“A glimpse of heaven…a taste of hell.”-Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs slogan
It was so good to return to Lake Tahoe last week for the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs. Once again, Debbie ran the 100-miler, but unlike our 2013 adventure, she finished. I’ve crewed her at more than 60 ultras over the past 15 years and this was one of the more emotional races to watch. Debbie has her own take on the race. When you finish reading my story, click here for her race report.
Last year, we had such a fun family trip to Tahoe, but the race turned out to be a debacle with a rare DNF at 67 miles and then an awful experience with losing our gear bags at the finish line. In the end, we got back our stuff, but not without a whole lot of worry and added stress to an already difficult race weekend. The moment that Debbie was thinking clearly after last year’s race, she declared that we were returning in 2014 so that she could finish what she started.
The 2013 TRT100 DNF taught both of us several lessons. She continued to struggle with her fitness and health at the Vermont 50 and at Hellgate, but both races were part of a process to regain the form that has allowed her to run at a high level at so many other ultras. A few mysteries were solved, but we view the process as a journey that has no ending. Her 2014 races have been OK with some good results, but she hasn’t had the speed like in the past. Age is certainly a factor, as is the other stuff going on in life. 16 years of competitive trail running has an impact on the body and the mind.
Debbie made changes to her diet and her training. She was more focused than ever before in the preparation for this year’s race. It is her only “A race” and she will now take a break and do some other things for a change of pace. She is registered for some off-road sprint triathlons and an obstacle course race. I predict that she will run another ultra before the year is out, but it will be fall or winter and I’m almost certain it won’t be 100 miles.
She told the family within an hour of finishing TRT100 on Sunday that she was “done with 100-milers.” The family knows her pretty well and we paid no heed to her statement because I would bet she runs another, and maybe as soon as 2015. There are too many fun courses that she is still interested in. If she can continue to improve her strength, deal with some of the imbalances/injuries that have been slowing her, and stay healthy, then she can keep running these for a while. After she paced Larisa Dannis at the Western States Endurance Run in June, she caught the bug to try that track. She has said that if she ever gets in to WS100, that she would consider the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. She has also been in the Hardrock 100 lottery twice before, but didn’t get lucky either time. Then of course, she has unfinished business with her first 100 at the 2007 Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB).
So, feel free to join me by putting money on her running the 100 mile distance again. Let’s just give her some time to process last weekend and the past year since she stopped the 2013 race lying on a cot at the Tunnel Creek aid station in a state of nausea and exhaustion. Others have told me that she is a hard woman, and I would agree. I’ve got my own description for who she is and what she does. I get to see it up close and it really is amazing. I have total respect for the runners who ran through the Sierra Nevada Mountains this past weekend.
I love to crew these races for many reasons, not the least of which is the source of inspiration that it gives me to lead my life with purpose and a sense of adventure.
It took a team effort to get Debbie to the finish line. Our kids are super. They exhibited wonderful patience throughout the event. They had to deal with the heat, elevation, rain, and sleep deprivation like everyone else. They are about as professional as a crewing family can get and they pitched in every chance they got. For them, Mom running 100 miles is normal, so they are totally comfortable in the mountains, at aid stations, and wherever else we go during these events.
The race weekend started in Carson City, the capital of Nevada. Last Friday, the registration and pre-race meeting were at the State Senate office building. We drove over from Incline Village. Like last year, we were hosted by our friend, Tony Lillios, another fantastic endurance athlete. We have met so many great people through our sports and cherish our network of friends. This year, our time at the Lillios household was even more fun because his 10-month old daughter joined the fun.
Daniel Roy, our cousin, joined our crew again. He paced Debbie at the 2012 Vermont 100 and repeated his role. Danny is my youngest first cousin on my Mom’s side of the family (the Roy’s) and he grew up in Madawaska, Maine on the Canadian border whereas I’m from Connecticut. I’m the oldest of the generation and have 17 years on him, but despite the age and geography gaps, have forged a real connection with him. He has developed into a very talented athlete, and ran a Boston Marathon qualifying 2:55 at the San Diego Marathon in May, so he has the legs to handle pacing duties well. The cool thing is that he just started running seriously four years ago, and has a bright future with only a handful of marathons and ultras under his belt.
