I just completed my second 100-mile ultra. In trying to write a post about Run Josh Run, I found myself referencing Leadville often. Because it happened long before I started this blog, I decided to post my Dailymile race report here, so that readers can understand the differences between the Leadville experience and my latest insanity. It is presented unedited, with flaws, typos, and super-charged emotions intact.
My LT 100 experience Part 1
If I could have worn a hat with little high-tech sensors that could tap into my brain and convey to you everything I was experiencing, thinking and feeling (I’m pretty sure there is a movie with a similar theme) then you would be closer to understanding what running the Leadville Trail 100 is like, but only if the “feeling” was real, because the main element during the race is pain and the main element at the beginning and end is euphoria. The words that follow cannot do the soul-shattering experience justice.
I signed up for the 28th running of this mystical race more than seven months ago. If not for the allure of a Leadville buckle (and the $250 entry fee) I would definitely have skipped the race because of the last few months of spotty training. My training level for the last four weeks was about where I should have been two months ago. I ran because I believed that my mind and body aren’t special in any way except the ability to endure. I believed that, despite my lack of proper conditioning, I would finish. I was wrong. “I” would not have finished the LT100. Even now tears are welling as I think of what my crew did for me. They deserve the credit for this finish. Yes, I suffered the pain and it was my aching body that broke the finish line tape, but my wife Kathleen, daughter Carrie and now dear friends Josh, Nate and Cassie poured an intense energy into bringing me successfully to the end.
It was a few minutes before 4 am and I was standing among almost 700 people and many were saying, just like me… “What was I thinking!” The weather conditions for the race were good. It was cool at the start and during the night and it was warm but not hot during mid-day. We counted down the last ten seconds to the start and were on our way down 6th Street, me passing people smarter than me and being passed by people, well…not smarter. May Queen (the first aid station) was reached after 13.5 relatively flat miles on a wide variety of surfaces. My crew did an awesome job, it was like they had been working together for years. In just over three minutes, my belt was re-stocked with gels and FRS chews, my Salt Stick reloaded, socks changed, feet powdered and I was headed back out. It was like a bizarre Indy 500.
Much of the first half was mostly uneventful. The crew probably had more adventures than I did as they moved from one aid station to the next. I was pretty close to my planned pace all the way to Twin Lakes at 39.5 miles and had not had any serious issues, but I made a poor decision at Twin Lakes that dramatically affected me later on. I opted to carry just three amphipod water bottles on my belt, since there was an aid station (un-crewed) near Hope Pass just 5 miles away. The climb to Hope Pass was 3400’ of an often grueling climb, but first there is the river crossing. Somehow this major element was missed during my research into the race. I first learned about it as I was talking to another runner as we were crossing a muddy, marshy expanse outside of Twin Lakes. Finally, we came to a channel that was about 30’ across and about knee deep. Although my fresh shoes and socks were now soaked, I figured that wasn’t too bad. A few minutes later, there was another channel even wider. Then another… and another. None of these was the river crossing! Finally we hit the river. A cable was strung across the river to keep the runners from falling and being washed away. This crossing was about 100’ wide and didn’t quite reach my waist at the deepest part. Moments later I began the toughest climb of the race with thoroughly soaked footgear.
Although it was tough, I felt I reached Hope Pass in good shape, having filled my water bottles at what is sometimes called the “Hopeless” Aid station. Now it was just after high noon and the sun felt so close. A cool breeze through the pass helped disguise the fact that moisture was leeching from my body at an alarming rate. I was ecstatic as I rolled down the switchbacks above tree line, occasionally letting out a loud yell of delight. It was often answered, sometimes from below, but usually from some newly energized runner just clearing the pass. As first the scrub, then the forest canopy closed in on the path, I knew I had expended too much energy on what should have been the easiest part. Now I was thirsty and drinking a lot and the path was getting rockier and more technical. I had picked up a Black Diamond hiking stick especially for traversing Hope Pass. After hundreds of times of using the stick to slow my momentum down the mountain, I found my right elbow starting to ache. My knees, quads, ankles were all tired and aching more every minute. About three-fourths of the way down I realized I might run out of water before reaching the Winfield turn-around and began conserving. I came out onto a car-clogged dusty dirt road, with Winfield just 2.7 miles away. I had one good swallow of water in two of my bottles and a small drink of Powerade in the other. After polishing off the Powerade, I figured a drink of water per mile for the last two would get me into Winfield thirsty but unscarred. Just then, a runner I had just passed asked if I had any water to spare. He had forgotten to refill at the pass and had been dry for some time. At the pre-race meeting, Ken had stressed that we were all in this together. Now I was down to one swallow of water for 2.5 hot dusty miles. I resisted that drink as long as I could.
