AN ULTRA RUNNING JOURNEY OF THE TAHOE 200
Photo credits: Scott Rokis, Howie Stern, Mark Gilligan, Litza Coughlin, Marcy Crowley, James O’Connor, Gene Coughlin
If you’re like me, and most of today’s audience, your attention span is short and tolerance to sit and read a long-form blog is suspect. I get it. A few however, enjoy an occasional lingering read accompanying their morning cup o’ joe or evening pale ale. For the rest of us, here’s the executive summary.
- I finished in 82:23:11, good enough for 37th place overall and 1st place in the old guys division (60 and over).
- I ran about 35% of the time, power hiked the rest.
- Average moving time: 3mph.
- I rested/slept a total of 90 minutes.
- Stoppage time of 15 hours was way over goal of 9 hours.
- I had the best Crew on planet earth. Seriously.
- There were 123 official finishers (out of 200 starters) so a 61% finish rate.
- We had two afternoon thunder storms – day 1 and day day 4; the former was refreshing, the latter a little close for comfort. Otherwise ideal weather conditions. The sometimes violent thunder showers did contribute to a greater than normal drop out rate.
- I tripped once but remarkably didn’t fall a single time. Go figure.
- I used my trusty Leki trekking poles every step of the way. They saved my bacon (and my back, hamstrings and knees) on more than one occasion.
- As I expected, sleep (lack thereof) and my feet (blistered to high heavens) were major factors and the latter almost did me in.
- The uncomfortableness I felt is mice nuts compared to what I can only imagine those in Special Operations Forces boot camp endure.
- The scenery and views were at times so beautiful they seemed surreal, as if painted. What a way to witness this magnificent place.
- My body felt significantly better at the finish than it has in any other ultra, any distance.
- My recovery has been rapid and I completed a 50 miler just three weeks later. That hurt WAY more than the T200!
- Race was incredibly well organized, trail marking excellent, aid dreamy, medical support first-class; some of the best volunteers on the planet.
- I made more and deeper relationships with several runners during the race than most of my other ultras combined (that would be 80).
- I was more emotional at the finish than ever experienced. It felt like my finish was equally shared with my crew, friends and fellow runners.
- I’d highly recommend trying this yourself, you can do it if you’re committed. Yeah, it’s hard but you can do it.
- This may be my new old-guy-ultra-distance. Less body punishment, time to take in surroundings and feeling of accomplishment.
- Would I do it again? Without question. Will I?
Long Form (Yeah, I know it’s long, so was the dang race!)
And for you who enjoy a yarn, maybe some insight into this peculiar sport or seek some guidance because you too have a notion to test yourself against an ultra-ultra run like a 200 miler, the rest of this is for you. Grab that coffee or two, get comfy in your favorite over-stuffed chair and I hope you enjoy this tale. This was written more for my edification and to assure I’d capture all the memories before they slowly faded away. So no offense if you skip over, skim, jump to a part or just look at the pictures – this isn’t meant to be anything more than it is; a simple journal of this memorable journey.
“Bring on the root canal!” I gleefully blurted.
Rarely are the words “root canal” and “gleefully” in the same sentence. But in this instance getting drilled sounded like heaven on earth. So began my auspicious start to the 2017 Tahoe 200 Mile Endurance Run.
My mind was racing as I lie in bed, thrashing side to side hoping the pain would subside. I reached for the Orajel, rubbed it all over the offending upper left molar hoping it would numb the shooting pain enough to enable me some sleep on this all important Wednesday evening, just two days from the start of this daunting undertaking. I needed this sleep. But alas, the pain persisted and I’d no choice but to get up and walk around, which seemed to take some pressure off the tooth and reduce the now constant throbbing pain. It was 2:00 AM and I was sleepless with a new dilemma that would need immediate attention if I’d any chance of succeeding in my quest to finish the Tahoe 200.
Marcy and I were scheduled to depart at 11:30 AM for Homewood, the start/finish home of the race, nestled in a quite community on the western shores of Lake Tahoe. It would be a 90-minute drive. But this toothache had other plans. At oh-dark 6:00 Marcy came into the kitchen where I’d been camped out for most of the prior wee hours and immediately saw in my face something was terribly wrong.
I’d begun my training regime back in October, 2016 after having decided it would be a great idea to celebrate my 60th birthday by entering a trail endurance run that doubled the distance I’d ever attempted prior – 200 miles, actually 205.5 miles; at altitude and with over 38,000 feet of climbing and the same in descent. The Sierra Mountain terrain consists of crushed granite, rubble, bolder-laden Jeep trails and thankfully some sweet smooth single-track trails.
The inevitable question is, “Why?” I turn to an author I’ve enjoyed across my career, James Clear. He describes The Goldilocks Rule which I found to be just right in answering “why” for me. I enjoy the discovery of what humans are capable of when put to the challenge. I’ve been inspired by how remarkable we respond to insurmountable obstacles and I gain satisfaction in the discipline and hard work required to prepare and execute a thoughtful plan.
A little luck and Karma also have an ongoing role in my life. The latter seemed to working against me as my tooth throbbed and I’d less than 24 hours to the start.
Human beings love challenges, but only if they are within the optimal zone of difficulty.
For example, imagine you are playing tennis. If you try to play a serious match against a four-year-old, you will quickly become bored. The match is too easy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you try to play a serious match against a professional tennis player like Roger Federer or Serena Williams, you will find yourself demotivated for a different reason. The match is too difficult.
Compare these experiences to playing tennis against someone who is your equal. As the game progresses, you win a few points and you lose a few points. You have a chance of winning the match, but only if you really try. Your focus narrows, distractions fade away, and you find yourself fully invested in the task at hand. The challenge you are facing is “just manageable.” Victory is not guaranteed, but it is possible. Tasks like these, science has found, are the most likely to keep us motivated in the long term.
Tasks that are significantly below your current abilities are boring. Tasks that are significantly beyond your current abilities are discouraging. But tasks that are right on the border of success and failure are incredibly motivating to our human brains. We want nothing more than to master a skill just beyond our current horizon.
We can call this phenomenon The Goldilocks Rule. The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.
Marcy and I conferred and as soon as our dentist office opened at 8:00 AM I called to see if they might be able to see me on emergency notice. But their morning was packed and to compound the dilemma, my regular dentist was on vacation. No room on their schedule. So Marcy located two dentists in Tahoe City, near the race start, we called and both could find time to diagnose my problem but had no time to provide a solution before the race start on Friday morning at 9:00 AM. We took what we could get and aimed to head to Tahoe immediately.
As we loaded the last bags of gear into the back of Marcy’s Jeep the phone rang. It was our local dentist with an appointment cancellation; they could see me right now if I wanted. Admittedly, I’ve never been so excited to go the dentist as this moment. I hopped in my Wrangler, raced over to the dentist office just 10 minutes away and was in the chair for examination by 9:00 AM. By 9:30 AM the verdict was in after the dental assistant took several x-rays and poked and prodded around the suspect tooth, which left the entire upper left side of my mouth throbbing in pain. It was hard for me to identify the exact tooth that seemed to be the most painful. They all seemed to hurt! But she succeeded and finally gave a, “Ah ha, yes this tooth seems inflamed and pain is root related. You might need a root canal.” What? Had I wandered into an audition for a Comedy Central special “Cavities, Crowns and Comedy”? “No joke, this is a serious problem”, says the DA. “What can we do about it? I’ve this race I need to run tomorrow and I can’t imagine running with this pain,” I plea. “Well Dr. Laurence is on vacation. He does do root canals on some teeth and we outsource the rest. It so happens this molar is one of his specialties but as I said, he’s not in the office. “ I say desperately, “Is there at least some pain medication you could prescribe that would help reduce the ache enough to get through the race?” She responds, “I hope so, let me go see.”
As I lay prostrate in the dentist chair with my mouth in full throb after the examination, I begin to wonder just how much pain I can take on board before I even take the first step. “Suck it up, Sally!” is what Marcy would say to me. And she’d be right. No room for self pity or doubt. I brought all of this on myself – and as Marcy would admonish me rightfully so – including the toothache since I’d not frequented the dentist in – let’s just say – recent memory. After what seemed to be an interminable amount of time the DA returned and said, “You’re not going to believe this but Dr. Larry has come into the office for another patient and I showed him your x-ray and he agreed you need a root canal. Fortunate for you, this is one of the teeth in which he specializes and he’s willing to do the root canal right now if you are interested.” Let it be said, I’m a man with a face full of dodgy teeth and a plethora of root canals and crowns, so I understand the process and pain involved with this procedure. But I leapt out of the dentist chair and gleefully exclaimed, “Are you kidding, bring on the root canal!”
In seconds Dr. Larry enters the room and immediately senses the urgency of the situation. He calmly explains that the tooth has been going downhill for sometime, maybe since my childhood, and will require a root canal followed by packing a temporary filling and then upon two subsequent trips a temporary and finally permanent crown. “No problem”, I retort, “Sounds like a plan, can’t wait to get going.” He cocks his head curiously and asks, “So what is this about a race you are running?” I respond with the details to which his face contorts in disbelief and likely questioning my sanity. “Well my first concern is the possible effect of the anesthesia I need to give you in order the properly numb the region in which I’ll work. Typically I would numb the entire side of your mouth, assuring you’d feel nothing during the procedure. But in this case, I’m worried about how the combination of the altitude and stress on your body might not mix well with the medication. I’ve worked on fighter pilots when in the military and not allowed them to return to flying for a full two weeks following this type of surgery. But I’ve no experience with this type of situation; it’s completely new territory. At least we have until Saturday for the anesthesia to wear off.” “Er, well not exactly”, I explain. “The race actually starts tomorrow morning at 9 AM.” “Ooooh, I see. Well then I’d like to give you minimal anesthesia, very, very local, in the hopes that we can minimize any ill after effects. That means I’ll shoot up the region right around the tooth only, and then re-apply additional drops of anesthesia if necessary, only if you begin the feel any pain. Just hold up your left hand if and when you feel anything painful. Sound okay to you?”
“Doc, this may sound ridiculous, but I cannot wait to get started – let’s do this thing!” “Okay”, says Dr. Larry, “It’ll take about 90 minutes to complete the procedure. Here we go.”
