When I attempted Leadville in 2009 my talk was filled with hyperbole. It was to be epic, like going to war, an event to center all the achievement of my life around.
I took a different tack this time.
I posted of a friend who had a successful run this year that he was packing as if he was going to war. I was thinking of it more as a hikey hike.
It seems to me that running a race like this is not something that should require the epic metaphors. It is the epic metaphor. It is not the runner who should say my experience as a CEO or Engineer or Accountant will get me through this race. It is the professional who finds themselves in a difficult situation who might draw on the ultra-runner for inspiration.
It seems to me that to use warfare as a motivator for something like this is to cheapen the grave role taken on by combat. The stakes are so much higher and the sacrifice on such a different level, it embarrasses me to consider such a comparison.
Instead, I chose to focus on the people who had sacrificed for me and who were just invested in me doing well.
It is startling looking back at how many fingerprints other than mine ended up on this event. It starts with my wife, Kathy, who supports my desire to run to stay healthy while questioning my tendency to go to such extremes.
In addition, my daughter, Savannah, inspires with her determination and work ethic that has made her both a talented and competitive runner but an academic wonder and a fine person to be around.
I may be deluding myself a bit but I have suspected that at least some of the people who call me crazy for putting so much effort into this run, at some level want and almost need me to succeed. Perhaps it is just a desire to see a friend do well. On the other hand it may be that with my success they can hang their hat on their own big goals. If he can do it, so can I. It may be a bit high minded of me but I wonder if anyone who takes on a goal like Leadville becomes everyone else’s metaphor.
The last time I ran Leadville I planned out my entire training regimen. This time I felt my way through it. I progressively increased my mileage and had a general rhythm throughout the training season but did not sweat missing day off runs. In the end my final long run was the same as my final long run the first time. 28 miles.
My first challenge came two days before the race. Karen Pearson, Race Director of the Georgia Jewel, had kindly stepped in at the last minute to act as my sole crew member. Her flight was coming in at 7:30 AM, Friday. GPS was telling me it would take 2:40 to get to Leadville. Registration would go until 10 AM.
We would have two and a half hours from the time the plane was supposed to land until registration cut off. Karen would need to get through Denver International Airport to the car in zero minutes and we would need to cut off 10 minutes from the estimated time to get there to register in time.
Karen assured me that if I let her drive, she’d get us there in time as long as she didn’t scare me that much.
I emailed the race coordinator and asked if it would be a problem if I was there before 10:30. No problem but I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody. (Please keep this a secret.)
It would still be tight.
From the waiting area at DIA, I was able to watch Karen’s plane land 13 minutes early. I waited about 3 minutes and called her. I got voicemail. Maybe she hadn’t had enough time to get her phone on.
I called again a few minutes later. Voicemail.
At 10:40 I got a call from Karen, “Where are you?!”
“I’m at the 45 minute waiting area. Where are you?”
“I’m waiting outside for you to pick me up. I thought maybe you had overslept.”
“Whatever,” I thought. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
I picked Karen up at 10:45. The number she had left me was incorrect. Somewhere in Georgia someone is wondering if Karen and I ever connected.
We had 2:15 until 10 AM and 2:45 until 10:30.
Having spent my young adult life on the Front Range and spending many of my more reckless years driving the I-70 Corridor I must say that Karen’s driving was rather tame. Thank goodness that GPS estimates can be so wrong. We were at the gym at 9:45 and I then walked to the actual check-in in about 7 minutes. I was checked in and was out the door before 10 AM. (Glad there will be no controversy about my being allowed to run in spite of missing the registration deadline.)
The pre-race meeting was all it ever was. Some don’t like it that much. I do. There is something about being in the entire experience that makes it special. From the “You’re crazy” conversations to agonizing through the awards ceremony and the agonizing trip home that all seem to require my participation. If it wasn’t for my altitude avoidance strategy, I would have been at the Thursday night festivities as well.
I had agreed with my wife that this would be my last attempt at this affair. The timing of the race at the beginning of the school year made it a big lift and precluded it from being a family affair. This drop dead approach along with recognizing the sacrifices my wife and daughter had had to put up with were to be big motivators for me. They were my primary thoughts as my run would grind down to the final moments.
Pre-race photos were taken. Good lucks and good bys were said and the 4 AM gun was sounded. We were off.
I had determined that I would go out slower this time. I’m not sure what I thought slower meant. I think I was confusing my previous time to the first aid station with that of the front runners. I came in at 2:12. I felt good but knew it was fast. Karen was there with a bag of food. Potato chips, potatoes, turkey wraps, fruit and M&Ms. The fruit and potatoes were making everything soggy so I ate them first.