I straggled into the aid station dehydrated and exhausted. And only half-way finished.
But my crew was there waiting with an ice bath for my feet, a chilled wet wash cloth for my face, a tall cold Cherry Amp and my first pacer, Josh, eager to get in his miles. In minutes, I started getting some energy back and, sooner than I thought possible, I was headed back down that long dusty road.
My LT100 experience – Part 2
Hope Pass was once again calling my name. The rugged trail that had pounded my legs coming down, was now challenging my lungs and my will as I headed ever upwards toward my second crossing.
After walking out of Winfield, Josh Fuller (a UWYO grad student and ultrarunner) had successfully coaxed me back into some semblance of running, at least on the flat and downhill portions. Even now, as the narrow path felt mostly vertical to my weary body, he’d call out “this part’s not too bad, you can run this.” And I’d pull one more drop out of the ever-shrinking energy well and achieve something (slightly) faster than a power hike. Thank God for all the runners still coming down the mountain toward Winfield. Poor souls that they were, they allowed me a precious excuse for stepping aside and getting one or two deep breaths before digging my hiking pole into the trail and dragging myself onward.
It is a hard truth that sometimes the worst mistakes are small ones whose effects are amplified over time. A foregone water bottle to save weight led to dehydration, to extreme thirst, to guzzling a 16 oz Amp, to caffeine intoxication. Earlier I had noticed that I had lost enthusiasm for my favorite Powergel Tangerine. The slight sourness in my stomach didn’t seem reason enough. At Winfield, I had Carrie use other flavors to refill my belt. Now I found that I really had to force even those gels down. My FRS chews, which had always helped me stay energized and focused, were suddenly distasteful. As I crested Hope Pass for the last time with Josh at my side, I began to suspect that there was something wrong. “How am I going to get through the last half if I can’t eat?” I whined to Josh.
The “Hopeless” station is manned by some hardy souls who, using a large herd of Llamas, pack in all the supplies for the aid-station. The unusual but attractive animals, their coats a medley of blacks, browns, greys and whites, are tethered to stakes all around the station and provide a humorous distraction to tired runners. As we went through Hopeless again, I grabbed a couple of cookies and a glass of very watered Powerade and continued on, leaving Josh behind to refill my water bottles and rejoin me down the trail.
Except for a continuing inability to ingest any substantial amount of carbs, the pain of non-stop pounding on muscles and joints and a bone-deep fatigue, I came off the Hope Pass trail in relatively good condition and spirits. I looked forward to the brisk water of the river crossings to bring some relief to my body. The slumberous sun rolled lazily behind the mountains, leaving the rest of us to continue our labor and consider the many dark miles ahead.
In just another in a string of minor miracles, Josh had cajoled, threatened or embarrassed me into running the final mile of my return to Twin Lakes. Whether because of the energy spent or the chill of the river crossing, I collapsed into the chair just as a raw, shivery finger of doubt began caressing me, body and soul. In moments it was a huge icy claw. Looking back, I’m shocked and mortified at how quickly and easily that doubt literally froze me to the chair. As my crew was striving heroically to prepare me for the next leg of my quest, my mind had become one feeble, useless crystal. The simplest questions bounced off with only a haunted “I don’t know” as an answer. For a fleeting moment, even breathing seemed to have become too much work for me to endure. With no help from me, this marvelous crew changed my shirt, reattached my number and draped a towel over me to keep me warm. I remember a golf ball-sized blister on my left heel being doctored. Once complete, they got my socks and shoes on and I think I revived enough to tie my own shoes. I’m pretty sure there was a conversation that went basically:
Voice 1 – “Do you want (insert food item)”
Me – “I can’t eat” or “I don’t know”
Voice 2 – “How about (insert food item)”
Me- (see previous reply)
All of this with my head between my knees in abject surrender.
Minutes ticked away as my crew wondered “What now?” Josh may have been the one who said we needed to get moving. I’m pretty sure I said, “I can’t get up.” The next thing I know, Nate has picked me straight up out of my chair and set me on my feet. As he did, it was almost like being freed from a spell. I put one foot in front of the other and moved toward the aid station exit—only 39.5 miles to go.
