pass freely and pay no mind
not important, not now
mind and soul still
filled with a cathedral of aspens
– “Thirty-Four” by Eric Strand, ultrarunner, LT100 finisher, LT100 buckler and utra-bad ultra-poet
This will be the last Life & Hope Fund update . . . $14,643 of AWESOME raised to help cancer patients. Thank you soooo much! Our goal is $15,000 and if you would like to help us with that final push, just CLICK HERE. I promise it will be the very best feel-good click of the day!
And on with the blog . . .
With the tremendous support of crew, pacers, friends, family, co-workers and the town of Leadville, I ran 101.8 miles on August 18-19 with an official chip time of 29 hours 13 minutes and 46 seconds. WHOOHOO!!! 1100 runners registered, 802 started and 358 made it to the finish line. Over that 29+ hours we climbed over 15,000 ft (3 miles straight up), experienced temperature swings of 50 degrees, burned 14,000 calories, forced down enough energy gels to propel a Saturn V rocket off the launchpad and earned a totally BA silver buckle.
What follows is a rather lengthy race report for a rather lengthy race. For those of you interested in the CliffsNotes version, you may just want to watch the video we shot along the course:For those interested in the blow-by-blow description that includes llamas, green Christmas lights, cheeseburgers, lung-searing climbs, barely-controlled falling (aka descents), Thong Boy, the Marathon Fairy, a NASCAR-worthy crew & pace team and an emotional final mile . . . read on!
A Cathedral of Aspens
OK, I admit to writing very bad poetry from time-to-time. Most of my best stuff begins with “There once was a lady from (fill in the blank)”. You get the picture. Last night I was inspired to throw limerick aside and write something truly awful (see above). Wine may or may not have been involved. I hope the underlying sentiment will allow for some small dose of redemption. What do you know about aspen trees? What does this have to do with running? Hey, it’s my blog, I never said it would make any sense! OK, back to the aspens.
All aspens typically grow in large colonies, derived from a single seedling; new stems in the colony may appear up to 130 ft from the parent tree. Each individual tree can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony is long-lived. In some cases, this is for thousands of years, sending up new trunks as the older trunks die off above ground. They are able to survive forest fires, because the roots are below the heat of the fire, with new sprouts growing after the fire burns out.
– Wikipedia, “Aspen”
On the video you will notice the Leadville trail running through a gorgeous grove of aspen around Mile 34. It is my favorite stretch of the whole 101.8 miles. Each tree stands tall and, seemingly, on it’s own. But as John Donne probably wrote in a very early draft of his poem from 1624, For Whom the Bell Tolls, “no tree is an island, entire of itself.” They are all connected. Through this connection they survive and thrive.
Running 101.8 miles would appear, on the surface, to be a rather solo endeavor. After all, who in their right mind would want to do this with you? As it turns out, a lot of people. Friends, family, co-workers, runners, tweeps, FB friends, the Life & Hope Fund team . . . you. Like the aspens, I was nurtured by connections invisible to the naked eye. And, in those moments when I felt burnt to an aspen-ash crisp by the friction of too many miles, something fresh, green and primordial . . . something I obviously cannot find words or spirit to express . . . moved me a step, and another step, closer. I don’t mean for this to sound overly dramatic (I know, too late!), but there is simply no way I could have possibly completed the Leadville 100 in under 30 hours if it had not been for those connections. If not for you. You have my sincere thanks and gratitude for making this journey one of the most exciting and gratifying of my life. So far.
OK, that’s enough of that. Here’s the 101.8 mile play-by-play, starting with . . .
Pre-Race: 2 AM to 4 AM
After my last pre-race blog entry (click here) on Friday evening, I lay in bed trying to sleep with Cole Chlouber’s exhortations ringing in my ears. Cole had given the pre-race talk earlier in the day and he did an amazing job. No one in that 6th Street gym wanted to have to come up with some “cry baby” story about why we didn’t finish the race. Suck it up, Buttercup. As it turned out, 55% of the starting field ended up having to tell that story. We all knew that a DNF (short for the dirty words “Did Not Finish”) was a distinct possibility; none of us wanted it to be us.
