It seemed like I was making good time for the first couple of miles down from the Hope aid station at mile 56 of the 2015 Leadville Trail 100. The race is an out and back course, so I turned around at the Winfield aid station and climbed the back side of Hope Pass on my way back to the Twin Lakes aid station-the station at both mile 40 and mile 60. I felt surprisingly good and was running pretty hard, trying to let gravity do as much of the work as possible while taking quick steps and staying light on my feet. Although, in the dark on a steep and technical trail, it’s easy to feel like you are going faster than you really are. I kept expecting to see the familiar fork in the trail indicating I was within a mile or so, striking distance, of the Twin Lakes aid station.
I was feeling good and confident when I overheard a conversation ahead of me on the trail, I assume between another runner and his pacer or between two runners. Someone said it was 9:15 and we had over two miles to go to the Twin Lakes aid station. The cutoff at that station was at 9:45. If I didn’t get there by 9:45, I would not be allowed to continue the race. Suddenly, I was scared. I didn’t have my GPS watch with me at this point, so I did not know what time it was or exactly how far along the course I was. Ordinarily, the 12 minute miles I needed to be running would be no problem, but after 58 miles and knowing the last mile was filled with ankle deep streams, puddles and boggy mud, and with no GPS watch to monitor my pace or progress. Making the cutoff time at mile 60 and being allowed to finish the race was now in serious jeopardy. I also didn’t know exactly where I was. Even if the person I overheard saying we were still over two miles away from Twin Lakes had a GPS system and wasn’t just estimating, there are substantial variations over the course of a race in how GPS systems track, especially in mountainous terrain. A mere 1% variance over the 58 miles or so we had already run would not be uncommon and would mean that I had closer to three miles to the aid station and would have to run more like 10 minute miles to make the cutoff. Ten months of intensive training, the time and work of all the members of my crew, and the support of everyone that had contributed or pledged to the Autism Society of America as part of this effort, would end in failure.
I first heard about the Leadville Trail 100 race in the early 2000s when I was lobbying at the Colorado state legislature. Ken Chlouber, the founder of the race, was a member of the legislature. I’d heard from a colleague that if you got into a fight with Ken, he was so tough that you’d probably have to “cut him up and eat him” to end the fight, because he would never quit. I don’t remember exactly what I was told about the race, but I’m sure it included the 100-mile distance, and that the starting line was at an elevation of 10,000 feet and went up from there. At that time in my life it seemed like a crazy impossible thing to do. I gave no thought to attempting it. I wasn’t a runner. I occasionally cycled in the mountains, so I was reasonably fit – at least for a social smoker and regular drinker, but a 100-mile foot race in the mountains at high altitude was not remotely on my agenda.
In 2010, I read Christopher McDougal’s book Born to Run. I wasn’t looking for a running book, just a good one. I consumed a lot of books via audio on my commute, the subject matter seemed interesting (“a hidden tribe of super athletes”) and the book had gotten good reviews. When I reached the point in the book when the identity of the mysterious “Caballo Blanco” – the reclusive white man who lived and ran barefoot among the Tarhumara people in the Copper Canyons of Mexico- was revealed, I laughed out loud. Caballo Blanco’s real name was Micah True. Micah had been a regular at the YMCA in Boulder when I worked there during my undergraduate years in the late 80s. Chlouber and the Leadville Trail 100 were also featured in the book. I felt drawn to the sport and the race because of the unexpected connections I had to the people in the book, but even more so because the book’s perspective on the natural place of long distance trail running in human history and evolution made sense to me. Running in the wilderness is a natural, primal activity. As it did for many, many others, the book inspired me to start running trails. Soon after that I married my amazing wife, Heidi. We had two dogs and they needed exercise and I couldn’t really take them on road rides on my bike We were also starting a family. I was already in my mid-forties. I realized that if I wanted to do everything I could to ensure I was there for our children beyond their childhoods, I needed to change my lifestyle. I was also going through an extremely stressful and challenging period professionally, having accepted a job as the president of a struggling title insurance company where things were not going smoothly. Finding a healthy way to manage that stress was essential, and being in the mountains was always good for my mental outlook. Running was less time consuming than long bike rides and got me out into the mountains with the dogs. It all made trail running a perfect fit for my life, and I was quickly hooked.
