Leadville 100: Race Across the Sky
I’m not sure how I got roped into crewing at Leadville, but I would not have had it any other way. In the last few years, I have learned that saying “yes” more often than “no” leads to amazing experiences and this specific race was no different.
Across this past weekend at Leadville, I learned about limits, I learned some about what to say and what not to say to someone at their ultimate edge, and I learned critical lessons about what it means to bow out of a race with absolute dignity.
I will never be able to put into words what Doug went through, mostly because I’m not even close to crazy enough to attempt a 100-mile run. However, I’ll attempt to share what I experienced during my 2am-8am shift pacing Doug up and over Powerline, between Outward Bound and Queen May during the Leadville 100.
To be honest, I was worried about him starting from 4pm the day before our leg together, when he did not turn up at the Winfield aid station when we were expecting. We waited and waited and then, with 11 minutes to spare, he appeared from the top of the trail, made his way through the aid station and then started to attempt the impossible.
It’s hard to perform when you’re behind the eight ball. And Doug was most definitely behind the proverbial eight ball. Not only had he cut the Winfield aid station so close that people were screaming with panic during a 30+ hour race (the extended course did little to help, admittedly) but he was fighting time cuts and a slowing body to allow him to stay on course for the remaining 50 miles. By a miraculous will and amazing feat, he managed to do so.
After our first pacer exchange and drive back to Leadville, I took a quick cat nap in my car, praying that Doug would make the next two cut-offs—but also fully aware that I may just wake up to my 1am alarm only to head back to sleep because he had not made it in time. But he made it. Due to amazing racing by Doug and pacing duties by Trent and Kris, Doug and Kris rolled into Outward Bound with about 10 minutes to spare and then my pacing duties began.
Aside: if you ever get the chance to pace someone in an Ultra, you must do it. No questions asked. The absurdity of it is the fact that you pick someone up, acknowledging that they have already run over 70 miles and, while not mentioning it explicitly, ask them to find another gear. The goal of the pacer is to help your athlete achieve their goals. But what if they have reached their limit and they are experiencing a total body shut-down and have nothing left to give? This was the issue we ran into last weekend.
The first two miles, Doug was on a mission. We got into a solid rhythm and were executing a walk-run pace that had us quickly moving through the ranks and passing close to a dozen people. We then approached the infamous climb that is Powerline. I’m glad I never got the opportunity to see this climb in the light, because it certainly would have been intimidating. Basically, the road bends and then it turns straight up. I’m convinced it’s put in the race simply to trash quads and demoralize athletes.
Even in the dark it was hard to differentiate where the headlamps on the path ahead of us ended and where the stars above us started. But somehow the darkness served as a protector and distracted us from just how steep this section was—or perhaps Doug knew better, I just did not.
His run-walk pace slowly disintegrated into a walk-pause pace. Kris had warned me of this some during our hurried exchange, but I never knew that I would not have the strength to compel him onwards. I told him, like a very green school-teacher, that we would only get to stop and catch our breaths for 15-seconds at a time, each time. Every time we paused I would peer at my watch, expecting I would have the fortitude to get him moving again when that quarter of a dial expired. And yet it was so hard to speak up. One look at him and you knew he was right on the edge of pain.
However, I know the pain Doug was in at that moment. Maybe not physically—mile 82 of an Ultra is a totally different beast than anywhere of an Ironman—but mentally, absolutely. To want to quit and to know that quitting would be best for your body—but not willing to accept that as the most reasonable outcome.
There was an awkward thirty or so minutes where I think we both knew that there was no realistic chance he would make the cut-off—and yet we pushed onwards. There were moments when I tried to say something stern or attempt to encourage to get him moving… and would hear my voice cracking at the end, trying not to cry knowing that my advice was probably useless given the limit he had reached. We tried to time his eating and drinking with the body’s rejection of all food and balance when he could take in calories and when to delay fueling for fear of spitting it all back up.
Around mile five of our leg, nearing the top of Powerline, the sag vehicles caught up to us. Doug asked that they stay back (the exhaust was nauseating, even for those who didn’t have 80-miles under their feet) and it was annoying to have them breathing down our necks. Doug asked them to allow us to work our way forward without any intervention and thankfully they hung back.
After some back and forth and finally the ATVs backing off, Doug then started wondering whether the time cut-offs had changed with the new, longer course and so I ran back to the vehicles to see whether we still had to make the 6:30am cut-off, despite a course that was a whopping 4 miles longer. The officials told us that nothing had changed. The cut off was still 6:30 at Queen May. The good news? They were going to let Doug try to make up the time to the cut-off, even if it was a completely unrealistic proposition.
Finally, at some point after cresting Powerline (loved the unofficial aid station at the false summit, featuring aliens and a massive “GREAT F*CKING JOB!” banner) and attempting and failing to run the technical path down, Doug conceded that his race was over. Looking back, it gives me so much admiration for the type of person Doug is: he was more worried about letting down his crew and his family than he was about his own outcome and self. I can only hope that one day I too have a support crew that powerful and meaningful.
And so Doug walked the remaining two hours (to reach a total of 88 miles) under a beautiful sunrise to the final aid station, rather than giving up and letting the Sag wagon wheel us home. At one point he was even considering whether he could make it to the final 104 mile finish line, unofficially, despite being so far behind the time cut-offs. Now that is class.
With less than a mile to go, after texting Whiting the latest status, Whiting, Ariana and Lucy walked up the trail to meet us. My pacing duties were officially over but I still couldn’t help but feel like I let Doug down and that both of us now have unfinished business at Leadville.
Related, I admittedly have been struggling a lot with triathlon recently. I have had 3 DNFs in the last 2 years, admittedly mostly outside of my control, but that doesn't make them sting any less. But to be a “partner in crime” to someone else’s DNF and to not be able to see them through to the finish and to witness that own struggle first-hand was certainly staggering.
I wish I knew what I could have done for Doug differently. I wish that Doug could have had the day he so deserved and that he walked away with a golden belt buckle and an exhausted run up to the finish with his three wonderful girls, Whiting, Melina, McKenna. And I wish I knew more about my own “purpose” and internal drive that could one day propel me to a finish under my own terms and conditions—even if unofficial—just like Doug pushed toward. I hope one day we all find these things.
The longer I stay in this sport, the more I learn that each experience is a life lesson—only just some are harder to stomach than others. Hell, it goes beyond sport—it applies to all parts of life. And so while this weekend was a tough lesson for Doug and his devoted crew, I hope that it provides the ammunition and learning experiences that we all need for a race somewhere in the future and so that we can earn the day we all so desire.
So thank you Doug for the lessons. You may not have had the perfect race you wanted, but you inspired so many in the process. Leadville will always be there and I hope that you have the fortitude to face it fearlessly again and again, and walk away content having conquered it in your own style and under your own set of rules. 💙