I had raced the TRT 50k in 2005 and the 50m in 2006, so it was destiny to sign up for the full 100m this year (well, that’s how the logic worked in my head anyway). I hoped that familiarity with the course, both the "glimpse of heaven" and "taste of hell", would help shake the butterflies in my stomach that were in full flight all week. I know I had done the training, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing when you see four drop bags packed full of an entire season’s worth of Clif Blox, sunscreen, and S! Caps for just one race. What had I gotten myself into?!?
Luckily, I wasn’t alone in my adventure. My father, Larry Dunlap, came down from Oregon to crew for me. Although he hadn’t crewed before (and I wasn’t sure exactly how to coach him), you couldn’t ask for a better wingman. He’s a retired ER physician, an avid climber and outdoorsman, and is up for just about any adventure one can conjure. He knows us ultrarunners are crazy, but as he says, “it’s the good kind of crazy”. On top of it all, he’s my Dad, so I knew he would give it to me straight if things were going sour.
I was also racing this event as a private tribute to my late step-father, J. David Rowe, who passed about 10 years ago. I have thought of Dave often since becoming a father last year, including memories that had long been forgotten. Only as a parent do I now realize how influential he was in his day-to-day advice and actions, and I feel a little ashamed that I hadn’t appreciated him more while he was alive. So I tweaked an idea that Kristin Armstrong and Paige Alam showed me at the Boston Marathon, and wrote down one great “Dave” memory for each mile –100 in all – to have in my pocket. I figured I could honor him by baking those memories in my brain and heart for good, plus have a ghost pacer to keep me company on the lonely miles between aid stations.
It was fun to see everyone at the pre-race meeting on Friday, and I found great comfort in knowing that there would be at least 30 familiar faces out there with me racing various distances. A few runners stopped by my place afterwards, including the super-talented runner/bloggers Addy, Jessica, and Gretchen. Addy was running her first 50k, Jessica was crewing for friends while her foot healed, and Gretchen was going all out for the 50m. It was so cool to see them F2F!
3:30am came fast on Saturday, and my Dad and I packed our gear and headed to the start. It was surprisingly warm (~55 degrees), and the sky was clear. No sense in being nervous now – we were either ready or not, and the trail would soon tell us which. As we counted down to the 5am start, there was an eerie calm and many heartfelt “good lucks” among the runners. Then Dave Cotter sent us off!
Eric Clifton flew off the start line like a banshee, with Jasper Halekas (defending champion), Sean Meissner (Tahoe Triple and 72-mile Ultra Champion), Jeff Riley (M7 at Western States last month), John Fors (back to finish this year), Steve Roark, Cian Montgomery (one week off of Siskiyou Out and Back 50k), Rob Evans (newly engaged and smiling ear-to-ear), Mark Gilligan (fresh off the Death Ride), Eric Chitwood (his first 100m), and four others forming a group behind him. Once the sun came up enough that we didn’t have to borrow each others light, the group spread out as we ran past Marlett Lake at mile 3.
How does one pace the first 5 miles of a 100-miler? I went for “awkwardly slow”, running the flats and downhills at a 9 min/mile pace, and fast-walking the uphills. That wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the front pack, but did keep my heart rate at a comfortable range. Kathy D’Onforio was soon on my tail, and we passed the miles by chatting about family, fun, and running. Marlett Peak was just coming out of the morning shadows as we summited and headed down to Tunnel Creek (mile 11). The aid station volunteers at Tunnel were amazing, and had us heading down the steep Red House Loop (the promised “taste of hell”) in no time.
The Red House Loop was tough, but not nearly as hot as previous years. The scenery was lush, despite the fact that water levels were at an all-time low. I paced along with Cian Montgomery, who had taken a short break from the Oregon Ultra Series to race the TRT. We both commented that this is a high altitude course (6800-9400’), and that can make staying hydrated a tricky thing. I was drinking about 50 ounces/hour, nearly twice what I drink at sea level. Similar to the Silver State 50m, I made a mental note to “push fluids” instead of “quenching my thirst” to keep up the pace. We both knew that the big test that awaited us at the top of Red House – the first of many scales that would ensure we weren’t dehydrated.
My wristband said 153 lbs, and it was important I stay close to it. A 3% loss meant I had to focus on getting more fluids, a 5% loss meant I was going to take a seat and catch up, and a 7% loss got me a free ticket off the course and to the hospital. I handed my Camelpak to my Dad and stepped up on the scale. It felt like I pulled the handle on a slot machine – c’mon 153! It turned out I was 152.5, so I was close. My Dad loaded me up with some pb&j squares, while Jessica snapped some pics and wished me well. So far, so good!
The next out-and-back section (mile 16-25) was peaceful and fun. My pace was definitely faster than expected, but I was chalking that up to the wonderful weather (60-70 degrees, with a slight breeze). I was pacing with Kelly Patrick, a 24-year-old from Wisconsin who had found 100-milers to be a great extension from the Ironman’s he had done in previous years. I got talking a bit too much (big surprise) and caught a toe on a rock and fell, but it looked much worse than it was. I brushed off and kept going.
