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Night Training for the Backbone Ultra

Moonrise over Los Angeles from the Backbone Trail

On my list of things to do to prepare for the Backbone Ultra was a night training run on a segment of the Backbone Trail we would be running in the dark.

Tonight was a good night for that training run for a couple of reasons. One was that the weather was going to be phenomenal. Today several record high temps for the date had been broken, including nearby Camarillo at 89 and Oxnard at 84. It would be warmer on tonight’s run than on many of the runs I’d done this Winter. Another was that adjusting for Daylight Savings Time, the moon would rise at about the same time and be in about the same phase as on the day of the event.

The plan was to do two out and back runs from the Mishe Mokwa trailhead. The Backbone Ultra starts at Will Rogers State Park in Pacific Palisades and ends at Ray Miller Campground, near Pt. Mugu. The Mishe Mokwa trailhead is at about mile 52 of the course. The first run tonight would be on the easier terrain of the Backbone Trail east of Mishe Mokwa; and the second would be a more difficult run past Sandstone Peak and down the Chamberlain Trail.

Ann, also training for the Backbone Ultra, joined in on the runs, and as it was beginning to get dark we set off eastbound (toward Etz Meloy) from Mishe Mokwa.



It would be hard to imagine better conditions for running at night; the sky was clear and the temperature in the 70s. Accompanied by a chorus of crickets, poorwills deepened the growing darkness with their enigmatic calls. Sirius, the brightest nighttime star, was to the southeast, behind Orion the hunter, whose sword belt of three stars was easily seen to the south. The planet Jupiter beamed overhead, even brighter than blue-white Sirius, but with a yellowish tint, hinting at the gas giant’s atmosphere of swirling clouds.

The perspective of terrain and time changes in the dark. You run more by how you feel than what you see ahead. Whether up or down, moderate hills look more moderate and gradual hills seem almost flat. Some runners say time seems to pass more quickly at night, others tell of arduous miles, wrong turns and distant aid stations.

After running an enjoyable three miles eastbound, we retraced our route and returned to Mishe Mokwa. After eating some watermelon, we grabbed our packs and headed up the Backbone Trail toward Sandstone Peak.



This out and back was going to be more difficult than the first, with about 3000′ of gain/loss over a sometimes rocky and technical 12+ miles of trail. With the event coming up in just a few weeks the last thing we wanted to do was something “stoopid.” During the day it relatively easy to check your watch, search pockets for missing jelly beans or salt tabs, eat a fruit bar, look around, and do other things on the run. At night, particularly on a technical trail, a much higher level of attention is required and there are many distractions.

The myriad of stars and the glittering lights along the 101 corridor and out on the Oxnard plain were amazing. Along the trail, manzanita blossoms, shooting stars, Ceanothus, and lichens seemed to almost phosphoresce in the diffuse light of the headlamps. From time to time the sweet fragrance of poison oak, just starting to bloom, would waft up from the canyon and mix with the more earthy scents along the trail.



We turned around at the bottom of the Chamberlain Trail, and in a dark-distorted hour were back on the rolling terrain south of Tri Peaks and west of Sandstone Peak. Here the trail follows the drainage of an ephemeral stream. Colder air had collected in the drainage, and the temperature was a chilly 15-20 degrees cooler than the rest of the trail.

Black in the night, massive rock formations towered above the trail, and the hulk of Sandstone Peak appeared huge and insurmountable. At places along the crest there were stunning views of the moon rising over the lights of the Los Angeles basin and at other vantage points equally sensational views of the Conejo Valley.

In a higher mileage week of a higher mileage month it is a long 2 miles from the top of the climb up the Chamberlain Trail to the start of the downhill that would take us to Mishe Mokwa.

In 29 days and 50-something miles we would be up here again, climbing the Backbone Trail to Sandstone Peak, winding through the rock formations of Boney Mountain, and then descending the Chamberlain Trail. What an experience that would be!

Sun, Moon & Stars and Comet Pan-STARRS.

All sun and moon data is from the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department. The sunrise time is for Los Angeles and sunset and moonrise times are for Oxnard. There may be small differences in the observed times of sunrise, sunset and moonrise due to a variety of factors.

