Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love Running Again: Yosemite Half Marathon Report

6 months from now I'll be marrying my best friend and love of  my life. Weddings bring many things: Unsolicited opinions from family and strangers about the color of your shoes, awkward Facebook messages from acquaintances hoping for an invite to the party so they can score free booze, but perhaps most importantly, it brings up many excuses to gather with your closest friends to celebrate.

Normally, people head to Vegas or their local hub of bars to drink and celebrate. That's always fun, but I've never been accused of being normal, and so naturally,  I chose a camping trip combined with a half marathon as my scheduled merriment for my bachelorette party. My location of choice: Yosemite National Park for the Yosemite Half Marathon.

Three of my close girlfriends joined me on this adventure from all over. One left Austin with me, one from Houston, and one all the way from Panama City Beach, Florida. My other friend from Colorado had to drop out at the last minute, but in a show of solidarity, still ran (what was probably a harder course!) 13.1 miles "with" us on Saturday.

We flew in to San Francisco airport on Thursday morning (thank you, my lovely fiance, for driving me to the airport at 4am!) and once we collected our bags, rental car, and groceries from a very shady and sad Wal-Mart in Oakland, we set off for the park!

The first campground we stayed at was in the North portion of Yosemite National Park in Hogdon Meadows. We arrived a little late in the evening to do any hiking, so we decided to set up camp, cook a few backpacker meals, have a glass of wine, and relax. We'd all been up since about 1am PCT from our respective time zones, so needless to say, we packed it in pretty early.
Group photo at campsite #1 of the trip. Still smelling pretty decent!

On Friday, we made our way from the North part of the park to the Southern end, in order to drive to Bass Lake for packet pick up. We stopped along the many vistas that dotted the road, taking pictures and soaking in the beautiful views of the valley below.

Roadside group selfie.
As we drove along we saw the sign for Bridalveil Falls and thought, "a perfect place for a bachelorette hike!" We walked to the falls, which were really just a small trickle at this time of the year, and climbed the rocks, exploring and getting some much-appreciated fresh air after our day in the airport.

This bride is way too excited for this picture (or possibly the bathrooms)
Sorry, rangers with more sense than we have. We do what we want. 

Group photo where the waterfall should be.

The trees were all so BIG!
Bestie trees

They look even extra big with two small people inside them.

 After exploring the falls, we set off on a hike from the parking lot that took us through the woods along the valley floor road past huge trees, boulders, fat squirrells, and eventually to a bridge near El Capitan where we met an NPS park ranger setting up for an interpretive program on rock climbing. We had seen climbers along the trail and had been making guesses as to how it all worked, so I was excited to ask him. He showed us rock climbing equipment, let us see how it worked by practicing on a mock rock crevice, and told us that climbing El Capitan can take an hour or three weeks, depending on the route you take. We all decided we'd rather keep our feet on the ground for the time being.

After some minor navigational mishaps (GPS does not work in a valley) we made our way out of the park and to Bass Lake for packet pick up. Although it was only about 25 miles away, the drive took a long time because of the incredibly windy roads and the 4-cylinder engine in our Mitsubishi Outlander. We made it safely with no one puking and picked up our things. The race was cupless, so we got hydration pouches in a choice of colors, and got shirts, also in a choice of really cute colors. I thought it was cool that there were options, as it's always a bummer to get a race shirt you'll never wear. These were really cute! We also signed in for our volunteer slots, finalized our plans for catching a shuttle from the finish line in the morning, and headed to our next camp at the Wawona Camgrounds.

Campground #2 at Wawona. Tasha had major skill trotting across those rocks to get to us before the timer went off!
 Because of the 45 minute drive and early start, we woke up at 3am (THANKFULLY this is 5am Texas time so it wasn't that awful), broke down camp, bundled up in jackets against the 50 degree weather, and drove to the race start. Parking was pretty easy, and we waited in the car until right before 5am to catch the last shuttle leaving. The buses had to climb the mountain the full 13.1 miles to the start, which took about an hour, with one stop for a bear in the road.

Team Blistered Sisters ready to run!

