Sometimes words cannot describe what human endeavors we undertake. Achievements cannot be explained often until they are experienced firsthand. But this milestone in my life seems to be perfectly defined by one simple word… pinnacle.
A pinnacle, of course, in the most literal sense is the top of a mountain or the peak of elevation. But it’s also so much more…in a more figurative way we see a pinnacle as the greatest success or achievement. It’s the best or most important part of something. The pinnacle (so far at least) of my experience in trail running has been Tahoe Rim 100.
It started as a challenge for myself…something new to attempt, thinking I wouldn’t actually accomplish it. In a weird way this philosophy got me from an unfit, depressed, corporate shell of a person to someone who has never been more driven, more focused and more fulfilled than I ever was despite having “real jobs”. My first trail race was a 4×25 relay at Cactus Rose and it was a great experience…but I surprised myself. I didn’t have too much trouble getting thru my first 25 mile run. But I DID meet Steven Moore that day, who was running the whole 100 by himself. The voice in my head that told me I could never do that is exactly what drove me to work for the next three years to try a 100 miler myself.
This Spring started very well for me. I had recently hired Erik Stanley and Trailroots to train me in final preparation for TRT100. I was building incredible strength and speed that I had never experienced before. My first time racing an actual marathon distance (on trail) resulted in my taking second place (behind only Paul Terranova) at Lost Pines Marathon soon to be followed by a fourth place overall finish at Hells Hills 50 Miler. I was on top of the world.
Training became nearly my only waking everyday thought and certainly my highest priority over the next 3 months. But soon I was taken back down to Earth and deflated of my growing ego by developing a stress fracture in my fibula. I was heartbroken but still training as well as I could despite not being able to push myself in pace or mileage.
Many long weeks of seemingly improved symptoms followed by seemingly disastrous ones continued over the next 8 weeks. I had some good experiences such as Leadville Marathon that helped me to gain back some confidence. But there were also simple weekly runs that felt like everything was falling apart again and I’d never be healed enough to run 100 miles. Just 2 weeks before the race I was finally given a clean bill of health…though I still felt lingering pain on occasion and a reluctance to really push my limits.
After a confidence boosting shakeout run I felt ready for the big day. I had set out all of my gear (there seems to be a lot of it with a 100 mile race) the day before the race so waking up involved just rolling out of bed and putting my gear on. I was up and out the door within 30 minutes to drive up the mountain to the start. As usual, overplanning had me driving at 3:30am and arriving at 4:00am. So my alarm had been set for 3:00am. Not an ideal night of sleep before a race that was sure to last around 24 hours. My initial intent was to run this race as close to 22 hours as possible. My naivety certainly got the best of me though as I would end up adjusting my goal to 24 hours, 26 hours and eventually “Just finish the damn thing”.
As the “1,2,3 Go” (how quaint) was called we were off and running as Ty Reagan calls it “impossibly slow”. The pace was frustrating for someone who is used to running 50k and gutting out a solid pace as long as possible. In the world of ultrarunning most strong competitive runners can get away with this as the steam runs out with around 3-5 miles to go. Then it’s just a little suffering until it’s over. This was an ENTIRELY different animal though…100 miles! The pace, “impossibly slow”, continued and I tried to stick to power hiking the uphills and running fast when I felt good and had a downhill. That strategy allowed me to stay toward the front 1/3 of the runners without getting too tired.
The first 11 miles of the race are some of the most scenic I have ever come across in my short time running. In fact, talking to some other racers…they are among the most scenic in the world. This reputation was proven as I was taken back by both Marlette Lake shore at the bottom of this section as well as Marlette Peak.
To pass the time between being in awe of the amazing Lake Tahoe countryside, Ty and I developed a fun game (fun for trail runners I guess). We started to play Fart Tennis…volleying back and forth at each other as our high-carb dinners/breakfasts settled themselves. While we thought it was a great way to pass the time, avoid going crazy thinking about the race and not take this crazy endeavor too seriously…other runners didn’t seem amused. Instead as we played and tried to explain the rules they would just clam up or adjust their pace to get away from us. Haha….it was still a great time.
