Ray Miller 50: Quad Hammering Under the California Sun

AJWs TaproomLast weekend, I had the privilege of traveling out to California to participate in the second running of the Ray Miller 50 in Point Mugu State Park just north of Malibu, CA. This race has quickly become a popular mid-winter base builder for many runners hailing from colder climes as race director Keira Henninger and her team put on a flawless race in a stunningly beautiful place. This year’s field, while not as deep as some of the 50’s later in the spring, did feature, among others, Timothy Olson and Hal Koerner, the defending men’s Western States 100 and Hardrock 100 champions respectively, Dylan Bowman, the course-record holder at Leona Divide 50, and Amy Sproston, the defending World 100k women’s champion. So, while not necessarily deep, the front of the race was certainly quite “pointy.”

We started in the pre-dawn darkness with a gradual climb out of a canyon through dry scrubland and out onto a wide exposed ridge high above the Pacific Ocean. After leveling off, the trail became smooth and fast. The front runners in both the 50-mile and the accompanying 50k (The two races start together and split off at the 19-mile mark.) were long gone and I settled into a nice pack of runners which included the front-running women in the 50k. I had a great time chatting with Jen Benna and heckling Meghan Arbogast before the courses split and I began the long, solo slog up 3,400-foot Sandstone Peak (The 50k course, quite sensibly, skipped this part :).

The 2,500-foot climb up and over Sandstone Peak formed the bulk of the out-and-back section that took us through the Buena Vista Aid Station twice and out across some of the most beautiful scenery in the Santa Monica Mountains. Exposed sandstone rock formations combined with beautiful and aromatic white flower blossoms across all the hillsides helped to make the visual experience a nice distraction from the physical pain. It was a particular thrill for me to catch up with Howard Cohen, a mainstay of the Southern California ultrarunning scene for years, as he was manning the aid station going both ways.

On the return trip up and over Sandstone I began to realize that I was getting significantly depleted. Even though it was only in the mid-60’s I knew I was losing serious amounts of salt and even though I was popping four to six salt tablets an hour I was having trouble staying on top of things. Every couple of minutes I had those little excruciating jabs of pain in my calves and hamstrings that I have come to recognize as the telltale sign of electrolyte imbalance. At that point the race became an electrolyte-management exercise, something that has become common for me in winter races as I am attempting to come back into form.

The best part of the course for me, and for many others as well, was the final three-mile descent down the Ray Miller Trail to the start/finish area by the Pacific Ocean. If there is a better, more buffed out, perfectly graded singletrack descent anywhere I have not seen it. Combining stunning views, smooth running, and graceful switchbacks, that final three miles of this trail was, in and of itself, worth the entry fee. Rolling into the festive finish line area I had a blast catching up with friends and re-hashing the day. In addition to the aforementioned frontrunners, among the dignitaries milling around the finish area, were Craig Thornley, Meghan Arbogast, Tom Nielsen and Jeff Kozak.

Race director Keira Henninger has clearly established an event that should be on any runner’s radar. In addition to supportive volunteers, great aid stations, and an impeccably marked course, Keira has also succeeded in creating a culture around the race that is unique in a race in its second year. Typically, we gravitate toward events that are fun, welcoming, competitive, and beautiful; the Ray Miller 50 is all that and more. I am not sure if it’s the Southern California sunshine or the warm sea breezes but, whatever it is, I’ll be coming back next year.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of Week

The Lab Brewing CoThis week’s Beer of the Week, fittingly, comes from Southern California’s own The Lab Brewing Company in Aguora Hills. Their “Take Her Home” Belgian tripel is a mild Belgian Style Ale (only 20 IBUs) with a whopping 10.6 ABV. I had one after the race last Saturday and let’s just say that’s all I needed.

