Thursday, September 3, 2009

Racing Across the Sky in Leadville

Well, it's about time I get this report written. It's not going to get any easier. Writing about my experience at Leadville may help me get some closure and be able to move on. Don't get me wrong, it was a wonderful adventure with some great friends (including my wonderful husband) but it just didn't turn out the way I wanted.

Leading up to Leadville, the big news in our house was Caitlyn's first day of kindergarten. All summer she's been looking forward to going to the same school her mother went to many years ago. We were all up early for the first day of school. My mom came to town to watch the girls while we would be in Colorado and she brought with her a whole bunch of new school outfits so it was no problem getting Caitlyn dressed.

We got Caitlyn settled into her new classroom, figured out where to put her backpack and lunch box, and talked a bit with her teacher then it was time to leave my little girl. Wow, kindergarten.

A tender goodbye

Now that my little girl was safely tucked away in her class, it was time to start concentrating on my own great adventure. Pat and I hit the road and 16 hours later we pulled into our friends house in Crested Butte, Colorado, 1:30 AM. We were met with a warm cozy bed, fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, a couple Nalgene bottles full of water (gotta stay hydrated) and a sweet note welcoming us. Thank you Dan and Mary.

We spent Thursday exploring the wonderful little town of Crested Butte. I had run very little since my injury on Aug 1 so I decided to take a little run in the hills right near town. I met a lady who would be pacing one of Dan's neighbors at Leadville so we hit the trail together and that was a real treat. The leg still hurt but it wasn't debilitating. I had hope for Saturday.

BBQing fresh halibut flown in from Seattle

A little wine with your fish?

Early Friday morning we loaded up and headed across Cottonwood Pass to Leadville for medical check in and to get settled into the Delaware Hotel. I was surprised to find that my oxygen saturation was 91%. If I had a patient with that sat I would put them on an oxygen mask. Things are different at 10,200 ft.

The STEEP stairs at the historic Delaware hotel

Getting weighed in

Once again Ken whipped everyone into a frenzy declaring we would "commit, don't quit". I just wanted to get on the trail. The waiting was killing me. The not knowing if my leg would hold up, if I would be able to cross that finish line. I knew I was physically fit enough to do it and I just wanted a fair chance to prove it.

Merilee and Ken, the founders of this grand adventure

I spent the evening getting my stuff organized and ready for the next day. Pat and Dan would be crewing/pacing me so I didn't use drop bags. They would be at each aid station except Pipeline. Two days before, a military helicopter doing training operations crashed on Mt. Massive causing the Halfmoon area to be closed by the military. The race would be re-routed onto part of the bike race course before re-joining the Colorado Trail. I appreciate the military working with the race organizers in order to make this race happen. Running through this area the next day, my thoughts were on the 4 crew members who lost their lives.

After a few hours of sleep, race morning came early. I was surprised at how warm (relatively) it was. A sign of things to come. As I headed toward the start line I heard someone call my name. It was Jael, a new friend that I met at training camp. It was so good to see her. We snapped a picture, wished each other luck and after a countdown from 10, the infamous shotgun sounded that started over 500 runners on their way down the road.

Me and Jael at the start

The first few miles are a gradual downhill and I settled into a rhythm, if a bit painful. Right before getting to Turquoise Lake there's a nasty little powerline climb that I hadn't seen before and it was pretty amazing to see all the headlights spread out ahead and above me. I continued an easy pace around the lake thinking there was no way I would make my time split to May Queen at the slow pace I was going. So I was quite surprised to pull into the campground right on time. So far so good.

Dan joining me the last few feet to the aid station. Goofy guy.

I dropped my lights and was going to shed my long sleeve shirt but May Queen was COLD so I kept it on for the climb to Hagerman Pass Rd. I made good time over Powerline but the trouble started when I started the descent. My right leg/knee/ITB was hurting and I found myself favoring the leg which put more pressure on my left quad. It was already whining to me. I hit the pavement and did a run/walk to the Fish Hatchery aid station. I told Pat that I would finish but it probably wouldn't be pretty. I still had quite a bit of confidence in my ability to just keep moving forward. Plus I hit my second time split right on the money. 5 hours.

Looking back down at Turquoise Lake from Hagerman

My awesome pit stop crew got my hydration bladder filled, handed me a Nutella/Honey/Banana sandwich, and I was on my way for the dreaded road section. I told the guys I would be fine and they could just meet me at Twin Lakes. I planned to be there at 1pm.

Enjoying my sandwich. Thanks Pat!

This next section is long, hot, and exposed. It's level so it should be run easily but I just couldn't do it. I would pick phone poles and run past a couple then walk a bit. Run, then walk. It was all I could do and I noticed a lot of other people doing it too. It was here that I started seeing military helicopters flying through the valley and my thoughts turned to the crash. Made me grateful I could be in this beautiful place, doing something I love with great friends and family.

I passed through the unofficial Pipeline aid station without stopping, except to confirm with Merilee that there would be another aid station before Twin Lakes. She confirmed that there was one at Box Canyon just a few miles up the road. The road continued to be hot and exposed and it undulated allowing me to run occasionally. But I knew I was walking way too much. At this rate I would never reach Twin Lakes on time. But everytime I ran pain would shoot through my leg causing me to limp, putting more pressure on that left quad.

I finally made it to Box Canyon and after spending a little more time than I wanted to there (in an outhouse) I finally got back on the trail feeling a bit better. More undulating road then a final climb up to the Colorado Trail and familiar territory (from the training camp). It was so wonderful to be back on smooth singletrack in the canopy of aspens. The descent to Twin Lakes was just as long and annoying as it was at camp but I finally flung myself down the last steep pitch to the aid station. It was 1:03 PM. Right on time. I couldn't believe it. 40 miles in and I was feeling better and better. I was going to finish this thing!

