I know very little about running a 100 mile race. I might have one on the schedule in a month but I’ll be the first person to tell you I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve soaked up as much information as possible and have high hopes for my abilities to complete the distance but there is a lot I still need to learn. And there is no better place to get a crash course on the reality of a 100 mile race than at the Leadville 100.
My weekend was spent doing just that – roaming around the mountains near Leadville chasing my runner, waiting for a pacer, encouraging strangers and sucking down caffeine. At the end of the day my runner did not make it across the finish line, but he fought hard on the trail and walked away knowing he gave the mountain trails his all. Even though my runner wasn’t able to head home with a finisher’s belt buckle I left Leadville with a wealth of knowledge and a new take on the reality that may go down at Run, Rabbit, Run!
Over the course of the 30 hour race I watched runners chase cut offs into 4 aid stations and the finish line…to say it was an emotional day would be an understatement. There is something about pushing yourself to the brink and back that brings out raw, unbridled emotion.
It was hard to see runners coming in strong, hoping to make the cutoff when I knew they were 10 minutes late.
It was inspiring to see runners struggling only to pick it up when a spectator told them they had 5 minutes and they could make it.
It was heartbreaking to see crew and family react to runners barely missing cutoff – a mix of pride and disappointment for their runner.
It was motivating to watch a runner convince their worried family that they were fine to continue, even though they just puked 3 times.
At the Twin Lakes AS [mile 40] I anxiously waited for my runner, Alex, watching the minutes tick by as I made up reasons for his delayed arrival. I was telling his wife all the reasons he could be behind, explaining how runners can turn things around with the right food and a few strong words of encouragement. I was telling her, but I think I was saying it all aloud for myself to hear…I needed to believe that he could turn things around, I needed to see it was possible to puke on the trail and still survive. I needed a reason to believe I would not die during Run, Rabbit, Run in a month! The cutoff ticked by and my runner wasn’t there. He didn’t make it, but not because he was puking but because the course was rough and the cutoffs were no joke. There were raw emotions and tears – this was his third attempt and it was not going to be his day.
I watched another runner, Justin, come into the Winfield AS [mile 50] barely walking because he right quad was completely shot. He was 20+ minutes ahead of cutoff but his legs were done, literally. Listening to him ask a volunteer how to drop made my heart hurt – I’ve been there, I’ve done that and it sucked when I had much less riding on a finish! He had clearly battled his way up and over Hope Pass, only to be asking for a car ride back to Leadville rather than a refilled water bottle before heading back out. I became his car ride back…where he rode along side another runner, Randy, who was experiencing the same issues with his legs. I asked them both if they were looking for an easy way out — both said yes, but only because their bodies would not make it over the pass. I felt a little guilty being the one to give them that easy way out but the 3/4 mile walk to my car was more than enough proof that their bodies were done, they had to quit. It was a long, slow, painful walk for them and I was parked as close as physically possible!
On my second trip back to the Twin Lakes AS [mile 60] I wasn’t waiting for my runner, I was waiting for my pacer, Derek, and a stranger. The 9:45pm cutoff came and went as I watched multiple runners come running in from the dark trail. Some would make cutoff and continue on to the Half Pipe AS, others would have their race end as their chips were pulled. I began to worry about my pacer and his runner as the minutes ticked by – I knew nothing about either’s ability to survive a rough patch on the trail. Just before 10:30pm [45 minutes past cutoff] they came trotting in off the trail. Their late arrival had me expecting a painful hobble but instead I saw springy steps and happy smiles. The runner, Tony, missed cutoff by a large margin but he was in the best mood – when the cutoff ticked past and running was no longer necessary he slowed to a hike and made the most of his time on the trail. It was hard to see someone so good spirited get pulled from the course but he was just glad to be there, which was so refreshing!
While waiting for my pacer and his runner to come in I watched a girl, Christine, walk into the aid station with a sense of confused determination – she hadn’t been eating for the last 5+ hours but refused to give up. When offered a chair she said she couldn’t sit because she’d never get back up. Her crew kept her upright as they helped her change clothes and shoes while her pacer kept handing her warm food. She left the aid station with a new sense of determination, marching out to miles of dark trails. It was her first 100 miler and she wanted to keep pressing on. She didn’t make it to the finish but she did make it to the next aid station, her furthest distance ever.
The mountains the runners get to stare down as they descend Hope Pass into the Winfield AS
I also watched a runner come into Twin Lakes AS about 30 minutes past cutoff leaning on his pacer for support. He stopped to talk to his family, explaining how he would continue on and make it to the finish. Moments after saying this he crumbled to the ground. With my sleeping bag as a blanket he lay motionless for a few minutes as the EMTs were called. Before the EMTs arrived he asked us to help him stand back up so he could keep going…his family obliged and he continued toward the aid station with EMTs close behind. He wanted to keep moving, to keep going. He had missed cutoff so the race was over for him but he wasn’t ready to give up, not yet. He hadn’t made it to the AS yet, he still had his timing chip, he was still in this race!
After picking up my pacer at Twin Lakes I headed back to the house we had in Leadville to find some food and crash for a few hours. I had a restless three hours of sleep. I was emotionally drained and physically exhausted but sleep wasn’t coming easy so I eventually pulled my layers back on and headed out to the finish line to watch the last few hours of the race. As I walked up the course I cheered as runners came up the road. Some ran steadily, others were leaning heavily on their trekking poles. When they rounded the bend to the last stretch many perked up and added a little spring to their step – they were almost done, they were so close!
In the final minutes before the official race cutoff I stopped to chat with a crew that I recognized. They were decked out in neon yellow t-shirts and I remembered taking their photo at the start line then seeing them multiple times at various aid stations. Their matching t-shirts were awesome – each person had a task, such as “Worrier” and “Boss” and “Motivator”. They were still waiting for their runner to finish, not knowing where he was but hoping for the best. The 30 hour mark ticked by and the cutoff cannon boomed. He wouldn’t make the official cutoff. Later, as I was headed back to my car, I saw him with his family – he crossed the finish line! And from my conversation with his family he will be back next year – hopefully with his wife running as well!
It was a long weekend that ran high with emotions – pride, amazement, disappointment, relief, pain, misery, appreciation, angry, joy. Some runners impressed even themselves with their ability to perform while other’s bodies rebelled against them forcing them to stop. I watched people get creative with pain management and quick recovery methods. I overheard crew members offer up words of encouragement that bordered on verbal abuse. I offered a runner grapes and water after he puked in the grass by my feet. I listened to two runners who dropped at Mile 50 compare their injuries in the backseat of my car.
I realized just how hard Run, Rabbit, Run is going to be for me. It is going to suck, it is going to be incredibly difficult and it is going to hurt…a lot. But I am going to start the race. I am going to arrive in Steamboat with a body that is well rested and legs that have been coddled. I am going to run conservatively, hike with purpose, drink my water and eat real food, even if none of that sounds like any fun at the moment…because that is what I need to do to finish. And I want to finish. I need to finish.
As I drove away from Leadville, headed home with a car full of stinky clothes, leaky bottles of electrolytes and a box of PopTarts, I realized that I have absolutely no desire to ever run the Leadville 100. It just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ll come back to crew and pace but nothing about the course or race set up makes me want to throw down some cash to suffer. To me, this is a good thing. I recall having the exact opposite feeling when I left Steamboat after last year’s Run, Rabbit, Run. On that drive home I was toying with the idea of running an ultra, wetting my toes with the Bear Chase 50K and a year later I’m actually excited to head back to Steamboat to be the runner, not the crew.