It starts just before sunrise along the coast of the great Gaviota and, generally speaking, concludes some 11 or 12 hours later in the exact same spot. With little fanfare, no sponsors, no prizes, no trophies, no official race support, no entrance fees, and a course track that covers some 73-plus miles of dirt, sea, and pavement, the Gaviota Ocean Canyon Ridge (OCR) Endurance Challenge is perhaps the gnarliest and most scenically stunning endurance race you have never heard about. “You get to conquer this hunk of land that is just so beautiful,” said the race’s mastermind Paul Shields before laughing and adding with a wicked smile, “but yeah, it is a pretty stupid event.”
Shields, who runs the healthy-food haven that is Savoy Café & Deli in downtown Santa Barbara, hatched the idea of the OCR nearly a decade ago on his 40th birthday. A fitness freak with a penchant for 100-mile ultra marathons, triathlons, and general feats of athletic endurance that boggle the minds of most mortals, Shields was celebrating his halfway-to-80 occasion with family and friends at Refugio when, after a beer or two, he and his brothers began brainstorming about a race that would get participants out and into the glory of nature that is Santa Barbara County’s front country. To hear Shields tell it, the back-and-forth went something like this: “What if we paddled down to the Bacara right now?” “Yeah, and then ran a marathon straight up into the hills.” “Great idea, and then we could get on bikes and ride along the ridge.”
For most, this sort of masochistic, quasi-Herculean banter would amount to little more than just that, but, for the Shields men — who, as Paul put it, “at that time … were pretty into testing ourselves and seeing what we could do” — it soon became a reality. A first informal attempt at the race later that fall produced smiles and stoke but ended prematurely due to darkness somewhere in the foothills just west of the Winchester Canyon Gun Club. Shields rethought the timing, and, after inviting a few more folks along for the fun, tried it again the following spring when the days were longer. For the brave handful who turned out for that official first race, it was clear that, despite the obvious difficulty of such an undertaking, the grassroots grind really was a sweet, sweaty sort of satori.
Specifically, the now eight-year-old race, which remains a mostly Santa Barbaran, underground, and entirely unaided affair (save for any buddies you can convince to help you out along the way), involves a 9.5-mile paddle, 13-mile beach run, and 13-mile trail hike, finishing with a 38-mile bike ride, for a total of 73.5 miles.
The race begins with a paddle from the shores of Refugio down the coast to the bathhouse at Haskell’s Beach in Goleta. From there, you take to the sand and continue running east all the way to Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara. At Hendry’s, the running turns inland and heads up Las Positas, over Highway 101, and across Foothill Road to the Jesusita trailhead. From there, up the trail you go, picking your way past Inspiration Point, along the Tunnel connector, up, up, up to East Camino Cielo and then, once you hit the pavement again, west to La Cumbre Peak.
It’s at La Cumbre, some 4,000 feet above where you started, that you climb onto your bicycle for the race’s final 38-mile leg and pedal west across Highway 154, onto West Camino Cielo, past the Gun Club, Broadcast Peak, and on to Refugio Road, where you hang a left and zoom down toward the finish line.
The journey would be daunting if done at the most leisurely of paces. But when you consider the course record of just a hair more than nine hours — delivered by Chad Stewart in 2007 — you start to understand just how remarkably fit, focused, and, well, plain sick these athletes really are. “If you have ever done an ultra sort of event, you know the rewards,” said Shields.
According to Billy Petrini, who, along with fellow OCR veteran Mike Postma, took over race-director duties from Shields a few years ago, this year’s event is slated to be the biggest yet — 20 solo competitors and eight relay teams have signed up for the challenge. Despite the growing interest, Petrini explained there is no real desire to change the low-key, barely organized nature of the day. “We are so loose,” he said. “Really, we just want people to get out there and have some fun on what is a truly a spectacular course.”
This year’s Gaviota Ocean Canyon Ridge Endurance Challenge is scheduled for Saturday, May 21, at 6:30 a.m. For more info, visit king-dino.com/ocr/ocr.html.