Finding what I needed to on the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 miler
102 miles. Nearly 20,000 ft of elevation gain. Average elevation at 8000 ft. Punishing climbs and crushing descents, interspersed with amazingly runnable smooth trails. Dry, hot Eastern Sierras temps, with an occasional stiff wind to further parch. Epic stunning views of Lake Tahoe and Marlette Lake over-and-over. Aid stations second to none, with hundreds of eager, dedicated volunteers. A handmade one-of-a-kind buckle.
July 16th, 2022 and I'm at the startling of the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run 100 miler in Carson City Nevada. As is typically the case, I was thankful just to have made it to that point. The race is typically a lottery entry, but for reasons probably related to the pandemic and uncertainty, the number in the lottery was enough for everyone to get in. Then it was a matter of the 6 months of training to occur without injury, illness, acts of God, or other impediments. In years past fires have smudged the skies and threatened to close access. Myself, I’ve often had to work through some kind of ache or pain in order to cobble together enough preparation. THIS race though… everything seemed to be coming together at the right time. I didn’t have a particularly long final training run, but instead had a big week of some solid back-to-back efforts with thankfully quick recovery. At the pre-race packet pick-up I stepped out of the car after driving up from cool Inverness Ca to… WHOA! Heat! Dryyyyy heat… and a little breeze that only seemed to make it feel warmer! Okay then! This is what I was expecting, right?
In 2021 the TRTER100 course changed its start/finish to the Western Nevada College in Carson City. Previously the start/finish had been at Spooner Lake, a higher elevation and cooler because of the water and trees. By changing the route from here we were now treated to a 4000+ ft climb over the first 9 miles. It would also mean a 12 mile descent on exposed dry fire roads to the finish. The previous course was simply a double-loop where this was now a variety of loops essentially from a central aid station or two. The “bonus” was that a loop called “Red House” would now only have to be traversed once… a major win for those who’d had to do it twice in the past and who’d always described it as the most miserable part. To be sure… there would still be the Diamond Peak climb (1700 ft over less than 2 mi… some parts at a 30 deg slope and footing of soft crushed dusty granite)… but that would come later.
The race starts at 5am… it’s gorgeous out. Temps in the low 60s with stars and a waxing moon in the sky. It’s surprisingly quiet as we all gather at the start,… almost reverent. With a quick countdown we are OFF… all smiles and whoops and hollers. We all prance merrily down a paved path for nearly 1/2 mile before quite suddenly the pack accordions-up and headlights are coming back towards us! We’d already missed the first turn onto trail!!! Much laughter, and allowing the speedy folks to slide by and we are all on our way. The first climbs comes fairly quickly and we all embrace it like an old friend. THIS is what we came for, and we all can’t wait to crest the top of Snow Valley where a Boy Scout troop has set up the first major aid station. The sun rises, and its beautiful; fiery orange and yellow spreads across the horizon to our backs, illuminating the valley and town below us. Before long we hit trees (and shade) and an interval water-only stop before winding through a sunny wildflower-filled meadow to the Snow Valley Peak Aid Station. Breakfast!!! A fantastic spread of real food and fluids topped off and I’m on my way down the first of many rolling dusty trails along the edge of Tahoe. We’re above Spooner Lake at this point and the trail weaves and dips around boulders and is dotted with purple Lupine and Hyssop, and too many other yellow, red and orange wildflowers to name. The running comes easily at this point. After all we are only 10-or-so miles in and on a flowing downhill. Hard not to let the pace pick up, but the knowledge of the miles and hours that lay ahead remind me to reign it in a bit. By the time we reach Spooner Lake/Stonehenge AS (mi 16) it’s only around 9:40 but it’s starting to get warm. Here I’m treated to bacon, eggs, watermelon, more bacon, bottles refilled and ICE COLD water poured over my head and neck. Wonderful!!!
