|Buddha meditates on a finisher's buckle.|
Saturday, 1:45am August 17th 2013
The first of three alarms rings. Worried that I might sleep through a single buzzer. That wasn’t an issue. Friday was a sleepless night. I was in the tent at 8:30 but didn’t fall asleep till 10:45. Three hours before wake-up time. Checked the clock around 10:30. It was the first time I actually asked myself if this wasn’t the stupidest decision of my entire life. Who in the hell actually decides to go run one of the more challenging 100 mile races in the country after having only just begun running about a year and a half earlier. My legs had withstood 50 miles but that could have been a fluke. Plus, 50 miles is only half the distance. You made this decision, I finally thought, and you’re going to see it through. Then a bit of sleep.
The air outside at the Silver Dollar campground is crisp and the sky is clear when I open the tent, stars light up the sky. It’s about 40 degrees and we don’t know if it will rain today. Make of a cup of coffee and begin eating a chilled poppy-seed bagel with butter. Get a pot of steel cut oats cooking and wait to see who will wake up first. Landon walks sure footed out of the darkness, then Will staggers up and starts snacking on macaroni and cheese (made with real cheddar, sautéed onions, mushrooms, and bell peppers). Last night Will tried to make grilled pizza. Two hours into the coal stoking process Tommy and I told him to get on with it and we ended up with pine needle flavored sourdough pizza, green edges and slightly blackened bottoms. Still a treat. Tyler is the last to get up. We pass the oats around. I get as much in as possible. The food will not last long, it will be impossible to keep up with the calories burned throughout the coming day and night. At this point I don’t know how long the race will take but it will be more than twenty-four hours of running, hiking, and hopefully as little walking as possible.
Saturday 3:10am August 17th 2013
We pull out of the Silver Dollar and head for downtown. The whole place is lit up when we roll in at 3:40 and walk over to the start line area. You know the caliber of a race’s organization by how fast the porta-potty lines move. This race is spot on. No one waits more than a few minutes. A large steel corral has been constructed on 6th Street facing west toward Mt. Massive. A giant banner reads “Leadville 100 Run”. Marilee and Ken Chlouber stand under the banner reciting inspirational phrases that they have been tuning up for the past thirty-one years. Marilee rumbles out a “Dig deep,” the unofficial motto of the race. The national anthem begins and everyone goes quite. 3 minutes. I look at the crew. Tyler yells, “Henry Schliff! You’re my inspiration!” Then Ken’s voice erupts from the speakers with his annual pronouncement, “You’re better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.” Countdown time. My heart is at machine gun pace, not from nerves at this point, those passed as soon as I saw the start-line but with anticipation of the hours to come. 10-9-8…I look past the start line. A sheriff’s deputy raises a twelve-gauge shotgun and points it at the sky. 7-6-5-4, we all chant together. 3-2-1, the shotgun blast erupts and the collective of 943 runners begin walking then jogging then running towards the mountains. Only 493 (52%) of us will make it back across the finish line. That’s a good year as things go in Leadville.
Pain is not a sufficient reason for what we do. I believed for much of my training that pain was a thing to seek, that it would teach me the value of life and lead me to understand myself, perhaps even the world better. But pain is just pain and seeking it is simply masochistic. I took a two-mile run on Friday about 12 hours before the start of Leadville and remembered that it is adversity and not so much pain that is central to my motivation. That is what we have to respond to and for some of us without a sufficient degree of adversity in our lives we forget what it is to truly feel complete. I have a wonderful life, a soul mate and a remarkable young son but in the past few years I lost track of myself somewhere. Pain would not help me recall what was missing but a healthy dose of adversity would shock my system into remembrance of who I essentially am. Pain would be there of course. That much is inevitable but it comes and goes without needing any prompting or any special attention.
