“IT’S GONNA TAKE A WHILE, BUT I’M GONNA SEND THIS THING.” – ME TO MY WIFE AT THE END OF LAP 1, MILE 50, 13:27.
PART ONE: THE JOURNEY THUS FAR
Twenty one brave souls were assembled in the heated basement bathroom at Northstar awaiting the 5:30 AM start of the inaugural Ultra Trails Lake Tahoe (UTLT) 100 Miler. We had all received word that Eliud Kipchoge had smashed through the two hour marathon barrier in Vienna hours before, utilizing pacers, laser technology, and of course the Nike 4% shoes. The excitement was palpable. It was not possible to be on two more distant ends of the spectrum of the same sport; he had just laid down 26 4:34 miles in a row, and we were about to head off into the mountains of Lake Tahoe for 100 miles of unknown trials and tribulations. And yet we were still focused on the exact same thing – trying to find an actual limit to mental and physical endurance in a human.
The journey to the start line of my first 100 mile event was not a short one. Five and a half years ago in May of 2014, I was cruising the final descent down from Peavine Summit in the Silver State 50k high above Reno, Nevada. I vividly remember when my watch ticked past the 26.2 mile marker and I had crossed into “Ultra-marathon” territory. I burst into tears as I wove between the sage brush heading down into town, overcome by emotions of gratitude, thanks, and love. I finished strong and crossed the line of my first ever 50k, immediately questioning how far I could actually go and confused and befuddled about how someone could ever run a farther distance in a day.
And then as the years ticked by I continued to up my mileage, up my distance, and more importantly up my friends and community in the amazing trail running world. My mentor advised me to take it slow – “Do you want to still be doing this in 5 or 10 years, or do you want to be one of those runners that has a few great seasons and then just disappears off the face of Strava?” I ran my first 100k at Canyons in 2017, and kept on working on that distance for the next few years. I grew stronger, wiser, and more balanced – learning to be less reactive on the trail (and in life) and learning the value of always putting forth positive vibrations. Finally I had a feeling that I was ready, that I had waited and prepared long enough. I was ready to attempt my first hundred.
A successful spring took me through the Marin Ultra Challenge 50k in March, a mind-blowing Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon in April, and then my third consecutive running of the Canyons 100k a few weeks later. Our magical summer in the Alps culminated with a five day trip around the Mont Blanc massif, and I knew I was as ready as I was ever going to be to run 100 miles in a single push. Additionally I still had Western States and the UTMB in my distant sights (and my lotto tickets in their barrels), and I realized it would be unwise to attempt the distance for the first time in one of those races. And so there I was, lined up in the freezing cold early morning, getting ready to head out for an adventure that I really could not anticipate ahead of time. I knew that some things were going to go wrong, but I also knew that there was no way I could predict what those things would be. If a 100k push was a physical journey then a 100 mile push was a spiritual one. I was ready for the mountains to strip my aura clean and lay it all out on the trail.
PART TWO: SUNSHINE AND FRIENDS ALL AROUND ME
My whole plan for the first lap was to run as relaxed, centered, and zen-like as I could. I shared the first climb up to Mount Pluto with my buddy Chris, as we talked about his recent move to Reno and our shared Franco-American families. I value my trail friendships so much – I rarely see these people besides during races, but if you tally up the hours we have spent together running and talking it’s definitely more time than I spend with some of my other “friends”. Chris and I split up on the first descent, and then coincidentally re-joined each other after taking a wrong turn and heading back up the mountain instead of going down. We got our course straightened out, I realized that the Alltrails app on my phone was working and would soon become very valuable, and I shook off the first wrong turn of many as a minor inconvenience to experiencing a “Life in a Day”.
