Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 Leadville Trail 100 Run. If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.

The Race:

For anyone not familiar with the Leadville Trail 100 run, let me introduce you.  The LT100 starts in the town of Leadville, Colorado, which is the highest incorporated town in North America at 10,200 feet above sea level.  The course starts in downtown Leadville at 4:00 am and runs out into the mountains for 50 miles.  It covers paved roads, dirt roads, fire roads, single track, and lots and lots of rocks.  Along the way it climbs to over 11,000 feet at Sugar Loaf Mountain before descending over the next 20 miles to the low point of the race at 9,200 feet in the village of Twin Lakes at mile 40.  From there it climbs from 9,200 feet to 12,600 feet in 4.5 miles before descending to the 50 mile mark in Winfield at just over 10,000 feet.  Then, you turn around and do the entire thing again.  All of it in less than 30 hours.  16,000 feet of elevation gain and 16,000 feet of elevation loss.  The finishing rate usually hovers somewhere around the 50% mark. 

The race was brought into the mainstream by Christopher McDougall’s best seller, Born to Run.  He describes the race this way:

                         [T]ry running the Boston Marathon two times in a row with a sock
                          stuffed in your mouth and then hike to the top of Pike's Peak.
                          Done?
                          Great.  Now do it all again, this time with your eyes closed.  That's
                          pretty much what the Leadville Trail 100 boils down to: nearly four
                          full marathons, half of them in the dark, with twin twenty six hundred
                          foot climbs smack in the middle.  Leadville's starting line is twice as
                          high as the altitude where planes pressurize their cabins, and from
                          there you only go up.
                                                                                             Born to Run, p. 60

Here is the course profile for the Leadville Trail 100:



History:

I decided I could do this race and signed up to run it in 2012.  I fully expected to be able to finish, as I had never not finished a race before.  I trained for months and months, drove the entire family to Leadville, and then missed the cut off at Winfield by about 20 minutes and was pulled from the race. You can read all about that experience here.

After my DNF in 2012, I hired a coach and came back again in 2013.  Although I was prepared, I had the same result as in 2012.  You can read about that race here.  

I was not able to let it go and came back again in 2014, this time with a new coach and a new training approach.  You can read more about that process here.

Arrival in Leadville

My friend and loyal training partner for many years, Tim, was not able to attend the race with me but agreed to drive out with me.  I jumped at the opportunity to not spend 28 hours in a car by myself.  We left Raleigh just after noon on the Saturday before the race.  We drove straight through the night, taking turns sleeping.   

We made it to Leadville a little after 4:00 Sunday afternoon.  We set up camp, ate, went for a short run, and crawled into our sleeping bags for a full night's sleep at last. Around 3:00 am Tim woke me up, saying, “Ashby, wake up.  There’s a bear outside the tent.”  I knew he was speaking English, and I understood the words he was saying, but the sentence didn't make any sense. 

“What?” I responded, still mostly asleep.

“There’s a bear right outside the tent going through one of the trash cans.  I heard its breathing and looked outside.  It’s right there.  Do you want to see it?”

I believe Tim to be an exceptionally intelligent person, but this seemed like one of the dumbest questions I had ever been asked.  No, I didn't want to get out of my warm sleeping bag and stick my head outside the tent to look at a bear who may or may not have decided that I looked like a much better snack than whatever was in the trash can.  I was also dumbfounded that Tim had decided to check outside the tent to confirm his suspicion.   Stephen Colbert has it right.  Bears are godless killing machines, and I wanted no part of it.  I opted instead to lie in my bag and wait for my inevitable demise, which of course didn't come.

In the clear light of day, I really wish that I had listened to Tim and peeked at the bear.  I mean, come on - that’s a very rare opportunity for a city boy like me. 

Tim had to get back to work, so I drove him to Denver to catch a flight on Monday, then I returned to spend the week at 10,000 feet in an attempt to acclimatize to the altitude. I enjoyed my time wandering around town, meeting the locals, lounging at the campsite and taking in the amazing views. 
Here I am with Bill Dooper, a Leadville local and die hard ultra fan.
Crew Arrival

My pacer, Karl, flew in on Thursday morning, and I met him at the airport in Denver.  We drove back to Leadville, picked up my race packet, ate lunch, and then drove to the crew points so he’d have an idea where he’d be on Saturday. 

Thursday night was the first time I had slept well since arriving. My breathing finally felt less like there was a fat man sitting on my chest.  The rest was welcomed. Friday morning we packed up camp and had breakfast.  Karl dropped me off at the expo and headed to Denver to pick up my wife, Wendy, and our friend, Paige, who made up the remainder of our crew.  (You can read about Wendy's perspective on the race as a crew chief here.)

I attended the race briefing for the third year in a row. Josh Colley, the race director, explained that he had heard the complaints about traffic and overcrowding on the trails from last year.  He accepted full responsibility and discussed the changes designed to prevent the same this year.  The 2014 field would be made up of just under 700 runners.  They had moved the Outward Bound Aid Station and reconfigured crew access and parking so that cars and runners wouldn't be on the same road at the same time.  There was also to be improved parking and shuttle access at Twin Lakes and very restricted parking at Winfield.  He also made it clear that anyone caught littering outside an aid station would be pulled from the race and disqualified.  This was met with thunderous applause.  All of these changes had a remarkably positive effect on the race.  Traffic was better, and the trails were less crowded and trash-free.    

