A few weeks ago, I ran the Midnight Express, a 72-mile solo race around Lake Tahoe. It was very hard and I am not sure I would do it again, but I’m very glad to have done it.
A number of years ago, I participated in a 7-person relay race around Lake Tahoe, where each runner completed about 10 miles. It was a really fun race – I made the team gold capes! It also planted the seed in my mind of maybe one day running around the lake by myself. I’d had that idea in the back of my mind ever since, but had never really gotten enough motivation to sort through the logistics of an unsupported solo run around the lake.
Earlier this year, I ran Oakland Marathon. There was a booth at the expo that caught my attention – I can’t quite remember why. It said things like “Tahoe” and “Maui,” and when I looked closer, I saw that they were advertising a run around Lake Tahoe – a 72-mile ultra. I was so excited to see that there was actually a race for this absurd undertaking I wanted to do. I immediately decided to sign up. The woman working the booth didn’t realize I had already committed, in my mind, to doing this, and she told me there was a 15% discount if I signed up today. Then she also told me I’d get a free bottle of vodka. So really – signing up for this race was a no-brainer.
The Midnight Express race would start at 9pm on Saturday night. The race would start in South Lake Tahoe (by all the casinos) and progress counter-clockwise around the lake. Runners would run against traffic (on the lake-side of the road) on the shoulder – there were very few areas with protected paths. The first 48 miles would be unsupported (no aid stations), which would require runners either to carry all their own gear for a lot of hours (bad idea) or to bring a pacer/crew (better idea). Around mile 48, we would meet up with the full marathon that would be starting on Sunday morning, and the last part of the race would be run with them. Tactically, we’d have access to light aid stations for the last 26 miles.
Things that would be good to train for in preparation for this race would have included:
- Running in the middle of the night / in the dark
- Running long distances with no support
- Running lots of hills
- Running at altitude – lake Tahoe is around 6,200 feet
- Running in the cold (low 30s F)
My preparation for this race was pretty mediocre, to be honest. Here are a few things I did, which worked medium-well.
- The longest race I ran leading up to it was the SF Ultra – 52.4 miles – which is a good distance to prepare for a 72 mile race. The SF Ultra also started at 11pm and ran through the night, so that helped in preparing for a nighttime start. I carried almost all my own gear for the first marathon as well.
- I also ran Burning Man 50k in August, which was a medium distance but not great training for what Midnight Express would require. This was flat and during the morning.
- I spent a week in Austria for work, and I did a LOT of hill work during that week (literally “climbing every mountain” around the training facility we were at for work). A lot of that running was in the dark. It was also at some altitude – around 4,000-5,000 feet, so that was helpful to get a sense for what was possible. I ran about 85 miles this week, which was my peak training week (about two weeks out from the race).
In terms of the cold – after Antarctica, I felt like I knew what to wear for this race.
Overall, I wish I had done maybe one more hard 50-miler a little closer to the race. My travel schedule didn’t really allow for it, however, so I made do with what was possible.
I asked one of my best running buddies – Ingrid (from Lake Chabot shared-trophy race and Golden Gate 50k, among other excellent adventures) to help me out during this race. She was super enthusiastic about supporting me – which I am still in awe about. I’ve had pacers/crew for only a few of my races – maybe five, including this one – and I’m always so uncomfortable asking for help, since it’s SUCH a huge favor for someone to spend their whole weekend supporting these ridiculous endeavors. So I was honored when Ingrid said she’d help me out.
She and I left from Oakland on Saturday morning and drove to the mountains. Our plan was to take I-80E all the way to North Lake Tahoe, then head clockwise down the Nevada side to South Lake Tahoe, where the race was starting and where our hotel was. Along the way we would stop at a few places along the race route to determine where she would meet me to supply me with food/water, and where she’d park the car to start running with me.
The drive up to Tahoe is a gorgeous one – typically, it’s possible to see for miles, with snow-covered peaks sharply defined in the distance. However, on the way up, it looked a little hazy – not quite like fog and not quite like smog. We didn’t know what we were seeing – it just looked a little more washed out than usual.
