I started drafting this blog post on the Monday following the Leadville Trail 100 Race. I felt I owed it to myself and everyone who supported me. Thankfully, I did not finish the draft or publish it. It has taken until now (more than 2 weeks later) to come to the point of digesting all that happened.
“You’re broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry-go-round
And you can’t find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains”
Andra Day, “Rise Up”
For more the 18 months, I wrote in my 5-minute journal nearly every day. It ended with that day’s affirmation. The affirmation has concluded with “I will crush Leadville in X days” except on August 18, 2018. On that day, it ended with “I will crush Leadville today.”
The last two weeks have been detoxification. It’s physiological detoxification from coming off an adrenaline drip for 29:49:39. It’s emotional detoxification for achieving a goal that was created more than three years ago when committed to Jeffrey to pace him. It affirmed a place in my heart when I pulled into Leadville for the first time. It lodged itself into my marrow when I watched Rui Pedras cross the finish line in 2015 with 13 minutes to spare.
I have never met Rui. I probably never will. We live an ocean apart. Yet, I learned something about him as he fell from side to side on his trekking poles. He does not quit. He taught me that strength comes from the something primal in each of us. We have to want it. We have to drive it out with every molecule of oxygen exhaled. It does not care about elevation, fatigue, or circumstances.
I often thought about Rui and his finish during the race. It was a necessity because I felt broken after 2016. I had done the work. I had spent time and energy with some of the best trainers, runners, doctors, and therapists available. The list includes Jay Dicharry at Rebound Physical Therapy, Dr. Oliver and Jeremy Dunbarr at Bluetail Medical, Dr. Matthew Lytle at Precision Health, Jeff Huse at Athletes Unlimited, and Rob Krar at his ultrarunning camp weeks before the race. All of this had prepared me for the race. I could not fathom how much would test me and attempt to break me before the starting gun went off. I felt that I was faking it going into this race.
It’s important to put into perspective something Corky Miller, a friend and LT100 finisher, once said to me. “Leadville is harder than most 100-mile races. It finds a tiny chink in the armor and hammers down on it. Relentlessly and unapologetically.” I experienced this in 2016 with the torn hamstring.
Five weeks before the race, the wheels started falling off. I sprained my right ankle. It happened in the final quarter mile of the last run at Rob Krar Ultra Camp (RKUC). It was entirely my fault and occurred due to my excitement. That run was the finality of an incredible week that turned strangers into family. I was practically dancing downhill and took one misstep. I finished the run but knew something was wrong.
Dr. Lytle quickly rehabilitated me, but I was not sure it would be enough. It was days before the race when the ankle felt almost normal. By the start of the race, I was back to normal and never struggled from the sprain other than some rocked confidence. Unfortunately, I was not thinking about my ankle at the start of the race. It ended up being something worse that would plague the first 10 hours of the race.
I slept well the night before the race. When I awoke, everything seemed normal until some stomach cramping began. I incorrectly attribued the GI distress to nerves. It would rear itself multiple times during the race.
In 2016, I felt I did not belong in the race. It was entirely a self-confidence issue that led to a host of other issues during that race. I would not repeat that this time. I pushed my way to the front and crossed the line in a fraction of the previous time. My race started as planned. Things were smooth sailing as I completed the first five miles that took me out of town.
After the five miles leading out of town, the course has 7+ miles around Turquoise Lake that leads racers to May Queen, the first aid station. I love this section with its rolling hills and beautiful view of the lake. It embodies a feeling of familiarity since it reminds me of the trails here in Missouri. This is despite being the section where I suffered a torn hamstring in 2016. It’s also the section that I paced in 2015 and had my runner doing sub-9 minute miles to finish his race.
All was well until mile 8. The theory of pre-race jitters was replaced by the reality of food poisoning from the previous day’s lunch. It caused frequent stops. More important, it set off a chain reaction that significantly reduced my fuel consumption.
In most ultras, I plan to consume around 250-300 calories per hour. This amount is typical and safe for most runners despite burning up to 800 calories per hour. Consuming too few calories causes a runner to bonk and run out of energy. Consuming too many calories causes a runner to have cramps or worse. The blood rushes to the stomach to deal with the overabundance of food which induces nausea or worse.
