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Race Across the Sky

A first 100-miler attempt involves ample sweat, suffering and tears, and reveals what it really means to “dig deep”

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Duncan Callahan, 27, of Gunnison, Colorado, crests the top of Hope Pass, which, at 12,600 feet, is the race’s highest point, en route to winning his second Leadville Trail 100 in 17:43:24.

Loose rocks roll under my shoes like ball bearings as I skid down the spine of 12,600-foot-high Hope Pass. Nearing the halfway point of my first 100-miler, I struggle to find balance while moving as quickly as possible down the steep mountainside, leaning heavily on my trekking poles to save my quivering quadriceps.

After descending 3000 feet in three miles, the trail meets a dead-end dirt road cutting up a deep, narrow valley. I run a few painful running steps before deciding to walk the two and a half miles to the ghost town of Winfield, laboring to suck oxygen from the thin air clouded with dust churned up by a caravan of slow-moving crew vehicles. Weariness hangs on me like a lead apron and my feet throb like meat slabs beaten with a tenderizer.

I wander, dazed, into Winfield aid station, scanning the sea of cars and tents for a familiar face. “El, over here!” my husband, Rob Russell, and friend Sari Anderson call out.

A potent mixture of exhaustion, low blood sugar, relief and dread swirls inside me until I begin sobbing. Rob sets out a camp chair. Taking the weight off my feet feels so good that I consider never standing up again. By any measure, 50 miles in 11 hours is no small feat. But it is not today’s goal. That involves turning around and running those 50 miles all over again.

Welcome to the Lifetime Fitness Leadville Trail 100.

I wasn’t the only one struck with the crazy notion that running 100 miles would be a fun way to spend a weekend in the Rocky Mountains. Many who had read Born to Run, the best-selling book by Christopher McDougall, became inspired to follow in the footsteps of the now-legendary Tarahumara and unbeaten women’s record-holder Anne Trason (since 1994) and run alongside ultrarunning celebrities Tony Krupicka and Barefoot Ted.

And this year, 800 people—double last year’s fiel-d—signed up. Never mind the book’s warnings that: “Leadville racers routinely fall off bluffs, break ankles, suffer overexposure, get weird heart arrhythmias and altitude sickness. Fingers crossed, Leadville has yet to polish anyone off, probably because it beats most runners into submission before they collapse.”

The 28-year-old event is also one of the few 100-milers that doesn’t require qualifying races or use a lottery system to dole out spots. Anyone willing to cough up the $300 entry fee can enter.

On Friday, August 20, over a thousand people packed into Leadville’s old 6th Street Gym for the pre-race meeting. At the front of the hall stood a stocky man with a receding hairline, shoulder-length stringy gray hair, wearing a skin-tight cycling jersey and sweatpants with an enormous silver belt buckle.

Ken Chlouber, 71, is the miner-turned-ultrarunner who created the Leadville Trail 100 in 1982 to boost the mountain town’s sagging post-mining economy and has since become a celebrity of sorts. In his keynote speech, Ken talks about grit, guts, determination and resolve—undoubtedly all ingredients in his eclectic life as  a mountaineer, bull rider, cyclist, hunter, burro racer and Colorado State Senator.

“You’re tougher than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can!” Ken bellows his trademark mantra, with race director Merilee Maupin standing by his side. Cheers arise from the over-caffeinated runners buzzing with pent-up energy from two-week tapers.

Ken hands the microphone to the race’s chief medical support, Dr. John Hill, who, instead of a dry lecture about hydration, altitude sickness and safety, delivers a veritable comedy act. “I’m not gonna lie to you, folks,” he says. “This race will make you hurt in ways you’ve never hurt before. You may be tempted to take ibuprofen, but it won’t help ya. But if you can find someone with narcotics, now that might do the trick.”

We laugh, but Dr. Hill isn’t entirely kidding. A lot can happen over a 100 miles. Before Ken’s shotgun blast at 10 a.m. on Sunday marking the race’s official 30-hour cut off, two defending champions would be carried off the course and almost 300 more of us would not finish.

In race morning’s cool, predawn darkness, a throng of runners and spectators huddle together on Leadville’s Harrison Avenue, which resembles a western movie set, complete with original wooden storefronts, a grand hotel called the Delaware and the Silver Dollar Saloon, which has been serving booze to outlaws, miners, roughnecks and, now, tourists and endurance junkies, since 1879.

At 4 a.m. the starter’s gun sends us down a residential street along which Leadvillites stand on their lawns in slippers and bath robes and wave glow sticks. Disco music blasts from an open front door.