Dan met us at the meeting and we got the race details. It is always fun to return to a race with experience, especially one like TRT100 where logistics are important. We returned to Incline Village on Friday night for final preparations and a family meal. All week, the weather was mixed with warm sun in the mornings and then afternoon clouds and thunderstorms. Tahoe was seeing its first rain in more than a month. The entire region has been locked in a two-year drought, so it was very uncharacteristic to have as much moisture (rain and hail) as we had this past week.
In addition to support from Dan, for the second year in a row, we got help from another first cousin, Tim Nelson, and his wife Sara. Both joined us in 2013 to help crew and watch the kids. This year, they were joined by their five-month old son. They didn’t arrive from their home in San Francisco until 2:00 A.M. on Saturday, so it was a short night for me because we got up at 3:30 A.M. for the 5:00 A.M. start at Spooner Lake State Park.
Danny, Debbie, our 7-year-old son, and I went to the start together while our daughter and the others remained asleep. The race kicked off with the usual fanfare. The temperature was even more mild than last year, but that was likely due to the humidity. The three of us boys drove to the Tunnel Creek trailhead and made the 3.6 mile hike up to the aid station. It’s a tough walk with 1,500 feet of elevation gain. Tunnel Creek is a major junction on the course with the 100 mile runners passing through six times. Our son kept us entertained on the climb. He had Dan and me laughing constantly. The kid is a real trooper and I was proud that he woke up early to experience the start and the hike. We had awesome views of the lake.
We saw Debbie at mile 11 and mile 17 before and after she completed the Red House Loop for the first time. The 100-milers do two “laps” of the course. Early in the race, she was complaining about foot pain. Over the past 12 months, she has dealt with gastro-intestinal issues, glute, and back pain; and most recently has been struggling with a sore left forefoot. It goes numb on her, particularly when she is ascending. The subsequent pain throws off her stride and that causes all kinds of other issues. She was wearing her custom orthotics in a pair of La Sportivas, but said that she wanted to change shoes. Unfortunately, we hadn’t carried her extra shoes (another pair of La Sportivas and a pair of Altras) with us, and I’m still kicking myself for that. She was forced to go a long 13 miles to the Diamond Peak Aid Station before we could swap them out.
She forged ahead as the day was heating up while we descended back to the truck. We were able to clearly make out the hundreds of swimmers in the Trans Tahoe Relay. I saw this swim last year, and once again, our friend, Tony, was out there on the lake with his team. We heard that in addition to the ultra and the relay, the Northstar ski resort was hosting the Tahoe 100K Mountain Bike Race. Lake Tahoe is the ultimate outdoor playground and I’ve totally fallen in love with the place.
We picked up the rest of the clan at the house and made the short drive to Diamond Peak. Debbie got there in 6:17, not too far off her 2013 pace, but she was limping badly and a bit out of sorts. After some discussion that included indecision and concern, she switched to the Altras without her orthotics. She has rarely had issues like this in the past. Her feet have been bomb proof for 16 years and it is discouraging to deal with that kind of pain so early in a race. In addition to the pain, she had developed blisters.
Climbing is her Achilles heel, and TRT100 has more than 20,000 feet of elevation gain and another 20,000 feet of loss. Factor in the altitude between 7,000 and 9,500 feet and you have a fearsome course. The climb out of Diamond Peak Aid Station goes 2,000 feet up in 1.8 miles up to the Bull Wheel Aid Station. That’s serious! After we saw her at Diamond Peak the first time, she was on her own for 20 miles. We weren’t going to walk back up to Tunnel Creek until the 61 mile mark.
