Mono Lake’s
Forty-Two Mile
May 11, 2023
09h 26m 49s
moving Time
10h 25m 59s
elapsed Time
elevation Gain
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The water of Mono Lake is unlike other bodies of water. It’s hypersaline and alkaline, thick and viscous. On days with calm wind, the amplitude of each wave stretches like elastic. Elongated and skewed towards horizon. Like the oceanic planet in Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

The Mono Basin might be the closest you can get to standing on an alien planet without the hassle of actually traveling to one.

Waves of “Solaris” by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972
Waves of “Solaris” by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972

Last week Eastern Sierra resident pizza chef de cuisine, Ethan, hosted a pizza topping potluck. I brought oyster mushrooms, ricotta and basil. We tossed ideas around while tossing topping the pies.

“…could be fun to run Mono Lake, you know?”
“Sand… a lot of sand… ”
“40 something miles, right?”

We glanced around…

“Sign me up!”

As the date approaches there’s a hint of hesitation on my part. The Bishop Ultra is a week after our planned date to run Mono Lake. I’ve signed up for the 50k. My performance in the ultra would be affected.

Running mono and running the race are goals of a different type, and surfaces questions of motivation.

What is my focus?

I decide to run the first half (20 miles) of Mono Lake, and leave the question of “do I complete this, or prioritize the ultra?” up to the moment.

8:16am • Mile 0

Here we are, standing at the north shore on a crisp early May morning.

Lucas’ dog, Spot, is running laps around the three of us as we do that awkward pre-run dance. Stuffing running vests with snacks, and swinging our legs around like we’re fighting off some invisible Force of the Lake.

Lucas placed the final piece of his kit on his dome, an oversized cowboy hat.


And just like that, we get moving.

About that sand mentioned a few weeks back. It’s no joke, and all consuming within the first few minutes of running.

This isn’t sand you run at the beach, compacted by waves lapping. These are loose dunes, not doing any of us any favors.


Stakes in the sand mark where the road should be. The dunes drift season to season, wandering with breeze. Occasional gale force easterly winds, spilling over alpine passes, blow shoreline alkaline dust clear into Nevada.

The loose grains turn to bone-dry hexagonal clay plates. They collapse when stepped on, and emit a satisfying hollow timbred ting sound.

Lithograph pulled from “Quaternary History of the Mono Valley”, Israel Russell, 1889
Lithograph pulled from “Quaternary History of the Mono Valley”, Israel Russell, 1889

The full width of the Sierra between Bloody and Lundy canyons reflects in the Lake. Only within the past week did winter thaw out at our elevation. A unique perspective not many see from the north-eastern shore. Particularly on foot.

As the sun climbs higher in the sky the water’s tone becomes a deeper blue.

Lucas’ dog, Spot, takes off running after a herd of wild horses in the distance. There was nothing we could do to catch him.


About four-hundred wild horses live on the eastside of the lake. This winter was rough on them, with the record amount of snow making access to food difficult. There were rumors of a mountain lion stalking the herd. All of this has driven the horses closer to the lake, and has become a big interagency political project for wildlife and land management resources.

We’re still waiting for Spot, but after maybe ten minutes, he comes running back to us. Kicking up a cloud of dust and looking a little more tired.


A sense of progress isn’t obvious. We’ve been running for some time along this line of sand you could say resembles a road. The scale is becoming clearer through perception shaped by movement—not just what we see in-front of us.

We choose to drop down to the actual shoreline to break things up, contouring and gradually heading more westerly.


The turf becomes swampy, muddy, and surprisingly lush. Immense amounts of water from the record winter snowmelt remains at the surface. Wet feet progressively saturate with each step.

White columns of calcium carbonate, tufa tower, dot the expansive green ahead of us. They form when warm spring water percolates upwards from the lake bottom, and are only visible due to the receding volume of water in the endorheic basin lake.


