Santa Barbara Nine Trails hasn’t been on the map for long as an ultra competitive race. An excellent map does exist of the sharply angled trails stretched out across Santa Barbara’s front range (see picture below), but few people outside of Luis Escobar’s friends and the growing Santa Barbara running community know of the race.
That is, until this year. After both rabbit and HOKA picked up the event as sponsors, the relatively unknown Nine Trails suddenly became a technical creek-crossing battleground for some of the nation’s best known elite athletes. As Trail Runner Magazine put it in a pre-race article, “The Most Stacked Race for 2019 Is a Race You’ve Never Heard Of.” The race? Santa Barbara Nine Trails.
I found myself in the middle of that race this past weekend.
On Thursday, Nick and I flew into Los Angeles, then hurried through the city to avoid traffic. By 5 p.m. we were jogging from our hotel to nearby Ellwood Mesa where eucalyptus trees spread dappled light across the trail and orange poppies poked their heads out of bright green grass. The next few days were spent eating (expensive Santa Barbara) food and taking long drives where Nick pulled over for bouldering problems and I sniffed lilac-blooming ceanothus until he begged me to join him on top of a rock (I did, but not without a bit of complaining.)
To say I was ignorant of the competition going into the race would be a lie: on the women’s side, I knew Taylor Nowlin, Sandi Nypaver and Cat Bradley, among others, would be there and I had proof that they were good climbers, descenders, and all around fast runners on technical terrain (take a look at the Grand Canyon’s recent R2R2R activity and their marks there.) I felt confident in my training coming into the race and had been working on improving my downhill speed, typically my weakest point, but would it be enough? In the past I might have been able to dupe myself into thinking that I would be happy with a finish, no matter the placement, but I really wasn’t sure what to expect with this race. “I think I’ll be happy just to finish,” I told Nick before the race. “I’m aiming for top 10.”
At 6 a.m., nearly 300 of us started running up the pavement, a strategy that Luis had wisely developed to avoid overcrowding as we rallied for positions on the upcoming single track trail. I wove through the pack until I found myself behind Sandi. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep up for long, but for now she seemed to be moving at a comfortable pace and her footing was solid; I followed almost her exact path, rock hopping through the creeks and power hiking the steeper hills. Ahead of Sandi was Taylor, and in front of her was Sarah Burke, who was running as part of the relay team (meaning she would complete half of the race then hand off her bib number to her teammate.) Behind I could hear Cat but as the four of us pushed the pace up the hill, I gradually lost Cat’s voice and figured she was taking the race casually for now.
At the top of the first big climb up Inspiration Point the group took off and I realized I would have to work a bit to keep up with them on the descents. The trail was fairly technical and at times damp grass crowded the route, hiding potentially race-ending rocks. I stepped carefully, all the while I hoping I might see the snake (I love snakes, don’t hate me.)
After climbing Tunnel Trail, Taylor, Sandi, and I passed Sarah and soon reached Gibraltar Road. I’ll admit it: this may have been my favorite part! The morning had brought fog to the city but from here, more than 2,000 feet above sea level, you could see the whole green valley. The three of us moved quickly down the road, running in tandem and clicking off the miles. I introduced myself and we briefly chatted before reaching the first main aid station. I ran through, then peeled off to the side to tighten my left shoe which had felt too loose from the start (and would soon become the bane of my race, or, at least, the first part of my race.)
When I stood up, Taylor and Sandi were gone and already Taylor’s hot pink shorts were far ahead on the switchbacked trail. I figured I wouldn’t catch them on this downhill, so I reoriented myself to stay efficient, fuel well, and keep them roughly in my sight.
At the Edison Catwalk, an incredibly steep section, I found myself power hiking and made a mental note to emphasize my climbing skills in training again—this was the type of terrain I typically loved but my heart rate felt high so I pulled back. From here until Romero Canyon I began to suffer from left shoe problems again. This time, I felt the sock liner of my shoe begin to bunch up until it had folded into itself. In response, I scrunched my toes to keep my foot from sliding around which worked poorly, considering the sharp grade, the technical rock crossings from where mud slides had occurred the previous year, and the numerous creek crossings. Now I’d created a hot spot. Still, there wasn’t time to fix the problem yet—I carried on. Five minutes from the turn-around point I saw Nick, and shortly after Taylor and Sandi came powering up behind them. Sweet relief for my foot came at mile 17.5 where I spent a few precious minutes untying and retying my shoe again.