I took the family to lunch in Incline Village. We ate at a sandwich shop. Tim, Sara, and their son returned to the house for the baby’s nap and to prep for later. Dan, the kids, and I drove back to Spooner Lake at the start/finish. We camped out at the 50 Mile Aid Station and made many new friends. The weather was starting to change. The morning sun gave way to patchy afternoon clouds that were getting darker by the minute. We watched many of the lead runners (men and women) come through. We were hoping to see Debbie at 3:30 P.M., but she didn’t arrive until 4:40 P.M.? This was more than an hour off of her 2013 pace, but then again, she didn’t finish last year. In 2013, she was 2nd woman at 30 miles, 3rd woman at 40 and then 4th woman at 67 when she dropped.
With finishing as her main goal and the early race struggles, she was 8th at the 50 mile mark, but moved up to 7th by the finish. Her past 100 finishes were 2008 Javelina Jundred (2nd), 2011 Grindstone ( 1st), 2012 Vermont (3rd), and 2012 Pinhoti 4th), but there are no complaints about her result. She had a tough race but persevered and we are proud of her. The kids were a little restless with the delay at Spooner, so we walked a little ways down the trail for a change of scenery. We hung out with Catra Corbett, a ultrarunning friend we have known for more than a decade. We have seen her at most of the west coast ultras that Debbie has run, and I paced her at the 2012 Javelina Jundred. Catra is a real character in the ultra community and the kids had a blast goofing around with her throughout the day.
Once Debbie arrived, we were relieved, at least for a few moments. She indicated that along with the Tylenol that she took, the shoe switch made a difference. The problem had slowed her, but at least our worries that the issue would worsen and put her race in jeopardy, had waned. She stayed long enough at 50 to freshen up. We cooled her with some ice and she swapped packs. I walked down the trail a ways with her and gave her as much encouragement as I could muster. I knew she was suffering and wanted her to get to the finish so badly, and it was emotional for me. We both knew that she was off the pace a and that it would take a miracle to break 24 hours, and get on the podium, but that really wasn’t a priority.
Rain started to fall as we packed up the gear for the return trip to Incline Village. The sky had darkened though there still were patches of clear blue sky dotted by clouds. The weather was weird. Changeable (like New England) is a good description. It was very uncharacteristic for Tahoe in July, especially in a drought. With more cloud cover and a drop in pressure, the temperature cooled quickly. A storm was brewing, so we hightailed it back to the truck. The shuttle service from Spooner to the parking lot was fantastic. The drivers were excellent and it saved us from having to haul the gear and the kids, as far. All the volunteers at the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs were fantastic. The race organization is top-notch and the runners get great value for their entry fee. That is also due to the fine sponsors that the race committee recruited for support.
Heading north, we outran the storm, but that wasn’t the case for the runners-up on the ridge. Debbie said that when it hit, the rain, hail, wind, lightning, and thunder were violent. It was scary for them. The aid station at the top of Snow Valley Peak above treeline was temporarily evacuated, but the runners were on their own to continue. You bear the burden of risk when you play in the mountains. Thankfully, no one was hurt, though the storm had a big impact on the race. We heard that it lasted 30-45 minutes. The crazy thing is that as bad as that storm was, it was nothing like the one that hit after the finish of the race.
Dan and I delivered the kids back to the house. I showered them while Tim and Sara prepared dinner. Dan and I packed the truck again and returned to the Tunnel Creek trailhead. We trusted our math, but still pushed it on the ascent to the aid station to ensure that we got there in time. The only vehicles allowed past the locked gate and on the steep, winding, and sandy dirt road are official race vehicles. Half way, the aid station captain approached from below in her pickup truck. She and her passenger offered us a ride. I glanced at Dan, and despite my own left foot stress fracture/bone spur, forcefully declined the offer. Dan thought I was crazy, but I said that “it would be cheating” and would “cheapen the experience.” By the end of the race, between crewing and pacing, Dan covered more than 50 miles of his own, so I know where he was coming from when he playfully frowned at me, but we soldiered on up the dusty road by foot. I know that I’ve taught him a thing or two about life during our time together at these races, and I know he gets it.
