Leadville or Bust
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A runner’s third attempt at tackling the venerable Leadville Trail 100
Scott Boulbol and Dan Miller approach the high point of the course, the 12,600-foot summit of Hope Pass. Photo by Phil Mislinksi.
I had just finished running 40 miles in the mountains near Leadville, Colorado, all above 10,000 feet. This would be a major accomplishment in any runner’s mind, so why was I sobbing uncontrollably? The physical and emotional pain had just become unbearable. Five years of dreaming, training and planning had come down to this, my third attempt at the Leadville Trail 100. The past year had already been the most frustrating of my life, and now I was on the verge of not finishing this race — once again.
I had all but given up hope. Severe pain seized both quads every time my feet hit the ground. I had been fighting it off for the past 22 miles, both physically and mentally, and my patience and tolerance had worn thin. All I could do was cry and ponder how I would be pulled from this race without crossing the line — again.
Eventual winner Chad Ricklefs was on his way back at Mile 58 when he passed Scott and Dan on their first ascent of Hope Pass at Mile 42. Ricklefs, a former competitive cyclist and Nordic skier, went on to win the race in 18:07:57. It was his fourth attempt and the second time he finished the Leadville 100.
And then, suddenly, I snapped out of my self-pitying haze. Throughout my emotional breakdown, my forever positive and nurturing crew had continued to massage my legs, force food and liquid down my throat and heap praise upon my beleaguered soul. It dawned on me that they had no intention of giving up now, so I sure as hell better not.
I had never planned on quitting in my previous two attempts but was sidelined with injuries. That first year I battled a nagging illio-tibial band problem. I remember shocked spectators watching me leave the Twin Lakes aid station, headed up Hope Pass with a huge bag of ice taped to my knee. I made it to Mile 60.
The next year, it was tight quads that rained on my parade. A cold, 8-mile start on roads had proven just too much for my not-yet-warm legs. Still, I hobbled along until I missed a time cut-off and race personnel yanked me with the humiliating “snip” of the wrist band. That time, I made it to Mile 70.
I vowed not to hear that demoralizing sound this year. If not for my crew’s enthusiasm, though, I might have given in to the pain, the rain, the cold and the mosquitoes at Mile 40 or sooner.
The day had started ominously. A steady rain fell in the chilly darkness at the 4 a.m. start. The nervous laughter and banter from the racers couldn’t hide the tension, given the forecast that suggested it would not be a passing shower. Athletes made last-minute adjustments attempting to balance preparation for the 40-degree temperatures and rain with the need for freedom of movement and minimal weight. Unlike many ultra races, where heat stroke and dehydration are topics of concern, here we worried about hypothermia.
The rain and possibility of thunderstorms were a threat throughout the day but not nearly so looming as Hope Pass. At 12,600 feet, it’s the highest point on the course. Maybe, just maybe, I could get over Hope Pass to the halfway point and remote turnaround at Winfield, and gain strength in the thought that every step from there is a step toward home. Unlikely? Sure. But ultra-marathons are known for having dramatic turnarounds, and I was hopeful.
About five hours and 25 miles into the race, Scott and Dan are sporting smiles and running smoothly. The worst is yet to come.
My partner in all this madness was Dan Miller, a “retired” Ironman triathlete who wanted to finish his first 100-mile run so he’d never have to do it again. He and I had logged hundreds of miles training together in the months preceding the race, many of them on this course. Along with Torin Dewey, another 100-mile rookie, we had developed a very specific schedule for the run, based on my past attempts and our high-altitude training runs.
Torin left us in his dust just before Mile 13, but Dan and I stuck to our plan. Our predictions had been amazingly accurate for the first portion of the course as we hit our split times within 10 minutes. In fact, there was no reason for us to be anything but optimistic about our performance as we headed toward Hope Pass, except for the burning pain in our quads.
We were chatty and laughing and, best of all, we didn’t have any of the usual stomach, foot, knee or head pain often associated with ultras — especially with those run in the high, steep mountains.
But when the 3,300-foot climb up the pass hit home, we were silent. This would be a deciding moment. What would await us on the downhill — excruciating pain and misery or pure elation? We expected the worst, of course, but we just didn’t know. I recalled, out loud for Dan’s benefit as well as my own, the story of a friend of mine who overcame serious trouble during this same race a few years ago.
I had been pacing my friend and mentor Kurt Blumberg in his first attempt at Leadville in 1997, when he took a drastic turn for the worse on top of frigid Sugarloaf Mountain at about Mile 80. One minute he was running just fine and the next he was barely walking, deliriously wandering too close to the edges of the switchbacks. I asked how he was doing, and he replied in a startled voice, “What? … Oh, I was just having the best dream…” He had fallen asleep, or at least into a deep hallucination, while walking next to me.
I made him sit down, and he immediately fell asleep. When he awoke 15 minutes later, he said he felt much better. Indeed. He began not only to jog again but ran so fast at times he pulled away from me. He completely recovered and finished the race later that morning looking amazingly fresh, thus cementing my official decision to try it the following year.
No, Scott hasn’t dropped into a trendy new oxygen bar at the “Hopeless” aid station near the top of Hope Pass. However, he did voluntarily stop in the medical tent in hopes of easing his cramping legs while Dan had hit feet taped. “I didn’t need it,” Scott says. “But I figured, ‘why not?'”
With some hope gleaned from that anecdote, we power-hiked up the mountain. The first few steps down from the summit were some of the most painful in my life, my quads were shortened and stiff. After a few minutes, however, they began to loosen up. The pace quickened. The muscles loosened a bit more and so did the stride. Soon we were smiling again. Without communicating much verbally, we were both speaking volumes with our legs and facial expressions. We were not out of the woods yet, of course — this cruel course makes racers return up the same pass after the halfway point. But we were more hopeful than we had been in quite a while.
