September 24, 2016 ultra.mel.jon@gmail.com

Tahoe 200 Ultramarathon – Race Review

It’s been a little over a week since we finished the Tahoe 200 Ultra, and while we’ve been receiving countless congratulatory messages and emails, we’ve also received many comments like “I can’t even fathom running for that long… how did you do it?? What did it feel like?”, so hopefully this can help explain how this race went, and what we felt like before, during and after. But because this race was such a BEAST and there is just so much to cover, we’re only going to touch on the race itself in this post, then we’ll follow-up with another one talking about products we used to help get us through, how we slept, how we ate, and a bit on how we trained for the race.

200 mile race lake tahoe

Photo by: Scott Rokis

Just to lay things out for those of you who might not be familiar with what this race entails, here are some of the quick stats on the Tahoe 200:

  • 205.5 miles in total distance (start to finish….NO STAGES)
  • 100 hour time cap
  • Loop style course (meaning you rarely cover the same terrain twice)
  • 35,000+ feet of elevation gain (not change!)
  • 15 aid stations throughout the course
  • 105 or so official starters

We signed up for this race in early 2016, and it was definitely in our eyes our ‘big race’ for the year, as it was further than either of us had ever ran before. But this was the quote we stood by as we registered was

“Set goals so big that you can’t achieve them, until you become the type of person that can.”

 

Arriving in the Lake Tahoe area 3 days before the start turned out to be a good idea, as the entire race never goes below ~5,000 ft of elevation, so a bit of acclimation is helpful. It was a stunning location to take on such an epic race and Lake Tahoe along with the surrounding landscapes are beautiful even on the most gloomy days. Luckily for us the weather was calling for about as good of weather as you could ask for. Mid 20’s during the day, between 2-6 degrees at night (Celsius for both) and no rain! With this being such a long race, the number of variables you have to factor in runs pretty high pretty quick, so it’s a nice treat when the weather looks fairly stable.

Pre-Race Check-in and Course Briefing

The day before the start, there were a couple of meetings that helped brief us on the course. Letting us know what we could expect in terms of weather, water accessibility, the massive influx of yellow jacket bees in the area….all those nonchalant things. I won’t lie, the thing that stood out to me was as they weren’t over each of the 16 sections of the course, every time they read off the elevation gain for that section, it was ALWAYS in the thousands. We’ve ran mountains before, but this was literally taking a ‘hill repeats’ workout and jacking it up to ‘mountain repeats’.

tahoe 200 elevation map

Tahoe 200 – The Race

This race started at 9AM, which was a nice treat as most ultras start way earlier, or even the night before. We actually felt about as good as we ever had before any of our previous ultras. We slept well the nights leading up to the race, we both ate a good breakfast, and while the nerves were on edge (at least mine/Jonathan’s were) we both were in a pretty good mental state going into this race. Neither of us were looking to win or hit the podium, we knew that getting too excited early on could kill us on Day 2, 3 and 4, so we knew we just had to hit a steady pace and keep trucking along.

3, 2, 1, GO!

Everyone takes off running for a good 50 feet or so, before the course turns straight up a ski hill. We climb, and climb and climb. We decided to bring out running poles with us right off the hop and that was a decision we were both happy with. The first section was only 7 miles, and we made it to the first aid station in around 1h40m, which we were pretty happy with. At this point, we were hiking everything uphill, and running most of the flat and downhill. Our crew (Jonathan’s dad) was able to meet us at this aid station, but was not allowed at the three following ones, which means we would have access to food and water at these next aid stations, but in terms of gear and clothing, we were stuck with what we had for the next 55 miles or so.

trail running tahoe rim trail

Photo by: Scott Rokis

These next 55 miles kicked our butts! Luckily we were running on fresh legs, because there were some incredibly challenging sections. Just to name a few because some of them are good visuals.

1. Rubicon Trail

Now let’s set a little context for this one, if you’ve ever seen a Jeep with the word ‘Rubicon” on the side of its hood, you’re about to learn why. This trail is INSANE. Massive rocks and boulders, steeps climbs and descents, and uneven in just about any other way you could imagine. Pretty much the only vehicles we saw along this trail were Jeeps, and even they were struggling through it. Seems like a great place to go running! And the best part (which we were warned about, so we went and bought gaiters to wear) but there was a 1-2 inch layer of dust covering most of the trail, so this made the rocks slippery in places, and really hard to gauge the depth and density of you ground your about to step on.

2. Running Blind

This course was marked quite well for the most part, and all the markers had reflectors on them so when running at night, you never had problems seeing the markets. Except one section of about 2-3 miles where someone decided to take down ALL the markets and stuff them into a log! We had been trotting along a dark trail for way to long, and we’ve been lost many times before, so we finally hit that point where we decided to turn around and go find the last market. But about 50 feet back, Jonathan spotted a reflector on the ground, so it must have fallen off right? Wrong. We looked closer and there were about 20 markers all stuffed into a hole in a log, obviously done intentionally. I can understand in some of the international races when the kids that find these flags and reflectors utterly amusing and take them to go play. But when someone consciously decides to do this kind of thing (despite there being many signs posted saying “Trail Race in Progress – Please do not remove trail markers as it could endanger runners lives”. That’s low.

