This quote is often seen in the running, (and especially ultrarunning) community emblazoned across some picture of a runner. It pops up regularly on my travels through the internet and I’ve dismissed it as just another meme. Until recently, but let’s back up a bit and go back to where this all began…
In September 2013 I completed The Bear 100-Mile Endurance Run in Utah and while it was tough, I was never in any real doubt that I could complete it. Completion opened up doors to the established and iconic US 100-milers at Western States and Hardrock which I entered the lotteries for and was unsuccessful in both.
Then news came in from across the pond of the Tahoe 200 billed as the “first ever 200 mile single loop mountain event in the United States” and The Bear could be my qualifier. Now this was more like it, a chance to be part of something new and groundbreaking. It had never been done before and I would never get the chance to be part of the inaugural event again. I entered the lottery, sat and waited for the draw in January and nervously watched the results come in live on Twitter. About halfway through the draw my heart skipped – I was in…
I’ve written previously about the 9 months leading up to the race, training, racing and other considerations so I won’t go over that again here. A good summary would be to say it started well, had a bit of a hiccup in the middle and finished strong, I was in good shape physically and mentally as I headed off on the trip to the USA a week before race day.
Arriving in San Francisco on the Saturday before race day I drove up to Auburn and then onwards to South Lake Tahoe via Squaw Valley. It seemed like too good an opportunity not to go and check out the first few miles of the Western States 100 course while I was there. Whenever I’ve seen footage of this section it looks like a nice easy start, you see the elites jogging comfortably up to Emigrant Pass – yeah, well for mere mortals like myself it’s a bit of a monster climb. I’m glad I went and experienced it and would recommend it to anyone visiting the area.
Monday was supposed to be a bit of altitude acclimatisation and a short hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail, (TRT). I hiked-up to around 9,700′ on the TRT and jogged a short section from Star Lake down to Armstrong before heading back down to the hotel. Due to some navigational errors it ended up being a bit longer than expected but a great day out. The section of the TRT I did looked nice and runnable – nothing too steep or technical and the effects of altitude didn’t seem to be what I remembered at The Bear, despite being higher-up here.
Tuesday / Wednesday were rest days with a side-trip to Reno to do a bit of gambling and meet up with some people from the Facebook group. I met Jill who was running and Mike and her support crew – it amazed me that she had so much support, and I think equally amazed everyone else when I said was out in the USA on my own and was planning to run solo – i.e. with no support crew or pacers.
Thursday was race registration, medical, kit-check and race briefings. It was also when the enormity of the event really began to sink-in. I spent most of the day hovering between excitement and terror, there were several points where I seriously thought about not starting – I just didn’t know if I had the balls to stand on that start line and move forward at 10:00 the next day. But I wasn’t alone, almost every other person I talked to was feeling the same.
I had a drop bag for each Aid Station but wasn’t putting anything in them that would cause me to stop if the bag wasn’t there. Really I was just using them for treats, and had also planned for shoe changes at 60 / 149 miles. There was additional warm clothing in some bags which I could pick up if the weather was colder than expected.
Generally, US races don’t have a mandatory kit list – you see people heading off into the mountains shirtless, in shorts and maybe carrying a hand bottle. This race was not like that and had list of items you had to carry throughout. Compared to UK / European races it was still very minimal but did seem to be a bone of contention for a few runners, personally I had no problem with any of it and my pack was still lighter than it would have been for a typical UK race or even a long run. I never got to use the green glow sticks we had to carry – there were some amusing suggestions about how to use them posted on the Facebook group, including making scary halloween-style lanterns to hide out on the trail at night.
The race briefings were useful and fairly comprehensive, a few last minute changes had been made to the course which were unavoidable. This meant that changes to GPS routes and written instructions were required – again, I had no problem with this and think it’s to be expected for a race of this magnitude in its first year.
After a surprisingly reasonable nights sleep and a leisurely preparation and drive up to the start, I met up again with Jill and Mike, had my photo taken under the start gantry and with the UK flag. Candice the Race Director gave a short speech and we were off – pioneers breaking new territory on the US ultra running circuit.
