A giant full “super moon” hung low in the sky as I drove in darkness toward Palo Alto to reach the start of an inaugural race south of San Francisco, the Vista Verde Skyline 50K. This special full moon occurs when the moon is at its closest point in orbit to Earth, so the moon looks bigger and more brilliant. I considered taking a photo but decided not to bother, because I knew the photo couldn’t capture the moon’s magnificence. Instead, I kept pausing to gaze at it, dazzled by the view.
The super moon set a theme for the day’s spectacular race course. Just like the moon, the course seemed unusually brilliant and exaggerated in beauty. The day felt special, like a retreat—a chance to run and explore trails in an open space preserve where I’d never been, where my cell phone read “No Service” so I turned it off and did not receive news or notifications for more than half the day. A chance to forget about anxiety-producing national news and negative social media chatter and just run.
This experience happened one week ago, on Sunday, December 3. Little did I know on that blissful, escapist day that disaster would strike 36 hours later, when we received this text from our son at The Thacher School in Ojai, just after dinnertime as he and his peers at the boarding school left their dining hall and looked south at the mountains toward Santa Paula while fierce winds howled.
I delayed writing this race report because this past week has been stressful and dismaying as fire encircled my home town in Ventura County and continues to burn toward Santa Barbara. In the middle of that night, after receiving Kyle’s text, I drove down the 101 to Carpinteria to the Cate School, where Thacher students had been evacuated. (Now, five days later, Cate School is surrounded by fire and fighting for survival.) Then I drove my son and a couple of his friends back to the Bay Area.
Our whole family became obsessed with following the fire news this past week, as it burned to the very edge of Thacher School, next to my grandfather’s home and my childhood home on the East End of Ojai. Monitoring the evacuation of so many people and horses, and learning of the destruction of so many properties, felt gut-wrenching. But the fire spared Thacher’s campus, thanks to the firefighters and very lucky shifts in wind. (You can read updates and see photos on the school’s facebook page here.) As friends and longtime readers of this blog know, I love this school because we have a long family history with it; it’s where my husband and I went, and our kids go there too, and I served on its board for the better part of the past decade. I care deeply about the students, faculty and horses there.
The fire delivered a reminder that calamities can happen any time, and threats to safety are omnipresent. That’s depressing as hell, I know, but it’s reality—the lesson being, seize and relish the moments that are enthralling, peaceful and beautiful, as the December 3 race proved to be. Don’t take good times for granted.
So let’s get back to the race report.
Robert Rhodes and his organization, the BayTrailRunners, hosted the event in the Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve (see map here) in the mountains west of Silicon Valley. The 50K field was small in this first year, only 22 finishers and a handful of DNFs, but the other divisions—marathon, half marathon, 10K—drew some 75 others, making for a nice-sized friendly group.
A light rain the night before made the footing perfect—soft and spongy, but not slippery—and everything looked clean and sparkling. New green grass colored hillsides.
This is a race to run if you love runnable, buffed-out, non-technical trails. Featuring a mix of singletrack (approx 50 percent), double-wide and fire roads, the route led past picturesque ponds, up the Bay Ridge Trail with wide-open ocean views, and through shady verdant oak groves.
On miles 8 – 10, the route took us up an out-and-back on a newly opened part of open-space preserve called Mindego Hill, a lovely wind-swept hilltop on ranchland overlooking the Pacific. The course features a few out-and-back offshoots like the Mindego Hill portion, which is fun from a competitive and social standpoint because you can spot who’s ahead and who’s behind upon passing one another.
The course is not terribly difficult; therefore, its runnability presents the challenge of steady, focused running on relentless rollers. I downshifted to hiking on a couple of big climbs but ran at least 90 percent of the course.
I entered this race casually, with no real goal beyond steady running as training for an ultra I plan to do new year’s eve. I greatly enjoyed leapfrogging with two guys I met at ultras in years past, Sunaad Nataraju and Kowsik Guruswamy, and I have them to thank for photos included in this post.
But after Mile 10, another woman passed me, and I made it a goal to pass her back and develop a gap between us, which I did. I knew then I was the third female, and after an out-and-back turnaround at Mile 23.5, I spotted the second-place woman and realized she was only a few minutes ahead of me, not as far in the lead as I had thought. So I worked hard in the final eight miles to catch her.
Without really intending it, I ended up pacing this race as I advised in this Trail Runner article, dividing the race into thirds and endeavoring to be “a closer.” I also practiced techniques for mindfulness imparted in a “virtual retreat” I’m taking through Elinor Fish’s Run Wild Retreats. To give just one example, I typically—and without thinking about it—inhale for two steps, exhale for two, but during the race I periodically focused on deeper breathing and tried instead a pattern of inhaling for three steps, exhaling for two. By re-centering thoughts on my breath and doing a head-to-toe body scan while running, and practicing self-compassion rather than being self-critical, I achieved more mindful running, focused on the present moment, rather than ruminating about past miles or feeling anxious about the miles still to come.
Running solo with no one else in sight in the final miles, not knowing how far ahead the others were, I switched my goal to trying my hardest to finish under 5:30. (Isn’t it funny how round numbers motivate us?)
I did not catch the second-place woman, Emma Wood, 29, who finished a minute and a half ahead in 5:28:24, but I crossed the finish line in 5:29:56, 3rd female and 5th overall. Congrats to 1st place winner and 2nd overall, Kali Klotz-Brooks, 23, in 5:01:50, and 1st place overall Matthew Hoffman, 29, in 4:41:26. (Results.)
Many thanks to RD Rob Rhodes who did a great job designing this course and organizing the event. If you do this race, I have two pieces of advice: (1) Leave extra time to get to the start. The two main routes are dark, windy and make for very slow driving, and the parking area is quite a long walk to the start, so build in extra time for that. (2) Bring extra calories, especially any energy products you many want. The aid station fare was minimal, featuring fresh fruit, cookies and chips, and Gatorade and soda, but no gels or blocks. I fueled the whole way on VFuel, the gel I recommend, and only had one small piece of banana and Coke from aid stations.
Also, many thanks to the conservationists and activists who had the foresight and tenacity to preserve this land and open it up to the public!
I got U2 stuck in my head: It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away.
A Couple of Personal Notes
Last year, I was voted the “Best Blogger” in an international competition sponsored by RunUltra. The site is holding its contest again, and I’m nominated again. If you like my blog, I’d sincerely appreciate if you vote for me here!
Also, if you are looking for gifts for the holiday season—or something for yourself—please consider my book, The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras,or browse my gift guide for additional ideas.