Friday, September 12, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Emerald Bay Marathon

Today, I ran the Emerald Bay Marathon, which is the first race of the Tahoe Triple.  The course is point-to-point, starting at Emerald Bay, running around the south end of Lake Tahoe, and finishing near Spooner Lake.  The elevation profile is U-shaped.  The early miles are sharply downhill, the middle miles are mostly flat, and it ends with a long steep climb.

The race started at 7:00, but I had to get up much earlier, so I could be ready to catch a bus at 5:30.  I bought groceries yesterday, so I was able to eat a light breakfast in my room before leaving to catch the bus.  The buses left from a transportation center that’s across the street from my hotel.

The buses dropped us off at Inspiration Point, which is a scenic overlook on the south side of Emerald Bay.  Usually, it’s cold at the start of the race, but this year it was surprisingly comfortable.  The overnight low in South Lake Tahoe was 44 degrees.  It’s usually colder at Inspiration Point, but it didn’t feel too bad.  There was a truck to transport gear bags from the start to the finish, so I was able to wear warm clothes until the race started.

This is a lightly supported race.  Instead of having aid stations every mile or two, you need to carry a bottle.  Some runners have crews, but you don’t really need one.  Every four miles or so, there’s an aid station where you can refill your bottle.  I wore a belt that holds one 22 oz. bottle.

In past years, I found the early miles to be the most difficult.  I was never good at running downhill, and the first three miles descend 500 feet.  I always beat up my quads in those first three miles, leaving me sore for the rest of the weekend.  This year, I was better prepared.  Last month, I ran the Rockies Marathon comfortably, even though it had a similar grade for the entire race.

The race starts on a road that has views on both sides.  On my right, I had this view of another alpine lake.

On my left, I had these views of Emerald Bay.

We quickly began to descend around steep turns like these.

As we reached the third turn, we got out first glimpse of the beaches on South Lake Tahoe.

Mile markers are only at multiples of five miles, so I wore a Garmin watch.  In the early and middle miles, I wanted to know my pace.  Late in the race, I wanted to know what pace I would need to break four hours.  In my two previous attempts, I ran this race in 3:56 and 4:06.  The late miles can be incredibly slow.

Unlike past years, I ran the downhill miles with confidence.  My one mile split was 6:35.  This picture shows a road way below us.  That’s the same road we were on, after only one turn.

After about two miles, we had more views of the lake.

My second and third miles weren’t as fast as the first one, but they were still fast.  I ran the first three miles about two minutes faster than I did last year.

As the road began to level out, we moved to this bike path, which we would follow into South Lake Tahoe.

The next 10 miles were fairly flat, and my mile times ranged between 8:00 and 8:30.  For the entire race, I was hoping to average about nine minutes per mile, but the second half would be much more difficult.  In particular, the last few miles are so difficult, that I had never run them without having to take walking breaks.

There were a few changes to the course this year.  In the past, we ran through town on the edge of highways 89 and 50.  This year, to avoid the traffic, we were rerouted on residential streets and bike paths.  For a few miles, I didn’t know where I was, and I had to watch carefully to keep from missing a turn.  It’s a small race, so it doesn’t take long to get separated from other runners.

When I reached the 10 mile sign, I noticed that my Garmin was off by about a third of a mile.  It was still helpful for knowing my pace, but I realized I wouldn’t be able to rely on it to know exactly how much was left in the late miles.

Just before the halfway mark, we turned left and ran down to Lakeside Beach.  The half marathon finished here.

Those of us doing the marathon continued and turned onto Stateline Avenue, which is on the boundary between California and Nevada.

As we returned to Highway 50, the road became more rolling.  At first, we had a few small hills, and I was able to keep my mile times between eight and nine minutes.  As we got farther out of town, the hills got bigger, and I began to tire noticeably.  My next few mile times were between nine and ten minutes.  I had a big cushion, but it was beginning to erode.

We were running on a narrow shoulder on the edge of a busy highway.  There were a number of sharp turns, and cars were going by at fast speeds.  This part of the course always makes me nervous.  Finally, at 20 miles, I spotted Cave Tunnel.

The tunnel has no shoulder, so a lane is blocked off for us.  More importantly, we continue to have a lane of our own for the last six miles.  These miles are mostly uphill, but it was a huge relief to be out of the traffic.

With about three miles to go, the road turns to the right and begins climbing away from the lake.  I didn’t know the exact distance, and my watch wasn’t much help.  I never saw the 15 or 20 mile signs, so I didn’t know much my watch deviated from the official distance.  I had about 36 minutes to break four hours, but I was afraid I might have as much as three and a half miles to go.

I ran the best pace I could, knowing I was slowing down.  I had a split of 9:50 for a mostly uphill mile.  Then I had a 10:50 split for an all uphill mile.  That was actually encouraging, but the road kept getting steeper.  I reached an overlook where I had stopped on Wednesday.  This view of the lake shows how much I had already climbed.

I didn’t know how much farther I had to go.  My watch read 3:40, giving me 20 minutes, but I was worried I might have as much as two miles to go.  I started seeing cars turning left and disappearing behind the trees.  I knew the road had a broad bend to the left near the end of the climb.  I was encouraged when I recognized this hillside.

Later, I was relieved to see this sign.  I had only half a mile to the turnoff for highway 28.  That’s the end of the long climb, and I would only have about a quarter mile to go after that.

I still had about 13 minutes to break four hours.  The hill was steepest here, but not for much longer.  I knew I would break four hours.  I had a shot at a course PR.  As the road leveled out, I kept running hard.  I turned left into the parking area where we finished and then turned right to see the finish line.  I finished in 3:55:18, setting a course PR by more than a minute.  I won’t know until tomorrow if the course beat up my legs, but I felt OK when I finished.

Until last year, runners were on their own to arrange rides back to South Lake Tahoe after the first two races.  Now you can buy tickets for a shuttle.  Because only a few runners finished ahead of me, I had to wait about 45 minutes for the first shuttle.  While I waited, I had a few snacks and beverages.  I also learned that I was first place in the Masters division.  The overall winners and the Masters winners each got awards like this one.

After getting back to the hotel, I refueled with food I bought on Wednesday and followed my usual recovery regimen for racing on consecutive days.  I feel OK now, but I’ll probably be a little bit stiff tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s race is the Cal-Neva Marathon.  On paper, it’s the easiest of the three, but I’ve never run it faster than 4:25.  Hopefully this year, I won’t be as banged up at the start.

One down.  Two to go.

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