Start to Rubicon (0-18 Miles, 3496′ ascent)
Straight out of the start it’s about a 3,000′ climb up a ski slope over 3 miles and there’s people running – seriously chaps, do you know how long this race is? Needless to say I’m not running and settle-in with the mid-to-back packers hiking up the hill. After a couple of hundred yards I catch-up with Carol who I spent a bit of time running with at Zion 100 in April, we exchange greetings and she obviously remembers me – her husband Jeff is crewing again so I’m sure I’ll be seeing him later on.
The ski-slope keeps going up, well I guess these skiers like to get their moneys worth and a short ski slope just wouldn’t be good for business. It’s a beautiful day, quite warm and soon I’m sweating heavily and obviously working too hard but it’s difficult to reign yourself in with the adrenaline pumping. I’m definitely not alone in this judging by the laboured breathing around me, we pass the 2-mile mark which has a cheeky mile marker saying “2 miles – only 200 to go”, yes, that’s right as-if 200 miles isn’t tough enough, it’s actually 202 miles!
The ski slope eventually tops-out at around 8,500′ where air is in shorter supply than vowels in a Welsh town name. The day is warming up and sweat is dripping off me, it’s now a long descent via a water-only Aid Station,(AS) at 9.4 miles to the world famous Rubicon jeep trail. Knowing that there’s nearly another 200 miles to go means that it’s a pretty slow and steady descent. Arriving at the Bear Lake Road AS I don’t recall seeing any bears or lakes, but it’s the first time I remember any real conversation between the runners, I fill up my water bottles and head out alone.
Shortly after leaving Bear Lake AS I catch-up with John who asks if I’m from the UK and we seem to fall into a similar pace and strike-up a conversation. Before getting into the staples of ultra-running conversations which I’ll come to later, we arrive at the world famous Rubicon jeep trail.
Now, I’ve never heard of this trail, or a Rubicon – but I’m an expert on it now. It’s a dusty, rocky, steep and treacherous trail used by off-road vehicles and now, 80-or-so trail runners. To be honest, the trail itself wasn’t too bad – a bit rocky yes, but nothing that paying a bit more attention wouldn’t sort out. The nightmare was the dust, a fine layer of dust, maybe 2-3cm deep covered the trail – this was being churned-up by the runners and got everywhere. Anyone not wearing decent gaiters got it into their shoes where it acted like sandpaper, causing blisters and massive problems. Thankfully – I’d paid some attention to the warnings and my trusty “Dirty Girl” gaiters worked brilliantly, not a grain of dust got to my feet.
But it did get into my lungs, with hindsight I should have got my buff out of the backpack and used it as a facemask, especially as after Zion 100 I know how this sort of dust can cause respiratory problems. By the time I dug it out and put it over my nose and mouth the jeep trail was done and we were at the Rubicon AS at 18 miles.
Section 2 – Rubicon to Tell’s Creek (18-29.7 Miles, 1,500′ ascent)
After stocking-up on water, grabbing a few gels and scoffing a couple of huge chunks of watermelon John and I left the Rubicon AS where the heat was already claiming a few casualties. After a mile or-two there was the unmistakable splatter on the trail from a runner who was obviously having some digestive issues.
Our conversation started as they normally do, about previous events. John had run Leadville 100 as his qualifier and only found out a few weeks earlier that he had got into Tahoe 200. An unwritten agreement to run together seemed to form, the trail continued to wind it’s way through the mountains, past rivers, creeks and massive rock foundations. We merged into another group with Rebecca who John called “Water Princess” for reasons only known to himself, (he’d only met Rebecca the day before at the race briefing). The conversation started to turn more into trail-trash-talk which I won’t reveal here but, suffice it to say involved quite a lot of examples of toilet equitete and intimate encounters with bears! John asked me to teach him how to swear in British, (not English) and we spent a few distracted miles laughing as I came up with a basic guide to swearing in British.
We also saw a snake on the trail – OK it was tiny, but it was A SNAKE, maybe it’s mother was nearby?
Rebecca is a journalist and was making a documentary about the race which meant that a film crew occasionally appeared filming with handheld cameras and an airborne “drone”, asking questions and jogging along beside. Candice the Race Director also magically appeared at around 26 miles with a bottle of “trail beer” that John had a swig of before we carried on towards the next AS at Tells Creek.
