Running the Tahoe Rim Trail 50K, or,

How to have the best race of your life and the worst race of your life on the same day

July 21, 2001

I've been running 50K races since 1994. I've had some good races (a 5:03:55 at the Napa Valley 50K in 1999 being my best, good for my only age group placing, a 3rd place), some fair races, some mediocre races, and two very bad ones. In 1996 at the Skyline 50K, here's what my log says: "Disaster. Ran fine the first 19 miles, then developed severe knee pain and couldn't run at all (except a little on the *up*hills). Walked the last 12 miles. Not fun. Beautiful day, though, and got to enjoy the aid station food. :-)" I finished in 6:12:49. Then the next year, in 1997, disaster struck again at the extremely difficult (and now defunct) Pt. Reyes 50K. My log reads: "Extremely discouraging race. Perfect conditions, but collapsed mentally about halfway through and didn't want to go on. Some cramping in legs; probably needed more potassium." In this race I was almost literally crawling for half the race, and finished in 6:49:29. I couldn't imagine a slower race.

Until last Saturday. :-)

Saturday was the inaugural running of the Tahoe Rim Trail 50K and 50M race, which turned out to be a spectacular race and almost sure to become a "classic". The course includes beautiful, mostly singletrack trails along the east side of Lake Tahoe, from Spooner Lake north past Marlette Lake to Tunnel Creek, around the "Red House" loop, and back via Marlette Peak and Snow Valley Peak. Major sections of the route offer panoramic views not only of Lake Tahoe, but also of Marlette Lake, a large beautiful lake just to the east of Lake Tahoe.

On paper, the race figured not to be too tough, with two long steady, not-too-steep climbs (1000' over 4M and 1400' over 10M) and just one nasty climb (800' over 1M), and that coming relatively early in the race (mile 13 for the 50K). The race IS at altitude (7000' low point, 9200' high point) but a recent hike to Half Dome (8,800') and last summer's Pikes Peak ascent where I ran strongly to 10,500' led me to believe the altitude would be low enough not to be a problem. With a strong 20M training run with 2000' of ascent (Wunderlich Park to Skyline Trail to Huddart Park and back) two weeks before the race completed at 10 min/mile pace feeling strong, I was harboring secret thoughts of breaking my 50K PR, and felt sure a 5:30 was well within reach. I gave the race my "strong taper" (no running at all the week before the race, just one easy one hour bike ride) and on race day was ready to go.

The race started at 6:00 a.m., too early for my taste but a necessity given the time needed for some of the runners to complete 50M (and, as it turned out, 50K as well; the slowest 50K finisher finished in 13+ hours). I was prepared with a long sleeve shirt to wear over my short sleeve, but just before the race started it was clear that I would be cool, but not cold, without it, so I started with just a short sleeve shirt and shorts. I mention this because the most interesting sight at the start of the race were two young people, a young man who was shirtless and a young woman who wore only a jogbra and shorts. Considering that many runners WERE bundled up, they stood out rather sharply from the crowd.

The race started with 5-6M of mostly uphill but with flatter and steeper sections. As usual, my plan was to run the whole way, so I would fall behind faster runners like the shirtless two on the flatter sections, but then catch and pass them on the uphills where they, like seemingly everyone in our vicinity with the exception of me, was walking. Well, to each their own! Reaching the first aid station, I felt like for the indicated distance and the pace I felt I was running, I should be hitting it in about an hour, and when I saw it was 1:09:45, I was definitely discouraged.

Over the next 5 miles I continued to change places on the uphills and downhills. One "new" feature of this race for me was that I was carrying a camera, taking quick pictures at the scenic spots (and there were many!). At one of the first overlooks, some of the runners had stopped, including the shirtless duo, and they took my picture with my camera and then I took their picture with theirs. I eventually learned as we ran on that this group of four had come all the way from Texas for this race. Shirtless guy followed me down one of the hills and was asking my advice on downhill running; around mile 10 or so he pulled ahead and eventually beat me by 1 hour 15 minutes, finishing 7th in the race, 2nd male in 20-29! Must have been that great advice I gave him. In a brief period we were running together, Shirtless gal also asked my advice. She wanted to know about race nutrition since it was her first ultra. She too pulled ahead of me around mile 12 or so and eventually finished 18 minutes ahead of me, 2nd female in 20-29. Once again I'm taking full credit. :-) All in all an impressive performance by the underdressed, neophyte Texans.

Here's a picture caught by the race photographer around mile 7 or so. I'm very distinguishable. For one thing I'm the only runner I've ever seen who wears his water bottle in front, not in back. Then there's the silver-framed, blue-tinted sun glasses and the head bandana (formerly known as a "doo rag")...

Between miles 11 and 17 comes the killer part of the course - the Red House loop. This starts with a long (maybe 2/3 mile) very steep downhill, largely sand (as were many of the trails on this course) and rocks which made for very tricky footing. All in all I'm calling it the toughest downhill I've ever run. Then, after 4 or 5 miles of rolling running including one very steep but shorter uphill where I passed two more runners, you return to the really tough hill, only this time its UPhill in the sand. I was still running at this point, pursuing my goal of running the whole race, but about halfway up the hill realized that this was REALLY silly. Between the slope and the sand, this was definitely a hill that could be walked faster than run, so I abandoned goal #1.

