It was bound to happen, but at least I am now in good company.
Many, if not most of the top ultrarunners in the world have suffered defeat at the hands of their instrument of success – Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, Anton Krupicka……. It has to be expected and accepted as a normal part of such an extreme sport that not everything will go right all the time.
I had felt no more nervous about this race, the Leadville Trail 100 “Race Across the Sky”, than either of the previous 100 milers I had completed recently, although it did present it’s own unique challenge, but then that was why I had picked it. The altitude, as the name suggests, is not something to be taken lightly. Starting in the town of Leadville, Colorado, at over 10,000ft, this out and back trail run was certainly the most established ultra race I had ever contemplated although my first 100 miler, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc which I had completed almost a year to the day before, was the biggest. It was not arrogance that made me feel this way about the race, or even complacency, but after the experience of my recent races I certainly felt comfortable with the distance.
Liz and I had decided to go over for the few days without the children to give both us and them a break! So we flew via Atlanta to Denver, where we met Mike, an old friend from Liz’s school days who we had not seen for some time but who, when we had indicated we were coming to the race, jumped at the chance to fly out from Charleston to meet us since two of his siblings lived in the city of Denver. Jonathan and Theresa had very kindly offered to put us up for the night prior to us travelling up to Leadville, so we had a good sociable evening chatting about ultras, triathlons and diet, both sporting and otherwise, as Jonathan is a triathlete and vegetarian and follows many of the same ideals as Liz and I. Andrew, Mike and Jonathan’s other brother, also enjoys cycling and running, but appears rather more sensible in his outlook to sport and does it more for fun and fitness.
After a good evening sleep, we had a run around the outskirts of Denver enjoying the farmlands and the magnificent houses around the area. It also provided the opportunity to sample to effects of some altitude, albeit only half that of the Leadville run, at just over 5,000ft, but the test was encouraging nonetheless, with neither Liz nor myself experiencing any adverse affects. Promising indeed, but the real test was to be the summit of Hope Pass, at 12,600ft, the highest I have ever been outside of the pressurised confines of an airplane, and due to the out and back nature of the route this would need completing not once, but twice, with 3,200ft climbs either side.
After travelling for a couple of hours to the altitude of Leadville to the west of Denver, with the brakes on our hire-car shuddering in objection to the massively undulating route we took from the foothills to the roof of the Rockies, we arrived at the Delaware Hotel and were greeted by Linda the receptionist who, having been at the hotel for 13 years, was refreshingly familiar with ultrarunners but nevertheless made all of us feel genuinely welcome there, a theme which was echoed consistently throughout our stay in the town and wherever we went. After being briefed incongruously by Linda, in her marvellous late-Victorian western dress, on carb-loading lunch specials and early race morning (2am) breakfasts, we left for our rooms and were instantly shocked by our first walk up the dozen or so steps to the first floor, each of us unable to ascend the worryingly small 20ft without pounding hearts and breathlessness uh-oh!
The weather when we arrived was not ideal, overcast and significantly colder than Denver but despite there having been thunderstorms overnight which had unbelievably deposited a light dusting of snow on the mountains to the west, things had improved, so our search through the small town for supplements in order to counter the effects of altitude was quite pleasant and with the formalities of registration and medical (i.e. weighing) out the way, I was ready.
At 11am on the Friday there was a final competitor briefing where Ken Chlouber, the original creator of the LT100 series of races, introduced various speakers focusing on medical, logistics and crewing. He also mentioned previous competitors, those who had completed the race 10 times to receive their ’1000 mile’ buckles, and similar for those who had managed to complete the course 20 times in it’s 27 year history, including one individual who had successfully completed and incredible 23 of those.
He also introduced a number of characters intimately associated with the race and it’s history, including Christopher McDougall, the author of Born to Run, an ultra running book about (amongst other things) what happened when several members of the Tarahumara Indian tribe competed in the Leadville race. Over the last few years, this account has helped to bring the race to even more prominence, and after the briefing Liz ran to get the last copy of the book at the local bookstore and rushed back so we could get him to sign it for us. He was signing countless books for others, but he was very amiable nonetheless.
