Tuesday 28 September 2010

Tahoe Triple Marathon, 24-26 Sept

Emerald Bay.
I've been visiting Lake Tahoe a lot recently, with my wedding and Western States both over the summer. But it's still a lot of fun to see it each time and I came to this race really excited about the course and the competition after enjoying it so much last year. It seems the last weekend of September is one of the biggest race weekends around, with so much going on. I knew people running great ultras (Spartathlon 153 miler in Greece, Hardmoors 110 miler in the UK, Flagline 50k US Trail Championship in Bend. OR) and super fast marathons (Berlin and others) while I had my trip to the lake. Almost every runner I knew had something big on at the same time and I have to admit I'd like to have done them all.

Dick Beardsley talks about running (surprisingly) at the pre-race dinner.

But as there's only one of me, I focused on Tahoe. Even with my recent fatigue from overtraining, I was hopeful I'd be able to get through the three marathons in one piece and wasn't planning on DNFs, even if I had to walk. Given the altitude of the course (between 6,200ft and 7,050ft) and the rolling hills, it's not particularly quick, but there're views that are stunning all the way round. It's also a very cool concept to run round the entire 72 miles of the lake, which involves an overlap to make up the full 78.6 miles (technically a bit over 79 miles from the organiser's measurements).

And the triple isn't the only event in town. There's so many options that you could choose from over the three days, and even more than last year. Distances from 5k to 144 miles, plus cycling and kayaking options. But the Sunday marathon is the main event and the triple is the main lure since there are very few triples round the world and the only other ones I know of are on trails. That's the main reason that this course holds the world record for 3-in-3 days, even with the slow course. In most recent years someone has tried to go for the record, but I wasn't even considering it in my current form as it requires an average time of 2:43 per day, probably equivalent to around the low to mid 2:30s on a flat, sea level course.

I was disappointed to not see the guys I'd raced last year as each day had been a real race, at least for positions 2-4, with the leader, Lynyrd Skynrod (check this out - http://renorunner.com/archives/archives05.html) way ahead as he chased that record in vain. So I had no idea how fast people would go out on day one.

Day One: Emerald Bay Marathon

Only 78.6 miles to go.

We started soon after dawn at the best scenic look-out of the entire lake - Inspiration Point over Emerald Bay. Although it was barely above freezing, that is one of the most picturesque start lines I can imagine and the 70-ish runners who posed for a group photo all looked revved up and excited about it. For some this was the first foray into any type of ultrarunning, while it was the 10th year at this exact race for others.

I hadn't run for a week so that I could rest, so when the gun (literally...a shotgun) was fired, I sprang off with surprisingly light feet. I was on my own and couldn't hear the patter of any feet behind me, so assumed that nobody was really going to hammer it, unlike last year's frantic start. Then I looked at my Garmin and saw that I was running 4:50 mile pace and decided it would be wise to slow down a bit...or a lot. The first few miles are steeply downhill and either allow you to cruise some easy, fast miles or to destroy your triple marathon chances within minutes. I looked again at my watch and saw that mile one was just over 5:20, so it was too fast, but with the downhill and few days off running I didn't think I'd wrecked my chances. But, just in case I slowed a bit more to cruise down while enjoying the views over the sometimes sheer drops by the road.

I looked round and couldn't see anyone behind so felt safe going at a more reasonable pace, but I did want to set a respectable time on the first day, if possible, so that the unusual fatigue recently couldn't derail me in a close race. After a couple more miles, my crew of Amy and the pups informed me that I was a couple of minutes ahead. That surprised me since I went through five miles in 30 minutes and I didn't think anyone was going to go close to that. So I kept the pace faster than I wanted and decided I'd let Amy update me with time checks to judge how big the lead was.

Around 7-8 miles was the 'Y' intersection where route 89 meets route 50, and the course turns left here to go back towards the lake after a section of pure forest away from it, including some hard-packed trails next to the road. I felt much better than last year, with none of the dizziness or disorientation, but 6:30/mile felt reasonably hard. I put it down to the altitude.

At half-way I managed to not go the wrong way this year and followed the turn towards the beachfront before popping out behind the casinos as I crossed into Nevada. Amy had told me that she waited 10 minutes and hadn't seen second, so he'd either stuck to the main road and done a small short-cut or was way back. She also told me that the last time she'd been able to check, it was fellow Brit, Paul Allen, in second, so a 1-2 was on the cards.
Give me gels.

