The sunlit hills are on the west side of the New Millennium Loop in Calabasas. The rocky peak in the background is Saddle Peak. The 68 mile Backbone Trail, which traverses the length of the Santa Monica Mountains, passes near the summit of Saddle Peak.
I was in that other-world you can reach when running, lost in thought and dreaming of dreams. As I approached the valley oak on the western edge of Lasky Mesa, I wondered if the tree was going to survive. Even though last Winter had been wet, it had been a hot summer, and this once-elegant star of TV and film was still struggling with the deleterious effects of five years of drought. Leaves grew in clusters along its spindly limbs as if it had been burned in a wildfire.
Nearly under the scraggly valley oak, I slowed to a walk to look at it more closely. Glancing upward I did a double-take… Perched on a bare limb at the top of the tree was a small raptor. So small, that it had to be an American kestrel.
Kestrels are extremely wary birds with acute vision, and I was surprised it had not flown as I had run toward the tree. I’ve seen and heard kestrels many times at Ahmanson Ranch, but never this closely. The diminutive falcon was only about 15′ above me. My camera was in my pack and just about any movement was going to spook the bird.
Ever so slowly, I turned my back to the bird and walked a few steps away from the tree. Wishing I had eyes in the back of my head, I carefully removed my camera from my waist pack, turned it on, made sure it was set correctly, and partially extended the zoom lens. Turning back toward the tree, I expected the falcon to be gone, but it had not flown.
I took a set of bracketed photos and then another. I needed to be a little closer. I took two or three slow steps toward the tree. As I raised the camera, the female kestrel — burnt orange across the back and upper wings — had had enough. With a powerful stroke of her wings she turned and leapt to flight, once again leaving me to my thoughts.
There’s magic in the morning, when the owls hoot softly and there is a chill in the air.
I’d started my run from the Wendy Dr. trailhead when there was just enough light to see the trail. The moon was poised low in the western sky, full and bright. As I passed the frame of the Chumash ‘Ap at the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center I’d thought about the Chumash, and how well they must have known this land. It is one thing to visit a place, and quite another to live there.
Today the plan had been to run to the Ray Miller Trailhead and do a little of the Ray Miller 50K course along the way. At the start of the run I hadn’t decided which route I was going to take to Ray Miller — Hell Hill or Fireline. I’d finally opted for Fireline, since that route would follow the last 5 miles of the 50M/50K course and is much more runnable.
I hadn’t run Fireline since the 2013 Ray Miller 50K. With only 7 miles on my legs (instead of 26) it didn’t seem nearly as steep. Once at the top of Fireline, and after doing a bit more uphill on Overlook fire road, I eventually got to the best part of today’s run — the 2.5 miles of scenic downhill on the Backbone Trail to the Ray Miller trailhead on PCH.
The Pacific was painted in a palette of wide-gamut blues and although it was hazy offshore, there were excellent views along the coast. To the west Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands could just be seen in the ocean haze and Mugu Peak loomed golden in the morning sun. The Ray Miller Trail is very popular and on the way down I passed several runners in the first miles of their morning run.
At the Ray Miller parking lot my Garmin fenix read 12 miles. Just like climbing a mountain, getting to the turnaround point of a long self-supported run is only part of the adventure. I gulped down some water at the water fountain; checked how much water I had left in my pack; ate a Snickers left over from Halloween; and then started the 1000′ climb back up the Ray Miller Trail to the Overlook fire road.
The run was going well and at the start of the climb I was thinking about following the 50M/50K course up and around Mugu Peak before starting the trek back to Wendy Drive. By the time I’d reached the top of Ray Miller and had climbed up to the high point of Overlook fire road my mileage appetite wasn’t so big. Following a short side trip into La Jolla Valley, I returned to the Overlook fire road, descended Hell Hill and Wood Canyon, and started working my way back up Sycamore Canyon on the Two Foxes Trail.
At the Danielson Multi-use area there was a large group participating in a guided hike. A familiar runner with a distinctive hat was making his way around the group. It was photographer and ultrarunner Larry Gassan. Larry joined me for the remainder of the run and his stories made the run back up Sycamore Canyon and Upper Sycamore much more interesting.
The sand was compact, the breeze cool, the surf up and the running oh so pleasant. Brett and I were running south along Kelham Beach, an idyllic stretch of sand between Point Resistance and Miller’s Point within Point Reyes National Seashore. If the tide was not too high we hoped to reach an area of dramatically folded strata along the 150′ tall sea cliffs.
