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100 Miles in Moccasins: Tahoe Rim Trail 100-Mile Race Report

Posted Jul 22 2011 12:49am
“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart … “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve”
- From The Alchemist, By Paulo Coelho

If you’re looking for an inspirational tale to kill some time while tapering for a 100-mile run, it’s hard to do much better than The Alchemist . Paulo Coelho’s classic is an enchanting fable of a shepherd boy who embarks on a long journey, often times against his better judgment, in hopes of finding his personal treasure. His adventure is fraught with challenges and setbacks, and the boy often wonders if realizing his dream is even possible.

As you might guess, the themes of the story struck close to home. Recently I explained how it wasn’t too long ago that I wondered if running 100 miles in a pair of moccasins was possible; in some ways it seemed like merely a fanciful dream. Over several months of training, I worked my way through harder and harder challenges, until I felt reasonably confident that the 100-mile goal was one I had the ability to achieve.

I’ve already announced how the whole thing turned out, of course: last weekend I successfully covered 100 miles in my Soft Star RunAmocs on the Tahoe Rim Trail. However, my story is about more than just a boy and his moccasins; it’s also an almost spiritual journey in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the privilege to run.

Accordingly, I’m breaking this report up into two separate accounts. Since you already know about the end result with the moccasins, I’ll save the specific details about how they performed, how my feet held up, and any problems I had (hint: nothing too serious) for a separate post next week. In the meantime, the TRT 100 deserves its own spotlight for an official race report, because it was chock full of memories that I’ll treasure for a very long time to come.

But to have some fun and keep the literary theme rolling, let’s go ahead and include additional quotes from The Alchemist along the way.

(Also, as usual, you can click to enlarge any of the following photos)

Part 1: Spooner Lake to Diamond Peak and back (miles 1-50)

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”

Even though I had been targeting this race for more than a year, I knew full well that there was no certainty of actually completing it. The TRT course is no joke: it features over 20,000’ of climbing, going back and forth multiple times over three separate peaks, with nearly the entire trail at elevations between 7000’ and 9000’. Its annual dropout rate is somewhere between 40 and 50%. And the whole moccasin plan was an untested strategy once I got beyond 100K - so to say I had a healthy dose of anxiety on the start line would be an understatement.

Fortunately, once we started up the trail on race morning, I understood that all of those concerns would actually heighten the experience for me. There’s a distinct difference between taking a training run on a beautiful mountain trail, and cruising some mellow miles that you know will ultimately be part of something epic. This was going to be a day unlike any other - and the possibility of my crazy moccasin plan actually coming true made the early miles that much more interesting.

Marlette Lake sits at 7800’, and marks mile 5 on your first pass through. Before the day is over, you’ll eventually see the lake from several different angles and elevations.

Just past the Hobart aid station at mile 6, we caught our first glimpse of what would be recurring features of the course: a steep climb (in this case, up Marlette Peak), a drift of snow to make the trail even more interesting, and a full moon on the horizon.

We also saw Marlette Lake again – from much higher up this time. The morning fog hadn’t quite lifted …

… which made for very white conditions once we hit the lager snow fields along the ridgeline on Marlette Peak.

The snow fields were extensive at times, and would get tricky to cross at various times of the day and night – but on our first pass of the morning, it was relatively easy to negotiate, and proved to be a lot of fun.

On the down side of Marlette Peak, the snow eventually gave way to groomed trails …

… and a scenic little alpine pond …

… before reaching what would be one of my favorite destinations: the Tunnel Creek aid station, which 100-mile runners visit six times, and which features the most wonderful volunteer crew you can ever hope to meet.

While I’m doing shout-outs, one more is in order: the CLIF company stepped up huge to support me on this run, as I mentioned in this post . Their gesture was especially appreciated, because last year I tried the on-course gel (which shall remain nameless) and found it to taste fairly horrid. So among other gear I’d need later on, my drop bag was loaded to the brim with CLIF gels, and I stuffed a handful of them into my waist pack at every pass-through to keep me fueled throughout the first 50 miles. Truth be told, I should have used them even later into the race … as I’ll explain a bit later. The point here is, CLIF simply rocks.

