My friend Aisha places a hand on each of my shoulders. “You got this,” she says. “You totally got this.”
We’re standing in a campground parking lot, in front of a folding TV-dinner tray table, a pyramid of snacks on top: bananas, coffee, coconut water, tortillas, almond butter, dried pineapple, chocolate-covered blueberries, potato chips, Coca-Cola, cooked vegetables, Red Bull. The thought of food makes me want to gag, so I force a bite of dry tortilla. “OK. Four hours?”
“Four hours,” Aisha repeats back. I brush my teeth. It’s just before 6 a.m.
For the past nine or so hours, I’d been chasing the cutoff times at each aid station in the Leadville Trail 100 Run — trying to reach the food and water resupply locations (each between seven and 13 miles apart) before they closed the gates to the next section. I felt like Princess Peach trying to collect every coin before advancing to the next level, only with some type of tornado closing in on me by the second.
Now I was down to the final stretch: 12.5 miles to the finish line, right where Sixth Street and Harrison Avenue intersect in downtown Leadville, and I had just under four hours to complete it. Three-ish miles per hour doesn’t seem so horrible for a run, but I’d already run/walked 87.5 miles over the past 26 hours. I was getting a little tired.
I swallow a second bite of tortilla and leave Aisha at the aid station with the rest of my crew — a handful of other friends and family who’d been sporadically waking up throughout the night to dry my swollen feet, refill my water bottles and make sure I was eating enough. Altogether they operate not unlike a NASCAR pit crew.
Jordan, my fiance, follows behind me from the parking lot; it’s his turn to be my “pacer.” His job is to keep me on track to reach the finish line before 10 a.m., and also to listen as I grumble about the dull pain emanating from my shins. If I keel over, he’ll make sure I’m safe, and he carries my supplies, which at this point includes extra clothes, water and the only thing I’m capable of eating anymore, caffeinated gummies.
“OK, we’ve got four hours,” I say to him, smacking my trekking pole tips on the pavement.
“Got it.” He’s all bundled in two jackets and leggings under his shorts. Dawn, barely broken, had leveled a simmering fog over Turquoise Lake, the body of water we were about to circumnavigate. We break into an aggressive speed walk once we hit the trail again.
It wasn’t always like this, feeling like I was constantly chasing something (or being chased). At one point in the race I was a full two hours ahead of the cutoff times. But then, Hope Pass sucker-punched me on my second go-around.
• • • •
The Leadville Trail 100 Run is an out-and-back course, meaning you run 50 miles in one direction, then turn around and come back the exact way you came. The finish line is exactly where you start, and the hardest section — Hope Pass — hits right before and again after the half-way mark. Per race rules, runners must do the first 50 miles alone, but once you turn to head back into town, you’re allowed one pacer at a time; for the rest of the race, they can carry the seven-ish pounds of water, food and gear you’ve been lugging on your back all day. Importantly, they also keep you company as you run overnight, where hallucinations and injury are known to peak.
When I told other runners that Leadville would be my first ultra-marathon (ever), most responded with mouths agape quickly curling into sadistic smiles. Throughout the course, dubbed “The Race Across the Sky,” you run/walk between 9,200 and 12,600 feet above sea level the entire time, and you accumulate over 18,000 feet in elevation change (that’s only a little less than going from Everest’s base camp to its summit and back down). When you’re up that high in Colorado, the air pressure is so low, the oxygen is 30- to 40-percent less abundant than if you were at the beach.
And when you’re slugging uphill, already on mile 55, oxygen is the one thing you want most.
I’d been huffing for what felt like eternity by the time my friend Kyle, my first pacer, and I plod up the final switchbacks on the backside of Hope Pass — placing down one foot, one trekking pole, one foot, one trekking pole. This was my second time moving through the section’s grassy alpine slope, this time watching the aspen grove below us shrink, not grow.
By the time we near the pass’s crest, Kyle had been with me for almost five miles, but those five miles had taken us three hours, and the sun was starting to set. The higher we get, the slower my feet, the faster my teeth chatter. I’m only wearing a long-sleeved shirt and thin windbreaker, and the alpine wind has no sympathy; I hadn’t brought more layers because I hadn’t thought it would take me so long to get back up the pass again. The first time up I’d chit-chatted with other racers, pardoning my step around the wind-suckers leaning over trees, hands on knees. I’d smiled the whole way. Now, I’m scooting off trail at every switchback so they can pass me. Now, I’m trying not to hurl.
“At. Least. It’s. Downhill. After. This.” I envision the swooshy six-mile descent that lay on the other side, the joy and freedom of downhill running.
Kyle, steadily behind me, says, “I know you feel like you’re moving like a snail, but you’re really crushing it.”