It is the San Andreas Fault that makes the story of the Point Reyes Peninsula so unusual. A glance at a geologic map shows the rocks of the peninsula to be geologically distinct from those on the other side of the San Andreas. Essentially the Point Reyes Peninsula is an island on the margin of the Pacific Plate that is sitting against the North American Plate. The San Andreas Fault is the boundary between the two plates.
The core of the Point Reyes Peninsula is a granite similar to a granite found in Southern California. Over many millions of years the chunk of crust was propelled northward along the San Andreas Fault by the movement of the Pacific Plate. The story is not a simple one, involving a combination of faults. At some point — perhaps near current day Point Lobos — the granite core was overlain by the sedimentary rocks we see on the peninsula today.
It seems likely that at times during its 10 million year journey northward from Monterey, the Point Reyes Peninsula may have been separated from the coast. With more than 80% of its perimeter currently bounded by water, it may once again become an island.
After visiting the fault zone we ran across the Point Reyes Peninsula to the coast using the Bear Valley, Mt. Wittenberg, Sky and Coast Trails. For the most part the trails were duff-covered, tree-lined, shaded and cool. For someone that runs mostly in Southern California this was practically nirvana. The previous Saturday I’d run a 50K race on a rocky, exposed course near Los Angeles in 90 degree temps and gusty Santa Ana winds. In the West San Fernando Valley the temperature this year has reached at least 95 °F every month from March through October. In July, August and September the highest temp each month was over 110 °F!
It was not 110 °F now. It was about 60 ocean-conditioned degrees. Brett and I had reached the first point where the beach narrowed. There was still room to run, but the beach narrowed even more ahead. We watched as a large wave broke and washed up to the rocks. It looked like the tide was going out, but we weren’t sure. Although the surf wasn’t huge, there was a consistent swell of maybe 6′-8′.
In between sets we took a look around the next corner and it looked sketchy. Debating, we watched as more waves washed up to the base of the cliffs. That part of the exploration would have to wait until another day with a lower tide!
The groundwater in upper Las Virgenes Canyon appears to have been replenished by the above normal rainfall last rain season.
The little spring pictured above has persisted through the dry season and farther up the canyon a tiny stream has trickled defiantly through the Summer. The mainstem creek in upper Las Virgenes Canyon isn’t flowing as it was during the Winter, but the sand at the crossing near the Cheeseboro connector trail remains damp.
It shouldn’t take a huge amount of rain to get the creek flowing again. We’ll see!
The group of five mountain bikers first passed me at Strawberry Potrero, a picturesque area on the north side of Strawberry Peak. The circuit around Strawberry Peak is a favorite of MTBers and in recent years I’ve encountered bikes on the loop nearly every time I’ve done it. It’s also an excellent run and part of the Mt. Disappointment 50K course.
The trail segments that make up the usual loop are Josephine Fire Road, Strawberry Spur Trail, Colby Canyon Trail, Strawberry Peak Trail, Gabrielino Trail, and Nature’s Canteen Trail. Today, I was doing a variation of the circuit that swapped out some fire road for trail. Instead of parking at Clear Creek, and running up Josephine Fire Road, I parked at the Colby Canyon trailhead and ran up the Colby Canyon Trail. This variation joins the usual course at Josephine Saddle** and continues around the peak. (Another option climbs over Strawberry Peak.)
I thought I’d seen the last of the mountain bikers, but found them taking a break near the beginning of the two mile, 750′ climb to Lawlor Saddle. We chatted about the great weather and the next section of trail. As I turned to continue, one of the riders asked, “Hey, do you need a GU or anything?” I told them I was good, and started running.
Mountain bikers expect to be faster than a runner — and they usually are — but there are certain situations where runners have an edge. This was one of them. The first half-mile of the climb to Lawlor Saddle is relatively steep. After that the trail backs off a bit, but is still a decent climb. Since I had a head start, I decided to play the “How Long Can I Stay Ahead of Them” game.
I didn’t know if they were going to play or not, but it really didn’t matter. It was a way of having a little fun and motivating myself to push a little harder and run a little faster.
Whether you’re doing the Mt. Disappointment race or not, the climb to Lawlor Saddle will tell you if you are having a good day or bad. Today I was having a good day. The temperature was about 30 degrees cooler than at this year’s Mt. D, and after the initial steep section I ran nearly every step to Lawlor Saddle. A couple of times I thought I heard the bikers behind me, but somehow made it to the saddle without being tagged.
But now I was in trouble. Just past Lawlor Saddle the uphill ends. The question wasn’t if they would catch me, but when. Just before the trail turned to the east I caught a glimpse of a bike at the saddle, so the when might be in just a few minutes. It would depend on how spread out the riders were and if they decided to take another break.
