By Tina Ure
“Seeing the Elephant” is an expression believed to have begun in the 1820s when travelling shows began touring with exotic animals; including the elephant. People who saw one for the first time found the experience astonishing and awe inspiring, and difficult to describe to others. The phrase was later used by emigrants who made the journey to California because the hardships and challenges they faced were difficult to express. As Stephen Jones recounted several days after finishing the Tahoe 200 Mile Endurance Race, “I have seen the elephant, and it is magnificent, beautiful, enormous, and frightening.”
The Lure of “When 100 miles isn’t Enough”
I cannot believe that I was brave enough to even start this event. One hundred miles actually WAS quite enough for me each of my 15 experiences, thank you. Yet, when I first heard about the 200-mile loop around Lake Tahoe, I knew I had to do it. I can’t understand or explain – except that the concept of circling the lake, traversing those rugged mountains, and experiencing the Tahoe beauty simply captivated me. I wanted to be part of the inaugural event – new, exciting, and definitely experimental. Candice Burt’s vision to dream this monster and enigma is true evil genius; she is also a sadist and a superstar to have created this magical opportunity for hardcore adventure seekers (aka masochists).
My plan for a Hardorck finish in July, then ramping up megamiles in August was solid; but I’ve found that most things Ultra don’t follow the Plan; and to my frustration, I finished Hardrock injured instead of well-poised for an upcoming 200. The reality (or should I say impossibility) of 200 miles sunk in during the weeks leading up to Tahoe. Suffering sleepless nights and stressful days, I contemplated the ever-enticing DNS option.
The Tahoe 200 Group on Facebook added a new level to preparations – discussing a multitude of aspects of training plans, equipment, drop bags, etc. Glowstick colors (on the mandatory gear list), as well as bringing a kitchen sink were actually debated – mostly because none of us knew what we might need in a 200-mile race in unpredictable mountain conditions! Chatter on course maps, InReach devices, and where cell phone coverage would be. Informative, exciting, and absolutely nerve-racking. Candice was active in the discussions, advising us of course changes, crew access limitations, aid & sleep station amenities as they evolved. When reports of the first 42 miles taking 18+ hours to cover in training runs (because of the Rubicon Jeep trail’s rockiness and overall poor footing) came through, she extended the first day’s cutoffs to make sure there we weren’t racing to beat cutoffs. I calculated goal times for each section (mostly so I could give pacers a rough time frame) which was 89 hours total. Two-and-a-half miles per hour seemed reasonable.
The goal for Day One was to enjoy running while it was still enjoyable, share time with other runners, and not wear out. The mountains and trails were stunning, weather perfect, course markings outstanding, and even the maligned Rubicon Trail section was not as rough as had been rumored. The hills were not terribly steep; and the footing, other than ubiquitous dust creating a slick surface on the boulders, was decent. Nothing like Hardrock! In fact, I gauged my exertion throughout the first day, and kept it down to about half of Hardrock-level – such that I should be able to keep it up twice as long. It made sense at the time. (Note that I’ve been accused of “relentless optimism” in the past.)
The field of runners spread and by afternoon I was running solo through tranquil scenes at Loon Lake. It was a sublime sunset with golden light slanting through the pines, followed by a lingering twilight. The gibbous moon rose and I welcomed it – musing that with each succeeding night it would swell incrementally until reaching fullness on my last night – something to look forward to at the closure of each day. Even in this submaximal phase, it was bright enough that I didn’t need my headlight until I reached some dark tree cover, after 9:00. (I also mow my lawn at night by starlight, so perhaps I’ve trained my rods for better night vision…) After Wright’s Lake aid station, I joined a small group, and enjoyed the company. On a long paved downhill, I had the pleasure of running with Ken Michal, or more accurately walking. My recent knee issues protested the pavement pounding and Ken had reasons as well, so we were content to not damage ourselves on the first night. Since he is one of the few people who has actually completed several 200-milers, this was a good thing for me – I needed a good dose of contagious confidence right about then. Also, he is enthusiasm personified – his favorite saying is “God, I love my life!”, and whenever I saw him, he wore a huge grin and most often was giggling his distinctive laugh. Once back on singletrack, I ran the last 10 miles of the night alone, playing music, and struggled a bit with route finding. This section went on for much longer than I’d thought, and there was an unexpected climb at Lover’s leap. Perhaps I should have actually looked at the maps that I’d downloaded… An unmarked road junction, a gravel road that went on endlessly, and more pavement – but now that the moon had set, the milky way was stunningly brilliant, and I even saw shooting stars. Finding beauty in the mountains offset the fatigue and despair. I made it to Sierra at Tahoe, where Brian was waiting to pamper and feed me, and I got a blissful 2 hours of sleep. I didn’t let myself acknowledge that I wasn’t even 1/3 of the way done, and that this was the first of four nights – that would have been overwhelming.
