The voice whispered in my ear:
What will you do with your One, Wild and Precious Life?
The shotgun blast reverberated through my feet and legs. I turned around to catch one more glimpse of Kelsea and Jay on the sidelines before trotting away into the darkness. I’d waited four years for this morning, cold and clear and full of excitement and nervousness. During the final countdown (10! 9! 8!…) I shook my legs out, looked down at my feet and smiled. This was going to be one hell of an adventure.
At 4am on August 16th, 690 of us began shuffling west down 6th street in the dark, just a steady stream of bobbing headlamps. I began remembering moments from the last few years: finishing my first 50 miler in the darkness in Steamboat Springs while singing Mason Jennings’ “I’m comin’ down the mouuu-ouuu-tain” with Jay; all the wildlife I’d seen in training—bears, wild turkey, rattle snakes and Abert squirrels; the numerous injuries to my IT band, knees, ankles, ego; all the times I came rolling/stumbling/crying into aid stations only to be brought back by the words/look/sheer will of Kelsea; my ever-present and supportive running partner Andrew; the long outings alone in Lory State Park; the wonderfully light and encouraging group outings up Towers with Stubbs and Humphrey; the hundreds of hikes and jogs with visiting friends; the 400+ daily constitutionals to the Perch and back; running the Bacon Strip east of town with Sarah; the ups…the downs…the continued forward progress…
A map of the Leadville 100 course might help during this story:
And a profile of the course:
Part One: Start slow and steady
Running down 6th Street I spotted and yelled for the amazing group of people waiting outside our house: Boj, Eric, Bruce, Deborah, Stubbs and Cody, Jeff up taking pictures from the window. There was too much momentum to stop and high-five so I kept on moving. The majority of the first 5 miles out of town was downhill on pavement and a gravel road called the Boulevard. I reminded myself that I would see the sun rise, set and rise again before stepping onto the Boulevard again. I could only laugh at the absurdity.
There was a sharp turn near railroad tracks at the 5k mark and I wanted to make it there in about 30 to 35 minutes—not too slow, not too fast. The first half hour flew by and before I knew it, we had made the turn: 33 minutes. Perfect. The pace felt great, the mood was chatty and positive, the roads and paths lined with spectators. Cow bells and headlamps. After 5 or 6 miles the group had spread out some, which was fortunate because we funneled onto the rolling, rocky trail around Turquoise Lake. I noticed that the sky was beginning to brighten ever so slightly. I stepped off the trail, turned my headlamp off, and for a brief moment, enjoyed the pre-dawn stars and beautiful line of bobbing lights around the north shore of the lake. It was a great reminder to enjoy the day and this opportunity. I had been given the chance to run through the mountains while being fully supported by a team of people who wanted nothing more than to help me on my journey.
After slowly making my way around the lake I popped out of the trees into the May Queen campground and the first aid station at 13.5 miles. Most runners had a crew at this point but I chose to have mine waiting at the Outward Bound (mile 24) stop instead. The goal here was to breeze through May Queen with a water refill and that’s it. My goal time to this point was between 2:15 and 2:40 (or about 6:30am)— I was focused solely on eating, drinking, and staying on the slow side for the first quarter of the race. I noticed many (so many!) runners running the first half-marathon as if the race was just that: a half marathon. As they flew past me on the trail I had the feeling I would see them again in about 20 or 30 miles. Hopefully for their sake they knew what they were doing. I scooted into the May Queen aid station in 2:25—right on pace. After filling up my camelback bladder I ran through the throngs of crew and supporters and made my way up the hill onto the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
This was the start of the first climb of the day: the CDT to Hagerman Road to the top of Sugarloaf Pass. My legs were glad to do some hiking and steady jogging. This was definitely the easiest climb of the day, but it still required some effort: a rise of 1,200 feet in about 4 miles. Again I noticed lots of folks running past me as if this were a 4 or 5 hour day. I silently wished them luck and hoped they weren’t going out too quickly. I stuck to my pace and kept my heart rate low. I began chatting with fellow racers: one guy arrived in Leadville the day before from Florida! 16 feet asl to 10,200 feet asl. He seemed to be breathing okay and his spirits were high, though we hadn’t gotten to the tough stuff yet.
It was during this section that I began to notice what would become my first major issue: my go-to, homemade muffins, that were suppose to sustain me for the next 25 hours were already sitting heavy in my stomach, and I was quickly losing my appetite for them. I kept shoving them down my neck every 20 minutes but I was growing tired of them already. Not good.