The first bit of pain showed up at mile 9. On a stretch of rocky trail that runs round Turquoise Lake. Sun was breaking and I was in a line of two-dozen runners on narrow single track. We were set at a steady 9:30 pace and most headlamps were off. Cheers of welcome echoed across the pale blue water as runners at the front of the race came into the May Queen Aid Station (for a comprehensive overview of the stations along the course check out this map) and began their trip onto the Colorado Trail leading up to Sugarloaf Pass (approx. 11,200′). My left foot landed on a rounded rock jutting from the trail and my ankle rolled hard. Normally this is par for the course. I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned an ankle in training. This time however, probably due to a combination of nerves and adrenaline my leg did not buckle to absorb the shock and my ankle simply turned sideways. I felt and heard an unsettling pop and then a searing pain rushed up my leg. There was no stopping, the line was in perfect rhythm. I hopped a good ten paces and then started waiting my leg again. Pain. Waves of panic started surging through my head. Then frustration. There was nothing to do but deal with the situation. I gave the voices of panic and anger a few moments credence to say their piece and then focused on getting back into my stride adding emphasized plantar flexion as my left foot left the ground. In training many concepts come in handy to push through the tough points. A favorite for me has been the Spartan agoge, the rigorous even brutal training that every Spartan youth endured to prepare them for life as a soldier of Sparta. Leadville is benign compared to ancient Sparta but you have to learn to play games with your mind. You have to put your mind in the state of agoge. If you say to your mind, “I will let this ankle break before I allow my body to stop,” then the mind capitulates and turns the pain off. By May Queen the pain was gone and only an occasional irritating twinge remained. I ran through the aid station melee as fast as possible. Said a quick hello to the crew and headed for the pass.
The next sections of the course were relatively uneventful. Encountered the arrogant Frenchman for the first time. He took obvious joy in telling everyone who passed him on the climb up to Sugarloaf Pass, “you’ll be sorry when I pass you on the way back.” He is no less annoying for the fact that he was right. The powerline section of the course lived up to its repute, fast and steep. I ran. Maybe not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. At the Fish Hatchery Aid Station I was in and out. Walked and ate for a few minutes on the flat road leading to the next aid point at Half Pipe. The guys were great, encouraging and excited. They moved fast and got me out in a hurry. At this point I was slipping away from any hope of 25 hour finish but the odds of that were nearly impossible from the start, almost nobody makes it under 25 during their first attempt. Tommy gave the best possible encouragement. “You’re just where you need to be.” That allowed me to let the 25 hour goal go and focus on the run at hand.
Came up on Mr. Green Shirt between Fish Hatchery and the Half Pipe Crew Point. He was a forty-something guy with a bald sunscreen smeared pate. Just then the crew rolled slowly by and screamed “COCKSUCKER!” out of the car (most of the team are fans of the HBO series Deadwood). They were doing everything to respect my request to never treat me with kindness or compassion throughout the race. We had an established protocol that went roughly like this: If I complain say, “Stop your bitching!” If I say I want to drop out then tell me, “Tough shit, grow a pair.” If I say it hurts tell me, “It’ll hurt when it’s broken.” I started to run alongside Mr. Green Shirt and told him, “That was for my benefit. Nothing to do with you.” He laughed, “I wish my wife had treated my like that. Last time I was here she says, you don’t look so good, maybe you should stop. Can you believe that! I’ll take cocksucker any day.” I asked how many times he’d been here. “This is my third,” he said. “Never have finished.” The handle Team Cocksucker stuck in the end, a healthy dose of irreverence for the project at hand.
Half Pipe Aid Station is a little haven in the woods at mile 31. As always got in and out fast and headed for Twin Lakes. This section was interminably long. My legs started to feel a bit fatigued and the terrain was incessantly undulating, jarring every muscle. Realized about halfway through that I was not carrying enough water for the heat when a little Camelbak water stand appeared across a stream and an angelic volunteer proclaimed, “Only 3 miles to Twin Lakes guys.” I could have kissed him.
“This is epic!” exclaimed a young adventurer as we narrowed in on Twin Lakes. I laughed in agreement. Normally that expression annoys the hell out of me but in this case it seemed applicable. “You know what that’s actually true,” impossible to avoid getting all literary at this point in the race, “this run is actually epic.” Probably should have stopped there but I couldn’t contain myself, “The race doesn’t truly start until the midpoint. Then we get taken back to the beginning, turned into whining little children. Finally, those of us who are lucky enough, reach the end. Epic.” As we rolled into Twin Lakes the race had not even begun and Mount Hope stood clear and stark across the valley to the west of town. Beside the thirteen thousand foot peak the grey rock strewn trough that was our destination glimmered silver in the midday sun.
