Mountains Beyond Mountains: Circumnavigating the Tahoe Rim Trail

Written by Coach Andrew Simmons for the Fall 2019 edition of our Trail Times newsletter.

The trails traversing the Lake Tahoe basin offer amazing views of the deepest lake in the United States. Circumnavigating Tahoe Rim Trail is normally a week-long feat for back packers and hikers, but once a year, athletes line up to tackle the Tahoe 200 Mile Endurance Run in less than half that time.

The course is a punishing mix of the Tahoe Rim Trail, Rubicon Trail, and a number of established hiking routes that push athletes to their limits, and with 40,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, it is truly a testament of human will. For a handful of athletes, this punishment alone is not enough – a few choose to tackle the Triple Crown of 200 Milers which include Bigfoot 200 in Washington in August, Tahoe 200 in September, and Moab 240 in October.

All three events have their own way of propagating pain on even the toughest athlete. For 68 hours, I coached, crewed, and paced an athlete – Kevin Goldberg, age 30, hometown Westminster, CO – through the Tahoe 200 and what follows is an account of that experience.

5:30 a.m. Saturday, September 14
Kevin rolled into the aid station. Head down and determined – he was nearly 70 miles in after yesterday’s 9:00 a.m. start – he was eating well and pacing himself for a hopeful sub-70 hour finish, which would be a 10-hour improvement from last month’s Bigfoot 200, a wet, cold and lonely event. Kevin completed the Bigfoot 200 with no pacers or crew. Tahoe had everything he’d need to reach his goal – pacers, crew, support, and experience.

As we left aid – we immediately began to ascend an 1100-foot climb. It was on the descent we met David Aguayo, another competitor, who would join us, then fall back, or speed up, and then rejoin our pack over the next 120 miles. Kevin was moving well and we kept our pace efficient, covering the first 17 miles in 5.5 hours. This was a great pace for a race this long. I was to hand off to John, an athlete on our team local to Reno, who was excited to take Kevin over the 100-mile mark of the race.

The next time I saw Kevin it was on the descent into Heavenly resort. John and Kevin bouncing off the rocks created a thick cloud of dust as they cruised into the Aid Station. Kevin made quick work of some food, re-taped a few hot spots on his feet, before making a full sock change and heading back out. I packed in a few layers and an extra headlamp as this was going to be a journey into the dark, black night. By this point, Kevin hasn’t slept in over 30 hours. He was comfortable pushing his limit in this race knowing he had a crew and pacers to push him through discomfort. He carried a Mylar blanket if tiredness overwhelmed him and pushed him to sleep at the trail’s edge.

We were blessed with a nearly endless 90-minute sunset that burned away the first full day of racing – pushing us into the aid station at 10:30 p.m. I was exhausted with 37 miles on my legs for the day. Kevin would attempt to sleep but the pain in his legs kept him awake. He pushed on into the night.

Kevin would go another 4 hours before the sleep demon finally caught up to him. His wife, having just completed the Leadville 100, was reluctant – but willing – to tackle a 32-mile push through the night to get Kevin to the 160-mile mark.

Kevin came into the Brockway Summit with David in tow, both looking like they’d seen more than a few things running through the woods that night. We refilled water, consumed a few thousand calories, and warmed up at Brockway Summit. This push to Tahoe City would get both of them within shouting distance of the finish. Arriving in Tahoe City, they would have one final leg through the night and if they were lucky, a sunrise-run into the finish. By now, David and Kevin had formed a partnership – trading stories and anecdotes from prior races and training excursions. This 20-mile leg seemed to never end with four minor climbs before a long flat and final descent into aid.

8:00 p.m. Saturday, September 14
We moved steadily for nearly 7 hours putting the boys into the aid in the final light of the day at nearly 8:00 p.m. Kevin and David were exhausted from this push and slept for 20 minutes while we refueled and repacked their packs. Thick layers were donned, socks were changed, and headlamps were ready to blaze on through the night. Melanie at the front leading the boys into the penultimate leg of the race, when they arrived at Barker Pass it was only 10 more miles to the finish. One final push through the night was all that stood between Kevin and the finish of his second 200-mile race of 2019.

1:30 a.m. Sunday, September 15
I awoke to the cold night air filling the back of the 4Runner that I called home the last two nights. I crawled out, joints achy, stomach rumbling. The toll of pacing a crewing for nearly three full days was taking its toll on me. I prepped all my gear along with all of what Kevin would need for this final push. I wrapped up in a blanket near the fire and choked down a coffee and some trail mix – a very odd breakfast at 1:45 a.m. I dozed off briefly before another crewmember fired up conversation. It was no surprise that Kevin came into aid like a man possessed. He sat down for five minutes – long enough to refill water and warm up by the fire. They had dropped David on the last climb and Kevin was hell bent on getting to the finish.

At 2:30 a.m. sharp, we pushed on into the darkness with our girls Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and some back-up support from Jerry Garcia. We filled the void with light and music. We could almost feel the finish. We pushed up Barker Pass and as temperatures began to fall and winds began to whip, we put on more layers as we hit an exposed ridge that tried to foil our plans of finishing. Winds blowing cold and hard, we were craving the respite of the finish-line fire. Once we hit the final climb we knew we knew we had a final downhill to the finish. We hit the fire-road descent that would propel us into the finish. Kevin’s legs had nothing left to give and it was only when we could see the shores of Lake Tahoe pressing closer that he was able to pick up his pace. By the time we could see the resort Kevin said, “Stay behind me, I’ve got no brakes.”

Asking for the time – which read 5:52 a.m. – I knew if we pushed this last 400 meters we could make it to the finish line in under 69 hours, a full hour ahead of schedule. Kevin crossed the line in 68:56 – a new PR for the 200-mile distance.

All Kevin has to do now is put together another 240 miles in three short weeks to complete the Triple Crown.

Lessons learned
Pacing and crewing an event for this long is all about being selfless and serving to the needs of the athlete. Learning first hand that even though I was exhausted I didn’t have nearly the number of miles on my legs. So much of what we had to get right on this race we maintaining a slow drip of fluids and calories, utilizing aid stations as our only places to take in large amount of calories. In a race like this a full meal, clothes and sock change was normal. A number of challenges are part of what make this experience so unique, aid is often 15-20 miles apart, sections are extremely remote, and one should plan a minimum of 6-8 hours between legs so making sure that you not only have enough calories for you but also back up food and water for your athlete. I highly encourage everyone to pace and crew an ultra before they jump into one so they can understand all that goes in to making their ultra dreams come true.