San Joaquin River Trail 50K 2017
I was on the fence about this race up until the last day to register. It wasn’t cheap and it was 4 hours drive away. But the RD, Nate, had rescued runnertype and me during Shadow of the Giants, and he had told us how lovely the race was. I got a gift card for participating in the employee wellness program so used that to pay for the registration and the gas to get up there and back. Seems appropriate to use a wellness reward for a wellness activity, though some people might opine that registering for a 50K is proof that the person is somewhat unbalanced.
I set the alarm for 1:30 and was out the door by 2 AM, peanut butter bagel at the ready and tankard filled with diet Coke. Headed up the Interstate and I got to Fresno 3 ½ hours later, printed map in hand for the final few miles since I had never been to the reservoir where the race started and finished. We’ve been going up that highway for many years but we have always headed straight for Yosemite. I only started going to destinations just outside of the park when I put Shadow of the Giants on my regular rotation of races. (I can’t remember how I heard about Shadow, and I wish I could.) This is a new race for me.
I stop at a gas station to use the bathroom and buy a packet of Funyuns, though at this point I am thinking that I will hit the Costco food court after the race and get pizza and gas up. (Later I will be glad I have the Funyuns.) It’s nearly 6 AM and just starting to get light. I miss the turnoff to the reservoir the first time past since it’s not signposted and looks like the entrance to a casino parking lot. U-turn a mile up the road, come back, decide this has to be it and turn, though the stern sign saying “Not A Through Street” is enough to make many people think again. There should be a sign saying “Race This Way”. Up 6 miles of twisty road, through a small scattering of houses by the boat landing that’s the race staging area, find there’s no parking left in the regular parking lot and pull into the dirt overflow lot. I am glad it’s not raining, which it did earlier this week.
I trot down to the picnic table and pick up my bib. Recognize a couple of volunteers since many of them have done Shadow over the years. I could’ve stayed down there if I’d known the bib was all that was being given out now, but have to go back to the car to get my hydration pack and phone and gloves. Longsleeve shirt, shorts, gloves, no compression gear or hat. Plenty of runners are wearing short sleeves or tank tops and shivering. I’d rather not, I can always roll up my sleeves. The 100K runners took off at 5:30, so we are following their tracks for a good portion of the race. 50K is an out and back, along the trail that skirts the south end and east side of the reservoir and then goes up into the river gorge; the turnaround is at the bridge that crosses the river. 100K goes further out and back and also has a nasty uphill out and back at mile 11, 2 miles uphill and back down, and the 100K runners have to do this twice – both on the way out and on the way back.
Last minute instructions from Nate: pink ribbons mark the course, if you don’t see them you may be off the course, be nice to the volunteers, if you need to drop you must inform the aid station and if you need a ride out it’s at their convenience not yours. We all nod sagely. Countdown and we are off.
Up a rocky trail, steep, some people are scrambling. I start right at the back so I don’t have to worry about runners trying to overtake me, I know I’m slow. First mile is all uphill. While I’m usually happier about starting uphill and finishing down than vice versa, I could wish for fewer rocks on the trail. It rained earlier this week so there’s quite a bit of mud.
Reach the top of the hill, by now I’m definitely last, and hear a noise from my left where a trail leads off. First moment of panic – dark hairy head poking out from behind a rock, round ears, oh please not a bear. Then I get a better look and am greatly relieved. It’s a cow. At first I think it’s a steer, then notice the calf trailing behind the cow and realize it’s a mum and baby. They are both mooing indignantly at the number of runners invading their turf. I look again and realize I am not sure which way to go. This is a crossroad. The trail to the right is marked off with flour, so that’s not the way. The trail to the left is where the cows came from and looks as if people have gone that way. The one straight ahead has a couple more cows disappearing down it. I think it’s left. Try that way, up a hill, round a corner, then down. Still not sure, I don’t see any pink ribbons. Hesitate. Go back to the crossroads. Still not sure. Back again on the left hand trail, stepping in several cow pats, and finally realize that it probably is the trail straight ahead. I backtrack again, take the trail ahead, and shortly after that pass a pink ribbon. Would it have killed them to put a flour arrow pointing to that trail or put a pink ribbon within sight of the crossroad? Oh well, water under the bridge. I am definitely last now.
This part of the trail is rolling with a gentle descent along the south side of the reservoir. We should be down fairly close to the water at some point, though the high water mark from the spring is clearly visible across the river and I don’t think the trail ever goes below high water mark. This must be something to see in the spring when the streams are running, rather than in November when there’s very little running water. Lots of cowpats along the trail, this is BLM land and apparently all this side of the river is leased as grazing land. It’s far too rocky and steep for farming, the soil is poor and while there’s a river it would be difficult to irrigate.
I get passed by a guy on a mountain bike who is out for a ride, not connected with the race, thanks me for the warning that there will be a lot more runners further ahead. I’ve reached the end of the south side and the trail turns as we go up the east side of the river. Still reservoir down there, the dam is big enough for the effect to slow the river a long way up. It will be a while before we see water running over rocks. Here is the first of the finger canyons – right along the hillside, down to the bottom of the canyon, cross what would be running water in the wet season, and back up. We’re going to see a lot of those before the day is out. The next one has pretty mossy rocks and I think about taking a picture but don’t want to stop.
Someone’s coming up behind me, far too fast to be in the race unless he got lost and missed the start and is now trying to catch up. No, he’s just out for his morning run. He passes me with a “good luck!” and disappears up the trail ahead of me at a fast clip.
Ah! Third canyon has a trickling stream. Pretty. Then another canyon and can that really be a stand of fig trees? I would not have believed they would grow out here, but I know a fig when I see it. Remember that many years ago DH lived out in this area and he’d mentioned that the houses were built on what used to be fig orchards. I’m guessing some bird carried figs out here from the orchard and some seeds took root, because nobody would be trying to plant them here. Past a couple of gates. Signs saying “please keep gates closed, cattle grazing. All have been left open. I at least pull the gates closed, but I don’t latch them – not the best way to win points with your fellow runners!
Along a lot more trail. The aid station was supposed to be at 5.5 miles. We started at 6:30 AM. It is now well past 8. Shouldn’t I be seeing the aid station soon? Continue through grassy slopes, under a great many oak trees, through another gate, and then a fence with a makeshift gate made of posts and wire that are supposed to be hooked into wire loops on the fencepost. I don’t think I can do that. It’s now close to 9 AM, am I really running that slowly? I am reassured by the runner who passed me earlier, he’s now on his way back. The aid station is just up ahead. And no, we’re not supposed to be closing the gates as far as he knows, not during a race. Leaving gates open goes against long training for me, my grandfather was a dairy farmer and we were all taught early about the importance of closing all gates on a farm, but I don’t want them to impede the runners. So, leave the gates unlatched. I hope we don’t have furious ranchers descending on us. Something the RD might want to address next year!
I finally get to the aid station. It’s at the top of a small rocky beach. They were brought in by pontoon boat, and apparently there was a bit of a miscommunication regarding the place so this is actually about 7 miles in, not 5.5. Thanks to them for being here! They have a tent outhouse like the Bryce Canyon ultra (if you hear farts a-ripping, don’t come unzipping), table, and a surprisingly good stock of food and water. I talk probably too long but they are nice. One tucks my gloves in the pocket of my pack. No, thanks, no water top up needed. My pack has either been having serious condensation issues or has a leak somewhere in the bladder and I have spent the morning with a cold wet butt as water drips out of the bottom of my pack. I’d rather not add to it!
It’s 9:15 as I trot out of the aid station, the next one is at about mile 11. So, 2:45 for 7 miles, more like 2:30 considering the time I spent getting lost. Just under 3 miles an hour and there’s a 12 hour limit for the 50K though the 100K has until 9:30 PM so they probably won’t enforce the 50K limit all that strictly. Shouldn’t be a problem. I trot on happily. Then I have a horrible thought.
