The race takes place on the northern edges of the San Gabriels, where the mountains meet the desert. I’d read race reports from former winners Krissy Moehl and Devon Crosby-Helms, so when the opportunity arose to run the race myself, I was excited by the chance.
I arrived early on Friday to visit the poppy fields of Antelope Valley, and here’s where I had the first of many “SoCal is beautiful” moments. If you travel to Leona and don’t make time for the poppies, then you really need to think about rearranging your priorities. I would never have believed the intensity of color if I hadn’t been there myself.
My Aunt, who was playing hostess for the weekend, gave me a tour of the poppy fields. It was breathtaking. I kept imagining how amazing it would be to go on a run through these fields. Truly, heaven.
The race started at 6:00 am at the Lake Hughes Community Center, and it wasn’t until I looked around and saw runners sporting headlamps that I realized that the sun rises later this far south. Crap! Fortunately, by the time we were all gathered on the bridge, the sun was just emitting a glow beneath the blanket of the eastern horizon. It appeared I wouldn’t trip and kill myself in mile-one after all!
The first 8.5 miles to aid station #1 were all on a fire road, and a good deal of it was uphill. After much studying of the map and elevation profile in the preceding days, I made a blind guess for myself of a 10 hour finish time. The elevation gain was similar to that of the old TRT course, which would make that a pretty ambitious goal, but based on past Leona results, this was clearly a faster course. I couldn’t figure out why this should be, aside from the lower elevation. After the first two hours, I learned exactly why: The trails of Leona are smooth, with easy footing, and the hills are mostly gradual, allowing much more running than I would have expected. It’s a deceptively fast course for a run on the PCT with 9,000 feet of elevation gain.As the sun came up, I fell in with two other runners, Mike and Greg, and we climbed contentedly through the chaparral and scrub oak together. As usual in these kinds of situations, good company and conversation made the miles fly, and there looked to be nothing but a perfect day ahead. When the topic veered toward things like “the difference between the words further and farther,” and “correct usage of lie vs. lay,” I knew I was running with the right crowd. We vied for the title of biggest nerd, but as it turns out, Greg is a writer and teacher of the craft, and Mike is a research scientist at Cal State LA, so we were more or less deadlocked on that competition (although, I’m pretty sure Greg’s surfer-boy haircut keeps him out of the running, officially speaking).
Both men declared their interest in about a 10 hour finish, so I had hopes that we could run together through the day. As the trail evolved into a moderately downhill singletrack, Mike explained the intricacies of his research in proteins and manipulating amino acids. It was fascinating stuff, which I would explain to you here, but it’s top secret, (either that, or I’m incapable of explaining it accurately, but I’m pretty sure he said it was top secret).
After passing through AS#1 at different rates, Greg, Mike and I managed to re-group fairly quickly, and our posse continued on. I wondered if perhaps I was running too fast, as I’m often prone to do when I decide I want to stick with someone. I felt relaxed though, and I knew I would just have to take the day as it came, without stressing. I lost them after another break at AS#3, and wasn’t sure if they were ahead or behind. There was a solid climb out of the aid station, and I finally quit looking up and down the trail and simply settled in, focused on my uphill power-hike. Goodbye, boys, wherever you are. I hope your races go well!This stretch of the course was an out and back to mile 32ish, and most of it was single track. I didn’t have any of the aid stations or any predicted splits written on my bottle since I had no real goal other than to get in some good training, and not further my injury. The aid stations were numbered, not named, so I’d figured even when I’m tired I can count to ten, right? Heh. I forgot about tracking mileage though, and I was essentially guessing about my mileage all day. How far had I run? I had no idea. I could have asked at the aid stations, but that seemed like cheating. This was all part of my laid back, SoCal mindset, right? No knowledge of miles meant no knowledge of pace, and that was just fine. I actually enjoyed not knowing, and I ran with my intended game plan of basing my pace on feel. I’m beginning to think this is the approach that works best for me.
There were a number of aid stations on this out and back stretch that we would also pass through on the return trip. I was grazing on strawberries and jelly beans at one of them when I said something (which, I’m sure, was terribly witty) to the volunteers behind the table. I looked up to see one of them smiling at me, and I just about passed out. This was certainly the most gorgeous man I had ever seen. I mean, I didn’t even realize they made human beings this attractive in real life. I began to think the instability of my legs had nothing to do with the day’s mileage, and I quickly looked away so I could gather my wits and get out of there. (As a side note to all race directors, you really shouldn’t have such good looking people at your aid stations; it’s quite challenging to run 50 miles and deal with surprise swooning!)
