Shadow of the Giants 50K is run on heavily wooded trails less than 2 miles south of Yosemite National Park. It’s an old school, low key affair, not much flash and glitz and Facebook presence. It takes place in the town of Fishcamp, population 59.
I’d heard a lot about the race, but it was a quiet murmur about how beautiful the course is rather than talk about the race as a race. I need to learn to listen more to those quiet murmurs, so that I can discover more gems like Shadows of the Giants.
Green Meadows School
We arrived in Fishcamp and headed to the Green Meadows school, which is an outdoor school for, one imagines, (based on the signs), troubled city kids. We collected our bibs – hand made on the back of old New Balance bibs – talked to a few runners we knew, and then settled in for the dinner. Race director Baz has been doing this for a long time, along with his assorted buddies Cal, Jack, and Doug, and they’ve honed their whole pre-race-dinner presentation into a near vaudeville routine. After dinner, Baz fondled as many of the women as he could get his hands on, and then we headed into town.
Race day: After a half mile or so on road, the race turned onto trail, and cameras almost immediately came out. It was spectacular.
We went gently upward for a few miles. It was a very runnable incline on through forest. We reached a junction with a fire-road. The 20K fun run headed right, and the 50K turned left for an out-and-back stretch. This took us downhill for about a mile, to the first (water only) aid station at mile 3.7
I was going out at an easy pace, but turned it on a little at the end of the downhill and passed a bunch of folks. The uphill return was runnable, which would start to become important a little later on.
We hit the second aid at mile 6.7, and then the third at mile 8.7. The only thing I really remember about that stretch of the course was the Big Sandy river crossing – not much more than ankle deep, but no way around it. It was a refreshing splash through. Because Southern California is dry, I’ve never had a chance to see how well my Hokas would drain. (The answer, it turns out, is pretty well. It wasn’t long before my feet were completely dry).
Directly after the 4th aid station, at mile 13.4, we turned up a steep stretch of tight singletrack. This was the first (and only) unrunnable-to-all-but-the-elites part of the course, and it was beautiful.
The runners had thinned out considerably by this point. There was one person behind me on the climb, and no one visible in front (which is not to say I was anywhere near the lead). This climb ended in Nelder Grove, and the first Giant Sequoia sightings.
We continued through Nelder Grove, past the campground (full of boyscouts) to the 18.4 mile mark. Here the aid station was just off the road, and marked the beginning of the one-mile loop on the Shadow of the Giants Trail.
Like all ultrarunners, I get to hear comments like “why do you run so much?” “My knees are blown out” “running is boring” “you’re obsessed. You need to get a life”. This race in general, and this one mile loop in specific, is the answer to all of those remarks. Yes, running is boring when what you are doing is 2 mile loops around the Silverlake Reservoir day after day. All road running and got-to-lose-some-chub running is mind-numbingly tedious, I agree. Running through Nelder Grove (or walking through) is spectacular. Almost all of the Shadow-of-the-Giants 50K was incredible. Most of my friends with the blown out knees or whatever other imaginary ailments/excuses would almost certainly agree. To them, however, this stuff is a rare luxury, something they indulge in once every few years, perhaps. For me, its a luxury I can indulge in almost weekly, because my training for these adventures takes me up into the San gabriel Mountains every weekend, and while the San Gabriels might not have the majesty of the Sierras, they certainly beat a coffee shop on Sunset Blvd.
I came out of the Shadow of the Giants loop hurting just a little. I’ve had a flare up of plantar fasciitis. We set out on a stretch of fire road. headed towards (or perhaps beside) the Clavin Crest Christian Conference Center, aka the Ministry at 5,000 feet, where young Christians can learn about the splendor of God’s Creation. I passed one runner early on, and that was all I saw of anyone on this stretch, which headed gently up toward the last aid station, at mile 25 – the same aid station we ran though at mile 13. It was an often exposed climb but a slight breeze seemed to mitigate the heat.
