Sunday, August 23, 2015

Leadville 100 -- Sometimes It's Just Not Your Day

It's kind of funny that I'm writing this like I actually ran the Leadville 100 trail race -- I didn't, my friend Noah did -- but in a lot of ways, having been a part of it yesterday feels like I should be writing a race report! What follows is our day and my next-day feelings about the event.

The bad news first: Noah did not finish the race. He had some issues at the toughest part of the race course and missed the time cutoff at 60 miles. But you know what? That takes absolutely nothing away from what he accomplished and what he did. He ran like the beast he is and did his best, so there is no shame in that.

Because unless you can see this race, see the terrain and understand how difficult this race actually is (only 50-60 percent of the people who start the race actually finish it), you don't know what a massive accomplishment even getting 60 miles into the race really is. I'm so proud of what he did and my own personal admiration of him grew by leaps and bounds yesterday.

When he started the race at 4 a.m. Saturday, I was still in bed! Michelle, another friend who was crewing and doing pacing duties, took him to the starting line and I grabbed a couple more hours of sleep.

Once we got up and going, Michelle's friend, Jess, and her parents, Ken and Carolyn, joined us in the crew vehicle, and we headed out to find Noah at about the 13-mile mark. They drive there was amazing (I'll be using this word a lot), we went around Turquoise Lake and some of the views up there were just so beautiful. Since I was driving I didn't take any pictures, but I'm going out and about today and will post those later.

When we saw Noah, he looked fantastic. We swapped out his food and drink and sent him back on his way in 2-3 minutes, then moved to the 27.5 mile mark to wait for him again. The one thing about crewing is that you do a lot of driving and a ton of waiting, but that is kind of the fun of the experience because you get to meet lots of people and see some other good runners.

While waiting there we saw the front runners go by -- they are just some crazy talented men and women. We saw one of the leaders come by and I figured out that he ran the marathon distance in around 3 hours, 20 minutes, doing that in the opening 26 miles of a 100-mile race! At altitude!

When Noah came by at about 9:25 he looked well although I was getting concerned because he was already feeling some effects of the temperatures. It wasn't all that hot at that point but as you can see in the above photo, they ran about five miles totally exposed to the sun and the elements.

We got him cooled off and sent him along his way. Ken, Carolyn and Jess were going to the next checkpoint, Twin Lakes, while I drove Michelle to Winfield, the 50-mile turnaround point of the race.

This is where I realized I wasn't in Bartlett any longer. To get to Winfield, which is an old mining town that was abandoned over 100 years ago, we had to go off the main road and follow a gnarly, nasty 12-mile dirt road through the mountains.

The views were stunning, though, which made up for the drive, which took us 30 minutes because of the conditions of the road. Here is a photo of the runner check in area (that's Michelle in the foreground in the ponytail and black arm sleeves), but look in the background -- unbelievable. I was told the tree line is at about 12,000 feet, which means the peaks behind there were much higher.

I made sure Michelle was settled in and I started to head back, but just as I was pulling out, the first runner -- Michael Aish -- was just coming in, having covered the 50 miles in seven hours, 51 minutes. Quick sideline about the difficulty of this race, Aish is from New Zealand and was a great track runner who represented his country in the Olympics and later made the jump to untramarathons. But despite all of those credentials, a man with all of that experience and a 13:22 5K PR dropped from the race at 86 miles. Yeah, it's that hard.

I made it back to Twin Lakes but had just missed Noah by about 30 minutes. He checked in a little over eight hours into the race and by all accounts was doing well.

But what we found out is that the 21-mile round trip from Twin Lakes to Winfield and back is the race. Twin Lakes sits at 9,200 feet and runners have to cross Hope Pass, which represents a 3,000-foot climb in just five miles! Struggling with dehydration and altitude sickness, Noah barely made it to Winfield ahead of the cutoff, but decided he wanted to try and see if he could work his way through the bad patch.

Unfortunately, it didn't. In the end, it took him over 11 hours to make the 21-mile trip, with the last five miles from Hope Pass talking 2 1/2-3 hours in itself. By the time he arrived back in Twin Lakes, it was almost midnight, more than two hours past the cutoff.

The hardest part for me was the waiting. With the mountains it was very difficult to communicate, so we had no idea how things were going until we heard from Michelle just as they were descending off of the mountain. With everything having gone so well we were there by 5:30 p.m. in anticipation of his arrival.

Twin Lakes is a great place to be during the race. Twin Lakes is a really small town of a population of 216 people and whose streets are made up of dirt roads. On the day of the race the number of people in town swells to well over 1,000 people and it takes on a bit of a party atmosphere.

Watching the runners come through on their way back was equally crazy and inspiring. It was fun to sit along the street and cheer on runners and their pacers. It was certainly an interesting observation as some people looked great and others looked like they probably wouldn't be able to continue much longer.

Watching the runners come through was equally crazy and inspiring. As I mentioned at the top, it is just wild to think about what it takes to do this race, and I was so inspired by the people I was watching. That became even greater as the 9:45 p.m. cutoff approached. If you couldn't make it under the black inflatable by that time, your day was done.

As the time approached, runners were sprinting to try and get under by the cutoff. Think about that, people who had already been on their feet for close to 18 hours, and they were driving themselves as hard as they could to just try and continue, and if they continued to make cutoffs they would have another 10-12 hours to go. That's just so gutsy to me. Even runners who came by after the cutoff were determined to get to the checkpoint before they were pulled from the course.

It was about then that we heard from Michelle and that they had roughly four miles to go. As we waited the race staff began tearing down and packing up everything, but still a few runners straggled in. I went out about a quarter-mile onto the path and waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, the radio signal got stronger and I could see their headlamps in the distance. We all walked in together and race staff removed his timing strips from his bib. His race was officially over at just before midnight.

All things considered, Noah was in a positive frame of mind. He's someone who loves analyzing things and loves to learn (he has a PhD, by the way), and he will take all of the information from this race and use it to do better the next time.

Today he was in pretty good shape both mentally and, outside a bad blister and a couple of mangled toenails, physically too. He is already thinking about his next race and also thinking about sometime coming back and running the final 40 miles of the course. He's competitive and determined, I expect the next time he comes to Leadville he is going to nail it.

For me, the weekend was a success, because I feel like I finally had the opportunity to be in a situation where I could be a good teammate, which was very important to me. Back in 2009-10 I ran two Ragnar Relays, and for various reasons -- 2009 I was going through some serious personal problems and was anti-social all weekend, and in 2010 I was out of shape and slow and felt like everyone was mad at me -- I was a horrible teammate. I didn't really cheer for anyone and just felt very selfish.

This time around, I tried hard to be a leader with my crew team, I cheered for everyone, runners and pacers alike, and I tried to talk to and meet a lot of people. In the end it was a highly positive experience for me and really wiped away any of the bad memories I had from a few years ago.

Most of all, I was just happy to be there for Noah. Over the years he's come up big in my life in various ways, and I was just glad to have the opportunity to feel like I paid him back for all of that. I know neither of us keeps score or anything, but to do something of this magnitude for him feels very good. I'm looking forward to crewing for him the next time he comes to Leadville and accompanying him the final mile to what will be one of the best finishes of our lives!

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