From Twin Lakes, runners climb up and over several high ridges and then head down a reasonable grade to the un-crewed Halfmoon aid station. From there the next stop is Pipeline, an unofficial crewing area where my next pacer, Nate, would assume duties. Between Twin Lakes and Pipeline were a critical 11.5 miles that would carry me passed the 70 mile mark. The early part of this section is hazily-remembered torture, righteously (gleefully?) administered by the Marquis de Josh. Sporadically this resulted in a few minutes of running. I was beyond tired and could see no end to this endless night.
Then an amazing thing happened. It started with a comment about runner’s high, moved into Contemporary Christian rock music, morphed into a spiritual discussion of how we (the universal “we”) connect with our deities and from there into the power of prayer and miracles. Some of the discussion would be considered sacrilegious by most main stream Christians. I’ll maintain hope that God will forgive us since it was during a 100 mile run. But during that conversation I ran…and ran… and ran. Headlights would appear in the dark ahead, grow into tired runners plodding through the dark… and then disappear behind us. We powered into Halfmoon high on something that you can’t get in a pill or shoot into your veins. Runners were collapsed into chairs all around us, that icy claw holding them like it had held me at Twin Lakes.
A couple of orange slices, an attempt on a cookie and maybe something else and we were on our way. I doubt we were there even two minutes. And every second I just wanted to get back out on that trail. In the end, Josh thought we ran for about an hour during that stretch, passing as many as 12-15 pairs of runners & pacers.
Of course, I still wasn’t consuming many carbs, my fat stores had been depleted hours before and I started feeling that my body was beginning to break down the protein in my muscles to produce energy. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the bill for my “surge” would come due. My hamstrings, mostly the right, had been tightening up for a long time, and momentary stops to stretch had become important.
As we approached Pipeline, I told Josh that I didn’t want to stop, in part because I was worried about my hamstrings tightening up, but mostly in fear of a repeat of Twin Lakes. When headlights could be seen carving a welcoming arc of brightness in the gloom, Josh went ahead to warn the crew and my next pacer, Nate, of my plans. The moon was bright enough to cast deceiving shadows across the dirt road, creating potholes that didn’t exist and hiding ones that did. I was by myself for a short while, with no conversation to divert me, so my thoughts turned inward. An end was approaching and it didn’t feel like the finish line on 6th Street in Leadville. The gold 25 hour buckle that was such a certainty as I yodeled my way toward Winfield was now just a Pipeline dream. Weaving my way around potholes, real and imagined, I made my way toward my waiting crew hoping to show a stiff upper lip. Nate was there ready and eager to assume his pacing duties. The entire crew moved like squires preparing a knight for battle, checking, adjusting, making sure everything was in place. More orange slices, a pretzel Combo and I continued my quest, this time with silver in my confident sights.
A return to Fish Hatchery was next on the agenda. After rolling downhill on occasionally rough dirt roads, we reached hated asphalt and began a long flat relentless trek. Thankfully, the hard surface felt no worse to my aching feet than it had the first time around. Still, I was grateful when the lights of the aid station stopped teasing and finally grew noticeably closer. Nate had kept a steady and interesting conversation going and hauled me into Fish Hatchery exhausted, sleepy, but ready to move on. A mandatory weigh-in and a few bites of Ramen noodles later and I was bound for where my crew waited a little over a mile down the road.
It was now after midnight and I had been running more than 20 hours, with 23+ miles to go. The temperature had dropped noticeably and I found my teeth chattering. On top of my other challenges, I did not need hypothermia. I sent Nate ahead to fetch my fleece pull-over. With no runners visible in either direction, I forced myself to maintain what little speed I could, if only to generate some warmth. When he got back with the fleece, I warmed a little and arrived at my crew with no thoughts of quitting. I remember people rubbing my back and shoulders to warm me up and eating a little. I remember a pacer coming along and asking my crew “My runner is dropping out, where should we go?” Most of all I remember what felt like a weight hanging over my head. Maybe it was just fatigue or lack of sleep. I think it was the taunting countenance of Sugarloaf Mountain looming over me in the darkness.
Nate had been leading me up for hours, dancing from one side to the other, lighting my way and shepherding me toward the smoothest possible ascent. Time after time after time I was sure we had reached the top, only to have the road turn upward once more. Nate had been methodical in his effort to get carbs in me, including forcing me to try one of his chocolate Hammer gels. I finished about half of that first one—there would be others. But I felt dead in the water, an emotion I wasn’t shy about expressing often. Nate remained positive, even if he did feel like shoving me in the next stream … at least then I’d be half right. I did hope that, once cresting Sugarloaf, I’d still have a chance at the silver buckle. False summit after false summit began stealing that hope away.
Nate had been leading me down for hours, dancing from one side to the other, lighting my way and shepherding me toward the smoothest possible descent. Time after time… if it seems like you’ve seen this before, you can imagine how it felt to me. The bottom of this rocky crevasse masquerading as a road seemed like it would never come. When we did finally reach the smooth, runnable surface that I remembered from the outbound trip, I found that my energy well was dry. My entire right side was just dead meat being dragged along by a tired, but game left side. Nate coaxed brief spurts from me by shining his flashlight on some vague object up ahead and saying, “Let’s just run to that rock.” Sometimes I would surprise him and myself by hanging on for a few seconds beyond. While every step got me closer to May Queen, it also seemed that it took me deeper into a morose train of thought. In my mind, every tick of the clock had begun to make the 30 hour goal as ludicrously unattainable as the others had been. Doing the math over and over in my befuddled head, I kept coming up with the same undeniable result: (Fish Hatchery to May Queen = 10 miles in 5 hours and counting) + (May Queen to finish = 13.5 miles with less than 5 hours to go) = impossible. But Nate would have none of it. “Just keep moving forward and stop worrying about the clock” is an amalgam of the various ways he found to say “Shut up and run”.
Eventually I did shut up and began trying to come up with the right words to tell my crew that I was sorry, but it made no sense at all to continue beyond May Queen.
The last aid station loomed. Despite that fact that the bottom of my feet felt like hamburger and with each step I was sure one leg or the other would fall off, for once I did not approach my crew with joy and relief. I still had not come up with the words for breaking the bad news: my race was over.
“We’re not even talking about it” was the basic response whenever a negative word tried to pass my lips. My crew had set to work with a flurry, while I had plunked by butt down with the intention of never getting up again. They had learned from Twin Lakes and were not going to watch me turn comatose again. I wouldn’t beg. My last hope was to look in my wife’s eyes and let her see the hopelessness I felt, to mutely plead “Don’t make me do this!” I know she felt my pain as acutely as I, yet she gritted her teeth and said “Get up, you’re finishing this race.”
I dropped my eyes and said “OK, I’ll try.” They wouldn’t even cut me that break. I think I heard “Oh, you are going to finish” which sounded half promise, half threat.
Once again Nate lifted me to my feet and we were on our way. My wobbly steps gradually stabilized as I moved away from my crew toward the aid station tent, through which we must pass to continue. Nate and I entered the tent and the bracing night air gave way to warm, heavy, seductive warmth that whispered, “Come, come. Close your eyes and rest.” The tent was littered with Greek mariners seduced by the siren’s song. The challenge stiffened my resolve and I told Nate I was going on through. I stuffed some cookies in my fleece and headed out. My loyal pacer stayed behind to grab me a cup of noodles.
The night air slapped me awake as I broke out of the tent and then a concrete Gollum of fact stomped loudly into my brain. There would be no quitting. My crew just wouldn’t allow it.
Thanks to my crew, I had survived and was getting the chance to run into my second dawn. And as the new day gained strength, by some miracle, so did my legs. Although my stiff hamstring still ached and pain tingled upward from my feet through my hips with every step, I was running. Not only running, but getting faster. Nate’s perseverance had paid off. Through the early morning hours he had gradually gotten enough carbs in me that now I had more than inefficient protein to fuel the engine.
Several miles had clicked by and I was nearing 90 miles. Three miles ahead, my daughter Carrie was waiting her turn to get her Daddy to the finish. Hope bordering on confidence had been miraculously resurrected. Only another mile or so of rocky shoreline trail before we would hit some nice patches of pine-needle covered bliss.
Didn’t see it, but the rock that did me in probably wasn’t even two inches off the ground. I caught my left toe and my body began heading toward a stony horizontal bed. My right leg shot forward to catch the fall and pain rocketed through my hamstring, like lightening caught in a jar. We were headed downhill and I couldn’t even stop to deal with my pulverized leg. For a few moments I felt like a human pinball being bounced from rock bumper to rock bumper.
An hour earlier my crew had to force me to continue my run. Now a “You Can’t Stop” Gollum stood sentry in the deepest part of my being and he was unmoved by the condition of my leg. With encouragement from Nate at every step I kept moving forward, occasionally stopping to grab a tree as I directed him to drive his thumbs into the pressure points in my hamstrings, hoping to force apart the knots I knew were forming. At times I jabbed my hiking stick viciously into the ground with every step, using anger to propel me forward. And, in fits and spurts, we worked our way around the lake toward Boat Dock.
