Thirty six hours after tackling the US Bank Tower I found myself toeing the line once again. The view from this starting point was dramatically different. The concrete, steel, glass and sheetrock were replaced by an old road lined by stately sycamore trees, crystal blue skies peeking through the morning fog drifting off the ocean behind me, the sound of waves crashing on the beach, and the sharp contours of the Santa Monica Mountains rising abruptly into the heavens. The La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya) Canyon section of Pt. Mugu State Park just north of Malibu is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever run. The scenery is breathtaking and I was looking forward to a nice long tour of this Southern California gem.
XTERRA has been hosting a Southern California trail race series for quite a few years now. It’s popularity has grown immensely and XTERRA sponsored races can be found all over the United States at this point. There are XTERRA regional championships and even XTERRA national and World championships. They have done a fantastic job of making trail racing into rapidly growing sport. The So. Cal. series has always attracted the top runners in the Los Angeles area and the competition is fierce. One racer in particular has stood out as the king of trail racing in Southern California, 24 year old Sal Bautista, a quiet, diminutive, kind, young man of Mexican heritage. In 2006 Sal won the National 50K Trail Championships in Lake Tahoe, CA. Sal owns the course record on every one of the five XTERRA races in So. Cal. His records are thought to be untouchable. Last year Sal decided to attend college in the east and left the title of king of the mountains up for grabs.
On this particularly glorious beach morning, I found myself questioning my position on the line. A quick look around revealed many of the fastest men and women on the west coast. My legs were feeling quite knotted and stiff from the tower race and I haven’t done a race this long in a year and a half. Eighteen kilometers works out to be around eleven miles. But these were not eleven ordinary miles. We were to quickly ascend to the top of Pt. Mugu Peak which is nearly an 800 foot climb. The course then rolled up and down in the HOT interior of the park before we would climb another nameless peak over 1,200 feet in elevation. The grand finale was a screaming three mile downhill to the finish at sea level. I felt that I was in WAY over my head, but I wanted to see what I could do. So I toed the line.
The MC of the event (XTERRA spares no expense on putting on these events) was a gentleman that I studied with in acting class eight years ago. His name was Conrad. Before the race began he approached each of us and got a little bio of our previous results so that he could announce to the crowd who would be in the front of the pack. He asked me what I thought I would run for a time. I said I didn’t know. He offered a very respectable time of one hour and fifteen minutes as a target to hit. My friend Jonathan Toker, who was standing next to me countered that he had won this race last year in a 1:13 and change. Conrad then went on to inform the crowd that Sal Bautista had blazed this course in a record of one hour and nine minutes flat two years ago. An audible “wow” whooshed through the crowd. Moments later the whoosh of bodies hurriedly scampering for position filled my eyes and ears. We were off.
I took off quickly and found myself in the lead within the first hundred meters. The pace was comfortable so I kept it up. The climb started within half a mile. At the first hairpin turn I noticed that no one was giving chase. This surprised me as my legs were feeling far from fresh and the pace seemed a bit slow. When the three mile mark rolled around I had finally summited Pt. Mugu peak. There was no one in sight behind me. Hundreds of feet below I could hear the crashing of the surf. The fluffy top of the marine layer shrouding the ocean appeared like a soft blanket caressing the mountains. My legs were tired and the rolling terrain gave me an opportunity to rest and relax. I was in a good place mentally. I was calm. I was running my race and I was running fast.
The sound of footsteps behind me broke my peace at mile five. Jon Clark, (one of the best mountain runners in the country) had made up the gap and was coming on strong. We were in the interior of the park and it was at least twenty degrees hotter. Voices began to echo in my head. “It’s too hot, you can’t sustain this pace.”, “Let him take the lead and coast behind him.”, “You had a great first five miles, but you just aren’t in shape to go the whole 18k.”. In the distance the striking sillouhette of Boney Mountain had grabbed my attention. In all of my travels, it still remains one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen. I began to relax. I quickly turned off the voices that were offering their advice and took control of the mic. I chose four words: “ease”, “joy”, “peace”, “love”. I repeated them again and again and each time I said them I’d bring the feeling of each word into my body. My breathing became deeper. My stride relaxed. My shoulders softened. I took in the scenery and picked up the pace. The display on my heart rate monitor read 178, which is quite high for a race this long. That pace would normally be reserved for the final mile of a 5K street race. I stayed calm and eased into it. It felt differently this time… “ease”, “joy”, “peace”, “love”.
The sound of Jon’s footsteps was beginning to fade as I approached the halfway mark. There were several volunteers manning an aid station and I noticed chip timing blankets in the middle of the trail. As I crossed they clapped and cheered and then a voice rang out above them all – “34:34!!”, a man said, “you are on record pace!! Keep it up!!”. Could this be possible? I checked my watch and saw a similar time. Was I running in the footsteps of the invincible Sal Bautista? I became excited and quickly forgot about Jon behind me. The hardest part of the course was now complete. We had one more medium 400 foot climb and then it was three miles of screaming downhill to the finish. I was feeling good. I kept repeating my new mantra and smiled into the pace as I began to accelerate. Every stride was intentional, every breath, every thought. I was in the driver’s seat.
Mile eight found me cresting the summit of the final climb. My legs were solid, my breathing smooth, my heart rate read 184. Under normal circumstances this would have raised serious alarm. There have only been two races that I have competed in over the last three years that have seen my heart rate at this level – and they were both ONE MILE races on the track! I wasn’t sure how I was able to sustain this level of effort, but the nausea that normally accompanies such an intense exertion was nowhere to be found. I continued to repeat my mantra. To my left was the wide expanse of Sycamore Canyon with it’s blanket of grasslands and mature sycamore trees. Rising abruptly out of this sylvan paradise were the sandstone spires of Boney Mountain which were now splitting the rays of the early morning sun. To my right were the fjord-like snakings of La Jolla Canyon filled with morning fog which was illuminated on it’s upper surface. It was a sight well worth running eight miles at breakneck speed to view. I was grateful to be witness. For a moment I forgot I was racing and soaked in my surroundings.
I was awoken by the sudden shot of adrenalin that fired when I flew around a hairpin turn with such speed that I flew off the side of the trail and nearly off the edge of a very steep precipice. The downhill section had begun and I was in full attack mode. I flew past an EMT on a particularly rocky and steep section who yelled out “be careful!”. I was being careful, I was being mindful, I was running at the brink but in full control. The sinuous etchings of the trail carved into the mountain side began to materialize below me as I dropped down into the fog. The finish was close. I picked up the pace even more, moving my feet as fast as I possibly could. A pain began to manifest in my side. I breathed into it and repeated my mantra. In the distance I could hear Conrad the MC yapping away on the mic. I pulled out all the stops. My heart rate was 183 going downhill! Two more switchbacks and I was bursting through the finish shoot at full throttle. Conrad’s voice shrieked into the microphone “1:09:32!, 1:09:32! So close to Sal Bautista’s record! 1:09:32 at 40 years old!” I was stunned. I had run the race of my life.
It would be over two minutes before Jon Clark would come blazing in to finish second. Nearly seven minutes would transpire before Jonathan Toker would cross in third place.
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