May 4, 2019
After finishing the 50 miler last year in Lone Pine (including an hour early start with Alan and Darrell), I decided to take advantage of the early entry fee and see if I couldn’t get in another completion on this beautiful and challenging course.
Alan isn’t in this year. He has the PCT 50 miler next weekend and I don’t think his wife would look kindly on being away all day two weekends in a row. Darrell is running also but I was unable to make arrangements vis-a-vis a formal place to stay. I’ll probably nap in my car until the first bus drives up (last year, we drove up to the campground and started on our own). While the race starts at 5am, there is a bus to the start at 3:45am, and the website does say you can keep your own time. That’s our plan.
I arrive in Lone Pine super early on Friday. Bib pickup is at 5pm, so I have 2-3 hours to kill. I read the newspaper in the car and try to take some catnaps. At five, I wander inside and talk with my many ultra-friends who are here, like Kim and Beth, Linda, and even Tam P. and Angela are up for the marathon.
Tam, me, and Angela at the info meeting on Friday.
At the bib pick-up, it’s the usual confusing pre-race briefing. I guess it gives the race some characters, but it confuses the hell out of first-timers. They make a big deal about the fact that they are doing a different start this year so there won’t be any issues with the Tuttle Creek campground. (Though, I guess if you are staying at the campground, you have to figure out how to get to the new start.)
After the meeting, I drive over to the parking lot across the street from the finish line, and try to get comfortable in my car for a short sleep. It’s a little cold outside but I have my sleeping bag and I sleep diagonally across in the driver’s rear seat to the passenger front seat. Not sure if I am actually sleeping. I am having vivid dreams about the course. Even though I have run this course before, I am sure that the dreams are just a generalized course (and I don’t need to wake up exhausted from previewing it).
I wake up well before 3:45am (!) and I made special sure yesterday to avoid eating much the night before because I will not have the opportunity to utilize a toilet (unless I want to squat on course).
The bus pulls into my lot around 3:35 and I grab a good seat. The bus isn’t particularly full (maybe 1/2 to 3/4) and it is mostly first-timers who are nervous about finishing the race (though I don’t think there are many starting early). I chat with a few people who are first-time marathoners (and one or two 50Kers). Scary that they pick a race like this for their first. It’s so hard.
As opposed to 2 years ago (because last year we drove ourselves to the start), the drive is a lot shorter, because we are not starting at the campground, but off the road. It’s dark, windy, and a little cold. This isn’t the best starting spot, because there is little space for us to congregate. Darrell is there; I think he camped or stayed nearby and just drove to the start. We start almost immediately. No way we’re waiting for the 5am start. I’ll definitely need all the time I can get, especially because I am still wearing the knee brace.
Darrell, Emmett, and John Radich at the start
So, we head off on a trail that goes off at a slight angle from the road, maybe double-track, and pitch black (dark even with headlamps). After about 45 minutes on this trail, it pops out in the Tuttle Creek Campground (?!?). I hope they’re cutting off a portion of the trail because they just added 5K to the course!
As usual, the path isn’t marked that well within the campground, so we wander for a little bit trying to remember which side of the campgrounds leads to the trails. Nothing like getting lost at Mile 3 of 53. Our misfortunes from last year helped a little bit here, including taking the left-ward path once we figured out where the trail continued. I wish they would be clearer on the markings in this section.
Even though it’s dark, the trail seems a little more familiar, that is to say, we wander through the bushes and work our way over to the main trail and get to the first aid station. According to the map, this is Mile 4, and look, it took me over 4 hours! (Probably really 7.1 miles.)
We’re starting to get caught up by other runners. This is a good opportunity for Darrell to push the pace a bit and I let a couple of runners surge by me on the water crossing section because it is slippery, hair-pin turns, and my leg is bound up a bit. Once on the other side, a little bit of uphill, but then a long downhill fire-road run. This second aid station is run by the Badwater race folks. I saw the sign for 20 minutes and kept trying to guess what it said (Bad Mother? Mar weather?). It’s a little mosquito-y around here, as we are by a short water crossing. I fared much better in this section, around 10-11 minutes per mile (so ACTUALLY 4 miles this time).
A change to the course this year for the marathoners (50K and 50M course still the same) is that everyone climbs up to Whitney Portal. (The marathon course avoided that in the past.)
So now begins the long uphill slog. This section has always been trouble for me in the past and nothing really changes this year. It begins with a steep fire-road, leading to single-track switchbacks (gentle rises), and then a single-track hugging the hillside (with drop offs on the right).
About 5 minutes into this section, I come upon a large tree blocking the path. I wish I had a picture to show how troubling this was (maybe three feet in diameter). It wasn’t the case that I could throw my legs over it or climb under it. You couldn’t edge to the right because of the drop-off. The only choice is to use the tree to climb up the left part of the hillside, climb around the top part of the tree, and then carefully descend back down to the single-track. This is even more difficult with the brace and my two hand-helds. I carefully balance myself up, over the tree, throw my water bottles carefully down, and edge back onto the trail, mindful that I will have to do this again on my way back down in a few hours.