The crew would be meeting us there, with Carrie ready to assume her pacing duties. This time, though, everything would have to be done on the run. Even standing still for more than a few moments would give my aching hamstring a chance to tighten up and I wouldn’t let that happen. Without much warning, we were moving through the official crewing area as Kathleen, Nate and Carrie scrambled to replenish supplies. Knowing that I was about to forego my last chance to drop out was a relief I think to everyone. Carrie and I wound our way through the widely spaced pines. Full daylight glittered on the water and made Turquoise Lake true to its name. A favorable path to the finish beckoned us on. Less than seven miles to go!
Leaving the lake brought us more and more out into the direct sunlight, which pointed up two minor goofs that running through the Boat Dock caused. I didn’t have time to get sunscreen on or reclaim my hat, which I had stopped wearing during the night. Carrie learned how to jam her thumbs in my hamstring, although now my calf needed the painful attention just as much. I had somehow found an awkward stride that minimized the stress on my hamstring, but added it to my calf. My daughter turned out to be just as stern a taskmaster as Josh and Nate. As the miles between me and the finish slowly melted away under that high Colorado mountain sun, my crew had brought me to this: I would make it; I just had to keep moving forward.
Back on the Boulevard and I was taking it hard. 97+ miles on my feet and 30+ hours with no sleep. I still knew I would make it to the finish, even if I had to crawl. Right then crawling was starting to look pretty darn attractive. But Carrie had a final, magical, technical trick up her book. She had brought her phone with her and had been sending updates during the race to Facebook. Earlier, she recognized the trouble I was in and, while she was running next to me, had posted; “He’s hurting, send some words of encouragement and I will pass on.” I didn’t know she had it with her until she started reading some of them to me as I struggled toward 6th Street. There would be no crawling for Carrie’s Dad.
Nate and Josh met us as we were about to end our time on the Boulevard. Only a mile to go! One moderate climb of less than half mile, followed by a brief downhill, then less a quarter mile to the red carpet waiting at the finish. The heat had been getting to me a little, but an occasional dowsing by my pacers kept me moving uphill. We were nearing the crest and my first view of the finish. A landslide of emotions: gratitude, relief, joy and perhaps dozens of others had been building for some time. They had been forged on a mountain anvil with only feet to do the pounding. Nonetheless, I had kept them in check. Now I crested the hill and saw the finish in the distance and my wife approaching across the top of the hill. The emotions I was trying desperately to control were rolling out of her like a tidal wave. “Oh, sweetie! You’re going to make it!” she cried. I was washed away.
The ice-water soaked hat that they set on my head did triple duty. It cooled my overheated body, blocked the sun from my reddened brow and helped hide the tears now flowing copiously down my face. For stride after stride, I couldn’t lift my chin from my chest as I tried to catch my breath and my emotions. I had promised I would run this last bit of downhill, then power-walk across the line. I couldn’t do it if I was more crippled by emotion than I was by my aching legs.
We reached the slope and I leaned forward willing my legs to show some pride and make me look like a runner. With my crew at my side we rolled by a couple of other groups before reaching the bottom of the hill and coasting back to a walk. Well up ahead were more groups. As I walked up the hill, I could feel the tension in my young pacers and, without a word said, I could feel them urging me on, the adrenaline of youth wanting just a little bit more. “Ok, fine!” I exclaimed gruffly and tossed my walking stick to Nate. “All right!” they exclaimed as I forced myself into what would really be my last surge. Driving my arms hard to pull my resisting legs along, I gained speed. We caught a couple of groups before my fervent crew was forced to pull off at the cordoned-off final straightaway. The finish line was just ahead pulling me on like a magnet. While no one watching would have called it a sprint to the finish, something inside was saying, “You still have a little more and you are using it all up before you reach that line.” With every part of my body screaming in protest, I hit that red carpet running faster than in any of the previous 100 miles. In an earnest parody of Eric Liddell, I broke the tape and staggered into the arms of the first person on the other side of the tape.
Much like my run, this “race report” ended up taking WAY longer than it should have. I even feel like I’ve staggered across the finish of this story. I’ve left out a lot that happened before during and after the race. Getting personally dissed by Ken Chlouber will definitely be in the long version. But I think I bared my soul enough to get across the point that Leadville shattered me in a way that has never happened before. When I finally reassemble the pieces, I know the whole will be stronger than ever.
*(Post-race analysis and research lead me to believe that I ingested somewhere between 600 – 800 mg of caffeine in the first 12 hours of the race. Caffeine intoxication can occur with as little as 250 mg. in a 24 hour period. Two of the indications are confusion and stomach distress. I think my weakened state then made me more susceptible to a minor altitude sickness, which can cause a lack of appetite.)