I completed my first ultra-distance trail run (or rather, speed hike) in August 1989. I started at 4:00 am at Carter Notch Hut, the eastern-most of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s system of mountain huts in northern New Hampshire, and started to run westward toward the Presidential Range, Zealand Valley, Franconia Range, and finally, Lonesome Lake Hut near the range’s western end.
I remember watching the late sunset from the summit of Mount Lafayette, only 6 miles from my 52-mile goal, exhausted, but knowing that I would probably make my goal. When I reached a cold and windy Lonesome Lake Hut about 21 hours after I started, it was the single longest hike I’d done by at least 30 miles.
I was 18 years old.
In Leadville, Colorado only 6 years before, Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin had the creative idea to refocus some of the town’s energy into a traverse of some of the beautiful mountain trails on and around the foothills of the State’s highest summits.
I can still remember seeing some TV coverage of one of the Leadville 100’s early editions as a young teenager, and something about that — about running through the day, into the night, and into the next day — about running seemingly forever — found its way deep into my blood and remained there, fueling my adventures for years to follow.
I entered the Leadville 100 lottery for the first time in December 2014, thinking that I could complete the race a month after returning from my run across Iceland in 2015. That turned out to be a bit presumptuous…
After a year’s deferral, I entered the 2016 race and toed the line with more than 700 other runners just before 4:00 am on August 20th, silent, solemn, and nervous, listening to the final refrain of the National Anthem before we set off, westward into the darkness.
I was 45 years old.
“How was it?” People ask.
Well, what is it like to realize a dream?
There were some difficult parts of the race, for sure — climbing 12,600 ft Hope Pass *twice* –leaving the relative comfort of the Twin Lakes aid station at 8:00 pm to climb the shoulder of Mt. Elbert — pushing through the night from midnight to 4:00 am on Sunday over another 11,000 ft pass — following my brother, Michal, who paced me for the final half-marathon stretch to keep a relentlessly consistent pace — all of these were harder than nearly anything I’d done in long-distance running before.
As the runners thinned out after I crossed Hope Pass for the second time at 55 miles, I felt like a different race had started. First, I’d never covered more than 55 miles in one day (on day three of my 2015 Iceland traverse), and second, I was more alone on the trail and I began to find a rhythm that I felt might actually lead me to the finish line.
I stopped in Twin Lakes for about 10 minutes for a change of shoes and socks and some chicken broth and ramen for supper before heading back up into the woods for the final 40 miles, most of which would be in the dark. Jen, who paced me in for the last 100 yards to Twin Lakes, was surprised I didn’t stay longer, but I knew that the longer I stopped, the less excited I would be to get going again, and the harder it would be to find my rhythm again.
The hours between 8:00 pm and 12:00 am are a little blurred — I remember the miles, the steep single track, the dirt roads, the poplar leaves in the light of my headlamp, and a few miles on grazing land in the moonlit valley below Mount Massive. I remember mostly the rhythm, the feel of feet against the ground with each step, the dropping temperature.
12:00 am to 4:00 am exist in a little sharper relief, maybe because this 10-mile stretch included a climb up the notorious Powerline trail to a pass at 11,000 ft. I remember, again, the rhythm of the climb, passing several runners with their pacers, solo runners, and cresting each false summit only to be discouraged to find another climb beyond.
Someone had a bugle. At 2:00 am, at 11,000 ft in the middle of the woods, someone was blowing a bugle that echoed through the canyons and among the trees all around me. I knew they had to be at the top of the climb, so I just kept on until the sound grew more distinct. At the very top, I was surprised by a brightly lit, glow stick bedecked ad-hoc aid station staffed by the most energetic folks I’d ever met at that time of night. They promised a downhill run to the last aid station, Queen May.
Another shoe change and some blister repair later, Michal and I were off on the last 13.5 — a relatively flat, though deceptively challenging section after nearly 90 miles of running. Michal kept our pace honest and consistent, guiding up past other runners nearly the whole of the way around Turquoise Lake, down into the lowlands, and then back up the 800 ft climb into Leadville. The sun rose as we passed the midpoint of our last section. With 6 miles left to go, I started to think that I might actually make the finish. I remember saying that to someone we passed — I think they were as delirious as I might have been, so I’m not sure if they understood, but we shared a sentiment: we were finishing something. Something significant.
Michal steered me off the dirt road onto the final climb up West 6th Street toward the finish line, and me needing to ease off our pace on the climb — It only figures that the 100 miles would finish with a 3 mile uphill. It was on that last stretch that the heartfelt “congratulations” started. It seemed like everyone in town came out to give their sincere congratulations to all the runners who made it to the finish line.
They could each look into our eyes and they knew where we had been and what it meant.
At barely a jog, I crossed the red carpet of the finish line and into the arms of Merilee and Ken, who chided me for smiling too much — “they’re going to think this is easy!” he said.
It was not easy, that’s for sure. But it was the realization of a dream many decades in the making, and that’s certainly a reason to smile.
I don’t yet know what’s next, but you can be pretty sure that something big is on the horizon 😉