...out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most daring of all adventures. – Edward Abbey
There are a million things in this world to make you unhappy. The trick is to hold fast to the few things that don’t. – Unknown
Note: This is part 3 of my experience leading up to and through Tahoe 200 in September, 2019. I didn’t finish the race in 2018, and it then became an unexpected two year adventure. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.
How to cobble together the experiences of a 200 miler? If a hundred miles is like a lifetime in one day, what do you say about a little more than twice that distance? Sounds silly to say that. The tale is non-linear despite tracing a single line from point to point, emotions boundless. All feels exponential. In recall of my Tahoe 200 experience with Rebekah in 2019, and my first attempt in 2018 ending in DNF – spanning two years of my life, limits to memory of place and feeling abound. Sleep deficit accumulation over consecutive days makes simple questions difficult to answer: where was that huge toad we saw on the trail: was it night 2 or 3; was it even real? Or, what happened after Snow Valley Peak but before Incline Village, because Snow Valley is always the highlight for me on the east side of the lake on the TRT, and everything seems to pale, before and after, even without exhausted haze. When was the first hallucination, and which aid station allowed me to make that dynamite combo of cheese quesadilla slathered with guac with a fried egg on top? Or this: when did I first notice my legs begin to heal themselves while in the continuous motion of running and hiking after the inevitable fatigue set in? That unending knees-down ache always threatens to disarm me, yet this year it only temporarily backstopped my experience. And then it was gone. You’d think fatigue and pain would manifest as a clearly negative, linear decline over days of effort, a continuous slide toward the bleak inevitable…
Pain is information. Terri Schneider once told me that in midst of a “why me” lament over knee pain that did eventually lead to surgery. Since then I’ve used those words to objectify pain, build a wall, to whatever extent my mind will allow, unless it threatens catastrophe or standing at the start of the next race. In 2018 I repeated that mantra about my feet after mile 20 until my DNF at Armstrong Pass, and the force field worked for nearly 100 miles until my feet were so swollen I had to make the call; sometimes pain can be everything. But that’s not a given. Pain can lurk in the background deadened by the force field of determination, disregarded at the corner table of your consciousness until it storms the stage and grabs the mic to make a scene, disrupting counting or mantras muttered a thousand times over or the hundred other coping mechanisms you forget in your regular life in the contrived world until you need them again in the wilderness – in the real world, the ultimate reality. And then pain can become everything. All or nothing.
I think the random, shooting pains and repeated, intermittent weakness that caused me to limp for 1-3 seconds – and my right leg as a result to nearly buckle began on day 3, but I’m not sure. Suddenly it would appear, trying to break the door down, but each time I faced it, it turned out to be a case of ding-dong ditch. These were brief episodes of distraction localized to the right of my right Achilles, at the heal, that shot up the back of my right calf to my knee every twenty or forty five minutes, each time dissipating; weird and vexing like those 10 or so episodes of needle-like attacks on random toes of my left foot. Cause-less, random, temporary – like the warning of an impending doom that never arrives. These two of my varied sensory inputs were so over-powering at times they would briefly become everything – including a reason to doubt, and I thought more than once either might end my charge around the lake. But by the second day of either pain I learned to live with them like that annoying neighbor or that demon you can never quite exercise, they thus becoming just another passenger along for the ride. And then – poof: at some point, gone. When the pain radiated it was everything, and then it was nothing, and in the end, did I even feel it on that endless, near-possessed 2500 foot-plus climb up out of Stephen Jones into that crazy snow on Ellis Peak before the finish? I don’t recall; just another smudge on the dirty windshield of my recollection, I guess.
I take a lot of pictures, so I rely on those to jog my race memory, and I look at the elevation profile and aid station chart, because those are important milestones. And I ask Rebekah. This year we went counter-clockwise after following the reverse direction last year, which made things nearly unrecognizable for me. And then that change of conditions this year from heat at the start to snow that turned to ice in the early morning hours before the finish on that last night were disorienting and made the course another animal entirely. Or maybe it was the 1.5 hours sleep over 4 days. I do remember asking where we were more than a couple of times, especially in the final hours. Rebekah though, throughout our journey, had crazy-clarity of recall, details of last year’s course that would seem impossible to recall a year after enduring four lifetimes last September and from the opposite direction. She killed it in 2018 with pacers, finishing a full 8 hours faster than she and I did in 2019 – a different race, a different universe. An alternate reality. She is so much of everything I respect about this sport….
We each have stories. Many are mundane and recount the joys or travails of everyday life, which can sometimes feel overwhelming in the moment, but in the end can become something else entirely. I think stories are the second most valuable currency, after time – which is certainly short in circulation. And so, when my tiny mind allows it and I can briefly escape my busy life, I write about things, in attempt at sealing the story in amber before it fades like newsprint to be discarded in the rubbish heap of the dark corners in my mind, before it is forever lost to my kids and family and maybe someday me. In this attempted recall of the craziness, and the high-highs and varied emotions, and the thoughts Rebekah and I shared on our four day journey during September 13 through the early morning hours of the 17th in 2019, I promise to be honest, that I’ve worked hard at getting my facts straight. But there is still the fuzz vibration, and the feedback echoes, and there is romanticism, and so you are hereby warned: read at your own risk. But please, no matter what, be inspired by our silly adventure to go after your own. For life is nothing, if not lived on the edge.
Transcendence and dissolution, always the same thing – Brian Slattery
We have seconds now. Amidst the crowd, energy translates to noise; there is conversation, and no one is actually very loud as we wait for the count, but the energy is all distracting. Suddenly out of nowhere Phil Lowry has stepped up and begun to sing the Star Spangled Banner, and the runners and spectators quiet down. His voice conveys years of practice, as if he found his voice in a choir or men’s chorus. Or maybe he found it during one or seven of his 200 mile, multi-day ultras; so many things to find out there on the trail over 3 or 4 days. I met Phil at the post-race dinner in 2018, he and I both not finishing while both our wives went on to grab their buckles. I remember him to be matter of fact, humble, like the vast majority of people I’ve met pursuing distances of 100 miles or more. So, Phil’s back too. This cultural sub-set of running is like one big weird family reunion. Phil is hitting the notes, and everyone is silent, paying rapt attention – all 700 or more eyes and ears; the hair on my arms should stand on end if not for my arm warmers. I love this place, these people, my country, what we are all about to do…that Rebekah is standing next to me for the second year in a row, about to make the same journey after she jumped the wait list at the last minute to accompany my boiling determination to finish what I start (originally supposed to pace me from Sierra on, Rebekah thought “what’s another 60 miles”? perfect logic in our household). I love that I am again about to take on this thing that is Tahoe 200, 205 miles and either 36,000 or 40,200 feet of climb (both numbers are mentioned somewhere between the runner’s manual and the website, I can’t freaking tell), and after somewhere in the realm of roughly 350 days of contemplation and at times obsession after failing to complete the mission last year, I am finally about to begin the journey again.
This year we are to run counter-clockwise, after last year’s switch to clockwise, which will put some of the toughest segments of the course up front before whatever later drama presents itself. Of course, everything is theoretical. Rebekah and I spent hours discussing scenarios based on her experience running the Rubicon at the end of the race in ‘18, some of the most difficult terrain made more arduous due to vandalized course ribbons that paralyzed forward progress for some while forcing a scramble over boulders and through horrendous dust, even as temps dropped into the 30s on that last night, freezing a gel in Rebekah’s pocket at mile 180. But today is a new day with infinite possibilities, where everything is still fine, and nothing hurts.
Cesare and Joe are here, making it four entries this year for our beloved CRC, or Coastside Running Club, along with 238 other trail running eccentrics. CRC runs the Sierra at Tahoe aid station at mile 63 or 142 – depending on the direction, with captain Ron at the helm. Helping T200 runners as a volunteer – cooking, filling bottles and brandishing compassion, can be a deciding factor in whether or not some of those runners go on to finish a race like this, and that inspiration is one of many reasons I stand here again with the woman I love, on September 13, 2019. Cesare, who is like an unstoppable force to me, takes on each difficult ultra like a gleeful pitbull on Redbull – happily unrelenting and maniacally determined, and is back for the third year in a row, or maybe the 4th, with the goal of bettering his previous finish times. He will enjoy the amazing crew of his devoted wife who works as tirelessly as he does by chasing him across the near-wilderness of the Tahoe National Forest. This is a big year for Cesare, having finished Boston and Western States, and he’s registered for MOAB 240 next month. I watched him on Strava maybe a week ago, running up and down some mythical 2,500 mountain in the heat and humidity of the Mediterranean in Italy to get ready for this business, and where he finds the time and energy with an actual job, I have no idea. Joe is wrestling with more than a mouthful, jumping the shark to skip running even his first hundred miler and going straight for graduate school at Candice U while simultaneously raising money for rainn.org. I can’t say up front whether I think Joe can pull this big thing off; who am I to judge another human being? There are so many improbable humans that color outside the lines of social norms to transcend the everyday, and I am glad to know the few I am lucky to encounter. This crazy little milieu of multi-day endurance can be so huge, so amazing, so difficult, and so easy for some. Joe is taller, with a longer stride and seems to have that necessary pre-req of dogged single-mindedness – and he has my respect, and Rebekah and I have some skin in his game with a per-mile donation for his cause and an intense curiosity at what may be possible for him; we are each capable of so much more than we think. Rebekah has had an intense year, both racing with me and with her own goals, having finished Miwok 100k and Quicksilver 100k within one week of each other in May – in my opinion brutal for someone who works nights as an RN and has to flip her schedule around to race. Me? After beginning the year battling the dual malaise of Plantar and an Achilles problem that kept me from running for months until late April, I was able to roar back to nail some solid goals, including standing here at Homewood on the shore of Lake Tahoe.
Phil hits the notes, and the cheer is in my blood. I attempt to start my new watch to set the pause until the count, and now the damn thing can’t find GPS. What the hell – have all the other runners massed together around us taken all the signal, used it all up? Is satellite signal provided by the Global Positioning Satellite system a finite resource? I’m at first distracted as Candice asks us to repeat after her, that “If I get hurt, lost or die it’s my own damn fault”, and then I focus on her final, ironic words, and for a few seconds I forget the new watch again that I purchased specifically for Tahoe 200 that boasts 110 hour battery life in ultra mode, the same watch that now only frustrates me when I should be Zen and present. Right when I am about to start yet another adventure of a lifetime with the love of my life. And then the count, and at one we march – to run, to destiny, and the thousand reasons.
The climb is easier than last year. In 2018 the road up and away from Homewood was freshly tilled with soft soil and rocks that immediately filled the air with powder and my shoes with granite dust, despite wearing gators. This year the traction is better, a little more firm. The climb is a continual-up, with our first point of interest after the receding great lake being a summit at Ellis Peak at 8740 feet, before the descent down dusty single track and an incredible run along the cliff edge, one of my favorite places on the entire course and what I like to think of as the beginning of my race. Last year I stopped to take a couple of pictures at the top: this year I take mental note of the dramatic terrain and simply push past and down while squeezing a couple of shots of the fly; I am focused. From there, it is down into the trees and some real trail running, on trails and dusty fire roads. This year I have vowed to cover my face with a buff to avoid the dust of last year’s regret, and in broad daylight and warm temperatures, through the first miles, I am a masked man with a cold weather shroud on. Rebekah brought surgical masks which are probably more effective, and eventually, my RN wife almost looks like she’s at work each time I look back to admire her powerful, beautiful being working hard enjoying herself on the trail.
Everyone is still clumped together. We banter, energy high. Rebekah underlines what she has already shared about our coming date with the Rubicon, and she makes it clear she feels the first 100k are probably the toughest of the T200 course. I remember her stories of last year, but am skeptical that our traverse of the area during the day, as opposed to her early morning trek in the freezing dark, will be all that bad. I say: bring it.
The first aid is actually a water set-up for the shorter distance races as part of the running festival Candice established this year, and we continue past the lonesome table, toward Barker Pass aid station. When we do arrive at Barker and mile 7, I eat to taste and don’t bother to refill my nearly full vessels. I watch others drink caffeine entirely too early, and Rebekah and I move on, following our script to get through aid as quickly as possible, with our eye on finishing in 80 to 85 hours.
From Barker pass road we briefly enjoy a little TRT slash PCT before veering away onto other roads and trails where we will trek for roughly 17 miles, toward Loon Lake aid. Mostly forested at first, the miles roll easy while we still enjoy the company of fresh legs and other runners.