After 4 hours of sleep, the alarm goes off at 2:00 AM on Saturday, August 18. Happy birthday. Running gear and bib number 936 had been laid out the night before and I quickly made my Bruce-Wayne-to-Batman-like transformation. Linda Turpin and the Amazing Tami Strand, logistical experts extraordinaire, have the SUV packed; we are on our way from Breck at 2:20 AM and roll into Leadville less than one hour later. The rest of the crew is sleeping in . . . it is going to be a long Saturday night.
40 degrees, light and variable winds at the start of the race . . . which begins at 4:00 AM to the second at 6th Street and Harrison. The mood? A heady mixture of excitement, anxiety and fear. But mostly excitement. “I commit, I won’t quit! I commit, I won’t quit!” blasts over the loudspeakers as a gaggle of headlamp-lit ultrarunners begin a 100-mile journey into the new-moon darkness at 10,152 ft above sea level.
Leadville to May Queen: Miles 0 to 13.5
What a bizarre feeling. After months of training and planning, you are surrounded by a bunch of crazies wearing headlamps and Camelbaks and you are running the storied Leadville 100. Turn back toward Leadville and all you see is bobbing lights; a swarm of fireflies headed toward Turquoise Lake. It’s hard to make out faces with the glare of the lamps but I somehow find myself running side-by-side with my training buddy, Ben McCaux. We wish each other well and that is the last I see of Ben until we run into each other again at the Denver airport. Ben was way ahead of me but had taken some tough falls and had to drop out at Winfield. As many others would find out, it doesn’t take much to earn a DNF at the #LT100. You run a razors edge the whole way and just one misstep can put an end to months of hard work.
We make our way up the first powerline climb (the little powerline, not to be confused with the BIG POWERLINE . . . more on that later) to Turquoise Lake and it is surprisingly easy. The rolling trail along Turquoise is primarily single-track, but it is possible to converse with the runners ahead and behind. Most of your attention is focused just a few feet ahead in hopes of averting a fall that we all know is coming . . . we just don’t know when, where or how bad. What I see ahead of me, in addition to dirt and rocks, is a pair of pink running shoes. “Keith? Is that you?” And it is. Keith Straw is a very talented ultrarunner who had just completed the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon through Death Valley. But this is not why I know Keith. In addition to his ultrarunning prowess, Keith also likes to dress up in a pink tutu and run marathons while carrying a wand which he uses to grant wishes along the way. Keith has passed me at every marathon in which we were both running. He’s the bald guy near the start of the Leadville video above and he’s the bald guy in pink tutu in the Boston video I put together following that race. CLICK HERE and go to 1:20 mark to meet the Marathon Fairy.
I ask Keith to compare Leadville with Badwater. With just a moment’s hesitation, he tells me that Leadville is tougher; he would rather run through Death Valley at 130 degrees than run up and down Hope Pass twice. For just a second I think this is pretty cool. And then I remember that I have to run up and down Hope Pass. Twice.
The sun is lighting up Turquoise Lake as we enter the May Queen campground. Frost on the hat of a runner reminds me that it is close to freezing, but I feel surprisingly comfortable in my short sleeve running shirt. 13.5 miles has felt like 3.5 miles . . . all systems are go, especially after partaking in the awesome runner’s buffet at the aid station. My appetite for energy gels, primarily GU, will fade quickly through the rest of the day and night.
May Queen to Fish Hatchery: Miles 13.5 to 23.5
The climb out of May Queen on the Colorado Trail provides the first small sampling of many climbs to come. We pop out of the trail on Hagerman Road and are rewarded with the sun climbing over Turquoise Lake. Stunning! After 3 or 4 miles of steady but not difficult ascent we make it to Sugarloaf Pass and then to some of the most fun you can have playing in dirt: Powerline. At 180 lbs, gravity works against me on the uphills. But on the downhills? Step aside or I am running over you. Powerline (the big one) is, as you might guess, a trail that runs from Sugarloaf Pass down to the road that leads to the Fish Hatchery ALONG A POWERLINE. And those few miles of descent turn out to be a complete blast. I feel like a kid barreling down the mountain. If there is anything approaching sheer joy over the next 20+ hours, this is it. And no one passes me. No one. That would not always be the case.
Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes: Mile 23.5 to 39.5
You would have thought I was Carl Edwards as I pulled in to Fish Hatchery (which, by the way, is a hatchery for fish…go figure). Tami and Linda spring into action >> cheeseburger (extra ketchup, no pickles/onions), Gatorade, sunscreen, lip balm, BodyGlide for those tender spots, Honey Stinger refills, a kiss, some words of encouragement, filled water bottles and I am off!
CLICK HERE for Linda’s Leadville experience!
After dropping me off at the start in Leadville, Tami & Linda had made their way to Fish Hatchery to set up the pit stop and maybe catch a few winks. That last endeavor would prove unsuccessful. These two logistical masterminds would end up getting about as much sleep as I did over the course of 29+ hours. They were simply amazing! The highlight of the aid station at Fish Hatchery is the fresh cut watermelon which, with temps starting to rise, tastes obscenely delicious. I can taste it right now as I write this.
Rolling out of Fish Hatchery you go several miles on asphalt roads with lots of honking and cheering along the way. This is an easy section which allows for a lot of running. You switch to a power hike on occasion not because you need to, but because you simply don’t know what miles 50 through 101.8 will feel like . . . save some in the tank. The run through that cathedral of aspens is a spiritual moment that helps me forget the pain that is starting to creep into my legs. I come in view of Twin Lakes but know from my training run not to get too excited . . . it’s another 45 minutes to Twin Lakes from the first glimpse and your quads are in for a bit of a downhill thrashing. The fire road that takes you down the final few hundred feet of descent is another fun one. Did you pass me? No you did not.
Tami and Linda, having hopped ahead and set up their shop of running delights, greet me at the bottom of that final descent and guide me to another cheeseburger and, yippee, more GU. After almost 40 miles this is the point where you start to turn inward; you don’t often notice the beauty around you and the kindnesses bestowed. I do notice the beauty of the mountains rising from Twin Lakes but I am negligent in letting Tami and Linda know just how much it helps to see them before what is to come next . . .
Twin Lakes to Winfield: Miles 39.5 to 50.9
Heading out of the Twin Lakes aid station you can’t help but look up at the mountains where next you must go. From the valley it looks so close, but you know there is a world of hurt between you and the top of that mountain. On my training run three weeks prior to the race, I was climbing with Ben McCaux and simply blew up . . . I had pushed the pace beyond what I was capable of and went anaerobic. It hurt. A lot. Thankfully we got turned back down the mountain by a lightning storm. I had been living with the memory of that awful climb up until today at Mile 41, the point where the trail heads in the direction of UP. Now is the moment of truth and I am not looking forward to it. Crossing the river is no big deal. Other than near-freezing 33-degree water temps, the river is running low and the cold actually feels good on my feet and legs. I had made up my mind to take a very deliberate approach to this climb and not push past my personal redline. One foot in front of the other, sometimes just inches at a time. This is a heels-not-touching-the-ground kind of steep. You find a groove you can hold for 2+ hours and set your mind to just doing it. So that’s what I do.
The cry of “runner coming down” provides a quick respite as world-class ultrarunner, Anton Krupicka, flies by us on his way back to Leadville. These elite athletes are amazing to watch as they cleanly pick their way down a very rocky, technical descent. I don’t think his feet touch the ground. He looks calm, happy fit . . . and much better with his shirt off than I do. Seeing Tony in person is a thrill, until I realize he has used up all of the remaining oxygen on the mountain.
Stream. Dirt. Heavy breathing. Rocks. Sweat. A grave marker. Roots. Treeline. And then, llamas. We are at the aid station named Hopeless . . . there is no way to get there other than by foot. Or by llama. They haul all the aid station supplies on dozens of llamas which provide a zen-like atmosphere as you look back at Turquoise Lake, which appears to be no larger than slightly deformed washbasin.
