It has taken me a while to get around to finishing off this recap of my experiences at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run (TRT100). The race was supposed to be my main event in 2015. Unfortunately, it turned out to be my first DNF in a 100-miler. Only my second DNF in any a very long list of races that comes with running for 20+ years! When running 100 miles, it only takes one thing going wrong to end the day early. I would be lying if I said my motivation was not affected by this DNF. I have now come to a point where, while I am disappointed coming up without the finish, it is what it is, and as always I learned a great deal from the experience.
Spooner Lake Start Line
On race morning, I was loaded onto a shuttle bus outside of the hotel at 3:30 AM with other runners. Then, we were transported up to the start line area at Spooner Lake State Park. We arrived at the start line area about an hour before the scheduled 5:00 AM race start. I don’t like hanging around for this much time, and there was a chill in the air. Thus, making it harder to bare the wait to the start. Thankfully, I had bought a cheap sweatshirt and sweatpants from Wal-Mart a couple of days before. I may have looked like a Navy cadet, but at least I was warm.
I chatted with the runners that were hanging out around me in the chairs next to Spooner Lake. Then, with about 20-minutes before race start, I headed back up the hill to leave my sweats at the start line drop bag location and make one last stop at the bathroom.
At the outset of the race, my goal was to be very conservative with my pace. Not knowing exactly how my body was going to respond to the altitude, I knew that I did not need to put myself into too much energy debt on the initial 8-mile climb. The course started around an elevation of 7000-feet, and in this opening climb, we would reach just over 8500 feet. For the first 4 miles, I kept myself right around an 11-12 minute per mile average. The course then gave way to a quick downhill, and I decided to open up my stride for a few moments.
As I came charging down a slope with one runner a few steps ahead and another a few steps behind, my foot caught on a rock. My body lunged forward just as the course took a hard left turn. The runner in front of me just barely cleared the corner before I could plow into him. Just a couple steps off the trail, I had regained my balance, staying on my feet. The three of us laughed about how early it was in the race to be this clumsy, and I thought to myself, enough with opening up my stride, just get back to the plan of a steady pace.
Hobart to Tunnel Creek
The next 7 miles went by uneventfully as I sped through the Hobart Aid Station at mile 6.9 with a quick water refill. There was a steady climb coming out of Hobart, and as I crested the top of the mountain, I got my first glimpse of Lake Tahoe. It was approaching 7:00 AM in the morning, and it had started off as a cloudy and windy day. The chill of the air at this elevation was still sticking with me. I wore my gloves and lightweight jacket all the way down to the Tunnel Creek Aid Station at mile 12.
As I made my way downhill from about mile 7 to 12, I started to think about how perfect this course was for my style of running. I love long downhills and flat ridgelines, and I did not mind getting beat up on a few epic climbs. I knew if the course kept up like this that is was going to be a good day for me.
The Tunnel Creek Station was one of the largest ultramarathon aid station setups I have ever seen. Runners would pass through here a total of six times throughout the 100-miles. I made a quick stop at my drop bag, then proceeded off onto the 6.5 mile Red House Loop. The coursed dropped steeply over 1000 feet in just 2-miles over the fairly loose terrain.
The Red House loop was deeper in the woods and not at such a high elevation. This part of the forest reminded me of the trails back home in South Carolina or North Carolina with denser forest and more soft surfaces. I reached the Red House Aid Station (mile 15) in just under 2 hours 40 minutes (10:40 pace). The volunteers here seemed to be still getting setup, and I had plenty of fuel to get me back up to Tunnel Creek, just 3 miles away, so I continued on my way with a couple of other runners that I had just caught.
Red House Loop
From mile 15 to 18, I realized that Red House Loop actually meant that we would be coming back up the same hill I just charged down a few miles back. The climb was the first one on the day that actually gave me some difficulty. I took my time hiking up as the ground was loose dirt and the temperatures were finally starting to get warm. From Red House (mile 15) back up to Tunnel Creek (mile 18.5) was just 3.5 miles, but it took me around 45-minutes.
At now over three hours into the race, I decided to take a couple of extra minutes at the aid station table to get down some chicken broth, watermelon, and pretzels while my bottles were being refilled. It was just three miles to the next aid station, Bull Wheel, but this was a water only station, and I did not want to risk running low on calories.
Cruising Toward Diamond Peak
Now feeling more refreshed from the climb out of Red House, I started down the trail again towards Bull Wheel. It was around 8:30 AM and I had completed just over 19-miles. I know had just a three mile, gradually 500-foot climb, to reach Bull Wheel. This section featured a constant breathtaking vantage point of Lake Tahoe.
