I’m 70 miles into the iconic 200 mile race, the Tahoe 200. It’s been a hell of a journey to be here and I’m excited to be running in this awesome location. But somethings not been right all race and I’m simply exhausted with every movement. I’ve already climbed over 11’000 ft of vertical gain and I feel like my legs are on fire.
My lungs are bursting out of my chest and I’m gasping and wheezing like nothing I’ve experienced before. As I contemplate my next steps up the mountain climb, I feel really cold; the wind picks up and it starts to snow. As I wipe the flurry of flakes out of my eyes I was now face to face with the reality I might actually being about to DNF (Did Not Finish).
Lake Tahoe in California with its vibrant green to blue hues is the largest alpine lake in North America and about 1,644 deep, so deep you could completely submerge the Empire State Building! The Tahoe 200 course has 35’000 ft of climbing and normally takes runners on a full loop around this massive lake through the mountains ranging in elevation from 9-11,000ft adding altitude as an extra challenge to contend with on this already challenge course.
2022 saw a route change due to the Caldor Fires in 2021, causing closures on parts of the route, making this year’s race an out and back course know as ‘Homewood to Heavenly and back’. With a 100 hour cutoff this course is equal parts brutal and beautiful.
My race build up wasn’t ideal; far from it. Work stress combined with a nomadic lifestyle led to inconsistent training but I figured I had run Bigfoot 200 and Moab 240 the year before; I was pretty fit and healthy overall so I was confident that although I might not get to the start line in my best physical shape, I had the experience and established endurance from these races to get me through. Which it would have, until I got struck by Covid 7 weeks out from race day. As I said, not ideal!
I simply wanted to make Tahoe work; to get a finish, the time didn’t matter. I’d been envisioning the course for so long in my mind with it’s gorgeous single track and towering pine trees, aspen meadows, rock gardens of giants, beyond imagination sparkling blue lakes and long ridge lines with stunning views of the expansive blue Lake Tahoe. The route is nothing less than magical and I wanted my piece of adventure memories made on it.
Sometimes though the body won’t do what the mind wants and this was the case for me. I knew this even by the time I reached the 2nd checkpoint, Tahoe City, and saw my crew, Emily & Kate, for the first time since the start. I came in feeling pretty tanked which at 30 miles was not a good omen, my heart rate had been skyrocketing upwards of 175bpm even on any flat section but I hoped a good top up of food and drink would get me back on track.
The route out of Tahoe City has the second largest climb, with a 19.2 mile section and 3,473ft, and by the time I was only 20mins out of the checkpoint I had vomited up all of which I had consumed at the checkpoint. Not to be deterred I thought that maybe throwing up would make me better as it had done in previous races so I wasn’t overly concerned with this small fact and kept soldiering on.
I wasn’t moving particularly well, my breathing was so rough I sounded like an asthmatic smoker on the uphills, wheezing so hard it was hurting my chest and I could not for the life of me get a full inhale to happen. Short, painful, rasping breaths was all I could manage with my chest wound so tight I felt like I might either pass out or give myself a heart attack, genuinely worried my pace slowed to an absolute crawl with so many breaks to try and catch what little breath I could.
Then it started snowing. I was already so cold, I’d put on all my layers including my gloves but my body was not able to generate any kind of heat as I just could not move fast enough. Dangerous conditions made worse by me now shutting down normal logical thinking and not drinking or eating because I was in a whole different world of discomfort and pain. All I could think about was just moving forward to that next checkpoint to get out of this situation. Finally, I made it to Brockway Summit 50 miles in but feeling like it should be the finish line that’s how fatigued I was.
As soon as I got there I climbed into the back of the crew car to get as warm as I could as quickly as possible. After about 2hrs at this checkpoint trying to come back to life I had decided to keep trying. I’d coughed up a load of nasty phlegm, chugged down a lot of ramen soup and Emily was ready to come out on the next section with me as well. We pushed through the night and into the dawn on some beautiful but brutal trails.
The views we had from the top of the infamous power line descent into Incline Village were truly amazing, even in my haze I could appreciate that. ‘Power line’ is a section of the Tahoe 200 route, a ridiculously steep section with lots of loose dirt that would send me onto my rear no less than 3 times, fabled among veterans of the race whether you are going up or down it, it’s a beast and as part of the out and back route runners would, of course, have to do both.
The route from here takes you onto the road into Incline Village and what is known as Billionaires Row, and wow is it a sight to behold, multi-billion dollar homes on the lakeside that are simply stunning and a peek into how the other 1% live!
Reaching Tunnel Creek, the 4th checkpoint at 65 miles I really felt that I had nothing left to give, not a good situation when I wasn’t even halfway through the race. I knew I could do the distance, and suffering is part of every 200 I’ve done. Of course, I’d suffered at points during both Bigfoot and Moab although I enjoyed them even through the tough times so that’s how I knew that this just wasn’t the same suffering, this wasn’t normal ultra suffering this was something different.
We started the next section ascending 1500ft with absolutely stunning views of Lake Tahoe to our right, glistening in the sun with the snow capped mountains surrounding. It was worth it just for those views. We reached a fork in the trail for twin lakes after 3 miles and I finally called it. I was out. DNF.
As soon as I voiced my decision to Emily the weather changed drastically, the sun disappeared and a snow blizzard ensued. It was a sign, it was nature’s way of telling me I was making the right decision, like an omen warning me that if I kept going against my inner decision that Mother Nature was just going to throw everything she could at me to make me stop!
I descended back to the checkpoint, like the walk of shame, past the other runners coming up the ascent, explaining what I was doing to each and everyone. Is it shameful though? Making the right decision for your body shouldn’t be but for some strange reason I felt a sense of shame, a sense of letting myself and others down especially when what I was experiencing was internal. I had no visible injury to show no visible ‘excuse’ but I was still incapable to continue. It felt odd too, I had a little sob to myself on the way back down but I didn’t feel devastated to DNF, all I felt was relief, Tahoe 200 was not to be and I’m okay with that.
It was a tough year for many, there was a lot of talk about post-covid issues amongst many runners and of course a lot of altitude issues and “Tahoe Tuberculosis”, a hacking cough developed by most runners due to the dusty conditions on the trails every year, made worse this year with drought conditions and an extremely high pollen count. 240 runners started, and 101 DNF’d, a whopping 42% DNF rate, the highest in the race’s 8 years history.
It’s now 6 weeks post Tahoe DNF and it’s been 13 weeks since I was struck with covid, and I feel like I might just be turning the corner and back on track. My resting heart rate has finally returned to my normal and some of my runs are starting to feel good again, the fatigue is subsiding and my legs don’t feel like lead all the time.
I’ve let go of my DNF; I Did Not Finish but I also Did Nothing Fatal, and I’m not going to let that become negative energy in my life. I can’t go back and change what happened, sickness is out of my control but I choose to move forward from here. Embrace my DNF, take time to recover properly, pivot, refocus on my goals and get back after it with a fresh perspective and a clean bill of health.
Lucja Leonard is an ultra runner and coach and currently lives in the US with her husband Dion, Gobi the dog and Lara the cat.