This is the story of my attempt to run the Leadville Trail 100 in August of 2014. Technically, the race started at 4:00 am in downtown Leadville on August 15, 2014. More accurately, the race started 29 years ago in my hometown of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
I was ten when my mom first told me about a town called Leadville and “The Race Across The Sky.” A 100 mile long high altitude race which traversed the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. She showed me a picture from a running magazine of a skinny bit of trail stretching into the sky. I’d later learn this was the trail up the backside of Hope Pass. The image was burned into my brain.
As a kid living in a town that sat 480 feet above sea level, the thought of running 100 miles at elevations ranging between 10,000-12,000 feet was inconceivable. But as soon as I heard about the run, I felt I had to do it. Not just that I wanted to…but that I had to. It was as if I was infected with something and the only cure was to toe the starting line. As I grew up, my Leadville infection was fed by yearly camping trips with my family. We would drive from Pennsylvania to Wyoming each summer and just camp. Dad, my brother Jared, and our friend Jon Cobes, would fish and I’d run up and down the trails. How the hell I wasn’t eaten by a mountain lion I’ll never know.
My “Leadvilleitis” laid dormant as I finished high school, then moved to New Mexico in 1993. I was a Division I athlete at the University of New Mexico. Well that’s if you can call a mediocre triple/high jumper an “athlete.” Became a lawyer, got married, had two amazing children, got a divorce, got remarried….and no matter what, Leadville was always there.
The problem was that although I dreamed of running Leadville, I wasn’t a gifted runner. Far from it. I learned at a young age that my passion for running was off set by my lack of ability. I’ll never qualify for Boston and even breaking 20 minutes in a 5k would require a downhill course that was somehow incorrectly measured by half a mile or so.
After years of inactivity sitting at a desk practicing law, I started jogging again. I bought a running stroller and took my son, and later my daughter everywhere. I survived my first ultra-marathon, the Jemez 50 kilometer in May 2007 and thought what the hell? Time to try. So…
In 2007 I entered Leadville for the first time and failed miserably. At 50 miles I dropped at Winfield arriving in 13:57. Only three minutes before the cut off. My son was only three and I pretended it was the finish. I think even he knew it wasn’t. I “trained” hard the next year and wanted to try again. So…
In 2008 I entered Leadville for the second time and failed. Made it to 70 miles before dropping from hypothermia. But I was much faster (Winfield in 11:40) and felt I learned a ton. I trained all year again. And…
In 2009 I entered Leadville for the third time and failed. Made it to 50 miles (Winfield in 12:43). Had nothing left and was coughing blood. Went home and couldn’t bring myself to enter in 2010. But on the morning of the race in August 2010, I woke up without an alarm clock at exactly 4:00 AM feeling like I belonged somewhere else. I trained hard the next year, and…
In 2011 I entered Leadville for the fourth time and failed. Made the turn at Winfield in a fast 11:05 only to later drop at mile 85. Went home devastated. Life got in the way of running in 2012. But I couldn’t shake the race, so…
In 2013 I entered Leadville for a fifth (and what I had decided to be final) time. I put everything I had (which is admittedly a fraction of what most do) into training. Hired Duncan Callahan, two time Leadville Champion to write workouts…hell I even did some of them. Improved my diet, lifted weights and toed the line convinced I would finish….and I failed. Mile 60. Winfield in 12:22. My children were there and now at ages 6 and 9 knew that their dad just didn’t have it. Worst of all was the knowledge that they had seen me quit.
As of August of 2013, I had entered Leadville five times. And failed five freaking times. Each failure was epic in its own way. Each could be justified by a reason that made sense to everyone but myself. I knew I had never trained enough. I was never able to run over a 50 mile week but the truth was, I just wasn’t tough enough.
However, along the way, I racked up about 25 ultramarathon finishes, most in 50 mile mountain races like Jemez, San Juan, Deadman’s and Cedro. I’d found my home in the mountains. But Leadville wasn’t to be.
I came home from the 2013 race crushed. Depressed and lost. I sat on my ass for a few months feeling sorry for myself. And then it happened. A couple days after Christmas, I went for a run with my seven year old daughter Elle. Halfway through, she stopped and sat down on a bench. I said, “Elle, you can’t just stop and quit.” “But you did Dad”, she said. Ouch. No matter how much I tried, her words were haunting.
