Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dances With Dirt in Hell -- 100k Relay

A sample of conversations you might overhear at Dances With Dirt in Hell:

"Where are we?  Everything's bovine."

"Did you do the stripper pole?"

"I'm a cheating bastard."

"This sucks."

"Someone took down the trail markers."

"If she doesn't hurry up she's going to ride home naked."

Angels and demons in Hell

On Saturday, September 22, 2012 I had the pleasure of joining several hundred other lovely nutcases in Pinckney and Hell, Michigan for the annual Dances with Dirt in Hell 100k relay, put on by Running Fit.  The day also includes a 50k and 50 mile option, and I was frankly relieved to not be running an ultra today.  My three legs would only total 17 miles, and I planned on having fun ripping through the woods and cheering on my relay teammates.

For years I've been hearing about the antics at DWD Hell that make this race sell out within days if not hours, and this year I had the last minute opportunity to experience it myself on a team with Jennifer, Shawn, Mitch, and Nicole, for they needed a fifth runner, unfortunately due to injury.  I told Alaina that I was doing the relay so she jumped at the chance to join a very competitive, fast group of women who needed another runner.  They called themselves The Bobcats...because they're too young to be cougars.

Left to right: Nicole, me (blinding!), Shawn, Mitch

The Bobcats.  Because they're too young to be cougars.

One piece of this race that stokes everyone's embers is the team costume contest, which is a riot to watch, from men in ladies clothes, to Sesame Street characters, to St. Pauli girls, but equally as creative were the team vehicle decorations and team banners that signalled to incoming runners where their next runner would be waiting.

Handsome ladies, eh?
Vehicle design as important as costume design

Team Beat Jon Kramer was everywhere - even had stickers in the porta potties.
Don't be a chicken in the mud.
The cleanest these maids will be all day

Motivation is key to the day
The beatings will continue until morale improves
The 100k relay race is a series of 15 legs, most of them point-to-point, with each team member running 3 legs of their choice, or rather their misfortune, since every leg features gnarly hills, bushwhacking, and "some stupid spots" (RD's words of choice right there), which could be briar patches, mud up to your hips, running up a river, hand-over-hand climbs, or all of these combined.  Add to that the fact that it rained all night and most of the day of the race, and it's a recipe for big fun in the mud.

Shawn started the first leg, The Stampede, living up to its name with a sprint start out of the gate.  Cheers were roaring this cold morning, and teams were ready to run.

Extremely fast start
Our team's flamme orange was highly visible for incoming teammates
Shawn came blazing into the chute of teams with their flags and banners and we hi fived to send me off into the woods for The Buttslider, a 4.55 mile trail stretch cut straight out of the brush, soft dirt underfoot on a cambered pitch, and at least a dozen fallen trees to climb over and under.  I was tearing through the woods with hoots and whelps, hardly able to contain my excitement at running hard through dense forest.  Soon I caught up to a conga line of 10 or so runners and was halted to a walk.  The brush was so dense that I simply could not pass for minutes at a time before I just ran with head down straight through bushes, briars, tree branches, etc around the other runners.  

I'd start running for a few minutes before repeating the same thing: 10 or so runners in a row and nowhere to go, so I settled in line and went around when I could.  A ripe patch of ankle-deep, spongy horse mud pulled hard at my shoes and I heard more than a few yelps behind me, we got our money's worth of "stupid" on this leg.  

Finally the trail opened up onto the Potto and I hammered it home, finishing on a familiar stretch into the chute at Silver Lake for a 39:12 leg at 8:18/mi pace, though I did have the section long on the Garmin at 4.72.  Alaina did this section a few seconds faster than me, so bragging rights so far belonged to her.  That dang fast wife of mine!

Race ready vehicle

As we traded relay legs from runner to runner, each of us came in with war stories of the ridiculous trail, the pain, the cold, and the fun.  One of the many highlights of this race was getting to know my teammates and cheering everyone on.  I haven't been on a team since pairing with Alaina at American Triple-T, and not on a group team since playing a couple games with a rec softball team in college, so the team experience energized me and turned the fun up to eleven.

My next leg was Purgatory, a 5.5 mile section on the Potto (hills) with some dirt road running (flat), where I was able to open up my stride and put in some faster miles.  This one was all about loving the lung pain and burying my head into my chest on the roads and soaking in the positive vibes of the forest.  I came into Hell Ranch, which was the start/finish area of the Hallucination 100 just 3 weeks ago, and the memories of that race spurred me into the chute to tag Nicole, who pulled the notorious This Sucks leg.  I hammered this section in 38:15 at 6:51/mi, which was 1 minute faster than my last leg, which was 1 mile shorter.  Feeling groovy now.  

This Sucks. Photo courtesy of WCRZ

Nicole, after This Sucks, with the team

Nicole cleans up in the ice bath at Pinckney Elementary School after This Sucks. 
Nicole had probably the worst leg of the day in This Sucks, not only because of the hip-deep mud, but because someone had removed the trail markers, and basically everyone got lost.  Since we were running a little behind finishing schedule, we had to become Cheating Bastards, which means you send off your next runner before the previous comes in.  And you must yell (and have everyone around you yell) "I'M A CHEATING BASTARD!"  in good fun.  The time adjustments are written on a card to reflect time spent running and submitted at the finish.  