After an evening of final planning with my crew, I applied Vaseline to my feet and donned my Injinji toe socks in a pre-emptive attempt to ward off blisters the following day, and by 9pm I was asleep. Even so, the alarm at 2:30 am was unwelcome after a restless night and I dressed with both long sleeve and short sleeve tops and shorts, and went downstairs for one of Linda’s hearty carbo-loading breakfasts. After that we were out of the door, but not before meeting the only other two British competitors in the race, a couple, Ryan and Nicole Brown (173/174). We chatted briefly about races and laughed about the irony that they had been competitors in the Lakeland 50 the previous month and moreover that they lived in East Horsley – about 6 miles from Guildford! A small world indeed.
I checked in, had a final photo at the start line and a good luck to Ryan and another guy from New Zealand, Russell, who had spotted my ‘buff’ around my neck and mentioned that he’d also done the MdS in 2008!
After a loud count from 10, a shot from what appeared to be a real western pistol announced the start of the clock and the 647 racers were off.
Start to May Queen
The race started out fast (or so it seemed) initially descending down dark streets leading out of Leadville and into forest trails with wide swaths of sandy paths cut between the pines on either side. There was a slight downhill for first few miles and the running was steady with fantastic skies above with a bright Jupiter to the SW and a brilliantly visible milky way through the swan constellation of Cygnus straight ahead to the NW. The first few miles went very quickly as I enjoyed the stars, with the easy ground underfoot and the file of runners travelling west for 3 miles before turning north parallel to a ‘railroad’ for another half mile and then continuing west to the southernmost extremity of Turquoise Lake, half of which we were to navigate round before turning south.
The nearly full moon had long since set and so did not provide anything in the way of illumination for the stream of runners now traversing the banks of the lake, along the narrow and hectic winding trail through the trees. The concentration required with head torches reached it’s normal intense levels. Eventually the beauty of the lake began to emerge in intimate partnership with the dawn, but not before I had succumbed to the perils of the darkness and caught my feet on unseen rocks and unnoticed roots on several occasions and practised the parachute rolls I am now becoming quite adept at. With bloodied extremities after a particularly heavy face plant, I ran excitedly into the first aid station, May Queen, at 13.5 miles after only 2 hours.
There were a number of major differences between the races I have done in the past and this race, and from what I can gather most races in the US. The first became clearly evident at this initial aid station. Crewing. Most, if not all, runners had a support crew ready for them, waiting with goodies laid out on tables, veritable feasts to attempt to cater for the unknown nutritional desires of their runners, chairs for them to sit on while socks and sometimes shoes are changed and tired muscles are rubbed, and drinks bottles, bladders and backpack hydration systems of all shapes and sizes are refilled with an equally bewildering selection of carbohydrate, isotonic and energy drinks. Self-sufficiency this is not.
Liz and Mike were there waiting for me, having had a far more tortuous journey than me to get to the station, along with the crew for nearly 700 other competitors. It was fantastic to see them and they were amazed that I had reached them at almost exactly the time that we had planned the previous evening.
The lot of a crew is rarely a happy one though and rather like an airline pilot, there are hours of travelling, monitoring and setup punctuated with moments of intense panic and the early checkpoints are always the least fulfilling. So it was that I had a quick banana and coke and after consigning my headlamp to my backpack I was off to the first major climb, Sugarloaf Pass.
May Queen to Fish Hatchery
As I made my way up the ever increasing gradients, the sun eventually showed it’s face in the clear blue sky overhead and I briefly contemplated what the temperature was likely to reach later in the day on some of the more exposed parts of the course. With the arrival of the sun also came the start of the magnificent views I had anticipated and I stopped briefly to take a couple of photos of the view back over Turquoise Lake as I negotiated the wide tracked switch-backs up to Sugarloaf Pass.