Dr. Larry proceeds by leaning the chair back and his assistance places a “mouth dam” in my gaping mouth opening in order to catch falling debris from the surgery. This is going to be like mining for ore in a deep tunnel complete with hard hats and jack hammers. He shoots me up with Novocain in several places in the cheek and gum near the tooth. The needle seems ridiculously long for the task but I don’t question and decide closing my eyes from hereon might be the best idea. Dr. Larry waits a few minutes and begins pinching and prodding asking if I can feel anything. “AOK” says I. Away the drilling, scrapping, poking, rinsing, more drilling, more sawing goes. Then it happened. Up shoots my left hand after an audible, “Ugh, awe!” – muffled by the indomitable mouth dam preventing me from exhorting a full on, “holy shit!” Probably better that way. Dr. Larry apologizes and applies several drops of aesthesia directly on the tooth and the now deepening cavity.
Several more left hands are raised during the hour-long procedure – five to be exact – all resolved with tiny drips of nectar that seems to quell the sharp and immediate nerve pain. By 10AM he is finished with the root canal and takes another x-ray to assure his craftsmanship is complete. He shares the digital photo of the deep roots he has just deadened and notes that he is very pleased with the outcome. “One of my better jobs, very clean”, says Dr. Larry. “Now I need to really pack the filling carefully and completely so we have no air pockets. An air pocket would be very painful at altitude. I believe I can pack it tight but in the event you feel any painful pressure on the tooth, just bring a paper clip with you and you can poke a hole in the bottom of the filling to gain relief.” Yeah, I really love this guy. Dr. Larry is my type of tribe mate.
As I rise from the chair, a bit groggy and disoriented, I turn to Dr. Larry and thank him profusely and say, “You know, I told my friends the anticipated pain I’m going to experience during my race is equivalent to several root canals. Ironic, huh? Well I’ll let you know afterwards which is worse, but I’m guessing after this, it’s going to be the run. (I was right). Whether you wanted to be or not, Dr. Larry, you’re now on my team and have played a critical role in getting me to the start line.” He laughed and said, “I’m intrigued by all this and glad to help. It really was fortuitous that I came in unexpectedly.” “It was karma, doc. really good karma. I’ve a tremendous feeling about all of this. “ Dr. Larry adds, “In Japan (he is Japanese decent) we call this yoi karuma. – Translation: “good karma”. Dr. Larry is my majime – a reliable, diligent person who can get things done without drama. The equivalent of the Yiddish word mensch.
In October, 2016 I decided the Tahoe 200 would make for a “just right” challenge to celebrate my 60th birth year. I’ve always been a planner so I immediately began researching race reports, blogs and the race website for insight on how to adequately prepare for this feat. This would be the 4th year of the run, having been founded in 2014. Since then 60, 53 and 80 runners have finished in 2014, 2015 & 2016 respectively. A few of those had shared their experience thus providing plenty of perspective and advice. There were two fundamental schools of thought: 1) less mileage, more TOF (Time On Feet) and 2) more mileage and specific training. I chose to blend both together to customize a plan that fit my needs based upon prior injuries, the base I’d built, time available and areas of focus I thought would be important.
From October through December I fast-packed, downhill skied, walked a bunch, did some base-building easy trail runs. I matched that with equal enthusiasm in enjoying holiday food and beverages.
Come January I commenced the Part I training plan shown below. “Hunt” refers to our every-Tuesday nite hour run led by a designator Hunt Leader followed by cheers and IPAs. “TBC” refers to The Blue Crew, an every-Wednesday nite meet up at the Fair Oaks Brew Pub of fellow Runnin’ for Rhett (R4R) members (a wonderful Sacramento-based charity helping youth move into life after school with running) to head out for an hour trail run and return to cheers and IPAs. (You see the pattern forming here…:-). “ARC” refers to American River College where R4R have a track workout every Thursday and “SRR” refers to Slow Recovery Run.
I didn’t follow this plan precisely but it gave me a framework to work within. The actual weekly miles I ran or walked are shown under “ACT MILES”. The last column reflected the overall intensity of the effort for the week.
The core theme was to vary intensity week over week while slowly increasing mileage and the types of running and walking I was practicing. Build a base first, get used to walking – with purpose, then build upon to add mileage, varied terrain and practice using gear, race techniques and eventually add in sleep.
PART I TRAINING SCHEDULE
Part I ended on a low. I attempted to run the Canyons 100K, a very demanding race which strafes the toughest canyons of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run – out and back. 6 canyons in all. Despite my best efforts during Part I of training to slow down everything I knew and learned from racing 50K, 50M and 100M ultras for the past 25+ years, I still fell into the trap of trying to race the Canyons 100K. Of course that was a dumb ass rookie mistake since I’d not adequately trained to race, but instead to run at a slow, steady, moderated pace. So although my 50K time was very competitive, by the time I’d arrived back at the start to head out for the Cal Loop portion of the race, I was fat fried and freeze dried. I dropped, and proceeded to head for the keg of craft IPA which was beckoning me from across the finish area.
I slinked into the Forresthill Elementary School gym – which was HQ for the race, and began “ultra-whinning” so common after failing to achieve one’s goal and know darn well it was our own fault. Woe was me I bemoaned to fellow Auburn-area ultra runner Tony Lafferty. “I can’t conceive of finishing 200 miles when I can’t even complete 100K.” After returning from another pull on the keg I added, “I think I’m going to pull out of the Tahoe 200 – I’m no where near where I need to be.” This was the lowest point (pint? 🙂 ) of my training.
I went home, slept on it a few days and decided the training plan I was following was too generic, designed more for ultra running races I’d been accustomed to rather than attempting a 200 miler. Something had to give and change. That’s when Dr. Marty Hoffman, my fast-packing compadre and Don Freeman, a fellow local ultra runner and friend re-entered my life. If it hadn’t been for both of them I’m pretty sure I would have made one of the worst decisions of my life – to throw in the Tahoe 200 towel. Again, good karma moved my way.
Part II of training commenced in May. My revised plan was to simplify training by focusing on a few factors that seemed critical to ultimate success:
- ADL: Discovering and practicing my ADL pace. All Day Long.
- WDH: More vertical and WDH. Work Da Hills.
- ZZZ: Practice sleeping during the really long training runs.
Two more aspects were added to the above three as training ensued: 4. GEAR and 5. FEET.
Below is a pretty accurate summary of Part II training and the mileage shown on the far right is actual as well as the intensity.
PART II TRAINING SCHEDULE
“Vert Don” refers to an every week Tuesday and Thursday meet up with Don in Auburn to practice WDH and ADL in the evening, usually in the dark for several hours each. These runs proved to be invaluable. Don had run Tahoe 200 last year so was a fountain of information and advice. He was training for the “Triple Crown” of 200s – Bigfoot, Tahoe and Moab 200s – a total of 650 miles of extremely rugged mountain trail running across 120,000 feet of vertical gain (and 120K loss) in a 3 month span. Yeah, bad ass.
The “Adventures” were multi-day trail hikes with Marty where we tried to simulate race terrain and conditions as much as possible and practice our sleeping. In two of the three adventures we deliberately started already tired to try and get a sense of what it would feel like to run through the night exhausted and with many miles ahead. This too was invaluable. Here we were able to work out gear, navigation skills, sleeping, nutrition and generally getting accustomed to being on our feet for long, long periods of time.
I also took more days off to fully recover. Even though the weekly mileage continued to go up, the actual beating my body was taking was going down. Longer, slower, specific training. What a difference it was from Part I of training. I finally felt I’d found my rhythm. Goes to show, even the oldest of dogs can learn new tricks :-). Woof.
The pinnacle of Part II training was running the TRT 50 miler in July. It runs along part of the Tahoe 200 course on the eastern side of Lake Tahoe so I though an ideal place to try in a race what I’d been practicing for months: ADL and WDH. Unlike the Canyons 100K, this time I was not going to race but instead go T200 pace all day – watching my heart rate carefully and never allowing it to get above 75% of max. This meant I’d be moving at a slow but steady run on the flats and downs and WDH on the ups. Come hell or high water I was not going to break from this plan.
It worked. After sticking to ADL pace and WDH all day, I came upon the finial aid station with about 6+ miles to the finish, all mostly downhill. I felt better than I’d ever felt at this point in any prior 50 miler. I decided to reward my self discipline by allowing myself to roll on the downs, allowing gravity to move me verses a deliberate hold back. Man it felt freeing! Turned out I finished a good 30 minutes ahead of my target with plenty of gas in the tank. I’d passed 20 runners in that last 10K. What a difference a few months had made from May to July, Canyons to TRT – all attributable to the fundamental shift in training regime.
Agony of Da Feet
The only negative from Part II training was along the way on the Adventure hikes, I had committed a self-inflicted error. I was running in several varieties of well cushioned Hokas with Super Feet inserts to correct for a fairly severe pronation I have which unchecked, causes my right knee to develop a painful chronic patella tendinitis. The instability of riding so high in the Hokas along with the sharp edge of the inserts led to both my feet developing fairly a line of blisters on the outside edge of each heel. It wasn’t until the third and final Adventure that I was smart enough to change out the shoes, dump the inserts and get educated on how to proactively avoid blisters and attend to them in the field if sustained. By then the damage had been done and the feet had not adequate time to properly heal.
Thus, I’d be toeing the starting line of Tahoe 200 with feet that were sure to sustain blisters, no matter what steps I took to try and powder, tape, lube, toe-sock, reduce-shear. This mistake came back to haunt me big time in the race and could have single handedly ended my race…and almost did.
The research I conducted regarding the leading authorities on foot care for ultras and subsequent gear and techniques I learned may have earned me a PhD in Feet. John Vonhof and Rebecca Ruston were two notable and outstanding resources and very generous with their time and advice.
I sampled several types of gear throughout training; shoes, socks, foot care Rx, packs, hydration, trekking sticks, bivvys, GPS, HRM, nutrition, etc…
I’m a bit of gear junkie and enjoy testing new products as I’ve done for product companies thru the years. But when it comes to race day, I tend to go minimalist. That way it’s just me and Ma Nature sharing the time together. The smells are more potent, the sights more vivid, the feeling more deep.
