Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Humbled at the Silver State 50K

Looking back, it strikes me as funny that one reason I signed up for the Silver State 50K is because I was too lazy to travel to an event that was farther away. A piece of friendly advice: if you’re feeling lazy, Silver State is probably not your race.

Race director Stan Ostram gave us the course description at the pre-race meeting on Friday night. I’d never met Stan before, but he was easy to pick out. What is it about ultra race directing that seems to require sweet, skinny white-haired men for the job? I liked him immediately and found myself fighting the urge to call him “Coach.” His course description, however, left me feeling a bit dizzy. It sounded so complicated! After looking at the map he had posted, I decided it didn’t look so bad, but I needed to be sure not to miss the split where the 50K and 50 mile courses diverged.

During the pre-race meeting I spotted Scott and Olga and had a chance to introduce myself. They were both running the 50 miler. I said hi to a few other familiar faces (everyone but me was running the 50 miler!) and headed home to sort my gear.

I planned to run with my REI Runoff hydration pack. This thing kicks butt! I can carry 70oz. of water in it and whatever gear I want. It doesn’t bounce, and rides comfortably. I have never used it in a race before, but always use it on long training runs. I am considering using it for the TRT 50M in July and this race would be a test run. I filled it with GU2O, stuffed in a PB&J sandwich and some GU, chapstick, advil, my camera, sunglasses and visor. I packed a bag for the finish line, pinned my race number to my shorts and fell asleep.

Saturday morning I made the 30 minute drive to the starting line at 5 am. We had a 6 am start and I expected it to be chilly. I had a warm shirt on over my t-shirt, but when I got there I knew it was already warm enough that I wouldn’t need to start with gloves or a headband. I feared we were in for a hot day!
Runners gather at the start. At left, Jasper Halekas (orange tank and white hat) chats with Scott Dunlap

Stan Ostram Starts us off right

Stan got us started on time, and we headed up the hill toward Peavine. My plan for the day was to take it easy. I hadn’t really built up to this much mileage (a 50K that was really 33.5 miles) and I was worried about how I would fare. The first 6 miles of climbing was beautiful. I mostly walked, but the sun was coming up, the grade wasn’t too steep, and it was still pleasantly cool out. I even remembered to stop and take some pictures. Taking pictures was part of the plan to enforce my “take it easy” strategy. A runner named George came by and offered to take a picture with me in it. Thanks George! Soon after, I saw Olga heading up the hill at a steady pace.

The first miles of the race immediately start climbing
Me, hiking up towards Peavine summit

I reached the Peavine summit faster than the 2 hours Stan had predicted for most of us, and I had been primarily walking. I felt good! I checked my water and I still had plenty (maybe 70 oz was too much?) I grabbed some sandwiches and a GU and kept going.

Now we began a pleasant easy downhill. The scenery was your basic eastern Sierra high desert fare. There were only a few scattered trees on this slope. We had a view of snow capped mountains in one direction and the casinos of Reno in the other. A few people nearby made a wrong turn, but a runner named Angie called out to get us back on the right path. I promised to stay on my toes from now on and not miss any more turns! When we came to the 50K split I asked the course director which way to go and he pointed out a trail that I never would have seen! It was well marked, but it just wasn’t an obvious trail, and I was glad I had asked. Later I heard that several 50K runners had missed the turn off. I can’t imagine how they must have felt when they realized it.

This next stretch was my favorite section of the course. It was single track, while we had been on mostly jeep roads until this point. It was also downhill, but not steep or tricky. It was very runnable. I am not typically a strong downhill runner, and a few people passed me through this section, but it gave me a chance to chat with some new faces. I had already met more new people at this race than at most of my previous races combined. Were the runners in this race friendlier than normal, or was I friendlier than normal?

The downhill singletrack heading towards the Boomtown aid station

Crossing the Truckee River

The Boomtown aid station was incredibly well stocked, and I decided it was time for some more liquid in my hydration pack. I tried to help the girl fill it up, and in retrospect maybe I was just getting in her way. Anyway, it wasn’t super fast and I decided that was a drawback of the hydration pack over a bottle. I was grazing at the aid station when I heard someone say, “Anyone want an Otter Pop?”