Around mile 23, Jasper Halekas was already heading back with Eric Clifton just a few minutes behind. Phil Shaw and Sean Messiner were also looking good, not too far off the lead pace. About eight more went by before I made it to the Mt. Rose aid station (mile 25), and loaded up on soup and PB&J’s. My dad pointed out that I got there in 5:15 – about an hour ahead of pace! I guess “awkwardly slow” still wasn’t slow enough.
The 50-mile race, which started an hour later, began to catch up to us as Thomas Reiss led Jeff Kozak (defending champion) and Devon Crosby-Helms up to the aid station. Gretchen wasn’t too far behind either, and looking great. The trail was now full of ultrarunners, and there was lots of chatter! Everyone seemed to be enjoying the calm weather, but suffering a bit from the altitude. The encouragement helped us all keep a strong pace.
Before I knew it, I was back at the Tunnel Creek aid station (mile 35). Kelly Patrick and I had stuck together, occasionally catching a glimpse of Eric Chitwood in front of us. We got our refills, weighed in (I was a pound low, but Kelly was three pounds off), and fast-walked back up towards Hobart. Kelly was kind enough to pose for a few pics as we hit the top of Marlett Peak again.
At the Hobart aid station (mile 40), I was definitely feeling hungry. Perhaps it was the 100-memories-of-Dave card that was reminding me of his German pancakes, pork chops and applesauce, and homemade pizza that kept me full in my teenage years. Eric Chitwood recommended the banana/strawberry/Ensure smoothie, and it hit the spot! Usually I can’t stomach Ensure, but it was tasty with the fruit. Kelly dug into his bag to grab one of his many Red Bulls, then led us up Snow Peak.
On the way, Thomas Reiss went blazing by to lead the 50-mile, and Devon Crosby-Helms came by in second. Devon slowed down to fast-walk with us up the steep sections, chatting away about how fun this was. As we entered the Snow Valley aid station (mile 43), Jeff Kozak stormed up the hill to pass Devon, and she went into chase mode.
As Kelly and I descended, I commented that I couldn’t believe we were going to do a second lap. Right about then, Garett Graubins went by and said “it will all feel better at mile 51”. Great advice! We also caught up to Addy, who was smiling ear to ear and enjoying the fact that she had already run farther than she ever has. If she’s smiling now, I have no doubt she’s hooked!
I whizzed by the last aid station, and pulled into the start/finish area in 9:55. This was WAY ahead of pace, and 45 minutes faster than I had run the 50-miler last year. Maybe I had made a big rookie mistake, or maybe I was just having an awesome day. My dad took care of me again, changing shoes and socks, dousing my bandana in water, and letting me chug a couple of cups of soup. Troy Limb was also there, ready to do anything needed. I sat down to take a 5 minute break and enjoyed the clapping from all the 50k/50m finishers who were grabbing beers and having a good time. Better get out of here before they suck me in!
Garett was right – knowing that you’re on the second half makes a big mental difference. It also made a big difference to see my Dad at each of the aid stations, full of smiles and encouragement. The trail was much more lonely on this lap, although I could still see Eric Chitwood setting a fast pace in front of me. I sang to myself in bass tones (thanks to the 100-memory card reminding me that’s what Dave did in church), did math problems in my head, and thought of how big Sophie is getting. I was feeling the miles, but my stomach, mind, and soul were doing great.
The shadows got longer and my strides got shorter as I headed into Tunnel Creek aid station for the second time (mile 60). My dad was there again, meaning he hiked up Tunnel Creek twice! He decided to join me on the second loop of Red House. As we headed down the steep descent cautiously, Rob Evans and his pacer went flying by – Rob was definitely feeling good. Red House did its best to suck me dry of excess energy, and we finished the loop about 10 minutes slower than the first time. When we came back to Tunnel Creek (mile 66), I began to feel a level of bone-tired fatigue I wasn’t used to – and I was only 2/3 done!
The next 9 miles were tough, as I struggled with fatigue and the closing darkness. Clearly I haven’t done enough night running on tired legs, and my pace slowed considerably. Jasper Halekas went by again, screaming fast. The second figure in the dark was Mark Gilligan, having a fantastic race! Apparently Eric Clifton had dropped at 50 miles, and Mark had made his way through the pack. Molly Zurn caught up to me (first female), pacing like a pro. I stayed on her pace the best I could, and we watched the sun set over the mountains. I couldn’t believe we were still going through the night! We caught up to Sean Meissner about mile 72, and he was definitely suffering. But that never stops Sean from having words of encouragement for Molly and me.
I pulled into the Mt. Rose aid station (mile 75), still smiling and ready for some warmer clothes. Thomas Reiss was there (he had won the 50-miler), and he and his wife helped my Dad get me in front of a heater to collect my energy. The volunteers (especially Sarah) were great! They said I was one of few people smiling, and that there had been some drops from altitude, sun exposure, injury, hydration, and more. A lot can go wrong in these races, that’s for sure. Sarah pointed out that I was still 1 hour and 20 minutes ahead of the sub-24 pace, despite taking my time on the last section. So I grabbed more food and headed out.