The summit of the pass at over 11,000ft arrived quite quickly, but the first real ascent at altitude had taken it’s toll on me and I was very glad of the downhill stretch into the second aid station at Fish Hatchery. The trail down was sometimes unexpectedly straight, almost to Roman standards, following as it did, the power lines down from the summit which I had now left well behind at the top of the hill, but it was only occasionally difficult, consisting mostly of regular dirt surfaces and some loose stone and shale.
I enjoyed the steady pace I managed to maintain and arrived in the Leadville Fish Hatchery at 23 miles to be greeted by a smiling Liz again after about 4:05 – well within my target for sub-25 hours. As we chatted, I had the first of my drop bags to rifle through to fulfil my endurance needs. I requested my bottle be filled with water and chia seeds and tried some of the sandwiches on offer as well. I changed my socks and reapplied Vaseline and was then off again.
Fish Hatchery to Halfmoon
I was feeling good after the the last few miles into Fish Hatchery and started out well but even though the next few miles were along tarmac and dust roads before turning up towards the treeline crew stop, I was starting to have one of my bad patches. I was being passed by quite a few people as I was jogging so slowly and that gets to be a bit demoralising after a bit. Ryan caught up with me with another runner who was helping him along, and we chatted briefly along the road but I let him go on after a short while and just before we reached the long line of crew cars that was an ‘unofficial’ aid station at what the organisers referred to as ‘Pipeline’ – it seems the one thing the Americans are not good at is naming things imaginatively!
The access to Pipeline was limited, and although Liz and Mike tried to make it, they were unable to find their way before I had passed through and since there was absolutely no crew access at Halfmoon, I resigned myself to the fact that I would not see them until the 40 mile mark at Twin Lakes.
I trudged along and I could hear the checkpoint through the stillness of the forest a long time before I could see it, as although crew were not allowed at this point the volunteers were putting on a good show nonetheless. I arrived at Halfmoon which was about 30 miles into the race, in 5:30 hours – a good time considering and I was happy with my progress. The medical chap at the aid station was most concerned about the blood coming out of my hands and knee and provided me with damp towels to clean things up a bit. Even though I did not think I had hung around here, it still took me 15-20 minutes before I was off again after refilling my bottle with normal powerade, washing my cuts and having a sandwich.
Halfmoon to Twin Lakes
The next section to the forty mile mark was much more uphill but I tagged on to a group running at the same pace as I was and this helped considerably – it is amazing how much difference it makes when you are running with people, even if they are complete strangers, you are all in the same boat together and you all draw off each other’s energy and drive to keep things moving. There is always conversation – some people find it easy, necessary even, to talk while they are running along and so often there is underlying chat around a huge variety of subjects, but also understandably running related topics. I chipped in occasionally as we made our way along.
Half way through this section the battery to my Garmin eventually died and through various acts of contortion I managed to connect it up to my faithful Power Monkey charger in my backpack without stopping. Unfortunately my luck had run out after this and as the short train of half a dozen of us sped up down the undulating tracks starting our descent into Twin Lakes, several of us tripped and stumbled as the underfoot terrain varied between dust tracks, shale strewn routes and tree-rooted paths. My Garmin catapulted out of my front pouch on one occasion as I stumbled and I quickly gathered up the watch, battery and wires, before continuing, so as not to either hold the group up, or lose my place in the train – I was determined to stick with these guys.
The downhill trail had suddenly got steeper, and turned into a switchback and one of the locals in the bus of runners spotted the Twin Lakes ahead; no doubt a good sign, but we were all apprehensive of how close that meant that we were to the aid station. We needn’t have feared as shortly after that we heard the roars from the station, up over a final short sharp moat-like rise after such a good last section, I beamed as I came down once again into the waiting arms of my wife. This was to be a big stop in preparation for the push over the intimidating 3200ft of Hope Pass, so I had food, changed my socks (which was to come back to haunt me) and had plenty of food, including some ‘Holy Pinole’ Rokit fuel for humans! I was willing to try anything to get me up this hill.
Twin Lakes to Winfield
After 7¾ hours I was on my way, 40 miles covered but the focus was now on the next 20 miles, 5 miles up to the top, 5 miles down to halfway at Winfield and then back to do the 5 miles up and down again. I was looking forward to being back in Twin Lakes again.
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The section after Twin Lakes went immediately down to the low point of the course, before rising to the high point and as I descended across the gradually sloping grassy plain I remembered the talk of swampy ground and a river to cross. I managed to negotiate the first of the boggy ground without any difficulty, nothing after my Lakeland experience, and I progressed rapidly until I came across a pond in the middle of the path. Thinking this was a prelude to the river I took my trusty shoes off and waded across this and the next pond I could see, barefoot. Feeling smug about the fact I had kept my trainers and socks dry, compared to all the others I saw who were wading straight through, I dried my feet carefully on the towel I had brought and re-vaselined my feet before pulling my Injinjis and shoes back on. It had taken me some time to go through this process, but at less than halfway through the race I considered it essential to preventing blisters forming later on
I progressed through similar terrain for a few hundred metres before, to my horror, I came across another pond – all my effort to dry my feet had been wasted time as I took my shoes off once more and waded through the 3-4 consecutive flooded areas of marshland before finally reaching the river, which was so fast flowing, as the organisers had mentioned, that they had strung a rope between the banks on either side. The icy waters flowing down from the mountains were the subject of much complaint by following runners, but I actually felt it was quite refreshing to my calves, quads and hamstrings. I have a distinct memory of wishing to be able to sit in an icy river during the heat of the Cotswolds 100 race just two months earlier. I dried my feet off as quickly as possible hoping this would prove to be the last of the water traps, which indeed it was, until the way back.
After the trauma of the shoe changes through the marsh, the environment closed in instantly to treeline pines and upward slopes, which Is how I knew it would be for at least the next four miles to the aid point just before the summit. This was to be my ultimate test at altitude. I did not know how I would fair.
Strangely though, as the surrounding runners and myself slowed to a power walk up the side of the mountain, I began to catch and pass people and although the pace was slow, I must’ve caught, surprised and passed at least a dozen people. I was pleased with progress.
I sweated my way up the hill for the next hour or so, then realised I was using water too fast. As I drained my last mouthful, I worked out it would be at least another 30 minutes to the aid point, but I also became aware of a fast flowing downhill stream, no doubt feeding the icy river I had waded through earlier, which was close by but with which we were also converging. A few hundred yards later I came to a convenient point and with hardly any diversion from the main track, I knelt down and filled my bottle with the purest mountain water you could imagine. Problem solved!
The ascent did go on forever though and the end of the treeline and view of the aid station never seemed to arrive, and as I covered what turned out to be the last 500m I slowed to the same pace as the rest of the people I had been passing, my lungs which had been dry before were burning and as if that wasn’t bad enough the first place runner, Anton Krupicka (His full account of his Leadville race is here), and his pacer came bounding down the hill just as I emerged from the treeline – He was apparently attempting to beat the 15:42 course record set in 2005 and although on track to achieve this, he ‘bonked’ later in the race and had to abandon.
Nevertheless, I had my own problems to contend with; my head felt like someone had strapped bubble-wrap around and was hitting it with a hammer, although the frequent popping of my ears on the way up made a nice counterpoint to the intoxicating spinning I felt from the exertion at altitude, my breathing was becoming more laboured by the minute and I had a distinct sensation of tinnitus. All in a days work for an ultrarunner, I guess!
