"Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth."
That quote is from Mike Tyson in reference to someone he was about to fight who had said that he had a plan on how to beat him. On Saturday, I got punched in the mouth. And in the legs. And in the stomach. Such is the Leadville 100 Trail Run.
To start, I didn't finish. The race. My attempt ended at mile 53. At around the fourteen hour mark. At the time, it was a simple decision because I simply could not continue. After over a thousand miles of training on the highest and most extreme terrain that Colorado can offer, multiple weekend days away from my family and years of wondering if I could do it, my race was over. And I was at peace.
It wasn't my fitness. I was fit and ready. I had completed a 50 mile race just five or so weeks previous at the same altitude in the same city (on a different course). I had done my long runs, my short runs, my high altitude training and thought that I had dialed in my in-race nutritional and hydration needs. It wasn't my preparation. I had my crew and my schedule and had listened to and read all that I could read from those in the know. And I had my plan. But as Tyson said, well, you understand. My punch in the mouth came around mile 43, on a 3,700 foot climb up Hope Pass.
My family and I drove up to the condo we had rented at Copper Mountain on the Thursday night before the race. We settled in and waited for my crew to arrive early Friday morning. There was a mandatory check-in in Leadville, about 25 minutes from Copper, on Friday morning, followed by a couple of race meetings. I was drinking so much water in preparation of the race that it got me out of bed six times that night. The first two of my crew showed up around 8:30 on Friday and we headed to Leadville for all the race preparations.
After I got checked in and after come coffee at a local shop, we joined the other 800 runners, crew, family and friends in a large meeting hall to listen to the race director and others talk about what was to come, introduce people who had completed the race multiple times, people over the age of 70 who were making the attempt and finally the race doctor, also a race participant, who told us of the hazards that our bodies were about to endure. And the pitfalls of all the bad things that could happen to us over the course of 100 miles in the most grueling of conditions. It was very emotional. And inspiring. And frightening. I was nervous and excited and ready for the challenge ahead.
After the meetings ended and we had eaten our lunch at a local Pizza Hut, my crew and I drove to a few of the aid stations along the course to make sure that everyone knew what they were doing, where they were going and to help in final preparation. We drove back to Copper to meet the final two of our crew who had driven up late. All seven of us, including my one year old daughter, were packed into a one bedroom condo that is usually rented during ski season. It was late, but we started to watch "Without Limits," the Hollywood version of the Steve Prefontaine story. Watching that movie had become a tradition for me years previous the night before big races. There had been no race bigger than this one. The start time for the race was at 4am the next morning and it was now past 10pm. We couldn't finish the movie. Everyone seemed excited and ready for action. I finally hit my bed around 10:30 and in the blink of an eye I was staring at the clock as it turned 2am. Time to get up and get ready. The only analogy that I can think of is a soldier waking up to go to war. Whereas there is no actual correlation between preparing to go run a race and preparing to go fight in battle, it's the only thing I kept thinking about as I put on my carefully selected set of shorts, mismatched high striped socks and various warm and cold weather running gear. Not to mention the tremendous amount of vasoline I had to apply to protect me from severe chaffing as well as the freshly charged and loaded IPOD and fancy GPS running watch that I wear that tells me how far, how fast, how high I am running and my current heart rate. All very technical. I was suited up and ready. As was the crew. We finished loading up the vehicles and headed up another 2,000 feet to Leadville, found a parking spot in town and headed to the start line. The temperature was right around 40 degrees. Cold, but great running weather once you get going.
I checked in, posed for a few pre-race photos and took my place inside the start area with the other 800 crazies who had paid upwards of $350 for the honor of attempting this insane event. The Mayor of Leadville said a few words, counted us down from 10 seconds and, at the sound of a shotgun, we were off. In the dark, each of us runners wearing our own headlamp or carrying a flashlight. As we took our first steps of what was to be a very long day (and night), the mass of crew, friends and family cheered us as we left town. Many of the locals were in their yards with signs and cowbells (we need more cowbell) and cheers. The time spent "in town" was minimal and soon we were pointed off the road to the first trail, which would take us around Turquoise Lake. There would be a spot at mile 7 or so that our crew could meet us and change out drink bottles, etc., but the first aid station was a little over 13 miles away.
