“Stick them with the pointy end” was the actual phrase that popped into my head while climbing up and out of Homeward Ski Resort and the start of one of the most difficult foot races in the U.S. – an epic 200 mile journey over rocky mountains bordering the beautiful deep blue glacial waters of Lake Tahoe. I had a bib number. I had a pass to run this race of a lifetime with my husband and all I could think of was that silly phrase muttered by Arya Stark on Game of Thrones. Funny, because that would become my battle cry of sorts for the next 3 and a half days. Walk towards the monster. Wake up, look deep, and find a way to see it for what it is- a big, ugly, writhing mass of doubt and fear. When that monster starts to wink greedily with those big oozing googly eyes and you are backed up against large granite boulders of horror- just stick it. And laugh.
But first… I can’t write this race report without attempting to describe the unique culture of the 200 mile race. These races have a flavor all their own- created by the runners, the volunteers, and race director Candice Burt- an accomplished gorgeous trail runner and mother of two daughters, who just one week before the start of Tahoe 200 set the fastest known time on the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. She also has quite a following on twitter and frequently posts thoughts such as “a rock just came out of my knee. I guess it lodged in there a few days ago when I fell & banged up my knee & broke my phone in a creek bed.” Then there are the volunteers- some trail runners themselves, others just good people who find joy in helping exhausted crazy runners accomplish jaw dropping goals. They include Christina, a physical therapist who acts as a go-between and liaison for all things medical at this race. This year she tirelessly worked around the clock, traveling from aid station to aid station for 4 days and nights while averaging only an hour of sleep a night just to bandage our dirty bloody feet and lift our spirits out of the depths of the lake. She saved a few races for sure- she might have also saved a few lives. All for what? For the love of it. For the love of human nature. For the love of love? Finally. Us- the runners (I’m choosing to include myself in this, even at the risk of sounding melodramatic). We are weird people, choosing nature over convenience and wild isolation over society’s strict codes. We are a pack of misfits. In our stories one can often find histories of addiction, abuse, depression, deep personal loss, as well as acts of heroism and compassion. Long runs are our therapy and our church. Out there in those dusty pine mountains, we have no labels. Society loses it’s stranglehold and we are free to finally just be. We are broken people, but understand that brokenness and wholeness are two sides of the same coin. Nightmares haunt, life shatters hearts. But in this- in the struggle and the effort- we are great. We see it in each other- a humble joy, a purpose, a past, a life actually lived. We are a family forged from the fires of our shared experiences in the wilderness. Some of us are highly successful, some of us not at all if judged by the gage of materialism. But we all share a longing for a life threaded into the fabric of truth. We look monsters in the eyes. We seek to reach beyond the superficial expectations of modern living. We enjoy a good challenge. Some run these races because they need to heal from a loss- finding closure while conquering fear. Some run to prove to themselves they can, that they are stronger than they think. Some are recovering addicts, some are highly successful overachievers- or both. All of these runners believe that life is what you make of it- that both pain and pleasure are equal opportunity teachers, and that truly feeling alive means facing your problems head on. Out there on the trails under the blanket of the Milky Way, we are brothers and sisters. We trust, we hope, we love, we find strength, we move in step. We stick it with the pointy end.
BANG. We are off. Some 230 of us. All stupidly grinning in excitement. Walking. The trail winds up and out over a ridge and immediately starts a steep ascent up to about 8500 ft. Courtney Dauwalter, the beautiful non-human mutant, is already way ahead with the rest of the male mustangs. Cesare- our Coastside Running Club connection with his ever present GoPro- is gone as well, already blending in with the mass of hats and packs and dust clouds in front of us. We are just the work horses, slow and steady. The climb gives way to spectacular views of an arid mountain landscape at the top. Rocky outcrops, towering pinnacles and valleys far below. The lake sparkles to the right. We turn off the ridge line and descend into a dusty pine forest on a fire road. Alan, always the chatty one, strikes up a conversation with a runner who introduces herself as Heather. She talks hesitantly. She mentions that she is worried about running out of water. He runs along with her for awhile and I scoot ahead. I’ve never liked making small talk with other runners in the beginning of a race. I’m introverted. I’m grumpy. I can TOTALLY judge other runners, and until I get to know and respect them later in a long race while we leapfrog back and forth in front and behind each other… they sometimes annoy me. And at the moment I’m thinking about how every woman on the trail today is talking to Alan. He’s so approachable, so easy to converse with, and interesting. It’s not jealousy- no I know clearly where Alan stands. He loves me and is somehow crazy about me. Yet still- it’s like swatting flies. I’m not angry, just annoyed. The first aid station materializes out of the forest at mile 10.4. I’m hot, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, and OH WOW my shoulders are killing me from my 15 pound pack. I’m already feeling a bruise forming as I shrug off the pack to refill the bladder and bottles with water. Holy hell. Well this is going to be fun… but it is a beautiful day. I am running the race of my dreams. The breeze cools, and Alan gives me a cup of magic- grape juice not from concentrate. The real stuff made from squished little purple grapes, probably planted by little twinkle fairies in unicorn rainbow land. I would live for that juice for the next three days, begging for it at aid stations like an addict needing a fix.
From there, we had a hard 19-20 miles before the next aid station at Tahoe City. We continue to descend- and run- until the trail morphs into a paved road with cute expensive cabins, and then finally knocks us out onto hwy 89, lake level. We are in the town of Tahoe Pines, and follow the paved bike path for a few miles. It’s flat and easy. Tourists pass us with dripping ice-cream cones and cups of beer. Kids splash in Lake Tahoe to our right. Alan and I look around us with a sense of awe- like we are already deeply immersed in another alternate universe. A universe of dust and blue skies, rocky ridges, and whispering pines…and here are tourists licking ice-cream cones. We stop at a public bathroom, and I wash my hands and face in the sink. A sink! Such luxury, really. About a quarter of a mile down the road Alan realizes he left his poles in the bathroom. I stop and wait as he sprints back to retrieve them. I pull out my phone and take a picture of the waves lapping up against the beach.
