The Day The Sky Fell On Saddleback

Posted: January 8, 2013 in Trails, TRAINING
Tags: , , , , , ,

Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re having fun.
– Larry Niven

This wasn’t part of the plan.

Actually, the steady uphill jog on nice wide dirt trail was the plan, the reason I was here.  But freezing temperatures? Near-blizzard conditions?  And a disturbingly cold headwind that was – almost scornfully – treating my rain-soaked body like high-school football players treat one of those paper banners that cheerleaders hold up at the beginning of games? Using the ten fingersicles on the ends of my arms as blunt-force instruments, I brutishly hammered out a text to let Katie and Chuck know I was halving my intended 8-mile ascent and turning around.  This was turning out to be a typical winter run in our Midwestern United States.

Except this wasn’t the Midwest… this was Southern California.  Orange County, to be exact.  Average yearly snowfall of zero inches.  And that’s rounding up.

Maybe this would be my comeuppance for shrugging off both the Mayans and

Maybe this day would be my comeuppance for shrugging off both the Mayans and

So I could hardly be blamed for finding myself in a driving snowstorm, wearing my usual comfortable winter running gear of t-shirt and shorts.  And the finishing touch – the coup de grâce in this absurd comedy of errors – was the bottle of cold coconut water that now threatened to drain all remaining feeling from the fingers wrapped tightly around it.

It was only natural to ask how this had happened.  Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t really blame my brother for this one.  True, it was Chuck who had – after careful consideration – recommended I run the Harding Truck Trail to Modjeska Peak during our New Year’s visit to SoCal.  And the elevation profile from his Garmin had sealed the deal, showing a daunting route that began at ~1,400ft and summited 12 miles later at ~5,400ft, making Modjeska second only to its next-door neighbor Santiago as the highest peak in Orange County.  How could I refuse an offer like that, with an ascent unavailable in the Bay Area?  And so, begrudgingly, I let Chuck off the hook.

Certainly The Weather Channel had steered me wrong.  Moments before we’d hit the road for Modjeska, I’d checked and found a forecast of low 50s and a 10% chance of precipitation for the area around Modjeska Canyon.  And even if I were to get wet out on the trail, no worries… I’d just managed eight miles in a steady SoCal downpour 24 hours earlier, and in the process gained a front-row seat to a magnificent full (and near-double) rainbow stretching from Laguna Niguel to Dana Point.  I could almost hear the leprechauns on each end frolicking in their piles of gold coins.  Plus, I’d maintained a respectable pace on slick sidewalks.  So more rain wasn’t a concern, despite the mud it would generate.

But driving snow?  No, this definitely wasn’t part of the plan.

The splice is twice as nice: even my low-res cell phone camera couldn't spoil this iridescent display

The splice is twice as nice: even my low-res cell phone camera couldn’t spoil this iridescent display

I’m not the superstitious type, but maybe simple karma was to blame here.  After Amy recently wrote about her winter training in Albuquerque, I’d joked that as a Californian I enjoyed “hearing other people’s stories of training in cold weather, without being able to relate in any way.”  So maybe I’d brought this on myself – a (literally) cold (literally) hard lesson in winter-weather empathy.

But let me rewind a bit: last Sunday seemed like any other characteristically mild winter day in SoCal, as Katie and I made the 20-mile drive out to Modjeska Canyon.  Approaching our destination, I realized I’d forgotten my water bottle, so we made a brief pitstop to buy cold coconut water.  A surprisingly sharp chill greeted us as we stepped out of the car, intensified by a monochromatic gray sky that overpowered the usual Orange County sunshine.  Meanwhile, our car’s “outdoor temp” display read a balmy 55°.  Ideal winter running weather.

We met Chuck and Laura at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, at the foot of Modjeska Peak.  Conveniently (for him), Chuck was nursing an injured hamstring, so Laura and I would be running this one by ourselves.  In the men’s room hung a sign announcing the park’s recent loss of state funding, and imploring the reader to bring extra toilet paper, paper towels and hand soap with them to share on their next visit.  Ah, California… the golden beholden state.

Mike Sohaskey and Laura running in Modjeska Canyon

Off to a good start – if only the sky in front of us had stayed this gloriously drab
(photo by Chuck, without whom I’d be pulling random images off Google)

The warning chill in the air prompted me to pull on my arm sleeves – my usual ample protection against the California winter.  As Laura and I trotted toward the dirt to start our immediate ascent on the Harding Truck Trail, a gray-bearded fellow in a faded baseball cap leaned out the window of his pickup truck, smiled and declared “You’re just in time for the rain!”  Though the skies remained bleak the air remained dry, and I smiled back absentmindedly as we trotted on without a second thought.  Dirt or not, it wasn’t like me and my trusty Mix Masters couldn’t handle a bit of rain.

