[one hour post-finish]
tamarack lodge, tahoe city
I sat shivering on the cold floor of the shower hugging my knees close to my chest as I watched the dust that had clung tightly to my legs for days soak, transform to a dark brown, and trickle in rushed, disorganized patterns down my legs until finally making its way down the drain. Tears mimicked similar haphazard movements as they streamed down my face. Tears of relief, accomplishment, pain, and loss. If I could've stood up on my own in that moment, I would've turned off the water and taken a few extra moments to remain hidden, protected, under my dusty disguise.
In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself feeling exposed and vulnerable. I clung tightly to the experience, the memories, the mountains, the lake, the people, even the pain, as I started to mentally unpack and organize the events that occurred over the course of 200 miles...
tahoe city to pre-race happenings at homewood resort
J and I woke up and checked the time. When we realized we had ample time to seek out a good spot to view our first sunrise over Lake Tahoe, we excitedly hurried down to the docks to take in a spectacular view of the sun rising slowly over the pristine alpine lake. The mountains that surrounded the lake were stunningly beautiful. The idea of running around the lake in that moment felt both energizing and overwhelming.
Sensing my nervous energy and need to stay preoccupied, J suggested a short hike up to Eagle Rock, an eroded, dormant volcano that offered spectacular panoramic views of the lake. That's a big lake. I have to run around that big lake. I have four days. This is going to be amazing. This is impossible. Those mountains are so beautiful. That's such a big lake.
Our view from Eagle Rock.
Pre-race happenings are cumbersome and distressing to me. An introvert through and through, the process and sheer volume of people and information feel paralyzing and overwhelming. I find myself existing during those protracted moments in a place of separateness. I'm only physically where I need to be. My mind has turned inward and the noise around me is reduced to a distant hum as my thoughts dance and somersault around in a chaotic, uncoordinated rhythm: I bet she is good at these, she looks like she is way better at these than me, I have never seen that kind of shoe before, those are cool shorts, I wonder if I brought the right shoes, I should've brought more shorts, I wonder if this was a bad idea, of course this was a bad idea, I haven't trained, my hip feels tight, 200 miles is really far, it's only 40 miles farther than Tuscobia, nothing can be as bad as Tuscobia, I'm going to buy another hat, I should've tried Tailwind before racing with Tailwind. Apart from the amount I accidentally ingested while portioning it for the race, I had never tried Tailwind, just heard good things.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Race check-in mugshot. [📷 Scott Rokis] Pre-race briefing and packet pick-up. [📷 Jared VanderHook]
We escaped the frenzied cloud of nervous excitement relatively unscathed and retreated back to Tahoe City. After an impulse bottle of wine (whoops) and sensible spaghetti (duh, carbs... running) dinner, I over-packed a pack I had worn once or twice to the gym, added five pounds of "just in case" stuff for good measure, and crossed my fingers it wouldn't chafe.
I laid wide awake with a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach listening to the hustle and bustle of the city until it was time to get up.
race start to sierra at tahoe
With a 9:00 am race start, J and I had plenty of time to get up, make some final adjustments to gear, eat an inappropriately large breakfast, catch another great sunrise, and sit around and get really f#*%ing nervous. Today the idea of running around the lake for the next four days made me want to throw up. I tried not to think about it.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Breakfast and start line. [📷 Jared VanderHook] FAR RIGHT: Ascending first climb and Emerald Bay. [📷 Scott Rokis]
The race started with a 2,000' ascent straight up to Ellis Peak. It ended with a descent straight down the same mountain. It was humorous at the start, excruciatingly cruel at the finish. Luis Escobar gave a quick pre-race talk inspired by Caballo Blanco, and just like that, we were on our way. It was a beautiful morning and the collective energy of the group kept me eagerly moving down the trail.
It did not take long for the thing to happen. You know the thing... that amazing thing... when the noise of everyday existence begins to fade, you feel comfortable in yourself and in your surroundings, and your mind is quiet, focused, and present. I saw J at mile 7 and then settled back into my surroundings; I wouldn't see him again until mile 62. Everything felt good.
I got to know Dennis over the course of a few of the early miles; a 200 mile veteran, he was one of those cool people who seemed to just show up and gracefully and methodically gets himself through these things without overthinking or overcomplicating them. We saw one another on and off over the course of the race. Dennis patiently waited at the last aid station to time his final ascent with the sunrise.