Bit, chew, chew, spit. The oranges weren’t working. I ate one and chewed and spit out the other. I took a bite of potato thinking it, too, was some sort of fruit. I discarded the rest. The turkey wraps tasted great and I wolfed them down. The potato chips were great and I even ate the soggy ones.
I ate a few of the M&Ms and stuck the rest in my pocket.
Even though it was light out when I left the aid station neither Karen nor I had noticed that my headlamp was still on my head so I would wear it for another 10 miles.
I took it easier on the way up Sugarloaf. Sugarloaf would be the first and, if I made it that far, last pass I would need to run over. It would take me up to over 11,000 feet. I took my time and came in about a half hour slower than in my 2009 attempt. I felt good.
I told Karen my sad, soggy food story and she quickly adjusted.
“How many bottles do you want?”
“Just one. The next aid station is only about 4 or so miles.”
“Yes, but it’s not crew accessible. I’ll see you at the next aid station.”
I was pretty sure she was wrong but didn’t argue. By my math, if she didn’t meet me at the next aid station I wouldn’t be seeing her again for about 19 miles.
I wondered why I was only carrying one water bottle.
This section was almost all road and about half of it was paved. I had a lot to eat so I would run for a while and then walk and eat, run, walk and eat until the food was almost all devoured. I was not the only one running and walking consequently I was passing and being passed by the same runners.
I ran through the Half Pipe Aid Station hoping to see Karen. This wasn’t a no crew aid station, it was a no non-crew support aid station. That is to say, if I didn’t see Karon, I wouldn’t be eating and I would be getting my water from streams.
I went all the way through and was approaching the end of the numerous crews to find Karen waiting patiently with food and full water bottles. She had scared me a little but had come through after all. She was doing just fine.
From Half Pipe to Twin Lakes had been a huge toil in the past. The addition of the Mt. Elbert water only stop was a great help. As it was, I ran out of water just before the aid station and was greatly relieved when I came into it. I had water and 3 ½ miles downhill. I was revitalized and flew into Twin Lakes. I was maintaining about a half hour slower pace than I had in my first attempt.
Karen asked me if I wanted to change my shoes. The top of the right shoe had torn out across the widest part of my foot. The left shoe was close to doing the same. I had become somewhat sentimental about the shoes and wanted to try and keep them through the end of the race. It wasn’t that they were defective; they were just old.
On my first attempt I had dutifully traded out my shoes every 300-400 miles during my training. The minimalist craze made me think that perhaps the best approach would be to get all those old shoes back out and run them to the nub. Since these shoes were in process, I decided that I might as well not deviate now even though the shoes I started the race in were just about at their end.
Karen insisted that I take her long sleeve shirt over the pass in case it got cold. I tied it around my waist grabbed another bag of potato chips and turkey wraps and was off. Boy was I getting tired of those wraps.
I also put my video sunglasses on to see if I could record the climb up Hope Pass.
With my little bag of goodies (and those infernal turkey wraps) in hand I was off again.
The trail to the river was submerged in several places. While the water wasn’t running it was deep and sometimes I was wading in icy mountain water up to my knees. It was quite refreshing.
After crossing the river I saw a runner stopped to empty his shoes of rocks. I joined him. The rocks had plenty of openings to exit from and I was soon on my way again. As I started up the pass I realized I hadn’t gotten all of the pebbles out. Maybe I should have changed my shoes after all.
After the second stop I was good and started the long climb up Hope. I was not catching a single person and was being passed at a regular pace. I was undaunted and still felt good. I remained positive and kept crunching away.
As I got close to the tree line I met a Llama. Two people were downhill of the llama trying to coax it back up to the where the rest of the Hopeless Aid Station pack animals were grazing.
As I came up even with the Llama it rushed toward me. Perhaps I was too tired but I like to think I have nerves of steel. I was undaunted by its quick approach. Just before it got to me it cut slightly below me cutting off a runner approaching from behind. It appeared that the Llama was using us as a screen to slip by its keepers and make a break for lower pastures.
I heard someone saying not to worry and a runner graciously saying, “No problem.” What else was he going to say?
Anyway, if a Llama is going to assist me by taking a runner out he needs to be more thorough. The guy passed me moments later.
A bit further up the trail two more volunteers were guiding another Llama down the mountain. They were hoping to lure the wayward llama back up the trail using his girlfriend to entice him.
Ha! Ha! I know what you’re thinking. No, as a matter of fact I was not delusional!
At 12,000 feet I came to the Hopeless Aid Station. A group of high schoolers from Golden were helping out and a young gentleman adopted me before I was even in the aid station.
“Can I refill your bottles?”