When Nicole came in, covered in mud, we took her over to have her shoes power washed by volunteers from the community, and got washed up in a freezing cold tub on an even colder day.  Brrr!  I decided it was time for a cold beer, so I joined the day's tailgaters and cracked a PBR and cheered in Jennifer, coming back from her leg, Stripper Pole, named for the hand-over-hand climbs; she got some very nasty hill sections in Hell.

The rain and wind picked up as we drove from point to point to hand off runners, the team members revelling in the warmth of the truck and fuelling on Snack Packs, Ensure, potatoes, PBJ, and Cheetos, of course!  

Shawn pulled the Hell Creek river running section, which crosses the creek four times before running straight down the middle of it, all while the rain came lashing down.  Brutal.

Nicole and I freezing with our team flag
After my teammates ran a few more fantastically-executed legs back at the party-zone at Silver Lake, we drove to Half Moon Lake, the start/finish of this race, where I was anxiously awaiting my last and longest leg, Vertigo, a 7 mile, hilly segment of the Potto, rolling dirt roads, and some bush-whacking sections.  

Alaina was also running this section, so I knew I had to throw down something filthy to have a shot at bragging rights in the house.  Granted, she was already done with this leg before I started it since her team was so damn fast -- so fast in fact that they WON fastest all-women's relay team today, and she definitely motivated me.

Now that hurt. I went deep into the pain cave to pull this one out.  My legs were screaming from the start, and my lungs were burning the whole time.  We finished at this cow farm that looked like eastern Kansas with its rolling green hills and I felt like I was on another planet from the oxygen deprivation from running hard.  I hung on the edge of 6:20/mi - 6:40/mi during the dirt roads and mustered just under 8/mi on the hilly trails.  In the end, I managed 50:23 or 7:02/mi on average for this leg, and happy to say that I beat Alaina by 5 minutes!  Bragging rights, yah?

Jennifer handing off to me at Half Moon
Ah, now I could crack some Bell's Kalamazoo Stouts and cheer my teammates in with some additional gusto since my legs were over.  Everyone ran brilliantly, and just to top the day of rather foul weather off, Jennifer ran the final leg through a brief but powerful thunderstorm, but we all ran in through the finishing chute together before grabbing our medals and the two hot pizzas and icy pop the race organizers had ready for us.  What an awesome day.

My proud, happy team at the finish

Dances With Dirt in Hell lived up to its name and its reputation, and if you ever get a chance to put a team together for this 100k relay, I strongly suggest you do so.  See ya' in Hell!

Can you tell me how to get to Hell Street?

The Bobcats won pitchers, pint glasses, and flashlights as first place all-female team

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hallucination 100 Run -- Race Report

“There is an answer / I haven’t found it / But I will keep dancing ‘til I do”
- Dirty Projectors, Dance for You

Buckle Hungry
Three weeks before this race I took on the Leadville Trail 100, my first attempt at a hundo. The training was in my legs at Leadville, but the altitude took me out and I DNF’d at mile 80. So after coming home from Colorado, I signed up for the local 100 miler, just 20 miles from my doorstep, the Hallucination 100.

 The course is a 16.66 mile loop that you do 6 times. All at breathe-able sea level. Ahhh, smell that? That’s my lungs functioning properly. Most of the course is on trails, some on the Potto, a trail I’ve run dozens of times, but there’s a significant portion on the rolling dirt roads too.

The 100 is part of Run Woodstock, Running Fit’s three day festival of races, which includes lots of other distances and even a “natural run” on Friday night. (un?)Fortunately, we didn’t see any birds in nests out on course this year. The race is odd in that it starts at 4pm, and you run all through the night early on.

Because I still had Leadville miles leeching my legs, I knew wouldn’t be 100%, but I hiked more than ran in CO, so maybe ye olde sticks would have something to give. All week leading up to the race I was cooler than the other side of the pillow. I visualized myself crossing the finish line, reminded myself how well I fueled and paced at Leadville, and felt that buckle hunger in my belly.

Me in white, Jon in stripes at the start.  

Despite all that confidence, on race day I couldn’t get my stomach to settle. Gas-X, tums, water, only gluten-free foods, I tried them all. Oh well, let’s roll the dice on this running thing.

Before the race, Alaina and I talked with a couple from AZ who have run the Copper Canyon race, knew Caballo Blanco, and were involved with the Mas Locos. Cool couple.

 I caught up with Jon, who I knew had big plans for this race, and the man was ready to rock this afternoon. As we lined up at the start, he asked, “are you sure you don’t want to run with me the first 60 miles? We can race the last 40!?” I mean, who says that kind of shit? Damn ultrarunners. Race for 40 miles! Heh. So when we took off doing sub-8 minute miles in the first ½ mile, I backed off and said, ‘I’m not getting caught up in that noise’.

First Loop: Miles 0 - 16.66

And so it begins. I was sweating like Christopher Walken in Deer Hunter at the start, being mid 80s and humid as a cigar chest out there. Might have gotten a touch dehydrated this first loop. The goal was to keep the effort super easy, go for 3:15 per loop or 11:49/mi and take in solid foods as well as I could. If I could run even splits for each loop, I might just have enough to run hard on the last loop.

I saw three guys go way out in front, and then Jon running with the course record holder, Marc, and then a couple other guys, and then me. I was probably sitting in 10th place this entire loop. Didn’t matter though, for all I wanted was a finish. First or last place, 18 hours or 30 hours, I don’t care, I just want that buckle today.