At some point we make the transition to rough jeep roads, and Rebekah begins to comment about the Rubicon, and then we are carefully picking our way over and around increasing obstacles, rocks and boulders and never ending cobbles, and when dust perfumed with gas and oil begins to puff up into the air with every foot strike, I know we are finally in the Rubicon.
It becomes amusing pretty quickly, as we begin to encounter off road vehicles slowly navigating and climbing the walls and granite slabs and rutted tracks, and the runners intermittently either run for a safe spot in a turn-out or climb up onto hillsides as the vehicles pass, oily gas-dust billowing, making the simple act of breathing feel hazardous. Some of the drivers are drinking beer, some are focused like they’re staring down the barrel of a rifle, and some vehicles are full to the rafters with people, blaring music with kids, dogs, coolers and who knows what else. Some of the vehicles are like welded tanks or are modified with no doors, and some have been transformed to resemble spider-like enclosures with reinforcing cross-bars to protect drivers from the ever-real possibility of flipping over on a climb. The whole scene is like one big party. This is my second introduction to the world off-road culture, the first being this past July in Southern Alberta, in the middle of the night, on Leg 5 of Sinister 7 100, another adventure Rebekah and I enjoyed this past year. As I take this scene in, the chaos, the never-seen-anything-like-it nature of this funny little reality, two things occur to me. First: I feel lucky I can continue to enjoy my lifetime pass to experience the odd side-shows in the circus here on Earth, and second – that this whole scene I’m witnessing is like trail running: the people are all highly focused in their little milieu, invisible to the rest of the world, the vehicles are very specific to the task and outfitted like I’ve never seen before, some apparently not even street-legal, with the crazy mix of specialized LED lights, suspension and bolt-on safety and storage configurations perfectly suited to the trail – their trail.
As we make our way, it is a painstaking and deliberate process, and slowly devolves into a stop-start chaotic dance, and I find myself leaping across voids, frog-like onto huge stones in my attempt to avoid hindering the vehicles’ progress. Last year there was great gnashing of teeth about course markers vandalized by off-roaders irritated by all of the runners in the way, and today I am conscious of not wanting to be the guy that pisses off a beer drinking driver who then sends back of the packers in the wrong direction in a passive-aggressive outburst of his own brand of trail marking. In doing so – in jumping onto helter-skelter surfaces, my right knee immediately asks me why I am being reckless so early in the game, and it throbs with a knock-that-crap-off warning of over-use that sometimes plagues me during weeks of heavy training load. The doctor who repaired my torn and missing cartilage may have been a genius, and I count myself lucky, but I am no fool, and I have to really pay attention here. And of course, there is always the threat of a race-ending ankle turn. I call the knee out to Rebekah the few times I find I’m a jackass in jumping too far and wide. So early in the game, but what can I do?
After a couple of hours of off-road cat and mouse, we cruise past Buck Island Lake – I think that’s it, and some runners are filling their bottles and pack reservoirs. I look out at a dog chasing a stick one of the off-roaders has thrown into the lake, and see some muck floating along the water’s edge, and after removing my pack and opening my reservoir to purify potential drink with the Steri-Pen, I decide more water can wait; despite the heat, no need to tempt fate with water in this busy place. At some point we also run through the Buck Island Maintenance station, maybe before, with tents and trucks and a manicured grass helipad established for the obvious disaster of when something goes wrong with your vehicle and the worst happens with injury. A stay-off sign warns us to ignore the soft grass with sprinklers sshhhht-sshhhting back and forth, and I catch some cool water across my front along the fence as we pass. Pushing up, out and away from the area a little later, into trees and trails again, a vehicle with what must be a monstrous engine revs in the distance over and over, growling like a monster, destroying potential peace of the forest with mechanistic menace..and as we put distance between us and the din, I call out that I sure will be happy when we have only the sound of wind and the crunch of our foot strike to listen to; a murmur of approval rings out behind me…maybe off-roading really IS a completely different thing…
sick of it whatever its called the names I dedicate every pore to what’s here – Ikkyu
We’re climbing again, and I’m feeling the race now – in my bones, in my consciousness. I am high in the heat and mountain air. I waver between the here and now and last year, dripping with intent and forward progress, and begin to almost meld with the landscape. I can feel my soul begin to hunt out like a field of energy to envelop runners before and after; yes, sometimes its like this for me. My chemistry has changed, is changing, surges like electricity. I run on ahead of others sometimes, before I stop to wait for Rebekah, who is obviously miffed at my apparent disregard for our start-together-finish-together oath; I love her, love that we are here. I am passionate though, and I feel the wisp of fatigue, slightly. We’re maybe 20 into this, I’m kinda spacey and my thoughts and words are now the inspirational scatter-shot wisdom of the trail that I so crave in the regular world. These are the feelings…that draw me to the natural world. And this is the good thing; so crucial. I begin to call out to the tree and the stone, tell everything I love it, all of it – that I have come for it; that I am racing for it and “for all of you”, inviting the camaraderie that is sometimes so abundant on the trail and so absent in the contrived world back home. But no: the lack of response is noticeable; there is silence. People aren’t ready yet. I think back now to that guy in the Marin Headlands during one or another 50k so long ago, running past me, stripped naked except for a pair of shorts and shoes, no bottle or bib number, nothing in his hands, with the words “Love is the answer” painted in white across his back – bold and brave. He was right; he is right. I never got to talk to him, didn’t chase after him to tell him I know him, know his mind, his inspiration, that I drink from the same well. I was in a pain cave at that moment, I think; distracted as he passed. But I’ve never forgotten. I love all things, my fellow racers, my brethren and sisteren and the natural world, so deeply. When I run free, when I draw deeply from that authentic place, this place, I am home. This thing called racing is my spiritual battery, can be spiritual battery. Maybe I’ll give it a rest for now; yeah. That’s it for now. Another call of affirmation later. When things change, take a turn…..maybe later…
As we push onward to Loon Lake, we start to leap frog other runners, and strike up conversations in run-cadence; all is great. About here, we pick up Cody Hurd from Brigham City, Utah. Over the miles Cody and Rebekah and I banter and share story, admit obvious realities, confess sins, speculate; we talk about life. We drive past Loon Lake, the brilliant blue sky a reflection of the deep blue of the water, with nearly no clouds. It is warm, nearly hot here, and I hunt for mid-day shade when I can, sometimes zig-zagging between trees along the trail, calculating: does the benefit from actively avoiding the sun out-weigh the increased calorie drag wrought by the additional effort in doing so? What is the math? Surely, someone can calculate this; but certainly not me with my race brain now getting into full swing. When we pull into cacophonous aid at mile 24 it starts to feel real. And aid, like the trails past Loon, becomes a blur. I think I eat meatballs; I bring Rebekah some meatballs. There is a decent spread, we eat well, we fill our packs, ready for departure. For this nearly 25 miles, I have scrutinized my watch without griping to Rebekah, the watch that never bothers to pick up GPS after I chose “later” when I was concerned it might not record anything at race start. Now, I’m beginning to push aside the sense of trust I have intentionally wielded with regard to the new technology on my wrist, slightly pissed that I have no idea how many miles I’ve run when I look at this expensive new Suunto stop watch. Unless I ask Rebekah, I’m nearly lost; run-stupid as I call it. Next aid, which is Tells, I’ll restart the thing, I tell myself…
I think Tell’s Creek is where we have the amazing cheese burger – medium, maybe medium rare, soft, moist, dripping with cheese…(but maybe it was instead the cheese quesadilla slathered with guacamole and topped with a fried egg; I don’t know, Wright’s?; the food stands out more than the servers, although everyone is great. These are two delicacies I would never think of eating back in civilization but here, both are nirvana). Add Oreos, then fruit, banana..Nutella in flour tortilla, another good one, and I force some of that sickeningly sweet Tailwind down before the inevitable calorie deficit later in the game demands I drink it. Last year I slogged through miles of nausea while slowing from lack of calories, causing us to lose precious time, hours, because I always run on water only and my stomach couldn’t handle it; a little now before my stomach turns sour; logic, if any. Rebekah was so frustrated with my nauseous self then – oh, she was so focused last year, so intent on chewing up Tahoe 200 and spitting it out, on finishing strong. Last year I fought the tug of war for hours, wanting to reset the stomach but also with a keen sense of where will I get the calories if I start tossing cookies and can’t eat? This year is different; 2019 is different.
A buzz starts to backstop the race for me now, a chord of multiple notes; the forest rings with it, my own song, no one else at aid can hear it. But as a counter-balance to the buzz and energy of the race, I am now angry at my watch, and I have to lose this negativity; negativity is not why I’m here. I finally stop the thing and see .39 mileage recorded; really? There are other choice words. I restart the thing and feel better as we begin to move away from Tell’s Creek, Eff that new counting-thing, I don’t care.
Rebekah and I haven’t had any caffeine yet, are going to wait a full 23 hours before we juice up with coffee or coke and caffeinated gels in order to get the most out of the molecule. This is a little difficult, since ice cold, carbonated Coke beckoned back at aid. But I have bigger fish to fry. Like another 175 miles. A few minutes back into the trees after we leave Tell’s I realize I didn’t re-set the watch to “ultra” mode, and I throw a little tantrum, throwing my poles down in disgust, because from the start, intermittently, the watch has also repeatedly asked me to calibrate it by swinging my arm around in that silly figure-eight motion, and now this freaking watch is GARBAGE, garbage... I restart the thing for the specific task I bought the damn thing for, and lose the anger…and we push on toward Wright’s…c’mon, Suunto…..
By the time dusk approaches, we have moved into heavy tree cover, and Rebekah already has her Kogalla RA light with the million candle power attached to the front of her pack. I have kept my Kogalla in a large front pocket, not wanting to deal with it as I take my pack off to fill it at each aid station. We purchased two Kogallas after Tahoe last year when we found ourselves slightly jealous of RA users illuminating the forest, inoculating themselves from ankles turned by unseen hazards. By dusk of the first sunset I stop to attach the light, keenly aware I am using some of our precious time to do so, after Rebekah’s well thought out plan-ahead for this moment. After seeming immeasurable time, I finally turn the thing on after I plug into the huge reservoir battery we bought for the race – and specifically for using the bright mothership light all night long, in theory to provide enough capacity so we don’t have to change the battery before dawn. But upon turning the light on, which suddenly pushes the night away and into the forest for a few moments, the light just turns off. I unplug from the battery, examine it, look for a switch – of course there is none, plug in again and turn it on, and we set off…and the light shuts off again. I eventually throw the light down next to a stump, frustrated that another device doesn’t want to cooperate. Curs-ed machines… I break out the old, dependable Petzel Tikka, and we move forward with my narrow spotlight pointing out into the night while Rebekah’s Kogalla broadly backstops our trek, all now dual-illuminated, and all is fine again. Cursed machines…..
There is a section of the course that is more OHV, or off-highway vehicle area, like the Rubicon. Rebekah warned me about this after I moaned about my knee earlier in the day. When we get there we’re suddenly upon it, and it is just more technical terrain of treachery with granite obstacles and more climbs, but now in the dark, with deeper dust. When the vehicles start – when they first approach and pass us and we scramble out of the way again, I’m at first irritated, my knee unhappy…but then a moving carnival with multi colored LED lights cruises slowly past, climbing first up one side then down another of the endless boulder fields, the crazily outfitted ship full of a father and a bunch of kids, and Michael Jackson is blaring, and I start singing with Michael, and it’s all OK again. Other runners are before and after; we all support each other. I do my best to just get through yet another strange, chaotic place made more surreal by the nature of my deepening fatigue. At some point there is a crazy, welded, spidery and metal framed contraption with no doors or roof stopped, stranded in the middle of the “road” , which is our endless dusty, granite-jumble path smelling of long chain hydrocarbons, and the thing looks broken down, wedged between rocks and a tree. Four other improbable vehicles are stuck behind it. Drunk people mill about with music playing, like an impromptu party in the dark. I approach a young woman who loiters in our path and is obviously drunk and relaxed, and she has a tall PBR in the can, and I know it’s cold, it looks cold, even in the dark, and I say wistfully “oh man, THAT would be heaven”, and she tells Rebekah and I, in her cutsie, drunk voice “want one?!?; I half expect her to giggle. And I decline, politely, painfully aware that although it sounds refreshing, we quit drinking alcohol a month before Tahoe to give our bodies every possible edge, like me also quitting coffee the week prior to boost the benefits of caffeine when we eventually dig into it again, and if I betray that discipline now…
The rest of the journey through that almost psychedelic wonderland of mad hatter 4X4s is a blur. I just want to get through this first 100k.
