Bizz Johnson Half
It’s been a pretty good year in terms of running. We started the year by giving up plans to run a marathon, deciding instead to run a lot more trails and spend far less time on pavement. We also started to run by time and not distance. We made our goal be the East Bay Triple Crown trail series, hoping to get through the three tough trail races in 6 or 7 weeks without serious injury. In the end we did that and threw in a fourth, an Xterra trail run for good measure. It was really a big success. During this time neither of us had a running-related injury and our base endurance really picked up. Running three hours at a time on the weekend became the norm rather than the exception. But during this time, I wondered if I was getting faster or just stronger at running trails. The problem was there was no real measure of speed. Those races were fairly random distances, and the terrain is crazy hilly trail running. Not the place for PRs.
Fast forward a few months and our disastrous-for-training trip to south east Asia. With little motivation for running when we got back, a drop in fitness, and with Patty slammed with her first year teaching, we needed a goal. We settled on the Bizz Johnson Half Marathon, a fast trail run in the forests east of Lassen National Park. It combines the best of both worlds: fast running, a measured half marathon course, beautiful scenery and soft surfaces. What was not to like?
The only problem was it’s in the middle of nowhere. After pondering the accommodation situation for a while, we found ourselves Friday night in Reno, at the Super 8 across the road from the U of N football stadium. On game night. Don’t worry the woman at reception said, they’ll all head up to ‘The Wall’ and be drinking and playing loud music all night. I’ll put you in a room a little further away if you’d like. Um… “The Wall”?
Fortunately the noise level wasn’t bad at all where they put us and we got to bed fairly early. However, by 3am Patty was complaining how cold it was. She was wearing everything she had. I was complaining how hot it was. And the heater wouldn’t take “Off” for an answer, it just kept coming on with the sound and heat of a jet engine. Oh well, 3am is sort of like 4am when we planned to get up anyway. So we got up.
In Susanville, about an hour away from Reno, all was quiet, dark, and freezing cold (Google maps had said 2 hours, hence the early arrival). There was just the occasional pickup truck loaded with hunters headed somewhere to shoot something. The former logging town itself seemed a little in reclining fortunes with the more interesting businesses along the street having For Sale signs on many of them. Perhaps that’s just how it is in the Fall. At least the Walmart and the Guns n’ Ammo seemed to be doing well. We headed to the cute railway depot where we were basically the first ones there. We could see the trail, a former railway line, head into the darkness. We parked and used the un-used port-a-potties. In the dark, Patty managed to drop a whole roll of toilet paper into the hole. Oops, sorry!
Back in the car we noted how we could have slept in three more hours and still made this race. There were hardly more people than at our local Lake Merritt races registered for the half marathon on Saturday. There were no lines to negotiate, no large expo to take in, just a volunteer handing out t-shirts and bib numbers in the little historic train station, with runners huddled around a wood burning stove. I again noted that at these things there are always the following characters: woman with makeup, a little plastic surgery and too much tanning; a man who tells stories of past marathons from around the world to the poor stranger next to him the entire bus journey; the young guy in the military / coast guard / Carson City fire t-shirt who is going to kick your butt later and he knows it and you know it. Other than that, there was a decent sized group from a running and fitness club in Reno and assorted other fit and nervous (or shivering from the cold) participants.
At 7:45am or so the buses loaded up (nice fancy tour buses) and headed up to the start. It was like being airlifted into combat. Deploy! Deploy! Get out there private and RUN! Fortunately 13 miles isn’t a distance I have too many concerns about these days. We got off at a dusty campground and trudged over some pine cones to a small set of wobbly port-a-potties. It’s hard to imagine something more disconcerting that a wobbling port-a-potty. Waiting around it was pretty cold, almost exactly unlike Hanoi. Our heat training wasn’t going to be much of an advantage. We discarded our outer layers, stashed them in our sweat check bags and then shivered in the sun until it was time to start. I was looking forward to getting going by then.
The start was uphill in the wrong direction for 1/2 a mile, then a U-turn and back down the trail the way we’d come. After that it was 12 more miles down the trail into Susanville. Easy. The guy in the yellow hat from PCTRs counted us down and off we went. Immediately I felt both a little stiff (it was hard to take off so cold), and a little out of breath (the altitude). The beginning was kind of a shuffle and that mile took more than 10 minutes. At the turn around Patty was 30 yards behind me and I thought that would be the last I saw of her so I settled into a pace that felt good. About half a mile later I glanced back and she was right behind me. We finished the second mile in a little over 8:30, I was impressed she was holding on. At that mile mark she suggested we do a walk break for 30 seconds on the mile markers so that’s what we did. We had our own bottles and Gu, so didn’t need the aid stations. That strategy worked well, we cruised along with each mile marker coming quickly, each being in the 8:30 range.
The scenery was nice, mostly like running along a pretty smooth dry and dusty fire trail up in the forest. The runners had spread out so it was more peaceful than half marathons usually are. Nobody around us was talking. Footsteps on the gravel. Breathing. We’d catch up to a few people, take our walk break, then catch up to the same people again. That was fine. Having the bottles let us sip fluid every mile and take our shots when we wanted, plus the short break let the legs flush out a bit before the next mile repeat. It was a good way to break it down and give us something to look forward to.
At mile 7 there was a burned out bridge that caused the trail to dip down into the valley and up again the other side. It wasn’t serious by trail running standards, but it was like the people around us who we’d been catching each mile slammed on the brakes and we ran right by and never saw them again. That also marked the beginning of the really nice part of the course as the trail followed the Susan river more closely. Bouncing shimmery water cascading down between rocks and the fall colored aspen trees. It really was beautiful. We crossed 12 bridges and ran through two tunnels. Patty said she thought she was having a religious experience as she hung in there with my pace. It could have been the location, or how hard we were running, or both. We started talking about doing the marathon here one year.
By mile ten I was starting to feel it and our pace was trending upwards. We’d probably gone out a little hard, but the first half of the course is easier, so overall it was going okay, we just needed to concentrate and bring it home without posting too many slow miles. With 3 miles to go, I was mentally pushing much harder but not running any faster. My heart rate was certainly up although I didn’t have a monitor on. My legs were tiring a bit, but felt like they could still run. There was less downhill, the temperature had managed to rise to where it actually felt really warm and exposed out running and there was probably the usual onset of dehydration. About what we expected.
It looked like we could make two hours, we just had to keep it up. There was the first slow mile. There was the mile with the missing bridge which took around 10 minutes. Off-setting that was mostly 8:30-8:40 miles. It was going to be a little close. And then we posted a 9:30 mile. Yikes, we needed to push. It hurt. As the last couple of miles went by, we kept looking at our watches. I’d look down at my watch and think “this will only be another 7 minutes or less” and keep running as hard as I could.
Finally the course took us off the main trail down nice single track into the finish area at a place called Hobos camp. I slowed down a little and Patty came running alongside me and we finished together in 1:58:51. For Patty that was a 10 minute gain over the Big Sur Half we did last year and for me more like 6 minutes. She came 3rd in her age group while I came 5th. We were around 71st and 72nd out of 188 finishers.
After the race we took the bus back to the depot and then headed out of town. We spent the rest of the day in Lassen National Park, visiting a few of our favorite places there but not really up for much of a hike. At a spot just past the peak trail we pulled over at a meadow, threw our blanket down and fell to sleep in the sun. At summit lake we soaked our feet in the cool water. Every hour or so we’d make another turkey and cheese bagel. We stopped in Redding on the way home for dinner and coffee and were back home by 8pm. An awesome weekend!!