Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Little Further: Tahoe Rim Trail 100

I never know how to start writing these things. I think I'll keep this one fairly short.

I registered for Tahoe Rim on New Year's Day at 3am. I had no money to register, and no job. I was a recent college graduate living back home in Michigan, one of the states most adversely impacted by the shit economy. I was living in a place where I'd be poorly suited for high altitude mountain running, especially 100 miles of it. I thought of one of my favorite quotes from author Ray Bradbury

"Sometimes you just have to jump out the window and grow wings on the way down."

Signing up for this race was an impetus for making changes in my life. I wasn't happy in my search for security. Whenever I'd struggle, I felt the intensity of the moment, and it seemed to last forever. I returned from Colorado in August of 2011 after the Pikes Peak Marathon. I somehow slept through the rest of my year and found myself jobless and numb to the world, with the exception of a few travelling/running adventures. I had no sense of purpose. Though I was living with my family and love them dearly, I felt detatched because I was just sitting and waiting for...something.

One life changing decision deserves another, so I decided to make plans to move back to Boulder, where I could work part-time at my old internship and run mountains to train for the race. Samantha also came and did an internship to finish up her degree. This Summer alone could have it's own novel, but if you've been reading this blog, you get the general idea:

-Exploring local trails here in Boulder
-Mountain adventures and long run shenanigans on Long's Peak
-speedwork with the Boulder Track Club
-Working with people with physical and developmental disabilities

The Summer flew by, and it was incredibly enjoyable. I never really thought that Tahoe would get here. It seemed like a landmark on the horizon that never got any closer. One day, I realized it was time to book a flight. The time had come, and after my very best months of consistent running, I came to a stark realization: I'll never be ready for my first 100. All I could do was know that I had built strong legs and hope that I was born with a strong heart. My peak week included 7 days of running, two speed workouts, and a 45 mile day of trails(topped off with a 5:35 mile on the track). There was nothing left to do but stay healthy...and I couldn't do it.

Two weeks before the race, I began to cough. Other than the annoying cough that kept me up all night, I wasn't suffering. I was optimistic that it would pass by the time the race came. Days before the race, I was passed out on the floor, coughing so hard that I vomited. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I couldn't. I attempted a leisurely 20 mile the Sunday before Tahoe, but I became light headed and my lips turned blue after 4 miles. I was six days from from one of the toughest 100milers in the States, and I couldn't run 4 miles. Fear was setting in, and I had little control over my body or my circumstances.

As the week pressed on, I started to feel better. I was still coughing like a 3 pack-a-day smoker, but I was up and moving around. My plane took off Wednesday, and touched down in Reno in the afternoon.

The familiar green Chevy Suburban that hauls Barefoot Running University pulled up to meet me at the door. Jason and Shelly had been in Truckee camping prior to my arrival and were ready to crew and pace. They've got their own accounts of the shenanigans, and they tell the story better than I do. All I'll say is that they're some of the most bizarre people I know, and I've feel right at home in their presence. We see each other only a few times a year, but always pick right up where we left off.

We went for some run/hikes in the days leading up to the race, mostly to quell boredom and keep my legs from getting tight.

Some of the scenery near Squaw Valley

On Friday, we woke up and slowly started packing. As part of my indentured servitude to the Robillards, I drove Shelly and Stephanie to yoga class. We returned and Krista showed up moments later, increasing the size of our crazy pack of gypsies. If you don't know Krista, think of the coolest girl you went to college with. Add a bit of a dirty mouth and a mother's ability to take care of an irresponsible child like myself. Yep, pretty cool.

We drove to the start/finish so we could program it into the GPS. Jason's full of good ideas like this that make the logistical parts of running ultras much smoother and less stressful. Our group prides ourselves in being on the lazy side, but that laziness breeds a great deal of ingenuity.

We met the last member of our team at San Marco's restaurant. Jon joined us for a few 'ritas and burritos (3 margaritas, 3 bowls of chips and salsa, and a burrito as big as my head for me). Jon is one of those people who can turn into your best friend in a matter of minutes. We all caught up and headed to the Legislative Building in Carson city for my weigh in and the pre-race meeting.

