When you ascend from the backcountry of Santa Barbara and top out on the chaparral-cloaked Santa Ynez Mountains during the Red Rock 50 Ultra Marathon, the view of the Santa Barbara Riviera, the Pacific Ocean, and Channel Islands National Park are simply stunning. For a moment you stop dwelling on the effort at hand — quads and calves screaming at you with every steep pitch — and take in the surroundings during one challenging race.
The 50-mile, out-and-back race begins at Rancho Oso off Highway 154, cruises past the Red Rock Day Use Area, the Gibraltar Dam, and eventually up to the top of the Cold Spring Trail. From there, it’s a long descent to the Hot Spring Trail, where the turnaround and a healthy aid station awaits those at the San Ysidro trailhead.
The Red Rock 50 evolved from another Santa Barbara trail-running race, the Santa Barbara Nine Trails. The Nine Trails, an out-and-back, 35-mile ultra-marathon connects all of Santa Barbara’s front-country trails. It’s been a mainstay every year since Patsy Dorsey started it in December 1990; she handed over the reins to Luis Escobar in 2004, an accomplished, longtime trail runner and race director.
In November 2008, the Jesusita Fire blazed through western portions of the Nine Trails racecourse. In May 2009, the Tea Fire burned the middle portion of the course. Being resourceful, Escobar shifted gears and created the Red Rock 40 for 2009 and 2010. In 2011, Escobar lengthened the course to 50 miles. “It’s an incredible venue,” said Escobar. “This run incorporates both Santa Barbara backcountry and front-country trails. The views of the city and the Channel Islands are fantastic.”
The course is steep with lengthy, rocky ascents and descents. There are long remote sections between the few, well-stocked aid stations. A light is required as many runners are still racing after it gets dark. At least 60 ounces of fluids are to be carried by all participants. “It’s very strenuous — mostly dirt trail and roads with nearly 16,000 feet of vertical gain and descent,” said Escobar. “It’s a big course.”
The race is open to 150 entrants. Escobar is also hosting a trail marathon and half marathon on the same day along the same course. “The Red Rock 50 is for advanced trail runners only,” continued Escobar. “There are long sections of remote backcountry trails with little or no support. I would not suggest the Santa Barbara Red Rock 50 for a new or aspiring trail runner.”
Escobar has purposely incorporated an old-school approach to the Red Rock 50. The remote location means limited aid and not the usual fanfare of other races around the country. He hopes entrants will appreciate his low-key race that begins and ends in the darkness of the backcountry. “This run will remind you or introduce you to the old-school trail-running culture,” he said, “beautiful location, challenging course, minimal support, and great people!”
While running in the Santa Barbara Nine Trails race last August, I asked a couple of more seasoned trail runners during the race where the Red Rock 50 measured up with other 50 milers around the country. One runner said he considered a 50-miler in Arizona and another in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado as the most difficult but that the Red Rock 50 was right there with those.
“I don’t know how it compares to other events, but, based on previous Red Rock finish times, you can say that the Santa Barbara Red Rock is a very slow and difficult course,” said Escobar. “This course is not to be taken lightly.”
The Red Rock 50 is Sunday, November 30, with a 6 a.m. start time. To register, see allwedoisrun.com.