Sunday, September 25, 2016

Emerald Bay Trail Run - "Flat and Fast"?

While looking through a recent issue of Trail Runner Magazine (motto: "One dirty magazine!"), I came across a mention of the Tahoe Trail Running Series Emerald Bay Trail Run. There were four things that made this catch my attention:

  • It was said to be infested with beauty.
  • It was only seven miles long.
  • It was "flat and fast," which seemed wildly unlikely given what I knew about the Tahoe area. But still, that's what it said.
  • It was on Mrs Notthat and my 34th first date anniversary.

So we decided to make a nice four day weekend out of the race.

Side note: We stayed at a place called the Beach Retreat & Lodge in South Lake Tahoe. It was really nice, and right on the lake with a nice beach, but there was a wedding every night we were there. The receptions were generally pretty loud, but always stopped at 9 PM. It was still pretty odd and got a bit old.

This was the last of the weddings. The fun thing at this one - three different dogs were walked down the aisle. Two of the dogs really wanted to keep going and play in the lake.
The course was on an amazing trail that went around the edge of Emerald Bay, passed through the famous (for something or other) Vikingsholm buildings, then along the shoreline of Lake Tahoe to DL Bliss State Park.

The "flat and fast" claim is apparently based on definitions of those terms that apply only to races in the Tahoe area. The trails were often littered with trip hazards and lots of stone steps and hills. Nothing horrific, but on a course with so many views, it was sad to have to spend so much time watching your step. Fortunately, I'm fine with not going fast and stopping frequently to take pictures.

My GPS said there was just a bit over 1000 feet of climbing on this course, centered around an altitude of 6300 feet, which was not insignificant.
The race started at the Lower Eagle Point campground at Emerald Bay State Park. This campground closed after Labor Day, so we had the run of the joint to ourselves, and were basically directed to park in the various campsites.

It was in the 30s when we left the hotel, but had warmed up to the 50s by the time the race started.
From near the start, a heavily filtered view of Emerald Bay.
The brave Notthatlucas's practicing our game faces.
RD: "There's beer, a beach, and a cold lake to soak your body in at the finish. And almost nobody will get eaten by a bear"
We're off!
Because of the publicity and word getting around about how scenic this race is, they had about twice as many runners sign up this year (around 300) as last year. As tradition dictates, I started at the very back.

"Which way do I go?" Straight up was about right.

The race started with about a third of a mile on a paved uphill road. This seemed a bit odd, but it served as a great way to sort out the faster runners (namely not me) from the others before we made the turn onto the gnarly single-track downhill trail.

"Which way do I go?" I was passed by a stream of runners as I paused to take this stupid picture, but it was all worth it.

Once on the trail, it was a slow conga line for a while. I didn't mind much since going slow meant I could sneak looks at the views.

I wasn't the only one taking advantage of the views!

The downhill would have been pretty sweet to blast down without the congestion, but it did have its share of rocks and roots that likely would have doomed my blast.

We crossed a LOT of these sorts of bridges. There was one real water crossing, although you could avoid getting wet if you wanted to. Freaks.
The first couple of miles were pretty congested, but were also stunningly beautiful. There were a few runners determined to pass on the narrow trails, but for the most part, most were content to just keep moving at the group pace. 

I didn't realize I was already at the Vikingsholm area and, other than this shot of some out building, failed to get any nice shots of the main attraction.
By the time we hit the Vikingsholm area, the trail was smoother and wider which allowed the runners to better sort themselves out by speed.

The scenic is strong in this course.
Seriously strong.
Campers only a runner could love!
I knew we were getting fairly close to our aid station, and could hear a lot of noise coming from up ahead, so I assumed that was it. Instead, it was a group of campers banging pans and cups and making a ton of noise - it was truly awesome (unless you were camped close to them and hoped to sleep in).

Ranger cheers!

The aid station was at about mile 3.3 or so. I was carrying a large water bottle and had about half of it left at this point, but knew there were nearly four miles left and it was really warming up, so I topped it off (which ended up being one of my smartest moves this whole race).

There were a lot of boulders to dodge along this course, especially in the second half.

Then the main climb started. There was no elevation chart to look at before the race, so I really didn't know what to expect (beyond the "fast and flat" claim). This climb was not particularly steep (about 400 feet of climbing in a mile and a half), but it was a bit rugged with lots of steps and rocks.

Still with the views.

I had been looking forward to this downhill, and it was a lot of fun, even if you still had to watch your step.

The first of two race photographers.

By now we were on a stretch of trail that had a lot of normal hikers on it. This particular group was loudly cheering on the runners. They even lied and said I looked good.