Climbing from Hobart to Tunnel creek
The next section is where the reality of this course starts to set in. We go back to climbing, first to Hobart AS (mi 23) and then to Tunnel Creek (mi 28). The heat is picking up now, and that makes the climbing much slower. There are flies, but they just annoy, no biting at least. Sections in the foliage have no breeze, so it feels even hotter already. I’d made the decision to have one drop bag at Tunnel Creek only. We’d pass through Tunnel Creek 5 times in this race, on various loops, and that made it ideal for a single location to have ALL my crap. I had spent hours calculating how many nutrition items I’d need each pass for the miles ahead and had labeled ziplocks. I also had bags labeled with strategic clothing changes, first aid, lube, hats etc. It was a system that ended up working for me, and though it made for more time spent at tunnel Creek each pass, the other aid stations were much quicker.
A quick shirt change into a long sleeve sun protection shirt and slapping my Coolnes sun drape on my hat and I was headed down the 1000 foot sandy descent into the “glimpse of hell” Red House loop. To be fair, it’s lovely scenery there… just not the windblown (cooler) vistas and enough repeated climbing and descending to crush the hardiest soul at only 30 miles in! The Red House aid station had a small creek nearby that some of us splashed in (I dipped my head in) and they were serving a fancy strawberry lemonade and otter-pops amongst other basic fare. Leaving that AS I was dreading the entire climb back out to Tunnel Creek but unbeknownst to me much of the drop was skipped on the way back and before I knew it I was seeing the happy sight of Tunnel Creek for my second pass (34.2 mi).
Now the “meat” of the race began, as we ventured north on the Tahoe Rim Trail for an 11.5 mile “lollipop” loop headed to Diamond Peak. Views of Lake Tahoe and the Washoe Valley greeted me and buoyed my spirits even as the heat and elevation slowly sapped my energy. I’d been following a regimen of drinking both bottles between AS as most of the time that was enough and planned for a third bottle for this longer stretch. I typically use high sodium electrolyte (Precision Hydration 1000) in one and water I the other (just to have a “clean taste”, but I was also interspersing the on-course drink EFS which I’d trained with as well and liked the taste. What I misjudged is that I was losing sodium at an alarming rate and not aggressively keeping up. My shorts, shirt and even my pack were marbled with salt lines, and my sweat was evaporating so quickly (low humidity and wind) that I had no idea. Bull Wheel AS greeted me 3 miles in and I topped off. The next 8.5 miles were on very runnable trails but I was slowing down. Eventually we dropped into a section called the Tyrolean Downhill, a network of mountain bike trails, jumps and obstacles that we ran alongside. Some of this could be run, but much was steep and would trash quads, so I took it easy to save myself for later.
Lucia Luftig ready to pace me from mi 45.5 to 79 overnight!
Diamond Peak (45.5 mi) is the first (easy) crew access and where I’d pick up my first pacer Lucia Luftig. “Lucy” is married to Josh who’d pace me later, and is a righteous trail runner herself, as well as an ED Doc who had been working night shifts so she pulled the overnight straw with me.It was exciting to see the Luftigs as well as some other friends who were crewing my buddy coming behind me. I tried not to tarry too long as it was already a little later than I’d hoped and the sun would be setting soon. Thankfully I’d left my lights with my crew hoping that was early overkill but not wanting to be caught a few miles out from Tunnel Creek without light. (Turned out to be a wise decision!)
Now… let's talk briefly about the Crystal Ridge Ski run. I like skiing… you ride a chair lift UP a mountain, and you let these slippery boards attached to your feet glide you down assisted by gravity… fun! The next 2 miles coming out of Diamond Peak resort was 1700 ft straight UP this ski run. The surface was a loose powdery crushed granite… the late evening sun still bore down on our backs… the route curved occasionally too, giving not one, or two, but three false summits. To say these would be my slowest miles in the race is a gross understatement. Even times I sat for extended shoe changing and navel contemplating in an aid station did not equal the 51 minute mile I turned on my first climb there! Heart pounding, gasping for air, dragging my body up with poles and puffs of dust at each foot fall. An occasional stop to turn and appreciate the stunning setting sun over Tahoe only resulted in alarming cramps starting in my quads and tibias. Eventually the torture ended and I plodded onward to Tunnel Creek for my third pass (50.7 mi).
The view back down the Crystal Ridge climb out of Diamond Peak
Lucy ran behind me and thankfully was able to appreciate the incredible and protracted sunset over the lake, taking some of the best race photos I’ve ever seen. She knew that the salt encrusting me was a problem needing correction ASAP, so once we hit the AS and I went for a change of shoes, she made me drink 3 cups of hot salty broth. Magic! At this point realizing sodium loss was going to be an ongoing issue (lots of race left!), I agreed to salt tabs here as well as more going forward.
Headed to Tunnel creek from Bull Wheel
Now it was night! Cooler temps but far from needing any warmth as I’d initially planned for. All night in a simple t-shirt was adequate. A good climb out of Tunnel to Hobart (55.7 mi) where an all-day-and-night party was going on celebrating one of the volunteer’s 21st birthday (I signed a big card!). From here we headed up aging 100 feet to Snow Valley Peak (58.7 mi). This part seemed to go on forever mostly because of unfamiliarity with the trail and lack of landmarks in the dark. Those same Boy Scouts were rocking their aid station once again, but we spared little time before heading down a STEEP zig-zagging service road back to Hobart (62.7 mi).
Around this point we started to do some math and realized we’d be close to the 8am cutoff at Diamond Peak which was still 16.5 miles away. Another runner ahead of us had the same thought, and realizing we’d have to hustle we ran more frequently and for longer stretches than we’d been. We rolled into Tunnel Creek a little after 4 am worried and hurried. An aid station volunteer told us that the RD was pushing the cutoff to 9am and we all cheered! I appreciated though that arriving there at 9 am would cut the remaining time by an hour as well and so I committed us to trying to hit as close to 8 as possible anyways. We hustled outta there after a quick potty stop and some liberal lubricating in a couple critical spots. We weren’t running scared at this point, just moving with a purpose.
3 miles later with the sun rising we rolled into Bull Wheel AS (70.7 mi) and were told that the cutoff was BACK to 8am because the medical staff couldn’t stay longer! Only one choice… haul ass! With 70+ miles on my legs, running hard for 8 miles to make a cutoff risked trashing myself with another 23 hard miles to go… but the alternative was to get pulled, and never know if I could finish… so I ran. I ran HARD. I ran scared. I pushed every time I could, and I ran a LOT of that Tyrolean Downhill. My quads screamed… my back ached… my heart raced… my lungs burned… but my head was crystal clear and focused. Thought the race I’d had trouble estimating actual distances from what was showing on my watch (extra half mile there at the beginning too), so I didn’t really know if I’d make it until I rolled into Diamond Peak with 25 minutes to spare! I’d dropped Lucy 10 minutes back and Josh wasn’t even there yet! I collapsed into a chair and the kindest AS volunteer brought me some broth and food and filled my bottles. He gently but insistently showed me the time on his phone and made it clear I’d need to be leaving this place of comfort before 8am. Lucy caught up, loaned me her hat as the sun was already high and pledged to send Josh up the hill after me.
I walked out of Diamond Peak at 7:55am. Slowly and this time with more dogged determination (and probably a better salt/hydration level) I tackled the 1700 foot climb taking just 4 steps at a time… over and over. Pole, step, step, step, step, breathe… repeat. I was numb. My brain turned off. I thought briefly of the Everest climbers using this same technique to slowly progress in the thin air. I didn’t look up… ignored the false summits… just plowed forward. Eventually I saw Josh climbing up far below me, and shortly before the top he caught up and we turned to appreciate the morning sun bathing Tahoe’s azure surface.