Then we climb again, crossing the hwy and past more cute cabins and finally back into the woods. Steep at first, the trail evens out into a soft ascent. A woman catches up to us, her blonde pigtails flying in the breeze. Alan and I both stammer at the same time.. “hey aren’t you… weren’t you… at Bishop? JENNY!” She laughs, yea totally, that was me spraying loads of sunscreen.” “On ME”, I say, “and practically force feeding me saltines and ginger ale”. Alan snorts… “yep, me too”. We had shared an instant connection due to some similarities in our lives when I ran into her little aid station at mile 40 something during the High Sierra Bishop 100k/50miler. The ultra running community might be growing, but it is still small. And even smaller for women, who are a minority in every race. Jenny, who lives in Mammoth, wasn’t even breathing heavily in the altitude. She left us behind when I stopped to grab a snack out of my pack. Stooopid pack. The straps dug into my shoulders leaving angry red welts and bruises. It hurt to move my arms. But there was literally nothing to be done about it. Most of the weight was from the water load. With 15-20 miles between most aid stations, Alan and I both carried a 1.5L bladder on our backs plus two 20oz bottles on the front of our packs. Also, a steri pen for purifying lake and stream water- just in case. We also carried 2 headlamps, food, a small stash of medical supplies, our phones and one portable charger each (for gps), and warm clothing. All of this is necessary. These mountains are unforgiving. Yet fast hiking and jogging with a heavy pack is not the style of running I usually enjoy. I prefer to run “free” and a little faster. 15 extra pounds of weight really slows one down.
The trail descends again. It’s a pattern that would become natural over the next three days- up, down, up, down…and march on. I’m starting to look forward to aid at Tahoe City, and pick up my pace. I’m once again jogging the flats and downs and pass a few runners, but Alan is lagging behind me. He says his legs feel “off” and sore. He’s in his head, worried that his taper was too long and is suspicious that his fitness peaked too early. Dang it all. Come ON. But I slow down again- relationships are worth more than any pace goal. Love is not selfish. I am. I am selfish sometimes, but I’m working on that fact of my existence. THIS is my love. I’ve waited my whole life for him… I can wait for him here, too. And as we enter Tahoe City, Alan suddenly turns up the pace into a near sprint. I’m gasping for air just to keep up with him. We cross a busy street bustling with full bellied, clean smelling tourists and enter aid. It’s chaos. Runners everywhere, requesting hot breakfast burritos and pancakes. I grab 4 already prepared ham and cheese rolls and two large cups of ginger ale and sit down to wait for our burritos. Alan remarks that he has a hot spot on his foot and walks over to the medical tent to get it looked at. I just chill. I sit on the pavement by a wooden fence guarding a small mountain stream and relax. Runners with crew step over and around me, one little girl peers at me as if I’m some kind of weird dirty alien. I smile at her and she returns the smile with a laugh and dances away in pink sparkle shoes.
45 minutes later, we walk out of the aid station, cross a street, and then hwy 89. We immediately start climbing again as the pavement ends and a little manicured trail appears to the left. Pink, blue, and orange striped race flags direct us up and out onto a beautiful ridge. The sun is setting over the lake. It’s a serene landscape, like out of a painting. We are high enough to take in the surrounding mountainscape, warm pine covered hills smoothing into rocky ledges blending to gray shadows of even more mountains in the distance. The lake, now a light blue-gray, is still dotted with a few picturesque boats. We continue to hike up following a gentle sloping ridge on a smooth single track trail. Alan starts talking to another runner. He’s chatting away with him, talking about property values in the Bay Area compared to New York City… among other subjects. The conversation is actually pretty interesting but I am in no mood to diddle-daly. This is a WALK. We are walking at a 20+ min per mile pace. So I jog ahead, and Alan eventually catches up with me. The sun sets into blackness. We try to find the sliver of a moon above the stalks of pine rising around and above us into the sky, and we talk about wild animals and weird animals- the hoot of an owl and the swish of bat wings. Other voices occasionally pierce the night with yells of joy or tinkling laugher. A line of runners on the trail behind us is playing a game of “guess who?” to pass the time. The trail dips, then climbs again. Alan starts to feel nauseated. We stop and sit on a large boulder. I can’t see his green face, but I feel the vibes. “Geez… I’m usually the one with nausea, not you babe”, I say as he hunches over trying to chew a few tums. I have some zofran in my pocket and offer him a pill, but he refuses. Pat stops by. Alan knows him- I guess they met during the course briefing a few days ago. He’s run a few of these 200 miler races before and offers his sympathy. He also matter a factly states “well now it’s a beautiful night, so you’ve got that- best to keep moving”. And then he is gone… disappearing into the void in front of us. The trail becomes very rocky, with frequent large roots and ruts. The temperature dips and we add layers. We keep hearing music in the distance. I think… aid station? But no- we are still miles away from Brockway Summit. The music get louder. Techno and 70’s hits, full of alternating rhythms and voices hitting high notes. It’s obscene. It’s REALLY silly- so wrong and out of place in the pristine wilderness. The culprit appears, blasting the silence this time with 90’s pop. She passes us. A cute little colorful thing with dark pigtails, hips swaying as she power walks to the beat. Alan starts to laugh hysterically. “Ok”, he says, “we have to pass the radio station and keep her behind us!”. So, we do. Just to be passed again. We spend what seems like hours frog hopping ahead and then behind again, all the while being serenaded with the most jarring pop music. Alan comments that “this girl actually knows about music- she’s picking some interesting songs”. I tell him he is already delusional. Radio station fades away in front of us when Alan slows down to a crawl. He stumbles behind me complaining of nausea, of low blood sugar, of pain in his legs, his back, and his feet. We stop over and over again. I’m tired too. My legs and shoulders hurt, and I’m sick of hearing him complain. I snap at him, and of course my comment of “what is your problem? This is going to hurt, it’s a 200 MILE RACE!!” doesn’t go over well. I’m being impatient and selfish, and I know it. I know that if I were experiencing nausea instead of him, he would encourage me. He would be sympathetic and loving, just like he was at Western States when he sacrificed his race time for me. I apologize and this time force feed him a Zofran. “Just take it, love”. He experiences almost immediate nausea relief.
