When first heard that professional ultrarunner Tim Tollefson was working on creating a trail festival in Mammoth Lakes, I knew I would want to be a part of this. Why? First of all, Mammoth Lakes is a family vacation spot for us so I am familiar with the trails around Mammoth and other lakes. Second, I wanted to join in part of Tim’s dream to have a festival. I have followed his career since 2015 after seen his profile in a Billy Yang video. I also know he loves the UTMB experience and would want to re-create a part of the festival feel. Lastly, in 2019 I did a run up Dragon’s Back Trail from Twin Lakes but couldn’t find the last half mile of the trail because of a snow field that obscured the path. I had to finish off the trail and doing so in a race would be an epic way to do so.
When the race opened up, I got my vacation time approved then signed up for the race. This was going to happen!
I signed up for the Dragon’s Back Hill Climb race and then figured that I could also do the 26K race. The 7-hour cutoff seemed very doable.
We drove up on Wednesday and I went to the festival panels and films on Thursday night and started getting anxious as the night got colder and I realized that I would probably be the last person on the 26k course – at night on 90% new trails.
The anxiety was real and mounting. The night before, I decided that I would do the race then turn around after the first aid station and run back to the starting line. I would still have the fun of toeing and would find joy in the casual run back to the start line. My race, my pace, my plan.
I lined up as far back on the starting line as I could. With encouraging words from Tim, the countdown started then we were off. I took off running and the pace was slow as there were 200 runners in front of me. By the time I got to the stairs at the end of the plaza I was at a walk pace. As we made our way across the first mile, there were still a few people around me. Some were doing a nice hike pace and other ran a little and hiked a little. I felt good and was doing like at 16 minute per mile pace on this uphill section. It wasn’t super steep so I ran when I could and power hiked the rest of the time.
I don’t like to look back during a race to see who’s following because sometime looking back and not seeing anyone can be a bit demoralizing. I was fairly close to the runner ahead of me and as we approached the first aid station at Canyon Lodge, I was very close to her. I got some water and told the aid station volunteers that I was dropping out the race and that I would head back. I felt great and the volunteers didn’t make a big deal about it or try to convince me to keep going. I stopped my watch then restarted it, running the route in reverse just to make sure I didn’t go off course.
I was shocked when another runner came in towards the aid station. Amazingly I was not the last runner. I told her that I was heading back and she said, “that might be the smart thing to do” then kept on running to the aid station, followed closely by the course sweeper.
I continued on back to the start line and it was uneventful except I think the first finisher passed me just as we got to the stairs going to the plaza, 200 meters from the race end. I stuck around for a long time, watching folks finish and cheering them on.
When I came back later that night for the next panel and film, I saw a lot of the folks who were around me in the beginning finish up the race in the early evening. That was cool. I’m glad they had a good night. I did hear that a few runners had trouble navigating the course, both front runners and some of the last runners. I’m sure in a few weeks they’ll forget about that and just cherish their finish and the adventure.
My race finish joy and climb to the summit would have to come in two days.
Dragon’s Back Trail race – 2.7 miles, 2,400 feet elevation gain, topping off at 11,000 feet elevation
On Sunday, I woke up early then decided to treat it as if I was going for a run with the running group that day. That helped me chill out some and I used the same morning routine – breakfast with coffee then chill until it was time to go.
I found free all-day parking across the street from the plaza then headed off to find the shuttle stop. The email said it was near the race start/finish for the 26k/50k course. I ran into a young man and asked him if he was going to Twin Lakes and he said yes. Then I looked across the street and saw a familiar figure, Tim Tollefson. We jumped on the shuttle and headed up to Twin Lakes. I chatted with Tim as he multi-tasked on his phone.
When we got to Twin Lakes it was chilly. I was wearing two shirts and wrapped my buff around my hand to keep them a little warmer. Other runners started showing up, some faces that I recognized from other races and some elite runners like Paddy O’Leary and Chad Hall who had won the 50k race the day before with a bonkers 3:58+ time. I also saw Billy Yang show up with his girlfriend Hilary Matheson who was doing the race. I had chatted with her on the first day of the festival and I was introduced to their newest family member, their dog Charlie Salami. I think Charlie liked me as he approached me then licked my water bottle.
My Ventura County bud, Mauricio, was going for the Triple, and was ready for the last race of the challenge. We chatted for a bit then we lined up for the race that started just across the Twin Lakes bridge. We started in waves of about 40 runners and I got all the way to the back of the last wave.
Tim yelled “Go!” and I started my watch but there was a big group just ahead of me and they were finishing up a group selfie so I shot past them and eventually onto the Dragon’s Back Trail.
