Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tahoe Rim Trail 50-mile Endurance Run....My Turn.

“A Glimpse of Heaven….a Taste of Hell”......Take 2

Last year I had the pleasure of pacing an ultra-runner for the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs 100-mile race.  I paced him for most of the final 50 miles.  Since the moment we finished that day, I wanted to run the 50-miler for myself.....because 100 miles is just CRAZY.
Take the road less traveled....every time.
Some race registrations just aren't as simple as your normal 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, Marathon, etc.  Quite a few ultras, anymore, have lotteries to determine who gets to run.  And, quite often, you have to run a qualifying race to even put your name in the hat for the lottery.  In October, I attempted my first 50-miler with the intention of finishing under 13hrs so I could put my name in the 100-mile lottery.  Unfortunately, I DNF'd (Did Not Finish) at mile-44, ending my chances for the TRT100 lottery this year.  Fortunately, the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance runs didn't require me to provide a qualifying race for the 50-miler, but only 55% of all entrants got selected.  So, late December 2014, we signed me up for the lottery.  And, on the early morning of January 1st, our credit card was charged and we knew my name had been drawn.

For my birthday, in late January, Angela gave me a book by ultra-runner Hal Koerner (Hal Koerner's Field Guide to Ulrarunning).  Even if you aren't willing to go the distance of ultras, I highly suggest his book for all runners.  Advice for everything from diet to race day tactics.  At the very back of his book was a training plan for 50M/100K distances.  The basic gist of the training plan was shorter mileage during the week (6-10miles per day) with back-to-back long runs on the weekends and rest days on Monday.
Find a plan and stick to it!
So, the last week of March, I started the training plan (my first-ever training plan) by skipping the first four days due to a vasectomy the week prior (Ha!).  For the next 15 weeks, I did my very best to stick the plan.  I ran in rain, lightning, heat, mud, etc.  I would put in over 900miles (56+ miles/week), 3 pairs of shoes and countless hours.  Unfortunately, most of my miles were on pavement, but I made the effort to put the back-to-back long runs on the weekends on trails at local state parks.  The time commitment on the weekends was strenuous on my family, but it was something we discussed and agreed upon prior to the start of the plan.

Race Week
This year, we decided to make the race a family affair.  We drove out to Lake Tahoe a week early and spent the week forcing our children to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail each morning.
Hiking up and down the Tahoe Basin

The payoff.....wading in Lake Tahoe!
If you have never experienced the Tahoe Rim Trail or the Tahoe Basin, I highly suggest you plan a week there.  The children might have complained each day, but at the end of the week, they had hiked over 20miles on the mountaintops surrounding beautiful Lake Tahoe.  Throughout our hikes, I told them to keep their eyes peeled for a glimpse of a bear.  We never saw one during our hikes, but as we returned one evening, we were greeted by a baby black bear on our back porch!

Right in the back yard!
Friday night, I packed my hydration pack.  Bars, S-caps, first-aid kit, etc.  I laid out my race outfits (yes, plural....ultras are long races, and a change of clothes is a refreshing moment in the middle of the race).  I checked, and I double-checked.  Everything was there.....I thought.

Race Day
Finally, Saturday, July 18th, arrived.  You never get a good night's sleep before a race (but two days prior you should!).  I was up at 3AM.  I laid in bed running thru the course in my head, like I had done on all the countless runs the prior 16 weeks.  I knew the course.  I knew what laid ahead.  It was finally time to reap the rewards.
Ready to roll!
We made our way to the starting line.  Like the prior year, nothing special occurred.  The race director welcomed us, played a recorded national anthem, and sent us on our way.

The first 5 miles was a steady, but not steep, climb to Marlette Lake.  Since there were so many runners, it was just a single file hike for about 4 miles.  A quick downhill and then a 2-3mile uphill towards the Hobart aid station finally separated the pack and I was able to run for the first time.

Climbing the hillside to Hobart aid station.
Hobart aid station is a wonderful site to see because after the aid station, is a quick climb up Marlette Peak where the views of the race finally start in earnest.

Marlette Lake (foreground), Lake Tahoe (background)
From Marlette Peak, it's mostly a 4-mile downhill on sandy single-track switchbacks to Tunnel Creek aid station.  If you are like me, you don't want to waste a good downhill.  I took those downhills fast....but still under control because those switchbacks come fast and furious.  According to the Garmin, the pace dropped as low as 6:20min/mile for the last couple miles into the Tunnel Creek aid station for the first time.

Tunnel Creek was my first full re-fuel.  They re-filled my hand-held and hydration pack.  I grabbed a banana and headed down to the course's lowest point (6,800') at Red House.  You literally plummet down the mountainside as you drop nearly 1,200' over 2 miles.  But, you are quickly reminded that every downhill comes with an uphill as you must climb 600' up to the Red House aid station.

