“The mountains plunge into the earth and reach into the sky. Endurance is never a linear decline. Endurance is trusting that a high will follow your low. Endurance is wisdom, too, that your high is temporary.” Jen Shelton, about her adventure on the Sierra High Route
“Hey, want a beer?”. Her high pitched slightly slurred words pierced through the low throb of idling engines. I blearily peered into head beams illuminating an ever rising cloud of thick dust as she lifted up a large can of Coors Light and waved it in our general direction. Oh what I would give for that beer right now! Liquid gold waving in the air in front of me, free for the taking from some stranger who says she thinks we are awesome. But I pass, as do all of us. This is only night number one. We are 40 miles into a 205 mile race on trails intertwining into and out of the Sierra Mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. We delicately scoot our bodies past jeeps angled precariously on top of the white granite boulders that litter these mountains and walk on into the silent darkness. Behind us are gleeful shouts. They are calling us crazy- I can hear it in the tone of the shouts, can sense it from the silliness of this encounter. I guess we are all crazy out here, so far away from anything civilized.
I signed up for this race on a whim just one month ago. I was working. Hospital walls can close in like a prison- even when you know that soon the sun will rise and you will be set free. Smells of sickness and disinfectant always puncture the air and linger. Alarms- all kinds of alarms- drive themselves straight through my ears and echo inside of my head, like little fire-engines. There are always cries of confusion, anger, grief, and pain. The nurses I work with are my sisters and brothers, we pull together like an army. We find ways to laugh- this job is a calling. Still. The silent escape of the trail, the pull of those wild places always beckons to me. I have to follow or lose my mind. The idea came to me there, probably while I was in between mundane tasks like hanging an IV antibiotic and taking a blood pressure. I could sign myself up on the waitlist! I could escape. I was planning on pacing my husband Alan for over 100 miles anyway- why not just run the whole thing? So- with Alan’s support- I did just that. Two weeks later, I found my way in off of the wait list and our plans solidified. We would take on this adventure together.
“If I get hurt, lost, or die, it’s my own damn fault!” We utter that oath in unison, in nervous laughter with an undertone of recognition. Yes, this race can be dangerous. We pass through the starting arch, and we are off- climbing conga-line style out of Homewood Ski Resort and into the mountains. Alan chats with Catra ahead of me. I huff and puff, trying to expand my chest just a little more. I catch up with them and comment that, apparently, my altitude training wasn’t so great. Catra laughs, high and rolling with a hint of steel, “oh you’ll get used to it”. The first 10 miles pass by easily. We alternate running and fast hiking solidly in the middle of the pack of runners- making good time on these trails, but we also take our time. No need to burn the flame out too early. We breeze in and out of the first aid station and eventually veer right, following race flags, onto a narrow rutted jeep trail. We have hit the top of the legendary Rubicon. The Rubicon is a jeep lovers paradise. The “road” is covered with white rocks and boulders of all sizes- and in between those rocks lies layers of finely ground white dust and dirt. It is the perfect obstacle course for highly specialized jeeps, and jeep enthusiasts will camp out and will spend days perfecting routes over and through the rocks. We follow runners, and runners follow us downhill. We eat clouds of dust for lunch, even with sufficating masks pulled tight over our mouths and noses. Every time we pull over to the side of the trail for a line of jeeps to pass by, we inhale thick fumes of exhaust. We hike to pounding motivational music from blaring speakers and to shouts of “heck yea!!” and “go get it guys!”. So much for a quiet stroll in nature… Alan leapfrogs ahead of me, the noise and the scene seems to make him ecstatically happy, while I just become grumpy. He’s a freaking grasshopper again while I’m Humpty Dumpty, gingerly picking my way down through the rocks and praying my ankles don’t turn sideways or that I don’t topple headfirst down the mountain. The road flattens and we run through Rubicon Springs camp. Sprinklers pump water onto the side of the road and I dip my head into them laughing. The sun shines mercilessly in the high Sierra, and the day is warm. We climb up to where granite boulders kiss the sky, and the trail disappears almost completely in favor of small piles of rock cairns to mark the general path. I remember this section from last year’s race- the course was run backwards and we traversed this section at around mile 180. My pacer Norm and I were exhausted, trying to find flags that had been vandalized- trying to pick out the cairns among the white rocks and white dust against deep blue skies. This time, following the trail was easy. We simply followed each other – one after another forming a long line of humanity over the ridge. Loon Lake appeared down below, marking the end of a 17 mile section of trail between aid stations. Our water was almost gone, so good thing.