I would consume a fraction of the typical amount thanks to the food poisoning. Over the 30 hours, I should have consumed around 7500-8000 calories. The estimate is that I took in approximately 3000 calories or about 100 calories per hour. That downward estimate does not factor in what I returned to the trail gods. Please do not ask what this explicitly means for the sake of the children. Search Google for “what happens when you get food poisoning?”.
My saving grace ended up being Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem. I had trained on this, and it was gentle enough that I could digest it without issues. Most of my calories came from Perpetuem. (Disclaimer: I am a Hammer Sponsored Athlete. I am not required to mention them. I tried this product because they sponsored me. If I had not, I am not sure if I would have finished.)
Two miles after the first GI issues, I ran into another problem. The lake and accompanying winds caused the temperatures to fluctuate. I am usually able to adapt to it; however, it was occurring too fast. The electrolyte and GI stresses made adapting difficult. Either from to the electrolyte imbalance or due to an appearance by my friend MS, I spent the next 2 minutes in unadulterated pain. My brain was smacked with waves of electrical shocks (aka brain zaps).
I had mentally prepared for this. I struggled with something similar years earlier at Clinton Lake Ultra. I had visualized how I would respond should this happen again. I had run this play in my head a hundred times. My thoughts cycled through three thoughts – my family, Rui, and gratitude that I am one of those with MS still able to run. Rinse. Repeat.
I came into May Queen at mile 13 in much better spirits than I expected despite multiple GI stops and the brain zaps. I did not show it. The crew would later tell me that I was different this year. I did not chat with them much. I was focused. Unfortunately, my state of focus visually represents itself as being an asshole. I decided to postpone a change of clothes. It was either my state or the need to chase cutoffs that caused my crew to rush me out of aid stations beginning with that one.
The miles from May Queen to Outward Bound were fun with minimal challenges to report except the ongoing GI issues. Hagerman Pass brought back smiles from 2016 when I was begging my wife to bring me painkillers so I could finish. I was aggressively cautious coming down Powerline after the sprained ankle from RKUC. As I watched another runner unsuccessfully test his ability to fly, I wondered if my sprained ankle was karma teaching me a lesson before the race.
The crew was able to turn me around at Outward Bound quickly. The next section is the one I hate more than any other. It’s a mile through the field of a ranch. It’s tedious and dangerous. The grass makes seeing the ground surface nearly impossible. It’s too easy to take a misstep and prematurely end the day with a twisted ankle or worse. This section also leads out to 2 miles on the road.
Road sections mentally slaughter me. I started running on trails because the road is boring. The emptiness of thoughts leaves my mind to contemplate my capabilities and count mileages. The defeating thoughts of my inner child (aka Fatty Matty) come alive. Also, I hate running next to cars most of which are piloted by mobile phone comatose drivers. Before heading to the next official aid station, I was able to connect with the crew and try to get down some real food.
I made it into Half Pipe with more than an hour before the cutoff. I burned a bunch of this time dealing with GI issues. This was the first time that I worried if I would need to drop from it. I could only run for a short period before getting sick again. I spent an excessive amount of time here hoping to settle my stomach. That investment in time led to a near race ending misstep. I left with a nearly empty hydration vest.
Three miles out of Half Pipe with more than 5 miles to go, my hydration vest was bone dry. I did not have enough time to return to Half Pipe. I decided to push forward despite the rising temperatures. This risky decision was stupid and forced a lesson in personal growth.
I hate asking people for help. It was a struggle to ask people to support the fundraiser. This deficiency can come across as egotistical or a sense of being better than others. The reality is drastically different. I never want the other to think or feel my friendship, love, affection, etc. come with strings attached. I still have never asked my crew to help me with Leadville. I can only hope I make up for this with gratitude towards them.
I broke down and asked a stranger for any extra fluid. A racer named Scott had the same hydration vest as mine, and he left with the back hydration container plus two frontloading bottles. He was able to share one of the frontloaded bottles. That provided enough water to get me through to an ad-hoc water-only station barely. I had forgotten about this station. To Scott, I owe you. You saved my race and my dream.
