Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run 2011

Sunrise over Spooner Lake

I stood in the early morning darkness wrapped in a down jacket and smiling at friends. A small crowd sporting running shorts and arm warmers, accessorized with a variety of hydration packs and the occasional pair of trekking poles, gathered under the pines. The casual milling-about of the runners belied the enormity of the task they were about to begin. In what has become something of a tradition for mid-July, I stood at the start line of the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs. In contrast to the previous four years, however, I would not race this day.
It is no understatement to say that this race holds a special place in my heart, having been the setting for my first ultra, my first 100, and countless training miles.  And although I’d already had my own big race weighing on my mind when TRT registration opened back in January, it still felt strange not to sign up for this race. It felt just a teeny, tiny bit sad.
Now, at the start of the 100 Mile, I felt anything but sad. Later in the day I would be at this exact spot to pace my good friend Donald through the second half of his race. Standing next to me, chatting with fellow racers, he looked perfectly at ease. I was excited for him!

Pre-race with Donald. Read his race report here!

Being present at the start was a bit of indulgence on my part: Donald didn’t need me here, and I’d already been offered a ride later in the day so I could have chosen to sleep in. Considering that I would be up all night pacing, it would have been the prudent choice. No one has ever really called me practical though, and I just couldn’t resist being a part of the magic on the start line.
The runners headed off into the darkness, kicking up a small dust storm in their wake. I cheered them on, mentally wished them well, and immediately turned to welcome friends who had already arrived to race the 50 Mile and 50K races that started an hour later.
Clare and Scott, ready to take on the 50M!

Tim, John, Annie and Katie show the joy and dedication of the TRT family by taking on a day full of various racing, pacing, and volunteer duties.

Julie and Betsy stay warm before the 50K.

After a relaxing morning, I spent time socializing at the Diamond Peak aid station. Familiar faces presided, both as spectators and racers, and I cheered friends through the aid station.
A woman on a mission: Jen Benna shows how it's done, leaving Diamond Peak. Read her beautiful and inspiring race report here.

50 mile runner Paul Sweeny.

Jenny Capel is relaxed and casual in the 50 mile race.

Donald came through in good spirits, stating that he felt good and thought he had started conservatively – both good things at mile 30!

Amy is all smiles with only 20 miles to go.

Jamie Frink heads off to the nasty hill at Diamond Peak.

Jack, Chet, and Steve, fueling up and swapping stories at Diamond Peak.

I returned to the start/finish area in plenty of time to see finishers in the 50K and 50 mile events while I waited for Donald to show up. The standard ultra fare had me smiling: Some folks looked great, while others were puking repeatedly. Some 100 milers were hanging out at the aid station hoping to settle unhappy stomachs while 50K finishers sat nearby draining the keg of Sierra. I only had a teeny tiny beer with Betsy while I waited for Donald. I promise!
Sarah and Tom, ready to head out for Tom's second lap.

Mark Tanaka assured me that since he is a doctor, it was okay for him to pop some ibuprofen at mile 50.

Hanging out with Tina while we wait for our pacing duties to begin.

Badass 50M finishers Jenny and Jamie.

When you’re waiting to start pacing someone in a 100 miler there is always a certain amount of anxiety: Did I get here in time? Did my runner come through already? Did I miss him while I was in the outhouse?
None of those things happened of course, but even though I was there early, I immediately checked with the aid station to make sure he hadn’t already been through.
Then when your runner’s expected arrival time comes and goes, there’s further anxiety: What happened? Is he okay? Did he get hurt or lost? Did he come through and I didn't see him?
I knew this was all paranoia on my part, especially since his “expected arrival time” was my own ball-park estimate. Sure enough, he showed up shortly, intact and ready to hammer out the remaining 50 miles.
It occurred to me at some point during my waiting that I was not the least bit worried about running 50 miles through the dark on rugged mountain trails. Considering that 30 miles at Hardrock had completely kicked my butt the week before, this seemed a bit surprising. However, I recognized that I had several things going for me on this particular evening, such as: A) I had an additional week of recovery from Western States, B) I would be running on terrain I was comfortable with and knew very well, and C) … Well, see point “B” again. I love this course!
Truthfully, I couldn’t have asked for a better pacing experience. The night was filled with friends at aid stations, perfume from wildflowers, moonlight on snow, sunrise views over Lake Tahoe, chilly winds, and warm fires. Donald handled himself beautifully over a beast of a course, and I felt like I just got to sit back and smile at the whole experience.

