“BOOM!” – Surviving the Blue Canyon Trail Race 100K, by Zach Landman

Race Recap

“Boom! – Seven mile climb! – Boom – Descend 4 more – Boom – 5 mile climb!” was my introduction to the course the night before by the passionate and energetic, yet appealingly sleep-deprived Race Director Robert Gillcrest at the Inaugural Blue Canyon 100K…ish Trail Race in Santa Barbara, CA (with 50 mile and 50K options as well).  Looking to find out when I could be expected to arrive at the 50 and 60 mile aid stations, Robert quickly suggested, “Just double your 50mile time, these trails are brutal.”  Well, this was going to be a tad more difficult than I had expected.  According to the website, the race was designed to be tough on the competitor (with 18,000 feet of elevation gain according to the final estimates) and easy on the environment (and since the entry fee was waived for the inaugural year, easy on the wallet as well.)  That said, I think the environment definitely came out on top.

Let me begin with the positives (which there are quite a few.)  The cost of the race was entirely waived, and according to the locals, primarily picked up by the RD, Robert whose passion for trail running and the Santa Ynez Mountains outside Santa Barbara cannot be questioned.  The aid stations were stocked amazingly, and manned occasionally with volunteers, campers, or at least in regards to one aid station – a volunteer with heart more so than fluency in English.  Furthermore, having never had the opportunity to run in Santa Barbara, I was taken aback by the breathtaking and humbling mountains of the area.  All day, volunteers and runners alike were treated to steep climbs and breathtaking views (with an ocean one direction and a mountain range the other.) So, on to the race.

3:30am: In order to get ready and drive into the winding vastness of the Santa Ynez Mountains and arrive with ample time at the start line (~10 minutes), an early morning was on schedule.  Upon arriving at the Rancho Oso horse ranch, the twelve other runners attempting to conquer the four peaks over the 64.25 miles lined up at the start line.  Sandy, the Co-RD gave us the go ahead, and we were off.  Andrew Henshaw and Perry Edinger (1st Overall, 2008 Grand Slam of Ultra Running) sprinted out of the gates and were quickly ahead of the main pack.  Their quick start, however, caught up with them as they didn’t decipher the difference between the dark blue ribbons (marking the trail) and the red ribbons (marking not the trail) in the darkness.  Missing the first turn must have hurt, but they had regained the lead by the time the first climb was underway,

I kept pace with a local runner who had run these trails for years.  No way I could get lost, right?  Wrong – On our second extended descent, we soon met Perry, climbing back to the top.  His relief to see us soon turned sour after the current 4th place runner (and eventual second place finisher, Mark Gilligan) met up with us a few minutes later in the creek bed.  After exploring numerous options, we finally made the trek back up the hill and found a turn off which eventually turned out to be the right choice.  Our frustration-turned-relief soon turned back to frustration while I was leading the 4 person centipede through some tricky single track.  Right smack dab in the middle of the trail was a red ribbon, hanging around a Yucca plant.  Another wrong turn so we thought.  After exploring more and backtracking for a while to no avail, we decided it might have been a misplaced ribbon, which turned out to be the right choice after all.

So went the day at Blue Canyon.  Beautiful sights, friendly runners on a tough, unforgiving course, and plenty of times getting lost.  Perry, a Badwater finisher, turned back at the fifty mile point, and Scott looked pretty physically and mentally beat up by the long, arduous climb to the 100K turnaround (eventually calling it quits around mile 40…ish.)

The return back was made more difficult by the decision to extend the return loop by eight miles (and throw in another treacherous climb around mile 60.)  Eventually finishing third behind young-gun and impressive front-runner from Kansas, Andrew Henshaw (23, Kansas), and Bay Area veteran Mark Gilligan (39, Oakland,) I would be the second-to-last person finishing before the race “closed” at 9pm.  Well, that plan didn’t really turn out as expected.  RD Robert and crew, with no cell-phone access to any aid stations, desperately tried to glo-stick parts of the course still in use in the following three hours.  And although I fell asleep long before the final runner finished, reports have it that people were trickling in past midnight.  Luckily, everyone made it back safely, although a medical helicopter was called when a female runner had gotten lost for three hours, leading to her successful recovery.

So, looking back – What did I think?  I truly believe Robert, the RD, has the vision and expansive ideas to continue to make Santa Barbara a “destination” ultra-spot with the appeal of the surrounding area and the difficulty of the trails.  His passion was evident throughout the race and the entire next day while he tried to locate my drop bags among the many that had never been returned to any of the runners (speaking with him Monday morning, they should be mailed out within the next week.)

That said, and looking to the future, what improvements could be made after this inaugural running?

1)      The trail needs to be marked better.  We got lucky with low 70’s weather, but locals have it that it is usually well into the 90’s in the valley this time of year. A three-hour deviation with no cell reception, mandatory cut-off times, or manned aid stations near-by could be very dangerous.

2)      Communication between Start/Finish and aid stations. Walkie-Talkies, etc.  The aid-stations had no idea what mile they were at, who was supposed to turn around where (Most of the 50Kers actually ran 38 miles due to a miscommunication regarding when to turn around.)

3)      A good 5-10 miles of the race was entirely un-runnable due to the trail conditions.  Overgrown brambles, poison oak, sticks protruding out (one almost impaled me…a Zach Kabob if you will), and cacti continually ripped away flesh, clothes, race bibs etc. I love how so much of the course is single track, but I would have preferred not to have raw flesh over my entire arms and legs afterward.

4)      There were some big plans for pre- and post-race activities which never materialized.  Post-race BBQ, Hoe-down, hot tubs, pools etc.  I think everyone became entirely focused on runner-safety (which is a good thing), but in upcoming years and as the field grows, it would be great to see everything fleshed out more.

5)      More help.  Robert seemed to be in charge of it all, and with poor communication (no cell service), things were able to fall apart throughout race day.  He has the passion and the plan.  Some help with execution could turn this race into something great for trail-running.  I really look forward to seeing what else Robert has in store (100 Miler in the works supposedly) and looking into seeing what improvements will be made for 2010.

(6-10-09)–In response to some of the drawbacks and unintended challenges of putting on this year’s inaugural race, and to clear up any questions moving forward, 2010’s races will feature satellite phone communication, sweepers, and cleared and more clearly marked trails.

Happy trails and congratulations to everyone for running! And as always, a huge thanks to Robert and all the volunteers who made the long trek out to the aid stations to help! Much appreciated!

Click Here for the Blue Canyon Trail Race website and full results


Related Post