Dig Deep was the motto for the Leadville Trail 100, and boy did I have to dig deep…
Race Week (Saturday): I was supposed to leave for Colorado Friday night (12th) so that I could be there on Saturday to volunteer for the 100 mile MTB race, but I misread my itinerary and ended up missing my flight. Therefore, I didn’t arrive until late the following afternoon, and after the race was already over. It was drizzling and overcast in Denver with temperatures in the upper-60’s — a bit unusual for the time of year.
I chose to stay the first 5 days in Frisco (about an 1.5 hours from Denver), and got a room at the Holiday Inn for very cheap (through Priceline). Frisco/Silverthorne are both off I-80, and only about a 30 min drive from Leadville. The hotel has free wireless Internet access, is located right off the highway, but the elevation is only around 9000′, a bit lower than Leadville. I checked in, grabbed some Chinese food at China Szechuan nearby, and went to bed around midnight after enjoying a pint of porter at the hotel bar. Around that time, it had started raining pretty heavily.
Race Week (Sunday) Leadville Trail 10k: The Sunday before the race, there was a 10k conducted by the same race directors held over the first/last 3.1 miles of the course which I entered along with about a hundred other runners on a clear and sunny afternoon. The race started unusually late (noon), which gave me time to grab a Redeye at Provin’ Grounds (a new coffee shop/Internet cafe) across the street from the start. I think the late start is because they were conducting the awards ceremony for the bike race just beforehand at the 6th St gym.
As I walked up to the start, I thought about how fast I had run my last 10k, and even though I couldn’t remember my exact time, I figured something in the 40’s shouldn’t be too hard. Ha! If anyone can think of anything that’s more uncomfortable and painful than being anaerobic at high altitude, let me know so that I can avoid doing that too. The only thing I remember between gasps and walking (yes, walking during a 10k) was Ken at the one aid station at the turn-around point — mostly everything else was a blur. After considering dropping a couple times (yes, dropping out of a 10k), I decided to tough it out, hoped that that would not be an indication as to how next weekend would be, and finally finished in a PW (personal worst) of 57:04. That’s slower than my usual marathon pace, and in fact, I do a lot of long training runs faster than that. After driving back to Frisco, and a quick shower, I headed over to Breckenridge for some sushi at Mountain Flying Fish, right across from the bus station — that was good sushi.
Race Week (Monday) Mt Elbert: The following day, I woke up at 6:30, dropped by the local Starbucks, then drove up to the trailhead of Mt Elbert (Colorado’s highest, only second to Whitney in the lower-48’s) very close to the Half Moon aid station/campground. The weather was chilly (the bank clock read 45), and crystal clear with a scattering of high fluffy clouds. Perfect for a hike, but who knows what’s happening up higher, or what could suddenly roll in later in the afternoon, so I thought I’d better hurry before Mother Nature decided to have a mood swing.
I got to the trailhead and started up to the summit at about 8:30. The parking lot was full, so I anticipated running into people along the way, but managed to encounter only a handful about midway up. The common question asked of me was if I was training for “the race”, which for most everyone was the Pike’s Peak Marathon the same weekend as the Leadville 100. I recognized immediately from the training run the month before that I’d be following part of the route until I reached a fork — the race took the left one and headed towards Twin Lakes, so I’d be hanging right to continue up to Elbert. The entire route was very non-technical and well-maintained — hardly any rocks, a few roots, no water crossings, and had a fairly comfortable grade (about a 5000′ gain in about 5 miles). Through most of the hike, it almost felt too easy — no problems with altitude like I was expecting. After passing several other hikers, some who were hardly moving, I reached the top — exactly 2 hours after I started. The summit was very crowded, so I didn’t stick around long. I grabbed a quick bite, put on a light shell, and started my descent. As I began running, I noticed there were several more groups approaching from the southern route that started at Twin Lakes. The descent was rather slow due to the steepness, and my concern of getting hurt before the race, made me go even slower. Therefore, it took me almost 1.5 hours to get back to the trailhead. Around that time, I noticed some clouds moving in, and figured I got done just in time before a potential storm hit. Before heading back to the hotel, I had some (HUGE!) pancakes at the Columbine Cafe in Leadville. If anyone can eat, and finish, even two of those — congratulations. The food there wasn’t too bad, but get there before 2pm or all you’ll find is a closed door. After a quick nap and shower, it was Mexican food at Fiesta Jalisco in Silverthorne — probably won’t return next trip out there.