But we kept trucking along, just as planned, into the night, and we got a little cold, but there were warm soup at the aid stations which helped a ton. The last section before the Sierra at Tahoe aid station (which was where we were planning to take a quick sleep) was around 19 miles for a total of ~62.9 miles, and it had some fun times to end day 1 on. Another rocky section covered with dust, but at night your headlamp makes it almost seem like whiteout conditions, so your depth perception is way off. Then they finish things off with a long long uphill climb. Can’t even guess how high or how long, just a really long climb when all we wanted to do is eat and lay down. Coming into this aid station Jonathan was feeling pretty exhausted. This was definitely the first point when he doubted his ability to finish the race.

ultra running tahoe rim trail

Night 1 – Sierra at Tahoe

We opted for 2 hours of sleep, as we had been told the first 60 miles of the course was the toughest. So we hoped that getting a bit of rest after this would launch us into easier times the next day. Luckily we woke up right at sunrise, so the weather immediately started to warm and changed our clothes and filled out packs (breakfast we were told to eat before you slept!).

How a couple hours of sleep and a good calorie hit can change the name of the game. Both of us felt great as we tackled the next 7 miles (the last of the “short” sections) to the next aid. We were able to run a good portion of this section, as there was quite a bit of downhill especially leading into the aid station itself. From here we loaded up with water and extra food, as the next section was a tough one. 18 miles with no water access, over 4000 feet of elevation gain, and reaching the highest elevation point along the course (somewhere in the ballpark of 9800 feet!!!). This section went relatively well, considering we were on day 2, running low on sleep. But fortunately the terrain was modest, at least in comparison to earlier on the course, and neither of us felt any signs of altitude sickness.

This was the first “really good” aid station. For any ultra runners out there, you know what we mean, when you come in and people start asking you, “what do you need?” “can I fill your water?” “want to sit down?”  The ones before here were good, but this one took it up a notch! This was also where we started to take a bit longer breaks at aid stations. While day one were typically 5-15 minutes, we were not taking a seat and usually spending 20-40 minutes at aid stations to deal with any taping that was needed on legs or feet, getting some good food in us, and changing out our gear for what we had up next. Keep in mind that most of the sections were now between 15-20 miles each, so in each 24 hour period, we were only finishing around 3. So this means one we needed sun protection and lots of water, next one we need a light jacket and headlamp, then night one we needed extra warm layers, headlamp and usually some chocolate covered espresso beans.

As we moved through the next section we got absolutely breathtaking views of the sunset over Lake Tahoe, from upwards of 8-9000 feet. This was an interesting section though as we watched an incredible sunset, then wrapped around one of the mountains to take in an incredible view of Carson City (as we were now on the Nevada side of the lake), lit up at night, then brutally finish off with endless downhill switchbacks that never seemed like they were going to end.

sunset over lake tahoe

Night 2 – Heavenly Pass

Although we were hitting this aid station relatively “early” in the night (around 1AM), we decided to sleep here, as we knew the next section was another tough one. So we slept for another 2 hours, and took off just after 3AM. With the next section to Spooner Summit being 20 miles with no water access, a lot of people said its smart to run as much of it at night as possible. It worked out pretty well for us, as we finished the 20 miles half in the night and half in the morning light. Didn’t have any issues with water and were feeling pretty good pushing forward.

After leaving Spooner Summit, we took in some of the most expansive views of Lake Tahoe, as we traversed along some of the eastern side mountains, it was crazy windy for some reason, but the landscape was worth the climb to get to this point. As we came out of the mountains, Melissa had made some notes in her phone from the course briefing, as she wrote this section ends with a 3000 ft descent along 3 miles of dirt road. We weren’t even sure this would be possible, as we had just finished a big switchback section on descending trails, so we didn’t think there was even 3000 more feet to drop before getting to the lake. Well we hit a dirt road, and we can confidently say we had at least 3000 feet of room to drop. That road never ended, and it only got steeper as you went down. In fact, there was even a small section where the course pulled off the road to take a more direct and crazy steep trail for a bit. Then more road, more downhill, more tears from the quads. Eventually we hit the aid station, and we were right about level with Lake Tahoe again. Feeling pretty fatigued and remembering the minor hallucinations we were running through the night before, we both decided to catch 20 minutes of sleep before heading out. We both tried to elevate our feet and instantly fell dead asleep.

15 more miles to our next planned sleep station, and this one is a bit of a love-hate section of the course. You start off by running 3 miles along Billionaire Boulevards where you get to see some of the biggest and most extravagant homes that you can probably find in America. Then you turn uphill and run into THE POWER LINE CLIMB……~1500 ft of gain over 1.2 miles!! We scrapped and clawed and made out way to the top. Only to realize we still had a few hours of trail to go before we hit the aid. This is where we think Jonathan managed to run while sleeping. He was pretty out of it whenever we spoke, but managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Hallucinating

Now would be as good a time as any to touch on our hallucinations. By no means did we run into anything “crazy” or “wild”, no little green monsters or that kind of thing. But we both were hitting a state where our brains couldn’t make perfect sense of the world. During the days we’d stop the other one to point out the bear up ahead, only to learn it was a log… shaped nothing like a bear. And during the night, we’d be fully convinced a rock on the ground was some kind of crystal. Some we shared with the other, some we didn’t, some you knew weren’t real, some you were too tired to care. We just kept truckin’!


