This section of my website used to be dedicated to triathlon training, personal race results and certification reviews, like Turbo Kick. I am expanding it to include more generic health & fitness topics. Also, I talk a lot about "D" -- he's my husband (Dave Liu)!

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Castle Rock Trail Run

It was a chilly 35F this morning. A perfect day for sleeping in under toasty warm blankets. So what do D & I do? We wake up at 6:45AM in the morning to drive down to Saratoga to do the Castle Rock Trail Run hosted by

This is by far the most ambitious run I've ever done. I'm an old hand at 10K (6.2 miles), and aspire to run a road marathon (26.2 miles) and a trail half marathin (13.1 miles) at some point. I've done two 7-mile trail runs, and wanted to try something slightly longer, but not too ambitious. Castle Rock sounded perfect - 10 miles of gorgeous scenery:

You'll literally run on the edge of the highest ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains with the valley floor a distant three thousand feet below and 30 mile views to the Pacific Ocean. If not arguably the best single track trail system in the Bay Area, then absolutely the most unique.
The run has a bit of "true" mountaineering; requiring the use of guide cables bolted into the rock for traversing a narrow, rocky, yet flat section. Not quite, as dramatic as the last few feet of climbing Half Dome, it's more on par with Tahoe's Flume Trail, without the four hour drive.
While there are parts of the run that require some strategy, overall this not a highly technical route. Pass within inches of a 80 foot waterfall; race through Oak, Madrone and Redwood forests, and touch Goat Rock, the parks's favorite location for rock climbing. And the best part is you get to run high above the fog without doing any major climbing.

I had very low expectations for this race, largely because I had not run in the last two weeks. I knew it was going to be particularly interesting because I have never run 10 miles before, let alone 10 miles on trails. I was so worried about the elevation involved, that I emailed the organizer to ask how much there would be. This was his response:

"Castle Rock looses and then gains 400 ft. three times. While the elevation gain makes it a 'relatively' easy run. It is not however a extremely fast course. There are many sharp turns and rocky sections that require detailed foot work and simple cannot be run at full speed and live to tell about it."

400 ft. didn't sound so bad, but THREE TIMES? 1,200 ft was going to be stretch.

I wore long cotton pants, an aerobics halter top and a long sleeved cycling hoodie. I was dressed appropriately for the run itself which meant that I didn't have enough clothing on for loitering around the race start. D noticed I was shivering and pointed me in the direction of the pots of boiling water at registration and the hot chocolate mixes.

Before the beginning of the race, Eric gave away some prizes: five gift certificates valued at $90 each for purchasing trail running shoes. We had to answer some questions correctly to win the prizes. The only one that mattered to me was the one where we had to guess the official length of the race. Remember I said it was 10 miles? It's longer. 10.75 miles.

The race started on a single track trail. It took a few minutes for us to squeeze through and start running. As part of race strategy, Eric advised us not to try and pass people on the narrow trail, but rather wait about 200 feet after the second bridge where the road widened.

My lungs were okay, but my extremities were frigid, especially my hands. I pulled my sleeves down to cover my icy fingers but it didn't work as well as I hoped. I sure could have used gloves. I jogged at an easy pace and started climbing the inclines. They weren't steep, but seemed to go up indefinitely. It was like Chinese water torture: long, gradual & painful ascents. I am embarrassed to say that I walked for about 50 meters in that initial segment and I hadn't even reached the 1 mile mark yet. Heck, I wasn't sure I had even reached the 0.5 mile mark. It didn't help that the waist band on my pants were loose and they kept on sliding down.

We had to cross a 20 foot road at the top of the first part of the run. Traffic was monitored by a big burly man who prevented us from dashing across if there were cars coming by. I waved hello, crossed the road, and saw the first aid station. Yay! I didn't need to stop because I had my Camelpak but was happy to see it nonetheless because it meant I had run all of 1.6 miles. It was also at that point that we could drop off any excess clothing or gear and pick it on the return part of the run.

The next part consisted of running downhill. I like running downhill but there was a nagging voice at the back of my head that reminded me I would have to run up this portion on the way back. Rats. Before long, I reached the second aid station at around mile 3 -- the same location as the only official bathroom on the course. Heh.

This is where the terrain became interesting. Until now, I had been running on regular trails that were covered with leaves and the like (it smelled great). Now I was encountering harder ground with large smooth flat rocks. I had to watch my footing but it was no biggie.

My ankles were sore and they bothered me. I think it was because my joints were stiff. I ignored them and kept on going at an easy pace since I was using the first couple of miles as a warm up.

Between mile 3 and 4, there was another stretch of slope. I tried my best to keep running but once again, I had to stop to walk portions of it. I was a little annoyed at myself but decided that it was better to be conservative to make sure I had enough energy to complete the race.

Aside from us crazy runners, there were other people on the trails, including some hikers decked out with walking sticks and artic snowsuits (or so it seemed). Imagine my surprise when I saw somebody run in the OPPOSITE direction to me! I clapped (as I always do when I cross paths with runners) and the guy said, "I'm just running back for help".

I was a little worried at the comment and in less than 0.25 miles, I came to a group of three people. There was a lady laying on the ground with a bloody towel pressed to her face. Two men stood over her. "Are you okay?" I asked. "Yeah," they replied. [Post race update: the poor lady had broken her nose and required stitches. I've left her name out for privacy reasons.]

Another half a mile later, I saw huge, massive boulders. I had to do some real rock climbing! To my consternation, most of it was climbing down which was a little frightening due to my fear of falling. It took me a while to scamper down these parts. The lady that was running right behind me noted that the only time she caught up to me was during these parts because I would literally slow down to a crawl on my hands and feet.

