On July 19, 2014 I finished the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) 50 mile race in just under 16 hours 30 minutes. This race is described as, “A glimpse of heaven and a taste of hell.” Starting at 7000 feet above sea level this race delivers 10,000 feet of total climbing in 50.2 miles. Although there were many hard climbs ahead of me, there were only two major climbs in my mind: the climb out of the Red House loop at mile 14 (1400 feet of climbing over 3 miles at a 13% grade) and the climb at the Diamond Peak ski resort at mile 30 (1800 feet of climbing over 1.5 miles at a gazillion % grade).
Last year when I attempted this race I was physically prepared, but I was not mentally prepared. I knew the course, but I ignored the one obvious thing that would have given me the edge mentally: cutoff times. Cutoff times are time limits that runners have to meet in order to continue racing. If these time limits are exceeded, then the runner is not allowed to continue the race. Last year I was completely unaware of the course cutoff times. That resulted in a DNF (Did Not Finish) at Diamond Peak.
This year I knew all the cutoff times. I knew what time I had to be at each aid station. I knew when I had to push, and when I could relax (which wasn’t very much). I broke up the 50 miles into several small races. My overall race plan was to run at a pace of 3.8 miles per hour between aid stations except for the Diamond Peak climb which would require a 2.5 mph pace. I also kept in mind what my coach, Mama Lisa, told me right before the race started, “The race starts at Mile 30. Take it easy until then.”
The first few aid stations did not have cutoff times. I still projected what time I should be at each aid station so that I could adjust accordingly. From the start to the first two aid stations (Hobart and Tunnel Creek) I hit my targets perfectly (roughly 1.5 hours between aid stations). Tunnel Creek is at mile 11 and is the aid station before the descent to the Red House at 6200 feet: the lowest elevation of the race.
The descent to the Red House is easy since gravity is doing most of the work, but the 3 mile climb out of Red House was every bit as difficult as I remember. Imagine trying to climb a hill in San Francisco. Now imagine that with every corner you turn you are greeted with more hill. Add some sun. Take away the shade. Finally add a ton of sand to make every step feel half as effective. Voila! You now have the climb out of Red House. This is the “…glimpse of hell,” part of the race.
I made it back to the Tunnel Creek aid station pretty battered from the climb. I was walking back into the aid station trying to recover. I did however manage to look like I was running when Belinda snapped some pictures of me. Special thanks to Belinda and Huyen for being so awesome at Tunnel creek; taking pictures and cheering. You two provided a much needed mental boost.
It was a quick 3.5 mile jaunt from Tunnel Creek to the Bull Wheel aid station. The Bull Wheel aid station is the last aid station for 9.5 miles before heading to Diamond Peak. I topped off my 70 oz. hydration pack and filled my 24 oz. hand held water bottle. Last year at this point with temperatures hovering around 95°F was when most people were dropped from the race. Hydration and mental toughness was the key to this part.
If the segment from Bull Wheel to Diamond Peak was a book, then it would be called, “I Am Nature, Don’t Mess With Me.” The sky got dark and ominous with thunderstorms. I’m talking “Raiders of the Lost Ark” scary. I was already at a high elevation and was well aware that being struck by lightening might ruin my day. Seeing lightening that close was a beautifully scary sight that I never want to experience again. It got so bad that the aid station at Snow Valley Peak was evacuated.
I also saw a bear. Awww… Cute but scary.
The cutoff time for Diamond Peak was 9 hours and 45 minutes (clock time of 3:45 pm). I was aiming to be there by 2:30 pm. I arrived at Diamond Peak at 2:58 pm. I was slightly behind pace, but I still made it well before the cutoff time. I dropped off my handheld water bottle, filled up my hydration pack, drank a V8, ate some food, washed my salt-crusted face, and headed out. I spent just under 10 minutes at that station. I wish I spent less time there as the rest of the race had me kicking myself for losing so many precious minutes.
As I was leaving Diamond Peak I was presented with a the biggest climb of the race. In the winter this mountain is a black diamond run, so it’s easy to imagine how steep it is. Nobody in their right mind would ever consider running this part. More or less it is a climb straight up the face of the mountain with 1800 feet of climbing over 1.5 miles. The last two times I did this it took me 45 minutes. This time it took me 1 hour. Exhausted at the top of the mountain with my legs screaming for oxygen I set my mind on my next task: getting back to Tunnel Creek by the 5:11 pm cutoff time.
It was 4:15 pm when I left Bull Wheel for the 3.5 miles back to Tunnel Creek. I had already covered over 30 miles of the course. I was feeling beat up and my walk breaks were more frequent. I had just under 1 hour to get to Tunnel Creek by the 5:11 pm cutoff. I was trying to will myself to run the flat and downhill sections, but the mental demons were getting to me. Thoughts of how easy it would be to quit, and how I can easily justify why I quit were starting to flood my mind. Something in me wouldn’t let me quit.
