Guest contributor Peter Lawson joins us today for another installment of “firsts.” Four years ago, he wrote about his first hundred miler, now this month, his first 200 miler.
I’m 56 years old and live in Claremont, California. I started running ultras when I was 50. It soon became a pattern that each November I’d put my name into the Western States and Hardrock lotteries, and each December I’d come up with a Plan B, and allocate all my vacations days for the next year.
I have a very understanding wife. She isn’t worried about the events I sign up for, as long as my plans don’t interfere with family vacations. She isn’t interested in crewing either, which is probably for the best. On the one occasion where she did crew, I was so confused by her help that I was lucky to have left the aid station with both shoes. So, I’ve run almost all my races without a pacer or crew. It’s simpler that way. I just have to work through the logistics and meticulously plan my drop bags.
Why run 200 miles?
I don’t think I have a reasonable explanation of why I run long distances, and maybe the fact that it is unreasonable is why I do it. I’ve always thought it’s good to have a challenge that scares me. So, in the six years that I’ve been running ultras, I’ve had an escalation of goals such that my wife regularly warns me that I shouldn’t bring up the subject of running in polite conversation – especially with strangers.
In the years that I’ve been running, my self-perception has shifted from “mid-pack” to more realistically “back of the pack.” At the same time, I’ve discovered that although I don’t particularly like speed, I love hiking up mountains. It makes me really happy – grateful to be alive. My preferred races now have generous cut-off times and huge elevation gains, for which I get an entire month’s supply of endorphins in one weekend.
I ran the Ronda dels Cims in August 2018. It has ~11,000 ft more elevation gain than Hardrock and a cut-off time of 62 hours. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous. It follows the border of Andorra, a country wedged in the mountains between France and Spain. My wife went along because it added to her vacation, and my 21-year-old daughter went along to see what her psychotic father was up to. Perhaps my most surreal experience on the course was navigating down a valley on the first night, following reflective trail markers, only to lose them completely in the confusion of over 100 eyeballs lit by my headlamp – a herd of cows. At mile 72 the next evening, the storm began that ended my race. I waited with about 40 others, crowded in the medical tent, while hail fell for over an hour. It eventually turned to rain and then rained for another hour, during which time the organizers shut down the course. I slept on the crowded wooden floor of the chalet that night and hiked out with the others the next morning.
In December 2018 I failed for the 4th time in the Western States lottery. Plan B had to be something more challenging than the Ronda, and the 2019 Tahoe 200 seemed like a reasonable next step (reasonable in my own mind at least). The race was easy to explain to my wife and didn’t interfere with vacations, so I had her approval. I spent a very relaxing Christmas with spreadsheets studying the 2017 race and planning the year ahead.
Thoughts on Preparing for a 200 miler
Train with a Coach
I recommend training with a coach if you’re contemplating a 200-miler, one with first-hand knowledge of these events. There is no such thing as Hanson’s Ultra-marathon Method, and so I signed up with Nickademus de la Rosa several years ago at a time when I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of training for two 100-milers in one summer. He thinks my plans are great, plus he has a podium finish at the Tor des Geants (2014), which is 200 miles with near 80,000 ft of elevation gain. I really think you need someone like that to tell you at regular intervals that what you’re contemplating is ok.
Work with a Physical Therapist
I also recommend working with a physical therapist. Mine is always interested to see me, and he always fixes my problems. I’m somewhat skeptical of the flaming suction cups, steel myofascial scraping-blades, voodoo floss, deep-tissue infrared lasers, and ultra-sound, but it’s difficult to argue with good results.
His standard approach is traditional:
- Release tight fascia around muscles and joints to allow a full range of motion: if something hurts, roll the muscles above and below that area – and bring out the voodoo floss, etcetera, as needed.
- Train muscles that are dormant; train your brain to fire the right neurons.
- Strengthen muscles.
In preparation for the Tahoe 200, I sought advice on posture and foot pain. My posture exercise was to walk holding a 15-lb weight above my head for 10 minutes at a time, 5 minutes with my right arm and 5 minutes with my left. After doing this for several weeks, then several months, my back started to straighten up a bit. Resolving my foot pain though was more complicated.