Feeling surprisingly refreshed after my nap in the comfort of the indoor lodge, I was almost able to convince myself that I was just starting out on another 43-mile run for the day. Thirty miles went by quickly thanks to my helpful and fun pacer, despite my slowing down through the heat of the day and a flat meadow section. A dip in icy Round Lake helped refresh me, and sandwiches, coke, and chips at Big Meadow (crew-only aid) were what I needed to tackle the next climb up to Armstrong Pass. The sun again made its glowing exit over Lake Tahoe, and the moon kept its nightly promise. At Armstrong aid, the pacer torch was passed to Brian; and after the climb back up to the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) we reached a major milestone – the 100-mile mark, the halfway point. Mentally, this is huge. It also is the highest point on the course (9,743’) and a scenic stretch which I’d run by daylight a few weeks before in training. It was even more amazing at night: the moon was intense enough to light up dramatic rock cliffs in a surreal glow, and create unearthly shadows. It was cold and windy and raw to be out running in remote mountains in the middle of the night. During the steep climb we caught Ken, who was sitting and puking; but still managing that big grin. I know he was loving it, too! After crossing the pass we had the “all downhill from here” happy feeling. But that faded as the trail went on in endless switchbacks, successive ridges and canyons, up forgotten hills, with no flags or civilization in sight. There must be some physics paradox about the miles before an aid station stretching much farther than standard miles. Finally there were some reassuring flags, then the sound of a generator and voices, the aid station. Yes, it was Heavenly. And so was the 2-hour nap.
At barely over half way, it was a rough morning. I was moving stiffly, and it was hard to enjoy the lovely forested trail and views as the trail tops out over Duane Bliss Peak. It was astounding to look out across the massive body of Lake Tahoe directly across to the mountains on the west shore – to where we had started at Homewood eons ago. And where we were headed back to….better not to look. The rocky trail made even downhill painful. For the first time in the race, I was behind schedule (where had that 4-hour buffer gone?) which depressed me. At Spooner I picked up my pacer, the iconic ultrarunner Betsy Nye. After a full NASCAR pit stop style treatment (including foot bath and leg massage), her energy got me pumped and climbing like a mountain goat to the second highest point on the course, Snow Valley Peak and scenic Marlette Lake. She coaxed remarkable speed out of my 125-mile legs on the downhill to Tunnel Creek, and she turned the nearly 2000-foot powerline climb at mile 140 into a Hardrockesque adventure. The excitement continued when I thought I was hallucinating electro-trance music and neon lights, but it was quite real – a full moon Rave Party! At the end of her 30-mile stint I was once again ahead of my schedule, but too hyped up to sleep. Rather than waste precious time restlessly tossing, I took an Ambien. Major backfire: When Brian tried to wake me two hours later, I was in the middle of a paranoid delusion dream, so zoned out that I couldn’t comprehend why my feet hurt, and didn’t recognize the nice voice but understood that what it was asking was evil (getting out of my sleeping bag). Something about running (what?), Betsy (who?) and being tough (why?). I was literally babbling and crying and crawling back under my blanket. Half an hour and cups of coffee later, Brian broke through my delirium and brought me to reality (which was worse than the nightmare, btw). I was so out of it that I unknowingly put both contact lenses in one eye. The funniest part is that it took me 20 miles to notice that everything was blurry; and another 16 miles to figure out why. At one point I went down a fork in the trail and turned back telling Brian that it was just a path to someone’s tent – which was actually a large rock next to the trail.
During the fourth day I hit my lowest point, and truly considered quitting. I’d been out 70 hours with only 6 of sleep, no pacer, and my feet were screaming. The TRT had changed since I’d run Lake of the Sky years ago, with the disappointment of a long extension out to Painted Rock that I hadn’t expected. My vision was bad, which I blamed on my sunglasses missing one lens (my “partly cloudy sunglasses” since it was overcast and rained on some runners), and the sharp rocky trail pummeled my sore feet. An additional 30 miles was looking more and more impossible. In my head I heard the conversation I would have with Brian when I reached Tahoe City, telling him I was done. Then a song came through my headphones, not usually on my playlist: “See the future not the past; I won’t let go, I’ll make this last. I’m good enough, I’m strong enough. I won’t give up until I find a way. I’m at the end of the road, there’s no turning back. I’ve come too far, I’m only miles away”(Breaking Point).I knew the song well enough to sing along, and as I sang (probably out loud, embarrassingly enough), I began to believe. Yes, I AM good enough, STRONG ENOUGH, and “NO”! I won’t give up – there’s only miles to go. The optimist in me pointed out that the only thing was hurting was my feet – after 165 miles! Just fix the stupid feet and keep going! In Tahoe City I changed shoes, refueled, and set out again with the happy feeling of being on our way to the very last aid station (where I finally realized there were two lenses in one eye and solved my vision problem.)
Candice designed a diabolical ending to the event – by road it’s only 5 miles from Tahoe City to Homewood, but on the course it’s 30+ miles with two huge climbs and descents, and worst of all several miles of PAVEMENT torture and tedious flat gravel roads. But the glorious full moon rising over the lake – I’d been patiently watching three moonrises now, anticipating this progression to fullness – turned the dreaded asphalt into a romantic shoreline walk with my love. Funny that we were the only couple with poles, packs, and headlights…. Once on gravel, we again caught up with Peter – an unstoppable Iditarod 350-mile survivor – and joined forces with him for the final mountain slog. Steep road and trail, blasting cold winds, infrequent course markers (which had us wondering if we were going in a circle and repeating Ellis Peak) were countered by the exquisite moon and sweeping views of rugged mountains all the way down to the lights of Sacramento! The final descent was a painful ski slope with loose rocks. My feet were throbbing, legs dull and boneless; and if I hadn’t had poles I may have skidded down most of it on my butt! Eventually the lights on the lake became less distant, and – after 86 hours 55 minutes – I returned to the Homewood Ski Resort under my own foot power, completing the full circle, accomplishing what I’d expected to be impossible. I amazed myself.