Lake Tahoe marathon one of the most difficult |

Lake Tahoe marathon one of the most difficult

Jim GrantLast year's Lake Tahoe Marathon winner Joseph Ngunjiri keeps on truckin' downhill near Inspiration Point

More difficult than running a marathon is doing so at 6,200 feet above sea level, and over hills that climb and descend hundreds of feet in a matter of a few kilometers.

Such is the case Sunday with the seventh running of the Lake Tahoe Marathon. It’s considered one of the most difficult marathons in the U.S. due to the altitude, and because of the vertical gain and drop in the last half of the course.

There are tougher marathons, such as the Pikes Peak or Steamboat Springs Marathons, which are higher and with more hills, but that doesn’t make the lake-side race any easier for the thousands of runners who have to climb and descend mile after mile on concrete.

“I’ve usually felt pretty good afterward in the past, but definitely running that much on pavement you’re going to be sore because pavement doesn’t give,” says Jamie Hansen, 21, from Reno, the fourth female and first in her age group in last year’s 10-kilometer race.

The marathon, from Tahoe City to South Lake Tahoe, includes a steep climb along D.L. Bliss State Park. It then descends into Emerald Bay. And like a joke that goes on long after it’s no longer funny, the course climbs back to Inspiration point, then down to Cascade Lake.

It’s been described in books and magazines as one of the top 25 most difficult — and most beautiful — marathons in the U.S. , and with good reason.

“You’re talking about taking something that’s already a tough thing and taking it to its limits,” says Chris Proctor, a physical therapist with Emerald Bay Physical Therapy.

Whether the body was made for that kind of pavement punishment is a matter of debate.

The key to minimizing the impact and avoiding injury, though, is finding out what the body requires before the event, and what it can tolerate. Overdoing it one time is enough to end a running career.

“There’s a little bit a mixture of genetics, a little but of luck and understanding of their bodies,” Proctor said of the runners who make a lifestyle out of running tough marathons.

One runner with years of experience training on hills and learning the limits of speed and endurance is the 2002 USA Marathon Champion Jill Gaitenby.

Gaitenby has also been the top female two years running in the Boston Marathon, a race with a similar reputation for steep grades.

“The first five miles are pretty much downhill,” Gaitenby says of the Boston Marathon. “Although it’s not very steep and is a gradual downhill, it does tire out your quadriceps heavily. That’s why it is a hard race.”

It isn’t so much the first five miles as it is what the five miles do to your legs at mile 18, when the course starts to go up and down like the sides of a teeter-totter.

“You’re working so hard going downhill, when you get to those hills you don’t really have anything left,” Gaitenby says. “What I do is train on the downhill. I push hard on everyday runs and get my legs and quadriceps adapted to the pounding that they are going to experience.”

Gaitenby is a natural runner. At 5-foot-1, her center of gravity is a little lower than most, making the pounding a little less severe. She also has an innate downhill running talent with a 2:36 marathon PR.

“I let myself go, and let gravity take me down, and it seems to work out OK for me,” she said.

One of the problems training on downhills is tightening your iliotibial band (ITB), a muscle that runs from the knee to the hip. Training on downhills can aggravate the ITB where it attaches to the knee and bench a season of running.

On the other side of the coin is training for the climb.

Gaitenby shortens her stride and tries not to focus on the length.

“From a mental point, I try not to look at the top. It can be a little disappointing to see how far you have to go,” she said.

But the pavement pounding on the uphill is far less severe than on the downhill, with the high speeds and long strides.

Stretching is one universally accepted philosophy on how to avoid injury, although methodologies vary. So is strength training. Identifying injuries before they get out of control is another and so is staying properly hydrated.

“At least four separate studies have documented improvement in running capacity among runners who took up cycling …” wrote Dr. Owen Anderson in a recent issue of Runner’s World magazine. “And it only makes sense that cross-training can prevent injuries.”

If cross training is too late for you, the last word of advice from exercise therapists is if the pain becomes too much, stop running.

As Race Director Les Wright said, this is not a race to make a good time, “it’s a race to have a good time.”

Marathon Schedule

As provided from, the official site of the Lake Tahoe Marathon

Oct. 11

7 a.m. — (tentative) Start of 1st marathon of the Ultra 3 Stage Marathon Day. Emerald Bay to Spooner Summit.

5 p.m.until 9 p.m. — Sport & Fitness Expo at Embassy Suites Resort Hotel.

Oct. 12

6:30 a.m. — Second Marathon of the Ultra 3 Day Stage Marathon.

9 a.m. — 5K race Park outside of Valhalla Estates and walk in to the starting line.

10 a.m. — Run or walk out and back on the Rim Trail as far as you want. Meet Carol Rapacz at the trail head on top of Kingsbury Grade. Directions: Near Lakeside Inn & Casino, drive up Kingsbury Grade (Nevada State Route 207) about 3 miles and turn left onto North Benjamin Drive. Look for the Brautovich Park sign. Go about 2 miles to the trailhead.The Rim Trail is up around 7500-8500′ and affords gorgeous views of Lake Tahoe and the Carson Valley.

10-6 p.m. — Sport & Fitness Expo at Embassy Suites Resort.

10:15 a.m. — Kids Fun Runs Park outside of Valhalla Estates and walk in to the starting line.

11 a.m. — Around the Lake And Course Tour.

5 p.m. — Sunset Pasta Cruise on The Tahoe Queen.Boarding starts at 5 pm at Ski Run Marina.


Oct. 13

7:15 a.m. — Marathon walkers.

9:30 — 10K.

9:03 — Woman’s marathon start.

9:03 — Women’s relay start.

9:29 — Wheelchair starts.

9:30 — Men’s Marathon start.

9:30 — Men’s & mixed relays.

11:10 — Half marathon start (will start after top marathoners go by).

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