Wednesday night I threw my back out.  Thursday I could barely move without holding my breath and wincing in pain.  Sunday was the Red Rock 50 Mile Race. These back problems are really getting old…or maybe – maybe I’m just getting old.  Hmm….

The email was written, finger hovering over send, “Luis, can I drop out of the Red Rock 50 Mile Race this weekend?  My back just ain’t up for it.”  But something happened, I never clicked send.

By the time Sunday rolled around my back had improved quite a bit, although I still needed to use the roof handles in the car to pull myself out of bed each morning.  I loaded my baggie of salt tabs with Ibuprofen and planned to take a shot of Fireball before the start of the race.  I had gone 22 straight months of running at least one marathon per month, and back pain or not, I needed to try to get halfway through the Red Rock 50 (It’s actually closer to 54 miles) in order to complete my 23rd straight month.  Halfway, that’s all I really needed to run.  Halfway.

Half of the Red Rock 50 is nothing to take lightly.  The race starts in the Santa Barbara back country, runs through the Los Padres National Forest, cuts up and over the mountains and Camino Cielo, scrambles up Montecito Peak, and drops several thousand feet into the swanky neighborhood of Montecito.  Just completing half of this burley course would mean running 27ish mountain miles with more than 7,000 feet of elevation climb, all with a sore lower back, and a bit of a hangover.  (What…back pain or not I still had to run the Beer Mile the day before the race!)

Red Rock Beer Milers 2014 - Photo by Patrick Sweeney
2014 Red Rock Beer Milers – Photo by Patrick Sweeney

The Red Rock 50

We toed the start line as the grey light flooded in from the east.  Two hundred headlamps paced back and forth, looked around, and bobbed with stretches and warmups.  Race Director Luis Escobar called us to the line for the oath, “If I get hurt, lost, or die…it’s my own damn fault! Amen.”  With that, everyone pawed at their watches, someone said go, and we were off.

The course left the dirt road immediately and two hundred runners vied for position on the single track trail.  We fell into a long winding congo line, headlamps bounding through the dark trees while the rain began to fall.  Not to be left out of the masochistic weekend, the skies turned dark and clouds built above as the typical sunny and 75 degree Santa Barbara weather morphed into chilly rain.

The first few miles went quick (a little too quick as I found myself smack dab in the middle of a pack of Marathon runners, moving faster than sustainable for my 50 mile race).  We climbed a series of switchbacks and I looked down, “Sean?! What the heck are you doing behind me?”  I let Sean Garbutt in his green singlet catch up to me. If I was in front of Sean I was definitely running too fast. Six miles into the race we reached the first aid station and the turnaround point for the half marathon runners.  Several of the aid station volunteers saw me coming and looking concerned asked “How are you feeling this morning, sport?”  “Great!” I answered, realizing that I must have had quite an evening with Fireball shots and everyone expected me to be too hungover to run.

We continued on to the second aid station and beyond to the turnaround point for the full marathon runners.  I rounded a corner and saw the marathon flag and a few runners making an about-face to run 13 miles back to camp.  Then nothing. It was quiet, I was alone on the trail, moving swiftly downhill with nothing disturbing the peace other than my own two feet.  That was it, I had passed two opportunities to turn back with the other runners…now all that was left was me, the mountains, and the other crazy 50 mile runners.

The trail skirted the contours of the mountains as I looked down at the Santa Ynez River, the valley dotted by autumn trees in full orange foliage, like a platter of golden toasted marshmallows.  The rain continued to fall, hard sometimes, but mostly just a continuous soft mist that made the dirt tacky enough to stick in the lugs of my trail running shoes, adding a few extra pounds to each moving foot.

The Santa Ynez River Valley with autumn trees
The Santa Ynez River Valley with autumn trees

The trail turned up to climb to Camino Cielo.  I put it in low gear and started cranking.  I started passing people as I kept the green flash of Sean Garbutt in my sights.  I crested the mountain and photographer Bryan Toro exclaimed, a little surprised, “You are right behind Sean!”  I stopped at the aid station to refuel with my new favorite aid station snack, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with M&M’s stuffed in them.  Pushing to get through the previous aid station I had crammed a handful of M&M’s in my mouth and left with a PB&J in my hand.  When I took a bite of the sandwich I still had M&M’s in my cheeks and voilà!  Trail Magic!

I chowed down on PB&J, watermelon, soda, chips, and more. I left a little stuffed, but sure I had enough energy to get to the halfway point.  I barreled down the trail, stomach full and bubbling with soda.  The best (and hardest) part of the race was fast approaching, a hands and knees scramble up Montecito Peak to receive my Akabill race amulet.  As if a 50+ mile race through the mountains isn’t enough, in order to get your finishers amulet you need to scramble several hundred feet on loose shale up to Montecito Peak.  Why?  Why not!

On top of Montecito Peak - by Patrick Sweeney
On top of Montecito Peak – by Patrick Sweeney

I neared the top and Sean Garbutt passed me heading back down, Akabill amulet around his neck.  At the peak I followed the orange ribbons to find Patrick Sweeney and Amy Esau sheltered from the wind, music blasting, and amulets spread out on a blanket.  I approached as Sweeney turned around, looked surprised, and said “Whoa, you are right behind Sean!  Go get him!”

With that I navigated the descent from Montecito Peak, made a little easier than normal from the rain turning the loose dirt into sticky clay.  From there I ran downhill, hard.  Near the eucalyptus trees on Cold Spring Trial I finally broke through the grey clouds and could see Santa Barbara below.  The clouds began to disperse and the sun actually started to dry my damp clothes.  The course crossed from Cold Spring Trail to San Ysidro Trail, and just a mile from the turnaround point I saw the green flash again.  I kept my pace steady and Sean and I ran to the halfway aid station together.

Halfway done.  That was my goal for the day.  I could quit here, get my marathon for the month of November checked off, hitch a ride back to Rancho Oso and drink beer the rest of the day.  I approached Brett Larsen and Mark Warren to tell them I was out, but Brett grabbed my running pack and said “Just water?” Yup. Mark pushed me toward the food table and said “Eat”.  Well, I guess I’ll keep running…

I stuffed myself with PB&J and M&M’s and devoured all of the quesadillas on the table.  Brett gave me my full pack and I turned to Sean, “I’m gonna head back up, see you on the trail”.  Even though I considered quitting the race at this point, I was actually feeling the best I’d ever felt in an ultra.  My legs were strong and I knew the hell they were about go through climbing the front of the mountains to Camino Cielo.  I left the aid station, grabbed my headphones, and cranked some mountain running music.  Well, running is a pretty aggressive word for what I did for the next 90 minutes, it was mostly just huffing and puffing, hiking all the way back to the top of the mountain aid station.  I was able to pass a few more runners and build my confidence as I crushed the climb up the steep exposed trail. I passed friends and other runners heading down toward the aid station and several people called out “Whoa, how are you feeling today champ!?”  Another reminder of how much fun I must have had the night before…oops!

At Camino Cielo - Beer and Photo by Patrick Sweeney
At Camino Cielo – Beer and Photo by Patrick Sweeney

At the top of the climb I reached the aid station to find a surprised Patrick Sweeney. “Where’s Sean?” he asked as he opened a Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale for me.  I was 30+ miles in and as I crammed food down my throat the chilled beer bit hard, quenched my thirst, and acted as a bit of a pain killer and confidence booster for the drop into the back country.  I grabbed a PB&J with M&M’s to go and headed for the Forbush Trail.  In no time I was back down in the valley and catching the connector that would take me past the abandoned mine, Gibraltar Damn, Red Rock parking lot, and eventually the finish line.  I felt great, was moving fast, and I realized that if I kept it up I could actually finish before dark this year.

Along the base of the valley the trail snaked in and over small gulches.  My my mind was strong but my legs started feeling tired.  I still ran all of the flat and downhill sections, but the ups quickly became a big pain my butt.  Speaking of my butt…I had to go to the bathroom, bad.  I had planned to go at the halfway point but I left the aid station too fast.  Since Montecito I’d been holding it, counting down the hours, hoping I could hold out for the finish line.  Then, it hit, and I realized I was NOT going to be able to wait.  Plan B, use the forest service bathrooms at the Red Rock parking lot.  I bombed down the last single track trail, turned on the fire road, and wound around to within a tenth of a mile of the parking lot before I had no other choice but to jump off the trail and do my business right then and there.  Two minutes later I felt better and continued 30 seconds down the trail and past the bathrooms I had desperately wanted to reach.

I ran alone along the road to the final aid station, fueled up on food and soda, and hit the trail with another runner just seconds behind me.  I had 6 miles to go and I didn’t want to get passed so close to the finish.  I tried running uphill again but my plodding was not good enough for his power and he passed me less than half a mile from the aid station.  I kept him in sight though, and soon we were both pacing steady and passing other runners.  A mile from the finish I had 2 runners less than a minute in front of me.  They looked so close, but after 50+ mountain miles they were like the proverbial carrot on a stick, always out of reach, no matter how deep I dug.  I rounded the last corner to one set of cheers at the finish line, then another, and then finally it was my turn.

Chris and Brittany before the race.
Chris and Brittany before the race.

It was still daylight and I saw my family and friends standing on the side of the parking lot.  Brittany cheered and ran toward me to run with me into the screen room for the finish line.  She had finished her first half marathon earlier in 2 hours and 45 minutes, a great time!  She was excited to see me, especially because I had told her not to expect me for at least another few hours.

I crossed the finish line at 10 hours 43 minutes and 32 seconds in 15th place overall.  I was spent, but it had been the best I’d ever felt in an ultramarathon.  I was ecstatic to spend the rest of the evening hanging out with Brittany, drinking cold beer, and cheering as the rest of our friends finished.

The next morning we woke up to a deserted Rancho Oso campsite. Most everyone had gone home, the end of another amazing weekend with friends, family, and beautiful trails. Next up? Rancho San Juan in February. Register below. See you there!

Luis Escobar Races:  www.allwedoisrun.com

An amazing Red Rock 50 Race Report from my buddy Ian Bond. Seriously, have you to read this: http://www.racingtorescue.com/race-reports/clawing-and-scratching-my-way-to-victory-with-my-first-dnf

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