Below is a list of what I tested and ultimately used for the race. My goal was always finding the balance of gear’s utility and weigh; the more useful and less weight the more it became a keeper. The shoes I selected after great trial and error were the Salamon S/Lab Sense Ultra. They provided the best balance of grip, toe box room, tough rubber toe stopper, easy-fast lace system and light weight. I tested the Garmin Finix 5 Sapphire as well, having loaded the entire Tahoe 200 course (gpx file) right onto the wrist device. It was pretty darn cool to have the ability to know precisely where you were pertaining to the course at all times. I just don’t use GPS and carried my smaller iPhone with the course loaded on it instead. I also tested and wore a simple Polar heart rate monitor that gives HR and time. Real basic. If you’d like to learn more about my findings on any of the products I used, feel free to contact me directly at email@example.com.
|UD Mountain Vest 3.0||13.6|
|Ultispire Waistlite 600 Lumen||12.0|
|Petzl Zipka Mini Headlamp||2.3|
|spare AAA batteries||0.5|
|Anker charge bar||3.6|
|Ron Hill Waterproof jacket||4.5|
|Injinji spare toe socks||2.0|
|Icebreaker merino shirt||5.3|
|SOL Emergency bivvy||4.0|
|foot/first aid kit||5.6|
|Leki Micro Trail Pro Trekking Poles||12.5|
|water (70 oz)||72.0|
My Crew Chief and #1 supporter, Marcy, is a veteran. Many an ultra runner partakes in our sport of choice alone. Just like with golf, or modern dance or watching House Flippers, ultra running more often than not is a solo sport without a spouse. But I’m my one the lucky ones. Marcy, from the beginning in 1990, has always understood the importance of trail running to my physical and mental well being. Through the years we’ve reached compromises about how much time I would and could commit to this selfish sport, balancing the needs of us as a couple, our family and friends and career. Throughout, Marcy has always been in my corner and supported my endeavors, with love, understanding and enthusiasm. AND, she never takes any crap or whinning off me. “Suck it up, Sally” and “Remember, you’re doing this to yourself, you can stop anytime” are regular reminders when things aren’t feeling or looking so good.
Marcy has crewed me at too many ultras to mention. But this was the most significant commitment of time. I’d be out there four days, arriving at aid stations at all sorts of ungodly hours in hard-to-find, dirty, “rustic” and generally unpleasant places. Despite the fact that she’s get little to no sleep over these days, have scant time to herself or able to do anything remotely resembling fun, she willingly signed up for the task of chasing my slow and sorry ars all the way around Lake Tahoe.
Joining Marcy was another intrepid crew mate, Litza Coughlin. Litza, a dear family friend with a heart as big as Lake Tahoe, got a taste of crewing me at the 2014 Western States 100. She leapt at the chance to join Marcy for the entire crewing affair. Why? Goodness knows, but her companionship with Marcy and extra hands would be a welcome addition to Team Diesel. Finally, our team mascot, Cali, was along for the tour. Cali is our 7 year old pembroke welsh corgi. She too is an ultra crew veteran, having her first experience at the 2010 Western States as a 2 month old puppy. She’s been a trail dog ever since.
Rounding out the crew was younger son, Drew and his Bay Area pal, James O’Connor. Drew had both crewed and paced for me at several ultras before including Western and Hardrock. He’s also run a few ultras of his own. James is an outdoor enthusiast and after a recent discussion over Maker’s Mark about ultra running, he not only showed interest in giving ultra running a try but set a goal to finish a 100 miler within 5 years. Trust me, James, I’m holding you to that commitment! Drew and James drove all the way from San Francisco on a traffic snarled Friday nite to spend 48 sleepless hours chasing me around the Lake, only to pile back into their Passat and return to the Bay Area, battling traffic again, Sunday afternoon.
These five were tasked with meeting me at each aid station beginning with mile 103, Heavenly Valley. They supplied gear, change of clothes, warmth, food, first aid and a place to catch a little shut eye in the front seat of our Jeep. Or at least that was the plan….
On Thursday before the race I was packed and ready to roll. I’d had a great night sleep on Wednesday, the weather report was ideal for the entire race (lows in the upper 50s F, highs in the mid-70s F and chance of thunder showers the first and last day). All I needed now was to pack the Jeep and off we go to Homewood for registration. The tooth ache had other plans and disrupted our otherwise quiet morning.
Nonetheless, Dr. Larry had successfully completed my molar root canal in record time. No more throbbing pain. The local anesthesia was wearing off quickly and much to my surprise and delight, I felt no lingering pain. This man had worked a miracle. So we actually were able to stay on our original schedule. Yeah, that karma thing again.
We arrived in Homewood for check-in and mug shots with bib (lucky #23 for my birthday). We swag gathered and shopped. After attending the pre-race briefing (which was one of the best I’d ever attended – informative, concise and over within 40 minutes), we headed to South Lake Tahoe and our hotel early enough to arrive, unpack, head to the local Ale House and have a delightful dinner whilst watching our beloved Patriots lose their home opener.
I slept sound, awoke at a very reasonable 6am (race started at 9am), showered, got dressed, grabbed some breakfast and off we went. Surprisingly, I felt very little nerves which typically are omnipresent within an hour of the start of most of my ultra races. This isn’t to say I wasn’t scared and intimidated – I was both. Just not the usual nerves. I suppose it had something to do with the length of the event – plenty of time to recover from whatever evils come they may – and the amount of preparation I’d endured to get to this point. I felt confident I’d done everything within my power to properly prepare. A DNF would only come if I was severely injured or something out of my control (weather, a fire, etc…) interfered.
The plan was simple:
- Use all of the 100 hours allowed to finish, if needed.
- Stay under 120 bpm heart rate as much as possible (75% of max).
- ADL for the flats and downs, WDH for the ups.
- Three sleeps stops of 1-2 hours each.
- Take care of the feet, be proactive.
Below was what I gave to my crew with estimated arrival times. The best I could do was “AM” or “PM” of a given day.
On September 8th, 2017 the 4th edition of the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run commenced from Homewood Ski Resort on the western shores of Lake Tahoe. The race started at the bottom of the main ski run near the Meadow chair lift and the course serpentined all the way to the summit in the first few miles. A fine “warm up” for the days ahead. There would be 13 summits in all, each possessing unique features of terrain, altitude, eco-system, flora and soaring views.
As the runners gathered I saw several members of my trail running club from New England – Trail Animals Running Club (TARC). Kim Petone Vanyo and Annette “Flo” Florczak – both who were running and Mike Saporito and Curt Florczak who’d be crewing the gals. What a treat to see Animals coming west and taking on such a stout race. Eeeowwwie!
Next I spied training buddy and friend Marty Hoffman. We exchanged our usual digs at one another. It’s what you do after having spend so many days together out in the wild, sleep deprived and ground down to one’s lowest of lows. Marty has always been there to pick me back up and put this humpty-dumpty back together again.
As the clock ticked down to under 5 minutes until go time, there was a tap on my right shoulder. As I swung around who other than Dandy Don Freeman – “The Freak” as he’s known around NorCal parts – breaks into a broad grin. Don had run Bigfoot 200 several weeks ago and wasn’t officially scheduled to run Tahoe. But he was an odds-on favorite in the Northshore casinos to show up last minute and run. There he was, wearing his trusty #77 bib and Leki sticks in hand.
I mentioned the wonderful charity with which Marcy and I have been engaged – Runnin’ For Rhett (R4R), which sponsored one of the largest after school fitness youth programs in the country. The students train for five weeks culminating in a 5K on the streets of Sacramento all to themselves. This program gets the kids moving into life, and squarely targets fighting childhood obesity. I ran Tahoe 200 because I can and for R4R.
So the gang was all here, and a 10 count down from Candice Burt, race director extraordinaire got us going and up the hill.
To assure I find my flow and ADL pace early and not allow the adrenaline cause me to go out too fast, I lingered in the very back of the pack of 200 runners and left Homewood nearly dead last.
Homewood to Sierra-At-Tahoe (Start to Mile 63)
Within a half mile of the start Don had moved up in the pack and I thought to myself, “That’ll be the last I see of Don until the finish.” Don was going to shoot for a finish time “with a seven in front of it” – meaning sub 80 hours. Meanwhile, Marty came up from behind and we enjoyed each others company on a steady but brisk hike all the way to the summit, at which I took my first wrong turn, remaining straight when the trail curved right. I was just following whoever was in front of me, assuming they knew where they were going and paying absolutely no attention to the markings. Turns out about a dozen of us briefly went off course but those behind us quickly pointed out our errant route and we rejoined the conga line. We arrived at the Barker Pass Aid Station – sooner than I was expecting by about 20 minutes – and was greeted with a full breakfast buffet; hot griddle pancakes and syrup, savory bacon strips and scrambled eggs. It was WAY too tempting to pass up.
So I stood and piled several of each onto a plastic plate and commenced gorging. Then I whipped out my handy clear zip lock bag with a string run through the top so I could hang it like a feed bag around my neck and loaded it with more bacon other several other food selections from the massive spread. I learned this trick at Hardrock in 2012 and have employed the feed bag ever since for long pulls between aid stations. The next aid wasn’t going to be for 5 to 6 hours so I figured I’d make my own mobile aid.
As we were leaving the aid station we ran into a couple who were crewing one of the runners, and had gotten their rental mobile home stuck on Barker Pass Road, which is a fairly steep and rugged Jeep road. They’d tried to turn the beast around and got it wedged squarely across the road, blocking the runner’s path. An ominous start to the day more than one of us commented. Turned out we were right.
Ten minutes later we had taken a sharp left turn off the Jeep road and onto a smooth single track trail which would head straight down the valley towards the famous Rubicon Jeep Trail. Off roaders come from all over the world to test their skills on this gnarly 22 mile stretch of wilderness dirt, granite, roots and boulders.
At this point the field had settled into a series of smaller conga lines consisting of 5 to 10 runners each. I was part of a larger line as we trundled along the sweet single track surrounded by forest and tall alpine pines. Suddenly, whoever was leading out little tribe stopped and yelled, “Go back!”. I looked ahead and saw the group ahead of us heading backwards up the trail towards our gang. “We’re off the trail. No markers. We need to retrace our steps.”
Now it turns out that just four weeks prior Marty and I had been on this exact same spot of the course as part of our final adventure – a 100 mile training hike with 60 miles on the actual Tahoe 200 course. And when we hit this part of the course we too got temporarily lost. Now granted we didn’t have the luxury of course markings and were navigating using the downloaded course map to our iPhone, but still, we found the GPS track and what was supposed to be the course were divergent. So it came as no surprise to me were were yet again off course. I was too busy socializing and again, hadn’t been paying attention.
Before blindly following the herd, this time I stopped and pulled out my iPhone and checked our location against the course track. It showed we were only slightly east of the course – maybe a few hundred yards. I asked those around me if anyone could recall when was the last time they’d seen a course marking. No one could remember. So I suggested that we hike towards the GPS track to get back on course. Four other runners came with me as we crossed a dry creek bed and up on a Jeep trail. Now the GPS tracker showed us back on course. That was easy and only took 5 minutes.
