Sunday, July 28, 2019

Just Give Me The Dirt: My Tahoe Rim Trail 100-Mile Endurance Run Story (Part 2)

I had been chatting with a young guy from Cleveland and as I jogged into the Stonehenge aid station near Spooner Lake at the fifty-mile mark.  We were having an engaging conversation, but my soul filled with joy as I ran down the approach and recognized some familiar faces.  They were my friends Edith and Danny, who had driven ten hours from Southern California to crew for me.  It also presented an opportunity for them to take a mini-vacation and for us to catch up while I took a much needed break.  A big smile spread across my face as I ran off to the side of the trail and gave them both a big hug.  Edith is one of the toughest individuals I know, both mentally and physically.  We've hiked several mountain peaks together throughout the years and she's run numerous ultramarathons in both the United States and Central America, where she is originally from.  Danny is also an avid runner and hiker, and although not an ultrarunner (at least not so far), being Edith's boyfriend, he's been exposed to the world of ultrarunning on several occasions.  There's an indescribable feeling that runners encounter after running fifty miles through the mountains and seeing not only people they recognize, but people who are their close friends.  It creates a sense of security and reassurance after spending nearly fourteen hours experiencing on and off feelings of self-doubt, exhaustion, and fatigue.  Knowing that my friends were here to support me and keep me going to the finish line was a powerful tonic.  After greeting each other, I stopped by the aid station and loaded up a paper plate full of cheese quesadillas and grilled cheese.  Edith and Danny escorted me to a small outpost they had set up where they had a few camping chairs and a cooler full of goodies.  As I sat in a chair enjoying my plate of cheese heaven, they asked me questions and we spent some time chatting.  "Things are going pretty well, so far" I told them.  "I've been trying to be conservative with my energy for the second half".  They gave me some coconut water and sprayed me with some insect repellent as I stretched my legs.  I felt slightly overheated and dry sweat coated my face, so the coconut water was helpful for re-hydrating, and I had a mild pain in my legs, but the level of hurt was not of major concern.  Overall, I was feeling good, but I reminded myself that I was only halfway through the race.  The second half would be a repeat of the loop that I had just traversed but I knew it was going to be tougher and, as I would find out, much more interesting, to say the least. Eating some hot food and having some time to regroup with some great company lifted my spirits.  Although I felt determined, I knew that I would need to take a cautious approach to the next fifty miles if I wanted to finish at all, let alone within the cutoff time.

It was 7:32 PM when I officially checked out of the Stonehenge aid station.  As I stood up to leave, the pain in my legs intensified, and it took a few hundred steps to acclimate to the discomfort.  "I hope I can do this" I said to my friends as I bade them farewell.  They supplied me with a hearty dose of psychological encouragement as I disappeared down the trail.  As I ran alone towards the junction that connects the course to Marlette Lake Trail, I realized I had made a major rookie mistake.  The one drop bag that I had for the race was at the Tunnel Creek aid station, eleven miles away.  Since the course passes through Tunnel Creek six times in total throughout the race, it seemed like an ideal place to leave a drop bag for additional supplies.  Even though there was still plenty of daylight, it would be well after dark by the time I reached Tunnel Creek, where I would have access to my headlamp and flashlight.  Until then, I had no choice but to find my way in the dark with no light source available, with the exception of my cell phone flashlight, which I was hesitant to use.  I wanted to save as much battery power on my cell phone as possible.  Shortly after picking up the single track trail that would eventually lead me to Marlette Lake, I caught up with a group of three runners.  The group consisted of Kim from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Chris from the Sacramento area, and Melissa from the northern region of the San Francisco Bay Area.  As we chatted and exchanged stories, I asked if I could hang with them until Tunnel Creek since I didn't have a headlamp.  They happily agreed.  "In fact" Kim said "I have an extra headlamp right here that I won in the pre-race raffle yesterday".  She took the headlamp out of her pack and handed it to me.  "Just give it back to me at Tunnel Creek".  "This is great, thank you so much!" I said gracefully.  As the sun set, and the evening turned to night, our group gradually disbanded and I switched on Kim's headlamp to light the way.  The headlamp was brand new, but because of the cheap batteries inside, the light that it produced was weak, but it was certainly better than nothing.  Kim's other light was much more powerful and she wore it around her waist to light the path more efficiently.  As I made my way past Harlan Peak, I slowed considerably after a few close calls from nearly tripping over rocks and roots due to the dim light of the headlamp.  As I ran down the switchbacks to Tunnel Creek, I decided to adopt Kim's method and wear the headlamp around my waist.  It helped a little and I was now able to see the path more clearly in the dim light.  Kim kept up a consistent pace and was a few hundred feet behind, creating an additional light source as well.  

