It’s Friday, June 16th, 2023 just before 9:00 am. The starting line is buzzing with anticipation from a couple hundred runners that have trained to run the 206 miles on the mountain trails around Lake Tahoe.
Many runners are already looking for shade as we wait for the race to begin. At the direction of the race organizer, and in unison, we recite the pledge that starts all of the Destination Trail 200 mile races “If I get hurt, lost, or die, it’s my own damn fault.” With the formalities out of the way we begin the ten second countdown.
I remember thinking to myself in the final seconds before the race started “this is what you’ve been training for the last eight months. It’s the first race of the Triple Crown, take it easy”.
The Triple Crown is three 200+ mile foot races totaling 654 official race miles spaced over about two and a half months from the start of the first race to the finish of the last. Each race on its own is a major accomplishment but I, along with 41 other people, signed up to finish all three races in one season. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I didn’t know how hard it would be.
“Three… Two… One…” and with that we were off with little more fanfare than a few cowbells, and a small group of spectators, each cheering on their friend or family member that they wouldn’t see again for at least another 12 hours.
I fell into pace with the leaders of the race as we left the Heavenly Stagecoach Lodge and entered the single track trail. If you don’t get out in front of the pack you get stuck behind the herd, sometimes for miles.
Over the first 10 ½ miles I climbed nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain. I could feel the sun drying out my skin and it intensified as I reached our first summit at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. It was hot. I learned long ago that you need to bring more water than you think you will need, it’s better to carry the extra weight than to wish you had water. When you run out of water all sorts of bad things happen.
The first aid station was Armstrong Pass, around mile 14, where we could refill our water bottles. If you ran out of water before you got there there wasn’t much you could do about. I felt pretty good about my decision to carry the extra water as I continued to pass those runners who went out too fast or who were less prepared. When I got to the aid station there were only about 20 runners in front of me. I would learn later that many of the runners behind me would drop out of the race when they reached this aid station due in part to the unusually warm weather.
I left Armstrong Pass and headed to Housewife Hill Aid Station about 16 miles away. The sun was now directly overhead and the small bit of cloud cover offered little in the way of relief from the heat. It became evident just how much of an impact external conditions were having on the other runners when I came across a small creek that trickled across the trail and I began to filter water in my filter bottles.
A couple of runners looked at me with envy but didn’t stop. I asked if they were going to fill their bottles. They said that they were thirsty and out of water but they didn’t bring a filter. I motioned for them to return to the stream and I squeezed water through my filter bottle filling two bottles for each of them. I then refilled my bottle and we ran off together continuing on for the next few miles. We crossed two more streams where we repeated the process, making sure that we all had as much water as we could carry.
Within a couple of miles of Housewife Hill Aid Station we came upon a runner drinking the unfiltered water from the creek out of a very old rusty Dr. Pepper can, the kind with the pull tab, it was that old. I offered to fill her bottle for her but she said she lost it… she lost IT! One bottle, that’s all she brought. She waved us on and continued to dip the can back into the creek one more time.
I got to the aid station and was ready to leave before my running mates so I left on my own. It is a race after all. After a few more hours on the trail the sun began to dip lower in the sky. It was still hot but it wasn’t nearly as unbearable as it had been all day.
The early miles are starting to take their toll and the excitement I felt at the beginning of the race began to wear off. My body is starting to feel the pounding of each step and I’m only 40 miles into the race. I’m starting to feel it. The feeling that creeps up, seemingly out of nowhere but strangely has been with me for hours, I just didn’t acknowledge it.
I was entering the first “pain cave”. I’ve been here many times and it’s different every time. I don’t know how long I will be here, how much I will suffer, or when it will end, all I know is that my only option is to keep going. Knowing that I still have more than twenty miles before I get to see my crew and pick up a pacer (a pacer is another runner that can join you on the course) I check my phone, surprised that I have a signal.
I call Jared, my crew chief, to explain to him what’s going on and that I am struggling with maintaining my pace. We troubleshoot for a few minutes as I take a walk break. It becomes clear that I managed my water intake well but my electrolytes are off and I haven’t eaten enough to maintain the energy level I need to keep my current pace.
Alone on the mountainside my frustration begins to set in. This is not what we had planned and this pace was not going to allow me to have a strong finish in the Triple Crown. I begin to think about all of the competition and how they must be doing really well since I haven’t seen anyone in hours. My mind begins to think about the entirety of the Triple Crown and how far 654 miles actually is. I accept my current condition and I can’t imagine feeling this way for another 614 miles. The more I think about how far I still have to go the more I talk to myself.
“You’re nuts to think you could run that far, especially with only 17 days between the first and second races.”
“You still have to be out here for another two days and nights, what are you thinking?”
And here it is…
In this moment I decide to quit – not the Tahoe 200, but the Triple Crown. I decide that the goal of finishing the Triple Crown is just too big. I decide that running the Bigfoot 200 in less than three weeks is more than I can handle and finishing Tahoe would be a great accomplishment on its own. I decide that I can make it to the next aid station less than six miles away and from there I only have fifteen miles until I can see my crew and pick up my pacer.
“Once I get to see my crew and pick up my pacer I won’t have to do this on my own. Brandon always picks my spirits up and makes me laugh. I can’t wait to see him”.
I call Jared again and tell him to have a pizza ready for me when I see him because I am going to need the calories and I am looking forward to sharing a slice with my crew”.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to finish the Triple Crown that night but I also knew that if I kept moving I would soon be able to meet up with my team and we would be able to finish this race. Not by running the race but by running to the next aid station, and then the next. And then the next.
When I get to my crew, my “Championship Team”, at mile 61 they have everything planned out and are prepared to execute according to our vision. They have the right gear waiting for me, the right food, they understand the mission and they are prepared to do what it takes to get us back on track. After a slice of pizza, a quick nap and an attitude adjustment I get back on the trail with Brandon by my side. We’ve only got 145 miles to go to the finish line.
I don’t think I realized until after I crossed the finish line and was picking out my belt buckle that I was still competing for the Triple Crown. I had done what I needed to do in the early miles of the race to have a chance at accomplishing my original goal.
When I found myself overwhelmed by how big of a goal finishing the Triple Crown was I made sure that I was doing the basics, and I broke the big goal down into small actionable steps that made progress and achievement seem possible. I then focused on the step in front of me with each step moving me closer to each micro goal that I set. Each accomplishment built on the ones before it, creating momentum. My team and I had a very clear vision of the future and understood the mission that we were there to execute. When I was unable to “carry the load” of the goal on my own I had a great team with me that helped me get the mission back on track.
Eighty five hours one minute and one second after crossing the starting line I crossed the finish line, finishing the Tahoe 200 in 33rd place out of 113 finishers.
I finished the first of the three races of the Triple Crown!
In addition to the 113 finishers there were 81 runners who started the race but were unable to finish it, each on their own journey and each with their own reasons. Some will come back another time and try it again and others found their limits.
I am thankful to be one of the 113 and not one of the 81 and I believe it’s because I set a big goal made up of three separate races. Each of those races were comprised of ten to twenty mile segments and each segment was traveled one step at a time. In addition to breaking the goal down into smaller micro goals I had an excellent team that supported each other in making sure that we performed at a high level, at the level of a “Championship Team”. We had a shared vision, understood our mission, and we worked together to overcome all obstacles.
Quitting the Triple Crown in the moment allowed me to finish The Tahoe 200 which allowed me to finish the Triple Crown. By focusing on what I could control in the moment I was eventually able to control the entire outcome.
(Selecting my belt buckle after crossing the finish line of the Tahoe 200.)