It was 3:30 a.m. I was lying in a cot shivering, in the ski lodge of Diamond Fork ski area above Lake Tahoe. A lady who had put blankets on me kept looking back at me with concerned looks. The previous 11 hours had been brutal. Because of an altitude-related stomach issue, I had only covered 30 miles during that time. Now, at mile 80, serious thoughts of quitting and DNFing were swirling in my mind. I was looking for the right excuse to stop, a reason that I could live with. Why continue to suffer? I had even survived the fright of running into a huge black bear with her cub earlier in the afternoon. I had a string of 23 100-mile finishes without a DNF. Was I ready to see that string broken? I told myself yes and continued to shiver.
A month ago, I ran the Bighorn 100 race for the 6th time. At mile 30 I slipped running down a grassy slope and broke my right hand (5th metatarsal). It would require a plate and six screws to fix it up. That day I continued on and found a way to run 70 more miles and finish that race. Now, mostly healed up, would I cross the finish line at Tahoe?
This was my fifth time participating in the Tahoe Rim 100. Last year I was heading toward a sub-24-hour finish but issues slowed me to a respectable 26:05 finish. I wanted to give it another try and also receive the 5-time finisher belt.
The course above Lake Tahoe is spectacular. The trail is very runnable with some good tough climbs. I have always enjoyed my experience running this race. It keep bringing me back.
I arrived a day early and enjoyed attending the first-round action of the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at South Lake Tahoe. I had great fun watching celebs like Michael Jordan, Jason Kidd, Tony Romo, Ray Allen and others try to play golf. Afterwards I enjoyed a great barbeque with the Mike Place family in Incline Village where I also spent the night.
At the start with Mike Place, already looking tired.
At 4 a.m., I was at the start at Spooner Lake State Park where I relaxed and made last minute preparations in a quiet, dark picnic area. With just a few minutes to spare, I went down to the start area along the lake, greeted friends and was ready for a long day of amazing running.
(Photos by Craig Heinselman)
The next section is the out-and-back Red House Loop. For the back-of-the pack 50-milers and 50K runners who start and hour later, this section can be pretty hot because we descend to the low point of the course. However, for me, the morning was still cool and pleasant. Last year we had experienced record heat, but this year is was cooler than normal. This year we had a new obstacle, about five shin-deep streams to cross during this section. I kept my pace up through this forest trail well and I enjoyed greeting tons of runners coming down as I was going back up. I arrived back at Tunnel Creek (mile 17.3) at 3:36, in 17th place, 24 minutes slower than last year and my slowest arrival of all my five years. What was going on?
I ran the next uphill section pretty hard, but was still four minutes slower on that section than last year, and as I continued on the Tahoe Rim Trail I finally noticed that I was breathing very hard and my speed had disappeared. Obviously the altitude was really getting to me. With all the snow in the mountains back in Utah I had not been able to do any training above 7,000 feet. Now I was above 8,000 feet and having a very tough time. I tried to be patient as many runners caught up and passed me. Brian Kamm from Utah passed and wished me well. The front-running 50-mile runners passed me at least a mile earlier than usual.
Finally on the long descent into Diamond Peak ski resort, my speed came back with more oxygen. This section of the trail is a blast as it winds down the mountain and runs along mountain creeks. I didn’t see any other runners on the way down, so was now keeping pace with the field around me.
I arrived to the cheers of crews at Diamond Peak (mile 30) at 6:06 in 26th place. I was 27 minutes behind last year’s pace and now running with the front-mid pack. I was feeling great and looked forward to the huge climb up the ski slope above our heads. One bright side of being in the mid pack now: it was much easier to catch runners in front of me.
With the open ski slope above, I set my sights on a guy about a quarter mile ahead. He would take periodic rests, but I just charged up with a consistent pace and soon passed him. I reached the top in less than 50 minutes, faster than last year which pleased me. I paused to take in the incredible views of Lake Tahoe behind and below me. Wow!
I covered the rolling, mostly downhill stretch along the Tahoe Rim Trail back to Tunnel Creek in about the same pace as last year. I greeted and tried to encourage the back of the pack runners who were about 15-20 miles behind me, still pushing ahead.
A slippery climb over a snow bank
I felt great for the next 8 miles back to Hobart and up to Snow Valley, the high point of the course. In fact I ran it seven minutes faster than last year. As I was climbing up to above 9,000 feet, I had hopeful feelings that my altitude-related problems were behind me. A fast moving 50-mile woman caught up to me and I was pleased that I could keep up with her on that 1,000-foot climb. We passed many 50K runners still making progress toward their finish. I arrived at Snow Valley (mile 43.1) at 9:58, in 26th place, 27 minutes behind last year’s pace. I had kept that pace for the past 13 miles. There were several 100-mile runners who arrived there within minutes of me.