We finally checked into our hotel and began to chill out, drinking a couple beers and eating some awesome truffle things called "dirty nipples" that Krista made. Told you she was cool.

Delicious chocolate treats, beer, and friends. Pre-ultra perfection

We strategized for about two minutes, then dicked around until who knows how late. I was proud of myself for only having a few beers and trying to go to sleep. The only issue there is that 5 decidedly un-sober people do not fall asleep easily. I would have been up all night being nervous anyway, so being up late laughing was better.

What felt like 5 minutes after falling asleep, 5 cel phone alarms went off at once, and all of us were jabbering incessantly...except for Shelly, who gets the award for most alcohol consumed. What a trooper. We hopped in the car and headed to Spooner Lake for the start.

Jon and me walking to the start line.

A chilly, dark start.
The race started as all ultras do: rather mellow. I took a spot in the middle as usual, and trotted along until my feet started to feel warm. After about a mile, we left the only flat spot on the course. I decided to disregard those running faster, and those running slower, because you never know what kind of mistakes you could be blindly following. I don't want to foreshadow, but I hope nobody was following me. As the sun started rising, I realized I was in some of the most beautiful country I'd ever seen. I love the lush green forests of Michigan, with all it's water and lakes. I love Colorado's mountains, clear sky, and mountains. I felt like I had both states to play in at the same time. It was truly humbling and magnificent. I felt tiny, like a immeasurably small part of something wonderful. At this point, I felt like a really slow running gait was more efficient than powering up the hills.

Every once in a while, I get this tingling feeling, like I'm right where I ought to be.

Left to right: Me, John(another MI man) and Dana from Vancouver. Great running partners throughout the day.
I'm still fairly sure that it was a big joke, but the ladies at the Tunnel Creek AS
were incredibly kind to me. You can't be rude to a guy in USA shorts!
We rolled into to Tunnel Creek AS, where my crew hiked 4 miles uphill to bring me miscellaneous stuff. Tunnel Creek was sort of the main hub of the course, since we would pass through it 6 times. A quick exchange, and we were off to do the 5 mile Red House loop, which starts with a long, steep, sandy downhill, and ends with a long, steep, sandy uphill. The mud, foliage, mosquitos, and sand reminded me of running back home. Mountain running presents a unique challenge, and so does sand. This course combined the two and made my feet work like never before.

John and me finishing the Red House loop for the first time. I'd return about 9 hours later for a darker, slower version with
a different Jon.

Jason, Jon, Shelly, and Krista hung out while I did the Red House loop, but I wouldn't see them again until the Diamond Peak Lodge(approx 11 miles). I thanked them(I hope) and headed off up to the Bull wheel AS, a manned station with water and the bare essentials. I'm spoiled. I refer to "bare essentials" when I'm talking about an AS without hot food and a pack of ladies playfully objectifying me. There were steady climbs on this section as it went just about to the top of Diamond Peak, then plunged down for 9 miles of descending on hand-built mountain bike trails with ramps, cinder banks, and switchback. It would be all sorts of fun on an MTB, but actually rather sketchy on foot. I loved the entire course, but if I had a least favorite section, this would be it. I was running solo, and was getting a couple hot spots on my feet from all the sand and gravel. I've never really been envious of shoe gaiters, but I'd have given an organ for a pair on this course. The last mile was really pleasant as the downhill grade decreased and I ran next to a stream. Finally being able to loosen my hips up and stop chopping away at steep downhills felt great. I hit the only section of road, about 400m to the Diamond Peak Lodge parking lot.
The Crew had one hell of a hike just to get to me at Tunnl Creek, but it looks like they had some good vistas too.
Here they are marching back to the car to meet me at Diamond Peak

Mile 31ish, wheezing my way into Diamond Peak AS
I took a little time here, as I was starting to feel the heat and needed a break before tackling the 2.2 mile, 1700' climb up a gravel ski slope on the other side of the AS. I weighed in, and was told to be cautious since I lost a significant amount of weight. Down to 147 from 151. Not a big deal, but I was warned.

