The La Jolla Canyon Run: down and out in the Malibu hills

CATEGORY: LeisureTravel3I am flying across America to participate in a race that isn’t.

The race is the La Jolla Canyon Run—31 miles of trails, up 5000 feet of elevation gain. It’s traditionally held in early March in the Santa Monica Mountains just north of Malibu. This year it was cancelled because the organizers got crossways with park management, who then jacked up the access fees.

So there’s no race. But my son who lives on the coast just north of there has been training for this race since last fall. My wife and I had promised to do it with him, so we’re on our way to race it anyway.

On one hand, this is my kind of race. They like the hoopla associated with races—the podiums and medals and crowds. They’re disappointed this one has been cancelled. I don’t like hoopla. I tend to do smaller, lower key events. Show up, do the best you can, shake hands, go home. This event is exactly my sort of thing. You can’t get lower key than a non-race.

At the same time, I’m a little worried. I’ve never run that far or done a true trail run. Also, since the race has been cancelled, there’s no support on the course in case I break an ankle or run out of water. Oh, and I’m old—sixty this year—and still horribly out of shape. That extra ten pounds is going to hurt going up those mountains, especially with another five pounds of water on my back.

The course is four loops, up and over five mountain ridges, each a thousand feet high. That’s not that high, but these are steep. If you’ve ever driven the PCH from LA to Santa Barbara, you know that the mountains drop straight down into the sea, with barely enough room to site the road.

Since the race is cancelled, the route is not marked, so the three of us spend the night before the race studying maps and going over directions like “at mile 5.3 or maybe it’s 5.5, I can’t read my writing. Anyway, there’s a well-marked turn, but don’t turn there. Turn at the next one, which isn’t marked. The sign for that one is behind a bush. If you find yourself running straight up a mountain, you’ve gone too far.” I love my son, but having a dyslexic prepare your cue sheets adds a certain drama to the whole thing.

My wife only plans to do 7 or 8 miles. My son plans to do all four loops, 31 miles, and wants to break six hours, a time which would probably have put him on the podium. I plan to do all four loops, and am hoping for seven hours. But that is wildly optimistic. If Mike does six, then I should do eight and a half hours based on a comparison of our marathon times. My son asks me if I want to borrow a headlamp, just in case I’m out there longer than twelve. He’s not joking.

Loop 1:

The first loop goes up a steep ravine, up and over a dry waterfall, half-hike and half-climb, through a canyon and onto a hillside. The trail then winds up and around a series of mountains that put you looking right down onto the PCH and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a breathtaking view, up and down the coast for miles. The trail then goes through what looks like a high mountain meadow (even though this is not the high mountains,) past another mountain with a very creepy and enormous radar installation on it, then back down the canyon.

The original race was to start at 8 a.m. But we get there early and I start at 7:10. There aren’t many people about and I have the trail to myself. Mike and Liz wait until 7:30. It’s a beautiful, beautiful morning—high blue sky, birds riding the thermals, whitecaps on blue ocean. It’s a little cool, in the fifties, but that’s perfect for a run like this. I take off, making myself run slower than I’d like, freezing as I run through the shadows in the canyon and warming up as I move out of the canyon and up the hillside. Mike passes me about mile 2, just in time to show me a tricky turn. I keep him in sight as we scale the first mountain and make our way along the coast line.

It’s easy to zone out when you run on the road, just sort of settle into a pace and motor along with legs in gear and brain in neutral. That doesn’t work with a trail run. These switchbacks are narrow enough that the handful of hikers who have been up to Mt. Mugu for sunrise have to step off the trail for me to pass, and the long drop on the other side is steep enough and filled with enough cactus that it would hurt. The footing is rocky and treacherous. I’d hoped to do the first loop in under two hours, roughly 15 minute pace. I’d counted on really making up some time on the descents. That’s not the way it works. The descents are a lot easier than the ascents from a huffing and puffing standpoint, but I still have to pick my way down because of the uneven terrain. Still, I run as much as I walk and get through the first loop almost on schedule.

I feel good in terms of energy, but I worry because the trail is starting to take a toll on my legs. I feel a little nascent plantar fasciitis in my left foot, a bone bruise on my heel, a strange little tweak on the inside of my knee and my hip flexors ache. I stop to refill my water in the parking lot but I haven’t drunk any yet, so I simply open it, take a look, and close it. Liz is not back yet, which makes me uneasy. I am not that comfortable with women running alone in wilderness areas, even in relatively well populated ones like this one, and hope she’s okay.

Loop 2:

As I leave, I notice the parking lot is filling up. A wonderful diversity of people are climbing out of the parked cars. In addition to Californians, or at least people who look like I think Californians look, bless their windswept hair and stylish water bottles, there are Japanese and Indians along with people I guess to be of Mexican descent. I am wearing a t shirt, shorts and a hat. The Californians are wearing fleeces and shorts or jeans. The Asians are dressed for an Everest expedition, with thermals peeking out of shirt tops, fleeces, down jackets, full-fingered gloves and knit caps. I’m not sure who’s confused, but one of us has no idea what the temperature is today.

The second loop is the Ray Miller trail, almost three miles of switchbacks that go straight up. This hillside is angled so you can’t quite see the top. At every switch you think the top of the hill is just around the bend, only to turn the corner and see another series of switchbacks. I’m walking now, but tell myself that there’s no time to be gained running uphill and I’m better off saving my energy for the descents, which is sort of true. At last, I reach the top of the trail and get on the fire road, called Overlook Drive. From here, you can see the Pacific on one side and snow-capped San Jacinto Mountains eighty miles east. It is gorgeous.

When I’m halfway down the fire road I hear a shout, look over the side of the mountain and there’s Mike laboring straight up a tiny path. He runs up to me and we compare notes. I’m at mile eleven and he’s already five miles ahead of me. He looks good.

I run down the road, feeling immeasurably superior to the walkers and bikers. I reach the halfway point, turn and start making my way up the same trail I’d seen Mike scale, Fireline Trail. And I crack like an egg. All of a sudden I’m not running any more. Only sixteen miles in and I’m barely walking. I’m leaning into the trail, climbing the darn thing back up to the fire road.

I run/walk back up to the juncture with Ray Miller and try to run down, but I am moving so slowly that the king snakes sunning themselves do not even acknowledge me. I step over them on my way down. Halfway down I drain my water supply and finish the loop bone dry. I am back in the parking lot at five and a half hours. Liz is back also, to my relief, and I gulp down food and water and take a sip of her coffee, which Mike’s girlfriend has just brought from Starbuck’s. He races up as I finish refilling my water bottle.

“You’re on pace,” I say.

“I’m shot,” he says. “Average pulse is 170. My stomach is torn up.” It’s not surprising. When you run as fast as he’s running, your body diverts blood from digestion to the legs. As a result, food sits in an undigested lump in your stomach, doing nothing but making you nauseous. Then, since you’re not absorbing any nutrients, it becomes a game of timing: Can you finish the race before your reserves run out and you bonk, essentially shutting down? He kisses his girlfriend and runs off to do Loop 4. He’s now seven and a half miles ahead of me.

“Go home, get a shower and come back at 4:30. I’m on nine hour pace,” I yell to Liz as I head back up the mountain.

“I can’t leave you out here,” she calls back.

“Sure you can. I feel fine. I just don’t have any legs,” I reply.

Loop 3:

And I don’t. My legs hurt now—calves, shins, quads, and even worse, I’m not used to running for six hours so I haven’t put on any of the lubricant long distance runners use. I’m beginning to chafe. I’m walking bow-legged, my groin raw. It feels stupid that with all of this, the thing that hurts the worst is the place where my shorts rub. The good news about endurance sports is your brain can only process one pain signal at a time, so although everything hurts, only one thing really hurts at a time. Might as well be one thing as another. I am moving very slowly. I try to run a bit, but every impact is excruciating, so instead I try to hike fast, then hike, then just walk.

It’s becoming clear I’ve got no chance of making the eight hour official cut-off of the original race. Nine will be an accomplishment. But I don’t know if I can even do that. I am slowing down. On the descent back down the canyon, I am starting to slip and fall, my ankles turning and dropping me onto my butt on the rocks. I’m now over 22 minutes a mile on descents, about the same pace as an elderly man strolling around the block smoking an after-dinner cigar and walking a poodle. Finally, at just over eight hours and after 27.25 miles, I reach the parking lot.

Liz is waiting for me, having ignored my request to go home. I look up the hillside at Loop 4, then at my watch. Best case, I’m looking at two more hours. Worst case, I’m looking at being carried down off the mountain. I punch “stop” on my GPS watch and climb in the car. I’m done, and I failed.

Mike meets us back at the house. He did the entire course in 5:54, an excellent time, especially without the advantage of having water and food on the course as would have been the case in a race. I am very proud of him. I time out, finishing only 27.25 miles in eight hours, almost on the nose. My legs hurt so bad I can barely climb the steps to the apartment. I have to step up with my right, drag my left, then step with my right, drag my left.

I didn’t do what I came to do, and I am in pain.

Beautiful weather. Outdoors. My son. My wife. It’s hard to imagine a better day than this.

5 replies »

  1. “It’s hard to imagine a better day than this.” Yeah, it sounds like a lot of fun. Not!

    • I guess you had to be there. My son read this post and was disappointed because I didn’t really capture how bad it hurt.

  2. Oh yeah, you want your body to go beyond feasting on your fat to chewing on your muscles. Big fun! (In truth, I respect your guts.)

  3. Reading about Otherwise’s athletic jaunts is like getting a root canal. I don’t really want to avoid and I’m pleased that I’ve done it but, oh wait, my gums are still bleeding…

  4. “Beautiful weather. Outdoors. My son. My wife. It’s hard to imagine a better day than this.”