With no level-ground opportunity to warm up my legs and lungs, I acclimated to the ascent by jogging alongside Laura for the first few minutes.  Chuck awaited us at the ¼-mile mark with camera in hand.  Laura and I chatted and set expectations: since she hoped to run a low-key New Year’s Eve marathon the next day, her goal on this day was ten miles (five up, five down).  Despite our late start, I was aiming to cover 16 miles (eight up, eight down) and experience as much of the trail as possible on my first outing.  So Laura would most likely be done and gone by the time I found my way back to where Katie awaited at the wildlife sanctuary.

At the ¾-mile mark I picked up my pace and pulled ahead of Laura – I’m more of an uphiller, she’s more of a down-hiller, as I’d be reminded later.  I was eager to tackle the trail and find out how it stacked up against my favorite Bay Area hills.  Ironic that my main concern at the start of this run – the persistent ascent – would quickly become my least.

Mike Sohaskey running Harding Truck Trail

Trail Running for Dummies: Don’t keep going when the sky ahead of you looks like this
(photo by Chuck, who no doubt made a beeline for his car right after this was taken)

At the one-mile mark the course’s uphill trajectory gives way to a brief ¼-mile downhill jag.  Here I further increased my pace and fell into a comfortable rhythm.  Bounding along I had the trail more or less to myself, and I planned to savor my light-footed feeling before the coming uphill grind took its toll.  The previous day’s showers had softened the dirt just enough to provide optimal footing – not too dusty, not too muddy, with just the right combination of firmness and tack.

Glancing up and ahead of me, I noticed for the first time that the light-gray clouds had yielded to a dark, ominous haze that now engulfed Saddleback Mountain – comprising Modjeska and Santiago Peaks – and which threatened to swallow all remaining light.  Suddenly my surroundings looked like a Photoshop creation, as though someone had applied a “Middle-earth” filter to the scene: had I left Orange County and entered the Misty Mountains?

My first sense that a light mist had begun to fall was the tiny droplets that splashed against my sunglasses and merged into a watery film (yes, sunglasses, I was naïvely confident that the sun would eventually break through the clouds… hey, this was Orange County!).  As the trail wound its way upward, I periodically rounded a corner and found myself running into a brisk headwind.  Wind is hands- (and heads-) down my least favorite part of running, but fortunately this was relatively mild and only minimally impeded my progress.

Not as impressive as Chuck's

Not as impressive as Chuck’s 24-mile elevation profile, but I’ll be back to finish the job

As my Garmin chimed to signal the end of mile two, the mist gradually transitioned into legitimate rain, and now each turn seemed to greet me with a colder and more powerful gust than the one before.  The wind began to change direction erratically, blowing the rain diagonally as though searching for the most efficient way to ensure my discomfort.  Wind and rain continued to build in intensity as my Garmin signaled the end of mile three.  And moments later, things got (d)icy…

Maybe it was my focus on pushing forward up the trail.  More likely it was the incongruity of snow in Southern California (and below 3,000ft at that).  In any case I failed to register the first few snowflakes drifting around me, until at last my eyes synced with my brain, jarring me back to reality.  Sure I’d realized the temperature had been dropping steadily as I’d ascended out of Modjeska Canyon… but shortly before mile three I would’ve pegged it at mid- to high 40s, maybe low 40s with wind chill.  Now, watching the first airborne snow I’d ever seen in Southern California, it was clear Mother Nature had upped the ante.

Always the optimistic/stubborn runner, I persuaded my brain that: 1) snow was preferable to rain for its consistency; 2) having run only three miles, I couldn’t turn back now; and 3) this was my golden opportunity for a winter wonderland run in the snow, having been denied in Dallas six days earlier when a vigorous Christmas snowfall had followed a freezing rainstorm that coated sidewalks and streets with a thin layer of ice.  As I embraced my questionable decision-making and pressed onward toward Modjeska Peak, I did make one allowance for the weather and my soggy state, electing to truncate my run to 12 miles (six up, six down) rather than the intended 16.  That way I’d likely catch Laura on my way down as well.

snow on modjeska

Not bad, actually, for a photo of falling snow taken with frozen fingers on my tiny cell phone camera

But my expectations for this day took a final nosedive as I reached the 3.5-mile mark and the snowfall intensified to – I cannot tell a lie – blizzard proportions.  Like a swarm of fluffy white bees attacking my face and body, the swirling snow rode the wind currents downward from the dual peaks of Saddleback Mountain.  My primary concern quickly became the ever-increasing stiffness in my finger joints, as numbness threatened to replace all feeling at the ends of both arms.  I cursed the #@*&ing bottle of coconut water that was my faithful companion – the only thing worse than holding on it, I considered, would be dropping it.  That wasn’t going to happen, and I didn’t want to simply dump out the bottle on the trail.  So unfortunately the two of us were in this together to the bitter end.  And I was already bitter.

Somehow, despite my discomfort and the absurdity of running through a driving snowstorm in a soaked t-shirt and shorts but no gloves, I had one stupid decision left in me, and I resolved to reach mile 4 before turning around.  Blame it on mental numbness, but somehow the four-mile mark became the hard and fast limit of what I was willing to concede.  So with head down I plowed forward up the trail, swallowing snowflakes and with hands wrapped inside my t-shirt as protection against the biting wind.

I was starting to think I’d also lost feeling in my Garmin, when at last it rang out the end of both mile 4 and my uphill trek at a mere 3,113ft.  Fumbling with my phone, I awkwardly pounded out a “snowing! turning back now” text to Chuck and Katie with minimal cooperation from the semi-responsive stubs formerly known as fingers.  Then I swung a U-turn and launched myself back down the trail, gaining an immediate reprieve from the snow and wind which were now largely at my back.

Mike Sohaskey and Laura post-run

Laura and I thaw out at the Tucker Wildlife and Soggy Runner Sanctuary
(photo by a warm, dry Chuck)

Cruising downhill now, I alternated between shielding both hands in my t-shirt and beating each hand against the opposite forearm to regain feeling and keep the blood flowing, while the chilling effects of my water bottle continued to counteract my efforts.  Fortunately the descent proved smooth enough, and soon I caught up with Laura, still struggling up the trail below the snowline around mile 3.  “There you are!” she sounded relieved as she saw me squishing toward her.  Apparently she’d tried to call me after she’d run through a flurry of hail I’d somehow avoided.  Laura regularly competes in (and completes) 50-mile races, but even before reaching the snowline she was ready to turn around.  Together we covered ground quickly as I hustled to keep pace behind her dogged downhill stride.  I was surprised during our descent to have to sidestep and hurdle so many newly formed puddles and rivers; this was a much different trail than the one I’d felt so sure-footed on just an hour earlier.

Finally we reached the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, where we found Katie and Chuck waiting out the rain in the car.  Owing to the limited cell coverage in the canyon, neither had received my text, and both were more than a little surprised to hear we’d encountered hail and snow on trail.  Though I may have been pushing my luck when I claimed to have also seen a Bumble.

Still in my wet t-shirt and shorts (though at least I’d brought long pants to pull on over my shorts), and with my belly now full of coconut water, the four of us reconvened for a post-run snack 15 minutes later.  From the strip mall parking lot in Mission Viejo we could clearly see Modjeska and Santiago Peaks, each of which was now capped with a very fine but undeniable blanket of newborn white.  Though pleased to have my story confirmed so graphically, I was shocked to see how quickly the snow had accumulated.  The scene warmed the cockles of my – ah who am I kidding, no it didn’t… I was still shivering from the damp t-shirt and shorts that clung to me like frightened children.

Snow on the peaks

Those look like late afternoon shadows, but that’s snow on Modjeska (center) and Santiago (right)
(photo by Chuck, who then got the Snow Miser song stuck in his head)

As Saddleback Mountain receded in our rearview mirror, my phone beeped with a message from Chuck, who’d finally received my earlier text: “Snow? What idiot told you to run up a mountain?”  Unfortunately I’d been denied the long uphill run I’d planned for that day.  But I’d gladly trade a few extra miles for one of the more bizarre training runs I’ll likely ever experience, complete with rain, snow, hail, earth, wind & fire (and what a funky day it was).  All within an hour of The Happiest Place on Earth.

Based on what I saw of it, I’ve no doubt the Harding Truck Trail is tremendous running terrain on just about any other day of the year, and in fact the Harding Hustle in July has now joined my short list of potential summer races.  At which time the “fire” part of that forecast may very well come true.