It’s mid-November. We changed the clocks two weeks ago. I’m a little bit north and west of home, but not that much, and it gets to be dusk by 5 PM and it’s full dark by 5:30. I do not have a headlamp or a flashlight in my pack. I gave my lamp to someone at Beaverhead and never got it back, and I didn’t remember to put another one in my pack. This has never been a problem before because the only winter 50K I’ve done is Calico and I can get that one done before dark. This is a tougher race. Oh hell. I am almost certainly going to DNF because I’m going to run out of light. If I turn around at the last aid station I might possibly get in before I lose the light completely. But if I miscalculate I’m out there and it’s pitch black. There’s no moon tonight, it’s new today so there will be a tiny sliver at sunset and then it’s gone. I can’t run just using starlight. Dammit. I might have a boat ride back if I am at the last aid station and get pulled, though I’m more likely to get pulled at the second to last station 11 miles out.
Although I am disheartened I slog on. More grassy oak savanna, more canyons, more trees. More steep rocky descents and ascents. I pass a white something in the grass that has me stopping for a closer look, even though I’m worried about time. It’s half a jawbone complete with a set of teeth. Before anyone gets excited, it is NOT a human jawbone. Given that there are no incisors and there is a long row of molars, and the size of it, I’m guessing it belonged to some unlucky bovine. Could be horse but given the number of cows out here cow is more likely.
A couple of “water crossings” that can be jumped. I pass a sign that says “10 miles to Lower Finegold Reservoir” which is where we started from – good to know there is a sign for the way back if I make it. Now there’s some fire road. I can run faster on this, pick up the pace a little to bank some time. I traverse another stretch of trail and come into Aid 2 at Wellbarn Road. This is vehicle accessible and the volunteers appear to be having a fine time. This is also the point at which the 100K runners go up the road for 2 miles, turn and come back down, and continue on out, knowing that on their way back they have to do that again. I think I’d rather either do it twice now or do 4 miles out and 4 back and not have to do it a second time. But I’m not the RD! Volunteers give me soda and potato chips and I head out quickly. That’s mile 11. I have 4.5 miles to cover to Aid 3 and then a mile further to the turnaround. It’s now 10:15. I am not sure I can get to the aid station by 11:30 but I am going to give it a shot.
The third segment, though, is technically more challenging than the first two. Steeper inclines and declines as we get further into the Sierras. I don’t do well on downhills with rocks and gullies. Where it is reasonably flat I run. There’s a place where a creek comes into the river which involves a bit of bouldering, scrambling from rock to rock, and then up on a steep portion of the trail which definitely needs some maintenance work. The black plastic mesh that was used to help stabilize the soil is poking through the ground in a number of places, probably due to the heavy rain last winter. Also there are a number of places where a rubber barrier was used to stop erosion, and these poke through the ground perpendicular to the trail. They’re reasonably flexible, presumably because this is a mountain bike trail as well as a hiking trail, but still, they could be toe catchers. This is a hefty climb up to well above the waterline. Then I hear water rushing over rocks. We’re past the reservoir limits and back to where the river becomes a wild river. While we’ve seen boats from time to time, both pontoon and speedboats, I don’t think the river is navigable by boat above this point due to the rapids. It is a kayaking and whitwater rafting destination, though, apparently.
Trail continues, I am meeting a number of 50Kers coming back. Constant “looking good!” and “good job!” exchanges. Then a woman comes at me wearing a leg brace. She says “Oh, I thought I was the last!” No, she’s not. And there are others behind her. She wants to tell me about her fall but I really don’t have time. It’s 11:30 and I am not yet at the aid station. I keep heading out. Doing the math I think I will have to turn around at noon, actually I should be turning at 11:30, and even then I’m going to worry about losing the light. Finally I get into Aid 3. It’s 11:45. The volunteers greet me happily. I say sadly that I think I’m going to have to drop because of time. Oh no, says one guy. There’s plenty of time. Get out there for the last mile out! I explain my worry about running in the dark. One woman, Karly, says she has a spare headlamp I am welcome to borrow. Bless her! She will find it in her car and I can pick it up on the way back from the turnaround.
