The Leadville 100: A First for Ken Fries
[After sharing two Top-10 Leadville 100 accounts with iRunFar readers (Garett Graubins's and mine - Part 1 & Part 2), we thought we'd share the story of Ken Fries, a first time 100-mile finisher who finished in the final hour before the 30-hour off. This 42 year old from Austin, Texas found the race far harder than anticipated. Read his story.]
I’m writing this about a week after the Leadville 100 trail run. This was my first 100 mile run and it proved to be an amazing experience. I have been asked a lot of questions this past week, one of which is if it was as hard as I had anticipated. The answer to that question is an unequivocal NO. NO it was not AS hard as I had anticipated, it was WAY HARDER! So here is my perspective over 100 miles in the mountains of Colorado.
Before I begin, let me introduce you to the crew. Jason and I had separated crews; although we shared people and all worked together over the next 29 hours. My crew consisted of my brother Adam (his wife Meredith also helped), a really good friend Toby (formally of Austin but now lives in Denver), and my wonderful wife Kate. Jason’s crew was our training buddy extraordinaire Kirk, Cindy S, John P (both good friends from Austin) and Jason’s wife Angie.
Two-thirty a.m. came pretty quick on Saturday morning as the multiple alarms and wake-up calls began. I had two alarms set and a wake-up call scheduled for race morning. And although I got a few hours of off-and-on sleep through the night, the alarms were merely a formality. I was wide awake by 2 a.m. and just lay in bed trying not to wake Kate as I watched the minutes click off the digital clock. Finally, it was OK to get up. The wake-up call came and I shot out of bed, glad the restless night was over. I showered to help me feel fresh, went downstairs and got a cup of coffee, made my instant oatmeal, and peeled a banana for my morning breakfast. At 2:45, I knocked on Adam’s hotel door to wake him, and went back to the room to eat, drink, and chat with Kate. I put on my race clothing, Jason called and was on his way, and Adam was coming into the room for the last minute instructions. At about 3:15 a.m., Jason rolled in with another cup of coffee for me and we began to head down to the parking lot for the short drive to downtown Leadville where the race would start.
[Check out a pre-race and start video of Ken.]
Leadville to May Queen (miles 0-13.5)
The starting line was a bit surreal. At the starting line there were a little over 500 people lined up. The atmosphere was very exciting with all the headlights, the crisp air, the seas of crew people watching their runners. Jason and I found a place toward the front of the pack and settled in for the announcer to send us off. The gun finally went off after what seemed forever and we were off. I remember thinking how bizarre it was to run over the starting line knowing I would not see this place again for somewhere between 25 and 30 hours.
We started down the long gradual descent and a couple times Jason warned me, “Slow down.” The excitement and the downhill 4.5 to 5 miles make it really easy to get carried away and get running too fast. It wasn’t long before we had covered the 5 or so miles and started on the single track that goes around Turquoise Lake. I was feeling pretty good at this point, but I had eaten too much the day before and was feeling that really full feeling that is not conducive to running. My nutrition plan consisted of eating about 250 calories an hour in the form of a “magical” cookie (cookie that Meredith Terranova, my nutritionist, recommends for long, long runs). I was also wearing an Ultimate Direction hydration pack for water, taking electrolyte caps every hour, and drinking a mixture in a hand-held water bottle that had about 330 calories in each refill.
I had my watch set to beep every hour to remind me to take electrolytes and to eat a cookie. The first hour beep came and I was still so full from the day before that I did not eat at all. I did take an electrolyte pill and was drinking my liquid calories from my handheld. Then it happened. I was running along this beautiful trail with feeling pretty decent, the air was crisp the day was off to a fine start and then BAM! I was rolling on the ground. The first fall of the day and I had gotten it over with early. I got up, dusted off my knees, checked for any protruding bones, checked for blood, and was off again having not discovered anything too bad.
Jason and I laughed about how soon I had fallen and joked about getting the first fall over with. We were in a really nice relaxed pace and the trail was rolling very gently as we skirted the lake. The sun was beginning to rise and the light revealed this beautiful mountain lake to our left. As the beauty of the scenery was sinking in I had a first row seat to Jason’s first fall. BAM! He, too, took a roller which shot his water bottle off his hand and he laid there for a brief second. He got up, dusted off, checked for the usual things and was off. We again laughed about both of us falling in the first 2 hours of the run.
