It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. – Sir Edmund Hillary
If you prefer your race reports in gritty living color, take a look at the video shot on the course . . . then I’ll give you the play-by-play of what was going on in my head that could not be captured on camera:
The LT100 Rodeo: Dust, Blood, White Knuckles, Silver Buckles
Clouds of dust obscured a stunning cerulean sky as the slide down Powerline on my back grudgingly slowed to full stop. Moments ago I had passed my 30th runner on the descent from Sugarloaf Pass; nothing makes me feel more like a kid than barreling down a rock and crevice-strewn 20% grade as fast as legs, gravity and reckless stupidity allow. Now I was taking inventory of the damage inflicted from this 7th fall since departing Leadville at 4 AM. Rivulets of crimson ran down my legs and face, nectar to the trail gods who would have their sacrifice.
Skinned knees are par for the course. If you’re not falling once in a while, you’re probably not pushing it hard enough. But seven times in 20 miles? What was wrong with me? Legs, elbows and face were torn up, but not nearly bad enough to warrant even thinking about pulling the plug. My ribs, though, that was a different story.
“Yeah, thanks, I’m good.”
Back on my feet, I sucked in the thin air until my lungs reached 50% capacity. And I winced. Every breathe for the next 80 miles would bring a reminder of my clumsiness. Despite the blood and the cracked ribs and the bruised body parts, I couldn’t help but smile. When you sign up for Leadville you know you are paying for a complete sufferfest and I was getting my money’s worth.
The Leadville 100 Trail Run
The first Leadville 100 was run in 1983. Ken Chlouber, race co-founder, was looking for ways to breath some life into the Leadville economy which had been ravaged by the decline of the mining industry. As the story goes, the hospital administrator at the time protested that running 100 miles at altitude through the Rocky Mountains would kill somebody. Ken’s response, “Then, we will be famous, won’t we?” Interested in learning more about the race? CLICK HERE for a primer on the Leadville 100 that I wrote a couple years ago. Also, one of the most entertaining books on running ever written, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, uses the Leadville race as a backdrop. McDougall writes, “Each year, the race is the only weekend when all the beds in the hotels and the emergency room are full at the same time.” He tells a great story, and I suspect much of it is actually true. This would be my 3rd LT100 after buckling in both 2012 and 2013. I was excited to be back . . . and maybe just a little bit overconfident. That would last until about Mile 6.
The Calm Before the Sore
Tami and I arrived in Colorado eight days prior to the race and promptly settled in to oxygen-deprivation mode at 9700′ in Breckenridge. Two days later we were making our way to the summit of Mt. Elbert on the Sawatch Range just outside of Leadville with climbing partners and LT100 veterans, Javier Cendejas and John Rainey. At 14,440′, Mt. Elbert is the highest peak in the Rockies. Mt. Massive, at 14,428′, is probably the most majestic-looking peak in the range and back in the 1970’s a few yahoos thought it deserved to be the tallest so they began piling rocks on the summit to try and make up the 12-foot deficit. Alas, the Mt. Elbert supporters would climb up the following day and disassemble the giant rock cairn. Get a life, people.
Mt. Elbert is rated as a relatively easy climb, but we have yet to find much of anything at 14,000′ that is easy. Tami did a great job powering through the final thousand feet and we summited just as the skies let loose a torrent of graupel . . . what meteorologists used to refer to as “soft hail”. It was the middle of August, it was 90 degrees back in St. Louis, we were being “graupeled” upon, and I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off my face. A mile from the car, Javier and I let loose on the descent. Javier is 71-years old but I had a tough time keeping up with him as he picked his lines cleanly through the rocks, roots and switchbacks on the 15% grade. I want to be Javier when I am 71.
Wednesday evening before the race was the highlight of our Leadville social season as runners, pacers, crew and neighbors gathered at our place for a pre-race celebration. Runners included Jon Vizena, Cole Chlouber, Javier Cendejas and Erik Richardson. Cole gave the pre-race talk prior to my first LT100, filling his Dad’s big shoes on short notice . . . if you haven’t seen it, CLICK HERE. My cousin, Susan Vickerman, and good buddy, Dan Turpin, were back again this year to assume pacing duties. Dan had been out a few weeks back for a training run on the LT100 trail and we had a great time. CLICK HERE for the patriotic July 4th video from that adventure. Tami, Kaity Strand, Linda Turpin and Melissa Turpin rounded out the support crew. I truly could not have had better support before, during and after. Why would someone want to do what they do? I chalk it up to morbid fascination, like when we slow down to watch the aftermath of a car wreck.
On Thursday, Javier rocked the Tabor Opera House in Leadville. In addition to owning a 2:44 marathon PR and placing as high as 14th in the Pikes Peak Ascent, he is a Julliard-trained pianist and was kind enough to share his talents with a benefit concert in support of the Leadville Fire Department. CLICK HERE to watch, listen and be amazed as Javier picks his way through Chopin as skillfully as he picked his way down that single-track on Mt. Elbert.
