For every minute you’re stuck at the intersection of highways 41 and 426, for every half hour spent huddled around complete strangers like penguins during a chilly sunrise, and for every mile you keep checking your feet to make sure they’re still able to plod forward, the Yosemite Half Marathon is worth every bit of effort.
Not for a high-quality shirt, some of the more impressive post-race snacks and photos in most races, or even an incredibly hefty, objectively gorgeous medal that feels more satisfying each time you hold it.
Really, the most valuable thing the Yosemite Half Marathon gives you is gratification, not only for taking on one of the most beautiful courses many runners, including myself, had ever seen, but the feeling you were able to endure a physically and mentally challenging dance between yourself and nature.
I woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, after a mere three hours of sleep thanks to visiting the not-so-bad Fresno Fair the night before. I wasn’t sure, since this was only my second half marathon ever (The Wascally in Woodward Park last month being the first) whether I was ready to take on the test.
I became less sure when, after arriving in a hired Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) bus around 5:30 a.m., fellow racers and I stood in dark, cramped masses around only three barrels that had fires burning in them for warmth.
For the at least 2,500 racers that signed up for the challenge, finding a spot close to the barrels wasn’t easy. Though we enjoyed welcoming others to what we quickly named “the herd” with repeated calls of “one of us” as they squeezed in.
“It looks like some kind of ritual,” a runner joked near the flames. “Like we’re preparing for a sacrifice of some kind.”
Sacrifice indeed. As the 7 a.m. start time approached, my feet were numb. I wasn’t well prepared, heading out only in gym shorts, a thin polyester shirt from webcomic The Oatmeal, a Wasp hydration pack from Ultimate Direction (the Yosemite Half is “cupless,” meaning no cups allowed anywhere), headphones, some off-brand athletic socks from a department store, and really worn out running shoes.
Many others were better equipped. Van Mandrapa of San Diego, who said she runs seven miles a day, was taking on the half marathon herself for the first time but had gloves, a warm jacket, and other appropriate gear.
“I’m excited,” she told me. “I’m not here to beat my personal records or anything, but it seems like a great way to get some exercise with good views of the area.”
She wasn’t wrong. Throughout and by the end of the race, at least a dozen runners I spoke with said the Yosemite Half Marathon, sponsored by Vacation Races, was one of their favorite events given the breathtaking views along the way.
“I thought it was the most beautiful race I’ve ever run,” said Sherrie Rose, 64 of Reno. “Running through the forest was great on such a high road. And then Bass Lake at the end was gorgeous. It’s always uplifting when you’re running to be surrounded by such beautiful scenery.”
Starting near Nelder Grove on Fire Road, the first five miles of the course were on rough terrain through the forest, the sound of runners met only with the occasional song of a bird.
Mostly flat, the road, or 6S11 into 6S40, took us past the Soquel Waterfalls, and allowed views of Chilkoot Creek as the sun slowly strengthened overhead. At about 7:30 a.m. I realized my hands, figuratively frozen cold, had also regained feeling. Needless to say, I was pleased.
Reaching mile six, the course took us onto Beasore Road for a powerful descent the next four miles, causing an eventual elevation drop of around 2,000 total feet.
I felt strong going into mile 10, despite tension in my knees and quadriceps from the continual decline. But that’s where I, and many other runners including Tracy Carlson of Yucaipa, were met by the proverbial death of mile split times; relatively minor uphill runs as we transitioned onto North Shore Road at Bass Lake.
“Oh man, those uphill portions are the worst,” Carlson and her friend Kim laughed with me after the race. “I mean, when I ran this last year, it was nearly all downhill which was really tough so it’s nice that the course was improved. But those get you every time.”
By the time I made it to Bass Lake, around 8:45 a.m., crowds had formed along North and South Shore Road, with young fans cheering on tired runners, and some carrying signs that said if given a high five, they promised us an energy boost.
But perhaps no boost was stronger than the sights and sounds of the finish line at Recreation Point, as all of us seemed to pick up our pace. After I crossed, I almost immediately plopped down next to Justin Roberts, a 31-year-old studying optometry in Berkeley, on a felled tree trunk next to the lake.
I asked him what it was like running the Yosemite Half Marathon, and he smiled.
“I’m just happy I finished,” Roberts chuckled. “I don’t get up at 4 in the morning very often, so this is usually more than I do before 9 a.m. It was a great time.”
My final time was 1:53:05, a pace of about 8:38 a mile. Though I was pleased, I didn’t come close to Joshua Carlos, 22, and Natalie Wieland, 12, who finished as the top male and female runners with times of 1:15:38 and 1:24:34.
“This is my first half marathon ever,” Carlos said. “I was not expecting to go as fast as I did. The downhills helped a lot.”
“I’m very impressed with myself, I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Wieland said. “But it’s a really fast course. I’m surprised I got first. I love this course, it’s probably my favorite. It’s really scenic and beautiful.”
Carlos and Wieland weren’t the only racers from out of county, or even out of the country. Based on registration data, Vacation Races - which holds half marathons at or near National Parks across the country - said runners from at least 47 states and nine countries took part in Saturday’s race. A portion of the company’s proceeds goes to the National Park Foundation, the official charity of the country’s national parks.
Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of Visit Yosemite | Madera County, added the economic benefits of such a high-profile race were surely felt throughout the Mountain Area.
“I think the economic impact of this is unbelievable,” Salisbury said. “We estimate somewhere over 6,000 people coming in with racers and their friends and family, and that’s a huge benefit around here.”
Many I spoke to said they looked forward to eating at restaurants either in Bass Lake or Oakhurst, and nearly all of them planned on visiting Yosemite over the weekend.
So though the Yosemite Half Marathon wasn’t actually inside Yosemite National Park, its name was a good fit. And for any potential runners out there, the event returns May 13, and I couldn’t recommend a better course.