In many races I’ve suffered from very sore feet – a persistent ache under the ball of each foot at the second metatarsal. I had simply accepted that running long distances will do that to you. It doesn’t help that my 93-year-old mother doesn’t approve of all this running and keeps warning me that I’m going to destroy my knees. But knowing that my physiotherapist can fix almost anything, I went to him complaining of what the internet described as “metatarsalgia.”
He recommended that a) I loosen the tight fascia around the toes, following Kelley Starrett’s “Finger Splice” forefoot mobilization from Becoming a Supple Leopard; b) train muscles that were dormant, so I could individually control my toes with a “Toe Yoga” exercises; and c) strengthen the arch of the foot with the “short foot” exercise. These were all really difficult to do: the first because my feet were initially so tight, I couldn’t thread my fingers through my toes, and the others because my brain couldn’t figure out which toes were which and which muscle controlled the arch. Nick agreed with all of the above, and also suggested that I learn proper running mechanics. I’m still struggling with that.
Learn to Meditate?
This might seem like a weird digression, but allow me a few words on this subject. The prospect of running 200 miles should seem overwhelming, and anything that can help reduce stress, get you in the zone, or help you focus is probably a good thing. At long intervals, Nick had put a meditation workout on my schedule, which made me want to know more about how the brain copes with extreme conditions. I’ll try to condense a year’s worth of reading into a few paragraphs:
The study of meditation eventually leads to literature on Buddhism. My understanding of Western Buddhism is something like the following: 1) Be kind to yourself and others; 2) accept that nothing lasts forever; and 3) your life would be better if you quieted the incessant chattering in your brain. That all sounds good to me, though I admit being completely baffled by any higher-level Buddhist concepts. As a teenager I used to read the occasional article in Scientific American; the first page was easy, the next few pages were harder, and by the end I was still hopeful but completely lost. My reading on meditation followed the same pattern. I was fascinated to learn though that skilled meditators (think 20,000 to 60,000 hours of practice) can turn off the brain’s default mode network in a way that is clearly measurable by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. That my experience meditating is the mental equivalent of chasing a squirrel around the backyard only reflects my current lack of skill. I’m still hopeful.
William James – The Varieties of Religious Experience: Complete and Unabridged (Illustrated) (affiliate link): Extreme states of mind brought on by isolation, denial, and self-imposed suffering (key ingredients for ultra-running), seem to be a common experience across all traditions. While I shield myself from lightning bolts, let me suggest that Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila had the mindsets to be the 16th Century’s greatest ultrarunners.
Dan Harris – 10% Happier Revised Edition: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story (affiliate link): Although you may never attain an alternate reality, you can learn to quiet your mind with practice. This will initially be a frustrating experience, but will eventually become easier.
Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson – Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body (affiliate link): Just as playing a piano is a learned skill, so is meditation. (The frustration is that while you are aiming for something like the Moonlight Sonata, you’re still tapping out Happy Birthday with two fingers.) With enough practice, meditation will re-wire the brain to make you more resilient to stress. The changes in the brain will be durable.
Michael Pollan – How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (affiliate link): There are other ways to temporarily suppress the default-mode network activity in your brain, strikingly similar to your brain on mediation, though not yet legal – even in the Pacific Northwest.
Pace to known Splits
Candice Burt, the Race Director, had posted all the splits for the 2017 race – the arrival and departure times of all the runners at all the aid stations. I combed through that data and made plots of all the statistics I could think of. I decided a mid-pack finish was about 85 hours and found a runner to match. I calculated both his average pace and his time-ahead of that pace at each aid station. I also noted at what aid stations he slept and for how long. I planned on doing exactly the same thing.
Prior to the start, I filed down my toenails so I could run a finger over each toe without feeling an edge, and I sandpapered my callouses until I reached soft skin. I wore Injinji “Liner Crew” socks and had a new pair at every drop bag. I wore the wide version of the HOKA Challenger ATR 5, had two more pair in drop bags, and put a pair of ALTRA Lone Peak 4 that were a half-size larger in a subsequent drop bag later in the race. I taped my feet with Kinesio Tex tape and had a taping kit in each drop bag. (I ended up hardly using those kits, because the medical crew were taping feet with Lukotape at most aid stations and I used their services frequently.)
