Monday, March 21, 2011

2011 Coyote Two Moon: Omens and portents

The alarm went off at 2am and I jumped out of bed to dress quickly and grab my stuff. I had gone to bed at 8pm and managed to get at least 4 hours of sleep. I had decided not to try to eat anything before the start. I got into the rental car for the 15 minute drive to the start and was cruising between citrus orchards when a bunny jumped out in front of the car at the last minute and with no time to react I winced as I heard it thump under the car. Was this an omen of things to come? I had trained harder for this event than any previous and had even asked to change from the midnight to 3am starting groups--was I going to get run over by the 27,000 feet of climbing?

Coyote two moon bills itself as an event rather than a race. It is certainly the most unique ultramarathon I have participated in due to the mad genius of race director Chris Scott. There are numerous pre-race activities including two dinners, bowling, fun runs, and lunch. One of the most unique characteristics of the race is the staggered start. Instead of starting all or most of the runners together, runners are grouped according to expected finishing times and start in waves ranging from 6pm Friday night and ending with the elites at 10am Saturday morning. The staggered start has several advantages over the traditional format: the trail isn't clogged with runners at the start, you meet the people who are likely to run at your speed prior to the start, you encounter more and more rather than fewer runners as the event progresses, and finally, everyone finishes within a 3-4 hour window on Sunday morning so everyone is together at the end for brunch/awards.

Last year I did the 100K option at Coyote Two Moon as training for my first 100 miler and had a great time so this year I decided to return for the 100 miler. In fact, this was my Christmas present to myself and I won bonus minutes for registering for the event on Christmas Day. There was a blizzard last year and the finish rate was only about 20%. I kept telling people that lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice, so we wouldn't have snow again this year. I don't know if that is just wrong, a bad analogy, or what, but nothing could have turned out to be further from the truth. The forecast prior to the race was rain on both Saturday and Sunday with snow levels down to four or five thousand feet and a National Weather Service Advisory. I had arrived in the area on Tuesday to sunny skies and 70 degree weather so the forecast was hard to believe and by Friday it sounded like the worst of the weather wasn't going to arrive until Sunday after the race was finished.

Finishing the Coyote 100K in 2010 as the sun rises over the remains of the blizzard (Photo by Leslie Gerein)

I think there were 9 of us starting at 3am which gave us 27-31 hours to finish the course in the 6-10am finishing window. Although I really hoped to finish within 30 hours, I was nervous about being in this start group since some of the runners in the group had finished other 100 mile races several hours faster than I. My pacing strategy for this event was to go out a little harder than I had in my previous 100 milers. We walked most of the first 4 mile climb in the darkness and this turned out to be the only time during the race when I could see the moon. I was surprised to meet several groups of people coming down the hill. Apparently there was a whiteout when they climbed Topa Topa, the highest peak of the course at 6300 ft and the combination of snow, wind and low temperatures made them too hypothermic to continue. Apparently the flattened bunny and the frozen runners were not enough of a hint for me to figure out what was coming and we continued climbing.

Map of the route as recorded on my Garmin (the last 3-4 miles were in the car after the race was canceled and I forgot to turn the watch off). Double click on the picture for a better view.

To cut to the chase, although the sun rose brightly over Topa Topa as we climbed it in the early morning, the nice weather was not destined to last.

The view from Topa topa looking to the ocean and the Channel Islands.

View overlooking the green Ventura valley.

Topa Topa behind me as I stop at the Topa aid station for the third time.

Shortly after passing Ridge Junction aid station around mile 40, snow flurries started. The flurries didn't last long and I had not really worried about the weather. As I left the Cozy Dell aid station (~mile 65) just after 7pm and turned my headlight on, the rain started. It was so nice to climb out of Cozy Dell without the steep mud slope where I fell and slithered in the mud last year! But the rain became more and more persistent. When I arrived at the top of the ridge, the rain had turned to snow and the whiteout conditions reminded me of last year. I felt a little cold and looked down to realize that my jacket was unzipped because I had been hot climbing up to the ridge top. My fingers had gotten so cold in the few minutes I was on the ridge, that I could not get them to zip the jacket up! I was sure I was going to get pulled from the event at the next aid station (fortunately only two miles away) for being such an idiot and so obviously not prepared for the weather! I was forced to run the entire way including the uphill to stay warm and the wonderful folks at Gridley Top soon had my jacket zipped up and my headlamp batteries changed and I was off to Gridley Bottom. The trip down was uneventful but the rain continued. When I arrived at the aid station I changed into a dry T shirt, put a warm long sleeve shirt on over that, changed into dry socks and then put tights on over my wet shorts. This was more or less what I wore during last year's Coyote Two Moon blizzard and I thought I was set. I started back up for the third and last trip to Gridley Top aid station and made it about halfway when I passed a group of people on their way down who informed me the race was canceled and I needed to turn around and go back down to Gridley Bottom. At first I didn't believe them, but the next group of people got me turned around and headed down. I had made it 84 miles on the course in 22 hours. In retrospect it is funny that I was thinking furiously on the way up of all the reasons why I would be able to make it the 8 miles along the ridge line in the blizzard despite the fact that I was cold at lower elevations and was completely soaked. In particular my gloves were soaked and I don't see how I would have kept them from freezing into a block of ice once I was back in the snow storm. Despite all this, the 100 miler brain fog had me convinced I could run through anything even though in retrospect I don't think I really had the right clothing/gear for the combination of heavy rain alternating with snow and high winds.

After turning around, I had to go about 3 miles back down the mountain to the Gridley Bottom aid station. I felt bad for the people who had made it all the way to the top before being sent back down, but even worse for the volunteers who were stuck on the ridge top for the night. The volunteers at Gridley Bottom quickly got us into cars as they became available and my running adventure was over, 87 miles and 23 hours after it began.


I was worried about my calf going into the race since I had strained it at the Orcas 50K in early February. It held up fine and overall I felt the best ever during a 100 miler. I completed the first 25 miles in 6 hours and the first 50 miles in 12 hours. I knew I wouldn't hold that pace and I think I was on pace to finish in about 26-27 hours if the weather had not turned. I'm not sure the weather slowed me down much except at the aid stations where I definitely needed more time to change into dry/warm clothes. My elevation corrected Garmin showed 26,000 feet of climbing and I still had a a few thousand feet of climbing left, so I am wondering if the course is closer to 28,000 feet than the 27,000 feet quoted on the web site.


Getting to Ojai in time to participate in most of the pre-race activities (bowling, Friday lunch) definitely was a big improvement over arriving Friday evening as I did last year.

Roch Horton leads the group in a sing along at Friday lunch.

The climb up Topa Topa at sunrise with the light glistening on the ice coating everything definitely made the climb worthwhile and convinced me that the 3am start was the right choice (it still would have been dark going up Topa if I had started at midnight).

Magical views from Topa Topa shortly after sunrise.

Seeing Jeff Browning bombing down towards Cozy Dell with Justin Angle in pursuit was amazing. Browning is an animal! I had thought I was going fast enough that the fastest runners wouldn't catch up to me (despite the 7 hour head start I had) but as with so much of my thinking during the race, this idea was wrong and it would not have been long before I was passed by the elites. Last year I learned to trust Chris Scott when he decided not to cancel the race during a blizzard and this year I am sure that he made the right decision to pull the plug. Despite my confidence in the decision, it does leave a feeling of unfinished business. I will be back to Coyote Two Moon, and I may have to sign up for another 100 this summer. Big Horn anyone?

The happy crew at Gridley Top station an hour or two before darkness and the storm hit. So was the bunny flattened by my car a warning for these volunteers? Or a sign that the race was not going to make it?