Miles 17 through 25 were the tough ones. Having abandoned my "no-walk" pledge, the barrier to more walking had been lowered. The miles were getting long, the slope turned upwards again (though never very steeply after "killer hill"), the altitude was increasing, and I was increasingly depressed as I began to realize that not only wouldn't I be breaking 6 hours for this run, that I'd be lucky to break 7 hours! Indeed, it was during this stretch, and probably after being passed by one of a few people who went by me here, that I vowed to give up ultrarunning entirely, realizing that I just wasn't cut out for this. Between my propensity to start too fast and pay for it later, my habit of running all the uphills while everyone else around me was walking, and my inability to devote any more of my life to training, it was becoming clear to me that I ought to stick to shorter trail races like the Dipsea or Woodminster (7 and 9 miles, respectively).

The good news was that I was still able to keep some level of optimism up by remembering that I had gone into this race because it fit perfectly into my normal profile, which is to run about 25 miles or so and then die completely. But from its 25M high point at 9200', this race was steadily downhill all the way to the finish, so all along I knew if I could get to 25M I'd be fine. And indeed that's the way it worked out. I pushed along, walking a few times when I got slightly dizzy from the effort. I realize now that's it's not purely altitude which gets to you, it's the product of altitude*effort*time, so it was only when I tried to push too hard for too long a time on the uphills (where "too hard" is VERY MUCH a relative term, you understand!) that I got dizzy.

At some point before the summit, though, I somehow summoned one last bit of willpower. I was tiring, but I was even more tired of being passed late in races by more sensible runners, and I vowed that no more runners would pass (No pasaran!). I was also beginning to think that, no matter how poorly I was doing time-wise, there was a slim chance I might actually be going to place in my age group, and if that was to be I couldn't take any chances letting anyone by. And that was how it was. Reaching the top, I was still resigned and dejected by the slow times, and was even further depressed when the aid station personnel told me there was still one more aid station to go and 2.8 miles from there to the finish (I had been SURE this was the last aid station and was only 6 miles from the finish; now I was being told it was more like 8!). In any case, though, I found myself in great shape, not stiffening up as I often do at this point in a race. Not willing to be "roadkill" for anyone else I literally flew downhill. Unfortunately I missed "splitting" my watch at that aid station, so I don't know my time, but with my arms pumping and my stride wide I do know it was as fast as I could go.

At the bottom, reaching Spooner Lake and the penultimate aid station, I learned that it was only 1.7M to the finish, not 2.8! A relief! I pushed on and then, as I rounded the lake, I caught sight of someone behind me. Dang! I can't let this happen! Fortunately just then I passed someone who was associated with the race and could ask how far it was to the finish. When they said "1/4 mile", I said "I can do that!" and redoubled my effort, easily holding off my pursuers, who turned out to be two 40-year old women (and therefore not in my age group anyway).

No, the dog didn't do all 50K!

Wandering by the "results board" later I couldn't believe my eyes. My 6:52 had been good for 34th overall (out of 133 starters) and 2nd in my age group! And not just 2nd, but 2nd out of 15 runners, by FAR the best finish I have ever had in a race except for dog runs. So the worst (slowest, anyway) race I ever had turned out to be the best! And I wasn't even tired at the finish. Truly amazing. Was it worth it? Check the award and you be the judge:

Acknowledgement of a good effort, showing Marlette Lake in the foreground and Lake Tahoe in the background. Minus the inscription, this wonderful award was given as a "finishers' medal" to all race finishers

How is it possible? I don't know for sure. One thing is that at almost the last minute, the race had a course change, because the popular Flume Trail had been closed due to nesting Bald Eagles. I overheard people say that this added significant climbing to the course, and I suspect it also added mileage, though I don't know that for sure. Clearly this course was long in some way; the 50K winner finished just under 5 hours compared to a "typical" time of just under 4 hours for other 50Ks. Was that due to altitude, course mismeasurement, or both? I don't know. I did lose a LITTLE time to picture taking (20 pictures times 5-10 seconds/picture we'll call that 3 minutes), and a little more time at aid stations to eat since I wasn't carrying all my food like I usually do since one of my two Ultimate pockets was filled with a camera instead of GU. But at most that accounts for a few more minutes. Obviously the altitude has some effect but it certainly didn't FEEL like it accounted for such a slow race. I didn't do NEARLY as much walking or slow running as I did at races which I finished faster than this one. In my heart of hearts, I really believe there were "distance problems" at this race. Perhaps they measure distances "as the crow flies" instead of "as the ultrarunner runs." But I really don't know, perhaps it was all altutude, and not only my running was slowed, but my perceptions as well.

A few words on the race - for a first time race, or even for any race, this was a great one. Well marked, sufficient and extremely well-stocked aid stations, fabulous course. The awards (see above) were attractive and unique, and, except for the inscription, were actually given to everyone as "finishers medals", along with a very comfortable Coolmax t-shirt, a shirt you can run in unlike most race shirts. Post-race burritos. All in all a keeper.

As for me, I'm back to my dilemma. Am I sticking to me vow to give up this sport, or am I going to be foolishly encouraged by my great result and enter more upcoming races like the Skyline 50K or the Headlands 50K, both coming up in August? Time will tell; as of this writing I don't know the answer.

Steve "Hills are my friend" Patt
in Cupertino, CA

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