Winter solstice run

On the twenty-fourth day of Advent,
My coach, he said to me:
You must go running,
Even though it’s raining,
Head up Romero,
Out Camino Cielo
Far as Gibraltar.
Turn back around,
Twenty-seven miles.

This solstice was supposed to be remarkable because there was an lunar eclipse on the shortest night of the year. The barbarians here didn’t notice. The skies were overcast and pouring rain.


It’s three and a half weeks to my race and today is (probably) my longest run. I can’t put it off until tomorrow, because tomorrow it’s supposed to rain harder (and it rained yesterday too). Mike said to go up Romero Rd, then run hard on Camino Cielo for about 40 minutes. And then turn round and go back.

Normally, when I do a 4~5 hour run (as I expected this one to be) I fill my camelback with 6 pints of water, which is as much as it will hold. But it was raining. And wet. I didn’t think I’d need that much, and it’s annoying to carry an extra 6 pounds of water I’m not going to use. So I only filled it half-way.

I drove. I couldn’t face biking back in the cold rain for 10 miles after a hard run. On the way up I was pleased to note that there would be little chance of fire today. I wondered if this were deliberate, or chance?

I thought about locking the car. But the last time I ran in the rain my fingers were so cold after the run that I couldn’t use them, and it took forever to get the bike unlocked. So I decided to leave the car unlocked. There was no one else around, I didn’t think anyone would want my car…

I’d been up here two days earlier. On Sunday it was raining much harder than it was today, but it was warmer. On Sunday the place where the road fords the creek looked potentially dangerous. Today it just looked wet. Anyway, I slogged through it, and then started running up the fireroad.

The lowering clouds, the rain, and the trees, all combined to make the road a bit dark. The closest ridge line ahead poked out of the mist, but the ones behind it were hidden. On Sunday this road had been a small creek in its own right, pretty much entirely under water; today it looks like a road with puddles.

Today, at the place where the fireroad forks, a normally dry ditch is a busy stream that crosses the road. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen water in this ditch — except, of course, for Sunday, when there was even more.

I didn’t bring a camera on Sunday. I’m half hoping that it will start raining harder so that the creeks will be full on the way back down. I know that will be uncomfortable, but it would be neat.

Just beyond the stream the road becomes an oak allee. The combination of new green from the oxalis below and the dark oak limbs above is lovely to my eye.

Then the stream crosses the road again. On Sunday there was quite a torrent here, and some of our party were dismayed by it. Today, well, today you can see the stepping stones. Now admittedly the stones are under water, but you can see them, they console you, even if they are useless.

Just after the stream are the first signs of rock falls. These were not here a few weeks ago (one of them was here Sunday). These don’t really block the passage. They are just … interesting.

Looking back across the valley I can see the route of the other fork of the fireroad as it winds into the mist. Hills mounded on hills, and mist coming down from above to hide their tops…

A little further and I find a new rock fall. Not a particularly large fall, but a rather large rock… longer than I am tall, I’d guess (though I did not lie down in the rain to measure it).

I’ve been running for about a mile now (my watch beeps at me) and I realize I’m starting to get hot. I’m wearing 4 shirts, and that seems too much at the moment. The rain is light, there’s no wind, it’s 52° (12°C) so not really cold, and I’m running uphill. I stop to take off one shirt and stuff it into the camelback. I also pause to take a picture of Montecito below me. Or where Montecito would be if you could see it in the mist…

Then I turn another bend in the road, and I’m looking at a hillside over which small puffs of mist are drifting. I think it is beautiful.

I love the interplay of mist on the mountains…

The ferns by the side of the road are looking very happy. Since this area is normally dry as a bone, I wonder if they are Polypodium (resurrection ferns, which shrivel up when dry and pop out again when it gets wet).

At the two mile mark I realize I’m hot again. I consider removing another layer, but then remember that the road levels out ahead, and we cross out of the lee of the cliffs and into the wind (maybe). Probably best not to take off another layer just yet.

The road is completely blocked by a new rockfall (this was not there on Sunday). It’s about 3 feet high, and there are some very large rocks in it. It continually surprises me that such big rocks will fall…

As the road levels out, it fills up with water. And a few more rocks too. The puddles are above my ankles and my shoes are soaked. Again.

A small stream cuts across the road here, and you can see some of the old construction left over from the days when Romero was a paved road.

I realize it is time (past time actually) to take my first gel pack. My fingers are awkward as I fumble for it in the backpack. They aren’t numb yet, but this does not bode well for the rest of the run. I’ve only run 3 miles, I’ve got another 20 or so to run. If my fingers get worse, I won’t be able to handle the gel packs, and I’ll not be able to fuel myself properly…

A little further on a small stream comes out of the hills on the right and takes over the road. I splash through it until I reach its source, where I find a small waterfall splashing down from above.

Just round the bend is the trail crossing. We turned back here on Sunday.

