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!!)


  1. Gretchen, it was great to meet you too! Neat report here, very informative! next year you've got to run 50M:)
    Good day!

  2. awesome job! Sounds like a tough but fun course (except for that last section ;) ).

    I'm trying to decide about the hydration pack for tahoe as well. I've just ordered the Wink by UD, and hopefully I'll like that. I tried the waist packs at my last race and Hated it! Do you think you'll do waist or handhelds for tahoe if you decide against the pack?

    Again, congrats out there! Sounds like it was a tough course, but one that you did well on!

  3. There were Otter Pops?!? How did I miss that???

    Awesome photos, Gretchen. It was great to meet you in person. I hear you on those last 7 miles...they wrecked me!

    A few of us are getting together at my place on Friday afternoon before TRT - you are welcome to come if you can! Just send me an e-mail at scottdunlap (at) and I can send you directions and the such.

    Oh, yeah - the famous 4 blogger pic is on my race report!

  4. Gretchen, nice to meet you and great race. you are primed for TRT!

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. Addy, if I skip the hydration pack I will go with handhelds. I hate the waist packs too!! My concerns with handhelds are #1- I've never run with more than one and am concerned about not having the luxury of switching the bottle back and forth between hands. (I don't think one bottle will be enough for this race.) #2- I won't have a place to carry my camera. The scenery is awesome on this course and how can I write a good blog without photos!
    Scott, thanks for the invite!
    For all of you who ran this race, we got lucky. Monday a forest fire started right near the race course. If it had started just 2 days earlier we would have either had a cancelled race or been running through thick smoke. No fun either way!

  6. Great report and awesome pictures. A good preparation for Tahoe for sure!

  7. What a great race report. I felt like I was there with all the other runners. the pictures are also great.

    Were the stations so far apart that a water pack was needed? Not sure if i would want something on my back for that long. What do I know though :-). i will carry a 20oz bottle for my race this weekend but not much else. this one is a 10.5 mile loop three times. I should be fine ...right??

  8. Gretchen,

    You live in a runners paradise! I guess next year you will be running the 50M with Olga.

    I've gone back to hand helds because they seem to fill faster. What really matters is what works for you.

    Keep on running and having fun!

  9. Yep, I'm traveling on business this week and the weather in Salt Lake City is wet and cool today as well. I'm still expecting heat but won't be too bummed out if it turns out to be a cool year for States.


  10. very impressive nature, but i can see how you have to be even more so alerted out there.

    i just got a camelbak and really love it. so much better then a belt bouncing against my stomach.

    i'm running TRT, too. Hopefully i'll get to meet you.

  11. Gretchen,

    What an excellent report. I clearly must do some of these lovely West Coast trail runs.

    - Dean