205.5 miles in Tahoe

205.5 miles in Tahoe

Magdalena Casper-Shipp started running at 9 a.m. Sept. 8 on the shore of Lake Tahoe, wearing a hydration pack and carrying some food, rain gear, a puffy coat, a headlamp, gloves, an ear band, a sun hat, salt pills and Aleve, her phone, other miscellaneous items and her trekking poles.

It was the start of a four-day, 205.5-mile race that circumnavigates Lake Tahoe.

Casper-Shipp, who lives in Urbana, had spent the previous month running and hiking at altitude to prepare. She’d carefully planned what she would carry with her, what changes of clothes she would need along the way, and where she would sleep. She created a pace chart that estimated when she would get to each checkpoint along the way.

When she got to aid station at 63 miles -- the first time in the race she saw her support crew or was allowed to have a pacer run with her -- it was 6:30 a.m. Sept. 9, four hours later than she estimated she would arrive.

Casper-Shipp had run up and down mountains for a cumulative elevation gain of 11,500 feet.

She hadn’t slept for nearly 24 hours and she’d eaten little more than a bowl of hash browns at an earlier aid station.

She had run through pouring run and in 40-degree temperatures.

She was freezing cold, and as soon as she got to the aid station, she burst into tears.

***

The Tahoe 200 Endurance Run is a complete loop of Lake Tahoe, starting and ending in Homewood, Calif. Most of the run is on single-track trail, largely on the Tahoe Rim Trail, with 21 miles on rocky four-wheel-drive roads. Participants have 35,000 feet of elevation gain over the entire race, and an equal amount of descent. The time cutoff for an official finish is 100 hours.

Blog PhotoCasper-Shipp had previously done more than 30 ultra runs, including two 100-mile runs.

“When you run a 50K and your legs are fine the next day and you feel like you can do it again, where’s the challenge? Thirty miles is not hard for me. There are parts of it that are challenging physically and mentally. But I wanted to do something where I didn’t know if I could do it,” she said of the Tahoe 200.

Casper-Shipp ran fewer ultras this year and fewer miles overall due to a foot injury. Once she decided to do the Tahoe 200, though, she planned to spend as much time at altitude as possible before the race. She ran a 53-mile race at Los Alamos, N.M., in May, as well as a 100-kilometer race (62 miles) in June in Wisconsin.

She left Illinois on Aug. 15 and visited Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado; Taos, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Great Basin National Park on the Utah-Nevada border; and Yellowstone National Park. She also visited the Grand Canyon, running from the south rim to the bottom of the canyon and back up.

“That was harder than a lot of parts of Tahoe,” Casper-Shipp said.

While doing a 27-mile hike near Lake Tahoe on Labor Day, she met a runner who would end up pacing her for part of the race.

***

After sleeping for a short time at the 63-mile aid station, Casper-Shipp changed clothes and had her feet taped by the medical staff to prevent blisters. She was nauseous but managed to eat a little food.

“I knew eating was my biggest problem. The whole summer I was experimenting with different things in my flask, like applesauce and kefir. I had tried so many ways of eating in preparation, because I knew that was going to be the problem, and it didn’t end up helping,” she said.

She doesn’t like to eat anything with texture or that is difficult to chew during an ultra race, and she also can’t eat gluten, so much of the food at aid stations is off-limits to her. During the Tahoe 200, she found that hash browns with cheese -- wrapped in foil so she could carry them with her -- were appealing. And late in the race, she requested that her boyfriend and support crew, Jonah Weisskopf, meet her at an aid station with pad thai.

Blog PhotoAfter covering the first 63 miles alone, Casper-Shipp ran all but 20 miles of the rest of the race with several different pacers: Jake Jackson of Ridge Farm is a regular trail running partner, running with Casper-Shipp most Sundays at Forest Glen Preserve in Vermilion County; Chris Tucker of Sacramento is a friend who has run the Tahoe 200 in the past; and Chris Twomey, who lives in the Lake Tahoe area, is the runner Casper-Shipp met on her Labor Day hike.

At 70 miles into the race, the runners began running on the well-maintained Tahoe Rim Trail. Much of the race involves fast hiking rather than running, Casper-Shipp said, but by her second night, she was moving faster than expected.

Then, at mile 145, she and Jackson encountered a steep climb along a powerline cut, with an elevation gain of 1,800 feet in two miles and loose dirt providing poor footing. It was one of the hardest sections of the race.

She was also feeling the effects of sleep deprivation, and she found herself walking with her eyes closed in the middle of the night. To keep her awake, Jackson recited in detail the plot of the movie “Last of the Mohicans,” which he’d watched the night before he left for the race.

In spite of the difficulties, Casper-Shipp regained her energy on a 5-mile downhill stretch to the next aid station.

“Those last five miles, we found this really beautiful single-track downhill. She was really hammering it, and it was all I could do to stay with her,” Jackson said. “I was pretty confident she would do it, but I thought, ‘If she can do this, there’s no stopping her.’”

Blog PhotoJackson also ran with Casper-Shipp for the last 30 miles of the race -- the longest run he had ever done. The two were drenched in a thunderstorm along the shore of Lake Tahoe. Casper-Shipp changed into dry clothes at an aid station 10 miles from the finish, but she refused to sit down. She was ready to finish the race.

“One of the most impressive things to me about it was seeing how she had such a rough first section and how her mood shifted and the momentum picked up,” Weisskopf said. “After the first 63 miles, she got her groove back, got her feet under her and was ready to go. Watching other people at these same aid stations, it was like a truck hit them. The last two days, her spirit and strength just kept rising. She was totally focused.”

Casper-Shipp thought she could finish the last 10 miles in 3 1/2 hours, but it took her five hours to go up a series of switchbacks and then negotiate the downhill along roads filled with boulders. She finished in 92 hours and 26 minutes. She slept briefly at several aid stations, but for a total of just 4 1/2 hours during the four days of the race.

“She far exceeded my expectations of what I thought was possible. It was unbelievable,” Jackson said. “There were times she was smiling and joking on the trail, just like a Sunday run at Forest Glen, even though we were at 7,000 feet and it was the middle of the night.”

In many ways, the race was what Casper-Shipp had expected, and in some ways, it was easier. But, she said, “It was harder not to sleep, and stay focused, than I expected. And the first day, staying motivated when I was very clearly not meeting my unrealistic goals.”

Casper-Shipp never considered quitting during the race, but she also said never wanted to do a 200-mile race again. Since her finish, though, her thinking has shifted: “I can think of a lot of ways I’d try to improve my performance and gear.”

 

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.

 

Photos: Top, Magdalena Casper-Shipp leaves the Tahoe City aid station at mile 175. Middle, With Jake Jackson, who paced her for part of the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run. Bottom, she heads out in her rain gear for the final stretch -- just 10 miles from the finish line. Photos courtesy of Magdalena Casper-Shipp.

 

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