I never suspected that 100 mile races would be a gateway drug for... 200 mile races, but here I am, polishing off my race report for the Tahoe 200. What went wrong in my past? Neglectful parents? A broken home? The answers lie buried somewhere in the following account.
First, the glorious Strava art I spent over 90 hours painting across the California landscape:
And then my detailed account.
Table of Contents
- Pre-race in Tahoe
- Start to Stephen Jones (10.4)
- Stephen Jones (10.4) to Tahoe City (30)
- Tahoe City (30) to Brockway (50)
- Brockway (50) to Tunnel Creek (65)
- Tunnel Creek (65) to Spooner (82)
- Spooner (82) to Heavenly (102)
I'm going to describe why I ran the Tahoe 200, and the reasoning is going to sound unhinged. Ready?
I was not trying to reach enlightenment. The goal was not to find my ultimate limits and transcend them, to make a dent in the universe, to hurl my twitching body across the finish line, hoping that 200 miles would be enough miles to stuff into the empty place inside where my dreams used to live, to staunch the deadening drip of my childlike wonder leaking out into the burning light of adult responsibility.
No - I did it for a ticket! I'd convinced myself that the Tahoe 200 was the most casual way I could earn a ticket to the lottery of the Hardrock 100, the only trail race I'm still excited about. This whole trail running adventure started with the Leadville 100 in 2013, and may have peaked with my attempt at the Rainier Infinity Loop this summer... but Hardrock's headed my "Athletic Goals" list since college and I'm going to keep running until they let me in.
How sick have I become, that 200 miles doesn't register as a goal in its own right? I saw it as a potential bonding trip with Jason Antin (also running), a nice jaunt around a beautiful lake, and a chance to see if my sanity could survive 100 hours on my feet, but nothing more than an interlude.
I was so wrong. 200 miles is crazy. I think about this race more than I'd ever expected. Tahoe was the most mundane of vision quests, but it's with me always these days.
Pre-Race in Tahoe
First, the race stats. The Tahoe 200 is a 205 mile race around Lake Tahoe with just over 40,000 feet of climbing. It starts in Mid-September on a Friday morning. Athletes have 100 hours to finish, and many take almost the full allotment. It goes without saying that this would be the longest I'd ever run and the most I'd ever climbed in a push.
These ultras are absurdly crew-intensive; to complete a 200 you need to convince at least one person, your "crew chief", to drive from aid station to aid station, ferry snacks and clothing, charge your headlamp batteries, whip you back onto the trail when you're feeling sorry for yourself, and, if you're lucky, keep you company on the trail for a few miles.
My wife Jenna was 7 months pregnant with our daughter Juno and unavailable for crewing duty - a convenient excuse. What to do?
Jason, as usual, held my ticket to glory. Jason and his friend Mike Chambers are both "Merrell athletes"; they'd convinced their main sponsor, Merrell, to provide them with room, board, a film crew and a celebrity crew chief - Anna Frost, kiwi stud and many-time ultramarathon champion. I begged him to let me attach myself to Team Merrell as a sort of camp follower, and he accepted. I was set!
Jason and I flew in to Reno on September 5th, two days before the Friday start, and headed to the Merrell house to prepare. A quick introduction to the cast of characters:
- Jason Antin, "the Big man", accompanied by wife Jenny and daughter Avery. Read all about him in my Infinity Loop writeup.
- Mike Chambers, Jason's "adventure partner", also running. Mike had completed many 50s, but hadn't yet joined the Triple Digit club. He was skipping the 100 to go straight for double.
- Anna Frost, multiple-time Hardrock champion, absurdly overqualified for the crew chief role. She's crewed for Kilian Jornet... and now for us!
- Ryan Atkins, obstacle course racing champion, Mike's pacer.
- Joey Tajan, energetic Merrell "ambassador" and savior to me and Jason, as you'll see.
The main and glaring tension in the house was Jason's truly uncomfortable refusal to commit to running the race together with Mike. Jason's completed many ultras, and Mike had not - was Jason worried Mike was going to explode and hold him back from a transcendent finish? He wouldn't say.
"You never know what's going to happen out there," said J. "I just can't commit to anything."
Strong words from a man who, I'd discover later that day, was deep in the middle of a vicious stomach bug that had him running off to puke and shit every couple of hours. This was going to be interesting.
