Sunday, September 21, 2008

Skyline to the Sea 50k - California Dreamin'

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining 220 ultrarunners for the sold out Skyline to the Sea 50k in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California. This new race put on by Pacific Coast Trail Runs has plenty of beautiful single track through the redwoods of Big Basin State Park before taking a long descent along the waterfalls and sprinting to the ocean. In 50 fast k’s, we would feast on a smorgasbord of California trails from mountains to beach and have the smile line tans on our faces to prove it. Throw in some great weather and fantastic volunteers, and the day was nothing short of magical.

At 8:00am, the buses arrived at the start and spilled out eager ultrarunners to the foggy starting line. Over 1/3 of the crowd were running their first ultra, and we gave them a big cheer as we lined up at the start. I was deeply inspired to see that many first-timers strapping on the water bottles and going for it. Once you do a few ultras you know what you’re in for, but that first one requires a serious sense of adventure (and temporary lapse of judgment). I couldn’t be more proud of them for toeing the line!

(Gathering at the foggy start)

(RD Wendell Doman gives instructions)

(Newlyweds Kevin and Elizabeth Weil get a hug in before the race starts)

(Lon Freeman is ready to lead us off)

I was feeling frisky today, so I lined up near the start with a bunch of runners who were waaay out of my league. I joined Lon Freeman (2007 Miwok 100k winner), Leor Pantilat (Stanford star whom I don’t think has ever run a 50k over 4 hours), Gary Gellin (masters superstar), Kevin Weil (fresh off his honeymoon), Ray Sanchez (who was sub-24 at the Angeles Crest 100 last weekend, and will be running the Rio del Lago 100 next weekend as well), and some other fabulously fit runners. I speculated with co-RD Sarah Doman that we would certainly have a handful of sub-4 hour finishes with this pack of cheetahs. At 9am, we were off!

We plunged down single track right out of the gate, and Lon and Leor set a blistering pace up front. I thought this would be a great duel, since Lon is the master of hills, but Leor’s track speed would give him the edge on the straight stuff. Within a mile, they were long gone. I cruised along with Ray Sanchez and Dan Barger at a comfortable but fast pace. At a fork in the road, I saw ribbons in two directions and chose the wrong one, but a construction guy quickly got me back on track (and took down the ribbon). Thank goodness for nice neighbors!

The soft single track was wonderful, oscillating between fast straightaways and tight root-filled zig zags. Thanks to the net descent of 2,500 feet, there really was a downhill around every corner. The tall redwoods showered me in exquisite silence, and each step took me deeper and deeper into a magical place where whispers and shadows come to play together. This was certainly sacred ground, and I had to keep reminding myself to keep my eyes on the trail as I gazed deep into the endless forest at every turn.

(Former XTERRA champ Tim Johnston takes on the single track)

No surprise, it was right about then I took my first digger (four total today) by stepping off the side of the trail and into a grove of ferns. Gotta pay attention! It was a soft landing though, so aside from a mouthful of dirt (from being agape, perhaps?) I was fine. I got back on the trail, and soon found myself at the first aid station (10k) where they topped off my water bottles and sent me off with a smile.

(The trail draws you deeper into the forest at every turn)

The forest pixies figured out that if I would fall that easily, they could seriously mess with me with over the next few miles. They teased me at every turn – a branch grabbed my hat and pulled it up above my reach (which was pretty funny in retrospect), a bush stripped away my water bottle like an NFL linebacker, and I ate a spider and her entire day’s meal in one generously inhaled web. Darn those pixies! Cut me some slack and go pick on Lon and Leor. ;-)

(Dwight Morejohn and I exchange photos)

I climbed up to the China Grade aid station (mile 11), and Aaron Doman let me know that I was in about 9th place or so, with a front pack of four way out front and rest of us within a few minutes. It was good to know, but I figured it wasn’t worth counting places until after the steep climb (mile 15). I refilled my water bottles again, and headed down a trail that took us out of the redwoods and along some Manzanita-filled bedrock trails. The sun tore through the clouds to give a little boost.

