This past weekend I ticked off one of my athletic life goals; the Leadville Trail 100, a brutal 100 mile running race in Colorado. I signed up for Leadville this May after a team injury forced our boat out of the 2013 Texas Water Safari, a 262 mile canoe race down in Texas that is my usual ultra-length torture for the year. Less than three months is less training than recommended for a hundred miler, but what the hell. Rational thinking never led anyone to a successful hundred mile finish.
Here's how the trip unfolded.
I arrived in Colorado with parents the Sunday before the race to acclimate. A week living at 9,000' seemed enough. The plan was to code throughout the week, but as nerves took over, work fell by the wayside and I started devouring running books and movies. Once a Runner and Again to Carthage by John L. Parker, Eat and Run by Scott Jurek, started a Pre biography… I watched Unbreakable and In the High Country and generally spent my time staring at the mountains and trying to push out Krupicka-style beard hairs. This was not successful.
This was my parents' first time crewing an ultra, other than the Texas Water Safari. That race is interesting in that all the support crew needs to provide is water and ice. They need to get to locations along the way, but they don't necessarily need to be creative or imaginative about WHAT the racer will need along the way. We do that a lot for each other in the boat.
In the days leading up to the race I tried to teach my parents what would be required. We went for a hike up the back side of Hope Pass on Tuesday. I power-hiked, feeling great, and ran down, imagining what a stud I'd be doing the same thing during the race. I even picked out a couple of hundred yard sections that I would run (making up, what, 10 seconds?). How young and optimistic I was. After the hike we drove back to Leadville, bought a course map and visited each of the aid stations. I pretended my brother was racing and tried to conjure up images of the coming race for my parents. "Mike's coming in, he's been out for this many hours…" and so on. Sort of worked. I made the mistake of calling our way to Tabor boat ramp a "secret way", which freaked my dad out beyond belief. What other way is there? Are there other racers heading some other way? Jesus, chill out. Don't do anything different on race day.
Oscar Boykin arrived Wednesday night, ready for action. We did a run the next morning before my girlfriend Jenna showed. I was feeling good and banged out a 7 minute mile before letting Oscar go kill himself at altitude. I felt pretty low on energy that week, but okay with the altitude after a day or two. Strangely lethargic, I slacked on buying food until the day before the race, when I finally forced myself to imagine what I'd need and kicked my ass into gear for a big shopping trip. My parents bought a TON of organizational items (tupperwares! Zip locs! Trash bags!), perhaps not realizing how fast and light a crew needs to be at each of the aid stations. No worries, we'd figure that out later on the road.
The gun goes off for Leadville at 4am. The plan the morning of the race was to wake up at 1am, get about 800 calories in me along with a couple cups of coffee, then hit the sack for a half hour. I got up on time and chowed everything bagel with almond butter and jelly, a greek yogurt and a banana. Chugged one cup of coffee, then back in bed. Another cup of coffee in the car on the way to the race.
My resting heart rate on the way over there was 80 bpm, about 30 beats high. At the start line, it jacked up to 105. Calm down. My plan was to hold back, not go out too fast, and err on the side of SLOW. I figured if I fell back I could always make up the time later. I was shooting for a 24 hour time (foolish on the first Leadville?) And had planned out a pace chart that had me going at the average speed of a 24:32 finisher. If this felt too slow, then all would be well; I'd have energy to start beating the splits in the second half of the race and push the pace down. If too fast, no problem. I'd be in a great position to finish the race.
We pulled into town in the dark and found a spot right near the finish line. I got out, lubed my feet up with BodyGlide, put on my Minimus shoes and ambled over to the coffee shop across the street from the starting line. Some folks were doing warmups back and forth along the road, as if the race wasn't long and brutal enough to provide that service. So many faces looked haunted in the coffeeshop. I imagine that the excited faces were first timers like me, looking forward to the adventure. Those who had been through the ordeal were wiser and terrified, perhaps remembering some of the pain from past years and questioning their decision to come back to this damned town. Healthy living at 10,200 feet!