Alan pushes past me. We are all alone now as runners stop and slow down, speed up at times, and spread out across the miles. “Come on, our pace is 17 minutes a mile!”. I indignantly try to protest, but he is already jogging uphill away from me. A 17 minute/mile pace uphill for this kind of race is GOOD. In fact, anything faster is not sustainable and we will crash hard unless we reign this in. He pulls even further ahead of me and I start to get angry. I’m walking as fast as I can but I’m really, really tired. My legs are starting to hurt. My nose is already bleeding from the dusty dry air, and I’m covered in dirt. I’m already sick of eating bars and shot blocks and drinking water out of a tube. My shoulders are killing me from the weight of my pack. We are pushing through brush and pine trees, and climbing over fallen trees on a teeny tiny trail, and I wonder why it even exists. It’s not a pretty trail. I finally catch up to Alan and I angrily lay into him- “fine by me if you finish this whole thing on your own! Maybe we should run our own race since you don’t want to run it with me!” He looks at me with a shocked expression and I realize I’m being an ass. “Sorry, Tiger”, I say, and am given a big smile and a hug that I don’t deserve and a promise of slowing our pace a bit. Marriage therapy takes on a whole new meaning during a 200 mile race.
We enter Tell’s Creek Aid at mile 30 just as the sun settles behind the trees and I devour the best hamburger I’ve ever had in my life. Juicy, cheesy, crunchy, on a fluffy bun that could have only been made by baking forest fairies. We are surrounded by other runners – dirty faces and bodies lounging around in chairs, already looking like I felt- tired. We don’t stay for long- just long enough to look through our drop bag and to pull out food and supplies until we reach our next bag, located 30 miles away. The sun sets as we climb. At times, the trail isn’t really a trail- it’s more like a wild scramble through overgrown brush. A large full moon rises through whispering pine trees ahead of us. Alan falls further and further behind. The tone of this race is set as I now push him forward- we laugh at the realization that this experience will be similar to a game of leap frog. We will be taking turns pacing each other. We each have strengths that the other does not have. If we work together, we’ll succeed. If not, we will both fail.
Wrights Lake campground and aid station finally come into view, lights glittering and voices welcoming. It’s cold- I shiver over a large pot of hot water- the only heat source I can find. We eat and move on as fast as possible onto a little rocky path called Bloodsucker Trail (aptly named). Now. I am sure this trail is absolutely gorgeous during the day when the sun lights up alpine wildflowers and shows off it’s scenic views of vast valleys surrounded by high distant ridges, but at night it is just a miserable slog of nothingness. I remember thinking the same thing last year on this same stretch of god forsaken trail. It freezes the soul. Or, it sucks up all of your blood and leaves your gray stiff, probably still walking, corpse for other poor ultrarunners to find before they too meet their horrible end. Just sayin.
Sierra at Tahoe. We enter our local Coastside Running Club’s aid station at around 7am, the first 100k and some of the hardest section of the course behind us. Alan finds us a few chairs and I sit down immediately. I could not avoid speaking to Ron, aid station captain and greeter, who must have noticed right away judging that my smile kept dangerously wobbling to one side that something was wrong- or maybe it was the way my eyes kept flitting around instead of making eye contact or the fact that I just sat there shivering in my chair without eating or drinking or interacting with anyone. What better place than a third of the way through Tahoe 200 in the middle of a crowded parking lot aid station to have a full blown existential crisis? I was questioning myself to my core. Why do I feel like I need to prove anything to myself by going on these silly adventures over and over again? Why am I running long? Why do I run at all? I’ve got a cozy little life- why mess it up to suffer like this? Am I trying to impress someone- my kids certainly don’t care that I run long. I’ve certainly finished enough long races. I’m not a bad ass. I’m not Captain Marvel. What is the point of all of this, and damn it I spent way too much money on this race to throw it all away just 100k in, and damn it I want my buckle (as superficial as it is). There is no cheering crowd in an ultra of this size. There is no instant gratification, especially if you are trying to complete this kind of race without a pacer or crew. However there is a lot of slow suffering, a lot of grit, a lot of dry humor, and a lot of deciding to put one foot in front of the other. I did not come up with any answers sitting in that chair, but I did eat. Alan brought me a huge pile of eggs and bacon from Mor’s very own outdoor kitchen. We took our shoes and socks off. I taped up a hot spot on the bottom of Alan’s foot correctly (thank you George and Christina!) and we tried to sleep a little in a small “sleep station” tent. I don’t think I fell asleep, but I did get up refreshed. This was a new day.
