Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pacing at the Tahoe Rim Trail, another 50miler

About three weeks ago, Anil asked me if I was free to come to Lake Tahoe on the weekend of the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, and pace them (Anil and Rajeev) in the night for 26 miles. It was to be the weekend after my Devil's Backbone 50 miler. I figured that would be a good way to move legs after the 50miler and also taper down for Pikes. What with the San Francisco half marathon lined up for the weekend after TRT, my running distances were half-life-ing quite well -- a damn desirable taper, I thought.

I agreed to pace. Roopa, who was initially going to come along, couldn't join due to running and other commitments. I decided to not drive and instead joined forces with GB (Deepak and Deepu to a lot of folks) and Aruna in SF. It also gave me time to read the just released HP book. Took the train up to the city, got picked up by GB and Aruna, and headed out towards Tahoe, after a brief brunch stop. It was all smooth sailing until we passed Auburn, when all of a sudden the car stopped accelerating. Thanks to good presence of mind by Aruna, who pulled over to the shoulder out of harm's way, and to Geico's towing service, we were soon sitting in the car on a truck and reading Harry Potter, while travelling back to the Nissan dealership in Auburn.

Auburn is a typical central California super-sleepy town. The Nissan service center was closed for the weekend. All rental car agencies were also closed for the weekend. Anu and Bharti who had started travelling towards Tahoe just a little while ago were reached just in time for them to travel our way, so that they could pick us up. All this while there was no guarantee that we would reach Tahoe in time for me to pace Anil and Rajeev. They had started running at 5AM and were expecting to get to mile 50 around 8PM. Too many constraints. So we just cest la vie -d it away, had lunch, and started reading HP7 while we waited.

Eventually it all turned out well, barely in time. Anu and Bharti came. We got picked up. We reached the start area just before 8PM. I changed in the car and ran down to the trail to pick up a pacer bib. And within 20-30minutes from that, Anil and Rajeev had come into the mile50 aid station.

I met Fagan at the mile50 aid station. He was hobbling rather bad. Meredith was helping him, as did I. We helped him change socks and shoes. He had run the first 50miles in 15hours, but had bust his quads in the 2400ft downhill of the last 7miles. Also met Jessi and Shawn who had cracked their races. It was rather nice to land up at TRT 50mile aid station, and run into 4 HCTR folks right away. They told me that MeredithT was also running, but they weren't sure where she was. We got Fagan ready and urged him to get going soon.

Soon Anil and Rajeev had come in and were attended to by the half a dozen minstering angels of our crew. Arul, Gayatri, Anu, Bharti, GB, Aruna were a fantastic crew, and the never-tiring Rashmi was holding it all together. The guys spent some time getting into warmer clothes, cleaner socks etc., had pizza and we left the aid station at 9PM, 16hours into their race. We had 19 more hours to cover the next 50miles, with various intermediate cut-offs in between. Rajeev and Anil were remarkably strong for having covered 50miles already. We started out walking up the hill to the Hobart aid station. The strategy was clear -- walk the uphills, power the straights, and run or shuffle the downhills. After a long-ish climb, we came up to Hobart. It had taken us a little over 2-1/2 hours to cover those 6miles. We ran into Fagan sitting in Hobart. He had taken over 3-1/2 hours to get up there, and was done. He seemed to be in pain, and was waiting for transportation to take him back to the start/finish area. Rajeev was joking with all the aid station volunteers as we tried to spend very little time there.

The downhill from Hobart to Tunnel was negotiated quickly and we set off for the Red House loop. These 6 miles were our best. It had some rather steep uphill climbs, and we kept a very good power-walk pace up them hills and covered it in 2 hours. Mind, I was just starting to run, but Anil and Rajeev had 50miles over me already! By now we were done with 67miles and we met Alan and Pete who seemed to be running together, were done with 85. Then we set out for the long 9 mile stretch to Mt. Rose, where we would meet our crew. This stretch was gorgeous as the darkest hour turned into a glorious sunrise over Washoe Lake. Anil was growing increasingly sleepy by now. As the day broke, we broke for a 15min nap for Anil. Met a few more runners coming back from Mt. Rose, who seemed to express an urgency if we were to meet the cut-off. That woke Anil up, and we ran. We took the downhills hard, power-walked the uphills and ran 3 miles straight to get into Mt. Rose at 6:35AM (cut off 7:40AM).

