Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Tahoe Rim Trail 50 Mile Endurance Run, 2009 Edition

My initial plan for this race report was to present a sales pitch of sorts for the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs. I love this race, and I want to share that love. I figured that I’d written enough race reports on it, especially after last year’s War-and-Peace-length 100 mile epic. I thought I’d try something different this year with an “insider’s guide” approach, giving info on everything from pacing strategy and crew logistics, to where to stay at the Lake. But then a couple things happened.

First, I had a great race. Actually, “great” is a very poor word choice here. It was the kind of day where everything just falls into place, better than I could have possibly planned. It turns out to be something I do actually want to write about.

Second, when I sat down to write, I attempted to combine my “insider’s guide” with a real race report. What I came up with was a frightening conglomeration of boring information and confusing race-day details that switched back and forth between present and past tense so quickly it made me dizzy. Not fun to read.

So, instead, contrary to the promise in my last post, I’m presenting you with a race report in my standard, chronological format. I’ll give you my one-line sales pitch here: Come run Tahoe! (You won’t regret it.)

This was one of two races that I’d targeted for my season as true races. I wanted to run well. I had my sights set on a time of 10:30 for the 50M, which would be a 35 minute improvement over my time from 2007. As my spring training progressed nicely, thoughts of even faster times danced through my brain. Unfortunately, June, which should have held some of my best training, turned into somewhat of a disaster. I sprained an already weak ankle, and that, combined with an extended illness, forced way too many days off.

The week before the race I really had no idea where I stood. I had just run a 5:35 mile, but in truth, that says nothing about the kind of shape a person is in for a 50-miler. Feeling a little stressed-out, I considered blowing off my goals entirely in order to "just have fun," but I knew I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead of thinking a lot about my time goal during that week, I spent time visualizing my race. I thought about how I wanted to feel during each section—where I should relax and where I should push. I imagined feeling strong and solid. I didn’t think much about finishing time. I still slapped splits for a 10:30 finish onto my water bottle, but promised myself I would focus more on “feel” than on those splits.

I arrived earlier than strictly necessary on race morning, but I enjoyed seeing the 100 mile runners off. It was only for those brief few moments of excitement that I envied them their journey. The rest of the day, I was only too glad to be running half as far!

50M and 50K runners gather at the start

I enjoyed socializing with friends, and had plenty of time to tape my feet and slather on some sunscreen before heading down the hill for the start. Dave gave his standard pre-race briefing, and made us all promise that we would only run the Red House Loop one time. Apparently every year, at least one person makes the mistake of running it twice. Trust me; you do NOT want to be that person!

"How many times are you going to run the Red House Loop?" ("Just once!")

I stood a few paces back from the front with Catherine, who is training for the Leadville 100. I wasn’t really worried about where I started because the first mile is on dirt road, which gives everyone plenty of time to sort themselves into appropriately paced groups.

Catherine and I wait for the start.

The single-track to Marlette Lake offers some of the best running on the course, so it’s tough knowing that you really need to hold back a bit here. I ran probably 90% of this uphill, focusing on keeping my breathing easy. If I started breathing hard, I slowed down, or even switched to a hike. It was here that I saw one of the oddest things I have ever seen in an ultra. An older man was walking at the edge of the trail, allowing runners to pass, and he was smoking a cigarette. I checked just to be sure, and he was wearing a race number. A cigarette? Very. Strange.

Marlette Lake comes into view.

The wildflowers were lush along the shores of Marlette, and the light of the rising sun on the surrounding peaks was mirrored in its still waters. I used my “take lots of pictures” strategy to keep my energy in check and my mindset mellow. Fortunately, there was never a lack of subjects for my photos.

The climb up from the lake to Hobart is steep enough to compel the prudent runner into a walk, and it was at this pace that I eventually reached the Hobart aid station at mile 6.

Looking back down the hill, while hiking towards Hobart.

Hobart has a different theme every year, and this year it had been transformed into an Irish Pub. There were shamrocks everywhere, Irish fiddle tunes playing, and a sign at the bar (drink table) reading “Cold Beer on Tap!” This Irish girl marched straight up to the kilted bartender and ordered a cold Guiness. Unfortunately, they said they hadn’t tapped the keg yet. They did offer me some whiskey, but, you know, that doesn’t really have the carbs you need to run 50 miles, so I decided to turn it down. They did, however, have their usual plethora of food and beverages. Let me tell you, these aid stations are stocked!