We got to North Lake, and we took our time heading around the east side of the lake, identifying a few spots where Ingrid would park to wait for me and give me food. We also found a safe parking lot – a CVS – for her to park her car overnight and run the last 35 miles with me.
When we got to South Lake, we checked into the hotel, grabbed a sandwich, and I did a little bit of prep work. Since “but what do you eat?!” is a common question, I’ll list out what I brought and whether or not I actually ate it.
- Clif bars – I brought like six and ate one of them
- 4x peanut butter and honey sandwiches – I ate about two of these
- Oreos – ate them
- Cut up watermelon – ate this
- Baked potatoes – learned how to bake potatoes, and also ate these (thanks Mike for teaching me the ways of the Baked Potato early on in my running career)
- Gatorade – drank these
- Gu blocks – the gummy cubes – I brought a tube of these and ate them. They had them at the aid stations as well and I ate a bunch of them there too.
- Chocolate chip cookies – did not eat these
- Milanos – did not eat these
- Nuts – did not eat these
- Poptarts – did not eat these
Not sure what else I brought, but I felt pretty prepared with this collection of food.
Later, we walked over to packet pickup, which was right on the shore of the lake. At 4pm was a mandatory race briefing for all 72-mile runners, so we waited for that to start. There was a wedding just starting on the beach, so we watched that for a few minutes.
We’d been asking folks about the haze, and someone had said there was a fire nearby. Nobody knew the exact details – we got four different answers from three different people. California fire season is this time of year, so either way, it wasn’t too surprising.
At 4pm, the race briefing was held outside on a very small lawn in front of the race expo. The race director, Les Wright, held court in a folding chair. The runners and their pacers either stood or sat in a loose circle around him.
The most surprising part of the briefing – there couldn’t have been more than 20 people there. It turned out only 16 runners would be competing in this race. The expo behind us? Largely to serve the thousands of marathon runners and half-marathon runners.
This is where we found out how informal, fun, and silly the race would be. My favorite part of the briefing was when Les said, “You can start running whenever you want. I’d just like everyone to be done by Sunday afternoon. But if you aren’t done then, that’s okay too. So let us know when you want to start running. I’ll be here at 9pm to officially start the race. But if you want to start earlier, great. If you think you’ll finish in 9 or 10 hours, maybe start at midnight so you can take advantage of the marathon aid stations and don’t get there too fast. Here’s the phone number of the guy in charge of timing – why doesn’t everyone just write it down, actually – and just text him when you’re starting, even if it’s at 9pm. That way we know when everyone is starting.”
It was VERY informal.
Ingrid and I briefly discussed what we thought made sense from a start time perspective. There were a few people starting at 5pm – right after the race briefing. I was worried about getting to the marathon aid stations before they were ready, but also was very sure I wasn’t going to be running a 9 or 10 hour race. Ultimately we decided to stick with the plan and start at 9pm.
The only other thing Les emphasized was that we all wear lots of lights. I’d previously added some purple fairy lights and butterfly fiber optic clips to my backpack, so I was well prepared with an appropriate amount of neon-colored glow.
We headed back to the hotel and I took a quick nap. Around 8pm I woke up, grabbed my well-lit backpack and snacks, and jumped in the car.
The “start line” was right near where the expo was. It was also near where the wedding reception was happening – there was some great pre-race Latin music pumping through speakers.
Only about 8-10 runners were starting at 9pm – a bunch had started earlier – so it was a very small start line. Les had a shotgun, and at 9pm, he fired it – and we started running.
The first half
My overall plan was to try to finish in 15 hours – which would be around noon on Sunday. Ingrid was going to meet me at miles 20, 30, and 38 with food and water. At mile 38, she would join me and pace me to the finish line (which was like – 34 or 35 miles – a race in and of itself!). We’d coordinated what locations and approximately what times I’d be at each location, so our planning was solid.
I waved goodbye to her at the start line. With the other runners – what few of us there were – we ran down to the main road and turned left, quickly leaving the neon lights of South Lake Tahoe behind. Within a few minutes, I heard some coyotes howling at the moon in a nearby field – a surreal sound. We had a full moon this night too, which was helpful with the light.
