Friday, 23 March 2012

Canyon Meadow 50k. 17/03/2012.

This is California.

I arrived in a cold, wet California late on Friday evening after the flight from Minneapolis had been delayed by 3 hours. Air traffic control was rationing flights because of the bad weather in the San Francisco area. The weather in USA has been topsy-turvy. California was being uncharacteristically cold, wet and stormy, while the mid west was being uncharacteristically hot and breaking all-time records. Earlier in the week while in Indianapolis it had reached 27°C (81°F) – it got even hotter after I left, and later in Minneapolis it was at 24°C (75°F). The lakes were still frozen and there should have been three feet of snow on the ground. Instead there was no snow in sight and I was able to go for morning runs beside the Mississippi before sunrise in perfect running conditions wearing only shorts and T-shirt. I even had to wipe the sweat off my brow.

I finally rolled into my hotel in Oakland, just across the water from San Francisco, shortly before midnight. It was way too late for dinner. A bag of crisps and a Clif Bar had to suffice. 4.5 hours’ sleep saw me rise too early for breakfast (a banana had to suffice this time) for the magical mystery tour by taxi to Redwood Regional Park up in the hills. Canyon Meadow Trail Runs Race Director Wendell Doman and his team were already set up and runners were milling around at registration in the open picnic area. ‘Mountain Man’ Steve Ansell called across to me. I joined him huddled beside the portable gas heater for warmth. I had first met him at Coyote Two Moons in 2008 then again at Western States in 2008 – 2009. Here was another reunion of like-minded friends of old. The international running community is close even when it’s far apart.

Fortunately the rain had finally stopped overnight but it remained cold and damp, while mist hung in the trees. Everywhere was green and wet – just like home, except that home was warmer and drier. The temperature here in California was well down into single figures Centigrade, but it could have been worse. At least the air was calm and it wasn’t raining anymore!

The timing clock was counting down the minutes and seconds to the 8am start. There would be a choice of distances on undulating trails and some single-track around a half-marathon loop (pink ribbons) and a 5-mile loop (yellow ribbons). The choices were:
5 miles (1 x yellow);
Half marathon (1 x pink);
30km (1 x pink + 1 x yellow);
Marathon (2 x pink);
50km (2 x pink + 1 x yellow).
Junctions / turns would be forewarned by white ribbons with red polka dots on the side of the trail where the turn was to occur (I kid you not). I looked forward to the luxury of well-marked trails with no navigational issues to worry about. We rarely if ever enjoy such luxury in the UK. Even if we did I’m not sure that we would subscribe to such unseemly gaudiness as pink ribbons. A more subtle earthen tone that blends better with the surroundings may be more appropriate. I’m thinking puce.

Wendell gives his instructions.

A comprehensive speech and instructions from Wendell by loud hailer (I wish more race organisers back home would use such aids so we can hear them) ensured that we knew what to do once out there. Then we were sent on our way to stumble across the wet grass through the fixed outdoor barbecue equipment (which was all too easy to run into in the mêlée) and onto the trail proper to climb steeply onto the ridge. It was very wet and just waiting to be churned into a sticky, cloying mess by hundreds of pairs of feet. We 50km-ers would have to traverse it three times. Each time would prove to be worse, our shoes becoming heavier and our height increasing by dint of mud platforms until the next area of water draining across the trail allowed a decontaminating wash. Shortly the process would be repeated, several times over.

The first half-marathon loop went well, subject to an inevitable slowdown before the 13.1 miles were up. The split point where the 5-mile loop went left and the half marathon loop went right was very well signed. However this did not prevent one unfortunate guy taking the wrong turn and only finding out that he wasn’t doing the 5-mile race when he arrived at the next aid station on the long loop. He may have had a “D’oh!” moment. Further on, when views suddenly opened up of the tree-clad, misty valley down towards civilisation, I had to stop and stare and take pictures.

The technical steep downhill sections with roots and rocks were the favourite on legs that were not yet tired. Steve caught up and overtook me after the final single-track descent of the first loop (he’s also good on the descents). I got to enjoy the (in)famous American delicacy at the next aid station – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with white bread. There’s a time and place for a PBJ and this was it.

I found myself captivated by the unfamiliar smells of the woodlands that were foreign to me. The chief culprits were the eucalyptus trees with their sweet, enticing smell. They were very big and they looked old, decrepit and tatty with peeling strips of bark, which littered the ground.

