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In 2010, Diana Finkel led the brutal Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run for over 45 miles, eventually taking second-place overall. But her phenomenal performance came at a cost: Two days after the race, she lay in a hospital bed … 

Photo by Shaun Stanley

We awoke the morning of the race at 3 a.m. Outside our hotel room, Silverton, Colorado, was asleep. If you have run 100-mile footraces, you know how the towns they go through, the aid stations, the climbs and descents take on mythic qualities. So it was for Diana Finkel and me at the famous Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Diana ate. She didn’t want to, not that early, but she forced down some oatmeal, some berries, coffee, water. Dawn in the San Juan Mountains, just above freezing, normal for July, the dusky glow of streetlights, the felt presence of high mountains around us. Silverton’s quiet was like the silence of an empty arena the morning of a big game. Expectant. Before “The Event.” You never know what you will learn when you set out on such an endeavor. Things you never considered.

This was the third year we had woken up before the race at 3 a.m., the third time Diana would be attempting to run the Hardrock 100, attempting her third straight win—the first female to finish the 100-mile loop, with its 33,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, its wildflowers, its singletrack, its constant steep hills. It had become special to us not just because of the race itself, but rather the rhythm it had given our lives. A seasonal definition: committed training for the event begins in February with skate skiing, then trail racing later in the spring, races used mostly as long training runs.

When the snows clear from the high passes, we run together—the entire Hardrock course over the span of five or six days. We visualize the race on those training runs—plan the sections where she can relax, identify the hard spots where she will have to push through herself if she wants to do well. We memorize the turns. We become familiar with suffering.

She wants to do well (said, repeatedly, like a mantra). But more than that, she wants to continue her two-year streak and win again. To state this goal would be presumptuous, possibly a jinx, maybe egotistical. “I want to leave everything I’ve got on the course,” says Diana. The official stance. I know better, and she knows I know better. But we don’t talk about it.

One hundred miles is a long way, and no one knows what the day will hold, but she prepares for it with the idea to win this one event, Hardrock, again. The Event is always with us. It is both draining and life affirming. It takes so much of our time it can be an annoyance; we wonder what we would do without it.

And me? I run with her, shadowing her training. I memorize the course so I can pace her the last 40 miles, in the dark, so we don’t get lost. I am also there as a cheerleader, shrink, realist. In training, we have run the entire course together four times. Four hundred miles on the Hardrock course, not counting the actual race. Dedicated insanity.

The morning before the start is like being a kid preparing to leave home for college. You think you have a good idea of what is coming, but you cannot be sure. I wanted Diana to be safe, have fun and no matter how she finished, to not be disappointed in herself. I hoped she would win, be the first woman to run back into Silverton and kiss the rock for the third time in a row. But I would save that hope for the last 40 miles, to see how things shook out.

At a race like Hardrock, or any 100-miler for that matter, the start is a relief. I watched the runners trot through the early morning light, looking for Diana, dwarfed by the men; almost miniature next to them, 5′ 4″, 105 pounds, the blue shirt, black shorts, white visor—the colors that I and our crew would be looking at each accessible aid station. Over the next 48 hours, each runner would write his or her story in the wildflowers and talus of the San Juans. “The Juans,” as we call them, are the jagged, unruly outlaws of the Colorado Rockies—remote, steep, inaccessible. The quiet arena had come to life.

Diana’s parents (on deck to perform crewing duties) and I headed to the first crew-accessible aid station in Telluride, mile 27. In a 100, mile 27 is the end of the beginning, barely. Hardrock has a total of 12 aid stations, but only four are crew accessible. We arrived in Telluride hours before the first runner. Diana was the fourth runner through Telluride, and the first woman. She did not even stop, just exchanged one Camelbak for another. She looked fresh, confident, and left with a light jaunt and smile. It is something to see, that poised belief, which can seem to elevate such a seemingly frivolous endeavor into something approaching art. Such mastery is beautiful, I think to myself in Telluride. I hope it lasts.

We waited for the next woman to arrive—Darcy Africa looking strong and confident—was over 30 minutes behind. We then drove over the Dallas Divide, a mountain pass between Telluride and the next aid station in Ouray. I looked south, to the high peaks, where clouds loomed and the course would transect. Diana would be up there, hopefully heading out of those clouds, down the free-falling scree that lies below the exposed Kroger’s Canteen Aid Station.

