Three weeks loom until the race billed as "the toughest in the Northwest" sends 2,434 runners, walkers and shufflers up Aldape Summit, and this is the week training for the race should be at its most intense. For me, a first-time Race to Robie Creek runner, it's also the week anxiety has really kicked in.
The notoriously brutal 13.1-mile run turns 34 this year, and as usual, the limited registration sold out in minutes--21 minutes this year, compared to last year's 13. Limited to 2,434 racers (actually, it's limited to 2,400 racers with allowance for an extra racer each year the race has been in existence), registration has become so competitive that Robie is really two races: the first is the race to register and the second is the run itself. And though both races are a right of passage, only one has an unmatched reputation for destroying toenails.
"You will suffer," said Brian Rencher, a Robie committee member and 24-time Robie racer. In fact, said Rencher, one of the race's previous winners has been known to say that whether you're first or last in the race doesn't matter, you will suffer at Robie Creek and you will work hard the whole time. The trick is to train well and finish quicker, thereby suffering for a shorter period of time than the sucker who's an hour behind you.
With those words, the initial elation I'd had over scoring a registration all but disappeared.
"I ran for seven years before I tried it," said Rencher. "I'd run Barber to Boise but I never went to the summit before the first time I ran it. Some friends told me you cross the second cattle guard and a steep section--then you're close. Those lying dogs. It's another three miles to the summit."
The race starts in the valley at Fort Boise. The course winds up Rocky Canyon Road for 8.5 miles, gaining 2,100 feet in elevation before cresting Aldape Summit and dropping 1,700 feet in the final 4.6-mile stretch.
Though the 8-mile slog uphill sounds intimidating, it's the steep downhill section that Rencher said is the culprit behind the toenail damage for those with poorly fitted shoes. It's also the reason that among the oddball advice I've received as a first-timer was a recommendation to wear double knee braces.
When I mentioned to Rencher that I was a first-timer, he asked if I'm a runner. At one point in my life I was logging an average of 40 miles a week but then I needed to give my knees a break. I'd been running recently, but I hadn't signed up for a race in 16 years.
"Slowly build mileage up until a couple of weeks before race day, then taper in those last two weeks," he advised.
Six weeks out from the race, he suggested long runs should be 60 to 90 minutes. They were. Shorter runs should be more like 40 to 60 minutes. They were.
But, he said, don't think just because you can run eight miles on flats you'll be fine. Ooh, trouble, I thought. In fact, I'd decided to sign up for Robie after finishing an eight miler along nice flat Hill Road one weekend--if I can do eight, surely 13 is easy enough.
And, he said, don't think you can train on a treadmill or an indoor track. Double trouble: I'd followed up my Hill Road run with a mind-numbing nine-miler on a treadmill the following weekend.
As Rencher briefed me on how the start works--there's no start gun; rather, it's something utterly unusual like the splat of a Jell-O-filled balloon dropped from a hot air balloon, or last year's mating dance, performed by Idaho Dance Theatre--I started concocting extraction plans should my flat, eight-mile training program fail me. Can I take my cell phone? Sure, but it won't work beyond mile five. Can I stash a mountain bike along the course? Mountain bikes are definitely discouraged.
Once the apprehension had set in, I turned to friends. One, affectionately dubbed the fittest fat man I know, ran the race a few years back and finished. That gave me hope. I chatted up a fellow newspaper type who was also a first-timer and mileage wise, we were averaging about the same. So far, so good. Another friend gave me race-day advice: Go your own pace and take water when it's offered.
A few weeks and many miles later, I consulted Race to Robie Creek organizer Robert Grisham, who has run the race "about eight times," about my progress. I'd been running up Eighth Street, and while it seemed ideal, I passed mountain bikers and joyriders but never saw any other runners. Maybe I was missing something?
"Some of the pitches on Eighth Street are similar to the last mile before Aldape Summit, and it is a great training run," said Grisham. I patted myself on the back for all the grunting it took to get up the hill. But then Grisham said, "In my opinion, you don't need to incorporate those steep pitches in a lot of your training runs." Grunting wasted.
"I think that Hull's Gulch up to the waterfall is one of the best training runs you can do. It has a great pitch that I think helps prepare you for both the uphill and downhill of Robie."
The damn downhill again. Despite all the advice to run the course before the race in order to know what to expect, I'd decided not to, taking an "ignorance is bliss" approach. The idea that I actually needed to train to run downhill got me thinking otherwise.
Grisham's advice: "You don't need to run Rocky Canyon a ton of times to prepare for the race. I think that if you run it consistently, you will start to dread it. However, I think it is critically important to know the course."
Critically important. And from what I hear, the course was actually crowded last weekend. So with one last long run ahead of me, let me tell you where you'll find me come this Sunday: Running/walking/shuffling up over the damn summit in double knee braces without my cell phone and cursing my good luck with the registration process. Come this time next week, I expect I'll be getting a pedicure.