“A glimpse of Heaven….a taste of Hell”
This past weekend, I offered up my presence as a pacer for an ultra-runner during the Tahoe Rim Trail 100-mile Endurance Run. I was pacing a man named John, and this would be his 7th attempt at a 100-mile distance (he had finished 5 of 6). A pacer’s job, as I understand it, is to keep his runner moving, motivated and healthy (as possible) during the runner’s assault on 100-miles of trails and elevation changes; to help his runner fight the lows and get the most from their highs. Pacers get no praise. Pacers don’t have to pay (that’s right, we offer to run 50miles for fun). Pacers don’t get a finisher’s medal/buckle. Heck, Pacers don’t even get to use aid stations.
Keep in mind, as a pacer, I was not allowed to join my runner until mile-50. Everything that happened to me happened to my runner twice over. I can’t write it all down here, so you’ll just have to ask me to tell the story, but nevertheless, here’s how a beautiful week-long trip to Lake Tahoe can punish a man……….
I awoke at 3AM on Saturday morning and made my way up to Spooner Summit for the 5AM start of the 100-mile race along the shores of Spooner Lake. The 10-mile trek up Highway 50 from Carson City takes you up nearly 3,000’, and you wonder how a person can climb that far on foot, seven times over, in a single day. There is nothing glorious about ultra-running. There’s no pomp and circumstance to accompany the race. After a quick morning ‘hello’ from the race director, an audio recording of the Star Spangled Banner, and a 10-second countdown, the runners were off.
The headlamps faded into the distance and we crew members and pacers were left to wait. We would not see our runner again for 50-miles. Various checkpoints throughout the day would provide us with an idea of where he was and his anticipated arrival times. I drove back down the mountain to have breakfast and lunch with my wife. We checked the race checkpoints every 15minutes, trying to plan when to head back up the mountain. Finally, at 3PM, anticipation got the best of me, and I packed my bags and headed back up to Spooner Lake.
I arrived at Spooner Lake at 4PM, nearly 11 hours after the start of the race. The clouds, like they do every afternoon in the high Sierras, started to pile up. Most days, it just makes for a slightly overcast afternoon and a wonderful evening. This was not to be one of those days. The clouds gathered together, the sky blackened, and by 5PM the storm was upon us. First, a pouring, chilling, rain. We took shelter under the pine trees, but pine trees don’t offer much shelter from anything. After a few minutes of rain, the hail came. I hadn’t even started the race, and everything in my pack, and on me, was soaked. I spent the next few hours using a propane heater to dry my belongings. Participant after participant came thru the 50-mile checkpoint. They all looked miserable. Quite a few of them were battling hypothermia. Many of them wanted to quit. I, alongside many other pacers and crew members, spent hours tending to every runner that came in.
One woman came into the 50-mile checkpoint in tears. She kept saying “Why do I do this to myself?” I sat her down and just talked with her. Her name was ‘Kate’. I took Kate’s shoes off. I found her drop bag and a clean pair of socks. I pulled her socks off, and notice the giant blister between her big toe and 2nd toe on her left foot. I asked if she wanted it drained, and she said “what’s the point?” I told her I could drain it, and get her a clean pair of socks, and get her back out on the course. So, we drained her blister, applied some moleskin, bandaged the area up a bit and put her socks and shoes back on. I told her when my runner came in that she could join us and use my pacing services, too. She was alone. She was in a really dark spot. Another runner came in and quit, so her pacer (Martin) was freed up. Martin joined me in helping raise Kate’s spirit. We spent the better part of 90minutes lifting her spirits. Since Martin was free, he took up the pacing services for Kate. More on Kate later……….
Finally, at 8:30, John came in to the 50-mile checkpoint. He was talking about quitting. His daughter, Arianna, was crewing him and she wasn’t going to put up with his attitude. She told him he’d done this before. She told him this was just a phase. She tended to his food and drink needs. He changed socks. I spent a couple minutes loading up my pack, eager to tackle what lies ahead.
The rain and hail had brought the temperature down from the mid-80s to somewhere around the mid-50s. We left the 50-mile checkpoint and started into loop #2. Immediately, it was dark enough for a headlamp. We walked and talked for about a mile before we hit the single track of the Marlette Lake Trail and I stepped in front to lead the way. John and I had never met before this weekend, so we spent the first couple hours traversing the hills from Spooner Lake to Marlette Lake and acquainting ourselves with each other. We did some running, but most of the time was fast walking and hiking.
Somewhere around 10PM, we stopped talking. We mostly stopped running. We spent the better part of 6hours hiking, in quiet, in the dark. The clouds blocked what little light we might have gotten from the moon. We passed several vistas that I was sure would be spectacular during the daytime. The photo opportunities of Lake Tahoe would have been amazing. We were hundreds of feet above the tree line. As it were, we spent the majority of the time staring 8ft in front of our own feet at the trail, illuminated only by the lamps strapped to our heads.
During this part of the night, I began to realize that we were dangerously close to the time-limit cutoffs at certain upcoming aid stations. The mile-80 aid station was the one in the most jeopardy. At regular intervals throughout the night, I would pick up the pace to a slow jaunt for 3-4 paces, and look back in hopes that John would follow suit. Time and time again, he denied my silent requests to pick the pace up.