Ouray, mile 43. We expected Diana to come through shortly after 4 p.m. She arrived at 4 p.m. exactly, still the first woman. Surprisingly, she was now second overall. Her dad and I both noticed that the lead runner (by mere minutes), appeared tired in Ouray. “I think Diana will pass him soon,” he said.

I texted friends “watching” the race online at www.hardrock100.com that they should not be surprised if she was in first place by the next time results were posted. At mile 56, Grouse Gulch was the next accessible aid station, where I would start pacing.

When we arrived at Grouse Gulch, a HAM radio operator listening to race reports from other aid stations yelled: “Diana Finkel is in first place and should be here shortly!” A loud whoop went up from 20 people waiting at Grouse Gulch.

I should have slept, rested for the long night ahead, but I was too amped. And this was a new pressure. I have paced Diana to top-10 finishes at other races (first female at Leadville, first female at Angeles Crest, a top 10 at Western States), but this was different. First overall. Dale Garland, the Hardrock race director, approached me, saying, “You’ve got a big job tonight, eh? Are you going to try to get her home in first!?” I just smiled genially.

There are four major 100-mile ultramarathons in the American West: the Wasatch 100 in Utah, the Western States 100 in California, the Leadville Trail 100 and the Hardrock 100, both in Colorado. Among ultrarunners Western States is the most famous. Leadville has the most entrants. Wasatch is considered challenging. Hardrock is considered the ne plus ultra of difficulty. The hardest.

A buzz rolled around Grouse Gulch. I sat next to Utah runner Jared Campbell’s pacer, both of us readying ourselves. Jared was in second behind Diana. At the start today, Diana had said to Jared, “I hope you win it today.”

You can see a runner coming from a long way off at Grouse Gulch, which is one of the few places in the race where runners are on a dirt road. Descending from Engineer Pass, above the trees, exposed, came Diana, and, I could tell, she was crushing the descent. The blue shirt, black shorts, white visor. The happy stride. Then, we were off.

“So I get to Engineer Aid,” she said as we ran (Engineer aid station is at treeline, mile 50), “and I see this guy peering over the cliff above and he says, `We got a runner coming, it’s a pacer.’ And I said `I’m no pacer! I’m a runner!’ And he yells, `We got the first runner coming, and it’s a girl!’ That was cool.”

Immediately after Grouse Gulch Aid, we started up Handies Peak. It is a long climb, almost two climbs. One ascends to the base of Handies, the other to its 14,000-plus-foot summit. Relentless. As part of her training, we had climbed the mountain nine or 10 times. The fastest we ever ran from Grouse Gulch to the summit was 2 hours 10 minutes. That night, during the race, we made it in 1 hour 50 minutes.

We summited Handies at dark, 9:40 p.m. Lightning flashed in the distance, the last of the sun visible in the west. We looked back to see the lights of other runners chasing us. “We are at the front of this goddamn race, Finkel,” I said to Diana, being the shrink, wanting her to appreciate the moment. “There are less than 40 miles to go. Let’s just run your race. Enjoy it. But don’t let it kill you.”

We tumbled down the backside of Handies in the dark, slipping on the ball bearing scree, like skiing without skis, then falling, then upright again. I looked back up the mountain for the headlamps of anyone chasing us down. But I never saw any lights behind us, in that particular valley, all the way to the gravel forest service road, all the way down that road in the dark to the next aid station, Sherman, at mile 70. We ran strong the whole way.

Diana had stopped worrying about the second woman passing her and focused on maintaining the overall lead. It was not a conscious decision, just something that happened, borne out of a respect for the race, to lead for as long as possible, to fight for it, to make the runners behind her fight for it.

It is a long climb out of the Sherman Aid Station. As we left, I looked across the valley and finally saw the lights of other runners coming down the long hill into Sherman. “Alright, Finkel, let’s climb this like mules, get to the top of the Continental Divide, and run the downhills into Pole Creek.” It was the plan, made months ago.

Since we have run together so much, we can speak in code. “Climb like a mule” means establish a sustainable, hurried but methodical walking pace. “When we walk, we swing our arms and walk with purpose” is a reminder to not stroll. I said this in the dark to annoy her and remind her. Every step counted. That and eat. That and drink.

