“You are better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can!” These words brought a tear to my eye as I listened to Ken Chlouber, the founder of the Leadville Trail 100, give the 650 starters of the race a pep talk in the crowded gym on 6th street. Could it be true that all of the months of self-doubt that I felt as a flatlander training for a Colorado mountain race be unwarranted… could I possibly finish this race?
The Leadville Trail 100 is a 100 mile foot race which takes place in the old mining town of Leadville, Colorado in the middle of August. It is an out and back course with an average elevation of just over 10,000 feet. The highest point, Hope Pass, climbs to 12,600 feet and because of the out and back nature of the course, you get to summit the pass twice! The race is known for its beauty but also for the ruthlessness of the course at high altitude. I figured it was a great choice for my first 100 mile attempt! If you are going to go for 100 miles, you might as well go big!
As I lined up for the start with my fellow competitors on Saturday at 4am I remembered the words of Ken from the pre-race talk the day before. “I can do more than I think I can” rang through my ears as the gun sounded and we took off into the darkness. The first 13 miles of the course follow Turquoise Lake and are relatively downhill and then onto a beautiful rolling trail along the lake. At 6:20am I met my support crew at mile 13.5 were they took care of me with the swiftness of a Nascar pit crew. There job for the next 100 miles was to make sure that at every aid station I was hydrated and stocked for the next leg of the race.
The run to mile 26.5 took us up the second highest climb of the course with some of the most spectacular views I had ever seen! I quickly found out that a hill climb in Colorado was not a hill climb in Wisconsin! My training hill repeats of 4 to 5 minutes back home were no match to the 2 to 3 hour climbs that I would encounter the next 73.5 miles. I knew that in order to finish the race I would need to slow down, so at mile 30, that is exactly what I did.
Hope Pass is the “claim to fame” of the Leadville Trail 100. I was warned of how nasty she could be but I did not believe it until I started the accent at mile 42. Even with trekking poles I struggled to pull myself up the steep climb at a whopping 2 to 2.5 miles per hour. Several people around me were stopping to rest, complaining of feeling lightheaded and nauseous, so I felt pretty good about myself until I saw the lead women RUNNING up the other side with a smile on her face. I was quickly put into my place as she blew by me! She would later finish at just over 19 hours!
Once over Hope Pass and down the treacherous decent you enter the turnaround at Winfield. There I met my pit crew, weighed in, (you are weighed in at this aid station, too much weight loss and you are forced to stop and rehydrate) and started my return home. If the first accent of Hope Pass was brutal, the second accent was hell! It was on the second accent that I needed to add in breaks at the end of each switch back. The air is thin at 12,600 feet and I could feel it!
Darkness started to set in just as I was crossing the river, (there is no bridge), and came to the mile 60 aid station at Twin Lakes. My amazing crew got me set-up with warm clothing as the temperature was quickly starting to drop into the 40’s. I would spend the next 16.5 miles in the darkness with just a headlamp and flashlight until I met up with my crew again.
As the miles crept beyond 60, I knew I was entering uncharted territory. Everything beyond this point was unknown as I had never trained passed 60 miles in a weekend. Surprisingly my legs were tired but they were fully functional. I was able to manage a very brisk walk which worked out very well on the dark wooded trail. I counted my blessings as I passed people who were noticeably sick and exhausted. The whole day my stomach had been fine and I wanted to keep it that way. I covered my ears and kept my head down as I crept by the less fortunate.
It was not until the Fish Hatchery Aid station at mile 76.5 that the fatigue really started to build. The blisters that I was able to ignore for the last 30 miles were screaming at me and my once “okay” legs were not loving the idea of having to travel another 23.5 miles. I was very grateful that my husband was going to be pacing me for 10 miles. He had chosen the second hardest climb of the course and the brisk walk that he kept me at was enough to bring me into mile 86.5 with plenty of time to spare ahead of the cut-off time.
You would think that only having 13.5 miles to go would be relatively easy in a 100 mile race but surprisingly many people drop out at this point. We all have our own personal limit and many bodies like to give out when the finish line is just a half marathon away. I was determined to not let this happen so as much as I was sick of sucking on gels all day long I popped another one and picked up my next pacer. I had plenty of time to get to the finish line before 10am if nothing went wrong the next couple of hours.
After 99 miles of bliss, beauty, pain, and self- doubt the finish line is like a sunrise to a new day! In Leadville you turn a corner and see it’s beautiful image in the distance; could this really be happening? As I walked the last mile with my crew I held back the tears as I knew if I would start crying, I would not stop! I was physically exhausted, sleep deprived, and overwhelmed with gratitude. Out of the 650 people that started I was one of 350 people to have finished, talk about a little bit of luck and maybe something a little bigger than me helping to push me across that line.
For all of my efforts you would think that a new car, or a large pair of diamond earrings would be an appropriate finish award. In the ultramarathon world, your price is a shiny new belt buckle! Most people are almost appalled by this, “you went all that way for a belt buckle?” they usually say in disbelief. What they don’t and can’t realize is everything that buckle represents. That belt buckle represents the hours of training, it represents the doctors that told me my back was not good enough to do 100 miles, the sacrifices that my family and friends made to help me get to the finish line, the blisters and the tears, the amazing views at the top of Hope Pass, and the ultimate truth that ANYTHING is possible!