While the focus of this blog is obviously the race I’m organizing, there is much I can learn from other races and race directors. With that in mind, this race report will aim to showcase the race from the perspective of both a runner and a race director.
Early in the morning on Sunday, June 22, I packed up my gear and got in my car to make the two and a half hour drive to Tahoe City for the Burton Creek Trail Run. This event is part of the Tahoe Trail Running Series, put on by Big Blue Adventure, a company that organizes a variety of running, mountain biking and triathlon events in the Tahoe area. The Burton Creek event has existed for six years, but this was only the second year for the 50k distance (the other distance options for 2014 were 6k, 12k, and half marathon).
The race itself takes place on forested trails and jeep roads in the Burton Creek State Park, just north of Tahoe City, CA. While you don’t get any vistas of Lake Tahoe on the course, it’s still beautiful and scenic from start to finish.
Living down in the valley a mere 250 feet above sea level, I knew going into this race that the mountain setting would provide a challenge. Fortunately, I’ve done quite a number of runs in the mountains, so I have a pretty good idea what to expect from my body at the 6-7000′ elevation range. Knowing that going out too fast can leave me gasping for oxygen that isn’t there, I headed out at a measured pace up the first gentle hill.
The 50k and half marathon runners all started at the same time, so the first few miles were a bit crowded, but then the 50k folks diverted off to a slightly different route. Since there were only about 30 of us, that thinned the pack significantly. In spite of this, I found myself alongside another runner, David Roy, who had made a trip out from New York, visiting family nearby and running his first ultra. Although it was his first 50k event, he had no trouble keeping pace for the first half of the race and we talked as we ran. It was great to have some company, and the miles ticked off steadily.
After the first lap, David slowed his pace a little, so I forged on ahead. Since it was a small race, I was running near the front of the pack. Not at the front of the pack by any means, especially as I learned veteran ultrarunner Ian Torrence was out there, using this (I suspect) as an easy, supported training run. In spite of this, I passed a couple of runners and found myself in third heading into the last 15k or so. Over the next 10k I traded places several times with Elijah Hall, a runner hailing from nearby Sacramento. I tried to drop him several times, but each time he would just keep his pace steady and catch up again. We were both tired, but in good spirits, trying to stay strong through the last miles of the race.
As we came down to the last 5k or so, pushing through the last of the climbing (it was barely uphill, but felt challenging by this point) I was a little bit ahead of Elijah and thinking thoughts of 3rd place. Out of nowhere, a quiet runner who I hadn’t seen since the beginning cruised past, not sprinting but moving much faster than my current crawl. I tried to match his pace, but I couldn’t keep up and he blazed on ahead. Demoralized, I slowed, and Elijah caught up. We ran together, chatting and enjoying the final miles. Since 3rd place was now a non-issue, we decided to just cross the finish line together.
Overall, I am happy with my performance for my first ultra of the season. I didn’t hit sub-five hours (which I had held out some hope for), but I had a fairly solid race and got to enjoy some good company along the way.
As a race director, this event had several features that I piqued my interest. The 50k course was organized as two laps, and there was a half marathon distance that utilized much of the same course as one lap of the 50k. My plans call for something similar, and I was curious how this team would handle their event. Wanting to learn what I could, I was also paying attention to how they handled everything else, from registration to aid stations to post-race.
Overall, I think the staff and volunteers from Big Blue Adventure did a great job. There were ample personnel, and everyone involved was friendly and helpful. The course was very well-marked, and there was really no chance of getting lost. Aid stations were plentiful and well stocked. A beautiful course and all the help along the way are the marks of a well-planned event.
There were a few things I noted that stood out as room for improvement. I’ll go into a little more detail here as I explore them, but I want to emphasize that my experience was far and away a positive one overall.
The first item was the registration and packet pickup before the race. In addition to the 50k and half marathon, there were 12k and 6k distances as well. As is usually the case, these attract a much larger crowd, so there were a significant number of runners in need of their race materials. They seemed to be a little short on help at the registration area, so a rather long line formed up for all those who had preregistered. Everyone eventually got their numbers and all was well, but speaking as a runner I know it can be frustrating to stand around on race morning when you want to be warming up and getting your gear together. My lesson: Strive to have some additional volunteers available pre-race to try to alleviate any bottlenecks.
I was also paying attention to the course itself, noticing how the two-lap format felt. On balance, I think it worked well. That said, there was one aspect to the Burton Creek course I didn’t enjoy as much. Within each lap, there was an inner loop and the runners ran that “inner loop” twice during the lap. That means that by the end of the race that inner lap had been run four times, which felt a bit tedious. My lesson: I think it will serve just fine to have my 50 mile course cover two laps of my marathon route (minus a mile, of course). The second lap through allows for some familiarity, but the different time of day and energy level make it still seem fresh. My marathon route is two distinct half marathon loops, so there shouldn’t be anything on the course you see more than twice.
The last item of note is something that I am already concerned about for my race: the post-race experience. When an event offers multiple distances (6k, 12k, half, 50k for Burton Creek), the bulk of the entrants will be in the shorter distances. Typically it’s a much smaller contingent for the ultra distances, and that was the case here. When you finish, the atmosphere at the finish line tends to be a little more subdued. I understand this completely. The folks working have been there for many hours, and there are only a handful of actual runners left. Everyone I interacted with at the finish line was still friendly and had a great attitude, but it’s just different from finishing with a larger pool of runners milling about and energy levels high.
I expect this to be even more of an issue with my race. The half and marathon distance runners will be long gone by the time the first 50 mile runners finish. And the middle and back of the pack? The finish line will be a ghost town by then. How do I keep the atmosphere “up” enough to help these folks really appreciate the value of their accomplishment when they finish? How can I ensure their finish line experience is a good one? My lesson: Continue to pay attention to other races, and see what lessons can be learned when I race the SOB 50 mile in two short weeks!