The Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run. TRT100. “A glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell.” Whatever you call it, the breathtaking course which spreads over the sierras is delightfully punishing. With approximately 22,000’ of vertical climbing and an equal amount of descent, all runners get to feel the burn of lactic acid coursing through their quads as a constant counterpart to the burn in their lungs from sucking precious and scarce oxygen from the thin air at higher altitude.
This is the race which my wife and I hoped to get the chance to experience when we entered the lottery. This is the race which allowed us to train with so many friends throughout the long winter and spring months who were either gunning for TRT or Western States. This is the race for which I played a crafty game of “dodge the injury” for the better part of a year, building up from a femoral stress fracture while avoiding another physical disaster. This is a race which will break you down and force you to face who you are at your most basic, stripped down form. It’s a journey which every soul who steps out there is fortunate to undertake.
The starting area was sizzling. The 100M crowd started a full hour before the 50M and 50K runners, so it was just a huge mob of restless runners spastically cheering, hugging, and impatiently waiting to begin a long journey. The energy was insane, and every time I bumped into someone I knew (which was about every five feet) I noticed the same look in their eyes, a mixture of apprehension and excitement. We all knew that whatever lay ahead, we were in for one hell of an experience.
Soon, we all started the first 6 mile climb. A few began conserving immediately, but by and large we were too thrilled to finally be racing to think of walking. During this section I saw an incredible amount of friends! Deirdre cruised by with her signature beaming smile. Scott flew by feeling great. (I couldn’t believe it, since he had run Western States just three weeks earlier. That guy is a beast.) Our good friend Helen, who is one of the sweetest and most generous people I know, ran with us for a bit before speeding off to run a phenomenal first 100M. Laura and I kept a moderate pace, letting our legs warm up gradually and our lungs get used to their challenging task for the day (and night, and day again).
As we chugged along through the forest we could hear loud cracks. POP….POP……POP! They sounded like gunshots, which oddly would not be a new experience running up there. I was trying to listen for how close they were when I found that they were not gunshots at all! We turned a corner, sprawled out into a clearing, and were confronted by a man with a bullwhip riding a 10’ unicycle and a fortune teller, welcoming us to Hobart Aid Station! They were fantastic, and the aid tent had been dressed up like a circus tent, with all characters present but clowns. There were FOUR TABLES full of food, and I grabbed several things in an effort to stay ahead of calorie burn.
I gave myself permission to be annoyed with how long it was taking to warm up, and looked forward to the section ahead. This is where it gets rocky, and you hug the sides of hills as you ascend to lofty views and higher elevation. We left the station, ran about five hundred feet, and I felt a problem. “Hold on a sec,” I gurgled, and dove toward a nearby stump. I completely emptied my stomach, not ten miles into the race. I briefly feared a miserable 30+ hours of solid puking ahead, but as usual I felt a lot better after the stomach reset. It’s the kind of sudden nausea I only get from altitude. No rhyme or reason to when it happens; it just happens. I stood up, said, “I’m good, let’s go!” and we resumed right where we’d left off, cruising along comfortably and soaking in the immensity of the gorgeous world around us.
Tunnel Creek was the first time we saw our crew, and it was amazing! Leslie, Erik, and Megan had hiked in three miles with our gear so that they could see us for two minutes. They sprayed us down with sunscreen, bug spray, and Tri-Slide, chatting and asking all the right pointed questions about how we were doing so far. In a flash we were launching out of Tunnel Creek and down the endless luge into the Red House Loop, and it was only 6 miles until we saw them again as we climbed out. There is one irrefutable truth about a good crew: if you find yourself grinding out a long climb, seeing their beautiful faces in the distance gives your body a sudden surge of energy. I still felt awkward and disjointed, but I was hopeful that soon I’d warm up.
Laura and I kept a good pace on our climb up to Bull Wheel, which we passed on our way to our favorite part of the course, the Tyrolian downhill. As we climbed higher, we expected to feel steadily worse. As we gained more altitude we both felt more tired and out of breath, but I finally clicked into a good rhythm and settled into a nice groove! It only took 27 miles, dammit! We ran with Tina Hyde for a bit, who was going strong and went on to earn a big ol’ bag of redemption at the finish line. I began to get a headache, but it disappeared once we rollercoastered our arses down the next four mile descent.
