Race for Open Space – Palo Corona to Mitteldorf Preserve

April 18, 2021

“It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” – Babe Ruth

Every step started to feel awful. My insides protesting, my muscles tightening. Am I going to finish this? Can I even make it up this hill?

“I’m sorry I signed us up for this,” I heard myself say out loud to Michael, ashamed of myself.

“We can always turn around and get a ride back,” Michael responded sympathetically. My head and body protesting the words he was saying and the thoughts that were coming into my head. Maybe I couldn’t actually do this. Was 21 miles more than I could handle right now? Had I not been training hard enough, running long enough, or resting well enough? How could I be moving so slow? Why did this feel so terrible?

“No,” I breathed, resting again partly from choking slightly on my own self-pity. I started taking small steps forward up the overgrown hill toward Michael who was waiting patiently. “I can do this.”

The weather is almost obnoxiously nice on the Monterey coast. It seems like sun always finds a way to break through the fog and clouds. The Pacific Ocean sends a cool breeze to keep the temperatures in check and mostly mild. As much as this Washington native wishes for a nice rain, you won’t catch me complaining about the nice weather.

So on another sunny Sunday Michael drove us to Palo Corona Regional Park in Carmel so we could start our 21 mile race in our 0900 timeslot. We arrived to a parking attendant who directed us to the parking lot out of the way of any daily users to the park.

Michael and I did a few last minute adjustments before heading over to the starting area. I hesitated on my wardrobe choice, but finally convinced myself to wear a tank top instead of a long sleeve. According to the forecast temperatures could reach the mid-70s. I always have to be persuaded that being a little cold is likely right where I need to be.

To adhere to COVID-19 guidelines we made sure to wear our masks on the way over to the starting area. Big Sur Land Trust had created and set up this race. They let participants pick a starting time and they were allowed to start within 20 minutes of that allotted time. Easily the most relaxed starting line I have ever been on. Friendly eyes crinkled behind masks at the tents set up with volunteers as we got our race bibs.

Ready to go we headed to the flagpole to begin our adventure. The two of us turned around for a picture and toed the starting line.

“Ready?” I asked Michael.

“I guess so.”

We started our watches and set off. Michael immediately pulled away from me as I tried to take it easy. I still had a long way to go. I still had a lot of elevation to climb.

The sun was shining brightly as we ran through the grounds of an old course, over the Carmel River, and up toward the first climb of the day. My body was already upset. My stomach had been bothering me and every step felt forced and heavy. “There is still a lot of time for this to start to feel better,” I told myself. It will get better.

I ran following in Michael’s trail as he went into and out of view. When we got to the first climb I started to walk thinking I would probably need some energy for later. Running this hill would be a waste of energy. It might feel fine in the moment, but will it 15 miles from now? Walking is a perfectly acceptable strategy.

The trail rolls over after cresting that first hill and I began running again down the other side. Michael was out of view. I was on my own now. I followed the trail further into Palo Corona before being greeted and cheered for at the gate. Usually this is as far as you can go.

Part of the allure of running this race was to get to experience trails that aren’t currently open to the public. By signing up for this race you are not only supporting Big Sur Land Trust, you also get the bonus of experiencing firsthand what you are contributing to. Big Sur Land Trust strives to conserve the beautiful natural landscapes around Monterey County so that we and future generations can appreciate them.

I whooped as I ran through the gate, thanking the volunteers for their time and effort to make this happen. The trail climbed up again and I slowed to a walk. Completely exposed to the sun I hiked up the road that had a long switch back across a grassy meadow. I looked up the hill to see if I could find Michael and there he was waving back down at me. I waved back and continued up. My body still feeling heavy and sluggish.

As I continued toward the ridge line I kept looking up. A silhouette of a person was standing at the crest of the hill. Was Michael eating a snack and waiting for me? Turns out it was not Michael. It was a volunteer with the best view on the course. He sat in his chair which looked out toward the Pacific coastline. I commented on his luck for getting this volunteer post. He laughed and told me I was doing great and that he couldn’t complain. He told me the next section would be a nice break from the hills that I had just climbed.

An exposed road followed along the side of the ridge I was standing on with him. I was going back down the other side. I said my thank you to the volunteer and was able to break into a run again down the moderate grade. I looked back to catch views of the ocean out the crack in the river valley I was headed down toward. Everything was so green and a refreshing breeze came up the valley from the Pacific.

