Sept 8-12, 2017
Sept 8-12, 2017
Was it all a vivid dream? I’ve asked myself that question now for days since the end of the 205.5 miles race around the magical trails of Lake Tahoe. The lack of sleep combined with the sheer amount of time and distance of this race left me with only fragments of memory. I have only pieces of the colors of the woods, sunrises, darkness, laughter, and tears. Through the 93 plus hours, my friends were by my side holding me together literally and figuratively. It’s redundant but necessary to say that a finish would not have been possible without Sonja, Inna, Michelle, Melissa, and Aud. Thank you, sincerely.
|The Crew and me at Tahoe City - L2R Mel, Inna, Aud, Sonja (less Michelle)|
The Tahoe 200 Endurance Race is a 205.5 mile foot race that traverses the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe across California and Nevada. It includes a 40,000 feet elevation gain as well as the same in loss. The lowest point of the race is approximately 5,500 feet in elevation and highest at 10,000. Since the first time I learned about its existence, this race has been on my bucket list. For a long time I thought of it as out of reach for my ability. I am glad I waited until completing Chimera 100 last year because it gave me the seasoning I needed and confidence to tackle the 200-miler.
Even then, a leap from a 100-miler to 200-miler seemed inconceivable. When I finally mustered the courage to register for T200, I made to mental commitment to REALLY train my body to withstand the distance. My focus was simple, climb, climb, and then climb more. I worked on hill repeats multiple times a week. Up and down to strengthen the legs. In addition, I got high as often as possible. I made Mt. Baldy my friend. We also took tours of San Jacinto as well as Mt. Whitney. I ran back to back days with little to no sleep. Aud said she had never seen me take on training as seriously for another race; and she was probably right. A little fear can get one’s ass working in a hurry.
Finding a crew was highest on the priority list because I wanted to maximize my chances of completing the 200 miles. I am really blessed to have friends like the girls. All accomplished ultra-runners but more importantly good friends who I enjoy spending time with. They worked tirelessly to get me everything I needed so I can focus singularly on running. They took days out of their lives as wives, mothers to help me accomplish the goal. For that I am forever grateful. Logistics for traveling was a little complicated but I managed to lay down a schedule well in advance for van-pooling and flights. Keep in mind that some flexibility had to be managed once the race began based on my progress. We arrived in Tahoe on Wed 9/6/17 two days ahead of the start on 9/8/17.
Mandatory check-in and race meeting was held on Thurs afternoon. I can feel the tension and nervous energy in my body all day. Being in the meeting hall with nearly 200 other runners only increased the excitement and anticipation. As I look around the room I recognized some familiar faces amongst the crowd. There were some legitimate runners here and they were looking cool and collected. I quietly repeated to myself “you’re ready for this”. Maybe if I said it enough times, I might begin to believe it.
After the meeting and dinner, we had some excitement back at the hotel when I encountered a BIG-ass bear in the parking lot. He wanted nothing to do with me really, but it was fun to watch him go through the trash bins with the crew from the patio of our room. After some final prep, I went to bed by 8:00PM and managed a fantastic night of sleep. Something I wouldn’t see again for four days to come.
The race start had the atmosphere of a festival. Runners gathered with crew before the 9:00AM start. Here I collected my spot tracker which allowed the crew and friends back at home to monitor my progress. The spot trackers really served as an essential tool for rescues in case of lost runners. We took pictures, said our hellos to fellow runners, and good bye to crew. I saw and met Scott Jurek at the start line. I am a big fan and he was nice enough to take a photo with this fan boy.
My crew and I decided we would not need to meet at miles 7 of the course and that the next time we would meet would be at mile 63. At 9:00AM sharp, as a group, all the runners raised our right hands, and recited after Luis Escobar quoting Caballo Blanco (of Born to Run) “If I get hurt, lost, or die, it’s my own damn fault.” With that began the biggest race of my life.
No matter how you study an elevation chart and course map, you can’t ever prepare for the variables that cannot be anticipated. They said the first sixty three miles were supposed to be the hardest part of the course. They were right until you finished the first 63. We started with a 7 mile climb out of Homewood with lots of chatter and smiles. Everyone was fresh and glad to be moving. I didn’t even notice the rocky slopes of the first three miles which would be the pain of my existence later coming back down at miles 202-205. I hiked every hill and tried to do so as effortlessly as possible knowing the distance ahead. The field seemed to spread after about 4-5 miles. I had no idea where I stood. I guessed somewhere in the middle.
