The Tahoe Rim Trail Supported FKT: Second Time’s the Charm

 

PC: Helen Pelster

As I stood at the Tahoe City transit center waiting for the final minutes to tick down before 6am arrived on Friday, July 17th, I thought about how I felt the weekend prior. My friend Logan was attempting to break the same record just a week before me, and as I was out pacing him for a short section, I thought to myself I’m glad it’s not me going for the record today! I had the exact date of my Tahoe Rim Trail FKT attempt in my mind for months, and I wasn’t allowing myself to be mentally ready to go until I arrived at the Tahoe City transit center bridge, ready to embark on 171 miles of madness.

As a professional ultrarunner, this wasn’t the first time I had run this long before. In fact, it wasn’t the first time I had run this exact course before! I’ve been a distance runner since my first marathon in 2012, which led to my first 50k in 2014, and later that year my first 50-miler and 100-miler as well. I began getting sponsored and running professionally in 2016, which was also the year that I ran across the US seeking to break the record for the fastest crossing. During that run, my hopes were dashed by some early injuries and my body’s inability to adapt to the high daily mileage I was putting in. My legs and feet were especially trashed early on, and while that was pretty terrible at the time, ultimately it resulted in me breaking the cardinal rule of “sticking with what you’re familiar with” and abandoning my Asics shoes halfway across the US, turning instead to the HOKA Bondi to be my savior. I’ve never looked back, and I haven’t worn any running shoes other than HOKA since that very moment!

Fast forward to last October, when I set out to run the Fastest Known Time (in a supported fashion) on the Tahoe Rim Trail, my now hometown trail and a trail that has become my favorite training ground. My wife, Karen, and I moved to Tahoe in the fall of 2016, when I had just finished surviving 60 days in South America and been declared the co-winner of Discovery Channel’s survival reality show “The Wheel.” When I left to film the show, we were living near Chicago, but while I was gone, my wife landed a job in Lake Tahoe which meant I was flown straight to Reno/Tahoe after the show wrapped to start my life as a Californian! It was a welcome surprise, but an initially tough adjustment for a flatlander from Chicago. I had lost a lot of weight on the show, plus I was now running on trails at altitude as Lake Tahoe sits just over 6,000′ of elevation. It took plenty of time to get used to that elevation and all the climbing on the trails, but almost four years later, I’ve never been fitter and stronger as a runner!

PC: Helen Pelster

So, when I took on the Tahoe Rim Trail last October seeking the record, it was my love for the trail and my desire to accomplish huge goals that were my primary motivations. I had run on about 60% of the 171 miles before and felt like I had sufficient knowledge of the trail to make a good run at it. However, record attempts of this magnitude require a lot of things to go right, and there was just one crucial mistake that cost me during the first attempt. I missed my crew at Mile 30 and had a stretch of a couple of hours without nutrition and water, which just happened to coincide with the hottest and most exposed section of the course. I came into aid at Mile 40 and actually didn’t feel too bad, but a couple hours later it hit me like a brick wall and my attempt was all but over. I spent an hour and a half at the next aid station at the 100k mark, before leaving at a painfully slow pace for the next 35-40 miles. By the time my body starting to respond positively again, I was too far off record pace, and ended up finishing the Tahoe Rim Trail in 45 hours and 36 minutes.

This time around, I wanted to hedge my bet to ensure I didn’t repeat past mistakes. Rather than running the first 40 miles solo, I ran only the first 20 solo before picking up my first pacer (of seven total, who would all run about 20 miles each with me). I also asked a couple of friends to hike up some supplies to a few areas in between aid stations so that I had adequate fluids and cooling during those hottest sections. So, between those two additions to my plan since the last go-around, I felt confident that we would handle the additional heat in the area of the course that caused me so many issues the first time.

The first 100k went about as smoothly as it could have, especially considering the hotter temperatures (at least for Tahoe) rising into the mid-80s. I reached the 100k mark of the course where things went sideways nine months ago, and this time, my crew of four (Karen, Josh, Kara, and Ray) were delighted to see how much better I looked. I was beginning to feel tired physically and mentally, but other than that, everything else had gone pretty much according to plan. My feet were in great shape and I only ended up changing my shoes one time just past the 100-mile mark, just to give my body and mind a sense of renewal. I wore the Challenger ATR 5, my favorite HOKA trail shoe because it’s perfect for the Tahoe trails! Lightweight, cushiony, and balanced, they don’t have a lot of tread for technical terrain, but that isn’t needed on the mostly buttery single-track trails in Tahoe!

Challenger-ATR-5

I had also been fueling really well through the hottest part of the day. I was managing to get down about 300 calories an hour, much of that Skratch Labs Sport Superfuel, which is 400 liquid calories per serving. Between that, gels, chews, and some CLIF bars, I was able to get more than enough calories between aid stations. When I arrived at each aid station, my focus was on eating and drinking things I didn’t have with me on the run: burritos, quesadillas, sandwiches, fruit, Coke, coffee, and a slew of other things that were made to order by my amazing crew! Seeing as I would spend 10-15 minutes on average at each aid station, my mentality was to use that time to eat and drink as much as possible, knowing that when I left the aid station I could slow down my pace a bit to allow for digestion. Ultimately, liquid calories became key, especially in the heat of the day when my body was no longer interested in chewing (or even looking at) food.