Brockway Summit at mile 50 glows with string lights. It’s 1am, and Alan and I huddle around the tiny fire in camp chairs. We try to lay down to sleep. He falls asleep for a few minutes. I can’t. There are too many lights, too much noise. So I get up and change my clothes. I use baby wipes to wipe the gritty dust from my face and neck. I look at the wipes in the lamplight- they are black. I blow my nose with another clean wipe. Oh gross. That’s black too. We pack our food and refill water bottles in preparation to go. A sleepy black lab blinks up at me and thumps his tail sweetly. There are so many dogs.
Everywhere in this race are the beautiful large dogs of the runners, the crews, the volunteers, and photographer/TEN time Hardrock 100 finisher Howie Stern- who’s wolves seemed to track us from aid station to aid station- magically appearing and then disappearing in the glow of headlamps on dark mountain passes. They would sleep in the dirt at aid stations, sometimes approaching us for a tail or ear scratch while looking around at the scene as if… as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Their humans, traveling on foot for hundreds of miles over mountains, was just what humans DO. Nothing to see or wonder about. Time to take a nap. Speaking of dogs- Catra Corbett’s 10 pound Dachshund TruMan really stole the show. The tiny little thing- a stray that found love and friendship in the arms of a wild tie-die tattooed tough as nails trail sister- ran five 50k’s with Catra before he aged and developed a heart murmur. He is now content to just rest on her hips or snuggle into her lap for warmth while “crewing” her.
Alan leads now. He hikes up fast and with purpose. We pass other runners. 15 miles to the next aid station, mile 65. Our goal is to arrive before 9am. We want 65 miles under us at the beginning of the second day. The trail joins a fire road and we steeply descend. My feet slip out underneath me a few times as I sit down hard on my butt. Dirty words are starting to form under my tongue. Instead of words, I spit out black saliva as clouds of dust enter my mouth and lungs. Alan bounds down the trail as if he’s warming up for a 5K. He stops to wait for me- I’m not sure if he’s concerned or impatient. Probably both. Dawn cracks the sky. At the top of a ridge, we take in the view. A few other runners are sitting on rocks and taking pictures. We are above the north side of the lake. Rolling mountains branch out from the lake in soft lines. We soak in the softness of the landscape for a few minutes, then turn to tackle The Powerline Descent. About 1300ft of steep downhill, on soft slippery sand with no toe-holds, no tree branches to grab, and nothing but sharp uncompromising bushes to stop a fall. Alan goes on ahead, trying to bound down and immediately slips and falls. I take it more carefully but it’s excruciatingly slow. A woman in front of me slides heavily over and over again. Her shorts fill up with dusty sand. We somehow find our way to the bottom with jammed knees and stressed ankles. I look back at the slope and at 3 runners still trying to scramble for a foothold down the face of this monster. I turn my back to it and run. On pavement, downhill. We run four miles past Incline Village and past huge mansions with entry gates as large as 3 bedroom houses and with names like “Tranquility” and “Sierra Star” to Tunnel Creek Aid. Christina sits happily on a camp chair surrounded by runners with their toes in the air. Alan immediately goes over to her- she jots down his name- wait in line. We stay for an hour and a half. I lay down in a tent on a cot and try to sleep. My heart slows down, my mind starts to calm… and then I start to shake. I’m suddenly freezing from the inside out, even with two blankets and a jacket. I can’t warm up and I can’t stop shaking, so I leave the tent and sit in the sun with a cup of coffee. My left calf throbs. I think I must have pulled it while hiking that last “up”. How can I finish 200 miles if I’m this sore at mile 65?
It’s now 10am and the sun in broiling. We fast hike out and up an exposed fire road. It’s a brutal climb. At the top, however, beautiful soft single track finds us, and I run on a ridge, still slowly winding it’s way ever higher. I stop to wait for Alan. He’s limping. He’s deflated. He says the blisters on the bottom of his feet have filled up again with fluid. He can’t take a step without excruciating pain. He’s arguing with me- telling me to just leave him there- telling me he might just be done with this race. I ask him if he’s tried everything. I’m kicking myself for not looking more closely inside our 50 mile drop bag and grabbing the Motrin. His eyes light up. He flags down another runner and asks for Tylenol. Even before he swallows down the precious pill, he starts bouncing again. We follow the TRT 50/100 course up and over Snow Valley Peak at 9190 ft. At the top of the climb we are surprised by photographer Scott Rokis, who would continue to pop up on top of mountain passes throughout the race. (Note: he and Howie Stern are some of the best race photographers I’ve ever met- they love their jobs and are dedicated to creating truly unique images) I ran past him, turned to thank him, lost my balance, and teetered on the edge of the ridge. Alan freaked out. “Watch the trail!” The aid station at Spooner Lake never seemed to appear. We ran. We made great time. Alan’s watch counted the miles: 17, 18, 19, 20… no aid. I ate everything in my pack and drained my water. We looked at each other with red defeated eyes. Exhaustion. Aid stations in this race are elusive. They seem to appear and disappear with the wind. No rhyme or reason, and certainly no actual mileage counts. Just… whenever and wherever. The hallucinations start. They are mild. Just little twists of vision out of the side of my eyesight. A snake on the trail- no it’s just a stick. A dead mouse – no just a pinecone.
Spooner Lake aid station is battling forceful winds and lies across a hwy. As we move to cross over, a car with a distracted driver runs the white line towards us. I scream at Alan to step back. It’s a close call and we are shaking with anger and shaking in the wind. Alan and I both take care of our feet at this aid station. I’m starting to notice some hot spots and find 3 small blisters on my right foot. The bottom of Alan’s feet look trashed. His blisters are just getting larger. Even though the weather is extremely arid he can’t seem to keep his feet dry. The fine granite dust traps sweat and his feet macerate even in desert-like conditions. Gaiters are helping to block the dust, but aren’t keeping everything out. Every time we take off our shoes, we are rewarded with a view of black feet and dirt filled toes. By the time we leave Spooner Lake Aid, the sun is starting to set. We immediately start looking for a place on the side of the trail to lie down for a quick nap. We find the perfect spot in a patch of flat dirt and sunshine and I unwrap my emergency blanket. We both collapse down on top of it. In seconds, Alan is flying into dreamworld and snoring beside me. Birds are chirping, the setting sun feels so wonderful. Yet I’m suddenly once again freezing cold and start to shiver uncontrollably. I’m jerking so badly, I wake Alan up. A 5 minute nap. Instead of getting upset with me for waking him up out of desperately needed sleep, he hugs me tight trying to warm me up. “Let’s go”, and we set out climbing up again.
