Oxygen? Who needs it? Well, I was afraid I would need to run with a canister as I prepared to leave for Leadville. The course would be difficult even at sea level but with altitude between 9,200 ft and 12,600 ft, this would likely be my toughest challenge to date. I did not have the luxury of time to go out to Colorado early to acclimate so I would just have to wait and see how it would affect me. I had been warned I would feel terrible and have headaches and nausea and that some people can have problems with HAPE ( high altitude pulmonary edema) above 10,000 ft without acclimation. There was only one way to find out. I was confident I would come home with a finisher's buckle despite the odds that usually less than 50% of starters make it to the finish line and most of those live at altitude. But those people that know me well, know that when I say I'm going to do something, it is wise not to bet against me.
I arrived in Leadville about 7:30 PM on Thursday before the race and drove straight to the condo I would staying in at Grand West Resort. I was a guest of my friend Anita Fromm, whom I had met while pacing at Umstead in 2005. We were joined by several other of Anita's friends that would be crewing and pacing for her. Another of her friends I had also met at Umstead, Vinny Swendson would be running and like me would go it alone without crew or pacer.
We were all off to bed early and then after a leisurely morning, we drove into town for packet pick-up and the pre-race briefing. We then returned to the condo to relax and prepare for the 4am Saturday start. I was anxious to go ahead and run. So far I had no problems with the altitude, but I did notice just going up the stairs that my heart rate would rise quickly. I spent most of the day sitting on the porch of the condo enjoying the gorgeous view right outside our door. The temperature ranged from 40F to the upper 50's , a welcome break for the muggy 80's and 90's I had left behind in NC.
Finally after a short night's sleep, I arose at 2am. A couple of cups of coffee and we were off to the start in downtown Leadville. I was able to see several of my friends while we waited. Joe and Hannah Lugiano and Bill and Sally Squires from the NCRC. Doug and Merrie Dawkins from the Mangum Track Club and Gary and Keith Knipling from the VHTRC as well as some other familiar faces. After a few pictures the time was at hand.
I had hoped to run as much as possible with Anita and we lined up together after a prayer and a hug. As the shotgun blasted to send us on our way, it soon was evident I would not be running with Anita today. She has been living at altitude and training every weekend on the course, so within a half-mile and the first uphill I had to let her go. I could not afford to go anaerobic this day. At this point I still didn't even know if I could run in this thin atmoshere so I was starting out very easy. As we reached the Blvd, a long straight downhill dirt road, I was taking it easy and soon joined by Doug. It was nice to be able to run a couple of the early miles with him, but when we hit the flat road leading to Turquoise Lake, I gradually begin to pull away. So far I was feeling good and not having any trouble breathing.
Soon I reached the trail along the North side of the lake. At least they say there is a lake. It was still pitch black and I was having to keep me eyes on where I was going. By now the pack of 388 starters had began to spread out. I was content to stay in line and not try to pass anyone at this point as the pace was very comfortable. As we reached the mid-point of the trail, it was amazing to see the the lights of so many runners snaking along the contours of the lake in front and behind me.
Finallly, just as it was becoming light enough to see without my flashlight, I emerged from the trees into MayQueen Campground at 13.5 miles. I was greeted by Dave Hardwick, who was out to crew for Doug. Dave is a former resident of NC and a MTC member as well as a finisher of this race. Doug's wife Merrie was also there and greeted me with a hug.Then Sally was there to cheer me in. As I enter the aid station tent, another friend from NC, Scott Brockmeier came over to fill my water bottle. Scott was there to crew and pace another Tarheel, Bobby Biles. My time in was exactly what I was hoping for. I was quickly on my way and as I headed up the road toward the trailhead to Hagerman Pass Rd, there was Hannah cheering me on. Wow, was I really 2,000 miles from home? It was great to have some support from friendly faces.
Soon I turned onto a section of the Colorado trail and my first challenge of the day. This would be the first significant climb of the race. The trail was beautiful and I passed several creeks flowing down into the lake below. Although I was breathing harder than normal I still felt fine and fell into a good rhythm on the climb. I soon reached Hagerman Pass Rd. Although it still is uphill, it was not so steep that I couldn't run a little and so I did to keep the pace up. Thje course then turned to climb up a jeep trail to the top of Sugar Loaf Pass. Looking down the side of the Mt. I could see MayQueen straight down below. As I turned to make the climb, I noticed a runner in front of me wearing a hat from Inside-Out Sports just like mine. As I caught up to him, I took a wild guess that he might be from NC too. It turned out to be Guido Ferrari from Durham NC. I had seen his name in some results before but we had never met. We talked for a while before I backed off the pace a little and he disappeared in the distance. He was a really nice person and I'm sure we will see each other in some local races.