"Time for some clogging!" The Irish Pub at Hobart. (Photo courtesy of Nico Vera)

The trail leading out from Hobart.

The 5 miles between Hobart and the Tunnel Creek aid station take you over Marlette peak. It begins with a beautiful and not-too-technical, single-track climb. (This is a blast to run on the return trip!) I reached the top after only a mile or so, and knew that there would be quite a bit of downhill for the next 3-4 miles. Runnable downhill isn’t in great supply for me on this trail, so part of my strategy was to make sure I made use of it whenever I could. Even though it was still early in the race, I ran strong through this downhill section.

Flowers line the trail everywhere!

Unfortunately, it was also somewhere in here that I tweaked my bad ankle. Luckily, no one was around when I emitted a string of curses and my world came crashing down. Had I just ruined my entire race? I was pretty sure it hadn’t been a race-ending tweak, but I ran on full of anger, frustration and fear. I decided the best course of action was to pop four Advil and ignore it, so I did.

Last year I fell in love with the Tunnel Creek aid station. They have music, party d├ęcor, and at least 3 different tents. There is a LOT going on here. Considering that 100 mile runners visit this aid station 6 times, it’s easy to make friends with the volunteers. This year, not only was the fabulous Micheline back to take care of me, but I was also greeted by Joanne, the other runner in my Burton Creek race. This running community gets smaller and smaller, and I mean that in a good way.

While someone filled my bottles and put ice in my bandanna, I stuffed potatoes and watermelon in my mouth.

A volunteer gave directions to another runner: “You run the Red House Loop next.”

“The Red House Loop!!” I shouted while pumping my fist in the air. “Yessss!!”

I find it’s often best to meet grim prospects with enthusiasm.

The volunteer briefly gave me a wide-eyed, questioning stare, then his face cracked into a grin. “Now that’s what we like to hear!”

Down, down down the Red House Loop.

The Red House Loop is a 6 mile “lollipop” between miles 11 and 17. I headed off down the steep, sandy hill towards the lowest point on the course. Many of the 100 mile runners were coming toward me, having started an hour earlier. I cheered them enthusiastically as I negotiated the hill, trying my best to be careful without fighting gravity too much. I recognized and cheered Peter Fain running towards me, on his way to, yet again, winning the 50K. Good God, I thought, is there any hill too steep for that man to run up?

After filling up at the aid station, about halfway through the loop, I set off to negotiate the return trip. It begins with a stretch of uphill known as the Red House Flume. Because was a flume, it’s an extremely moderate hill, and I was able to run it at a steady pace.

I chatted a bit with some men behind me wearing Team Diablo shirts. Eventually one of them said, “Hey, just flick your elbow if you’re getting tired.”

“Huh?” came my brilliant response.

“You know,” he explained, “if you need someone else to take the lead. You’re pulling the peleton here!”

I glanced back, and sure enough, there was a string of men down the trail, running behind me. Obviously it’s not the same thing as in bike racing, but still, sometimes setting the pace holds a certain amount of pressure. In this case though, I loved being the engine on the train of men up the hill.

“I’m great; I think this is fun!” I replied, and up the hill we went.

Running up the flume. (It doesn't even look uphill, does it? See, the Red House Loop isn't all bad!)

On my second visit to Tunnel Creek, Michelline tried to tease me about not running the 100 this year. I enthusiastically called myself a wimp for only running the 50M, and I had no regrets about it! I’m glad she expects more of me though.

The Tunnel Creek Aid Station.

At this point, the 50M course diverges from the 50K. I set off on the 9 mile out-and-back (for a total of 18 miles) to Mt. Rose feeling great. This stretch of trail is what I would call “rolling.” There are some hills, but there are plenty of runnable sections, and once again I planned to run well whenever the trail was flat, downhill, and/or non-technical. Heading toward Mt. Rose, there is more uphill than on the return trip, and I did my best to run whenever possible and keep a steady pace when I needed to hike. I had The Raconteurs’ Steady as She Goes on repeat in my head, and it made for a perfect beat, and mantra, for the trail.

