Tahoe Rim Trail 100: A Glimpse of Heaven, a Taste of Hell

Let this hell be our heaven.
— Richard Matheson
Around mile 40 (photo by Facchino Photography).

Around mile 40 (photo by Facchino Photography).

 A friend once told me that he couldn’t wait for the day when I wrote a race report about a 100-miler where nothing went wrong. To that, I say that such a race report is either untruthful or uninteresting. Too many things can happen over the course of running 100 miles through the mountains to ever hope that nothing will go wrong. We train. We prepare. We run. We eat. We problem solve. Things still go wrong. It is the process of working through those difficulties and taking one more step, even when everything seems hopeless, that makes us the runners we are and the finish lines rewarding. On that note, this will not be a race report about running 100 miles; it will be one about running 12.5 miles at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, because a race report about 89 perfect miles just isn’t interesting.

It had already been dark for several hours as I sat in a chair at the Tunnel Creek aid station (mile 67.5), chilled and tired from my second pass through the Red House Loop and battling GI issues. I watched runner after runner go into the medical tent and not come back out as I slowly ate some potato chips and tried to keep myself from falling into the dark hole I could feel myself entering. I thought about what lie ahead (because TRT 100 is a two-loop course, I had already seen everything once) and, while I never considered dropping, I couldn’t fathom how I would continue.

Around mile 56  (photo by Colleen Powers).

Around mile 56  (photo by Colleen Powers).

"You need to stay warm," I thought, as I slowly put on layers, first a jacket, then a buff, then mittens with chemical hand warmers. I stared down at my feet. "Are you okay?" asked my pacer, Colleen. We had already been at that aid station at least 8-10 minutes. "I’m tired and I feel like crap," I said. "Nothing that everyone else around me doesn’t feel too." I kept staring at my feet as though doing so would miraculously give them the energy necessary to start running again. As I looked up, I saw Ann Trason enter the medical tent with a runner she was pacing. Ann Trason, whose tenacity, strength, and will have always made her an inspiring person to me. At that moment, I knew that no amount of sitting or eating or thinking was going to solve my problems. I had done what I could do during that moment of my race. What I needed to do now was get up and keep pushing, to find some strength, no matter how long it took and no matter how hard it was.

I stood from the chair and I entered the medical tent, which, as anyone who has crewed me will attest, I never do. In my mind, entering a medical tent often means never leaving the aid station, and I don’t want to give myself that option. I walked up to Ann Trason: "You don’t know me," I said, "but seeing you gave me the motivation to get out of that chair." We chatted for a minute as her runner sat with the medical staff. As I started to leave, she hugged me, which gave me in mental fortitude what I currently lacked in physical strength, and I left Tunnel Creek, running back into the night.

The next 5 miles consisted of a steady climb toward the Diamond Peak aid station. My spirits were still good, but I was fading. I was three weeks out from finishing Western States and I had never been so tired in my life. I had to stop several times along the trail, leaning against the granite boulders, just to catch my breath and bring myself back to center after listing from side to side (almost off) the trail. Colleen tried to talk to me, but even conversation couldn’t keep me awake. By the time we reached the Bullwheel aid station at ~72, the wind had picked up significantly and I was getting cold, so Colleen and I stopped under the tent to take shelter for a few minutes. It was during this time that I discovered my love for Goldfish crackers. Apparently, when my GI gives out and my stomach isn’t cooperating, Goldfish crackers are the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. As I sat with a mixing bowl of crackers in my lap, Colleen looked at her phone. "I wasn't sure if I should tell you this," she said, "but you’re listed as a DNF." All sleepiness subsided at that instant, and I was simultaneously livid and defeated. "What do you mean I’m listed as a DNF? I didn’t quit. I’ve never come close to quitting! I checked in at every single aid station!" I looked over at the kid who was singlehandedly manning the aid station overnight: "Did you get my bib number? I am here. I didn't quit." He acknowledged my number and told me he noted it as Colleen assured me that my next pacer, Kari, was already trying to resolve the situation. Then it occurred to me that everyone at home who was following along probably also thought I had dropped. I asked Colleen to send a message to a friend that I was okay and still on course. After she sent the message, we continued the climb to the Diamond Peak.

Around mile 60 (photo by Colleen Powers).

Around mile 60 (photo by Colleen Powers).