The key (or one of many keys) to this race is to keep it slow. It is very, very different running ultra-races than running any other race of lesser distance. Even a marathon. In a 5K, 10K, half marathon or marathon the objective is to maximize your speed over the selected distance. Obviously in a 5K, your pace is much faster than it is at a marathon, but it's all relative. You push yourself to maintain that pace for the duration and try to finish hard. My 5K time is right around 20 minutes. My 10K time is right around 42 minutes. My best marathon is just over 3 hours and 20 minutes. For this race, there is a 30 hour cutoff. The goal is to get out to the turnaround at mile 50 and then turn around and do it again. In less than 30 hours. If you finish in under 25 hours, you get an extra award, but the real goal is to finish. Period. When someone finds out that you ran a 10K, the next question is usually, "what was your time?" When someone finds out that you ran an ultra (any distance past 26.2 miles, the marathon distance) the next question is usually, "did you finish?" Time is no object. Plus, not many people can comprehend or calculate what it takes to run such extreme distances. All "normal" theories of running, such as fast pacing, go out the window. So, slow and steady is the rule of thumb at Leadville. There are sections that you can run (slowly) and sections that it is advised to hike. And sections that you absolutely have to hike. But more on that later. For now, from the start line, when you are fresh and feeling good, the key is to not blow yourself out in the first section. Any trauma that you cause yourself early in the race will come back to haunt you later tenfold.
As I found my pace and place amongst the pack, we headed around Turquoise Lake in the dark on a nice, semi-singletrack trail. I had some nice conversation with some runners near me, changed out my two bottles of pre-mixed drinks with my crew at mile seven and made my way to the Mayqueen aid station. It was very, very surreal. I had my music going on a low volume and felt great as I watched the line of lights go around the lake. As I came into the first aid station, the sun was coming up. I promised myself that I would make sure to take in the scenery as I ran this race. Too many times I've ran mountain races and was so caught up in what i was doing that I missed out on why we live in Colorado. The sun coming up over Turquoise Lake was a beautiful sight, as was the cheering people at the aid station. I slowed to a walk and looked around for my people. I had gone over with them what I would need at each pit stop. It included new drink bottles, possible changes of clothes, refills of my energy gel packs and electrolyte tablets as well as a newly charged IPOD. There are tents and volunteers at each aid station. Inside the tents you can get food and medical attention if you need it. I would only be at this stop for a few minutes. I got what I needed, loaded up a small container of food to eat, as well as an update from my crew of what section of the course had to offer for me and I was off again. I had been running for nearly two and a half hours and I still felt great.
The Leadville course is broken down into sections separated by aid stations. The sections are as follows: Start to Mayqueen, Mayqueen to Fish Hatchery, Fish Hatchery to Half Moon, Half Moon to Twin Lakes, Twin Lakes to Hopeless, and Hopeless to Winfield (and repeat in reverse). The course also features a few significant climbs, specifically Sugarloaf and Hope Pass, along with other less significant, but intense, climbs. The sections that I was about to begin was to include the climb up Sugarloaf, with an intense descent down a very steep section called Powerline. Up until now, the course had been reasonably flat. Soon it would be time to gain some elevation.
