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April 25, 2012

Once in a Lifetime: Mokelumne River 50-Mile Race Report

"You may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'"
- Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime" (video after post)

Even though I plan things out ahead of time, sometimes I have no idea how I get myself into these race situations.  A great example is last weekend's Mokelumne River 50-Miler, where I found myself in one of the most unpredictable places I could ever imagine: crossing the finish line first in an official race.

But before you start throwing me in the conversation with Roes, Krupicka, or Jornet, allow me to fill you in on some details.  The most important one is this: it was a very small race. 

How small, you ask?  Well, this was a shot of the entire race field about 2 minutes before the start.  The group above includes marathoners and 50K runners in addition to 50-mile entrants.  Although it isn't a new race, I suspect turnout for the Mokelumne events may have been low for a couple of reasons: 1) race day temps were forecast in the mid-90s, and 2) Maybe people don't like to sign up for a race they can't pronounce.

(For the record, it's Mo - KELL - um - knee, but I had a lot of trouble with it at first too.  To make things easier, you can just do what the locals do and call it the "Moke 50".)

The more legitimate, not to mention tragic, reason this race flew under the radar is that it wasn't officially on the race calendar until a couple of months ago.  The Moke 50 was formerly part of the Ultrarunner.net series operated by Robert and Linda Mathis, the husband and wife co-race directors who were struck by a car and killed last New Year's Eve.  Many Northern California ultrarunners who enjoyed their races experienced profound sadness through the winter ... and then as spring approached, suddenly realized there weren't nearly as many races on their calendar anymore.

Into that void stepped Jimmy Gabany, owner of Nevada-based Elemental Running, who took over the vast majority of the Ultrarunner.net series.  Unfortunately, the permit process for the Moke 50 wasn't finalized until just a handful of weeks before race day, which is a fairly short period of time to spread the word - and results in a fairly small crowd lining up on the start line.

It's really kind of a shame, because the Moke 50 course is downright brutal - and it's just the kind of thing hardcore ultrarunners would love.  The trails are rough but beautiful, there's an insane amount of climbing (although there's no official measurement, Jimmy estimates 13K to 15K of climbing), and the heat was relentless.  It's also a little bit long - 51.4 miles according to the pre-race e-mail - which is just the kind of poke in the eye that ultrarunners find endearing. 

And with that, let's continue the report - as usual, you can click any photo to enlarge ...

The vast majority of the course is an out and back route along the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail, an incomplete network that will eventually connect the high Sierras to the San Francisco Bay.  The sections around Mokelumne are mostly fire road, which allows plenty of space for the *huge* crowds of runners to thin out.  (Incidentally, this shot was less than a mile into the race; jostling for position wasn't exactly a problem out there.)

The hills start right away as well, which helped to keep everybody honest about setting out too quickly - that, plus the air temperature was already in the 70s at 6:30AM.

About four miles into the race is one of the prettiest sections of the whole course, as fire roads give way to singletrack ...

... and views of Camanche Reservoir in the distance add a nice touch of scenery.  I was with a small pack of runners at this point, and it was early enough in the race (and we were all mellow enough) to stop and pose for some photos.

The trail soon enters a pastoral setting with cows in the distance; a few miles further down the trail, our group was stopped by a couple of cowboys on horseback who asked if we saw their cattle ...

... um, yup, we saw them - about a mile earlier. They had even caused a roadblock before we eventually scared them away.  By the way, what you can't see in this photo are two girls who are scared of cows hiding in the bushes to the left.  Ultrarunners: we're tough as hell, but not always the bravest folks around.

This is the Wildermuth House, which dates from the 1860s and used to be situated between two heavily used mining areas; today, it's the only house for miles around, and is also the approximate turnaround point for the marathon runners, where we lost a few of our already small pace group.

A few miles later, we'd lose the 50K runners to another turnaround point, which made the long descent down to Pardee Reservoir seem even lonier.  At this point, I had no idea how many runners were in front of me, but I figured that since I started near the back of the group, any 50-milers would still be well ahead somewhere.

The trails around the reservoir were very lush, which is nice from the standpoint of having something pretty to look at, but often challenging in terms of actually being able to follow the trail.  A lot of this section was spent just following a pair of footprints in the tall grass and hoping they belonged not just to a runner, but to a runner who wasn't lost.

A handful of tiny little creek crossings like this one may not look significant, but they provided great opportunities to rub of the sweat from your face and hands on the outbound trip - and on the return, they would prove to be invaluable.

