A mountain ridge extends like eternity into the darkness. This ridge has existed for much longer than those pines poking up from the deep valley under, and has surely witnessed many a human tragedy and drama. But for tonight, it seems to be there only to house the footsteps of a lone runner. The narrow single trail is not accommodating mistakes. One slip of the foot could mean serious trouble for the runner. He walks when weary, then runs to try to keep warm. He staggers, sluggish under his own weight, eyelids heavy after two days of constant motion, body and soul laid bare to the elements. Shapes and shadows turn into giants and animals. Against an endless starlit sky, a laughing whale emerges, one of its eyes as clear as the full moon. For one brief moment, the runner lies face down on a cold rock, one with rounder edges, more huggable, surrounded by mountain lion poops, acutely aware that the whale’s eyes are fixated on him. He lets himself pass out for a few minutes, right there on the windswept ridge, amongst millions of pines singing the songs of the ages. With the majestic lake to the left, the mountain peaks to his right, the sky dome on his head, the single trail under foot, the runner seeks comfort in the warmth of rocks and stones, all covered with heavy dews. Soon he gets up and keeps moving, the legs stiffened up from only momentary rest. He takes one look at Moby Dick still looming large in the sky and bursts forth with loud laughter. The sound of laughter is quickly swept away by the wind, but his heart is filled with music. His coughs tighten his lungs and squeeze precious energy out of his chest. Millions of particles of dust from the steel-breaking Rubicon are still in his lungs, fuelling these endless coughs. But none of that matters. He has tapped onto a great source of energy – one of inner bliss, the sort of energy that is not driven by human ambitions, but rather fueled by the pointlessness of them all. This is beyond survival instinct. It is nihilism without suicidal tendencies. It is emptiness that has transformed into life.
Welcome to Armstrong Pass, the highest stretch of the Tahoe200 course. Different runners hit this high point at different times. I spent the thick of the second night there. I was on my way to Heavenly, which would be around mile 103, the halfway mark of the race. On an ultra like this, one cannot be exact about the distance. There are always a few miles off here and there, usually bonus ones.
Barring serious injuries and unpredictabilities, I was always going to make it to Heavenly. I was always going to make it back to Homewood. The idea of not finishing this race simply never entered my head during the event. I found that surprising given the many struggles I had had in previous, much shorter, much less challenging, races. For months leading up to the race, I had been working on my mental game. Knowing that the race would be difficult, I did not allow myself to entertain the idea of a DNF, as I knew once you leave it even with a tiny space in the spectrum of possibilities, that space would only expand and expand as the race progresses.
The types of athletes who turned up at the start line of Tahoe200 looked a bit different to the crowd at UTMB CCC two weeks ago. CCC runners looked incredibly athletic, generally well toned, many of them shaped like sprinters. Not surprisingly so, as in the world of ultra running which is continually stretching the distance, 100km could one day be considered a sprint distance. Most of the Tahoe200 crowd just looked hardcore and more laid back. Many of them looked like they could last in a rough jungle for months. Again, physically I looked out of place. But similar to at CCC, I did not feel out of place. I had done enough work to earn my position on this start line.
A heart-stirring version of the Star-Spangled Banner and RD Candice’s signature if-you’ve-fucked-up-and-die-it’s-your-own-damn-fault war cry later, we were on our way. There had been no soul stirring speeches. Barely five minutes of fanfare later, we were off. I liked it that way. The gradual climb to Barker Pass was long, but I bet none of the runners were feeling any pain. We were still high with the early rush of adrenalin, and much social chit chat took place during this segment. It would not be long before the runners would be miles and hours apart.
The first sight of nature’s grandeur presented itself at Ellis Peak. This would also be the final site of the uphill battle on the last night. What I experienced now on Ellis was nothing like what I would experience four days later at the same spot.
Passing the first aid station at Barker Pass (mile 7) and getting to sample a good array of fresh food on display, little did I know that the upcoming two segments would bear much consequence on many runners. There was supposed to be a water crossing coming up and feet would get wet, so I had been wearing my backup shoes. The idea was to swap them with my primary shoes which I had left in a drop bag at the upcoming aid station. Although I found a way around the water crossing, getting feet wet and cool in this heat was probably not a bad idea.
The afternoon sun on the dusty Rubicon trail was something to behold. Dust and rocks and jeeps were everywhere. What was fragile human flesh doing in this desolation of a place meant only for steel and gasoline?! My biggest risk going into this race had always been the dust. Years of asthma flashed back instantly, and I soon found myself in damage control mode. The dust seeped through the buff which I double-upped as a face mask; it went into every gap of clothing, every orifice still half exposed to the elements; it filled up every pore on my bare face and arms and legs. My nostrils and eyes were filled with concrete. Passing through the Eldorado national forest, we marched past Buck Island Lake to the left, then Spider Lake to the right. The twists and turns looked very pretty, but I did not linger for photos. Taking photos broke up the rhythm, and I decided to rely on professional photography for the memories.
A camper joked tongue in cheek that he was yet to see a fat runner coming through. He was a bit on the cuddly side and looked comfortable with a stubby, supposedly cold, in hand. Bystanders looked happy, some cheering us on, others casually curious by the sight of runners passing through.
Jules and I had agreed to keep each other company at this event. She started to struggle getting close to the second aid station at Loon Lake. The heat had got to her, and she found it hard to drink or eat anything. However, the idea of seeing our crew Meg and Ben there spurred her on.
Soon enough, we heard the sound of cowbells. Meg and Ben popped out from around a tight corner. We had arrived at Loon Lake aid station (mile 24). Both Lisa and Darren caught up shortly. Darren had never run anything longer than 50km; yet he had the audacity to turn up for this. Got to give the man kudos for guts!
Kirk came in as we were leaving. She was a mess, but she has a tough reputation, so it was good that she got the tears out of the way this early on. I would not worry about Kirk. She would plug on. Jules, on the other hand, was showing grit but was clearly disintegrating. The following aid station would have no crew access, but it was only 7 miles away. Lisa and Jules kept each other company during this section. I found a beautiful runnable trail through Eldorado and ran my heart out all the way to Tell’s Creek. On the far end of Eldorado to the left rose McConnell Peak and Red Peak, both above 2,700m. We were in the heart land of Desolation Wilderness.
It was dark by the time we got to Tell’s Creek (mile 31). Jules looked really sick, and we decided to rest there until she felt ready to push on. Darren, Lisa and Kirk all wanted to wait, but I asked them to move on. I saw the fragility all over her slumping posture, yet I sensed this incredible courage that Jules represented. Going into the cold darkness, when you are extremely vulnerable and fragile, was always going be a daunting thought!
The following aid station Wright’s Lake would have no crew access either. I knew that Jules desperately wished for Meg’s and Ben’s presence. However, she would need to last 32 miles before she would see them again, at Sierra-at-Tahoe (mile 63).
Walking the Rubicon at night provided little relief when it came to dust. The trail was incredibly dry, so dust kept playing havoc on my fragile respiratory system. The march to Wright’s Lake in the dark was heart wrenching. I led in the front, Jules following behind, stopping for a dry vomit every now and then. There was little to no sound from birds and insects, yet the bush became alive with my coughing and Jules’ vomitting. Half way through, Jules desperately needed medical attention. There was no phone signal. We sent word for two other runners to send back a medic if they would get to Wright’s before us. However, they were not much faster than us. There was no option but for Jules to plug on to Wright’s then re-evaluate. This section from Tell’s to Wright’s was only 14 miles, but it would take us about 7.5 hours to cover!
Arriving at Wright’s Lake (mile 44), Jules made the DNF call. It was an inevitable decision given her condition. I felt happy for her, happy that the suffering was over for her. There was no signal to call Meg and Ben. I promised Jules that I would call them as soon as I could get some signal. Leaving her with a medic, I marched on.
From this point on, it would be common for me to run for many hours on end without seeing anyone. Bear poops and poops of unrecognisable source were everywhere on parts of the trail. I am sure that even though I did not spot any bears or mountain lions, their watchful eyes were on me somewhere on the trail. After a short drop, I started climbing again, with Pyramid Peak (above 3,000m) to my left.
There were 19 miles to Sierra-at-Tahoe. Sierra was a psychologically significant destination, as it would be roughly 100km into the race, where I would allow myself the luxury of a short nap. I caught up with Lisa, Darren and Kirk. Darren was going to bail out at Sierra having covered 100km. He was happy with his call. The distance would be double anything he had done previously.
Our crew, fully equipped with an RV (!), were waiting for me at Sierra (mile 63). I had messaged them earlier about Jules, but they had already managed to collect her. Jules looked so much better. Both she and Darren decided to hang around for the rest of the race to crew. Andy had been running well from the start. He was well on his way to Heavenly which would be about the 100 mile mark.
