Approaching the Twin Lakes aid station for the second time (at mile 60.5) I spotted my housemate, Kristen. “I feel like crap,” I told her. Pointing to my bloated stomach, which made it look as if I’d done more training for the race at the local bar than on the local trails, I explained, “Nothing is passing through — I have not eaten a thing in 4 hours. Everything is just sitting in there.”
While I looped through town she raced directly over to meet me and my crew, and then proceeded to get all over me about not taking any electrolyte or salt tablets, which I had written off due to the cold-and-wet conditions and to never needing them before during my extreme backpacking trips. “That’s what’s getting you,” she told me, pointing her finger at my chest for extra emphasis. My crew gave me a handful of fennel seeds and two electrolyte tablets, and I was off, with my pacer David Henzlik in tow.
Over the next 10 miles, to the Halfmoon Aid Station, I began to feel remarkably better. My bloated gut started to disappear, and the food and liquids started to take hold — my muscles loosened up, I began to urinate again, and for the first time since about mile 15 I began to feel, dare I say, fast. It was a turning point in the race: to that point I was just hanging on for dear life, but now I had the confidence and momentum to start hunting down the 3 racers in front of me and to even make a run for the win.
I signed up for Leadville on a whim, two days after my surprisingly good fourth-place finish at the San Juan Solstice 50 in late-June, which I had also signed up for on a whim. I no longer consider myself a “runner,” though for many years I certainly was: in high school I ran a 4:21 in the 1-mile and a 9:31 in the 2-mile; my running career at Duke was injury-plagued but I still managed to run a 15:01 in the 5K and a 31:46 in the 10K. Nowadays my activities, passion, and reputation are backpacking-centric, but I suspected that the runner in me had not disappeared entirely – and, with some empty slots in this summer’s hiking schedule, I finally had the chance to test that theory.
When I toed the line at 4am, I was hoping for a Top 5 and sub-20-hour finish. If the weather conditions fell apart, as they were expected to, I thought I could possibly do even better – the cold-and-wet conditions (which brought hail, snow, cold rain, and thunder and lightning) would affect me less than pure runners. In fact, having just returned from a 700-mile 23-day trip in Iceland 1.5 weeks earlier, I thought that no one else was better prepared for these conditions than I was. In the end, the other top finishers seem mostly unphased by the weather, but I still think the conditions helped me feel like I belonged up there more than I might have otherwise.
The First 50
Experienced ultra-runners like Krissy Moehl and Stephanie Ehret had advised me to go out conservatively slow. It’s a 100-mile race, they reminded me, and the real race does not begin until the halfway point, Winfield, or maybe even somewhere after that. So heading out of Leadville towards Turquoise Lake I sat back, somewhere in the top 10 or 15, chugging along at very relaxed pace. Disaster struck while going around the lake, when another runner and I made a wrong turn at a confusing fork in the trail shortly before Tabor Boat Ramp. We probably lost about 8 minutes, though it felt like eternity; on our way back to the course we saved another 20 or so runners who had made the same mistake. Livid that I, a supposed master of preparedness and route-finding, would make such a stupid error, I put on the jets and passed at least 30 runners before reaching the first aid station, MayQueen, in 1:53, in 11th place.
I caught up with the eventual race winner, Duncan Callahan, while heading down Powerline towards the Fish Hatchery (the second aid station, at mile 23.5). I settled into the “ultra shuffle” on my way towards Tree Line, and then began the 60-minute gradual climb to the Halfmoon Aid Station, near the trailheads for Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive. During these miles we saw the worst weather of the race: when I crossed beneath Powerline it was about 40 degrees, and a wintry mix of snow pellets and hail were coming down at us. The hail gave way to rain on the descent, and then a 500-person liability emerged as lightening began striking objects in the Arkansas Valley. “They’re going to cancel the race,” I told my crew chief Anya at Tree Line. We may have signed a liability waiver, but no race director wants newspaper headlines like that. I grabbed my vapor barrier mitts, which would guarantee that I would not lose dexterity in my fingers, and headed up the valley.
The 16 miles from Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes was perhaps the most difficult section for me, yet I lost only a few minutes to the competition. My stomach started to become bloated and uncomfortable, and my hips got really tight on me, to the point where every time one of my legs made an unexpected movement I was concerned that a tendon was going to pull right off the bone. Ping!
I made a fast transition at Twin Lakes and pulled out in second place, not far behind Scott Jamie. With my trekking poles in hand and a 3,400-foot 4.5-mile climb to Hope Pass immediately ahead, my confidence was brimming – no one could touch me here. I passed Scott early in the climb, but he bounced back and put a minute on me by the Hope Pass aid station; even so, we both managed to put about 5 minutes on the third place runner, Duncan. On the descent, which loses about 2,700 feet in 2.5 miles, I had a choice to make: pound the downhill and risk destroying my quads, or descend conservatively and risk losing time to those behind me. I chose the latter but did not regret it: we still had 50 miles to go!
A 5-Man Race
By Winfield it had been reduced to a 5-man race, with no clear favorite: we were only separated by 10 minutes. Heading out of Winfield, Scott Jamie had about 5 minutes on everyone else. He had been up front for much of the race, and I had been very impressed with his strength over Hope Pass — we put distance on everyone during the climb, and then he was strong enough to go into a free-fall on the descent whereas I had to pull back. In second place was Duncan Callahan, probably the most experienced ultra-runner among us; his San Juan finish showed that he was in great shape, and he had run a smart first half of the race. In third was Zeke Tiernan, a two-time All-American at the University of Colorado, whose raw talent and ultra-running potential was downright scary but whose lack of ultra-distance experience raised question marks about how he would fare in the latter stages of the race. And then in fifth was Rick Hessek, who in 2003 had run 20:38 and placed seventh; he was running strong and he had gained several minutes on me earlier during the Halfmoon-Twin Lakes leg.