Just before the second aid station, Tunnel Creek, we came across possibly the most fun I’ve ever had on a trail run. It was a ~3 mile string of amazing switchbacks with knee high boulders smooth enough to be creative in jumping over, on top of or swerving around. For a moment I had forgotten completely what I was there to do and just engaged in the joy of movement and the dance of trail running.
But then the work began…our first serious section, a short 6 mile section with a steep descent into a valley and back out again. It was named Red House Loop and my guess is the house was painted red because this section came straight from hell.
After descending and climbing back up to the Tunnel Creek aid station to arrive back at the altitude we had previously worked so hard to get to, we were soon climbing again! This time to the second highest peak of the race at 8,800ft! It was a tough set of climbs but easily runnable and this time filled with vistas of the other side of the mountains…overlooking Carson City and Reno. Soon though it was back down the mountain for 5 fast miles on a downhill mountain bike course. It did a number on my quads and I was aching by the time I reached the bottom at Diamond Peak Lodge.
After a somewhat enjoyable stay at Diamond Peak Lodge, my naïve journey toward the Crystal Ridge ski run began. Slightly deceiving in it’s steepness, the climb starts out as a service road before narrowing to what is essentially a 2 mile intermediate route in the winter for skiers and snowboarders. To say that this climb is difficult would be an understatement…you could nearly reach out your hand and touch the ground as you climbed.
Here it is in winter…
It felt that the ski slope would eat me alive on this first loop. It was late morning, the sun was beating down on us and it was warm for Tahoe (86 degrees). Just as I wanted to sit down and take a siesta the incline began to level out though. The hope of an end was near and once at the top you could see the aid station just over a bluff. With an intent to get used to actually running again versus power hiking I ran down the small hill toward the aid station. We fueled up and were off again.
We were now heading back toward the Tunnel Creek aid station. There I would fill up on Nutella and banana sandwiches as I had before…a moment of bliss in an otherwise overwhelming experience. At this point Ty had started to develop some issues in his IT band and was getting stretched/taped up. I waited for a few minutes to see if they would get him out quickly but he urged me to go ahead. I figured this would be my time alone until the 51 mile mark when I picked up my first pacer.
As I exited the aid station I was met with the switchbacks we had enjoyed so much on the way down…only this time I had to climb them. It wasn’t near as much fun but the challenge of this hill (between runnable and power-hike worthy) got me mentally focused for the rest of the loop. Soon I was repeating much of the course I had seen but with a new vantage of all the incredible vistas and views. It was breathtaking all over again.
Another aid station and a nice runnable section and then it was on to the highest peak of the course. Snow Valley is an incredibly open field high atop one of the mountains that somewhat reminds me of the opening of Little House on The Prairie. This time of year it was covered in wildflowers and the scent of the air was intoxicating as we worked our way up to the top. At some point here, I was alone for long enough that I started thinking about the Family Guy episode where Stewie is running thru the field like Little House and it made me laugh. Then I remembered he tripped on a rock and fell…better get focused and not do the same thing!
As I got to the top of the peak (and the last aid station) an Boy Scout met me just before the aid station…calling me by name. Somewhat tired at this point I must have given him an odd look as he started to stutter and trip over his words asking what I needed. By now potato chips had become a habit…and M&Ms whenever I could find them at an aid station. I filled up one last time and headed down along the ridge on my last 7 miles of the first loop.
As I arrived at the halfway point I was still feeling very positive and energetic. Usually on a loop race of this type of distance it takes everything you’ve got to drag yourself back out there for another harrowing loop. But this time was different. I was determined, I had accepted the distance for what it was and I knew I still had a long way to go to accomplish this goal.
I fueled up…changed shirts, grabbed my first pacer Stephanie and we headed off into the now light and visible part of the course I couldn’t see at the start. It was great to have someone to run with again as I had just spent the last 20 miles alone. I probably talked a little too much at first but kept my breathing under control as we power-hiked some of the initial hills of the course. Unfortunately Stephanie was NOT interested in fart tennis and let me know this before I had even said a word to her…so instead of joking and laughing at the occasional gel fart, I just apologized. She kept saying, “Go ahead…I’m just not gonna join you”.