I had a 45 minute nap in the RV. Waking up, I felt very dizzy and sleepy. However, I shook off the stagnant feeling quickly, had my coffee, and got ready for the road. There were only 8 miles to Housewife Hill, but by this time, I had learnt how far a mile was, in contrast to a kilometre.
Continuing to trudge on through Eldorado, I found the Huckleberry Mountain (~2,700m) to my right. I was now on the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), which was much less dusty and rocky compared to the Rubicon.
At Housewife Hill, I found Mike. He had pulled out due to heat stroke. The sun had been relentless during the last two afternoons. From here, I would need to climb more than 4,000 feet to the highest point of the course – Armstrong Pass. Passing big meadows, hot during the day, extremely cold at night, I was facing 17 miles of gradual climb and lots of running along an elevated ridge fully exposed to the elements. I walked with, then passed, a few struggling runners on the ridge. It was important for me to get to Armstrong as early as possible to get some rest. I was starting to feel very drained. We had to get down a steep hill to get to the aid station. The thought of having to climb back up later on to get to the ridge started to mess with my mind, but I blocked out the negativity, and focused on one step at a time. All these years of meditation practice were rushing in to help me.
At Armstrong Pass (mile 88), I immediately grabbed a blanket and sat down close to a fire. I covered my head and body with the blanket and tried to settle in for a quick shut-eye. But it was so freezing, even next to the fire. The wind seeped through the blanket and my clothes. I was shivering badly. It was clear that it would not be wise to hang around here. I had my eyes on Heavenly, which would be the half way point – another psychological destination where I would allow myself another short nap.
The route to Heavenly passed Freel Peak. Standing tall at 3,318m, it was the tallest summit in El Dorado County and Tahoe Basin. When the TRT joined up with Kingsbury Glade near the Stateline crossing into Nevada, I was only a few miles away from Heavenly. Meg had taken Jules and me up this section before the race, so I was familiar with the descent down this mid-race point.
Our crew Meg, Ben, Jules, Darren, and (Meg’s) Mom and Pop were all waiting outside, welcoming me to Heavenly (mile 103). They attended to every single detail in my clothing, food and drinks, just so that I could take a nap as quickly as possible. It was going to be 1.5 hours of bliss this time.
It turned out that I did not sleep too well. Lots of twisting and turning, the legs burning hot from covering so many miles up and down the slopes. Kirk had passed out quietly, shoes and rainbows and all, in the other RV bed.
I regained much strength after this short rest and found myself running my best sectional in the entire race, from Heavenly to Spooner Summit – 20 miles of runnable bliss and sheer beauty. The route passed by the scenic “Bench” where I needed to linger for a while to breathe in nature’s wonder and to take a few photos for Meg as per her order. I passed Lisa, Kirk and 26 other runners (yes, I was counting!) and arrived at Spooner Summit aid station (mile 123) about 3.5 hours earlier than our crew expected. Checking in with Kirk and Lisa and their pacers as I ran past, I was pleased to find that both of them were in good spirit. These are incredibly tough ladies, and and I knew it would take a lot for them to walk away with a DNF. Those 3.5 hours were a few more good hours I managed to save up my sleeves in case I struck trouble later on in this race.
Spooner Summit was not a summit. It was on a highway. Quietly my confidence was growing, as this was the 200km mark. Every time I hit a wall and then ran past it, I was feeling stronger. Leaving this aid station, I made a mistake of carrying too much water. I had seen runners struggle big time for running out of water, and did not want to get into the same boat. But the heavy pack wore me down and it turned out to be a drag to get to Tunnel Creek. Sitting at a low point, this section should be quite runnable, but I found myself walking most of it. It was about 17 miles away, and the last few miles on the dirt road down to the creek seemed to take forever.
At Tunnel Creek (mile 140), I took the time to read Rohit’s and Katherine’s notes which I had left in a drop bag. Then I posted a progress update for family and friends. I just wanted them to know that I was in good spirit and having fun despite the struggles still ahead. Leaving Tunnel Creek, heading into the third night, I joined up with Coops, a hardy 65yo. We covered a few miles along the Lakeshore Boulevard, then an uphill residential area, to face one of our biggest obstacles on the course – the Powerline. This beast of a hill would rise 2,200 feet over the course of less than 2 miles. Most of the climb felt like 70 degrees up, with nothing but dirt and rocks under foot, and overgrown foliage involving plenty of bushbashing to get through. It took Coops and me nearly an hour to cover just this rise. The following ascent up to Martis Peak (2656m) was no easy feat either. It felt like Rubicon all over again, except this time the dirt was brown and black. Coops said to me that historical sectionals in past years showed that some folks had taken up to 12 hours to traverse between Tunnel Creek to Brockway Summit over a distance of only about 15 miles! Although we were struggling big time, and my coughing bothered me heaps, we took comfort in knowing that we were way ahead of that time. At one point, when both of us were huffing and puffing, Coops asked me to turn off the head torch. We both looked up at the starlit sky dome and realised how lucky we were to be there. Everything felt quiet, within and without, and pain instantaneously revealed its insignificance.
