Wednesday, August 20, 2008

8/17/08 The Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon

That picture and the other picture below were borrowed from Race Director Brian Pendleton's album of photos for this race.

Last year, Maniac Brian put together a couple of low-key summer events: The Rattlesnake Lake Marathon and The Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon. Both events utilize two rail-to-trails conversions just outside of Seattle, but the races are very different experiences.

Rattlesnake Lake is a 10 mile out-and-back followed by a 16 mile out-and-back. 5 miles of constant downhill on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail (SVT), then back up, then 8 miles up the Iron Horse Trail (IHT), then back down. Trains can't go up steep hills, so rail-to-trail conversions always have really gentle grades. But some of these grades are very long... and sure enough, Rattlesnake Lake really DOES have 13 miles of uphill in the middle of two extended downhills.

Light at the End of the Tunnel (let's just call it "Tunnel") starts further up IHT. In fact, it starts on the other side of Snoqualmie Pass near the Hyak area of the Summit at Snoqualmie ski area. Back when they were building the railroad, they had to figure out how to get trains over the pass. They built a tunnel for this... a 2.3 mile long tunnel. When they converted the tracks to recreational trail, they left the tunnel in place. Yes, the IHT goes through a really long tunnel. And this tunnel is dark. However, because there are no turns in the tunnel, one can see the other end fairly quickly - the literal light at the end of the tunnel. The race... Tunnel... starts at Hyak and heads downhill the IHT 21 miles to the SVT, and then 5.2 miles down SVT to the end. A full marathon that's downhill. The whole way. And not steep, quad-busting downhill. Gentle rail-to-trails all the way down.

In 2007, both of these races were low-key. I didn't do either one. This year, I decided to do both. Rattlesnake Lake remained low-key (my report is the second part of this). Tunnel blossomed into a much bigger deal. Lots of people wanted to run down the hill really really fast. Maniac Brian worked hard to get the course certified, and the BQ potential attracted more interest. And so, the little event that started with 21 people last year became a 130 person logistical challenge this year. Permitting. Insurance. Water stations... getting big containers of fluid onto a multiuse trail (not driveable) at specific intervals. And trying to figure out rides for people. Tunnel is a point-to-point course. Last year, people just carpooled before and after. 130 people is a lot for that... so Brian arranged for buses. That, in turn, meant trying to find a place to park 70-120 cars. Lots of work!

The weather was a little crazy on race morning. Starting about 3a, thunderstorms roared across the suburbs (we call this "the East side") and the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Which is where the Tunnel's course is located. Thunderstorms! Real lightning! I grew up in Texas where the thunderstorms are intense, long lasting, and loud. In Seattle, a thunderstorm is usually "one and done"... meaning, we hear one clap of thunder and that's it. Show's over. Not this storm. It was crazy. Luckily, it was fast moving and headed from south to north. By the time people started showing up for the buses, the storm was gone. But as folks were driving to the race site, it was pretty scary. It was also very interesting.

The aftermath of the storm was also weird. Usually when a storm passes through, it is associated with a cold front. It'll get cold and breezy. Not this storm. Afterwards, it was warm and soupy. Probably close to 70 (usually in summer, it'll be 45-50 in the foothills at sunrise) and 200% humidity. And still.

A full school bus of folks opted to start early. The rest of us waited for the two later buses to take us up to Hyak. My bus got lost a couple times, but we still got to the starting area with an hour to spare.

I felt like I knew almost everyone who was waiting to start. This isn't exactly true, but it seemed to be this way. A few people who I did not know came up to talk to me about previous race reports. So... hello to those of you who are reading this! Hello to those of you that I have not met! I hope to meet you soon! :-) Anyway, the time before the start passed quickly. It was a sociable morning.