Tells Creek was the first proper AS and John and I stopped for a while to refuel and refill, the volunteers here quickly recognised me as a Brit. There was quite a lot of “banter” about fell races, sheep shagging and warm beer. Apparently the volunteers strategy was to make the runners hate them so much, we’d get out of their AS quickly and back onto the trail.
Section 3 – Tells Creek to Wright’s Lake, (29.7-41.5 Miles, 2,000′ ascent)
The Tells Creek volunteers strategy worked and John and I headed out quickly at around 19:00 – it began to get dark about 30 minutes later. We delayed putting on the headtorches, (or headlamps to my US friends) for as long as possible to retain night vision but sooner-or-later it was inevitable, so on they went.
The conversation now turned to that great American staple – sports… Not my subject but John asked to be educated in how to play cricket, I think I managed to explain it as simply as possible but it seems, even now to be quite complicated – especially between two people who have been running for over 9 hours with the prospect of running for maybe 91 hours more. After I finished, John explained the rules of American Football to me which I must admit seemed a lot simpler.
A few miles into this section we hit a river with 2 logs across it as a bridge. Candice had warned us about this section as she had nearly fell in here – I had my concerns as I’m not very steady on my feet at the best of times. Tentatively I stepped onto the log and edged forwards, after about 4 feet in I lost my balance and dropped into the creek which was about 2 feet deep.
“BOLLOCKS” I instinctively shouted to no-one in particular as my feet hit the water and then waded across to the other side, John, standing on the other side was in hysterics. This was one of the British swear words I’d been teaching him a few hours earlier. He was made-up to have witnessed some proper British swearing at its finest, unfortunately he did manage to cross the logs more successfully than me despite my best efforts to laugh him off the traverse.
The rest of this section was pretty uneventful, lots of hiking and talking rubbish. I think we were both looking forward to the next AS at Wright’s Lake where we decided to take a 30-minute break to sit down, grab some hot food and rest with the aim to be out for midnight.
The AS was great, playing country and western music and offering Fireball whisky to runners, (I declined and had some soup instead). After stuffing down a few hundred calories in the form of soup, turkey sandwiches, tortillas and chocolate cookies our 30-minute curfew came around all too quickly and it was time so say goodbye and get back onto the trail.
Section 4 – Wright’s to Sierra at Tahoe (41.5-60.4, 3,500′ ascent)
Almost as soon as we left the AS it got cold and we added our extra layers, hats and gloves which worked. One thing I’ve learnt about the cold is not to put things off and hope they get better – if it’s cold, add layers immediately and don’t hope it’ll get better – that’s just asking for trouble!
After a short trail section the route hit Highway 50 which was a fairly long downhill road section, we’d been hiking for a long, long time so decided to have a bit of a jog to try and shake out the muscles a bit. I’m told we hit 10:30 minute/mile pace for a few seconds at one point – AWESOME! Both of us turned our headlamps off for a while to appreciate the stars for a while – I’ve never seen anything like it, without the light pollution the sky was full of stars and you could actually see the Milky Way with naked eyes, I had to keep gazing upwards to appreciate it. At one point while stopped, something ‘large and black’ was rustling around besides the road a few yards away – that got us moving again – 10:30 pace to outrun a black bear? Maybe not…
At 50 miles there was a water-only drop which was a load of plastic jerry cans to refill at, I began having a low patch here and decided to break into a bottle of “5-Hour Energy” to see if that helped. After all, it was 03:00 and I’d been up for 22 hours, run 50 miles in the mountains – I deserved it!
It worked it’s magic fairly quickly and I was on good form coming up to the big 3,000′ climb to the first major AS at Mile 60.4. It was a pretty long and gruelling climb up to the top and John was obviously struggling, I pulled ahead of him with a couple of miles to go but he waved me ahead so I carried on upwards to the luxury of the indoor AS at Sierra at Tahoe.
Originally it had been my plan to get some sleep here but that wasn’t going to happen with a bottle of 5-Hour Energy coursing through my veins. It was also now daylight and so John and I decided to spend 60-90 minutes here, get some hot food, sit down and attend to any issues, (I didn’t have any). John had a friend crewing him, (Ryan) who met him here and helped him out like a servant, I was quite jealous… Not only was Ryan crewing for John, he’d also cleaned his car because it was such a mess!
