Posted by: pointlenana | September 29, 2016

Tahoe 200 – Sept 9-12 2016

“Just because it happened to you, doesn’t mean it’s interesting” – Dennis Hopper

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The short version for Dennis Hopper fans:  After a lot of miles on dusty trails, and with not much sleep, I finished the 205 mile Tahoe 200 race in 77+ hours.  I ended up in a true (albeit slow-motion) race over the last ~27 miles.

The “Really long race deserves a really long race report because it happened to me” version:

Very uncertain about what I had gotten myself into, I went into the Tahoe 200 with four goals:

– Enjoy being on the only single-loop 200+ mile course in the US – I’d get to travel around Lake Tahoe on foot, mostly through the mountains.  Few people get to do this – maybe as a backpack, but not as a supported “race” in just a few days.

– Finish.  I knew I’d get far enough to see a lot of the Lake Tahoe area in all its splendor, but I knew I’d be frustrated if I ran, say, 155 miles and wasn’t able to finish the loop/race.

– Finish before it got dark again on Monday.  The race has a generous cutoff – 100 hours to do 205 miles, or barely faster than 2 miles per hour.  But taking the full 100 hours means fighting through 4 nights of sleep deprivation.  I’d done two nights at UTMB, and was worried enough about a third night.  4 nights seemed unthinkable (unless I had to do it to finish). Plus, the longer I was out, the more likely it was that less-than-perfect weather would roll in.

– Finish strong and ideally do well in my age group.  If everything lined up and I was feeling ok late in the race, I’d try to move along in the late miles and maybe pass some people.

 

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My mug shot, for UltraLive.  Photo: Scott Rokis

 

The other runners:  I usually look at who else is running, mostly to see if I know anyone.  It was a little scary looking at the list – a guy who set the FKT on the Colorado Trail, people who’ve finished Hardrock multiple times, people who’ve done very well at other hard races.  Even the “slow” people were intimidating – people who’ve finished Tahoe 200 twice before, or did Bigfoot 200 just 3 weeks before we were starting Tahoe 200.  I didn’t quite have the Imposter Syndrome feeling I had before my first ultra – I was relatively confident that I could finish – but everyone else seemed to have a lot of experience with races that beat you up.

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I started in my UTMB shirt – UTMB was the hardest race I’d done before this, so I figured it was a lucky shirt.

After days of feeling like I was waiting around for something big to happen, race day (Fri Sept 9) finally came.  It did not begin in a confidence-inspiring way:

–  On Thursday, as I was getting ready, I realized I hadn’t actually packed the shoes I planned to start the race in.  I was already waffling on shoes – I really wanted to wear my Altra Olympus shoes but I’ve had a heel blister in those in recent 100 mile races and wasn’t sure what kind of nightmare that would turn into over an extra 100 miles.  I decided to wear my Altra Lone Peaks for the first 60 miles, then switch to the Olympus and hope that any blister wouldn’t get too bad in 140 miles.  Except that I never actually packed the Lone Peaks.  So… on Thursday I decided the Olympus shoes would have to work.

– Also on Thursday, one of the many yellow jackets buzzing around landed on me.  They weren’t aggressive – this was hard to do, but if I ignored them they were fine.  But this one started crawling under the edge of my shorts leg – that wasn’t going to work for me so I swatted at it and it stung me above my knee.  By Friday morning that quad was swollen around the sting.

– During a short shakeout run with Janet on Thursday, I really felt the 6000 foot elevation.  I’ve read that acclimation mostly takes place within 2-5 days of getting to altitude – and you perform a little worse while you are adapting.  We had arrived Wed, the race started Fri, and the course was all between 6000 to 9000+ feet.  So basically I would be in “adapt” mode through the whole race, and the lowest point/elevation of the race already felt hard for me.

– On Friday before the race, as I put on my now-critical pair of Olympus shoes, I noticed that my right shoe was really frayed near the joint of my big toe, where these shoes tend to wear out.  I wondered if it would last through the race without opening up to the rocks and dirt.

Nothing really critical, and I expected some/many things to go wrong during the race, but it didn’t seem like a great way to start.

Start to Barker Pass

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Looking up at the first (and last) mile of the course.

Friday morning came, Janet and I arrived at the start, I got my bib and put it on, and set about waiting for 80+ hours of fun to begin.  After months of training and weeks of getting ready, I was eager to get to the doing part.

Before the race, there are plenty of things to freak out about.  For example, my big concern in the last few days was the timing of my mid-race rendezvous with first Janet (at Heavenly) and then my friend Scott (at Spooner).  Janet was up for running with me through the night from Heavenly, and Scott hadn’t seen the Tahoe Rim Trail from Spooner to Tunnel Creek and was willing to, as he said beforehand, “run unfamiliar trails with an older gentleman he’d only met on the internet”.  But the timing was a little delicate – if Janet was going to spend hours in darkness with me, I wanted her to see the sunrise, and I figured it would be crazy for Scott to meet me in the middle of the night.  Plus, Janet and Scott were somewhat dependent upon each other for transportation after their time running with me.  My time projections worked fine – I’d get to Heavenly before midnight on Saturday and meet Scott at Spooner a little after daybreak.  But if I was very early to Heavenly, our careful plan would fall apart.

This is a tiny race – about 100 people started – so we milled about and then moved a few feet to the space behind the start arch.  My friend Gwen from Seattle (Team Seven Hills!) pulled out her camera and asked someone (Amy, who I would meet later in the race) to take our picture.  After she took the picture, I looked over my shoulder and noticed the race had started.  Oh.  So we were off.

 

We all ran for the first 100 flat feet before the turn uphill and then ran for another 100 feet.  Then we all simultaneously realized we had 205.4 miles ahead of us and started walking.  Clouds of dust rose, giving us a literal taste of things to come.  After a quarter mile I realized I was working way too hard for the beginning of this crazy race, and slowed to a pace that seemed somewhat sane.

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It was a little dusty, but only between the start and the finish.  That’s my friend Gwen in the blue shirt and yellow hat in the middle.  I’m eating her dust, somewhere behind her. Photo: Scott Rokis.

The Tahoe 200 course is one huge ~191 mile loop around Lake Tahoe, with a 7 mile “lollipop handle” section at the start and end that gets us between Homewood on the Tahoe shore and the loop up in the mountains.  We climbed gradually – well, not that gradually – up through the ski area on service roads and eventually trails higher up.  Each difficult step up now would be a difficult downhill step we’d do 3 or 4 days later on beat-up legs and feet.  Eventually we worked our way up to views of Lake Tahoe and the ridgeline across the lake in Nevada we’d be running in a day or two.  The forest opened up and the terrain reminded me of some of the higher stuff near Mt. Baden Powell at Angeles Crest.

 

I was very conscious of the effect that altitude could have on me – I think it wore me out some at Western States last year, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  I had decided not to wear my heart rate monitor strap (another thing to chafe) and I missed that concrete feedback on effort, but tried hard to err on the side of extra-easy.  I was passed again and again on the way up, and at one point wondered if the entire field had passed and I was now DFL.  I didn’t really care though, and eventually I heard people somewhere behind me.

I started feeling a rock in my shoe under my heel.  I disconnected my gaiter, took the shoe off (and noticed that the worn spot on the side had already turned into a hole – great), shook the shoe, and didn’t see a rock fall out but figured it had to be gone.  I put it all back on and continued, and then felt it again.  Dang.  I took it off again, took out the insole, shook it hard a few times, didn’t see anything come out, but again figured it was gone.  Back on and back up the trail.  &^%#.  Still there.  One more time.  Nothing came out when I shook, and I didn’t see how anything could be in my sock already.  I poked around at the spot in the heel where I was getting jabbed, and felt something a little rough.  Ahh – there’s a small rock stuck there!  I scratched at it, trying to dislodge it but it didn’t move.  I turned my shoe over and noticed something sticking out slightly at that same spot.   What is this thing?  After using a rock to push it out from the inside (it was too sharp to use my finger on), I had my answer – a thorn or sharp stick had gone all the way through my sole, and when I landed on a rock just right the evil thing would push up into my insole and foot.  This seemed to fit with the bee sting and forgotten shoes – I hoped it was the 3rd and last of 3 bad things that come together.

