I signed up for the Xterra Point Mugu 18k a few weeks ago. It was a good excuse to get out in the mountains and some climbs on my legs. I ran the race back in 2008 (wow, five years goes by very fast!) so I had some lingering knowledge about what the course was like. I'd remember it for its long climbs to the sky and its final miles of speedy switchbacks.
Per my training schedule, I was required to do 23 miles. Since an 18k is only about 11 miles, I still owed 12 more. Luckily, there was an 11k option offered by Xterra, so my coach suggested I run the 11k loop prior to the 18k race, and then run another 11k loop following the race. I knew this would be a tough training day, but sometimes we need the mental challenge just as much as we need the physical challenge. And while Rocky Raccoon will not have nearly as much climbing, running on fatigued legs will surely be an issue. So, extra loops plus a 3.5hr Saturday workout are beneficial fatigue-inducers.
Point Mugu is located North of Malibu, technically in Ventura County, CA. It was about a 45min drive in the dark along PCH. I arrived at the race start at 5:35am. Some race volunteers were already milling around the parking lot, setting up the expo area prior to 7am packet pick up. It was completely dark, so I wore my Go Motion Sternum Kit as well as a clip-on LED light for my visor. I had the course map downloaded to my phone and I carried a paper map as well. But again, I was lucky that the race had already marked the course with flour and arrows, so I didn't have a problem finding my way. Sort of. The lights I wore were great for illuminating the trail, but the first few miles were so technical, did a lot of climbing and hiking as opposed to actual running.
Once I got out into the La Jolla Valley, around mile 2.5, I was on a wide dirt road in the field. I could see evidence of the Spring Fire that decimated the area. As the sun rose, more damage was revealed. The valley smelled like charcoal and the trees and plants still had layers of black soot, making the the scenery look like an odd and creepy Halloweenland.
The sun rose around mile 3, just as I made the turn west, back toward the ocean. I was along the Overlook Fire Road and snapped some photos of the sun rising over Boney Mountain.
You can see the outline of black tree limbs in the forefront of two of the photos. It's not a trick of the light - they are colored pitch even in sunlight. They look like frail skeletons of the trees they used to be, and yet after the sweeping fire, they still stand. Nature rewards perseverance.
With the sun up around mile 4 (50mins into the run), I shut off my light and enjoyed the remainder of the loop. Temperature was in the 50s, so my long sleeve shirt was a good choice. It was an overcast morning, boding well for the race, but the clouds dampened the light and the mountains before me were muted brown. Still pretty, though.
This is the view of the mountains, from Overlook Fire Road looking north. The Ray Miller trailhead is somewhere down by the water. It's crazy to see exactly how high you have to climb to get here. Of course there are higher points, to be sure. But to be able to stand on top of a mountain and have a clear reference point of where you came from is really neat.
The final 2.5 miles of the loop are switchbacks the run the ridge of the mountain. They used to be lined with vegetation, but as you can see ... all gone.
I descended the mountain, quads on alert during the speed portions, and clocked my watch at the base of the hill. A good warm up and good fatigue inducer.
7.28 miles / 1hr 17mins.
I had a 40-min break before starting the organized race. I went back to my car to refuel (potatoes, pretzels, water) and met up with my friend Adam who was also doing the race. Grabbed packet and bib and got in line for the race. What I like about trail races are the lack of fanfare. Usually there is a guy with a megaphone cracking jokes and counting down the waves - if there are any waves at all. Yesterday there were.
I self-seeded toward the back of the pack, knowing I'd take this loop as slowly as I could manage without walking the whole thing. And once I started, I realized just how helpful running that first loop was - the 18k and the 11k share a lot of the same course, so I knew what was coming. Additionally, my legs were tired so my ego had no problem letting many people pass me along the trail. I went on my merry way without a thought to "racing" the actual course.
What the 18k has the the 11k does not is a gnarly climb from mile 2.5 to 3.5 that seems to go on forever. Because of the burn out, it was easy to see the runners, like a parade of ants, crawling up the side of a mountain. I took a moment mid-climb to take a picture of what was behind us.