The long climb back from Red House.
Then, in rude fashion, the course makes an abrupt U-turn and sends you right back up that 1,000' you just dropped in a return to Tunnel Creek aid station for a second visit.  The climb back up from Red house, at approximately mile 17, is where I made my first mistake.  A rock, jumping out of nowhere, caught my foot and sent me directly into a face-plant.  I immediately popped back up and continued the climb with no damage done.  Not 60' later, I slightly tripped on another hidden rock but maintained my balance.  A few choice words followed reminding myself to pay more attention for the rest of the race.

The climb back from Red house....sandy uphill.
My second trip into Tunnel Creek aid station was quick.  A piece of banana, a re-fill on my hand-held, and a quick washing to get the dirt/sand off me from my fall and I was out of there.  The Garmin said 18 miles in 3:14.  Slightly slower than my goal pace (10hrs) but respectable.

From Tunnel Creek to Bull Wheel there is only 3 miles to cover.  Those 3 miles are all uphill thru some rocky, granite, single-track on the ridge line between the Tahoe Basin and Washoe Valley.  Some spectacular glimpses of Lake Tahoe are provided between the boulders.

Bull Wheel aid station is a 'water only' stop.  But, it's an important stop because you won't see another aid station for 9 miles, the longest stretch on the course.  Of course, both the hand-held and hydration pack were topped off in preparation for the trek.

After leaving Bull Wheel, you are tossed onto the backside of Diamond Peak and onto the Incline Trail (leaving the Tahoe Rim Trail).  Once on the Incline Trail it is a nearly 2,000' drop to the Diamond Peak aid station over the course of approximately 5 miles.  It is here where I took solace in knowing that my wife and pacer would be at the bottom of the hill to greet me.  I took a moment to make a short video at mile 25 to later remind myself of my feelings at the halfway point.

My second mistake came somewhere around mile 26.  The course is VERY well marked with markers approximately every 100 meters.  I apparently got caught up in the moment of running and missed a turn.  Two other competitors followed me down the wrong path, too.  A half-mile later, we all noticed our mistake and backtracked to the turn we missed.....adding nearly a mile to our journey thus far.  What's another mile when you are going to do 50 on the day anyhow?

Diamond Peak

Diamond Peak aid station resides at mile 30.  I arrived at Diamond Peak in 6 hours and 15minutes....one of my fastest 50Ks.  A person could say this was too fast, or that my problems later on stemmed from getting to Diamond Peak too fast.  But, I was feeling great with no significant pains or injuries and I don't regret getting there as fast as I did.  I ran into the aid station to the cheers of the crowd and the smiling faces of my wife and Mark (my pacer).   It was a lively party filled with hundreds of people.  This is the only place on the course where the 50-mile runners can pick up their pacer.

Picking up Mark at Diamond Peak.

Diamond Peak has been on my mind since I was able to climb it a year ago with John.  They call it 'one of the rudest awakenings trail running has to offer'.  It's a 2-mile climb up nearly 2,000'.  I knew this was coming and it didn't scare me.  I was prepared to walk it all.  I figured if I got thru it in decent time, the rest of the race would be easy enough.
Mark pondering the climb before us.
Last year, I power-walked the mountain at Diamond Peak in under 50 minutes.  This year, I'm not sure what changed.  Perhaps I ran too hard to get to mile 30.  Perhaps I didn't eat enough.  Perhaps I had weary legs from hiking all week.
Up, up, up.....
Whatever it was, I trudged up the mountain alongside Mark in just under 80 minutes.  It wasn't pleasant.  It wasn't pretty.  It drained the life from me.  Mark talked me thru it and we were rewarded with a quick selfie at the peak.

Rewarded for the climb!

You'd think after climbing 2,000' in such a short time, you'd be thru the worst.  After Diamond Peak and a quick pit stop at Bull Wheel again, you are rewarded with a 3-mile downhill back to Tunnel Creek for the third and final time.

For one of the first times on the day, I encountered the beginning of cramps in my right groin and left quadricep.  Thankfully, this wasn't the usual cramps I encounter where I'm writhing in pain on the ground yelling obscenities.  Keeping the cramps at bay was the newest concern and the highest priority with 15 miles still left.  But, to add to the list of concerns, my stomach was not enjoying the EFS drink provided by the aid stations.  I don't usually drink EFS and I know it's not good to try something new on race day, but I had to have my electrolytes and the only thing I forgot this entire trip was my Shaklee electrolyte mix.

Mark knew what to do right away.  He knew I wasn't eating right.  He tried hard to pump me full of sodium, potassium and calories at the Tunnel Creek aid station.  I had to choke down potatoes covered in salt, chicken broth, and bananas.  The only food I seemed to enjoy was watermelon.  Unfortunately, watermelon doesn't provide much nutrition other than water and sugar.

