4am, Saturday morning, August 16th. Hands clasped together and eyes tightly shut, I think to myself- I’m going to do this. This is IT. I got this. Can’t quit…won’t quit…no DNF’s… NO DNF’s…
From the crowd, I hear the countdown 10-9-8-7-
Cut to Ken on the microphone: “You are BETTER THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE, YOU CAN DO MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU CAN!”
The Leadville Trail 100 is underway. The excitement coupled with slight tension of every runner is sensed with the clacking of each foot on 6th St. Not as much chit-chat as last year. Street lights grow fewer and farther between, until just beyond the middle school where only stars, and our headlamps, guide us
The mental challenge of this 100-mile “Race Across the Sky” makes itself known in the first mile. While the first priority is to get down to the right pace, or should I say the smart pace, the high adrenaline feeding our descent of the 4-mile hill makes it very difficult for that to happen. For me, I just accept the pace, 9:30-9:40/mile, and keep rolling. The comfort will only last so long.
MINI-POWERLINE, DAYBREAK ON TORQUOISE LAKE, MAYQUEEN
A sudden turn off a friendly dirt road reveals the mini-powerline section of the Colorado Trail. As if to say, “This is the next 92 miles of your run, get used to it!”, the path is rocky, uneven and dastardly ascends 1/4 mile to the shores of Torquoise Lake. I take charge and negotiate the climb in what is referred to as a “power walk”, for running up such things is normally reserved for elites, monkeys, and other nimble creatures. Before I know it, I get to the top and there’s Torquoise, noticed only through the faint daylight reflection on the surface. The sun was still a good hour away. I find a group of four runners that seem to match my pace and stick with them for a while. All avid ultrarunners, we converse on hydration, nutrition, heat/humidity, weather and other confounding variables that make runs adventurous. It was like I was in the middle of a podcast for a short time, and with the drop of my glove, we got separated. I just keep moving, feeling alive with departure of night. Shortly after I turn off my headlamp, there comes a bustle in the hedgerow. Mayqueen, mile 13.1, the first aid station.
“What can I get for you, what do you need?” the kind volunteer asks.
“Ummm I’m just browsing..”
So many choices. M&M’s, Graham Crackers, Bananas, Watermelon, PB&J.
Ok…I’m just going to grab what I need and be gone. I shouldn’t need any longer than two minutes here.
Getting in my calories doesn’t take as long as I thought. The real constraint? Deciding what I need from my supply bag.
Would it be cold going up Powerline?
How much Perpeteum will I consume in the next 13 miles?
Am I good on salt tablets?
6 minutes I spend at Mayqueen, debating.
Leaving the aid station, the warmth of day gives me cause to stop and de-layer. Off with the coat and racing sleeves. No more gloves. Sun-visor on, beanie gone. How do I feel? Awesome. So begins the ascent up Sugarloaf Pass.
Breathe…in through the nose and out through the mouth. I make a vow to be in tune with my breathing AT ALL TIMES, whether on a flat stretch or heading up a mountain. The idea is…if I just stay aware of my breathing, everything else would take care of itself- like pace, stride, focus. Stuff like that. Breathing is the foundation.
I turn onto the Hagermann road when I hear a strong-accented voice…”Why are you RUNNING?”
“Well, it’s nice and flat here.”
“You’re going to waste your energy!”
The man looks in his mid 60s. A seasoned, chisled ultra runner donning a “Lifetime Fitness” tech shirt, there’s no doubt in my mind that he had been doing this stuff for decades. His name is Victor- I remember him from last year, not only from the Leadville, also from 100 miles of Boulder. I think he’s from somewhere in the Mediterranean. In 2013, I passed him after Half Pipe Aid Station, and he hollered to me that I was going to DNF. Good enough reason to ignore him, seemed to me, for I was Keeler North, in a good pace, and had 63 miles left to run. My ego asked me why I should waste my time listening to this guy…? As I continue to recollect last year’s ill attempt at the Leadville, I realize, now, that I was a bit arrogant and had this “man of steel” mind set. Nothing could hurt me. I was right, everyone else was wrong. I knew how to run this race. It was my first Leadville, I was kicking ass, and would continue to do so! That was Keeler #811 of 2013. Keeler #507 of 2014, I like to think, is a bit more open-minded, a bit more careful. Taking all this into consideration, I make the decision to listen to Victor.
