Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leadville 100 Mile Trail "Race Across the Sky"

I had been thinking about this race almost daily for 3 years now. It had grown to a full blown obsession since that day in August of 2005, when for the first time, I had given up on a race. I tried to tell myself that I hadn't actually quit, since I had made it to the 60 mile aid station with 2 minutes to spare, and knew I'd never make it that next 10 miles in time...well, that is after I spent 20 minutes throwing up and in the "john" doing the same out of the other end. I had actually taken off again though, in hopes for some miraculous recovery...but only about a mile of slow slogging, did I come to the shameful realization that I wasn't going to make it. THAT'S what I remember from that day...that sad and pitiful walk BACK to the aid station, where I took off my wrist band, and told the race officials I was DONE. I remember thinking to myself...had I really just uttered those words "I'm done"...could I have actually said that? They had seen many people say that that day, probably over 200 or so, and surely that didn't think I was a coward....but in my heart, I sure felt like one. Regardless of the fact that I WAS truly sick and had thrown up and jumped in the bushes for miles and miles, getting rid of my insides...and that I was probably lucky to have made it THAT far...but still I felt like a failure that day, and it was THAT thought that I have thought about, brooded over, hung my head in quiet self shame, for the last 3 years.

Well this year would be different!!! I had made a promise to myself that no matter how bad I felt, no matter how sick I was, no matter how much I hurt, or ached, or behind in time I was...I was NOT giving up unless they had to literally carry my off on a stretcher. Leadville though, had morphed into this almost mystical beast in my head. It was this monster that I thought about in my sleep and absolutely dreaded going through again. But this time, I had trained longer, harder, and smarter. I was as ready as I could be. I had improved my climbing skills and had much more confidence than before. Instead of thinking "how can I ever finish this" I was thinking..."how could I possibly quit this time....never!!!". My wife Chelsea has encouraged me too and has seemed to have more confidence in me finishing this time than I did. Sometimes she would seem so certain and act like it was a forgone conclusion, that I wasn't sure if she really felt that way, or just being a loving and supportive wife and just saying it to boost my once deflated confidence.

I went out to Leadville about 5 days early to acclimatize. I stayed with my friend Marshall Ulrich who is quite possibly the most hard-core man on the planet. I'm not sure hearing his laid back attitude helped me or made me more nervous. He was also running Leadville but showed little concern for the mountainous and grueling 100 miles...maybe because he's done it an INSANE dozen or so times before. Marshall lives at 10,400 feet and so I was positioned perfectly to not only rest and sleep there, but hike up through the mountains in his virtual backyard. We did an acclimatization hike together for a while one day, but he had to get back to meet someone, and so pointed me in the right direction to continue on. I had only planned for about an hour or so and didn't want to overdo it before the race, as I tend to do sometimes. Of course with the incredible mountain scenery beckoning me, and feeling energized with the fresh mountain air and the bright sunshine, I made the mistake of seeing and getting fixated on a summit up in the distance. Of course I knew that it was quite a bit further away than it looked, and would take me considerably more time to reach it...going much longer than planned, I simply told myself as long as I went slow, I'd be ok.

I ended up meeting a group of 3 others who were hiking to the top...Mt. James was the peak...and they seemed to have been a having a bit of trouble staying on the trail and so I actually felt as if I was in charge of our new group. And with me now encouraging them, I certainly couldn't decide NOT to go all the way...what kind of example would that be. So I ended up getting to the top about 3 hours after beginning the hike! I had one bottle of water and that was it, and I still had to make it down. At this point I just figured the quicker I made it down and rested, the better off I'd be. So I said goodbye to my new friends, hoping that they would send me the picture of me on the summit they took (they did) and I was off...running down the mountain and reaching Marshall's house an hour later.

So fast forward a few days legs had JUST stopped aching from my not so smart, mini climb, and we were in Leadville...myself, Marshall, and my friend who flew from LA to crew me...Mike Artino. I had met Mike in the Marathon des Sable in Morocco and Mike is quite and endurance guy himself. He had suffered an Achilles injury about a year before and was just getting back into things and since I knew that Leadville was on his "list", I thought he might enjoy crewing me in Leadville.

As the days got closer and closer to the race, the weather reports got worse and worse...a massive cold front was heading our way and rain was coming with it. My level of anxiety continued to grow as the reports kept coming in. I'm a fair weather runner and sadly when it's going to rain..or in the winter in DC, I'll just choose to run on the treadmill rather than get wet or cold. I don't even own any rain gear (that is until the day before this race). So waking up at 2am race morning, and pulling the curtains open on the hotel room to see rain and about 30-some degrees, I had an overwhelming desire to skip out the back door and get the hell out of there. But of course I was there to run this thing...not run the opposite direction. So with Mike's encouraging words, I started to get myself ready...organizationally and mentally!!!