“What?” My head popped up from the plate of watermelon I had been demolishing. My brain was saying “You need something substantial!” but my mouth was screaming “Otter Pop!” I shoved down a few potatoes with salt and went for the cooler full of otter pops. Artificial cherry flavored sugar ice. It was heaven! I walked away from the aid station, popsicle in hand, and crossed interstate 80.

“Did they have popsicles at that aid station?” I heard a voice call from behind. It turned out to be Chet, a runner from Reno, who, sadly, had missed the popsicles. We began an I-don’t-know-how-many-miles climb up toward the next summit. Chet had run this course several times before and shared some stories of previous years as well as tips on other local trails for running. The dirt road was winding, and not too steep. It was punctuated with several “shortcuts” that were, however, quite steep. The shortcuts basically cut major switchbacks, and were essentially cross country. I had to keep a sharp eye out for ribbons in order to figure out what direction to go.

It was right about this time when I heard that distressing sucking sound out of my hydration tube. This was the sound that meant I was out of water. I felt like a fool, since I had declined to fill up at the previous aid station. Another disadvantage of the hydration pack: You can’t tell how full it is without looking! I knew I couldn’t be too far from the next aid station, so I just tried not to think about it.

Straight up hill on the first shortcut

Eventually I realized that I was running alone and that I didn’t see any ribbons. Uh oh! Stan had definitely said that if you can’t see a ribbon in front of you or behind you, that you are probably off course. I stopped, unsure of what to do. I rounded the next corner, and to my relief, saw runners ahead. Unfortunately when I got up to them, I realized they were coming off a shortcut trail that I had obviously missed. Well, too late to worry about it now! I decided I probably hadn’t extended the run by too much, and this was confirmed when I arrived at the aid station to see a lot of familiar faces. (Although they had all been behind me before the missed shortcut.)

This time I simply handed my backpack to an aid station volunteer while I filled up on food. That seemed to work much better. I was still busy stuffing my face when he handed my pack back filled with GU2O. What wonderful people! I was impressed.

At this point we were headed across and over the top of the mountain. We were now in the woods, and there was essentially no trail at all. I have absolutely no idea how they figured out where to make the course go, it just seemed to wind haphazardly through the forest. I had a vision in my head of the people marking the course out there with about 20 rolls of flagging and a malfunctioning GPS. I tried to run a little since the terrain was flat, but all the pine needles, dirt, pine cones, rocks, branches and logs made it difficult. It was simply a matter of following the pink ribbons, and there were many! In fact, at numerous times there were so many ribbons I had trouble figuring out which way to go. I know that sounds ridiculous, let me explain. I would see a ribbon or two in front of me, but I would also see ribbons off to my right. “Huh?” Then I would realize the ones to my right were farther in the distance. Should I head towards nearby ribbons first, or just bee line it off to my right? Since there was no real trail it didn’t seem to matter.

Finally I was at the Hunter Lake aid station. With water paranoia now, I topped off my pack again. It was getting warm out, although it wasn’t unbearable. It was probably in the low 80’s. The volunteers told me there was 7 miles to go, and with no one in sight, I headed off on tired legs, happy in the knowledge that it was all downhill. It wasn’t long before I was not happy at all.

Up until this point it had been a wonderful day, and I felt I was executing my “take it easy” strategy well while still getting in a good workout. I had met a lot of nice folks and enjoyed the scenery and the weather. It was about noon when I left the aid station, and knowing it was downhill, I thought maybe I could finish by 1:15 or so. This 7 mile stretch absolutely kicked my butt.

I know you are not supposed to “brake” with your legs on the downhill. I know you are supposed to use gravity to your advantage and go with it, or whatever. I couldn’t see (and still can’t) how I could possibly do that on this particular “trail” without killing myself. This dirt road was rocky, loose, rutted, slanted, and just all around sketchy. A shuffling jog was the best I could do, and much of the time I was relegated to a walk. My knees and quads were on fire, and all I could think about was soaking them in an ice bath when I got home. In spite of the beautiful day I’d had up until this point, I quickly became demoralized. I realized that finishing by 1:15 was never going to happen, and I decided to not even think about my time anymore, just finish. The one uplifting part was that only about 5 runners passed me between Hunter Lake and the finish. At the speed I was moving, I would have expected the entire race to pass me, so maybe I wasn’t the only one struggling with this section.