On Thursday we drove to race check-in for critical info and a pep talk from Candace Burt, the founder of the 200 mile movement. When she called for multiple-time runners to raise their hands I was shocked at how many repeat offenders were with us. Who the hell makes this a hobby? As I'd later learn, some of these runners had raced literally every 200 that's ever been, pushing 15 in the last 5 years.
Back to the house for our final dinner. We each fiddled with our gear and laid out our uniforms, then tried to sleep before the next morning's 9am start.
Start to Stephen Jones (10.4)
Milling around the starting line I felt the old fire welling up. I had no idea how to pace a 200; my only goal was to stay with Jason, and maybe Mike; Anna had my gear bag, so I couldn't fall behind or I'd lose access to clothing and headlamp and probably have to drop.
Anna and Jenny wished us luck, we waded into the mob, the gun fired and we were off, walking slow.
The dust was outrageous, right from the start. I trudged up the ski hill ahead of J and Mike, keeping the heart rate down, lightly jogging the flats. We reached our first band of trees a few miles in, and Mike, thrilled, informed me that we were now "forest bathing", soaking in the pleasures of nature.
Everyone was talking strategy. We caught one runner in spandex and Jason, sensing his ability, asked what his plan was for naps.
"I'll probably take a ten minute sleep at mile 80 and 160... if that's not enough I'll add a one minute break at mile 120, but it's not likely."
During this talk our whole group took a wrong turn, corrected, joined the dusty trail again. Exciting!
We topped out finally and let our legs open up for the long descent down jeep roads packed with vicious moon dust. There was more dust in the air than I'd ever seen in my shop; I pulled my Buff up over my face to try and block some of the particulate but it didn't help much. Nice and slow, continue descending. I felt good, a little ahead of the guys. Here's a nice shot from Barker Pass on the way to the first aid station:
Slow and methodical with the herd to Stephen Jones at mile 10. At the aid station I was surprised to see Molly Fuller, my friend from my old Crossfit days in San Francisco. She loaded me up with little turkey rolls and other treats and sent me back out into the mounting heat and dust.
Stephen Jones (10.4) to Tahoe City (30)
I left the aid station ahead of Jason. Mike was a bit ahead of me, moving well, pulling away. He assumed we'd catch him, but by the time we hit the turn back into the forest Mike was out sight and J was still behind. I took the next section at my pace. One runner caught me and stayed just behind, telling me how much he likes staring at my shoes. Glad I could help, bud.
We popped out onto a community road behind old cabins and I stopped to wait for J. A while later - a long while - he appeared, walking. We walked together for the next stretch. What was happening?
It all made sense when we reached the road and Jason told me to "get my camera out" . I did, turned it on, and captured this gem:
The virus he'd been battling was far from gone, and he'd started the race far from healthy. First puke led to second puke:
The situation was not good. We slogged down the road by the lake to the bathroom and I refilled my water while J lost control of his body in the privacy of his stall. Mike was gone, far ahead.
J recovered and we continued walking, 13 miles in. An old man caught us and told us that he's so far completed every single 200. J asked what had changed about his strategy over the years.
"Well, I took up strength training. I swear, before that my body felt like it was 80 years old during these things. Now I feel my age again." He was 76 years old.
Left turn into the woods, away from the lake, walking our way up a long stretch of beginning mountain bike trails carved into the dust. We climbed at 1% grade forever. Jason didn't want to talk. After our conversation with Father Time I began to realize that the way to survive this experience mentally was to peer into the souls of the other athletes. So began the Christening of the Athletes.
A man ran past us blasting music from his phone; he slowed to tell us that this was his "Moby Piano" Pandora station, carefully cultivated over the years into a perfect Source of Stoke. Later we'd see him sitting on the side of the trail, yelling at his phone and the notifications from work that he couldn't figure out how to silence. Trail name - Moby.
Endless moondust. Soon we were out of water. Miles later, so thirsty, we hit our first off-trail water stop and dropped down to the river to filter bottles of water. Other runners were frolicking around like gazelles on the boulders upstream from us.
Here's Jason trying not to puke:
Out and up, moving through the heat of the day. At the top of the next hill we stopped to pee. Jason can't do it. We sat on a log and calculated how much water he'd drunk so far.
