The 50K is a funny distance. Marathoners move up (many without much trail experience perhaps), while ultra folks move down. In my case, I had skipped over the 50K, when I moved up from the marathon a little over three years ago. Going to 50 milers, 40 milers, 100Ks, and even attempting 100 milers, before finally doing my first 50K a year ago. But then I did four last year, and this was now the second of the new year. They've always been "B races" in my mind--either on the way to some bigger goal race or coming back from layoffs or injury or both. With Calico (and to a lesser extent Phunt 2 weeks before), I feel like I'm starting to get the hang of actually "racing" a 50K. It requires a distinct mentality and strategy, and I still feel like I have a learning curve, but I'll take my nice little Calico PR just the same!
Checking out the ghost town of Calico, which we had visited on a cross-country trip on the way toward the L.A. area back when I was maybe eight years old, was a trip down memory lane on Saturday, race packet pickup day. I was staying in nearby Barstow, just 15-20 minutes away. After getting a nice run down of the course following the big map they had set up at the race table from a volunteer (and later on from the race director), I went into the shops and little museum. It is just as touristy and slightly cheesy as I remember it (though as a kid there's not much concept of cheesy). But the views of the old abandoned silver mine and of the hills above with the white-painted "Calico" emblazoned on the hillside are still pretty highlights. Above all it's the setting that makes Calico pretty, not the actual reconstructed ghost town shops (tacky, and they looked suspiciously like the ones from Virginia City ghost town in Montana last summer, and others in the genre I've been to over the years!). It was a warm afternoon, maybe 70ish but with cool air, and I met and talked a bit with one quite chatty young LA-area runner, Mark. Talked to me about his ultra plans, and his hopes to break 6 hours. I didn't linger in the town too long, as I wanted to get back to the hotel, prepare my stuff, have dinner, and get to bed early. Mainly, get off my feet, after the two hour drive earlier that day from 29 Palms, and the previous two days of hiking and trail running in Joshua Tree. No running this day!
They were forecasting temps early in the morning of upper 30s or so, but it wasn't too bad when I got out of the car in Calico about an hour before race start at 7, still in the dark. I had decided to experiment with my bicycle arm warmers (like the "Moeben sleeves" that have become so popular lately). Worn with a short sleev tee. I decided to forego the vest I was thinking of wearing also--fortunately, as it would turn out! It was nice to be able to go inside a restaurant near the startling line on the main (paved) street, so as to keep warm and stretch out a little in the last minutes before we set off.
As we headed down the paved road and onto the local highway at daybreak, it was beautiful to see the sun coming up to the east, and it was at our backs as the road turned east. The rocky gravel shoulder was uneven enough that it made more sense to stick to the road, though I moved off to the shoulder in areas that seemed a little smoother. It felt good to be moving, as it was still quite chilly. After 2 miles or so, we turned right onto a dirt road, with a ridge off to our right. We embarked on what was a fairly long section which was an almost imperceptible (to the eye) but very real (to the legs) gradual uphill. From mile 2 at around 2,000 feet, the elevation chart shows a steady climb up to around 3,000 just past mile 10.
I hit the first aid station at 6.99 (all distances by my Garmin) in 11:11:23, for an average pace of about 10:12. It was in the middle of a large field. I don't think I stopped here at all, wanting to keep it going and not needing to refill my handheld.
The slight but steady climb continued over most of the next 5.08 miles, to AS #2 at about mile 11.17 I started to make sure I was getting in more walk breaks here, as the terrain of gravel, small stones, and sand didn't really break it up for you. Sometimes the rises got a little steeper, though, so I knew to conserve and stay back on those. I averaged about a 10:42 pace in this section.
The next 5.27 miles, to AS#3, at mile 16.44, were definitely the mentally toughest of this race for me. The climbs got steeper, and the terrain sometimes got trickier, as the dirt roads sometimes yielded to rockier footing and some of it was single track instead of the predominant double-wide jeep road. I felt like I was working harder, and tried to continue conserving energy by walking the steeper parts. Some folks I had been jockeying with, like the woman I would come to think of as "Croc lady," were passing me and pulling away from me. But it felt like it didn't make sense to try to expend the energy to keep up with those folks. "They'll come back to you," I kept saying to myself! "They're probably road runners," I kept hoping! In this section, my average pace slipped to close to a 13:30.
AS #3 was perched beatifully on the edge of a ridge with a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains and desert. I asked a volunteer to take my picture. Here I swapped out a few gels and Endurolytes and exchanged mini-bottles of Heed from my drop bag, and took off the vest (but kept the arm warmers), as it was getting warmer. I again filled my handheld with water (most times I couldn't quite drain it between aid stations, hard as I might try).
As I was fiddling with my drop bag, I asked a woman leaving the station, a bit increduously, "Are those Crocs you're wearing!" Yes, she replied, and went on her way, beating me out of the station by several minutes. Somehow an idea was hatched right then and there in my devious little mind that there was no way I could let myself be beat with someone with the temerity to run a trail ultra in Crocs! I had noticed that this woman, who seemed to be very roughly near me in age, insisted on powering up even the steep hills by continuing to run, however slowly. Even as everyone around her walked. Somehow this bothered me, and I kept thinking to myself, "She's not a seasoned trail person. She won't last expending so much energy!" (Probably mostly I was secretly jealous of her strength, though!). I also noticed that she tended not to keep the momentum going that well on the downhills. Funny how you develop these silly little fixations on runners around you to sort of pass the time and give yourself something (someone) to measure yourself against!