The day before the race, Dan, Susan and I once again made the trek to Leadville for registration and pre-race weigh-in (178.2 lbs spread over a 6′ 4″ frame, about where I wanted to be). It felt like a family reunion. And I admit to being more than a little starstruck running into a number of my ultra running heroes including Rob Krar, Ian Sharman, Jimmy Dean Freeman, Cole Chlouber, Merilee Maupin, Ed Thomas, Katrin Silva, Eric Blood, Bill Finkbeiner and many more. Dr. John Hill, a Leadville veteran, once again gave the pre-race medical briefing and he was a hoot . . . CLICK HERE to learn about altitude sickness, nausea, hyponatremia and million-degree temperature swings. And no Leadville 100 would be complete without a Chlouber giving the pre-race pump . . . this year it was Cole’s dad, Ken, doing the honors. CLICK HERE to watch Ken and Merilee bring it.
The Rise and the Fall. And the Fall. And the Fall. And the Fall.
I tried getting to bed early but, as is usually the case, pre-race sleep was elusive. By midnight I was finally out hard . . . and woke up rested and ready at 1:58 AM, two minutes prior to the alarm going off. Of all the variables that go into having a good race, sleep is the least statistically significant. Tami, Linda, Susan and I were out the door and making our way to Leadville by 2:30 AM. Ken Chlouber extolled us to “DIG DEEP” as the shotgun announced the start of the race. Winds were calm, temps in the low-40’s . . . just about perfect.
I had broken the cardinal racing sin of not trying anything new on race day . . . not once, but twice. First, I was wearing a pair of Hoka One One Clifton’s with about 8 miles on them; I had never run a race in this model before. They are super light but have a slightly more aggressive tread than the Hoka’s I wore last year. Second, in an effort to correct the vision problems experienced on the Colorado Trail in the dead of night last year, I was wearing new sports glasses with corrective lenses. I had run with them on the trail during the day, but never at night. As an experienced trail runner, that “don’t try anything new” rule didn’t really apply to me. Except that it did.
The sickening thud of a body hitting the ground caught my attention. It took a split second to realize it was my body that had landed hard after catching a rock outcropping with the tread of my shoe. OK, you know it’s going to happen. After all, it’s pitch dark and you’re running 6 mph on very uneven terrain that requires complete attention to the placement of every footfall. What you don’t know is when you will fall, how many times you will fall and how bad it will be. This first fall was not that bad. Skinned knees and bloody elbows. Embarrassing? Not really, you are much too focused on the race and, besides, everyone is going to fall. And then it happened again. And again. And again.
Rounding Turquoise Lake, the sky was just starting to lighten with the approaching dawn, and I had completely forgotten how to run. Another trip and this time I could see it all frame-by-frame in slow motion . . . body headed toward earth, hands outstretched, water bottles exploding, rolling to absorb the impact. The aftermath looked as if an IED had gone off. Glasses here, lens there, Salted-Carmel GUs, water bottle screw top, headlamp, hat . . . all spread over a 10-foot debris field. Lying face down on the trail, my head pointed towards Leadville and feet towards May Queen, I rolled over, sat up, looked around. And I started to laugh. Chris Russell had written a great piece about an epic journey and there were parts of his story that were proving all too prophetic (CLICK HERE for The Soul by Chris Russell):
In a flash a tired foot fails to raise and a tired toe is caught on a wayward root concealed in the mottled sun of the afternoon. Before conscious mind can engage the ground rushes up. Knee impacts rock and dirt. Hands and elbows reach out feebly to save the climber. The dust settled around with a rush of adrenaline and clarity. Red, red blood, rich and wonderful drips from the knee and the elbow like some ancient sacrificial right. The climber sits in the dirt and collects thoughts and emotions and feelings to weigh and balance the event. The climber smiles then curses and laughs.
The May Queen aid station at Mile 13.5 was my first opportunity to assess the carnage in daylight. The medics pulled me aside to make sure the bleeding was under control and check to see if any bones were poking out, but let me continue after I assured them I felt just fine. And I did. All of the drama of the past few miles had cost me 10 or 15 minutes and I was determined to make it up on Sugarloaf Pass and Powerline.
I AM (I AM, I AM) SUPERMAN
It was time for the Powerline descent and I was flying. No, really. I WAS FLYING. Parallel to the craggy trail, arms futilely grasping for something, anything . . . toes on pointe, directing any onlookers to the offending rock that had started this trainwreck. And then, the graceful landing. WHOMP!
The Powerline descent at Mile 20 is my playground. It’s not all that technical, but it is loooong. And it can get steep. And I will pass you. As much as gravity makes lugging 180 lbs uphill a brutal challenge, it is my best friend on anything from a 4% to 20% downhill grade. I had passed 30 runners (and would pass another 10 following the dustup) when the left side of my chest broke the most 10.0-worthy fall of the race (5.5 from the Russian judge). Knees which had started to cake over in dust and blood were ripped open in spectacular fashion. Without thinking, I got up and ran . . . the discomfort on my left side was immediately noticeable but the adrenaline spigots were now completely open and, hey, it was Powerline! If you don’t see my backside on Powerline, I have not done my job.