As I rounded a trail corner I saw the Llamas indicating the aid station was near. They use the animals to haul the supplies up the hill to the station for the competitors coming both ways – perhaps the altitude it too much even for the local mules
I filled my bottle with powerade, thinking this would be better than the spring water, although I had second thoughts on this after tasting it and then sat for a brief rest with a warm soup and some coke. I was quite surprised when a chap with Vibrams on came a sat next to me, so we chatted about the shoes – he had been wearing them for running since last October without adverse effects, and was now a firm convert.
I grabbed another coke and my Vibram colleague and I were off up the final half mile to the 12,620 ft Hope Pass saddle summit point between Mount Hope and Quail Mountain. Getting to the top of a mountain you can see is significantly easier than one which is shrouded in forest, cloud, dark, mist or merely the haze of distance, hence the old ultrarunning adage, ‘If you can’t see the top, walk’
I quickly (relatively speaking) covered the distance to the highest point and after a few photos which took away what breath I had remaining, I was on my way down the other side through remarkably similar terrain, but going this way is my forte, and I covered the ground quickly – taking as much care as I could through first the barren exposed rocks and then the narrow tree root twists. Thundering downhill on tired legs through minefield terrain obviously requires extreme concentration and the distractions of the scenery, returning runners and narrow trails proved too much at one point as I strayed too close to the soft ground to my left which immediately gave way precipitously to the unbounded slopes below. As I twisted onto my front to grab onto anything which would allow me to break my descent, the scar on my knee was embellished once again with the flora of the Colorado trails and it was here that I believe I sustained the initial trauma to my left hip which was to cost me dearly at the end of the day.
After what seemed like the mere blink of an eye compared to the journey uphill, we levelled out at the trailhead and the road to Winfield. Had it not been for the crew cars which were sharing the road at this point and for the next 2 miles or so, I would’ve enjoyed the ‘thick’ air once more, but as it was the road was dusty, had a slight incline and was a motorway compared the routes I had been on for the previous 11 hours. Anyone with even mild agoraphobia (if they were in the race in the first place!) would be forgiven for turning right around and heading back up the hill.
My buff was covering my mouth to filter as much of the kicked up dust as possible as I laboured up the final 2 miles of incline before the halfway checkpoint, and I only briefly stopped a mile or so from Winfield as I met Ryan again on his return journey. We swapped experiences and concurred that the altitude on Hope Pass was a killer but he also mentioned I was looking better than the last time he had seen me just after Fish Hatchery – looks can be deceiving! He had really been suffering with breathing and although I did not see him again until after the race, it turned out he had developed some form of pneumonia by the time he had crossed the finish line.
The last few hours and the testing incline and altitude had taken it’s toll on me, and although approaching the end of unknown geographic territory, the halfway turnaround point marked the start of the psychological unknown as I had never taken part in an out and back race before – halfway up to the top of Hope Pass, I was convinced I would not, could not and (more importantly) did not want to repeat the journey back up here and I was therefore talking myself into stopping at the halfway point.
With the final corner marking the last few yards down towards the Winfield aid station, I progressed with the cars, trucks, pick-ups and RVs in a world of confusion, thinking these were to be my last steps in this race, a fact which Liz immediately recognised when she saw my face.
She helped me across the timing mat and then after a medical ‘weigh-in’ at which my current weight-loss was confirmed as being under the acceptable threshold (3-5%), I went to sit in a small piece of shade under a trailer next to the radio tent, where the race numbers of individuals at various stages were being relayed backwards and forwards.
I stayed there for several minutes in my semi-comatose state, while Mike got noodle soup, potatoes and drink and Liz talked me round into a state of decisiveness. She did not tell me what to do. My thoughtful wife calmly explained the facts to me, about how far I had come, about the worst being over, about having only to concentrate on the moment, to take the necessary steps to reach my next goal even if that goal was the boulder 10 yards in front of me and most importantly about how annoyed I would be with myself later if I gave up now. As she said afterwards, although the first thing I said when I saw her was that I could not go on, she did not at any time hear from me that I did not WANT to carry on (despite my earlier thoughts). As I recovered physically it was as if a light had come on in the little part of my psyche labelled ‘motivation’ and I realised that this was just another mental challenge. Physically I was no worse than expected after the previous 50 miles and in 2-3 hours I could expect to be back in Twin Lakes.
