The Final Challenge: the 100 mile run

Ever since I signed up for the Leadwoman (back in January), this race had dominated my thoughts. Not in a ruminating, stressful sort of way, but there were definitely thoughts of  “what was I thinking?” or “am I really up for this?” or “will my training be enough?” or “do I have what it takes mentally and physically?”.  I also thought a lot about the gear that I would need (shoes, headlamp, warm clothing), what I would eat and drink and what my pacing strategy should be.  I tried to focus on things I could control and not worry about those that I couldn’t (like the weather) but still the fear of failure was pretty close to the surface. 

My last long run (and longest run) was a tough 50km trail race that was held right in my back yard. It was three weeks out from the race, had a ton of climbing and technical descending and topped out at 12,000 feet. I was tired going into the race and from the get go, my legs felt heavy and sore. I was really hurting the final 5 miles and I couldn’t help but ask myself how was I ever going to be able to go another 70 miles? I know you can’t think like that. When you run a half marathon in preparation for a full marathon you can’t think about the fact that you’ve only gone half the distance. The mind is a funny thing. When you toe the start line you get mentally prepared and psyched to go whatever the distance that the race is and not much more. Even so, this race did little to boost my confidence. 

But by that time, the hard training was done. Physically I was either ready or not. Mentally I knew I was pretty tough, but could I be tough for 29 plus hours? That was the question that was constantly lurking. 

For the 10km race (the 4th race in the series) after the 100 mile bike (the 3rd race), my legs felt similar to how they feel when you get off the bike at an Ironman—pretty heavy and slow. But that was to be expected. So I ran a very slow 10km and then set about the task of recovery for the rest of the week. I spent the week up in Breckenridge, getting in some altittude acclimation, relaxing and putting the final touches on my gear/food preparation. After going full bore in training the last few months, lounging around can be tough. I also tried to eat extremely healthy, lots of green smoothies, fruit, veggies, whole grains and lots of beet and tart cherry juice. For the first few days my stomach was still pretty unhappy with me (see previous blog), but finally it began to come around and I got my appetite back. 

On Thursday I did an easy 30 min run. My legs felt better but still didn’t have the zip and freshness that I wanted before a big race. I got a massage and hoped that would give me the final zip that I needed.

The gun went off, literally (yes, this is the wild west), at precisely 4am. The first 3 miles are a gradual downhill before you head up and over a dam wall which drops you onto the 9 miles of rocky, rolling single track that takes you around to the far end of Turquoise lake. I settled into my pace and was relieved to realize that my legs felt great. I was wearing a watch that beeps every mile. After two miles I thought, OMG, I have 98 miles to go. I quickly realized that thinking like that would just mess me up mentally. From then on I vowed to ONLY think about making it through each section, from one aid station to the next. You have to break down this race into doable bits or you just get overwhelmed and mentally destroyed. I think for the most part I was pretty successful at doing this and that kept me sane! And so I did my best to ignore my beeping my watch from then on.

My plan was to do this first 13 miles in around 2.5 hours. Once I reached the single track, however, I was behind a long line of runners and so my pace was somewhat dictated by those ahead of me. At this point trying pass people would be fruitless and a waste of energy. People were pretty quiet and there wasn’t much chatting going on. I wondered if ultra-running attracts more introverts. Based on how quiet things were, this would suggest as much. But I also think, that like me, people were pretty absorbed in the task at hand. I do remember passing one guy though who was coughing, wheezing and dry heaving. I am guessing he didn’t make it. 

Turquoise lake is beautiful, especially in the early morning light. Dawn was just starting to break as I ran down the short paved section into the MayQueen aid station. Matt was ready and waiting for me with a fresh pack and food. I pulled off my tights, put on my pack, handed him my headlamp and set off. I was about 10 minutes slower than my goal pace time, but I wasn’t too worried at that point. The goal was to keep moving. Endless forward motion is the name of the game.

The next section was a climb up and over Sugarloaf pass. Initially you climb up the Colorado trail then hit a dirt road that takes you up and over the pass. We had done the road section during the mountain bike race so I was pretty familiar with the climb. This part of the course is beautiful as you look out onto a valley with mountain peaks rising up on each side. It was quite breathtaking. I ran/jogged/hiked up the road and then headed down Powerline. This was where things had completely fallen apart for me on my first attempt at this race 3 years prior, and the memories came flooding back. Back then I was hobbling in pain and sobbing, both from the pain and because I knew my race was over. At that time I had borrowed a spectator's phone about half way down the climb to call my crew and and let them know I was out of the race. This year I felt great and was just so happy that I was healthy and fit enough to even attempt this race again. 