A couple days after that “Hallmark moment”, Cristin and I went out with some friends, Joe and Mindy Franklin to celebrate New Year’s. Joe is the track coach at UNM and also coached Rob Krarr (Leadville’s 2014 Champion) at Butler some 20 years ago. We drank champagne, talked about anything but running and had a blast ringing in New Year’s. The next day, I woke up with that foggy feeling that I’d done something stupid. After confirming that I hadn’t done any of the normal “stupid” new year’s eve things (hadn’t danced on any tables, tried to sing, or skinny dipped). So what the hell had I done? As I sat puzzled, she pulled out her phone and showed me a picture of me with an iPad registering for Leadville at midnight (the exact second registration opened for the 2014 race.). Maybe I would have been better off dancing naked on a table trying to sing.
And so in 2014, after five failed attempts and 29 years of thinking about it, I entered Leadville for a sixth time.
I started by writing down everything that had ever gone wrong. It was a long list. I examined every split to every aid station. Poured over the data and then found myself conceding that my problem wasn’t fitness, weight training or my ever apparent lack of any running ability. It was pride, ego, hubris. My problem wasn’t just how slowly I traveled the distance from Winfield to Twin Lakes (although for the love of all things holy and unholy I’m slow in that section). In the end, my analysis confirmed what I already knew-The biggest distance in this race wasn’t the double crossing of Hope Pass. It was the four inches between my ears.
What I mean is that I’d never been able to admit that I wasn’t going to finish in under 25 or 27 hours. I just wasn’t going to be one of the “cool kids.” When the races unfolded with slower times that I expected, I got down on myself. I don’t care how great a runner you are, when you spend 12 hours beating yourself up, it’s hard to go on.
I needed just to run and not care about my time or pace. Just run.
So although I didn’t have time to train more than a 40 mile week in preparation for Leadville 2014, I was able to complete following races:
January – 60 miles at Coldwater Rumble.
February – 62 miles at Black Canyon.
April – 45 Miles at Cedro Peak.
May – 36 miles at Jemez 50 Mile. (race called at mile 36 due to a blizzard)
June – 62 miles at Gunnison 100 Kilometer.
July – 50 miles at Leadville Silver Rush.
Between January and July I’d raced over 315 miles in the mountains and deserts. The most I’d ever raced in any prior year was about 150 miles before Leadville. The three races over 60 miles were eye opening. That’s a long time on your feet. I felt good that my lack of overall weekly mileage might be balanced by these longer efforts.
That brought me back to August and back to Leadville.
We rented a house in Twin Lakes. My mother and father flew in from Pennsylvania and we all drove up Thursday night. Friday was the race briefing which is always a highlight. Ken knocked it out of the park as usual and I once again stood up and said “I commit, I won’t quit.” Duncan Callahan also spoke and said something that stuck with me. He reiterated Ken’s words, “You’re better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.” But added, “you’re more prepared that you think you are.” Callahan knows his stuff and is one the best coaches I’ve ever met.
Race morning I awoke at 2:30 am and got ready. We all wore light up hats and necklaces to the starting line. I fashioned a light up Mohawk and wore it during the run as I had for all of my races in 2014. It was quite a hit all day. After coffee and hugs, I joined my fellow runners and watched the clock count down. The last thing I did was to take my watch off and hand it to my son. After years of obsessing over time and pace, I’d just keep running until someone told me to stop. My goal was to make it to 60 miles before finding out my time.
[Pictures from the start. Amazing family.]
Start to May Queen. Miles 1-13.5 miles. Total time: 2:12
Something magical about starting this race. Ran very relaxed and held back around Turquoise Lake. Didn’t stop at mile 13 aid station-May Queen at all. Just kept moving. Cranked music through the aid station. I didn’t want to know my split.
May Queen to Outward Bound. Miles 13.5-24ish. Total time: 4:35
After passing mile 13, I headed up the mountain and onto Hagerman Pass Road. Ran a good bit of this section but could tell climbing wasn’t going to be my thing today. No surprise. Blasted downhill at Pipeline and hit the road moving well. Ran smoothly through the Outward Bound Aid station at Mile 24. Felt relaxed not knowing my time or splits.
Outward Bound to Twin Lakes. Miles 24-40. Total time: 7:50
Just after mile 24, I stepped in a gopher hole with my right leg and hyper extended my achilles and all the ligaments behind my knee. Took some advil and kept moving. It numbed up after 30 minutes. Would become a bit of an issue later. Passed through Half Pipe at mile 30 and still felt great. Still had no idea of my time. Heat had become a significant factor. Was eager to see the family at Twin Lakes but didn’t intend to stay long at the aid station.
