|Lake Tahoe... my favorite place on earth|
Well, another question might be, who the hell even runs a footrace that is over 140 miles long? In this case there were 90 of us brave and foolish souls who signed up, and then even more amazingly also showed up for the inaugural Tahoe 200 Ultra organized by Candice Burt and Jerry Gamez.
And quite surprisingly -- at least to me -- is that 60 of the 90 starters actually managed to finish. That's a finishing rate of 66.6% percent on course with somewhere between 202 and 215 miles (depending on whom you ask) and with somewhere between 40,000 to 53,000 feet of elevation gain.
|Mad props to all 60 of us finishers!|
So I take my dirty, sweat-stained hat off to all 60 bad-ass mofos who spent 3 to 4 days trudging 200 plus miles across rocky jeep roads, overgrown single track, unmaintained access roads, and freezing cold mountain passes. Special congratulations to the overall winner, Australian, Ewan Horsburg who ran me down somewhere around mile 180 during a strong late charge to take the lead. And congrats to fellow Bay Area runner Victor Ballesteros who also passed me toward the top of the last climb to claim 2nd place.
And although I didn't have the opportunity to speak with her or see her run, I also want to give kudos to women's winner Gia Madole who led for all about 15 miles of the race. I feel a bond with her knowing the kind of pressure it takes to be out front-running for most of the day... and night, and next day, and night, and next day, and night, and next day.
And for that matter, congratulations to everyone who refused to listen to the voices of doubt in their heads, who refused to stop when their bodies started to quit on them, and who refused to say "this is far enough" until they actually crossed that damn finish line.
"What the hell were you thinking?"
In the days after the race more than one person has said something to me like, "That was an aggressive first 100 miles you ran." And I'm never sure whether it's a compliment. More often than not, they just stand there and stare at me as if waiting for me to provide some kind of explanation. And that's when it occurs to me that, "That was an aggressive first 100 miles you ran" is really code for "Dude, what the hell were you thinking?"
|Bay Area home boys, John Burton and Victor Ballesteros|
Fellow Bay-Area runner Victor Ballesteros and I were chatting before the race and he mentioned that he wasn't familiar with the first 60 miles of the course and might want to run it together for company and to keep from getting lost. That's when something came out of my mouth that was a surprise even to me, "Yeah, we can run together, but I might go out hard and run the first 100 miles pretty aggressively". Whoa! Apparently some region of my brain had already formed some sort of plan, even if just subconsciously.
"Look at that idiot running up the first climb. He's insane. He's going to crash and burn!" Thankfully, they weren't talking about me. I hiked the entire first four mile climb. Rather the other runners were talking about Alexander Kaine who took off flying up the mountain and had opened up a 55 minute lead on me by mile 30.
|And they're off... only 202 more miles to go!|
Eventually, somewhere around mile 24 I caught up with 2nd place runner Hassan (Sammy) Lotfi-Pour who I had wanted to meet and talk to. Sammy is the two-time champion of the Fatdog 120, a race -- described as the Hardrock of Cananda -- which is on my bucket list. In addition, Sammy has also represented Canada in the 100K at both the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. The guy is legit!
Sammy and I ran a couple of miles together and chatted about various topics. But mainly our conversation focused on the fact that we were both completely out of water and would probably die if we didn't find some kind of water source soon. Luckily we came across a campground at Loon Lake. My plan was to drop down on my knees and beg the campers for a beer or two. But instead we found a water spigot and made do without beer.
After chatting with Sammy I moved on ahead and started trying to bridge the gap to the race leader, Alex. A few miles after the Wrights Lake aid station I came across Alex sitting on the side of the trail fumbling with his shoe laces. He complained of having gotten off course. And while I expected him to jump up and run with me, he stayed behind and I never saw him again (and the results oddly show him dropping earlier at mile 30).
Miles 60 - 90 (drinking out of a rusty pipe, chasing off a bear, and other ridiculous stuff) -- Starring Peter Rabover
After pulling away from Sammy and passing Alex I found myself running alone at the front of the race. It was kinda cool. It's not very often that I find myself in the lead of any race. Things went pretty smoothly and uneventfully except that I kept running out of fucking water.
|Sunrise selfie with pacer Peter Rabover|
I shined my flashlight into my bottle and saw that it was full of leaves, bugs, debris and other assorted stuff. "Extra calories" I said, trying to reassure myself that I probably wasn't going to die from drinking this water -- at least not right away anyway! And luckily, Giardia spores are invisible and generally take a week or two to incubate. So if I was going to come down with crippling stomach cramps and diarrhea, it would be well after the race was over.
