Race Across the Sky - Page 3
Around midnight at the Fish Hatchery Aid Station, pacer Sari Anderson gives the author much-needed words of encouragement. Photo by Rob O'Dea.
My eyelids grow heavy and I contemplate sleeping. When my headlamp’s soft light illuminates a prickly sage bush beside the trail, it appears pillowy and tempts me to curl up on it for a little snooze. But when Sari says we’re less than three miles to the Halfmoon II Aid Station, a fire is lit. I begin running. “All right, El, way to pick it up!” she says.
With the help of some coffee and caffeinated gels at the aid station, I clicked off a few more 11:30-miles that feel lightning fast. We come up on a pacer-less runner walking in complete darkness. “Why no headlamp?” I say.
“Drop-bag issue,” he replies despondently. While most runners choose to have pacers (permitted during the race’s second half), it’s not mandatory. Solo runners can instead have drop bags pre-delivered to the aid stations. “Sorry we don’t have an extra,” says Sari.
A short time later, a tall 20-something guy with dark curly hair flapping around his ears and Vibram FiveFingers KSOs on his feet pulls up beside us. “How you ladies doing?” he says brightly. “We’re moving at a pretty good pace. I think there’s still a chance of getting the under-25-hour belt buckle.” I question his math, but admire his optimism.
“Then again, who knows what’ll happen at 80 miles,” he says. “I hear that’s when things can start to fall apart.”
I slow to a walk and FiveFingers continues without us. “Never mind him,” says Sari. “Just focus on the here and now.”
At midnight we emerge from a tedious, dark section of paved road and approach the Fish Hatchery Aid Station’s bright lights. Long gone are the morning’s enthusiastic crowds. The only sign of life outside the large metal-siding garage serving as the aid station is a gang of teenagers bundled in sleeping bags, sitting under a rainbow of Christmas lights and checking runners’ race numbers.
The burst of energy I’d enjoyed around Halfmoon II has long since expired, and things are deteriorating. I’ve accumulated five pounds worth of water, my feet are puffy, calves are cramping and I shiver uncontrollably. I mentally wrestle with every fiber in my body telling me to stop and go to sleep.
After eating and changing into warmer clothes, I and my new pacer, Todd, begin our march up Powerline. This two-mile rolling ascent to Sugar Loaf Pass is easy compared to Hope Pass, yet has been the site of many meltdowns. In fact, earlier this evening it was site of the race leader’s unraveling.
After leaving Fish Hatchery Aid Station with a 90-minute lead, Tony Krupicka soon slowed from a run to a walk, then a stagger, before sitting down on the trail. His eyes unfocused and skin covered in goosebumps, he mumbled to his pacer, Alex Nichols, “I don’t know what’s happening. I just want to go to sleep.” He went from leading the race to being sacred for his life. Severe dehydration and low blood sugar made standing—let alone walking—impossible.
Tony (who just two months earlier placed second at California’s Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run) is known for a fast-and-light racing style that involves carrying barely enough food and water to get between aid stations. This approach often pays off with a win or course record, but, occasionally, it backfires.
Positioned at Powerline to document the unfolding drama was photographer Rob O’Dea. Over many years of shooting the Leadville mountain-bike and run events, Rob had witnessed plenty of athlete carnage and immediately recognized this situation as dire. He handed Tony a long-sleeve top and water before hopping on his dirt bike to ride seven miles to the May Queen Aid Station. While Rob was getting help, Duncan and his pacer arrived to find their distressed compatriot lying on the ground. Alex assured them that aid was being dispatched, so Duncan continued, surprised to find himself leading the race.
Coincidentally, around the time Tony was transported by ATV to May Queen, where he received I.V. fluids, defending women’s champion and Leadville local, Lynette Clemons, 36, who had smoked last year’s race in 20:58:01, staggered into Halfmoon II Aid Station, shivering and disoriented. Lynette led the first half of the race, but as her urinary and digestive systems began to shut down, first-time Leadville competitor, Liza Howard of San Antonio, Texas, passed her.
“At Twin Lakes [mile 60] I still had second place, so with the encouragement of friends and family, I kept going, hoping for a rally that never came,” says Lynette. By Halfmoon II, her condition had become so grim that she dropped from the race.
Liza, who had mostly trained in the pool due to a severe case of plantar fasciitis, was the first woman across the line in 21:19:47. “I had bad stomach problems after 50 miles,” says Liza. “I was amazingly fortunate to have an experienced crew who told me what to eat when I couldn’t stomach any more drink mix or gels. It’s hard to say how things would have played out if it weren’t for them.”
