Once more, with feeling

This is the last time.

This is the last time in twenty years that Race Director Marie Boyd will balance on a wooden post at sunrise at Millpond County Park and send between two hundred and three hundred runners away for the day to collectively run about 10,000 miles together.

This is the last time that between two hundred and three hundred much more sweaty, dusty, and bedraggled but pleased runners will cross the finish line of the Bishop High Sierra 100 km, 50 mile, 50 km, and 20 mile races in ones and twos many hours later, sometimes almost a day later, to receive a welcoming hug and a finisher’s medal from Boyd.

This is the last time many of those runners will limp across the park even later, but not much later, to thank the race director again and tell her what a great day they had, how they loved the race course (Mountains! Snow! Flowers!) or the aid stations (Fresh pancakes! Chocolate covered strawberries! Popsicles and hot soup!) or the finish line (The massages! The food! The camaraderie! The food!) and how they plan to do it all over again the next year. This is the first time some of them will discover that this is the last time Boyd will be directing the race.

If Bishop, California, has a higher than average concentration of ultramarathon trail runners for such a small town, it is due in no small part to Boyd figuring out how to provide means, motive, and opportunity for thousands of runners during the last twenty years to run, walk, hike, and trudge much farther than they originally hoped or planned. Boyd, an accomplished masters ultrarunner who holds national records in distance for her age group, is neither tall nor imposing, but her giant-sized enthusiasm and infectious sense of humor carry the sway of a small tornado. That tornado has convinced an enthusiastic and enduring team of volunteers to mark trails, organize and crew aid stations in remote locations, check runners in before most people wake up, and perform myriad other tasks for an event that takes six months of planning and, when it arrives, lasts from before dawn to long after dusk. Along the way, Boyd also still somehow found time to work full time as a registered nurse and first assistant in the operating room for Northern Inyo Hospital (she officially retired in December 2012); raise a family with her husband, Andy; train for and run ultramarathons; and serve as navigator in rally races for Dr. Scott Clark. Under Boyd’s direction, the Bishop High Sierra Ultramarathons and 20 mile “fun run” have raised more than $110,000 in donations for the Northern Inyo Hospital Foundation.

Race Director Marie Boyd (center) receives a hug at the 2006 BHS 50-mile ultra
finish line from aid station co-coordinators (Stacey Brown, left and Ceal Klingler, right),
 who convinced her to run that year while they filled in for her at the finish line. Other aid station captains added to the unusual challenge of simultaneously directing and running an ultramarathon by asking Boyd to carry a wand (not shown) and wear a tiara.

Headquarters for the first trail ultramarathons in 1994 operated out of Andy and Marie Boyd's garage and home, but given the size and range of the races, equipment and supplies gradually engulfed other volunteers' homes and garages as well. The four races follow four-wheel drive dirt roads south to the Tungsten Hills and then range up and northwest across the alluvial fans of the Sierra Nevada mountains, diverging at higher altitudes so that those in “shorter” races such as the 20 mile fun run and the 50 km race can turn downhill at the toes of Basin Mountain or on the apron of Mt. Humphreys, and those in longer races can continue up to South Lake Road and Bishop Creek. What that means for race planners is figuring out how much food, water, and equipment is enough to supply an absolute maximum of approximately 6,300 runner visits, many of which occur in areas that take at least an hour to reach by 4WD vehicle.

"The first year we did this, we just went to the grocery store the day before the race," says Stacey Brown, who has volunteered to help with the ultras since 1999. "Then we started asking the aid station captains for feedback, and race entries started to sell out, and we [Boyd and race volunteers] added the 100K race and 100 additional entries in 2009....Now we have a spreadsheet that's four feet long, we work out of the Northern Inyo Hospital Warehouse, and we start planning in January." He points to a spreadsheet printed on multiple sheets of 8.5 x11" paper and taped together at the edges. It really is four feet long and about three feet wide—large enough that it needs two people and a straightedge to see it all at once.

Boyd's twentieth—and final—annual race directorship of the Bishop High Sierra 100 km, 50 mile, and 50 km ultramarathons and 20-mile fun run will begin at 6 a.m. Saturday, May 18, 2013, at the Millpond County Park gazebo about six miles west of Bishop.

Those who complete the 100 km course will gain and lose more than 9800 feet in elevation by the time they cross the finish line. Participants in the 50 mile, 50 km, or 20 mile races gain more than 7800 feet, 5000 feet, or 2000 feet, respectively, in elevation. Every participant has at least fifteen hours to finish the race; those in the 100 kilometer race have nineteen hours to cross the finish line.

Eleven aid stations on the course provide food, water, and enthusiastic volunteer encouragement--or, in a pinch, a ride back to town--every two to five miles.

"All the races offer altitude, dryness, heat, exposure, and vertical gain," Boyd says, as if she is describing amenities on a luxury tour, which, in fact, it is--a self-guided trip with a staff of nearly 100 volunteers whose primary concern is making sure every race entrant eats, drinks, has fun, and makes it back to the finish line.

The future of the event is uncertain. Although Boyd would love to mentor a new race director in time for her long-anticipated retirement from the directorship this year--”Just think--I could run the 100K in 2014!” she says--and although the Northern Inyo Hospital Foundation is willing to continue supporting the race, a new race director has yet to step forward. A few long-term volunteers, including Brown, will be passing the baton as well. What is certain is that if a new director emerges, he or she (or possibly they) will enjoy all the intense gratitude that a few hundred ultrarunners can muster.

Boyd has limited registration for the race this year to 300 entries. Registration closes at noon Wednesday, May 15, or when the race fills (entries often sell out). Race packet pickup will be at Sage to Summit on Main Street in Bishop.

Race information is available on the web at www.bhs50.com; online registration only at www.active.com. If you’d like to volunteer, please e-mail bhs50rd@msn.com. Admission to one of the race's aid station or finish line crews is always free and liberally rewarded with gratitude. 

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