It was this section of the trail that I started to encounter lots of mountain bikers and day hikers. Most of these individuals were coming at me, so it required a lot of run/walk and stepping off the trail to let people pass. At first, this was kind of frustrating, but the views were so amazing that I did not mind the occasional moment to take it in while a MTB came flying past. It was this same section of trail that I started to experience a little bit of a headache. I figured that this could be a sign of some altitude sickness, so I focused in on my hydration.
As I approached the Bull Wheel aid station, the course swung over the top of the ridge-line giving way to a breathtaking view of the Nevada desert. This stark contrast between the lush forest of Lake Tahoe on one side and the barren landscape of Nevada was a perfect moment of what it means to run 100-miles. At one minute, you can be going along so smoothly, and the next minute you can be struggling to find your legs and wishing you had decided to run a shorter distance. This was ultra-running, and I was loving every minute of it!
The Bull Wheel aid station was a fluid refill only station and my crew was awaiting my arrival 8.5 miles down the mountain, so I moved along pretty quickly. As the downhill started, I was eager to make up some time and started to let my stride lengthen out. This section of trail was meant for fast downhill mountain biking, and the course featured large sweeping turns all the way down to Diamond Peak Ski Resort. About halfway down the mountain, my headache seemed to be getting worse, so despite my desire to push the pace all the way to the aid station, I backed off and ran steady the last 3 miles of the descent.
Diamond Peak Climb to Heaven
Arriving at Black Diamond aid station (mile 30), my crew was excited to see me and ready to help get me going quickly. I explained my waves of headaches and elected to take 1000 mg of ibuprofen along with 20 ounces of water as I stood in the aid station. I also put down 3-4 slices of watermelon and a couple slices of avocado. My spirits were high as I learned that I had entered the aid station still on 20-hour pace. I could also tell the temperature was starting to rise and the sun was beating down hard.
As my crew covered me in sunscreen, I turned my arm warmers into arm coolers by stuffing them full of ice cubes. This practice with ice was copied from watching Rob Krar do the same thing at the 2014 Western States 100 to keep his core temperature regulated in the hot canyons. The moment the ice hit my arms, I knew it was going to help me as well!
Leaving Black Diamond aid station, the course immediately climbed 1500 feet in just two miles. We were going practically straight up under what in the winter time is a double black diamond ski run. I started the climb in a group of 4-6 runners, some of whom had completed the course before. They mentioned that their best time up this climb was around 50-minutes. With this piece of information, I settled into a steady hike and decided to focus on hydration and nutrition during this crawling climb. My headache had seemed to dissipate, but the climb was so steep that every 100-200 yards I had to stop, catch my breath, and take in the amazing views of Lake Tahoe that were at my back.
After 45-minutes, I had once again reached the Bull Wheel aid station at mile 32, 8500 feet above sea level. I had gone through all about 30 ounces of water and another 20 ounces of Tailwind, so I felt that my hydration levels were in order. My legs felt strong and as I left the Bull Wheel aid station, I put some tunes on my headphones and cruised down the trail.
Forgetting About Snow Valley Peak
From Bull Wheel, it was just three fairly flat miles back to Tunnel Creek and my drop bag of supplies, so I elected to try to make up some time lost on the steep climb. From mile 32 to 35, I was running between 8:30-10:00-minute miles, keeping myself still on a 20-21 hour projected finish. The Tunnel Creek aid station was another quick stop to refill fluids and grab some Huma gels from my drop bag. I could not believe the time that I was making, and I kept telling myself that the TRT100 was my style of course….long downhills and suffering climbs. In what seemed like no time at all, I found myself back at the Hobart aid station (mile 40) and just 11.5 miles from my crew at Spooner Lake State Park.
Shortly after leaving the Hobart aid station is where my downward spiral began. Somehow I had forgotten that the course was not just straight back to Spooner Lake from Hobart. There was one more significant climb to make up to the top of Snow Valley Peak at 9000 feet above sea level. It was only 3-miles and 1500 feet of climbing. The fact that I had screwed up my thought process on where the course was going, however, made me lose focus on everything else that was important. I briefly broke out of this mental low half way up the climb when the course greeted me with thousands of wildflowers spread over the mountain slope. It was a stunning site, but the energy lift was short lived.
Snow Valley back to Spooner Lake
Reaching the Snow Valley Peak aid station (mile 43), I had fallen back to a 22-hour pace. I have learned not to put some much emphasis on time goals over the last couple years. However, in the midst of a race, when things start to go bad, it is very difficult not to focus on other things that are not going great. Knowing that I was at 9000 feet, I motored out of Snow Valley Peak. Stumbling my way back down to Spooner Lake State Park. For most of this 8.5-mile stretch, I did not drink or eat anything. I was feeling dejected and discouraged about the turn in momentum that had occurred over the last 15 miles.
