The alarm went off at 3:00am. Mike got up immediately, as I laid there for a moment in the silence and darkness. Here we go. Everything was set out and ready the night before, so it was easy to get dressed, grab my coffee, my pack, and head to the car. It was a quick 20 minute drive up to Spooner Lake State Park where I would start the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. As I ate my peanut butter sandwich and sipped my coffee, I could feel the warm breeze coming in from the slightly rolled down window.
We quickly found parking in the lot around 4am. We sat for a while and reviewed where we would meet each other. I felt calm, but excited! There was nothing left to do, but get out there and run… 100 miles.
We eventually made our way over to the shuttle and then to the start line. The start line was filled with heat warmers, coffee, anxious runners, and excited families, volunteers, and crew! After the national anthem played, it was time to embark on the Tahoe Rim Trail 100!
1-30: Quick kiss to Mike and at 5am, I hit the trails. With plenty of headlamps to guide our way, I never had to turn on my headlamp. Which was great! I had been concerned about the battery life and figured this would be a great way to keep it fresh for the night, later on that day. Up and down we went, in and out of aid stations. The first sights of Lake Tahoe, the awakening smell of the tall pines, the stars, the sunrise, the moon, the bluest blues you’ve ever seen. Every turn and every twist was more beautiful then the next, and I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be. It was pure joy, pure excitement. Childlike happiness experiencing things for the first time. Everything felt good. Felt great!
Before I knew it, I was running into Diamond Peak (30 mile aid station), where I would meet Mike for the first time. It was noon by now and the sunshine, blue sky day was keeping my spirits high. When I arrived to Diamond Peak, I knew I had gels I wanted to take from my drop bag (Mom, a drop bag is the thing I packed and dropped off the day before). I headed over to the drop bags, while keeping one eye out for Mike (I still don’t seem him). A kind man at the drop bags looked for my bag, no luck. “Are you sure you dropped it off here?” he said. Crackle in my voice, “Yes, I am sure.” Now, looking around for Mike and starting some self-talk, it’s ok you don’t need that drop bag. You and Mike both agreed if you missed each other it would totally be fine. It’s fine. Everything is fine!
Then the man at the drop bags asked what it looked like and I explained, also saying it’s ok-if it was here, we’d see it. Couldn’t miss it. I was warned this might happen. It’s fine. Just then, he ran back behind the boards as if to remember he had some bags back there and as he came back around in his hands was my orange Marmot bag! Fantastic! After thanking him and shouting out a few, “I love you’s” I heard, “Ashley!” It was Mike! Perfect, I have my bag and Mike is here. Quick chat, replacement of gels, and I was off to climb ‘the wall’.
30-50: The wall at mile 30 is a 1,700ft climb in under 2 miles. It’s one of those hills that gets steeper as you get higher and continues to test your patience as it turns and continues to climb relentlessly. It never ends. The reward: insane views of Lake Tahoe and an aid station at the top. In and out and I was on my way back. When you hit Hobart Aid Station, it feels so good! Hobart is your first aid station on your way out, so when you hit it on your way back, you feel so close… but you’re not. 10 miles are still on tap until you hit the 50 mile halfway point, not to mention a climb up to Snow Valley Peak, the city’s highest peak at 9,214ft. Followed by a strong descent into the Spooner Lake Trailhead and then around the lake into the 50 mile aid station (also the start/finish). Thrilled to roll into the 50 mile aid station because of the obvious (Mike, food, quick refill and recharge), but also because I had been feeling like I had something in my shoe for the last 3 miles or so. I would try to move it around in my shoe, but it didn’t seem to go away. I was convinced something was in my big toe.
The 50 mile is where this race sees the highest dropout rate. Of course! How cozy it is to be back by the parking lot with your family and friends?! Who in their right mind would want to go round two? After seeing Mike and having a quick bite/sip of whatever they had to offer at the aid station, I sat to change my socks and shoes. Turns out there was nothing in my shoe, that stabbing pain in my toe was the world’s biggest blister (e-mail me for pics). Quickly, I saw the other blisters forming and rolled band-aids around each one after a quick wipe down. I had no idea what I was doing, but I thought as long as I can wrap them up, it would hurt less.
After about 20 minutes (a long time) at the 50 mile aid station, it was time to get back out there. Mike walked me down to the trailhead and I wasn’t ready for the mental strength it would take to let him go until mile 80. Going out for another 50 felt daunting, but I didn’t sign up for anything less than 100 miles. It was time to get tough.
50-80: Heading back out took some self-talk. I was feeling down mentally, people had made space along the trail now and I was alone. And, I knew I’d be alone for a while now, perhaps until mile 80. Not to mention, I was worried about my blisters. What if they broke and got so bad, I had to stop. That was enough of that-I had to quickly move on from the pity party. I kept on telling myself, “Ashley, if you wanted to sign up for something easy why didn’t you just go to the American Girl Tea Party? You didn’t sign up for that, you signed up for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100.” I have no idea what made me think of the American Girl Tea Party, I don’t even know what that is really… but I pictured it and it didn’t feel anything like I was about to be a part of.
