It’s 2AM and it is taking all the concentration I have to keep my eyes open. I’m on my fourth of six laps in total, my second time on the trails. 19 miles down, 15 to go. I have to convince myself to stay alert, to look for rocks, to pick my feet up. Keep moving. Down the fire road. The faster you get down this mountain, the sooner you can sleep. But really, I could sleep right now. I could curl up alongside the trail and just. Sleep. The descent becomes more dizzying, my eyes continue to accrue mass, my mind is heavy and a blur. It seemed like hours by the time I made it back to transition; my watch battery had died and I was out of water. With my teammate’s worry replaced by relief, I crawled into my sleeping bag for a few hours of shuteye before my last laps.
This weekend, I raced the Ragnar Trail Relay in Tahoe as an honorary Gear Junkie team member on their ultra team. I won a sweepstakes in May for an all-expenses-paid trip to Reno and registration to the Ragnar Relay, as well as a plethora of amazing running gear, thanks to Gear Junkie, Salomon Running, and Suunto.
My teammates included, in pseudo-reverse running order, Mr. The Gear Junkie himself, Stephen:
Firepants McCoy, AKA Sean:
And of course, Chris, who also won the contest:
and of course, myself:
I wasn’t the only girl in our Gear Junkie camp, though. Amy came along as logistics coordinator/beer-and-cheese-balls wrangler, which was an invaluable service when you have an entire team made of native Midwesterners. She even jumped in as pacer for a lap, although who wouldn’t when the loop started with a ride up a chair lift?
We convened on Reno on Thursday night, with Sean and Stephen on the same flight as me out of Phoenix, and Chris meeting us in the smallest big city after a could-have-been-better flight out of Milwaukee/PHX. After harnessing the power of the Awful Awful burger and contemplating a climb up the side of a building (which was actually encouraged), we swung by Walmart for some essentials (coffee, beer, and cheese balls, obvi) and then… finally… rolled onward to the Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. Setting up camp at midnight made us feel a little like assholes, until another party arrived around 3am to do the same thing, only with inflatable air mattresses. Approximately three hours of sleep later, it was up and at ‘em for an action packed day of hydrating, eating yellow #5, and enjoying the entertainment of enthusiastic athletes in costumes.
Our start time was 2:30pm, and Chris was reeling to go. We got the low-down from Ragnar Trail Blazer, Steven, as usual:
The three loops, Green-Yellow-Red, were done in order over and over (G-Y-R-G-Y-R… etc) until everyone runs each lap once, or twice in our case since we were an ultra team. That meant that Chris’s first leg, totaling two laps, was Green-Yellow, with Green being 2.6mi up the bunny hill and back down a steep sandy grade, and Yellow being a 6.7mi grueling fire-road climb with a fast descent down a fantastic singletrack. All trails converged with 0.5mi remaining, which was a steep and tough climb, and Green/Yellow converge with about a mile left. So, there was some overlap between loops, but each loop was distinct in its own way.
Leg 1: 4:30-6PM:
I started my first run of the weekend’s race in the Salomon Sense Mantras on the red loop, which meant I got to ride the chair lift to the top of the mountain (at 9,000ft) and run down. Or at least, I thought I’d get to run down. There was a fantastic jaunt across the top of the mountain for about two miles before the descent began, and when it did, it was on fast fire road for a solid 4 miles. I was hauling. The miles ticked off quickly at 6:30min/mile pace, and I was sure that I’d put us in a good position heading into the night laps. But then the descent ended, and I found myself climbing up singletrack, with sun blazing and legs and lungs burning. It all balanced out, and I got back through transition and onward to the Green lap. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into, so I took the climb up the bunny hill conservatively. It reminded me a lot of running up Ripley, with the sun beating down, the exposure and sand and lungs burning. When the trail split between Yellow and Green, I followed the Green downhill, and fast. I was unsure how the Salomon Sense Mantra would handle the sandy and steep terrain, but damn if I didn’t run in these shoes much before the race. I felt like I was flying down the side of a cliff face like a mountain goat. I was connected to the earth, but didn’t roll my ankle or feel sluggish. I felt fast.
I cruised into the last mile’s arduous false flat into the finisher’s climb, turned the corner and let loose down the hill, handing off the race belt to Sean as he cruised through the longest two laps (Y-R). I knew that I still had a lot of miles to get through, but I was happy to find myself feeling ok with the altitude. My next lap wouldn’t be for several hours, so I got some food, shade, and water and relaxed until the time came.