Race Week (Tuesday) Aspen/Independence Pass: That was a rest day for me — in fact, I wasn’t really planning on doing much more until the race. It was a good thing too, because it started pouring rain, along with some spectacular thunder and lightning for most of the day. So I decided that I’d drive down to Twin Lakes, scope out the area, and then drive up to Independence Pass at over 12k+’. It was still clear when I reached the lake, so I parked at the visitor’s center and went inside to ask about places to eat. Bob (who was a volunteer there) basically pointed across the street to the Windspirit Cafe, and said that was the only place in the area, but unfortunately it was closed, even though it was noon, when most restaurants would be open for lunch. He did mention there was a place about 4 miles south of the intersection off I-25, but I didn’t feel like driving back. As we were chatting about how there’ll probably be a ton of people there next weekend, the sky opened up and started pouring. So I quickly said goodbye, and ran back to my car, heading towards Independence Pass. Midway to the top, the rain cleared, so I decided to continue on to Aspen for some lunch. After spending some time in town, grabbing a bite at the Little Oriental restaurant, I headed back towards Leadville. I got to Independence Pass again and parked along with a bunch of other cars/people, and took a short walk, followed by a nap. As I was dozing off, I saw a runner head up towards the peak N/W of the lot, and wondered where it went — seemed like it would be a nice training area to note for next time I’m there. Later that evening, I headed over to Breckenridge again to Main St Bistro for some home-made pasta (which was excellent) — hope they’re still in business next time I’m there, because considering I was the only person in the whole restaurant that evening, I can’t imagine they’d be able to survive too long like that.
Race Week (Wednesday) Denver: I was looking forward to that day — it was when I’d be going into Denver to see Marshall Ulrich’s presentation at the REI, followed by dinner at Sushi Den (one of my favorite restaurants in CO) with Melissa Dahlen who I met during the training weekend. As I left Frisco, I wondered how the construction (I-70 had been shutdown most of the week near Idaho Springs all week due to a rock slide) was going to affect my drive in, but it turned out it hardly slowed me down at all, even with the westbound lanes completely closed off. So I had all day to goof off, and it felt good to not do anything related to the race, so I basically went to the Cherry Creek Mall to do some shopping, and walked down 16th St in downtown, then finally made it over to REI. Wow…what can I say — that was the biggest and nicest REI I’ve ever been to, and it had a Starbucks adjacent to it. I thought I was in heaven! I bought a few last-minute items for the race before the presentation started. After donating $5 to the Religious Teachers Filippini, Melissa and I sat down, eagerly awaiting Marshall’s presentation. I then looked over and saw that Mark Macy, one of Marshall’s Stray Dogs team mates, and an incredible racer himself who I met during the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, was there as well — I found out that he would be pacing Marshall at Leadville. After we were blown away with Marshall’s presentation — primarily by his various accomplishments (ie Quad Badwater crossing, climbing the 7 summits, and finishing all Eco-Challenges — see complete resume here), Melissa and I ended the evening with some wonderful food at Sushi Den, one of my favorite restaurants in Denver.
Race Week (Thursday) Packet pickup: Today I planned on picking up my packet, and meeting up with my pacer/crew Bob Boeder (famed ultrarunner and author of Hardrock Fever, and Beyond the Marathon: The Grand Slam of Trail Ultrarunning), who I also met earlier in the year at the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica.
I checked out of my hotel, and went into downtown Frisco and had lunch at the Boatyard — some baked penne and French onion soup, which hit the spot. It rained slightly, but cleared up before I even left the restaurant. Afterwards, I stopped by Safeway to buy some food for my drop bags, then headed up to Leadville where I spent the rest of my time.
As I was picking up my packet, I saw Walt Esser (another participant of the Coastal Challenge), and he told me he was pacing a gentleman from New Zealand. After preparing my drop bags, I met Bob at Provin’ Grounds, and discussed our plan for the big weekend. During the conversation, he got me worried that I didn’t have enough warm clothing for the night section, so we headed over to the Leadville store to buy a fleece vest.
Afterwards, we went over to the lodge, where I would be in room 4 now, then headed into Frisco for dinner. Bob would be staying there with Walt who lived there, and head up together in the morning. We had a nice Italian dinner at Tuscato — delicious veal marsala and some soup.
Race Week (Fri) Medical Check/Pre-race Meeting: I couldn’t believe it was now the day before the race — time to get weighed in, get our wristbands that would hopefully not have to be removed, and final words from Merilee and Ken. I got to the 6th St gym just across the from the start around 8:30, and the line wasn’t too bad yet. While in line, I saw Olga who was shooting for the Grand Slam, and met her husband Olek who would be her pacer/crew for that race. I also bumped into Norm Richardson, who not only would be doing the Slam, but as if that weren’t enough, he was adding two more 100’s (OD and AC) to attempt the Last Great Race! Shortly thereafter, I saw John and Melissa my roommates from the training weekend, and met Melissa’s dad Gene — all of them attempting Leadville as their first ultra! Looking around the room, I spotted Marshall Ulrich and his wife Heather who we met the other day at the Denver REI, and the one and only Pam Reed was also present. Isn’t it great to be able to run side by side with these ultrarunning legends, even if only for the first couple hundred feet after the start. Speaking of great runners, Olga introduced me to Rudy Afanador, an elite 24-hour and Badwater finisher from New York.
After the checkin and Ken’s famous pep talk, I prepared my drop bags, and took them over to the City Hall where it would be picked up later. I then went over to the book store where Bob was signing his books out front — this is where I met Bill, one of Bob’s friends, who would be volunteering at Twin Lakes. When Bob wrapped up, we went down to the Chinese restaurant for lunch, where I had some chicken lo mein.
We split up after lunch — Bob went down to Frisco to stay with Walt, and I checked into my room at Anytrail. I arranged to have dinner with Melissa, her dad, and a bunch of their friends and relatives at the Italian restaurant where I had some Lasagna and a pint of Stella.
Race Day! Surprisingly, I managed to get about 3 hours of sleep, woke up around 2am, got ready, and drove over to the start around 3am. I thought there’d be more people there, but it seemed that mostly everyone didn’t start showing up until closer to 3:30. It was cold, but not uncomfortable — I’m guessing it was in the low/mid-40’s. It was also very clear, which accentuated the full moon — absolutely wonderful conditions, and hoped that it would hold out for the next 24+ hours.
Pre-start: I walked over to the Golden Burro, which remained open all night to accommodate the runners, and saw Rick, Melissa, and Gene. I sat with them for a few minutes, a couple tables down from Aron Ralston and his friends, but left to get ready for the race. It was about 3:30, and there were more runners hovering around the start area. I checked in, used the port-a-pottie (surprisingly, there was no line), and got ready.
Note: I started the race with a short-sleeve shirt underneath a long-sleeve top, arm warmers, light gloves, shorts, Buff around neck, 2 handheld H20 bottles + 1 on hip belt, and a flashlight. The clothing (warmth) was fine, and probably could’ve done without the arm warmers. As for my hydration system — 60 oz was not enough, plus it was difficult to hold a flashlight in addition to the water bottles in both hands, so it was a good thing that I had my GoLite pack at Fish Hatchery.
Start to Mayqueen 0-13.5 miles (04:00-06:19): that section was fairly comfortable and a good warmup to get the blood flowing. It was dark — the full moon and light from the other runners allowed me to keep from having to use my flashlight, not to conserve batteries necessarily, but mainly so that I didn’t have to hold it in my hand. I had run the first 3.1 miles, since it was part of the 10k last weekend, but from there to Mayqueen was new to me. The Boulevard is a 2.5 mile long fireroad stretch, which goes by rather quickly on the way out, then makes a right turn along some houses before hitting Turquoise Lake Rd, just before Sugar Loafin’ Campground. From there we take the middle fork onto another dirt fireroad for one mile, then a sharp right up a steep climb, cross Turquoise Lake Rd again, and onto Turquoise Lake Trail, which is the single-track that runs adjacent to the lake. If you’re concerned about your time getting to Mayqueen, I’d suggest jockeying for position before getting to the lake, since once there, it’s difficult to pass if you get behind some slower runners. Typically, most everyone gets to Mayqueen within a few minutes of each other, especially if you’re a middle/back of the pack runner, so I wasn’t too concerned, but was hard to keep from going fast. The sun started to rise as we got closer to the aid station — very beautiful as the first rays of light reflected off the water. After passing Tabor Boat Ramp, where it’s a good place for crews to meet their runners, it’s about 6 more miles to Mayqueen. Once at the aid station, I filled my bottles up, and left immediately.
Mayqueen to Fish Hatchery (6:19-8:29): Leaving the aid station tent, we turn right and continue down the road leading out of the campground, then turn right on the main road heading uphill. That is a good spot to finish eating what you may have picked up at the aid station, since it’s the first opportunity to walk in quite some time. Turn left off the road, and onto the start of the Colorado Trail. There are a few bridge crossings there, and it’s all singletrack and mostly uphill all the way to Hagerman Pass Road, which I reached about 30 mins after leaving Mayqueen. Once you pop out there, turn right and head 1 mile down a relatively flat fireroad while looking to your right down at Turquoise Lake, and the sun that’s now fully visible. Soon you will make a U-turn, leading to a trail climbing up to the top of Sugarloaf Pass — about 3.5 miles away. Around that time, you’ll see the photographer near one of the switchbacks. Near the top (about an hour after leaving Mayqueen), the power lines will start coming into view, which you will be running underneath, while starting to descend into Fish Hatchery. The downhill is steep and rutted, and the distance is about as long down as it was going up. At the bottom of the descent, and after crossing a small stream, we’ll hit the road that’ll lead us into Fish Hatchery (2nd oldest in the country) — after turning onto that street, it’s about a 2.5 mile jog into the aid station. Before the checkin, I saw my pacer/crew Bob Boeder on the side of the road, and went in to get my drop bag. I quickly came back out, swapped my bottles for my pack, then headed out onto the long road section to Treeline and continuing to Half Moon. I switched to a pack because I did not like having bottles in both hands, but especially because 60 oz between the aid stations was not enough for me.
Fish Hatchery to Half Moon (8:30-9:57): I really hated that section during training weekend, and it was no different during race day. There is a 2.5 mile or so of flat road running before turning off onto the dirt towards Treeline, which is where your crew can meet you since no one is allowed up to Half Moon. From Treeline, it’s about 4 more miles of uphill into the Half Moon aid station. It took me about 30 minutes to get to the dirt after leaving Fish Hatchery, when I realized that I had forgotten my Hammer Gel back at the aid station. Luckily, Bob also realized it, and drove over to meet me at Treeline. At that point, I was beginning to feel the effects of the altitude — mainly loss of appetite. For almost 6 hours, I had eaten very little food, and was “sipping” on my gel — definitely not taking in enough calories, and it was showing. I hadn’t even gone a third of the way through, with the crux of the race still a quite a ways off, so I was a little concerned, but was still 2 hours ahead of the cutoff. A couple miles from the aid station, Norm Richardson passed me — I had met him and his family at Vermont, and he was on his way to not only doing the Grand Slam, but the Last Great Race.
Half Moon to Twin Lakes (10:00-12:05): Got into Half Moon and tried forcing myself to eat, but I still couldn’t — a couple bites of a banana was about as much as I could choke down. It wasn’t that my stomach couldn’t handle it, but was just a matter of getting it past my mouth — I had no appetite whatsoever. Shortly after leaving the aid station, I caught site of Norm up ahead, but I had to pull off and use the outhouse. I remembered that section from training — we follow the dirt road past the Mt Elbert trailhead parking about a mile and a half from the aid station, then fork off to the left and catch the Colorado Trail. After a short climb, we reach the top where there’s a pile of stones, then we start a short descent when we come to the fork — left goes to Twin Lakes, the right one takes you to the top of Elbert. Around that time, John Byrne from IA (who I met during training) passed me with another runner and was looking strong. A short time later though, I caught up to him, as he slowed down significantly. I offered a few words of encouragement, and went by him — I wouldn’t see him again until after the race. About a half an hour before getting to the aid station, the view of the lake became visible through the trees, and I knew I was getting close. The trail continues to descend, eventually popping out onto a fireroad that we follow all the way down (the lowest point of the course at just over 9000′). Near the bottom, we make a left through a gate, past some private property, over a small hill, then down a steep and loose section into the Twin Lakes Fire Station. That aid station was bustling with volunteers, runners, crew/pacers, and spectators. I saw Bob there, who helped me with my bags, said I was maintaining a good pace, and that if I can make it back on the return by 8:30, I’d be in good shape. I prepared for the weather, since you never know what to expect at the top, so I took my Gore-Tex jacket, and strapped it to my pack. So after saying bye to Bob, off I went — left down the street, a right turn towards the lake, across the highway, and right through the parking lot.
Twin Lakes to Hopeless Aid Stn (12:05-14:18): I was feeling much better now than I did earlier, and was glad because I knew that I had the toughest section of the race coming up — the infamous double-crossing of Hope Pass, which made Leadville what it was. During training, it took me about 6 hours to do that section, so considering that was on relatively fresh legs, I knew that it would probably take me a little longer that time. We went through several pools of water, then eventually cross Lake Creek, the main river feeding Twin Lakes. The water was about thigh deep for me, and there was a rope strung across to hang on to. It was a little cold, but not too bad. That part is mostly flat until we reach the trees, then we go straight up for over 3000 feet to the top of Hope Pass. Near the start of the climb, we pass a wooden bridge on the right, but continue on up towards Little Willis. Shortly thereafter, I passed Matt Carpenter, on his way back to Leadville, and eventually winning the race. The two runners I was with at the moment, commented that they never saw the lead runner so early in the race before — little did we know at the time that not only was he on his way to victory, but also in the process of breaking the course record as well. As we go through some grassy but soggy meadows, the view of Hope Pass becomes visible over the trees, and know we’re approaching treeline and the Hopeless Aid Station. I was looking forward to getting there — not so much for the aid, but to be able to see the llamas that are used to haul all the equipment up the mountain — they looked so peaceful grazing on the hillside, that it made me feel calm and relaxed, helping me mentally as I prepared to continue on to the highest point of the course.
Hopeless to Winfield (14:20-16:11): I filled up again there with water, and started up the switchbacks. The snow that was present during the training weekend was now gone, and the weather was beautiful as well. As I started the climb, I noticed runners heading down the mountain — it was the second place runner. In third at the time, was Dan Vega, and he was less than a minute behind. I passed a few more lead runners on the way up, and made it to the top at 14:45 — elevation, just over 12.5k’. I stopped briefly at the prayer flags, and said a little prayer — asking mom and dad to guide me through the rest of the race safely.
The backside of Hope Pass is very steep, fast, rocky, and loose — I loved going down that section. Near the first set of switchbacks, a couple minutes after I left the summit, the first female runner was heading back to Leadville with her pacer. As you near treeline, the trail gets steeper and steeper, and eventually pops out at the dirt road leading to Winfield. When I exited onto the road, I saw my pacer Bob, who handed me a hotdog, which I actually managed to take a couple bites out of. I have no idea where he managed to get that, but was thankful he did. I also saw Mark Macy (another Coastal Challenge alumni), who was waiting for the legendary Marshall Ulrich to turn back around from the halfway point where he’ll pace him to the finish.