Twin Lakes to Winfield-Miles 40-50. Total time: 11:53
After mile 40, I slogged through muddy fields, a half dozen small stream crossings and one major river crossing. Only lost my shoe once in the mud. Then up Hope Pass. That’s a long damn climb and I’m slow uphill. Not just slow uphill but I’m one of those people that gets asked, “Uhhh…are you ok…?” as people pass me. Must have been asked that question 50 times. The leaders passed me coming back with about a mile to go before I reached the top. Finally saw the llamas, crossed over the 12,600 ft Hope Pass and started down the five mile descent to Winfield. Right knee was screaming in pain so I wrapped it in duct tape. Man I love duct tape. At Winfield I sat for the first time all day. Played my music so loudly my ears hurt. But I desperately didn’t want to know my time and that tends to be all runners and their pacers talk about at aid stations. I refilled my pack, got up and started jogging. 50 miles down. 50 to go.
Winfield to Twin Lakes. Miles 50-60. Total time: 16:42
Ran the first three miles out of Winfield well. Everyone was starting to look like zombies on the trail. It had been a long and hot day. Then I started up the backside of Hope. Took…forever…to….climb…that…mountain. At one point I’m sure I was down to half a mile and hour. I lost track of how many times I had to sit or toss my cookies. These couple miles are widely regarded as some of the toughest in an ultramarathon on the planet.
Finally summited Hope Pass for the second time and headed down to Twin Lakes. Although I could no longer move uphill faster than an injured elephant (which as an aside is how I felt), I could still manage 8-9 min mile pace downhill. I passed 30 or so people who had just a few miles ago asked if I was ok. Rolled into Twin Lakes and noticed it was almost dark. Found my family changed my shoes, got some warmer clothes and headed out. Tried not to think. Can’t explain how great dry shoes felt after 60 miles. More importantly, it was so uplifting to see my family. I’d been up and running for 17 hours. The physical test (first 60 miles) was now over. What remained was the mental test that I’d failed every time I’d tried. 40 miles to go.
Twin Lakes to Half Pipe. Miles 60-70. Total time: 19:54
Started back up another mountain and made good use of my hiking poles. This climb out of Twin Lakes is overlooked but sucks. Just sucks. You’ve just survived the double crossing of Hope Pass and now have another three miles to climb. Ugh. At this point I finally took the tape off my phone which was hiding the time. Before I did, I guessed what time it was. Only seven minutes off. Lucky guess. I could make it to Half Pipe at mile 70 (the next cutoff) but with little time to spare.
The trailhead for Mt. Elbert held a small aid station with tons of Christmas lights and blaring music that was great motivation. Got some water and headed out. Just tried to survive. Was becoming very hard to keep food down.
Half Pipe to Outward Bound. Miles 70-76. Total time: 22:04
Half Pipe Aid station at mile 70 has a heated tent that beckons like a mermaid to a sailor. Looks like a good idea but just isn’t. I once dropped here and knew I didn’t want to sit. Just grabbed some Ramen noodles, slurped them down and headed out. Never sat down. A mile later I realized I had left my hiking poles at the aid station. Crap. I thought about leaving them and remembered how much I paid for them. So I headed back and got them. At least I was still able to run. Probably cost me 25 mins. No big deal I thought.
When I finally made my way out of Half Pipe I became overwhelmed by fatigue. Hard to keep my eyes open. I knew cutoffs were now getting impossibly tight but had to rest. I found a small spot just off the trail and took a nap. And yes I know this is a bad idea but I was hoping to shake the intense fatigue off before the next aid station where my family (and the car) was waiting. Not sure how long I slept. Probably 5 to 10 minutes. When I awoke, I had a searing pain through my right leg. The tendon strains suffered earlier in the day from stepping in the hole had taken full effect. I got up, climbed out of the bushes and tried desperately not to look like a sasquatch to other runners and their pacers. Plodded my way past tree line and then was disillusioned by the mirage of the Outbound Aid Station that seemed impossibly far away. My family was there and all I wanted was to see them.
Got to mile 76 and the aid station, sat down and talked to my son who just kept saying he was proud of me. Dad and Cristin shared the sentiment which meant the world. I put on warmer clothes and wrapped a blanket around me. For a second, I laid down but then thought about how precious each second was because of the next cut off. Got up, stole my son’s hat and left. I had four hours to travel 11 miles up over Sugarloaf to make the cutoff at May Queen. I knew it would be more than close given that my speed uphill would make a snail ask if I was ok.
Outward to May Queen. Miles 76-87. Total time: 26:31
Jogged the two miles on the road until I hit the dreaded Power Line ascent. Miles and miles of uphill with six or so false summits. I began hallucinating-seeing things including a silver fox running beside me. Wish I was joking. I also started noticing my vision seemed blurry. After what seemed like forever, I heard what sounded like a Viking horn, Coupled with the running fox, I thought I was losing it. But at the top of the climb, an impromptu aid station emerged. About 10 or so folks had a raging fire, blasting music and that Viking horn which continued to echo through the mountains. I tried to run downhill but found I couldn’t see well enough. My headlamp finally died at mile 80 but more troubling was that my vision had become very hazy.