A few hours passed quite quickly, despite the nausea and stomach cramps hitting harder ever since leaving the 50 mile aid station. Before I knew it, it was dark. A look at the watch, 8:50pm. Dark?! Already? I was hoping to not turn on my headlamp until at least 10pm. Heading into Hobart, I was hoping for something to settle my sick stomach. Not sure if it was everything I dabbled in at the 50 mile or just an over indulgence of GUs throughout the day, mixed in with the very hot temps, or just the fact that I’d been traveling through the woods for 14 hours now, but my stomach wasn’t getting any better and made it hard to take in calories.
Heading into Tunnel Creek, I was met by the most amazing trail angel. He asked me all the right questions and helped me with my upset stomach (Starbucks mints, who would have thought). Guided me in refueling and prepared me for that relentless 6.3 mile Red House Loop, which starts off descending 1,000ft, 2 shallow creek crossings, and back up 1,000ft at night. He walked me to the trailhead and relit my spirits. My confidence resurfaced after that Tunnel Creek stop and I am forever grateful for that trail aid station angel, whose name I believe was Nick! Thanks, Nick!
Up and out of Red House Loop, I checked back into Tunnel Creek and headed out where my next aid station after Bull Wheel would be Diamond Peak - mile 80! Mike! But, hold on - there was still a long way to go.
And, wasn’t that the truth. Making my way to that Diamond Peak arrow (pointing down to the descent) felt like days, years, decades. I made up plenty of songs to keep myself company in the starstruck silent night. One foot in front of the other, headlamp bobbing, I was making my way. I thought of Cheryl Strayed, who decided she wasn’t going to be scared on her PCT thru-hike, I thought of my dad, telling me to, “Take it easy skinny,” every time I got ahead of myself, I thought of Laney telling me to, “Stay calm and stay confident.” Stay calm, it’s fine, everything is fine. You’re fine. I stopped, I put my hands on my knees, I let out a “fuck” into the desolate night as I looked up. A shooting star! I quickly thought of my sister, who loves shooting stars. She would freak out if she could see these stars from the North Shore of Lake Tahoe in the middle of the mountains at 3am! Despair turned to feeling grateful, humbled, and thankful for what the night gives the soul. I knew God had been carrying me all day, but I still needed him more than ever. Fine, fine I’d say, you’re busy, I know. Take it easy skinny. Stay calm, stay confident. Decide you’re not afraid. Move, move, move. Keep going.
There was the arrow pointing down to Diamond Peak! Yes, 4 miles and a loss of 2,000ft until the 80 mile aid station, where I would meet Mike (he agreed to pace me in for the last 20 miles). Out of water meant it would be difficult to eat what was in my pack. Still dealing with an upset stomach, I slowed on the GUs. Instead I stuffed a handful of salt and vinegar chips in my mouth, being as careful as I could not to drop any on the ground for fear the bears might follow me. Making my way down the mountain bike trails, I thought of fresh water, all the things I would eat at mile 80, and what it would feel like to have Mike with me. It was close to 5am as I made my way into mile 80 at Diamond Peak.
What a sore sight Diamond Peak was! I thought I was in bad shape. Lots of people wrapped up in space blankets, either deciding to call it quits or taking a quick nap in order to regain their strength and get back in the run. As I came in, wobbly and a little out of it, I quickly told Mike I was out of everything and needed calories. Energetic and ready to assist, Mike got me back in business. Warm rice soup, refill of gels, ginger ale, water, electrolytes, coffee, and we made our way out of mile 80. Now, I was refueled on gear and calories. It felt like such a relief to have Mike joining me to finish these last 20 miles!
80-100: The sun began to rise now and the huge smile resurfaced on my face. Mike and I caught up a bit on the day’s events as we made our way back up ‘the wall’. I very briefly let him know that this was a pretty long climb and not to worry, the whole race wasn’t like this! He was game for whatever this course was about to throw at him. Just then he turned to the right and calmly said, “Oh look a black bear!” This is the same guy who has been warning me about bears and mountain lions since April. I’ve been telling him since it’s a race and highly traveled trail, you’d be lucky to see any animals! Did I know if that was true? No, but I wasn’t about to tell Mike to be worried about it! Go figure-he jumps into the run and not even two minutes later spots a black bear. We laughed at the hilarity of the situation and then debated the size of the bear. I swore it was small, he says it was huge! Regardless, there was no time to worry about the bear… we had close to 2,000ft of continuous climbing ahead of us. As we made our way to the top, we enjoyed those insane Tahoe views together. I was so excited he could see this with me. The sun was making it’s way up by now and the blues were bluer than anything we’d seen before. Quick stop at the aid station and I set the pace through the next section. Back to Tunnel Creek and the day was moving. I felt so attached to Tunnel Creek by that time, it was almost sad to leave all the volunteers who had helped me get in and out of there throughout the weekend. I felt so grateful to that aid station and every aid station.