The sun came up and I really settled into my groove, trying to integrate my meditation practice into my running by staying mindful and present with the task at hand. Just like during a meditation, if my mind began to drift or think of random things, I acknowledged those thoughts and whisked them away, returning to the faithful rhythm of stepping and breathing. I had driven up that morning in an attempt to blind-side the altitude, and it seemed to be working so far. I wasn’t out of breath and my body felt good. I had been nursing a strange groin/lower abdominal tightness for the past couple weeks, but if I stayed relaxed enough as I jogged it didn’t seem to bother me. And even the pain from the hornet sting that I received at the top of Pluto at Mile 4 was beginning to die down – I had waited a long time for the opportunity to run this race, and it was going to take a lot to push me off the rails.
The next stretch was full of fun and happy social miles as I learned about Mark’s Pokemon obsession and the rarest gym locations around the world (conveniently placed in beautiful running locales of course). I swapped stories with a few other runners that were also attempting their first hundo that day, and eventually rolled into Watson Lake feeling good and making decent progress. I was a bit behind my “splits” that I had worked out on an Excel spreadsheet the weeks before, but I wasn’t going to let that bother me as I was moving down the trail and in a good space.
The next stop was seeing my East Bay Quadbanger buddy Jack at the HWY 267 aid station. By this point the smoke from a local wildfire was getting a bit intense on my asthmatic lungs so I had to rest for a minute and take a hit of my inhaler. Seeing Jack was a huge pick-me-up – rolling into an aid station and seeing a familiar face smiling back at you has to be one of the best feelings in the world. He filled me up with food and drinks and set me on the Mount Baldy out-and-back, a 14 mile round trip up to the Nevada state line and back. I turned on my Alps-climbing-gear for the climb and just kept working my way up, pausing for absolutely delicious Avocado Rice Balls at the amazing Silver State TRT aid station near the Baldy Summit. My GPS had me at Mile 40 as I grabbed the T-Rex snap bracelet from the canister on the top (Seriously people? Nobody had taken the T-Rex yet?!?!) and texted the important folks in my life – my Mom and Dad as well as my wife Mo who was waiting at the Start/Finish for my Lap One arrival.
The descent had me feeling good and full of smiles as I put it on auto-pilot, breathed, and stayed present with the running. Day hikers that were working their way down from Baldy kept asking how many miles I had left and then had to pick their tongue up off the trail when I replied “oh, about 60 or so”. I hit up Jack again at HWY 267 and bid him farewell as he would not be around for the night shift and lap 2. I hooked up with Alex from Mendocino and we began the last 5 miles into the finish together, eager to see our families, pacers, and the start finish line crowd. The sun began to set as I descended the steep and loose “woodchip descent” into Northstar Village and I was absolutely elated as I headed into the Start/Finish area at the end of Lap 1. I knew by that point that I was feeling good and I was determined to finish what I had started – I even told my wife that “It’s gonna take a while, but I’m gonna send this thing” as I sat down to change my clothes and get my cold weather kit ready.
PART THREE: HERE WE GO AGAIN
The plan was that I would take care of the 8 mile Mount Pluto loop myself and then pick up my wife for night time pacing duties at Mile 58. We had a fairly quick and efficient pit stop, where I was able to change my socks, put on my tights, a dry Capilene shirt, Houdini jacket, and fire up the headlight for the Type II fun that lay ahead. I knew the sooner I busted out these 8 miles the sooner the real adventure began.
Pluto was tough the third time up to the summit but doable, and I took my time and enjoyed the peacefulness and tranquility of the woods. Night running is a different beast entirely, and what you can’t see visually with your eyes is made up with your other senses and general feeling of emotion. I cherish the overall quiet and new sounds that come up during the nights – the bats that suddenly fly across the trail in your path, the owls that hoooo from deep in the woods. Spiders suddenly become reflective on the trail surface and shiny minerals that you would never notice in the daytime illuminate your path like fairy dust. I entered my zone again and tried to descend gently from Pluto and save my legs for the fun that lay ahead.