After a steady hoof to the top of Sugarloaf (…3:55 into the race, right on target) I got my first great view of the valley below. No clouds and the sun was already high in the sky. I stashed my headlamp in my front pocket, decided against shedding some layers, and picked my way down the steep and precarious Powerline slopes. Within about 35 minutes I reached the paved road (Cty Rd 5 I think) and turned toward the Fish Hatchery. It was starting to get warm but I opted to keep my layers on until the OB aid station where I was positive my crazy crew was waiting.
Part Two: Outward Bound to Twin Lakes
Boy were they crazy! Kelsea had led the crew to OB even before sunrise to set up shop. From ½ mile out I could see the neon orange flag reading “Birch Bluff” with a sewed-on loon on the front—the name of our family’s cabin growing up. So cool Boj! After cruising into the aid station in 4:52 (still good…), Jeff spotted me and grabbed my pack to fill it up. I relayed my all ready-developing muffin problem (lol, that sounds funny), and told him I needed some ginger ale. It was exciting to see Kels and the crew, all of them hollering but focused on getting me through. Eric held a stopwatch and announced how long I’d been in the aid station (I was hoping for less than three minutes—I think it was close to that, right Eric?), I shed my extra layers and prepared for the slow steady incline ahead. I was a little worried about the food/stomach situation but put it out of my head for now. The next section was a bit (dare I say?) boring, with mostly flat pavement and straight gravel roads. I decided to grab earphones and music (I’d never done this during a race!) just in case. As I headed-out of OB I plugged the music in, listened to the first song for a minute and a half, shut them off then put’em away. They were still in my back pocket when I returned to the OB aid station 16 hours later. Even the ‘boring’ parts of the Leadville 100 were too exciting for music. When I wasn’t starring at the mountains (this section had the best views of Mt. Elbert) or watching the road, I was usually chatting with a fellow racer.
After a steady climb back into the trees (~mile 34), we began the steep and quick 3 mile descent into Twin Lakes, and the next crewing spot. Bruce and Deb had drove to Twin Lakes about 4 hours earlier and staked out a great spot in the shade, within a 100 yards of the aid station. Kelsea, Jay and Jeff had drove over after OB with my supplies.
The descent was fast—much faster than in the recon outings—and I stuck with two other runners whose pace was fast and steady. We picked-up a lot of momentum and time and flew into Twin Lakes in 8 hours and 38 minutes. Still spot on what I was shootin’ for, for the first 40 miles of the race. But my stomach was getting worse. I noticed some sharp pains when running but they weren’t too bad yet, so I brushed them aside. I also started to notice some ‘hot spots’ on my feet when descending into town. It felt like blisters were starting to form—not out-of-the-ordinary considering I had just run 40 miles.
I sat down at the aid station to lube the feet and change socks. Despite some early warning signs I was feeling great and in high spirits. It was so motivating and energizing to see my crew. Even when you expect to see them, it still gives me a charge when I finally arrive.
Part Three: Hope(less) Pass, when all was lost
I left Twin Lakes with some momentum, and was excited to finally tackle the fabled Hope Pass. I had read many tales of ruin and triumph surrounding this giant climb—now it was my turn to give it a shot. Before the proper climbing began I waded through seven creek crossings—each about knee or thigh high and freezing! It felt amazing. After taking a dip we crossed a small meadow and began the 3,400-foot ascent to the saddle, and the infamous Hope Pass Aid Station. Each year, a few dozen brave Leadville locals load-up enough supplies and water (and booze) to last themselves and a few hundred racers two days and then set out on foot. Hope Pass is not accessible by car (it’s entirely single track and remote) so they pack their supplies on about 30 llamas! I couldn’t wait to get above treeline and see them grazing in the meadow at 12,000 feet.
I had completed this climb four times previously so I was well aware of how long it was. I figured if I topped out in about 2 and a half hours I’d be in good shape. I had about 8 miles to go til Winfield and the turn-around point, so I was also expecting to start seeing the race leaders pass by on their way back to Twin Lakes. I found a steady hiking rhythm that didn’t put me out of breath, and began the work of taking down the elephant one bite at a time. To be honest, the ascent went perfectly. Time flew and when I saw daylight (treeline!) I was a bit surprised. Sure enough, the leaders began flying past us downhill. They were amazing and inspiring to watch.
Within 5 minutes of reaching treeline I was greeted by an older woman seated a few hundred feet before the aid station. “Welcome to Hope Pass! What can we getcha?” I stopped, looked around at the amazing scene of llamas grazing and wildflowers blooming, 13,000-foot peaks with snow, and for the first time (first of many), began to cry. When my greeter asked what was wrong, I simply replied: “I’ve waited four years to see these llamas.” She smiled and nodded, and I continued on my way.
