Ghosts in the Bucket

I guess I have a bit of a different take on bucket lists.  Yes, I have one.  I think everyone does, even if they don’t call it that.  But my personal bucket list isn’t filled with things I’ve always dreamed of doing.  It’s filled with things I never thought I could do.  I have been slowly checking things off that list.  Things like running a marathon (because I spent 10 years recovering from a bad back surgery).  Running a triathlon (same reason) and so on.  Yes, there are other list items such as bicycling across Ireland, etc.  But those are where my bucket list becomes like everyone else’s.  The big things on my list are things I just never thought I could achieve.

One such list item is this.  When I was in Southern California, I ran (and mostly mountain biked) a spectacular state park called Sycamore Canyon.  Although I have ridden every trail (and some I wasn’t supposed to) in that park, sacrificed blood, sweat and broken bones to it and adopted it as my “house”, there was always one daunting task I was never in good enough shape to try while I was there.  I wanted to simply run from one end of it to the other and back.  Sound easy?  Maybe.  But, as always, there are things that make this special or it wouldn’t be on the list.  The total run distance is 17.5 miles.  That’s long.  Indeed, for me to attempt it would make it the longest run I have had since my marathon in 2007.

Mount Boney in the Santa Monica Mountains from...

Mount Boney in the Santa Monica Mountains from the Newbury Park, Wendy Street trail head, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The terrain is very unique.  There is a little singletrack, some doubletrack, fire road and blacktop.  The topography is glorious.  Except for the big hill (dubbed “the black bitch” by the locals), it is a gently sloped trail that dives down between steep sided hills full of great old coastal oak trees, pungent sages of many kinds, salt bush, berry bushes, and even cactus and palms thrown in.  The exposed cliff faces show the violent upbringing of the hills.  With lines of sedimented rock bent and twisted by ages of earthquakes.  An ephemeral creek runs all the way down the trail.  In rainy seasons it makes the trail a bit more challenging as it criss-crosses it numerous times.  At this point in the year, though, it was bone dry.  The steep canyon walls obscure the sun in the morning/afternoon.  At the top it is a vast expanse of land.  Open and rugged, Old Boney peak juts above it all.  A hike to the top of it gives some of the best views in Southern California.  Temperatures at the top (in a city called Newbury Park) can easily hit triple digits.  But as you go down the trail into the canyon, the marine influence becomes noticeable.  At the other end, the beach temperatures average high 50s at night and low 70s during the day.  The marine layer, a bank of low clouds and fog generated by cool ocean temperatures, move in during the afternoon and hang around until mid morning the next day on most days.  This fog and cool temps creep up the canyon, cooling things off as it goes and providing even more beauty to the scene.  There are several dozen miles of trails here.  Some, like Big Sycamore, are pretty easy (save a certain 3/4 mile section…), but most are challenging singletrack trails with names like Guadalasca, Overlook, Backbone and Hell Hill (and they aren’t kidding about that one).  There is a campground at the bottom, by the beach, and access is from the vaunted Pacific Coast Highway here.  The park sits at the west end of the Santa Monica mountains so even though it seems remote, it’s only about 45 minutes from Santa Monica or the San Fernando Valley.  It’s amazing it doesn’t get used to death.  But it seems to have fared well in my absence.

If that seems very descriptive, it’s not for me.  I know the place so well I could tell you about individual rocks I bunny hopped on my bike, the place I went over the bars and broke my collar bone, the sound the flocks of escaped Lorikeets (now residents of California) make as they fly around, what a scrub jay looks like, how the inside of a Coyote den smells.  It’s all there.  Yeah.  It’s special.  That’s why it made the list.

So let’s talk about the run.

It started in Newbury Park at the top end of the trail system.  If you didn’t know it was there,  you could never tell by it’s surroundings.  Drive out the 101 freeway to a suburb and take a nondescript exit called Wendy into the neighborhoods.  Drive to the end of it and the world changes.  I almost wish the picture above was a 360 panorama because it doesn’t do the juxtaposition of Sycamore justice.  If one were to flip the camera 180 degrees and snap a picture, it would look like any other neighborhood and you could never tell Sycamore existed.  If I ever moved back out to SoCal, I would have one of the homes in this ‘hood.  Having a place like this across the street from me might just balance out the horrible traffic and “me” culture.  But I digress…

