Off these feet (part 4): Tough as trails

You don’t go up to the Sierra Nevada to run on roads. You just don’t. Roads can be found anywhere. Challenging switchback trails through alpine greenery accompanied by bright blue skies, crisp air and just about perfect running temperature — those things you can’t find just anywhere. In Truckee, when you ask about a running route, the locals point you to trails. So this summer I took to the trails, and they chewed me right up.

I was a sea level dweller aspiring to run at 6000+ feet. I was also primarily a road runner. And apparently, unbeknownst to me, I was a green-behind-the-ears hill runner. For someone who lives in a city famous for its hills, I had relatively few hilly miles under my belt. That shortcoming was not tolerated on the North Tahoe trails.

I can safely say that of all my summer escapades, the trail runs were the toughest. Nothing quite made my heart jump out of my chest like a 90-minute trail run. Nothing made me sweat more. Nothing made me feel more dejected than the feeling of going nowhere fast because the ground absorbed all my energy and the rocks begged to throw me off balance with every step. And yet, once the beating was over, nothing made me feel more alive. There is something very primal and spiritual about roaming through nature on foot. No road, no cars, no town. Just you, the ground beneath and the sky above. Add to that the determination required to spring up into a jog when normal walking would be challenging enough. Trail running is hardcore.

If you ever find yourself near Truckee in the summer and are looking for an adventure, check out these runs:

Northstar Mountain Run
10.2k and 2280′ vertical to the top of Mt. Pluto. A religious experience not to be missed. Race takes place each year around mid-August.

2012 NSMR trail 1

NSMR view

Squaw Mountain Run
Same concept as the Northstar one but even steeper — 3.6 miles and 2000′ vertical. I haven’t run this one yet; it’s on my list. Race occurs every year in early August.

Sawtooth Trail
A rock-n-rolling 9-mile single-track loop that gives way to some magnificent ridge-top vistas. It is a mountain biking favorite so look out for wheels. Oodles of rocks and scree and tree roots will ensure you stay alert, not to mention give your stabilization muscles a workout.

Something magical happened to me on those trails. It wasn’t until weeks later after I had already left the mountains that I noticed. I had been beaten down, but lo and behold I was also mended. I had come home with prize as unexpected as a winning lottery ticket.

To be continued in Part 5: Take-home prize

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North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon Relay 2012

race area
Due to unprecedented rainstorms in the Bay Area, the NFEC this year was one wet, muddy adventure. There was not a dry foot in sight. We lucked out with relatively mild temps (low 60’s) and no rain by the time our event began (11 a.m.). There was a slight tailwind going uphill that translated into a headwind coming down. The true challenge was the slippery sloshy terrain at the top and on the descent. I now know what it feels like to inadvertently glissade down a trail at 85% effort. It’s a miracle I didn’t do a face plant or pop a joint.

“HILL ME NOW” TEAM STATS
Finish time
4:14:33 (22nd out of 59)
Splits (6.56-mile legs)
1:08:28
1:03:13
1:02:18 (me)
1:00:37

I was thrilled with my time since I was not in great form going into this race. A pesky recurring virus took me down every 10 or so days between mid-October and 5 days before the event. Then a surprise episode of vertigo 6 days beforehand made me wonder if I should run at all. In the end I decided to go for it because I was tired of being a sloth. I set modest goals to have fun, complete the ascent without stopping, make it through unscathed, and match or better my time from two years ago (1:06:28). All were met. It was a great day. Thank you, running gods.

NFEC marathon relay elevationwaitingIMG_2298



IMG_2294IMG_2291All donebefore

after

Our shoes before…and after

Off these feet (Part 2): Lean mean Hood to Coast machine

That title was penned in jest.

In truth my biggest fear while up in Truckee was that I would blow my training for Hood to Coast because of the cards stacked against me: the altitude (6000-6600 feet), the hilly terrain and the usual distractions of summer in paradise. Here I was finally going to experience the Hood to Coast relay. I didn’t know how serious of a runner my teammates were but I refused to become the deadweight. So I set out to be 100% ready to do my share. Lean and mean was never the goal. Just in shape to give a solid effort.

