Monday, October 10, 2011

Tahoe Triple Marathon: Around proved to be the toughest challenge

At the start of this year I set the theme to my 2011 running season as, “Down, Up and Around,” taking on 3 of the toughest running challenges in the U.S. First was the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim. This over-48 mile trail proved a supreme challenge but paid huge dividends on the views and the experience. Next, the Pikes Peak Marathon took me to greater heights than I had ever climbed. But it was this final endurance feat that was the hardest. The Tahoe Triple Marathon wasn’t a single event but three straight and by the final miles I was spent – fully.

After the prior two events, with Pikes Peak coming just five weeks prior to Tahoe, I wasn’t worried too much about whether I could do the distance and knew I could handle being out there for that long. What I wasn’t sure about was how well I would do getting up on Saturday morning and again on Sunday to run 26.2 twice then three times. Two weeks prior to the event I took advantage of the long Labor Day weekend to run three straight 20 mile training runs. They were hard but I felt better after the third event that I thought I would. I felt I was ready.

After a short taper and a very long couple of weeks of work, Reesa and I drove up to Tahoe the Thursday before the race. After settling into our rental, I went over to the event headquarters to get my bib, gear and have dinner with my fellow competitors. I immediately started to feel like a loser, despite all I had accomplished. At that dinner eleven out of the eighty people signed up for the triple had run more than 100 marathons – including Yolanda Holder the Guiness record holder for the most marathons by a woman in a single year, 106. While I had signed up to run 78.6 miles over three days, there were 27 people who would run 72 miles in one night, seven who were planning to do the super triple – Friday and Saturday’s marathons, then the 72 mile ultra -- and two crazy people doing the Double Dare, the 72 mile ultra twice. Sheesh!

At dinner marathoning legend Dick Beardsley spoke. Like me, he prefers the marathon distance and kind of felt the folks doing the ultras were a little crazy; but he said it with admiration. Unlike me, Dick, now in his sixties, still runs a sub-3 hour marathon. I was starting to feel like the rookie in the room.
After the dinner, I tried to put the evening’s revelations out of my mind and concentrate on preparing to run my own race. This wasn’t a competition to see who could take the most punishment or who could out-do each other in number of events – it was one race at a time with me against the course. I’d like to say this mental strategy helped me get a good night’s rest for the first race. Oh well.

Sunrise at Emerald Bay
Day One: Emerald Bay Marathon
Each race started with a bus ride from the Horizon Casino & Resort in South Lake Tahoe to the start of each event. Day one took us to the southwest shore of the lake to an incredible small inlet known as Emerald Bay. We started from high above the shore where we could look down on the bay as the sun slowly rose in the distance. The views were incredible. It was in the high 40s at the start and the first few miles were on the highway, along some steep downhill switchbacks. This made it easy to get up to my desired pace. After the switchbacks, we were got off the highway and onto a bike path that wove through the woods. Around mile three I experienced a runner’s high as we went along this trail. If you haven’t experienced this, it is a lot like a mix of the feeling you would get catching a touchdown in the Super Bowl, on your birthday while having an incredible orgasm that lasts about five minutes. If you have ever wondered why people run, this is a big part of it. My iPhone belted out Daughtry’s Feel’s Like Tonight which struck just the right tone. I was probably doing sub-7 minute miles for the next three or so.

As the bike trail flattened out, around Camp Richardson, what I thought was a course volunteer told me to take a left down a road. “That’s what those runners did.” I looked down the road and a small group of runners who were pacing ahead of me were heading away down this same road, so I followed. This turn wound us through a series of small historic villages near the lake’s edge but I had a sinking feeling I was off course. After about two miles this trail rejoined the main bike path so I forgot about it and kept going.

As we emerged into South Lake Tahoe we were back along the highway, running on the sidewalk. This was a noisy and uneven part of the race as there was road resurfacing going on. The construction backed up traffic like crazy and we had to switch over to dirt trails a few times and dodge construction vehicles as we worked our way to the Nevada border. The halfway point came behind the casinos near the lake shore. Then we worked our way back up to the highway. From here it was past the casinos and out of town. On the one hand I was happy to get away from the traffic and congestion but on the other, we lost the sidewalk and would be running on the shoulder of the highway the rest of the way.
This was definitely the least appealing part of the run as the shoulder went from more than a car length wide to less than three feet at parts. It was still morning and traffic was relatively light, and thankfully most cars and trucks gave us a wide berth. But there were a few close calls. A Ford F-350 truck with massive mirrors that stuck way out so the driver could see around anything they were pulling came within a foot of my head at one point. And as I was hugging a guard rail, a truck pulling a flatbed blew past me going 50 miles an hour and taking up all of his lane. The wind he created nearly blew my visor off.

