The miles we travel and those we meet along the way…
This story has been nesting in my mind for months. It’s long, but hopefully entertaining… at the least… interesting.
The miles we travel and those we meet along the way
By Victor Ballesteros
In January of 2012, I got an email from Palo Alto’s running superstar, Gary Gellin, asking me if I had any interest in doing a Fastest Known Time Attempt (FKT) around the 165 mile Tahoe Rim Trail, which follows along some of the tallest peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe, California. Naturally, without hesitation, I said, “Hey, sure, why not?”
After months of meticulous preparation (by Gary, the most meticulous chart master I’ve ever known and will know) the date was set for August 13th. The goal was to not only break the young Spaniard running phenom Killian Jornet’s record of 38hrs32min., but to top this heroic feat as a group. Gary had put the call out to any and all who had ambition to follow his quest. In the end, our group had formed a gang of four: Gary, myself, Adam Hewey from Ballard, Washington and Ben Lewis from Salt Lake City, Utah.
In late August, I received a semi-frantic note from a young guy in LA named Alex Mares. He humbly apologized for contacting me, and wanted to know the most expeditious way to receive a few Victory Bags (the Gear/Drop bags I designed and started selling at the beginning of the year). He said he was running the Headlands 100. It would be his second 100 miler, and unfortunately, he had found himself in the difficult position of losing both his crew and pacers for the event. Feeling for his dire predicament, and knowing the hell of doing anything over 50 miles on one’s own, I asked if he’d like me to crew and pace him at the event. Hesitantly, he asked if I would really do that for him. I said, “Hey, sure, why not?”
As the day of TRT 165 reckoning approached, I slowly began to realize that 165 miles was a long freakin’ way to run! I could put in the miles I ‘thought’ were necessary to face the task, but ultimately felt like there was no way to wrap my brain around it. The solution, as always… show up healthy, strong and just run. Time and time again, this mantra always gets me to the church on time. As many already know by now, plans didn’t quite go according to script. The four of us rolled together for the first 40ish miles like a bunch of Chatty Cathys, laughing, joking and getting to know each other a bit better! Then, like a fox in the hen house, things got serious. The laughing stopped. The talking ceased. In the beautiful haunting silence of the aptly named Desolation Wilderness, all I could hear was the pitter-patter of our steps beating to the cadence of our chugging breath. Dark clouds, with a bit of welcome rain, followed us into the afternoon where Adam, unfortunately, fell back with stomach issues and dropped at mile 47.
The four were now three.
In a fortunate turn of events, at the last minute, Alex found himself with a few good friends, Lucile Dinh and Huan Nguyen, who had come to his rescue. Two of them would crew him for the race, and another two would pace him for the last 20 miles. Since I was no longer needed to crew, I went to work, and received progress reports every three to four hours. Although his game plan was to run a 30 hour race, Alex had passed all the early checkpoints a bit too far ahead of schedule. Concerned for the potential issues this pace would procure, I advised his crew to “Slow him down before I get there!” As I eagerly waited to join him at mile 50, his friends gravely reported that at the last aid station, Alex was in a bit of hurt. He showed up an hour past his target time with a slight limp, but a huge smile on his face.
The sight of our loved ones at Echo Lake Chalet brought back a sense of levity to our band of three, which was short-lived as cool clouds gave way to a warm afternoon sun and the long silent climb up to Donner Pass. The leg to Big Meadow suddenly turned into a crunch. Part of our unifying plan was to impose cut-offs to our course. Anyone who fell behind the cut-off time would have to drop from the run. As we approached Big Meadow, Gary, feeling that we were falling off pace, began to pull ahead as Ben began to fall back. For the first time all day, I was alone.
I asked Alex how he felt. Although he was happy to see me, his knees were starting to hurt big time. He had recently been recovering from an injury in his left leg. During the early miles of the race, concerned that it would return, he chose to favor the right leg in the hopes of not aggravating the left. The miles of uneven running had taken its toll, and by mile 55, we were halted to a SLOW grind in the dark.
During our prep meetings, Gary had instructed me (the operative word being instructed) to bring a map. And not just any map, but a giant fold out Tom Harrison map! Although I kicked and screamed all the way, “I don’t want to carry a huge stinkin’ map with me,” I was quietly relieved to have it at the moment I found myself at a crossroad and unsure of my path. Even though Gary was ahead of me, and night was quickly approaching, I felt securely confident that I’d see him again and that our efforts would not be in vain. After a short lull in energy, I found myself, once again, re-energized by friends and family awaiting our arrival at Big Meadow- mile 65. With a quick mental and physical reboot, I was off again into the wild with good friend Jonathan Kimura. In a foreboding moment of things to come, we were barely out of the trailhead parking lot, when we realized we couldn’t find the new trailhead. No sooner had we located it, when Jonathan was apologizing for not having enough time to study the map and know his way on the trail. Ooops! “No worries” I said. “We’ll make it.”
Alex had been walking for the last 4 miles heading into the Muir Beach aid station. We were losing time, which I was acutely aware of, as I checked my watch every 3 minutes. The time he made up by running hard for the first 40 miles was suddenly negated by the two hours of painfully slow walking we were reduced to. The original goal of finishing in 30 hours was starting to fall by the wayside. Alex was now in survival mode, as I kept recalculating splits, keeping track of time, and watching him stop every 50 yards in wincing pain. I held off on the pacers dreaded DNF speech as long as I could by babbling on about some inane subject, hoping to take his mind off of the pain. He stammered and fell back, barely catching himself. I finally broke down and started to openly assess the options of pressing on, or calling it the end of a valiant day. Alex smiled. “No worries,” he said, “We’ll make it.”
After a long hard grind of climbing into the night, Jonathan and I were excited to finally hit some runable trail, and prattled on about everything and nothing to pass the time (note: good pacers should always be prepared to have the gift of gab when needed). As the miles seemed to effortlessly tick away, I suddenly noticed our trail had turned to dirt road. Something seemed wrong. Then the road turned to asphalt, and then a parking lot. Yes, something was very wrong. I whipped out my giant Tom Harrison only to realize that we had certainly made a wrong turn and had run far enough off course that, to our agreement regarding cut-offs, my day was done. With Jonathan’s cell phone, we called the troops and told them what had happened. Once we found clear reception range, a flurry of back and forth calls began to bombard us. “Where are you?” “How do you feel?” “Can you still get back out on the trail and continue?” I explained that we were so far off the trail, we would never make it before the next cut-off. The voice on the other end was Brian Lucido’s, Gary’s friend and faithfully committed crew member. “Ben had to drop at Big Meadow with stomach and achilles issues.” “And what about Gary?” I asked. “Gary dropped! His knee gave out on him”…. I was silent for a moment, then said, “So… what should I do?” Brian hollered back, “Keep running! You’re the last one out there!”
Alex continued to walk in visible discomfort, muttering to himself every fifty feet or so that he wasn’t ready to give up. I latched on to the tiny sliver of positivity, and focused on the power of its ability to keep us moving. At the same time, our pace continued to slip away. I couldn’t ignore the fact that something was still physically wrong with his knee. There’s something about being a runner’s keeper during these events. We call them ‘our’ runner, because we take responsibility for them. Our runner sets forth guidelines, rules, and expectations. They entrust us as their crew and pacers to share in the fortune of a successful endeavor, or guide them through the perils of unforeseen obstacles. At this moment the obstacle was monumental. My concern had deepened beyond whether or not we would finish, but rather, should we? And at what point do I halt the heroic march of this determined heart and mind? I decided that Alex, ‘My Runner’, should come to that conclusion on his own. My only suggestion was to re-evaluate his situation at the next aid station. If things were still in bad shape, then that was the place to stop. Also, if he fell far enough behind the cut-offs that he wouldn’t make it, then of course, that would be the end of his journey.