My watch beeped again indicating the second hour of our journey was complete. I took more electrolyte pills and, this time, I also was able to eat my cookie. Being able to eat a little was a good sign. The single track dumped us out onto a road and we were minutes from the first aid station – May Queen. We pulled up into May Queen at about 2 hours and 15 minutes into the run and there were Kate, Toby, and Adam scrambling to get us refilled and reloaded with calories. It was funny to see the urgency on their faces. The crew was scrambling like an Indy 500 pit crew. We laughed, and I said in the calmest voice I could muster, “Relax. It’s OK. Everyone settle down.” I will tell you this though; it was good to see the crew.
[Ken's crew footage of the May Queen and Twin Lakes aid stations.]
May Queen to Fish Hatchery (miles 13.5 – 23.5)
Jason and I were off from May Queen and were immediately shot onto some
technical single track. Pretty quickly after hitting the single track we started to climb. After about 2 miles we were spit out onto a jeep road which I know was the back side of Sugar Loaf Pass. We both shed our long sleeves, gloves and hat and started up the pass. This pass was pretty gentle going outbound. We both made the comment to each other, “Wow, that was no big deal.”
On this section we had come up upon a couple of Austinites, Joseph M and Jamie C. It was good to see other Austin athletes on the course. Joseph made the comment that he thought Austin had more athletes than any other “non-mountain” town. I bet he was right.
The back side of Sugarloaf Pass (Powerlines) was steep and we ran this section pretty fast, but kept our energy output somewhat consistent. In this section we let gravity do its work. I had eaten my cookies, taken my pills, and was still drinking my handheld with the calorie mixture. The sky was as big and blue as you have ever seen. It was a beautiful day in the mountains of Colorado and the endorphins had kicked in.
We hit a road and soon arrived at Fish Hatchery. With twenty-three miles under our belt, I remember thinking, “Wow, we’re just about at marathon distance.” The crew was doing a fantastic job and the earlier urgency in the form of near panic had changed to a nice intentional forward motion and the sort of banter that we heard in the 7th grade (but are still funny) by all members. This was also the first time we got to see Cindy and John. It was good to see our family and friends from Austin out to support us.
Fish Hatchery to Pipeline (miles 23 – 30.5)
We left Fish Hatchery and hit the long asphalt road section. This section is about 3.5 miles. It was getting pretty hot; I was feeling the high mountain sun during this section. About half-way between Fish Hatchery and Pipeline there is an unofficial aid station, which is really just a place that the crew can access the runners again. I started feeling a bit nauseous on this section. I was beginning to have trouble eating my cookies already. I knew the time would come when I would be really tired of the cookies, but this was different. I wasn’t tired of eating them I just couldn’t put anything in my mouth without gagging. My stomach was hurting and I just felt off. I continued drinking my handheld and taking my electrolytes, but now I was having trouble getting any other calories into my body. I knew this was not a good sign.
I kept thinking of the words of Meredith T, nutritionist and accomplished ultra runner, when she would tell Jason and me over and over that ultrarunning is about problem solving. One of her last emails to us said, “It’s not a matter of IF something is going to happen, but WHEN something” out of the ordinary will happen. I pushed that thought out of my mind for a while and hoped that I would begin to feel better.
We pulled into Treeline, which is nothing more than a dirt road that the crew can pull their cars into, and found the crew. They had made me a turkey sandwich and I took that for the road. We kept moving and I hoped the turkey sandwich would help me feel better. We continued running toward Pipeline and I tried to eat some of the sandwich. I put part of it in my mouth and immediately started gagging. I tried again. Same result. Shit, I couldn’t eat. I was in trouble. I again heard Meredith’s words, “problem solve, problem solve.” I told Jason at this point, “Jason, I am in trouble. I can’t eat.” We continued running.
We pulled into Pipeline and a nice man grabbed my water bottle began refilling and added the powder that I handed him to mix in the bottle. I was not able to eat, but I was still taking my electrolytes and drinking the caloric mixture from my handheld. I had long before asked Jason to stuff the turkey sandwich into my hydration pack and had given up on attempting to eat that. At the Pipeline aid station the crews don’t have access, so we were in and out pretty quickly.
Pipeline to Twin Lakes (miles 30.5 – 40)
I grabbed a PB&J sandwich from the aid station and headed out. I took a bite of the PB&J and immediately gagged it up, also. Shit! I stopped on the trail, thinking if I just stopped then maybe I could eat. I was able to get down about a bit of the sandwich. I was off again and caught Jason pretty quickly.
Again the words “problem solve” rang through my head. I was feeling more and more nauseous all the time. What the hell am I going to do, I thought. I wasn’t sure what I WAS going to do, but I knew what I WASN’T going to do. I was not going to stop, no matter what. I remember thinking if I get pulled from the course it will be on a stretcher because I will not stop no matter what. I was bound and determined to figure this problem out. I did not get up at 2, 3, and 4 in the morning for the last 6 weeks to not finish this race. And, if I didn’t finishi I was not going out easily.