As I sang along in my head, I passed Carol Rewick, who had soundly beaten me two years ago at the Helen Klein 50M. We exchanged hellos, and she said she’d try to stay with me, so I encouraged her to do so. It wasn’t long though before she disappeared somewhere behind me.

Eventually I began to see the 100 mile leaders heading back towards Tunnel Creek. This is one of the things I enjoy about this section—we get to see so many of the other runners out on the trail. I recognized eventual winner Erik Skaden, who was in about 4th at that point, and Sean Lang, running strong.

I could tell I was within about a mile of the aid station when the trail became forested, flattened out and widened. It was fortunately at about this time that I apparently decided to stop paying attention to what I was doing, trip over absolutely nothing, and go flying through the air. I say “fortunately” because there are many, much worse places that I could have landed. Like, say, with my head against a rock for instance. Instead, I went skidding along the trail gathering a collection of road rash and dirt along the left side of my body. Not pretty, but ultimately not that bad. It was also at this time that I gave profuse thanks for my hand-held bottles. My hands would have been shredded if not for their protection. I did wonder about my camera though, which, residing in the pocket of one bottle, certainly took the brunt of the crash.

Not a bad section of trail on which to take a fall!

I rinsed off at a creek, more concerned about the fact that I was completely filthy than the blood oozing down my leg. It was shortly after this that I saw the first woman in the 50 mile race. I didn’t recognize her, but I guessed I was still 10 minutes out from the aid station, giving her probably a 25 minute lead over me. I decided catching her wasn’t worth worrying about too much at this point, (halfway) but I was curious how many more women I would see before reaching the turnaround.

My visit to the Mt. Rose aid station turned out to be a complete junk show on my part. I’d only seen one more woman (wearing a pink jacket!) on my way in, which put me in a little bit of a frenzy to get out of there quickly. Unfortunately I didn’t really have my thoughts together, and I kept running in circles alternately trying to sponge off the dirt and put on more sunscreen. Someone kindly packed my bandanna with ice while I emptied trash from my pockets and refilled them with GU.

Mt. Rose is also the most easily accessible place on the course for crew and spectators, and as such, there were a ton of people. Perhaps it was this chaos that contributed to the confusion in my already heat-addled brain. Perhaps this kind of thing happens to other people; who knows? But somehow, I left the aid station having forgotten to eat anything. I was only a few hundred yards down the trail when I realized it, but there was no way I was going back. Then I realized something else. I had left without my bandanna! This would absolutely not do. I immediately turned around.

The circus at Mt. Rose

As I dashed back in, I heard the volunteer checking in runners say to her helper, “Didn’t she already come through?”

“Forgot something!” I yelled over my shoulder, feeling like a prize idiot, as every spectator watched in confusion.

I grabbed my bandanna full of ice and a couple of PBJ’s off the table, and scurried back out.

“I’m leaving for good this time, I promise!” I told the volunteer.

Well, that was a complete disaster, but I felt better once I got back on the trail. It wasn’t long before I saw Turi, heading the other way, and he told me I was in fourth place. I figured I must have miscounted, but I wasn’t overly concerned.

Across the meadow. (Photo courtesy of Turi Becker)

I was just past the halfway point of the race, and it was here that I had planned to pick things up a bit. I knew the next 9 miles were rolling, but with plenty of runnable downhill. The 8.5 miles from Tunnel Creek to Snow Valley Peak would be predominantly uphill. I know my strengths, and I’m a much better climber than descender. The final 7 miles from Snow Valley Peak to the finish were primarily downhill. While I knew I could make up for lost time on the clock during that stretch, I also knew I didn’t want to be racing anyone at that point. This meant that my best chance of moving up in the field would happen in the next 17.5 miles. With that thought in mind, I ran with a comfortable determination down the trail.

The trail heading back towards Tunnel Creek

I saw a number of friends heading the other way, including Catherine and Nico. It wasn’t long before I came up behind Kelly Rigdway. She must have been the 3rd woman I hadn’t seen. I met her at last year’s Auburn Trails 50K, where she kicked my butt. I love Mark Tanaka’s photo caption of her from his report on last year’s TRT: “Kelly Ridgway—50 is the new 30.” She’s pretty badass.