The race start was crowded, but organized with a ton of potties to use. They had a system for clothing drop, so since it was warming up, everyone wrote their name on a trash bag, stuck their clothes in it, and tossed them on a budget truck as we made our way to the start. They had coffee and hot chocolate at the top, which was nice to take the chill out, and raffle prizes. Thankfully, Veronica was paying attention to the announcements, because I won a Honey Stinger shirt, socks, and a race necklace and didn't even hear my number get called!

The race played what felt like the absolute longest version of the Star Spangled Banner I've ever heard (Jimmie Hendrix didn't even milk it that long) and then started around 7:10am. We took off, saying we'd stay together if we could, but quickly Tasha took off to glory (she is small, but very, very much faster than me!) and we lost Veronica in the crowd during the first mile.

Alyssa chugging along with me for the first 6.5 miles

The course was a serious downhill run! The first 10 miles were a 4,000 foot DROP in elevation straight down the side of the peak. I looked at my watch at mile 3 and saw I was running 8:30min/miles and wasn't even out of breath. It was amazing! Alyssa stayed right with me until about mile 6.5, and then her IT band began to give her trouble, so she waved me on ahead. I realized then that I had a really good chance of hitting a 2 hour half- something I never thought I'd be able to do!

I took off, keeping up between an 8:30-9:00 minute pace. I thought I could go faster, but was concerned I'd blow up on the last three miles, where I knew it would be warmer and flatter, with tiny hills that would feel huge in comparison to the smooth sailing I was in for now.

Good thing I know myself! I set a PR for 5k, 10k, and 10 miles, all in this race. I hit mile 10 and the course leveled off and my pace slowed, but thankfully, not to my pace as it had been this summer, when I decided I hate running and thought I was terrible at it, but to what it used to be when I started this journey. A lot had to do with weather and humidity- although it was warm at the bottom, it wasn't awful, and it was dry. I was motivated to keep my pace up to avoid it getting any warmer.

The aid stations were frequent enough, and although there were no cups, the pouches worked awesome at their hydration stations, which featured PVC pipe systems that dispensed water quickly so you didn't lose time. I took 2 honey stinger gels during the race, more than I normally do during a half, but I was hungry and handle them well, so I followed my body's requests and my stomach was fine.

PR AND I got to meet Smokey the Bear!
I ended up walking the last small hill because my heart rate was really high. I needed to slow and let it settle down before one last final push. I had passed the 2:00 hour pacer at mile 11 and knew as long as I stayed ahead, I'd finished in 2:00hrs or less (the pacer started behind me). It was hard those last two miles, but I knew if I didn't hit that time now, it was unlikely I would ever again, so I kept going! I crossed the line in 2:00:33! That's a 15-minute PR for me! I know I could have probably done better had I had faith in myself the whole race and started fast the whole time, but I"m still so excited with my time, I'm OK with that. (One day, I'm going to do another downhill race such as the Slacker Half Marathon to see if I can beat it!)

Tasha blew her goal out of the water as well, running a 1:53, even with a potty break! Alyssa and Veronica finished not long after us. We were all rewarded for our hard work with HUGE medals, chocolate milk, and a really cool snack box designed with healthy, pre-packaged snacks that could be eaten then or taken with you. I liked that a lot, because I ate what I wanted and saved the rest for hiking snacks. I wasn't left wondering what the hell to do with 10 bagels, but instead got new, yummy snacks to try when I wanted.

Overall, I was very impressed by Vacation Races and this inaugural race. It was well-organized with great communication before, during and after the event. They offer an amazing refund plan compared to anyone else in the business, and take their work personally and seriously. The race went smoothly, especially for a first-time event. I will definitely be completing more of the races they offer, starting with Grand Teton next year and the Grand Canyon in 2017. I love the idea of exploring a new national park every year and running in new, stunning places. You don't have to ask me twice to go spend time in the woods doing fun things!

PR looks good on us!
Blistered Sisters taking home the hardware.
Such great medals! Since Sandra ran "with" us, I nabbed one for her, too. 

We signed up to volunteer to clean up after the race (which earned us each a free entry to a 2016 race that I'll be using for the Grand Teton half!) and helped move fence panels, break down boxes, and pack up until about 1pm. Well worth the extra sweat. Then, we loaded up in to the car, and headed to Curry Village for a shower and a pizza (or two.)