Peaceful now; no one else is around, everyone has finally spread out. I don’t remember when we descend Blood Sucker trail. It is still dark, after midnight. Cold. I remember the sign at the top of the trail, ha ha, funny – look at the name, Bloodsucker, look at that.. I want to but don’t take a picture; too much effort, tired; getting late in the game..no, still early. The trail is cobbled and rocky, and seems to suck the life out of our legs. Bloodsucker. Now I get it. An eventual hike along highway 50 prompts speculation regarding Desolation Wilderness and the permits required to run 205 miles of national forests and towns, and our trek parallel to occasional speeding cars is surreal: why the heck are the cars doing driving so fast?!? And the answer is thus: it is us, not the drivers, OUR time has slowed down. As it should.
Night hike. Rebekah and I can’t wait for Sierra At Tahoe and our CRC, maybe a little sleep, what, 30 minutes? We’re ready for the morning, for caffeine; I’ve never gone the first 24 hours of a race caffeine-free before, and this experiment is wearing thin. When we come upon other runners, we greet and ask: how are you? Where you from? As we near Sierra, we meet Taylor Whitmire from Chattanooga Tennessee, and he & Rebekah share story, Rebekah having graduated UTC in her previous life before the trails, before me. Taylor boasts he has crew and a motor home waiting at Sierra, a bed and a hot shower, and opinions race through my sullied mind: crew and a hot shower? A bed? Like before Candice laid down the law to mandate no one can leave the course to sleep in a hotel? I liken this little hack to cheating, and wonder at someone with enough resources being able to rest above and beyond other runners for a likely advantage. What’s wrong with braving the cold and the bears and the night tarantulas to catch some shut eye, and I am skeptical of Taylor. But really, honestly, I’m just jealous and proud of our own effort with no crew or pacers or pillows, and what will be our four day dirt tanned calves when we finish. Because we will finish, and it will taste like dirt and sweet wine and song, and this is what we came for, ha ha!.
Daybreak brings the climb to Sierra and mile 62. When we approach, we greet Ron Little, our CRC captain, and he smiles big and wide; there are hugs and a warm greeting, and there are the tents and Mor Hirsh is there, a breakfast making madman, looking happy and fresh, and Mike Weston is breaking eggs. Mike looks set-upon as a multitude of runners ask for pancakes and bacon and eggs and other grill items, and he is breaking eggs two at a time to keep up. Carol and Kristin are smiles, and Ana is there waiting for Joe. I see Paula, who last year waited so patiently to pace me from Heavenly on, as we were hours late pulling into Heavenly aid, my destroyed feet then making my finish increasingly unlikely. Paula was so wonderful then, and she is all smiles now, as Rebekah and I navigate food and replenishment and I ready for a brief nap in the sleep tent. But when we finally lie down to catch 20 minutes of cat nap – our first, my brain will not shut off. We have had no caffeine, but we have been moving steadily for 20 hours and up for 24, and…I just can’t get there. When I almost do, my body twitches, which wakes Rebekah, and after a short while, we just get up and have our first coffee and go, with not a moment of REM for me. This is not as expected, but it is what it is.
I don’t remember Housewife Hill aid.
Things have alternated between exposed and forested. My focus is on Armstrong, where I dropped last year, and Rebekah seems to be thinking about my relationship with my first ever DNF as well, when she tells me “hey, soon you’ll be at Armstrong, and then you’ll know the whole course”, referring also to last year’s run in the opposite direction. I concur, and throw in “and as soon as I hit 121 at Spooner, I will have surpassed my longest effort ever”. I’ve finished a few hundreds – two really tough ones, but nothing this involved. And those are completely different animals anyway, with a super fast expected pace as compared to the sometimes maddeningly slow pace that is a 200 miler run by us average humans. At some point we come to the big meadow, and it is a massive, early fall quilt of golden brown, exposed to late afternoon sun that warms me just right; the perfect temperature. When we enter the space, we see two runners on the other side, one a woman we earlier played leap frog with, who had called out views on some big climbs that I had a hard time keeping up with in regard to calories and heat. She eventually pulled ahead and out of view, but now that we can see roughly a third of a mile ahead, I see we have only lost a few hundred yards – and I’m feeling pretty good about this. Throughout the last 1.5 days I have kept my competitive self in check, proving to my love that I can be disciplined up front in order to not run free, or run animal, and thus burn myself out further down the line. But I’m feeling it now – the desire, the urge to push on and pass a few racers.
After we clear the meadow, we are moving at a good pace despite afternoon heat. The flat valley floor transitions to some rolling hills, before a dirt road, a building, and an aid station. Confused, we approach and see a sign stating “for 100k runners only”; really? And we are miffed; we don’t need your stinking 100k water anyway… and we notice evidence of the other race Candice scheduled as part of this year’s running festival, different markers, etc. It’s funny – the sign sort of rubs us the wrong way after being denied a water refill, and so we lean into the effort a bit more, continuing toward Armstrong Pass. We see some runners up ahead, and I announce with a sneaky whisper in Rebekah’s ear “hey, let’s go show those 100k runners how it’s done”, and I can practically hear her eye-roll as she begs me to not be an idiot by wrecking our steady progress. So I rein it in, and I know she’s right. As we push up into the higher elevations though, we do pass the runners, discovering the only people still out here are 200 milers.
At some point 100k-ers start to pass us from the on-coming direction. At first it’s a greeting from them, a cheerful “hey, good job”, and we return the ever-pleasant favor usually brandished late in a race no matter one’s pace or momentum. After a while though I become “day-two” annoyed at the fresh, happy racers without even a damn bottle in their hands under the afternoon sun; WTH? I don’t bother to investigate my mood, and accept the situation, and we push back into the mountains again, slowly passing other 200 milers. Near the summit, I joke with Rebekah that everyone running the other direction smelled so fresh and clean, they were all so damn cheerful, wishing us well – and she offers an “I know”, and it’s clear she felt it too; moods start to swing now, and on day two, the mental game is getting interesting.
Stop digging up the past, lay down your shovel, the past is dead – Bert McCoy
I remember the out-and-back take-off for Armstrong from the main trail before we even arrive – I can feel it. And then the memories of last year’s drop begin to fly, memories of that 2018 determination, when I denied the very existence of my damaged feet until the bitter end; don’t look down…. Confronting my first DNF on the morning of day three, making the decision in that sweaty sleep tent made sauna in the sun while my ego wallowed in failure and embarrassment, my feet ballooned like giant sausages. That medic had tried so hard to lance what she thought was a deep blister on my left foot after I asked her to drain the fluid – a deep blister that was actually my BURSA deep beneath a horrendous blister that had already ripped open; her success would have been my ultimate disaster. If not for my insane animal screams prompting her to stop digging with that object, I might have suffered permanent damage. Then during the following weeks I digested my weakness, almost like mourning, processing my mistakes, before I finally again found the fire, that burning desire to vanquish the trolls of submission: I registered again the day that Tahoe 200, 2019 opened, for this very moment, where I again confront those memories.
I still see last September clearly. My pacer Paula, who was to accompany me from heavenly for about 40 miles, had awakened me at 4 AM. I was disoriented, could barely think when her soothing voice pulled me back into focus. I remember the lodge at Heavenly was wall to wall with sleeping runners, with not a spare foot of space, and it smelled like human being; it was humid and unpleasant, like me. My socks were fried, just absolutely finished; moist, gritty…I had burned through all of my fresh socks as they filled with that abrasive granite dust long before that, despite wearing gators, and was reduced to reluctantly beating the ones I was wearing on the deck in order to shake the dust loose in a vane attempt at protecting what was supposed to be my feet, but by then were just a pair of liabilities. I had new shoes and fresh socks waiting at Armstrong and mile 117, but I didn’t want to wait for that relief after another 14 miles and 3,000 feet; I needed them at heavenly. There was no choice, for the twentieth time: I had to just ignore my feet and go. That was Tahoe 200 in 2018: make the hard choices; make do with what you have, where you are.
I had asked for help with my feet from every damn medical attendant Except Todd Nardi by that point, and Christina Kurty had worked on them 2, 3 times. I put my trust in every one of them, even the medical tech at Heavenly who stated “mental health” when I asked about her background. All of that waiting for help had slowly chipped away at the hours, and I alternated between concern and denial while Rebekah slowly simmered before she finally gave me ‘the talk’ on those winding trails down to the lodge: “babe, I really think we need to run our own race….”. The medical techs and I slowly got to know each other, Christina and I nearly good friends by then; at the freaking mercy of everyone else. And I had to command the mantra of distraction to keep going: the chill of night air, the nausea, hallucinations – those crazy hallucinations I stared at on the tile on the bathroom floor when we first pulled into Heavenly, where little animal figures with human heads, and little people with animal heads, wild and demon-like, crawled over and under and around each other, almost writhing like serpents. That had to be the darkest and most far out and crazy thing I’d ever seen. You know, there really is a lot to distract yourself from pain if you put your mind to it. Mistake after mistake with my feet – lacing, shoe size, too many miles on broken-in shoes that fit like a comfortable glove from the start…that lame Hoka Stinson mid-sole that completely disintegrated by mid race…crushing my feet on that endless descent at Power Line….
Stop it. Just let it go. That was then: that was before overcoming the dual-malaise of plantar and Achilles that stopped your running dead in it’s tracks for the first four months of 2019 – yet another challenge, before roaring back to finish 7th at Diablo 50K with its nearly 12,000 feet of climb, before running head-on at Bishop High Sierra 100k 2 weeks later to run as hard as you ever have to fight for 7th again; before your second DNF at Sinister 7 100 in July where you pulled the plug at mile 68 to safeguard your right to again stand at Homewood again on September 13 for your second chance at a T200 buckle. And here you are, and your feet are fine. Back to mile 103; nothing has kept you from finishing Tahoe this year, nothing will, and nothing can; so can we just bury the damn past? Can we finally just leave 2018 for dead and buried??!
Our descent to Armstrong is quick. I process last year’s mess and Rebekah recalls seeing me on her way out that day with Megan, when I was descending with Paula and I had that look of doom. And now, as we move toward aid, I shatter that memory – break it apart into diffuse and drifting particles, like evaporating water. Like it never happened. Entering Armstrong I am energized. It is much colder down here by now than up on the main trail, with aid already long in the shade of early evening, and we get in and out, and Rebekah is good at this, great at reminding me of what is important; focus. On the way out we are chipper, after caffeine and hot food, and we move so quickly in conversation I almost have no idea where we are when I confuse a woman who asks how far aid is. Elated, scattered, I have moved on, moved forward. I hapilly suffer Race brain now – or, I’m happily run-stupid as I call it, happy. I mean hey: this is Armstrong, and my feet feel great! And looking at where we are headed, I am fully committed with not a shred of doubt. Because there is no other possibility.
Up top at that intersection in the trail that now has no power over me, we pause for a moment, and I recognize Joe’s voice in the darkness as he makes his way toward the turn for aid – and it’s amazing to see him still chugging along! He confesses good things, that he’s seen some lows, and things hurt, but he feels pretty good, and as Rebekah and I move forward toward heavenly, we share that Joe has something, a bit of that single-mindedness that makes enjoying these lifetimes on the trail possible.
Climbing, forever. I don’t remember what would have been the endless descent toward Armstrong aid after the pass last year. At some point we pull over on an endless, chewy section of up and Rebekah has some grapes – and this is good. New, not more of those crappy bars, all flavors, that have worn so thin, and the grapes are not those dense, vegan power nuggets of goji-chia-dark chocolate goodness that are pretty much close to real food and have always provided what we need to keep moving…and which have long ago turned to dust on our taste buds. And the Chocolate-coconut cookies, which aren’t shaped like cookies but resemble dense little muffins – the grapes aren’t those either. The grapes are good, in their own green-grape way, and we share a couple with a racer who passes with a smile; a perfect trade; because that is what it’s all about out here on the cusp of day 3. Somewhere later on the climb we encounter Scott Rokis and Hillary Ann, who snap a couple of pictures, and I feel good, I clown a bit. Life is good after burying that stinking corpse of past mistakes.