After a fairly steady climb out of AS#3, just before mile 18, we reached the high point of the course at close to 4,000 feet. There were a couple volunteers here, and I asked them to take my picture, and they kindly obliged. The course really went from scenic to just plain beautiful from here on out. The endless views of mountains, desert, and canyons spreading out before us were really spectacular. At this point we entered a great section of pretty steep and long descents--rejuvenation time for me! I reached one narrow scree slope, where a couple women were slowly picking their way downward, and scooted past them pretty speedily, making sure to pick up my knees and letting gravity take over as let my turnover increase. Then we came to what felt like a couple mile section of wide dirt downhill. I really just let 'er rip here, as my legs felt real good. I was passing a fairly steady stream of folks now, including at one point (and for what would prove to be for good) my nemesis the "Croc lady." In this 4.49 mile section, leading to Aid Station #4 at mile 20.93, my average mile time sped back up to about about 10:22. Nice to have gravity on my side again!
I filled the bottle quickly and took a few snacks (mostly fruit and maybe some pretzels or PB and J squares was what I took at most aid stations--this was back before the PB recalls!) and got though the aid station quickly, wanting to keep up my newfound momentum. The descent continued to about mile 22, where we started to climb again. It was mostly uphill till mile 24. I felt somewhat winded here given how hard I'd worked to make good time on the downs, but kept up a pretty good momentum, and no one I'd passed overtook me. I average about an 11:15 pace for the 3.27 miles till Aid Station #5, at mile 24.2
The next section was full of roller coaster "whoop-de-doo" type steep up and down hills in rapid succession. I got a little giddy with the thrill rid, and almost got too carried away! At one point I got my foot tangled and took a head first slide down some scree, just after I passed a woman who was (more sensibly!) slowing down. But fortunately I just dealt a glancing blow to my shoulder on some rocks and kind of rolled out of it, and the biking gloves cushioned my hands nicely. So I bounced right up and continued, no worse for the wear, with no cuts or bruises. Only the ego slightly bruised, but I mostly felt like laughing about it. I felt some folks shadowing me in this section, as they gained ground on the ups and I pulled away on the downs. I covered the 2.2 miles to the last aid station, Aid#6, in about 11:20 pace.
As I had picked up speed with the downhills, from 18 on, I started realizing that a sub-6:29 and thus a PR was very much in my sights if I kept it up. At some point, I started thinking more ambitiously about the prospect of breaking 6 hours. But I knew it would be a haul.
There was quite a steep descent coming off the last aid station, and I passed a guy who was shaken and want to know how bad his face looked from a fall he had just taken (I hadn't seen it). I told him it was more of a scrape than a gash, with no blood dripping, so didn't look too bad at all. It didn't seem to reassure him much, as the fall had seemed to shake his confidence quite a bit. Unfortunately, I couldn't linger at all, as I pretty much felt like a man on a mission.
The last few miles had some pretty winding trail. Some steep climbs and downs, a U-shaped section, a last descent down the mountain past the campground and onto the road, and then past the entrance station at the bottom of the hill from Calico, and throught the parking lot (and past my rental!) and back up the mountain on the road and up a very steep hill. There were a couple runners biting at my heels the last few miles. I felt like I could fend them off as long as we were on the trails, where I could pick it up on the downs and skirt quickly through trickier footing areas. But once we got to the road section, I felt them coming up. I had been fighting off leg cramps for a couple miles, and was down to taking my last few Endurolytes, sometimes two at a time. It felt pretty warm by then, maybe around 70. I felt a little cramping coming on as I tried to speed up as first a guy, then a woman, overtook me toward the foot of what would prove to be the last steep, paved hill up into the town. I realized it was no good to speed up, and then slowed to a walk as we went up the hill. The woman remarked, as she passed me, on the guy's ability to run swiftly up a climb that steep after 30 miles. Those were the only two people who passed me (back?) the whole second half of the race, of the 15 or more I had passed. So I kind of took it in stride, as the finish was close, and no one else was coming. I wasn't falling apart, I was just being caught by a couple surging runners.
Anyway, my fear going up that hill was that maybe they would have us wind around the town, or back onto the trails, as my Garmin was only showing like 30 miles. But once we crested the hill, it was just a nice quarter mile or so of downhill to the finish line! Nice to be able to finish swiftly with the aid of gravity! (Turns out I averaged a nice 10:45 pace for those last 3.34 miles, so it wasn't as if I was slowing down!) And really psyched to see a finish time of 5:41 and change on the race clock and my watch--a PR of 48 minutes over my Phunt PR of two weeks earlier! Maybe I'm getting the hang of these 50Ks after all!
After going back down to the parking lot to change clothes and call family, I headed back up to the town to use my free meal coupon at the restaurant. Ended up sitting with a nice guy from Nebraska or Kansas (he was from one but had a tee on from the other) who had won an age group for I think the 60-69 group (faster than me, too!). Nice to sit and relax and eat on the porch outside on a sunny winter desert day. Then it was back to the car for the 2 1/2 to 3 hour drive to my hotel near Orange County Airport. Heavy traffic most of the way, but still mostly flowing at 70 or 80--ah, California highways!
All in all, it was a great race. Well organized, well marked, scenic, challenging but still quite runnable, fun. Running through arid mountains and canyons does have its charms! Loved that second half of the course especially! I was glad I organized a trip around this one and the wonderful days prior at Joshua Tree (which, in retrospect, were still really the true highlight of this trip--the race was just the icing on the cake!). The combo of some quality hiking and outdoor sightseeing with a destination race is just the ticket!
Desert sojourns in winter--have to remember that delicious recipe for coming years!
1:11:23 lap 1 6.99
54:15 lap 2 5.08
1:11:18 lap 3 5.27
46:35 lap 4 4.49
36:56 lap 5 3.27
24:55 lap 6 2.2
35:56 lap 7 3.34