Sunrise on the first day of the Backbone Ultra — March 30 — will be at 6:43 AM and sunset will be 7:16 PM. At 6:00 AM the orange-appearing star Antares, the Moon, and Saturn will be in the southwest sky, about 27 degrees above the horizon. About 88% of the Moon’s visible disk will be illuminated.

It varies from person to person, but if the sky is clear, there is usually enough light to run on easy terrain for about 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset. That works out to as much as about 13.5 hours of light for the 6:00 AM start group, 10.75 hours for the 9:00 AM group and 7.75 hours for the noon group.

As on the training run, Sirius, Jupiter, Orion and the Pleiades will be visible early in the evening. Moonrise on the evening of March 30th will be at 11:17 PM. At 2:00 AM the Moon will be about 25 degrees above the horizon in the southeast sky. About 80% of its visible disk will be illuminated. At 4:30 AM the moon is about 35 degrees above the horizon in the southern sky.

Comet Pan-STARRS probably won’t be visible March 30, but if you happen to be doing an evening training run over the next week or so and have a clear view of the western horizon just after sunset, it may be visible very low on the western horizon. It may be difficult to see in the twilight. For more viewing info check NASA’s Asteroid & Comet Watch and Sky & Telescope’s updates on the comet.

Ray Miller 50/50 2013 Notes

A luminous stream of headlamps wound up the switchback above the rocky streambed, the lights defining the movement of a huge and sinuous creature making its way up La Jolla Canyon.

In the darkness a great horned owl greets runners with a questioned, “who-whoo, who-whoo.” Excited runners answer back with cupped hands, “who-whoooo, who-whoooo.” Above, a thick veil of high clouds shrouds the last quarter moon. The clouds will also temper the sun, resulting in nearly ideal race-day weather. The trails are in great shape and there should be some fast times.

As we round the shoulder of a peak the gray-blue Pacific stretches out to Anacapa and the Channel Islands. The sun is still below the horizon, but the clouds to the east are now illuminated in a startling mix of orange and pink. It is an inspiring start to what will be an  enjoyable run.

Being familiar with an area’s trails is both a pro and a con. The pro is that you know what to expect, but that is also the con. I still had mental scars from the last time I had done the Coyote Trail. The run had been long, the sun scorching and the humidity high. The steep stretch near the top had been an oven. Not today.

From the top of the Coyote climb there are wide ranging views in every direction. The trail continues north along a roller coaster ridge, past Ranch Center Road, where it becomes the Hidden Pond Trail. Rainfall this season has been well below normal — less than half of normal at Camarillo Airport — and the pond is little more than a damp spot in the brush.

Even so, the signs of spring are everywhere. The white blossoms of Ceanothus highlight the hills, and new grass carpets the open areas. Along the route I see yellow encelia, violet shooting stars, white milkmaids, purple prickly phlox, orange paintbrush and other wildflowers.

Everyone I talk to feels great. Some runners are escaping the cold climes of the Pacific Northwest and Midwest. Some are running their first ultra. There is talk of running shoes, places and races. The miles pass — not effortlessly, but with the right mix of more difficult and easier sections.

A quick stop at the Danielson aid station and I’m back on the trail. It’s a tough climb up the Old Boney Trail to the Chamberlain Trail and the turnoff for the 50 milers. A 100K looms at the end of March and the plan is to do some extra training miles later today. But I also have a 50K in two weeks and decided today’s extra miles should be flat. Deftly passing the 50 mile turn, I wonder if it might have been the better training choice.

In another 15-20 minutes I start the descent into Serrano Valley. Along with La Jolla Valley, which we traversed earlier in the day, Serrano Valley is one of the scenic jewels of the Santa Monica Mountains and a fantastic place to run.

Despite rain during the week, the creek crossings in Serrano Canyon are dry and the running excellent. In a few minutes I reach the landslide part way through the canyon and not long after that I hear the yells and see the smiles of the crew at the Sycamore Canyon Aid Station. As at all of the other aid stations, the volunteers are super-helpful and make sure I have what I need.

