When I reached for my salt tabs, I could only move in slow motion. My fingers, my arms, everything felt like it was under water. My mind was in a fog. I was at 12,000 feet, hunched over on a rock at the top of Hope Pass aid station. I’d been running and hiking for 10 straight hours. Now it felt like I was sucking oxygen from a pixie stick. I thought I was acclimated to the altitude. I'd spent two weeks in Big Bear, CA at 7,000 feet. But 7,000 feet is not 12,000 feet. To keep my lungs and heart from exploding, I had to stop and rest every 10 to 15 minutes when I climbed at high altitude, only to watch other runners pass me. Now, after months of training, I could feel my body and my race slowly unraveling.
Me and My Crew
A woman was talking to me who was a trained medical volunteer. She went to get me some warm broth. When she returned I slowly got back onto my feet. As I stood there she looked me straight in the eyes, searching for a weakness, any reason to sit me back down. She asked me if I was ok. I wasn’t sure, so I reluctantly nodded yes. Then, with 55 miles, another 10,000 feet of climbing and nightfall to go, she sent me on my way.
On August 17, 2013, I lined up with more than 900 other runners for the Leadville 100 mile trail race, among the oldest and the largest 100 milers in the country. The race starts at 10,200 feet elevation and goes as high as 12,600 feet at Hope Pass. The lowest point is 9,200 feet.
The air we breathe has the same percent of oxygen at all altitudes (21%). However, because the barometric pressure is lower at higher altitudes, the air is less dense, and therefore there are fewer oxygen molecules floating around. Consequently, when you breathe air in Leadville at 10,000 feet, you are getting 29% less oxygen than at sea level. At 12,600 feet, the top of Hope Pass, you're getting 36% less.
Going into this race I had a simple plan. Take the descents very easy, and run conservative for the first 50 miles. I'd learned my lesson at the Vermont 100 miler a month ago where my quads were blown by mile 25 from going too hard early on in the race. This time, I told myself, I would be smart and go easy for the first 50 miles. For the first time ever, I wrote down splits for each aid station with a target of running under 25 hours. Not to fast and not too slow, I felt.
Into Fish Hatchery - Mile 23
My plan started to derail by the second aid station (mile 23). I was behind by 15 minutes and feeling pretty spent. But like a zealous train conductor, I was still committed to keeping the train moving down the tracks. I adjusted a few things and pushed on. Though by the third aid station (mile 40) the train was facing serious jeopardy. I'd lost more time despite pushing myself in several sections. I thought to myself, why was this happening? I'm working hard out here but losing time. My wife Jen (crew chief) knew my target splits and she wasn't saying anything. I knew this wasn't a good sign since she was enthusiastically announcing my splits earlier in the day.
I kept my cool and continued down the tracks, and into a dark tunnel called Hope Pass.
Even if you haven't run Leadville, you've probably heard of Hope Pass. A simple description? Two monster climbs of 3,400 feet out and 2,600 feet back between miles 40 and 55. Complicating things is the following taken from 2013 Leadville race guidebook: "Weather in the Colorado high country is notorious for its rapid and violent changes. During the race it could rain, hail and even snow. Lightning is hazardous, especially above timberline. Hypothermia can occur easily with a combination of decreasing temperature, wind and precipitation. The confusion that accompanies hypothermia can be deadly."
Hope Pass from Twin Lake
Needless to say I approached Hope Pass with a healthy dose of respect. By the time I made it to the top, well, I think you got the picture above. It wasn't promising. Yet, despite the dark place in which I found myself, I continued to move forward, further up the mountain until I reached its pinnacle of 12,600 feet. For a moment, I simply stood on the very top of Hope Pass. And, for a moment, all the fatigue and all the pain that had been building in me during the day just slipped away. Now my eyes were in control, and the moment stood still. Across from me was the jagged spine of the Continental Divide, 14,000 foot peaks piercing the crisp blue sky like a freshly painted mural hanging from a museum wall.