I can’t tell you how fast I was going over the last mile, because my GPS watch ran out of power. My guess is that I did the last mile in about 8 minutes. I crossed the sensor at Tunnel Creek at 5:10 pm with 1 minute left to spare before the cutoff. At this point I was well behind my projected times. My race was deteriorating fast. I drank another V8, grabbed my headlamp, and bolted out of there (walking looks like bolting at this point). My next cutoff was 7:02 pm at the Hobart aid station 5 miles away.
The trip from the Tunnel Creek aid station has many downhill sections which I took advantage of. It also had many uphill sections that just sapped me mentally. At a few points during the segment I sat down on a rock and just contemplated quitting. I had already covered way more than I did in 2013. There was no shame in quitting, right? I want to tell you something profound and inspirational that spurred me on out of my funk. The truth is that I didn’t want to come back to this course again trying to avenge a DNF. That was enough motivation.
The last section heading into Hobart is downhill. I raced down that hill at a 7 to 8 minute per mile pace which ended in a desperation sprint. I entered the aid station right at the cutoff time at 7:02 pm. I asked the guy at the aid station what time the next cutoff was at Snow Valley Peak. He said, “No more cutoff times, you just have to finish the race… it’s too far to drive you back.” That was probably best thing I had heard all day. I now had 3.5 hours to run the 10 miles to the finish.
From Hobart the race took me 3.5 miles to Snow Valley Peak; the highest point of the course at 9000 feet. It was now cooler and my pace was getting faster (I tend to run faster in the cold). Most of the trip up to Snow Valley Peak was spent walking uphill, but I was now walking with more purpose. I got to the final aid station at Snow Valley Peak without much fanfare (the aid station volunteers were allowed to return after the thunderstorms stopped). I drank a coke and chicken soup. From here it was mostly downhill for 6.5 miles to the finish.
The sun was still out when I left the peak, but that would quickly change. I was averaging about 12-15 minutes per mile. My pace slowed a bit as it got darker and I had to switch on my headlamp. I don’t know what time I entered into heavy tree cover. All I know is that it was dark and down hill.
I felt oddly at peace while running in the dark. I should have been scared. I could barely see 20 feet in front of me. I was constantly looking for the course ribbons, but they were few and far between. The infrequency of the ribbons made me second guess many times if I was going in the right direction. What was frustrating was that I could see the finish and I could hear the cars from the highway, but several times the course took me in the opposite direction. There weren’t many people out on the course either. I was alone.
At around mile 48 I saw 6 pairs of eyes blink at me in the reflection of my headlamp. They weren’t human. I ran a little faster. I was carrying pepper spray. I don’t know what pepper spray would do against a pack of wolves, a family of bigfoots, or a pack of harmless deer (which is probably what I saw), but I felt like I was carrying a baseball bat made of dynamite. Just stay back and let me finish the race.
I finally found my way out of the woods and could hear cheering. The finish line in the dark still felt miles away. A guy told me that I was exactly 0.333 miles away. It was now 10:20 pm (according to my phone, not my dead GPS watch). I don’t know what time it was, but I believe I crossed the finish line at 10:24 pm. I beat the cutoff time by 6 minutes.
- I am happy that I finished this beast of a race, but I also know that I am capable of so much more. It’s now time to go back to work. I know if things don’t change, then I am going to have more close cutoffs like I did for TRT.
- I am carrying way too much weight which reduces my power to weight ratio. I am carrying close to 30 pounds more weight than my ideal race weight. I’m comparing my weight at IronMan Lake Placid when I was 156 pounds on race day. I was 188 pounds on race day at TRT. Over the next few months I will be putting a heavy emphasis on cleaning up my diet and resisting the urge to finish the uneaten portions of my kids’ meals.
- Mental toughness is very important in this race. By itself it is not enough. Mental toughness helped me push when I needed to, but I needed the physical toughness to back it up. Like I mentioned, I need to be in better shape in the future.
- The TRT cutoff times should probably be re-evaluated. It took me 2 hours to get from Diamond Peak to Tunnel Creek. If a person got to Diamond Peak at the cutoff time at 3:45 pm, then they have 1 hour and 26 minutes to cover 5 miles to make the next cutoff. Remember it took me 1 hour to cover the first 1.5 miles.
- The TRT course is absolutely beautiful.
- to my loving wife, Victoria, for supporting me over the last few months and for putting up with my training schedule.
- to my sons for putting up with my schedule and thinking that I can run 100 mph.
- to all of my teammates in the Bay Area ultra running community.
- to Belinda and Huyen for cheering at the race and for providing the pictures, smiles, and encouragement.
- to the staff at Ultra Fitness Beyond Imagination (UFBI) and especially to my fabulous coach, Mama Lisa, for believing in my ability, and for being tough with me when I needed it. Mama Lisa Felder is unparalleled as an ultra running coach for her knowledge and honesty. I am happy to call her my friend.
- to Robel Tezare, Brian Woon, and Laura Warren. I know you are gone from this Earth, but you were with me in spirit.
One final thought. I know I didn't ask you for a donation this year. Please, find a worthy cause and give of yourself. Go make a difference.