Wednesday, May 27, 2009

One Eighth-Grader at a Time

Tomorrow is the last day of school. The kids have been counting down the days all month, and so have most of the teachers for that matter. Long nights of homework, studying for tests, writing tests, writing papers, grading papers and reading, always reading, give way to swimsuits, boats, long trails, gardening, outdoor concerts and farmer’s markets. The mood at school is a mixture of last minute stress and spring fever. In a building where everyone is so desperate to move on to the next phase that some have already turned that page, I feel slightly alone. For the first time in my life, I’m not ready for it to be over.

Last year was my first year at my current school, and it was my first year teaching high school English. (I’d previously taught all subjects in a seventh grade classroom at a different school, but I knew English was my favorite subject.) Not only was I teaching a multi-grade (6-8) language arts class, I was also taking on three classes I’d never before taught, (9th grade, 10th grade, and 12th grade English) and planning the curriculum for all four. That would have been exciting actually, even if stressful, but unfortunately the attitude and behavior of my 9th and 10th grade students broiled the year into the most challenging I’d ever experienced. It wasn’t pretty, and in October of that year I was certain that I would never make it to June.

There is something to be said however, for the notion that the achievements for which we fight the hardest offer the sweetest victories. By the end of the year, I’d seen a noticeable improvement in their writing, they were reading (and discussing!) the books, and we had developed a mutual, if grudging, respect for one another. I felt like I’d climbed Everest, and I was filled with relief upon arriving back at base camp in one piece. The onset of summer that year was sweet, to put it mildly.

On the first day of school this year, I immediately knew things would be different. The hallways held both order and excitement, the air smelled fresh and fearless, and despite my multi-grade classes, I had very few of the same students as the previous year.

When I think of my teaching experience this year, I think of one class: Middle School Language Arts. My high school classes went quite well, but at heart, I am a middle school teacher.

People always think I’m a saint for teaching middle school, but I can’t imagine a better age group. Middle schoolers are so full of life. They’re not as cynical, as snide, or as “me, me, me!” as teenagers, but their intellect explodes in comparison to the younger kids. They’re still children, just embarking across that tenuous bridge of adolescence toward adulthood, but they’re so driven, so intent on becoming someone, and figuring out just who that someone is. They’re exuberant, silly, smart, and they make me laugh every single day.

In a workshop I once attended, I was given a writing prompt that asked me to describe the space where I was my most genuine self—my comfort zone. Other people described bedrooms, time with family, and vacation destinations. My first inclination was to describe running on a long mountain trail. What I ended up describing was my middle school classroom. That is absolutely where I am my “best self.”

I am teacher, guide, counselor and role model. I want to do everything I can for these kids. I want to be perfect.

And because they, too, are working to be the best students they can be, they allow me a great opportunity: I get to be Gretchen.

I (mostly) don’t have to be the strict disciplinarian. I don’t have to prod them with the threat of bad grades, or cajole them into doing their work. I don’t have to be the only one in the room excited about a project. I am teacher and student. I am 35 and I am 13. I am exuberant, silly, smart, and I make them laugh every single day.

One of my favorite projects that we tackled this year was something called Script Frenzy. It challenges the author to spend the month of April writing a screenplay. For adults, the page count goal is 100 pages. For students, I worked with them individually to set their own goals. They ranged from 15 pages, to 45 pages.

With my students during our "It's a Wrap!" party after Script Frenzy. The certificates they're holding say "Let it be hereby known that [name] author of [name of screenplay] courageously threw caution to the wind and stepped up to the challenge of writing a script in the month of April. We salute the named scribe's creativity and commitment in undertaking this deadline-driven script writing adventure."

Prior to taking on this project, I knew absolutely nothing about writing a screenplay. Fortunately, the Young Writer’s Program at Script Frenzy offered a wonderful array of lessons and teaching materials on the topic. The students were daunted at first, as was I. We dove in together, and emerged, 30 days later, as real screenwriters. (Yes, this was one of those projects that I did along with the kids. If I can’t do it myself, how can I expect to teach it, right?) They were so proud of themselves at the end of that month. You can imagine how I felt.

