Monday, August 20, 2012

2012 Tahoe Rim Trail FKT Attempt

"The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously" - Nietzsche.  This is an apt quote for our 165 mile Tahoe Rim Trail FKT attempt which had been variously described as "bold," "audacious," "foolish," and "hubristic."  One thing that everyone on the team was sure about however was that if you are going to challenge one of Kilian Jornet's records you better have cards to play other than running ability.  In our case, lacking the innate talent and fitness of the precocious Spaniard, our cards were preparation, planning, and efficiency- not getting lost and minimizing sleeping.   The devil was in the details, or so it seemed.

And so it went.  It is hard to overstate the exceptional attention to detail Gary Gellin put into this project.  He and his wife Holly assembled an impressive support crew and a game plan that would take us around the circuit just under Kilian's record of 38:32.  We left at 5:30am on the nose, Gary firmly in the lead with GPS and heart rate data, elevation profiles, splits, The Plan.  While things didn't exactly go according to this algorithm, at least past 60 miles or so, the time we spent in Tahoe and the subsequent crewing we did for Victor Ballesteros as he finished out the damn thing in 53 hours and change (with a beautific smile on his face for most of it) was a highlight of the summer and one of the more inspirational athletic activities I've been a part of.  A very close second to being a part of Victor's effort was witnessing the herculean efforts of the support crew: Holly who tirelessly masterminded the crewing effort, Brian who paced what must have been close to 100 miles of the route (yes, covering more terrain than 3 out of 4 of the 'team' members), Janet who stayed up the entire duration to help out with anything and everything (and do some child care to boot!), Steve, Faye, and many others whose names escape me now.

While this approach may have been the only one with any probability of success for our team it seemingly led inexorably to a Catch-22, at least for this runner.  For while our fighting chance may have resided in ruthless efficiency it ignored the fact that success in ultradistance events often relies on flexibility, adaptation, riding the ebbs and flows.  From the outset the pace felt harried and stressful- not fast per se, but awkward, too fast here, too slow there, without rhythm.  Given the long stretches between aid I was carrying up to 110 oz of fluid and it felt wieldy and burdensome.  Long story short, between my stomach and injured achilles things went south and I dropped at Big Meadow, mile 65, having not been able to eat for the previous 5.5 hours.  I could have trudged along a bit further but it just didn't seem like a lot of fun.  Adam had dropped previously around mile 45, again stomach issues, and Gary unfortunately had to drop at mile 85 (but had to hike out 5 miles) with an exacerbated knee injury.  This left poor Victor alone to shoulder the burden of our collective aspirations.

It was not a burden that went unnoticed.  As Victor slowly made his way into Tahoe Meadows late the next day he remarked that he felt "held hostage emotionally."  It was an apt observation given his physical and mental state at the time, and one whose troubling philosophical and ethical implications have stuck in my brain since.   Indeed, many hours earlier after going off course for 4+ hours Victor had limped into Spooner Summit announcing his intention to throw in the towel.  The crew present gently sat him down, fed him, pushed fluids, tended to his blistered feet, and then cajoled him out of the aid station and back down the dark, lonely trail.   This response is almost unthinking and rote for most crew and pacers at ultradistance events: it is an accepted given that 'your' runner will at one point tire, fatigue, lose heart, want to quit, and it is somehow your job to preclude this possibility.  And most of the time, when the runner finishes what they've set out to do they're grateful for having at least partially outsourced their will.  But this doesn't necessarily have to be the case.  

Ullyses, aware of his own fallibility, instructed his crew to bind him to the mast as they sailed past the Sirens.  Knowing he would not be able to resist their call he took action in advance to obviate that course of action.  As folks age it is advisable to write-up advanced directives that specify medical decision making in the likely event that at some point they will no longer have the physical or cognitive capacities to make decisions according to their underlying personal values and wishes.  In endurance events often the software gives out before the hardware: beyond a certain point (for most of us at least) it becomes very difficult to care.  A recently publicized example of this that comes to mind is that of Jure Robic, the Eastern European endurance cyclist who has won RAAM along with a number of other ultradistance cycling events that take course over many days.  After a certain point, Robic literally loses his mind and is maintained on a delirious, disoriented, and psychotic journey solely by his loyal crew who will go as far as to lie to him about his whereabouts and distance remaining, doing whatever is necessary to keep him moving forward on his bike despite his verbal rebukes and threats.  See a great writeup of this here

This is all very peculiar.  

If we take it as a given that our interpretations, assessments, and ultimately experience of other people is in large part an amalgamation of our own idiosyncratic and distorted projections (based on prior relationships, past experiences, core beliefs, the unique refracting surfaces of our own lenses for interpreting the world) then this dynamic becomes even more peculiar.  The heightened drama and precipitous tension involved in taking part in an event like this ensures that the question of what it is about is enormously complex and has as many answers as there are participants, most of those answers being at best only tangentially and distantly related to the task at hand.

