Friday, January 31, 2014

Unlocking the Magic & Mystery Behind Sean O'Brien - 50 Mile Course Notes

Ah, my boy Sean O'Brien.  Friend.  Fellow trail running junkie. Dog lover.  Uphill fiend.
SOB The Man. The Legend. The Uprising.
We are all so excited that Keira Henninger is a tenacious 100 mile mountain runner because if not, this SoCal gem of a race wouldn't exist.  We were all devastated by the Springs Fire last year that wiped out about 80% of the park that the amazing Ray Miller 50/50 happened in.  The trails in Pt Mugu (northern Santa Monica Mountains park area that Ray Miller happened in) are all still in decent shape, albeit everything around them is charred.

Enter Sean O'Brien.

Keira & Sean
Anyone who knows Sean, loves Sean.  I hope you all get a chance to shake his hand, high five him or give him a sweaty hug on race day.  He's a dog loving trail runner (Arlington, one of his pups, can go for a 15-25 mile run and probably logs an extra 5 miles of out-and-backs sniffing around), and may be the nicest dude you'll ever meet in the middle of nowhere on a long trail run in the San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains or any other mountain range within a 30-90 min drive of LA. Sean is one of those people that would stop in a race and give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.    You'll also find him on nearly every nasty staircase in the greater LA area, as he just loves to fight gravity.  For those of you who've heard of a nasty little race called the Los Pinos, Keira designed a route that she said would be impossible to run every step of.  So Sean did just that on a test run, and finished it smiling.  As nice as Sean is, he's notorious for inviting friends out for "I don't know, about 17-ish miles" and you'll come back to your cars 24 miles later out of water cursing his name again!  "Damn you, SOB, you did it to us again!"

Sean and Arlington on the trails together!
Welcome to the first year of what's going to end up being one of the most magnificent 50 mile races in the country.  Challenging and extended climbs (for the Santa Monicas).  Majestic ridgeline views of the Pacific.  Rolling canopied single track on the most legendary trail in this range, the Backbone.  Malibu Creek State Park to Zuma Canyon and back.  It's a semi straight forward "lollipop course" (an out and back with a loop in the middle), but really, the 50 mile race is better described as a "suckers course."

After test running this full route in mid-October, I've gone back and run every section of the course, out and backs, hitting each section semi fresh, with time to really think about what it did to me in October.  I'm excited for this race, and I'm a little bit in awe of it.  I've always been in awe of Sean, so I guess this course strikes up a similar love, respect and awe in me.

Sean O'Brien 50 mile - elevation profile

Here's how I break down the 50 mile course!

BLACK writing applies to ALL 3 race distances.
PURPLE writing applies to 50k & 50 miler.
RED writing applies to 50 miler only.

I only included major aid stations, not minor ones, nor water only top off spots.  What you'll find on the Sean O'Brien 50 website course breakdown will differ, slightly.

I round off to approximate half mile marks (as they apply to 50 mile race), and make no claims whatsoever as to what your GPS watch will say at designated points.  If you're running 50k or marathon, do a little math and you'll work out your aid station (and section) distances.

START NOTE: For those of you not familiar with early mornings at Malibu Creek State Park, it'll be cold (for California) and will be/feel 20-30 degrees lower between 4-6am than what our afternoon ridgeline temps will be.  Plan for 35-40 degrees at race check in, whereas the ridges later in the race could achieve 60-70 degrees (if not overcast).

Start (Malibu Creek State Park) to Mile 2
Double track - wide enough to pass
After a short stint on paved road, you transition to a rocky/dirt road, then to a double-track trail up and over a little hill you might not even notice (on the way out, on the way back, that nasty f**ker will feel twice as steep and three times as long).  Take note of the short little downhill around Mile 1 because you'll see it again around mile 48.5 as a hill I affectionately call "the Angry Chihuahua" otherwise known as the prison camp climb. Coming off that double-track, you'll transition to another dirt road, zig-zag across a flowing creek (everyone is going to have wet shoes, I promise) and you'll start the first climb of significance of the day.

Mile 2 to Mile 7 (Corral Canyon Aid Station #1)
Nick & I hiking/running up typical fire road climb here
Climb, climb and climb some more.  Something in the neighborhood of 1,500+ feet in around 3 miles, then some rollers into the first aid station, Corral Canyon.  Most of the climb is semi rocky fire road.  Wide, with some golfball to baseball sized sharp kickable stones.  There's a fun section of non fire road after most of the climbing that connects you to the aid station and runs through/over some sweet looking sandstone formations.  You're there after the second one of these sandstone formations.

