June 1, 2019
Ever since last year’s finish (which involved hustling through the course and then having 7 hours for the final 2 miles), I have been corresponding with Bishop Race Director Todd Vogel about coming up with a better set of time cutoffs for the 50M race.
I came up with my own ideas about what would be the best. The choices included totally even splits (which don’t hold up in the dark) or more stringent cutoffs to allow for stumbling around in the dark (when one would be most tired). I submitted a suggestion in the realm of the latter and RD Todd mostly took my time estimations (rounding up or down for more round numbers).
I was reticent about doing this race this year only because my last race (supposed to be 50M) was only a few weeks ago. I would like to help with the race, but Bishop is a 5 hour drive, so a long way to drive to help out. Maybe if some of my friends were interested in running the race, I could tag along… but I’m not getting many takers. It’s funny. I’ll say, “Hey, you will have 19 hours to finish a 50K, totally doable,” and they say, “19 hours? Oh, No, sounds like a hard race,” even though I tell them it’s also 19 hours for the 100K. 19 hours could be hard for 100K but not for 50K, and besides, it’s a very scenic race.
Just after Wild Wild West (though I did not see the e-mail for a few weeks), Todd offered a free entry in exchange for the help I gave. (Note: I would like to point out that I also had cleaned up and compiled records for the entire history race, so it wasn’t just because I made a pace sheet.) So, I was in.
On Friday, I left decently early (after morning commute) and arrived in Bishop in early afternoon. I stopped in town for a bit and then headed over to Millpond Park to help out with packet pick-up and registration. Mostly this involved sorting T-shirts into piles by size and gender and sort the other giveaways, as well as a fail-safe number check-in system. Shirts are nice (maroon and gold) and the other giveaway is socks. (There was some initial confusion. We thought there was only two sizes, so some people turned them down, and then we found the larger sizes. Oops.)
As I did last year, I handed out bibs and shirts until an hour past the posted time, and then worked my way over to my car for a short and uncomfortable sleep. Millpond isn’t a campground, but I have gotten away with sleeping in my car most of the times I have done this race because I am also volunteering. However, before I get too comfortable, Todd offers to let me sleep on a cot in one of the trailers. Since I have my own sleeping bag, this is a better option, because I can stretch out. It’s a little cold and the cot is squeaky, but it’s much better than being in my car.
Darrell Price is there, too, volunteering. I let him nab one of the extra sleeping bags from the trailer, because he is going up to one of the remote aid stations and it is COLD!
Even though another three weeks have passed since Wild Wild West, the snow hasn’t melted completely. Rain (or snow) isn’t expected today but the conditions are such that part of the trail will be snowy and is not accessible by car. This eliminates one aid station (the one at 9500′).
At 5:30am, we set off on the course, up out of Millpond, through the campground, and out the back gate into the wilds of Bishop. My goal is only to finish. I have stopped using the brace in the last couple of weeks and I feel okay, but don’t want to overdo it. With a 19 hour cutoff, I can do 20 minute miles and still finish (though am hoping not to be doing 20 minute miles).
I am not by myself at this point, though I am mostly surrounded by mostly 20 milers and 50K runners who are doing their first race of this distance.
The first 20 miles of the race is a long uphill slog, and especially the first 6-7 miles are not particularly scenic, other than wondering if the path goes high enough to see snow. I have yet to see snow on the course, but feel there is a good chance given the fact that one of the aid stations is inaccessible by car.
After about six miles, there are some interesting turns, climbing through a more green area, winding through cacti and rocks to the Junction aid station. At this point, I am maintaining 16 minutes a mile (not bad given the climbing and elevation – ~6000′). But it also here that the 20 milers turn off and head back down to the finish, so I am seeing fewer souls on the roads.
From Junction to McGee, an unending climb up to almost 8000′, but you know you’re getting close to the aid station when the terrain changes from unforgiving rocks and boulders to a more forested area and the trail gets a bit damp. This is another slow section for me (due to climbing and the elevation, still).
There are three nice volunteers at this aid station and I notice that the woman there has a European accent. I asked if she was of German descent and she said Yes. I said, if you are still here when I get back, I will serenade you in German. She said, “I look forward to it.”
I leave McGee and a few more 50K runners who turn around here to head back to the finish. The far end of the aid station is a flowing river. It’s particularly high this year due to the above normal snowfall. There is a plank bridge in the bushes to get across. It’s not bad, but I worry how I will fare when I start to get more tired on the way back.
The trail continues up a hill (but forested) and then down a technical fire-road into a nice valley, with stream flowing through the trail. When I climb back out of the valley, I am close to the Edison Aid Station which I will hit three times. I am greeted by the Ham Radio operator who I know personally (maybe has worked for NSR?).
I stop briefly here because this next section is a lot more uphill (but the top is Mile 20, the high point of the course). I head up the trail and onto the single-track through a sort of fallen timber area. The trail gets steeper and steeper (not runnable but easy to slowly walk up) ’til it flattens a bit at the top loop. (This is the area where I always see people confused about the course, even though it is clearly marked.)
