Rarely do all the pieces come together in a way that leaves one fulfilled and satisfied. Grateful for the opportunity to lower the bucket deep to bring it back full, leaving you with a sense of reverence for what you can accomplish.
The Xmas day double was concocted by one of my running buddies, Dave Cohen. He had suggested it on one of our long runs sometime in early November as a way to test our fitness after a long year that had most of us in Sonoma County yearning for a challenge after all the race cancelations of 2020. The idea was simple enough: Show up to the Jenner Headlands Parking lot and run an unofficial 50k. Treat the effort like a race, and above all else, have fun! The route would be to trudge up to the summit of Pole Mountain via the Sea to Sky trail, make the quad searing decent back to the parking lot, use our cars as aid stations and turn around and do it all over again. The Pole Mountain Double.
The fact that most of our Sonoma Ultra tribe had kids or set plans on Xmas meant that only Dave and I were available to make a go at it. Having just the two of us there suited me better anyway as I wanted to keep it very low key and minimize exposure to people since COVID cases were spiking all over the state. With highs in the mid-forties, wind, and rain in the forecast, I knew this would turn into a gritty affair.
The First Lap
We set off at 7:01; being middle of the pack guys, we had joked that the goal was to go sub-6-hours or puke trying. I let Dave set the pace for the first accent, letting him get a little ways ahead of me to have plenty of social distance in the beginning. The route starts with a steady climb from the parking lot for the first 2 miles or so, then rolls for a mile as you hit the treeline with a nice 1+ mile descend to the creek. That’s when the real fun begins as you start the 3+mile 2000ft climb up to the old fire observatory tower on top of Pole Mountain.
Dave put a decent amount of time on me on the first descent, but it was still early, and I knew that solid climbing legs would be the difference in putting down a stout time on this route. Low clouds had started to roll in, with the wind picking up, but no real rain, though that was soon to come.
I managed to catch Dave at the top of the climb, and while he was taking a short break, I quickly turned and burned down the quad-searing descent back to the creek. I kept the pace fast but measured, trying to keep it right at or below my threshold to avoid blowing up later in the day. Dave caught me right before the creek; I could tell from his breathing that he had worked hard to close the gap. After we crossed the creek, he slowed to a walk on the first part of the climb back up through the trees. My climbing gear was well oiled, and I continued at a steady jog up the mile+ climb. I was feeling great and pushed it a little on the descent down to the parking lot.
The Aid Exchange
I had the car unlocked before I reached it and quickly made my nutrition and water exchange throwing my empties on the floorboard, replacing them with ready to grab prefilled ones laid out on the passenger seat. My fuel for each trip up and down the mountain was one 20oz handheld filled with my Chia Maple Lime Fresca mix, a staple part of my training and race nutrition, a half a Clift Bar, one Honey Stinger waffle, one Honey Stinger gel, and a 500ml soft flask with water. I also had a Sparkling Guayaki Yerba Mate and a small ziplock of potato chips waiting for me. I was in and out of the car in less than 30 seconds. The first lap had taken me 2hours 40second, a little quicker than I had planned – but I still felt great! With the nutrition and water tucked away in my Naked Belt, I shoved the handheld between the belt and my back and started to make my way back up the trail toward the bathrooms. As I walked, I chugged the yerba mate and shoved chips in my mouth. There is about a 100 yard flat stretch from the parking lot to the bathrooms, then the trail takes a hard left and starts to climb. There are trash and recycling receptacles right there as well. I finished my caffeinated beverage with perfect timing and tossed my empty can in the recycling, continuing up the trail. As I was heading up, Dave was heading down. We exchanged a few words of encouragement as we passed. I power hiked the first few hundred feet finishing my bag of chips, and then turned the climbing gear back on and started trotting along.
Right on the Edge
The wind had begun to rip, and the rain started to come during the second leg. First as a drizzle, but by the time I was making the descent down to the creek, it was raining pretty good, though it was hard to tell in the tree canopy. Once I crossed the creek and started up the big climb where it is much more exposed, it was a full-on downpour. The wind was ripping through my drenched windbreaker. Luckily, the effort of the climb kept me warm. The top of Pole Mountain might as well have been in the middle of a soup bowl. Visibility was down to about 20 ft in front of me, and I was soaked to the bone. I was happy to see that my split to the top this time was less than 3 min slower than the first. I thought to myself; if I can hold it together, I might just be able to squeak in under 5:30. I charged down the decent! This time I was not holding back, getting into a smooth flow across the wet terrain. I was starting to get cold, but the exhilaration of the day kept me focused on the task at hand, and my feeling of cold slipped into the peripheral. I passed Dave about a mile from the summit. He was moving well, but I knew that if I could keep this pace going and not meltdown that there was no way he would catch me. I hit the creek and started up the last climb pushing hard but trying to keep my effort measured and managed to run the whole thing. It was all downhill from here:)
Somewhere between Pole Mountain’s summit and the top of the last climb, I started to slip into that special place that only an ultra can take you to. Sitting right at the edge of your limits but letting the mind push past what you think is your capacity. The body follows suit, and the bucket goes deeper into the well. You lose yourself in the moment, leaving just the pain of pushing hard, the sound of your breathing, and an unmistakable feeling that you are in a place made only of dreams.
The Final Descent
In the pouring rain with wind gusting hard enough to move you in mid-stride over sections of the trail covered with water, I dug deep. Less than a mile to go down the long gradual switchbacks to the parking lot, the end was in sight. I looked at my watch and thought: “I just ran out of my mind!”
Crossing the designated finish line, the bike rack at the parking lot’s front edge, I stopped my watch at 5:25:15 elapsed time!
I walked around for a little bit, my breathing heavy with the effort. Then I went to the car to change into dry clothes, drink a protein shake, crack open a nonalcoholic Athletic Breweries Ups Side Dawn, and waited to see Dave coming down the trail above.
As I looked at the clock in my car, the minutes passed, I knew it was getting close to the 6-hour mark. Then he appeared on the trail above. I honked my horn a few times, put on my mask, and hobbled out of the car in the rain to cheer him to his finish.
He stopped his watch at 5:59:57 elapsed time, making his goal with 3 seconds to spare! He let out a primal scream; the look of joy on his face was palpable.
He had a few friends there to meet him at the finish, and as I gave him an elbow dap, congratulated him on making his goal, and got in the car for the drive home to spend the remainder of the day with my wife. I must give her lots of praise and respect for letting me spend Xmas morning/afternoon playing in the rain. It takes an extraordinary person to love my kind of crazy:)
Basking in the Glow
As I write this a few weeks removed from Christmas, the satisfaction of completing my goal and executing what was for me a flawless “race” performance still lingers with me today. Perfection is something that you strive for, working every day to get one step closer to the unattainable. Every so often, you are giving a gift of a perfect moment in time.
This one was special.
I am looking forward to seeing the time on this route come down as I know a few speedy Sonoma County locals who could definitely lower this one.