It was dark and we climbed out of the trees and into the alpine again. We had dropped our rain jackets at Sherman, and I looked up for the stars, to see if the weather would hold. A midnight downpour could slow us down. I looked up, out of the orb of my headlamp, and got dizzy. “Night drunk,” we call it, when you look beyond your generated light. There were stars and just a few clouds.

I also peeked behind us. I turned off my light so that the runners behind could not see me. I did not want them to think we were worried, searching for our pursuers. I could see lights—all of them in twos, a pacer and runner. I was pretty certain they were all male runners. If she maintained any pace, Diana would win the female race. But a line had been crossed. Gender did not matter.

When I started pacing her, Diana told the stories that had been rolling in her mind all day. Now, she said almost nothing. She had run over 75 miles, the night settled in and the effort silenced her. Normal.

I went into chatterbox mode, talking about focusing on the task at hand, and then, conversely, talking about things that I hoped would help her enter some Zen-like state. I talked about my day at the aid stations, how her dad had her splits figured out to the second, how I watched a runner at Ouray say, “I feel fine, 100 percent,” and then vomit all over his crews’ shoes. Then back to how well she was doing. Always positive, always truthful and realistic. She grunted, sometimes. Usually in agreement. This is normal for her, us, in the recesses of a 100-mile night. She never complains. When I reminded her to drink, by saying, “Have you been drinking?” she doesn’t answer. I can tell if she needs a drink if I hear the noise of the nozzle of her Camelbak being raised to her lips.

I move in front on the climb, trying to pull her a little bit, to maintain a pace. I looked behind us at the lights.

“I think we’re 20 minutes ahead,” I said.

We reach the top of the Continental Divide, the spine of North America. I tell her this to remind her that we are in such a beautiful place, to remind her to take the race moment by moment. Add up the moments, and we would be in Silverton. The finish.

We ran the downhill to Pole Creek Aid Station, Diana in front, so I could get a feel for what pace she was capable of, so she could choose her footing and line without interference. It was an OK pace. Just OK. I looked back as we rolled into the Pole Creek Valley and saw lights—much closer now. I could even hear voices.

We ran through spider webs across the trail. We busted bedded elk, which ran, clacking on the scree. Only one runner in Hardrock will run through spider webs, awaken elk on the trail: the runner in first.

Approaching the Pole Creek Aid Station (mile 80), I ran ahead and asked the volunteers if they knew who might be behind us. Apparently it was Jared Campbell, who had been 20 minutes behind us at Sherman.

“Good morning, Pole Creek Aid!” Diana exclaimed as she crested the hill. The aid workers shouted encouragement. For a moment, they thought I was the leader, but I told them I was the pacer. She—she—is the first runner. She drank a few ounces of flat Coke. She had not spoken a full sentence to me in hours, but thanked the aid-station volunteers. I liked the strong sound of her voice. It is 2 a.m.

Another climb greeted us out of Pole Creek. We walked the whole way, even the runnable spots that we had scouted. I looked behind and did not see lights. The talk (from me) inevitably turned to how badly I wanted the sun to come up. “You’d think the goddamn sun will come up already!” I shouted. I pointed out that in 2008 we ran through Pole Creek and the sun was already up. Either the sun rose earlier that year or she was now running faster.

I had a cheat sheet of split times in my pocket. We were on a 26:40 pace, which she had maintained the entire race. Written in marker on my forearm is the woman’s course record: “29:58.”

“Do you want to know your pace or no?” I asked.

“No,” she grunted.

At the top of the climb, I saw the lights of a runner (presumably Jared), seemingly farther back than before. Maybe, I thought, maybe she would have enough.

We did not run into the Maggie Aid Station at mile 85, even though it was a gentle downhill. She was just not able to.

At Maggie, I got a little more aggressive, and said, “It hurts. Of course, it hurts. What did you come here for? For this. To be at mile 85 in the lead and ready to throw down for the last 15 miles. Everything in our immediate future is positive. The sun is going to rise, it’s going to warm up and we’re going to hammer the last couple of big climbs. Don’t worry about Jared, just focus on the task. If it hurts, let it hurt. That’s your body. But you run this with your mind. With your mind. And no one on this course has a stronger mind.” It was the best I could do, an exhortation.

