By Jack Andrish
Have you ever wanted a “do-over?” Of course you have; we all have had moments we wish we could do over again. Maybe even every day we wish we had a do-over; but then, sometimes we really wish we had, just one, “do-over.”
Once again, I’m coming home from another attempt to run hundred miles. I’m now at thirty thousand feet and not tired; not stiff; and no pain.. What is wrong with this picture? I suppose it has something to do with the fact that my 100 miler turned out to be a fifty miler. “The Leadville 50” … it has a nice ring to it, but the problem is, it was the Leadville 100. Oh well, I’ve never been accused of being a good runner; but I am a plodder and every now and then, the tortoise does succeed.
This summer was my opportunity to run two new (to me) trail ultras; the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 and the Leadville Trail 100. My experience in Virginia was wonderful, uplifting, and far above my expectations; until about the 70 mile mark when my physicality and especially my back, gave out. Ninety-seven miles of the MMT 100, however, left me with some hope, but also doubt. I spent the next two months experimenting with various back braces and found a few that I could tolerate while running and also that seemed to help support my scoliotic spine. The best brace I found cost all of $8 (regularly $12). I found it on sale at the Middlefield Co-Op I visit every two weeks to get feed for my animals. I also tried several more expensive models that our Orthotist at the Cleveland Clinic gave me, but the feed store model was far superior for this purpose.
And so our plans for Leadville continued this summer. In fact, “my Leadville” became not only my anticipation, but an anticipation for my wife, Sue Ellen as my crew “chief” (yes, “chief” implies that there would be more than one person willing to assume this role); my son, Sean as crew and possibly pacer; and then three “rookies” to ultra running who were eager to see first-hand just what this was all about. All three of my “rookie” friends are my partners at the Cleveland Clinic; John Bergfeld and Ken Marks were eager to be my “seconds” (as John B would refer to the role of crew); and Tom Bauer, a budding ultra runner himself, who was really looking forward to working crew and then to assume the role of pacer.
The summer went quickly, as it seems all summers do now that I have passed my 6th decade. Training runs through the Metro Parks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park with my Cleveland friends and a few days with Sean, running through the Allegany Mountains of western New York, had restored my confidence a bit. “A bit.” Despite the miles of hills around Cleveland and of western New York, I realized that running at 300’ up to 2000’ is not the same thing as running at 9,000’ to 12,600’. In order to help acclimate to the elevation, Sue Ellen, Sean, and I went out to Colorado a week ahead of the race and spent some time running and hiking trails in Summit County and then spending three wonderful days back-packing in the high alpine region of the Holy Cross Wilderness at the head-waters of Cross Creek. Our good friend Donny Shefchik of Paragon Guides, with his assistant guide Pam, not only took us to this pristine camping site, but eased our loads by bringing three Llamas to carry the bulk of supplies! It was absolutely spectacular. We even caught fish!
We came out of the back-country on Thursday; bought supplies for the race; and tried to get a good night’s sleep (it was never so good, however, as the sleep we had at 11,000’ while camping). Friday we explored Leadville and went to the race check-in ceremony. Let me say that I have always tried to overcome my athletic deficiencies by totally analyzing the “mechanics” of the sport; sort of a “brains over brawn” attitude. But although this helps to an extent, a bit of brawn helps too. Sue Ellen has always accused me of “over-analyzing” everything from my golf swing to my skiing to my ultra running. “Just let it happen!” And I must admit, I think she may have a point. The anticipation of the event is indeed thrilling and I think is a big part of the draw; but anticipation can lead to stress as well and stress can drain the life out of the best intentions.
Leadville and the surrounding mountains, including the fourteeners of Mt Elbert and Mt Massive form the background of a spectacular event. There are three major climbs in this “out-and-back” course with the third climb being the longest going from the lowest point on the course (9,000’ at Twin Lakes) to the highest point at 12,600’ (Hope Pass). After negotiating the final climb on the way out, the runner then turns around at Winfield (50 miles) and does it all again, in reverse.