 

After 4 miles heading up, we were near the top and started into rolling hills along the ridge towards the aid station at Barker Pass.  To the left we could see the Crystal Basin and Loon Lake (which we would reach in another 20 miles or so), and to the right we could see Lake Tahoe.

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Near Barker Pass – I filmed Scott while he took pictures of me.  Photo: Scott Rokis

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Photo: Scott Rokis

On those first downhills in the race, I discovered that my swollen bee-stung quad hurt.  I knew I wasn’t really injured, but I worried that swelling/pain on the downhills would cause some secondary problem – compensation elsewhere, internal friction due to the swelling – that might lead to a real injury over the course of 200 miles.  I got my poles out and used them when necessary to take a little of the impact off.  Fortunately as the day went on, I got enough blood into that area and the swelling and pain went away – after the first 6 hours or so, I never noticed it again.

As I came into the Barker Pass aid station, I noticed Howie Stern in blue shirt and shorts filling up his water bottles.  Howie is one of those hard hard runners I noticed in the entrants lists – he’s finished Hardrock 8 times (and Angeles Crest 8 times).  I ran briefly with him AC100 this year, and continued to cross paths with him for the first half of the Tahoe race.

 

Barker Pass to Rubicon Aid Station

The Barker Pass aid station had a lot of yellow jackets buzzing around.  It felt uncomfortable but they didn’t seem aggressive.  I noticed that the woman checking runners in looked familiar – it turned out to be my friend’s friend Holly who I had met at San Diego 100 in June.  I mentioned the bees and she said “yeah, I just got stung on my foot”.  That seemed like a prompt to get going so I thanked people and headed down the road.  As I left, I noticed Howie coming back up/returning to the aid station.  “Forgot my poles”.

After a short fast section on a gravel road, we turned onto the Pacific Crest/Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT).  Much of the course was on the TRT, but after a few nice wooded single-track miles early, the TRT continues into Desolation Wilderness.  Events aren’t allowed in the wilderness, so we turned off the TRT and headed deeper into the Crystal Basin on the Rubicon Trail.

 

The Rubicon Trail – that sounds great somehow, until you find out it’s one of the, if not THE, jeep trails known worldwide that you’ve got to drive in your souped-up jeep.  There are websites that tell you how to modify your jeep for this trail.  (I was unable to find a website that told me how to modify my body to run it.)  I saw a couple dozen jeeps over the ~6 miles that we “ran” – thankfully most were heading towards us and generally we runners were moving much faster than the jeeps.  This trail was DUSTY.  Big dusty boulders sitting among a 6 inch layer of dust.  It was interesting comparing what jeeps struggle with vs. what runners struggle with – we’d run right between two big boulders that a jeep would struggle to get past, and then we’d gimp along on a section of ankle-breakers that the jeeps would cruise over.  The other interesting thing in this section was the outhouses every quarter to half mile.  If driving your jeep there is a big thrill, then I imagine that people compete to be the person who gets to drive the jeep that brings in/out outhouses when necessary – that must take some real skill.

 

I didn’t catch any jeeps on my GoPro, but here’s a video of what the Rubicon Trail is like for jeeps: https://youtu.be/DcF294IUEQQ?t=312

I can’t say the Rubicon Trail was fun.  We were all glad when we got out of the dust-and-boulders section and onto the granite slabs near Buck Island Lake.  At the aid station there, the yellow jackets were even worse than at Barker Pass.  I reached into a bag of cheese watching 4 or 5 yellow jackets buzz around my arm and hand.  The aid station said (again) that they were not aggressive at all, but I felt a strong urge to get going and left pretty quickly.

Rubicon to Tell’s Creek Aid Station

I liked this section a lot – we worked our way over granite slabs and eventually over a rise down to Loon Lake which we had seen from the ridge hours previously.  This was classic Sierras – a huge granite basin, alpine lakes, a nice long trail along Loon Lake.  At some point in this section, I decided I was giving up on the GoPro for the rest of the run – getting it in and out of my pack was a little difficult, and a couple times I pulled it out only to find out it had been filming in the inside of my pack’s pocket.  If it was a little annoying at mile 25, I’d probably fling it off a cliff at mile 125.  (Thankfully, another runner had his system worked out and produced this nice 40 minute movie of the race:  Cesare’s movie)

 

Tell’s Creek to Wrights Lake

I don’t remember Tell’s Creek Aid Station very well – I recognize it in pictures – but I know I stopped there to get my lights.  It was about 5 in the evening and in planning drop bags I didn’t think I’d get all the way to Wright’s Lake before sunset.  (Good call – I didn’t get there until 90+ minutes after it got pitch black.) On my way to Wright’s, I had to hustle a little to climb up a small ridge before sunset so I’d get a small glimpse of the mountains (like Pyramid Peak) at the edge of Desolation Wilderness.  I have a sentimental attachment to Wright’s Lake because I started a couple of teenage backpacking trips into Desolation from Wright’s Lake.

 

I made it up to the ridge in time for my glimpse, put on my headlamp and continued on as darkness fell.  Dust in the air was thick.  Shortly after it got really dark, I rounded a corner and stumbled over a a big brown dusty rock sitting in six inches of brown loose dirt, obscured by a haze of brown dust in the air.  After getting up from my awkward fall, I got my poles out again and picked my way on down the road.  I suddenly remembered a brief mention of the Barrett Jeep Trail during the course briefing.  This was it.  If the Rubicon Jeep Trail was challenging in daylight, the Barrett Trail at night in the dust was much worse.  Poles saved me multiple times from awkward falls.  At some point Howie Stern rumbled past me, saying something like “They said this would be bad – it’s #$*&%^ terrible.”  The dust road eventually ended in a bridge.  We crossed some granite slabs that were wonderful after the dust, passed through a gate, and made our way on a paved road to Wright’s Lake aid station.  I remember it being a little crowded – UltraLive shows ~15 people arriving in the 20 minutes that I was there.

(More Jeep porn, showing the Barrett trail, the bridge we crossed in the darkness, and the Crystal Basin: http://wayalife.com/showthread.php?29554-Barrett-Lake-OHV-Jeep-Trail-1st-Run-Since-Re-Opening-Trip-Report)

Wright’s Lake to Sierra

Each segment was relatively manageable up to Wright’s Lake – 7, 11, 12.5, 13.5 miles.  As the race goes on, the segments get longer.  Wright’s Lake to Sierra At Tahoe was the longest yet – 19 miles.  But I knew we’d have at least a few miles of paved road, and there was a water-only stop about 12 miles in.

I left the aid station, wound my way on single track for a few miles in the darkness and then came to a turn with suspiciously crappy marking.  The Destination Trails team did a great job marking the course.  Most turns/intersections of significance were marked with flags (aka “dragons” – pink and yellow striped tape with a reflector on the clothespin) before the turn, a yellow sign pointing in the right direction, and often another sign clearly marking the Wrong Way.  In this case I came up a hill to a trail and then had a choice of going mostly straight/a bit to the left or making a sharp turn back to the right.  No markers to the left.  I looked to the right and up high there was a single dragon a few feet down the trail.  It didn’t feel right but it seemed to be a marker so I took the sharp right turn and set off down the trail.  I ran, looked in vain for more markers, I ran some more, looked in vain for markers, and ran a bit more before concluding I had somehow screwed up.  I carried a gps unit in my pack with the course map, but it was at this point where I remembered a) I didn’t really know how to use it b) I had planned to practice with it the day before the race started and c) I had forgotten to do that.  Faced with a choice between interrupting my trail run to learn new technology or heading back the way I came and either spotting the right trail or finding other runners, I headed back up the path.

I had run about 10 minutes down the trail and retraced maybe 5 minutes of that, when 3 runners came towards me.  I told them there were no flags.  Two of them got their gps/maps out and concluded we were on the right trail.  The four of us continued on in the direction I had started and ran for a mile without markers.  Finally, about 1 1/2 miles from the turn, we found a lone marker.  By this point we had concluded that someone had vandalized the markings, and I suspected the vandals had simply missed this one.  We continued on for another 2 uncomfortable miles (are we really on track?) before dumping out into a parking lot where the markers started again.  A couple people told me later that they found a pile of markers in the parking area, and one heroic participant (Davy Rowe) who lives in the area and knows the trails ran back up the course a while after we passed through, restoring some of the markers.

