"the real victory isn't the act of smashing through the tape and crossing the finish line; it's not seeing your name first on the list or standing on the highest step on the podium. this is not what makes your legs shake with fear and excitement. victory, the real victory, is what is deep down inside each one of us. it's what we can't believe will ever happen despite all the training and will on our part, and yet it is finally what happens. despite all the thinking and brandishing of calculators, after so many hours of preparation, after so many days of training, of telling ourselves that we can win - or simply finish the race - it is as if something in our unconscious is constantly telling us that it is impossible, that it would be too wonderful, too brilliant, too incredible for it to become reality. that what we want to achieve is only a dream. and when you cross the line, when you look behind and see that it is real, that you are flesh and blood, and that what seemed possible only in dreams has become real, you realize that that is the true victory"
the start of the race is announced with a shotgun blast on saturday at 4am, and ends in the same way at 10am sunday, allowing 30 hours for completion.
we flew from illinois to colorado on thursday morning, made a stop at golden city brewing, had some delicious healthy food truck fare, and did some tubing on clear creek before heading out on my favorite stretch of highway in the usa, crossing the continental divide and ascending from 650ft above sea level to 10,000ft within a few short hours. we rolled into leadville, elevation 10,152ft, picked up my packet, weighed in, and soaked in some good vibes. friday morning was much the same... the coffee shop, chillin around town, and greeting friends.
this spot at 6th and harrison would soon be transformed into a start / finish line and the gateway to (and hopefully from) a dream.
early friday afternoon, we had already completed the aid station tour, and everything was ready to go. at first, this felt great. nothing to worry about! the crew was familiar with the plans, scott seemed oriented and understood the driving directions, checklists were reviewed and in place, gear and nutrition bags for each aid station were labeled and loaded in the car, and bib #397 was already pinned to my shorts.
and then, free of any preparatory tasks or to do lists to mentally keep track of, the only thing my brain could focus on next was that dream, which was, at the time, expanding as an anxious contemplation of possibility versus reality.
the crew was talking about dinner plans, and i was suddenly too full of anxiety to know what to do, so i decided stay back at the cabin in order to think things through one more time.
flashbacks to leadville 2012...
hunrdeds of hours of training
too many hours away from family
family-work-sleep balance on the verge of breakdown
repeated bouts of intentional exhaustion during long runs
thousands of dollars on travel, gear, a coach, altitude training setups
friends' weekends spent away from their own family and friends
an emotional investment beyond my narrative description abilities
out of town on the weekend and day of our wedding anniversary
all for nothing
yet i think this might be what makes this worth it. the risk. the unknown.
how low will we feel? unknown (probably the lowest).
how high will we feel? unknown (probably the highest).
will the dream come true? will we cross the line, simply finishing the race? unknown.
most of the nearly one thousand runners that make the annual pilgrimage to Leadville for the 100-miler bring a support crew of loved ones, family, friends, training buddies, and/or future adventure seekers looking to catch a glimpse of what it's like. as the day unfolds, hundreds of carloads of moms, dads, girlfriends, boyfriends, bros, bffs, kids, and babies will nervously glance at their watches (maybe not the babies), eagerly awaiting a runner that won't make it in before the cutoff. or maybe their runner will arrive in that certain state that at first glance will crush the hearts of their supporters: staggering, desperate for something, too full or too empty, a blank stare foreshadowing the inevitable difficult decision that maybe next time will go better, that this time it's over.
a year's worth of hopes and dreams immediately dissipate as the timing chip is cut from the wrist by race officials, signifying the end.