Not long after leaving Bullwheel, I started to get tired once again. The flood of emotion after hearing I was listed as a DNF took the last of my energy and I was relegated to a death march. Uphill or down, it didn’t matter. I was death marching to Diamond Peak and I still had 8 miles to go. After a half mile, Colleen tried to motivate me by telling me how close we were to the aid station. I hunched over: "It feels so far away," I said. "and I have no idea how I'm going to make that climb again." "You can't think about that right now," Colleen said. "You need to think about getting to Diamond Peak. These are probably going to be 7 of the hardest miles you've ever covered, but you're going to have to get through them."

Death marching from exhaustion, I started to get really cold. Entering this race, my predisposition to hypothermia was always my greatest concern, so I knew I needed to do something about the chill quickly; I was just moving too slowly to get my body temperature back up, despite all of the layers I was already wearing. So, I wrapped myself in Colleen’s shiny gold emergency blanket and continued my death march, the blanket blowing and making a crunching sound in the wind as runner after runner passed me, disappearing into the darkness. A death march. I was relegated to the death march that I swore wouldn’t happen again. I was so disappointed in myself. I knew I would pull out of it (I had to), but it was everything I could do just to push forward, let alone see to the other side I knew I’d eventually reach. 

Kari and me at the top of Diamond Peak, mile ~82.

Kari and me at the top of Diamond Peak, mile ~82.

Colleen was right. Those 7 miles were some of the most difficult I've ever covered, not because the terrain was technical (although it was) or because it was cold and windy and I was having trouble breathing (all of those things were issues), but because I was so depleted and unimaginably tired. As we approached the Diamond Peak aid station after what seemed like an entire night, it occurred to both Colleen and me that I had not eaten in at least 3 hours. It was an inexcusable mistake on my part, but one I had made nonetheless. I told Colleen I was going to stay at that aid station until the sun came up. "I need to pull my shit together mentally if I'm going to be able to do that climb again, I said." We walked into the aid station and saw Kari, who would be my next pacer. She wrapped her arms around me and asked what I needed. "A new body and a better attitude," I said. "She needs food," Colleen said. The two of them sat me down, still wrapped in the emergency blanket. Kari brought me a plain pancake, which was a welcome change from the Gu and PB&J I'd been eating for hours. I asked for another, this time dripping in syrup. I inhaled that one too. Then I looked around me to see runners everywhere lying down, some getting medical attention and some sleeping. "I'm going to lie down for 15 minutes," I said. "No more than 15 minutes, though. I need to finish this." Kari nodded and agreed to set a timer. I took the emergency blanket to a corner of the room and lied down next to the other runners. Fifteen minutes later, Kari tapped me on the shoulder: "It's time to go," she said. As I sat up, Colleen kneeled down next to me and gave me a hug. I thanked her for getting me to that point and I started to stand. 

Kari and I checked out of the aid station and began to make the climb up Diamond Peak. "I need to finish this race," I said. "I have to finish." "You will," she said. "You have 11 hours to cover 22 miles." It seemed both like a world of time and like not enough. We began the two-mile climb up Diamond Peak, which, surprisingly, felt better at mile 80 than it did at mile 30. On my first loop, it took 57 minutes, so I expected it to take me somewhere around 1:15-1:20 on the second loop. To my surprise, it took 47 minutes and I felt amazing. I was tired, but I was not in pain, and I had energy. When we reached the top of the climb, runners were cheering, no doubt because they, too, had no idea how they were going to complete that climb again. I looked back at the beautiful view, and then I kneeled down to retie my shoes, ate a Gu, and looked at Kari: "I'm ready to run now," I said. From there and for the next ~20 miles, I ran my way to the finish line at Spooner Lake, feeling just as strong as I did when I started the race.

Tahoe was not a perfect race for me and to say that it was would be untrue. I was tired in a way I could never have imagined and I had GI issues. I felt defeated by the inaccuracy of the race tracking and I spent a good 7 miles death marching with an emergency blanket wrapped around me. But, I also had 89 amazingly good, strong miles in a breathtaking place (both literally and figuratively) that holds a special place in my heart as one that was dear to my father. For that and for the amazing support I had both from race volunteers and new friends, I am incredibly grateful. They say that TRT 100 is "a glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell." It is true, and to that end, I say that we cannot experience one without the other.