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

These are wild times.  I had a conversation with my wife earlier this week where we talked about how the recent days feel a lot like a weird version of a “snow day.”  If you’re not from a place that gets snow, you’ve likely never had school canceled because of it.  Growing up near Chicago, IL, I was quite familiar with snow days.  We typically got at least one per year, and I have a lot of memories of sitting around the radio at night and listening to the updates on which schools were going to cancel classes for the following day.  The days and weeks surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic give me eerily similar feelings, without the excitement that came along with missing a day of school to play in the snow.  It’s similar because you know that everyone else is going through the same thing, even when you’re alone at home or just with your family members.  In this case, it’s not just the kids that went to my school who are affected, but everyone all over the globe.  We are all working on overcoming the same struggle, which is an unbelievably unique situation in such an individual-minded world.  So, while we all have a lot of anxiety and fear about the uncertainty of the world, I want to take the time to discuss a few themes that have really stuck out to me over the past week, as we’ve all been “Running During (Co)Rona(Virus)”:

 

Finding the middle ground

Over the past week or so of dealing with the virus situation, I’ve seen a lot of anxiety, frustration, and fear from people all over the globe.  And rightfully so!  These are unprecedented times, and it’s natural to be concerned about health, finances, and everything else that’s in jeopardy at the moment.  However, I do feel like concern and unease don’t have to be mutually exclusive with hopefulness!  We can be scared and uncertain about the health and finances of ourselves, our family/friends, and our fellow humans, but we can also get out to run and enjoy valuable time outside while responsibly practicing social distancing.  I’ve seen so many of my teammates, friends, and other athletes posting on social media about getting outside and going for runs, and it inspires me to do more of the same!  It’s reassuring to see others doing what they love and acknowledging that it’s safe to do so under the right circumstances.  We’re all here for each other, even if some naysayers want to demonize what you’re doing and tell you “you’re not being responsible.”  There’s a big difference between irresponsibly putting yourself in a position to spread the virus and doing something on your own that benefits your mental and physical health.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

 

The running community is the BEST community

Certainly not news to me, but adverse circumstances and challenges always reinforce the fact that it’s hard to find a better collective of genuinely good and kind people than in the running community! The main avenue for how I’ve seen this is in recognizing how small businesses have been affected by social distancing. As a professional runner, motivational speaker, race director and running coach, I’ve already been financially impacted by cancellations of races, speaking opportunities and other events.  Even the running shop I work at part-time has been reduced to doing business over the phone.  I have several other friends and family members who work in industries that are completely shut down at the moment, and it’s a very scary financial time for many people.  However, I have loved seeing so many people show their support of locally owned businesses by suggesting great ideas for how to support them!  Buying gift cards for shops that are closed; shopping online; making donations; or buying grab-and-go items from stores that have remained partially open.  I even saw a friend of mine who owns a bakery offer up a gift card option that wasn’t previously available, because her other friends on Strava were asking about how they could support her!  Simply amazing.  This group of outstanding people never ceases to amaze me, especially in times of need.

 

Framing our challenges

My wife and I have joked for a long time that so many athletes in interviews will use one of the following two phrases: “at the end of the day,” or “it is what it is.”  Seriously…next time you see some athletes getting interviewed, listen for one of those two phrases!  I bring this up because I weirdly believe that the two of those phrases, when put together, are quite relevant to the current state of our world.  At the end of the day, the virus is what it is: a very contagious and life-threatening virus.  It is not, however, something that must completely eradicate our lives of all happiness!  Let me be clear: not taking precautions and refusing to believe that the virus hasn’t affected you or your surrounding area (simply because of a lack of testing) is what got us into this trouble in the first place.  I’m not taking the matter lightly whatsoever.  What I AM saying is that being a responsible person and practicing social distancing does not preclude you from continuing to do some of the things you love!  Sure, you won’t be running the race you signed up for, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get outside for a great training run, even during a “shelter in place” mandate.

As a motivational speaker, one of my favorite topics to discuss with my audience is the idea of “framing your challenges.”  It’s essentially the idea of having a “glass half full” mentality.  In 2016, when I ran across the US and was battling injury issues, I remember thinking to myself early on “how can I possibly run 2,000 more miles across the US when I feel like this?”  With the help of my team and framing the challenge differently, those thoughts morphed into “what do I have to do to get 50 miles done today?”  Similarly, when I competed on Discovery Channel’s survival reality show, “The Wheel,” I remember thinking on Day 22 that I couldn’t imagine another 38 days of surviving in the wilderness of South America (as the show lasted 60 days).  Rather than dwelling on that, I re-framed the challenge and focused on just getting through Day 22, and then I would shift my attention to Day 23 the following day!  The next thing I knew, I had successfully run across the US and made it to Day 60 to become winner of “The Wheel.”  This pandemic is similar in many ways.  We don’t know when it’s going to end, and for me, that thought can be overwhelming.  We can, however, shift our focus and reframe the uncertainty to focus on TODAY.  Don’t worry about what this virus will look like in a day, a week or a month.  Think about how you can be better and help those around you today.  If we all do our part and help each other in the present, the future will look a lot brighter!

