Monday, July 20, 2009
I have been living in San Francisco now for 10 months, and one of the things that I have been wanting to do since moving to Northern Callifornia was to run a mountain race. So, July 18th I ran the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 Mile Endurance Run. I had initially planned to run the 100 mile race that was going on at the same time. However, achilles tendon and hamstring injuries prevented me from running for 5 weeks during what was scheduled to be my heaviest training. I had been able to run for a few weeks, but didn't feel like I would be ready for the demands of 100 miles in the mountainous terrain, so I signed up for the 50 mile version instead.
The course is in the alpine and sub-alpine regions of the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. There is 9,894 feet of elevation change, and it ranges from 6800 to over 9200 feet above sea level. It's also one of the most beautiful places on earth. Especially once you get above the tree line, the views of Lake Tahoe and the rest of the region are amazing. This was my first race at altitude, (and my first time hearing phrases like "above the treeline" or "just one more mountain to climb after this one") so I was curious to see how I was going to handle the thin air.
The race started just as the sun was coming up. I started in the middle of the pack, with my race strategy being to take it as easy as possible. I soon found out that there is no 'easy' way to run up a mountain. Since the alternative to running up a mountain was walking up a mountain, I decided to run. Nevertheless, I did try to stay as relaxed as possible going both uphill and downhill since my fitness level and my ability to run in thin air were both relative unknowns. I decided early on not to 'race' anyone. If someone was faster than me, they would pass, if I happened to be faster, I would pass. I also worked on what I call "zen running," which is basically meditation while running.
My goal with zen running is to remove all of the extraneous thoughts that pop into my head when there are hours upon hours upon hours of running. Thoughts like: "Am I going too slow?," "Can I catch that guy?," "How should I prepare for that meeting Monday?," "The pain is too much," "I think I'm going to puke," or "I think my big toe nail just ripped off." To remove those thoughts, I focus on my breathing, and that's all. Just in and out, in and out. It's amazing how hard it is to focus on nothing. It takes a lot of practice. At first I could only focus for a few seconds, but after hours of practice, I could sustain it for several minutes, or even a few miles. Doing this makes the miles go by faster, and keeps me emotionally prepared for the hardship.
As I was getting close to the 26 mile turnaround, I passed Mark Gilligan going the other way, who awoke me from my concentration and pointed out that I was in 3rd place! (He was in first). I couldn't believe it, I had no idea that I was near the front. I also passed Brett Rivers going the other way, who was running his first 100 mile and was running top 8! Brett had asked me before the race if I had any last minute advice. I told him to not get excited, there is no point in getting pumped up to go run slowly for a whole day. I don't know if he took my advice, but he definitely wasn't going slowly.
The 26 mile aid station was the only place that crew had access to the course, and by this time it was getting hot, so I decided to take some time to get my temperature down. Abby helped me get fueled up, and I got some additional help from Larissa Pallischuck and Sara Spelt who were crewing for Brett. While I was taking my sweet time, a couple other runners passed me, but I was sticking to my plan of not racing. Only one more marathon over four mountain peaks to go.
The return run was HOT, and the pain was starting to get intense. But I was able to maintain my basic speed and run up and down almost all of the hills (I even passed a few people). By the time I reached the final peak at over 9200 feet above sea level, I was exhausted and couldn't catch my breath. We had come up here two weeks ago and there was snow on this peak, but today it was 75 degrees on the summit and over 90 in the valley.
I was thrilled because it was literally all down hill from there. Anyone who has run really far up and down a lot of hills knows that the downhills can be awful, especially once your quads are destroyed from a days worth of running. So the next seven miles (Seven miles! All down hill. That's a big hill.) went like this: ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow. But at least it wasn't taking a lot of energy, I was just letting gravity do the work. In no time, the end was in site.
I ended up crossing the finish line in 9 hours and 33 minutes, more than 2 hours faster than my goal time, and in 2nd place! I think I even get a prize of some North Face trail shoes. Which is good because the trail shoes I was wearing are toast.
After my race was over, Abby and I went back to the hotel, got cleaned up, and went back out to go cheer on the 100 mile runners, who still had a long way to go. We were at the finish line as the leaders crossed the finish line in the middle of the night more than 20 hours after the start. Most of the runners were completely decimated by the finish, but Brett Rivers, who came in 3rd place (3rd place! on his first 100 miler!) actually ran across the finish line jumping and screaming and giving high fives. Amazing. Congratulations to all the finishers!
Up next is the Pacific Crest Trail Runs Headlands Hundred August 8-9, which is my last chance to run a seriously hilly course (over 20,000 feet of elevation gain) for a while as we are moving back to Chicago the end of August.