The stretch back to Tunnel Creek was a lonely one, with the exception of the headlights coming the other way. Behind the lights I heard the familiar voices of Anil and Rajeev, Chet Fairbanks, Peter Lubbers, Chihping Fu, and more, all having a great time. It was eerie to not know where I was on the trail, my reality pared down to the focal length of my light. I hadn’t realized how draining it was until I got to Tunnel Creek (mile 84) around 1am. None of the food looked good, and my body just wanted to sleep. I washed my face and asked for advice – they recommended some broth in my water bottle, a cup of coffee, and more PB&J's! When I weighed in, however, I was 3 lbs up. The volunteers helped me devise a plan to cut back on the salt, and I hit the trail walking again.
Up ahead, I could see headlights on the hillside miles ahead of me. Oh, how I wanted to be with them! Dave kept me company with memories of fishing in Bemidji, MN, teaching me how to make stained glass art, and having tea parties with his grand-daughter. The stars reflected off Lake Tahoe, making it impossible to see where the land began and the sky ended. The two orange moons (one a reflection) stared back at me like a wolf in hunt as I climbed up Marlett Peak again and made my way to the Hobart aid station.
Hobart (mile 91) looked like a tent party this time, as volunteers hunkered down in the cold behind the white flaps. They all jumped to action as my headlight approached, and were quick to sit me down next to the heater and fix another Ensure smoothie. It was 2:30am, and that meant I had lost all of my banked time for a sub-24 hour finish. But one of the volunteers pointed out that I still had time since the last 6 miles were downhill. It seemed like a good goal, so I headed out to charge the hill.
My mind was racing all over the place, and my body was on overload. The rhythm of my steps and breath was the only thing keeping me goinging forward, up into the windy hills of Snow Peak. I got to the Snow Valley aid station (mile 93), weighed in just one pound over, and noted that I had made up 4 minutes on the sub-24 goal! With that, I went charging down the hill.
The section from Snow Valley seemed extra technical in the dark, and I was kicking rocks left and right (bye, bye toenails). Then suddenly, a rock just reached up and grabbed my left leg like a bear trap, pulling all my muscles and snapping me down on the ground. I seized up for a minute, but quickly got on my feet to keep moving. The first step with my left leg was unable to bear weight, and I went down again. Oh, crap.
Sub-24 instantly faded away, and I had bigger issues to face. I was cold on the hill, looking both ways down the trail and realizing there wasn’t anyone for miles. My knee was swelling fast, but it felt like a muscle thing more so than a joint thing. I had always wondered how people could drop at mile 96…now I know. Four miles of downhill on a bad knee was not going to bode well for the rest of my running season. But I didn’t have a choice – the next aid station was at mile 98, so I had to move forward. I stepped lightly, taking an hour to cover the next two miles. Kim Giminez and her pacer passed me, slowing to make sure I was okay. The sun came up, and my Dad was waiting for me at mile 98. It seemed foolish to stop when I could see the finish across the lake, so my Dad pointed out a branch that could be used as a crutch, and we hobbled our way in to the finish. It took 2 hours and 20 minutes to cover the last 4 miles, but I got there in 25 hours and 18 minutes, good enough for 12th place. In a sick masochistic way, I was kinda glad that those last 4 miles were tough. I had to dig down deep to find the courage to move forward, and I think that really captured the spirit of a 100 that all of us embraced.
Two sunrises, four packs of M&M’s, 8 PB&J’s, 9 cups of soup, 10 pouches of sunscreen, 15 packs of Clif Blox, 20 gels, and over 1000 ounces of water later, I made it 100 miles! I couldn’t believe how tired I was, but at the same time it seemed surprisingly doable. As I changed into warm clothes, I found out that Jasper Halekas (the new USATF and RRCA 100-mile champion, yes!) had taken two hours of his course record to win in 18 hours, 16 minutes. Mark Gilligan held up his phenomenal pace to get second (19:38), and Rob Evans, Eric Chitwood, and Molly Zurn had finished under 24 hours (full results here). All in all, some fantastic performances by everyone!
My Dad helped me hobble up to the car, and I couldn’t thank him enough for his help. I was so proud of him! Although I had shared the trail with Dave along the way, I felt privileged that my Dad is still alive and willing to strap on the trail shoes and REALLY share the experience. There is no way I could have done this without him and the wonderful volunteers along the way.
To the RD’s, volunteers, fellow racers, my Dad, and all involved, my deepest thanks for helping me find that finish line. I can honestly say I am a changed man, and learned a lot about myself on the way to getting that belt buckle. I don’t care how nerdy it is to actually wear it, ‘cause I will! And I’m already looking forward to States in ’08. I just need to get a few more night miles in first. ;-)