The climb up Hope Pass went smoothly. But from everything I read about the beast, things never go smoothly the entire way (entire way = the 20 miles between Twin Lakes Aid Station #1 and #2), and I would be no exception. Once I summited the pass at 12,600 feet asl, my entire race changed. I was excited to start what I hoped would be a fast descent into Winfield. I checked my watch when I went over the top and I had made the ascent in 2:15, only 10 minutes off my PR in training. I was feeling refreshed and ready to descend.
Then all hell broke loose. It began when I first started running—my right IT band seized and with it came an excruciating knee pain. It was quite painful to run. Next came the sharp stomach cramps, which made running impossible. I then realized how hot it was getting. I had enough water but I couldn’t drink it fast enough. I lost my appetite. I was above treeline, exposed for a good two hours and the south side of Hope Pass didn’t provide much shade. I’m still amazed at how quickly—literally within 2 miles—my body started breaking down. I was crawling downhill when I was planning on picking up time by running at a steady clip. Pre-race, I thought this would be one of my strongest sections—I planned to run from the top of Hope Pass to Winfield in 1:15. On race day I did it in 2:20. I continued to slog along but it was mostly a walk. I definitely wasn’t alone. Racers both descending and re-ascending Hope were sprawled out everywhere, some vomiting, some lying down with eyes closed. No one looked great. After two hours of descending I finally spotted the last turn into Winfield, and was taken by surprise (I was definitely a little delirious at this point) when my brother came out of no where (red flag…he was actually standing in a group of people and slowly approached me) to run me into the aid station. He was excited! I felt like I was disappointing him with my lack of energy and enthusiasm. “How ya doin’ pal?!” I almost quit on the spot. “I’m in trouble, brother. Big…big trouble.” “Well let’s get you to the aid station and fix ya up!”
Winfield had the only medical check-in of the day. I got asked a bunch of questions about vomiting, blood in my urine, hallucinations, etc. Luckily I was still able to honestly answer ‘no’ to all of them. I was then weighed—the moment of truth. Rumor had it that if you lost more than 7% of your body weight (about 11 lbs. for me) during the first half of the race, they’d keep you in Winfield until you were deemed ‘fit to continue’. I also had heard that if you lost 10% of your body weight, they’d cut you on the spot. I stepped on the scale. I had only lost 2 lbs. in 13 hours—not bad at all. I hadn’t eaten in the last hour because of stomach cramps but they didn’t ask me about that, so I didn’t tell them. 🙂
I then found the crew’s tent, where Boj, Eric, Andrew, Stubbs and Cody were waiting. Against my own pre-race orders, I sat down. I can honestly say it was the worst I’ve ever felt (physically) in my life. No joke. One of the good things about Winfield though is that from there on out, I’d have a pacer with me. In this case, a very enthusiastic Chad Stubbs. He brightened my spirits for sure, but I was hurtin’ for certainin’, and it was tough not thinking about dropping out. Nothing sounded appetizing, so Stubbs got some broth (I think??) into one of our bottles and, after some coaxing I rose to my feet to get movin’. I felt bad, being so out of it and down when these guys had waited, enthusiastically for me for 6 hours. Their presence and drive kept me going, and as I would find out a couple hours later, saved my race. We were at the point now where we needed to start improvising based on what my body could handle. The broth was a good start, as was slipping a headlamp into Stubbs’ pack just in case I didn’t make it back to Twin Lakes before dark (foreshadowing…).
Stubbs and I walked slowly out of the aid station, turned the corner and headed out of town. 5 seconds later I was doubled-over in the ditch vomiting. I had never vomited due to exercise before. It felt pretty good–for about a minute.
We then started the slog back up Hope Pass. Stubbs was quick with encouragement. After a mile or so he took my pack (thus wearing both of our packs…) to help me climb. It worked a little. I vomited again. Then again. Then 8 more times. Three weeks prior to the race, Stubbs, Andrew and I had climbed from Winfield to the top of Hope Pass in 1:31. Today, Stubbs and I would do it in 2:45. It was the longest three hours of my life. I still feel bad for Chad. I know he was hoping for an epic climb then descent into Twin Lakes. We were hoping to reach Twin Lakes by 8pm and avoid needing headlamps. But 100-mile races can change your mindset in a hurry. I needed to stop about once every minute to rest, but Chad kept pushing me on. I became more and more delirious. Chad would ask me questions and I starred off into space, mumbling god-knows-what in response. Luckily he would grab my head and point my eyes at his face. “We’re going to do this, Muck. We got this. Keep going.” What a guy!
