luis' races, so I plan to be around for the next one.  Luis Escobar, the race director, runs a handful of races in So Cal and all of them are low key, fun, and minimal events.  Highly recommended if you enjoy the backcountry, chill people, and a focus on fun times and hard running.  Good shit.

There's a lot to be said about all the pre-race activities at Red Rock, but by far the coolest was the 4-person guitar jam session that broke out after the pre-race meeting.  The vibe of chilling with other runners, talking running, and listening to yet more runners showcase their non-running talents on the guitars was amazing.  Great way to set up a positive attitude for race day!

Race Day

The race start was at 6am, so I woke up around 3:45 to make coffee and get some food going.  I was feeling pretty exhausted, but I think that after the coffee kicked in, I felt OK.  Another, identical pre-race meeting was held at 5:45am and the race started immediately afterwards.  Hilariously (?) as soon as the runners were sent to the starting line, it started raining.  Victoria says about Red Rock every year, "It's just gonna be a horrible day." Because it's a long, hard 50 miler.  Haha, maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy!  I decided to start calling it 'the best day of my life' after Luis told us it would probably be the worst day of our lives (tongue in cheek, of course).  Somehow, in the middle of a hands-on-knees-steep climb to Montecito Peak to get our finishers medallions, everyone that I asked, "Best day of your life!?" seemed to agree that it was.

Anyway, we finally took off around 6:15am into the rain.  I was mid-pack, but decided that I should go out hard to get a good spot on the single track.  This proved to be a good call because I ended up in a group of guys who were all around or a little faster than my race pace, and I only got passed by 2 dudes in this section.  The downside of going out hard is that I had to make a concerted effort to get my heart rate back down to where I wanted it to be, and this meant slowing down, which never feels good in a race, at first.  But it had to be done.

The first aid station is 6.5 miles in, or so, and I rolled in, filled up a bottle with Tailwind and cruised out.  
For the last few races, I've been trying to figure out my nutrition, and I think I may have finally gotten it dialed in.  200 cal/hour of Tailwind (1 sleeve in a 24 oz. bottle), supplemented by a gel or aid station food as necessary to get to between 250 and 300 cal/hr.  It's worked on a couple of fatass runs of up to 40 miles and this far, so good!

From this station, the runners follow a paved road to where it turns to fire trail and then to single track and back to fire trail.  This section was uneventful and I chatted with a fellow runner Kathleen and cruised into the mile 11 aid station with no news to report.  By this time, the runners were pretty strung out along the course, so I ended up with 2 people who were running the marathon and no 50-milers.

The next section of the race consists of about 8 or 9 miles of mostly single-track rollers ending in a 1200 foot climb up to the high point on the course.  It started raining relatively hard, and at times I couldn't help but have a big, fat grin on my face about what an adventure this race was becoming.  I put on arm warmers and gloves under a tree, and flipped my hat forward to keep the water out of my eyes.  I had my first of a couple 'this is why I run' moments before turning up towards the big climb where I looked out over the valley and noticed that all of the leaves on the trees by the river were bright yellow, which created this awesome contrast of a long, snaking, vibrant yellow swath down the valley against the sage greens and browns of the mountains rising up above the trees.  Gorgeous!  

When I turned up the towards the climb, the dirt turned to clay, and portions of the course got super slick.  I had trekking poles with me for 'The Big Climb' (yet to come), so I cracked them out and used them for traction and power up this section.  I hiked about 98% of this climb as part of my race strategy and ended up at the top more-or-less in good shape, ready to tackle the 3000 ft. descent and climb that lay ahead.  More Tailwind into the bottles and I took off.

I'm an OK descender, as normal runners go (my elite friends blow my doors off on the descents!), but I knew that 3000 ft. over 6 miles would take its toll, so in turn, I took the descent at a less-than-breakneck speed.  At Red Rock, Luis makes you earn your finisher's medallion (without it, you can't get a time!) by doing 'something', and this year it involved leaving the Cold Springs trail and climbing a use-trail up to Montecito Peak.  This trail was steep, but luckily not slippery.  At the top were waiting Pat and Amy with the medallions laid out, and some Fritos.  Amy asked if I wanted to leave a note, so I left two for some of my buddies who were behind me.  I got my medallion, which was a handcrafted ceramic medallion on a neck-cord, and started down the hill.  It's worth noting that normally, this peak provides an amazing view of Santa Barbara and the ocean, but today, the fog/clouds were dense and all that could be seen was white.  I ended up descending pretty much the whole hill with a woman, Jade, who I learned was doing her 1st 50 miler (hell of a first 50!).  She was super chill and was a great conversation buddy for the descent and, as it turns out, pretty much the whole climb too.  As we hit about the halfway point on the descent, we started to be able to see the ocean and city, and the sun started to come out!  This provided some amazing views, which made it hard to concentrate on some of the more technical sections of the trail, which at times was super rocky.  I could feel the descent slowly battering my quads and hips but by the time I hit the bottom, I wasn't feeling as bad as I thought that I might!  I filled up the Tailwind, ate some grilled cheese sando, stretched the piriformis muscles and hamstrings and took off for the climb back up the hill.