The trail to Heavenly seems to take forever, and since my watch hasn’t worked properly since gun time, and math is now perceived by me as some horrid winged creature that sucks the life out of the universe, I have no idea how long it actually takes to get there. On our way toward the lodge Rebekah and I pick up a couple of guys who are in disbelief at our paltry, collective, actual versus expected progress, and after we arrive, in frustration at a trail that writhes and meanders in frustrating, serpentine laziness, I am almost indignant at what some jokingly, or in frustration, refer to as “Candice miles”. It is only later on that I realize I did the same thing last year, apparently leaving every iota of Tahoe Zen I had picked up over the first 100 miles back on the trail, as I let fly with accusations of made up mileage charts. Zen: can I get a refill please?
In the lodge, Rebekah and I follow the script that seems to be working well on this journey: I mix up a recovery drink for both of us that we have packed in every drop bag, while she goes through the drop bag for other items – first aid, clothes, etc. Then I mix up a protein drink for us while we also strategize other calories, and we look at our feet. We will try to sleep at Heavenly, after trying a cheese burger and finding it horrifying and cold and an appetite killer, which prompts total recall of my disgust at the same cold burger situation last year and I now surmise was another factor in killing my forward progress when my forcefield of pain suppression broke down along with my glucose levels at 9700 feet, and I had to bonk-hobble those last miles into Armstrong aid. Now, Rebekah is working through her lack of motivation to eat a cold, tasteless burger, and we opt to drop it for 30 minutes of sleep; we can eat later.
We leave heavenly at 5:30 AM. We’re okay despite that we’re behind schedule; I feel okay. We left aid behind with its no-good, terrible, very bad cheeseburgers, and, concerned there was nothing else the aid workers offered that interested us, we just filled our packs instead with the bounty we brought in each drop bag – all kinds of by-now uninteresting yet dependable sustenance for that “just in case” scenario; Heavenly is that just-in-case moment. I DO feel good about our planning; we have enough to get to Spooner.
Be careful when you cast out your demons that you don’t throw away the best of yourself – Friederich Nietzsche
Anything can haunt me when I spend hours on the trail – random thoughts, the critical voice, things I wish I could change. Sometimes it’s okay, and I simply banish them to the table in the dark corner, and sometimes it’s an endless, repeating loop of doom. If I could extract each one of my shortcomings and negative thoughts and tie them to my pack with loose cords so that with each foot strike I slowly beat every stinking one of the little trolls of subversion to death over the hours, would it lighten my load? Would it make a positive difference? Or, would it make me any less me, perhaps take away the wild animal that refuses to act and run my age and loves to fly down mountain sides and thread my way along the edge of space in a search for that feeling of being truly alive? Would it dumb-down my intense passion for love and life and the run and the natural world to a near-dead ember? Heaven forbid! This morning, with the miles slowly peeling away, and negative thoughts reeling in my head, I begin to battle the trolls as I push myself along. Some are just annoying, like little strings on ripe bananas that break apart and require extra effort to be rid of and are mealy and crappy tasting if you just give in and eat them, but some are subversive. Right now, none are inspirational – no moments where everything in the universe is suddenly laid out before me in my mind’s eye for digestion, like it sometimes is when I change the chemistry of my mind and body with the run. I am at a low. Someone once said that if you can’t solve your problems over a few hours on the trails you’ve got real issues. This morning, to that I say – maybe.
On day 3 as Rebekah and I s-l-o-w-l-y pick up speed after leaving Heavenly and clear those few surface streets of south Tahoe, we enter the beginning of the eastern section of the TRT. I am in my head, stewing on what has become my sad, little morning effort, running with little conviction. I look up the trail, and Rebekah is practically prancing up ahead of me. She loves this part of the race, the soft, well maintained trails mostly clear of cobbles that lead to bigger things. She’s had even less sleep than me, but I just don’t have it in me to pick up the pace right now. I’m in my head, and everything sucks.
I’ve been strategic about sugar and caffeine, limiting myself to just a few gels on the second day, no coke, maybe a couple of hundred milligrams of total xanthines after our first caffeine-free 24 hours, which is revolutionary for me in a long race; I don’t believe our intensity of effort warrants much more. That we ate little of that cold, flaccid cheeseburger at the lodge, the one that reminded me of last year’s DNF didn’t help my motivation to eat, and after doubling my bites of now-dusty bars and vegan power nuggets to seemingly no positive effect, I give in and pull out one of my coveted new finds, a Roctane Cold Brew Coffee gel, bearing 70 milligrams of caffeine. This is a welcome distraction and cool variation on the regular caffeinated versions that offer 35 mills, yet less than the 100 mg in the Second Surge we sometimes fall back on – or the 5 mg in each chocolate covered espresso bean, which can tear your stomach up after a while. We are climbing right now on soft, gravel double-track, easy hiking that is pleasant among trees, the intermittent giant granite monolith, and the luminous early morning sun.
You’d think passing mid-point in the morning sun of day three would make me luminous as well, but in my head now a little phrase of mindful pithiness is stuck on relentless repeat: “wherever you go there you are, right?”, to one foot then the other, to the count of four – not so much mantra-as-coping-mechanism, as much a subversive self-bludgeoning over my inability to get my ass in gear. And so I reach for another caffeinated gel, and then a Vespa despite that I have lost count regarding when I last did one, and a bison Epic bar, and a block, constantly chewing now, all in my determination to turn this negativity around as Rebekah begins to get huffy.
“Tiger, COME ON!”
The voice of the one I love, calling me tiger; that is my siren’s song. I love that – not so much the call of enticement to pull me into danger as much as the call to adventure and exploration: or is that the same thing? The call of our manifesto. Rebekah and I get each other, I mean really get each other, almost as if we each see and know the other’s soul – and that sounds crazy, but we feel it, and we honor it by honoring each other’s wild spirit of adventure, taking on thrills and adventures together as we support one another to explore what makes each of us happy. I sometimes say it’s a good thing we didn’t find each other, desperate and rogue in the roaring ’20s, ’cause we probably would have given Bonny and Clyde a run for their money, taking no prisoners. Of course I’m joking when I say this. But not really. I would do anything for her, and she the same for me. When we ran into each other at the finish of that trail race in Death Valley – or, when she crossed and I was standing right there high on my finish, she running into me, really…we had no idea what was in store for us. We had talked briefly at the finish, then later exchanged a few words during the awards ceremony over a beer and a slice of jalapeño pizza in that funky old bar at Furnace Creek that someone has since remodeled all of the character out of and into the history books of unique, old west oddities. After seeing each other at breakfast the following morning, we made our pilgrimage to Badwater Basin, the start of the Badwater 135, talking about running dreams. And then she drove away, and that was that, until we ran into each other again six months later. The rest is history.
After Rebekah shouts, I vow it will be the last time; I’m starting to feel better now anyway, and I hike right up on her tail, before I pass her on a wide section, and now I’m leading and feeling good. And I start talking. I’m wide awake, energized, and I guess all hopped up on the chemistry I have gobbled over the past 30 minutes that has finally caught up with me. And now I’m so happy. Just like that: boom! Mind racing, I think about what a pain in the ass I was only fifteen minutes earlier, and then I’m embarrassed a little, reflective. There is now a moment where I am everywhere through the entire timeline of our relationship, so full of gratitude for how lucky I am to be with such an awesome, beautiful, intelligent and fierce trail warrior with the same brand of dynamic stubbornness that I have brandished over my entire second life as a survivor of the school of hard knocks, my own stubbornness that kept me alive when I was briefly living on the streets before roaring back like the phoenix or dragon I sometimes analogue as the real beginning of “me”, the beginning of the animal that pushes to be here and now on day 3 of Tahoe 200. And I can barely stand it. And then I open myself up to criticism: “hey baby, tell me: what can I do to make your life easier?” There is silence. And for a moment I think I can hear the worlds biggest eye roll, before she tells me that is the sweetest thing a man could ask a woman…and then she actually answers the question. And I learn, in a rapid-fire way, all of the deficiencies I either have forgotten or ignore or am ignorant of; be careful what you wish for, right?? This is instructive, a good thing – in fact it’s completely awesome, and the kind of thing we look forward to when we take on these multi-day goals, like running the Grand Canyon together, or Western States in ’17 together with the crazy plan to exchange vows at the finish – which just seemed like a lifetime after the freaking snow and mud up top, or when we went to Canada for Sinister 7 100. Or now, for the second time, Tahoe 200, a stage big enough to wipe away accumulated emotional haziness heaped on by jobs and kids and schedules and financial goals…to lay bare before us “ourselves together”, our true emotions; to cast away any doubt or misnomers. This thing we do, pushing ourselves sometimes over days, with the reality of the trail stripping away the accumulated veneer, is like six months of the most expensive relationship therapy compressed into a very intense, narrow window. And it is priceless.
So, I learn I am sometimes impatient, that I sometimes stifle because she works nights as an RN saving lives or fighting to do so with every fiber of her being – with every emotional effort, and sometimes all of that struggle can come up short. Despite heroic efforts. Can you imagine the toll? Sometimes she needs space. Space: check. And that is hard for someone like me, someone who loves her so fully and completely, loves the one I am meant to be with. And I truly believe that. True love? yeah, and then some. I listen, I give her space to unleash on me here in the near-wilderness of the Tahoe National Forest, to share without interruption, and I feel this is the important conversation. And my mind races, and my heart expands. And this is why I’m here.
We continue, and I start to mentally churn. I am wide awake, consciousness hunting out in all directions, and I reflect on my perceived life as like burning at twice the radiance of the average human, and I share this and other ideas, and Rebekah shares that running these “multi-days” is like purifying your soul; I counter that maybe it’s more like clarifying the conscious mind. And we are inspired as we hike, nearly elated, and I realize I am now aware of all around me – every movement, every sound, every wing flutter in the forest, and my head turns back and forth to address each sound or motion as we talk, almost like a machine, analyzing, observing, digesting. Everything around me; and I have never experienced anything quite like this..total awareness. All is illuminated and the universe is right now laid out before me to observe and contemplate.
Eventually I’m in my head again, and we hike in silence. And then the hallucinations start. Until now I have banished them to a locked closet at the back of the haunted ballroom of my mind, refusing to let them out to make a mockery of my perceptions and become a distraction, determined to let NOTHING stand between me and the finish – and into day 3, with little in the way of crazy visions so far, I guess I would call this denial a screaming success. As we hike, and my expanded awareness begins to settle down, we approach a thick stand of young trees with trunks maybe six to eight inches around, small trees, and suddenly there is a man looking at me through the trees with short dark hair and sunglasses that are so dark I cannot see his eyes. And this is just creepy.
I don’t understand where hallucinations come from. Last year, through the end of the first night, through the second day and until I dropped at Armstrong on the morning of day three, I had a feeling or a glimpse of buildings to my right, at the edge of my peripheral vision. Along the entire course. IN THE TAHOE NATIONAL FOREST. So…what IS that? That kind of thing is weird, and I guess harmless, but the creepy visions make no sense, like the crazy animals and people on the bathroom tile at Heavenly last year. Cesare, who is by now somewhere far up ahead of us, no doubt skipping merrily along (the guy is a relentless beast), sees women in bikinis when he is onto the third and fourth day of these things…I mean why can’t I see girls in bikinis instead of creepy men in black staring at me through the trees?? To paraphrase from that old anti-drug commercial from the 1980’s: a mind is a terrible thing to taste.
We mostly hike quietly on the way up to Spooner Summit. After a while we leave the trees for open spaces again, now among the sage and scrub and small pines, with great views above the great lake. On the climb we’re passed by Sarah from Vancouver with the fairy dust hair (see her picture among the chaos back in the Rubicon). I comment that her glitter is still intact, and we exchange departure times from heavenly – us at 5:30, she at 5:40. Rebekah and I let her go just as a tall, lanky guy passes us near the top of the climb. He is leading his pacer.
There are little green rocks everywhere – light and dark green, and I’m fascinated enough to waste some of our precious time looking for a few good ones to bring back for our youngest boy Aaron, who is obsessed with crystals. I have always brought interesting rocks back from our adventures, some for Riley, our daughter, and she has rocks from our Grand Canyon R3 run, our trip to the North Rim and Death Valley this past summer, various trips to the Sierras, and my last go at T200. I decide on 3 small ones that I will now carry for the next 80 miles, knowing full well that what looks interesting after a couple of days awake will probably elicit just an eye roll later; whatever.
