Calico 50K, 2014

Calico 50K course

Calico 50K course

The race begins with a two mile or so gentle downhill, and then there’s about 16 miles of gradual uphill.

I don’t run enough uphill, it seems. The climbing in the San Gabriels is usually too steep to run, and only the guys in front will be running up those mountains on race day. More important for me these past few years is to master power hiking.

But what happens when a race begins with a long, runnable (even by me) climb? The answer, it seems, is not good, especially if the ground is sand in which no traction can be found.

At mile 8, my quads felt much too tight. Soon after, my hamstrings started going. I slowed the run down to a shuffle when I started feeling twinges outside my knee. On the climb up from the third aid station, at 17.5 miles, to to highest point in the race, shooting pains started outside the knee, and I knew there were IT band problems.

Me, photo by Jack Cheng

Me, photo by Jack Cheng

I’d made it to the top just a little off schedule. A decent finish was probably out of reach, however, because there wasn’t going to be any speed on the downhills. Those I would be running gingerly, making sure to minimize the pain and not cause any permanent injury.

I thought about dropping and decided instead to settle into a slow groove just outside of pain range. As far as a race report goes, it becomes exceptionally boring right about here, even by my middle-of-the-pack standards.

The Calico course offers up plenty of the things I normally don’t like. It’s sandy. I hate running in sand. It has lots of truck trail, which isn’t normally my bag. But it’s kind of gloriously gritty. There’s a strange, rough, high desert beauty, even with all the shot-gun shells littering parts of the course. Off to the side are tents and trucks, and outside of them are guys in camo firing rifles at targets. It’s a completely different world out there, and it’s one in which I feel strangely a part of. Big, bearded guys in camo seem oddly welcoming to a bunch of folks who have decided to run 31 miles through the desert.


Victorville, CA

Welcome to Victorville

Once upon a time I was a slightly famous photographer. Nowadays, it seems I mostly just take pictures of dead trees and piles of rocks. I spotted a nice pile of rocks outside Victorville, backtracked about 5 miles on frontage road to get to it, and pulled into a dirt lot. There was a sagging barbed wire fence on the edge of the lot, and trash had collected on it. On the other side of the fence was a sign advertising the land was for sale.

A grizzled old tow truck driver came ambling out of the garage on the next lot over. He hollered at me. Just past noon and he was already drunk.

“Normally I charge people to take pitchers here,” he slurred. He looked at me through squinty eyes, concentrating in that special drunk way, trying to decide whether we should fight or not. He decided not. He was going to be magnanimous today. “I’ll let yew shoot fer free,” he said.

I thanked him graciously, even while I was thinking “Really? You charge people to take photos here? Like anyone has ever circled back 5 miles on the frontage road to take pictures of your lone joshua tree, that beatup fence, and the trash piled against it.”

It saddened me just a little. It was a perfect example of why so much human interaction is so unsatisfying. There’s always some sort of negotiation, no matter how unnecessary. Someone always needs to show they are the boss, and you should be grateful that they are grudgingly doing you a solid instead of trying to fight you for no good reason.

I always imagine I can hear a sort of cosmic thwack as God slaps his forehead and says “Doh! How did I ever let these fools get their hands on an Atom Bomb?”


The course seemed dustier than usual. Perhaps this is because it hasn’t rained anywhere in Southern California in the past 4 months. The short, steep little rolling hills in the last 5 miles became almost treacherous. I remembered these from past years and was ready to just plant my feet and ski down them when I’d start to slide. Others didn’t fare as well, and there were a few folks who commented about how clean I looked when I crossed the finish line, unlike everyone else who seemed to be covered in dust and, often, bloody. Aside from a deliberate slide down the scree at mile 18, no part of me but my feet ever touched the trails.

This was my 4th trip out to Calico for the Calico 50K. This was my first ultramarathon ever, not that many years ago. Click on the years to read race reports from 2011 and 2012. Apparently I never wrote one for 2013. Shame on me.

The course begins with 18 miles of mostly gentle uphill, often through sand, sometimes through rocks. It then plunges rapidly through scree for a little less than a mile, and after that comes a few miles of gentle downhill. After some dusty climbs and some rocky chutes, there is a series of short, steep rolling hills, hard ground covered by a layer of sand and grit. It is impossible to find traction on these rollers. It ends with a flattish out and back of about 2 miles followed by a short stretch on pavement as you re-enter the town.

It’s not a mountain course. It’s all runnable. But it’s not really that easy of a course: the rocks, the rollers, and that long climbs at the start all wear you down. This year things went wrong and I finished it hurting in a way that I shouldn’t after 31 miles.


The is BLM land – Bureau of Land Management. Prior to running Calico I’d never heard of the BLM. The BLM administers America’s public lands, which means all lands held in trust for the American people by the federal government. There are 247.3 million acres of public land in the United States – roughly one-eighth of the country’s land mass. That’s a lot of land. Of course, the United States is a big place, and so it’s a bit distressing to think that seven eighths of the land, which is a lot, lot, lot, is privately owned. Mostly, I imagine, by corporations. That is a drag.

Nevertheless, 247.3 million acres of land is more than I will ever explore.

Much of this vastness is in the west, especially Alaska. The BLM regulates activities like hunting, fishing, camping, shooting, ATV driving, as well as logging, mining, fracking, livestock grazing… This isn’t wilderness. The land gets used.

I’m a city boy, kinda. I grew up in some big cities, and I live in one now. I also did my time in rural Canada, and on the Sahara desert. I’ve hunted, and I’ve fished, and while guns make me nervous and the killing of anything for sport sickens me, I also recognize that there’s a great hypocrisy to hating hunting, for example, but eating meat. And while I’ll always be a bit put off by the photo of the hunter triumphantly posing with the buck he’s just killed, the truth is that buck led a much better life than any factory farmed cattle, and if the hunter plans on eating that deer, the worst I can say about him is based on that photo is that he doesn’t show much class.

These days I find myself feeling more of a kinship with these bearded bikers with their tents and ATVs out in the desert shooting at targets than I do with many of my foreign film watching vegan yoga-practising-but-otherwise-horribly-out-of-shape peers in town, even if on election day I am more inclined to pull the same lever as the yoga practitioner than the biker.

The Mohave Desert is the kind of place that gets me thinking about these things. I always feel much closer to the land when I’m running Calico. Not closer to nature, necessarily, but to the land.


Aid Station 6

The Girls of Aid Station 6

Aid station 6 was run by 3 teenage girls. “Where are you from?” one of them asked while I was filling my bottles.

It took me a moment to understand the question. It’s an unexpected one at aid stations.

“LA,” I said.

They asked the woman who arrived just after me. “Riverside,” she replied after a pause similar to mine.

“We’re not used to being asked that question at aid stations,” I said.

“We’re asking everyone,” one of them said. “Last year we had a guy from France!”

I guess Barstow is not really such an international destination spot.

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