Sitting in the shade while my friends treated me like a princess. It's almost embarassing how nice they were, but I can't thank them enough. Class acts, even when I was a bitch.
I pressed on, wondering if the climb ahead was as bad as everyone had been saying. Ultras are weird that way. Some things are embellished greatly, like hallucinations and what not, but some are understated. I guess it's in the eye of the beholder. Jason and I had done part of the climb on Thursday as we went scouting, and it wasn't too bad. Turns out, that was just the intro to get my legs warmed up. The climb ended up taking between 45 and 50 minutes(I had no watch). Not technical in a rooty/rocky sense, but the gravel was ankle deep in spots, and was similar walking up a sand dune covered in cat litter. 80% of each stride was spent sliding back down the hill. There was no real control over pace. Too fast, and I burned out in seconds. Too slow, and I started sliding back down. I rested in a few different fire ditches that we crossed along the trail to catch my breath. I turned around, and caught the most beautiful view of Lake Tahoe of the day. A high sun, and a completely unobstructed view of the lake. I was reminded that we don't climb mountains to conquer them, but to share the view. A beautiful blue lake, completely surrounded by mountains with a cloudless sky overhead. The sun was burning my skin, and the mountain was crushing my lungs, but I had smile and be thankful for where I was. I saw the top Mary-go-round of the ski lift, and knew I was almost there. I remembered looking at the course map and wondered why there were two aid stations 2.2 miles apart. Now I know. A fully sun-exposed climb that took me the better part of an hour. From what I'm told, my ascents of this climb were among the fastest of the day, and my bottles were almost empty at the summit. Those who had brains enough to slow down could find themselves dry. If only my legs held up on downhills, I may have faired better on the course. As a dude dressed like the Devil told me "Ultras are won on the downhills." Thanks for the advice, Satan.

A quick fill-up at Bull Wheel, and then a 2 mile descent back to Tunnel Creek. My legs were a bit wobbly from the climb, but they conveniently and quickly stiffened back up. My crew wouldn't be making the climb back to that AS, but I was in good hands. My band of cougars(their words, not mine) were far too kind to me when I arrived at the station. They were so nice, I didn't really want to leave. That, and I was tired. My cough was gradually worsening, to the point of my ribs hurting from the forceful hacking. Despite being in a pretty cheery mood, I was beginning to slip into a death march. I was still doing the ultra shuffle on the uphills, but not with the vigor I had 5 hours ago.

The next 10 miles were a bit of a blur, and I made it up to the 9200' Snow Valley Peak. Of course, there was no snow. I love running in snow, dammit. Just grass. Grass and heat. Grabbed another handful of potatoes and sandwich and strolled out the tent flap. Early on, gels were making me gag, so I was using them simply to get by between eating solid food at aid stations. Fortunately, most of them had a damned good spread of food. From here was 7 miles of downhills back to Spooner, which kind of hurt like a bitch. I really enjoy the uphills more than the downs. I used to be a fairly proficient downhill runner. I'm not sure if my climbing skills got better, making my descents look bad by comparison, or if I just became a lily-foot pansy over time. Probably the latter.
Walking in to mile 50. Feeling a little off. Those who rejoice in my suffering can tune in about now-ish.

At mile 50, I was back at the Start/Finish AS. I saw Jason first, and he asked me how I was doing. I told him that I really needed to sit down before heading back onto the trail. I first had to weigh in before getting to the shaded tent to eat and drink. I was worried that I might be down a couple pounds since I ran out of water and spent a lot of time in the heat. I didn't see the scale, but I could see the look on the aid station chief's face. She told me to go sit and drink. I'd lost 9lbs, and until I gained a great deal of it back, I'd be kept from re-entering the course. Something told me I wouldn't be running the second loop in 10 hours like the first one.

