Leadville – The Town
We arrived in the town of Leadville late Thursday afternoon. A Florida flat lander, I was apprehensive that the altitude was going to wreak havoc on me. The town of Leadville, where we were to stay pre and post-race, sits at 10,200 feet, which is the highest altitude of any incorporated city in North America. I armed myself with Altitude RX pills – which I discovered via accolades on Amazon – and hoped for the best.
Leadville is a former silver mining town in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. In the 19th century, Leadville was the second most populous city in Colorado, with Denver being first. Today, the population is under 3,000, almost 100% less than its former population of 30,000, although the expansive cemetery is still home to some 20,000 deceased.
Harrison Street, the main street in town, was equipped with the basics – a coffee shop, some restaurants, a few mountain/running/cycling shops, an antique shop and banks and such. There was an old world quaintness to Leadville – a laid-back vibe that juxtaposed the roaming mountainous landscape. Come explore, the mountains seemed to beckon; adventure awaits!
Leadville Trail 100 – The Race
LT100 was organized in 1983, by Ken Chlouber, who was determined to rescue Leadville from the brink of disaster; after the Climax Mlybdenum mine shut in the 1980’s, Leadville suffered from the highest unemployment in the nation. The LT100 was Ken’s brainchild to attract athletes and economics to the city. The first year, one woman and forty-four men toed the start line on Harrison and 6th Street. That year, only 10 of the runners finished.
This year, 650 participants toed the start line with 305 ultimate finishers; clearly, the race has come a long way, as has the toughness of ultra-marathoners! We learned, though, that 650 was a welcomed number in comparison to the 1200 or so that toed the line a few years back. Apparently, since Lifetime Fitness acquired the race series in 2010, there have been a number of changes, which is to be expected when a public company takes over a race from individual race directors. That said, the grueling course, which includes some 18,000 feet of elevation gain and traverses from May Queen to Outward Bound to Half Pipe to Mount Elbert to Twin Lakes over Hope Pass to Winfield – and then back – has not changed. The temperatures fluctuate during the race as does the terrain and mountain ranges. At the start, it was a frigid 30-40 degrees, while during the day the temps likely rose to the 70’s, and when nightfall came, it felt to me like it was 20 degrees, although I believe it was in the 30’s.
LT 100 is part of the Grand Slam of Ultra Running, with the other three races being Vermont 100, Western States 100 and the Wasatch 1000. The course records at LT 100 are held by Matt Carpenter (15:42) and Ann Trason (18:06). This year, the winner, Ian Sharman, finished the race in a smashing 16:33.
I was in the company of two race first timer LT 100 runners, who were amongst some 500 LT100 newbies. One of our runners – William “Chip” Corley –had completed four 100 mile races to date, but he had no idea of what he was getting himself into – trails, altitude, and all. Our other runner – Dr. Steve Donchey – was seeking to complete the LeadMan, which consists of a Leadville 10K, marathon, 50 miler (bike or run), 100 mile bike race, with the final chapter being the 100 mile run. Having been out to Leadville a few times already this summer, Steve had an inkling of what he was in for. On a positive note, we had an experienced crew to see our runners through, including Gary Werning, National Cycling Director’s Assistant from Life Time Fitness, who knew the course well. As a side note, Steve had literally saved Gary’s life years back, when Gary had a freak and life threatening bike accident during the 210 Leadville 100 bike race. One of Gary’s goals was to pace Steve through to a finish at LT00. The secret weapons amongst us were Andre and Ludi Chaves, the founders of Down to Run (DTR). They had ventured to Colorado two weeks back and had already completed a host of 14 er’s (meaning 14,000 foot mountain ascents and descents) prior to our arrival.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Ultra-Running
Most ultra-runners love to talk about their adventures on the trail or road, various gear and fuel that they have come to love and rely upon, races, race directors, the best courses, coaches, things they have learned along the way. The thing that most ultra-runners don’t talk about openly prior to a race is the fear factor. I’m afraid is perhaps the bravest and most honest statements that an ultra-runner – or anyone – can admit. On a personal level, fear is the emotion that overcomes me prior to a 100 mile race. I fear the race itself, being out through the night, if the trail is technical. I fear stomach issues, I fear if I am wearing the right clothes/gear, if I trained enough, if my 84-year old dad—who accompanies me to races—will be okay. I fear failure, and sometimes I fear success as it can lead to now what syndrome? I fear if I will be able to keep racing, and I fear taking myself too seriously and missing out on the adventure—the fun and the joy of running long and far.
This time around, I wasn’t running. I was there to crew my buddies. And yet, the fear was still there. What if I wasn’t a good crew? What if I inadvertently did something that messed up their race? What if I didn’t make it to an aid station on time? What if we couldn’t find our runners? In short, I feared failing our runners. I even experienced the same restless sleep pre-race night that I experience if I am the runner. What did I deduce from this? Basically that running and crewing both induce fear and stress and both require patience, persistence, and commitment.
Crew Common Sense
I have had the good fortune to run a lot of ultras in the past few years, which translates into my not crewing as much as I had in the past. I approached this experience with focus and commitment: all that mattered was our runners and seeing them across that finish line. A positive attitude was necessary at all times, as was flexibility, which translates into the need to adapt plans at a moment’s notice, depending on our runner’s disposition and physical state. The race was not about me, but about my ability to assist the guys and take care of them. I’ve witnessed crews fighting amongst themselves, not working as a team, and not anticipating their runner’s needs, and I was determined not to commit any of those crew fallacies. What I have learned from being out on the road is that a smile goes a long way, a hug is welcome when you feel like your life is falling apart. While “How do you feel?” seems like a solid question each time you see your runner, it really doesn’t really cut it. It sucks to be out there killing yourself running and so you’re never going to feel great. It’s better to lay out all the supplies that your runner may need and let him/her pick from them. When you come in off the trail or road, it’s a bit of a hazy lost-in-space feeling. It’s better to just hand your runner something salty and something sweet and let them choose.
For me, it’s an honor to be there helping someone else to achieve a dream. That said, if your runner is rude or not fully themselves during a race, then chill out. It’s nothing personal. It is just a person trying to survive in difficult and demanding conditions. We were very lucky to have some great crew in attendance, and two amazing pacers: Andre joined Chip the last 50 miles of his journey, while Gary joined Steve close to 40 miles of his journey. Superstars all the way!
From the sidelines
The most amazing part of crewing is that you get to witness the runners and their crews throughout the day and night. I love running. But even more than that, I love to see others in the heat of the battle and witness their courage in going back out on the trail, their good cheer and thankfulness when it comes to their friends and loved ones helping them. To witness runners struggling and see them resurrect and push their way through, is nothing short of a miracle. There is an indescribable and incredible allure to ultra-running: for the majority of us, there is no prize, no fame, nothing but the opportunity to persevere and commit when quitting is such an easier option. To me, every runner who toes the line is brave, insane, and inspirational!
Our runners came into Winfield, the 50 mile aid station, which comes after they hit the daunting Hope Pass at mile 44 (elevation of over 12,000 feet), a bit shattered. To clarify, they looked as if they had just battled a bear, and we were asking them to sit a few minutes before we told them they had to get back up and battle the bear one more time. Other runners who made it to Winfield were not so lucky. Distressed runners who missed the 14 hour cutoff were more the norm than not. Crew mate Ludi and I got to drive a runner who was dropping out back to Twin Lakes to meet his wife and crew, who were waiting for him back there. He indicated more than once that his ultra-running career was over, that he was done with races, but something tells me that won’t be the case after a few weeks’ time.
I am fascinated by the human spirit – by the desire to push and commit and to focus. I am amazed at all of the smiling faces you encounter at an ultra-marathons, regardless of the pain and suffering. It is the most beautiful mural of humanity that I have ever encountered. Whenever I debate a race – if I just remember the we-are-all-in-it-trying-to- survive-together vibe, then I know it’s what I am meant to be doing.
Our runners both persevered and made it through the finish line. Chip finished his first Leadville Trail 100 in 28: 29 and vowed never again to this race; Steve crossed the finish line in 28: 55 and earned the Leadman title. While he seemed insistent on not returning for the 100 mile race, my hunch is that he will return for the 100 mile bike race, which he has completed for the past few years. For me, as a bystander and crew, I remembered what I love about these events: the chance to succeed when you feel so sure that you cannot go on. The chance to finish something that seems so far from your grasp. It’s the realization that only the toughest things in life teach you: that you are truly so much stronger than you think you are, and that your capabilities are endless.