What a great little adventure today!
My plan had me running my one and only 20 miler before Tecumseh. Since my one recovery week after St. George, all my Saturday long runs have been on trails. I wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to do a 20 mile trail run or a 20 mile flatlander run. Each had its merits and benefits.
Before I made up my mind I received an invite from Jessica for a trail run in the Santa Ana Mountains. The planned distance was 15-16 miles but she told me there were options for making the run longer. A run on new trails with a guide who knows the trails so well was not to be missed. The route she had planned was part of the Twin Peaks Ultra Marathon. Jessica is the race director.
We were joined by some of Jess’s OCTrailRunning buddies, Greg, Mike, and Pete. A friend of Mike’s, Salvatore, also came along. This was going to be his first trail run. Although I’ve been reading her blog for months I hadn’t met Jess or any of the other guys until today.
We met at the parking lot just of Trabuco Canyon Rd. This is a very rugged lot. I don’t exactly drive the best car (Miata) for off roading. From the lot it is a 5 mile drive up the same rugged, rocky road to another lot. Luckily Mike has one of those big SUV’s and gave the 6 of us a ride to the top. It is here that the adventure began. Jess’s description of the planned run: “Holy Jim is the main climb in this run at 2600' over 5.5 miles. Holy Jim has a bunch of switchbacks which help make this trail less steep and one of the easiest ways to get up to Main Divide Road. After we top out at Main Divide Road we run that for about 5 miles with some ups and downs. By the time we hit our turn at West Horse Thief we will have been going downhill for about a mile and dropping 500 feet. West Horse Thief drops another 1500 more feet over the next 1.5 miles. 2.7 more miles on Trabuco Trail and another 1000 foot drop puts us back in the parking lot.”
One funny observation I made, on the way up there the rocky road we passed a runner that was going in from the bottom lot. I recognized him as a guy who ran the La Jolla Legend 18K last weekend. He and his buddy had parked right in front of me. I ended up seeing him later as we climbed up Holy Jim while he was on his return trip down. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him, though.
The first mile or so of this run continues on the rocky road, officially Trabuco Creek Road. There are several privately owned cabins along the road. Some are in better repair than others. At the end of the road is the trail head for the Holy Jim Trail. The beginning of the trail is marked with 3 or 4 creek crossings. At this time of the year the creek is a trickle, so crossing is easy. During the rainy season it is easy to see that creek crossing would be more challenging.
Mike took the lead and I followed. The others fell in behind. The trail eventually becomes a series of switchbacks that gently, but continually work their way up the mountain side. There are many place with shade and most of the trail is a very soft and cushy, really nice running surface. All singletrack. I followed Mike’s lead and took more walk breaks than I normally would have allowed myself. I was in the mood to just enjoy the run and not worry about time. Trail runs will do that to you. I stopped using my watch at all when we hit Main Divide Road. At that point Mike and I probably had about a half mile lead on the others. It had taken us well over an hour to complete the first 5 miles, don’t forget that 2600 feet of elevation gain.
When Jess, Greg, Pete and Sal reached Main Divide, Jess suggested that Greg, Mike and I head left up Main Divide and summit Santiago Peak. Greg and I were completely into it. Mike took a little more prodding but joined us in the end. The trip up and back is 6 miles. This would give me plenty of extra mileage. The plan was for Jess, Pete and Sal to continue to the right on Main Divide and follow the original plan. She felt that the three of us would be able to catch up to them before they made it back to the parking lot.
Main Divide is a rocky service road that is open to vehicular traffic. It is pretty much straight up for 3 miles with an elevation gain around 1500 feet. The peak is home to many telecommunications towers, so it is not extremely scenic, but the view out towards the east is pretty incredible. You also get a great look at the many trails below that crisscross the Santa Ana Mountains. Greg and I made it up first. It took us nearly an hour to get up there, including a few walk breaks and some stops for photo ops. Mike followed shortly thereafter. There is a maze of little roads around all the towers. When we first saw Mike he was covered from head to toe all down his left side in trail dust. He had taken a spill. The trip up had taken its toll on our legs but we were headed down knowing that the hard part was over.
We ran down Maid Divide three abreast. It was a lot of fun. Mike had run the Mount Disappointment 50K this spring and swore off road races. Greg had recently moved to Silverado Canyon and has been running almost exclusively trails since spring. Trail running is contagious. It seems to me that trail runners are pretty laid back people and that the terrain and footing keep the mind more alert and occupied than running on pavement.
When we got back to the junction with Holy Jim we discussed our options. It didn’t seem possible to us that we could catch up with Jess, Pete and Sal on Horse Thief and Trabuco Trail. We were at about 11 miles. If we followed the others we would end up with around 21 miles. We opted to take Holy Jim back down mostly because we didn’t want the others to have to wait for us. Our plan was to run the road back to the main lot if we really felt up to a 21 mile run. I ended up taking the lead and setting the pace down the switchbacks. We kept up what felt like a decent pace but I felt like I was slowing down the farther we went.
The three of us ending up making it back to the SUV before the others. Our total mileage was about 16 in somewhere between 3:30 and 3:45. Our pace was a slow 13 to 14 minutes per mile. It was pretty unanimous that 16 miles was enough for us today. We ended up waiting about 45 more minutes for the others to come down Trabuco. I guess Pete had missed the cutoff for Horse Thief so Jess and Sal waited for him to connect back up. Ironically Greg, Mike and I probably would have caught them had we continued down Main Divide and would have ended up with 21 miles. In the end only Jess and Pete ran the route that was originally planned and even that was cut about a mile short since we drove up the road as far as we could and picked them up a little early. Sal ended up thoroughly enjoying his first trail run and is looking forward to doing it again. The rest of us want to go back some day soon and run the original course that Jess had planned. That should be fun.
In the final analysis this may have been the slowest 16 miles I ever ran, but it was one of the most enjoyable. The trail was very runnable. The scenery was magnificent with panoramic views of the mountains, canyons and urban sprawl below. Meeting five new runners, including the RBF’s on Jessica was quite a treat. I really hope we can get together for some more of these runs.
If you are looking for a race in February you should really consider making your way to SoCal to run Jessica’s inaugural race. From the preview I got today, I’d say it’s going to be an epic race.