The Next 44: Winfield to Tabor Boat Ramp
I pulled out of Winfield in fourth (officially, second, but the official splits are inaccurate because many runners check in and out of aid stations at the same time, then go find their crew, where they spend a few minutes getting what they need). Running down the road with Anya I told her that I was probably looking at a 20-hour finish at best: my quads were cashed, my hips were tighter than guitar strings, and my stomach was bloated with all of the food and water that I had tried to consume during the last 6 hours. I figured a meltdown of some sort was probably in store; returning in 11:15 (after an 8:45 first 50) was going to be a real reach, I thought.
But everyone must have been feeling it too because I was not losing time. In fact, I made up time on the climb to Hope Pass, passing a fading Scott Jamie and pulling even with Zeke. The descent was a different story – I again chose to descend conservatively, not only to save my quads but to avoid an injury-causing fall on the trail, which was now coated with 2 inches of slippery mud.
I pulled into Twin Lakes in fourth, several minutes behind Rick and Zeke and now 12 minutes behind Duncan. I was hurting, and dumbfounded that I was maintaining my position. Kristen yelled at me about the salts. My crew fed me food, liquids, and a NoDoze pill. And my new pacer, Dave, took all of my stuff except for my beloved trekking poles.
I had not intended to have a pacer until Mile 75, at Fish Hatchery, where my best friend and former Duke teammate Aaron Paul would join me. But my deteriorating condition forced me to request one at Winfield, and thankfully my crew was able to find Dave, who had driven down from Aspen in order to pace a friend that failed to make a cutoff time, leaving him available. Pre-race I did not fully grasp the value of a pacer, or for that matter, a crew. During my backpacking trips I find it better to be self-reliant and to eschew outside support (which can be unreliable and logistically complex), but this does not hold true during an ultra run – my pacers and crew probably made me 30+ minutes faster.
As I wrote earlier, I began to feel a lot better during the 9 miles to Halfmoon. I ran all of the flats and downhills; I hiked the uphills with my poles, except if they were short enough to run. When Dave and I reached the aid station we were really excited to see Rick just ahead. Zeke was nowhere in sight: he had put 6 minutes on me and gained 6 minutes on Duncan (who had ran a similar split to me). Dave hit up the aid station, getting everything we needed, while I ran ahead towards Tree Line; he caught up a few minutes later.
Dave passed me off to Aaron at Tree Line (mile 70), which I had arrived at just after Rick (who lost his pacer there and ran solo the rest of the race). We quickly passed him and reset our sights on Zeke, who we could see in the distance. We were moving really well, and I felt great. When we reached Fish Hatchery I was shocked to see Zeke walking down the driveway from the check in/out station, and he did not react when he saw me running up the driveway. We both got stocked by our crews and we pushed off at the same time towards Powerline. I suddenly felt like I had the upper hand here on Zeke: I had made up a lot of time on him since Halfmoon, I appeared to be feeling fresher, and a steep climb up Sugarloaf Mtn was just ahead, which late in the race would seem to favor a strong hiker like me.
I passed Zeke within a half-mile and had opened a small lead by Powerline. Beth, a member of my crew who was waiting at the entrance, gave us an update on Duncan — he was about 6 or 7 minutes ahead and looked good. Aaron and I again reset our focus: first, we wanted to get rid of Zeke so that he would not be tempted to outkick me with his superior track speed; second, we wanted to go test Duncan.
So we crushed the climb up Sugarloaf, and we soon saw Duncan just ahead of us. On switchbacks and straightaways we measured the time differential, which dropped to as little as 2 minutes 20 seconds just before we dropped down onto Hagerman Road. Entering the Colorado Trail again, the buzz from having such a good last 20 miles began to wear off, and I could feel that I was getting tired and stiff. I was having a harder and harder time picking up my legs over the rock-studded trail. Duncan was able to put some ground on us, but not much — when we reached MayQueen, two-time Leadville winner Anton Krupicka instructed me to get out quickly because Duncan had just hit the road. At this point I needed to make a decision — Duncan was not coming back to me, so I either needed to go after him (and the win) before it was too late, or lock up a second place finish by staying strong and avoiding a possible blow-up. It was indecision through Tabor Boat Ramp, where Duncan still only had 2.5 minutes on me, but soon thereafter I began to recognize that I only had one option left: second place.
Aaron and I were still moving okay, albeit gingerly, until about 3.5 miles to go, at the bottom of the Boulevard. As we were approaching the Arkansas River we had done the math: Duncan now had 4 or 5 minutes on me, and it just seemed like too much time to make up in the few miles remaining. And, frankly, I was in no condition to start up a 3-mile kick, and I was perfectly content to take second place and to finish in a projected 18:15 or 18:20…not bad for a backpacker whose training had consisted of hiking 900 miles in Iceland and California this summer.
The last 3.5 miles climbs very gradually from the Arkansas River into town, but with 97 miles behind me the gradual incline was oftentimes too much for my tired legs. I shuffled, then walked, then shuffled some more, and walked again.
I walked for the last time to the top of 6th Street, from where I could see the traffic light at the corner of 6th and Harrison, in addition to a blinding flood light where I presumed a small crowd was waiting at the finish line. Aaron and I began shuffling again, picking up Beth and Anya along the way. A “Whoop!” emerged from deep within as a big smile broke out over my face and my legs began pumping harder towards the line. I raised my left arm, then my right arm, and then both arms, into the air — a celebration that you’d think would be reserved for winning the race. But, as cliché as it sounds, anyone who breaks the tape at Leadville (including me, at 18:17:25) is a winner – running 100 miles straight is a super-human effort, and during the course of that race I developed a profound respect for anyone who manages to finish it.