After running the eight-mile stretch of singletrack hugging the shore of Turquoise Lake reservoir, surrounded by thickly forested mountains topped with a dusting of snow, I trot into May Queen Aid Station at mile 13.5 shortly after sunrise, where my 16-month-old son, Reed, toddles up to me. I scoop him up and give him a big kiss before handing him to my parents, who had driven 1300 miles from British Columbia to watch me run the race I told them would be the toughest challenge of my 20-year running career.

When I had first mentioned my plan to run 100 miles, they furrowed their brows and stared at me in confusion.

“But when do you sleep?” asked
my mom.

“Is this really your idea of fun?” asked my dad.

“This isn’t just another trail race,” I explained. “I know what it feels like to run 50 miles in a day, but this is an opportunity to find out if I have what it takes to run double that.”

“Then we’ll be there to see you do it,” said my mom.

In fact, my motivation extended beyond my curiosity about physical endurance and willpower. The roles of wife and mom had flipped my world upside down, creating a seeping sense of vulnerability and self-doubt. I hoped that running 100 miles would help me rediscover my strength and independence.

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Of the 800 registrants, 551 men and 96 women started the race on August 21st. Photo by Rob O’dea.

At a steady and relaxed pace, I round the sparsely treed, rocky doubletrack leading over 11,000-foot-high Sugar Loaf Pass overlooking Turquoise Lake, then hit the road leading to Fish Hatchery Aid Station (mile 23.5), feeling strong and confident. “Beats being home doing laundry, doesn’t it, hon?” yells a woman from the thick crowd lining the road. I smile, knowing there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now. Being a mom has its rewards, but training for this race had given me an excuse to keep running a priority. And, happily, I discovered that running consistently gave me more energy and enthusiasm for my family.

“You’re doing great, pumpkin!” Rob shouts, using the nickname that has stuck since the pregnancy. He has looked forward to this day as much as I have, never once resenting my training time.

It was hard to believe that a year ago, job loss and financial worries strained our marriage until we completely avoided the subject of money and, over time, each other. But since weathering the worst, our relationship had become stronger. And today we are a team focused on the single, straightforward task of getting me to the finish line. I grab some chips and peck Rob on the cheek. “Thank you for being here, love,” I whisper.

On the mostly flat doubletrack traversing the base of 14,440-foot-high Mount Elbert, the highest of Colorado’s “Fourteeners,” I find myself surrounded by a pack of men almost my father’s age. “Have you done this race before?” asks a lanky gentleman named Lou.

“First time,” I reply proudly.

“You’re holding a strong pace,” says Lou. But I get the impression he’s really trying to say, “Better slow down, sister. You have no idea what you’re in for.” I wonder if I am going too fast. However, a swift systems check tell me that my breathing is easy, legs feel fresh and stomach is fine.

“I didn’t finish here in 2008 on account of the weather,” Lou continues with a slight southern twang. “It was raining, hailing, snowing, everything you can imagine. And then last year, it was so hot even Tony Krupicka didn’t finish,” he says, referring to the two-time winner’s do-or-die mission to surpass Matt Carpenter’s long-standing course record of 15:42:59. Tony dropped out at mile 78 due in part to uncharacteristic 90-degree heat. He was back this year in what many expected would be an exciting race between him, 2008 Leadville champion Duncan Callahan of Gunnison, Colorado, and Ashland, Oregon’s Hal Koerner, who was back in Leadville after four years.

Lou’s comments remind me that ultrarunning success doesn’t come to those who underestimate the distance or overestimate themselves. I’d often been told that running a hundred is three times harder than running a 50-miler. “The race doesn’t begin until the return trip through Twin Lakes. Before that, your only priorities should be nutrition and hydration,” ultrarunning legend Roch Horton told me a few weeks before the race. Lou and I had yet to reach Twin Lakes for the first time, marking 39.5 miles on the out-and-back course. By Horton’s advice, that meant we had yet another 20 miles (and over 6000 feet of ascent and descent) before beginning the 40-mile “race” to the finish.

After running many of the early miles, I look forward to the “break” of hiking five miles along the shady, forested section of the Colorado Trail that ascends 3300 feet to Hope Pass. Oddly, the hike feels harder than it should, and, by the time I reach treeline, still several hundred feet below the pass, my legs are rubber and heart is thundering. I pause to catch my breath. When I raise my head, I see three large, brown shaggy beasts grazing in a lush alpine meadow. My foggy brain struggles to process the scene. Bear? Not the right shape. Cattle? No, this isn’t  the Alps. Of course! They’re the llamas used to transport supplies to the Hopeless Aid Station, where volunteers in bright yellow T-shirts swarm around a cluster of tents and a camp kitchen, comprised of a folding table topped with bags of chips and cookies next to hissing gas stoves with simmering soup pots.

After refilling my hydration pack and grabbing a few cookies, I resume my slow, oxygen-deprived trek up a series of switchbacks crowded with two-way traffic as frontrunners Duncan and 2008 runner-up, Zeke Tiernan, zoom by with their pacers. (Race leader, Tony Krupicka, had shot past about an hour earlier.)

Shouting words of encouragement proves to be a great distraction from the pain in my legs. “Looking good, Dan!” I say to Dan Dehlin, an accomplished ultrarunner who works for Vasque, doing his first 100.

“Hey, great job, El!” says his pacer, Brian Hall, giving me a hug. All three of us relish the brief excuse to stop moving, even if only for a moment.

“Keep up the great work, Hal!” I say to the two-time Western States 100 champion. “Just surviving,” he replies solemnly. Surprised to see him so far back in the field, I later learn that a mis-marked trail intersection near Twin Lakes had sent Hal and several race leaders on a lengthy detour that bumped him from second to 45th place.

By the time I reach the bottom of Hope Pass and follow the road to Winfield Aid Station, nothing can take my mind off how lousy I feel.

Mysterious phenomena can happen while running 100 miles. Runners may hallucinate, fall asleep on their feet and or lose all the skin on the soles of their feet. My affliction? I have “cankles.” The weigh in at Winfield shows I have gained four pounds. Losing weight due to dehydration is normal, but gaining four pounds? Weird.

Sari and Rob refill my hydration pack, bring me food and give me a pep talk, and, too soon, shoo me out of the station. Over the next four and a half hours, my pacer, Sari, has her work cut out for her. Each step back up Hope Pass is barely a foot in length, and I stop every few minutes to catch my breath. I am bonking so hard it takes all my willpower plus Sari’s relentless prodding to keep me moving. No stranger to pain, Sari, a professional adventure racer, had lost eight toenails during Primal Quest Utah and endured a hellacious bout of food poisoning at the Wulong Mountain Quest in China, but still placed third against a world-class field. While she could sympathize with my pain, she squelches my self pity.

This time at Hopeless Aid Station, I sit shivering under a blue-tarp lean-to, sipping a cup of hot broth while a physical therapist massages my cramping quads. “I feel awful, Sari,” I say. “I don’t think I can keep going.”

“Well, I’m not going to carry you off this mountain and neither are these llamas, so you’ll just have to get yourself down to Twin Lakes,” she replies. “We’ll worry about the rest later.”

A half hour into the downhill trek, I actually begin enjoying myself again. I hike faster. Then I hear a duck quacking. Am I hallucinating?

Sari pulls out her phone. “She’s doing awesome, Joy—she’s passing people!” she reports to our frequent running buddy back home in Carbondale.

A few minutes before reaching Twin Lakes Aid Station, Sari runs ahead to give a heads up to Rob and our friend, Todd Kennedy, who finished Leadville on his second attempt in 2003 and came to assist with crewing and pacing.

“OK, boys, El’s right behind me. She’s gonna need a change of clothes, dry socks and some blisters patched—let’s move!”

“Yeah!” The guys cheer and leap into action, relieved to hear that, despite being way behind my projected pace, I am not about to give up.

Jogging along the tiny town’s streets lined with encouraging spectators, my eyes well with tears. I can do this. I am doing this. It’s what I’ve trained for.

I spot my dad, who has Reed in the kid carrier. My son’s face lights up when we make eye contact and I run over to stroke his blonde hair and kiss his forehead. Yearnings to cuddle my baby clash with an urgency to change clothes, eat food and keep running.

As Rob, Todd and Sari swarm around me, my mom squirms, fighting the urge to swoop in and help. She stands to the side, concerned. Reed cries. My chest clenches. The ruckus becomes disorienting. I don’t want to leave my family, but I have to get away from this chaos! I rise and head toward the trail in silence, my words of love and gratitude stuck in my throat.

At this point, I have no chance of finishing in less than my goal of 25 hours, and can’t help but feel disappointed. I work on refocusing on just finishing before the 30-hour cutoff, which was always the primary goal.

As night falls, so does my pace. Sari and I are barely moving but it’s the same for everyone around us. Every few minutes, a runner and his pacer charges past like a freight train and I envy their energy until, several minutes later, when we see the same runner seated on the ground, holding his head in his hands. For hours we leapfrog several racer-and-pacer pairs in this manner.

It’s going to be a very long night.

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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.”

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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.

This article appeared in our November 2010 issue.