I was trained and ready to go. Oscar, Jenna and the parents would drive the course and meet up with me to provide food and water at various points along the first 50 miles. At mile 50, Andrew Stephens, my partner in the Texas Water Safari and good friend, was to show up and run with me over the mountain. Jenna wanted to be waiting at the top with the Llamas at Hopeless aid station and would take over from Stephens. From there, we'd figure it out on the go.
I left my folks and Jenna with a kiss and moved out to the start line. The temp was about 40 degrees. I felt calm, but the heart rate was up at 105. The gun went off and I started my watch, shuffling out of the gate at 10:00/mile pace right in the middle of the pack. We all moved down the hill in the cold. Some folks started walking on the first uphill, pacing just right for the distance ahead.
The first few miles were surreal. I remembered to look back and take in the sea of headlamps moving down the hill, looked up at the stars and thought about The Long Walk by Stephen King. So many hopes and dreams out on the road. It was nice making conversation with people from different towns, starting to make friends then suddenly having folks veer into the woods to pee.
The start of the course rolls down a mile of pavement, transitioning into a long dirt corridor between trees. I focused on the average pace I was trying to maintain - 9:47 minutes per mile - and just stayed slow and shuffled. Ann Trason's advice, via Aaron Steele, was to be as efficient as possible with every step. I kept my cadence high and started to eat at the half hour point, conserving energy and fueling up.
Casual first five miles, feeling easy. The race was going by faster than I expected, there in the dark. The Peloton hiked up the long scree section at the end of the dirt road, and then it was on, shuffling around Turquoise lake to Tabor boat ramp at mile 7.5.
This is when the first warning signs of later trouble began. I had stopped to pee about 30 minutes into the race. All was clear, which was good. I'd hydrated nicely that morning. Twenty minutes later, I had to pee again. I ended up peeing five times in the first hour and a half. I was drinking fluids and thought I was just on the hydration, but I was peeing more than I drank, which just didn't make any sense. I later found out that this was a sign of low salt, and that my body would become worse and worse at retaining fluids until I started taking salt pills.
The run around the lake was really beautiful. I was in a SLOW group, walking everything, making about 13 minute miles, so I did try to pass a few people, but was generally happy with the pace and figured that if I lost even 25 minutes here, rested up and then stayed on my pace for the rest of the race, I'd still be within reach of the big buckle. Getting ten minutes up on my pacing this early in the race was going to be a lot harder than taking back ten minutes from the plan near the finish, when most runners spend huge blocks of time walking. Almost took a wrong turn, got back on track, peed again (!), and made it into Tabor where I surprised the parents, Oscar and Jenna with a high five, then back on single track until May Queen.
I pulled into May Queen only eight minutes behind schedule, at around 2:18. Doing so well! Oscar was right there to meet me and handed me my pack. It seemed like a beautiful handoff, until I asked, "Did you add the two scoops of powder?" and Oscar's eyes got wide.
"I thought you already mixed it!" he said. We were jogging along now and passed Jenna and the family.
"Are there gels in here?", I said to Jenna.
"No, we thought you added those too!"
I was running along with a pack of straight water and no food. I had skipped the aid station, anticipating a full on-the-move refill, and here I was with nothing. Jenna went back to get me some gels and Oscar took off up to the car to find the carbohydrate powder. I waited at the trail head for seven minutes, knowing how foolish it would be to leave without any food but not wanting to run the half mile back to the aid station. After twelve minutes waiting, it was time to leave. I poured the new pack's water into my existing pack, saving SOME calories from the remaining perpetuem, and begged a bar off another pace crew. Finally Jenna caught up with me and handed me a couple of gels, but in the confusion I put these in the pack that I left behind… so I was off over the first big mountain pass, two hours with a 150 calorie bar when my plan had been 300 calories per hour. It was going to be a long day.
The mountain was fine. I took the steep stuff at a hike, passing people all the way up. I hike well, and the altitude isn't a big deal at that pace, so I made great time, trying to silence the urge to go fast and make up missing time from the earlier fumble. At this point I was twenty minutes behind pace, a gap that would be easy to catch up. Go slow.
