Here’s part two of Daniel’s fantastic article about the Leadville Trail 100 experience. If you need to get caught up before you dig in, you may read part 1 here.
LEADVILLE, PART 2: PLANS & DREAMS
by Daniel Lucas
8. Race day
While planning the 1942 D-Day attack, Eisenhower explained his strategy to his team in meticulous detail. He showed how each step and phase would go as he moved the model boats and planes around the table. One of the top generals interrupted him and loudly announced, “This is absolutely absurd. As soon as we hit that beach it will be utter chaos, and nothing will go according to plan”. Eisenhower paused for a moment and responded, “The plan is nothing, the planning is everything”.
I had a very detailed plan for how I would run Leadville. I had researched and interviewed athletes who were experienced veterans and while their advice often differed, I had outlined a few simple principles to guide me along my way.
The buzzer sounded and race announcer repeatedly proclaimed: “I commit, I will not quit”. I can attest that the announcer achieved this as I heard it constantly until I covered enough distance such that I could no longer hear the announcer at all.
Packed with 1000 participants, the starting chute moved slowly as the runners started. Randy Whorton was standing next to me, and we wished each other luck. He pushed the button on his headlamp and nothing happened. He took it off his head and continued to push the button and received the same result. “Oh Well,” he said, and ran off into the dark.
9. The start!
I jogged slowly for about two minutes then the Samaritan in me decided it was best to give Randy my backup headlamp. I stopped on the side of the trail and spent about 2 minutes rummaging through my pack until I found it. I then tried to catch Randy to give him the headlamp. By the time I caught him a few minutes later, I couldn’t even speak. I handed Randy the headlamp, leaned over, placed my hands on my knees and began gasping for air. I looked and felt like I had just finished a 5k and I was now a whopping 6 minutes into my first 100 miler. Plan strategy #1, failed.
Getting my heart rate to calm down turned out to be much, much worse than I had ever anticipated. The next 2 hours would consist of me walking and jogging at a depressingly slow pace. Leadville is known for having strict and somewhat aggressive cutoff times at each aid station. For the first time in my racing career I began to be concerned that I would be disqualified from an event because I did not make the cutoff times. I was hardly jogging and the altitude had caused my heart rate to go and stay sky high. I kept looking at my watch, ‘This can’t be right’, but deep down I knew it was.
I knew what I had to do if I wanted to make it past 3 hours. My jog slowly turned into an aggressive walk and the next two and a half hours was an ‘exciting’ mix of going back and forth between 12 and 20 minute miles. Not the start I had trained for or imagined… not even close. On the flip side, I knew I couldn’t speed up as it would ensure that I would bonk a few hours later and this would practically guarantee that I would fall victim to the cutoff times.
As you might guess, 1000 trail runners sharing a path for the first few hours of the race is a bit packed. Trying to pass racers is like making love in an MRI machine: doable, but hardly worth it. Everyone seemed to be running comfortably, especially my 10 fellow Chattanoogans (those bastards).
Another thing about being behind 1000 trail runners before the crack of dawn, holy hell do they stink. Granted I was hyperventilating, but I swear it seemed as though every runner must have had a jumbo jalapeño omelet for dinner, washed it down with a pitcher of beer then thought “No I’m good, I’m just gonna save all this gas for the race”. Think about being stuck on the interstate in July for two hours behind a trailer full of cows or horses and you get the picture.
My ‘plan’ was to go through the first aid station with a running time of 2:10. It was actually 2:35 and, of all 11 Chattanooga runners, guess which one arrived and left the first aid station last.
The next few hours went much better and I was even able to converse with local Renaissance athlete Chad Wamack for about a half hour as the sunrise lit our path.
With each passing hour I felt better and more confident that I would finish. I kept thinking how just over half the people I was running with would drop or be cut at some point. Yet oddly, everyone seemed quite relaxed and carefree, and I reminded myself that even though we had now ran the distance of a marathon, we were just getting started.
A few days before I left for Leadville, some close friends had decided to throw me a surprise birthday party. I received a red handkerchief that each person had signed with some form of inspirational note of encouragement specific to Leadville.
Suffice to say, the whole thing was unbelievably humbling and I was exceptionally impressed as to how much faith my friends had in me. This is one of those instances where I’m grateful that people aren’t privy to what I’m thinking; especially, say… 2 weeks before the race.