When I finally hit Hagerman pass road, the sun was rising (second sunrise since I started running the day before). Daylight confirmed that something was really wrong with my eyes. It was like I had glaucoma. A fuzzy white cloud blocked my view. I changed a contact lens but it didn’t make a difference. I could see out of the edges but the center was hazy. I became desperate and resigned that my day, my race, and probably the last chance I’d ever have to finish this was over.
After running 85 miles, I stood at the junction of the dirt road and the final two mile section of steep downhill trail that took you into the final aid station. I only had about 20 mins to run those two miles. This was as far as I’d ever made it. 85 freakin miles. I became overwhelmed with emotion. Sat down and covered my head with my hands to block the world out.
I thought about my heroes like Doug Schneebeck, Jon Harrington, mom and dad. Thought about all they had been through and yet I couldn’t complete this race. My sadness was growing every second. Then I heard that viking horn again. It was now at May Queen and it was as if it was talking to me. A truck pulled up and a guy jumped out saying, “Sorry but we’re closing down the course. No time to make the cut but I can drive you back down.” Two other runners got in the truck. The door stood open and they shifted to make room for me.
The horn blared again and the 10 year old in me got mad. Mad at the thought that this dream could be taken, mad at blurry vision, mad at letting the kids down, mad mom has cancer, mad that I was diabetic, and finally mad that I was mad.
I slowly stood up. Deliberately slow as if to tell myself I was in control of time. I took my phone out and carefully selected one song to play on a loop. The man repeated himself. I put the phone away, took a deep breath, gave the man a quick smile and took off down the trail, running like a 10 year old runs when chasing an ice-cream truck The man with the truck didn’t protest, in fact he smiled.
I had about two miles to run and only 17 minutes to make the final cut. The horn kept blowing.
Hit the road just before May Queen and was joined by Cristin who pushed me through the aid station. I was technically about 45 seconds late but no one grabbed or yelled at me to stop. I’d made it through the last cut-off. 13 miles remained.
May Queen to Finish line.
Left May Queen and started doing math that didn’t add up. Finishing under 30 hours (time required to earn the coveted belt buckle) was impossible. Was incredibly tempted to turn around and go back to May Queen. Being by myself was hard. Made my goal to make the Tabor boat ramp (mile 92) where I knew my family was waiting. Still couldn’t see perfectly. Tripped over every root and rock around that lake.
Made it to mile 92 and saw dad, my son Collis and Cristin. She, without being asked or every having run this long in her life, said she was going to run with me. Eight miles left. We plodded around the lake and just kept moving.
I pressed as fast as I could and shared some amazing, irreplaceable moments with Cristin. But with about a mile and a half to go, I heard the shotgun blast that marks the 30 hour mark. No belt buckle. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t saddened by that sound. But I could still finish.
With a mile to go, Collis joined us. We found ourselves finally at the top of the hill looking down upon the most blessed sight on all of god’s green earth, the finish line. I savored every step and every second. Mom, dad and Elle joined us as we jogged the final stretch across the line. A medal was put around my neck and a hand extended in congratulations from race founder Ken Chlouber himself. He hadn’t left. He stayed until the end. I thanked him for the chance to run the race and told him how much it meant and how much I’d learned about myself in the years of trying. Ken just smiled and nodded. Finally, he gestured to the kids and said, “Plus, they saw you do it.”
In the weeks following the race, I’ve realized Leadville has always been about the journey. Trying again and again and keeping moving. That’s life. That’s Leadville. It’s what this race teaches you. For 29 years all I wanted was to finish Leadville. Now, I hope I never finish learning the lessons this race teaches. I hope I never finish trying. I hope I never finish Leadville.
So I’m still running Leadville. May the clock stop at my funeral.
Post Script 1. Upon returning to my office and the real world, there was an official Leadville finisher Belt Buckle on my desk. It was from my friend and 10+ time finisher Scott Gordon. With it he said, “The buckle is yours. You earned it. You made it home and worked harder to get there. Leaving May Queen inbound (mile 87) must have been hell. Time limits are ultimately irrelevant. What matters is what you learn out there. Welcome to the club. You’ve got guts.”
Post Script 2. A couple weeks after the race, I was getting Elle to sleep. After finishing the book we were reading, she laid down and closed her eyes with a big smile on her face. I said, “What’s that smile about sweatheart?” Without opening her eyes she said, “Because Daddy…you didn’t quit.”
– Jason Bousliman
More 2014 Leadville 100 goodies: Results and Reflections from our TALON Athletes
Posted on 24 Sep 2014