The water is thick and slimy to the touch. Alkaline. The hues shift between burnt orange, azure blue, and emerald green. Narrow sandbars parellel the shoreline, the sand providing stable support one moment and swallowing your entire foot the very next.

It’s unclear if they lead to dead-ends, but we follow them anyway.

Ethan stops in his tracks, pointing towards what looks like a mummified mountain lion… or is it a polar bear? Reason tells you it’s not, but it sure looks like one. After a few minutes of debate we agree it’s an unlucky black bear who didn’t make it through winter.


Looking ahead, there’s speculation about what point on the horizon is the south tufa parking area. We’re getting close, but I find that never makes the distance go faster. Better to keep cruising and delay thoughts of snacks and stretching.

12:23pm • Mile 20

We step off the sand and onto asphalt, arriving at the van just past noon. Snacks sprawled out and foam mats on the ground. The first half went by surprisingly fast.

Lucas and Spot are planning to meet us again in another ten miles with more water and snacks. Ethan and I set back off down a dirt road paralleling the shoreline.

After a mile or so we begin settling into a focused cadence. Step after step becomes a drone of muscle movement. Steps syncopating with the heartbeat.


It’s beginning to get hot in the midday sun. A mirage appears; a stream of cold fresh snow melt crossing perpendicular to our path. Ethan hops in and dunks his head—an alpine baptism of sorts.

The water is incredibly refreshing, and we freeze for a few minutes before completing the last few miles of the leg. Within a mile we’re bone dry again.


The Mono Lake Visitor Center comes into view, and a beat later Spot is running our direction, leading us to the van.

3:15pm • Mile 30

We plant ourselves at a Picnic table and Lucas serves up fresh grilled cheese. Incredible. I stretch out and camel up. It’s nice to take little breaks, but each stop requires overcoming more inertia to get moving again.

This next stretch requires running a few miles of the 395. Semi-trucks barrel past us, and vans packed with families scream by. Necks turn to rubber while looking at us, in a “what the hell are they doing?” kind of way.

This is the mental crux of the day, but the views to the east over Paoha Island make up for it.

Photographed by Ethan

We pass the Mono Lake Inn and hook a right onto cemetery road. At this point we’re feeling increasingly sun fatigued. Pulling up to a fence, we lay down to stretch our legs.

It’s a good thing we did.

A few miles sit between us and reaching the 167—back to the start. The sand in the distance is a darker hue, and it becomes clear why;

Mud. Miles of mud.

Thick, gloppy, knee deep. The snow in the hills to the north is rapidly melting and cascading into the basin. I try to avoid it for a few hundred feet, but accept the inevitability that this is going to be messy and slow.

Photo of your’s truly by Ethan

In a way, it’s a nice reprieve from the running. There’s no chance of efficient movement in this mud. A good excuse. Each step requires as much—if not more—energy than the pace we’ve been at, although the impact sure is reduced.

The cadence slows down the sense of time, and it drags on until finally Pole Line Road is underfoot.

It’s the final stretch, and excitement is high. After a few miles the hard pavement begins taking its toll on my feet. I slow to a walk.

So close!


With only a mile left I rally, while Ethan seemingly breaks into a sprint up ahead. Just like that, we’ve arrived back at our start, the loop now complete.

We take a moment to appreciate it, then hop in the car and head straight to Mono Cone where I order two large milkshakes. Oreo. I feel more haggard after annihilating them than I did at the end of the run!

This one was incredibly special. It’s a great line, and I relive moments of it each time Mono is in view. Either by car driving the 395 North, on an afternoon run around the south shore, skiing over at June Mountain, or when panning around the area scanning topo maps while thinking of what to do next.

The Mono Basin is an incredibly special place. If planning to be in the area, set aside a day for Mono. If not, plan a trip. Stop by the visitor center. And stop by the Mono Lake Committee. They have the best bookstore on the east side, and the history of advocacy for the lake is remarkable.

Huge thanks to Ethan for the camaraderie. Music in the video is In Gleam by Nadia Khan.

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