With a new sense of urgency, fueled by adrenaline energy, we shot through the night hoping to take advantage of the cool air…big mistake! By morning light, I could barely breathe from the extra effort and thin air at elevation. The sun started to cook the approach into Spooner Lake, mile 104 (or in my case, mile 115). The sight of the distant mountain range, still untraveled, shook me to the core. My mind was fried. I couldn’t fathom crossing the 20 miles to Tahoe Meadows, let alone the extra 40 to Tahoe City! On top of this was the haunting idea of taking to the trail, that also follows along the course of two personally failed Tahoe Rim Trail 100 mile runs. It was a wall I had never encountered before and one I feared I couldn’t scale. So there I was, looking at all the fabulous folks, who, despite my throwing the schedule off by almost five hours, were still there to see me through. As their ‘Runner’, I apologized and said I was done and couldn’t go on. There was a moment of silence, and then, as if my words had been heard only by me, the group continued with preparations to send me off into the wild abyss. I turned to my wife Jena. I looked into her eyes and said, “I think I’m done”. Remarkably, she responded with the same apparent non-responsiveness as everyone else, and proceeded to take off my shoes and socks. As all this unfolded, George Ruiz, Co-Race Director for the afore mentioned TRT100, stepped up, took good care of my blistering feet, then called me a baby for not wanting to go on. I’m not sure if it was because of that, or the presence of Dalius Kumpa, who was seriously decked out to pace, along with his Go-Pro on a stick, or the fact that I was still physically capable of moving forward, but I found myself standing up and walking to the trail. With Dalius and Brian at my side, I figured, “what the hell? I’ll get to Tahoe Meadows. I can always drop there if I want.”
In the darkest hours of Alex’s race, a few things happened: He rolled into the aid station and was so delighted to see his friends, drink some warm Vietnamese coffee that he had packed for himself, and revel in the cheer of the volunteers, that before I could check in on his knee, he was off and waving goodbye to everyone, smiling and thanking them for being there. Then, either by sheer will, or some midnight magic cast by mischievous little Trail Gnomes, he started to shuffle! Although the pain still existed, he finally found a mellow spot to land on. It was enough to keep a steady pace that eventually turned into a run. Alex went from being on the cusp of missing the 80 mile cut off, to gaining 10, 20, 40 and finally 90 minutes from the dreaded ax! We descended into mile 80 where his friends Roberto Martinez and Kristin Lui would take over and pace for the last 20 miles. I was thrilled and overjoyed to know that we had faced such terrible beasts in the night and were still standing. Before I saw him off into the dark again, I reminded him to take it steady. 20 miles was still a long way to go.
The time to Tahoe Meadows began to blur. Brian, who was now pacing along with Dalius, had been wondering how long a person needs to be awake before they start to hallucinate. The answer for me was 30 hours. As Lisa Simpson once said after drinking the Krusty Land “It’s A Small World” boat ride water…”I can see the music!” I could also feel the pain pooling in my shins. The altitude was no longer affecting me, but I could visibly see my legs had swollen. My shins were starting to progressively ache. Forward progress was reduced to: hike the ups, shuffle the flats, and roll downhill when at all possible. Dalius would periodically run forward to capture my pathetic movement for YouTube prosperity. Being the actor that I am, I figured I should at least play the part of someone doing something heroic! Suddenly Brian stopped us for a moment as we reached Snow Valley Peak. He told me to look out and see where I’ve been. As beat up as I was, somehow I was able to relatively quantify the magnitude of where I’d been, to what was still ahead of me. Standing there, it seemed like the goals of breaking records and pushing limits had lost all meaning. Despite the presence of my companions, I was alone in a good way. I was just a significantly insignificant speck wondering, “and then what happens?” Hard to tell if the moment was fueled by fatigue, laced with hallucinations, or just a sublime moment of inspiration, but Dalius broke the silence by telling me, “We have good wishes coming our way,”. Apparently he’s a techno dude who had set up a tracking site through his phone for anyone to follow us online. I literally was a speck on some virtual map! Along with the ability to track us, folks could send us texts. Suddenly the concept of being alone had changed. Not only was there some sort of audience, but now they all “believed” in me and proclaimed I could “do it!” Despite an odd sense of being held hostage to the cheers and hopes of those wanting to see me finish, I felt compelled to embrace the flow of everything that was happening. It no longer mattered when I got to Tahoe City, just that I got there.
