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  • Writer's pictureChris Toepker

Secret Beach 50M, After Action Report

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

Getting ready for the Secret Beach 50M
Chris & Michael, the "before" picture

Setting out on the race, Michael and I agreed we'd be running it "together, alone." We knew our paces were going to be different. We knew that being out on the course we'd more and more need to focus on our own status. Our own determination.

In many ways, running the Secret Beach 50-mile was as much to learn as to finish. Also, I hoofed my pack of around a 20-pounds, with water and food for the day, like I would have to in the HK4TUC. I was trying to run from memory, having studied the course. Poles? Well, that is one thing that came easy. I never use those!

Pre-race briefing
Pre-dawn, pre-race briefing. Ready, set...go!

So it was when we got to the pre-dawn race briefing at the Pacific Reef Motel beach, and mulled around with the other racers, waiting to get started. We had already gotten the word that the course had been changed due to unusually high water on the beach, so that wasn't news. Neither was the fact that "cliffs are cliff-like, be wary near them!" It was good to know that that some trail clearing had been done, especially in some place called the “jungle." No one mentioned the active landslip. Suddenly, the last sentence of the briefing was uttered, and immediately "we'll start in 5...4...3..." What? Now? Yes. Now. We were off.

The Secret Beach out and back course follows much of the Oregon Coast trail, which hugs the ruggedly beautiful coast of southern Oregon. It covers road running, a couple different kinds of beaches, and at least six different kinds of forests. There are a lot of ups and downs.

I'm happy to report that the first 10 miles went entirely to plan. I have been training to heart rate, being sure to tackle elevation gains, and I held a pretty steady 12-15 minute/mile pace. That meant I ran with a reasonable pack of others just ahead, which helped boost the confidence in not getting lost. It also allowed me to enjoy the early morning sun, warming the forest and beach scenes and presenting some of the most spectacular visions you can imagine. Indeed, I found myself pretty giddily thinking, "Well, this is already worth it!"

The warming was more than I expected. Indeed, when I got to the first aid station at Meyer Creek, I realized that I'd just about drained my three-liter pouch. Learning! I'm not sure yet what I'll do in HK4TUC, but here at least I could fill up. I also decided to slow the pace a bit. After all, it was still a long way to go!

I took a moment to gather up, and one of the staffers let me know "You look like you're doing well! Really calm. Collected. Not at all like you just ran all the way from town!" That sure felt good to hear. "Well, you let me know how I look when I get back here. It'll probably be: 'You know, you really ought to stop now.'"

From Meyer Creek, the course switched to the road to avoid the swollen river just down the beach. We used the highway bridge to cross. Road running is one of my least favorite things. Vehicles whizzing by at 55+? No, thanks! Still, the solidity of the road felt a bit comfortable after covering sandy beach and rooted trails. When I got to the next beach, I thought, "Oh, I know how this'll go - just like the last ones." Nope! The sand was finer, and really absorbed the steps (which was nice), but also gave nothing to push off against (which was terrible). No wonder they note that "this course is slower than many due to the sand on the beaches." Yikes! Yeah! My pace slowed from the 15-18 minutes I was planning on, to around 20-minutes, which is a typical regular walk for me! It was just too much drudgery on that soft, sliding sand.

Oregon Coast Trail during the Secret Beach 50M
Secret Beach 50 M, now with Tree Tunnels!

Getting off the beach gets you into a long, looping path through dunes and low forest. It was pleasant running, but the trail was covered by tall, curving grass. It was hard to see what was on the actual ground and there were often roots and rocks. Always a worry for my poor ankle! Still, the sun was up now and the interplay of light in the trees and bushes was fantastic. It was also a fun surprise to come across a historical marker for a ranch...yes, here, in the middle of nowhere...from the 1920s, next to Lola Lake. Of course, it had me singing The Kinks. What else are you going to do?

Even though this wasn't half way, I thought I might start running into the top finishers coming back. So, it wasn't a surprise when I saw a group ahead of me. What was a surprise: "where was the last marker your saw?" It had been a short while back, but they reported passing a number of forks and started guessing and then began doubting. So, they were doubling back to check. So! We *all* doubled back, and sure enough, found the last ones I'd seen, and started out again. In the end, that section wasn't very well marked, but it must have been that they just got nervous, because in the end it all wound up fine and we were on the road again. Where they outpaced me. Remember - they're running a different race than me. At least, that's what I told myself. And stuck to the plan.

As I crested a ridge, and started onto another section, written on one of the little pink flag trail markers, a note: active landslip, trail unusable at mile marker [unintelligible]. There was a number there, but I hadn't seen any numbers along the trail, so...where was that? And what did it mean? Here's the clear "go this way" pink flag, but also "don't go this way, it's unusable" obviously communicated.

It turned out to be a lifesaver, in a way. The track was very narrow and uneven, forcing me to slow down quite a bit. It was also by and large downhill. It turned out to be a really great recovery right in the middle of the run. I felt much better on the other side, and was able to pick up the pace to the next aid station.