“Yes. Water in all three.”
“We have food right over there. I’ll have your bottles ready when you’re ready to go.”
The chicken bouillon was delicious.
Not only did my personal aid attendant fill my bottles but also broke open three salt caps and empty one into each bottle. He apologized repeatedly for taking so long. I assured him that it would take longer if I had done it myself.
600 feet more of steep climbing and I was at the top. I would later be disappointed that my video didn’t make it up here. The stunning view was made all the more impressive by the effort that had been expended to get up there.
In ’09 my run down this side of Hope was hampered by a pesky IT band. While I was having none of that, the traffic coming up quickly intensified slowing me a bit. It was actually helpful to see how tough this climb was on faster runners. I promised myself to keep that in mind when I was coming back up in a bit.
The road from the bottom of the pass to the 50 mile mark at the Winfield aid station was shorter than I recalled. It may have been because it was less dusty or just that I had built it up in my mind. I came into Winfield a half hour behind my ’09 time. I was in much better shape.
Karen had recruited two pacers for me. Kelly from San Diego would take me over the pass. Then Marvin from Colorado Springs would take me to Fish Hatchery.
I changed my socks and my shoes this time, got a bit to eat, took a civilized bathroom stop in the port-a-john and we were off.
Kelly was quite affable. She had come out to pace for a friend who had recruited a number of folks to help him out. Since she had been relegated to only about 6 miles of pacing she decided to help me out in addition to her duties.
She was encouraging and helpful going back up Hope. It was a good thing because this became the most challenging part of the race for me. I wanted to quit. I couldn’t believe that I would have 45 miles to go at the top and that it would be dark for most of it. I was miserable and no one else could possibly have had this much difficulty.
Kelly took pictures and talked about how stunning the views were. I had already seen all that.
Finally, there was the top. Then there was the miracle.
I was in a group of runners who were joined by some non-Leadville runners. I felt somewhat obligated to keep the pace and somewhat pleased with the fact that I could. Kelly ran just in front of me and we careened down the mountain.
My second stop at Hopeless was brief and we were off again. I couldn’t believe that I could run so well. The last time I had done this I had limped down this side of the pass.
We were zooming by runners. One of them complimented me on using the downhill grade so well.
I responded counter intuitively.
“Kelly, I’m running great but I still have 40 plus miles to go. I better conserve some of this.”
We slowed for a bit but then picked it up again to allow us to get off the mountain before dark.
For some reason I felt a need to continue walking into Twin Lakes. Hmmm.
Marvin had run the Pikes Peak Ascent Saturday morning. That means he was starting a 13.1 mile run up Pikes Peak right around the time I had been pulling into the first aid station earlier in the day.
Marvin kept us on a strict schedule based on his GPS. None-the-less the cut offs were quickly creeping up on me. When we hit the Fish Hatchery I was definitely at the back of the pack of those who would finish.
Karen’s sense of urgency was through the roof. Pacers were hard to come by this late in the race. She took Marvin’s wife aside and pleaded with her to pace me. Pleaded isn’t really the right word.
“You’ve got to help him, Sandra! I don’t know if he can make it!”
Sandra wasn’t ready to run and quickly went off to get her gear.
I duct taped one of my feet and changed my socks.
“Look, Karen, I’m shaking.”
“Get on your feet! You’ve got to get going!”
“It doesn’t matter! She can catch up to you! You just go! Just go!”
“I don’t have my water bottles.”
“Let’s get them and then you go!”
We retrieved the bottles and met Sandra as we headed out of the aid station. Sandra asked me what we were in for. When I told her what Sugarloaf consisted of her response was encouraging.
“That’s great. I love steep climbs and descents. We’re going to do just fine.”
We had a brief delay part way up Sugarloaf when Sandra lost a glove but we worked pretty hard going up. As in ’09 I knew the conventional wisdom about taking 90 minutes to get to the top but failed to look at my watch at the beginning.
Either other runners’ time estimates were dubious or the 90 minute guideline is way off. All the false summits are certainly there.
The way down was much better than last time. This was near the point I had dropped two years earlier. Last time I couldn’t run at all at this point and was shuffling along at about 2 miles an hour. This year I was still running.
The trip down to the Haggerman road was long for a different reason.
About a half mile after we were finally on the road Sandra asked, “Did you make it this far last time?”
“No. I dropped right back there where the trail meets the road. A Search & Rescue truck picked me up.”
“Well, at least you made it further this time!”
That was encouraging but we weren’t finished.
I had gotten in my head that the cut off at May Queen was 26 hours. We passed the 85 mile mark at 25:45. 15 minutes on rocky rolling trail would be impossible at this point.
