50 at 50? Not quite.

There’s a beauty in extreme old age–
Do you fancy I am elderly enough?
Am I old enough to run it do you think?
Should I wait until I’m 80 in the shade?
There’s a fascination frantic
In a ruin that’s romantic;
Do you think I am sufficiently decayed?

The Mikado — W. S. Gilbert

Well I’m 6 days short of 50, so 49.94. And despite being advertised as a 50K the course is actually 56K (and due do confusions, I actually ran 63K). So it isn’t really 50 at 50. Not quite. Not yet.

It’s still my first ultra. Mike said I should do it as a training run to see what running an ultra was like before I tried racing one in July… I was to keep my HR below 80% of maximum. I was to eat 200Calories/hour (a GU every half hour). I was to drink at least a pint of water an hour. I was to pop some electrolite pills (salt tablets) every now and then.

I got myself an enormous camelback which could hold 6 pints. I had lots of GUs. I had a few pills. I didn’t plan on stopping at any aid stations, except maybe about halfway through to refill my camelback.

At packet pickup the night before, Ken told me I needed gaiters. Then Ken gave me a pair of gaiters. I was expecting great heavy hot things, but these were little bits of brightly colored cloth that clipped on to my shoes (around the laces) and kept out fox tails and rocks. They worked quite well, but they weren’t so brightly colored when I finished.

A 50K. Hmm. I thought when I first signed up. Probably take me around 6 hours? Then I really looked at this one. It’s not really 50K, it’s 34.9 miles, and it’s got ~10,000ft of elevation gain. OK, we’re into 9 trails territory here. Seven, maybe eight hours. I’ll bring enough GU for 9 hours. Just in case.

It rained in Santa B the day before the race. It never rains in June, but we had about 6 hours of solid rain. At first I was happy — overcast weather for the race — but then someone pointed out the likelyhood of mud on the trails. Oh dear.

Misty, moisty morning

Misty, moisty morning

As it happened it didn’t rain much in the valley. And there was no mud. But it was overcast. Joy!

So I’m heading over the pass around 6am and then down the other side and off Paradise Rd. Get there about 6:30. Patty is already in the parking lot. The car in front contains Carrie Dent, and the car behind is Mark. Mark hasn’t brought tecnu. Nor has Carrie. I put some on me and then give them both some. I very carefully put sunscreen on my face and neck — and somehow forget that I’ve got arms and legs too. I felt very silly when I realized that about 30 minutes into the race.

There is only one bathroom. Things move rather slowly there. I get to the race start and hear that we’ll be starting in 3 minutes. Gleep! where did the time go? I had intended to have a GU before the start. Tough. My HR monitor is reading 00. Damn. Turn it off and on. Still 00. Fiddle with the strap: 62. That’s reasonable. We line up.

There are about 50 runners for the 50K here and 12 for the 50M. Not a huge crowd, but respectable.

Just follow the Glo-Sticks we are told. Well, Glo-Sticks were needed for the 5am start of the 100k, but for us 50Kers, they are a) dead b) invisible. Doesn’t really matter — we’re all lost. Someone sees the first, and we’re off. I’m about 4th place. Not that that matters much at this point in the game.

My camelback is leaking. It has wet my pants, just as with all the women bloggers. I pull off to the side and see that it has popped open. Sigh. I close it up and join the throng (I’m not 3rd any more). My camelback is leaking. Again, still. I pull off and fix it again. This time I do fix it.

Low overcast in the valley of the Santa Ynez river

Low overcast in the valley of the Santa Ynez river

I’m behind Ken and Mark now. They are chatting about Mark’s idea of a “5 trails” race now that we don’t have 9 trails left. Mark thinks we can get a 50K by running up Cold Spring, across on Camino Cielo, down San Ysidro, over to Ramero, up Ramero, down San Ysidro, across to Cold Spring and finish. Even more elevation than 9 trails, I suspect. Sounds tough.

And I realize how different this race is than any I’ve been in before. People are chatting. Oh, in a marathon I’ve had brief conversations, and in a 10miler I’ve gasped out a few sentences, but we’re all running very easily, we’ve got a long way to go, lots of hills, and we know we can’t run fast or hard now. So we’ve lots of breath. Which means we talk. It feels — friendly.

