It wasn’t until the lonely slow miles 19-24 that I realized it hadn’t even been a whole year since I first started this crazy ultramarathon running journey. Prior to Labor Day 2011, I had run a number of half marathons and some shorter trail races, but I basically stilled “hated” running. This all changed that weekend when I went on a 13 mile trail run to Bishop Pass with my good friend and climbing partner SK. I’d barely run at all in the previous weeks and the trailhead was at 10,000 ft (our turn-around, Bishop Pass, was at 12,000ft). Needless to say, the run kicked my butt. But beyond that, it was a huge eye-opening experience for me. Instead of stressing about pace and watching the miles slowly tick by, we were treated to beautiful scenery while our main focus was sticking to a disciplined eating schedule (every 30 minutes). A month later, we went on an even more incredible run, a 17 mile point-to-point route taking us from the Sunrise Trailhead at Tenaya Lake, over Clouds’ Rest, behind Half Dome, and down into Yosemite Valley via the JMT.
I was addicted. I went on a couple more big Yosemite runs that fall and when our friend Julie suggested signing up to do the Tahoe Rim Trail 50k (the shortest race of the event, which also has 50mi and 100mi distances) in July 2012, it was an easy decision. Life has a way of messing with your plans and, of course, my 3rd and final geology field season in South Africa was scheduled in the month before the race, meaning I did basically zero training in that last month. Non ideal to say the least. But I am not one to back down from a challenge and it wouldn’t be the first race I’d headed into woefully undertrained. If I’ve learned anything over the past not-quite-year of long mountain runs, it is that I may not be fast, but I am good at going slow for long periods of time, as long as I eat enough. So my main objectives for the race were: (1) eat and drink enough and (2) finish, hopefully not last.
I was nervous about the race, not in the crazy competitive way that I have been in the past, but in the survival mode kind of way. I’m lucky to have some really supportive friends, who told me they were confident I could do it, even when I was not. Or maybe I was, since I never really considered the options of not starting, or dropping out partway through.
Before I knew what was happening, the race had started, and I successfully tempered my natural instinct to start off really fast. The elevation (~7000ft) certainly helped with that. The morning air was a perfect temperature and the miles ticked by surprisingly quickly. I stuck to my highly disciplined eating plan, eating shot bloks or food (e.g. Cheezits or apple sauce packs) every 30 minutes and an electrolyte pill every hour. The first aid station was at 7 miles and was followed by a beautiful stretch of trail with awesome views down onto Lake Tahoe. The second aid station was at 12 miles and was followed by a 6.4 mile loop of doom, dropping steeply down from 8000ft to 6800ft, then climbing back out.
I had been making great time until ~mile 17, averaging slightly under 15 minute/mile pace (which would mean an ~8 hour finish). But miles 17-21 were basically all uphill and really slowed me down, even though my nutrition was spot on. An important point to note here is that my longest run (ever) was only 18 miles long, and my longest run in the ~2 months before the race was 16 miles, so it’s not really that surprising that, 17 miles in, I just got tired. This is why you train, people
But like I said, I have discovered that I’m pretty darn good at just plugging along slowly forever, so I kept at it. Between miles 24-27, the course headed up (way up) from 8300ft to its highpoint at 9200ft. Even if I hadn’t already been tired, I could really feel the altitude at this point. This section was beautiful, but it was hard to appreciate it completely, since I was just tired and ready for the final downhill. The aid station at 27 miles is run by a Boy Scout Troop from Carson City and it was awesome. They look up your name using your bib number and address you by name the whole time in the aid station. I was just so psyched to get there because I knew it was all downhill to the finish!
But even when it’s all downhill, 7 miles can still take a long time to cover, especially when you’ve already covered 27 miles. I had some tearful moments leaving that aid station when I realized I’d just run my first marathon, but I had to stay focused because I was not done yet. The first section of downhill was awesome – a lovely trail traversing the slope above treeline and jumping over small boulders, but when it dropped down into the trees… it seemed to take forever. Short uphill sections were both a good thing (yay, walking!) and a bad thing (it was supposed to be ALL DOWNHILL!!). Then the finish came into view! Too bad there were still 2 more miles, which also took approximately forever to cover.
Finally, 9 hours and 23 minutes after starting, 34 miles later (yep, 2.5 miles longer than a true 50k), I made it to the finish line, not even close to last (99th out of 156 finishers) and not too much the worse for wear. Some new blisters on my heels, a bit of runners’ knee in my left knee, but not bad for woefully undertraining! It was an incredible experience. The whole time I felt really slow, and yet in the big scheme of things it all seemed to go by so quickly. Between miles 17 and 27, I was pretty set on not doing anything like this ever again, but less than 24 hours after finishing, I was already thinking about my next 50k. I’m telling you guys, this stuff is addictive!
I’m sure some people would say that all this running has taken away from climbing, but I would have to respectfully disagree. If I have learned anything in my 10 years of climbing, it’s that taking time off from climbing is healthy and beneficial both mentally and physically (at least for me, I’m sure everyone is different). It’s exciting to have crazy new experiences through running and to really challenge myself in a new way. I’d like to think that this is just the beginning of lots more to come with mountain running and ultras, because it brings such a great balance to my life. That, and there’s something really incredible and inspiring about traveling so far under your own power. Amazing scenery doesn’t hurt, either.