Leadville, 2019

Call me a schadenfreude asshole but the moment that stands out from this adventure was watching Eric throw up for the first time in his ultra career, just after we left the Hopeless aid station.  That’s the first point where I thought I was actually adding value.  Until that point I felt like a bit of a third wheel, maybe some poorly chosen window dressing for Eric’s 8th LT100. 

But, right then as he tried to yawn a toxic combination of noodles and electrolyte drink into the bushes, I felt like I was needed, like there was work to be done.

And who doesn’t like to be needed?

Chapter One: Anticipation

Eric asked me to pace him at the Leadville Trail 100 some time around the beginning of the year, 6 -7 months ago.  He caught me at a low point.  That ebb in activity where the fall race season is behind you and the spring training hasn’t started yet.  A time when summer is as far off as old age used to be. That mid-winter blue period. The doldrums of the year.  A time when I wallow in manic depression without the so much of themania. 

He knew I’d be weak. 

You may have heard of the Leadville Trail 100 ultra-marathon.  “The race across the sky”.  It was established in the early 1980’s as a secret government program to harness the psychic energy of ex-drug addicts, by making them suffer at altitude for hours on end.  Then the iron curtain rusted, the wall fell, and Vladimir Putin started posing for romance novel covers.  They had to make up a cover story about saving the town of Leadville from imminent demise from the abrupt closure of the Climax mine. 

The fun thing about Leadville, and here I use the term ‘fun’ to mean ‘awful’, is that it sits at an altitude approximately 200 meters south of the moon’s orbit.  It’s a place where only a few thimble fulls of oxygen reach and those few thimbles have to be shared among everyone in town and a few dozen shaggy mountain goats.  It’s known for its rough Western setting, it’s panoramic scenic mountain vistas and spontaneous nosebleeds … right before you pass out. 

As we came into the summer and the event started getting closer it began to dawn on me that maybe this wasn’t a good idea.  It’s one of those things that seems like a really good idea 6 months in the future where it can’t harm you but starts to get gnarly looking as it comes into focus in time. 

Eric casually mentioned that one of his pacers was in Europe for a wedding and the other one was hurt, so, hey, I’m going to need you for 39 miles.  Wait, what?  39 miles, at altitude, in the middle of the night?  That’s terrifying.

So I did what I usually do and didn’t train for it.  Well, I mean I was just rolling out of a stout effort at Boston, and in general maintain a pretty solid level of fitness, but 39 miles at altitude is an ultra-marathon. 

I live at about 250 feet above sea level.  Hope Pass is 12,600 feet above sea level.  You do the math, unless you’re actually on Hope Pass because you won’t be able to do math at that altitude, but, yeah that’s two miles straight up. 

The highest I’ve ever been is Denver and that’s 1 mile up.  Hope Pass is 2 miles up.  Again, math-wise, twice as up.  Here’s the thing they don’t tell you, until you get there and it’s too late, then they tell you because they think it’s funny, the oxygen content in the air is not linear.

At sea level, where I (and all the bright people) live, the oxygen content is 20.9%.  Where we were running it was in the 12-13% range.  42% less oxygen.  Just a reminder, humans need oxygen to do things, like breathe, run, and stay alive. 

I had visions of me bent over coughing up blood by the side of the trail while Eric ran on. 

I read a race report from the Leadville trail Mountain bike 100 held a couple weeks previously from a guy my age.  He had a small stroke at the top of one of the passes and the mean old race officials made him stop racing when he was slurring his words.  He was pretty sure his racing days were over. 

On the minus side of the ledger:

  • I had not trained well
  • I had never been at this altitude, let alone run at this altitude
  • My head might explode
  • I might give out on my runner – which is very bad form

On the plus side

  • I have a lot of trail running and mountain racing experience
  • I was picking him up at 50 miles so he was already cooked when I got him
  • I’m pretty good at suffering when I need to be
  • This is just the sort of stupid shit that turns my crank, so to speak…

Chapter Two: Getting there

I flew from Boston to Denver on Thursday afternoon.  The race is on, well it’s one of those stupid ultra things, the runners start on Saturday Morning at 4:00 AM and have to finish by 10:00 Am on Sunday.  It’s a 30 hour cut off.  Which sounds generous but less than 50% of the people who start this race finish.  A majority of those miss the cutoffs at some point on the course. 