Over the next couple years, I started doing a few races. I ran my first half marathon and marathon. Eventually I did an “easy” 50k (32 mile) race. It wasn’t easy for me. It was a mostly flat course, but I struggled to finish – taking over 6.5 hours. Eventually, I decided to try a “real” ultramarathon of 50 miles. I did the North Fork 50 fifty-mile race in 2014. My wife Heidi and our two children were waiting at the finish with a “You’re our Hiro” sign – (The unconventional spelling comes from a character in the Thomas the Train Engine movies the kids had been watching). My oldest son Ryder, then just a couple months short of 3 years old, ran with me at the finish. It was a tremendously joyful and gratifying experience, but I was one of the very last finishers. Fifty miles felt like a pretty good accomplishment and I didn’t really have any intention of doing longer races. I finished with a blister the size of a shooter marble on the inside of my big toe, but I woke up the next morning feeling vigorous and cleansed in a way I hadn’t experienced before. So, that morning following the race, I lanced and bandaged the blister and went for a run.
Later that summer, a former lobbying colleague and Heidi’s close friend, Melanie Layton, invited me to pace her for a section of her attempt at the Leadville Trail 100. I was excited to do it and see what the famous race I’d read about in Born to Run was really like. The entire atmosphere surrounding the race was intoxicating. I paced Mel starting at the Twin Lakes aid station on the inbound portion of the race. She barely made the Twin Lakes cutoff time, the very same one I was now in danger of failing to make. The experience of pacing Mel, the fans cheering, seeing the exhausted runners stretching their limits, the spirit of comradery among the runners and pacers and volunteers and crew, all planted a seed of desire in me. It wasn’t long after the experience of pacing Mel that Heidi guessed what I was thinking.
“You want to do it, don’t you?”
So, in October of 2014, I started training and planning in earnest to run the 2015 Leadville Trail 100. The reasons I wanted to do it and the things I put in place to make it happen got as intertwined as the chicken and the egg. I knew that a successful effort was going to require more consistent discipline and toughness than I’d ever sustained before in my life. I knew I had to mentally commit to the goal in a way I hadn’t committed to many things in my life outside of marriage and fatherhood. I wanted to do this for the experience, for ego, and because working toward the goal would make me fitter and healthier than I had ever been. Like many people, I’ve always drawn strength and energy from challenging goals and exceptional experiences. I also wanted to do something that would teach and inspire our kids, especially Ryder. Unfortunately, Quinn (our youngest) would likely not be old enough to remember the race. On race day, however, Ryder would be almost exactly the same age as I was for my earliest dateable memory, the Apollo 11 moon landing. I remember sitting in our living room with family friends when Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon in 1969, a couple of months before my fourth birthday. My dad ordered photographs of the Apollo 11 expedition from NASA, which we framed and had hanging in our house through my childhood. It made a big, inspiring impression on me. The seemingly impossible was possible. From the beginning, finding the motivation to get out of bed for early morning workouts, to work though fatigue and soreness, to control my diet and manage my schedule to allow for training, was about making a memory for my son that might inspire and empower him throughout his life.
It wasn’t only about that though. At the same time, my sister and her family had battled through more challenges than any one family should have to face. They have two boys, one severely autistic and one coping with a congenital heart defect that threatened his life before he was even born. I also saw an opportunity to do something to help or honor them. After some discussion with my sister, I decided to use the Leadville effort to raise money for the Autism Society of America in honor of my nephew Aram, their autistic son. The autism society had helped my sister and her family tremendously, so I knew whatever we could raise would help families that really needed it.