Narrative: How not to run 200 miles
The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Guide to Travel
I kept my travel costs to an absolute minimum. After packing my drop bags into two large roller-bags, I flew on Southwest airlines to Reno, took a shuttle that I’d booked (North Lake Tahoe Express) to the transit center at Tahoe City, and continued by local bus to the race check-in at Homewood. This worked well. After the check-in, I returned by bus to my hotel in Tahoe City and went to bed early.
Shoot my right profile.
Most things worth writing about happened in the second half of the course. During the first half I stayed on pace, took care of my feet, was eating and hydrating regularly, and although I was getting tired, I had no particular concerns.
The first half of the course includes a long section of dusty and bolder-strewn road popular with Jeep owners. The runners in front of me and the Jeeps that passed me raised dust that floated and hung in the air. At night the white dust in front of my headlamp and the featureless dust on the road was such that I frequently lost my sense of depth. A second lamp would have been useful. In wiping dust, salt, and sunscreen from my eye, I also gave myself a small cut near my left eye that was an ongoing source of concern.
I arrived at the Sierra at Tahoe aid station (mile 63) before sunrise on Saturday, and to my relief picked up a replacement lithium battery for my headlamp. I wasn’t too tired and rather than sleep for 1.5 hours, decided to go off-plan and push ahead.
At dusk on Saturday evening things started to get difficult. I fell in behind Catra Corbett and her pacer as the trail left the plateau and descended to the Heavenly aid station. The descent seemed endless but eventually would meet a T-junction and leave the Tahoe Rim Trail for an out-and-back down to the aid station. At that junction, I got completely confused. It was dark. I was then by myself and I could not understand the trail markers, so probably spent 20 minutes wandering back and forth to the junction before I eventually found my way down the hill to Heavenly (mile 103). I ate, went inside the chalet, got cleaned up, and slept for about an hour and a half – which I figured would put me back on plan.
Candice is Messing with Your Mind
Thinking of the second half of a 200 as a mental challenge, rather than a physical challenge, is an extreme oversimplification. The fundamental challenge is to continue to make good decisions when struggling with severe disorientation and self-induced dementia. Up until the Tunnel Creek aid station (mile 139), I was hallucinating mildly but still doing alright.
I’ve never experienced the “Pain Cave.” I’ve been to the “Discomfort Cave” and the “I’m-Not-Having-Fun-Anymore Cave,” but blisters and an insufficiently greased crease are about the normal limits of my physical suffering – and indeed the only physical inconveniences I experienced during the event.
I was hoping to get ahead of the weather. There was snow and rain in the forecast for Sunday and Monday, and this was much on my mind. One of the most exquisitely beautiful sections of the trail is the plateau above Marlette Lake. Afterwards there is an endlessly long descent to the Tunnel Creek aid station, which I reached in the late afternoon on Sunday. I was deep into the INHFAM Cave by then, and slept for 1.5 hours outside on a cot, wrapping myself in a medical blanket.
I started to seriously question my navigation skills in the late hours of Sunday night. Still, I had the entire course on my GPS watch, and so wasn’t very worried. (I wasn’t using the Gaia GPS App on my iPhone much at all, because the phone battery was very low.) What I found was if you take 200 miles worth of trail and simplify it with straight-line segments to fit into a GPS watch, it isn’t reliable. At long intervals my watch would warn me I was off course. This would happen long after midnight when I’d lost sight of other runners and there was no sign of trail markers. Several times, I turned around and headed back along the course till I found a trail marker before resuming.
Parts of the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) are graded for mountain bikes in such a way as to mesmerize and disorient you. Even on slow slopes, the trail often curves in long meandering loops that seem to fold back on themselves, as if the course were laid out to fill the entire hillside with trail. After several of these loops I would completely lose the sense of which directly was north. After a straight stretch I could see with dread that I was going to spaghetti my way down, around, and over and around another hill.