Did Not Finish.
last year, it was my hopes and dreams that faded into disappointment.
hardly a day went by that i didn't replay it in my mind.
to wish that this or that could have been only a little different. when the goal, as a middle of the pack flatlander, is only to make it in before the 30 hour cutoff, it only takes a few simple logistical mistakes, or a few bad miles, before the minute hand has ticked a few too many times.
as i sat there reflecting on all this and sort of freaking out, ann said something like:
"just relax. it's going to be a good day. find your zen and know that you'll have a nice and chill run tomorrow, and you'll get it done. my premonitions are always right, aren't they?"
yes. perfect. next thing i knew, positivity was all i could think. back in action.
caught up with the crew at the saloon for a beer, some fries, and to rehash the checklists one last time before trying to get some sleep. the goal of falling asleep at 7pm was too ridiculous. 8 seemed reasonable, and then 9 seemed reasonable, and next thing i knew i was telling myself that 10pm to 3am was pretty reasonable.
fortunately, it was! i woke at 3:15am feeling well-rested and excited for the big day.
rolling into town at 3:40am!
a few chilly minutes of exciting (and possibly anxious) send-offs
the countdown starts... now it's real:
and we're gone
i can't adequately describe the level of positive energy at the beginning of this race. all of us know that only half of us, at best, will make it back here before the cutoff. there are some elite runners here, there are some bad ass peeps competing with their friends, or with their previous times, and there are also a bunch of normal people who just want to see if they can even finish in time. while leadville is one of the larger 100 mile races, and some smaller races have a special vibe of their own, the fact that there is no qualifying standard and that anyone who feels adventurous enough can throw their name in the hat adds a bit of depth to the excitement and the "unknown" of this race. regardless of anyone's backstory, we all want everyone to make it. as ultrarunning is both a competitive and communal endeavor, we are here for each other almost as much as we are here for ourselves. we've all just started, we all feel great, we're all full of hope, and we're doing it together, racing across the sky in the pre-dawn hours
in the first mile, as crews and townspeople line the street cheering and high-fiving, i was overwhelmed with emotion, just so thrilled and scared and happy to be trying it again, and so regretful that i messed it up last time, yet spurred on with a new force of will to make it right. as the first few miles ticked by, i ended up finding an appreciation for what happened last time, because it made this real to me. it's not easy. it's not a given. the mountains harness a deep, natural power of their own, and attempts to conquer them, be it by hiking, biking, climbing, or running 100 miles through them, must not be taken lightly.
after a mile or two down 6th street, we switch over to a wide, off-road jeep style trail. i'm ready for a good day, to give it my all.
around mile 5 or so we get to the trail that goes around turquoise lake. a lot of people gather to cheer at tabor boat ramp, 7 miles in. for those 2 miles or 20+ minutes, from miles 5 to 7, we can hear the cheers echoing across the lake, and we can't wait to get there.
6.5 miles ahead at 13.5 is the first aid station, May Queen. final preparations are in progress, as the lead runners will soon be making their way through, followed by the hundreds of the rest of us.
crews assemble early and wait for their runners. if you look closely in this picture, there's a lady on crutches with one leg. she was crewing for someone, by herself. there are some pretty badass people around here.
the sun rises over turquoise lake. tomorrow morning, 24 hours later, i'll hopefully be here again, for a second sunrise.
crews and supporters (and babies?!) eagerly await their runners
oh hi! it's mimi and adam, in shay's photo (she volunteered at may queen and put together a great post and some pics here
it sure is exciting to arrive to an aid station and to see your buddies jumping up and down with excitement!
out of may queen and on to the first big climb, feeling great
the elevation of the course looks like this, and the powerlines are the bump between May Queen and Fish Hatchery:
making our way over the powerlines, looking down on turquoise lake at sunrise
near the top of the first big climb!
the next aid station is at 23.5. the course flattens out and moves to the road for a while. last year i was feeling invincible and had bombed down the powerlines. steep, fast downhill running for 15 or 20 minutes can really take it's toll, and i had found myself struggling to get everything back together on the road. this year, i took it easy on the downhill, and while dozens of runners sped past, i chatted with a new buddy, kathleen, and we reassured each other that our conservative approach for this first big downhill was a smart one.
i arrived at the aid station feeling great.
so many people supporting their runners!
getting back to badass people. amy palmiero-winters
. even though she didn't finish this year, she has an impressive running resume, and just having the courage to even try this, or any hundred miler...
let's just say, if you're thinking of skipping out on your run or on going to the gym this week: no excuses.
after 4 or 5 miles on the road, we turn off and face more beautiful scenery.
mt. elbert, the highest peak in the rockies, straight ahead, and mt. massive, the second highest, just to the left.