The descent to Spooner aid down on the highway is through trees, which eventually transitions to sweet, soft wooded switchbacks near the end. About a half mile from aid I ask Rebekah if I can ditch her to run the trail down to aid and after assurances that I won’t blow myself up, I let loose with a beautiful descent that allows me to lean into the soft turns and rev my HR a bit, and it is heaven. I have been so disciplined this year, keeping my eye on the prize. As I move with intention and effort my legs feel good, but I do notice the near-zero depth of strength: not weakness, just not a lot of reserves here. As I enter a meadow at the bottom, that feeling of depletion you get after a really big effort lands on me like a wet blanket. You know the feeling – like when you’ve bombed down a ridiculous mountainside, or a long mountain pass dodging cars at 6 pace, pushing yourself while knowing full well you will hit the wall SOON, like seeing the fuel gauge tick toward the left with your minds eye. This is after only a .5 down, and as I roll through the short section of meadow with young trees and tall grasses and the aid tents finally within sight at the bottom, I begin to feel I really have been on my feet for days now, which is crazy to contemplate.
Aid is a PR for distance at 124 and a sandwich that looks awesome as I build it but which is less than stellar when I take a bite. Taste buds are so weird after several days awake, and what once was with regard to flavor may never be again, at any moment. This was apparent somewhere miles back when I reached for a piece of chili-garlic jerky, something normally just spicy enough to wake my taste buds up but which instead just turned my mouth to fire and cardboard and dismay, another precious calorie choice lost to the trail. When Rebekah cruises in she shares that she ran the down as well, and I can hear the satisfaction in her voice. I hand her the ham and hummus sandwich, and she’s delighted. Next I move on to wonderful, boring old cup ‘a noodles. Sarah from Vancouver is there with some crew and a pacer now, and two little dogs that repeatedly jump up onto her lap and back down as she showers them with attention. Howie Stern silently stalks about shooting pictures with that sublime warm attitude that always seems 3 levels above Zen while his wolves lay off to the side, motionless. His wolf dogs are the most relaxed animals I have ever seen: maybe it really is true what they say about dogs looking like their owners. I am in a stellar mood as I fully grasp that I have surpassed last year’s Armstrong DNF mileage at 117, which lends a sense of excitement. Rebekah and I joke around a bit before we get back onto our feet to risk our lives crossing the highway. Watching other runners negotiate the narrow breaks in the traffic of speeding cars and trucks does nothing for my lack-of-sleep confidence, and I hang back as I watch others move away and up the trail, out of view; it really is kind of treacherous here. There is a sheriff sitting in a truck to our right with lights silently turning, and I contemplate that if we are hit and killed here, at least they can haul away our bodies while they’re still warm. It takes us forever to brave the speeding vehicles of Highway 50, mostly due to my fear, and after Rebekah makes a dash I finally follow to start our trek up to Snow Valley.
I think Snow Valley Peak is a very cool place, and that place sits at roughly 9000 feet. We stop at a clearing off to the side and almost out of view of the trail about half way up and lay out our space blanket for a 15 minute nap in the sun, and after the initial fog of awakening fades, I feel different; never clear headed anymore, but anything resembling a hallucination has now fled for that table in the dark corner, out of view. Runners we passed earlier on the climb are now long gone, and there are other runners we pass now as we climb again. At some point we round a corner of the trail beneath a slight overhang of granite above and to our right – the mountain dropping away from the trail’s edge on our left, and on a flat slab below the overhang sits a young guy we passed earlier before our nap. He sits, legs crossed out in front of him, unmoving – frozen, still, eyes closed….and in the peace of a maybe deep sleep I sense the depletion, can feel it like an aura. No pacer, he is apparently making this journey by himself. Throughout the race we’ve seen and talked with what feels like countless other racers making the trek, but this guy exudes the real question: will he make it? And as we pass his seeming frozen form I sense another racer might not see Homewood by 100 hours.
When the trail emerges from the trees after that endless switch-backy climb up from the highway – that final descent of TRT 100, you’re faced with a nearly straight-line climb up into the sky. This is reminiscent of the climb up to Armstrong Pass, a day ago in the dark made difficult by opposing forces of slight nausea and the desire to get to Heavenly and a few minutes of sleep; today the climb is joyous. Deep blue sky with high altitude wisps of cloud, warm and, as always, windy. Last year the wind blew my hat off my head as we made our way across the landscape, but today it is a breeze and merely refreshing. To our left is Marlette lake, which hovers above our love and arch nemesis Tahoe the great one, and this all lends a real sense of depth of space as we ascend and Marlette slowly climbs over and past Tahoe, both below. On the climb we approach a runner and her pacer, and I call out a joyful greeting and a howl before I notice she’s barely moving. As we draw near I can see her jet black hair and a face that conveys discomfort. She is at war – with the course, with the altitude and the million things, with her self; I know the look of the cave. I greet her with warmth, and take the risk of placing my right hand on her left shoulder, and I give her the affirmation: you got this. She responds with a rasp of something, not quite words. Then she takes two steps, powered by what is undoubtedly that fire within, and I can feel her depletion and what must be AMS or a brewing chest cold – two warrior goblins of the army of weakness that can steal your race out from under you. Racing can be like that, right? Infinitely hedging your bets while rolling the dice on the lark of that dream of a finish. After we pass I turn to look back and see that her pacer is more than doing his job, almost bouncing around, and he runs up the trail toward us, and I at first jump aside in confusion until I decide he is just playing the roll of unwinding the pacer’s psychic tether before reeling her in as he slowly pulls her up the mountain. Right now I don’t see how she can possibly finish. Rebekah and I move on; the runner has her watchful eye, and we all have our goals.
When we top out on that wide plateau of grasses and trees in the sky, I am once again in that special place where you sometimes can’t see the edge, like being in a world up on top of the world. The views are stunning and I as I look around to adjust my perspective, I feel for a moment like we are on a vast prairie. I am now in my mind’s eye, rolling across the plains of Southern Alberta toward Sinister 7 100 with Rebekah and Captain Ron this past July, again on our way to one of the hardest races I have attempted. This is weird, like a time-shift, and possible because the only places besides the plains of Northern Mexico or Alberta I have ever seen vast, open spaces at ground level with grasses and scrub, is the arid Central Valley of California – an endless, gridded expanse of roads, farms, fences and air pollution, and the occasional tumble weed lofted by the wind; I guess I don’t really get out much. There is no pollution up here. if anything, we are polluting this amazing little ecosystem above the lakes.
As we top out on the plateau, we pick it up to trot along the narrow gravel track, veering left and right under brilliant sky, always North. I am in paradise. Eventually we round a turn toward the right and a lurking photographer – Hillary Ann, pops into sudden view, and Rebekah and I turn it up to cruise past with a leap over some granite. I’m all smiles as I hoot at Hillary and we continue on our way toward the edge of the world and next aid at Tunnel Creek and mile 140.
Downslope, winding in and out of trees; gravel, always gravel – crunchy soft granite weathered and crushed over time by innumerable shoes. Near a false bottom we pass a couple of women bantering. I stop to adjust and grab a bite off to the side of the trail-now-fire road, and…awesome: the woman with the jet black hair that struggled so mightily back up on top of the world is suddenly making her way down the hill toward us, which gives me a near-thrill: she did it, she somehow pushed through what must have been the lowest of lows. But now I feel like we’re late, that we’re lagging, and I quickly chew, shove the remaining snack in a pocket, and we move out. Good for her – but I gotta go.
Endless descent. Time has slowed with the drop in elevation. Afternoon becomes late, and again there is no run, only hike. At a turn, the fire road we are on transitions to what seems an infinite path down through the trees, and I stop to eat. Rebekah is always accommodating, as I am for her; start together, finish together. During races of half the distance, there are problems – hydration, stomach, GI, feet, an infinite assortment. Tahoe 200 allows plenty of time for management of the million things, for logistics – if you can manage your sleep deprivation. But I am aware she is focused on the idea of patience each time I stand still to dig in my pack or adjust anything. I love my beast-wife, my beacon….thank you R….
Twilight. This is endless. Can’t imagine running this fresh; infinite tree cover on the down. How far is aid? Where is aid? Near dark now. Wait on headlamp – how long can I go in the dark to save battery before I turn an ankle? Hiking, steeper descent now, try a trot, no, not feeling it…I can smell the lake now…car sound through gravel crunch; when’s the next sock change? How many so far, Eight? Feet feel fine right now, AWESOME! My warrior’s weakness has been nullified, I’m doin’ it man, I’m gonna finish this monster….just keep moving..keep walking…..
A couple approach, walking a dog. Civilization is in the air. They greet us, “good job, looking great”; what? We’re in the dark, no headlamps yet, and I feel like they have night vision goggles or something, how do they know about this weird adventure? And then it occurs to me they are looking for a racer…that kid – yeah, the one napping in stillness on the rock up top, an infinite number of miles ago. We pick it up. Aid is close.
Tunnel Creek at mile 140 has everything, but it isn’t quite right. Perhaps it’s just me; I feel like a whiny little B. The cup ‘o noodles is not quite cooked enough when I try it, and the noodles slightly crunch and are not the comfort food I have anticipated for so long. The porta is out of TP until someone points out all I have to do is look up, and it magically appears, and I am an idiot. When we leave, the two breakfast burritos I ordered are tiny, like really small, what, four bites? How in the heck can we get through 15 miles on four bites? I am always grateful to the volunteers at every race, and they are our lifeline, bracketing these 15 and 20 mile expanses of wilderness that sometimes feel insurmountable if I misjudge water or other necessities. But I gripe after we move away, and “If I ran this aid station…..” becomes a refrain. Never mind that late in a race of this distance these amazing people will stay up nearly half the duration, a lifetims as we like to say. For me. For me. I. am. a. jerk.
Tunnel was funny last year as we ran into early morning aid in bright sunshine from the other direction. My feet were already destroyed by then, but I pushed through the noise to run along that roadside construction after Incline Village, my hunger overriding screaming, ground-level pain receptors that warned me things were already a mess. I had ignored the noise as I pulled ahead of Rebekah in that final push, like a horse might smell water in a desert. And I remember Mark Tanaka suddenly there, looking at his phone in his hand as he aimed it around the open parking area as if shooting a laser. Mark was talking to himself, rambling at his phone and acting really funny, and he made no sense until I realized he was playing freaking Pokemon Go. He was aiming the phone around in circles, trying to corner god knows what kind of beast – stalking it, and as he nabbed it, there was a triumphant call of satisfaction, a laugh, a chuckle. Amused, I had asked him how many times he’d run Tahoe, and he did a verbal count; “uh, three. No, four?” was his response. Mark is prolific, one of the Bay Area’s seemingly indestructible runners. I briefly exchanged words with him at Mountain Lakes 100 a couple of years before that, when Rebekah and Captain Ron ran it and I crewed her across Oregon national forests toward Mt. Hood and back. I was impressed and jealous in the parking lot then, when he made everything look so damn easy, playing Pokemon freaking GO as I pushed through the pain of my mistakes. But now we move away from aid into the darkness, suddenly on streets I don’t remember, and we are surrounded by the civilization that is Incline Village, and 2018 fades again. Lay down your shovel, the past is dead…
Road, pavement, paved pathway on the left. Manicured landscapes; unnatural. Right angles. Beautiful homes. I have more energy now, and we push. Approaching music from up the road. A DJ? A raucous party. No signs on the building as we approach; must be a wedding. Hmmm…I bet there’s food and drink. What would happen if we crashed the party? Half feral, I picture it: two delirious runners drunk on sleep deprivation, dusty and destroyed and smelling like animals, starving, thirsty: what are they drinking..probably everything. I envision a widening circle of uptight Incline merrymakers shrink away in horror as Pepe Le Pew and his bride storm the party, exuding a stink aura of 140 miles of sweat and scattering a cloud of particles like Charlie Brown’s Pig Pen. And we begin to eat and drink like maniacs, swilling champagne as the music suddenly stops, like the needle of a record scratches across the platter to a horrible, screeching end. Everyone flees in horror as we shove food into every pocket and into our mouths – chips and guacamole, olives and little sandwich thingies as crumbs and greasy bits fly and land on the floor and the walls, dripping like paint. Someone has called the sheriff, who arrives with a taser and a net to chase us around the room, and we chase each other in circles, Rebekah and I grabbing handfuls of the once pristine wedding cake each time we pass the table, stuffing our hungry athlete-selves with frosting flying and throwing cake by the handful at the sheriff and the few guests who haven’t fled…cackling and hooting, ha ha! Now THAT would be funny….until it wasn’t and I’m hog tied and tased on the floor, flopping like a fish out of water…..
I am in my head on another planet as we move away from my mental spectacle, and my R is with me, and the sound slowly dissipates along with my false bravado fantasy, like mist in the air. And we move up the right side of the road by my lead and memory of our last push through Incline, toward that turn for the mythical Power Line, somewhere up ahead.