Only problem was there were no course ribbons anywhere in sight. We went up and down the Jeep road searching for ribbons. Nothing. So we decided to put safety first and follow the GPS track rather than randomly bushwhacking through the forest, which seems unwise and the more likely way to get further lost. So I led the small pack down the Jeep road with iPhone in hand, checking it every 100 yards or so. The blue arrow which designated our location was right on the course track. Good. Our little tribe was satisfied this was going to work and we settled into a trot. In fact, we all sensed the camaraderie we’d quickly formed to work together to solve this wilderness puzzle. No one was frustrated or angry. Just the opposite. We were on an adventure and had each other to rely upon for direction and company. In addition to myself, the troupe consisted of an Australian, New Zealander, New Yorker and Chicago native. I’ve never been good with name retention so there’s that… Anyway, the Australian thought we needed a name. So he called us the “Fabulous Five”.
The Fab Five continued down the valley for about 20 minutes before, then from our left appeared two runners seemingly from nowhere, breaking out of the woods. They’d been bushwhacking through the forest and were relieved to find us. We invited then to come along and the Aussie quickly renamed us the “Significant Seven”. 30 minutes into the trek we reached an intersection. Still no markers but the GPS tracker had us on course. It indicated a left turn and so left we went. Within a few hundred yards we reached a muddy creek bed which ended in a dead end. Although the GPS track showed us on course, we clearly weren’t.
So we voted and decided to do a u-turn, backtrack our last quarter mile and return to the intersection. As we approached the spot two more runners appeared from the woods, one of them Marty! They joined up with us and now we were nine. At the intersection we went right and soon rejoined the GPS tracker which seemed confused itself. No worries as I recognized where we were. “Just keep heading southwest down this valley and we will eventually intersect the main Jeep trail, where there should be a trail marker”, I confidently stated. As time dragged on our gang began to question whether the path we were on was indeed correct. Were we grossly off course? Lost? I tried to reassure the collective we were going to be okay. Stay the course. During this exchange the Australian realized he hadn’t renamed us now that we were nine. He said, “What we are doing feels either foolish or brilliant. I think we should be the naughty nine!”, he chortled in a thick Aussie accent with the emphasis on a drawn out “awe” in naughty. He was hilarious and kept the mood light and fun.
Within another ten minutes I looked at the GPS tracker and said, “We’re going to come upon another intersection and I think we should see a trail marker.” Then I looked ahead down the road and voila! there it was, the “dragon tail” as Candice called them – trail marker of orange, pink and striped tape, hanging from the plastic post marking the intersection. We whooped and hollered, so relieved to be back on course. We decided that what we had experienced over the past half hour should be captured in some way for future memories. So I suggested we use my iPhone to take a selfie of the Naughty Nine in front of the marker for posterity. We couldn’t all quite squeeze into the frame so we captured the photo below with seven of the nine.
Then we turned to each other, exchanged high fives and hugs and someone said, “Now every man for himself, back to racing!” He was of course kidding but as we began to leave and I went right, someone said, “Wait, should we go left?” I replied, “After all we’ve been through together you still don’t trust me? I’m deeply wounded. Hurt. Distraught.” We all laughed and then I continued left, formed a new conga line all the way down the rest of the valley on the single track trail which dumped us out at the river.
So in the span of the first 15 miles I’d gone off course twice, encountered a stranded mobile home across the trail and had to go to my “only in case of emergency” GPS tracker enough times to have drained 40% of my iPhone battery. Hum. “Good karma or bad?” I asked myself. “Good. Really good”, I answered out loud.
One of the aspects Don cherished about his first Tahoe 200 experience was the friendships he’s made on the trail during the race. He commented that the experience all the runners shared was profound and thus, the relationships formed ran deep and long. He’d remained in touch with several of his traveling mates from 2016 Tahoe 200 and of all the memories and take aways from the event, this was the most enduring. After having shared time with the Naughty Nine, I was beginning to appreciate his perspective. It was good karma, and an omen for much more to come over the next several days and couple hundred miles.
The Rubicon Jeep Trail can be the most unpleasant of places to run. Deep, powdery dust that kicks up in a puffy cloud with every step. It can choke you if not properly protecting your mouth with a bandana or buff. Steep, slippy granite chunks strewn all over the Jeep road, leaving no smooth clear line to traverse. The fine dirt and crushed granite dust accumulates in the bottom of your shoe, combined with foot sweat to create a grist mill slowly sandpapering the soles of the feet. Add the uneven surface, sharp granite rocks which poke up underneath your rubber shoe soles to create small abrasions. Your feet are rocking back and forth within the shoe trying to remain stable as you navigate the rocks, creating points of shear along the heel, toes, forefoot and under the laces. And it is steep. And the boulders are huge, and slippery. It’s a recipe for completely trashing one’s feet early in the run.
Fortunately, on this day the prior week’s rains had done a thankful job of tamping down the dust. So the traction was good and before we knew it, we were out of the Rubicon and back on single track on our way to Loon Lake. Along that path I came across a fellow who looked to be in a bad way. I stopped and asked him if he need help – which by the way, is what every runner does throughout the race. We were all in this together, not as competitors but as a “tribe”.
He spoke with an European accent, Scottish I thought. “I’m really dizzy. I’ve no energy and can’t get air”, he relayed to me. He was hunched over and his eyes appeared glassy. He was sitting slouched on a rock beside the trail. I asked him his name. “Glenn”, he replied. “Glenn Kilday. I’m from Newcastle, England.” “Are you feeling dizzy, headache, nauseous, weak?”, I inquired. “Yes to all”, Glenn replied. “Is your heartbeat irregular? Any cough? Chest pains?”, I asked. “No, not really any of those”, said Glenn in his native accent. “I think you’ve a touch of altitude sickness. You don’t have symptoms of HAPE (High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema), at least not yet. Do you have anything to treat the altitude sickness?” “No I don’t”, said Glenn. “I’ve got some Diamox at an aid station up ahead but only have Advil on board. Would you like a couple Advil?” “That would be grand”, he said. “Look, just keep moving, take it slow, drink water and eat if you can. The next aid station is a couple hours up ahead. I’ll go ahead and when I get there I’ll let them know about your situation. They might send someone backwards on the course to see if you are okay, need assistance. They may have Diamox but I doubt it. Hang in there, you’ll be okay. Just don’t push it.” “Thanks, I appreciate you stopping and the advice. See ya out there”, Glenn replied with a genuine tone of gratitude. I gave him the thumbs up and continued on.
As I reached the spot where bucolic Loon Lake reveals herself for the first time, I wondered if Glenn would be able to rally and recover enough to move on. I’ve contracted altitude sickness before and it is debilitating. The only real solution is to get back down below altitude. This wasn’t an option for Glenn since the entire race was to be run well above altitude. I expected to see his name on the DNF list at the end but hoped he’d find a way to endure somehow. This race had an entire field of athletes who were prepared to take whatever nasties were thrown at them and keep on moving’ – it was all a matter of just how much one could take, and just how nasty the nasties were. [ Footnote: Glenn finished in 87 hours, 59 minutes, 55th place. Grit.]
I was feeling very steady and strong through the remainder of this section and arrived at the Loon Lake Aid Station a good hour ahead of plan. I wasn’t pushing the ADL pace, I was moving efficient but not working too hard. That gave me confidence my conditioning was a-okay.
As I reloaded my feed bag I heard Don’s voice. “Hey, Diesel. I was hoping to see you here. Great. Let’s grab some grub and head out together.” “What are you doing here? I figured you to be hours ahead of me by now”, I blurted. “I got lost on the Rubicon”, Don replied. “So did I. And from asking others along the way it appears almost everyone went off course”, I returned. Overhearing our conversation, several other runners at the aid table said they too had been lost. Then one of the aid volunteers piped up and said, “Yeah, just about everyone through here so far said they got lost at least once already. Even the leaders.” “I guess your way out of the Rubicon was a lot better than mine”, said Don. “Whatever, let’s get going.”
After a very quick turnaround at the Loon Lake Aid Station Don and I were back on the single track and heading East towards Tell’s Creek. This was another section Marty and I had previewed during our training run. So I knew what was coming. Don led for a while and then we switched. We’d trained so many hours together practicing our ADL pace that this felt just like another training run. And we commented as much. It felt so good. We were joined by a third runner by the name of Brent Lewis. Brent was moving at a very similar pace to Don and I. When we offered to let him go by he replied he’d prefer to just hang with us for a while. And so we were three, with the Diesel leading this little train.
This portion of the course is all single track in deep woods. It’s a great section to find a flow and move right along. Soon Don and I turned to what we always enjoyed during our training runs – picking topics of interest and sharing perspectives. Don, being co-founder of Trail Runner Nation podcast along with co-founder Scott Warr, is a natural born conversationalist. I’m perfectly happy in silence on the trails but when I’m with Don, I can’t shut up. He’s amazing at probing, teasing thoughts from one’s inner being. I greatly admire his skill and gift. So topics and conversation flowed freely the entire way to Tell’s Creek Aid. Brent fit right in as if we’d been pals for years. Effortless. We encountered the first of two thunder storms during the race. It was dusk and still warm so the cooler rain felt refreshing. We all stopped to break out our rain jackets and proceeded to the aid station.
After leaving Tell’s we turned on our headlamps and rejoined the single track trail which would lead us east to Wright’s Lake. Up ahead was one of the longer climbs of the race. It was evening now and although there was a three-quarter waning moon, the headlamps were a necessity as the trail was narrow and obscured. Our shorts, socks and shoes were now getting soaked as we navigated through the thick underbrush and rubbing against bushes. This was the first time the race where I noticed a tiny bit of discomfort in my shoes. Nothing big, but a reminder I was going to need to have a look when I got to Wright’s Lake Aid. Don, Brent and I were joined by a couple of more runners. They were content being the caboose on our train that chugged along at a comfortable pace. More conversation ensued. Topic after topic. At one point we heard a new voice chiming in on a subject. Since we were all moving in single file it was hard to turn and see what was behind us. Turns out we’d added several new cars – seven in all. We’d formed another tribe. Everyone introduced themselves and then back to the topics. This really made the time go by quickly and the climb seem much less onerous than I remembered from the training run with Marty.
Defining “tribe” was one of the most popular topics we covered on this long pull into the night. There’s too much to try and cover here, but Don and Scott did a wonderful podcast on the topic which is worth a listen during a future training run.
As we summited and then left the single track behind we resumed traveling on another rugged Jeep road which after tolerating the uneven, boulder-laidened, gnarly downhill path, would provide an ample reward by dumping us out on a paved road which led directly to the Wright’s Lake Aid Station at mile 44. Along the way down we picked up a few more runners and exited the woods with a pack of about ten. It was wonderful to share so much trail time with so many diverse and interesting trail mates. But this proved to be a challenge when we all descended upon the tiny and cramped aid station which already had numerous runners camping out in lounge chairs and near the propane heater. This was the first drop bag station so many runners had stopped and made this a respite. There was an extremely narrow corridor that separated the aid food and drink and the lounge area. After spending 12 hours in the open wilderness I felt suddenly claustrophobic.