Ken lets me pass him (it’s single track) and then Mark does too; it really is friendly. I was perfectly happy to run with them, I’m in no rush at the moment, but I’m also perfectly happy to go a bit faster.

The guy ahead. Probably Yermal

The guy ahead. Probably Guillermo

I start gaining on the guys in front. Very slowly I’m passing people. It’s an odd feeling. I don’t want to run too fast. I have my HR monitor set up to beep if I go above 80%. I see people ahead, I know I could catch them easily, but only if I pushed myself harder than I should, this early.

Still, I do gain. And pass.

But it still feels very odd. We’re racing, for goodness sake, but we’re racing so slowly it feels ridiculous.

There are no mile markers. Weird.

There’s one guy (in sight) ahead of me when we reach the first aid station (about 3 miles). The road goes straight, but a trail takes off to our left. I don’t notice it. The route we are to take is marked with blue ribbons, and side-trails we aren’t to use are marked in red. Presumably the trail had a blue ribbon. I wasn’t looking. The guy ahead sees a red ribbon on the road. I don’t. Suddenly it occurs to me: I’m color blind, and a red ribbon tied to a green shrub isn’t going to be very noticeable to me. Thank goodness the main route is marked in blue. That I can see. And I try to be more alert to ribbons.

We’re on single track, overgrown, narrow singletrack. The grass reaches up to my waist, my chest. The trail is just grass beaten down. There’s a blue flag ahead to aim for. I might go faster swimming. Oh, here’s some poison oak. It, also, is up to my chest and reaches out to my arms. I had put tecnu on my legs, I didn’t expect to need it on my arms (or face), didn’t expect the oak to be this tall. Live and learn.

Taking pictures becomes problematic now. I’m not going to stop running. Light is dim. There’s a lot of camera jitter. I can’t look where I’m going, and I stumble several times, and fall once.

Runners behind

Runners behind

Still, it’s kind of amazing that I can take pictures at all. I would not attempt that on a road race.

I discover a new problem, one that had never occurred to me. The trail is somewhat overgrown. It’s quite visible (mostly), but there are shrubs that encroach at shoulder height. And these shrubs have tough branches which leave little micro cuts on my upper arms. No one cut is noticeable, but there is a cumulative effect. Other people, I see, have upper arm guards. They looked odd at first, but now I know why.

I’m in a clump of 3. We switch places from time to time. Guillermo, Dave and I. I’m  being kind of stupid. I’m trying to get ahead. I haven’t realized that it doesn’t matter yet.

I do pull ahead. Every now and then my monitor beeps at me (and keeps beeping until my HR drops below 80%) and I am anxious lest someone will overtake me. No one even tries.

On a long slow uphill Guillermo catches up with me. This worries me. I don’t want to be passed, but I don’t want to hold him up either. I ask if he wants to pass me, and he says “Not yet”, that he’ll wait to mile 30. (We’re now about mile 7? I’d guess). So we continue to hike up the hill together. Then run down. Then up.

After about an hour and a half I glance at my watch, which has mysteriously started showing Calories. I claims I have burnt about 900. And I’ve eaten 300. I guess I can’t run forever.

Sun comes out on Gibraltar dam

Sun comes out on Gibraltar dam

The sun starts to come out. Oh well, we had almost 2 hours of overcast. Guillermo points out Gibraltar dam, it is behind us and we are running away from it. Which is odd because we’ve got an aid station to get to near the dam.

Up some more. And we pop out onto the Angustora Road which leads from Camino Ciello to the dam. Dirt road now, with some remnants of pavement from decades ago. Guillermo pulls ahead of me here.

Another aid station is just around the corner. We’ve gone 9.6 miles in 1:51 minutes. Wow, we’re really zipping along. Guillermo stops at the aid station, and I do not. Downhill again, and a good running surface. I pick up the pace (I’m still trying to win, you see, and I’m not even a third of the way yet). I manage to get quite some distance down the road before Guillermo leaves.

Sun on the valley

Sun on the valley

The sun is really coming out now, and it is easier to take pictures from the road.



Odd rock formations

Odd rock formations

The guy ahead

The guy ahead

Then I began to see glimpses of the guy in front of me. I think there are 2 in front. I learned later that both were doing the 50 miler, but right now I am anxious to catch either. Wouldn’t it be neat to win this thing?