After Maggie Gulch the sun peeked over the eastern ridges. If you watch it closely and with expectation, the sun’s rise is a slow process. The rest of the world was asleep, and stretched out behind us was The Race—all the other runners locked on simple goals: to finish, then to sleep.

In the July dawn, we looked up at an example of Hardrock’s insanity. There was no trail, but rather a general direction that is flagged straight up. The first time we trained on this section, I thought I was reading the course description wrong, or my compass was off. A trail-less mountainside, a wall of loose rock. Up. Miles 86, 87, straight up. Soon, I looked back down at Maggie Gulch, and spotted Jared and his pacer filling water bottles.

Jared closed the distance. Diana was suffering, and I actually wanted Jared to pass us so she would give her body just a bit of surcease. Climbing that mountain straight up in the dawn, I remember thinking: “Oh, for a little surcease.”

Yes. Surcease.

Always, after a climb, a descent. Again, we walked, even the downs. We crossed the Stony Pass jeep road, and climbed again. Diana fell down. For the first time, I asked if she was OK. She tripped, maybe, I thought. And then she fell again. Then, a dozen more times, again and again. She even fell on flat ground, where she landed on her hands and her legs moved to push her up with a mechanical groping, her feet looking for the Earth.

On downhills she fell backwards, almost every time, and her butt slid on the scree, her knees buckling to her chin. On uphills she pitched forward, and her arms raised to slowly to break the fall. On a traversing down slope she fell to the side and her hip landed on a basketball-sized pointed rock. I winced. I had to stop watching.

“I…am…fine,” she said, in a choked voice ruined by hours of breathing through her mouth, a subterranean sound, it was Diana from undersea, emerging. I thought of a couple of spots where a fall would be, if not fatal, at the very least physically disastrous. I reminded her to watch her footing at those sections. I stayed close, ready to grab her if she started to fall. There were times, when I looked behind us, that Jared and his pacer were so close I could make out the expressions on their faces. I wanted them to pass us before the next aid station, Cunningham Gulch (mile 91), so that the pressure to win would be gone.

Her parents would greet us at Cunningham, and would wonder why she had slowed down, but would still be excited about a possible win. I knew our nieces in Minnesota and many friends were watching on the internet, and people were cackling in the blogosphere. There was a sense, even while we were on the course, that the ultra-world was abuzz with this effort. I just wanted a little surcease.

Photo by Fred Marmsater

But we arrived at Cunningham first. I wonder where Jared is. “Forget first woman, forget your time, just go for the win!” said her Dad. I tried to signal him, shake my head and mouth, “No.” To let her run, no, walk, as best she can and leave it at that. All the women at the aid station, women Diana did not know, were shouting her name in the dawn morning chill. There was a sense that she had been watched, rooted for, been an inspiration all night as she led a major American endurance event.

We left Cunningham at 6:40 a.m., Jared at 6:46. The final major climb before the finish is one of the hardest, and the rising sun nailed us to the trail. We removed jackets, sweated. Diana had led the race for over 45 miles, and she was going to get passed. A switchback below were Jared and his pacer, moving well.

“Hey, Jared is going to pass us. He is,” I said. “That’s fine, Finkel. That’s the reality. We accept it. You come out here and do your best and put up a number. If your number isn’t better than somebody else’s, so be it. You did your best. There is still work to be done. We’ll focus until Silverton.”

When Jared approached, Diana stepped off the trail to let him by. “Good job, Jared,” she said. “Congratulations.”

“Today, Diana, you are my hero,” he said. I choked up. He was quickly out of earshot. Diana did not choke up. She was simply angry with herself. “I just can’t run. I just can’t run. I have no quads. I. Just … can’t … fucking … run.”

There was little else to say, seven miles from the finish. I looked down toward Cunningham, but saw no other runners. Later, I would learn that the next did not show up until 9:02 a.m. And we had been walking since mile 80.

Her anger and disappointment grew. “What a terrible way to finish,” she said. “I am disappointed in myself. Not to finish second, but to finish this way, in this state, in this fashion.”

She was coherent. Her legs just said no. Words were few. She fell again and again.

We came into the outskirts of Silverton, the singletrack giving way to a gravel road to a final half mile of pavement. She walked. That was all she had left.