The miles clicked by and I remembered how good the plain water from my hydration pack tasted. It occurred to me to stop drinking my handheld for a while and see how I felt. After about an hour of not drinking the solution from my handheld, I was beginning to feel better.
The course was beautiful singletrack with fantastic view in every direction. This section of the course had some minor climbs and descents while rolling along through tall pines. At one point my watch beeped again and after not drinking the handheld I was finally able to get down a cookie. Holy Cow, 250 calories! I was ecstatic, I ran up to Jason and exclaimed, “I ate, I ate!” I continued, “It’s the mixture in my bottle that’s making me sick.” I decided not to take in any more of this mixture. I would supplement with more electrolyte pills to replace the sodium I was not going to get through the mixture and I would then, I hoped, be able to get more calories at the aid stations and through my cookies.
The last few miles of this section drop about 1200 feet. Jason and I bombed down this section and very quickly found ourselves at Twin Lakes. We had just covered the first 40 miles of the race and completed phase one of our race plan. I was pretty tired, my nutrition was way off, and I was hot. I came into the aid station and Kate immediately put a cool towel over my head. I walked into the aid station check-in and then the crew led me to the chairs they had set up. The plan was to take our first significant rest here, as after this we had to go up and over Hope Pass TWICE on this out and back course.
I remember being a little confused for some reason when I came into the aid station. I was not thinking very clearly and, walking back to the chairs, I looked into Kate’s eyes. I am still not sure what happened, but I was completely overcome with emotion. I began to sob under the towel.
I recall thinking this is way, way, way harder than I had anticipated and I knew I was not in the best of condition after the morning hours. I sat in the chair and put my head into my hands and tried to compose myself. I looked around at the crew around me. I thought how unselfish it was for so many people to waiting on me hand and foot. I thought about the friends and family at home watching our progress. I saw Angie, Jason’s wife, and his mom and they were takin
g care of him in a chair next to me. I was trying to eat. I was telling the crew no more mix in the handheld. I was putting Chapstick on, while Kate was putting sun screen on me. Toby was refilling my water bottle. Adam was refilling my hydration pack. I saw him pull out the turkey sandwich that I couldn’t eat from earlier. I saw the concern on his face when he saw one bite gone. I saw the worry and fear in the eyes of everyone around me. All this fear and concern was directed at me. I looked up and I knew I was in bad shape, and I knew they knew it, too. I was an emotional wreck.
John Peck stood over me, I looked up at him and he said, “It’s time to go.” No, No, No that is not the plan. The plan was to stay here for about 10 minutes. It’s only been 3 or 4. It’s not time to leave yet, I thought. He insisted. I felt myself getting up and I began moving. Before I left I looked again at Kate and saw the concern in her eyes. I looked right into her eyes trying to reassure her, but I did not have the strength in me at this point to communicate this. We ran out of the aid station toward Hope Pass.
Twin Lakes – Winfield (miles 40 – 50)
Leaving Twin Lakes there is about a mile of flat with a river crossing before you get to the beginning of the climb up Hope Pass. Jason looked at me somewhere along this mile and said, “I had to get out of there (meaning Twin Lakes) I was getting too emotional.” I was shocked when he said this. I laughed and told him about my experience in Twin Lakes. We both laughed a little and kept moving forward.
The climb started and we settled into a nice power walking rhythm up and up and up and up. Here the climb is about 3,500 ft over about 3.5 miles. We had figured it would take us about 3.5 hours to get up and over the pass. But as time went on our place slowed and our heart rates where off the chart. I was trying not to go anaerobic, but this required a snail’s pace.
We climbed and climbed and climbed. I was able to eat again, so this was encouraging, but I thought to myself, “Does this F’ing climb every end?!” We stopped and sat twice, I think. Jason looked at me several times and said, “Fuck, this is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.” I agreed! I had to dig deep to keep putting on foot in front of the other.
My heart rate was sky high, the pace was very slow, and time seemed to stand still. The further we got up the pass, the slower the pace became. When we broke treeline I remember thinking, “OK , this is about 11,000 ft (treeline in this part of the world) and we still have 1,600 ft to climb after this.” I was able to eat and take my electrolytes, so this was some consolation to me in that I had solved the first problem that had occurred on this run. I put one foot in front of the other time-after-time and slowly, slowly, slowly moved forward.
There is an aid station about 500 ft below the summit called Hopeless aid station. This is a group of people that bring up supplies by way of lllamas. As we traversed this trail above treeline, I finally saw a beautiful sight – lllamas and tents and movement up ahead. I told Jason, “We are almost at Hopeless. Come on, baby, come on!”
