Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Don't Stop Believin': The Leadville Trail 100 Run

I often set my blog entries to music and there was really no better selection this time around than some positive, old school Journey.

The Leadville Trail 100, a grueling 100 mile run, takes place every August in the mountains above Leadville, Colorado. Many start this race. Far fewer make it through to the red carpet and finish line within the 30 hour absolute time limit. Even if one is perfectly trained, there are so many things that have the potential to go wrong; illness, injury, and plain old exhaustion from what this race does to a runner. To that end, it's important for the runner to consider enlisting some pacers to help him or her in the second half of the race, and crew members who can perform the basics of making sure the runner has proper gear and nutrition, as well as provide encouragement, motivation, or a plain old kick in the butt if it's what is necessary.

 I'd planned to be at the race in 2012 anyway, with several friends from Grand Junction signed up for the race when it sold out in early 2012. When my friend Ben texted last month, however, with the news that race founder Ken Chlouber himself had presented him with a gold coin...AKA a "golden ticket" that gave him entry into the sold-out race following his completion of the Leadville Trail Marathon, and would I please please consider pacing him, it became certain that I'd be going to the race to help a friend get to the finish line. Originally I was on only as a pacer. When I learned that he was going to do it crewless with just drop bags, I volunteered to crew until it was time for me to pace-still trying to keep it lowkey and simple-if that was reasonable to Ben. Ben was down with that, so I prepared to do the somewhat unusual combo of being sole crew member for 76 miles, and pacer for the last 24 miles. Silke, a friend of a friend with excellent running credentials would pace starting at 50 miles, and would also have her husband Ryan there to help. This was shaping up to be a good team effort even though some of us had never met.

We arrived in Leadville on Thursday night, not 100% sure what we were doing, but ready to see this thing through, drawing on what experiences we'd had to that point. Ben had never run 100 miles, nor had I. I did gain a lot of experience this summer on the support side of ultras, though, with the limited crewing stint at Western States, pacing at Hardrock, and as pure fan support/cheer at the Grand Mesa 100 for a couple of friends. Ben, for his part, is also a very strong trail runner, and quietly self-driven. He's always got a smile on his face and is just "good people." Training is important for the runner, but optimism and self-belief when the going gets rough and everything hurts-that's equally important. He ran the 50-miler in Leadville following his surprise golden ticket registration, ending up high on the finisher list despite running it as more of a training exercise to build confidence and endurance for the LT100. Despite the lack of long-term planning, things were shaping up well. On Friday, we hit up the packet pickup, scored his numbers, and attended the orientation meeting along with other friends, crew and pacers from Grand Junction.

We were still going to use drop bags, but I'd be getting the bags out prior to Ben's arrival at each aid station, readying items so that he could choose what he needed easily and head on his way. Some people bring in massive storage tubs on rollers and a full rig of towels, chairs, and other items to each aid station; it just made more sense for us to keep it simple, though. To that end, we made up bags, labeled them, discussed what would be good for each aid station, and packed them up.
Ben turned in pretty early that night. I spent a little time with friend Shannon, who would be crewing her husband Kevin, that evening, but also headed back to my van at a nearby campground pretty early. Soon, 3am was upon us. Ben had gotten a good 4-5 hours of sleep, and said he was pretty calm and relaxed during the wakeful time. Great-he hadn't been undone with stress and awake all night, so we were already off to a decent start. Soon we were at the start, ready to get the show on the road. And trails.
At 4am, the runners took off in a blur of headlamps down the road. It was quite the sight; an all-time high number of 800 starters ran by, including Ben and five other Grand Junction natives.
Once everyone had cleared out, I talked briefly to Elizabeth and Shannon. Shannon advised me that it would be kind of crazy at May Queen, the first aid station, at 13 miles. Runners would see it again at 88 miles. With that in mind I headed out quickly, and sure enough, it was a total zoo there. I was able to park Ben's truck off on the side of the road pretty easily, though, and made my way down to the aid station, gathering his drop bag and watching for him, and other runners coming through. Knowing friends would want updates, I started keeping a record of the times that friends came through, something I continued to do throughout the race, saving the info to a text and then shooting it out once Ben made it through each one.

