Inhale “One. Two. Three.”
Exhale “One. Two.”
Repeat 75,000 times (for 171 miles)
I left for a solo unsupported lap around the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT) on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, at 2:00am. The day before, our teenage son Alex asked a thoughtful question,“What do you have to do to be successful?”
“Pay attention to water, don’t sweat too much, and keep my effort level low enough,” I told him off the top of my head.
Counting breaths is how I monitor that effort level. If I can maintain a gentle 3-2 rhythm, then I know that my pace is sustainable. You can learn about 3-2 rhythmic breathing in Budd Coates’ book, “Running on Air.“
Once I’ve settled into the rhythm, I seek to gently focus on the breath or another sensation, such as my relaxed jaw or the sound of my foot steps. Next, I employ mindful techniques to allow thoughts and feelings to pass out of my mind.
It is ongoing work that ultimately brought me to the finish of my second full trip around the TRT. Last year I established a solo female self-supported Fastest Known Time (FKT) in 3d 4h 32m or 76h 32m.
Attempting the unsupported mode was a substantial increase in challenge, so I was happy to finish in 75h 44m, besting my own self-supported record as well as the recently established unsupported record.
Mode of travel
I travelled on foot with all of my gear and food on my person and filtered water from natural sources along the route. I made use of publicly-available trash cans at the following trailheads: Rose Summit, Spooner Summit, Big Meadow, and Echo Lake.
I started in Tahoe City and travelled clockwise. Tahoe City is the official start and finish of the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail loop, and it’s also one of the closest trailheads to my home in Truckee, California, so it was the obvious choice for me.
Trail conditions were exceptionally good. There were very few downed trees and no snow patches big enough to hide the trail. In fact, I was never off-course for more than 20 steps.
I navigated the entire route based on previous experience and TRT signage. I memorized every critical water location and recalled them based on landmarks, as I had no GPS mileage information readily available. (See Gear section below for details about the electronics I did carry.)
Timeline & Mileage
Day 1: Tahoe City to Genoa Road Crossing (Mile 67)
June 30, 2020, 2:00am:
Departed from Tahoe City Trailhead (near transit center)
Traveled in clockwise direction
July 1, 2020, about 2:00am:
Arrived Genoa Road Crossing (3.5 miles south of Spooner Summit)
Slept for 3.5 hours
67 miles in 24 hours
Day 2: Genoa Road Crossing to PCT Junction (Mile 109)
July 1, 2020, about 5:30am:
July 1, 2020, about 11:55pm:
Picked camp spot just north of PCT Junction
Slept for 4.5 hours
42 miles in 18.5 hours
Day 3: PCT Junction to Tahoe City (Mile 171)
July 2, 2020, about 5am:
July 3, 2020, 5:44am:
Returned to Tahoe City Trailhead!
62 miles in 25.75 hours
171 miles 3 days, 3 hours, 44 minutes, or 75 hours, 44 minutes
Every piece of gear is a balanced decision between weight and value. Fundamentally, you need fuel, water (i.e. filter and storage capacity,) shelter in the form of clothes and possibly sleeping equipment, electronics for lighting, navigation and communication, and personal items for health and safety.
Starting pack weight, including 1.5 liters of water:
17.3 pounds (7.85 kilograms) backpack
1.3 pounds (590 grams) waistpack
18.6 pounds (8.44 kilograms) total
I carried 8.6 pounds (3.9 kilograms) of food, divided into identical odor-proof bags for each of the 3 days on-trail. Of 13,925 total calories, I managed to successfully consume 11,677 during my trip.
My overall average consumption was 154 calories/hour. However, if you remove the 8 hours that I slept and the 5 final hours during which I essentially didn’t eat, my moving average is more like 186 calories/hour.
To clarify, I took all of my calories on the move, keeping food easily at hand in my front pack pockets. I tried to consistently sprinkle in the high-fat pili nuts for good calorie density, but I saved the other heavy foods (meat sticks and plantain chips) for short stops at water sources or the top of a climb.
My meal kits included the following foods, listed in order of prevalence: Stinger Chews, Stinger Gels, Pili Nuts, Medjool Dates, Raisins, Mini Beef Sticks, and a special treat of crushed plantain chips with added sea salt. Consistent fueling was crucial to my success this year – I will definitely share more details in the future.
