What had to have been one of the busiest aid station decks in US ultra running had turned into one of the quietest. It was my second trip through the base lodge of Diamond Peak ski area, on lap two of the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 miler, and the throngs of cheering family, friends, crew, and aid station volunteers that had been there at high noon on my first time through had vanished, distilled down to a couple volunteers, one other runner, and me.
It was 2:50 am.
This stark contrast was symbolic of how the second half of my race had been going. Tahoe Rim Trail is a two lap course (18,000 feet vert total), and one of the challenges of that format can be the clarity it brings to just how bad you feel on your second trip through each section compared to the first. And what was painfully clear was that things had taken a turn for me early on in lap two after a strong, easy-running 12-hour first lap.
After fighting the inevitable for a while, I was reduced to walking, my stomach having completely shut down on the second trip through the challenging 1,000 foot plunge to and steep climb out of the Red House loop.
It was full darkness at that point, around 17 hours into the race. Coming out of the aid station at the far end of the loop, I threw up a number of times in my cocoon of Petzllight, feeling for my fellow runners who had to witness those sights and sounds.
From there, I stumbled up the last 30-degree pitch to the Tunnel Creek aid and endured a “you OK, dude?” from a chipper runner just heading out on the loop.
I found a chair and sat. It seemed the thing to do.
There, I found myself next to a runner being talked out of dropping by a tough-love aid station worker — “you can keep going, or you can take the walk of shame down Tunnel Creek road to the car.”
I took a quick inventory to see how I might stack up on the walk-of-shame-scale. A little queasy, a little woozy, a little tired — but nothing that said I shouldn’t go on, as unpleasant as it sounded.
So, I stood, grabbed my poles, and headed toward the far end of the course, and Diamond Peak lodge — trying to mask my lack of confidence from the course marshal cheering me out of the aid and up the trail.
My mantra from lap one, the pleasant “nice and easy” — had been replaced by the brutalist “relentless forward progress.” It was worth a try.
As much as I needed calories to start running again, my first priority was water and electrolytes. I knew I had a shot at finishing without calories but knew for sure it wouldn’t happen without hydration. So for the next 20 miles, that was my goal.
I sipped water every 20 minutes or so, with some electrolytes every hour. Things started to cool down, and I decided to walk until I felt I could start taking in calories again. And that happened right as I entered the Diamond Peak aid station at mile 80. It was the longest I’d ever walked (without running) in my life. But it worked.
On that quiet deck, sitting in a blue plastic Adirondack chair, I grabbed some things from my drop bag, had some broth with rice and a quarter of a grilled cheese sandwich, and then just chilled for 10 minutes. Out of Diamond Peak is a stout two mile, 1,800 foot climb to the top of the ski area, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t ruin all the work of the previous 20 miles by starting the climb too soon after eating — and then going too hard once I did.
“Nice and easy” came back.
From the top of Diamond Peak, I ran a good part of the way back to Tunnel Creek as the sun came up. After more broth and rice and a change of socks, it was 15 more miles and a couple tough climbs and descents to get to the finish. First was the Hobart aid station five miles on, and then the Snow Valley Peak aid station three miles after that. It would not be quick. It would not be easy. But, finally, it felt like it would be possible.
Coming off Snow Valley Peak, I bombed some sections of the descent — jogged and walked others. And when I finally came to the last water-only aid station with a mile and half to go, it was clear that something horrible would have to happen to keep me from finishing somewhere under 30 hours.
At the aid station, I knew I didn’t want water. The fast-for-me descent in the warming temperatures had my stomach on edge again. But I wanted to stop and thank the young family who was hosting the station. As I stumbled over my words, pausing a beat, one of the family’s young boys walked slowly over and raised a cup of water up to me like it was the Holy Grail. There was no way I could say “no.” So, I drank; thanked them, and headed down the trail toward the finish — slightly more queasy but buoyed.
I crossed the line at 29:33, ecstatic.
It was my first hundred in 10 years and marked the end of a very long journey to get back to the distance. It is an older me, a more prone-to-injury me, a slower me. But it feels like me.
The me that relishes the solitude of running through the night. The me that takes photos while running tired, hungry, and a little scared. The me that bumps up against myriad excuses and the urge to quit — and keeps going. The me that just loves to run long — really long.