Turns out J subscribes to the "Human as Camel" theory of hydration, and secretly chugged multiple bottles at the refill stop in addition to everything we're carrying. He drank 12 liters without peeing. We were both very nervous about his risk of hyponatremia... Jason had me check his pupils, and quizzed me on my medical background, "just in case".
The tension mounted at the start of the next climb, when J told me again, as he'd been telling me, that I should feel no obligation to run with him. I should just push forward and leave him.
What was he thinking? I couldn't leave him, as we were sharing a crew; he was in serious physical distress; did he want me to leave, or was he trying to accomodate? He wouldn't say. I stopped the discussion by telling him I was staying with him until mile 100, no questions asked, and we'd figure out next steps then.
This was Jason's physical state during the discussion, before our final climb:
We passed another runner who'd finished his water hours ago and I gave him one of my bottles. The race had become a Hospice Hike, not 30 miles in. I was doing the lord's work, clearly.
Here's Jason trying to get some food down at the top of the hill in that section:
Finally, the last descent to the aid station. We ran this stretch with a guy who hasn't run for the past six weeks because he destroyed a ligament in his leg. The Tahoe 200 was his "Comeback Tour". Ligament Boy. There is no way he's not in a cast right now, let me tell you.
Ligament Boy was a new father and was eager to share his parental wisdom with us. His biggest tip? "Use cloth diapers!" He'd spent 80 bucks total in the past two years. A thrifty genius.
We were a mile out when Jason's pole snapped.
I was looking for signs of the aid station when off in the distance I saw someone running toward us that I swear looked just like Ryan Atkins... but fat. Fat Atkins! Real Atkins has the abs of a roman statue. Could it have been a vision of his post-athletic future?
Just after this we saw Joey. Joey took our burrito order and ran us in to Tahoe City. The whole crew was waiting and anxious - Anna, Jenny, Avery, Ryan.
Tahoe City (30) to Brockway (50)
Jason was presenting as a classic dramatic ultrarunner and the crew piled on, getting him food, massaging him, asking how he's doing. He hates nothing more than being a patient, and I could almost see the steam coming out of his ears as Anna informed him that "everyone has their lows... you just need to get back on the horse!" His frustration manifested as extreme politeness, of course. I think he thanked each member of the crew close to forty times.
He needed the break and knew it. We ended up sitting for close to two hours as the sun set and runners continued to stream in. Jenny forced J to drink Pedialyte and just chill, just rest.
I gave Anna the detailed update from the trail. She was shocked at the unbelievable carnage here at Tahoe City, only 30 miles in. How were these people going to finish? I guess we'll find out.
After almost two hours it was time to go. We'd gathered our night gear and headlamps and felt ready. Jason thought that, maybe, if we moved a bit he could pee and start to reset his system.
Anna hugged Jason goodbye, then leaned in to hug me. The hug triggered my soft flask and sprayed Anna down with pressurized water. I made a joke about how this had been happening since the third trimester. Jason and I fled, soon alone again in the mounting dark.
J's first pee attempt failed. We entered a stretch of singletrack, warming up, and soon J tried again, successful this time. I'd never seen a man happier to watch his body produce fluid. He made me film the experience, carefully positioning me to keep the video safe for work:
We were careful to conserve water. I was worried about the many hours we'd have to cover before a chance to fill again. Especially worried now that I knew that if I let my attention lapse Jason might exercise his Camel theory again and hork down a gallon.
Time dilation began to set in on the first night. We had 20 miles to go until we saw crew. We rolled up and down endless strange ridges, staring at the thick moondust caught in our headlamps. The grade was endless 1%, Tahoe's speciality.
The trail widened into a flat railroad grade cut into the side of the hill and we actually start running, making good progress, staying warm in the night. I wondered out loud how Mike was doing. He had left Tahoe City hours ahead of us - could he keep up the pace?
Jason was feeling cocky now that his pipes were running. "I guarantee we're going to reel him in. There's no way he can continue solo for that long." Unbeknownst to us Mike was far ahead, hammering, laying down a robotically perfect 200.
A month prior to Tahoe I'd experienced my first psilocybin mushroom trip (read all about it!), and shared with Jason my new knowledge of the 5 level "psychedelic trip scale". What level of mind expansion would Tahoe give us by the end of the race? We decided that we were currently sitting at level 2, max, but that we were each open to a level 4 experience at most by the end of the race.