Once at Tunnel Creek, I returned the headlamp to Kim and after a quick break, I took off for the Red House Loop, thankful that I now had my headlamp with fresh batteries to light the way.  After running downhill for a while, I reached the bottom of the gorge.  It had been an enormous winter in the Lake Tahoe area and the snow melt from the nearby mountain peaks had caused the area to become completely flooded.  I searched for a way around the makeshift pond in the middle of the trail, but blocking any potential dry paths were thick bushes.  As I had done earlier in the race, I decided to just run through the water, which was only deep enough that my ankles were submerged.  After powering up the climb with wet feet, I arrived at the disco themed Red House Loop aid station, which was now decorated with multi colored Christmas lights.  As I sat in a chair, sipping some hot broth with rice from a paper cup, Kim emerged.  "Hey Liam, I caught up with you!" I was again, happy to see a familiar face, even if it was someone I had just met.  We hammered through the rest of Red House Loop together before returning to Tunnel Creek, where she pushed ahead towards the Bull Wheel aid station.  The final stretch of Red House Loop is a difficult uphill climb, and by the time I arrived at Tunnel Creek, I had fallen into a low point.  The climb had consumed a substantial amount of my energy, and I was concerned about the remaining climbs that I would need to traverse between this point and the finish.  As I arrived, a volunteer named Casey appeared before me.  She could see that I was in a state of despair, so she offered an enthusiastic greeting.  I had seen her volunteering at other ultras I had done, but hadn't formally met her until this race.  I loved her enthusiasm and dedication to the sport, and the fact that she had been here in the middle of nowhere all day taking care of runners made me smile.  She brought me tater tots and pieces of cheese quesadilla before refilling my water bottles and sending me on my way to Bull Wheel.  Leaving Tunnel Creek and disappearing into the darkness with a full stomach and a psychological uplift from the volunteers, the feelings of despair were replaced with feelings of determination and hope.  I felt good at the moment, but as another runner pointed out early in the race, everything we experience is temporary.  As I pushed up to Bull Wheel, drowsiness began to set in.  It became difficult to focus on what I was doing and I debated on whether to keep powering through or to try to take a quick power nap at Bull Wheel to regain my energy.  I chose the latter, but after sitting in a chair at the aid station and trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep, I decided to carry on.  Departing Bull Wheel, I was seventy-two miles into the race, and it was just after 3:00 in the morning.  From there, things got pretty weird and after passing through a delirious, dream-like state, my mind was playing tricks on me and I was convinced that somehow I had gotten turned around and was going in the wrong direction.  After that rather troubling episode, I was feeling much more alert as I ran along the ridge admiring the view of Lake Tahoe and the lights of Incline Village under the star filled sky.  

By the time I reached Diamond Peak Lodge, mile eighty, just after 6:00 AM, the sun had begun to rise, and although I was drowsy again, I was in good spirit.  Here, I would be seeing my crew again, and accompanying them would be my friend Juan Carlos (JC), who would be pacing me for the final twenty miles of the race.  Pacers are not allowed to offer physical assistance, but they can provide a lot of psychological encouragement.  I had done the same for him at the Kodiak 100-miler in Big Bear Lake the summer before, and when I was pondering who I would want by my side during those last twenty miles, it was a no-brainer.  JC happily obliged, although due to a pre-scheduled family commitment, he wasn't able to join us during the first half of the race, and flew into Reno from Los Angeles the night before at 9:00 PM.  Edith and Danny had picked him up from the airport, and he was able to get some sleep in the hotel room that we were all sharing in Carson City before hitting the trail with me.  As I sat on a padded chair inside the ski lodge sipping a piping hot cup of coffee courtesy of the aid station staff, I kept an eye out for my crew, and they soon emerged through the door and headed towards me.  "You ready to be entertained?" I asked JC as the four of us sat in a circle, chatting.  "Just make sure I don't die out there" I joked.  "Don't worry man, I'm going to make sure you finish" he said with strong assurance.  After spending some time regrouping, I made my way back outside and Edith and Danny bade JC and I farewell as we began the notoriously tough climb up Diamond Peak together.  It was amazing to catch up with JC as we moved along, but the climb was beating me into submission, and I was barely able to keep the conversation going.  My answers and verbal reactions were delayed and weak and I puffed up the sandy climb.  Then I remembered how spectacular the view was, and would turn around periodically and admire the lake to take my mind off the anguish.  JC was also enjoying the view and began snapping pictures of us as we powered along.  After nearly an hour, we crested the climb and proceeded down the rolling trial back towards Tunnel Creek, once again.  Once we arrived, I gave Casey a big hug, and found out that the aid station was serving up hot breakfast burritos, much to my delight.  I wanted coffee again, so shortly after taking a seat, JC brought over a breakfast burrito and Casey hooked me up with a cup of fresh brew.  The burrito consisted of scrambled eggs, cheese, and avocado and it was really hitting the spot along with the coffee.  "Check out that sign over there, man" JC said.  "You only have fifteen miles to go".  For the first time in twenty-eight hours, I felt as if I actually had a chance of finishing.  "Oh man, this is definitely putting some life back in me!" I said as I we left the aid station and I continued mauling the burrito.  I think JC got a kick out of how excited I was over what is normally a simple breakfast food, but after running eighty-five miles, it was the most amazing thing I could have asked for.  

