Start Running. Drink Tailwind. Don’t Stop.
That’s it. That was my plan to do for between 25 and 30 hours. I was a little worried that I was not more worried about the details beyond those facts, but in reality, I couldn’t control any of the things that were bound to happen on the course, therefore I just had to be ready to respond and adjust when they occur. I also knew I had a stellar crew at my side, who would be ready and willing to help meet my needs. They were my reserve confidence if my lack of training faltered.
The final two members of my crew, Dan and Julia, showed up to our campsite right before dinner after Kaitlin and I had returned from the LT100 Pep Rally. We made pasta, loaded Tailwind into little baggies, organized snacks into their proper bags, then went down to the lake for a final beer. We went through last-minute logistics, set our alarms for 2:30am and got into bed before the sun went down.
I was awake before my alarm but got enough sleep to feel rested as I loaded my pack with fluids. A little Carly Rae and some AC/DC got us to the start where I pulled my pack out of the car only to realize that it had leaked all over the floor. //* For the past three weeks (read: plenty of time to replace it) I have noticed that my bladder had a slight leak in the bottom. It was never enough to cause problems so I figured I’d replace it “someday.”) Welcome to someday, also known as race day. *// By the time the national anthem was finished my back was soaked and people were tapping me on the shoulder with worried looks for my livelihood. It was dark, 40 degrees, and I only had 12.5 miles to run, so I knew the water would last, but it was a frustrating way to start the race. My crew was on it and already had a plan to switch out the bladder when they saw me in a few hours.
As I swayed in the start line as the clock ticked down, I was underwhelmed by the sense of calm I had toward the race. All week I knew I didn’t have the legs to “race” the run, knew that I had the legs to finish, and knew that something would happen that I didn’t know. My plan to hold back was easy as I positioned myself in the middle of the pack and flowed downhill with 600 other runners after the gun. We formed a headlight parade down the dirt road before funneling onto the single track along Turquoise Lake. As I skipped slowly over the rocks, I gave myself kudos for not wasting any time running at night during training, because this seemed easy enough, and night running means staying up past my bedtime.
I was happy that my pace allowed for the sun to rise just as I was arriving at May Queen (Mile 12.5) because it allowed me to drop my headlamp with my crew and not have to worry about carrying it for another 11 miles. We swapped out my bladder, preloaded with Tailwind, but in typically Goldilocks fashion the second one didn’t work well either. It sat heavy in my pack and pulled the front straps up towards my face. Too wet. Too big. What’s next? It better be just right!
The trail climbed steadily up towards Sugarloaf Pass for about 1500′ and I got in line with other runners power hiking up the road. The ups were going well and I was passing a few people, but as we turned down my knee started to tingle in a familiar way. Not limiting my running by any means, but making me aware that it could in the near future. I became cognizant of my steps and tried to align my legs better to take stress off of my joint. I was moving fluidly but holding back to make sure I preserved energy for the long haul. Mile 15, only 85 more to go. Once I could see the city in the distance I turned on my cell phone to text the crew that we still had bladder issues.The trail turned to road for a few miles going into the Outward Bound aid station (Mile 23). This is the place where the Leadville party begins. Crews have gotten their coffee and the sun has awakened signs of life. The nerves of the first aid station are behind them and they have the task of preparing their runners for a 16-mile stretch without them. Kaitlin greeted me at the entrance to the aid station and told me where to look for Dan and Julia among the masses. I found them near the end of the line where they took my pack and placed my former bladder, now heavily duct taped, back in. I was still feeling fresh so I intended the stop to be quick. They lubed me up with sunscreen, force-fed me snacks and made me drink some water before pushing me back out on the trail.
Before I knew it a marathon was behind me and I started climbing towards Half Pipe aid station. The leak in the original bladder had been slowed, but it was still there. As I approached the aid station at mile 30, I realized that I hadn’t grabbed an extra bag of Tailwind, so would have to rely on a few aid station Gu’s for the 8 miles back to Twin (verdict: gag face emoji). I checked my pack as I entered the aid station and felt that I had enough fluids to make it the 5.5 miles to the Mt. Elbert water stopped, so I hustled through and told the Aid Station captain I’d see her before midnight.