Mile 7 Corral Aid to Mile 13.5 (Kanan "Coyote" Aid Station #2)
Coyotes navigating the single track rollers
This would be my favorite stretch of trail in the race.  Not the most amazing views of the race, but the most fun stretch of single track rollers past Castro Peak (a great visual reference point, the peak with communication towers, antennas, etc.).  You'll run about 4 miles from the aid station until you dump out in a dirt parking lot and cross over Latigo Canyon Rd (please be careful, this is the only road you cross in the race, and you cross it twice).  After Latigo crossing, you have another 2.5 miles of single track gradually rolling down and occasionally up to reach the Kanan Aid Station.  The last 200 meters into this check point is a rocky, rutted, semi technical drop into the parking lot.  Get too caught up in the commotion below and you might need medical attention for scrapes at the aid station.  This is the MARATHON TURNAROUND point.  This is a DROP BAG station.

AID STATION NOTE TO THE GUYS IN 50 MILER: if you aren't in competition for TOP 3 overall, please be aware of the top females and allow them to get helped at the aid station before you.  They might have Top 3 Western States aspirations on the line.  30 seconds to you won't likely mean very much, but 30 seconds to them could be the difference in their race.  Be a gentleman, you're not competing with them.
Sean O'Brien at Kanan "Coyote" Aid Station area

Mile 13.5 Kanan Aid Station to Mile 16 (50k turn around) - water only (take water only if necessary)
More joyful, mostly rolling, semi canopied single track!  You'll run 2.5 miles of winding, canyon and dry creek flanking single track.  You'll get to the connection of the Backbone Trail (the trail you've been running on for 14 miles) and the Zuma Ridge Motorway.

Mile 16 to Mile 19 (Zuma Edison Intersection Aid Station #3)
Do not enter.  Watch for vehicles to/from BR Ranch.
You'll turn left heading uphill for a quick 1.5 mile climb.  Every twist and turn of Zuma Ridge Mtwy will yield a unique view giving you a panoramic perspective in each direction (important note: it's possible there will be a vehicle or three that will cross your path on this stretch between the BBT single track and the top of this climb, please be aware and courteous, these vehicles have the right-of-way, as they are graciously allowing us to use this road).  After the 1.5 mile fire road climb, you'll pass Buzzard's Roost Ranch and begin the most epic descent of the 50 mile course.  With a very brief respite from the descent around 1.5 miles down, you'll reach the next aid station.  Everything you've run to this point, you'll run again in reverse, after you complete the lollipop/suckers part of this loop that double dips into Zuma Canyon.

Mile 19 Zuma Edison Intersection Aid #3 to Mile 23 (Bonsall Aid Station #4)
This pic just won't do it justice.
Down, down, down we go!  Be careful not to get carried away on this section.  It's a lot of fire road and great views of the Pacific (unless foggy/raining/overcast).  When you're about 3 miles down, you'll transition from the fire road across a parking lot left onto a very dusty horse trail single track.  You've got about a mile to the Bonsall Aid Station!  Head toward the ocean (west) and you'll end up at the Bonsall Aid Station. This is a DROP BAG station.

Mile 23 Bonsall Aid Station to Mile 31.5 (Zuma Edison Intersection Aid #5)
Grinder of a climb
It is important to acknowledge here that you are in Zuma Canyon, the lowest point on the course.  Race starts around 500-ish feet of elevation and you are now at around 25-ish feet of elevation.  From Mile 23 to Mile 43, two thirds of the next 20 miles will be climbing, and about one third will be flat or down.  Buckle up, buttercup, it's going to be a tough go (but you're a tough mutha-effer, so get to it).  This next 8.5 miles will likely be one of the most challenging sections of the entire course.  You have a half mile of flat in Zuma Canyon to get to the climb, then you're going to climb via a switch-backing series of single track trails, this is about a 4-ish mile ascent with a few breaks in it.  As soon as you achieve the ridge and connect to Zuma Edison Road, where the single track becomes fire road again, you're going to dive into the back of Zuma Canyon.  This is one of the two most steep descents of the race (loosing some 600-800 feet in one mile), watch those quads.  After a two mile crushing descent, you're now staring down the most significant climb of the race.  You'll be able to spot Buzzard's Roost Ranch while running down those two miles, and that marks the top of the climb.  You may like looking at it (knowing where the climb ends) and you might not want to look at it (it'll seem forever away).  You have a 2 mile switch back on fire road climb to the Zuma Edison Intersection Aid, your 2nd trip here, now the whole course is the way back from whence you came!