Even though I have categorized the trail as “flat,” I am still heading uphill. Probably in about a half mile, the trail is blocked by a football field length section of snow. I’m not that confident in tromping through snow for 100 yards (I struggled with 10 yards at Wild Wild West.). In this first section, at least, it’s possible to have minimal contact with the snow, and you can see from the footprints that most people have taken this option.
Trail continues another quarter mile and then a much more unavoidable 100 yards of snow field. I try my best to put my feet in the footsteps of those who have traversed this section before me (of course, my feet are bigger so sometimes I sink down a few feet and get cold feet). The worst part of this section is a slight downhill part. I hold onto a small pine as I slide down the five or so feet before continuing on to the end of this section.
In the last little bit before the top, I pass a couple of runners on their way down. At the summit and the (former) aid station, the whole area is covered with snow (but some rocky spots where the footing is better). It’s so weird to see all this snow, when in my four past runs here, I could see snow in the distance but there wasn’t a drop of permafrost in the actual area.
So, I have to prove that I actually climbed all the way up here, because there is no radio guy to vouch for me. (“Yeah, trust me, I didn’t turn around at the easy earlier spot…”) They have a plastic coffee container (like Folgers) that has a supply of animal stickers inside. Unfortunately, it is on the ground, and also unfortunately, I am tall. Just bending over to get the sticker causes my legs to cramp, but I do manage to get a sticker out and mount it on my bib. To avoid further cramps, I just drop the container on the ground (plus I don’t think there’s many people behind me that will get upset that it wasn’t perfectly placed).
Now I have to turn around and cross those horrible snow fields again. I would just like to mention here that I would rather climb up a super steep hill (like K2 in Rio del Lago 100K) than tromp across a snow field. It’s almost as bad as running through two foot deep standing water. It’s exhausting.
The first of the fields was the one with the short downhill section, but now I am going uphill and the tree I held onto is on the other side of the slope (and it’s not helpfully bending down to assist me). I try to make a run for it, but end up tipping forward and landing (softly) on my knees. Basically, I have to claw myself up the short hill and then somehow pull myself back up.
On the second field, I avoid the snow as much as possible and hug the side of the trail without getting too close to the edge.
When I get to the end of the top loop, I turn right and head along the ridge. I always like this section because no matter how slow I feel, I always am going much faster because it is not uphill. The one downside this time is that something is falling from the sky. It’s not rain. It’s not snow, I don’t think. I can feel it, but it still is wafting down a bit. My jacket sleeve looks like I dipped it in some risotto, and that’s what the ground looks like as well. I am told that this is sleet. It’s not painful or uncomfortable but slows me down a little bit.
Towards the bottom of the hill (probably a half mile from Edison Aid Station), there is another snow field, but this time, it’s on the down slope of the hill. I take a few cautious steps on the snow, but decide it’s in my best interests to go well out of my way and go around the snow field. I think I made the correct decision, because I didn’t fall.
The snow/rain/sleet fall begins to intensify and that pushes my pace a bit more (though my pace ends up being about the same going up the hill as going down – boo hiss). The folks at the aid station are hunkering down. I grab a couple of supplies and then continue on.
Out of Edison for the second time, the trail now goes up what used to be a large pipe up the hill. At the top, the trail winds around a gated area (which smells, so probably sewer or septic-related, in the middle of nowhere) and then down onto a wide untechnical fire-road. Downhill from here for a bit before the uphill begins again and before the trail gets more technical.
I meet a few people in this section (a large out-and-back). It’s nice to see people again after being mostly alone for the past 5-6 miles. At least I can see clearly now, the sleet has gone and the weather is clearing up a bit.
At the top, I can see my path downhill in the future and a few runners on the trail, but first I need to descend down to the Intake #2 aid station for the first pass. It’s another slow-going section but I am there with plenty of time to spare with the new time guidelines. My marathon time is around 8:40!
Now the trail passes by the lake, with a few people out fishing, and then the turn down (to the trail I saw earlier) onto the technical double-trail. I meet a few more people returning from Bishop Creek Lodge heading back.
When I get to the bottom, I work my way over to the road and to the entrance to the campground, paved road here. Now I cross over a small bridge and head up the “reflexology” road which connects to the paved road that goes to the Bishop Creek Lodge. Seeing lots more people (like 5) once I get onto the road.
It would be nice if the trail just climbed up the road straight to the Lodge, but I know from experience that it goes back into the brush with very low overhanging branches so it’s a lot of ducking and staring at the ground.
When I hook back onto the road, I catch up with another runner. Victor is in the 100K and struggling a bit, but I think he still has time to finish the 100K or at least can drop to the 50M. We chat a little bit and walk a bit together heading up to the aid station. When we get there, his wife and young child are there. I hope it is for support and not for a ride back.
I refill my water bottles, grab a few bites, thank the volunteers, and head out. Hope Victor is right behind me. (He stops and gets a ride back. Boo.)
