Calico 50K

Calico 50K
2 weeks before the race, my friend Kista suggested I run Calico with her. I said yes.

It would be my first 50K, just as it was her first 5 years ago.

I loved it. It was, for me, the best 50K I could’ve picked for my first. Yes, the trail was brutal and gave me all the challenges I needed. I ran though, looked out over, and descended deep into, a desert that was awesome in its beauty. I am not going to have a single majestic view running a road marathon with 25,000 other people. There was hardly a moment without majesty out there in Calico. This was especially true in the very rough second half.

I’ve read detailed reports by runners like this guy who hated the course and was downright angry about it (although he’s warming up to it in hindsight). There’s also this woman who was afraid that boyscouts and other gun wielding types were going to shoot her. Yet another report is this, from one of Barefoot Ted’s sandal wearing crew. Yet another detailed report, from 3 years ago, is here. I used this report to scout the race.

I’m not very good at writing race reports. That doesn’t really matter, because the reports I’ve just listed above do a good job of describing the course. What fascinates me is that all of the above reports describe the course the way I remember it, but we all experienced the race in drastically different ways. Some of us hated it. Some of us loved it. Some of us were afraid of being shot.

Perhaps this is in part because we each have different agendas. Certainly it’s because we each have different expectations.

I’m not running for prize money. They’ve given all that stuff away by the time I get to the finish line. I’m not necessarily running for time, or to set a PR, (although I certainly don’t mind running faster than the last time). On the rare occasions that time has been a primary concern, the races have sucked. In the world of ultras it seems that every race is its own, and the only times worth comparing are those run on the same course. There’s a reason why the same two people have won Calico year after year. There might be faster runners, but not on this course. Sada Crawford and Robert Leonardo own this race.

I run to run. A 50K race through the Mohave is about the experience, and the experience is about what I see, and what I smell, and what I hear, what I feel… In order to have this experience, I need to be present. I’m always a bit startled when I read race reports that involve itunes playlists. I can listen to music at home. When I’m running through the Mohave Desert, in places that can only be gotten to by foot, looking out over these magnificent views that haven’t been seen by that many humans, and that I will never see again, not in this same way, not for the very first time, I cannot imagine why I would want to be any less than completely present.

4 replies
  1. Heather King
    Heather King says:

    The bombed-out car is genius. Beautiful photos, beautiful post. What a noble feat!–to run that far and that long and that hard fully present, without trying to anaesthesize with music or anything else…I rejoice with and for you, and for the desert, and for the fascinating fact that we all, as we must, experience things in our own way…

  2. geoff
    geoff says:

    I don’t understand why people would want to anaesthesize, really, unless their only goal was to accomplish the run, rather than to experience it…and I think that is the case with certain people. One guy I know who ran the LA marathon last year made a big point afterwards of talking about how he had accomplished something so very very few people ever accomplish. (I guess he didn’t notice the other 25,000 people who ran it with him that day). His experience of the race was a bit minimal; he was obsessing on an ex girlfriend the whole time and even stopped running at one point when the marathon went near her apartment. Afterwards, he used it as a means to separate himself from everyone else – don’t you know who I am? I ran the LA marathon!

    What I did discover, reading other folks’ race reports, is how differently we experienced something while being in complete agreement about the attributes of (in this case) the course. One person was very concerned about being shot. Yes, I heard shots. Sound carries pretty far in the hills/mountains. I suspect that the race directors have taken all of this into account. I suspect that the folks we saw on ATVs were also not particularly worried about being shot. I suspect that the danger of dying by gunshot was significantly less during this run than it is during a trip to Vons to buy groceries. But this woman seemed terribly worried that she was going to die at the hands of maniacal boyscouts or drunk rednecks, and this was what her race report was about.

    I wonder why she goes to the desert to run. Clearly she’s not comfortable in that part of the world. It frightens her. She probably should stay in the suburbs.