The next aid station came at around mile 26. I was still behind my goal pace time, but at this point I just wanted to stay steady. No need to panic. Larry was there with Matt. He was getting ready to head out to the turn-around at Winfield to be in position to pace me on the return. I didn’t spend a lot of time there and headed out, still feeling pretty good and happy that I was still intact. No crashes, no niggles, and no stomach issues. The next time I would see Matt would be 16 miles later at Twin Lakes.

On the short road section I caught up to Abby, one of the other woman in the Leadwoman competition. I stayed with her for a bit and it was nice to have someone to talk to. She said she was on a pace to finish in 30 hours, but it still seemed a bit slow to me. So after a few miles I gradually pulled ahead. I wouldn’t see her again until I was heading back from the turn-around as she was heading in, about 2 miles from Winfield. At that point I was concerned that she would be able to finish. Unfortunately, she ended up having to drop out, so my intuition that the pace was a bit slow was correct. Nevertheless I was pretty gutted for her. 

The next section was rolling with a gradual climb up to the next aid station on a fairly wide dirt track. I was starting to feel a hot spot on the bottom of my foot, so I stopped at the aid station and had them put some tape over the hot spot. This seemed to do the trick. A few miles past the aid station we got back on the Colorado trail. This was a really pretty section of the course.  It was wooded, lush, with lots of Aspens, meadows, and creeks. As I was heading down a fairly easy section I somehow tripped and fell. Luckily it was a soft landing and I only grazed my knee a bit, but it was a good warning to pay attention to where I stepped. 

Once we get off the CO trail, there is a 3 mile descent into Twin Lakes. I wasn’t super happy on this descent as it was steep and rocky, so I took it slow. As I ran through the aid station at Twin Lakes there were crowds of people cheering and yelling. When they see that you are in the Leadman competition (our number tags are different from those just doing the run), there were extra cheers of "go Leadwoman”! I thought this was super cool and made me feel really good. Indeed, this was the case along the entire course. 

Matt met me on the far side of the aid station. I spent some extra time here, changing shoes, geting in some food and fluids. It is always a lift to meet your crew at these check points, even if it is for only a few minutes. 

From here you have to wade through a number of very cold streams and puddles to get to the start of the infamous 5 mile climb up to the top of Hope pass. As it was sunny and warm the cold water actually felt good on tired legs. I was kinda looking forward to this climb as I prefer climbing to descending and I like altitude. But as I headed up I could feel my stomach starting to complain. Shit, this was not good. I wasn’t even half way through the race yet. To make matters worse, as I got above treeline, the clouds started to roll in and the wind picked up. By the time I got to the Hopeless aid station (just before the top of the pass) it was starting to rain and hail. I donned my jacket and put the hood up over my head in an effort to slow the loss of body heat. At least there wasn’t thunder or lightening. Fortunately it was a short lived squall and 20 minutes later the sun came back out. This had been one of my biggest worries, getting stuck in a thunderstorm on top of the pass. Phew, so far so good.

The top of Hope pass is really beautiful with 360 views of mountain peaks and wooded valleys. But I wasn’t really taking time to enjoy the views as I started the 5 mile descent into Winfield. That side is a lot steeper and is quite rocky and technical in places. I really thought that that descent would never end. After the descent you take a right turn and follow a rolling trail into Winfield where I would start the rerturn journey. The cruel thing about this is that you actually have to go about a mile past the aid station (and you can see it off to your left) and then head back into it. It seemed so close and yet soooo far!

At the aid station Larry quickly found me and hearded me to where he and Rose, his wife, had set up some chairs. I sat down, petted Max their dog and took in some food. Thankfully my stomach had settled down. I think the cold and altitude had probably messed it up a bit. Larry then took up pacing duties. He carried my water, which really lightened my load a lot. I just carried some food, a jacket and my headlamp.

Larry has run this race (and done Leadman) a bunch of times, so he is very experienced and the perfect pacer. He is also a good story teller and kept me entertained the whole way. It just made things so much more enjoyable to have someone to talk to. I felt pretty good on the climb and Larry was great about reminding me to eat and drink. At this point in the race, while I wasn’t nauseated I wasn't hungry either, and eating constantly just gets old. But it is important to keep a consistent intake of fluids and calories. 