A few minutes past 4AM, the sun began to light the sky. The sun comes up earlier at 11,000ft. I was still silently prodding John to run a bit. Finally, he took the bait. As the sun made its appearance over the horizon, and we switched off our headlamps, we had finally started to pick the pace up a bit. The sun is an amazing provider of energy. Unfortunately, John had already ran this loop once, and he knew what was ahead of him. He kept talking about how he was ready to quit at Mile-80, so he wouldn’t have to climb Diamond Peak again. I didn’t reply to his complaints, but just kept moving. My only replies were things like “Let’s just get to Diamond Peak AS, and we can assess our situation then”. I think this was probably the lowest point of the race for John.
We came into Diamond Peak Aid Station, Mile #80, at 7:10AM. We had 20minutes to be in and out or we would be DQ’d. John took a few drinks, grabbed some food, and bolted out the door. I was amazed. There were no complaints. There were no 2nd guesses. I would like to think that the prior 2-3 hours where I finally got him to run again and the energy provided by the sun, coupled with the presence of his daughter at the Aid Station had renewed his energy levels. At this point, I think he realized he had only 20miles to go.
I had to tend to some areas of my feet that were thinking of blistering. I needed some nourishment. I took care of myself and headed out the door. I left the Diamond Peak ski chalet only to look up at the mountain before me. THIS is why John wanted to quit. He’d already done this. I was staring at a mountain peak nearly 2,000ft above me. I was tasked with climbing that peak, a distance of nearly 2miles, and doing it fast enough to catch my runner.
The road up Diamond Peak is not really a road. You can’t drive a vehicle up it. It’s clearly only for snow grooming vehicles. It’s steep. Steep can’t even explain it. You’d walk with such small paces your toes would touch your heels. It was sandy rock. At regular intervals, there were places where the water runoff had cut thru the road. Those locations were relatively flat. We would hike from cutoff to cutoff for the next 45minutes. Any muscle in your back would be screaming at you. I hiked it fast. I caught up to John at the top, but that was the mistake I had made…..
I caught John, sure enough. But, I had expelled so much energy to do so. He complimented me on my hill climbing skills. I told him I was amazed he had done that twice. I told him I needed a break at the aid station, and I would catch up to him. That was the last time I would see John for quite a while. I sat at the aid station, refilled all my water containers, and checked my pulse. I was running north of 180 bpm. Diamond Peak had taken me to the ‘taste of hell’ the race had promised.
I left the Bullwheel Aid Station with intentions of catching John. Tunnel Creek aid station was 3miles away. I ran hard to Tunnel Creek. When I arrived, John was gone. I realized I was not going to catch John, but I smiled because I had done my job. I brought him thru the night. I reminded him of his nutritional needs. I pulled him back to running. No longer were time cutoffs a worry. He was taking it from here.
I told the Tunnel Creek aid staff that I was leaving. It was 35miles into my day. They told me I would have to wait 3-4hours for them to pack up the aid station before I could hitch a ride with them. I asked for any other alternatives, and they told me I could hike/run it back to Spooner Lake…..12miles. I took them up on the offer and headed back. I was alone. I was pissed for losing John. I felt like my ‘pacing’ efforts were a failure. On top of all that, I had ‘quit’ at mile 35, only to have to hike/run 12miles to be able to relax. I hiked/ran those 12miles along the Flume trail, which follows the cliff sides and offers spectacular views of Lake Tahoe the entire route. From there, I took a turn and passed Marlette Lake and made my way back to Spooner Lake.
I arrived at the finish line at about 12:30pm. It was 47miles into my day, and 16.5hours later. I found John’s daughter, Arianna, and we waited at the finish line for John who had made every checkpoint along the way. Around 1:30pm, Kate finished with her pacer. We hugged. She thanked me and Martin. She was in such a low place just 17hrs earlier, but she was not there now. Less than 20minutes later, John would finish in just under 33hours. I hope John doesn't mind....but here he is finishing 100miles....still running!
John LaCroix was amazing. He navigated the first 50miles of that course, only to come into the halfway point wanting to quit. He and I left that checkpoint and spent the dark, quiet hours of the night fighting the urge to quit again. He climbed Diamond Peak….twice! He’d run thru the blazing heat of the sun at 9,200ft. He’d ascended and descended single track trails to the tune of 20,000ft of elevation gain. He was hit with hail, rain, and cold. But he came to Nevada and did what he said he was going to do…..finish a 100-mile race.
I felt terrible when I arrived home. Achy ankles, sore feet, burning knees, drained energy, etc…..amazingly, not a single blister. I woke up today refreshed. I could go for a run right now, if need be. A phone call from John made me feel better. I didn’t fail at my pacing job. I was given an amazing opportunity. I got to see an ultra-running event first-hand. I learned so many valuable lessons. I learned that you can push your body farther than you ever imagine, and the next day....you'll be fine! I met some amazing people. The ultra-running community is one-of-a-kind. I know my wife will think I’m crazy, but this is something I want to do.
I want to earn my own belt buckle.
EDIT(7/22/14): I would be remiss if I didn't mention how I got thru 50miles without using aid stations. I was provided ample supplies by my mother-in-law, Carol. Carol is a Shaklee provider. She provided me with energy chews, which I took every couple hours, or when I felt just drained. She provided me with performance drink, which kept my electrolytes in check. She provided me with energy bars that were small enough to pack in with my Camelbak, but full of precious calories. I kept my body fed & hydrated using solely Shaklee products. Many, many thanks to Carol!