My third annual participation in this race, a small 30K/50K out in flyover country east of Barstow, CA. This race is in the high desert, a land of creosotebush and white bursage, coyotes and kangaroo rats and tortoises and rattlesnakes, and rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.
Short version: 8:04, 2 minutes slower than last year, I’m not worried about that.
Long version: I had talked running neighbour into doing the 30K – it didn’t take much talking even though she is doing SurfCity next weekend – and we left at 3:45 on Sunday morning. Her DH decided to come too, though he didn’t want to race. He is also doing SurfCity and hasn’t done much long distance training for the race, I think his only double digit training run was the 22 we did up in the mountains two weeks ago. But he planned to do some of the Calico course and then double back. We drove the 110 miles to Calico Ghost Town, off I-15 just north of where it splits from I-40, and found the race start without incident.
We walked up a long switchbacking flight of uneven stone stairs from the parking lot to the ghost town itself to pick up our numbers. RN was apprehensive. Was this part of the course? No, I assured her, this is not. The finishing stretch is through the parking lot, up a service road to the back of the ghost town, then down through the “main street” to the finish. No stair climbing. Calico is a touristy spot with some reconstructions of original structures and other blatantly fake buildings, restaurants, souvenir stores, and bits of local history. Stern signs all around that one should not enter the area that is fenced off because there are dangerous mineshafts.
Picked up packets, pinned on numbers, availed ourselves of the facilities, chatted to other runners, and waited for the start. I had RN pin the sign with Karnel’s leaf on my back. Runners remarked on it, as did several people at the various aid stations. The weather forecast was for 34 at the start and 65 or so by the middle of the afternoon, zero chance of rain, and breezy. Meteorologists should not be allowed to spread that information unless they are reasonably certain that the forecast is accurate. They were half right. It was 34 at the start. And it did not actually rain, though the cloud cover looked ominous at times. It did not get anywhere near 65. And there is a difference between “breezy” and “strong gusty winds”. I think you can see where this is going…
The RD announces over the loudspeaker that everyone should take off their hats because the national anthem is about to start. Sad that people need to be told this, but good that he made a point of this. Hats and caps are removed. National anthem plays and many of us sing along. RN and I remove our jackets, reluctantly, and give them to her DH to put in the car. I opted for a long sleeve tech tee and I’m glad I did, I would not have wanted to be wearing short sleeves in that stiff breeze. RN would like a few more pictures but the clock is set, the gun goes off, and so do we.
First mile of the race is an opportunity to bank a little time, since it’s on asphalt and downhill. RN takes off almost immediately, she’s faster than I am and she’s doing the shorter option. I trot along in the middle of a pack. Someone greets me and asks if I remember her from Mt.Disappointment – of course I do. She’s the one who missed the Shortcut aid station completely and could have got into serious trouble for lack of water. She tells me that she was DQ’d for missing the aid station, to add insult to injury, and so she dropped at the base of the mountain. She certainly wasn’t the only one who dropped there either of her own volition or because of missing the cutoff time.
The already-strung-out pack turns west on a secondary paved road and soon leaves the road and starts off across the desert on a sandy track. Ah yes. Not my favourite bit. Although it was raining two days earlier and that helped to compact the sand this is still soft, shifting, unsecure footing. I stumble and swear through it and eventually get to a firmer stretch of trail. We almost make it to a road and then turn and run alongside the road. There’s a very low plastic fence along it, mesh strung between posts, approximately 15 inches high. I had wondered about this in the last couple of years and I think it might be a tortoise barrier to keep the animals from wandering across the road and getting flattened. One older woman asks about the fence and I say “I think it’s a tortoise barrier.” She thinks I said “horse barrier” and laughs. When we figure out the miscommunication I laugh too. Any self-respecting horse could step over that barrier without thinking twice about it, and any horse that can’t get over something that height deserves a one-way ticket to the glue factory. She and I run together for a while, she last did this race about 10 years ago and is looking forward to doing it again. Eventually she pulls ahead of me.
They actually put mile markers up for this race, which is not usual for trail races in my experience. Not a bad idea except that it means I’m looking at my watch and calculating paces. 7 miles and we’re at Aid 1. Cantaloupe! Yum. I grab a slice and continue. At this point we leave the roughly westward direction and head north and then northeast, up around the mountain range on whose southern slope Calico nestles. Long pull on a rocky dirt road. I talk to various runners, including one who I’ve met at Shadow of the Giants in past years and who notes that I’m running a lot faster this year. Yes, losing 45 pounds will do that! I also pull level with a man from San Diego who isn’t happy that this is on dirt roads, he would prefer more technical single track. Not to worry, mate. There’s plenty of that to come.
And soon after I wish that it was a less rocky road. I have tripped and recovered a few times, but this trip doesn’t result in a stumble. Full fledged face plant on the track. I spit out gravel and swear words in about equal measures as I work to regain my feet. Another runner stops to help me up and I thank her, then take measure of the damage. Scraped right knee, gouged left thigh, nasty scrape on left elbow, some abrasions on right palm and left hand, and once again I landed on my left upper ribs. Sooner or later my bosom is either going to deflate from being landed on so often, or it’s going to explode. But my worst fear, broken teeth, hasn’t happened, so I’m thankful for that. I hate falling down. I grit my teeth and remind myself that Karnel would have pushed on without a second thought. Back on the trail again.
I know that there’s an aid station coming up shortly and am sure that they have first aid supplies, so I continue. By the time I get to Aid 2 blood has trickled down both legs and the left sleeve of my shirt (fortunately not torn) has some nice dark patches on it. The volunteer gives me wet paper towels and Band-Aids and offers to help me clean up, which I think is not a good idea because he doesn’t have gloves and long training says “do not come into contact with someone else’s blood” even if I’m reasonably certain I have no communicable bloodborne diseases. Patching up doesn’t take long and I grab some jelly beans and potato chips to accompany the melon before heading out past the ruins of the rock house and down the ravine.
This stretch is through a slot canyon with some lovely red and green rock formations. Running is hit and miss, we can do some running but we find ourselves doing more power hiking and the occasional scramble up boulders. The general heading is northeast but this is twisty turny trail. Round a corner and here is Ernie, the marshal who likes to handle the 30 and 50K splits. He notes my 50K number and gestures me to the left. Scenic route. I head on up the trail.
Half a mile on, I see a runner coming back. Uh oh. I know this person! Hello RN! She missed the split completely, talking to another racer, and finally realized that she was going the wrong way when they passed the 14 mile marker and the other person said “almost halfway” and RN said “Wait. Shouldn’t it be ‘almost done’?” Other person tried to talk her into doing the 50K, but between the race next week, her DH’s certain worry if she didn’t show up for 7 hours when she was supposed to be doing the 30K, and the knowledge that most RDs frown on runners changing distances midrace, even in events as laid back as the average trail ultra, she decided to turn back. I point her back and say “you CANNOT miss Ernie!” (Even though she already did.) I continue on up the steep trail, mostly doing power hiking up and cautious scramble down. A mile or so of this and then several miles of run up an incline that has rocks but is runnable, even for me, and on which I can make some good time. I can do sustained gradual uphills.
Past a couple of rock formations that look awfully familiar, I’m sure they’ve had John Wayne and the cavalry filming out there before now. Continue on. Miles 15, 16, 17, wind at my back all the way and getting stronger. And colder. I see Aid 3 at the top of the incline, I had hoped to get there by 11 but it’s about 11:10. I’m doing almost exactly the same pace as last year.
The wind is gusting hard at the top of the mountain. Aid 3 is at the edge of a dropoff which overlooks a dry lake bed, they have the most spectacular view on the course. Right now, though, they are huddled in the lee of their vehicles in an attempt to stay as warm as possible. It’s cold. More melon, more jelly beans, and I ask “am I last?” and am assured that no, I am most definitely not. And as I leave the aid station I see several more runners coming up the incline, so I know I am still ahead of a few people.
Next comes one of the toughest parts of the race, for me at any rate. Up a steep incline to a saddle. Marshal at the top is completely exposed to the blustery wind, and he has dressed for it with a woolly hat, ski mask, and heavy parka. Sensible man. I invoke deity as I head down the other side of the saddle. The next half mile is a steep gully lined with crumbly, exposed, very slippery rock. I am so glad it is not raining. The colours are beautiful – pink, orange, cream, beige – but the rock is scarily loose. At a couple of points I sit down and go down the rock on my behind like a toddler learning to go down stairs, and I hang onto handholds as much as possible. Two runners pass me during this stretch and another is close behind. Once we reach the bottom I greet this woman, I remember her from last year – her name is Joan and she’s a tough cookie. We head down the valley going southwest, this is a long stretch of rocky but mostly runnable road here. I’m maybe a minute ahead of Joan as we reach Aid 4 at 12:30.
I seem to be going for the jelly beans this year. Not sure why, but since the aid station has them and that’s what I feel like I nab a handful. Joan and I head out of the aid station, my pace is a little faster than hers on the uphill as we go west and she tells me to go on ahead. I do. While I don’t mind running with someone, I am happy to run by myself in most of these races. I certainly don’t need a companion to enjoy the trail experience. Trail turns north, then west again. I get passed by two jeeps with people out off-roading. One stops and the passenger leans out. Am I OK? Sure, just in a race. There’s a race going on? (Uh, no, we just go out for long trail runs with numbers pinned to our fronts to confuse you.) Driver says he will watch out for runners and they peel off. Fortunately soon the route leaves the better road and goes up a very steep portion up which I wouldn’t take a vehicle if I could help it! This is one stretch that many runners hate but I like, uphill is not a worry for me. I do live in Canyon Country, after all. Reach the top, singing “Defying Gravity” at the top of my lungs, and descend the other side of the hill. More twisting and turning and I’m at Aid 5, which is Aid 3 for the 30K folk – the two routes converge here and then split again, with the 50K portion being much more challenging, um, scenic than the 30K It’s 1:15. Not bad! Refuel and hydrate and off again. The last runner apparently left Aid 3 at 12:30 and hasn’t yet made it to Aid 4, so I’m well ahead of the last people.