I left the Mayqueen aid station eating my small bundle of food consisting of some banana, peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some fruit. I was able to eat fairly easily for a few minutes until I hit the next section of single track trail and soon I'd be power hiking up from 10,000 feet to above 11,000. The Fish Hatchery aid station was a little over ten miles away and the sun was now up and the temperature was rising. I was enjoying my music shuffle mix of rock and roll and country music that I had downloaded the night before. Not much conversation during this leg as the runners were beginning to get stretched out a little bit more. The hike up Sugarloaf wasn't too terrible and soon I found myself at the top of the Powerline decent, which is a series of three or so very, very steep sections. A lot of scrambling from side to side of the trail trying to create my own small switchbacks while attempting to make up some time lost on the long climb to the top. The aid station would put me at 24 miles into the race and my legs were starting to feel the punishment. During the duration of the race I had to keep an eye on my timing devise constantly to remind myself when to take a drink of either of my pre-mixed concoctions as well as when to eat another energy gel and take a handful of electrolyte tablets. This is crucial to Leadville (and overall ultra-running) success. Every person is different in what they need to supply themselves with energy and fluid replacement. During my training I tried different combinations of various substances, but going back to an 85 mile, 24 hour run that I completed the summer previous, I had been using a powered substance known as Perpeteum in one bottle (mixed with Water) and a highly diluted mix of water and Gatorade in the other bottle. The longer you go during an ultra, the more your stomach wants to resist further food or drink intake. Or at least that's what happens to my stomach. I read in my pre-race preparations where someone had written that each person is an "experiment of one." Some people have no problems eating and drinking during a race like this and some people have big problems. During my 50 in July, I had no problem. I was hoping that this day would be the same.
I finally made it to the bottom of Powerline and hit a shaded, winding road that would take me into the next aid station, Fish Hatchery. It is very exciting to come into an aid station to a cheering crowd and seeing the friendly faces of your crew who have been waiting patiently for your arrival. I was hot and sweaty when I arrived and made a change of shirts, discarded my jacket that I had recently taken off and tied around my waist and got the usual change out of bottles, gel, etc. My body was feeling the climb and descent and it was at this point that feeling "good" was simply downgraded to feeling "ok." The normal wear and tear of a long, hard run. The real meat of the race was about to come. The honeymoon was over and it was time to go to work.
Leaving Fish Hatchery was bittersweet. I was happy that I was about to pass marathon distance, which always feels good at an ultra, but I would not be seeing my crew again until mile 40. The aid station at Half Moon is tucked into the woods and not accessible by any crews. Plus, this was the section that I had paced my friend Donnie on the year previous, although we were headed towards the finish, not the turnaround. I knew that this part of the course leaving Fish Hatchery featured a long stretch of flat paved and dirt roads before we merged with the Colorado Trail. Although it was nice to be on the flats, the road is totally exposed to the sun and it seems like a long, long way to the trail. I'd much rather be on single track in the woods doing long miles, not on open roads that I can run from my front door in Boulder. My pace had slowed a bit and this is where the race turns into a grind. A 17 mile section that eventually hits a climb and big downhill into Twin Lakes. After the road section, where you can see runners upwards of a mile ahead of you, I finally hit the trail and did a combo run/hike up the hills and eventually found the Half Moon aid station. I had done a "bag drop" the day before so I knew that I'd have a bag full of my pre-packed items at Half Moon. Since this station wasn't crew accessible, I'd need to refill my own bottles and replenish my electrolyte tabs. The volunteers at all of the aid stations are incredible and they did all of this for me. There are many people that run races like this without a crew and rely totally on their own drop bags. I was energized as I left Half Moon as I only had around seven miles until I'd be at Twin Lakes and reunited with my crew.
My legs were really starting to feel the pounding and I kept consistent with drinking, taking gels and tablets. Someone told me during training that when you go past mile 30 in an ultra, your legs are going to hurt whether you were walking or running, so you might as well run to get it over faster. I was able to do this and finally began the downhill switchbacks into Twin Lakes. From the top of the drop, I could see the Twin Lakes and surrounding mountains, which was absolutely beautiful. I could also see Hope Pass in the distance. That was the next section to come and by far the most intimidating portion of the course. I had hooked up with a small pack of runners just outside of Half Moon and had some conversation with them as we wound our way up and then finally down into Twin Lakes. Contrary to what non-runners would think about doing such an event, you don't get "tired" or "winded" when running. Cardio fitness had long since been taken care of and it is easy to run and talk while running for long, long distances. I have never had much trouble with high altitude running and this was no different. My breathing was great and my heart rate wasn't sky rocketing. After a seemingly never-ending downhill section, I heard the aid station crowd and then heard my name being yelled. One of my crew, Hannah, had hiked up the trail a little bit and was taking photos of me as I made the final big drop and into the Twin Lakes aid station. 40 miles: complete.
It was at Twin Lakes that I really began to feel the effects of being on my feet for over eight hours and my body taking a pounding on climbs, descents, roads and rocks. Everyone that enters Twin Lakes knows that the signature of Leadville is ahead: Hope Pass. I had only heard about it. There was a time during my training that I was going to go up to Leadville and do Hope Pass each way, but didn't end up getting the chance to do so. I met the crew, who had also been up since 2am, reloaded and took off with my usual supply of food gathered at the aid station tables and walked across the road while eating and preparing myself for the unknown beast ahead.
The first two miles or so leading up the Hope Pass trail is through a marsh area that features a series of stream crossings, which range from just getting your feet wet to a full near-waist high crossing that has a rope stretching from each side for the runner to hold onto to avoid getting swept downstream. The cold water felt great on my ever-disentigrating leg muscles.
During my race preparations I had studied the course map and each section individually. My training consisted of many long runs (obviously) but also high elevation hikes up various Colorado mountain areas. I had ran/hiked mountain trails that climbed 2,500 feet or more upwards to elevations ranging from 12,500 to 14,300. These climbs were usually in the four to five mile range to the top. Pretty significant stuff. For some reason, I had it in my head that Twin Lakes was at around 10,000 feet and the top of Hope Pass was at 12,600, which would mean a 2,600 foot climb up over four miles. Around the time that I hit the base of the trail I looked at my altimeter and it read 9,200 feet. Immediately I knew that I had made an extreme miscalculation. This now turned into a near 3,500 foot climb over four miles. Big, big difference from what I had anticipated. This was horrible mistake on my part and very, very disheartening given my deteriorating state of affairs. The trail began and it was what what I had feared: it was nearly straight up! An unrelenting grind that never ended. I was 42 miles into a 100 mile race and now moving at a snails pace and really starting to hurt. It was hot, my legs were burning and it as this point that my stomach started to rebel against me. Every time I tried to eat at gel, it wasn't working. It began to be very, very difficult to swallow as I continued with unrelenting forward motion. Very slow motion. I forced down my tablets to try to keep the valuable electrolytes in my body. Without those, the race is over. Without food to give me energy, the race was over. Without water and hydration, the race was over. All of this was happening on the most extreme trail I had ever hiked.
The carnage on the trail was nearly unspeakable. I would keep climbing and suddenly see someone literally laying completely sprawled out next to the trail. I would ask if they were OK, to which I would get a grunt or a mumble. No one was moving very fast at all. At one point I came upon an older guy who was sitting on a rock with his head in his hands crying. Hope Pass was living up to its legend. There was no end in sight. I was really starting to go into a bad place. The thought of even attempting to drink anything was horrible and I could literally feel my body shutting down. All I wanted was to get to the Hopeless aid station, which is a under a mile from the top. I hoped (on Hope Pass) that the aid station would rejuvinate me. Finally, FINALLY! I made it to the volunteers and food tent. These folks ride llamas up the trail carrying maximum loads of supplies for runners. They stay up there for the duration of the race. Without volunteers, these races would not be possible. I find it very important to thank these wonderful people who give up their weekend to help us ailing folks who have decided to take on the challenge.
At the Hopeless aid station I tried to choke down some hot potato soup and drink some water, Powerade and Sprite. I wanted to sit down but knew that if I did, I may not get up. I was hurting far worse than I was during my 50 the previous month and was having some very real problems with refueling and rehydrating. I still had a portion of the climb to go and was fading fast. And I was starting to vomit. Not a good sign. It was around this time that Anton Krupicka came buzzing down the trail with his pacer. He was leading the race and was heading back home! He is an incredible runner. He looks like a super-tanned Jesus. He had previously won this race. Last year he came back to try to break the course record and his body gave out about 15 miles from the finish. That was his goal this year and he was certainly making good time. It's truly inspirational in an out and back race like this to be able to see the guys in the lead passing you going the other way and to see just how good they are.