The sun up was beautiful, and I looked around quite a bit, taking it all in. Here I was racing at Leadville! The first tough climb was underway. I started asking folks around me what their pace goals were and seemed to be solidly in a pack of 23-25 hour racers. Was I going out too fast? Or were they all destined to blow up? I chatted with a dude going for his 30th finish (!!) and a girl looking to finish in 23:30 - 11 hours out, 12:30 back. Aggressive pacing goals. We crested the summit and I ran down the powerline, eating up the miles and letting the heart rate drop. The feet and lungs were feeling great. I was hungry, but I was almost to the next aid station, so no problem there.
I saw Jenna and Oscar again when I hit the road. Perhaps embarrassed about the last pacing situation, they presented me with a pack that was just CRAMMED with food. I had only two hours until I would see them again, but they'd given me dozens of items, along with fresh drink mix. I applied sunblock, gave a few handfuls of food pouches back, tried to be nice and moved on out. The clouds were out, which gave the racers a break from the heat. I was 21 miles in and feeling really good, like not much time had passed, but just a bit rough and queasy. I walked the uphills, favoring the achilles a bit, but noticing that I hadn't really felt any pain at all for quite some time. Other problems had overtaken my achilles issue.
A few miles down the road was the Fish Hatchery aid station. I ate a couple of pretzels and choked down a PB&J half, then back out to the road for a long stretch up to treeline. I was dead on the expected pace for the 24 hour finish, maybe pushing a little fast, keeping things in control. Treeline aid was great; I met up with Oscar and the folks, sat down and shook a rock out of my shoe that had been bothering me. Better to take care of these things now than suffer later. They swapped in another pack and some more food and I moved on out into unknown territory.
The next section was a long, steady uphill with a big downhill finish into Twin Lakes. I hiked up the initial climb, knowing that I could make up time on the downhill. The goal here was to keep moving and get to Twin Lakes with solid legs in preparation for the grueling trip up Hope Pass.
I started to ask more folks about their time goals. One guy told me that he was going for 25 hours, "like every damned runner within a two mile radius of us". Fair enough. I ran into a jacked crossfittish guy with his shirt off who seemed to be having trouble with his stomach and gave him some advice on how to eat. Shortly after that, I joked about my swollen fingers to a dude running behind me. "You need salt, man," he said, and how right he was. I didn't put this together with my early peeing. Again, an ominous sign of things to come.
The trail was gorgeous, with long uphills and good conversation all the way to the Mt Elbert trailhead. The elevation gain was pretty large here, but the slope was gentle and didn't feel as terrible as I had expected. By the time we hit the downhill I had taken a couple of salt pills and felt on top of my game. I pushed through the Mt Elbert station and down Twin Lakes. One guy noted that I must have huge balls to have worn Minimus shoes in the run. All my Krupicka-watching and running reading have made a convert of me. I'm not ready to run in Huaraches, but those Hoka One Ones look like a serious departure from the One True Way (sorry Aaron). I cruised downhill at the lead of our little group, MAYBE one guy passing me on the way down. We pulled in to Twin Lakes in 7:18, just three minutes behind the expected pace. Oscar was waiting for me at the top of the hill and led me down to the rest of the family.
My coach and two-time Leadville champion Duncan Callahan was waiting at Twin Lakes. I sat for a couple of minutes, taking in food and going over the items in the pack with my parents. I wanted to leave at 7:30. I applied some sunscreen and took my iPhone and headphones from Jenna for the next stretch; the dreaded Hope Pass. Duncan had me eat a couple of pretzels, and I grabbed a PB&J and some boiled potatoes for the trip out. I took my two Excedrin, a salt pill, ate two pepto pills, and chugged a cup of flatted coke.
Mental check-in: at this point I'm feeling epic. It's mile 40, I'm injury-free and slowly eating away at my already optimistic pace goal. My planned pace up Hope Pass was 22 min/mile; I knew that I could hike the steep at around that pace, and the mile to the base of the climb is perfectly flat. It should be no problem to make up ten more minutes right there.
Oscar walked me out of the aid station. Just outside on the trail as I pushed the PB&J down I started feeling queasy. I told Oscar that I might have to puke, matter-of-factly, trying to stay casual. I kept my gut down, but just after he left I went to my knees on the side of the trail and surprised myself with an incredibly forceful vomiting session. I opened my mouth and out poured a stomachful of caffe latte perpetuem, almost no solids in the food, just a liter or so of liquid. Racers along the trail asked me if I was okay. One guy yelled, "Hey, at least you know you'll feel great when it's over!" One more time, emptying out the rest of my stomach, and then I was back up, feeling good. I ate another pepto tablet, put my headphones in and kept going. I wanted to start running hard and thank the racer who made the comment. I knew this wasn't smart and kept the pace back, but knocked out the flat mile to the base of hope in 11 minutes. I thought to myself, "this race isn't so hard," and started walking up the hill.
I became more dejected as we rose. The trail on this side of hope was just so steep. I came upon one strong, young racer sitting by the side of the trail, head in hands, moaning to himself. I asked if he was okay. He replied, "yeah, I'm good," not looking up. Yeah, right. I caught up to a woman who looked really strong and passed her. Ten minutes later I became dizzy and had to sit down. She caught up and offered me a gel, and I decided that passing a bad idea. Time to relax. I was hiking at a 22 min/mile pace, which would land me at the Hopeless aid station exactly on target. My heart rate was up at 168 by now. I had set my heart rate alarm at 165, and after a number of "too high!!" beeps I turned the alarm off. Why was my heart rate so high? Could it be that I was extraordinarily dehydrated and my heart had to work hard to pump my thick blood? Don't think about it, just shut off the alarm and keep hiking. This is a hard climb. You're SUPPOSED to work hard.
Half way up I found that I couldn't quit thinking about water. I knew I had vomited up everything in my stomach and was probably behind on fluid, but I had been very diligent about drinking and didn't imagine that I was dehydrated. I hadn't peed in a long time. I was fascinated with the noise of the stream that we were hiking past. A mile more and I actually saw the stream water and dunked my hat, squeezing the cool water on my neck and feeling the amazing restorative effect of cold. I wasn't out of breath, but I was dizzy from the high heart rate and made myself to stop again. So difficult.
I pushed out of the trees at the 9 hour mark and could see the tents of the aid station up ahead. I knew that I only had a half a mile to go to the top of of Hope Pass; after the summit I could cruise downhill, just as I had on my training run. I'd be at Winfield FAR ahead of schedule. If I stayed smooth I'd get to Winfield at 10:30, leaving me 14:30 to get home. Even feeling diminished, I felt like I had this in the bag. If you ever feel this way on Hope Pass, something is wrong. I had underestimated Leadville.
I headed to the aid station tent, chugged a cup of coke and decided that I would sit down for five minutes. I had puked up the Excedrin earlier, so I grabbed two Tylenol out of a sample dispenser. Ten minutes ahead of pace over a five mile stretch in the hardest part of the race seemed like a foolish way to move. A five minute rest would get me back on track and let me CRANK over the top of the pass.
Two minutes into this break, the nausea hit again and I headed off by a tree just in time to puke up all of the water and calories in my guts yet again. Both heaves were incredibly productive and forced liquid out of my mouth and nose. After the second heave, an aid station medic came over to me and asked how I was doing. I told her I'd let her know in a minute and heaved again, this time coming up with nothing. my stomach was empty, and the two tylenols lay half-dissolved in the grass. The medic made me drink a cup of ramen and asked me how often I had been peeing. I told her that I had peed at Twin Lakes, though thinking back I can't remember if that's actually true. Lighting up, I told her that I had puked down there after chugging a cup of coke, just as I had now.
"You don't have enough salt in your system, honey. You're trying to put too much into your stomach, and your stomach is shutting down. You need to take smaller bites." She asked me about my salt intake, then had me lick my wrist and poured a bunch of salt onto it, "just like a tequila shot." I licked it up and finished my ramen. She brought me another cup of ramen and told me to finish it by the summit. Boom, I was released! I was shivering heavily by then and pulled out my shell, silently congratulating myself on some solid thinking. I would hike slowly to the top and get warm.