I enjoyed moving well along the trail, which offers stunning views on both sides of the ridge. I decided to check the damage to my camera, and found it shockingly unscathed. (The screen had already been broken by my husband on a climbing trip, so I didn’t have to take the blame for that one!)

By the time I reached Tunnel Creek for the last time, the splits had washed off my bottle completely. It didn’t matter, because I knew I was well ahead of 10:30 pace. Some quick math told me I might even make ten hours.

I couldn’t believe this was already my last visit to Tunnel Creek. I wished Michelline a sad farewell, thinking how short these 50 milers are, and headed towards Marlette Peak.

Cresting Marlette is one of my favorite stretches of trail. You look down upon both Marlette Lake, and Tahoe, and it feels like you can see forever. The running is good here, so I felt silly slowing to take so many pictures when I already have countless from this spot, but I just couldn’t help it. It was also through this section that I passed the woman with the pink jacket, which actually turned out to be more of a shirt. She was incredibly nice, and when she told me this was her first 50, I was blown away. I told her how awesome she was doing, but she said she wasn’t feeling well. I was still impressed.

I started the hike up Snow Valley Peak on target for a ten-hour finish. The question was, could I use that last seven miles of downhill to make up for the time I would surely lose on this climb?

Now, after 8 hours of running, I finally had to pee. How inconvenient. I seriously didn’t have time for this, and I wasn’t totally sure that Pink-Shirt-Girl (who's name turned out to be Maria) wasn’t going to catch me. After I finally relieved myself and felt much better, I realized the 20 second detour probably wasn’t going to kill my chances at a sub-ten finish. I recanted all my bitter thoughts toward men, who don’t actually have to stop running when they need to pee.

Emerging from the trees, heading toward Snow Valley Peak

I’d been pushing my pace for long enough that my stomach was finally starting to rebel. I’ll tell you something here: I hate throwing up. I just don’t do it. Not an option. I don’t mind other people’s puke, and I’ll even hold your hair back for you while you do it, but I can’t handle the act myself. Throwing up makes me feel like a 5-year-old who wants her mommy, and women who plan to run sub-ten do not cry for their mommies! I take one of two courses of action when feeling nauseated: I slow down, or I stop eating. Hell if I was going to slow down, but with 10 miles to go it was too early to give up on eating. I kept the e-caps going, and used my weak mix of Amino Vital from the aid station to wash down a Clif Block. These are usually the only things that go down when my stomach is upset, and I was glad I had some.

As I approached the Snow Valley Peak aid station, all I could think about was my 100 mile race from last year, and the man, here at mile 93, who had held the sign welcoming me to “this exact moment, right now.” I had been quite miserable, and desperate to be done with the race. That man and his sign made me appreciate every moment I had left, even if I had trouble enjoying them. I still think about that moment a lot.

Snow Valley Peak aid station. See those flags? They're not being held out by anything. That's the wind.

This aid station is probably the most consistently windy place on the trail. It makes sense, since it’s also the highest. Dirt blows everywhere everywhere, and you’ll find it filling your drinks, spicing up your potatoes and coating your volunteers. The station is run by a Boy Scout Troop, and they were extreme gentlemen up there on that gusty hilltop. I give huge kudos to all the people who work this aid station!

I’d told myself I needed to leave the summit with no more than 8:45 on the clock in order to have a shot at getting in under ten. When I checked my watch as I started the descent, it read 8:40. I knew there was work to be done if I wanted this, and I pulled myself together and focused on running.

The first mile downhill is technical, and I was cautious. I knew I was tired, and a spill could mean disaster. Runners are also graced with some very distracting views off to the right, and I did my best to appreciate them while safely making haste.

Once the trail goes back below tree line, the running becomes much easier. If you’re a good downhiller, you can really fly here. Me? Well, I did my best. I practiced what I had been practicing all spring and summer: using my core to stabilize myself while running downhill.

Eventually I realized that I had been focusing so hard on running fast without falling, that I didn’t notice my stomach issues so much. I was now passing the back of the 50K pack, and the runners graciously stepped aside every time they heard me coming. I didn’t even have to ask anyone to pass.