Don had a drop bag with a change of shoes. The singular place one’s feet would get soaked in the entire 205 miles was coming up next at a creek crossing about a mile out of Wright’s Lake Aid. So Don and I devised a plan whereby I’d carry one of the shoes he was swapping out, he’d carry the other and we would use those shoes to cross the creek, towel off our feet and change into our dry shoes. He’d cross first, then toss me the wet shoes and I’d cross second. My feet were starting to bark a bit so the thought of keeping them dry was at the forefront of my mind.
We grabbed some grub and packed Don’s dry shoes and exited the aid station in a hurry, wanting to get away from the increasing hustle and bustle of the tiny oasis. As we departed to the east, another runner joined us. Nick Almond, from Michigan, was using the Tahoe 200 as training for his upcoming World’s Toughest Mudder Championship. Soon thereafter, Brent re-joined us as well. Nick offered to run through the creek and intentionally get his feet wet and then hand deliver the wet shoes back over to me from Don. “I want. I need to practice being really uncomfortable so I’d like to do this for you guys”, says Nick. Schweet. And so it was and the plan went exactly according to the script. We four locked into a really nice ADL pace and worked the single track into the nite. [Footnote: Nick finished in 85 hours, 15 minutes for 48th place]
Emerging from the woods, there was a 4 mile stretch of road we ran down to meet Highway 50. It’s one of the few spots where you pop out of the wilderness before retreating back into the wild. Brent and Nick were chomping at the bit to let out some rope so they moved out ahead at a pace too uncomfortable for my ADL. Don stuck right there with them. I let them roll, satisfied to remain in my ADL. Eventually, Don dropped back to remind me we were coming up on a spot on the road where there would be a little cell signal. He needed to return a text to Candice who was searching for a runner running nearby us that had not logged in their Spot Trace. So the race organizers weren’t sure who it was. Candice wanted us to track down Brent and Nick to see if it might be one of them. Meanwhile I texted Marcy to let her know where we were and that my original ETA estimate for Sierra-At-Tahoe Aid was going to be way off. We were tracking to be a few hours early, which meant meeting us at the very unreasonable wee hour of around 2am.
As Don and I finished up our texts, it became apparent as we stood there, that Don was actually the missing runner. He had checked in late and it’s likely his Spot wasn’t associated with his bib number. Duh. Mystery solved and thank God because I wasn’t looking forward to a time trial to go and catch the 30 and 40 somethings now way up ahead.
This is probably a good place to explain how the Spot Trace system works. Basically it’s a hardware device, a bit larger than the size of a sticky notepad, that when activated, every 5 minutes (‘ping”) sends out a signal containing the Spot’s unique serial number (which has been associated with a bib number), longitude and latitude of the device’s location and time of day. This information is received by a satellite circling the globe about 22,000 miles away which in turn transmits that data back down to earth to a reception dish which transfers the data across the Internet to a software program which plots the coordinates on the course map and displays it on-line for the Race Director – and anyone else who wants to monitor a runner – to see. It works pretty darn well with an occasional aberrant reading now and again (one of my pings showed me going for a swim in the middle of Lake Tahoe and another going 25 miles off course at 25 mph). It makes for fun viewing for loved ones and friends who want to follow along to see their runner’s progress. It’s also a tremendous safety device that enables the race organizers to recognize when a runner is off course or lost and gives them the data they need to go in and if necessary retrieve and/or save the runner.
Don and I hustled along Highway 50 on the Pioneer Trail which runs parallel to the main passageway to South Lake Tahoe. It was here that for the first time my left foot was starting to become problematic. I’d a hot spot on the outside portion of the heel where I’d developed a line of chronic blisters from the adventure training runs. This skin was still repairing and thus hadn’t the suppleness to resist shear. My shoes had shear reducing ENGO blister prevention pads and I’d pre-taped the affected area the morning of the race but all that wasn’t enough to stop the blisters from re-forming. I promised myself I’d not be foolish and that whenever I felt the slightest bit of discomfort I’d stop, remove the shoes and socks and try to fix whatever was wrong. To that end I was carrying for the first time in my ultra career, a full fledged foot care McGuiver kit with every modern remedy known to man: extra socks, ENGO, Roctape, Leukotape (THE best BTW), bandages, sticky sprays, Nu Skin, etc…, etc..
Sure enough, a blister had begun to form. So with Don’s help and one of his gel pads we patched up the foot and headed back out. It was a 15 minute interruption to what had been a nice steady ADL pace. Don was exceedingly patience. I was so grateful for his help and understanding.
Up and over Lover’s Leap we climbed into the darkness as the clock ticked into a new day. Soon enough we approached the ski lifts, beckoning the sound of cars on a road ahead, heading into and out of Sierra-At-Tahoe ski resort, base for the 63 mile aid station and first time we would see our crew. Since Don was going solo I offered to have him sleep in our Jeep with me. The plan was to grab an hour or so of shut eye at the aid station in the Jeep parked in a quiet spot in the lot, away from the noise and commotion of the aid station. He gladly agreed and as we rounded the corner to the ski lodge lot, our crew was there to cheer us in. Man that felt SO good right then and there.
We went inside, got out bellies full of food, changed some clothes and headed straight to the Jeep. There we were welcomed by comfy sleeping bags and pillows laid out in the rear of the Jeep. Marcy & Crew had created a glamping experience! Don’s head hit the pillow and I swear he was out in 10 seconds. Me on the other hand, no so much.
I tossed and turned for about 15 minutes before realizing my hips weren’t going to tolerate the hard Jeep floor. So I quietly crawled into the front driver seat and gave that a go. It was better, but still it was clear after several efforts to calm my mind that sleep wasn’t in the cards. So instead, I decided a good use of the time while Don danced with the angels, was to head inside and work on re-taping my feet. Take my time, get some more food, stay warm. All good.
My Crew was a little surprised to see me so soon after leaving us to our sleep. But after explaining nothing was wrong, just not that sleepy, they helped me get hot food and James worked with me to re-tape my feet. When done and fed, I kicked Don outta bed and we got moving on down the trail. We’d lost track of Brent at this point but figured we’d see him back on the trail sometime soon come day break.
Ol’ Don had a superstar snooze. I was a bit envious he could just turn it off like that but it is what it is. I knew sleep was going to be the third critical factor in this race. Mastering sleep was as important as the physical, mental and nutritional training. Marty and I had practiced all sorts of sleeping techniques during our long adventure hikes. We went into each adventure with different a starting point: exhausted, semi-tired and rested. Then tried planned sleeps, waiting until we were exhausted and couldn’t move another step sleep, sleeping on picnic tables, by the side of the trail, in the morning, at night, in bivvys or out in the open – the only thing we didn’t try was sleeping in a car or in a sleep station.
My best luck seemed to be catching a rest – as opposed to a legit sleep – along the side of the trail. Find a soft spot, put my pack under my head, pull on some warmer clothes and try to nob off for 10 to 30 minutes. This produced mixed results. But I never really mastered the art of stopping, laying down and actually getting 30 or minutes of sound, deep sleep. For the Tahoe 200 my entire amount of rest was 90 minutes. I had three decent naps in the Jeep of 20 minutes each and then took three 10 minutes rests along the side of the trail. I never really slept during those rests and thus never had to set an alarm.
I preferred getting away from the noise and chaos of an aid station and, after filling my belly full of food, I’d find a beautiful spot right along the trail that afford a flat place to rest and priceless view of the surrounding by day, and unworldly sky full of stars at night. These quick rests were ample to recharge the batteries and leave me feeling refreshed. Everyone’s system functions differently. But for me, getting rest or preferably sleep before I’m exhausted in small staccato doses along the trail seems to be the best recipe.
Another pleasant surprise was resuming running after a rest and not feeling stiff or having any aches or pains. I had assumed I’d struggle with getting the old Diesel engine going after a rest, and that the lower back, flute and hamstring pain would be a chronic companion. Much to my delight NONE of that happened. The body moved effortlessly back into a flow of ADL pace. When there was any sign of pulling, I immediately reminded myself to have better posture and would straighten up. The trekking poles really help with posture on all pitches -flats, ups and down.
We bid our crew adios and Don and I quickly slipped back into the dark of nite, settling into our ADL.
Sierra-At-Tahoe to Heavenly (Mile 63 to Mile 103)
It didn’t take long for Brent to catch up with us. Ironically, as Don and I went down the road exiting Sierra, we looked to our left and out of the dark were two figures coming towards us. We thought at first it was a runner and pacer (runners could begin to have a pacer starting at Sierra) off course. But once again good karma intervened and brought us back together with Brent and his son, who was pacing. What were the odds we were all going to leave Sierra at exactly the same time? Karma.
We moved very efficiently into dawn. Seeing the sunrise for the first time was, as anticipated, a huge energy boost. We’d survived Day 1 with minor issues. My feet were beginning to talk to me but under control. My stomach was a little off but fine. So we moved on down the trail towards Echo Lake and then dropped into a valley on a narrow steep single track. We arrived at the Housewife Hill Aid Station. We approached on a road and I could see that our crew had just arrived and were scrambling to set up. Once again we were considerably ahead of schedule.
As I sat in the chair set out by my stellar crew, I asked them to take a look at my heels which were really beginning to sting. Sure enough, blisters were beginning to form in the same old locations where they’d seemingly established a blister colony and moved in permanently. We did some re-taping and I then went back for seconds on the ridiculously tasty breakfast of eggs, pancakes and BACON. One can never have enough bacon on a 200 mile trek….or for that matter…anytime, anywhere.
Don, Brent and I set off for the big climb ahead to Armstrong Pass, which would lead us to the highest elevation in the race (~9,700′). I actually went out ahead as Don was still enjoying the smorgasbord and Brent hanging with his crew. As I began to hit the switchback an old familiar feeling came over me. I was beginning to have shortness of breath, finding it increasingly harder to get a full gulp of oxygen. This had happened to me during the 2013 Hardrock, right in the middle of the race. Back then we determined it must have been a combination of the altitude and slight allergy to the valley wildflowers. I could only take a few steps before having to stop, bend over and gasp for air, then continue and repeat. Sam Jurek, my trusty pacer at Hardrock 2013 who was my buddy from TARC had witnessed the whole affair and helped me diagnose the cause. Then – and now – I could have used an inhaler to fix the problem. Alas, I had none.