Before long I finally reached the top of the pass and looked forward to some downhill running. It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting the lovely Beth Simpson of Wisconsin. We ran and talked for a couple of miles but then as the descent turned steeper I lost contact with her. That woman can move down a hill. I can run fairly well on technical downhills but she was soon out of sight. The last portion of this segment is a scary ,steep rutted path straight down the powerline easement into the valley. After taking a photo, down I flew to the bottom. From there it is a short run on pavement into the Fish Hatchery aid station and the 23.5 mile mark . Once again all my friends were there cheering as they waited on their runners. and I was still on pace and making time on the cut-offs. I was still feeling great and again I was out quickly eating a handful of cookies as I walked away.
The next section was a bit strange at the time but in retrospect I guess it was about normal. The course from here begins on pavement for a couple of miles and it is flat or slightly downhil. I expected to be able to run well here and make up some time, but I had to walk nearly as much as I ran. Thinking back I seem to hit a low point around this distance in all my ultra's, but then rebound and start to feel good again around 30 miles. After a couple of miles I turned and crossed a pasture and then onto the dirt road leading to Halfmoon campground. I was feeling good as I passed through the Treeline crew point and was having fun playing the crowd. I was wearing the "Too DumbTo Quit" shirt that Anita had given me to wear at Massanutten last year and it was proving to be very popular with runners, crew and spectators alike. I heard dozens of comments about it the whole day. After passing Treeline, the course continues a long gradual climb to the Halfmoon aid station. I was still on my planned pace and after a quick refill and a few bites to eat I headed out.
The course continues on the dirt road a while longer before turning onto the trail leading to Twin Lakes. It was here I almost made my first mistake. I was taking in a wonderful view and decided it would make a nice picture. I stepped to the side of the road to take the shot. There were 3 runners just ahead of me and as I was returning the camera to my pouch and about to follow after them, a runner came up behind me and yelled to the other three that they were going the wrong way. I looked behind me and I was standing in the entrance to the trail , clearly marked with several ribbons. I guess I better pay a little more attention to where I'm going.
This next section was my favorite of the day. After a little more climbing, there is a long, sweet ,mostly downhill single-track all the way down into Twin Lakes. I was feeling great at this point and running strong. I was truly in my element. It is times like these that I wish my family and closest friends could see the world through my eyes and feel what I feel so they could share the experience and understand the joy it brings me. I do the next best thing and talk to them in my mind while I run and I can feel their spirits with me as I know they are back home thinking about me. This is also one of the main reasons I write these reports. I must have passed 20 runners along this path before finally dropping steeply into the aid station at 39.5 miles. Again I made great time coming in and was still right on pace.
I was eager to be on my way and face the challenge that lay ahead of me across the valley. Hope Pass, at 12,600 ft is the make or break point for a majority of runners. Many dreams have died on that climb. It is infamous for the quickly changing weather conditions that can go from sunny and fairly warm to rain, sleet , hail and lightning in minutes. I was mentally prepared for whatever the Mt might throw at me today. I would approach it just as I had hundreds of opponents in sparring matches in my former years in Martial Arts. You might kick my butt, but first you have to show me what you've got. I know what's inside me and I'm not going down easy. Bring it on Hope Pass, let's see what you got.
But first I had to run across the valley floor through meadow and bog. There are a couple of little creeks and one major stream, Lake Creek. Today it was flowing well and just over knee high on me. Very refreshing as it had gotten warm and the sun shines hot up here in the thinner air. I was running fairly well here and after probably 30 minutes entered the forest at the base of the climb. As I began the ascent, there was a creek rushing in torrents down the side of the Mt . I would liked to have been able to enjoy the view a little more but I had a hard task ahead of me. I knew that the climbs out here would be long and slow. Wishing I was at the top would not get me there so I just put my eyes on the trail in front of me and walked, never looking at my watch or looking ahead. I would get to the top when I got there.