What I remember of the first 63 miles is fragmented. I remember the Rubicon Trails which the Jeep vehicles were named after. It lives up to its iconic name. It consisted of large boulders that required a lot of quad work. I had some plans to used my Black Diamond poles only periodically during the race. I ended up using them for all but 7 miles in the 4 days. There was also some beautiful variation in the landscape of the first 63. We had mossy clearings and alpine peaks and everything in between. We also had a nice thunder shower in the afternoon before sunset. It poured and thankfully we decided to last minute before race start to pack the rain jacket instead of the plastic poncho.
There was some congestion in the aid stations of the first 63. I had to fight my way for food as the stations worked hard to keep up with the demand of the runners. I didn’t mind it much but didn’t want to sit longer than necessary. I kept an efficient pace changing out of wet clothing and socks. It felt cold for the first time at AS44. I took pleasure in drinking my canned Starbuck coffee from my drop bag and got a hot quesadilla to go. Once darkness set in it was a lonely trek. I would leapfrog with a few runners and exchanged a few words. Oh, my watch died at mile 20 even though I had charged it to 100% the night before. So for miles and miles I didn’t know my exact distance. I relied on time to estimate my progress. A little frustrating but when you’re out there, you have to let go of things that happen outside of your control.
The next spot I recognized was crossing Highway 50 which indicated I had 6 miles to 63. By this time I was very much looking forward to seeing my crew. My legs felt strong but my feet ached. I wanted to sit, eat, and rest. Seeing the unmanned water station at Highway 50, I put my phone off airplane mode and texted my crew with excitement “6 miles out” is what I put. Then I was met with a fair mile of road. I think it’s safe to say that at an ultra any time the RD throws you something easy you should expect something ridiculous to follow. The next mile became one of the more memorable climbs of the first 63. This relentless mile of climb made me say to myself “please make it stop.” Then some rolling trails until the final ½ mile of climb into the aid station. There I was greeted by Sonja. What a sight for sore eyes.
Sonja, Michelle, and Mel got me in and helped me clean up, fed me, and worked on my feet. We had planned to have me sleep here and they asked me to go to sleep for a few hours. I closed my eyes to bouncing headlamp that I had been seeing for the last 8 hours. I tired breathing relaxation techniques and I think I actually fell asleep; for 15 minutes. I lay on the floor hearing every snore and footstep within the race sleep area. I got up and told the girls that it was time to continue on.
Michelle was my first pacer and with her company, 15 minutes of sleep, and a 7 mile downhill section, we blasted out of the aid station and ran one of the fasted segments of the race. We even beat Mel and Sonja to the next station. I know I should not be going too fast but sometimes when you’re feeling good you have to take advantage. That of course would be short lived. The next segment was going to be a beast. Mel led me through nearly 18 miles and up to the highest point of the race at Armstrong Pass. My Garmin topped out that section at 9,500 feet. But while I’ve trained consistently at higher elevation, this segment kicked me in the teeth. I had a sort of out-of-body experience there watching me and Mel traverse building sized boulders shaped like faces, monsters, and butts. I asked to stop and rest for the first time during the race.
This segment included the gorgeous Big Meadow. It also ran longer than the advertised 18 miles. By the time we arrived at Armstrong, I was not a happy camper. Again, the crew asked that I sleep and I tried. I just couldn’t and after 15 minutes asked that we keep moving. For the first time I saw a look of concern on their faces. I could tell they were not happy with my decision but I really could not sleep. Sonja looked at me straight in the face and said, “If you don’t sleep at the next station, you will not have a pacer.” Message received and I agreed.
|trying unsuccessfully to sleep|
Michelle led me through the next 15 miles and what I remember to be mostly through darkness. We chatted a lot about her up-coming race and how stupid it was that two people should be hiking through the woods for hours and hours in the middle of the night. We laughed and moved and never stopped. We passed by several runners sometimes just sitting off the trail. We always asked how they were doing and I begin to see the effect of lack of sleep amongst us all. I knew I was beginning to fall into hallucinations when twisted branches and rocks begin to resemble animals and creatures. We forged on and seemingly like routine, we took a sharp descend into the next aid station at Heavenly. 103 miles done.
I slept! 3 hours of incredible, refreshing sleep. I woke up around 3:00AM and begin to get myself ready. By about 3:30, Sonja had also gotten up and got the whole crew ready for the next leg. I can see that they were as exhausted as I was. Sonja led me for the next 20 miles. We saw another beautiful sunrise on the Tahoe Rim Trail. I remember some conversation about kids and family. It made the time pass as we traversed from mountain to mountain. I remember from this point forward the first 5 miles of every segment going by very quickly then the next 10-15 miles would slow to a crawl in my mind.