Up along a hog’s back with very rocky trail, greet the trail shepherds in 4-wheelers, and down another steep descent and through a slot canyon. Getting close to the end! I emerge from the canyon in a vaguely southbound direction, then get turned onto a steep uphill by a group of sheriff’s deputies and course marshals. This is where two years ago we kept hearing gunfire because the Scouts were having a competition. I can hear occasional shots but nothing like it was that day. Up some slope and I’m at Aid 6, 27 miles, and it’s 2:15. The volunteer at the aid station wants to show me the vista. I have seen it before but it’s worth looking at again. He says he’s been running in this area most of his life. I agree that we live in an awesome state and far too few people know their surroundings. He grins. It’s cold and windy here too, though not as bad as Aid 3 has it. Out of the aid station and to the last portion of the course.
This part is one of the most challenging because it’s not far short of vertical in some stretches. Little whoop-ti-dos, up and down and up and down. The general direction is northwest and the loss of elevation outweighs the gain. I finally emerge from this stretch and head thankfully across the wash. The course takes a slight detour to go under two – not sure what you’d call them. Open caves? Very short tunnels? Arches? One is unremarkable, the second has a deep puddle caused by the rain. But I can get past that without getting my feet wet by inching along the side. Back out, down into the wash, past the marshals, and into the last small canyon. Through that and up a slope. Ah yes, the last out and back. While I can see the ghost town just fine, I still have two miles to go. The trail heads east, almost back to Aid 6 (well, there is a hefty ravine in between, nobody’s likely to cut that bit of the course), then hairpins and goes west. Awful footing, lots of rocks about the size of grapefruit. I am returning when I see Joan emerge from the canyon and start the out and back. I shout and encourage her. She smiles. I pass the 30 mile marker and glance at my watch. 2:53. I’m not going to make sub-8, but I won’t be far short.
Down the last rocky bit and – finally! – tarmac. Through the campground parking lot. I can RUN on this! And I do. Out from the campground lot, through the main parking lot, through the gully where my car is parked. Pass one walker, a woman who’s struggling valiantly on. Up the steep service road to the top of the ghost town. This really stinks as an end. But it’s not the end! Past the 31 mile mark, turn, and now down past the rangers’ cabins and through the ghost town. A sign: “Due to budget cuts, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off permanently.” Um, yes, I can see why a park in California might have that sign. I pass a bunch of tourists and finally see the “FINISH” sign. Put on the speed and race down the hill to come in in 8:04.
Running neighbour and her DH are waiting, along with a few other runners. They point me in the direction of the food. I’m not hungry right now, but I should drink something. Oh dear, no cups. Oh well, there’s just a little juice left in the bottom of the bottle. Nobody’s going to care if I drink straight out of the jug! I upend it and down the contents. RN reports that even with the unplanned detour she came in in less than 5 hours, she had a blast, and she intends to do the 50K next year, thank you. Her DH also had a good 10 miler, out along the first 5 miles of the course and back again. He left about 15 minutes after the start and still caught up with some of the slower participants, including one walker to whom he said "Did you see the coyote just over there?" and she had not. Apparently the coyote was sizing her up appraisingly but when RNDH neared the coyote decided that while one human might possibly be worth a try, two humans were not easy enough prey to take on. Scary thought.
Grab food, cheer the walker – who was in the 30K and has taken over 8 hours to walk 19 miles, gutsy lady! – and cheer Joan as she comes in. Then we head down to the parking lot. Off to Costco to gas up, have a budget late lunch (pizza and berry sundae, food of champions!), and then we head back home. RN’s DH drives, bless him. We make it back nearly 14 ½ hours after we left. Long day. But very well worth it. And I think Karnel would have enjoyed that race, even though she was an Ohio woman born and bred. She appreciated new challenges, and this would have been one of them. This is one race that deserves a wider audience. Not for beginners, not for princesses, and definitely not for someone who wants bands and crowd support and lots of distractions. But a good race for the serious trail runner who is looking for a new experience in unusual surroundings.
Great Race Report!!!
Getting me excited about high desert race (as opposed to my usual excitement over dessert).
Great race report! Congrats!
Damaris, Marathon Maniac, Ultra Runner
"The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire."
Great Race Report!!!
Getting me excited about high desert race (as opposed to my usual excitement over dessert).
After high desert race there WILL be dessert, no question!
Great report....know this one would never be for me!
Lisa...you crack me up! I'm for the dessert too.
6/8 Hatfield/McCoy Half, 8/18 lake Erie Shores and Islands Half, 9/21 Mighty Niagara Half Lewiston, NY, 10/7 Cleveland Rock & Roll Half 10/6 or Detroit Free Press 10/20, A Christmas Story 5 or 10K Cleveland 12/7, Santa Hustle Half Cedar Point 12/15
Run to live; live to run
What a wonderful report. I love your recall of detail. Karnel would be so happy you continued on after the fall
Wonderful report, Tessa. Sounds like just a wonderful race! Glad I found it!
Sobering indeed about the coyote sizing up the lady.
Karnel would be so honored to be along on that race-any of us would.