I would draw on other motivations from time to time, but those two things, the lesson for my son and the fundraising for families like my sister’s, made the whole effort about something bigger than personal accomplishment and the belt buckle given to those who finish Leadville. Not wanting to take any chances that I would back-out, I piled the pressure on by being public about my commitment to what I was doing, and asked everyone I knew to pitch in one way or another.
I knew these things were going to be instrumental in getting me prepared to finish the race successfully. They all helped make skipping training runs or eating badly in the months leading up to the race non-negotiable. There was too much at stake. What I didn’t know was how much I would need them during the race itself.
I developed a race plan to achieve a twenty-five-hour finish, which gets you the finisher’s big belt buckle at Leadville. I aimed for the twenty-five-hour finish, but I really wanted to ensure that I at least finished in 30 hours, the cutoff time for an official finish. If you finish in 30 hours, which requires making various cutoff times along the course, you still get a belt buckle, though a slightly smaller one. Now, as I descended Hope Pass toward the Twin Lake aid station perilously close to the 9:45 cutoff, it was all in jeopardy.
Even without race day crew and pacers, you don’t run a 100 mile race all by yourself. There’s all the time you take for training that might otherwise have gone to your family or friends, doing something around the house, work, or whatever. No matter how well you try and manage it, training impacts the people around you. Additionally, on race day a whole set of support crew and pacers are usually part of the effort, and are especially important for someone attempting their first 100-mile race. So, in the months leading up to the race, I worked on assembling a crew. Leadville allows you a pacer beginning at mile 50, and I knew it would really help to have crew at some of the aid stations with the food, hydration and gear that would need. The aid stations have food and you can fill drop bags with specific food and other gear to be left at the stations, but it makes a huge difference to have someone you know there to help with all of it on a practical level. More importantly, I knew from my experience in other, shorter races that, psychologically, having Heidi and the kids or friends there at points along the way would really boost my spirits and motivation. I knew from the beginning of my training that the crew and pacers I assembled would be critical to my race performance, but they would end up meaning far more to the whole effort than I ever imagined.
Since we were raising money for the Autism Society in honor of my nephew Aram, we called ourselves Team Aram. Henrik Nejezchleb, my first friend as a child, generously helped outfit us with Team Aram shirts and Pandanas (www.curvepandana.com) with the autism society logo. A few close friends I had hoped would be part of Team Aram had conflicts, so I was scrambling to pull together my pacers and crew right up until two weeks before the race. In the end, the race weekend members of Team Aram included Heidi, Scott Jeffords – an old friend I have known for almost 40 years from Boy Scouts and junior high, Nancy “Nel” Nelson – a law school classmate and one of my closest friends in the world, plus Travis Berry, Christine O’Donnell, and Steve Palmer – three friends and colleagues from my days as a lobbyist, and John Brackney – a friend of Steve’s that I only got to meet once before race weekend. I had confidence and trust in everyone on the team, but didn’t know how they would all work together. Since this was my first attempt at completing a 100 mile race, I was a complete novice in getting everyone and everything organized in a way that would work. I did the best I could to organize things ahead of time, but I’d learned enough about 100 mile races and crew planning from reading and shorter ultras I’d done, to know that the only certainty was that things were not going to go exactly as planned. I knew that once the starting gun fired, I would just have to focus on doing my part – putting one foot in front of the other – and trust in the rest of Team Aram to adapt as needed as the race progressed. They ended up doing way more than I expected and made the whole experience for the entire team more meaningful than I think any of us imagined when we first got to Leadville.
Travis generously arranged to have the team headquartered for the weekend at a friend’s house in a spectacular location – right at the finish line. Travis also opened-up another house in Leadville to Team Aram, so there was plenty of room for everyone.
Nel was our official Team Aram cook and she had a great pasta dinner waiting for everyone as the team arrived in Leadville on Friday night. Just a few minutes before I headed for bed Friday evening before the 4 a.m. Saturday start, Scott handed me a piece of paper with some great inspirational quotes, including a final improvised bit of advice on what to do if things were going awry – “ask yourself – what would Captain Kirk do?” It was great stuff, though I am very happily married and wasn’t sure I could find an alien to seduce even if I needed to. I carried the piece of paper with me throughout the race. A copy is included at the end.