I chatted with Luis about some of his recent and upcoming adventures as we headed out into the night. I was grateful for the company and conversation. When I asked him why he was out here, his reply was "I just need to see if I can do it, you know?" We were on a similar journey. We chatted about his crew, Scott, Jenny, and their little one, Raven. I got to spend some time out of the course with all of them, what amazing and kind human beings.
Early sections of the course follow the Rubicon Trail, a rough 4x4 trail near South Lake Tahoe. I encountered much of this section overnight, and was met by what seemed like dozens (likely no more than five) of off-road vehicles slowly crawling and hopping over huge boulders. Each was occupied by friendly, Bud Light-drinking locals eager to offer a beer, tell me I was crazy, and wish me well.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Hail and smiles on day 1. [📷 Jared VanderHook] FAR LEFT: Coming into the first aid station. [📷 Howie Stern]
Despite getting lost for a few hours, an afternoon of cold, heavy rain and storms, and sleepwalking through the night, day 1 was a really good day.
sierra at tahoe to heavenly
The Sierra at Tahoe aid station was a welcome sight for sleepy eyes and sore feet. Sometimes the overnights during these things feel really arduous and long. Much to my dismay, the first overnight felt really arduous and long. I watched the sun fade from the sky, added a couple extra layers to counter the dropping temperature and my slowed pace, tried not to glance at my watch only to find 15 minutes had passed since the last time I glanced at my watch, and settled into a sleepy shuffle. Eventually I began to detect a faint light on the horizon signaling the start of another day.
J greeted me with a big hug and his handsome smile, and got to work undoing the damage from varying levels of self-neglect that he was able to quickly detect. He refilled my bottles, got me caught up on nutrition, swapped out layers, changed batteries, and almost as soon as I sat down prepared me with a plan for standing up again. "Let's try to get you back out of here within an hour". Early in the race, I mumbled "yeah, ok sure, maybe" and continued to stall and waste time. Later, this gently urging was met with a dramatically tearful full body slump in/on/over whatever structure was propping me up and an "I can't do it". I was a real handful throughout much of the race.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Stalling at the Sierra at Tahoe. [📷 Jared VanderHook] FAR RIGHT: Fleeting moments of finding flow. [📷 Scott Rokis]
After some expert foot care from Todd, an hour of sleep, and a change of socks, I was feeling surprisingly refreshed. J sent me back out onto the trail. I was energized and happy. An hour later, I found myself getting sleepy. It is too early to feel this tired. I am just going to stand here and sleep for a minute. Then I will be fine. I took a few more steps down the trail. I am going to sit down and sleep for one minute. Then I will be fine. My feet really hurt. I am so sleepy. Three nights. You can make it through three nights.
I floated through day 2, drifting in and out of a sleepy haze. I think J paced me for a few miles (I should check Strava) and I am sure it was nice if he did. I think climbing Armstrong Pass overnight involved a series of long, gradual switchbacks across a dark silhouette of a mountain. I know that every time I saw a peak and thought to myself I hope we don't have to go up that, we went up it. I think this is the point in the race when I started to identify headlamps miles ahead and impossibly high in the sky. I know this was followed by a commitment to avoid looking very far ahead or very far up at night. I think this is one of the locations where Howie, Joey, Miki, and Scott were out on the trail shooting night photos. I know I was grateful for their presence; encountering them along the trail meant I was still on course. After being lost on day 1, this reassurance was appreciated. More than that, I was grateful for their dedication to the race, the racers, and their work. They were shooting day and night, through the heat and storms, expertly capturing fleeting moments and raw emotions with authenticity and honesty.
￼Eventually the trail opened up and a faint line of lights from the opposite side of the lake became visible. Almost to Heavenly. Heavenly aid station was at mile 102. Being at the halfway point of a 200+ mile race evoked mixed emotions. The idea of having 100 miles behind me felt rewarding; the idea of doing 100 more miles felt stupid.
The descent into the aid station felt like it took hours. I think it did. The descents were wrecking havoc on my already tender, torn up feet. With each passing mile, more blisters formed and the tape that protected earlier wounds began to shift and twist and cut into the sides of my feet. I am so tired. I jerked awake to find myself standing slumped over my trekking poles in the middle of the trail. "2,000 more f#*%ing more feet of this" a runner grumbled as he sleepily shuffled by. At this soul-crushing announcement, I dropped my poles to the ground and laid face-down on the side of the trail. Everything hurts. I am so uncomfortable. I can't do three nights of this.
heavenly to tunnel creek
Once at Heavenly, I convinced J to let me sleep for two hours instead of one after he strongly encouraged me to sleep for only one. I think I was convincing. Or annoying enough to wear him down. Turns out two hours was one hour too long to sleep. Real or imagined, my body started to go into a state of repair. My body started to swell and things that normally bend simply did not bend. Should have only slept an hour. Darn. After physically extracting me from my sleeping bag then prying it out of my grip, J put me back together, gave me a big hug, and wished me well as I simultaneously told him all of the reasons I think I need to drop. Soon I was climbing my way back out of the aid station.