“Look at those two guys running up there! They’re burning up all their energy!” he said as we power walked Sugarloaf.
I make the observation.
“There is NO NEED to be running this early in the race. You walk up and down the steep sections, and run on the flat sections.”
“That makes sense.” I reply. And it really does. I wasn’t just saying it, nor using it as a filler.
He keeps shelling out what I perceive as many more life saving informational nuggets, but I have trouble understanding him because of the strong accent. I then introduce myself, offer a thankful nod and go forward in a 15:00 pace to the crest of the pass, and begin the descent down Powerline.
I follow Victor’s advice conservatively. I don’t like walking, never have, and have always believed the words “walk” and “race” went together like oil and water. Ah well- a walk/run down the Powerline would keep everyone happy. Halfway down I happened upon a lady low on water and needs some to take her salt tablet, and I offer her some of mine. She guzzles the WHOLE THING and leaves me but a few drips.
In haste to get to the next aid station, I run a bit quicker.
I look back, and it’s Victor, catching me in the act of running.
Mile 20. Flow is good. I make it down Powerline safely and am just a few miles away from Fish Hatchery. Victor appears once again, only this time with a group of 3 runners following and digesting his every word. The man knows what he’s talking about, no question. I keep what he said in mind, surely, but will I pledge myself to his teachings for the entire race? That’s a question that needn’t be asked nor answered. Can’t worry about it. Refocusing, I keep going at my own pace into Fish Hatchery where I chomp down two hefty slices of watermelon and a handful of pretzels, guzzle some flat Coke, and top off my electrolytes. The course beyond Hatchery is different this year, and I can’t say for the better. For 7/10 of a mile, give or take, we run on open prairie. The soft grass feels wonderful, but the abundance of potholes make travel annoying. They should just keep it on the road. Oh well, could be much worse by being dark out…
Putting all that aside, the day really begins to get beautiful. Pearl blue sky, a clear view of Mt. Massive and Elbert, and Hope Pass to the south. Hope Pass—I try not to think much about it. My job is to enjoy a run through the San Isabel Forest with a quick stop at Half Pipe Aid Station, negotiate a few stream crossings, and take an easy shuffle down into Twin Lakes. No problem!
Unconsciously, for the next 20 miles, I follow Victor’s run/walk advice. And it feels like it will be a smart thing. When I get to Twin, I see Bob, Liz and Dave. Were they waiting long? Still, it’s wonderful to see them after running 40-odd miles by myself. Later, Liz and Dave would crew me as I head inbound, but it seemed as if they were fired up for the job right then and there by doing a preliminary safety-check of inventory to make sure I didn’t need anything. Bless them for being there. Bless Bob for his wisdom. Bob, a track coach at heart, never passes up the opportunity to remind me that even in the midst of a high-distance ultra marathon, fundamentals ALWAYS apply; hydration, pacing yourself, and listening to the body. He also makes sure, even though I am pretty much on schedule, that I am aware of my cutoffs. Hope Aid station I had to make by 4:15, and Winfield by 6. After bidding my Colorado family farewell, I get back on course.
RIVER CROSSING, HOPE, WINFIELD
The river crossing is my favorite part of the race. Think of it…you’re sweaty and clammy, and taking that knee-deep walk through fresh mountain water undoubtedly does wonders for legs, body, and mind. I get tempted to just sit there, immersed in the stream, for a short ten minutes, and I probably would have if I had packed an extra pair of shorts. But, as many will tell you, I only play so much of that game of planning ahead. Besides, there’s running to be done. Hard running.
Hope Pass is no myth. Take in as much scenery as you can on the approach, because as soon as the trail begins to go up, you’ll be looking at nothing but the dirt and questioning whether or not it was a good idea to register for this thing. Shake off all that negativity, and remember what Ken Chlouber said…”DIG DEEP!’ Say it to yourself if you have to, make it your mantra for the next bunch of miles. Dunk your head any time you want in the creek God put in, on the right side, for a quick freshening. Drink some of it. Do what you have to do to get over that saddle and down into Winfield.