Night rises. We climb up to about 8,600 ft and float high. We see the red edge of the sun’s last light as it rests over the horizon. We look down into a huge black abyss and wonder what views would wait for us with a rising sun. But we can’t wait, so away we go- down and with a fast pace. 18 miles! 18 miles to Heavenly- to an indoor bathroom with running water, to a cot with a blanket and warmth, to a drop bag filled with good things, to Paula, to Megan!
Alan is a different man. I know this man. I love this man. A switch has flipped over. He’s left his anger and disappointment about the crumbling of this dream – his goal race- on the trail back there. He’s a freaking stud. I know he’s now experiencing intense pain with every step- a pain that throbs and stabs and never completely goes away. Not for a second. Yet he’s laughing and talking about UFO’s and funny animals. We start acting like goof-balls- or as our 6 year old son Aaron says- “teenagers”. We see deer that appear to us like mountain lions in the beams of our headlamps, staring back and posed to jump. We run, we hike. We shower everything with praise- how could we not? “Awesome rock! Oooo listen- did you hear that owl? Woah now THIS is a trail! Hmmm… this Muir Goo tastes like poop… but I bet it might help me get over this low blood sugar dizziness!” We pass a woman hunched over and sitting on a boulder. She says “I’m ok really- my back just gave out back there so I’m going slow”. Tough people surround me. Over-comers. Finding a way to scramble out of the wilderness, finding a way to scramble out of life’s troubles. I’ve never been more proud of my husband then I am right now, right here on a trail somewhere in Nevada on the edge of a huge blue lake. He knows- like I know- that at Heavenly I will continue with Megan, and that he will continue on with Paula. He knows now that this is not his race. We both know it’s my race. We both know I’ve been holding back, that I have a lot more to give. But I know that what is most important is what is with me now- this resilient man with a heart of gold. And omg I love him.
The trail just runs on and on. No Heavenly. We finally turn from the TRT onto a fire road. A ski-road, we think, probably leading us directly up to the ski resort. However soon pink and blue flags disappear. We consult my phone for the Gaia GPS map and find a small side trail cut into a hillside. I stare at the course line on my phone. No, no way do we still have 3-4 miles left to climb! What kind of course IS this? We’ve already traveled 19 miles at least. But to be honest, we don’t quite know the exact mileage because our watches are set to conserve battery life. So up we trudge, weaving along a ridge with the lights of Heavenly tempting us just out of reach. This trail is a tease.
Heavenly is washed in bright lights and warmth. It’s almost 2am, and Paula and Megan have been patiently waiting for our arrival since 3pm the previous day. How do we deserve such good friends? I clean myself in an actual bathroom and survey the damage. My skin is chaffed in a the usual places, but not badly. I had taped my neck and shoulders (where my pack rubs) and my back underneath my sports bra with KT tape. Everything looks great, considering we are now at the halfway point. I’m exhausted and want a nap. Megan stands close by after bringing me a hamburger. Paula asks about Alan- she’s already sensed a problem and is concerned about him. I give her a little update… nausea, blisters… “the nausea he is controlling, the blisters not so much”. I lie down in a huge upstairs sleep room. Huddled figures under blankets on top of air mattresses cover the floor of the room. Meg helps me find an open bed and I fall into it. She literally tucks me in like I’m a little child. I love her.
Ping. Tick-tock. Crash. Someone’s cell phone alarm. Whispers… then pictures rapidly flashing in my head. Weird, random images- a two headed dragon, a writhing pile of snakes, a blue jay chirping on a flowering tree branch, a hairy tarantula creeping sideways, red rocks in a desert landscape, a face contorted in pain, a baby crying, the sweet gurgle of water and a meadow stream… I’m shaking uncontrollably underneath a heavy wool blanket. Time to get up.
I tape my blistered feet for good measure. Mary, who’s been working medical all night, helps me and has the touch of a perfectionist. She says “I ran this beast last year. I didn’t finish until the 98th hour and couldn’t sleep at all out there”. I laugh- “that’s horrible”. But I’m starting to feel like I can relate. I glance across the room and see Anna Frost. THE Anna Frost. The elite trail runner from New Zealand who also champions for women. She works as an ambassador, recruiting and encouraging more women to run trails. I shake her hand, smiling at her with my dust covered teeth and with my raspy dust covered voice, say “I’m a BIG fan!”. (I’m a big dork)
I kiss Alan goodbye. Megan shuttles me out the door and into the cool night. Meg is one of the newest additions to our tight ultra circle within the Coastside Running Club. She moved to the Bay Area from Michigan about a year ago to pursue a career in science and research. When Alan and I first started running with her, showing her all of our favorite holy places on Montara Mountain, she would jump up and down with excitement at every vista point. “It’s all so beautiful!”. We started calling her Sunshine. If Meg likes and trusts you, she might give you a pet name. Something like “blue glitter butterfly” or “grippy little spider monkey”. She’ll greet you with a huge smile, her excitement bubbling over and out like champagne. She’s beautiful in every way. However don’t make the mistake of interpreting her joy for weakness. She has an iron core of strength and grit and a whip sharp mind. The more difficult the challenge, the brighter she shines. Just two weeks before she was scheduled to pace me in this race, she found out she made the lottery into Cascade Crest 100. She hopped a plane, ran the 100 miles, and scooted into the finish as 4th place female. She’s unstoppable and she’s my secret weapon. I plan on taking advantage. It’s 4:30am and time to kick some ass. I tell Megan that I want her to challenge me- keep me working. “Ok” she says simply, and then immediately begins to run. “Follow right behind me, my sparkle glow fish!” And so it starts… The cool night turns into a brilliant dawn of the third day. The world winks it’s eyes open and the trail stretches out onto a ridge line that overlooks a massive Nevada valley. We climb gently, alternating running with fast hiking. Megan is exclaiming “WOW this is so beautiful!”. Her positivity is contagious and fuels our pursuit. I start running faster, and pretty soon we are passing runners- just ticking them off one by one. It’s easy. I have no pain. Not in my shoulders from my pack and not in my legs. I think about the miracle- how can this be? Day #3 and 115 miles in, and NO pain? I’ve been taking gels laced with caffeine and find that I am definitely not tired. I’m not sure where all of this energy is coming from, but I think “who cares?”. Megan pulls me along like a magnet. She’s such a strong, solid runner and she bounces along the trail like a bunny on a cloud of carrots. “Excuse me…On your left…Passing through!”… we continue up to the very top, hitting the highest elevation of the race at 9716ft. We pause for a few minutes to admire the view.
