Getting up at 2:45a, with about 5 hours of sleep, does not exactly get this dirty girl excited to go out and run, especially when it’s an actual race that I’m headed off to. I’d heard of the Calico Ghost Town Trail Run for a few years and had friends who’d gone over to run it in the past. This year when another couple of friends decided to go and planned on just heading over for the day, I decided to tag along. Having just done my first 50k in November, and having signed up for my first 50-mile race coming up in July, I knew I needed to start getting more weekly miles in but I didn’t feel near ready yet for another 50k so I signed up for the 30k, not wanting or intending to “race” but rather planning to enjoy it and take it all in as a fun trip with my friends and a good training run.
We arrived just before 6a, pulling into the pitch dark parking area to find a handful of other vehicles there, people sitting in their cars, and not much activity. Then began a line of headlights filing in and the once dark sky grew lighter with the rising sun. The area instantaneously came to life. From the parking lot where we parked, which is down below the town, you head up a very long set of seriously cool, rugged, wickedly uneven rock stairs with a wooden railing. I’m not sure how many stairs there are but they were quite awkward to walk up in the daytime, let alone in the dark without a headlamp, and they delivered you to a boardwalk right into the middle of Calico Ghost Town next to the Town Hall. This area was bustling with activity as people were hastily getting things set up.
Registration and packet pickup were held inside the Town Hall building. Like the rest of the town, this was a little wooden, rustic building with a porch out front and some cool old pictures lining the walls inside. There were bagels and coffee and such set up for us runners. I didn’t take it all in in detail as we had brought with us all that we needed for the early morning start. Packet pickup was smooth and painless for us, although I heard many other people complaining that their names were not on the list. This must have been quickly resolved though as I didn’t hear anything more after that. At 6a, having left home so early, I would’ve been a happy girl had my name not been on their list. With nothing to prove that I’d already registered, I would’ve been more than content to be sipping on my coffee (Speedgoat Karl’s 100-Mile Blend brought from home) and spending the morning roaming around, exploring, taking in the sights while the others were running. But, as my luck would have it, my name was there. I was handed my bag of goodies and went back to the car to get my gear together.
From everything we’d brought, novices that we are, one would think we were running a 50 miler perhaps. We were loaded down with options on what to bring. I was almost ready to forego my Nathan pack and just take a handheld, as the weather promised to stay cool with cloud cover and aid stations were within reasonable distance. My Nathan pack is almost like a security blanket for me, it’s hard to give up. I think I was a boy scout in a prior life as I really like to be prepared yet I’ve learned to also bring pretty much only the bare minimums… aside from water. Running in the desert as we do, I’ve seen so many people run out of water and staying hydrated is a huge concern for me regardless of the weather. I also like to bring my phone/camera and haven’t found any other gear that comfortably allows me to do that. Also with my Nathan pack, I can just blow by the aid stations since I can bring my own stuff with me.
A Japanese group pulled in next to us, promptly set up a table, and had a big, beautiful kettle of water going. That was very cool and they were a fun group to see and interact with throughout the day.
We gathered our junk and headed off back up the soon-to-be-cursed-at staircase once again, to the start line area. Both groups, 30k & 50k, started at the same time. It didn’t look like a huge crowd but everyone was still somewhat spread out in front of Town Hall. They played the Star Spangled Banner, which can be so very moving at the beginning of a race. The version they played, although it must’ve had some history to it that escaped me, was not one of the better versions I’d heard, yet it was meaningful nonetheless.
Just about that time, a girl came walking by looking very familiar. She’d been out recently to one of our Desert Dash races. It was Diane, who ran both the day and night half marathons at our last race in Las Vegas at Cottonwood Valley. Those were her first trail runs and now here she was at Calico Ghost Town to run her first 50k. Way to jump in with both feet! That’s what trail running can do to you, you fall in love with it and just can’t get enough. Diane and I barely had time to talk before the crowd took off through the start line. Luckily we were able to catch up later in the day.
We all started together at the back of the pack, along with another friend who was there from Las Vegas, David Campbell, who was running the 50k. We started at the Ghost Town and ran down the road (pavement – ugh!) back out the way we drove in but taking a right.and filling up the right hand lane of a two-lane paved road. I can’t say I even know exactly where we went. We were running, talking and laughing and listening to others doing the same. The three of us dirty girls ran together for a while. At some point it became just me and Debbie and a crowd of friendly strangers, also with David nearby.
