Trail running in Nisene Marks, California

October 4, 2011

I love running in the Forest of Nisene Marks! Similar to the sights and smells of the ocean, those of a redwood forest remind me of growing up in Santa Cruz – of camping and hiking in Big Sur and Big Basin, of summers at Camp Kennolyn, of childhood friends whose families lived up in the mountains…That’s the beauty of Santa Cruz – I live a five minute walk from a beautiful beach, and a ten minute drive to this beautiful forest. Nisene is still quite new to me as a runner, given that I just moved back here from London a month ago, but I look forward to getting to know its vast network of trails!

My recent 15 mile run there certainly was a start. I have only done one long run in Nisene once before, and that was a year ago while visiting my family and training for the NYC marathon. The elevation profile of this run remains a vivid (and painful) memory, as a newbie to this type of running! Let me show you what I’m talking about:

For that run, I followed the Fire Road, which begins as the road entering the park, quickly turns into a wide dirt trail and then at the base of that steep climb you see, narrows into a more typical trail (although still fairly wide). After about 8-9M of running, you reach Sand Point Overlook, which on a clear day gives you a great view of the ocean.

The nice thing about this route is that it’s a killer hill workout, plus if you’re running alone (as I was), there are usually other runners, hikers and mountain bikers out and about on the weekends. It’s also great prep for races like the Jog Shop Jog 20 miler in Brighton, which I ran less than a month later. This year it’s on October 9th, and if any of you happen to be in the London area, I highly recommend it. The scenery is fantastic (along the South Downs), the crowd quite small and friendly (you can sign up on race day morning) and the terrain will kick your butt. Here’s the course profile from my Garmin:

But getting back to my 15 miler…

With so many trailheads along the Fire Road, I wanted to try something new or at least get a taste of  some “real” trail running in Nisene Marks! I had hoped to have a running buddy to keep me company and lead the way, but unfortunately it didn’t work out, so I bought a trail map and studied it carefully before heading out. I also let some friends know where I was going. I decided to run the Loma Prieta Grade Trail, which I heard was well-maintained and can be part of a much larger loop that I definitely want to do at a later stage. It probably wasn’t the best idea to test out unfamiliar trails on my own, since I started running quite early, there’s no cell reception in the park and the paths are relatively dark, tricky in spots and remote. However, I figured I could run along the main road for three miles and then do an out and back detour along this and other connecting trails, finishing any remaining miles further along the main road from where I left off. That way, if at any point I felt uncomfortable, I could simply turn around – and if I felt fine, I could keep going.

So, what did I end up doing? I ran three miles to the Loma Prieta trailhead, 6M out and back on the trails, and then another 1.5M along the Fire Road (hitting the first part of the climb) before turning around. It was a fairly slow run – between my lingering hip injury, the frequent climbs and taking extra precaution out in the forest, I wasn’t worrying too much about pace. The trail was beautiful – mostly singletrack, alongside (and into) ravines, across rivers, so quiet and deserted you could hear a leaf fall or a creek trickling in the distance.

I kind of enjoyed it, and I kind of didn’t. From the start, I was on the edge of my comfort zone – not so much with regards to creepy men or animals (mountain lions etc.), but rather, in terms of twisting an ankle or falling into a ravine. I did just complete a CPR/First Aid course, as part of my RRCA coaching certification course that I’m taking in Portland this week (before running the marathon there), but I’d rather not have to put my new skills to use! The day’s dreary weather didn’t exactly make it easy to spot the numerous obstacles on the ground.

And yet, it was so incredible, I was determined to keep going! I felt like the world didn’t exist – completely lost in the wilderness, not a soul anywhere for miles. It was that feeling that also hindered me from really enjoying my run. I was fighting off ridiculous thoughts, jumping at every noise, carefully running/walking over every obstacle…I promised myself that if I started to feel really unsafe, I would turn around immediately.

Finally, as my Garmin clocked three miles on the out section, I decided I’d had enough. The trail had just taken a steep dive into another ravine and the forest was feeling increasingly eery rather than awe-inspiring. The further out into the middle of nowhere I went without seeing anyone, the more paranoid I became, so I turned around.

I booked it back to the trailhead, which made me realize just how desperate I was to no longer be alone. Don’t get me wrong – I love to run alone and be alone – but in an unfamiliar place, in the middle of nature where a lovely trail run could turn into something more dangerous, I was over it. Maybe it’s just me though, being overly paranoid…

Less than a mile from the Fire Road, I finally saw some people – an older man running with poles and shortly thereafter, a male cyclist. It got me thinking back to something a guy in my local running shop said to me when I had asked him about running in Nisene, about men frequently going out on the trails alone but most women don’t. If a guy falls and hurts himself, or gets attacked by an animal or whatever else, will he really be any better off than if it happens to a woman? Probably best to not run alone in these types of places – man or woman. Curious to hear anyone’s thoughts on the matter – and what others tend to do in their training.

As soon as I hit the main road to get in my extra three miles, my legs started to feel quite sore and fatigued. I think I had so much adrenaline rushing through my body as I was running deep in the forest that I didn’t notice all my aches and pains! I was far more focused on my safety and surroundings. So, the last 4-5 miles weren’t too fun – but I made it through!

The elevation definitely didn’t feel as painful as that of last year’s run, although the net gain of 1,993ft fell short of last year’s run by only 30ft:

The following week, I felt like I had some unresolved business with that trail. It was beautiful and I wanted to properly enjoy it! Thankfully, my boyfriend happened to be visiting and I was able to drag him along. My training schedule only called for a short run of 5-6M, so we drove right up to the trailhead so we could skip the Fire Road. It was a gorgeous day, which completely transformed the forest – the trails were dappled with sunlight, birds were chirping and wonderful smells of redwoods filled the air. The scenery had taken on a more cheerful, welcoming quality and I was happily soaking it all up.

I felt infinitely more at ease with my running buddy behind me. It was a relatively challenging workout too – 1,020ft net elevation gain in under an hour – but we were having so much fun, we hardly noticed.

For future runs in Nisene, I think I’ll stick to training with others. There’s a local running club that often runs there on Sunday mornings, and I’ve also met a couple runners in town who run around my pace. As much as I often crave solitude on the trails, I’d rather have some peace of mind so that I can focus more on my workout goals as well as the scenery!

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