Not only would this be my first experience at a 200-mile race it would be the first time I would have to coordinate so many things as a crew chief.
So, let’s back up just a little. I was introduced to Ana by a friend when he reached out because she was running a 200-miler in the North Georgia Mountains and needed some pacing help. That was an easy yes for me as I love helping others when I can. Unfortunately, while I would spend 2 different nights in the mountains pacing her, her race ended early when managing too many variables and the sleep deprivation made a finish impossible.
Ana had her sights ultimately set on Tahoe 200 and after a disappointing finish she hired me to coach her. After our time together we were now friends as well and we found a balance in a coaching relationship. While she put her trust in me to help coach her to a successful finish at Tahoe, I had to find a way to take an athlete who jumped straight into a 100-mile race that she did complete to a 200-miler finish in Tahoe. This was clearly not anything I would recommend anyone do but I accepted the challenge knowing how much Ana really wanted this.
The very first thing I wanted was for her to get more experienced at races and particularly a 100-miler. A few months later she attempted a local 100-mile race and while that race also didn’t end in success, it offered us both critical information on things we needed to do. It also offered Ana some much needed experience with other races. She would also run and successfully complete a 100k race just a month later. This was a win she needed, and I needed for her. More learning again for both of us.
Now we needed to get our Tahoe 200 details together. I would go with her to serve as her crew chief and pace her at some point. While she could have a pacer for 150 miles, I clearly couldn’t do that and manage all the details that this race required. Ana was able to secure 4 different local runners in the Tahoe area to help pace. We did a couple of zoom calls with them to work out details on their available timing, distance they were comfortable running and how to plug everyone into the plan. While a plan was coming together on one hand there were also huge pieces that were just not dialed in. Things for Ana like a shoe that worked and nutrition. These pieces to having a successful race are often critical.
Other things Ana did spend time on was reading articles and listening to lots of podcasts on running 200 races, how to manage sleep during them, taking care of blisters and mental toughness. She explored her why and found things to hang pure grit onto.
I could go into way too many details here about just getting to Tahoe, but we made it to the race start with Ana well rested and ready to see this race through.
They had trackers on each runner, and I was able to use that as my main guide to how she was moving and when I’d need to meet her at the next crew station. She would first have to run 30 miles and I would have no real idea how things were going until I saw her. Although one text from her at mile 10 to tell me that AS didn’t have food and the spring energy she needed to even resupply her pack. She had no food and was not happy about it. (Later I would learn some volunteers shared from their personal supplies to get her through)
So, the first critical thing was going to be nutrition and getting behind in that at by mile 30 wasn’t a good thing. At the first crew access AS in Tahoe City, I walked out to meet Ana about a 1/2 miles out. We were able to talk, and she caught me up on how things were going. We didn’t waste any time talking about the race itself, the stunningly beautiful course, or the new friends she had met along the journey so far but rather we got straight to what she needed and how she was feeling. My job was to see that I got every critical item she would need into her pack, as well as help her with any clothing charges needed. Putting on dry clothing and making sure she had a working headlamp heading into the night could not be overlooked. It would cost a runner their race and it’s not far into the race when your runner is not even able to think through some of these things. My job was more than chief cook, bottle and clothing washer but also to handle every decision and shield her from all the stress that she didn’t need. I would make decisions and Ana completely trusted me to do that.
Next crew stop would be mile 50. Here was when she would pick up her first pacer Kaytlen. Kaytlen and I met at the trail head along with her husband, Taylor who dropped her off and would be a pacer for Ana later in the race. We had to hike in a mile to get to the aid station, so I need to make decisions on what exactly I needed to take to her. Once again, I hiked out probably 3/4 a mile and met Ana on the trail so I could get an update on how she was doing and quickly make plans for what I would need to do at the AS to help her. One of the most important things I could do was to reassure her and give her lots of encouragement. She was very close to our estimated pace at this point.
Her feet were doing well, and she was in good spirits after spending much of that section with a runner who she said saved her. Now however, a complete change in our plan needed to go down as Ana really wanted to try and sleep. She had also shared that she was struggling to breath and has a rough cough. First thing was to get one of the medics to listen to her lungs and make sure she was good. This could be anything from struggling with the altitude, dust that was on the trails and even the very dry air that we were both not used to. Or it could be a cold, COVID or the flu setting in. No matter what, now we would have to monitor and manage this carefully. (We would learn after the race that this is called the “Tahoe Cough” and many runners suffered from the same thing).