The trail undulated between climbing steadily and descending steadily, challenging my resolve to mix my walking and running. I knew I could run it all, but I also knew that I shouldn’t run it all because the hard part of the course was coming. I started chatting with a few runners, but most were in the headphone zone. About three miles out of the aid station I realized that my water was almost empty. I’m not sure if it was the leak or the heat that made me drink more, but either way, I had misjudged my needs and cursed myself for not refilling before. I limited my sips as I kept climbing and passing people along the way.
I hit Mt. Elbert and filled with a liter of water that ended up being quickly consumed as I descended towards Twin Lakes. I turned my phone on again to update the crew about our continuing bladder issues and got a burst of energy from incoming text messages from friends and family. I slowly danced along the trail down towards the thumping base of Twin Lakes Aid Station (Mile 39).
The party that started at Outward Bound turned into a festival by the time I reached Twin Lakes. You hear it long before you see it and as I crested the final hill, I dropped right into the arms of my old friend Monica who wrapped an ice cold bandanna around my neck. Julia picked me up as I ran through the arch and directed me towards my personal oasis across the road. Along the way I passed multiple friends who called out to cheer me on. The personal greetings gave me more life and made me remember why I was drawn to sign up for the race in the first place. It’s so cool seeing people spend their days crewing, pacing, and cheering other runners.
Greeting me were my exuberant crew, a box of doughnuts, Mountain Dew, and my trusty oat balls. I pounded a bottle of water and moved slowly and deliberately to make sure that I got some hydration inside since I had been running low the last few miles. I knew that if I got behind on Hope Pass as I climbed up towards 12,500′ I would be screwed. The combination of dehydration and exhaustion could be lethal to my goals.
We made what we hoped would be the final switch of my water bladder as they relubed me up with sunscreen and handed me my hiking poles for the daunting climb. The hiking poles were a last minute addition to my race kit. I hadn’t used them since my fated journey up San Gorgonio in 2010. I figured I would give them a go heading up and if I didn’t like it, I would drop them at Winfield. Better to have them than to not.
I left the aid station to a few additional cheers and started along the trail. About a quarter mile down the trail I tried to drink from the bladder only to find no Tailwind hitting my lips. I was furious. Not at my crew, but at myself. Here we are, 40 miles into the race, on basically my fourth bladder. If I had only spent the $30 last week to replace my original one, we wouldn’t be having any problems. I knew that chastising Past Mike would not benefit Present Mike and that Future Mike depended on us fixing this issue, so I stopped, took off my pack, and examined the problem. (It was mile 40, I was starting to talk to myself in the third person)
First I thought that we had accidentally popped the tube out when putting my jacket into the pack, but I found it still connected. That is until I started messing with it and accidentally pushed the button to pop it off. I then stood on the side of the trail with my poles swinging wildly around me, trying to jam my shaky hands into the depth of my pack to reattach everything. As the frustration mounted, I stopped, took a deep breath, and worked slowly to remedy my situation. I got the tube plugged back in, but the flow was still low. I questioned heading back to the aid station, before looking at the nozzle and realized that it was relatively new. The opening was quite small, but since I didn’t have anything sharp, I stuck my pinky finger inside to stretch it out a bit. Flow improved enough for me to keep moving, but I would have to reinsert my pinky every now and again to make it functional. Crisis averted. 5 minutes lost.
I started moving again only to realize that I felt like Ricky Bobby in a post-race interview carrying my poles. What do I do with my hands? I quickly realized that having my poles extended was problematic so after the water crossing I collapsed them and ran to the start of the climb.
Like the moon at a solar eclipse, I looked at Hope Pass as my time to shine! While my training had been short, my focus had been on steep climbs at elevation. I quickly adjusted to having poles and appreciated their support in propelling me up the mountain. I started passing people who I had been leapfrogging with all morning and chasing one red backpack who was also moving towards the summit relentlessly. My bladder situation wasn’t great, as I could only take small sips at a time, but it was good enough to keep me moving.
My breathing became more labored as I climbed, but before I knew it I could hear the cowbells at the Hopeless Aid Station (Mile 43.5). When confronted by a helpful volunteer, I requested a knife, and after a concerned look, he battled the nozzle of my hydration pack converting it from a coffee straw to….a hydration pack. I was jazzed to have finally solved the Goldilocks Challenge and quickly moved through the rest of the aid station heading up towards the pass.
