By Michelle Barton
‘Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity to the human spirit as vital to our lives as water.’ – Edward Abby
It is September of 2006 and I’m at work at the running store. My boss tells me, “ You HAVE to meet this woman, She is the REAL deal. She does 30 mile training runs and she’s come in the store numerous times and really wants to meet you!
I said, “Yeah, yeah… okay, Scott’. The next week she came to the running store and we became instant best friends. I love her to death. Her name is Keira Henninger. I’ve known her since before she ran her first ultra and since before she took over the Leona Divide 50 mile, becoming one of the most prominent race directors in the US. I’ve seen her win AC 100, Chimera 100 and a slew of many ultras over the last decade. We’ve been through wins, losses, injuries, death, divorce, highest highs, lowest lows and newfound love. She is ever positive, focused, driven and always grateful. She is an amazing friend and mom to her 18-year-old son. Keira is someone I can count on, no matter the circumstance. Keira has created some of the most beautiful courses in Southern California, setting a high standard producing tough, competitive and challenging events. She works her ass off to get where she is and never cuts corners. Without a doubt, Keira one of the strongest women I know.
The Sean O’Brien (SOB) Montrail Ultra cup race, produced by Keira, is one of the most epic race courses, to date, on the West Coast. It is also one of the toughest ultras in Southern California. Ultrarunners travel from different states and different countries to take part in this event. SOB attracts a plethora of solid and accomplished runners. The top two men and top two women gain the Golden Ticket – an automatic entry into Western States – a famous 100 mile/160km race over the Serra Nevada mountains . For some runners, it is the challenge of getting a solid race under their belts early in the season. For others, it’s the challenge of completing their first ultramarathon. Sometimes it’s about winning, but other times it’s about enjoying every step of the journey from start to finish.
UltraSportslive.tv was covering this big event at race check in and also had cameras at various aid stations and at the finish line. It was fun to see the UltraSportsLive reporter/interviewer, Victor Ballesteros. He is certainly no slouch of a runner, coming in second overall at the Tahoe 200 miler.
My teammate and racing partner Majo Srnik, (prounounced: ‘my-o’), flew in the previous night from Canada to race the 50k. (We dropped the ball and the 100k was already full months prior.)
As the 50 mile and 100k runners had already taken off into the darkness hours ago, Majo and I lined up at the start line just before 7:00AM. I introduced Majo to Timmy Olsen and his wife Krista who were planning to stick together and run the 50k. They are so adorable! I had many friends racing all distances and I was pumped to see them out on the course. The weather was overcast cool and drizzly – much cooler than last year’s SOB 50k.
The marathoners and 50K took off together at a good clip, as expected. I ran a few of the early miles near my friends, Andy Kumeda and Joshua ‘Hollywood’ Holmes. We heard someone playing a ukulele…low and behold, it’s my INKnBURN teammate, crazy tough insane Nickademus Hollon, who is out here to cheer on his girlfriend, Jade, racing her first 50k. Within two miles we hit a knee deep creek crossing, with team ChanChan assisting runners across. That was fun! The connecting trail was moist and not too slippery or muddy from the week’s previous rain. I have run many races in Malibu Creek State Park and barely recognized the landscape, being so lusciously green and inviting. It reminded me a lot of running in Northern California on the Western States trail. The Sean O’Brien course is an out and back with plenty of hills: 6,700 feet of climbing and 32.3 miles of distance.
After the creek crossing, we hit the first climb, a fire road about 4 miles long that turns and twists up to the top of the ridgeline where we would reach the first aid station.
An unassuming badass of a sweet girl named Elizabeth Ging, aka ‘Lion of Utah’, came up on me and we had a chat while enduring the climb. She is strong! This was her 10th ultra and her 9th 50k. Her longest race so far, is a 50 miler. Not too shabby for a 17-year-old! She told me her dad was also running the 50K. We kept leapfrogging on the climb and I was entertained seeing her bright smile each time we passed each other. It’s obvious she loves to run.