We pulled into Hopeless and were swamped with volunteers refilling water bottles, offering assistance, food, or anything they could do for us at all. I got a cup of ramen noodles and sat down for a minute. I looked back in the direction we had come from and, WOW, what a view. I could see Leadville way off in the distance. I could see Turquoise Lake and then a little closer Twin Lakes. The sky was a brilliant blue and not a cloud in sight. I was sitting at 12,000 ft having just covered about 45 miles and the world was whole again. I was tired, but in a satisfied way – the way you feel when you have just accomplished something that was so hard you wanted to quit. I never really wanted to quit, but there were times on that climb when I thought I just can’t move another step for a while.
We left Hopeless and climbed the remaining 500 ft, which also seemed like an eternity, but before I knew it I was heading down the back side. The back side of Hope Pass outbound is shorter. It’s just about 2.25 miles, but you descend 2,100 ft over a very steep trail. Parts of this trail are reported to be on about a 21% grade. Translation – Steep as shit! The descent from the pass puts you out on a dusty dirt road about 2 miles from Winfield. Going into Winfield this is a gradual uphill that also seems to go on forever.
I was feeling much better than I did at Twin Lakes and my spirits were up because we had almost completed half of what some call the toughest 20 miles in ultra running. I don’t know if this is true, but to this point it was the hardest and deepest I have EVER had to dig physically.
As good as I was feeling at this point, Jason was feeling really bad. Jason and I had talked in the weeks prior and understood that there is no waiting for each other. During the race, it is every man for himself. Jason was falling back and I did wait a few times on this stretch. I was very worried about him, because he said to me several times he didn’t think he could make it back up and over the Pass. I assured him he could, but when you’re that low words don’t help much. I tried to raise his spirits, but he was really down and not feeling good at all. He said several time for me to go on and not wait. After a bit, I told him I was going ahead into Winfield and I would see him at the aid station. We shared this road with crew vehicles and it was dusty, dusty, dusty.
Finally, Winfield was in view and I picked up the pace for a bit. I ran into the aid station and was immediately directed into the medical tent for inspection. A doctor put me on a scale, got my weight and compared that to the weight on my mandatory medical arm band. I had lost 4 lbs; not too bad. I then went out and Kate, Adam, Toby, John, and Cindy directed me to the area that the crews had set up. I let them know that Jason was in pretty bad shape, but that he was not far behind.
The crew put me in a chair and went to work. I was joking and having fun now and this put everyone at ease. The last time they saw me I was in really bad shape. They were very glad to see that a 12,600 ft pass and 10 miles can make one feel much better! But the truth is I was able to eat again and the calories make such a big difference. This is also the first time we could take on pacers, and Cindy and Kirk were there waiting to go back over the pass with us. It was good to see Kirk at this point, too. He was going to run the entire 50 miles back with Jason. Kirk had done a lot of training with us and we had become good friends. We all exchanged some jokes and laughed. We ate some food and got resupplied.
I can’t say it enough, nor can I express h
ow important and what a big job our friends and family all played in this race. Jason was eating and getting some nutrition, too. At the weigh-in he had lost 14 lbs! This is a lot of weight to lose and he had to get some of that back to be able to get though the night that was ahead of us. It had taken us over 4 hours to get up and over the pass, which was way longer than we had anticipated.
It was now just after 4 in the afternoon and we had been going for over 12 hours. I knew that it was going to get dark at about 8:30. And if it took us the same about of time to get back to Twin Lakes as it did to make the first crossing we might get caught on the pass in the dark. We had planned on getting our headlamps at Twin Lakes but now I knew we might need them before. To get caught on Hope Pass without a light in the dark would be a bad mistake. I told my and Jason’s crews to get the lights. There was a little scrambling with the change in plans, but everyone finally got their light and we were up and out of Winfield.
[Ken's stop at the Winfield aid station on video.]
Jason was still not feeling the best and he told me several time to leave him. I know what I had agreed to in the previous weeks, but I was not going to leave him now. I was not going to leave him without knowing that he got back up and over the pass. I figured that once we got up and over the pass for the second time this would be a huge turning point in the race. We would have covered the most physically demanding part of the course and would have completed the second phase of our race plan. We jogged back down the dirt road.
Winfield to Twin Lakes (miles 50 – 60)
The gradual downhill over 2 miles ended and we were back on the single track again heading up to 12,600 feet. The trail on this side is very, very steep in most places. Kirk and Cindy were ruthless with Jason about taking more and more electrolyte tabs and drinking water. I thought he was going to snap. They were on him constantly about taking salts and water. I got into a rhythm, while Kirk and Cindy stayed back with Jason.