As I broke through the trees approaching Hopeless, I saw the clouds forming up above and as I left the aid station they appeared to get darker. I didn’t hear any thunder, so I took my new found access to water to push toward the summit with glee. I hit the final approach and the skies opened dropping a deluge of pea-sized hail. Winter is here. It was small but intense, so I quickly pulled on my rain jacket that I had packed in the sunlight “just in case” as I watched a fellow runner duck for cover and warmth.
I turned downhill expecting the worst. I’m not great at running downhill at mile 1 of a normal, dry day. At mile 44, while hailing and raining, over rocks, I knew it would be even worse. I tiptoed across the rocky trail and began cheering the runners who were already making their way back up the hill. The train of people who I had passed on the north side of Hope began to reappear as I couldn’t find the confidence to test my legs on the descent. The more I thought about it, the slower I went, and the less I trusted my footing. While frustrated that I couldn’t move faster, I was still feeling good and told myself that there was still 55 miles to run and that it would be ok. This was the only super steep descent of the race.
As the course flattened out and then started to climb again, I was able to catch up to a few people who had passed me, giving me confidence and a smile as I lumbered into the Winfield Aid Station (Mile 50.5). Looking around, other runners spanned the spectrum from eaten alive to running strong. I felt that I was somewhere in the middle. My body felt a bit used, but my spirit was good. My crew greeted me with glee and met my every need as I tried to calm down their rush by telling them that I wanted to take 10 minutes here to recoup.
Winfield was a little less hectic than Twin as runners were a bit more spaced out at this point, but I saw a few new faces and got a few more hugs. Knowing that this was about the point where I dropped out at Wasatch, I was wary of staying too long or getting too comfortable. I swapped out my Timps for Lone Peaks, pounded another Mountain Dew, and left with the same water bladder that I came in with! We did it guys!
For the second half of the race, I would have one of my crew members with me at all times. Julia was dressed to run as she was picking up pacing duties from here back to Twin Lakes (see Julia’s crew/pacer blog here). I was nervous to share the trail with someone after running 50 miles in mostly silence, but it was a pleasure having her with me as I was able to recap my day as I learned about some of their struggles from the crewing side. She helped me push my pace a little bit on the rolling hills leaving the aid station and cheered me on as I passed some other runners out of the gate.
We turned up Hope and I re-engaged my poles. I kept a good pace and kept picking off runners who had left before me. Things were going exactly as planned until they weren’t. We caught up to our friend Johnny Chia and his runner, as well as Julia’s aid station friend Alex and his runner, but instead of leaving them behind us they hung right there. The three of us runners got in line and grinded up the climb mostly in silence, as our pacers filled the dead air with exuberance. I could feel my breaths shorten, and anytime I made a push with my legs, my lungs revolted and told me I was at max speed. I tried to push through, telling myself that “this is what I trained for,” but each sip from my bladder led to a small bout of nausea that faded with a relaxed effort. I continued to look down at my watch hoping that the vertical feet were moving by more quickly than they were. I finally relented to the challenge and stopped my “keep moving” mentality.
The break was pleasant but short and I felt a little better as I kept moving. I repeated this pattern towards the top as my pain train partners moved on ahead, disappearing over the pass and down towards the freedom of downhill. Julia encouraged me forward avoiding telling me about the paleness that I could feel overtaking my complexion. Every time my watch beeped a mile, I would look down expecting the worst, but still found myself moving around a 25 minute per mile pace. I knew that it was more important to stay in the game than to move faster, so I took my breaths and took my steps until we were back on top of Hope.
We took a quick spin at the summit, Julia’s excitement radiating through the setting sun, but we both knew we had to get me to a lower altitude, sit me down, and feed me some broth. Luckily, all three were found at the Hopeless Aid Station a half mile below (Mile 57). I moved gingerly downhill where I plopped down in a chair. Julia brought me some sustenance and then frolicked with the llamas while I refilled on Tailwind, veggie broth, and a Picky Bar. After ten minutes of rest, she was shoving my poles back in my hands and we were on the trail again. I felt better instantly, but it took about two miles until I felt good again. Knowing I had a long way to go, I didn’t push the downhill too hard. Julia kept talking about how fun it would be to run this section, so I think we need to take a trip back next summer and we can both let it rip.