I completed the first loop in 2:12. “That’s a bit rubbish for a half marathon”, I hear you say. In my defence it’s not a flat road race. I had become rather warm so I took the opportunity while at base to remove my long-sleeved base layer and stuff it into my bag, which was keeping the other bags company on the picnic tables. Most important was to keep my running vest on with race number visible. Could this be the first airing of a Fell Ponies vest in the good ol’ USA?

The second loop was more of a struggle. The mud was stickier and the legs were ‘tireder’. All the hills were walked this time. The trail was also much lonelier now that the field had spread out, all the faster runners were in front and most of the 5-milers had finished. However I did find myself swapping back and forth with Jorge Medina several times. When he was in front I used him as my target to pull me along. I caught him on the downhill before the last aid station (the PBJ one). I left him at the aid station removing a “rock” from his shoe (even grit is bigger in the US) to run back to the base.

Jorge attends to his rock.

The second loop took me 2:47. “That’s a bit rubbish for a half marathon”, I hear you say. (Haven’t we been here before?) Taking both half marathons together, a full marathon of considerable undulation in 4:59 on trails that were not always easy to run was just about spot on to what I’d hoped for. I was hoping for sub 5 hours on more runnable trails.

I wanted to complete the 50k in sub 6 hours, which meant keeping up an average pace of at least 5mph from now on. I wasted no time at the base before heading back up the hill for a third and final time to do 5 miles in less than 1 hour. I seemed to be struggling even more than on the second loop. Not only were the ups being walked but some of the flats were too. I was alone; no other runners were in sight. I felt as though I was the last one out there. I walked, shuffled, slipped and jogged my way weakly to the decision point for the final time. Instead of turning right uphill, now was the time to turn left downhill to follow the yellow ribbons back to the finish. I was over halfway through my allotted hour and I hoped the downhill route back would be much more direct than the uphill route out to the turn point. The trail quickly became very steep, muddy, churned-up and treacherous. As I ran downhill I suddenly found myself barely in control with tired legs on the worst piece of trail so far. A hiker was climbing up in the opposite direction. He was probably expecting a dramatic display that would end with me prostrate on the ground, but fortunately previous experience on the fells enabled me to hold it together.

The time slipped away as I descended through the dank forest to the point where the half marathon loop would rejoin the track I was already on. It was a long time coming. Six hours were nearly up when it finally arrived, when I knew for certain that a sub 6 finish was impossible. I rolled into the finish for the third and final time to complete the final 5 miles in 1:06, for a total time of 6:05. That earned me 25th place. Jorge was next to finish 3 minutes later. Steve had finished 20th in 5:42. The winning time was 4:23. There were 46 finishers.

As evidenced by the ice line, the gas bottle supplying the heater was running low as we huddled around it afterwards while we chatted and refuelled. The post-race banter was in full flow as we cheered other runners who were either finishing or just passing through before going out on their final loop.

Mr Heater was our friend.

Steve very generously gave me a lift back to my hotel in Oakland afterwards, via Starbucks for additional refuelling. Fortunately his Jeep had plenty of room to accommodate me as well as his two other passengers. The day ended with me feeling fulfilled, happy and rejuvenated. Wherever I go in the world, the camaraderie among ultra runners is the same.

Happy enough at the finish line (copyright Coastal Trail Runs).

I took quite a few pictures but you’ll have to wait until I can get home to upload them. Don’t forget to check back.

I'm back. Here they are.


  1. Nick, next weekend I'll be pulling the same antics...flying in the day before the 44 mile Brew To Brew in Kansas City. Hope my flight comes in on time, though, as I've got a 6 a.m. start! Enjoy your time in Cali!

  2. Ooh, good luck Dawn. In my experience, Friday air travel in the US is guaranteed to be delayed or cancelled. They'll try to bribe you with 50 dollars to travel the next day, and you get to sleep in the airport. Aircraft go faulty and have to be taken out of service, while any deviation from blazing sunshine and crystal-clear views causes panic among air traffic controllers, causing them to ration air movements (and we're not talking sprouts either).

  3. The most exotic my 'work running' gets is Bristol! good write up as usual and good 'plodding'!

  4. Enjoyed the report Nick. Nice to read about American events to see the differences as I've read they're ahead of us in terms of numbers and events of this type?

    It shouldn't when I think about it, but always slightly suprises me when I read foreign reports and its very damp and muddy due to rain. I guess it goes against my expectation that it would be drier than UK as people always talk like we get lots of it here. In reality I don't think I've got my feet wet this year. I expect they get proper rain around there!

    Seeya back in UK soon, Calderdale no doubt.

  5. Thanks for the terrific report, Nick. I'm heading there myself tomorrow and wasn't sure what to expect. Less mud, certainly and fortunately. Best,
    John Blue