Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Pacifica 50k - Oceans, Cliffs, and Smiles

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining 260+ trail runners at the second running of the Pacifica 50k put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCT). This two loop course climbs over 9,000 vertical feet along single track and fire roads in the steep coastal range in San Pedro Valley Park, just east of the ocean town of Pacifica, CA. A record crowd braved the morning cold and fog to race 9k/21k/30k/50k options, and we were all rewarded with epic views, plenty of smiles, and the welcome camaraderie that pervades all PCT races.

(Trail runners zig-zag through the San Pedro Valley Park)

I was as giddy as a school girl when this race appeared on the calendar. The 2007 season was officially starting! Not that I was ready – I hadn’t done a long run since before Christmas, and short of carrying 16 lb Sophie Jane around the house, I hadn’t done much cross-training either. Big deltoids and biceps are good for distance running, right? Uh, yeah. Nonetheless, I had my eye on the 5:20 course record that was certainly up for grabs now that the weather was cooperating.

The crowd at the starting line was HUGE – nearly double last year’s count, with over 140 people running the 9k. It was awesome to see all these new faces eager to mingle with Mother Nature. Wendell and Sarah talked us through the course – one steep loop of 9k, one steeper loop of 11k with an out-and-back section at the top. Where’s the top? Go through the clouds and keep on going until there is no more “up”. Those of us in the 50k would alternate for a total of 5 loops.

I noticed familiar smiling faces in the crowd, some ready to race while others were just out for a good time. Jon Olsen, two-time winner of the Rio del Lago 100-miler and 6:04 50-miler at Helen Klein, had his tunes on and was ready to set the pace for the 50k. Benjamin Muradyan was coming off a 3:38 marathon at the Redding Marathon the previous weekend, and was looking forward to getting dirty. PCT regulars Famida Hamif-Weddle, Chuck Wilson, and Mike Savage were also ready to go long, while AJ Flint, Rick Gaston, Sarah Syed, Will “Squirrel Nutz” Gotthardt, and Nike Krasopoulos tackled the shorter-but-still steep distances. One thing for sure – nobody was getting through this course without a workout.

All racers started together, using the first quarter mile of road to slot themselves before tearing up the single track. AJ Flint led out the 9k group along with a cocky pair of 12-year-olds in neon shoes known as the “Baker-Robinson brothers”. Right behind them, Jon Olsen was already setting a wicked pace for the 50k, charging along with Will Gotthardt (21k) and Heather McFalls (30k). We all chugged up the first hill, a two mile maze of false summits that helped everyone get their egos in check.

(AJ Flint lines up with the Baker-Robinson boys; Will says he's going to win, and he does!)

By the time we hit the second hill on the first loop, everyone was comfortably spread out on the single track. I struggled with some technical difficulties (camera holder broke, elastic belt wouldn’t hold, water bottle not sealed) and realized I hadn’t done a thorough check of my gear for the new season before the race. No worries – there ain’t nothin’ that Duct Tape can’t fix. I completed the first loop in 54 minutes, and took a pit stop to fix the gear.

(Sean Brown and James Hughes charge up the first loop)

The second loop was the beast of the course, pitching aggressively into the clouds along the ridge. The majestic mountains reminded me of Hawaii, shooting up in every direction, unrestrained by the surrounding clouds. I paced alongside Michael Kanning, who was trying his second ultra ever after doing the Helen Klein 50 mile in November. After a short conversation he casually mentioned he was only 15 years old! Whoa. I’m not sure how much his Cross Country training at Heartland High in Los Altos was going to prepare him, but I relaxed when he told me his grandpa, 66-year-old Gerd Kanning, was also avid trail runner doing the 30k, and would pace with him on the last loop. He has a pacer, and he has the right genetic pool! Together we navigated the technical single track up to the final two mile stretch of granite road, and huffed up the ridge.