It’s another 800 ft of climb to Hope Pass from Hopeless. It is windy, it is cold and there is no oxygen. But you just keep going. The view from Hope Pass in any direction is spectacular. The gas generator powering the satellite transponder doesn’t strike you as being any more strange than llamas, or runners, or having to do this all over again in a few hours. The race officials at the top are bundled up against the wind and the cold, but I feel perfectly comfortable after +3000 feet of ascent. Within a few steps down the path to Winfield, the wind has died down completely.
The path from Hope Pass to the new Winfield trail is incredibly steep. A 6% grade on a highway mountain pass is enough to warrant numerous yellow warning signs. This is 22%. It is fun to fly down, but in the back of your mind all you can think about is having to go back up. I pass one runner who is on all fours throwing up. A few hundred feet further and another is sitting on a rock. This is the point in the race where the distance starts to really take its toll. Another couple hundred yards, more runners sitting on rocks. I am starting to hurt, but I take some solace in knowing I don’t feel as bad as these guys.
After a much-too-long and much-too-dry jaunt on the new Winfield trail, I pull into the aid station and start with a weigh in. I have gone the past few miles with no water and in my mind I have lost about 15 lbs. As it turns out, I weigh in 0.2 lbs less than when I started. My pit crew of Tami, Linda, Dan and Todd are waiting and ready.
Winfield to Twin Lakes: Miles 50.9 to 63.4
Todd Rowe is first on the list for pacing duties. He gets to go during daylight (mostly). He also gets to climb up Hope Pass. Most people don’t really look forward to this. Not Todd. He is raring to go with backpack and a big, bulky camera he is determined to take along despite repeated pleading from the rest of the group to travel light. Todd is an experienced ultrarunner who has a 103-mile race coming up in early September . . . as far as he is concerned, the more weight, the better the training effect. It’s a sickness. Todd “mules” for me, meaning he carries all of my stuff . . . psychologically it feels great 1) to have company and 2) to have that company carry my water bottles for me. We fall in line on the climb behind Liz who was running her 10th Leadville. She is laboring up the moutain. Big time. Both Todd and I expect Liz to sit down on a rock at any moment and call it quits. She is working so hard that she cannot talk . . . one word every 10 seconds or so. As a true testament to will, Liz ends up finishing in just under 30 hours with about 5 minutes to spare. The sun is getting low in the sky as we reached Hope Pass and the mountains behind us are lit up in spectacular fashion. This is a climb I will never forget — the mental scarring will last a lifetime. I thank Todd for his encouragement and constantly reminding me to eat and drink (it was obvious he was part of the GU conspiracy). And, after seeing the shots Todd took from the summit, I was even happy he had lugged that giant camera along.
MEA CULPA: I am not one to use salty language often and I apologize to my crew, Hope Mountain and any llamas in earshot for my “colorful” rant about why I never, ever wanted to see Hope Pass again in this lifetime. I’m sure my words are still echoing in the Twin Lakes valley . . . .
CLICK HERE for Todd’s Leadville experience!
We make our way back down to Hopeless and share a few moments with the llamas while slurping down chicken broth with ramen noodles. The sun is setting and as soon as we make it into the trees at treeline it’s like someone had turned out the lights. I can normally bomb the downhills, but all depth perception is now gone as we pick our way down a rocky trail that threatens a faceplant at any moment. My legs are getting sleepy. Very, very sleepy.
I have very little memory of the second river crossing but do remember the lights of Twin Lakes . . . and how long it seems to take to reach them. And then, all of a sudden, we are greeted with green lights leading us to safe harbor.
Twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery – Mile 63.4 to 79.4
Tami had ordered strings of bright green LED lights and as we make our way into Twin Lakes under cover of darkness, Tami and Linda light the path to dry shoes, fresh socks and more GU. I am quite grateful to have Tami’s help with the socks . . . temps are dropping and my legs are one deep-knee bend away from cramping up. I don’t remember much about this stop other than the joy of seeing those green lights and my appreciation for the awesome pacing job Todd has done. As with all the pacers, we are now inexorably linked together with that section of shared trail. I will always remember Todd coming up over Hope Pass with the setting sun kissing the mountains in the background. I can feel the wind and smell the alpine air. Or maybe that’s just the llamas.