I carried this handkerchief with me through the entire race and you can see it in every photo taken that day. After the second aid station this gift would come in quite handy as the next 12 miles are in direct sunlight and it was a dry and hot afternoon. Between the handkerchief and my visor, I was able to keep my head from any direct sun.
Sometimes little comforts really help you to regain your focus. At the time, I considered it some type of MacGyver-like epiphany. It’s odd how heat and fatigue can cause the simplest of tasks to seem like ingenuity.
At mile 40 I saw my pacer for the first time since the race start. She would not join me until mile 60, at which point the most challenging section of the race would be over. As I approached her she took a picture of me then inquired as to how I was feeling. For now, I was in good spirits as to how the day was turning out.
Sammi was truly a lighthouse in the storm of circumstances that had plagued me prior to the race. Flying across the country on short notice to run a race with me was her idea of a weekend well spent. The day before the race we were preparing our race plan and enjoying a cup of coffee when Sammi mentioned to me that she had paced two other people for 100 mile races and neither had finished. I laughed and told her that she was the third person who had agreed to pace me and the other two had suffered game changing injuries. I felt that these two taboos cancelled each other out.
Sammi is one tough mother… literally. She has three daughters and runs ultras while working for the Leukemia Lymphoma society. She wears an old, ragged Yankees ballcap that her late grandmother gave her before she was taken by Leukemia. Suffice to say, she’s passionate about her work.
11. Hope Pass
At mile 43 I began the climb up Hope Pass. I knew that this was generally where people dropped from the race and I was about to find out why. I saw people falling apart and throwing up on the side of the trail. Some were younger people who looked confused and bewildered as to what was going on. Some were hardened veterans just staring down and waiting for it to pass.
One example of the latter was a gentleman who was tall, lean and had a ZZ Top style beard. He was doubled over and experiencing nausea. I noticed a tattoo with the word “BadWater” on his arm and thought “Wow… this guy is tough.” A few minutes later I was approached by a runner who looked delirious and began begging me to share my water. I said yes and he held out an empty Gatorade jug. As I dispensed water from my hydration pack he told me “I need at least 10 ounces.” Only later did I question the situation, “What the hell was that guy thinking only carrying a Gatorade jug… and did he even have a race number?”
After about 30 minutes of hiking up Hope Pass I was behind a woman who had a good pace so I just stayed about 20 ft behind her. Also, she had really hot legs so I noticed that I reminded myself to keep a “slow and steady” pace a disproportionate number of times during this particular section. I finally caught her and when I went to pass her she asked me “Excuse me but how much farther is it to the top?”
Her eyes wandered without focus as she spoke, like someone who was completely unaware of their surroundings, and possibly reality. When I told her we still had about an hour to the top her facial response was that of someone fighting back emotions and left little doubt that she would continue past the next aid station. She also mumbled something about sending her a centaur to ride back to Xanadu kingdom but all I heard was “Here, please take my walking sticks, gels and hydration pack… may they serve you well.”
Just before I reached the summit, I arrived at the aid station appropriately named “Hopeless.” Llamas are used to haul supplies and were sitting around everywhere. They struck me as very calm and peaceful animals, but then maybe that’s just the altitude taking its effect on them.
It was at this aid station that I first saw my friend and fellow Chattanooga resident, Dr. Lindsay. Lindsay was attempting a remarkable feat. He had broken his foot and had not run in the past 6 weeks but was now attempting to complete Leadville. He looked …awful. He was slumped in a chair and his face was very pale in color. He saw me and briefly stated that things weren’t going well.
I put my hand on his shoulder, stared him in the eye and slowly stated, “Lindsay, you are doing fine and you will get through this.” I was actually thinking “Wow… you look like roadkill. I thought you had died and I only approached you to raid your pockets for nutrition. Please don’t scare me like that again you zombie bastard.”
During the descent of Hope Pass the elevation and my condition seemed to be intertwined. I began to feel more lethargic and unfocused with each passing minute. Nausea started to creep in and navigating downhill through the technical terrain slowly became an overwhelming task. What should have been the easiest part of the race was somehow incredibly taxing. When I got to the bottom I couldn’t seem to run anymore and began alternating a few minutes of jogging with walking. I kept thinking that I was very fortunate that Sammi didn’t see me in this state.