after gaining some logistics experience last year, the crew went to treeline this time. it's a crew-only area, just short of the next aid station that is not crew accessible, and people hang out here to cheer on the runners. it's a cool scene, very motivating to run through.
adam seemed to play the role of scout at most aid stations, and it was always exciting to see him and run a bit of it in together, each time with the same sincere, calm, collected, and supportive "how are you? what do you need?" adam also took most of these amazing pictures.
now we make our way through the section of the course i always forget to mentally plan for. 10 miles, mostly in trees, reasonable footing. 1500ft of climbing and 1900ft of descent over 10 miles. for me, without any mountains to look out on, this section gets a little ___
as the 3.5 mile, 1900ft descent begins, we know that it's all downhill to twin lakes, the mile 40 aid station.
as i was descending, the gang was driving and hitching their way in to twin lakes.
the guy in front of me headin down the final steep drop before the aid station. this is such an awesome scene to arrive to.
about to make it over, and ann is at the top of this hill!
the crew went nascar at this aid station. we had to add vest, poles, change water bottles, prepare extra gear, etc. i slammed a 20oz bottle of water, said hi to karen, waited a second for susan and ann to catch up, and before i could ask what else we needed to do, they were pushing me out of there. they had already filled up my pockets, had everything set. when you're going for 29 or 29.5 hours, every minute saved in an aid station by the best crew ever is helpful.
no aid station visit is complete without a heart-to-heart check-in with mimi
the whole gang was at twin lakes: crew, pacers, and supporters. go team!
random picture of a beautiful mountain view from twin lakes:
out of twin lakes and making the way over to the base of hope pass
next it's time for the first of two climbs up and over hope pass. the following few miles include 3,000+ ft of vertical climbing. a few miles take a few hours. then we turn around and come right back over.
how tall is hope pass? for anyone who lives in or grew up in illinois, maybe this comparison to the sears tower will add some perspective.
or as glover said, maybe hope pass is more like this:
last year i learned a lot from greg in this section. he was climbing very slowly, yet very steadily. i would power hike past him, and then run out oxygen and need to stop to catch my breath. time and again, he'd slowly walk past me, eventually making it over the top ten or more minutes ahead of me. so this year, i went with slow and steady, and with a lot of pilates breathing. even when i wanted to stop, i always told myself to just keep moving, even if it's slower.
and this worked great!
i wasn't wearing a watch and wasn't keeping track of time, as my goal was to focus my mind on existing at the threshold of overexertion, to stay just below that. i felt that if i was trained well enough to get it done, it would happen by only concerning myself with simple and positive things, like each next step, being in the moment, and the oxygen i was taking in. i thought that any energy i could use to look at a watch or think about times and cutoffs and aid station arrival goals would just be waste.
in reviewing my times after the race, i was about 12 minutes behind schedule at twin lakes/mile 40. and after doing hope pass the first time, i got to winfield/mile 50 feeling great and ahead of schedule by 4 minutes. i'd made up 16 minutes on the craziest section of the course!
one of the aspects of doing an event like this that i love is all of the awesome people you see just hanging out cheering on runners.
making our way up, we heard some cheering up ahead. figuring the front runners were back on their way down being cheered on by runners like us still on the way up, the guy next to me said "front runners must be coming down; no way someone is all the way up here just to cheer for me."
a few minutes later, we came across a few youngsters sitting on the side of the trail, the boy wailing on a harmonica and the two girls with him cheering loudly for everyone who passed.
"well, i guess someone is here to cheer for me after all," the guy said.
then even higher up, we came across a group of 5 or 6 teens, just hanging out in the mountain and telling everyone they are awesome, ambushing the runners with encouragement and good vibes.. (4 hours later, on the way back in, they were still in the same spot, doing the same thing!)
near the top, right around the treeline, is an aid station. because this area is not accessible by roads, llamas volunteer to carry an entire aid station up the mountain, and humans volunteer to camp here with the llamas for 3 days to setup and then help runners.
sat down for a few minutes for some shoe or sock adjustments, and a runner sitting across from me was looking back and forth and just beaming with a huge smile. "this is one of the most special places on earth," we agreed.