The next aid station was over 20 miles away. It would take most of the day to get there. Early in the race when I started to feel fatigued, I started reciting Communist Daughter's Soundtrack to the End lyrics. It provided a soundtrack to my plight that was conveniently melodramatic and ironic. It became my race mantra. Just push though. Make your muscles move.
Spooner Summit offered a beautiful view. The course climbed up and over mountains on the east side of Lake Tahoe, remaining close enough to view the lake throughout much of the day. Being able to look across to where I started was energizing. I took my shoes off and looked at my feet at the Spooner Summit aid station. They looked worse than they felt. Which made them feel worse. I decided not to look at my feet again. J came out to pace me for a few miles. I was grateful to have him out on the trail with me. His energy and enthusiasm made me forget how miserable and broken I felt. We eagerly climbed until we had an incredible view of the lake.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Day 3 highs and lows. [📷 Jared VanderHook] FAR RIGHT: Spooner Summit. [📷 Howie Stern]
￼I am done. I can't do this. I just need to get to the next aid station. I am going to tell J that I need to be done. He is going to be disappointed. He will understand. He is going to make me sit down and think about it. I don't need time to think about it. I know I can't do it. Every step of the 2,000'+ descent into the Tunnel Creek aid station made me wince in pain. I could feel blisters filling the space between each of my toes and what seemed like any millimeter of extra space between by foot and my shoe. I closed my eyes tightly, took a deep breath, held it, and began to quicken my pace down the steep descent. I need to get this over with. The rocky uneven terrain made that impossible given the condition of my feet. I was reduced back to a slow, unsteady walk. I am going to tell J that I need to be done.
When I finally turned a corner and saw J eagerly waiting for me with a big smile and all of my gear, I broke down. He is going to be disappointed. He has already done so much to get me to this point and now I am failing myself and failing him. I can't do it. He will understand. I am in so much pain. I am so miserable. I began to inform him of my intent to quit, that this time I meant it. I was completely defeated and had nothing left. I could not go on. He listened patiently as he began to unpack and reorganize my pack.
Soon I was back out on the trail, heading into (what I incorrectly assumed was) my final night. I made my way along a bike path that offered glimpses into elaborate lodge-style homes. Even protected by the darkness of the overnight, I felt exposed and out of place. I walked along quietly and tried not to think about my feet. Luis and Scott came hurrying by with renewed energy and invited me to run with them. I fell back and busied myself adjusting layers to create distance and opted for solitude. I haven't ran a step of this race. I am not going to start now. I wish I could. I could get this over with much faster.
After scrambling up the infamous power lines section of the course, sleep deprivation began to take its toll. The trail slowly came to life as my senses were overtaken and overwhelmed by hallucinations. That pine cone is huge. It's the size of a couch. That pine cone is not that huge. That's not a pine cone. There was nothing there. Another giant toad. Another snake under the leaves. My heart raced and I stumbled as I repeatedly took over-exaggerated steps over creatures and objects that were not there. Is someone calling out for help? I can hear someone laughing. Are they laughing at me? It became too much. I stopped over and over again to blink the images away and talked to myself in an attempt to overwrite the phantom sounds that I was hearing. I shuffled forward into the night. Just one more night. Just get through tonight.
Oh good a course marker. My headlight reflected off a marker. Wait, that looks different. Eyes. Oh, a deer. It will move off the trail. I took a couple more steps toward two eyes intently meeting my gaze only 20' away. It did not move. Odd. I clicked my light onto a higher beam. Oh! A bear. I should take a picture. That is dumb, you don't have time. You will scare it. She didn't move. I took a step forward. So did she. I stopped. I took a step backward. She took a step forward. I took two more steps backward. She took two more steps forward. Huh. It occurred to me that I had no idea what to do next. Don't run. Look big? Don't turn your back? Yell? I immediately regret thinking that runner I passed today with the bear bell was silly. I managed to squeak out a "go away bear". That didn't work. My heart was pounding as she continued to escort me backwards down her trail. Well shit. People. There are more people behind me. I need to wait for them. I stepped off the trail and into the bushes, hoping not to see her follow. I slowly backed down the trail trying to remain out of sight.