The climb quiclky became steep and it was obvious this would not be easy. Although I was not having any ill effects such as headache or nausea from the altitude, I was working hard to suck in as much oxygen as possible. Every step upward I took was going to have less air pressure than the one before it and already my chest was heaving like a bellows. But I continued to climb steadily and passed a dozen people as I made my determined way up. After about an hour of steady, hard climbing I was beginning to reel from the body punches the mountain was hitting me with. I was about to take a knee and take a short break, but then the trail leveled out for a short distance and that was all I needed to recover enough to continue. It wasn't much longer before I broke through the treeline and into the Hopeless aid station.
I refilled my bottle and grabbed a cup of mashed potatos and begin to look for a place to sit to eat and take a short break. I found a spot on a log next to Gary Knipling. I was not really happy to see Gary. Normally he would be a couple of hours ahead of me in a race of this length and it was obvious Gary was not feeling good. He and his son Keith are trying to be the first Father and Son to complete the Grand Slam of ultrarunning and I was worried that he would not be finishing if he didn't start to feel better. He headed up the final climb to the summit before me, but I soon passed him again. What a feeling to finally reach the summit! I was on top of the world, still feeling great and had a nice long downhill ahead. I was hit with a cold blast of wind at the top so I quickly headed down the backside. I was soon making good time and running with a young man. The trail is very steep , narrow and rocky so we were both trying to keep it in control. It would be stupid to get this far feeling this good only to be careless and get injured.
Just as we dipped back below the treeline, the Mt decided to keep it's reputation for bad weather intact. It began to rain and hail. As I ran down it rained harder and the hail got larger and was starting to sting. The trail was already a bit wet, but now was qucikly becoming slick and muddy and with the steepness of the trail, even more treacherous. Most people around already had on jackets or were putting them on. I was still warm so I decided to leave mine around my waist and change shirts at Winfield. As the young guy stopped to put on his jacket I started running behind another man. In a few minutes I was smiling to myself. The guy was slipping every 3rd or 4th step and nearly fell 5 or 6 times. I found this amusing because while he was wearing trail shoes designed for these kind of conditions, I was wearing my regular Asics road shoes that I always wear and I never lost traction a single step of the way down to the bottom even though we were running the same pace.
Not long after reaching the bottom and turning onto Winfield road, I saw Anita and her first pacer coming towards me. She was looking great and after a quick hug we went off in seperate directions to finish our runs. I was now regretting my decision to leave my jacket off. I was feeling cold and was anxious to get to Winfield and get into something dry. Finally made it in and began searching for my drop bag. It took a few minutes but I finally found it. Unfortunately I had not put a shirt in the bag after all. While I was standing there dreading going back out into the cold rain with wet clothes, I began talking to Bunny Runyon, who was waiting for Gary to come in. She said Bobby was injured so Scott was going to wait and pace Gary. About that time Scott came in. I was happy to find that Scott had an extra short-sleeve shirt in his car and he ran out to get it for me. I was beginning to question my decision to turn down an offer for a crew member before the race. I am very thankful that Scott was there and could help me. I got dressed and then went over to the food tent for some noodle soup with some potatoes floating around in it. I had spent a long time here but it worked out well because the rain stopped just as I walked out. I left at 13:02, exactly the time I had planned and was confident of a finish, although I knew it would not be easy with 50 hard miles to go.
It took a mile or so before I started to get warm again, but finally started feeling good again and I was able to run most ot the way back to the trail head. I was looking for my NC friends hoping to see them soon. I knew if they weren't in sight soon they would not make the cut-off. Right after I turned off Winfield road, Bill Squires came running down the Mt. I told him I was sorry but he only had 23 minutes to go about 2.5 miles uphill. Bill took off and gave it his best effort but missed the cut-off by about 20 minutes. Before long ,there was Doug. He was happy to finally make it over Hope Pass for the first time. Soon after that I finally saw Joe. I was really hoping he could have made it this year. I know how hard he has trained and wants to do this successfully.