After Tunnel Creek comes the somewhat infamous Red House loop, which has a fearful reputation for reasons I don’t quite understand. There’s a 1200’ downhill plunge over less than 2 miles before slowly looping around to gain all the elevation back over 4 miles. Apparently when the weather is hot, the bottom of the loop can be a furnace – but when I passed through the first time, the morning was still cool and shady, and my second pass (miles 61-67) coincided with nightfall, so I guess I timed it right.

Most of the return climb from Red House is gentle enough to run, until you get to the stem of the lollipop-shaped loop, which is noticeably steeper. However, this stretch features two-way traffic from 100-milers as well as speedy 50M and 50K runners who started later in the day, so it adds a nice social element that makes the hill seem a bit more friendly.

After returning to Tunnel Creek, you continue climbing north on the Rim Trail, where you start to enjoy classic high Sierra landscapes …

… as well as some killer views of Lake Tahoe to the west.

As you approach the top of Diamond Peak at approximately 8600’, the trail meanders through open forested areas …

… and a handful of snow segments just to keep you challenged.

Eventually you start a long descent toward the Diamond Peak ski lodge on lush single track, but this downhill is deceptively problematic for a couple of reasons:

1) The trail is super smooth, and sloped just perfectly to let your legs go into “bombs away” downhill mode – however, with more than 70 miles still remaining, that strategy is ill-advised if you value your quadriceps at all. Also,

2) At night, all those twists and turns across the open landscape make the trail rather tricky to follow – especially when large segments are re-routed or buried under large snowdrifts.  If I hadn't had a pacer, there's a good chance I would have ventured off course.

So I was intentionally conservative going down the first time, and felt like my legs were in great shape when I hit the Diamond Peak aid station at mile 30. Of course, my crew person who happened to be there put things in perspective for me
Her: How do you feel?

Me: I’m doing OK … I actually feel pretty good.

Her: Yeah, well – that’s because you’re only at mile 30.

I guess I didn’t have to worry about getting overconfident.

Immediately following the Diamond Peak aid station begins the most diabolical portion of the race: a two-mile, 1800’ climb up the face of a ski run. See that dot in the middle of the screen? That’s a chairlift … the bottom of a chairlift.

It’s almost impossible to overemphasize the steepness of this climb, particularly in the second half where the slope is in excess of 30%. It’s psychologically punishing as well, with multiple “false tops” like the one you see here.

The only good aspect is that if you turn around, you have an amazing view of the lake to keep you occupied.

Finally, mercifully, you reach the top of the chairlift which is also the top of the climb.  And you try not to think about the fact that you'll have to do this hill all over again, 50 miles from now.

After summiting Diamond Peak, you retrace your steps on the Rim Trail back toward Tunnel Creek …

… and through the snow fields as you pass back over Marlette Peak.

This 20’ vertical drop had steps carved into it earlier in the day, but with the afternoon sunshine working on it for several hours, the slope had completely turned to mush. Some runners slowly picked their way down a side path to the right, while others took the “sled run” that was formed by the backsides of earlier runners.

I took the slide route. How many chances do you get to go sledding during an ultra?

After passing through the Hobart station again, you make your first trek up to Snow Valley Peak, which at 9000’ is the highest point of the TRT course.

Predictably, there were more snowdrifts to climb through …

… before reaching some nice photo spots near the top.

The final mile to the aid station is gently rolling, but the combination of high altitude and 43 miles on your legs makes it much more challenging to run than it appears.

Eventually you reach the Snow Valley aid station, manned by a hardy troop of Boy Scouts who deserve some kind of Alpine badge for camping in the cold, windy conditions on top of the mountain for 48 hours.

From Snow Valley you face a nearly constant 7-mile descent back to the start/finish area at Spooner Lake. The “all downhill” aspect isn’t exactly a good thing, especially if your quads are starting to feel some strain.