I started to feel very tired and suggested we break out our first pieces of Military Energy Gum, 100mg per piece. The package states that civilians should limit themselves to 4 pieces in 24 hours, but that "military" consumers could approach 10. The gum had served us well during the Rainier Infinity Loop, and was the most prized item in our medical kit.
After a time we decided to stop to pee again (J's giddy at the chance) and eat. A runner passed us and yelled at me to watch for bears. "If you see a bear, no problem - just flash your dick at him and scare him away!" Huh. Do you flash brown bears or black bears? I can never remember.
We finished our food as a train of people pass, just in time to jump on the back. These new faces were fresh meat for the Name Game. In the group were Bert & Ernie, two friends sharing endless tales about their many 200 experiences, always together. We also met Coach. Coach was wearing a cotton Redsox sweatshirt and baseball hat. He looked like a classic PE teacher in his old school sneakers.
(What were people calling us? We'd learn later that the other racers had dubbed us "The Partners".)
Bert, Ernie and Coach were swapping strategy ideas, and stories from their experiences at the Bigfoot 200 up in Seattle. I learned that Bigfoot is the Queen of 200s, no question about it. Think you're hardcore? Go run Bigfoot. All people seem to talk about during 200s is the 200 experience.
Soon we reached the next water source on the course map, a still, gross lake. The algae was a challenge for our BeFree filter bottles.
After refilling we laid down for a 2 minute power nap. Jason woke up to a strong urge to puke. Here's Jason interpreting the results:
It was very, very cold. The minute it took to pull out a puffy and jacket up dropped my core temperature enough that I started shivering. We decided to leave without the group and soon hit the road that marked one mile to Aid. After a gentle downhill trail we saw it - Brockway, mile 50, our next aid station.
Brockway (50) to Tunnel Creek (65)
We rolled in to Mile 50 in the cold dark, excited for food and our first nap of the race. Anna was waiting for us with her car set up with sleeping bags and pads. We got into the car and peeled off our socks for the first sock change... we smelled SO bad. All I could do was apologize, quietly, as we pushed our clothes into the plastic bag Anna had ready.
Chafing is the enemy in a 200 mile race. To keep the chafe at bay, you have to keep applying Aquaphor, or Gurney Goo, or some other slippery substance to your thighs, lats, "undercarriage" and any other hot spot that speaks up. This results in a thick coat of Essential Undercarriage Oil all over your hands, impossible to wash off. The crew gave no indication that they were disgusted by us, bless their hearts. But disgusting we were.
Before we laid down to sleep, Jason brought out a hypodermic needle he'd stashed in his drop bag. He used it to drain a deep blister, a subterranean lake, that had appeared under his heel weeks before. Dude can't catch a break.
He struck gold, drained the blister and we started the 45 minute sleep clock. A week before the race I had discovered this article on the Military's method for falling asleep in under 2 minutes and was eager to apply my knowledge. I conked out fast and woke to Anna's knock at the trunk door. Jason was wide-eyed, shell-shocked. He hadn't been able to sleep a single minute.
Over a snack at the aid staiton Anna told us about the next section. "Okay, guys, the next stretch is full of pylons. Got it?" What were pylons? The kiwi language barrier was immense; we pretended we understood and projected confidence.
We left shivering, limping down the trail in the cold fog. After a while we managed a little run.
The trail joined a road, and ahead we saw a racer walking along under a 45 liter internal frame pack. We caught him and asked about it.
"You lose so much time in the aid stations," he explained. "I carry this bad boy with a little mattress pad and sleeping bag, and I can knock off anywhere I want!" Sound thinking, except for the 7 pounds on your back.
The man was from Seattle, and before we knew it we were telling him about the Infinity Loop. "That was YOU BOYS? I heard about that... that is CRAZY!" Cackling laughter bounced off the trees. Or was he humoring us? We decided later that there was a good chance we was Rainier, the soul of the mountain watching over us. We named him "The Spirit of Tahoma" and moved on.
Please don't get the idea that we were healthy, here. Jason continued puking at regular intervals:
Gotta pass the time somehow.
Finally, sunrise on day two. We could see the beautiful lake below, and the warmth in the air was nice after the cold night.
