Monday, August 17, 2015

Ragnar Trail Relays Tahoe - Race Report

Altitude is everything!

From August 14 to 15, I was part of an 8 person relay team that traveled to a remote pocket of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range at Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort. We camped for three days and two nights under a clear star lit sky and each of us ran three breath taking loops (literally and figuratively) in varying times of the day and night to cover a total of 127+ miles.

Day 0 (Thursday Night)

My friends Eileen, Ed and I carpooled to Tahoe from San Francisco. I was last to be picked up due to only being able to take two hours off from work that day. I was worried I was packing too much: I had my camping chair, gym bag packed with shirts, shorts, shoes and other fun stuff. I bought some usual trail snacks like kettle chips, nutella sandwiches, and turkey/cheese sandwiches. I also brought my collapsible cooler with coconut juice for electrolytes and some espresso canned drinks to keep me and the team awake during the night and early morning runs.

We arrived close to the camp ground closing time of 10:00 PM with about 30 minutes to spare. We thought we arrived at the unloading area but it turns out we arrived at the parking lot where a shuttle would take us to the campground. Not wanting to carry our camping gear for 3 miles, we drove quickly to the unloading area, unloaded in quick fashion and drove back to the parking lot in time to take one of the last two shuttles before we would have been required to walk back to camp.

We had a ton of crap with us (I was in the humble opinion that I packed the lightest as I even had to give up my camping chair due to space constraints on the car). We loaded it into a wagon (sample picture of wagon where Brian was carrying their gear earlier on in the afternoon below), and hauled it into the Weeple Army camp ground (the Weeple Army was the team we joined forces with for the Ragnar Trail Relay, and I am glad we did as they were such a great group to hang out with!).

Other than a dilapidated bridge where our wagon wheel got stuck for a few seconds, we got the wagon with all our goods safely to camp. The Weeple Army was so friendly that they helped us unload our gear without even asking for assistance! I can see how they would be a great team to help you on your first Spartan Race (I can see myself doing one, but I'll leave that thought for next year so I can focus on my A race for this year).

Having been tired from the 7 hour drive (including a nice dinner at Roseville and some last minute shopping for ice and water), I quickly retired to my sleeping bag. Eileen was the only one who brought a tent (I had one but never thought to bring mine due to space constraints, and Ed thought the same). It was only a two and a half person tent, and since I don't qualify as a half person, I volunteered to be the one to sleep outside (it wasn't cold at the time at any rate). We got to meet some of our teammates like Beth, Brian and Michelle, but being tired and old, I decided to retire early that night and save the socializing for tomorrow (we did have a race to run, after all).

Day 1 (Friday)

I woke up bright and early around 5 AM without the need for an alarm clock (my usual waking up time). Much of the camp was still snoozing and snoring. Quite okay with me as I had to do my business anyways. The altitude was beginning to mess with my stomach, which was not a good thing. I experienced the same when I did the Ragnar Road Relay two years ago, but my stomach went south more then due to stress (as I was slated to do 8 legs instead of the typical 3 legs in a Ragnar race).

After I came back, Eileen graciously offered to make coffee and oatmeal. I got the coffee but skipped the oatmeal due to my GI issues. I would rather be hungry than run on a spoiled stomach. It's a risk I've taken before and was willing to accept. At that point anyways, I was starting to feel better.

We all checked in 30 minutes before 10 AM, our scheduled team start. Ragnar had estimated a trail pace of 12 minutes per mile for our team and put us as one of the first groups to start. Not exactly my trail pace (mine is more 15 minutes per mile, including elevation gains), but we couldn't have had any more additional time, so I think it was great to start as one of the first teams.

Eileen was the first one to go and ran the green loop. I was the second to go and had to do the yellow loop. Beth then would be the third and ran the red loop. The green loop was the easiest, the red one was the hardest. Starting with the medium loop worked for me, but I just didn't know how my body would react to the fact that we're running at 6,768 feet above sea level. I quickly found out how it did react.

The Yellow Loop was the Summit Valley View Trail. It started out fairly okay with a few rollers, but even just running a few feet I can already feel how hard it was to breathe in high elevation. I fortunately had experience running in Tahoe when I went last year for a fun weekend with some friends from my San Francisco Triathlon Club group. I quickly remembered how hard it was though to breathe. I decided to breathe through my mouth and have the rhythm match my running. It felt haggard (and loud at times), but that's what got me through the loop.

The Yellow Loop had two big climbs. The first climb had some spectacular views of Ice Lake (and another lake that I do not know the name of). The climb would have been just a regular day of trail running for me if it wasn't for the altitude. I took some pictures (which I can't upload right now since the phone I used isn't currently working). I then started descending before another climb came in around mile 4-5, which was shorter but steeper (looks like a ski slope when the resort was still used for skiing and snowboarding). After a steep climb and hike, I was done with the Yellow Loop.

After the Yellow Loop, there were 7 more legs before I had to run again, so I was all set to start lounging and eating. Eileen helped me buy one of the excellent smoothies sold near the start/finish line (at $4, it tasted like the best meal on a plastic cup to a starved runner!). We then headed back to camp to relax and start getting to know our other teammates as we started discussing our legs (the loops, not our muscled legs), our background, and anything else under the sun.