As we slowly made our way up the often-more-than-20%-grades, the thought began to surface that I wasn’t going to make it. Hope Pass had done me in. I would make it to Twin Lakes to be sure, mostly because I didn’t have a choice. But there was no way I was going to make it before the cut-off. Then I thought of Kelsea. I promised her I’d be in Twin Lakes by 8pm. I looked at my watch: 7:30. I looked up at the mountain: still at least a mile to go. Dammit. I knew of course that Kelsea wouldn’t be disappointed in me, and neither would my crew. But I wanted to make this experience worth their trip. I couldn’t believe it was going to be over by mile 60. I stopped in the trail, vomited one last time, and wept.
To say that Stubbs saved my race would be an understatement. Despite repeating the same phrases over and over, and despite my physical protesting, the biggest thing he did was keep me moving forward. I knew I wasn’t going to make the cut-off in Twin Lakes, but Stubbs became my lifeline. His job changed from motivator to simply keeping me safe. He was fantastic…and that my friends, is as “Rado” as it gets.
Part Four: Lazarus and the Big Puddle
Almost three hours after leaving Winfield, we made it through the final switchbacks and crawled over the ridge of Hope Pass. 8:00pm. The sun had set and the wind began picking up. Without stopping, we made the short descent into the Hope Pass aid station, where hours…days…years? beforehand I had cried over llamas and was moving smoothly up the mountain. Stubbs ran ahead and got more broth. I stumbled in and through the aid station as the sky grew dark. After passing through the aid station we both stopped to pee. Best pee spot ever! 12,000 feet asl, sunset and Leadville on the horizon…45 miles away. I’ll never really understand what changed in those moments. Usually darkness brings fear and thoughts of pointlessness and lethargy. After 6 hours of meandering along, half-conscious, you’d think I would’ve wanted to lay down and take a nap before strolling into Twin Lakes to get cut. But the opposite happened.
Stubbs and I pee’d together in the dark, 12,000 feet above everything. I looked at my watch: 8:12pm. The cut-off in Twin Lakes was 9:45pm. My PR for this leg of the course, with fresh legs and lots of energy, was 1:40. I was actually NOT deterred by this thought. I turned to Stubbs: “I know what we’re up against, and I don’t care. Just don’t. stop. moving. Okay?” Stubbs: “You got it champ.” And with that, we were off.
Something inside me snapped. A light went on. A fuse was lit. I don’t know what it was, but in that moment, I literally felt my body coming back from the dead. And when it did…
We began to jog downhill, then a little faster, then a little faster still. We only had one, small, minute problem. We only had one headlamp. Stubbs’ second amazing feat: besides keeping me alive and moving, Chad Stubbs not only gave me our only headlamp, he then ran just as fast as I did and never once, in the pitch black darkness in the woods of a high mountain pass filled with rocks and roots and tight edges and steep drop-offs—he never once tripped. I’ll never figure out how he did it. I had the headlamp and tripped two or three times and even fell once. But Stubbs never waivered. It was incredible (and nerve-wracking) to watch.
And we flew—I mean FLEW—down Hope Pass. We passed so many racers and pacers that I lost count after 40. We’d pull up behind a group, wait for them to step aside (when it was safe), then fly right past them and into the Abyss. It was magical. Every ugly cramp, shooting knee pain, every doubt, every disappointing feeling, everything was gone. I knew it would be close, coming into Twin Lakes, but it didn’t matter anymore. We were flying, and there was only the Moment, only this step, this leap, this feeling of complete freedom. I. Was. Alive. In the words of Ol’ Cookie Kulju, I was “A golden hawk, soaring over a canyon.”
We reached the creek crossings just after 9pm—man, this was going to be close. After wading through the thigh-deep, snowmelted, freezing cold water, Stubbs latched on to a group a few yards in front of us and ran ahead. I wanted him to get to Twin Lakes first, to alert the crew that I was coming and to be ready. Did I mention this was going to be close?
Ahead in Twin Lakes, Kelsea and the crew had waited for hours. It grew dark. Luckily (?) she had received news from the Winfield crew that things weren’t looking good. Then she received the timing update when I had summited Hope Pass at 8pm. Between those two bits of information she thought I was done-for. So did I! She called Boj, Eric, Jeff and Andrew in Leadville. “You should probably get here. I want everyone to be here when he gets in. It’s not good.” Even though Andrew had just put his head on the pillow 3 minutes before Kelsea’s call, they were up and out the door in seconds. I won’t divulge how fast they drove to Twin Lakes, but they made it just as I was making the creek crossings.