After a bit, we finally got off the pavement and onto a dirt road. This was not a hard packed dirt road, there was a lot of sand and the challenge then was finding a little harder surface. There was a lot of zigging and zagging going on with most everyone as we all sought a little traction along the way. I didn’t know much about the course, I hadn’t read any race reports from prior races or anything. In hindsight, I probably should have. Because it was a “trail run” I expected some trail at some point. I had looked at the elevation chart and knew that about the first ten miles or so would be a gradual climb, so I was mentally prepared for that. I kept hoping we’d end up on a trail, but we continued along these soft and sandy roads for a LONG time. They took us far out and around the hills that we could see, not up and into them as at least a few of us had hoped for.
The aid station we first came to was more than adequate. People were stopped in front, blocking the way, looking like they were shopping. I slowed on my way by and edged in front of them as they stood there looking, trying to decide what they wanted. I reached in, snagged a Gatorade, and kept on going. I ran the first 10-11 miles straight through without stopping, unusual for me. I tried not to look up and just basically watched the road directly in front of me. The times that I did look up to see if maybe we were hopefully headed into the hills or better yet, downhill, I was disappointed to see people way up ahead still winding through the desert on the dirt road that continually climbed. I am trying to change my outlook on running uphill, trying to become friends with the hills, knowing I can learn and be a better runner in confronting them head on, agreeing to disagree with them but embracing them and the challenges they bring. I haven’t quite made it there yet and found (as I do with other things in my life) the best way to deal was to avoid, just not to look, and so I kept my eyes down and kept plugging away.
At some point, Deb was no longer with me but Dave was nearby. He had other friends in the race and I could hear him talking and laughing along the way. We ran together for a while and then he was off with his friends again and I on my own. It’s easy to stop running and start walking when others do, and I generally find myself doing that. It’s especially easy if you know, or think, that person walking is a stronger runner than you. You think, wow, If so and so is walking, it must be tough, I should walk too. It just seems acceptable. But to each his own, every day is different for everyone, every course is different. Today I made the deliberate choice to keep moving. When I would see people walk, I would evaluate myself with a mental scanner of sorts. Do I hurt anywhere? No. Am I breathing hard and uncomfortable? No. Then I would play back my mantra, STRONG LIKE BULL (a line from a song a country singer friend of mine wrote) and I would slowly charge on.
We were still on this dirt road, on the left, on the right, down the middle, just trying to find that sweet spot to run in. I feel like I’m pacing someone as there are footsteps directly behind me. This anonymous runner is practically drafting off me – as if I was running that fast – dodging to the left when I did, then to the right. He eventually decides to continue on around me, thankfully, because when someone is that close behind me I just feel pressure to run faster. I fought this the entire time he was there, hoping he would go around. Although I didn’t appreciate when it happened to me, I would find myself inadvertently doing the same to others. It’s just easier to get in a zone when following someone’s feet and their steps if they are consistent and choose the right ground to run on.
The mind does funny things and goes to strange places when you are out there running. (Proven in our conversations following the run, where one friend seriously thought she had Lou Gehrig’s and the other was wondering if she could run if she was blind and who would take her running.) Although I’d like to blame this next almost-incident on the above, unfortunately, it’s just me being the goof that I am. I debated even telling this part but it was funny to me at the time. There had been a girl running near me for a bit and thought it was her still close by behind me. Up in front of me on a slight climb a man was bent straight over tying his shoe. Not squatting but seriously bent straight over, butt in the air. Well, I’m quite sure this is not proper work etiquette, but at work we tend to slap one another on the butt when they are in a position like that.. either with your hand, with a file, with whatever you have in your hand.. it’s just common, maybe even a sign of affection as a lot of us are pretty good friends there. So, here he is standing like that and as I passed I shouted out, “That’s pretty tempting!” Well, after I said it, I turned to who I thought was a girl nearby me and it was some guy instead. Yeah, I was a little embarrassed. I’m not sure what he thought I meant by tempting but I spent a few wasted breaths assuring him it was an innocent comment. I’m sure I’ve done worse things and it probably wouldn’t have been good had I smacked this poor guy on the butt instead of just commenting. Although, who knows, it could have turned out to be the highlight of his run!
Although I fought it, I couldn’t refrain from looking ahead and I saw that we were finally headed towards and into the hills. I was grateful, knowing somewhere along the way there would be some downhill, though from the chart I’d looked at I wasn’t expecting much of it. I also knew there was another uphill part somewhere before the finish.