Pre-Race Dinner with (counter clockwise) Nel, Travis, Scott, Heidi and our two boys (Quinn and Ryder)
I finally got to bed about 10:00, six hours before the 4:00 a.m. start. Not as early as I had planned, but okay. Of course, I was so wound-up that I laid awake for hours, drifting off occasionally, but not really getting to sleep until sometime after 12:30, the last time I recall looking at my watch. I knew I had to eat and get some serious calories in my system an hour so before the race started, so by the time I was up and preparing, I’d had less than three hours of real sleep. Not what I had planned, knowing I was going to be up and on my feet for the next twenty-five to thirty hours, but I was too excited to worry too much about the lack of sleep.
Most of the team got up and helped see me off, which I wasn’t expecting. That really meant a lot to me and it set the tone for the spirit of the team throughout the entire race. The starting area was surreal at that hour with well over a thousand people up before 4:00 in the morning including racers and family, race staff and volunteers. Feeling ansty, in the last minutes before the start, I drifted back and forth to the team and into the crowd of 700 or so runners. Finally, Chlouber shot the starting gun (an actually rifle, of course), and we were off.
Travis was at about mile 8 waiting with a rice and avocado burrito. I was able to get the burrito down over the next couple of miles, but that was the last “real” food I could really eat. By the time I reached the Mayqueen aid station, only about a half marathon into the race, most of the food that I had planned to eat had lost all appeal. I was adequately consuming Tailwind nutrition drinks and water, but my calorie consumption was already starting to slow. I felt pretty good on the climb up Sugarloaf Pass, but the steep and technical decent down “Powerline” had my quads screaming.
Easing down the steep “Powerline” descent
In previous races this kind of situation had been a big mental challenge for me – as my lofty, often unrealistic goals slipped out of reach, my spirits would plummet. One has to train hard to finish an ultra, but lack of training or an injury aside, the difference between finishing and not finishing, or accomplishing a goal time or not, is usually a function of two things: the mental aspect of the race and nutrition. I had mentally prepared myself for the 25-hour goal slipping away fairly early in the race, and reminded myself that finishing was my paramount goal. So, on this day I was able to mentally shift my focus fairly quickly and did not suffer the same disappointment and downward mental spiral that I had in some previous races. I told the Heidi, Steve, Scott and the boys that the team’s focus should now be trying to put more cushion between us and the cutoffs on each leg of the race. I had struggled in that last leg, but was still an hour ahead of the cutoff time at the Twin Lakes aid station (outbound – mile 40).It was an energizing blast to see Scott, Nel, Heidi and the boys at the Outward Bound aid station, about a marathon into the race. However, that burst of energy faded quickly over the next couple of miles and I began losing time on this relatively moderate difficulty section of the course. I was walking too much on even gentle climbs. By the time I reached the Twin Lakes aid station (outbound) at mile 40, I was an hour behind my planned pace for a 25-hour finish.
My twenty-five-hour plan anticipated a fairly fast first half and then slowing substantially in the second half of the race. If I had listened better to my coach, Jacob Puzey, I would have realized that was a poor plan. A brief conversation with professional endurance athlete Travis Macy the day before the Leadville race had made me question my plan. I had read Travis’ book, “The Ultra Mindset” shortly before the race. I felt a real connection to him, as the lead story in Travis’s book was his inspiring first exposure to an ultra event – as a young boy he watched his father barely finish the Leadville Trail 100 in the early years of the race. This was just the kind of experience I was hoping to give Ryder. Travis was signing hard copies of his book at the race tent the night before the race. He was good enough to sign a copy of the book for Ryder and Quinn. He also told me that if I was going to make a twenty-five-hour finish, it was going to happen in the second half of the race and because I properly managed both my pacing and nutrition, meaning not going too fast and eating early and often in the first half. With this in mind, as I left Twin Lakes, I hadn’t totally given-up the thought of a twenty-five-hour finish.