After making it to the parking lot, the four of us stuck together heading towards highway 50 and the crossing towards Sierra at Tahoe.  We introduced ourselves – Amy, Shaun, Julian, me.  After some more trail, we hit the paved Wright Lake road and headed downhill.  Ahhh, downhill pavement – no real tripping hazards, no dust, 4 sets of eyes looking for flags.  We stretched our legs and started clicking off 9-ish minute miles, hoping we wouldn’t regret that later.  After a few quick miles on the road we turned back off onto a trail and paralleled highway 50.  I found myself running with Amy, as Shaun pulled away ahead and Julian dropped off behind us.  After a few miles of winding in and out of small gulleys and crossing steams, we reached the water-only (unmanned) stop at the highway.  I think I crossed with Amy and/or Shaun, but felt the uphill and watched as they pulled away.  2:30am, I had almost 60 miles on my body, and I was alone again. The trail seemed very twisty – I knew I should be headed generally uphill to the east, and yet I often felt like I was heading downhill to the west.  It took some self-discipline but I continued to follow the trail markers even though they seemed wrong.  I finally hit a ski road and walked uphill to the aid station, arriving at 3:36am, a few minutes after Amy.

The aid station was inside the ski lodge – warmth, light, chairs to sit in, people offering me food and drink.  Basically heaven.  I sat down near Amy and her crew, to assess the state of my world.  Someone brought me my drop “bag” (a large plastic bin).  I dug through it, found my big portable charger, and immediately fed my electronics habit – charge one running watch that had died a couple hours earlier (I was now wearing a second one) and charge the headlamp battery that was almost done.  I took my GoPro out and abandoned it in the drop bag.  I took my gaiters, shoes and socks off to assess the feet damage – some sore spots but nothing disastrous.  Doc Todd came by, inquiring about fixing my feet – we agreed I’d take a nap and let my feet air dry for a bit, and then he’d look at them.  I ate food of some sort, and then left all my stuff where it was and wandered up to the sleeping area – another big dining area in the lodge that was dark and filled with air mattresses and heavy felt blankets.  I found an empty bed, set my phone alarm for an hour, and tried to sleep.  I fell asleep pretty quickly but – surprise! – I wasn’t the only one who had set a phone alarm, so I spent the next 45 minutes taking a series of very short naps and waking up to someone’s alarm.   I gave up early and headed back out to my stuff.  Doc Todd was busy – fixing Amy’s feet I think – so I ate some more and gathered my things.  I realized that daybreak was coming and didn’t mind stalling for a few minutes so I could head out into daylight.  My watch was fully charged.  My headlamp battery wasn’t so I attached it to a very small portable charger and threw them both in my pack.  Doc Todd looked at my feet and we decided on taping the heel where I’ve had blister problems, and the balls of both feet, using Leukotape.   That stuff is awesome – wipe a little of the dirt off, put the tape on, and it will stay in place for days.  Doc Todd told me that any incipient blisters would probably grow and pop, but the tape would keep the blistered/torn skin in place and minimize problems.  I put new socks and new gaiters on and looked a little anxiously at the hole in my shoe and the worn section now heading back towards my heel.  Do shoe tops ever tear completely off the sole?  I had no spare shoes to put on but knew I had an untested pair of Hokas in the back of the car I’d see at Heavenly – not a great option but at least it was an option.  I put on a warm shirt, restocked the pantry in my pack (gels, baby foods), and checked out at 6:08, about 15 minutes before it was light enough to run trails.

 

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Doc Todd, with me after the race.  Of the 80 finishers, Todd helped close to 80 with feet problems (and other stuff) during the race.  I saw him at every major aid station.

Sierra At Tahoe to Housewife Hill Aid Station:  Leaving the aid station just before daylight, I had 5-10 minutes of ski road ahead of me, so I walked down while greeting a few runners coming uphill on their way in.  I was pretty surprised at how much better I felt after 2+ hours of eating and getting horizontal.

 

Even after there was enough light to run, I mostly walked for the better part of 5 miles as daylight – and the morning sun on the boulder garden I was passing through – restored my energy.  My watch was showing paces in 16-20 minute/mile range.  Not counting aid station stops, 3 mph (20 minute miles) was fast enough for a 67 hour finish – way ahead of what I thought was possible – and I still had about 135 miles and 2 nights to get through.  Walking with purpose at sub 20 min/mile pace was ok – I could run the downhills and run more later if I had the energy.  Eventually I found myself on a quarter mile section on the shoulder of Highway 50 – I smiled as cars passed a very dirty person stumbling along the edge of the road – and then had a long downhill traverse to the Housewife Hill aid station.  That was fun – pretty runnable but also a dramatic trail with lots of exposure overlooking the valley below.  This was a short section, so I arrived at the aid station a little bit after 8am.  I was surprised to see Holly there again after seeing her at Barker Pass the day before.  I asked the obvious question – will I see you again – and found out she’d be doing at 43 hour shift at Tahoe City later in the race.  Amy, my friend from earlier, rolled in a few minutes after me.  I ate some kind of warm food – burrito with eggs maybe? – and eyed the jello shots on the table but thought better of it.  I filled my water bladder – it would be almost 18 miles to the next aid station, in the heat of the day, and I wouldn’t arrive until mid-afternoon.  At this point I was 50 minutes ahead of schedule – this seemed ok, I wasn’t in danger of arriving at Heavenly way early, and had some spare time for next the 35 miles to Heavenly.

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I’m guessing, but I think this is Saturday morning near Housewife Hill – no sun hat and long shadows.  Photo: Scott Rokis

Housewife Hill to Armstrong Aid Station

As much as I had studied the course before the race, I still didn’t have a good sense of the exact path for any given section.  In my mind, we would work our way up to Luther Pass where highway 89 crosses out of South Lake Tahoe and drops back into the Markleeville area where the Death Ride happens.  (I had ridden up to Luther Pass a few years ago in the Alta Alpina ride – basically Death Ride plus 3 more passes, supposedly the “world’s toughest double century”).  We did head uphill and got on the TRT, but then we dropped down into Big Meadow and crossed 89 just as it starts up to Luther Pass.  We passed through a nice parking area/trailhead with bathrooms, but no water.  Then we started the real climb up to Armstrong Pass with about 8 miles of the section done and 11 miles to go.

I left Housewife Hill carrying about 80 oz of water (and tanked up my stomach before I left).  At the parking lot/trailhead, I had about 60oz left.  But it was getting warm and the 11 mostly-uphill miles would take 4 or more hours.  I continued on, trying to move slowly enough to keep sweating to a minimum and doling out water bit by bit.  I passed a runner asleep on a perfect flat bed-shaped rock, and decided that looked nice and started looking for my own rock.  I never found a rock that good, but found an ok one and lay down for a couple minutes.  Then I got up and continued.  Eventually – about 3 hours later – I crossed the pass (2nd highest point on the course) and headed down.  I turned off the TRT onto a ~1 mile detour down to the dirt road with aid station.  As I descended, I passed a few runners heading back out –  we exchanged the standard “good job!”.   I rolled into the aid station at about 2:30, an hour or so ahead of schedule.

It was daytime again, which meant yellow jackets, but they weren’t as bad as they were in the southeast part of the course.  Armstrong Pass was also a sleep station – they had tents set up with sleep pads and blankets.  Since I was ahead of schedule, I went to lie down for 15 minutes after eating a really good veggie burrito.  Again, I was amazed at the impact of 15 minutes of being horizontal and napping briefly.  I got my stuff together and left 25 minutes ahead of schedule – perfect.  I’d probably be on time to Heavenly, maybe with a little extra time to sleep there.

Armstrong to Heavenly

As I left, I was dreading the mile hike uphill back to the TRT – it was technical and slow coming down and wouldn’t be any faster going up.  It went by faster than I expected though and soon enough I was back on the TRT for a long uphill traverse to the high point of the run (9700 feet).  Amy and her pacer Chris ambled by me – I tried to stick with them but it felt hard so I let them go on.  I caught them again at the high point/next pass – we admired the view across the valley to the backside of Heavenly Ski Resort and up to Freel Peak.  I felt ok and set off ahead – mostly downhill to Heavenly aid station.

In terms of my progress, things got kind of fuzzy at this point.  I had traveled 90 miles, I hadn’t slept much, and I had the typical ultrarunner’s hopeless optimism about the aid station being around the next corner.  In reality I had 10 miles left to go and should have been thinking 3+ hours left.  Instead I convinced myself that once I contoured around the valley and crossed the distant pass, the aid station would be right there.  My watch battery gave out suddenly during the traverse so I was semi-guessing about distance left.   After a long time, during which I remembered watching (on the gps tracker) my friend Tamara do this last year and being surprised at how long it took, I finally crossed the distant pass where I expected to find the aid station.

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During the long traverse, on the way to Heavenly.  Photo: Scott Rokis.

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The sun just starting to sink over the Heavenly ridge.  Photo: Scott Rokis.  This is a good time to mention that Scott (official race photographer) broke a few bones in his foot 5 weeks before the race in a mountain bike accident.  He thinks he covered 40+ miles on foot (with a walking boot) during the weekend, trying to capture our race.  Yet another example of how everyone involved with the race – crew, staff, photographer, volunteer – worked hard even though they weren’t running.

Instead of the aid station, I found myself on a fairly steep hillside looking down into Nevada.  During Alta Alpina, I rode up Kingsbury Grade – our aid station would be near the top of that – so I started looking for the road below me.  Nowhere to be found.  I continued traversing along the backside.  The trail was somewhat downhill but technical enough that I wasn’t moving fast.  I went on.  And on.  And on.  Still no sign of the Kingsbury Grade.  I rounded a corner and climbed a steep ski road under lift.  “I MUST be close” I thought.  I continued on for a couple miles, and went under another ski lift (“really, 2 miles between lifts???”).  It started to get dark so I put on my headlamp.  Another runner (Aaron – he’ll play a major role later) ran past me at high speed – “you’re doing great” I said, to which he replied “I’m running hard so I won’t fall asleep”.  In full darkness, I finally found the turn down to the aid station – similar to Armstrong Pass, we had a short out-and-back, thankfully only a half mile this time.

I rolled into the Heavenly aid station.  I didn’t immediately see Janet, but I figured she was trying to stay warm in the car and would show up soon.  I sat down in a chair and then realized why the aid station felt odd – there was almost no light.  Race director Candice Burt came by and asked what I needed.  I said something about the darkness and she said “The power went out, we have a generator on the way.”  I whined about wanting to charge my headlamp battery, but then I realized I had a flashlight and tried to put on my cheerful, take-things-as-they-come voice.  That said, it was – surprisingly – emotionally crushing to show up in an aid station after a 5 hour journey into nighttime and not have the aid station be a bright cheerful place.  People thrust pizza and ice cream thrust upon me and I fumbled around trying to do things with a flashlight in one hand and food in the other.  Janet appeared – awesome, she can hold the light.  I got my watch and headlamp battery charging again.  I enjoyed having my wife and multiple aid station people waiting on me.  I asked for hot chocolate and overheard a conversation between Candice and a volunteer – they really needed a hotpot to heat water because a small pot on a stove wasn’t making enough hot water.  Candice used her radio to ask one of her crew to get a hot pot.

(I was really impressed with Candice and the care she puts into the race – I saw her at the start, at least three aid stations, and the finish.  She had lots going on, problems to solve, and slept less than we did.  The entire time she was calm and always making decisions in best interests of the runners.  It reminded me of Scott Mills at San Diego 100.)

I sent Janet off to scout out the sleeping situation and whether I could walk there barefoot.  Yes.  But the beds were all filled.  I waited for a bit while someone (Aaron’s brother I think) found an extra mattress and crammed it into an almost-mattress-sized opening between two sleeping runners in a tent.  I took out my sleeping bag, set my alarm and crawled in.  I lay there for about 60-90 minutes mostly sleeping.  Towards the end 2 of the 3 other  people in the tent packed up their stuff and left.  Meanwhile, a girlfriendof the guy on the other side of me crawled in to share the mattress with the guy (I think she was doing the race also).  I was awake by then and it was getting close to when we should get ready so I packed up and went back to my chair and drop bag.  Janet showed up again (she’d gone back to her sleeping bag in the car) and stuffed my sleeping bag.  More food, more warm drinks.  I put on new socks, but couldn’t find new gaiters in my drop bag (a packing mistake? the plan?  I couldn’t tell the difference any more).  My shoes and feet didn’t seem to be degrading precipitously so I opted not to switch to the untested Hokas in the back of our car.  Our plan was to leave at 12:45 am but we left shortly after midnight, thinking we’d probably see the sunrise and if we were a little early to Spooner, Pacer Scott would figure it out when he awoke.

Heavenly to Spooner

Janet had never run at night by headlamp before.  I wanted her to experience one of my favorite things – seeing the sun come up after traveling many hours with only the cone of light from a headlamp.  It’s 20 miles to Spooner aid station, consisting of a gradual 2000 foot climb and then losing most of that back in the descent to Spooner Pass.  We set off shortly after midnight, worked up to the TRT, and travelled for about 4 miles to the crossing at Kingsbury Grade.  We saw a headlamp a little ways behind us and figured we’d get passed shortly.  At the road crossing, we looked up at loud party going on (1:30 am) in a house above.  Janet commented on not getting passed.  I explained “Everyone around me is going almost exactly the same speed I am – we may not get passed for a while”.  It wasn’t until 2 or 3 miles later that someone passed us – it was Julian, from way back on the Wright’s Lake road 60 miles previously.  We talked to him for a moment and he moved on ahead.  A little while later we heard a loud crunching sound ahead and an expletive-sounding voice, and hoped Julian was ok.  Shortly after that Janet (who was ahead of me for most of this leg, so she could set a pace that was comfortable for her), tripped over a nasty rock and said “oh, that’s what he did”.

Miles passed.  At some point I realized that “a pace that is comfortable for Janet” was too fast for me so I had to ask her to stop running away from me.  Around 3 in the morning I got really sleepy and downed a couple gels with caffeine.  Unfortunately, the caffeine doesn’t really work for an hour or so, so I stumbled on, trying not to fall asleep.  We found ourselves on a high ridge/plateau and could sort-of-see Lake Tahoe in the darkness to the our left.  The moon had set by then, but the stars were out in force – Orion, The Big and Small Dips, etc..  We passed a runner and his pacer sitting on a rock in the open with a cold wind blowing and a space blanket wrapped around them.  The runner asked “Got any caffeine?”  “Sure, here’s a caffeinated gel.”  “Yeah, I’ve tried that.  Anything else?”  I realized he was trying to make a drug deal – looking for caffeine pills, which we didn’t have.  We continued on, hoping they wouldn’t sit there and get hypothermic.

The sun started coming up during our descent to Spooner Pass.  With 4 miles of the segment left, it gradually got light enough to see around us and eventually the trail in front of us.  Once there was enough light, we started running.  Spurred on by another runner coming up behind us, we ran and pulled away.  We arrived at Spooner at 6:45am, 45 minutes ahead of schedule.  I told Scott we’d aim to leave around 8, but that it could be a little earlier or later.  I didn’t see him at the aid station as we arrived but figured he’d arrive shortly.  This aid station was one of the few places on the course where phones worked, so a quick text confirmed that Scott was on his way.  Janet got her warm things out my drop bag.  Scott showed up.  I tried to lie down but was too awake.  I got up, used the bathroom, got ready, and then Scott and I set off.

Spooner to Tunnel Creek

I only knew Scott from an online runners group – I hadn’t met him in person.  He’s not much of a trail runner (yet).  But he lives near Tahoe, he was up for the adventure, and willing to help me out during the race in any way possible.  I really didn’t want people to have to crew me – even Janet – because it seems like they’d have all the pain of an ultra (no sleep, weird hours, odd food) with none of the trail running fun.  I mostly declined his help, but in addition to running with me, Scott solved the problem of getting Janet back to her car at Heavenly after she ran with me.  Janet would run to Spooner, Scott would meet us there, Scott would run to Tunnel Creek with me, Janet would drive Scott’s truck to Tunnel Creek, and then he’d drive her back to Heavenly, and then go home to Reno.  From start to finish Scott spent at least 10 hours helping some random older gentleman he met on the internet, not to mention any prep/cleanup.  Super Scott.

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Somewhere near Snow Valley Peak, looking southwest.  The early part of the race happened beyond the horizon you can see in this picture.  Then we worked our way south out the left side of this picture, then east and north up to this point.  Photo: Pacer Scott/Super Scott

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Super Scott, displaying his artsy side with this panorama.

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Practicing my “20 feet ahead” stare.  It’s not like there was a view to see anyway.  Photo: Super Scott

Super Scott and I set off towards Tunnel Creek.  Scott entertained me with tales of his route-finding misadventures in the area (just what I wanted to hear – my pacer gets lost easily).  We ascended slowly up a 2000 foot climb towards Snow Valley Peak.  Along the way, Aaron (I mentioned him earlier, but it’s not yet time for his major role) slowly passed us.  Scott commented on Aaron’s not-100%-graceful speedwalker gait, trying to goad me into picking up my pace.  I explained that my approach – especially at elevation – is to not push the uphills, and try to run harder on the downhills when it doesn’t take much energy.  I predicted we’d pass the speedwalker guy on the downhill.  We crested the pass, and almost immediately passed the speedwalker guy (aka Aaron).  My watch died again shortly so we pulled over and I quickly swapped watches.  Then we set off.  We both saw a woman a short distance ahead, and ran after her, thinking we’d pass her soon.  We ran and ran and she was gone.  We decided she was either a shared hallucination (“Same taste in hallucinations about women” according to Scott), or she wasn’t a racer and had taken a different trail soon after we saw her.

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My memory is a bit fuzzy about when and where, but we were treated to some great views of Marlette Lake and Lake Tahoe.  Scott was hoping we’d pass a point where it looks like the two lakes connect – it looks like we did based on Scott’s photo above.  That picture is looking northwest – Tunnel Creek/Incline Village is behind the ridge on the other side of Marlette Lake.  And way over across Lake Tahoe, at the left side of the picture, is where I’ll be in just another 40 miles or so.  With only 35 miles or so left after that to finish.

Down and down we went.  I tried to run as much as I could – walking occasionally just to rest things for many miles left.  At some point I felt a blister pop under the ball of my left foot (the foot that had a shoe with no hole in the side – go figure).  It hurt a lot and I momentarily thought I’d have a super-painful 70 miles of walking to the finish.  I tried to ignore it and not compensate with weird running mechanics.  Thankfully, the pain went away after a few minutes and the Leukotape did its job of keeping things patched.

The final descent on a dirt road into Tunnel Creek is pretty steep.  The run turned into a stay-in-control shuffle down the hill.  When things flattened out, it was pretty warm and I felt slightly cooked, so we walked the last half mile or so into the aid station.  Janet was there, tending to people’s feet as an impromptu medical volunteer.  Candice Burt was there too, taking care of race stuff.  I ate, sat in a chair for a bit, and then wandered off to a sleep tent.   While I was lying down, another runner arrived and mentioned a bear – the guy was running down the trail and a mountain biker was riding up towards him, then the biker suddenly turned around and raced off downhill, yelling “bear!”.  The runner took off down the hill, looked over his shoulder, and saw a bear headed his way.  Somehow, even though you aren’t supposed to run away from bears, things turned out ok.

I lay in the tent for a few minutes but the popped blister on the sole of my foot kept sending out little stabbing pains, so I got back up and prepared to depart.  Aaron (the speedwalker) arrived about 40 minutes after me – my easy up, fast down plan had worked as expected.  I loaded up with water, kissed Janet, and thanked Super Scott for a most-excellent performance on his longest-ever trail run.

As I left, I mentioned that for the first time during the race, I could actually see getting to the finish – I hadn’t thought that far out before but it seemed possible now.  From Tunnel Creek, I had a 100k left – I’ve done 100ks.  From the next aid station – Brockway – I’d only have a 50M race left, I’ve done those too.  From Tahoe City it would just be a 50k – I’ve done a bunch of those.  And finally, from Stephen Jones, it was just a 15M medium-long run – I do those once or twice a week.  I set off down the road, feeling pretty good.

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Scott and I.  Scott is smiling because he’s done with his run.  I’m smiling because I’m sleep-deprived and don’t know any better.

Spooner to Brockway

About a quarter mile later, I found myself weeping.  I’m not sure exactly what prompted it – saying goodbye to my wife and friend, a song, having 65 miles left to go, the enormity of what I was in the middle of, the unknown of a 3rd night out, the pain in my feet, lack of sleep.  All of those things probably, but I was also scared of what lay just ahead.

After a short flat section in Incline Village, we had to climb the Incline Powerline – about 1500 feet of gain in about 1.5 miles.  I’ve done things like that plenty of times in training, but never with 140+ miles on my legs.  Also, it was pretty warm – pushing 80 degrees – and we’d be exposed to sun in the powerline clearing.  I knew that getting too hot about 5 miles into a 15 mile segment could mean disaster.  I couldn’t do much about the climb itself, but I could avoid starting it already-warm, so I let myself pass through Incline Village at a leisurely stroll.  Again, I was moving along at 3 mph or better so in the grand scheme of things I was doing fine, even if I was walking a long flat paved section.  The walk turned out to be longer than I expected – close to 4 miles before we turned uphill through a subdivision and worked our way up to the powerline.  As I approached the turn onto the dirt, I saw a hiker putting a pack on near a car and thought “oh, maybe people hike this”.  Yeah, right.  The hiker was another person in the race, and no sane person picks scrub under a powerline as an ideal hike spot.  I took out my poles, looked at the wall in front of me, and started up.

Someone had told me that it wasn’t possible to use poles at the powerline because it was so overgrown.  I quickly found that poles work fine if you are determined enough.  Lift my foot up to a patch of loose dirt that seems stable enough, plant my poles, push up with legs and arms.  Repeat on the other side.  I worked my way to the top of the first steep climb and looked over the lip.  A flattish reprieve, and then another climb similar to the first but maybe longer.  I could see runners ahead, and at least one behind.  I continued, and passed at least one person.  We were blessed with occasional cloud cover and some breeze, so the heat wasn’t the problem I expected.  Up, up, up the loose soil.  Finally, I cut off to the side and found myself at the top of the powerline… looking up at another climb just as steep and of similar length as the first two sections.  But at least the footing was better – the climb eventually passed, and soon we were headed down a dirt road.

I passed a sign that said “Just a couple miles on the road and then back to trails”, except that “couple” had been scratched out/written over with “few”.   3 maybe?  Actually it was more like 4.5 – dusty, uphill dirt roads.  I did a fine job kicking dust up on my own, but at some point I was passed by two guys and they added to the haze.  The terrain around me reminded me a lot of the Sun Mountain races – open woodlands, meadows filled with mule’s ear.  Just before the two guys passed me, as I was doing the “20 feet ahead” stare I practiced for much of the race, I looked up and saw a very large black bear walking at a 45 degree angle towards me but also uphill through the mule’s ear.  I stopped, told the guys behind me “hey, there’s a bear!  cool!”  The person behind me seemed concerned and told the 3rd person to move up closer.  The bear continued on to a lone tree in the mule’s ear, and disappeared behind it.  I waited for a moment and then inched on.  It looked like the bear was lying down (the advantage of not being seen, perhaps) so we moved on and left it behind us.  A couple lifetimes and way too much dust later, I watched the two guys turn off onto a trail and I followed.  A couple lifetimes after that – and probably a lot of running/walking through a typical Sierra wooded mountain area, but I don’t really remember – I found myself at the highway at Brockway Summit.

I was 100% convinced that the Brockway Summit Aid Station would be at the road at Brockway Summit – that’s where an aid station should be.  There was a parking lot across the road, so I headed down toward it convinced I was almost at the aid station.  I didn’t see the tents yet but they were there somewhere.  I crossed the road, I crossed the parking lot, and I followed the flags onto a trail.  After another quarter mile, I saw some cardboard signs advertising all the great stuff I could get at the aid station (e.g. homebrewed kombucha).  “Great – it’s just around the corner!”  I continued on.  And on.  The trail curved around and about a mile after leaving the parking lot, I finally got to the aid station – which was almost, but not quite, back at the parking lot.  “Whatever, at least I’m here now”.  They had the music cranked, and the placed was staffed with a bunch of enthusiastic trail runners from the Donner Party Mountain Runners.

