Racing can be either insanely motivating or incredibly heartbreaking. For me, ultrarunning has been mostly heartbreaking so far as I have seldom been able to meet the goals I set for myself. So what can you do to stay motivated when your target races don’t go the way you want them to? Mix it up!

Find Your Sweet Spot

After my Gorge Waterfalls 100k DNF, I was emotionally devastated. I had trained so hard, put in so many miles and hours in preparation, only to blow up on race day with relentless cramping at mile 40 and dropped out at 50. The days that followed were tough as I reflected on what I could have done differently, and ultimately I think it came down to better pacing from the gun.

You see, for the first 12 years of my running life, I raced cross country and track. It’s what I know best. And for those of you that have done a hard track workout or raced a hard 5k, you know that the pain you feel is intense. This is the racing pain I know, and it’s the pain that makes sense to me. In my head, this is what racing is – so when I toe the line for any race, I expect to get to a point of intense pain – but that’s not the pain ultrarunners deal with. Theirs is a moderately dull hum of discomfort that lasts for hours. This is why I seem to blow up every time I tackle an ultra – I just push too damn hard, too early, searching for intense pain.

Months before Gorge, I had agreed to join a former college teammate at the Big Sur Marathon Relay which was just 3 weeks after the 100k. Unmotivated and heartbroken after the DNF, I didn’t run more than one or two days per week between Gorge and Big Sur. Come race day, I was pretty concerned about my fitness or ability to adequately run the lead-off leg for “A” relay team. Sure I hadn’t run much for the 3 weeks leading up to the relay, but more concerning was that the training that I had done since the beginning of the year was pretty much the opposite that I should have done to run a fast 5 mile race.

I won’t bore you with the details of the race, but I ended up handing off the baton in first place and running 30:32 for 5 miles. So how does someone who had done ZERO speed work run 6:06 per mile for 5 miles? Well, the net downhill course helped, but I’ll argue that my years of competitive shorter distance racing has built a tolerance for pain that allows me to not only push through it, but crave and enjoy it.

So what’s a guy to do? Continue to try and fit a square peg in a round ultramarathon hole or play to his strengths? I decided to try to play to my strengths and signed up for a “shorter” trail race: Mt. Disappointment 25k.

Hill repeats on Wildwood Canyon in Burbank

Hill repeats on Wildwood Canyon in Burbank

Mt. Disappointment 25k Build Up

After a few 50ks, a couple 50 milers, and countless 20 mile training runs, your mentality changes to the point that a 15.5 mile race seems short. So I approached it much in the same way that I have approached half marathon training: maintain weekend long runs of about 18-22 miles, decrease mid-week volume, and increase mid-week intensity through tempo runs and hill repeats. The major difference I introduced in this brief training cycle was track workouts. I hadn’t completed a track workout since I was coaching high school, almost 10 years ago.

The staple workouts I decided on were 3 min hill repeats on Tuesdays and mile repeats on the track on Thursdays. Having studied the course profile and having familiarity with the area the course ran through, I thought these two workouts would be solid preparation for the long steady downhills and long, punishing 3.5 mile climb at the end of the race. The hill repeats were high intensity, really getting my HR high and getting into the VO2 Max zone. The mile repeats were threshold efforts, often described as comfortably hard (~5:50/mile). I also introduced 800m (half mile) repeats 3 weeks out from the race to increase leg turn over and foot speed (between 2:55 and 2:45 / 5:30-5:50 mile pace).

Going into the race, I felt fast. I think I could have been better about getting longer miles in during the weekends, but I don’t think it necessarily killed me because I have built such a massive base through ultra training over the last year+. My primary goal was to RACE – I wanted to finish top 5 overall, my secondary goal was to run under 2:35 (which according to last year’s results, would put me at least top 5). I felt like my training was where it should be to run my goal time, I just had to bust the rust off of my race mentality – which I haven’t done in a long while.