Stephanie and I had a great time exploring the areas of the course that I couldn’t quite see the first time around. As the sun started to come up we were approaching the Marlette Peak vista again and I was excited to see her reaction to it. As expected she was totally blown away by the beauty and got a little distracted herself as we ran along the ridgeline. I was quick to tell her, “You haven’t seen the fun part yet!” as I knew the switchbacks were coming up.
We blasted down the switchback somehow at the same pace as I had just 8 miles into the race. This time my body was surely starting to break down but I couldn’t tell as I was drunk on the beautiful, soft-packed soil and the fun, jump-able boulders that lay strewn across the trail. I was approaching the furthest distance I had ever run but was on top of the world…my new personal distance record was going to sneak up on me.
As it did…about 3 miles into the Red House loop section I realized I had just surpassed my previous all time high of 62 miles. It happened to be on a huge downhill section where I finally started to feel my body talking back to me. We had fun on that section but I could tell that pain was coming and it wasn’t far ahead. It hit me as I approached the next aid station…my right ankle (the one responsible for my stress fracture) was starting to tighten up and I could feel some tightness in my calves and right hamstring.
We circled back around to the Tunnel Creek aid station again where Courtney was to pick me up as my second pacer. After a lengthy visit to a particularly handsy aid station volunteer, my ankle was adjusted, I was taped up and ready to get back out there. It was an amazing experience to get to run part of this race with her. We don’t run often together simply because my default training speed doesn’t tend to match her running pace. But now I was a little worn out and feeling the effect of 65+ miles on my legs. So we stuck together and talked about my favorite parts of the course.
It was starting to get dark and chilly as the sun went low enough in the sky to be covered by ridgeline and the twilight brought a relativity to this race that made me start to think about exactly how long I was running. At around mile 70 my hamstring had tightened up considerably. I was having to stop to stretch it out and wasn’t entirely comfortable doing so on top of a ridge at night in mountain lion country. I continually would call out to Courtney saying I heard something in the woods…but she said she never did. Maybe it was the exhaustion catching up to me?
At around mile 75 I had begun to break down in a significant way. I took a couple breaks, sat on a boulder and had Courtney try to massage some of the tight muscles that were starting to cramp up on me. Namely my quads had become like stone as the continuous up and down of the course had weared away at them over the day. This wasn’t good news for the upcoming 5 mile downhill section thru the mountain bike course. Sure enough this would be where I would be crippled by the pain, the momentary loss of mental strength and belief that I may have to drop.
Just before taking a gel I was heading toward a steep drop and my right knee just gave out on me. As opposed to falling forward though it folded back into a locked position and I bobbled as I struggled to stay upright. This was the moment…I screamed in frustration, threw my gel down to the ground and insisted that I would not finish. Courtney was exactly what I needed at that moment as she calmly settled my nerves and focused me on “just getting to the next aid station”. She knew I was close to my breaking point and just wanted to break my mind of the seemingly impossible 20+ miles still to go.
It worked…she was so patient, listening to me struggle and complain…barely able to run or walk as I hobbled down the mountain on quads which were near non-functioning at this point. But we made it…and it was the most happy I had ever been to stop running and rest for a while.
I got what amounts to an ultra-runner’s pedicure from two podiatrists at the aid station and walked around barefoot for a while to let my feet breath. The station (at the Diamond Peak Ski Lodge) looked like an episode of M.A.S.H. with runners spread across the floor like war victims. Some were groaning in pain, some sleeping on cots, some had dropped and looked so happy. I secretly wanted to join them…I was jealous that my stubbornness wouldn’t let me quit at that point.
After about 20 minutes in the “ward” I was finally on my feet and under my own power again as I headed out with my last pacer up the foreboding Crystal Ridge again. This time granted in much cooler temperatures but it was now past 3am and I was starting to really just want to sleep. In an almost zombie-like fashion we inched up the hill. Luckily for me my third pacer, Corey was used to this type of shift as he works nights at the airport so at least one of us was wide awake. The hill seemed to take even longer in the dark and I started to play music on my phone to keep my mind off the never-ending climb. I’m not so sure the other racers enjoyed my selections but I just needed a distraction. Corey and I sang together for a while and it made everything feel easier.
