Date: 2 May 2015
Location: Foresthill, CA
Start Time: 100k – 5AM, 50k – 6:30AM
Field: Limited to 250 Runners for both distances.
Trail Conditions: Almost 100% trail, primarily single-track.
The still heat of the canyon was stifling – the only sound was my labored breathing and the scurry of small brown lizards as they scrambled up the shallow lip of the trail and away from my heavy tread. Rocks skittered from underfoot and my foot slid backwards as I shifted my weight forward and pushed on my knees with my hands. What were, only a few months past, the decrepit remains of the 2013 American Fire is now slowly healing; patches of wild grass emerges a vibrant green, young trees sprout in the shadow of the charred remains of their forefathers, and bright bunches of purple Lupinus nanus (Sky Lupine) rise from the sandy slopes of the gorge as I re-trace my steps from the newly re-constructed Swinging Bridge that spans the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River and serves as the turn-around point for the upcoming Canyons Endurance Runs 100k & 50k being held on May 2nd by Chaz Sheya and Tim Madden.
The course follows the Western States Trail out and back from Foresthill, CA: north and east towards Squaw Valley through the middle-most section of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run – The Canyons!
The 50k distance is a simple out and back course of ~15.5 miles. Don’t let the (relatively) short distance fool you though; the climb from swinging bridge is only ~1,500’ of the total 9,000’ of vertical gain throughout the 50k – there’s over 14,000’ of vert for the 100k.
From the parking lot of the Foresthill Elementary School, runners will head east along Foresthill Divide Rd., past the Fire Department making a turn onto Bath Rd., a steep paved descent of about a mile to merge onto the WS. A small brown sign marks the start of the single-track, of which the course is mostly made up. The descent continues at anywhere from an 8-25% grade as you make your way towards a small tributary creek of the Middle Fork. The stream of water is just more than a trickle, and only manages to soak the bottom of your socks as you cross it. Enjoy the shade here, because for the next few miles the climb is steep and exposed, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up overheated before Michigan Bluff (~ Mile 6).
The climb levels off into a jeep road at the top of the ridge & continues to wind northeast bound. On the first trip I took to preview the course, I took a few wrong turns here – the signs that mark the WS Trail are not labeled with a directional arrow and there are multiple roads that converge before the small hamlet of Michigan Bluff. As you cruise through these flatter miles, be sure to enjoy it, you’ll be on the descent soon enough. There are some sweeping vistas and memorable sights to be certain – snow is still visible high in the Sierras, and the foothills make a great frame for a bluebird sky as large as life. Don’t get too caught up here, though, the sun beats down with no remorse and there will be no respite until you’re descending out of Michigan Bluff.
The town of Michigan Bluff passes by quietly and without assumption; before you’ve blinked, you’ve made the left turn up and out of the private residences and are back on single-track. A short climb is all you get before you make the plunge towards El Dorado Creek – the second water crossing of the day. This descent is fast and long with full-length switchbacks, unlike the previous trail cuts which rob you of speed and make you earn your turns, these allow you to level off your effort a little. Be careful here, though, even though the WS trail is heavily trafficked, the trail is narrow, and you’re getting closer to the mountains – drop-offs are steep and footing becomes more technical in some areas. If you’re not paying attention, you could easily trip and fall here.
Several jeep roads cross this descent, but make sure to stay on the single track through the descent. Shade is prevalent here, so you should be able to cool off a little, especially if you remembered to dunk your hat or headband in the horse trough on the way down. As you get further down the canyons and into deeper wooded areas, pay close attention to the foliage – poison oak is prevalent. Before you know it, the downhill ends and you’re crossing the small footbridge over El Dorado Creek. I stopped here for water and to cool myself during training runs, but I expect most people will be hitting the climb quickly after they have restocked at the aid station (El Dorado Creek, ~ Mile 9). Just be sure you’re ready for it – it’s a little over 4 miles long and it’s a non-stop slog to the top!
The climb faces up El Dorado Canyon, towards the north, so any vistas you happen upon are primarily of the foothills. Tall pines, Quercus kelloggii (California Black Oak) and Quercus chrysolepis (Canyon Oak) line the slopes you’re climbing, keeping you in the shade but disallowing airflow, despite the rustling of the upper stratum of branches. On the bright side, there are fewer switchbacks here than anywhere on the course, so enjoy it!
Soon enough, you’ve crested the ridge of the canyon. Sunlight floods your vision and dust glistens as the light catches and throws angles. Visions of pack trains and rustic settlers past remain all but tangible as the dry earth from your footsteps cements the roof of your mouth to your tongue. Biting flies and gnats that inhabit in the ridgeline trees buzz overhead incessantly, despite your pace and best efforts to swat them away. The only solace lies in the fact that you’re nearing the third aid station, The Pump (~ Mile 13).
I spent several minutes here during my training runs – filling bottles, rinsing a sweat caked face, and soaking a headband with the ice cold water brought to the ridge by an old hand-pump. The water comes out a slight tinge of brown, and with the convenience of an aid station, I’d avoid using it on race day, but be sure to fill up here of all places before moving on – this is the last of the aid stations on the northeastern route and the next descent is harrowingly steep. With no aid station at Swinging Bridge, you can expect the climb to be equally daunting.
The final descent of the out section of the 50k begins as you leave The Pump and drop into an active logging operation – the faded scent of scorched, dry earth and blackened trees lingers despite the blooms of spring. Approximately 1,500’ of vertical loss stands between you and Swinging Bridge, the turn around point for the 50k. All in only 2.5 miles, over loose scrabble and scree that skitters ahead of you with every step forward and down. Be especially cautious here, switchbacks are short, steep, and narrow. A wrong step could put you on the fast track to the bottom of the canyon…
The sound of the rushing North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River comes into earshot by about halfway down the canyon, just as the foliage begins to thicken and shade you from what by now is probably a cruel sun. Pick up your pace, if you dare, in order to spend a few seconds with your aching legs submerged in the frigid snowmelt as it makes its way to the San Francisco Bay. But don’t stay too long – you’re only halfway there. What goes up, must come down and vice versa. 15.5 miles is a long way back along the same grueling, beautiful, type 2 trail, but it’s the only way to a trucker hat, a cold Track 7 brew, and a BBQ!
Good luck out there, and I hope to see you on the trail!
Cheers and Happy Trails,
Special Thanks to Chaz Sheya and Tim Madden for hosting as well as to the sponsors of what I’m sure will be an epic event!