Soon I was joined by other runners. We walked together past where the bear had been and talked and made plenty of noise. We heard rustling in the bushes and our lights caught three sets of eyes: a bear and her two cubs. I was wide awake the rest of the night. This was her trail, her home, her family. I was an intruder. It made me feel guilty and resentful. I struggle with my need for nature,knowing it very well does not need me as much as I need it.
Previous to the race I heard Candice refer to the participants in the race as an organism that moves through the woods, up and over mountains, as one. Every time I stopped to make adjustments, sleep, lay on the ground, or encountered a bear, a fellow runner would stop to make sure I was ok, literally offer me clothing off their back, food, and encouragement. They would invite me to join them or offer to wait with me. It was selfless support unlike anything I had ever experienced during an event. It was really cool.
no clue to it's not like it really matters
I left the Brockway aid station feeling completely depleted.￼ For having slept at pretty much every aid station since mile 64, I had nothing to show. J excitedly reassured me, "today you will be in Tahoe City. Just get to Tahoe City then you are almost there A. You are almost to the finish". Just get to Tahoe City. As the day wore on, my legs swelled to a size and form unrecognizable to me. I was self-conscious and embarrassed and quickly became distressed about the underlying cause. I fixated on this new distraction to the point of near panic. Sit down. Slow down. Breathe. You are fine. Then Katie showed up and encouraged me to walk with her. Her timing was perfect. Katie was another one of those really amazing people who just showed up and persevered, no matter how tough things got. She is on her way to completing the Triple Crown. Katie is badass and her presence quickly alleviated my agitated state, completely unbeknownst to her.
Anyone within twenty feet of me could and likely did hear my pathetic whimpering as I made the final descent into Tahoe City. I have to get off my feet. I have to be done. I am so relieved I do not have to be out here another night. I couldn't get through another night. Back in a busy town, I again felt exposed and out of place: waiting at busy intersections, dodging people on sidewalks. After days of solitude, my senses were overwhelmed. In a familiar way. In an intrusive way. I returned inquisitive glances with a blank, empty stare. Similar to every other aid station on the course, I mentally began to anticipate its appearance way too soon. And found myself desperately willing it to appear around every corner.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Day 4 lows. [📷 Jared VanderHook] FAR RIGHT: Feeling the feels at the Tahoe City aid station. [📷 Howie Stern]
I sat the the Tahoe City aid station, completely deflated at the news of having to be out another night. J gave me a puzzled (but not that puzzled because he knows I suck at mental math) look when I shared how relieved I was that I did not have to go through another night. At 6:00 PM. With 25 miles left. I really thought I would have this thing wrapped up by Monday.
Normally, I am perpetually wishing myself out of the monotony of the every day, trying to find ways to separate myself from a passive existence in a world full of customs and traditions designed for someone else, by someone else. As I sat at the busy Tahoe City aid station, I could not help but wish myself back into that banal existence. I watched with envy as people walked by in clean clothing, with dry feet, out exploring the city or taking their lunch break with no other obligation but to find a new spot for dinner, check into their hotels, or go back to their desks and finish out their 8-hour work day. The familiarity, however discouraging and mundane, was alluring in that moment. Some claim that many of us in this sport simply trade one addiction for another. In many ways I don't disagree. But which is worse? An addiction to feeling? Or an addiction to sensory-numbing comfort and routine? In that moment I felt desperate to feel the latter. You don't have the energy to think about things like this. Quit resenting an experience that you agreed to fully accept. One that you have been anticipating for over a year. You are fine. Go.
The sky had been slowly filling with dark, puffy clouds all day, the kind of clouds that promise a lively afternoon. As I reluctantly propelled myself into my fourth and final night, My surroundings lit up with sharp flashes of lightning. That is close. One... two... three... four... My counting was interrupted by a startlingly loud clap of thunder that echoed off of the surrounding mountains. Within seconds, the sky released a cold, torrential downpour and the mountain in front of me was engulfed in the violent storm. I scrambled to take cover under a large group of trees and quickly put on my rain gear. When the lightning ceased, I began to make my way to the summit, my thoughts muffled by the constant rumbling of thunder; my aches and pains were masked by a numbing cold, steady rain. You have to keep moving.