The first several miles of the race were fairly uneventful. I played leapfrog with a few runners – one guy had run the race several times before, and I was keeping an eye on him, since he seemed to have a good pacing strategy. He and a few other folks were trying to run a 12-hour race, which would be fast for me, but I wanted observe his strategy early on in case there was anything I could learn from it.
It was easy to keep an eye on the [very few] other runners, since we all had an appropriate amount of glowy lights attached to our gear.
There were two hard hills in this race, and one of them came in the first ten miles. We had to climb up a long and fairly steep hill on the I-50 freeway. It was maybe a mile or two. I ran-walked it, and it felt okay – just … very long.
At the top, we turned left to stay along the lake. This was probably around mile 10. I’d decided during this race not to bring a GPS watch or to track my distance with my phone (although I did have a phone). That said, I did have a normal watch, and my distance and time intuition has become quite refined over the years – I have a pretty good sense based on pace and feeling for how far I’ve run.
At this point, even though it was still quite early in the race, I had a pretty good idea that a 15 hour race was going to be a stretch. It was a little demoralizing, because I couldn’t figure out what specifically was causing me to go slower than I thought I would go. It wasn’t the altitude, and it wasn’t the cold, and it wasn’t a lack of sleep – I’d accounted for all those things. Even the long hill wasn’t enough to slow me down quite this much. I didn’t know what it was. I wasn’t like, sluggishly slow – just a little slower than I thought I would be.
The next few miles were an easy downhill, which then flattened out along the water. I met Ingrid at mile 20 and was feeling quite good, so picked up some food and water and kept going. I’d pre-packed little grab bags of snacks in half-size ziplocks to save time – this was a very efficient strategy, as it meant I didn’t have to repack anything and could just grab what I felt like taking with me.
I don’t remember much of miles 20-30 because it was fairly uneventful (and dark). This course is a particularly easy course – you just keep the lake on your left. Around mile 22 is literally the only decision you have to remember to make – runners turn left to go through a residential area and avoid some hills along the main road. So I made sure to make that turn, then rejoined the main road a few miles later.
I saw Ingrid again at mile 30 and was still feeling okay, so I kept running.
The middle miles
This is where things started getting hard.
Around mile 31 or 32 – about 3am – I started having a hard time breathing. I didn’t know what was going on, but the typical breathing cadence that my body was used to just wasn’t working. My breathing became a little uneven.
I was also getting pretty demoralized. I didn’t think I was in any way close to making a 15-mile goal, and that was really demotivating.
At about mile 32.5, I was really struggling with my breathing. Ingrid and I had agreed I’d only call her if there was a problem, and I felt like there might be a problem. I was really considering that I should probably stop running and not finish the race.
I my phone and texted her that I wasn’t feeling well. She immediately replied that she would come get me. I thought about it for a second, then said I was fine and put my phone away. I’d see her in 5.5 miles. There’s a weird phenomenon that happens with a lot of runners I know, including myself – we give ourselves permission to quit at certain points only (like, you can only quit at an aid station). Then, when that point arrives, we just sort of ignore the option and keep going. In that way, we defer quitting until the end of the race.
Around mile 33, I was still running through a residential area – houses with driveways on either side. I had some music playing through my headphones at low volume so I could hear cars and other runners.
As I was running, I heard a branch snap to my left – right in front of a house on the side of the road. I flashed my headlamp over that way.
Four pairs of eyes glowed back at me in the darkness.
At first I thought they were deer and kept running towards them. Then I saw three of the pairs of eyes climb up a tree. And my headlamp caught the outline of the fourth pair.
It was a family of black bears. It was a mom and her three cubs. And I was alone, in the dark, facing them head on. They were about twenty feet away.
My mind was going a mile a minute. I immediately thought back to all the times that park rangers provided coaching on how to handle bears. The first thing they say is not to run, since the bear will definitely out run you. So I stopped running.
I ran through the list of ways I could call for help. Ingrid wouldn’t get there fast enough. Cops wouldn’t get there fast enough. There were no other cars. There were no other runners. I had to figure this out alone.