PS. As for me, I ended up finishing 13th in 8:46 and felt like I took another solid step toward recovery from the injuries that plagued me last year.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Has anyone else out there had a “coming-into-form” early season race like Andy describes, where you’ve had to closely manage one variable?
  • Any Ray Miller 50-mile or 50k racers out there? What did you think about your outing in the Santa Monica Mountains last weekend?

There are 36 comments

  1. Brett

    Didn't you read Waterlogged? Thats the book where we all learned that actually the Recommended Daily Allowance of salt is fabricated and the body never consumes and depletes salt.


    1. AJW

      Brett, perhaps I should read it because experience suggests to me that I need a crap-ton of salt when I run ultras. Then again, I am just one guy and I've only run 92 of them. AJW

      1. Dean G

        FWIW — It would make sense that the more you take in, the more your body dumps it in an effort to maintain homeostasis. So on a hot day, you start dumping salt immediately..etc.

        It really is worth the read… An the experimentation. #93 could be a new experience yet ;)

        P.S. — Noakes does also point out that salt on the tongue seems to inhibit certain indications of fatigue in cramping — even if it doesn't impact your salt levels.

        In other words, salt, why we take it and how… Is a bit more mysterious than we've been led to believe. But then again, when doesn't our understanding of the body completely change every decade or so

        Glad you enjoyed SoCal! And that you are on you way to #100!

      2. Pete

        Just because you have run several ultras doesnt make you a nutritionist. By all accounts you are basically over dosing on salt. But each to their own. 6 salt tablets in one hour is 3 times the recommended amount. I imagine if you went and worked with a nutritionist they would tell you that you are taking to much. With that said every body is different. What you have most likely done is trained your body to accommodate to much consumption of salt.

      3. Luke Garten

        I am very interested in the discussion on salt and hydration on ultra races. AJW, How many S Caps do you take during a hot Western States? I seem to cramp during at all races I have done at the marathon or farther. Not sure if it is too little salt, too much water, or simply under trained for the distance at the intensity of race pace. Maybe for me it is a little of all those things.

        1. AJW

          I certainly am not a nutritionist and have always seen the "salt thing" as a big mystery. To be honest, basically what I do is take salt when I feel cramps coming on and continue taking it until the cramps subside. It varies tremendously for me based on where I am in my training cycle.

          At Western States I rely on several heavy doses of chicken broth as I find it easier to process than the tablets.

          In 2006, the hottest Western States I have run I consumed 36 S! Caps over the course of the race and drank three eight ounce servings of double strength chicken broth. And, of course, I still had sever cramps for much of the middle portion of the race.

          If there is a nutritionist out there who would be willing to work with me on this issue please drop me an email: ajoneswilkins@tandemfs.org


          1. Luke Garten

            Thanks for the info! I have never tried chicken broth before. Mostly because I am very nausiated at the later parts of an ultra.

            1. Jeff Faulkner

              Luke, chicken broth was ambrosia for me at Virgil Crest. I was so sick to my stomach and cramping terribly. Chicken broth saved the race for me – now it's my "secret weapon".

          2. Brett

            My main point is similar to AJW – to each his own on salt, do what works. But there is an RDA of salt, just like there is any number of nutrients. Throughout the day you use these up, so a certain amount needs to be replinished. Salt is no different. And when you exercise, you deplete things quicker. So regardless of how much salt any given person takes, to make some of the statements that Waterlogged apparently does that you don't need any extra salt is laughable. Its mathematically impossible.

            1. AJW

              I also will add that as I train through the spring and into the summer and integrate sauna sessions into my training my sweat rate drops and I seem to "hold" salt more than I am able to do in the winter.

              It will be fun to experiment this year as I have three more races leading up WS on June 29th so I'll try to keep table on my salt intake and maybe post a follow-up article after Western States. I usually have trouble coming up with things to write about Western States:)

        2. KenZ

          Luke, have you read the two very very well written articles on Noake's book here written by IRF contributor Joe Uhan. Not only does he write a very nice, exhaustive review with commentary, but the back and forth discussions afterwards are worth the read.

