Monday, May 09, 2011

Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon 2011

Author's note: If you're looking for my Miwok 100K report, this clearly isn't it. I have to confess that between end-of-the-school-year-craziness at work and training, I'm just exhausted. Sleep has moved up my priority list, and blogging has fallen off the bottom of it. Miwok was epic, and there WILL be a report on it. I'm just playing a little catch-up here. Look for it early next week!

Tahoe view on the drive to the start.

Saturday morning dawned clear and cold in Carson City, Nevada, as it typically does for the Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon. I’ve run this race on three previous occasions, (in 2006, 2007, and 2009) so I know a thing or two about the course – mostly, that I LOVE it. What I didn’t know this year was that it had changed.

“Backwards?” I gawked at Abbey after she delivered the news, 15 minutes before the start.

“Yeah,” she nodded serenely. Clearly I had not looked too closely at the website this year.

Gathering at the start.

My initial thought was disappointment because I love this course so much. It’s hilly, sandy, technical and beautiful. How would the reverse in direction change things? Where were the hills now? I had no idea. I also had no time to really think about it as, soon enough, we were off the start and headed down the dirt for 13 miles.

One thing was clear to me right away: I was running much more aggressively that I had in previous years at this race. It wasn’t intentional, since I had no game plan for the day. It was just what felt right.

At about mile three we found ourselves running up a long, steep hill. My breathing came fast and desperate, and my heart hammered in my chest like it was trying to find a way out. I was a little concerned. Why was I running this hard? Sure, it’s only 13 miles, but it’s hardly a 5K! Oh well, I told myself as I passed another woman to move into second place.

I recovered almost instantly as soon as I reached the top of the hill and was in fine form to fly down the other side. I could no longer see the first place woman even though I’d used the climb to close in on her. It turned out that she dropped somewhere near the top, but I didn’t figure that out until later. The downhill was technical and it took all of my focus to maintain speed while remaining upright. Although a number of men passed me, I didn't fall and felt my downhill efforts were successful!

By the time I passed the relay exchange at the halfway point I realized I was in the lead. (People kept telling me, and I finally started believing them.) It didn’t matter too much though; I knew I was going to stay aggressive and run hard the whole way regardless of competition. Why? Because it was So! Much! Fun! I was truly having a blast at this race.

During the second major climb I passed most of the men who’d passed me on the downhill. Not only were they very gracious in moving aside for me, but I exchanged compliments with all of them. It was a very supportive group out there! We weaved our way through sagebrush encroaching on narrow desert singletrack and squinted into bright blue skies behind the snow covered Sierra. It could hardly have been a more perfect day.

By the time I hit the last 4 miles, running the technical single track at the top of the hill, I found myself moving along all alone. I kept wondering to myself why I’d skipped this race last year. I can’t remember, but I do know that I don’t plan on skipping it next year!

The final downhill into the finish was wonderful. It wasn’t too steep, and it had enough sand to absorb impact and allow some confidence in speed. I absolutely loved the speed! When I crossed the line I was all grins and giggles to see my time of 1:58. (I hadn’t worn a watch, so I had no clue as to my pace until then.) It was a 12 minute PR for the course, and I was thrilled to have broken two hours on this beast!

The final mile. If you can't tell, I'm having fun! (Photo by George Ruiz)

To be honest, I was a bit surprised with my performance. After really going for it in ’09 and coming up short, I didn’t think I would run sub-2 here. It led me to wonder a couple of things, like:

  1. Has my training been geared more towards a shorter distance race than towards an ultra? That thought makes me nervous. I have no doubt that my weekly hill-repeat sessions were good training for this race, but will they still serve me well in an ultra distance race? Perhaps my hills are too short?  
  2. Why am I running ultras again? I forget. Because this race was just so much fun, so much less painful than an ultra, and so fast to recover from. Mmm, something to consider here.

After the race I indulged in what I’m certain is the best post-race eats going: fresh, homemade breakfast burritos. Excellent! I stuffed my face while friends Peter and Bill chatted about the only two topics anyone seems to find of interest lately: minimalist footwear and how much snow will still be on the Western States course at the end of June. Tom Wion handed me a certificate for a pair of Montrails while we sipped sodas in the sunshine. I was a happy girl.

