With a population of just under 4,000 people, Bishop is Inyo County’s only city. (I have no idea what separates a city from a town under California state law). This was my first time up there. It’s a beautiful little place along the 395 (which becomes Main Street when it runs through town) in the middle of the arid Owens Valley, between the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the east.
Race Director Marie Boyd (who will be stepping down after next year’s event) puts on a brilliant and wonderfully organized event. The aid stations were excellent, the volunteers all wonderful and helpful. The course was well marked, and the backdrop was incredibly scenic.
Everyone gathered for the start. Marie introduced the head of Race Ready, who supplied the race tech-shirts. He probably should not have identified himself. The tech shirts were the only fault anyone could find with an otherwise excellent event. They were hot pink, which is not a color all men wear well, and they were unisex, which means they were cut to fit effete Eurotrash at an Ibiza disco. I’m 6’1″, 163lbs, and I normally wear a medium. The size large fit me like something stolen from a pre-teen neo-slut with an 80s fixation. My feminine side is much too big for that shirt.
The races began at 6am – 100K, 50 mile, 50K, 20 mile, and a shortie. This is the Owens Valley – once fertile farmland, now pretty much a desert after the city of Los Angeles basically stole the water from the Owens River back in the 1920s, which is, more or less, the backdrop of the movie Chinatown. (The California Water Wars are worth reading about).
It begins with a 20 mile climb up to 9,400 feet, most of it in sand, sometimes deep sand, sometimes with lots of rocks in the deep sand. The first few miles are desert. As the climb continued we moved through sagebrush – this is called the Pinyon-Juniper Woodland Zone – and then up into meadows alternating with big spreads of often burned-up pine. (There were some pretty rough fires here back in 2009).
One of the difficulties I have running races like this is pace. There were 3 ultras taking place, and it’s not hard to get swept up in the speed of one of the shorter, faster races. I made a point of starting at the back, and kept my eyes peeled for other runners I knew who were running the 100K and in the general ballpark of my speed, and stuck with them. I also had an idea of what time I should hit each aid station for a 14:30 finish, and for the first 20 miles, I stayed just ahead of pace.
We hit the highest elevation – 9,385 feet – at the 20.39 mile mark – the Overlook aid station – and then returned to Edison Loop aid station, through which we’d pass one more time. From Edison Loop (at mile 23.4) came a short, steep climb, and then a long and (in my memory) rocky downhill, followed by a short stretch on road, to take us to Intake 2 aid station, by a small fishing lake. We continued to the turn-around point at Bishop Creek, mile 29.
At the pre race dinner, Marie defied anyone to get lost on the course. I got lost. Twice. The first time was on the return from Intake 2. The second time was somewhere between Edison Loop #3 (35 miles) and McGee Creek (37.5 miles). Both times I missed turn-offs. It was pretty much my fault.
When I run, I look down. This is especially true on rocky or technical courses. If I don’t pay attention to what I am running through, I am prone to faceplants. Last summer was the summer of blood, and I’m not anxious to repeat it. Because of this, I am perhaps more reliant on the chalk or flour arrows and markings than other runners. Unfortunately, there were none at Bishop High Sierra. The course was very well marked using ribbons, but that required me to look up…and I didn’t.
There were two periods on the run during which I was completely alone, no other runners in sight. Both times, I came to an intersection without it registering, and missed a turn. I lost about 2 miles and 25 minutes on the first of these, somewhere outside of Intake2 aid station. I’d lost time, run extra miles, and dropped a number of places. I managed to pass most of the runners who had gotten ahead of me and found myself once again alone of the trail. I missed another turn and followed the trail until it dead ended at a stream.
I didn’t deal with this second mistake as gracefully. I stood in the forest screaming obscenities and then headed back, hitting the trail behind all the runners I had just passed for the second time after my first detour.
I’m not sure I really recovered from this second unplanned detour.
The stretch from McGee Creek to Buttermilk aid station is just a mile and a half, but it’s a mile-and-a-half of ugly, sandy, rocky, barely runnable downhill, and it was in that stretch that I decided I’d had enough. I was still on pace, just, despite having been lost twice, but my heart couldn’t take any more.
This is not unusual for me. Every desert race has resulted in a moment of quitting, but I’ve talked myself (or let myself be talked out of) them all. Usually I have a bit of time to sit with this thought, and talk myself out of it. This time, unfortunately, I no sooner decided then I came upon an aid station by a road with a truck ready to drive me in. And so I dropped.
There are all sorts of lessons to be learned, I am sure. The first is not to undertake any action (like dropping) that is going to leave me angry and bitter, because my anger (at myself, at the course, at everyone around me) was much more difficult to deal with than the next 22 miles would have been, and it last longer than they would have, too. Another lesson is to take the pause before this decision is made. Run it, or walk it, or hobble it…to the next aid station, which is likely no more than 5 miles, and take some time to think it through. The last lesson is to make sure I am always prepared for that dnf moment, because it is likely to happen to me every race, and this time, treating the race as just a fun training run, I was prepared for everything but the DNF moment.
I caught a ride to the next aid station, picked up my pacer Kista, and then complained bitterly as we drove back to the start in time to see Sada Crawford finish the 100K in 3rd place overall, first female, and a new course record. This is Sada’s second win in a row after almost a year out for injury.
Despite my bitter protestations, I imagine I will be back next year. The backdrop is too impressive, and I don’t think anyone should ever pass up a chance to visit the Eastern Sierras.