The race started at 4 AM on Saturday and the first 5 or 6 miles is downhill followed by 7 or 8 miles of mostly rolling and/or flat terrain. The first “official” aid station at 13 miles should be completed well ahead of the cut-off time. I thought I was “prepared.” The variable of how I would handle the altitude was still an unknown, but all in all, I was ready to do well (for me). But something strange happened to me very early. The first stage of the run did not go well for me. I felt “loopy” for reasons I still do not understand. At about the 5 mile mark, the course transitions from a smooth dirt road to a rocky road; and you can guess what happened. I couldn’t have been on the rocky road for ten feet until I took my first fall. Of course I opened the wounds on my knees that had only recently healed from a fall on Massanutten Mountain in May, and my hat and headlamp went sailing off and down the road as well. After scrambling about and finding my hat and head-lamp, then repositioning the head-light (after a first attempt resulted in the light being upside-down), I continued on to what should have been a delightful trail run around Turquoise Lake on beautiful single track trail. Instead, I was shaky for some reason and fell again. By the time I had gotten to the 7 mile point and the “boat ramp” where crew were allowed to visit their runner, I was surprised to find Sue Ellen ordering me on rather than having me take a break for an Ensure. I later learned that I was at the very back of the pack and needed to make up time even though I “looked terrible.” Sean told Sue Ellen to “take pictures now” because he had real doubts that I would even make the next aid station!
After the first official aid station at 13 miles, things did get better. I was able to enjoy the next two climbs and the absolutely spectacular vistas they provided; as well as some sections of simply wonderful soft single track trails circling Mt Elbert. By the time I arrived at the 37 mile aid station at Twin Lakes (the last aid station before the climb over Hope Pass) I had nurtured a 45 minute “cushion” over the cut-off time. I needed more. The climb from Twin Lakes to the top of Hope Pass is beautiful; but steep and long. By the time I had covered about half of the climb, I could no longer maintain any semblance of pace. I had to stop every few minutes simply to breathe! It was a “death march” to the top. The rain and hail we experienced on the way up presented no special problem (other than the time it took to take off my camelback pack, put on my raincoat, fiddle with zippers, and reposition my hydration system), but the rain had made the trail on the other side of the mountain a muddy mess. Traversing down the lower section of trail was much more like skiing than running. I had lost a lot of time. Once off the mountain and on the road to Winfield the last 3 or 4 miles to the turn around point was a run-walk up-hill. The cut-off time was officially 6 PM. The station-head has the prerogative to adjust this time depending upon conditions. In this case, runners were allowed to continue up to 6:15; I arrived at 6:17.
The Leadville Trail 100 was my 8th attempt at completing a 100 miler. I have experienced being an “official” finisher twice; an “unofficial” finisher once (9 minutes over the 30 hour cut-off); and a DNF, now 5 times. And I can relate that a DNF resulting from injury can be a blessing, but a DNF from simply missing a time cut-off and not injury or physical illness is a very empty feeling. It is the pits.
Sean went on to pace Keith Knipling. Sue Ellen and Tom took me “home.” We got some sleep and awoke early to go to the finish line to cheer for the “finishers.” We were happy to see the Virginia Happy Trails runners finish and especially the Kniplings, Gary and Keith, who are on their way to becoming the first father-son team to complete the Grand Slam of ultra running! It was great to see, but I have to be honest, I wished that I had been one of those tired runners making their way up the final climb to the finish line at 6th and Main.
So what was my take on this event? It was great; a wonderful experience in some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere in the USA! The aid stations were great; the people were kind and always helpful. The course was incredibly well marked, making it practically impossible to get lost. And the community of Leadville, I think, is precious. I suppose the old saying about a glass being either half empty, or half full, can apply to my experience at the LT 100. And yes, absolutely, my glass was way over half full!
August 21, 2006