A Chance Encounter at Montana de Oro

I was visiting my in-laws in Paso Robles for Father’s Day weekend, so decided to treat myself to some new trails this weekend.  I printed the 25K course map for the Pacific Coast Trails Montana de Oro event and drove to Montana de Oro State Park early Sunday morning.

Spring poppies

The name Montana de Oro, or “Mountains of Gold,” was inspired by the abundance of Orange Bush Monkey flower, but the mountains are a cornucopia of Indian Pink, Indian Paintbrush, Yarrows, Buckwheat, Lupins, Deerweed, and other varieties.

The 1200-ft. climb from Spooner’s Cove to Valencia Peak is two miles long at an average incline of 14.1°.  A third of it is loose Monterey Shale (rock) and the first ridge is entirely exposed.  The view of Valencia Peak reminded me of the scenes from the Road Runner cartoon or How The Grinch Stole Christmas where the narrow trail spirals up the mountain until it reaches the pointed top, which I reached in a leisurely half hour.  I signed one of the hiker’s log books with a Father’s Day message.

Spooners CoveAlmost two hours into my run I had not yet found the Hazard Peak Trail.  I found myself winding my way back to Spooner’s Cove.  Entirely by chance, I met three runners coming down the same Valencia Peak Trail I had completed about 45 minutes earlier.  One of them was Luis Escobar, who will be running the Western States 100 for the 8th time this weekend.  He has also completed Badwater, Hardrock, HURT and numerous other ultras.  He’s also an accomplished photographer.  Go to www.allwedoisrun.com and check out Luis’ account of the rarely photographed Tarahumara people in the Urique and Batopilas Canyon region of the Copper Canyon, state of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico.  Very cool stuff.

Luis invited me to a 50K/50-mile run his running group is putting on at this location the weekend after Thanksgiving.  This is a new venue for the Santa Barbara 9 Trails 35 Mile Endurance Run, chosen after the recent fires in Santa Barbara.  I’ll be sure to promote it with my running club.

I took this chance encounter as the reason I was not supposed to find Hazard Peak Trail (although I did finally find it a half mile from where I parked as I left the park).  Some of the best moments in running are the serendipities along the trail.
Bluff TrailLuis and his buddies were meeting family members so we parted ways at the parking lot.  I was running out of time with a 45-min. drive back to Paso Robles.  Luis said the Bluff Trail was not very interesting.  It’s very flat, but I didn’t have time for Hazard Peak.  I’m glad I ran the bluff.  I stopped many times to take photos, listen to the big waves crash, and enjoy the moment.

34th Annual Mt. Madonna Challenge 2009

I’m promoting this event because it’s sponsored by my running club.  It’s also one of the best running events in the South Bay.  It’s all pristine trail, winding through groves of oak, manzanita and redwood trees.  The South Valley Running Club presents the 34th Annual Mt. Madonna Challenge 6K, 12K, 18K Trail Run.  Registration is now open on Active.com.
Flyer and more details at http://www.svrchome.org/mtmadonnachallenge

Mt Madonna Challenge

Rancho Canada del Oro Trails

I ran some trails for the first time today in the South Bay that were so great, any avid trail runner would love the place.  I’ve been meaning to try these trails for a full year when my tri training partner and I discovered while on a long ride.  Today I went with another training partner from my running club. 

rancho-canada-del-oroPhotos courtesy of Santa Clara County Open Space Authority

It’s called Rancho Canada del Oro Open Space Preserve, a still relatively new 4000-acre preserve in the eastern Santa Cruz Mountain foothills.  Once part of the Pueblo lands of San Jose, it opened to the public in 2004.  The county web site describes the landscape as “native grasslands, live and valley oak woodlands, sage-chaparral scrub, and creekside habitats.”  Views of Mt. Umunhum,  Mt. Hamilton, the Diablo mountain range, and Calero Reservoir add to the visual cornucopia. Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? 

rancho-canada-del-oro-21We found the most accessible Mayfair Ranch Trail closed due to poor conditions so we started at the Serpentine Loop trail.  True to its name, this section of the trail is single-track and winds uphill for two miles.  At the Canada del Oro cutoff, it’s a mile descent down a fire road and more single track.  Then we picked up the Figueroa Trail for another good one-mile climb.  We reached the Javelina Loop, presumably named after the looped course of the Javelina Jundred.  The Cottle Trail and Chisnantuck Trail on the back side had some of the steepest climbs.  Just seven miles into the run, we realized we had already climbed over 2000 feet.  This course is probably steeper than the Quicksilver trails just a short distance from this location.  The last two miles opened up to breathtaking views of the south valley.  The hills were a lush green as the sun tried to break through the fog and low clouds.  We completed the 9-mile loop in a little under two hours.  The temp remained almost a constant 48 – 50 degrees, just perfect for trail running.

The single and double track and fire roads didn’t look like they get much foot traffic.  Maybe the recent rain had something to do with it.   The trails are open to bicycles and horses but but we didn’t see a single person or horse in two hours.  I wouldn’t want to tackle this kind of vertical on a bike even though it’s not technical.  We returned to a nearly full parking but it sure felt like we had the entire place to ourselves.

This area has some fascinating historical significance.  In nearby Almaden, mercury was discovered during the California gold rush.  Mercury (“quicksilver”) is used to recover gold.  If mercury had not been found in these hills, some have speculated we would have continued to get our mercury from Almaden, Spain, and much of the California gold would have ended up in Spain.  I’ve also seen the old “hanging tree” in Almaden where mining communities used to hang the men they caught chasing prostitutes from neighboring mining communities.