At the bottom we rolled into the bustling party which was the Diamond Peak Aid Station at mile 30. We got to see our parents for the first time, and they lavished us with attentive care. One could not ask for a better crew than we had for this race. Stan, Charlotte, Anne, Leslie, Erik, Megan, you are the absolute best. In the craziness of that huge station, packs got filled, sunblock got sprayed, Ensure got guzzled, gel flasks got replaced, and we got tons of hugs and high fives. It was also wonderful to see unexpected buddies like the Carbonis and Mr. Brantley. It seemed that everywhere I turned, there was a familiar face. Laura cracked the whip and we took off, stopping to get doused by the hosemaster on our way out. The next two miles climb 2,000’ up a ski slope, and the reflecting heat from the white sand was not going to help.
We gripped our poles, broke it down into smaller segments, and proceeded to grind it out. At one point a guy running the 50M caught up to us and started chatting between gasps, focusing on anything other than what our legs were doing. We rounded a corner and he let out an obscenely loud, “HOLY FUCK!!!”
There are something like 37 false summits on that climb, and it is ridiculous. However, I succeeded in drinking 5 gulps of tailwind every time we paused. By the top I was extremely happy about the calories I held in my belly but I was hot. So damn hot. I guzzled a whole Solo cup of water at the top, but as we trotted away I immediately regretted it. Again, I dove for the side of the trail and heaved my guts out for a good couple of minutes. I mean really wretching. That’s just the way I do it, all or nothing. For the rest of the race various strangers would approach and marvel at how well I had bounced back. “I thought you were a goner!” seemed to be a popular sentiment. I did feel better, but I worried about all those calories now slowly saturating the ground instead of my innards.
By this point I was feeling like a well tuned car, purring along the trails with ease despite having a problem with fuel intake. The next ten or so miles were very pleasant, and we talked a lot, picking up other runners and forming a kind of train up to Snow Valley Peak, the highest point of the course. A storm was clearly moving in fast, and the highest point is no place to be when lightning hits, so we laid it down and rushed off of that mountain as fast as we could! It’s a good thing, because as soon as we got just below the tree line the top started to get struck. The flashes were blinding and the thunder shook my bones. Rain was now falling, but we barely noticed in our haste to get away from the damn electrical death beams shooting down from above! As we met up with our trail buddy Karen the hail began. I did my best to calm her down while thunder boomed like cannon fire, but the truth is that it was a scary situation. We ran together all the way to the 50M turnaround.
The 50 mile point was insane. There were those finishing their 50 mile races and those with 50 more to go, so the mood was a mix of relaxed celebration and determined tenacity, with a healthy dose of manic pit crew action. As I hiked up the last little climb into the station, my dad cheered loudly from under his Raiders poncho and the rest of the amazing family crew was not far away. Megan wrapped me in a hearty tacklehug and my friend Matt ordered me to down some hot soup.
I sat to reset my body, mind, and gear for the next 50 miles, only to realize that I didn’t really NEED to reset. I was ready. I felt comfortably warmed up by the first half and was confident going into the second. We were about 45min behind our projected pace but I felt good about the steady level of effort we had been employing. It was sustainable, and that’s the whole point. Laura and I both guzzled some Ensure/coffee mix , and as I fiddled with my shoes, I noticed two friends sandwiching Laura in a hug burrito to keep her warm. The weather was horrendous, but here were countless people willingly toiling in the elements for others. It was spectacular to see.
We shot out of the Start/Finish and down the trail with our first pacer, Tom, trying to fight the shivers and warm ourselves from the inside. Tom is a beast. Tom ran sub-24 at WS100, then showed up to pace us 30 miles through the night. Tom is also like a goddam human stopwatch, and as we chatted about everything from novels to footwear, he led us on a pace which completely shaved off those 45 minutes by the time we hit Tunnel Creek. Laura had started throwing up and I was getting worried about her being able to run on fewer and fewer calories for any duration, but here we were, flying through the night.
The Red House Loop, despite being the lowest point in altitude, is probably the most mentally draining aspect of the whole race. It is a long steep downhill, a long boring uphill, then a really steep uphill back up to Tunnel. Tom pulled out a genius ploy from his bag of ultra tricks and kept us going in 40 pace blocks, with 10 second breaks. We churned out all the climbing this way, and picked up a few tagalongs. We were later told that Tom’s Train was the only thing that got some of those people through Red House!