Next segment with Mel was through some beautiful openings with wild flowers and peaks with rustling trees. That was also a hot 17 miles where I worried about running out of water. While Mel and I trekked, Sonja headed to the airport for reinforcement. Aud and Inna were on their way for the last wave.
Surprisingly, my legs felt incredibly good. My shoulders and arms were another story. I have never put that many miles while using hiking poles. And it became painful to push off the sticks with each stride. The bottom of my feet hurt unbearably. I tried shifting my weight around, the front, the heel, and the sides until it all hurt. Only thing to do was to keep moving. We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets coming down to Tunnel Creek. It was glorious and for a moment made me forget the pain.
When we arrived, it had just turned dark. Waiting for us was Sonja, Aud, and Inna. I hugged Aud and it felt so good. It felt like I had not seen her in a life time. No sleep here so it was a fairly quick change and food and out we go. The next three miles were on flat paved roads through a high end residential area. Inna brought new energy and as usual cracked me up with her sense of humor. We had no idea what was in store next. We existed the residential area (before witnessing some illegal crewing; someone’s whole crew was working on their runner outside designated aid stations) and came across some heavy brushes. The ribbons led up a steep mound of dirt. When I say steep I mean this shit was vertical. I thought “this must be a short hop before another trail.” I dug my poles hard with every climb. To her credit, Inna stay ahead without the help of poles and using her hands while pointing out the tarantulas and quarter sized ants crawling about. In the complete darkness, all I can see were reflective flags waving above head that seemingly led to the stars above.
“What even is this shit?” I thought (In Inna's voice). Powerline, as this was called is a one mile, 1,500 feet vertical climb at mile 144. All of a sudden, Candice Burt didn’t seem as nice as she did before the race. Inna and I found spots to sit and catch our breath along the way while laughing and cursing. Just when we thought we had summited Powerline we turned right and realized there were more to go. Immediately after reaching the top we drop back down only to climb back to over 8,000 feet elevation before the final descend on some rocky ass Tahoe Rim Trail. Some hikers told us they had just seen a bear with its cubs. That was reassuring. And then they said, “You’re almost there; aid station is only 5 miles down.” When was the last time you thought 5 miles was “almost there?” This portion was extremely sandy and dusty, staying behind Inna I was breathing in so much dust that I almost threw up. At this point, Scott Jurek passed us with Luis Escobar like ghosts through the night. It was a sight to see Scott move through the trails with such grace and ease.
When we arrived at Brockway Summit at mile 155.5 I was ready for another nap. I was also informed that I had no more clean clothing. So maybe I became a little grump then. I sat in a chair with no shirt for about 10 minutes while the crew looked for clothing. It was a pretty low point and I tried very hard to contain myself. Aud came back with her shirt and said that was all they had for the time being. She would do the laundry before the next segment. I ate and took a spot in the race sleep quarters. There was a twin size cot with no pillow. I asked to be waken in three hours and thought that there was no way I could fall asleep in the very uncomfortable looking setting. I lay down and when I opened my eyes it was exactly three hours later.
|Crew life - Sonja catching some zzzzs|
Another morning and Sonja was in charge of the walking dead this time. Again we started out strong and trekked the first five miles at great pace. Then it got increasingly hot. Thankfully the terrain of this segment was mild in comparison and I prayed that the worse was behind us.
We rolled through mazes of trees and boulders before dropping back down into Tahoe City almost a block from where our hotel is. There waiting for me was a cup of amazing iced coffee. I mean real coffee. And yes a pulled pork sandwich and more coca cola. My god, nothing has ever tasted so good.
|Inna and me goofing around at Tahoe City|
“You should pack your rain jacket” Mel said. “It might rain they said.” I packed my jacket but with the warm morning I doubted it would be bad. Inna seemed reluctant but packed Mel’s rain jacket in her pack. Both of us are in our tank tops and shorts. We started the next section and the elevation chart showed 10 miles of climb followed by 10 miles of drop. It fucking lied. The first 8 miles were relatively flat and then the next two miles climbed about 2,000 feet. About 2 hours in, the storm clouds and thunder rolled in. You can hear the rain from miles away and closing in. “Let’s get our jackets on” I said. And as soon as we managed that the rain just poured. Along with the rain began our climb into darkness. We reached over 8,500 feet in elevation and saw lighting storm over nearby mountain BELOW us. Then I said to Inna, “Are those snowflakes falling?”