Mile 31.5 Zuma Edison Intersection Aid (Part II) to Mile 34.5 "50k Turnaround"
Center off in distance, Ray Miller 50 course, Tri Peaks and Sandstone Peak
You have the final 1.5 miles to get to Buzzard's Roost Ranch via the Zuma Ridge Mtwy, of which about 1 mile is actual climbing.  Then a 1.5 mile fire road descent to the 50k turnaround intersection with the Backbone Trail single track. Looking to the north while descending from BR Ranch, you'll be able to see the Tri Peaks from here, near Sandstone Peak which is where the Ray Miller 50 mile course came out to run past and turn around.  By the Backbone Trail, it's about 10-15 miles away to reach the Ray Miller Course from here.  Fill one water bottle with water here if you're dry, otherwise press on.

Mile 34.5 "50k Turnaround" to Mile 37 (Kanan "Coyote" Aid Station #6)
Press on to the Kanan aid station only 2.5 miles down the rolling windy single track.  From Mile 34.5 to Mile 43, you're going to be rolling, trending slightly upward more often than not.  It's really runnable stuff if you managed your calorie intake, fluids and electrolytes, not to mention were conservative enough with your effort level.  I was surprised how difficult I found this section to run, which was mostly mental bonking when I ran it in October.  Arrive at Kanan Aid Station and tank up!  This is a DROP BAG station.  It is important to have a FLASHLIGHT or HEADLAMP in this bag if you will finish anytime after 4pm.  Better to have one and not need it than need a light an not have it.

REMINDER NOTE TO THE 50 MILER GUYS: by this point, you're probably pretty clear who the Top 5 women are if you're around them.  Something I love to do here is help them!  Encourage them.  Let them in front of you at the aid station.  If they achieve their goal of a States slot, and you really supported them, you've made a new friend on the trails.  Never know when you'll need some of that trail karma.

Mile 37 Kanan Aid Station to Mile 43.5 (Corral Aid Station #7)
Heading back towards Corral through this
You are again trending upward on rolling single track trail.  2.5 miles of this upward trend, you'll cross over Latigo Canyon Rd (BE MINDFUL OF CARS, BIKES, TRUCKS, etc. especially now that you're delirious, and especially if it's dark out).  You are 4 miles from the last major checkpoint.  One little tough climb up to flank Castro Peak, then you'll roll 3 ish miles to the Corral Aid Station again!

Mile 43.5 Corral Aid Station to the FINISH LINE!
Descending rock formations with 6-ish miles to go, Pacific Ocean views
You have about 1.5 to 2 miles of rollers, first on single track, then on fire roads before the plunge.  The plunge is good news OR bad news depending on how your legs are feeling.  You're going to have a pretty brutally steep 2.5 mile descent (one mile will lose 700 feet) on rocky fire road.  When you go from fire road onto single track, you've got about a mile to go (until the creek crossing).  You're legs will likely be pretty unsure at this point so I recommend going straight through the creek.  Careful not to turn an ankle!  Once you're through the creek crossing, you've got a little more than 2 miles to go.  About 2/3'rds of a mile to that "Angry Chihuahua" I warned you about earlier.  The prison camp climb (Angry Chihuahua) is about a half mile, but it might seem like 1.5 miles at this point.  The moment you achieve the saddle atop this climb, almost precisely one mile to go!  Run a half mile down the double track and you'll hit the gravel parking lot and fire road, a quarter mile to the paved road and a quarter mile to the FINISH LINE!  Wooooohoooo!  Hit the pavement and finish it strong!

You made it!!!  High five, sweaty hug and celebrate life with some other rad peeps!

*Be courteous to your other racers
*If you're on single track and someone comes up behind you, ask them if they'd like to pass, let them go and worry about catching up later, or tuck in and hang with them for a while
*If you are having a low moment and choose to listen to music, one earbud must be out and the music must be low enough to communicate with other runners, hear rattlesnakes, etc.
*Have fun!

"It's very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners.  Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants to quit."
-George Sheehan

I wish you all your best race out there.  Make sure you ALL meet Sean O'Brien.  In fact, stop him during the race for a sweaty hug and chat him up.  I'd really like to finish ahead of him and the more of you do that, the better my chances are...  *playful wink*
Sean whooping my butt again, Avalon 50, 2011

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