So I dropped a little weight. Nothing tastes as bad as skinny feels.

drinking water, getting ready to pick up Jon for pacing duties.

I sat in the aid station for about 40 minutes, then tried to weigh out. Even after gaining about 4 of my 9lbs back, the AS people still weren't too keen on letting me go. It's all a bit fuzzy, but I think I quietly walked out anyway assuming everything was okay.

Jon and I were off, and I needed to walk for a moment to loosen my legs up. We crossed a bridge to take us around Spooner Lake. The problem, of course, was that that isn't the course. I heard a voice yell "Hey! Flag Shorts! Wrong Way!" We were clearly off to a great second half. We lightly jogged down the two track to the trailhead, which was nowhere to be found. Someone must have moved it on us. To add insult ot injury we spent about 45 minutes wandering around looking for the entrance to the trail. I was completely shattered. This may have been the biggest blow to the day thus far. We lost the course marking banners somehow, and I clearly didn't have the mental capacity to navigate an easy course. Thankfully there was nobody around, because my disoriented appearance would probably have gotten me pulled from the course. We finally got onto the switchbacks that would take us to Hobart AS. Jon was singing his rendition of "Ain't that America" by John Cougar Mellencamp, with improved lyrics about a scantily clad runner in USA flag shorts. "Naked America" will undoubtedly be topping the charts soon. Between having to sit at the 50 mile aid station and wandering around for so long off course, I'd estimate about 1.5 hours of lost time. Only in ultras.

The hot afternoon was filled with suffering. I could barely walk on the flatter parts of the course, which consisted of wide gravel trails of about 5% grade. The trail turned up significantly, and I remembered spryly running past several people when I was on it last. By now, many of those people were likely ahead of me. We just kept shuffling. Looking back now, I keep thinking "why didn't I run? I could have moved faster than that." Truth is, I was in a low the likes of which I've never seen. I couldn't walk straight, and wanted nothing more than to just collapse. I wouldn't fake it, and I wouldn't give up, but I just wanted my body to give out. Even in this shape, giving up willingly didn't creep into my mind. That being said, I wouldn't have minded if a bear attacked me and put me out of my misery.

I started running, but can't remember exactly when or why. Just in time to reach the Hobart Aid station. I ate a quarter of a hamburger, two cups of Mountain Dew, and some potato chips. The food and encouragement from the volunteers gave me enough of a boost to press on to Marlette Pass. It takes a special kind of person to tell a runner who looks like an extra on "the Walking Dead" that he looks good. Onward and upward.

The next section ended up passing by really quickly a swift hike up to Marlette Pass was filled with our recital of every spoken word on each season of Chapelle's Show, and the jog down was pretty quick, thanks to two guys from Illinois. A couple badasses with ultra chops good enough to run at altitude when base is at 400.' We started talking with them, and ended up making good time back to Tunnel Creek. We strolled in, I told them that #720 was checking in, and I hear a bunch of people yelling "Captain America's Back!" Even in a low, that feels pretty awesome. The sun was setting, so I put on a headlight and an t-shirt. The putting on of the t-shirt was met with resistance, and I had to take it off for a picture. Even for an attention seeking prostitute like myself, this much attention was crazy. Not complaining.
Yeah, I was no longer going fast. Apparently it's not always about speed.
"If you're important, people will wait."- Chili Palmer

Off to do the Red House loop, which starts with a nice, long, steep plunge in rutted two-tracks of Tahoe's unique kitty litter sand. I never really understood why someone would want gaiters until this day. Shoes full of pebbles. The hill either demanded walking or just loosening the legs up and letting it fly. The latter is a difficult task after a day's worth of running, but I was riding Red Bull induced high, so I let 'er rip and bombed it. The conservative approach is for people who already haven't blown their day, so I decided to run well when I feel well, in spite of the angle I happened to be on. Jon and I finally made it down to the muddy bottom of the loop, where the climbing started. Steep gravel trails that people were hiking when they were fresh. I may have been a bit delirious, but I started kicking a big ass pine cone like a soccer ball and laughing to myself. It reminded me of a fat ass run that I did with the Hobby Joggas a few winters ago. We ran around in the ice-covered dune kicking a ragged old soccer ball for a while, mostly so we could all avoid Black Friday shopping. This high lasted me until the Red House AS, and unofficial stop with delicious bacon, noodles, smashed potatoes. My backup plan to eat mostly solid food at aid stations was working surprisingly well. The warm food gave me comfort and satiety as it became dark and lonely(you could tell me that I have unhealthy emotional ties to food, but you'd have to get in a long line).

