Friday, July 30, 2010

The Judah Loop

This morning Cap and I took a break from the stress of pre-trip tasks to get out for a jaunt on a classic Truckee run: the Judah Loop. It was definitely an escape from responsibilities (which seems to be a theme lately) but everyone is better off if I can maintain my sanity. This morning, I managed to do much more than just that.

The trail begins at the PCT trailhead on Donner Summit, just off old highway 40. I used to teach at a school that literally sits right at this trailhead. In those days,I ran this 5ish-mile loop at least twice a week from August through November, before the snow sets in to make it some of the best skiing in Tahoe. It's the section of PCT I know best, and because I've spent so much time there, it's also the one I love the most.

It's actually a lollipop, not a loop, and the part that you run twice is the most rocky, technical section. If you happen to have a pair of Innov-8 X-Talons, I recommend them as the perfect shoe for this trail. They made short work of the talus and boulders, and I ran both uphill and down with shocking confidence.

Full of incredible views, lots of elevation gain (and loss) and sections of both technical and smooth trail, the Judah Loop never disappoints.

This morning was my first time there this season, and it was like an incredible gift. I felt so alive, so fast. I was agile and sure-footed. I felt like I was flying. Even Cap had a hard time keeping up with me. I could almost hear him, confusion in his doggie voice, What's going on here? Slow down!

But I have little sympathy for my four-legged training partner, and I knew he was as familiar with the area as I. Cap spends all winter patrolling these slopes as an avalanche search and rescue dog. There was no harm in taking off and letting him come find me today.

I stopped for just enough moments to snap a few photos, but stopping wasn't really on the game plan today. It was a short run, true, but my legs moved with a cadence that I have missed, and my breathing wasn't even that hard. We crested the summit of Mt. Judah and much too soon it seemed, found ourselves back at the car.

I smiled at the pure fun of it all, and the sure knowledge that I am well recovered from TRT and ready for the next adventure.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I'm a Rock Star!

Summertime bliss continues to dominate life here in the mountains. Although as usual, I don't feel like I have enough time, who can really complain about so much hiking, lake swimming and time with friends? Responsibility has taken a back seat this week, which actually makes my guilt-alarms blare with regular frequency. I'm trying to drown them out with loud music.

Andrew and I are headed out of town this weekend for two weeks back in Minnesota to see family and friends. Before we load up the Subaru with climbing gear and dogs, I'm hoping to squeeze in two more posts: one about the gear I used for TRT, and one about the incredible backpacking trip I just did in Yosemite. I'm crossing my fingers that I find time to get those up, and then after that it could get pretty quiet around here for a while.

In the meantime, I have to share the following picture. I ran across it yesterday on Facebook and hooted for joy (and utter amusement) when I saw it.

Jenny and Donald give me the pit-crew pedicure while I live it up.

Remember in my race report when I compared my crew to Nikki Kimball's? I arrived at Tunnel Creek at mile 61 with some decent blisters on both pinky toes. I also wasn't feeling so hot, and I'll confess, I knew good and well that it was going to be a sufferfest to the end. I started to worry a little less about my time, and mustered some stalwart determination to enjoy myself. I decided it would be worth the time to stop and have the blisters dealt with, and if it's not clear from the photo, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

In many ways this picture sums up my race experience. It could be said that things weren't going perfectly for me. However, I was in an amazing setting, doing something I loved, and surrounded by a fun and dedicated crew who gave me unquestioning support (and dealt with some seriously gross feet). I felt like a complete rockstar, and I ate it up.

Of the (at least) four people who helped me with the feet issues, only Donald was officially part of my crew. But I felt like they were all there just for me. That Tunnel Creek gang - they're pretty awesome.

Tunnel Creek wasn't the only place I experienced the rockstar treatment either. At every aid station there were volunteers and friends doing things for me and telling me how awesome I was doing and how great I looked. Even though I was pretty certain they were all lying to me, I loved it, and it made me feel great.

I have to thank Andy especially for draining the blisters, and taking that picture. You may notice that not only was I stuffing my face while all this was going on, but I was also jabbering away non-stop about how I felt like I was getting a pedicure at a fancy spa. One of the things I'd asked for was a picture of the moment, but everyone was too busy cleaning my feet. Or so I thought!

Looking at that picture makes me smile and laugh. It also makes me feel so lucky to have had the support of amazing folks like Donald, Jenny, Andy and JoAnn. Thanks, guys!

Tunnel Creek at mile 67: Jenny, JoAnn, me, and Olga, still having fun!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tahoe Rim Trail 100, 2010

I’ve often thought that writing and running are complimentary pursuits in my life—both essential parts of holding my world together. After writing my last blog post, and subsequently running the race I was pondering, I am more certain than ever that these two activities come together for me with a result that is more than just the sum of their parts. Using writing to explore my goals and thoughts going into this race is almost certainly what allowed me to have a wonderful and rewarding experience during a hot day on a difficult course. Feeling grounded in my goals and intentions gave me something to focus on when things got tough during the race.

In the weeks leading up to the race I had a few conversations with friends about the strength of the ultra running community, and how we enjoyed being part of it. It had me thinking a lot about what I love about trail running—what I’ve gotten out of it and what I hope to accomplish. I never felt a stronger sense of the running community than I did at this race, on this day.

Donald, me, Olga and George, ready for a big day

It started Friday night with a small gathering of runners at my house for dinner. I love it when runners come together from far and wide to hang out, and it’s especially nice when we can take some time together outside of the race to socialize. It was a perfect pre-race distraction for me.

100 mile chicks!

Saturday morning I arrived at the start a bit earlier than strictly necessary, but it turned out to be yet another great opportunity to say hi to a number of friends I knew I wouldn’t see once we started running. I was excited but not nervous, as we headed off into the dark towards Marlette Lake.

Racer and wingman, pre-race

Is it just me, or am I the only one on the starting line letting loose with a huge belly laugh? Catherine must have been saying something pretty funny!

I ran a few miles with Kathy D’Onofrio, until I realized that her pace was too fast for me and I had to let her go. After that I ran for a while with Mark Tanaka, who is clearly also too fast for me. Unfortunately, I failed to recognize this because he is such an entertaining person to run with. By the time I left Tunnel Creek at mile 11, I was well aware that I needed to slow things down or be very sorry.

As I headed down into the Red House Loop I noticed my stomach was upset, and I really started to worry. Had I made a mess of things already? I was forced to duck into the woods for an emergency bathroom stop with nothing but thimbleberry leaves for TP. I was feeling pretty bummed, and I knew that was a bad way to feel this early in the race.

At the bottom of Red House I took a mental break to assess my situation. The last thing I wanted was to feel depressed about things already, so I made up my mind not to. I made a plan to slow down, eat some food, and get some salt caps from my drop bag at Tunnel Creek. I gave myself a pep-talk and decided that I needed to enjoy myself, no matter what the day might bring. All of this helped me feel much better.

On the way out of Red House, there is a short stretch where you share the trail with runners headed out. It was on this section of steep climbing that I saw nearly everyone I knew in the 50M and 50K races on their way down, and was even greeted by a few anonymous blog readers. Seeing all those smiling faces, getting all those hugs and hellos, was absolutely the highlight of my day. It was exactly the mental boost that I needed, and if you were one of those people you need to know how important you were to my day. Thank you!

At Tunnel Creek my weight was down three pounds already, from 133 to 130. I simply incorporated the information into my plan to take care of myself. All the way to Diamond Peak I concentrated on salt and hydration.

Turning down the new section of the course that headed towards the mile-30 aid station at Diamond Peak Lodge, I checked my watch and realized I might arrive as much as an hour earlier than planned. Would Donald, my one-man crew/pacer team even be there yet? It’s not that I couldn’t have survived without him, but there’s something very comforting about knowing someone is there waiting for you. I was looking forward to the support of someone just asking me what I needed and cheering me on. When I rounded the corner into the parking lot to see my Subaru parked there, I smiled with relief. Donald was somewhere on the other side of the lodge waiting for me.

Rounding the corner into the Diamond Peak Aid Station

Part of the new course includes a departure from Diamond Peak that leads the runner straight up the ski slope to the ridge. I referred to this section affectionately as the “Hill from Hell” or the “Cliffs of Insanity!” It was simply brutal. No fun at mile 30, I knew it would be unbearable at mile 80.

Looking back down the steep, sandy climb as runners trudge up

The twenty miles back to the Start/Finish transition went reasonably well. I spent the whole time focused on hydration and nutrition, and every time I got on the scale and it said 134 I gave myself a big high-five. I fought the heat with a bandanna full of ice on my back, and a cup of ice in my sports bra at every aid station. The volunteers, particularly the men, were amused every time I dumped ice down my top, (especially when I squealed) but no one made fun of me. They all knew I was being smart.

Following the ribbons on the TRT

Back over Marlette Peak

Approaching the Snow Valley Peak Aid Station at mile 43

Friends greeted me at the 50 mile station at the Start/Finish and helped me with my food and water as Donald got ready to join me. Seeing all those people, I again felt overwhelmed by the awesome community around me. I tend to get a little giddy at the aid stations because it’s just so cool to have all those people cheering. I was told by many people after the race how good I looked at various aid stations. It’s ironic since I was struggling physically most of the day, but I’m sure it’s because I was enjoying myself in spite of feeling crummy. I’m really not such a goofball during the miles in between aid stations. I’m pretty sure.

Meghan and I do a little jig together as I come into mile 50.

Weighing-in alongside Kathy. 134! High-five!

As Donald and I headed off on lap #2, I couldn’t help but compare how I felt now to how I felt at this same point during my race in 2008. It was obvious to me that I felt decidedly worse this time around. I’d run about 30 minutes faster for 50 miles on a harder course on a hotter day, so it wasn’t too surprising. Still, my training had been much better this time around, so I held on to the faith that it would get me through.

Heading towards Marlette Lake for the second time that day.

Having Donald as my pacer was a circumstance that turned out to be nothing short of perfect. It might seem odd, since on the surface it would appear that we didn’t know each other well. As I said to him in the weeks before the race, we’d only spent about 30 minutes ever in each other’s presence, and for at least half of that (during his Western States run last year) he was in danger of puking all over me. Possibly not an auspicious beginning to a friendship, but ultra running is funny that way. He’s written enough blog posts that made me think, Whoa, this guy is looking inside my brain and putting words to my own thoughts, that I knew it was going to work out just fine. When he volunteered for the job, I jumped at the chance.

My friend Betsy once gave me advice on finding a good pacer, and she recommended having someone you respect and trust, someone you’ll listen to, but not someone you know well enough that you’ll argue with him or get irritated. With that description, I knew I had the perfect pacer in Donald.

I was excited to play tour guide on my favorite trails, and I busied myself by explaining the course to Donald, and pointing out flowers and views and things he really didn’t need me to point out.

When we landed at Tunnel Creek for my fourth time, I decided it was time to have some blister issues taken care of. They’d been bugging me all day, and frankly I needed a good excuse to sit down.

Jenny, Andy and JoAnn tackle my disgusting feet.

The amazing Tunnel Creek crew took great care of me, as usual. Andy and JoAnn expertly dealt with my blisters, then Jenny and Donald cleaned my feet and put my shoes and socks back on. I was reminded of watching Nikki Kimball’s crew at Western States last year and thinking what a rock star she was to have an amazing crew like that. Here I was now with my own rock star crew! I was only disappointed that no one took a picture of Jenny and Donald cleaning the dirt from between my toes. I thought it was great! I was enjoying myself so much in fact, (acting like a goofball again) that one of the volunteers asked me if I was on drugs.

“You know,” I responded, “I think I might be!” Running is kind of a drug, right?

Have you ever seen people with two such goofy grins heading into the Red House Loop? Complete dorks--both of us!

As the evening wore on, my physical state slowly deteriorated. Somehow though, almost magically, I felt great mentally. We shared stories, Donald kept me laughing with corny jokes, and on the Cliffs of Insanity! we stopped several times to turn off our lights and check out the stars. (It had nothing to do with needing a rest, I assure you!) It was good stuff, for sure.

Back at Tunnel Creek one last time. I can't fathom why I'm still smiling.

The hardest part of the night came somewhere after 4:00 AM. I kept thinking I was feeling dizzy or something when it finally occurred to me what was going on: I was incredibly sleepy! I became so sleepy in fact, that I began nodding off while running, and swerving all over the trail. I kept shaking my head, trying to wake myself back up, but I had to do it every three or four seconds. This went on for hours. All I wanted was to sleep, just to sit down for a few minutes and nod off. I knew of course, that it probably wouldn’t help, and so did Donald, but he indulged me once or twice and let me sit down. If it weren’t for him though, I probably would have curled up at the side of the trail and slept for hours. I’m no good at sleep deprivation.


Taking a 60 second nap in the middle of the trail

I’d heard plenty of stories from other runners of having hallucinations on trail. Since I hadn’t experienced anything like that during my other 100 in 2008, I figured I just wasn’t a hallucinator. Boy was I wrong! I’d been seeing things that weren’t really there a little bit all day, but in these wee hours of a sleep-deprived morning, it all became completely unreal. I entertained myself by watching houses and buildings and cars and people that I knew weren’t really there turn themselves back into trees and rocks. It’s really fascinating the scenes the human brain can concoct in such a depleted state.

Since I was well aware that none of it was real, I didn’t say much to Donald. When I did point out a little black dog that turned into a tree stump, I think his response was something like, “Boy, you’re really going through it, aren’t you?” I wasn’t sure if he was laughing at me or freaked out. I refrained from pointing anything unusual out to him after that.

