September Burns – unfinished business and the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run

  “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness.”
Jean Genet

“The moon is brighter since the barn burned.”
― Matsuo Basho

Note: This is part 1 of my Tahoe 200 adventure. Part 2 is here, part 3 is here.

Through the darkness Awash in light from the fullest of moons, I’m gliding through a haze of fog at 8 pace, looking for a reason. It’s 3:20 A.M. on September 25, 16 days since I climbed into the back seat of that car at Armstrong Pass and mile 117, as passenger and witness to my first DNF at Tahoe 200. Just now, I have turned off my headlamp on the paved path to Rockaway Beach, a little jumble of shops, restaurants and motels in Pacifica, California, after surveying the silhouette of Pampas Grass that is my horizon; is it bright enough to risk running in the dark? With no potholes, no ruts or roots or rocks to taunt my ankles, this smooth path is, perhaps, my runway to emotional liftoff. Out in the darkness, where is the fire? Is this enough? Is anything, ever? 

Earlier, my mind had stirred at 1:00 after only 4 hours sleep, eyes following at 1:30, as I noted the glow of the moon penetrating the skylight. Restlessly turning after, I finally rose to stand beneath the portal, looking upward, bathed in sunlight reflected off the moon, ambivalent about the promise I made myself the evening before; dammit: just go run.


Returning home from work on the 24th, I had been emotionally dead to the run after another day spent toiling in the inorganic environment of a technological wasteland. Walking through the evening door to stand still in the kitchen after dropping my bag, I searched for a reason and found none. Fine, I thought, as I vowed to get up at 3:00 A.M. to grab a few miles before work: maybe that’ll do it. Vacant in my kitchen of that drive to push out into the world onto trail beneath tree or open sky, or to sew a dangerous thread along canyon walls up on the mountain in search of the adrenaline of danger along that path on the edge of space that could end my life with the hook of a single rock. THAT place? It does not call, about now; perhaps a lack of reception? And there I stood in the kitchen, another day of training lost to missing desire; maybe tomorrow…..

On the trail now though, I’m moving through darkness and reflecting on Tahoe, and like a stone against flint, there is the sudden spark of surprise in the silhouette of a person, standing out here in the night. But seconds later the specter softens as I cruise past, and it morphs into the simple, rounded form of a garbage can. In the middle of an empty field, 15 feet from the path. Weird. Continuing along the arcing trace of asphalt, I eventually approach the illuminated buildings of a motel and veer right toward the Pacific as I move south, with the surging dump of small, early autumn waves narrating my passage along a sea wall. Suddenly another form shakes me in alarm, and I see death, the reaper, a shrouded form floating without legs across my path. My chemistry briefly surges before this wraith morphs into a person wrapped in a blanket, covered from head to knee; another strike at the flint, a spark. As I pass, the person stops at the sea wall as if to focus on a horizon that will erupt in fire or offer wisdom of the ages; just another person pulled awake by the moon, I guess.

Now the path turns left, and I push back out into near-darkness to cross a parking lot toward what I think is the way south, but which abruptly becomes the edge of a small cliff, and I come to a sliding stop; my eyes have not yet adjusted. Relieved on the edge, I turn to backtrack, but from the corner of my eye glimpse an illumination across the beach below: a fire? I circle around toward a faint slope down and jump in blind faith I won’t turn an ankle, and bound over to find a flickering artifact of emotional expression, a constellation by candle strung together by lovers. And for a moment I’m not in my head about Tahoe 200 and the weight of unfinished business that daily now tugs at my attention and distracts with doubt and the thousand questions. In that moment, I just am. At peace, on the edge of a continent, on the surface of a planet, circling a star that rotates along the edge of a galaxy in an incomprehensibly vast universe. And maybe it is enough.


When I think about Tahoe 200, I think about doing everything “right”. I think about a plan for each thing, every little possibility or random event or move, as in chess. I think about drop bags stuffed with food and caffeine and supplements and gels and cans of Zola. I think of aid stations with more food and medical support. I think of my own medical supplies. I think of 4 pairs of socks and the pair of shoes I planned to change into at mile 117. Moleskin and Tums, back-up batteries and charging cables and spare headlamps and Pepto and Tylenol and ginger and Rock Tape and scissors and clothes and a whole list of crap I never even laid fingers on.

The best laid scheme’s o’ mice and men….”

And faith. I carry with me, at all times, an absolute belief in the run since finding it quite by accident only 8 years ago. Since the discovery of the run was so profound and life changing for me after a lifetime of nearly walking in circles, perhaps ungrounded and unfocused, and because at the time I discovered the run I had been unhappily married for years while persevering through endless couples therapy sessions and strife and being compressed into changing nearly every element of who I am while clinging to the fidelity of being a good father, when the lightning finally struck it was like the ignition of a star, a Genesis of light and love and lust and freedom of motion, expression, even a nudge open of spiritual doors. In short – it was transformative. The run finally snuck up from behind and clubbed me over the head to get my attention, and then the simple act of running, in flight and meditation, became the incredible thing, and depending on the day, it could be everything.

Some people make the distinction of running vs being “a runner”, saying almost with a sneer “I’M not a runner; I just run”. This is in no way similar to the people who affix the 0.0 mileage sticker to their cars to proclaim they do not, indeed, RUN and would not undertake the despicable act unless a cloud of hornets were bearing down on them. I most recently heard the utterance “I’M not a runner” in the parking lot before Tahoe 200, and when I did, I just absorbed the statement, took it in stride, processed it: running, but not a runner. I am a runner, and I run, and on any given day the act of doing so can rewrite the story of my life, one episode at a time.

I think The Oatmeal said it best in his series of comics “The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances”, when he spoke of absolution and quieting the army of pointless, bantering demons in my, uh, his head. And for me also, it is about quieting the disconnected and inorganic cultural scream of agony we humans constructed as we  slowly removed ourselves from feeling the grass between our toes. Like frogs in a pot.

The Oompa Loompa emerges from his hole after a day’s work in the oppressive, inorganic environment of that bastard Wonka’s factory, thinking about the evening run….

I can’t speak to anything like being attacked by Japanese giant hornets, and I guess this apparently happens more than people would like it to, but I have been attacked by a rabid rabbit, and I get it. Most of us struggle to escape the daily grind for the wild kingdom, for life in the great outdoors. To feel the grass beneath our feet; or mud between our toes, with dirt-tanned calves…or an icy wind on my face before dawn on a ridge above and away from residential sprawl infected with the disgusting zeitgeist of problem-time, divide and conquer politics rife with hated and division. And that escape speaks to my soul, and if running speaks to my soul, then racing is an imperative of my very existence. So, with that perspective, Tahoe 200 brandished a near-mystical aura for Rebekah and I as we approached race day, with a multitude of ideas and inspirations beckoning me toward that shiny, theoretical finish over hopefully less than 100 hours. But there were problems on the approach – random events that would conspire to rewrite what I know about focus and the goal of getting to the start of an epic adventure.

Do Not Fit…Dot NET framework…Dance Night Forever, ha ha…..Dynamic Network Factory, Inc (???), Defense Nuclear Facilities, Deschutes National Forest, Does Not Follow (mathematical proofs), Dominant Negative Form (genetics)……Dynamic No Fins (swimming). Data Not Found. Domain Name Finder. Digital Noise Filter, Do Not Freeze (USAP), Do Not Forget. Does Not Function. Down ’n Floundering (racing). Did Not Finish (racing)…………


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