After the first climb, we were on a nice stretch of rolling singletrack and the miles ticked away. I ran with Nadia Ruiz Gonzalez. The last time I saw her was at one of my favorite races, TransRockies. She is strong, too! She races a lot, but Nadia was just getting over the flu and wisely opted for the 50k instead of the 100k. A man from Texas was running behind me talking about how he just ran a sub 24 at Rocky Raccoon last week. He also mentioned how he LOVES to travel from Texas to California on weekends for all of the Keira Henninger events because he can always count on Keira to put on a first class event from start to finish. It made me so happy to hear that, he had no idea Keira are I are such close friends.
The third aid station was at Kanan Road. It was quite a buzz, there, with people cheering and cameras from UltraSportslive. I quickly filled my Nathan bottle with tangy orange Vitargo and got a smile and a strong high-five from my fast bro, Derick Gallegos, who I hadn’t seen since Badwater, There was a lot of great energy at this aid station! I was cranking the tune ‘Truffle Butter’ and psyched to be heading to the turnaround and see how Majo was doing. He had been mostly running treadmill workouts since Canada is frozen and in sub-zero temperatures. On weekends, Majo trains in the mountains to get climbing/altitude. It was a treat for him to come to California and run shirtless in shorts in the sunshine. Except on this day it was overcast with a light drizzle in the high 60′s. Boiling hot by Canadian winter standards, though. Ironic weather because four weeks prior, Majo and I ran the Avalon 50 mile and it poured rain the entire weekend. He doesn’t believe me that it rarely rains in Cali. I was in the zone, high spirits, loving this section of trail. It’s curvy, fast and fun, plus it’s exciting to see the 50K lead guys coming back. My buddy, Jonathan Toker, owner and inventor of Saltstick was in the lead – no surprise there. Jonathan Toker is a Champ and he recently won TransRockies and Mount Baldy Run to the Top. Up & comer, Mountain Hobo Alex followed in second place. A couple miles later I saw Majo running towards me, in the top 15, and was about 35 minutes ahead of me. We stopped for a minute for him to say, “You look really good!” and added, “This sucker is kind of hilly, eh!” I told him I was coming for him “…don’t get chick’d!”
I ran this section steady and solid, but ran out of water at the turnaround. I came up on the 17-year-old lioness again, who said her knee was hurting, so I stayed with her for a bit while she was telling me how she can’t wait to run the Javelina Jundred this year. She is a cute little stud muffin with a bright future ahead! I made my way back to Kanan Road and saw my homeboys, Jon ‘JC’ Clark, Derick Gallegos and Keshav “KeshKesh’ Dahiya from Carbo Pro. Keshav & Keira just ran the HURT hundred miler last week (this was Keshav’s first hundred miler). My homie, Kesh was out supporting his friends. He ran with me a couple hundred feet up the climb taking photos, that was super fun.
I have run a lot of 50k’s over the past 12 years of running Ultras. Sean O’Brien ranks up there as one of the toughest in Southern California. The only one tougher 50k that comes to mind is the Los Pinos 50k (that used to be Keira’s race, as well. She designed the course). Tough as Hell!!
At this point in the race, I’m still with the bright smiley Lion Elizabeth, my cute little 17-year-old buddy. We had a good thing going as she ran like a veteran of the sport. She told me, “Tonight is my winter formal, but I don’t care a single bit, I’d much rather be running.” I love to see two generations running the same races together with her dad was a couple hours back, but steady, nonetheless. It’s fun to see this bond because my dad and I do many races together, as well. Speaking of two generations, as I’m running up a single track heading back to mile 22 aid station, I feel a gentle tap on my left shoulder… it’s my buddy, mountain hobo Igor Campos, who is racing the 100K. He looked totally fresh and in high spirits. Igor is a huge talent. He finished The Javalina Jundred in 17 hours. Igor’s dad, 61 yr old Edgar Campos, was kicking my ass, as usual. He is a stud. We ran a lot together at Transrockies. He is also a finisher of the Western States. Igor Campos is cofounder of the Mountain Hobo’s – a fast & fierce running group from San Diego. Mountain Hobo, Riley Schuck (age 25), was shredding the marathon and Mountain Hobo Alex Lopez (age 20), was shredding the 50k. It gives me such a burst of energy to see my hobos kicking ass.