So here again, it appeared I was going to have a new demon on my shoulder – for how long, who knew. As the terrain got steeper, my inability to breath became more pronounced. It didn’t take long for Don and Brent to catch me. I told them to pass and lead as I was slowing down due to feeling at about 50% climbing capacity. Within 10 minutes I told Don to keep moving and leave me behind. He greatly resisted. We’d resolved to try and run the entire race together, crossing the finish arm in arm. That clearly wasn’t in the card any longer and I needed to focus on attending to this new problem, best I could, without feeling I was holding Don and Brent back – which I was. Don reluctantly understood and eventually I convinced him to go. It was bittersweet watching my trusty training partner disappear around a switchback. I knew then I’d not see him again until the finish.
Now alone, I quickly shook it off and started processing what I could do to deal with this new dilemma. Back at Hardrock what seemed to snap the spiral of oxygen deprivation was to both to get out of the meadows with the offending wildflowers and keep hydrating. So I focused on the latter and put my cap brim down further over my brow and focused on the switchbacks and climb. I had a long pull ahead and just needed to slow down, take what the hill would give me and not stress over something completely out of my control. This wasn’t going to end my day, just greatly slow my progress. But I’d been so far ahead of my goals up to now, I’d created a time cushion that helped me relax and focus on the task at hand. So climb and climb an climb….
When I finally reached the summit hours later, I was ecstatic. My feet seemed to do okay with the climbing motion – which is all I’d been doing for hours – and the oxygen issue was tolerable. It was all just slowing me down but not taking me out. Now I would see my crew again, get some food and drink and have my feet re-taped by the medics at the Armstrong Aid Station. I assumed the station would be at the summit. But as I turned right at a trail intersection, I saw runners coming towards me. Was I lost, had I missed a turn? Nope. They were returning from the aid station which was a 20 minutes hike down another steep hill. The very same hill that then would have to be climbed to return to the course. Ugh.
I quickly found out that my feet really didn’t like the downs, especially the steeps. By the time I arrived at the aid station my feet were literally on fire. In the span of a half hour my emotions had gone from elation to near depression. I was feeling defeated at the bottom of this “hell” and really need to get my sh#% together before the climb out. That meant fixing the feet best I could, eating, drinking and pulling a smiley face back over my frown with a little help from my crew.
The medics were incredibly helpful. Two red-shirted docs took to unraveling my prior tape jobs to reveal a bit of an ugly, puss-filled mess. They did their best to apply antiseptics, tape, wrap and then roll clean Injinji toes socks over the work like wrapping a piece of sirloin from the butcher. All this pain was turning my stomach. I wasn’t really feeling the food. So I tried to eat but mostly failed. We re-filled my hydropack with 70 ounces of water, I re-lubed in all the right places, quick port-a-potty stop and was reluctantly ready to take on the steep hill I’d just descended only minutes before.
With the balance of the climb behind me now and dusk fast approaching, I was eager to get out of Dodge and start my way to Heavenly Valley where at 103 miles, I’d be halfway home and at another major aid station.
The climb out wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined and soon enough I was moving well with Freel Peak in view – the highest peak in the Lake Tahoe region at 10,886′. I passed numerous hiking groups who’d been out for a Sunday hike to Freel and back. They provided welcome encouragement and kindly stepped aside as I dug my poles deep into the narrow single track that was carved into the side of granite edge. I was doing the math after checking my little aid station chart. I estimated I’d be at Heavenly by 8pm. Perfect. BUT…I was wrong. Way wrong.
I’d been on this part of the course before during a fastpaking trip in May a few years back. We’d approached from the opposite direction when the trail was still covered in snow. But I thought I recognized landmarks and knew the approximate time to Heavenly. However, as I continued around bend after bend, Heavenly seemed elusive. At one point in a moment of delusional elation, I’d texted Marcy to let her know I would be arriving at Heavenly by 8pm. This message threw my crew into a spin cycle as they had just sat down for their first real meal, having estimated I’d arrive at Heavenly about 10pm or so. So now they had to order to-go and Drew and James split off to stay behind and wait for the pizza they’d ordered special for me. Meanwhile Litza and Marcy raced up the hill to Heavenly and waited…and waited…and waited. Drew and James arrived frantically with a steaming hot large chicken and veggie pizza at the ready. They would have the spoils once I’d eaten a piece or two. It smelled so good – and they were SO hungry – it was almost impossible to resist at least a little sample. But they somehow resisted. And they too waited…and waited…and waited.
After I’d texted Marcy I was certain Heavenly was just around a few bends. I’m not sure how I completely screwed up the calculation – likely weariness – but I become more and more despondent as I rounded another canyon and still no lights in sight. To compound matters my feet were completely trashed. Whatever taping work we’d applied at Armstrong had unraveled and now my feet were fully exposed to the elements. Skin shearing against shoe. When I left Armstrong I realized the water I’d taken on had a soapy taste. It was repelling. So I hadn’t had any fluid for 5+ hours. My feet pain had turned my stomach. I hadn’t eaten since Armstrong. And I wasn’t the least bit hungry. The thought of food made me ill. And I was now really weary. I needed sleep. I hadn’t really had any for 38 hours.
So all of this was swirling around in my head as I continued to believe Heavenly – what an ironic and cruel name – was just around the bend.
I slowed. I stopped to assess the situation. As I did another team of runner and pacer passed me. She was really moving well, clearly smelling the Heavenly barn – wherever the hell it was. She said, “Good job. Keep it up. Heavenly is only 4.5 miles away.” “4.5 miles? You’re shitting me, right?”, I thought. I was thinking it was just around the next bend. That’s over an hour away. Shit.
It was at that moment – that second in time – I hit my lowest of lows in the Tahoe 200. I will never forget it. Or how how felt. I was broken.
Immediately negative thoughts began flushing into my head. “You’re cooked. You’re never going to finish this. The pain is way too intense. You’ve another 100 miles to go and look at you – broken. How the hell do you think you can go another 100 miles in this condition?”
I began moving but the negative thoughts persisted. “100 miles isn’t a bad outcome. You could drop at Heavenly, hitch a ride back to hotel with the crew and be asleep in your bed within an hour. No more pain. Even spend the day enjoying the sites on Sunday with the crew”, I convincingly argued. “This is that point where you make a sensible decision. Drop now and do no more harm to your body. Just get down to the aid station and hit the eject button. It’s right there.”
For three-quarters of the remaining 4.5 miles to Heavenly the above thoughts dominated my brain. For the last mile, I pulled myself off the ledge and began making a plan. The logical side of my brain took over. “Your legs are fine, in fact great. You’re not hurt. You can catch up on the eating and drinking – plenty of time. Sleep too. Just fix the feet and you’re back in this.” I’d later comment to my crew, this was not only the pivotal moment in the race, but in my entire ultra running career.
Until recently, over the entire time I’d been ultra running since 1990, I’d never DNFed from a race except Western States – which I’d done three times before successfully completing it in 2010. My first Western DNF was in 1994 so a span of 16 years from first failed attempt to finishing – with two other DNFs in-between. Western had my number – was my nemesis. But recently I’d dropped from three more races – all 100K in distance. This was a new an uncomfortable phenomenon for me. The reasons vary – some actually legitimate reasons due to chronic injuries. But if I’m honest with myself, some were just mental failures, lack of discipline and grit. These decisions gnawed at me, followed me. I was determined to turn this all around, to banish the negatives and defeat the lows – using the Tahoe 200 as my new beginning.
So in that final mile before reaching Heavenly, my decision to make a plan, to break the problems down and figure out a solution – was a break through. Enough with the self loathing and let’s figure out what I’m going to do. I know that sounds obvious and simple. It is. But for me, I’d let my emotions get the best of me and drive the decision. That’s a really, really bad habit in ultra running. And, veteran that I was by age and number of ultras run, was guilty as charged. That needed to stop. Right here, right now.
Finally, at nearly 10pm I appeared from the deep dark, crawling down the last set of switchbacks that dropped me at the aid station. My entire crew awaited at the bottom, cheering me on. They could clearly see my mood was somber and for the first time in the race.
As I emerged from the dark at the bottom of the switchbacks I immediately wrapped my arms around my crew mates. “Let’s huddle. We need a plan,” I abruptly conveyed. “I’m pretty screwed up right now. But we can fix everything. I haven’t eaten in hours. I haven’t had any water in hours. I need sleep. But most of all I need to fix my feet. Without a feet fix, all the other things don’t matter. I’d like to try and get some sleep first, so I can think straight. Then see if Todd (chief of medical) is available to work on my feet, then eat.”
Marcy would replay for me later that the dichotomy of my serious tone juxtaposition with the way I was conveying the message was comical. My crew immediately began a series of actions to get me nestled in the car for a sleep, arrange a meet up with Todd and prepare food including the pizza – now stone cold – for when I awoke. But they couldn’t help but giggle a bit at my “huddle up”. I guess I was channeling my TB12.
My crew had meticulously laid out all of my gear on a tarp behind the Jeep so I could easily pick and choose what I need. But all I could do now was think about trying to get some shut eye. So I removed my pack and slumped into the passenger side of the front seat of the Jeep. I was determined to get some real sleep, not just rest. I closed my eyes, trying to meditate, which I’d practiced during training. But try as I might, all that kept swirling in my head was “you need to sleep. You NEED to sleep. You’ve got to fix your feet. Food. You need fuel. You’ll never be able to make it without eating and drinking.” I couldn’t banish the thoughts and thus rest or sleep eluded me again.
After 15 minutes, I emerged from the car and said, “Let’s go see if Todd can work on me, eat some food.” Litza had a prior conversation with Todd, who said if he wasn’t too busy with other runners he’s try and see if he could help me. Todd was there for all the runners, not just #23. He wasn’t taking doctor appointments! It was first come, first serve. And he wasn’t a miracle worker. He so articulately said in his concise race briefing, “We are here to help you finish, not take you out. Remember, what’s going to stop you is from the neck up and the ankle down. Take care of those two things and we will help you accomplish your goal.” Wiser words have never been spoken for ultra runners. And there I was, with macerated feet and my head swirling with negativity as I approached his make shift medical station inside the Heavenly lodge.
