Musings from a Noob: Perspectives gained from the 2011 Bishop High Sierra Ultramarathons

If you are reading this then one of two things: 1) the rapture prophecy for May 21, 2011 was a dud, or 2) we didn’t make the cut, see you in hell. I now picture hell to be similar to the BHS 100K ultramarathon. What I ran is kindly included in the “Ultramarathons” event, but they keep it real by calling it as they see it: a 20 mile “Fun Run”. I am now sitting on my living room sofa writing this because I lack the strength to stand. My leg muscles are tired and sore and my joints swollen. I have traveled more miles in a day before, over more elevation gain and loss, and through much more rugged terrain. But today represented the longest running race event I have done. I know now that ultramarathoners have a unique definition of the word “Fun.”

Ultra-trail racing is an amazing sport. Stripped down and raw, humans moving over terrain in the most primitive way imaginable, over long distances, in a competitive, supported event. Although the right shoes, tech layers, hydration systems, endurance fuel, supplements, and other gizmos and gadgets certainly affect performance and comfort, in the end, it comes down to just running fitness, running technique, race strategy, and stubborn resolve.

Let me tell you how I learned this. As co-owner of Sage to Summit (by marriage) I daresay, I have access to the greatest selection of running equipment on the planet. In addition, Sage to Summit’s staff is more than qualified to help me out. Jeff Kozak has won the event, set course records multiple times, and works in the shop. So I chatted it up with him 2 days prior to the event.

Me: “Jeff, what do I need to know about running the 20 mile?”

Jeff: “You’re running it?”

Me: “Yeah, Karen’s making me. I signed up yesterday.”

Jeff: “Have you been running much?”

Me: “Uh, no. About 5 times in the last 6 months. I went for a run last week though.”

The look on his face was a combination of “right on!” and “you idiot.” But he happily clued me in on the route, the hand bottles to carry, the clothing to wear, food to eat/not eat, race strategy, etc. Although everything he said made sense and proved invaluable, somehow the whole conversation just felt like one giant sandbagging at the time. I think it was that he knew well the pain I would be feeling, and that I apparently did not. He was perhaps amused by this, but at the same time dreading his own imminent pain as he ran the 100K. In retrospect, I think we were maybe having an ultra-runner’s bonding moment.

At 6am, on the morning of the supposed apocalypse, the foot race began. I felt really strong for about the first 40 minutes. Then I had a couple of moments where I wondered if maybe I would rather be skiing on the adjacent mountains. I was feeling fit from a season of active ski mountaineering and mountain guiding, but I was starting to wonder if my lack of running would be an issue at some point. My friend Arnie, a veteran ultrarunner, was egging me on with some competitive spirit and I could tell he was trying to get me to burn up early so he could pass me later. Let me explain that Arnie was one of at least four different people I knew of suffering through this “Fun Run” with some sort of debilitating injury or illness. They just could not bear to miss their annual event. This baffled me a bit. One of these people was the Mayor of Bishop. Is that why they call it running for office?

The race course has a total of 2380’ vertical gain, most of which is in the first half of the race. I got to around half way, the top of the hill, and was feeling surprisingly good. The downhill started easy, weather perfectly cool, and views stunning. I cruised down and made sure to stick to Jeff’s advice to eat a gel every 45 minutes. It was working! Then I hit the dirt road. The legs got heavier, and soon started to screech in protest. I quickly started to realize that I was no longer racing the other runners. I was now racing the burn in my legs. These trail races are set up as if they are for competing against your peers. I realized that this is just clever ruse to convince us to willingly go to battle with ourselves.

Arnie caught me in the last 1.5 miles, just as he had planned. As he passed, we discussed the pain we were in and I could tell he felt it too. There is a camaraderie built from a shared experience of pain that we inflict upon ourselves while attempting to maximize the feeling of being alive. Arnie practically hobbled past me, his back tweaked over in an unnatural angle. Still, as much as I coaxed, I could not get my feet to pump quickly enough to stay with him and the old guy dusted me. I managed to finish stronger than expected at around 3 hours and 42 minutes, 3rd place in my age group. I dipped my burning quads in the cool Millpond, and thought about what it would be like to be still out there running the 50K, 50 mile, or 100K races for another 2 or 15 hours. My respect goes out to everyone I met who was taking on great personal challenge and uncertain of their abilities to accomplish the task.

Now, after my own challenge, I sit paying the painful price of ambition. It ain’t pretty. I never thought to enter races like this because I always reserved such hard physical efforts for the high mountain adventures that feed my soul. Running in the valley has always been good cross training for that. Surprisingly, this race was much more than just racing for its own sake, like an Olympic style event or other similarly controlled test of strength and speed. There appears to be an innate social connection to the landscape that these races, especially ultras, awaken and tap into. The environment is a healthy one. We should all enjoy these types of socio-physical, shared suffering interactions on a more regular basis. Looking forward to next year! -Howie

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