Just keep telling me that, I think. I am losing feeling in my fingers so I wrap them in my shirt sleeve and press my palms into the tops of my trekking poles, leveraging them now like canes. I stop replying to Kyle’s commentary. The higher we get, the stronger the wind, and in the pass’s saddle I can hardly stand; the wind beats me side to side. Just a quarter-mile down the other side is an intermediary aid station, and I need to get down to warmth, to oxygen, to food. Fast.
I take my first step down the descent trail, relieved the hardest part of the race is finally over, and I nearly collapse in surprise. My left knee won’t hinge without a searing pain.
I pause, then stumble as I try stepping forward again, only awkwardly catching myself with my trekking poles. What is going on? My leg can bear weight without issue, but the act of bending my lower leg back and forward, simply hinging at the knee, sends a shooting pain up from the back intersection of my knee and my calf.
We can see the next aid station down in the valley: dozens of people buzzing around, tents propped up sheltering food, a fire pit glowing. Behind me, Kyle says, “OK, just take it one step at a time.” If he helps me walk, I am disqualified.
“One. Step. At. A. Time.” I grunt. At least I’m not fixated on being cold anymore. It’s just before 8 p.m.
At the aid station, I slurp a cup of warm broth and sit down on a log in front of the fire. Someone hands me a sleeping bag and when I push my feet and hands close to the flames, pins and needles bloom. Llamas, which I’m sure I’m not hallucinating, are grazing or napping in the grassy slope behind me (they’d carried up all the station’s supplies earlier that morning). In the belly of a serene alpine valley, the contrasting human hustle makes me feel like I’m sitting at a camp on the Gold Rush’s Klondike trail.
Kyle breaks my daze. “Can you try eating saltines?” I take one from his palm, wary.
We continue down the rocky switchbacks after 10 minutes of rest. To mitigate the pain, I develope a breathing pattern. As my right foot hits the ground, I inhale. When I lower my left leg down, as straight as possible, I sharply exhale. The sun is long gone, and I try not to think about the upcoming river crossing that lies at the base of the mountain, being so cold already and not wanting to wade, again, through icy-cold water. What if I get hypothermia?
My plan had been to run this entire section, the swishy miles to the next aid station where Aisha and my friends and family waited. But, no, Kyle and I walk every step: down, ouch, down, ouch. I arrive at Twin Lakes, the next aid station, with less than half an hour to spare before they close the gates. It’s now 9:30 p.m. — 17-and-a-half hours after I’d started at 4 a.m. that morning. We have at least another 12 hours to go.
Aisha sits me down in front of the TV tray table, which the crew has been carting around to every aid station. Her husband, Steve, takes off my shoes. Jordan changes my socks. Mom, who flew in from Washington D.C. with Dad, takes my photo. Someone hands me a bowl of hot ramen. My grandma, who flew in from California, tells me I’m doing great. And I am. I’m all smiles. Two friends who magically appear give me hugs. I eat some Fritos. Jordan massages my calf. I down another Coke. I take my first set of ibuprofen. Within minutes I am, again, restored.
After a few more minutes, Aisha gently tells me it is time to go; I have roughly three hours to get to the next aid station before the next cut-off. Kyle and I speed-walk away, and I realize this isn’t just an overnight running mission anymore; if I want to finish, I actually have to race.
• • • •
Ultra-runners talk about hallucinating, about rabbits that cheer and families that fillet fish atop mountains. It’s what happens when you deprive your brain of sleep and expend every ounce of energy. Your mind goes a little haywire.
I didn’t plan to run 100 miles this year. But in January, when I won a lottery ticket into the race and the requisite (non-refundable) $315 was automatically drawn from my bank account, I figured I had to at least try. I had eight months to prepare my body and my mind for something that I’d never had reason to think was possible: running 100 miles in fewer than 30 hours.
It wasn’t long before I learned that, even if I was the only one doing the actual running on race day, I couldn’t do it alone.
Early on in the race, I hear voices in my head. I’m not hallucinating, though; I think of them more like ghosts of my Athletic Past, each popping into my brain at an opportune moment to remind me of a lesson I’d learned, then forgotten. For a while it’s like recurring déjà vu, triggered by the familiarity of what lay before me, or the motions occurring in my body. Even if I hadn’t been there before, I realize, actually, I had.
Around mile 14, the first voice enters my mind when the uphill section of Sugarloaf Pass hits and I shift into hiking mode up the gravelly slope. It’s my friend Sydney’s voice calling to me from the first overnight camping trip we did together, a few years back in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains — the first time I’d ever hiked a seriously steep hill. “Don’t straighten your knees when you go uphill,” she’d told me. “Just lift them already bent, like a unit.” I bend my knees and hinge at my hips all the way up.
A few miles later, on the flip side of the hill, my high school cross country coach’s voice rings in. I move down the trail like he taught me, like a snake zig-zagging side-to-side. Takes the pressure off the knees, he’d say.
