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The Fire Within

 Written by Trish Yerges / For The Observer August 09, 2013 11:49 am

    Dr. Mary Aiwohi ran the 100-mile Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run July 20-21.  The trails took her through mountain terrain and to elevations as high as 9,000 feet. (Jeff Hsu photo)                           
Dr. Mary Aiwohi ran the 100-mile Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run July 20-21. The trails took her through mountain terrain and to elevations as high as 9,000 feet. (Jeff Hsu photos)


Mary Aiwohi epitomizes the fiery inner force that impels ultra runners to achieve long distances over any terrain and through any weather conditions. 

The Summerville veterinarian recently finished the 100-mile Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run held July 20-21 at Lake Tahoe. Aiwohi spent seven months preparing for the big event by running on Mt. Harris, a workout that she says made all the difference in her performance.

“I got permission from Russ and Patty Bingaman to run on their property on Mt. Harris,” said a grateful Aiwohi. “It was nice because after work at the clinic, I just went straight over there to run and hike.” 

She was just going for a “little run,” she told her husband, John Cisco — up to Mt. Harris’ rock-mass and around the back side to a firehouse there. It made a decent halfway post, she thought. So, zigzagging across the west face of the mountain, she ran until she got to the firehouse, and then back down she came. Then she ran the course again, 28 miles in all, that afternoon. It was a lot of fun, she said. Not to mention the amazing wildlife she encountered on the mountain. 

“I followed a cougar up the mountain, but he didn’t bother me,” she said. “I also saw a bear, turkeys, grouse, deer and elk on the back side of the mountain and even a sparrow fledgling landed in my hand once. Oh, it’s so beautiful up there.”

Twenty-eight miles and 6 hours, 40 minutes later, she decided she was tired and wanted to go home. By 
that time, the sun had sunk behind Mt. Emily, and the mountain was cloaked in twilight. As she approached her final descent, she could just make out in the distance the figure of one of her Tahoe support team members, Brad Frazer of La Grande. He was waiting for her with a burrito in hand — a welcomed sight for a tired, hungry runner. 

She practiced on Mt. Harris every other day, convinced it was the perfect training environment for the upcoming run. The Tahoe course would start at 7,800 feet in elevation, then drop to 6,800 at its lowest stretch and reach a peak of 9,000 feet before the finish line. Running Mt. Harris provided a great simulation course for those elevation differences.

“It was steep enough to get me ready for Tahoe,” she said. “When I wasn’t running on the mountain, I did push-ups and swam or rode my bicycle.”

The terrain at the upcoming run event would include single-track trails and steep dirt roads within Spooner State Park and on the Tahoe Rim Trail located within the state park and on national forest land.

To qualify for the event, all runners had to complete 50 miles under 12 hours. She also had to know how to deal with the extreme heat.

“I remained very focused and studied a lot about hydration,” Aiwohi said. “At registration, I weighed in at 123 pounds, and I weighed in again at the 30-mile, the 50-mile and the 80-mile checkpoints. At 80 miles, I weighed 125, so I did a good job of hydrating. Any runner who dropped or gained 10 percent of his body weight was disqualified from the run.”

The TRT endurance run started at 5 a.m. It was dark and Aiwohi used her waist lamp to light the trail a few feet in front of her. Soon, though, the sun rose and with it came blistering heat. As the temps peaked at 91 that day, it was necessary for her to cool down and re-hydrate at the aid stations. 

“I put ice in my hat, bra and pants,” she laughed. “I also got spray misted going up the ski lift road at Diamond Peak Ski Resort. I felt nauseated once around 40 or 50 miles because I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which didn’t set well with me. I threw it up and continued running, but at the next aid station, I replenished my electrolytes and ate soup and was good to go.”

Aiwohi, 54, said she could not have done the run without the help of her support team, including her husband, John, and their three sons, Dean, Dan and Reilly. Massage therapist Nancy Dake of Summerville gave her a deep tissue massage prior to leaving for the event. Once there, Frazer was on hand at the 30-mile aid station to help her re-hydrate and wash off the trail dust and dirt from her legs. 

She ran the first 50 miles alone, but then a friend, Jeff Hsu of Summerville, joined her as a pacer for the 50- to 80-mile stretch. That part of the run took her through the night.

“I saw the sun rise and set, and then I saw the moon rise — it was a crazy, blood-red moon because of the smoke from distant forest fires,” Aiwohi said.

There in the dark of night, Hsu followed behind her, seeing only a shadow of her thin figure and the bobbing of her waistline lamp on the dirt trail. Finally, the sun rose again, and at the 80-mile aid station, her son and last pacer, Dean, joined her. He wanted the privilege of accompanying his mother over the finish line. Her other two sons, Dan and Reilly, joined toward the end also, Reilly with camera in hand.

“It takes a village to help a runner,” she said. “My pacers were so enthusiastic, and I tried to be too. I think we fed off each other’s enthusiasm.”

On Sunday at noon, Aiwohi crossed the finish line at Spooner Lake, with a thumbs-up gesture, her son just paces behind her donning a proud smile. She was very pleased that she had made it in 32-1/2 hours and surprised to learn later that she had placed third in her age group.

“There were 230 entrants who signed up for the Tahoe run, but only 207 started, and just 118 finished,” she said. “I had heard that about 50 percent of the runners drop out. They are timed at each checkpoint, and if they are not running the miles within a certain time frame, they are pulled out of the run.”

Aiwohi ran the course conservatively, she said, and her participation was never in jeopardy. But after she had crossed the finish line and stopped, leg cramps set in, so she stood up again to work out the spasms. 

“I was so sleepy,” she said. “I couldn’t eat for hours afterward.”

For her achievement, she received a finishers buckle, handcrafted of gold and silver and inscribed with the year, event and her personal time on it — 32:30:41.

“I’m giving this buckle to my dad, Frank Snyder, in Vermont,” she said. “He’s an avid runner. He runs 16 miles every other day, and in between he lifts weights. When I told him I was going to do this, he said, ‘I know you’ll do it.’ He had nothing but confidence in me.” 

With the TRT Endurance Run behind her now, she confidently looks for other events to run. For the ultra runner, an event like the Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run is exhilarating. 

“I can’t wait to do this again,” she said. 

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