Kirk and I climbed and climbed and after about an hour he would tell me to just focus on the next turn. He would say, just make it to the next turn. I would focus on the turn in the switch back and just power to it. I would make the turn, rest for a second and then focus on the next turn. This went on for a few hours, but eventually we broke above tree line again. “One foot in front of the other,” “Relentless forward progress,” “Don’t quit no matter what,” were the mantras that ran though my head over and over again. I was focused and I thought about the words of my coach Steve, “If you quit, make them take you off the mountain in an ambulance.” I was not going to stop moving forward, I was as determined as I have ever been in my entire life.
The top of the pass came and again the views where fantastic. The air had a bit of a chill in it now and the sun was getting lower in the sky. Kirk and I went down to the Hopeless aid station where we got some nutrition and waited a very short time for Jason and Cindy. Before I knew it we were on the way down.
After about 10 to 15 minutes my legs changed from climbing to descending and I felt really good. I thought to myself I want to get down off this mountain. I began to push the pace pretty hard. With Cindy in tow, we flew past Jason and Kirk. They both jumped on the train and we all pushed letting gravity do its work. Three and a half miles of bombing down, down, down. At one point we passed Jamie C, a local (Austin) professional triathlete. He had blown his IT band. We stopped for a moment and lamented his circumstances. I am only acquainted with Jamie, but was bummed nonetheless for him. Closer to the bottom of the descent, we also ran across Cindy H, who is also a friend of ours from Austin. She was moving well and said she was saving her legs for the last 40 miles.
With about a mile to go to the aid station, we sent Kirk ahead to let the crews know that we would be pulling back into Twin Lakes very shortly. Twin Lakes came into view and as we ran up the little dirt road to the aid station, Cindy S (our crew and pacer), who had earlier said she had something to show us at the top of the pass, pulled about 20 feet in front of us, stopped, dropped her pants, and mooned us revealing the words “you rock” written across her butt. We laughed.
[Video of Ken at Twin Lakes inbound.]
Twin Lakes to Pipeline (miles 60 – 69)
Once leaving Twin Lakes, I knew that we had just completed phase two of the race plan. The first part of the plan was Leadville to Twin Lakes (40 miles), Twin Lakes to Winfield and back to Twin Lakes including Hope Pass twice (20 miles), and now the final phase which was miles 60 to 100. Toby was going to pace me for the next 14ish miles to Treeline (halfway between Pipeline and Fish Hatchery). This was also the time to prepare for the night ahead. We had made it back over the pass in about 3.5 hours, much faster than the first trip over, but the time was now close to 8:30 pm. We had been going for 16.5 hours now and night was falling.
Toby and I left just behind Jason and Kirk. It started to sprinkle on us a bit and we all stopped and put on our rain shells. After about 10 minutes, the sprinkles stopped and I was hot again. Outbound, the way into Twin Lakes was a quick descent. Now that same descent was a 1,200 foot climb. Toby was fantastic company and we continued moving forward through the night. Off in the distance we could see lightning and hear faint thunder. Looking back down the trail we could see head lamps snaking their way up over trail we had just covered. We could also look back into the field between the Twin Lakes and the beginning of the climb on Hope Pass and see more headlamps making their way through the darkness.
I felt some rocks in my shoes and kept trying to move them around without taking my shoes off. One foot was hurting pretty bad, but I didn’t want to stop and get the rocks out. Jason and Kirk were moving pretty fast over this section and I found that my feet were hurting so much that I could not keep up with Jason and Kirk at this point. I didn’t think much of it because I figured we would catch them at some point down the road a little. This was the first time in the race that Jason and I split up. At the time I never thought I would not see him and Kirk again until the finish line.
Toby and I ran the downhills, shuffled the flats and, power walked the ups. We arrived at Pipeline at about 10:45 p.m. At this point the rocks in my shoes were really hurting my feet. I also realized I had not been eating much over the last few hours and this too made me nervous. Toby got me several cups of watermelon, which tasted really good at this point, and I took off my shoes to get the damn rocks out. I dusted off the bottom of my socks and emptied my shoes. I put both shoes back on, retied the laces, and ate a little more watermelon.
Realizing I was not eating much now and that the watermelon was going down so easily, I took advantage of eating as much as I could. While I ate, I noticed a white board next to me. It said, “Pipeline cut-off 12:45. Fish Hatchery cut-off 3:00a.m. Congratulations, you have just covered 69.5 miles.” This was the first time in the race that the enormity of the distance hit me. I thought “Holy shit! 69.5 miles. Wow! That is a long, long way!”
