After just missing the FKT two months ago on fairly low volume and only a couple of months post-lung surgery, I knew I needed to give this another go. I figured I'd probably try in either August or September if the weather cooperated and look to next fall if it did not.
A few weeks ago I started feeling like I was ready to give it another shot. Based on how much fitter I felt compared with my last attempt I figured I could take 20-25min off my previous time. I gave the course a lot of practice and worked out a pace chart which if executed would take me under four hours.
The final piece was the weather, scouting ahead about a week out Wednesday was shaping up to be cool. Lafayette, which I feel is more representative of the exposed ridge temperatures, was showing a high of 72 degrees and mostly cloudy! I began tapering but unfortunately that weather outlook didn't hold long, every day the projected high got higher and the days after it higher still. It became clear that if I wanted decent temperatures I was going to have to start close to 6am.
For many runners, this might not be a big obstacle, but for me a night owl and evening runner, this is a few hours before my usual wake-up time.
On the morning of I planned to meet Tony Martinez at Proctor Staging (the end) where I would leave my car at 5:30am, and from there have him drive me to the start at Alvarado Gate. This would allow me to run to my car and drive home. I arrived at Proctor pretty close to 5:20am and got everything ready for Tony's arrival.
Around 5:40am Tony arrived, I piled in his car, and we headed off to Alvarado, where, after a quick warmup and shoe adjustment, I set off on my journey from the gate at 6:25am. I carried with me 7 gels, 1.5L of Maurten 320, my phone, and my car key in a lightweight ultimate direction vest.
I had figured out how to create a workout on my watch which would only advance on lap-button-press but would display key info about each section of the course using the format: description time / total-time | distance @pace +/-vert
E.G.: Top of Climbs 23:15 / 0:23:15 | 2.85mi @8:07 +1145/-264
This allowed me to keep track of where I was against my goal fairly easily for both the overall course and the particular section without needing to spend a lot of time doing mental math. Below is a recap of each section:
1. Top of Climbs 2.85mi +1145/-264
Almost immediately I knew I was in for a grind of a day. My right fore-foot started forming a serious hotspot within the first mile, which felt particularly uncomfortable for the consistent climb this section presents. The temperature was cool though and the fog was still thick.
I focused on being smooth and trying to ignore the pain from the hotspot. With the dense fog, it was extra tough to get a feel for my real pace on the climb, and the visibility was so low that a couple of times I almost made wrong turns. I had to guess based on distance that I finally had hit the top of the last hill before the stables, in the fog the stables weren't visible at all until I was entirely upon them. Fortunately I escaped this section only a 20 seconds behind my goal time.
2. Inspiration Point 4.5mi +393/-411
Still the fog. And the foot. And the early morning tiredness. But I settled into a grind and resolved to use Tony's words from the previous day as my mantra: "Just keep running". I took my first gel and got to it.
As I got closer to Nimitz on the exposed ridge the winds picked up, a slight headwind and a strong side-wind. I'd hoped an early start would avoid the winds which are typically extremely strong in the evening (so much so they've blown me over!). Add to the grind, but keep grinding.
The bad news was I wasn't hitting pace, the good news was all the slow risers felt smooth, and overall this kept me close to my target for the section. I came through a little better than a minute behind my goal (about 1:20 behind goal time overall). But I also felt like I was finding a good rhythm, and I knew that for the next 2 sections I'd left myself a little more wiggle room for improvement if needed. Still early in the day, just keep running.
3. Steam Trains 3mi +964/-357
The route from Inspiration Point to Steam Trains is deceptively runnable. While you will be climbing for most of it, at times on loose surfaces and at other times on choppy surfaces. In the morning, with the moisture from the fog dripping off the trees, much of this section will be muddy.
The key is to not let up. If you don't, you will be rewarded with just enough downhills to produce a good time. I got through the first climb, downed another gel, and could tell I was feeling it. I pushed cautiously, and came through about 17 seconds ahead of my goal time for the section. Unfortunately, I also slipped around a few times on the wet ground, tweaking some stabilizers in both legs, but my right leg slightly worse. From there out I was feeling a slight nagging and dulling tightness.
4. Sibley 3.3mi +582/-833
The first downhill portion here (~2.5mi) is one of the more runnable portions of the middle miles of this trail. It was just wet enough it was hard to fully open up, but I came through pretty close to 6:40 pace. Then you hit the climb into Sibley. I'd wanted to attack this hill but I wasn't quite feeling it and decided to take the time to down a few gels and some extra liquid. This led to me falling off pace a bit too much, hitting the top of the climb about a minute behind time for the section.
5. Huckleberry 2mi +552/-704
The hardest two miles of this course get a lot harder when the course is soaking wet, and this section tends to get so muddy it stays wet late into the evening. I was happy to give up a little more time here for a small bit of safety, but the choppy nature of the terrain aggravated everything that was already nagging even more. In the end I came through about 85s behind my target.
I got stung near the end of this section on a training run a bit mysteriously the week before, so I was a bit extra careful heading up the steps of the connector to the upper trail to watch for bees. None seen 😅!
6. Skyline Gate 1mi +166/-144
A punchy technical mile that's hard to run fast, in part due to the stiff shrubs that crowd the first half mile keeping the trail narrower than shoulder width. I thought my target here might be a little aggressive, but I beat it by about 10s!
Passing through Skyline Gate is also the midpoint for the trail distance wise, but also means you've completed close to 70% of the required climbing for the day. Typically times to Skyline Gate are a bit slower than times on the back half, sometimes by as much as 15 or 20min for a strong effort. Paddy for instance went 2:17/2:01:12 when he set the FKT at 4:18:12. With this in mind, I'd been targeting just over 2 hours for halfway, and came through in ~2:06:40. Sub-4 was still within reach if I could execute on the back half, and I knew I'd left myself wiggle room on several sections.
7. Orchard 4.2mi +777/-1082
After a half mile of mostly flat trail on West Ridge, this section dumps you onto French for the remainder. French is one of several sections of trail for which you can absolutely never trust your GPS. Measurements commonly vary between 3.1 and 4.1 miles, my best guess is that it is in the range of 3.7-3.85. The vert I have listed here is the average Strava has come up with, but to be quite honest I believe the real vert is about 200ft more in each direction. Here, knowing the trail and knowing what splits on this trail mean is the only thing you can trust.
I've run French Trail in the 27s before, and today I wanted to run it around 32:30, knowing that if I felt good this was somewhere I could bank time.
Through the descent and the three climbs I felt pretty good, a little sluggish but still grinding well enough that I looked to be on track for closer to 31. When I got done climbing though my right leg started locking up, with searing pain from the IT Band going from the knee all the way into the hip.
I pushed on, but by the time I hit Orchard I'd fallen off for a 33:10.
8. Macdonald 1.7mi +262/-624
Up Orchard, down West Ridge, zig zagging along Golden Spike, then descending through Big Bear staging and across Macdonald Staging, this is a section that seems like it should be fast but a few mental slips can cause you to quickly lose time.
As I turned off French and onto Orchard, the IT Band pain searing through my right leg, I decided to spend some time hiking. It was this moment I realized that as close to sub-4 pace as I was through 20 miles, the leg simply wasn't going to hold up well enough to make it. I reprioritized on breaking the existing FKT, reminded myself to just keep running, and did so as well as I could.
I tried to get the leg loose, but it only got tighter, and my form devolved to where my right leg was mostly just a crutch, with all my power coming from the left. Over this short distance I lost 2:25 off my goal pace. It was also the first section all day I'd run slower than Paddy's time, by 30s.
9. Parkridge 1.1mi +500/-13
The final climb of any consequence, this climb is where I'd blown up on my first attempt a few months prior. I was resolved to not do so again, and hobbled up it as fast as I could, which was fast enough to gain back 10s on Paddy but slow enough to lose another 1:41 off the (now former) goal pace. I felt this was ok, I'd made it passed a big barrier, just over 8 miles left, no more big climbs. I checked my watch and saw I was still 10min up on Paddy's time. 8min average pace was all I needed, I felt I could shuffle that, I just needed to keep running.
10. Bort Meadows 1.5mi +9/-486
Runnable downhill, but choppy enough terrain to make hurt legs hurt more. I managed close to 7min pace, which while a bit slower than my target made me feel good about my prospects of getting the overall FKT. Last time, I incorrectly took the paved way through the parking lot (the same trivial mistake Paddy made in his attempt), because I wasn't confident in which connector trail to take down to Grass Valley Trail. This time, I found the right one. It hurt. Just keep running.
11. Marciel Road 4.6mi +687/-463
Rolling but very runnable fire trail. Trending uphill but easily digestible climbs. The prospect of a 2 mile downhill to finish afterwards that practically felt like free money to tired legs. The sun finally poked out and the trails started to heat up quickly, but a little over 10k to go, home stretch, just keep running.
Somehow I found something, I think I told myself I could run slowly stiff or quickly stiff but it was going to hurt either way so I might as well get it done. For the first 1.75 miles I kept the pace around 6:45, in my head I started to realize that if I held together I was going to win back some of the time I'd lost in the previous sections here, it didn't excite me much since the prospect of 4 hours was clearly out of the picture, but maybe under 4:10 was still doable?
And then the right hamstring finally went, having been tugged around all day by everything else in the leg. From running to slow walking. But I wasn't ready to give in. I knew I had close to a 10min buffer still on Paddy's time, with just under 5 miles left to go, all I needed was to not let that buffer shrink too quickly. I figured I'd start by downing some liquid, but it turned out a few sips was all I had left. I knew heading out that 1.5L was a risk if the day went long, and did I ever want that extra half liter then! I knew the fountain on Brandon was still broken, so if I wanted water, I needed to get to my car at the finish. Bonus, I had it in a cooler, it would be cold!
I was bleeding time too quickly walking and knew it, so I resolved to shuffle, in the shuffle I found a rhythm, and soon I was running again, but not well. Up down and around, up down and around the fire trail went. As I approached the fountain on Brandon I gave it a quick glance, but the formerly broken handle was fully removed, no prospect of water still. 2.75 to go, 2 of which are downhill, just keep running.
I crossed Marciel Road at 3:59, 19minutes for the final 2 mile downhill to stay just under Paddy's time.. Time to roll.
12. Proctor Finish 2mi +32/-589
It took everything to keep my legs churning on the descent. By now the left foot hurt from the extra power I'd been putting through that leg, the right foot burned, the right leg dragged. For much of the descent I was barely under 7min pace, and by the end having mustered everything left to block out the pain in the left I hit 6:45 splits. A far cry from the fast finish I'd been hoping for, but good enough for the new FKT.
I touched the signpost marking the start of the Skyline Trail at the entrance to the parking lot at Proctor, and stopped my watch. I pulled my phone out to take a photo, only to find that in typical iOS fashion it had decided to lock me out while on the run. If I wanted a photo I'd have to wait 15min. I figured I'd start recovering in my car and see how long that took.
Toweled off, drank some ice water, pulled the cooler of drinks into the front passenger seat, changed shirts. Stretched a little. It felt like 10min but somehow there was still 14min on the timer on the phone, and I needed to get home to take care of my puppy, no photo this time 😭