Night 3 – Brockway Summit

Another WICKED aid station with more help than you would imagine! Even showing up to this one, there were costumes, music, people dancing, it just had an awesome vibe. The best part though for cold and tired runners, is they helped us come in and take a seat in front of the heaters, wrapped emergency blankets around us and took our food orders (they even had HOME-MADE ORGANIC TURMERIC/GINGER KOMBUCHA)! We were feeling in pretty rough shape coming into this one, so we took our time, we probably ate the most food out of any aid station at this one, we slept for 2h30m, and Melissa got her blisters taped up really well by Doc Spike.

ultramarathon taping blisters

This was by far the coldest night of the race, and you take off from here on another 20 mile section, with one water stop only 6 miles in. Because it was freezing when we left, by mile 6 we had barely drank any water, so we kept moving. The sun rose and we were feeling pretty energized by the time we hit the next aid at Tahoe City. We knew this was truly getting close to the finish. Unfortunately though, you still have 30 more miles, even though you know that along the highway the finish line is only 6 miles or so away from where you are. This means back into the mountains!

This next section in particular truly depicts how not accurate the overall elevation profile map is for this race. As this section looked like a massive climb up (2600 ft or so), then a massive drop down. We mentally prepared for this. Started out ready to take on a long slow gruelling climb. But for some reason this doesn’t hit for a really long time. You go up, down, flat, recheck the markets like a hundred times thinking you might be off course. But eventually you hit the grand climb, and it goes up for quite a while. Luckily we hit the summit right as the sun was setting, so now we were in a race to get as low as we could with what little daylight still remained. We probably made it within 3o minutes of the aid station before having to toss on our jackets and headlamps. When we came into the Stephen Jones aid, we so wished this was the finish line. Partly because it would have been done, but also because the people there were so badass! When we asked for coffee, they suggested a mocha! When we asked for a veggie burger, they asked if I wanted guacamole on it! Everything you hope for at an aid station, they exceeded! Even though we knew the finish was close, we remembered it was another 15 miles, and they were calling for some rain that night, which means it could be a cold and tough 15 miles. We decided to lay down for 15 minutes so we could recharge a bit before taking on this home stretch. Once we were up, Jonathan’s dad helped up gear up for the cold temperatures coming that night and made sure we had enough food not to drop 1 mile from the finish, then sent us out to finish this race.

We knew for the most part what we were in for 15 miles. There was a section along a bike path, then a steep, steep climb they said was along an old jeep road, but no jeep could ever make it up (we can attest to this not being at all suitable for any automobile..whatsoever!), then we do a little up-down at the summits, and down to the finish. We very well might have been a little slower getting to the finish, but once we hit the summit the storm clouds rolled in, light snow and hail started falling, and we started to see lightening in the sky. If that doesn’t haul your ass off a mountain as fast as possible, I don’t know what will!

The last  few miles was actually back down the ski hill we came up at the start. The only problem is, I think they raised the mountain, because we don’t remember climbing so high! haha. We knew it was the end and not to hold anything back, so we pushed through the pain. But man was that A LOT of pain! It felt like we were hitting every black diamond run on the way down, one after the next.

Sub 90 Hours!!

Neither of us had cared about our time right from the get go. Finishing was our goal. But when we were getting close we noticed the time and thought that would be a nice milestone to hit! There was only one problem… 1 mile from the finish we see this

200 mile ultra marathon finish

So there ya have it, 90 hours 1 minute and a couple of finisher’s shots!!

What a journey! This sure wasn’t a trip, a trip is predictable, a trip is boring. This journey had so many twists and turns, and in the end we are both so confident that we are stronger runners, stronger people and a stronger couple having finished this race.

 

Any drawbacks to this race? Trying to be as honest as we can, so that future runners will have accurate information. The only sort of downsides to this race were;

  • Not a ton of vegan options at the aid stations. Luckily we were a bit flexible, but if you were strict vegan, you would want to make sure you had a lot of your own food.
  • Course markings were sparse in some areas. Turns and major junctions were super well marked, but something we had to learn along the way was to just stay on the current trail unless otherwise told. And this could mean 10-15 minutes without seeing a marker, at night, which can play games in your mind! (To be clear though: Never did we actually feel unsafe or mislead, this was just sort of unusual)

Would we recommend Tahoe 200 to others?

Absolutely. The race is well organized, and is an incredible challenge both mentally and physically, and if someone was ready to put in the time to train and prepare for a race of this magnitude, we’d both encourage them to sign up.

majo srnik jay kinsella melissa gosse jonathan sinclair

Canadian Runners: Jonathan, Jay Kinsella (winner), Melissa, Majo Srnik (8th place)

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