I had my last planned nap of the race, for 2 hours, here. At mile 155, 50 miles away from the finish, I could almost smell Homewood. Andy was sleeping in the RV. Apparently his quads and feet were shot. When I woke up and got ready, Andy had left an hour early. He was prepared to limp to the line, at a conservative estimate of 2 miles per hour.
The rain and snow forecast was becoming a factor. Darren lent me his rain jacket. It proved to be a lifesaver when the snow fell later on. The Patagonia I had packed with me was not water proof enough.
I was planning to catch up to Andy and then walk with him to Tahoe City. But I ran for hours, passing a hiker who said he had sighted a medium sized mountain lion near Mt Watson. I sent word to Meg to warn other runners. Bears and cougars would usually stay away from humans unless they feel threatened, but you would never know. One of the hungry ones might smell a weakening runner and have other ideas!
I never caught Andy during this section. The closest I got to him was within 1 mile. That was awesome, though, as it could only mean that he was still moving well.
The rain fell, the heavy drops enlarging their heads until they became wet snow. Then the colour of their heads thickened from clear to white. And just like that, I found myself in the middle of a snow storm at a high point heading to Tahoe City. Apart from the novelty of experiencing the first snow storm in my life, it was hard going in the condition. My shoes got wet quickly, and I needed to manage hypothermia. I lost the track leading back onto the TRT. The Gaia GPS had been useful so far, but any phone app was not designed to be used in a middle of a snow storm. But there I found Coops again, and he led me onto the right track. From there on, we kept company all the way to Tahoe City. We had been really enjoying our company, first at Powerline and now along this segment. He oozed the positivity of a teenager, and it was great to observe so much energy and resilience in the body and spirit of a 65yo.
When I arrived at Tahoe City (mile 175) to the cheers of my crew, Andy had bolted off earlier. It was great to see. I had no doubt then that the man would finish the race. Any niggling injuries he had surely would not be a factor any more with only 30 miles to go.
It was particularly pleasant to arrive at this aid station, as it was one of the few located not too far away from the trail head. After a short rest to refuel, I marched on to the last aid station, 20 miles away. This section was quite runnable, and I found myself tapping into my inner child. The legs were weary, the feet tired, but I started to practise skipping and galloping down steep hills and found myself having fun for many miles. The trail ended, leading me along a quiet lake side at night. The sight was beautiful, but in a harrowing kind of way. There is always something about a full moon hanging over a calm lake. A few endless miles following a single trail through a meadow later, I found myself at Stephen Jones – the last frontier!
I helped myself to food and drinks, lots of green lettuce that – according to volunteers – nobody had touched. At this point (mile 195), I was more than 10 hours ahead of cutoff. So I gave myself the luxury of climbing into a truck sitting in front of a propane gas heater. This turned out to be a bad move, as the idea of getting out there in the cold again was getting less and less attractive as the night thickened.
After nearly four days, I was sick of feeling the weight of water on my back. So I did not refill water. After all, this was midnight, and I would drink little. How wrong that turned out to be!
The climb up to Barker Pass was not too bad, but I could run no longer. I knew it was my lot to walk these last 10 miles back to Homewood. Thirsty, I started picking snow off the pines for ice cream. I quickly worked out that some tasted better than others, and refined the art of picking yummy pine ice cream all the way up Mt Ellis. The sweetness of the finish line was near, yet the miles dragged on forever. The brown dirt and the ice under foot reflected the stars above. I kept looking down at my feet as I walked, and for miles and miles, I was literally walking among a star field. Suddenly those lyrics of “walking among the stars” started to make sense. When the brown dirt receded to rocky slopes, the descent into Homewood started, and the star field disappeared from under my feet.
The sharp descent seemed to be winding on forever. And then I looked to the right, and saw the blue arch of the finish line. Even from the top of the hill, I could work out the shape of Ben standing outside to the right of the arch. I usually run to my finish lines, but not in this race. I walked slowly to the line, to the sound of cowbells and cheers of my dear friends. Meg, Ben, Jules, Andy, Darren, Mike – they were all there, at these wee hours, to bring me home. I was very emotional to see Andy at the finish. I had never seen him so tired and happy at the same time. Having finished about an hour before me, he had been all class throughout the event. He had waited at the last aid station, Stephen Jones, to share the last 10 miles with me. But somehow we had missed each other.