I think there’s something about teaching writing and literature that allows for great human connection and insight. We have to trust each other enough to be honest with our personal thoughts. I know so much about these kids based on what they write and based on their sagacity in regard to literature. I feel privileged when they take that risk to share something personal, some pieces of themselves.

They’ve even inspired me in other ways. Every Thursday before Language Arts, we gather to play our guitars together. Most of them are better musicians than I, and frequently I find that it’s the best hour of my week. In fact, they have arranged to play some songs at our end of the year beach party, and have insisted that I play with them. I can’t believe I haven’t talked my way out of this one. (I managed to avoid it at our school Christmas party.) I explained that their parents only want to see them play, not me, but you know they don’t care what their parents want, right?

So picture me tomorrow, on the beach at Lake Tahoe, with seven 13-year-olds, rippin' School’s Out by Alice Cooper. Seriously.

The reason I don’t want it to be over is that I know this year can never be recaptured. Most of these students are 8th-graders, and many of them are going to different schools next year. That’s what happens when you go to a charter school. But even those that will be back won’t be the same. They’ll be freshmen, throwing off the shroud of middle school like a forgotten dream. They will see themselves differently. Three months from now, and they will be so different.

So I will treasure this year for what it was, and I won’t forget it.

Every year, school teaches me many things: My high school classes showed me how far I’ve come since last year. My middle school classes taught me to hold my students, and myself, to the highest standards. And this year, as with every year, I came away with this one big truth: I have so much more to learn. And that, is a beautiful thing.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite poems about teaching middle school.

Like Lilly Like Wilson

-by Taylor Mali

I'm writing the poem that will change the world,
and it's Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly Wilson, the recovering like addict,
the worst I've ever seen.
So bad the whole eighth grade
started calling her Like Lilly Like Wilson.
'Till I declared my class a Like-Free Zone
and she could not speak for days.

But when she finally did, it was to say,
Mr. Mali, this is . . . so hard.
Now I have to . . . think before I . . . say anything.

Imagine that, Lilly.

It's for your own good.
Even if you don't like . . .

I'm writing the poem that will change the world,
and it's Lilly Wilson at my office door.
Lilly is writing a research paper for me about how gays
like shouldn't be allowed to adopt children.
I'm writing the poem that will change the world,
and it's Like Lilly Like Wilson at my office door.

Lilly's having trouble finding sources,
which is to say, ones that back her up:
They all argue in favor of what I thought I was against.

And it took all four years of college,
three years of graduate school,
and every incidental teaching experience I have ever had
to let out only,

That's a real interesting problem, Lilly.
But what do you propose to do about it?
That's what I want to know.

And the eighth-grade mind is a beautiful thing;
Like a new-born baby's face, you can often see it
change before your very eyes.

I can't believe I'm saying this, Mr. Mali,
but I think I'd like to switch sides.

And I want to tell her to do more than just believe it,
but to enjoy it! That changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn't so much matter what you pack them with
so long as they open
at the right time.

I want to say all this but manage only,
Lilly, I am like so impressed with you.

So I finally taught someone something,
namely, how to change your mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it's going to be one eighth grader at a time.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Celebration of the Off-Season

Spring in my Garden!

When you live in a mountain resort town, life swings in a seasonal fashion. And we don’t just have the standards: ski season, mud season, lake season and fall. Things are further categorized into tourist season (winter and summer) and the off-season (spring and fall). This is Tahoe in the month of May: The skiers are gone, but the kids are still in school. The trails emerge from hibernation, while a scant few locals quietly explore them. The absence of campers, hikers and mountain bikers means dogs rule the parks and trails leash-free. Too cold for water skiing, but warm enough to sun bathe. Each day is a peaceful slice of off-season heaven.

With the onset of Memorial Day Weekend, the off-season is official over. So yesterday, the Friday before the weekend, I thought it a fitting celebration to go for a long run on one of my favorite local trails—the Flume Trail.

Cap and I set out for 22 miles of mountain bliss. In the summer, the Flume is one of the most popular trails in Tahoe, and for good reason. Yesterday, we saw a total of 5 people. (Two of them were ultra-running friends from Truckee, out for a training run in preparation for the TRT 50K.) The weather was a perfect 72, the trails were dry, and yet it was quiet as a winter morning after a storm.

There was so little snow, in fact, that we decided to make it 24 miles by venturing on to the Tahoe Rim Trail to run over Marlette Peak. This led to a bit of adventuring while navigating across the snow. I couldn’t have asked for a day filled with more solitude, beauty and fun, with my favorite training partner to wish a fond farewell to the season.

Cap trots along Marlette Lake

Cap checks out the view of Tahoe from the Flume Trail

Happy Gretchen on the Flume!

Emerging from the snow onto the summit of Marlette Peak.

Today, I happily made the trek down to Foresthill to help out at the Western States training camp. It too, was a celebration of the change in seasons. Peace and solitude are the sustinance of my trail time, but friends are the highlight. It seemed like almost every runner I knew was out on the Western States trail this morning!

I helped out Bob and Margie Read, along with a wonderful crew, checking in runners at the Deadwood aid station. Many of you asked why I wasn't running. Among other reasons: I got to greet, hug, and say hi to every single one of you! That never happens for me when I'm actually doing the running, and how fun is that!

Everyone was having such a great time. The weather couldn't have been better. I met a ton of wonderful people, whom I look forward to working with again at the race. Basically, for me, it was a celebration of the running community. You guys rock!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


When I was a little girl, I used to love a show on PBS called The Magic of Oil Painting. I’d watch with wide eyes as Bill Alexander spent thirty minutes creating, what appeared to me to be a masterpiece. It truly was magic. One of the catch phrases that Bill, a portly, gray haired gentleman with a thick accent, used frequently was this: “In order to show light, you have to have dark!” I’m not much of an artist myself, but that idea has always stayed with me as kind of a general philosophy for life. Without darkness, there would be no contrast, and the light would go unappreciated and unnoticed.

If the preceding week of rain and general dreariness was the dark, then this past weekend was certainly the light. I welcomed with open arms what seemed to be the heralding of another spectacular Tahoe summer.

Andrew and I decided on Saturday to take the dogs to the Emigrant Trail—one of the first to be completely snow-free this time of year. We took our dog Cap, our neighbor’s crazy one-year-old lab Mary, a pair of running shoes for me, and a mountain bike for Andrew. This was our first attempt to turn my long run into a family affair, and although it was a mellow pace for Andrew, I’d say it was rather successful.

After the dogs and I were thoroughly exercised, we showered and headed off to Squaw Valley for the annual springtime event: Pond Skimming! This event is classic Squaw Valley. Skiers and boarders ride down the hill to a very small jump and attempt to ski across a good sized pond. Participants are in costume, and there are some crazy antics, to be sure. I saw pro skiers, teachers from my school, students of mine, and friends all getting soaking wet in the name of a good time.

Party time at Squaw

It was a weekend full of sunshine and smiles. And as one of my eighth-graders, Alissa, keeps reminding me, “Only nine more days of school!”

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Rock 'N River Marathon

At this point, I feel like writing about approximately a thousand other things besides Reno's Rock 'N River Marathon, held not this past Sunday, but the one before. It wasn’t exactly a banner day for me, nor was it really an important race on my schedule. It was, however, the inaugural event, and there are a few things about the day that bear mentioning. Since the rain compelled me to leave my camera at home, I fear this report won’t be too exciting. I’ll do my best to keep it straightforward, but as we know, brevity is not one of my bigger talents.

After four straight weekends of racing, I’d planned on the Rock ‘N River Half Marathon mostly because it was a local event, and I had heard good things about its first running, last year. In one of my typical oversights, I missed the online registration and thus found myself making the drive to Harrah’s on a rainy Saturday morning in order to register at the expo.

The registration line was moving painfully slowly, and as I stood there waiting, I tried to remember why I was running this race. Oh yeah: It was supposed to be fun. Still, I reasoned, a full marathon distance had been added this year and I could run that. Why was I running only the half again? I couldn’t remember. I had just decided that I wouldn’t run the full marathon because I couldn’t afford the entry fee, when I reached the front of the line.

Me: How much more does it cost to enter the marathon?

Volunteer: $5

Me: (incredulous) Really?

Volunteer: Yup. $45 for the half, and $50 for the full.

Me: Oh heck, sign me up for the full.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

By the time 5:00 am Sunday morning rolled around and I was driving through an absolute torrential downpour to Reno, I finally remembered why I was only supposed to run the half: It was my fifth week in a row of racing, and I don’t really like road races anyway. Plus, I was still in an unexplained funk that had plagued me for weeks now, and I was having flashbacks to CIM in 2001 when I had forced my friend Charlie to fly down from Seattle to run through a hurricane with me for our slowest and most painful road marathon ever. I realized, with an impending sense of doom, that I was a little burned out on racing.

The rain was mercifully lighter in Reno, and runner’s gathered underneath the “Reno: Biggest Little City in the World” archway which served as both the start and finish lines. When it was time to line up, I looked around to see that there were only about 100 runners in the full marathon. This did not help my less-than-positive attitude about the day.
I did, however, spot Reno’s own bad-boy, Lynyrd Skynrod jog up to the starting line followed by a gaggle of paparazzi angling for a shot. I enthusiastically went up to say hello, and was rewarded with a somewhat distracted response. I guess he didn’t recall that we’d spent what I personally felt was a memorable afternoon together in the casino last spring. Either that or he was just focused on the race.

I managed a quick hello to Turi, who was running the half, before we were off. The route for the first half of the marathon followed the same course as the half-marathon. It was a pleasant out-and-back, westbound along the Truckee River bike path. Upon reaching the Patagonia Outlet, runners looped back towards the start in Downtown Reno. Some people find out-and-back courses to be boring, but I don’t mind them. I think we got the most scenic running near downtown Reno, and I always enjoy seeing the runners passing in the opposite direction and cheering them on.

In only the first few miles it came to my attention that I was in 5th place. With such a small field, it’s difficult to be unaware of one’s place. The third and fourth place women were less than 20 yards in front of me, but I tried not to focus on that fact. I was already running too fast, having run miles one and two in 7:35 and 7:42 respectively. By mile four I had finally eased my way back to 8:00 pace, still in sight of third place.

I saw Lynyrd running toward me with a huge lead on the men’s field. I cheered him on, and he gave me a nasty scowl. Since Lynyrd is known for flipping off his cheering hordes, I rather thought his restraint here was a positive statement on his feelings for me.

The rain picked up again, and my wet shorts started to bunch up uncomfortably. I tried to focus on staying relaxed, but it was fairly lonely out there. At mile eight, the third place woman stopped to tie her shoe. I passed her and never saw her again.

On the run back toward downtown we began to see the half-marathon runners coming toward us. They had started at 7:00, a half hour after the marathon start. There were clearly far more participants in that race, and they cheered me enthusiastically. It felt good, and I did my best to return the support.

Eventually the lead men in the half-marathon came up behind me. I was grateful for someone to lead the way, since the runners coming toward me were now quite spread out, and the course wasn’t exactly what I would describe as well-marked.
Nearing the halfway point, volunteers kept cheering and telling me I was “almost there.” I kept amending, in my head, “almost halfway.” Clearly someone forgot to tell them there was a marathon going on.

I was a little concerned about where to go since everyone around me was finishing the half. Fortunately when the split in courses approached, someone yelled from behind me to keep right. This was lucky, since this turn wasn’t marked at all that I could see.

Now running down a rainy, desolate street in Reno, I was really nervous about where to go. There were cones everywhere, but many of these were marking construction zones, and it was confusing. I approached an intersection with total bewilderment when a motorcycle cop appeared out of nowhere to lead me, lights flashing, through the next few turns. I felt like kind of a rock star with my own police escort.

Finally, I was back on the bike path. This stretch of the course was another out-and-back along the Truckee River bike path, this time eastbound toward the city of Sparks. I still felt fine, but I was well aware of the fact that I had been running too fast and I would undoubtedly pay the price later. I plugged into my ipod to help myself relax through the lonely miles.

The rain had stopped for the moment, and I focused on trying to keep my splits even. They had aid stations at every mile, which I thought would be a bit excessive even on a hot day. On this cold, rainy day I only grabbed a cup of water from every third aid station.

When I saw the race leaders heading back, I was somewhat dismayed to see that Lynyrd was not among them. I wondered what happened to him. He was nowhere to be seen.