A lot of the trail at this point really lived up to the "flat and fast" claim. But wow, if you stumbled here you could fall for a long time. People were opening up the running during this part. Even I got into the act. (And yes, you should start hearing the faint sounds of ominous music at this point.)

Another view. (Yawn.)
The second race photographer. "I don't think anyone has ever taken my picture before!"
The photographers were from Lefrak Photography, and they took some amazing pictures. The fun thing was that one picture of every runner was picked to be available for free (with the rest available for purchase). Even better, those free pictures were really stunning. This particular guy got these shots of us:

Photo by Lefrak Photography.
Photo (that somehow manages to make me look like a real runner) by Lefrak Photography.
One thing to note in the above pictures is how smooth the trail was. It was shortly after this, with about a mile to go, that I managed to step into a small hole and become one with the trail. I got scraped up a bit, but the real issue was that my ankle was pretty seriously tweaked.

Sadly, I failed to take a picture of the hole or talk a passing runner into taking my picture. My running was done for the day, but I was able to hobble reasonably well.

"Which way do I hobble?"
Going down steps was pure torture. And there were a lot of them scattered in that last mile.
The RDs anticipated how big of a klutz I would be, and kindly arranged for this chain rail to keep me from wandering off the cliff.
"Which way do I hobble?" This parking lot meant we were very nearly done.
"Which way do I… oh never mind."
Done! Finally!
Mrs Notthat ended up beating me by about four minutes - I think even if I had avoided the fall, she would have beaten me by at least a couple of minutes. For the record, this sand was not awesome on a damaged ankle.

There was a fairly long line for the beer, and standing in the sand was not something I needed to be doing in any case. Mrs Notthat verified that we were no threat for an age group award (a really nice thing was that they used five-year age groups!). There were other raffles going on as well, but I really needed to go take care of my ankle.

An odd thing about this race (and something to stress about if you are like me and prone to stressing) is that we were told we had to get our car out of that campground by 1 PM or it would be locked in until spring. The website said there would be a bus that held 15 people to shuttle us back to the car, and when I did the math about there being 300 runners and that the bus roundtrip would be 30 minutes (at least), I decided it would be good to get in the bus line ASAP.

As it turned out, the race people could do math as well, and provided two shuttle busses that held about 30 each. A bad thing was that the bus had to drop us off up at the main road and we would have to walk down to our car. Under normal circumstances, that would have been a fun downhill run to the car (about 1.3 miles it turned out - getting there early and getting a good spot worked against you at this point), but since I could only manage a hobble, this turned out to be a pretty long slog.

In the end, they controlled the gate out, and I'm sure they hung around until all the runners had made the shuttle back and gotten their cars out. Their real goal was to make sure someone didn't decide to make an afternoon of hanging out on the beach at the finish or get back to their car and take advantage of the empty campground for the afternoon.

I should have anticipated all this and not worried so much, but in the end it all worked out fine. (The ideal thing to do is to have a friend drop you off at the start and wait for you at the end. Another idea that crossed my mind was to finish the race, then turn around and do it again, this time with far fewer people.)

Once we got back to the car, Mrs Notthat took her shoes off to dump the sand and such out. Note how I managed to catch a shoe in midair as she flung it! (Or maybe she is using The Force to bring the shoe back to her.)

This race was a blast and well worth the effort to drive up from the Bay Area to attend. If your goal is to win, be sure to start up front and be OK with missing out on most of what makes this race so cool - the stunning views. If your goal is just to finish and enjoy the trails (which is the right way to do this race), do like me and just go slow and don't sweat the early conga lines. If someone can drop you off at the start and meet you at the finish, that's awesome and means you can really enjoy that beach area and the finish festivities. Even if that can't work out, it seems like they have it set up pretty good to get you back to your car, even if the math doesn't make it seem like it.

I tried "icing" my ankle in the lake, but the lake water was actually not all that cold.
Real icing, using the goody bag, on the porch at our room.
The Tahoe Trail Running Series has a number of events in the area, and I wouldn't hesitate to sign up for any of them based on this experience. (If you are a medal whore, you will be disappointed in this race though.) This was an amazingly beautiful course and I could see this race becoming an annual tradition for us.

Minus the ankle thing.

That's it - move along…

PS: I took a stunning number of pictures for a 7 mile race. I put all the useful ones here. You should be able to download them, but this is the first time I've tried to share this way (I miss the old Picasa way of doing things). Let me know in the comments if it works OK (or doesn't) for you.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Run-de-Vous by moonlight

For the fifth year, Veejar (not his real name) has put on the Run-de-Vous ultra race down in Harvey Bear Ranch in San Martin CA, using the infamous 2.01 mile paved loop for distances ranging from 50K to 100M.

There are two big issues with this race for me: It's not a terribly exciting loop and the heat can really be intense since there is no shade. I don't know if it was new for this year or if it had always been offered and I just never noticed, but there was an optional 8PM start for all but the 100M distance - this meant I could do most of the race in the cool of the night. So I signed up for the 50M race.

While I knew I wasn't really trained very well for that distance, I figured I could easily get it done in the 18 hour limit I would have. This would be my second 50M finish, and would either be a huge PR or a DNF (my other 50M finish was in a little over 22 hours - feel free to roll your eyes at that). One interesting thing was made clear in the pre-race email - dropping from the 50M to the 50K distance after you started was not an option; you either get the 50M done or you DNF. I really liked that since past experience has shown it's awfully easy for me to talk myself into being happy with the shorter distance when things start going badly. (And you can generally count on something going badly.)

For a trail race, the loop is pretty flat - there's about 90 feet of very gentle climbing per loop, which adds up over time. I like how the website's elevation chart makes this climb seem a bit terrifying.

My goal was to walk that climb then run the downhill bit and try to run as much of the rest of the loop as possible. For the first half of the race, that worked really well. Once the foot blisters became serious though, I ended up walking the whole loop.

That odd little bit by the start was when I headed to my car to grab a nap around midnight.
My hope was that I could finish before the battery on my Garmin died, and I came close - it died about a fifth of the way around my last lap.

Above are two views of my race's elevation chart, showing the 25 laps (minus most of the last one due to the battery issue). The top one is based purely on distance while the bottom one shows the actual time spent on each loop. With real skills, both of these would pretty much look identical, but, well, this is me, so the skill level is a bit dubious.

I showed up about an hour early and grabbed this shot of the start/finish area with all its tents and personal aid stations. The race had a proper aid station with more kinds of food than you could possibly ever want or need, but many runners brought stuff specific to what they would need (including me with my Tailwind), and so you end up with a small city.

Aicram (not her real name) is judging a yoga contest that was NOT a required part of the race (thankfully).

Soon the sun went down and it was nearly time for the 8PM runners to start.

"The wild pigs rarely eat any runners. The frogs, though, are intensely vicious!"
I was encouraged to see so many runners for the late start. As it turned out though, all of the 8PM starters were running the 50K - I was the only late start 50M runner.

It was still fairly light out for our first lap, so I didn't bother with my headlamp. For the second lap, it was significantly darker - many runners were not using headlamps, so I decided to go without one as well. That proved to be a dubious choice though - almost all of the runners were sticking to the pavement, which required very little light to see, but I was mostly on the dirt shoulder, and in the dark, it was really challenging to watch your step. More than once, something vaguely ominous on the trail would suddenly move as I got close.

At the end of the second lap, I paused to put on my headlamp and a light jacket.

"Hey Eyaf, not your real name!"
There are two things about running at night that bug me: Carrying my camera is mostly useless since there is little to get a picture of in the dark (and using the flash is a bit rude), and my body knows that I really should be asleep.

The aid station at night.
The cool things about running at night mostly involve looking at the stars and listening to the frogs and other critters as they come to life. Well, and it's cool out.

I ended up leaving the camera at my mini aid station, so I've got very few night pictures.

I got seven laps done with minimal issues. The eighth lap though, proved very challenging as I caught myself several times falling asleep.

I had a couple of options at this point - try to get a lot of caffeine in my system or take a short nap. In the past, caffeine has proved to be a bit dicey for me since it often leads to stomach issues, which was the last thing I wanted. So I chose to go sit in my car and try to get a short nap. That was also a bit dicey since I have horrific napping skills.

I ended up spending about an hour and forty minutes in the car, and actually slept for a lot of that, which surprised me. A bigger surprise was that, once I left the car, I really felt good. Additionally, the moon was now very bright and I no longer needed the headlamp, even for the dirt shoulders. I changed out of my sweat soaked shirt and buff, put on a hoodie, and got back to work.

I knocked out a pretty quick lap and caught up to Esoj (not his real name) who was running the 100M and had been going since 6AM on Saturday. I decided to do a lap with him, and it proved to be really interesting since, while I had been feeling drowsy before my nap, he was in much worse shape than I had been. This turned out to be by far my slowest lap, but was also pretty entertaining since I spent a lot of it convincing Esoj that he was trying to have a conversation with a shrub or that it would really be bad form to collapse on the pavement. We talked a lot (well, I talked a lot) and managed to get the lap done. Esoj promised to get some serious caffeine before heading back out - he would hang in there and end up getting his 100M done.