I’m slowly catching up to him — when my monitor starts beeping at me, and I have to slow down. He runs off.

Purple sage

Purple sage

There have been a fair number of wildflowers on this run. Yucca are quite obvious, of course. Purple sage is in full bloom (black sage is over, I can see the seed cases). White sage is just starting to come out. There’s lots of yellow yarrow, so common it is dull. Various flowers whose name I don’t know, of course. A few bush poppies still popping out. Clematis is well over, but their seed whirlagigs are still around. It’s hard to take flower shots when I’m unwilling to stop running. But I’m walking now and here’s a luxuriant stand of purple sage. I risk it.

14TheValley-1600 Hey! I’m catching up to the guy again!
15GibDam-1600Gibraltar Dam again, and now we’re heading toward it.

I do manage to catch the guy in front. He points out that we’ll have to run up this lovely downhill. I had worried about that myself. In the full sun. With no shade. Oh, yeah. Hadn’t thought of that. Then I pull ahead of him.

The next aid station is the 50K turn around. I don’t know that. Neither, it turns out, do they. I don’t bother to stop because I don’t need to, and run through. Another 200 yards and there’s an intersection. I can’t see a flag on either branch. One has a locked gate, and one is just the continuation of the road I’m on. No brainer, I take the obvious route. After two minutes or so downhill, some guy comes out of a house down near the dam and yells at me to go back and take the other route. Actually I can’t hear him very well, but I think that’s what he says. So back I go. Up hill. The guy I’ve just passed has followed me. He is grumbling that the aid station we just passed is the turn around. I’m convinced it’s the next one (how I got that idea, I can’t imagine), more oddly the volunteers at the aid station also think it is the next one. Dave has also followed me down. Finally Guillermo yells at us that he’s found the flag at the last intersection pointing to the other road. Sigh. So I’ve lost ~4 minutes and gone from being first in our group of 4 to being second. Then third. Dave and I run together for a bit. Dave turns out to be a friend of a friend (Kary). Then Dave passes me too. Fourth. Sigh.


Gibraltar reservoir

Gibraltar reservoir

It’s a pretty stretch of road, beside the reservoir. Lots of ups and downs. Dave and I switch places a couple of times. He goes up hills faster (I’m still not letting my heart rate get above 80%) but I come down them faster. This is weird. I think of myself as being a fast climber but slow on the downhills. Maybe I’m really becoming an ultra-runner.

I realize I haven’t seen anyone come back. Maybe my little clump is in the lead for the 50K.

Old mine building

Old mine building

We come to the old mercury mine, and the aid station is just around the corner. Guillermo and the guy I don’t know are there still. I fill up the camelback. The guy I don’t know says his GPS watch shows 17+ miles, and that’s too far for the 50K turn; he figures that as he’s started on the 50miler, he might as well run that now rather than the 50K. I take off. My camelback is leaking. I pause and fix it. And do fix it, but again I have wet shorts. Guillermo quickly catches me, and passes.

We start seeing  runners going the other way. One guy confirms to me that the turn-around is at the mine. I pass about 10 or 12 of them. After a bit a truck comes down the road, he’s got the drop bags for the 50K turn-around and is taking them to the mine. OK, I guess he was just late, and that’s where we were supposed to go.

Luckily I don’t have a drop bag.



Hmm. Some clouds are starting to pile up in the sky. Looks quite pretty from here.

I’m back at the aid station which really is the 50K turn around but which is terminally confused. I want to make sure they have my name because there was no one to take it at the place I did turn (thus they can check that I did get to the turn-around, and did do the whole course this way), they, on the other hand, want to offer me food and drink, which I don’t want. Takes a while to make sure they’ve got my name.

I take off, just behind Guillermo, but once again he is going faster than I. Then I begin to see that Dave is catching up with me. I know at this point that we are the top three 50K runners. That’s kind of exciting. This is my first 50K and I’m in second place! Dave’s first too, and he’s in third. Only Dave is catching me. I’m still trying to keep my HR below 80%. Then slowly I start to pull away from Dave. Equally slowly I start to gain on Guillermo.