That notion didn’t last much longer though. I got through the marshy stream crossings and flooded jeep roads and gentle early climb toward Hope Pass feeling okay, but once I started the steep, 3000-foot climb up Hope Pass, things started deteriorating rapidly. Suddenly, I was barely trudging and even stopping for breaks. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but I had seriously neglected my nutrition over the last twenty miles or so. My tank was too low. It was humbling to see race leaders Ian Sharman and then Michael Aish come bounding down the trail with their pacers as I was trudging up the trail. In general, I prefer loop courses for runs and races to an out and back course like Leadville, but it’s a nice benefit of an out and back course to get to see the top runners coming back the other way.
Crossing the marshy and flooded trails at about mile 41 – just before heading up Hope Pass.
At the Winfield aid station, the 50-mile turnaround point, I had lost so much time that I was only about 15 minutes ahead of the cutoff time. More concerning was that in order to make the cutoff back at Twin Lakes, I would have to do the 10 miles back to that station at least 20 minutes faster than it had taken me to go out. As I got to Winfield, while I had no intention of dropping out of the race, my chances of making that cutoff seemed slim. I was very down emotionally as well as physically at this point. 50 miles was as far as I had ever gone before, so I was also entering uncharted waters.I struggled to the Hope aid station where I think I consumed some calories, though I don’t remember what or how much, before I pushed up the last half mile to the summit of Hope Pass at 12,600 feet, 45 miles into the race. Getting to the summit was certainly a mental boost, but I also knew from running this portion of the course during a June training camp that the downhill was no cake walk. There was a lot of very steep and punishing technical downhill terrain followed by several miles of rolling trail that feels more uphill than downhill, although that’s not how it looks on the course profile. I tried to pick up the pace as much as I could, but every step on the downhill was painful and I wasn’t making good time.
At Winfield, I got some good calories in me, including some ramen noodles, which really seemed to revive me. After mile 50 racers are allowed a pacer to run with them the rest of the race. When I first posted on Facebook that I was doing the race, Steve had offered to pace and crew. He also connected me with John. I arranged a brief “get acquainted” morning run with John. I got mixed-up getting to the run, ended-up being late, and then had intestinal distress for a significant part of our run. John was a good sport, though, and we had lots of friends and interests in common. I was happy to have him as part of the team and pacing me from Winfield, back over Hope Pass, to Twin Lakes.Fortunately, there were crew members at Winfield that were thinking more clearly than I was. My pacer, John Brackney, had reasoned and talked through with Heidi and Travis the fact that Winfield is about 1000 feet higher than Twin Lakes. That meant I had about 1000 ft less of climbing to do going back the other way. That was something I hadn’t thought through and the notion really boosted my spirits. Getting back to Twin Lakes before the cutoff now seemed doable.
John and I at the summit of Hope Pass (inbound)
We made good time on the couple of miles before the climb back up Hope Pass and we were in good shape time wise when we reached the summit of Hope Pass in fading light, or so it seemed. As we started down the pass toward the aid station, John began to fall back. When he caught up with me at the aid station he was having a toe problem and seemed to be dragging. We got some food in him and some more in me. I was a big ramen believer now after how it had energized me before the climb back up the pass. I don’t know how much time I spent at the aid station, but it was probably ten to fifteen minutes, which was too much. After we left the aid station, John again fell behind fairly quickly and I would occasionally shout out to make sure he was okay. He kept reminding me not to slow down for him, and I didn’t. John had abbreviated previous plans to do multiple “fourteeners” that day, in favor of a single, shorter morning fourteener hike. I didn’t expect this to be an issue, because I expected to be moving pretty slowly by this point in the race. As it turned out, he was feeling the first effects of an illness that took him out for about a week after the race.