As I set off to repeat my tracks, my goal was to catch back up to Taylor and Sandi. However, the women looked strong enough to have passed Nick, so my first order of business was to find Nick. In turn, this took my mind off of feeling anxious about Cat, who was roughly 10 minutes behind me here.
As I moved back up Romero Canyon, I felt my stomach roll with hunger so I downed several Spring energy gels, suddenly ravenous. Romero was as challenging as I had imagined on the way down, with several very long sections that were made infinitely better by passing other runners out on course. I knew several runners going into the race, but there were many that I didn’t know that said “great job, Jade!” as we passed each other and boy, if that didn’t lift my spirits (and my legs!)
At mile 21, I found myself suddenly out of food and shortly after, water. I couldn’t back off yet, though. I hadn’t seen Taylor and Sandi for some time and volunteers had told me I was still 10 minutes behind Nick. Hang in there, I told myself, and focused on taking advantage of every flat and downhill section to move. Cat, I knew, excelled at the descents and I needed every bit of time I could get there.
Just before the mile 27 aid station, I noticed two runners on the switchbacks ahead of me. “Nick!” I shouted across the canyon. One of the runners put their arms up in the air so I figured it was either Nick or someone being especially friendly to me (as in, “I don’t know what this crazy girl is shouting about but I’ll just wave so she stops.”) I hurried my pace.
A mile later, at the final aid station, I ran into Patrick Sweeney who informed me that I could still catch the leading women. I doubted that, still not having seen them, but catching Nick seemed like a possibility. First, though, I had to take care of my hunger and thirst. I downed three cups of water, refilled my bottle, and ate orange after orange…until I had eaten pretty much the entire aid station’s supply and had stacked several rinds on the table. I took two Muir energy gels to go.
Back up Gibraltar Road I went, finally enjoying the climb again. I still couldn’t see Cat behind me but far ahead I could barely make out a runner in the fog. Was it Nick?
A mile and a half later the course led sharply down Rattle Snake. Hurry, hurry, I thought. Was I running or chasing? It didn’t matter—both would help me get to the finish faster.
Suddenly Nick was on the trail and I was so happy to see him still in decent spirits (his return to racing following heart surgery last year, among other issues, has been challenging, to say the least.) I urged him to stick with me and he happily agreed, so for the remaining eight miles I was able to run with my husband! I don’t think there were too many runners on course that day who could say that!
Running with Nick was special, but the race wasn’t over and I couldn’t give myself to solely enjoying the moment just yet. I found it hard to concentrate on anything but moving efficiently and making good foot placements to avoid a spill. I had visions of Cat blowing by me in the last few miles and while I never saw her and doubt she got close enough, the race wasn’t over until I had crossed the finish line. With half a mile to go, I found myself falling apart. Hold on, Jade, I urged myself. It wasn’t until I was back on the pavement and rounding the corner to cross the finish in 3rd that I relaxed—I had managed to hang onto onto my race while somehow being able to finish with Nick!
This was one of the more challenging races I’ve done, both for its technical terrain and massive amount of climbing (and descending.) My glute meds are sore days after though I’m already eager to return to those trails, which goes to show you that they really are special. We were lucky enough to see them in their full glory—spring bloom time!— following their return from last year’s devastating fire and mudslides.
Luis Escobar puts on a fabulous race and I feel lucky that I was invited by rabbit to give the race a go myself (thank you, rabbit!) Thank you to the volunteers for creating a warm environment and for the runners for giving me such a challenge! I definitely worked for this one.
Spring energy (8)
Muir energy (2)
Orange slices (10)
rabbit freedom tank
rabbit winner shorts
Ultimate Direction race vesta
Altra superior 4 shoes
Injinji no-show wool socks (my one true love, besides Nick)