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Knockin' On Heaven's Door: Tahoe Rim Trail 50-Mile Race Report

Posted Jul 26 2012 12:00am

“Feels like I'm knockin' on Heaven's door -
Knock-knock-knockin' on Heaven's door … “
 -Guns ‘n’ Roses, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (video after post)

At the Tahoe Rim Trail ultras , you can spend a lot of time contemplating Heaven and Hell.

The two poles are right there in the race’s motto - “A Glimpse of Heaven, A Taste of Hell” – but more than simple words can express, it’s the feelings you go through while making your way through the course.  Hellish climbs and occasionally infernal heat.  Celestial scenery and lofty elevations that make Heaven seem just a reach away.  And if you’re having a good race there, the whole experience can feel like knocking on Heaven’s door.

This was the third straight year I’ve participated at TRT in some form or another , and each time has been rewarding in its own unique way.  During last weekend’s 50-miler, the vast majority of my time was simply heavenly – and the good vibes seemed to be shared with many kindred spirits along the way.  And with that, we’ll get to the report

(As always, click any picture to enlarge.)

There’s certainly a more lighthearted vibe to the 50K and 50M crowds at Tahoe.  Part of it could be due to the fact that unlike the earlier racers, we’re not starting in the dark; the other part is probably because we know how far those lunatics who started an hour ahead of us will be running.  When other people are running 100 miles, it’s hard for the rest of us to find anything to complain about.

One runner was even nice enough to take my picture.  The conversation went like this: She said I looked familiar and asked if I had a running blog.  I replied that I did have a website and introduced myself – at which point she said, “Oh, right – you paced Gretchen here, didn’t you?”

It wouldn’t be the last time I heard about Gretchen; no fewer than three more times, someone recognized me as Gretchen’s friend, the guy who paced Gretchen , or the guy who Gretchen was nice enough to pace one time .  You know … just in case I forgot whose neighborhood I was in.

And since I seem to have so many Gretchen fans reading my blog, I can offer two things:  1) She’ll make an appearance in this report, and 2) Bookmark her Hardrock report and read it anytime you want to get blown away with inspiration.  Trust me, it’s that good.  Then again, most of you probably know that already.

(What was I writing about again?  Oh, right – the race report.)

One of the only downsides of running the 50M event is that the trail is very crowded for the first 5 miles or so – in fact, this year had more 50M and 50K entrants than any time in the race’s history.  Fortunately, most of those early miles are uphill, which forces you to start conservatively …

 … and by the time we enjoyed the first descent to Marlette Lake at mile 5, there was plenty of room to stretch our legs and cruise at a comfortable pace.

Just before the Hobart aid station at mile 6, we were greeted by an angel and a devil.  One was shouting things like “Looking good!”, and the other yelled “Embrace the suck!”  You can guess which was which.  It was evidently some sort of battle for our minds …

… and on this side of the Hobart station, the devil appeared to be winning – at least if the “Hell” sign (lower right) pointing the way was any indication.

And in case we didn’t get the message, the flames on the “Hell’s Gate” sign eliminated any doubt.

It was hard for me to feel discouraged, though, because I knew what was coming up next: the climb over the shoulder of Marlette Peak, which is one of the prettiest trails I’ve ever run …

 … with one of the coolest views you can ask for above Marlette Lake and Lake Tahoe.

I was especially happy to run this trail for another reason: one year ago , large stretches of this segment were buried under several inches of snow.  I soaked in the scenery and cruised along blissfully …

… and before I knew it, I was at one of the friendliest aid stations on Earth: Tunnel Creek, which I passed through six times during my 100-mile odyssey last year, and where it’s impossible not to feel the outpouring of love from the volunteers …

… one of whom was Gretchen, sporting her new pink Hardrock 100 shirt.  Remember what I said about the vibe at the start line?  It’s also hard to complain to a girl who finished Hardrock one week earlier – and each time I passed through here, I left with a genuine “no worries” feeling.   That’s how you know you’ve been in an awesome aid station.

The Red House Loop gets a lot of pre-race chatter: it’s often identified as the “Taste of Hell” the race motto refers to.  It’s essentially a long downhill plunge followed by an uphill loop to bring you back to the same trail, and can often get scorching hot in the midday heat.  I’ve never had much difficulty with it, though, because there’s an aid station at the bottom of the loop …

… where a group of clowns are waiting to fill your bottles.  Whether this is heavenly or hellish depends on how you feel about clowns, I guess.

The majority of the climb out of the loop is runnable …

… until it isn’t.  I’ve learned not to get discouraged by the steep slog in this section, though; I just consider it practice for the legitimately monstrous slog that’s waiting for you about 13 miles later.

True story about this photo: as I was trudging back into Tunnel Creek, a spectator saw my camera and offered to take a picture of me.  Apparently the still photo didn’t look too good, because the next thing he told me was to go back down the hill so he could get an action shot.  So I actually deserve credit for 50.005 miles on the day, if you want to get technical about it.

