I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Noble Canyon. Or rather I should say a hard spot, perhaps you could even call it a callous.
The Noble Canyon trail has always been a thorn in my side. Almost every training run I've had out there has been a personal failure and so it was no surprise that the 2010 race resulted in a 9:40 finish time. Well, actually it was a little surprising with how bad I did out there that particular day. But in my defense, it was my first 50k and I had no clue as what to do for nutrition AND the temperatures were well over 100 degrees (115 I believe).
Now enter 2011. I got my yearly injury out of the way early on and managed to stay relatively healthy for the summer. Due to past performances, I recognized that my huaraches or Vibrams were not going to get me through a 50k painfree and started experimenting with a couple other minimalist shoes. I settled on the New Balance MT101s for various reasons (shoe review will happen some day). I wore them for a few training runs on the Noble Canyon trails and my feet have always come away in pretty nice shape. I am not saying I survived the training runs in nice shape though as I'm usually the one doing a very slow crawl on the final miles.
Leading up to the day of the race I was getting a little excited due to the expected temperatures. The forecast was calling for a low of 45 with a high of 71. This was awesome considering last years heat wave! But the course still had me on edge since I know how easily it can chew you up.
Race day morning quickly snuck up on us and we had ourselves a 4am wakeup. We were expecting our new friend Kimberly at 4:45 for carpooling and wanted to be ready to go as soon as she arrived. I showered, got dressed, and then packed a gym bag with a change of clothes as well as a cooler filled with drinks (including beer), and another bag full of dry goods to snack on. Note - upon returning home later in the day we discovered that I had left the bag full of dry goods on the front porch.
Kim showed up right on time and we all hop in my car and make the drive out to Mount Laguna at the Al Bahr campgrounds where the race would start and finish. We make pretty good time, arriving not shortly after checkin had opened up. But holy crap was it cold! Temp gauge was reading 47 and we decided to stay in the car with the heater running a bit longer. Eventually we got out to go check in, pick up our race packet, use the bathroom facilities, and say hi to friends and acquaintances. At 6:45 we all had to congregate in the main room for the race director's pre-race speach. It was the usual chat about the route, what to expect, how many ultra virgins were running, etc. After that, everyone heads out to the start line to get ready to run. Damn it's cold! I was wearing a kilt for this race and had contemplated going commando underneath but the cold temperatures convinced me otherwise.
Mile 0 - 13.2 (elevation: 5600' - 3500')
The start of the race wound through the campground leading to an asphalt road which we stuck to for the first mile. We were then herded onto a narrow singletrack that was too narrow to pass at the beginning. I was running with my friend Jennifer and we got stuck behind a few slow runners. I was perfectly content with this since my game plan was to go slow for the first 4 or 5 miles in order to acclimate to the elevation and then pick up the pace once we start heading down the canyon. Jennifer had other plans and she darted around at the first chance she got and went on ahead. I was happy where I was but eventually my bunny appeared to be slowing down and so I darted around him as well. At mile 4 we hit the Penny Pines station which is the entry for the Noble Canyon trail head. This trail would be our home for the next couple of hours. The next couple of miles involved some rolling hills but miles 6 - 13 was downhill and I was able to pick up some speed and pass a few people. I was even able to catch and pass Jennifer, who would in turn pass me near the bottom and take the lead for the rest of the day.
For the most part, I felt pretty good in this section. I did make one BIG mistake which I would pay for later on. Last year there was an aid station at what would be near the 9 or 10 mile mark of this year's course and I was relying on it. I was carrying 2 water bottles and that was it. I had a small baggie of Navita snack bites but wanted them later on. Instead I was going to rely on the aid station offerings. Anyways, I had plenty of water by the time I reached the Big Tree 1 aid station (mile 6.5) and so I just yelled out my bib number and ran through, with the idea of stopping at the next one to grab something to eat and to refill my water bottles. Upon reaching the area where I thought the station would be I stopped in shock and did a silent WTF?! I realized that the next station would be at the bottom of the hill at mile 13 and more than likely I would be starving and out of water. Time to HTFU and get going.
