Every now and then I like to make it into the hills and do some hiking and backpacking. For a while, I've been eyeing the whole trail running/ultra scene. What better way to combine my love for the hills with my need to run? But, being the risk averse guy that I am, I decided that I should check things out first. After all, these races are like a long long long way right? 30K, 50K, 50 miles. Yikes! So, a couple weeks ago, I volunteered to help out at the Twin Peaks Ultras 50K/50 miler on Saturday. This baby is a real grinder - 50kms with 11,000 feet elevation gain or 50 miles with 17,000 feet elevation gain. To put things in perspective, when I climbed Mt. Whitney back in September, I went 22 miles with only 6100 feet elevation gain.
After my easy 8 mile run Saturday morning, I climbed in the car and headed down the freeway to the inland side of the Santa Ana Mountains. This is the range of mountains that separates the coastal plains of Orange County from the heat and deserts of the Inland Empire. It's pretty amazing that so much wilderness exists so close to so many homes and people.
The first thing that impressed me was the organization that goes into one of these events. This isn't a road race where course is well marked and you simply follow the runners in front of you. Somewhere out there spread out over 50 miles of trails were 200 runners. Along the way are aid stations to provide directions, water, food, first aid, and whatever else a runner may need. If you haven't done so yet, check out L.A. Runner's blog for the story of what it's like on the course. He staffed one of the aid stations up on the mountain.
The day was absolutely stunning. My thermometer in the car said 77 degrees as I pulled into the start/finish line. I felt a little guilty. It was 1PM. That meant the early starters had already been on the trails for 8 hours.
My job was to staff the finish line. The job of the finish line timers (there were two of us) was to write down the total elapsed time as a runner passes the finish line, adjust that time to account for the runner's start wave (slower runners start earlier) and then write everything down on the little tear off tab from their bib for the official finish board. Which pretty much meant that I got to sit around for a couple of hours. Finally, around 3PM, runners started trickling in. One here. Two there.
Most of the folks that were finishing in the late afternoon were the 50km runners. Most had been on the course more than 7 hours. Each of them had a smile on their face that would light up the entire room. I felt privileged just to be able to share in their accomplishment.
Runners continued trickling in a few at a time. With a hundred or so runners out on the course, I was getting ready for the impending crush of finishers. Daylight became dusk became dark. What I experienced next, can only be described as absolutely awesome and inspiring. When things were slow, we would amble up the trail a hundred yards or so and look northwest up toward the peak. There would be a trail of twinkling lights coming down in the dark. Those little specs were people who had been out there for as long as 14 hours making their way down the last 6 miles of trail.
The excitement at the finish line would build when around the corner in the road the twinkle of headlamps would appear. Finishers would muster all their remaining strength and jog across the white flour finish line. These folks had been out on the trail for 13 to 14 hours - that really puts a 5 hour marathon in perspective.
We finally wrapped up the night when the last 50 miler (#170) crossed the finish line at 10:30 PM. He had been out a staggering 17 and a half hours. *This* is the classic tortoise and the hare story. As a tortoise, I think I'm hooked. Where's that bucket list?