|A sense of scale (stolen picture)|
T.S. Eliot wrote, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Halfway up to Hope Pass, roughly around mile 43 with seven miles of hard ascending and descending to go, most of us were probably feeling we had gone too far. Tough looking runners were sitting down left and right or putting their hands on their knees and gasping, their legs far from steady. At least two people threw-up and after passing a runner who was turning various shades of pale I heard him say, “done” and turn back to Twin Lakes. I waited for the vomit to come. My stomach was turning hurricane cycles and I knew that it was still imperative to continue taking in food. At elevation your body is doing an impossible balancing act, as you exert yourself to a greater degree your muscles demand more oxygen and this only increases as you hike higher and higher. To digest food your stomach is also demanding blood. After 40+ miles your muscles inevitably win the battle and vomiting tends to be the result. I don’t know how I managed to check that natural bodily response but somehow I walked into the Hopeless Aid Station feeling better. Hopeless is a couple of tents with a dozen volunteers including medical staff and a pack of llamas. There I got the best cup of potato soup I’ve ever tasted. Straight ahead was Mt. Hope (13,933′), snowfields striating its flanks. The sun shown brilliantly and the sky was perfect Carolina blue. My mind was engulfed in the austere beauty of rock and sky. Less than a thousand feet of switchbacks to Hope Pass (12,600′), when I reached the top it was pure ecstasy tempered only slightly by a downward glance revealing a shear plunge, on winding switchback, to the valley over two-thousand feet below us. I did what anyone would do, I started running.
|Hope Pass: Looking back at Twin Lakes (stolen picture)|
Running down the Winfield side of Hope Pass is like trying to dance a jig on the back of mechanical bull. The footing is loose rock and dirt and the run becomes a mix of leaping and sliding. If you slow down too much the shock to your legs is relentless, if you go too fast you might end up broken. I had to slow down after a bit, unable to hold the relentless pace of the faster runners. Set a steady speed and eventually came into the remarkably lush aspen groves near the base of the valley. The trail turned west then, heading into the ghost town of Winfield. Clouds of dust rose from the valley floor where cars were ambling up the washboard dirt road to the aid station. I had no idea who my first pacer would be I only knew two things: I was a mere two miles from the halfway mark with the strength to turn around and run home and I was going to make Winfield just before 4pm, over two hours ahead of the cutoff time. The sun cut golden shafts through the aspens and jagged mountains sprang straight from the valley floor on either side. Their scale nearly matched my sense of relief. I was going to make it back to Twin Lakes.
Somehow I imagined that if I could just make it back up Hope Pass then the trip back to Twin Lakes was a forgone conclusion. And if I could get back to Twin Lakes then finishing the race was all but inevitable. In hindsight this mentality probably helped me finish Leadville but it was also ludicrously naïve. I reached the Winfield Aid Station at mile 50 with plenty of juice still in my legs but painfully enflamed metatarsals in my right foot. Tyler, Will, and Tommy were waiting. Tyler looked at me with a grin, “Let’s do this!” It took me a moment to realize that he was decked out in my spare running gear. The background here is that Tyler was scheduled to pace on the first leg of the return 50, until he broke his toe a couple weeks back! A mental image sprang into my head, 3 miles of steep uphill climbing on the balls of our feet followed by 5 fast downhill miles. I imagined Tyler taking his shoe off to reveal the mangled remains of his toe. “Are you sure,” I asked incredulously. He was, so that was it.
Tyler was the perfect pacer for Hope. My spiritual compatriot. The trail back along the Winfield valley was non-eventful. Tyler talked and I spent most of the time allowing the pain in the top of my foot to dissipate. Eventually it did and we began the ascent. Halfway up and every ounce of my energy flagged. I began my meditation on dust and stone. Tyler began reciting the names of local fauna. The only one I remember now is Achillea millefolium, yarrow. Achilles used it to staunch the bloody wounds of his fallen comrades. I didn’t notice the yarrow. All I saw was a tiny puff of dust from the trail as my foot came down, then the other, another grimace of dust. Every interview or article I’ve ever read on ultra-running states that at some point in every race you are forced to simply put one foot in front of the other to continue. To consider the next mile would be devastating and to consider the multiple coming stages of the race would be the end of any runners attempt.