Ben arrived to May Queen right on schedule at 6:15. He looked good, and didn't want to sit, which made sense. This was pretty early on. He asked about a handheld water bottle, which hadn't been sorted into the May Queen bag. No major catastrophe, though, as he had his pack with water. He was hoping for sunglasses, too, which were in the car somewhere. I made a mental note to find them for the next aid station. It was still dark now, so he'd wind up having to make do without the glasses for a bit. Soon he was off again, and I headed down the road to Fish Hatchery, the 23 mile and 76 mile aid station. Here, it was the first truly social aid station. Many of the support teams skipped May Queen, but everybody was here. The sun was coming up, and the temperatures cool and pleasant.
Friends Kevin, Marty, and Chris came through, and then I knew it was time to start watching for Ben. I had no idea what had become of the handheld water bottle but found some sunglasses, and the hat I thought Ben wanted. He came through, and it turned out that I'd grabbed the wrong pair of sunglasses from the car. The hat, though, was a pretty nice desert hat that would keep sun off the face and neck. This was good enough, and he was still feeling great. I felt bad about the minor snafus but Ben wasn't dwelling on them. Still, I didn't want to have any more issues. He headed off down the road, and I got ready to move along to the aid station where I'd cheered and crewed briefly for friend Bryan last year-Twin Lakes.

It's a true party atmosphere at Twin Lakes. The runners hit this aid station at 40 miles, and again at mile 60 after their double trip over Hope Pass, so many crews and teams stay out here for a large portion of Saturday. I'd be meeting Silke and her husband Ryan here so that she could be introduced to her runner prior to picking him up to pace at 50 miles. Since Ryan would be heading to the Winfield aid station-one I'd been advised to avoid at all costs-with Silke, I would be able to have some down time. Silke, Ryan and I found one another pretty easily at Twin Lakes, and we hung out near the ridge that the runners bomb down by the aid station. I still could not find any sign of a handheld water bottle, but had fashioned hand-made ones with disposable bottles and duct tape.
I followed the now-familiar pattern of seeing Kevin, Marty, and Chris come in. I hadn't really anticipated using the other guys as markers, but it was helping out in terms of knowing when to be on alert for Ben to arrive. Soon I started seeing runners who had come through just before him at the previous two aid stations, and got the game face on. I'd found the correct sunglasses and hat, so I felt like I was in a good rhythm now and ready for a quick transition. Soon, we saw our runner bounding down the hill, looking relaxed and fluid, and only slightly off the pace for his somewhat aggressive first-timer goal. While "finishing" is typically the best first-timer goal at Leadville, I also know firsthand how important that can be the first time out to have a goal in mind. Ben wasn't rigid to this, but the sub-25 hour big belt buckle was in the back of his head if things went as perfectly as they could.
Silke and I ran up to Ben, greeted him, and then ran him through the aid station. As it had turned out, the "wrong" hat I'd given him at the previous aid station was great for the intense sun. We switched out the hats, and he took the correct glasses. I offered the homemade hand-held, but he opted to go without, keep using the pack, and headed off down the road. Things were definitely going more smoothly now, and nearing the halfway point, things were looking pretty good. There was still a LONG way to go, though.
Rather than just heading back to the campground and my van to nap, I stuck around Twin Lakes with some of the other GJ-area crews. Kevin's team had full costumes on, and soon they had me in Kevin's superman costume as well. He'd worn it on Halloween the year prior, a child's costume cut in half, lamenting that "I just wanted to be a ninja." I doubt I'd have been able to nap if I'd left, and this fun, casual down time suited me just as well in terms of staying relaxed and calmly focused on the rest of the race. Ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek paced then-leader Tony Krupicka into the aid station, and afterward, we managed to get a picture with the down-to-earth and friendly guy who then posted the picture to his Twitter page. The police officers handling traffic on the road at Twin Lakes also pulled us aside for a photo-op.

I stayed until Kevin, who had gotten VERY sick coming over Hope Pass, made it in, and got back out after Shannon, Bryan and Elizabeth worked to get him feeling semi-human again. Ryan, Silke's husband, had texted me that Silke was now with Ben, and that he still looked good. I headed back to the campground, gathering up my things and changing clothes to get ready to pace the home stretch. I also stopped to get some real food. Even though we wouldn't be running fast and would likely be hiking from 76 miles to the finish, it was important that I take care of myself and stay well-fed and hydrated. I got a text saying that Ben and Silke were through Twin Lakes inbound. He was maybe an hour off that A-game time goal, and looked better than most according to Ryan. I made it to Fish Hatchery late in the evening, and met Ryan right away-he was parked a mere two vehicles over from me. It was nice to be able to chat with him, and to also use his smartphone app that let him know where Silke was with Ben. They'd slowed down quite a bit but were still moving-excellent news, considering that he'd been up and over Hope Pass twice, and was entering the late stages of this thing.

I took a brief one-hour rest/lay down period, and that gave me a nice recharge. Kevin was in eventually, and looked markedly better than at Twin Lakes inbound, where he honestly looked ready to keel over and quit. This is where having crew and pacers is so important; they helped him to get back out there again, and somehow, he was back in this. Marty came through eventually, also looking better than he'd apparently been earlier, after coming off Hope Pass. Then came Chris, Jeff, and our friend Kirk, who has run this thing 17 times. I wasn't concerned, though-as long as Ben and Silke were still moving forward, it was all good. Soon, Ben and Silke were in, and Ben was still smiling. He was tired but still looked like a guy who believed and knew he'd make it to the finish line in Leadville. Heading up to the aid station tent, we got him the food and drink he'd need, took a quick team picture, and then Ben and I headed out, 76 miles into his race. It was close to 1am now.

