Race Across the Sky - Page 2
Of the 800 registrants, 551 men and 96 women started the race on August 21st. Photo by Rob O'dea.
At a steady and relaxed pace, I round the sparsely treed, rocky doubletrack leading over 11,000-foot-high Sugar Loaf Pass overlooking Turquoise Lake, then hit the road leading to Fish Hatchery Aid Station (mile 23.5), feeling strong and confident. “Beats being home doing laundry, doesn’t it, hon?” yells a woman from the thick crowd lining the road. I smile, knowing there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now. Being a mom has its rewards, but training for this race had given me an excuse to keep running a priority. And, happily, I discovered that running consistently gave me more energy and enthusiasm for my family.
“You’re doing great, pumpkin!” Rob shouts, using the nickname that has stuck since the pregnancy. He has looked forward to this day as much as I have, never once resenting my training time.
It was hard to believe that a year ago, job loss and financial worries strained our marriage until we completely avoided the subject of money and, over time, each other. But since weathering the worst, our relationship had become stronger. And today we are a team focused on the single, straightforward task of getting me to the finish line. I grab some chips and peck Rob on the cheek. “Thank you for being here, love,” I whisper.
On the mostly flat doubletrack traversing the base of 14,440-foot-high Mount Elbert, the highest of Colorado’s “Fourteeners,” I find myself surrounded by a pack of men almost my father’s age. “Have you done this race before?” asks a lanky gentleman named Lou.
“First time,” I reply proudly.
“You’re holding a strong pace,” says Lou. But I get the impression he’s really trying to say, “Better slow down, sister. You have no idea what you’re in for.” I wonder if I am going too fast. However, a swift systems check tell me that my breathing is easy, legs feel fresh and stomach is fine.
“I didn’t finish here in 2008 on account of the weather,” Lou continues with a slight southern twang. “It was raining, hailing, snowing, everything you can imagine. And then last year, it was so hot even Tony Krupicka didn’t finish,” he says, referring to the two-time winner’s do-or-die mission to surpass Matt Carpenter’s long-standing course record of 15:42:59. Tony dropped out at mile 78 due in part to uncharacteristic 90-degree heat. He was back this year in what many expected would be an exciting race between him, 2008 Leadville champion Duncan Callahan of Gunnison, Colorado, and Ashland, Oregon’s Hal Koerner, who was back in Leadville after four years.
Lou’s comments remind me that ultrarunning success doesn’t come to those who underestimate the distance or overestimate themselves. I’d often been told that running a hundred is three times harder than running a 50-miler. “The race doesn’t begin until the return trip through Twin Lakes. Before that, your only priorities should be nutrition and hydration,” ultrarunning legend Roch Horton told me a few weeks before the race. Lou and I had yet to reach Twin Lakes for the first time, marking 39.5 miles on the out-and-back course. By Horton’s advice, that meant we had yet another 20 miles (and over 6000 feet of ascent and descent) before beginning the 40-mile “race” to the finish.
After running many of the early miles, I look forward to the “break” of hiking five miles along the shady, forested section of the Colorado Trail that ascends 3300 feet to Hope Pass. Oddly, the hike feels harder than it should, and, by the time I reach treeline, still several hundred feet below the pass, my legs are rubber and heart is thundering. I pause to catch my breath. When I raise my head, I see three large, brown shaggy beasts grazing in a lush alpine meadow. My foggy brain struggles to process the scene. Bear? Not the right shape. Cattle? No, this isn’t the Alps. Of course! They’re the llamas used to transport supplies to the Hopeless Aid Station, where volunteers in bright yellow T-shirts swarm around a cluster of tents and a camp kitchen, comprised of a folding table topped with bags of chips and cookies next to hissing gas stoves with simmering soup pots.
After refilling my hydration pack and grabbing a few cookies, I resume my slow, oxygen-deprived trek up a series of switchbacks crowded with two-way traffic as frontrunners Duncan and 2008 runner-up, Zeke Tiernan, zoom by with their pacers. (Race leader, Tony Krupicka, had shot past about an hour earlier.)
