Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lake Sonoma 50M 2012

The 2012 edition of the Lake Sonoma was characterized by talented runners, perfect weather, and a wonderful community of ultrarunners.

The race began Saturday morning on the shores of Lake Sonoma just north of the town of Healdsburg. The pre-race email had stated that the start would be at 6:30 sharp, “even if you’re still in line at the port-a-potty when the gun goes off.” Of course, that’s exactly where I found myself at 6:29.

“Oh, you can hold it!” Meghan joked as she walked by on her way to the starting line. (Clearly she hadn’t read my Way Too Cool race report.) I danced impatiently, next in line. I wasn’t skipping this pre-race necessity, even if it meant everyone started without me.

Luckily, I dashed up to Jenelle at the start just before everyone took off up the road.

We started about mid-pack so the deep field of elite runners wouldn’t suck us into their fast early pace. The first two miles were on road so that runners would have a chance to spread out a bit before hitting the singletrack. 

We climbed into the rising sun and everyone was in good spirits. This was to be my longest race of the season so far, and I was excited. Rather than tapering for this race, I made it a point to have a pretty solid week of training. It had been my spring break, and I needed to use the opportunity to get in some good mileage and some high quality workouts. A spring snow storm put a damper on my Thursday run, but otherwise, it all went as planned.

Jenelle heads up the hill with the crowd.

When we moved onto the single track, it felt like a bit of a relief. The sun streamed through the oaks, and everything was excessively green. That’s one of my favorite parts about coming out of the mountains for these spring races – the intensity of the verdant hills, the flowers, the sunshine. It’s a completely different season down there.

Singletrack love!

Everyone had warned me that this course was deceptively challenging, but I figured there’s really nothing deceptive about 10,500 feet of elevation gain. It's hard! There aren’t any serious climbs, but as you travel around Lake Sonoma, the trail goes in and out of small drainages. This means that A) There are a lot of little ups and downs, and B) You’re going to get wet.

The first creek crossing is the deepest, which isn’t a bad thing. May as well get the soaking over with right away. I was glad though, that I saw others go through before me, or I might not have been prepared to get wet all the way up to my shorts!

The course was beautiful, in spite of its rugged nature. Or perhaps that just added to it. The lake views were almost constant in the early and later parts of the race. Broad oaks kept us in the shade, and the many watersheds occasionally hid secret redwood glens.

I felt good, and spent most of the first half of the race passing people. It was a good way to go because I got to chat with so many other runners! I met a ton of new people and had a chance to briefly catch up with some old friends.

I was only three and a half hours into my race when Dakota Jones came screaming toward me on his way back to the finish. He looked strong, and hot on his heels were Tim Olson and Jorge Maravilla, who wore a big smile. It was fun to see all the race leaders charging. Joelle Vaught came bounding down a hill just chatting merrily with another runner. She seemed like she was having a blast, and I couldn’t help but smile. Some people make it look so easy.

I felt strong, and I wondered if I might not be running a bit too fast. I figured there was only one way to find out and just kept running.

There’s about a one mile loop at the turnaround, so you don’t get to see every single runner come by. I was excited then, to see Clare coming toward me shortly after I’d left the aid station.

“Clare!” I declared. “I thought you were ahead of me this whole time!” We exchanged brief words of encouragement as we ran by. A few minutes later Jenelle and I did the same.

I continued passing folks on the return trip, but now they were much fewer and farther between. I left the mile 30 aid station with Keira Henninger , whom I’d caught on the preceding climb.

“You know,” she started, “you are just so cute!”

I laughed. I mean, Keira is this beautiful SoCal runner babe, so it struck me as a little ironic that she called me cute. Still, my one previous experience meeting Keira told me that she is incredibly sweet, so I knew she was being sincere.

We chatted, and she gushed some more about how cute I am, and I laughed. Eventually I figured out that I was not who she thought I was, and I had to interrupt her.

“Um, … I’m Gretchen,” I explained shyly. Would that even mean anything to her?

Turns out she thought I was Sarah Lavender Smith. Well no wonder she thought I was cute! I ain’t got nothin’ on a girl who can do a cartwheel across the finish line to win a 50K. But I get it. It’s the pigtails.

As we headed into the downhill she started to pull ahead of me, but our parting exchange rang with me the rest of the day.

“Gretchen,” she yelled over her shoulder, “if we push, we can finish in under nine hours!”

“Nine hours?” I screeched. “No way!” It sounded impossible.

“Yes!” She insisted. “We only have 20 miles to go!”

“Okay, I’ll give it a shot!” I yelled at her swiftly receding form.

And I did. I thought “sub-9” as hard as I could. I kept Keira in sight for a little while, but she kept gapping me on the downhills, and eventually it became a solo mission.

I was pretty sure I could run the necessary pace to break nine hours, but I was really struggling to stay focused. The miles were lonely, and I kept zoning out and subconsciously slowing. I’d snap back and pick up the pace, but it was a struggle. Miles 35-45 were pretty tough, and a look at my splits confirms that this was the low point in the race for me.

Scott LaBerge, on his way to a course PR.

I was still passing folks heading out in the opposite direction, and I did my best to cheer them on. I knew their day would be much tougher than my own. One older woman gave me a delighted smile and returned my “good job.” I could just tell she was loving her day and it made me smile. I found out later it was Eldrith Gosney – 70-years-old and running 50 miles! Oh, Eldrith, when I am 70, how I hope to be you!

When I at last reached the final aid station with 4.7 miles to go, I could see that I wasn’t going to make sub-9. I declared it to a volunteer on my way out of the station.

“Well,” he said, looking at his watch, “give it a good go!”

His words were encouraging, but his tone of voice agreed with me. It wasn’t going to happen.

Jen Hemmen, loving the trail!

At the final creek crossing, I caught up with some other runners. At last! Someone in the group had a Garmin on, declared that it was 3.5 miles to the finish, and that sub-9 was totally doable.

And just like that, it was on.

I charged down the trail with energy I didn’t know I had left. Leading a small train of runners who were ready to push was all I’d needed. We flew.

Whenever we passed another runner, we encouraged him to join us. Some did, I think. I couldn’t look back for fear of eating it on the downhills. All I know is that I was suddenly feeling fabulous and running absolutely as fast as I could.

We passed Keira and I really wanted her to join us. This whole 8:XX thing had been her idea in the first place! But she’d taken a fall, and I think it had her too bummed out to run aggressively.

Garmin-guy declared one mile to go, and I checked my watch to see that I would have to run it in 9 minutes. Crap. Nothing was flat in this race, and I knew I didn’t have it in the bag yet. I started to feel a little dizzy and nauseous on the climbs and let a few runners go ahead. I could hear the finishline, but I didn’t dare look at my watch. I was afraid that it would tell me I wasn’t going to make it, and then I’d give up and slow down.

It felt like I was in a full-on sprint when I rounded that last corner to see the finishline clock ahead showing 8:59. I had just a few seconds left, but they were enough. It was another one of those big-smile-finishes, just like at Napa. I was stoked. 8:59:36, and 10th woman.

It took about 20 minutes for the fog to clear and the burning sensation to leave my legs. By the time I changed into some dry clothes I felt capable of being social, and Paul and I exchanged notes on our races. He’d had a good day overall but had faded toward the end. We discussed how so often it’s how you run in the final miles that leave you with your predominant feeling for the day. I’d faded in the middle but finished strong and was totally giddy about my race.

Clare and Jenelle also had great races, and we sat around in the sunshine on a beautiful California day eating tamales, drinking Corona, cheering folks across the line, and feeling satisfied. One of the things I really noticed about hanging out at the finish was that this race has such a strong ultrarunning community feel to it. It’s not just that I knew a lot of people there, but also that everyone there seemed to know each other. It makes it such a supportive environment, and just a fun place to be.

It was more than just the competition that was top notch at Sonoma. Everything from the course to the aid stations to the post-race food was excellent. (Plus, there were those mysteriously age-correlated bib numbers. Very curious.) It makes sense, since Tropical John has a slew of experienced ultra veterans working hard to make it all happen. I had fairly high expectations for this race, and I have to say they were all exceeded. Thanks so much for all your work, you guys!

I also owe a huge thanks to Keira, who planted the goal that kept me going for those last 20 miles, (You’re a rock star, Keira!) and to the men who ran with me the 3 miles from the last creek. It’s amazing how you can run all day long, and then so much can happen in just 30 minutes.

I can see why this one is becoming a destination race. (And I didn't even do any wine tasting!) Lake Sonoma 50 is a keeper.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Late Nights and Helicopters: A Day (and Night) in the Grand Canyon

The first rays of the morning sun painted a gentle orange on intermittent walls and spires, while the rest of the landscape remained shadowed, still sleeping. I followed five dauntless women down the precipitous trail, steeped in beauty and giddy with the day’s planned adventure.

“This must be ladies’ day for the rim to rim to rim!” The hiker called out as I passed.

“Why, yes! It is!” I replied with enthusiasm.

Clearly springtime in the Grand Canyon sees many an ultrarunner make the double crossing. This was my first time to the park though, and only two miles in I was already blown away by my surroundings, falling off the back end of the group because I couldn’t put my camera away.

Jamie and I had been planning this trip for nearly a year. After two incredible experiences running in Zion, we decided it was time for a new canyon. In many ways, I think we did the progression right. While the red walls of Zion are quite dramatic, the Grand Canyon boasts much of that same drama, and the overall scale is just more, well … grand. A gash in the Earth’s crust so enormous, it’s difficult to comprehend.

We parked the van at the top of the Bright Angel Trailhead and hopped on the shuttle to the South Kaibab where we would begin our run. Betsy ran around the shuttle painting glitter on all our faces while Caren promised not to run too far ahead on the trail. Jenelle, the sandbagger of the group, confessed her fears that she might not make it. Clare, Jamie and I just laughed and wiped the glitter out of our eyes. It was the perfect group of women for a new adventure.

Our awesome group at the top of South Kaibab, minus Jenelle who took the photo.

We got a late start (6:20 A.M.) due to the need for the shuttle, but the weather was glorious. We negotiated the passing of two mule trains (The mule drivers were quite considerate and helpful in allowing us to pass.), and soon had the trail all to ourselves. I had to alternate between staring around, awestruck, and keeping an eye on my footing, as we plummeted through multi-colored layers of rock toward the Colorado River below.

I love the South Kaibab Trail! (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Of course we would never attempt that!

Still loving the South Kaibab (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Jenelle passes the mules.

By 8:00 we’d crossed the bridge and found our way to Phantom Ranch to refill water, taking a little time to use the bathrooms and stash extra gear for the return trip. Although our approach to the run was fairly relaxed, we also knew we couldn’t do too much dawdling. In spite of our 3:00 A.M. wake up call, we would probably be finishing in the dark.

Colorado River

The North Kaibab trail leaves Phantom Ranch along the Bright Angel Creek, bound for the North Rim of the canyon. The first several miles feature steep canyon walls, and a pitch that is quite runnable. The desert was just beginning to assert its warmth while we crisscrossed the creek on several footbridges. The canyon, as the day, lay before us filled with promise and adventure.

(Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Shortly after 9:30, I’d caught up to most of the group when our promising day turned into a very challenging one. I looked up from the trail to see Betsy on the ground, clearly in pain. She’d fallen, and it only took us a few moments to realize that her run was over.

The first plan was for her to limp back to Phantom Ranch with Jenelle’s assistance to seek help at the Ranger Station. After a few attempted steps, it became immediately clear this would not work; she could put absolutely no weight on the leg, injured just below the knee.

We discussed our options: A) One person run back to get help, one person stay with Betsy, and the rest continue? No one felt good about continuing. B) Two people run to get help and everyone else stay? That seemed like the best option. Meanwhile though, Jenelle discovered she had cell service (Miracle! It was the only place in the entire canyon with service!) and was in touch with a ranger named Adam at Phantom Ranch.

Much to Betsy’s dismay, it was decided that a helicopter was probably the only option to get her out of the canyon. Adam needed to assess the situation before making the final call and would walk to our location. The waiting game ensued. Did you know that ultrarunners are not very good at sitting around waiting for help? We called back and offered to run to the ranger station and pick up a litter with which to carry Betsy out. There were five of us, after all, and we’re tough. Apparently that was not an option. (Adam later told us it was the first time he’d ever had such an offer.)

So, we waited.

We dipped our shirts in the creek to keep cool. We wondered about the rest of the day. We worried about Betsy. We spent a good amount of conversation discussing the potential hotness of our impending rescuer. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say our maturity levels regressed several decades. Hysterical giggles are good therapy for sun-drenched brains and worried hearts.

Eventually, finally, after possibly forever, Adam arrived. And guess what?

He was totally hot.

He was also extremely kind, very professional, and made us all feel much better about the eventual outcome of Betsy’s day. He confirmed the need for a helicopter, and reassured us that she would be in safe hands.

Betsy and Hot Adam

It was a strange and difficult thing leaving our friend on the trail at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, (even though she was with probably the hottest ranger in a 1,000 mile radius). We did not yet know the extent of her injury (fractures at the top of the tibia and fibula, it turns out), but we knew she had a rough road ahead.

After losing four hours to the rescue efforts, it seemed that our double crossing was not going to happen. It was 2:00 P.M. and we had only gone 12 miles. We decided to continue up the North Kaibab Trail a few miles to visit Ribbon Falls before turning around to head back to the South Rim.We were just glad Betsy was safe.

We bid farewell to Betsy and Adam, and continued up the trail with heavy hearts. Our day of promise had turned out to be challenging in ways I hadn’t expected. I felt horrible about Betsy, and I also felt disappointed that we wouldn’t complete our goal of the full double crossing. Betsy had tried to get at least some of us to keep running and not wait for Adam, but we just couldn’t do it. I understood how she felt, but we were a team, and it didn’t seem right.

In the weeks since this trip, the rest of us have given much thought and discussion to our running practices - all the times we run alone in the wilderness. There were a few hikers on the trail that day, so had Betsy been alone, she could have still gotten help, but it would have been much more difficult. Not to mention scary. I can't say I'm contemplating giving up running solo in the wilderness, but I've certainly become better already about making sure others know my plans.

Up the North Kaibab, the day was incredible and we had the trail mostly to ourselves. We came quickly to the junction for Ribbon Falls and made the short side trip. I love seeing lushness in the desert, and Ribbon Falls provided just that. Water cascaded over red sandstone landing on a large rock below.  The rock was slick with green moss, surrounded by a pool flanked with trees and shrubs and grass. The day’s heat made splashing in the water the perfect antidote for our stress.

Ribbon Falls

Cooling off with Jamie at Ribbon Falls. (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Back on the trail, and my brain began to churn. Why can’t we do the full crossing? What time might we finish if we just keep going? We’re almost all 100-mile veterans; we know what it’s like to run in the dark. We have headlamps. As we ran up the trail, I quietly voiced these thoughts to Clare to gauge her reaction, and she gave me an encouraging smile and nod of the head. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one thinking these things?

While we’d been waiting for Adam, Jamie and I had promised each other we would return to complete the rim to rim to rim in the fall. There would be other days, we’d said. But now, other thoughts spoke in my head. I took two days off work to be here. We drove 13 hours, and will have to do it again to get home. Just getting here had been a challenge, and the idea of running a few hours in the dark was starting to seem like less of a big deal the more thought I gave it.

Still, I wanted to be sure we were making smart decisions. My husband works in search and rescue, and I am well aware that the two thoughts I’d just had (time taken off work, and time to get to the destination) were often factors in justifying stupid decisions. I did not want to be one of the stupid people, so I thought carefully about how things might play out if we continued all the way to the top of the North Rim.

When we finally discussed it as a group, there actually wasn’t a whole lot of discussion. We were a little uncertain that we had as many calories with us as we would like, but that was the only major concern. We all wanted more miles, and we all had experience with running in the dark. We would absolutely stick together, and that was that. We were going for it!

I can’t explain how incredible I felt after that decision was made. We’d lost the canyon through circumstances no one could control, but now we had it back. Our vanished goal again became attainable. Just knowing that filled me with such energy; I knew we would make it.

The final miles to the top of the North Rim get steeper and more spectacular as you climb. Now that we were on a tight time schedule, I knew we couldn’t mess around too much. I also knew I wanted to breathe in every moment of this run, every view, every hill, every rock formation. Now that we were here, that we’d committed ourselves, I wanted to make sure it was all worth it. 

Jamie and Clare nearing the top of the North Rim.

We made it! Jenelle celebrates the snowy North Rim.

Clare and Jamie: "Uh, we're only halfway?"

We took a few minutes at the top to eat food and let the reality sink in that we were only halfway. It was 4:00 P.M., and time to turn around. We knew it was going to be a long, long day.

Clare, heading back down the North Kaibab Trail.

Clare and Jenelle pause on the descent.

The run back down to Phantom seemed to go by in a flash. The downhill felt easy, and we all tried to make as many miles as possible before darkness set in. We turned on headlamps just a couple miles before the river crossing.

Timing was perfect to grab a few snacks at the Phantom Ranch, as the store re-opened at 8:00 P.M. – exactly when we arrived. Snickers bars and lemonade put everyone in positive spirits as we headed out for the final climb up the Bright Angel Trail.

We’d taken a shuttle in the morning so we could return via this trail, rather than the South Kaibab which we’d taken down. We’d been hoping for different scenery, which made us laugh now. Still, I reveled in the darkness. This was our adventure. This was where we were. At the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the pitch darkness, surrounded by unseen walls, and stars peeking in overhead. I was thrilled!

At the back of the group, which is apparently my comfort zone for some reason, I turned my light off in the middle of the bridge. The river rushed past beneath me, and even though I couldn’t see the canyon walls, I could feel them there. The absence of stars spoke their outlines with the half moon about to rise over the rim. I knew it was going to be a slog up Bright Angel. We’d been awake for 18 hours, I was already exhausted, and we hadn’t even begun climbing. I knew all this, and I simply didn’t care. I still felt triumphant that we’d completed our entire journey. Every tired, sleep-deprived step, was now merely part of the experience.

The climb in darkness was more magical than I could have imagined, although perhaps it was simply part of that same late-night exhaustion that eventually induces hallucinations. 

We saw wildlife everywhere. Frogs sang in these incredible, deep choruses. When we finally spotted our baritone culprits at a creek crossing, they were far too tiny to be making such noise, surely! We saw docile deer, miniature scorpions, furry tarantulas, and one curious ringtail. I kept seeing spiders with glittery eyes, but every time I pointed one out to Jamie or Jenelle, they thought I was joking. I swear they had glitter in their eyes!  (I’m certain daytime hikers all miss the glittery spiders.)

Near midnight, the final miles were completed in a steady power hike. Although I was overwhelmingly happy, I was also far more tired than expected for a 45 mile run.

“I keep thinking,” I confessed to Jamie as I walked behind her, “that if this were Hardrock, I wouldn’t even be halfway.” The desperation in my voice conveyed the thoughts behind that statement: I can’t even imagine running another 55 miles right now, and this isn’t nearly the elevation gain or loss experienced at Hardrock, nor the altitude.  

“I know,” she said. “I’m starting to wonder if I’m cut out for some of the tings on my agenda this year.”

I knew exactly what agenda items she meant, and the glow from my headlamp simply rose and fell in solidarity behind her.

“I love how we have no false words of comfort for each other,” I laughed a moment later.

“There’s really no way to sugar-coat it,” she agreed.

We do have big adventures ahead in our year, but I think the Grand Canyon set the tone. It was training in adversity, as well as perspective. It was tragedy and triumph. It was glorious in so many ways, and an experience with dear friends that I’ll never forget.

And I can hope, in another three months, that 45 miles won’t seem nearly as long.

No one really felt inclined to pose for a group photo in the dark at the end, but this kind of captures how we felt, minus the sheer exhaustion.