Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Run 50K | California | September 27, 2008
Cowell’s Park and Pedro’s Steam Ship
By Gary Dudney
Runners arrived at Harvey West Park on the northern edge of Santa Cruz for the start of the Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Run 50K and found they weren’t alone. The park, named after a philanthropist born locally in 1894 who made a fortune running lumber operations in distant El Dorado County, boasts swimming pools, ball fields, barbeque pits, picnic areas, clubhouses, and hiking trails. On this Sunday morning, everything was in full operation from little titans suiting up for Pee Wee football to senior ladies gathering for a bracing swim.
And the crowds that had gathered at the park by afternoon were only part of the people the racers shared the day with. After a little parade loop of a grassy sward inside the park, we headed off into Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park where we joined hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers and bird watchers out on the trails. Later in the race, we arrived at the San Lorenzo River where we mingled with sun bathers, rope swingers, picnickers, lovers, swimmers, and splashing kids including one little girl who ran across the trail hugging an inflatable hammerhead shark pool toy that was bigger than she was.
Moments of solitude came in deeper stretches of the redwood forest, especially along Eagle Creek Trail, which follows a babbling stream through an otherwise hushed canyon. The massive redwood trunks there are covered in moss and spider webs. This area was part of a Mexican land grant known as Rancho Canada del Rincon en el Rio San Lorenzo, deeded in 1843 to a French immigrant, Pierre Sansevain, who went by the name Pedro to ingratiate himself to Mexican officials. In 1865, Henry Cowell went into business with two gentlemen who had acquired the land from Sansevain by trading it for a steam ship. Cowell produced lime from limestone deposits in the area, a key ingredient for the construction boom going on all over California. In fact, Santa Cruz County became the leading supplier of lime for the state. But through all the logging and havoc created by the lime operation, part of the redwood forest remained untouched, including the Eagle Creek area.
The race course followed a long out and back to an aid station 7 miles from the start. A thigh deep river crossing broke the distance about in half and offered a very refreshing break in the later stages of the race. The out and back was done twice with a loop at the far end to bring the distance up to 50 kilometers. The loop featured some long stretches of very sandy trail, a remnant of when this part of the land was on the bottom of the ocean. Running in the sand where the trail was down in a trough and had a slight uphill tilt gave you the impression you were not moving forward at all, a sort of distressing circumstance when running an ultra. But the view from a lookout tower at the top of the trail rewarded the effort along with running the descent down similar trails which felt something like skiing downhill in powder.
The aid station at the end of River Trail at the far end of the course upheld the usual high standards of a Pacific Coast Trail Runs event, offering pumpkin pie, granola treats, Payday bars, Cliff shot, Cliff blocs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, M&Ms, Coke, 7-Up, sports drink, ice, salt tabs, and about everything else you could want including a helpful and friendly pack of veteran ultrarunner volunteers. The bump from the aid station was certainly appreciated the second time around as runners headed back along River Trail knowing exactly what the 7 miles back to the finish held in store for them, that is, a beautiful traverse of the park but lots of hills, long trying stretches of jeep road, and some bone-jarring rock hard singletrack at the end.
As I made the return trip for the last time, I felt worse for the wear, but then I heard the plaintive cry of the whistle from the steam locomotive that runs in nearby Roaring Camp. The hollow sound reverberated through the forest and put me in mind of Johnny Cash singing mournfully about Folsom Prison. It snapped me out of my funk immediately. A little tough going in an ultra hardly compared to doing hard time in Folsom Prison, now did it?
Incidentally, Sansevain’s steamer wound up in China where in 1861 it burned up on the Yangtse River…just in case you were wondering.