Friday, February 7, 2014

Going Up: Skyline-to-the-Sea Ultramarathon Ascent and Bike

“Wow, she’s different.”

The first time I had that thought, Megan was flashing a mischievous grin in between bites of frozen yogurt. We were talking about our philosophy on life, the universe, and everything—typical get-to-know-you stuff. She was a field hockey player back then, and a damn good one at that. That’s why I was especially surprised by her answer to my question, “What are your favorite athletic things to do?” (what can I say, I’m a smooth talker). Megan responded to that question with 5 words that would shape our first few dates, our first few years, and hopefully however many sets of a few decades we get together.

 “I like to go up.”
Mountain biking up 14,200 foot Mount Evans in 2012 (this day had 55 mph sustained winds).

No one said we are smart.

The Plan:

1. Run the Skyline to the Sea Trail ascent, 29.5 miles with 6000 feet of climbing
2. Bike back, 43 miles with 2200 feet of climbing.

The problem with going up is that it is limited by the requirement to go down. More hikers die on the way down Everest than on the way up. A one-way trip to the moon would be a whole hell of a lot easier than a round-trip ticket. Did going down somehow cause the Beatles to break up? I’m not making any guesses. But yes, it probably did.

Well then why not just go up?
Climbing 13,400 foot South Arapaho Peak with a 6-month old puppy this year.

That was our goal. Over mischievous grins and frozen yogurt, three-and-a-half years after our first date, we hatched a plan:

  1. Park our car at Waddell Creek Beach, 15 miles north of Santa Cruz, where the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail empties out into the Pacific Ocean.
  2. Run 29.5 miles one-way from Waddell Creek Beach, up and over and up and over and up and over (6000 feet total) the redwood-studded Santa Cruz Mountains to the beginning of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail.
  3. Hop on mountain bikes, which we would stash in the woods early in the morning at the top of the mountain.
  4. Ride back on a 43-mile route, down and around, finishing with 20 miles on Route 1 as the sun sets.

Also of note, neither Megan nor I had ever run over 21 miles on roads or trails, and the Skyline to the Sea trail is characterized by technical single-track and limited access to water. Also, we don’t own bikes. Luckily, we do own a car, along with youthful stupidity.
The rare down picture.

On Friday night, we rented bikes.

(“The cheapest, least-likely to-be-stolen bike you have please?” “Why?” “Well we definitely aren't planning on dropping them in the woods and then leaving them for half the day on a busy Saturday. I’LL TELL YOU THAT MUCH RIGHT NOW.”)

On Saturday morning, we consumed lots of food and stashed the too-ugly-to-steal 35-pound bikes at the Skyline, and drove 1.5 hours to the Sea. With that weakly-thought-out plan, two 32-ounce bottles of water, and 4 Gu’s, at 8 AM, we were off to make good on that first date promise.

The Sea to Skyline Uphill

As we took off from the beach, a jeep road turned into rocky single-track, with a 300-foot climb as an appetizer for the entrée awaiting up the trail. The waves crashed at our back as we climbed just enough to see the salt spray for miles up and down the coast. Or the salt spray could have been sweat. Either way . . . SALT.

Through mile 5, the trail was comfortable, with the occasional through-hiker coming from where we were heading. One guy had a beard down to his belly-button and a hiking-stick that looked like Rafiki’s from the Lion King. When a guy like that is on a trail that you plan to do in a few hours, it can really make you doubt your planning abilities. Fortunately, while he raised my fears that we were over-ambitious, he lowered the bar for body odor expectations.
Up into the redwoods.
At mile 6.3, we passed the renowned Berry Creek Falls, not seeing them until we were 100 feet up the next climb. “Megan, look at that!” I said with wonder. “Let’s go have a look!” Megan turned to me, smiled, and affectionately said…


We had started the first big climb, and she sure as heck was not turning around for a dehydrated waterfall. Up the 20% grade we went, bonded by the trail and our echoing footsteps. Or we could have been bonded by lactic acid. Lactic acid seems sticky.

After a 10-minute detour down the wrong path at mile 12, we hopped back on the trail. We were in a rhythm now—Megan’s footsteps were a metronome for mine, 5 feet behind her on the trail. Occasionally, the beat would pause and I knew it was time to jump over a fallen redwood branch. Then there would be a double beat, and I knew it was time to stutter-step through a rocky section.