The trailhead warns of rattlesnakes, mountain lions and fire danger, tells you to remember your fluids and gives some clues to trail distances.  The run stars with a short, steep down into a gully, under some oak trees and then out into the exposed side of a hill (going from left to right across the bottom half of the pic).  It stays exposed all the way to the top of the big hill.  As I started down the trail, the moon was still up and it was just starting to get light.  The full moon provided most of my light for the first mile or so.  I had a big flood of emotions as the memories and smells  of the place came back.  Eight deer wandered slowly off the trail (most “wildlife” in SoCal is pretty conditioned to humans and just pretty much ignores us) and the local hawks (Ferruginous?) were just starting to stir.  At this point the memories started.  Showing my son the beehive in the tree in the creekbed when he was little… letting him climb the trees and walk down the creek bed looking for cool stuff, introducing him to owl pellets… 🙂

The open side of the hill as you wind around the trail makes you feel small.  Wide open spaces and a narrow trail through it.  I ran up past the coyote den we explored.  I stopped for a second and walked up to it.  I found signs that it was still inhabited and also noted a distinct lack of rabbits in the area…  The trail splits several times and winds down to the Satwiwa center.  A cultural center for California indian studies.  Neat place with lots of info and good programs.

Here the trail meets up with a blacktop road and heads out towards Sycamore Canyon.  You get amazing views of Boney Mountain and the top of the canyon.  The city goes away at this point and, except for the blacktop road, you immediately get lost in the wild.  I stopped at the top of the hill and took a (crappy) picture of the canyon because the marine layer had reached all the way to the north end and it was like looking out over the clouds.

To focus a bit on the run, I had my camelbak full of water (I probably didn’t need it since there was water at the turn, but I had no idea the conditions so I erred on the safe side), two gels and salt tabs, just in case.  I took a hat, my cell phone and that was it.  In hindsight, I wore the wrong shirt and needed about a pound of Bodyglide as the shirt and Camelbak combined to rub big raw spots on my neck and under my arms.  I wore my road shoes, which wasn’t the best choice either since over 13 miles of the trail was, well, trail.  Turns out I drank most of the water, both of the gels and didn’t need the salt tabs.  My shoes did OK but were disgusting when I got done.  My apologies to the Hilton for how dirty I got the bathroom…

OK… Down the hill.  Yes, it was as steep as I remembered it.  It’s sad, I can’t remember people’s names or other important details of my life, but I could still remember exactly where the steeper parts were and how long they lasted…  I tried to take it easy going down but by the time I got to the bottom, my legs were burning.  My quads hurt and I knew the rest of the week wouldn’t be fun, but it was a good burn… There is no other way to describe the road except steep.  For my local mid Mo friends, it’s like Easley, only steeper.  It ends as suddenly as it began and from the bottom to the beach is a barely noticeable downward grade.

This stretch is called “Big Sycamore Canyon”.  It winds down the bottom of the canyon for about 7.5 miles to the campground and the ocean.  About a mile of it is blacktop and then the road switches to fire road/trail.  It was here where I encountered my first natives of the morning.  A fox, looking absolutely baffled by my presence, wandered off to the side of the road and just sat down and watched me go by.  About a half mile after that I came upon what looked like a 4 foot long, overstuffed sausage.  A beautiful western diamondback rattlesnake.  He was so full of whatever he had just eaten, he could barely move.  I’m just certain he couldn’t even coil he was so fat and he had no interest in me at all.  Not even a rattle.  He was just trying to get himself and the family of rats he had just eaten off the road before the hawks spotted him.  I observed him for a minute (from a safe distance, of course) and then moved on.  The road switched to trail and moved on toward the ranger’s house.  The trees here just seem to keep growing.  The big oak trees will grow in any direction.  Some of them have fallen over and just kept growing.  Huge, low branches make for great shade and roosts for the noisy Lorikeets that have either escaped or been set free over the years and who are now pretty much native to the area.  Still weird to hear parrot like noises in the US though…

No bucket list item comes without challenges.  Every once in a while when I run, I break out into hives.  There is no rhyme or reason for this.  I can’t predict it or how severe it will be.  Most times I have to stop because it gets really bad and I have to take a Benadryl to get it to go away.  I have not had a problem with this in over a year… but I felt it coming on.