They say that if you can start the climb out of Twin Lakes you have a 99% chance of finishing the Leadville 100. Not knowing if this was fact or simply urban legend, good friend Dan Turpin and I head up the hill in search of our own answer.
Dan and I have known each other for over 20 years, but it wasn’t until the past few years that I was able to pull him over to the dark side of distance running. When it comes to marathons and weather, Dan’s luck is abyssmal . . . 90 degrees with 90% humidity is pretty much what you can bank on if Dan has registered for the event. This time, it went the other direction as temps drop well below freezing. We make the climb out of Twin Lakes and about 3 miles into the middle of nowhere run into The Lady of the Woods. I assume she is real but she may be a witch. If so, she is a good witch who is there to encourage the runners. Or turn you into a newt. We are lucky. A few hundred yards later, some not-so-lucky runners are succumbing to a spell of hypothermia; their bodies can simply no longer generate enough heat to keep them going. Emergency crews at the Mt. Ebert aid station run back down the trail with blankets to lend assistance.
CLICK HERE for Dan’s Leadville experience!
All the while, Dan keeps me updated on our time splits . . . and reminds me every 30 minutes to eat a GU. I tried to distract him by asking to put it off until the next level stretch of trail, but he will not be dissuaded from his mission. Swallowing an energy gel at this point was like having to choke down a double-dose of castor oil. Castor oil would have been preferable. I would have bathed in castor oil if it meant not having to eat another GU. As we head along Half Moon Road I marvel at how inappropriate that name is for this particular evening. There is NO moon. It is inky black everywhere other than the occasional dot of light from runners miles ahead or behind. Oh, the stars are brilliantly lit . . . but you only notice when your bladder salutes your outstanding hydration efforts and you turn your light off for a moment to pay heed to nature’s call. And the temps keep dropping, fingers numb through the gloves Todd had lent me back on the mountain.
Rolling pain. I have heard about this from other ultrarunners, but didn’t know what they were talking about. Now, I do. Body parts that had never hurt before hurt. Not all at once. A slow-motion trainwreck. Over the course of 30 miles it rolls from feet to head to pectorals to hands to lower back to stomach to hamstrings to, well, you name it. Not debilitating, but very noticeable. I think it was a mental defense mechanism . . . your brain working hard to convince you to do something sensible, like stop running.
Fish Hatchery to May Queen: Miles 79.4 to 89.4
Dan safely deposits me with my crew at the Fish Hatchery aid station. He has done an outstanding job of keeping me fed, hydrated, on time and in reasonably good spirits. I am working off of muscle memory at this point. A trance-like state has set in and I am completely open to hypnotic suggestion. My cousin, Susan Vickerman, will pace the next section and she is ready to take full advantage of my weakened mental state. To say Susan is competitive is like saying that GUs taste terrible . . . a complete understatement. Susan loves nothing more than to beat me in a marathon, which has happened every time the temps rise above 75. At 2 AM, with temps in the low-20’s, somehow I feel like I might have a chance. This is not to be.
Susan pulls me up Powerline toward Sugarloaf pass like a poma lift. We pass a few runners. We pass EVERY runner. She stays about 15 feet ahead of me and the expectation is that I will follow. And I do. Susan later tells the rest of the crew that I was like a little puppy and that I would have followed her anywhere. Woof.
From Hagerman Road we look up and over our shoulder to witness shooting stars . . . slow-motion shooting stars. In my groggy state it takes a moment to figure out that we are watching a parade of headlamps slowly floating by . . . 1000 feet above us along Sugarloaf Pass. We were just up there 30 minutes ago. It is a surreal, magical sight and reminds us of just how cool it is to be a part of the Leadville 100 with all these amazing, committed athletes . . . all of us still trudging forward 24 hours after the start of the race.
Descending to the Colorado trail, I am finding these sections to be much longer than I remember from the previous morning. The trail is very technical and weak legs lead to several trips and falls. We cross a bridge. And another. And then another. I do not recall ANY bridge on this section yesterday and am now convinced that Susan has been taking us around in circles. This is why you need someone with you who has a clear head . . . after almost 90 miles and only 4 hours of sleep in the past 44 hours your mental wiring starts to short-circuit. Susan leads the way to May Queen where Kerri Simifranca is ready and waiting to pick up the final leg of pacing duties.