I had geared up with arm sleeves, my Icebreaker wool top, Houdini windbreaker, hat and gloves, but the night air still felt frigid – much colder than it had been at either of my own races at the TRT 100. At one point I saw a runner heading towards us dressed in a down jacket, and I did not think it totally unreasonable! I was glad I had dressed warmly, but I would have been even happier with a pair of tights instead of my shorts. I worried about Donald at first, with only a light windbreaker and gloves to add to his shorts and t-shirt, but he seemed to manage just fine, as he did with everything that night.
We both had just a bit of trouble tearing ourselves away from the fire at Diamond Peak, especially knowing what we were about to face. Two miles straight up the ski run, and Donald kept a pace I could barely hang on to. The only reason I managed to keep up was pure pride: I couldn’t let a guy with 80 miles on his legs kick my butt!

Darkness gave way to morning on the return trip, transforming the surrounding landscape. From moonglow, to first light, to full sun, the ever changing palette of colors captivated me.

Watching Donald come across the finish line, and spending a few minutes afterward with other racers and volunteers, was more gratifying than I would have expected. I hadn't run a hundred miles, but I'd been there to witness a good friend accomplish something pretty tough. Maybe it's because I have run this 100 twice before that I felt a taste of that mix of emotions that comes with finishing it. That, along with the immense pride I felt for my friend, had me glowing almost as much as if I'd run the race myself.

Following up my goal race at Western States with two wonderful pacing experiences was a great way to head into summer. In fact, I realized pacing is something I’d like to do more of, especially when I’m not feeling the itch to race myself. I didn’t experience any post-race depression after States, even though there had been a huge mental buildup, and I think that’s largely due to the fact that I had support roles at Hardrock and TRT on the calendar. It wasn’t until after TRT was over that I began to wonder what to do with myself for the rest of the summer.
Every time I pace someone I come away with new lessons. From Paige I learned about pacing, from Jamie about speed, and from Betsy about pure grit and toughness. Donald, he taught me about focus. There were times when he wasn’t feeling well. His stomach bothered him. He had a monster hill to climb. It was freezing cold and windy. He had to negotiate snowy slopes. But he never got down, never stopped moving forward, never lingered at aid stations, never lost focus. Even in the last ten miles, when things were at their very hardest, he seemed only to become more determined.
A brilliant example of what it takes to run a hundred miles.    
Trail running for me is a journey of the heart and mind, even more so than the body, and getting to share in someone else’s 100 mile experience is a joy and a privilege. Adding pacing to my list of experiences at TRT was an excellent decision! I feel certain I'll always come back to this race in some form or another. (Next year I'm thinking about running the 50M.) Whether I'm pushing myself, or supporting others to do the same, TRT is one of the best, friendliest, and most beautiful places to do it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

PCT and TRT in Desolation Wilderness: Echo Lakes to Dicks Pass

Sunrise on the drive to the trailhead. 

Trail: Technical singletrack

Distance: 26 miles (out and back)

Difficulty: Challenging

Trailhead: The trailhead at Echo Lakes Resort can be reached off of Hwy 50 near South Lake Tahoe, CA. Just south of Echo Summit, turn south on Johnson Pass Rd. At the Snow Park parking area, turn left and follow the road for about a half mile to the resort at Echo Lakes. Public outhouses are located adjacent to the parking area.