I could tell that I was nearing civilization, when a runner named Pavan came up behind me. He was in such good spirits that I had to smile. We complained about the quality of the trail together, and laughed a lot. I felt much better not running alone. When we entered the paved roads Pavan was a bit ahead of me. Although the turns were well marked, he would put up his hand and wave at me any time the trail turned a corner. That gesture of kindness was very much appreciated, not to mention that in my delirium, I could have easily missed a turn. Thanks for helping to pull me though that final stretch Pavan!

I stumbled into the park, and crossed the line in 7:48:58. It was more than an hour slower than my slowest 50K, but not as bad as I had feared. A few seconds later Jasper Halekas came blazing across the line to win the 50 mile race. I was at least relieved that he hadn’t finished before me!

People were in good spirits at the finish line, and food and drinks were abundant. I think cold watermelon (theirs was on ice!) is my favorite finish line food. I saw Chet, who had finished 20-30 minutes ahead of me. He looked completely fresh! That’s good because I overheard him tell someone that he was going to run Ohlone 50K the following day. Ouch! I took an informal visual poll and about 3 out of 5 finishers were sporting bloody wounds of some kind, mostly on the knees. I found myself wondering if maybe getting a few scrapes and bruises would have been better that killing my quads by “braking” down the last downhill. I’m still undecided.

Recovery is going surprisingly well. I was really sore on Sunday, but my runs on Monday and Tuesday felt good. I now know why everyone says this is such a good training run for Western States. It’s all that downhill! If I ever get into States, I will definitely be coming back to Silver State. Either way, I’m already thinking about how I will redeem myself on this course next year.

A race report final summary:

Gear thoughts: I’m still undecided on the hydration pack for TRT, but I’m thinking ‘no’ at this point. Also, I need new gaiters!

Best moment of the day: Otter Pops at Boomtown!

Worst moment of the day: The downhill from Hunter Lake to the finish. (Can that be considered one moment??)

Lessons learned: Always top off the water pack! Watch for course markings at all times!

Next time: Run more of the uphills. (I don’t think walking them really saved me on the downhills)

Photography skills: I did okay, but when I got tired and bummed out I totally stopped taking pictures. Note that there are no pictures of the part of the trail I had the most complaints about.

Bragging rights: I beat Jasper! (Ignoring the fact that he ran 12+ miles farther.)

Favorite section of course: The downhill single track just after the 50K split.

Favorite part about the race: Super friendly runners! Also, the sweet Patagonia silk weight shirts in women’s style and sizes. (Thank you for not giving unisex style shirts that I will never wear!! I love my shirt!!)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My First TRT Training Run of 2007

After the Prison Hill race, I decided I needed a long run on the Tahoe Rim Trail to welcome the advent of summer in the Sierra. Unfortunately winter breathed one last gasp in the week prior to this planned run, and blanketed the mountains with another 6 inches of snow. By the time Saturday rolled around the weather hadn’t warmed up much, and I still wasn’t sure if the trail would be runable. I remained undecided until about 9:00 am, when I realized I just couldn’t let go of my plan. I’d been looking forward to this run all week! I decided that if it turned out to be just a hike in the snow, that would be okay too.

It was fairly warm at my house, enough to feel comfortable in shorts, a short sleeved shirt and a long sleeved shirt. I threw a windbreaker and pair of tights into my running pack just in case, along with 2 PBJ sandwiches, several packets of GU, a 70 oz bladder filled with raspberry GU2O, warm gloves, headband, and requisite other items such as Advil and TP. One big advantage of the running backpack: you can be prepared for everything! I packed another bag with post-run sandals, water and food that I would leave in the car, and I was off.

I arrived at Spooner Summit about 40 minutes later, and as soon as I opened the car door I knew I would need my tights. It was about 45 and windy. Brr! My planned route had me starting out with what is actually the last 1 ½ miles of the TRT race. I would pass through the start/finish area to head another 4 ½ up to Marlette Lake. (This stretch is the very beginning of the race.) At Marlette Lake I planned to diverge from the actual race route. I figured both Marlette Peak and Snow Valley Peak would have too much snow still. Instead, I planned to skirt along the west side of Marlette Lake and run the Flume Trail. I would then turn around and run the same route back to my car.

The Flume and Rim trails. I essentially followed the red line up and back.

