Desert Dash Malibu Double Half Marathon

Desert Dash Double Medal

Two half marathons on one day, on a single track section of the Backbone Trail, up in Malibu. Technical single-track, with 2500′ of climbing for each run. The first race began at 10 am. The second began at 6pm and was run in the dark. We parked down near PCH and Malibu Canyon Road and carpooled 5 miles up to the starting line just past the end of Corral Canyon Road.

There were about 60 runners. We started with a short scramble down a rocky trail that quickly narrowed into a tight singletrack that descended into a valley under a canopy of trees. There were numerous stream crossings, and then a mile of fairly step climbing that brought us to the highest point in the race, and the 10K turn-around, with a spectacular view of the ocean.

Those of us doing the half marathon continued on, a series of steep down-hills and sharp little uphills, across Latigo Canyon Road, and back down until we hit the half marathon turn around at Kanan Dume road, the lowest part of the race, after a short, steep and rocky descent.

Because the race was out-and-back on single track, we had to make room for runners passing and for runners ahead of us on the way back. The organizers did it well, starting the 10K runners about 15 minutes after those of us doing the half marathon. The 10K runners would need to run 5 minutes per mile faster to pick any of the half marathon runners off, so this prevented things getting bunched up on the trail.
elevation profile
By the half marathon turnaround, we’d all found our groove and our pace. The second half of the race I passed no one and no one passed me.

On the way back, down in one of the valleys, I passed a rattlesnake. It was most of the way across the trail when I passed it. Luckily, I was running on the other side. I think I was maybe 2 feet away at most. It seemed about as anxious to get away from me as I was to get away from it.

Because the trail was technical, because my goal in part was to run a measured pace and conserve strength for the evening run, because my goal was also to memorize the trail for the night run, and because there are rattlesnakes about in this area and this time of year, I did not spend a lot of time admiring the scenery. My gaze was on the ground immediately in front me, and on what was coming a few yards ahead.

I remembered the first half of the run as being almost entirely downhill, and so I expected the return to be almost entirely uphill. I was surprised by the downhill segments on the retun, some of which were extended, especially the mile long downhill after the 10K turnaround. I considered them gifts.

It was unseasonably hot, striking after last weekend’s snow, and the exposed-to-the-sun chunks of the climb back up had me staggering and swooning a bit.

I finished in the middle of the pack, with what will hopefully remain my slowest half marathon time ever, but, I hoped, with plenty in the tank to turn around and do it again in a few hours.

The first aid guy was desperate for someone to treat, and I have a tendency to look especially haggard after any sort of outing, so he made a beeline for me. Unfortunately for him, I was fine. This didn’t him from checking up on me every five minutes, but once I got the coveted cold coca-cola in my system my appearance started returning to normal, and he started look for other people to treat. There were a few, all of whom finished in the back of the pack.

Then came the wait. I had a wedding rehearsal to attend, but I’d already let them know there was a fair chance I wouldn’t make it. No cell service to call out. I settled down to munch on the kind of junk food I only eat after running. My body rehydrated some. Stretched, relaxed, talked to various folks, took a short nap, ate some sandwiches…

The night run was a smaller crowd – 15 or so signed up for the 10K, 15 for the half marathon, and the 15 of us who had signed up for both, (not all of whom were going to do the second race).

This time we all went out together. 6pm there was still enough light heading down that lamps weren’t necessary in the beginning. We were bunched up, and I’d ended up nearer to the front than I wanted to be.

As we got deep into the valley, things got very dark and the lights came on. I was in front of a pack of folks that really did not seem interested in passing (I asked a few times). I guess my familiarity with the trail from having run it that morning was helpful to them; they could watch what I was doing and it would alert them to what was ahead.

I’d managed not to get my feet wet on any of the morning run’s 7 or 8 stream crossings. In the evening I was not nearly as successful, and on the third or fourth I was ankle deep in water. Cold water. This would be a good test to see how the Vasques drain.

There were frogs. They were almost deafening. The sounds were amazing.

There came a point when the trail got rocky and technical, and I started tripping over stuff. I didn’t really want to be leading this pack – they were all fresh, I’d already run a half marathon, I thought my pace felt a little brisk, and we were about to start a long hill climb. I moved aside to let them pass.

Letting the runners pass turned out to be a mistake. When they were behind me, I had 4 headlamps besides mine lighting the path ahead. Some of those headlamps were very powerful. Once they were ahead, all that light was gone, it was just my headlamp, and things got difficult.

I have bad night vision. I especially have problems with depth perception. A headlight means a light lined up with my eyes, and that means no shadows. Everything is flattened and all the things the brain relies upon to analyze spatial stuff is missing.

I figured I’d be okay with this but it turns out I wasn’t. I was tripping over everything. I remembered that the middle half of the course had some very technical downhills, and doubted I’d make it through the run without a least one face plant, and a twisted ankle was also becoming a real possibility, so I decided to play it safe and headed back at the 10K turnaround.

Next time: a handheld flash light the lower angle of which will cast shadows, giving me back my spatial perception. Turns out this is a common trick of trail running night runners.