As I approached the summit, down came the two guys in the lead, hauling ass down the mountain, not more than a couple of minutes apart. It was fantastic to have almost reached the top before seeing the leaders, and I was grateful for the small rest I got as I moved off of the trail to let them pass.
At the top of the pass down the other side, I started to feel better right away, as expected, and started catching up with the runners in front of me. And suddenly in front of me was a familiar face! Scott Jurek, HAMMERING up the back side of Hope on a hunt for the leaders. I recognized his pacer; Hal Koerner, two-time Western States champion, from my recent viewing of Unbreakable. I whooped and yelled, standing aside as he came past. Jurek had blue pasties over his nipples.
"Nice pace, man! And nice nipples!" I yelled.
"Thanks," breathed Scott as he passed. What a warrior.
Inspired, I cruised downhill for about a mile before I remembered that I was hosed and couldn't keep up that pace. I was starting to sweat and feel terrible inside of my shell. Racers started to pass me for the first time all day. I would step off the trail to let them go, hands on knees, just miserable and thinking about water. The taste of my perpetuem mix was so nauseating. I would take the tiniest sip possible to help me dissolve food, then struggle to keep the mix down. I got down to the treeline without many problems, but just couldn't run at all and resigned myself to walking the trail. So many incredible runners were passing me on the way up by now. Some of these studs were stopped by the side of the trail, trying to puke as their pacers congratulated us runners coming down.
I thought about the woman at the Hopeless aid station and her question about my pee schedule. When was the last time I had really peed? I decided that I needed to make it happen, and stopped at the side of the trail. I forced it and was surprised and scared to see that it was a dark, dark yellow. Oh boy. I knew that I had been vomiting fluids, but I figured that this was excess and SOME had been getting absorbed. Wrong. I was severely dehydrated, about an hour from aid. Time to get moving.
Finally, there it was, the turn onto the Colorado trail to Winfield. I was walking, but still on pace to get into Winfield at 11 hours. I knew that I would need to stop, but in my mind was thinking, "if I can just get to that station and rest for 10 minutes, I'm going to be okay." I still thought that I was on target for the Big Buckle. We crossed a stream and I dunked my hat again. Bad idea with the wind. I started shivering, but the cold quelled the pounding in my head and I felt good enough to keep walking and push onward. The desire to sit down by the side of the trail started to set in, but I knew that it wouldn't help. After a while I could SEE the aid station. My shirtless CrossFit friend caught up. His stomach had started working again, and he was pushing. Many of my old friends from the treeline->twin lakes section passed me, all trying to cheer me up. "It's San Francisco!" yelled one lady as she moved by me. Looking great, everyone. One awful mile to go.
Finally, the road. A quarter mile more on the flats and I was at the aid station, 11:05 into the race, RIGHT on track with Duncan's schedule even with the dehyrdration. Excellent. Just sit down and take ten minutes to get back on pace. Jenna and Oscar found me on the road and led me into Winfield and the checkpoint. I took a moment to smile. I was halfway through the Leadville! Whatever happened from here on out, it was exciting to have gotten through the first 50 miles. I was 17 miles into unknown territory.
The medical staff led me to the weigh-in, and there it was on the scale - 154.5 pounds, down from 165.5 at the start. I had lost 11 pounds of fluid. I sat and Jenna brought me some broth and my fantasy, a cup of straight-up WATER with nothing mixed into it. I drank two cups of water and some broth and started to shiver heavily. This young girl, a doctor, came over and asked me what I wanted to eat. I told her water and oranges, and she brought me these and gave me a sleeping bag to wrap around my legs. My lips were very blue. I thought that my parents might ask me if I wanted to quit, but I knew that I wouldn't. I also knew that in my current state I wouldn't be able to continue. How to resolve the paradox?