The entire crew was hanging around at Mt. Rose, waiting for the runners. We quickly changed into daytime clothes. By now, we had been discussing cutoffs and time strategies for a while, and I felt we (Rajeev, Anil, and me) were a team. There was no way I could drop off at mile 76 and let them do the last 24 miles by themselves. Besides, my ankle and shins were keeping quiet, and given that they had 50miles over me, we were moving slow enough to not have tired me out yet. In all, a decision was taken to go back the 24 miles with the runners. The only deal was I had come to Tahoe prepared to run 26miles and at night. For eg., I didn't have any clip2 on me. I had run out of the electrolytes I normally used. Didnt have light daytime clothing. Also had not eaten a lot during the initial running phase. So told myself that I need to be conscious of salt/sugar content and force feed myself at aid stations, to go the 50miles without trouble.

The return unfolded in phases. The first one was the 9mile stretch back to Tunnel. Anil was desperately sleepy in this stretch. We had put in about an hour buffer, and Rajeev had promised Anil a 10min sleep at Tunnel. However, along the way, Anil could hardly hold it in. At one point he sat down, and said I'll sleep two minutes and come. We let him take those two minutes (and exactly two) and urged him to continue moving. From there onwards, I let Rajeev lead ahead, and I stayed right behind Anil, until the end of the race. At another point, he (Anil) actually fell asleep on the trail while running, and seemed like he was running off course. That was when I actually felt scared. Touched and woke him up. Rajeev gave him some coke, and the sudden sugar and the caffeine seemed to briefly wake him up. Sipping coke, we pushed to the top of Diamond Peak, where we had water. We washed our faces, as Anil and Rajeev took a caffeine pill each. From there on, sleep became less of an issue, as we ran downhill all the way to Tunnel.

At Tunnel, Anil took his promised 10min nap and I reinforced my learning from last week that eating solid food is very hard for me at high altitudes. Pikes is not gonna be easy. We did the hill from Tunnel to Hobart at a fast clip and got into Hobart about 45min ahead of cutoff. Then the painful uphill to Snow Valley took for ever, fighting the damn flies, and we left the highest point in the race (9200ft) with 35-40min buffer. The last 7miles were excruciating. In retrospect, and Anil agreed with me later on this, we should have run hard. We had crawled to a slow pace, and the monotonous downhill threatened to sap our spirits. The only thing that kept us going was the knowledge that all downhills eventually have to end. Finally we got to the last aid station, and pushed past the final 2 miles, and ran in the last 100meters hand in hand. It had taken them 34hrs and 11min, and me 18hrs and 11min!

In all, an extremely memorable night and day. I got to pace my first coach (from Asha '03) and one of my first running buddies (Rancho '03) on their 100milers. I'll never forget Rajeev's constant encouragement over emails (and some phone calls) during my first marathon training. I was training alone in Austin, while the team was in the bay area. Rajeev had given me an envelope at my first marathon, with a note and some inspiring stories. Still read it, before my races. I've held very dear, my runs with Anil, Arun (Simha), Amit (Sethi), Anu, Kaarthik and others at Rancho from '03 summer. In particular, there was an 18-mile run in the Oracle trail on a particularly hot day. I had freshly had an ITB injury, and was hobbling and struggling to move, and Anil slowed down, stayed with me (from pretty much the start) and helped me to the finish, and then took one of my fuel belt bottles and went out for 4 more miles. These kinda things form hard to describe bonds, and this camaraderie is one of the prime reasons I keep coming back to the trails. Sunday, I was honored to run in, holding hands, with Rajeev and Anil.

Thanks guys, and CONGRATS on the 100miler!

PS: And a huge thanks to Rashmi and the crew for everything (starting from ferrying me there and bringing me back home).

