Forgotten Fifties

An article remembering great 50-mile races of days gone by.

By on September 9, 2022 | Leave a reply

AJW's TaproomIn recent years as the popularity of 100-mile and longer ultramarathons has continued to grow, I have observed an interesting shift — a decline in the popularity of the 50-mile race. Certainly, there are still some great 50 milers out there. Two of the largest ultras in the U.S. are 50 milers — the American River 50 Mile and JFK 50 Mile — and there are several classic 50 milers still around, such as the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile, Man Against Horse 50 Mile, Mountain Masochist 50 Mile, and the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile. Nonetheless, the booming popularity of 100 milers as well as the qualification requirements for some of the most popular mega-races in the world has had a negative impact on some of the smaller, down-home 50 milers.

Cecilia Flori, 2019 JFK 50 Mile champion. Photo: Herald-Mail Media

This phenomenon got me thinking about some of the classic 50-mile races that have gone by the wayside. Races that, at the time, were highlights on many runners’ calendars but have since ceased to exist. Of the many races that fit this description, there are three that I find particularly noteworthy.

For a handful of years in the early to mid-1980s, the place to be on the first Saturday in June was about 25 miles northeast of Nevada City, California, at the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park for the running of the Nugget 50 Mile. Often used as a final tuneup for folks running the Western States 100 later in the month, the Nugget 50 Mile typically drew an enthusiastic field of runners to traverse the rolling and typically hot trails of this classic California Gold Country area.

Northern California ultra luminaries such as Rae Clark, Ann Trason, and Charles Savage, among others, were regulars at the Nugget and added to its lore as a key stop on the ultrarunning circuit at the time. Permitting issues with the state park and some conflicts with local landowners led to its demise.

The Crown King Scramble 50k has been a staple of the Arizona ultrarunning calendar for over 30 years. For eight years between 1997 and 2004, the Arizona Road Racers, long-time organizers of Crown King, added a 50-mile run to the mid-March festivities. With a 3 a.m. start, the 50-mile course wound through the high desert tucked below the Bradshaw Mountains, passing the historic Castle Hot Springs resort (which has since been renovated and returned to its former glory) before merging with the 50k course and ascending to the small, mining hamlet of Crown King.

I ran the Crown King 50 Mile as my first 50 miler in 1999. The race was won by legendary ultrarunner Eric Clifton and among the other top finishers were Paul Bonnet and the late, great Hopi runner Dennis Poolheco as well as Arizona stalwarts Tina Devine and Diane Ridgway. The challenge of securing volunteers and gaining access to such a remote area ultimately led to the end of the 50 miler. That said, I have it on good authority that some in the Arizona ultra community are interested in resurrecting the race. Stay tuned.

The trails of the Marin Headlands in Northern California have long been a hotbed for ultra-trail runners and in 2007 The North Face established The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships on the beautiful trails on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Offering a $10,000 prize for the winner, that first year’s race attracted top talent like Uli Steidl, Matt Carpenter, Leigh Schmitt, Lizzy Hawker, and Jenn Shelton. For the next 10 years, The North Face 50 Mile, as it was called by most, was arguably the most competitive ultramarathon in the world.

The all-time finishers list reads like a who’s who of ultrarunning stars. In addition to Steidl, Carpenter, Schmitt, Hawker, and Shelton, over the years François D’Haene, Ellie Greenwood, Dylan Bowman, Stephanie Howe, Zach Miller, Magda Boulet, and countless others made the trip to San Francisco to test their mettle against the world’s best.

The start of the 2019 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

An interesting side note about The North Face 50 Mile is that this was the first race that iRunFar provided live coverage for way back in 2009. The race was canceled due to fire in 2018 and the last running was in 2019, after which The North Face decided to pursue other things.

For those of us who’ve been around the sport for a while, we’ve seen races come and go. It’s just part of the sport. However, these three races, in particular, are definitely missed and stand as reminders of the special bond we trail runners have with the places where we roam — special places that connect us deeply to the environment and to one another.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from 1849 Brewing Company in Grass Valley, California. Their 1849 House Ale is a classic amber ale with a touch of maltiness and a deep chocolate flavor. With 5.3% ABV and 35 IBUs, 1849 House Ale is a balanced and tasty ale good for just about any occasion.

Call for Comments

  • What are your favorite 50 milers — past and present?
  • Is there another distance that you think doesn’t get enough love on the ultrarunning calendar?
Hayden Hawks holding his baby son with The North Face flags in the background

Hayden taking third at the 2017 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships, carrying his son, Crosby. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.