15.8 Miles from Wilson to Wilson

Come race day, I was able to join a bunch of friends that were also running the race’s various distances (they also had a 50k and 50M). It’s always better to run a race with friends around to support each other and cheer. After a 2 mile warm-up, stretch, pre-race instructions and introductions, it was time to race. Local trail badass and HotShot firefighter Jerry Garcia counted us down (incorrectly, haha) “3, 2, 1, GO!” and we were off.

Start of the Mt. Disappointment Races

Start of the 2016 Mt. Disappointment Races. Photo: Mayra Garcia

The Start

The first 2.3 miles heads down Mt. Wilson road to Eaton Saddle. The downhill road leads to a hot pace out of the gate and the top 4 25k guys pull away from the pack. A quick glance at my GPS watch shows we are running around 5:30 pace and my breathing is a bit elevated, so I back off just a smidge to lower my heart rate before hitting the first climb. As soon as I let off the gas, the top 50k guys blow past me. These guys are absolute horses. Sidenote, this was probably one of the most stacked 50k fields I have ever seen assembled with most of the top local runners getting a final tune-up race in before they battle it out at the Angeles Crest 100 Mile race next month.

In 4th place as we hit the trail at Eaton Saddle, we begin a slight incline leading to the Mt. San Gabriel climb. At this point my heart rate was really too high for mile 3 of a (almost) 16 mile race so I back off once hitting the climb, hiking most of the steep sections and running the flattish parts. Reaching the summit, we hit the road next to Mt. Disappointment and I’m able to get back into a good rhythm as we swing right and enter the technical, dangerous, and super fun switch-backing single track back down to Mt. Wilson Road.

At this point I’m running almost entirely alone with the pack having strung out significantly on the climb, but with the switchbacks I am able to spot other runners through the trees and hear them huffing and puffing as they hammer the downhill. No more than 4 min into the descent I hear a loud yelp followed by some grunted curse words. My friend Rocky (who was running the 50k) had passed me on the climb, so I was worried he had turned his ankle or something. Smashing around a switchback turn I come upon a guy that was running the 25k standing off the trail holding onto a tree. I slow and ask him if he’s OK, but he doesn’t reply. I ask him, “ankle?” he says “yea” and I tell him I’ll let the aid station volunteers know in just a mile or so. Now I’m in 3rd place and moving comfortably fast down the technical trail. I end up making up ground on Rocky who was maybe 300 meters ahead of me as we descend to Mt. Wilson Road, but I can hear him retching and dry heaving. It seems odd to me that he’s dry heaving at 5 miles, but I shout to him some encouraging words and focus on trying to reel him in on the downhill road into Red Box.

Fly The Down

Red Box Aid Station, Mt. Disappointment 2016

Red Box Aid Station, Mt. Disappointment 2016. That’s Rocky up front and me in the background in the white singlet. Photo: Lou Castillo

At the Red Box aid station, the races split. 50k/50M heads left, 25k heads right, down the Rincon Red Box Truck Trail – a 5.5 mile descent down mostly fire roads to the lowest part of the course. My race plan is to push this extended downhill section to try and cover as much ground in as little time as possible. It drops 1,600ft over 5.5 miles, which is a great steady downhill grade that allows you to open the stride and haul ass. My splits are 5:58, 6:10, 6:22, 7:17, and 6:34 as the route flattens out towards the bottom. About a mile from the Westfork Aid station (mile 10.5) I catch second place, a familiar face from a decade before.

I first met Simon Cooper on at the 2005 Run to the Top at Mt. Baldy. My friend at the time, Jose Jimenez, introduced us and we chatted about running and shared race stories. He was impressed with my performance that day, the first trail race I had ever run. Since then, Simon has established himself as one of the best local mid-distance trail racers around, frequently winning or placing top 3 at trail races from 10k to 30k – the same distances I’m looking to focus on.

We chat for a brief minute and he latches on as I continued to push the downhill. Around the next corner, a small incline stops me dead in my tracks. The hard push on the downhill has jiggled my insides something fierce, and the slight incline is all the excuse my stomach needs to initiate some dry heaving. I walk the 150m hill, stopping occasionally to almost-vomit. Reaching the top of the hill, my stomach settles down, and I push on – but Simon is nowhere to be seen.