Each mile stretched endlessly and I just focused on staying in the moment and keeping upright. Two fellow Chattanoogans (Samuel Hammonds and Brian Costilow) came from the opposite direction, and were heading back towards Hope Pass at a fast pace and looking cheerful. They said hi, but I just couldn’t seem to respond.
Now I was the runner facing my trial. I was the one that others saw and wondered if I would make it much further. If ever there was a time that Bonk training had prepared me psychologically, this was it. To make matters worse, I ran out of water. I had failed to account for the water I gave away and as a consequence I quickly developed an intense thirst.
13. Seven Pounds
The 50-mile aid station (Winfield) was a total mess. I navigated through about one mile of slowly moving cars (think playing Frogger after drinking a 6 pack) on a dirt road with no safety lane. When I arrived, I had friends that were cheering me on.
Two surprise blessings that I had never anticipated were the presence and support of the Sims (Matt and Natalie) and Duncan Callahan. Matt and Natalie really need no introduction, as they are outdoor pioneers in Chattanooga and have done so very much to support and promote it. Duncan Callahan has won Leadville twice, and placed second at Rock/Creek StumpJump 50k last year.
Duncan and I had touched base a few times as I prepared for Leadville and he was as gracious and generous in person as he was in our correspondence. At nearly every aid station both Duncan and the Sims showed genuine interest and concern for my well-being. I would doubt that they had any idea how much it meant to me when they approached me at this point in time.
As he had in nearly every race I have competed in, Matt asked how I was doing, and for the first time I responded “Not so well, Matt.” A weigh-in was mandatory at this aid station, and the nurse did a double take. She checked my wristband which had the number 172 written across it. She said “Sir, you have lost around 7 lbs since you started, How are you feeling?” I quickly responded “I feel great, ready to get back out there.”
I stepped off the scale and asked a volunteer for some help patching a large blister. As the volunteer prepped the glue I sunk into the chair and felt like I was slowly sinking into quicksand. I had failed again. It wasn’t fatigue from running or altitude I had been battling; I had lost so much water that I had bonked from dehydration. I had planned on staying mellow and relaxing the first 60 miles and here I was at mile 50 looking and acting like someone on their last leg.
Before they had finished covering my blister, I saw Lindsay come into the tent. He looked great. His first pacer was standing next to him and Lindsay told me he had gotten his second wind. He ran off into the distance effortlessly. “Three hours,” I mumbled. In three hours I can turn this thing around. If I go easy and drink as much as I can, I can still make the cutoff at mile 60 and drown this coma.
14. Hope Pass (Again)
I returned to Hope Pass and was completely inspired on my way back up the mountain. By the time I was a mile into the climb I began to see people who knew they would not make the cutoff. They were still well over an hour from the mile 50 aid station and 45 minutes remained. Some looked determined, cuts on their arms or knees, often accompanied with a limp as they marched on.
It had taken me 4 hours to catch up to a lady that morning. When I passed her I turned and gave her a small salute as to how impressed I was. Now she was coming down the hill several hours behind me. Her face was no less determined than when I passed her over 8 hours ago. I stepped aside as she passed me. I watched with admiration as she carefully navigated down the technical terrain… on her one leg.
Then there were the people who didn’t look so determined. Suffice to say, I have never seen a closer resemblance to live zombies (pun intended). Salt caked on their faces as they staggered along running into trees. Their eyes wandered without focus and they seemed oblivious to the wounds they had sustained.
I didn’t talk much for the next few hours. I focused on rehydrating and getting back in the game. I spent 45 minutes of the climb behind a guy and his pacer and for that entire time all they did was argue about whether he was drinking enough.
Three hours after leaving the mile 50 aid station, I took the last step off of Hope Pass and was on flat, runnable dirt. Even running back through the cold stream seemed welcoming. The sunset was beautiful. I had told Sammi I would be back before dark so with that goal and my second wind I ran my fastest miles of the race.
When I was a half mile from the aid station I heard a very faint voice: “Daniel.” It was so faint that I didn’t stop until I’d heard it three times. I stopped and searched the darkening horizon, and there in the faint distance was a man waving his arms. “Daniel… it’s Matt. How are you feeling now?” he yelled while using his hands as a megaphone. I responded with excitement that I was feeling fantastic. How Matt recognized me from that distance was beyond me.
Just as the darkness began to thicken I arrived emerged from the weeds and saw Sammi standing there ready to go. I felt as though I had only done a light jog and that I would be able to run hard indefinitely.
15. No Coffee?!?
There’s an saying in ultra running that goes something like this: “Whether you feel great or awful, rest assured that it will pass.” I mentioned to Sammi that it may be possible to still make the-25 hour mark, and I am ohhhh so grateful she talked me out of that endorphin-fueled epiphany.
Things went fine for the next few hours. I had now passed my goal of 16 hours without caffeine and was struggling to stay awake. Fortunately the aid station arrived just in time.
When the volunteer told me they didn’t have any coffee I stared blankly.
“None… No coffee?!!” I responded. At this point I would have done some really ‘uncharacteristic’ things for a cup of Joe. What, you stirred the cream and sugar in with a toilet plunger? Cheers!. 50$ for a Venti?, I’ll have a refill. Drop the soap? It’s a pump, but who’s judging you inmate # 4672. Shortly after leaving the aid station I started getting slower and noticed that I was inadvertently doing the “wake up” head shake. To make matters worse, my headlamp began to fade and I no longer had my backup.
Two friends grew up together and experienced great summers in the wild. They stayed in touch through college but had a falling out in their midlife. They always thought about restarting their friendship but their schedules and egos always seemed to intervene. A very Cat’s in the Cradle-esque story that ended with one dying somewhat early of cancer.
The remaining friend would often visit the other’s grave and sit for hours catching the late friend up on what was going on in his life. I stared at the grave intently. Also, it was a rock in the trail. Oh, damn… I’m really struggling here. This sucks.
Luckily, I shook it off and was now wide awake; no more lucid dreams. And this tree is from the seed they planted on their first date. My headlamp was illuminating its branches and I had no idea how long I had been staring.
Dreaming while standing upright really sucks. It sucks even worse when you snap out of it and your pacer is staring at you. “Daniel, you’re going really slow and you need to wake up,” she said. I paused, took a deep breath and responded, “I know I’m tired Sammi. I want to wake up, but I really don’t know what else to do”. As always, Sammi was perfect. She tried to make small talk and asked me if I had plans for what I would do with the finisher’s awards. I told her I did and quickly changed the subject.
Then we played a game where you share secrets that you have never told anyone and somehow that really seemed to work. An hour later I was wide awake. I blabbered on about my brief affair with Julio (inmate #4672), and how he managed to make great coffee with nothing more than his gang bandana, the wardens boot and some sterile urine.
16. The second sunrise
Of all the amazing sights I saw during this run, few are more memorable that watching the sunrise for the second time of my run. It was so perfect. I was running along turquoise lake smiling and treasuring every minute. A few miles before the finish I was running along a dirt road and there standing next to me was a bearded man with a tattoo that read “Badwater.”
This guy was the real deal. He had overcome his setbacks and although he was walking slow, he was on schedule to finish well ahead of the cutoff. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had passed Lindsay during the night and he would end up finishing before the cutoff as well.
I watched the lady in front of me trip and do a full-force faceplant. As I helped her up, I told her that break time was over and she needed to get back to business. She laughed and said that her goal was to finish this race without falling and that she was less than two miles from achieving that goal when she fell.
Just as I started running again I saw Robin in the distance ahead of me. I quickly caught up with her and started aggravating her to run it in with me. She resisted and kept rationalizing why we should walk “One more hill.” I picked a target in the distance and she agreed to start running when we got there. Robin was the only female from our Chattanooga group and I’m proud to say that she not only completed Leadville, but also had the same finish time as me.
At one point during our final run we started to slow and I felt a hand push me from behind. It was the lady I had picked up only a few minutes ago. She told me that I had pushed her and now it was her turn to push me.
I walked across the finish line with Robin and I couldn’t shake the smile from my face. Ken Colbert, who created the Leadville race and ran it for many years, was standing there grinning at me. I told Ken this was my first 100 and he hugged me tightly and walked me over to the mandatory medical check. I weighed more at the finish than I did at mile 50.