False turn right – I’m an idiot, I refused to look at Gaia, our required course reference loaded on our phones, and it is my fault we waste four to five minutes and a few precious calories on an early false turn up the wrong road; and now I’m frustrated at myself. Rebekah warns me away from the road onto the shoulder each time a car approaches from behind, and each time I’m a little more annoyed, and I stuff the feelings; she doesn’t need any of my developing irritation, she has enough to deal with. Suddenly one of the cars passes, slows, and pulls to the side of the road ahead of us, taking the entire shoulder. So, my first thought is that someone at the wedding was drunk and had to leave the party, but had to pull over because they can’t drive. The vehicle idles, lights shining away down the road, low engine rumble audible from probably one hundred fifty feet ahead. As we approach, I see it’s a large black SUV with tinted windows – or, I can’t see any light inside. And then my mood pendulum swings to negative but more so now, and I’m totally annoyed: what the hell, they’re parked EXACTLY in our path…it’s go into the road, because they’re blocking the shoulder against a hillside. Along this entire stretch of road from Tunnel Creek aid to our eventual turn toward Power Line I have pulled us along on the right shoulder, with a peculiar aversion to the paved path on the left, which would probably be an easier trek, but I’m pretty obstinate right now, and I know what I want and I want to hike along the side of the road we’re going to turn right from. Dammit.
The SUV idles, unmoving. As we approach, my sleep deprived lizard brain begins to take control of my rational homo sapiens brain, and I become suspicious as I picture some creepy jerk jumping out to harass us, probably smelling of cigarettes and booze, maybe waving a gun at the annoying T200 weirdos that wrecked his four-wheeling, bachelor party adventure in the Rubicon three days ago. And then Rebekah says “I don’t like that car, let’s cross”, and I feel like maybe I’m not paranoid, and we move over to the paved path. My thoughts settle to simply: what is up with the car?
Paved path now, along a frontage of opulence. Everything is manicured and perfect. I don’t know why, but this sucks. I want trees again – the chaotic, fractal-like decomposing perfection of nature, with its dirt and spiders downed trees and fungus and life crowded upon life from every inch of space. I’ll even take Power Line over this empty spectacle right now, which is a funny thing to think if you know what Power Line is. Rebekah and I hike, no run in us right now as we get mentally ready for our date with a good climb.
And then I can’t see. No, I’m totally blinded by, what the hell, LIGHTS? From where, from the mothership? Squinting, I make out two headlights in front of us at eye level, blinding us just as the paved path has dipped down to follow the topography of the landscape beside the road, a momentary drop in elevation before a baby hill back up to street level. And this damn car is parked at the top of the mole hill on a paved turn-out exactly where our path is headed, with high-beams at the perfect elevation to intentionally freaking blind us. WTH!
Three days into our journey I am angry, and I let loose to Rebekah with choice words as we approach. And then I realize it’s the same vehicle that parked on the shoulder to block our way just minutes earlier..and now I see myself walking up, opening the driver door and grabbing whoever is in the driver’s seat by the hair and pulling them right out onto the ground; I am gonna rip this guy apart. And as we approach I notice a company logo on the driver door – some security firm, which prompts a step back from the edge of a primal outburst…to consider that any sock puppet rent-a-cop in a black SUV who is lame enough to act out in such a childish, passive-aggressive way in order to completely antagonize two people out of the hundreds making our annual way along the same Tahoe 200 course on the very same weekend each year, in a wealthy community like Incline Village where every year the home owners vandalize the course ribbons because, well, it’s THEIR community and obviously these idiot runners are pests, are a real PROBLEM…and that someone hired by uppity Incline HOA members probably carries a weapon. I picture a vet, maybe two tours in Anbar Province with urban warfare experience and a touch of PTSD, and I keep my freaking mouth closed as we walk past; I am not going to spend day 4 in jail. I glower into the black, tinted void of the driver door window as I pass..none of this adventure is worth the trouble. I am on a journey with my wife, on a mission.
It takes a couple of minutes to calm down and Rebekah has no idea what’s going on in my cluttered head, and I drop it – snuff out the smoldering short fuse, and we hike onward.
Finally – the turn toward Power Line. We make our first right and begin to move up the street toward the next left, and we’re blocked from continuing by a construction crew. At first I don’t see the backhoe digging under spotlights about a block away with my mottled perspective, with cones and caution tape everywhere as Rebekah and I talk about life and the race. Then a big guy in a hard hat comes at us, yelling that we should stop. My thought: Hell no, I’m not stopping. “Hey! Turn around and go back to the highway!!”, and now I’m lizard-brained again, and I’m not freaking taking this guy’s crap after three days, probably thirty thousand feet, and one hundred fifty miles, and I cut left through some bushes as I tell Rebekah “come on”. I’m gonna climb up the hillside and bail on this near-apoplectic bulldog who continues to yell at us, ‘cuz dammit no one’s gonna tell us what to do! Rebekah is right behind me as we scale the small hill and pop up to the road we are supposed to turn left onto, and now there is a bigger, older guy standing there – what must be a foreman, and he’s backed up by another hard-hatter, both in safety vests. The foreman immediately starts arguing with me. I stand my ground as he alternates between barking and screaming, and I’m yelling right back. I tell him “sorry man, this is the route, and there are hundreds of us coming!” He yells that it’s all a construction zone and it’s permitted and we need to go back the way we came; I can’t even explain what it would mean if we did what he is telling us to do. I fire back “hey, the race director of this 200 mile foot race pulled permits a year ago, and this happens every year, and there are scores of us coming…” and he pauses and almost sputters before responding with “OH YEAH!!?! We’ll WE pulled OUR permit THREE YEARS AGO!!!” And now everything becomes completely silly, almost Python-esque, and I half expect John Cleese to jump out of the bushes with a hard hat and safety vest to chase us back down to the highway with a giant wooden mallet. I shake my head and we push past, and we bail out of the area as the workers stand there huffing and puffing. My thought: Incline Village…with it’s passive aggressive, sock-puppet rent a cop and raging Bob the Builder construction crew is LAME…and we continue on toward our now surreal date with Power Line.
Quiet now. Surface streets at night. That was bizarre. We are a couple blocks from the bulldogs and, approaching another right, there are two runners hanging out as if they’re waiting for us. We greet each other and they are confused about the route, and I tell them “come on”, and we all begin the uphill hike as I lead. I power upward as I verify the turns with Gaia while Rebekah engages the other runners, and after some conversation about last year and an early turn that forces everyone to duck under a downed tree – and I’m apologizing for the knee bend, but hey – they’re following US, we make the final left to start the climb that is Power Line.
Last year Power Line was epic, but from the other direction. The dust then was so thick and powdery that with each step a cloud of fine particles would puff up into the air, which made the probable 30-40 percent grade descent treacherous because thick dust is slick, and every so often we’d slip and land on our butts or a hip on dirt and branches or a rock – ouch, over and over. My knees hated it. In contemplating how many things went wrong with my feet last September, I’m pretty sure that mile-plus spent crushing my toes down into my shoes with each downward step did my poor dogs no favors. I can’t exactly tell how steep it is now though, and here in the dark I just know it’s all up. As we make our climb I shine my headlamp upslope and see bushes and no real end. The two others Rebekah and I met after the shouting match are now three, and are following us below, and then two guys that look way too fresh move up behind and pass us easily, and I watch them go as Rebekah and I take our time on the endless climb. After a while the two guys move out of sight and I think the whole climb is way shorter than I expected as we summit only to find it false, and the climb starts again.
The bushes are tough and prickly, with ragged roots clutching the hillside to offer endless reasons to slip and trip, and I avoid tearing my gear by efforting to pick my way back and forth around the branches, never in a straight line; any steps are either just a foot-step divot or are non-existent. This seems to go on forever, and then we top out at false summit number two; and so it goes. At some point I look up to see two headlamps in the air somewhere above us, which is disorienting because the mountain is so steep it looks like the two guys that passed us earlier are in the sky. The only time I have seen anything like this is climbing that steep ascent along the endless granite jumble up to twelve thousand feet and the base of the switch backs on Mt Whitney.
Descending this crazy slope with that stunning view of the Great Lake in brilliant morning sun the last time made everything almost joyous with cat calls and laughs, despite knee and foot torture, but right now it’s all just a narrow beam on an endless scramble through scraggly bushes that reach out to scratch my burning achilles, with repeating false summits. At some point Rebekah has passed me and we are up on top of the worst of it, and all I can do is just shake my head at the crazy climb and replace the calories. Thank you Candice.
Later. Hours. She’s behind me. We are picking our way through the night along the trails to Brockway Summit. When is this; I can barely keep my eyes open – awake for a minute, I’m fine, I’ll be fine…eye flutter…..STARTLE AWAKE, crap, I hate this. I’ve been fighting the call by forcing my eyes open for who knows how long. But I’m losing it. I have no idea how we got here, where we are; oh yeah, on the way to Brockway… I’ve waited too long to ask Rebekah if she’s eaten anything, and now she waves me off with her tone as she focuses on getting through this hiking hell on her swollen feet, and nothing else matters. I stop to argue. When? She won’t eat real food when I try to convince her to. She tells me her feet are so swollen and mutters “damn these Speedgoats”; she loves them but they’re not for running and hiking 200 milers; maybe for Courtney… She wants to slice them open on the side just a little to relieve the pressure from the swelling. I finally convince her to eat a single block from the box of salted watermelon that Margaret gave us after I worked ALT in June; thank you Margaret. The new flavor was great when I found it but now everything is sickeningly sweet to her; oh, the ebb and flow of taste buds. This part of the trail to Brockway is pretty flat but there are roots and it’s cobbled sometimes; somehow, we don’t stumble. At some point I am conscious of the fact my eyes are closed more than open, and I nearly crap my shorts in fear of pulling Rebekah down on top of me to a broken wrist or over the edge; is there an edge here? Later. I almost jump out of my skin as I realize we’re still moving and I was sleep walking; third night, maybe an hour twenty of sleep, how is this possible without tripping. “Babe, eat…” another single block…where is aid…..
Brockway Summit and mile 155 is freezing cold. Everything feels dank and moist in air that must be in the 30’s. I am so cold and tired now but we have a drop bag and I have to mix the magical recovery drink. Rebekah is shaking uncontrollably as I give her the mixture – she needs sleep, warmth..have to get her under blankets NOW. The sleep tent is not heated, just an ice cave, and Rebekah climbs onto a mat with a single blanket ‘cuz that’s all there is, until someone gets up and piles four or five blankets onto her as I look for a bite of hot food. Three days into this and we don’t care what anything is like, about the conditions – whether the person who tried to sleep before us is disgusting with stink or passed out on that quesadilla with guacamole; we just need a little rest, on dirt or a freezing camp mat damp with condensation from the breath of the others before us.
Right now this whole thing feels unsustainable, like the weight of this gigantic effort could throw us off balance at any moment. But I can’t go there, I can’t consciously entertain the negative thought that one wrong move could make the wheels fly off and put an end to two years of intention and this 75 hours of effort. This is me, digging deep – deeper than the end of that last 100 in my search for absolution, deeper than that horrible, endless hike through 35 miles of mud and water in the Alberta wilderness in July with a useless left ankle I was vainly trying to safeguard so I could start Tahoe 200 on two healthy legs, before I pulled the plug at mile 68. Everything else has been homework, and this, now at Brockway Summit, is the test. I finally climb under the mountain of blankets wet on the outside with condensation of the early morning hours and grab my shaking wife and wrap my body around hers. And we shake together as I banish the negative thoughts to the back table in the dark corner of my consciousness. At some point I sleep; I don’t know for how long.
Awake. Aid, still in the dark but more in focus now, is tents with a couple of space heaters. I can’t go there, can’t be drawn to the heat like a moth to flame; I’ll never escape. Everyone is helpful but my core temp has crashed now that we’re not moving and I shake. Coffee, a pancake, eggs; eggs are like home. No idea what time it is since my watch has long ago died despite the advertised 110 hour battery life: effu Suunto. We have to go, have to get hiking, I have to make my own heat. Pack a burrito, grab more coffee, shake it off. She’s better I think, she’s awake. She doesn’t talk about her feet now.