Also, I am now very out of breath and not able to move very fast up the trail. (I mean, I am climbing up to 8400 feet.) It’s slow going, especially on the sections where I am sorta climbing up stairs because my knees hurt. Some people passing me, luckily not that crowded. On this section, I see Kim Gimenez coming down. We exchange some niceties. Always great to see her.
When I get up to the beginning of the campground area, there is the appearance of some permafrost or snow, luckily not across the trail… yet. Even though I am struggling with the thin air, I like this section of the trail because it is nicely built evenly spaced wooden stairs.
Now we get into the heart of the snow. First, there is a narrow section curving around a rock and all tromping through deep snow. Then there is a flat section that is nothing but snow. It’s not too slippery (it’s kinda cool, though) but I do need to concentrate on where I place my feet so I don’t get cold AND wet feet.
A few minutes before I get to the aid station, the top, and the turn-around, I see Darrell. I joke I will catch up with him soon. This 3 mile section took me over 2 hours. Hope I do better on the way down.
On the way down, I see Linda Dewees. She WILL catch up to me soon. I spot a few other people who are struggling up the hill. I started about an hour early and I see people who started on time two miles behind me and having just as much trouble summitting.
I do what I can to manage a faster speed heading down the hill, knowing that it’s going to take me a while to climb back over that tree on the way down. It seems to be worse coming down the hill, and I am just as out of breath, even though I am heading downhill, but I do clear it and continue to the easier part of the trail (switchbacks, steep downhill), and the turn off to the back half of the trail and another mile to the aid station.
A nice comparison coming down to going up, with 1:26 for 4 miles downhill versus 2:05 for 3 miles uphill.
From here, it’s rolling hills through the Alabama Hills section. I use my long legs to “power up” the hills as much as I can. It’s usually pretty windy through this section. I see few runners here and manage a sluggish 23 minutes per mile through Mile 18.
From here, it’s 4 miles to the next aid station and where I will make a decision on whether to continue on to run the 50 miler or drop to the 50K if I am not fast enough to finish under 16 hours. Given that I am at 7 and a half hours now, it doesn’t look like a good option to continue (and I am okay with that).
I try to hustle a bit to give myself every opportunity to continue, but I reach Mile 22 in 9 hours. There’s just no chance to run 28 MORE miles in 7 hours. I did the math, 15 minute miles, but a lot of that would be in the dark.
So I take the turn off for the 50K, maybe a little forlorn, but I know it’s the right decision.
The trail is better marked than last year (or people didn’t mess with it) so I have fewer problems and don’t wander around in a circle coming back to the aid station and not finding the inbound trail. I mean, now I have 7 hours left to do 9 miles. I can get lost a little bit.
It’s fairly lonely here, because I am towards the back of the 50K runners and mostly ahead of the 50M runners. Also, this section is a narrow single-track (here called a sheep trail) that drops down low and climbs steeply out on-and-on. A nice lady catches up to me on this section, named Andrea Lehr. She is feeling the same way I am on this section – it’s endless, it’s difficult, and it sucks!
As I reach each rise, it’s kinda like “Are we there yet?” and the answer continues to be, “Not yet.” But it’s nice to have someone to get through the end of this race with.
As soon as we spot the giant American flag, I know we are getting towards the home stretch, because the flag marks the location of the final aid station. This year, there are people here (because it’s not the tail end of the 50M) and we can chat with them a little bit.
From here, 3 miles to the end of the course, mostly downhill. In fact, steep downhill, a little gravelly. My feet are slipping heavily in the shoes, so my toes hurt quite a bit slamming into the front of the toe box after 9+ hours.
Now we veer over to the Whitney Portal Road and run down the road for half a mile, and then turn back onto the trail and into the back of the finishing park. I’ve gotten a little ahead of Andrea. I’m modified speed walking to get in as soon as possible and finish in 10 hours and 59 minutes (one of my worst 50K times, but my best 55K!). Andrea comes in a few minutes later, but she started on time (so maybe 10:06).
The finish line is a little better than last year. A Grocery Outlet opened up in town (which I had visited during the time between arriving and packet pick-up) and she brought some give-aways – weird flavors of Gatorade and prunes, some crackers – the usual G.O. stuff.
I hang out for a little while, but I cannot wait until the 8pm end time to see when Darrell comes across the finish line (15:09) because I am driving home afterwards and don’t want to get home too late.
Not sure if I will do this race again. I need to find out if they are doing that extra 3 mile start, if they will mark it better, or maybe when the long-time RDs of the Chamber of Commerce retire, get new management and do things a little differently. No slight to CoC, but after 40 years, maybe try something different.
This is my 101st ultra and I hope my slow time isn’t indicative of not being able to do ultras any more. I’m thinking about doing Bishop in a few weeks. I think I could do the extra 16 miles (to reach 50) in under 8 hours, so hope to give it a try.