(Dan O'Farrell tackles the climbs)

The bedrock was a lot of fun, with steps carved into the steeper sections. Unfortunately I missed a set of steps when I came over the top too quickly and landed on all fours, my water bottles spewing streams into the sky like the fountains at Bellagio in Las Vegas. Better than falling on my hands! I stood up and took inventory, and my camera was gone (it had come out of the water bottle pocket). Now most would have probably left it, but darn it, there were already some good pictures in there! I spent the next eight minutes scouring the hillside and finally found it down in the brush (where the pixies hid it, I’m sure). As I got back on the trail, Joel Shoffner from San Jose, CA, came by and made sure I was alright. We ran together for a while, saying little more than the “oohs” and “ahhs” required by the gorgeous redwoods.

(Crossing the bedrock)

(Plenty of long stretches to pick up speed)

(Coming into the Gazos Creek aid station; photo courtesy of Will Gotthardt)

The final stretch into the Gazos Creek aid station (mile 14) was super fast, and Joel gapped me as the volunteers filled me up for the big climb. I sped up to catch up to Joel, knowing that he would keep my pace honest. We jogged up a short section of road before tackling the steep single track to the exposed road on the ridge.

(Climbing up the steep loop)

(Keeping on Joel's tail)

Joel didn’t slow down for a second, grinding right to the top and pulling me with him. He saved enough to charge the downhill and was soon out of sight.

The bottom of this loop shared the same fast section coming into the Gazos Creek aid station, which allowed me to catch up with Beatrice Song and a few others. They let me know that bees had been a problem, with a few runners getting stung a dozen times or more. Yikes! I think I would rather have the trail pixies.

(Bee pandamonium! Photo courtesy of Dwight Morejohn)

(Back into the lush canopy)

The Gazos Creek aid station (mile 19) loaded me up in a NASCAR-like 5 seconds, and I went chasing after Joel again. This section of the course was one I knew well, so I hunkered down and ran the last big climb to the ridge in hopes to catch site of Joel. No luck – he must be hauling ass. I reached the top, took a short bio break, and headed down the Skyline to the Sea trail towards Berryessa Falls.

(Warning! It's gonna get steep...)

This section of the course was absolutely mesmerizing. The redwood canopy burst with long sunstreaks slicing across an endless forest. It reminded me of the ancient Celtic tradition of “thin places”, those mystical places on the earth that blend the worlds of spirit and matter, and humans can fully experience the divine. I tipped my hat to the Doman’s for a perfect course design – this glorious section came at mile 22, just when my ego has been beaten to a pancake, my senses are wide open, and the pain would sear in the memory for good.

I thought I was moving fast, but Rick Gaston soon went by in a flash of red, humming along with his iPod and his trademark ear-to-ear smile. How does he do that? I reached for my camera, but with one or two big leaps he disappeared into the gulch. Amazing! The last section of the descent was pretty technical, with lots of steps and distracting views of the near-dry waterfall. At the last wooden bridge, I slipped and took fall #3 which resembled a swan dive into a pool with no water. Nice! I checked under the bridge for trolls…nope…this one was all me. I laughed it off, pulled the moss out of my hair and mouth (tasty, and probably nutritious in some macrobiotic way) and my wrists thanking me again for the dual water bottles. Soon the benefit of the fall caught up to me – that adrenaline rush – and I was able to pick up the pace as the course opened up onto fire trails.

About a mile in, I reeled in Joel. He was still doing great, particularly given the fact that he wasn’t carrying any water bottles. Another half mile later, I caught Rick coming up a short set of switchbacks. He joked that he had a feeling some road marathoners might catch him on the flat stuff. I did get him in sight, but every section of downhill allowed him to gain a few more yards. We came into the last aid station (mile 29) together, where Kevin Weil was nursing cramps. I filled my water bottle and headed off the trail ahead of Rick.

(Where are you, Daddy?)

The last two miles were sunny, long fire roads with the fresh breeze of ocean air beckoning us to the finish. On the long stretches, I looked back for Rick, but never saw him. I turned into the last 500 yards of single track, and caught a toe for digger #4. My cheeks went red in anticipation of the laughter from the finish line spectators, but lucky for me the thicket offered plenty of protection. I heard the familiar voice of Sophie saying “Go, Daddy, Go!” and jumped back up to finish in 7th place (4:24:10). Rick finished about 30 seconds behind me, and Joel just a few minutes after that.