Of course we heard from the former race doctor, Dr. John Hill, who told us about all the ways we could die during the race but probably wouldn't.  Finally, race creators Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin provided us a few motivational words.  Ken told us he wasn't going to give us any motivation because, as he said, “Motivation will only last until you throw up.”  Nevertheless, he told us that we are better than we think we are and can do more than we think we can and made us commit not to quit. 

Race Morning:

I got up at 2:00 am, after about four hours of sleep, and ate breakfast.  We stayed in Buena Vista, CO, so we had a 30+ minute drive into Leadville.  We arrived in downtown Leadville a little after 3:30.  One more trip to the bathroom, a few pictures with my crew, and I was off to the starting corral.

Just before the start with Wendy and Paige - two thirds of my amazing support crew.
Karl at the start line. 

Paige, excited to be at the start line. 

Start to May Queen  Miles 0-13.5 Cut Off Time: 7:15 am


At exactly 4:00 am a shotgun blast sent us off into the night.  I was a little concerned at the start because my resting pulse rate was much higher than it is at sea level.  However, I had made a commitment to myself before the race to only focus on positive things, so I chalked it up to excitement and told myself to let it go. The first mile is on pavement before the course turns onto a dirt road and rolls downhill toward Turquoise Lake.  I was running comfortably in my target heart rate zone at about 10 minutes per mile.  Last year I had gotten badly dehydrated, so I was making sure to stay on top of my fluids this year.  That meant several pit stops along the way, which wasn't a problem on the wide dirt roads. However, when we got to the single track going around the lake and began to form a conga line, it did cause some consternation.  Every time I stepped off of the trail to heed the call of nature, I would lose my spot and then have to jump in with the next group, which was moving more slowly.  This happened several times, and by the time I got to the May Queen campground, I was moving very slowly. 

While this had been frustrating in past attempts, I decided to roll with it this year, knowing that starting slowly in an ultra is always a good idea.  As the expression goes, if you think you’re going too slow at the beginning of an ultra, you should slow down. 

I came into May Queen only slightly behind schedule at 6:31.  I bypassed the aid station all together and found my crew.  They replenished my water bottles and gels and got me ready for the next section of trail.  I left them feeling excited but knowing I still had over 86 miles to go.

Paige and Wendy keeping an eye out for me at May Queen.

May Queen to Outward Bound Miles 13.5-24.5 Cut off Time:  10:00 am

Leaving May Queen we run up the road before starting on the Colorado Trail for a few miles.  This section of trail is pretty technical, with lots and lots of rocks and roots. It covers some beautiful ground and eventually climbs out onto Hagerman Pass Road.  I jogged the downhills and flats and walked the climbs, eating a gel every 30 minutes and drinking about a bottle of water per hour.  I passed several people at this point and felt like I was making up ground but didn't want to push too hard yet.  I kept reminding myself that the race wouldn't really start for me until mile 40. 

As I climbed out onto Hagerman Pass Road and began the gradual climb that would take me to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain at just over 11,000 feet, I was still feeling strong.  I power walked the climb until my heart rate fell below my target zone and then ran until it was approaching the top of my target zone, then repeated the process.  Running based on heart rate is like driving based on RPMs in your car.  You can floor it and red line it, but you’ll use too much fuel too soon, run out of gas, and not finish.  If you maintain a steady zone and don’t go anaerobic then you can maintain that pace for a much longer time.  That was to be my race strategy. 

Sure enough, I hit the top of Sugar Loaf and felt great.  I had passed many more people, was making good time, and still felt fresh.  From the top of  Sugar Loaf the course runs downhill several miles through a section of the course know as “Powerline.”  It is rocky, sandy, deeply rutted, and very steep in places.  My legs felt strong as I ran down this section.  My heart rate was nice and low, breathing easy.  I kept telling myself to take it easy and not get excited.  After all, my goal was just to finish before the 30-hour cut off. 

I could feel my feet sliding around in my shoes more than I would have liked on the descent and knew I was going to need to check them at the next aid station.  I finally hit the bottom of the climb and turned right onto the road leading to the next aid station.  This is my third year running Leadville and the third time they have changed the location of the next aid station.  For years it was at the Fish Hatchery.  This was a nice tradition, but parking and crowds made it hectic.  Last year they moved it about half a mile down the road to the Outward Bound facility.  That was a complete nightmare with traffic, runners, and crews on the road.  This year they moved it even farther down the road and changed crew access and parking.  It was 100% better.  There were no cars on the road, parking was easier for crews, and the aid station and crew access was much, much better.  I rolled into Outward Bound, crossed the timing mat, skipped the aid station and found my crew. 

“I need a chair and my med kit,” I said before I even said hello. 

