2011 Reno-Tahoe Odyssey

Last weekend was the 7th Annual Reno-Tahoe Odyssey. This is a race I’d done back in 2008 and 2009 (didn’t do it in 2010 because that’s when I trained for a triathlon), so I knew what I was getting myself into… and that’s exactly why I was excited to do this race when I first signed up with my team a few months ago.

When Jason, teammate from the 2008 RTO, reached out to me asking if I wanted to put together a team for this year, I said yes (of course!!), and our team ended up including some classic teammates from before and some new faces – who were also first time RTO runners.

A quick breakdown of how the Odyssey works out:
It’s a 178 mile course, broken down in 36 legs. There are 12 runners per team, which makes each runner run 3 legs. I was runner number 11, which meant I was going to run legs 11, 23 and 35.
Now, there are usually 2 vans per team: on the first van go runners 1 to 6, and on the second van go runners 7 to 12. While one van is out running their legs, the other van is resting (sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, gambling in a casino). This is repeated until runner 12 runs his last leg (leg 36), and there is much rejoicing afterwards.

The Tater Trots (that’s our team’s name!) started the race at 11:30am on Friday. Since I was on the second van, after cheering at the start line when Jason took off, we had some time to kill. We decided to invest into some quality carbo loading at my favorite pizza place in Reno, Eclipse. We then spent some time decorating the van, and baking some Tater Tots to have as a quick snack on the road. We absolutely needed to have those!

At around 3:45pm, John took off with leg #7, his and our van’s first. John was a last-minute addition to our team, filling in for some last minute drop-outs, but he had just ran a half-marathon, so we knew his legs could stand the challenge. However, his first section of the run wasn’t easy, and when he finished climbing the hill I wondered if he was about to call a cab and tell us all off. I’m happy to report that this did not happen! John instead proceeded to kick ass and very gracefully finish his leg well before his projected time.

Next runner up was Marlaina, who was also a last-minute addition. She is a co-worker, and when I needed to fill in another hole in our roster, I immediately asked her to join us. In fact, when I asked her, she had just run a 50-mile race the previous weekend, and he calves and ankles were all sorts of bruised and sore… after I described the RTO to her, she smiled and said yes! Anyway, she is obviously one tough cookie, and she made a breeze out of her leg. I knew what she was going through, because I was runner #8 when I did the RTO for the first time in 2008. I’ll just say that Marlaina did much better than I did.

After Marlaina, it was Nicolle Morrison’s turn. This was something I was really looking forward to seeing, since Nicolle was a star runner in her youth, and she picked running back up when I invited her and her husband. She even kept a very fun to read blog about it all, here: http://theroguerunner.blogspot.com/
Her first leg started a little abruptly, because we barely made it in time to the exchange point before Marlaina finished her leg, but Nicolle made lemonade out of this. Since she was running along CA-89, it was pretty easy to drive the van to points where we could see her run. It was particularly enjoyable to see her set her sights on a runner ahead, and soon after sailing past the competition. It was only the beginning of the multiple roadkills she was about to rack in.

Mr. Steve James was runner #10, and he went for his run at 5:48pm. Steve is an avid cyclist, and told everyone that he wasn’t going to be a big asset to the team. Whatever, there’s one thing that is certain about Steve: he’s a big sandbagger! See, we had a spreadsheet with everyone’s distances and their estimated pace, and with some very basic math, you can project how long someone is going to take to cover a certain distance. Steve was supposed to run his leg in about 49 minutes. He brought it in after only 41:25!

My turn was next. I was ready and eager. I used my iPhone with the Nike+ GPS App, so you can see some of my run info here: http://nikerunning.nike.com/nikeos/p/nikeplus/en_US/plus/#//runs/detail/408105819/972367474/all/allRuns/. However, the GPS or the watch must have been off by a bit, because my “official” time was 41 minutes, 54 seconds for 5.3 miles, which brought me in at an average of 7:54 minutes/mile, which was a good 20 seconds faster than my target pace. Yay!
My run was pretty awesome. The course was the little bike path that goes from Squaw valley into north Tahoe, which is very scenic and separated from vehicular traffic. Right after the exchange, and no less than a few minutes of me starting my run, I passed two girls. Getting a roadkill is a pretty nice boost, and having two of them is even nicer!
I ended up passing a total of 5 people in my leg, which made me feel pretty damn good about myself. I loved feeling fast yet smooth, and even though I forgot to bring my heart-rate monitor for the race, I was at the top of my comfortable zone, and I maintained that throughout the whole thing without problems. A+ run, would run again.