Seize the Climb

A mile later, I reach the Westfork Aid Station to the hoots and hollers of the volunteers who immediately ask, “do you need anything? What can we get you?” Through a wry smile I reply, “Fresh legs?” and they laugh. Twinges in my calves begin to surface as I have some Gatorade and a volunteer refills my handheld. Worrying that this is the first sign of cramps, I pull out a HotShot I brought with me. I’ve had a sample bottle with me for a few weeks, but have not tried it during a run to actually combat cramps. This stuff is apparently developed by some Nobel Prize winning chemist, but it tastes like dumpster water seasoned with cayenne pepper. My stomach immediately sours.

I know what you’re thinking – why would you try anything new during a race, Steve?! Well, I have yet to find a solution to muscle cramps, so if I was gonna try this stuff out, it was going to be at some moment when I was about to start cramping. That moment came at the Westfork aid station.

I thank the volunteers, and head up the Gabrieleno trail – here the climbing starts.

The first section out of Westfork is a moderate climb on technical, but runnable trail. I’m able to maintain a solid pace, but the calf twinges are surfacing more frequently. 1 mile later, the Gabrieleno trail connects with Kenyon Devore, and the real fun (read: climb/suck/pain) starts. The Kenyon Devore trail climbs relentlessly at a grade between 20-40% for 3 miles. The only saving grace was that this trail is almost entirely shaded, and the temperature, like me, was starting to climb.

Around mile 12.5 I get my first actual calf cramp and I pull up lame, unable to move. A brief stretch and I continue on, now hiking. After a few minutes, I feel that my muscles have calmed and I begin to run again – nope. The other calf cramps. Stop. Stretch. Hike. It continues like this until mile 13.5, when a downed tree blocks the trail.

Downed trees seem to always find me when my legs begin to fail me. During the Ray Miller 50k, high winds the night before blew a large oak down in the canyon, completely blocking the trail. I cramped so badly crawling under it, that I was stuck beneath the tree in a ball of spasms and screams for a good 4 minutes before I was able to stand.

On Kenyon Devore, the downed tree is not large, but it fell from above the trail into the canyon below, laying across the trail at a steep angle. The only option I have is to straddle the trunk as I blindly try to find a foothold on the other side. Finding a confident foot placement, I hop and swing my right foot up and behind me to swivel over the trunk at which point my entire lower body seizes – hamstrings, adductors, calves, butt. Being unable to move, I stand ridgedly searching for the choicest colorful language to shout that would accurately express my misery. I find a few.

After a minute or two of this, I’m able to stretch out a little and spend time stretching my hamstrings, calves, glutes, adductors and hips. I waste probably 7 minutes in all before continuing on.

Survival of the Fittest (Hiker)

Rocky Castro pushing through the pain. Mt. Disappointment 50k 2016

Rocky Castro pushing through the pain. Mt. Disappointment 50k 2016

Hiking up the steepest sections proves to be the biggest challenge, testing the limits to which I can recruit muscles and push the pace. The pace is never more than a power hike. For the next 2 miles I power hike up Kenyon Devore, sometimes stopping to stretch a seizing calf when I exceed the limits of pace and power. I resolve myself to just keep moving forward, all the while terrified that I will soon be caught.

This trail winds it’s way up and across hillsides and passes, often doubling back on itself with switchbacks and canyon crossings that allow you to see a good portion of the trail ahead and behind. I continue to hike, pushing as hard as I can without crossing the limit and having to stop again. I’m managing my situation well, staying mentally positive though pushing forward in a panic of being overtaken by the chase pack. Switchback, switchback, switchback, nothing. No one to be seen or heard.

The top of Kenyon Devore flattens to a reasonable grade – a runnable grade for most people who are not in the midst of neuromuscular distress. I power hike on, turning a corner to see a race photographer who seems to be just setting up. “Runner?” he asks. “Yea,” I reply as I try to jog slightly for purely vain, photogenic reasons, only to seize again in my adductors and calves, “just not a runner right now,” I manage to say through a clenched jaw. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” was the last thing the photography heard from me as I trudged along by him.