We descend quickly into Armstrong Aid. The day is already warming up, and the aid station – which was freezing just an hour ago- is now unbearably warm. I feel sweat dripping down my arms as I sit in a camp chair. I go through my bag. I find a can of Zola Espresso, but leave it for Alan to find in this shared drop bag. Love you, Alan… see? I’m making the ultimate sacrifice. A guy sitting across from me is getting his foot worked on by an angel medic with bright green hair. She pokes at a bloody mess that I think is supposed to be his big toe. I stare casually and eat my egg sandwich as he grips the arms of the chair with eyes screwed shut. My career path as a nurse does sometimes work to my advantage. We leave as soon as possible. It’s too hot, too uncomfortable. I pass Heather on the way out, sitting on a rock. She has changed since the early miles of the race. What I mistook for inexperience and uncertainty has transformed itself into a tough as nails stare. She asks about Alan. When I tell her I’m a little doubtful he can pull off a finish with his shredded feet, she smiles warmly and says “oh we all go through lows… he’ll be fine”. We climb out of Armstrong the way we came in and I run almost directly into my man. He’s in trouble. He’s tense, his eyes focused into a tight stare. He asks about the medic at Armstrong… I stammer out yea I think she’s knowledgable. I tell him I’ll see him at Sierra. However there’s an ugly thread of uncertainty in that statement. He barely acknowledges me. He’s back in his dark place, climbing a wall of pain, and I am so, so thankful for Paula who is following protectively close behind.
We climb again, up to a startlingly beautiful peak. White bouldered rock formations and fallen pine trees litter the ground, but the trail is buttery soft and from the top, slopes down steadily and gently. Megan is yelling “woo-hoo!” and telling me this is our chance. We stretch out our legs, running strong and well. We frog-hop with another runner and his pacer- they offer welcome company in the otherwise empty universe. My stomach starts to talk to me, but then stops. Good stomach. Megan is always encouraging. We run this downhill for what feels like forever. I’m actually running a lot of it, I think. We continue to pass runner after walking runner and as we fly by, we hear comments such as “what the…!” and “whoah” and “yea, number 125..!!!” We cross through a large meadow, brown grasses gently swaying, and through a parking lot- a campsite I think. A race volunteer stands at the entrance to the next trail head directing creeping snail-like runners in the right direction. Megan shoots past him and he yells back at her “slow down- are you trying to find your runner?”… Meg screams “nope! I got her” as I fly by and he literally spins a 180 to look at us, mouth open. (ok that is what I like to think happened at least)
We fast hike up and start to jog again. This time, up. I am flying. I am out of my body and floating above it. I feel nothing- no pain, no fatigue. Just pure beauty. Until suddenly I am stumbling towards a fallen log and gasping for air. I am dizzy, hungry, and thirsty. I’m a mess and want nothing more than a chocolate milkshake overflowing with whip cream and a nice long nap. I can barely talk but squeak out an “oh good!” when Megan states that we should be at the aid station very soon. A runner passes with her pacer, barely moving. We ask “do you have the miles to the next aid station?” She replies with certainty- “oh it’s not for another 5 miles”… but Meg’s watch reads a different mileage and we decide to think optimistically. Probably 3 miles, max. We hike. I can’t possibly run, and the trail just winds on.. freaking disappearing aid stations. Megan starts giving me gifts of shot blocks. They are gross. I have a sore forming in my mouth from eating so much fructose- sugar- over the duration of this race. It’s painful and I don’t want anything that syrupy sweet. However I also don’t feel like digging around for the last bar I have somewhere in my pack, and another bar sounds just as terrible. So I comply and am thankful. Awesome pacers are…awesome. My brain kind of shuts down, most likely from lack of sleep. I walk along in a daze, following dumbly behind Meg. Her voice tinkles and trickles back to me in little snippets of “you’re awesome” and “fantastic!” and “so wonderful”. And in that way we walk forever and ever and ever… and into House Wife Hill Aid at mile 135-ish.
I sit while Megan hands me one tortilla chip after another loaded with guacamole. She chirps, “now how are you feeling, colorful tropical fish?”. I know I can stand up and get my own tortilla chips, but the chair feels pretty nice. I let her handle it, handle this mess of a “runner”. A group of guys enters the aid station and they immediately compliment me on my “crazy skills”… “hey, you were running fast back there!”. I’m totally humbled, because now I’m drained and am experiencing an emotional low. I just want to lay down in the dirt and cry. I want to tantrum like a little kid, pounding my fists into the ground with giant sobs. Not Fair! I take the compliment instead and use it to bounce me out of my sleep deprived depression. I slowly get up and thank the volunteers that are so selflessly helpful, and Meg and I leave. Just 7 miles to Sierra! We fast hike up an embankment and onto a cliff ledge, following race flags. Below us to the right, nothing. The trail spans just a few feet across to the cliff’s edge. Parallel to us on the right, there is another steeply angled mountain. I wonder how this particular formation in the earth’s crust was formed. I once again feel so thankful to be exploring it- to be able to participate in such a difficult and rewarding adventure. With every step and every ragged breath, the depression lifts.
And soon, Sierra. The aid station of our very own Coastside Running Club. Hugs, friendship, family, and a nice long nap. It all glitters in front of me like a string of diamonds. Just…take it. The trail follows an up and down trajectory, winding over a small mountain, then onto pavement that stretches up to the ski lodge. Cole is the first lookout to spot me walking up and runs down the road with a hug. I’m surrounded with love. Sierra is an oasis and I soak in these waters. Friends, my wonderful parents, Cole, Aaron, and Riley- and Alan is sitting inside with his toes in the air. He looks resigned after dropping out of the race at Armstrong Aid, but he’s OK. Christina wraps his feet and gives advice- to get the blisters checked out in Truckee’s ER. They look a little infected. I clean up and change clothes and find a place to lay down. This time it’s Riley who tucks me in like a little baby. I love her so much. Yet again, the pictures flashing through my mind. Vivid. Like a vision of all things that quantify life itself. Flashes of beauty, joy, evil, the great, the fantastic, the weird. A great slideshow. An acid trip. I think with amazement that my brain is actually conjuring up this bazaar sideshow. My brain on drugs. No- my brain on adrenaline and no sleep. I roll over and look at my cell phone- 10:06 pm. I’ve only been lying down for about 45 min, but since I can’t sleep I may as well run. Where’s Norm?