(Me and Rick, who gets faster with every race! I'm sporting the awesome race shirt)

(Paul Taylor clocks a sub-5 finish in 4:53)

We grabbed some refreshments and caught up with the winners. Leor had set the pace off the front, building a gap of 2-3 minutes for most of the race before Lon charged the hills and caught him around mile 25. They worked together to reach the finish in 3:38:33, setting a solid course record for this new race (and two new PR’s!). Chris Ratliff (3rd, 3:49:10) and Gary Gellin (4th, 1st Masters, 3:52:23, his first ultra) also finished under four hours, soon followed by Tim Johnston (5th, 4:12:34) and Dan Barger (6th, 4:15:09). Kelly Cronin, all the way from Yosemite Valley, won the Women’s division in 4:37:45 (13th overall), with Cari Martin (4:54:26, 20th) and PCTrails Series leader Juliet Morgan (4:59:49, 23rd) completing the podium. All in all, 178 found the finish line in the warm afternoon sun (results here), with plenty of time to enjoy snacks, chili, and soup.

(Women's winner Kelly Cronin enjoys a brew at the finish)

I enjoyed a beer and inhaled the salty sea air, sitting with Sophie and Rick (both enjoying milk) while four-legged spectator Wookie the 9-week old Mastiff puppy helped rid me of excess salt. I didn’t want to leave the finish area in fear that the glorious day would begin to fade too soon. But as we all know, experiences like this become a part of us, and in doing so cannot be forgotten. Remember that day when we stood on top of a mountain and ran all the way to the ocean’s edge? Yes, yes. Like it was yesterday.

(Hangin' with my crew in the shade)

(Wookie makes the rounds)

My thanks to the Doman’s and their fabulous volunteers for putting on a fantastic race. This new course is “must” in my book, and I am already looking to the rumored 100k version for next year.

- SD

(Watching the wave at Pigeon Point after the race)

[Gear role call - Inov-8 320 shoes, Inov-8 debris gaiters, Sugoi XPosure shirt, Sugoi 42k shorts, Nathan shoulder harness and water bottle holsters, Nuun water bottles and tablets, S! Caps, Vespa energy supplement, and Firestone Pale Ale. ]


  1. Great race. Great post.

    You fast guys stirred up those bees for us! (hehehe) Well they do let you know that you're alive, that's for sure.

    That was a fabulous course, and a great first ultra for me!

  2. Great pictures!!!! Looks like the camera survived the fall.

  3. Nice write-up, Scott!

    So you fell, too- yep, those root pixies were out there looking for us.
    Wish I could have seen Christy and Sophie at the end- you guys were long gone!

  4. Scott it was great running with you again. Way to rally after that 3rd fall. Great pictures again, I'm glad you spent time looking for the camera. It also made the gap between us closer than it should have been:) Well my camera finally died on this run and it took crappy photos while it was working so I'm glad I have yours to look at and Will's. Congrats on a good run despite the extra fun.

  5. Awesome run, Scott (and great write-up and pictures as usual). It was nice to meet you at the registration. Glad I got to see you run for about 5 seconds before you were out of sight.

  6. Excellent race report Scott. Congrats on a great race.
    Glad you found the camera as the pics are fantastic.
    Race looks amazing and I'll put it on my list of races to do in the future. It's not far from where my brother lives in Santa Cruz.

    Run long...


  7. Great report and photos, Scott. Thanks for the nice moniker, but I have actually never run a marathon. What a fantastic day! My original strategy was to run a sensible pace behind you, but once the gun was fired, testosterone took over. Once I am able to walk normally again I'll decide when (and if) the next ultra will be on my calendar. I actually caught site of Lon at mile 9. He started to bring back Leor at around mile 20 (leaving the BB aid station) when the gap to him was still 3 minutes. Chris Ratliff caught me at mile 26.5 and was absolutely flying.

