Tears are a strange and powerful thing. How bizarre that the seemingly impenetrable veils behind our eyes should momentarily be suspended, allowing our emotions free-reign to liquify on the very public posterboards our cheeks. Before I started trail running, I could count the number of times this phenomenon had occurred for me on a few lonely fingers. Now that I’ve stepped into the unexpectedly emotional world of ultras, I’ve yet to go over 26 miles without happening upon a facial waterfall. The Leadville 100 was no exception.
Attempting to construct the story of this journey’s culmination has proven to be most difficult. For one, the 100 still doesn’t seem real in my mind. Both leading up to and during the race, I refused to let my mind think about the idea of 100 miles in all of its imposing totality. The second I attempted to do so, my psyche began to shutdown thanks to the overwhelming nature of what lay ahead. Thus, race day became a day of mini races, composed of running from one aid station to the next. Mentally, I never ran more than 13 miles on August 18/19, 2017. My mind seems to be holding onto this mentality even now, refusing me the option to look upon the whole of what happened even as it sits safely shrouded in history.
Second, what took place at Leadville seems to transcend anything I can throw words at. How do you describe the feeling of the start line at 4am, surrounded by 600 similarly crazed individuals, knowing the adventure of your life is about to begin? How do you bring to life the comfort of pulling into aid station after aid station, every time being welcomed by the folks you love most who are ready to hug you and encourage you and care for the blisters that refuse to stop growing on your feet? What combination of consonants and vowels even comes close to conveying that ethereal moment of crossing the finish line and all that means and stands for? If I could go back and show you the tears, I think I could help you understand. Perhaps, then, we’ll try to combine those tears with words and see how far we can go.
As tradition would have, I slept fitfully the night before race day. And while the morning was strangely warm compared to the past 4 weeks I’d spent in Leadville, I could do little to control my shaking body as the nerves & excitement took over my veins. Unable to believe it was actually here, I loaded up my vest, strapped down my shoes, and prayed with my buddy Adam who’d be there to pace me from miles 93 – 100… should my body make it that far.
Every step we took towards the start line brought the weight of what lay ahead more firmly into reality. And my oh my what a beautiful walk to the start line it was. The stars were out in full force, the air was crisp & cool – laced with those special spices only the mountains can provide – and I was greeted with the warmest of hugs from 4 camp friends who had flown up and slept in the parking lot of the hospital the night before.
The starting line might be my favorite part of any race day. For a few short minutes, the newly forged family is gathered in one place. 4am of August 18, 2017 in Leadville, CO was no different. Hugs were exchanged, old friends reunited, the stands packed with family members and loved ones just as wired as the 600 folks gathered down on 6th St. In the midst of the masses, I was reunited with a few dear friends who were there at the beginning of my love affair with trail running, providing a full-circle feel to the journey. I embraced them as race founder Ken Chlouber came on over the speakers for a few last inspiring words. “You’re stronger then you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.”
And in that moment, enveloped in the collective of this family, all the memories rushed into my heart. First reading of Leadville 7 years ago and thinking “100 miles?! Who the heck could ever do that?” Running my first race in Leadville and falling in love with the sport and the community. Earning a slot in the race so many moons ago. Training in thunderstorms, on dirt roads, next to snakes and wild boar. Becoming deep friends with so many wonderful people who make up the trail running family. Falling to the deep, dark valley when my knee refused to work and community seemed so very far away. The knee healing. Being picked up by community, being loved & supported, trying desperately to get ready with my back up against the timeline wall. Living in Leadville, befriending many, seeing so much of my family gathered in this one place for this one goal.
I looked around me, drinking deeply of the pure joy that moment offered. The long-awaited dream was solidifying into reality, and the first tears fell.
The first 39.5 miles all went according to plan. Outside of some lateral soreness in my quads and a strangely elevated heart rate (likely from nerves, I’m guessing), every part of my body felt great. I was conservative yet still well under any sort of cutoff worries. Nutrition & hydration were rolling along perfectly. Aid station transitions were going smoothly as my all-star team put every Nascar pit-crew to shame. I pulled into the Twin Lakes aid station around 12:15 happy as a lark, and the aid station only bolstered my spirits. Set in a tiny town next to a stunning mountain vista, Twin Lakes turns into a raging running party on race day, and a runner can’t help but feel like they’re on top of the world when they pull on in.
I took a nice break with my crew and glanced up towards what lay ahead – the climb up Hope Pass, the crux of the Leadville 100. 3000 ft. of climbing and descending was waiting over the course of the next 10ish miles, and I was stoked out of my mind. Herein lay what I felt was right in my wheelhouse – climbing on gorgeous singletrack. I had already done this stretch in training with my buddy Lelis, and I told my crew I’d hopefully see them at the turnaround point in Winfield in 4 hours.
I could not have been more wrong. As I started the climb, a strange phenomenon came over me. I was hot! I kid you not when I say I had not felt even so much as warm once during my 4 week stay in Leadville. But now, the past month’s bizarre weather system had broken, and the sun made sure each & every one of us felt its presence.
As my body temperature continued to rise, my determined hike devolved into a painstakingly slow trudge. For the first time all day, I felt not just bad, but pretty darn terrible. I prayed for cloud cover. And the Lord delivered… just not quite in the way I was expecting. As I finally made it to the clearing before the pass, the clouds and their henchmen winds came in with a fury. I noticed a strange glint on my jacket and puzzlingly glanced down. It definitely wasn’t hot anymore – ice pellets were collecting on my sleeves and pinging off my cheeks.
I pulled under the cover of the Hope Pass aid station, a place that deserves a whole essay in & of itself. Here, well above 12,000 ft., several hardy men & women hike up tents and supplies on the backs of nearly a dozen llamas all to ride out the weather and care for the hundreds of crazy runners coming to that spellbinding spot. The wind whipped the sides of the tent as I downed some of the mashed potatoes they were furiously and miraculously cooking. A few minutes later, I stepped back into the elements for the final push. It wasn’t long before the sun broke through once more and my trashed legs were finally standing on 12,500 ft. summit. I took stock of my body and looked out towards Leadville’s tiny imprint on the awe-inspiring horizon. Then, my legs let out a massive protest. My quads were toast, my glutes were on fire, and thousands of feet of descent on technical singletrack was staring me right in the face.
That descent wrecked anything left within me. The state of my legs continued to deteriorate, and with 2.5 miles left to the turnaround point at the ghost town of Winfield, my legs completely gave up. It was a heartbreaking stretch. As hard as I tried, I could not get my legs to respond to the “run freaking run!” command my mind was sending to them over & over & over again. As I pulled my body over the singletrack, the clock suddenly became a massive factor. What I thought would be a 4 hour journey tops was turning into a 5.5 hour death march. A new reality started to take hold of my mind – I wouldn’t make the cutoff at mile 59.5. I was resolute that I would not drop out of this race, that they’d have to pull me off the trail before I let my own body beat me. But this reality set in with crippling certainty. I couldn’t get my legs to run. And in that state, there was no way I’d get back up & over Hope Pass before I turned into another one of the 300 DNF’s.
I finally came into Winfield with every hope vanquished. My cousin & crew chief Shelley met me as I emerged from the woods, ready as always to give me a hug. And as my defeated body collapsed into hers, the last struggling heartbeat of the dream passed into oblivion. A new reality set in as I sobbed into her shoulder.
Here, when all hope was more than lost, the incalculable power of the human factor took over. Had I been alone in this race, I’m certain I would’ve been cut on the return to Twin Lakes. But my crew refused to give up. With 50 minutes to go until they closed down Winfield and refused anyone the chance to head back up Hope Pass, my crew sat me down, fed me, treated my feet, believed in me, and breathed life back into my broken body.
20 minutes later, I headed back up Hope Pass with my first pacer of the day, Laura. What took place next felt nothing short of a miracle. Somehow, someway, energy was brought back to every inch of my body, and we moved with renewed vigor back up Hope Pass. Having just come out of the worst 10 miles of the entire race, the ensuing 10 turned into the best I had throughout the experience. We passed folks left and right and crested the summit as the sun was beginning to set before dropping back down into Twin Lakes with a fury.
Just 3.5 hours after we had left Winfield, Laura and I pulled into Twin Lakes, a full hour ahead of the cut-off. As the glow of my headlamp led me to the crewing point, I spotted Shelley ready to pull me in. I collapsed into her arms once more and felt the now familiar warmth coming down my cheeks. But this time, these tears meant something starkly different. This time, I cried because I knew the dream was going to come true.
The remaining 40 miles were honestly pretty darn fun. The stars shone furiously above the shadowy outlines of the mountains as we powered onwards from aid station to aid station, gaining a few more minutes on the clock with every leg we completed. Pringles, ramen, and mashed potatoes have never tasted so good as they did at 3am at 10,000ft.
With roughly 10 miles to go, the sun rose once more over Turquoise Lake in the exact same spot I had been 24 hours earlier – a strange phenomenon indeed. Those last couple hours felt strangely… normal? Everything felt right, felt smooth, felt quite like home.
And then, with all the normalcy of tying your shoes, Adam & I made the final turn back onto 6th St. The sun covered that final rolling mile in golden light as more of the crew joined me for the final push. As the cheering from the crowd began to enter my ears, the normalcy began to leave and I was reminded of what was about to happen. There, in plain sight, lay the gateway of the finish line. There stood the Leadville family of Bill, Rick, Bec, Ken. There stood my camp family, my literal family, friends who have become family. There stood the spot that 50 miles earlier was lost with utmost certainty. There stood the culmination of this insane, unexpected, wonderful journey.
I pulled out what my legs had left and ran across that line. 28 hours and 42 minutes later, the dream was finally realized. And for one more time, the happiest of tears fell.
And there you have it. Thanks to countless folks who’ve encouraged, taught and challenged me over the years, thanks to a crew that didn’t give up and pacers who pushed me, thanks to a family that supports me, thanks to a God who never lets go, the dream came true.
But the hard thing about dreams is that, sooner or later, you wake up. You have to move on. You find yourself standing on the banks of an ocean you dared to hope you’d one day reach and are faced with that most terrifying of questions: What now?
I don’t know. And for a few weeks, that was tremendously hard to deal with. But I’m learning to embrace the freedom found therein, to let my mind wander and dream anew, to take what Leadville taught me and use it in the best ways I can.
And just what did Leadville teach me? That as cool as a race itself can be, it’s all about the people. That you’ve gotta stop and talk with the people around you and learn their story, whether that’s in the coffee shop or at the starting line. That trail running is all about family, and that’s what makes it so freaking awesome. That on our own we’re finite, but with the love & support of those we love at our backs, anything is possible. That you need to chase your dreams down, because maybe, just maybe, they’ll come true.
In addition to all the thanks I owe to the folks who got me to the finish line, I owe thanks to Coldplay for the title / framework of this entry. If you’re looking for a sweet video to pick up your day, check it out below.