Jeff and Alex were nearby; their perseverance and resolve willed me forward as we climbed. As we neared the summit, a spectacular light show was visible as lightning flashed in the distance. The rain finally stopped and my eyes grew heavy as I made my way down another long, technical descent. Just get off this mountain. I jerked awake moments later after coming to a stop leaned up against a tree. Alex suddenly appeared, singing and skipping over rocks as he rushed past me: "I've never tried caffeine pills, this is wonderful". Minutes prior I passed him asleep on the side of the trail. I took a caffeine pill. I willed it to affect me in a similar way. Moments later I woke up on the side of the trail.
I had imagined getting to the bike path along W Lake Blvd since the day before the race. I imagined looking back across the lake that I had only days been on the other side of. I imagined feeling small. I anticipated feeling accomplished, and relieved that I was so close to the finish. Another round of cold, torrential rain greeted me at the bike path. I looked back across the lake as lightning drew long, crooked lines straight down to the tops of peaks I had climbed miles and miles ago. Loud cracks of thunder exploded and faded into distant growls, shaking my nerves and my immediate surroundings. I closed my eyes as I waded down the flooded path. I am so cold. Everything is soaked. Everything hurts. This is awful.
J and I hurried to a nearby park bathroom where I collapsed into a soggy, sobbing pile on a really disgusting cement floor. For nearly an hour, I cried myself to sleep, woke up confused and disoriented, and then cried myself back to sleep. I made a feeble attempt to suggest that I drop out of the race and unsuccessfully tried to convince J that I was experiencing a level of misery that he would never be able to understand and that I would not regret quitting, that I gave it everything I had and that I would be ok with that.
Soon we were on our way to the final aid station.
stephen jones to the finish
As we approached the final aid station, I assured J that I would refill water and get in and out as quickly as possible. Never has a commitment been broken so quickly. I refilled my water. Then I pretended I was hungry. Then I pretended I couldn't decide what I wanted. Then I pretended I needed to adjust my shoe and proceeded to make pretend adjustments to my shoe. The warmth lured me in. I looked around and saw the silhouettes of tired runners wrapped up in warm blankets next to heaters. "Ready to go?" I pretended not to hear.
Making our way down the final descent to the finish. [📷 Jared VanderHook]
You know how you get to that point in a race or training run, whether it is the last mile, the halfway point, or some other measure of progress, and it energizes and motivates you to move forward with renewed energy and purpose? That didn't happen. Not even once. Not at the halfway point, not at three-quarters, not even during the last mile. Ok fine, maybe I had a fleeting moment of it at mile 204.5. It didn't last.
￼I would love to be able to report that in the final miles of the race, I was so overwhelmed by feelings of relief, joy, and accomplishment that nothing else mattered and I floated effortlessly and gracefully to the finish. That didn't happen. Instead, every last step in those final miles was met with excruciating pain. The only thing propelling me forward was the promise of getting off of the steep, rough, uneven terrain. Eventually, the finish was within sight.
The finish line. [📷 Howie Stern]
As J escorted me to the finish, I could not help but notice the huge grin on his face. His excitement was palpable. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for what he had just done for me. His commitment to something he knew was incredibly important to me, his kindness and patience when I was at my worst, his calming guidance, his genuine excitement to share the experience, the gift of his complete and true emotional and physical presence. It was a gift unlike anything I had ever been given. It is a gift I will always cherish.
The Tahoe 200 Mile Endurance Run was both exactly and nothing that I expected it to be. It was stunningly beautiful, relentless, excruciatingly painful, overwhelming, so wonderful, and downright awful. It took everything I had. Everything that was lost (apart from skin off the top, bottom, and sides of my feet) was replaced: my impatience was replaced with steadiness, my discomfort with ease, my fear of the unknown and with acceptance, my self-doubt with trust, and my fear with calm. As a result, I have an even deeper appreciation and respect for the people and places that make these rare opportunities of alternate existence and growth possible.
￼Running does not singularly define who and what I am. I tried that for awhile back in the 90's. It didn't end well. It does, however, allow me to intimately explore the world in my own way, at my own pace; to make mistakes; to let my guard down and look like a fool without judgement; to completely let go and be free. On this particular journey, I got to experience freedom as I never have before. I cannot wait to do it again.
[one day post-race]
tamarack lodge to boise
On Wednesday we reluctantly left Tahoe City. We traveled all day en route to our next adventure and I swelled. And swelled. Until I think I could not possibly swell anymore. It didn't matter. I was in love. With the lake, the mountains, and the experience I shared with a beautiful human being by my side. I floated for days... until the parasite got me. That shit will ruin anyone's good mood.
Things I will bring to my next 200 mile race that I forgot this time:
My trekking pole game. Because this could have been avoided.
A blister prevention plan. Because this was gross.
I think that's it.