After a stumble over the pass I completed a bumbling stagger down to the Hopeless Aid Station and the llamas. My stomach was distended and I tried to recall how many times I’d urinated in the past few hours. Swelling and some degree of weight gain, which I was experiencing, can be signs of hypernatremia a potentially fatal result of drinking too many fluids. Decided it was probably too much salt but opted to talk to the doc regardless. Tyler grabbed food, flat coke, and found a spritely woman in her mid fifties who was attending a runner laying on the ground in a heat blanket. At least two other runners are under a tent with IVs in their arms. Their race is over. Another runner is crouched on the ground, a small pool of vomit underneath him. It dawned on me then that Winfield was just the beginning, so many things could have gone wrong climbing Hope again and for a number of people they did. The doctor comes over and gives me the brief summary, “You’re swollen because you’re running a hundred miles and that’s what happens. You have contusions on your feet but no blisters. You look good and you sound good so you need to get on your feet and get down this mountain. Take full breaths into your abdomen and keep moving. Let your feet float over the ground, stay fast and loose.” She looks at Tyler, “Grab him some food and get him out of here, I don’t want him hanging around here wasting time.” I loose the socks. I never usually wear socks when running and we take off. Within half a mile we are flying. In what seems no time we’re halfway down the mountain. We’re running at such a fast pace at points it occurs to me I could fall but my legs are no longer tentative and falling seems impossible. We increase the pace and Twin Lakes arrives in no time.
The crew is ready at the aid station, they help dry my feet and put on Monkey Butt, somebody’s idea of a quirky marketing strategy to sell talcum powder. Patrick is geared up and ready to go. Tommy calls Allie and we have a chance for a quick hello, this raises my already heightened spirits. In no time we’re on the trails again me stuffing food in my face to get all the energy levels back as close to 100% as possible. If you ever want to test close relationships, go train for and run a 100 mile race. I’ve had the good fortune of an incredibly supportive wife who tolerates both 2am trail runs and the long days of utter exhaustion on the weekends. She does have a thing about cougars (the feline variety) and has been somewhat weary of my predawn excursions through certain local canyons, other than that she’s been my biggest supporter. As for the crew; Tyler let me wipe my funky feet on his lovely technical long-sleeve (there was also the running on a broken toe thing). Patrick, who barely knew me before the race spent 4-5 hours of the night supporting me through one of the darkest points of the race. My Uncle Tommy drove across the country just to watch the race and offered the best possible support at every opportunity. Will pulled me back across the powerline section and talked me through over an hour of anxiety and moaning about course cutoffs. Tim, an accomplished personal trainer and triathlete did his damnedest in the last miles of the race to keep me moving forward applying every trick he had, down to singing me along to the final mile. And Landon, our crew chief, was the rock of the team. He organized everything ahead of time and was willing to take an absolute crash course in crew dynamics during a Leadville year, which by all accounts was horribly orchestrated. There were traffic jams at almost every aid station, shuttle buses that never showed, disorganized aid stations, and generally too many people around. Still, Landon and company made it all happen.
Patrick and I were flying, we were about halfway between Twin Lakes and Half Pipe when I got a second wind like I’ve never felt. 60 some miles of running and all the discomfort left my legs, I could breathe, and my legs begged to be let loose. A seasoned ultrarunner would have thought, conserve conserve conserve. I thought, let’s roll with this. As Patrick and I approached the Half Pipe aid station we were doing 8-8:30 pace, ridiculously fast for this point in the race. My stomach was settling down and I started refusing food, I wanted to keep the rhythm of things and sugary GU was just going to make me sick again. What really made me sick was the bonk. Bonking is sports parlance for hypoglycemia, your body doesn’t have the fuel to do what it does best, namely move. It tells your brains to stop doing whatever kind of crazy shit you’re doing. All you can do at that point is ignore your body and gradually pull yourself back from the brink. When we met the guys at the crew point five miles out from Fish Hatchery all my reserves were shot. According to later accounts I looked utterly spent, pale, bloodshot eyes. Mentally I was going into a hellish sort of trance. The only way to recover was to walk, no more running for a while, and eat. So that’s what we did all the way to Fish Hatchery. Patrick, a marathon runner who has just broken into the ultra scene, got an up-close and personal look at the carnage that can happen on these things. Of course I was taking in that view for the first time as well. It ain’t pretty. The arrogant Frenchman came jogging past about that time. “Am I the only one running now?” he said incredulously. Normally I would have been angry, normally I would have tried to make some snappy response but at the moment I could not have cared less what anyone had to say. We were moving in parallel universes and any external impute entered my mind dully as though an opaque membrane separated me from all other realities.