Another strange thing about this section is that once you drop below the tree line, the entire trail looks very similar – virtually eliminating any landmarks to indicate what kind of progress you’re making. The best strategy through here is just to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not try to guess how many miles are left …

… and eventually you’ll make your way to Spooner Lake, which marks the finish of the 50M and 50K races, and the halfway point of the 100-miler. It’s also the point where you can be joined by a safety runner to accompany you through the night.

When I was thinking about whether to use a pacer, I considered the qualities that would make for the perfect companion. Ideally, I’d find someone who was a talented mountain runner. Someone who was a successful 100-mile racer. Someone who had experience at this particular race, and who knew these specific trails well enough to navigate them in the dark. Someone who could keep me in good spirits throughout a long, challenging night, and whose company I genuinely enjoy.

In other words, it was an easy choice.

Part 2: Spooner Lake to Diamond Peak (miles 51-80)

“What you still need to know is this: before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it’s evil, but that so we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we move toward that dream.”

Even though I was delighted to see Gretchen , I confess that my spirits were sagging a bit as we made our way back onto the course to start our second loop. I was starting to feel the fatigue of the first 50 miles, and there was the always-a-downer mental test of having to leave the finish area where 50M runners were enjoying beers and barbecue. So when we passed Marlette Lake a second time, I was brooding quite a bit, and wasn’t exactly looking forward to the long night ahead.

Fortunately, Gretchen can always be relied upon to lighten the mood. UNfortunately, by mutual agreement of all parties involved, I’m not allowed to explain exactly what took place here. Alas.

As I made my third crossing of the snow on Marlette Peak, shadows were growing long and the night was getting extremely cold and windy. By the time we returned here on our final pass, the snow would be completely frozen, and several runners would suffer hypothermia and drop from the race.

One other test that I wasn’t expecting came courtesy of the regularly scheduled weigh-ins. Throughout the first 50 miles, my readings were consistent with my starting weight of 176. Then all of a sudden, at the 50-mile aid station I weighed 167 – which was just a couple of pounds from being held for a medical watch.

Needless to say, I was concerned – so I gave up my routine of CLIF shots and started pigging out on cookies, sandwiches, and even pizza slices from each aid station. At one point I felt so bloated that I commented to Gretchen, “I feel fat.” She laughed me off – that is, until I had my next weigh-in at Tunnel Creek, where my weight was 181.

What the heck was going on? After weighing in, I had the following exchange with the aid station volunteer
Me: 181? That’s crazy … I was 167 at the 50-mile mark.

Volunteer: Yeah – that 50-mile scale is way off. It’s been wrong for everybody.

Unfortunately, nobody at the 50-mile station believed that the scale was way off, and I probably overreacted by stuffing myself and departing from the nutritional strategy that had worked so well to that point. The end result was that I completely overwhelmed my stomach – because from that point forward, it was never really settled, and whenever I tried to pick up the pace, I became more and more queasy.

There was one other very unfortunate – not to mention very embarrassing – side effect of my topsy-turvy gastric situation: namely, I couldn’t stop burping. Every time I transitioned from walking to jogging, I started letting fly like a frat brother at a keg party. This went on for the next twenty-five miles – and I felt absolutely awful for Gretchen, who was following in my wake. She thought pacing at Hardrock was tough – but I had a whole new gauntlet of agony to spring upon her. What an ordeal.

Part 3: Diamond Head to Tunnel Creek (miles 80-85)

“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy told the Alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.”

As if the belching and the upset stomach weren’t enough, there was one other nagging problem I couldn’t shake during the night: I absolutely did not want to do the Diamond Peak climb again.

Throughout the final loop of the course, that hill loomed on the horizon like a 2000’ concrete wall, and even though each step brought me closer to the finish, it also filled my heart with fear about having to suffer through it once again. In my mind, finishing the race was very much in doubt until I could drag myself up that horrible hill – and I had to run 30 rugged miles just to get there.

So I took a few extra minutes in the Diamond Peak aid station, sipping some hot soup while huddling with Gretchen by the warmth of a barbecue grill. Part of me was wishing we were finished right there; I didn’t want to go back into the freezing cold night, but there was really no way around it if I wanted to keep following my dream.

Then we made our way up the hill, and a wonderful thing happened: since we were out of the tree cover on the slopes of the ski run, there were no shadows to block the moonlight from illuminating our path. Gretchen and I both turned off our headlamps and made our way up the hill, baby step by baby step, with nothing but stars and silence and moonglow all around us.

I’d like to say the experience was enjoyable, but I can’t lie: going up that hill a second time definitely sucked. It took us almost an hour to go two miles. However, the suffering itself was far better then the dread that I had at the base of the hill, and that section turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the whole race for me. And when we got to the top, we even did a little moondance to celebrate.

Part 4: Tunnel Creek to Spooner Lake (miles 85-100)

“When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.”

From the top of Diamond Peak, a relatively gentle three-mile descent brought us back to Tunnel Creek for the final time, and it was finally time to start thinking about bringing it home. However, there were still two very challenging climbs ahead – the first of which was up and over Marlette Peak for our fourth and final crossing.

By this time, the darkness of night was starting to lift, and the snow was so slick and frozen that we had to tiptoe our way across it (and even then, I fell on my tail a couple of times).

Something else was happening through here as well: a celestial display on two distinct canvases on either side of the ridge we were traversing. To the wast, we had the full moon lighting our footsteps on the gleaming snow …

… and from the east, the sunrise was announcing the arrival of a brand new day.

The further we traveled into the morning, the more majestic the sky became, and it was an absolutely energizing sight. During that brief stretch from the top of Marlette down to Hobart, it was as if the sun and moon and sky and every element of nature were conspiring to help push me along to the finish line.

It was a good thing, too … because man, was I getting tired.

On the final climb up to Snow Valley, the only thing I could focus on was keeping my feet moving. I basically shut every other aspect of myself down: I stopped talking, stopped taking pictures and looking around, and even stopped trying to take in food or fluids. I was in “let’s just get this dang thing over with” mode – and by this point, nothing was going to distract me from that task.

After what seemed like another whole morning, I finally reached the bottom of the long descent from Snow Valley and rounded Spooner Lake for the final time, nearly 28 hours after leaving the start line. If there’s a more glorious sight than seeing the finish tent of a 100-miler, I’m certainly not aware of it.

Gretchen raced ahead and took my finish line photo, after which I took about three steps forward …

… and promptly crashed into a chair, where I spent the next half-hour or so collecting myself and letting my stomach settle down. The volunteers there spent about 30 seconds congratulating me on my finish before turning their attention to the really remarkable sight: Hey, what are you wearing on your feet? So there I was, in the finish tent of a 100-miler, holding court on the Soft Star company and the benefits of minimalist running. I have to say that felt pretty cool.

Eventually it was time to pry myself from the chair and begin a long slog (uphill, of all things) back to the car and the regular world that awaited. During those first several hours after the race, the accomplishment hadn’t really sunk in; my body felt like it had just done a super-long run, but there wasn’t any real significance there. It’s only been with the reflection of a few days afterward that I’m appreciating just what an amazing experience the whole thing was.

Opportunities like the one I had at Lake Tahoe don’t come along very often, and when they do, there’s no certainty that they’ll go exactly as you hope. People are attracted to ultrarunning because of what it reveals of their character, and for the sense of satisfaction and purpose that it offers – but like a shepherd in search of precious treasure, these journeys are often unpredictable, daunting, and occasionally hopelessly overwhelming.

As for me, I found my treasure along the way; it was in every vista of God’s creation, every moment I spent in the company of friends and fellow runners, every blessing I received from volunteer ambassadors of good will, and every perceived obstacle (both mental and physical) that I overcame to get there. On the Tahoe Rim Trail, I was able to see a crazy dream through to completion, and for that I am extremely grateful.

“The boy reached through to the Soul of the World, and saw that it was a part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.”
- from The Alchemist

*See other race reports under tab at top of page.

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