Redwoods started to appear beside the trail providing shade and cooler temperatures. I stopped to marvel at their beauty and take a few pictures, breathing in the fresh redwood smelling air. The moderate grade turned steeper as I finally approached the valley floor.

The trail turned to the left and was cut by water. I looked for some rocks to skip across to keep my feet mostly dry, but couldn’t find anything reasonable in my quick scan. Into the water I went, no turning back for this. My hot dusty feet welcomed the cool feeling water as I waded across the stream. It was less than a foot deep and hardly flowing. I dipped my hat in the water and put it back on my head feeling refreshed.

I got to the other side and started running again. I had caught up to some hikers doing the course and scared the daylights out of one of them on accident. I always think people can hear my heavy breathing and stomping feet, but I usually try to say something too. It’s so easy to get lost in thought when you are out. I never hope to scare anyone, but it inevitably happens. I even get scared sometimes when people unknowingly and accidentally surprise me.

The trail wound up the majestic valley shaded by redwoods. A stream trickled just beside the trail. I ran as much as I could through this section and ate a quick snack and slurped down a gel. The water from the creek crossing had mostly squished out of my shoes now and I enjoyed the peaceful landscape as I passed by even more hikers.

Eventually the trail opened up a bit to what looked like an old pasture. A volunteer with a cowbell started shaking the bell and cheering. I smiled and waved as she got up to make sure I made my way properly across the grassy field. Grass had overtaken this open meadow area, but with directions and looking out ahead I could see where I was supposed to go. A single black cow walked along in the shade of the trees on the far side of the grass.

I was relieved to see a piece of wood laying above a muddy creek crossing. I was okay with getting my feet wet, but would try to avoid mud when possible. It’s heavy and gets into everything. I went across the bridge and then started back into the shade of the woods. I stepped in some fresh cow poop that was covered by duff and everything began to stick to my shoe. Ugh. I tried to shake it off and wipe my feet on the dirt trail. This got most of it off before the trail started to climb again.

And then it was climbing steeply up an overgrown road. Plants were growing every which way over the two lines of the road. I thought about ticks and poison oak, hoping I would avoid those. Luckily I didn’t see much for poison oak and it is really hard to see ticks so I just had to press on and check later. I knew people had been through here before me, so maybe I shouldn’t even worry about the ticks.

The steep hill continued upward and an abandoned cabin came into view. A sign for the Corona Cabin was placed at the last volunteer station, so this must be it. The yellow cabin was dilapidated and brush grew up all around and in the cabin. Not a terrible spot to live though. It certainly was beautiful here. That was proven even more so as I crested the ridge and was able to see out toward more mountains, trees, and sun.

Now it was time to go downward again. I started running on my tired legs trying to find the clearest path through the brush and scanning for poison oak. A volunteer stood near a gate waiting for me to come by to tell me I was doing great. I thanked him and continued down the hill. “How far down am I going to go?” I thought trying to pull up a memorized picture of the elevation profile from the race website. This must be that steep spike before the halfway point.

I scared myself a bit at the thought that I would have to come back up this. As it is never too helpful to dwell on the past and future, I had to focus on the present. Just have to make it down this hill first. As I got to the bottom I was greeted with another clear flowing stream. I looked around for where I needed to go and didn’t see anything. A volunteer told me to cross wherever felt safe so I stepped out further toward the stream. My panning eyes caught an arrow to my right and I turned that way to cross the stream.

Again I got my feet wet and dipped my hat before walking out the other bank. The volunteer took my bib number and I continued on. Running was starting to feel extremely difficult and I no longer had any effort to run up hills. The course directed across a grassy meadow up to a gorgeous winding and paved road out here in this picturesque landscape. Turning right I headed toward the gravel parking lot at Mitteldorf Preserve where two volunteers were standing.

They told me I was looking strong as I thanked them and ran toward the portalet. Maybe going to the bathroom would help me feel a little better and lighter. Inside the sun soaked bathroom, I managed to get my hand between my bib and rip one of the safety pins out through my shirt. My shirt was ripped in the safety pin was totaled. What am I supposed to do with this pointy metal thing? I poked it through one of the front pocket in my vest, hopeful it wouldn’t fall out on the trail.