Moving on to Hobart, I started to feel overwhelmed. Not sure what did it-perhaps, low on calories, not sleeping, not enough caffeine, or again just rolling through 85 miles of nonstop, but I began to doubt everything. I was doing the math and became a bit frantic about finishing. PSA: Don’t declare yourself a mathematician or expert on planning after 27 hours and 85+ miles. Mike calmed me down and assured me he was there as my pacer to make sure I made it through in a timely fashion. I told him he didn’t understand, it doesn’t stop at Hobart, you still have Snow Valley! He had no idea what this meant, but kept me calm and kept me moving. That overwhelming feeling, subsided slightly as we quickly approached Hobart. And, then ever quicker into Snow Valley. The climb up to Snow Valley at 9,214ft sucked, but I expected that! It sucked a little worse with Mike there. I said, see isn’t this terrible! ;) Exposed and hot breeze in your face, but bye-golly was it gorgeous! And, Snow Valley had lemon sorbet! Was this morning getting better, heck yeah it was.
Out of Snow Valley, you’re on the mountain for a while still, exposed to the sun, the wind, and the once again never-ending downhill. It was hot! I mean, 100 degrees hot. And, whoever is saying, oh you’re up in the mountains, it’s cooler up there-it’s not. At this moment it was hot as hell and I was-once again-out of water! Every switchback, every twist, every turn, I felt the heat, I felt the hot breeze, I wanted water. My feet were bursting out of my shoes, my back ached. I was losing it. Stop, hands on knees, “fuck”. Mike told me to just follow his footsteps. We were around mile 94 now, but 6 miles felt like eternity and the clock ticked and the day got hotter. My feet killed, I was in pain, I had no water, no calories, I swore at ultrarunning and the idea of running 100 miles, I shouted at the trail Gods and reflected on the stupidity it takes to sign up for something like this. Mike went faster! “Mike, too fast!” I whisper shouted, there wasn’t enough energy to actually shout. He said, “I know, but I want this thing to be over!” Even he had enough.
Then, we approached some fresh looking people. Make-up, fancy sunglasses, white clothes, they weren’t ultrarunners… they had to have come from the trailhead. This means we are getting close! Faster we went. Before I knew it, I spotted the white tent aid station just below at Spooner trailhead. I shouted (a real shout this time), “Mike there’s water there!!! That’s an aid station! This is the best day ever!!” Faster we went to get water. A boy scout and instructor were there to help us. I smiled and chatted. The instructor said, how incredible what we were doing was and what a wonderful example it gives to the younger kids. 100 miles, anything is possible! I smiled enthusiastically, and said, “Yes! It’s so great! Anything is possible!!” If only he’d known of my hands on knees delirium with whisper shouts of fuck, if only he had known of my crying voice with no tears (you can still hear it from Snow Valley Peak if you listen closely), my anxiousness of blisters at mile 50 that had me convinced I wouldn’t be able to get to mile 60, if only he knew of how down I was without water or calories, the aching nausea I experienced from 50-70, me cursing at the whole stupid idea of running 100 miles. But, he didn’t because I was all smiles. Because, in 100 miles-just like in life-you can go from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. Just keep going.
He said, “1.7 miles to go! Congratulations.”
And, Mike and I ran off! Going through the same trail we had ran for a shakeout on Friday, just two days ago, felt like weeks ago now. Never could I have imagined what had laid ahead of me.
We rounded Spooner Lake and made our way across the bridge. Mike turned and said how proud of me he was… I said, us. It was us that did. It was a team effort. There is no way I could have finished those last 20 miles without him, not to mention every long run he met me on during training, every check-in during week day 30 milers, his patience throughout the day, but also after every damn long week of training. We did this.
There it was! The blue arch at the finish and we were through! Right away I saw George “Squirrel” the race director and thanked him for making my dreams come true. I told him how much I loved the course, then told him I was from Chicago and the whole finisher’s tent erupted in laughter! Being that this race was at an elevation of 7,000-9,214ft with close to 20,000ft of climbing they asked me, “What were you thinking?” We all laughed and I told them the obvious, go big or go home!
A sincere thank you to every single person who has been there to support, encourage, and help me on my way. If there is anything I can do to help you or guide you on your way, please let me know. Huge goals, require a huge support system and I am forever grateful for every single person who helped me accomplish this one. Thank you to every single person at TRT for your work! Top notch run, that I would encourage everyone to run. Thank you to Trails and Tarmac and David Laney for the continued support in training, strength, confidence and overall guidance. Absolute brilliance running through that group and not one step of this would be possible without them.
Hope sharing my story lets you in on what it’s like to embark on a 100 mile run, encourages you to try something new, inspires you to not be afraid, stay calm and stay confident, and most of all take it easy, skinny.