Dragon’s Back is a 2.7-mile trail with 2,400 feet of elevation gain that starts out at 8,500 feet elevation and tops out at 11,000 feet. It’s mostly single track and has some technical parts that are a bit sketchy. Several runners referred to the race as a “VK” or Vertical Kilometer, but this isn’t quite long enough to qualify and is a little short on the elevation gain, which must come out to more than a vertical K, or 1,000 meters.
It’s difficult to describe how beautiful the views are on this part of the mountain. It was very difficult for me not to take out my phone and take photos and videos of the beauty. Here are some photos from my visit in 2019.
I had a few people behind me after being a mile into the race. I had a little bit of a conservative strategy; I would keep my heart rate at 145 which is Zone 3/low Zone 4 and keep it steady. When a section was a bit flatter than the average 17% incline, I would run some of that. There weren’t many downhill sections.
About the halfway point a woman passed me and she didn’t appear to be a racer as I didn’t see a race bib on her. I let her scoot past me and then she hopped up the course rather quickly. I thought she might be a race volunteer and was moving into her next viewing/cheering position. She met up with another woman and they both started moving up the mountain just ahead of me. I think I passed them at one point then they passed me up again on a less steep section where I should have run as well but only ran part of it.
I liked having some folks nearby and tried to stay close as they had a good pace.
I got the 2.2-mile mark where I stopped during my run in 2019. That was in July and there was still a huge snow field there and the trail was nowhere to be seen. This time that snow blob was all dirt and I could see the trail and the women in front of me crossing it. I caught up to them as they stopped to take a breather then I continued following them up. There were a few areas where it would be easy to take an alternate route from point A to point B but I stayed on what looked like the official path.
After a couple of more twists and turns I could see the summit and the finish line arch. I was close! The two women had found another gear and were running up parts of the climb and caught up to and passed another racer who had been a little ahead of us most of the time.
I never worried about the 2.5 hour cutoff as I predicted I would be closer to 1 hour 30 minutes than to the cutoff. As I did the final part of the ascent I saw that I was at one hour and 56 minutes and wanted to get in under two hours so I got ready for a big push. I would have started running there except that spot was super sandy and I would have just spun my wheels. I finally got a firmer footing and started sprinting up the mountain. The conservative approach left something in the tank and it felt good to run the last part of the super steep climb.
There were still a lot of racers at the top even though the first finisher, Chad Hall, had finished almost an hour and a half earlier. It felt great to cross the finish line, with Tim announcing my arrival and handing me the finisher’s emblem.
I thanked the two women who were ahead of me for leading the way and one said that they had followed me at first as well.
The party on the summit was great as we waited for more racers to cross the finisher’s line. I chatted awesome runner KT Asmuth who is from nearby Ojai and now lives in Mammoth. I also chatted with a runner who I had met after the 26k race and had come from Northern California.
My official time was 1:58:14, 105 out of 113 overall. Check it out on Strava and let’s connect. https://www.strava.com/activities/7867022610/overview.
I am so glad that B and I took the necessary steps to plan out this trip and to participate in all of the festivities. The festival and races were all really well done. There was a committed crew of volunteers that kept us safe (especially on the sketch trails that I mentioned), cheered us on and help keep the trains running on time. There was almost no slack on the different festival events. It was obvious that Tim was getting next to zero sleep as he kept working to improve the festival on a daily basis. For example, when parking had a chance to cause a bottle neck at the Dragon’s Back race, he managed to score us a shuttle bus that got runners there on time.
I’m glad that Tim didn’t shy away from being front and center at the festival and I think everyone got a chance to see that not only is he a talented runner as we know, but he was able to put on a kick ass event, with heart and dedication, that will hopefully continue for a long time.
I would totally do this race again next year, if I have the chance. I want to improve my Dragon’s Back climb time and feel very prepared to take on the 26k race challenge.
I met a lot of people during the festival and that was super cool. I also saw some familiar faces and it was fun to catch up with Leigh and Mike from Ventura. There were a couple of Latinos who were from Chico State, which is Tim and his wife Lindsay’s alma mater. We talked a lot and I saw them at the different festivities. The panelists who spoke up about a general lack of diversity at trail ultra events, I appreciate you for speaking up. During the event I had several Latinx who came up to me and asked if I was a racer then said they were glad to see other faces like their own.
Because of the ridiculous high heat during September, my training volume was low but now I need to ramp things up big time to get ready for the Ray Miller 50k in December. I’m also looking at rejoining the gym so I can work on my upper strength and cut some weight. I’m also signed up for Sean O’Brien 30k in January. It will be fun to have all the SOB races on the same day as it was a few years back.
Let me know if you have any questions about the festival and let me know what’s on your race calendar. I hope we cross paths on your next trail run/race!
Header and footer photo credit, Josh Wray https://www.instagram.com/josh_wray.