There were no surprises Saturday morning when nearly 200 runners set out from Spooner Lake State Park for the inaugural Tahoe Rim Trail 50K/50-Mile Ultra.
Considering the course started at 7,000 feet and climbed to a high point of 9,214 feet at the top of Snow Valley Peak, everyone involved realized that both the 50-kilometer and 50-mile races would be considerable tests of endurance.
Ah, but what a setting for a race.
"This wasn't a bad turnout for our first time. As far as what I can tell from talking to other race directors, most of these take a few years before they get the numbers up," race director Dave Cotter said. "But, look at the venue here. You can't beat that."
John Hancock, 37, of Stockton, Calif., was first to cross the finish in an even time of 4 hours, 54 minutes for the 50-K course, which actually measured out to 32 miles, according to race officials. Mary Coordt, 32, of Elk Grove, Calif., finished fourth overall and was the first woman with a 5:22:03 clocking.
The first finisher in the 50-mile race was David Melkonian, 27, a mountain guide from Bishop, Calif., who completed the distance in 8:06:50.
This event was not designed for anyone who had a fast time in mind.
"Just in general, I thought I could break 8 hours today. If it was a flatter course, maybe," said Melkonian, whose previous ultra-distance experience came from running the High Sierra 50-K in Bishop. "My legs feel good, I just experienced a lot of cramping in my diaphragm, especially on the downhills."
Coordt has a 2:48 marathon to her credit, but this year, she has emerged as one of America's leading female ultra-distance runners. She has run the fastest 50-K time by an American woman this year - a 3:54:35 effort at the Jed Smith 50-K in Sacramento on Feb. 10. Coordt frequently visits Lake Tahoe's South Shore and enjoys trail running, so it only seemed natural to try Saturday's event.
"I wasn't going to run this race, but when Dave (Cotter) told me about the course, it was just too enticing," she said. "It was beautiful. When you're up there, you feel like you're on top of the world."
The feeling is understandable. From the dirt roads and single track trails, runners were afforded views of the Washoe Valley and Carson City to the East, the Carson Valley to the south, and of course, Lake Tahoe and Marlette Lake to the West.
"This is absolutely a wonderful run," Melkonian said. "The scenery alone keeps you going. There's so many single track trails. There aren't many places where you can find that. This is such a beautiful place; I'm surprised this was just the first one."
Long days in the mountains are nothing new to Melkonian, who spends a considerable amount of time as a mountain guide in the Sierra near Bishop.
"I'm used to long days up in the mountains," he said, flashing a smile. "I spend a lot of time up around 12,000 feet, so this was kind of like coming down from altitude for me."
Saturday marked Hancock's first attempt at the 50-K distance.
"It didn't feel too bad. It was kind of like a long hike," Hancock said with a smile. "It was kind of a last-minute decision to come here and do this. I've been working up in this area for the last month, so I've been getting some trail runs in. I just thought this would be a good chance to get out and see one event longer."
Hancock, who serves as president of the Buffalo Chips running club of Sacramento, is more than your ordinary hiker, though. He was a conference 10,000-meter champion on the track for U.C. Davis in 1987 and has run sub-2:30 in the marathon.
"It wasn't too bad," Hancock said. "I knew there would be a lot of hills. I had looked at the map, so I sort of knew we would get up to the 9,000-foot level and suffer a little. I think the toughest part was the last seven miles coming downhill. Just the overall, feeling of being tired and trying to keep going. I was definitely looking forward to getting here to the finish."
Erik Skaden of Sacramento finished second in the 50-K with a time of 5:09:43, followed by Fred Zalokar of Reno in 5:10:26.
In the 50-miler, Paul Sweeney of Truckee was less than eight minutes behind Melkonian with a second-place effort of 8:14:15.
"It was beautiful. Basically, the trail was awesome," Sweeney said. "I felt better today than I have in other races, but this was close to home and I think that helped."
The Tahoe Rim Trail Ultra, jointly presented by the Tahoe Mountain Milers and Carson City-based Sagebrush Stompers, went off well, according to Cotter.
"We have several people who are out there doing their first 50-K today, so hopefully it's a very memorable one for them."
"We haven't had a chance to finalize the exact elevation gain; we're estimating somewhere between 6,000 and 6,500 feet of climbing," Cotter said. "It is tough, but hopefully, the scenery will distract them from the climbing.
"This has been a lot of fun. All the energy from the runners this morning was just incredible," he added. "Putting this on has been quite a chore. State Parks has been extremely helpful. The Forrest Service, we got a permit from them, we've got our sponsors. We've got some people who have come down and set up all the food for the finish line. All those people have just been incredible."
Surprises? There didn't seem to be any, although Sweeney had a brief one on his way up to 9,214-foot Snow Valley Peak. Just a brief one, though.
"We were climbing up to Snow Peak, that was a 1,000-foot climb. I asked the woman at the aid station how far it was to the next aid and how far to the finish. She said, 'Well, there's a 1,000-mile climb.' Then she caught herself and said, 'I mean, 1,000 feet.' I just laughed and said, 'Well, that really wouldn't be runable."