26 hours came and went.
“We should keep running. Maybe they’ll give me some mercy.”
“I thought the same thing.”
We came up to the guy calling numbers to the aid station at 11 minutes after the hour. He didn’t seem to be concerned.
“Do we still have time?!”
“Yeah, you’ve got time.”
It turns out that the cut off is 26:30.
Karen’s sense of urgency was now through the roof.
“Here’s some food! We’ve got to go!”
“How long is this going to take?” 3 ½ hours to do a half marathon; I could do that in my sleep.
An aid station worker agreed with my thought, “You can do it with a brisk walk.”
Karen was not getting what she wanted out of me, “But you’re going to run!”
We started down the road to the final trail. Before we got out of the aid station Marvin ran up.
“Do you still want me to pace him?”
“No! It’s too late! We’re going!”
She later explained that he had been on the fence about helping. It seemed that he was understandably concerned about not being successful at getting me to the finish line on time. At this point it was a legitimate concern.
Karen wouldn’t give me time to finish the pancake she had given me. She wanted me to run.
After several attempts to get me going I begrudgingly threw what was left of the pancake to the side and started running.
Karen immediately ran ahead. She spent the next 8 miles way out in front of me. She would later tell me she was concerned that I would outrun her. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!
At the time it wasn’t funny. Her shouts of exhortation and encouragement all came back as taunts. I decided that if she was going to be so far ahead, I would just run my own pace. I would run the flats and downhills and walk the uphills.
When I got to the boat ramp, I knew I had about 6 ½ miles to go. I figured out I could do it at a 26 plus minute pace.
An older gentleman came by me with his pacer, chittering ceaselessly in his ear.
“You know,” he said as he went by, “You could probably keep that pace all the way to the end and finish just fine.”
“I know,” I responded, confidently.
“But you’re not, are you?” his pacer continued her agitations.
“Come on, Kevin!” I heard from up ahead.
As I neared the top of the dam, someone said I had about 5 miles to go. Now the math suggested I needed a 22 plus minute pace.
Dang. Maybe I better start running again.
I overtook my older competitor as we made our way down from the top of the dam. His pacer, who was obviously well acquainted with him didn’t let up.
I now jarred my teeth and suffered down the dam. It was definitely hurting to go downhill now.
I came out on the road and Karen and I were finally running together. The road was exposed to the sun and it already seemed blisteringly hot. I was jogging and walking. I looked back to see the other gentleman doing the same. That guy sure seemed to know what he was doing.
A woman was standing in the middle of the road.
“If you’re going to finish you better run!”
She stepped over to me menacingly and tapped me on the shoulder as if to push me. She didn’t but between her admonition and my inability to not see her as highly intimidating, I ran.
“Pacer, get your runner going!” she shouted at Karen.
Karen was uncharacteristically quiet and I ran by and away from her.
I decided she must want me to go the rest of the way on my own. She would want me to have the satisfaction of doing the last few miles on my own. She wanted me to find the strength to get the job done so I could savor the final moments of the event.
Later she would tell me that she was overcome from the altitude and had to stop and throw up.
I came to the point where the direction of the race finally lead off the road toward the road that would take me back into Leadville. I asked couple of ladies in a car how far it was to the finish.
“About two and a half miles.”
That was doable. I was going to make it.
A young lady passed me with her pacer. They were very encouraging to each other and to me. The pacer surprised me that she knew I was from Georgia. It didn’t even occur to me that she had also just passed Karen.
They soon left me behind.
I came around the corner and was confronted with the boulevard. Somehow between the time I had run along this path going the other way and now, someone had put a massive hill in. The excavation effort that had been applied to this task was a little bit of overkill but grousing about it wouldn’t get me to the finish any sooner.
I walked. I must only have about 2 miles and over 45 minutes.
Pretty soon my older friend from earlier caught up to me. He was no longer talking to anyone but his pacer.
She was still relentless and had a few words for me as well. Karen had encouraged her to pass a little exhortation as well. She also told me that it was about 3 miles from the top of the climb. That was distressing.
I started running again.
A bit later some locals were shouting encouragements.
“Only about two and half miles to go! Keep it up!”
I was not heartened.
A runner was coming the other direction. He turned and ran for a moment with the other gentleman and his pacer and then continued toward me.
“Are you Kevin?”
“Yes.” What was this about?
“You’re wife sent me to look for you.”
My wife was a couple thousand miles away waiting to hear about my race. If she had sent someone at this late point in the race, something was terribly wrong.
“Yeah, I just talked to her. She sent me out to make sure you finish.”
The gears ran slower than I did.
“That’s not my wife. That’s my crew chief.”
