Montana de Oro Trail Run 50K | California | March 16, 2008
Mountain of Gold
By Gary Dudney
Located just south of Morro Bay on California’s central coast, Spooner’s Cove in Montana de Oro State Park provides a spectacular venue for the race start/finish. Waves crash against a wide pebble beach. Morro Rock hunkers off to the north like some set out of a Disney pirate movie, and up above the steep green slopes of the coastal mountains look for all the world like the Hawaiian mountain sides familiar from the backdrops in LOST.
The course follows a series of bluffs along the ocean, cuts up through a wide terrace to the mountain slopes, climbs to the top of 1,500 foot Valencia Peak, and then descends back to the start. That’s one loop. The second loop heads inland along a blacktop road lined with a wide strip of the most brilliant California poppies imaginable, and then climbs to the top of Hazard Peak before descending to Islay Creek Road, a seemingly endless track that winds unhurriedly through the bottom of a canyon. Both loops are done twice for the full 50K distance.
Right off the start, the run along the bluffs was more than spectacular. Translucent green water and white foam churn uproariously at the bottom of the cliffs. Unlike most places where the sea scoops out wide gentle arcs in the shore, here the ocean has gouged out long troughs that jut into the land, apparently owing to the ridges of exposed rock that resist the erosion. The theme of rocky ridges is continued up on the slopes of Mount Doom…er…Valencia Peak, where the geologic chaos of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates grinding together has raised the hardened sea floor of Monterey shale into the sky and left a jumble of crumbling rock.
Lacking strength, talent, training, or speed, I found myself challenging this gnarly, skree-infested mountainside with only two weapons. First, I was handsome but somehow the trail didn’t seem to care about that. But I was also nimble, and if there was ever a trail where it was good to be nimble, this one was it. There was endless hopping over stones and careful maneuvering along fins of rock, arranged in neat rows like the back of a stegosaurus. There was plodding up and down through skree and piddy-padding around ruts and dips. Coming down the mountain we encountered a Brobdingnagian staircase formed of massive beams set in the trail presumably to quell erosion, although, a little ultrarunning irony here, this had to be the most eroded section of trail I’ve ever seen in my life. You could have hidden a freight train in the rut in the middle of the trail.
Valencia Peak did deliver one near knockout blow. I suffered a momentary nimbleness lapse on a sharp turn right near the top of the peak, when I hit some loose rock and felt like I stepped out on a formica tabletop covered with ballbearings. I went straight down and basically experienced what it was like to try to shoulder planet Earth out of its orbit around the sun.
After the rock concert of Valencia Peak, the Hazard Peak loop seemed almost benign. The loop began as we passed beneath a large stand of eucalyptus trees, the legacy of Alexander S. Hazard’s failed attempt to market the exotic wood for lumber. Then came a long gentle slog over the peak and up and down trails through a chaparral and in and out of several canyons before joining the Islay Creek road where Alden B. Spooner, who gave the cove its name, once grazed sheep. His land was eventually sold to Irene McAllister in the 1950s who, inspired by the fantastic golden flowers on the mountainsides, came up with a name for the area, Montana de Oro or Mountain of Gold.
Repeating both loops was really a joy, giving runners a chance to savor both routes before enjoying the strong winds that had sprung up at the start/finish. The easyup tents blowing over, loose paper being ripped off the tables, cups and paper bowls flying around, all seemed in keeping with the drama of the day and the energy of this great race.