“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” -Muhammad Ali“The water is clearer than the air, and the air is the air that angels breathe.” – See more at: http://greatworldgetaways.com/californias-lake-tahoe-the-air-is-the-air-that-angels-breathe#sthash.pJlPdPgf.dpuf“The water is clearer than the air, and the air is the air that angels breathe.” – See more at: http://greatworldgetaways.com/californias-lake-tahoe-the-air-is-the-air-that-angels-breathe#sthash.pJlPdPgf.dpuf
Back in the ring, to take another swing at the indomitable Tahoe Rim Trail 100. Trying to squeeze just a little more out this glorious event, in hopes of snagging the course-record that evaded me in 2013 due to a too conservative first half and excessive afternoon heat. With Einstein’s definition of insanity in the back of my mind, I duplicated—and beefed up—last year’s TRT June prep, logging over 500mi and 100,000′ of vertical, including a nice 50mi run at the TRT Training Runs. Wanting to bullet-proof my mission, I started off my June build with a 190mi/40,000′ week. And I have to say I thought about that week during the race, quite a bit—it provided a great deal of confidence.
Like 2013, I geeked out on some spreadsheet scenarios, which would give my race some structure. Because the course-record was 17:47, I wanted to give myself some cushion, so I finally settled on a target race time of 17:20. After running the 50mi course during the training runs in June in about 8:30, I figured running the first half, on fresh, race-day legs, in about 8:10, seemed pretty reasonable (as long as I was at 140 beats/minute, +/- two beats). I also estimated that if I could run about 8:10 over the first loop, then I’d plan on the inevitable slowing to be no more than 12-15% over the second half.
I definitely felt the target on my back as defending champ, and it was tough not gunning it from the start. Still, I went from a first mile at 120bpm last year to an opening mile at 140bpm this year, thus establishing an early rise to an average HR of 140. By the time a small group of us arrived at Tunnel Creek (mile 12.7) I’d put down about 700cal in CLIF Bar bites that I’d rolled up and packed in a zip-loc bag. I figured it was a good idea to lay a foundation of calories, early in the going when the temps were low, the pace easy, and the stomach functioning properly. All of us bounded down into Red House, myself clocking my fastest mile of the day at 6:10. Easy does it…
Two-time Pine-to-Palm 100 winner, Gerad Dean and I, were the first to emerge from the 6.3mi Red House lollipop. As I grabbed some fuel from my drop-bag, Gerad had already weighed in and shot north toward the Bull Wheel aid-station. I moved with purpose, across the timing-chip mats after him. Following in his shoe-prints in the sandy single-track, I arrived at the Bull Wheel aid-station even before the water did. Asking repeatedly for some H2O, one of the volunteers sacrificed his own agua from his personal bottle into my hand-held (I’ll hope to pay this favor forward someday) and I continued north on one of my favorite stretches of the event—up toward the turn onto the Tyrolian downhill, a local favorite of mountain-bikers, whips and winds down and down (and down) to Diamond Peak Ski Resort, where I’d see my wife, Amanda, for the first time of the day—and catch up to Gerad.
Amanda had me out of aid in a minute flat and Gerad and I spent the next 30 working together and occasionally chatting whilst we were still relatively fresh and the going was easy. We knew we’d opened up a nice gap and now, back on top of Diamond Peak at the Bull Wheel aid-station, we were happy to find the water had now arrived. Fill ‘er up! >>>
There’s nothing better than having a “home-court” advantage, and having run this race three times prior, I felt entirely comfortable bookin’ it back to Tunnel Creek while being sure to keep one eye on my trusty HRM. Metronomic cadence, breathing, focus. Just a cruise back down south to the half as the day was heating up.
I came into the half in around 8:10, right around 9:45/mi pace. I’d gained back some good time on the switch-backy descent from Snow Valley Peak. This was a pretty quick first half as compared to 2013′s 8:28. Average HR was 141bpm, as compared to last year’s 139bpm. As I was coming into the half aid-station, I referred to a scenario chart I’d laminated to the back of my salt-tab’s coin purse. Since my target race-time was 17:20, I would now have to run no less than 11:00/mi pace for the second half in order to hit my finish-time target. I was pleased when I flipped over to Virtual Pacer on my fresh Garmin and saw that I had plugged in exactly 11:00/mi pace the day before, knowing instinctively that would probably be the pace I’d have to run. Now, all I had to do was run it…
Leaving the 50, I asked Amanda if she had any idea where guys were behind. Since there was a new timing system in place, I figured she might have some info from Snow Valley aid, but coverage is spotty at Spooner (even with race direction’s best efforts to improve it) so she didn’t have any info for me. No worries…
Leaving my HRM strap behind, it was time to “embrace the suck” and knock out this second 50. I had two bottles of ice-water and knew I’d run out on the way up to Hobart aid, some 7mi north, a lot of which is uphill. A couple of miles later I tripped and fell. I was beginning to feel that 8:10 first half. My feet weren’t coming off the ground like the were hours earlier. I reminded myself how we get muddy water clear—by doing nothing. Slow it down Shebest. Get back into your comfort zone. Clear like Lake Tahoe. Let go of the performance goals and get present. It’s okay to walk. Finally, it flattened out, and I found myself at Hobart. Whew, rough stretch.