And as I grow closer to the halfway point, I think of my Grampy and his own marathon training, and how he told me he’d only ever run half the racing distance because, he believed, “I can always get back home.” Once I start back on the course toward Leadville, over the halfway point, I repeat, “Just get back home, just get back home,” like a mantra.
One of the strongest voices pops into my head at some point on the way down Hope Pass, in between my sharp and focused breaths. “It’s OK to hurt,” my friend and ultra-running mentor, Sunny Stroeer, whispers between my ears. “It will pass.”
It will pass, I tell myself. It’s OK to hurt, I repeat. These are the moments you prepared for.
That’s when I put my head down and decide I will keep moving as fast as I can until someone makes me stop. I decide the pain is temporary. I decide my willpower is my strongest asset, and what is most motivating is my desire to respect the time and energy that my friends and family have also put into this 100-mile endeavour.
There will be pain for the rest of the race, but I think instead about my best friend, Emma, waiting 15 miles ahead to switch pacing duties with Kyle, and Jordan, another 30 miles ahead, ready to see me through the finish. They’d both trained for this, too. My family had traveled from around the country. My friends were ready to stay up overnight to cheer me on, not to mention how everyone had put up with months of my training schedule and its many subsequent hangry moments. I decide I can’t let them down. They’d all given so much to me over the years, and I decide, however cliché, that I want them to be part of the experience crossing the finish line just as much as I want it for myself.
Somewhere around mile 80 — when I’m amped up on Coke and my second dose of ibuprofen, pushing up Sugarloaf’s backside in the middle of the night, my quads holding strong but my shins giving way — it becomes clear: I’m an amalgamation of my experiences. If we think of our lives like a slide show, where each slide is one experience, and you stack the slides all together, you can play life, or think of time, like a flip book.
Trudging under the inky black sky, between the ghoulish midnight aspen trees, I understand. I am the book. I am the eight months of physical and mental training. I am the 24 years of breathing. I am all the advice, all the failures, all the get-back-ups and sit-back-downs. I am all that I have endured — the start and the finish. If I can take even the smallest lesson from each slide, I’ll have more than enough resources to get me through this race.
• • • •
Emma takes over pacing from Kyle just after mile 70. It’s nearing 1 a.m. and it’s starting to drizzle. My sister gives me her rain jacket. At the next stop, I down another Jetboil full of ramen Aisha handed me, the ibuprofen from Steve, and I take a Coke for the road.
“You’ve got four hours ’til the next cutoff,” Steve says. “At the pace you’re going that should be alright, but you need to keep it up.”
Emma hands me an energy gu and makes me eat it. I nearly gag. We start moving again, our headlamps bobbing as we chat about the same things we’ve chatted about since high school — life, the future, adventures, aspirations, doubts — and she keeps me laughing as my blisters grow bigger. Whenever I need to pee or poop I simply pull down my pants and stick my butt over the side of the trail and let it out. No one cares; I see dozens of lady butts during the race and can’t help but think we women have a sincere disadvantage here.
It’s just after 5 a.m. when the sky starts to lighten again. The blackness slowly dissolves to gray and fades to grayish blue. It feels momentous, like I want to drop to my knees and thank the heavens for life, for my strength, but I can’t. We only have an hour ’til the next cutoff. Emma is at my heels, reminding me my pace is on track.
I reach the last aid station shortly after dawn, where I can barely stomach tortillas and where I meet Jordan. We tackle the last leg together. At some point my watch discombobulated the distance, so we have no reference for how far or how close we are to the finish line. All we know is we need to get there before 10 a.m. So we move, move, move, and I don’t let myself stop, ever.
I start jogging the downhills, ignoring the pain in my leg, and power walking uphill. I think I’m giving off a fierce soccer-mom-on-a-mission kind of vibe, but when I ask Jordan later to describe my gait, he says, “Um, I’d say it was more ‘determination and grit.’”
The last three miles are more or less uphill, which I don’t mind because it’s easier on the shins and joints and my muscles are still in relatively good shape. I visualize the finish line, which I can hear roaring with cheers long before I can actually see. I can’t help but smile at the surge of excitement; I’ve cultivated images of the finish line in my head hundreds of times, only this time it’s an actual experience being added to my book of being. “You got this,” Aisha’s voice rings, for real.
Aisha, Steve, Emma, Kyle, Maddie, my dad, and all my friends are waiting for me and Jordan at the street corner, a block before the finish line. They join in as we run (actually run!) the final quarter-mile, and we all cross the finish line together. In a photo my mom shares with me later, I’m smiling so wide my cheeks could pop.
The next day, my dad and I sit side-by-side in the bathroom, our feet soaking in epsom salt in the tub. I tell him how loved I feel, how supported I feel, how special the race had been because of all the people involved, not just over the 29 hours and 18 minutes it took me to run, but over the course of my entire life.
He takes my hand in his and squeezes it. “Share that love,” he tells me. “Plow it back into your community.”