Red Rock marathon

Rockses are red, dilly dilly, Canyons are blue,
When I am done, dilly dilly, You shall be too.

I’ve never run Red Rock. Nor did I run Nine Trails, the race which turned into Red Rock after the Jesusita fire closed half the front country trails. It’s always been the weekend after Thanksgiving, and I’m always visiting my parents then.

But this year it was the weekend before. So I had to sign up.

Except that it was 2 weeks after SBIM, which I was pacing, so my training was, of necessity, at a much slower pace than I would chose if I were really racing. And then the week after the marathon was going to be pretty much shot — yes, I ran the race more slowly than I’d do if I were racing, but it was still a marathon and at a reasonable clip…

So I decided I was running Red Rock for fun, and not racing it. I’d take it easy and make detours to check flowers. Just have a pleasant long run.

red rock map

I got on my bike a little before 6 and biked over to San Ysidro trailhead where the marathon started. That might have been stupid if I were taking the marathon seriously (a 45 minute bike ride before a long race?) but I wasn’t so it didn’t matter.

We started on the road, about 200 meters below the trailhead — this allowed a much wider start than the single track trail and gave the faster people a chance to race ahead and pass people before the narrow trail made that difficult.

We recited the Micah True’s oath: “I solemnly swear that if I get hurt, lost or die it’s my own damn fault. Amen.” And we were off.

I found I was in about 12th place when we got to the single track. Seemed a reasonable position. I was a little surprised that I was ahead of Nash, maybe he was racing conservatively…

As we went up the single track I decided that the people ahead of me were going too slowly, so I passed a few, and then when the trail widened into road passed a few more.

I was running with a group of about 4 others, including the first woman, and ahead of us was no one. (Not that we were in the lead, but the leaders were so much faster than we that they were out of sight).

Perhaps I was going out too fast? I hadn’t brought my HR monitor so I was running this race by feel. I hadn’t expected to be racing it…

Over the steep climbs and dips of the fireroad between San Ysidro and Cold Spring I pulled into the lead of our little clump. When I got to the turn off for Hot Spring there was someone not far behind me, and two women (Martha and someone?) were chatting out of sight but close enough to hear their voices.

As I neared the top of Hot Springs I heard voices ahead (Ah ha! I’m catching up on the leaders perhaps). But when I reached them they turned into a party of hikers. They told me there were four people ahead of me.

It isn’t easy to be interested in flowers at the end of November. There just aren’t any. The only interesting thing I’d seen so far was a wild cucumber vine blooming on Hot Spring.

It had rained about a third of an inch on Thursday night (first significant rain of the season) and I was wondering if that might make things start to grow — but not yet.

Cold FireI passed through the burn area of the cold fire. I was intending to check the blooming status of the three things blooming here, but I forgot to look at the first plant (luckily it’s likely to be blooming when I get back). Eriogonum baileyi flowerBut the odd little buckwheat that sprang up after the fire is still going, as is the wirelettuce.

I don’t hear anyone behind me now. I don’t see anyone ahead.

As we approach Montecito Peak I start looking out for the route up to the top. An oddity of this race is that we don’t have to go to the top, but if we want a finisher’s medal (or rather finisher’s ceramic thingy) then we must take the diversion. I don’t feel the need of a medal, but it seems like cheating to cut the race short (even though we were explicitly told we could…

Anyway I go up. A quarter of the way up I meet someone coming down. OK, he’s about 4~5 minutes ahead of me. Then I meet Mark Warren coming down. What’s he doing? I thought he was supposed to be handing out medals at the top? He walks up with me and tells me that two of the people ahead of me just zipped by without getting medals. (Hurumph!)

I get to the top, and they place the thingy round my neck and I head down.

On the way down I see — everyone. They are closer to me than I was to the guy ahead of me… Martha, and Nash and Monica…

The entire excursion took me 7 and a half minutes. So at the finish line if one of those two zippy people was less than 7:30 ahead of me…

There’s another mile to go before Camino Cielo and the first aid station.

Elongated buckwheat is still blooming. Not surprising.

I’m pondering whether I should remove my outer shirt at the aid station. Before Montecito Peak I was running in the sun and was quite warm, now I’m in the shade and it’s chilly. It will probably be even chillier when I go down the far side. And I’ve got the damn medal around my neck, I might lose that if I take off the shirt. I think I’ll just ignore it.