Out of Hobart, some miles down-trail, I crashed hard, bloodying both my palms and my right knee in the process. I popped back up and quickly regained my rhythm, surveying what was only minor scrapes and scratches on a now bloody, sweaty, dirty body. Black shorts are great to wipe the blood away, and the memory. Today, I planned on three things happening that I’d not anticipated. Two of them came in the form of falls. The first one was pretty minor. This second one took the wind out of my sails for a bit. Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm. Let it go.
Back down into to Red House loop for the second time of the day. I noticed the temps were going in the opposite direction I expected—DOWN! Compared to all three of my previous second-half race experiences down in Red House, this one was the most mild. Temps and revamped nutrition helped keep the belly happy. But 60mi is 60mi and the going was getting tough. I’d read a couple books on U.S. Navy SEALs coming into this race in hopes of picking up some good mental coping strategies.
Having been a Navy Diver myself, I find great inspiration from our SEALs and the tremendous mental strength these guys have to make it through the grueling six months BUD/S training, including the infamous “Hell Week.” Anyway, I picked up a mantra that SEAL candidates sometimes use in school when in an “evolution” and forced to “embrace the suck.” They say to themselves, “Feelin’ good. Lookin’ good. Oughta be in Hollywood.” So, anytime I found myself in the suck on Saturday, I just busted out that gem, and imagined my SEAL brothers in the sh*t in some foreign country, getting shot at, and generally enduring a reality much more demanding than mine, at an ultra-running event in beautiful Lake Tahoe. “Don’t be a cupcake,” a running buddy, Leigh Schmitt, once said to me.
Once I got back to the stick of the lollipop of the Red House loop, there was a first-aid guy on a mountain bike. I’d worked pretty hard getting back to this point in hopes of seeing just who was behind me. The first-aid guy informed me, “You got the whole loop to yourself, nobody has come down yet.” Music to my ears. I proceeded up and soon found Mark Austin, of Boise, descending. I asked him if he was #2 and he said, “I am now!”, which meant he’d caught up with Gerad, whereabouts unknown.
Polishing off Red House and arriving back on top of the ridge, Gerad was sitting next to weigh-ins dealing with the “Hell” part of the TRT motto. I told him I’d been in exactly the same place my first time out at TRT and told him to hang in there. I’m psyched for him—and impressed—he did. I was off, up the long stretch, past Bull Wheel and up to the turn onto the Tyrolian Downhill. This stretch took forever. “Feelin’ good. Lookin’ good…” >>>
As I arrived into the Diamond Peak parking lot and looked up onto the first landing there at the lodge, I didn’t see a soul. I was feeling pretty vulnerable as I made the turn, unsure I’d see my people. “Please be there…” Boom, there was Amanda, who’s eyes got as big as saucers when she saw me rounding the corner. It was awesome to have my rock-star Inside Trail Racing team-mates, Chris Wehan (with his Western-States-running-girlfriend, Melanie Michalak) and Luke Garten, there for support. These fun-loving young guns inspire me.
After a quick weigh-in and bottle swap with Amanda, Chris and I were off to tackle the final 20mi of the race, starting with the 2000′ climb out of Diamond Peak, with Luke running alongside us on our way out, reminding us we were on record-breaking pace. We had about 3:45 to run the final 20mi to be under the course-record of 17:47. I said I’d do my best. I knew there would be no guarantees, but I also knew I’d been in this same place three times before, but this time was unique—I’d never been at this point as early as I was now. “Feelin’ good. Lookin’ good…” >>>
Chris immediately set the precedent that negative talk was not an option, so after getting out of Diamond Peak we just settled into the work of getting up the climb. Running into Myles Smythe, from Michigan Bluff Photography, definitely added some fun to the otherwise dismal prospect of climbing a godd*mn ski slope with 80mi in your legs. He shot some film and I tried to look less like a zombie and more like a bad*ss mountain runner. Umm, right…
Running this event three times prior, I’d never experienced this relentless pressure to keep my foot on this pedal of madness. All for what?! Was it even worth it? Hell, I’m 40. WTH business do I have trying to break course-records? As I arrived to the top of Diamond Peak I was a full 30min behind my Virtual Pacer, who was running his murderous 11:00/mi pace. Earlier, when I arrived at DP aid-station, the Tyrolian Downhill helped me get all my time back but I knew I’d need every minute I could get, since the DP climb essentially puts a bear on your back, slowing the average pace down considerably. Now on top, it was time to get some time back, to recall what I’d done a year earlier, to run my race, and work with Chris to just stay steady and keep some calories comin’ in. Easier said than done, right?!