Refreshed from our break at the Winfield aid station and revived by our pacers (allowed after Mile 50), we were off again up the backside of the pass. It’s a horrific climb of 2,700 feet in less than two miles, but reaching the top means the course is all “downhill” to the finish, if only symbolically. Although we’d have other hills to climb, none would be as steep or high as the ones we had already conquered.
After reaching the top and savoring the panoramic view of jagged snow-capped peaks, we were off. We started tentatively but began to increase the pace with each mile. Our pain was no worse and in fact was waning as we descended. At a relatively blistering pace, we floated down the mountain feeling better than we had in about 30 miles.
Despite our struggles, we pulled into the Twin Lakes aid station at the 60-mile mark about 15 minutes ahead of our schedule. Scott Jones, my crew chief, looked shocked at the incredible turnaround we had made. We were ahead of our original pace and feeling good. A new feeling permeated the area as we began to talk about, and even plan for, finishing. Tears were again welling up, this time from joy, as I actually thought for the first time in three years, “I’m going to finish this f*%#er!”
Two years ago this was where my race had ended. Could this be the year?
I certainly needed to finish the race more than ever before. The previous 12 months had been hellacious and turbulent. Since January, I had finished my teacher’s licensing program, started a new career and separated from my wife after nearly 10 years together. Although I had shared custody of our 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, I missed tucking her in each night. Did I mention I was also knee-deep in debt?
It had been the hardest period in my life, and I was surprised that I even made it to Leadville at all. I had always battled low self-esteem, and this year it seemed to sink to an all-time low. I felt I had failed in my past careers and my relationship. Worst of all, was I even failing at fatherhood? How would the separation affect my daughter down the road? Though deep-down I knew this was delusional crap, I believed that finishing this race would somehow prove that I was not a failure.
Scott blows in the breeze like the Himalayan prayer flags on Hope Pass. From here, it all downhill to the finish line. Well, sort of, in a demented way.
Almost a marathon later, it was nearing dawn. At the top of 11,200-foot Sugarloaf Mountain, Dan and I were both thoroughly exhausted and exhilarated. Having just finished the last major climb in the race, we were hit with the elated realization that we had done it. Oh, there would be loads of misery in the final 20 miles, especially because our quad pain had never really subsided. But at this point, nothing would stop us from running, staggering or perhaps even crawling over the finish line at 6th Street and Harrison Avenue in downtown Leadville.
We had napped for 10 minutes, remembering what it had done for Kurt, and, while lying there in and out of sleep, my thoughts again drifted toward my personal life. But this time they were optimistic. I knew I could get through whatever the world threw at me. I had survived the year, and I would soon conquer Leadville. The rest would seem easy.
The downhill to the last aid station at May Queen Campground was pure, unfettered joy. We hooted and hollered much of the way in, passing many who had overtaken us earlier. I passed the point of Kurt’s 1997 resurrection with a silent homage and thank you; a few hours earlier I had bid him a personal adieu as he lay shivering and half-conscious at the Half Moon medical tent. He would not recover this year.
Three years ago at this trailhead, I made a commitment to accomplish what had previously seemed like an outrageous dream. Now I was doing it.
Scott, Dan and their support crews are all smiles back in Leadville.
In the final aid station I sat staring into nothing, my thoughts a euphoric and perhaps hypoxic montage of the last few years. Did I ever truly believe I could do this? Was my daughter in bed dreaming about her daddy? Sophia had been there for my first two attempts, and last year every time she saw me she said, “Go Daddy! Go Daddy!” Was it somehow symbolic that this year I never heard that indescribably motivating voice? What would the finish feel like without her? I had no answers, just thoughts. And that was OK. I felt an immense weight lift from my shoulders with every mile we ticked off on the way into town.
The final 3 miles, with my pacers Karen Majesky and Beth Reece and a few other friends tagging along, were perhaps the toughest of all. My stomach had decided that 97 miles was enough. I was forced to walk like Quasimodo — and grunt like him too. To stand up straight was to invite a horribly sharp pain into my abdomen, so I simply leaned over and kept going. Dan and I had stopped talking much, except for the occasional “where the f*%# is the finish line?” Dan was doing his best to live up to his new nickname, “Grumpy Boy.” Grumpy or not, though, I would not have made it without his companionship. We had toiled and talked, suffered and celebrated together for almost 29 hours. And I can’t begin to describe the importance of my crew, awake all that time and cheering us as we approached the finish. They, too, were finishing this thing. They, too, had been through hell, and we were all now in a communal haze of glory.
Suddenly (as if anything happens suddenly in a 100-mile run) there was the finish line. Though located at the top of a tough hill, Dan and I decided we had to muster the energy to run to the banner. I don’t know how, but we did exactly that. Every stride was a positive step into my future. Things would be different now. They had to be. Never again would I doubt my strength. Never again would I doubt my talent. Never again would I say “never.”
I imagined I was carrying Sophia over the line as I had dreamt about doing so many times. The exact moment I had eagerly awaited so long has since faded in my memory. I only know Dan was by my side, my crew was screaming and I imagined Sophia at home saying, “Go Daddy!” I had finished my first 100-mile race and begun a new life.
Soon it began to rain again. This time, however, I was safely sheltered in the finishers’ tent. “Let it rain,” I thought, “a little bad weather won’t keep me down anymore.”
Scott Boulbol, is the co-author of “Trail Runner’s Guide to Colorado.” (Fulcrum, 1999). He and training partner Dan Miller finished the 2000 Leadville 100 in 29:00:38, while Torin Dewey crossed the line in 26:35:48. Only 175 of the 406 starters finished the race.
This story originally appeared in our August/September 2001 issue.