2016 Tahoe Rim Trail 100

Background

The Tahoe Rim Trail 100 is run entirely on trails on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, and consists of two 50-mile loops. They actually aren’t really loop-shaped, since there are several segments that you cover in both directions, and even one aid station (Tunnel Creek) that you see three times per loop. The elevation ranges from about 6800’ to just under 9000’.

I tried to run this race in 2012, which was a year of several 100 mile DNFs (Did Not Finish) for me. That year the cutoffs were tighter, and I was the last one who made it through the mile 80 aid station. But I had given what I could to even do that, and thoroughly missed the cutoff at mile 85. My primary motivation this time was to avenge that DNF.

This year there were roughly 236 people registered, of whom 6 did not start.

Preparation

On the whole I was well prepared for this race. I had gotten good mileage in, with a heavy emphasis on vertical. I had prepared for the altitude using a device called AltoLab, plus four weeks before this race I ran the Broken Arrow Skyrace, and about 1.5 weeks before this race I was in Idaho and Wyoming for a few days at altitudes between 6000’ and just under 10,000’. I ran a 10K there on July 4th, finishing over 2 minutes faster than I had at the same race last year.

On the negative side, my core training started late, on June 28th, which (spoiler alert!) turns out to have been a mistake. I took a risk by not doing any heat training, both because it was logistically difficult and because I really hate it, but that didn’t end up being a significant problem.

Weather

The weather worked out well for me. The high temperatures were probably no more than 80°F, and there were almost always good breezes. Actually at times the winds were quite strong on the ridges, which made it hard for some people to stay warm (or keep their hats on), but I tend to thrive at relatively cold temperatures, never putting on my windbreaker after the first few miles of the race. The dry conditions caused a lot of dust, especially in the early miles where the trails were more crowded. But on the whole it’s pretty hard to complain about the weather.

First 50 Miles

The first 50 mile loop went pretty close to my plan, which had me finishing in 32:21 total vs. a 35-hour time limit. The very first seven mile segment to the Hobart aid station was substantially faster than my plan (by about 12 minutes), and then after that I was generally between 12 to 20 minutes ahead of plan at each point along the way to 50 miles. I stayed well focused, pushing neither too hard nor letting up completely. I kept seeing people who are usually well ahead of me, some of whom said they were trying to get used to the altitude—in contrast it hardly seemed noticeable to me.

The one place I saw Connie (my wife and crew) during the loop was at Diamond Peak, which was the 30 mile point. It was warm enough then for me to break out the ice bandana, which helped since the climb out of there is the toughest of the loop, and it was probably also the hottest I saw it all day. On my way back to the halfway point of the race I had a few ounces of beer at the Hobart aid station (mile 40), and the Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA that they had (on tap!) hit the spot.

At the halfway aid station (mile 50), both Connie and my pacer were there and ready for me. I got my good headlamp and handheld flashlight (it was roughly 6:30pm so it seemed a bit early for that, but we wouldn’t see Connie for another 30 miles), switched to GPS #2, took my daily pills, and got some calories in. This took longer than planned, partly because the aid station limited me to one person (Connie or my pacer) inside the aid station at a time. And also because I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed for the night.

A word about my pacer: Brian Robinson was serious overkill for this task. He ran this race and finished fourth in its inaugural running 10 years prior. He has finished the Barkley Marathons (which only 14 distinct people have ever done). Brian was also coincidentally in my high school graduating class, and while we barely knew each other then, we have had more contact since I started running ultramarathons. When I put out the word on Facebook that I was looking for a pacer, Brian agreed.

Second Half

The second half of a 100-miler is always more interesting than the first half…

The next 21.5 miles

Things kept going well, and improved to some extent thanks to Brian. One lesson that I’ll remember is that running, even for a little while, also helps speed up your walking pace. Otherwise you tend to get into a “slog” mentality.

We got to Hobart well ahead of plan, since as on the first loop this segment was easier than I expected. I had another few ounces of beer (motivation!), and we continued to Tunnel Creek. I should mention that my pacer from HURT, Noé Castañón, worked at the Tunnel Creek aid station for the entire time it was open, and this was the fourth of six times I would see him there.

Next was the Red House loop. At the aid station in the middle of the loop, which actually seemed relatively warm (for the mountains in the middle of the night anyway), a friend named Gary said he was having trouble staying warm. Since Gary is usually hours ahead of me (he finished this race in under 26 hours the prior year), this sounded surprisingly ominous.

We made it back to Tunnel Creek (mile 68.5), talking at least part of the time about Brian’s experiences at Barkley, and getting there about an hour ahead of my plan. Cool! The only possible downside was that unless Connie was tracking me in the middle of the night, she might not make it to our planned meeting at mile 80, but I wasn’t very well going to slow down for that reason.

The next section, to Bull Wheel (mile 71.5), was uneventful, or at least I don’t remember anything interesting from it. I think we passed some people, especially on the uphills where we were walking faster than others (those running the uphills were long gone).

Descent to Diamond Peak

This is the longest section (8.5 miles) between aid stations on the course. We were moving well, at least early in the section. And Brian was showing that 1) he knew better than I did how the course arced around, and 2) he intuitively knew how the position of the moon told us where we were in that arc.

But as the section wore on, Brian pointed out that I was leaning to my right. Oh, no! My hardest 100 miler was hard specifically because of this problem (leaning that leads to increasing back pain, making running and even walking increasingly difficult). Since then I have always done core work when preparing for 100 mile races, but I had started that late for this race. He made a series of suggestions for reducing the effect, some of which helped, but I did slow down. It seemed like the aid station would never arrive, but eventually, of course, it did.