I didn’t stay long at the aid station manned by a Boy Scout troop. I knew there were 7.2 downhill miles ahead that I needed to push hard.
All was going well, until about half way down. I felt a dreaded, familiar pit in my stomach signaling that a bonk was arriving. I quickly took action, eating a couple gels, taking s-caps, and beef jerky. I also slowed my pace. Last month at Bighorn I experienced a terrible bonk for the entire night that slowed me terribly. I didn’t want to have the same thing happen. I’ve also experienced this in other races, usually right after sunset, but it was only 3:30 p.m. This had not happened before. With a slower pace, I soon felt better without any starving stomach discomfort. I finished my first 50-mile loop in 11:27, 35 minutes slower than last year.
I knew my stop at the half-way point last year was 18 minutes, so to gain some time back, I only spent a few minutes and was on my way. John Sharp, who I had run near for quite a few miles also left about the same time. But within a half mile, my stomach felt terrible and I threw up. John went on ahead (but would later DNF in a few hours). It would take me 2:32 to get back to Hobart compared to 1:15 during the morning. At times I slowed to a crawl trying to get my stomach to behave. I tried eating a gel, but couldn’t even tolerate swallowing a small amount. Beef Jerky was better, and water felt fine. I noticed that when my stomach was at its worse, my respiration was going like crazy. I stopped twice to calm down, always seeing others pass me. But I couldn’t stop long because the mosquitoes would descend on me.
I pushed on. About a mile before Marlette Lake, I heard a loud noise in the bushes ahead. I caught a glimpse of a brown-colored bear cub cross the trail only about 50 feet ahead. It then ran down a steep slope to the valley floor. I stopped dead in my tracks. I knew, where there was a cub, there was usually a mother bear. Sure enough, within about 15 seconds, a huge black bear appeared on the trail ahead and stopped, looking down the slope toward her cub. This was not good at all. I slowly started to walk backwards. What should I do? The huge bear turned her head toward me, noticed me, and then bolted off down the steep slope with amazing speed crashing through bushes and trees, making a terrible racket. I walked ahead and looked down. The only thought that went through my head was, “Boy, I wish I had that downhill speed!”
Running on ahead, or rather power walking ahead, I kept looking behind me and listening for noises. A couple runners caught up and I had fun telling them about my story. Their eyes opened wide as I pointed behind down where the bears had been.
I continued to suffer with my stomach problem. Over the next hours, I had plenty of time to try to figure things out. I wasn’t throwing up. I wasn’t nauseous. But the stomach wasn’t processing food fast enough and at times it felt like I was starving to death. I discovered that if I took very deep breaths, I would temporarily feel better. I felt the worst when I was breathing like crazy, oxygen deprived. Also, when I descended back down into the Red House Loop, at an altitude of 6,000 feet, I felt much, much better. I even started to pass people again. But once we climbed back up, the problems returned. I finally concluded that the problem was that my digestive system was being oxygen deprived, probably because I just haven’t had enough altitude training. Nothing I ate seemed to help. The discomfort was terrible.
Finally, at 11 p.m., I decided to just try to ignore all the pain, and run like crazy since my legs were so well-rested at this point. I was three hours behind the schedule I had hoped to be at. So I ran fast, and breathed fast. It generally worked, but just as I was about to pass the runners ahead, I finally collapsed on the side of the trail and had to rest to bring my breathing under control and calm my stomach down. This was very frustrating. I continued on like this for the next couple hours. Running hard, almost catching the runners ahead, and then taking a 3-4 minute catnap on the trail. I must have done this about five times.
Finally, I reached the long 7-mile downhill back to Diamond Peak ski area. This was easier, but a toll had been taken on my body. My energy level was now low and I just could not blast down the trail very fast. With my slow pace, I was astounded that no runners behind caught me or could even been seen. They were far behind. Everyone was going as slow as I was.
The lights of the ski lodge came into view. It was 3:05 a.m. Last year I arrived at 12:21 a.m. The aid station captain recognized me as I arrived and quickly offered to help me in any way. I needed to get warm because I was experiencing some hypothermia. He took me into the lodge and guided me to a warm quiet location and then went to get me food. Chad Bracklelsberg was there, caring for his wife Emily, who had passed me four hours earlier. She was in poorer shape then I was and they were watching her carefully. Chad and the others around me where a great help and encouragement to me.