Norm. This man with a heart of gold was my first introduction to the Coastside Running Club some 4 years ago. We met in Folsom, CA the day before Rio Del Lago 100 during the pre-race briefing and registration. A crowd of people mingling together- and there he was in a bright orange shirt. While running that first 100 miler for both of us, we passed each other a few times as the trail circled in and out of Cool, CA. I remember thinking at the time just how wonderful it was to see a familiar face out there. Although we had just met, we shared a connection forged from the shared experiences of that first 100 mile race. Norm is faithful. He is real. He is the friend that would carry you through a forest fire- no questions asked, no second thoughts. He’s not the loudest voice in the room. He doesn’t have to be, because he will often quietly and incrementally make heads turn in awe at what he can accomplish when he throws all of himself into a challenge. Norm offered to give up three full days of his time to pace me. On his birthday weekend.
I wake Norm up where he is napping and in 10 minutes he’s standing beside me with his pack on his back. “Let’s go, buddy”. We leave into the night. My secret plan is to knock the last 60-65 miles out in 24 hours. It’s a pretty intense goal- Sierra at Tahoe to the finish line (clockwise course direction) is known to contain the toughest sections of the course. Almost right away, we are scrambling. “The Scramble” is what Norm and I eventually start to call our little adventure. When the trail gets tough and the only way forward is… forward, we laugh at each other. “Well… it IS a GRADUATE level race, you know”. Norm maintains a challenging pace. He says “you know Megan gave me a lot of advice back there at Sierra on how to pace you. She is a fast one, and I have a lot of respect for her. But we are doing this my way now.” Of course, Norm, how else could we make this happen? I’m happy to let someone else think for me as I follow behind like a baby goat. We find runnable trail only to be slowed down 100 feet later with steep technical downhill illuminated only in the small beams of our headlamps. And so it goes. We cross hwy 50 near Strawberry, although the road is deserted at this time of the night. We continue onto a soft sweet little downhill track. Norm speeds up. He’s forcing me into a nice smooth run, and I’m glad. It feels great to stretch out my legs. The trail eventually ends in pavement, and a sign points out the direction to Wright’s Lake. We hike up the road. The only sounds are our footsteps hitting the pavement and our breathing. We stop to eat, and turn off our headlamps. The Milky Way shimmers above the shadows of the pines. “we’re really doing this”, I say. “You’re really doing this”, Norm replies. We haven’t seen another runner since leaving Sierra at Tahoe. Just after a sign that states WRIGHTS LAKE 5 MILES, race flags direct us off the road and onto a small trail. Almost immediately the temperature drops drastically- like walking into a freezer in shorts and a short sleeve shirt. This little weather bubble is more than uncomfortable- I am shivering in minutes. Norm starts to run to increase body heat, but the trail becomes technical very fast. Large boulders and small boulders with sharp edges litter the rutted trail. My eyes don’t adjust well to night vision. I blame the eye surgery I had 15 years ago- I see a lot of glare at night. I’m having trouble finding depth perception from my directional headlamp beam and am stumbling over the rocks -risking a folded ankle over hypothermia. I am kicking myself for leaving my warm long sleeve shirt back at Sierra- I hadn’t used it on the high mountain passes, so I didn’t think I would need it at all. I also accidentally left my gloves somewhere back at Heavenly. I’m a fool, I think. Soon to be a frozen fool. I hear heavy breathing and footsteps behind me. A shaky male voice says “don’t worry I’m not trying to pass you- I’m just trying to keep warm”. I realize there are now 4-5 of us in a single file line. We are all running -scared little raccoons hopping over boulders, going ever up. My blood sugar drops, so I pull out a bag of gummy bears from my pack. I usually love gummy bears, but now they are disgustingly sweet. Still, it’s something. Norm bounds over the rocks, and I’m falling behind. I sit down for a minute in a warmer patch of air and wait for a group of runners to catch up. Their conversation is interesting, and in between exclamations of “whhhhyyyy is it so cold?!” I hear stories like “yea I was hallucinating so badly at Bigfoot, everything started to look like that big monkey. I started getting really paranoid that every tree trunk was Bigfoot hunting me.” A few of them are attempting the “triple”- Bigfoot200, Tahoe200, and Moab240 – all within three months, all in the same year. This section of the trail is miserable. All of us are suffering, exhausted, and hypothermic. The words of the other runners sound flat. It’s the magical sleeping hour just before dawn. However no one complains. No one sounds angry or upset about the dangerous conditions, or the fact that race director Candice and race organizers thought it perfectly ok to place sleep deprived runners on this trail in freezing weather on night #3. To be fair, we were warned about trail conditions and weather fluctuations, and were told to bring warm clothing. I’m fighting hypothermia because I left my gloves and thermal shirt behind. The fault is mine. We run through Wright’s Lake campground and campers sleeping in the warm comfort of their RV’s and trailers, and finally stumble into Wright’s Lake Aid. I’m drawn like a moth to a single small fire- nothing else matters. We cluster around the fire giving out just the tiniest bit of warmth. It’s everything and we are survivors. Norm brings me a steaming cup o’ noodles, however I don’t have a lot of time to enjoy it because we are scooting over and making room as more cold runners arrive. This must be the party place of the race! Probably 20 of us are now crammed into this one lonely aid station- either sitting around the fire or shiver-sleeping on cots just a few steps away. There is a feeling of dank misery. I only count two volunteers- they are both obviously exhausted themselves after a long night of feeding so many starved, grumpy runners. As I stand up and move over to give my seat to another, I realize we can’t stay. If we stay, my body temperature will continue to drop. I need a nap, but Wright’s Lake is not exactly a 5 star hotel.