I looked at the mom bear. She looked at me. The baby cubs looked at me. I looked back at the mom bear.
Maybe I was going to be okay.
Then she started walking towards me.
I immediately had a vision in my head of my face getting ripped off. This was it. I had to do something.
When my family and I were in Glacier National Park, the rangers taught us how to shout “Hey, Bear!” while we were hiking. Mom made us practice this quite a lot during that trip. I remembered the park ranger saying that it wasn’t any particular words that would cause the bears to go away – just loud noises.
So I shouted as loud as I possibly could at the mamma bear. I don’t think I’ve ever made that much noise in my life. I shouted and shouted at her – no actual words, just noise.
Then she stopped walking towards me.
My sister-in-law is quite knowledgeable about animal behavior. She’d mentioned at one point that, in the animal kingdom, maintaining eye contact is a sign of dominance. So I started down the mamma bear and slowly started backing away (obviously in the direction I needed to go – there’s no going backwards in ultramarathons).
I stared at her and retreated slowly for about a quarter of a mile, until I was around the corner. Then I kept running.
I think at this point I knew I would probably finish the race. You don’t single-handedly fend off four bears and then just wimpily quit other challenges.
I called Ingrid and told her I’d just seen some bears, but I was fine, and I’d see her in an hour or so at mile 38.
About a mile later, I saw another runner’s crew car. Our exchange went something like this:
Me: “Hey guys – saw some bears back there. You may want to warn your runner.”
Them: “Oh cool. Was that you shouting a little bit ago?”
Me: “Yep that was me!”
Them: “Ok – have a good race!”
In my mind, I thought to myself, “thanks for coming to see if I was okay, guys!”
The second half of the race
I met Ingrid in the CVS parking lot at mile 38. I was tired and my breathing wasn’t better (despite the adrenaline rush from, you know, bears).
I filled up my pack and took an eight minute nap in the car. Then we set off for the next 55k of running.
There was a long flat stretch right near the water fairly early on. The sun was coming up, and it was beautiful – purple reflections on a very still lake, with little round buoys in the water and pine trees framing the tiny ripples. This was easily the most beautiful part of the race.
At some point we started seeing the marathon walkers – they started an hour before the marathon runners and we would occasionally pass one or two. We also started seeing the fast marathoners – they were passing us as they sprinted up the hills.
My breathing was getting progressively worse. I felt like I wasn’t able to take complete or deep breaths. I didn’t know what inhalers were really used for, but it definitely felt like I could have used an inhaler at this point.
We arrived at the second of the two major hills. This one was called “hell hill,” and it was maybe 600 or 800 feet of climbing over maybe a mile. There were signs every 100 vertical feet, which told you how close you were to “heaven” – a.k.a. the top of the hill.
Once we reached the summit, there was a guy playing bagpipes on a nearby rock for some reason.
By this time, there were a medium amount of runners we were running with. We were mostly being passed, but it wasn’t demotivating at all for some reason (being passed, even by people running shorter distances, can be really tough psychologically).
I’m normally pretty chatty during races with other runners, and today was no exception. However, at some point, Ingrid told me I had to stop talking to other runners because I was using up oxygen. She didn’t mean it in the “you’re a waste of oxygen” sense – she meant that I couldn’t talk and give oxygen to my muscles at the same time. She was right and I hadn’t really noticed it – it was taking me a second to recover from talking to other runners when I was chatting with them.
So we kept running. But I also kept talking to other runners. She told me, more firmly, that I really needed to shut up. And she was still right. So I really shut up this time.
I don’t know how much more we had to go, but it was a long way. The sun was up and I couldn’t talk to people. I was in a pretty bad mood and definitely making annoying sarcastic comments under my breath. For example, I saw one race photographer ahead who was making people stop so she could take her pictures. When it was our turn, I told her we probably weren’t going to stop running, which at the time felt like a really aggressive thing to say.
There were a few really hard parts between here and the finish line.
- There was a turn about 10 miles from the finish line that took us off the main road. I was really anxious that we were somehow going the wrong way if we made that turn. Les had said something about having a couple of route choices here, and I didn’t remember what he said, and my phone had no reception. I was really grumpy about this decision point. Ingrid basically had to tell me to shut up and run with everyone else because this was the route.