They were prepared for anything and had a chair set up and my kit ready before I had my shoes off. I had a small blister on the outside of each big toe.  Not too bad at all.  I lanced, drained, and taped them without any issues, other than grossing out a few people near by.  While I was taking care of that, my crew was getting my gear ready for the next section. 

Blister Repair
I knew from experience that I was going to get hot, so I ditched my long sleeve shirt in favor of a tank top, got sprayed down with sunscreen, drank some water and a food bottle, and was off.  I wouldn't see my crew again until mile 40.

Scenery from the Outward Bound Aid station (Mt. Massive)

More scenery from Outward Bound 

More scenery from Outward Bound.  I believe that is Mt. Elbert, the 2nd tallest peak in the continental US.  Please let me know if I'm wrong.  
Paige and Wendy looking for me at Outward Bound Aid Station.

Panoramic shot from Outward Bound

 Outward Bound to Half Pipe Mile 24.5 - 31  Cut Off Time: 11:20 am

They changed this part of the course this year.  Instead of running along the road, we were permitted to run across Outward Bound’s field before hitting the road again.  It didn't save any distance but did eliminate over a mile of asphalt.  The only challenge was avoiding all the holes in the field, which wasn't a problem in the daylight. 

As I left Outward Bound my blisters hurt like hell.  I decided that there was nothing I could do to fix that, and it wasn't going to kill me, so I would just ignore it.  After about an hour, I was relieved to discover that I couldn't feel them anymore (one of the few times it pays to ignore a problem.) 

This section of the race is where my trouble started last year.  This year I was still feeling good and alternated a power hike with an easy run, depending on terrain, heart rate, and just how I felt.  I passed the 27 mile mark, which is where I started puking last year, and didn't throw up.  I didn't even feel like I needed to.  Ahhh, small victories.  Before I knew it, I had arrived at the Tree Line crew access point.  It seemed to come much faster than in the past two years.  I had no crew here, so I kept rolling along. 

The run from Tree Line to Half Pipe is pretty flat and very runnable if you aren't hammered from the last 30 miles.  I wasn't, so I ran a lot of it this year, still feeling pretty fresh.  I made it to Half Pipe at 10:12 am and was pleased with my progress.  I topped off my water bottles, threw out my trash, and kept on getting it. 

Half Pipe to Twin Lakes  Miles 31 - 39.5 Cut Off Time: 2:00 pm

This section of the trail is mostly on fire roads and rolls gently downhill for miles.  I was feeling good and alternating an easy run with a power hike.  I realized that I could walk as fast as other people were running and began to pass people.  I made it to the Mt. Elbert Camel Back Water Station at mile 36.5 and knew I only had 3 miles to go to make it to Twin Lakes, and it would all be down hill. 

Last year I didn't have the energy or leg strength to run this section.  This year, I was able to run down into Twin Lakes and not burn out my legs or get out of my target HR zones.  I looked at my watch and realized I was well ahead of where I had been last year and just about where I hoped to be.  More importantly, I wasn't trashed.  Sure, I was hot and tired, but I still had a lot of life left in me, which was a big change from last year. 

Coming into Twin Lakes. Picture by Kevin Doellman

My pacer, Karl, met me just after coming down the final hill into Twin Lakes and walked with me to the rest of my crew.  They poured water over my head to cool me off, got me my food bottle and replacement gels and sent me on my way.  Karl walked with me across HWY 82 and to the trail head, pausing to quickly snap a picture with Hope Pass looming in the background.




Taking in some calories at Twin Lakes.


Wendy and Paige getting my race vest and rain gear ready.  

Cut off times as posted at Twin Lakes outbound. 
Ready to tackle Hope Pass.  

Crews had to park outside Twin Lakes along the road and walk in or catch a shuttle.
Views from Twin Lakes.
More views on the way to Twin Lakes from the crew's perspective. 

Twin Lakes to Hopeless Aid Station Mile 39.5-44.5  Cut Off Time 4:15

I was nervous as I started this section.  It had always been hot and miserable for me.  I jogged easily until I got to the first puddle.  Wait, let me explain.  The first mile or so after leaving Twin Lakes is across a flat, marshy area before starting the climb to Hope Pass.  Normally it involves crossing a river once and not much more.  This year, there had been a lot of rain, and the marsh was a mess.  There were at least half a dozen areas on the trail that were close to knee deep in muddy water.  At one point we had to wade through water that was mid shin deep for about 40 yards as the trail was completely flooded.  I discovered it was best not to think too much about it and just keep moving forward.  We finally made it to the river, which was higher and with a stronger current than in the past.  The race organizers had strung a rope across the river for runners to hold onto as they crossed. The water came up to just above my knee at its deepest, and the current was strong.  The cold, clear water was refreshing in the heat of the afternoon sun. 

Not too long after the river crossing, I began to climb Hope Pass.  Last year it had taken me close to three hours to go from Twin Lakes to Hopeless.  This year I told myself I would not stop moving, except to take nutrition, until I reached the top.  I put my head down, found my rhythm, and started moving up the trail.  I was passed by a few people, but I also did my fair share of passing and a lot of leapfrogging with other runners.  Like a lot of this year’s race, this section of the trail seemed easier than in the past and went by much faster.  I was surprised when I popped out of the tree line and saw the bright tents signaling my arrival at Hopeless Aid Station.  I looked at my watch and realized I had made it there in less than two hours.  I was stoked. 