The trail up the backside to Hope Pass is a little shorter and not as much elavation gain as the frontside but it is steeper and before long I was huffin' and puffin' like The Little Engine That Could. Once again, head down and get down to business. Just after emerging above treeline again , I spotted a nice rock on the side of the trail. The view was magnificent so I thought a picture would be nice. It was a good excuse to take a short break. I'm glad I did because after reviewing the photos at home, I think it turned out to be the best landscape photo I have ever taken. It was near 7 pm and the lighting was perfect for the shot. I was quickly back on the trail and ready to get the climb behind me. Just before reaching the summit I saw Beth just ahead of me again. She had changed jackets, but I recognized her black running skirt. I caught her just before we went over the top so we stopped and took pictures of each other. Once again as we headed down ,she pulled away, flying down the Mt.
I didn't waste much time at Hopeless, just refilling my bottle and snapping a picture of some of the llamas that bring the supplies for this aid station. It was great to be heading back down. I had successfully made my way over Hope Pass both directions. Woohoo!!
A little over halway down I heard Rob Saraneiro come up behind me. His was a familiar face from the VHTRC but we had never been introduced. We enjoyed the rest of the trip down to the flats. He seems to be a fine young man and kept calling me sir. It's nice to see a respectful young person but it just reminds me that I look a lot older than I feel. It was about this time that I discovered mistake #2. Rob and I had both left our lights for night running at Twin Lakes, but we had both mis-calculated how early it would get dark. It shouldn't have been a problem because I was prepared. I had my back-up light in my pocket so I pulled it out and was going to help lead Rob in. Unfortunately ,I hadn't unscrewed the flashlight a little after using it in the morning and it had accidently come on at some point during the day in my back pocket and was now very dim. We made it to the creek crossing ok, but after that it became very dark. The Moon was not out and from the lack of stars I knew it was overcast. My night vision with a flashlight is not very good and the little bit of beam coming from this one was not much help. I had to walk slowly to stay on the trail, which was very frustrating because I wanted to be running this easy part of the course. Somehow Rob was able to move on ahead. Younger eyes help I guess.
Just before crossing the road to head into Twin Lakes, it began to rain again. The aid station was crammed with people but I finally was able to find a chair and change shirts while a volunteer filled my bottle and got me some noodles and coke. I wasn't too excited about heading back out into the cold rain, but once I got started it wasn't too bad. I now had my main lights and had replaced the battery in my back-up saw I was prepared to face the night. There is a signicant climb for the first few miles but I was still moving along fine. I was amazed to have come back into Twin Lakes only 4 minutes slower than I had gone into Winfield and that included having to walk a big portion of the easy part, so my confidence level was still high.
Before long I realized I had made mistake #3 and this would prove to be the big one. The wet stream crossings and the mud had caused me to accumulate small grit into my shoes and it was imbedded into my socks now and wearing like sandpaper on the forepads of my feet. I couldn't believe I was letting this happen because I had clean shoes and socks back at Twin Lakes. 5 minutes spent back there would probably have saved me an hour or possibly two at the end.
As I walked along this climb I noticed how quiet the Mts are here. The only sound other than my breathing and footsteps were the occasional sounds of flowing water from a nearby stream. No bugs, frogs or whooperwhills here. At this time back East, you could have barely have heard yourself think for all the wildlife racket going on. I eventually made it back to Halfmoon. I had some dry , clean socks here but the damage had already been done. My energy level was finally dropping from all the heavy breathing I had been doing all day. I wasn't feeling bad but my chest muscles were tiring out on me, not being used to breathing as hard as I had been doing all day. As a result I would not be doing nearly as much running as I would like. Even the mostly downhill road back to Treeline would be hard for me. To make matters worse, walking hurt my feet more than running.
Just before reaching the Fish Hatchery, I stepped to the side of the road to pee, and Gary and Scott came running by. I was happy to see Gary was still moving and I ran into the aid station just behind them. I changed socks again and then headed out to face the final major climb, that sick , steep. scary rutted powerline and onto the top of Sugar Loaf Pass. My pace had slowed quite a bit but I wasn't concerned because I still felt I could walk it in from here and get my finish. The problem was I needed to walk fast and I wasn't. And every step my feet seemed to hurt more. I think this is probably the longest climb on the course and I began to lose my patience. Instead of climbing like I had up Hope Pass, I began to strain my eyes upwards looking for the next glow stick, only to be disappointd to see it further up. It seemed like an eternity before I finally reached the summit .