The final climb out of the valley to the finish line was brutally hot on the morning run. On the night run, it wasn’t the cool of the valley but the cold of the valley, and the warmth that was so dreaded in the morning felt like a gift after dark. Along with the warmth, I could see the light from the moon and the stars, and, near the end, from the lights at the finish line. It was such a relief.

While waiting for my friend Sheri, who was running the half marathon, I had a conversation with the Head Ranger of the area. Perhaps in part because there was some confusion with one of the earlier rangers (who was not able to get a gate unlocked, eliminating one of the aid stations for at the beginning of the run), he’d come down to supervise, and also to check out this inaugural event.

I noticed he was wearing a gun and asked him if they had much trouble up here in the hills. He told me stories about drunk over-priviliged kids from Malibu partying in nearby caves and setting the hills on fire back in 2007, burning down some of the homes on Corral Canyon as well as the old Ranger dorms, and, of course, the hillsides.

(On this right wing site you’ll see Tea Party type nutsacks blaming illegal aliens and/or environmental activists for setting the fires, because only illegals or liberals would do such a thing. Once they find out it’s regular beer drinking over-privileged white kids, they want to let them off. Here’s an article on the Corrall Canyon Fires from the LA Times.)

Mostly, though, he talked about the Backbone Trail. He has been a park ranger since 1979, and he loves his job because he loves being the steward of a region he cherishes. The Backbone Trail is a something he takes personal pride in, and he was visibly disappointed when he thought I hadn’t notice a section of the trail they’d just recently fixed up and smoothed over. When I recognized the area, he brightened up. He told me about a couple of other races in the area, and about mountain biking, which is something he loves to do, mostly towards the Point Mugu area of trail as it’s closer to where he lives in Woodland Hills.

Getting permits for this race was neither easy nor inexpensive, the race directors said. They said the rangers had been working with them. The Head Ranger I was talking to said he likes these smaller races, and trail runners in general. He thinks that if more people can come to know and love this land as much as he does, and we do, that maybe more effort will be made to preserve it.

I was disappointed in not finishing the second half, even though I’d gotten frightened out there stumbling blindly over rocks. I got over the disappointment quickly enough, though. I really don’t need any more injuries. And the day had been great fun.

My time (which I’m not gonna mention here) was my slowest half marathon on record. It was slow in part because I was conserving strength to run a second race that night, and I finished in the 70% range, which gives you an idea of how tough the course was. My 10K time was actually better, which is surprising because I am not a 10K specialist, and because I was stumbling around a lot in the dark. Perhaps because I’d run it earlier, I had a better feel for the spots where I could run fast. Maybe the winners held back a lot in the dark. Here’s the best part: of those of us who ran my particular combination (half marathon and 10K, which was the bulk of us doing both), I had the fastest combined times! If the combination had been a race, I’d’ve won!

Desert Dash normally run their races out of the Vegas area. They specialize in night time trail runs. Their events are small, and very friendly, and I really recommend them to everyone. This was their inaugural Malibu (and California) event, and I will be out here next year with better lights and more practice night running.

4 replies
  1. elodie
    elodie says:

    Wow, you WON! Congrats, that was an incredible event. I don’t think trail races really have specialists in the same way road races do, because as you’ve noted, each trail is a thing unto itself. Plus, nighttime races are so rare it’s hard to target them. Clearly, your combo time will be the one to beat next year — that’s pretty cool.

    The photo of the finish in the dark is awesome, like backstage at a concert. The story about the park ranger is great, too. I have a friend who’s a National Park ranger in the Everglades; it’s not an easy job to get. There’s stiffer competition for those positions than for corporate lawyers, which is a cheerful thought.

    • geoff
      geoff says:

      My “winning” (they didn’t actually have a category for both races combined – it was just something the crazies were encouraged to do) was pure fluke, no doubt. I feel obligated to issue as many disclaimers as possible. But still, it was the fastest combined time, so…yeah, that’s pretty rad!

      I fully intend to smoke my combo time next year. I’ll be better, faster, and more skilled at night running. It’s just that simple.

      The event was awesome. It was just so much fun. My no longer coach was dismissive because he’d never heard of it and it’s not the LA Marathon. Fucking road people. I run to get away from all those tools.

      Next up: Wild Wild West. Gotta do some altitude training to get ready. Plus, there will be no road tools running at 6,000 feet in Angeles Crest, ’cause they might get their shiny white shoes all dirty.

  2. Cyril Jay-Rayon
    Cyril Jay-Rayon says:

    Great write-up Geoff. We put on this race for people like you who love small races on single track, with a night component, and with the option to run twice in one day. Next year reserve yourself a Light and Motion light (they’re free). I run and bike exclusively with these and they are super bright and comfortable. When you pass someone who has a regular headlight, they feel, as you did, in the dark afterward.

    See you next year.

    • geoff
      geoff says:

      Hey Cyril – next year for sure I’ll reserve a light…although I’ll also have a better set up of my own. It was a great run. Looking forward to seeing you all again next spring.


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