I know mud. I have run the trails of the Pacific Northwest for more than 30 years and have splashed my way through many a mud puddle. I have even competed in trail races known for their mud. I have run the Bridle Trails 50K in Kirkland, Washington: a loop trail through Bridle Trails State Park famous for its horse manure-filled never-ending supply of mud (at the finish my running shoes went straight into the garbage can). I have run Chuckanut 50K near Bellingham, Washington, with its infamous “Little Chinscraper” trail (a mud-covered slip-n-slide of a trail that the runners must climb). And I have even run March Mudness (50K, Forest Park, Portland, Oregon) where just staying upright was a challenge. But these races pale in comparison to the mud found at the Fourmidable 50K in the Sierra foothills just outside of Auburn, California.
Now, most years I would not have had anything to complain about. That is not to say that the Fourmidable 50K is an easy race. In fact, as the name implies, it is just the opposite. This race is famous for its four difficult climbs (hence the name FOURmidable 50K). (Actually there are five difficult climbs on the course, but that kind of ruins the name of the race.)
The course starts with a steep descent into the canyons of the American River and then a relentless climb averaging 20%, with the steepest section at 25%, to regain the canyon rim. And that is just in the first 3 miles. From there a long descent brings the runner to No Hands Bridge (a famous landmark in the Western States 100-mile race) and the start of the second major climb (1.3 miles average 15%). That is followed by a third descent and climb (2.3 miles at 8%). At mile 26 the course returns to No Hands Bridge and the final climb to the finish. Or, so they want you to think. A 1.7-mile climb averaging 5% leads the runner to almost the top of the canyon rim when the course takes a devilish downhill turn and then it is straight up for the last mile climaxing in a 17% scramble to the finish line.
In any typical California February the Fourmidable 50K race on a dry course would be difficult enough. But February 2017 was not a typical February – at least not in California. After four years of drought California was inundated by one major rain storm after another. One week before the race the Yuba River, 100 miles to the north, was threatening to overtop the Oroville Dam and flood the cities and towns downstream. California had not seen rain like this in decades.
I wasn’t here for the rain. I was here to compete in the USATF 50K Trail National Championships, held as part of the Fourmidable 50K. I was competing in the 65-69 age division and I wasn’t going to let a little rain and mud stop me from trying to win an age division national championship.
The day before the race it rained cats and dogs, cows and horses. Everything and everyone was wet, but day-of-race the rain stopped literally 15 minutes before the starting gun sounded. The rain may have stopped, but the mud didn’t.
I knew that the mud was going to be bad when, on the downhills, the mud was so thick and wide that I was forced to walk down rather than run and risk my life with a spectacular slide off the side of a cliff into the canyon below. So I took my time descending the steep sections while younger, fearless runners plummeted out of sight down the trail ahead.
I figured that I would make up time when, after the third climb, we reached and ran along a relatively flat plateau. Here the trail was smooth and flat. Here I thought that I could run fast. Here I found mud.
The general rule of thumb when trail running is to go straight through the mud as quickly as possible. You are going to get muddy, but it is all part of the game. That strategy works until the mud reaches sinkhole-depths. At sinkhole-depth your shoe, your ankle, and possibly lower parts of your body disappear into the black goo. It is exciting never knowing whether or not the upcoming mud crossing will result in victory or defeat. Ten yards of this suspense is enough to make any trail runner question the meaning of life, but try ten miles with hardly a dry spot in-between the sinkholes.
The only alternative, other than a quick helicopter ride back to civilization, was to try to run around the mud-camouflaged death traps. This alternative merely added mileage to an already too-long run. Hidden under what looked to be grassy meadows was more mud – just as deep and mean as the trail mud – but just a little less obvious.
To determine the best possible course of action to take at the approach to each sinkhole, I watched the runners ahead of me as they attempted to negotiate the impossible. At one major sinkhole I saw a short, female runner cross what most people would call a pond (it was the trail). She was in water and mud mid-thigh deep when she slipped and just managed to keep her head above water. She was able to wade to shallower water and exit the sinkhole before I reached her near-drowning. I decided to try something different and detoured downstream to where the mud was only mid-calf deep.
And so it went for hour after hour until I struggled up that last hill to the finish line, some 7 hours and 19 minutes after I started. I won my national championship, but my mud-infused running socks did not survive the journey. They went straight into the garbage. Such is the price of victory.