As I sat and ate, things turned worse. I realized that if I stopped long, my body would start going through recovery and it would be hard. Sure enough it happened. I said, “I think I’ll take that blanket now.” A lady rushed to get one. In just a few more minutes, now dizzy, I was lying down on a nearby cot, shivering like crazy. They brought more blankets and had looks of deep concern. I kept telling them that I was fine, that I was used to this. I never was concerned, having experienced this type of recovery many times.
It looked like Emily was going to DNF. Why shouldn’t I too? They could give me a ride back to the start. I came very close to deciding to quit. There were still 20 very tough, cold miles ahead. I had suffered terribly for the last 11 hours. Why prolong this?
Finally the shivering went away and instead it felt like I was now running a temperature and getting hot. I got up on unstable legs and walked in a small circle. Others watched me, wondering if I was going to faint. But, I started to feel better. My excuses to quit seemed to start disappearing. Chad asked if I was going to keep going. I believe I always said yes, when someone asked. Eventually I went upstairs to the men’s room. On the way back, I decided to jog the stairs several times. It felt good and I could feel myself warming up nicely. I imagine it was a pretty funny thing to see, a dead runner jogging up and down stairs while a 100-mile race was going on outside.
OK, I was going to continue and finish this off. I wanted to get a silver belt buckle for finishing in less than 30 hours. It was nearing 4:00 a.m. I told Chad that I had seven hours to finish. He told me that he bet I could do it in six. His confidence was encouraging. As I was getting ready to leave, it looked like Emily was starting to have thoughts of continuing on too. (She eventually did and finished in 32:05). It took quite a few minutes standing near the door to finally push myself outside.
I was now back out in the cold night, with a huge steep ski slope ahead to climb up. My spirits soon rose as I felt better and recovered. A full moon was out, so I decided to make the entire climb without my lights and do it by moonlight. Looking far up the mountain, I could see two runners lights ahead. Could I catch them? They would never see me coming and it looked like they were going at a snail’s pace. I climbed, and climbed, and really enjoyed it. I was gaining on the other runners fast and could not see anyone behind me. I made the climb in under an hour, arriving at the Bull Wheel aid station (mile 82.3) at 24:04 (5:04 a.m.). It was disappointing to think that I should be at the finish by now, but I ran ahead with good speed on the rim trail. I quickly passed the runners ahead of me and Kurt Eisele said, “Now that is the way to do it” as I ran fast past him. He would kick it into gear and I would run near him for the next ten miles or so.
What can I say about the final 17 miles? It was slow and tough. The stomach again complained and slowed me down. But I kept my eye on my watch, knowing exactly the pace I needed to break 30 hours. I didn’t want to have to sprint near the end, so I tried to keep a 30-minute buffer. Usually I would see the sunrise at mile 95 or later, but this year it came before mile 85. But it was spectacular and very cool to see at a different portion of the course. I had trouble keeping up with Kurt but caught up with him at the aid stations. He had a sprained ankle but was doing an amazing fast power walk all the way to the finish.
After Snow Valley, with the final seven-mile downhill ahead, I ran on ahead of Kurt, knowing that I had to at least run 18-minute miles. I wasn’t pushing it hard, but still covered the miles at about 15-minute mile pace. The morning was quiet in the forest except of a couple of hikers making their way up the mountain.
Well, I did it. The finish came into view and I crossed the line in good spirits, feeling pretty fine at 29:45:15 in 29th place out of 108 starters. About 42 runners did not finish. As I approached, RD Dave Cotter yelled out, “You finished another one!” Good friend, George Ruiz, co-RD, was there to greet me and congratulated me for my 5th TRT 100-mile finish. Only two others had accomplished that. I sat with him for the next 15 minutes to chat and see who else would finish before 30 hours. Brian Holthausen made in just under the wire, pushing very hard. Kurt missed it by 4 minutes.
George and Dave presented me my 500-mile belt and my 5th buckle. George said that he was glad I didn’t quit back at Diamond Peak because he had this special belt waiting for me. I was glad I didn’t quit either, but knew I didn’t want to suffer like that ever again. Next time I probably would quit.
This may have been the toughest 100-mile finish ever for me. Two others come to mind, both well over 30 hours. It is interesting to me that my toughest are the slowest. For this reason, I always have deep respect for the accomplishments of those who arrive in the back of the pack.
Amazingly, my legs felt fine and rested. I only had a couple small blisters on my feet that didn’t really bother me. But I could tell that my body systems had been punished hard, being starved of oxygen and calories for many, many hours. Maybe I’m just pushing this old body too hard. I’ll search for the solution and look forward to my next 100 next month, Cascade Crest 100. I have now finished 42 100-milers, this being my 5th of 2011. My string without a DNF now stands at 24.