 As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, there was a great post from another ultrarunner on the Footfeathers blog about being an ultra pacer. It was comical, and all about art of balancing the runner's needs at any particular moment with the pacer's amped up energy and readiness. I wasn't sure if Ben would be talking, silent, wanting songs and jokes, or something else. As we headed down the road, I couldn't believe how chipper, positive, and super-conversational he was still able to be. He asked "Do you want to hear my new goal? 29 hours, 59 minutes (a minute ahead of the absolute cutoff)!" Reality had set in that it wasn't going to be sub-25 hours his first time out, and he was totally okay with it.  I texted his sister Jessica to let her know that Ben looked good and that we were, in fact, telling "That's What She Said" jokes at that given moment. I also updated to Facebook so his mom Bea and others could follow along, before we started the big climb up Powerline. Heading down the road, we were at a brisk hiking pace. This was great-keep in mind, Ben had been moving since 4am. That's 21 hours.

 Soon, we could hear some strange music in the woods that got closer and closer. Eventually, we passed a house where what could best be described as Mexican romance music was being blasted. We laughed our way past this absurd distraction, and then hit the trail for the long, steady climb up Powerline. As the name suggests, this section of trail runs underneath a powerline and straight up the side of the mountain. We weren't hammering the trail, but somehow managed to pass quite a few teams as we climbed without even trying. Ben's a strong climber, and and we just kept a steady pace, admiring the starry night skies, and feeding off the wonderful energy of being out here in the quiet of the night, looking at the steady stream of head lamps moving up the mountain. There were several false summits and climbs, but Ben wasn't fazed. We moved in a calm, slow, steady hike up the hill, stopping for a brief recharge here or there, but really no stopping. Finally, we crested the high point of the trail-no more climbing! The stars were amazing. We looked up to admire them several times, and kept plugging away.

 Heading down, we hit hardpack road, and Ben was quieter now. I was feeling oddly sleepy. There wasn't much technical to mess with here, and in a way, than was as mentally taxing as anything. I looked around to keep myself awake, but I sensed that the quiet was good and didn't run at the mouth. Soon, though, Ben was needing to stop and re-group regularly. It didn't worry me-I could only imagine how badly his body hurt, and how the lack of sleep was beginning to mess with the head. Ben started being very concerned about time, and what mile we were at on the course, and how soon we'd be to May Queen, the last aid station. It was SO close, yet so far away.  I assured him that we were making good time, and that it was okay to not know exactly what mile we were in at that given moment. He was worried about it in a way that he had not been until this point, though.

 Walking slowly down the trail, I became aware that Ben had dropped back a bit, but I kept moving. As long as we were moving, even slowly-it was forward progress. All of a sudden, though, I heard Ben say "this seems awful silly for a belt buckle. I've gotta lay down." I turned around and he was down on the ground, laying down and looking up at the stars. One thing you want to avoid at all costs is your runner sitting or laying down late in the race, and if it happens, the pacer needs to get that runner up and moving as quickly as possible before it becomes an exercise in futililty. Instinctively, I said "you can look at the stars, but you NEED to stand up." There was a moment there when I didn't know if I was in for a fight, or if he'd get up easily. After a brief pause, he got up. We turned off the head lamps, looked at the starry skies again, and then I said something to the effect of okay, let's start moving again. His brief attempt to quit the race was over before it even started, and we continued to move down the road.

Soon, we hit the turn back onto trail. Fellow runner John Constan had described it as being steep and hard to see in the dark, but something you just have to go for without daintily stepping onto it. This change of scenery and step onto more challenging terrain was a welcome change. It required focus, and the variety of twists and turns provided a much needed shot of adrenaline. Here, in the dark, we came upon fellow Grand Junction runner Jeff, and chatted with him for a bit before moving past. The trail seemed to flow naturally, and I didn't have to look too hard for the glow sticks as it wound and curved past trees and over a few nice bridges/water crossings. We also passed a runner with an incredibly loud pack, blasting country music from some source within the pack. We couldn't tell if this was his music of choice, or something designed to be annoying and thus keep him awake. Regardless, we'd climbed up from the low point not too long ago, and this was good. The focus was on continuing to that May Queen aid station. I told Ben that a brief 5-10 minute sit would be totally cool here, and great to re-charge; we just didn't want him sitting or getting too warm and comfortable beyond that. He was agreeable, and soon we could hear the distant sounds of the May Queen aid station with cheering aid station workers and crew.

