Is this the mountains, or is this the desert? Living in Orange County, I don't get away much. Call me spoiled. Call me narrow-minded. Call me an idiot. When I signed up to run the Bishop High Sierra 50K, I imagined running on winding single-track along shady mountain ridges, in the shadows of majestic trees and the thin air, the Keebler elves tossing grapes into my mouth for refreshment.
I was right about the thin air: This run climbs from an elevation of about 4,400 to more than 8,200, then back down again. I was wrong about the mostly mountain vibe. Although the Bishop ultra, regarded as one of the tougher 50Ks (and 50-milers) around because of the climb and the elevation, boasts one of the most beautiful mountain backdrops, with postcard-perfect scenery, almost all of the actual run itself is on sandy, exposed trails surrounded by desert-like rocks and bushes.
Perhaps I doth bitch too much? Maybe. Breaking my $350 camera on this run didn't help. Don't get me wrong: Bishop is a beautiful race. But don't expect a lot of Hobbit-like forests or anything. Expect a long, monotonous gradual uphill for the first several miles, the altitude sapping the legs of energy. But also expect a few gorgeous stretches with rushing streams, incredibly green trees and lush foliage -- just not as much as I craved. But heh, I was running. And that's always a great thing!
This year's run was hot -- in the mid-80s, which felt hotter. For the first time in 14 years, there was no snow on any portion of the trails. There was little wind. I'm glad I borrowed a hat from running partner Nattie, although my head was too large (of course; I am so stuck up!). The hat helped a lot. Thanks, Nattie.
I power-walked a lot during the first half of the 50K, which should work out to 31 miles, but in Bishop, the 50k actually is a little more than 33 miles, according to my GPS watch (and later confirmed by the race director). Running the extra two-plus miles was fine, but my official finish time wasn't really accurate for a 50K. Whatever. See? I'm starting to obsess about finishing time, and that's stupid! Mellow out, dude. You'll never be a top runner. Have fun. Why are you running? For fun, or finishing time? OK, I'm back now. My split personality just went to bed.
Anyway, I was snapping tons of pictures during the run, and not trying to kill myself. And despite some slight nausea from the high altitude (high for me, at least), I was having fun, despite feeling hotter than I usually do (especially now, with Orange County all gray from the premature arrival of "June Gloom," the marine layer that returns every year and hangs out for a month or so.)
I had not fallen on a trail in some time. When I started trail running in earnest around March 2006, I recall taking spills during several runs as my wobbly legs got used to navigating around rocks and tree roots, especially when going downhill. Since then, I have became a more technically skilled and stronger runner. So, I had forgotten about falling -- until around mile 20 at Bishop.
I had the camera in my left hand, at about waist level, and had just snapped a pix of two runners coming up the trail as I was heading down. I didn't even bother looking through the screen on the back of the camera to see what the shot would look like. My mistake, however, was looking at the runners for a little too long. My right foot hit a rock, and down I flew. I broke the fall with my camera, smashing the lens. The two runners stopped. I let out a rather large scream and a curse ("Kelly Clarkson!" Joking).
I felt excruciating pain in my left calf -- but it was a charlie horse, and nothing else. When I stood up, the pain went away. I told the stunned runners, "I'll take care of this," and off they went. They probably thought at first that I had broken my leg or something. I never saw them after the race so could not personally thank them for stopping.
For several miles, I berated myself for being such a dork. Then I chilled out, realizing I could have injured myself. Sure, I ruined a camera that I had bought only a few months ago, but so what? Accidents happen. Keep things in perspective, dude. Hey, my split personality is back -- I thought I told it to go to bed!
On the way back down this basic out-and-back run, I flew down the hill at times, but fatigue set in as it got hotter, forcing me to walk some portions. I still wanted to finish at a decent time. I got ice at the aid stations and held chunks as I ran, rubbing it on my face, neck and head. I drank a ton of water but didn't eat much. A portion of a banana I ate somewhere near mile 28 helped, though.
I mostly ran alone during the entire race, my pace for some reason keeping me isolated from most other runners, although on the way down, I keep trading places with a nice woman from Yosemite, who like me griped about the lack of tree cover on the course. But she, too, was thrilled to just be here, surrounded by the majestic eastern Sierras. These mountains really are gorgeous. Mammoth Lakes is 40 miles or so up the mountain from Bishop, and of course, Mount Whitney is several miles down Highway 395, on the way back to Orange County.
As I inched my way toward the finish line, which was in a nice park with bathrooms and a makeshift shower (a hose and a bucket), I pushed myself to finish in less than six hours -- not bad, for a 33-plus mile run, especially a run of this nature. My true 50K time ended up being a respectable 5:40 -- that's what my Garmin GPS watch said when I hit the 31-mile mark.
When I crossed the actual finish line, the clock said 6:05. I later was shocked to discover that I placed 11th overall in the 50k, out of more than 100 runners who started the race. I was even more shocked when I got an award for third-place finisher in my age group (40-49). I thought there must have been some mistake, but later confirmed that, miracle of miracles, I had indeed finished third in my age group (" Dirty Old Men").
Running ultra-marathons is a solo pursuit, but ultimately it's about the family-like atmosphere and the familiar faces you see in this tight-knit, underground community of outdoor enthusiasts. With Bishop being my third ultra, I am starting to feel less like an outsider and more like a participant.
And that feels good.
It's great to experience other trails, but as I learned in Bishop, don't come to a race with preconceived notions. Study up and read about a run so you know what you're getting into. Talk to people who've run it. I wish I had known that Bishop didn't have a lot of tree cover. I would have psyched myself up for sun stroke, and maybe would have been more psychologically prepared to run it.
I still had a blast, of course! I still believe that Bishop has some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery around. I prefer lots of winding single-track, however, and there's very little on this course.
So what? Get over it, dude. You had a great time. Jesus, my split personality is awake again. Where are my meds?