Go time.  Photo courtesy of Jonathan Clinthorne

So I’m running along at mile 2 on the hot dry trail, and I feel some dirt cling to my legs. I brush it off with my hand and dammit if it isn’t a swath of bees on my legs. A hot iron pierces my ankle and it's clear that one of them sumbeetches has tagged me, right through my sock and everything, hitting the spot of the one injury I’ve had all year, peroneal tendinitis. I’m sprinting now, whacking at my legs and shouting to the runner behind me BEES! BEES! But apparently that runner was the bee whisperer and didn’t get stung at all.  'Stay calm', I told myself, only 98 miles to go, and nothing you can do about that stabbing pain in your ankle.

About half way through this loop I met some new running friends to talk with, wife/husband pair, Emily and Todd Bello, fellow triathletes and ultrarunners, who were going for the Midwest Grand Slam, four 100 mile races in a single year: Kettle Moraine, Mohican, Burning River, and Hallucination. Emily told this incredible story of how she crashed her bike training for IM Wisconsin last year, just a couple months before the race, breaking her collarbone and other bones, and they were forced to ride bikes on the trainer inside the entire summer. But they finished IM MOO! They train and do all their races together, which made me miss Alaina but glad to be in good company.

My plan was to run a bit faster in the first loop of full daylight before 11 hours of night running, so I took off by myself the rest of the loop. The last 8 miles of each loop are hillier than the first, so I pow hiked the hills and navigated the many turns, attempting to memorize the course as a recce for the dark miles.  I happen to have a profound gift for getting lost on these damn long runs. Finished the first loop in 2:43, definitely too fast, but I knew night running would slow me down.

Starting early on, but really for the entire race, I was moved by this Dirty Projectors line from "Dance for You": "There is an answer / I haven't found it / But I will keep dancing 'til I do"

Came into the campground to huge cheers, saw Alaina, who filled up my handheld with gels, gave me a couple potatoes to eat, and got my headlamp on. I kissed her, told her I love her, and went off for the second loop. She was my ultra crew of one, and she was fabulous.

Second Loop: Miles 16.66 - 33.32
I took down a couple small potatoes like they were golden delicious apples and immediately felt my stomach yell up to me, ‘hey, asshat, I’m working overtime down here trying to get things settled down and you just threw 100 grams of low GI carbs into the pipes. F-you!’

Potato eat good.
My stomach didn’t feel so good on the first loop, but on this loop it really went on me, feeling bloated and nauseous and forcing me to lower my effort level until it cleared up. I popped another Gas-X and took Tums at every aid station, but my body was not liking this one bit. On top of that, my legs were stiff and suffering by mile 20. I mean, I thought they’d give me until 30 before going out, but Leadville was still barking. So I decided that I needed to go to an 8 minute run / 2 minute walk regimen. This would help settle my stomach and take some of the pain off running.

As darkness settled in, I began to realize that I was in a very familiar spot in the race: far back from the leaders, but well ahead of the main pack. It was going to be a lonely night, and I reminded myself to grab my ipod at the start/finish so that I’d have some podcast company. I actually started obsessing over the loneliness a little. I imagined that I was running with the 3 Non Joggers -- well, not Carl The Mailman, but he was there via phoner -- and we were taping a show live on course. Russ was making fun of my lycra shorts, Gary the Vale was evaluating the merits of potatoes, and Carl was yelling at Gary.

And then it started raining. At first I opened my arms up to the heavens like Andy in Shawshank when he crawls out of the pipe to freedom. Cool and refreshing! I’ve never felt such relief in my life! How could this get any better?!

I came in on this loop at 3:03, much more on target, and Alaina was waiting there again for me! She was racing the half-marathon in the morning, and I thought for sure she’d be off to sleep in the Element. I told her I couldn’t have any solid foods, so she got me more gels, gave me the ipod for company and sent me right off again.

Third Loop: Miles 33.32 - 50

The rain felt awesome -- Oh how I tricked myself into thinking that wolf was a sheep -- and the trail was still pretty decent in most places but getting slick in others. I laughed with 3NJ and tried to keep moving steadily, sticking tightly to the 8/2 run/walk strategy.

Gradually, the rain turned into a downpour, and then the wind picked up and the rain came in sideways. Then the water fell in buckets so hard that my headlamp was nearly useless and the trail turned into muck, with sections that were totally flooded and smelled like horse crap. I took fewer walk breaks because I needed to keep moving to stay warm. The rain was a My Bloody Valentine song, droning and unflagging, absolutely ripping into me. I was still just in my singlet and lycra shorts, basically nekkid out there and now I was freezing. My hands went numb next and I started obsessing over hot chicken broth. Then my ipod died, killed by the rain. I was all alone again.

I started seeing frogs. Everywhere. Small frogs darting across the trail, giant frogs the size of my fist in the larger puddles, the trail was covered in frogs, came alive with bouncing frogs. I thought for sure I was hallucinating but these things were real, man.

As I came to the last, hilliest section, which has a bunch of turns, I glanced at my watch and saw the mileage creeping very close to 16.66. WTF, I should be at the campground. I should be able to hear the campground. Where am I?! Did I miss a turn?! I’m panicked, I’m cold and tired and it’s pouring and I feel like I’m on a mobius strip, stuck in a vortex of pain and cold and wet and I start yelling “HELP! Is anyone there?!” Big fat dead silence. I run up to a trail signpost, trying to navigate my way back, but the arrow pointing to the next signpost is literally pointed directly into the brush. I’m sprinting away now, following flags backwards and seeing the mileage on my Garmin cross 17 miles before I come upon the greatest sign on earth: “PINK TO CAMPGROUND”. Ok, I’ll be Ok. So I added an extra mile somehow, and I’ll be more careful next time. Just get me some broth!

I made it in to the start/finish aid station at 3:21, but really not bad for going an extra mile and stopping to read trail signs. My friend Steve was at the aid station and I barely even recognized him in my freaked state, but how awesome when I came to! He helped me right away get some broth and change my shoes and socks and headlamp batteries. Thank you Steve! There were a bunch of Hell’s Angels’ looking dudes in the tent, like 6’6” and 250+ pounds, with Budweisers in hand and beer cans stuffed in their leather jackets, hollering, “CAN I GET YOU SOME SOUP?!” in seriously the most helpful way possible. Like aggressively helpful, but they were there in the middle of the night and running that joint.

Fourth Loop: Miles 50 - 66.66

I made it about 2 miles into this loop, riding the high of the aid station, before I realized that I made a really really stupid mistake. No poncho. I forgot it in my drop bag at the start/finish area! I had fresh warm shoes and socks, but I was only wearing my little tri top singlet (soaking wet) and the wind had picked up on the Lakelands path section, the rain was unflagging lashes, and here I was.

Just like at Leadville, this was a very dark period in the race. It’s about 2 a.m., I’m freezing and cold and in a lot of pain, and the finish -- hell, even daylight -- looks impossibly far away. Maybe I should quit at the 100k mark and get a finish time for that. Still an ultra, right? No one would wonder why, I mean this sucks. It’s been raining for 6 hours!

I have no specific memories of the rest of this loop. I must’ve completely blacked out. It kept raining. My second iPod died, probably killed by the rain as well. I passed runners on the dirt road section like ships in the night. A little wave to them and one back, but it was silent as a grave out there.

I came into the start/finish aid station through ankle-deep puddles at 3:14, and somehow I was still on target for a sub-20 hour finish.  But even more amazing was that Alaina was there! She got up at dark o’clock to see me before my 5th loop!

Fifth Loop: Miles 66.66 - 83.32

What a whiny child I became in that aid station. Alaina got me a dry shirt, took the soaked buff off my head and got me a dry hat, arm sleeves, and my poncho. I kept saying in this pleading, goaty voice, ‘I need to get out of here’ over and over. wah. I looked around the aid station and it was lined with frozen, bone colored runners in blankets. People were waiting out the storm, waiting until morning light, waiting to see if they wanted to drop. I needed to get out of there!

So I went back out covered in warm gear and a poncho and POOF the rain stopped. My whole focus then became getting to mile 80 and beyond. I held Leadville in my gut and pushed on and on through leg pain that shook my frame. Sure, I wasn’t getting any faster, but I wasn’t slowing down too much either, despite the mud slides and flooded trails.

Daylight crept in on cat’s feet and I thought for sure it would bring renewed energy. But after staring through the headlamp induced tunnel vision, the light just tripped me out and made me dizzy. I downed a couple gels at a time to combat the weariness and sank myself deeply in the songs in my ears: Neil Young, Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Pavement, one after another song seemed to be speaking directly to me right then.

End of 5th Loop.  Photo courtesy of Jonathan Clinthorne
Mile 80 came up on my Garmin, and I stared at it while I ran. You’re going down, mile 80, I’m going to run past you and keep going and I’m going to finish this race. I’m going to put Leadville DNF behind me and I’m never looking back. I can do this. Redemption will happen today. I can finish this race!

Finished this loop in my race-worst 3:22, which I found out later was actually the fastest fifth loop of any runner.

Sixth Loop: Miles 83.32 - 100

This is it. Time to get behind the mule and plow. You’re going to kill this loop.

I don’t know where the energy came from, but I started hammering.  It might have been the power of the Cheetos, which was the only solid food I’d been able to eat since loop two, but I could actually hold an 11 minute per mile average pace, even with the walk breaks. I calculated whether I could go under 19 hours -- a total dream at the start -- and I knew that if I threw down something nasty I’d just barely have a shot.

The trail got hot again and very humid, and it also got crowded with all the other distance runners sharing the same course. As conga lines of half-marathon and marathon runners formed, I found myself running past many of them, through the brush, through the muck, up and down the hills.

I heard encouragement from other runners unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at any other race. Runners were clapping for me and telling me I looked great, and I couldn’t help but smile. I love the ultra community. I cheered them back. A couple runners I went past asked, “Are you in second?” I shook my head incredulously, ‘Naw, I don’t know where I am!' They laughed and hollered, “Dude, you’re totally in second!” No. F-in. Way. I had absolutely no idea. But 2nd!!!

A Springsteen live performance came on the ipod, one where he tells the story of how he and his dad fought a lot when he was young, but when Bruce gets his draft card and subsequently fails his physical, his dad, who previously said the Army would fix him, is filled with relief that his son won’t be going to Vietnam. The story choked me up and I cried tears into the dirt. I wished that I could’ve finished Leadville so that my Dad could’ve caught me at the finish line, I wished he was here to see me finish this. My parents were at Leadville and poured their energy into crewing for me and helping me get as far as I did and I needed to finish this to say ‘thank you’ for everything.