By the time we reached Fish Hatchery it was obvious I was not the only one struggling. Camping chairs were strewn everywhere, holding cold and exhausted runner. I refused to sit, it would be too hard to keep moving again if I did. Will was ready, carrying jackets and other warm cloths. The night was mild for the mountains, somewhere between the high 30s and low 40s but at some point my body had stopped regulating its own temperature. I went from hot to cold and all over the spectrum. Will and I set off for the powerlines and the absurd climb up Sugarloaf Pass. Almost to the ascent we passed a truck with half a dozen people milling around and then started down the road. A moment later Will said, “Hey man, I think that’s the trail.” Behind us to the left and down a little ravine were the course markers and glow sticks. I was following two runners ahead of us who had also missed the turn. Will called them back and we set off down the trail.
Sugarloaf Pass from the south has over half-a-dozen false summits, knowing this in advance did not make the trip any easier and as I had been walking so much at this point I began to become paranoid about making the final cut-off in under 30 hours. Visions of countless runners who have shuffled down 6th Street to the finish line only to miss the final shotgun blast by minutes, even seconds, circled through my head. Will was solid. He stayed constantly optimistic, redirecting me to other thoughts and goals and pushing us on. If we could make it back to May Queen by 4:15 we would still be two hours ahead of the cut-off and that would give ample time to finish the final 13 miles leg to the finish line. At 4:05am we reached the crew on the outskirts of May Queen. Even in the dark they were busy checking out the tight-tights on the running girls and raising a healthy commotion. Most of them had gotten about as much sleep as I had, which is to say, none at all. Tim took over then, handed me the trekking poles, which I had never used and we reached the May Queen Aid Station at 4:12am. Time to spare.
The final half-marathon section of the course was relatively uneventful. It was a death march, my legs where spent. A year and half of running may be enough to prepare you mentally to run a hundred miles but even with all the hill running I had done since January my muscles were not prepared for that duration of unrelenting impact. This was another dark section. I let Tim do most of the talking and forced myself through waves of nausea and fatigue. Turquoise Lake was a beautiful and yet terrible blue green gem. The sun soon began to light its expanse and as we made our way round that expanse seemed to grow at every passing turn. In training 13 miles had become a short run, easily accomplished regardless of weather, food, water, or amount of rest. Yet when Tim and I reached the 96-mile mark, rather than thinking, finally we’ve made it, which essentially we had, I thought, it sure would be nice to stop right now. I imagined a big black sedan (a Chrysler Towncar I think), driving down the train tracks beside the trail, a gentle old chauffer leaning out the window to say, “How bought a ride. You’ve done just fine.”
Jimmy Dean Freeman, who I had the good fortune to meet on the race, has a memorable saying, “Ultrarunning is 99% mental and the rest is in your head.” Fortunately I had just the right ammunition to annihilate that pesky mental impediment. Simple is best and the thought went: this is not the example you will set for your son. Basic self-respect or a sense of paternal duty I’m not exactly sure what the feeling was but it would not allow me to even consider demonstrating such a lack of commitment and follow-through. The kind devil and his comfortable car vanished and we continued the march to the finish. With a little less than a mile to go the rest of the crew appeared on the side of the road and began to walk beside us. At the half-mile point the finish line appeared over the hill. It gave me the energy to jog and we moved ahead gradually forming a single line. We all ran together until the finish line carpet appeared and the crew broke off to send me up the final straight. Across the line in 28 hours 47 minutes and 52 seconds. A half hour later I was asleep in a bag on the ground, perfect dreamless sleep.
Crossing that finish line brought total mental and physical relief and a feeling of joy I have rarely experienced. Training for your first event of this sort you are always filled with the question of whether it is within your reach. With the knowledge that it is the question changes, “what isn’t within my reach?” I had thought that this race would take me to the edge. Instead it took me to an edge. Life has many edges and certainly we all have a different idea of what those are. To live life, pressed up against our perceived limitations, is to live in the fullness of life and it is also to live a life of faith. And as Kierkegaard says “Faith is a marvel…and faith is passion.”