Bizz Johnson 50k
33 hours after my plane from Berlin landed in San Jose, I woke up at 2:00 in the morning and hauled my behind to Susanville, CA for a race. No, this is not normal behavior. Neither is running a 50K in the first place.
The Bizz Johnson Trail Run is an overwhelmingly downhill course; only a few inclines for the first 12 miles, and all downhill after that. There is essentially no climbing to speak of. I was looking forward to a fast, easy race.
It was COLD.
I'd at least been smart enough to check the weather for a race that starts at an elevation of over one mile, so I knew the cold was coming. For the first race this entire year, I wore sleeves. Short ones. No hat, no gloves, and normal shorts. I guess this is how I was preparing for a 37 F start. But I knew that it would be in the upper 50s by the time I was done, easily in sleeveless territory for me, and there was nowhere to shed clothes during the race, so I went with the best thing I could. I looked around. I could only see about three other people wearing as little as I was, and none wearing less.
Wendell's pre-race routine was noticeably short for two reasons:
1. Everyone starting with me was doing the 50k.
2. The course follows one trail the entire time, without even any others branching off it, so he hadn't even bothered to mark it.
Immediately after the gun, I wound up in front. The 50k does an extra out-and-back that the marathon doesn't, up on the way out, down on the way back. If climbing was going to be any advantage today, this would be my only chance to use it. Not that it was a climb; it was barely an incline. Still, I was holding a 6:40 pace for three miles, going uphill. Not bad! And to think for the entire rest of the race, I should be going faster! I smiled. Today was going to be a good day.
I reached the turnaround and looked at my watch. When I saw the first runner coming the other way, exactly one minute had elapsed. I was two minutes in front. After only three miles? That would mean that after 30 miles, I should win by 20 minutes. Or perhaps more impressively, I was running each mile 40 seconds faster. Of course, maybe this guy's just wisely starting carefully, or maybe he's an exceptional downhill runner, somewhere I'm known to show weakness. But that was still a good lead to have after three miles. I liked my odds.
I reached the start line again and Wendell gave me a high-five as I ran past. After two-and-a-half weeks overseas, that was the moment that I felt home again.
The course, nothing but a long, straight, flat fire road, turned into a shallow incline for the next several miles, slow enough that you didn't even notice it. My pace barely even moved. I kept looking down at my watch. Seven, eight, nine miles into this thing, and I'm still running a 6:30! I haven't even started down the hill yet!
At an aid station around mile 10, I chanced a look backwards. I could see for probably almost a mile. No one there. I headed out in high spirits and a good position. Still, it felt weird to be running again after two weeks off. And it seemed like it was taking forever, like I'd forgotten that 50ks are long.
After mile 10, it finally started getting a little hard to maintain pace. I kept telling myself that the downhill was almost here, and when it didn't come in the next mile, I reminded myself about some other detail I saw on the elevation profile, and I'm sure the downhill is coming soon. This went on for almost six miles, because I somehow hadn't realized what the course really does: turns to a shallow decline at mile 11.5, then the strong downhill finally starts at mile 16. The funny thing is I didn't speed up at mile 11.5, and barely sped up at all at mile 16.
The thing about a downhill race is that it's a whole different kind of challenge, one that sneaks up on you. At first, you're thinking "This is easy!" as you fly down the course. But running downhill uses a specific part of your legs, over and over, until they're beaten to death. By the end of the race, you're dying for the course to go uphill again. Actually, that's not quite true: I kept thinking "I sure hope it's all downhill soon." Then I remembered that it’s downhill already, and my heart dropped. There is no possible way for it to get easier, and it's already hard.
Once the downhill started, the wind was against us most of the way. Annoying to deal with, but I considered it an advantage; the guy nearest behind me was tall and skinny. It'd probably hurt him worse than me. And by now it had warmed up; in fact, I spent the majority of the race just barely sweating, right where you want to be. Those behind me in long sleeves might not be faring as well.
At mile 22, the course takes a stronger dip to get under a highway, and then you climb out of it. That is the biggest hill of the course, climbing back out to ground level after going under a street. The course profile had to zoom in on it to make it noticeable. I was glad to do something else for a short time, just to recharge a few parts of my legs real quick and give my core a break. Immediately afterwards, there was an aid station. I happily stopped and had a caffeinated Clif Shot. I normally avoid caffeine, but I was feeling tired, and I blamed the lack of sleep. Maybe this was just what I needed.
As I was heading off, a volunteer called, "All downhill from here!"
I turned my head around and smiled at them, "I am sick of that!"
They laughed. I'm glad they could tell I was just joking with them, and was still in a good mood.
The course went on to weave in between some hills and follow a creek downstream, repeatedly crossing it on wooden bridges. My thighs were starting to give out. My pace started to slow, even though there was no reason to. I still felt like I had plenty of energy, and I was still running downhill. But my raw strength was gone. Unfortunately, the downhill made it so you couldn't back off slightly; you were either going to run, or you were going to light jog, at best. I had no choice but to run.
In the last five miles, things got ugly. I slowed, and slowed, and slowed (as much as a 7:30 mile can be called slow, but then again, it was downhill). When there were only 8 miles ago, it looked like 3:20 was likely and 3:15 might even be possible, but now it was looking like I'd be lucky to finish in 3:25. Each step was agony. I did my best to smile at the volunteers and deliver my signature "Good morning!" to folks on the trail, but I think they could tell that my full spirit wasn't behind it. I repeatedly did math in my head to tell myself what percentage of the race was done, and was satisfied every time the amount left went down by a full percentage point. By the last mile, I was very, very ready for the day to be over.
It wasn't until the last mile that I fully breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn't get caught. At one point, I glanced over my shoulder and couldn't see anyone for at least one minute behind me. It was unlikely that after I opened a solid lead early on, and held what I thought was a great pace throughout the race (until the very end), it was unlikely that someone was close behind me. If my lead was more than a quarter mile, that would be exceedingly hard to make up in only one mile, especially a mile that's still downhill and still fast (but still hard).
I happily crossed the finish line in 3:29, glad to beat 3:30, and easily my fastest 50k ever. Still, this was probably the stiffest my legs have ever been after a race, even after ones that were much harder and more difficult to finish. This course needs to change its name from "Bizz Johnson 50k" to "Quadbuster 5000."
It was a while before I could walk something like normally, and hours before I didn't have at least a slight limp. But hey, I won a cool frosted beer mug, even better than the normal coffee mug you usually get (especially since I drink beer but don't drink coffee). I immediately poured a beer into my mug and drank from it. Ahhh, the sweet taste of victory!