Two weekends ago, I had the opportunity to crew and pace a friend, Jeffrey, making his second attempt to run the Leadville Trail 100 race, aka LT100 or “The Race Across the Sky”. For those unfamiliar with LT100, it is a 100 mile race held annually that was first held in 1983. This would be the 33rd running of this scenic out and back race that starts and finishes in downtown Leadville, Colorado.
During the race, runners cross through the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The highlight of the race is the climb up to Hope Pass at 12,620 feet above sea level which one gets to experience twice! Racers run unsupported the first 50 miles. Pacers are only allowed on the second half of the race. Runners must complete the 100 miles in under 30 hours to be considered a finisher.
When describing the finishers, Abby Long of Life Time Fitness, the company that operates the race, once stated, “They look like death coming in.” The motto of the race says it all, it takes “Grit, Guts, and Determination”. Yet, runners and crews keep coming back year after year.
I now know why, or at least, why I want to come back and eventually run it. This race is about humanity. It’s about our relationship with our respective selves, with each other, and with the world around us – and sometimes the struggle between those.
That clarity started with another friend, Corky (@CorkyMillerSTL), jumping in and crewing at the last minute. Corky is an alumnus of this race. He has paced twice and ran once. He is also the person who got me into running. He would be the only person in our crew who had either paced or finished Leadville. Corky has done both. He’s a phenomenal runner and someone I adamantly admire – for his running and how he lives his life with deep integrity and commitment to family and friends.
By coincidence, we had scheduled to have breakfast on Wednesday, 3 days before the race and 1 day before I left for Leadville. I mentioned to him that I was headed to Leadville and leaving in 36 hours. I asked if he could share any advice. Within a few minutes, Corky had shifted from giving advice to deciding to cancel his weekend plans and head to the race with me. He would miss his anniversary (with his wife’s support) to help me and a person whom he has never met.
Corky was not alone in his commitment to the runners. Everything becomes about helping your runner cross the finish line. Sometimes that meant physically supporting him. It meant logistically support him, and other times it meant emotionally supporting him. There are effectively two avenues to support – aid stations and pacing. For the aid stations, every member of our crew, including Jeffrey’s mother-in-law who came over from Japan, was there to support him. We were prepared for whatever Jeffrey needed irrespective of whether he knew what it was that he needed. We swapped his camelbacks with fresh water, fuel, and salt pills as he came into each aid station, often without stopping. When Jeffrey arrived at Winfield Aid Station (mile 50), we removed his shoes and socks knowing that he crossed the river 7 miles earlier. These were quickly replaced.
Corky, John (Jeffrey’s business partner), and I all served as pacers. LT100 is unique in that it also allows pacers to carry their respective runner’s gear. So, we carried as much as possible whenever we were passing, such as headlamps, jackets, and fuel. The pacers are mule, cheerleader, drill sergeant, nutritionist, and time keeper. It is about thinking for your runner when he can not think beyond taking the next step.
As previously noted, being a pacer is about physical, logistical, and emotional support. This was most evident as a pacer. I had the chance to run 2 segments with Jeffrey as his pacer for a total of 24ish miles. The first section was 10.5 miles (mile 50 to 60.5) from Winfield to Twin Lakes. This is often considered the hardest segment of the race. This is the turnaround point and the start to climbing back up to 12,620 feet elevation at Hope Pass. This is a grit point. It’s either pull out of the race time or climb the damn mountain time. Jeffrey chose the latter.
This would be the farthest distance he had run. Managing his time up to Hope Pass and encouraging him to drink and fuel were my top priorities; however, it could not take a backseat to the awe in front of us – both the world below us and his commitment. At the top, runners are pleasantly greeted by a woman wrapped in warm coats as the temperature had dropped to below 40F. She was accompanied by a small generator, a Chronotracker, smiling words of encouragement for all, and an amazing view. It was hard to see the beauty come into view with every step. I felt part of my job as cheerleader was to ensure Jeffrey did not miss out.
From the top, we descended 800 feet to one of my favorite points – Hopeless Aid Station. How do you get water and supplies to 11,800 feet? Llamas, of course. Water is pulled from a stream, packed onto the llamas, and purified up at Hopeless. After the haul up to Hope, Jeffrey needed some time to recoup and fuel. It’s hard to do these while climbing; however, he came into Hopeless looking better than he did at Winfield. He was rehydrated and smiling. Back down from Hopeless and into Twin Lakes, we went.