“Well, whoever. We’re going to get you to the finish line, OK?”
“Now I need you to listen. We have about a mile and a half to the pavement and then another mile and a half to the finish.”
“Three miles! They told me back there I had two and a half!”
Somehow this outburst registered in me as a still existing potential for energy.
“It doesn’t matter what they said. You listen to me, now!”
“OK. I’m Kevin.” I put out my hand.
He took it. “I’m Chris. Now Kevin, lets run.”
I started running.
“Good. Now let me tell you a story. Are you familiar with Seal Team 6?”
“A couple of weeks ago Seal Team 6 was sent in to rescue some Rangers who were in trouble. They crashed and all of them were killed.”
This was not going the direction I expected.
“If they hadn’t crashed they would’ve done whatever it took to get the job done. Even sacrificing their own lives.”
Chris’ metaphor had gone wrong on so many levels it made me laugh to myself. I discarded my editorial thoughts and took the story for the encouragement it was intended to be.
I couldn’t keep up the running.
“OK, let’s power walk. Open up your stride. Can you open up your stride?”
“OK, then open up your stride. Open up your chest, too. You’ll be able to breath more freely. See those cones up there?”
“When I say ‘go’ I want you to run again. When we hit those cones we’re going to be close to the pavement. ‘Go!’”
I ran but couldn’t keep it up all the way to the cones.
“Come on, Kevin, you’re not out of the woods, yet! If you don’t run you may not be able to finish!”
I ran to the cones but stopped to walk at the corner.
“All right, Kevin. We’re about to turn on the pavement and I’m going to need you to trust me. Can you trust me?”
“When we come around the corner I want you to go out with me. Can you go out with me?”
“When we come around the corner there’s going to be a small hill. It’s just a bump and when you get over it you’re going to be able to see the finish line. I need you go with me, OK?”
When we came to the corner I was running again.
“All right, Kevin, let’s go!”
Around the corner and a look up the small hill; the bump. I walked.
“You can do this, Kevin! Look there’s your crew chief she wants you to run!”
Sure enough, there was Karen. I continued to walk. It doesn’t matter if she wants me to run.
“Kevin, you said you’d trust me! You’re stronger than that! You can do this! Seal Team 6, Kevin, Seal Team 6!”
That heartened me for reasons different than Chris intended. It was hard to grouse when you feel so much like laughing. I dug deep and started to run.
A young woman joined us. Now Chris was on my left and the young lady was on my right.
“Come on, Kevin, you can do this! Seal Team 6!”
“Kevin, you can do this! Would it help if you walked?”
“If you’re going to walk, Kevin, you need to open up your stride!” Open up your chest!”
In another moment I was over the hill and finally and as promised, there was the finish less than a mile away. The hill started off a little steeper and then leveled off for about half of the remaining distance.
I ran down the hill with Chris, the young lady and now a photographer escorting me through the town.
As I came to the bottom of the hill I started walking again.
“Kevin, you still aren’t done! You’ll need to run to finish!”
How long did they think this was going to take me?
Chris offered me my water bottle. Before I could think to take it, the young lady said, “He doesn’t need that! Dump it on him!”
“Aaagh!” I let out an involuntary shout.
A local with a big sponge came running out to us.
“Cover him!” shouted Chris.
“You do it,” she responded.
Before I could issue an opinion, cold water was drenching me.
Now the photographer ran out in front of me pointing his camera back at me. “Kevin, you could be famous. You could be the last runner across the line in the 2011 Leadville 100!”
This seemed counter to the goal as I was closing on another runner who was walking.
“Run, Kevin. You can do it!”
A passerby said, “He’s got a half mile and twelve minutes. He can walk it in from here.”
“Finish well, Kevin. You can do this.”
I ran. No one nearby would have been impressed except that they all knew that I’d been at it for almost 30 hours. A few runners zipped by me and the runner in front of me. I did not overtake him, but finish moments later with 6 minutes and 9 seconds to spare.
A young lady put a finisher’s medal around my neck and Merilee gave me a hug.
“Thank you. Where’s the nearest bathroom.”
I will not be famous. Another runner came in with two and a half minutes to go. I don’t recall her name.
Thank you too Kelly, Marvin, Sara and Chris for getting me back to Leadville. Thanks especially to Karen Pearson for going above and beyond to get her runner home. The Georgia Jewel runners will be in good hands.
2011 Leadville 100 Finish (with Chris) - picture by Matt Mahoney
Thank you too Kelly, Marvin, Sara and Chris for getting me back to Leadville. Thanks especially to Karen Pearson for going above and beyond to get her runner home. The Georgia Jewel runners will be in good hands.