I headed out at about 11:00 with my warm gear on, including the gloves. It was a brilliantly beautiful day, and although I still had no idea what I would encounter at higher elevations, I already knew I had made the right decision in coming here. I cruised along Spooner Lake and through the meadow, enjoying the easy pace of an all day run. As I headed up the dirt road toward Marlette Lake, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten my camera. Damn! I was really disappointed, as the scenery was already beautiful, and I knew it would only get better. After reading Scott Dunlap’s write up of the Big Sur Marathon, and enjoying Addy’s picture-taking-addiction, I had promised myself that I would remember to bring (and use!) my camera on more of my runs and races. Photos add so much to people’s race descriptions, I often feel like I was there myself. I guess “camera” just hasn’t made it to my mental pre-run checklist yet. Well, it’s something to which I can aspire in the future.

As I gained elevation, still at mile 4 or 5 of my run, I began to encounter snow. It was clearly all from the most recent storm, as it was only 2-4 inches deep, and didn’t pose much of a barrier. The landscape was stark and clearly still in the midst of winter at this elevation. There was no grass, no wildflowers, and the white snowy ground seemed to blend right into the granite of the mountains. Everywhere the aspens were tall, leafless white sticks, still waiting for spring.

I also realized at this time that there were no footprints in the snow. I turned to look back at my own prints behind me, and ahead again at the untracked trail stretched out before me. This is typically a heavily used trail, and I relished the knowledge that I was alone in this wilderness.

Continuing my upward climb, I watched as Marlette Peak began to show itself through the trees. I played tourist, reading some of the trailside signs, and stopping at an old cabin that was once used by the shepard of a ranch which used to be in the area. It had been restored to make a nice picnic shelter.

Soon I was heading downhill, the last stretch to the lake. The snow was a bit deeper now. Suddenly a pair of footprints popped out of the woods onto the trail in front of me. I was taken aback. Who were these people, and where did they come from? Why had they been tromping through the woods instead of on a trail? Admittedly I was a bit disappointed to lose my feeling of solitude, even though I hadn’t seen any actual people. As I cruised down the hill, adding my own footprints to theirs, I wondered if they were runners too. Maybe they were hikers who had gotten lost. Maybe they were locals headed to the lake for some early season fishing. Then, just as suddenly, their footprints disappeared again back into the woods. Just like that, I was alone again.

The lake was breathtaking, and still half frozen. The gusting wind made the blue water choppy, while a white frozen sheet pressed up against the southwestern shore. Here the TRT course turns right, heading up Marlette peak, which was still encased in a frozen world. I took a left turn in order to connect with the Flume trail, which would keep me at about my current elevation. I knew this side of the lake, shaded from the sun by a steep ridge, would likely have a lot of snow. I was tromping through it when I met the footprint owners: just a couple out for a hike, albeit a long one. When I left them behind, heading in the opposite direction, I again found myself on untracked ground.

I had been correct about the deeper snow on this section of trail. About every third or fourth step I was post-holing through to just below my knees. I found that a lighter step kept me from breaking through the top layer, and changed my stride to more of a run/walk in order to stay on top.

The one hazard that I knew might force me to turn around was the outlet to Marlette Lake. The trail basically goes across the tip of the lake, just before the water pours down a ravine. In the summer I could ride my mountain bike right through this section, but I knew the water level would be higher this time of year. Fortunately it looked like I could climb across some rocks on the left side of the trail and avoid the water. Unfortunately the rocks were covered with snow. I weighed my options: #1- Climb slippery snow covered rocks and risk falling into the water. #2- Take off my shoes and socks, hike up my tights and wade through the icy water. I decided to take my chances and went with option #1. I made it!

Soon I crossed over to the other side of the ridge to get on the Flume Trail itself. This side of the ridge faced west, and suddenly I went from trudging through fairly deep snow, to absolutely no snow at all. Hooray! I was drenched in sun and gazing at the glory of Lake Tahoe far below me. This is quite possibly my favorite trail in all of Tahoe. Although it is only 4 ½ miles long, it’s worth all the effort it takes to get there. The Flume Trail follows what was once a logging flume used to send the logs down to town, the train, the mill, etc. The flat single track trail traverses a ridge above Lake Tahoe, treating you to fast running (or biking) and stunning views. Now I was really feeling bad about my forgotten camera.

Photo courtesy of

I nonetheless ran this stretch with a huge grin on my face. I stopped to take my long sleeved shirt off so I could feel the warmth of the sun on my arms. That didn’t last long, since the icy wind blew the warmth right off! I passed Sand Harbor, and turned around just short of the Tunnel Creek Road which heads down to Lake Tahoe. I was aiming to get in 22 miles, but looking at the map it may have even been 23.

When I finally returned to the north canyon trail, in the last 5 miles of the run, I remembered that I had my cell phone with me. It has a camera! I smacked my forehead in a mixture of frustration and excitement. I had missed all the incredible shots of the Flume Trail and Marlette Lake, but at least I would get a few pictures.

Back at the car I smiled as I changed into my flip flops. Although it had been somewhat more of an adventure rather than a pure run (I figured I spent about 7 miles on snow) it had been a wonderful day. I went about 22 miles in 5 hours. I also noticed that the amount of snow on the trail on my way back had been considerably less. It's melting quick! I would imagine that by this time, the trail is in perfect condition for running. Everyone, let the altitude training commence.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Prison Hill "Training Race"

There are times when living in a state of unbalance can be a good thing, or at least a sign of good things. For example, I am currently in a frenzy because I have taken two days off in a row. I need to run! This is a good sign, because not all that long ago I was simply too tired, both physically and emotionally, to care if I missed a workout or three or four.

Saturday I ran the Escape from Prison Hill half marathon in Carson City. It’s a beautiful course on hilly, desert terrain; in short, a great training run. (I wrote a detailed report from last year’s race here.) I realized I really had the “training run” mentality when I arrived at the starting line with only 10 minutes until the start, and without my watch. Oops! I darted to packet pick-up and the bathroom, while “Folsom Prison Blues” pumped out of the starting line speakers. Ultimately it was perfect timing, as I was ready and waiting about two minutes before the gun went off.

Temperature at the starting line was about 45 degrees, but felt pleasant. The race director warned us that it would get hot, but it was still only 70 by the time I finished. (In fact, once I stopped I had to put on long sleeves because the breeze was making me chilly!) I employed a slightly different strategy than usual at the start because I was familiar with this course. My usual strategy is not to be too close to the starting line when lining up for a race, in order to keep myself from starting out too fast. It also means that I spend some time weaving through the crowd passing slower runners. This course becomes an uphill single track pretty quickly, after about a half mile, and last year I spent much of the first two miles trying to pass people who were walking. This year my plan was to be amongst the people who would run the up hill by the time we hit the single track. It worked perfectly, and I really felt I was going my own pace the whole time.

Since their finish line clock was broken, I had no watch on, and I didn’t feel like hanging around for the awards ceremony when they would post the results, I still don’t know what my finishing time was. Last year I finished in 2:14, and I would say I was a little slower this year. It felt great though, and I was able to go home and run with the dogs for another 3.5 miles. (They needed exercise, and I needed to tack on just a few more miles for the week!)

On my drive home over Spooner Summit, I noticed a conspicuous lack of snow. I know it must be hiding in the trees there somewhere, but I was encouraged. I am now planning my Saturday run on part of the course for the Tahoe Rim Trail races. That’s my next big race, and I really want to focus on it and do well. It will only be my second 50 miler, and it is a much harder course than the AR50, which I ran last year. Part of my training plan is to do a lot of running on the actual course. I’ll write up a report on trail conditions next week for those of you coming to Tahoe for this beautiful race.

One last sad note is that my team dropped out of The Relay. We were a 12 woman team, and if you aren’t familiar with The Relay, it is a 199 mile race through the San Francisco Bay area to raise money for organ donation. It’s the same race of Dean Karnazes fame, you know the story, where he ran the relay solo and had the pizza delivered to him on the road. Anyway, I was so excited to be part of a team, and pretty bummed that it’s not going to happen. The bright side is that it’s really better for my training because now I can run long on Saturday.

My frenzied state should come to an end with my afternoon run today. Sunday I had planned a bike ride, but was so tired from Saturday’s run(s) plus a lot of social activity, that I just couldn’t make it. I needed a day off. Yesterday I was ready to get back in it, but unfortunately had to work 11 hours. I’m just not good at getting up early enough to run before work (about 5:00). Triathlon training starts soon, so I better start figuring it out!