Running California’s Central Coast: Why a Painful 50K Made a Romantic Getaway

My 12-year-old daughter’s eyes grew wide as she spied the side of my bare leg, which was streaked with red scabs and purplish bruises the day after I ran the Montaña de Oro 50K on California’s Central Coast. Then she watched me clutch the railing and go downstairs all herky-jerky, an “ouch” with each step.

“Mom, why do you do those races?” She used a tone of disbelief and disappointment that I sometimes use with her.

“I dunno,” I replied stupidly, and spent the rest of the week considering how I could have answered better. This is my longer, more honest reply:

Morro Bay as seen from a trail in Montaña de Oro State Park. (This and other photos by Morgan C. Smith unless otherwise noted.)

Morro Bay as seen from a trail in Montaña de Oro State Park. (This and other photos by Morgan C. Smith unless otherwise noted.)

I registered Morgan and me for the February 13 Pacific Coast Trail Runs event near Morro Bay for lots of reasons. Aside from running, the race was an excuse for a trip to a state park and small town we never had visited. I envisioned a romantic weekend without the kids (who stayed home in the care of extended family) and got what I wanted: As we hit the curvy corridor of eucalyptus groves south of Gilroy on Highway 101, it felt as though the clock turned back more than 20 years, to when I was half my age and half as healthy. We could have been on one of our drives from UC Santa Cruz to Southern California, but instead of Morgan’s ’69 Mustang that he bought at age 17, we drove his “new” used BMW convertible, dubbed the midlife crisis car.

Just north of San Luis Obispo, we got off 101, put the top down, and headed west on Highway 41. “You can see why it’s called the Central Coast,” Morgan noted. “It really is a hybrid of Northern and Southern California.” I agreed. The carved coast looked like Big Sur, but the chaparral smelled like the mountains behind Ojai or Santa Monica.

Morro Bay harbor at sunset with Morro Rock in the background.

Morro Bay harbor at sunset with Morro Rock in the background.

We walked along the Embarcadero in Morro Bay at sunset, gazed at the big dome of Morro Rock, and peaked in at shops that sold saltwater taffy, seashells, and wine. We wondered why we had never visited this pretty, mellow, slightly faded town before.

We woke up early the next morning and drove seven miles south to Spooner Cove in Montaña de Oro (“Gold Mountain”) State Park. Morgan signed up for the event’s 25K (15.5 miles), and I went for the double. The “50K”—quotation marks used sarcastically because the course turned out to be long, about 33.5 miles instead of 31—involved repeating the 25K course.

The first 7.5 miles go up and around the 1347-foot Valencia Peak and return to the aid station at Spooner Cove; then the course goes about 9 miles out and over the 1076-foot Hazard Peak and returns again to the cove. Runners doing the 50K do it all again for about 6700 feet of elevation gain total:

PCTR’s Montaña de Oro 50K elevation chart (click to enlarge)

Getting back to my daughter’s question: Why? The answer emerges from a litany of moments, starting with great waves crashing on the coast and pooling up in calmer coves, which diverted my attention in the first flat miles. When we climbed the first peak, the waves shrunk to distant foam.

I succumbed to hiking instead of running the switchbacks on the final rocky mile up Valencia Peak. Near the peak, the course markings offered a choice: follow the trail around the bend to the summit, or use your hands to scramble up the peak’s face. In a split second, I decided to climb just like this runner Morgan photographed, and I surprised myself by feeling as nimble as my kids at the climbing gym.

Plunging downhill from the summit, I tried to visualize myself as a stream of water flowing over the rocks and following the path of least resistance. Spotting Morgan coming up the hill snapped me out of my trance, and he got a picture of me that captures the surprise and happiness I felt seeing him.

Morgan was content to take a more leisurely pace, stopping to ask someone to get this top-of-the-world shot of him:

Moods changed and runners wilted on the second loop. A flat, hot fire road cut into a canyon for a couple of deadening miles. A single track headed up to the second peak, demanding a downshift of pace, and I made it to the top of Hazard Peak without problem.

Approaching the halfway point in the race, toward the end of the first 25K loop, I kept my head down and just tried to keep going. (Photo by Luis Escobar)

Approaching the halfway point in the race, toward the end of the first 25K loop, I kept my head down and just tried to keep going. (Photo by Luis Escobar)

But just as I started downhill at Mile 13.5, admiring a bird’s-eye view of the peaks and fissures shaping the canyon below, everything turned upside-down with a great thud.

Is there anything worse than falling? Sure—being hit by a car, leaning against a high-rise balcony railing that breaks—but at the time, I couldn’t think of anything more unpleasant than this dirt-grinder that scoured my side and twisted my ankle. I caught my breath, surveyed my cuts, and stood to test out my bad foot. The left ankle wasn’t broken, but wasn’t cooperating, either. I limped a little ways, wondering if I could make it the two to three miles back to the start/finish point and then give up after 25K. Some runners passed me, and I felt sorry for myself.

Reaching this point is part of the experience, I would tell my daughter—this point that is so discouraging, so uncomfortable, that giving up and quitting is the only logical conclusion. In fact, you do give up, at least mentally, but you’re stuck, so you have to keep going physically as best as possible until you can reach help. That’s what I did, hobbling downhill and abandoning the will to do the second 25K loop.