I came running down the dirt road into Grace aid station at mile 96 and saw Alaina running toward me. I couldn’t believe Alaina was there for me! She was going to pace me in for the last 4 miles. I handed her my water bottle and asked her to fill it as I kept going down the trail.

I ran much harder here finding that extra gear, holding 10 m/m pace and completely filled with happiness at having Alaina for the end of the race. But where was she? I felt like I’d gone a mile since the aid station and she wasn’t there. And then I saw her grinning face sprinting down the trail, gasping ‘I had to sprint all the way here! You’re doing great!’

I started singing Reason to Believe at the top of my lungs and for the first time I REALLY knew that I was going to finish a 100 hundred miler for the first time. I hit lap at mile 99 and told Alaina we were going for it. Let’s hammer this thing home. We smoked the last mile in 8:52.

As I entered the campground at the finish, Alaina pumped up the spectators, calling “100 mile finisher here!” and I heard all the cheers and claps. I ran hard all the way through the finishing banner, which was basked in sunlight, and I screamed with joy, threw my arms up in the air, pumped my fist, and spiked my water bottle on the ground. I’ve never ever at any other race felt the kind of rush of happiness that I did crossing that finish line.

18:41 and a Second Place Overall Finish. Official results and splits here.  I thought I was right on the edge of 19 hours, but had no idea I was that far under. My first watch had died before I could check my total time, and I was running with Alaina’s watch at the end.

Redemption was mine. The weight of my DNF at Leadville fell off my shoulders and I felt totally free. I went over to the aid station to congratulate my friend Jonathan Clinthorne on his incredible 18:10 win and danced a ridiculous jig when I saw him, so happy for everything he’s earned. He held up his giant gold record plaque for winning with an even bigger smile.

I wandered off to a grassy patch and felt the tunnel vision come back and I fell in slow motion to my knees and tried not to throw up. Jon’s mom brought me some food, drink, and a chair as she saw me going down. I sat and talked with Jon and Jason and Kai and a lot of other great people as we waited for the next 100 mile finishers.

I curled up in a blanket with my Cheetos and tried not to puke, feeling feverish and yet so happy. Redemption!  My last lap was in 2:57, which was my second fastest loop the entire day and the fastest sixth loop of any runner.

Huge thanks to Alaina for everything she does, to Steven Rose for emergency crewing, to Erin O'Mara for getting Alaina to the final aid station, and to everyone who has supported me in this journey.  It means the world to me. 

Before and after shot
My buckle for the finish and bus for winning my AG. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Clinthorne
My zombie walk post-race. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Clinthorne.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Leadville Trail 100 Run -- Race Report

The End

Midnight at 11,000 feet above sea level. I’m at mile 80 of 100, listening to the power lines above me buzz in my ears like I’m on nitrous. But I’m not laughing. I’m hiking up Sugarloaf Pass, which might as well be the Cliffs of Despair that I’m trying to climb right now. I can walk about 20 steps before getting so dizzy and out of breath that I’m coughing and I’m stopped again. Now I’m swaying side to side, even though I have trekking poles keeping me upright. Each step feels like I’m walking through waist deep water -- I’m so very slow, yet I’m moving at max speed. My legs don’t hurt, but they’re full of kryptonite, unable to tap any strength despite the fact that I have plenty left. Flippin’ altitude, man.

I say to my pacer, Mark, a friend from high school, ‘I think I’m gonna throw up.’ He tells me to just keep moving forward, one step at a time. Just put one foot in front of the other. But I’m on all fours, retching water and potato skins all over the ground over and over again. My body starts shaking violently and I’m freezing, feverish. Mark starts stripping off the extra pants he’s wearing and rubbing my arms to warm me up. Can we ever thank our pacers enough? I don’t think so.

On the ground in the fetal position, waiting for the spins to stop and my body temperature to steady, with head between my legs, and I’m starting to realize that the altitude sickness symptoms I’ve been struggling with all day are here for good and they’re going to get a lot worse. And I still have 2 miles of steep climbing to the top of the Pass, where there’s even less oxygen, and more importantly, less chance that emergency aid could get to me if my body shuts down completely, if my lungs continue to fill with whatever is causing me to cough whenever I take a gulp of air. I’m not going to make it up there. This is as far as I’m going at Leadville. 80 miles. I’ve pushed my body to its limit on this day, at this altitude, and going forward is not safe.

If this were merely pain, if this were a nutrition or digestive issue, if this were something that could’ve been remedied by giving it time or putting something different into or on my body, I would’ve done it. But my body was rejecting the altitude and shutting down in ways that scared me for my own health and safety.

And that’s ok. I went to Leadville to dig deep into myself, to see what my body and mind could do when tested to the limit. And that’s exactly what I got from the Leadville Trail 100. I didn’t regret my decision to DNF when they cut my timing chip. I didn’t regret my decision the next morning, and I still don’t regret it writing this. I had a great race, maybe even one of my best-executed races ever, and I’d seen beauty unlike anywhere else on earth. That is truly a great race.

Why Leadville?

A cold snap in November 2011, 9 months before Leadville. One month after going sub-3 at the Chicago marathon and setting a PR at the half-marathon. Two months after deciding that I needed a break from triathlons. A couple months after winning my first race overall, a trail half-marathon. All signs said, let’s run.

One fall morning last year, I read that BTer Dick Dime, aka Richard Paradis, who I met at Kansas 70.3, registered for the Leadville Trail 100, just two years after suffering a traumatic brain injury resulting from a bike accident. I was inspired. I thought he’d gotten into Leadville via lottery, but when I looked up the registration process, I realized that I too could sign up for the Race Across the Sky. The bike race is the only race that requires a lottery. So I proposed the idea of running Leadville to Alaina. She laid down a credit card. I told her, ‘This is dumb. We live in the flatlands at 800’ above sea level. Leadville starts at 10,200’ ASL and crosses 4 mountain passes.’ She said, “do it.” So I did.

Over the next few months, I started planning and executing my 2012 trail running season. I wanted to take on challenges that scared me into taking my run training to levels I’d never thought possible, for this might prepare me for Leadville. I started and finished three 50 milers and two (race) 50ks, cracked 110+ miles per week a few times, and discovered some of the most beautiful trails in the northern midwest. I also found all the hills in my area and feasted on them for breakfast and dinner. I was already in love with trails, but this year we moved in together.

The Numbers

Leadville’s altitude was the greatest risk for me for a first 100 miler. The race starts at 10,200’ ASL, and the town is dubbed the Two Mile High City. As a point of reference, pilots pressurize their cabins at 10,000’ ASL as there is only 70% of the oxygen available at sea level up there. The Queen’s stage of the race is the double crossing of Hope Pass, which starts at mile 40 at 9,300’ and rises to 12,600’ over 4 miles. At 12,600’ ASL, there is only 64% of the oxygen available at sea level. Really, not a good idea for this flatlander.

The backside of Hope Pass is steeper, with a 25% average grade and loose rock footing. This side bottoms out at 10,000’ over 2 miles. The Hope Pass section features the highest and lowest points of the course, with the average elevation of the Leadville Trail 100 above 10,000’ ASL. So about half way through the race, you climb and descend this mountain, run a little longer out to mile 50, turn around, and climb the same mountain again, and then run the entire course in reverse.

I was able to acclimate for two weeks in Colorado, the first week in Boulder (thanks to TriOK aka Robyn) and second week in Buena Vista before the race, and I’d hoped that would be enough. But I had my doubts. A few years ago, I camped up at 8,000’ and woke up in the middle of the night with altitude sickness, suffering nausea and the spin-zies without the fun of getting drunk beforehand. The Leadville 100 is so high that runners risk high altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema. That’s some bad ass shit that can kill you. Add that on top of the usual risks of ultrarunning: hyponatremia, hypothermia, severe cramping, blisters, dehydration, renal failure, etc. and this race becomes a really bad idea.

But that’s what I wanted to do this year. To take on a race that no matter how well I trained, no matter how smart I was on race day, I still might not finish. I’d likely find myself in a position where pushing myself even a step further would result in a trip to the emergency room or the morgue. Sure, I wasn’t climbing Everest, where hikers pass the frozen bodies of those who failed before them, but with a yearly average finishing rate of ~50%, I was willing joining the start line with hundreds of those who wouldn’t finish the race.

The Race

The Starting Line -- Race Morning
At 4am on a 35 degree Saturday morning in August, after camping out of my Element the night before, I found myself at the start line of Leadville hearing the race mantra over the loudspeaker: “You are better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can. Dig deep.” I glanced up at the front of the race and saw Anton Krupicka join Nick Clark and Thomas Lorblanchet. The elites were ready. Around me were hundreds of runners tweaking their gear one last time, hoping we were ready too.

Start to May Queen: 12.5 miles (mile 0 - 12.5)

The shotgun blast startled me as I leapt into the mass of runners heading into darkness, down to The Boulevard, a dirt road with some rocky sections, and then onto the trail around Turquoise Lake. The race I’d been building toward all year was finally here, and I was as ready as I was going to be. Trying to hold back and not go out too hard, I was doing 8:30s and everyone around me was flying forward even faster down The Boulevard. Friends chatted with each other as they ran, catching up on the latest news like retirees at the barber shop. I enjoyed running with the packs and trying to settle into the easiest running pace I could maintain.

As we headed onto a super steep, short section of Turquoise Lake trail, I reminded myself that with 800 runners starting this race, there would be bottlenecks, so I tried to pick up a few places and get around runners going my speed. I found a chain of runners that were doing well, until we hit any kind of rocky or hilly sections, where some runners could’ve used a better headlamp. I was following this one guy with Hoka bon bon shoes, which look like moon boots and always give me a good chuckle. The dude behind me sounded like the big bad wolf, huffing down my neck the entire time and I almost turned on my music really early, but I wanted to remain focused on running for as long as I could so that I’d remember the experience. Thankfully, wolfman jack fell back after a few miles.

The sun began to rise and Turquoise Lake woke with all its beauty, mist on the water and I was finding my running groove. This section is mostly flat so I could regulate my breathing and heart rate easily and the miles ticked by nice and fast. I’d asked Alaina to bring the Assos lube to May Queen so I could toss that magic stuff on my junk before I chaffed to a leprous pulp, and she was right there waiting for me like an angel!. A mention of gear: I wore tight fitting lycra shorts, a tech tee, buff around my head + ears, arm sleeves, gloves, super thin wicking socks, and Brooks Cascadias, especially for their rock plate. Perfect choices all around.

May Queen to Fish Hatchery: 10 miles (mile 12.5 - 22.5)

Grabbed a couple salted golden potatoes at May Queen aid station from my drop bag, Alaina filled my hydration pack, and I started out on the road to the trail section. I found a guy from Ohio to chat with, and both of us were doing our first 100s. I power hiked well through the steep parts and ran easy on the flats. I was draining my hydration pack at a steady pace, taking my salt tabs on time, and mixing up the foods, from GU Chomps to potatoes to gels at regular intervals. One long buffet, just a day picnic in the mountains, right?

When I hit Hagerman, a dirt road leading up to Sugarloaf Pass, I felt my first pangs of altitude suffering. The road climbs gradually but I couldn’t run very long because my breath would catch hard in my lungs, like someone was giving me a nice long gentle bear hug from behind. The views were stunning up there, looking back toward Turquoise Lake and around to the other peaks. Took my mind off the inability to tap the strength in my legs for a while.

I mostly pow hiked up the Sugarloaf climb since running not only would’ve wasted my legs but I knew how easy it would be to spike my lungs over the threshold and get to where I couldn’t suck in enough oxygen. The descent down powerline was a fantastic three-ish miles of fun running, and I met a guy to run with for a while who has done this section in training several times. He said it was his favorite part too. weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Fish Hatchery to Half Pipe: 5.6 miles (mile 22.5 - 28.1)

My parents and Alaina’s parents and Alaina were waiting for me at Fish Hatchery and it was awesome to see them. I only get to see my parents a few times a year since we live so far, which makes having them as my crew that much more special. I could push on through pain and weakness because I knew they were just a few miles away, waiting and cheering for me. At the aid station, they were working so hard and fast for me, getting what I needed ready and getting me out the “door” again that I rode the high of their encouragement for miles.

This section is short and flat, but you’re running along the paved road and the sun is blazing and there’s no shade along the ranch-lined road. I thought I’d be able to zip through this stretch, but instead I started to suffer a bit mentally from all the sameness, same pounding on my legs, same heat on my shoulders, same view the whole way. My lungs wouldn’t allow me to run any faster either, which was frustrating, so I had to do a run/walk strategy already so early in the race. That kinda got me down, and I struggled to stay positive.

There’s no crew access at Half Pipe either, so I wouldn’t see my family until Twin Lakes. Time to get to work then and knock these miles out. I listened to a few All Songs Considered podcasts to take my mind off this mental lag, and that was a good move. I decided that if something isn’t working, change it now, try a new approach.

Half Pipe to Twin Lakes: 10.4 miles. (mile 28.1 - 38.5)

Here I found another first time 100 runner to talk with, this guy from the Pacific Northwest with a rock climbing background. He was in good spirits and a very good uphill runner, so I liked staying with him and behind him to keep me moving quickly but not blowing up on the climbs. I was moving better on the flats now, so eventually I was alone again in one of the most Michigan-like sections of the trail, gentle rollers, soft pine ground, and energizing smells of the forest. On the return inbound, I’d realize that I was running gradually downhill most of the time on the back half of this section, and maybe that’s why my legs and lungs were responding better.

There’s one last, very steep pitch down to Twin Lakes which was punishing on the quads, but the roar of the crowds at the aid station was a major boost. I saw my dad right away, and he grabbed my pack to fill it while I grabbed a couple goodies from the aid.

The steep part into Twin Lakes aid

Changed shoes here from Cascadias into Peregrines because they drain water well and a water crossing was coming up, plus they’re a little lighter for going over Hope Pass. I grabbed the trekking poles and took off, ready to tackle the hardest part of the course, the double crossing of Hope Pass. But in all my excitement I forgot to grab more GU gels, so I only had a Larabar a potato, and one gel with me until I got to Hopeless Aid station at the top of Hope Pass.

Twin Lakes to Winfield: 12.5 miles (mile 38.5 - 51)

Flat trail from Twin Lakes AS to the start of Hope Pass climb
The start of this section is dead flat, with the mountains rising before you saying, ‘come on, show us what you’ve got.’ I started up the single track, planted my poles in the ground, and quickly realized that I didn’t have very much. I’ve been running hills as steep (but nowhere near as long) as this and I at least started out strong, but here I had nothing. Every time I tried to pick up the pace my lungs squeezed and my heart strained against the altitude. Of course I had more in the legs, but my body was rejecting the altitude again.

So I found a pace that I could maintain, as pathetic as it was. I pushed out the thought ‘this is not the hill runner I am’ from my mind and watched the creek fall below me to the right. I stepped over numerous piles of steaming bear scat and recognized that if a bear came upon me I was lunch.

The views became even more beautiful than I could imagine and the trail steeper than anything I’d ever hiked on, whether it be Zion, Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Appalachains, man, everything I’d ever been on. Every step was steep and my heels didn’t touch the ground.

After hours of going back and forth with a couple other sufferers, we made it up to Hopeless Aid station, still a few hundred feet in elevation below the summit. I was climbing with a few other people, and at the aid, three teenagers loudly discussed who would take each “hiker.” One kid refilled my pack while I downed a couple GU gels, and then kept moving. I smiled at the llamas that brought this race saving aid up to 12,000+ feet.

I’ll always, for all my life, remember the views from the top of Hope Pass on this journey. The mountains stood solemnly, majestically, as we passed by, and after crossing the pass, I saw the bottom of the earth drop out from under my feet. I’d made it to the top, and all I needed to do was maintain a good pace downhill.