I settled into a chair and the aid station people plied me with really good black bean burgers.  I got my batteries charging and considered removing my shoes to inspect the damage (“nah, only 50 miles to go, why bother”).  I mentioned that the trip from the highway to the aid station seemed rather long (and the guy next to me responded “yeah!!!”).  I watched a couple people leave and as they left the aid station people asked “what song do you want?  You get to pick the song when you leave.  What’ll it be?  Eye Of The Tiger?”.  I thought about the many possibilities – I Don’t Wanna Go, Trail of Tears, Going Down The Road Feeling Bad, I’m A Trainwreck, No Sign Of Water, Tell Me When It’s Over, In My Hour Of Darkness, etc., While I considered this important matter, the aid station people told me I was the 24th person to arrive, and offered me a beer.  “Yes please!”  I drank that – it was a really good IPA, the best.  I finally settled on Mr. Pop’s Lust For Life – it wouldn’t kill the mood and they might actually have it in their collection.  And then I started shivering from the beer.

I planned to nap there so I asked them to point me to the sleep tent.  They asked me when I wanted to be woken up (90 minutes) and pointed to a tent 5 miles (really, 0.1 mile) down a dirt road so I hobbled off slowly to the (empty – yay!) tent.  I lay down, wrapped myself in a thick blanket and shivered until I fell asleep.  90 minutes later a gentle voice woke me up (“Runner 54, you wanted to be woken up – it’s been 90 minutes.  You look great.  You just need to get up now and get it done.”)  I hobbled back up to a completely different aid station – it had gotten dark, the music was off for the sake of nearby campers, and I was the only runner there.  They told me I’d be the 32nd person to leave – at least 8 people had come in since I arrived and most of them had left pretty quickly.  Someone told me the next leg was on pretty flat, forgiving trail.  I packed up, turned my own music on, and left.

Brockway to Tahoe City

I knew this would be the crux.  A really long segment – 20 miles, all at night, during my 3rd night out, starting 155 miles into the race.  My friend Tamara (who ran it last year) said pacers weren’t really necessary because I’d end up traveling with someone else going about the same speed.  Uh-huh.  I didn’t even have the option of leaving Brockway with someone (unless I waited around getting cold and stiff until someone showed up).  And if I did catch someone on the trail, odds are that they would be struggling and moving slower than me.  But I knew that I only had 50 miles ahead of me – I’ve done several races of 50 miles or more, and that after I got to Tahoe City I’d be mostly running in daylight.  It also seemed likely I’d meet or beat my goal of finishing before the dreaded 4th night.  So I was daunted but not defeated headed into this section.

The trail was pretty flat, and for most of the flat and downhill sections, I maintained a steady running cadence assisted by my poles – plant with my left, take a couple steps, plant with my right, couple more steps.  I couldn’t see much outside of the cone of light just in front of me, but I spent a lot of time contouring just below small rises – unseen trees above me, gentle slope below me, runnable trail ahead.  At some point it felt like I had done the exact same contour 10 times already, and I briefly wondered if particularly devious vandals had moved the markers so they formed a circle.  I imagined them sitting just out of sight above me, watching and laughing silently as headlamps moved slowly round and round the same circle.

After a period of time – 3 or 4 hours – running by myself, I realized that 20 miles between aid stations was a really really long, unfair distance and really really wanted to get to the next aid station.  Matthew Caws must have been paying attention because he came onto my iPod singing: “You don’t have to run around the park, you don’t have to be some kind of hero, it’d be good to get out of the dark, and get yourself around some other people.”  My thoughts exactly.

I did eventually start catching people – a runner and his pacer moving slowly, two runners and one pacer, another runner.  One runner came with me briefly but then disappeared suddenly (pee break?).  Occasionally I could see a light in the distance – Tahoe City, something else? – but then I’d drop down a little and do yet another contour just beneath a rise.  Finally – about 19 miles into the segment – I came over a rise and saw a few lights from Tahoe City below me.  I had no idea where the aid station was, so I just followed the markers, dropped down into the town, ran past some stores, and turned right when I passed someone (crew?  hallucination?) who told me to turn right.  I followed the markers across a bridge towards the lake (I thought) and turned into the aid station.

Holly was waiting, part way through her 43 hour shift.  I plunked in a chair near a heater and some other runner ghosts and took stock.  I was at least a couple hours ahead of my 81 hour plan.  Lots of things hurt some, but nothing hurt a lot.  The sun would come up in a couple hours.  I had a 50k left to run – on rested legs that would take 5-7 hours, and even on exhausted legs I had a good 14-15 hours to do it before the sun went down again.  Things were looking good.  I ate, hobbled to the bathroom, came back and put my feet up on a chair.  I considered napping but I didn’t see anywhere flat to sleep and didn’t feel like doing the chair slump that others were doing.  For some reason my drop bag from Tell’s Creek hadn’t made it – Holly said none of those had shown up – but there wasn’t anything I really needed.  Holly marked a ziplock with my number, and I unloaded a bunch of unnecessary weight – extra batteries, a warm shirt, etc. – basically betting I’d be done before I needed it again.

Tahoe City to Stephen Jones Aid Station

While I was sitting there, I noticed Aaron the speedwalker sitting in another chair.  Huh.  I dropped him way back at Tunnel Creek and now he’s here with me?  He left a few minutes before me.  I got ready and followed him.  Holly pointed me out of the aid station and then I became totally disoriented about where I was.  I seemed to be heading straight out into the lake.  (In reality, the aid station was at the turn onto Highway 89 around the lake so I was heading south parallel to 89.)  I ignored my badly-flawed sense of direction and just followed the markers.  15 minutes later I came across Aaron, head down, sitting on a log.  I then did something cruel (for him) and stupid (by me) – “are you ok?”  That’s a good question to ask when it’s daytime and someone is stopped for no reason.  It’s a stupid question to ask of someone napping during their 3rd night out, when they seemed 100% fine 15 minutes earlier.  He started, and mumbled “yeah, I’m ok”.  I continued.  After a while I looked over my shoulder and noticed his headlamp pretty close behind me.  I didn’t quite know it at the time, but this was the start of my ~28 mile race after a 178 mile warmup.

I continued on, trying to move as quickly as I could.  The sun came out, I stopped to put my headlamp away, and I saw Aaron a short distance behind.  I set off again up the gradual hill, walking faster now, trying to open a gap. My goal was to finish, and a place or two difference wasn’t going to matter, but I wanted to pass not get passed.  I pushed up the 2nd-to-last climb, and caught one or two people on a big open slope where I could see up and down.  Aaron caught them too, and stayed about the same hundred yards behind me.  We went up and up, hit a false summit, and then went up some more to the ridge.  When I topped out and headed down, I took off as fast as my tired legs would allow.  I figured the downhill was my opportunity to open a big enough gap that I wouldn’t have to kill myself over the last 15 mile segment.  After running hard (probably really slowly, but hard at that point) for 15 minutes I stopped to pee.  When I was done I looked back briefly and saw Aaron coming around the corner, the same 100 yards behind.  I took off again and ran hard the last ~3 miles into the aid station.  Aaron showed up about 2 minutes after me – I said “you are doing great!  who are you???”, at which point I finally learned his name.  I gulped a couple things down and he sat in a chair to do something with his feet.  “I’m outta here!!!” I said and left, hoping to finally make that gap happen, even if it was due to a chair break.

Stephen Jones to Finish

As I turned to leave, Janet appeared.  This was an unexpected and very welcome surprise.  Except that I was pretty focused on making space between Aaron and me, so when she said “hang on, let me get my running shoes on”, I said “well, I’m going to start walking – you’ll catch me quickly enough”.  I did actually walk – I wasn’t deranged enough to run away from my wife who’d made the effort, although it was close – and she was beside me within a few minutes.  We walked along Lake Tahoe, and we told each other about our day since Tunnel Creek.  I’d look over my shoulder for Aaron, and she’d say “I don’t see him back there”.  “He’s back there, trust me.”  Eventually a person appeared and I said “see”, except that it wasn’t Aaron it was Jose from Portugal who speaks little English.  He passed us just as we turned off Highway 89 and started up the road to Barker Pass.  This last 15 mile section has four parts – 2-3 miles along Highway 89 and Lake Tahoe, a gradual uphill on a path/dirt road, a nasty not-gradual uphill that gains 2000 feet in about 3 miles, and then the final 2000 foot descent back to Homewood (retracing the first 4 miles of the race).