With the rocks out of my shoes and some nutrition, however inadequate, I was ready to keep moving. That stop was about 3 or 4 minutes and the next stop would be in 3.5 miles at Treeline where I would again see the crew.
Pipeline to Fish Hatchery (miles 69.5 – 76.5)
Within minutes after leaving Pipeline I felt those
damn rocks again. “Damn!” I thought to myself as I continued to move forward. Soon we came across a woman laying in the trail in the fetal position vomiting. There was a man standing there with her and we offered assistance, but he said he was going to take her back into the Pipeline aid station. We continued.
The rocks hurt my feet more and more all the time. It was about 11 p.m. now and my calories were way too low and I knew it. My pace had really slowed since it hurt so bad to run to fast on the downhills. I was heading back down into the dumps and I knew it. Over the next 3.5 miles Toby did a fantastic job talking and passing the time, but I was quickly losing energy and the pain in my feet was getting worse and worse. I thought to myself that the rocks must have somehow gotten into my socks. I thought, “At Treeline, I will change socks.”
Toby and I finally got to Treeline where the crew was waiting. It was about midnight now and I began to worry that I was becoming in danger of not making the 30 hour cut-off for the finish. I began to ask people at Treeline if I was in danger of not making it to the finish before the time cut-off. Everyone was saying I was in good shape, time wise, but I didn’t believe any of them. They tried to get me to eat some real food, but I just couldn’t get anything down. Angie handed me some grapes and I was able to eat them. he then made me a sandwich baggie of grapes for the road.
John was my pacer now. I changed socks and as Kate and Cindy looked at the bottom of my feet what became obvious is that the rocks were not rocks at all. The rocks that had been getting more and more painful were BLISTERS, and lots of them. I had developed blisters on the front pads of my feet. The front pads of my feet are where I land with every step as I run. This was not good news. Adam asked if I wanted them taped up. I told him,”no,” I was just going to roll with it. I said, ” don’t want to get out on the trail and have the tape roll up and have to take off my shoes in the mountains.” This was a mistake.
John and I left and he fed me 3 to 5 grapes at a time. I remember thinking, “I know that a cup of grapes is about 80 calories, so 4 or 5 grapes is insignificant.” But the crazy thing was just a few grapes and I felt a little better. I don’t know if this was psychological, but my job was to keep moving forward no matter what.
John and I did a lot of power walking. We kept a good, even pace and passed a number of people on the asphalt section of the course leading back into Fish Hatchery. We got into Fish Hatchery after the 3.5 mile road section. I walked past the check-in and called out my number, 677. I saw Anton K (the guy that was in first place by 17 minutes the last time we saw him bombing down Hope Pass) and he called out my number to the person who was writing it down. I thought that is nice, he had won the race then comes back out to help on the course. Later, I would discover that he dropped out of the race at Fish Hatchery, because he had gotten dehydrated. John and I were in and out of Fish Hatchery pretty quick. dam, Kate and crew were all over me refueling my hydration pack and attending to my every need. These guys were off the chart fantastic.
Fish Hatchery to May Queen (miles 76.5 – 86.5)
Sugar Loaf Pass! Holy Shit! Remember when I noted earlier that Jason and I had said it was no big deal? Well, that was the outbound side and only after a few hours of running. It is now after 1 a.m. and things have changed.
First, the inbound side is much steeper and climbs A LOT more. John and I got into a rhythm. He broke a stick off for me to use as a walking stick ,which offered more support than I expected. We got into a good pace and kept it up for several hours. We were passing people and hooked on to a train of about 8 guys and we were all pushing, pushing, pushing. We passed people on all fours off the side of the trail, who heaving and vomiting. This at 3 and 4 and 5 a.m. in the morning after 70 to 80 miles is not that unusual a sight. We walked by as if this is business as usual. Thinking back on this scene ,it seems funny.
During the night, several times I would ask John, “Are we almost to the top yet?” John would typically respond with something like, “I think we’re close.” I knew he had no idea, but just to hear him say this was reassuring for me. At one point, he responded in his “I think we’re close,” right after that I thought I saw an airliner’s lights in the sky in front of us. As I watched the light I realized that what I was seeing way, way off in the distance and way, way up above us was not an airplane, but the headlight of runner on a switchback further up the pass. We were a long way from the top! I continued to think about the time cut-off. I went over and over in my head how far I had to go, my estimated pace, and the time I had left for reach Leadville under the 30-hour time limit. I kept coming up with different answers. One time through the calculations I was safe and in no danger of missing the cut-off, the next time through I was right up against the wall.