As I scampered quickly away, it occurred to me that most of the volunteers at this race were particularly attractive (though none came close to the grinning man at the strawberry table). I had noticed at check-in on Friday that everyone seemed so chic for a group of ultrarunners. At some point through this stretch we also hit an aid station with a 70’s theme, and this was when my theory was proven beyond debate. Even with afro-type wigs and ugly sunglasses, these guys and gals were nothing short of sexy. And I began to wonder – are all ultras in Southern California like this? It seems like such a stereotype, but is this place just teeming with beautiful people? I don’t know, but I’m thinking the matter certainly warrants some further investigation (in the form of more ultras down South, of course).
I was about 2 ½ miles from the turn-around when I saw Michelle Barton hauling ass toward me, not surprisingly with a commanding lead in the women’s race. I then embarked upon a long downhill on a dirt road in the slightly-too-warm-for-the-Tahoe-girl heat. With the opportunity to cheer the runners coming toward me,it might have been an enjoyable downhill if I hadn’t known that I would have to retrace every step back up.
When I was about 5-10 minutes from the aid station turn-around, I finally saw the rest of the women. Three women, including Kelly, were running close together and looking good. We cheered each other briefly, and I headed toward AS#6 at the bottom of the hill.
The day was starting to heat up, and I had a long, shadeless climb ahead of me. The volunteers were awesome, packing my bottles with ice, and handing me cups of icy liquid even though I’d requested nothing. I hated to waste the ice left in my cup, so I decided to take it with me on the climb by stashing it (sans cup) into the front of my sports bra. So cold, but so good! One helpful volunteer (who shall remain nameless) kindly offered to retrieve my “lost” ice for me. Gosh those guys are so darn nice! I had to laugh. Luckily it wasn’t the hottie from the earlier aid station, or I may have found myself accidentally saying yes, I need your help! Get that ice for me, would you?
As it turned out, the return trip wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. I’d run over 30 miles by this point, (although, naturally, I had no idea how far exactly) and now I was allowed to pick up the pace a little since I was feeling good. I surprised myself by running about 80% of that hill, and I almost enjoyed doing it. Before I knew it, the climb was over and I was back on the PCT!
The rest of the race was a blur of beautiful scenery, singletrack trail (with some challenging, head-on passing of the runners still headed out), more beautiful (and incredibly helpful!) volunteers, moderate climbs and descents, and a smile I couldn’t wipe off my face. My injured ankle wasn’t putting up any particularly loud protests, and I could tell by this point that I had paced myself well. Although I never had another glimpse of the women in front of me, I passed quite a few men all the way to the finish.
With 7:30 on the watch I finally asked a volunteer what mile we were at. He said we had eight to go, and I found myself wondering if I could break nine hours. This was the first tangible goal I developed for this race, and since everything was feeling great, I knew without contemplation that I was going to go for it. I focused on technique to push both the ups and the downs, and had a blast doing it. I crossed the line in 8:45, 5th woman and 21st overall.
Totally happy with my time. Totally glad I skipped AR50.
RD Keira Henninger was on to hand out medals and congratulations at the finish. I happily drained a fresh bottle of chilled water and sat down in the shade knowing that this day was definitely a keeper. The trails were perfect and the abundance of flowers proved that this is clearly the best time of year for running this dry, shadeless and typically hot terrain. The weather was nearly perfect (mid to upper 70’s, as opposed to the 68 forecast earlier in the week, but nothing compared to the 90+ of Diablo the past two years) and I’d eaten and hydrated well. In fact, I couldn’t think of a single thing that went wrong on this day.
I cheered Greg and Mike, who both beat their sub-ten goals, while I happily refueled on homemade fajitas and Diet Coke. I had to call my family, who were picking me up, because I’d finished so much earlier than expected. But I’d say that’s a good thing.Thanks so much to Keira and all the amazing volunteers. These folks were rock stars all day long. I’m thinking Leona Divide may have to become a new spring break tradition for me.