This is where the race really surprised me. I had done everything right, I thought. I was eating and drinking, pacing myself really well, shielding my eyes and skin from the sun… but here this doctor was, telling me that my stomach had shut down and that my kidneys might be failing. I was extremely low on salt and wasn't retaining water, and they wouldn't let me go until I could pee again. What the hell? Renal failure? How are you supposed to tough out a race when the machine, your body, betrays you? Was my body just not build to run ultras? After three Texas Water Safari wins, this was hard to believe. Still, I didn't know how to recover.
At this point, I must have looked seriously fucked up because Oscar wouldn't even take a video of me. Here's a Vine he took after forty minutes:
As I was suffering, like a dream, Andrew Stephens showed up, ready to RACE. He had his pack on and immediately took command of the situation. He made me change into a warm, dry shirt, put a hat on me and gave me two salt pills. He looked mildly annoyed when I jumped out my chair, ran behind the tent and puked up everything in my stomach. I sat back down inside and he started feeding me water and more salt pills, then asked the doctor if they had any Zofran. They did, and I took one. Zofran is an anti-nausea medication for chemo patients. I knew that if this didn't settle my stomach, I was hosed.
But it worked! I was able to hold down two liters of water and four more salt pills. I warmed up and began to feel better. I was swaddled in blankets at this point, an hour and ten minutes into my rest at Winfield. I couldn't pee yet, but I was drinking water with an electrolyte supplement. M&Ms tasted good, as did broth and small sips of coke. I started sipping on an Ensure as well, keeping it all down.
And then, an hour and a half into the rest, I had to pee! I went out to the porta-potty and forced out a sample. It was dark, but not AS dark. I had gained back three pounds now. I showed another doctor and he smiled. "Your kidneys aren't failing, you're just severely dehydrated. Start running!" My pulse ox was back up to 97% (from 86%). Once Stephens heard that, it was go time. I felt like Jurek now, MUCH better, and wanted to hammer. My motivation was back. I had lost sight of the 25 hour belt buckle, but I thought now that we'd be able to finish this race in a respectable time.
So there it was, out of the aid station 12:45 into the race, 1:15 ahead of the cut-off time. I wanted to run, but Stephens warned me that this was a bad idea. We were already passing dozens of runners on the trail. His new rule was that every time I wanted to start running, I needed to drink. He started feeding me pieces of bagel and cream cheese, which I washed down with the water. "If you go slow, you're going to finish this thing. If you start puking, it's all over." I knew he was right and made me choice. We went slow.
At the turn to the Hope Pass climb Andrew said, "this is the most badass race of all TIME. I'm definitely coming back to do this next year." He was obsessed already, like me during my first Texas Water Safari. I was mildly pleased to hear him gasping as we pushed it up toward 11,000 feet. I tried to keep my breathing under control to seem like a badass, then gave in and huffed and puffed.
Once we hit the switchbacks, Andrew said, "Just two more to go and then we're at the summit."
"Dude," I said, "we have 1.2 miles to go. I just ran the course."
"I know that. I was just trying to trick you and make you feel better," he said. Nice. Runners around us started pitching in with stories of their pacers trying to trick them too. We all death marched up to the summit at 12,400, taking the time to look at the gorgeous scenery and enjoy the day.
I had come back from the dead, and I KNEW that I was going to be able to finish the race. Now that I was hydrated my heart rate had dropped to 140, down from 168 of the first trip over Hope. At the summit we started running downhill to the aid station. The station had run out of cups, but Andrew figured out some system and got me another cup of broth. We took five minutes, I cleaned out my shoes and made Andrew take a picture of me by the llamas so we could show Jenna what she was missing. Seven minutes later, now 1:45 ahead of the cutoff, we took off down the hill, passing people and comparing Leadville to the Texas Water Safari. I kept eating and drinking, feeling better and better with every mile.