By the time we reached the top of Diamond Peak I was delirious. The thought of having to run another 4-5 hours was not longer top of mind for me and I just tried to concentrate on keeping dialogue going with Corey. About anything at all. We approached the last stop at Tunnel Creek and I must admit I thought maybe the handsy aid station volunteer might perk me up by smacking me on the butt again. But she was nowhere to be found. It was just Corey and I at this point…me getting a little grouchy…insisting we go faster…he telling me I need to conserve energy.
At this point I didn’t realize how little energy I actually had. I was so focused on finishing the race and getting to bed that it became my sole motivation. The faster I could finish the faster I could get under the sheets, lay my head on the pillow and sleep the rest of the day. It resulted in me having absolutely zero forethought into how long I might be able to hold a running pace. And when that time came…I would be completely wasted…unable to finish.
Corey knew this and was doing his best to make me powerhike even when I thought I could run.
Much of the next 10+ miles was powerhiking in-fact. It wasn’t so bad after a while though as the sun started to rise and the breathtaking views were once again visible. It’s amazing how much energy they gave me even this late into the race. I started to feel awake again as the orange glow came over the horizon and I saw the look of awe on Corey’s face just as I had seen on Stephanie’s.
After getting to the second-to-last aid station I was now just taking orders from Corey. “Eat this”…”Ok”…”Time to drink”…”Sir, Yes, Sir” (My sense of humor was still there luckily)…”Time to gel”…”I’m done, here’s my empty packet”. Yes, he was asking for proof. I was pretty mindless toward the last 10 miles. We left the aid station with a breakfast taco in hand and marched onward to the last two sections of course.
The climbs up to Snow Valley were no joke but at this point I was moving in an automatic mode…just putting one foot in front of the other as I thought about how close it was to sleeping in that amazingly hotel bed. Corey would struggle to keep up on the powerhiking sections but then speed ahead on the downhills…I let him. He deserved to have a little fun in exchange for putting up with me.
We got to the top of Snow Valley Peak again at I had perhaps the best surprise of my life while on top of a mountain. They had SORBET…in 6 different flavors! And it was GLORIOUS!!! I chose mango and just stared at the amazing view in a daze as I shoveled it into my mouth. I was needing something to get me thru those last 7 miles and the sorbet did the trick. Just as we were finishing up…another surprise put a little kick in my step. Another runner named Soon, from San Francisco, somehow recognized me! This was weird…I mean I’m NOT a running celebrity by any means. But he is currently being coached by Liza Howard and she had told him about me. Wait….LIZA HOWARD? Like, THE Liza Howard knows who I even am? Awesome!
Corey, Soon and I spent the next 7 miles on and off together, talking…being frustrated that our watches had died…wondering around what turn we’d see the last water station before the finish. We had brought ourselves to the brink of destruction but were somehow still moving forward. The course had not taken our drive away like it had nearly 100 other runners that day who DNF’d. Soon and I, running our first 100 mile race were still IN the race and were actually going to finish in respectable times! We basked a little in the glory of knowing we would get a silver buckle (under 30 hours) and it powered us the last few miles in.
Soon was obviously feeling a little better than I was as he got much more jovial as we approached the finish…in a joking tease he started to run ahead saying, “Hey I’m just gonna get ahead of you here if you don’t mind”. I didn’t…I was spent. I had given the race everything I had…chased pain all over my right leg but with what seemed like the help of a guardian angel I had not failed. Those angels were my pacers (of whom I was now walking the last mile in with as Courtney and Stephanie ran out to find me). I was overcome with emotion…but somehow unable to show with incredible exhaustion having taken over. I was going to finish…
As I got within about a quarter mile of the finish the woods erupted with screams from my mother, sister, father and our friends from Austin that came to crew for Ty and me. The finish felt anti-climactic to me until I sat down and finally shed a few tears. I had done it. After a good 10 minutes I staggered out in a haze…mumbled for help to get to the car and was soon heading for that beautiful bed. The post-race meal (a shameless two doubles, Animal Style, fries and a Dr. Pepper) was no match for my exhaustion…as soon as it was all down, so was I…