Thursday, August 25, 2011

Leadville Trail 100 miler crewing experience.

Last weekend, August 20th to 21st, was the Leadville Trail 100-mile run race across the sky -- literally, the race is on terrain at 9,000 to over 12,000 ft when crossing Hope Pass. I was crewing for a friend about to embark on his first ultra racing experience. He dove right in and went for a 100-mile as his first ultra. His friend, who would pace him for the back 50 miles, did the same thing last year and at mile 70 his arches collapsed and he could barely walk... but he did suffer through it, he pushed his body to extremes and he did finish before the 30-hour cut off.

I was confident that whatever happened over the course of the next 30 hours would be amazing to witness, and I KNEW that I wanted to be a part of it. So the option was open for me to pace for about 10 miles, but in general my job was being on top of all things "crewing". Packing the Nathan backpacks, getting all wet weather, cold weather clothes ready, getting all supplies ready (bandaids, body glide, duct tape, sun block, head lamps, etc), and generally just being ON TOP OF IT. The aid stations were 10 miles apart, and Jeremy (his pacer) and I were there for every step of the way.

Ryan wanted a sub-25 hour finish to get the belt buckle but we had no idea what was in the realm of possibility for him. We had NO idea what his fitness could bring him, but more than that, we had no idea what the DAY would bring him. So many things can happen in an Ironman (nutrition, body wear and tear, the weather conditions), but in a 100-mile ultra, amplify that by 1000 times, and body wear and tear specifically by a million, and you'll get an idea of just how wrong or how right things can go.

So Ryan started out conservatively, as you always should when faced with the unknown, and he was on target given past years' aid station splits, to make his sub-25 goal. We saw the day brighten up, the fog burn off Turquoise Lake, the sun beat down on the runners at Twin Lakes, people in all shapes and abilities slowly deteriorate as we saw them from aid station to aid station, and most magically, the headlamps making their way down Hope Pass the second time.

After a solid 30 miles, my guy started to deteriorate. His IT bands tightened up so much, all his muscles seemed to be shredding apart with each passing mile, and although he made the cutoff at the turn around point (the course is an out-and-back) at mile 50, he knew that going straight over Hope's Pass again and down it, would cause such havoc that he'd be crawling. Yet, why stop when you can still go on?? So, at Winfield, knowing he wouldn't make the cutoff to the next aid station, he set off again, this time with his good friend as a pacer. All I knew was that I was going to meet them on the other side of the mountain 10 miles later. At what time? Whenever they'd show up, and I had no idea when that would be. So I got all the gear collected, I took a 30' cat nap, I ate, and off I went again to the next aid station. Mile 60. Once there, I was in radio contact with my pacer, and I heard they were an hour out. Then an hour passed, with still no sign. I got in touch with them again, and they said yet another hour. What on earth was going on? I knew he was hurting, but I had no idea how much. And it's so difficult to tell how far you've gone in the dark, in such conditions. His Garmin had died a long time ago. So, at some point, I knew it was time to set out and start looking for them. I walked towards them, with a headlamp, following the glow sticks set out every few hundred meters. Until I finally stumbled upon them, and Ryan was in far worse shape than I could have ever imagined. After 60 miles (~95km), his legs had entirely seized up and he was taking baby steps back home. He could have easily stopped at Winfield aid station and called it quits, knowing he had a 1% chance of picking up and making the next aid station, but you don't quit until you're pulled from the race. You never quit. Not only was Ryan's determination a phenomenal thing to witness, everyone else out on the course was tough and inspiring, and also so humble.

While waiting in the dark, every so often 2 headlamps would appear -- one was the runner, the other their pacer. I heard snippets of conversation ranging from dispirited to upbeat. One runner was apologizing for not being in running shape ("Hey guys, I'm so sorry you didn't get any running in pacing me." As if it was his fault! He had just traveled 50mi over mountainous terrain). Yet another runner, in some state of delirium, came up to me and thanked me so much for staying out here and smiling for him. He just wanted to see a happy face. Everyone was inspiring, and to not make the cutoff at mile 60 is still such an achievement. I was SO proud of Ryan for reaching the point of no return and still going further, pushing himself further. Most importantly, rather than feel like a failure, he came away from this race knowing he'd given it his all, and feeling especially proud of his accomplishment. He did it until he broke, and then some.

So, after 3 days and only 4 hours of sleep, I'm happy to say I witnessed an incredible event, and took some awesome photos to boot. They're below:

A shirt I saw... 
Ryan at the startline

4am start!
Runners just before the start. Photo credit to Jeremy Ebel.
Off they go... Photo credit to J. Ebel.
Just after sun rise. 
Incredible views, to say the least... Photo credit to J. Ebel

Turquoise Lake at sunrise

Me crossing the finish line... an ultra? I'm doing a 50-miler
soonish, but a 100-miler is still years down the line. I want to
focus on triathlon and especially the 70.3 distance for the
next few years. Photo credit to J. Ebel. 

Jeremy (Ryan's pacer) at the finish line. He finished this race
last year. 

Fish Hatchery aid station

Ryan running to the 30 mile mark. 

Runners moving into the mountains

Me ready with Ryan's next Nathan pack stocked with his
nutrition and hydration. Photo credit to J. Ebel

GO DISCO STU! I think everyone wanted to be Disco Stu at
this point!

Beautiful dogs. There were 6 or 7 of them. 

Just hanging out on the top of a red truck between aid stations.
Life is hard... Photo credit to J. Ebel

At Twin Lakes aid station. 

View at Twin Lakes aid station just before they go over Hope Pass.

Ryan after the 60miles were done, brought him home. Photo
credit to J. Ebel. 
It was a set of days I will never forget... and it definitely put this weekend's Ironman into perspective. I remember my first ironman, and although I did hurt at points, I never really *hurt* so much as what these guys have put themselves through. I'm taking that perspective with me to IMKY. I'm actually SUPER STOKED about this race. Rather than being nervous, I'm positively giddy to race. I can't wait to get out there and have fun. Do some swimming, a little riding, and perhaps a run around Louisville, why not??? It's going to be AMAZING!!! I guess the next post will be the IMKY race report!

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