onward and upward
12,600ft doesn't come easy at mile 46, though it sure feels good to get to the top!
and headed down the back, flying down the mountain, a completely different person than the guy who was just out of energy, yelling out an occasional WOOHOO from the part of me that is still a kid
gets a bit tricky here and there
especially when this guy shows up
remember this lady? she made it here too
meanwhile, the crew prepares at winfield, the midpoint
it's nice to have a crew that brings all your stuff around, so i didn't have to fish through this (though at most aid stations race staff are conveniently ready ahead of time to radio back your bag/bib info):
"i just dicked down hope pass":
woohoo! headed from the midpoint back to the start/finish, right on time, now with a pacer
at least whenever we turn around for a second, we get to see this:
back at the top!
on the way up, we leapfrogged some of our buddies, kyle and flynn, also middle-western flatlanders, who we had met and spent a bunch of time with at the north face 50 miler in wisconsin last september. neither of us knew we would be in leadville, and it felt really special to randomly cross paths them. several times we called out up or down the mountain to each other: "north face for life!" and then we peaked hope pass together!
sadly, and with it being so hard to believe that just two weeks ago we were in one of the most beautiful places on earth and having the time of our lives together, flynn (the guy between mimi and me in the above picture) is no longer with us. it seems that there is a special kind of bond that forms between people we meet on the trails at ultras. our guard is down, we're all on the same team, we all are human, and we're all doing these crazy things because we are our own kind of crazy. for the most part, the usual social barriers don't exist on the trails. no fronts. just our selves, and our stories, our pains, and our motivations, and we share them with each other quickly and comfortably. and because of this deeply connecting nature of what we do, the death of a guy who i've really only spent a few special hours with at 2 races feels like the loss of a best bro.
run on in peace, flynn schulz.
we'll be together in spirit at every starting line i toe.
thanks for the inspiration.
north face for life, and beyond...
meanwhile, back at twin lakes, emmy is still hula hooping! she was at fish hatchery at 8:45 in the morning when i came through, and was still hula hooping, bringing smiles to everyone's face, at 8:20pm when i rolled through twin lakes on the way back in.
mimi and i were making our way down hope pass, having the time of our lives. we felt like kids. just letting gravity take us, flying down the hill, yelling out with pure joy to the trees and mountaintops. and then, we got to the bottom of hope pass, and we looked across the valley to the twin lakes town and aid station a mile or two ahead, and it was still light out, and i knew with 100% certainty that i would be crossing the finish line this time. mimi yelled out a loud "WHOOOOOHOOOOO!" and many runners far up ahead called out in return.
a few minutes later we crossed the stream on the way back in, and rolled into twin lakes feeling like a million bucks.
i could sense that i was way ahead of schedule, so i took it easy while changing into night gear.
amy takes over pacing duties for the next 11 or 16 miles (ended up being 16)
as we head out of twin lakes, emmy is still ultra hula-hooping!
more of that section that i don't mentally prepare for...
and finally, the aid station at mile 70.9
back at treeline, the crew area just past the last aid station. it's late. things are slow.
crewing for a race might be as hard as running it. hours and hours in lines of traffic. keeping stuff organized. being alert and ready to think on the fly on no sleep. spending so many hours helping with something and only seeing your runner for a few short bursts of 1- 5 minutes of excitement. the value of a good crew, as part of a race stategy, cannot be overstated. thanks scott and adam!
around treeline is where i really ran out of gas. however, i knew there was enough time in the bank so there wasn't too much worrying. this section went like this:
amy: "how 'bout that thing?"
cory: "what thing?"
amy: "well, it starts with an r, and it's what you're supposed to be doing."
OVER AND OVER.
