Apparently I’m dragging this race report on way too long, so the goal will now be to condense the story and finish in less than 10 volumes (you’re welcome, JT).
In the 10 miles or so before the Twin Lakes aid station there were some changes to the course this year due to a Blackhawk helicopter crash on the course where the Halfmoon aid station would normally be located. This meant a re-route through a new aid station (Box Creek) and less running on roads but helped me little, if any. By mile 30 I could only run the flat-to-downhill sections of the course despite my pacing myself early on. This freaked me out a little but when you are planning on running through the night anyway, any problems you encounter early in the day are taken with a grain of salt. For me, even though I’d never completed a race of this duration or difficulty, I had a hunch that I would have some incredible lows both physically and mentally, yet would be able to pull through most, if not all, of them. That hopeful prediction did, thankfully, come to be accurate during the ensuing hours.
Fast forward to mile 38-ish: The long downhill descent into the Twin Lakes area was in full effect, I was running again after walking the majority of the previous 8 miles, and up ahead was a race photographer. This was my chance to stride it out and look good for the camera, you know, to really get a good pic to show my friends and grandchildren, right?? While focusing on these thoughts my eyes and mind were apparently not concerned with the rocks I was running over and the ensuing superman dive/roll is what was actually captured by the photographer. (See below, I’m not exaggerating here!)
The result of this crash was a bloodied and rapidly swelling lump on my right kneecap. When I regained my composure and began running the remaining 1+ miles to the aid station, all I could dwell on was the pain, the loss in my range of motion, and the thought that my attempt at running 100 miles was going to be shot by mile 40. I was angry and demanding (sorry, crew) when I reached the aid station due to the level of mental and physical pain I had reached after this incident, but after icing my knee, and taking an ibuprofen (which I had previously committed to avoiding) and a Red Bull shot, the decision was made to continue even if it meant walking the next 10 miles to the Winfield 50 mile aid station/turnaround. Finishing 50 miles was now my only goal. (Something I learned during Leadville was that you can’t think of the end goal or the overall distance you’re attempting to cover, but rather, you‘ve got to break the distance into small, manageable chunks.)
As I tackled the ensuing mile of flat before the hellacious mother that is Hope Pass, I braced myself for the worst. When crossing the river before the trail gets steep, I took an extra second to soak in the ice cold mountain water in hopes of further numbing the pain in my right knee. This must have done the trick because even though I couldn’t run the steep sections of Hope, I was for the first time in the day, overtaking other runners left and right..., so in a matter of half an hour I went from wanting to quit to feeling invincible!! As the number of competitors I’d passed neared 20+, I could finally see the summit! After crossing and then bombing down the extremely steep south face of Hope, the Winfield aid station was upon me before I knew it (after nearly being hit by an idiot in a big Ford pickup on the road into Winfield) and I was high on the mountain air, the pain, the beauty, and my friends and family who were helping me through this ordeal!
Halfway point: 10 hours and 2 minutes... somewhat banged up but still standing.
Before I continue with the recap I need to emphasize just how hot it was in Leadville that day; the high reached 87 degrees which is unheard of at altitudes above 10-11,000ft. The exposure above treeline on Hope Pass and the 3 mile stretch of road to Winfield was intense. What enabled me to keep going was the perfect amount of water and salt I'd been ingesting at regular intervals throughout the day. This had been my weak link in all the ultra's I'd finished up until Leadville and with the conditions we encountered that day, I surely would have DNF'ed and been hospitalized if it weren't for my nutritionist and CF doctor scientifically figuring exactly what my bodies' sodium and fluid requirements were. For the record: 20-30oz of sports drink per hour (based solely on my sweat level) and approximately 3-4 Thermotabs and 2-3 S-Caps per hour. In the week prior to the race it was discovered that I lose between 2000 and 2500mg of salt per hour depending on my sweat rate, so my goal was to take in approximately 1600-2000mg of this salt through tablets and rely on sports drinks and solid food to make up the remainder. Skipping ahead to the North Face 50 miler that I wrote about below, I've clearly got this down to a science and will hopefully never have to experience the ill effects of hyponatremia again!!
