Two of my favorite things start with the letter “r” and if you’re a regular reader of Planes, Trains & Automobiles then you know those are running and railroads.
The Bizz Johnson run over in Susanville manages to combine both.
The race consists of a full marathon, and two different versions of a half-marathon. One of the half-marathons is called the “express” because it is point-to-point. It took place this past Saturday (10 October). The full marathon, also point-to-point, and the other half-marathon, an out-and-back, took place yesterday (11 October), and that half is the event I ran.
First, I’ll dispense the results and then move on to the more interesting part of the post. I finished third overall. That sounds good, but in fact it’s deceptive because of the three “Bizz” events, this was the one with the smallest turnout (77 fnishers). In a larger race my time (1:41:47) wouldn’t be noteworthy even for a middle-aged (53) runner. Unlike in previous years, there were hardly any other Chico runners taking part. I saw one Chico finisher in the “express” half-marathon results and one in the full marathon. (A large crew of my Chico running pals were over in Healdsburg running the Healdsburg Half Marathon. October is the month with half-marathons galore in California.)
If you run the out-and-back half marathon like I did, keep in mind that this race rewards you if you keep something in reserve for the inbound leg after the turnaround. Why? For the entire outbound part of the course, you run gradually uphill, but on the return you’ll enjoy a gradual descent. It’ll feel a lot better running that with energy you’ve kept in reserve, and you’ll pass other runners who may have bonked on the uphill. Curiously, even though I’m in better condition this year than the last time I ran this course in ’05, I didn’t feel as strong on the way back.
What connects running and railroads is the fact that all of these events are run on what was formerly a railroad right-of-way: the Fernley & Lassen branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The railroad, completed in 1914 primarily to haul timber out of Westwood, ran from Fernley, Nev. (east of Reno) to Westwood via Susanville and the Susan River canyon. Passenger service on the line ended in 1934; freight service ceased in 1955, although the line was not formally abandoned by the S.P. until the late 1970s.
PASSENGER SERVICE TO WESTWOOD (from March 1930 S.P. timetable)
Service from Oakland (San Francisco by ferry to Oakland) to Westwood featured a Pullman sleeping car and a diner, and, as the schedule above shows, was overnight in both directions. (Boldface times are p.m.; light typeface times are a.m.)
U.S. Representative Bizz Johnson successfully spearheaded efforts to transform the abandoned line into a “rails to trails” project and eventually the trail would bear his name. (Johnson represented the area in Congress for 22 years.)
The marathon starts 4 miles north of Westwood at what is known as Mason Station and proceeds eastbound and mostly downhill to Susanville.
The out-and-back half marathon that I ran started by the old Susanville train station and headed west about 6.9 miles before turning around. (The races actually finish in a nearby park called Hobo Camp so it’s not a pure out-and-back but close to it.)
The Bizz Johnson Trail makes an exceptional course for a run on account of several things.
First, having been originally built for a railroad the grades are gradual. Second, the surface is mostly hard-packed dirt with some light gravel in places. It’s easy on the feet yet the footing is better than on most trails. Finally, the scenery is outstanding because so much of it (all of it on the half-marathon I ran) is along the Susan River. An unusual treat even for non-railroad buffs is that the course passes through two tunnels of about 800 and 450 feet respectively.
Susanville’s old depot now houses a museum and visitor center operated by the Lassen Land & Trails Trust . Track was left in place in front of the depot and for a couple of hundreds yards to the west.
OLD SUSANVILLE S.P. DEPOT
I brought my bike along with me and the day before the race I rode the length of the half-marathon course in order to take some pictures for this post. Here is a selection of photos.
TRAILHEAD MARKER AND OLD CABOOSE ACROSS FROM DEPOT
WESTBOUND – HEADING TOWARD TURNAROUND POINT
Here’s a final note concerning where I stayed Saturday night in Susanville.
The 1926 Hotel Mt. Lassen reopened as a hotel a year ago after years as an assisted living facility. I really wanted to like the property because I love to see old hotels beautifully brought back to life, such as Chico’s own Hotel Diamond. Unfortunately the Hotel Mt. Lassen has a long way to go to get to that point.
Walls are very thin so it was a good thing that the other guests were also runners going to bed early in order to run the next morning. The bed was comfortable but the other features of the room were spartan at best, or altogether lacking (no chair or chest of drawers). The staff was uniformly friendly so I wish them the best but the hotel has strides to make to become competitive. Unfortunately for this hotel and probably for others in Susanville, the local Indian casino (Diamond Mountain) recently opened its own hotel and from the outside it appears attractive.
Should you run this race in the future, besides the Hotel Mt. Lassen and Diamond Mountain ,the other likely accommodations would include the High Country Inn, the new Super 8, and the Best Western.