At the hopeless aid station there were a lot of lamas out grazing (somehow I hadn’t noticed them on the way up) as this is how they get the supplies up to the top. So far the weather was holding nicely, but things were starting to cool down. I donned my jacket and grabbed a couple of cups of noodles. The noodles were warm and salty and tasted really good. Larry and I paused at the top to take a selfie. You have to admit those views are pretty spectacular.

I took my time on the descent back into Twin Lakes. I didn’t want to trash my legs as there was still over 40 miles left to go. I had made it to the 50 mile point in under 13 hours, so I had over 17 hours to do the next 50. A lot of people that I had passed on the climb now passed me on the descent, but I didn’t really care that much. This was not a time to let the ego or competitive instinct cloud good judgement. About 3 miles from Twin Lakes, the sun went down and it got dark really quickly. Time to don headlamps. I was ever so glad that I had remembered to grab my headlamp from Matt on the way in. Finally the climb ended and we recrossed the creeks and river. With each successive crossing the water felt colder and colder and by the time I pulled into the aid station my feet were little blocks of ice. 

Naas, my next pacer, was waiting for me at Twin Lakes to take me the next 16 miles. Heather, his wife, was there as well and it was a real boost just to see everyone. They had been hanging out with Matt for hours waiting for me to come through. According to my pacing plan I was supposed to get to Twin Lakes around 8:30pm, but I didn’t get there until after 9:30 pm. Over an hour slower than my goal pace. Later they told me they had been pretty worried, but they didn’t tell me that at the time, for which I was grateful. I am not sure it would've have helped anyway. I kinda knew I was behind, but I wasn’t that worried. Worrying wouldn’t have helped much either. 

Matt had my food, warm coffee and warm clothing ready. I also changed out of my wet shoes and socks. I took in some calories and then Naas and I headed out into the night.

Naas was a great pacer as well. He kept me fed and watered and also kept track of the time, mileage and pace. He entertained me with some crazy stories of growing up in South Africa. I practiced a bit of my limited Afrikaans and he taught me some new words (not swear words, promise, he is a minister after all). This was his first introduction to this race and I think he was enoying the experience, even though it meant losing a night of sleep. The time passed quickly and pleasantly. Once we got over the climb, we alternated running with walking and we soon realized that we were making pretty good time. At some point I passed Erin, the other woman who was competing in the Leadwoman. She is a better runner than I am, so I knew that I would have to keep up the pressure if I was to keep the lead in that competition. 

About a mile from the next aid station Naas radioed ahead to let Matt know I was coming. At this point we were an hour ahead of the predicted time for this section and we suddenly realized that they probably wouldn’t be expecting us this soon. Shoot, what if they were all taking naps in the car? How would we ever find them in a dark and crowded aid station? Luckily just before we got there, Matt happened to turn on the radio. So thankfully we were able to make contact and find them.

By this time it was after midnight. It was getting cold, but luckily the weather was holding and it stayed dry and clear. James, my next pacer was ready to go. I grabbed some food, drank some hot coffee and we set off. James is a good friend and we have been on many adventures together over the years. But he had only recently moved back to Colorado Springs after having lived in San Diego and Florida the last few years. Consequently, we had lost touch a bit and so we spent the next 13 miles catching up. James is also a great story teller, has a quick wit and great sense of humor. As a result the time passed pleasantly and relatively quickly. We hiked up over Sugarloaf, the same place I had struggled so much on the bike the week before. I passed a lot of people and still felt pretty strong. 

Once we started on the descent down the Colorado trail, I was very careful to watch my footing, as it was rocky and technical in places. At one point, as James was coming down behind me, he tripped and took a bad fall. I happened to look back and I saw him crashing through some tree branches and he finally landed spread eagle on a big boulder off the side of the trail. Luckily he was ok and we had a bit of a laugh, but I was ever so glad he wasn’t hurt and that it wasn’t me (sorry James). We were both a bit more careful with our footing after that. 

As this was the 2am to 6am part of the race, I expected this to be the low point of the race. By this time you have been up for almost 24 hours and you are sore, sleep deprived, dehydrated, calorie deprived and cold. This was the section that I had been dreading the most as I don’t do well with not getting my sleep. But surprisingly I felt really good. Maybe it was James’ great story telling, maybe it was because I had opted to not run hard on the steep downhills, thereby saving my legs, or maybe it was the dawning realization that I was on pace to finish this race in good time, I don’t know exactly. Yes, I was a bit sore and tired, but the good news was that I wasn’t any more sore and tired than I had been hours ago. I was holding steady and things weren’t getting harder or more painful.  