While some folks were putting on their game faces to go fast and/or BQ, I knew that I didn't have that kind of day in me. My right heel is really messed up... all the downhill running over the last few weeks took most of the skin off it. I have a skinned heel. Really. And Tunnel would be all downhill. I was a bit nervous; I didn't want my foot to fall off. I had taped it, and I had extra supplies in my Race Ready shorts. So what about a goal? Hmmm. I figured "about 3:45". Up until mid-May, "about 3:40" was my basic goal... 3:45 was a given. Not since, though. Aside from a 3:42 in early June, my best time has been 3:46. And I haven't been consistent, either. My times have been all over the map. Why? Ultras. I've been doing a lot more ultras lately. More importantly, in mid-May I ran a race that was over 50 miles. And then a few weeks ago, I ran another 50 miler. Both of these races took me 12 hours, give or take. I'm pretty sure that they messed me up too... and I don't just mean my heel. Although I've been able to put in quality training, I just haven't felt 'right' on race days since that 12 hours in May.

However, Tunnel would be gentle downhill for 26.2 miles. "About 3:45" seemed doable.

Then again, my heel was skinned. It was 70 degrees and climbing, with no wind. And it was so humid that I felt like I was breathing underwater. This was before the race even started. Logic dictated that I should go out very, very conservatively and pick it up as the miles went by IF I felt like it.

Sounded like a reasonable strategy. And at 8:05a, off we went. The first .2 was a quick out and back to make the mileage "right", and then we were headed down the trail. Immediately, my logical plan met an unlikely obstacle: the tunnel!

As expected, the tunnel was dark. Most of us had headlamps or flashlights. The tunnel was also damp; as we started into the pitch black, I got several dumpings of ice water on my head. Yikes! I considered doing the whole "Dead men tell no tales..." chant from Pirates of the Caribbean, but I didn't want to annoy everybody.

Unexpectedly, the tunnel made me speed up. I think what happened was that I was trying to stay clear of other runners, and a small group behind me was pushing the pace. Rather than slow down, I sped up. I also kept getting really close to the side wall. Over and over again, I caught myself just before clipping the wall. And SPLOOSH, my foot would go into an ice puddle. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and I went towards the light.

It took awhile. Finally, I was out. How fun was that? Brian had done something really cool before the race. We each got a bag to carry through the tunnel. At the exit, there was a box and a Son of Brian. Flashlights into the bag, bags into the box, and off we went. Son of Brian brought the box to the end. Now, the bags were also for our jackets. Usually the tunnel is ice cold. Not today. In fact, as I got closer to the end, it was so steamy that my glasses fogged over and I couldn't see anything. Exiting the tunnel was like entering an oven. Oh my.

And when I got to M3... I was at 22:30. Oh no. My conservative start for an "about 3:45" finish should have been 8:45-9:00 miles. I was running 7:30s. I let a bunch of people go by me and tried to settle down.

The IHT is neat because they kept some of the old railroad signage for various sidings, exchanges, and long-gone towns as well as mile markers (2220 miles from Chicago, etc). As I was trying to find a better, slower pace, my stomach started bothering me. Great. I had been concerned about the humidity and my heel. I wasn't expecting stomach issues. But there they were, and when that starts happening, it takes precedence. They got really bad about M8, which was near the Bandera exchange. Luckily, there was a bathroom here. I spent quality time at Bandera. Onward.

The halfway point was at the Garcia exchange. This happened to be the start of the 20th Century WIMP: a downhill 50k I ran in May. That race's first 13 miles were the same as the last 13 of Tunnel. I hit halfway at 1:49. Considering that I had started way too fast, I thought that this was a reasonable time for my "about 3:45". I knew the steamy day and my heel would slow me, hopefully only slightly.

Just after halfway, my brain or my body... or maybe both... started rebelling. Although my perceived effort was going up, my pace slowed. People started passing me. I wished them well, but I wasn't feeling sociable anymore - a key sign to me that my brain was struggling. Then my stomach punched me again. Rock climbers utilize the cliff next to the trail around M16, and there's a portapotty here for them. I ducked in.

Back out of that, I tried to get moving again. Ugh. Maybe half a mile later was an aid station. I stopped again. My bathroom break showed me that I was a lot more dehydrated than normal for the middle of a marathon, so I gulped down extra water and made sure my bottle was full.

Off I went again. The good news was that my stomach felt better. The bad news was that my singlet had more water in it than my body. Also, my heel woke up. It yawned and said, "YOU SUCK." Alright. By M18 of a gently downhill marathon in which lots of people were PRing and BQing, I had just entered survival mode. Incidentally, the rest of Tunnel also happens to be M26-42 of the Mt Si 50 Miler, which I ran last year. As you can tell, I have become verrrrry familiar with the miles I was about to run. Or, really, shuffle.

The next aid station was near M19. I stopped again. My brain clearly was not functioning well because I could NOT figure out how to get the valve open on the water container. I turned it 90 degrees to the left. Nothing. I turned it 90 degrees to the right. Nothing. I tilted it and repeated the turns. Nope. I banged on the top like a TV in the 60s. I cursed. Finally, I tried turning the valve 180 degrees. Success. Oh boy. I drank a cup of gatorade. I started down the trail, stopped, turned around, went back, and drank another cup. All in all, I was there for at least 2 minutes. Then I was off again.

Just after M21, the course turned off the IHT and onto the SVT. The footing on the SVT is slightly better, but the scenery isn't nearly as good. At this point, I didn't really care about either thing. I was just counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, done. Not as many people were passing me. A few. I was also passing early starters and a few others who were a bit more into death march mode than me.

Maniac May caught me right at M22. She had been stung by a bee in the lip! Ouch. I thought my day was going poorly. No bees for me, though. She took off. It looked like she was trying to hit 3:45. I knew it wasn't in the cards for me. She lost me almost immediately.

I did the best I could to keep moving. And, in fact, the last two miles were actually close to 8:30s, the pace I needed to hit "about 3:45". Too bad all those miles in the middle were not. And too bad I lost at least 5 minutes in portapotties and standing at aid stations.

M26 and the course passed under I-90. Whew. I finished it up. An ugly 3:52 with a gruesome 1:49/2:03 split.

I usually don't compare my finish with others, but I will this time just to show how stupid-fast I started and how badly I faded. The group that pushed me through the tunnel included Maniac Shawna. She was just getting warmed up at the time... and finished at 3:18. I had no real business running with her. Maniac Mary passed me around M10 and finished at 3:26. Maniac Van passed me as I was euphemistically "going on break" at M16. She finished at 3:38. I'm assuming this was a bit of a negative split for her... and if I had had a good day, this is probably where I would have landed. Maniac May, bee sting and all, pulled a 3:47. She must have smoked the last 4 miles. She ran 4 miles a full 5 minutes faster than I did.

From the results, it looks like about 20% of the entrants BQed. Of course, a lot of people came here specifically to do that... so good for them. It does seem like it would be a fast course for most folks, but it surely was a hot-and-humid day. Impressive work by this group. Actually, impressive work by ALL OF US. I lost 7 pounds, and I wrung it all out of my singlet. It was not a fast course for me, especially with one good leg. Speaking of that, my heel was really hurting afterwards, but it didn't look that bad. It looked way worse after Haulin Aspen last week! Maybe it's getting better?

I decided that I'd take most of the following week (this week, as I write this report) off from running. This isn't going to make me any faster for the upcoming weeks, but I need to heal.

Oh yeah. After the race, we got a medal, a nice tech shirt, and a full spread of food. VERY impressive for a low-key race with 21 finishers last year.

Incidentally, you might notice from my schedule that Tunnel was supposed to be the second race of a double weekend. I had intended to run a 33 mile race at Blanchard Mountain the day before Tunnel. However, I didn't hook up with the organizers in time and I was worried about my heel. I skipped it. This was probably a good move. I know two people who did 11 miles there and DNFed because they thought it was too hard. Had I tried Blanchard, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made Tunnel. Even though I felt cruddy during the race and afterwards, I'm glad I was able to complete Tunnel.

Next up: Theoretically, I am supposed to run a double this weekend... the Park City Marathon and a new marathon at the Redmond Watershed Preserve. I ran Park City last year. It was a tough race up in the mountains. We'll see what happens. I may just spend two days in my bathtub instead.

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