We got there (mile 80) just before 4 AM, which was about 90 minutes ahead of my plan and well over three hours faster than I had gotten there in 2012. But despite that Connie was there!

There were also medical people there, so I spent a fair amount of time talking to them and actually lying down on a cot for a little while (I think this was the first time I have ever done that during a race). Thankfully the medical people didn’t seem at all inclined to pull me from the race, and frankly their suggestions were less useful than the ones I had already gotten from Brian.

A friend and sometimes coach, Franz, was on another cot, and he was sleeping. He is usually far ahead of me, but had been having a tough race (he might have been sick). His wife was there, though, so he was in good hands.

I switched to GPS #3 and put on sunscreen for day two. And while I did jettison a few things for weight at Brian’s suggestion, I did decide to take my hiking poles, both for the steep climb out and to help stabilize my leaning. In all I was at Diamond Peak for over 30 minutes, which is eternity, especially since my plan had called for only seven minutes.

Diamond Peak to Tunnel Creek

The climb out of Diamond Peak is where I fell behind the cutoffs in 2012, but this time I was way ahead of where I was then. Plus that also meant it was still dark and cool, which helped a great deal. This brutally steep climb straight up a ski slope was not part of the inaugural course that Brian ran in 2006, so I was curious what he would think of it in comparison to the notorious climbs in the Barkley (verdict: in the same ballpark of steepness).

Fairly early in the climb, though, I had a new issue to deal with, namely a strong need for a bathroom (I’ll try to be fairly delicate and avoid the details). Walking slowly uphill didn’t involve much jostling (which meant it wasn’t too bad), and I hoped there was a portable toilet at Bull Wheel.

But there wasn’t. And the three miles from there to the last of six Tunnel Creek aid station stops had a fair amount of downhill. As a result the jostling made things worse, overshadowing the leaning problem, and I had to walk more than I otherwise would have. Needless to say when we got to Tunnel Creek I went directly to one of the portable toilets there. What a sight for sore eyes!

By this point, at mile 85, I had definitely lost some of the cushion on my plan, but we were still about 50 minutes ahead of it when we left Tunnel Creek just before 7 AM.

Tunnel Creek to Snow Valley Peak

Okay, the bathroom problem was handled, but during the five-mile stretch to my last stop at the Hobart aid station a new issue was added. Specifically, I started wheezing when I was breathing harder. At the time we thought maybe the altitude had finally caught up with me, but in retrospect I wonder if the dusty conditions might have been a factor. By this point the leaning made my back hurt when I tried to jog downhill, and combined with the impaired breathing uphill meant it was almost all walking, and not all that fast either.

After my last beer at Hobart, we continued on the three mostly uphill miles to the last full aid station of the race at Snow Valley Peak (mile 93). I was slow enough that passing even casual hikers who were on the trail wasn’t easy or always even possible.

But the aid station had sherbert! The flavor I first asked for had just run out, but my backup flavor still hit the spot since it was now a little after 10 AM and it was getting warm. One amazing thing is that a much faster friend named Mark arrived there after I did, and was still there when we left. And amazingly we were still about 50 minutes ahead of my (obviously fairly conservative) plan at that point.

The rest

The last seven miles were mostly downhill, but the leaning with its associated back pain, and to a lesser degree the heat, were really kicking in and substantially slowing me down. A number of people passed me, including that much faster friend Mark. I was in total slog mode now, though still totally committed to finishing. Somewhere in there I figured out that walking faster only hurt a little more than walking slowly, and getting this done sooner was worth it.

There was one limited aid station in this section, which was good since the heat had increased my fluid consumption significantly. One of the people at that aid station said that she has seen the leaning problem at Badwater, and she believed the issue was electrolytes. I took some, and for a few minutes the placebo effect had me actually thinking she was right, but in the end, at least for me, that made little if any difference.

Cutting to the chase, I did finally get to the finish. I usually save a bit so that I can run the last short stretch to the finish line, even if I have been walking it in, but this time that just seemed wrong for some reason so I walked across the line. My official time was 32:08:37. I had lost about 37 minutes on my plan just in the last seven miles, but that still means I was 13 minutes under. And I was done! DNF avenged!

I went immediately to the medical tent, where they checked me out and asked a bunch of questions. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember feeling coherent and calm because while this had been painful, I had been sure I was going to finish. Later Connie got me an appointment with the Monsters of Massage, who had a tent with two massage tables near the finish line. They temporarily added to the pain since they specialize in “extreme deep tissue sports massage,” but that was well worth it since I left them closer to vertical than I had arrived.

Thoughts and Lessons

On the whole I was well prepared for this race. I was lucky on weather and getting such a great pacer. The main thing to do better is more core work to avoid the leaning problem, with a secondary lesson of remembering to use the bathroom when it’s available.

I feel really proud about how I did compared to some normally much faster people I knew in this race. Gary, who was cold around mile 65, DNFed at mile 80. Franz, who was asleep at mile 80, finished just after me. And Mark, who was just behind me at mile 93, only passed me in the last few miles. And one other runner I know who is normally somewhat faster DNFed pretty early due to altitude problems. In all I think about 75 people who started did not finish, and this time I was not among them.

My other 100-mile DNFs that still need avenging are the HURT 100 and Western States. Both have lotteries and unfortunately I already know I won’t be running HURT in January, but when I do get the chance to run them again I will make the most of it. As I approach 60 years old, the clock is ticking.

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