Curry Village is the only campground in the park with showers, but it ended up being really close to North Pines, where we were staying, so it worked great. The showers were free and hot, and the pizza was super delicious, either because it was, or because we were starving. Either way, it most definitely hit the spot. 

We checked in and set up camp at North Pines, where we'd spend the next two nights before heading home on Monday. The Valley floor is much more popular than other parts of the park, and it was crowded, but with a mix of couples and families and remained fairly quiet. We explored a little, but mostly enjoyed having no more timelines to adhere to and just relaxing.

View from the creek at our campground

On Sunday morning we woke up and made pancakes on the stove before setting off on a hike to Mirror "Lake." Lake is in quotations because it was most certainly not a lake, as apparently it's seasonal and October is off-season. However, the hike was pretty and we learned a bit about the valley from the interpretive signs around it. Our pace was considerably slower than normal, since thanks to the decent the day before, all of our quads were beyond on fire. 

Deer waltzing through our camp like they live there or something. (They do, and were very clear on that fact!)
We got back to camp by following our noses to the horse corrals, and grabbed stuff to make lunch before setting off to Glacier Point. I would have preferred to do a longer hike to Nevada Falls, but I'm a stubborn idiot with no regard to normal standards of endurance, and the other girls had better sense than me. 
Glacier Point is a popular tourist spot, which is why I had no desire to go. I literally heard a guy exclaim,"Dude, there's service up here, I'm soaking up every second of internet I can!" I literally came near tears. Ugh, shut the hell up dude, stop making millennials look like the exact vapid, over-connected morons everyone thinks we are. That is literally the opposite of what I go to the wilderness to do. However, I know we are all different and enjoy experiences in different ways. I also know that the view from Glacier Point was really pretty, so it makes sense there were so many people there. 

View from Glacier Point of Half Dome (there were people up there!)
 We left Half Dome and parked back at Curry Village, which is near the trail head for part of the John Muir trail. We got some shady directions from a park staff member and set off for Vernal Falls for what we thought would be a short hike with a steep climb at the end. It was short, only 1.8 miles to the base of the falls, but it was STEEP the WHOLE way. Whoops! Climbing up wasn't that bad, but each and every slight downhill was murderous and we were all over-determined pain junkies because we kept going, despite knowing it was a bad idea.

View of the falls from the bottom.
 Once we reached what a sign told us was the 700 stone steps to the top, Tasha decided she'd wait for us there, which was probably the brightest idea. No matter, the remaining three of us thought, we'd come this far, we might as well finish!

And, finish we did. After literally crawling on my hands and knees for some of the way, we made it up the steps and to the waterfall. Then, we realized we'd have to go back down, and throwing ourselves over the edge was not the best option (but it still WAS an option!)

View from the top, probably of Tasha laughing at us from the bottom.....
 We crab-walked, limped, slid, and shimmied our way back down the narrow rock steps and made the slow, agonizing trip back down the paved trail to the trail head just before dark. I, as someone who enjoys earning the views I get on hikes, thought it was totally worth it. I'm still not sure my girlfriends feel the same way, but they were two hellacious troopers who went along for the ride anyhow, which means either they're amazing friends, or they're scared of me. Either way, I did not suffer alone.

We three champions at the top of the falls.
We hadn't even made it to the bottom before Alyssa offered to buy the whole camp pizza if it meant we could eat immediately and not have to cook it ourselves. We all quickly agreed that, for once, we were having good ideas that were good for our health! We grabbed another quick shower and headed to the pizza place, garnering stares from people who thought we'd either suffered some horrible trauma or had been horseback riding today. However, any time we passed someone with the same strained gait, or saw another person walking sideways down stairs, we'd nod in recognition, relieved we weren't the only ones who were so determined to see the park after the race they set record levels of lactic acid in their legs.

I never regret a day spent in the woods, and had so much fun sharing these days with some of those closest to me. They came from all around to celebrate with me, suffer with me, and breath the fresh air with me, and it was a blast. Team Blistered Sisters suffered only a few real-life blisters, but all while making amazing memories and soaking in some of the best views of the American West available. I can't wait to get back to the mountains for the Grand Teton Half!

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