          The point I made in them is that I used to take electrolytes, and more when I cramped, but then experimented and realized that the cramping was stopping because I was backing off a bit to "let the electrolytes do their thing," and then when I'd stop cramping, I'd start speeding up more, start cramping, take more electrolytes, and repeat. My last 100 (Chimera, not an "easy" one) I didn't take a single electrolyte tab, and had one of the best races to date. When I'd feel tightness coming on, I'd back off the accelerator just a tad, and continue on. Never got a cramp the entire 20.5 hours.

          So I'm with Noakes on this one, although, as even Noakes points out: A) the placebo effect (with anything) is real, and strong B) you're likely not doing any harm taking tabs during a race, and they don't weigh much.

            1. Jeremy

              We have abundance in our bodies according to Noakes. The key is how much we have in our "exchangeable" amount- the amount we can burn up on a whim without taking from the supply that does important things in our bodies at the cellular level, like keep our hearts beating.

              My best races have come from heeding Noakes advice. I feel the key is to race ultras much easier than you run in training. When in trouble, back off and the cramps tend to ease off. When I have cramped, it has been because of foolish pacing and lack of fitness. Early season runs like AJW mentions will always be trouble for me.

              Have you read the book, Brett? It addresses this issue with massive amounts of historical data, gleaned from thousands of studies- military, clinical, marathon/ultra/Ironman, sports drink industry. It is very heavy and dry reading, but it paints a clear picture. Noakes opinion is formed from the data. I found it to be airtight.

              I do think salt has its place in long (100 mi +) ultras. Mainly, I find that it aids in digestion. When I get a sloshy stomach, salt empties it quickly. I think this was the key in Joe Uhan's analysis at WS100 last year, when after 4-5 hours of running he hit a low point and was instantly revived by salt. This is my experience in many ultras too. With the salt, the gels seem to absorb better and the energy starts flowing again. I just wait to feel that slightest dip in energy, then one pill and I'm back.

          1. Luke Garten

            I have read both of the articles. They were great. I am going to buy the book and read it for myself. I have been drinking only to thirst since the articles and have had a lot better results with nausia and cramps. At the Rock'n River 50 last year I drank to thirst but still got bad nausia and cramps after 4 hours and could only take Coke for calories. I did take an S! Cap after the 3 hours and then one at every hour after that. I did suffer from cramps from mile 35 to the finish. The only thing that kept cramps away after that was not going below and 8.5 min/mile pace. So I am not sure if the cramps were race pace induced or low electrolyte induced.

            1. KenZ

              Yeah, the book rocks. Clearly, as others have pointed out, we're all different, and every 10 years there's some new "discovery" that we've been doing it all wrong (static stretching before a race, anyone?). But still, Noakes has no agenda other than the truth, no axe to grind, and no money to be made (I think he's even donating proceeds from the book). Everything he states he backs up with crap-tons of scientific data. It's hard to not be a believer after reading it, and I've only made it about 1/3 of the way through. That was enough for me.

  2. Marc Laveson

    AJW's write up on Ray Miller is spot on. The course is incredible, the event is one of the best managed events thanks to Kiera and the SoCal running community, and the atmosphere at the event is perfect. Like AJW, I will be back next year.

  3. Pete Chavez

    This was my first 50k and it was amazing. I couldnt have picked a better race to break my 50k cherry. I live but ten minutes away so I get to enjoy those trail often. Great race and great volunteers I'm definitley doing again next year beautiful but tough!

  4. Anonymous

    AJW, greetings from SoCal, glad ya had a nice visit, saw you go by on your return from that little 19M out and back, you looked just fine…what you, and virtually everyone else missed, except for the sweepers (hi Vanessa, hi Sweeney) and the maybe half-dozen or so milling about 14:35 later, is what I will always remember about the day and what for me sort of represents the spirit of ultra: Keira kept the course open so a woman, a rookie running on less than two feet, could finish the thing, her first full 50M (and just for the record, she crossed the finish line before me but I guess the timing chips must've malfunctioned or something, 'cause ultrasignup tells a different story).

    As for the CR holder at SD 100, and I know there's been variations of the course, you may want to take that up with a certain Speedgoat up in Utah, 'cause I think he's of a slightly different opinion…

    Come back any time,

    JV in SD

      1. Anonymous

        (I was on the course that day, JB was over 30M ahead of me, went by going faster up hill than me down, tells me how awesome I'm doing, same thing happened with Karl at Chimera, this was my silly attempt at humor…)


        1. AJW

          Hey everyone, sorry for the misinformation about the SD100 Course Record. I had forgotten about Bronco's amazing run this past year. We corrected it in the text. Still, you gotta admit, DBow is one fast runner:)

  5. FastED

    Welcome back to racing AJW! I've been to "The LAB" and had that beer! They also have a double IPA with IBUs of 120. I actually was doing some training on the Ray Miller trail last year while "working".

    We must consult more frequently on beers…

  6. Jason

    Speedgoat ran a very different SD100, but last year Jeff Browning ran the same course as DBo way faster. So it's either Jeff or Karl, not Dylan (although he ran well too).

    Nice article Andy! I'd love to get out there for that one some day.

  7. Scotty

    Great article and nice run AJ…wish I could have been there. As always, Keira does a super job as RD. For the record, SD100 has had two somewhat different courses….Karl owns the record on the old course and Jeff Browning owns the record on the new course. Jeff beat Dylan's previous course record by over an hour in last year's race.

    1. Speedgoatkarl

      its the only way my records are gonna stay alive. :-) That 15:48 was a top 3 run in my career 100s. I credit Josh Brimhall for chasing me and forcing me to run just about every step. running scared for 50 miles.

  8. Guy C.

    Agree with the comments above. The Ray Miller 50k was my first race beyond the marathon distance, and while I'm not sure there are any bad choices for a first race, this one was excellent. Aside from the stunning beauty of the area, and the varied terrain of the course, the aid stations were efficient and well-stocked and it was basically impossible to get lost: everything was marked very clearly. Great post-race grub and hangout and the race shirt was a useful Patagonia long-sleeve.

    Hope I can make it back one of these years to run in this area, race day or otherwise.

    Thanks to everyone who made this a great day.

  9. Jen

    Hey AJW- Highlight of the day "Show me the Money!" Sorry I didn't get to see your finish- nice work out there. Love that course and Kiera does a great job. See you soon!

  10. Jeff

    I just can't buy the salt thing…dudes where running around like crazy 5K years ago and I highly doubt they were carrying around salt licks with them.

    Sounds like a cool place to run down there in SoCal!

    1. Jeremy

      According to Noakes, you're right. The salt licks were the animals they were chasing. Man had no fixed supply of salt before mining. Plants have next to none, so animals were the only reliable source. According to Noakes, this forced man to become the long distance runners we are today, because without running, there was no salt.

  11. David Gollom

    I captained the last aid station in the afternoon and saw most of the 50 milers. I'm so happy to hear all you runners had a positive experience. There was definitely a great vibe to the day and it seemed like despite the pain everyone was having a good time and really enjoyed the course and the scenery. I hope to be competing next year!!

  12. Adam Danforth

    Brett has a point and, like others, the amount of salt being consumed was a shock to me.

    The lack of electrolytes causing cramping and muscle pain should be a remnant of the past, but persists despite evidence against it. Think about it: if you had an electrolyte imbalance, which is body-wide, why would you cramp in only the areas that are stressed? Science shows that clinically hyponatremic cases cramp all over.

    Plus, another thing to consider is: as you sweat you lose more water than salts. This means that the comparative ratio of salts to water in your body actually INCREASES as you exercise. Taking more salts is just going to cause hydration issues as well as problems with focus and momentum. The important thing is to hydrate adequately with very intermittent salt intake.

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