The first 10 of 20mi to the finish were still in the light and it was way cool to get all the way down to Hobart aid-station with some light still in the sky. We lit our torches and headed out of Hobart.
I probably should have just stuck with what worked all day but I started taking soda at mi80 and then hit the Coke at aid-stations from there. Stomach wasn’t havin’ it. And as Chris caught up to me just out of Hobart, he found me bent over, retching in the bushes. Everything came up. And here it was, the third unknown of the day. Deal with it. Don’t be a cupcake. I remembered an athlete I coached to Western States this year, Todd Bertolone. He had more than is his share of nausea and vomiting at States. I thought of him, and got my *ss moving again. Todd had his goals at Western, and met them. “Feelin’ good. Lookin’ good…”
Man-oh-man, that last ten was not what I envisioned. I’d mindfully built in a 27min cushion in high hopes that I wouldn’t need it, but d*mn the man, it was looking like I’d need every last minute. And now, Einstein’s relativity was working against me; time was slowing way down, the next aid-station, an almost hopeless eternity away. Chris helped me claw my way up to Snow Valley Peak, the highest point on the course at 9000′. I was now 32min behind my Virtual Pacer. I knew the course-record was still within reach, since it’s a long way down from Snow Valley, and downhill running is my thing. At this point in the going, my climbing legs were sh*t, as was my aerobic system; my glycogen matches long struck out. At Snow Valley aid, I grabbed a cup of chicken broth, and that alone is what fueled the final stretch home. I found myself wishing I’d put chicken broth in my hand-held. Warm. Nourishing…
What a pacer I found in Chris Wehan, 2013 Rio del Lago 100mi champ. In 2013, before I knew him, we duked it out at Lake Sonoma 50, where he eventually dropped me with some 10mi to go in the race. Later, we became Inside Trail Racing team-mates and I got to know him a little better. I’ve been so impressed with his athletic prowess as an Ironman triathlete turned ultra-runner. I’m super grateful it worked out with his work schedule that he could come up and pace. He did his homework on the race, had the splits written out on his arm, poured on the positive reinforcement, and worked tirelessly getting me to the finish. I ate it up. This was one guy I did not want to let down!
In full-on zombie mode, we made the right turn over to Spooner Summit. Lighting up the trails along the lake, we ran into Luke Garten, who had run a mile back to greet us. He shouted, “You have 16min to run one mile and you’ll break the course-record!!” Elation. All I said was “F#%k YES!”
It’s funny how all the grand, booming finish-lines I’ve experienced at big marathons and Ironmans seemed to pale in comparison to this modest, little finish-line next to a quiet lake, under the cover of darkness, with only Amanda and a few friends to share in the moment. It was this imagined snapshot in time, over those final miles, that created the desire to keep on moving forward until the deed was done. Pain is temporary. Pride… is forever.
Over the moon to have reached my goal, I was happy to be back with my Amanda, who had done such a wonderful job crewing me all day. Also grateful that she had some company while I was out there bumpin’ around in the forest. Chris, Melanie, and Luke made the experience that much more exciting and fun. When you have folks in your corner, it makes it a lot easier to stay in the fight and keep swinging. Also exciting was to later learn both athletes I’d coached to TRT100, Tina Borcherding and Eric Litvin, both braving thunderous lightning storms, reached the finish line as well. This was Tina’s first 100mi run. Inspiring performances from these two.
Want to bullet-proof your next ultra? Run in shoes from Hoka One One. My Stinson EVO’s have allowed me to run more training miles than I ever have in my life. In both my victories in 2013 and 2014, I’ve been so grateful to run all day with zero foot problems. The proof is in the pudding.
If you’re looking for an absolutely wonderful ultra-running experience, that gets better every year, TRT Endurance Runs has one of the best events in the country. Outside Magazine puts TRT Endurance Runs on their Trail Runner’s Bucket List. My advice would be to do the 50mi as a stepping stone to the 100, especially if you’re unsure how you perform at higher elevations. So, put your name in the lottery this year. You can’t win if you don’t play!
Since Amanda and I were spending the next week in Tahoe anyway, we headed back up to the scene of the crime on Monday morning, to spend a few hours helping to break down the finish at Spooner. Somehow, RD, George Ruiz, was still upright and in good spirits. Spending the morning with a few volunteers, in the muddy aftermath, was a perfect way to end this chapter in my athletic career. Thanks for all the memories!!