A brief slick-rock section after a long climb.

By mile 20, the redwoods had given way to higher-altitude scrub, with stunning vistas as far as the eye could see. Megan got stronger and stronger as she realized that the bikes were getting closer. I got stronger and stronger as I realized that we wouldn't turn into yellow prunes from dehydration-induced kidney failure.

Nope, as a 1,000 foot climb came and went at mile 24, we stayed our normal colors—Megan a delightful Northern California tan, me a pasty Washington DC white. We were on our last drops of water, cresting a ridge at mile 25.5, when suddenly we saw a clearing up ahead. I have never been so happy to see a parking lot. I’m not sure if the GPS got screwed up on the single-track or if the trail is actually 4 miles shorter than advertised—either way, I was thrilled to lie down in the shade. Megan, meanwhile, ran loops around the trailhead to bring the day to 26.2 miles, with 5900 feet of climbing, in under 4 hours (click the link for Megan's GPS file). Looking back 3.5 years to that first date . . .

We got what we asked for.
We were engaged at the top of a long climb in the Marin Headlands in August. The Ring Pop is necessary for recovery.

Bike from Skyline to Waddell Creek Beach:

Megan finished her parking lot loops, and we embraced. There was good news and bad news.

Good news: our rusty mountain bikes were still buried in the leaves, and had not been stolen by a hiker with bad taste or an enterprising deer with surprising dexterity.

Bad news: At least one of us was bonked out (me), and at least one of us was cold (Megan). Very few things in the world are less pleasant than a hungry David or a shivering Megan. Luckily, the adventure gods were smiling that day . . .

. . . Because there was a hot dog stand and an awesome Samaritan at the trailhead. I scarfed down two hot dogs (which I hadn’t had since I was a 9-year old), and an amazing mountain biker named Anthony gave us two fleece-lined jackets for the ride back. It was one of those moments that gives you faith in both humanity and the industrial meat-packing industry.

Is this heaven?

We extricated our bikes from hibernation, smacked on a pair of commuter helmets, and began the ride. If we could have gone straight back the way we came, we would never have had to pedal. But we had to go the long way around, which turned out to be a blessing because Megan was turning purple from cold and the first uphill on Skyline Road kept her from becoming the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka.

Megan led every step of the run; I took the lead on the bike. We gripped our brakes on the descents and pounded the climbs to stay warm, reaching the beach after an hour-and-a-half. The particular beach we reached, however, was 20 miles away from the one where we started. So we began the long grind into the wind down Route 1.

Like a turtle retreating into its shell, I put my head down and went silent, attempting to move the hefty mountain bike forward as quickly as possible while tuning out the fact that we had over an hour to go. Meanwhile, I could almost hear Megan’s smile behind me, along with the occasional woohoo emanating from my slipstream. I am convinced that she is Superwoman.

With a few miles back to the car, we finally realized the adventure was possible. Megan pulled around, silhouetted by the sunset, and injected some life into the pace. Suddenly, we were cruising at 20 mph into a headwind on massive mountain bikes. Seeing the car, my Supergirl finished with a big sprint, a bigger smile, and the biggest hug.

Back at the beach, in desperate need of adventure beers.

3.5 years ago, I didn’t think love existed. Nope, it was a fake idea people made up because the alternative was kind of sad. Now I realize how wrong I was. Love is finding someone that is different in the same ways you are.

Wow, she is different. Wow, so am I.

Let’s go up.


  1. Haha, thanks so much. I just follow her. We are mutual enablers :)

    It looks like you are crushing it right now! Keep being awesome :)

  2. This = simply amazing. Imagine where you would be without the industrial meat-packing industry! amazing amazing amazing.

  3. This is awesome. Always great to read about your running adventures. So glad to see you guys doing great!

  4. Dylan, that is not a world I want to imagine. If my protein sources were anything less than 2% rat dropping by volume, I would be an unhappy camper. DOWN WITH THE RATS, FOR THEY ARE DELICIOUS.

  5. Thanks so much David, you're awesome. Are you doing Boston this year? Or any other races on tap?

  6. U sexy billy goats!!! Uphills & trails & love & even fugly bikes are all awesome (hot dogs,hmmmm, there were really no bugs in that parking lot?)!!! ;)