“Now hush little baby, don't you cry –
Everything's gonna be alright.”
- Eminem, “Mockingbird” (video after post)
Yes, it’s a strange tune to introduce an ultra report, but Eminem’s surprisingly tender love song to his daughter was bouncing through my head for the better part of 50 miles last weekend. It even played a role in my thought process at the end of the day, influencing a decision that was equally surprising to me in light of my pre-race plans. Hopefully this will all make better sense at the end of the post – but for now, let’s just get to the report.
I had known about the Quicksilver 50M race for years, but never really considered it in the same category as some higher-profile Northern California ultras. Maybe because the race takes place only one week after the Miwok 100K, Quicksilver always struck me as a younger sibling struggling in the shadow of an older one. Truthfully, if I hadn’t been bounced from the Miwok lottery, I would have bypassed Quicksilver again this year.
In that regard, Quicksilver is like Nicky Hilton to Miwok’s Paris: while the older sister enjoys huge name recognition for being crazy/sexy and wildly popular, the younger one is still pretty attractive – and still fairly crazy. Even though this race is 12 miles shorter than Miwok, it’s still an awful lot to handle.
This year, little sister Quicksilver enjoyed two advantages that weren’t present in years past: 1) it’s publicity-hogging older sister went to a lottery system and turned away dozens of runners, and 2) Miwok was rainy, cold, and muddy (with about 50 no-shows on race morning) while Quicksilver saw perfect sunny and breezy conditions. The course features 50 tough miles in a beautiful setting, with generous aid station support and great organization. The timing makes it an excellent tune-up for a summer 100-miler. Best of all, it’s less than a 90-minute drive from my house.
So … why hadn’t I ever done this race before? Oh, that’s right - I’m an idiot. On to the pictures:
The speedsters all seemed to be in great spirits prior to the race – maybe they knew about the ideal conditions we’d enjoy. Or perhaps they just felt confident: Chikara Omine (in blue) would go on to take 20 minutes off the course record, and Jean Pommier (in black) would shatter the masters course record by the end of the day. I took this picture, then quickly moved out of their way.
(By the way, the name of this start/finish area is Mockingbird … which immediately triggered the permanent mental loop of the Eminem song I mentioned above. Still more on this later.)
One noticeable difference between Quicksilver and other NorCal ultras like Firetrails, Miwok, and Diablo is that the climbing doesn’t punch you in the nose right away. The first mile is fairly gentle, allowing folks to spread out without being bottlenecked by a steep hill or narrow single track.
Of course, the hills are out there, and it’s not long before everybody’s walking up a major climb.
The sun was starting to peek over the hills, but wouldn’t be a huge factor for a little while yet ...
… because we soon headed into the shade of a beautiful single track. This was one of the prettiest sections of the course …
… complete with some unique challenges.
Towards the end of the single track section, the sun was starting to burn through the shadows …
… and by mile 9, we were back out in the open.
The remainder of the race was almost exclusively fire roads, beginning with a climb to the Dam Overlook aid station. It’s tucked in a bend in the road here, so you can’t see it in this photo – but don’t worry, we’ll be back here later on.
Most of the climbs during the first 50K were very gradual, and almost entirely runable. Although this 50M course has 8500’ of elevation gain (even more than Firetrails), much of it is condensed to a stretch within a few miles of the start/finish area. The rest is fairly tame.
The fire road passes by an old Quicksilver mine, which was the first of several historical remnants we’d end up visiting during our 50-mile journey. This land was a lucrative mining area from the 1840s to the 1970s, whose history lives on in the name of the park and the race.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: Ohlone Indians harvested cinnabar from these hills to use for painting or religious ceremonies. They introduced it to European settlers, who discovered that the cinnabar could be heated to release mercury (nicknamed Quicksilver for its liquid property at room temperature), and made mines like this one to extract large quantities of cinnabar from the hills. The industry boomed, and at one point nearly 2000 people lived in settlements - complete with their own schools and churches and stores - in this park.
(See? Ultras aren’t just good for your health – they’re educational! Meanwhile, back at the race … )
Mile 17 begins a long descent towards the dam again. It starts as a fairly gentle slope, but it’s hard to get too excited about doing two straight miles downhill, because …
See those arrows? They mean that we’ll be coming back up this trail later. Kinda takes some of the fun out of it.
As the trail gets steeper, you get some pretty cool views of the dam. The aid station we’re headed toward is a tiny dot on the right here …
… and a slightly bigger dot here.
Eventually we reach the Dam station again which is a beehive of activity, as 50K and 50-mile runners all pass through here three times. 25K runners also use this station before heading for home – so before long, it’s especially tricky to tell who’s going where. In other words, it’s a busy dam aid station. Thankfully, they have great dam volunteers to keep everybody happy.
Leaving the station, you continue descending to the base of the reservoir, and start a 4.5-mile loop to bring you back to the same spot.