The only shady section on the road. Even puddles here.

The only shady section on the road. Even puddles here.

I decide to let myself run up to 83%. I’ve passed the halfway point now (I think) and can expend a bit more energy. I can’t reset the point at which the alarm goes off, so I just live through the beeps. There aren’t as many as I expected. And slowly, slowly I gain on Guillermo.

I turn off my watch’s beeps so I won’t bother Guilermo, I figure I can risk going 85% now…

I catch Guillermo.

I don’t pass Guillermo, he picks up the pace.

We run together. We walk together. We chat again. Guillermo, it turns out, is quite an ultra-runner. He’s done 15 100mile races. He’s won Angeles Crest, he’s run it in under 19 hours (don’t know if that were the race he won). Here am I, with my measly 4 marathons, none of which I’ve won, and here’s Guillermo with 15 century runs. I’m a bit intimidated. He asks me about Mike Swan and Peter Park and Stu Sherman. Knows them all. Well, I do too, but I live in SB and he doesn’t.

Finally we get to the aid station at the top of the road. I don’t stop. Guillermo does. Ah ha! I think, I can get ahead of you again.


He catches right up, and then zips ahead of me when we hit the single track. I let him go, and then slowly catch up with him again. That surprises me. (Looking back, I think Guillermo was just running hard enough to insure he won. He’d keep up with the second place guy for company, and then at the end would sprint out ahead. It certainly was more pleasant for me, having him run with me.) So he let me catch up. Then he let me get ahead. He stopped in fact. Ah ha! I think again, I’ve got you now.


He catches right up. So we continue chatting. It’s getting harder to run up the hills, but Guillermo is quite content to walk when I do. I ask if he wants to pass. “Have we reached mile 30 yet?” Not by a long shot.

We’ve been running for 5:30. That makes this the longest run (in terms of time) I’ve ever done.

Finally we come out to the first aid station again. Maybe I’m learning the right attitude finally, maybe I’m just exhausted, but I wait for Guillermo here. We now leave the route we used on the way out, and go up the road I tried to follow at the beginning. It is now marked with blue flags, but there is no one to direct people in that direction. How many runners will turn the wrong way because they just assume the course is out and back?

More to the point, most to the point from my perspective, will Dave go the wrong way and steal first place from us?

Clouded up again

Clouded up again

Uphill. Very steep. We walk almost the whole way up. Together. Guillermo occasionally runs now. I can keep up with him, but it is hard. I never start running myself.

Clouds have now covered the sky. It’s actually chilly. I had not anticipated that. I was expecting heat. And we are walking. Hiking hard, but it’s not as warming as running.

Fog blowing across Camino Ciello

Fog blowing across Camino Ciello

We turn a corner and there is the ridge line and (presumably) Camino Cielo. I can see fog blowing over the ridge. There’s a stiff wind which is blowing us back and is actually cold!

We press on. The final aid station. I am sick and tired of GU. I take a banana. After we leave the station I realize I’ll be stuck with a banana skin all the way to the finish. Oh well.

Guillermo asks how far to go. We are now 3.3 miles to the finish. 6 hours, 21 minutes of running. Can we finish before 7 hours? Normally the thought of taking 39 minutes to finish a 5K would be ludicrous. I can do a 10K in that time. Not even pushing hard. And this is a downhill run (mostly); obviously we’ll finish before 7 hours. No doubt in my mind.

Unh hunh.

34miles minus 3 miles means we’ve passed 30 miles. Guillermo leaves me. I try to keep up, but I don’t expect to succeed, and I don’t. Still I’m going down at quite a clip.

Suddenly there’s a horse in front of me. Actually there are about 10 of them. Guillermo is hugging a tree off to one side of the trail, and I realize I must hug a tree on the other to get out of their way. They start to move. Very slowly. I ask if they can hurry, but this just annoys the leader. Share the trail she snaps at me. She, of course, is not sharing, she’s taking all of it. Still, I reflect, trail etiquette gives horses the right of way. I’m not sure what trail etiquette says when the hikers are racing, but it doesn’t matter. They plod on by. Guillermo gets to move before I do, and is out of sight before I can start.

Now, in addition to poison oak, I have to dodge horse dung.

