The first night was the worst, but not for the reason that I was expecting. Since the beginning of my adventure planning a year and a half ago, my biggest fear was spending the nights on the Tahoe Rim Trail: alone, cold, and in the dark with the wildlife. But fear was not the feeling. It was something far more detrimental…
I shivered with nondescript pain as I slid under the sleeping quilt inside my bivy sack. I think my calves hurt. Or maybe it was my feet. Yes, later I would find evidence of a deep blister and those cracked heels that I get in certain allergic conditions.
“What the hell was I thinking? How can I cover 171 miles in three days when my maximum training was three consecutive 20-mile days?” My mind reeled as I considered the outlook for the remainder of the journey. “My body is not mechanically prepared for this.”
It was not fear of the dark and cold night that could derail my successful completion.
It was doubt.
On July 28, 2019, at 2:41am, I left the Tahoe City trailhead (traveling clockwise) with the intention of completing the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail in three days. I embraced this as a solo, self-supported adventure, meaning that I had placed food and water caches in bear boxes near trailheads, but that I would be alone and without external support.
The first day was magical. I truly could not believe that it all came together and that I was finally doing it! The weather and trail conditions were spectacular. I enjoyed virtually every moment and was full of gratitude and wonder. I implemented mindful flow and focus techniques that allowed the time to pass seemlessly.
But when I stopped for the night at Spooner Summit after 63.5 miles in nearly 22 hours, glimpses of pain and serious doubt settled in. I set the alarm on my phone for 4am and closed my eyes.
I forced myself up when the alarm sounded 3 hours later and prepared to continue south. I ate a cold “breakfast” and applied sunscreen so that I wouldn’t have to carry it with me. I lubricated my feet and put on clean socks. I was physically ready, but doubt and fatigue still hung over me.
“I think I’ll just sleep a little more,” I said to myself, and retreated back into the bivy. No alarm set this time.
I woke two hours later, a little shocked to see the full light of the summer morning. But now I felt different: fresh and awake. And again full of gratitude and wonder.
Day two (July 29, 2019) started at about 6am, with the climb toward South Camp Peak. I moved well in the cool morning air, and enjoyed the unsung beauty on this section of the trail. The climb tops out at “The Bench,” a view point so stunning that I had to fight the urge to turn on my phone and take a photo.
I followed the trail down to Kingsbury Grade as the sun rose high in the sky. The heat of high noon started to drain me, but I didn’t yet realize that my biggest physical struggle lie just ahead. I took a lunch break, crossed the road, and thought I was settling in for the afternoon of climbing.
The trail started up some switchbacks that I absolutely didn’t remember. It was hot and exposed on this relatively low (about 7000′) part of the trail and I moved slowly. Soon, I was actually yawning. It was not fatigue. I was not tired, per se. I was literally sleepy! Right there in the middle of the blazing daylight!
I took a 200mg caffeine pill. I had not packed many, so I had been carefully rationing them. Nothing. I continued the slow march up. I set my gentle focus on my breath: in through the nose, out through a relaxed mouth. (I was trying this nasal breathing strategy as a way to intentionally limit my effort level.)
As I was allowing thoughts to come and go, one idea came in to my mind that I put right to use. “What if the deep nasal breathing is triggering the rest and relax mode of my nervous system?”
Ok, starting now, no more nose breathing!
Soon the sleepiness subsided and the air cooled as I climbed higher on the trail. I also crossed a number of streams and took the opportunity to cool my legs and face. I found gentle focus again and the time passed deeply as I continued toward the summit of Freel.
The trail was quiet. It was a Monday afternoon and I hadn’t seen a soul for some time, when three young ladies with backpacks appeared plopped on the trail in front of me. They apologized for blocking the way, but I spied a comfortable rock and asked, “Do you mind if I plop with you?”
I sat down and enjoyed a brief visit with them. They were in the middle of a two-week backpacking trip on the same trail that I hoped to cover in 3 days. I suppose it was less than 10 minutes of rest, but when I left the girls and my shady rock seat, everything felt fine and fresh again.
The rest of the afternoon and evening were glorious. I drank in the sights of craggly old trees and enjoyed a tremendous sensation of flow as I gently cruised down impossibly long and smooth switchbacks from Freel.
But next was night, and I grew tired. I had learned that waking at 4am to start in the dark would not work, so wherever I land to sleep is where I would remain until daylight. Can I push it past midnight again? The next section – Big Meadow – was one of the few that I was not fully familiar with.
The decision came more easily than I expected. I would sleep before Big Meadow. I wanted to see that section in the daylight and, just as importantly, my body needed to rest. So it played out that way. I arrived at my Big Meadow cache location around 9:45pm – just after dark – ate, prepared my bivy, closed my eyes, and slept. No alarm. No doubts. Tomorrow will bring what it brings.