I soon started running out of energy and I was rationing the water to make it last. My "fun run" was starting to get bleak and I was being passed again and again. But I eventually made it to the aid station and handed off my bottles for a refill. I grabbed a couple of drinks and chugged them and grabbed some fig newtons figuring they'd fill me up quickly and revitalize me. I grabbed my water bottles back and headed on back up the hill at a slow jog.
Mile 13.2 - 19.6 (elevation: 3500'- 5200')
I soon realized that I just didn't have the energy to run and decided to start walking. I encountered Vanessa on her way down, gave her a quick kiss and wished her luck. The way I was feeling I was certain she was going to catch up to me. But at least I can walk relatively fast and so that's what I did...walk as fast as I could on the uphills and jog anything resembling a downhill. This worked for the most part but I was frustrated with myself since it was still early on in the day and I didn't want this race to best me two years in a row.
From miles 15 on was a complete hell for me. I was bonking hard and wanting to drink a lot of water but afraid to due to fear of running out. Everytime I crossed a stream I would stop and pour water over my head and ensure my shirt and bandanna were soaked, just trying to keep my body cool. It was a challenge keeping my mind clear of negative thoughts and so I resorted looking at nature and taking pleasure in the scenery around me. Runners were passing me going up the hill while bikers and hikers were passing me going the other direction and I was saying a hearty "hello" and "good job" to as many as I could. I did somehow manage to pass one guy who appeared to be struggling just as bad as I was and wished him the best. Right after I passed him I came across another stream crossing and spent a few minutes soaking. I saw him right when I was finishing up and never saw him again. I suppose he took a cue from me and decided to cool off in the stream as well.
Shortly after drinking the last of my water bottles, I finally stumbled into the Big Tree 2 aid station. Just in time since I was feeling like complete crap. I recognized two of my friends, Mary Lou and Rachel, both of whom saved my day and got my spirits lifted. Rachel grabbed my water bottles and Mary Lou was recommending foods for me to eat. My stomach wasn't feeling good but she suggested watermelon dipped in salt and that turned into a very wise choice. I also grabbed a couple cups of what I believe was Mountain Dew. Whatever it was, by the time Rachel handed me my water bottles, I felt 100% better and wanted to run!
Mile 19.6 - 27 (elevation: 5200' - 5800')
I was overjoyed to have this new found energy and ran for almost the entire way to the next aid station, which was only 2.5 miles away. There were a few uphill sections that I walked but every chance I got, I spun the wheels as much as I could. The section entering the Penny Pines 2 aid station is mostly all downhill and I felt as if I was sprinting pretty good when I reached it. I got a great laugh seeing Carl holding up a sign that Carlos drew for me and being able to laugh lifted my spirits even more.
As soon as I reached the tables, Stephen grabbed my bottles and asked what I wanted. At the previous aid station I had asked for one bottle to be filled with carb drink but it was too sweet and so I asked Stephen to water it down and to fill the other with water. I then moved over to the food and grazed on some more watermelon dipped in salt. This was good stuff and something I'll try to ingest at future races.
This next section of trail has a nice long uphill section and I brought along my Creative Labs Mosaic MP3 player to keep me entertained during it. I give thanks to Patrick Sweeney for hyping up his player and then later sending me a link he found on some refurbished ones. I am normally against listening to music while running but these things have a built in speaker and fit nicely in my water bottle pouch. I have a playlist loaded on it containing a mix of Jack Johnson, Matt Costa, Jimmy Buffet, and Amy Winehouse, a mix that I enjoy quite a bit.