The gradual uphill towards Barker Pass was pretty nice, especially doing it with Janet.  At some point, we found some vandalized trail markings which briefly made the path ambiguous.  I continued the most likely way, while Janet followed the spur and confirmed it was bogus.  Then she fixed the markings and caught up to me.  After a while – way longer than she had planned, she said she’d see me at the finish and trotted back down the trail.  Soon afterwards, I started up the nasty hill.  The first part of the nasty hill is especially nasty because it’s a series of short flat sections each followed by short steep sections, all on a jeep trail.  If the grade were consistent, it would be steep but ok.  But it was basically a series of dusty bigger-than-human-sized steps.  I was thankful (again) to have poles to help push my way up with.  I started to catch Jose in front of me.  Then I looked over my shoulder and saw Aaron a short way back.  I was convinced it was Aaron, even though the shirt was different.  Early in the race, when I was running with a few other people and we introduced ourselves, someone commented that we’d have to repeat it down the road after we’d all changed our shirts.  So even though it was a different shirt, I knew it was Aaron, still stalking me.  We moved up, and Aaron gradually closed the gap.  And then – horrors! – he passed me.  I was hating life at this point – my feet hurt, I was tired, the uphill was endless and all I could think was “$#&^ it.  I don’t care.  I just want to finish.”  We continued up and I stayed a short ways behind Aaron and Jose.  I thought about it a bit – “I’m not hurting that bad, I’m almost done, I can dig a little deeper”.  We turned off the nasty jeep trail and continued up a gravel road we had run down more than 3 days earlier, towards Barker Pass.  I found the energy to run a little, and eased past Aaron and Jose.  We shared “nice jobs!” all around and I moved on ahead of them.

The second half of the nasty climb to Barker Pass is nasty because there are multiple false summits.  You climb up a steep hill to a gap and think “that must be it”.  Then you get there and look up to another climb.  There must be 5 or 6 of those false summits in the last 3 miles, including one big downhill that fools you into thinking you are really over the top.  I pushed on, and was dismayed to see Aaron in his usual spot, 50-100 yards back and closing.  At the top of the very last hill, I looked back, saw him again, and called back “wanna run in together?”  I did this not out of sportmanship, but out of a desire not to have to kill myself over the last 4 miles.  To my dismay he said “no, you’re strong on the downhills, go for it.”  Great.  Lovely.  Perfect.  So I went for it.  200 miles behind me, a 2000 foot 5 mile descent on fairly rocky trails/dirt roads in front of me, someone chasing just behind me.  What could go wrong?

I think I ran 95% of those last 5 miles, about as hard as one can run after 200 miles on foot.  There was one slight uphill where I walked to rest things for the final push.  I tripped and almost went down very hard a few times, saved by poles and some upper body strength.  Aaron was behind me, and I didn’t seem to be losing him, but he didn’t seem to be gaining.  We worked our way down the hill, into the ski area.  At some point I noticed an unusual amount of air under my right foot and realized that the hole in my shoe was much larger – I’d feel air go in and out with each step, like my foot/shoe was breathing.  I could also feel all the wear and tear on my legs and feet – particularly the tear(ing) which seemed to increase and get more permanent with every mile.

About a mile from the finish, I rounded a corner and found someone sitting in the road offering shots of tequila.  (This was not a hallucination – I heard someone talking about this later, after the race.)  As I sped by, I said “believe it or not, I’m racing someone right now.  That guy right behind me probably wants one though.  Or maybe two.”  We dropped over the lip and I could see the finish below me, several switchbacks away.  Down, around, down, around.  Pain.

Finally, with one straight downhill shot and a short flat turn to the finish, I looked over my shoulder and knew I’d avoid getting passed.  I stumbled on a rock and almost went down again, but stayed upright, turned the corner, crossed the line, and collapsed into Janet’s arms, teary and exhausted but really happy to be done.

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205.4 miles done, 0.1 to go.

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I think this is when a rock almost took me down.

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“Is that really the finish?  Or just a hallucination?  Hmmm…”

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That’s not dust – it’s smoke coming from the flames on the bottom of my feet.  My whole lower body was wrecked at this point, but I didn’t want to be passed.  Finishing up in proper style with a Seven Hills shirt.

I stayed there for a while and then turned to welcome Aaron across the line, about 40 seconds after me.  Except it wasn’t Aaron, it was (my new friend) Brian.  Who was in fact wearing a very different shirt than Aaron had been wearing, and who also didn’t have a beard like Aaron does. (This is a clue about how well my brain was functioning during that 4th day.)  We both collapsed into chairs people dragged over for us, and celebrated together – 205.5 miles, 40000 feet of climbing, done.  Beer and pizza (and yellow jackets) appeared.

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Doc Todd, looking into our eyes to see if our souls were about to leave.

We sat there watching people come in for a couple hours.  Jose limped in about 40 minutes after us – he was having knee trouble for the last part of the race.  My friend Gwen showed up and sat down with us – she finished 3 hours before me, 2nd woman.

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Gwen, Brian-Not-Aaron, and I trying to comprehend the previous 4 days.  Gwen finished 3 hours before and had time to shower.  You probably can’t tell, but Brian and I haven’t showered yet.

Gwen’s friend Kathy finished – 3rd woman.  Gradually the circle of finishers and chairs grew.

Aaron did eventually appear about two hours after I finished – he told me he had been fairly close behind me, but at the very top of the last climb, his brain balked at having to climb a little more, and convinced him to go off course so he wandered around up there for a while, ~5 miles from the finish.

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Aaron (the real one) and I the day after we finished.  This was Aaron’s 3rd finish at Tahoe 200.  He’s planning on coming back next year, and said he won’t get lost and will therefore catch me.

Later I spoke to someone else who had gotten lost up there – he knew something was wrong when he found himself picking his way through trees down a steep scree slope we hadn’t run up.  A lot of people said they ran bonus miles – I feel lucky I didn’t have more than the extra half mile due to the vandalized markers.  My favorite story is Tom R’s – he managed to turn the 15 mile segment from Armstrong Pass to Heavenly into a 35 mile epic adventure with three wrong turns.  The folks back at race headquarters watched all this on the gps tracker, and sent someone out to fetch Tom after two wrong turns.  After those two wrong turns, Tom finally found his way back to the TRT and (feeling good) ran off quickly down the trail.  Unfortunately, he was going in the wrong direction – backwards on the course –  at high speed.  As a result, the chaser behind him had to do 10k pace to run Tom down – the cutoff was long past, the sweeps had been through and removed all trail markers, and Tom was going to go a long way before he saw anyone else.

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The handmade belt buckles – each one is unique and contains some bit of local flora.

Janet took me home, I cleaned a large amount of Tahoe dirt off my body, we ate some non-gel food (pasta, I think, but my memory of that evening is fuzzy).  Then I slept like a log for 9 hours.  The next morning I drove back to the finish line and sat with the finishers for a while, applauding people as they arrived. Janet ran over later and joined me until the final cutoff.  All but one of the people we were following to the finish (via gps/spot trackers) made it in before the cutoff.

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Candice Burt, tracking the last runners into the finish.

Final results: out of about 100 starters 80 finished.  Roxanne Woodhouse was the first woman- 53 years old although she doesn’t look it – and finished in 69+ hours, 8+ hours ahead of me.  The overall winner was Jason Kinsella in 59+ hours (18 hours ahead of me) – Janet and I saw him after I finished and he looked so clean and uncrippled that we figured he’d dropped and stupidly didn’t congratulate him. The back of the pack was equally impressive – 10 people completed Tahoe just 3 weeks after the Bigfoot 200, one of the sweeps did the whole race and then pushed through the last section to finish before the cutoff, and in general anyone who finished had a story to tell.  These really long races are different than, say, a marathon.  Someone can walk their way through a marathon and still finish on the same day as the fast people up front – the experience is different but not way different.  In this race, the people who finished near the end spent 2 extra nights out and had to deal with some rain (and even snow, for the sweeps) that last night.  By the time they finished, the winner had already gotten two good nights of sleep after his race.