I eventually somehow ended up running with Tom, a veterinarian from California, who was running the 50k. He was a very nice man and the conversation was distracting, entertaining, and very nice as we made our way down and around and up and over some hills, all the while both wondering aloud at what point the 30k/50k people would split. Along this section I encountered some of the first hills I would walk up. On some I would run up and then walk for a second once at the top while catching my breath. There was also some downhill here and Tom and I both ran it pretty strong, although I passed him somewhere at this point. Wishing one another a great run, we both continued on our separate journeys.
Somewhere along the next part there was some good, fun running. We ran over loose rocks, big and small, and came across a little section almost big enough to require scrambling. This is where things started to get interesting for me and I had some fun with that! I remember more dirt road heading back uphill out of the canyon, meaning more walking. At this point I was with another runner, I never did get his name but we were running about the same pace, walking about the same pace, and chatting a bit too. We continued together until we got to an aid station. I swung by and grabbed a cup of Mt. Dew, a first for me, and I had to say hi to a sweet little talkative girl at the aid station who was so excited to see runners coming in. I also took my first and only picture during the race there. My companion didn’t stop.
After leaving the aid station, I was surprised to find my last running buddy not far ahead and it didn’t take long on this fun and loose rocky stuff that I love, to catch up. He seemed to struggle much more on this type of terrain than I and I promptly left him behind. The canyon was fun, rugged, exciting, the kind of running I excel at. I came up on someone else and saw them struggling here too. Not only was this the kind of running I love but it was downhill….double whammy! I knew if I hauled butt down this canyon, I could make up some time and so off I went, having THE BEST time of the entire race. This is where I started thinking that this course wasn’t so bad after all!
I was thinking I only had about 3-4 miles to go and planned to take advantage of this fabulous downhill, crazy, rocky section. I was certain that there was some more uphill coming and that I would end up walking more so I wanted to gain some ground while I could. As I continued down the canyon, passing a few other runners, suddenly I see Jeeps crawling their way up through a narrow section right ahead of me. I was flying at this point, almost literally it felt at times. I was giddy, in dirty girl heaven, practically skipping over the rocks, enjoying the feeling of being light on my feet and focused on going as fast as I could. I was feeling so aggressive at this point that I even said out loud to a runner nearby, regarding the Jeeps ahead that were nearly blocking the canyon off, “They’d better get out of the way or I’m running over the top of them!” Close enough. I was on a roll and wasn’t stopping. I didn’t care that they were bigger than me, I was going through! And I did. I wove around them, bolted around the side of one Jeep, in front of the next one and around the other side waving at all as I passed them by. I’m sure they had to think that I, as well as the rest them out there running this canyon, was nuts!
I got down the canyon a bit farther and rounded a bend to find two female runners. One had been checking out a cave, or mine, and the other was running a bit. These were the first women I’d come across in a while and I seized the opportunity to pass them by as quickly as possible. It looked like they were struggling a bit in the canyon, as others were, so I tried to go by them even faster so they would think they didn’t have a chance of catching me. (It worked too, as I found out at the finish line when they came in.) Very soon after I’d passed them, I ran into some Japanese people in the canyon. I think they may have been our parking lot neighbors but I wasn’t 100% sure. They were congratulating me, telling me good job, and one of them said, or so I thought, that I was the 7th woman. I was pleasantly surprised to hear this, thinking there were tons of people ahead of me and not so many behind.
Just beyond the Japanese group, I saw yet another girl ahead of me. Tall and slim with a long, dark pony tail. Argh!! She wasn’t moving real speedily but she wasn’t slow either. At this point the canyon flattened out and widened out and I saw the girl follow an arrow to the right, only to pop out from the hill mere seconds later. I wondered for a moment if she’d gone the wrong way but followed the arrow myself. It directed us up to the right on a little hill and through a short tunnel (very cool), then back onto the lower part where we were before. Then we went up a curvy dirt road leading out of the canyon. I’m not sure if she knew I was there at that point. She was walking and not too far ahead, but I was walking this uphill too. We seemed to be feeling about the same energy-wise and so the distance between us didn’t seem to change much. I had seen her going a bit slowly in the canyon through the rocky part so I thought that if there was more downhill I might be able to gain some ground on her.