Todd quickly got to work, peeling back the socks and having a looksie beneath the layers of tape and bandages that covered the offending portion of my feet. “Ooh. Yeah, I’m not going to touch this. It looks ugly in there. If I were to try and take all that off and start fresh, I’d surely peel the covers off the blisters and that would open you to more pain and infection. Best we leave all that be and I’ll give you a ‘hundred mile’ wrap”, said Todd. “I assure you this will stay put until the finish. BUT, you can’t let any of my medical people mess with it – and you need to leave it along. If you monkey with it I can’t guarantee it’ll stay put. This won’t ease the pain, it’ll just try to prevent further shear from occurring.
His calm assurance gave me great confidence. As he skillfully wrapped my feet in tape, smoothing the edges and rounding the corners, I began to feel a calmness wash over me. It was going to work. I was going to have the best possible solution for my feet. We can do this. And within minutes my stomach stopped churning and hunger returned. By the time Todd had finished the “swaddling of the feet” I was ready to chow down on that pizza. One piece led to another and another. My god, it was heaven. As I polished one slice after another, I think I saw Drew and James, who were witnessing the carnage, drooling. For every slice I consumed, it meant one less piece for them. If I’d know, I wouldn’t have been such a porky pig.
Within 15 minutes I was full, had drunk soup, sodas, water and was re-loaded and ready to roll. As I stood my feet felt secure. Still painful but nestled nonetheless in my shoes. My confidence had been restored thanks to my remarkable crew and Todd – the wonder medic!
Heavenly to Tunnel Creek (Mile 103 to Mile 140)
As I waved goodbye and headed back up the switchbacks into the dark night, I made a pact with myself that I’d sole focus on working this next 20 miles section the best I could. I gained renewed energy fueled by the revised plan, food, adrenaline and Todd’s fix. That all wore off within an hour having left Heavenly. And was replaced with drowsiness. I realized of the four things I need to fix: food, hydration, feet and sleep, I’d whiffed on the last. I still hadn’t slept. As I moved along I began to realize I was doing a little sleep walking.
The night was so quiet and clear. It was after midnight and there was no one around. No lights. No car. No runners. I found it intoxicating.
I decided that I’d summit a medium hill and then look for a good place to take a short nap along the trail. I soon found an adequate spot, kicked the pine cones away and shoved my pack under my head and up against a rock to act as a pillow. I laid down and stared up at the billions of stars. There was no light pollution so my view was stunning. No sound. No bugs. And the temperature was good. I had my waterproof jacket on and pulled a knit cap over my head for additional warmth. This was the most peace and calm I’d felt for the entire race. I think I nodded off for 10 minutes or so and then naturally awoke. I stood up and remarkably, felt refreshed. I was ready to start moving again.
That trail-side nap was all I needed for the remainder of the 20 mile journey. I arrived early feeling strong and invigorated at the Spooner Summit Aid Station, 123 miles into the run. My crew had expected to com win much later in the morning, especially after having seen me leave without having slept and suspect as to whether the feet would survive and the food I’d consumed was enough. It was daybreak and I was thrilled to see them – and they me in such good spirits. What difference from one aid station to the next. I’d not seen a single sole the entire eight hours I’d run the prior night – 20 miles, and I had the whole of Tahoe to myself. It was serene.
After trying to take a nap in the car again, with moderate success, I awoke after a half hour and felt refreshed enough to want to eat and get back at it. The morning was chilly so the best thing to do was keep moving. I grabbed some more food and drink, I was off. I knew this next 18 mile stretch well because I’d run on it during the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 miler race just a few weeks prior. So I knew exactly what was coming and what I needed to do. Of all the segments, I look back and realize I felt the best on this section. My pace quickened. My stomach was stable. My feet were what they were and I was getting used to the constant dull pain – sprinkled with some sharp jabs every now and again – as my constant passenger.
I arrived at Tunnel Creek Aid in the heat of the later afternoon. My crew was ever at the ready. James and Drew had found a shady place to set up a hammock and inflatable beach mattress (which if you look at the pictures below, you’ll see why it earned the nickname of a part of a woman’s anatomy :-).
Much to my delight and surprise, joining my crew were my friends and fellow ultra runners from Auburn, Ryan Rivera and Glenn Carnahan. They generously gave up their Sunday to drive all the way up to Tahoe just to see me and provide encouragement. Words cannot express my gratitude. And then Glenn said he was in for pacing me for the next 15 mile leg. BONUS! Ryan had been my intrepid pacer at Western States in 2014.
Litza gave me a delicious quesadilla which she’d bought at a local shop there in Incline Village. I think I ate it in three bites. I then headed to the car for a nap. This one actually felt like I slept. I awoke after about 30 minutes and jumped out of the car feeling really energetic. We packed up and away Glenn and I went. As we were leaving Jim “Jungle Jim” Kepfer rode up on a bicycle. He’s another friend and ultra runner from Auburn and had been visiting friends nearby and rode over to wish me luck. I bid goodbye to James and Drew who were heading back to the Bay Area, Ryan and Jim and Marcy and Litza, who would see bus at the next aid station that evening. Man the karma was flowing in full force now.
Tunnel Creek to Finish (Mile 140 to Mile 205.5)
Glenn’s company was a welcome change. We’d run so many miles together over the years, we quickly fell right into our usual discussion ranging from family to current event to more philosophical topics. Along the way we encountered the New Zealand runner. She was hurting and had stopped to rest on a rock. I gave her a couple of NSAID and words of encouragement. She appreciated both. We continued on with the trail banter to distract us from the time, arriving at the Brockway Summit (mile 155) Aid Station in great time. It was the third – and hopefully final nite. The aid station was crazy. A lounge area around an open fire with lots of runners camped out on folding chairs. I think I even remember seeing a sofa. The Donner Party Mountain Runners club were the hosts and they had the place rockin’. I spied the burgers with anything-and-everything-you-ever-wanted-on-them and wolfed one down. Then I discover they’d made homemade vanilla ice cream. Since I’d fallen into the pattern of eating only at aid stations since the pain from my feet soured my stomach while moving, I figured the calories and fat from chowing down cold ice cream could only be a plus. So they gave me a 16 ounce beer stein full of most creamy, mouth exploding mound of vanilla that I will ever eat.
My friend and fellow ultra runner Mark Gilligan showed up. He had driven over from his home in Reno. Again, the tight knit ultra community was impactful. Mark graciously offered to pace me. I told him I was planning to take a 2 hour nap in the car, so maybe better to connect if he was interested in pacing me from Tahoe City to the Stephen Jones Aid Station the next morning. He said he’d likely go to the finish line to watch runners and then if he was still around when I arrived in Tahoe City, happy to join me. Deal.
I tried to sleep in the Jeep again but it wasn’t working. And poor Litza and Marcy were sitting outside in the bone chilling dark, trying to give me peace and quiet. It didn’t seem remotely fair. So I never nodded off and within 10 minutes hopped out of the Jeep and said I was going to head up the trail a few miles and pull off and catch a nap there. It worked the nite before and frankly, the rest I got was really peaceful.
As I moved along the sweet single track amid the forest, the pungent odor of the pines was delightful. Again, the night was quiet and still. I decided I was moving well and didn’t really need sleep. I’d told Glenn before we arrived at Brockway I’d likely sleep for a few hours. How quickly that had all changed. Now I was convincing myself I could do this entire section without sleep. But as I moved, I realized just how drowsy I was. I’d tell myself “you’re not sleepy, you’re fine.” But each time I’d drift back into a half awake state. So rather than push my luck, I found a great spot with some grass and flat to pull off the trail and grab a nap. And just like the previous nite, the sky was unearthly beautiful and it silence led me right to sleep. For ten minutes.
I awoke to the sound of another runner going by. I thought, “Now that you’re up, you might as well go catch him and see if he’d like some company.” And so I did, and so he – Robert Williamson from Mozambique – did welcome the company. Robert was a great find. We worked the segment taking turns in the lead, helping each other through the nite and drowsiness. We agreed to take another 10 minute nap and challenged each other to find the most ideal spot to rest. Robert was an extremely interesting guy, our style and personalities meshed and it made the trip down to Tahoe City much less of a slog. In fact, as we approached the bottom of a long downhill that would eventually dump us right smack dab in the middle of downtown Tahoe City, Robert went flying by me allowing gravity to pull him down the pitch. He literally was flying off the ground. I thought better of it with my old guy knees and restrained from the temptation to follow I continue my measured descent and soon, as day broke, arrived at the Tahoe City Aid Station. [Footnote: Robert finished in 83 hours, 26 minutes, 40th place]
Litza came out on the street to greet me and lead me into the parking lot where the Jeep was located. Marcy and Cali met me along the way on the bridge where the Truckee River flows into Lake Tahoe. They were all full of energy and so positive. It was infectious. This was mile 175 so we had one more aid station ahead between here and the finish. 3o miles to go. This was going to happen. I slept in the Jeep but this time they’d folded the back seats down so I had a full bed to stretch out in in the rear. It was perfect. I got a real sleep for the first time the entire race. I asked to be awoken in 30 minutes, but once again I woke up naturally, batteries fully recharged.
Turns out Marcy and Litza had quite the adventurous night before. Having no time to return to their hotel, they decided to grab some provisions at the local 24 hour mart and sleep in the car. Marcy had noticed a car following her along the way to Tahoe City. This ensued for some time. Then, after Litza had returned from the store and Marcy began to drive away, a policeman turned on his lights and had Marcy pull over. Bewildered at what they’d done to deserve the stop, Marcy became nervous while Litza said, “Let’s be cool. We’ve done nothing wrong.”
The officer asked Marcy, “We’ve had reports that you have been driving erratically, weaving. Have you had any alcohol this evening, Ma’am?” “No, Officer. We are crewing for my husband who is running a 200 mile race around Lake Tahoe”, replies Marcy. She then detailed chapter and verses the exact movements they’d made from place to place the last two days, to demonstrate she wasn’t kidding. Marcy then said, “Frankly Officer, the reason I’m driving so slow is because I saw you following me and that made me extremely nervous.” The policeman seemed unmoved. By now two more police cruisers had arrived. It was beginning to look like a crime scene. He said, “We’ve been following you for some time and combined with these reports, think someone else should drive your vehicle. Have you someone else who can drive?” Marcy looked at Litza who replied, “Sure, I’ll drive.” So they switched seats and off they went. Bizarre.
Marcy had bought a custom burrito at a local shop nearby and offered it to me. I didn’t hesitate. It was gone in minutes. Meanwhile Mark Gilligan had indeed re-appeared and was ready to accompany me for the next 20 mile pull to Stephen Jones aid. So after a nap, full belly with more solid food we departed. As I was leaving I hugged Marcy hard, then Litza. I started to tear up as the gravity of this entire experience hit me all at once. I wiped the tear away, nodded to them both – no words were necessary. Game on. A 50K to go.
