‘A glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell’ Truckee-Tahoe athletes brave 100 miles at the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run

The Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run 100-mile race is billed by organizers as “A glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell.”

Running on ridges high above alpine lakes with thunder echoing in the distance, lightning splitting the sky to the southeast, and smoke from distant fires collecting in the Tahoe basin on the opposite end of the lake, more than 200 athletes high atop the Tahoe Rim Trail were bathed in nothing but sunshine — “A glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell,” indeed.

“When you’re up on those peaks, you look to the right and you see the smoke and haze and you look to the left and you see the clouds and you hear the thunder,” said Truckee’s Alexander Humenetskyj on last weekend’s race. “But where we were at just stayed sunny.”

Humenetskyj was one of 151 competitors who left the starting line early July 21 at Spooner Lake, and one of several locals from the Donner Party Mountain Runners attempting this year’s 100-mile distance.

The notoriously difficult course routinely pushes the best athletes past the 20-hour mark, with this year’s event forcing 64 entrants to drop out before the finish line.

“It’s you against the course,” said Humenetskyj. “This is the course; that’s the battle. Things can go really well and things can go really wrong. Sometimes when you think, ‘This is going really great.’ That’s when it goes downhill.”

Heading into the event, athletes had run upward of 60-80 miles a week for months in preparation to push there bodies to the limit on the two lap course featuring 18,000 feet of climbing and descending. Each of the ultrarunners came that day for their own reasons and in some form to answer a deeper call of what the human body is capable of.

“Just to see if I could,” said Truckee’s Sharon Fong, who was attempting the distance for the third time after coming up seven miles short two years ago, and making it to mile 69 last year. At 60 years old, Fong, who is an original member of the Donner Party Mountain Runners, was the oldest woman to enter the race.

Similarly, Humenetskyj became entrenched in the sport after seeing others do what he thought was impossible.

“When I first saw ultra runners come to Squaw and run Western States, I knew nothing about it,” he said. “I saw all these endurance athletes and heard they were going to run 100 miles in 24 hours, and thought, that’s completely impossible … there’s no way people can do that. Shortly after watching it, I was hooked.”

That was five years ago and since then he’s competed in several endurance races at shorter distances, but last weekend’s Tahoe Rim Trail event was his first 100-mile attempt on the high-altitude trails above Tahoe and only the second time he’s tried to run that far in a race.

Several other local athletes made the trip across the lake for the race, including Tim MacIsaac, who planned on running the distance without a pacer.

The decision is somewhat unusual for runners and potentially dangerous for a 100-mile race, especially as night falls and runners are on the trail alone.

“I talk to people and they’re kind of blown away, but it’s alright, it’s not a bad deal,” MacIsaac said.

“It’s a beautiful trail, and it can be exhausting but to just watch it develop throughout the day and night … you get to see a perspective you don’t normally see, especially at night and being by yourself.”

Alexander Humenetskyj races along the course during the TRT 100. Photo courtesy of George Ruiz

Taking on 100 miles above Tahoe

The week leading up to the race is difficult for many competitors and it’s something Humenetskyj can hardly tolerate. As the race nears the anticipation begins to crawl over him like a fighter waiting to get in the ring. Usually the feeling subsides as the event approaches but the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 is no ordinary race.

“I’ve been nervous before but usually I get kind of calm a couple of days before the race,” he said. “But for this one I was terrified, ‘Why am I so nervous about this? Something’s going to go wrong. This doesn’t feel right.’”

While Humenetskyj dealt with nerves, Fong, a 20-year veteran of ultrarunning, entered the distance having completed her first 100-mile race less than a year ago at the Rio del Lago 100 last November. She’d also finished the Tahoe Rim Trail’s 50-mile and 55-kilometer distance several times since first entering the event in 2005.

Still, the 100-mile distance at Tahoe Rim has eluded her in two previous efforts after severe muscle fatigue in her hip flexors and lower back left her unable to stand up straight. A new training approach centered on core body exercises, however, left her optimistic she’d reach the finish line in her final attempt at the distance.

At 5 a.m. Saturday morning, runners left the start at Spooner Lake. Cool air and fresh legs made for a relatively smooth first quarter of the race for most athletes as they followed the route past Marlette Lake and up Marlette Peak and Harlan Peak before descending to the aid station at Tunnel Creek. A 6.3 mile loop and its sandy climb would challenge runners next as one of the course’s toughest sections, but for Humenetskyj, it would be what followed that nearly ended his race a third of the way in.

As he power hiked the nearly 2-mile, 1,700-foot climb along the dirt service road at Diamond Peak Ski Resort and onto the Crystal Ridge ski run, he began feeling disoriented, nauseous, and doubts began swirling in his mind.

“It was right in the middle of the day, so you’re really exposed to the sun, and it’s just beating down on you,” he said.

“When I got to the top I was dizzy and nauseous, I was getting confused, that kind of stuff … weird things happen when you’re doing these things. I started getting pretty emotional. I’d just seen my wife down at Diamond Peak and I have a 20-month-old, and I was upset I had dedicated all this time to this race and I should be with my family.”

Humenetskyj said he also began questioning if he could finish the distance, realizing he still had roughly 70 miles to go and would have to climb Diamond Peak again at around mile 80.

“I’m only 32 miles into the course and I have to do that Diamond Peak climb again at mile 80 and it’s going to be horrific,” he said.

Though nearly being knocked out early, Humenetskyj reached the next aid station about half an hour later. He said lack of nutrition on the course can cause the mind to play tricks on athletes, and after eating, he was revitalized and ready to continue the trek.