Once again, I found myself on a road lined with cars in the dark, just like the morning prior. It was a small victory of sorts to make it here after that low point/laydown not too long ago. Ben chowed down on a nice bowl of potatoes and hung out near the space heater. I shoveled down some watermelon and ramen noodles, hit the port-a-johns, and grabbed what Ben needed from his drop bag. When I said it was about time to go, there were no arguments, and we moved out quite easily. Other runners were not faring so well, and a number had seemingly given up the fight to move forward, wrapped in blankets on cots. That was the last aid station; there was still a long way to go, but we were in the home stretch.

 Moving down the road a bit, we eventually hopped onto the trail that would take us all the way around Turquoise Lake. It's said that runners go through many stages over the course of 100 miles; it was unbelievable that now, after almost 90 miles, Ben was back to smiling and joking again. I threw out another "That's What She Said" joke to which Ben responded "WEEEAK! C'mon. You can do better." He was definitely back, confident, believing he was going to make it through. In that rough patch, he was trying to do running math, which every runner will tell you just doesn't work...this was especially so after 24 hours on foot. Ben was believing me now when I said he had this thing so long as he kept moving to the finish. Moving around the lake, he was even able to jog small sections, and whenever he wanted to do that, I went with it until he had to hike again.

As the sun began to rise, we marveled at how this was now the second sunrise he was seeing as a racer. The air was calm, and daylight on the lake was another welcome, beautiful sight. I sent out another text as we came around the lake, updating friends and family that we were coming upon 95 miles and about to get off the trail from the lake and into the final stretch toward that finish line. It was starting to set in now that Ben WAS going to do this. He was going to finish. The exact time was up in the air but there was no question now that he would do it. It's sort of a cruel joke that while we weren't far from finish line, the actual course kind of meandered sideways along the perimeter of Leadville for a bit with some pretty good climbs. We started cracking with other teams about it being the Walking Dead moving toward the finish. Nobody was running, but everyone was feeding of that energy and knowledge that there were only a few more miles to cover.

The warm sun further energized us; it had gotten pretty cold overnight and this was a nice change. Checking in on my phone, I started reading Ben messages and well-wishes from Facebook; there, I read that his sister Jessica had made it there with his dog Leila, and would be waiting for us at 99 miles. We reached 98 miles and the smiles and good vibes were all around despite extreme fatigue and pain of covering that distance on foot. The tendons on the front of Ben's feet were just throbbing, and he hurt all over. When we climbed uphill, I tried to redirect toward thinking about how good it felt to stretch things out as we climbed. Sure, I knew this wouldn't change how bad he hurt, but anything that took his mind off it for a minute would help. Then, we were there-99 miles.

(pic via Jessica Hauschulz) 

Jessica appeared with Leila, instantly perking Ben up to see his sister and his dog. We continued down the road together, moving amongst slowly moving, but MOVING teams of runners and pacers. The excitement in the air was palpable. Soon, we could hear the finish line announcer in the distance.

Clearing the last big hill, we headed down the road and then started the final climb to the finish. Ben was going to do it. So many people had dropped already, and he didn't even know a month ago that he'd be here; nor did I. He'd tried to quit at 87 miles, almost losing the dream there. And now he was about to do something that few dream of doing or training for.

When that red carpet was in sight, we all started trotting toward it together, hearing "and please welcome Benjamin Hauschulz!" In that moment when he crossed, a crazy dream that a lot of logical types wouldn't have attempted was realized. Run 100 miles? Crazy. After officially training-albeit, with a strong base-for a month? No way. I nearly broke down then but managed to keep it together as the race director hung a finisher medal around his neck and hugged him warmly. It was one of those beautiful moments in life when someone's work, the struggle, the effort had all paid off, and the emotion of it was an incredible thing. Amongst a great group of trail running friends, Ben's an exceptionally positive light who is always a pleasure to be around, and run with. His finish here was an unlikely, wonderful moment. It's also a reminder to not shy away from challenges and golden opportunities. One never knows if and when they may come around again.
(Jessica, with Ben, 2012 Leadville Trail 100 finisher, official time, 28 hours, 20 minutes, 20 seconds)

(**With a finish rate this year of less than 50% of the starting field, great congratulations to all the Grand Junction area runners, who logged a 100% finish rate despite a variety of issues and challenges that could have easily ended their races: Marty, 24:05, 58th overall, Kevin, 24:23, 65th overall, Chris, 25:12, 83rd overall, Kirk, 27:07, 124th overall and 18TH FINISH AT LEADVILLE(!) with no DNFs, Ben, 28:20, 186th overall, and Jeff, 28:50, 238th overall. You ALL are beyond inspirational and motivating.**)