Chino Hills 20-Mile Trail “Race” – May 2011

I’ve really been struggling with what to say about this race, and how much I can, or should, complain. One of the things I love about trail running is the bare-bones ethos, the rugged nature of the sport, the fact that we carry our own water and duct tape our blisters and suck it up instead of crying it out. I love that there’s beer at the finish line instead of fancy Mylar blankets. (And I don’t even drink beer! But I still love what it represents.) The low-key nature is a huge selling point, so it feels a little disingenuous to complain about this race for being too low-key.

But, at the end of the day, this race was not satisfying, was not particularly enjoyable as a race (although it was a lovely casual run) and it made me think long and hard about what I expect from a “race” in general. Here are a few of the ideas I had about what constitutes race necessities:

  • Organization: a clear leader, who can answer questions, provide guidance, and get the race started (on time!)
  • A well-marked course so runners don’t get lost
  • Adequate and well-spaced aid stations
  • Safety precautions in place for runners

Now, there are a lot more things that add to the fun, like goodie bags, awesome food at aid stations, post-run picnics, etc. But these four things are, to me, the necessities required to have a successful race. And I’m sorry to say I don’t think the Chino Hills 20-mile race delivered on any count.

I signed up for this race on a whim, literally the afternoon before the race. I was feeling super good after Leona Divide, and although I had a 50k planned for two weekends after Leona, decided I wanted something fun for the week in between. 20 miles felt like a good compromise between getting in some decent miles and not taxing my body too much for the 50k the next weekend. I found out about the race from a flyer in my Leona goodie bag, and after rolling the idea around in my head for a few days, I finally registered on Friday.

The 20-mile race is part of a larger series of races, leading up to a marathon and a 50k on these same trails later on in the spring. The race was held at Chino Hills State Park, a beautiful park about an hour away in Brea. (How is it possible to have so many amazing trail systems so close by that I have never heard of? I really have to get out of my Pasadena bubble more often.) The race website stressed an 8am SHARP start time, and said check-in was from 7-7:30, so I raced to get there by 7:30. Turns out I needn’t have bothered, because they were still starting to set up when I got there, and the entire check-in procedure involved getting a tiny pink sticker with a number on it to wear in lieu of a bib. The woman explained that it was “being held as a training run” instead, but I didn’t get any further information until right before the race. I was also given a tiny map of the race course to carry with me, which I thought was clever, but should have realized boded ill for the rest of the race.

It was a long 30 minutes+ waiting for more folks to arrive and the race to get underway. It was a small crowd that gathered, and right before the race began, someone finally explained the mystery dots. It turns out that the organizers found out on the previous Wednesday that they could no longer get permission to run the race, since it was run through some delicate habitat and the park service was worried about an endangered bird being disturbed. The trails were still open to regular hikers and mountain bikers, however, so they had decided to be sneaky and call it a “training run” instead of a race, so if anyone asked we were to say we were training with a local running group.

First big complaint: I think it is shady that they didn’t tell us the situation up front. They found out on Wednesday, but didn’t mention anything until literally a minute before the race began on Saturday. If they had put a note on their website saying “this is actually going to be a training run instead of an official race” or something, I wouldn’t have registered. Although I see their point, in that the trails weren’t closed off to other people, I think it’s bad form to skirt the rules and go against the park service like that. I try to be a good trail citizen and respect the regulations, because I value the park system. I disliked being put in a situation where I was going against the rules without ever intending to. And yes, I did choose to run the race after all, so I accept some blame. But I think the honest thing to do would have been to either cancel the race, work out an alternate route, or tell the runners in advance so we could decide whether we wanted to participate in the “training run” charade, instead of blindsiding us and then starting the race. (Late, I might add.)

There were a few other signs that this race might be trouble: the tiny maps they had us carry, for one thing, and the way one organizer kept pointing out potentially confusing trail forks on the map for another. When I asked if the course was going to be marked, he hedged and said, basically, yes, but people might move the markings and you can’t really control whether it’ll be marked or not, so better to know the route. Which is indeed a good idea, except you can’t expect people who’ve never been on these trails before to memorize 20 miles’ worth of turn by turn directions in a few minutes. A woman who was waiting by me said she’d done the 15-miler two weeks prior, and that some people had gotten lost because it wasn’t well marked, but she hoped they had learned from that experience and marked the trail better this time.

Mmmhmm.

The first half of the race went pretty well. The field was small and we spread out quickly, but there were a number of other hikers/bikers on the trail, so it didn’t feel too remote. There was quite a bit of climbing, so I got cozy with my This American Life podcasts and hiked what I wanted to, and ran what I could. I was feeling surprisingly fresh for doing 50 miles 7 days ago, and enjoyed the cloudy, overcast morning. About 6 miles into the race, I almost missed a turn off the main trail onto a tiny cowpath that, yes, wasn’t marked at all. (It was marked on my teensy map, but the trail names were very difficult to read and I hadn’t read it right.) A fellow behind me who had run the 15-miler previously called out to me and got me on the right path, for which I was very grateful.

We ran together off and on for the next hour. As we got close to the halfway point, we came to a fork in the trail that was, of course, unmarked. Our map had turn directions listed with mileage on the back, and none of the milestones matched with what my Garmin said, so I thought we should just continue the direction we were going. The fellow I was running with, who had pointed out the correct turn before and run the trails previously, though that we should turn. There was a signpost at the junction with a trail name that matched one on our maps, and so although the mile count wasn’t right, I decided to follow him and take the turn, since the name seemed to match what was on our map. The Garmin often gets confused or loses/adds time or distance when it can’t get a consistent signal in the mountains/valleys, so I thought it was very possible that either my mileage was off, or whatever GPS they had used to calculate the course was a little off.

Well, we ran and we ran, and we didn’t see anyone else, and eventually our trail narrowed until it was just a small path through knee-high grass. After a few miles we knew we had gone off course, but the question was whether our little path was leading us in the same direction, and whether it was worth it to try and continue forward or to cut our losses and go back. Eventually we crested a hill that had a good view of the surrounding area, and we saw the trail we left, the one we should have stayed on, was paralleling our tiny path. We decided to keep running, and after awhile the paths joined and we made it to the turnaround aid station, having added a few “bonus miles” in the process.

At the aid station, the volunteers told us that other people had gotten lost—some had missed a turn AFTER leaving the aid station and had ended up looping back around to them a second time! They had a larger map there and were very helpful in telling us the tricky (unmarked!) spots where we might go off course. I was still feeling good, body-wise, but was more than a little irked with the organization and the lack of markings. I would guess there were a half-dozen places where the trail was marked, total, in the whole 20 miles. I think that ANY time you have a turn in the trail, or you have a trail junction, you HAVE to mark it for the runners. Even if they’re not supposed to take the turn, if there is any question of the right path, it has to be marked. It’s easy to zone out when running long distances, and I think it’s necessary to make navigation as simple and brainless as possible for tired, fuzzy-brained runners. If you don’t feel comfortable marking a trail that much because you’re only supposed to be having a “training run,” well, maybe that’s a sign you shouldn’t be holding a race at all.

When we reached the second-to-last aid station, the volunteers told us of a shortcut that other runners who had gotten lost were taking. Basically, it cut about 2 miles off the route. This sounded perfect, since my friend & I had added 2-3 miles of our own, and the race was already going slowly, since we kept having to slow down or stop to check our route. I had things to do on a Saturday! Let’s get this mother over with!

I didn’t start feeling tired until about mile 17. I knew I was getting close to being done, and the trail left the remote hills and started into a more populated area, with other hikers, views of houses and streets, and less awesomeness in general. Fortunately these were rolling hills, and a net downhill effect, so I was able to run pretty well and busted out some sub-9 minute miles the last 3 miles.

At the finish, I suggested to the organizers that I could have used more course markings, and the response was basically a casual, yeah, some folks got lost. In retrospect I wish I had been more assertive face to face, but I was struggling with the feelings mentioned above: if I love the low-key nature of the sport, how much can/should I complain about a casual race? And yes, we were given maps, so maybe getting lost was my mistake and I can’t blame them at all?

After thinking about it further, though, I’m definitely in a blaming mood. I mean, the fundamental question is, what did I pay for? The race wasn’t a race to speak of: no numbers, no nuthin’. The aid was extremely minimal: three stations, most of which only had water and a salty Chex-type mix. One had some gels, but that is IT. The course was barely marked for us. Honestly, I could have driven to these same trails, gotten myself lost, and saved myself $60 and been less annoyed. If you’re going to charge like a real race, you need to hold a real race, not a “training run.” I’m really skeptical that if I had gotten lost, truly lost, there was any organization in place to find & help me.

At the end of the day, it was not a terrible run—I felt good, the scenery was beautiful, and I was introduced to some great trails that aren’t too far from my house. So I can’t be bitter about the experience as a whole. I do know, though, that I would never do a race with this group/organizer again. Do a 50k under similar conditions? No thank you!

Final Stats:
Date:
Saturday, May 7, 2011
Distance: 20.81 miles (Garmin measured, with longcut and shortcut included)
Elevation gain: 3,800 feet
Garmin time: 3 hrs 41 min
Official time: Unknown, not posted yet (1st woman)

2 Responses to Chino Hills 20-Mile Trail “Race” – May 2011
  1. Jason
    May 13, 2011 | 11:52 am

    Well put. An excellent post for a less-than-excellent “training run.”

  2. Margaret Payne
    May 14, 2011 | 2:50 pm

    I must echo Jason-well said! It almost inspires me to try a race myself.(Of the 5K variety!) You are amazing!

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Chino Hills 20-Mile Trail “Race” – May 2011

I’ve really been struggling with what to say about this race, and how much I can, or should, complain. One of the things I love about trail running is the bare-bones ethos, the rugged nature of the sport, the fact that we carry our own water and duct tape our blisters and suck it up instead of crying it out. I love that there’s beer at the finish line instead of fancy Mylar blankets. (And I don’t even drink beer! But I still love what it represents.) The low-key nature is a huge selling point, so it feels a little disingenuous to complain about this race for being too low-key.

But, at the end of the day, this race was not satisfying, was not particularly enjoyable as a race (although it was a lovely casual run) and it made me think long and hard about what I expect from a “race” in general. Here are a few of the ideas I had about what constitutes race necessities:

  • Organization: a clear leader, who can answer questions, provide guidance, and get the race started (on time!)
  • A well-marked course so runners don’t get lost
  • Adequate and well-spaced aid stations
  • Safety precautions in place for runners

Now, there are a lot more things that add to the fun, like goodie bags, awesome food at aid stations, post-run picnics, etc. But these four things are, to me, the necessities required to have a successful race. And I’m sorry to say I don’t think the Chino Hills 20-mile race delivered on any count.

I signed up for this race on a whim, literally the afternoon before the race. I was feeling super good after Leona Divide, and although I had a 50k planned for two weekends after Leona, decided I wanted something fun for the week in between. 20 miles felt like a good compromise between getting in some decent miles and not taxing my body too much for the 50k the next weekend. I found out about the race from a flyer in my Leona goodie bag, and after rolling the idea around in my head for a few days, I finally registered on Friday.

The 20-mile race is part of a larger series of races, leading up to a marathon and a 50k on these same trails later on in the spring. The race was held at Chino Hills State Park, a beautiful park about an hour away in Brea. (How is it possible to have so many amazing trail systems so close by that I have never heard of? I really have to get out of my Pasadena bubble more often.) The race website stressed an 8am SHARP start time, and said check-in was from 7-7:30, so I raced to get there by 7:30. Turns out I needn’t have bothered, because they were still starting to set up when I got there, and the entire check-in procedure involved getting a tiny pink sticker with a number on it to wear in lieu of a bib. The woman explained that it was “being held as a training run” instead, but I didn’t get any further information until right before the race. I was also given a tiny map of the race course to carry with me, which I thought was clever, but should have realized boded ill for the rest of the race.

It was a long 30 minutes+ waiting for more folks to arrive and the race to get underway. It was a small crowd that gathered, and right before the race began, someone finally explained the mystery dots. It turns out that the organizers found out on the previous Wednesday that they could no longer get permission to run the race, since it was run through some delicate habitat and the park service was worried about an endangered bird being disturbed. The trails were still open to regular hikers and mountain bikers, however, so they had decided to be sneaky and call it a “training run” instead of a race, so if anyone asked we were to say we were training with a local running group.

First big complaint: I think it is shady that they didn’t tell us the situation up front. They found out on Wednesday, but didn’t mention anything until literally a minute before the race began on Saturday. If they had put a note on their website saying “this is actually going to be a training run instead of an official race” or something, I wouldn’t have registered. Although I see their point, in that the trails weren’t closed off to other people, I think it’s bad form to skirt the rules and go against the park service like that. I try to be a good trail citizen and respect the regulations, because I value the park system. I disliked being put in a situation where I was going against the rules without ever intending to. And yes, I did choose to run the race after all, so I accept some blame. But I think the honest thing to do would have been to either cancel the race, work out an alternate route, or tell the runners in advance so we could decide whether we wanted to participate in the “training run” charade, instead of blindsiding us and then starting the race. (Late, I might add.)

There were a few other signs that this race might be trouble: the tiny maps they had us carry, for one thing, and the way one organizer kept pointing out potentially confusing trail forks on the map for another. When I asked if the course was going to be marked, he hedged and said, basically, yes, but people might move the markings and you can’t really control whether it’ll be marked or not, so better to know the route. Which is indeed a good idea, except you can’t expect people who’ve never been on these trails before to memorize 20 miles’ worth of turn by turn directions in a few minutes. A woman who was waiting by me said she’d done the 15-miler two weeks prior, and that some people had gotten lost because it wasn’t well marked, but she hoped they had learned from that experience and marked the trail better this time.

Mmmhmm.

The first half of the race went pretty well. The field was small and we spread out quickly, but there were a number of other hikers/bikers on the trail, so it didn’t feel too remote. There was quite a bit of climbing, so I got cozy with my This American Life podcasts and hiked what I wanted to, and ran what I could. I was feeling surprisingly fresh for doing 50 miles 7 days ago, and enjoyed the cloudy, overcast morning. About 6 miles into the race, I almost missed a turn off the main trail onto a tiny cowpath that, yes, wasn’t marked at all. (It was marked on my teensy map, but the trail names were very difficult to read and I hadn’t read it right.) A fellow behind me who had run the 15-miler previously called out to me and got me on the right path, for which I was very grateful.

We ran together off and on for the next hour. As we got close to the halfway point, we came to a fork in the trail that was, of course, unmarked. Our map had turn directions listed with mileage on the back, and none of the milestones matched with what my Garmin said, so I thought we should just continue the direction we were going. The fellow I was running with, who had pointed out the correct turn before and run the trails previously, though that we should turn. There was a signpost at the junction with a trail name that matched one on our maps, and so although the mile count wasn’t right, I decided to follow him and take the turn, since the name seemed to match what was on our map. The Garmin often gets confused or loses/adds time or distance when it can’t get a consistent signal in the mountains/valleys, so I thought it was very possible that either my mileage was off, or whatever GPS they had used to calculate the course was a little off.

Well, we ran and we ran, and we didn’t see anyone else, and eventually our trail narrowed until it was just a small path through knee-high grass. After a few miles we knew we had gone off course, but the question was whether our little path was leading us in the same direction, and whether it was worth it to try and continue forward or to cut our losses and go back. Eventually we crested a hill that had a good view of the surrounding area, and we saw the trail we left, the one we should have stayed on, was paralleling our tiny path. We decided to keep running, and after awhile the paths joined and we made it to the turnaround aid station, having added a few “bonus miles” in the process.

At the aid station, the volunteers told us that other people had gotten lost—some had missed a turn AFTER leaving the aid station and had ended up looping back around to them a second time! They had a larger map there and were very helpful in telling us the tricky (unmarked!) spots where we might go off course. I was still feeling good, body-wise, but was more than a little irked with the organization and the lack of markings. I would guess there were a half-dozen places where the trail was marked, total, in the whole 20 miles. I think that ANY time you have a turn in the trail, or you have a trail junction, you HAVE to mark it for the runners. Even if they’re not supposed to take the turn, if there is any question of the right path, it has to be marked. It’s easy to zone out when running long distances, and I think it’s necessary to make navigation as simple and brainless as possible for tired, fuzzy-brained runners. If you don’t feel comfortable marking a trail that much because you’re only supposed to be having a “training run,” well, maybe that’s a sign you shouldn’t be holding a race at all.

When we reached the second-to-last aid station, the volunteers told us of a shortcut that other runners who had gotten lost were taking. Basically, it cut about 2 miles off the route. This sounded perfect, since my friend & I had added 2-3 miles of our own, and the race was already going slowly, since we kept having to slow down or stop to check our route. I had things to do on a Saturday! Let’s get this mother over with!

I didn’t start feeling tired until about mile 17. I knew I was getting close to being done, and the trail left the remote hills and started into a more populated area, with other hikers, views of houses and streets, and less awesomeness in general. Fortunately these were rolling hills, and a net downhill effect, so I was able to run pretty well and busted out some sub-9 minute miles the last 3 miles.

At the finish, I suggested to the organizers that I could have used more course markings, and the response was basically a casual, yeah, some folks got lost. In retrospect I wish I had been more assertive face to face, but I was struggling with the feelings mentioned above: if I love the low-key nature of the sport, how much can/should I complain about a casual race? And yes, we were given maps, so maybe getting lost was my mistake and I can’t blame them at all?

After thinking about it further, though, I’m definitely in a blaming mood. I mean, the fundamental question is, what did I pay for? The race wasn’t a race to speak of: no numbers, no nuthin’. The aid was extremely minimal: three stations, most of which only had water and a salty Chex-type mix. One had some gels, but that is IT. The course was barely marked for us. Honestly, I could have driven to these same trails, gotten myself lost, and saved myself $60 and been less annoyed. If you’re going to charge like a real race, you need to hold a real race, not a “training run.” I’m really skeptical that if I had gotten lost, truly lost, there was any organization in place to find & help me.

At the end of the day, it was not a terrible run—I felt good, the scenery was beautiful, and I was introduced to some great trails that aren’t too far from my house. So I can’t be bitter about the experience as a whole. I do know, though, that I would never do a race with this group/organizer again. Do a 50k under similar conditions? No thank you!

Final Stats:
Date:
Saturday, May 7, 2011
Distance: 20.81 miles (Garmin measured, with longcut and shortcut included)
Elevation gain: 3,800 feet
Garmin time: 3 hrs 41 min
Official time: Unknown, not posted yet (1st woman)

2 Responses to Chino Hills 20-Mile Trail “Race” – May 2011
  1. Jason
    May 13, 2011 | 11:52 am

    Well put. An excellent post for a less-than-excellent “training run.”

  2. Margaret Payne
    May 14, 2011 | 2:50 pm

    I must echo Jason-well said! It almost inspires me to try a race myself.(Of the 5K variety!) You are amazing!

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