Finally I started the remaining portion of the climb, which was all above tree line, around 12,000 feet. The footing was poor and the wind had really picked up. We were lucky with the weather as there have been years that this section of the race featured below freezing conditions, snow, hail or lightning. After a very slow crawl of simply putting one foot in front of the other I made it to the top. I was now at the apex of Hope Pass and ready to start the very, very steep descent that would take me to the turnaround point.
I was in bad, bad shape. Even running downhill, where I usually excel, was extremely painful. But the bigger problem was that I simply couldn't keep anything in my stomach. I was in trouble and I knew it. Add this to the fact that my mind was starting to go to a dark place. The pain, fatigue, dehydration and lack of energy had taken its toll. All I wanted to do was get to the bottom and I did a run/shuffle/walk combo until I finally got to the dirt road that leads to the Winfield aid station and the 50 mile mark. The crew and I had driven to Winfield the day previous and I knew that the road from the trailhead to the aid station was nearly two and half slightly uphill miles. With so many crew vehicles traveling this road, it was also going to be dusty. By the time I got to the road, my body was so devastated that I could hardly manage a walk. I was completely out of energy and unable to bring anything into my body that would supply me with anything further. I was severely dehydrated and was mumbling to myself about how bad I felt. This was the low of lows. The low that everyone talks about when they talk about running this race. There was supposed to be a series of lows, but these were supposed to be followed by the highs. I was extremely doubtful that I would be able to recover to see the high.
The walk to Winfield was a true death march for me. I went over every possible reason why I was going to call it quits at the turnaround. My mind wanted to continue but my body wasn't going to let me. It was a horrible, horrible feeling. I had trained for so many months and my race had come down to this walk to Winfield. When I ran the 50 in July I had ran most of the last seven miles and finished strong. I was able to immediately eat and drink before driving home and definitely felt that I could have turned around and done it again. Not this day. Not this race.
After walking the longest two and half miles of my life, I saw the aid station and heard the cheers of runners who had made it half way. I saw many people heading back towards Hope Pass to do the course again and try to make it to the finish. I was devastated that this would be my end. I made the final turn and heard the cheers as I walked slowly down the chute towards the turnaround tent. I saw my crew, along with my wife and child, cheering, as I gave them the "I'm done" sign. For this race, after 50 miles, runners can have a "pacer" run along with them to aid them in the attempted finish. We had decided prior to the race who each of my pacers would be for the various sections heading home. My wife would be the one to try to get me back over Hope Pass.
As I walked to the aid tent, I was met by a medical staff who asked me how I felt. "Horrible," is what I said, which is probably something he hears more often than not. I told them that I had been throwing up and was unable to eat or drink. Part of the turnaround is a weight check to monitor how much you've lost during the race. You are weighed during your check-in the day prior and it is recorded on a bracelet that you must wear for the duration. My pre-race weight was 188 and the number that came up on the scale at mile 50 was 178. I had lost ten pounds in 12 and a half hours. The doctor was not pleased with this and advised me to end my race. I was told to sit down and try to eat and drink, which I did with my crew. In my mind, I was done. My body wasn't responding and I simply could not go back to that mountain. I knew what was there and without food or drink in my body to provide energy, I simply wouldn't make it. Add to this that there are time cut-offs along the course and I knew that in my state that I was in serious danger of getting shut down at the next aid station back over at Twin Lakes. I sat down with my friends and was about as low as I've ever been. Unable to keep anything down and facing the end of my day. The crew was ready for this and continued to try to pump me up and get me to eat and drink, which I tried to do. This is the true job of the crew and of the pacers, to do all that they can to keep their runner in the race. And my crew was the best. I sat there for about a half an hour and they did everything in their power to get me going again. It was hard to describe to them exactly how bad I felt. I wanted to go but my body wasn't letting me. I was getting hot then very cold and kept switching from wearing gloves and huddling in a sleeping bag to taking it all off and cooling off.