As we began to run, Mark said, “Hey, I need to take a couple of calls for work while we have cell reception. Do you mind?” “Heck no”, I responded. “You do whatever you need – I’m just glad to have the company.”
Mark founded and is CEO of Ultrasignup – the largest race registration system in the world for ultra and trail events. He was making service calls to race directors who had a variety of issues from races held over the past weekend. One call led to another, and another. It was hilarious. Mark is SO calm and cool with his customers. The patience of Jobe. I felt like I was running through his office – which happened to be the Tahoe Rim Trail! I think we got halfway up to the third to last summit of the race before he finally was able to give t a break…or his cell service dropped…not sure which…
Anyway, Mark turned his attention to snapping a bunch of great photos, took some videos and even posted to his Facebook account. I was traveling with a combo photog-social media celeb. It was great conversation and Mark’s energy was infectious. He’s also hilarious. So this pull again seemed to move along quicker than expected.
When we arrived back down along the Lake, after having summited at about 8,500′, we thought the aid station would be right there. But much to our surprise – and disappointment, it was still 6 miles away. We had to run down a street, parallel Route 89 on the bike path and then run back up a few streets that dead ended in a cul-de-sac which led to a deer trail which went through somebody’s yard, that led to a creek, then another trail, then more trails, then a river, cross the river…and thru to the woods to grandma’s house we go….and eventually, we came upon Stephen Jones Aid. Whatever time we thought we made getting down off the summit, we felt like we more than lost it getting to this seemingly never-to-be-reached-or-found aid station. We were both stoked to chow down, grab a rest.
Mark dove head first into the burgers and beer. It wasn’t really beer. It was Michelob Ultra. But hey, they had beer nonetheless and it tasted sweet. I couldn’t resist either. As we sat and ate and drank, I asked Mark if he wanted to come along for the final pull. He called home, made arrangements for the kids and within minutes Marcy and Litza had us ready to go to attack the final 10.5 miles to the finish.
The first section was a dusty Jeep Road – Barker Pass Road – which would lead us back to the spot where I and half the field went off course days ago. It was a pretty stout climb. We caught up to another team and I was feeling my oats. For the first time since Housewife Hill Aid, I had the full capacity of my lungs working. So I tore up the road and put the hammer down for a couple of miles, catching and passing the other team. As we hit flat area, I slowed down and waited for Mark to catch back up. He commented about my found energy and worried about me dropping him. We were soon to find out, this little stunt I pulled would come back to bite me – really bite me.
As the other team passed us, and proceeded to become two tiny dot on the horizon, I realized I’d powered up the hill on adrenaline NOT excess lung capacity. As the juice wore off, I began gasping for air once again, but this time it was worse. As we summited the Jeep road I began to have to bend over for air. And we had a big time summit yet to climb. I began kicking myself for letting my guard down and running on heart, not head.
Mark remained cheerful and encouraging and eventually we worked our way deliberately to the summit. We had a most pleasing sunset coming about just as we crested. We stopped to savor the moment, took a selfie to celebrate, soaked in the soaring view and I regained composure for the 6 mile or so descent down the ski mountain to the finish. Or so I thought.
As we began to descend all was good. Then the clouds that had been looming all afternoon began to swirl. A rumbling. A little flash of light in the east. No worries. Then more rumbling. Flashes, but still far off. We continued our quest to the finish, down and down. Then, suddenly the trail took a sharp left turn. It turned up. WTF?! Why were we going up? The ski lodge and finish is down there – I pointed to the right way down the slope. Nope. I had misread the elevation chart. There was one more summit before the inevitable drop to the finish. One more cruel and evil twist thrown in by our devilish RD. I said to Mark, “Candice could have made this a 200 mile course. She just couldn’t resist throwing 5.5 miles of ‘extras’ in just because she could!”
Anyways, we put our heads down and proceeded to climb. “We’re not taking another selfie at the top of this climb, just so you know”, I grumbled.
Soon we reached the peak. There, we found the team that I had passed on the Jeep road and then they passed back plus another runner nearby a large boulder atop the summit. Mark said, “Everybody get on the rock – let me take a picture.” So despite my ‘not another selfie’ declaration, I ceded to a photo with my fellow runners -and in retrospect, it was one of my favorites.
We commenced the final FINAL descent. The rumbling now was closer. Then a BOOM that made Mark leap. But the lightning was one,two, three, four, five, six, seven seconds – seven miles away. No worries. I commented how cool it would be to have Mother Nature greet our return to Homewood with a light show. By now, the other two runners sharing the photo with me were way on down the hill, calling on their thirty and forty-something year old legs and knees. I on the other hand, was moving pretty darn slow. My feet were really unhappy with the granite, uneven downhill. I didn’t want to lose it now and take a header. So close….
The next BOOM and lightning were just 2 seconds apart. Then, you could smell the storm was about to unleash. The wind suddenly began whipping and all at once, the sky opened and the rain began to fall. Gently at first, then a steady heavy pour. Boom, crack! The lightning struck uncomfortably close. Mark leapt again. Then another boom, crack! This one hit not far in front of us. We were on the downhill side of the summit but still high enough we were exposed. We quickened our shuffle into a run.
I was able, at times, to find a full stride run. But the downhill pounding was torture to the feet. So these brief moments of free running were surrounded by long slogs and shuffling on egg shells. Darkness loomed and we were committed to finish without turning on our headlamps.
As we made the final turn on the ski slope access road, the Homewood lodge and finish line came clearly into view. The rain had been continuous for the past hour. The wind too. We looked down at the finish area and could see that a couple of the tents had blown over. The lights were dim too.
We reached the last little downhill which poured us into the finish. I reached down to find a running gear and although it felt like I was flying, was probably a 12 minute mile. I passed my way to the inflatable finish line and upon crossing, immediately felt a wave of emotions overwhelm me.
Done. 82 hours 23 minutes 11 seconds
I was greeted first by Candice who embraced me warmly, then Marcy who I held tight for a lingering while. I wept. Then sobbed. I was so relieved. So happy. So tired. Then a hug for Litza and her husband Gene, who had driven all the way up from Sacramento for the finish.
Don emerged and we hugged. Then Mark. All around me people where busy putting the finish line area back together again. It had literally been blown away by the storm. Tents went flying, tables of food and aid and medical gear went sailing and the entire display of custom belt buckles for finished was over turned. But despite this unwelcome circumstance, there was complete and utter calm. My already high regard for Candice and her team went up yet another notch.
Meanwhile, Don handed me a Breaking Bud from Knee Deep Brewery, our go-to beverage throughout training. Mark, Don and I shared the bottle – an IPA had never tasted quite this good. I’d been thinking about that beer for nearly a day. Soon my thoughts turned to my feet, which at this point were numb from pain. I wondered if I should get the wrap off immediately. Don intercepted the question and said, “Don’t worry about it now. It’s fine. Leave it on until morning after you get some sleep and cane soak your feet first.” I heeded his advice. We chatted a bit more but the dark had descended and its was getting cold quickly.
So I had Marcy help me select a buckle from the re-assembled dazzling display of custom artwork, and off we went to head back to the hotel. It was a classic and welcome low key ultra finish. No fanfare, no fuss. Just a “great job”, a few hugs and unspoken acknowledgment of the accomplishment completed, satisfaction gained. This is a very personal sport. The farther you run, the deeper it penetrates your being. This run moved me like never before.
We said our goodbyes and hit the road amongst the raindrops, dark clouds and dusk and headed back to our hotel room in South Lake Tahoe. I was pleased and surprised how good my legs felt, little muscle pain and even my feet pain was isolated to the blisters. I actually felt better than I had after any other ultra, proving the “slow and steady” method is indeed kinder to the body.
When we reached the hotel room I received a text from the person responsible for the Spot Tracers. Apparently I’d forgot to turn mine off at the finish so the system was still tracking me…all the way to the hotel! If you look back at my statistics you’ll still my splits really got a boost from the 30 minute drive to South Lake :-).
Marcy had stopped at a drug store to get me epsom salt and a couple of plastic trays so I could soak my feet in the room. She’d learned the proper technique for how to peal off the multiple layers of taping and bandages that covered my now rose red feet, riddled with blood stained blisters and other unseemly features. The love of my life and crew chief extraordinaire had one final task before this journey ended: free my feet from Todd’s remarkable “100 mile rapture”.
After a 10 minute soak in warm water and epsom salts, Marcy began ever so slowly and delicately rolling the tape backwards, as I jumped uncontrollably in anticipation of the pain. My behavior was, I suspect, a similar knee-jerk reaction that a person experiences after for example being pinched dozens of times in the same place and then jerking away when someone feigns another pinch.
Despite my silly uncontrollable fits, with 30 minutes Marcy had removed all of the tape and bandages to reveal the raw skin and damage done. It was such a relief to have the wounds exposed to the air and soothing salt water. Marcy was a saint to have endured this despicable task and her performance was flawless.
After a refreshing shower I crawled into bed and within a minute, sank into a deep slumber, accompanied by wall-shaking snoring just to cap off Marcy’s multi-day selfless effort to assist me in accomplishing my dream. Now my literal dream ended the journey, for which I’d dreamed one hundred times before.
It’s been six weeks since the Tahoe 200. My physical recovery has been encouraging. My feet are coming along nicely, my muscles felt strong soon after the race and I incurred no tendonitis, pulls, or strains. My appetite returned quickly, providing a new challenge of how to tame a 200 mile hunger with a far-less-than 100 miles training regimen any longer. But the most noticeable change from the run has been mental. Specifically, I gained a new level of confidence in my ability to endure and persevere, beyond anything I’d experienced over my 27 years of ultra running. GRIT.
This has been an emotionally charged and humbling experience for me. Ultra running can be a very selfish sport. Yet, without the love, encouragement and support from my family and friends, it would be a hollow and fruitless endeavor. My gratitude is impossible to fully express in words. I hope to hug each and every one of you – over time – to share my deep appreciation.
A special thank you to Litza, Drew and James, my intrepid crew, Don and Marty, training partners and teachers, Mark, Glenn and Ryan, loyal and trusted pacers present and past. To Candice and Todd and the entire Destination Trail team and volunteers who make our dreams possible. And to the ultra running community. You are all my tribe. Finally, to my one and only. You understand me better than myself and I am a much better person in this world because of you. What more can any human ask for? I love you Marcy.
Finis. Whew. If you made it this far, then you too are a candidate for the Tahoe 200 – for the perseverance, tenacity and guile required to read this tome are the very same traits of my fellow finishers. Go ahead – dream big, for dreams are the amplitude of our character.