Friday, August 09, 2013

Tahoe Rim Trail 2013

Sunrise at the TRTER - one of my favorite pics from 2011

The Tahoe Rim Trail races keep me coming back every year for many reasons. It’s partly the incredible scenery and challenging terrain, but mostly I would say it’s the awesome people involved. (Okay, yeah, it's also in my backyard.) The runners, the race organizers, the volunteers, the supporters and pacers – it feels like the epitome of ultrarunning family, and there’s no place I’d rather be on this weekend in July.

I signed up for the 50 Mile race this year, and I’ll be honest, my training has been what you might call lackluster. A lack of time combined with a lack of motivation can greatly diminish a girl’s ultra mileage. It’s just been that kind of year, and I’m okay with that. It does take some adjusting of expectations though, and there’s been a lot of that, too.

My primary goal for this race was to run under 11 hours. For the first time in 5 years, I planned to put my name into the hat for Western States, and for the first time in 7 or 8 years, I am without a qualifier. I ran an 11:30 at Squaw Peak, leaving TRT as my last shot for that sub-11. I had it in the back of my mind that if I missed sub-11 here, I might sign up for Firetrails and try to do it there, but at this point, it wasn’t in the plan.

With Jamie and Tina Ure before the start of the 100

Anthony chose to go the pacer route. Smart man!

Chaz gets a good luck hug before the start of his 100 mile adventure!

Race morning at 4:30 AM, and Jamie and I pulled into the parking lot simultaneously from opposite directions. Hardly surprising. We just seem to be in sync that way much of the time. We arrived in plenty of time to see friends in the 100-miler and wish them well before their 5:00 AM start. Several of them were tackling the 100 mile distance for the first time. I always find myself in awe of this choice – like, really? Couldn’t you have picked an easier race for your first 100? – until I remember that I did the same thing. Oh yeah. I guess if you’re going to be crazy, you might as well just embrace it, right?

Jamie and Michaela in the early morning

I lined up with John Trent, and we managed to share most of the early miles on the way to Marlette Lake. I felt a little unsure of my pace, so I tried to hold back a bit, but mostly I just went with the flow.

By the time we reached the first aid station, Hobart at mile 6, I didn’t need to refill water yet, but I was starving! I stuffed two PBJ squares into my mouth and made a quick visit to the port-a-potty. I have to mention this because the port-a-potties at Hobart smelled like cherry Jolly Ranchers. I’m not kidding! They had some kind of amazing air fresheners in there. Whatever they were, Hobart peeps, keep them on the list for next year! 

Climbing up to Marlette Peak. (Photo from 2009)

Morning light from the top of Marlette Peak is one of the most beautiful sights you will ever see. I took it all in with joy before descending into forested, rolling terrain. This section has a mix of climbing and descending on the way to the Tunnel Creek aid station. Later in the race, returning through this same section, a runner told me that he had been running near a group of men behind me during these early miles. Apparently, one runner in the group instructed, “Watch her. When she walks, you walk!” I thought this was super nice of him to tell me – so glad I could help other runners with their pace without even knowing it!

The Tunnel Creek aid station, as many of you know, is a thing of delight. It was a bit overwhelming because I was greeted by so many enthusiastic friends, but who can possibly complain about that! It wasn’t yet hot, but definitely warm enough to ice the bottles, and Jenny Capel took great care of me while I sucked down strawberries and another PBJ.

The next stretch was the 6-mile Red House Loop. A steep descent, some nice, flattish running, and a steep climb. Overall, it felt pretty darn good. I passed my friend Tina here who was attempting her first 100. Remember those crazy people I mentioned earlier? Yeah, she is a tough chick. She looked great!

On the climb back up to Tunnel I was starting to feel the heat, and my shirt was beginning to chaff under my right arm. I won’t go into all of my race day wardrobe woes, but suffice it to say that I have never before raced an ultra in anything but a tank top. So yeah, I ditched the shirt at Tunnel Creek. No more shirts for me on race day!

Between Tunnel Creek and the Bull Wheel aid station (miles 17-20ish)I started to feel some cramping in my legs. This usually only happens when I’m pushing my pace beyond what my training would really allow. I knew the heat was probably also a factor, but I sheepishly admitted to myself that I’d probably been running at the pace that I’d like to maintain, rather than the pace that I could maintain. I dialed my speed back just a notch, popped more salt, and kept drinking.

I’d been heavy on both the salt and the fluids for so early in the morning (maybe 10:00 AM?), but it was definitely the right call. I’d been fighting sloshy stomach already and really wanted my body to absorb that water. I knew I would need it! Normally I don’t take much salt, but I think that’s because I typically have water in one bottle and GuBrew in the other. I just didn’t feel like the sweetness of a sports drink that day, so I was going with plain water. With the extreme heat, that meant extra salt for sure.

