Las Trampas 50 Km | California | February 24, 2007
A Fun Run with Attitude
By Gary Dudney
The Las Trampas 50K is one of those loosely organized, unofficial events where lots of runners just happen to show up at a trailhead at the same time and just happen to run a lot of miles over the same course. No fees. No guaranteed aid. Typically, this would be called a “fun run,” but Las Trampas is a fun run about like World War II was a skirmish.
Las Trampas is Spanish for “The Traps” or “The Snares,” a name bequeathed to the area owing to an ancient practice of trapping elk along its high ridges. Unsuspecting runners can certainly feel trapped by the 20,000 feet of elevation change encountered in the race and the plague like quantities of mud that seems bent on hitching a ride.
Luckily the course is set up to allow runners to bail at shorter distances than the full 50K, a popular practice as many runners find the early date in the running season and the hard slog overwhelming.
The course directions are so intricate (two pages of single-spaced type), they almost read like a parody: “The second intersection with Madrone Firetrail is also unmarked, but turn right. Climb about 100 yards to yet another unmarked intersection, a T between two firetrails. Turn left to continue climbing on Madrone. Climb about half a mile to a Y-intersection with the Corduroy Hills Firetrail. Take the right fork…” or “Turn right and descend on the somewhat faint Sycamore Trail. If it’s foggy, it’s easy to lose this trail as it crosses a grassland bowl, intersected by various cow paths. Try to avoid the false paths that drop steeply leftwards into a ravine.” Yikes!
But the Las Trampas experience is like no other. Part of the run skirts property formerly owned by the playwright Eugene O’Neill. His ranch house, now a national landmark, is prominent in a setting of grassy slopes and white fences during the first half of the run. The course also visits a canyon bottom charmingly named Devil’s Hole. The switchbacking trail into the canyon has more curves than a box full of ribbon and the way out can look more like a wall than a steep trail. Naturally this section is run twice.
All that climbing does bring the runners up to the top of spectacular Las Trampas Ridge and Rocky Ridge. The views include nearby Mt. Diablo, the lower end of the San Francisco Bay, the Ygnacio, San Ramon and Amador valleys, and the Carquinez Straits. The Bollinger Creek and Las Trampas fault lines run through the area and account for the dramatic buckling of the landscape.
The woodlands on the course are full of black sage, chamise, buck brush, toyon, manzanitas, elderberry, gooseberry, chaparral currant, sticky monkeyflower, coffeeberry, coyote bush, poison oak, hollyleaf red berry, and deer weed. The trees are mostly coast live oak and bay laurel, but there are plenty of other species: buckeye, big leaf maple, canyon live oak, black oak and scrub oak. Many of the oaks scattered out in the open have big clumps of mistletoe up in their otherwise bare branches. With all the tough running, though, kissing each other seemed like a much lower order of business.
The group that gathers each year to run this course is friendly and supportive, and also full of elite runners. The race organizer had boxes of pizza waiting in a truck bed at the 30K mark as well as one manned and one unmanned aid station out on the course. As the day progressed, rows of rocks and stick arrows started appearing at all the trail junctions as runners began marking the course for those behind them struggling with the directions. Ultrarunners helping out ultrarunners—not a surprise and really quite symbolic of this great little late winter 50K.