After the casinos the course leaves the main city on the lake, South Lake Tahoe, and goes through smaller towns and the gaps between them. The hills start soon after, but it all builds up to the final miles where the road meanders up from around 6,300ft to the highest point of the whole event, at 7,050ft, where the finish line sits in a car park by Spooner Lake. These last miles are also the most dangerous as there's a 2-lane highway each way and cars going at 60mph while the runners hug the edge, which measures under a foot at points. Nobody's ever been hit, but you have to keep your wits about you when the roads aren't closed.

As I got into those last miles it was heating up, but was still comfortable. The high for the day would be around 75F, but only the runners at the very back would suffer that. It was hard enough doing that climb before it got hotter, but I decided to take a walking break to give my legs a rest and so feel marginally better on the following days. Amy and the pups had popped up every couple of miles and crewed for me perfectly, always having the things to hand that I needed. It was lucky, since the four-ish water stations weren't all ready when I ran by and it would have been especially tough to run it without a crew, even with my hydration pack.

I crossed the line in 2:53, then waited to see if I'd built up a decent lead for the next days. Paul was indeed in 2nd and I only saw him while Amy and I drove back to SLT so I could sit in the lake and let my legs get a mini ice bath. He finished around 3:25, so I'd tried much harder than I needed to. But I also wanted to go for sub 3h each day, if I could, as it's a nice, round target.

Day Two: CalNeva Marathon
I spend most of the rest of the day eating and walking round shops with Amy before an early night. I was tired but felt better than I'd initially hoped. So on the start of day two in the twilight of early morning, I was ready to run another hard race.

This one starts with around seven miles of downhill to get back to the lake level at 6,200ft, but I'd forgotten about the uphill between two and three miles so got my heart rate up while running that. It was especially cool in the shade of the mountainside so I was glad of my long sleeves and gloves.

Again, I'd gone off in the lead on my own and Amy gave me time checks early on, but after a few miles we didn't bother any more and I focused on trying to get tired legs to keep up a reasonable speed. That was harder than expected and as I went through the extremely fancy mansions at Incline Village around halfway, I felt exhausted.

In the shade of the mountainside early on in day two.
 It was around this point that the bike race caught me. They started at 7am (compared to 7:45 for us) and went round the lake clockwise, instead of our anti-clockwise direction. When they got to me they had around 20 miles left and 52 under their belts. They were going fast in a pelaton and the leaders broke the course record. But I then spent almost the entire rest of the race having cyclists zoom past me and force me closer to the barrier on the roadside than I'd have liked.

Around 14 miles in, the first of the two main hills comes into play, but the hills of the CalNeva marathon aren't too bad and this is definitely the fastest day. That's despite the fact the organisers say it's a half mile long, which is needed to reach a suitable starting point for the final day in Tahoe City.

The views of the lake were framed in a perfect blue sky and searing sun, which did start to heat me up towards the end. I slugged it out, just trying to keep up around a 3h marathon pace and feeling like I was coming to the end of a double marathon, which I effectively was. At 23 miles is the nastiest hill, which was steep enough to force a walk. I took several walking breaks during the day to let my joints have a rest, so the hills were almost a welcome relief as they provided an excuse to slow down. I often find that in trail ultras too, so don't mind the hills since everyone slows down on them anyway, even if they don't walk.

For the last few miles into Tahoe City, I had a good groove going and could keep the pace up without too much difficulty, mainly because it's a gentle downhill. Amy and the pups had done a great job of keeping me encouraged and well-fed so it was good to see them cheer me down to the finish. Another hard effort, which could have been taken more easily, but I kept the time under 3h with 2h56m. Paul also managed to keep hold of 2nd with 3h34m. I only saw him after I'd come out of the lake again to freeze my legs, but he looked fine for a man two marathons down.

I'd felt a slight twinge in my left calf at the start of the day and by the end it was enough to make me limp around. I hoped it'd feel better in the morning and aches and pains are to be expected with multi-day races, but I couldn't help but think that my lead of over an hour might all be needed for the final day. I certainly felt a hell of a lot worse in every way than after day one. But things had basically gone to plan and Amy and I had a very tasty dinner cruise on the lake (organised by the race) to look forward to.

Day Three: Lake Tahoe Marathon

The final day is the main event and so has more runners and fanfare. It also has some proper aid stations and the northbound traffic lane is closed, so we have more room to run. Except the locals seemed to ignore the police and plenty of them still drove towards us, even if the number of cars was at least reduced.