Looking back I see a vista of ridges coming down to the road and fading off into the mist…

A little further on is the first real waterfall. 10~15 feet tall it has dug a 2 foot deep channel in the road and I have to jump down into the stream to get across.

The road continues upward. From time to time I round a bend and can see it on ahead of me, fading into mist.

As I near the top it is time for another gel. I have even more difficulty getting it out this time. And I just can’t open it. Finally I rip it open with my teeth. I think about putting on my extra layer, but I tell myself that once I get to Camino Cielo I’ll be running hard and I’ll warm up again. I won’t want the shirt then. So I don’t put it on.

That will turn out to be a mistake.

Finally Romero hits Camino Cielo. I go stand on the water tank that lives here. There’s a spectacular view from here, on the one side we look down on Montecito, the ocean, and the channel islands. On the other side is the Santa Ynez valley (Blue Canyon to be specific) and the mountain ranges beyond.

View of Montecito and the ocean
View of Blue Canyon

But I must turn away from the view. Now begins the hard part of the day. I have to run on Camino Cielo (toward Gibraltar) at 85-90% effort. For 40 minutes. I climb down, check my shoelaces, square my shoulders and set out.

At first things seem to go well. My heartrate quickly climbs to 83% as I head up the hill. Then 84%.

There are some rock falls on Camino Cielo too. And then, a section where several small waterfalls come plashing down the cliff face. This seems rather odd. The cliffs above me aren’t very high. This road runs (almost) on the divide, so there’s not much above me. How can there be enough drainage up there to make waterfalls? Even little ones?

I tell myself I’ll take a picture on the way back, but I can’t stop now, that would render the hard run purposeless.

I look at my watch again. My HR hasn’t gone up any further. After a mile or so I get out of the lee of the cliffs, and (as I’m on the ridge now in truth) the wind attacks me, lashing me with rain. It’s cold. I’m not warming up. In fact my hands are colder than before. I should have put on that shirt.

Later I check the weather station on top of La Cumbra which showed a temperature of 39° with 20mph winds when I was running on Camino Cielo. Quite a bit colder than down in the city. At least my core seems fine, no shivering or any other signs of hypothermia. I’m unhappy and complaining but not in any danger.

I know I haven’t been running very far yet, I’m guessing about a mile.

I keep going.

Ah, a bush poppy in bloom.

Finally I reach San Ysidro trail head. I let myself look at my watch. My heart rate has dropped to 82%. Arg. Well, this is a downhill stretch, but still… it’s disappointing. I’ve been running for about 20 minutes. Almost half way.

In another quarter mile I find Cold Springs. No one else is about. The wind is cold.

Onward, and steeply upward. I have to slow down, this section is too steep.

I can’t really think of any other landmarks by which to gauge my progress (and help pass the time and get my mind off my hands). There’s the trailhead for Cold Springs Mid Fork, but it is only indicated by a soda can somewhere in the shrubbery, I’ll never notice it. There’s the turnaround for Pier to Peak, but any chalk will long have washed away, I won’t notice it either.

I sort of fall into a stupor. I don’t look at my watch any more, somehow that action has become too difficult. It’s all I can do to force myself onward. I’m pushing somewhat, I’m probably keeping my HR above 80%, but it’s supposed to be 85 or even 90 and I’ve given up on that.

Finally the road turns downhill again. I’m hopeful that this means I’m nearing Gibraltar (somehow I’ve decided I will turn around at Gibraltar. It’s just too difficult to look at my watch and find when 40 minutes is up.)

But no. The road goes back up again. I’m cold.

And then down again. Down for a long time. I almost don’t recognize Gibraltar when I see it. I think the road just bends to the right and don’t realize there’s an intersection until I’m almost in the middle of it.

My hands are so cold I fumble with the camera. I can’t get it out. Then I can’t turn it on. Then I can’t take the picture. Then I can’t turn it off. Then I can’t put it back in its pouch. There are droplets of water on the lens now, I see.

This camera fiasco reminds me that I’m cold and should put on my extra shirt.

I take a gel. Again I must use my teeth and it seems to take forever to rip it open.

Oh yeah. I look at my watch. Roughly 50 minutes to get here. I should have turned back 10 minutes ago. Somehow it was easier to keep going than it was to look at my arm. That doesn’t make sense. But there it is.

And so I turn around and run back. I’m halfway done. In terms of distance, anyway, but I’m going to be much slower going back on CC than I was coming out. I’m sort of stumbling up the hill now. My hands are curled up inside the sleeves of the new shirt. Maybe they will warm up there?

There’s a scrub oak in full bloom off on the right of the road. I find these shrubs fascinating, I expect oaks to be great huge giant trees, not little 3 foot guys. Yet their acorns and catkins are just as big as those of their larger brethren.

The wind is hitting me with rain. I’m cold and wet. The fog is all around me. And here is a sign telling me not to light off fireworks. At the moment it seems ludicrous. Come to think of it… why would anyone be lighting fireworks here anyway? Some random bit of roadway miles from anywhere? I could sort of understand such a sign on La Cumbra peak… if someone lit fireworks off there they’d be visible in the city below (maybe), but here? No one could see them.