After a few miles of slow up and down climbing we came to a tunnel that had no shoulder from the highway at all. Thankfully, the race organizers had paid to have the Nevada highway patrol cone off the lane closest to the lake for us. This gave us a wide birth that apparently runners from previous years didn’t have (and nor would those doing the ultra). There was good and bad to this tunnel though. While the cones signaled less worry, they also were the start of a grueling 7 mile climb. The grade wasn’t very steep but the hill never gave in. I pushed on as best I could but needed a couple walk breaks before the course finally turned and approached the finish, which was in a small park and ride lot off Highway 50.

When I saw the finish line, I called out to the organizers, “Is this really the finish?” There was no finish line banner and nearly no spectators, or finishers – just a small coned off area and two guys with clipboards. Part of me feared it was just a water stop and we had more running ahead but thankfully, this was the stopping point.

I finished in 3:54, seventh place. The organizers handed me the first of the three finisher medals I would collect this weekend – a big metal model of the lake with the first course mapped around the bottom. The guy who finished before me was handed a second, larger medal, for winning his (and my) age group. Shortly after me, the first woman came in and got a similar large medal.

The finish was high above lake level so after stretching and refueling I was ready for an ice bath. Reesa picked me up and after fighting South Lake Tahoe traffic we headed to the lake looking for a beach. After searching a while we gave up and headed to a local marina. I considered acting like a boat and walking down the launch ramp but then decided to walk down the wharf and hang over the edge. I know I looked ridiculous but the cool lake water was heaven.

That afternoon I wanted to keep my legs moving so lactic acid wouldn’t build up so we all went for a hike through the woods by Fallen Leaf Lake with the dogs. We finished the day with dinner at a lakefront restaurant watching the sunset.

Kent and I at the start of Cal-Neva
Day Two – Cal-Neva Marathon
The bus from the casino took us back to that park and ride lot off Highway 50 for the start of marathon number two. My good friend Kent had signed up for this race and we prepared for the start together. The second marathon started as casually as the first had ended. The race organizer walked into what seemed like a randomly selected spot in the parking lot and then yelled for us all to gather 'round. He then swept his arms parallel to his body and said, “Everybody line up here. This is the starting line.” Then after shouting a few instructions about being careful of the traffic on the highway he said, “OK, go!” and we were off.

Kent and I ran together for the first 5 or so miles, which started with a downhill along the highway through some beautiful woods and then along the lakefront. We hugged the lake most of this race and the East and North shores are absolutely beautiful. As we came to the northeast corner of the lake we passed by Sand Harbor, a small isolated camp ground that looked like paradise. It had wide sandy beaches with gently lapping waves and crystal clear water. I’ll have to come back here sometime. After this we came to the posh Incline Village. This provided us a nice break from the highway as we cut over to Lakeshore Drive which had much less traffic and was lined on both sides by incredible vacation homes of the rich and famous. There was also a nice multi-use path next to the road so I could get off the asphalt for awhile.

As we left Incline it was back to the highway as we made our way along the lake and back into California to Tahoe City for the finish. Kent was roughly 5-10 minutes ahead of me most of the race playing a nice rabbit. I crossed the line a minute slower than Friday but again in seventh place. This course wasn’t nearly as hilly or challenging which was a needed break from day one.
Tahoe City at the end of Cal-Neva
After stretching and congratulating the other early finishers we walked down to the lake and went in. Ice bath number two was easier to get to and again very, very welcome. We celebrated our victory with burgers and beers in Tahoe City.

That afternoon I kept the legs moving with a long walk with the dogs then accelerated recovery with a dip in the Jacuzzi hot tub. Did the same Friday night as I’ve found heat and hydrotherapy to be key parts of recovery.

Day Three – The Lake Tahoe Marathon
I was definitely moving slower Sunday morning. The long ride to the start took us along the paths of the first two day’s marathons so I got a chance to relive these races and realize just how far I had already come. We also get a chance to see and cheer on some of the ultramarathoners who had started their 72 mile quest at 10 pm that night. About two miles before Tahoe City I saw my fellow TNT coach, Cam getting some refueling and a change of clothes from his dad. I would hope to catch up to him during today’s race and hopefully help him through the finish.