I was still feeling great, so I started listening to podcasts and kept on getting the laps done.

The top of the "hill."
About the time I hit the Marathon distance (5AM or so), I felt a small rock in my shoe, so I stopped to deal with it. But there was no rock - it was the start of a blister. It had been so long since I had gotten a blister that I had completely forgotten what it felt like. At this point, I made what may have been a mistake - I should have changed out my socks for a dry pair, but decided I didn't have the time to do that and instead just put the old sock back on and headed back out.

About four miles later, this process repeated itself on the other foot - again, I was shocked that this was a blister issue and not a rock in my shoe. And again, I chose to do nothing about it.

The blisters got significantly worse as I went along, and at times were extremely painful. Most of the time though, they were just annoying and I could keep going, and surprisingly, I was able to maintain a 15 minute/mile pace up to the end of the race.

Looking back at the start/finish area from the opposite side of the course.
All night long we had a bright moon and lots of stars with a clear sky. Around 5AM though, the marine layer came in and blocked the stars and dulled the moon. The great thing was that the clouds stuck around for a while - I was fearing how much time I was going to have to spend in the heat, and these clouds did a wonderful job of postponing that.

"Go Ahtnahs! Not your real name!"
By this point, there were not many runners still on the course, and nobody was doing much actual running. I actually managed to pass a few of these runners (keep in mind that they all had been going for 14 hours longer than me, and for a lot longer distance).

"Go Eifos and Esoj! Not your real names!" Esoj had rallied magnificently!
By about 10AM, the clouds had burned off and the sun started doing its thing. By about 11AM, I was roasting. Fortunately, the aid station had lots of ice - I would fill my bottle with ice and Tailwind and put ice in my hat at the start of every lap from then on, and that would be enough to keep me moving.

The Cones of Happiness.
Twenty five times I went around that course, and I got to know it pretty well. The happiest sight though were these cones. For the 50K, runners did 15 laps and then a 0.5 mile out-and-back to get up to 31 miles. These cones marked the 0.5 mile turnaround point for them. For the rest of us they were a sign that the loop would be done in a half a mile. They were always great to see.

He did it!
At about 12:33 I finished my last lap. Finally. This equals a 16:33 50M finish, which is not awesome, but is about a five and half hour improvement over my previous 50M race.

This monitor was awesome since it would show you how many laps you had done and how long your last lap took. You can see that there were not that many runners left at this point. Also note that my lap times were pretty consistent (and include the time it took to fill my bottle and shove ice in my hat).

Not long after I finished my 50M race, Esoj finished his 100M race! 50 laps done!

The shirt, bib, and an ice bandana!
The only issue with the race turned out to be that they had forgotten there was still a 50M runner still out there, and had already sent the medals to storage, so I will get it in the mail. But that's no big deal - I really like the shirt, especially since it is specific to my distance! The ice bandana was a really nice surprise - I wish I had remembered that I had been given it so that I could have used it for those final few laps.

This race is sneaky hard. The course looks easy, but the lack of shade can really get to you. When I had arrived, I talked to a number of 100M runners that were dropping to the 100K distance due to the toll the sun had taken on them. I'm pretty sure that if I had started my race at 6AM with the others, my finish time would have been worse since the heat would have beaten me down. On top of the heat, you had the bonus of being near your car, with it calling out to you with comfy seats, AC, and easy access to all kinds of fast food wonders.

But this is a great race if you are trying to stretch out to a new distance or set a PR. Veejar the RD is a great motivator, and PCTR Nhoj provides the timing and lots of encouragement as well. The aid station is well stocked - what you need to bring are a good strategy for dealing with the heat and some mental toughness to deal with the loopiness. I rarely listen to anything during races, but the podcasts and music were a great distraction when things started to get tough.

With a two mile loop, I expected to see friends on the course frequently. As it turned out, that didn't actually happen for two reasons:

  • If you are going at anything close to the same speed, you will rarely catch each other. There were a number of people that I almost never saw, but yet we were on the same loop for hours.
  • At night, it is REALLY hard to recognize the other runners. They put on jackets, maybe have bright headlamps on, and are busy trying to not step on frogs.

And that's about it. This was really hard for me, especially the blisters (it wasn't until five days after the race that my feet felt good enough to do any mileage) and the sleep thing. I want to develop my night skills, so I'll work on caffeine strategies.

A HUGE thanks to everyone involved in this race for making it so successful for me! The awesome volunteers were out there forever making sure we had everything we needed.

That's it - move along…

PS: You can see more of my pictures here.