Flying into Denver is unique.  I’ve done a lot of flying.  When you fly into Orlando it’s all screaming kids with mouse ears.  When you fly into Vegas it’s all drunk people in cowboy hats.  When you fly into LaGuardia it’s all close-talking loud people shouting at cell phones. 

On most flights through the Midwest I get squeezed between corn-fed mid westerners who take up most of my personal space with their MAGA hats and over-stretched golf shirts.  Or, perhaps a California flight with that crazy woman that wants to talk to me about her vitamin regime. 

Not the flight into Denver. 

Everyone on the plane is an endurance athlete of some form.  Even the children.  On the one hand it’s quite spacious with all the skinny people, but on the other hand if I had to resort to cannibalism, they looked a bit gristly.  But, if I did have to resort to cannibalism I’d start with the vegans, because I think that would be ironic. 

If we did crash, I’d be all set.  You could not hope for better seat mates.  I’m sure they could carry me out of the plane and up a mountain while devising intricate splints and tourniquets from spare tent pieces and technical fabric scrounged from those North Face backpack carry ons.  Maybe shoot some rapids in a kayak assembled from air sickness bags on the way back to civilization. 

Eric and crew fetched me at the airport.  I felt like an adopted child being picked up by the new parents.I have hung out with this crew before and they are a blast to do an event with.  We did the New Orleans marathon in 20014 and it’s one of my favorite race memories. 

Eric, his wife, Dan his best friend and other pacer, and Dan’s wife.  We would round up the crew with Eric’s son, Eric’s son’s wife, who was also pacing and one of Eric’s son’s friends, who was the other pacer.

To formalize his relationship (sort of an indentured servitude type of relationship) with the Leadville Trail 100 Eric bought a house in Breckenridge, which would be race HQ for the weekend.  I had a room at a Breck hotel a mile away. 

Breckinridge is a nice town in a Stepford Wives sort of way.  You sort of feel like you’re on a movie set and it’s all not quite real.  But that could have been the total lack of usable oxygen making it to my cerebral cortex. 

At the hotel I was on the 6th floor.  I’ll tell you a Colorado story.  I was walking to the elevator and there was a young dad behind me with a 5 or six year old.  I was going to let that kid press the button in the elevator. But they marched right be me and into the stairwell. I figured they must be on the next floor up or something. 

When I was existing the elevator, they were trooping down the hallway in front of me.  Really? It’s Colorado! We don’t need elevators!  We don’t’ need stairs!  Just put in a climbing wall and we’ll belay our luggage up from base camp.

Pass me a piton.  Belay on! 

Chapter Three: Camp Foreshadow

As a walked over to the base camp house early Friday morning I passed a guy out on the sidewalk having a morning smoke.  As we exchanged pleasantries about the beautiful morning, I thought to myself that this guy is going to get mugged by a gang of high-altitude hipsters.  I figured he’d be pilloried on an extra mountain bike frame when I came back by.  If Smokie the Bear didn’t get him first. 

I consciously chose to walk the less-then-a-mile through the bad streets of Breckenridge just to see how the altitude felt.  Would I be gasping for breath?  Would my muscles be screaming for oxygen?  Would my head explode?

Turns out the answer to all this hyperbole was, “No.”  I felt fine.  Well I felt altitude fine.  Which from my time in Denver feels a bit like a three-beer hangover combined with a bit of an allergy. 

We collected the tribe and drove over to Leadville, through Frisco and a valley where the headwaters of the Arkansas River begins, to eventually empty into the Mississippi. 

The whole place is drop dead scenic.  The Rocky Mountains rise up on all sides with their 13,000 and 14.000 peaks.  There was still snow in places.  With the thin air the mountains pop out at you like some ultra-real Instagram filter, their crags and points crisp and sharp in the lasering sun. 

It’s just an interesting place, Leadville.  There was an apocalyptic novel written in 2008 where Leadville becomes the new capital of the United States called “Plague Years”. It’s got a ton of history and character.  You take all that and pour several hundred near-psychotic ultra-runners on top and you’ve got a party. 

It turns out that, after his 7 straight Leadville finishes Eric is pretty much the Mayor of Leadville.  Everywhere we went he would be embraced by emaciated trail ghosts.  There was much back slapping, handshaking and hugging.  I think he has a good chance in the upcoming election.

We attended the pre-race briefing which is a bit of theatre.  The long-time race directors all standup and give inspirational talks.  It’s a wonderful, feel-good, almost family reunion feel.  The Ultra-running community is very close.  Almost everyone has a backstory.  There are recovering addicts and abuse victims.  All those lost souls who can only find peace deep in the dark place out on the trails. 

Made me wonder what dark secrets Eric was harboring to drive him into this carnival of lost souls.  I’m going to go with dressing up in women’s underwear and dancing around, just because the visual cracks me up.

From the briefing we wandered over to the expo, which was a small, open-air affair. They had everything you would expect at an event like Leadville; commemorative shirts, extra nutrition, handmade backpacks crafted from organically harvested Koala foreskins.  And as much CBD as you could carry. 

Eric and his son grabbed their stuff, more hugs, more selfies and we commuted back to the ranch. 

Wonderful news for me was that Dan’s knee was feeling better and he’d pick up Eric a bit earlier on the course. Instead of 39 miles, I’d only have to survive 27. Piece of cake. 

We had a nice dinner, a couple beers and everyone got an early bedtime.  They would be getting up early to be there for the 4:00 AM start.  The rest of us would sleep in and head over to catch them as they came through Twin Lakes in the early afternoon, then pop over to the turnaround, 50-mile mark at Winfield.

Chapter Four: Wait for it.

Much of Friday was spent by the runners running the Leadville course.  Much of the day for us was spent waiting. Waiting for them to come through Twin Lakes.  Waiting in line for the buses over to Winfield.  Then lying around in the sun at Winfield waiting some more. 

The weather was wonderful for waiting.  A little warm for running.  I ended up with a bit of a sunburn before the day was over.  While I was getting ready, I realized my water pack had sprung a leak and had to do a quick tape-job on my bladder to fix it. I’ve had that pack for a long time and it’s starting to show.

I would pick him up at the Winfield aid station which is the turnaround point for the out and back, about 50 miles in. 

Dan, Eric’s best friend and long-time pacer had the last 7 of Eric’s races in a big spreadsheet.  We partially knew what to expect.  Eric has a history of falling down early in this race. Last year he broke his nose.  He decided this year to go out slower in the early sections to avoid rolling in the dirt so much and keep the blood inside his body.

Because of this go out slower strategy and the warmer day he was late coming into Winfield.  Now Eric is as calm as a cucumber on a cool day.  A real machine.  The whole time I was with him he was lucid, forming whole sentences and moving well.  Which is not an easy thing to do after 60-70 miles at altitude. 

I on the other hand was still a bit terrified.  I still didn’t know if I’d be able to perform at altitude.  I knew we were close to the cutoffs.  And my equipment was acting up.  But, on the plus side I had my runner and the game was on.  I had a job.  Eric knew what he was doing but I was there to make sure he stayed on track and drag him through any rough spots.

Chapter Five: Up and Over.

And so, it began.  At 5:25 PM Eric and I fast walked out of the Winfield Aid station and made our way towards Hope pass.  This is a mountain pass, which is a saddle between two mountains, that tops out at 12,600 feet.  Eric had already been up and over once.  Now we were going back.

This is a tough climb at a tough point in the race.  The runners are already 50+ miles in and they already know what they are up against, having just done it.  It’s a psychologically hard place for the runners.  On the bright side, they get to pick up a pacer for the return trip.  Eric had me. 

My plan was to just try to keep up.  Keep him engaged as much as possible.  Keep an eye on him.  And periodically remind him to eat and drink.  I bit like a mother hen or a border collie.

Our approach out of Winfield towards the pass was a beautiful single path through an Aspen grove.  Not easy running, but nothing out of the ordinary.  We passed through places where avalanches had cleared the slopes of trees and piled things up.  The single path hugged the side of the mountain with precipitous drops off the side of the trail.  It was a delightful afternoon. 

The whole time we were climbing towards the pass runners were passing us coming in the other direction.  We would tell them “Good Work!” and such but we knew they were ‘dead men (and women) walking’.  We were tight on the cutoff there was not much chance these stragglers were going to see the finish line.  

I believe the race intentionally makes the cutoffs tight early to sort people out before they get hurt.  There is a lot of attrition after the first trip over Hope Pass and even more on the way back.  It doesn’t seem hard on paper.  You’re only trying to hit 3 miles an hour, but the pass and the altitude mess with people.  It get’s into their heads.  Especially the second trip up and over. 

As we began to climb, I pulled my phone and turned on some Grateful Dead to pass the time.  I had this fantasy vision that my music would attract a van-load of old hippies who had been hiding in the woods since the 60’s.  They’d come out smoking joints and dancing and they’d joined us on the trail. 

That didn’t happen.  When we got to a flat or a down, we’d run a few strides, but for most of that climb Eric was just grinding away trying to hike as best he could.

I was feeling good.  The altitude scare passed, and I was able to keep up and even get out front and pace a bit.  We were grinding out maybe 2 miles an hour.  It was single path, rocky trail at 15 – 20 % grade.  Just putting your head down and pushing those quads up one step at a time.

I remembered from the Burning River last year when Kevin was pacing me, and I was pretty shot at the end.  He would stay ahead of me like a carrot on a stick and make me keep up.  I tried to do that with Eric.  I could hear his hiking sticks clacking on the rocks behind me so I knew where he was and tried to stay just out of reach. 

It took us awhile to clear the tree line.  Then we could see the pass.  And all around us the mountains rose like gods.  It was stunningly gorgeous in the late afternoon sun. 

As we got into the switch backs on the final push the temperature started to drop.  I had been super comfortable in the 65-degree, dry sunny afternoon, but now the wind kicked up above the tree line and we stopped to fish out some gear. I remember saying to Eric as we climbed the pass “It had better get cold because I’m going to be pissed if I had to carry all this winter gear and don’t use it.”

I got my gloves on and a fleece beanie for the summit.  I was wearing my Brooks baggie shorts with a pair of Zensa Calf sleeves for added protection and a tech T shirt with my water backpack.  I brought with me a running jacket. 

As we approached the summit, I got Eric’s video camera and scrambled ahead to take some video of him crossing the pass.  I felt the altitude.  Not so much in my legs and lungs, but in my head.  My red blood cells were holding an emergency impeachment meeting to vote my brain out of office. 

The whole time at altitude for me is like a combination of a 3-4 beer hangover and a spring pollen allergy.  A fuzzy head, dry sinuses, a little cough.  I brought a bit of an airplane cough with me but the dry altitude seemed to dry it up.  One thing I loved was no chaffing.  With the lack of humidity I never got sticky enough to lose any skin. 

And just like after about a couple hours of climbing we were up and over. 

Eric went blowing by me not pausing long at the pass.  I had my pack off putting on my jacket and finding my lights.  No time to waste.  I’d have to catch up.  He was on a mission.  In the same way that having the pass in front of you messes with your mind, having it behind you give you wings.

Eric was a machine. That’s why he’s finished this race 8 times now.  He just keeps moving.

This was to be his modus operandi. It didn’t matter what was going on around him he kept moving.  At one point we passed a guy who was down and out on the trail with people gathered around tending to him.  Eric didn’t even pause we just went chugging by like this poor bastard roadkill was a rock or branch.  I think they ended up helicoptering that guy out. 

While I was on the pass struggling into my jacket the sun was setting.  It was even worse now because we were on the other side of the mountain from the sun.  It got dark in a hurry. 

As I was fishing out my headlamp and flashlight in the dusk there a guy asked me if I had an extra light?  I said, well I have my runner’s extra light but that’s for my runner…  He says, “I’ll give you $100 for it.”  I don’t think he actually had $100 on him; I think he just wanted me to understand the urgency of the situation.  I relented and gave him Eric’s extra headlamp. He put Eric’s bib number into his phone.  Far as I know that headlamp hasn’t shown up again. 

Now I had to catch Eric who had taken off running down the mountain.  I put some coal in the boiler and started making way, happy to be done with the whole Hope Pass thing without incident.  We actually had to run through a patch of snow, left over from the previous winter.  No kidding.  Slipping and sliding through the snow at 12,000 feet in the feeble, failing dusk, trying not to superman as I was trying to catch Eric. 

One thing you have to know about Eric.  He’s very tall.  Probably 8 inches taller than me with legs to match. He eats up a lot of ground.  When we were hiking, I’d have to run a little to keep up with him. 70 miles in he’s walking faster than I can walk.  He thought I was trying to get him to run.  I was just trying to keep up. 

Chapter Six: All Night Long.

Coming out of the pass the first landmark is the Hopeless aid station.  We paused there to refill our tanks.  I was wearing a pack and carrying a bottle.  We’d shoot Gu’s every so often on the trail and then browse what was on offer at the aid stations.  I made sure to be aggressive with the Enduroyltes under the unsupported theory that the electrolytes would help my head in the thin air. 

We grabbed some hot broth and noodles.  Eric remixed his backpack with the Sword energy stuff he was using.  We pressed on. 

Next thing I know he’s retching off the trail behind me.  I guess the Sword didn’t mix well and he got a super strong mouthful of it on top of the noodles, and, 15 hours of running, and it wanted to come back up. 

I told him keep moving.  If you’re going to throw up, throw up and we’ll keep moving.  You’re going to feel shitty either way, so keep moving.  He managed to get the offending admixture up and out and we forged on.  We had the downhill now and could make some time.  We had to be back into Twin Lakes by 10:00 PM and it was tight.

We were good time on the back side of the pass.  By this time, with the dry air and the hundreds of runners the trail was super dusty.  You could see the dust in your headlamp and taste the grit in your mouth.  I was coughing a lot and losing my voice.

Which did not keep me from singing. 

We were see-sawing with another runner and his pacer. I started singing West Texas Cowboys (because of the one line about dusty dirt) and the other pacer knew the words and was belting out the song with me. I felt great.  We were having fun and Eric was keeping up.  I don’t know if it was my imagination but I felt like there was palpably more oxygen as we descended that dusty trail, dancing through the occasional rock garden.

I’d try to hold my flashlight beam on anything that looked treacherous so Eric could get a good fix on it coming down behind me.  I’ll call out the obstacles when I could, “Toe Grabbers!”, “Rock Garden”.

At one point off the side of the trail the moon was rising over the lakes and it was blood red.  An awesome sight.  Dripping that blood red reflection into the lake between the mountains. 

This is also where we passed Eric’s son Zach and his wife.  Zach was having some sort of stomach issue and had stopped running.  We tried to get him to come with us, but his head wasn’t in it, so we forged on. 

Coming into Twin Lakes there were 5 – 7 open water crossings. They had a wet year so there was more water. We splashed through these.  Some were cold and knee-deep. Some were disturbingly warmer and muddy and knee deep.  I only had one pair of shoes with me, but they were trail shoes and I was pretty sure they’d drain out and be ok.

Eric knew where we were and could smell the barn, so to speak.  He started to hammer through the water obstacles and was running hard through the fields to the Aid Station.  I pulled in behind him and let him drag me in. 

As we got close there was a lot of foot traffic. It was a bit confusing and crowded and dark.  Dan met us as we were coming in and told us to hustle to the timing mat because we were tight on time.  The three of us pushed through the crowd in the dark.

I was accidently body slamming people in the trail because, they were wandering in crowding the course, I was trying to keep one eye on Eric, it was dark and I was trying to figure out where the finish line was with some urgency. 

We made the cutoff by 8 minutes.  Which was a good thing, but also got me to worrying about the next cutoff and making up some time with my athlete being 60+ miles in.

The crew got Eric into a chair took care of his needs while I tried to clean all the sand and gravel out of my shoes from the water crossings. 

We topped off our tanks and got back on the trail.  We had work to do.  It was just after 10:00PM local time and midnight on Boston clock.  Eric had been going for 17 hours and I had had him for 5 of those.  We had to get to the next cutoff at Half Pipe by 1:15 AM.  Less than 10 miles but on this course you never know.

There was lot of fire road and a lot of climbing up out of twin lakes.  Everyone talks about Hope Pass but not so much about how there is another mountain to climb out of Twin Lakes. We worked it.  We were making time and catching runners.  Eric continued to be a machine.  It was all work now.  Deep into the night.

This was where I decided Eric was a robot.  He kept telling details about the course as we were coming up on them. “There’s a little hill here, then a downhill switch backs with rocks.” We’re coming up on 70 miles for him and he knows exactly where he is, he’s lucid, and he’s moving well. Definitely a robot.

We got into a nice rhythm on the downhills and flats.  I stayed out in front and set the cadence.  It’s an old ultra-running trick.  You count out 12 strides at a run, then count out 12 strides at a hike.  It keeps you focused on moving without over working anything.  I kept just far enough ahead to keep him engaged and moving. 

We made it into Half Pipe with time to spare. Frankly I wasn’t looking at my watch much anymore, we were just focused on moving and letting the course take care of itself.  We had 3hours and 15 minutes to get there, we did it in 2:42 and picked up 20 minutes on the cutoff.

I was getting tired coming into Half Pipe.  I had some waves of Nausea on the trail and was totally disappointed that it was only gas.  I thought for sure I was going to get dropped.  I figured I should it the porta john at Half Pipe just to be sure. 

They had them helpfully rigged with lights inside and not so helpfully absent any toilet paper, but we make do.  When I took my pack off I realized that I had worked up a good sweat coming down the mountain and the cold air on my wet body sent me quickly into chills.  It was cold!  I got some hot broth in the tent and cuddled up to the gas heater for a few minutes.

Eric was ready to go again and told him we’d have to keep moving because I was on the edge of hypothermia. With only 8 ½ more miles to Outbound where I would hand him off to Dan I figured I could tough it out.  I was suffering a bit, nothing awful, but with the altitude and the cold I was at the edge of my training.

The course was relatively easy in this section and we just kept up a good cadence and kept moving.  We were still passing a lot of runners. Eric was asking for the time. I didn’t want to roll up my sleeve to look at my watch because I didn’t want to lose the heat so I just told him to never mind and keep moving.

We got that good, steady run-hike cadence going again and were making good time.  I had to drop him by 3:00 AM local time, which would be 5:00 AM my time. All good.

With about 5K left we were cutting through a farm field and were treated to a wonderful visual, a bit of true performance art.  A runner was reliving himself in a great golden arc by the spotlight of his head lamp. It was like a water feature you’d expect to see in a Venetian fountain. We congratulated and applauded.

And that was it for me.  We pushed down a section of open road and across a field that seemed to go on forever.  My lights were dying and I was having trouble staying on the trail on the field.  We pushed into the outbound aid station and I tagged off to Dan. I gave him the update.  Eric was doing great.  He was eating and drinking and performing other bodily functions with reassuring regularity. 

Duty done I collapsed into a chair with my teeth chattering from the cold and tried to disappear into a space blanket.  We had picked up some more time and Eric and Dan had a good 40+ minute cushion to work with. 

My watch said I had run almost exactly 27 miles in almost exactly 9 hours for almost exactly 3 miles an hour.  Eric’s crew bundled me into the car with the heat on to give me ride back to the hotel for a hot shower couple hours of napping. 

Eric and Dan pressed on into the morning.

Chapter Seven: Aftermath.

I got a couple hours sleep and then headed back over to base camp to join the rest of the crew.  We drove over to Leadville trying to figure out from Dan’s text messages how close Eric was to the 30-hour cut off.  It looked like it was going to be close and we prepared for the worst.

I got some hot coffee and oatmeal and we waited by the road on a warm, sunny Leadville morning watching the happy parade of exhausted runners come up the street wit their crews in celebration.

And sure enough, with 20 minutes left on the clock Eric and Dan came up the street and there was much rejoicing. We all ran him in.  He was like a happy drunk.  He just finished his 8th Leadville Trail 100 Race on his 59th birthday on a day where only 42% of the people who started made it home. 

It’s a beautiful, terrible race that gives back to its runners more than it takes in the end.  It fills them with a satisfaction of having faced this terrible, beautiful course across the sky and walked away, sometimes with a belt buckle, always with a bucket of memories. 

Thank you, Eric. 

That was something to be part of.  If memories and experiences are the currency of our lives then I am a very rich man. 

Direct download: Leadville2019.mp3
Category:Running -- posted at: 6:59pm EDT



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