Corky took the next segment from Twin Lakes to Outward Bound (fka Fish Hatchery) which totaled 16.5 miles. He pinned the needle with Jeffrey at times and helped reduce his time. Puking aside, this gave leeway in time for John and me to tackle the next two segments, including John and Corky climbing Powerline. John returned Jeffrey in great spirits and added even more time; however, he was spent.
We now had a little more than 13.5 miles to go of LT100. We had predicted this segment would take approximately 4 hours. If so, this would give Jeffrey 20 minutes to spare from the 30 hour cutoff. The first 3-4 miles, it was a combination shuffle and walk with an average pace in the mid-18s. My gut feel was that there was more left in his tank and that the sun rising would energize him. This was about supporting him. Frankly, at this point, I lied to Jeffrey about his pace and numerous facts. For example, I claimed he would have not finish on time if he didn’t pick up the pace. He would have finished with 10 minutes to spare based upon the mid-18s. When he asked for an energy gel to eat down the road, I “accidentally” opened it before handing it to him.
He picked up the pace after that a little bit. Something clicked at mile 5 though, and we were off to the races.
Jeffrey became a damn machine. We started passing runners and their pacers in handfuls. At one point, a pacer and runner started running with us. Jeffrey was in lead, and I was behind him. This pair was behind me with their pacer screaming words of encouragement. “We are a g*d damn freight train. CHOOO-CHOOO!! Roll on, mother f*ckers!” Leading this pack did something for Jeffrey, and he dropped the hammer.
I looked down at our pace. We were sub-10 min/miles. We clocked miles 95 & 96 at around 8:43 min/miles. We were flying and had already dropped the runners trailing us. As we ran past more people, I distinctly remember a female runner asking her pacer, “How the hell are they doing that?”
With less than four miles to the finish, I had to call our crew. We were coming in well ahead of time, but I didn’t know how much ahead. Unfortunately, I caught them at breakfast. They hadn’t received all of their food yet. Regardless, it’s about the runner. Food was abandoned, check was paid, and they were out the door to be there. He had completed the final segment in 2 hours 51 minutes 38 seconds (2:51:38). He slaughtered the expectation of 4 hours.
finished with a time of 28 hours, 27 minutes, 19 seconds (28:27:19) to claim his first Leadville Trail 100 Finish with his wife by his side. This was her race, too, after a year of supporting and nourishing him.(Endurance sports are a selfish sport. Period. No discussion.) His crew was there to cheer him on.
Yet, we were not anything special in our commitment. (We did have the best driver, though.) Every crew operated in the same manner with their runners. And it extends past the crews. Like many, including the elites who had finished the previous day and most of the town, we waited around to see the remaining runners cross the finish line over the next 1.5 hours. Jeffrey finished 162 of 313 finishers. Another 161 runners would cross the finish line before the shotgun blast signaling the 30 hours cut off. This includes Rui Pedras, whom I have never met.
Rui came in at 29:46:56 for spot 307. What amazed me about his run was the last 150 yards. Every single step of the last 150 yards was heartbreaking. He could barely maintain keeping himself upright. It required the use of hiking poles that were splayed out at 90 degrees from each other. His legs would cross as he took steps. He looked like a first-time skier. Mental and physical exhaustion had pushed him to the brink.
The crowd was there every second cheering and encouraging a person whom they don’t know. He surged on their volume and words. It may have taken him nearly 20 minutes to cover the 150 yards, but he made it.
There’s something about seeing someone struggle, never giving up, and gritting down. There’s something about seeing strangers cheer and energize the spirit of someone they have never met and will probably never see again. It’s the commitment of one’s self, the crew’s to the runner, and the town to this race and its human endeavor against and with nature. It is the “Grit, Guts, and Determination” of all on display with humility and pride.
That is the essence and the spirit of Leadville – the race and the town. And that is why I will return.
I previously stated that it was an opportunity to be involved. The reality is that it was more than that. It was a gift and blessing. LT100 has the potential to be life-changing if one lets it. For me, it was that, and that is not a phrase I use casually.
For more information about the race and this year’s results, check out the following: