Yesterday, I ran the Nirvana Ultra Big Bear 50 mile trail race based out of Rim Nordic ski area in the San Bernardino Mountains. I had some difficulty getting here: After a great start to my training season, I managed to get a pretty significant injury to my right hamstring while, believe it or not, sitting on the couch. This left me with close to zero running miles for the entire month of March. That is not how you prepare for a 50 mile race in the mountains in early May where altitude is a factor.
While I was hobbled pretty badly the first week of March and had trouble walking, I was able to put in some decent walking mileage in the later parts of the month. This was assisted by my fieldwork schedule, which had me covering a lot of ground in the San Bernardino Mountains. In early April, I resumed running with an emphasis on the high country. Long runs were slow and “heavy”, carrying a lot of gear and focusing on time on my feet and just enjoying myself out there. I had one run over 20 miles at the end of April. Last weekend, I downgraded my mileage in favor of running a hard 10 on Saturday, and the Verdugo Mountains 10k on Sunday. All that was left to do afterward was let my body mend as much as possible, and hope that what I managed to do was good enough come race day.
My wife and I drove up to Big Bear on Friday. It was unfortunate timing that a low pressure system dove into southern California on that day. Our drive eastward was through several intense storm cells, with near zero visibility and roadway flooding. Dense fog (or clouds, depending on your perspective) greeted us on the drive up into the mountains. We eventually entered a zone of fairly heavy snow just west of Big Bear Lake (which, fortunately, wasn’t sticking to the roads) which rapidly accumulated on the ground, before turning to rain and melting the snowcover away. We settled in at our hotel, got some last minute supplies and dinner, then went to bed early for our 4am race wakeup.
Neither of us slept well. We awoke at 4, a bit groggy, and I looked outside as coffee was brewing with hopes that it didn’t look icy. I was uneasy with the idea of driving on icy mountain roads to the race start. We lucked out, however, with air temperatures just above freezing and with the roadway warm enough to keep ice at bay. We arrived at Rim Nordic at 5:30, talked to the race director (a really nice guy) at check in, exclaimed a sigh of relief as my wife dropped her “swag bag” without breaking the pint glass that was inside, then made final preparations for the race start.
Two races were starting at the same time: The 10-mile race that my wife was running, and the 50-mile race that I was running. Our plan was to run the first 10 miles together. The original course was to be a series of 10 mile loops. The race director explained that a recent storm had wiped out part of the original course, so we were opening with four half mile loops, then one 8 mile loop (for 10-mile runners) and six 8 mile loops (for 50-mile runners).
The race began at exactly 6 am. Everyone took off from the start line, and my wife and I were soon looking at the backside of every runner in the field. We were excited to get the short loops over with and head out on the big one.
In general, the big loop climbed out to the mid-point, followed a fire road, then descended on a series of trails and fire roads to the start/finish area. My wife doesn’t handle elevation well, so the climb out was somewhat slow. We enjoyed the gradual climbing and descending at the far point of the course, with all of its giant dead trees, and then worked as quickly as possible on the descent back to the start/finish area. It was misting heavily on the first loop, and the running tights and gloves I was wearing were completely drenched, so I decided to go to the Jeep and change into running shorts and a different jacket. I quickly drank an Ensure for some calories, and said fairwell to my wife as she warmed up in the car. I then made my way back out on the course as quickly and comfortably as possible to try to reel other runners in.
Loops 2 – 4
Loop 2 went well. I passed several runners. Conditions began to dry out. Loop 3 also went well. I passed more runners. I had a near bonk at the high point of Loop 3 and had to take in calories where I hadn’t on Loop 2, but I quickly recovered and sped back down to the start/finish. I was excited to be on a sub-12 hour pace. Loop 4 seemed marginally more difficult, but I maintained nearly the exact same pace throughout as I had on the previous two loops. I felt I didn’t need calories at the mid-point as I had on Loop 3, and started the descent feeling fantastic. About two miles from the start/finish, I was beginning to feel hypoglycemic. While taking in calories, in hindsight, would probably have been the correct course of action, I didn’t want to screw up the calorie intake regime that had been working for me at the start/finish area, so I didn’t take anything in. I made it there feeling totally bonked and out of my mind, and sat for the first time since the whole race started. I told my wife that, even though I was right on a sub-12 pace, I was pretty sure that was out of the picture now. I sat for about five minutes, had her rub my legs down, and then ventured back out on the course.
I headed out on Loop 5 at a walk, instead of a run, for the very first time. It was a lot of work to get the sandwich down that I had taken with me from the aid station. My head was foggy, and I started seeing things that weren’t there on the climb out.
Wow! A bobcat!
Closer scrutiny revealed it to be a log. It began to snow. Hard. Except it didn’t. It was all in my head. I saw a squirrel laughing at me. He laughed so hard he turned into a tree branch. I made it to the top of the climb with my mental faculties mostly gone. I was passed by one of the lead runners on his last loop. He was having a tough time as well, but moving faster than I was. I choked down half of a Honey Stinger Waffle, finally reached the descent, then made it back to the start/finish area in fair shape, all things considered. I spent about 5 minutes, again, in the chair. One last Ensure. I begged for (and received) some warm chicken broth as I actually fantasized about it on the way in. Then, I ventured back out on the final loop.
Shit was real now. Except for what I was seeing along the course.
Why is there an anteater in the mountains?
The anteater slowly morphed into a gnarled fallen tree branch. I plodded along on the climb. I see flashes of lightning that, apparently, did not exist.
A howler monkey!
I stopped and stared intently at the monkey, getting concerned that despite the fact I knew it was a hallucination, I could see its full form, its fur, its ears, its tail, as clear as I had seen many real howler monkeys in my years in Central America. Only upon getting real close did it become a tree branch again.
All I wanted, more than anything in the world at that point, was to get to the top of the climb.
I finally got there, then began the descent. A crow, this time a real one (I think), landed in a nearby dead pine. For some reason, I became momentarily confused and had no idea where I was on the entire planet. Mountain Quail, mostly real, became active as dusk approached and ran to-and-fro across the trail. I then saw a whole flock of them next to the trail. The flock then morphed into pine cones. I almost said hi to a woman who was spectating, for some reason, out in the middle of the forest. She turned into a jagged tree stump before I could talk to her.
I kept expecting to get passed and, because of that, kept looking over my shoulder. Nobody ever came. I was surprised to pass another runner, who was walking a downhill, with about two miles left. I eventually decided I couldn’t hold my bladder until the end of the race and stopped to pee. When I stepped back out onto the trail, there was the other runner right behind me. It was a matter of pride, at that point, to not get passed on the way in. I ran as hard as I could to the finish, with a time of 12 hours and 47 minutes. My first 50 mile race finish before sunset.
While it was a tough road to get to the start line of this race, I feel pretty happy with how my body handled this thing, all things considered. As always, thanks to my lovely wife for being there with me.
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