Podium Run

Around mile 14.5 I begin to see hope, the trail begins to look very familiar to the start of my last training run on KD, and I know that I’m nearing the top of the worst part and will only have 3/4 of a mile of rolling terrain before I’m home. In the middle of a switchback, I hear it. A grunt, perhaps chatter. It’s faint, but it’s behind me and it is closing. Pushing on, I cover a couple more switchbacks, and I hear it more clearly now – definitely grunts, possibly dry heaving, coughing or hacking, but certainly not chatter. As I reach the top, I see it. Or her, for that matter. The lead woman is closing in on me, running, though slowly and mixed with walking, but definitely running more than I am.

The top section of KD zig-zags around tight turns and blind corners and I hike as powerfully as I can, even testing a jogging pace, which is still not an option. In my panic and focus, I manage to smack a Poodle Dog Bush with the back of my hand and think to myself “oh shit,” and proceed to rub dirt on it. That should help, right? Hike. Hike. Hike. As fast as you can, man.

I get to the KD junction – go straight and you’re back to the road, but the race course heads left, taking a meandering half-ish mile trail back to the starting line. It winds, rises, and falls like a roller coaster for kids. Normally, I would rip this section playfully winding my way through downed trees and over rocks, but today, I have only a powerful walk to get me to the top. With less than 400 meters to the finish, it happens. She passes me. Though a bit heartbroken (not because of getting “chicked” but rather by letting 3rd slip through my fingers) I graciously congratulate her and encourage her to get after it, and then try to refocus myself. If she caught me, who know’s who is next? So chin down I continue to push as hard as I can, sometimes sheepishly trotting on downhills, only for my calves to remind me of any and every minor incline.

I hear the cowbells, the glorious cowbells, signifying the end is within sight. Though only a couple hundred meters away it felt like an eternity. Passing the cowbell spectators, I hit the parking lot, make the left turn and head for the Cosmic Cafe hut and the finish line. Friends lined the railings of the hut, cheering my name as I desperately try to at least jog into the finish. No luck, suck it up, hike it in, it’s all you can do – and that I did.

Finisher and Age Group Winner medals, Mt. Disappointment 25k 2016

Finisher and Age Group Winner medals, Mt. Disappointment 25k 2016

4th overall, 3rd male, age group winner: 2:39:57

Conclusion & Take Aways

So, was my Mt. Disappointment 25k experience a success? Yea, I think it was. Though I did not hit my time goal, I did hit my primary goal: I raced my ass off, pushed my limits, and challenged competitors. Perhaps my race plan was flawed, but that’s fine with me. It was a learning experience. Maybe next time I run the 5 mile downhill at 80% instead of 90% and save my legs for the climb. Maybe I build into the race instead of blasting out of the gate at a high heart rate. These are things to be tested in future races, and that’s what keeps me coming back.

I really enjoyed this distance. It allowed me to eek closer to the pain intensity that I crave and I enjoyed that. I will be looking for more trail races to sign up for in the 10k-30k range, hoping to see my old pal Simon (2nd overall) out there. Chatting with him after the race, he admitted to me that I scared the shit out of him when I caught him in the canyon, thinking to himself “jesus, this guy is flying” which was a nice compliment to hear although he handed me my lunch no more than 5 minutes later.

The Mt. Disappointment races (25k, 50k, 50 mile) is a long standing locally organized event. RD Gary Hillard told us after the race that the 50 mile course that competitors were grinding through was the course he used to run to prepare for AC100. He has a deep relationships with the San Gabes that shows through with his passion for his race. He congratulated every finisher and personally handed out the awards, which included overall winners, age group winners for all distances, and “fastest couple” awards for each distance; which I think is a wonderfully cheeky award. I loved my time at Mt. D., and will be back next year to measure my progress, test my limits, and enjoy the day with an amazing, passionate, and talented group of runners that conquer the hellish mistress that is Kenyon Devore.