Extra special thanks to Steve, Tom and all the Stompers and Milers out there to help. I still love the course no matter which direction we run it!


The following day, Sunday, Jamie and I went for a long run in the canyons. I debated the wisdom of such a full weekend of running just one week before Miwok, but I just couldn’t give up a day in the canyons. Besides, the weather turned out to be perfect. Sunny and mild – quite a contrast to the previous weekend’s 7+ hours of running in a downpour.

I also mention this run because I need to give a huge shout out to the work crew who was there the day before us. There had been some mighty large piles of downed trees littering the trail in El Dorado, but clearly many of you put chainsaws and strong backs to work out there. THANK YOU!! That stretch of trail looks pretty shiny at this point, and I’ll appreciate every mile of it every day I’m out there!

El Dorado Creek

Trees cleared from the trail. Sweet!

Happy runners on the swinging bridge.


  1. POW! As always, amazing job on the run and report.

  2. Great job out there! I think that backwards would be an interesting way to run that course. I'll definitely see you out there next year...

  3. You're hair is getting longer again, beautiful! Snap, I think your running season is becoming another one of those break-through seasons. I'm enjoying the armchair observation of it! (Congrats at Miwok, by the way!)

  4. Gretchen, that picture of you not only says it all, it is The Best photo of you running ever! Loving it, and it does portray every word 9and more) you wrote. I also agree on "why am I running ultras" question - having not run anything shorter than 50M for about 4 years, this year I found fun in exactly same ways you explained (may be not times though:)). And yes, congrats on Miwok, you Beast, clearly the intense short training works when the groundwork has been laid!

  5. Gretch!!! How great to read about your race! I love the picture of you racing down the hill--what a great running pic : ) .

  6. FanTASTIC, Gretchen!! Your badassery is going through the roof, this year especially! Awesome report, and awesome performance.

    Now, I can't wait to read about your Miwok adventure! You are on fire!

  7. Congrats on the win! It does sound like a fun race. But short races like this aren't "goal races" like Miwok or Western States for ultra runners. Its not something we have to plan and train for. So it probably isn't as rewarding as well executed fun full day at the "goal race". Still, as a runner, its important to have fun and enjoy yourself in the smaller, fun runs. Thanks for sharing! I look forward to reading about your Miwok experience! Its one of my "goal races", along with Western States. I'd like to be more like you when grow up, if that's okay with you! =)

    Remember that baby I was telling you about while in the porta-potty line at Way Too Cool? Well we had baby Grace on April 1st (8 pounds, 13 ounces), and she's beautiful.

    Hope to see you again at some future races! If not, at least I can live vicariously though your ultra cool race reports!

  8. Russ - As always, Thanks!

    Turi - Yay! I missed your presence this year, although you were certainly taking care of business in your own race that weekend. :)

    Meghan - If you're looking at those braids on the swinging bridge, that hair was straightened so it looks longer than my normal curly version. And I'm thinkin' you may be right about the breakthrough season, but we'll see. I'm hoping so!

    Olga - Thanks, that picture kind of says a lot to me too. And I was also reassured after Miwok that maybe I have been doing the right training after all.

    Daphne! Yay, thanks for stopping by! :)

    Paige - Thanks, lady! Is "Fantastic Gretchen" anything like "Fantastic Mr. Fox"? Because I sort of relate to that movie character a lot. Kind of off topic, but anyway... ;)

    John - Yes, you're certainly right about the ultras being the goal runs, and Miwok reassured me that they are so rewarding as to be worth the pain and suffering. (Well, they're rewarding BECAUSE of all the pain and suffering, right?) Races like these are such a fun way to shake up the season and keep things positive and sharp though. I think I do better when I race more. And HUGE congrats on your little girl!!! Grace is a beautiful name. So awesome!

  9. And the Gretchen Success Train continues to steam through northern Cali trail races! Love that photo of you rounding the bend in the final stretch of the race. I wish I took photos like that.

  10. Anne - Let's hope that train keeps on chugging, yes? ;) Thanks!