The light also resolved the mystery of the Pylons. Far ahead we could see a string of powerlines descending down to a neighborhood below.
Here's a video of us sighting the lake before the powerline descent:
After interminable 1% grade climbs and descents I was so happy to apply some technical ability to a hard downhill.
Here's the beginning of that powerline descent:
And another shot of the middle of the descent. We were moving slow, but this might indicate how steep things were.
After the last pylon we reached a nice, dust-free path, saw some deer, enjoyed the sunrise. J passed a few hours without puking. Life was good in the Tahoe 200.
And a video report, 6:30am somewhere around Lake Tahoe. Do you know where your children are?
Soon we emerged from the woods into a dead-quiet neighborhood of expensive houses built into the steep slope above Lake Tahoe. No one was up at sunrise except us and our fellow runners.
Jason's intestines started to speak up, but there was nowhere to stop. Eventually the rumbling became too intense to resist and J ran off the road into a family's backyard and took the fastest dump of his life, probably sub 1 minute.
We'd entered civilization again and my phone beeped with a text from Anna: "Crush it! Suns up, guns up!" The crew was staged and waiting ahead.
Our paved descent ended at the bike path by the lake and we tried to run.
Tunnel Creek aid was probably five miles away, and the road miles felt so slow. A few racers jammed by us, actually running. I looked back to see if anyone else was approaching and sighted a girl with a stern look and a face I swore I recognized. Trail name achieved - Janeane Garofalo. Janeane would hunt us off and on for the rest of the race. She caught us soon, and shared with a stoic grimace that every time the course rose above 7,000', her head would fill with pounding. Below, she was fine. Jason had found a Misery Partner.
Lake Tahoe is so strange. Little communities on our right were guarded by 6'x6' popup security booths that looked like those little espresso stands you see in parking lots, big enough for a single rent-a-cop. Finally, finally, we could hear the aid station and the promise of salvation and soup.
Tunnel Creek (65) to Spooner (82)
We met Jenny and Avery on the final climb to the Tunnel Creek aid. Avery wouldn't hug Jason, as she had "just tooted a little", very considerate:
We plunked down into chairs for another far-too-long break. Anna was here again - the consummate crew chief, taking our breakfast burrito orders and helping us dump our night gear and load up for the next stretch.
"Guys, can I get you any lollies?", she asked. Jason was so confused by these new Kiwi words, by this unexpected cultural. Again he agreed, pretending to understand. Later in the race he would crack at this same question and respond, "Anna, when you say 'lollies'... what exactly are you talking about? Are you specifically asking about lollipops, or is Lollies a generic word for candy?" Jason Antin, Trail Anthropologist.
Anna had held back some secret thoughts of her own. As we were going through our med kit and stocking salt pills, caffeinated gum and Advil she finally shared her shock at our stash of "PEDs", performance enhancing drugs. "I've never seen guys consume more pills in my entire life!"
Better living through chemistry. Pills in hand we were ready to go. "Guys," said Anna. "Do you know what's coming up ahead? You've got a Vih-tical K," in a strong Kiwi accent. "Do you know what that is?"
Of course we knew! 1000 meters of climbing, thank you very much. "GUYS," became our mantra, repeated often over the next few days, meant to signal a moment of mental preparation.
We walked out with Anna and Jenny and immediately turned off course up the steep hill behind the aid station. They caught us before we'd gone too far and sent us out in the proper direction, up a long sandy climb in the growing heat.
The terrain was different, now, with big granite boulders piled by the shore below. It felt like a scene from Myst, a Caribbean beach. I was pleased to notice that I'd begun to hallucinate.
"J, you see that rock up ahead?"
"Jabba the Hutt?"
Yup. We were on the same wavelength. We saw a seal ahead in the middle of the trail waving its flippers; this turned out to be another runner, Mark Tanaka, lying on his back in Happy Baby pose, trying to calm down his hip flexors.
A group of guys and one girl caught us half an hour into the climb. The girl was strangely exhilarated, sharing her convinction that Tahoe was the most beautiful course she had ever run. I took the bait and started talking, and she soon mentioned that she'd recently run the IMTUF 100.