Some races feature one or two particularly long, difficult climbs. The Ray Miller 50K has (depending on how you count them) six climbs ranging from about 500′ in elevation gain to about 1000′ of gain. The 50 mile adds two climbs of 1000′ or more, the big one being the 1800′ climb from Old Boney to Sandstone Peak.

The last climb of the race — from Sycamore Canyon up the Fireline Trail, up the Outlook Fire Road, and then up the beginning of the Ray Miller Trail — is a tough one, gaining about 920′ in 2.3 miles. From the top of the climb the downhill to the finish is the favorite of many, and the hope is always that you will have enough left to run it well!

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In the 50K Chad Ricklefs of Boulder set a new course record of 3:54:08 and Amanda Hicks’ 4:46:57 edged Meghan Arbogast by 52 seconds. Getting in some snow-free miles Aspen’s Dylan Bowman cranked out a blazing 6:45:08 in the 50 mile, and Amy Sproston — one of several runners from the PNW — flew through the course in 8:38:20.

Here’s an interactive, 3D terrain view of the 2013 Ray Miller 50K course, with the 50 mile option marked in orange. Mileages and locations are approximate and based on my 50K GPS track.

Many thanks to R.D. Keira Henninger and her support crew, the great volunteers, the sponsors, and all the runners for an outstanding event! Check the Ray Miller 50/50 web site for additional details and all the results.

Runner’s blogs/web sites: Dylan Bowman, Amy Sproston, Timothy Olson

Some related posts: You Can’t Run Just Part Way Up Serrano Canyon, Serrano Valley from the Chamberlain Trail, Return to Hidden Pond, Coastline From Mugu Peak

You Can’t Run Just Part Way Up Serrano Canyon

Serrano Valley and Boney Mountain

Today’s plan was to get in around 25 miles, and like last Saturday, I was trying to keep the elevation gain down to something reasonable. I’ve been doing longer weekday runs, longer weekend runs and more days with runs. If I increased the elevation gain by the same percentage as the mileage I didn’t think I would be able to keep up with the extra training.

Today’s long run had started with a low impact 8.5 miles from Wendy Drive & Potrero road down Sycamore Canyon to the beach. That had gone well. I’d hooked up with a group training for the L.A. Marathon, and they had set a comfortable — but steady — pace.

Sycamore Canyon Campground was just beginning to stir as I ran down the access road. Warm sunlight was finding its way into the camp and other than the camp host, not many people were out and about.  Overhead a raucous gang of crows jeered a passing band of parrots, and across PCH a wave crashed on the rocky shore.



I continued running through the campground to the day use parking lot and then down onto the sand at the PCH bridge. The tide was high and from time to time whitewater from a larger wave would rush up the sand slope under the bridge and spill over the berm. I thought of bare feet on cold Rincon sand and how 55 deg water would at first feel warm on a Winter day.

With Part A of my run complete, I started thinking about Part B. If I was going to reach my mileage goal I needed to extend the return route by about 7 miles. To keep the elevation gain to a minimum, I came up with the contrived idea of doing out & backs up Serrano Canyon and Wood Canyon on the way back up Sycamore. It didn’t sound very appealing, but would add the necessary miles. Leaving the sand and seagulls behind, I started the long haul back up the canyon.

It wasn’t as cold in Sycamore Canyon as last Saturday, but with the down-canyon breeze it was still chilly in the shade. In about 15 minutes I reached the Serrano Canyon Trail and turned east up the canyon. The initial part of the canyon was quite flat and I resigned myself to the idea of running part way up the classic canyon and turning around just before reaching one of the most scenic spots in the Santa Monica Mountains.



At the landslide a half-mile into the canyon the trail steepens briefly and climbs above the creek. Just before starting up the hill I stopped to take a photo of the slide. Looking closer at one of the large boulders, I noticed it contained shell impressions and remnants similar to those found on the Fossil Trail. After snapping a photo I continued up the canyon.

Much of Serrano Canyon was in shade on this Winter morning; but in places the sun would find its way through the twists and turns of the canyon, warming me as only the morning sun can do on a cold day. With almost no water in the creek the 15 or so creek crossings in the canyon were just dips in the trail and the running was free, easy and enjoyable.