Tom did his best to keep us on track, but we slowed progressively during the night. After running for 20 hours straight, it’s easy to get tired in that 1-4am window. Really fucking tired. Add in the fact that neither of us could stomach any solid food, and the energy levels were at a 10-foot-deep-pit kind of low. Trusty Tom still got us to mile 80 right at our goal time, but Laura had been puking for the last ten hours, I had been raging my own internal battle against the vomit reflex, and our legs were feeling the fact that they had covered 80 miles. The night can be a dark time for the soul.
When we entered the ski lodge aid station, our crew swarmed like concerned and loving bees. They took our packs and did everything, while Laura and I slumped into chairs, trying to muster up the gumption to stand up and take on the 2,000’ ascent waiting just outside. I wanted to bear hug Tom and thank him, but he had already disappeared into the crowd. I tried to eat soup. Gross. Dad handed me Ensure/coffee. Not bad. I drank what I could, feeling guilty for not downing the whole thing and thankful for the wonderful people in my life. I looked over and caught Laura’s eye. We sat looking at each other for several seconds of shared exhaustion, pain, and understanding. We were both feeling hollowed out and broken down, but this was what we were after. Hardships breed the strength to endure. Strength breeds humility and gratitude. The journey celebrates the love of life and the courage to live it fully.
Megan yelled at us to get in gear and we shuffled out the door with the goal of reaching the top of the slope by sunrise. I had my doubts but was ready to surrender the planning to someone else, and I trust the fantastic Miss Lacey. She knew better than to trust our sense of what we felt was doable, and demanded more from us on that hill than I thought was possible to give. We passed countless vomit stains on our way up Diamond Peak, our beaten feet slipping in the thick sand. Megan navigated the most solid path, and I held on to the knowledge that the sun would rise soon.
As we crested the top, the sun showed its first glimmer over the mountainous horizon and washed away the misery of night. I felt new energy course through me, waking me up and making me appreciate all the loveliness surrounding me. We were in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, I felt connected to the earth and those I was with, and I made it a point to consciously soak up the warmth of the second sunrise since I had begun running. So what if I was about to blow chunks. Nausea can suck it.
The next 18 miles are a bit hazy for me, not because I was out of it, but because I didn’t know how to process what was happening. By all accounts, my body felt terrible. My legs ached, my chest felt tight, blood was soaking through one shoe, I had eaten nothing but liquid for the last 18 hours, and my anti-chafe efforts were proving to be dismally ineffective. Nonetheless, I was honestly enjoying myself. Some parts were hard, and some were harder, but by that time nothing felt easy. Our focus was reduced to staying upright, moving forward, and talking when we could. Once again, I was baffled by how much Laura can deal with and run through. She was getting dizzy and faint, but kept trucking along. When she paused, it wasn’t to feel better; it was because she NEEDED to in order to stay conscious. That sparkly exterior belongs to the toughest, most determined person I know. My hero.
I cannot express how glad I was to have Megan guiding us. She made us run when we didn’t want to, eat when we didn’t want to, drink when we didn’t want to, and she did it all with endless patience and a spectacular amount of care. At one point I watched her gathering supplies and remembered that she had soaked her cankles nearly 24/7 for three solid weeks to recover from States, flown down to California, gotten up at 3am to see us start, crewed all day, met us at 4am the next day to run 20 miles, and was attending to our every need while accepting the agonizingly feeble pace we could maintain. I thought, “That woman is a good person, the kind that’s rare to have as a friend.” The three of us laughed, chatted, commiserated, celebrated, and enjoyed the unique camaraderie that I imagine can only come from pacing each other to our first 100 mile finishes. We hit Spooner Lake and could see the finish tent across the water. This is when I knew it would happen. We would get there.
As we closed in on the finish, I could hear our family and friends cheering ahead. I knew that Megan could feel the overwhelming pride that we felt, since she had experienced it only weeks earlier. It isn’t just pride, though. It is knowing that you can achieve far more than you think possible. It is knowing that when you find yourself in a deep, dark pit, when the world is crushing you and there seems to be no hope, you can trust yourself to buck up and weather the storm. It’s having found faith in oneself, and in loved ones to step in and guide you when needed. In one moment, I understood the amount of caring and selflessness shown by our crew and pacers to get us to this point, and it nearly made my heart burst from my chest.
In those final steps, nearly thirty one hours and a world away from where we started, relief rushed over me as I took my wife’s hand and caught her eye.
THIS is the experience we wanted. THIS is the culmination of our dedication to training. THIS is redemption for past failures. THIS signifies the healing of my broken body. THIS is what makes us strong. THIS is what I love. THIS is who I love. THIS is the life I love.