This wasn't my first 50k, and it sure won't be my last. But it was quite a memorable one.
My first 50k was back in December 2011, at The North Face Challenge Championships which are held every year in the Marin Headlands. After completing my 30k in 2010, I went on to do really well (for a first time 50k) on The North Face Course. I had a goal of finishing within 8 hours, and then I ended up completing the ~32 mile course in 6 hours and 45 minutes, demolishing my goal.
Since I had done so well, and enjoyed the 50k, I was easily swayed by my friends to sign up for another 50k; the Tahoe Rim 50k. The run starts at 6900ft above sea-level, has around 6800ft of climbing, reached a low of 6500ft and a high of 8900ft. I signed up for the run in January and decided to start training. Then I forgot to keep training.
Months kept going by where I would remember to train and that I should be ramping up the miles. Then I'd get busy and forget to run far. I was still running, but not the double digit runs that I probably should be have doing. Around late May is when I really tried to get more serious about running. Looking at my GPS logs, I see that I ran about 30 miles in May (mostly back-loaded), before stepping it up to 72 miles in June. And my longest run in June was a crazy 11 miler with 1300 feet of elevation gain (end sarcasm). Before I knew it, it was July, and just a few weeks remained. Plus I was supposed to taper at some point. The longest run I went on was somewhere around 16-18 miles before I had to stop from lack of water; I had gone through 3 water bottles and still needed more. I actually felt pretty good on the run, though knew from experience that 18 miles is way different from 30+. Which worried me.
Race weekend came, and I headed to Truckee to a rented cabin with friends. I knew that my training was quite lacking, so I was convinced I wouldn't finish. I went as far as researching places to drop out of the race and how the logistics of that would work. In addition, I told my parents there was no need for them to come to watch. Needless to say, I was prepared for my first DNF (did not finish) ever.
Never-the-less, I still packed all my gear Friday night and set my alarm for 3:50am on Saturday so that I'd have time to wake up fully before the 6am start. My friends and I drove to the start where we had just enough time to check in and put on our bibs.
The race started at 6am with the sun rising behind the Eastern Sierras. The first mile of the course is on a mostly flat dirt road where people were running in clumps and beginning to warm up. After that, the course jumps off the road onto a single track trail. I had been taking my time with the road, and paid for it on the single-track; there was a massive back up of people. I began to wish that I had started near the front of the group just so that I wasn't stuck behind people for the next 4 miles. There was little running, and mostly walking as lines of people spent most of the time walking the hills.
I finally was able to break free of the backup when we reached Marlette Lake, which is at around 6 miles in and at 7800ft. Once there, we rejoined a dirt road and continued to aid-station number 1 and 5, Hobart. By this point, my legs had begun to loosen up, and I was starting to feel the adrenaline of the race. I was also starting to feel the caffeine from my salt tabs, which I was making sure to take every 30-45 minutes, as per a recommendation by my friend Yariv. At this point, the adrenaline / caffeine combo was making me much more optimistic about my chances of finishing.
I spent very little time at the aid-station before heading on my way. Just a bit up a hill and the trail opened up to our first beautiful view of Lake Tahoe. It would have been awesome to be there a bit earlier for better light, but what can I say, I didn't train and I got stuck behind loads of walkers.
After some obligatory photos, I continued on to the next aid station at Tunnel Road, around mile 12. This section of the course was mostly downhill switchbacks, which made for easy running and let me get into a good rhythm. After Tunnel Road, is a loop, and I decided that I could at least get back to the aid station, and then drop if I needed to, though I was becoming more optimistic that I might be able to finish, even if that meant walking half the course.
Little did I realize that one of the hardest parts of the course is that very loop. The loop, known as the Red House Loop, starts with a steep downhill to the lowest point of the course before a slight uphill to an aid-station. After the aid-station, the trail follows a pipeline along a flat trail before reconnecting with the steep hill. Though this time, we have to go up it, and the whole thing is sandy trail. I didn't even try to run any of it, and just walked the whole thing. But that gave me some good rest, such that when I got back to the Tunnel Road aid-station, I was feeling in good spirits and even joked with some of the volunteers.
At the aid-station, came my favorite part of the day. One of the volunteers asked if I wanted ice in my water bottles. This was the first time the thought had ever occurred to me, and it was immediately obvious and necessary. Seriously, ice in the middle of nowhere on a hot day in Tahoe. The ice cold water was crazy awesome and helped motivate me onward.
The next section of the course was mostly uphill, and went by pretty slowly. I walked almost the entire uphill segments, and was just happy to get back to Hobart aid-station. I got more ice water, and even had a bit of a smoothie while I sat, poured sand out of my shoes and adjusted my socks. I knew that I was close and that I couldn't stop now. I knew by this point that I was finishing, and so it was just a matter of when.
The final uphill segment, which led to the highest point in the race at Snow Valley (8900ft) was my "dark period." Every ultra has this and for me, it was this last several miles of unrelenting uphill. Again, I had to walk it all, and this didn't help. I just felt like I had been walking since the bottom of the Red House Loop and I was becoming roadkill for those who were able to keep running. I had also been dealing with being really thirsty. I had been feeling really thirsty for miles, and wanted to keep drinking water, but I also felt extremely full; to the point that I couldn't fit much in my stomach. So it became a constant battle of trying to get down small sips of water every now and then versus dealing with the thirst.
There is a point on the uphill, where you come out of the trees, and see the single-track wrap around a high point in the mountain. But it isn't the highest point. In fact, this happens at least twice, and maybe three times, which only added to the mental games. But at long last I made it to the Snow Valley aid-station, at the high point of the race.
Snow Valley was staffed by some local Boy Scouts. They use binoculars to read your number way in advance of you arriving, and are ready with your name as you approach, something that I definitely appreciated at that point in the race. I got some ice water added to my bottles, emptied my shoes of sand, and was ready for the last 7 miles of downhill to the finish. Or so I thought.
It turns out that the last section of race isn't all downhill. In fact, it had a couple uphill sections that I cursed at. But I flew downhill pretty quickly, passing a number of other runners. The last section of the course, is a loop around Spooner Lake to get to the finish. This loop is around 1.5 miles, and for most of it, you can see the finish line. Trust me, you don't want to be doing that loop after having completed 33 miles, and wanting to finish so badly. And to add insult to injury, part of the trail actually went away from the finish line.
I fought through the pain and fatigue all the way until the last straightaway when I heard someone on my tail. I wasn't about to let anyone pass at this point, and pulled a sprint out of somewhere (a caffeine salt tab perhaps?) to keep the other runner at bay. I finished the 34 mile course in 7 hours 49 minutes. I even thought for a couple days that I had almost beaten my North Face time before I looked up my time.
In any case, I performed way beyond my expectations. I even beat my friends, whom I had thought were ahead of me the entire course. That's two of two I beat you at Yariv! A post race massage, followed by a swim in Lake Tahoe capped off a beautiful day to be out running single-track.
The race wasn't without casualties though. The last downhill section was rough on my feet, giving me some pretty bad blisters. This led to at least 2 1/2 toenails falling off (my first from running BTW).
I definitely learned some good lessons on this course though. I really need to take training more seriously and train consistently. Moreover, I should just be running far on my own. So far, I've kept that up. I also can pull huge runs out of my ass, though this shouldn't be something that I'm counting on. I'm already signed up for the North Face 50k again this coming December, so I'll have a really good chance to work on training consistently and hopefully to beat my time last year. I should at least be able to do that.