Race Across the Sky - Page 4
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.”