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.
AJW’s Beer of Week
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?