We were still running uphill at mile 19, high above the casinos, Lake Tahoe glistening like a blue diamond. “Elevation 7,777 feet” seemed like a lucky number to find carved into the trail marker. Veronica and I reached the summit first, watching the others zigzag up the switchbacks on the final climb of the day.
It was our first of an eight-leg journey around the ridges of Lake Tahoe. Since all of our 2020 races were canceled, we needed a new challenge. Something we could manage on our own without aid stations and race directors. We had tried a few virtual races, and though they kept our interest for a month or so, there was not enough comradery to keep us engaged.
The year had started with Veronica training for Canyons 100K, while I was training for Wasatch 100. When the first round of stay-at-home orders hit, we clung to naïve hopes of our goal races somehow, magically coming together.
When parking lots at trailheads closed, we were challenged to find access to the trails for training. But we were not dissuaded. We had run these trails long enough to know all the secret entrances. We never broke direct edicts, never entered a closed park, but we were able to sneak in through little known side doors to access our beloved trails.
They were beautiful. With the people gone, the wildlife came out to reclaim their rightful spot. We saw thousands of salmon gathered where no fishing boats could travel, birds chirping and calling a springtime delight in the quiet of deserted state parks. We saw fox and deer and coyotes, all out for a stroll without the worry of hiking hordes.
When spring moved gently to summer we moved to higher, running hill repeats up and down Diamond Peak Ski Resort, barely finding patches of snow at the summit. Increasing our mileage, elevation and speed in the quiet of trails revitalized us. The ever-increasing challenges left us spent, in a good way. I’d say they kicked our butts.
But it wasn’t new to us. Working hard for a challenge is what drove us at the start of each new season. We gained fitness building towards our goal race each year. Last year, it was Western States for me, actually, it was the goal race of my life. Veronica paced me from Michigan Bluff to the river, keeping me moving and mindful of the vigor we’d developed over miles spent together, an energy a fearless partner brings to co-creating your dreams.
So, finding ourselves, mid-pandemic, at the intersection where the Tahoe Rim Trail meets the Van Sickle Trail, 7,777 feet above sea level, was our version of heaven—legs and lungs pleasantly full of lactose and adrenaline. We had worked the last 19 miles, beating up the climbs to sweeping lake views, and soaring downhill through the forest. At a river gully, Veronica popped up on a fallen tree, racing down the length of it, feet pitter-pattering below her with tightrope grace. I had to run faster, pick up speed to match her pace as I chose the rocky route through the dry gully, less confident of my rope-walking skills. I charged up the last summit with her tight on my tail. We were kids, pushing each other, laughing at our stumbles, and getting stronger by the minute.
We set a make-believe finish goal and flew to down the Nevada side of Heavenly Ski Resort, beating the rest of the crew to the car parked at the bottom of the ski lift. We high-fived, good-jobbed, and settled in to cleaning the trail from our feet for the car shuttle back to the start. There were five of us in the car, and coronavirus had set new rules for us being in close proximity together. On the trail it was easy to stay six feet apart, but tucked in side-by-side, the team agreed that we would need the unprecedented measure of all five of us wearing face masks for the 20-minute ride back to the start.
I was sitting next to Veronica in the backseat, goofy from exertion and hunger. From behind my mask, I tried to tell a story of our run, but the words came out in a slurry of misplaced syllables. Veronica said I was speaking in tongues. We roared, mouths masked, snorting and crying and gasping for air.
Two days later Veronica came down with COVID-19 symptoms.
The news brought my world to a halt. Was she going to be alright? Was I going to be alright? Was I supposed to get tested? What about my double cancer survivor husband?
Quarantining came naturally because I did not want to get off the couch. On the good days I could coax myself to the treadmill that waved at me from across the room. But most days, the couch pulled me deeper into its cocoon. Blankets and pillows and potato chips offering solace from the chaos that lurked beyond my front door. Coronavirus had come too close to home. Its proximity shook me.
Meanwhile, it was ravaging Veronica. While I waited on the sidelines for my test results, she struggled with eating, breathing and mental cognition. We talked on the phone once or twice, but in our short conversations I could hear her struggle for focus and air. There were few texts back and forth, all with less banter and frequency than our pre-COVID days.
When your closest ally is suddenly out of commission, it unbalances your world. I wanted to do something to set the scales in order. I took her a homemade vegetarian meal, as if that pot of soup could hold the cure to a novel disease. If nothing else, my hope was that she could feel the love that went into the broth, and maybe that would spark some healing. Seeing her through the wavy pane of her living room window made her illness more real. She was washed out and pale, her hair flat against her head on one side. The energy that had emanated from her like a super nova had dwindled to a damp match sputter.
Ten days after a brain swab through my nostrils, I had my own test results. COVID-19 negative. By then, two weeks had passed since sitting beside her in the backseat. Though the results came with some relief, they came with little surprise. And still, I struggled to get off the couch.
The remaining team of four, that had started as five in quest of a Tahoe Rim Trail 165-mile circumference, returned to the mountains to continue the journey. But the energy was not the same. The trek became more of a long hike than a get-your-butt-kicked adventure. The trail still offered world-renowned vistas and challenging summits, but the energy match of chasing your buddy through the forest had faded.
Yet there was still a draw. Even when smoke filled the mountain valleys, it gave my life structure. Once each week I made the solo drive to Tahoe to conquer another 20-mile section. It kept me in my community, marching through the segments with some purpose in the same pod of friends. The same friends that had suffered a COVID close call with Veronica. And though I thought 20 miles a week at elevations over 8,000 feet would keep me in running shape, I was shocked to find that after three months, my legs had forgotten how to run.
At three months in, Veronica was just finding her walking feet. I met her downtown in Sacramento where we wandered through deserted streets. Businesses closed, boarded up against looting, state buildings locked down, employees working from home. And yet, we found artists actively painting murals above and below scaffolding, continuing the yearly tradition of the downtown festival, Wide Open Walls. The fresh colors, focused artists, and splattered paint cans spoke of hope. Old murals and new ones, side-by-side, transforming the city streets into an open-air art museum. Walls that remained open even during coronavirus.
Our wandering led us to lunch and a beer, which felt so much like the old days—the pre-COVID days—when we would belly up to the beer counter of the Aid Station running store after running Monday morning hill repeats in Auburn. Yet, still, it was not quite the same. I caught myself checking how much Veronica was eating, concerned that she got enough calories and nutrition. And what used to be a two- beer lunch, had quickly and silently diminished to one, but with unimaginable gratitude for the one that remained in this lunch beneath the trees on the edge of Cesar Chavez Park.
It’s been four months now, and I’ve finally unstuck my butt from the cushions of my couch. The illness that stole Veronica’s fitness like a bone-breaking running injury is slowly releasing its hold, and she has started a six-mile run/walk routine. Her goal for 2021 is Canyons 100K, again. Like her, mine is the same: Wasatch 100. We will see. What 2020 has taught us it that nothing is promised.
The setbacks have offered a new perspective. Hard-earned fitness to scale mountains has a short shelf life. But what lasts are the stories, the jokes, the shared suffering up the rocky slopes. And although I don’t have a shiny new buckle to add to my collection, I have, instead, my friend, my health and my 2021 calendar waiting to be filled.