Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tahoe Rim Trail 100: how far in paradise... and hell?

It was just my first attempt at this 100-miler but it has been quite a long story leading to it already. Last year, we were out of the country again with the family for Western States so Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) was the only other 100-miler in our ultra Grand Prix. First I didn't think I was going to be back on time for the race but, once I was able to secure a flight for the week leading to the event, I rushed to register despite being quite far down the waiting list. I also registered for both training runs which occurred mid June, the weekend I broke my shoulder. Early July, I was still hoping, or let's say dreaming, of racing it, but that was out of question from a medical standpoint. So long for the 2012 edition, end of the first episode...

The second major milestone was on January 1st as registration opened at midnight on New Year's Eve. We were at our friends in Incline Village actually and went to bed before midnight. By chance, I woke up at 4 am and checked the website, just in time to grab one of the last slots. That says a lot about how famous this event became in a decade, the 100-mile distance having been added to the original 50K and 50-mile event in 2006. As the Race Director, George Ruiz, reminded us during the briefing, TRT has been named one of the top 10 bucket list races, worldwide, by Outside magazine.

That being said, you could think that I had done my homework, or outdoorwork for the matter, and came to train on the course. Unfortunately, between work, international travels and a lot of (good) racing this year, I wasn't able to squeeze anything. I only had the website instructions plus some tips from fellow Quicksilver teammates to try visualizing the terrain, quite a virtual and theoretical exercise... Not to mention that the weather conditions vary significantly from one year to another, from cold and snow on the course to super dry and hot as this year.
The briefing in Carson City on Friday afternoon gave us a hint on this heat wave. Actually, on the way to the Legislature Building, we stopped by Spooner Lake where I ran 4 miles to and passed Spooner Summit to test my right hip. Last weekend, we were in Chamonix and I had a bad fall right on that hip (running vertically...). The two days leading to the race, my muscles were still so painful that I didn't know if I was even going to toe the start line. The 4-mile test run was conclusive, the faulty muscles being sufficiently on the side not to alter my stride. However, I was amazed as how thirsty I became for just 4 easy miles in this thin, hot and dry air. For those who don't know the area, the TRT course elevation spans from 6,500 to 9,000 feet, that is 2,000 and 2,750 meters, quite high elevation. And humidity gets as low as 10%, a dryness I only experienced before in Saudi Arabia.
With that, the Race Directors, as well as the Mayor of the Carson City, voted one of the top runners-friendly city in America by Runners' World, gave us ample warnings about hydration, George Ruiz citing dehydration as the number one reason for dropping at this event.
We started at 5 am. It was still dark but many runners didn't wear a headlamp, so I left mine to Agnès and sort of piggy-backed on some of the front runners who were lighting the way. Thankfully, the trail to Marlette Lake is really nice and smooth. Unintentionally though, I ended up in 6th position on the uphill single track. It felt so good to be running in the coolness of the early morning, and the pace seemed ok anyway as the slope wasn't too pronounced. However, I was worried to be running just behind Chikara who is known for blazing fast starts (and finishes!). I was now in third and we had lost sight of Joshua Brimhall.
I didn't know Joshua (M26, Nevada) but, from the look, I had a sense that, with Chikara being 29 years younger, I was playing in the kids yard, and likely going out too fast.