Going down one of these sections on Monday, my lap-timer beeped as a reminder to eat, so I stopped and put my head down to get some food from my pack. When I looked up again, I was on a completely different part of the trail. I thought… this is really bad. How do I recover from this? …and if I’ve been teleported, does it disqualify me? It took me a while (and more back and forth on the trail) to figure out that I’d turned myself around and had been looking back up the trail I’d come down. I got going again.
It started to snow when I was coming along the plateau above Tahoe City. That made the path of other runners easy to follow; I was concerned about become hypothermic and wanted to get to the aid station as soon as possible. At the aid station (mile 176), the sun came out and I took my time drying my gear before heading out again into the evening.
I’ve always thought it a good idea to ask “what would my wife say?” when faced with a problem. It was drizzling and getting late; my water-resistant shell was getting soaked through again; the path up to the ridge at Stanford Rock was narrow along a very steep snow-covered hillside – now in the dark. Quite obviously she would have told me I’m an idiot, don’t do it. It’s a good thing she wasn’t there.
I also had an intense feeling of having been there before. I recognized the roads, the paths, the fields, and the climb. That should have been an early indication that things weren’t going well.
At the top of the climb the wind picked up and the trail (again easy to follow in the snow) started to meander mountain-bike style. I again lost sense of which direction was north and every curve seemed to fold back on itself. A runner and his pacer caught up and passed me, and I tried my best to keep up with them down the hill. This was probably a bad idea.
They seemed to be leading me winding their way in the dark through a ski resort. It was terraced with multiple levels and each in turn the trail brought us down and around a central structure, which presumably had an elevator – that we couldn’t use because that would disqualify us, of course. There was ski equipment strewn along the ground left and right of us, and I had to run carefully to avoid tripping over it. Eventually the runners ahead disappeared out of sight, and now without the snow, I completely lost the trail. Each turn downwards was preceded by a slight uphill, so I even lost the sense of which way was headed down. Progress seemed hopeless. I pulled out my emergency bivy and crawled inside it next to the trail to contemplate my DNF.
What got me going again were two things: 1) it became obvious that the emergency bivy was completely useless; it seemed warm for 5 minutes and then became damp then cold – there was no future staying where I was. 2) Two more runners came down the trail and completely ignored me. At least I knew which way was down. So, I got up and followed, and soon came out on Highway 89 at Ward Creek.
It seemed like an industrial wasteland, with overpasses and endless cement and pavement, which made finding the course difficult. My phone was at 1%. I doubled back. After what felt like 20 minutes, two more runners came into sight and I followed them to the turn-off, then up the hill towards the Stephen Jones aid station. They also disappeared out of sight. Eventually Brian Wilford, a medic from the aid station, drove down the hill, found me, and gave me advice on how to get where I wanted to be – then made sure I got there. It was about 2:00 am when I arrived at Stephen Jones. My headlamp batteries were all dead, but I figured I could sleep till the sun came up. So, I ate, climbed up into the truck that was the sleep station, curled up in a medical blanket in a chair next to a space heater, and fell asleep.
The Floating Brain
The book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby, describes the author waking up in hospital after an accident, able to hear and understand, but not able to move or communicate in any way. When I woke up, I knew at least my brain was ok, though it felt like it was floating and disembodied, trying to re-connect. I kept my eyes closed, didn’t move, and listened quietly, trying to piece together where I was. Was I in a hospital? When I did open my eyes, I saw the morning twilight coming in through the trees. It was Tuesday morning. I had until 1:00 pm to cover 10 miles.
I still managed to lose the trail at Barker Pass.
Notes to Self: Thoughts for a Better 200-miler
Probably the biggest mistake I made was to focus too much on logistics, gear, and drop bags and not enough on developing course knowledge. What follows are more detailed suggestions for a better 200:
Run with a Pacer
The greatest challenge to running a 200-miler is the disorientation that sets in after 50+ hours of being on your feet. By yourself, you’ll no doubt learn to ignore the numerous harmless hallucinations, but you will become progressively less skilled at decision-making and will probably begin to question your navigation skills. A pacer can help make decisions for you, navigate the course, tell you to ignore the squid in the tree, and keep you safe.
Know the Course
Course knowledge is essential, especially knowledge of sections that transition onto paved streets through commercial or residential areas – where there is no trail. I spent far too much time questioning my navigation skills and re-tracing my steps to find course markings. If you know the course well, you’ll have a faster race with fewer frustrations.
Have a Realistic Plan for Renewing Batteries
I had a poorly conceived plan for charging batteries. I planned to charge the lithium batteries for my headlamp using other (larger) lithium batteries. This didn’t work very well, so that late on the third night I expected my head-lamp to die at any moment. I kept my GPS watch charged using a smaller lithium battery I carried with me – but I became too frustrated with all the cabling to keep it charged. My iPhone had the course map on the Maia GPS app, but I rarely used because it would quickly run down the phone battery. I should have thought through this better. Had I had a crew, the most useful thing for them to do would be to keep my batteries charged.
Plan Drop Bags at Every Allowable Aid Station
It’s somewhat complicated to plan drop bags for a 200-miler, partly because “moving” drop bags are allowed and show up at two different locations. I decided to simplify things and skip one location – only to realize on the course that it forced me to carry far more material than I could fit in my pack on the next leg of the race. As a result, I left food behind and started falling off my nutrition plan. Had I had the extra drop bag, that never would have happened.
Sleep Earlier and Longer
I didn’t have a real strategy for sleep. I rested when I felt exhausted and burnt out, which in no way coincided with the times in my meticulous plan. When I couldn’t continue, I found a cot and a warm medical blanket, shut my eyes, aimed to sleep a certain time, thought quiet thoughts, and went to sleep. In every case, I woke up at about the time I’d planned. I probably didn’t sleep enough. [At sleep stations I could have asked someone to wake me up, but I never needed to.] I would probably have had a better race had I slept sooner and slept longer than I did.
Know the Hot Spots in Your Shoes
Prior to the race, I had probably never run more than 24 miles at a stretch in the HOKA Challenger ATR-5 shoes that I wore. During the race the shoe’s heel-cup caused blisters that I could have prevented had I known where the hot spots would be.
Have a Water-Proof Outer Shell
Consider carrying a water-proof, not just water-resistant, outer shell. In the snow and rain, my water-resistant gear became soaked right through. Luckily, when I arrived at the Tahoe City aid station, the sun came out and I was able to completely dry off. Had the conditions been worse, I probably would have ended my race there out of fear of hypothermia during the night in the next section.
Neither my feet nor my back were sore during the race. Afterwards I had no sore muscles, but it took me about three weeks to return to normal. I was very, very tired during that time. I decided to take October and November off from running before resuming training in December.
Next Steps and Escalating Goals
This summer when I visited my mother, I spent one drizzly wet morning at an auto-salvage yard in Cow Bay outside Halifax, looking for a used Nova Scotian license plate. I’m not sure what the next steps are in the process, but I’ve now got that covered.
When I ran my first 100 miler in 2015 (the Indiana Trail 100), I chose it because it was a qualifier for both the Western States Endurance Run (WSER) and the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). Every year since, I’ve put a WSER qualifier on my calendar in the hope of getting in. However, I gave up trying to accumulate points for UTMB because the process seemed too unpredictable; but now that I actually qualify, I’ll apply for that as well.
I like to consider every run I do is a training run for something more ambitious. Something that will put me well outside my comfort zone. I’m fortunate to be in a running community that is endlessly creative, so there are excellent options. What motivates me most are trails that rise up in the mountains with alpine views of deep valleys and high mountain peaks – anything in the list of qualifiers for the Hard Rock 100.
The Tor des Géants seems like the next logical step in my escalation of goals: a 200 miler with almost 80,000 ft of elevation gain and a 150-hour cut-off. I’ve already started negotiations with my wife, who wasn’t immediately happy I would gallavanting around northern Italy while she worked. There is a lottery, and it may take me several years to get in, which should give me more time to help my wife understand how sane and reasonable I am and for me to put in some more good training runs.