Leg 2: Midnight – 3AM:
I threw on a pair of Cascadias and and rolled out of transition a little after midnight. In hindsight, I should have napped, or at least scored some caffeine an hour or so before my night run started. The first loop of my second leg was Yellow, followed by Red; Yellow was faster than I expected, given that the first half is an incredible climb up fire road that included switchbacks but was mostly just straight up the side of the freakin’ mountain. I think it helped to do this lap first at night, as opposed to during the day when you could see exactly where you were going; I knew I was climbing but I didn’t know just how steep it was, or how much longer I’d have to go. Eventually I turned onto singletrack and got a little unnerved by cracking branches in the woods; some other runner probably tripped or stumbled, but I took it as some other bear or cougar is out to eat my face. The adrenaline went through me a little too early, and I cruised through the lap on time. It wasn’t until I got to the chair lift for the second time on the Red loop that I realized just how euphoric this experience truly was. I stopped running, wrapped up in the blanket, and sat on the chair, lifting me up up up the side of the mountain. I turned off my headlamp, and the moonlight reflected off the boulders below me. I ate a Snickers and put my feet up, in awe of the stars and the moon, and then the tiredness hit me.
As I got off the lift, I highfived the lifty and flicked my headlamp back on. I careened around the top of the mountain, but by the time I got to the descent, I knew something was off. The Snickers didn’t do it for me, and I started fading fast. It took all the concentration I could muster to keep my eyes open, to stay alert. I passed a few runners and could barely get out a gruntly “great job.” My feet hit the ground so heavily, and my ankle turned a few times. I was ready to be done, but the descent just kept going. I didn’t remember it being so long the first time. Eventually, I made it onto the singletrack, where my GPS watch battery died, but knew that I just needed to get back to the road; the road meant there was less than a half mile to go.
Arriving back at camp, I handed off to Sean and forced myself to grab a banana and almond butter. I ate it while crawling into my sleeping bag, and was asleep before my head hit the sweatshirt pillow.
Leg 3: 10:30AM- 12:30PM
I was up and moving by 6AM, but felt like I had slept for days. I grabbed a coffee, threw on a loaner pair of Salomon shoes from Josh and the Salomon gang (I tried the Fellcross 2), and gathered myself for a hot, late morning run, and waited. Other teams had started doubling, and tripling, up their laps; if there were more than two runners left that had Green loops to run, they were to run together in order to complete the race by 6PM. As an ultra team, this was not that feasible, but we weren’t too concerned about finishing on time- the projections still had us finishing at or around 4PM.
Chris cruised through transition and handed off the race belt, and I soared through the Green Loop just 2 minutes slower than my first go at it. And I felt good; I was trying to hold myself back so I didn’t blow up on the Yellow, but I also wanted to use my strengths (false flats, downhills) when I could.
The Yellow Loop’s grinding climb was not as runnable the second time as it was the first; I think because I could see just how onerous it was. I ski-walked to the best of my ability, and once I got onto the single track, cruised and ate a gel. The singletrack on the last loop of the race for me was the most awesome singletrack I’ve run on in a while. Up and over boulders, over logs, under logs, across riverbeds, flowing trail that was so well designed and fast. And the Fellcross were an amazing shoe; so light and grippy, low to the ground, and I didn’t have any rolled ankles. By the time I got to the fire road at the end of the singletrack, I tried to put the hammer down. I knew I had just about 2 miles left, and 2 miles is not that far. My legs burned, my quads just ached, but one foot in front of the other got me to transition.
Sean and Stephen both cruised through their last legs, just absolutely flying. Amy, even with fresh legs, couldn’t keep up with Stephen on his last lap of 7.7miles on the Red loop. As he came around the final turn down the hill toward the finish chute, we hopped up and hit the trail behind him, crossing the line around 4PM.
All in all, the weekend was a fantastic blast. I was able to meet up with my teammie, Margot, in South Lake Tahoe for a swim and a burger, and the crew and I enjoyed a sunset over the mountains. We got back to camp and the party wasn’t completely dead, so we hung out with another team playing Flippy Cup and drinking Coors Light. Staying the night after the race is the way to go, for sure.
Doing a trail relay as an ultra team is my cup of tea. It’s fun either way, but I like the extra miles and the challenge of keeping my head in it. It’s not as hard on the body to do the trail relay as an ultra as it is, say, doing the relay as an ultra on the roads. Trails are just easier on the bones, but may be harder on the lungs. The trail relay teams are smaller than the road relays, too, which is seemingly easier to organize and manage. I am really looking forward to doing more of these, and am grateful for the opportunity to race with the Gear Junkie team at this year’s Tahoe race.
Special thanks to Salomon Running and Suunto for the amazing gear; the Sense Mantras are a fantastic trail shoe that is light with excellent traction, and their clothing is comfortable and wicking. I ran in the Start trail running shorts for two legs, and never had any chafing or rubbing. I also purchased a Salomon Sense Hydro S-Lab handheld, which was fantastic to use (and incredibly lightweight!). Suunto really hit the nail on the head with the Ambit2S- I absolutely love this watch and I don’t even know how to use it to the best of its abilities. And last but not least, thanks to Gear Junkie for picking me to be on your team. What an honor! I look forward to racing with you guys again!