As I arrived at Twin Lakes, the GI issues had become less violent. I was still unable to consume the necessary calories per hour. With time to spare, I decided to change clothes and address a new issue – blisters. I have not had blisters in almost six years despite thousands of miles. The race had not hit the water crossings yet. Courtney attempted to treat them; however, it was too late. Calluses had already covered the blisters. (Have I ever mentioned how sexy and classy ultramarathoners are? No! Because we aren’t.)
Twin Lakes is where the race really begins. The previous forty miles were foreplay in pain and struggle. The rumor is that more people drop here than any other point in the race. It’s the climb up Hope Pass to the peak of 12,600 feet. Because this was not enough (and for supposed logistical ease), the course was changed in 2017. The change added miles to this section and increased the overall distance of the 100-mile race.
I struggled with this section in 2016 and needed to negative split the return. I was committed to not becoming a victim to it again. The lower water levels helped as I made my way across the field to the climb. My pace was excellent, and I was on my projected times to this point. As I climbed Hope Pass, I ran across its first victim. A runner was hobbling back down the mountain. He had broken his foot. He did not want aid and was in no mood to discuss the circumstances.
I arrived at the turn around point with time to spare. I picked up my first pacer, Jeffrey Stukuls. Jeffrey and I were the combo that negative split this section in 2016. We did not need to repeat that feat, but we also could not relax. The lack of calories began to limit my capabilities at this point.
My body was betraying me, and it was dragging my mind with it. I mentally and emotionally began to check out of the race. I was on the verge of praying for a DNF. I swore we had no chance of completing the race as other runners passed us. In 2016, I was passing people. The difference amplified my emotional state. As my pacer, Jeffrey was left to deal with the broken me.
We arrived back at Twin Lakes with eleven minutes before the cutoff. I needed to cross the chip sensor before 10:00 PM. It was a split decision whether to sit down and change shoes. The other option was to change them out on the trail after crossing the chip sensor. We opted for the former, and I chipped with less than seven minutes to spare.
The mere act of sitting and changing shoes revitalized me. I also picked up a new pacer, Corky. Corky knows LT100 better than anyone I know, and he knows this section better than any other section. It’s why he has paced me on this section both attempts. It’s also why we only lost 15 minutes from the trampled course marker that took us off course. Corky and I began to start passing people. We dealt with rain and sleet. I could not hold my core temperature and had to resort to wearing a jacket.
In the end, we picked up more than forty minutes before the next cutoff. That set the next pacer and me up for success on the section that killed my 2016 buckle.
My pacer changed to Noah Lander. Noah and I left Outward Bound headed for Powerline with plenty of time. I still was not wasting any time in aid stations to rest. Noah made me commit to something I had feared before now. He made me commit to saying, “I will finish Leadville this year.” When I would be on the verge of breaking, he would force me to say it. We started passing people again.
Powerline is measured by its false summits. The true summit is a sight to be seen thanks to its unofficial aid station. It is informally referred to as Space Station. The name is apropos given the volunteer students and Colorado’s liberal laws. It was also a welcome sight for this runner. I had taste fatigue. The hope was that a change of good would help me to keep the food down. I had not done such in nearly 10 miles.
Noah grabbed some potato chips. It was a successful plan for about 10 minutes. The potato chips returned to the trail. I went nearly dead on the inside. It was in this moment that Noah said something that clicked. “Shut your brain off. Zombie run this in.”
I am not sure why those words resonated. Maybe it was the permission to shut down my brain. Perhaps it was the permission to only focus on the present moment and not worry about the future. Sometimes being a pacer is about knowing what to say at the right time. Noah nailed it, and I still don’t fully understand why that worked.
As I returned to May Queen, it hit me that this would be the first time I would leave May Queen headed towards the town. I did not get the chance to take those steps in 2016. Those steps would need to wait though as food poisoning schedule a meeting with me and a porta potty.
Jeffrey and I left with four hours to cover 12.5 miles. This distance was doable given my strength despite my fuel issues. We unknowingly began to slow down. In the first two hours, we covered less than five miles. We were completely unaware and still believed we were on pace to finish. We even passed another runner who asked why we were running (which was really fast walking) given the “abundance of time we have left.” Jeffrey got the slowest and worst of me on the trail.