Trying to disassociate from the moment, I knew that my greatest enemy at this point was in my head. There were enough aches, pains and blood to give my internal compass all the help it needed to point me to the next aid station where I could turn in my bib number. The medics displayed concern over the physical manifestations of my condition and offered bandages and Neosporin . . . but that was not the real issue. They were, in effect, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while leaving me to deal with the unseen icebergs of doubt. Joe Chriest was working the Twin Lakes aid station and, in a nice way, told me to suck it up (buttercup). I needed a friendly face and a laugh before making the climb up to 12,600′ Hope Pass. It would be one of many reminders of how others can help you through the tough times with something as simple as an encouraging word.
The heavy snows of this year’s winter had provided us with high, cold water for much of the trek from Twin Lakes to the base of the Hope Pass climb. But it’s not that big of a deal . . . except that all you can think about during this easy stretch is the coming couple of hours when you will be probing your own personal redline. Making your way up that 22% grade with 35% less oxygen than at sea level is not the time to ponder the utility/futility of this act. You can do that before and after, but if you get too far into this internal existential discussion while in such a weakened state, your mind will point you toward the path of least resistance every time. I could feel my mind trying to take me down that path.
“RUNNER COMING DOWN! RUNNER COMING DOWN!” Runners up ahead a few hundred feet were giving us fair warning of what was to come. A couple miles from my outbound summit, the leaders were making their way inbound after having crested Hope Pass for the second time. In the video you will see Rob Krar, the winner of the race, making his move on Michael Aish to take the lead. 28 hours out on the course and it was pretty cool to be in the exact spot to capture that moment. Ultrarunnerpodcast.com did a great interview with Rob following the race, CLICK HERE to listen.
The Hopeless Aid station is set above treeline at about 12,000′ and provides a nice respite, complete with 30 llamas, prior to the assault on Hope Pass. As various body parts reported their aches and pains in to command central, my mind started to dig into the tender spots. Reaching the apex of Hope Pass, the gloomy fog in my soul sat in stark contrast to the spectacular Colorado sunshine that was now lighting up an awe-inspiring panorama that included the 14,074′ Missouri Mountain.
But the only thing I was inspired to do at that moment was to find a way to quit.
They Wouldn’t Let Me
On the descent from Hope Pass, all I could think about was not having to make the climb up and over again today. My pacers, friends, family and EMTs would surely see that I was in rough shape and should not be allowed to continue. Making my way to the Winfield aid station, I was aware of how pitiful I looked and assumed they would be shocked at my mangled legs, arms and face . . . I had done battle with the trail and Leadville had won. It was a valiant effort, but just not my day.
Dan was first to spot me drop down the descent to the road just shy of Winfield . . . and then Tami, Susan, Kaity and the rest of the crew. I cannot begin to express my surprise at their COMPLETE LACK OF SYMPATHY. A more pathetic creature had not been seen in Winfield all day, yet they treated me in a near-scornful manner when I suggested that maybe I should get my ribs checked out. Hmphh. The EMT put the stethoscope to my chest and, after confirming he didn’t think he heard any leakage from ribs piercing my lungs, shrugged and turned me back over to my pacers. There was never any hint on their part that maybe calling it quits might be an option. I’m not sure they would have let me sit down if I hadn’t forcibly made my way to a chair.
At the moment, my mind panned through the annals of history trying to come up examples of a more sadistic bunch than this. But I could not. And this, this was my family. My friends. And the two people with whom I would have the pleasure of spending the next 50 miles.
And It Didn’t Get Worse
Now, that’s not to mean it got better right away. But as soon as I took that first step back toward Leadville, however grudgingly, my mind went to a better place. Dan and I made that dreaded climb and were treated to a spectacular 360-degree view on Hope Pass. The setting sun lighting up the mountains mixed with adrenaline and oxygen-deprivation makes for a thoroughly intoxicating cocktail.
Susan pulled me up to the many false summits on Powerline where a full-on rave was in progress near the summit at around 3 AM. Hypnotic techo-beats, crazy people and a sign greeting us with the strangely appropriate message: “NICE F***ING WORK”. They offered Pabst Blue Ribbon, but that sounded just slightly worse than a GU at the moment.
I can’t begin to explain how ROCK SOLID my pacers and crew were. Dan Turpin and Susan Vickerman are the BEST PACERS EVER and I will throw the first punch if you so much as offer a differing opinion. Tami Strand and Linda Turpin were machines when it came to organizing the logistics before and during the run. And seeing them each time along the route made me forget about the pain in my ribs for the next several miles.
Running into the rising sun, Leadville was buzzing as we ran toward the finish line on 6th Street. Holding Tami’s hand, she tried to pull away with about 10 yards to go . . . she thought this should be my time. I would not let go. She has pulled me through 30+ years and I needed her by my side. This one had been tough and making my way back to Leadville would not have been possible without her. And Dan. And Susan. And Linda. And Kaity. And Melissa. Thank you.
When you cross the finish line at Leadville, Merilee puts a medal around your neck, gives you a big hug and says “welcome home”. 28 hrs and 19 minutes after having started from this very spot and going to battle with all the demons in between, those two words hit hard and I could feel the emotion pool in my throat.
It was good to be home.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot