Saturday, October 6, 2007

Xterra Point Mugu 11K Trail Run

My wife, friends, and I arrive early for our first true trail race. The sun has just begun to rise, it is unexpectedly cold for a crystal clear morning, and we cannot help but be overwhelmed by the size of the surrounding hills. We know the course climbs into them, but my crazy trail running coworker (who will be on the18K configuration of the course) confirms what we all's 11K will reach the peak.

I have done my research. I know that this run will be long and grueling with nearly 1,200 feet of elevation change. I have trained for both distance and elevation. I am familiar with trail obstacles, but mostly from running high school cross country. I know there are single-track segments almost from the getgo...meaning this is a strategic race not just by pace, but by starting position. My plan is to place myself somewhere in the middle of the pack so I do not get stuck behind walkers, maintain a pace between 10 and 11 minute miles for the first half, and then use whatever I have left on the final descent. My wife and friends merely want to finish. We each
consume a Gu gel and sufficiently hydrate, watch the 18K runners begin their race, and then head to the starting line.

The actual race proves to be a bit more extreme. We start on a road that soon funnels us into a single-file trail, but, before we can establish our pace, unexpectedly come to a stop. Everyone must carefully cross over large rocks (perhaps a stream at some point during the year)...this is truly cross country terrain! Passing is not an option as the trail has become impossibly narrow as it continues uphill and is often penetrated by brush. We must carefully watch the ground as the trail is uneven and has lots of protruding rocks. I now understand why MP3 players are not allowed on our run...we must be very aware of each other at all times in case someone stumbles. Going over the edge would be bad. We also have been warned about poison oak, but can take comfort that rattlesnakes are not much of a factor this time of the year. When we reach what appears to be a staircase made of rocks, everyone must again slow to a walk. I am discouraged that I complete my first mile just under 14 minutes, but I really do not see how I could have done much better given the conditions.

At around a mile-and-a-half, the trails for the 18K and 11K races separate. Unfortunately for us 11K runners, our course continues its unforgiving ascent for another two miles. At times I find room to pass, so I start overtaking slower competitors. I am initially relieved to reach the fire road near the northern-most corner of the course, but the incline steepens. Perhaps I have pushed too hard too early. I must walk.

I stop for Gatorade at the first water station. Up until now, I have enjoyed the shade, but the fire road is completely exposed to the sun. I pour water on my head hoping I will stay cool. Leaving the station, I struggle to re-establish a running pace mentally unprepared for the trail to continue its ascent. I reach the three mile marker after more than thirty-six minutes on the course...I feel slow and grow fatigued. I keep telling myself that it is all downhill after the next bend only to discover another incline. In fact, I am fooled by several turns with barely any moments of respite. The only thing keeping me going is the view...I have never hiked these hills before. The rugged hills, lush valleys, and glimpses of the ocean are quite inspiring.

Then something wonderful happens. The incline no longer feels as extreme, my pace improves, and I pass the mile four mark in less time than I expect. I catch my second wind and regain my stride. The descent begins. I stop briefly for water at the final aid station. It is time to really start pushing myself.

I leave the fire road and start my way down the single-track Ray Miller Trail. Though my pace has now quickened, leaders of the 18K race (who started 15 minutes before us) have caught up and want to pass. Finding opportunities to do so is difficult, so I must scrape my legs along the brush to let them by. My stride really begins to open up, but I must remember to carefully to manage my speed because the trail makes sharp turns as it winds its way down the hill. The view of the Pacific Ocean and our base camp is spectacular, but I cannot fully appreciate the panorama as I do not want to go off the cliff. I use the runner in front of me as a rabbit and repeatedly decline his offers to let me pass. I am starting to feel blisters on my left foot, but am breathing comfortably, my legs are not hurting, and the sun really has not been a factor. Mile 5 comes and goes. Mile 6 goes even faster.

'Photo'PhotoPhoto brought to you by: Byron W. Moore Photography
'Photo'PhotoPhoto brought to you by: Byron W. Moore Photography
Our gang races down the Ray Miller Trail towards the finish line
Click to Enlarge - Copyright 2007 Byron W. Moore Photography

When I reach mile 7, however, I start to worry. First of all, I have incorrectly assumed that our 11K will be exactly 6.84 miles and we have not yet reached the bottom of the hill. I am not mentally prepared to go the extra distance and start to struggle. I give one final push towards the finish line. Reaching it requires a bit of careful navigation on very uneven terrain, so I am thankful not to hurt myself as I cross the line. What a relief to be done!

Though I did not quite reach my goal, I am pleased to have officially completed the 7.32 mile course in 1:12:32 (averaging sub-10 minute miles). I am even more pleased with how strongly I finished the took me less than 24 minutes to cover the last three miles. It is hard to believe that I spent 45 minutes on the incline, but less than 30 on the descent! For males age 30-39, I finish 15th...49th out of 116 participants in the 11K.

My wife, friends, and coworker also complete their respective races strongly. My coworker finishes his 18K (1:40:24 for 21st in his 18K age/male group, 60th out of 190 overall), followed shortly thereafter by my friend (1:26:41 for 19th in our 11K age group, 93rd overall) and my wife (1:27:27 for 17th in her age group, 95th overall). We all agree this has been a worthwhile experience, far more interesting than a road race...and this definitely will not be our last.

Like the Nike run, this event includes a medal, t-shirt, and edibles. Today's menu includes Gatorade, water, Gu gels, Clif shots and bars, and a buffet breakfast. The buffet features runny eggs (full of shells according to my friends), tart oranges, under ripe bananas, Costco muffins, and Kripsy Kreme doughnuts (the announcer encourages us not to feel guilty about grabbing one), a meal that hardly knocks are socks off, but I am thankful we can refuel immediately after burning so many calories. On our way home, my wife, friends, and I decide to swing by Gardena and grab a bite at Pho So 1. Vietnamese beef noodle soup seems an ideal post-race meal...liquid, salt, carbs, protein, what more does a runner need?

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