I spared almost no expense with Leadville this year. One of the additions was the Garmin inReach Mini Satellite GPS. The device was uploading my GPS data every ten minutes. They could see that we were off pace and the finish was severely at risk. They made an executive decision to send Corky and Noah to meet up with us. If they had waited an additional ten minutes for the next GPS push, it would have been too late.
“My new year’s resolution, yeah
Is to choke out my illusions, yeah
And cut through the confusion, yeah
Oh, keep on digging deep, keep digging deep
Keep digging deep, keep digging”
Nothing More, “Don’t Stop”
Corky met up and began to get us back on pace. Even in my delirious state, I would see him calculating the pace and the remaining distance. He was running/shuffling by my side despite wearing corduroy pants. As we exited the woods around Turquoise Lake, I began to lean to the right. My right obliques and right hamstring turned off. I could not activate these muscles.
Corky took over at this point. We had five miles to go with a significant amount of uphill. This same section seemed so alive and optimistic twenty-nine hours ago. It was now demoralizing and transmuting into a dream killer. We moved along for what seemed like forever. At one point, we caught up with Matt Stevens, a crew member.
Matt is the brother of one of my closest friends, Josh. Matt resides in Colorado and had joined the crew to spend time with his brother. A man I barely knew had started at the finish line that morning. He ran the course in reverse to meet us. He did this to provide the exact distance we had to go – 1.9 miles.
It was at this time that Corky asked me if I wanted this – if I wanted to finish or not. I am still not entirely sure I answered the question.
His next statement was that I was no longer in charge. I had to promise to do what he said. If he said run, I ran as best as I could. If he said walk, I did that the best I could. It did not matter. It just mattered that I did what I was told from now until thirty hours.
The last (and first) mile of the race is on the streets of Leadville. It is a rolling hill with the finish line visible from the top. In 2015, I watched dreams die as the race finished with people visible from afar on the top of those rolling hills. It’s too easy to think the race is over when the finish is within sight. Corky is well aware of this phenomenon.
He pushed me to continue running when I could. The video shows me with my hand on his left shoulder. I could not walk straight anymore due to the lean. It did not help that my vision was starting to deteriorate. He was not pulling me. He was guiding me to run straight. He was pointing me to the finish.
For the first time, I truly believed I was going to finish. The point hit me when I saw Rob Krar and his wife Christina Bauer cheering me on. It’s something that will ring in my heart forever.
Everyone kept shouting how Courtney was waiting for me. With the volume of people and emotions, I could not find her. When I finally did, Corky hugged me one last time. We uttered words that will remain between us. Just know that I love that man more than words can ever express. His guidance in my life has and continues to have a profound impact on my mission, my family, and my future.
Corky sent me to Courtney. From there, the video says it all. We crossed the finish line together at 29:49:39. I had less than 10.5 minutes to spare. As our family mission statement says, I “maximized life and potential.” I also maximized my time.
Ultra running, like any endurance sport, is a selfish endeavor. It takes time away from family and friends. I have a slight excuse with my multiple sclerosis. Trail running for long distances has helped me adapt and deal with neurological stress and visual response challenges that commonly plague those with MS.
Courtney asked me on the plane ride home if I wished I had a picture of only me crossing the finish line. I could not imagine any finish other than the one I had. She has been my partner for 25 years. The day I crossed the finish line was the 25th anniversary of our first date.
The finish line was merely the closing of the first quarter century together. I want her by my side and running with me for as long as she will have me. I just hope my friends are by my side to make me a strong and good enough person for her.
Here is the crew that made this happen: (alphabetically by last name) Paul Bastean, Noah Lander, Jon Lauer, Craig McElroy, Corky Miller, Ryan Mortland, Misa Ono, Courtney Porter, Todd Rausch, Jay Steinback, Josh Stevens, Matt Stevens, Jeffrey Stukuls, Holly Turner, and Krister Ungerboeck (the dinosaur).
Finally, I want to thank everyone who followed along at home and for everyone who contributed to the Fundraiser. We raised almost $50k for Race to Erase MS. The mere fact that every mile was worth so much mattered in the darkest moments. Even zombies care.
Also published on Medium.