By the time we got to MayQueen, it was just starting to get light. There is always a bit of a morale boost when the sun comes up. Larry was there, ready to get me through the final 13.5 miles. I was back on schedule, and if anything a bit ahead of schedule. I had 4.5 hours to go the final 13 miles. I knew that when Matt did this race, it had taken him that long to do this section. If he could do it, well so could I. My confidence and belief that I was going to finish was growing stronger. But I still didn’t want to count my chickens quite yet. A lot can happen in this race.

Larry, however, wasn’t going to let me dawdle in. He was keeping track of the pace and kept urging me on. With about 6-7 miles to go, the fatigue started to catch up to me. I was getting pretty deep into the pain cave. Everything hurt and I thought that that single track would never end. We could see the dam wall way off in the distance, and it just didn’t seem to get closer. 

There is a boat ramp about half way through this section, so I just focussed on making it to that boat ramp. Then I focussed on making it to the dam wall. Then to the dirt road, then to the railroad tracks and finally the final 3 mile climb up to the finish. At this point it was all about breaking it down into really small chunks. Larry was having me run a few minutes then walk a few minutes, although I am not sure if you could call what I was doing running.  It was more like barely jogging. At this point I really didn’t feel like running, I really just wanted to walk it in, but Larry kept encouraging me to keep it going. During those endless last few miles I kept repeating to myself, "you can’t not finish this race, you have to make it, you have to make it". I was so focussed on just moving forward that Larry thought I was getting pissed at him. I really wasn’t, I was just so focussed and trying not to let the pain cave suck me in too deeply. I had also developed a nasty blister on the ball of my foot which was also causing me some grief.

Finally we got to the paved road, which marks less than a mile to the finish. I had been dreaming about this for months. Imaginging what it would feel like to head up that road with the finish line in sight. At the final curve, I suddently heard a fmailiar voice yelling, WAY TO GO, YOU GOT THIS, YOU LOOK SO STRONG… my friend Mary had made it to Leadville in time for the finish (in spite of the fact that she had to ditch a sick husband and her sisters who were visiting--sorry Frank and sisters). This meant the world to me. Another good friend, Sybil was also there, as was Matt, and they ran/walked with me all the way to the finish. This was pretty special and it was all I could do to hold it together.

And so I crossed the finish line in 29 hours, 7 minutes and 49 seconds, about 40 minutes faster than my goal time. After all the doubts and setbacks I had finished this darn run. Ken Choubler and his wife (the race founders) gave me a hug, put a medal around my neck and handed me a rose. I thought the rose was a nice touch. Then I was hugging and crying and laughing with Heather, Naas, Mary, Matt, Larry, Rose and Sybil (unfortunately James couldn’t be there as he had to head back to the Springs) as well as Dean from Vertical Runner. I don’t think I’ve had such a high, or been so emotional after a race. And having my favorite people there at the finish line to celebrate made it even more special. Indeed that made the race! This was truly a team effort and there is no doubt in my mind that I would never have made it without all their support (both during the race and the months leading up to it). I can’t thank them enough. Matt was there every step of the way and was the best crew chief one could ask for.

Race Stats: I was 29th out of 46 woman who finished, 2nd in my age group and 196th out of 287 total finishers. Over 500 people started, fewer than 50% made it. I finished first in the Leadwoman competition and was the oldest female to both win it and finish it (I am pretty proud of that). It took me 3 hours and 39 minutes to do that final 13.5 miles, one of the few times I was actually faster than Matt! The highest point was Hope Pass at 12,600 feet. Total elevation gain was around 15,000 to 16,000 feet. 

PS I could barely climb onto the podium to get my award for wining the Leadwoman competition, but I managed it.

PSS A special thanks to my coach Paul DeWitt who believed I could do this, even when I doubted myself. His training helped guide me and get me ready without destroying me. 

PSSS This is what I ate during the race, in case you were wondering. Mashed potatoes (with some pickles chopped in), vegan ginger cookies (lots of those), date balls (by Larabar), noodles, vegan buckwheat pancakes, watermelon, coffee with soy milk and Momma Chia (a mashed fruit mixture with chia seeds). No gels or chews, at all. For my liquid I drank Skratch, which has a pretty good electrolyte mix, and water.