Season: July to October

Water: Creeks and lakes are plentiful during approximately the first ten miles. After the turn off to climb up to the pass you may find snow patches in early season or big snow years.

Notes: Wilderness permit required, even for day use. No fee, as of 2011. You can fill out permits at the trailhead.

Trish, Monica, Jennifer, and Jamie, trailside.

Trail Description:

Head south on the Pacific Crest Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail (the same trail, at this point) and follow the signs to Dick's Pass. Trails are well marked. You can turn around whenever you'd like for a run of any distance.

Stormy skies and snowy peaks above Aloha Lake

I set out with Jamie, Trish, Monica, and Jen (Caren caught up with us later) for a long, beautiful day in the Desolation Wilderness. Days like these are reminders of just why I live in Tahoe, and why I do this crazy ultrarunning thing.

The trail began across technical, rocky terrain along Echo Lake. We engaged in the standard conversation for this stretch of trail: Just how does one acquire one of these boat-in, lake-front cabins on National Forest land? Given that they can only be inherited, schemes ranged from befriending elderly landowners to marrying them.

After the glorious beauty of Aloha Lake, we made a wrong turn across the snow. I personally found the off-trail scrambling and snow traverses to be a fun adventure. The remainder of our group at least took the adventure to be reenforcement of what complete badasses we are. 

Yeah, anyone can get there if they take the trail!

Climbing up to the pass

After passing Echo, Aloha, Susie, and Heather Lakes, we worked our way up towards Dick's Pass. There is more climbing on the way out than on the return trip, and we were still full of spirit and soaking up our surroundings.

Jamie, Monica, and Trish at the top of the pass.

View from the top.

I found it fitting that the trailside lakes carried female names. It is rare that I spend an eight hour day running with a group of 5 other women. It's been a topic of much conversation lately not only why there are so few women in the sport of ultrarunning, but also how lucky we are to find ourselves among them. Although I quite appreciate most of the men I've met and run with, it is certainly a unique and wonderful atmosphere to be out in the wilderness with a group of badass women. It promotes unique topics of conversation as well. Enough said.

Trail along Heather Lake

We found a beautiful waterfall on the return trip - good for filling water bottles and for mid-run showers.

The day wasn't all that hot, but I couldn't resist the refreshment. It felt something like this ... 

Return trail along Aloha Lake

We pondered the name "Aloha" and decided it was chosen for the clear blue water, almost tropical looking, and tiny granite islands that look like sandy beaches. 

The last 5 miles back along Echo are always tiring but wistful. My legs felt shot from all the rocks, and the going was slow. My feet were hammered, feeling every piece of granite beneath my shoes. Still, I felt the peaceful sadness of the day coming to a close.

My fitness is not what it was in June, but it was such a wonder to be out there. A blessing, every mile.

Technical trail leads to Echo Lake.

Back at the car, a quick swim in Echo Lake is the satisfying cleansing to finish this prayer. The wind was fierce, and I nearly chickened out. Jamie went under first, obligating me to go. 

And that's exactly what good, badass, chick, ultrarunning friends are for.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Dog Day at Castle Peak

This morning was a lazy Sunday start for a beautiful tour of Castle Peak, near the Sierra crest. Betsy and I set out on the Pacific Crest Trail with five 4-legged running partners to find out if the high-country trails were runnable yet. The final answer was mixed - it just depends how you want your adventuring-to-running-ratio to play out.

The south side of Castle was covered in wildflowers and had views aplenty. The north side was still ensconced in snow fields. Where bare earth did emerge, there was little in the way of vegetation, and tiny streams braided the landscape allowing doggie drinks all day. 

Another beautiful day in the mountains. Dogs and Truckee Girls alike are thoroughly worn out.

Approaching the east ridge of Castle Peak

Daisy dog shows us that Running Time = Play Time.

Top dog! Cap stands proudly by the summit cairn.