I’m glad that I hadn’t done the math. On that second day, I travelled only 40.5 miles in about 16 hours. If I had done the math, I may have known that I would not finish. But the math stayed away, and I woke up 8 hours later, again to the full morning sun.
Again, I ate my cold breakfast and prepared for the day ahead. The most difficult part was taking off my warm clothes to apply sunscreen. I kept my legs cozy inside the bivy for as long as possible.
When I did emerge and put my shoes on, I felt bright, happy, and curious to experience the trail between Big Meadow and Echo Summit. I have no doubt that a full night’s sleep was the best course of action, regardless of the math.
I moved quickly and joyfully all morning and allowed myself to make a plan. I would complete the trail before I sleep again. So long as I could leave Echo by 11am, I knew I could do it. The math worked, but just barely.
And since I knew I could do it, why carry the bivy and sleeping pad? Hmmmm. I had a big bear box stashed at Echo…. lots of food for the long 35 miles through Desolation Wilderness. I could carry all those tasty calories and lose a little gear weight.
So, when I arrived at the Echo Summit trailhead, I took a great lunch, packed up a bunch of food, and left the bivy and sleeping pad behind. I did carry my sleeping quilt with me, really just as a safety measure.
I left Echo around 11:45am. It was a longer stop than I was expecting, but I was fired up with my plan and looking forward to the unique beauty of the section ahead.
I spent the next 13.5 hours cycling through a few objects of focus, and in this way the time passed both slowly and quickly. It was slow – like when time slows down when you spin out in your car – but it was quick – like the opposite of an international flight.
It was difficult to resist the urge to take photos as the sun set on all the granite-backed lakes. I kept my phone turned off to save battery for navigational necessities and it was cumbersome to pull it out and wait for it to come back to life. Instead of taking a photo, I gently escorted my focus back to the sensation of flow.
In fact, I would remind myself of that feeling – just the day before – of cruising down the impossibly long switchbacks from Freel. That feeling was my best object of focus.
If my mind went really AWOL, I would sometimes have to give it more guidance back to the present, reciting this passage from Thoreau’s Walden:
I have been anxious to improve the nick of time… to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.
Finally, just after Midnight on my third night, I allowed my mind to make and memorize a plan for my arrival at the final cache location – Barker Pass Rd. I arrived there at 1:15am and executed the plan flawlessly, although again slower than expected.
At 3:50am on July 31, 2019, I sent my husband a text message: “ETA is 7:30 AM.” The math was working out. I felt like running a bit, and so I did, and it felt good.
Towards the end of a race, there is a point where you know you are going to finish. If it is a 100-mile race, then just finishing is huge. There may even be a time when you know you are going to accomplish a grand goal, like beating your personal record or finishing on the podium. Needless to say, this is an overwhelmingly good feeling.
As I passed by Paige Meadows – 4 miles to my start/finish location in Tahoe City – a wave of extraordinary emotion came over me. I recalled carefully scouting out this part of the trail early in the Spring over a year ago. The joy almost crippled me, but I allowed and savored it for a moment.
I felt good and gently re-focused on the final downhill miles, observing how much better my body felt compared to any 100-mile race finish I’ve experienced.
At 7:11am on July 31, 2019, my husband, Javier, greeted me at the trailhead. Yup, I beat my finishing math by 19 minutes!
My final push was 67 miles in just over 25 hours through the night. Javier placed a precious hand-made crown on my head, proclaiming me a GOAT. Final tally: 171 miles in 76.5 hours (3 days, 4.5 hours.)
Afterward: I have alot more to write. I know that you are all clamoring for specifics. Gear details. Training. Trail beta. Logistics. And I promise to share all that in due time, but trust me when I tell you, none of that matters without the mind.
I highly recommend the Headspace mediation app to start learning and practicing flow and focus techniques.
Update: I have filed a detailed Fastest Know Time (FKT) report here.
Love your recap, Helen, so beautifully written and inspiring!
Karla Moore says
Absolutely incredible!! Thank you for sharing your journey and struggles. Congratulations!! ❤️?
Angie Woolman says
That was beautiful and so generous, and brave. Both things, the experiencing and the telling. Thank you.
Pure magic! Well done indeed.
Congrats Helen! Great recap and so inspiring!
That’s solid work, Helen. Congrats on a journey well travelled!
Congrats on this epic achievement!
Amazing accomplishment! While reading it felt like I was out on the TRT with you. Just the inspiration I needed today sitting at my computer. Thanks for this sharing this.
Val Loskota says
Wow! Congrats! One thing caught my eye: the cracked heels which I have. I found a cream in the diabetic section of drug store that has urea in it and it helps. Heel Balm.
You might try it. It’s about $12. Happy hiking!