Just as the crew gathered together near the aid station, a headlamp-less, crazy fast pacer came hauling ass into town. It was Stubbs, and once again, all hell broke loose.
Kelsea screamed (I swear I heard it from ½ mile out) J . Jay scrambled to put his shoes on (he had the next section of pacing but when I was pronounced “pretty much done” he didn’t bother suiting-up), Stubbs barked orders and gave his update, then grabbed an extra headlamp and headed back in my direction to guide me in. Good thing he was wearing his That’s So Rado green shirt, otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed him flying passed me in the dark!
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: I’ll never fully understand what happened on the northside of Hope Pass that night, but I will never forget it as long as I breathe.
At 9:38pm I crossed Hwy 82 into Twin Lakes while the State Patrol blocked traffic. On the other side of the road was a 6-foot wide puddle that was about 4 inches deep. Every other racer stopped and walked around it. But after all that had transpired, after the bottom-of-the-barrel-donefor-trashed-into-a-ridiculous-comeback-to-remember, I ran, jumped straight above the puddle, and stamped a “YES!” on Hope Pass. (I apologize to the spectators I sprayed.) It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.
I then ran up the hill with Stubbs and found Kelsea. We had done it. With minutes to spare we had found Twin Lakes and saved my race. I switched shoes, the crew scrambled to fill bottles, Jay strapped on his pack, and within two minutes we were ready to roll. Even though I had made it to Twin Lakes, I still needed to cross the timing mat before 9:45pm. Together with my crew, I sprinted to the mat as race volunteers shouted their warning call for everyone to hurry. I kissed Kelsea, crossed the mat with moments to spare, then, together with Jay-Papa Bowers, marched off into the night.
Part Five: Gaining Momentum
Ten minutes up the trail from Twin Lakes: “Hey! Wait a minute! Why was every single person from the crew at Twin Lakes Aid Station?!? Andrew was supposed to be in Leadville sleeping! What the hell?! …Wait a minute! You thought I was done! DIdn’t you?!? You all came to console me! Didn’t you!??! You weren’t even dressed yet! Why were you scrambling to put your shoes on?!?” <<Jay and I both laugh>>
After leaving Twin Lakes, Jay and I ascended 1200 feet to the Mt. Elbert trailhead. It was a great break from the fast descending Stubbs and I just finished. We used the time to catch-up with what was going on, what Kels and the crew had been up to all day, and how my body was doing. Somewhere on the sprint into Twin Lakes my stomach started feeling better. To continue taking in calories, Jay had packed a great rotation of beverages: ginger ale, water, Skratch, sweet potato mash (yummmm) and chicken broth. Every ten minutes or so I’d down a little bit of one of these and continue on. I also started feeling sleepy and drowsy during this section, and each time I recognized that I was falling asleep Jay would hand me four or five espresso beans covered in chocolate. They worked perfectly. Five minutes after chewin’m up I’d get a jolt back to reality.
Though my feet were really starting to hurt and blister (making running pretty painful), we were able to keep a steady rhythm of one-minute-jogging-one-minute-hiking. Overall I was feeling better, so our goal for this long section was to stay steady, and in-turn put some time in the bank. It was a perfect evening—no clouds, a nice chill, and the air was still. We simply put one foot in front of the other, looked ahead to the far-off glow stick/marker, and when we reached it we looked for the next. There was something very easy and zen about the night portion with Jay. The world was relegated to what was in front of our headlamps and conversation was easy and light. It was the perfect ‘after party’ following Hope Pass and Twin Lakes.
We steadily gained time as we rolled into the Half Pipe aid station where Jay filled our bottles and I (finally!) was able to use the Biff to “take the kids to the pool”. Trouble was, when I finished there wasn’t any toilet paper left! Ahhhh! (Thank you to the woman who, when I opened the door with my pants down to ask for an aid station person to bring more toilet paper, she didn’t run away screaming.). Desperate times…
We rolled out of the aid station and down the Half Pipe proper, a long flat section of dirt that led to pavement. It was during this section where the pale yellow half-moon rose over the Mosquito Range—magnificent! We briefly stopped, turned off our headlamps and silently gazed in awe at the moon. Then, Jay pointed out the massive Big Dipper to the north over Turquoise Lake. Even while battling the Beast and time checks and in the middle of a big race, one must take these pauses to remember why wild places are important—this is why I love trail running. I was grateful to stand in silence and watch the moon brighten our path.
