Saturday, September 10, 2011


My closest call yet.

I realize I'm tempting fate in writing this, but after 19 100-milers and 60+ Ultra-marathons in total, I still remain without a single DNF (Did Not Finish). I'm well aware that a significant portion of this streak is attributable to luck and at least as much to an unwillingness to push myself too hard. In the end, I guess my only true talent is an unwavering ability to trudge through whatever amount of pain and misery a given race may throw at me. At some point, that simply won't be enough. At Tahoe, it nearly wasn't.

Entering the race, my mindset and physical conditioning were far from optimal. With a 5am start and much of the race above 8000ft, it was far from an ideal setup for me. Then there was my less than optimal experience running the 50 mile version of this event back in 2007. I guess 4 years is long enough to forget since the one thing I do recall from that race is thinking that I would never want to do 2 loops of the course. Yet, here I was about to do just that only on a slightly modified route that promised even more climbing.

Snow in July
I hung back with Jill and Beat during the early miles trying to keep things easy. Jill was undertaking her first "running" 100 miler (she'd finished Susitna in February) and Beat was taking things especially slow since he'd signed up for some crazy race in the French Alps just 10 days after TRT. With 5 pee breaks in the first 10 miles, it was clear my body was not in top form for this race. I tried to distract myself with the inspiring views and precarious-yet-fun snow fields during the early miles. However, by Red House loop, I was already hitting my first low.

Not feeling great coming out of the loop

I always tell myself to ignore any bad spell that comes in the first 4 hours as it has little to do with the rest of the race. Even so, the encouraging words from friends doing the 50 miler did not bouy my spirit as I made the steep climb out of the loop. I was hopeful that pushing past the 4 hour zone would bring me back around, but I also knew I was entering the dreaded "8500 foot" zone. My low dragged on. Harry, starting an hour later in the 50, caught up to me when I was pretty much at rock bottom. While I was unable to convince him that this might be my first drop, I said that maybe I would just end up DFL (Dead F***ing Last). I must have been pretty bad because he looked at me as though it might be a reasonable expectation.

The views offered little help at this point

I thought that if I could just hold it together until the descent to Squaw Peak Lodge, I might recover, but there was a lot of rolling terrain before the descent. I don't usually have major issues going up to altitude, but sustained time at or above 8500ft seems to just drag on me. Somewhere along this section, I devised this little chart in my head to help me deal with it:

ElevationDownhillFlat trailGradual uphillSteep uphill
below 8000ftRunRunShuffle*Walk
above 8500ftRunWalkWalk
*Monitor breathing and heart-rate and walk if necessary

I don't know whether the plan itself worked or whether it was the distraction of the mental exercise, but I made it down to the lodge and felt OK. After a short break and a popsicle, I was ready to take on the massive climb up the ski slope...or so I thought. I had caught up with Jill, so at least my misery had company. The climb started innocuously enough, but as soon as we turned the corner around the lift, the full-on 35% incline presented itself. The slope was unrelentingly steep with multiple false peaks. The only consolation was the amazing view of Lake Tahoe that only improved with each gasping rest I took. Jill is a much better climber so I couldn't quite keep up with her, but I was surprised that more people didn't pass me as I slogged my to the top.


Once at the peak, I knew we had mostly downhill in front of us save for the climb to Snow Valley Peak (high point of the course). This was the same place where I'd made my recovery during the 50 miler 4 years prior so my spirits we looking up. Upon arriving back at Red House I was already feeling better and even looking forward to the snow fields on the way to Hobart. They were very slushy at this point. As I made a "but-slide" down a particularly steep and slippery slope, I promised myself to grab my trekking poles for the return trip at night.

Before I knew it, I was on the climb to Snow Valley with my mind set on the long downhill beyond. As I've  said before, climbing up and over a peak is not usually an issue. Besides, the Eagle Scouts manning this aid station had laid out humorous signs all along the final mile to keep us distracted. They also ran one of the best aid stations I've ever experienced. The Sorbet was especially appreciated, but I did not dally.

The downhill was everything I remembered, but I held back knowing that I'd another half race to go. The generally frustrating last 2 miles of flat to the start/finish area wasn't as bad as I had imagined. My spirits were lifted. I was, as always looking forward to the night. Harry, Martina and Beat were all waiting at the aid station. I came in and sat down filled with smiles. Harry commented on how surprising my recovery was. In fact, I had apparently looked so bad that an accidental call to my wife had created an unnecessary level of concern. Nothing a happy call home couldn't fix.

