I had first read about 9 Trails in UltraRunning Magazine last year, and was drawn by the combination of a small town, neighborly atmosphere and the grueling, steep course with over 10,000 vertical feet. Once I saw the map (easily the coolest trail map I've ever seen), I was hooked for sure. Started in 1990 by Patsy Dorsey, the 9 Trails has consistently drawn a fun group of ultra runners and triathletes from the surrounding Santa Barbara and Los Angeles communities. Patsy and Race Director (and the only 14-time finisher) Luis Escobar ordered perfect weather for this years race, and over 80 people toed the line to give it their all.
After a brief racer meetings to go over the basics ("no whining" and "your time doesn't end until Patsy gives you a hug" among them), Luis recognized many of the volunteers that make this race so fun, as well as the 15 or so first-time ultra runners crazy enough to call 9 Trails their first. The sun rose up over the mountains and showed us the way up the first hill, the easiest of the five peaks. On this out-and-back course, that would make for a smooth start and finish. Well, as smooth as one could hope, anyway.
Within a few miles, we were atop Isolation Point, and the trail became extremely rugged. Going downhill was even tougher than going uphill in many sections. I watched the front 6-8 runners peel off as they mountain-goated down the rocky terrain. Two of the guys I was running with started to say they should hit the turn-around in 2:50 or so, but their hopes were dashed as soon as we hit the 16-degree climb of the Tunnel Trail. By the time we hit the top, my winded cohorts had adjusted their halfway time by 40 minutes.
One more steep valley and climb, and we hit the highest point in the race (2450') and headed down a few miles of paved road to the Gibraltor aid station at mile 9. I got a PB&J (and a hug!) from Margie, one of the heralded volunteers, and she promised hot soup would be waiting for my return trip. I headed down the hill with "Shigy", a really funny and talented triathlete, who warned me that there were some obstacles ahead. I thought he said something like "rabbit hole" and "rappelling", but that couldn't be right, could it?
Turns out Shigy was right - within a few miles we were lowering ourselves down a section by rope. We passed Stu Sherman soon afterwards, nursing a broken ankle, and another runner who had injured his shoulder. Shiggy started to slow down, saying the "ribs he cracked last weekend were started to bother him". My God, what is with these people?!? Soon afterwards I was down on all fours crawling through a section of thicket (this must be the "rabbit hole"), followed by a 1-mile climb that averaged - I kid you not - an 18-degree incline. At this point I was just hoping to make it out alive.
By the time I hit the turnaround, I was eating everything in site. Christi and her parents had come to see me, and gave words of encouragement. Christi checked my salt level (by making sure salt rings were encrusted on my face), and said I looked good, so I grabbed another handful of M&M's and headed back.
I ran with Sook Gumpel (holding 2nd place female well) and a few others, and we had plenty of time to chat given the steep terrain. The front runners had about 25 minutes on us, and I guessed we were around 14th or so. Sook and others were doing a much better job on the downhills than me, but I was making up time on the uphills. John Shields went by us, and I paced behind him up to the Gibraltor aid station (mile 26). As promised, Margie was ready for me with soup, sandwiches, and potatoes, so I just sat down for two minutes and had some lunch. The breeze began to pick up, beckoning us to get back down into the canyons, so I cranked up the Beatles on my iPod and headed out.
I found a rhythm and headed down the winding Rattlesnake Trail. The canyon was beautiful, especially around the creek. The farther I ran, the more people I saw laying out on the rocks enjoying the lush canopy. Where did they all come from? A couple of teenagers flagged me down and said, "uh...you're the only one we've seen go by with a number on and we've been here for an hour...". Uh, oh. I know what that means - wrong turn! I had a map on me, and the helpful locals quickly pointed out where I had missed a turn about 1.5 miles back. I couldn't get angry though - I had really enjoyed this section of the trail! So I just worked my way back up the hill and found where I had missed the turn. The chalk line was there, but had been largely wiped out by the foot traffic. I grabbed some rocks and tried to make the turn a bit more clear just in case somebody else was spacing off to their music. ;-)
Over the last few miles, I caught up with Shari Hammond, whose family support crew (husband and two young kids) seemed to miraculously appear at every aid station. Her optimism, pouring from a love of the area, helped me take my mind off the fact that I had been running for almost 9 hours, the longest I had ever been out on the trails. She knew the last two miles by heart, telling me exactly how many minutes were left at each turn, and pulled us in so we could get our hugs from Patsy.
At the finish, Luis joked with me that I got "10 trails for the price of 9", and then pointed me to the abundance of food, ice cream, and ice cold beer. Many of the kids that were waiting for mom/dad also enjoyed the cookies and ice cream as a reward for their patience! My quads were shot from all the hills, but I managed to finish without broken bones or blisters, so I considered the race a success. This was a good eye-opener for the kind of training I will need to do should my Western States lottery come through (note to self - more leg strength training, and find steeper hills), and the type of soreness that arrives when you are out all day. And I will certainly be back for next year!
A couple of quick notes to future racers. First, it can be 1+ hours between aid stations, so bring lots of water. Second, this race has a small limit so sign up early. Third, AWESOME t-shirts. Overall, I would highly recommend this race as a challenging event and a perfectly good excuse to spend some time in gorgeous Santa Barbara.