At Mile 58 (61 by this point on my watch) I officially picked up Mo for pacer duties and we were off. This would begin both my longest distance run to that date as well as my longest night run ever. We had plenty of clothes and supplies, as we are (hopefully) old and wise enough to never head into the mountains un-prepared. It’s a fine balance running in the cold at night, because if you have proper layers on for the movement you will be cold and hypothermic as soon as you stop. So we opted to dress for running and carry extra layers in case things really went sideways along the way and we had to post up somewhere for help. It was great to get the company of my soulmate and she filled me in on the details from the busy day with the kids and the grandparents that had been occurring in the hours before.
Eventually the fatigue began to set in and I started to slow down a bit as the temperature descended as well. It was in the low 20s (F) all night which ensured that we really did have to keep moving and couldn’t pause or we would start shivering right away. My mental game had been nothing but strong up until this point, but coming into the Fiberboard aid station I lost the mental edge and began to come apart. I started to do some math in my head and realized that we would likely be out there for another 11 hours or so, slowing practically to a stop on the Tevis Cup trail and audibly screaming “I can’t do this for another 11 hours!!!”. We had a short pacer/runner meeting (okay I was yelling a bit) and decided that we were not allowed to focus on total distance or time any more – that the only metrics we could discuss were how far it was to the next aid station and about how long it would take to get there. We would take this thing one chunk at a time until we got to the finish. And thus, after declaring to the empty woods and mountains that I couldn’t do this for another 11 hours, we began the final 10 hour and 45 minute push to the end.
You are always stronger than you think you are.
PART FOUR: WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET HALLUCINATING
I perked up at the Fiberboard aid station a bit, knowing that we had a couple of buttery descents on the TRT on the way to Watson Lake and that with our new-found philosophy that’s the only part we had to worry about. Advice from my mentor Lance was sticking in my head; he told me that when I felt good I should run and put down the miles, and when I didn’t feel good I should just soldier on until I felt better. I felt good on the way into Watson Lake and we boogied along the trail and into the spooky Halloween Decorations and delicious grilled cheese served up by Michelle at the aid station.
I had heard the lore of ultra-hallucinations from many of my runner friends, and I have to admit I was a bit eager to see what this phenomenon was about. After leaving Watson Lake I definitely got that opportunity. “Hallucination” is a bit of a misnomer to be honest, as I always knew that what I was seeing wasn’t real and it was more just a visual that I was getting from objects that were actually there. At some point in the long cold night all the boulders in the forest turned into camping tents – so much that at one point we ran through a section with a lot of boulders and I thought that we were running through a campground. However I could tell it was just a bit of confusion from my visual neural pathways, as immediately after the thought of “oh we’re running through a campground” another part of my brain would tell me “no, it’s just a bunch of boulders silly”. So I would describe it more as a short-lived visual miscommunication. Tree trunks and stumps became 55 gallon oil drums, branches in my peripheral vision became tapestries hung in the woods, and at one point a cluster of sticks and moss on the trail became a giant spider (in a very non-scary sort of way). I was somewhat pleased to have finally earned this badge of honor as an ultra-runner and decided to enjoy the visions as they occurred.
Eventually the sun began to rise again as we headed up the long gradual climb to Mount Baldy for the second time, and as the daylight filled the trail my hallucinations shifted to double vision instead. This was much less entertaining and much more annoying than the boulder tents and hairy spiders – there were two copies of every rock on the trail, and my brain really couldn’t figure out which one was real. I finally discovered that if I closed one eye I didn’t have double vision (freakin’ genius if you ask me) and admit to not disclosing to Mo how bad it was because I didn’t want her to make me stop or take a nap. The Silver State TRT station provided an amazing boost yet again (best aid station EVER!) as I sat for a minute and drank a Coke, knowing that I had to will the double vision away if I wanted to make it to the top of Baldy and bomb the descent as was my intent. They informed me that not only was I the last racer out on the course but also firmly in sixth place – I grappled with the idea of finishing both DFL and the highest race placing of my career as we headed up to the summit of Baldy for a clear view and the final turnaround before we headed home.