Somehow I still managed to reach Spooner Lake (mile 51.5) in 11 hours 20 minutes. Still on a solid sub-24 hour pace. My crew and pacer surrounded me as I sat in a chair to change socks, shirts, and re-stock my pack. I explained my lack of appetite and fluid intake as they began to hand me noodle soup, smoothies, and other forms of liquid calories. From this point forward in a race, another new experience was going to be had…
Spooner Lake Crew Access
I had never had the opportunity to have someone pace me in an ultramarathon. The short-lived experience allowed me to learn just how important it is for your pacer to know you and your motivations. Your pacer needs to be the right person to help turn things around when the going gets tough. My pacer for TRT100 is a great ultra-runner (10-time WS100 finisher all in sub-20 hours). We meet in 2013 at Hwy 49 (mile 93) of WS100, when he was in a low spot and I paced him out for a strong finish.
He invited me back in 2014 to pace him from Rucky Chucky Near (mile 79) to Hwy 49. It was a great experience for me on the WS100 trail. Throughout my training for TRT100 I was not planning on having a pacer. However, when he contacted me a few months before the event, I decided to take him up on his offer.
I ended up leaving the aid station at Spooner Lake sooner than I should have. The pressure to get back out on the course and not lose any more time forced me on. I left the aid station without doing several things that I know keep me going through the mid-point of a 100-miler. No Red Bull, no small meal, and no super easy pace for a few miles. I was in a pissed off and quiet mood. But, my pacer just pulled me down the trail back towards Hobart aid station (mile 57).
Instead of being reminded to drink, eat, and relax, I found myself being told to keep up or pass other runners. My pacer was staying 100-200 yards in front of me on the trail. Not by my side with encouraging words… ”Things will turn around.” ”Keep moving forward at whatever pace is comfortable.” and ”Don’t worry about your time for now.”
Reaching Hobart aid station at 12 hours 11 minutes into the race, I was still slightly on a sub-24 hour pace. Although, I was not happy with the way things were going. I wanted to confront my pacer about how we were not on the same page. Instead, I kept my mouth shut. After about 20-minutes at the Hobart aid station, I stumbled back onto the trail. It didn’t take long for the same pattern of my pacer staying in front of me to return. It felt like I was being dragged through the dirt. Despite having the presence of a pacer, I was beside myself with my own thoughts, which were not the slightest bit positive. I kept telling myself to snap out of it, but with each climb on the trail, I felt that I was falling farther and farther behind.
When I reached Tunnel Creek (mile 62), I had already decided that my day was over. No amount of support and encouragement from the aid station volunteers was going to turn things around. The one volunteer that helped me out the most was a woman that had lived in Charleston, SC. She was there for a few years while studying at MUSC. When she finally accepted my drop, she told me that I should hold my head high. Knowing the Charleston area, she understood that I was coming from sea level. No amount of training or acclimatization could truly prepare me for this first attempt at high altitude 100-miler.
Days after the race, I had an email exchange with Tailwind Nutrition about the events of the day. Jenny at Tailwind helped me to process some of the happenings of the day that lead to the disappointing outcome. When dealing with a bit of altitude sickness, there are several things that should have immediately be tried…
(1) Slow Down. Your body is working extra hard to carry oxygen, so a slower pace puts less of demand on your lungs. Going from Bull Wheel (mile 21.5) to Tunnel Creek (mile 35), I felt mostly good. However, there were signs there that I did not listen to (a headache, light headiness).
(2) Reduce the intake of calories. The added impact on your GI system means your body cannot process as many calories as normal. I did this, but the key to this is the next step.
(3) Increase your hydration levels. Mostly due to greater fluid loss occurring. My downfall was that I stopped both calories and fluids for a 10-mile stretch.
Reaching Spooner Lake was a chance for me to reset my race (hydration, effort, everything). If you’re an ultra-runner, then you know that it can sometimes be hard to make decisions on your own. This is why we rely so heavily on crew and pacers to make those simple decisions at critical times. Tahoe Rim Trail 100 was a learning experience in listening and responding to my body better. It was a learning experience in making sure both crew and pacers understand my motivations. All involved now have a better understanding of when it is time to move on from trying to reach your ”A” goal to just trying to finish.
Unfortunately, this learning experience very well as cost me my lottery slot in this year’s Western States 100 drawing in December. My motivations for organized run training are super low. However, I know that I will be back some day to finish what I started on the course that gives you ‘a glimpse of heaven and a taste of hell.’