Remember my rule?  If there are cows on the course, they're going in the report.  These cows weren't particularly happy about giving up the trail - but at mile 21 and 95 degrees, I wasn't exactly thrilled to deal with them either.

This is a place called Patti's Point, which is the summit of an absolutely brutal climb between two low gulches.  This climb would be a turning point later in the race - but on the outbound leg, it just seemed like a nice spot to rest and take some timer photos.

On the descent from Patti's Point lies a signpost indicating "The Longest Mile", which is a very steep, technical descent down stone and wooden stairs ...

... before bottoming out at a bridge at Spanish Gulch and going up an equally tough climb on the other side.  This also was near the end of a nearly 8-mile stretch between aid stations, which in the mid-day heat on the hardest part of the course seemed completely diabolical.

As I mentioned, I believed almost all of the 50-mile runners were ahead of me at this point - so when I rolled into the Gwen Mine Road aid station at mile 23 and was told there was only one runner in front of me, I figured that some people must have gotten lost ...

... which wasn't too far-fetched, as I went off course a number of times myself, either because turns weren't clearly marked in the high grass, or because I was starting to get dizzy from the heat.  Probably a combination of both.   Regardless, I never saw the leader come back from the turnaround point, possibly because I wandered away somewhere near this bridge on my way there.

At the turnaround aid station, I asked about the lead runner, and they said, "She just left about 10 minutes ago!"  This was when the competitive juices percolated a bit, because in the world of ultrarunning, making up 10 minutes over 25 miles is really nothing. 

Did I say over 25 miles?  Make that over four miles.  I finally got my first glimpse of the leader back at the Gwen Mine aid station (3 miles from the turnaround), as she left while I was checking in.  Approximately one mile later, I caught her on the climb to Patti's Point, and I found myself in the lead.

I slowed down to talk to her for a few minutes, and she was very friendly and gracious, despite having some clear distress in the heat of the day.  And in case you're wondering: no, I didn't take her picture.  I figured the last thing she wanted was some idiot posting a photo of her struggling in an ultra while being passed by a dude in moccasins.  A short time later, however, I did take a self-photo that kind of summed up my reaction to being in first place:

This is my Oh my gosh, I'm in first place in an ultra!  Dear Lord please don't let me screw this up - there are a ton of things that can go wrong during the last 20 miles on a hot day face.  I don't get to use it very often.

As soon as I overtook the lead, there was only one thought in my mind: I want to win this thing.  It's worth mentioning that despite racing for more than 20 years, I've never won any race outright.  And it didn't take a genius to realize that I'd probably never get another opportunity to do so; this was a once in a lifetime chance that I really didn't want to screw up.

So when I got back to the top of Patti's Point, there was no time to pose for pictures, because I didn't want to give up too much of my lead, and I knew I still needed to set aside some time for a key strategic move:

Cooling myself in every possible creek I could find.   On the return trip, these stops weren't the "splash your hands and face" variety - they were the "lay as flat as possible and completely soak your body and clothes" kind that gave me some measure of relief from the heat, which by now was probably well over 100 degrees in the canyons.

At the mile 35 aid station, I filled two water bottles full of ice (and sports drink) and took off running.  And with the race finish finally seeming manageable, I became more and more paranoid about how far back the second place runner was.  The ice in my waist bottle was making a clunking noise, which I kept thinking sounded like footsteps ... but whenever I had a chance to look over my shoulder for a long backward glance, I couldn't see anybody.  That didn't stop me from imagining I was being reeled in ...

... but it did allow me enough peace of mind to keep dunking myself in every little puddle I could find - such as this one after I got all soaked up and ready to take on the last 13 miles.

With about 12 miles to go the course returns to the pretty single track I enjoyed so much on the way out.  Whether it was the single track, the prospect of winning, or the fact that I just left another aid station, I really got a second wind through this section ...

... and even paused for a couple more photo ops along the way.  What - you're not supposed to pose for timer photos when you're in the lead of an ultra?  Obviously I'm not familiar with the protocol for this sort of thing.

The only downside of the single track was that I couldn't see very far behind me, so of course I kept imagining that someone was gaining.

Reaching the last aid station, I knew there were approximately 4 miles to go, and I felt like I had enough in the tank to move steadily toward the finish line ...

... but just to be sure, I loaded up with a healthy supply of Pepsi and ice to bring me home.

The final miles were hilly, but at least they finally afforded some shade - which was nice, because the temperature was still 90 degrees at 6PM.  Truth be told, I was completely cooked by this point, and it was all I could do to keep a steady pace ...