Now I retrace my steps, back down the road, back into the bushes, back on the reflexology path, back across the bridge, back up the technical trail, back to the lake, and back to the Intake #2 aid station. I tell them there might be 1-2 people behind me, but they say all those people have quit, so they are probably quite excited to pack up and go.
Now I head back up the rocky hill, back down the less rocky hill, back up to the septic acre, and back down the pipe to Edison and my third and final pass. I am moving at about 20 minute pace and net at about 20 minute pace. I have a nice send off from the radio guy and thank the volunteers.
Now back up the hill, back through the stream valley, back up the rocky hill, down the other side, and the careful recrossing of the stream to McGee Aid Station.
Sorry for such a terse description (you can read more detailed descriptions on prior posts) but I am totally by myself since Mile 29 at the turnaround. The only folks I see are at the aid stations, so it is a bit lonely.
The aid station is staffed by the same folks, including the German-speaking lady. I say they are excited to see me because they can pack up, and they nicely say they were prepared to stay the additional two hours to cutoff and they are in no hurry. I tell the nice volunteer I am ready to live up to my promise and serenade her. I sing one of my Mozart lieder called “An Chloe.”
The translation is something like, “When I look into your beautiful blue eyes, I see my love for you and it makes my heart beat faster. And I hold and kiss your warm red lips. Beautiful lady, I hold you in my arms. My dear, I press you to my chest. And when a dark storm is on the horizon, I sit, satisfied, next to you.”
Sort of apropos for the day. Yes, a romantic song, but charming. Her co-workers at the aid station don’t understand German, but she liked it. (They liked it, too, but only because I can sing in tune.)
Just singing and having someone appreciate it helped me get through the next section all alone, back through the forested area, back into the more desolate area and back to the Buttermilk Aid Station.
Out of Buttermilk, it’s a short 1.5 miles back to the Junction Aid Station. Even though it’s mostly downhill, it seems like I am moving slower and slower.
At Junction, the trail changes (finally) and I start to follow the path of the shorter distance runners as I am heading down to the finish. In this section last year, we were trailed by a dune buggy/sweep along this section, which is a fire-road and a nice smattering of light sand on the top (feels good on the feet for once). It is starting to get a little dusky here, but it’s not dark yet. I do have my headlamp in my pocket for when it does get dark.
The light dirt path turns to a rutty trail through some insect-filled bushes (especially at night) and then eventually turns onto a washboard road. It’s not hard going for me, but there are occasional campers’ cars passing by and I have to pull my buff over my nose to avoid the dirt. Eventually, I see the lights of the camper demarcating the Hwy. 168 Aid Station. (It’s about 3.5 miles to the end now, but it is extremely dark.)
They hand me a popsicle and direct me down the road. I put on my headlamp so I can see where to go. The first mile or so of this section is horrible as I remember, basically reflexology and feels horrible on my already blistered ground up feet.
As it gets darker and darker, the trail is increasingly more difficult to follow. The problem is that the ribbons are not reflective and not appearing with regularity. It’s fine when it’s light out, but it’s super difficult to know where to go. Basically, every single intersection involves me wandering around trying to find ribbons, and then guessing which way the trail goes. I can see where the aid station is, but it’s impossible to see which direction to go to get to that location.
When I start to hear voices (other than the usual weird ones in my head), I start to see more ribbons, so, phew, every time I see a ribbon, I know that I am still on the right path. There is two or three plywood sections to get across the stream (bad balance but I make it). So happy to see these folks, especially because I now have only 1.5 miles to get to the end, mostly downhill and not too confusing where to go.
The last few miles aren’t too bad, though slightly confusing for about half a mile until I get back into the campground gate. Now I know where to go!
I get to the finish line in 16:35:01, one of my slowest 50 mile races. (Seems weird to type that.) With this finish, I have completed at least one 50 miler every year for 14 years. Pretty amazing.
I watch a couple of people finish and then go over to the food area to see what they have. They serve me a cheeseburger with fixin’s and a beer, with the burger on a real plate and the beer in a glass mug. It tastes really good and hits the spot.
I chat for a bit with the volunteers, watch a couple runners come in, but I do need to get some sleep because I am volunteering tomorrow morning before my drive home.
At about 8am, I roust myself and get dressed, and start helping with cleaning out coolers, water jugs, plates, silverware, pots, pans, whatever got dirty and needs to be cleaned. Then we work on packing up all the supplies. I end up with some food items, like packages of strawberries, chips, soda, various grub that won’t last. The remainder of the unopened leftover food is to be donated to a food bank.
I chatted a bit with the RD of ways that the race could be improved for next year, but that I think for the most part everything went extremely well. My major contention is that there should be plentiful reflective markers from the cutoff points where the weather would be dark. Todd agrees, so I hope to run this race again next year with less snow and more markers, but I would run through snow again.
If you have a chance to come up and try one of these races, the scenery is amazing, the cutoffs are generous (maybe even for the 100K), and the race benefits local outdoor education programs and local search and rescue. Truly worth it.