I say my goodbyes to Stephan and am out. The section leading to the hill is a meandering rolling trail that I enjoy. I turn on the mp3 player and start running and singing out loud...well not too loud since I don't want to scare my fellow runners in case I happen upon any of them. I see a few people in front of me and am able to catch a couple of them but not all of them. And then I hit the hill. I decide to walk almost all of it since I wanted to save my strength on the downhill section. Also, this section is wide open and exposed and I didn't want to overheat and wear myself out. Lots of hikers and bikers on this section who wish me luck and tell me I'm looking good. Still feeling good and am happy to finally reach the crest (6000'!) and begin the downhill section leading to the next aid station called the Rat Hole.
This section is enjoyable to run since there are trees to give you shade and the course wanders around enough to keep me interested and entertained. Plus I have some great tune playing. The time flys by and it feels as if I am as well and I soon roll into the Rat Hole to be greated by Jesse and Keira, two new found ultra heroes of mine as well as cover models for Ink n Burn. Jesse congratulates me and tells me I should win the award for best dressed and Keira grabs my water bottles and asks me why there is music coming from one. While I am chatting with her, Keith comes out of nowhere and flips up my kilt and starts laughing at me. I'm more puzzled than anything and just ignore him for the most part and continue talking to the lovely Keira while eating watermelon.
Mile 27-31.2 (elevation: 5800' - 5500')
I thank the aid station crew and head over to the highway crossing where Keith is hiding and say my goodbyes and start running once again. I got a second wind (or would this be my third?) and am feeling light on my feet and start humming along to a Matt Costa song. I catch and pass a few more runners and slowed down to chat with a guy running in Vibrams. I recall him passing me during my low spell earlier in the morning and am happy to have caught him. I congratulate him tackling the course in Vibrams mentioning that I ran the course in Huaraches last year and ended up with very tired feet. He tells me he ran it as well and remembered seeing me. I wish him the best and tell him I'll see him in a couple miles and I take off once again.
When I reached the lake I could see a couple more runners way off in the distance and I decided that I'd try to catch them. The first one was pretty easy to catch but the second one was a bit more of a challenge. I guess he knew what my plan was and set a goal for himself because although I gained on him, I was never going to catch him. About 1.5 miles from the finish line we hit the asphalt and I concede to him, deciding to walk a bit while he kept on running. This asphalt section sucked all of my willpower out of me. I was having fun on the the nice single tracks for the past couple of hours and now this? I soon entered the campgrounds and decide to run a bit more realizing how close I was to the finish line. But then either the route got kinda crazy or my brain was getting foggy because I was getting easily confused. I could see the orange flags but weren't sure where they were telling me to go. I recognized a bridge that we ran over near the start and so I head across it to find another orange flag telling me I was going the right direction. I ended up walking a bit more trying to figure out where the finish line is and then hear the crowd and start running towards the noise. I see a row of flags leading to the Start/Finish banner and start running as fast as I can and am happy to hear people calling out my name. And of course I run the wrong direction and have to have people guide me the right way. But I finish and can finally kiss that friggin' ugly rat, something I could not do last year since I failed to meet the cutoff time. Last year's race director is there to shake my hand and congratulate me, hanging the finishers medal around my neck. He then points to a box of injinji gear and asks me to select an item of my choosing. Oooh injinji socks! Wait, a hat! But I could always use more socks! He tells me to hurry up and make up my mind and so I grab the hat and head over to where my friends are waiting. A medic stops me to ensure I'm doing ok and I assure him I feel great. In fact, I feel amazing! My legs are a tad tired but I feel like I could continue running. Wow!
JL hands me a beer and we sit, BS, and cheer on the rest of the runners. Shortly after, Vanessa sprints in and I'm happy to see that she looks like she is ready to continue running as well. Soon other friends finish up and join us, sharing stories, taking photos, and cheering on each runner as they come in. Vanessa and I stay until the cutoff time and then say our goodbyes and head on home.
It was a beautiful day for a run and I am very thankful I got to share it with so many friends and wonderful people. And I'm looking forward to my next date with the canyon
What a difference a year makes:
Finish Line 2010 (9:40)
Finish Line 2011 (6:48)