"it's not easy to run in the middle of the night after getting up at 3am and running 60 miles through the mountains, ok?" i thought to myself.
i am pretty sure everything i said made no sense, and amy always managed to make it seem like we were in the midst of an ongoing, engaging conversation. beyond having fun, we also kept moving forward, and at a pace much faster than i would have done if i was on my own. thanks buddy!
mimi switched back to pacing after we made it back to fish hatchery, and it was time to get farther than we made it last year.
and we did.
the powerlines make for a long climb in the middle of the night, there are many false summits, yet we kept moving the entire time. at one point i said "ok i gotta stop and rest," and somehow we just slowed down a bit and kept moving.
from there it was slow going over many really long miles over infinite roads, in the middle of the night.
a few times we scurried away from other runners, turned off our headlamps, and stopped to stare up at the close, bright, bold, shimmering, beautiful stars together. and we kept marching forward.
at one point, the power lines were loudly clicking or crackling overhead, and there was a baby evergreen tree off to the left of the trail, and i hallucinated that this little tree was a rooster running along the trail with us. later, even after the sun came up again, i hallucinated that there was a silhouette of an old fashioned photographer up ahead on the side of the course. and i kept looking ahead to groups of people and feeling certain that "hey, our crew is there, we weren't even expecting to see them here!" mimi sort of hesitated each time, and then politely suggested that that might not be our crew.
as the night wore on, i was really tired. at one point i said "i don't know how i'm moving forward because i am in deep REM sleep right now."
mimi suggested that we just keep moving, and that after the sun comes up, everything will be ok. and as the sun came up, that is exactly what happened. i felt great, ran many more miles, and had a blast during the final miles from may queen (mile 86.5) inbound.
between mimi's wisdom shared as the the day progressed, her good vibes, her careful advice about rest in the weeks and months leading up to this day, and the spring in her step on the way up hope pass inbound, i can't help but think that we'll be crossing the finish line together again next year, only next time i'll be the pacer.
after we left may queen and made our way around turquoise lake, we enjoyed the second sunrise. with the beautiful early morning sunlight illuminating the mountain backdrop, i was back to running, blasting minecraft parody songs and thinking of julian and jordan back home in illinois. and i was thinking about how we are apart for another weekend, nonetheless weeping with pure joy for the love that we share whether we are near or far. just as the social barriers fade away during an ultra, for me so do any sort of emotions about emotions. we can get right to that raw, core feeling in our souls. sometimes i feel like we're actually still just kids. we became adults and our brains got all fancy, allowing us to think about what we think about. and beneath that, there are just the raw, pure, innocent feelings. to me, running 100 miles is a way to break it all down, remove the complexities of life, and to just enjoy being.
we finally made our way into town, and found ourselves on 6th street. finally, "almost there." (in my mind, the only time you're almost there is when you can see the finish line. and even then, it's still not a 100% guarantee.)
as we made our way in, i heard a guy next to me say something like "nice job, way to go," and we looked over to see:
a bright green race bib with the words
VISUALLY IMPAIRED RUNNER
for anyone unfamiliar with these trails, the magnitude of those words might not immediately be evident. rocks and roots protrude at all angles. there are 20%+ inclines and declines. there are congested trails with dramatic drop-offs on one side, wide enough for only one runner, yet dozens of runners hop past each other in both directions, brushing shoulders, leaning on one another, tangling trekking poles, and occasionally bumping into one another. entire sections of the trail are composed of nearly unnavigable giant boulders temporarily laid to rest while tumbling down the side of the mountain from some natural and mysterious source higher up.
in other words, other than the 10 or 15 miles of road, and even there, there is no easy footing on this course. it's tricky at best, even in daylight. even with good eyesight.
i remembered hearing, back at the start of the race,
"ok there's a pothole here, step to the right a bit."
"we're going to pass some runners on the left and you have about 3 feet fo clearance from the edge of the road"
"is this working for you?"
it was this guy's pacer.
and here he is, getting it done.
and here's walter (who karen paced for 20+ miles). you can read about his 12-million step recover program here
"A few years ago, Barrera was addicted to drugs. He used crystal methamphetamine, and then he discovered crack cocaine. He was homeless for a time, and then he was a thief. He lived in doubt and fear, in paranoia and darkness, until one morning in 2010, when he went for a run.
he did it
and remember this lady, who was crewing at may queen, 24 hours earlier?
ok. back to me. almost there...
the gang is all together! (pics by scott kummer. thanks for the good vibes out there!)
and finally, we're there, 29 hours and 18 minutes later!
let's think back to the dream, to those feelings, to the unknown...
what seemed possible only in dreams has become real?
deep down inside each one of us?