I really didn’t like that section during training, even though it was only a couple miles, because it was a long boring climb out to Winfield. But on race day, it was neat to be able to see all the runners on the return, so it made it a little bit more tolerable. After cresting the last hill, the aid station comes into view on your left, along with the old buildings which remained in the ghost town. We passed a couple of them, turned left downhill, crossed a bridge, and a final left into the aid station. There were quite a few people there, and have to say that the volunteers there were not very helpful unlike all the previous ones — usually, there was always someone asking if I needed anything, but no one there offered any assistance. I changed shirts there, something I usually do at the halfway along with shoes, but didn’t do that because I knew we had to go back through the water before Twin Lakes, so decided to change there instead. Just over 11 hours at the turn-around — not too bad, but was initially hoping to get there earlier.
Winfield to Hopeless (16:18-18:30): I left Winfield in somewhat of a hurry, because I wanted to get to Twin Lakes before it got dark. Because of that, plus not getting help from the volunteers, I realized after about 10 minutes that I forgot to fill my bladder, so I turned around and headed back. That took a little bit of wind out of my sails, but didn’t dwell on it, and just blamed my lack of experience for the mistake — luckily, it was relatively minor and didn’t cost me anything more than a few extra minutes. After I doubled-back, I saw Olga on her way out to the turn-around — I offered her a few words of encouragement, but her response wasn’t very positive, motioning that she was not doing well. I told her to hang in there, and continued on down the road. Turned out that she would be caught by the cutoffs unfortunately, ending her quest for the Grand Slam.
At the end of the road before starting back up Hope, I saw Bob again, and asked if he had any extra electrolytes, since for some reason, I didn’t have enough with me to last until my supply at Twin Lakes. We managed to find someone’s crew person who provided me with the few I needed to get through — thank goodness. I said goodbye to Bob as I headed up the trail — on the way, I saw Ken Chlouber, who was not looking too good. I looked at my watch, and had a feeling that he would have difficulty making the cutoff at Winfield. I told him to hang in there, as I made my way up the steepest section of the course. Not too long after, I finally saw Michelle heading down, and asked her how she was doing, and where her dad was. She was in good spirits, even though having had difficulty with food/altitude earlier, and said that her dad was just behind her. Based on the time, I knew they wouldn’t make the cutoff, and wished there was something I could do, but unfortunately, their day would be cut short. It took me about 2 hours after I left Winfield to make it back to the top, and I was feeling pretty good still at that point, in spite of not having had much to eat all day.
Hopeless to Twin Lakes (18:30-20:09): I made it back to Hopeless, stopped briefly to replenish my water supply, and started on the downhill back to Twin Lakes. I made up a lot of time there as I was running extremely well, passing a few runners that I hadn’t done since very early in the race, and made it all the way down to the lake in about an hour. The water felt much colder then, as it got pretty dark and cold by that time, but I knew that the aid station was close by where I’d be changing shoes and putting on extra clothing for the night leg. After some zig-zagging through the meadow, I finally reached the parking lot and expected to see Bob waiting for me. I got to the fire station and sat down to change and put on my tights when I saw Walt. I asked him where Bob was, but he didn’t know, and said to not look for him and go. I had the medical personnel tend to my bloodied hand that I injured earlier on when I fell and landed on some sharp branches. I also had developed an awful cough somewhere along the way that kept getting worse. They checked my oxygen saturation level, and said I was okay.
Twin Lakes to Half Moon (20:09-23:35): I left the aid station with about 1:45 in front of the cutoff, which was about where I was back at Winfield, but was concerned about what lay ahead — the steep climb out of Twin Lakes, plus Sugar Loaf was still several miles away. This was a very long section for me, and remember a bunch of runners passing me before getting to Half Moon. I didn’t feel as bad as I did on the outbound, but wasn’t feeling good at the same time either. I don’t recall much during this stretch, other than it being very dark, and stopping often to let others get around me on the singletrack. I just knew to look for the rockpile, then the steep downhill towards the Mt Elbert trailhead parking lot. Once I got out to the fireroad, I still had a little ways to go before hitting the aid station. I was feeling pretty bad at that point, and my cough wasn’t getting better. I was also concerned that I would start bonking at any point, since I still hadn’t consumed as much food as I needed to.
Off and on during this leg, I had contemplated whether I’d be able to finish or not — something that never crossed my mind before, and the thought scared me more than how bad I was actually feeling. Here I was, someone who never gives up, considering dropping out of a race, but I had a perfectly good excuse for not continuing, or at least I wanted to think I did. During those 3.5 hours, I kept trying to come up with a good enough reason to tell everyone back home why I couldn’t finish, but couldn’t come up with anything. Darn! Looks like I have to keep going. Maybe I won’t make the cutoff and be forced to stop. Yeah…that sounded good. I figured either way, I needed to get to Half Moon to let the aid station folks know, but then I also realized that I still had to get to Fish Hatchery where Bob could give me a ride back to town. Wait, what was I going to tell Bob when I saw him? He drove all the way from Silverton, crewed me all day, anticipating pacing me — I couldn’t just send him home without running at all. Oh he’ll understand…he’s done this race before, and knows how hard it is.
While I was thinking about how much I needed to quit, I eventually got to Half Moon, and basically sat down, not really in a hurry and expected to be told that I wouldn’t make the cutoff. I honestly didn’t know what time it was, or how close I was to the cutoff — I didn’t care. I just wanted to stop. As I was rummaging through my drop bag hoping that I would find something to make me feel better, I heard the aid station captain ask if anyone needed a pacer. Well, I thought maybe if I had some company, I’d start feeling better, so I said that I have a pacer waiting at Fish Hatchery, but wouldn’t mind having someone along if they didn’t mind running for only 7 miles — she said no problem, and had to get there somehow anyway, since that’s where she was parked. I warned her that I couldn’t run much, and that I probably wouldn’t make very good company, but she didn’t care — seemed like she’s seen runners in my condition before, and knew what she was getting into.
Half Moon to Fish Hatchery (23:44-01:38): We eventually left the aid station, and started into the section I was dreading more than all the others — the long flat road to Fish Hatchery that seemed to just go on forever. I tried not to think about it, and attempted to make small talk. We introduced each other — her name was Karen, and she was from Denver. Both of her runners had dropped earlier, so she was stranded without being able to pace anyone. I apologized that she wasn’t going to get much of a workout, since my jog had turned into a fast walk — sometimes, or most of the time, it wasn’t even fast, and I would have to stop almost every 50 feet or so. I still didn’t know how close I was to the cutoff, but realized I must’ve been okay if they allowed me to continue back at Half Moon. I also had a feeling that whatever cushion I had left was diminishing rapidly along with my pace.
My cough was still persisting, and the frequency that I had to urinate was surprising (I’ll spare you the details, but mention that it was VERY often). So I started believing that there was something seriously wrong with me medically, and mentioned it to Karen. I tried making her agree with me that I needed to drop out, but she always knew exactly what to say — she neither agreed nor disagreed, and somehow managed to change the subject, or take the focus away from dropping out. At the time, I was frustrated because I thought she was being difficult, but in retrospect, Karen was the reason why I was able to remain in the race. I wish I had gotten her contact info so that I could thank her, but that was the last thing on my mind at the time.
As we approached TreeLine, I wondered if I would see Bob there, since I missed him at Twin Lakes. It was a little dark, but it was still pretty easy to make out faces, and soon realized he wasn’t there. Karen knew some people, and greeted them briefly then continued to stay with me as I trudged along. I told her that she should just go ahead, but she didn’t, and stuck with me all the way into the aid station. On the way in, I saw my buddy Norm Richardson heading out — we wished each other luck, and he disappeared into the darkness while I headed into the aid station. That was the last time I saw him.
I quickly found Bob, and he was all prepared to run, but I was prepared to tell him I wasn’t. I sat down, and thanked Karen for keeping me company, and told Bob I wasn’t sure how much farther I’d be able to go. I still didn’t know how close I was to the cutoff, but finally asked Bob, since I had a feeling I had to have been pretty close. I don’t recall what he told me exactly, but I do remember that there was still enough time left that I was forced to continue. Darn — still couldn’t find an excuse to drop!
As I was trying to put on some heavier gloves, which I eventually gave up on, I mentioned to Bob that I still hadn’t eaten anything really of significance since I had a bite of his hotdog back at Winfield, and was concerned that I’d eventually bonk. After getting ready to head out, I walked over to the aid station table to see if there was anything there that would appeal to me, but there wasn’t, so we checked out, and headed out to start the climb up to Sugarloaf along the powerlines.
Fish Hatchery to Mayqueen (2:05-5:55): It was probably in the low-30’s at that point, but felt relatively comfortable with a couple layers, a vest, and a wind-breaker. I was still coughing, but my energy level was holding up surprisingly well — I really didn’t feel any worse at that point compared to any of my previous races, but I was moving really slow, and knew that it would take me a long time to climb up Powerline. As I had expected, I was getting passed by a number of runners, and finally mentioned to Bob that at that rate, we probably wouldn’t make it to Mayqueen in time. I asked him what time we had to get there by, and he said 4:30, so we did some math, guessed our pace and distance left, and came to the conclusion that I was probably right. Bob suggested that he turn around and head back to Fish Hatchery to get his car, and meet me at Mayqueen — in case I were to drop there, we’d have a ride back to Leadville. I didn’t want to think about that option, but had to face reality, and agreed that that probably was a good idea. What that meant though, was that I’d be solo during what is typically the worst time for most runners, including myself — the stretch between 2am and dawn, when I would get sleepy, and need someone to help keep me awake and alert. I was already having a hard time staying awake, but felt it was better that Bob get the car, since if I did end up dropping, that I’d want to get back into town as quickly as possible so that I could lay down in bed. I said goodbye to him, and that I’d see him at Mayqueen.
I knew about the false summits going up to the top, but didn’t really care, since I had lost count, and besides, it wasn’t making me go any faster knowing how far/close I was anyway. I looked at my watch occasionally as 4:30 was nearing rapidly, but still maintained some amount of hope in that I’d make it to Mayqueen in time. Around 3:30, I had crested over Sugarloaf, and dropped down onto Hagerman Pass Rd where you can see the aid station. I didn’t know how many miles I had left, so couldn’t really calculate how fast I needed to run, but it didn’t matter much since I was pretty maxed out anyway. At that time, it was starting to occur to me that I would DNF, and started preparing for it mentally — my main concern being what I would tell all my friends why I couldn’t finish. Missing the cutoff just didn’t seem like enough of an excuse — what kind of story can I make up instead? I started noticing other runners and their pacers around me — some I actually passed, and a few I remained relatively close to. It did seem odd to me that they were running with some sense of urgency, as if they were still in the race, even though I had given up at that point — did they not know they weren’t going to make the cutoff, since it was already close to 4, with only 30 minutes to cover the remainder of that section, and we weren’t even off Hagerman Pass yet?
I finally turned down onto the Colorado Trail, and knew Mayqueen wasn’t too far out, but far enough that I wouldn’t make it there in time. Now the reality of the DNF was clearly setting in, and when I saw my watch hit 4:30, that was it — my day was done. After 80+ miles into the race, I became one of the many runners that day who wouldn’t be crossing the finish line. I didn’t feel bad like I thought I would, considering it was my first one, but instead, I felt relieved — relieved because I didn’t have to worry about my loss of appetite, the cough, or having to race against the cutoff. I thought instead, how bad I felt about Bob not being able to run much with me that day, and how I could prepare to come back next year so that I would be able to finish next time. I passed a few more runners, one who was sitting on a rock, crying uncontrollably next to her pacer — she was taking the DNF a lot worse than I was. I wanted to say something as I went by, but couldn’t think of anything that would’ve made her feel any better, so I quietly continued on to meet Bob.
The sun was finally starting to come out, which was when I’d usually get my second wind, but it didn’t matter this time — it would be a little too late for that. I eventually got to the bridges near the bottom, so knew that it wasn’t long before I’d reach the trailhead that took me out to the road down to Mayqueen. Once on the asphalt, it was a short downhill, a left turn, then straight into the last aid station at mile 87, where I was planning on getting my wristband cut.
As I ran in, one of the volunteers asked for my number like all the other stations, and I saw Bob standing there with my drop bag. It was daytime now, almost exactly 24 hours since I was last there on the way out — the most noticeable difference was that there were very few people in the tent, and the atmosphere was extremely subdued. I felt a lot different too, the adrenaline rush had long disappeared along with my energy level. I felt how one would expect to feel after running 87 miles and not be able to finish.
Bob asked me if I was ready to head back into town, but I told him I just wanted to sit for a little while and relax — there was no need to rush anymore, and I had just started to realize that I was experiencing my first DNF, but why hadn’t anyone cut off my wristband. Then Bob says to me, “oh Andy, I made a mistake when I told you that the cutoff was 4:30 — it’s actually 6:30.”
I looked at my watch, and it was 6:00. “You mean to tell me, if we want to go on, we may actually be able to finish?”
“Well…let’s go! Let’s try and finish this darn race!”
As Bob quickly prepared to run again, I had to change some major gears — I was mentally done at that point, not to mention physically as well. It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to go through — I had to Dig Deep.
Mayqueen to Finish (6:00-9:52): I didn’t even think about what I needed for the rest of the race, and wasn’t sure if I even filled my bladder with enough water or bring enough gel. We had exactly 4 hours to cover 13 miles, and I figured we’d need every minute of it, so we hurried out of there. As we made our way along Turquoise Lake, I tried calculating our pace needed to finish, and mentioned to Bob that we’d make it as long as we averaged just over 3 miles an hour, which was pretty fast based on the condition I was in. I estimated when we’d reach the Tabor Boat Ramp, but took a little longer than I planned, which added some pressure to speed it up a bit. Around that time, the hotspot I started getting on the descent from Sugarloaf had turned into a blister, which made running even more difficult. We were getting passed by numerous runners who managed to get their second wind, and as I tried maintaining their pace, I’d soon fall behind when I was reduced to walking.
The lake seemed to go on forever, but we kept pushing — going as fast as my body would allow, and the focus being entirely on the clock at that point. Every time we slowed or had to stop, it cost us valuable seconds, that could’ve meant not being able to finish — the pressure was stressful. 90 miles into Leadville — no food, blisters, coughing, yet still managed to keep moving. I tried conversing with Bob to keep my mind occupied, but it didn’t work — even talking was painful.
The sun was out now, and getting very warm — I had too many layers on, so took my jacket and vest off. I could also tell I was running low on water, as my pack had started to feel pretty light. We were still making progress, but it was hard to tell if we were going fast enough to make the cutoff. Eventually, we made it completely around the lake, and took the steep downhill onto the fireroad heading towards Sugarloafin’ Campground, but it was still about 4 miles left to the finish from there. Looking back on the long straightaway, I realized that we were the last ones still out on the course — or so I thought. I think we had about an hour left at that point, so I knew we would be cutting it close. The fireroad looked flat, but there was a slight incline — enough to slow us down, most of the time, I was walking.
I was glad to finally see the pavement where we’d turn right, parallel the homes, then the left turn onto the Boulevard. Having done the 10k the previous weekend, I knew that it was still a ways until the 3 mile mark, and the clock was ticking. We somehow managed to catch up to the pack of about a half-dozen or so runners ahead, and kept them in sight. There was a couple runners who we played hop-scotch with — all of us silently making our way towards the finish, in too much pain to be social. I had run out of water, and Bob was trying to get me take some of his sports drink, but I couldn’t — concerned that it would make me more nauseous than I already was, and didn’t want to jeopardize the race because of that, although it could’ve been worse if I had become too dehydrated I suppose.
Every time we came to a hill or a bend in the corner where we couldn’t see up ahead, I thought we had reached the end of the road, signaling the 1-mile mark, but each time I thought that, I was let down. Just before we were able to see the end of the Boulevard, I told Bob that I thought we needed to run if we wanted to finish, so we started to run. It felt like I was sprinting, doing the 10k from the previous week, but we were hardly going at a 12 min/mi pace. My tachometer was redlined, and my fuel reserve completely empty, but managed to produce a shuffle.
Finally, the sight that I had been so longing to see, the asphalt signaling the end of the Boulevard, not to mention the 1-mile mark appeared. I couldn’t believe it, but we didn’t have much time, and knew that what remained was a steep uphill, topping out into a short flat section, then an equally steep downhill, followed by a gradual climb to the finish line.
It was here that we passed the majority of the people who were in front of us all the way back from before Sugarloafin’, and it was also the first time I felt that we would actually be able to finish this race. My body and mind was on autopilot — it only knew one thing that it had to do, and that was to cross that finish line.
I felt Bob’s presence, and even though we didn’t verbally communicate, I knew what was going through his mind, and I’m sure that he realized what was going through mine as well. I wanted to cross the line together, but before I could react, he had pulled off to the side moments before, so I ended up finishing without him next to me. I wished he hadn’t done that, but respect him for it. I’m not sure that I could’ve finished without him, and owe it to Bob for getting me through. I stopped my watch — it read 29:52, only 8 minutes to spare. I was done…finally.
Merilee placed a medal around my neck, and directed me to the med tent where they checked my oxygen saturation level again, and it still measured within acceptable limits. I wanted to rest, but then I heard the mayor announce that the race was nearly over, but there was a runner still out on the course, who was just cresting the hill approaching the finish. I walked over, and saw him, barely shuffling — the clock read 29:58:30, exactly 1.5 minutes to make it. I knew that he had to run, but he was in no condition — he was on empty, and was going as fast as he could.
The mayor starts yelling, “Go, go, go…!” The crowd joins in. Everyone is standing, alternating staring at the clock, and the lone figure left out on the road. The clock was ticking away, now less than a minute left. His expression on his face said everything — I knew what he went through, and only those who’ve been through similar experiences could understand.
Finally, a handful of spectators rush out as he was approaching, less than a 100 feet away, a couple grabbed his arms, while the others surrounded him yelling words of encouragement, hoping that would be enough to get him through. Somehow, this courageous individual managed to find a bit left in his reserve, which was sufficient to push him through. 29:59:59 — collapsing into the arms of his wife, who was waiting so anxiously for that moment. At the same time, the shotgun blast signaled the end of the race, and this gentleman’s extraordinary adventure. Matt Carpenter, who finished almost 15 hours before, crushing the previous course record was there too — a class athlete.
Seeing this almost made me forget about how much pain I was actually in, but that pain felt so good that I cherished every moment of it — a reminder of everything that I had gone through, but most important, being able to overcome it and succeeding. What a roller-coaster ride that was — can’t wait to take on the challenge again.
Final Thoughts: This race was very hard for me. Never had I thought about dropping out as much as I did during this event. A DNF had never been an option for me — never ever, and having gone through a big part of the race when I would’ve done anything to quit, and having gotten through it was such an incredible experience for me. I realized then, that these events would continue to challenge both my mind and body, and that I’ll never know what could happen. In spite of all the difficulty I had, and the pain I had gone through, I enjoyed every minute of it, and it wasn’t long afterwards that I wanted to return to Leadville so that I could once again conquer this course — hopefully, next time I won’t have to dig as deep.