Although each day can be entered as a stand alone marathon, the one most people do in this way is day three. So instead of around 55 triplers and a handful of single-dayers, it was closer to 300 single-dayers to add to the remnants of the triple. Usually some of these guys are fast, as shown by the 2:30 course record on the hilliest and hardest section of the lake.

So when I found myself limping heavily and unable to walk down stairs unaided, I didn't fancy my chances. I needed 3:10 to keep my overall time below 9h, which became the new target. I couldn't see any way that I could keep up with the leaders on their fresh legs.

It also gets confusing since most of the other events are on at the same time, meaning our section of the lake had people running a 5k, 10k, half, 20 miler, 50 miler, 72 miler and marathon relay and it was difficult to work out which was which. Instead I used the good old trick of counting those ahead of me at the start. I expected this to be a big number so was really surprised after half a mile to be in 3rd and running at a 6:30/mile pace. In my short warm up I could barely do a 10:00/mile pace and that was with a limp. The human body can always do much more than you think and every time you rediscover that, it adds to the beauty of ultras.

After a few miles I couldn't feel my calf pain and felt just about ok maintaining pace. I could just see the two guys ahead and then got confused since one had been running topless but was suddenly in a black top. I hadn't noticed him put it on and I'd been catching him, but suddenly he was shooting off into the distance. That was when a volunteer at the aid station shouted out that I was in 2nd and the other guy ahead was in a relay. Wish there was a way to tell, like race numbers back and front (Comrades leads the way again with this simple 'innovation').

So now I was theoretically in with a shot at the win since first was only a couple of minutes ahead. I had nothing in the tank and no desire to all out race this early on, so I just kept at a reasonable pace and decided to see what would happen on the hills later on. I really didn't have an option and still had to bear in mind that I might end up walking a lot, especially if the calf started playing up. It was my first chance of the whole event to properly race but I'd used up too much of an already low tank by this day three.

Running down the west side of the lake was reasonably enjoyable, given the fatigue. I felt fairly good until about halfway then started to feel the combined distance and sore-to-the-touch calves and thighs. Only a couple more miles and I'd hit the hills, so would get a chance to walk and rest a bit. Amy was really encouraging and it's such a help to have her support me every couple of miles. Luckily she has a Carrie Underwood concert as a thank you, but I suspect she enjoyed the crewing a little bit too.

The hills combined with rising temperatures on the hottest day so far (highs in the 80s) and the later start time of 8am, so it was pure endurance to get through to 20 miles and the start line of day one at Inspiration Point. I was just about able to take in the views while I crawled uphill or pounded my thighs on the downhills and Amy was good enough to take some great shots of the background as she drove along, so I'd have a more pleasant memory of them.

At 20 miles, she told me I was three minutes off the lead and it's downhill then mainly flat to the finish. I decided to see what the first mile felt like, but it was just too hard on the legs and I had to reduce the stress on the thighs so that I'd not be forced to walk the final miles.

At least it looked like I'd break 3:10, as I had 47 minutes left for the last 10k to do that. Nobody in the same race as me was visible behind, although I kept going past runners, who must have been doing the 20 mile version.

This point last year I'd been racing Lynyrd and hoping to beat him in one day at least. I'd had over a minute to catch up at Inspiration Point and had just drawn level in the last mile when he decided to let me go ahead as he changed into a tracksuit after fending me off for a few miles. This time round I was on my own and it looked like 1st was too far ahead and 3rd was too far back. I was right about the winner, but in the results it looks like 3rd almost got me, only finishing a little over a minute behind. The crowds on the way to, and around, Pope Beach were bigger and I put in a last burst to finish in 3:04 for 8:53 overall. The winner was just over four minutes ahead.
I was exhausted but elated that things had gone so well. In the end I had about a 2h margin in the triple and had used up virtually all my energy for a race that was meant to not leave me too exhausted, given my upcoming races. But it was worth it and I'll definitely return to that course again, maybe with some Serpies from London. I'd even like to aim for the World Record one time, but will need to focus on this particular race more and also speed up a bit.

Running over Emerald Bay for the second time.
Running down from Inspiration Point in the last few miles.
Congratulations to all the finishers in all the races, especially the two who did the double dare of running round the entire lake in both directions, totalling 144 miles. Time for a rest now.


  1. Interesting to read your take on it. Nice job out there ... it was nice to meet you briefly and the end of day 2. Sorry we couldn't provide any competition! :)

  2. Sam, looks like you had a smart race, with a good last day. It's all about that last day, and having run the triple twice and I can appreciate how well the South African guy ran when he set the World Record.