I got up and prepared to finish the race.
Winfield to Twin Lakes
Having lightened my pack by unloading ALL non-essential equipment including, much to my dismay, my camera, the journey back up the dusty road to the trailhead seemed marginally easier, a feeling which was not to last. I ran sporadically along the winding road passing and being passed again by the crew vehicles who had been asked to limit their speed to 5 mph, but my thoughts were otherwise engaged on the mountain ahead of me.
As I turned north towards the ascent up to Hope Pass, I started to notice the increased volume of runners coming downhill towards me who were still heading for the halfway point, and this gave me a marginal mental boost as I recalculated my chances of coming in ahead of the masses in under 25 hours. I had left Winfield after 12 hours on the clock, but the 14 hour cut off was fast approaching for those behind me and the 10 hour cut-off at the outbound Twin Lakes point was already a distant memory.
It was at the trailhead turning that I met the first of my compatriots to accompany me up the hill. He was vomiting at the side of the trail. Jayson Swigart (748) was not doing well at this stage, but along with probably a dozen other runners at the same point in their race geographically, physically and mentally, we made it back up that mountain together. Leap-frogging each other as we passed from high point to low point to high again, working steadily towards the summit with the little oxygen in the air.
Things got a little hectic for one woman just ahead of me when we were about a third of the way up to the summit, as she lost her footing and only her pacer’s quick reaction to grab her, stopped her from falling suddenly from the narrow trail down to the precipice close to where I had had my tumble a few hours earlier. As I passed them and asked if they were ok and if they needed anything, she was hyperventilating from the panic – not exactly what you need when at over 11,000ft up a mountain. They joined my band of companions after this.
We all made our way upwards, slowly but surely, some preferring to work slowly but continuously at a constant rate and others, like myself, putting in a burst of speed and then pausing to recover regularly. Either way, the average speed up the rise was similar for all of us. Eventually of course, we did reach the top.
It is difficult to explain the elation one feels when reaching the summit of such a mountain, but the feeling was significantly enhanced on this occasion as I knew it was the second, and final, time I would have crest this point and given my feelings a couple of hours earlier on the way up the other side of this hillock, I was just happy to have made it back and to really have completed what I considered to be the worst of the course. I took a couple of photos for some of the guys following before relishing in the view once again taking a brief moment to soak in the ambiance with the sun just setting behind the peak of Mount Hope to the west. Perfect
With little time for enjoying the environment though, I was off with the others down towards the aid station at Hope Pass. I started to get into a stride very quickly and reached the aid point in the blink of an eye, stopping only to fill up my bottle again and to grab some pretzels (salt needed!). I looked for coke, but their limited llama hauled supplies of this had obviously long since demised. With that I was off and it was then that a strange thing started to happen.
I started to fly past people.
Downhills can often be what is described as ‘technical’, which means it is not merely a case of running as fast as possible down the trails and slopes – there is much to take into account, not the least of which is the nature of the terrain which if loose or lumpy will have a major impact on foot placement and also the incline of the slope as the steeper the slope the more speed you would inevitably pickup and this speed must either be accepted which in turn increases the risk of falling and injury or alternatively the gravity induced speed can be scrubbed off, which will place more force on the joints and muscles, especially the knees and quads, in the process of absorbing that force. My preference is for the former and at this juncture it seemed I was the only one adopting this approach.
As I passed one group of runners, the leader seemed astounded at the turn of speed I was displaying and asked ‘where I had got the energy from‘ at this point in the race, ‘gravity!‘ I shouted back as I sped past them. I must’ve passed 20 competitors in the 30 minutes it took me to get down from Hope Pass, thankfully without incident in what I considered to be an almost perfect downhill execution – my quads had been well prepared during my training and my practised mid-foot strike made my calves act as shock-absorbers saving my knees from excessive trauma.