She had 11 miles to cover from the halfway point, but we didn’t know she had to deal with the brunt of the thunderstorm. Once we arrived at the aid station, I got all of her stuff ready and Dan ran backwards on the trail to meet up with her. 15 minutes later, the two of them came around the corner. She told us all about the hail storm and said that her foot was stable, which was a good sign. She looked pretty haggard when she arrived and requested some solid food for the first time all day. Up until that point, she had gone on EFS energy drink, Tailwind energy drink, and gels. The EFS was working best for her so we refilled her flasks every time we saw her. She used straight water in her Ultraspire hydration packs. Dan officially started pacing her at that point. I hung out at the aid station, which has an amazing amount of activity, while they headed out on the Red House Loop. Last year, I ran the loop with her and it is no fun. It’s downhill for quite a ways and then up and down until you get to the Red House Aid Station. Then, its more climbing on the way back to Tunnel Creek.
Tunnel Creek is my favorite aid station of all time. I was hoping that they would be back in 90 minutes, but it was more like 125, so I had time to kill. I helped some other runners, cheered, and took photos. We only got drizzle at Tunnel Creek, which was the opposite of what the runners experienced five miles south. Like I said, the weather really was crazy. The remnant clouds overhanging the mountains and the glow of the lake made for one of the best sunsets of my lifetime. One reason why I take so many photos at these races is to pass the time and avoid the worry that comes with standing around and waiting for dinner. I got some money shots of the sunset, including a few of fellow New Englander, Nate Sanel, who we first met at the Peak Ultras last month.
I’m holding back the images of Nate and a few other runners because they were too good to share right now. That sunset really made my day and gave me new energy for the big push to the finish. I saw Catra again. I also got to say hello to Craig Thornley, Race Director of the Western States Endurance Run. We first met Craig at Grindstone. He finished right in front of Debbie, so we were with his crew all day long. I also met Gordy Ainsleigh, the legend who started this whole ultrarunning thing when he created Western States 40 years ago in 1974. Like I said, Tunnel Creek is a magical place. The volunteer there are very dedicated. In 2013, we got to know all of the medical staff. I informed many of them that Debbie was back to finish.
The sun set and Tunnel Creek became even more vibrant with runners coming and going in four different directions. I got to see Bob Shebest, the eventual overall winner, fly through on his way to the course record. That was impressive and I’m glad I got a chance to take his picture. I was lucky to my wool long sleeve shirt, down sweater, and a hat because it got cold. I turned off my headlamp and walked ¼ mile down the trail. I greeted all of the arriving runners and impatiently waited for Deb and Dan.
When they arrived, I gauged her feelings on the walk up the hill to the aid station. Dan said that she was “peppy” and that was because she took her first caffeine in the form of a gel at the Red House Aid Station. I was thinking, good, whatever it takes. This was the point, at 67 miles, where her race ended last year, so it was a big deal to get her turned around and on her way to Diamond Peak for the second time of the day. Up until this point, she had none of the gastrointestinal issues (sour stomach) that have plagued her in races since early 2013.
Before she arrived, I had the volunteers prepare veggie broth and vegan burritos. She downed both, changed her shirt, picked up an additional chest lamp, and got moving quickly with Dan. I packed up all of the gear and started down the trail in the dark. I figured it would take me an hour to get to the bottom. I was pretty tired and was happy to get caught by Cheryl, another crew/pacer. She was a Tahoe are resident and ultrarunning veteran. She told me stories for the next 45 minutes. We sort of shuffle jogged our way down the trail and her companionship made the time go by quicker. It was approaching midnight at this point and I was hungry.
We parted company at the bottom and I got in the truck. I sat there briefly and ate some food. Then, I drove over to the Diamond Peak Aid Station, about five miles on the road. I thought about going to the house, but didn’t want to wake anyone, so I sat in the base lodge parking lot and drank a beer that I had in the truck. The aid station had been moved inside from the deck of the lodge. It looked like an 80 mile aid station with runners in various states. Some were sitting. Some were lying on cots. Crews were camped out on both floors. Some were attempting to get some sleep. Others were chatting.