At this point it was closing in on 4 a.m. I had been moving forward, sometimes faster and sometimes much slower, for 24 hours. My feet were hurting more and more. John and I thought we were at the top of the pass several times only to find another incline. At last, the road quit climbing. The sky was clear and there were more stars than I ever remember seeing in my life. We were on top of Sugarloaf pass, over 11,000 ft up.
The road started its gentle down that Jason and I had found so easy earlier in the day. I tried to run, but the pain in my feet was excruciating. I didn’t say much about the pain, as I thought articulating this would not do a bit of good and I only wanted to stay focused on getting back to Leadville. I tried running, landing on my heels, as I had done off and on throughout the night. I would then switch to landing on the sides of my feet to minimize the pain of the blisters where I would normally land. I power walked as fast as I could and, believe it or not, we were still catching people on a pretty regular basis.
We hit the single track leading down into May Queen. I heard a guy at the top of this section say it was 2.1 miles to the aid station. I looked at my watch, it was about 4:30ish. I thought if I can get to May Queen and have 5 hours to cover the last 13.5 miles I would be in decent shape, time wise. I pushed as hard as I could push. I power walked, shuffled, jogged, walked, but kept relentless forward progress no matter what. I knew that the crew was anxious about me getting into the aid station, getting out, and still having the time to make it to the finish line before the cut-off. I thought about Jason and Kirk; I hoped they were doing well. I had no idea where they were, but I hoped all was well with them. John said he could hear voices from the aid station. I got excited to get there and was pushing harder and harder.
My knees hurt badly at this point, as the heel striking I had been doing though out the night to minimize the pain of my feet began to take its toll. I had also developed new blisters on the back of both heels and on the side of my right foot. Everything hurt: my feet, my knees, my hips and at the same time I felt the excitement beginning to build. I was still very nervous about getting to Leadville in time, but I felt myself focus even harder at this point. It was time to dig as deep as I possibly could into my body, mind and emotions to continue forward. I thought to myself many times over the last few hours how much harder this was than I had ever anticipated. I had to go places within myself – physically, mentally, and emotionally that I never knew existed. I was far beyond what I thought I was capable of doing. At the same time I knew there was much more to do before this would be over.
As we came into May Queen, I saw the crew. They surrounded me and got
me checked in and into the aid tent. I sat briefly, had a cup of coffee, and more watermelon. I looked around the scene inside the tent and it all seemed very surreal. It seemed as if everyone was moving in slow motion. People were moving from point-to-point and I saw what looked like “tracers” following them. I sat in what I remember as almost total quiet. People were moving all around me, but it seemed strangely quiet. I saw Kate dressed in her running gear and was happy that she would be the one to pace me on the last leg. I had 13.5 miles to go, it was 5 a.m. in the morning, and I had been going for 25 hours now. I finished my coffee, looked at Kate, and moved toward the exit. I said,”677 checking out” for the final time.
May Queen to Leadville (miles 86.5 – 100)
Kate and I were off. We moved down this asphalt section and at some point I felt like we had missed the turn. I looked back and saw the headlights of other runners taking a turn we had gone past. We were only about 50 to 100 yards past the turn, so no big time loss. We turned around and headed back. We hit the single track that would take us around the lake and Kate began to push. I heard her say “go get the next person.” I ran. Running at this point for me was at best a shuffle, and caught a guy on the trail. We said, “On the left” and passed the first person we saw. My feet were on fire. I had not had anything but watermelon, a few grapes, and a couple gels that I gagged down with John since about 8:30 at Twin Lakes. I was well hydrated, as I did keep drinking lots of water and taking my electrolytes. Again, Kate whispers behind me,
Go, go, go, go get the next person.” I did and I did again and we pushed.
The sun began to rise at about 6 a.m. and once again the lake, like 26 hours before, began to be visible again. We got to a place called Tabor Boat Ramp and there were a few people standing out cheering. The crowd said, “You have about 6.5 or 7 miles to go.”
I looked at my watch; we had just covered 6ish miles in about 1.5 hours. This, at this point in the race, was really moving. I was thrilled to have covered almost half of the distance of this leg. I looked at my watch and saw that I had 3.5 hours to finish the final 7 miles. This was the first time all night that I KNEW I was going to finish under the 30 hour cut-off. I looked at Kate, then the lake and the mountains surrounding and knew for the first time I was just a few hours away from completing my first 100 mile race.
The pace slowed and for the first time in many, many hours I started to relax a little. I had been watching my hands since the sun came up, but now Kate noticed what was going on with my body. My hands were grotesquely swollen. Kate was alarmed and I kept trying to play it down, but I too was a bit concerned. There was nothing that could be done now and I dismissed it as “I have just traveled almost 100 miles by foot over the last 28 hours.” Kate offered to carry my hydration pack, headlight, and jacket. I let her. For the first time since 4 a.m. the day before, I did not have a water bottle, hydration pack, headlight, cap, or anything.
The single track culminated in a brutal downhill section. I moved very slowly down this section and grimaced with every step. At this point my feet, knees, and whole body hurt with every downhill step. At the bottom, we made a hard left and headed into Leadville.
This section was uphill the entire way for 5 miles. The sun was up and the heat of the day was building. There were a dozen or so people heading in to finish the race. This was a pretty quiet section, as people just kept moving forward. Some people ran by then stopped to walk some, others just kept an even pace. Kate and I moved quickly, or at least if felt like that to me, with a brisk power walk. Our pace was not fast but consistent and fairly even. The road went on and on and on and people would say, “You’re almost there.” Then we would turn a corner or crest a rise and see the road continue to rise out of sight again. It did not feel like we were “almost there.”
I thought to myself “enjoy” just “enjoy this for now.” I was ready to finish. I was exhausted and my feet were killing me. I kept moving forward. We hit a section of pavement and there was Adam. Some more people told us, “You’re almost there.” We laughed and said that we had been hearing that for hours. They laughed back and said this time it’s true. Only one mile to go!
Adam and his son, Sol, were waiting at the one mile mark to cover the last part with us. We turned the corner and son-of-a-bitch another hill. I just laughed and said. “Does this thing ever end?” Adam responded that once I crested the hill I would be able to see the finish line. I plodded on.
Adam called ahead to the rest of the crew that waited at the finish line. He told them we were less than 15 minutes out. I looked at my watch. It was 8:50 am. I had been moving forward for almost 29 hours. The finish line was less than 15 minutes away. I crested the hill and saw up in the distance the big blue banner that read “START” on one side and “FINISH” on the other. This time my side read “FINISH.” I was about a quarter mile out now. I broke down. I put my hands on my knees and again, like I had done 60 miles before, sobbed for a moment. I would not stop for anything. I was as focused as I had ever been in my life and I would not let anything, any challenge, any problem, any obstacles get in the way of me finishing this race. As soon as I relaxed that focus, as I could now, the emotions poured out. Kate was emotional, Adam started crying. I hugged Adam. And then I heard Kate say “Keep moving baby, keep moving.”
I composed myself and again like I had done for the last 29 hours began moving forward again. I saw Jason. He came over and we hugged and said, “We did it.” He had finished 2 hours before, but there he was waiting for me to make it in. Then as fast as all this happened I was standing alone in the middle of the street. Kate pointed at the finish line and said “Run it in.” I ran down the red carpet that all finishers get the privilege of doing and “broke the tape” like every finisher before me did. I looked down as my body hit the “tape” and could not believe it was over. I looked up and standing in front of me was the Leadville 100 founder, Ken Chlouber. He was fumbling for a finisher’s medal to put around my neck. After what seemed like forever he pulled a medal from his arm and put it around my neck. I looked down at the piece of metal that read Leadville 100 Finisher. All I could think of to do was reach out and hug Ken. He hugged me back and said “You did it.”
I was then ushered into t
he medical check tent as all finishers are. I was weighed and had gained back a few pound leaving me about 2 or 3 pounds down over the last 29 hours. I sat in a chair and all the crew was there still getting me whatever I needed. I drank several cups of Coke and just savored the moment. Jason was in the tent with me and we spoke for a little bit. We had done it; we had reached our goal of running the Leadville 100 and finishing between 25 and 30 hours.
I the little over a week since the race I had some time to reflect on it. The endorphins have worn off, but the excitement of the experience has not. This was one of the best experiences of my life. This experience was in the crowds, trails, the beautiful Colorado mountains, and especially the crews of family and friends that made the journey with us. I am not sure what all this means or the significance of the journey completely, but I do know that my life will never be the same. This event was life changing. My perspective on what I am capable of is changed forever. My perspective on what you, the reader, are capable of is also changed forever.
What had become clear over the last week is that we limit ourselves to what we believe the possibilities for our lives can be. I have heard several people this week speak of what they can’t do, and I thought each time “Yes, you can.” Ken C has this saying that goes something like, you can do more than you think you can, and you’re better than you think you can be. Today, I know what he is talking about. I have always believed this, but today I have internalized this to the core of my being.
I also believe that we can do together more than we can do apart. I would not have been able to finish this race without my crew. They pushed me when I needed it, they pushed me when I didn’t need it, they pushed me when they thought I might not make it. It is, in large part, because of this group effort that I was able to reach beyond what I thought was physically, mentally, and emotionally possible. Thank you to all who traveled this journey with me. I am in indebted to you and hope to be with you when you, too, discover your possibilities.