I got at the first aid station, Hobart, in 1:03. That would have been an ok pace if the station was indeed at mile 6.2, but my GPS gave 7.3 instead which I believe is right as it had all the other distances correct. In other words, the cumulative distances before the Diamond Peak lodge were off 1 mile with Diamond Peak indeed at mile 30. I changed GPS at the turnaround and had the same 7.3-mile distance for Hobart, so I'm quite positive. Anyway, thanks to the early start and good pace, we ran most of the first 12 miles up to Tunnel Creek #1 (the 100-mile course goes through the Tunnel Creek aid station 6 times!). Agnès was there already, after a 1-hour hike (3.5 miles, 2,000 feet elevation gain) carrying my drop bag. She had enjoyed great views of the sunrise over Lake Tahoe on the way up.
I started the Red House loop at 7 am, still on Chikara's heels. Here we are, flying down the Red House loop with Brett Rivers taking pictures (Brett is an elite ultra runner and owner of the San Francisco Running Company):
I lost sight of Chikara at the bottom of the loop, right before Red House where the station was just opening. The following section has the only flat and non technical mile of the course and it was gorgeous to run in the shade at 8 min/mile for a short while. I was back up to Tunnel Creek by 8 am, a 6 mile/hour pace. Agnès, Todd and Janet were at the top of the hill to cheer me up.
I got my bottles refilled again as I remembered there was a long section ahead of us through the meadows. I stopped at Bull Wheel, 3 miles later, to fill my water bottle up and realized I hadn't drunk much of it. The next 2 miles still had some rocks to climb or hop over and a few mountain bikers to cross, although not too bad in the early morning, then a few miles through the meadows before the turn for the long 4.5-mile downhill to the Diamond Peak lodge. George Ruiz had warned us to save our quads in this one and there were still a few rocks here and there which slow me down anyway with my new fear of falling, so I wasn't pushing. Yet, I was speechless when Bob Shebest, the eventual winner, flew by me in this section, building a 3-minute gap in less than 3 miles.
Greg, Todd and Janet had just arrived at the lodge when I got there at 9:51. 3 minutes after Bob and 8 minutes behind Chikara. I got my bottles refilled and drank a cup of Coke, but, after such a long stretch, and before the insane hike back up Bull Wheel (1.8-mile, 2,000 feet elevation gain on a sandy ski run), I should have drunk a full water bottle to rehydrate. I must say that I appreciate the green and sustainability idea of carrying a folding plastic pocket as a cup, but, beyond saving paper cups, that makes drinking at the aid station really challenging and messy. Well, better getting used to it if that's becoming the new ultra norm...

I hiked the crazy hill focusing on my footing to avoid sliding in the lose sand at each step. And sipping water while trying to keep my breath in this strenuous effort. An extreme challenge both physically and mentally, especially when that was your first time on the course and you realized that you had to hike such a wall at mile 80 again... I was glad to see Brett Rivers taking picture at the top of the hill, a sure indication we were almost at the aid station. With 200 participants on the 100-mile and the same on the 50-mile, the tiny aid station was way more busy than when I first got through. Due to the remoteness of the station, although I don't understand why it isn't possible for a 4x4 to haul something up there from the lodge when you see the access road to Tunnel Creek and Red House, the station is only meant to be a water stop. Yet, there was some limited food thanks to the hard work of the volunteers, but no ice. The 3 miles to return to Tunnel Creek #3 were not too difficult except for the rocks of course and the hundred of runners we had to cross on the single track. I can't thank them enough for stepping on the side to let the front runners go in addition to giving us encouragement. With the elevation and the effort, I was barely able to whisper a "sorry," "thank you, "keep it up" or "good luck" I hope I didn't offend anyone (the same for Tunnel Creek #3 to the finish/turnaround and my 2nd Hobart-Tunnel Creek).
Agnès was still at Tunnel Creek for my 3rd passage and I stopped for a few minutes, trying to recompose myself especially on the hydration side, with the very limited capacity of a dusty plastic pocket to drink from. With the rocky trails and the climb from Diamond Peak my average pace was now 10:20 min/mile and I was just slowing down when thinking of all the miles ahead now that I had discovered the course and terrain in the first loop. I passed quite a few 50K runners on the way back to Spooner Lake although I did walk quite a few of the uphill sections myself. Still no sign of the 50-mile runners who started 1 hour behind us. Not feeling so good, I was enjoying a succulent mini smoothie when a 100-mile runner, John Fitzgerald (yes, another local and 26-year "kid" ;-), rushed in the aid station, stressed that he went so fast through Tunnel Creek that nobody had noticed. I finished drinking and eating a few bits and left, expecting to see him quickly in the next miles. To my surprise, no sign of him as I passed through Snow Valley, the aid station manned by the Boy Scouts at 9,000 feet, nor when I stopped at Spooner Summit where I was in a dear need of iced water.
I reached the 50-mile turn-around still in 4th place, in 9:02 (2:02 pm). With John on my heels There had been some reshuffling at the top. Joshua came at 50 mile in a blazing 7:53 with a 31-minute gap on Bob, now in 2nd place, with Chikara 20 minutes behind.

Agnès and Greg were there to assist me but I had hard time focusing as I experienced something which never happened to me in my 85 previous ultra races, over-volunteering...! I wasn't feeling so good, having missed water twice in the first loop, and I know I was dehydrated for the simple fact that I had peed only twice in 9 hours. The scale was indicating 126 pounds, just off the 130 pounds at the check-in, 130 at Tunnel Creek #2 and 128 at Diamond Peak, so not too bad but still something to work on.
And one volunteer kept giving me all sort of advice which prevented me to listen to my mind and body, or even to look at what I had in my drop bag. As a result, I lost a lot of time and even left the station without mu Gu2O supply for the 2nd loop, not good... I told Agnes that I was not going to walk a lot and it was going to take me at least 3 hours to get to Tunnel Creek, instead of the 2 hours in the morning. She had planned on only meeting me at mile 80 but I said that, at this much slower pace, I needed her, and especially my headlamp, at Tunnel Creek.

It took me about 1:50 to cover the 7 miles to Hobart and I was out of water at least 2 miles before getting to the aid station. There, I caught up with John again. I believe 1 other runner had passed us during our stop at the turn around. I was still climbing (or crawling) faster than John but he was a much better descender, plus he had a pacer. He wasn't feeling good at Hobart and I left first after drinking some soup and Coke. John and his pacer passed me again a couple of miles later. At that time, we were crossing many runners heading back to either the finish (50-milers) or turn-around. Again, despite being all tired, they were cheering up, what a nice sport ultra running is! Half a mile before Tunnel Creek #4 I met teammate Jim Magill who told me he was feeling slightly better after a tough morning when he couldn't hold fluid especially in the climb up to Bull Wheel. He also told me that another of our teammates, Jeremy Johnson, had just dropped at his Tunnel Creek #3, leaving our team captain, Marc Laveson without his runner to pace. It was Jeremy's first attempt of the distance, he had surely picked a very tough one. I saw him as I entered the aid station and he quickly left after, seizing the opportunity of a rare shuttle down to Incline Village.

I entered the aid station with 3 things in mind: hoping to see Agnès with my Gu2O pouches, almost ready to drop as even walking became painful, but decided to give a try to a 30-minute rest on a cot, something I never took the time to experiment before but that I heard was working eventually. Unfortunately, Agnès was nowhere to be found, and therefore not my drop bag either. Noe Castanon was very helpful and offered to give a call to Agnès who was on her second power hike to the station today. With other great views on the lake.
She arrived 20 minutes later, after having dropped Greg in Incline Village. The last-minute plan then was for Greg to drive to Diamond Peak later in the evening to pace me on the 5 miles from Diamond Peak to Tunnel Creek #6, miles 80-85. And Agnès was considering walking the remaining 15 miles to the finish with me. While I was touched by this last minute pacing plan, the thing I like the most in ultra running is... running, not walking... So, by the time Agnès joined me at Tunnel Creek, I was feeling better physically after 3 cups of soup and one can of Coke, yet I had pretty much decided in my mind that I wasn't up for 13 or so more hours of painful walking through the night, going down to Red House, then up, then the long loop to down to Diamond Peak, then the insane climb to Bull Wheel, then all the rocky and rolling sections back to Hobart, then the climb to Snow Valley and more tricky rocks on the remaining 10 kilometers to the finish. Not that far into the dark side of hell... My GPS was displaying 62.1 miles, covered in 12 hours, good enough of an accomplishment for me this weekend although not worth any belt buckle.

In 86 ultra races since 2006, this is my 4th DNF.I'm disappointed of course of not having finished but, given that I had no plan and a very limited knowledge of the event and course, I don't regret my decision at all. My only frustration is that it has quite a few similarities with what happened to me at Rio del Lago 100-mile last year: first part of the race in the lead and not carrying extra water between aid stations in the heat. As Einstein once said: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results... Oh well, isn't ultra running a bit about insanity...? ;-) Besides, no two ultras are really the same.

A glimpse of heaven,,, a taste of hell is the Tahoe Rim Trail tag line. This is great advertising, not false at all! For me, discovering the course on the first way out up to Diamond Peak #1 was the glimpse of heaven. Great running, I enjoyed every bit of it. But the taste of hell started rather too soon in the day with the Bull Wheel climb. And, with the subsequent dehydration, that taste became sourer and sourer, to the point that Agnès's mantra took over, as she often reminds me that I'm doing ultra for the fun of it, not to spend too much time on the hell side... ;-)

One of the Tunnel Creek volunteers, Jennifer, from Reno, gave Agnès and I a ride back down to Incline Village. If this is a long climb for the crews, that's also a tricky and long one in a 4-wheel drive and I can't imagine how it must be with a trailer to haul all the aid station supplies! Upon our return to our friends' in Incline Village, I soaked my legs in the Lake and felt a bit ashamed to enjoy a comfortable bed by 9 pm when a few of my teammates were still battling on the course. Amy Burton finished 5th woman in 27:38. Mark Tanaka in 29:35 and Yujun Wang in 31:47. 3 finishers our of our 7 starters. The sad part of the story is about Jim: he reached the turnaround at 9:45 pm and was first told that he had missed the cut-off time by 5 minutes. 30 minutes later the Race Director came to him saying that the cut-off was actually 10:30 pm so he had 15 minutes to keep going. But the psychological damage was made by that time and Jim dropped. It's hard to keep track of everything when everybody is getting tired (runners and volunteers)... 3 out of 7, slightly below the 57% finisher rate (118 finishers/207 starters). As a statistic, I'd be interested to know who made it to the finish without a pacer (or safety runner as the race website calls them), as I believe this makes a huge difference on such a course.
Overall, this is an outstanding event: the views of the lakes (Tahoe, Marlette) and mountains are amazing and worth stopping here and there to print them in your mind. There is a good variety of trails, from technical, rocky and sandy ones to others in the shade of woods or exposed on the ridge. The event has its roots in the local ultra running community. And the course profile is super challenging, both physically and mentally. What can you expect more?

A special thank to Agnès for all the driving, hiking or Nordic walking, waiting, sweating, worrying, photographing, cheering up, refilling, carrying (moving drop bag), waking up at 3:30 am and driving back to the Bay Area so I could write this post in the car before returning to work this Sunday evening... What a life crew you are! :-)
A sincere thank to the volunteers who man these very busy aid stations, most of them seeing the runners go through 4 if not 6 times! No wonder why it's so challenging to keep the webcast updated, and I can't even imagine how hard it was for people to crew a few years ago when there wasn't any webcast at all! You would think that a 100-mile on a 50-mile loop is easier to organize and manage (the even added the 100-mile distance only a few years ago), but it leads to super busy stations, many runners going in all directions through stations, many runners on the same sections, and aid stations opened for more than 30 hours! Kudos to George Ruiz and his team for producing such a major event on the ultra scene and offering us, ultra runners, an even bigger challenge to measure us against. A beast which guarantees... a glimpse of heaven... a taste of hell...


Anonymous said...

Grand merci pour ce récit passionnant surtout pour ton partage au niveau des sensations et emotions je suis tres admirative de ta perseverance et de l'esprit familial et amical qui a impregné cette experience
Un grand bravo et à bientot car je suis chez Myriam jusqu'au 5 aout et nous attendons Ismail et Redouane à la fin de cette semaine affectueusement Mayae

Unknown said...

Jean, I finished in just under 31 hours, but I would have stopped at mile 50 if I didn't get lucky and pick up a pacer whose runner dropped. Some tough runners I know didn't have pacers dropped. I think you are completely accurate in that pacers make a huge difference in races like this.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

But as always, you win the fastest blog report!
I ran out of water early approaching Hobart the 2nd time, and it also killed me (spent 30 minutes recovering at Hobart and trying to rehydrate and refuel, and then never quite recovered). We gotta remember to remind everyone if it's warm at all to carry more fluids leaving Spooner.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

And yes, I wish for special recognition to the unpaced and uncrewed, as someone rarely paced or crewed. Massanutten 100 is the only race that I know that does this. The pacer doesn't/can't carry you though...

Aid station volunteers are my lifeblood.

It's frustrating enough for me that Ultrasignup doesn't list the number of starters for each race (I keep obliquely complaining to Marc Gilligan about this.) So I doubt there will ever be results with asterisks for the unpaced/uncrewed.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Almost forgot to mention, way to kill the first 50!

Toshi Moshi said...

Great report/analysis yet again! Hope Headlands 100 goes better for you. Re: uncrewed runner, Volstate recognizes crewed or uncrewed runner (they call it "screwed runner").

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Toshi-- how did that stay off my radar? probably because not on the 100 mile list. Tennessee has some craziness.

David said...

Nice report, and you were a speed demon!

I am also curious about the pacer / non pacer stats. It took me near 33 hours to complete the race without a pacer, but I am not sure how much of an influence one would have had.