Just below Camino Cielo aid station Photo by Jonathan Stewart

Just below Camino Cielo aid station
Photo by Jonathan Stewart


As I approach the top I see I’m catching up on the guy ahead. He’s very distinctive, he’s not wearing any shirt (isn’t he chilly?) and is wearing sandals (what about stones?). I’m about 20 feet behind him when he reaches the aid station. So he gets to refill his water first, and there’s only one water jug, so I must wait. By the time I leave he’s far ahead again.

Just a little way along Camino Ciello is a threadleaf ragwort, and I’ve been watching it over the last few months. I head over to it to see if it is still in bloom. But it’s in the opposite direction (by 10 feet or so) from the way I’m supposed to go, and the people at the aid station are having conniptions telling me I’m going the wrong way. I calm them by saying I’m just looking at a flower (which is still blooming), and then turn back and go the right way.

And now I zoom down to Forbush. This trail is fun to run. It’s downhill and not technical. And I’m feeling good.

I had another excursion in mind, at the end of Forbush meadow there might be some Elegant Madia still in bloom, and I had thought to check on them. But… well… I’m in 5th place. I’m running well, maybe I’ll race this thing after all… Maybe I’ll catch the guy in 4th place again…

At the start Brett and I were wondering where we’d start seeing the 50 milers coming at us. My guess was Forbush, Brett suggested the shale slide after the grotto (because that would be the nastiest place to meet them).

As it turns out, I see the first about 10 feet before Forbush. And right behind him is Rusty (who signed up for the race with no training two days ago), and behind him is Mike. Zip, zip, zip.

I don’t go look for the Madia. I’m feeling pretty good. Of course I’ve only run about a quarter of the race, but hey I thought I’d be more tired. The last few times I’ve run here I’ve felt tired when I got here — but I guess the last few days of rest has helped me.

And then the climb out of Blue Canyon (the hummingbird trumpets aren’t blooming here any more). Just beyond the top I meet and pass the guy ahead. I’m now in fourth place. And now down toward the grotto.

This is a bit more technical than the trail down to Forbush, and after a bit I hear footsteps behind. Oh dear. I try to pick up the pace. But they keep coming. Finally they they are close enough that I see their owner when the trail twists. It isn’t the guy I just passed it’s the first woman.

We race down the hill. I remain (or she lets me remain) a little ahead.

Fallen treeJust before the grotto a large tree trunk has fallen across the path. This was not here the last time I came this way. Grump. We manage to skirt it.

The maples here have some nice red leaves and they carpet the trail.

Um. I think they are red?

Sara at the GrottoThere’s water in the stream here (which was also not true the last time I came this way), but not enough that the waterfall looks like a waterfall.

UphillThe woman has fallen back a bit, what with the tree, and the stream crossings, and then the scree slopes. And then after that there’s some more uphill. I hope maybe that she’ll be slower on the uphill than I (after all I got up Cold Spring faster than she).

Things level out, and pretty soon I hear her behind me again.

More ColorI realize that I’m not going to shake her off. So I stop trying. She doesn’t seem to want to pass me though. I guess that if you are unfamiliar with the trails it’s probably comforting to have someone ahead who seems to know where he’s going…

All this while we are randomly seeing 50 mile runners going the other way. They are all much more excited to see her than me. She’s the first woman; I’m the fourth man; that’s not nearly as interesting. “But,” I feel like saying, “I’m 54, that means it is more impressive for me to run this fast than it is for a young woman, you really should be more impressed by me.” Silly me.

After a bit I start chatting with the woman behind. She’s Sara and has just moved to Ventura. I offer to let her pass but she says she’s fine for now.

River ColorShe wants to know when the next climb is. I explain that there are no more climbs like Cold Spring, it’s just rolling hills now. (steep rolling hills, but they aren’t long). “Good.” she says.

Gibraltar reservoir comes into view. Or rather the sand banks that used to be the reservoir. It didn’t rain much last winter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this low (not that I come out here much).

Mine in shadowed foreground, empty reservoir behind.

Mine in shadowed foreground, empty reservoir behind.

And then we get to the old mercury mine. I’m always slightly worried that an old mercury mine is about 50 feet from the reservoir that holds my drinking water… but there it is.

I try to get Sara interested in flowers: “There’s a coyote bush blooming”. “What?”

Ah well. Not to everyone’s taste I guess.

