Mokelumne River 50 Mile | California | April 17, 2011
The Inaugural Mokelumne
By Gary Dudney
The first hurdle at the inaugural Mokelumne River 50 Mile trail run was getting past the terminology. “Mokelumne” is apparently Mi-wok for “people of the fishnet.” To say the name you make an “m” sound like “mah,” then the word “column,” and then the word “knee.” Emphasize the first syllable of “column” and you’ve got it, “mah-COLumn-knee. Now try “EBMUD,” the acronym for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, where the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail is located in the Sierra foothills near the California town of Lodi. Even the colorful aid station names get into the act: Campo Seco, Lancha Plana, Vistas Dos Lagos, Gwin Mine Road Crossing, McAfee Gulch, and Middle Bar Takeout.
But once you get past the linguistic soup, the trail itself at 25.7 miles long–a brand new venue for ultrarunning–seems tailor made for an out and back 50 mile course. It kaleidoscopes through an ever changing mix of scenery. It begins at one reservoir of the Mokelumne River, Lake Camanche, winds through forests and grassland above the river to another reservoir, the Pardee, and then follows a rolling country road through pastureland before it plunges back into another dramatic section of the Mokelumne river gorge. After the turnaround, you replay the whole sumptuous experience in reverse except the temperature has gone up, your quads are screaming from the elevation change (11,639 ft. total), and some of the rougher sections of trail require more of your attention.
The area has a rich mining past dating back to the Gold Rush, but to the untrained eye, not much of this past is evident. More striking are the large tracts of classic California oak woodlands the trail passes through. The forest floor between the sparse oaks is carpeted with bright green, ankle-deep, spring grass scattered with wildflowers. Wary of us strange interlopers, grazing cows shift restlessly in the woods and from time to time their low moans echo through the trees long after we have passed as if it took that long for them to think through protesting our presence. Gates that must be kept closed pop up intermittently, the first few with this weird counter intuitive mechanism where you push a handle toward the gate post to open it, followed by several gates where the handle is pushed intuitively away from the post. I just couldn’t get relaxed around the gates.
The running surface also varies. The first few miles of trails and roads tended to be rough and rutted. You knew you weren’t running through an English garden. There was even a road with a foundation of large river rocks, but the rocks weren’t staying put and had migrated up to the top of the road making for a real obstacle course. But other sections of the course were smooth singletrack or well maintained country roads, making for some very easy, breezy running.
EBMUD has strict rules about the trail being used only between sunrise and sunset, which prompted race director Robert Mathis to be creative about cutoff times. The 50 milers faced a hard cutoff of 5 hours at the 23.4 mile mark, putting the squeeze on the back of the packers. The consolation for runners turned around at that cutoff was they could still run back and claim an official finish over the shorter distance. In fact, there were shorter races of 50K, marathon, and 8 mile distances that were being held in conjunction with the 50 mile, and you could chose to drop down to one of those distances by just turning at the designated point for that race and returning to the start.
The course is beautiful but the Mokelumne River 50 Mile is certainly not a walk in the park. The tight early cutoff forces a brisk pace out to the turnaround where runners encounter a good chunk of the elevation change, including “The Longest Mile” a steep set of stone and wooden steps built by the California Conservation Corps into the canyon face over a period of ten years that rises 550 ft. over 0.5 miles. The morning cool is gone by the time you are on the way back and you start wishing you were down on the river in one of the pleasure boats cruising below you. The twenty or so miles back to the start from this point is a grind. Muddy sections are harder to navigate, the bugs are out, the sun gets hot, the cattle are pissed that you’re back, and you have to pay careful attention to the trail posts to stay on course. By the time you finish and tuck into the BBQ, you’ve earned your hamburger.