I ate a load of calories, soup, cookies, sandwiches, coke, tortillas, sat down, changed my shoes and used a real toilet and washed my face and hands, simple pleasures. 90 minutes passed in the flash of an eye and before we knew it, time was up and it was back onto the trail…
Section 5 – Sierra at Tahoe To Armstrong (60.4 – 89.8) 5641′ Ascent
We left Sierra at Tahoe at 08:30 with the aim to get to Heavenly at mile 103.8 by 22:00, that’s 43 miles in 13.5 hours. The worst was supposed to be over now, with the trail turning to the much more easy-going TRT instead of what we’d been on for nearly a day.
I felt great coming out of the AS, the food, rest and new shoes had definitely worked well. John and I continued our conversation down the trail and towards the first big climb of the day. This section was marked out by two 2,500′ climbs to over 9,500′ in the 29.4 miles – it was going to be a tough, long day and the heat was picking up early.
After a few miles John started falling behind, my walking pace was just a bit quicker than his – after a long-ish section I looked back and saw he was a fair way behind, we’d been together for nearly a day but I had to make a decision. I’m a big believer that you have to “run your own race” so I made the decision and kept going, even breaking into a jog on the easier sections. Soon John was out of sight and I was on my own as the trail started going upwards on the first climb.
The familiar TRT sign finally appeared and the trail started heading upwards to over 9,000′ where the air gets thinner, incredible scenery – giant rock formations and the unmistakable pine trees that scatter the trail helped take my mind off the pain but it was difficult, even at a snails pace, any forward progress at altitude is difficult. However, I started to overtake other runners, passing more and more people all of whom said it was tough going. I’m glad it wasn’t just me.
And it was hot, really hot… There was nowhere to refill water in the first 14 miles so I had to ration the water I had to make sure it lasted to the AS at Showers Lake which was added at the last minute as the original one was deemed too far. And it was – I was pretty dehydrated getting-in, drank a good 2 pints of water, filled up my bottles and quickly headed out again.
The next section was fairly flat so I jogged a bit of it overtaking yet more runners before arriving at Big Meadow which was designated as “Crew Only”. I didn’t have a crew but there were loads of people there who generously provided me with water, some salami and coke and a bit of conversation which was welcome after a long section alone. I also met up with Carol’s husband Jeff and we had a quick chat about Carol’s progress and our previous meeting at Zion.
It was “only” 7 miles to the next official AS at Armstrong, but that included the second big climb of the day up to 9,500′ out of Big Meadow and this is where things really started to unravel. I left Big Meadow at around 15:30 and hit the climb, it went up, and up, and up, and – well… you get the idea. I started to lose my mind after about 90 minutes of climbing and fatigue started setting in, the familiar hallucinations started with my mind playing tricks on me – I thought I could hear people following me and kept catching glimpses of things that I was unsure if they were real or imagined. Little furry animals were scurrying across the trails, I’m pretty sure these were real but they could scare the hell out of me at times.
I overtook another few people but was still losing it big time, it was only 7 miles, and I knew 3 miles of that was downhill – how could this be taking so long? Time started to distort and stretch ahead of me, all I could think about was getting to Armstrong – it was my lifeline and I needed to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen once I got there but being where I was, in the state I was didn’t seem like a good place to be. It took over 3 hours to do 4-5 miles to the peak and start the downhill to the AS which, depressingly was off the trail on an out-and-back and down a massive hill – oh, who am I kidding, it was a mountain! I got more and more angry as the trail descended knowing I’ll have to go back up sooner-or-later. On the way down I met a few runners coming the other way saying it’s “not far” – but it is, it really is…
Nearly 11 hours after leaving Sierra at Tahoe I got into the Armstrong AS, putting on a brave face, (it’s not the volunteers fault) I slump into a chair and ask for something hot. The medical officer is a bit concerned about my liquid intake and lack of times I’ve “been to the bathroom” and requests I drink a litre of water before moving on. Absolutely no problem. He notices my European kit, namely Raidlight, Silva and Salomon gear and we have a conversation about stuff – it’s nice to talk to someone after so long out on my own.