  8. Rick - Send me your e-mail at scottdunlap (at) and I'll send you a couple of pics. It was great to run with you again!

    Gary - Amazing run! I thought I heard somebody say you were a road marathoner, so my bad. I corrected above. I hope to see you out at the next one.

    CoyoteGirl - Great to meet you at the race start, and awesome finish for your first ultra! Your pics are great too.

  9. Hi there! I just happened to find your post. this was my FIRST ULTRA (after 12 marathons and 7 big mountains). You write a beautiful story :-) and wonderful pictures. Much better than my posting :-( at

    I'll put a link on my site for you. I believe those were Yellow Jackets and I got stung at least a dozen times and are itchy and scratchy today! Congratulations to you and your time, I'm happy at 6th in my age/gender group (Mitch Lewis) will continue to read your post.

  10. Great report and great run as always Scott. I can't believe that you lost 8 minutes looking for your camera and still finished in 7th! I was glad to get a chance to meet you before the race. I survived the course - I must have been lucky since I didn't fall and only got 3 bee stings.

  11. Hi Scott,

    It was nice meeting you at the race. What a great race on a beautiful course! It was well worth the long drive from L.A.

    A 100K version of this race would be awesome!

  12. Dang

    Looking for trail riders blogs and accidentally ended up here. Looking at all the running going on here has me tired out already.

    If yawl get tired of running and ever need a horse let me know!

    ;-) Adios...

  13. Scott, congrats on your run and thanks for the inspiration! At the skyline park run early in year i was running 21k (what i thought was crazy long at time) and i kept seeing you running up, taking pictures, going again; and talking with others doing the 50k that day. I couldn't believe it was possible at that pace, but that chance encounter motivated me to train and participate in those events. Saturday was my first ultra and even though i cramped badly i think it was one of coolest sport events i've done. Thanks for the finishing photo! Thanks to you, all the people who show up for these, and the promotors who together seem to create such a great competitive, fun, and supportive atmosphere.

  14. Scott, Thanks for that Anchor Steam at the finish....

    That HIT the spot. I was watching everyone enjoying a cold beer thinking how nice it would have been if I would have packed one in an ice chest...

    Then all of of a sudden you pass by me as you make your way to your car....

    nice run.... and those beers do taste better after a race..


  15. Donn, Rich, Phil - Great to meet you too!

    Paul - Nice work on your first ultra! This was a challenging one to start with - I'm sure the next one will come easier.

    Ted - You are welcome for the beer. I always try and bring tastes so good when it hits your lips! (to quote Frank the Tank in Old School)

  16. Congratulations once again on your most excellent run, Scott! We had a blast on Saturday, too - it was almost too much fun watching you guys zipping down the trail toward the ocean!

    Please do introduce your family next time, if you can - I recognized Sophie, of course, but would love to actually say 'hi' to everyone at the next one.

    Congrats again, and thanks for always being so supportive of us.

    Sarah (PCTR)

  17. How rude of me! Next time for sure, Sarah. That's like not introducing one side of my family to the other. ;-)

    Thanks again for putting on another wonderful race. Particularly your success in getting 90+ new ultrarunners out there! I'm sure they will be back for more after a day like that.


  18. BTW, PCTrailRuns has a link page to other great reports here. Check 'em out!


  19. Thanks for your well-wishes on my blog. Yeah, fracturing my foot wasn't exactly the plan in that race, but I had to get out, right?

    I was going to see you (or the back of you) running at 9 trails-- it looks like I will be volunteering instead of running...

  20. Great stuff, Scott. Looks like a pretty run.

  21. It sounds like this was an awesome race. I'm sorry to have missed it...

  22. Great race report, Scott. Sounds like SttS is an instant classic. I sure hope the "rumored" 100k comes to fruition - that would be a fantastic addition to their line-up and not too much additional work to put on. I'd sign up!

    Great pics - glad your camera made it through. What brand was that again? ;-)

  23. What an adventure! Love your multi-talented self - able to run like that and then describe it for the rest of us. Proud of you. Thank you for the inspiration, sounds like an amazing race. Love to you and the girls, Kik

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