“But if you close your eyes,does it almost feel like nothing changed at all, and if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before how am I gonna be an optimist about this?” – Pompeii by Bastille
As I sat at the Sheep’s Gulch Trailhead at 650pm, in the quiet gravel parking lot next to my friends car, sitting for the first time in 49 miles, I couldn’t help but think back on how I got there. It had not seemed like such a long day, and I felt good, but my race was over too soon again. Why?
I had arrived in Leadville on Wednesday night, slept in my car on Fremont Pass, and spent Thursday wandering Leadville. I even had an opportunity to go up to Independence Pass and hike/jog 3 miles at 12,000ft and felt really good.
On Friday, I went to the pre-race meeting, which had been moved to the Middle School from the 6th Street Gym. Given the increase in field
A pano from my hie/run on independence pass the Thursday before the race
this was probably a smart decision. It was also eye opening in regards to how many people would be out on the course. 1200 people were registered, a record number, and it was a hot topic around town. Jason, Lindsey and Jenn had arrived during the meeting and couldn’t get through to the floor space I had saved for them so I met up with them right after, and we went over crew stuff, then we went for a field trip to the aid stations and crew areas they had not been to before, and I was in bed by 7pm. I felt like I had set myself up pretty well despite the rocky 3 weeks leading to the race with my asthma acting up to the point I had to go on a prednisone treatment and a minor sprain a week before.
I fell asleep quickly, but the alarm at 2am seemed to come so quickly. I woke up; crawled out of the tent I had put up in the back yard of the Runner’s Roost/New Balance House, and wandered inside to get ready. I was wide awake but it was nice when Corky, who was also camped out back, came in so I had someone else to chat with. The house slowly woke up things seemed to be filled with positive energy. Ed said he would give us a ride to the start line, so we piled into the Roost Mobile and cruised into downtown. The energy was fantastic, there were lots of people I knew, and as almost 1000 runners packed into the starting shoot it felt more and more real. But it also felt different than all the other hundreds I have run, so many people, so much light, so much music, so much production, it didn’t feel like the home grown ultras I was used to, but all this stuff comes with always having other people to talk to on the trails I guess. I was excited to get going, and was chilly standing around in my singlet so when I saw the silhouette of Ken Choubler on the other side of the start line with his shotgun pointed up I was excited to get going. The boom of the gun sent us running and I warmed right up!
Me and Kirt before the race – photo by David Manthey
This race starts so much faster than most hundreds, or mountain ultras in general. It starts dominantly downhill, with a few ups in the first 4 miles before climbing a steep rocky hill to Turquoise Lake. I kept a good pace on this section and felt good as I kept up on calories by eating EFS Liquid Shot. We made it onto the Turquoise Lake Trail, and my fears of the conga line quickly disappeared. It seemed by going out a little bit faster I was able to avoid the slower part of it. That didn’t stop me from buying some real estate 3 miles around the lake. Thankfully the runners behind me were not trailing me too close and I was far enough from the runner in front that no one else got taken out, and someone even helped me up. The only good part of taking a fall on a technical trail early in a race like this is the jolt it gives you, reminding you of where you are!
I came into Mayqueen dead on what I was hoping for as a best-case scenario, 2:30 into the race. My crew gave me my gear for the next section, and I didn’t waste time getting back on the trail. Heading out of Mayqueen was where I could see the crowds of runners. We were everywhere, and as we funneled onto the Colorado Trail, I could see where the conga line would be. I was able to do some passing, but it was limited, and I was able to catch up to my friend Samantha and then Erik, whom I have run with at Rocky Raccoon for two years now as we popped out onto Hagerman Road.
We talked as we made our way up the road with sunrise behind us. I put myself on a one minute on, one minute off cycle to moderate pace. It worked well, and I pulled out my poles as I started up the Jeep Road to the top of the Powerline Right of Way. They were not worth it in this section. I topped out feeling good for having just made that climb, and started down. The poles were very much in my way so I ended up having to stop for a minute to put them away, but the run down went well. Samantha and I ran together for a bit again, reminiscing on the time we ran this section on a training run in the rain a year before and had a rainbow come out as we worked our way over the top of the last hump before dropping down to the road. It was a fun part of the race running with my friend and getting to chat as we ran.
