This year’s OTHTC High Desert 50 Km race was my first time running this event and I wanted to make sure I was well prepared. I had been building up my long runs in the preceding months and, as it happened; just the weekend before, several friends and I had run twenty-seven miles through Titus Canyon in nearby Death Valley, which may have been a little too much training. All week I’d kept my fingers crossed hoping that seven days of recovery would be enough. It would have to be. Weather reports leading up to race weekend had forecasted rain but on Saturday the skies appeared calm with just a few clouds floating peacefully overhead. Although my legs were tired, most of the soreness from the previous weekend was gone. I went to bed that night encouraged.
Early on the morning of the race, I walked in bare feet out to the hotel parking lot, wearing only my running shorts, to feel the temperature and checkout the weather conditions. It wasn’t as cold as I’d expected and the twinkling stars confirming my suspicion that rain wasn’t likely and that it would become even warmer once the sun came up. Although I had prepared for any weather conditions, I was pleased to see it would be a relatively mild day.
My friend, Dana Grenier, and I planned to run the race together. It was her first ultra. We drove to Cosco Community College where the race starts and finishes. The digital temperature gauge in the cab of her truck read fifty-nine degrees Fahrenheit. We could see the wind blowing so strongly that the American flag in front of the auditorium flapped stiffly in the morning air. When I got out of the truck huge gusts hit me. Although it was cold, I didn’t feel it was cold enough to change my “dress light” approach. I wore shorts, short sleeved shirt, a lightweight head band I could pull down over my ears and a running hat. I carried a lightweight one bottle fanny pack. Just like the seven days of recovery, it would have to be enough.
We headed to the auditorium and met up with friends Paul Spencer, Lora Zagnoli, Brian Draper, and Bob Adjemian. Then in the remaining minutes before the start each of us completed our pre-race rituals, assembled in the parking lot, and started off just after seven o’clock. The first two hundred yards led through the college parking lot then south a short distance up College Heights Boulevard where it dead ended on a dirt road, which we followed east out into the desert. For the next several miles the road went up, down, and around several small hills on sandy terrain.
A little over five miles from the start, we turned south and began the first long climb leading up into the rolling El Paso Mountains, which extend in an east west direction south of Ridgecrest. For the balance of the race we followed the contours of the stark hillsides, climbed up to and along ridges, and descended into open valleys. From the ridges we sometimes caught glimpses of Ridgecrest in the distance. This gave us a chance to visually gauge just how far we had run and how far we still had to go.
In several places, we encountered areas where large groups of stones seemed to grow out of the ground like giant monoliths. They reminded me of England’s Stonehenge except these rocks had been assembled naturally. I enjoyed running through them and contemplating the titanic geologic forces necessary to place them there.
The dirt roads were typical of others in the Mojave Desert with alternating sections of coarse sand, crushed granite, or rocky and hard-packed soil – all relatively easy to run on. Some sections were smooth while others had the texture of an undulating washboard caused by off-road vehicle traffic.
Throughout the run I was impressed by the wonderful views of the surrounding mountains including the high Sierra Nevada. Curling over the distant peaks we saw huge dark clouds on the summits coming in from the west. They resembled the thick fog you sometimes see moving into San Francisco from the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, the largest clouds stayed where they were and the fragments that did escape floated benignly overhead. Toward the east we saw the distant Panamint Mountain Range and the distinctive summit of Telescope Peak. Further south and to the east, the stark white mineral deposits in Searles Lake stood out in dramatic contrast, encircled by the surrounding chocolate colored desert landscape.
The wind at our backs during the first few miles made the going easier but I knew this same wind would be in our faces when we turned toward the south and even more so later when we turned toward the west. As we climbed the first large hill and approached the ridge we could hardly hear each other talk the wind howled so loudly. It blew in our faces for much of the remainder of the run and even made some of the downhill sections seem almost flat. Dana’s hat flew off at least six times. We joked that perhaps our brains were getting dehydrated thus causing our heads to shrink. The wind made hydrations an even higher priority and we drank often. I tried to drain my bottle between each aid station.
The nine aid stations were located about three miles apart and were all fully stocked with loads of goodies; pretzels, chips, homemade cookies, candy, potatoes, bananas, brownies, oranges, Gatorade, and water. They also had plenty of Vaseline and with the wind drying everything out quicker than normal; it was something I took advantage of. The last thing I needed was a bad case of chaffing. Bleeding thighs wouldn’t look too good in the finish line photos.
The aid station volunteers where extremely helpful and kind. They not only offered to help fill up bottles and answer questions but offered enthusiastic and spirited encouragement. Several of the aid stations had set up elaborate holiday decorations with stuffed animals, multicolored ribbons, and motivational signs to welcome the runners. At the 25.7 mile Gracie’s Mansion aid station, I especially liked hearing Led Zeppelin’s “Lemon Song” being played on huge speakers mounted in the back of a pickup truck. Hearing that music got me pumped for the remaining five miles. We even attempted to sing along for a few bars, which generated some quizzical expressions on the faces of fellow runners and volunteers.
On the final approach to the finish, my wife, Leona, and my great-niece, Nicole, cheered us on, which made me feel wonderful. At the finish line I thankfully accepted the finisher medal, a medal unlike the standard metallic ones I’ve received after other races. Its unique ceramic design had a representation of the light blue desert sky above pale brown hills. At nearly three inches in diameter it was quite heavy.
I felt happy to have held myself together during this race and I really didn’t feel too bad except for being tired and ready for a long hot shower. The desert landscapes were magical and race director, Chris Rios, and the people who provided support and encouragement were wonderful. I know this won’t be my last High Desert 50Km.
by Jim Wolff