“Hanging” with my sloth friend on “The Wheel!”

 

When I started planning my 2020 race season, I was interested in adding an international race somewhere I had never raced before.  I enjoy racing internationally to experience new trails and cultures all over the world, so I started looking around for options.  My wife (Karen) and I have been fortunate to travel quite a bit internationally, and to this day, my favorite country on earth is New Zealand.  We had been there twice before, and I was always excited about the possibility of returning for a third time.  So, when I received an elite invite to the Tarawera Ultramarathons, it was a no-brainer to accept and I promptly signed up for the 100-Miler!

Ever since I became a sponsored ultrarunner in 2016, my forte in the sport has been the 100-miler.  I love everything about that distance and while I thoroughly enjoy running races of any length, this is the one that fills my soul and fuels my fire.  I quickly found out that New Zealanders refer to this distance as “The Miler,” since the 100k is known as the “Hundred” (metric system and all).  I found that especially funny because hearing that put me right back in sixth grade gym class, getting mentally ready to run four laps around a track!

The thing that made this race different from previous 100-milers was that it was so early in the season.  Prior to this year, the earliest I’ve ever run a 100-miler was when I ran Western States in June of 2018.  So, this race fell a full four-plus months earlier in the season than any prior hundo I’ve run, which dictated a different approach to the preparation.  Coming off a long 2019 season that started with some injury issues, I knew it was especially important to take some proper rest and recovery time at the end of the year.  That meant my build to Tarawera would be really light, relative to where I would like to be in the middle of the season.  Knowing that, I took a much different mental mindset heading into the race: I felt healthy, I was stoked to be running in New Zealand, and I accepted that I would be undertrained (but motivated) at the start line!

Race day arrived and the weather, although warm, was not as hot as the prior days and what was initially projected.  I went for a short warm-up run prior to the race start at 4am, and the body felt good, but I didn’t feel the energetic bounce in my step I was hoping for.  Nonetheless, I headed to the start line feeling fired up!  After an amazing cultural dance performance by the Māori people, the Race Director, Tim Day, set us off on our journey.  From the jump, the eventual winner of the race (Vlad) set off at a blistering pace while I settled in with the second group of about five other runners.  We spent the first miles just chatting and getting to know each other, running through light rain in the dark on the jungle-esque trails of Rotorua, New Zealand.  When we hit the first aid station less than ten miles in, I was already pretty wet from the humidity and rain, so I reorganized my kit and fueled up.  Thankfully, Karen was there to crew me the entire way, because the day would not have been a success without her!

Karen crewing me while I enjoy sitting in Barry’s chair!

Since I took an extra minute at the first aid station, the group of guys I was running with forged on ahead, and I spent the next 25-30 miles running solo.  I felt good, but my legs just felt generally fatigued, which I presumed was because of the lack of volume in my build up to the race.  So, I was grateful to be running my own race at that point and focusing on nutrition and hydration.  I always like to tell my athletes to “focus on what’s within your control,” during a race, and at that point, I couldn’t control how my legs felt but I could certainly keep up with fueling!  Around the 50k mark, after a beautiful water crossing in a boat, I came into an aid station a couple minutes behind Zac and Carl, two of the guys I ran the first ten miles with earlier.  I kept them within my line of sight until the next aid station, when I met up with Karen one more time before we had a big gap of about 60k until the next crew accessible aid station.  I loaded up on everything I needed and started to chase them again.  Around the 40-mile mark, I synced back up with Zac and we settled into a nice pace together.  At that time, I was still feeling pretty flat and Zac was having some stomach issues, so we both were running strong, but at sub-optimal pace.  Around the 50-mile mark, we were caught by the eventual female winner, Ailsa Macdonald, one of the best female ultrarunners in the world.  She was running very strong and she took off ahead of us, while we maintained the effort that was working for us.

That continued for another ten miles or so, and then a little before the 100k mark, I was running up a hill while Zac hiked, so I told him I would meet him on the other side.  When I crested the hill, things started feeling easier, so I slowly started pushing a little harder.  From that point on, everything started to click.  That’s the funny thing about a 100-miler: sometimes you feel better at Mile 62 than you do at the start!  I rode that high for most of the remainder of the race, passing Carl at the next aid station and then finally catching Brendan (also from the original group I started with) around Mile 70, which put me into 4th overall and 3rd male.  I would venture to guess that I ran that final 50k as fast as anyone else in the race, moving really well all the way until the finish at just over 18 hours.