In the end, the day added yet another verse to the anthem that runners (and especially trail runners) know all too well, and which author Larry Niven summarized so elegantly: Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re having fun.  She doesn’t care if you’re too hot, or too cold, or hungry, or thirsty, or sunburned, or wind-chapped, or rain-soaked, or well nourished, or craving carbs, or fully hydrated, or chafed, or blistered, or breathless, or numb, or dressed appropriately, or chasing a PR, or lost, or trying out your brand-new trail shoes, or allergic to poison ivy, or scared of snakes, or tired of climbing hills, or roughed up after tripping headlong over a tree root, or unable to see ten feet in front of you, or physically spent, or psychologically exhausted, or a first-timer, or a seasoned veteran, or a prince, or a pauper, or out of water, or in the wrong place at the wrong time when something bigger and stronger than you gets hungry, or trapped with your arm crushed under a boulder and only a dull pocket knife between you and The End, or comfortable in any way.  She’s an equal opportunity offender, and she just doesn’t care.

Ours may be an abusive relationship, but she’s my kind of lady.

Runners have great stories, so I’m curious: what has been your most bizarre/unanticipated running experience?

  1. Jen says:

    Definitely an epic story to keep in your “listen to this crazy run that I went on” arsenal. My favorite part is Chuck’s photo of you running into the dark clouds. My second favorite is how you “squished” toward Laura.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks, Jen… and speaking of those dark clouds, the other eye-catching part of that photo is that the angle and headwind make me look like this baby got back. I don’t ever recall a photo that made my butt look disproportionately large.

  2. Julie says:

    Sounds like good prep for the run up mt constitution, which will likely involve snow. We had our epic training run last weekend up Tiger Mountain. We summited all 3 peaks and then got lost for roughly 2 hours on the wrong side of the mountain. The original plan should have taken us 2.5 hours, but between the 2 feet of snow and ‘getting lost’, it ended up taking 4.5 hours.
    And BTW, I instantly noticed the junk in your trunk in the one photo, and I’m only commenting because you bring it up in the post above. Pretty funny. Who’s the butterball now???

    • Mike says:

      Sounds like the Law of Conservation of Training, i.e. you guys ended up with the extra miles that I lost on Saddleback.

      I just Google Mapped Mt. Constitution (probably should’ve done that earlier), and… who the hell green-lit a race up in Canada in late January? Will I need to bring my own St. Bernard with the whiskey cask around its neck? Hopefully the race director won’t use white ribbons to mark the snowy trail, or I’ll be out there all day.

      Butterball? Did Pete call you that? Don’t worry, I promise to work off my extra baggage by the end of this month, just in time for when I could really use it.

  3. Dan says:

    Those runs, albeit a huge pain when you’re actually making it happen, are often the most memorable. Snowstorms happen a little more often in Chicago and I remember very fondly those runs where I was the only person on the lakefront, churning out the miles. Unlike you, though, I leave the house prepared for such an occurrence (ha!).

    The sudden baleful weather notwithstanding, this was a great description of yet another scenic trail, this time from your rival region. Is this the kind of story you take back to NorCal with you and say “That’s what you get from SOCAL runs” with many scoffs thrown in?

    • Mike says:

      Sadly, I really thought I WAS prepared. California may have some of the best trail runs in the country, but when it comes to winter, up north or down south matters little… we’re ALL cold-weather wimps. As soon as it reaches the high 50s up here, half the population rolls out in woolen caps and scarves.

      I heard a montage on the radio today in which several SoCal meteorologists were freaking out because temperatures were threatening to dip into the 40s… they sounded ready to call a state of emergency.

      That said, I’m willing to take my chances with the much-maligned “softening” effect that California has on the human psyche… especially if it means never having to step on a treadmill.

  4. Chuck says:

    Living in Southern California I have become the opposite of the Boy Scouts. I am ‘never prepared’. Even when I run trails I never check the weather before a run. Fortunately this almost never turns out bad. Almost.

    I was in Keystone (Colorado) for a conference when I saw the temperature was 17F. I was glad to be inside near the fire when I thought “If I run right now this will be the coldest day I have ever run on.” And once you think that you HAVE to run. Sure enough 20 min later I was running through the snow. The worst thing is the way people look at you when they drive by. There is no doubt what they think of you.

    And don’t even try and tell me you haven’t done something like that.

    • Mike says:

      17F? I assume your brain froze shut during the run? I like the way you tell the story as if it were a disembodied experience, and before you knew what was happening… there you were, out running in the snow! And at 10,000ft elevation, you forgot that part.

      I’m envisioning a South Park episode or SNL skit starring you as “unfrozen caveman runner”.

      My biggest fear is that your thought process might be genetic…

Don't hold that thought, set it free!

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