Friday, May 01, 2009

Escape From Prison Hill Half Marathon

This year marked my fourth in a row running the Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon in Carson City, NV. I love this course for its scenic views, tough hills, and quintessential eastside trails (sandy and smelling of sage). It is also often one of the first trails I get to hit in the spring after a long winter pounding the pavement and the snow.

In years past for this race, I have typically been in the midst of training for longer races (usually the Silver State 50 in mid-May). When my training schedule called for a 20-25 mile run on this day, I would hold back a little in the race so that afterward, I could go out for a second lap on the course. I considered my self the “sweeps’ sweep”—I would snatch up errant course markings that the sweeps had missed. It was always a good day, and easy to attribute my slow times to a lack of effort.

Since I decided to skip Silver State this year, and I ran a tough marathon only 6 days prior to this race, I felt content to run no farther than the 13 or so miles of the race course this time. I was looking forward to the opportunity to run a faster time. My previous best on the course had been 2:18, and I was hoping to run close to two hours today. In retrospect, I can see that my ultrunner’s brain clearly didn’t calculate what a big deal it would be to slice 18 minutes off a race of only 13 miles.

I did mostly mellow runs in the five days between races, but I was in a bad mood all week. Finally, by Friday, I just couldn’t take it anymore, and at 3:00 that afternoon I laced up my shoes and headed out into a spring snow storm to run it out. I figured some speed work would be just the thing to sap my sour mood, and the local high school track had just re-emerged from its winter hibernation under the snow.

It turned out to be one of those workouts where I checked my watch after the first rep and went, “Oh shit—too fast,” and then proceeded to somehow run each successive interval faster than its predecessor. God knows how I managed it, but I guess that’s the power of channeling your inner demons into a run. Thus, I found myself at the end of the workout, a quivering gelatinous mess, heaving my lungs onto the infield. I didn’t feel angry anymore, but mostly because I couldn’t feel much of anything but the burning of my muscles and the vicious sleet pelting my face. Reluctantly, I left the sanctuary of the track and jogged home, pleasantly numb.

The next morning I hopped in the car with very little pre-race prep. What could I possibly need that I couldn’t survive without for 13 miles, right? After all, my shoes were already on my feet.

The return of the doldrums was evidenced by my unusual choice of music for the drive—Dashboard Confessional's Places You Have Come to Fear the Most. Well, sometimes the best way to banish a sour thirst is to quench it I guess.

Anyway, I arrived with plenty of time, and saw a few people I know, including Turi. In stark contrast to the previous week’s race, it was quite chilly out—37 degrees. There was a dusting of fresh snow on the ground, and I had just decided to run in tights, long sleeved shirt, jacket and gloves, when the sun peeked over the neighboring hillside. I was suddenly reminded of one of the things I love about the high desert: The sun is strong! I shed the jacket and traded long sleeves for short, while keeping the tights and gloves. It turned out to be the perfect combination.

Turi and I stood around at the start, which had been delayed for some unknown reason. I found Sarah, and her friend Theresa, from Berkeley. I had met Sarah briefly a few years ago at TRT through Addy. It was great to see her back in these parts!

I love this picture of Turi and me, with my arm and camera shadowing his face! Ha ha!

Runners try to stay warm at the start

I felt good and ready to race, with no sign of soreness or fatigue from the track workout 14 hours earlier. Soon, we were off, and racing down the dirt road. I couldn’t believe how fast everyone was running. Don’t you people know we have a huge hill coming up? I wanted to scream at them. But maybe, like me, they ran because they didn’t want to get stuck behind a line of people walking up the first hill of single-track. Or maybe I just forgot what it feels like to run a short race.

Up, up, up the first big hill

In lieu of a detailed course description, I’ll just leave you with the hill profile. This is really all you need to know about this race.

The first hill is a couple miles long, and is mostly runnable. Somewhere near the top, Turi passed me. Everyone did a little shifting of places on a stretch of dirt road, and after that I didn’t do a whole lot of passing or getting passed.

Runners string out along the trail up Dead Truck Hill

I tried to move fast on this rolling stretch, although it was a bit technical. I had definitely pushed things up the hill, and I could feel it now. Finally, we were heading down the other side of the hill, and I did my best not to get passed.

The guy on the right is Blue Basketball Shorts

I was running behind a guy in a pair of voluminous blue basketball shorts, and gaining on him. When I finally came up behind him, I asked to pass. He glanced back briefly, then kicked it into high gear and took off. Okaaaay…A half a mile later, I took pleasure in flying by him and never looking back.

After the relay exchange point, around halfway, I looked back to see if there were any women behind me. Amongst a string of men, I spotted one woman in a pair of green shorts. Dang! That meant I couldn’t relax. On the other hand, it was kind of fun to admit I was pushing myself and getting competitive.

This flatish stretch between the two hills is sandy, making it quite slow. Mentally, I find it to be the toughest part of the race. It’s sort of like running on the beach, except without the beauty of the crashing waves and well-muscled surfers for distraction.

It was actually somewhat of a relief when the hill climb started, because it meant the sandy flats were over. I also considered it an additional bonus that this hill was steep enough to justify walking most of it.