As we left Hobart aid station five miles later, the lively volunteers dropped ice cubes down our backs to keep us cool, and squeezed ice water over my head with a sponge.  "Now, get the fuck out of here!" one volunteer joked, as he gave us a knuckle pound and took an enormous pull from his cup of beer.  "Hey man, let's pick up the pace a little" JC advised as we made our way up to Snow Valley Peak.  "I want you to shuffle down the downhills so we can make sure we make it back with plenty of time before the cutoff."  Although it seemed difficult, I trusted JC's instincts.  He had run several ultramaratons before, and knew what I needed to do to push myself, but just the right amount, and not to the point of total breakdown.  I did as he instructed and began power hiking up the climb at a brisk pace.  "There you go, good job" he said.  I hoped that I was keeping a good pace, because I wasn't capable of going much faster.  My stomach was full and I didn't want to risk vomiting on the side of the trail, like I had seen other runners doing earlier in the race.  As I said, when we are running extreme distances, our bodies are using all of their energy to keep us moving forward, including energy that is normally used for digesting food.  As a result, I went through a redundant cycle throughout the race where I would feel full, then my stomach would abruptly start growling only moments later, after the food was quickly digested.  With seven miles left, I paused at the Snow Valley Peak aid station only long enough to refill my water bottles, before taking off for the final stretch.  The trail was mostly downhill from here to the finish, but after ninety-three miles, it all was beginning to feel the the same.  As we wove our way through the tall conifers, I was "leap frogging" with a handful of other runners, meaning I would pass them, then shortly later, they would return the favor as my pace slowed.  We highfived each other and gave kudos as we passed each other.  After what seemed like hours, JC and I were jogging along the winding, narrow trail, when suddenly, Spooner Lake emerged through the brush.  I knew what that meant.  I had less than a mile to go.  I could see the finish line across the lake and could hearing cheering in the distance.  "JC" I said, staring at the lake.  "We're going to do it.  We're really going to do it, man".  I said in disbelief.  "Yeah man! Let's do this" he replied.  But I wasn't ready to go just yet.  I stood still, looked at the finish area across the lake, and began crying.  I was sore, filthy, sleep deprived, and completely wiped out, but holy shit, I was actually going to finish.  It all seemed surreal to me.  "I love you, dude!" I said to JC as we took off towards the finish.  Emotions ran high as I ran the final hundred yards to the finish line with Edith, Danny, and JC at my side.  I had said "just give me the dirt!" throughout the entire race and that's exactly what the world had done.  Highs, lows, joy, pain, sun, heat, water, rocks, roots, steep climbs, breathtaking views, amazing aid stations, the whole ultramarathon experience.  I had lived an entire lifetime in a day and a half.  Knowing that JC, Edith, and Danny were there for me created an overwhelming feeling of loyalty and I would remember crossing the finish line with them for the rest of my life.  As I crossed the finish line, I completely broke down in tears as my crew and I embraced in a group hug.  I had crossed the finish line in thirty-three hours, zero minutes, and fifty-six seconds, two full hours ahead of the cutoff time. 

As much of a train wreck as I was, the post race party was tons of fun, and my crew and I celebrated our accomplishment over beers and delicious food from the nearby food truck.  As my we shared a laugh, I looked over and saw Kim approaching.  She had finished about an hour ahead of me and was looking fresh.  We congratulated each other, and I thanked her graciously for letting me use her headlamp.  I introduced her to my friends, and she went on to tell the story of how the headlamp later died, thanks to the weak batteries.  All the training had paid off, I overcame the setbacks I had experienced, learned a lot, and proved to myself that I was more capable than I ever thought possible.  This race had transformed me in ways I have yet to understand, but I knew one thing for sure right then and there.  My life would never be the same from this day forward.  Two hours later, I stepped out of Edith's car in the hotel parking lot.  Her, Danny, and JC needed to head back to Los Angeles, but I was going to be staying an extra night in Carson City, leaving early the next morning.  As we embraced in a final hug and said our goodbyes, I thanked them for their loyalty and support before heading into the hotel lobby, barely able to walk.  During the drive home the next morning and for days afterwards, I would reflect on what an amazing journey it has been, but I wasn't thinking too much about that right now.  I could barely see straight, and all I wanted was a comfortable bed, a shower, and another hot meal.      

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