We left Tunnel Creek and I might be able to call the one of the lowest points of the race.  I knew we had to re-trace my steps back to Hobart aid station which meant climbing back up those wonderful switchbacks I had such a fun time flying down early in the race.  Going up was a long hike.  The miles ticked away much more slowly than anticipated.

Marlette Lake again.

Finally, we crested Marlette Peak again.  Something gave me a burst of energy.  Perhaps it was knowing that Hobart aid station was so close.  Perhaps it was the sparkling shores of Marlette Lake far below me.  Marlette Lake can never fully be captured in photos and getting to it requires quite the hike commitment.  Certainly, the effort getting to Marlette is what makes it so mysterious.  No matter, I used that energy to descend the final mile or two into Hobart breaking into a run again.

This new found energy really excited me.  I knew Hobart was mile 40 and only 10 miles were left.  Ten miles seemed so insignificant and something I commonly do without thinking.  We left Hobart with that excitement knowing it was only 3 miles to Snow Valley Peak aid station.

Snow Valley Peak brought me to my knees.  I think I can say it was the lowest point of my day.  Snow Valley Peak, not Diamond Peak, is the highest point on the course at over 9,000'.  The 3-mile climb from Hobart to Snow Valley covered approximately 1,000' of elevation gain.  It seemed insignificant, but as we climbed it was apparent that the elevation was finally going to take it's toll on me.  My breaths were short.  I could never seemingly catch my breath.  It felt like someone was standing on my chest the entire hike up.  The tree-covered mountains gave way to fields of flowers and boulders.
Climbing Snow Valley Peak.
We climbed.  Higher and higher.  Marlette Lake faded into the distance as more of Tahoe came into view.

Finally......I mean.......FINALLY.......we could see Snow Valley Peak aid station.  Snow Valley Peak aid station is manned by the Boy Scouts from Carson City.  They use binoculars to see your race bib from a distance and they greet you by name (as they look it up).  I half-jogged to the aid station and plopped myself down into one of the chairs.

It is here, where I couldn't breathe any longer, at mile 43 that I very nearly broke down.  I wouldn't eat what Mark was offering me.  I'm pretty sure I was on the verge of crying.  Left quad hurt, right calf hurt, right groin hurt, lungs hurt, etc.  There was only 7 miles left, and it was all downhill.  I know that sounds wonderful, but try running downhill for 7 miles in a row sometime.

We left Snow Valley Peak slowly.  The final 7 miles, Mark prodded me to run.  I think we ran about one-tenth of a mile at a time followed by a quarter-mile walk for the duration of the descent.  Every time I stopped running I would grunt and chastise myself.  I knew I should be running this downhill, but I just couldn't.  I was broken.

With just 2 miles left, we made it to the bottom of the mountain and onto the sparkling shores of Spooner Lake.
Spooner Lake
Even with the finish line in sight and within earshot, it wasn't enough to get me running 100% of the time.  We kept up the run/walk tactic.  With less than a mile to go, we finally broke into a jog/run to the finish.

In the end, I came to Tahoe and did what I set out to do.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Yeah, I didn't make my time goal, but I did make it to the finish, and that's what really counted that day.  I will be back to run this race again (or perhaps two loops for the 100-miler).  I left something out on that course and I want another crack at it.

None of this would have been possible without two extremely important people.  First, and foremost, my wife, Angela.  You wouldn't believe the number of times she had to get up 4 kids by herself just so I could go out for an early morning run.  She put up with afternoon runs, early morning runs, long runs, two-a-days, etc.  Through it all, she never complained one bit.  Her continual piece of advice was, "Oh, you're GOING to finish."

Secondly, Mark.  Mark has run numerous 50-milers.  Mark traveled all the way from Michigan to join me on probably his slowest 20-mile run/walk in a LONG time.  Mark's knowledge was invaluable.  I might not have listened as well as he would have liked, but I soaked it all in.  You can't put a price on a man's willingness to babysit you thru 20+ miles of hiking, running, sweating, etc.  There really wasn't a moment's pause when I decided I wanted a pacer and who I would ask.  Thanks Mark!  I promise.....next race will be stronger, better, faster!

Really, there wasn't much doubt I would finish this race.  I put in the miles.  I put in the time.  I had my head on right.  Each race presents it's own unique challenges....some brought on by yourself, some handed out by the course....but you just have to adapt and overcome.

Through the whole race, I kept reminding myself of the quote above.  I really urge everyone to step outside your normal, step outside your comfort zone and at least TRY to do something extraordinary.  You will never know your limits unless you push yourself to them!  This is just a stepping stone in my running journey.  There are bigger things to come this year alone.  And, hopefully, in the near future, I will toe the line for a 100-mile race.

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