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When The Times asked me to cover Courtney Dauwalter’s attempt at the Tahoe 200 ultramarathon back in September, I felt confident I could do a decent job.
I live nearby in Sacramento, and I spend a fair amount of my free time mountain biking, backcountry skiing, hiking and climbing in the Tahoe area. I’ve even run some (much shorter) trail races. I know the area well, and I am fairly fit.
My strategy was pretty simple: Drive to various trailheads, hike out to a scenic spot, wait for Courtney, shoot her passing by, run along with her for a while. Repeat as necessary for 200 miles.
The first couple of intercepts were straightforward because they were near aid stations or on paved roads. But after Tahoe City, the route veers away from populated areas for some time.
I hiked in a few miles to a beautiful overlook on the Tahoe Rim Trail and waited for Courtney at about Mile 32. She arrived shockingly early, at a very fast pace. I snapped a couple of frames as she passed and then she was suddenly a dozen yards ahead. I ran to catch up — careening over rocks, slaloming through pines — and never did. She was too fast.
I couldn’t fathom how she was going to run 200 miles like this.
I tried the same strategy a couple more times over the next 60-ish miles, and the result was always the same. I’d get a couple of quick photos as she passed by and then she was gone. I was stunned by her pace.
By dawn of the second day, I knew I would have to refine my strategy.
I stripped my equipment down to one camera and one lens. No extra batteries, memory cards, lenses, water, food or a jacket. When Courtney reached the aid station at Mile 100, I had just the camera in my hand.
As she headed out of the aid station, I took off after her. Fortunately, I was able to, just barely, keep up with her.
Her pace had slowed somewhat, but I was still gasping every time I overtook her to get ahead and snap a couple of frames as she passed before running to catch up again. She kept up a steady stream of jokes and chitchat, never once seeming out of breath as she cruised up rocky climbs to 8,000 feet above sea level.
I spent another day and a half chasing Courtney around Lake Tahoe. I’d run with her and her pacer on jeep trails, single-track mountain biking trails, even a half dozen miles on the old Pony Express route. Other times, I’d just briefly intercept her and get a quick picture at a scenic spot or aid station before hiking back to my car.
I ended up running and hiking more than 40 miles and sleeping only five hours over the two and a half days it took Courtney to run 200 miles. By the end, I was wrecked. Courtney simply sat down and cracked a beer, chatting and joking with her support crew and spectators. It looked as if she could head out for another lap.