Having run as part of an ultra team of 5 at a previous Ragnar Relay, it was a mixed feeling for me. I was happy that it wasn't as strenuous in that I didn't have to get ready every 2 hours to start running again. But I do have to say the waiting was also hard despite the fun of camping and talking (and eating). Our whole team was getting used to altitude running so our estimated times were pretty much out the window by the time the first Green-Yellow-Red loop was done. Beth came back from the Red Loop describing it as the hardest loop in Ragnar History (which it was, relative to the Green and Yellow). I started filling my head with how difficult it would be for me to run the Red Loop. I was supposed to run it during the dark hours of early morning, but it was a question mark whether that would happen or whether it was going to be during the day at that point. My paranoid self imagined myself tumbling down a cliff as she talked about ridges. It was either that or shining my headlamp on a hungry black (or is it brown) bear. I like to fill myself with happy thoughts.

As the relay was progressing, we went from two hours behind to I think even four hours behind at one point later at night. I wasn't stressed about it as I knew Ragnar offered the optioned of doubling up during the Road Relay to make up mileage and time, and I had a feeling they would do the same for the Trail Relay. The day continued with us cheering along each of our teammates: Michelle, Ed, Liz, Brian, and Kathryn.

When we got to the second round of legs, Ed took over Eileen's Red Loop and ran it in the dark. I'm glad Ed took over her Red Loop as I wasn't too keen on running either Yellow Loop or Red Loop in the dark. I ran the Green Loop shortly after Ed and I surprisingly had the best of fun running it. It was a quick hike uphill (which I was actually even running for a while because it's hard to know sometimes if you're running uphill when it's dark with only a headlamp on). It was a fun downhill as I ran it at my comfort level. Not fast to the point of risking a big injury but fast enough to imagine that I was Killian Jornet (one has to have a wild imagination at night to stop thinking about bears).

After I did my Green Loop, Ed and I watched a film about Western States that they were showing near the start/finish line. It was great to watch it even though I've seen it already beforehand. It was also very nice to have a fresh batch of hot chocolate mixed with coffee (the Ragnar mochachinno) with a small bag of Doritos to satiate me for running a grueling three miles (it was my dinner of sorts, if I remember correctly).

Day 2 (Saturday)

After we got back from the movie, Ed quickly retired inside the tent. I hung out for a while at the canopy and wondered where everyone was (they were either out running or sleeping in their tents, it seemed). It was so cold that I had to go back to my sleeping bag and cover myself. It was colder that morning than the previous night/morning, but I was warm enough to close my eyes and have some sort of sleep.

Ed did tell me that I had to tell Michelle to get ready for her Red Loop in the dark. I walked to her tent, which was closed and said her name in what seemed like a million times. Either she was out like a rock, or maybe she was in the transition area. I thought it was the initial, but I felt like I did my duty. I talked to Brian when I heard him walking about and told him about the situation. Beth was still out running the Yellow Loop in the dark, but she was close to finishing, so he would look for Michelle in the transition area (where fortunately she was).

Daylight came and it was time for me to take over Eileen's Yellow Loop. I was supposed to do a back to back Yellow Loop and Red Loop as I came after Eileen, but in a quick light bulb moment, I asked Ed if he was willing to switch his Red Loop with my Red Loop. He thankfully obliged and that gave me breathing room to rest between the two difficult loops.

I ran the Yellow Loop again, but having done it I knew what to expect. No more pictures this time. I ran it with confidence but not necessarily more speediness. I ran it at a minute per mile slower than the first iteration but I was totally okay with that.

Once I finished the Yellow Loop, I saw Ed with a confused look on his face. He told me he was still running the Red Loop as we discussed, but he was running it with Kathryn. The teams were now told to double up to make sure teams finish on or before 6 PM. The teams had an added bonus of letting the other team member finish faster so that the next team can start even earlier. I had the weird quirk of running the Red Loop now by myself, as everyone would have done Green-Yellow-Red in double teams by the time it gets back to me.

I had another smoothie thanks to Eileen and gobbled up a sausage along with it for a makeshift breakfast/lunch. I had several hours again to recompose myself, get a hydration pack with tailwind ready (my now go to fuel), and change to my next shirt (I was wearing a new shirt after finishing each leg, for freshening up reasons and to not get thrown off camp for noxious body odor).

I ran the Red Loop with no issues. I only wish my phone was working when I made the first summit. It was so pretty that I wouldn't mind coming back to that particular loop in the future (the Razorback Ridge Trail, it now seems to be named, quite appropriately). I did enjoy seeing a few hot shirtless runners, always a bonus in a hot race for me. They quickly disappeared like the mirage they were though. After two more summits, the loop made for a fun descent and a questionable fun run on the roads around camp for a mile or two (it seemed more like two).

It was a tough relay for sure, but all our faces started beaming once we crossed the finish line as a team. All our adversities, difficulties, and problems during the whole relay melted and we savored our accomplishment.

Eileen, Ed and I headed back to San Francisco shortly after, but I came away from the experience with huge love and admiration for the Weeple Army. I have already signed up for the New Year's Duathlon to spend some quality time with them again and get to know them a little bit more and even know more of them.

It may have been a tough two days in physical and mental ways, but I'm glad to be part of this team that endured it together. Another memorable experience that will stay with me my entire life. I'm not raring to do another Trail Relay just yet, but maybe if it's a new location like Vail Lake or Utah, I might be open to it.

Altitude is everything!