Twin Lakes from the Colorado Trail

All smiles coming into Twin Lakes

I left TL ready to tackle Hope Pass. I almost ran race leader Anton Krupicka off the trail as I made my way to the river crossing. I looked down for a second right as he ran by and didn't see him so I couldn't get off the trail in time. He said excuse me very politely and kept right on running.

The cold water of Lake Creek felt great on the feet. It wasn't long after this little oasis that the real climbing began. And it is steep. I got into a slow rhythm that I knew I could sustain but it just felt too slow. At training camp I ran from TL to Winfield in 3:20 so I was giving myself 3:30-4:00 today. At this point the heat of the day was really beating down. Bikram yoga has given me an edge when it comes to heat but I know it was having an effect on me. That and the altitude. Turns out today would break records for Leadville, the hottest day of the year.

After an eternity I finally reached Hopeless Aid Station just below the summit. I had only heard of this AS and really looked forward to seeing it. To me it takes on a mystical quality considering it's so high and they use llamas to carry all the supplies up and camp up there in the preceeding days.

Hopeless AS but not hopeless yet


I finally reached the summit at 4pm. 4pm?! I was suppose to be at Winfield right now. How did that happen? I downed a Tylenol to help dull the pain in my legs and I started a very choppy, ugly descent to Winfield Rd. I knew Pat and Dan would start worrying about me since I was well behind my target time now. I checked my little paper with cut off times on it and was dismayed to see that Winfield was 6pm. I knew I could cover the last 5 miles in 2 hours but how was I suppose to get back in time? My dream started to fade.

After a long, painful trip down 3,000 ft I faced an annoying 2.5 miles of dirt road that climbed slightly to Winfield. I saw Jael coming the other way and I threw up my hands saying "cut-off". She yelled at me that I could still do it but I need to RUN! So I ran. Well, if you can call it that. I really wanted Pat to be able to pace me back to Twin Lakes so I forced myself to keep moving forward and beat that cut off. And I did. By 20 minutes.

Trying to hide the tears

I went through the aid station, got weighed (showed I was down 8 lbs) and checked out. I think I mentally gave up here. I know people have finished the race in time after leaving Winfield this late but I knew I would have trouble making the cut off at Twin Lakes since I could no longer run down steep hills. I was surprised to see Pat and Dan so adamant that I could still do it. My race wasn't over yet. They hadn't cut my wrist band off so let's GO!

Pat anxious to get me back over Hope

Pat threw on my hydration pack and we hit the trail. I would have 4 hours to get back to TL. Any other day that would have been plenty of time. But it took me over 4 hours to get to Winfield. So despite the odds, I was game to give it a try. We ran the whole section of road back to the trailhead where I had stashed my trekking poles. We started up the trail with Pat encouraging me every step of the way. I wouldn't stop. I wouldn't complain. I would try to stay positive for him......and for me. But it was hard. So hard to know that I was bringing up the rear of the pack. That my chances were getting slimmer by the minute.

The sun was setting and it made for a beautiful sky. We even saw a rainbow. We passed runners sitting beside the trail with head in hands, pacers fervantly trying to encourage them to get up and keep moving. Pat would offer his encouragement, tell them to keep moving forward and eventually they would. More than one would thank Pat for his words.

It was incredibly important to me that Pat get to pace me back to TL. That he get to see part of what I had been through. Where the wheels came off. I sacrificed so much during the year, time with my family because I needed to "get in a long run". So even though the dream had gone so terribly wrong, I was right where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do, with exactly the right person. I was standing on 12,600 foot Hope Pass, watching the sun set over the Rocky Mountains, with the man that I love.

The first few steps down from the pass were excrutiating and it didn't get much better over the next 5 miles. Every step would cause me to whimper and there was nothing I could do about it. I had heard of runners dropping out of Western States because they "blew their quads in the canyons" and I can honestly understand that now. But I kept going back to the fact that I had an untimely injury that caused me to stop running 3 weeks before the biggest race of my life. My legs just lost the ability to take a pounding.

As we descended, I noticed the TL cut off time come....and go. The pressure was off. There was no longer a reason to push it, as I had been still trying to do. We reached the creek and I gloried in the cold water on sore feet.

Pat and I made it back to TL where we met up with Dan who was dressed and ready to take me to the next aid station if I had made the time cut. Their enthusiasm and positive attitude was amazing. I know under different circumstances they would have gotten me to the finish. Thank you both so much. I got my wrist band cut off (something I NEVER want to have happen again) and I crawled into the front seat of the truck.

My faithful Mule

Dan, ready to run but nowhere to run

Pat was all the talk in my spare heart gaiters

We made it back to the Delaware where the stairs were as bad as I thought they would be (and would be worse in the morning coming down). I fell into a troubled sleep thinking of all the things I could have done different that would have had a more favorable outcome. But the bottom line is, there really is nothing I could have done different. But after putting so much time, effort, and money toward a singular goal, it was incredibly hard to walk away empty handed, knowing that I had failed.

Now I know that's a strong word, and many people would disagree with me. They would tell me to try and see all the successful things I did this year, all the races I ran, new friends I made, and the great shape I got into. Plus I just ran 60 tough miles, a personal best for me. And I do see that. It was an incredible year. I did things I've never done before. And I will be back. I have unfinished business in Leadville.

The next morning we got a bite to eat at Provin' Grounds before watching the last of the finishers cross that line. I needed to see the end of the race and be there for the last runner.

Merilee with the finishers medals, Ken with the shotgun

And that's it. 30 hours. Race over.