Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pacing Strategies on Big Tesuque

Big T Elevation Map (click to expand)
Like many trail races, the dilemma of pacing and planning an efficient effort is some tough business. We'll see if we can't lay out a bit of detail about the course to help you get up and back down in the fastest (and safest) manner.

The Course
Big Tesuque winds up Aspen Vista Trail to the Radio Towers on Big Tesuque Peak (12,000ft) roughly 5.8 miles away. Yes, it's all uphill although the grade of the road varies quite a bit along the way, and this creates extra challenges in itself above 10,000ft elevation.

Onward and upward
The average grade - as seen in some detail above - is about 7% with a dips below 5% (recovery!), but also a few spikes above 12%. Hold on to your ass over these steep parts, both uphill and down. Climbing these steep sections will freeze up your quads as they fill with blood and lactic acid. Your body will also creep into (or shift violently into) temporary oxygen debt which compounds the problem. For the above reasons most runners choose to fast-hike these sections, the idea is to recover a bit on the un-runnable parts and resume running with fresher legs on the easier grades. Use your arms to push off on your thighs while fast-hiking and help transfer some of the workload from your tired legs. Breath deeply, and as the lactic acid clears from your legs to a tolerable level, step back into a controlled steady run. Resist the urge to recover for overly long periods - greater than 15 or 20 seconds - it crushes the motivation to continue up and push yourself. You may see runners talking out loud to themselves, cursing the inner demons.

The folks up front will likely run the steeps regardless of the lactic freeze and oxygen debt. I've found the key to work through these sections with pace (a very subjective term in this instance), is to use fast but short choppy strides, and really swing the arms in an exaggerated pump. Low gears but high RPMs work well.

These steeper sections on the descent are easier to navigate but are mined with rocks and embedded trip-ups that can send a runner sprawling. You do not want this to happen. It will take much longer than 15-20sec of recovery to right yourself. More on this in a bit.

General Overview
Broken into its mile components, the course is easier to process. Mile one is by far the easiest. The grade is mild, you're surrounded by other runners, and you feel fresh. Miles two and three are steep and lonely. This is the steepest part of the course. Settle into a rhythm and distract yourself with the scenery of what is always a magnificent morning in the mountains. Miles four and five offer easier grades and by this point you're fully warmed up and moving well. The altitude will create challenges on even the smallest of rises and step-ups on the trail. The final mile includes a short ramp to the lower mountain ridge, then a nice nearly-level catwalk for a couple hundred meters under the chairlift, followed by a hairpin right turn and some deceivingly steep climbing to the turnaround at the Towers. Whew! Seriously though, that last bit after the hairpin is a bear.

The race leaders will often make the turn on the Peak in under 50min. I believe the record is somewhere around 46min flat. In any case this is just over 8min /mi pace over the first half of the race, a terrifically fast ascent at altitude. The top 10-15 runners can generally top-out in less than 60min, a pretty stiff benchmark to meet that requires a pace near 10min /mi and less. The median ascent time - summiting square in the middle of the field - is generally about 68min, or just less than 12min /mi pace.

Vin screaming through the technical Aspen Peak overlook
section. Vin actually took a fall shortly after this shot, visited
the hospital later to have his knee drained, then made an
appearance at the after-party. God bless ya' Vin.
Now, some runners excel at the climb but many more rely on a quick descent for a strong finish. If all goes well, a runner can expect to descend 3-5min /mi faster than the climb, but it ain't all ice cream and lollipops. The fatigue of the first hour takes its toll, and your legs and feet will begin to tire after nine or ten miles if your summer training hasn't been that strong (and it's seldom that it is, isn't it?). If you're pinwheeling your arms or feel out of control on the way down, then you're descending too fast and risking a fall. Falling is not advised, it can mess you up, sometimes badly. We have paramedics at the finish to help those with injuries but it's best to look for the warning signs before they occur. It can be tempting to look up at other runners, friends, or hikers as you pass on your way down but be cautioned that this is also a fine way to sprawl over the gravel and rock. Miles ten and eleven can be particularly dangerous because they are the most steep and your legs will likely be spent at this point. Mile twelve will include dozens of hikers and dogs that weren't there at 9am. Take care through these sections. Resist averting your eyes from the trail to smile and say hello.

The race leaders will often descend in close to 30min, or roughly 5min /mi. The median is closer to 46min, or roughly 8min /mi. We don't have a record of the quickest descent but it was likely as unsafe as it was speedy.

Race Reports from Previous Years
Santa Fe Trail Runner - 2011
High Desert Dirt - 2011

Santa Fe Trail Runner - 2010
High Desert Dirt - 2010

Apres Run
Burritos, coffee, and gatorade are traditional at the finish. Pace yourself appropriately through this bit and the awards and raffle that follow. Recommendations for post-post-race refreshments include our friends at the The Santa Fe Baking Company on Cordova Rd. They've got delicious pastry, a full menu, and a Strider's membership card will now get you a 20% discount. Second St. Brewery across the way in the Railyard Plaza has a patio and cold beer. The Tesuque Village Market has the same, although in a more northerly direction.

Cheers and a helluva race to all that plan to run this Saturday!

View Aspen Vista Trail (Big Tesuque Trail), Santa Fe, NM in a larger map

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