The Chesebro Canyon Half Marathon is part of the Great Race of Agoura Hills: two HMs, a 10k and a 5k with different start locations that converge at a shared finish line. Chesebro has the distinction of being a trail race with over 1000 feet of elevation gain with some technical single track sections. I raced here in 2015 and promised to return to the spectacular and challenging course.
After running three half marathons and my first ever marathon in 2016, I emerged from my recovery period focused on speed work and shorter races. I broke the 7:00 minute barrier for the 10K last fall then again (6:38) in February, which led to a sub 20 minute 5K (19:38) on St. Patrick’s Day. My new PRs gave me racing confidence but where I noticed the most improvement was in my training. My relaxed pace dropped by almost 30 seconds and I saw similar gains in my tempo and speed workouts. I wanted to test my legs at a longer distance and Chesebro Canyon was waiting.
To prepare for the race I added a heaping dose of hills and trails to my weekly runs, practicing going downhill as much as going up. My calves and quads were the most obvious beneficiaries (or victims) of my training. I started to notice an improvement running uphill especially my breathing and heart rate. Two weeks before the race, I ran the course as part of a long run and reacquainted myself with its rocky trails. I’m in striking distance of running a seven-minute half, but the hilly course did not favor a fast pace or even a consistent pace. I wanted to beat my 2015 time of 1:43:52, and I wondered if I could crack 1:40? I decided to keep things simple by running what felt like a consistent 7:30 effort.
Race day began at 4:30 am with breakfast- a banana and Cliff bar- and carpooling in the dark with some running friends. We arrived with enough time to warm up and find a spot at the starting line. We were still waiting for sunrise as the runners bunched up and the anthem played. It was 45 degrees but there was enough body heat to stay warm. Then we were off!
I ran a very generous (-119 ft) first mile at my 10K pace then the course leveled and began to rise through the streets of Agoura Hills. I was unaware of the racers surrounding me. The roads were closed to traffic and the pack had plenty of space. I concentrated on maintaining a steady effort. Miles two and three were right on pace and I felt like I found my stride. Just in time- the road ended as we turned onto the Chesebro Canyon Trail and the start of our five-mile climb.
At its start, the trail was wide enough for two or three of us to run abreast. Of greater concern was the tree roots, stones, and erosion underfoot. I tried to remain upright to hold a balance between controlled and reckless running. We were climbing almost 100 feet per mile and the pack rapidly began to thin. As we approached the halfway point the dirt road turned to a dirt track and then to a steeper single track. My pace was dropping by 15 seconds per mile, which was part of the plan, so I pressed on.
The final climb was steep, narrow, and rocky. I found myself in a group of a half dozen other runners. We stuck together since passing (or getting passed) was difficult. The runner in front of me was starting to slow down, and when the trail widened a tiny bit, I surged past him. I noticed an Iron Man tattoo on his calf and congratulated myself for passing an Iron Man then wondered if he’d be coming after me later. Another runner began to fade but there was no way around him. Somehow I gasped, “excuse me, I’m on your left!” and he gave me just enough room to get by. I was right behind a younger woman- this is where I realized that most of the field was younger- and we stayed together for the last mile up. We were both panting and wheezing as we crested Palo Comado peak, then in a flash she took off and began sprinting down the hill. Humbled, I watched her go and let gravity help me recover.
With five miles to go the race was far from over. I clocked just under nine minutes for my final mile up (203 ft) and I worried that I used up too much energy. Miles nine and ten convinced me not to worry. The descent rewarded me with two sub seven minute miles. It also rewarded the Iron Man as he barreled past me! I was feeling recharged and ready for a nasty little half-mile hill before the 11-mile mark. Since I was prepared I passed the Iron Man again, this time for good. I also caught my uphill partner but just like before, she took off when we reached the top of the hill.
Back on paved roads, I gathered myself for the final two miles. Twelve and thirteen followed a nice and even downhill route with a slight rise and little zig-zag at the end. Somehow, I found another gear and began to accelerate. This had never happened to me before- I’m usually hanging on for dear life at the end of a race- and I wasn’t sure if I could maintain the effort. I decided to give it a go and held myself to a 6:45 pace. As I sped up, I began to pick off runners who were fading. Right at 13 miles I caught a group including my uphill partner and sped by. I was in a full sprint, I turned the last corner and hit the chute!
I finished in 1:38:12, good enough for second in my age group and five and a half minutes faster than my 2015 time. I was gassed but elated. The race felt like a breakthrough, especially my energy over the last miles. After some thought I concluded that it was two years of consistent, injury-free training that helped me improve. I recommitted to my core and strength exercises following my running workouts. I’m eight weeks away from my marathon feeling recharged and confident. At the same time I am not shying away from the work ahead. If you ever get a chance to run Chesebro Canyon I highly recommend it. If you ever get a chance to race it you won’t be disappointed.