“Hey, you just finished a 100-mile run, 2nd overall, first woman, new course record,” I said. “You have nothing to feel down about. Enjoy the finish. How many times in your life will you experience finishing something like this? Think about the work you put in over the last seven months.”

And so, after 28 hours 32 minutes 6 seconds, Diana Finkel kissed the big chunk of rock with the race’s trademark bighorn ram painted on it that marks the finish of the Hardrock 100. I thought the Hardrock was over. Surcease.

I moved to the side as a scrum formed around Diana. After savoring the race at the finish area, we went back to our room and slept. Then, she awoke and threw up. This had happened before, her body simply not ready for food, still processing the stress of the effort.

I was worried about her a little more than I was in other 100s, because she had fallen so many times in the last 15 miles. Strange falls, on terrain that was almost flat. She tried to put on a smiling face. “I’m fine,” she would say, “it will be fine.”

I was most worried because, after 10 hours of sleep, she had not peed. She did not eat anything. She had drank very little, less than a dozen ounces since crossing the finish line.

Before the race, we were in Boulder and Diana bought a skirt, a festive, colorful skirt, but had not worn it yet. I saw it the morning before the awards ceremony laid out on the bed in our hotel room. She was in the shower, getting ready to go to the Hardrock post-race breakfast, to the ceremony where she’d get her finisher award, be feted a bit. In the past she’d dallied at the breakfast, talked with other runners about the race, that solitary experience that they had all had together, to hold on to it for a bit.

I realized then that she had gotten the skirt with the thought that if Hardrock went well, she would wear that skirt to the awards ceremony. I had listened to her throw up that morning, repeatedly, but she was wearing the damn skirt. The skirt said that it had, in fact, gone well, that the sacrifice was over, that our lives had changed now that Hardrock was behind us.

She wore the skirt and made a nice speech but did not want to hang out afterward. She wanted to leave. She slept for our three-hour drive home. She did not want anything to drink. She had not peed in over 24 hours.

There are things you learn when you run 100 miles. There are things you expect to learn. And you do. The old truisms, the anticipated verities: that through perseverance, determination, hard work, belief, faith in yourself, you can achieve things you had once perhaps thought impossible. You learn those things when you run 100 miles, at least that day you run the 100. Life tends to disrupt your belief in these things, and then instead of the 100 being a metaphor for life, things get angulated, switched up, and life becomes what it is: at times resplendent, at times a slog, at times it is 3 p.m. on an unremarkable day.

Maybe that makes you want to run another 100, to be reminded again.

Diana would always comment that no matter how much planning you do for race day, after the start, forget the plans and just try to get on with things as best you can. The old truisms lie at your side, always within reach without having to look, but new obstacles appear, an opportunity for new lessons, a different education.

So it was with Hardrock 2010. The slog that was the last 20 miles—that was new. The year before Diana had run miles 98 through 100 at roughly the same pace the first two miles.

And there was this new obstacle: I could never have imagined that a day after the awards ceremony we would be at a hospital near our house, with Diana hooked up to an IV, getting blood tests every two hours. She looked so small she seemed to be dissolving slowly into the hospital bed.

Her kidneys “received quite a blow,” said the first doctor. “Her blood is full of creatinine, and her kidneys are not processing anything. `Rhabdomyolysis,'” he said, “which is a toxic build up of garbage—in this case destroyed muscle tissue—in the blood.”

I would not have thought that the following day we would be flying to the nearest renal center in Denver, on a Lifeflight plane with two flight nurses, Diana dwarfed by all the machinery she was hooked up to, dwarfed by the specially outfitted plane that allowed her to be monitored constantly. Dreamlike, we floated into Denver.

I would not have thought that her blood tests would become the most nourishing source of information to our day—the alphabet of science, her “numbers,” her “chemistry,” her CPK, her BUN, her K, her NALC, her H & H. I would not have thought that we would learn those truisms and verities that come with a loved one—my partner in life, adventure, everything, for 15 years—being in the hospital for an extended period; of talking to doctors, specialists, nurses, of bed pans and medications, of the constant hum and whir, the clacks of industrial doors, the sheen of solvents on those shiny floors, the words “fluids” or “catheter” or “dialyze” or “fistula,” all those words and chemistry and numbers you don’t want to deal with, but then one day you do, and that day turns into another, and another, until it seems like your whole life has been just this.

The parking garage under the hospital, the elevator, the renal ward, your spouse looking like herself but different, smaller, scared, still feisty. It was a new kind of Hardrock, a new kind of crewing. I was still a cheerleader, a shrink, a realist, a supporter, a pacer. The conversations with doctors about donor lists, transplant possibilities. I would not have thought these things would be the lessons of a 100-mile run.

She was in the hospital for 16 days. She received dialysis on that second day, at 2 a.m., an emergency, as her numbers kept getting worse. Without it, she would have died. Not to be dramatic. But it is true. The blood in her veins would have become so toxic it would have killed her.

She would receive dialysis another 11 times. Some doctors were hopeful; some were not. “I was in the best shape of my life a week ago,” she said when a doctor left the room, after he told us she may not regain kidney function, she may be on dialysis the rest of her life or, if she was lucky, get a transplant, “and there’s no way I won’t recover from this. No fucking way.”

And so it was—slowly at first her numbers got better, then urine output picked up. It seemed like her kidneys were awakening, on their own time, after a two-week rest. Miraculous. “I knew it,” she said.

Where did all this leave running? Is that a ridiculous question? It was one we both wondered about but did not mention.

Asking about running is just another way to wonder, what is it for? Just as ineffable as why one would climb a mountain, or kayak a river, or jump from an airplane, I guess. Running makes life more worthwhile, maybe; it gives a little definition outside the confines and strictures of work and family. It offers a community, one in which we can be individuals, ourselves, sometimes our best selves. It reminds us what is important, somehow, even if it does so by reminding us that running is not really that important. Relationships are important; another truth tat we know but sometimes forget. We did not set out to learn these things, and maybe will only know them while the memory of the hospital, which is the searing memory of the Hardrock, is still glowing in us. It will wear off, yes, and we will run and ski and travel again and will forget to remember how important our kidneys are. Thank god. The other lessons we hope to keep.

Diana was nervous about anyone finding out. Private by nature, she did not want her weakness, her kidney failure, to stand for anything other than something that happened to her. Embarrassed, still, by the poor form she thinks she showed those last 20 miles.

It was not because she was a woman, it was not because she ran too fast, it was, according to her doctors, just something that happens, and no one can be sure why. Electrolyte imbalance? Dehydration? Those things aren’t necessarily the cause. Everyone who finishes Hardrock has an elevated creatinine level in his or her blood. Everyone is dehydrated, the electrolytes in extreme flux. It is a mystery. Something else we learned—science can only take you so far, then there is the unknown.

And me? Am I to blame, as her pacer? We do talk in shorthand out there, but one thing we don’t have shorthand for, we never talk about, whether she’s pacing me or I her: the pacer never talks about quitting. I knew she was hurting, yet laying the idea of quitting on the table never entered my mind. That would be, always, her decision. You run these things alone, even if you are with someone; the choice, always, is yours.

Perhaps I was transferring my mediocre running ability onto her, wanting her to win—that somehow her success at Hardrock was important to me, to who we are. The trap of letting your running, skiing, climbing, whatever, define who you are. Maybe. I know she would not have listened to me, regardless. She has always finished every race. The last nine miles were the worst, but they should be, shouldn’t they? The effort and training had been expended on the long trail behind her, and she suffered. She had trained harder for seven months than ever before. I had seen it with my own eyes, the sacrifice of those months.

Will she run again? Will she run Hardrock again? Those are questions that will be answered by time and circumstance. Our daily seven-miler—out the back door, to a big rock and back—it is a practice, a meditation of sorts. In our busy days of constant information the body reclines while the mind is in overdrive; then you go for a run. Stress comes to the body, while the mind reclines and life can be seen as it is. How can you not do something so healthy?

When I look at videos now, of those aid stations, of those 28 plus hours, of the girl in the colorful skirt making a speech at the awards ceremony, I see a girl with acute renal failure, a girl whose blood is reaching toxic levels, a girl I care so much about I can’t watch because I know what comes next. I want to step into the film and rewind everything and start over.

But, of course, this is impossible. So we learn these things and we move forward, dictated by time and circumstance, hoping we see things as they are; still encouraging, always positive, trying with everything we have left to finish each race we run as best we can.

Diana Finkel, 39, and Ben Woodbeck, 40, live and train in South Fork, Colorado.

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