    Another guy complained bitterly about the race and how it was not going to help his road marathon times. Well…yeah. Running on rocky technical trails is not exactly the sort of training one does for flat, asphalt surfaces. Because he was so concerned with making a certain time, the race and the race directors, became his enemies. In hindsight, he’s mellowed on the experience, and might even consider doing it again. Apparently some good registered and seeped in through the cracks in his anger.

    I’m not really clear on all my motivations for running. What I do know is that whenever I become more concerned with the ends rather than the means, or with the destination rather than the journey, I suffer for it, and that’s not just in running. If my goal is to run the fastest time I’ve run, a challenging course of extraordinary beauty is going to be an obstacle rather than a wonderful experience, and so I shouldn’t be there in the first place. But what’s to be gained by running my fastest time? I’m not doing this professionally. There’s no prize money involved. It’s not going to put food on my family or whatever it is that George Bush used to say. Nobody really gives a rat’s ass about my fastest time except, maybe, A (as in asshole) Type personalities who are intent on beating it, (and they are welcome to it, if that satisfies their annoying little souls).

    Also – I love the desert. I’m a born-on-the-Sahara, family-from-the-Dakota-Badlands boy. My soul is rooted in that hard land. I feel at home and alive out there.

  3. elodie
    elodie says:

    Gosh, so many thoughts went through my head as I viewed these photos!

    My Roclites might not have a tough enough rock plate for that.
    Is that even runnable? (The rock slide. I’m guessing no.)
    That rusty car is decomposing like moldy cheese.
    Even in all of that rock and arid sand, there is green! Something alive and breathing is trying to take root in it.
    Hmm, interesting those volunteers took the time to erect two US flags at that aid station.
    How paradoxical that something so dry and barren can look like a breathing animal — maybe a leathery hide stretched over the bones and joints of a lightly sleeping dragon.

    I have to respond in defence of running races fast, though honestly I’d never think to race for time on a trail of any kind no matter how tame. It’s not so much about time goals, or at least it shouldn’t be, as it is about a readiness to receive pain and some degree of suffering. I don’t really think this preparedness is at odds with being present or receiving beauty as well. On the contrary, maybe it enhances your ability to appreciate the full dimensions of the experience.

    I think a common mistake of runners who train and race for time is that they define success too narrowly by that number. Recreational competitors and professionals alike risk crushing, even career-ending disappointment when the only measure of achievement is a clock or a win. Just like the distance of a race gives structure to running and training, a time goal nudges me into territory that’s uncomfortable, pain I wouldn’t face without a reason, or at least an excuse. The race isn’t pain for its own sake, but in the willingness to accept suffering you open yourself to a wider range of sensation and possibility. That is the win.

    Maybe what I’m advocating is that one should train for time, and race with a receptive stance to whatever the journey may bring, including pain, beauty, success, difficulty, possibly even danger. I don’t have much experience with super long races. I think at some point, the distance itself inflicts suffering, so this distinction I’m making between covering a distance to finish and racing for time might be spurious in the context of ultras. Runners who view performance solely through the lens of a finish time aren’t just missing out, they blind themselves to the full spectrum of abilities they possess and diminish their humanity.

    • geoff
      geoff says:

      Chunks of the race were not easily runnable, and the rockslide not at all, at least not by me or most of us running it. That particular downhill stretch was far too steep, perhaps even too steep to run at all, never mind the loose rockslide on top of it.

      The rusty car is shot up. For some reason, people really like to shoot up cars out in the desert.

      I think we are in agreement on the running fast. I’m all in favor of training to run fast. I just don’t believe in making the success (or failure) of a race entirely contingent on setting a new PR, and I also think that many of these courses (certainly Calico) can only be measured against themselves. So your conclusion – “that one should train for time, and race with a receptive stance to whatever the journey may bring, including pain, beauty, success, difficulty, possibly even danger” is right on, imho.


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