I took a seat and just chilled out until Deb and Dan arrived. It was a 13 mile stretch, so I didn’t see them until after 1:30 A.M. I met the president of www.ultrasignup.com and he indirectly worked to convince me to switch the Soapstone Mountain Trail Race to his registration service. The NipMuck Trail Marathon already uses his company, so I didn’t need to be sold on its merits. It was a fun 1:00 A.M. conversation in between hoots and hollers for arriving and departing runners. Debbie calls the Soapstone shots, but I’ll tell her about my networking. Maybe we can get a Tahoe discount!
I closed my eyes a few times, but never fell asleep. They arrived and it was a short stay. Debbie told us that her stomach had finally soured, but that she was going to survive. We knew it was going to be a long 20 miles and Dan estimated 6 to 7 hours. I thought about returning to Tunnel Creek for a third time, but another 7 miles of hiking in the middle of the night would probably kill me, so I took the easy way out. After she and Dan headed up the 1.8 mile/2,000 foot climb for the second time in 24 hours, I went back to the house. I did notice that somewhere between Tunnel Creek and Diamond Peak that she had lost her timing chip. She didn’t know where it was, so we let the timers know and she continued on without it.
The house was a mile away, so it made sense for me to hit the hay. I was in bed by 2:00 A.M. with my son next to me and my daughter in the upper bunk, and I stayed there until my alarm went off at 6:30 A.M. I got up and checked the live race results on my phone, but without a chip, there was no update on her whereabouts. That was a bummer because it ultimately caused us to miss her finish by a minute. It took a while to get the kids ready. I thought about going on my own, but I decided to take them with me.
While I was feeding and dressing them, an out of breath Dan called with an update. Debbie was at 93 miles and running hard and strong. I glanced at my watch and doubted we would make it in time, but we tried. Tim and Sara stayed back at the house. Dan called again as we were leaving Incline Village and said that they had 1.5 mostly downhill miles to go. We had a 20 minute drive, so it was going to be close. We got to the park, paid the fee, and parked the truck. The three of us ran down to the finish line, but she had just finished. The disappointment of not seeing her cross the line only lasted a minute. I love photos of her crossing the line and I didn’t get one, but it wasn’t a big deal. Someone had used Dan’s phone to capture nice finish line image after the two of them crossed and I knew in my mind that she was thrilled when she crossed the line, and would be cherishing her belt buckle.
I missed her course record finish at the 2012 Laurel Highlands Ultra (70.5 miles) which was a far bigger sin. If my memory serves me right, I was across the parking lot assisting our tired and irritable 2-year-old daughter who picked a bad time to need to go potty. That one I won’t let go! Anyway, it was wonderful to be at the finish of the TRT100 with the whole family including Danny. The five of us make a good team. As long as Debbie keeps doing these, this band is going to keep getting back together. Dan had driven up from his home in Los Angeles and he shares our sense of adventure, which means he doesn’t care where and when we need him, he will get there.
The weather was mild overnight and it had dawned cloudy, so the temperature wasn’t bad. Debbie had finished 12 Minutes behind Holly Pyle, who she flip-flopped with for most of the race. Holly pulled away on the last climb. Debbie did pass Molly Knox who was in the restroom at Hobart Aid Station, so she finished as the 7th woman in 27:17:49. Both Deb and Dan were tired, so we walked them up to the truck in the upper parking lot and drove them back to the house.
They showered and napped until early afternoon while I cleaned the truck, washed gear, and prepared for the trip back to Connecticut. Around 2:00 P.M., we took Tim, Sara ,and the baby up to the scenic overlook on Mt. Rose Highway which is only a few miles from Tony’s house. We could see that the weather was changing again and like it had the four previous days, some big t-storms were headed our direction. You could see the huge cumulus clouds shaped like hammerheads/anvils on the opposite side of the lake. We said our goodbyes and then the kids, Dan, Deb and I returned to Spooner for the award ceremony, scheduled for 4:00 P.M. We were planning to go to the burrito truck, get some late lunch, and hang out.