May Queen to Leadville: Miles 89.4 to 101.8
Actually, Kerri is not ready and waiting. We have no idea where Kerri and the rest of the crew is. Remember those green lights that are impossible to miss? Well, we missed them. Susan and I caught up with Mark Larson on our way in to May Queen and ran right by our team. I ran with Mark on a training run on the Leadville trail several weeks back . . . he is a very engaging character and it is easy to forget how bad you feel when he is around. One of his many claims to fame is running a blazing-fast 2 hr 50 min marathon . . . while wearing only a thong. Yes, it was Thong Boy and we missed the green lights. After a frantic phone call from Susan, Kerri charges in, ready to lead the path home.
Kerri is one of Susan’s running buddies back in Minnesota. We had met briefly at the Boston Marathon, but didn’t have much time together. That would now change. Just like all the other pacers, Kerri gives me exactly what I need exactly when I need it. In the back of my mind I think we might just make it . . . but it is too early to even entertain that possibility. Too many talented runners had thought the same thing only to DNF a few miles later. Legs tired, I ask Kerri to let me take the lead so that I can run when I feel like it and hike when I am not able to do anything but. Kerri is a very nice lady in addition to being a very talented runner. Right now I need nice. I can tell she is ready to run those final 13 miles at marathon pace, but she is very patient and supportive. And she keeps reminding me to eat my GU. Another one in on the conspiracy. By the time we round the bend of Turquoise Lake we have done the math and are now in a position to walk it in if we need to. Every step is a new personal distance record for me and I don’t know how long I can keep going. There are reminders along the way that even with 90 miles down there are no guarantees of finishing. One lady lies down, shivering with hypothermia while people give her their jackets and run to find blankets. Another talented runner is laid out on the ground having completely run out of fuel to keep him going. So, we take it slow. As we turn from the final powerline descent on to a dirt road, the sun is coming up and I can feel the radiant warmth on my face spread through the rest of my body. Between a super-positive Kerri and the morning light, I start to feel the magnetic pull of my crew, my pacers and my family in Leadville. I finally admit to myself that we will finish in under 30 hours. We are going to do this. And I start to smile. A stupid grin that won’t disappear until I try to walk down a quad-wrenching set of stairs the following morning.
As I crest the final hill on 6th Street and see the finish less than a mile ahead, I feel some very powerful emotions. Our crew is wearing bright yellow “Team Leadfeet” shirts that are most certainly visible from the space station. When I see Susan, Todd and Dan rushing toward me it is all I can do to hold it together. It seems like it takes forever to make it up to where Tami is; that hug is the sweetest. Collin meets us near the finish line and the moment is complete. Crossing the finish line I think of a million different things, all within the space of a few seconds. Tami, Collin, Zach, Kaity, my Mom, George & Pat, my brother, my incredible pace team and crew, Life & Hope, my co-workers, all those who were so encouraging along the way . . . and all those who thought this crazy, stupid or impossible, but were kind enough to keep their mouths shut.
What have I learned? A lot. But to boil it down to two things: 1) most of the barriers in life are self-imposed and/or illusory, and 2) you really don’t ever do anything on your own.
Yesterday, Tami and I went for a 22-mile run/walk/ride from Breck to Frisco and back. I could not help but notice the aspens.
Thank you once again for making this such a memorable experience, I hope you have enjoyed the journey and that maybe something along the way has inspired you to try something that seems a little scary. I have loved every moment.
Life & Hope Fund Update: $14,643 as of this moment. THANK YOU! Special thanks to Chris Roemer, Leo & Brewster Steck, Ben & Noreen D’Souza, Brenda Harman, Lee & Linda Eise, Steve Korbecki, Dr. Sajid Zafar, Lin & Dean Hollingsworth, Denny and Shirley Duffy, Brian Collins, John Kitson, Mary Murawski, Cassie & Mike Peppenhorst, Peggy Vickroy and Kiki Chosid for your incredible support! Want to help wrap up this journey with a bang and help cancer patients in the process? CLICK HERE!