Elizabeth andI were looking forward to the final descent, but now we had gained a few guys to our crew.
Even after running for six hours, everyone was happy and . I knew Majo was finished by now and my friends, Chris Kostman & Jess Dyrenforth would be there waiting for me at the finish. I needed to keep pace, as I didn’t want to keep my guys waiting too long in the rain. All of a sudden, Elizabeth burst ahead and I never saw her again! She ended up finishing five minutes ahead of me.
We hit that same knee deep Creek Crossing on the way back. It was refreshing and nice to have instant clean shoes again. I felt strong once I smelled the barn and was looking forward to seeing Majo, Chris and Jess and of course my girl Keira.
As I hit the last turn, I spot Chris Kostman waiting ahead on the side of the road in the EXACT SAME SPOT he was standing 12 years ago, when I won my first 50k – Bulldog 50k, back in August 2003! I said, “Chris, let’s hammer!”
Chris opened up his stride and we sprinted together the last couple hundred feet. It was so much fun, I will never forget it. The guys were there at the finish line, as expected, Jess with his camera and a huge hug. There was Majo, in his LUNA sandals in the rain. Majo finished 8th overall in 5:27. He always looks fresh at the finish, no matter if its 50k or 100 miler. Next year, we plan to run Keira’s SOB 100K.
Majo told me, SOB was the most beautiful 50K he ever ran. The course has something for everyone. You can benefit from the course one way or another because it has a great balance of climbs, technical downhill & runnable stretches with expansive ocean views. Who could ask for more?’ It was raining at the finish line, so Majo and I ran to the car to put on dry clothes and bailed to meet Chris & Jess at Starbucks to get a good dose of caffeine and talk about our upcoming plans/races like Badwater and Salton Sea. We were planning to go back to the finish line to see my sweet friend Molly ‘hot tamale’ Kassouf finish her first 100K. But, as Chris, Majo, Jess & I were kicking it at Starbucks, I got a text message from Molly saying that she had to quit at mile 37 because she’s got sick. It turns out she couldnt breathe, and later found out she had bronchitis. It was incredible she even started, let alone run 37 miles with 10,000′ of climbing. I am proud to have such strong friends. Most people would be sitting at home watching TV if they were that sick. Molly is the race director for Whoo’s in El Moro 50K, another epic SoCal event I highly recommend.
Majo & I typically run 50mile & hundred milers together and are usually ‘busted’ after an event, but this was different as we still had juice in our legs. The next day we ran Mount Baldy 21K with 4K of gain. It was perfect!! Our legs actually felt better at Mt Baldy than they did at SOB50k. If you travel to Southern California for SOB or any Keira Henninger race, the weather is usually beautiful with endless mountains and trails to run. So make it a two-day double adventure!
There were a lot of amazing and helpful volunteers at Sean O’Brien. Keira did an outstanding job at SOB. It is a great course, awesome volunteers, epic views, fun hills and hundreds of great talented and tough runners. Keira stayed at the finish line handing out medals to everyone. She puts a lot of love and passion into her races. UltraSportsLive.tv’s Victor Ballesteros had this to say, “A special highlight would be: despite the difficulty of the course, seeing the excitement on the faces of those who were either finishing an ultra, or new distance for the first time, as well as the excitement of their friends and family who were there supporting them. You just can’t beat that good energy!”
Majo & I look forward to racing more of Keira’s events such as Leona Divide 50 and the Griffith Park Trail marathon. A big thank you to Keira Henninger and our Sponsors: Vitargo, Vivobarefoot, Luna Sandals, INKnBURN, Swiftwick, Nathan Sports, Moeben & Saltstick. Congratulations to all the finishers and runners who gained entry into Western States 100: Ryan Smith, Seth Swanson, Magdalena Boulet & Anita Ortiz! Overall, it was an epic day where memories were made to last a lifetime! It was great to see the same friends that I started ultras with 12 years ago and still smoking the courses. Sean O’ Brien is an incredible event‼ Put this on your list for next year and check out Keira’s other races, you’ll be happy you did!! It’s great to see from my personal perspective, how over 14 years, the quality of events, the strong competition and how our sport is growing and changing.