From mile 25 to finish was mostly downhill. I was talking it particularly easy. The runner I’d passed earlier passed me, and we played leap frog for a few miles, until the race turned onto singletrack headed to the finish. I was ahead of him and heard him coming up behind me. He was easy to recognize because instead of running with earbuds, he had some sort of speaker set up on his hydration pack, and I could hear his music. I turned it on and a race broke out. This section was beautiful – soft singletrack covered in pine needles, with a number of sharp turns. We came on a downed tree. I jumped on and over. The guy I was racing miscalculated, I guess; I heard a thud and a howl of pain. I didn’t look back.
My time of 5:48 is actually fairly fast for me. I’m not a 50K specialist. Badwater Champion (and professional mariachi musician) Oswaldo Lopez won for the 7th time in 3:43:42. (He also has 2 2nd place finishes).
Winners, & me
Michelle Barton was the women’s winner, and 7th place overall, with a time of 4:20:28. A 50K specialist, Michelle is one of Southern California’s best known female ultra runners. She’s been struggling with injury the past year or so, and the number of races she runs has gone done considerably. Her winning percentage remains high. She’s also one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, which is the case with so many of the old school ultra runners. Oswaldo, Jorge Pacheco, and so many others are incredibly genuine and humble, and this is what make the new team breed of runners with their matching uniforms and loud leaders who insist on making themselves the center of any event, including ones in which they are not competing or even present, especially obnoxious.
The start and finish was at an outdoor school. Many runners bunked the night there. This gave us a luxury you’ll seldom have at the end of a race: hot showers. I talked to friends while waiting for others to finish. Kista crossed the line. We watched the awards, showered, and then headed out to our campground at Summerdale, kicked back, cooked up a meal of corn-on-cob, baby potatoes in butter and fresh rosemary we’d clipped from a giant hedge in Oakhurst, zucchini and sausage all over the firepit. We took a stroll through the campground, down to the stream that I’m told is usually full of trout, spoke to a few other runners staying there, and then kicked back as it got dark, watching the most extraordinary display of stars.
The following day, we headed into Yosemite, and took a strolling hike through the Mariposa Grove, another grove of stunning Giant Sequoias. As our hike ended, we ran into friends/fellow ultra runners Howie Stern & his wife Michelle, who had also run the race.
At Howie’s suggestion, Kista and I headed up to Glacier Point to take in the breathtaking views of Half Dome, Nevada Fall, Vernal Fall and, far below, the Yosemite Valley. It was stunning to the point of sensory overload. I would need to turn my back on the view every so often because it starting to overwhelm me.
Shadow of the Giants was easily the most beautiful course I’ve ever run on. Not far behind is Quad Rock 50, two 25 mile loops through the mountains just outside of Fort Collins, Colorado, which I ran in early May. And then there’s AC100, half of which is along the Pacific Crest Trail, 100 miles of San Gabriel Mountains, including the spectacular 6 miles or so along the ridges of Mt. Baden Powell, Throop Peak, and across to Windy Gap, with 2,000 year old gnarled limber pines and stunning views of the desert far below. I’m spoiled by this. I don’t run to win races. A good performance makes me happy, but a bad performance doesn’t make a loser or send me into a spiral of despair. I don’t pick a course because it’s fast and has fireroads I can bomb down – those are the races I usually try to avoid. I do this because I get to spend time in groves of Giant Sequoias. I do this because I get to spend every weekend up in the San Gabriels, running in the mountains, and every weekend I’m almost certain to come upon other runners with whom I’ve become friends. I do this because I get to fill up my water bottles with stream water in Idle Hour, and while doing so notice Panther Lilies growing by the water. As a bonus, I’m in great shape. As a bonus, my appreciation for life and especially for nature is that much greater. As a bonus, my ability to deal with the bullshit down in the cities is much greater than it’s ever been, and my impatience is almost always held in check.
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