PPS: There was a darned huge blister underneath my toe. Never realised when it started. I thought I had pebbles in my shoes. I even stopped once and cleaned the socks and shoe and put them back on. Finally turned out to be a rather nasty blister. Anil, the surgeon, stuck a scissors in it and cleaned it up for me. Need new shoes, I guess.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Devil's Backbone 50

It all began at Dry Fork aid station in the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming. First, I had missed the cut-off at mile 34 in the Big Horn 50mile race, fought with the aid station volunteers to allow me to continue, lost that fight, and was sitting around pondering about the DNF while waiting for a ride back to the finish line. Next, on the flight back from Billings to Denver, Leah mentioned that she's gonna do another 50, maybe the Tahoe Rim Trail. That got me thinking, maybe I could do another 50 before Pikes.

To cut it short, Tahoe Rim Trail having filled up, and some umpteen searches later, zero-ed in on the same damn Montana mountain ranges and came up with Devil's Backbone in the Gallatin ranges. First up, I told the rest of the bloo-frat (Santhosh, Gaurav, Ganesh, Anita and Sanjeev), and they said you are crazy, do it! Next up, I sent a long email to Joe (Prusaitis, our 'cool' coach) asking him myriad questions. Joe replied "go run it... I would! /joe". I registered.

I should first explain what made this race different. It was going to be entirely unmarked and unsupported (except for a drop bag at mile 25). The Gallatin ranges were home to grizzlies and mountain lions and elks. The entire race would be run above 9000ft elevation. We were to climb a total of 12500ft, 8000ft on the way over and 4500ft on the return in an out and back rocky course. In the bargain we were to bag 4 big peaks and a bunch of little peaks along the way, the tallest peak at 11000 ft. The elevation profile looked something like this:

Tom (Hayes, the race director) and Liz (his wife) put this race up almost entirely by themselves, and they do a swell job. There were 38 starters, and we met up at Tom's house the evening before for packet pickup, a race briefing, and some dinner. Tom had said this earlier, and he repeated it again that there was a lot of snow on the course, and that we had nothing to worry about with regard to water. Of course, I didn't believe him. Who had ever heard of using snow to fill your camelbak! Then he went on to talk about the 4 confusing points on the trail, where one could get de-railed and lost. Then the next 4 and so on... I returned to my room sufficiently convinced that there will be some way lost on the morrow.

The race promptly started at 5:30am with daybreak. I had my strategy all in place. The first 7.5 miles were a climb to the top of Hyalite peak, and I was gonna power walk that entire hill. Soon effects of altitude started showing. Turns out high altitude makes you light-headed and dizzy. Soon the power walk gave way to walk and I joined ranks with Lisa for most of that climb. Lisa was training for Leadville next month, and she was walking up this peak as well. Halfway up the peak, I realised the potential of all the snow lying around -- sno-cones! It was getting hot by then, and the snow eaten with a bit of electrolytes was tasting heavenly. I dumped half my water and decided to stick to snow. (The previous night I had already dropped the extra 70oz bladder, and had decided to stick to just one 100oz bladder.) Liz had, the previous night, taught me optimal snow filling strategy -- you have to add the snow while the bladder/bottle is still half full with liquid, otherwise the snow wont really melt.

Hyalite peak was gorgeous. None of the greenery and trees and showy flowers. Rocky, bare, cold, and majestic. The starkness of it all was really striking. Paused briefly to pick up a poker chip (this was to claim proof of bagging the peak!) and to soak in the mood of the rocky brilliance, and started down the peak. This was around 11000ft elevation and I was fairly light-headed, dizzy and had a bad headache. We stayed on the ridge for a bit, and then came down the peak to Crater Lake and further down from there to the valley floor, all the while feeling sad about the dropping elevation since we knew we had to climb it all again.