Seriously…?  Now…?  Crud…  At this point I was about a mile below the big hill.  It wasn’t THAT bad, just a few bumps here and there, general itchiness where clothes were tight and my hands itched pretty bad.  So many things went through my head.  Give up, turn around, go back, walk… what if it got really bad and I couldn’t get back?  There is no CVS out here to stop and get a Benadryl at…  What do I do?  I almost panicked and I could feel my heart rate going up.  I had been running a casual 9:30 pace but looked at my watch and I had sped up to an 8 minute pace.  Was I really going to give up on this once in a lifetime opportunity?  I doubted seriously I would ever be here again, much less in good enough shape to do this run again…

No.  Dammit.  I’m going.  Screw the hives.  If it gets catastrophic, at least I die in a happy place, doing what I loved.  It is a “bucket” list after all.  So I decided to push on and just try to manage it.  I slowed down to a 10 minute pace and got my breathing under control.  I walked a few breaks and, for the most part, the effects started to wear off.  I shoved it to the back of my mind and just aimlessly scratched what itched for the rest of the run.  That’s one advantage of running someplace remote like this.  No company to see me scratch… 😉

The side benefit of this near disaster was that it took a few miles to reconcile and occupied my mind.  I might have missed some scenery while I was running around my head but when I finally came out of it, I was in the very familiar territory of the last 2 miles of the trail.  I began to see the occasional walker and a few mountain bikers.  The air grew more dense and humid and started to smell like the ocean.  I was going to make it half way anyway.  In an odd twist, I found a cell phone sitting in the middle of the trail.  I dropped it off at the ranger station at the campground.  This was the hardest part of the run for me, in a funny way.  The campground was full of bleary eyed campers staring blankly at me as I ran by and the whole canyon smelled like BACON.  My stomach growled so loud I thought something was chasing me.

Leo Carillo State Beach

Leo Carillo State Beach (Photo credit: hubs)

There is a bridge over the creek that, when it is dry, you can go under to avoid playing jogger frogger on PCH.  The 55mph speed limit is treated by most as just a suggestion and it’s dangerous to cross, so I went under.  And I was there.  Leo Carillo State Beach.  This doubled the number of times I have been on that beach.  Sad but true.  I just never went there.  I was always interested more in the mountains.  I took my shoes and socks off and waded in, just to say I had.  The cold Pacific water felt good on my feet and calves.  A couple of curious seals snorted at me from about 20 yards off shore and a half dozen dolphins patrolled the surf.  A squadron of pelicans cruised just off the surf break, inches above the water.  I always thought that was cool…  Occasionally one would fall face first, as if it had been shot, into the surf, only to pop up with an unfortunate Mackerel for breakfast.  After about 10 minutes, I put my shoes back on and began the return trip.

I soooo wanted to add on a trip up to the top of Overlook trail, but the trip up and around would add an extra 5 miles and about 800 feet of climbing.  I let out a big sigh as I went by the trail and headed home.

The trip back up the trail was uneventful.  I took a gel at the turn and another at mile 14.  My moderate pace seemed to calm the hives down to just an occasional itch but I was still wary of it.  By this time in the morning the sun was starting to shine in the canyon.  All manner of critters were out warming themselves on the edges of the trail.  Lizards, a big California King Snake and lots of birds all made for interesting viewing and gave me something to take my mind off of the approaching “Black Bitch”.

But it was inevitable.  I had to get there.  There is a bridge at the bottom of the hill that basically is the signal.  Time to climb.  It was in that moment that I realized something about this run.  Yes, it was about the distance.  Yes, it was about the course.  But the real challenge for me was this hill.  Could I run it.  RUN it.  From bottom to top.  Without stopping.  After 14 miles?  As I crossed the bridge and felt the road pitch up I put my head down and just said “Don’t stop running”.  Most people, including seasoned endurance runners, would say I’m nuts.  They always walk steep ups like this.  I know that…  But this was personal.  This hill was in the way.  I had something to check off my list…

About half way up I remembered there was a bench at the top.  I promised myself that if I made it without stopping or walking, I would reward myself with a rest there.  I remembered EVERYTHING about that hill.  Where the turns were.  Where it got steeper.  Where the cracks were in the road.  Everything…  So when I got to the point where I knew the road started to ease up and I could feel it… I started to celebrate.  I hit the top with a huge grin and flopped on the bench.  I’m certain my heart rate was 500+.  But it was done.  I won.

After a few minutes my tunnel vision cleared and I could feel individual heart beats again so I got up to finish the run.  Totally uneventful last mile but still sad.  I wanted to pack it all up with me and bring it home.  Or put a portal door at the trail head that I could just pop into when I needed a fix.

I lingered at the trailhead for a while.  Just looking out at the park.  Listening to the sounds.  Equal parts hawks and grass rustling and the din of the city and freeway in the distance.


One thing off the list.


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