First up was to get her a quick nap. We had a Subaru Forrester as our crew vehicle and after the race started, I used blankets, pillows, padding and sleeping bags we borrowed from Kaytlen and Taylor to set up a sleep station for her. Complete with a sound machine that plugged into an outset in the back. Due to her labored coughing, she couldn’t get much sleep but after an hour and a half or so I needed to get her up and going to keep her well ahead of any cutoffs. When I did wake her and she got up, she got sick to her stomach and felt really bad. At mile 50 it was looking like her race once again would not see a successful outcome. While we lost a lot of time, Ana got on a change of clothes, was feeling better and was able to keep moving forward heading out with Kaytlen.
I went back to our Airbnb that was located about midway on the out and back course. I would retreat here after each stop to take care of any things she would need the next time I would see Ana, coordinate with her next pacers, update her husband, Eric who would fly in late on Saturday, kept track of Ana and Kaytlen’s progress and try to get a little rest myself. I would get an update or two from the pacers so I could dial in any additional things to our plan that now looked nothing like our original one. We were now way off our plan due to the early rest we hadn’t planned for, and her pace had slowed as well, which I was sure was due to the cough and struggle breathing.
As I was getting an update from the tracker, I saw their course would literally take them right through the streets of Incline Village where our condo was located. While I was not allowed to crew here, I could drive along the course path to see if I could get a glimpse of Ana and Kaytlen, get any updates, and try to encourage them both. As I drove through Incline Village, I found the course route and saw them crossing the main highway right away. I rolled down my window to encourage them as I had done all the other runners I passed before getting to them. Ana was now really struggling with her breathing and coughing badly. I went to find a store where I could get some cough medicine for her and drop it back off to them. I was now growing pretty concerned about the cough and mostly just the difficulty it makes to breath which also makes all the climbing more difficult. It wasn’t a good combination and I wanted Ana to have the best chance of completing the race.
I went back to following the tracker to keep track of Ana when I got a couple of text updates from Kaytlen letting me know that things were going well. The main thing now was to keep her moving forward and in good spirits. Attitude is everything! I was now also in touch with her next pacer, Madeline. We arranged a meet up time and got something to eat before heading to the next AS where we would change pacers. This was Spooner AS and you were very strictly not allowed to crew your runner here, but you could switch pacers. Ana had slowed her pace significantly and my biggest concern was getting her to the halfway point at Heavenly so I could get her as much sleep as possible. Madeline and I discussed how I thought we were going to need to push Ana at this point a bit. We made a quick switch, and they were off toward the turnaround point but before long I would get a text from Madeline saying Ana wasn’t happy with her! We needed to push Ana to keep her moving but careful that we don’t push too hard, and she isn’t able to keep the pace and get discouraged. If you have paced at all, you know that when things are tough it can be a delicate balance.
My next job was to head to the Reno Airport so I could pick up Eric, Ana’s husband who was flying in to help crew and be a support to Ana. As soon as we got back to the Airbnb it was time to check the tracker to get a progress update and figure out when they would get to Heavenly which was the turnaround point. Here I knew Ana would need as much sleep as we could afford to give her. It seemed that the big struggle had become her getting in nutrition, and lack of sleep was not far behind. For Ana it started with aid stations not having what she wanted to eat, and it can be difficult to eat. We were now at the halfway point, and I felt I really needed to make sure Ana understood that she had to eat, we had to get calories in her. After Ana’s nap, she took care of patching her feet up with more tape, switched shoes, clothes, and got in some much-needed food. Madeline was going be sure to keep an eye on her drinking and eating. Eric and I headed back to the Airbnb confident she was in good spirits, well fed and ready to go. After a couple hours of sleep, myself, I was up to check on the tracker and get an update from Madeline that Ana was running hot, out of water and had dropped her! Ana also wanted pizza! I was busy trying to get pizza together when the next text is from Ana to meet her on the trail with Pizza and water because she doesn’t have any. I start moving to get what I could of the pizza ready and get out to the aid station. Again, this was the Spooner Aid Station that strictly had no crew access. Joselio who was the next pacer met me at the AS and after the AS captain gave me approval, we both headed out on trails to find Ana and Madeline. We came to Ana first and she had been able to get water from a mountain biker on the trail and was only about a mile out from the aid station. Joselio went back with Ana to the aid station while I kept going on the trail to find Madeline and get her back ok.