We pulled in to Twin Lakes far enough ahead of the cutoff that I stopped thinking about it, and Oscar switched in on the pacing duties for Andrew. After the morning pacing situation, I was overly worried about having a pacer other than Andrew, and was a little mean and intense toward Oscar. I tore into him right away at the Twin Lakes aid station with rapid fire questioning. "What do you have in your pack? Where's your headlamp? Where are the extra batteries?" Just chewing him out like he was a kid. I'm sure he wanted to punch me, and would have if he didn't have his own killer background in long-distance running and an understanding of the strange mental states that one can experience during these races. My big concern was that I would hit the wall and need my pacer to take complete control. Only later did I realize the incongruity of yelling, "Are you going to tell me what to do!!?".
It was just getting dark. I changed my shoes, hit the bathroom (thank god, organs functioning again!) and Oscar and I took off up the hill. It was time to hike again using the Stephens method, keeping the heart rate under control and eating as much as I could without getting sick.
At this point I was feeling great again. I though I understood what had gone wrong, and knew that if I could keep eating and drinking and stay ahead on fluids and salt that I would be able to finish this race. I hadn't known how important salt was, but I damned well understood it now, and felt that the potential problems of the race were all under my control. I wasn't affected by the altitude, and had excellent supplies and aid stations the whole way home. I was going to finish this race.
Excellent pacing by Oscar through the whole section. We came to the Mt Elbert aid station, fluids only. I rolled through while Oscar filled up a bottle then caught up to me, cruising along in his Merrell trail gloves. We were hiking the uphills and running every flat and downhill, passing people like crazy and feeling great about the beautiful, warm night.
In no time, we were through the long stretch and walking the last mile or two into the Half Pipe aid station. I drank a delicious cup of hot chocolate and some broth, and we carried potato chips and other items out along the road. As before, we spent very little time in the aid station. A couple of miles later we hit the TreeLine, mile 71.5. The parents, Jenna and Stephens were waiting for me with an Andrew Stephens special: the Leadville pizza. Salami and cheddar cheese on top of a bagel. (Where had the cheddar come from?)
As happens in the Safari, at this point I had the feeling that the race was almost finished. This was ridiculous, as the farthest I had run before the day in question was around 33 miles, only a short 5k farther than the distance we had yet to go. Oscar and I started talking about code, running for a while, walking for a while and the miles melted away. A woman along the road heard us talking about Scala and Hadoop and called us a "couple of trail philosophers!" I was surprised that we were so upbeat, given the day's events. The night was incredible, stars just blanketing the sky above. So beautiful. In a few miles, we'd reach the base of powerline and Jenna would pick up crewing duties. Another cup of hot chocolate in the Fish Hatchery aid station, a water top-off and we were off.
Just as I was pouring my unwanted hot chocolate out on the road, I heard Oscar say, "Can I get a sip of that?" But it was too late. Only a drop remained, but it seemed enough to cheer him up and power him through the remaining mile. We cruised the final downhill to Jenna, all decked out in pacing attire and a fresh headlamp. My spirits were getting higher and higher.
Not much to report for this section, other than fantastic pacing from Jenna. I was sticking to the Stephens formula now, drinking, looking at my watch and eating every twenty minutes, trying for 250 calories per hour and keeping my heart rate under 145. I was happy to be out and healthy around Jenna, but I took time to prepare her for the monster that would reveal itself if I did crash, and how she'd have to force me to eat and drink as I was crying and puking at her feet. Luckily the nightmare didn't come to pass. We passed a bunch of people and ran the entire downhill, all the way through the two miles of single track, over the bridges and out to the road. An older couple was waiting at the exit of the single track.
"Go runners, you look great!" they yelled. Then, "Hey, is that Sam?" It was my parents, huddled in the cold with a table and a little tray of various treats. Jenna and I ran up, grabbed a few items of food and a packet of Chamois Butter out of the box and kept on cruising. We were both feeling great and Jenna decided to crew me for five more miles. 15 miles of pacing is no joke, but she maintained her stoke the entire time, hauling water and food for me, fetching and mixing up various treats and medicinal concoctions as I requested them.