A word about Hopeless.  Unlike all the other aid stations on the course, there is no easy way to get to Hopeless.  It is located on the side of a mountain at over 12,000 feet and miles from the nearest road.  It is so isolated that the materials for the aid station are packed in on llamas.  Yes, llamas.  They are all around, mixed in with runners and volunteers and making up part of the backdrop of the surreal scene.  The aid station volunteers greeted me with great enthusiasm, and a couple of them were almost scrambling over each other to help me.  Finally one young man won out and took my bottles and ran off to refill them with fresh, cool water.  I headed up to the aid station and had an orange slice before turning around to be presented with my freshly topped off bottles.  I thanked the volunteers and kept moving upward.  This was another first for me, as I usually collapse and spend several minutes trying to recover here.

Hopeless Aid Station to Hope Pass Mile 44.5-45.1

I know a half mile doesn't sound like a lot, but when it takes you from 12,000 feet to 12,600 feet, it’s a real killer.  The path to the top of the mountain is comprised of a very narrow single track that makes its way up through seemingly endless switch backs.  The air is thin, and the grade is steep.  Pictures and videos just don’t do it justice.  I moved slowly but steadily and made it to the top. I was over two hours faster than I had ever been before.  I was excited and knew I would beat the cut off to Winfield and things were looking good for a finish. 

Hope Pass to Winfield Mile 45.1-50 Cut Off Time 6:00 pm

The descent from Hope Pass is shorter but much steeper and more technical than the climb up.  I jogged the more gradual sections but walked the steeper downhill sections as my quadriceps were beginning to express dissatisfaction with the situation. 

Once down from the climb, the course picks up the Colorado Trail and follows it for what seems like a week and a half.  It rolls up and rolls down and climbs over some challenging terrain and lots and lots of rocks to make sure it’s hard to keep any sort of rhythm going.  I finally started to hear crowds and realized I was close to the end of the trail.  Sure enough, just ahead of me I saw the road to Winfield. 

I climbed down onto the road and ran the last bit toward the aid station.  This year the race had severely limited vehicle access, and it was much, much better than it has been in the past.  I saw several friends and was generally on cloud nine.  It was 4:15, I had made it in a little over 12 hours, still two hours ahead of where I had been for the past two years. 

A friend of a friend got me my drop bag as I weighed in.  I allowed myself a few minutes to sit and drink my food bottle and relax before heading back up.  I had covered the first 50 miles in 12 hours, so I had 18 hours to complete the second 50.  I began to feel confident and for the first time allowed myself to really accept the reality of what was happening. 

Winfield to Hope Pass Mile 50 -55.1

By this time it was late in the afternoon, and it was hot.  I was hot.  I moved along fairly well, until I got to the base of the climb.  As soon as I started climbing, I knew I was in trouble.  I didn't expect it to be easy, but this was seriously kicking my ass.  My head was swimming, my heart was pounding, and I was struggling for breath.  I began to cough.  Coughing turned to nausea.  Then about a third of the way up, I grabbed a tree, bent over, and puked my guts out.  Unfortunately, this happened on a particularly narrow part of the trail with a steep drop off on one side and a steep climb on the other, making it both difficult and unpleasant for those who had to pass me as I knelt there, wretching into the dirt. 

Finally feeling empty I stood up slowly and started moving again.  I felt better for a few minutes and was starting to pick up the pace again, ever so slightly.  Because the climb is made up of switchbacks, it alternates between steep and not quite so steep sections.  I felt good on the not so steep sections and awful on the steeper ones.  I took a little water and plodded onward.  Then I threw up again, and again.  It was bad.  I felt really awful.  I was afraid I was getting altitude sickness.  My head was swimming, and I was coughing and had no energy.  I made myself keep moving.  I would stare at my feet and take 10 steps and stop to breathe.  I kept this up, moving very slowly up the mountain.  I wanted to quit.  I vowed that I was done with this fucking race and that I would never run it again and probably wouldn't ever run another 100-miler.  I began to think about what it would be like when I missed the cut off at Twin Lakes at 60 miles.  It would not be what I had wanted but would still be an improvement over the last two years.  That was good enough, wasn't it?  I could just relax and stop pushing myself and accept my fate. 

Even as I said these things to myself, I knew they were hollow and insincere.  I began to focus on positive thinking.  With each step I took, I said to myself, “Yes. I. Can.”  Over and over again. 

Yes. Step.
I. Step.
Can. Step.

Focusing on nothing but the dirt under my feet and my positive mantra, I kept moving forward.  Several times I made the mistake of looking up.  This was bad because I could see the runners strung out like a long, sadistic necklace on the switchbacks all the way up the mountain to the summit, which seemed like it might as well have been on the moon.  No good.  Look at the dirt.  Yes. I. Can.  Yes. I. Can.

Then I heard someone whoop with glee and looked up to realize I had just gone through the last switchback and the summit was only a few yards away.  Like magic, I began to feel better.  I had made it.  I was 45 minutes slower than I wanted to be, but I had done it.  I reached the summit and took just a moment to enjoy the view.  I was still in the game and wasn't about to quit. 

Hope Pass to Twin Lakes Mile 55.5 – 60.5 Cut Off Time 9:45
                
I was still low on calories and fluids as I hadn't been able to keep anything down for the majority of the climb.  When I got to the aid station, I got a cup of chicken noodle soup and sat down on a log next to a fire.  I drank the soup and then started down the mountain and back to my crew waiting for me at Twin Lakes.

The soup made me feel a bit better, but the thought of eating a gel still turned my stomach.  I knew it was all downhill, so I hoped to make up time.  Sadly, I was still moving slowly.  I can attribute this to several factors.  One, I felt like crap.  Two, my feet were starting to hurt, and I let that get in my head.  Three, my quads were cooked, and going down hill seemed to aggravate them.  Go figure.  Four, I had psyched myself out when I did the math and realized I could basically walk it in and still finish.  Part of my brain latched onto that idea and wouldn't let go.  Like an infection, it quickly spread to all my thoughts, and I became convinced that all I could do was walk. 

Walk I did, right down the mountain.  This was going fine, until it started to get dark.  This was not part of the plan.  I had left a head lamp in my drop bag at Winfield for such an occasion, but it was only 4:30 when I left there, and I planned on being back in Twin Lakes by 8:30, before it got fully dark.  I didn't want to carry the extra weight, so I left the headlamp.  BIG mistake.  As twilight settled in, I was still able to see well enough to move at a steady pace.  The rocks, which were white, seemed to almost glow against the black dirt of the trail and were easy to avoid.  As I progressed down the mountain, it continued to grow darker until the rocks no longer showed themselves to me.  Several runners passed me, and I tried to keep up to use their light but wasn't able to.  I had a very small back up light, but it only provided the very slightest bit of light and soon grew dim, rendering it fully useless.
 
Yes. I. Can.  Yes. I. Can. 

I repeated my mantra as I cautiously felt my way down the mountain in the dark.  I was surprised to realize that I wasn't scared or creeped out to be out in the wilderness by myself.  I think this was largely because I was so intensely focused on the trail as the thought of tripping and knocking out all my teeth on a rock seemed very unpleasant. 

I finally made it off the mountain and began my way across the marsh, by myself, in the dark.  Several times I became disoriented and had to wait for someone with a headlamp to come through.  Finally, as I could see the lights to Twin Lakes in the distance, I saw Karl.  He had come out to look for me. 

“I need a light,” I said to him, somewhat desperately.  He handed over his head lamp without hesitation and told me I was half a mile from the aid station.  The time cut off was 9:45, and it was 9:20.  We were closer than I wanted to be.  We began to run across the remaining half mile.  Coming across Hwy 82 and into the crowds of people was invigorating.  I could actually feel their positive energy giving me a second wind.  By this time Rob Krar had already won the race, but the crowds were cheering for all the runners like we were front runners.  It was amazing. 

I got to the aid station and told Karl I was going to cross the timing mat and then double back to the aid station.  He went to get Wendy and Paige and said they would meet me back by the timing mat.  I crossed the mat at 9:30 ensure I would make the cut off and then hit the aid station.   I asked a volunteer if I could have a coke that wasn't flat, and they gave me an entire can.  This was a real life saver.  I cracked it open and took a long, slow drink.  It was the first coke I had had in almost a year, and it tasted perfect.  The cola settled my stomach, and the caffeine and sugar hit my blood stream. 

Shortly after that, my crew appeared with a folding camp chair full of gear.  I sat down and took off my soaking wet shoes and socks and dried off my feet.  No new blisters, but my feet were a little raw and tender.  I got changed out of my tank top, into a long sleeve technical shirt and pulled a pair of running pants over my shorts.  As usual, my crew buzzed around me like a NASCAR pit crew, replenishing my water and fuel and making sure I had all the gear and clothing that I needed. 

I got up and headed out with Karl at exactly 9:45.  We found out later that they were allowing runners to go through as late as 10:00, but it’s good that we didn't know that, because it provided a lot of good motivation.  I did not like being that close to the cut off. 

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe  Mile 60.5-69 Cut Off Time: 1:15 am

There is a steady climb for a couple of miles leaving Twin Lakes.  The grade isn't too steep, but I was still worried because I had just had so much difficulty coming back over Hope Pass.  The cool night air, the energy from the crowd and my crew, and the coke had done the trick.  I had come back to life and was feeling good.  Up to this point, I had been drinking a 22 ounce bottle with two scoops of Cytomax, two scoops of Sustain, and two Salt Stick Caps at every crew access point.  This gave me some of the fluid I needed, plus 400 easily digestible calories.  I knew I couldn't drink the entire bottle at Twin Lakes, so Karl carried it, and I sipped on it as we headed out of the aid station and up towards Half Pipe.

We began to reel people in as we progressed.  I had convinced myself that running was out of the question, so I hiked as hard and fast as I could.  As we climbed upwards of 10,000 feet, I began to marvel at the crystal clear skies and more stars than I have ever seen before.  Occasionally, I would stop, turn off my headlamp, and just stare at the stars for a moment. 