After stuffing my face and gathering my night gear I was back underway. I headed out alongside a couple whom I had met coming into the aid station. However, they took a break in the first 1/2 mile due to some stomach issues leaving me alone in the dark; my favorite way to travel. I don't recall what thoughts filled my head, but I was enjoying myself immensly.

I knew the section to the first aid station was relatively long, but I didn't recall the exact path as my emotional universe was a quite different from the one through which I travelled in the morning. When a came upon a somewhat confusing intersection it should have given me pause, but there was a large reflective arrow on a sign pointing right so I went right and didn't give it much thought. As I ascended higher and higher through the woods, somewhere back in my conscious was the scratching knowledge that this wasn't right. I've gone off course in a handfull of races and its always the same. It's not the inital mistake, but the tendency to continue on beligerantly pushing doubt to the back of my mind against mounting evidence that has continued to elude me.

As I stood at the top of snowfield staring at one of the little yellow signs set by the scounts, I let out an audible "FUCK!" In truth, I'd known it for some time as there shouldn't have been any snow on the section at all, but I needed the blatent evidence to slap me out of my mental momentum. I was about a mile from the aid station, but the wrong one. I considered continuing there to fill my bladder, but I knew that would be the end of my race. I turned and headed down. By the time I arrived at the correct aid station, I'd gone an extra 4.5 miles only to realize that I had been but a few hundred yards away when I made the wrong turn. As I stood there coming to grips with this realization, the last runner in the race came in. I'd already made my decision to finish the race, but I'd never been at the back before. Chasing cutoffs was a brand new experience.

I made it to Tunnel Creak and put all thoughts out of mind in order to complete the dreaded Red House Loop once again. Arriving back at the aid station I was informed of where I stood. It was nearly 4:00am. The cuttoff at Squaw Valley Peak, they told me, was 7:15am. I had my doubts. In fact, as I headed up the climb to the next aid station--the same spot where I'd had my low the previous morning--I was prepared to just give up the chase, hang out and make my way down to the lodge to end my race. For better or worse, when I arrived, nobody was there. The station was unmanned. I continued.

The long section above 8500ft was not so bad this time. Whether due to the cool, dense night air or some other factor, I made my way towards the descent with relative ease. Just as the trail began heading down I came across Jill sitting on a tree stump in the dim light of the early morning. She looked dejected. Her feet were shot. I was ready to invite her to join me on the long stroll to end our races together, but then she told me the cuttoff was 7:45. She knew her feet weren't up for the task, but encouraged me that I should have no problem. I tried to offer some words, but my spark was already ignighted and I started to push.

As I hit the road at the bottom, Beat was there. "Dude, the cuttoff is 7:35am, you better hurry!" He trotted along side me and I informed him about Jill, but he seemed to already know. We arrived at the aid station 10 minutes before cuttoff. I sucked down a latte, grabbed some other snacks and headed up the monster climb for one last push. I knew if I could make it to the peak without blowing up, I could mount a comeback. I conquered the ascent with continuous steps folllowed by rests. I ignored everything else save the progress below my feet. Eventually, I could see the top of the ski lift. At the peak, I rested breifly gathering the my energy for the final 18 miles.

The remainder of the race was somewhat anti-climatic. I'd gained 15 minutes on the cutoff by Tunnel Creek. Nobody behind me had made it so I was followed by the race sweep to Hobart and then onto the climb (my third) up to Snow Valley Peak. I caught another runner there and stuck with him until the descent after the aid station. On the final downhill, I caught and passed another runner. I finished in 3rd to last with nearly an hour to spare.

At the finish, Beat uttered the now classic line "Steve, you are both the toughest and dumbest person I know."

Humourous though it is, the epithet has sort of stuck in my craw. I've given myself numerous mental "standing orders" to try and avoid such situations. Reminded myself that if there is ever the slightest doubt, I should turn around, go back, and check. However, when I am out there I seem only able to move in a forward direction. Perhaps this perstence--misguided though it occasionally may be--is the same trait responsible for my tendency to always finish what I begin. So much have I trained myself to ignore the doubts, questions and concerns bubbling up from my sub-conscious that I sometimes end up missing those intended to keep me from going wrong. In the grand scheme of things, I guess it's a pretty good trade-off to make. That is, as they say, until it isn't.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Phew. Well done Steve!