As we come to the end of this trail there’s a huge switch back and we can look behind us. There is a figure, all in black, which might be Martha, or might not, maybe half a mile back? Sara says “That’s too close” and takes off. I’m starting to feel tired and I don’t try to keep up with her. This is a fairly steep bit, and I no longer have the energy I did when I went up Cold Spring.

Sara leaves meWe get to the top, through the gate. Someone has left lots of water bottles here. I wasn’t expecting that, so I don’t need any, but it’s nice to see them. Sara slows and I almost catch up to her again.

Gibraltar DamThen we run down toward the dam. I’ve never actually run this section. Sara speeds up again, and pulls away.

I look back, but these switchbacks aren’t nearly as big and I can’t see anyone behind me.

I’ve never had this view of the dam before. It’s impressive.

I go down, and then steeply up for about a mile (see? much shorter than Cold Spring — but it feels harder).

Hunh. We’re taking a tiny little trail here that I didn’t know existed. It cuts off a loop of the road from the look of things.

Nice RoadBack on the road. Then there’s a gate, and I think this is Paradise Rd. Must be. Red Rock is probably off to my left? I don’t know this area well.

Sara comes running back to me. She thinks she’s lost. Hasn’t seen any trail markers since the ones here. Um. I’m pretty sure we just go down the road. So we do.

Sara seems consoled and again goes a little faster than I. After a bit someone runs up to her from on ahead and starts talking to her. I can’t hear but I presume things are OK again.

After a bit he drops back and runs with me. He says Sara was too fast for him (for me too!). He’s the greeter for the next aid station (which I know is coming soon) and we’re going the right way. He’s very chatty. I don’t have too much to say, but I forget that I’m tired with him beside me.

He’s doing a marathon next week he tells me. Why on earth is he out running now, I wonder? Taper man. “Oh, no.” he replies, “I have a 9 miler on Thanksgiving. You want to come?”

Not how I’d train for a marathon. Well, I guess, maybe that is how I trained for this one.

As we approach the aid station I see Sara leaving it and heading up the trail that takes off here. And that’s the last I see of her (until I cross the finish line).

Ug. The trail is steep. I do my first walking since Montecito Peak. (trail isn’t nearly that steep, but I’m a lot more tired).

Nice ValleyAfter a mile of mostly uphills I come out on Mathias trail. I know this trail of old. I’m not too fond of it at the end of a race. It seems to have an interminable number of little hills (well they each seem unending at the end of a race, but they aren’t really that long). As I approach the top of each one I think “Ah, this is the last and I’ll be on the road soon” and then I look down on the other side — and there’s just another valley and another hill beyond it.

I also start to feel nauseous. I thought I was doing pretty well, my camelback has been almost empty when I reach each aid station, but I guess I need more than water. I take two salt tablets and another GU. (Ug, the GU isn’t much fun), but after a bit I feel better.

These hillsides are always sparse, but there was a fire here last year and they are barer than usual.

These hillsides are always sparse, but there was a fire here last year and they are barer than usual.

And finally I do hit the road. It’s all downhill for about a mile and I barrel down it.

Well — I think I’m going fast. Looking back I see I was going at an 8:20 pace (I paced an entire marathon faster than that and it felt slow.)

Nice OaksAnd then the Rancho Oso trail. When I get to it I think “Oh, almost done”, but it’s almost a mile an a half of some nasty uphills. It seems to take forever.

Finally the last downhill. There’s the shed, but where’s the damn finish line. No one pays me any attention. I get closer. Still no sign of a line. Finally someone starts to cheer and points me toward the shed. Well I sort of knew that much, but where is the damn line? I still can’t see it. There’s Cynthia. I run past the shed and people call me back. Oh. The line is inside the shed.

4:36:03 for 25.5 miles (by my watch). The shortest (in terms of distance) and longest (in terms of time) marathon I’ve ever run. Fifth place. And I didn’t vomit. Not even once.

The official results have me running 4:35:30 (They failed to record the start time accurately and claim we started at 7:15:00) and have me in third place (the two fast guys who didn’t climb Montecito Peak aren’t in the official results for the marathon).


2 Responses to “Red Rock marathon”

  1. Adger Says:

    Way to hang on to those essential bodily fluids

  2. martha Says:

    George, this is such a fantastic account of Red Rock. Reading it is like running the race all over again — only with insight. I wish I had felt well enough to have been able to run as strong of a race as you did … Congratulations! And thank you for reconnecting. See you on the trails.

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