When I finished my leg came another moment I had been looking forward to a lot. My handoff was to Don Morrison, a good friend of mine of a few years now. Don tells me I’ve influenced him by inspiring him to run, and that it’s because of me that he has discovered something he enjoys.
I’m not sure when, but it was over a year ago, I told him about the Couch-to-5k running plan. He stuck to the plan and has been running since. We’ve done a couple of the Run Amuck mud races together, so I had already gotten to enjoy his company while running, but this RTO was going to be something bigger, something much more difficult and competitive for him, so I had been thinking about this moment for a while… and then, it happened:
I handed off the baton to Don, and he was off! He got to run next to Lake Tahoe, with snow-capped in the distance (which was actually very near, it was cold!). He looked great, specially with his bright running shoes and the fancy reflective safety vest.
As customary with everyone else, we pulled the van over 3 or 4 times along the way of his leg, to cheer him on and hand him water (and take some pictures!). Every time Don swooshed by, I smiled.

After Don’s leg was over, Van 2 took off towards South Lake Tahoe for some food and rest. We almost slept through all the phone calls from Van 1, but we made it to the van exchange point at almost midnight, and we did it all over again!
John climbed all the way to the top of Kingsbury grade, which is one brutal way of waking up from 45 minutes of sleep. Marlaina and Nicolle flew down the other side of Kingsbury grade into the Carson Valley, beating their estimated times by over 10 minutes each. It was amazing. Steve coasted on his leg and into Genoa, where I was waiting for him… inside a Porta-Potty.

I walked out of the dark and cold  (but clean!) portable bathroom at around 2:27am. I figured that since I was about to go on my leg, I’d trot on over to the start line… where all of a sudden I saw all of my teammates waiting for me! I had apparently taken a little too long to go pee  (but that’s because I did more than just pee) and I just switched it from warm-up trot to cruising speed. Once again, here’s the Nike+ info: http://nikerunning.nike.com/nikeos/p/nikeplus/en_US/plus/#//runs/detail/408105819/1039314567/all/allRuns/. This time, the fancy iPhone app clocked everything in right, and I did indeed run for 6.1 miles in the middle of the night, with an average of 8:47/mile.
Running in the dark is pretty fun. My headlamp gives me a strange goggle-effect, where my eyebrows cast a shadow around the bottom of eyes, and it feels like I’ve got blinders on. Regardless of that small annoyance, it’s a fun time: All you can hear is your own breathing and the constant sound of your footsteps. It’s easy to fall into a trance, a zen meditative state, where all you do is put one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible, and rhythmically take air in, push air out.
The only distractions from this”zone” happen when a team van drives by, or when you catch up to an unsuspecting runner. I passed 5 or 6 people in this leg, and I’m pretty sure I startled at least a couple of them because they were in the trance themselves!
Anyway, this leg ended with a long and smooth uphill that I wasn’t mentally prepared for. I felt very slow going up, but I eventually made it, covered in sweat even though it was probably in the low 40s outside.

After Don ran his leg – which happened to be a 5k, and also happened to be his fastest 5k time ever – we were ready to get some rest. Lucky for us, old teammate Nate has a little farmhouse just 5 minutes away from where we finished, so we headed there to crash on his quiet lot.
Well, that was the plan anyway. What really ended up happening was that Nate cooked some awesome waffles and Steve, John and me talked to him for over an hour while Don, Nicolle and Marlaina slept in the van. When we realized that we had about 45 minutes left before we were going to have to get going, we got in our sleeping bags and snoozed a little bit.
Funny story about Nate: He was originally supposed to run in the RTO with us this year, but had to drop out. His was one of the holes that John and Marlaina filled. I didn’t ask him why he didn’t run the RTO, but I can only assume it had to do with him wanting to be with his baby boy… or the fact that Saturday was his birthday! Yes, the same day that he woke up at 4am to make us waffles and let us sleep on his porch! We were all oblivious about this detail until after the fact, but it just went to show what a class-A gentleman Nate is: he welcomed us, treated us to a delicious and nutritious homecooked breakfast, and went back to sleep when we left. Yowza! Thank you, Nate! I hope you had a great birthday!!