As I watched Victor make his way up to the group of 30 or so cheering crew and spectators at Tahoe Meadows (still with an improbably large amount of running left to be done) I reflected on how disappointed I would be if he dropped there, and then was immediately surprised by this reaction.  Sure, part of this would be disappointment for Victor, but a good deal of it was unrelated to him as a person and due only to the fact that Victor was now the only remaining member of our team: his failure- whatever that means- would be a representation of our team's failure as a whole, which, per logical extension of this argument, would simply be a stinging reminder of my own.  Conversely, his 'success' would provide a validating, if substituted glow, an affirmation of us all.   This is a troubling and potentially unfair synechdoche.  For 'success' and 'failure' here refer not just to the localized particulars but are proxies for their capitalized cousins: Success, Failure, and all their deep-rooted associations and personal meanings which can't help but be brought to the fore under these circumstances.  Victor was indeed held emotionally hostage- not just to the specific ambitions of the 4 team members but to a blanket of the barely conscious psychological economies enveloping him.

Of course, this isn't necessarily bad.  Certainly it's unavoidable.

While I've succeeded in my main goal of entertaining myself I feel obligated to offer at least a partially sincere apology for the poor few souls who continue to read this blog hoping to find something useful in the way of concrete detail (I ate 63 Gu Chomps, I wore Montrail Rogue Racers) and, rather, find themselves barraged by a veritable vomiting of abstracted gibberish.  In consolation I'll offer some observations/suggestions for future attempts that may prove useful.  As this is just my own take on things it may not reflect that of the other runners so take it with a grain of salt.

1. Do it in the fall.  Carrying 110oz of water is a lot.  It would be nice to ensure cooler temps, especially if you are anticipating riding a very fine line of feasible physical output.

2. Do it clockwise.  Some may disagree with this but hear me out.  We ran counterclockwise (opposite Kilian)- the rationale being that we would get the tough, more technical running through the Desolation Wilderness out of the way while we were still relatively fresh.  This makes a fair bit of sense but it neglects the fact that a huge determinant in running this far is psychological momentum.  We could have expended the same amount of energy and covered nearly 100 miles of the buffed-out smooth single track characteristic of the northern and eastern aspects of the TRT.  Sure, we would have been slower over the last 65 miles but at that point you are going to be moving slowly anyway and it is much more discouraging to be moving slowly over eminently runnable terrain.   Hammering out the first 100 clockwise in under 20 hours seems like the way to go if you want any reasonable chance of getting under Kilian's record.  

3. I think the group FKT model has a lot of promise but needs some kinks worked out.  While you stand to benefit greatly from the synergy and comraderie of a group there is a clear dialectic between rigidity and flexibility in this sort of endeavor with both needed.  At a minimum I think each runner needs his or her own independent crew so as to maximize the possibility of individual and varied approaches to the task at hand.  I'm sure Gary's analytical mind is working on this already.

Some photos in no particular order:

5:30am start from Tahoe City.
Jane Hewey, Theo, and Hazel.

Even bad-ass ultrarunners play with stuffed animals.
The team.  Adam, Victory, Gary, me.

A sample of the whole crew.

in the early miles.

Steve, carb loading for his epic crewing.

At Tahoe Meadows.

Janet and Brian, the true endurance athletes of the bunch.

At the finish.


Ultrarunner / Professional Mime.

Tireless crew.


Sunday, August 12, 2012


It's Sunday afternoon and I'm sneaking a few moments to decompress in advance of our 5:30am departure tomorrow with the goal of setting the speed record on the 165 mile Tahoe Rim Trail (38:32, Kilian Jornet).   The plan is coming together, thanks to Gary Gellin who has masterminded the project and invested countless hours of research and planning.  Most of the day thus far has been devoted to logistics and prep.  To wit, I have a cooler full of Nutella sandwiches and Coca-Cola.  A rough estimate of caloric expenditure at 100-150 kcal per mile projects to a caloric deficit of 16,500 to 25,000 kcal in sum, hopefully mitigated at least in part by high-fructose corn syrup.  

It has not been a smooth lead-up to this project for me given injury issues but I'm looking forward to making it as far as I can and sharing the adventure with Gary, Victor Ballesteros, Adam Hewey, and numerous crew and pacers who have graciously volunteered their time and energy.  

You can follow our progress courtesy of on this link.

Sunday AM with Gary, Steve, Brian, Bethany, and Ada.

Just gotta run around the lake.
On Kessler Peak.