As I reached the top, Anton Krupicka and his pacer Dakota Jones passed by and I called out their first names as if I’d known them my whole life. Two of my ultra heros just ran right in front of me. Behind them by a few minutes were Thomas Lorblanchet from Salomon (and eventual race winner), with pacer and ultra studette, Anna Frost. Following them a little ways back was Brit and personal favorite ultrarunner, Nick Clark with his pacer. How friggin cool that they were running right by me, as I pulled a bit off the singletrack to let them pass. My heros within hi-five distance.

The rest of the way down I rode the fanboy high, that is until I realized how much the course change lengthened the course -- this a change that the RD made just Tuesday before the race! -- to run on this trail and not the usual Winfield road route.  By the time I’d reached Winfield I was at mile 51-ish, which meant this would be a 102+ mile trek by journey’s end.  I was not really happy about the change.

Winfield to Twin Lakes: 12.5 miles (mile 51 - 63.5)

Alaina, in very high spirits here, picked me up and improved my pissy mood from the course change and general weariness and suckitude regarding running. But her relentless positivity was a real boon, as she wished every single other runner that came toward us a “good job” or “way to go” or “looking great”. How could I not help but smile at her grace.

I know she was stunned by the beauty and difficulty of this climb. I struggled to maintain any kind of decent pace here on the 25% grade of narrow singletrack with hundreds of foot dropoffs to the side, but I kept going at relentless forward progress.

Eventually we made Hope Pass again and I saw down to Twin Lakes. My lungs, body, legs were aching now, suffering the altitude most of all, and when we reached the Hopeless aid station, I knew this was going to get really really hard. Alaina grabbed some cheese sticks, which she absolutely lurves, and admired the llamas, and then we headed downhill.

A guy from Ohio caught up to us, asked Alaina how old she was because he said her legs looked like she was 16, which was weird but kinda normal talk for running 55+ miles, and then he took off downhill, but we saw him again at the bottom on the flats. I went through the river crossing like it was a puddle, and started running across the fields.

Twin Lakes from aid station
Twin Lakes, with my parents and Alaina’s parents, was another blessing. It felt so good to see family at this point, knowing how long we had to go but how much we’d been through so far. I changed to a new pair of Cascadias and Alaina decided to go with me to the crew access point at Half Pipe.

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe: 10.4 miles (mile 63.5 - 73.9)

Alaina paces me through an ultra-big crowd at Twin Lakes
Alaina was feeling pretty good, so she stayed with me out of Twin Lakes. I told her there was some rise on this section for a mile and then it would flatten out. But that was my optimistic memory talking. It’s a 1500ish feet climb, over several miles, and although I started out hiking well, my mind and lungs started to give out post-Hope Pass. I couldn’t catch my breath even when the trail was lovely, buffed out, and flatter at the top. I was reduced to a walk on all but the downhills where I could jog, and even when other runners came by and I desperately wanted to run, I seemed to have no way of getting enough oxygen to go.

This was a really dark time, mentally, in my race, and if Alaina weren’t there with me, encouraging me and calming me down, I’m sure it would’ve been a void from which there is no return. Darkness came, and with it a kind of calm, settling into what I knew would be the grind of the race since you can’t see the gorgeous mountains or the forest.

The only thing I could do to keep moving was to turn on the power hike, which is a 13-14 m/m long stride, and with that, we made it to Half Pipe aid station where the tent was lined with ghostly runners eating broth and snacks or limp with head between legs. I ate some ramen and we got out of there before I became one of the spectres. .

Half Pipe to Fish Hatchery: 5.6 miles (mile 73.9 - 79.5)

In about a mile we reached the crew access point, where my crew was waiting with unflagging optimism, hot soup, and everything else I could possibly need. I thanked them, dropped my hydration pack off because my shoulders were destroyed at this point, and went with just the handheld for this flat, road section.

I actually started moving really well here, running for longer stretches and regaining some positivity despite the fact that this section was one of my lowest points on the outbound.

Fish Hatchery to DNF:  2-ish miles (mile 79.5 - 81.5)

My whole crew plus my pacer, Mark, were at Fish Hatchery, surprised to see me come in under expected time for this section, and that made me happy. Getting to this point was a great feeling, for I knew that historically, most people drop at this aid station, so we needed to get out of here, pronto. I was eager to see if my body had anything left to get over Sugarloaf Pass.

Mark and I headed down the road, albeit slowly, and caught up on life and races and such. He’d just done the Warrior Dash with another friend of ours, and I enjoyed hearing all the dirty details of that race. We started climbing Sugarloaf and my lungs and heart were struggling out of the gate but we were actually moving upward pretty well considering. Mark graciously took my hydration pack when I slowed, and told me to just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I leaned into my trekking poles and could only walk about 20 feet before stopping. My heart rate was sky high and would not come down. We continued making progress until the wheels fell off, my stomach exploded, and my lungs wouldn’t allow me to breathe. It was time to call it a day. We walked back downhill, every step lower in elevation made me feel better, and we met up with my family at the road as I curled up on the ground.

They gave me plenty of time to change my mind as I sat there, and I was way under the cutoff time-wise but my body wouldn’t allow me to continue. There was no way I was going to make it over Sugarloaf in my condition. It was finis at Leadville, so they drove me back to Fish Hatchery to have my wristband cut.

I’ll get that 100 mile buckle yet, for I know I have it in me to finish 100 miles, but not here, not on this day. I took on Leadville to challenge myself to limits previously untested, and I got all that and them some. No regrets!