I'm obsessed with IMTUF - this was my best 100 mile finish ever, back in 2016 - and pressed her for details. Her husband, Chad, had been her crew chief, and he'd failed over and over, totally checked out. The contrast with the other men she met on the course - primarily Jeremy, the dreamy race directory with the sad eyes - grew and grew, coming to a head at the finish line when Jeremy wrapped her in a warm embrace while Chad stood off to the side, petulant and bored. A few months later she'd divorced Chad.
She'd come to Tahoe with a new boyfriend for whom she had very high hopes, she told us, an unsettling gleam in her eyes. He was crewing, and his "big test" was coming up at mile 100. Faced with his hollow-eyed love, would he be a Jeremy? Or a Chad?
I was stoked on the drama and wanted to hear more but Jason was accelerating, trying to get away from this scene. I named her "The Siren" and jogged up to J.
The next level in this grand game was hot and beautiful. I had run this portion of the course with Jenna in 2016, when she came in 3rd at the Tahoe Rim Trail 50. (I ran 20 miles in a running skirt and huaraches - a story for another time.) More granite boulders and white sand, and lovely climbing into the cooler temperatures at higher altitude. I called Jenna on FaceTime while Jason ran off into the rocks to purge again.
Jason is a man of tremendous principle, and, once he'd finished wiping with rocks and sand, expressed his disgust that I would make a phone call during a race. Wasn't I taking this thing seriously? He started running again just to get away from my poor example, from such an obviously un-race-like scene.
The Name Game grew effortless; we began to hallucinate perfect labels for our fellow runners. Mark Tanaka, the Happy Baby Pose runner, passed us in a tangle of headphone and battery charging wires, barely keeping it together. We dubbed him "Cables". "Pink Pants" cruised by next, looking so strong in his magenta tights. An older Frenchman fully kitted out in white Salomon tights, pack and calf sleeves become "Kilian" almost without discussion.
Two military-looking guys in ROTC shirts became "The Platoon". The taller runner was in a bad way. Physically he seemed fine, but he was glum, clearly looking for some way to quit with dignity. The shorter runner kept the intensity up and tried to inspire his sad friend with hushed conversation. We named the short guy "Hack", after David Hackworth, the legendary Army colonel from the WWII - Vietnam era. The taller of the two was "Gunny", clearly the gunnery sergeant, not an officer.
As we passed, I offered Hack some Military Energy Gum, to Jason's surprise. What were we going to do if we ran out? Gunny needed it bad, I explained, and we had to look out for each other. Hack accepted with gratitude, but I could tell that Gunny wanted nothing to do with ANY remedy that would hurt his ability to plead out of the race at the next good quitting spot.
So often that day, confronted with this cast of characters, Jason and I whispered to each other some version of - "Dude... I think we might be the only normal people out here." If you ever find yourself thinking such thoughts, get out while you can.
Peak altitude, and a long windy ridge brought us to Janeane again, sitting down and dealing with the headache she had predicted would come. We ran by her and a few other racers, who expressed shock that we were running. Only in a 200 miler are the other competitors surprised by any pace higher than a determined walk.
We noticed a bit of cell service on the ridge and took the time to google a list of "Kiwi Slang" that we started to mine for gems that we could text to Anna. I texted that Jason wasn't looking great, specifically that he "looked like mutton dressed as lamb", slang for a woman dressing far below her age. No response. We'd have to try again later.
The ridge was bare of trees and scrubbed by wind. A helicopter passed low overhead, roaring wind down on us, and we decided that Hack must have called it in to cool off the Platoon. Thoughful leadership.
God, it was hot. Near the end of the ridge we noted a water stop on the GPS and left the trail to find it. Down the hill from an outhouse, we located a tall pump with a long handle. The Siren and her group of merry men were there, pumping away.
The whole scene was strange, like a fairy scene from Shakespeare. The Siren was pumping in big exaggerated motions, and the guys were watching, sort of circling her, as if drawn to a beast in heat. Her troubled eyes glinted in the sun as she heaved on the handle, telling the group what a relief it was to stop, to grant reprieve to her "tight inner thighs". This was too much.
The Siren and her crew cleared out together and J and I pumped our water in chaste silence. We walked up to the outhouse and enjoyed a snack and a piece of caffeine gum on the wooden porch.