A mystery.

As I climb up to the peak between Gibraltar and Cold Springs it starts to get brighter. Am I going to climb out of the clouds? The rain is pretty strong here, you’d think not… but still, it’s a lot brighter.

Finally I do reach the summit, the road goes down again, the sun does not appear, and it gets darker again.

Cold Springs.

San Ysidro.

Halfway along Camino Cielo. I think my hands may be a little warmer now?

Time slows to a crawl. Or maybe I do.

There are cliffs to my right so I look for waterfalls. But these are the wrong cliffs. No waterfalls here.

But after turning enough corners I see the waterfalls. There isn’t very much water, but it has a good drop, and it’s a lot more water than I expect…

That means I’m almost at Romero. Doesn’t it?

Now I turn a corner and it’s like a wind tunnel. All the wind from below is funneled into this narrow cutting through which Camino Cielo runs. It’s cold. And wet.

Off on the right of the road is a tiny little bush, six inches high, covered with currant blooms. I’ve never seen one this small before. Is it the common “Chaparral Currant” or some other of the half-dozen Ribes species that I don’t know how to distinguish?

And here’s the rockslide. I hadn’t remembered just how big the rocks were…

That means I’m near Romero doesn’t it?

And finally I am. I round a corner and there is the water tank. I climb up to it and stand under its awning, on the lee side and attempt to get out another gel. My hands might be warmer than they were at Gibraltar, but they aren’t warm. So extracting the gel proves a difficult operation. Eventually I get it out. I try to open it with hands. No good. With teeth. No good. I try to drive a key through the middle of it and saw it open. Also not successful. Now I’ve got this half open thing, I can’t put it back, it will become a gooey mess. I try to tear the other side with my teeth, and finally this works.

Normally I take a gel every half hour. I managed that at the start, but then there was a gap of 50 minutes, and now 80 minutes. I need this gel. I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t started to feel hungry. I must be burning through fuel just to keep warm, and I am not eating as much as I usually do…

Oh well.

Out into the rain and wind again, for the final stretch. Soon, I’ll be out of the wind. I hope.

After about half a mile, I am out of the wind. It’s usually at it’s worst on the ridge, now that I’m below that it isn’t so bad.

After another mile I glance down. And I realize I can see the ocean. The camera can’t see it so well, because of raindrops on the lens, but the shoreline is still visible. That’s the first time all day I’ve been able to see that far. The clouds must have lifted a bit.

Around several more corners and I see a cascade of waterfalls one above the other. This must be the big fall I saw on the way up, only now I can see above and below it.

Down past the trail crossing. I’m starting to get hungry, but I don’t want to stop now.

My hands are definitely warmer.

It’s stopped raining.

Even though I’m below the clouds there are still wisps of mist blowing about, but all my pictures have blurry raindrop smears on them and they are ugly rather than beautiful.

I realize that I haven’t seen a soul all day. Usually there will be someone else on the trail. Usually there will be a car or two on Camino Cielo — I was on it for more than two hours and went from one end to the other, and there was no one.

Splashing through the puddles that say I’ve only three miles left.

I realize I have drunk almost no water. I drink some now, but I really don’t feel the need.

Out from behind the mountains and now I can see the city below.

Only one mile to go. And I see my first people. Kim and somebody are climbing up. I look at my watch. Almost exactly 26 miles. I’ve gone 26 miles without seeing anyone. A weird marathon. I guess: It isn’t raining, it’s about lunch time, if I’m going to see anyone now’s the time. In the this final mile I see 5 more people and a dog.

At 26.2 miles I look at my watch 4:31. Perhaps the slowest marathon I’ve ever run. Suddenly I run out of energy. I walk. I get out some Cliff Blocks. And… yes, I can open them with my hands (with a lot of effort, but I can). I start to eat them, and find they have a strange tangy taste I am not used to. After eating several I take off my (long distance) glasses and peer at them with my eye. The blocks are covered with dead ants. How on earth did ants get inside the packet? And if so many could get in, why couldn’t they get back out? Who knows. Interesting taste.

I start running again.

I get to my car 26.96 miles. I consider running an extra .04 miles, but decide against it.

My hands are still weak. It takes a lot of effort to get the key off its hook. I need to use both hands to turn the key in the ignition.

As I drive home I consider:

I ran 27 miles in a light rain on a (relatively) warm winter day. And I was miserable and barely able to function. I would not be able to run 50 miles if I have that much trouble opening gel packs. If it rains on Catalina in 3 weeks I doubt I’ll be able to finish, unless I figure out some way to keep my hands warmer. My gloves don’t, I’ve already tried that and I know it’s a failure. Plastic bags?

I hope it doesn’t rain on Catalina.


One Response to “Winter solstice run”

  1. nichol Says:

    Great post George. I’m glad we went on Sunday when waters were raging. I’m miserably ill now though from staying wet for a couple of hours afterward.

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