In this installment of DRIVEN we profile an endurance runner, a group of night riding mountain bikers, and a skier who finds the balance between a life in the outdoors and running a local nonprofit.
Jenelle Potvin — Making miles
Once diagnosed with exercise induced anaphylaxis, local Jenelle Potvin now runs 50 to 90 miles a week and is currently training for one of the most grueling long distance races in the country: the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run.
Like all great movements with humble beginnings, Potvin’s entry to the world of long distance running started on a walk. On her first hike in Tahoe after moving from Michigan in 1999, Potvin saw someone running along Mt. Judah Loop near Donner Lake and inspiration struck.
“I felt like just doing that Mt. Judah hike, we were doing some serious mountain climbing, and to see someone running up there; I was in awe,” Potvin said.
She started running that summer while finishing up school at the University of Nevada, Reno, and humbly says she kept the mileage pretty low in those days — a max of 20 miles. She ran a marathon on a dare in 2007, shortly after the birth of her twins, and subsequently ran eight more marathons before converting to ultrarunning.
It was with the evolution beyond marathon running that Potvin found her stride. She says it was the only thing that helped her to cope with the emotional trauma of a divorce and being seperated from her 6-year-old kids for a week at a time — the long miles helped to fill the time away from her children. Now, it has given her more opportunities to bond with her kids. She says they’re supportive of her running, and one of her favorite memories from last year is a hike they all took in Yosemite.
Since 2011 she has run the Tahoe Rim Trail 100-mile race four times, the Western States once, and numerous 50-mile races, but overall Potvin took to endurance running with an impassioned yet free approach. For her thirty-ninth birthday she ran 39 miles, of course, from brunch in Marin to an oyster dinner at the beach, and back.
“We had oysters, pizza, and beer; I had two beers,” Potvin said. “But that’s one of my favorite things to do, is to do a long adventure run with some fun stops on the way.”
Potvin is currently training for this summer’s internationally acclaimed Western States race, the first 100-mile race ever established in the world, but she says that it’s a bittersweet moment when race-day comes. It means that her favorite part, the training, has come to an end.
“It’s all the experiences leading up to the race that make it really special,” said Potvin.
Her kids, however, are eagerly looking forward to the event. She brought her son to camp out at last year’s race, and they watched every single finisher together — a time span of about 15 hours. When she texted them that she had made it into Western States, the first thing her son said was
“Who’s going to bring me to the finish?”
The Knobbies — It’s all about the lumens
The evolution of the Royal Order of the Dirty Old Knobbies is inextricably tied to the evolution of the light bulb — a natural link when you consider that this good old boys squad of local mountain bikers and skiers prefer to get their turns in every Wednesday, in the dark.
Mountain biking didn’t really exist in Truckee when Knobby contractor Paul Combs moved here in 1979; his first ride in the area was pedalling a 5-speed beach cruiser up a jeep track in ’82. By 1990, when Knobby geologist Pete Castro moved to town, the sport had begun to take off and Castro said he was riding from the start. He and a few others would convene in the late 90s for weekday rides, an antidote to the monotony of working life, until the knobbies got lights and night rides were born.
“We would always push it as far as we could into the dark, and then in 2000 we had a succession of rides that ended in the dark and people were getting hurt,” Castro said. “One guy got stabbed by a willow branch, then another guy hit a bollard on the bike trail and got stitches in his leg.”
On Combs’s first ride in 2000 he wove a Maglite onto his helmet with a strip of nylon, and went over the handlebars three times. A few weeks later the group members all started buying halogen-bulb and high-intensity-discharge bike lights that were expensive and fragile, which they suffered until LEDs changed the game. Combs said that thanks to new lights there are rides now when they sometimes don’t get off the bike until midnight, and said that “it’s often now the rides don’t start until 7 [p.m.].”
Over the years many people have tagged along to join the group’s core crew, and the rides sometimes have as many as 15 participants. But, Knobby engineer Doug Gadow said that due to the casual speed of the rides, and sometimes the adverse weather conditions, there are “a lot of people that just come once.”
With high-tech headlamps offering more time to ride, Wednesdays for the knobbies now usually include a relaxed start, and even a substantial barbecue most nights. These rides are, afterall, a social event. ‘Show up and have fun,’ they say.
Almost twenty years later the knobbies still hold themselves to their Wednesday schedule, and proudly claim they haven’t missed a month of riding since 2011. Rain, snow, gun wielding property owners — nothing stops this biker gang. Now, the invention of snow bikes is making it possible for them to ride through the winter, when they would typically have to trade their bikes in for touring skis.
Wrapped in a stained manila envelope is a journal of the Knobbies’ exploits, date stamped with short descriptions of each ride and some photos to match. One entry from 2003 sums up the group succinctly:
November 12, 2003
Ride Boca Hill
Snow. Dark. Cold. Bitchin!
Susie Sutphin — Hustle and snow
Susie Sutphin rolled into the West Coast from Ohio as a wide eyed telemark skier looking to establish herself in the outdoor industry — she now operates the nonprofit Tahoe Food Hub as its executive director (see p. 26), balancing her fulfilling yet exhausting work at the Hub and a lifelong obsession with the outdoors. She may have traded in the traditional alpine start with a 4 a.m. wakeup call to bring in deliveries from small local farms, but you’ll still find her on the peaks around Tahoe any time she gets the chance.
Sutphin moved to Tahoe in 1999 to work in sales for Couloir Magazine and was floored by the accessibility to the area’s backcountry. She had spent a few years working in Colorado, where she started a telemark clinic at Arapahoe Basin, and was used to dangerous rocky mountain snowpacks that made backcountry tours a strictly springtime activity. Tahoe was an all year mountain biking and ski touring playground.
In contrast to one of the themes of the DRIVEN series, passion without pay, Sutphin did originally pick up some sponsorships and really worked to get her name out there, but bear with us here. After four years with Couloir she accepted a job with Patagonia that took her outdoor experience to the next level. Through excursions to the Aleutian Islands, the Dolomites, Morocco, and many other locales Sutphin became adept at trip logistics and bolstered her skills in the backcountry. After years of travel and trips though, Sutphin felt that something was missing and embarked on the next chapter of her life, founding the Tahoe Food Hub. She went on one last trip to Europe, then buckled down.
“When you start something like that it takes all your energy, and resources of every kind to pull that off,” Sutphin said. “At the expense you are giving up a portion of yourself, who is someone that likes to travel, and have adventures, and experiences, and make trips with your friends.”
The Food Hub is based around bringing year round, local food production to Tahoe, and although it sometimes requires insane work hours, Sutphin says that the nonprofit has filled a space in her life that she formerly tried to occupy with all of her outdoor adventures. She still hopes to plan at least one big trip a year in the future, now that her nonprofit has some legs under it, but in the meantime she brings true meaning to the phrase “weekend warrior.”
“Even though I’ve kind of had to sacrifice trips, I’m not willing to sacrifice the day to day. I’ll still get out on the weekends, or I’ve got an hour and I’ll go out on a quick mountain bike ride,” Sutphin said. “I’ll have some amazing trips and in the meantime I live in this amazing place … In 15 minutes I could be skiing up Mt. Judah or Castle.”