Headed back to Hobart from Tunnel Creek
I’d had concerns that the hard push earlier would take a lot out of me, and I was right. Running was hard. My heart rate would spike and I’d just get so fatigued so quickly. I had enough time at this point as long as I kept up a steady forward progress, and I let myself enjoy some views on the way back to Tunnel Creek for the last pass (84.2 mi). I told Josh that the best views would be just before Hobart, but of course we had to do some more climbing to get there. I was wishing I had legs to run, but they just weren’t there. I sat on a bench at Hobart (89.2 mi) for the last time there and ate two small burgers with avocado and bacon. They were delicious, but it was hard to chew at that point. We doused ourselves in water as much as possible, saturating my shirt and pack with hopes of continued cooling. The AS volunteer warned us we were “headed into the furnace” for the next 12 miles. He also suggested getting IN the one creek we’d run by to cool down again. I had the forethought to fill a third bottle with water, and we shuffled out around noon to finish this thing out hell-or-high-water.
At least the climbing ended… but we left behind the cool lake breezes and much of the shade. The remainder of the course was to be on fire roads or exposed high desert trails. We all shuffled along (I’d been running with a couple of guys on-and-off for the past several hours, all of us just slogging it out to the finish). The creek came… we laid in it and completely soaked ourselves, hat, pack, shoes and all. Within an hour I was completely dry again, using that 3rd bottle to wet my head neck and face sparingly. Somewhere around 7 loooong miles later we came to Pipeline AS perched on a ridge above the valley (97ish mi) . They had ice cold water, snacks and watermelon. A volunteer looked me straight in the eye and said “I know some of the mileages have been off, but I promise you it is JUST FIVE MILES to the finish. You will DO this!”. I finally started to believe. Josh was chatting with the volunteers and I told him “let’s go!”. I’d been shuffling so slowly that I don’t think he expected me to run, but run I did… at least for a little while. Eventually we could even see the college and the finish chute flags in the distance. My brain rejoiced, but my legs said nope. The best I could muster for the last couple miles was as brief shuffle and then back to a hike.
You might've seen me on an episode of CSI?
But… eventually… 35 hours, 2 minutes and 2 seconds after I left that place I ran down the finish chute to the cheers of friends that had come back out to celebrate me and thankfully collapsed into a chair. I was handed my commemorative pint glass full of ice-cold water and the most beautiful hand-made one-of-a-kind buckle was laid in my lap. I did not cry, perhaps I had no tears, but mostly I just felt relieved to be off that last part of the course and no longer needing to run. I felt like I’d left everything out there, and unlike other 100 milers I felt like I didn’t even have capacity for emotion. All I wanted was to get my feet into a pair of Oofos and get back to the hotel out of the oppressive Carson City Heat. As I was one of the last finishers, the food truck was gone and the beer had been packed up. It didn’t matter… I just wanted a shower more than life itself.
That gorgeous hard-earned prize... a CHAIR at the end in some shade ;)
The next day on my way back to the Ca coast I stopped at El Dorado beach in South Lake Tahoe. It’s nothing special, but it has quick easy access. I hobbled down to the shore and took a moment to reflect on what I’d done over the past 2 days. I was still conflicted, feeling less of a feeling of accomplishment as much as having “survived”!. I walked slowly out into the lake and laid down in its cool clear waters. It was beautiful. I began to smile again. I drove home and treated myself to (a second) In-n-Out lunch on my way to relax out in Inverness.
These races are so many things to me: adventures, tests of what I am capable of, tests of my mental fortitude, challenges to my problem solving and resiliency, reminders I am alive. The TRTER100 miler is a legit challenge in all respects. It may well be the hardest race I’ve run, but in many ways I feel like it may be my most successful. It’s FAR from my fastest race (in fact it’s my slowest), but I was able to rise to different challenges over-and-over that I really felt I wouldn’t be able to. I never ever gave up, but more than that I found things deep in me when I needed to. I guess that’s part of why I do this.
PATH Projects: Shorts/liners, shirt, beanie, bandanna
Xoskin: Socks, shirt
Ultraspire: Alpha 5.0 vest, Lumen 600 waist light
Wicked Trail: trucker hat
Topo Athletic: MTN Racer II shoes
Hoka One One: Speedgoat 5 shoes
Spring Energy: gels
Precision Hydration: electrolyte mix
EFS: electrolyte mix (provided on course)
Payday bars: fun size snacks
S-caps: additional salt
Trail Toes: lube
Coolnes: hat drape
Black Diamond: headlamp