It wasn't until the last few miles of the race that the sun came out. Temperatures stayed similarly in the high 50s and low 60s. I plodded along with the rest of the pack, walking a lot and enjoying the view. It was around mile 7 (mile 14 for the day) when the distance and climbs really started to set in my body. Doubt creeped into my mind - "Can I really do another loop after this? I'm really tired." The early wake up (4am), running in the dark (intense focus) and general activity was building up like lactic acid in my brain. This was good - as much as I didn't want one, I needed a good mental challenge.
Down the switchbacks once again and toward the finish line. I took the decent very easy, letting handfuls of folks pass me. Many said 'thanks' or 'sorry' as if their speed was a downer for me. Nope, not at all! I usually answered, 'good job' or 'go for it!' and continued to run. I chatted with another runner for about 20 minutes. She's signed up for a 100K in March and has her eye on Javelina Jundred next year. My spirits were lifted after talking with someone, and once I crossed the finish line, I was resolved to finish my workout and do one more loop.
10.98 miles / 2hrs 6mins
I was so focused on the post-race food, I forgot to get a finishers medal. Oh well, the breakfast tacos were reward enough!
My new trail shoes gave me a hell of a blister on the left side, so for the final run, I swapped them out...and cleaned up my legs a little. Changed my shirt to short sleeve, a quick bottle refill, nutrition load up, and off on the 11k course one last time. The race course closed at 11:30, so the signage was gone. But by now I was fairly familiar with the route. Temps stayed cooler - 64 degrees.
It was rough going. My quads were sore from the switchback miles. I was solo, so my head was left to do what it will - which is wander and wonder why I am doing this. My heart rate felt extremely high, so I hiked the majority of the first four miles. There were few quick distractions, like running into fellow TriTrain teammates Patrick, Charlie and Vince, who were adding more miles after the 18k. But for the most part, I pushed myself to just walk and get the miles done. Mentally difficult.
All the walking allowed me time to take some photos. This one above is around the first half mile of the course. That light-colored rock in the center is a dry waterfall which both the 18k and 11k course scale. I'm not sure how I did that the first time with my light vest on. But I did! Seeing it in daylight was shocking and really pretty. It's a rocky climb though. Nothing like using your hands during a running race!
Between miles 1-2 of the 11k loop is like running through a haunted forest. Just below this photo on the left side was a small valley covered in white ash, as if it had snowed. I remember thinking it looked like pictures I'd seen of the Chernobyl remains. Though none were there, I would not have been surprised to see some abandoned children's playground toys. Though in that case, I would have turned around, convinced it was haunted.
My lowest moments came while taking this picture. I was almost an hour into the run and approaching mile 4. I couldn't see the ocean yet, but just the low stretch of sky and land on my side. The road seemed to climb forever and while the grade wasn't steep, my body did not want to challenge it. So I hiked hard and shuffled along. I moved passed a group of hikers who were cursing the trail as well - but with 20-lb packs on your back, you're allowed to.
Finally, I reached the downhill section. Seeing the ocean was like seeing the sunrise after time in the dark - it shatters the sense that the experience is infinite. It offers hope of a finish and a nice bottle of water and handful of food.
I took the trail gently because my legs were barking at me. I even threw in a few lengths of walking to reduce the pounding on my knees and hips. And during the final miles, more runners started to make their appearance. I passed at least three of whom were running up the switchbacks - crazy! Reaching the bottom of the hill and hitting the stop button on my watch was a very relieving thing. Done for the day!
7.21 miles / 1hr 34mins
Totals for the day were somewhere close to: 25.5 miles / 5:00 hours / 4000ft of elevation
This was a hard day. But this was also a good day. Like, in the world of amassing 'toughness' and building 'grit' maybe I earned myself a penny or an inch or an ounce. I'll take it. Thank you to the XTerra folks for running such a great race, and to the Santa Monica Trail Council for keeping the trails clear and free of dangerous debris. There are 108 more days until my first 100-mile attempt. Between mountains and mole hills and no hills and rest days ... I've got to make the most of them.