Off and running again. We dropped down a ridge and into a forest, out of the sun. A woman running the opposite way saw, us, cheered, and assured us that "You've got this! It's 99% downhill to the aid station!" This was excellent news!
Almost immediately we hit another uphill. Then another. All told the route was maybe 30% downhill. Why offer such terrible opinion? Why say anything? We shrugged it off as another cultural barrier and doled out another name - persistent 1% uphill was "Tahoe Downhill".
We could see Pink Pants ahead again, so composed. A couple passed us next, the girl looking steady, silent, leading the guy downhill. She was wearing pearl earrings, and Jason immediately named them "Patrick and the Pearls" without offering any story. Naming is a sacred act, and we were its high priests. On and on, down dusty switchbacks in the heat of the day.
I realized soon that we were close when I spotted a familiar flat section with a drop-off to the right. "This is where Jenna had to stop and blast back in 2016!" All filters were gone. The landmark was spot on, and a mile later Spooner Lake appeared. We skirted the lake and reached Spooner aid station at the highway.
Spooner (82) to Heavenly (102)
Spooner Aid was fantastic, one of the few great aid stations in the race. A wonderful volunteer took our order, cooked us each a couple of delicious wraps, helped us fill our water and found a place for us to sit in the shade of a big RV. Thank you, whoever you are!
We stocked up on more food and hobbled out for another slow climb. 20 miles to go until mile 102, the halfway point.
A mile into the forest we passed a squat little man with a Kabar knife on his belt and a T-shirt that read "TEAM JESUS". In tow was a shy woman that wouldn't meet our eyes. Very old testament. Was she his biblical slave? Should we try and help? Just beyond them was a water bottle stashed under a log at trail's edge. Holy water? I didn't have the training required to tell. We left the bottle.
A few minutes beyond Team Jesus, we passed another man with dead eyes and a shirt that read "BEYOND RAW". This was not a friendly place.
The trees opened up and we entered a zone of scraggly shrubs. Cables was ahead of us, stumbling around in the bushes. He stayed with us for a minute then fell back, cursing, fumbling with a charging line that had wrapped around his waist.
"I swear that guy is the most erratic racer in the entire field," said Jason as we shuffled.
"Well... except us," I replied. Jason agreed.
Another slow, dusty Vertical K. The forest closed in again and we ticked off the miles, silent. Soon we emerged into cold wind on a long ridge, a welcome break from the intense heat of the second day.
Up ahead we saw Howie Stern, the Tahoe 200 official race photographer, perched behind a set of boulders. I dropped back behind J to make sure I wasn't blocked in my photo. It's not terribly epic:
We heard another runner behind us on the flat ridge and turned to see an older man with a huge beard running like a marionette, limbs flailing as he pushed by us. He looked like a zombie warrior, hunting something ahead. All higher brain function was gone. He was just a body and a brainstem, sensing the next aid station.
We named him "Tom Hanks"; he was a perfect match for Chuck from Castaway:
The trail was getting rockier and Jason's toes were destroyed. One problem with being a sponsored athlete is that you have to wear your sponsor's gear, even if the gear available is terrible for the terrain and distance.
The Merrells Jason was wearing were so narrow that they were choking out his forefoot. The shoe was only four Jason-toes wide. I told him to keep it together, that all we had to do was cut the side off of his shoe at the aid station and he'd be fine.
Right as I finished my pep talk, TWANG, a fiery nerve twinge rocked the inside of my right knee. We were both hobbling now. Soon we heard another runner behind us - Cables, running hard again.
"Holy shit, did you guys see your photo from up top? I made Howie show me a preview and I looked fucking GOOD!" Cables was so jazzed at how strong he thought he looked that he'd made his vision a reality and had started hammering. Why go slow and steady when you can chase emotional peaks and valleys?
Here's a video update from up on the ridge:
The mood was not good. We each ate a dose of Excedrin and another piece of caffeine gum.
I texted Anna an update: "Just knocked back some more performance enhancing substances, we'll keep hobbling."
Her response: "Druggies!!!"
We dropped fully off of the ridge, and after a long descent reached a sheltered trail along a dried streambed. The light had drained out of the second day.
For the first time in the race, Jason and I started talking about more personal things; how had Jason's outlook on adventure changed over the past decade? What did the next five years look like? How had his daughter changed these answers? I was expecting a daughter and excited to hear a parenting perspective that wasn't as generic as "Your life will never be the same!"