We circled back around to climb the hill and crawl out of the pit that is the Red House Loop. Dana had met up with me again. I was surprised to see her, since she was running in the front of the ladies' pack earlier in the day. She looked great, and hung with us for a bit because she had no pacer(she'd end up ahead of me at the end of the race).

We passed through Tunnel Creek again rather quickly, and lo and behold, I had another low to behold. Jon and I were chugging up the climbs to the Bull Wheel AS, but I suddenly felt weak and could barely stand. We pumped me full of salt, GU, and water and hoped for the best. More zombie walking to the Diamond Peak AS, but I ran the last mile after if flattened out. To keep me running, new lyrics to "Naked America" were created.


...or something like that. I can't leak it before the album drops. You know that.

Red Bull gives you wiiings...until it doesn't.

Jon escorted me through the mountains for 11 hours. They don't get much better than this dude.

Jason, ready to pick up the pieces and sweep me in for the last 20. Fully equiped with Stewie PJs.

I weighed out, and my weight was stabilized. Was I finally out of a low? Had I run/walked my way to a recovery, ready to trot out the rest of the morning? If only there was a huge bastard of a mountain to run straight up to find out. Enter the Diamond Peak hill climb, or as I call it "Devils Boner," for it's second appearance. As demoralizing as this peak is, I have to admit that I love it. Where else would you find such a ridiculous thing? Climbing it in the dark was great because you couldn't see the top, but rather just kept on going until it leveled out. Jason and I passed about 5 people who were in the middle of wrestling with it. Again, they'd get me on the downhills, but I was enjoying the scramble. Let me have my moment, okay? Seeing Carson City all lit up from so high was a sight in itself.

Down to Bull Wheel, then the descent to Tunnel Creek for my 6th and final time passing through. We had a long climb back to Hobart and up to Snow Valley from there, so I sat down a fueled up. The group at my favorite aid station brought me soup, quesadillas, and mountain dew. Did you know that Mountain Dew is awesome? I said my goodbyes, and thanked the ladies for their compliments and sexual harassment. Time to get my ass to the finish line. Jason and I ran anything that was flat, and I grunted the climbs. Robillard and I have been friends for a while now, making each other do stupid shit for no good reason. We know each other's tricks. My way of playing his game was to run prior to him telling me to. When the ground leveled off, I gave a it a go. The grade would increase, or I would cough to the point of dizziness. This part of the race was one of my favorites. I love switchbacks, even when it comes to just hiking them. I got to show Jason Marlette Pass as the sun was rising. How bromantic. As we approached the pass, I saw race course photographer. I told Jason to straighten up, because this pass with the lake in the background would make an awesome picture. I picked my head up again, and someone replaced the photographer with a pine sapling.

After the pass, we dipped down the Hobart AS for breakfast burritos.

The more of this I jot down, the more it looks like I went on a hiking buffet. If I remove myself from the memories of intense discomfort and mental anguish, this sounds like a delicious way to spend a weekend!