(View of Pacifica from the ridge)

As we got near the summit, the front runners came careening down like a bat out of hell. Will G led the 20k group, with Jon Olsen (50k) and an extremely fast Heather McFalls (30k) right on his tail. They were all running a sub-six minute pace, despite the steep and uneven granite. Rumors of doping with mountain goat blood circled (ha, ha) as we hit the summit, snapped a pic of the clouds below, and turned around.

(A few smiling runners look down on the clouds at the top of the hill)

Michael was still going strong, and led four of us down the ridge trail. We passed a few runners in the technical section, but for the most part, it was smooth sailing on a well-marked course. The park at the bottom was now filled with exhausted runners, eating snacks and soup while cheering on the longer distance folks. I refilled my water bottles and hit loop #3, this time in the opposite direction, after some needed prompting from volunteer Rob Evans to stop yapping and get running (thanks, Rob).

The sun boldly cut through the clouds on the third loop, warming us up to about 58 degrees and permitting the trees and flowers to open up. Our lungs filled with clean coastal air saturated with eucalyptus, releasing our inner animals to run hard through the well-manicured course. I wiped away chunks of mud sprayed from the runners in front of me, then pulled ahead to reciprocate. I know we were supposed to be racing, but it we were having so much fun!

(The sun warms up the valley between the two peaks on the third loop)

As I refilled for loop #4 (a second trip up the big hill), the volunteers said that our group of Michael Kanning, Carson Teasley, and me were 1, 2, and 3 for the 50k. As much as I would like that to be true, I knew Jon was waaaay out there somewhere so that couldn’t be right. The news flash was enough for Michael and Carson to give each other a steely-eyed look and shoot up the hill, neck and neck. I checked my time – just over three hours, which was still enough to be on target with a sub-5:20 run. I popped a few Clif Blox and headed up, fast walking the steep sections to save my hamstrings.

(30k runner Cathy Morgan on her way down the big hill)

I caught Michael at the technical section, about halfway up the hill. He was slowing down but still running, pushing forward with the mental tenacity of a runner three times his age. Although the sun was out, it was definitely colder on this loop and I put on my hat. We saw Jon Olsen coming back, easily 20 minutes ahead of us at our 22 mile mark and only getting faster. Carson was within site, but had quickly put 5-6 minutes on us by charging up the steep stuff. There wasn’t a soul behind us, so we eased up a bit and paced each other to the top. Michael was a sponge for knowledge, asking tips and sharing his goal of running a 100-miler before he gets out of high school. If he can remain that eager on the hardest part of the course, I think he’s a natural!

(Michael Kanning pauses briefly for a picture at the top of Loop #4)

I bid Michael farewell at the summit, and zeroed in on Carson who was about a mile in the distance. I figured if I cranked up the tunes (my “agro” playlist – Breaking Benjamin, Army of Anyone, Foo Fighters, and Prodigy) and tried to make up some time on the technical section, I might be able to catch Carson on the last loop. I heard that he was training for the 2007 Western States, so perhaps he wouldn’t go hard, or might fade, who knows. I cinched down everything and went berserker.

I should have guessed that the phrase “make up time on the technical section” was a recipe for disaster, but didn’t get it until the tunnel vision cleared and I found myself bleeding and bruised on the side of the trail. It happened so fast, I’m not even sure how I went down, only that I was fittingly singing “something is getting in the way/something is just about the break” from Diary of Jane (Breaking Benjamin). If you’ve ever diggered on a granite trail, then you know it’s like diving headfirst into a kiddie pool full of sandpaper blocks. No skin is spared! I took a quick inventory - all limbs accounted for, nothing broken – and got up to walk it off. The cuts on my face, elbows, hands, back, and head looked much worse than they actually were. All in all I was going to be fine, but I was definitely going to be sticking to the sheets tonight.

I tried to convince myself to take it easy and walk the last three miles to the aid station, but my adrenaline-infused body was not going to have it. Let’s just say the little devil on my shoulder has a miniature pair of Inov-8 shoes that look just like mine, and he was screaming “RUN!” in my left ear louder than Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters (and THAT is loud). So run I did.

My God, it felt so good. To run, to bleed, all of it. My soul was wide awake and my mind was 100% in the moment, unable to think of five minutes past or five minutes ahead. Endless energy flushed through my body, pushing me to lean forward into the trail and leap with every step. I landed at the aid station in a meditative daze, and assured the volunteers I was fine for six more miles before attending to my wounds. Wendell, the RD, whipped out his freshly scarred elbow and told me he crashed in the same place yesterday while marking the course. His elbow was much scarier than mine, so I didn’t feel quite so “bad ass”. Perhaps a trail troll is at work…THOU SHALT NOT PASS!

(Pacifica locals who did not warn us about the trail troll)

We had our choice of clockwise or counterclockwise for the last loop, and I went clockwise (same as Carson, but Jon went the other way to avoid the “false summits that just mess with me”, as he said). After two miles of going hard, I saw Carson climbing the second summit a good mile ahead of me, and knew I wouldn’t be catching him today. I eased up a little bit to take in the views, but not too much. I finished in 5:18 for 3rd place. Jon Olsen crushed the 50k in 4:45 to set a new course record, with Carson in second place with a respectable 5:08. Leslie Antonis claimed her first 50k victory in 7th overall (5:58), and couldn’t wait for her kids to ask “did you win?” when she got home, as they have after every race. Just a few minutes ahead of her, the 15-year-old phenom Michael stuck it out for 6th place (5:51) still smiling at the end. As the remaining 50k finishers came in, it was nothing but smiles all around, all recounting a perfect day for a goregous trail.

(44-year-old Leslie Antonis cruises in under 6 hours to take the women's title for the 50k)

As I tended to my wounds and chatted with the other finishers, we learned that Will G had won the 21k in a course record 1:48:12 with Penny Macphail winning the female division in 1:55:50. The gazelle-like Heather MacFalls tied Ty Strange to win the 30k overall in a course record 2:32:11. Jon recounted running with Heather saying “no way I could keep that pace…a few miles after letting her go, I saw her catching the leader going uphill at full tilt..she was amazing”. Sounds like something right out of the movie On The Edge (a must rental for you trail runners if you haven't seen it).

Map of Pacifica 50k
(Get the GPS specs for my run here)

My thanks to Wendell, Sarah, and the PCT volunteers for a flawless race in a wonderful area I may never have witnessed otherwise. It’s no surprise to me your races are becoming so popular! I’ve got some healing to do, and some good focus areas for my training for the next month or so. I’m also intrigued by being able to run so hard at the 26 mile mark – perhaps I have more in me than I realize, if I can just tap into it without bleeding. ;-) I’m going to volunteer at the PCT Woodside race on Feb 3rd, so I hope to see y’all out there!

Cheers and happy running, SD


  1. Scott,
    Great story! as always.
    I look forward seeing you at the Woodside run in next couple of weeks.

    Also, noticed you are planning to run TRT this year. Will be happy to give you any info ypu may need re the 100M run, which I did last year.


  2. Scott,

    Excellent race report! It really was a nice run, with beautiful scenery to help pass the miles and hills by, and, as usual, PCTR did a great job. Although you eventually left me in the dust, it was great to talk/run with you during some of the long climbs and descents. Congratulations on 3rd place on such a hilly course.
    Now its off to the local trails for some more training runs, which now hold a fresh new meaning and motivation thanks to a great race. Looking at your calendar, it appears we will meet again at Quicksilver for some MORE hills!

    See you then!
    Michael Kanning

    P.S. It doesn't really matter, but I can't help but mention that I ran the 50 Mile at Helen Klein, not the 50K (I ran 9:25). So it's not like I cut 3 1/2 hours off a 50K PR on a course with 7000' more vertical feet!

  3. Michael -

    My apologies. I had no idea you were crazy enough to start with a 50-miler! I corrected it above, and will see you at Quicksilver.