Without a doubt, the ability to filter and carry adequate water is the crux of the unsupported challenge. The trail is completely dry for 24.5 miles from Marlette (the seasonal creek at mile 54.5, or the campground pump if it’s not broken) to Edgewood Creek (at mile 79 between the Kingsbury North and South trailheads.) Click here for the map at TRTA if you’d like to follow along.
My original plan, much to my chagrin, was to drop down to filter water from Spooner Lake. It’s about 200 feet below (and then back up!) from the TRT. Oh, and did I mention that Spooner Lake has leeches?
I filtered and loaded myself to full capacity before I left the seasonal creek at Marlette. My sweet husband had biked up there a few days before to confirm that it was still running – the pump at nearby Marlette Campground has been broken for some time now.
I had just enjoyed the most stunning sunset with views of Marlette Lake floating above Lake Tahoe. It was the start of a cool night as I made the 9-mile trek down to the Spooner trailhead, occasionally managing a gentle jog under the heavy load. As I descended toward the Spooner Lake turnoff, I realized that I had barely dipped into my current water supplies.
It was a calculated risk to skip Spooner Lake, but avoiding the detour would save me up to an hour. It was a risk worth taking, so I continued at easy hiking pace another 4 miles south of Spooner Summit to a nice, quiet spot to sleep for a few hours. If I could make it to Edgewood Creek without being compromised, I knew that water worries would be behind me.
The next day I passed several dry creek beds in the Kingsbury area. A couple of backpackers were sadly looking for water in non-existent seasonal creeks there. In my mind and memory, I know that Edgewood Creek is south of Kingsbury Grade, but I had to work hard not to second-guess myself as I sucked my water reservoirs dry.
I passed an area of green aspen and foliage, but the ground underneath was just moist dirt – no running water.
“Wait, is this the creek I’m looking for?” I nervously wondered, but tried to hold steady to my memorized water locations.
Finally, after crossing Kingsbury Grade and then heading uphill on a road for a while, the surroundings clicked as familiar and I knew that the water would be soon. The route turned onto a single track and soon crossed Edgewood Creek itself. I filtered up and prepared for the long climb up Freel.
Water would not be a problem now.
To sleep or not to sleep, that is the question
In my self-supported FKT trip last year, I indulged in decadent hours of sleep. It made the journey really manageable, and taught me the value of solid trail sleep.
I made big changes to my sleeping system since last year in order to save time and bulk. Last year I used an inflatable sleeping pad and down quilt inside a bivy. This year I relied on a much warmer synthetic bag (rated 20F) and only a sheet of Tyvek for ground cover. I can pack up this simple system much faster, it weighs less (2.2 pounds vs. 4 pounds,) and takes up less volume in the pack.
As with gear and calories, sleep itself is a commodity that must be optimized. My plan was 3.5 hours of sleep each night, but that was a flexible target that didn’t solidify until deep into the Big Meadow section.
Your approach to sleeping on the trail drives the gear you need to carry. If you can manage several days out on the trails with only short trail naps, then you might get by with nothing more than a jacket and an emergency bivy.
The men who have set unsupported FKTs on the Tahoe Rim Trail have taken this approach, which has saved them a couple of pounds in sleeping gear. If one can finish fast enough, this is a calculated risk to take. I figured that was unrealistic for me.
I really knew it was unrealistic some time after Midnight south of Big Meadow on the second night. I was hoping to skip sleeping, but I was getting really tired and cold. Too cold. I started to wonder what to do… I was looking for a spot to sleep for the night, but nothing was hospitable.
I pulled out my sleeping bag and wrapped it around myself like a toga. I soon found myself ambling down the trail, struggling to hold up my toga with poles in my hands, making very slow progress.
I continued this way for a couple of miles as I observed the forest, fluctuating temperatures, and looked for a place to sleep.
With great relief, I finally found a clear area of forest that wasn’t too cold. I laid out my piece of Tyvek, converted my toga back to a sleeping bag, brushed my teeth (yes, really!) and went to sleep for 4.5 hours.
I slept for a total of 8 hours in two nights, plus took two micro-naps of 7 minutes each. The final night I continued straight through from Barker to the finish, same as I did last year.