“This race was all about patience and capitalizing on opportunities,” says Duncan, who claimed his second Leadville 100 title in 17:43:24. “For the first 40 miles, my legs were heavy and my stomach felt ‘off’, but I kept plugging along knowing that things were bound to get better, and they did.”
Unfortunately, Hal had his fourth DNF at Leadville in six starts. “Leadville is the race that got me interested in running 100 miles, even though the dropout rate is crazy,” says Hal, who, this year, walked over 25 miles to Fish Hatchery Aid Station due to labored breathing before calling it a day. “That’s the chance you take every time you do one of these things. But I’ll be back.”
The author receives a hug from her husband, Rob, at the finish line. Photo courtesy of Rob O'Dea.
At 4 a.m., I limp into May Queen, plunk into a chair and press my icy hands into a heater’s stream of hot air. Rob and Sari, who had been catching some well-deserved sleep in the car, burst inside, surprised to see us already here. By now my feet are so swollen that running is impossible. I shake my head at the thought of walking another a half marathon, likely to take four and a half hours.
I begin to cry—again. Running 100 miles has peeled off the layers and exposed weaknesses and raw emotions I’m unprepared to share even with my husband and close friends. “I won’t be able to run across the finish line,” I say, ashamed.
“So what. All that matters is that you finish, and, sure, it’s going to hurt, but you can do this. I know how strong you are,” says Rob, using the same firm but encouraging tone he used to coach me through my especially difficult labor with Reed.
Then, Henry Schloss, 36, a friend I see only at trail races, bounds into the aid station exuding his usual cheeriness with his warm, dark eyes sparkling. “How can you be so happy right now?” I ask him.
“We’re out running on a beautiful night!” says Henry. Only once, two years ago at a 50K in Leadville, did I ever see Henry express an iota of self doubt. “I really shouldn’t be here,” he’d said before the race. “I’ve hardly run all summer. This is going to hurt a lot.” A few hours later, however, he lumbered across the finish line with arms raised and a bright smile. “This is awesome! Now, I gotta run the Leadville 100!”
True to his word, Henry attempted Leadville last year, making it 70 miles. So he returned this year, ready to finish no matter what. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the distance or the urge to sleep, but Henry is immersed in relishing the experience of this historic race with people, who, like himself, would rather run through the woods in the middle of the night than sit in front of a T.V.
I stand up and exit the tent, determined to claim my finisher’s belt buckle. Todd follows me out, and we witness the sun rise over the mountains as we slowly tick off the miles.
At the Tabor Boat Ramp, Rob and Sari watch a parade of zombie-like runners—with blank stares and limp arms—emerge from the woods and step onto the paved ramp. Occasionally one would stop and swing his head from side to side in confusion. “Hey, man, the trail’s that way,” Rob would say, pointing to the cluster of bright pink ribbons tied to the trees directly ahead.
When we arrive, Rob takes over pacing duty for the final 6.7 miles, which culminate with an interminable dirt road called “The Boulevard.” From the crest of a hill on 6th Street, we see the finish several blocks away and hear the crowd roar every time someone reaches the red carpet. Eventually the announcer calls my name. My eyes well with tears. Do I really deserve such adulation? I walk up the red carpet, break the tape when the clock says 28:40:34, and fall into Merilee’s arms. She’d hugged 235 finishers before hugging me, but her embrace is every bit as heartfelt as the hug she had awarded the winner.
At that afternoon’s awards ceremony, Ken asks those who didn’t finish to stand up. Wild applause fills the old gym for hundreds who had not made it. “You all have different reasons for not finishing,” says Ken. “But what matters is that you had the courage to do as much as you could today. You’ll just have to come back and try again next year.”
My heart bursts with gratitude and relief to have finished this race. I had committed myself to finishing and was lucky to have avoided serious health issues that could have led to a DNF. While proud of my accomplishment, I dwell on what I may have done wrong (Too much salt? Too fast in the first 40 miles? Not enough solid food?). There’s no such thing as a “perfect” 100-miler.
It struck me that running hundreds is not only a solo journey into the one’s “inexhaustible well of grit, guts and determination,” as Ken had said at the pre-race meeting. Rather, a race of such magnitude creates a spontaneous community of runners, volunteers and support crews unified by a fervid demonstration of human spirit.
For full results and information, visit www.leadvilletrail100.com.