[Ben Dicke is a dear friend, colleague, and ultrarunning inspiration. I’m sharing his Leadville essay here because it’s awesome. —JP]
There was a battle being waged between the mountain and my heart. The mountain was winning.
As I reached the top of the 12,600′ Hope Pass for the second time in five hours, I knelt beside the Nepalese prayer flags, put my fist on the ground, and emptied what little was left in my sorry stomach into a forty mile per hour mountain wind. And as I watched that bile fly off that dreaded saddle and evaporate into the arid high-altitude atmosphere, I imagined my seven year dream of a sub-25 hour Leadville 100 mile run evaporating with it.
My friend Gary Aronhalt, who was pacing me on that section and standing next to me as I hurled, asked me in August of 2011 if I’d like to drive up and spectate the Leadville 100. I was training for my first Hundred miler that fall, a little race with a bit of history back in my home state of Kansas. We drove up to Leadville on Saturday morning for the four o’clock am start and followed the leaders until the finish. We met some cool people. We fell in love. And I knew then, even before I had made my first low altitude 100 mile race attempt, that I would sign up for the 2012 edition of “The Race Across The Sky.”
As I continued to train for my prairie adventure that fall, a small band of friends began to coalesce around me. Curious about my undertaking and eager to have a part in my effort (an eagerness often still surprising to me), this crew and I together learned how we might venture this seemingly impossible distance.
I had a very good day at the Heartland 100 in October of 2011 and wrote my check to Lifetime Fitness for the Leadville Trail 100 in 2012. And the rest of our crew joined Gary and I in falling in love with the town, the race, and the community, so much so that my wife and I were married in the Tabor Opera House two years later and now both have buckles from the legendary race. In fact, as of this weekend, our ragtag gang of running enthusiasts known as the #worstcrewever, now have a combined eleven finishes at the marquee running race, as well as a host of finishes in the other Leadville Race Series events.
2018 would mark my third attempt at the grueling race and my hopes for the day were as bright as a golden “Big Buckle” – the coveted prize for a run coming in under 25 hours. Now away those hopes flew, born on the ceaseless gusts that over thousands of millennia helped carve the old mining route between Hope and Quail Peaks: the breathtaking singletrack trail known as Hope Pass.
The Leadville 100 course is well-known to ultra enthusiasts. It’s one of the oldest events of its kind and its history is near unto myth. It was designed to emulate the hard-scrabble nature of the inhabitants of its host town, which, as America’s highest city, sits at 10,200 feet above sea level. The race is singularly structured to take something from you. And it demands simultaneous submission and an undeterred force of will.
In my race plan, a detailed document issued to my crew that attempts to address both large all-encompassing goals (IE A sub 25-hour finish) as well as practicalities for the day (“At mile 62 I’ll need to change shirt, shoes, and socks”), I wrote this statement: “Leadville. This is my third go round. And looking at my training from 2012 and 2015, I’m in better overall fitness than I was for either of those efforts. But my “A” goal of a sub 25-hour Big Buckle will ride the edge of my natural abilities even in top form. Simply put, the math says it’s possible, but only just.”
You see, I almost know who I am as a runner. Almost. And I knew based on my race history at every event from 5k to the seven 100 mile races in which I’ve competed as well as my familiarity with the Leadville course that my body could eek out my “A” goal. I also knew that barring complete disaster, I would finish the race under the 30 hour end-of-race cutoff.
Pulling off a sub-25 would also be predicated on my having a “good day” on the course. In ultra running that means eating well, having reasonably fair weather, avoiding injury, managing the myriad minor discomforts, and NOT THROWING UP AT THE TOP OF THIS FREAKING MOUNTAIN!
And I was having a reasonably good day up until that 3000 foot climb. I ran within myself saving my legs for the final forty miles of the race, and I had managed to leave enough time left in the day to traverse the back half of the course and still make my goal. But I have never suffered in a race the way I did in those final two miles heading up the back side of Hope Pass. And I was frustrated because I’m usually a pretty decent climber.
The one hundred mile distance has a unique way of highlighting your inadequacies and insecurities. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to the distance. When things aren’t going well, when you’re “low”, your self-doubt appears quickly. And that self-doubt knows just how to pick apart your psyche.
But, when things are going well, I find belief. Belief in myself, belief in my loved ones, belief in my strength, belief in the long, lonely hours of training, belief in things unseen.
Some seven hours after my utter failure atop Hope Pass, my wife and I were cresting the summit of another, smaller mountain pass known as Sugarloaf. It had been lightly raining for most of the evening and we were moving well, enjoying the cool Colorado air and the mystique of our favorite race and each other’s company. Choosing to not wear a watch for this race, I inquired after our progress. “Is it 2:30,” I asked assuming that our ascent had taken as long as my race plan predicted? “It’s 1:05,” Emily replied.
I did a quick mental calculation, stuffed some nutrition in my mouth, and began to run.
And we ran. Hard. For the next eighteen miles, I ran like the dream was possible. We ran down off Sugarloaf and onto the gentle downhill slope of Hagerman Road. We turned left onto the short section of the Colorado Trail and took some serious risks flying down a slightly damp, somewhat technical section of the course with only our headlamps to ensure our footing. And we ran so hard into Mayqueen Campground, the final aid station of the race, that our crew was not yet ready for our arrival. So, I grabbed three gels from the aid station tent and headed out, emotions soaring with the thought that if we could manage running these final 13.5 miles in two hours and thirty five minutes, the finish I had contemplated on every single training run since I gained entry into the race in January would be realized.
And our crew caught up to us with six miles to go and 55 minutes to spare. And I ran. With 94 miles in my rearview and my pacer feeding me the last of the gels, I dropped into nine-minute miles.
And there was nothing but pain.
And I wanted that dream so badly.
My pacer eventually fell behind. They would later tell me they began to pray aloud as I pounded the unending uphill of the final four miles, a section known to Leadville runners as The Boulevard. As I turned the corner onto sixth street in Leadville, I could hear the PA announcer at the finish line. But I wasn’t wearing my watch so I had no idea how much time I had left. But I knew I wanted it. And so I tried to run harder. More pain.
I sprinted that final half mile. After 99.5 miles of running, climbing, puking, hiking, doubting, believing, I broke into an all-out effort that made my breath sound like a mule trying to break free from its old master coaxing it up some lonesome mining trail.
It wasn’t enough.
I lay on the ground in a fetal position at the finish line weeping and wailing, my lungs searching desperately. I could hear voices. I could feel people touching me. But I was alone.
My official time was 25:00:37.
37 seconds. That’s just a little over one third of a second per mile over the course of a one hundred mile race. And over the course of an entire day, 37 seconds could be found almost anywhere.
In a change of shoes and socks. In a pause to gasp for air on the climb up Hope Pass. In a joke made to my crew at the Twin Lakes Aid Station. In a slight easing of effort to inquire about my wife’s day as we shuffled along the road past the Leadville Fish Hatchery. Any one of those events might have affected the near-miss of my “razor’s edge” attempt.
Or maybe all of those brief 37 second moments actually conspired to give me a shot at this confounding dream.
Dry feet to better feel my way. A glance over my shoulder amidst my belabored breathing to take in the majesty of the Sawatch Mountain Range. A shared smile with a few of my dearest friends. A chance to work on my most important relationship in the middle of a dark and painful and glorious and humbling and unforgettable night.
Maybe those 37 seconds don’t represent failure. Maybe those precious seconds represent all the unexpected good that lies on the periphery of our attempts to pursue our most ambitious and elusive dreams.