My preparation can be best summarized as “opportunistic training loosely based on the Ryan Hall Half Marathon plan.” It was summer, and I have kids, so things had to be fitted in on whatever days they could. The plan provided clear targets. I adapted purposefully around them.

There were a few key elements that I knew, based on prior experience with the training plan and my own quirks, were non-negotiable. One, I had to adhere to the prescribed paces — no faster and no slower. Two, I could not skip the speed work. And three, I had to cross- and strength-train.

Within those boundaries, I began tinkering. The first big switch-up was to focus more on speed than distance. A running coach friend said that for relay racing it was more important to get used to running fast each time you run than to run long. The same point was made in various articles I found online. They all concurred that to train optimally for a relay, specificity is key. This meant practicing the individual distances and target paces, if possible on the same (or harder) type of terrain for each leg.

Truckee proved to be the perfect training ground for my H2C legs, which were 4.84 miles flat and paved, 4.18 miles rolling hills and paved, and 7.2 miles uphill mostly unpaved. The 6-mile tempos along Donner Lake and 5-mile tempos on the Legacy Trail strengthened my legs for rolling hills. The 800s at 5K pace – to the point of visibly gritting my teeth and feeling like I was about to puke and pee my pants at the same time – gave my neuromuscular system a jolt. The hilly roads in my neighborhood tested my resolve on hot afternoons to keep the legs turning and not stop or walk. And the trails familiarized me with the leg and lung burn associated with continuous climbing on uneven ground. Two weeks before H2C, my training peaked with a 6-mile, 2280-foot trot to the summit of Mount Pluto in Northstar. I had no fear of hills left in me after that.

The Legacy Trail

Other changes had to do with being flexible, listening to my body and not spoiling my summer. I would miss a workout (or two or three) because I had no childcare or made social plans, then have to decide whether to move the runs to another day or scrap the entire week and reattempt them the following week. I would listen to my body and err on the side of taking it easy. If I was struggling to complete workouts, I would repeat them rather than move ahead.

And by the way, I struggled a lot. If there was a phrase to be emblazoned on the tombstone of my summer training cycle, it would be: “Truckee Summer 2012, wherein Tita struggled.” I rarely felt good during a run. Even when I podiumed at a race, I did not feel like a winner. It took me four weeks to complete a prescribed speed workout on pace. I ended up falling permanently two weeks behind schedule. I sank to a very low place during the eight weeks. I found that the only way out of the doldrums was to accept struggle as a necessary part of training…and to indulge in diversions.

Diversions consisted of any and all other opportunities to be active. If someone invited me to run a trail on a tempo run day, I went on the trail run and called it tempo workout, figuring the effort was probably about the same. I played tennis with friends, biked with my kids and paddleboarded despite my fear of falling into frigid Donner Lake. I would jump at opportunities to do these things even if it meant working out twice in a day or skipping a run.

Even the cross- and strength-training became welcome diversions. Just when I thought I had seen plenty when it came to producing sweat while riding a spin bike, or tormenting one’s core, I was introduced to yet another plethora of instructor-led torture. The spin instructor was fond of simulating long, slow climbs (ouch). The core instructor’s MO was to do 25 reps of each exercise with no rest for 45 minutes (there was a day when I began to see stars in this class). But week after week I went, because I liked the instructors and the people in the class. Some were fellow moms, most were locals, and all were friendly down-to-earth folks. The classes were a counterpoint to my solitary running. I looked forward to my hour of catching up on local gossip and getting tips on fun things to do around town.

The beauty of these diversions was that they contributed to my fitness and, more importantly, gave me the mental balance to keep slogging through the training. They made me enjoy the experience as a whole. And who would have guessed that my favorite secret indulgence by summer’s end would be…swimming?

To be continued in Part 3: Chicken or fish?