My stomach was acting up as I came down the last bit, but was better when I came up the trail onto the paved road that leads to Outward Bound. I was surprised to see my crew there, but happy. My legs were tired so having that extra bit with smiling faces couldn’t hurt. I told them I would need them at Outward Bound too, because they had the wet wipes and body glide so I could hit the porta potty there and I didn’t want to risk lingering when that occurred. They agreed, cheered me on and I headed out. I had promised myself that the paved section of the course would not eat me alive again. I also knew that keeping myself centered in the moment was the best way to keep myself moving, so I put myself back on a firm one minute on/off cycle for anything uphill and running all of the downs, so I made great time to Outward Bound. I have found that when I put everything in manageable pieces I do far better mentally, and that would also ensure that I would run over half of the road, since I was also running the entirety of all of the downs.
When I came into Outward Bound Aid Station there were so many people everywhere it was hard to tell which way was which. My stomach
a photo David Manthey took of me coming through Mayqueen
had gotten better, so I opted to keep going knowing it wouldn’t wait past Treeline. Erik and I had been playing hopscotch this whole time, and this was no exception. The road between Powerline and Treeline had eaten me alive the year before, and I ended up walking way too much of it, so I kept myself on a strong 1 min on/off cycle here as well, and set my Garmin Fenix to buzz and beep every minute, which again put everything into manageable bits, and it was keeping me cruising. I started calling the minute run my ‘one minute grind’ in a joking way. I also focused on centering myself. Part of the minute off/on routine was intended to keep me in the moment, centered in the present and focused on always pushing hard forward.
I made up time in this section without being stupid, was staying positive, and before I knew it was at Treeline, but now my GI track was talking to me loudly. When I came in I thought I saw Jenns red hair at the far end of the crew area so I called her name and waved at her then headed to the porta potties. My stomach was angry and I lost about 6 minutes here. I had hoped my crew had seen me but when they didn’t come down, I had to get my pack from outside the porta potty grab my emergency body glide to make sure things stayed lubed up and when I was done I was ready to roll again. I headed to the end of the area and the crew wasn’t there! I felt panic surge through me. I had only packed enough food for the section between Outward Bound and Treeline, and that was long gone. Half Pipe Aid Station was 2 miles away, and this would put me behind calories but I knew if I pushed on, it might be my best bet. I had a drop bag there, and I knew I had another EFS Liquid Shot there that would hopefully get me through to Twin Lakes. I pulled out my phone as I kept moving, I couldn’t stay any longer, I had already lingered 10 mins total and they said they were on their way but were stuck in traffic and I was still ahead of my split. I wasn’t going backwards on the course, so we talked briefly on the phone, and I pushed onwards. I kept my cycle going all the way to Half Pipe, and was happy to see it when I came in.
A volunteer outside of the Aid Station asked if I needed my drop bag, I said yes, she took my number, and I went to take care of what I could while they grabbed my bag, something that has always happened when volunteers ask those questions. I made use of the medical section to get Vaseline. I looked over to where the drop bags that had been requested were being set, and mine wasn’t there, so I went to ask, and no one had gotten it. As the volunteers went to get it, I made my way to the aid station tent, which had less than I was used to for food, so I got some soda, a handful of chips, and went back to the drop bag area. My bag was still not there, but there was a flurry of activity by the building the volunteer had run to, and a minute or two later someone appeared with my bag in their hand.
Excited to finally get it, but getting panicked with the time I was losing, I reached in, grabbed the handheld, the EFS, mixed up the EFS with water as quickly as possible and took off. So far I had lost 20 minutes to aid stations in the last 4 miles, which was too much. I put myself back on track with my run walk cycle, and made time. I was passing people, running moderate ups I remembered walking the year before, and was optimistic until I ran out of the EFS.
With 5 miles to go to Twin Lakes, I was out of salt, electrolytes and food. So I stayed positive instead. I pushed myself onwards but since I had a deficit coming into Half Pipe, the calories provided by the Liquid Shot did not go far. I felt myself bonking as I headed up the Colorado Trail, climbing steadily, still passing people, but not at the rate I had been. When I topped out I was getting nauseous, I almost threw up drinking water a couple of times, but pushed myself onwards. By the Mt. Elbert Water Drop I was starving, my stomach was growling (at least I was hungry!), and the volunteers had a giant bag of tortilla chips on the table. I asked, and got a curt reply that they were for volunteers only and that it was only 3 miles to Twin Lakes.
I have to be honest, this was like a kick in the gut. I had volunteered at Aid Stations before, including course marshaled and one thing I had learned a long time before was never put anything in eyeshot of runners at an Ultra that you are not willing to share. I know that is a water only stop, and they are doing their best as volunteers, and this is not intended as a knock to them. Right at that moment though, seeing that food made my body scream for calories even louder, which was not their fault or issue, it just was what it was. My muscles were now stiffening, and hurting quite a bit. My legs were tired enough from pushing through despite the lack of calories that running downhill on the steep trail became difficult at best. I walked much more of that trail than I wanted to, and lost tons of time. When I came into Twin Lakes at 125pm, a mere 35 minutes before the cut off, I was in a bad head space.
Jenn was waiting at the bottom of the hill and I immediately broke down as we walked to the crew area. As we passed the Runners Roost tent it was a boost to have them ask if I needed anything as well. I sat down, changed shoes, lubed up with Tri-Slide and ate as much as I could. I have to say that my crew had made a little bit of everything I could possibly want to make sure I ate, which was awesome. They really were fantastic!
I headed out, but with my legs still feeling blown, and the calories not hitting my blood stream yet, I walked more of the flats than I should have. When I hit the bottom of the pass, I still felt horrible. I looked at my watch, and began to question my ability to make the time I needed to in order to get up to Hopeless before the cut. I paused a couple of times on the trail, and even took a couple of steps backwards at one point. I really felt like I was in an impossible situation. What do I do? Keep going just to be cut? I knew I would have to come down on foot regardless. The whole time I was moving forward, but it seemed grudgingly.
While still low on the pass I decided I was going to push on as hard as I could, like the year before, no matter what, things got better. I started making time, and after the last switchbacks that put the trail above the headwall, I started cruising. I realized that I was doing ok, I could easily make the cut with 15 minutes or so to spare at my pace, and I would make up time on the South side descent and bounce back from this.
The positive thoughts, and calories that were now catching up in my system were doing wonders and I felt great. I saw the last little switchback before the long straight away to the aid station about ¾ of a mile away and got excited, this was going to happen! I was making this happen! I saw a runner standing on the switchback as I approached, and wondered what was going on, and then I saw her.
There was a runner, looking bad sitting on the side of the trail. I asked the other runner if they needed help, hoping the answer would be no, but I was wrong. He explained she had been there a long time, 30-40 minutes, couldn’t walk on her own, and wouldn’t go anywhere. There was only one choice I could see in front of me. No buckle would be worth leaving this runner here, with another person who couldn’t get her moving on his own. My brain screamed for me to just go, to get the cutoff, I could just let the aid station know, but who knew what was wrong, and if I left, and something happened to her, I couldn’t live with it, so I sat next to her, and asked what was wrong. She explained (and I am not going into details about her issues because that is for her to share with people if she wants, not me), and we eventually convinced her to let us help her stand.
Once she was up, the other runner (who I would later find out was a pacer for another runner that had volunteered to take supplies to
A photo I took of runners coming up Hope Pass as I headed down
Hopeless since his runner had dropped) took her pack, and I had her put her arm over my shoulder and proceeded to give her walking assist most of the way to Hopeless. As we slowly worked our way up the trail, the runner made a comment to me that she knew I was sacrificing making the cuts right at that moment. I smiled, and told both her and the other person helping that I didn’t care, but I felt my stomach tighten a bit. Somewhere in me I needed this finish, badly. But the reality was, it was gone, and I reminded myself that making sure she was safe was way more important than any buckle. I was doing my best to detach from the need to finish, and did a pretty good job. I needed this to feel like it was ok, like it would be ok, and I did a good job of it. As we neared the aid station another volunteer came running down he trail, and took over for me. Shortly thereafter I asked if I could head up ahead of them. Part of me wanted to come into the aid station strong, even though I knew I was at the cut.
I came into Hopeless about 3 minutes after the cut. The volunteer took my medical wristband, and my race was done. I shrugged, and walked up to the aid station. Two of my friends, Karen and Sean (both amazing runners) came flying into the aid station on the return as I wandered into the aid station. It was strange, because I felt somewhat detached as I explained, a little numb. They headed out, and I found another of my friends at the aid station chilling out. I old her very matter-of-factly what happened, looked off towards the runners coming down hope and suddenly felt the emotions well up. Right then I told myself I would not have a repeat of the year before. This was all under my control at this point, I needed to get down, and I needed to be strong. I knew my teammates would be coming through and there was no way I was going to mess up their races by being anything other than positive. My emotions were something I could control at this point so I did.
It was strange, I pretty much completely detached from the race, it suddenly felt like I wasn’t even a runner, like the previous 45.5 miles were nothing but dust in the wind. A volunteer came trotting down the trail from the summit of the pass, and when he saw my green hair told me some of my friends were up on the pass, and that they had been cheering for runners up there. I headed up after checking with the Aid Station Staff first and getting the ok to go over the pass to Windfield. The captain told me they had no way to communicate with Winfield anyway, so my crew would probably be over there waiting, and my friends, I knew would have a car down below as well.
I met my friends who had been cheering all day long on the pass, enjoyed a moment looking out across the Sawatch Range from the top of Hope Pass. I turned and looked across the horizon to the North, and pointed out to Jason, Jesse, Lindsey and Jessica where I started at 4am, far across the valley, the town of Leadville tiny in comparison to the vast mountain landscape below. It struck me for a minute, I may be done with this race, and I wished I could finish, but I had come a really long way. It felt good, but there was still a bit of an empty feeling in my stomach.
I was able to be really positive for the first half of the descent cheering on runners because I was able to focus on helping another runner. As it sank in a bit more, ran ahead of my friends and finished the descent running except to step off the trail periodically.
I had planned to get a ride to Winfield with my friends anyway, but when I came up to the turn on the trail to Winfield I found out that the race was starting to push runners down to Sheep’s Gulch so I continued down. I got there well ahead of anyone else, and when I got to the bottom took an opportunity to have moment of real silence alone until my friends caught up.
It had been a full day, with lots to think through, and honestly, even after my friends met me and I got back to the campsite I hadn’t totally worked through everything.
Now, a full week later, I think I am settled in my shoes regarding this race. It never feels good to DNF, but at the end of the day I know a couple of very important things. First, everything that happened was within my control on some level. Last year, I felt like the race had been stolen from me, this year I don’t. Second, I was able to have some good come out of a bad situation because even though it was the final blow to my race, my race ended with a good deed. I want to be clear about a couple of things though.
First, I was well behind my splits when I came up on the hurt runner. I put myself in a position when I could be cut in the first place. I know that, and at the end of the day, my DNF was principally because of that. Secondly, I see helping the runner as something that simply had to happen and she was not the reason I DNF’d. Had I been far enough ahead of the cuts, I could have helped and still made the cuts. I do not want anyone thinking I failed to finish because I helped the runner, I failed to finish because I failed to stay on the splits I should have kept. If she was there 30-40 minutes, I could have helped her 40 minutes earlier and still made the cuts.
Finally, and most importantly, I have come to realize that these races, ultra’s are amazing ways to test ourselves in supported conditions. However, at the end of the day, its another day on the trails. Sometimes we have good days, and sometimes we have bad. The weeks leading up to this race were not good weeks for me, and my body was not where it needed to be for this outing. I spent 3 weeks prior to this race hoping that my lungs would recover from some serious issues, and protecting my ankle from a sprain I stupidly acquired the week before. I did not come into this race with my body healed completely from those things, that was an issue. My body was still coughing when I started, and I am sure that did not help.
All of that being said I went out ran hard and pushed myself. I learned more about myself, and how to stay centered. I grew mentally, physically and spiritually, and in that I know I walked away a better person than when I started. Everyone who knows me, knows this is why I run these races, not for the buckle, not for bragging rights, but for the journey the growth I experience along the way. In that sense, I was more successful than I could have ever hoped. I kept my principles, and my ideals regarding how I would like to always treat myself and others when put in a position where I could have easily left her and kept running, chasing a goal. I acted in the way I always hoped I would, and that’s important to me. So, I am ending this race report with a quote in response to end of the quote I started with; “How am I gonna be an optimist about this”.
“And with dust in throat I crave only knowledge will I save to the game you stay a slave; roamer, wanderer, nomad, vagabond call me what you will.
But I’ll take my time anywhere, free to speak my mind anywhere and I’ll redefine anywhere, anywhere I roam, where I lay my head is home”
– Where Ever I May Roam by Metallica