Typically on this hill climb, there is music booming loudly from the aid station at the top. They play cheesy, inspirational tunes with a good beat. You know—the theme from Rocky, We are the Champions, whatever. The louder the music gets, the more relief you feel because you know you’re getting closer. This year there was no music. In fact, the entire summit aid station was decidedly more sedate than usual: no party, no people in hula skirts, no cheerleaders lining the hill. I’m not criticizing; I know it’s tough to pull that kind of thing together. Its absence just made me realize how much I had enjoyed it in previous years. And it was during this silence, my head supplying its own music, that I realized what a poor choice Dashboard Confessional had been for my pre-race tunes.

The second big hill

Once runners reach the top of the hill and start heading down, the real fun of this race begins. This is where the sand becomes your friend. I know I’m always talking about what a poor downhill runner I am, and it’s true. I am. But on this course I feel like the goddess of the downhills. With all the deep sand, you can fly. The impact from each foot fall is absorbed in an additional slide through sand, keeping the runner from accelerating too much without expending much energy. With all the sliding, it feels a little like skiing. I don’t worry about falling—just going fast. Plus, there are also a few short, very steep stretches down the hill, followed by short, steep uphills. You can really let go on these downs, because you immediately channel that energy to bring you up the other side.

It was during this play time, that I looked back to see the woman in the green shorts was still back there. Honestly, I was surprised. I figured I’d blown her away on the uphill. Guess not. We only had 3 miles to go, so it was time to get serious. When the trail leveled out, I did my best not to slacken my pace.

I pushed hard through the flats and into the finish. It was definitely the strongest effort I’ve made at this race. I finished in 2:10. I was initially a little disappointed, since I had been hoping to finish in two hours. Still, I shaved 8 minutes of my PR for the course, which is an improvement of about 37 seconds per mile. I was a solid ten minutes faster than my time from last year. I’d like to think two hours is still a possibility, but the truth is, I pushed pretty hard in this race. Even with more focused training and an actual taper, I’m not sure dropping another ten minutes will ever happen.

After the race I had a chance to hang out with Turi and Sarah. While I was loading my plate at the brilliant breakfast burrito bar, the woman in the green shorts came up to say hi. We both immediately confessed to working hard in order to try to beat the other, and somehow that set things off on a friendly note. She was Becky, from BC, Canada, and she was currently solo on a road trip to find some running and paddling adventures. It sounded brilliant! She’d never done any ultras, and was considering a 50K down in Lone Pine this coming weekend. We sat around the rest of the morning in the Carson sunshine, discussing strategies for ultras while she peppered me with questions.

Is there anything better than talking about running with other runners?

Normally by this time my head is filled with a to-do list for the rest of my day, and I head straight home. Today, I was one of the last to go. Becky, Sarah and Theresa and I sat around chatting and munching long after the burrito bar had been packed up. I knew my bad mood lurked beyond the haven of this race, and I knew this time with other runners, basking in the post-race glow, would be the best part of my weekend.

Sarah and me

On the drive home, the malaise crept slowly back, but as soon as I laid my eyes on the lake, I felt its serenity sooth me. I wondered if Becky had made it up to see Tahoe. Only then did it occur to me that I absolutely should have brought her back to Truckee with me. Duh! She was a cool, outdoorsy woman, on a road trip, looking for adventure, with three whitewater boats strapped to the top of her truck. What better partner for fun?

Becky ("the woman in the green shorts") and me

When I was around 22, I spent an entire year incurring major hospitality debt. First, my friend Charlie and I drove all around the country for 6 months, staying with many friends, parents of friends, cousins of parents of friends …well, you get the idea. Then I spent 5 months backpacking and was given innumerable gifts and favors from so many strangers. It was a year that gave me a strong faith in humanity (and trust me, I cling to it when I see some of the shit that goes on in the world today). I always promised that when I had my own home, I would always take in adventurous strangers, as people had done for me. I have done a bit of it, but it is definitely a life-long journey. It was because of these experiences that I could appreciate the beauty of Becky’s trip, and all the more reason I should have realized that she should spend a few nights in Truckee! So, Becky, if you’re reading this, please email me!! ( Come stay in Tahoe!

I’m sure this is apparent by now, but it was quite a satisfying morning all around. The rest of my day, I felt just wasted. It’s been a few months since I’ve pushed things like that, and even though I was non-functional that afternoon, it felt good.

Thanks, as always, to the Tahoe Mountain Milers and Sage Brush Stompers running clubs for putting on this killer race. You guys do a great job!

Theresa and Sarah

Something about this scene from the finish area strikes me as classic Carson Valley: the giant elm, the fence, the green fields with grazing cattle, the dry hills in the distance. I know I'm romanticizing it, but sometimes it still feels like the "old west" down here.


  1. Gretchen,

    I absolutely loved your report. I was really looking forward to doing this race this year, just bad timing.

    I was able to relive the "roller coaster" sandy parts after the last big climb. That was also my favorite part.

    Sorry you missed your time goal but that's still a great time for this course. Hope you're able to run down those demons. You're certainly trying hard.

    Good luck tomorrow in Reno.

  2. Wow, what great pictures. I've got to find a better way to bring my camera with me on races. That one looking up the big hill on the back side made me cringe a little.

    And so much for the self portrait that we didn't want to be backlit on, huh? Funny shadow...

  3. Well run! Dang: 10 minutes off a half marathon? Excellent job!

  4. I'm glad you enjoy Prison Hill as much as I, I designed the course and train there year around. Cheers!

  5. Looks like a cool race! Thanks for the great pics and another great report.

  6. Beautiful scenery and a great race report!