We leave everyone behind. Norm thinks the next aid station is only 7 miles away at Tell’s Creek. I leave without verifying… we just need to start moving. I’m shivering badly. Norm gives me an extra down vest that he magically pulls out of his pack. I take my emergency blanket from my pack and wrap it around my shoulders- fastening it under my shoulder straps. I can’t see a thing in the glare from my headlamp. White dust floating in the air and ankle deep on the ground obscures white rocks. “How does ANYONE even move out here at night?” I think. I pull my headlamp off of my head and shimmy it up over my feet and onto my waist. A better angle. At least I can see some dimension now. We enter a small slice of the jeep trail known as The Rubicon. It’s too early for the jeeps, so we are undisturbed- except for a runner who is making his way toward us with a concerned look. “Wrong way. The course has been vandalized”. Dang it. I pull out my phone and consult my GPS map. It directs us off the road. We bushwhack through pine needle swamp muck and over logs while following the map precisely. What the…? Suddenly we are popping back up and onto the Rubicon again as a red dawn cracks the sky. We look down into the valley as see the lights of a few lost runners, headlamps weaving back and forth, hopelessly looking for course markers. “Well”, Norm remarks matter-a- factly, “we certainly are passing a lot of people”. We climb up on this jeep trail for a few miles, and then turn off to the left onto a tiny path. The trail has a certain “scramble” feel to it- like it was created specifically for this race. It leads to no beautiful vistas or serene meadows. It simply goes on and on for miles through bushes and under pine canopies. We cross a dry stream bed and then hike up- to a rocky outcrop. I think I hear a road in the distance. Norm’s watch reads 8 miles since Wright’s Lake… WHERE is that aid station? Norm states that he is now hallucinating after over 24 hours with little sleep- he’s seeing aid station tents that are actually just white boulders outlined against blue skies. I’m hallucinating badly as well and am having a harder time distinguishing reality from the fictional story playing out in my head. I tell Norm, and his voice sounds hardened with concern. “We need to find that aid station”. I see a shirtless, bearded man standing on the rocky outcrop next to us. His belly is sagging over his jeans and it shakes as he raises his arm and drinks a beer. I’m about to say something to Norm when the man simply vanishes without a trace as I watch. I look down at the trail and then up again, and notice three runners sitting on the side of the trail to our right. Two are eating quesadillas, one is hunched over- using his pack as a pillow- sleeping. The scene is as real as reality… and then a second later it’s gone. And so it goes… every time I look up, I see another vivid hallucination. The trail winds up and down the valley floor to the ridge line again and again. We can’t seem to escape this nightmare maze. We come across a mountain biker. I think he’s another illusion until he says “you’re getting there!”. Norm laughs after he passes, “what exactly does that mean?”. About a mile later, the same mountain biker rides past us again. I am incredibly confused. My brain is either not working, or this whole place is just one weird sink-hole in time and circumstance. Maybe our Milky Way is being sucked into a black hole? Course flags disappear on the rocky outcrops and we play a game of “find & capture the next flag” as we move from one flag to the other while consulting my phone. To my open mouthed shock and amazement, the same mountain biker passes by us again. He is followed close behind by a sweaty shirtless runner jamming to electric beats from a speaker in his waist pack. His bib number is firmly fastened to his shorts. He’s one of us. He’s a weird one, trotting comfortably over the rocks, fresh as a daisy… just a little morning jog. I find this- the absurdity of feeling lost, hallucinating, running out of water, and not sleeping for days…only to encounter this weird time/reality warp absolutely hilarious. What kind of strange world did we fall into? Where ARE we? Am I the Alice in my own Wonderland?
11 miles, 12 miles, 13 miles since Wright’s Lake and we are finally falling into the arms of Tell’s Creek Aid. It’s a beautiful oasis. Mary is there- who fixed my feet a lifetime ago at Heavenly. Anna Frost is restocking the food table and glances up with a gentle smile. One other runner is relaxing in the shade of the medical tent- hat pulled down, a big smile, and Coke in hand. All of it is so wonderful, but my vision twists in on itself and the runner looks distorted, like he stepped in front of a concave mirror. I need to sleep. I’m immediately grabbed by the arm and led over to a tent. I fall in. This time flashing images never appear before the eyes of my mind. Instead I hear the soft mummer of voices outside. I wake up coughing and snotting and realize I’m coughing up blood from my sinuses. The white and black granite dust that permeates the air has cut through my nose like shards of glass. Although I’ve tried, at times in this race, to pull a suffocating buff up over my nose and mouth, the dust is ever present. I blow my nose and spit up blood, then look up to see Norm standing in the doorway of the tent. He doesn’t even bat and eye to my gross display. “You ready?” The time is 12pm. I’ve only been sleeping for about 30 minutes, but feel like I’ve had an 8 hour night. I feel a sense of urgency- only 30 miles to go! I inspect my feet. I quickly stick a piece of tape over an ugly emerging blister on the side of my right foot. What’s the worst that can happen? I’m almost finished.
We scramble again for another 6 miles to Loon Lake. The place is crowded. One runner is lying on a cot, his badly swollen left ankle covered with an ice pack. I ask him if he’s planning on wrapping it up tight and finishing… he nods at me with a steely, satisfied look, glittering eyes peering out from under the brim of his hat. He might be tougher than me. Norm and I guzzle water, coke, grape juice, and ginger ale. We eat a few quesadillas and fill our packs with food. We leave within 20 minutes. 24 miles to go! Why, that’s less than a marathon. Easy breezy, lemon squeeze-y.
We run hard uphill, past the blue waters of Loon Lake on our left and up into the rocky boulders of the ridge of the next mountain. I feel fantastic. We pass a runner with a bright orange shirt. He has a great pace, but ours is better. He looks at us with a deflated expression as we pass and I yell “doing GREAT!”, and I smile to myself. Ha! Got him. I’m way too competitive and that poor guy is trying so hard… but I don’t care. I’m gleeful in the knowledge that we are doing damn good. Amazing, and Norm is a rock star for putting up with my energy swings. The trail fizzles out among hills of boulders. We are now hopping from one course flag to another, playing the game again. “Do you see it?” “Nope…oh wait there’s another flag!”… and so on. Until we find ourselves high up looking down on Mr. Orange Shirt as he jogs on by below us, and realize that the flags have been vandalized again. I’m envisioning redneck drunk jeep owners angry- spitting nails and probably tobacco- about us walking through THEIR Rubicon- us crazy stupid stumbling runners- pulling course flags and placing them off course, high above. Just to confuse us. Just to send a clear menacing message- STAY OFF OUR ROAD. Wow. Norm and I agreed- come sunset, this will be dangerous. Runners will likely lose their way out here, and with a lack of judgement from sleep deprivation… well, things could get real.
We find our way back to the Rubicon and steeply descend into a bottomless pit of dust and rock. We are rock hopping, slipping, and sliding down the slope. I am again thankful for my poles- I use them like legs, testing the ground and rocks for stability before making each jump. Dust billows in clouds. There is no escape from it, and coughing just wastes energy. In spite of the miserable conditions, Norm and I are having a great time. We are laughing and remarking to each other how cool it is to be taking over THEIR jeep trails. Wanna vandalize our race? Too bad. We are still here. These aren’t just your trails. Stick em’ with the pointy end. I mis-judge a rock hop and sit down hard in the dirt. I pop up from behind a boulder to the view of Norm watching the 10 foot dust cloud I created with concern and squeak “I’m OK!”. I find this unbelievably funny. I’m still laughing about it- about the absurdity of this entire section of the course- when we catch up to Mr. Orange Shirt again at the bottom, cross a bridge, and run through the Rubicon Jeep Association’s property, this time we move together. There is no room for competition right now. We work together. We turn sharply right, and look up. Oh no.
I’m still feeling good, and fast hike. The wide jeep “road” steeply ascends, with numerous false summits. Norm is losing steam. We’ve left Mr. Orange shirt back in the dust somewhere. He states “you know, I’ve NEVER run a 100k like this”. I haven’t either. He tells me to go, and after a few minutes of hesitation, I leave him. I walk almost right into photographer Scott Rokis (does this guy ever sleep?) as he snaps of few images of me, and then of Norm, who is still moving down below me.
I reach a rocky knob that I think must be the summit and look around for flags. Nothing. I consult my phone and spend 5 minutes trying to find the correct route. I’m confused- these rocky landscapes can easily disorient. Norm all of sudden appears out of the trees looking as fresh as if he were simply out for a morning stroll. “I got a second wind- let’s go, friend”. We find the correct direction on GPS, and soon spot a flag on the edge of the boulder clearing. We hike back into the woods and again the path steeply ascends. It’s a never-ending ascent. After a few miles, Norm again tells me to move on without him- that he’s pretty sure if I hike/run well, I’ll make it to the finish before midnight. He says “all I’m moving on now is love…I’ve got nothing else left”… I feel a few happy tears forming in the corners of my eyes. I hike fast as the setting sun’s rays cast long shadows. The last light. I’ve misread the course map again. I thought I only had another mile to go before aid. However, like all aid stations in this race, it is elusive. It tantalizes but never materializes. A few other runners catch up to me. One guy says- “hey, you left your pacer back there, right? That’s kick-ass! He told me to tell you he’s proud of you”. I’m hitting another psychological low. All I can say in response is “where is this damn aid station?!” I receive a snarky reply of “it’s at the top of the hill, of course”. Ugh.
The warmth, the lights, the sweet sounds of voices. I’m with family. I sit down next to Christina. She looks tired. This is her last stop- last chance for limping runners to be bandaged and gifted with her knowledge. She asks me “will you ever do this again- will you ever try to run this distance?” I tell her “nope. No way. This is crazy and I’m not crazy”. (note: I changed my mind just two days later) Runners continue to crowd into and around this warm space next to the fire. No one seems in a hurry to leave.
Norm appears out of the dark and tells me nicely to “get”. I’m not happy about being pushed back out into the pitch blackness of the cold night, but… OK. Last stretch, 7 miles. 1600ft up, over 3000 down… the trail continues to steeply ascend up and out along a ridge at over 8400ft in elevation. I’m all alone with my thoughts. Except I don’t have any thoughts. My only goal, the only pounding repetition in my head now, is the idea of getting to the finish line. I think the trail is way too technical. It’s the same trail we ascended at the very start of this race, but I don’t remember it being this rutted and rock strewn. It widens into a ski road, and I pick up my pace. I run as fast as I can downhill while trying not to trip over rocks and roots, peering at the dirt in front of my feet with eyes bloodshot from dust. I stop and listen- something is making a weird whistling noise. Then I realize it’s my breathing. I’m wheezing heavily from dust coated lungs. I try to cough and blow out bloody snot from my nose, but it doesn’t help. My wheezing, raspy breath keeps me company. I can hear the finish line way down below me, can see the glittering outline of Lake Tahoe in the distance. Stick it, just stick it to em’ I’m almost done. I pass a plodding runner with his wife and pacer. I tell him “congrats- I don’t think we are allowed to quit now”. He laughs and tells his wife, “Honey get the car, I give up!”.
I’m numb to everything except the idea of warmth, love, and that beautiful belt buckle that is waiting for me. And gently, easily, I turn a corner and see the lights of Homewood. Somewhere within myself I hear the last faint scream of the monster. I emerge out of the mountains that taught me so much- and into the arms of my man. He, Cole, and Aaron run with me over the finish line. The time is 11:42pm. 86 hours.
For more images by Howie Stern and Scott Rokis, visit their gallery. If nothing else, check out the finish line photos from the last day. They are powerful.
A really big THANK YOU to:
My parents. Mom and Dad- just knowing that Riley, Cole, and Aaron were being cared for, loved, and protected while we were out there in the wild was truly everything. I didn’t have to worry about them, didn’t have to give it a second thought. Thank you for your support – for not only putting up with us crazy insane runners, but for diving into the experience with us- for sincerely trying to understand the “why” of running long.
Kathy (Alan’s mom). For watching and cheering from afar. We know that you would have been there in a heartbeat if you could. We love you deeply.
The Coastside Running Club at Sierra. OMG you were the BEST aid station. I’ve never been prouder. Thank you for your sacrifice. (and whoever grilled me that hamburger… wow, just wow)
Megan, Norm, and Paula. What can I say? Thank you for giving up your entire weekend and a Monday to get us from point A to point B and beyond. I will forever remember our adventures under those bright stars and yellow sun.
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