RR: Mammoth Half Marathon (Read 64 times)

Queen of 3rd Place

    I participated in a unique race yesterday, and it was such an amazing experience that I felt a report might be appreciated. Bottom line: this is a small, well-organized event (almost 1000 runners), with stunning scenery (best I've ever seen, and I've seen some good ones), but is incredibly hard due to the high elevation.


    The webpage for the race advertised the course as being "downhill" and "fast". Looking at the elevation chart, you see that from the start at 9000ft, the course descends 1000ft in the first 5 miles, then appears to flatten out for a couple of miles, descends gently for a few more miles, and then slightly rises during final mile to the finish at around 7800ft. Somewhere on the website, one of the race organizers speculated that the high elevation and the downhill would more or less cancel each other out and that it would be a fast race for those appropriately trained. There are a handful of tiny, 80ft hills in my area, and I live at sea level, so I would not be one of those appropriately trained people. Regardless, it was sure to be incredibly scenic. Also, I wanted a longish run at marathon race pace that weekend, and find that half marathons are a fun way to do MP workouts.


    Arriving in the cute little skiing town of Mammoth Lakes (pop. around 7000) on Friday, I decided to jog 6 miles of the final part of the course. This turned out to be an excellent idea because (1) the last part of the course is gently rolling, not flat or down, and (2) I could barely run on the flats, and could manage only a strange, shuffling, forward-progress-like motion on anything that vaguely looked like a hill. Some of these hills were so gentle that they really didn't deserve to be called hills. Even the term "slight rise" would be a stretch. My driveway is Everest in comparison...you get the idea. However, the paths around and in town traveled though pretty neighborhoods, wooded areas, and out into open areas with jaw-dropping vistas, and it was very enjoyable to "run" there, no matter how slowly.


    The next day was worse! I thought I might acclimate a little, instead I was groggy, lacked appetite, and had to pee every 20 minutes. This was odd, because I travel to elevation often (backpacking, dayhiking), and never feel bad at all. I hiked Mt. Whitney last fall without a problem!  I tried to jog an easy 3 but I'm not sure it's fair to call what I actually did jogging. It was clear that the workout was going to be a lot slower than marathon pace. After dinner (a nice salmon bake pre-race dinner, the menu designed "in collaboration with Deena Kastor" according to the race organizers), I felt exhausted and fell into a restless sleep around 8 pm.


    Sunday morning came and shuttles brought 1000 or so of us up to the start, where it was pleasantly chilly (45F) with cloudless, impossibly blue skies. It's worth noting here that the whole event was well-run, particularly the shuttles to the start and the start area itself. No problem visiting the port-a-johns (twice), bag drop was a piece of cake, and there was coffee and water available. A really nice touch was that, despite the small size of the event, we were sent off in 5 waves, making the start go very smoothly.


    Right away we were headed down, and quickly too! It was steep, but not too steep, so you could just roll with it. I was floating easily, not breathing hard despite the elevation, and keeping my leg turnover up. My pace was about 8:35, roughly 25 sec faster than marathon race pace, and 15 sec slower than my half marathon PR pace - seemed OK to me.  By mile 4, as predicted, my quads were on fire. I was thinking that the rest of the race was going to hurt, and that the next few days were going to hurt even more. In fact, the opposite was going to happen.


    The course leveled off during mile 6, and then the mid-course short and modest climbs started. Around me, most people started to walk, and this was in Wave 2 of 5! Everyone was sucking air! I maintained my forward-like "running" motion, but wasn't moving much faster than the run-walkers around me. This would continue for the rest of the race.


    My pace for miles 7 - 11 was about 9:30, roughly 30 sec slower than marathon race pace. I felt so horrible that I was surprised to be moving that quickly. Trouble was brewing, as I was working way too hard, much harder than I've ever worked during a HM. Typically, the HM is an event during which I can hammer along happily, and lately I often do well enough to place in my age group (I even won once!). On this day, I was nearly wheezing with each breath, and was starting to feel dizzy.


    Around mile 11 a couple steep downhills nailed the coffin for my quads. They started to cramp slightly and I feared that if they got worse I'd DNF. Near the end of mile 11, I was wobbling and then was suddenly reduced to walking every tiny rise in terrain. My overall pace slowed to 3 min/mi slower than marathon race pace. This should not have been surprising, but instead it was completely demoralizing to crash during what was supposed to be a workout.


    The last mile was another gentle rise that wouldn't even merit notice at sea level. With the finish line in sight, I staggered to a walk, entertained the thought that it would just be easier to collapse, but then somehow shuffled in zombie-jogging style to cross the line. My time was nearly 20 min slower than my half marathon PR and 10 - 15 min slower than the workout I'd hoped for. Never before have I had to walk during a half marathon, and never before had I cried at the finish. Wait, what? There's no crying in running! Really, I have no idea why I cried, because I was actually satisfied with the effort and time considering the conditions, but there it was, crying and sobbing, complete with snot streaming down my nose. Good times.


    Strangely, I recovered very quickly. A little chocolate milk at the finish area, a shower and lunch and I was good to go. The four hour plus drive home didn't make anything tighten up. Today my trusty quads are sore but not much more than they would be after, say, a hard-run 10K.


    I'd recommend this to anyone for the experience and challenge, but know what you're getting into. If you don't have a lot of downhill running and aren't well-acclimated, you will have a tough day.  I'm not sure I'd do it again, simply because it's so hard!

    Ex runner

      Thanks, Arla, for sharing your experience, humbling though it was.  I would love to run at Mammoth!  Sounds like a Camelback with a couple of oxygen tanks would be a good idea. Smile

      Well at least someone here is making relevance to the subject. - S.J.

        Nice race report.  Thanks.  I've hiked nearby, so I can imagine how nice it would be to race there.