How far behind me is Dave? Will he be slowed by horses? Will he catch me? I’m not going as fast as I would like…

I look at my watch 6:48. Oh no. Maybe I won’t make it in under 7 hours after all. I have no idea how far I’ve gone. No idea how far I have to go. The trail continues to wind among the trees. It’s a beautiful trail, but I’m not in a position to appreciate that just now. I pick up my pace. It’s really hard to do that now, but I do get my heart rate up to 90% and then I feel that was stupid; I’m light-headed and exhausted, but I have to keep trying. The trail has opened up, I see a building, and another. I must be getting close, I try to go faster. I brest a hill and… the trail keeps going winding in and out. Damn it! How much further? Damn again! I’m running in deep sand now, each footstep slides and slithers under me, and it’s up hill again. Brest another hill, and down, whew. I recognize this, I ran here this morning. There’s a glow stick. There’s a person cheering me. Round another corner, and now I can see the final turn. A long downhill, and then it’s only 50 feet to the finish. And now I can see the clock 6:50. I’m going to break 7 hours! I’m so happy. I put my thumbs up in the air to cheer, and people are at the finish line and they are cheering me… and I’m done!

And I’m second! 6:53:15. Longest run I’ve ever done.

Why did I care about 7 hours? We’ve run an arbitrary distance on a new course. But some how this round number seems important to me. More importantly I ran with an average HR of 78%. Now that’s something to be proud of!

Then I learn where the turn-around really was, and that we really should have turned back earlier. Who cares? It was a great race and no one got ahead of me who shouldn’t have, so it didn’t matter. Later I figure the extra bit to the next aid station added 4.6 miles, so I ran 39.5 miles (assuming their measurements of the distance to the aid stations are correct). Wow. 39.5 miles. That’s 63.5K. A tad more than a conventional 50K race.

A bit later Mark Warren comes in. He also added the 4.6 miles, but he didn’t do the final climb so he shaved off about 3 miles (and a long steep climb). Then Dave came in, he did what Guillermo and I did. Then the first woman finisher, only she didn’t do the 4.6 miles. Arg! This race is going to be a mess to score:-) Everybody ran a different distance. I’m glad I just ran it. That was fun. I’ll leave figuring out the scoring to others. Beautiful course, perfect weather, and a great first ultra. Who cares about the distance? It was an ultra. The longer my training run, the better for my 50 miler!

Did I mention I’m happy and pleased?

I’m happy and pleased.


8 Responses to “50 at 50? Not quite.”

  1. Dan Says:

    Great race report! I also did the 50K with the extra bonus miles to the mine, I think you ran past us at the Gib Res station when we were checking out the map with the volunteers and trying to figure out what was going on. However, I’m good pals with Dave (and Kary) and I decided that I couldn’t run any shorter than he did, so I plowed on to the mine anyway 🙂

    Congrats on your first ultra (ditto for Dave and I) and 2nd place, well done!

  2. Proud Parents Says:

    Wonderful, wonderful ! Far beyond all whooping! Congratulations.
    We can hardly wait for the July ULTRA; we’ll be cheering.

  3. Gina Says:

    Congratulations! And Happy Birthday George (a couple of days late). Good luck on the race in July.

  4. Self-Confidence « George’s Meanderings Says:

    […] I finished my first ultra. I even came in second. I’m more confident that I’ll do well in my next ultra, but as […]

  5. 50 at 50 « George’s Meanderings Says:

    […] coach told me I should do a 50K as a training run. So I did the Blue Canyon 50K, a new race, just over the mountains from me. I loved it. And I felt great afterward, far less […]

  6. Kevin Steele Says:

    The race is featured in a 2-page spread in this months (August) UltraRunning Magazine.
    George, some quotes from your blog were used in the report.

  7. Loose hips sink marathon hopes? « George’s Meanderings Says:

    […] the trail continues. I have a choice now between Mono and Blue Canyon. In spite of having run the Blue Canyon race, I know I never actually got to Blue Canyon trail, only the really long distance runners did that, […]

  8. It’s too darn hot! « George’s Meanderings Says:

    […] Last year I had come in second. I didn’t really expect to do that again, but… well… I hoped. Actually, since the first place finisher from last year wasn’t around, I wondered… […]

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