By now I was coming to terms with just finishing somewhere in 26 hours. A respectable time for this high altitude course, but not what I was looking for. I continued to fall behind climbing Hope Pass and descending into the Winfield aid station, the 50 mile mark and turnaround point. By the time I finally made it into Windfield, I sat down and looked at my time. I was exactly one hour behind the time needed to break 25 hours. I shook my head, disappointed for sure, but still willing to go the distance regardless of my finishing time.
Climbing back over Hope Pass was one of the hardest climbs I've ever done. Much steeper than the front side, the back side was bringing many runners to their knees. This runner included. I settled into a ten minute on, one minute rest routine. This five mile section seemed to take forever. The only solace I could take was from knowing the runners around me were suffering as much as me, and in some cases much, much more. Above me I heard a loud, stomach wrenching groan that cascaded down the trail in fixed intervals. One of the pacers pondered "is that Sasquatch"? As we got closer it was apparent we were entering the heart of dry-heave ally.
It has been said that running 100 miles is a lot like living a lifetime in one day. All the ups and downs that you encounter, they are right there before you, from hour to hour, even minute to minute. I've learned that if I keep moving and don't give up, amazing things can happen. If I can manage to keep my mind quiet, the pain and self doubt I always seem to encounter, these mind traps will eventually fade and resurface in another form. Sometimes they resurface in the form of raw energy. Other times in renewed strength. Whatever form they take, the cycle teaches me to listen closer to the language of my body and avoid the distractions of my mind.
When I reached Hope Pass for the second time, my ego was firmly in check. But more importantly, I was at mile 55 and my plan to conserve energy seemed to be working. My quads, broken only a month ago in Vermont by mile 25, seemed quite ready to start running. I began the descent into Twin Lakes and could feel the energy building. At last, I thought to myself, my plan might finally be paying off.
I entered the Twin Lakes Aid station at mile 60 and was greeted by my crew (wife and two daughters) and my pacer, the veteran S. Cracker. My crew quickly refilled my Vespa, fed me a sandwich and Gatorade, and sent Cracker and I on our way. Cracker and I eagerly climbed Mt. Elbert, anxious to get to the top and begin the long, runnable trail into Half Pipe. Once we crested the top, the wheels began to turn and Cracker and I proceeded to pass dozens of other runners. One after another, we made our way down the mountain trail gaining momentum every mile.
Me and Cracker
To bring this home, I will just say that what happened after this is something I could only wish for in all my races. What started out as a frustrating day of falling behind my goal, ended with a surge that I have not encountered before. When I hit the 50 mile turn around, I was an hour off my plan, and I'm told somewhere around 200th place. That is when things started to change.
Fish Hatchery Inbound - mile 76
Maybe it was the conservative pace I'd run the first 50 miles, or the Vespa I'd been consuming religiously every 2 hours. Or maybe it was the two weeks I'd spent at 7,000 feet before coming to Leadville. Or maybe it was all of the above. Whatever it was, I came upon a surge of energy like none before that pushed me through the last 40 miles from Twin Lakes to the finish line. I must have passed over 100 runners in this section. By the time I crossed the finish line in 23 hours and 43 minutes, I was in 74th place and an hour and 17 minutes ahead of my goal of breaking 25 hours.
I'd like to extend a huge thanks to my crew Jen, Devs, Char and Cracker, you guys braved the traffic and crowds of the Leadville aid stations which I heard were a nightmare. And Cracker, my pacer, despite the pixie sticks you encountered climbing Sugarloaf Pass, you pushed me through the most important 20 miles on the course and you made it to the finish line. Finally, to all the volunteers at Leadville. This year's race has taken some hits for lack of organization, traffic and allegedly too many runners, but I found the volunteers at ALL the the aid stations to be very knowledgable and helpful, possibly the best I've encountered at a 100 mile race. Thank you.