The light was starting to fade behind the Colorado Rockies for the final time on my 2010 Leadville race and I expected it would be dark in and hour or so as I came to the river at the low point of the course once more. I repeated the shoe and sock removal process once more, albeit this time with far more awareness of the lagoon swamps I had to negotiate all the way up to Twin Lakes.
The chairs on the extremity of the village were still occupied with ardent supporters of the race who appeared to have been in place all day, but were not in the least bit jaded, as I finally made it to the 60 mile point into the relative hustle and bustle of Twin Lakes. Given the way I had been the last time Liz and Mike had seen me, their surprise at my current focus was pleasant but not unexpected
I had made it back to Twin Lakes in a shade under 15½ hours meaning I had 9½ hours to complete the final 40 miles – tough, but doable – I thought. My only concern was the slight twinge in my left hip, perhaps from where I had fallen coming down Hope Pass into Winfield earlier, which was turning into a worry. As long as I kept moving though, it did not seem to be an issue.
Twin Lakes to Halfmoon
I sat down after passing through the checkpoint and Liz and Mike again buzzed round me getting noodle soup, coke and all the usual accoutrements to my stops. It was starting to get dark now so I requested my headlamps and continued eating while changing my socks and top for the final time, as the search through my drop bags for my head torches began. After checking through all the bags laid before us, and after Mike rushing back to check in the car to look further, we surmised that they must be in the only drop bag not in our possession, which remained at Fish Hatchery.
Eventually the disaster was averted by a pacer waiting for his runner who said he had spare in his car and ran off to fetch it.
With precious time lost, we gave him our thanks the instant he returned and I said my goodbyes and was on my way. The extra time sitting and perhaps the cooling evening air and any number of other factors (the fall down Hope Pass before Winfield and the extreme running down this side just before Twin Lakes?) had taken their toll. The slight twinge in the front of my hip had transmuted into a severe pain as I stood up and my hopes that it would relieve as I warmed up again diminished as I limped off back up the slope to tackle the undulating course to Halfmoon. I didn’t look back at Liz through some irrational thought that she wouldn’t notice my limp if I didn’t turn round.
I had to turn on the headtorch almost immediately after leaving as I ventured into the forests once again and as I made my way along, I quickly realised this was an old fashioned (non-LED) headtorch and it was not really going to be bright enough to allow me to run once it became really dark. Beggars can’t be choosers though so I tried to run as the last vestiges of light disappeared behind the horizon, which itself was several hours beneath the summit of the mountains to the west. My hip was having none of it though and was quickly deteriorating. Things were going from bad to worse.
I communicated via text-message to Liz to let her know the situation over the next couple of hours as I tried to keep things moving towards the next aid station, and with the full moon shining between the trees, often confusingly brighter than my headtorch, I traipsed my way along the 8-9 miles wondering when there was going to be a downhill section, hoping forlornly this might make things easier.
The number of people passing me was demoralising, but nowhere near as much as the realisation that the probability of obtaining a sub-25 hour buckle was slipping away, and that if things did not significantly improve, or at least stabilize, I would be finding it difficult to tackle Sugarloaf Pass again and would be going home empty handed.
I made in into the Halfmoon aid point in a shade over 18 hours and deliberated my options. Even with almost 12 hours remaining to the final race cut-off time, this challenge was slipping from my grasp.
Halfmoon to Fish Hatchery
I limped my way from soup to pretzels to coke to powerade going through my now ritualistic aid station process. I looked blankly at the medic, the same that had helped me earlier on in the day, when he came round as he was using an interesting line in motivation techniques and pointed out I had been sitting there for some time without moving – I chose not to go into details as to how I was feeling but took the opportunity to request ibuprofen or similar from him, having used the only two tablets I had in my medical kit an hour before. He kindly explained that he was not allowed to give me any but could help me administer my own if I had some Quite how that was going to help me, was anyone’s guess!