My friend Peter Rabover, who I met at Hardrock, was supposed to pace me from mile 60 to mile 90. But when I rolled into the aid station at Sierra at Tahoe (60.4) with a two hour lead over the next runners, my crew chief Jeff Clowers informed me that Peter hadn't made it in time and would instead meet me at mile 80.0 at Big Meadows. I would be on my own for the next 20 miles through the night.
It actually wasn't a big deal though as I was moving great and had some kick-ass Taylor Swift tunes stuck in my head on repeat. "But I keep cruising / Can't stop, won't stop grooving / It's like I got this music / In my mind, saying it's gonna be alright."
|Not a terrible way to start the morning!|
Eventually I made it to Big Meadow and picked up Peter at mile 80. It was great to finally have some company after 17 hours of running on my own with Taylor Swift's greatest hits stuck in my head. Peter was able to distract me with some good wilderness survival stories about starving to death in the woods and outrunning forest fires. I filed away the information for future use, hoping that we wouldn't necessarily have to call upon those skillsets this weekend.
Peter set a really nice pace up the climb with the goal of trying to get us up to the top of the mountain before sunrise. We timed it pretty well and were treated to some pretty amazing views up on top as the sun was rising over the lake. Not a terrible way to start the morning. If only Peter had thought to bring some gourmet coffee beans, a battery-powered grinder and a French press... Oh well, no one's perfect. Before we knew it we were already at Armstrong Pass where my friend Karl was eagerly waiting to take over pacing duties.
Miles 90 - 120 (breaking my broken finger, bonus miles, trying to convince my pacer to let me sleep in the bushes) -- Starring Karl Schnaitter
My buddy Karl Schnaitter has obviously never run 200 miles before as he took off out of the aid station setting a ridiculously fast pace that I wanted no part of. "Slow down dude" I yelled, "no need to hammer". Karl looked down at his watch, shook his head and mumbled something disparaging about 17:00 minute mile pace. And it would all go downhill from there (well except for the trail of course, that unfortunately would mainly go uphill).
|Pacer Karl Schnaitter who would go on to win|
Headlands 100 the following weekend!
"Oh !@%$#%. I think I just re-broke the finger that I shattered into five pieces at Hardrock 100 back in July. It was finally just starting to heal up too" I yell. The searing pain was excruciating, but as I recalled from last time, it should probably start to numb up within 10 minutes or so and then be fine for the rest of the run. At least I hoped so.
Eventually the finger did finally numb up and I forgot about it and started to worry about other things... like the fact that I was completely out of water again. Although our GPS showed that we had already gone the advertised 17 miles between aid stations, the Google Maps app on Karl's phone showed that we still had 3 more miles to go the Spooner Summit aid station. Damn you Candice Burt.
|Sampling the wares at Spooner Summit aid station|
As I stumbled across the rocks on the top of the ridge, I desperately tried to convince Karl that I should curl up under a tree and take a nap. But Karl kept declining my requests with sensible responses about how the aid stations would probably have better sleeping facilities and that I should probably get some warm solid food in me before going to sleep. Leave it to an engineer to use logic and sound arguments to win a debate against a sleep-deprived Zombie with a broken finger and an intestine full of incubating Giardia spores.
Mile 120.7 to 149.4 (refusing beer, going in circles, dumb-stupid-evil hills) -- Starring Jeremy Johnson
After Karl and I eventually made it to the Spooner Summit aid station, thanks more to his Google Map iPhone app than to the almost non-existent course markings. I immediately jumped in the back of my friend Jeff's truck and tried to take a nap. At this point I had opened up a four and half hour lead on the rest of the field, but it was definitely starting to take its toll on my body. I wasn't actually able to fall asleep, but it sure felt good to just lay down for a few minutes and rest my legs.
|The URP Golden Shower|
Now, here I was at the Spooner Summit aid station telling the aid station captain Krista Cavender that I would have to skip the beer and take some water instead. Thankfully, to her credit, Krista refrained from rolling her eyes and shouting "pussy" as I half expected her to do. Right about this time I looked over and saw Eric Shranz and the URP golden shower. Hmm, was it a coincidence or is that golden shower some sort of kryptonite device that takes away my beer-drinking super powers?
I hiked out of the Spooner Summit aid station (completely sober) together with my fresh-legged pacer Jeremy Johnson who had also paced me on some of these same trails during the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) 100 back in 2012. Jeremy is a great guy with a positive attitude, a ton of patience, and a cool head. So I knew that if anyone could put up with my whining, complaining, and second-guessing it would be him. Still, I'm pretty sure that after a few hours of listening to me constantly question whether we were still on course, he probably wished he'd brought a beer or two (or three).
|Jeremy Johnson, who despite what the paranoid voices|
in my head say, was not actually leading me in circles.
Jeremy, who was a few yards ahead, yelled back "Dude, we're at the Tunnel Creek intersection. There's a bunch of course-markers here. Who are you talking to?" I quickly apologized to my crew chief and hung up the phone, "Oh nobody" I yelled back, lying. That was embarrassing.
As we hobbled into the Tunnel Creek Café aid station at mile 137.7 we were greeted by the familiar faces of fellow Bay Area runners Chris Jones and Ace Ewing who informed me that I had built a five and half hour lead! They sent me on my way with talk about a glorious flat paved bike path, which my sore legs and feet were desperately looking forward to.
|"Hey Jeremy, is that a Taco Bell ahead?|
Oh, I'm just hallucinating again?"
Anyway, after several more hours of similar ridiculous never-ending climbs, I resigned myself to the fact that I must have died somewhere out on the course and was now apparently in Hell. As punishment for my sins in life, I would be condemned to keep hiking uphill for the rest of eternity, never reaching the peak. However, if somehow I actually was still alive and we did ever make it to the top, I vowed to get a tattoo of Sisyphus (the dude from Greek mythology whose fate was to roll an immense boulder uphill and then watch it roll back down, forever) on my arm after the race. Note to self: call the tattoo shop to set up an appointment this week.
Mile 149.4 to 187.2 (more hallucinations than a college acid trip) -- Starring Jeff Clowers
When Jeremy and I reached Martis Peak, I was pretty wrecked. I'd been hallucinating non-stop for the past 12 hours since Spooner Summit. Nothing major, just your normal run-of-the-mill, non-drug induced visions including: a 1965 Pontiac GTO, several Asian super models, a house cat lying in the middle of the trail, and bears (lots of bears).
|Waking up after a refreshing nap at the|
Martis Peak Road aid station!
The folks at the Martis Peak Road aid station were amazing and treated me like a celebrity asking me to pose for pictures and sign autographs. Ok, they didn't actually ask me to sign autographs but we did all pose for some photos together. It was really cool! Thanks guys. But unfortunately, as much as I wanted to stay and hang out, I still had 50 more miles inbetween me and the finish line. So my crew-chief / pacer Jeff Clowers and I set out to git er done.
Eight miles later Jeff and I ran into Chris Jones and Ace Ewing at Watson Lake who informed us, much to our surprise and horror, that second-place runner Ewan Horsburgh had come flying through the last aid station only two hours behind me. Fuck! Shit! Damn! This was not what I wanted to hear. Still, I figured that Ewan must have pushed himself pretty hard to close that distance, and that as long as I picked up the pace a bit and ran the flats and down hills my lead should hold up. Spoiler alert: Surprise, I figured wrong again.
Jeff and I picked up the pace, determined to hold on to the lead. We rolled into the Tahoe City aid station at around 1:00 pm on Sunday. I had now been out on the course for over 51 hours. Yet somehow I was still alive (at least temporarily) and in relative possession of my faculties. However, as I would later learn, Ewan was still closing hard and would charge through the Tahoe City aid station exactly one hour after me, cutting my lead down to just one hour!
|Pacer Jeff Clowers suggest we rock hop across|
the lake to make up lost time. LOL
But as Californian novelist John Steinbeck correctly noted, "The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry". Or perhaps as pugilist and philosopher Iron Mike Tyson once quipped, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Well, the sun came out from behind the clouds and the trees and it definitely punched me in the mouth, sapping the last of my dwindling strength. And then, just as I was giving it my best Monty Python's Black Knight, "I'm not quite dead yet. It's just a flesh wound", a little 5 mile 2,000 ft., climb put me out of my misery.
Resting against a tree at the top of the mountain and catching my breath, I looked back and saw what I had been dreading: Ewan and his pacer running up the mountain like madmen. I figured I still had a 45 to 60 minute lead, at best. Fifteen minutes later they came flying down the mountain past me. Like a true gentleman Ewan stopped his assault briefly to congratulate me on my effort and to shake my hand. And then, like my many vivid hallucinations, he suddenly vanished as if he was never there at all.
