Mount Madonna Challenge Race – A Personal View

Tracy Christensen is the marketing director for this year’s Mount Madonna Challenge Race. She has run the race before and here is her impressions of what it is like:

It was less than a year after moving to Morgan Hill that I first heard of Mt. Madonna.  My new running buddies simply insisted that I run it with them.  They had raced Mt. Madonna the year before and were set on going back for more.  Though I would be out of town on race day, they convinced me to accompany them to the mountain one Saturday morning in July for a training run.  

Fairly unfamiliar with trail running, and Mt. Madonna in particular, I woke up that morning fully unaware of what I was in for.  Running…I love it.  Hills…I live for them.  A mountain?  Well, my friends had done it before, and had not only survived but were itching for more, and I ran with them on a regular basis.  So…bring it on!

We exited the car at Sprig Lake Picnic Area and were greeted with perfect summer morning Bay Area running weather, which promised comfortable temps in the high 50s for the next hour or two.   We would be running the Mt. Madonna Challenge 12K course (a 7.4 mile loop), because that’s what my buddies would be racing in a few weeks.  (The Mt. Madonna Challenge offers race participants four distances to choose from:  6K (3.7 mile), 12K, 18K (11.1 mile), and 30K (18.4 mile)…new this year.)


Usually a very chatty group, here on Sprig Trail silence suddenly overcame us.  Sprig Trail is steep.  Silent, but for the sound of your own labored breathing, and steep.  It is eerily spectacular as well.  Mostly a single track, long switchback hiking trail, the grade doesn’t ease up for nearly a mile and a half.   The mountain on one side of you, and a quick drop down a densely wooded cliff on the other, there is nothing to do but climb, keeping pace between the person in front of you and the one behind you, wondering the whole time if either of them are suffering as much as you.

The beauty of the redwood forest makes up a sea of red and green spectacular enough to provide a good distraction from the pain of pushing against gravity; it would be absolutely breathtaking…if you weren’t already out of breath, that is.  The deceptive nature of switchbacks fools you into thinking that you are almost at the top of the hill, again and again, only to come around the bend to realize that you are really just at the bottom, again and again.  Lost somewhere on a mountain, in the middle of a forest, with nothing but your own mind, heart, lungs and legs to carry you forward, you are grateful for fellow runners in this otherwise vast and wonderful solitude.

I’m not sure if it was on the first or second switchback, but it couldn’t have been more than five minutes on the trail before I breathlessly gasped, “I thought I was in good shape!”  One of my friends chuckled, “Yeah, Mt. Madonna has a way of humbling you like that.”  He then slowed and swapped running…or rather very slow jogging…for hiking.  And the three of us ladies behind him thankfully followed suit.


We mercifully, or rather necessarily, then alternated between “running” (aka: barely jogging) and hiking for the remainder of the Sprig Trail.  (If you’re considering the Mt. Madonna Challenge, note that the 6K is the only course that completely avoids the Sprig Trail, while the 30K gets a double dose of it.)


Fortunately, after the first two grueling miles the trail levels out significantly, evident on this morning by the pick-up in our conversation and cadence.  As if a reward for successfully ascending Sprig Trail, the succulent aroma of breakfast cooking wafted across the trail as we ran past the campgrounds.  The next few miles allowed us to settle into a great groove, interrupted only by the dodging of an occasional spider web ethereally stretched across the trail, marvelous in both construction and magnitude.


The scene that opened before us off the side of the mountain as we crested the final steep incline of Tie Camp Trail more than compensated for the additional climbing it took to behold it.  Shrouded in a light foggy mist, I vowed in that moment to come back to Mt. Madonna and to bring my husband with me.  And still, I was yet to experience what would become one of my very favorite things about this mountain.  You see, perhaps the best thing about running Mt. Madonna is the application of the old adage: What goes up must come down.

The 12K we were running on this morning gains 1,100 feet in elevation (6K gains just 700 feet; 18K, 1,800 feet; 30K, 2,900 feet), but the course is a loop so for all the grit that goes into the ascent, runners are able to enjoy an equal amount of thrill on the descent.  Coming down, the Merry-Go-Round Trail is much wider and the grade not quite as steep as the Sprig Trail, which allows runners to really open up their stride and (almost) fearlessly fly down the mountain.


Another great thing about the up and down factor is that it necessitates that runners use different muscles throughout their run.  When I came back to the mountain a year later to actually race the 18K, the burning in my calves and quads while ascending the Sprig Trail (this was after already running up Ridge Trail as part of the 6K, as the 18K combines the 6K and 12K courses) made me wonder how I was going to possibly finish out the race, but then the trail leveled out just long enough to allow those muscles enough recovery to then be able to tackle the second and final climb up Tie Camp.


And likewise, after the roughly one and a half mile descent down Merry-Go-Round Trail the first time, there came more uphill and flat running before I had to again recruit my downhill running muscles for the second descent down Merry-Go-Round to the finish.


To get an idea of just how varied the running is throughout the course, compare my fastest two (mile) splits to my slowest two and notice the great discrepancy:  miles five and six (ascending the Sprig Trail in the middle of the 18K) were 15:52 and 13:27, while miles four and 11 (descending the Merry-Go-Round Trail, done twice in the 18K) were 7:16 and 7:06.   (I averaged a 10:18 pace, for a finishing time of 1:57:50 for the 18K).

Racing the Mt. Madonna Challenge 18K is definitely one of my most treasured running experiences.  The only thing keeping me out of the race this year is an out-of-state family wedding, but you’d better believe I’ll be back next year!  I have such enthusiasm for running at Mt. Madonna that I volunteered to market the race this year. 

Runners, we want you!  Come experience the beauty, the thrill and the challenge of Mt. Madonna for yourselves on August 25.  Don’t let the mountain intimidate you.  With the four distance options, there is something for everyone…from beginner to advanced trail competitor.  Don’t let the word “run” intimidate you either.  The majority of race participants don’t actually run all of the ascents; everyone around and behind me, including myself, slowed to a walk or fast-paced hike for much of the Sprig Trail.  If you’re concerned about distance, the 6K is barely farther than a more familiar 5K.  Come for the challenge; the fun and the reward both lie in the challenge.


You can find out more about the race and how to enter at the following links:

Just run.


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