Castle Peak - north side
Water sources abound.

Spring time conditions in August. Think there are many avalanches on this slope?

Back on the PCT! Betsy, Tessie, Daisy, Patches, and Cap.

Friday, August 05, 2011

New Eyes

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust

I love time off. Time off from school, from running. I love sleeping in, swimming at the lake, and taking leisurely walks through the woods with the dogs. I love backyard barbecues, live music in outdoor venues, and having a cold beer in the hot summer sun.

But you know what else I love? Getting back to it.

Last weekend I finally got out on a long training run just for myself. I wasn’t pacing a friend on a tough hundred miler. I wasn’t going short and easy so the dogs could get some exercise but still keep up with me. I wasn’t forcing myself out for a quick 5 miles just to maintain some fitness. I really, really needed a good, long run.

After the realization that, yes, some of our favorite high-country trails are still(!) covered in snow, Jamie and I decided to cruise the Flume Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail for 26 miles. I think of the Flume trail as the most beautiful trail in Tahoe, but on this day, the TRT was queen of the pageant.

We’d both run this exact stretch of the TRT – between Tunnel Creek Road and Spooner Summit – as part of the TRT Endurance Runs two weeks prior. It was somewhat of a mystery to both of us then why, on this day, it was so much more incredible.

“The trail has changed so much in just two weeks,” Jamie declared as we ran along the ridge toward Snow Valley Peak, “and in a better way.

“Which I didn’t think was possible,” she added.

It dawned on me that despite my many miles on this trail, this could be the first time I’d ever seen the wildflowers at their peak. I thought I’d experienced wildflower peak up there many times. I must have been wrong. More color and variety than in mid-July, they dazzled me all day long. Perhaps the heavy winter snow pack had brought forth rare varieties? I had no idea. All I knew was that we were both loving it.

As we descended the other side of Snow Valley Peak, we deliberately slowed.

“I’m not ready for it to be over!” Jamie whined.

“Me neither,” I said slowly, wistfully. “This section is technical anyway,” I reasoned, “so we should probably just take it easy and enjoy the view.”

Distant peaks still wearing the remnants of winter stood out above the sparkling waters of Tahoe. Thunderheads billowed and grew closer, white mounds of marshmallow growing above their dark, rain-filled bellies. The breeze spoke of their arrival and brushed the summer heat from our shoulders. My legs felt strong, and happy to be back in use.

Dropping down into a more wooded section of trail, I prepared for the long downhill back to the car. I’ve heard this section of trail described as boring, endless, monotonous, and painful. Myself, I think of it as “brown.” But not this day.

“Where did those come from?” Jamie pointed in surprise at a stretch of wildflowers covering the forest floor in a carpet of yellow, red, and purple.

It seemed there was a new treat around every corner – more flowers, views I’d never noticed before, and the fact that this section of trail actually felt rather short.

This week has also seen a return to both teaching and writing for me, as I began teaching a series of writing workshops. Maybe it’s that I’m only teaching 3 hours a day, or maybe it’s that my sole subject is writing. Maybe it’s because my students are here by choice and love writing. Perhaps it’s because I’ve simply missed it all – the writing, the teaching, the kids. Whatever the reason, it’s good to be back.

This, of course, is why teachers and students have summer off. Fresh perspective. It’s why runners take time off. It’s not just physical recovery; it’s mental and emotional.

This past spring, in the heart of my training for Western States, I told myself I wasn’t going to run a 100-miler next year. Already I’m struggling to keep that promise. Why did I tell myself that again? I can’t remember.

I can’t remember because every race seems to call my name. There are trails begging to be run, friends waiting to be joined. I have stories waiting to be told, books even, waiting to be written. When I run, I am truly and honestly a better, kinder person. I’m happier, less irritable, more aligned with the universe. When I write, I can make sense of it all.

Time away is always good, because it gives one the perspective to appreciate that which we truly love.