After Hobart, the trail was relatively flat for a mile, so we cruised and made up some time. After that, it was a 3000ish' climb to Snow Valley Peak. I just kept putting my hands on my knees and telling myself not to stop. My body was already damaged, so I just kept moving. Relentless forward motion. I realized at this moment was exactly what I needed. For a while now, I've been living under the assumption that I'm better than I am, some sort of temporarily slow elite. A great person who just hasn't had his moment to shine yet. As I slogged up these switchbacks on my final climb and my second sunrise, I realized that I'm simply me, and that all I: can do is be me, putting my best foot forward in everything I do. Not to worry about past failures, or let my fuckups define me. I may have missed my grandiose goal time by hours already, but that didn''t mean I couldn't perform. I've been coming up short in life and shrugging it off, because I "knew" I was capable of more. It's not what we know, it's what we can prove. At this event, it was my chance to prove that I can finish things, even when it gets ugly. Especially when it gets ugly.

We checked in at Snow Valley Peak, ate some rather crusty PB&J sandwiches, and started the final descent. 7.4 miles to Spooner Lake. We ran/hiked/walked repeated as we descended for the entire time. The sun was out, and it was already burning my skin. The main incentive to finish was to escape the hot sun. These last few miles seemed to take the longest. I'd run around a corner and say, "this is it! we're down!" only to be disappointed. We ran with a woman from Argentina, who was leading the women's field until getting lost complicated her day. We started the day together in the top 10. We were both running our first 100milers, learned a thing or two the hard way, and were finishing at the same time. Funny how it all works out. I didn't think either of us would still be on the trail 27 hours later. I saw a paper sign through the trees. I'd finally made it down the long descent, which was marked with a small self-serve aid station. From here, it was 1.5 flat miles to finish. I smiled at the thought. I'd actually be finishing my first 100 mile run. I turned and shook Jason's hand, thanking him for everything he'd done to get me to this point. We agreed that it wouldn't be like me to not finish hard, as pointless as it may be. We started running, and just kept building the momentum. Not a sprint, but my legs felt light and they were carrying me in. I was challenged by the Garmin on Jason' wrist. He kept reading off our pace. I was dropping. There were a couple hairpin turns to get us to the finish. People on ridges and in the park were cheering. I hopped up from the lake boardwalk to the footpath. The gate that corralled me into the 50 mile AS had been turned. I was free to finish. Jason kept reading off the pace. Jon was 200m from the finish, and we slapped hands as I ran by, hearing the "Naked America" theme song. I laughed, and rounded the final corner. Krista and Shelly were there, grinning. What's a 100 mile finish without a little flashing, right? One flashed with a camera, one...did not flash with a camera. I saw a banner with "FINISH" on it, and I read it as more of a command than a label. I was finally done, and I could stop running. Final mile was a casual 7:10.

The only picture of the finish, and it's all we need.

I think the most surprising this was that it didn't feel like I was done. It felt like another aid station. I sat down drinking water, shaking the hands of the race directors and those who finished near me. I hugged my crew and thanked them. Without them, I'd have been a mess. I hope I'm there when any of them need me.

So what's the word? Am I addicted to 100 mile races now? Not really. I'm addicted to being in the unknown. Running is just a good vehicle for that. I still have a hard time identifying myself as "a runner," and maybe it's because I'm just a kid who runs to see what he's made of. What am I made of? I'm no closer to that answer than I was before this.

Final time for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100: 28:08
36th place out of 150 starters, and ~100 finishers.

Was it the "breakout" 100 performance I was hoping for? No, but it was my first. The first time I planted my feet in the ground and took control, no matter how much it hurt. Remind me to do that more often.



  1. This is really excellent. Especially the opening paragraphs...hits close to home. Kudos for the share and congratulations on a great run!

  2. The section of your report after Hobart and before Snow Valley peak, about finding out who you were and what you are made of is simply inspiring. You are an excellent writer.

  3. A very inspiring and fun read. Congratulations on the run!

  4. "I never know how to start writing these things. I think I'll keep this one fairly short.". Hardly, I'm glad it wasn't short and I think you are a lot better at writing these things than you think. Excellent read, great story and a great job, congratulations!

  5. That was a great read. Way to fight through things and finish it off, keep up the good work!

  6. Very cool, I like the interwoven personal discovery story with the race. Most excellent write up and congrats on toughing out a most excellent course.