Post-race festivities are always a highlight, but before we even got to the Carson City line on the east side of the lake, the storm was rolling in. The column of rain over the middle of the lake was an amazing sight. This was some storm. I talked about pulling over to get some photos, but it hit way too fast. So, we continued on at 10 miles per hour until we got to Spooner. The rain was coming down in waves. We ended up sitting in the truck for 90 minutes while it dumped on us. Lightning struck within ½ mile of the vehicle multiple times. It was epic. Everyone was cool about it, including the kids. We were in as safe a spot as we could be with tall trees all around us.
Debbie had gotten an email saying that all runners were off the course ahead of schedule by 3:00 P.M, so the ceremony was moved up to 3:30 P.M., but the storm had hit so fast that those plans were shot. Our phones were all buzzing with flash flood warnings. It turned out that 15 or so brave souls were still running near the 34 hour mark and got hit hard by the storm. Shortly after 4:00 P.M. the lightning slowed down and moved farther to the east. More cells were on their way, but there was a brief window, so I left the truck to collect Deb’s only drop bag and to get some food from the burrito truck. It was still pouring and I got really soaked.
Down near the finish, it was a crazy site. The trail had turned into a stream bed with lots of erosion. Massive puddles dotted the landscape. The previously dusty surroundings had been turned into a mud pit. Those last runners and a recent finishers were milling about in the pouring rain. Some folks sought cover in the few tents scattered about. There were no buildings. The timing system had to be shut down early, so official results took a few days to sort out. After waiting for the burritos, I looked around to see what they were going to do about the belt buckles and other awards. Underneath the last 10 x 10 canopy, at a picnic table, there was a small congregation of eight people including two of the race volunteers. Those two were working hard on the buckles. Each one was engraved with the runner’s finishing time.
They were still working their way down the list. I inquired about Debbie’s, but because she lost her timing chip, she wasn’t in the results. However, they had her time hand written on another list. I presume that was a list of runners who also lost their chips. They suggested I wait, and in a matter of minutes, I had her beautiful finisher’s award complete with her 27:17:49 inscribed. The buckle also features a special seal commemorating Nevada’s 150th anniversary of statehood. That was a nice touch, but only for the 2014 race, so in retrospect, if Debbie had finished the 2013 race, there is a chance she wouldn’t have this year’s commemorative buckle. I’m sure she wouldn’t trade the suffering and DNF for an award, but at least it’s fun to rationalize it in this way!
I thanked the two volunteers profusely before running back to the vehicle. Once inside the fogged up truck, I presided over a short ceremony with Danny, Debbie, and the kids where I presented her with her buckle. You should have seen the smile on her face! We ate our burritos while another wave of thunderstorms rolled through. This round included heavy hail. When we finished eating, we headed back to Incline Village for the final time. The narrow winding road was covered in dirt and rocks with most of it in the northbound right lane where steep hillsides had washed away. There was so much hail on the eastern slopes that it looked like it had snowed. As the storm’s intensity died down, we returned to the house to continue cleaning and packing. We had one final celebratory dinner at a local pizza place and ended the night while falling asleep with the Unbreakable DVD playing on the TV.
Bob Shebest isn’t the only runner who had a fine performance. Second place was Mark Austin, and third place was Gregory Benson. The women’s race had an exciting finish. Roxanne Woodhouse, an incredible masters runner, took the win after passing the longtime leader, Jamie Frink, at the Hobart Aid Station, a mere eight Miles from the finish. Jamie hung on for second. She was followed in third by Amy Burton. There were 158 finishers. While last year’s race took its toll with extreme heat, this year’s event was marked by the storms.
Race statistics also say that course is actually 101.5 miles, which further explains the race motto: “A glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell.” Regardless of what ultras Debbie does next, or in the future, the 2014 Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance 100 will be a most special race for me. Crewing these events with our young family is a true love. Debbie is a true love and she is, as Danny puts it, “one of the most rugged chicks I know.”