|Just before the thunderstorms|
I think she thought I must have been hallucinating at first and ignored me. Until it got colder and colder and she finally saw them falling around us. “Shit, it’s snowing.” There was Inna in shorts and a layer of rain shell forced to walk at my pace. She said “I’m going to run a little ahead and run back to stay warm.” I felt really bad and tried to stay pace. It had stopped raining and I offered my jacket to her to stay warm. This segment was rocky as hell; the trail was essentially a river creek with fist sized rocks with no lines to walk. I said “Inna you got the hardest segments, hands down.” She was a good sport and we tried to joke to forget the ridiculousness that we were enduring.
“YES, we got off the mountain and lived to talk about it!” were the words out of my mouth when we reach the bottom of the mountain into yet another residential area on the roads. We went about a mile laughing and celebrating what we had just endured. Then shit just got crazy. Another thunderstorm rolled in right over our heads as we ran alongside the lake. “This is where our friendship ends” Inna joked. But as the rain, lightening, and thunder intensified, neither of us felt like laughing. I started running. And I mean actually running in fear of being struck by lightning. We happened upon a public restroom and ducked in for 20 minutes. Once feeling safe we joked again about the absurdity of it all. I told Inna she needs to buy lotto tickets after when this was all said and done.
We were only three miles to the next aid station but it seemed like an eternity. We were routed off the street into a trail of complete darkness and what seemed like a thousand turns. Along with the rain and some very wet trails, my spirit was at an all-time low. But we kept moving while listening to the thunder moving away from us. When we reached Stephen Jones we saw a sea of runners hiding out from the rain. We hid inside our crew vehicle and while I changed in the back with the fresh laundry Aud had done. The crew fed Inna in the front. “Man, if Inna looks this exhausted, I must look like shit.” I thought.
Last ten miles. But I needed just a little more rest before we headed out. I think exhaustion was getting to everyone. Aud would lead me for the final ten miles. In complete darkness we headed out. What struck me the most was the amount of climb and how difficult it now seemed. My arms and shoulders were spent from the four days of wielding the hiking poles. But nevertheless I dug deep with them with every step. These miles were slow and grueling to say the least. Aud told me about the last few days with the kids to keep my mind off the pain beneath my feet. The ribbons kept coming but I swore we were going in circles. I checked my GPS app time and time again to insure we were on the right track. We were, but I swore we were lost. My mind drifted from happy to anger to sadness over and over again. Finally we reached what appeared to be the top of Homewood before our descent.
The next three miles seemed like an eternity. I tried to run thinking the finish was just around the corner. I kept telling Aud that I recognized a turn from 4 days ago and the finish was just ahead. I cannot remember how many times I was wrong. The fist sized rocks of the descend provided no comfort for my feet that hurt with every step. I cringed, groaned, and cursed with every trip and fall coming down. We passed the tequila aid station. That bottle was fucking empty; figures.
With less than one mile to go the sun rose and the lake came into view. We passed two runners and I felt energized to move “fast” to the finish. One last turn and the finish line came into view. Downhill, downhill, and more painful downhill. I crossed the finish line of the Tahoe 200 and looked back. I fell to my knees and tears ran down my dusty cheeks. I could not believe I had just done that. Inna and Aud picked me up and we hugged. I found Mel and Sonja and I hugged and thank them. The last two days of the race was a blur but I remember the finish now like it had happened moments ago.
It has been a week since we ran and finished the Tahoe 200. I am still working through the recovery physically but more so emotionally. The pain beneath my feet lessens daily and my legs are in decent shape. There is an unexplained numbness to my left quad that I continue to monitor. But the biggest challenge since the race had been the mood swings. The post-race blues are more intense than I’ve ever experienced and I go from extreme uplifted happiness to grumpy to sad daily. I miss the woods and that feeling of absolute freedom out there. I miss the movement of the body on the trails, the sounds of water and wind, and the smells of pine and wildflowers. In the days to come I will continue to process the whole experience and try to understand the impact it will leave in my life. I am sure it has left its mark deeply in my heart. For now, I will rest and remain thankful for those who helped me complete this journey. Thank you to my crew, my wife, my sister who took care of the kids while we raced. Thank you to my friends who sent notes of encouragement and kept us in your thoughts throughout. Your positive energy was felt even deep in the woods of Tahoe.
One race, one mile, and one step at a time,