In those last ten miles, my brain and emotions were all over the place. I kept reminding myself of the goals I’d written up before the race, and that’s what kept me from falling apart mentally. The few moments when the pain and the sleepiness were so hard that I was overwhelmed and I thought “I just want to be done with this,” I immediately put the brakes on that thought. I remembered to acknowledge what I was feeling and accept it as part of the experience. I remembered not to fight it. I’d been looking forward to this race for so long, I didn’t want to wish any of it away, not even the worst, most painful parts. I breathed deeply, took pride in how far I had come, enjoyed the presence of a friend, and kept moving down the hill with painful, little steps.

I already knew, as I made my way around Spooner Lake in the last mile, that I was happy with my race and proud of myself. I’d made a few mistakes early on, but I’d been smart and kept it together for most of the day and night; I’d stayed positive throughout the race. I think that, most of all, is what I really feel good about.

Physically, I felt much worse than I think I should have, and it was a very hard race for me starting early in the day. After my pep talk at the bottom of Red House though, I never felt down or disappointed with how things were going. I just remembered my goal of accepting my best effort without judgment. I knew I was giving my best effort, and that allowed me the freedom to enjoy myself, the freedom to let go of everything else outside of the run itself.

Andrew surprised me by being at the finish line, and the race officials surprised me by telling me I was the third woman.

“Third?” I sputtered in confusion. “But what happened to all those women in front of me?”

A woman standing nearby raised her eyebrows and hands and said quietly, “They all dropped like flies.”

I guess that’s the way it goes sometimes on a hard course on a hot day. The finish rate for the 100 was 56%. Ouch.

This race was so challenging for me, I’m not sure I’ll be back to the 100 mile distance. I said the same thing in 2008 though, so I’m certainly not saying I
won’t be back. A runner passed me in the last few miles, being paced by Rob Evans. Rob told us as he ran by that he loved being a pacer this year. (He ran the 100 last year.) I told him I was seriously keeping that option in mind for next year, and I am!

I can’t express enough gratitude to all the people involved in this race. Everyone from the directors and the volunteers, the other runners, my pacer/crew, to the friends and family cheering on the sidelines. A special community indeed—this race is where I have felt it the most. Thank you!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Pace of Nature: Pre-race Thoughts on the Tahoe Rim Trail 100

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Walking into the yoga studio at the Tahoe Yoga and Wellness Center is like walking into a room full of calm. The empty room feels slightly warm with leftover energy from the previous class. Bare feet connect softly with the smoothness of the bamboo floor, and yoga mats are quietly rolled out toward the center of the room. This is my favorite part of cross training, and an essential part of my taper. My yin yoga practice is the savasana (final meditation pose) to my season of training.

In Monday’s class I was struck by a number of comments from the instructor. These are the same remarks, more or less, that he makes in every class, but this time they seemed to me to hold a sharp relevance to the act of running a hundred miles.

In yin practice, the postures are very passive and held for several minutes at a time. Thus, it takes special effort to contain the mind, to keep it from wandering, to stay present. My teacher spoke of the freedom of presence. It struck me as odd at first that something so challenging—staying present—could hold freedom, until I realized that staying present simply means letting go of everything else—all the other cares, worries and responsibilities that are outside the current moment. That freedom was something I also found in the last, painful miles of my previous 100 mile run at TRT. It was a fearful way to discover how to appreciate the moment, which I’m certain is what made it so rewarding.

He also spoke of having acceptance, no judgment, and of simply acknowledging what is there and allowing it to be. These may not sound like important ideas for running, but I think they are critical to dealing with things like pain and fear—things I’m certain to encounter when running a hundred miles.

Last month, when I came crashing down on my ankle and everything else subsequently crashed down around me, I spent the long limp home doing some serious thinking. I thought about what was really important in my life, and asked myself what were the things I wanted most desperately. It turned out, running a bad-ass 100-miler wasn’t even on the list. It was a good dose of healthy perspective.

Sometimes though, it feels like the only thought on my brain for the past six months has been what will happen this Saturday. I realize this is in large part because it is much easier for me to focus my thoughts and actions on an attainable goal rather than on the more difficult questions of life.

So, as Saturday approaches, I am still asking myself what I want out of this experience. Why am I going to this race? Is it for a challenge? A sense of accomplishment? Always, I hold this sense within me of needing, wanting, pushing for something more. Something. Sometimes I think I know what that something is, and other times that’s the whole point—to figure it out. At least running is one something that I know how to do.

I’d like to take some lessons from the past year and focus a little less on the concrete goals contained in numbers—numbers that tell time, splits, pace, place. Numbers that tell good or bad. I’d like to focus a little more on the abstract this time around. I’d like to be present, without judgment or expectations. I’d like to accept my best effort for whatever it is. I’d like to experience the freedom of letting go of everything but the run itself. I’d like to channel the calmness of the yoga studio, to bring that meditative state to the trail and balance out the excessive motion of running—the perfect harmony of yin and yang.

In a positive state of mind: TRT 50M 2009