Then I recalled how my race that sucked from the previous weekend prompted my one and only goal for this event: to finish in a positive frame of mind. I felt badly now, but would I feel worse or better if I quit?

As I pondered what to do, I noticed my hobble had turned into a jog. I was running no worse than anyone around me. Consequently, I lost my legitimate excuse to give up at the halfway point.

Just shut up and run, I told myself, approaching the aid station. I refueled as quickly as possible and headed out on the second half before I changed my mind.

As the chronic pain in the ball of my foot turned up like the burner on a stove, I caught up to another woman running the 50K. Her presence pulled me along, and as we climbed Valencia Peak a second time and my foot pain subsided, I felt reluctant to run ahead as this other woman dropped back. This, too, is why I run these events, I’d tell my daughter: to experience the alchemy in the later stages when competitors become companions. It’s us against the course rather than against each other.

 Runners sharing the trail up Valencia Peak

Runners sharing the trail up Valencia Peak

That dry, flat fire road on the final loop around Hazard Peak depleted most of my remaining energy. I ran ugly, but I ran. When I reached the spot where I had fallen nearly 20 miles earlier, I suddenly wondered if I was hallucinating. Up ahead I saw a dog-sized brown creature but couldn’t figure out what it was, or if it was just a rock. It looked hunched over, its back to me. I slowed down to study it. Then in one swift movement it spread its wings and transformed into the biggest raptor I have ever seen, a wingspan wider than my arms, swooping in circles over the canyon.

That was all the inspiration I needed. I ran faster in the final miles, adrenaline spiking when I startled two big, bounding deer out of a sweetly pungent cluster of blooming purple ceanothus. My pace edged toward 7 minutes per mile, and finally I rounded the entrance to the cove and saw Morgan at the finish line.

It’s always like this, I’d tell my daughter: It feels so good to find that sprint and see the finish. It makes it all worth it.

My time was 5:56, 2nd female and 4th overall out of 33 finishers in the 50K division. Morgan finished his 25K in 3:17.

Go, Morgan! (Photo by Luis Escobar)

Go, Morgan! (Photo by Luis Escobar)

I’m just glad that I hung in to experience all the ups and downs of the second half of the course—and so very glad that Morgan ran the course, too, so we could swap stories on the drive home.

And so, my beautiful daughter, while I love you and your little brother every ounce as much as I love your dad, I hope you’ll understand why we abandon you sometimes to do these far-off runs: Because one secret to a long and happy relationship, which makes a happy home, is literally to run away together once in a while—for each other, and for ourselves.

And when we do, to run far and run hard.

I finished!

I finished!

If you go:

For lodging in Morro Bay, I recommend Estero Inn.

For dinner, The Galley.

Click here for info on where to hike and run Montaña de Oro State Park.

Support the California State Parks Foundation with a donation if you want parks like Montaña de Oro to stay open in spite of California’s fiscal crisis.

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13 Responses to Running California’s Central Coast: Why a Painful 50K Made a Romantic Getaway

  1. Jeffery February 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    “…to experience the alchemy in the later stages when competitors becoming companions. It’s us against the course rather than against each other.”

    We are reminded we are not alone. As we get farther along in life, like in a race, we see how intimately we are woven into life’s fabric.


    • Sarah February 21, 2011 at 6:10 am #

      Jeffery — thanks so much for your perspective. Whenever I do a 50K, I experience renewed respect for runners like you who do 100 milers. I can’t imagine doing what I did times three. Good luck if I don’t see you soon down at C2M. And thanks for quoting my line from the post, as I realized I made a typo in the text (“becoming” should have been “become”). 🙂

  2. Heather February 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    Great story Sarah – you continue to inspire me with your courage and tenacity.

  3. willgotthardt February 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    Excellent race, excellent recap (and nice work on the blog overall)…thanks again for volunteering today out at Lake Chabot.

    Cheera, Will G.

  4. Hone February 20, 2011 at 6:39 pm #

    Hey! I saw you come in at the finish. Congrats on the great run on a tough course!

  5. Martha Howard February 21, 2011 at 4:59 am #

    Beautiful! So many things to take in: determination, perseverance, courage, faith, love. I hope your ankle is OK. How are you feeling?

    Love you –


  6. ScottD February 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    I hope the healing is coming along. Perhaps I am as crazy as you, but that sounds like a perfect romantic weekend!

  7. David Lavender February 21, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Great writing infused with your typical humility (I like how you bury that “2nd female/4th overall–congratulations!). Glad you were able to run through the injury; here’s hoping that it won’t come back to bite you in the … ankle. The pictures were great. We used to camp at that state park when the kids were wee ones. Beautiful spot. Fun to think of you running along those bluffs.

  8. Jennifer February 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

    Nice write-up, Sarah. I like your penultimate paragraph. It’s very true!

  9. John Nguyen February 22, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    Nice race report! Another beautifully written account of ultra running. Ultra runners are more often companions than competitors aren’t they? Sounds like a beautiful trail race. Hope your ankle is okay. And congrats on your 2nd place, positive finish!

  10. Jack Rosenfeld February 22, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Cool post; I wish I wasn’t sick and had to drop out after 33K. That course was really beautiful. My wife and I also made a nice romantic getaway of the weekend. We did the Embarcadero Inn and ate at Giancarlo’s, which was a nice mile walk each way from the hotel.

  11. Leslie Gerein March 10, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    Love it. I was smelling the sea air!


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