By the time I got to Archer Rock station, I was feeling the pain of running, but also feeling like I could keep going. I'd stuck to my pace, ate every mile and drank with every eat. I just might make it! Once again though, I found my pouch empty. More learning! Thank goodness I could fill up here, though.

Heading out to the turn around point, one of the staff shouted, "It's Heather and Megan up there. Be sure to say "hi," blow their minds a little bit." Sure, why not?

So, when I got up there, a nice young woman shouted "Welcome to the turn around!"

"Heather? I'm Chris. You're my Uber driver, right?"

"Nope! You're at the wrong pick up spot!"

"What? Ugh! Not again! Oh, wait you're right. I see it's at the Pacific Reef Hotel. Any idea where that might be?"

"Yep! It's just down the road. About 25 miles thatta way!"

"Great! Thanks a bunch. I'm off then!"

Coming back, Michael and I came across each other, exchanging high fives and encouragement. He hadn't given up, but was concerned he'd not make the cut off. Of course he wasn't giving up!

Back at Archer Rock, I had to take a bit more time to recover. The ups and downs were really taking a toll, and my pace had dropped to closer to the 20-22 minute range. Oddly, my heart rate was way down. Instead of the usual 135-145 BPM I was used to running at, it was in the 120s. Yet I was huffing and puffing pretty constantly. Despite my determination, I bent my rules and ate some aid station food. Do you have any idea the wonder of instant ramen noodles? Go run 30 miles and have some. They are amazing. They fill in a gap you didn't even know you had, right in your heart and soul I'm telling you. They can bring you back to life.

The aid station staff were really top notch. Paying attention and being supportive without overdoing it. Each runner got a "You doing OK? What do you need? I've got...[list of stuff out on the table]." As I was (again!) refilling the water pouch, and having those godsend noodles, I asked what time it was. "3:09 - you're doing well. You'll make the cut off, not to worry." "Yeah," says another, "and next year Facebook will remind you that you ran 50 miles. You'll wonder 'why in the world did I do *that*?'" By the way, that's about 9 hours of running...well, traveling.

The way back was mostly familiar, and it was comforting to pass sites I'd seen and know how much closer I was getting. However, it was also getting dark. I decided I was racing the sun. I didn't know how right that was!

I made it back to the 40-mile re-visit of Meyer Creek by about 6:50PM (that's about 12.5 hours of running). The cut off was set for 7:50PM, so I was about an hour ahead of "last minute" timing. This seemed good. But, it was getting dark. And the steepest part, twisty-est part of the track was ahead.

Indeed, as I got across the beach and up into the forest again, the sun went down. I had to turn on the lights and press on. However, my pace really slowed. Not only was it steep, but it was dark and the roots and rocks seemed an ever-present danger. Life-threatening even. I mean, at that point, if I had fallen or otherwise hurt myself, it would have been hours before someone came for me! Best not to think about that too much. Press on!

You remember those old "I went to school uphill, *both* ways" jokes? That's how this last part felt. If you also added in Blair Witch Project feelings. I mean, somehow, *everything* felt uphill! Every once in a while, a 100K runner would come along, creepily illuminate the forest, pass me and disappear into the woods again. "Did that even happen?" I couldn't help wondering. The walls of the dark really did seem to press in on my little sphere of light as I fought the roots and rocks, pressing onwards. "Just get me off this hill!" and then "Just get me out of these woods!"

Headed back, stunned by the views on the Secret Beach 50M

Finally! The beach! I didn't dare look at my watch, but I knew I had to pick things up. Later, I found that I had every need to be worried because over that hill, my pace slipped to around 30-minute miles. On the beach though, I could trot and got back to 18-20 minutes.

As I was nearing the home stretch, watching the moon shine on the waves, I saw a pair of lights coming up behind me. They swept the dunes, and swung around the sand around me, making my shadow swing around like a time-lapsed sundial. I concluded "That's some jerk doing donuts on the beach in his dune buggy. Don't get close!" As the lights got closer, I took to waving him off with my lights. Until they were on top of me! Yikes! Get away!

"Is this the right way? You doing OK?" Oh, my! Not a dune buggy at all. A pair of runners! We laughed that they thought I was a staffer waving them off and directing them another way, which is why their lights were sweeping the dunes, looking for the markers they'd maybe missed!

They went on ahead, and I trotted along too, finally getting up over the road and river again, and down the beach to the Pacific Reef starting point. When I got there, I could hear the cow bell ringing, and some guy clapping on the beach. It was dark. I was tired. I tried to follow the signs inwards - up the steepest part, missing the easier trail just a couple steps over. "Where you going, man. Over here!" It was Michael! Sadly, he'd been swept up and not allowed to continue. For me, though? What a sight for sore eyes! I trotted down the final yards to see I'd finished, and made it in under the cut off.

Impossible, broken. New Goal Unlocked. HK4TUC, here we come!

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