I got myself back together again and kept moving. Alternating between running and walking as the trail rolled up and down some gentle hills. Making my way into Mitteldorf Preserve, I looked around in awe. Colossal redwoods began to tower over and around the trail. Many of these giants had been burned in the Soberanes Fire but were resilient. Mitteldorf Preserve is home to the largest redwood tree in Monterey County.

The road continued up the picturesque redwood valley. A river was winding in tandem with the trail as I took turns walking and running up the gentle hills and over the bridges. I started to see more racers heading in the opposite direction, going back now.

Finally, the aid station right before the last loop before turning around came into view. So did Michael. He had been waiting there to see when I would come. I dawned my mask and approached him and the extremely friendly volunteers. We talked as I filled up my water bottles and Michael asked how I was doing.

“I think I’m doing ok,” I said. A little unsure, but I didn’t want him to think he needed to wait for me. He told me he would start walking and I could catch up with him after I did the loop. I jokingly asked him if he wanted to do the loop again with me and he laughed.

We parted ways as I headed still more upward toward a cabin made of logs surrounded by some amazing stone work. I walked ran past it admiring the hard work that must have went into laying all the stones and bricks and carried on as the trail became a singletrack. It worked its way over across a small creek and back several times as I went up the valley. Eventually the trail met back with an old road grade as I did one last little bit of climbing for now.

It was very warm now and I was happy to be mostly shaded from the redwood trees. Any direct hit with the sun was quite the temperature change. I ran back down the other side of the hill following down a gentle grade on the side of the hill until I turned down another valley back toward the cabin. I crossed the adorable stonework bridge and took the stairs back up to the cabin before starting to retrace my steps all the way back to the start line.

I approached the aid station for the second time after being gone for 15-20 minutes and topped off my water bottle. I chatted again with the incredibly friendly women sitting at the table thanking them and grabbed an Uncrustables to eat as I ran away.

Slowly I chewed on the real food in between trying to breathe. I would love to say it was mostly downhill from here, but it wasn’t. It was mostly downhill to head back out of Mitteldorf Preserve though. So I ran when I could and took bites of my sandwich that I never finished. It took me a lot longer to catch up with Michael than I thought it would. He can sure walk fast.

When I reached him I had to take a break to stop running. The trail was on a slight uphill grade but it felt terrible. After over 10 miles this run was still feeling awful and my body was starting to protest more. Michael kept checking in and asking how I was feeling as I set the pace alternating running and walking. In all honesty I didn’t feel like running anymore at that point, but I knew I still could if I pushed through.

We ran back to the creek crossing at the bottom of the hill I was scared to come back up on my way down. I stepped into the cool and refreshing water and dunked my hat to cool off my head. I realized Michael’s shoes and legs were dusty and dry. I helped him across the small logs that were laid over the water so he could keep his dry feet. He always finds a way around.

The hill rose steeply before us and my body tightened in anticipation. I was walking slowly. So slowly it felt painful. Every step felt awful. My stomach was twisted in knots from being tossed around for hours. Was this too much for me? Michael’s face was full of concern as he looked back down at me wondering if I was going to make it. I was wondering the same thing as I stopped to rest not too far up from the creek where we started.

I asked myself so many questions and wondered if I was actually done with this race. I felt silly for signing up for it. Silly for thinking 21 miles sounded like a reasonable distance. Silly for not feeling incredibly intimidated by having to climb 4,250 feet over those 21 miles. Silly for thinking I could do this. I felt like an imposter. I was building up this identity about being a strong trail runner and I was struggling here around mile 13.

I tried to keep my breaks short as we slowly went up the hill. My body was struggling, but I was making it worse by choking back tears that were welling up in my fragile emotional state. I was tearing myself apart because of one hill, one run, one race, and one moment in my life. I couldn’t let this overcome me. If I did need to stop, would I? Could I? Could I quit and be okay with it? Or was there still more to give?

I felt nothing like myself struggling up the hill, taking one step at a time, evaluating how I felt each time. Michael would check in never standing too far off, concerned with the extreme turtle pace I had slowed to. He could tell I didn’t look or feel like myself at all either. I was glad to have him there, but I also felt ashamed he was seeing me like this.

I know he wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed of me, he was just concerned. As we neared the top of the hill I started to feel a little more like I was going to make it. I had to push back all those thoughts of self-doubt and the thoughts that I should be going faster. You have to do what you can in that moment, just keep moving forward if it’s safe to do so.