I passed the two mile turnaround point with little thought of plans, miles, races or elevation gain, and soon found myself standing on the edge of Serrano Valley’s spectacular grasslands. Rock formations on the southern flank of Boney Mountain towered above the valley and a green undercoat of Winter growth accented the trails and terrain. With a deep sigh I continued running into the Boney Mountain wilderness.

*****

I did get in my 25 miles, but not in the way I planned. From Serrano Valley I followed the Ray Miller 50K course backward, running the Serrano Valley, Old Boney, Blue Canyon, and Sin Nombre trails to the Hidden Pond Trail. There I lef the Ray Miller course and followed the Upper Sycamore Trail to Danielson Road and Satwiwa.

This route bypassed Sycamore Canyon road almost entirely and avoided the toil of having to run back up the road after just running down it. One minor issue was that when I got back to Satwiwa, I’d only run 21 miles. That was remedied by running over to Ranch Overlook and back.

Some related posts: Fossil Trail – Pt. Mugu State Park, Boney Mountain – Serrano Valley Adventure Run

Back to Mugu Peak

Hikers nearing the summit of Mugu Peak

The difference in temperature from the bottom of Sycamore Canyon to the top of the Wood Canyon Vista Trail had to be at least 30 degrees. Down on the Sycamore Canyon Fire Road the mud and mud puddles were frozen and I could feel the cold through my sleeves, shirts and gloves. In the sun near Overlook Fire Road it felt like it was a toasty 60-something degrees.

Trying to get in some less hilly miles, Craig and I were doing the run from the Wendy Drive trailhead to Mugu Peak. There would be no personal bests today. We both had long races coming up and this run would be combined with another (shorter) run tomorrow.

It’s tough to find a 20+ mile trail run in the Los Angeles area that doesn’t have much elevation gain. Wendy Drive to Mugu Peak has about 2700′ of gain. Bypassing the peak would reduce the total to around 2300′. One flatter option in this area might be Wendy Drive to PCH and back with a mile or so side trip up Wood Canyon.

Some related posts: Wendy Drive – Mugu Peak Challenge, Serrano Valley from Wendy Drive, Serrano Valley – La Jolla Valley Scenic Loop

Wendy Drive – Mugu Peak Challenge

Top of Mugu Peak

Running should be fun! If you’re comfortable running twenty miles (round trip) and are familiar with the trails of Pt. Mugu State Park this training “challenge” is way to get in a mix of running on pavement, dirt roads, single track trail, fast downhill, runnable uphill, and a brutal hill climb, and wrap it all up in a fun-to-solve route-finding puzzle.



The “challenge” is to run from the trailhead at Wendy Drive & Potrero Road in Newbury Park to the flagpole on the summit of Mugu Peak. That’s it — the route you use is entirely up to you, as are all other details of the run. At the top of Mugu Peak (if it’s not foggy) you’ll be rewarded with great views of the coast near Pt. Mugu, the Channel Islands, La Jolla Valley and Boney Mountain.

I ran it last Sunday. A middle-of the pack runner, my training goal was to do it in under two hours. My time was 1:55:30. Turns out my route was about a half-mile longer than what I believe to be the shortest possible route. I pushed the pace some, but have a race coming up, so didn’t go all out.

Based on my times in some similar XTERRA races I’m thinking my race pace goal should be around 1:40. A very fast runner might be able to do it in around 1:10. You’ll have to decide what’s a good goal for you. Just remember that once you get to Mugu Peak, you have to get back! (And keep an eye out for those pesky rattlesnakes and other wildlife!)

Update April 12, 2014. In near perfect weather did the peak from Wendy in 1:42:02.

Update January 5, 2014. In less than ideal conditions did the peak in 1:47:49, so it looks like 1:40 should be possible for me.

Coastline From Mugu Peak

Coastline south of Pt. Mugu from Mugu Peak. The trail wrapping around the lower peak is the Mugu Peak Trail. It leads to the La Jolla Loop and Canyon trails. There were several runners on the Mugu Peak trail, training for the XTERRA Pt. Mugu Trail Run.

From Sunday’s out and back run from the Wendy Drive to Mugu Peak.

Related post: La Jolla Valley & Mugu Peak from Wendy Drive