As the minutes ticked by and I still hadn’t reached the Spooner aid station, which would tell me I had only 1.5 miles to go, I began to lose hope. Maybe I was doomed to run 10:05. As much as I wanted to be okay with this, (it was, after all, an hour improvement on my best time for the course) I knew I wouldn’t be.

When the aid station came into sight, I checked my watch. 9:45. I needed to run at least 10 minute pace, and I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as it sounded. I flew through the aid station without stopping, and prepared to suffer through the last mile and a half as fast as I could.

I ran down the trail towards Spooner Lake. I was nauseated, dizzy, just tipping off the cliff toward a nasty sugar crash, and I was flying. There was something so utterly awesome about it, I actually smiled. Sometimes, it’s absolutely thrilling to run hard, and to realize what all those ass-kicking workouts were for. They weren’t so I could jog along all day and look at the flowers (although that part was fun, too). They were for this, this exact moment, right now. And I flew.

It wasn’t until I was yards from the finish line that I finally realized I was going to make it. Time on the clock read 9:57. I’ll take that, I thought, and smiled as I crashed into a chair in the finish corral. I was the 2nd woman (ten minutes behind first place) and 6th overall.

Two cokes, the best shower ever, and a commemorative TRT beer later, and I was sitting at the finish line with a group of other runners, watching folks finish, and cheering the 100 milers who were only halfway. I was hoping to see several friends cross the line, but somehow I missed all of them. Still, I managed to find the camaraderie that I love in this community with the runners that I met that day, as we sat around swapping stories from these and other races. I was giddy with the day’s adventures, and I allowed myself the luxury of not rushing home, but just relaxing and soaking it all up.

I have a lot of thoughts about what went right for me that day. Some of it was training, but I also had a lot of problems in that department. In the end, I think it was mostly course experience. I was able to visualize every step of the trail, and know very clearly how I should feel at different points. When race day arrived, I simply did what I’d been practicing.

Thanks, as always, to Dave and his incredible staff for all the work it takes to put on this event. I really appreciate all the little touches. You guys are amazing!

As you can probably imagine, this year’s race only further cemented my affections for this event. Sylas, my favorite Sierra Sun sports editor, asked me today what distance I plan to run next year. The truth is, I don’t know. I do, however, know that I’ll be back.


  1. I'm sold on this race! Great report and congratulations!

  2. Gretchen. Great report. How you manage to take so many great pictures while going so fas, I have no idea.

    Sorry if I gave you wrong info on your place. I really thought I counted three girls with blue bibs before I saw you. Then I passed two on the way back in, so I figured you were second. But I finished right behind the 4th place female, so I don't know where I went wrong...

    Bizarrely, I had a Jack White song going through my head on that same section of trail. "My Doorbell" by the White Stripes. Didn't remember that until I read your report here. Weird...

  3. Uhhh, so you're officially in the top two of every ultra you run from here on out. No pressure.

    Excellent report, and I agree with Turi: The fact that you can snap so many photos AND run that fast. Pshh. YER KILLIN' US HERE!

  4. Gretchen, fantastic finish and great report. Thanks for sharing your story and photos of your experience. Congratulations!

  5. "It's just puke"

    You're a rock star, baby! Congratulations

  6. Great run out there! You looked strong when you passed the girl in the pink shirt (I could just see you ahead and you were moving well).

    I was "doomed" with the 10:05 finish! My stomach went south from TC to MR (mile 17 to 26). I began to recover on the way back but I took the "do not eat" approach to sort it out.

    Kudos to Gilligan (above), he smoked the course!


    Darren Young, Reno

  7. Awesome job, Gretchen!
    Now next year, no camera, no extra visit to Mount Rose, and you'll win this thing outright!

  8. great job out there. awesome!!

  9. TRT is one of the best and every time I think of my race, my only one to date, I always remember how you fainted at mile 75 only to get up and power your way through to the finish. Agreed, Kelly is pretty badass, didn't realize she was there too. Awesome race there G. 2nd woman and 6th overall for the 50-miler is pretty sweet. Really great pictures too for a camera with a broken screen. I can relate, mine is also broken:)

  10. Hey thanks for all the comments everyone!

    Mark- Okay, we expect to see you next year!

    Turi- You were right on the place count. I was in 4th when I saw you. Also,...perhaps Jack White haunts that section of trail? :)

    Russ- Thanks! I think the camera is what helps me pace myself. Notice how there are no pictures from the last 7 miles though?

    Mark G- Thanks, and thanks for stopping by! Congrats yourself. You posted an awesome time!

    Lisa- HA! You get the best comment award. After the part where I said I'd even hold your hair back, I almost added "just ask my college girlfriends." But then I thought, you know, my mom will be reading this. ;)

    Darren- Nice job! 10:05 still rocks on this course on a hot day, but I feel your pain.

    Peter- Actually I was sort of thinking that, but I just don't think I can ditch the camera!

    Jessica- Thanks!What happened to you? I guess I'm not up to date on your blog, but I was expecting to see you out there. We missed you!

    Rick- Yeah, that's a good story, huh? Funny thing--while relaxing at the finish line this year, a woman came up to me and asked if I'd run the 100 last year. She'd been at the Mt. Rose station when I did my little trick, so I got to hear the story from her perspective. Odd how it seems so pleasantly hilarious in retrospect. :)

  11. Gretchen, you are absolutely AMAZING! You give me so much energy to get out there and just enjoy running. :) As for the smoker on the trail? A couple years ago I was running the Escape from Prison Hill half, and for about a half mile I was breathing in someone's cigarette smoke! I couldn't believe it either- wonder if it was the same old guy? Although I was probably a much less gracious passer-by than you were... :) Huge congrats to you- your race reports are my absolute favorite~

  12. Not only a great race effort on your behalf but also a very nice race report! I'm running a 50M this weekend and now I'm just all pumped up after reading this!

    You have become a running machine! Congratulations on a well run race. I hope your ankle has a chance to heal some after this "target" race.

    Glad your dirt dive happened in a good place. I call hand helds the "Runners Air Bag". They have saved me for shredding my hands so many times. Our running club got together tonight for coffee after a run and we were talking about how lucky we have been not to bash our heads on rocks when we fall. I guess we should count our blessings!

    So how did the smoker do? Did he finish? Reminds me of an old poster of the Tour de France with a bunch of old time bikers smoking at the base of a long climb. They used to think the nicotine helped them climb.

    I had a confused sparrow "attack" me on a night run last weekend. Runners ahead of me scared it out of a bush and it flew directly into my headlamp and landed on my head. I'm still hearing little "get it off me" quips from my so called running friends. Now if I can only spot a smoking ultra runner I can say I've seen it all.

  13. Fantastic run!!! And beautifully written. Thanks for sharing. I'm looking forward to your "tips" as well. 2 women, sub 10 hours. I think you're officially on the elite radar now!


  14. Amber--Thanks!!

    Eric--Good luck this weekend! Is it the MT. Hood PCT 50? Should be beautiful!

    Thanks, and the ankle isn't too bad. It was pissed right after the race, but seems mollified after a few days off.

    Scott-- Thanks!'re still expecting the Insider's Guide?? Okay, I'll pencil it in as a pre-race post next year, how's that?

    Elite radar?? Is that a feature on the new Garmin? Sounds like something that could come in handy. ;)

  15. God bless you, Gretchen ... I'm glad there's someone out there who writes longer race reports than me.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this one from beginning to end. You pretty much had me soild on TRT even before this post and these pictures, but I think it's rocketing up to the top of my list for sure.

    I echo the other comments about what a great race you had. You're right about having a "home-course" advantage and choosing this as your target race, but those two factors only account for so much - to finish as high and as fast as you did, there needs to be a lot of talent and training behind it. So congrats to you for your preparation and race performance.

    I'm glad I waited to read this - it was definitely time well spent.

  16. Gretchen,

    Holy smokes girl, you were flying. Congrats on a fantastic finish. You looked great when I saw you coming back from Rose. Always happy and smiling. I was calculating times and thought "Wow, she might make 10 hours". I'm telling ya, you gotta lose the tank top next year. Scott's right, you're getting close to those elites.

  17. Awesome report and tremendous finish!

  18. Glad to hear you enjoyed a sweet race. It's nice to get that payback!!

  19. What a trek! I'm exhausted just reading about it.