Let me add this quick story here, which I still remember fondly. When Joselio and I got to Ana on the trails headed towards the Spooner aid station, I spot her coming towards us carrying a handful of yellow flowers. Like a scene from The Sound of Music, as if Ana had been frolicking in the flower fields picking flowers instead of moving down the trail. When we get up to her, she tells me she had forgotten it was Father’s Day!
After Ana spent more time getting some food in and having the medical person help retape her feet, a shoe change and she was off again with Joselio this time. This section would have some good climbs and heading into the 3rd night of the race. We needed to find a way to get Ana another nap even if it’s just a short one. The original plan was a couple long naps during the race, but early on when we got hours off schedule, I knew we couldn’t afford long naps, but we would have to find ways to get smaller short naps in. After letting Ana take another short nap on the side of the road just before heading up the big “Powerline” climb headed back to the Brockway Summit. I wanted to do the climb with Ana and Joselio to give Ana that extra support and see her to the top of what would be a tough climb. As it started to warm up on the climb, Ana started to peel off layers of coats and long sleeve shirts and we tossed them onto bushes, knowing I could pick them all up on the way back down. Where the strength and grit came from, I have no idea! Ana made that climb like she just started the race.
Taylor now jumps in and paces Ana for the 20 miles stretch between Brockway and Tahoe City. We are waiting to let her sleep again when she gets to Tahoe City AS and has only 30 miles to go.
It still feels like a long way to the finish, but she is getting closer with each step. I feel like my job continues to make the decision that gives her the very best ability to get there. After getting to Tahoe City, we give her an hour nap and repack her pack getting her ready for the final push. While everyone is so vested in this journey of hers, we each played a role in getting her this far. Now it’s my turn to jump in and pace her home, and we all know there is little to no room for error. The whole team feels the stress of how close this might all be, and we all know it could be very close.
After getting Ana up and ready we get right out of the aid station. I had downloaded the course onto my phone, as Ana had asked all the pacers to do, but in the upcoming section there had been some vandalism and some flags were missing. I was ready, until we got off course. We were following flags and it took me a short distance to figure out we hadn’t seemed a flag recently and possible needed to check the app. Sure enough we were off by maybe ½ miles or so. I was so frustrated with myself knowing I didn’t have time for that, and unfortunately Ana knew that. I didn’t want her to feel the stress as we quickly adjusted and were back on course. I texted the team to have someone check the tracker for me just to be sure. Taylor quickly replied letting me know we were showing on course!
We were also now on some smoother trails, and we did some running and moving much more quickly. Of course, there was plenty more climbing to come. I have to say the entire time, not just on the course with Ana but even during all my other interactions with Ana, she stayed positive. Never once did anyone, her or the team ever suggest she wouldn’t or couldn’t make it. I never once heard the word “quit” from anyone. As her coach I had told her you never give up! It’s not over until they pull you from the course! Go down fighting if you must, and in the end a win is finishing strong!
During the early morning hours when Ana slowed down, I needed to let her take a short trail nap. Something she didn’t want to do with anyone else, but she trusted me when I told her we were going to do that. She fell asleep about the time she asked me how long. Fifteen minutes later my alarm went off, and she was back up on her feet with not a single complaint. We were quickly back to a strong pace and way ahead of the time we thought we’d head into the next aid station even after taking the short nap.
The final aid station was just 10 miles from the finish, but it would not be 10 easy miles. I knew this was an aid station with sleep stations, so Ana quickly headed off to get a little more sleep while I took care of her pack and got some food. Soon she was back up and, in a chair, next to me. They brough her some food from their extensive menu they had posted in this large warming tent with heaters, and I shared the last of the hashbrowns they had given to me. Hashbrown had turned out to be a winner for her the second half of the race.
Now we were off to get her to the finish line. The aid station worker briefed us on what the final climb was like, but the 1.5 miles of hard climbing was more of five miles of tough climbing. Ana was again back to struggling with her “Tahoe Cough” and had to stop frequently trying to cough up what was in her lungs and keeping her from breathing. Once to the top of that big climb and knowing we were now mostly going down, we didn’t want to miss taking it all in. We now knew that a finish was not a question. We enjoyed the views and the scenery, the conversation of two friends who had experienced a major adventure together as we descended the final miles. I was in awe that the runners had gone up that same climb just days before to start off this race, I might have been ready to quit within the first 5 miles. What an incredible journey! Literally against all odds with so many things that just didn’t stack up for a finish, here we were going in to see her cross that 200-mile finish line! I literally had tear in my eyes as we both ran down to the finish with the crowds cheering and I could only imagine how amazing that must have felt for Ana! Well done my friend! Well done!