The 2004 Leadville Trail 100 Mile

To the edge and back


As my foot hit the ground pain cut through my quadriceps like a knife. Actually, with a knife you may not even know you are cut until you bleed. This pain was more like what you would get if you were to tear a muscle from your bone with a pair of pliers. And it was not just this step, but every step for the last 7 miles. Only stopping could stop the pain and there lied the dilemma. The car, and a ride to a shower and a bed, was less than a 100 feet away. The finish line was another 8 miles away.

I was at mile 92 of a 100 mile race. The Leadville Trail 100—the Race Across the Sky. It was midnight and I was at a place called the Tabor Boat Ramp. I had entered the race with all kinds of goals. In descending order; break 16 hours, break 17 hours, break the record, win, set a masters record, not walk, get the big belt buckle (sub 25 hours) or finish for the small belt buckle (there is a 30 hour time limit). I was down to the last two goals but even a sub 25 was now in doubt. It had taken over 2 hours to cover the last 4.5 miles. I was going so slow that even my shadow seemed to be leaving me. It was decision time!

I had first paced another runner at Leadville about 15 years ago. Being part of an event where people are routinely pushed beyond their limits (more than half who start do not finish) was amazing and I was hooked. From that day I had always wanted to run Leadville. This was to finally be the year. I entered a 50 mile race in June as a “test run.” It went awesome! I won the race and set a record by over 43 minutes. My hopes for Leadville were similar. Now, 20 hours into the race, I was hoping I would finish and live to run another day. Looking back, it is obvious what went wrong. I had never recovered from the 50 miler. I should have seen the writing on the wall. Well, perhaps I did and that is why I had told people that Leadville was going to be very awesome or very ugly. I just didn’t know that ugly could hurt so much and for so long.

Things went downhill (literally) from the start of the race. A rather steep downhill at 3 miles had my quads feeling used. Not tired, but used. I tried to conserve them by staying relaxed running behind the leader. By 9 miles any little downhill that we came to had me losing contact with the lead group. By 13 miles my quads were tired and I told my crew I was scared. Very scared! Fortunately, the course turned uphill and I was able to put my quads out of my mind and actually took the lead for a while. Running back down to the next aid station at 23 miles was the last time I ran downhill without pain. While I drank at the station another runner took the lead. I was soon in the lead again but at 27 miles I told my crew I did not see how I could finish. My quads were done and there was still 73 miles to go! This would have been the sane place to pack my bags and head for home with my tail tucked between my legs.

No one said I was sane. Another aid station, where I again lost the lead, came at 30 miles. Another big uphill at 33 miles would put me in the lead again, this time by a good margin. The next 34 miles were more of a burden than anything else because the outcome was obvious. I felt like a man freed from his cell only to be headed to the gas chamber. On the way back this uphill would be a downhill and indeed my lease on the lead would expire at almost the exact same point — 67 miles into the race. I had been reduced to walking like the tin man. Another big downhill at 85 miles would have me in tears and lead me to the boat ramp and an important decision.

It did not take long! Sometimes all that is left is to finish what we start no matter how ugly it gets. I calculated some splits. My pacer said we had tons of time to finish and asked what does it matter to which I answered, “because if I can’t get the big belt buckle I am going to slow down!” He replied incredulously, “you can go slower than this?” With that we headed off into more darkness, each step a little worse than the last. With a half mile to go you can see the finish line and you can hear them call your name. I was going so slow that they were able to keep saying my name and I was rather embarrassed. To salvage some pride I did a jerky jog for the final few yards. I finished in 22 hours and 43 minutes or 14th place.

I missed 6 of my 8 goals but 2 is better than none. I have always believed that if we reach all of our goals we aren’t setting them high enough. I took 3 weeks off after the race. Even so my first few runs back were painful. To this day I am not happy that I finished but I am very proud that I didn’t quit. That may sound like a contradiction but I am just trying to be honest. A runner once told me you don’t know who you are until you run a 100 mile race. Now that it is over I can’t say I know who I am any more than I did. I can say however, that it did test what I thought I knew about myself to the core. It took me to the edge of my beliefs and I am happy that I did not fall off.

Read about what happened at the 2005 Leadville Trail 100.

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