(Photo by Howie Stern)
I had heard about the Bandit 50k from Chris Price at a race a few years back but at the time I didn’t know anything about the Santa Susana Mountains. Since then, I’ve gotten married and I have begun to spend a decent amount of time out in Chatsworth at my in-laws house. At first I thought this sounded terrible. Then I realized that the summit of Rocky Peak was only a five-mile run from their doorstep. Then I discovered the Chumash Trail. Then my wife started thinking we were spending too much time at her parent’s house.
Bottom line: I fell in love with the Santa Susana Mountains (I summited Rocky Peak 26 times in 2015), so I knew I had to try the Bandit 50k, and it did not disappoint. I thought the Race Director was crazy for giving his address to all the runners who signed up for the race, inviting them over for early registration… but then I realized that these are just good people. It made so much sense. Leaving the Shoemaker residence on Friday night, I had a very good feeling about the event and the people running it. I was excited.
I pulled into the parking lot at Corriganville Park at 6:30am on the dot. Perfect timing. I had plenty of time to get dressed, warm up, use the facilities and make it to the start line to hear Randy give the pre-race briefing. I took a sip of coffee and reached into the backseat for my shoes. No shoes. My hand frantically searched every inch of the backseat in the dark. Nothing. Fuck.
Seconds later I was flying back out of the park against the heavy flow of traffic pouring in. Luckily, my in-laws house is only seven minutes away. One exit on the freeway. Two blown red lights and a few miles on the 118 and I was back— with my shoes— and ten minutes to spare. Fortunately for me, this time I got to park about 3/4 of a mile away from the park, the distance lending itself to a nice little warm-up. Not exactly the relaxing, auspicious start I was hoping for, but hey, I wasn’t starting late and trying to pass 100 people.
Without much time to think about anything, we were off, flying around the park in a loop before starting the climbing up toward Rocky Peak. I don’t know if it was the stressful shoe situation, my restless sleep the night before or my coffee fiasco (I won’t even go into the details here) but I felt like absolute shit the for the first six miles of the race. We left the park and headed up under the 118 freeway, Kenny Ringled and Felix Lawson out front, Michael Eastburn (fresh off a 2nd place finish at the Ray Miller 50k) running in a close third… and then me, desperately trying and failing to keep up as we marched up the steep, technical sandstone toward the Rocky Peak Fire Road.
I was barely able to keep the lead group in sight as they crossed the small valley and headed up the climb. I kept going over the checklist in my head, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I shouldn’t have been feeling this bad this early. I had done anything yet. I ripped off my shirt. I was sweating too much too soon. The weather was too good for this to be happening. It was 57 degrees.
I tried to shift my focus away from how I was feeling and focus on the looming climb. It was time to settle in and grind it out. It would be over soon enough and I’d be floating down the Chumash trail (currently one of my favorite trails in Southern California— especially when you’re going down). Just the thought of that was enough to put a smile on my face and lift my spirits a bit. I got a little Vitamin D on my chest, put my head down and fell into a rhythmic breathing/stride up toward my current peak of choice: Rocky. Honestly, if it didn’t take so damn long, I would have tried to sneak a summit into the race. But that would have cost me 15 minutes easy and added a couple hundred feet of vert. I was still trying to win this race.
I was starting to feel a bit better as I cruised into the Chumash aid station. Lead group nowhere in sight. There seem to be far less restrictions in Ventura County about what can go on at the aid stations and as such, this race was AWESOME! It was like a party at the stations. Volunteers were offering me beer. During the race. There was music blasting, people dressed in costumes dancing, drinking and generally having a great time. It was hard to leave not feeling great. A handful of pretzels, a swig of coke and three S! Caps later, I was flying down the Chumash Trail, enjoying the dramatic views and buttery single track.
I finally started to feel like I was emerging from the fog. It was time to start running. I hung two sub-seven minute miles down the Chumash Trail and pulled into the Marr Land Aid in what seemed like no time at all. This aid station seemed to have a prevailing Star Wars theme and there were little Yoda and Boba Fett signs encouraging me as I left. Still feeling and anxious to try to close the distance between myself and the leaders, I drank a couple dixie cups full of coke and was gone (I only spent a cumulative seven minutes in Aid Stations during the Bandit 50k, down from 13 minutes at Mt. Disappointment 50k in July. Getting better). I knew I had an out-and-back section coming up so I would get to see exactly where I stood.
The section after the Marr Land aid station was the only part of the course I was unfamiliar with, so I was excited to get to see a new section of the mountains. There wasn’t a ton of climbing in this section— really only one—but it was gorgeous, cut along a nice ridge and the mountains seemed to have changed topography, losing the ubiquitous peppering of sandstone boulders for a little limestone and some trees.
I was cruising along through this mostly flat section, keeping my pace comfortably below eight minutes a mile. My only concern was the slightly rising temperatures. It seemed significantly warmer the farther west we traveled (it was after 9am now) and the cloud cover had thinned out quite a bit. I wanted to get back to higher elevations and cooler temperatures as quickly as possible and made a mental note to spend some time drinking water at the next aid station.
Depressingly, still almost a half a mile from the turn around, I caught a glimpse of Felix’s face rounding a corner. We nodded and muttered words of encouragement. Ten seconds later, Kenny came whipping by, looking fresh, with a nice high cadence that makes us tall guys jealous. It was about two minutes before the third place runner, Michael Eastburn, appeared around a bend. He didn’t look as fresh as the other two but he was still moving at a nice pace and I made another mental note that I had my fucking work cut out for me going forward.
I pounded five dixie cups full of water, took four salt caps, ate two Oreos and I was gone. The chase was on. I had to catch at least one of these guys. The podium was in reach and I had to go for it. Win or blow up trying. I dropped my pace and hung a couple seven minute miles back out of the turnaround (where I picked up my conveniently placed t-shirt, at least I didn’t have to hold it in my hand the ENTIRE race. At some point I’m going to learn to just leave them in the car) and started climbing back toward the aid station.
The legs and the wind were feeling solid on this climb and toward the top I passed a fellow 50k racer coming down the climb who shouted, “Bro, you look great!! Go for it! You can catch those guys!!” and I can’t even tell you what a burst of energy it gave me. I don’t know who that guy was, but because of him I ran that next mile and finished that climb at least two minutes faster. My spirits boosted and my confidence restored, I found myself back at the Marr Land Aid Station at 2:51 elapsed time.
Randy was there to give me some words of encouragement and I felt great leaving the aid station with a fat Red Vine sticking out of my mouth and approximately 12 pretzels in the pockets of my Patagonia shorts. This time, we headed up through Las Llajas Canyon to make the ridge and the Rocky Peak Fire Road (another great quality of the Bandit: it could have been an out and back but they offer two separate loops to switch up the course and the terrain). I was still feeling good as we started the climb— and at this point I’m passing 25k racers every few minutes, what went from such solitude the for the first three hours has suddenly became a traffic jam— so I kept pounding, maintaining what I felt was a good pace, waiting to see that Chumash Aid Station and the end of all the real climbing. After that, it was a couple rollers along the fire road and about 1500’ of descent back into Corriganville Park.
I rounded a bend in the steep fire road, still maintaining a decent running stride when I was distracted by a large group of 25k runners (yellow bibs) sitting on the side of the trail. As I came around the corner they all started to get up, obstructing my view of the trail ahead. I had to veer to the far left side to pass them and as I did, I was surprised (and elated) to see a hunched, hiking Michael Eastburn. I pulled along side of him and asked him how he was doing. All he could muster was a muffled, “I feel like shit.” I tried to offer some encouraging words but, having been in that place before, knew it probably didn’t do much good. I knew he didn’t want to waste his energy talking to me so I pushed on. The podium was now in my sights. Third place was mine to lose.
My arrival into the Chumash Aid Station was bittersweet. This aid station was particularly awesome, I was almost talked into a beer there and the volunteers gave me a tremendous boost. Plus the climbing was over. But I felt like I hadn’t pushed hard enough coming into that aid. I know that trail too well. I should have hit a couple of those last climbs harder and tried close the gap. As it was, I was 12 minutes back of Felix and 10 mins behind Kenny. Almost an impossible distance to make up in less than six miles, all downhill, with those guys running out in front. They’re fast.
I resigned to cruise in, relax and enjoy the finish. The fourth place runner wasn’t in sight as I left the aid station so I knew I didn’t need to push too hard. During my last few races, I have become much more conscious in the moment during my finishes. In the past, I had always been so happy to be done or so emotional or simply too overwhelmed at the finish of a race to fully appreciate the moment. Then I look back on it later and realize how incredible it actually was and what an amazing feeling of accomplishment it really is to finish a race like this…
So this time I consciously let it all soak in. I just wish I could bottle it up. It’s my drug. I love it. It feels special to finish well at a race in (what feels like) my backyard. I love these mountains. I’ll be back.
This was a great race put on by amazing people with a competitive field of runners (the swag was dope too). I can’t wait to come back next year and spend (hopefully) around four hours running through the Santa Susanas again.