I felt the light rain hit my face as I lay there on the ground in a mental fog. I was 92 hours into the 2016 Tahoe 200 and had fallen asleep on the trail, again, this time a mere seven miles from the finish.
Moments like these punctuated the last day and a half more than I care to admit, but what seemed impossibly far at the beginning, had now proved to be far from impossible.
The phrase, “200 is the new 100,” gets thrown around a lot these days, but that really is oversimplifying things and doesn’t begin to describe the essence of what these events do to the runner, physically, emotionally or spiritually.
For starters, you have to wrap your mind around a race that will take not one day, but rather many days to complete. It’s as if you are staring down a tunnel through the trees into which you can see no end. The days ahead will be filled with dark, light and everything in between.
Of all the days, the first day may be the toughest. Your mind hasn’t calibrated to the distance yet. You still think about time and space. What mile am I at? Where is the next aid station? You question yourself and wonder when things might get ugly. At some point as the sun is beating down on you, you realize that you’ve gone only 30 miles and have a long, long way to go.
The sign ahead read, “Armstrong Pass, 7 miles.” I laid down on the trail and tears began to form. How could it still be seven miles to the next aid station. I’ve been going for hours and hours since the last one, I agonized.
In 200s, aid stations are few and far between compared to your typical 100-miler, sometimes averaging 15 to 20 miles between them. Things were getting real, and the thought, “The only way out is through,” echoed through my mind as I picked myself up and marched toward the aid station and some sort of hope for recovery.
In journeys like these, as the miles, sunrises and sunsets roll by, a transformation takes place. The outside world slips away and you live in the here and now. Fellow runners aren’t competitors but become part of your tribe, all moving forward as a cohesive force, to some distant finish line that you have to believe actually exists.
My friend Dennis Williams summed it up perfectly when I caught up to him near the finish of the 2017 Tahoe 200 while I was shooting photos: “You move until you transcend. Until you realize that you are actually the consciousness of the mountains objectively experiencing themselves. You see the sole purpose of your existence is for the mountains to witness themselves.”
Once you are in that uncharted territory, deep in the second half, the loneliness, physical discomfort and sleep deprivation begin to take their toll.
In my 2016 Tahoe 200 race, somewhere around 170 miles is where my perfect storm hit. With still another five miles remaining to the aid station, I struggled to move forward. I knew the trail well, but everything looked the same as if I were on a treadmill going nowhere.
I began to think of another friend Stephen Jones, a frequent runner of 200-mile races who had passed away in an avalanche the year before. I burst into tears and forced myself to move forward as if he were next to me, spurring me on. I kept saying to myself out loud, “Just put one foot in front of the other and you will get to the aid station. Just one foot in front of the other …”
As the final hours of the long drizzly night gave way to dawn there was calm. Just forward movement and contentment. Re-entry had begun. The muscles relaxed, the legs flowed as did the tears of both sadness and joy. The bonds I’d made, the beauty I’d seen, the pain I’d endured …The inward reflection upon my soul. Seeing the finish line wasn’t the end; it was only the beginning.
As Stephen Jones used to say, “We are the lucky ones.”
This article originally appeared in the 2018 issue of Dirt.
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