Mile 187.2 to 202 (this is where everything really goes to shit)
Jeff and I hiked down into the last aid station at Rideout, my feet too beat up to do any actual running. I contemplated taking another nap, hoping it might quell my hallucinations, which at this point were basically nonstop. But Vajin Armstrong and the other upbeat aid station volunteers warmed me up with some heat lamps, feed me soup and grilled cheese, and sent me on my way. I guess I will sleep at the finish... if I make it.
|Fumbling toward stupidity... dead man walking...|
About two-thirds of the way up this climb I looked back and saw headlamps approaching quickly from behind. It was my buddy Victor Ballesteros making a late charge. He pulled up next to us just long enough to give me a high five and then he and his pacer disappeared ahead into the darkness.
It was freezing on top of Ellis and even though I was wearing a warm insulated long-sleeve shirt and two different jackets, I was still cold. Luckily one of the other items that we were required to carry in our mandatory kit was a mylar space blanket. I took the blanket out and went to work with my origami skills, folding it into a beautiful kimono (which my pacer Jeff kept mistakenly referring to as a "dress").
Flying down the mountain in my kimono like a fearsome samurai headed into battle... Wait a minute, who am I kidding. Hobbling down the mountain in my iridescent mini-skirt like a drag queen with a broken heel who's had one too many Margaritas... Jeff and I eventually made it to the finish line where I thought about jogging it in for the last hundred yards. But I figured, why bother. I'd walked the last 20 miles, now was no time to start running. "You gotta dance with who brung ya," as they say. Anyway, I was finally done. And boy was I done.
Afterthoughts and aftershocks
I ended up finishing 3rd place in 65:02:33, over 3.5 hours behind the winner Ewan Horsburgh and a good hour and twenty minutes behind 2nd place Victor Ballesteros. Clearly, not the finish I was hoping for after having opening up a 2 hour lead at mile 60 and then having built it to over 5.5 hours by mile 137.
|Race Director, Candice Burt congratulating me.|
"That shit was easy... too damn easy!" Just kidding!
I experienced a few health concerns toward the end of the race that would make me question whether I would ever want to attempt something like this again. In addition to the normal stuff that I was expecting (blistered feet, black toenails, bloody chaffed thigh and crotch region, broken fingers, etc.), I also experienced some other pretty scary conditions that caused me some alarm including fluid in the lungs (possibly a bit of pulmonary edema), oxygen desaturation, and extremely elevated breathing and heart rate. Some pretty scary shit.
Also, in the days immediately after the race my body was wrecked. I spent most of the next days sitting in bed wrapped in blankets fighting off an intermittent fever. At night I would wake up drenched in pools of my own sweat. After I soaked the bed sheets the first night, my wife kicked me out of the bedroom and I've since been sleeping on an inflatable air mattress.
And perhaps the most disturbing side effect of running 200 miles is that my body's hormonal system has been completely out of whack and I've been experiencing these strange non-manly feelings that my wife tells me are called "emotions". Let me tell you, "emotions" suck. One minute I am sitting on the couch reading a nice comment from Victor Ballesteros on my Facebook page, and the next minute and I am huddled under the blanket sobbing like baby. What the hell! There's no crying in ultra running!
First of all, I would like to thank my wife Amy Burton for allowing me, albeit reluctantly, to participate in this event, even if as she says, I snuck this one past her when she wasn't looking. Someone has to stay home and walk the dog, water the kid, and fight off the invasion of ants trying to take over the kitchen and bathroom.
Secondly, I would like to thank my crew chief and pacer Jeff Clowers. He was invaluable in so many ways, and there is no chance I would have made it anywhere even close to the finish line without him. In fact, I'd probably be resting peacefully (in the eternal sense) under a tree on top of a mountain if he hadn't talked me out of the "death nap" I desperately wanted to take.
I'd also like to thank my elite team of pacers, Peter Rabover, Karl Schnaitter, and Jeremy Johnson who all put up with varying degrees of interminable whining, complaining, and second guessing of their pacing skills. Sorry guys. All I can say is that the brain does funny things after you've been running for two days. Hopefully I can make it up to each of you and return the favor someday.
Big thanks to Rich de Borba, the Senior General Manager of the Sports Basement Campbell for hooking my team up with some great Ultimate Direction gear. You da man Rich.
And of course, I have to give mad props to all the aid station volunteers. You guys rocked! Thank you so much for giving up you weekend to help a bunch of dirty, stinky, zombie runners achieve our dreams! You're the best. Thanks again folks!