Leaving Tunnel Creek, the 50-milers have the course to themselves as the 50K runners head back toward the finish.  I felt kind of bad for them, because this is definitely one of the prettiest sections of the course …

… with views of Lake Washoe to the west …

… large boulder-strewn footpaths on the Rim Trail ahead …

… and more spectacular visions of Lake Tahoe to the east.

Just when you’ve gotten your fill of amazing views, you embark on a 5-mile downhill path that’s simply perfect for inflicting pain upon your quads.  Coincidentally, the sun was positioning itself directly overhead, in ideal position for generating hellish heat on the exposed sections of the course.

So by the time I reached Diamond Peak aid station at mile 30, I felt a bit like I was approaching the fringes of Hell.  A curious quote sprang to mind: it was from Winston Churchill, who once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going”; under the circumstances, that seemed like as good advice as anything.

To be sure, there was more hell to come: namely, the 2-mile, almost 2000’ climb to the top of Diamond Peak ski area.  This was a slow, miserable trudge for me, and the steps seemed to happen in slow motion – actually, that’s not an exaggeration.  It took me almost an hour to cover two miles.

In the midst of my misery, it was slightly encouraging to see that the race directors at least had a sense of humor about the whole thing.  Honestly, it really wasn’t much encouragement at all – but by that point I was basically grasping at straws.

Finally reaching the top of the hill was a strange moment of duality for me: I appreciated the wondrous sights from my lofty perch close to heaven again … but I had pretty much cooked myself in order to get there.  On one of the highest points of the course, I felt the lowest – and in hindsight, it turned out to be the closest I came to hell all day long.

I knew the course became friendly again on the smooth, mostly downhill singletrack back to Tunnel Creek, but all I could muster was to walk long stretches of this section, while getting passed by what seemed like a parade of runners.

However, here’s what I mean when I say I’ve “managed” a race well: I’ve been in these hard situations enough times to know that they eventually get better.  In the moment, there’s always the potential of going into a downward mental spiral - but if you can resist those demons for a while, they eventually get tired and leave you alone.   On the Tahoe Rim Trail, I felt far too close to heaven to let some pesky demons drag me down – and before I knew it, I was jogging again.

And if I needed any more encouragement to keep going, I got it from my favorite aid station angel when I finally made it back to Tunnel Creek.

With 15 miles to go, it’s time to retrace your steps back over Marlette Peak …

… before returning to the opposite side of Hobart aid station – where coincidentally, the sign (lower left) that greets you this time says “Heaven” ...

... and you can get some cookies and energy gels from yet another friendly angel.  With less than 10 miles to go at this point, nothing was going to stop me anymore …

… not even one final encounter with the devil, whom I found shortly after leaving the station.  I stopped to talk to him for a few minutes; he turned out to be remarkably friendly, and gave me some information about the course before rushing off to help another runner who needed help.  When you can make peace with your demons during an ultra, you know you’re having a good day.

The final climb of the day begins gradually, but ratchets up the steepness as you pop above the tree line on the climb to Snow Valley, the highest point of the run at nearly 9000'.

The top of the ridge is also a great place to enjoy some more wonderful views …

… and in this case, to be taken completely by surprise.  This winged-and-haloed angel was strangely unexpected: she was running in the opposite direction (so she wasn’t a race participant), was more than a mile from the aid station (so she didn’t seem to be a volunteer), and had a hydration pack indicating she was covering a long distance on the top of the mountain.  Despite this, she floated gracefully down the trail straight towards me, only stopping briefly when I asked to take her picture.  If she had told me she had fallen directly out of the sky, I probably would have believed her.  I swear, ultras do weird things to your head sometimes.

Once you leave the Snow Valley aid station, you traverse a rocky but gently-sloping ridge on the shoulder of the peak …

… before dropping below the tree line for one long final plunge, about 5 miles down toward the finish line at Spooner Lake.

When you finally reach the lake, the finish line seems like a speck in the distance, and as the trail takes you around the lake, it actually seems to get farther away at times.  But at this point, there’s no devil in the world that can keep you from the finish line …

… and when you get there, you know you’ve just participated in something beautiful.

As my final tune-up for Leadville, I was particularly concerned about how I would feel at the end of this race – and afterward, I couldn’t have asked for a better test run. 

For one thing, my RunAmoc Dashes cemented their status as my race day moccasins – but that’s really a minor point in the bigger scope of things.  My training has been pretty lousy this year – I keep meaning to write about this separately, I promise – so I’ve replied upon buildup races more than ever to bolster my confidence before the big test next month.

Without going into too much detail (or lengthening this report any further), I think that most of the pieces are falling into place for me to successfully finish Leadville in a few weeks.  The TRT carried me to that final threshold, and I feel like I’m on the verge of something truly magnificent … like I’m ready to knock right on heaven’s door, and have it open wide to welcome me in.

Obviously I had a handful of artist options for this tune … but since I’m a child of the metal 80s, there was really only one choice: the incomparable Guns ‘n’ Roses.  The clip is from the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert , and is a great reminder of just how impressive GNR was when they were on their game – as well as how disappointing it is that they wasted it all away so fast.

Guns ‘n’ Roses, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (click to play):

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

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