There’s Todd Nardi again, the ever-present and unwaveringly positive lead medical guy, by the med tent. I first met him in ’17 during an all-night cooking frenzy helping T200 runners at Sierra. Todd doesn’t run but he get’s it, and he’s been a part of this journey during the three years I have either volunteered or run. As Rebekah and I ready for take-off I greet Todd by the tent, and he mentions the forecast in a way that makes me curious. When I ask, he tells me “it doesn’t look good” and with a serious look on his face gives a range of negative probabilities regarding rain chances. This is sucky to hear, but we knew about the forecast before race start and I’m thankful to know, and I decide then and there to put on extra layers for insulation. As the sky begins to lighten I just focus on his mention that the rain will stay north of highway 80.
So, I take some of our precious time to put on more layers. Rebekah has eaten and looks fresh and amazing and patiently waits for me as I nearly empty my pack to add layers, and by the time we leave I have on: 2 shirts, arm warmers, the blue North Face shell I bought for Bishop High Sierra 100K that was impervious to rain and hail – always my buff, of course my hat, a thinner pair of shorts, and a pair of running tights…and I feel like a fat little bumble bee as I waddle away toward the trees. This is totally overkill – ridiculous really, but I’m now ready for the rain, so whatever, bring it. Later on the trail I feel sluggish and once again I find I am holding my wife back as we push out into early morning light.
Soft single track in the Tahoe National Forest as we enter an area of active forest management – acre upon acre of rotor-tilled forest floor newly covered with mulch beneath a few remaining trees, with adulterated landscape that radiates from the trail in all directions; I liken shredding the forest to cover it with its own mulch to when we used to grind up cows and feed them to cows to fatten them up, which caused BSE, or “Mad Cow syndrome”, which rotted the brains of unsuspecting hamburger eaters back in the ’90s. I take in the trucks, being loaded with or hauling away the forest for whatever end, and the sound of the huge mulching machines that growl and surge barely a hundred yards off, and a resulting homogeneously flattened and shredded landscape riddled with truck tire ditches. I now have very mixed feelings: on one hand the environment is changing, the climate is becoming more radical, with compressed California winters and increasing fires becoming explosively destructive and deadly, and I know that something needs to be done to manage these risks. On the other hand…the end result of this slash and shred work is obviously way over-done, with barely any of the original landscape left intact and every evidence of animal habitat now shredded to that thin mulch. These guys apparently know nothing about habitat or ecology – the science of the environment, which irritates me to no end, and I wonder about hiring a crew of fast food workers to pave the roads or install power lines in these guy’s neighborhoods; yeah, try that on. Why is there no middle ground? Why in the end do we have to destroy everything – cut it, dig it, shred it, drill it, strip it, burn it, exploit it, pollute it, pervert it; everything. Putting out fires to save the forest so we can continue to spread into the forest and across the landscape like an out of control cancer…leaving nothing un-defiled for future generations, for our kids and grandkids. At the rate we are now unravelling a half century of bipartisan environmental law and evidence based science, it stands to reason that our grandkids will probably be given rakes while being told they embody state of the art forest management technology, intellectually suffocated by a stifling wet blanket of superstition and conspiracy theories. If we completely wreck this house – the only one we have been given, if we continue in the direction we as a race are headed, we – all of us, are in trouble. The Earth does not need us – it’s the other way around.
We eventually get away from the incessant grinding and shredding of the forest for peace and quiet again, but now I begin to focus on something immediately frustrating: my tights are, uh….tight. I’ve never worn running tights, and now I feel like a caged animal and that the extra effort to keep moving in this rubber band suit is probably sapping calories; it certainly is slowing me down. Rebekah stops to wait for me now and again, and this is just unsustainable. So, about an hour after we leave Brockway I pull over in disgust and strip down to the thin shorts I changed into earlier to wear under the tights, which makes it kind of chilly now, but the warm morning sun is telling me that Todd’s forecast is nonsense, and I’m pissed at wasting our precious time putting on extra layers and grateful we’ll have a warm afternoon on our way to Tahoe City after all. The weather is stunning as we pass yet another beautiful Tahoe lake.
Miles of hike and little run, and that’s OK. Mostly up, we’re passed by a few runners and I watch them go with detached interest; we have our own agenda; don’t get competitive. Eventually the trail angles downward for miles as the sun slowly fades behind an increasing high altitude grey blanket and things start to cool off. I sense we are within 8-10 miles of Tahoe City.
Door passage to the other side, the soul frees itself in stride – Jim Morrison
Grey clouds swirl around far peaks to the West like water each time the trail arcs to the left after a right along our ridge line. They flow in our direction as if exerting self determination in trying to get around the mountains, and my impression as the wind begins to pick up under flat, grey skies is, like Todd muttered earlier, not good. Leaving Brockway, the forecast of doom that I eventually discarded was: chance of rain by 8, 40% by 10, probable by noon. It’s now 11 and I still think we have it beat with about 7 miles to go, and then the first drops start. I first hear them up above us, almost like someone is tossing pebbles through leaves on high branches, then the drops begin to hit the powdery dust of the trail churned by countless mountain bikes, little explosions at our feet, and then we are getting wet. Rebekah had earlier prompted me to pick up the pace the first time we noticed the incoming front, while I held onto my belief that the rain would stay north of Highway 80 as advertised. But here it is; damn. We begin the trot, a probable 10-11 pace, not so bad after 160 + miles as the wind increases to wave branches above us while micro explosions erupt all around us on the trail and off the brim of my hat. Knowing we are more than an hour out of Tahoe City, we just push forward; what else is there, but the run?
After the warning of the first drops, the intensity increases along with my concerns; I keep my mouth shut and don’t share them with Rebekah – I know she has her own. My jacket will keep my upper body dry, but my gloves will turn to sponges if given the opportunity. My legs are now covered only by my micro-thin Houdini pants…I might as well be running with only shorts. My feet…so much effort and so many sock changes to keep my feet dry for days: what about my feet? As the rain increases I can feel the temperature drop, and it’s becoming clear we are going to be cold and wet. Rebekah is right behind as I lean into a continual run, everything from the waist down and those damn gloves getting soggy. We discussed before the race that our gloves would be totally inappropriate in event of forecasted rain, but after so much money spent on our two entries, the cost of other gear, hotel, that insane new parking fee at the race start, the useless new watch bought specifically for Tahoe 200 that died long ago, and all of the peripherals…water-proof gloves seemed a luxury – and I now regret that decision. Trails, soft and banked from the mountain bikes, begin to get sloppy as we trot under the trees, and now for the first time in days my feet are actually wet from something other than sweat as they collect mud. We become soaked – face, hands, legs, feet, and my thin Houdini pants stick to me like thin cellophane that seems to wick away my body heat, and we increase speed until we must be moving at 9 pace – amazing to me after so many miles. And I can feel the calorie burn. We briefly stop beneath a large tree that offers shelter from the rain to quickly eat, and I shove food into my mouth, bars that long ago became tasteless cardboard but which now in these crappy circumstances are fuel for the fire I need for this crazy pace on the fourth day of this crazy journey. But we can’t stay. It’s freezing almost, with our breath beginning to puff in clouds, and our shelter tree becomes saturated and starts to drip on us in its shadow, and after a minute Rebekah says “we can’t stay here; we have to go!”, and I can hear the concern in her voice – and we bolt.
I recall the climb out of Tahoe City last year as we make our way, a climb punctuated by occasional crests across mounds of broken rock in the shape of flat pieces of stone that looked and sounded like broken china with each foot strike. I remember being fascinated by that sound, it seeming unnatural in our natural world of trees and dirt and birds and bugs. And early evening summer heat. Now, though, all is frustration as my initial hopes upon cresting the first mound in anticipation of that drop toward town turn to dust and we instead turn toward the left and away from the edge of a cliff that drops precipitously on our right down to highway 89, and the trail even begins to track farther up the mountain again in wide arcs of frustration. Where is town?!
Puddles form on the trail, and I call them out to Rebekah behind so she doesn’t soak her (already soaked!) shoes if she happens to look away for just a split second. She is quiet back there. I glance to see that she has no gloves on.
And then, it’s snowing.
At first it bounces away, and I think “hey, isn’t THIS exciting” before snow and sleet sticks briefly to my jacket and my rapid fire thoughts become “holy cow, I can’t feel my hands now”, as the temperature drops like a stone. I look back again at Rebekah, and she is carrying her trekking poles, and I shout “use your poles, keep your arms moving, it’ll warm your hands!”, which is complete BS now, but what else can I do as I figure that the temperature must be only 31, 32 degrees. And then the transition from rain to snow is complete, and there is no more rain, only these huge wet flakes that stick to everything. And we run faster, and time seems to slow as I watch these huge flakes of snow explode on my saturated black gloves and off the brim of my jacket hood pulled over my trucker hat I bought after running Bishop this last June – the hat with snow covered peaks, and then the flakes grow into clumps, and I’m steaming from the heat generated by our crazy run down to Tahoe City, but it’s not enough to melt the snow. Somehow I’m able to see all of this even as I’m turning on the run to follow the trail and avoid the rocks, and the leaves are so, so green, and the browns so brown against accumulating white, everywhere, on everything…and I feel the greens, like I can see beyond my eyes, intense green against white, running, so cold. And where the hell is town…
Cresting another stone mound, it becomes obvious I just don’t remember the progression of the trail from last year, and I growl, angry, and this all seems dangerous, and we signed up for this and asked for this freaking situation by not buying the stupid water proofed gloves. Finally after a third rock pile with it’s china crunch chatter as we push past, the trail begins to drop precipitously and I catch a faint sound of traffic through the whisper sound of falling snow, and my breath that puffs and seems to sound like a steam engine, and I can feel my core temp has dropped with the temperature: things feel fuzzy, feel funny. I’m worried about Rebekah, my tough goddess who quietly flies down the trail behind me, us, together through everything, through the snow, knowing that aid has to be less than a mile now.
(Note: Rebekah shares a week after this experience that some time after the snow started I began to howl as we ran through the forest, growling cries into peppermint air; I have no recollection of this).
I clearly hear the road below us now, weird after wind in trees and snow whisper, and then we’re threading our way along the bottom of stone stairs and winding stone walk-ways with low stone walls and contrived signs with dos and don’ts, and we push out onto unnatural streets, with their strange, flat surfaces, into the middle of the lane, past the fire station, pelted by snow, and I don’t care if there are cars behind us, screw ‘em: this is our road now, we’ve earned the right. We’re doing, what, 8, 9 pace, which sounds silly-slow unless you consider this must be our 80th hour as we follow the signs and ribbons to cross highway 89 after a break in the traffic – cars, so odd, and then we cross a bridge, and aid tents are visible as we make our final push for refuge.
As we approach I see a mass of runners huddled under tents with volunteers that buzz about, everything looks so fast with my slow eyes, as heavy, wet snow hammers down, wind whipping through aid with canvas flapping like the tree branches back up the mountain. I am slow, I am dazed; where are my hands; and in answering someone’s question as we enter the enclosure, I hear myself slur my slow motion response, as if drunk. The question is: “what do you want?”, the questioner radiant with compassion. And my hopeful answer, “chicken noodle soup, two”, is greeted with “alright, I’ll be right back”. And this is the most incredible, magical thing, after all of the times I have asked for chicken noodle soup throughout this entire race, and no one has had simple, straight chicken noodle soup except for tunnel Creek, and they put that damn crunchy rice in it that wasn’t quite cooked (- sorry Tunnel!). No one but Tahoe City at mile 175 has had the real thing. And this is heaven. We plant ourselves in front of a nearly vacant heater, in stunned silence, listening to other runners talk. I hear it’s now 28 degrees, and what is the wind chill here at lake level? We are numb, shivering, soaked…and now the doubt creeps in. Someone offers Rebekah a blanket while I wave mine off as I try to stand up to be her advocate for more food. I feel stupid, eyesight dim; this is truly weird.
And the soup is amazing. I eat a second, and then a third, and Rebekah and I begin to sit up as our competitive fire starts to glow again, and we have the conversation: the forecast says more rain at lower elevations until midnight, with more snow higher up where we HAVE to go again, temps in the 20s – and with a triple climb and final summit of Ellis Peak at 8800 feet during the next 50k, things look doubtful. We are water logged, and numb, and the forecasted cold is telling us to just relax in our cozy little aid station in front of the warm heaters for the night.
It’s about 2:30 in the afternoon as we regroup and inventory our concerns: we have kids, and the forecast is dangerous for two people soaked to the skin with no real gloves; how do you recover from something like this, how to properly dry out to push forward? I don’t share with my R that the fact I have not been able to complete the new life insurance policy really bothers me – yeah, that’s where my head is; silly, right? Ray is sitting across from us and we exchange a few words as we watch him begin to go through every one of his things, drying each of them out – gloves and shoes and socks and pack and the random things we all carry, ritually preparing for the inevitable.