The hot sun beats down on my shoulders, I wipe sweat out of my eyes and wait for Alan. We are somewhere in between miles 80-85. It’s mid- afternoon and our positive happy new day vibe has taken a turn for the worse. The entire day has been an uphill climb. Literally up. Up up up up up. I remembered this section from last year, how- going the opposite direction- my pacer Megan and I flew down these mountains, how we marveled at every high alpine flower, every rock formation, how with every little bend in the trail, we looked around with absolute glee. The magic has left this place. The rock formations glare menacingly at us, the flowers wilt in the heat. Alan is eating like I would imagine a grizzly bear devours food- stuffing whole bars into his mouth faster than I can chew and swallow one little bite. He’s an animal, but he still can’t ever seem to take in enough calories for this continued effort. He lets me lead, and I set a formable pace. Even though my head is spinning quite marvelously, my legs are working just fine. He says I’m a great climber and I argue with him- just for the sake of arguing.
We make it to Armstrong Aid just as the sun dips behind the mountains. We stay longer than we planned cleaning our feet and drinking cup after cup of hot soup. It’s suddenly very cold. Alan perks up with this calorie boost and we are having a great time. Really- we are on top of the world. Who needs sleep? Not us, nope. We climb towards Armstrong Peak but really- who cares about climbing? So easy… until suddenly Alan falls silent behind me. Babe? Ummmm….Tiger? He is stumbling over his own two feet again. Head down, pissed off at everything, suddenly exhausted. I tell him to eat again- and again he perks up with food. We find the top of the peak and start down towards the lake. These trails are so beautiful in the daylight with the great blue lake spread out to the left of us, but now there is just the constant narrowing of the world into a beam of a light- rocks, logs, rocks, and more rocks on this trail. Don’t fall off that cliff. Nights are long.
Endurance runners talk about “lows” and “highs” with a kind of reverence and with a knowing glint in the eye. Enduring is more mental than physical, it’s learned through experience and determination. We all have the ability to pull inner strength from somewhere deep inside of us, but endurance runners are especially good at it. We take pride in finding our limits, and then reaching way past what we thought was possible. We also learn to walk the tightrope between safety and danger. You have to know in this sport when enough is really enough- if necessary, you have to be able give up before you risk serious injury. Most of the time though, a low is simply a low, and it’s almost always followed by a high.
I collapse onto an air mattress at Heavenly Aid station in a big, dimly lit, noisy room. There are runners standing up everywhere, waiting and watching- ready to pounce onto any mattress they can find. There aren’t enough mattresses for this crowd- I don’t know how Alan found this one, but I don’t question it. He is my rock, and for the last two days, has been my safe place- my everything. We hold each other for warmth under a thick blanket in the heated room, but I’m still shaking uncontrollably. I keep him awake as I shiver in and out of consciousness. We are a mess. Someone else’s alarm goes off in a high pitched tune and I immediately jerk awake to grab my phone. In my groggy haze, I think it’s my alarm. 10 more minutes to spare out of the hour- too bad. We are both already awake. I re-tape Alan’s feet and go outside into the cold air to request breakfast. A volunteer points me towards a plate of eggs. The food is pretty sparse at the moment and other runners are waking up hungry around us. We don’t have time to wait, so I grab the eggs and two bananas and share them with Alan. We take every little bit of food out of our drop bag and stuff it all into our packs. With 20 miles to the next aid station, we can’t have any blood sugar crashes out there. Dawn awakes a few miles out. The sunrise peeps it’s eyes at us sweetly as it soars over the valley to our right. This is day number three, and finally… finally… we are having the time of our lives. We don’t care about anything, and nothing phases us. Alan and I talk honestly about our marriage, about our needs, wishes, and desires for the future. We reach deep and also laugh about shallow things and tell each other stupid jokes. The trail, now the Tahoe Rim Trail, is a sandy, non-rocky little wonder- first of it’s kind since the start of this race. We enter Spooner Summit Aid running. Heck yea… it feels so good to run. Spooner Aid is a humble little aid station located on the side of the hwy. It’s a windy spot- not an ideal place for famished ultra runners to rest or recover. However recover we do. The volunteers at this aid station are wonderful. We are given the best ham sandwich I’ve ever eaten and bowls of chicken noodle soup. I’m even allowed to empty a huge bowl of peanut m&ms into a plastic bag for later. My feet are starting to hurt, and I notice that my shoes, Hoka Speedgoats, are not doing a great job of moisture control. Both of my feet are waterlogged, while Alan’s look lovely. Okay- what a change in the narrative from last year! I let them dry and tape up the blisters on my toes and on the pad of my foot.
We leave aid hiking up towards Snow Valley Peak and my favorite of wild places on the entire course. I’m on a high and wide awake. I am hiking fast and feel good enough to fly through this section. Alan, however, is hanging back. He wants to find a place to lie down for a few minutes. We find a flat little area close to the trail and settle down in the sun on top of an emergency blanket. He is immediately asleep. The interesting problem with running a race like this together is working through our highs and lows at different times. One of us almost always has less energy than the other- so we are constantly holding each other back. If we had chosen to each run alone with a pacer, I believe we both could have made better time. However experiencing this adventure together is rewarding. Our lives outside of this running hobby of ours are so hectic. Work and kids – obligations- keep us busy and often force us to work side by side but not together. I often fail to see what he needs because I’m exhausted and overwhelmed with day to day life. Spending 4 days and nights with him, focused, locked in step, intent on completing just one goal of finishing this race- is bringing us closer.
Snow Valley Peak with it’s wild views and soft trails finds us running again. The weather is changing, bringing with it strong gusts of wind that kiss my skin and leave me feeling fresh and clean- although I’m anything but. We fly down and up again to another high ridge-line as the sun starts to melt down into a fiery half dome on the horizon. Black night pushes past dusk as we make our descent into Tunnel Creek Aid. We don’t stay long. We have to push tonight for our last 100k to the finish. It is at this aid station though that we hear the weather report: “strong winds tonight followed by rain in the morning with possible snow at higher elevations- temperatures might dip as low as 30’s”. With that, Alan and I take off in a frenzy. We both panic a bit before I rationalize that yes- we do have some gear for cold weather packed in our drop bags at mile 155, and that this isn’t the worst of news. At least, that’s what I tell Alan. I’m secretly very worried because I am not at all prepared for rain along with low temps. One or the other please, thank you very much Mother Nature.
We find Powerline, or does Powerline find us? This “hill” rises like a cliff straight up out of a residential neighborhood on the north side of the lake. It is obviously named for the power lines that define the….ahem…trail? It’s too dark to see the top- but far off and way up in the distance, we can pick out the glittering lights of headlamps still climbing. The steep “up” strains the achilles- adding insult to soreness after 140 plus miles. It’s straight up with 4 false summits. You scramble through brush to the top of one summit just to climb again. And again. Alan tells me to stop halfway up and eat, but I am too stubborn and idiotic- I just want the climb over with, so I leave him and continue up on my own like a fool. And then suddenly like a wave, my blood sugar crashes. I’m gulping coke from one of my bottles and stuffing peanut m&ms into my mouth. They taste and feel like sandy dirt and sweet vomit mixed together- but I have to eat because that dizziness that precedes complete loss of consciousness threatens from the corners of my brain. I’ve been here before and this is my own damn fault. So eat!
The Powerline climb gives way to yet more climbing, this time on a rocky fire road. I must have stubbed my right baby toe back there somewhere, because it hurts so badly I can barely walk. I can feel it swelling inside of my shoe, painfully pressing on the inner edges of the mesh walls. I stop to loosen my shoelaces, but there is no relief. I consider cutting the sides of my shoe open- but give up that idea. I do not have a knife with me- only the pair of dull scissors we’ve been using to cut tape for blister care, and besides- we still have 60 miles to go before Homewood. I stumble after Alan, deep within my pain cave. I know that I haven’t been eating enough. It’s 2am- almost 24 hours since I last laid down for a 50 minute nap. I’m beyond exhausted and not thinking clearly. A picture flashes into my head of my brain melting away- oozing out of my ears and dripping ever so slowly onto the trail. It’s how I feel at the moment. I fumble in the pocket of my pack and pull out a coffee flavored gel. It’s gooey sweet and disgusting. The sugar aggravates the sores forming in my mouth and on my tongue. I gag but manage to swallow. Ok. One step forward… now another. I’m dragging my poles and stumbling aimlessly behind Alan when we finally reach Brockway Summit Aid. I immediately make a beeline towards a tent, but Alan threatens me in a growling voice. “Here take this recovery drink first”. As I dive my worthless body headfirst into the tent and immediately curl up into a fetal position to brace myself from the cold, another runner who just woke up from his nap piles 4 or 5 heavy blankets on top of me. I thank him with my eyes and fall off the edge of the world into soft nothingness.
I wake up to Alan’s warm body next to mine. He’s nudging me- “meet me in the warming tent for breakfast and pack your stuff”. I cringe from the cold air as I unwrap layers of blankets. It’s still dark outside- I must have slept for less than an hour. I use my Kogalla (a string of strong led weatherproof lights attached to a battery pack) to assess the treasures in our drop bag. I pull out food and blister supplies and stuff them into my pack. I look at our cold weather gear. I have a long sleeve wool shirt and a puffy jacket to add to what I already have on- a micro thin wind jacket, arm warmers, a puffy vest, and a rain jacket. What I do not have is obviously lacking- I do not have warm rain proof pants. I am wearing a pair of breathable tights so thin, if I stretched them with my hand from the inside I could see my fingers. Neither of us has waterproof gloves. I wiggle into everything I can. I grab Alan’s puffy vest and his long sleeve shirt.
The day dawns crisp and clean. We make our way up and out of Brockway onto rolling hills and ridges far above Tahoe City. There is no cloud in the painted sapphire sky and Alan and I both laugh- “guess we were worried about nothing”. But I have something else to focus on. Before every long race of 100 miles or more, I protect myself against chafing by using sports tape. Before the start of this race, I taped my shoulders where I knew my pack would rub and under my sports bra. My skin is prone to chafing. It’s really awesome (insert eye roll). My most sensitive areas were being rubbed raw however, and it didn’t seem to matter what shorts/tights I wore or how much anti-chafing cream I used. In a final act of desperation, I gabbed a huge wad of sports tape from my pack, pulled down my tights in the middle of the trail and taped everything- ALL of it and all around. I felt immediately better- omg I could walk again, I could run again! I felt as light as a freaking feather.
Icy wind gusts whip my hair into a tangled knotted hive. We are up on the top of a summit in between Brockway Aid and Tahoe City, 10 miles in one direction and 10 miles in the other. I glance at the sky and worry- heavy dark rain clouds reach their fingers across the lake, pointing in our direction. I know enough about high mountain storms to know that this could mean danger and my heart responds by beating faster in my chest. I start to run, but then stop to wait impatiently for Alan. He is dragging his feet. His beard is growing in and he is starting to look like a cross between a homeless man and a mountain man- but the dark circles under his eyes give him away. He’s a zombie. A cute one. He apologizes and tells me he can not run- his right heel is sending streaks of pain up his calf with every attempt and, in between huge bites of a peanut butter bar, he admits to struggling for calories. My man- this unique, interesting, amazing man- eats more than anyone I know. This entire trip around the lake has been, for him, one big dip into a smorgasbord of culinary delights. Sugar is no longer off limits and he has been taking advantage. I roll my chin to the sky and he notices. “Hey- you! Eat something, would you?” I take a small bite of a cherry pie flavored bar, but my tongue stings in protest and my sore throat, caused by breathing in clouds of granite dust, rebels. I am not good at this eating plus 200 mile thing. We both, obviously, have our strengths and weaknesses.
We pass a few other runners weaving mindlessly down the trail with bloodshot eyes, their dirty bib numbers pinned haphazardly to their packs or clothing. Mountain bikers wearing t-shirts and shorts breeze by us, and I wonder how and why they are on this trail before a major storm. I guess it wouldn’t take a mountain bike quite as long to get off of a mountain compared to an exhausted runner. But still, t-shirts?