I had been keeping tabs on Alex throughout the morning. Although he continued the good fight, he had lost a lot of ground through the early morning. I asked about his condition and the reply was “He’s tired and slowing down.” Figuring the calculations of where he was, how much he had slowed down, and how much time he had left, I was disheartened to think he might actually miss the 33 hour cut-off. Without hesitation, I left work and headed to the finish line. I wasn’t quite sure what that would really accomplish, but I knew whatever the outcome would be, I wanted to be there when he crossed the line. It had only been a month since the TRT165. The nerves were still raw and I just couldn’t imagine not being there after our journey on the trail the night before. The clock kept ticking as I made my way to the finish at Rodeo Beach. His two friends, who had been there from the beginning, were waiting in the parking lot with Alex’s sister. From the last checkpoint it was going to be excruciatingly close. I couldn’t sit still and wait. In full street clothes, I started running up Coastal Trail to meet them. He had fifteen minutes until the 33 hour cut-off. Judging from the time it took me to climb up the hill above Rodeo, and the amount of time it would take to get back down, I figured if he didn’t show in the next five minutes, all bets were off. From around a corner, a figure appeared. Alex!!! No, it was a young guy, who I learned later was running his first 100. He had been leap froging with us throughout the night. As he approached, I could see not only was he alone with no pacer, but that he was in tears for having made it to the end and apparently under the gun. There was no more time to spare. I looked at the stairs leading up the trail. A low fog was obscuring the top of the ridge. Through the mist emerged a familiar blue jacket. “ALEX!!!” I cried out! His hobbled body made its way down the trail. I ran up to greet them. The huge smile I’d grown familiar with crossed his weary face.
The welcome party at Tahoe Meadows consisted of happy faces and life affirming energy. My three amigos, Gary, Adam and Ben beamed as if they had seen something worth beaming about. All that, and the sight of my beautiful wife was all I needed to stumble my way onward through the dark of a second night. Well… I suppose that, and the fact that my hallucinations were now so strong that the visions were too amusing to take note of the excruciating pain in my shins. Throughout the night I mostly hiked. There were a few silly occurrences that slowed us down even further, but nothing worth making the news. As the sun rose for a third time, I finally gave in to the fact that I couldn’t even walk any more. It was only 8 miles to Tahoe City… 8 of the most runable miles you’ve ever seen, yet as I hobbled along, they were the longest 8 miles of my life. Finally, at long last, the trail came to an end and I was on the last stretch of road leading to the crack in the asphalt where it all began 53 hours earlier. Although I wanted to be overcome with emotion, I was too exhausted to feel. All I could do was smile and get the hell off my feet. As overjoyed as I was to see everyone who helped me make it all the away, it was Gary that I put my focus on. This was really his dream, and I knew how tough it was for him to not make the full journey and the record. I suppose I had an odd feeling of survivor’s remorse. Thankfully, it was short-lived, as he triumphantly joined Jena and me on our final step over the start/finish crack in the sidewalk.
Alex walked the last mile to the finish at Rodeo. He was tired. He was slightly hobbled, but he was happy. I, on the other hand, was a wreck. Although he wanted to cry, his exhaustion swallowed his tears. Seeing this, and knowing the weight of his accomplishment, I couldn’t help but do it for him. With 9 minutes to spare, Alex crossed the finish in 32:51, DFL; (Dead F’n Last) but officially in the books.
A month earlier, I had thought the TRT165 experience would go down for some time as one of the greatest experiences of my running life. Only six months later, and I’m certain that Alex’s race takes the cake. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t the one in pain! In any event, both experiences only magnify the fact that running fast and strong is cool and all, but as in life, without finding our way through the moments of struggle and hardship, it sure doesn’t mean much. And if one could say we triumphed in our endeavors, I’d have to give the credit to our family, friends and community. Their love and support, in so many ways, is what gave us the strength to keep moving forward. Their road is ours and ours is theirs. And as I know that road will see its fair share of triumphs and defeats, I can only hope to be fortunate enough to continue finding such good company in the miles we travel and those we meet along the way…
If you’re a glutton for more, check out the Podcast and YouTube video of the Tahoe Rim Trail 165 run: