One Dirty Magazine

A Long Way Gone

A visual exploration of the recent phenomenon of 200-mile footraces.

Story and Photos by Howie Stern June 29th, 2018

A Long Way Gone One of the challenges of 200-milers is fighting off sleep deprivation as the miles and days stack up. Dennis Williams, feeling the effects of 175 miles, tries to catch 30 minutes of sleep before finishing up the final 50K of the Tahoe 200.

I felt the light rain hit my face as I lay there on the ground in a mental fog. I was 92 hours into the 2016 Tahoe 200 and had fallen asleep on the trail, again, this time a mere seven miles from the finish.

Moments like these punctuated the last day and a half more than I care to admit, but what seemed impossibly far at the beginning, had now proved to be far from impossible.

The phrase, “200 is the new 100,” gets thrown around a lot these days, but that really is oversimplifying things and doesn’t begin to describe the essence of what these events do to the runner, physically, emotionally or spiritually.

For starters, you have to wrap your mind around a race that will take not one day, but rather many days to complete. It’s as if you are staring down a tunnel through the trees into which you can see no end. The days ahead will be filled with dark, light and everything in between.

For some, running 200 miles is a solo journey, while, for others, it’s a chance to share the adventure with friends. Jack Meyer and his pacer Kelly Cronin swapping stories while enjoying the open views of the Big Meadow area of the Tahoe 200.

Of all the days, the first day may be the toughest. Your mind hasn’t calibrated to the distance yet. You still think about time and space. What mile am I at? Where is the next aid station? You question yourself and wonder when things might get ugly. At some point as the sun is beating down on you, you realize that you’ve gone only 30 miles and have a long, long way to go.

The sign ahead read, “Armstrong Pass, 7 miles.” I laid down on the trail and tears began to form. How could it still be seven miles to the next aid station. I’ve been going for hours and hours since the last one, I agonized.

The second half of a 200 is a wild ride of physical and mental highs and lows, dream states and inner reflection. Susan Donnelly, deep in the zone where those elements intersect at the Bigfoot 200 in Washington.

In 200s, aid stations are few and far between compared to your typical 100-miler, sometimes averaging 15 to 20 miles between them. Things were getting real, and the thought, “The only way out is through,” echoed through my mind as I picked myself up and marched toward the aid station and some sort of hope for recovery.

The beauty of the human spirit is that even in the darkest of times, hope remains … 91 miles into the Bigfoot 200, Tom Rogozinski courted the dark side at the Road 9327 aid station, where he spent four hours trying come back from the abyss. Despite bouts of chills and stomach issues, he left the aid station and slogged along for four more hours at a 1 mph pace before his body finally came around and carried him successfully to the finish.

In journeys like these, as the miles, sunrises and sunsets roll by, a transformation takes place. The outside world slips away and you live in the here and now. Fellow runners aren’t competitors but become part of your tribe, all moving forward as a cohesive force, to some distant finish line that you have to believe actually exists.

Don Freeman, also a Triple Crown finisher, awash in the warming rays of the sun atop the first climb of the Moab 240.

My friend Dennis Williams summed it up perfectly when I caught up to him near the finish of the 2017 Tahoe 200 while I was shooting photos: “You move until you transcend. Until you realize that you are actually the consciousness of the mountains objectively experiencing themselves. You see the sole purpose of your existence is for the mountains to witness themselves.”

At mile 155, Elk Peak is one of the features runners both love and hate during the Bigfoot 200. Much of your perspective comes from whether it is day or night. Summit during the day and you are rewarded with views of mounts Rainier, Adams and Hood. Arrive at night, and you only notice the horribly steep and sandy grade that pummels both the quads and feet on the descent. Phil Nimmo hit the jackpot, taking it all in during the evening light.

Once you are in that uncharted territory, deep in the second half, the loneliness, physical discomfort and sleep deprivation begin to take their toll.

James Delorme has that glow after finishing the Moab 200 in a time of 99:29:04.

In my 2016 Tahoe 200 race, somewhere around 170 miles is where my perfect storm hit. With still another five miles remaining to the aid station, I struggled to move forward. I knew the trail well, but everything looked the same as if I were on a treadmill going nowhere.

I began to think of another friend Stephen Jones, a frequent runner of 200-mile races who had passed away in an avalanche the year before. I burst into tears and forced myself to move forward as if he were next to me, spurring me on. I kept saying to myself out loud, “Just put one foot in front of the other and you will get to the aid station. Just one foot in front of the other …”

It’s when we are in our darkest moments that we search for some ray of hope. Katie Graff was searching for strength at the Bridger Jack aid station in the back of coach Jason Koop’s truck at the Moab 240. Sometimes you find it in the beauty around you; other times you find it when seeing familiar faces on the trail. Katie found that strength in spades, as she went on to complete all three races of the Triple Crown of 200s.

As the final hours of the long drizzly night gave way to dawn there was calm. Just forward movement and contentment. Re-entry had begun. The muscles relaxed, the legs flowed as did the tears of both sadness and joy. The bonds I’d made, the beauty I’d seen, the pain I’d endured …The inward reflection upon my soul. Seeing the finish line wasn’t the end; it was only the beginning.

As Stephen Jones used to say, “We are the lucky ones.”

This article originally appeared in the 2018 issue of Dirt.

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