Plop. plop. I turn back to face Alan and he stares at me cluelessly. “Here it comes”, I say. The sky opens up. We are perched on another peak/ridge with no real tree cover to speak of and still 4-5 miles out from aid. Within minutes all exposed skin and clothing not covered by waterproof material is drenched. Water drips off our packs and hoods. Winds lift heavy raindrops and drives them sideways into us, like little torpedos- exploding on impact into our legs, arms, and rain jackets. The temperature starts to drop. Alan is suddenly jumping along the ground like the skittering raindrops that are transforming themselves into hail and we take off in a full sprint down the mountain. All we need now is snow, I think to myself sarcastically when… wouldn’t you know it… the hail morphs yet again into the fluffiest, thickest, most beautiful snow flakes I have ever witnessed. However it’s not a peaceful winter wonderland- as I now can’t feel my hands and Alan is screaming at me to “hurry up!”, and I am sucking frozen air into my frozen lungs as I am suddenly performing acrobatic feats that I never realized was possible on 170 mile legs. We jump over slick slate and scree on the edges of cliffs just to have the trail weave back into a soft carpeted forest again and yet again. Alan is on top of the world, screaming and howling into the wind somewhere in front of me. I’m cursing the ground and the stupid rocks and this stupid trail that never ends. I worry about the runners we passed that are behind us- I wonder if they have rain gear. Alan stops to wait for me and we both begin to grasp the seriousness of this situation. We will be ok. However this could be a life threatening storm for sleep deprived runners caught 10 miles out from aid at higher elevations without proper gear. We hit pavement as the trail ends and run down Tahoe City streets. Cars honk at us- doesn’t matter. We are sprinting at what must be a sub-8 minute/mile pace yet I am freezing from the inside out. Tahoe City Aid tents appear phantom-like out of the blizzard and we both veer left, skidding to a stop only when our bodies are firmly under the shelter. I lean in towards the orange comforting orb of an outdoor heater and start to shake uncontrollably.
We are given chairs, hot soup, and coffee by angel volunteers that take care of us like we are babies in need of love. I am certain Candice Alicia, race directer and 200 mile Queen, has called the race. It is just too dangerous, but everyone tells me otherwise. Howie Stern, one of the race photographers (and an ultra running strongman) casually comments in between shutter clicks that nope- Candice would never call a race for this and THIS is why it’s important to carry warm and waterproof gear in the mountains. It’s about personal responsibility. Nough’ said. My coastal California self is getting schooled- time to shut up and learn something. I am both exhilarated at the thought of finishing this crazy race and deeply disappointed that I won’t have a good excuse to climb into a warm bed asap. Our hotel room is waiting for us about just one block from here, and a hot shower is starting to sound really, really good. We are soon joined by other shivering and soaked runners. Alan and I share the same thought as we quietly discuss our options- we have three kids to come home to and no race is worth risking serious injury or even death. If we go back out there tonight to climb the higher elevation peeks, are we risking too much? Ray – I’m pretty sure we passed him on some ridge line up there before the storm hit- sits down next to us. He looks horrible. I am thinking to myself, well “HE is quitting for sure”. But no. I watch as unbelievably he patiently and optimistically starts to remove his dripping layers of clothing and one by one holds them up to our small space heater. Steam rolls off his gloves, his jacket, his shoes and socks as he slowly and methodically dries them out. He is shivering but the cold air doesn’t detour his ambition. I am at once embarrassed by my lack of motivation and inspired by his. Alan starts to talk about what it will be like to run into Homewood, to feel the weight of last year’s DNF roll off his shoulders. There is NO way I am taking that away from him- and there is NO way I’m sending him back out there alone without a pacer. We start the slow process of drying out our gear.
Snow crunches with every footstep. The weather has calmed and the landscape is transformed. I feel like I’ve been given a gift. Until now, this race has offered few glorious moments of joy to me- my highs haven’t been very high and my lows have seemed bottomless. This race, until now, has given me very little except pain and endless dust. But I am transformed. A large waterfall tumbles off of a cliff in the distance, and snowy peaks rise out of the clouds to my right. Alan is wrapped up and floating on the horizon of his own mind. He’s lost to me… he keeps stopping and staring off into space. I’m hurrying him along. The sun is setting frozen over these mountains and the temperature just keeps falling. We clear the peak, following a trail of the footprints of other runners. Alan wakes up and motivates. Fir tree branches lean heavily into our path, loaded with snow. It’s all so beautiful. The ground is starting to freeze in places, and both realize the urgency as darkness creeps. As we start to descend, we come across another runner. He is leaning on his poles and staring vacantly into space. He casually asks if he can follow us, then says “but uh hey guys, what’s… what’s the plan for the night?”. We don’t even bother with trying to orient him to the reality that he is participating in a 200 mile race- it’s too cold to stop. We just tell him to follow us down the mountain. The three of us descend for what seems like hours. We reach a gravel jeep road and our fellow runner seems to regain his mind. He is speaking lucidly and eating well, but still going too slowly for us. We have to keep moving or freeze in our limited cold weather gear. We leave him with instructions to follow the race flags and to stop and sleep at the next aid station.