My wife was dressed and ready to go and simply did not want to see it all end right there. To her credit, she was very persuasive. All she wanted me to do was try. Try to get up and get going. Everything in my body said no but once I realized that ending right there was not an option, I got up out of that chair. I was continuing. As I write this now I still don't know how I got up, but I did, and I'll forever be proud that I at least gave it a shot. My wife loaded herself up with all the stuff that I had been carrying (pacers can also be "mules' and lighten the load of their racer). and we were off. I didn't feel any better at all but we left the aid station and headed back down that awful two and half mile road, this time slightly downhill. She was very, very positive and tried her hardest to have conversation to take my mind off of how awful I felt. I was near tears at how bad I felt. To couple the physical turmoil that I was going through, I also felt horrible for my crew. Every crew wants to see their runner finish the race. They are as invested in this thing as you are. And I felt like I was also letting them down. I wanted for each of my pacers to share in the course experience and I wanted the whole crew to feel the elation of me finishing this thing. And I knew that it simply wasn't going to happen. Once Rachel and I hit the trail starting the insane climb back up Hope Pass, I knew that the end was near. Regardless of whether or not I could make it over the top, I was going to miss the cut off at Twin Lakes. I was throwing up the crackers that she tried to give me and each step was more difficult than the previous. About a quarter mile up the trail there was a girl who was stopped and openly sobbing with her pacer. There are no prisoners on Hope Pass.
Rachel and I made it a little farther up the trail and that was it. I could not go forward. My legs wouldn't propel me one foot farther. My Leadville 100 was over. I assured her that I was ok with the decision and would live to see another day. It was very emotional for both of us. I had been gone so many weekends of the summer and she had sacrificed so much for me to try to complete this journey. And it ended at mile 53 on the way back up Hope Pass. It had claimed another victim. We walked back down the trail to find the crew, who had decided to wait for a few hours before driving back over to Twin Lakes in case I had to shut it down. On the way down, we ran into another runner with his pacer. He had experienced the exact same thing as me and was deciding to call it a day. Unfortunately, his wife had already driven over to Twin Lakes and was waiting for him. We agreed to give him and his pacer a ride over with us. We'd both have to check in at that station to inform them that we were done so that they didn't think that we were laying in a ditch somewhere in the wasteland on top of Hope.
At the bottom of the trail we met the crew, who were all very supportive and glad that they had been a part of it all. It truly is an overwhelming experience for those that watch it happen. So many people pushing themselves beyond their own personal limits to try to do something that most people can't even imagine trying. We made it back over to Twin Lakes and I slowly walked to the aid station to officially end my race. They cut my wrist bracelet off and that was it. My Leadville 100 experience, which had begun over 15 hours previous, was over.
Chris Justice: DNF. That's what you'll see if you look up the results from the 2010 Leadville 100 Mile Trail Run. My name is right there next more than 400 others that didn't finish. Leadville has the lowest percentage of finishers of any 100 in the country. Never, ever did I think that I'd be one of them. But that's how you have to go into a race of this proportion. You must believe that you can finish. Included in that list is Anton Krupicka, the one time winner and now two time non-finisher. The course is not prejudiced. It is an unrelenting, unforgiving high-altitude monster.
As I write this it is three days after the race. My body has mostly recovered and the outpouring of well-wishers and congratulations has been overwhelming. It seems that most people respect the effort and don't really care that I didn't get to the finish. It has been extremely heartwarming to hear the positive comments and it makes it easier for me to live with the fact that I didn't get it done. Since the race I've had time to go over it all in my head and what went wrong. I do not second guess my decision at all because I alone know how my body felt when I made the call to stop. And I know that it was my body making the decision, not my mind. Some call Leadville an eating and drinking contest and that's what it ended up being for me. My family is proud of me and my friends are proud of me, and that's all that counts. There will be more races and other days and perhaps I'll go back to Leadville someday to try it again. This time with a different plan. It isn't fun getting punched in the mouth.