Tackling Hope isn’t as terrible as last year. Last year (like I say, different me), I made it my mission to run up that beast and back down the other side. I kind of did, at least up the front side, and when I got over the top my quads felt on fire and I screamed in pain. This year, with a bit more smarts, I power hike. When I round the top, I scream again, but this time in triumph. It’s a “WHEWWW!”, and maybe a “YEEE HAW!”. King of the mountain and master of my domain, I happily run down the back side of the pass and into Winfield. Victor would be proud.
Winfield…Who do I see there? Why, none other than Janice and Bill King, that’s who! Making my way up to the medical tent, they stand there and holler my name. When I notice them, I gave them each a big hug.
“How are you doing, how are you feeling?” they ask.
“Oh, pretty decent. So wonderful to see you both here!”
And it is. If you ever forget who your friends are, all of them will come back to light in an ultra. As the saying goes…
“Friends are worth a mountain made o’ gold, that can’t be bought or sold.”
At the medical tent I weigh in at 150. Same weight as before the race. It probably wouldn’t have hurt to be a pound or two over, but it shows the consistency of my nutrition/calorie intake, and that’s all that matters. Janice and Bill are already gone by the time I’m done with snacks, so I set out for the finish line.
The finish line…50 miles away…the finish line.
The ascent inbound is similar to the one out…a slow and steady power walk. The sun is well behind Mount Hope for most of the jaunt, making it a bit chilly but not unbearable. When I make the second summit, the computer check point employee doesn’t seem as lively as she was earlier….
“Yeah, 507, got you in.”
Maybe the cold was starting to get to her. After all, she had been sitting…sitting, at 12000′ for a very long time. As for me, all is well. I’m ahead of my cutoffs and feeling great. Beautiful views of Twin Lakes to the north. The sky, still blue, leaves enough room for a few evening clouds to move in. The in-descent is efficient, and before the second river crossing my friend Mawgan calls from Ohio. He says that I’m doing great, tells me my current placing (I don’t remember what it was), and says he’ll keep following me online. Mawgan was my pacer in 2013 from Winfield to Twin Lakes.
Twilight at the river crossing. Water is COLD. Brain freeze in the feet, and it never seems to end. As soon as I splash through another knee-deep flood-puddle, another one is 30 feet ahead. And then I run through marsh, black mud-water squeeging out of my thin shoes.
TWIN LAKES, CROWDS & VOLUNTEERS, HALF PIPE
As the day gets older, the more I enjoy the aid-station watermelon. Everywhere has it, and some of the volunteers cut it nice and thick. Twin Lakes is one of the better watermelon stations, in my opinion. Hell, Twin Lakes is a joy for a lot of different reasons. First, the crowds are of Boston caliber. Energy and adrenaline surge through the valley, and the fact that my shoes are caked with mud doesn’t matter. I still get to the tents in a 9:00/mile ultra sprint. Volunteers, thinking only of the runners, ask me what I need before I even have a seat. Liz and Dave are there, too, with my Hoka Stinsons and a fresh pair of toe-socks. A spare bag of perpeteaum is in my supply bag, so I stock up on that and topped off my electrolytes. I say my goodbyes and make my escape from the outbreak of care that is Twin Lakes, relaxed, with a very low sense of urgency.
In miles 60-69 of the Leadville 100, I fly. It’s the most thrilling 9 miles of my life. Feeling wonderful, I pass every runner I come up on. I start getting ideas about the rest of the race…
Maybe I just will finish in under 25 hours. Maybe even faster!
Deep down I know I’m overdoing it, but I don’t stop. The Hokas are to blame, as they make me feel as if I’m floating. I run those woods like a headless turkey, and I make Half Pipe feeling great. As I take off my pack, I get a crazy idea that my head lamp isn’t quite up to par and I switch it out with the one that’s in my supply bag. I flip it on, grab a bite, and run
Making my way out of the woods, I see the Big Dipper. Lots of other stars too, as a matter of fact. I realize that my ditching the good headlamp at Half Pipe and switching to the 5-yr old clunker was the reason my surroundings were magnificently dark. I relished in that, for nearly two whole minutes, until I realize that maybe it wasn’t a good choice to leave my good lamp at Half Pipe and my foot catches the edge of a no-see-um rock. Luckily, I don’t go down.