Before we knew it, the sun had set, we had our headlamps on, and we were out of the forest approaching Twin Lakes. The frigid crossings were less exciting in the dark, but the knowledge that I would have my shoes off in a few moments made it ok. The slow downhill had gotten me into a walking groove, but I finally relented to Julia’s running assertions when I could hear the cowbells of the aid station coming out of the darkness.
I was happy my spirits were high again as I met the crew. Dan was loaded up and ready to go, and he pulled Julia away for some private conversation about what was working and not to keep me moving along the trail, while publicly asserting that I was “Doing Great!” In reality, I knew that I was. Outside of my lungs getting sore from breathing for 17 hours, my legs felt good, my stomach felt good. At least from my vantage point, I felt better than a lot of people looked. My crew did another amazing job as a pit crew swapping out my shoes back to the Timps, taking my poles, and loading me up with Caffeinated Tailwind. A quick stop for some noodles and Dan and I were on the trail! (See Dan’s perspective here)
And pretty quickly, I got what you would call a “second wind” in a marathon, but was probably my sixth or seventh wind given that I was at mile 62. We started passing struggling runners and runners who seemed to be moving well. Dan was whooping and hollering around me as I felt like I was born anew. We moved with purpose, but not too fast to strain. I think I was half delusional at this point because even though I felt like I was running as fast as I had all race, my miles were ticking off around 13-14 minutes. Not what you would call speedy. It didn’t matter though because my legs felt good and they were moving.
I started talking to Dan how I must have made a deal with the devil because there was no reason for me to be able to move this well. We kept trucking along towards Half Pipe with Dan singing in my ear that no runner was having more fun than I was out here. Everyone else looked miserable, he said, and we were just laughing and talking our way down the trail. We talked and laughed our way into Half Pipe around 11:45pm (Mile 71).
We didn’t stay at Half Pipe too long, but the growing cold made us add another layer and drink a couple of cups of hot broth. Dan loved this pace of racing because for the first time he was able to reap the benefits of aid station food. As we started descending towards Outward Bound, I couldn’t get back into a running rhythm and instead found myself power walking downhill. BAD DEAL! I’m not sure what I had inadvertently given up in the deal, but it had better be worth those 6 miles. In truth, they were some of my favorite miles of the race. Mostly it gave some life back to my spirit and made me more willing to push through some of the mounting pain in my legs.
The power walking was keeping me moving but was doing a number on my shins. I kept talking about conserving energy here because I knew we had one more big climb to go, but I mostly lacked the motivation to push any harder. Dan would try to get me to run now and again, and I would respond by exaggeratedly running in place for a couple of steps and then tell him that walking was faster. We swung our arms wildly to warm us against the darkening night and kept moving I know it dragged at the time, but before long we were ducking through the arch at Outward Bound and saw Julia and Kaitlin running towards us and directing us to the heated tent (Mile 78).
It got super cold as we dropped down the hill to Outward Bound, so I added even more layers to officially have on all of the clothes that I brought with me. I figured it was a bit of overkill, but the last thing I wanted was to be stuck out in the cold, not being able to move fast enough to build a sweat and having hypothermia pull the belt buckle from my cold cold hands. Therefore, I left the aid station in a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a windbreaker, a rain jacket, and a puffy, while wearing tights, running shorts, and my #trackpants (sweatpants from Old Navy). I looked foolish and felt foolish, but I was warm and I was moving.
I battled the mental battle up the road as I questioned out loud to Dan if this could even be considered an athletic event if I could compete in it wearing this many clothes. As a good pacer does, he assuaged my ego and told me I looked great and was moving well, which meant I was working harder than everyone else who was wearing fewer layers.
The Xcel Energy Powerline Climb presented by Comcast Xfinity rose in the darkness via the shaky headlights of the runners ahead. Powerline is famous for chewing up runners and spitting them out between miles 79 and 82. In 3.3ish miles, it climbs 1,500′ in a series of false summits along an eroded road. Like the road, the condition of my body was eroded, and while I felt like my legs had the strength to raise hell, my lungs felt like they belonged to an asthmatic breathing through a straw. I continued taking short shallow breaths, but it wasn’t enough to replenish the oxygen needed to climb. I thought back to Hope Pass (how was that 8 hours ago!?) and how I allowed my ego to push through my shortness of breath and started stopping every quarter mile…tenth of a mile…ten steps to catch my breath before resuming forward momentum. If I regret anything from the race, it was not taking my poles on this section of the course. I think they would have helped my confidence as well as given me something to lean against when I was flagged. Dan could tell I was in a rough place and was very supportive giving me space and quiet and positioning himself downhill from me ready to catch me if I were to lose my footing.