Lighting: I carried two Armytek multi-flashlights, each with a fully-charged 18650 Li-Ion battery, and one headband. I carried one spare battery that could be used with the flashlights or with the tiny Nitecore FlexBank charger to top off my InReach if necessary.
Navigation: For GPS tracking, emergency satellite communications, and as a mapping backup, I carried an InReach Explorer+
Communication: I wore my Apple watch in super power reserve mode, which means that I had to push a button and wait five seconds to know even the time of day. I powered the watch up about once a day to call my husband. I also left it on while I slept to use the alarm clock.
I used the preset message function of the InReach to let my husband know when I stopped to sleep each night.
I did NOT carry a cell phone other than my Apple watch. Not only did this save me almost a half pound in carrying weight, but it was very liberating in terms of allowing me to focus on the journey at hand.
Only a few times it was a bit frustrating to be without time or distance data – in the dark of the final night where I’m less familiar with the route – I struggled to understand the topology and distance remaining to Barker Pass.
Overall, I highly recommend the experience of not having easy access to the time of day, distance, electronic maps, or even a camera! Of course, this is only practical if you have good route knowledge.
Make a Date with Adventure
With races cancelled due to the pandemic, 2020 will surely go down as the year of the FKT. This unsupported trip around the Tahoe Rim Trail has been in my head for 2.5 years. I sat in the living room during the big snow storms of February 2018 and ordered up gear for a fantasy TRT adventure.
Alas, I allowed 2018 to become overbooked with races and volunteering. Coach Peter correctly warned that I’d never do it if I didn’t put it on the calendar. It would be another year before I hit the trail for my self-supported FKT in the final days of July 2019.
Staying at home during the pandemic this year has afforded our family even greater schedule flexibility, for which I’m very grateful. Although we had to cancel some wonderful family plans, we are enjoying a renewed sense of time together and appreciation for the good fortune to live in the mountains. I was able to adjust my TRT trip timing this year to optimize trail and weather conditions.
After I completed my trip, I found that an audacious adventurer from Montana, Fran Zelenitz, had posted an unsupported FKT for the route of 4d 5h 51m. She incorrectly assumed that “There was already minimal water because it was a low snow year.” Actually, the water flow was robust, as most of the sources are driven by the time of year rather than snowmelt. It just happens that, as I described before, there is a very long dry stretch of trail even in the best of circumstances.
Meanwhile, a very accomplished runner from Colorado, Kyle Curtin, was out to set a new men’s unsupported record. We had chatted the week before about water sources and route-finding. Actually, he was hoping to beat Kilian Jornet’s supported record – thinking he could move quickly without the burden of crew – but it proved “incredibly difficult” to carry the load of calories and water.
I was thrilled to greet Kyle as he finished his incredible 41h 9m unsupported run on the night of July 4th. Although he didn’t best Kilian’s supported time, Kyle did smash the previous unsupported record by over 13 hours.
Speaking of previous records, I’d like to especially thank Mike Tebbutt, previous holder of the unsupported men’s record. Mike is a fellow co-founder of our local running club, the Donner Party Mountain Runners, and has provided incredible encouragement and trail beta to me and any that ask it of him. I wore our original club shirt in his honor.
As I publish this article, another runner, Candice Burt, is making a bold unsupported run. She is reportedly going very light, with only an emergency bivy. If she is successful in completing the lap on minimal sleep, then she will handily beat my time by many hours. It is a gamble to be sure.
Of course, I don’t look forward to my record being broken so soon, but I do hope she finishes in some fashion! Regardless of the outcome, I am happy with my explorations on the trail, and don’t currently have plans to do a faster record attempt.
Wherever you live, whatever your experience, 2020 is a great year to seek a new adventure close to your own home!
Even on a solo effort, my husband is always with me… I know he is tracking every satellite ping and sleeps only when I do. He managed our teens at home and the kitchen was clean when I returned home!
After a long Spring of solitude training, my trail girls and I re-united for training on the TRT. We masked up for carpooling and shuttles to cover large sections of the trail. Thanks to Betsy, Diane & Lesley for putting up with my slow pace under the weighted pack. And congratulations to Diane & Lesley for completing every step of the TRT over the course of 8 days!