LAKE TAHOE — Runners and hikers from all over the world have come to Tahoe to experience the challenge and beauty of the Tahoe Rim Trail. On Monday morning, four ultrarunners set out to tackle the entire 165 miles at once. They left Tahoe City at 5:30 a.m. and headed clockwise for a lap around the lake. They were by no means the first to set this goal, but their plan to work together to set a new speed record for the trail was unique.
The speed record for the TRT was set by Spain's Kilian Jornet in 2009 when he was just 22. Jornet's resume includes wins at some of the world's most competitive mountain races, including the Western States 100, and is considered by many to be the best mountain runner on the trails today. Certainly taking down any record set by Jornet would be a task as big as the mountains the group planned to run through.
The four men were organized and led by Gary Gellin of Menlo Park. Gellin, along with Adam Hewey, Ben Lewis and Victor Ballesteros, can all claim numerous 100 mile races to their credit, but none had ever attempted a run this far.
How did this group plan to finish the trail faster than Kilian Jornet? Gellin felt their advantages lay not in running faster, but in being more efficient.
“Kilian slept for at least an hour, and he also got lost for about 45 minutes,” Gellin said.
He also planned on doing very little stopping. He spent hours organizing a team of experienced pacers and crew members that planned to give the group “NASCAR-style pit crewing,” Gellin said. Their plan called for stops of only 1-2 minutes at each of 12 aid stations.
Pacers — additional runners who joined the core group for 15-20 miles at a time — were employed simply for the purpose of safety, ensuring no runner would travel the trail alone. If any runner in the group fell off the pace, one of three pacers would stay with him so that he could continue running without compromising the speed of the entire group. Pacers already knew who would go ahead with the leaders and who would be the first to stay back with struggling runners.
“We won't have time to stop and have a pow-wow about what to do if someone is slowing down,” Gellin said on Saturday.
In addition to being incredibly organized, Gellin has done his homework on the Tahoe Rim Trail and on what it takes to finish the entire thing. He spent time traveling every mile of the trail himself, and completed a practice run of 66 miles on it in June at his planned pace of about 13 minutes per mile. He also sought advice from the experts, getting help from Jornet, former record holder Tim Twietmeyer, and ultra distance legend David Horton.
Homework and planning are paramount to success in an endeavor such as this. However, when running 165 miles, one thing you can almost certainly count on — things won't all go according to plan.
After running through the beautiful and rugged Desolation Wilderness, Adam Hewey was not able to keep food down and was forced to give up the run at Echo Lakes, 47 miles into the trail. Ben Lewis suffered a similar fate at mile 65.
Two runners, Gellen and Victor Ballesteros, continued on through the dark Monday night. They began to separate with slightly different running paces, but each runner was accompanied by a pacer.
Then came the next kink in the plan for each of them.
Gellin had been suffering minor knee pain incurred during a 50 mile race two weeks earlier. The pain fluctuated throughout the run, but finally flared up and turned his run into a painful hobble. He spent several hours walking before calling an end to things at mile 79.
Ballesteros and his pacer made a wrong turn, heading down the trail known to mountain bikers as “Mr. Toad's Wild Ride,” and ending up on the streets of South Lake Tahoe. Frustration and disappointment urged him to quit, but friends and his wife, who were all part of his crew, found him and gently encouraged him to continue. After accepting the fate of his ten mile detour, he retraced his steps back to the Rim Trail and continued on, the last of the four runners still on trail.
Gellin, Lewis, Hewey, their families, and numerous friends were all gathered at Tahoe Meadows Tuesday evening to offer aid and support to Ballesteros who arrived there, mile 126, looking strong, eating well, and in good spirits.
“It's bittersweet,” admitted Gellin, of the way his own run turned out, “but I feel like there were a lot of positives, and that's what I can take away. I enjoyed the ‘mini event' aspect, and appreciated the support of so many people.”
Gellin felt that the record, while extremely stout, is still possible with “all systems go.” In other words, with no kinks in the plan.
Does he intend to try it again?
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “In ten years or something.”
His wife and crew chief, Holly, interrupted with her own emphatic response. “No!”
One thing is clear, in spite of not completing the entire 165 mile distance, the three runners have no regrets about their attempt, and they are excited about the effort of Ballesteros. As of Wednesday morning, he was still out on the trail, feeling sleepy but moving well. He was projected to finish around 10 a.m., and his entire team will be there to congratulate him on his journey.