While not moving as well as I would have liked, we didn’t lose a whole lot of ground to the runners around us. I wasn’t gaining on anyone, but I wasn’t getting passed by too many people. At this point in the race, everybody had their story. We were all in the struggle together and gave supportive accolades to each other with each leapfrogging push towards the top.
We summited at 11,200′ and quickly (slowly) began descending towards May Queen. Dan kept requesting a “little pitter patter” and I responded with a “little pity party” about how I couldn’t get up to a faster speed running than I was walking. The descent was gradual but rocky enough that I didn’t want to risk a trip with extra speed. I knew that the miles around Turquoise were flatish, so I could push there if I needed to as I brought it home. We turned onto the single track that would bring back to May Queen and I started getting scared about missing trail flagging even though there were headlamps just ahead of us. After about 100 yards, I would start silently worrying that we had missed a turn. My fears were always unjustified as we stayed in line with our runners and cruised out onto the blacktop leading to May Queen (Mile 88.5).
Julia and Pace were waiting with my chair, where I removed a few layers in preparation for the rising sun before Pace put on the “Pacer” bib and led me out towards the finish. I could tell she was a bit nervous to lead me to the finish, and for better or worse I could tell I would have the upper hand in setting the pace as I long as I could convince her there really wasn’t any need to move faster.
As we walked, I enjoyed the sunrise and did the math. 12. Then did more math to make sure my last math was right. 11. But if I did the math wrong would I still make it? 10. If I twisted my ankle, could I limp in? 9. How much time will I have if I were to finish at this pace before having to come back for the awards? 8. Can I soak in the lake? 7. Speaking of the lake, there’s my campsite, and coffee, and a sleeping bag. Too late. 6. Should we go to Periodic Brewing or just have a beer at the campsite? 5.
As we exited the Turquoise Lake trail, we had been passed by a handful of people and each time the answer to “should I go with them?” was “Nah, I’m good.” I knew I had a little kick in me if I needed it, but with my labored breathing, mucousy lungs, and throbbing knees, the difference between a 28 and 29 in my finishing time wasn’t worth it.
We turned up the road and the sun started beating down on us. I stripped off two of my coats but left my long sleeve on mostly to protect myself from the sun, since I didn’t think to bring sunscreen while leaving in the dark. There were a handful of spectators scattered across this final three-mile climb sheering in the dregs of the race. One of them handed me some Belvita crackers that served as my breakfast with a Tailwind chaser. I cheered on the runners I passed and the runners who passed me, see the determination in their eyes as they pushed towards the finish and their shiny new belt buckles.
We met Dan and Julia at the bottom of 6th street and we were all smiles as we reunite for the final push. I know I want to run across the finish line because walking across at the CO Marathon made me sad on the inside. As we approached the finish line, we got stuck between two people’s parades. We hold up at first to let people go, but impatience to cross the line brings us up to their backs. I get three steps away and think, “How are we going to do this?” “Cartwheel?” “Sure!” “But Mike! You can’t do a cartwheel on a good day!” Too late. In the three-quarters of a second, I am bent over trying to put my hands on the ground trying to lift my feet above my head when they couldn’t reach my shins for the past 8 hours. I don’t know if I ever get off the ground, but I smile as I hit it on the other side of the mat. 29:31:39.
It’s funny looking back at the finish line. The excitement of walking and running up the street with my crew and crossing the line quickly turned to the excitement of seeing friends who were already there. I look back and I’m sad that I didn’t take a picture at the finish line with Dan, Julia, and Kaitlin (or at any point during the race), because this race was only successful because of their presence on and off the trail. I was more excited to recap the process and to be done moving for the first time in 29.5 hours.
As I exited the finishing shoot, Dan and Julia handed me a doughnut and a beer finalizing their pacing duties and allowing them to settle in the shadows to recap their own 29.5 hour adventures and come down from the crewing high. I laugh now because I didn’t end up sitting down for another 45 minutes as I celebrated with friends and cheered other runners coming through the final stretch. After the final gun sounded a mere 29 minutes after my finish, we head back to the campsite to clean up, pack up, and go get my belt buckle.