NORTH CANTON For a lot of people, even avid runners, doing a marathon is the peak of endurance tests.
For North Canton native Randy Wittmer, that wasn’t near far enough.
Wittmer recently completed the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run Ultra, an ultra-distance event spanning 205.5 miles in Lake Tahoe, Calif. It was a grueling multi-day event that took him 89 hours to complete and pushed him to his limits and beyond.
"The race started Sept. 8 and you had up through Sept. 12 to finish," Wittmer said. "There was a time limit of 100 hours and after that, you didn’t qualify as a finisher."
His 89-hour break began at the bottom of a ski hill in Homewood, Calif., and ended at the same spot following four brutal days of running through the mountains in terrain that slowed his pace to as low as 20 minutes per mile. Starting at the bottom of a ski hill and running up it sounds daunting in and of itself, but Whittmer laughed as he noted that running up the massive hill was "the easiest part of the race."
When he started, Wittmer knew he was in for a huge challenge. By the time he finished at 2:45 a.m. the following Monday, he knew just how huge.
"About 60 miles in, I knew it was harder than anything I’ve ever done before … I now know what it feels like to bare your sole empty, to just stare at yourself at rock bottom and know my why, to know why I’m doing this," Wittmer said. "Your body is begging you to quit and you have to convince yourself to know why you don’t want to quit."
The race wound itself around Lake Tahoe but since the perimeter of the lake isn’t quite 200 miles, racers made a turn on the far side of the lake and once in Nevada, diverted a few miles to extend the course. They still ran one big loop, traversing mountain trails that were often wide enough for just one person. Because it was a multi-day event, racers had to make their own accommodations for sleep and support.
Just don’t picture a nice stint at a roadside motel or even finding a couch to sleep on through Air BNB, because it such remote areas, neither was an option.
"There were no hotels, no Air BNB … you would have an aid station where you would replenish your fuel and you could try to guess where you’d finish the day and leave a sleeping bag there, but a lot of people ended up sleeping on the trail," Wittmer said. "It’s a single track trail, the width of one person, and it wasn’t uncommon to see someone curled up beside the trail."
Aid stations for many ultra marathons, which range between 30 and 100 miles typically, are every five to eight miles in most events. With the rugged Tahoe course, Wittmer and his fellow runners saw aid stations every 17 to 23 miles. His pace, which is around seven minutes a mile for most races, slowed to nearly three times that gait in the mountains at times, so reaching aid stations took as long as eight hours.
When he did reach those aid stations, he was met by his parents, who initially weren’t going to travel out for the race, but decided to at the last minute. Writing about their efforts afterward, Wittmer described their efforts of supporting him as "nothing short of perfect." Often, he would reach an aid station at 2 or 3 a.m. and his parents were there, waiting with food, drinks and petroleum jelly to apply to his skin to avoid chafing from his running gear.
Sleep was hard to come by on the course, with Wittmer estimating he slept four hours total across the three nights he was on the trail. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel tired or couldn’t have used the rest, but rather that he couldn’t quiet his mind enough to doze off for a few hours.
"It was hard to sleep because my mind knew I was still in a race, so I don’t have luxury of laying there, looking up at the stars and relaxing," he said.
Rest stops were largely for refueling, changing clothes and getting encouragement from his parents, all of which helped keep him going at times when he wasn’t sure he could. By the time he had wound his way through the mountains, battled the elements and found his way back to the ski resort, Wittmer had gone through myriad of emotions and running down the hill to cross the finish line was unlike anything he’d ever experienced.
"It was probably a lot of several feelings … exhalation, but also euphoria, a sense of accomplishment … you realize just how substantial it is," he said. "When I first heard about the race, I thought it was quite a mental and physical challenge, but until you’re into it, there’s no way to know what you’ve bitten off. It’s not like running two 100-mile races. I’d never been in race where I really felt like I crashed emotionally until this."
Now that the race is done and he’s had the time to return home and reflect on the experience, Wittmer says he’s gained a better appreciation for how big the task truly was. It’s the sort of accomplishment that sets the most-tested distance runners apart from even their peers who run - and succeed at - marathons and ultra marathons and the type of life event that proves just how far a person is willing to go.
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