My Kogalla light blinks. It flashes, then darkness. Oh…. I try plugging it into my back up battery pack. Nothing. I grab Alan’s back up battery pack and plug it in. Nothing. It is too cold for the lithium ion batteries, apparently. Temperatures were forecasted to drop into the low 20’s Fahrenheit on the peaks- now I believe it. I take off my pack and grab my back up headlamp. Ever since Lasik eye surgery some 15 years ago, my night vision has suffered. I can’t distinguish objects through glare. Headlamps on Tahoe trails with white rocks and white sand- and now white snow- are particularly difficult for me- but it’s all I have at the moment.
We hit pavement and turn onto a paved bike path with Lake Tahoe glimmering in the light of the moon to our left. It’s…I don’t know, 1am maybe… and this residential area is deserted. However, it all feels so dangerously busy to me. There are boats floating on the lake, there is an occasional car whizzing by at a breakneck speed, there are buildings with square corners (you don’t see perfect corners in nature!), and even the sighting of an occasional runner & pacer makes me jump back in alarm. I realize how drunk I feel from lack of sleep. I probably smell like I’m homeless- sweat mixed with dirt and the stench of putrid sweet breath from a sore filled mouth constantly consuming sugary snacks. I’ve managed to brush my teeth only twice in four days. This is. Disgusting. Why do I find glory in this obscenely gross sport?
We don’t stay long at the last aid station. It draws us in with it’s welcoming lights, a large spread of real food, two warm trailers with space heaters inside of them, and kind faces from volunteers that are braving the cold. But we have a job. We continue down a large jeep road that almost immediately starts ascending. It’s technical and the cobbled granite stones hurt my tender feet. I can’t see the top of the climb, but I tell Alan that I don’t remember a final climb, so I’m pretty sure we have nothing to worry about. It’s downhill to the finish. Silly me and my delusions. The “hill” never ends, and in the dark, visualizing the top is impossible. It’s just a head down, put one foot in front of the other, use your arms and poles, and keep going kind of night. Apparently. The moment I stopped to catch my breath, my muscles would seize up against the cold. We had to move or freeze. We passed a little snow bank near the top where someone had written in the snow “WTF Candice?”. Fitting- although it was so dark, neither Alan or I saw it at the time and only laughed at the picture a runner (Mynkey Cheeks) posted to social media later.
I found my reason. Or maybe, more accurately, I remembered my reason. This sport grinds us down to our foundation. It removes all of our crutches, our protective mechanisms, our learned responses to adversity. It burns out the superficial and, in doing so, it purifies the soul. In this kind of race, you learn that suffering, so much a part of all of our lives, can be a beautiful and graceful dance. You learn, though, that no one can suffer alone for very long. We are all inexplicably and amazingly connected, like those glittering strings of lights pulling us in to aid. After four days and nights in nature, your mind transforms itself. You re-emerge back into society a little happier and little kinder.
Finally, we crested the actual top and turned right onto a steeply sloping downhill, still following a tiny trail of footprints. We slowly wove our way onwards. Running down such a cobbled steep slope was impossible on tender feet- even when we glimpsed the lights of Homewood far down below. Some – it’s hard to say exactly how much time later- we turned the corner onto our final stretch of trail. We ran through the finish line together. There was no cheering in those early hours of the morning and no crowds. Just a few volunteers and Howie Stern’s dogs (I’m wanting to say wolves?) snoozing happily on their sides close to the finish arch, laid out like two soft fur welcoming rugs. It felt like coming home. It felt perfect.
Thank you photographers Scott Rokis @ rokisphoto.com, Howie Stern @ howiestern.com, and Hilary Ann @ thehilaryann.com.