At this point in the race time flew, but the miles seemed to take forever. John had my GPS watch attached to a battery charger in his pack, so I had no way to know the time or our mileage. Although I had been on this same trail on the way out, things always look so different when you are looking at them from the opposite direction. Plus, soon after we left the aid station, it became dark.
Heading down from the summit of Hope Pass in the fading light. Approximately mile 55.
So, that’s how I had gotten here, separated from John and somewhere over two miles from the 60 mile aid station at Twin Lakes, in the dark, cold, and mud, with only 30 minutes to get there before the cutoff. As I ran, thoughts raced through my head. I imagined being pulled from the course and not being able to continue. In my mind I saw the disappointment everyone would experience, the fundraising pledges that would never be realized, what I would tell my friends and crew, what I would tell Ryder, how hard I had worked to no avail. I thought about all the sacrifices Heidi had made for me so I could complete all the training necessary to attempt this race. How would I feel, not only tonight, but for days, weeks, or years, facing all the people who had contributed to the effort? Most of all I thought of my Ryder. When I pictured myself despondent, weeping in the aid station tent having missed the cutoff, it was all almost unbearable to think about. It seemed less bearable than the pain in my iron-heavy legs and burning lungs.
For most of us there are a few, if any, moments when everything comes together to bring out a will, strength and paid tolerance that is inaccessible in most everyday life situations. This was one of those moments for me. As the thoughts of failure ran through my head, my desperation at avoiding it helped me find another gear and then another and then another as I splashed through the muddy marsh and the flooded jeep road toward Twin Lakes. I just ran as fast as I possibly could the rest of the way. I knew I might be too spent to finish the last 40 miles even if I did make it, but there was no chance to continue if I didn’t.
As I came out of the flooded jeep road and onto a drier trial, someone standing along the course told me it was a mile and a half to the aid station. Then, after what seemed like only another quarter mile, someone else told me it was only half a mile. This uncertainty heightened my desperation even more and I tried to find yet another gear. I don’t know how fast I ran that last section or exactly how long it was. My best guess is that the original information about being over two miles out, 30 minutes before the cutoff, was roughly accurate. What I do know is that I ran faster on that section than I would have ever believed I could after 58 miles and going over Hope Pass twice.
As I finally came out of the trail into a parking lot on the south side, I know there was only about a quarter mile to the actual aid station, where I had to get before the cutoff. Suddenly Steve was there and began to run with me, urging me to keep pushing it but telling me I could still make it. We crossed the highway, and then Christine and Scott were there and they ran with me the last couple of hundred yards. I pushed it as hard as I could all the way to the inflated threshold that was the official exit point of the aid station that had to be crossed before 9:45. I’d made it, crossing it just over two minutes before the cutoff. Looking back, I have no doubt that all the things I put in place to make this effort meaningful and force training discipline were the things that made the idea of failure so unbearable 57-plus miles into the race. Those were the things that helped me find gears I didn’t know I had, further into a race than I had ever been. It had all worked, barely, but it had worked. Of course, there was the small matter of the 40 miles I still had to go.
Unlike the previous year, where runners had been allowed to cross the cutoff threshold and then go back to the aid station and get items from their crew, etc., this year the rules had been changed. Now that I’d crossed the threshold, I would not be allowed to go back to the aid station. Once we sorted that out, we found a rock I could sit on just up the steep hill on the other side of the threshold. I felt really spent and everything seemed loud and totally chaotic. Scott, Christine, and Steve helped me get dry socks on my feet and get my gear and clothing under control. After a few minutes, one of the race marshals told us I had to get moving. My pacer for the next segment, Steve, could catch up to me, but I couldn’t stay there by the aid station any longer because other runners were being stopped for being past the cutoff and my presence there could cause issues because they were not being allowed to continue. I issued a “yes ma’am” and started hiking up the steep hill.
I left feeling a little worried about John, because we had not seen him, but I knew there were still people on the trail behind us who could help him if needed. The next section of the trail was a fairly steep incline and I was moving pretty slowly. Steve caught up to me shortly and we were moving together. Then, Steve started pushing. First, as we hiked up the first few miles of uphill trail, he pushed me to start eating. He was relentless and had coached the rest of the team to also be forceful in insisting that I eat. Every few minutes, Steve would insist that I eat a mini cliff bar or energy block. Nothing sounded good at all, but I was able to get calories into me little by little, mostly with the energy blocks. Once we started getting into the more rolling sections of that part of the course, Steve pushed me to run, mostly in short bursts. We began targeting landmarks ahead – run to that big tree, run to that next boulder. We alternated back and forth between walking and running, occasionally getting in longer stretches of running, and we began to pass people. When we got to the Half Pipe aid station at mile 69 we had put some cushion between me and the cutoff time. That felt so good. I consumed some more ramen and we kept going.
Travis picked up the pacing duties at the alternate crew area at about mile 73, and got me the rest of the way to the Outward Bound aid station at mile 76. At Outward Bound, Heidi and Scott helped me get into some warmer clothes, and I changed into my Hoka running shoes as planned. Hokas are the odd looking heavily cushioned running shoes that are the antithesis of minimal running shoes. I had done a significant portion of my training in Hokas and they seemed to result in less soreness and quicker recovery. I reasoned that the extra cushioning would be a welcome change at this point of the race. I got some ramen in me again and started off. After just a couple of steps, the Hoka’s didn’t feel right. My feet were surely swollen, and the shoes felt different and uncomfortable. I turned back and switched back to my new Balance MT 100s, the minimalist trail shoes that I had worn for the last 76 miles. That felt right and Scott and I were on our way. I was somewhat dreading the climb (about 3 miles and 1600 vertical feet) up “Powerline,” but I was also excited because it was the last major climb of the race. Scott endured my incessant whining about when we were going to get to the top of the big climb and as my concern mounted about our arrival time at the May Queen aid station at mile 87. He did a great job of reminding me that we couldn’t change where we were – I just had to keep moving. Now every mile seemed to stretch longer and longer. Even on the easy downhill sections on the way back down Sugarloaf pass, I seemed to be moving really slowly. I was worrying that that we might not get to the May Queen aid station before the cutoff, but I was much more worried about the fact that just making the cutoff would leave me only three and a half hours to complete the last 13.5 miles of the race. I’ve run a half marathon in about half that time, but I had just done 86.5 miles. In order to finish the Leadville Trail 100 in the 30 hours allotted, you have to average about 18 minutes per mile. To finish the last 13 miles in under 3.5 hours, I would need to average 15 minute miles. So, I would have cover these final miles significantly faster than my average time for the first 87 miles. That didn’t seem likely. It was time to “dig deep” again. Fortunately, I had made the right choice in a pacer for the final leg.
Christine and Travis were waiting at May Queen when I arrived less than 10 minutes before the cutoff. The pain and fatigue in my legs was making it difficult for me to run except in brief intervals, and both had gotten worse from the big climb up Powerline.
I was worried, but Christine made it clear as we started out that failure was not an option. Or as she put it, “you are not going to come this far and not make it. Not on my watch.” Christine had figured out the exact pace we needed to get to the finish-line before the cutoff, even factoring in the cushion we might need for the three-mile climb into town. She mixed in just the right amount of pressure to keep me running and walking at intervals to sustain the fourteen- minute mile pace we needed to maintain to make the finish before the 10:00 a.m., 30-hour cutoff for an official finish.
This part of the course is a beautiful trail, especially as the sun is into coming up over Turquois Lake. I had to keep my eyes mostly on the trail, though. Christine was setting such a great pace, and as we were passing a number of other runners a couple of times one would start running with us. I have typically had at least one spill in most of the ultra-distance trail races I’ve done. As the legs weary and one doesn’t pick up the feet quite as high, it’s easy to catch a root or rock and harder to catch yourself. About three-fourths of the way around the edge of the lake, I caught my foot and went tumbling. The runner that was with us stopped to make sure I was okay. As trail race falls go it was pretty harmless, though I felt it a little more after 90 miles than I might have after 10 miles.
Crossing the finish line at 29 hours and 41 minutes.
Steve joined us a mile or so out as it was becoming clear I was going to make it comfortably under 30 hours. Travis Macy and Jacob Puzey had proven to be right. My successful finish only happened because I was able to finish the second half in close to the same time as the first half. At the top of the hill going into town, more team members joined us. Scott was there with my kids in our double stroller. When I got to the last few yards and the red carpet to the finish line, everyone peeled off and I crossed the line alone. Heidi was on the other side holding the video camera and crying. We hugged in joy and relief.As the finish line drew closer, my mind drifted to it periodically. I imagined seeing Heidi and the boys and embracing them. In my fatigued state, when I had these thoughts l found my emotions welling up and I began to get choked-up. I had to remind myself to focus on actually getting there and not to put the cart before the horse.One of the most exceptional parts of the whole 30-hour “day” was how all the pacers interacted with me, finding a great balance between pushing me to maintain pace and allowing me to manage my pace in a way that was doable for me at each particular point in the race. Each had a different style, but they all worked and generally seemed to be just what I needed at the time.
Post race smiles all around from Quinn, Heidi, Scott, Steve, Travis, John, Christine and Ryder.
It wasn’t long before somebody asked me whether I was going to be back next year. I was reminded of the scene in Chariots of Fire in the locker room after Harold Abrahams won the hundred meters and one of his teammate cautions another from trying to speak to him, saying “when you win, you may find it’s pretty hard to take.” I certainly hadn’t won the race, and many more people than you might realize finish 100 mile races nowadays. Nonetheless, just finishing a 100-mile race for the first time certainly feels like winning, so I could identify a bit with the void that’s left when you reach a goal you have worked very long and hard to reach. What now?
This was an amazing experience on so many levels. The most profound part of the whole experience, though, was the shared experience of the whole team working relentlessly toward the goal of my successfully finishing the race. It’s hard to articulate how profound an experience it was to be part of Team Aram getting to the finish line. Every one of the pacers and crew that were there in Leadville that weekend put themselves into making the race a successful effort and there is no question that I would have never made the finish line in under 30 hours without the remarkable efforts of everyone on the team. The contributions of every member of the team were numerous, but some of the key contributions included Nancy Nelson driving all the way from Flagstaff to keep the whole crew spectacularly fed, Travis Berry establishing an ideal lodging and base camp for the team and pacing me through miles in the middle of the night, John Brackney convincing me we could somehow get back over Hope Pass in at least twenty-five minutes less time than it had taken me the other way when that did not feel possible, Steve Palmer getting the whole team to make sure I ate properly and pacing me hard enough to gain a little cushion on cutoff times, Scott Jeffords with his inspirational words, crewing multiple aid stations and keeping my spirits up through the final really big climb, Christine O’Donnell for pacing me to a faster final 13 miles than I thought I could do after 87 miles to get to the finish line twenty minutes before the 30 hour cutoff, and of course, Heidi Wagner Morgan for supporting and encouraging me through all the months of training and the whole race weekend while somehow managing keep tabs on our two rambunctious young boys. I would never have made it to the finish line without the efforts of all these people, not to mention my nephew Aram and his mom, my sister Lynn, who gave this whole endeavor a deeper purpose along with the donors to the Autism Society of America. Fifty supporters put more than $7,500 of their hard-earned money into the Autism Society of America as part of this effort. I am so grateful for everyone’s contributions and support. Thank you! Additional thanks to Nel for helping edit this account. Also want to give a shout out to my coach, Jacob Puzey, who recently set a world record on the treadmill. treadmill record article, jacobpuzey.com
I’ve continued my ultra trail-running adventures over the last year and a half since the 2015 race. As I finally finish the final edits on this, I am working toward returning to Leadville for the 2017 race with a goal of getting the big belt buckle for a sub 25-hour finish and a memory that Quinn, our youngest, will be old enough to remember.
“I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll bend over now.”