After a few miles of bonding I looked at my watch and was startled to see that our "light jog" had us at 24 minutes per mile and slowing. Time to focus.
We put our headlamps on and started running again. My nose was full of dust, so I attempted a snot rocket. My nose exploded. Suddenly I was bleeding hard down my face onto my chest. The trail was getting more technical and Jason had started to run harder. I tried to keep up and get the bleeding under control on the move by tilting my head back, pinching my nose, angling my light down at my feet.
Finally the bleeding stopped. I blew my nose again gently so I could breathe again and, of course, ruptured the tenuous scab, starting the process over again.
"Jason, we have to stop!" blood was splattering all over the trail every time I breathed. I was able to fix the problem by stuffing my dusty Buff into my nose. It quickly saturated, but, after a few endless minutes sitting, the bleeding stopped and we started to jog again. The metallic smell of my gory Buff kept me up and alert.
The section was a lot longer than we had thought. Here's Jason catching a bit of rest during a bathroom break:
Next came a long descent down large granite boulders, massive dinosaur eggs. We passed a pierced woman in a pink skirt. Jason recognized her and noted in hushed tones - "Dude, that's the Dirty Diva! Or is it the Dirt Diva?" Catra Corbett, the Dirt Diva, was an early ultrarunning legend, a former punk girl who now battles her demons out on long trails.
A small sign that Jason was losing it - to "drink faster", he decided to remove the filter from his BeFree bottle and chugged unfiltered water directly from the reservoir. Whoops! This wouldn't be the last time.
We hit the highway and crossed. I was so disoriented. Where was the aid station?
Another climb. We crossed a stream twice and became convinced we were going in circles. We studied the GPS and decided that the course was snaking on purpose to add miles. Moreover, we believed we knew why.
Candace, the race director, clearly achieved some dark pleasure through the suffering of these athletes. She was almost certainly watching via a network of GoPros hidden in the trees, webbed through the canopy. Her trail name? "The Black Widow."
Clearly there was more going on here than just a foot race. We were participating in the "Vanilla" experience, where you just... get to the finish line. Perhaps there was also a "Kinky Tahoe" experience available, where you put on a spiked dog collar and Candace personally drags you around the lake?
Or the "Most Dangerous Game" experience, where your name is entered into a Hunger Games style lottery. On the third morning hunters disperse with bows and begin to stalk and kill one (un)lucky entrant, if they manage to track him down.
Chilled by our realizations, we continued to slog.
More trail updates from around this time:
We had to be close. We tested our Kiwi fluency with another text to Anna:
Couple of Hunguses inbound.
We knew we'd achieved native levels of slang usage when the response came back:
We caught Cables again on the singletrack climb and together gained on a bigger group of runners. Cables yelled, "We're coming in at 39 hours!! If this was a normal 100 we'd all have DNFed by now!" Great pep talk, Cables. He was on a roll, and started in on a riff about how these looked like the kind of woods you might find magic mushrooms in.
A greasy runner behind us noted thoughtfully that Cables was onto something. "You know you actually CAN, my friend." He shared a few helpful foraging tips with the group.
Cables announced that we were 1 mile out. Jason was suspicious of his certainty, and asked Cables, "Are you oriented?" The question and its strange phrasing took Cables aback and he was silent a long while.
We hit the turnoff to the aid station and descended with a couple of other runners in tow. These turned out to be pacers that had mistaken us for their runners and followed us ahead. Horrified, they turned back uphill to find their charges.
We hit the road a hundred yards from Heavenly Aid, finally, halfway done with this race. Cables pulled out his phone and started wandering around.
"It's right here, dude, why check GPS?" I asked.
"GPS? This is Pokemon Go and there's a Gym right over here," said Cables. "I mean, if you don't have time to join a Gym during a 200, what the fuck are you even doing out here?" Well played, sir. J and I jogged over to the large building where Anna, my friend and pacer Aaron Steele, and Jenny were waiting with food.
They took our gear, plugged in our watches and phones to charge and hustled us inside what looked like a dark opium den filled with half-inflated air mattresses and moaning patrons. Or a reenactment of a WWII medical field camp? Each was true in its own way.
Click on through to part two for the second half of the Tahoe 200 Odyssey.