Karl kept track of time and distance and was tasked with doing the math that is so necessary for a runner who is racing the cut offs.  By this point I had lost the ability to do accurate math, so I constantly asked Karl how far we were from the next aid station, what time it was, how much time we had, what pace we were going, etc.  He answered all of my questions, kept me moving, and reminded me to drink and eat, even when I didn't want to. 

Like everything else in this race, distance is deceptive.  Just because you can see or hear a location doesn't mean you are close to it.  The landscape is so vast that it can take forever to get to something that looks like it's right in front of you.  We were mindful of this sensation and tried hard not to let it psyche us out.  We could see head lamps of other runners ahead of us in the distance and used them as motivation.  We would work to catch one set of lights and then move on to the next one.  We followed this process over and over again, and before long we saw a volunteer wrapped in a blanket sitting in a folding chair on the side of the trail in the middle of nowhere.  In any other setting this site would be completely surreal, but I knew it meant that the aid station was just around the corner.  Sure enough the volunteer asked if I had a drop bag and was prepared to radio ahead if I did. I told her I didn't have one and thanked her for being there. Just around the corner were the lights of Half Pipe.  A volunteer wrote down my number and said, “Welcome back to Half Pipe!” with a big smile.  I was thrilled to be there. It was 12:32 am, and I had been on the move for over 20 hours.

I got another coke while Karl refilled our bottles, and we were on the move again within a minute or two.

Half Pipe to Outward Bound Mile 69 to 75.5 Cut Off Time: 3:00 am

The section of trail from Half Pipe to Outward Bound is the easiest part of the race from a terrain and elevation point of view.  We continued to chase head lamps and move as quickly as I thought we could.  I wasn't willing to eat any more gels, so we turned to Karl’s stash of Orange Cliff Shot Blocks.  These worked really well.  He would dole them out to me one at a time, patiently but firmly reminding me when it was time to eat and drink. I told him I was going to switch off my brain and just move forward as fast as I could and let him worry about my nutrition.  He did exactly that, which was a tremendous help.  We caught and passed several more teams of runners and pacers as we moved ever forward through the clear night.  The temperature had dropped into the upper 30s, but we stayed nice and warm with our effort level. 

As we came out of the wood line for the last couple of miles before the aid station, the temperature dropped.  I put on the jacket I had tied around my waste to fend off the chill.  As we finally reached the road, Karl suggested that we try a little running.  I agreed, and we began alternating walking with short periods of running.  This worked well and we started to make decent progress.  When we got to the turn off that led across the Outward Bound field, I told him I wasn't about to run because of all the holes in the ground.  He agreed, and we walked side by side, using our head lamps to look for what we came to call BAHs or “big ass holes.”

Karl headed out in front to let Wendy and Paige know I was on my way, and I did my best to stay close to him.  I crossed the timing mat at 2:07 am and found my crew, all set and ready for us.  They were surprised to see us so soon.  We decided to sit for a couple of minutes since we hadn't stopped at Half Pipe or Tree Line.  Karl got me a cup of coke, and my crew replenished my my water and nutrition before we headed back out.  I didn't stay too long because I didn't want to get cold or stiff.

Taking a short rest at mile 75.5



Outward Bound to May Queen Mile 75.5 -86.5 Cut Off Time: 6:30 am  

I was very concerned about how I would do climbing Power Line.  It is the last big climb of the race, topping out at just over 11,000 feet.  I had run down it several times, but never gone up this side.  I had heard many stories about how awful this climb can be and had been warned that it has many false summits.  I wanted to save as much as I could for the climb, so we agreed to hike to the climb while I sipped on my food bottle and ate the occasional Cliff Shot Block. 

The first part of the climb is the steepest.  I had picked up trekking poles when we left Twin Lakes at mile 60, and I relied on them heavily on this climb.  I took my time and didn't rush for this early part of the climb as we gained altitude quickly.  Before too long, we were moving with a group of other runners and pacers, with many more on the climb ahead of us. 

As the steepness of the grade lessened, Karl told me he was going to take a quick nature break and that he would catch up with me.  About a minute later, I suddenly found my rhythm and began to climb quickly and effortlessly.  I had found my flow.  I began to really accelerate, catching and passing other runners like they were standing still.  It was fantastic.  I was still just power hiking, but I was making great time and feeling awesome.  I climbed on and on and up and up, and still no Karl.  I started to worry about where he was and whether he knew I was still up ahead.  I decided that he would figure it out and that I was able to go up hill much faster than I could go down so he would catch me after the summit, if not before.  I didn't want to mess with a good thing, so I pushed on.  The climb went by surprisingly fast.  I continued to look up and chase headlamps through the darkness and told myself not to worry about whether I was at the summit or on a false summit and just keep moving forward.  The higher I climbed the more amazing the stars became. 

Eventually I heard music and a horn blowing and figured the summit was close.  As I came around a corner, I could see lots of lights up ahead and hear music blaring through the night.  It sounded a lot like the Dead, but I can’t be sure.  As I got closer I noticed several vans, mostly VWs, tents, lights, and a giant sign strung about ten feet in the air across the trail which read, “NICE FUCKING WORK.”  Just past that awesome sign were lots of hippies cheering and encouraging everyone and generally have a blast.  It was surreal and fantastic.  I smiled to myself at how awesome this experience was turning out to be as I headed down the fire road towards May Queen.

After a couple of minutes on the descent, I heard footsteps coming up behind me quickly and heard a voice saying, “Ashby?”  I turned around and found a very relieved Karl.  After finishing his business he'd started up the climb, thinking he would catch me with the same group we had been climbing with.  He got a little freaked out when he didn't.  He was worried that he had missed me because I had stopped to go to the bathroom or, worse, was curled up behind a rock puking.  He climbed for a while and then doubled back looking for me.  Finally he decided I must have gone ahead and hauled ass up the mountain as hard as he could. 

When he got to the party at the top, he stopped and asked one of the hippies if they had seen me come through and whether I had left a message for him.  The guy stared at him blankly for a moment and then asked him if he wanted any marijuana.  While that was a truly superb response to his question, it was in no way helpful, so he pushed on.  By the time he found me, he was exhausted.  I felt guilty, but he did a great job of not making me feel bad about it, and we continued to laugh about it for the rest of the race. 

The climb down to Hagerman Pass Road from the summit of Sugar Loaf was much more rocky than I remembered and also went on for much longer than I thought it should have.  Finally, we saw head lamps immediately below and to our right, indicating we were down from the climb and about to hit the gradual descent down Hagerman Pass Road to the trail head of the Colorado Trail, which would take us back to May Queen. 

I can’t remember what time it was, but for some reason we both became concerned that we were going to be close to the cut off at May Queen.  That didn't seem like an option to me, so we ran most of the way down Hagerman Pass Road to the trail head.  I knew the trail would be rocky and technical and wouldn't be very runnable so we wanted to make up as much time as possible before then. 

We weren't sure how far the trail head was from May Queen, but another runner told us it was 1.25 miles.  We began to relax and figured we would be there in plenty of time to beat the 6:30 cut off time.  However, we quickly realized that the person who told us that was either a sadist or a moron.  I don’t know how far it was, but it was clearly longer than 1.25 miles.  The trail climbed and descended over rocks, rocks, and more rocks.  I was still feeling pretty good and was excited that we were getting so close to the finish.  Not too far from May Queen, Karl told me that he was cooked and would have to take a break when we got to May Queen. He had worn himself out looking for me on the Power Line climb.  (He later told me that he was beginning to hallucinate during this section coming into May Queen.)  I told him that was fine and that he could sit and rest and catch up with me at Tabor Boar Ramp at mile 93. 

We finally saw the parking lot for the trail head and knew we were just ¼ mile away from May Queen.  I was getting anxious and wanted to move as quickly as we could.  I was so close I could taste a finish but still wasn't sure I was going to make the finish before the 30-hour cut off. 

We came into May Queen at 5:45 and found Wendy and Paige, right where they were supposed to be, all set up and ready for us.  We sat down while they refilled my water and gave me my food bottle.  Karl said if we could rest for a few minutes, he could go with me.  I wasn't willing to wait, so I told him to stay and rest and get some food and I would see him at Tabor Boat Ramp.  I thanked my crew and headed off across the timing mat and on to the last 13.5 miles of the race. 

May Queen to Tabor Boat Ramp  Mile 86.5- Mile 93

The course runs though the May Queen camp ground before picking up the single track trail around Turquoise Lake.  As I was hitting the single track, a racer came jogging by me.  I told him he was looking strong.

“I didn't come all this way to miss the final cut off.” he responded. 

Holy Shit.  He was right.  I wasn't safe.  I still had a long way to go.  Runners have 30 hours to complete the course to be an official finisher.  The average finish rate at this race hovers around the 50% mark.  The end of the race is signaled by a shotgun blast at 10:00 Sunday morning.  You can see the finish line from almost a mile away, and I began to have nightmares about being within sight of the finish line when that shot gun was fired.  It freaked me out.

I put my head down and began to run.  My legs protested.  My feet screamed at me, and my stomach grumbled.  I ignored all of that and pressed ahead as quickly as I could. 

Yes. I. Can.

I would run for a few minutes, walk for a few minutes, and then run again.  By this time the sun was up again, and my body temperature was climbing with the increased effort. I tied my jacket around my waste and pressed on. 

Yes. I. Can.

Finally, I recognized the rocks along the shore line, indicating that Tabor Boat Ramp was just ahead.  As the boat ramp came into view, I saw several other crews but not mine.  Oh well, not a big deal I told myself.  Then I saw my crew. They were there and ready for me, if somewhat surprised I had gotten there so quickly. 

They ran down to meet me and asked me what I wanted/needed.  I dropped my jacket and vest and handed my poles to Karl.  I would want them for one final steep descent.  Wendy was super excited and seemed to think I had it in the bag. 

I told her I was worried about the cut off, and she told me I was in great shape and would make it with no sweat. 

I looked her right in the eye and said, “I don’t believe you.  I’m worried I won’t finish.” With that, I took off down the trail.  It was the first time in 93 miles that I hadn't said thank you or given Wendy a kiss.  I felt bad but knew she would understand. 

Tabor Boar Ramp to Finish  Mile 93-100 Final Cut Off Time:  10:00 am

I told Karl I was really worried.  He humored me and encouraged me to run as much as I could.  So we ran.  My feet screamed at me, and my legs began to protest.  I discovered that if I ignored their complaints, the problems eventually went away.  It actually felt good to stretch out my legs and run hard after so many miles of power hiking.  Again, we began to pass other runners.  Karl kept pointing out the next runner up ahead as motivation to keep me going.  He had gotten some food and some coffee and was a new man. 

We came out of the single track around the lake, and I knew then exactly where we were and what we had left to do.  The only challenging part left was a very steep climb down a power line access to a dirt road.  It was very steep, deeply rutted, sandy, and rocky.  Not an easy descent with fresh legs, let alone on a pair with over 95 miles on them.  Karl handed me my trekking poles and headed down just in front of me to find the best line.  I followed his lead and made it down the climb in a couple of minutes without killing myself.   

The last couple of miles are a steady climb up a dirt road back into town.  It was at this point that I finally allowed myself to accept the fact that I was going to finish. The mood was high, as we were all realizing we were about to finish.  Karl told me that Wendy and Paige would be waiting at mile 99 to walk in with me. 

Throughout the night and prior day, Wendy had been posting my progress on Facebook and kept telling me that lots and lots of people were excited for me and pulling for me.  Thinking about all the people who were pulling for me had kept me going during the difficult times.  Now that I was close, thinking about it caused me to well up.  I had worked for this goal for three years, and I was finally about to complete it. 

We met Wendy and Paige on 6th Street about 3/4 of a mile from the finish, which was visible in the distance. There were tears in Wendy’s eyes and tears in my eyes as she grabbed my hand and squeezed hard. We walked toward the finish, talking and laughing and crying and waving at the crowds who were cheering and clapping like crazy.  Wendy and Paige ran ahead and took pictures and shot some video as we celebrated the moment.  All the pain and exhaustion left me, and I felt as fresh as I had at the start.  I wanted to run the last half mile at full speed but wanted to be with my crew more.  I would not have finished without them.  I was gaining on another runner but didn't want to run past him in the last ¼ mile.  I let him have his moment of glory before running the final stretch across the finish line. 
Thanks to Jenn Coker for this amazing shot as well as all her support and encouragement. 
The founders of the race Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin were there at the finish greeting all the finishers.  Ken grabbed me in a great big bear hug with a broad smile and rocked me side to side as we laughed.  I told him this was my third attempt and first finish in three years as he pounded me on the back.  Merilee hugged me and hung a medal around my neck, and we all posed for a picture.  It was truly one of the greatest moments of my life.  I can’t describe the sense of accomplishment I felt in that moment.  It was a high greater than any drug or drink could ever provide. 


Here I am with Merilee and Ken.  They seemed almost as happy as I was.  

Me with two thirds of my amazing crew.

That smile didn't go away for quite some time.  

Wendy worked just as hard as I did to get me to the finish.  

AFTER THOUGHTS

Thinking back on the race, the entire experience seems surreal and hard to believe.   I fully realize that this was just a foot race, and I need to keep it in perspective.  That being said, it was a journey of self discovery.  I learned a lot about myself and can honestly say that the experience has changed me for the better.  After all, that’s why I do this - to push my limits, to learn not just who I am, but who I can be.

Still smiling.
THANK YOU

To my amazing crew, Wendy, Paige, and Karl.  You were selfless, patient, and supportive, without reservation or hesitation.  Ultrarunning is as much a team sport as it is an individual one.  I owe you my race.

Wendy, I could not have done this without your unwavering support.  You never batted an eye at any of my training.  No matter what my training required, your response was always, “Do what you need to do.”  Without you I would not have gotten to the start and sure as hell wouldn't have gotten to the finish.  You stayed up all night to make sure I had everything I needed, always with a smile.  

Paige, you told a friend you came to work and work you did.  Thank you for taking time out of your life and agreeing to come out to Leadville, spending all day and night in the heat and the cold without any sleep just to help me achieve my goal.  Your actions were truly selfless and mean so much to me.

My super pacer, Karl.  You took time out to fly all the way to Colorado where you kept me fed, hydrated, and motivated.  You were patient and supportive and kept me moving ever forward.  Let me know when I can return the favor.

Tim has been my training partner for over a decade now.  We have run countless marathons, ultras, and triathlons together.  Thank you for all your support, for spending 30 hours in a mini van with me, and almost getting senselessly mauled by a bear camping out in the middle of nowhere.  You were with me on the trail, even if you weren't. 

Raleigh Running Outfitters has provided me support and encouragement for years.  Thanks guys.  You run the best running store anywhere. 


Finally, my coach, Rick Kattouf.  You have taken my fitness to a whole new level in the last year.  I honestly don’t know that I would have been able to finish without your help getting me ready for the big day.