 

 

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Women’s podium: 1st – Roxanne Woodhouse, 2nd – Gwen Scott (Team Seven Hills from Seattle!), 3rd Kathy D’Onofrio

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Men’s Podium:  1st Jason Kinsella, 2nd (not present) Andres Villagran, 3rd Paul Romaro

 

I was 17th overall, in 77:26:32, and the first 50+ man to finish (Jose was the second, shortly after me).  I couldn’t be happier with how my race went – I finished, I didn’t have to stay out for a 4th night, the weather was great, Tahoe was beautiful, I finished early enough on Monday that I could hang out at the finish for a while in the afternoon sun, I saw a bear and didn’t get mauled, my “run with Janet and Scott” plan worked out perfectly, and my race position through the aid stations showed I ran a steady race from start to finish – continuing to move forward as others faded.  (Starting with Barker Pass, I was 69, 52, 51, 48, 44, 41, 38, 36, 33, 29, 24 -Brockway where I took a nap and others didn’t, 26, 20, and finally 17 at the finish).  And I was able to finish with a ~28 mile race against “Aaron”.  Not many people can say they did a 178 mile warmup and then a 28 mile race. Well, I guess not many people can say they’ve finished a 200+ mile foot race either.

Thank you’s – many many people:  Super Scott, Janet, the volunteers who gave up 4 or more days for us, Candice’s staff, people who cheered us on at the race or remotely, Bruk/Nancy/the folks at RealRehab who kept me somewhat healthy, other racers and Aaron and Brian in particular for causing me to go a little faster than I wanted to.  This is a team sport, even if it doesn’t look that way.

Lessons:

  • I was lucky and got away with being pretty sloppy about my shoes.  I used to manage my race shoes very carefully but over time I’ve gotten lazy.  I’ll be more careful in the future.
  • The electronics I carried are a mixed blessing – I had music, I have a complete gps track for my race, I potentially could recover from getting lost, I could text my pacers, etc..  But it took a lot of attention to keep everything charged and working.
  • 20 miles is a long way between aid stations.  At UTMB I think there was one section late in the race that took me 4-5 hours.  In this race, there were several of those 4-5 hour sections, and a few that took 6-7.  That’s a long time to be on your own, with a limited water supply.
  • A little sleeping/lying down/putting feet up makes a big difference.  I’ll be more willing to try a 5 minute nap in future long races – it might save me time in the end.
  • A 200 mile race is at least as hard on crew as it is runners – I still wouldn’t ask people to do it on my behalf.  Roxanne Woodhouse, who won the woman’s race, told me she wouldn’t do this distance again – it took too much of a toll on everyone, especially her crew.
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The hole in my shoe.  This is not a good look, but it worked surprisingly well in spite of the hole.  I had more blister problems on my other foot.

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A lot (but not all!) of the stuff I had with me over the weekend.  I didn’t use a lot of it but better safe than sorry.

 

Gear and stuff…

My pack/contents – Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin v1 (weighed 9 to 14 lbs when full, depending upon water levels)

  • bladder and 2 bottles – I left aid stations with a max of 80 oz. of water, 40oz minimum (e.g. when I only filled the 2 bottles, like at night).  80 oz. was barely adequate for the long hot climb to Armstrong Pass, but good otherwise.  I did have the option of filling up at streams – would have been good on the way to Armstrong Pass – but opted not to.
  • warm hat
  • light rain jacket
  • arm sleeves
  • spare socks
  • gloves – I never used these
  • small dry bag for clothing
  • sun hat
  • 2 Garmin watches – I wore one until it died, then switched and charged the dead one when I could.
  • phone
  • poles – Black Diamond Z-poles
  • small bag of tp, just in case
  • food – gels, trailbutter, baby food, tailwind mix
  • charging cords for watch, headlamp battery
  • small portable charger
  • iPod
  • Fenix flashlight and spare batteries
  • headlamp and spare battery – Petzl Nao (I carried these from Tell’s Creek to finish)
  • warm shirt – mostly just at night.  I got a new one from a drop bag heading into the night, and left it in a drop bag in the morning.
  • laminated elevation profile with time projections and drop bag locations
  • tiny first aid kit – band-aids, antibacterial ointment, pin to pop blisters, pepto-bismol for stomach problems, hand-sanitizer to slightly sterilize things, 3 foot elastic bandage from UTMB to wrap around any big cutsgps device
  • GPS device with map of the course – I never used this, but I resisted the urge to leave it in a drop bag because I’d get lost for sure if I did that.
  • SPOT tracker – required by race for safety, and useful for entertainment purposes for anyone following us runners.
  • GoPro (until Sierra At Tahoe) – it was a pain to get it in and out of the pocket I’d set aside for it.  Based on Cesare’s video, it looks like a selfie stick (vs. head mount) is the way to go, so it’s a little easier to attach to the front of a shoulder strap.
  • rain pants – I planned to carry these but never did because the forecast was good and the nighttime temps were perfect (low-mid 40s) for someone from Seattle.  I put them in a drop bag halfway in case the forecast changed while I was out on the course.

I relied on 3 main drop bags (Sierra At Tahoe, Heavenly, Brockway).  I had a couple other drop bags but they were small and generally non-essential.  My big drop bags were pretty similar and mostly overkill relative to what I needed.  But better to be prepared than need something and not have it:

  • sleeping bag – the race was unable to guarantee that they’d have enough blankets at all times, and suggested we pack a sleeping bag or lots of warm clothes.  It was easier to track down three sleeping bags than enough down clothing for 3 separate sleep spots.
  • spare socks and gaiters
  • body glide, trail toes
  • band aids/first aid stuff
  • big multi-device portable charger
  • spare small charger – if I’d used the one I was carrying in my pack, I’d replace it with the charged/fresh one from my drop bag
  • long sleeve running shirt
  • extra warm shirt (usually a thick cycling jersey with some wind resistance) – in case it was really cold and the long sleeve shirt wasn’t enough
  • tights – never needed these, temps were great.
  • rain pants (at Heavenly, in case the forecast changed)
  • spare flashlights and headlamps – I probably had 6 extra lights in my drop bags, in case the two in my pack failed.  Almost every other piece of equipment can fail, but if  your lights don’t work it’s hard to make progress.
  • spare batteries
  • gels, tailwind, baby food, trail butter
  • baby wipes to clean off with
  • clean short sleeve shirt – I think I changed my shirt 3 times during the race.
  • new shorts – I never changed my shorts during the race.  I wasn’t having any chafing problems and was scared to change what was working fine.  I did soak my race shorts in detergent for a couple days after the race, before washing them.
  • shoe change (only at Brockway) – Next time I’d have a change of shoes in at least 3 locations on the course.
  • clean arm sleeves
  • discardable toothbrush thing – something we found in a pharmacy before the race, that doesn’t require water and gives you the illusion of moving the bacteria around in your mouth a little bit.  I did this a couple times during the race.
  • duct tape – of course.  I didn’t need this though.
  • spare water bottle – In case I fell and broke a bottle, or accidentally tossed one of the side of a cliff.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. Awesome Mark! So inspiring and really gets me excited to do it myself someday! Never underestimate the 5 minute nap :)!

  2. wow Mark. amazing! thanks for all the detail! love reference “how not to be seen” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifmRgQX82O4 …they shot him in the nuts!

  3. What a great race report. Thanks!

  4. awesome photos/videos, and a great recap of your experience. can’t believe you survived in those shoes! congrats on a great run!!!

  5. congratulations Mark! Followed your spot track and saw how strong you finished, but your race report tells an even more interesting tale.Could this be your distance? ; )

    • Wouldn’t that be horrible? 🙂

  6. Splendid recap, Random Older Gentleman. Thoughtful and thorough. -RWD

  7. Congratulations! Excellent version(s). Both. I love the Scott Rokis pics, too, especially the shot of the sun sinking over the Heavenly ridge. Wow.

  8. That was a great race report! And congratulations on your successful race. A few times during your narrative I pulled up the Live Tracker to see the terrain and recall my own feelings during the sections you were describing, and that is an indicator that your story was engaging and fun. Thanks for sharing in such detail.

    Wes Ritner


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