At first we simply watch, and I’m dumb to the obvious – or maybe in denial, as Rebekah and I exchange tentative words of encouragement, and I confess that had I finished last year’s race, had not pulled the plug, I would just pack it in right here: I’m no dummy. But it is clear that in watching Ray systematically disassemble his gear and dry it in front of the heater, steam venting off items placed just far enough away from the flame so as not to cause his gear to burst into flames, there is another possibility. And with serious and wistful intent, we vow to push back up into the high country for the final 50k. The finish is ours, if we can just keep moving…
By the time we leave I have partially melted the sole of one of my Stinsons, but my feet are nearly dry and definitely warm, and we are carrying fresh, hot pancakes. We have had coffee and soup and every warm calorie we can get our hands on, and I have six layers on and again feel like the Michelin Man in order to maintain my core temp. And we carry the burning desire: it is now that I commit again, that nothing will come between me and the finish.
The trail is a fire road at first, and it’s nearly always up or flat, rarely downward. There are one or two small snow patches, and nothing is threatening other than mist and drizzle, the forest drippy, still and quiet. We left at 5:30, and evening slowly squeezes the light out of our grey landscape. Eventually we feel the temperature drop again, and the mist becomes tiny ice crystals, fine granules that sound like sand hitting a window as it pelts my face and jacket. Darker now, with high peaks on our left, obscured by cloud and covered in snow; upward.
At some point the ground is patchy with the white stuff again, and as we push further up into endless trees we hike up on a couple of racers talking about life. Determined and concerned, still a little dazed from the rain and snow earlier, I’m not in a mood for banter, and I lead for a while as Rebekah shares story and inspiration behind. One of the guys asks what the ideal ultra is and immediately answers with a description of a run on Oahu, with gentle breezes and the warmth of humidity. HURT inevitably comes up and of course that is a perfect ultra for very few people. I chime in about running an inaugural half marathon down in Kau on the big island where I red-lined my heart rate the entire freaking race because I had never run hard in high humidity before; right now, high humidity and warmth sound good.
Patchy snow becomes contiguous, and banter cools with the temps and Rebekah leads me while the two other racers have moved ahead. At some point I am snapping pictures of the snow more than focusing on the climb, and the two guys slowly pull away. I’m warm and feeling pretty good, and there is a waterfall, and it is stunning here in our little pre-winter wonderland, with this gorgeous first snow of the year slowly covering everything. We eventually ascend into a hillside meadow, and I can see the guys a couple of hundred feet ahead, and then something clicks, and I put some motivation into it. When we pass them it is about dark and much colder, easily 20’s; they look slow and at a low. I am feeling something else entirely. My phone/camera is fogged from my body heat each time I pull it out to capture an image now, so I’m finished with it; I have no idea how cold it has to be to damage a phone; does that happen?
Climbing. The snow is deeper, the world now a lamp-lit beam spread on white ground with trees; don’t slip in other’s tracks. I have plenty of energy despite pancakes and soup by now long gone, having popped a vespa again in the decreasing frequency of fuzzy recollection-focus on energy maintenance, and it feels like I have more in the tank than I should. When we finally crest there is a small sign, one of the ubiquitous markers of this entire well-marked course, an arrow pointing, this one to the left. I look back to see a small glow of light from one of the other runner’s headlamps. The snow is all crunchy now, frozen. How cold is it? If my stupid watch weren’t dead I’d have an idea.
When do the lights go out? Whose first? Both? Rebekah digs in her pack for one of the back-up lithium ion reservoir batteries that should get us to the finish – that, really, should last an entire night, and it’s dead. And then she finds the back-up to the back-up is dead, and then another as we dig in both packs, and I stand there in increasing panic because we’re fine if we can just keep moving. But in the cold and dark…if we get stuck in the dark on icy surfaces, I’m pretty sure we’re finished, like in real trouble. And now I learn an incredibly valuable lesson as Rebekah produces our last back-up lead acid battery packs, and they work, we have light. Lithium ion batteries are crap in the cold. Thanks to Rebekah’s planning and experience – which is not so different than mine, but in this case more critically so, we are able to push past this momentarily overwhelming sense of panic to get our butts back in gear.
Rebekah and I find a guy who looks lost on the trail – standing there, in the dark, like he’s lost in space. Rebekah deals with him – I am possessed in my focus. He looks like crap, and we pull him along, which slows our progress, even as I look back for the two guys we passed on the last climb; in the back of my mind I’m worried about them: this is who we are out here, all brothers and sisters, right? At some point Rebekah shares with me that this character we picked up has asked her what the plan is for the night; maybe he’s joking, who can tell what other’s delirium might entail. It is REALLY freaking cold and dangerous after so much time on our feet and I can’t lend him anything resembling laugh or conversation as long as I know Rebekah is engaging his attention. We’ve lost the other two, and since this is a “graduate level” race, as Candice calls it, I have to trust that they know what they’re doing since they were clear headed and focused; we have to push on – others follow and they’ll be fine. The world is serene, sublime, in crunch crunch descent. Time – snow finally thins, then we are moving more safely on wet ground again out of the higher elevations, and we cut our space man acquaintance loose and wish him well. We pick it up to run a little, and then we enter the world of the lake.
Lake level is strange. We are delirious after, I don’t know anymore..86, 87 hours? Although it is cold, our continuous forward motion blunts the drag by way of the furnace as we shovel calories to the fire for food energy. I mostly want to walk as these roads make no sense: why would anyone lay an eternal runway of unnatural asphalt on the ground for a car when they can just run? Opulent gates and fences juxtapose tormented trees and bushes shaped to meet the needs of unnatural perspective, with nature’s perfection chopped from the landscape to force flora spheres and squares, while monstrous luxury homes lurk behind. This all lends a sense of emptiness and a lack of moral code as we process an alien environment with consumerist lenses ripped from our eyes somewhere along our journey; I now see the world naturally, as it should be. We comment, mostly in pity at whoever feels the need to waste such resources on vacant aspirations: this feels like Incline Village minus its bulldog construction crew and sock puppet rent-a-cop.
The fences along the lake to our left are backstopped by shaped hedges and right-angles and homogeneously boring constructions: houses. A car flies by at incredible speed and I wonder about the speed limit. Now there is the restroom: as we approach I remember last year, when I left my poles inside after coming from the opposite direction and I had to run the half mile back to grab them, adding 1 to what should have been 205 had I finished; so many mindless mistakes last year. The restroom is weird after so long in the wilderness – a cavernous tomb, awkward. Two racers pass as we get moving again. Wherever we go, there we are…..
We eventually push up into a neighborhood, our perspectives now adjusted to better understand the environment of civilization in context. I am reminded of the time I did a day-long group sit at Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, where I focused into meditation to the point where over hours I seemed to step outside of time: first we listened as we learned to immerse ourselves into new-found focus and perspective, and then suddenly I was startled back to the then-present to learn that 8 hours had passed in roughly, two hours? That afternoon, when I entered the roadway to go home in total relaxation, I suddenly found I was driving at only 20 MPH as cars began to pile up behind me in irritation, and that incredible perspective was gone, leaving me a sense of longing nearly immediately. Now though my longing is for the wilderness.
The surface streets end, and we are now on a dirt road, then a trail, and as we start our modest push back up into the mountains, another memory returns from last year, of running from the opposite direction down from the mountains and onto those same surface streets in the same neighborhood, and the circle, on this last push feels nearly complete.
The trail is super pleasant after we are away from the right angles and hard pavement. All is soft and easy on our bodies and eyes, the vegetation perfectly green and lush and growing in pleasing shapes and ways – that is to say: naturally. I am weirdly drawn, after so much effort and with the finish now within reach, to just sitting down and breathing it all in; I am in love with this little place. This feeling lasts until things begin to shift again to phantom sounds and echos that aren’t there, and I begin to feel other racers behind, who never materialize each time I turn to look, and now it’s back to the hallucination show. Each of these perceptions arrive as waves of increasing frequency, and I don’t share any of this with Rebekah. I know she has her own exhausted brain chemistry to deal with.
There are streets again, I think, the pleasant place gone now; maybe it’s just a road. Foggy, unclear. I ask if Rebekah has eaten – this is clear. She responds that she has, and then at some point it’s Stephen Jones aid.
I can’t tell you what Stephen Jones aid station comprises any more than to say that runners are huddled in the back of a Ryder truck with the door opened, that there is a gas heater that offers incredible, inviting warmth, and there is more hot soup that comes from another place, probably a tent. The heater draws us like moths to flame. Rebekah tells me this is dangerous and we can’t stay here for fear of not leaving: I picture the place like a kind of black hole that will pull us into something we will never escape from. It is cold out again, us no longer moving and impervious to it now that we have stopped to eat in the heated truck, and we begin to get loopy in the warmth. For me, things move in waves, and as I climb back in and out of the black hole truck to bring Rebekah more soup I almost fall out onto the ground in a big puddle. This whole thing feels funny; refuge in a Ryder truck.
We have ten miles left.
When we leave I am not me, I am instinct: the path I run lights up in flames. Rebekah, my love, my world, makes sense when we speak but I think she’s on impulse power. We climb up the road and away from the gravity well of aid, resigned to the hard work with a fuzzy sense of confidence: this is it, we are going home.
The trek becomes a climb after some rollers, and then it becomes something else – relentless, forever. And then it begins to feel unfair, like punishment, and I thank Candice for the opportunity. My warped conscious mind offers enough clarity to remind myself that the universe doesn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about what I think, that luck is the residue of design and the million random choices, and why the F would anyone make the end of a 200 miler easy, and that it’s just up to us; it’s all up to us. Rebekah is really working hard now, and I pull her along by my lead, by coaxing and commiseration. My love tells me she recognizes this whole climb, then I think she doesn’t recognize it as it becomes more extreme; I have no idea where we are or when it will end. I eat a gel and a bar and a block, all long ago turned to dust, and everything is weird now, because after everything – the days and nights and the crazy visions of men in black who pierce my soul from the trees with their eyeless gaze and the inspiration and infinite sock changes and exponential love and sleep walking, I feel no effort; this 2500 foot climb is nothing to me. I focus on that each time I stop to wait for my love to join me in her endless push up this ridiculous mountain; baby are you eating? Love, drink. She forces a gel, and then she just tells me NO when I prompt her to eat again, and I step back – I know she feels every step, she is in her cave, and I can only knock on the door and ask her to come out. She is her own woman, beastly with her own effort and stubbornness that has served her well enough that she freaking RAN to the finish last year, and she infinitely inspires me with respect in this weird sport we love with such passion.
Up, insultingly so. Through the mantra of one foot then the other my world is a reality where everything is fragmented and falling into place, then out of place, like Tetris, and this is surreal but normal. I hike with colors and movement vibrating in the dark and that I ignore as the half-truths of sleep deprivation, and I pull Rebekah up and over endless false summits as I ask where we are even though I know we are on the right track. At some point we are in a flatter area, paved, a parking lot, then back into more single track in the snow, following the trampled ice path left by all before us. Up, past that edge of space I consider the real beginning of the race below the summit of Ellis Peak, which is now a completely different world from my race start, that cliff edge I ran so perilously close to last year as Rebekah scolded me back onto the trail. This is now a different planet:
We finally drop down a little after the forever climb, and the place is alien, truly Winter, with snow covered trees, which leaves me with a feeling of needing snow shoes. We try to trot, then hike again, and then we’re descending into the managed forest of the outer reaches of Homewood ski resort, rolling fire roads, down, down, and there are ski lifts that look like the old sky ride at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz with the Flintstones theme from back in the day that I remember as a kid. Funny; the odd recollections of hazy delirium. At some point there is confusion, and I pull Rebekah back on track from a wrong turn at a junction, and then someone is whistling, first in the distance, then nearby, and the first person in hours is suddenly there looking for a lost runner. He tells us the Spot Tracker system indicates a runner is lost somewhere near the finish. I recognize none of the area after all we’ve been through to Mars and back, the down which now seems infinitely steeper than that climb up from the start only 4 days ago, and then there are lights below, a runway to the finish, a city in space…..
We cross. Howie Stern is there with a camera, his wolves resting nearby, lying motionless, impervious to the cold. A picture? Awkward, pose: smile. Weird. At the end of four lifetimes, four days spent pushing through the wilderness of the Tahoe National Forest, and of our minds, through towns and the full range of seasons – from the Spring of start to a finish in Winter, Rebekah and I are where we’re supposed to be.