As I emerged from the medical tent Sammi appeared and started congratulating me. Before she could finish I took my finisher medal off and put it on her. “I told you I had plans for it. You’ve earned this, Sammi.” I said. Of course she tried to give it back, saying that she didn’t want to keep the medal since she hadn’t run the race. I told Sammi that she would run Leadville someday and then she could give her medal to her pacer and encourage them to do the same.
A few hours later I was at the award ceremony hobbling around and Sammi was still acting like a pacer. She kept handing me water and asking how I was doing. When she saw me sitting on the floor she quickly found me a seat.
I doubt that most people need this advice, but for goodness’ sake, never book your return flight less than a day after you finish a 100-mile race. That night during the three hour drive to the airport, I sat alone listening to the rental car’s default xm jazz station as I replayed the scenes from the day prior. The headlamps miles ahead and behind me that outlined the lake before sunrise. The gorgeous mountains and the views from their summits. The lady with one leg descending Hope Pass. The lady who told me they were out of coffee but was probably just hiding it from me out of sheer unjustified spite. The road tunnel that was built by a one armed farmer who… Oh crap, I’m falling asleep at the wheel.
If I were to go back and revise my initial race plan, I would add one critical factor: keep your cool. Never allow the internal or external circumstances, challenges, surprises and setbacks to separate you from your sense of composure and control. Once your cool is gone, you allow outside factors to influence and in many ways dictate the outcome.
I may have failed at most every step of my plan, but composure is an excellent and readily available resource to any backup plan and it served me well. To paraphrase Henry Ford, if you believe you can’t run Leadville then you’re probably right. If you believe you can do it, then you will most likely succeed. Here are a few things I learned during this journey. Perhaps they may be of use to you when you face your big goals and challenges.
Whatever the challenge, believe in yourself. We hear it so often and so many different ways, but you (and yes, reader, I mean you) are capable of so very much. We are at our best when we reach outside our comfort zone. If you hear a voice in your head saying “This is too much, you may very well fail,” use this as a compass and move towards the challenge in question. You will experience and discover so much more when you do. When someone (usually a non-athlete) scoffs at your 4 hour marathon time by citing the finish times of such elites at Ryan Hall, realize that in most cases they are an observer and not a participant. If a participant says something like this to you they are likely to be either a close friend, an a$$hole, or in some cases, both. Avoiding challenges because of the non-winner’s stigma is to embrace rationalization by composing a never ending list of what-ifs with safe, quiet, comfortable and otherwise unmemorable days.
Visualize success. Yes, in training for Leadville I often had fantasies of setbacks, challenges and failure, but I never entertained the thought of giving up. It’s probably optimistic and somewhat detrimental to think that race day will go as planned. Count on surprises but also count on finishing. I had a friend of mine just complete an Ironman and, due to multiple unforeseen issues, his finish time was far below that of his goal. I told him I was much more impressed with his fortitude in the face of adversity and circumstances than, say, finishing 20 minutes faster.
Listen to your body. Yes, another common expression that is so relevant in training for big challenges. I almost missed out on the Leadville experience because I tried to force-fit my training to a regimen that just wasn’t right for me. The first x-ray I have ever had took place 10 weeks before Leadville. I was in so much pain that I felt certain I had a stress fracture in my foot. It was a high decibel wake-up call that I needed to make some changes in my training.
Enjoy every moment. A few weeks before the race I had to change my mentality from “Can I survive this?” to “I can’t wait to experience this.” Moving my mindset from anxiety to anticipation was a stark contrast that made a tremendous difference in how I allowed myself to interpret the experience. When each moment of your race is a privilege, even the lows (and yes, there will certainly be lows during a 100-miler) seem to be part of what makes the experience so very special.
I don’t propose that everyone should run 100 miles or compete in some crazy endurance event, but I do hope that you will find some level of inspiration from my journey that will aid you on yours. Friends who believe in and support you from afar, an amputee who won’t quit, the memory of a late friend, someone who stands by your side throughout the night to ensure you succeed.
Like the hands that gently pushed me just before the finish, I’ve found that just when you need it most, you will find support from the most surprising people and places; perhaps even within yourself.