Finally, we crested the hill. A hill I wouldn’t like to see for a while and headed down the steep overgrown backside past the cabin into the redwoods again. We mostly ran down the hill. Muscles were getting very tight and each step felt heavy and forced. My jostling stomach required me to slow down, but we eventually made it.

Back across the cow pasture to the awaiting cowbell volunteer we ran toward the trail following the creek in the redwoods back toward the start. This time we were mostly moving downhill and I only stopped when my stomach made me do so. The cool air from the shaded trail provided some relief. I felt terrible, but it didn’t feel life threatening. Trying to keep conversation light we traded off complaining to each other about our hips, back, and legs tightening up as we made our way back to the last long uphill.

The creek crossing at the bottom of the bottom of the hill made my heart happy. The cool water felt amazing on my feet and I stopped to splash some on my face and dunk my hat in. I felt better and optimistic about the exposed climb ahead. Michael waited for me with dry feet on the other side before noticing quite a few bees. The warmth of the day had gotten them out of the hive to get to work. “We should probably go,” we both said skirting around the bees.

Now back in the sun the trail started upward. The grade didn’t feel too challenging and I hiked without stopping for as long as I could. I really was moving faster and feeling better now. It still was not as fast as I would have liked, but it was the best I could do at the time. At least I was still moving. I was still going and I was going to finish.

We hiked up the hill in the full force of the sun. Soon we were high enough that the breeze from the Pacific came in strong to fight the heat of the early afternoon. It felt wonderful, even slightly chilly as the top of the hill came into view. Several volunteers were here now cheering us on for coming up the last long hill. I smiled, but couldn’t help but feel a slight bit of shame for being so hard on myself. The volunteers told us we were doing great and it was all downhill from here. They cheered and were optimistic and I had been beating myself up about moving slow, feeling bad, thinking about quitting, and wondering if I was going to make it.

Of course the volunteers were right. I was being way too hard on myself. Every run is different, some are great and some are awful and some runs are unmemorable and not special in any way. This was just a bad feeling run in a beautiful place on a gorgeous day. It wasn’t a day wasted. I learned a lot about myself and how I react to a long run with lots of elevation. How the pressure of racing makes me judgmental to myself, but not to others. And of course that I can do hard things and it’s ok to give up, even for a minute or an entire uphill. It’s okay to keep going and it is also okay to quit fully if that’s what you need.

That day I could keep pushing. I felt fortunate to be safe and to be in a mental state where I was still okay to make those decisions. My body hurt as we ran slowly down the hill into the area of Palo Corona where we had started. Volunteers at the gate cheered as we ran by and out of sight up the last short and gentle uphill before it was truly all downhill. As soon as the grade changed I needed to start walking again. I tried to keep my pace up, feeling less judgmental toward myself now. Maybe I was too tired, maybe I was just realizing that we were doing just fine, or maybe I realized that I couldn’t change anything now. I just needed to finish, that was all.

At the top of the last hill the finish came into view. We had left almost 5 hours ago and it was nice to be back. Cruising painfully down the hill we looped down and then around toward the finish keeping a steady run pace. I was having some insane side ache knots on my right side. My fueling had been lackluster on the way back because of my stomach issues. Luckily I had been drinking enough water or it could have been much worse.

Slowly and steadily we ran across the retired golf course turned public park back to the flagpole where we started. A great sense of relief and nausea came over me as we picked up the pace to finish strong. The last fumes of gas on an empty tank. I was done and done. Volunteers in the shade of the tent cheered for us as we thanked them before leaving.

I smiled as I put my mask on. Thankful for the volunteers and happy I pushed through. It was a race I just needed to finish. Times and comparisons are just things and in the end they aren’t what matter or what will be remembered. I learned about myself and my current limits. I am always working on building empathy and kindness for myself to match my capacity for compassion and patience for others. This race reminded me of that.

Of course no time spent outdoors is a loss. Sometimes things are more Type 2 fun than we’d like them to be. It was one run, one race of many that I will do in my life. As long as I’m spending time outside enjoying and exploring new places and appreciating it with others, I think I am doing pretty alright.

If you would like to support the Big Sur Land Trust and their mission to preserve and conserve the natural landscapes of Monterey County, please visit their website: https://bigsurlandtrust.org/

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