When we cleared the Half Pipe and briefly turned east we were able to see the distant lights of the Outward Bound aid station, and beyond that, Leadville. We were making great time and began jogging a little more as we grew closer to OB. Follow the glow sticks…keep moving.
I was glad to spend the evening hours with Jay—it was a little less stressful, a little more calm and methodical. Just what I needed.
We rolled into OB aid station at 2:27am, half an hour before the cutline. Stomach was in much better shape but my feet were pretty toast. I wasn’t too worried though, there was a big climb (more hiking) ahead with Jeff. Kelsea and Jeff greeted us in the darkness, both as chipper as they were 16 hours previous at the same aid station. I changed shoes, assessed the blister situation (not pretty), put on some dry, warm clothes, got rid of those damn headphones, tried to down some food, and set off once more into the night. The next time I would see Kelsea would be at the finish line…hopefully! Before that though, Jeff and I had to navigate 11 miles of steep incline, decline and a messy section of the CDT in three and a half hours.
Part Six: Powerline Climb, the Second Sunrise, and Shredded Feet
Jeff and I had completed this section of the course in training, and it took us about 2:30, so at first I wasn’t overly worried about making the May Queen time cut at 6:30am. But when we hit the road out of OB, my feet felt as if someone had lit a torch under them. I had a difficult time jogging so I tried to find a steady hiking pace. Jeff gave the perfect balance of positive feedback (“You’re doing great! You’ve come so far!”) and steady nudging (“Maybe we should try running again. Let’s jog to that sign post…”), and it worked great. We started the nasty Powerline climb at about 3:30am and even if we took it slow, I had a good feeling we’d be ok on time. But the next 4 miles seemed to take an eternity. I thought since I had climbed it three times in training that I’d remember landmarks and know how far we had to the top. But not having slept in 25 hours, running most of that 25 hours, and trying to see in the dark made for a big challenge. After an hour of hiking I made the mistake of verbalizing how far I thought we had left in the climb. “See that runner’s light up there? It’s only like 5 minutes after that.” Nope. Ten minutes later: “Ok, I know there’s only like one more turn. I know it this time.” Nope. Finally, I just gave up and decided the climb would last forever. Just as this thought came to mind, we heard a faint moaning-horn sound. It was difficult to tell where it was coming from because it was bouncing off the adjacent mountainsides. I thought it was an elk, calling for it’s young (I’ve heard this before, but this was a little different). The sound grew louder the more we climbed. We were definitely getting closer to it. After a minute or two the noise started having a more methodical, almost instrumental quality. Yep, it was definitely somebody wailin’ on a horn—like those horns at the World Cup in South Africa whose name starts with a “z” or a “w”. I couldn’t remember then and I can’t now. Finally, we got to a turn I recognized as being about ¼ mile from the top. We turned left and were greeter by a very large, bright and LOUD frat-style party in the middle of the f—ing wilderness. They had made a banner (out of a surfboard?? Was I losing it??) that said: “YOU FUCKING ROCK!”. Hilarious. Jeff filled water while I pee’d (always a good sign this late in the game) and said hello to the yeti-looking bearded men (and women?).
Jeff estimated that we’d be to May Queen by 6am at the latest, a half hour before the cut, but I had my doubts. I looked at my watch. I silently disagreed with his assessment (sorry buddy!) but appreciated his always-positive attitude. What a great friend and pacer!
As we descended Sugarloaf (and moved away from tree cover) I realized I had to…you know…go #2. And it needed to happen…Right. Now. I did my best to obey Leave No Trace principles while Jeff covered me from the passing headlamps. What a guy! Feeling lighter and a little more conscious, we hit Hagerman Road and began to jog a little faster. I looked at my watch: 5:55am. Shit. We still had about 3 miles to go, through the gnarly part of the CDT and the short paved section. We started moving a little quicker. We made the turn onto the CDT (2.5 miles to go) at 6am. Damn, we gotta move! NOW! We might not make this thing!
I took the lead onto the rocky/rooty single track and began feeling the same urgency and momentum that I had felt with Stubbs flying down Hope Pass. We started passing a lot of people, dodging trees and jumping rocks. I noticed the sun starting to come up to my right. I stopped dead in my tracks.
The sun was coming up—it was August 17th. I suddenly remembered that it had been exactly 9 years since I arrived via Greyhound into a dusty little town in southern Colorado. Ten minutes after getting off the bus in Alamosa I met the one and only Kelsea MacIlroy. I stopped in the trail, hunched over, and cried. What an amazing partner and friend you are, Kelsea.
Jeff let the moment sink in, allowed me some time, then gently brought me back. In an instant, we were gone again, bounding down the trail with added momentum and purpose. It’s crazy to think we clipped off 8-minute miles at the 84-mile mark, but that’s what was required. We zigged-and-zagged down the CDT til we finally found the trailhead and pavement. Jeff sprinted ahead to alert the crew and I tried my best to keep a solid pace. With ¼ mile to go to May Queen I spotted my ol’ buddy Chad “No Headlamp” Stubbs running toward me. I glanced at my watch: 6:19am. I was going to make it. I was going to finish the Leadville 100. My eyes welled-up again.
Part Seven: The Lion’s Roar
I flew into May Queen aid station to the sound of a lion’s roar. Now, I’ve heard my brother yell before—both out of anger J as well as out of joy and excitement. But this was different. He knew. He knew that if I made it to May Queen before 6:30am on August 17th, I was going to finish the Leadville 100. May Queen was the last time cut at mile 86.5. It didn’t really matter what unfolded next, how slow or fast I went. If I made it there by 6:30, I was going to cross the finish line.
When I heard the Lion’s roar, I sprinted faster. I sprint through the crowd of spectators, past my crew (!!!) and raced for the timing mat. The clock near the mat read 6:21. Jeff and I had done it. I bent forward and began to cry. Andrew and Jeff pulled me up and hugged me—“We did it! We did it!” I shouted.
But there was still the business of the final 13.5 miles. Before setting off toward Home Andrew pointed back to my crew (I had passed them so quickly and I had forgot that they weren’t allowed any further). I turned around, jumped and waved.
“Ok, brother, let’s finish this thing.” I had waited to say these words for hours—days really. I remembered being so upset when crawling up Hope Pass with Chad because I knew I wasn’t gong to have the experience of running Home with my brother. How was I going to face that? The thought of letting him down after he had so loyally supported me for months and years was too overwhelming. But now…now we had made it. I will never forget the sound of his roar, and the feeling of knowing that after 86 miles of a knockdown, drag-out rollercoaster ride, I was heading Home under the guidance of my Best Man.
I was hoping that the momentum gained in the final push to May Queen would propel me around Turquoise Lake and a sprint to the finish, but it was not to be. I quickly realized that the adrenaline propelling Jeff and I through 8-minute-miles had faded, and what remained was a cramping hip and two completely shredded feet. I ignored the pain for the first two or three miles but it was clear that my body was finally giving out. Andrew pushed me forward with words of encouragement. “Just stay with that guy ahead of us…get to that next tree…we got this.” I had 3 and a half hours (from May Queen) to get to the finish line in order to get the coveted (by some) gold belt buckle for runners finishing in under 30 hours. It was still within reach, if I could just run, or jog…just a little. By mile 94 my feet and hip said no. Andrew, along with my own stubbornness, pressed me on. I had come back from the dead twice, why not a third time? Every pebble, root or turn in the trail made me wince with pain. Then I began to scream every time I stepped on anything (and there was “anything” with each step). It was unbearable. At mile 96 we left Turquoise Lake and descended a short, but very steep section of boulders and scree. My shouts of pain even made Andrew visibly wince. I stopped every few feet to wipe my eyes that were tearing-up. My last hope was that, once off this hill, we’d hit a dirt then paved road. Maybe I could run a little. Nope. After three steps I was reduced once again to a slow walk. Andrew tried his best to encourage me to try jogging, knowing that we were losing the battle for 30 hours. Finally I stopped, brought him close and decided how the final miles would play out. “I’m done, pal. We did everything we could. Let’s enjoy this walk together and finish when we finish. I can’t move any faster. I’m done.” We were both a little disappointed. Me because I wanted to finish strong, with a sprint! I wanted to see Kelsea and the crew waiting at the finish line with the clock reading 29:something. Andrew felt like he had let me down somehow, which of course wasn’t true. I had given everything, and it was time to crawl my way Home. About a mile or so later, I looked down at my watch: 29:59.58, then:
The second shotgun blast of the race, this time signifying 30 hours. We stopped and had a good cry. Then, like always, we kept moving forward.
I never really gave a sh— about the belt buckle. My goal above all else was to finish. After passing through May Queen with minutes to spare, I knew it was going to happen. But still, the ego was a hint disappointed at not making the 30-hour mark. But I got over it. I just didn’t want Kelsea to worry about where I was or what state of disrepair I was in. I didn’t have to wait much longer to see her though. Within minutes of the gun blast, I saw two figures in the distance running toward us. I could immediately tell by the stride that one of the runners was Kelsea. I stopped, bent over yet again, and began to cry.