With no easy way out of this, I decided to carry on to try to make it the 4-5 miles to Pipeline, since although there was no aid station there, Liz and Mike had found their way through and would be waiting for me.
I was off and out again.
The path was pretty even with only a few very gentle rises to consider, nothing to speak of and certainly nothing to worry about. On any other day I would have run this without any difficulty but now my body was on the threshold of breaking, a fact of which I was becoming more aware with every step that I took. As I progressed, I looked at the edge of the path for an appropriately sized branch which I could bring into service as a walking stick or crutch of some sort, such was my desperation to try to alleviate my pain, increase my speed and chances of making it to the end of this race. I found none. I tried walking in different ways, sideways, leaning forwards, with my leg at different angles, but all to no avail. Nothing it seemed was going to make any difference.
Finally, in my continuing messages and conversations with Liz, who at this stage was less than a couple of miles away, I relayed that I did not think I could go on from Pipeline and having run out of suggestions themselves, her and Mike started to make their way up the trail towards me.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only about 20-30 minutes, I saw the torchlight flickering in the distance in opposition to the other infrequent runners around me and as we met I could see on the faces of my crew the dawning realisation of what this meant. I felt bad for them, with all the effort they had put into supporting me – Mike had amazingly even delayed his return to Denver to continue supporting Liz in my event. Now I felt like I was letting them down.
They supported me as we made our way back to the car and we discussed our rapidly diminishing list of options. There was ice in the car so this seemed to be the only thing to left to try. I manoeuvred myself onto the back seat of Mike’s car and laid down for the first time in 22 hours. My eyes instinctively closed, but I listened to the others as they gave me an ice pack and I laid motionless with it for a few moments.
Sitting in the confines of the car, things seemed marginally better but as soon as I got out and tried to walk, my confidence again waned.
Liz suggested pacing me, as we had probably 8-9 hours to try to complete the final 26-27 miles – a mere marathon to walk; not the way I would prefer to have completed the race, but better to complete it nonetheless. So Liz donned her Vibrams and jacket and we made our way off, with plans to meet Mike at Fish Hatchery.
The roads were still flat and level, but even so the pain had not subsided and the final climb up to Sugarloaf Pass was still foremost in my mind… Was it conceivable that we could make our way through the last few miles to the finish? My mind was abuzz with questions, analysis, assessment of my body, more questions and few answers. I certainly believed it might be possible otherwise I would not be carrying on.
It was a little way after turning onto the open link track to the main road, some 2 miles from the next checkpoint that my body gave me the final conclusion to the myriad of questions I was posing to it.
One simple step accumulated the damage to the point to break the camel’s back and with a surge of pain through the left side of my body, I felt something give in my hip. Something snapped, something unknown within my physical being had decided that after 75 miles, enough was enough. Perhaps the 275 miles of racing punishing heat, road, trails, hills and mountains in the preceding 2 months was all too much. My body was broken. It was the end.
The End of all Things
This was not how things were meant to end I thought.
As with Frodo at the end of the third of his trilogy of adventures in the Lord of the Rings, I failed in the final moments of my quest – perhaps this was the message that Tolkein was trying to get across, that no matter how long we strive for a goal, how hard we try, or how much we want something, at the end of the day we are all merely human and fallible. Not only had I set out to complete the Leadville 100 ‘Race across the Sky’ and failed to finish, this was also the last of the three 100 mile races I had set out to run within 2 months. Nearly 12 marathons in 8 weeks, and with 11 completed and one remaining my body had failed me. It would take some time for this to sink in, but the reconciliation process started immediately with a numb feeling of emptiness, of unfulfilled goals and dreams.
Liz called Mike and after negotiating the security in place to protect the runners, he picked us up and we travelled slowly and silently back to Fish Hatchery, the next checkpoint, where my wristband was physically, symbolically and very emotionally cut off.
There was little else to do except return to the hotel. My adventure was over.
For this year at least.