... until finally - almost 12 hours after I started - I saw the finish area in the distance, took one last look over my shoulder, and staggered across the line to collapse onto a bench for a long-awaited rest.  I made it all of about 30 seconds before trying to confirm what I wanted to know, though - so almost as soon as I sat down I asked the RD, "So, um ... have any other 50-milers finished already?"

Nobody had - and that's how I got my once in a lifetime first place award.  Don't worry, though - I don't have any false pretense about my ability relative to anybody else out there.  As soon as I lace up my moccasins again, my place in the grand pecking order will go back to being the same as it ever was, but I have to admit that it was cool to think of myself as a winner for a few hours out there.  And anytime you can feel cool in blazing hot conditions on a brutal ultra course, that goes down as a very good day.

When it comes to all-time most iconic music videos, this one has to be on anyone's top 5 list, right?   It's also a nice song to have in your head when rolling through the final miles of a long race.  And a reminder for next time: same as it ever was.

Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime" (click to play):  

*See other race reports under tab at top of page

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Richard Averett 4/25/12, 10:28 PM  

Great report and great experience. Thanks for sharing the moment with us - dreamers still.
richard a

Scott Lynch 4/26/12, 6:09 AM  

A win is a win! Congrats!

Michael Shane Helton 4/26/12, 6:37 AM  

Donald, I have heard it said many times that there is a woman for every man.

Now I believe that there is a race for every runner. ;-)

Congratz on the big day...it looked like fun.

*~*~* Tracy 4/26/12, 9:06 AM  

Congrats! Great race report and beautiful pictures.

Jason D 4/26/12, 9:41 AM  

Congrats on the win! I ran a 50k last weekend up in Red Bluff and the heat was brutal! We're not supposed to have "summer" runs in April. :)

John Nguyen 4/26/12, 10:55 AM  

I really enjoyed this report! I would have been gunning for 2nd place! Way to hang in there despite the brutal heat! The pictures are really nice.

BE 4/26/12, 11:03 AM  

Congratulations - very good report and a nice win, and, as above, wonderful pictures. Makes me wish I had one in me..... :o)

Tricia 4/26/12, 11:14 AM  

Congratulations Donald!! I especially LOVE your self photo right after you realized you passed into the lead!

Sarah 4/26/12, 11:17 AM  

A win is a win! Congrats!

Douglas 4/26/12, 11:24 AM  

Awesome. The photos were great. Can you tell us what camera you used?

Angel 4/26/12, 11:32 AM  

Way to go! What a great feeling to cross the finish line first - very impressive! Nice photos, too!

Neil Richard 4/26/12, 3:06 PM  

Hilarious and awesome race report. Congrats on the win!

Louisa 4/26/12, 3:17 PM  

Congratulations! I really think finishing any long distance race is a triumph in itself, but winning one is extra nice.

Donald 4/26/12, 8:15 PM  

Thanks for the great feedback, everyone!

@Douglas: it's a Canon PowerShot ELPH 300, purchased after my SD1400 broke last fall.

Jeff Gallup 4/26/12, 9:43 PM  

Wow... thanks for sharing such a great report... and congratulations! That is so awesome.. I can only imagine running that far and finishing, let alone winning. Awesome job... and an inspiring post. and I'm a die hard Talking Heads fan, so this was a win-win!

joe71 4/26/12, 10:09 PM  

"And you may ask yourself, my god what have i done?"

David B 4/27/12, 9:08 AM  

Congratulations! First place! Awesome! Looks like a great course.

Soft Star 4/27/12, 9:45 AM  

Way to go Donald! You made all the elves proud.

Julie 4/27/12, 2:54 PM  

Congrats!!! I really hope they keep doing this race in the future because the course looks amazing and I would love to put it on my to-do list!

Carrie 4/27/12, 3:02 PM  

Some people have been struck by lightning twice.

JimDog 4/27/12, 5:01 PM  

Congrats! As others have said, a win is a win! Specially since it was a legit win (i.e. you didn't cheat or anything)!!! Awesome! Great photos too.

Vickie,  4/29/12, 9:07 PM  

Congrats on your win!!! To clear things up...we were not hiding in the bushes from the cows...we were trying to go around them...we just happened to be armed with a big rock & big stick just in case. Hee!

Anonymous,  5/2/12, 11:16 PM  


Anonymous,  12/8/12, 5:24 PM  

Great report and congrats! I can't imagine running 50 miles in that heat. Don't like heat at all!

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