The 1st 50 I was very strong and steady and was feeling great about myself because I knew how much further I was compared to when I did it previously and so I knew I was doing well. I powered up the mts and was actually passing people and I've only been doing that in the last 6 months but still didn't think I'd be able to do it at Leadville. Of course on the steep downs, I was very cautious and didn't want to blow my quads out and so kept the brakes on and that's where a lot of people would pass me. But those Colorado runners are from another planet. I think about 90 of the 186 finishers were from CO. Either they were incredibly strong, or total idiots...not sure which one, but I wasn't going to get caught up in that and get knocked out of my plan, so I just watched them run on by. As far as I was concerned, I was the only person on the trail!!

Anyway, my very first down moment came at about 48 miles but once I hooked up with my pacers I came out of it and made a strong climb back over Hope Pass. Rich and Robin weren't supposed to meet me until mile 60, so I was pleasantly surprised but had been mentally ready to cross back over on my own...never-the-less, I was damn glad to see them. I had actually never even met them before this. They both live in CO and are quite the hard care duo themselves. Rich has finished the famous Hardrock 100 mile race in CO a number of times (which I believe is even harder than this!) and I think Robin has as well, but at the very least I know she has paced Rich at Hardrock for the last 50 miles. And 50 miles at Hardrock is probably even harder than some 100 milers. And I owe them a HUGE thanks!!!! They are the kind of people that will show up on 2 days notice, in horrible weather, to pace a total stranger (me) for 50 miles...just to help me amazing is that!!!

The weather did amazingly break during the both my crossings of Hope Pass, which was great...of course the trails were a disaster...but it didn't take long for it to start raining again. My stomach was making some noise for most of the race, but I was determined NOT to start crapping until well past when I did last time. I made it to almost 70 miles when the flood gates finally opened and then I had a hard time getting my calories in, and then things started to get pretty tough, then really tough, and then well beyond tough. After about 80 miles, we had a 2 hour climb at about 1am and it was cold and raining and my clothes had been soaked for hrs....I was really having to grab my St. Christopher Medal and ask for strength!!!...and was asking myself "what the hell am I doing here...this is INSANE". I usually am such a wuss when it comes to being wet and having clothes to change in, but I was already so miserable and wet and knew that any change of gear would only be dry for a few minutes, I actually sucked it up and figured what would be the point. So I'm kind of proud of myself that I never changed a stitch of clothing the entire time...not shirt, socks, shoes, nada!!! And I never sat down once, never stopped at the aid stations for more than a couple minutes...some not even for a few seconds...just walked in, and said "588 IN and OUT".

Then the last 13.5 mile section I was totally done. All previously, I kept warm by just moving even though it was cold, but at that point I was starting to shiver and freeze, and EVERYTHING hurt. My feet were killing me, my quads were screaming, my ankle (pulled the same tendon at Atacama and did the same thing again) was killing me and swelling up, and the tank was just totally empty and it was took everything I had to keep moving. Don't get me wrong, I never considered NOT moving, but it was just so excruciating! I couldn't believe a human would voluntarily put themselves through so much pain. And it started to sleet again, and the wind was blowing right off the lake straight into our faces and I was literally biting shut my hood to protect my face....holy shit, it sucked!!! It was the longest 4 hrs ever...but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, of course with my buddy Mike Artino pushing and PUSHING me. I honestly don't know how long it would have taken me to finish if it weren't for Mike staying on me... and ON me. I think at one point I wanted to strangle him because he kept telling me to see if I could run..and I would try for about 30 seconds and then give up, back to my brisk walk. I wanted Mike to feel what I was going through, but of course he was doing his job, and an INCREDIBLE job he did. No pacer could ever really feel the pain, but he has been there plenty of times himself and he knew what I needed, and it wasn't a shoulder to cry on, it was whip to smack me in the ass to make me shut up and keep moving. I owe him a ton...THANKS Mike!!!...and I managed to break the 28 hr mark (27:54).

But I'm SOOOO relieved to have done it and although I'd never pick that kind of weather, now I'm glad that I overcame my worst fears as far as conditions and the race, and I DID IT!!! I think about 560 signed up, about 446 showed up, and only 186 I'm feeling damn lucky to be among the 186!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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