PART FIVE – AQUEMINI IS AQUARIUS AND GEMINI RUNNIN’ SHIT
Smoke from the fire had obscured the view of the lake when I was on Baldy the first time, so I took a moment to appreciate the clear view of the lake we got from the top on Sunday. I was seeing clearly again and here, at mile 92 on my watch, I knew that I was indeed going to send this thing and make it to the end. I grabbed a peace sign snap bracelet as the last one taken from the can, accepted a delicious grilled cheese at my final stop at TRT, and we began the journey back to Northstar.
There was of course another story going on in the narrative of the night, and that was that my wife Mo was not only pacing me during my first 100 miler, but also throwing down the longest run of her trail running career. She was doing it all – talking me through the hallucinations, making sure I ate every 30 minutes, getting me what I needed at aid stations, and most importantly running at my pace every step of the way. And at about Mile 94 she was done. I could feel the melt-down brewing behind me as she donned her sunglasses and kept replying “nothing, everything’s fine” to my questions about what was wrong.
At that point she told me that I could run it in by myself if I wanted to, and she would meet me in Northstar at the end. She knew that this was incredibly important to me and she wanted me to finish strong. And if she was a random pacer I had picked up from the parking lot for Lap 2, I might have followed that advice and done exactly that (even though I wouldn’t have been moving any faster). But she was far from that – she was my soul mate that I had known for 18 years now, the mother of my two children, the person I trusted most in this entire world, and the enthusiastic partner and comrade for every single crazy adventure I have ever been a part of. She had been more than instrumental in this path to my first 100 miler – supporting my countless weekend long runs, listening to the constant whining and moaning of what hurt or what shoes I should get, putting up with all my silly ultra-running shenanigans while she developed into a badass runner herself. I knew that in my mind unless we were going to miss the 33 hour cut-off there was no way that I was dropping her out there and leaving her behind. And so I told her that we were going to cross that finish line together, because that’s how we rolled in life. Live together, die alone. Aquemini til’ the day we die.
She changed clothes at our last trip through the HWY 267 aid station (THANK YOU to the wonderful women there that filled HER bottles and took care of HER needs – you might have saved our race) and we began the strange road and wood-chip descent into Northstar. We were both hurting and as we got closer and closer our bodies began to realize that we were almost done and the pain began to set in. But we pushed down the steep final ski slope, rounded the corner, and headed across the finish line for the final time to the crowd that had waited days to cheer for us, take pictures, and cow-bell our way in. 30 hours 57 minutes and 50 seconds, 6th place overall, and also DFL. Out of 23 starters that lined up before dawn on Saturday morning, somehow I was the sixth and final finisher. Chaz was waiting across the finish line and after giving my wife a hug and a kiss I went over to him and gave him a well deserved bear-hug. My crazy vision that I could run 100 miles (okay, 105) through the Tahoe mountains would not have been possible without his crazy vision that if he designed a diabolical course around the lake, people would come.
That final image will always be one of the best moments of my life – the group that was there to cheer me in was the picture of the magical community and support of this sport. The Italians that stayed long after their race was over to witness our arrival, my buddy Lucas who drove up from the Bay to see the finish (and party a bit at the TRT station of course), volunteers that took a break from scraping the course to come celebrate. When I bombed the descent from Peavine during my first 50k I didn’t know a single other runner out there – now I had just spent 31 hours in the gorgeous mountains surrounded by beautiful people that I truly loved and that truly loved me. Life doesn’t get much better then that.
So thank you again to the amazing trail running community. I don’t know how I snuck into this party, but man I’m glad I’m here. And of course thank you to the glorious and tranquil shores, forests, and mountains of Lake Tahoe. As I wound my way along your trails, through your trees, and across your summits, you showed me what it means to remain centered, positive, and full of love.
Thank you for setting my soul free.