We climbed out of the canyon and ended up on top of a ridge. The canyon we’d been running was now down below to our right and Calico Ghost Town (or the camping area nearby) was down to the left. There was some man standing up on the ridge line and he said something to the other girl as she passed. I was at approximately 17 miles, according to my Garmin, thinking I had a mile to go. Aside from the last hill climb, I’d been running pretty much as hard as I could for the past few miles already. When I got to where this man is standing, he says, “Less than 2 miles to go!” Now I wasn’t sure if this was similar to when people say, “It’s right around the corner” or “You’re almost finished,” when you still have 5 miles to go or what “less than 2 miles to go” really meant.
According to my watch, there should only be about a mile left but then again trail races are rarely exact mileage-wise. I did a little bit more walking, the pony-tailed girl doing the same, and then I saw the trail below me on the left and it was rocky and headed down the hill!! Yay! I was pretty certain I could take her here. As I drew closer to her, I could see from the dirt streaks on her that she’d fallen and she was gingerly picking her way over the rocks, not exactly slowly but not at my pace either. I was running as hard as I could once again on this downhill and finally caught up to her. I said hello and I’m pretty sure I asked how she was doing even. Her response was friendly as she said, “I guess that makes you second place female now.” I think my exact words were, “Really? HOLY MOLY!!! And I was off, hoping there were no other sections where she’d pick it up and come flying past me to claim her spot.
It was pretty rocky for quite a ways yet and these were ankle turning rocks here. Thank goodness for Bootleg Canyon trails and all the practice I’ve gotten there. I did turn my ankle, being in such a rush and afraid to slow down, but in running at Bootleg so much I’ve learned to step lightly enough on that kind of surface and have also been doing well at catching myself and not getting my full weight into it so this ankle roll hurt for a millisecond and startled me more than anything. I came flying over a little rise that had a pickup truck parked behind it, going fast enough that I may have startled the photog sitting there in the driver’s seat taking pictures as I came close to careening into his driver’s side door.
I wasn’t sure where the finish was but I thought by now we had to be getting close and I didn’t know how long I could keep running the pace I was. I ended up on pavement again and recognized the campground we’d found in the dark that morning in our search for a bathroom. I remembered this campground being down the hill from the Ghost Town, meaning I had to run the dreaded pavement all the way back up through the parking lot, which was a L-O-N-G parking lot, then probably take those crazy (insert harshest curse words here) stairs to the top to the finish line. UGH!!!!!!!! I was physically feeling done with any uphill and I have a serious mental issue when it comes to pavement running so it was tough to not stop to walk but I knew the pony-tail cutie was still coming along behind me and might have her own plan to pass me by. Thanks to her, I was able to keep moving along through the parking lot, apparently quickly enough to make one of the earlier finishers, who was in the lot at his car, comment on the pace that I was still maintaining. I was cursing the stairs, which were quickly coming up, only to find out that I needed to stay to the left and go up this much longer route of a steep, paved road. (Insert all remaining cuss words here and repeat them 10 times.) I tried to keep running but couldn’t do it. I kinda did the sideways walk you do when hiking to try to take some of the stress off my tired calf muscles. I even turned and did a backwards walk for a second, enabling me to see where my competitor was. She was running (damn her!) across the parking lot heading my way.
All I could do at this point was walk up this steep hill but from having seen her before, I was pretty confident she would have to do the same. I was also pretty certain that once I got to the top of this road, I would be running downhill to the finish…and I was right. As soon as I crested the hill, I started running again. The road took us right through the center of Calico Ghost Town, through sightseers and tourists who meandered around the course, not knowing it was a course I’m sure. The ground was really, really uneven for pavement but I knew I had to run hard to the finish. For all I knew, pony-tail girl could be a road running record holder and could still blow by me at any second. So I gave it my all on the last little shot down the center of the ghost town all the while fearing I’d stumble on this foreign surface. How do you explain getting a road rash from a trail run? Thankfully, I didn’t have to.
Connie was her name. A pretty brunette with an awesome smile. She came in a minute behind me and I cheered her in. We laughed about our little meeting on the trail. She was surprised that I was friendly and happy as I passed, or something to that extent, and later she told me she fell even a second time, because of me. That made me feel bad but I know the feeling. I was so worried about her coming up behind me and passing me that I kept trying to look back too. When the next two women came in, they were the ones I had blown past in the canyon and again we were all laughing as she said I just came flying right by them.
The trail running community is amazing. I’ve made the most wonderful friends through this obsession and have grown tremendously, finding my inner strength and continually learning and embracing new challenges along the way. I wish the same and much, much more for everyone else out there. May we all challenge each other, learn from all others, bring out the best in one another, and laugh together on these spectacular journeys we call trail races.