Monday, March 12, 2007

High-Speed Trail

A beautiful downhill marathon in California entices road racers onto the soft stuff

By Bob Cooper
Photograph by Keith Facchino

The Race:Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon
Where: Lassen National Forest, California
When: October 8

Sign up for a trail race and you expect steep grades and slow times. But the Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon, which cuts through a national forest at the southern tip of the Cascade range in Northern California, delivers something altogether different. Its fast, downhill course combines the smooth, wide surface of a road race with the cushioned dirt path and scenic wilderness characteristic of a trail run. This unique blend of speed and beauty is why, despite a lack of prize money and a remote venue-85 miles from Reno-runners, including those who usually avoid trails, are increasingly making the trek.

The buzz over Bizz all started when race director Eric Gould set out to locate the perfect trail, one that could generate some of the fast times of a road marathon. When he came upon a description of the gradually descending, 27-mile-long Bizz Johnson Trail in a rails-to-trails book, he knew he'd found his course. The challenge then became attracting people to the event. "It was tough to convince runners to come this far," says Gould, who lives in the Bay Area, a five-hour drive from the race site. But he succeeded. In 2004, the race's inaugural year, Bizz drew 486 participants for the marathon, half-marathon, 10-K, and 5-K, including top ultramarathoner Scott Jurek. The following year, endurance dynamo Dean Karnazes ran. "Once people run it, they tell their friends about it," says Gould.

The message they're sending? If you're a die-hard trail runner who wants to push for a PR without hitting pavement, or if you're a road runner who'd race trails if it weren't for those pesky steep grades, rocks, and roots, Bizz is your event.

Indeed, this year Gould estimated that nearly half of the 606 finishers were first-time trail racers, including the top two in the men's marathon-Kenny Brown (2:49) and John Leuthold (2:51)-and half-marathon winner Mike McCarthy (1:28). And a surprising 50 runners, 14 percent of the field, qualified for the Boston Marathon (12 percent qualified at the 2006 Chicago Marathon). Among them was the women's winner, former Olympic Nordic skier Nancy Fiddler, 50 (3:10).

Bizz gets its speed from a course that drops 1,300 feet, from 5,500 to 4,200, as it travels along the old Fernley and Lassen Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The line had connected the two former logging towns of Westwood and Susanville, the race's starting and finishing points. In the early and middle miles, the route weaves through pine forests and grassy meadows with views of the surrounding mountains. The last six miles-precisely where gravity assistance and inspiration are needed most-are noticeably downhill and the prettiest. Here the trail crosses nine wooden bridges and penetrates lantern-lit tunnels. There is one significant challenge: The altitude can pose problems if you're not acclimated to it.

As Bizz becomes more popular, participants may find that getting a hotel room is more difficult than running in thin air. This year, every motel in Susanville displayed a "No Vacancy" sign during race weekend.

This article is from the Runner's World web site.

Racing the Gremlin

Runners should listen to--and then ignore--the voice inside their head.
By John Bingham

Ever hear a little voice in your head? Be honest. It doesn't mean you're crazy. Well, it might mean you're crazy depending on what the little voice is telling you.

I'm talking about that little voice that whispers what it thinks you should be doing. Sometimes the voice is called your conscience, when it thinks what you're doing isn't right. But there's another voice that many of us hear. I know I do, or at least I used to. This is the voice of the Gremlin. This is the voice that tells you whatever you're doing isn't good enough, that you should be able to run faster or farther, and that simply enjoying yourself is no reason to keep running. The Gremlin tells you that no matter how much you've improved your life or your running, you still have a long way to go.

It's gotten to the point where I can almost see the Gremlin sitting on someone's shoulder when I talk to him or her. When a first-time marathoner tells me that he'll be disappointed if he doesn't finish in a certain time, I swear I can see the Gremlin's teeth as it grins from ear to ear.

I recently spoke to a woman who had only been running for about a year but was coming back from a pelvic fracture. When I asked her what happened, she explained that she'd been running two half-marathons a week and since that was going well, she decided to add a third. You read that right. She was surprised when she ended up with a stress fracture in her pelvis. After all, she said, 39 miles a week didn't seem like a lot of miles. The Gremlin was doing cartwheels across her shoulders. I had no luck trying to convince her that she might consider a more reasonable training approach. Her Gremlin had her and wouldn't let her go.

Where I see the Gremlin most often, though, is at the finish line of races. It's like some kind of weird Gremlin convention in the chutes as runners come across the line. Instead of celebrating their accomplishments, runners are tormented by the voice of their Gremlins. Runners whose Gremlins just won't allow them to experience the joy of living a healthy, active life. That nasty little voice just keeps reminding them of what they are not.

Gremlins are everywhere, at every pace. They tell a novice runner that pain is weakness leaving the body. They tell runners that an injury is no reason to walk off a racecourse.

The good news is that you have the power to silence your Gremlin. At the very least you have the power to turn down the volume of its voice. The first step in vanquishing your Gremlin is admitting that it exists. The next time you find yourself questioning your performance, ask yourself whose voice it is that you're hearing in your head. Are you hearing a supportive voice? If not, it's the voice of your Gremlin.

The next time you hear yourself thinking that a run isn't good enough, far enough, or fast enough, listen carefully to that voice. Ignoring it won't make it go away. Listen to it, thank it for its opinion, and then forget it.

Your running may be one of the only areas of your life where you're fully free to decide how you want to feel about what you're doing. Your running may be your one chance to feel really good about something you've decided to do.

And even the slowest among us can outrun our Gremlins if we try.

Waddle on, friends.
Posted on the Runner's World web site.