Shouting words of encouragement proves to be a great distraction from the pain in my legs. “Looking good, Dan!” I say to Dan Dehlin, an accomplished ultrarunner who works for Vasque, doing his first 100.
“Hey, great job, El!” says his pacer, Brian Hall, giving me a hug. All three of us relish the brief excuse to stop moving, even if only for a moment.
“Keep up the great work, Hal!” I say to the two-time Western States 100 champion. “Just surviving,” he replies solemnly. Surprised to see him so far back in the field, I later learn that a mis-marked trail intersection near Twin Lakes had sent Hal and several race leaders on a lengthy detour that bumped him from second to 45th place.
By the time I reach the bottom of Hope Pass and follow the road to Winfield Aid Station, nothing can take my mind off how lousy I feel.
Mysterious phenomena can happen while running 100 miles. Runners may hallucinate, fall asleep on their feet and or lose all the skin on the soles of their feet. My affliction? I have “cankles.” The weigh in at Winfield shows I have gained four pounds. Losing weight due to dehydration is normal, but gaining four pounds? Weird.
Sari and Rob refill my hydration pack, bring me food and give me a pep talk, and, too soon, shoo me out of the station. Over the next four and a half hours, my pacer, Sari, has her work cut out for her. Each step back up Hope Pass is barely a foot in length, and I stop every few minutes to catch my breath. I am bonking so hard it takes all my willpower plus Sari’s relentless prodding to keep me moving. No stranger to pain, Sari, a professional adventure racer, had lost eight toenails during Primal Quest Utah and endured a hellacious bout of food poisoning at the Wulong Mountain Quest in China, but still placed third against a world-class field. While she could sympathize with my pain, she squelches my self pity.
This time at Hopeless Aid Station, I sit shivering under a blue-tarp lean-to, sipping a cup of hot broth while a physical therapist massages my cramping quads. “I feel awful, Sari,” I say. “I don’t think I can keep going.”
“Well, I’m not going to carry you off this mountain and neither are these llamas, so you’ll just have to get yourself down to Twin Lakes,” she replies. “We’ll worry about the rest later.”
A half hour into the downhill trek, I actually begin enjoying myself again. I hike faster. Then I hear a duck quacking. Am I hallucinating?
Sari pulls out her phone. “She’s doing awesome, Joy—she’s passing people!” she reports to our frequent running buddy back home in Carbondale.
A few minutes before reaching Twin Lakes Aid Station, Sari runs ahead to give a heads up to Rob and our friend, Todd Kennedy, who finished Leadville on his second attempt in 2003 and came to assist with crewing and pacing.
“OK, boys, El’s right behind me. She’s gonna need a change of clothes, dry socks and some blisters patched—let’s move!”
“Yeah!” The guys cheer and leap into action, relieved to hear that, despite being way behind my projected pace, I am not about to give up.
Jogging along the tiny town’s streets lined with encouraging spectators, my eyes well with tears. I can do this. I am doing this. It’s what I’ve trained for.
I spot my dad, who has Reed in the kid carrier. My son’s face lights up when we make eye contact and I run over to stroke his blonde hair and kiss his forehead. Yearnings to cuddle my baby clash with an urgency to change clothes, eat food and keep running.
As Rob, Todd and Sari swarm around me, my mom squirms, fighting the urge to swoop in and help. She stands to the side, concerned. Reed cries. My chest clenches. The ruckus becomes disorienting. I don’t want to leave my family, but I have to get away from this chaos! I rise and head toward the trail in silence, my words of love and gratitude stuck in my throat.
At this point, I have no chance of finishing in less than my goal of 25 hours, and can’t help but feel disappointed. I work on refocusing on just finishing before the 30-hour cutoff, which was always the primary goal.
As night falls, so does my pace. Sari and I are barely moving but it’s the same for everyone around us. Every few minutes, a runner and his pacer charges past like a freight train and I envy their energy until, several minutes later, when we see the same runner seated on the ground, holding his head in his hands. For hours we leapfrog several racer-and-pacer pairs in this manner.
It’s going to be a very long night.