Last weekend I had the pleasure of joining 100 ultrarunners for the extremely challenging Santa Barbara 9 Trails 35-miler. This beast climbs over 10,500 feet in an out-and-back course through the hills of Santa Barbara, CA, presenting a perfect way to melt off any pounds left over from the Thanksgiving feast. The weather was perfect, the volunteers were awesome, resulting in an epic day. But I haven't been able to get down a flight of stairs w/o handrails since. ;-)
Race Director Luis Escobar gave us the run-down as the sun came up, providing plenty of tips and warnings (he would know - he has finished this race like 14 times or so). Many strong runners were here to race hard, including Mike Swan (3rd last year), Joe De Vresse (5th last year), ultra-God Guillermo Medina, local triathlete superstar Shigy Suzuki, and NoCal's Ron Gutierrez. The Women's race was anyone's guess - Krissy Moehl, who set the course record last year, was tackling the Quad Dipsea today, and the rest of the field included a number of fast women that could take the race (much in thanks to a strong showing from the Montrail/Nathan team). As a welcome sun came over the hill to warm us up, we charged into the single track on the first climb. Let the fun begin!
“Fun” was exactly my goal for this race. It was my last scheduled ultra for the year, and I wanted to soak in every view, every step, and every smiling face. I ran this race in ’05, and remembered there was little room for blowing up on this course – if a quad or calf gave out, the steep declines would be nearly impossible. Best to take it easy. I wanted to get some good pics, but my camera mysteriously malfunctioned in the morning, so I was using my iPhone again.
I found myself around 20th place or so as we “rode the snake”, zig-zagging up the bluffs beyond the shady creek trails. The leading ladies were right in front of me, keeping each other in sight. As we broke out of the trees and into a more technical section, the runners spread out along the trail. It was an odd sensation - you could hear runners all around you through the manzanita on different sections of the switchbacks, but couldn’t see a soul. I caught up to Luis Escobar, who was already fretting about missing course markings even though he had run the course twice this week already! But he was still having a good time.
The first aid station (mile 4) was a quick stop, then we tackled the steep Tunnel Trail. I ran/hiked with Clanci Chiu, a fast 41-year-old woman tacking SB9T for her first ultra. She was doing great! I let her know how impressive it was to do this as a first ultra – I thought for sure it was tougher than many 50-milers. We chugged along at a good pace, with her leading the climbs and me leading the downhills.
By the time we popped out on top of the Rattlesnake Trail (mile 7) at the highest point on the course, the temperature had quickly reached a warm 65 degrees. Clanci took the road section at a fast pace, and I lagged behind her getting some snapshots of the gorgeous view. We hit the party known as aid station 2 (mile 9), where many friends and family had driven up to give support. There was more cheering here than races 5x this size – what a community!
My quads were already screaming as I charged down the Cold Springs West Fork. I wasn’t the only one – a group of three guys who had charged from the start had slowed significantly to save their legs for the next few sections. I caught up to Kathy Higgins, who had a great pace going although she swears she was taking it easy. I took a wrong turn at the bottom of the trail, but was quickly corrected by a fellow hiker and ran back to pace with Kathy again. She led most of the way, then I broke off again to pick up the pace. After a few minutes solo, I found a great view spot and noticed that all the other runners were going DOWN hill while I was going UP. Darn! Missed another turn! No problem, it all comes with the territory. Plus I got a bonus view!
The turn was an easy one to miss, even though it was well-marked. That’s because this is a crazy connector (read – drainage) trail that takes you through rabbit holes, tunnels, creeks, and all kinds of stuff. I found myself on all fours on a couple of sections! I hit the aid station on the other side (mile 14), where volunteer Jeff Zahn was busy re-marking the course to keep people on track. My bottles were empty (again) – one of the drawbacks of wrong turns – so I drank some extra for the exposed last section.
Mile 14-17 is the hardest part of this course, IMHO. The fire roads are so steep that it’s nearly impossible to run up or down them (for me, anyway). I turned off my tunes and focused on my effort, taking short strides and staying upright. The race leaders came blazing the other way around mile 15, with newcomer Teage O’Conner leading the charge about 6 minutes ahead of Mike Swan and 9 minutes ahead of Guillermo Medina. The leading women, Michelle Jensen and Amy Travis, were running close together about 25 minutes back in 10th and 11th place.
As soon as the turnaround was in sight, I heard “DADDY! DADDY! DADDY!” as Sophie caught my eye. She latched onto me as I walked up (this is becoming a common thing and it just melts my heart every time!), and I knew I was going to have a long aid station visit. We picked out some “naners” and “crackas”, and said hello to Jessica who came up to cheer on her OCTR teammates. Christi handed me her Sony T-3 camera for the way back, and I let her know it would be a good 8-9 hours before I finished. With a few more hugs and kisses, I headed back into the canyon, refreshed and ready!
I caught up to Clanci as we tackled the steep hills, and she was nursing a sore calf that limited her downhill speed significantly. But she wasn’t giving up yet! A couple of miles later, I caught up to Luis Escobar, Zach Comon, and Andy Kumeda, all of whom were pressing forward through the heat with a few groans. We sighed with relief to get back down into the creek areas of the Cold Spring Trail (mile 24). Hikers and families were everywhere, enjoying a perfect day outside and cheering on the runners.
The climb up Gibralter was a tough one, accented by empty bottles and a hungry stomach. The volunteers are Aid Station 2 (mile 26) were happy to fill me up with potatoes, M&M’s, and flat coke, giving me a boost to tackle the stretch of road. I walked with Bill Waiz from the Montrail Team, who had signed up for the race a few days earlier and found himself going out too hard, too early. We had a good chat, and I took off down the technical downhill suspecting I would see him again before the finish. Turns out I was right – he and Rob Cowan came by me in the last two miles, pacing strong to the finish (8:24).
I wound down the hill and popped up at the finish in 8:27, good enough for 21st place. As I sipped beer and gorged on the fantastic food, I had learned that 24-year-old Teague O’Conner had won in 6:22 in his first ultra, just holding off Mike Swan (6:35) and Guillermo Medina (6:52). Shigy Suzuki (7:07) and Ron Gutierrez (7:25) rounded out the top five. Michele Jensen won the Women’s division in 8:05, just a few minutes ahead of Amy Travis (8:08) and Kathy Higgins (8:15). Nearly every finisher had some battle scars from the rocks and roots, but big smiles on their faces (particularly when they saw the beer!). It was a tough day, but well worth the effort.
I collected my goodies (great t-shirt, akabill amulet) and headed back to catch up with the family. Our new dog, Martha, was happy to clean my salt marks with her massive tongue as I slipped away into a nap with Sophie. The euphoric post-race feeling made me realize that we are only truly alive in the moments our hearts are conscious of the treasures around us, like family, friends, health, and the beauty of nature. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be once a year after all, especially if you can have an epic run on the trails and enjoy all of the treasures in a single day!
Thank you, Luis and fellow volunteers, for helping me find that place again.