I’d planned to get some sleep here but it’s cold and the rest area is full of runners in various states of distress, I think about dropping out here – the next section is going to be hard. After a few minutes I make the decision to tackle the next section to Heavenly. It’s 14 miles away, but has a 2,700′ climb to the highest point of the course at 9,700′ to begin with. My plan is to eat a load of calories, take another 5-Hour Energy and get it over with – Heavenly by name, Heavenly by nature – here I come baby!
Section 6 -Armstrong to Heavenly (89.8 – 103.8) 2704′ ascent
It’s back out onto the course, headtorch back on and the food and 5-Hour Energy starts to works it’s magic. I pretty-much fly up the out-and-back climb to the TRT and pass a few runners coming down to the AS, I tell them it’s “not far” as the truth is too ugly for them.
The next 5 miles is the section I’d run on Monday, but in reverse so I know it’s a long climb up to the highest point on the course at 9,724′. The 5 Hour Energy probably lasts about 90 minutes before I crash and every step forward feels like a huge effort. It’s hard to put into words how much effort it takes to get to the top – all I can think about is getting to Heavenly, lying down and sleeping. Thoughts keep crossing my mind about sleeping on the trail for a while, but that would be stupid – OK it’s not that cold, but I’m on the highest point of the TRT – there’s bears and cougars out here and I’m in a seriously depleted state, no – I must get to Heavenly. Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven in a place on Earth” is on infinite loop in my head.
“Ooooh baby do you know what that’s worth, ooh Heaven(ly) is a place on Earth”
The moon and stars are beautiful again and distract my thoughts until I arrive at the summit and then onwards to Star Lake which is where I got onto the TRT a million years ago back on Monday. It’s 9 miles from here – all downhill so I’m told. Easy… And it starts well enough – at this rate I’ll be tucked up in a couple of hours, my plan is to get 5 hours sleep, as much as I can and then head back out just before dawn while it’s cool. But I just need some sleep – now…
With about 4 miles to go the TRT takes an evil twist and turns into a nightmare of rocky switchbacks. It’s pitch black and without any frame of reference I’ve not idea where I’m going – the trail markings become sparser and things get really confusing. I meet-up with another runner who’s looking at his GPS and scratching his head, we spend what seems like an eternity going round in circles looking for the trail. I’m getting angrier and angrier as my fatigue increases which must show, it’s not his fault. Another runner comes bounding down the trail and says he knows the way so we try to keep up as he disappears into the distance.
The trail snakes around the mountain and then another “out and back” sign appears with the trail descending to the AS at Heavenly. It takes nearly 7 hours to do this 14-mile section – I’m exhausted, physically, emotionally and mentally and before I collapse onto one of the airbeds setup outside I eat some hot soup and drink some water before wrapping myself in blankets and closing my eyes.
But it’s tough to sleep knowing you have to do it all over again in a few hours. My mind is whirring but I can’t break the remainder of the course into small enough chunks to be manageable. The next section is 17 miles with over 3,500′ of ascent and no water, and the AS at the end isn’t a sleep station – will they have facilities if I need to collapse and sleep there? I need to assess my options, I need some sort of a plan before my brain will switch off.
So I get up and ask a volunteer how I could get back to the Start/Finish “if” I quit, Jack tells me he’s going back there at 08:00 and I can grab a lift with him if I want. That’ll do me – I have a plan, sleep for 5 hours and re-asses. Jack obviously tells Jerry the assistant Race Director who comes over before I go to sleep and asks me not to quit now and sleep on it, I tell him that’s exactly what I plan to do.
Still, it’s not easy to sleep outside in the cold with all the activity of runners coming in and leaving but I do manage to get a couple of hours rest. Somwhere around 06:30 I pull down the blanket and look outside again, it’s still cold but the sun is coming up. I make the decision…
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly know how far one can go” – T.S. Elliot
I think this is where we came in. I now know how far I can go – and for me it’s 103.8 Miles in 39 hours and 44 minutes. I could go on a chin-scratching psycho analysis of what happened out there, but I’m not. That stuff is between me, the TRT and my imaginary bear friends up on that last section into the suitably titled Heavenly AS where I found many things out.
And so – like a blockbuster movie crafted by my American cousins whom I love so much I’m going to leave it there, will there be a sequel? Is this the end, or just the start – I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see!