The whole course is a big out-and-back, so I knew exactly what lay ahead.  After fastpacking the John Muir Trail (JMT) in 8 days this year, I was pretty accustomed to power-hiking 3000-4000 ft. climbs with trekking poles, and this climb fit right into the JMT category, minus about 9,000 feet of total elevation.  I was surprised, but I topped out only about an hour and 40 minutes later (back in the clouds...) and not too tired, but definitely feeling the 31 miles that I had on my legs at that point.  I munched down on some grilled cheese, thanked the volunteers and took off.

My race strategy was as follows: be conservative for 30 miles, then start evaluating whether I should start hammering.  Well, 'hammering' being a relative term for me in an ultramarathon, I decided to treat the last 20 miles like I was on a 20 mile training run.  I rolled the descents smoothly without holding much back, hiked the uphills, and tried to remain comfortable on the flats.  8 miles later, I had seen 1 guy briefly as I passed him, and my legs were starting to feel pretty uncomfortable, so I resorted to a tactic that I've never used before: the iPod shuffle.

Around mile 39, I cracked out the shuffle because I was feeling like I needed a boost after running pretty much alone for the last 8 miles.  My legs were feeling battered, I was a little lonely, and the clouds were still holding out and keeping the lighting flat.  On the rare occasion that I run with music, my go-to tunes are electro dance jams, and the thumping 4-on-the-floor beats are just what I needed to pick me up.  Head bopping to the beat, I finished out the climb into the mile 40 aid station in high spirits, filled up the last of my Tailwind and headed for home.  This meant a fire trail descent into the valley by the Gibralter Dam, the climb out, and then some descending to the paved portion of the course.  Somewhere in here, the sun was setting under the clouds, and creating amazing 'golden hour' shadows and contrasts on the mountains, ridges, and spines.  It was another amazing 'this is why I run' moment, facilitated by some uplifting music.  The music was helping, as were the amazing views, but my legs were fatiguing and feeling more and more uncomfortable.  I was close to the point where I was ready to be done.

At the mile 44-ish aid station, I filled only water, ate some potatoes, and headed out to what I consider one of the hardest sections of the course for me.  I figured that  gel was in order, because I was out of tailwind and had a solid amount of time on my feet to go, so I cracked one out and chomped it down, almost to have it come right back up.  I guess the potatoes weren't done doing their thing yet...haha.  So that ended my nutrition for the run.  That last 6.5 miles traverse 3 or 4 ridges with the associated climbs and descents into the crooks of the valleys between.  There's a lot of varying up and down and changing muscle of groups which is never fun in the late stages of an ultra!  Luckily, the music, plus seeing a runner about a half mile up gave me a boost and I was able to make it to the final fire trail descent, which ends with about a mile to go.  I caught the runner in front of me with about 2 miles to go while rolling the descent, and she was struggling with some IT band issues.  We started chatting and I ended up running with her all the way in including putting on headlamps because we were just about 15 minutes too late to make it in without them. It was awesome to share the final miles and finish with someone after running for so long with nothing but my thoughts (and some sweet tunes!).  We rolled into the finishing area and high-fived after taking a seat on one of the picnic benches.  I clocked in at 11:19:46.


This race was brutal!  My legs were toast and I was zombie-walking immediately.  2 days later and I am still feeling it!  I tried hard to walk the line of going fast, but not blowing up or having to death march into the finish.  Luis warned us that this is not a course to PR on (which, if you look at the elevation profile, is a no-brainer), and indeed I did not PR, but I am pretty stoked on my finish.  Also, they had pumpkin pie, burritos, chile, and other delicious fare at the finish line, which was delightful after not eating anything for the last hour or so.  After I put on some warm clothes, I pulled up a chair with what seemed like a lively group (turned out to be Crista, Pat, Bobby and Michelle, a merry tribe of self-proclaimed Dirtbag Runners) and ended up shooting the shit with them and cheering in runners for another 3 or 4 hours.  Just an amazing end to an amazing day!

I highly recommend coming out to the Red Rock 50 and bringing an awesome attitude, a chair, and some beer to share (and some Fireball if you're feeling will not go unappreciated)!

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