After a 20 minute (way too long, I know) layover in Winfield, my friend Sean and I were on the trail up Hope pass again. The next motivational boost came after we passed the 52 mile mark, as every step I ran after that was farther than I'd ever gone before and this was exciting new and uncharted territory. Even though nothing could have stopped me at this point, I still had to respect the difficulty of the task we were undertaking, and will completely agree with the claim that the double crossing of Hope Pass is the hardest 20 miles in ultrarunning. This time over I only passed 5-6 runners, but it still felt relatively easy due to my positive state of mind (obviously an attempt to run it would change that perception). Sean and I were able to run the backside of Hope at a decent clip and soon Twin Lakes II had arrived. I didn’t want to stop here for too long, for fear of losing the momentum I was carrying both physically and mentally and my second pacer, Gene, and I hit the trail shortly. This was the first stretch where I started to feel mortal again, and was mixed with running and ‘wogging’.., uneventful for the most part. At the Treeline crew access near mile 73.5 I switched pacers for the last time. I now had my dad with me to endure the coming hell that is the ‘powerlines’. We hit the road section to Fish Hatchery 5-10 minutes later, but by this point in the race (almost 9:00pm) any mental strength that had previously enabled me to transcend the bloody/pussy blisters and electric-charged leg pain, was gone; from Fish Hatchery to the finish there are no shortcuts… only grit and determination will get you the remaining 23+ miles.
Again ‘wogging’ most of the road to the powerlines on Sugarloaf, we had arrived at our last substantial climb. Running was out of the question, but just being strong enough to power hike this section enabled my dad and I to pass another 8-10 runners. Had the finish been at mile 86.5, I would likely have been 25th overall, but as we know, Leadville is 100 miles and has no sympathy for wusses or excuses, so back to the nightmare that was the next 3 hours of my life…
Just before we finished the final descent down Sugarloaf into the final aid station (Mayqueen II) runners go across a technical, rocky/rooty section of the Colorado Trail. Coupled with the amount of available light from a headlamp and the shadows these create, this can be a treacherous section of the course. It wasn’t me that the terrain claimed, but my dad instead. Not even a mile from the aid station he stepped in a rocky hole that took him down and within 5 minutes of the spill his left ankle was red, blue, and purple, and swollen to nearly double the size of his right side. I suggested he drop out at the Mayqueen aid station but he wouldn’t have it! Misery must really like its company, because now he was suffering almost as much as me and we had the prospect of a half marathon in the dark ahead of us.
Elaborating on this part of the race: The only SERIOUS thoughts I had of quitting came just after this aid station. Granted, I had had some highs and lows throughout the day (and night), but I always reminded myself that I wouldn’t be able to live with the disappointment of dropping out if it was for anything less than an injury or other serious medical failure. After Mayqueen though, all bets were off. Instead of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and realizing that 13 miles is nothing when you’ve already completed 87, I was 100% fixated on the AMOUNT of time I still had to suffer before I finished. For some reason the concept of 3+ more hours of torture seemed worse than the 20 I had already endured! The thought that made this seem the worst was that I normally could run a marathon in the time it was going to take me to finish 13. Then I thought about how hard a marathon was, even when fresh, and how long 3+ hours can feel. Then I melted down..
How I got through this wall is somewhat unclear, but it had a lot to do with my dad convincing me to just shut-up and turn my iPod back on, along with the race director, Ken Chloeber’s , words of wisdom from the day before: At most, you are going to suffer for 30 hours on the Leadville course, but if you get weak and quit, you will not only suffer for 365 days until you can redeem yourself and race it again, but most likely forever…, always kicking yourself for not at least trying to take a few more steps or make it to that next aid station.
The next 3 hours and 20 minutes did, in fact, drag on and hurt as bad as I’d expected, but they were eventually over and the finish line was in sight a half mile away. Every step sent sharp pain through every fiber of my lower body, all the way up through my back and into my shoulders, but there was nothing that could stop me at this point. I crossed the finish at 3:21am and was immediately overtaken with emotion when my mom came running over to hug me. I didn’t have to be tough anymore and I readily gave way to tears … more than a race, Leadville was a life altering adventure. I had just climbed my Mt. Everest and walked away with the confidence that there is nothing I can’t accomplish if I set my mind to it and persevere. Hopefully my accomplishment gives hope to other CF patients and families and provides bright future prospects for them as well!
Now the question remains: What’s next?