The loop is a popular place for hikers and joggers, and the hills aren’t terrible – but with 20 miles on our legs, every incline presents a challenge. It felt strange to see little kids going up and down these trails, while at the same time wondering why I couldn’t run very well anymore.
Before long, I made it back to the Dam aid station. I was really glad to see that dam place again. Have I mentioned that they have fine dam people there?
One of them even took my dam picture.
(Is that enough dam jokes for one report? I could keep going – but for brevity’s sake, let’s just move on.)
The initial climb away from the station isn’t too dam steep (sorry, that’s one more – it was easy), but the real fun of the course is yet to come.
Beginning at about mile 28, the course gets crazy steep in both directions – you go up and over hills like this one …
… only to plunge down the backside. It’s hard to appreciate the slope in this picture, until you see that the hikers are taking it sideways.
The final descent brings you back to the Mockingbird station, which is the 50K finish line. See what’s happening in the background there?
It’s a barbecue. I don’t know about you, but I have a really hard time walking away from a good barbecue on a beautiful day after I’ve run 31 miles. A REALLY hard time.
Sometime back around mile 20, I ran alongside a guy who had done this race before, and he gave me this warning: “There is a hill after the 50K … it will take something from you. It will not even say please or thank you. It will not even ask for a tip.” I have no idea what the heck that even means … but this hill was pretty long and steep. I’m assuming that’s what he meant.
The views from this section of the course were quite nice, and the trail led us back into quicksilver history …
This is English Camp, which used to be one of the largest settlements. At one point, almost 1000 people lived in this area. Now it’s the site of an aid station. Whether that represents progress is debatable, I guess.
Further along the road is a dilapidated rotary furnace. 37 miles into the race, I felt about the same way this place looks.
The final checkpoint on the course lies 4 miles into the Sierra Azul open space, after which point you’ll retrace your steps back to the start.
Almost the entire 4-mile stretch looked exactly like this: wide, smooth, intermittently shady fire road, with an uphill grade on the way out that was so gradual that it’s hard to see. Your legs sure feel it, though, and this road seemed to go on forever.
That’s Mount Umunhum. Apparently it’s a forbidden place. Good thing – otherwise I’m sure we’d be climbing it.
I don’t know who was happier: me, for finally reaching the turnaround point, or these enthusiastic volunteers stationed at this remote outpost.
One of them offered to take my picture – he’s as nice as those other dam people!
Since the turnaround is the highest point of the course, most of the return trip to Mockingbird is fairly runable – and because I could sense the finish line off in the distance, I caught a second wind of sorts during the final 8 miles. However, while aimlessly pondering the views on my way to the finish, I was contemplating another decision I had been kicking around all week.
Basically, I wanted to keep running after I crossed the finish line. Even though this was a challenging race on its own merit, I was mentally hung up on the idea of “only” doing 50 miles instead of the 62 I could have done at Miwok, and whether missing those miles would be a big factor in my Western States buildup. So my plan coming into this race was to take it easy for 50 miles, then refuel and head back out for another 10 or 12.
That never happened.
A few things foiled my harebrained scheme: first, I had anticipated crossing the 50M finish line prior to the 50K cutoff time – but with my conservative pace, by the time I got to Mockingbird, the aid station there had been broken down. I was hoping to refuel there, but there was no race fuel to be found. However …
Did I mention that there was a barbecue? And if you think I had a hard time walking away from a barbecue on a perfect day after running 31 miles, imagine how tough it would be for me to do it after 50 miles. I feel like I could have done it, though – I ran a steady pace all day long, and my legs were still in decent shape. It wasn’t a deficit of ability or confidence that kept me at the finish line – it was one of desire.
Honestly, I just didn’t want to do it. In part, I blame that dang Eminem song.
Throughout the day, I had been contrasting the wonderful experience of doing this race with what was going on without me at home. More specifically, on the day before Mother’s Day, my wife was at home doing yardwork that was my responsibility, and taking care of two sick kids while trying to prevent a third one from getting ill as well. At the rate I was running, 12 more miles would have taken me three hours – which would be the difference between whether or not I even saw my kids before they went to sleep.
It would just be a day … but on the other hand, it would be another day that I wasn’t there. And on this day, I just wanted to hang with my family - and slogging through three more selfish hours seemed kind of greedy. So I grabbed a burger and some strawberries, and pointed the car towards home. I made it back in time for dinner, inspected my son’s brand new snakebite (a whole separate story) and tucked in both of my girls at bedtime.
Of course, in hindsight, I’m already second guessing the decision. I don’t know what I feel more foolish about: hatching such a crazy scheme in the first place, walking away from the opportunity when it was there, or the little pangs of regret I’m now feeling for placing family interests over being a mileage junkie.
I’ve explained before that I’m an idiot, haven’t I? Of course, to succeed in this sport, I imagine that a little bit of idiocy helps.
“Now hush little baby, don't you cry –
Everything's gonna be alright –
Stiffen that upper lip up little lady, i told ya –
Daddy's here to hold ya through the night.”
- Eminem, “Mockingbird” (click to play)