Mar 25, 2011

Training - Palm Springs Tram Road #5 - 55:24 (PR)

Mountaintop in the morning sunlight, with the task before us still in the shade

I am in the midst of a lightning trip to California for a wedding, but I've gotten into the habit of joining up with my friend Vince every time I come here to run the Tram Road. After arriving last night, this morning I made some time to drive out to Palm Springs, which is an hour from where I stay, to run up from the desert floor to the bottom of The Tram.

The access road to the tram is 3.7 miles long and climbs about 2000' up the alluvial fan into a canyon below Mount San Jacinto, which at 10,831' is the highest point in Riverside County, and the fourth highest peak in Southern California. The bottom of the Tram Station is at a more modest 2600' or so, but that's still 2000' above the western end of the Coachella Valley floor in Palm Springs where the run starts. To put this in perspective for my friends back in New York, Bear Mountain tops out at about 1284' above sea level. Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York, is a mere 5343'.

I've yet to see a photo of this hill that does it justice. The sloped but flat nature of the alluvial fan makes it look deceptively shallow, but anyone who has driven the thing knows that car engines struggle making it up, and brakes overheat on the way down. It's a steep, tough climb.

I now have done this hill five times, and you can find a report of my fourth time up here. In the first four iterations, two ascents were under an hour, two over. My goal in the fifth iteration (and, honestly, every iteration) sounds modest until you try it - run every step of the hill. I figured if I accomplish that, breaking an hour for a third time would take care of itself.

Still on east coast time, I woke at about 3:30AM and after trying to fall asleep for the next hour, gave up and left in the dark a few minutes before 5AM. The plan was to meet Vince at 7:30. Still dark when I arrived, I found a supermarket and bought a peach and a banana, my fuel for today's run. Killed time, enjoyed the colorful pre-dawn light, and enjoyed the sunrise when it happened. When Vince arrived, we both drove up to the top and left one car up there, saving me a knee-shattering descent back to the valley. We drove back down, walked to our starting line (a gate above the visitor center), and started jogging.

Vince, who's best time going into today was 5 minutes faster than mine, started pulling away from me after a half mile. So I pulled my ipod, put my "Run FAST" playlist on shuffle, and turned up the volume.

After a mile, Vince was a mere 50 feet in front of me. That would be about as far as he ever got, but he'd get that far away after being a shadow-length away several times. I wasn't trying to keep up with him, so I figured he was cruising at an easy-for-him pace, and backing off when he felt he was getting too far from me. For my part, I suppressed repeated urges to run faster and try to catch him. I knew I'd need that energy later.

This isn't the first time that I've approached this run with a goal of running every step. As I ascended, I recognized the places that I had taken my first walk breaks in previous ascents. I took note of my relative fatigue at each one, and noticed, not surprisingly, that the hill was always particularly steep in those portions. As I got higher, I started fighting that familiar urge to take a walk break, and those urges always occurred on the steepest portions of the hill.

About halfway up, there is a short but welcome descent at a creek crossing followed by a long straightaway. The lower portion of this straightaway is the highest I've ever made it without walking, but in this case I couldn't remember exactly where. This straightaway is all "particularly steep" and I knew running the whole thing would take a lot out of me, but I didn't give myself a choice. The only way I knew for sure I'd break my record for the highest I got without walking was to go all the way to the turn. So I did.

After the turn, it levels off (which, on this road, really means still uphill, merely less steep), and a feature known to Vince and I as the "Wagon Wheel" comes into view. The Wagon Wheel is part of the welcome sign to the Tramway, and its lowest parking lots are immediately above it. I looked at my watch and saw 45 minutes to this point, which I seemed to remember tied a personal record. But I wasn't concerned about that - because, you see, the Wagon Wheel - It is a bittersweet sight.

It's nice because we're on the home stretch without too much more work, but, Vince and I both know, this is where the real work begins. The section between the Wagon Wheel and the finish is probably about a half-mile long, but it's the toughest half-mile of the course, and not just because it's at the end. The road seemingly becomes twice as steep as it is anywhere below the wagon wheel. It would be hard to run while fresh.

A hundred feet above the wheel, Vince suddenly starts walking backwards. This is where I realized he has not been holding back; he was working as hard as I was. He, too, has never made it all the way to the top without a walk break. I had my goal, however, and continued running, albeit extremely slowly. When I caught him, he started walking forward and commented about how walking can go almost as fast as running, while saving a lot of energy. I nodded. He was right; walk breaks in long races often net faster times than trying to run the whole thing. If I was running this hill for the fastest possible time, I'd probably put in intentional walk breaks. But running this hill for the fastest possible time wasn't my goal. Rather, my goal was to run this entire hill without walking.

Slowly but surely, I started pulling away from him. This, however, was in no uncertain terms due to the grade of the road at this point. It gets hellish. I convinced myself that I, too, wouldn't be able to run the whole thing - the end was just too far away, and I was feeling horrible. On the other hand, I kept managing to convince myself just to run to That Next Landmark. As I'd pass it, I'd immediately find another Next Landmark to run to. I repeated this pattern, and even as I crossed that last bridge before the last parking lot, I still assumed that I'd soon need a walking break.

With the very last parking lot to my left, I kept running up the now-one-way road to the very top. This, I'm convinced, is the absolute steepest part of the run. It was hell! But, once I was halfway up, I knew I'd make it, and even found, deep within me, the ability to pick up the pace just a little to the top. I clicked off RunKeeper and saw my time: 55:24. Huge PR!

I sat down and tried my best to catch my breath, but it took me a solid 5 minutes to breath normal again. Vince came up about 90 seconds later. He was jogging again, and happy with is 57-minute time (His PR is about 54.)

As I sit here writing this, it is 5PM, 9 hours after finishing. I can tell my heart rate is still elevated from the effort. I'm actually surprised at how much I left out on that road. The last time I felt like this was April 2010 when I PR'd at the Hook Mountain Half Marathon - one of the only times I ever felt like I "left everything" on the course. It took me days to feel normal after that. Hopefully, with Umstead next weekend, I'll feel better a bit sooner this time. (:

Windmills from the bottom