I’ve been trail running in the South Bay for several years and can’t believe I’m still uncovering new trails.  I think the many trails in the South Bay are the best kept secret in Bay Area trail running.  The views rival those of the Marin Headlands, Angel Island, or any of the popular Pacific Coast Trail runs.

From Highway 101 or Highway 85. Turn west onto Bailey Avenue. At the intersection with McKean Road turn left. Where McKean Road becomes Uvas Road turn right onto Casa Loma Road. Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve is at the end of the public access portion of the road.

PCT Muir Beach 33K

Muir Beach from the Pacific Coast TrailI woke up at 4:00 am. to check the weather report in Muir Beach. I knew a storm was moving in, and I really didn’t want to do a long sloppy run. 40% chance of rain with a coastal flood warning all day. Nice. I was going to wimp out and crawl back in bed or make the 95-ml. trek to Muir Beach to run. So glad I wasn’t a wimp today.

I was amazed to see the skies clear the closer I got to San Francisco. It was cold, but not raining. What a relief. I arrived 30 minutes before the start, just enough time to get ready. I saw a friend from my running club who was carrying around a leaking bladder for a hydration pack. So I let her use my bladder which I wasn’t using today (that doesn’t sound right at all, but you know what I mean).

I checked in at the tent to find a small brown paper bag with my name scribbled on it. I knew immediately it was probably from the injured runner I had helped a month ago at the Stinson Beach run. We had exchanged some nice emails over the last few weeks and she had wanted to replace the Japanese bandana I had given her to treat her injury. She had left me a nice card, a small charm, and a new bandana wrapped in a delicate cloth pouch. I could tell she had recently picked up these items on her recent trip to Japan. Her kind gesture was entirely unnecessary, but proves once again that trail runners are a great bunch of people.

Wendell started the run at 8:30 am. sharp. I decided the Muir Beach run is the most beautiful of all the PCT events, and I have done many of them. All the PCT venues offer up incredible sights and scenery, but the way the long course is set up at Muir Beach, you are almost always looking at a stunning view.

After choking down some potatoes as I always do at the first PCT aid station, I found myself running up a long climb with a fellow runner who appeared to have cerebral palsy. I was amazed he was keeping up with me. Then he asked me where the turn was for the 17K. I told him I had no idea since I was running the 33K course. But I instantly felt terrible for him. His necessary running form looked difficult and exhausting. I think he faded at that point, but I hope he completed his run. I was truly inspired watching him tackle the course.

The first 10 miles is simply some of the best trail running I’ve ever done. I completed the first half in just under two hours so I thought I had a chance of breaking four hours. I was planning on 4 1/2 hours after taking over four hours to complete a 30K at Stinson Beach a month earlier. But I knew there were two more 1,000-ft. climbs to come.

Someone had decided to run the 50K dressed as Santa and I kept seeing him for the first 15 miles. As he passed me with a spirited “Ho, ho, ho,” I told him he had put the song, “Here Comes Santa Claus” in my head and it would not stop playing. At the end of the race it was still playing in my head. You know how annoying that can be, despite the holiday season.

The second climb from the beach includes a steep set of stairs that cannot be scaled without the handrails. The third climb really requires a chair lift. I can’t imaging anyone running the last climb, but a few mountain goats must be running it to post the sub 3-hr. times I saw at the finish. Once at the top of the last climb, I knew it was just 1.5 miles to the finish. I could see black clouds dumping rain into the Pacific Ocean, and it was headed straight for me. The pelting rain hit me just ten minutes from the finish line, so I decided to push it to the finish, crossing the line in 4:09.

All in all, I was very pleased with my effort. I had done lots of hill work in the last month to prepare, and I think it paid off. Muir Beach was a great way to cap off another banner year of racing.

Mt. Madonna Challenge…Runners In The Mist

mt_madonna_fogThis one is for serious trail runners. I ran it two years ago and took second in my age group, so I wanted to do it again this year. In it’s 33rd year, this trail run for locals draws a small crowd, probably due to its punishing course. The 1100-ft. climb from the start of the 12K forces all but the few front runners to walk less than a mile into the race. Just a few minutes into the race my heart rate was easily at 175.

Mt. Madonna is my favorite place for trail running, and today’s race was absolutely pristine. Winding through troves of oak, sycamore, manzanita and redwoods, there was a two-mile section where we ran through thick fog. At the top of one ridge the fog spilled over the trail like smoke, the same way you see it in San Francisco as the ocean winds push it over the mountains. Sounds are muffled, trail shoes brush along a thick carpet of mixed foliage, and the scent of redwood seems to fill your body. I sort of lost myself in this space a few times, hardly aware I was running a race, mesmerized by finding myself in this other world.

I knew my Garmin wasn’t going to track the distance through the tall forest, but I was surprised how well I remembered the course. I knew where the steep climbs ended, and I was ready for the downhills. The county had poured a fresh coat of gravel on the fire roads earlier in the year, and that made the descent much easier this year.

I highly recommend this event for any avid trail runner. It is breathtaking (and literally takes your breath away), challenging, and rewarding. It was also a good reminder for me to do more hill work in my triathlon training.

I had done almost no trail running recently but still managed to finish less than a minute behind my time two years ago. I was 15th overall but 8th in my age group in the smallest of races, reminding me once again I need to wait until I turn 60 for a shot at the podium.

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