Finish line hug with RD Tim Day!

This was a sneaky hard course, without a lot of vert but with plenty of sections that were not as runnable as the course profile made it seem.  With winding, narrow single-track, filled with roots and rocks, it was often hard to maintain a fast rhythm.  But what the course took away in speed, it gave back tenfold in beauty!  And I’ll take that trade off any day.  This was the first 100-miler that Karen ever crewed for me solo, and on top of that, she was doing it in another country!  Without our usual team (namely, my friend Josh who crews most of my races) to help her, she shouldered the burden of taking care of me all day, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.  Special shout-out to Barry (Ailsa’s husband) for letting me borrow their chair at the aid station after the boat crossing.  I told Barry “Sorry I’m going to get this chair so wet from my sweat,” to which he replied, “it’s okay…my wife was going to do that anyway!”  In the end, I finished with my seventh 100-mile podium at a race where it took me almost 100k to feel like I had finally hit my stride.  But if there’s one thing I know about 100-mile races, it’s that the only thing you can expect…is the unexpected!

On Friday, October 11th at 5:15am, I set out just a mile from my home in Tahoe City to attempt to break the Fastest Known Time for the Tahoe Rim Trail.  I was running from Tahoe City clockwise all the way around Lake Tahoe, hoping to finish in under 38 hours and 32 minutes and break the record set in 2009 by Kilian Jornet.  Ultimately, however, I ended up finishing the 172-mile trail in 45 hours, 36 minutes and 36 seconds, good for the second-fastest time ever recorded around the trail.  The trail in 2019 is a full seven miles longer than it used to be (as it was originally created at 165 miles), so I believe I set the fastest time on the most updated version of the trail!  When I set out to run this trail, I knew that GPS watch battery was going to potentially be an issue, since I didn’t have a watch remotely capable of recording for that long.  Enter the Coros Vertix.

This is, without question, the best watch I’ve ever owned.  Here are the primary reasons why: user interface and watch setup; ease of uploading and connecting to third-party apps; and of course, battery-life.  First, the user interface and setup.  When the watch arrived in the box, it had very few settings options to navigate.  It wasn’t until you download the app and sync your watch to it that the real fun begins.  At that time, through the “Custom Interface” of the app, you can set up multiple screens on the watch to utilize whatever data you want to see!  For me, I chose a six-slot design for the primary screen.  The six items I chose were Distance, Lap Pace (pace for that individual mile), Pace (current speed at any moment), Total Ascent, Elevation and Time.  And that was just for the first screen!  You can spin the dial on the side of the watch to switch between other screens, all of which are customizable.  Pretty rad.  Second, the ease of uploading and connectivity to other apps.  I am a big fan of the fact that anytime you record an activity on the Coros Vertix, it uploads to the app super quickly.  So, as an avid user of Strava, it’s nice to know that I will have my activities posted in no time.  Lastly, the battery life.  What more is there to say?  The Vertix is good for up to 60 hours in full GPS mode!  Insane.  When I ran around the Tahoe Rim Trail, I was out there for over 45 hours, and still had close to 10% battery life when I finished.  I’m thrilled to know that every 100-miler I run in the future will be more than covered by the battery life, and I will no longer need to worry about swapping out watches during a race!

A few other positives to note.  The watch is quite quick to pick-up GPS outdoors, something that has occasionally caused me frustration in the past.  It also has a wrist heart-rate sensor, something I’ve never had before in a watch.  I don’t worry too much about HR data personally, but it’s still a nice feature for sure.  I also like that there are so many activity functions, ranging from “Run” and “Bike” all the way to “Gym Cardio” and “Mtn Climb.”  While I have yet to use many of those functions, I’m stoked to have them!

Lastly, I only have two comments in the way of improvement.  First, when you set up the interface of the watch, you get to choose a “Watch Face Setting.”  I found one that I really like, but I do wish there were some more options to choose from in case I want to mix it up more often.  Or, perhaps there could be a way for users to customize that outside of the pre-chosen options.  The other thing is that the back of my wrist will sometimes touch the dial and send me to a different screen.  It happens infrequently, but it does occasionally happen.  In that case, I just have to turn the dial back to the home screen where I want to be.

When it comes right down it, I LOVE this watch.  I’m a relatively simple user of GPS watches, so battery life, easy interface, and simple navigation of the tools are my top priorities.  With the Coros Vertix, you get all of that and so much more!