And so it went on, crossing peaks and staying on the ridge for the most part, until we got to the half way turnaround point at the Windy cabin. Tom was hanging around there waiting for us. Just the four of us were left at that point -- Mark (Henderson) was running with Penny (Mooney) and Lisa and myself. All others had either turned back or had dropped from the race. We more or less started together from the halfway point, and I let the others go ahead as I slowly dragged myself up the steep hill. I couldnt eat anything all day (could be the altitude) and so was surviving on two packs of clip2 and electrolytes, some grapes and lots of snow. Tom who was going to sweep the course behind the last runner caught up with me. One look at me, and he said that there is no shame in dropping out, it is a hard race, particularly for folks who come from sea-level. I promptly decided to put some distance between him and me. After a while he caught up with me again, and this time he knew I was gonna go back the whole way. Then we started chatting different other stuff and checked out the scenery as we travelled the ridge. At one point we were in the sun, watching one section of the 360 degree view rain, looking at the mountains of Yellowstone national park in an other, and beautiful meadows going down the slopes in a third section.

And then it started raining. The good part was it cooled the day, from a blistering 90 to something quite chilly, probably something in the 50s. Luckily I was carrying my windcheater on me. Not much one can do when it rains on the ridge. Absolutely no where to hide. In time the rains stopped. Soon we hit some steep downhills, and these I was taking at a fair clip. For once I understood what Joe meant by kicking rocks. I was rolling my ankes all over, but for once I didnt care. Its very different and quite a delight to go down rocks along steep downhills at high altitude. Soon I caught up with Mark, Penny, and Lisa (who had joined forces since mile 25). At an other downhill I left them and made my way back to the Hyalite peak. There was a rather tricky (and dangerous) downhill crossing Hyalite peak, all covered up in snow. I was trying to move fast as I could with the sole intention of negotiating that downhill in daylight. The hill going up through crater lake slowed me down quite a bit. Then there were four dudes on motorcycles, who wanted to know what we were doing, and I just needed an excuse to sit down and talk.

Eventually the Hyalite peak was negotiated and as I proceeded further down, it started to get dark. All this while, in daylight, it was reasonably easy to spot the cairns and not get lost. Once it got dark life became very tricky. Soon I got to a point where the trail ended into a stream. In the distance there were two lights which could only have been a pair of eyes. At this point it was around 9:30pm, thats 16 hours into the race and 44miles covered so far. I knew there were three runners and Tom behind me for sure. I decided to wait for the next runner and team up and negotiate the last 6 miles in the dark. In about 20-30 minutes Lisa came by. She was having a hard time eating anything and looked quite done in. She wasnt sure which way the trail was either, and the eyes unnerved her too. (She had already been unnerved at a snow crossing earlier, and was in tears before she was helped across it.) So we figured we'll wait for the next runner. In 10min, the next runner turned out to be Mark and Penny along with Tom. Penny's knee was troubling her quite a bit and had kept her moving slow.

Tom took a look, and decided that the stream itself was the trail and that the water must have been flooded onto the trail with the rains. So we walked in the stream for some time and sure enough the stream stopped and the trail began. After this point, it ceased to be a race. It was too dark to negotiate an unmarked trail alone, and the five of us decided to walk it back to the finish talking and chatting merrily. It took a long while to cover those 6 miles. We crossed a few bridges, got our feet wet in many streams, and eventually made our way to the finish line.

Liz and Lisa's boyfriend Mike were waiting for us. They had a nice fire going, and we gathered around the fire, toasting our toes, while Liz bustled around getting us water and our finisher's pilsner glass. Its quite cool, it has the red devil logo and says "Unmarked, Unsupported, Unequalled". 25 of the 38 had finished. We had taken 18hours and 52minutes.

Tom and Liz put up a great race, besides being wonderful hosts. It was a real pleasure to meet them and run with them. In all, it was an amazing day. It was over 7 1/2 hours longer than the longest I had ever run. The unmarked and unsupported aspects were very cool. The best part of course was the sno-cones. And it all culminated in true trail running camaraderie, as the last four runners and the race director joined forces and talked and joked and laughed our way back along the last 6 miles.

PS: It was a week to the tragic death of Rick at the Greenbelt. As all other HCTR members, marking a memorial run for Rick on Saturday, I had worn black. After looking at the pictures that Joe had of Rick, I recognized having seen him in the Greenbelt a couple of times. Its such a terrible tragedy. RIP Rick.