During much of this time he’d be running with MacIsaac, who while not having a pacer, was able to keep a clear mental frame throughout the day and into the night.

Running the course at night brings on a whole other experience. Photo courtesy of Alexander Humenetskyj

“I stayed ahead of the game with nutrition and stuff,” he said. “I didn’t’ have any mental (breaks), I just stayed in the positive zone.”

At mile 50, the athletes who used pacers were allowed to bring them onto the course, giving many of the runners a much-needed companion and source of encouragement.

With a pacer along for the run, Humenetskyj’s focus turned from simply completing the race to picking off runners ahead on the trail.

“I planned on running the race, but for me it turned into more racing the race. That second half I was tracking down people,” he said.

As night fell he moved up several positions and into the top 20, and continued to push past fellow runners, including at one point, MacIsaac.

“You could see the head lights at night and it completely motivated me,” said Humenetskyj. “We ran really hard for 30 miles and by the time I was at Diamond Peak to get my next pacer I had moved up to 18.”

Humenetskyj would have no issue running up the resort’s slopes this time around, pushing through the section only a few minutes slower than the first time and passing several other racers who were struggling to make the descent.

With 10 miles to go, he’d blow past the final two aid stations, moving into 11th place with hopes of cracking the top 10 — a decision he’d come to regret.

“I did everything perfect until those last two aid stations where I just blew through them and didn’t take care of myself,” said Humenetskyj.

“I went into one of the final aid stations and I saw three guys just kind of beat up, sitting there. I thought to myself, ‘I think I’m in 14th or 15th place, there’s three guys, that will move me up and maybe I can make it to the top 10. And so I just blew through that aid station. I never filled up my water bottles. I didn’t grab anything to eat. I was just focused on numbers, and I think it came back to bite me because later down the road that’s why I fell apart. I thought, in my head, ‘I’m just going to run these last 10 miles, I’m going to be fine.’”

Humenetskyj grabbed a drink at the final aid station, but he was mistakenly given a beverage with electrolytes mixed in, which he said caused him to become ill.

“I started getting dizzy and nauseous the last few miles,” he said. “Then my stomach turned on me.”

The stomach issue would cost him several positions as runners made their way past. It did not, though, cost Humenetskyj his ultimate goal of completing the race before the sun peeked over the mountains on Sunday morning.

“The last mile you just want to get to the finish so bad. Even though it’s the last mile it still feels like it’s going to take forever,” said Humenetskyj. “But seeing your family, and your crew that’s helped you throughout the day, the ultrarunning community is just phenomenal in this area, and when it finally all comes together and you realize you’re going to make it, and for me the day went so well, and the sun was just about to pop up, it was magical. You feel like you’re on top of the world.”

Humenetskyj’s time of 25 hours, 26 minutes, 22 seconds would be good enough for a 15th-place finish out of the 142 runners who completed the course.

MacIsaac, who was able to re-pass Humenetskyj during the final few miles, crossed the finish line just ahead with a time of 25:08:40 for 12th place and the top performance by a local.

“At some point, honestly, I just wanted to be done with it,” he said on the race.

Jim Atkinson, of Larkspur, Calif., took the overall win, finishing the course with a time of 21:11:23, and Bree Lambert, of San Jose, Calif., was the top woman with a time of 25:18:56.

Steve Rowbury (left) Alexander Humenetskyj, and Gretchen Brugman pose before this year's TRT 100. Photos courtesy of Alexander Humenetskyj

32 hours on Tahoe Rim

While several runners celebrated finishing the race, dozens of others were on the course suffering through agonizing step after step in pursuit of the finish line.

Roughly seven hours after her fellow Donner Party Mountain Runners had finished, Fong was still at it.

Her race had gone amazingly well for roughly 80 miles as she mixed in walking and running, but as she reached 30 hours of being on the course a familiar feeling of her core muscles weakening began to take hold.

“Hip flexors start tightening up, then the other side of my back tries to compensate, and then it starts getting weakened too,” she said. “This time it was getting a little painful back there just trying to stabilize it. I couldn’t stand up straight after a while, and I was just walking along holding onto the poles.”

Fong would force herself along for 13 more miles, moving at a sluggish pace, her body contorted and bent over at the waist and leaning heavily to her left side.

She’d periodically stop and stretch out enough to be able to stand up straight again, only to have everything fall apart and be forced to shuffle along at an unnatural angle.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh it’s happening again,’” she said. “Everything else was fine, I had no blisters, I was hydrating and eating well. Everything else was good. That’s the only thing that brought me down.”

Eventually Fong, who’d spent months doing Pilates and working on her core, could go no farther. An ailing back would force her to throw in the towel at nearly the same location as she had two years ago — just seven miles of downhill track from the finish line.

“I kept going until I couldn’t go anymore,” she said. “It’s kind of disappointing that I tried to do everything I could, only to find out that it didn’t work at mile 80.”

Even though she came up short, Fong remained positive about her effort on the trail last weekend, and happy her completion of the course at last year’s Rio del Lago gave her one finish at a 100-mile distance. She said she plans on running 100 kilometers in October, and will drop back down to the 55-kilometer or 50-mile distance for next year’s Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run.

“I figure I’m 60 years old and I’m able to get out and do this. Even if I don’t finish, I’m still out doing it,” she said.

“I was happy I got as far as I did. It would’ve been nice to finish, but I was just happy to be out there and get that far.”

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at jscacco@sierrasun.com.

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