- The half marathoners joined us at some point as well – on a fairly narrow path. They had SO MUCH energy and not a lot of spacial awareness. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, and I almost started crying because I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to navigate around them (to be clear, they were passing me – but it was a lot of dodging). I had to sit down on a stump for a few minutes to recharge.
- There was another turn around five or six miles to the finish line that was equally as distressing as the turn I mentioned above. Ingrid kicked my butt into gear and made us do what the rest of the crowd was doing (again, a great choice).
As we got closer to the finish line, I was increasingly frustrated. My legs felt fine – the bottom of my feet were sore from running so far on pavement, but otherwise I was in very good shape from a muscles, joints, tendons, etc perspective.
However, I just wasn’t able to deliver the oxygen required to those parts of the body. It felt like the lower half of my lungs were just not filling with air. I would try to run, and I’d be able to run for about 20-30 seconds – maybe up to a minute – before having to walk to recover for twice as long. After these short stretches of running, I felt like I’d just sprinted a half mile – that’s how hard I was breathing.
The last mile was particularly challenging. I knew my legs could get me there – running – if only my lungs could do their job. But they just weren’t. So we did an awkward run-walk combination for the last mile, then ran the last 100 feet to the finish line.
Results: I finished in about 16:30 – sixteen and a half hours – which was about a minute per mile slower than I was anticipating. The fastest runners finished in about 13:30 – which was also about a minute per mile slower than they were anticipating (they were all gunning for a 12:00 finish). So we were all slow. Also, of the 16 starters, only 8 finished – 50% dropped out. I came in 4th out of 8, and 2nd out of 3 women. So right in the middle of the pack. (Side note – the woman who came in first also apparently WON Oakland marathon – six weeks after giving birth. What a badass!)
Immediately after I crossed the finish line, I went over to the medical tent and said I was having trouble breathing and did they have an oxygen tank I could avail myself of. A nurse made me sit down and did a few test. First,she put an oxygen monitor on the finger – my heart rate was around 95, and my oxygen level was between 93-94, which was actually pretty good (esp after 16 hours of sustained activity). She had me take a few deep breaths with the stethoscope and confirmed it felt like the lower part of my lungs wasn’t filling. She gave me an inhaler, which helped a bit, then told me it was probably a good idea to go back down to sea level and get away from the bad air quality – which she confirmed was due to fires.
Les sat with me for a few minutes here, which was actually super cool. I told him about the bears and he asked a few questions about the course. One of the neat things about smaller races is that you get to know the organizers a bit – Les was a really cool guy.
Ingrid and I hobbled back to the hotel and took quick showers before getting an Uber back to North Lake to pick up her car. We then headed home.
A couple of closing thoughts
- I’m really glad I did this race, because it’s a concept I’ve wanted to try for literally years.
- It’s been a few weeks since running, and I’m not sure my lungs are fully recovered from the trauma of running so much and so hard in such bad air quality. I think this was compounded by the other nearby fires in the Bay plus subsequently contracting a low-key flu. I don’t know that it was a good idea to run in that sort of air and I would not recommend it to another runner.
- Facing down bears made me feel like a badass. Also not recommended, but very empowering.
- I can’t believe how insanely awesome Ingrid was during this whole ordeal. I don’t think either of us had a ton of fun during this race, but she was an CHAMPION pacer and crew for the entire race. I literally could not have finished without her.
This has been another banner year for racing for me, and I think this will be the last race of the year that I do. I’ve done 11 races this year – starting with New Years in Zurich. I’ve had some pretty amazing results – 2nd at the New Years One Day (five days and an 8-hour plane ride after Zurich), 1st at SF Ultra, 2nd at Rodeo Beach, and a 50k PR at Burning Man. 2019 is also on track to be the highest running-mileage year of my life, with maybe around 2,600-2,700 miles. (It’s already the highest swimming mileage year of my life). I’m ready for a break for a little while.
I’m ready to do some running that isn’t training for something. I want to run because it’s fun, not because I have to. Isn’t that why we all started to begin with?