There weren’t really any course markings at this point, but the instructions were clear enough: Stay on the bike path. Still, for a trail runner who is used to the reassuring sight of pink ribbons every 100 yards or so, I found it difficult to trust myself that I was going the right way.

Approaching the turnaround at mile 20, I was a bit confused. My watch said I had run 4:30 for that mile—clearly laughable. After returning to the aid station at mile 19/21 I had clocked yet another 4:30 mile. Wow, I was on fire! It seemed obvious that the course must be short. I wondered if maybe they had just misplaced a few mile markers, but the overall distance was still accurate. After looking at my splits though, I can’t see how that’s possible.

I had seen the second place woman near the turn around, less than two minutes ahead of me. I figured I may as well focus on catching her, if for no other reason than to have something to do. I knocked out two 7:30 miles in a row. When I still couldn’t see her, even off in the distance, I began to lose heart. I could see that I was on pace to be very close to my PR, but I wasn’t sure the course was accurate and didn’t want my PR to have an asterisk by it.

The rain started coming down hard again. I started to tighten up, and my body kicked into “just get there” mode, averaging 8:45’s for the last three miles.
I came into the finish with a small horde of kids finishing the kid’s 1 mile fun run, which was both kind of fun and a little weird. Again, it seemed that no one realized there was an actual marathon going on here.

I grabbed my change of clothes and immediately headed into the casino to get out of my wet things. The flashing lights and constant ringing of the slot machines mesmerized me momentarily before I shook off the dazed and confused moment to search out the restrooms. A casino is a very surreal place to be after a running event!

After changing my clothes and cleaning off the chocolate GU that had apparently been smeared across my face for approximately the last 17 miles, I ventured back outside to see if I could grab my award for third place and bail. After some discussion with other front runners and the person in charge of awards, it seems there had been prize money advertised but there actually wasn’t any. Since I hadn’t known about it, I wasn’t too bothered. I did however check the website and the race flyer later that day, and they did indeed claim to give cash prizes for 1st-3rd places. That seemed to solve the mystery of what happened to Lynyrd Skynrod: He must have heard about the lack of prize money partway through the race and figured there was no point in finishing.

I wasn’t feeling too hot about my day, although I wasn’t sure why. I finished in 3:28—about the same time I ran at Surf City. That day had been a much more enjoyable experience, but then, it had been a much different race: more runners, perfect weather, better pacing by me, and family waiting for me at the finish line. Today’s race I had begun with no plan or expectations whatsoever, which resulted in this competitor running too fast in the early miles and not feeling so hot in the second half. It’s interesting that I ran the same time at both races, but with such different race strategies and such a contrast in how I felt afterward.

I decided it was the least I could do to cheer on the other lonely marathon runners still finishing in the rain, and I stood at the deserted finish line and clapped until my teeth chattered.

Full results here.

Since this was only the second year of the half marathon, the first year of the full marathon, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on what I liked about the event and what I think could be improved upon for next year.


  • Reno promotes itself as a race destination. Yay Reno!
  • Course is scenic, mostly following the Truckee River. Loved starting and finishing under the Reno archway. Very cool photo ops!
  • Great price for the marathon!
  • Many aid stations (maybe too many?) with friendly volunteers
  • Separate shirts for men and women, so I actually got one that fit and with a cute design. Also, shirts were a good, tech fabric.

Maybe next time we can…

  • Have a few bands. What happened to the “Rock” part of “Rock ‘N River”? Did they really mean the rocks on the riverbed or something?
  • Make sure the course is measured accurately. I don’t know for sure that it was short, but even if it wasn’t, there were a few mile markers that were way off.
  • Don’t offer prize money if there isn’t any. This is very poor form. The truth is, a quality event shouldn’t need prize money to attract a lot of runners.
  • Make sure the course is very clearly marked. There seemed to be a general lack of course markings. (Made up for by private police escort though, in my case!)

Overall, I think this event will be a great one for Reno. The course is flat, fast and scenic, and even though everything wasn’t perfect, it seemed like there was a professional crew there who will turn this into a stellar event. Especially if they can order up better weather in future years.

Thanks to the volunteers and Race Directors for all the hard work and being out there for us in the rain!

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.