Now at last I could run some more, but no, my feet hurt so bad . The jeep road here was rocky and rutted and I had to be very careful where to place my feet. I was able to run about halfway down to Hagerman Pass road but the pace was glacial and painful. The Leadville 100 was no longer fun, but a chore to be finished and I was ready for it to be over. At least when I finally reached Hagerman Pass road, I was able to run most of it because of its easier surface. I was eager to get back on the Colorado trail back into MayQueen and the last aid station. I couldn't remember how long that section would be but it soon added to the frustration I was feeling. As I neared the bottom I could hear and see the lights just below and to my right .The trail however turned uphill and to the left. But I don't want to go this way, i want to go down there! Every step away was making me more frustrated. Finally with about two hundred yards to get to the road, I tripped over a rock and landed hard on both knees.. Just a few scratches on the left . The right was not even marked but the kneecap was bruised and throbbing. Well at least I forgot me feet for a minute. After an angry moment I setttled down and from that point on I was back to my normal good natured self again. I had just about thrown all my hard effort away by losing my patience and getting injured. God has a way of getting my attention every now and then and reminding me how good I really have it.
I wasted no time in Mayqueen as bad as I wanted to sit and stay a while. I had 4:15 to get to the finish and I knew it would be a slow 13.5 miles. I tried to run on the flat campground road but it was a pathetic looking shuffle I'm sure. I had forgotten how rocky and hilly the first few miles of the Lake Trail were. It was slowing my progress quite a bit. Gary went by me shortly and I was very happy to know he had recovered enough and was going to finish. Then I heard someone else come up behind me. It was Ray Gruenewald from Seattle. I had just met Ray here in Leadville this weekend and we had been leapfrogging each other all day at the aid stations. Ray was planning to follow me into the finish and the plan was working. We didn't do much talking In fact I hadn't done much talking this whole race. It just took too much air to talk and walk at the same time. We stayed together all the way to the campground past the Tabor Boat ramp but I heard nature's call and decided to use the facilities in the campground. I had no doubt I would make it to the finish now so I was in no hurry. The time didn't matter or who finished in front of me. I just wanted to get there with as little pain as possible. I had to wait so I filled my bottle at a spigot and adjusted my jacket and vest and pouch while I waited.
Soon I was on my way again. There was one more cruel obstacle in my way. Leaving the lake, the course crossed a road and took a short cut to another road down a very steep, rocky powerline. It was killing my poor feet as I slowly inched my way down. At last I was on the flat road heading back towards town. I ran/ walked this section as well as I could and then reached the end of the Blvd, approximately 5K to go. This would turn out to be a long slow hot climb. I don't know what the temperature was but the sun was beating down and it felt a lot hotter than it probably was. And it was all uphill to town from here so I walked and I walked and I walked. And then I walked. Finally I could spot the end ot the road and as I made the turn off of Blvd , I could hear the cheers of the crowd at the finish line. I was still walking and climbing but as the road flattened out I tried to run and felt like I was going to pass out. Now wouldn't this be great. Get within a mile of the finish and end up in the medical tent with a stupid DNF from trying to run it in. That's OK . I'm not too proud to walk across the finish line. I make the turn onto 6th street and I know the finish is just over the hill and finally there it is in sight. A little downhill and then a short uphill to the line. I tried to run down the hill but the woozy feeling instantly came back so I go back to the plan to walk it in. Just as I start up the final hill, Hannah calls out from the side of the road. "Come on Joey, you can do this. Run it in. Joe's waiting to take your picture" I just mumble something about I can't so she runs out into the road and urges me to run beside her. I slowly start running with her when seemingly out of nowhere 3 or 4 other women surround me urging me to run it in. The crowd is cheering so with my escorts I somehow find the strength to run up the carpet and through the finish tape.
Everything seemed to be a blur. My head felt like a brick and I couldn't speak in complete sentences. I remember seeing Joe and the camera and out of nowhere the RD, Merilee gives me a hug and someone puts a medal around my neck. VInny is waiting there. All I can think is that I want some coke and I want to sit down. That turns out to be exactly what they want me to do. Every finisher has to immediately go to the medical tent and let them check your lungs for fluid and check your blood oxygen levels. It only takes a minute for someone to come check me out. She says I'm fine and I smile. Yes I am. I did it. I have finished The Race Across the Sky, The Leadville Trail 100!