BEYOND DNF, POWERLINE WITH LIZ, MAYQUEEN
It’s about 11:25pm when I meet up with my pacer, Liz, at Fish Hatchery. After a few quick bites and obtaining a new headlamp (thank God), we set out for Powerline, Sugarloaf Pass, and Mayqueen . Even though time ticks slowly, it sure is good to have someone by my side, not only to keep me moving, but to make sure I don’t make any wrong choices. Most of the time we power hike, but there are a few flat stretches where we run. The drive up powerline is very stress-free with the walk-run regiment. Before we know it, we hear a fog horn and Grateful Dead music. We are at the top. The volunteer greets us…
“Hey! Welcome to the TOP of POWERLIIIINE! We got coke, pretzels, and pot over on the back table.”
Hearing what I just hear, I think that with the fact being that I was at mile 85 and we made it to the top of Powerline, in good spirits I might add, I’m half tempted me to take a toke. But just then, I remember that Mary Jane and I don’t exactly get on too well. What a story that would be…DNF because I got a little high at 10000′+. So, I leave that alone and I’m pretty sure my pacer does the same. The trek down goes well, but something about the trail being wider lowers my spirits. I lag. Liz I think has her moments, too, but life gets better when we turn on to the single-track. I even go into Superman mode for 8 or 9 minutes. But the cold soon brings me back down to Earth, and we hit Mayqueen somewhere, sometime, between 3 and 4am.
I don’t eat a lot at the last aid station, for my stomach is at a point where it can only take in so much before returning it to the sender. I take something from my supply bag, but can’t remember what it is. I only spent a few minutes at Mayqueen in excitement to get to the finish line. Dave catches up with Liz and we say our goodbye’s, and I take off, slowly, along the eerie shore of Torquoise Lake.
The fact that I’m operating on 2-3 hours of sleep within a two-day span makes me feel a little off. Everything seems to move in slow motion. It’s very cold. It hurts to move. For the entire stint, I am in what is referred to as the “death march”, defined in the ultra world by doing all you can to put one foot in front of the other. I have no idea how I manage such things without tripping, rolling my ankle, or walking off the edge of a ravine. It’s not like it it’s even that technical, I’m just in my last stages of wakefulness. My phone rings…
“What’s up, Buddy?! How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been hit by a train. What’s goin’ on?”
“Oh yea, I’m still going. Slowly, surely.”
“Well just keep on going. No matter what, don’t STOP! The sun will be up soon, and that’ll give you the energy you need to get to the finish line!”
“Alright, brutha. Thanks for calling. I should get going and finish this thing with the little energy I have left.
“You’re doing great, Keeler. I’ll talk to you soon.”
Graham, a.k.a. my pusher, brother from another mother. He could not have picked a better time to call. The exchange of a few words with a dear friend gives me just enough energy to move on and get this thing done. Even though running is out of the question and I’m tired and cold as hell, I keep focus.
Only a little bit to go.
You’re better than you think you are and can do more than you think you can.
Where the hell is the next glow stick…oh…right there.
A few minutes pass, and up comes the sun. Tears roll down my face, not from sadness, but rather from pure exhaustion. Physical and mental drainage from the eyes. Catching a glimpse of MINI #$%^&*@ POWERLINE could have had something to do with it, too. Were they kidding? Did I actually have to go down this 1/4 mile, 45 degree trail of rubble and scree with my quads being in the shape they were in? I had forgotten all about the mini powerline up until now, but there isn’t much I can do aside of treading ever so lightly down the sinister death slide.
Attitude…attitude. Be positive. Suck it up and overcome this last obstacle and then you’re home free.
It takes fifteen minutes, but I get down to the dirt road where I take a left and head toward the rising sun. Believe it or not, I somehow get up enough nerve to RUN the rest of the way. The pace is garbage, but hell, running’s running. Up that steady 4-mile hill and digging deep, past the middle school, and up a little further gets me close enough to hear the cheering and see the finish line. The tears begin to well up again. As the cheers get louder and the finish line draws closer, I run faster. 200 yards left to go, I’m in 7:50/mile pace. I cross that finish line so quickly I nearly crash into the rack of hanging medals. Wouldn’t that be something?
Keeler North #507, 27:51:45