The May Queen aid station was just intense. The runners looked like ravaged mine workers, slumped, dejected, sipping away at cold broth and lukewarm cups of coffee. I sat down to relube my feet while Jenna ran to grab extra food. We greeted the runners who were present (including the old Italian man we'd met in town before the race, the one running the Spartathlon in a couple of weeks!) then got up and hauled ass out of the gate. We weren't going to break any records, but I still wanted to come into the finish solidly under 27 hours. I had rested at the 50 mile point for 1:40. My goal was to finish 1:40 slower than my intended target time of 24:35. We left MayQueen with this in mind, solidly on track, sipping Ensure and pushing for the boat ramp.
I started to feel quite tired along this stretch and lost my discipline, running the uphills on the single track around the lake. I wanted to reach town before sunrise. Jenna saw what was happening and forced me to slow down and eat. I knew that Stephens would have been proud. We still had 11 miles to go, probably 2.5 hours on fatigued legs. We were passing racers and pacers, and there was no need to do anything special. Now that it was night, just as it had been on the way out, I remembered the course well and applied myself to the task at hand. Eat, drink, and shuffle along the miles.
At 7.8 miles to go we hit Tabor boat ramp and there was Oscar, packed up and right on schedule. He switched in for Jenna and we kept on at the same pace, passing runners, talking less than before as I dealt with the exhaustion. My ankles were hurting quite a bit. Get to the downhill scree, then it's smooth sailing to the finish, I thought.
Finally, we were away from the lake. We crossed a road, following a line of glow sticks over to a steep, sandy, rock-covered slope, about a quarter mile long. At the bottom, finally, blessedly… flat road, and the five mile mark.
Now, at this point the distance to go became comprehensible. I knew that five miles back home was about the distance from the golden gate bridge to my apartment. I'd run this route often in training, no problem. I knew what pace I could hold. We could see the barest glow of sunlight over the town, dimming the stars out above the mountains. I forced the pace down to an 11 minute mile, fast enough that Oscar could stop pretending to jog and actually move his feet a little. Gotta give the old man a workout. The last five miles wasn't marked and no one was out to cheer for us, so it was a quiet push. I ate a peanut butter cracker every ten minutes and tried to keep the pace.
Right turn at the rail road tracks. Down the road, by the trailers, left turn up the rocky slope, passing runners… and there it was, 3 miles to go, the long dirt road lined with trees where a long day earlier I'd had conversations with new friends, all happy, all full of hope. The road sloped gently uphill and we started to push faster and faster, only 2.5 miles to go now, 1.5 miles to the road. A while later we could see it, and we started to run faster and faster. All of the pain was gone from my legs. I couldn't feel my ankles, I couldn't feel my lungs, and my heart rate stayed low, unaffected by the altitude. I clicked the pace higher as we hit the final incline to the pavement, checking my watch. We'd dropped our average from 11:00 to 9:30 per mile.
"How fast are we going?" asked Oscar, pushing uphill next to me.
"Must be eight minutes," I said. I ran harder and joked, "What's wrong, too fast for you?" Oscar was running a marathon in two weeks, and had already jammed 26 miles. He said, "It is, man. Go for it, I'll watch you run," and slowed down, letting me pull ahead.
This was it. The final mile. I was feeling fantastic and pushed faster and faster, past racers, up over the hill by the middle school to the final stretch… and there it was, the finish line, with 26:12 on the watch and just a short distance to go. I was going to make it! I was down at a 6:30 now and hit the downhill flying, feeling a little ridiculous moving past limping runners trying to drag themselves in. Who would race for such an arbitrary time goal? 26:15?
Up the hill with Jenna, arms pumping, down the red carpet and across the line, finally, finally finished in 26:15:12. I hugged the race director, who hung my finisher's medal around my neck and sent me over to to medical. I stepped on the scale and weighed in at 163.5, 9 pounds up from my diminished state at mile 50.
I walked over to my parents, Jenna and Oscar, feeling fantastic and joking about taking another lap around the building. I felt so good! It was eerie, walking around not even tired. I sat down for a minute to take my shoes off, and when I tried to get up…. boom, it hit me. I suddenly could barely stand. My body locked up and I started shivering again. But it was all over. We'd done it, and I was happy.