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.

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