After the Bull Wheel aid station, I ran with Roxana Pana. We’d never met before, but we have a number of mutual friends, so it was great to finally make her acquaintance. We ran together for a few miles and shared sympathies on our similar challenges. It was already shaping up to be a tough day!

Dropping into the descent towards Diamond Peak AS, John came up behind me.
“I thought you were ahead of me!” I declared in surprise. It was great to see another friendly face.

“I’m everywhere!” he declared, to both of our amusement.

We ran the long downhill, and I took multiple opportunities to splash my face in the cold waters of the creek. I was already crusted with salt!

My spirits got a boost as I headed into the Diamond Peak aid station which was packed with cheering fans. Betsy and Jenelle were both there to support 100 mile runners, and they immediately jumped up to help me out. It was like having my own crew! Yay! Betsy iced my bottles while I stuffed my face, then she helped me drink a Coke from my UltrAspire cup. Yes, I hadn’t quite figured out how to use the cup myself at that point. It was pretty funny. It required three hands. (I have a full tangent about going cup-free at aid stations, which I think is a super good thing, but I’m going to try to motivate to give it a blog post all its own. Don't hold your breath.) Someone (Maybe Julie, or maybe an aid station volunteer?) offered me an Otter Pop, and I was like, “Yes, yesyesyesYES!!”

Betsy sunscreens me up at Diamond Peak. She was the BEST! (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Betsy sprayed me down with sunscreen, I took a quick douse in the hose (hopefully not washing off all my sunscreen) and I was off feeling awesome! Soaking wet, ice in my sports bra, ice in my bottles, and Otter Pop in my hand. Could life be better?

Well, yeah, I did have that damn DP climb to tackle. Ugh.

“So John,” I yelled ahead to John, who was now running with his daughter, Katie, “remember at mile 3 when you said the first half of this climb was runnable?”

I was teasing him, but I really hoped he wasn’t about to break into a run. I would have felt like a total loser.

“Yeah,” he laughed, and that’s about all the commentary we needed. None of us was going to run this at noon in 95 degree heat.

I did the best I could while I watched John and Katie slowly pull away from me. I was fighting small bouts of nausea and knew I just had to maintain whatever pace my body would allow. I actually passed quite a few other runners on this climb, mostly 100 milers I think, who had started at 5:00 AM. It was clear that Diamond Peak was creating massive carnage even at mile 30. I only hoped I would not be part of it!

I passed my friend, Dustin, who was another first time 100 miler. I could tell he was struggling, and I was worried for him.

“Just keep moving. Take it slow,” was all I had to offer. I wished I had something more inspiring to say, but I was barely holding it together myself.

Helen, making the Diamond Peak climb during a June training run.

Near the top of the climb, I could hear someone madly ringing a cowbell and cheering people on. I could make out the words well before I could see him, and I knew exactly who it was.

“You’re awesome!” he declared to someone. “Hey, you in the shade there, time to get moving again!”

I smiled. Passing out the best mojo around, none other than Greg Holmes had hiked ¾ of the way up the nastiest climb on the course in order to support us. It took me forever before I finally reached him and crawled my way by.

At this point, the hill is so step and sandy that progress is achingly slow. Your foot slides back down half a step for every step taken. In the hot sun, the sweat poured off me and I swayed with unsteady balance. While trying to wipe sweat from my eyes, I accidentally wiped a crust of salt from my face directly onto my eyeball. Gaaaahhh! Now I was stumbling and blind. Would this climb ever end?

At least I had the advantage of being familiar with the climb, and thus not fooling myself that I was nearly at the top when, in fact, I had quite a ways to go. Upon finally reaching the summit, I felt massive relief, but otherwise still pretty crappy.

I took it easy along the ridge back toward Tunnel Creek wondering what was in store for me. Eighteen miles wasn’t really far to go, but in my current state, I knew it would take quite a long time. I felt nauseous, dizzy, and exhausted. This could turn out to be a very sad race for me. I wasn’t really upset by the thought; I just recognized the truth of the matter. It felt merely like a curious adventure. Very Alice-in-Wonderland-ish.

I was doing my best to recover when another woman, who I later learned was Molly Knox, came flying by. She looked amazing. How was that possible when I felt so horrible? I didn’t let myself dwell on it too much. I just had to keep moving and stay positive.

And nothing helps a girl’s mental state like seeing all the awesome folks at Tunnel Creek again! I filled up on water and smiles, and as I left the aid station, I looked back to see if Roxana was anywhere behind me. I saw instead a girl with short ponytails with whom I had run a bit in the first half of the race. I allowed this to motivate me in staying focused and improving my pace. I knew I wasn’t in contention for a top finish or anything, but what the heck. Even when I’m feeling crappy, it’s hard to completely squash those competitive instincts, you know?

But as it turned out, I wasn’t feeling so crappy anymore. I was surprised, in fact, to discover that I was feeling quite recovered, and this further lifted my spirits. I passed a few men through this stretch up to Marlette Peak and enjoyed conversation with several of them. One of them was the one who explained how other runners had judged me to be experienced and paced off me through here in the first part of the race. That comment definitely provided a mental boost!

Eventually the ponytails girl did catch me, and I finally found out her name was Ashlee. We ran together, chatting all the way into Hobart, and it was awesome. I love it when a feeling of competitiveness in me so quickly and easily turns into one of camaraderie.

I left the aid station ahead of Ashlee, but she quickly caught me on the way to Snow Valley Peak. I gave her a brief rundown of the terrain remaining to the finish before she left me on the climb. I don’t know if it was helpful information for her, but I have realized that I usually enjoy answering people’s questions and giving advice about this course during the race. It feels like I’m contributing a tiny bit to other people’s races, and I know I always appreciate it when course veterans give me tips at races that are new to me.

As I neared Snow Valley Peak aid station, I began to do the math. From SVP, it was 7 miles to the finish – about 5 ½ to the final aid station at Spooner, and 1.4 from there to the finish.  In order to run sub-11, I really wanted to be at 9:30 on the clock, giving me 90 minutes for the final 7 miles. That would definitely put it in the bag. However, I knew that if I came through at 9:45 at the latest, I probably still had a good shot. I would just have to work for it.

Of course, I came through at 9:50.

So, I redid the math. Seven miles to go – that meant 10 minute pace. Five of those miles are downhill, so that sounded doable, even at the end of a tough 50-miler. However, I’ve been in this place before, and I know exactly how hard it is. In my 2009 race here, I was doing the exact same math trying to go sub-ten. That year however, I had 80 minutes to squeak under the hour mark; this year I had 70. I knew it meant I had to use my downhills better.

“So, Gretchen,” Ashlee, whom I had passed at the aid station, came up behind me, “sub-11 … what do you think? Can we make it?”

I smiled huge, both inside and out. Great minds think alike, right?

“That,” I breathed, “is the only reason I am even still running this fast right now. Otherwise I'd just be jogging it in. I think we have a shot at it, but it won’t be easy.” I went over the math with her that I’d been doing in my head.

“Do you need to pass me?” I offered. She graciously declined, saying she was going to learn from a more experienced runner. I thought this was funny since the only reason I was keeping up with her was because I’d been passing her at aid stations, but I was stoked to have someone to run with.

I kept a close eye on the watch as we closed in on the aid station at Spooner. One thought kept me motivated and running hard: I really didn’t want to run Firetrails this year! I’m sure it’s a great race, and I’d love to do it one day, but my heart just wasn’t in the ultra training right now. In fact, so immense was my desire not to run any more 50s this year that I took the option off the table right there in the last 4 miles of TRT. It was sub-11 here, or not at all!

I watched the minutes tick by on my watch in agony. I informed Ashlee that we really needed to hit Spooner by 10:46, but I knew in my head that if it was 10:47 we should still try to go for it.

When the aid station was finally in sight, my watch said 10:48. Fuck it, I thought. With Ashlee and me working together, we might be able to run 1.4 miles in 12 minutes. The easy math: about 8 minute pace. Not impossible.

“Okay,” I informed Ashlee, who was running in front at this point, “we’re going to run right through this aid station, and we’re really going to have to go for it.”

She didn’t question me at all; she just picked up the pace. So. Freaking. Awesome.

“Turn right here. A hard right!” I yelled to her as we passed the aid station. There wasn’t time to look for turns, and since I knew the course I gave directions when necessary.

We flew around Spooner Lake, and I give Ashlee full credit. I said run hard, and she ran HARD. She kept a pace that most ultrarunners wouldn’t even bother with, and I loved it. I was barely hanging on, and I knew I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her there.  She set the pace, and I tried to do my part by feeding her tidbits of course info. 

I thought about how I had grouped up with some other runners and raced through the last 3 miles of Lake Sonoma last year in an effort to break 9 hours. This was very much the same type of racing experience, and I must confess, it was brilliant. There is just something so awesome about charging hard and pushing for a goal, and it’s even better when done with other runners.

Ashlee was astute enough to yell ahead to other runners so they had plenty of time to get out of the way as we came by, feet flying, arms pumping, breathing hard. We got a lot of cheers of support, and I, running behind Ashlee, had several people tell me “Go get her!” I smiled at this because how could they know that we were actually working together, not competing against each other? Plus, ultrarunning is pretty dull as spectator sports go, so it’s fun for people to see a little bit of racing going on. I totally get that.

As we approached the final straightaway with the finish in sight, my watch said we were just barely going to miss our goal. Damn! Well, nevermind the watch, we had to push it all the way across the line. We’d run through a long, difficult day, and been heatedly focused runners for the last 7 miles. That wasn’t going to change in the last 50 yards, regardless of time.

And guess what? My watch didn’t quite match the race clock, and I finished in 10:59:13 officially, with Ashlee 3 seconds ahead. Yesss!! How glad was I that I had ignored the watch in those final seconds!

The two of us spent quite a while in the finish tent recovering, exchanging hugs and excitement and congratulations, and just feeling generally stoked about the whole day. I told Ashlee that now she must put her name in for Western States, even though she’s never run a 100 before. She was just giddy because this was a one-hour PR for her for 50M. 

It’s funny how you can struggle so much in a race, have such a huge low, and then, because the final few miles were so fun, (and, okay, because we met our goal by the skin of our teeth) you think it was actually the best race ever. It was!

You might think that because I have previously run 9:57 atTRT, I wouldn’t be that excited about 10:59 (aside from the whole WS qualifier thing). But I know there were a lot of factors making this a more challenging day, not the least of which was my mediocre training. Honestly, I could not possibly have been happier with my race, my effort, or the way this played out. It was an incredible experience, and that’s one of the things I love about ultras – every race is different, even ones on the same course. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ashlee for tearing up the trail with me, and clearly that was the most rewarding part of my day.

We finally stumbled from the finish tent to the post-race “party zone.” My stomach really wasn’t ready for food, so I drank a few sodas while sitting around sharing race stories with Jamie, John, Ashlee, Helen and some other friends. Jamie and I took advantage of the showers (cold, but when it’s still 87 degrees out, that’s not such a bad thing) because we wouldn’t be going home before the next leg of our adventure.

For many years at TRT, I’ve witnessed John Trent and his family participate in the races and then go up to Tunnel Creek to work the night shift. I’m always kind of torn between racing and volunteering here because they’re both so much fun, so this year Jamie and I decided to follow the Trent family’s lead and do both! Next stop: Tunnel Creek Aid Station!

I finally managed to down half a burrito as we bounced up the bumpy Tunnel Creek Road in Jamie’s 4-Runner. We picked up Joe, who we ran into along the way. He was hiking up to crew for four friends running the hundred. They’d come all the way from New Jersey, and all of them were running without pacers. I was impressed, to say the least. Just a little more ultrarunning awesomeness.

Volunteering at Tunnel Creek was an absolute blast, as expected. I’ll be honest, I was already tired when I arrived and I really just wanted to sit down. But when you see those hundred-mile runners coming in, you realize you’re being a total pansy-ass for wanting to sit. 

Jamie got assigned to the kitchen, and my job was attending to the needs of runners as they arrived – filling hydration packs, fetching food, pouring drinks, finding things in their drop bags, whatever. Not only is this a fun and social job, but it’s totally rewarding, too. These guys and gals were working their butts off in record-breaking heat, and I could attest to the brutal conditions that they had been facing all day already.

Volunteering with Noe (pic is from 2012, but we were both back this year, of course!)

Things started to get pretty quiet by 2 or 3 in the morning in terms of runner traffic. Cots in the medical tent were filling up, and Jill Trent and I tried to perfect the brewing of coffee with a percolator over an open flame. (Jill finally got it mastered.) While the day-shift people got some much-deserved rest (Except for Andy and Joanne, who I don’t think get to sleep all weekend!), Lon, Katie, and Annie had a dance party with a Kelly-Clarkson-Miley-Cyrus soundtrack. Things get weird at TC, boys and girls, but in such a great way.

Volunteering at TC, 2013. Photo by Noe Castanon

The best part about working Tunnel Creek is the progress you get to see. Because runners come through here 6 times in the 100 mile race, you can really monitor how they’re doing. I saw so many people come back to life over the course of the night!

Jamie and I bailed at sunrise because we had been completely worthless for the previous hour. I made it home by 7:00 AM feeling like I had run a hundred miles myself. The whole experience had also felt equally satisfying as running a 100.

I have to give a huge congratulations to all the runners, whether you finished or not. I saw a lot of heart out on that course that weekend. Also, a huge thank you to all of the organizers and volunteers. There’s a reason this race has become so popular, and you all are a big part of it.

As with every other experience at Tahoe Rim Trail, this year did not disappoint. For the last seven years in a row, as a runner, pacer, or volunteer, I have participated in these races in some form. I’m not planning to break that streak any time soon.