Once I arrived at Kingsbury Grade (Mile 78), the sun had just gone down and though I was feeling strong, my low point was about to set in. The climb to Freel Pass was forthcoming and it’s a long and arduous climb, especially at that point in the run. The entirety of my night running was a struggle, with the energy of the day dwindling, my eyes getting tired, and my legs wanting to take a rest. Thanks to the power of the team, my pacers kept me moving well even when I didn’t feel like I was making good progress, and I made it through the darkness and back into the light of Day 2! When I arrived at Big Meadow (Mile 102), it was still dark and I tried to sneak in a quick nap, but as tired as I was feeling, my brain was firing too much and I just couldn’t make it happen. So, I forged on into the night until I reached Echo Lake at Mile 120. My pacers Mike and Jeff had kept me moving at some of my lowest points when I was flirting with the idea of ending the run. It wasn’t until I reached Echo Lake that I felt a resurgence in my legs and mind, felt the energy of my crew around me, and was dedicated to pushing hard through Desolation Wilderness, the final big section that ends at Barker Pass, a mere 16 miles from the finish!

Starting in Desolation Wilderness, I was paced by my Run on Dirt Coaching partner and running coach, Peter, who is notorious for cracking the whip as a pacer. He told me “we have some time to make up, but we can do it,” and I believed him from the start. Leaving Echo Lake we were about 45 minutes behind record pace, but I also knew that the section ahead had some runnable areas, and it seemed reasonable to think we could cut into that time significantly. By the time I reached about halfway through Desolation Wilderness toward the top of Dick’s Pass, I had that lightbulb moment where I thought “not only CAN we do this, but we WILL do this!”

My friend Jacob just so happened to be embarking upon an unsupported run of the TRT, and he was going counterclockwise, so we had the opportunity to pass each other and say hello on the trail. When he asked me how I was feeling, I told him “I think I’m going to break the record.” It was at that moment that I really felt the victory in my mind and in my heart. I was confident all along, but you truly have to take massive goals one step at a time, and while I visualized getting to the finish line in Tahoe City in record time, it took 135 miles for that to become the only possible outcome in my mind. From that moment on, I pushed hard with Peter through the heat of the day, continuing to rely mostly on liquid calories and taking time to dunk my head and upper body in the many lakes and streams of Desolation Wilderness. By the time we reached Barker Pass, the final aid station, I had gone from 45 minutes behind record pace to 1 hour and 30 minutes ahead of record pace! The absolute earliest my crew expected me there was at 5:15pm, so when I strolled up at 3:56pm, my wife jumped up out of her chair and said with wide eyes “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!” That resulted in a wild goose chase to find my final pacer, Chris, who had taken an alternative route on the trail to meet me before I came into the aid station. Since we missed each other, the crew fueled me up, topped up my hydration and then sent me on my way solo, as they tracked down Chris to help him get to me before the finish.

PC: Helen Pelster

 

About six miles from the finish, I stopped to filter water from Ward Creek one final time before making my way into Tahoe City. As I walked back up to the bridge from the creek, Chris came flying through with a big smile and ice-cold beverages for me to cool my body down. We shared some laughs over the wild mishap at Barker Pass, to which Chris replied, “If I have to miss you at an aid station because you got there way too early, I’ll take that any day!” During the final three miles from Page Meadows down into Tahoe City at the finish, I reflected on grateful I was for my team: the crew, my pacers, the friends who hiked in to some remote areas just to provide me with fluids, the friends who had come out to say hello or wish me luck on the trail, and everyone from afar who was sending me kind messages on social media. I take on these types of challenges because I love to accomplish goals that myself or others think are “impossible,” but what I always come away with is the satisfaction of what it means to have a community supporting you and everyone bringing out the best in each other.

So, as I came running back to the Tahoe City transit center bridge that I had started at the day before, I crossed the finish line with so many loved ones there to witness and support me like they had been doing all along. I finished the run at 7:12pm on Saturday, July 18th, with a new FKT and a total time of 37 hours, 12 minutes, and 15 seconds. My finishing time was 1 hour and 20 minutes faster than the time set by the previous record holder, Kilian Jornet, in 2009. Kilian is a well-known Spanish ultrarunner who has won just about everything you can win in this sport, and I have looked up to him as a great representative and champion of our sport from the moment I know who he was. As if the journey itself wasn’t already sweet enough, receiving congratulations on social media from Kilian afterwards made it all the more special and something I will remember for the rest of my life. So, while normally the “third time’s the charm,” I couldn’t be happier that it only took two for me!

PC: Helen Pelster

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