And just like that, it was over. I finished #Tahoe200 at #99 (out of ~240) in 93 hours 12 minutes, nearly 7 hours ahead of cutoff.
I felt relief. I felt joy. But I also wished that the race would be longer. I knew then that #Tahoe200 was most likely not my last 200 miler.
There had been hallucinations galore during the race, all free, many funny, but I had also never been more in touch with myself throughout these last four days. The mind was mostly lucid through the course of the event. And it was evident to me that Tahoe200 was what it was, in all its glory, only because of the folks whose paths I crossed.
THE PEOPLE #TAHOE200
When I was young, I thought the heroes were the ones I saw on the frontline. Age has showed me that more often than not, the real heroes are those who stay in the background, doing invisible things, playing invisible hands in the triumph of frontliners.
I have many people to thank for the #Tahoe200 adventure to become a reality. I will not be mentioning all their names, as some of them prefer to remain private.
The UTMB CCC race was a crucial conditioning piece for Tahoe, given I had missed out on much training due to sickness. Without it, I would have found it difficult to tackle the 12,000m odd worth of climbing at altitude. That trip would not have been possible without a very kind family volunteering to look after our older son for two weeks.
My life partner, my much much better half, has been juggling work with domestic projects and looking after our boys. It has been a significant undertaking as that work load has always been meant for two people. I am sure she is exhausted now, and I cannot wait to pick up my share of duties upon return.
My little boys have always been saying that they believe in me and that I am their best friend. That, to me, is a compliment of the highest order, and something I need to earn everyday through my actions.
My cousin and her family in California have been looking after my mother who is in her mid eighties, and keeping her healthy and happy, while I was out roaming the wilderness of Tahoe.
Our crew Meg and Ben, and my new Mom and Pop (I stole them from Meg), have been treating me like their own kind – child, brother and all. Improvising on a line from the Tahoe200 medic: I touched your hands, but you touched my heart.
My fellow runners from or adopted by Australia/New Zealand – Jules, Andy, Lisa, Kirk, George, Darren, Mike, Emily – you have simply inspired me to be a better person by being who you are. Jules and Darren, after pulling out of the race, have been looking after me like a brother, attending to the smallest details so that I could regain energy at each aid station as quickly as possible.
Our numerous friends from far away who have taken the time to track our movements, encouraging us, sending us their blessings – I hope they know that without their support, finishing this race would have been unlikely.
My new friends who paced Lisa and Kirk, I am very pleased to have met you all. You remained so positive and supportive throughout the event, and I look forward to welcoming some of you to Australia.
My new friend on the trail – Coops – is 65. Yet he oozes the spirit of a teenager. He and I shared many miles up the infamous darkness known as the Powerline, then he helped me find the track during the snow storm. During one dark moment, Coops asked me to turn off the head torch. We both looked up at the starlit sky dome and realised how lucky we were to be there. The pain, for a brief moment, revealed its insignificance.
My running buddy Andy allowed me to chase up to him, getting as close as one mile, but not closer. He showed the tenacity to speed up after striking trouble at Powerline. He was the competition and inspiration I needed to finish 7 hours ahead of cutoff. The way Andy handled himself during the event was all class. He makes me want to be a better runner.
The volunteers at each aid station were very quick to help out each weary runner who came in. I do not know how they could remain so cheerful and fresh over so many long hours being exposed to the elements.
The event photographers took great effort to catch runners in the middle of the wilderness and showed their enthusiasm and professionalism throughout the race.
I encountered numerous random acts of kindness along the way. It is most likely that I have not mentioned someone who helped me. There have been simply too many.
I also had Stewart Mason to thank for his race recap on Moab240. I was looking to sign up on Moab until Captain Rick convinced me that a lot more climbing over a slightly shorter course at Tahoe was the more Aussie way to roll 🙂
Last but not least, to the RD Candice Burt and her management team, I have only two things to say to you: #thanksCandice and #WTFCandice. See you at The Delirious W.E.S.T. 200 Miler.
To these great humans, cheers 🍻 It’s been great knowing you, and I hope I deserve your friendship.
📸 HM - HilaryAnn | www.thehilaryann.com SR - Scott Rokis | www.scottrokis.com HS - Howie Stern | www.howiestern.com