At 7am on Saturday, we were in good old Virginia City, ready to get started with the last 1/6th of the course. The weather was particularly unwelcoming then and there. The cold temperatures from the last 24 hours had now been joined by some pretty strong winds, which definitely made more than a few bones shiver as we waited for Joe Dito, who was running his and his van’s last leg. By the way, Joe has ran in every one of the 7 Reno-Tahoe Odysseys! He’s a super cool guy to know.

Poor John had to run some more hills on his last stretch, but at least he did get to squeeze in some flats and downhills in this one! And once again, Marlaina and Nicolle had a feast with their downhills on Geiger Grade. By the time Steve’s turn came, we were at the very south-east end of town, on the valley floor, and bringing in it. Calculations were starting to happen, it was 8:45 when Steve took off, and if we finished before 11:30am, we’d be done in less than 24 hours, which is a pretty awesome little accomplishment. Steve, me and Don had to nail our runs, and we’d clock in at exactly 24 hours… but we each had some pretty long distances to cover, and we were tired. It was going to be difficult.

Sandbag James once again ran it in well below the estimated time, and sporting a smile from start to finish. He handed off the baton to me, where I was to start my final leg of 6.2 miles (a 10K!).
Here’s the Nike info:  http://nikerunning.nike.com/nikeos/p/nikeplus/en_US/plus/#//runs/detail/408105819/1576358416/all/allRuns/

My run started off pretty well. There was a girl in front of me setting a pretty mean pace of about 7:45/mile. I figured I’d hang on and just try to keep up with her, and see if I could push it harder for the last stretch. But my strategy went to hell after about 10 minutes, when my stomach turned into a knot and I felt a combination of a sideache and a few shoryukens. I decided to let the girl go, and slowed down the pace a bit.
My legs were starting to burn too, with a particular focus on my quads. I didn’t want to slow down anymore, so I swallowed up a PowerBar gel…. and while that helped my legs feel better, it didn’t help my stomach situation. When the guys in the van offered me some gatorade, I asked for water instead, because I couldn’t take in anything else with any kind of flavor. The water helped, and it was just a matter of pushing through the grossed-out feeling until it went away, or until I was done running.
The run went on for what felt like forever. If it wasn’t for my iPhone telling me every 5 minutes how I was doing, I would have thought I was dragging ass. It turns out, even with all the discomfort, I was doing alright, just a little bit above my projected pace.
When I turned into Lakeside, I knew I was close to done. I had to run up Windy Hill, and then it was literally downhill from there. So, inspired by the HTFU mantra, I pushed it. I climbed Windy Hill with what I felt was a respectable pace, and as soon as I got to a parallel, I turned on the jets and went as fast as I possibly could. I know I was tired, but it definitely felt like I was going faster than 7 min/miles, and that was good enough for me to finish once and for all, and feel proud of my effort.
I ended up running the think in 53 minutes, which put me in at an average of 8:32/mile for my leg 35, and I was (and still am!) OK with that.

Don took it from there, and he had exactly an hour to do his 5.4 mile leg. And that, he did. In fact, he ran it in less than 50 minutes, which brought us in with an official finish time of 23:48:52, which put our team in 23rd place out of 204 teams.

When Don crossed the finish line, I gave him a big hug, and words failed me at the moment and all I said was “good job”. I have since then corrected this and told him how proud I was of him and his performance, and that it meant a lot to me to have him (and his wife!) on my team.

But instead of having sweet emotional conversations, we did what everyone should do after finishing the RTO: We got our team picture taken, we received our medals, we exchanged high-fives, and eventually all went on our separate ways.
Regardless of goals broken, or how many roadkills we got, or how awesome John’s hair looks in all the pictures, there’s one thing that assures me that this year’s RTO was a success: As soon as we finished, everyone started talking about next year.