From Lawlor Saddle the trail contours around the south side of Mt. Lawlor for a mile or so, winding in and out of one ravine after another. It’s not particularly technical, but I hoped the frequent turns might slow a bike. I pushed the pace as much as I could.
About a mile from Red Box the trail finished its traverse around Mt. Lawlor and dropped down a rocky section of trail to an abandoned Forest Service road. Foolishly I started thinking maybe, just maybe, I’d make it to Red Box ahead of them.
Only about a quarter-mile from Red Box and in sight of the parking lot, I heard the tell-tale jingle-jangle of a bike bell. It wasn’t far behind me, and I moved to the side of the trail to let them pass. As the lead bike rolled leisurely past, he commented, “Hey, we weren’t sure we were going to catch you!”
The game over, I settled back in for the last few miles of the run.
** The location of Josephine Saddle is currently mismarked on Google Earth and Google Maps. The saddle at the top of the Colby Canyon Trail has long been known as Josephine Saddle. It is marked as such on the U.S.G.S 7.5 Minute Condor Peak Quadrangles from 1959 to 2012. It is called Josephine Saddle in John Robinson’s authoritative guidebook Trails of the Angeles and numerous other guidebooks and route descriptions.
Running or hiking the Bear Canyon Trail is always an adventure. The loop from Red Box, past Mt. Disappointment, down Mt. Lowe Road, over to Tom Sloan Saddle, through Bear Canyon, and up the Gabrielino Trail is about 15-16 miles long. But it isn’t it’s length that makes it interesting.
The two miles of trail between Tom Sloan Saddle and Bear Trail Camp is isolated and little-used. The difficulty of the trail above the camp varies from year to year, and today it was a bit more challenging than usual.
Copious Winter rain had promoted the growth of all things green in the canyon — including much poison oak and stinging nettle — and the trail wasn’t always easy to follow. Thunderstorms had recently washed away any tracks, so the only sign on the trail was bear scat and some cut trees from years past.
Because of the lush growth, fallen trees, brush, fire debris and flood debris, the trail ahead sometimes looked very improbable. A couple of times I stopped and walked back up the trail a few steps to confirm the trail was a trail and I hadn’t missed a turn. The path repeatedly crossed the creek and the creek is where the difficulties tended to be. In places the poison oak and nettle blocked the way and were not easily avoided.
Dealing with the poison oak was easy — I just ignored it. That’s something I could worry about later. Hopefully the Technu Extreme I had in my car would take care of it. On the other hand, when you are bare-legged and bare-armed ignoring stinging nettle is a hard thing to do — contact with the plant produces instantaneous burning and stinging.
I always thought formic acid was the culprit, but apparently stinging nettle’s micro-needles contain a potent blend of chemicals that produces a poorly understood and unusually prolonged reaction.
There isn’t much you can do about the burning and stinging in the middle of a run or day hike. Some say flushing the affected area with water (without rubbing) can help. If you Google “first aid stinging nettle” you’ll see various suggestions. By the time I reached Bear Canyon Trail Camp my legs felt like they had been painted with horse liniment.
The trail between the trail camp and the canyon’s confluence with Arroyo Seco is well-used and is usually in better condition than the trail above the camp. From the confluence it’s about a mile to the Gabrielino Trail, which is followed past Switzers Picnic Area to Red Box.
The photo above is from an afternoon run at Sage Ranch Park on August 31, 2017, during our recent heat wave. The thunderstorm in the distance is over Santa Clarita.
Around the time the photo was taken the temperature at the Cheeseboro RAWS was 110 °F, with an “in the sun” fuel temperature of 119 °F. The temperature at Ahmanson Ranch, where I often run on weekdays, was probably higher. I was running at Sage Ranch to try and take the edge off the heat — even if the reduction in temperature was only a few degrees.
During the heat wave the high temperature at Pierce College in Woodland Hills in the West San Fernando Valley exceeded 100 °F on nine consecutive days (August 24 to September 3) and exceeded 110 °F on five consecutive days (August 28 to September 1). Numerous temperature records were broken in Southern California and across the state. On September 1, Downtown San Francisco set a new all-time record high temperature of 106 °F.
At my West Hills weather station the high temperature for the month of June was 109 °F; for July 111 °F; for August 112 °F; and so far this September the high has been 113 °F. If I’m not heat-acclimated by now, I never will be.
I had heard runners behind me since the last aid station. Now that we had passed the 8000′ high point of the course and were headed downhill, the group was going to pass me. I was at about mile 47 of the Kodiak 50 Mile race, and trying to shake off some demons that had been plaguing me for the last 7 miles.