I recently read an article about ultra running that included the line: “…at the height of vulnerability it is impossible to hide real emotion.” Ever since Hope Pass I felt vulnerable. Exhaustion, delirium, fear. This vulnerability led to both panic and distress, but also propelled me to sprint to aid stations at mile 60 and 86, thus saving my race and allowing me to finish. But as Joe Grant points out in his writing, it also led to a complete rawness of emotion. I couldn’t hide or control my emotions, and I didn’t want to. It made the experience all the more real and honest. I exploded with tears (joy and disappointment) throughout the latter part of the race because I was putting myself on the line. I stared into the Abyss, the Unknown, and wasn’t backing down. What’s more, I had people who loved and cared about me there all the while. Knowing that there are people supporting you, sharing in your experience, who want nothing more than to help you on your journey–it is impossible to hold back tears.
Part Eight: Home.
When Kelsea reached me on the road all I could say was “I tried, Champ. I tried so hard to make it by 30 but I have nothing left.” Of course none of this mattered to Kelsea. She simply put her arms around me in silent support. I stood back up and looked ahead. As it turned out, everyone was coming toward me. The crew was all there, and they intended to finish this beast with me. I wasn’t sure what to say—most of them hadn’t slept much in the last two days, were right where I needed them to be, and never asked for anything in return. Now they intended on sticking with me for the last hour of the race. Incredible. My spirits lifted though my feet and hips were still screaming. Every few minutes I had to stop and collect myself, giving my body a quick breather. We were crawling—but moving forward! After what seemed like hours, we finally hit pavement and made the final turn onto 6th Street. I was amazed to find people still cheering, still sitting out in front of their houses clapping and welcoming me Home. Cars passed by and honked. Coach Weber, a renowned trainer of Leadville 100 aspirants, passed by in his car, pulled over ahead of us, and got out. He asked to take some pictures (which he later emailed me) and exclaimed, “This is where the real Leadville 100 happens! Respect, man! Way to finish!” I wasn’t sure what to say except “thank you”, and kept moving forward. With ½ mile remaining we crested the final hill and the Mosquito Range and historic mining town of Leadville came into full view. There, less than 2500 feet in front of me sat the finish line. I had missed the 30-hour “belt buckle cut off” but the clock continued to run until each racer made it Home. Of the 690 that began in Leadville 31 hours previous, 354 made it Home. I was number 354. The closer we got to the finish the more people started clapping. My heart started pounding. The world went silent, then slowed to nearly a halt. With 50 feet to go, and with a heavy grunt and wince, I forced myself into a jog…then a run. Every ache, blister, shooting hip pain faded as I ran, arms stretched over the finish line.
Home. I finally made it Home.
It’s cliché to say that Leadville changed me. But it did. I thought finishing the Leadville 100 would quench my thirst for running long distances, but it did the opposite. It solidified the fact that running in the mountains—both alone and with others—“makes my heart sing”. I will continue to adventure into the wild, pushing myself to places both seen and unseen. To be sure, I will give my body the rest it deserves right now. But I already feel the pull of the High Country, beckoning me to return. Leadville is a magical place, and I miss it already. I’ve never lived there, no can I claim to have a deep knowledge of the place. But there is a “Home feel” about it. I feel drawn back to it the way I do my Home in the San Luis Valley.
I don’t have any regrets about how my race unfolded, nor do I feel like I have “unfinished business” because I didn’t finish in under 30 hours. If I never line-up on 6th Street again I will still be happy and satisfied. But still…there is a pull. A pull to return Home to see if it is possible again.
Regardless of where the trail takes me in the future, I will never forget the 31 hours I spent traipsing around the mountains of Leadville or the year of training before that. The mountain brought me to my knees, pushed me to the brink, to delirium…then brought me back again. I learned many lessons because of it, but as I mentioned previously, the greatest lesson I took from the race was that there was no “I” or “me” finishing this adventure. There was only a “we”. This became more and more evident as the race unfolded, as emotions grew raw and the reality of the situation came into focus: Without an incredible support system of friends and family I would not have stood a chance. What’s more, there would not have been a point to an adventure like this without beautiful friends to share it with. Long outings alone in the woods “recharge my batteries”, and I cherish that time. But the beauty of events like the Leadville 100 is that you get to celebrate that training and focus with other runners, with your crew and loved ones. It is in the act of sharing these experiences that their full beauty and power are realized.
Thank you for sharing in this experience with me. I hope you enjoyed it. Run on, friends.