There was a third aid station at around mile 5 or 6. It was deep in the woods surrounded by thick forestry and thus no sunlight came through. A jolly volunteer asked whether I wanted water or Gatorade. "No thanks!", I cheerfully replied pointing to my pack, "I'm self supported!" I'm so impressed with all the Redwood Trail volunteers in general, but I give extra points to this woman for being so friendly and encouraging even though she was standing around in freezing weather. It must have been a complete haul for her to have dragged a table down with her to create that aid station.

The course is theoretically an out and back, but there's a unidirectional loop in the middle. I didn't know where the loop began so I was very worried when I saw some steep rock stairs. They were placed at regular intervals so I didn't have trouble going down them, but I dreaded the possibility of having to come back up. If I had to, you can be certain that I was going to walk it.

Once again, the trail narrowed, and I ran along the side of the hill/mountain/cliff. At this point, I was stepping more on rock than trails - hence the name: Castle Rock Trail! There were spectacular views but I just glanced briefly at them before continuing on my run. I would have looked up more but I was too busy watching the ground to make sure I didn't twist my ankle. There were more people around me at this point, and I would hear the occasional "Oh no!", "Whoa!", "Aaagh!" as they had near misses falling off rocks. This is the only time I have ever been thankful for having tiny feet because I could get a toehold almost anywhere.

There was a couple running just ahead of me who are worth mentioning because they were such an odd pair. I'm not sure whether their relationship extended beyond running buddies. The man was a middle-aged, tall fellow who had won one of the gift certificates at the beginning of the race. He said he liked drinking and that's why he ran: to burn off calories. In fact, he joked that he was probably the fastest alcoholic in his age group. He was funny so I didn't mind listening to him. The woman he was with, however, was a different story. She whined about not wanting to have kids because she didn't want them to define her life blah blah blah. I wanted to slap her.

D worries about cramps because he gets them a lot during races. I never get them but I tell him it's because I don't run far enough or hard enough. Until today. As I was scrambling over a cluster of rocks, I put my left foot on a tall rock, pushed down and... ouch. Cramp in the left calf. I panicked momentarily because I thought I would have a cramp until the end of the race (which is what happens to D) but I was able to relax the muscle and keep on running. Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was so focused on my calf that the sudden appearance of the second aid station took me by complete surprise. That meant that I had reached the part of the trail that doubled back on itself. Yippee! I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized that I wouldn't have to climb back up the steep rock stairs and other equally harrowing obstacles. By definition, I was at around mile 7 at this point. My body knew it too. My legs were ready to stop even though I had almost 4 more miles to go. "It's all mental," D once told me about endurance running. No kidding. I had to will myself to keep moving.

Next I had to tackle some steep switchbacks. Actually I didn't tackle them. I walked. Plod, plod, plod. Even though I was all warm from running, the temperature was noticeably cooler again, probably due to all the shade. That's when my hands turned to ice again. After I passed the first aid station at the top of the climb, I crossed the road (Highway 35 I think) and headed towards the final stretch.

I usually don't pay much attention to mile markers, but I was looking out for each and every one now. I needed to see that I was making progress and that I was really getting closer to the end. I was practically dragging my feet across the ground with each step which made it difficult to avoid obstacles. In fact, while trying to hop over a tree root, my left foot didn't quite clear the bump. The top of my shoe got caught and I went straight down. Splat. And cramp (left calf again). The ground was soft with leaves and dirt so I had a nice and soft landing. My calf recovered almost instantaneously as well although I wasn't sure it would hold up for much longer.

Finally, I saw a sign that said "1 Mile to Go!" As delighted as I was to see those words, I wasn't sure whether it was REALLY one mile to go, or whether it was 1.75. In any case, I was relieved to know that I was done with all the hills and climbing.

Or that's what I thought. There was more hill! I could've sworn that somebody put it here after the start of the race because I didn't remember it being there before. So I walked. Again. I should have been disappointed with myself for walking so much during this race but I was beyond caring at his point. I just wanted to be over and done with. I was tired and despondent.

Finally, I heard D cheering for me as I popped up near the finish line. I looked at the stop clock and couldn't believe my eyes: 2:30:38. That couldn't be right. I was out there running for TWO AND HALF FREAKING HOURS?? No wonder I was exhausted! 10.75 miles is only aobut 50% longer than I've ever run, but it took me twice as long to do it. D says it's not a fair comparison because the terrain for each race is different and I was told beforehand that this was not a fast course. But still, 2:30? The fastest person finished in 1:20. Something to aspire to I guess!

I finished towards the back of the pack but was still pleased with my results (PDF file). I placed 159 out of 189 overall, 22 out of 29 in my age group and 56 out of 78 in my gender group. D asked me whether this was harder or the Treasure Island sprint. Castle Rock for sure. For one, it only took me 1:37 to finish the triathlon, plus I was using different muscle groups for each event. Castle Rock is definitely the toughest race I've ever done. I had nothing left in the tank when I crossed the finish line.

D finished in 2 hours, but he cramped again in the last couple of miles (much worse than me) and also hurt his left ankle: he heard it pop spontaneously. He didn't actually twist it, but it was injured badly enough so that he limped even after the race. This all happened when the temperature dropped suddenly. I have a feeling he cramps because of the cold. He wears knee warmers but he really needs full length running pants. Methinks that this will be our last race for the season.

Lessons learned for this race:

  • 10 miles is a really long distance to run! It's even worse when you're prepared to run 10 but then it ends up being 10.75 :-)
  • Wear gloves and long pants for running in cold weather

We'll be back next year!

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