The race began at the lakeshore and we got off the bus just as the sun was rising over the mountains to the east. The sky went from dark blue to purple then yellow before slowing turning a perfect light blue that would hold the rest of the day. It was warmer at this start that the previous two days and where the prior two events had been casual road starts with the select few of us who had chose to do the triple, this one was a full marathon with over a thousand people. We lined up under a real banner this time, had a singer for the national anthem and a real gun was shot off to start the race.

The first few miles were up into Tahoe City and along the highway (again) heading out of town. I had driven this race course with Cam the day earlier so knew what to expect but wasn’t prepared for the fatigue that ran through my body from the very start. The first ten miles were very tough going, especially the hills as this course went up and down all day long.

As we neared mile 11 I started feeling like myself again and picked up the pace for about the next ten miles. It was through this stretch that I had anticipated catching up to Cam but had still not seen him. He must have been having a great day.

Part of the long stretch where I was feeling good included a long climb known as the highway to Hell. It took us from 6,200 to 6,800 feet in about 1.5 miles. It was grueling but nothing compared to Pikes Peak the month before and all my hill training this year had prepared me for it. I powered up it but tried to make sure I didn’t power it too hard as I had another big hill to go.

This last hill came at mile 19 and was after a long downhill to Vikingsholm, a mansion built long ago by a Swedish aristocrat. From here we had a 2 mile climb back up to the Emerald Bay overlook that had started this crazy race Friday morning. I was hating life by the time I got to the top of this hill and was running on fumes. But worse was the downhill as my Achilles was fuming and each downhill step was agony. Like Friday, the decline from Emerald Bay overlook was a series of steep switchbacks and I was forced to take them very slow. I tried to avoid stepping too strongly onto my left foot as each time I did my Achilles sent a bolt of pain up to my brain.

After the switchbacks the course leveled off a bit and returned to Camp Richardson. The detour I had made on Friday, was indeed off course on day one and turned that race from 26 miles to 28. This time it was really part of the course as it was lined with much-needed water stops. My Achilles stopped yelling at me so much through this section and the mile markers – which counted down from 26, unlike most other races – were thankfully in the very low single digits.

Sunday’s race was a celebration of running as in addition to the marathon there was a half marathon, marathon relay, 10K and 5K all on the same course. It was great having so many other runners around so you never felt alone or fearful that you had veered off course like the prior two days, but it was very disheartening to see a fresh half marathoner or relay runner blast past you. While most gave words of encouragement, as all us triplers were wearing our official bibs, I couldn’t help but envy their speed and energy.

The final mile came after four hours of running and felt forever long. Eventually I turned a corner and saw Reesa, Kent and other supporters standing at mile 26 smiling and cheering. I needed their energy and picked up the pace for the final stretch. As I caught sight of the finish line in the distance memories of this entire weekend poured into me like lifelong flashback and I began to tear up. And in a supremely fitting turn of events, Daughty's Feels Like Tonight came out of my iPhone for just the second time. This brought my emotions to a boil and I poured on what remaining speed I had, fought back the tears and held my arms high over my head as I crossed the final finish line. 

Celebrating the finish with (RtoL) Emily, Kent, me and Reesa
I crossed the line at 4:19, substantially slower than the prior two days but still good enough for a top ten finish for the triple. After getting my finisher medal, I immediately ducked into the first aid tent to have my Achilles wrapped in ice. After stretching for a while and refueling, Reesa gingerly walked me to the lake where I slowly entered for a much needed ice bath. Several other triplers were there either icing or collapsed on the shoreline. We looked like the walking wounded brigade.

Cam and I in a much-needed ice bath in Lake Tahoe
I never did see Cam on the course but apparently had passed him on one of the hills. I felt terrible about this but did finally see him at the final mile. Despite my own pain, I handed Reesa my shoes and joined him on the trail for the final mile. I was in total awe of him having run 72 straight and wasn’t about to not be there for him at the end. We both went into the lake after that. A second ice bath was definitely in order.

Looking back on the race now, I can say that it was an incredible feeling to have fully looped the lake and it gave me a real sense of accomplishment. The views, the hills and the companionship I felt with my fellow runners were all worth it and the organizers did a masterful job – plus provided some awesome bling! But would I do it again? I think I’ll return to single marathons for a while before entertaining this question.

Next up: A return to Competitor's series -- Rock n Roll Savannah Marathon, November 5.