Much relieved, I continue. There is road access here too so there are a number of day hikers, several people with dogs and kids. And there’s a long drop toilet. Nice sight to see. Cross a field and down a steep path winding down the side of a cliff. This is definitely the gorge. Leg Brace Lady was wrong, there are other 50K runners behind her, I meet them. I greet a couple of volunteers hiking back from an aid station serving the 100K folk on the other side of the bridge, step out of the way of the guy leading the 100K, and get to the bridge. Turnaround is on the far side, so I trot across, touch the sign, and turn around to do the second half of the race. I suppose I should either take a selfie or have someone on the bridge take a picture of me with the sign, but I can’t imagine anyone is going to be all that worried about whether I cut 30 yards off the course. Which I didn’t.
Back up the path to the aid station. They hand me the light and I thank Karly. I am feeling much relieved now. I know it’s going to be dark by the time I finish, but I have a good chance of finishing. So, back over all the ground I previously covered, though you do see different things from the other direction. Another thicket of fig trees. Still think they were probably bird-scattered, though it’s also possible that some rancher brought along figs for a snack on a long-ago ride and dropped one which rooted. I’m glad it’s a bit late for bears, because I am sure that if these trees bear fruit then the bears know about it and tuck in.
More cow bones, this time probably leg bones. I don’t know what the mortality rate of cattle in the wild is, but I’m sure some of the cows don’t make it to their expected destiny involving a grill and someone’s plate. I know the apex predator in this area is the mountain lion. I am trying to hurry but I do stop occasionally to pass a few words with hikers and mountain bikers who are curious about what’s going on. Most of the hikers have dogs with them, so I dispense ear scratches and head pats when the owner says it’s OK. Back down the bad stretch of trail, over the boulders, dodge a couple of guys who are having a bitch session about the anger management classes one of them is being required to attend at work. Dude, even hearing you talk for two minutes I can tell you might benefit from them. I scramble up the bank and come back into Aid 2/4. The front runner for the 100K has already done the out and back for the second time and he’s on the home stretch. None of the others have even caught up with me yet. I am so glad I am not doing that bit. And right now I am not last, there are two 50K runners still at the aid station who are going to run the last 11 miles with a volunteer who says he’s going to run back to the finish rather than wait to hitch a ride with someone. The volunteers put more water in my pack (wet butt all over again) and I am out ahead of the other two, who are still finishing their refreshment. I must say that’s the first time I’ve actually seen a fifth of whiskey sitting out on an aid station table. No thank you, I can do without that. Now if a glass of champagne was on offer I could see drinking that, but not whiskey which I don’t really like.
Off up the trail again. There’s the stretch of fire road that I can run on, but all too soon we are back on technical single track. This part of the country doesn’t have as many roots as a lot of the continent, but we make up for it with rocks, rocks, and more rocks. I am cautious. So far today I have not fallen, though I have caught my toe on rocks and sworn a number of times. This is a long stretch. The two behind me slowly pull up, they’re going faster than I am. One runs ahead with the volunteer, the other is with me for a short time. She is not happy, the batteries died on both her Garmin and her phone so she doesn’t even know what time it is. I tell her I know of very few Garmins that can last through an ultra in wooded or mountainous areas, and she says that makes her feel better. Yes, as it happens I do know the time. I’m wearing a cheapie watch from Target with no communication abilities and it has no issues keeping time. It’s 3:15 as we come into the last aid station. She is very happy about that. They’re hoping to be done with the last 7 miles before dark, though they’re doing an 18 minute pace so they’re going to be cutting it close. They are faster than I so I wave them goodbye, thank the volunteers who have been out here all day and will be here hours yet, and start out on the last leg.
Not bad. I am running where I can and reminding myself that every bit that I run over means I finish faster. But this is a long stretch! I get passed by the next 100K runner, then the next. Several have pacers. We are all focusing on finishing at this point. I get around one point and look out over the south end of the reservoir. Yay! I can see the trail climbing up from the water and, some way away yet, the point that is where the crossroads is located and that marks a mile to the end. But I have a long way to go still. Back around all the finger canyons. I recognize several as I go by. The sun is setting at this point, and I run as long as I can before I stop, pull out Karly’s headlamp, and put it on. I get passed by a couple more 100K runners while I’m digging in my pack. Then I resume running.
Finally I admit that I have to put the light on. It’s getting too dark to see. I am so glad I have this. (Confession: I have never before run on a trail in the dark. I’ve used a headlamp on roads, and I’ve run nighttime road runs in the dark with a flashlight, but I have never done this before.) I am going slowly. Found the last finger canyon and start the climb back up to the crossroads. Almost all walking since I am scared of tripping and falling in the dark. I’m also singing loudly to alert any wildlife of my approach so they can get out of my way. I don’t want to startle any animal into defending its territory. Every so often I see a bobbing headlamp, sometimes close, sometimes miles back, and know there is another runner out there on the trail.
I don’t think this is ever going to end. At one point I am convinced that I missed a fork in the trail and am lost. I go back a little way, hoping to find a pink ribbon. No, but there is an oncoming headlamp. The runner reassures me that it’s about half a mile on the trail we’re on to the top, then a mile down to the end. It’s 6 PM at this point. I am slogging, I want very badly to be done. My light picks out a number of darkling beetles (AKA stink bugs) which I don’t want to step on, they don’t mean me any harm and besides they smell awful when they defend themselves.
I reach the top of the hill at last. Lights down below, belonging to the houses scattered around the reservoir. Civilization! However, before I start down the hill, I switch off my lamp for a moment and look up and…oh my. Oh WOW. The stars are brilliant. When you live in a city, or even in an area that is near a city, you don’t realize how bright the stars are and how much city lights wash them out. I stand in awe. I don’t know all their names but I can pick out a few constellations.
Then comes what I think was the worst part of the race. Downhill, steep in parts, muddy and rocky, and it’s dark. I stumble slowly from rock to rock, patch of earth to patch of earth. I am constantly stubbing my toe or sliding down a piece of rock. I am not going to make it to the finish line in under 12 hours. But I am going to make it to the finish line! I struggle on.
There’s one point where I can see the finish line lights, and I get hopeful, but then the trail curves and I lose it again. That’s miserable. So close! Through the last gate, down a bit more, and I hear someone call “Runner coming in!” Oh yeah. Down the last small stretch of trail and I am staggering across the finish line. Nate greets me with a hug. I take off my headlamp, and Karly is right there so I can give it back to her and thank her.
It’s 6:48, I think, so 12:18. This is actually less time than it took me to do Devil’s Lake seven years ago. (Runnertype and I shared the DFL title there, as I recall.) And this is comparable in difficulty to that race.
Food? Soup? Beverage? I could murder a diet Coke but they have none. Thanks, no. But they have pizza, and a volunteer helpfully finds the cheese pizza for me. Yum. I snarf a piece. I am handed the finisher’s bag which has a shirt in it, and the medal for the 50K finishers. Hot damn, I am an official finisher! Nice that I didn’t make it 3 DNFs in 3 tries. There are still a number of 100K runners out there, but I’m not going to wait. I still have to drive >200 miles.
Back to my car, slowly – very slowly! -- climb in, and back down the hill. Costco food court is closed by now, and while I think the gas station is still open, I don’t want to go even a couple of blocks out of my way. Gas up at the Shell station, fill my tankard with iced diet Coke, and point the car south, nibbling on Funyuns and other food – there’s still half a bagel from this morning on the front seat of my car, and I have a Gu Stroopwaffel from one of the aid stations that I didn’t eat before. I have to stop twice to get rid of some of the diet Coke but that’s all, and I am home by 11:15. A very necessary shower and I fall into bed. That’s the 31st ultra for me and I am so glad I’m finishing out 2017 on a positive note with a finished race.