I signed up for the PCT 50 as soon as it opened back in January … and it was a good thing I did. The race sold out in just a few days! After doing some research and spending some time out on the trail itself, it was quick to understand why: The Pacific Crest Trail is absolutely beautiful.
The race was ran primarily on single track trail in the Cleveland National Forest, and provided unbelievable views at altitudes ranging from 3,000-6,000 feet. The race also boasted 7,500 feet of elevation gain. Needless to say, today would not have been the day to forget my race pack!
With the race start being about an hour east of San Diego, we got up at 3 a.m., picked up my buddy Mark, and headed out. We got to the start (Boulder Oaks Campground) about 5:15 a.m., just in time to pick up our packets, say hello to some running friends, and get those last few pre-race jitters out. And then—before I knew it—I heard “3 … 2 … 1!”
We were off.
Boulder Oaks Campground – Fred Canyon Road (0.0 – 6.4)
The race wasted no time in sending us “up”. My strategy for the first part of the race was simple: fall towards the back and power-hike the first 14 miles, since they were mainly uphill. I ran the flats and downs but wanted to conserve as much energy as I could, which made this stretch pretty uneventful.
Fred Canyon Road – Dale’s (6.4 – 13.7)
I arrived at Fred Canyon aid station with no trouble. I topped off my bottles (one with water, one mixed with lemon-lime First Endurance EFS & Carbo Pro), grabbed some pretzels and an orange, and took off to continue my climb. The trail got a lot more technical during this stretch, which meant I spent a lot of time looking at the ground instead of the scenery, but before I knew it was rolling into Dale’s aid station.
Dale’s – Todd’s Cabin (13.7 – 17.5)
After a quick pit stop, I was back on the trail and on my way. I knew the next few miles were predominately flat, so my plan was to hammer them out as quickly as I could. This stretch was mainly shaded single track, so it was the ideal place to bank some quick miles while getting a break from the sun.
Todd’s Cabin – Penny Pines 1 (17.5 – 22.7)
I cruised into Todd’s cabin, quickly remembering how much tougher it is to run at elevation than it is at sea level (where we live). Luckily, I had run the next 5 miles on a previous training run, so I knew when to conserve/when to push. The scenery was crazy. Apparently, several years prior, the area had experienced a massive fire that scorched the earth. It felt like you were running on a different planet at times. I started hiking up the last big climb to Penny Pines and could see C at the top waiting for me. What a great sight that was!
(Sidenote: C, and all the volunteers, crewers, pacers, medics and sweepers who donate their time and energy to helping make the runners’ day successful deserve the biggest, most sincere THANK YOU I could possibly offer. You guys/girls are simply amazing. Thank you.)
Penny Pines 1 – Turnaround (22.7 – 25)
As soon as I got to Penny Pines, C went to work getting my bottles filled and making sure I had everything I’d need. My pacer, John, had also just shown up and was preparing to run the last 25 miles with me. I was talking with them when I overheard someone say “cutoff time.” I froze. It was 11:40, and all runners would need to be back through Penny Pines by 1:30. John looked at me … I looked at C … we all looked at each other, and I busted ass back out onto the trail.
Note to self: pay more attention to cutoff times!
Turnaround – Penny Pines 2 (25 – 27.3)
I couldn’t believe I could have been so careless. Although hiking the uphill at the beginning was allowing for some pretty fresh legs here – my back was now against the wall and I was going to have to work hard to stay ahead of the cutoffs on my return. Luckily this section was pretty much rolling single track and I was able to cruise pretty quick back into Penny Pines.
Penny Pines 2 – Todd’s Cabin (27.3 – 32.5)
I came back through Penny Pines, picked up John, and we were off – ahead of the cutoff by about 40 minutes. We started on our way back and were making pretty good time, passing several runners along the way. Although it wasn’t hot, per se, this section of the PCT left you pretty exposed, and I could tell the sun was starting to hit me pretty hard. However, the spectacular views of the Anza Borrego Desert nearly 5,500 feet below made the trip pretty enjoyable. As great as the views were, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t checking my watch continuously … the cutoff at Todd’s was 2:30.
Todd’s Cabin – Dale’s (32.5 – 36.3)
John pushed me pretty hard on the return and got me in (and out!) of Todd’s Cabin by 2:15. The return stretch here was pretty rough for me, as I could feel two hot spots on my feet starting to flare up. This resulted in some sort of walk-run-shuffle-tiptoe-forward motion that somehow got me to Dale’s.
Dale’s – Fred Canyon Road (36.3 – 43.6)
There was no cut off here, but they informed us that there would be a final cutoff at Fred Canyon at 5:30 p.m. Needless to say, we grabbed what we could and took off. While I’m not a huge proponent of out-and-back courses, I will say that it was nice to know exactly what type of terrain I had to run over to get back to Fred Canyon in time.
Fred Canyon Road – Finish (43.6 – 50)
I made it to Fred Canyon by 4:55, and saw my friend Mark there getting ready to head back out. We all ran together for the first few miles, then we split up. My return to the finish was FAST! Probably some of the quickest miles of the day for me – all over some pretty technical and rocky trail. As we descended the final few switchbacks, I couldn’t help but smile. My strategy had worked!
I crossed the finish in 12:32:32—a 17-minute PR at the 50-mile distance—on the most difficult course I’ve run to date.
Overall, I’m incredibly happy with how the day went. It’s funny, as with any race, I learned so much that will be valuable for future races. Although I was feeling a bit stressed on the start of my return, I do not regret my decision to power hike the start. Yes, I lost a decent amount of time there, but it resulted in an incredibly strong finish, with enough in the tank to keep going if I needed to. In conclusion: Physically, mentally and nutritionally, things clicked.
Thoughts Looking Forward
As many of you may, or may not, know, I’m running the San Diego 100 Endurance Run on June 7. The PCT 50 was my last long run before that race. If you’ve followed along, I’m sure you’ve noticed my last few tune up races have had all kinds of issues, leaving me feeling a bit uneasy. Yesterday’s race, however, erased all of that and provided me with the confidence I needed to be able to toe the line on June 7.