    Cheers, SD

  4. Great race report, Scott. Your write ups reflect the positive atmosphere of the race perfectly! I hope your healing is coming along (and your not sticking to the sheets).


  5. Congrat to your strong performance! And thanks for another great report.

    I have tried to avoid doing loops like Pacifica, but now I think I should give it a try given its scenic and technical trails.

    I'll see you at Woodside (2/3). Guess you'll just walk out to the AS at your backyard ;-)

    BTW, not sure if you're interested, but there is Fremont Fat Ass 50K this Sat (1/27).


  6. What a glorious day, congratulations again! And where is the bloody picture, we need to see the suffer! :) Hope it heals up well, and jealous of your blissful run.

  7. Great report Scott! Congrats on such a strong finish, in spite of your rough fall. You inspire.

    Another impressive runner out there Saturday was Robert Cervero, who completed the 50K and subsequently jumped on an airplane to a conference related to his international academic superstar life.

    I'm really enjoying getting to know this close community of trail runners. Having someone like you to bring us all together is key. I just started running ~8 months ago, so I'm still in the puppy love stage. I'll be at a cycling team training camp during the Woodside race. Next trail race for me will be in New Zealand I hope in late February or early March.


  8. Thanks Will, Sarah, and Michael for adding more details about the race. I'm glad to hear everyone had a good time!

    Olga - great idea on the "blood sport" picture! I should have thought of that. Lord knows my sick mind would love to see it on other blogs. Unfortuately the miracles of Neosporin have reduced my scabs to unimpressive levels. I'll try/fall harder on the next one! ;-)


  9. Like always, another great RR :) Congrats on the 3rd place! Sounds like a very challenging course on which you excelled. Looks like a bunch of us will be at Woodside in a few weeks. See you there!


  10. Scott,
    I loved reading your race report - almost felt like I was there. Nice photos as well! Hope you're not too sore. I'd planned on Pacifica being my first ultra, but got sidelined with an injury. Now I'm shooting for either AR50 or Quicksilver 50K (or both, depending on how it goes). Hope to meet you at one of these runs - you've provided much inspiration.


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  12. Great seeing you on Saturday Scott. and thanks for the link. I was chatting with Cathy Morgan after spin class tonight and she told me you took a spill on the trail. Yes pictures would have been great! Well I'm glad you're not seriously hurt. Double that you're camera was not damaged. What'd the wife say when you came home bloody:)

    Congratulations on 3rd place. Nicely done.

  13. Soar, Soar, Soar! Burn, Burn, Burn!

  14. I just a brief once over of your summary of the Pacifica 50K....I actually was contemplating doing it a few months ago as my first ultra....I have been running 27 years and am way over due to jump into the ultra world....when I have time I am going to read some more of your blogs....I think I can glean some valuable info to smooth my way into ultras from you.....you probably have this information somewhere on here but I am curious about how much your weekly mileage is and your long runs.

  15. There's no such thing as "too old for ultras"! Just sign up and go! Remember, walking is completely acceptable - particularly on the Pacifica course. ;-)

    My weekly mileage is about 50-60 miles per week. I do a 10-12 mile run on Wed morning, and go 15-25 miles each Saturday, both at a tempo pace. When my long runs get in the 25 mile range, I usually just sign up for a marathon but not go super-hard. It's just so much easier when there is food and water on the course. ;-)

    I hope to see you out there at a 50k - be sure to stop by and let me know which one you're doing!


  16. So I won whos laughing know ha ha ha. I was wondering if you coul email me the photo of me at the start wbakerrobinson@gmail.com. I ran like a little whitetail right squirel nutz.
    Will Baker Robinson

  17. Just discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago. This race was my first trail run, and I had no idea how different it would be. I wisely chose to do it as a 9k. Well, this coming Sat is Pacifica again and I'm returning for a 30k scared as heck! (I've done Sequoia 20k, and Lake Chabot half in between at least). Anyways, thanks for your blog, and I'll introduce myself if I see you!


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