We all run for very personal reasons. Some of us find "our distance" and spend our time training to push those limits to improve our finish-times or positions. For others, the distance itself becomes the driving force. The hook. Going into the unknown is the necessary catalyst for self-improvement. For finding ourselves.
Towards the end of summer this year, Kaz Williams took on the mammoth Tahoe 200 race in California. Kaz is part of the Pyllon Racing team - and we all felt an equal measure of nervousness and excitement for her, on this spectacular dive into the dark.
These are some words from Kaz, a remarkably kind, tenacious, gracious and joyful human being. We're lucky to know her and that she agreed to share some thoughts about this journey.
It was the middle of the 3rd night. I was 19K from the next aid station and 250K into the race. My hallucinations had started 24 hours ago. I had been told that the best way to deal with hallucinations is to embrace them. And that’s what I did.
And there it was again. ATTEN-TION! I don’t know who, or what, shouted it. In the dark of night, with my head torch lighting the trail, all the stones, branches, plants around my feet came to life. They started to shimmy themselves, stand up tall, puff out their chests to attention, and face me as I ran past.
Of course I acknowledged each one of them, and thanked them for their support…out loud, on a trail, round a lake in California.
Tahoe 200 is a single loop race around lake Tahoe. It is a beautiful course that takes you through breath-taking landscapes. The start was at 09h00 on Friday 8 September with a 100 hour cut off. Weather was going to be mixed with some rain and storms forecast.
The course is incredibly well supported. You can have drop bags at nearly every aid station except a few. Being used to European races, I decided to go with 2 drop bags per 160K, so had 4 drop bags in total, with one being moved from an early aid station to a later one in the race. I have found a successful drop bag is learned when racing in bad weather. When runners around you are removing wet kit and putting on dry, warm clothes and shoes, using wet wipes, changing caps, and you’re looking into your drop bag hoping for the same, except you only threw in a few gels and a pair of socks.
My plan was to carry everything I needed just in case something went wrong. I did, however, pack super carefully and light, and took the advice of a friend, and not over pack on nutrition. Some runners carried smaller packs, with just enough for water and a small amount of food, deciding to rely on each aid station and drop bag. Others carried a lot more.
Tahoe 200 was an absolutely amazing experience. I had a fantastic race. Don’t get me wrong the lows were low. I shiver now remembering how tough it was in places, but I can honestly say I never considered quitting.
I was on my own for a lot of the race, and did spend some hours with other runners when leaving aid stations or at night when more head torches, and heads, were better than one.
About a year ago I started training with real food, carrying gels and bars as back up. My race nutrition strategy was pretty primitive, as I didn’t want to have to remember anything complicated or count calories. It was basically to eat lots and stay hydrated by being aware of how much water I was consuming between aid stations. I also made a commitment to go for quality calories and ignore the treats on offer. Personally I think this had a huge effect on my ability to keep running and stay focused. I did devour an amazing crisp sandwich 10K out from the finish.
Sleep was another area that I had to explore and research before the race, as I had never needed to sleep during an event before. People’s experiences varied and it was therefore difficult to know what would work for me. So at the start of the race I had no sleep plan as such, except to go with how I felt. Taking 20-30 min catnaps starting in the early hours of day 2 worked perfectly. During the 77 hours of my race, I slept a total of 2hrs 20mins.
I believed I was going to finish. I believed that I was going to run 206 miles, and climb and descend 12,000m. You have to believe. But believing is one thing. Actually finishing is another. And it is far from guaranteed. I had a job to do. And beyond having the faith and resilience to keep going, all I focused on was the next aid station, and then the next. That was the plan.
Stopping is not an option
Except when I got lost. By the third time it was hugely frustrating, and I knew I was losing time and more importantly, precious energy. I had over shot a turning, scrambled down a technical section, hit the trail…but didn’t realise I was back on course, then descended further, over fallen trees and boulders, as I could see a house and an old lady fixing a fence in the distance. When I was close enough that I thought she could hear me, I started shouting. The relief of seeing someone who could point me in the direction was overwhelming.
What was it I had to do again, oh yeah, embrace the hallucinations. When I figured out she wasn’t real, nor the fence, nor the house, I told myself that I seriously needed to get a grip. I climbed back up the way I had come, pretending to be a Navy SEAL, and saying Grrr… lots, to try and instil some physical strength. I found the trail and within 6K was at an aid station…with real people.
We talk about living many different lives in one lifetime. I felt as if I ran many different races in this one race. Just hours after the start, I fell hard on a rocky section. You know it’s bad when you hear people behind you gasp. My hip was sore for a while. I was so proud of my bloody knee.
A runner called Gabriel (honestly) came out of the darkness one night and saved me when I was heading off course, again.
I saw a bear on the outskirts of Tahoe City at 02h00 in the morning raiding a dumpster and scoring a huge slice of pizza. The moment was priceless.
Messages reached me from fellow Team Pyllon athletes that brought huge smiles and, I will admit, a few tears too.
And I had too many lovely, fuzzy moments with volunteers to count. Never underestimate the power of a hug.
I didn’t start with a crew. I am an independent runner and like to do my own thing…fundamentally because I don’t like putting people out. I had mentioned to friends living in Truckee to follow me online and maybe surprise me at an aid station that was easy for them to get to, as it would be a great boost to see their smiling faces. Friends of 2 became 4, then 5 as their friends wanted to come and support me during the race too. Human kindness is incredibly powerful and humbling. These people gave their time to wait at an aid station to help, encourage and support me. I still find this astounding. None of us, including me, really knew what to do…so we laughed, mostly at me, checked my drop bag lists, shared stories and by the last few aid stations, we had this crew-thing nailed.
I was so proud that I was able to run as much of the race as I did, and right to that finish line. I hiked all climbs, ran all descents, and as much of the sections in between that I could. I kept on running. And I knew that it was because of my training with Paul, and the time I had invested in preparing for this race mentally and physically, that allowed me to keep on going. From inspirational quotes, talking to experienced ultra runners, and being open to expecting the unexpected, I was ready to give Tahoe my all and I did.
As a final note to share, at the race briefing the medical director told us, there are generally 2 things that end people’s races early, and that’s your head and your feet…