It was my fourth Kodiak 50M and except for these last few miles it had been a mostly enjoyable day on the trails and forest roads of Big Bear Lake. There is no better run than a run in the mountains, and for my money no better 50 Mile race in Southern California than the Kodiak 50M. The Kodiak races (100M, 50M, Front 50K, Back 50K) have a character all their own, and at least for now — no lottery or histrionics. Just enter, train hard and then run!
The race had started before dawn near Fawnskin, on the north side of Big Bear Lake. It had been a chilly forty-something degrees at the trailhead, but warmed quickly as we ascended the Grays Peak Trail. Today would be the first day of a record-setting heat wave in SoCal and temps for the race would be the warmest in its five year history. By the time we reached Snow Valley and were descending the windless, exposed, south-facing slopes of Bear Canyon, the “in the sun” temps would be around 100.
The highlight of the 50M race for me is the climb out of Bear Canyon on the Siberia Creek Trail. This classic 7 mile ascent gains around 2910′ from Bear Creek (4770′) to the Champion aid station (7680′). You only get to do the Siberia Creek climb when the 50M is run counter-clockwise around the west end of the lake. This has been the case each year except for 2016.
Expecting it to be hot and knowing how tough this climb can be, I filled my Camelbak(TM) to the brim and also took an extra bottle. (Thanks Aaron and Lacey!) What I didn’t do was take the time to cool off in the stream. A couple minutes of cooling here might have helped keep the race demons at bay.
It was deceivingly cool in the shade of the trees along Bear Creek, but that didn’t last long. By the time I got to the top of the Siberia Creek climb I was just about out of water, dehydrated and over-heated. I laughed when I thought about how cold it was here in 2013. That year racers resting at the Champion aid station huddled in blankets and sipped hot soup to try and stay warm. Not today! I tried to take the time to rehydrate, but the clock was ticking. I grabbed a cup of ice and started up the fire road.
Though still generous, the cutoffs for the 50 milers have been substantially tightened since the 2015 event. Descending from the Grandview aid station to the Aspen Glen aid station I knew I was close to the cutoff and that was confirmed when a runner coming up the trail told me I only had 5 minutes remaining. The aid station personnel at Aspen Glen were phenomenal and I was in and out of there with water, my headlamp, and a couple of GUs in 48 seconds. I was excited to have made the cutoff, but knew I was going to have to push it to make the Finish by 9:00 p.m.
I had forgotten just how far east the Pine Knot Trail goes before ascending to Grandview. At one point it seemed the trail was going to descend all the way to the lake. I hadn’t seen a trail marker in some time and no other runners were in sight. I began to think I might have missed a turn and stopped to look more closely at the tracks on the trail. The imprints of a Brooks Cascadia and Altra Olympus stood out from the others. They were as good as a trail marker, and assured me I was still on course.
Eventually the Pine Knot Trail and I found our way back up to the Grandview aid station, but somewhere along the way I had become nauseated. Without asking, my body decided blood would be more useful for cooling and propulsion than for absorbing fluids and nutrients. My stomach had one message for me, “Sorry, we are closed!” It’s a common issue in longer runs, and given time, most runners work through it.
Unfortunately time was at a premium; all I could do is ralph, turn onto the Skyline Trail, and take the first steps toward the last aid station. I felt a little better after that and could sip a little water. The good news was that along with the sun, the temperature and my water requirements would be going down. What wasn’t going down was the trail. My recollection of this section was that it was a long five miles, but I did not recall all the ups along the way.
The last mile of the trail to the aid station paralleled the next section of the course and from time to time a runner would shout encouragement from the road above. I’d hoped to make it to the last aid station without having to stop and put on my headlamp and pulled into the station by the light of a quarter moon. Still nauseated, I put on my light and headed up the road.
Like a wrangler movin’ stock down from the high country, sweep Vanessa Kline encouraged the group of runners. We only had about 3 miles to go.
“You gotta keep running! You can do it! If you don’t run, you won’t make the cutoff!”
Most of the group did just that; they kept running and made the cutoff. Despite Vanessa’s best effort to get me moving a little faster, I crossed the finish line seven minutes after the 9:00 p.m. deadline.
I would have liked to make the cutoff, but I’m OK with the unofficial finish. I wasn’t trying to get UTMB points or to qualify for a 100 mile — I was running Kodiak for fun. I like the course and the way the event is organized. I’ve had faster Kodiak times and I’ve had slower. What didn’t change was that I was still smiling at the Finish.