LEADVILLE, Colorado — At about 2 a.m., with nothing but stars overhead and the white light of our headlamps faintly illuminating the deep rutted path ahead, we both wondered why we were still climbing. I was confused.
Technically, the difference in elevation from the Make-in Aid Station on the west shore of Turquoise Lake to the Outward Bound Aid Station over Sugarloaf Pass should have been only 1,000 feet. However, we were hiking the route in reverse, which added a few hundred more feet of uphill without us noticing it.
When I looked at my GPS watch and confidently announced that I had climbed 1,000 feet, I knew something was wrong. So did Cody. Exhausted from the 76 miles of travel that preceded this special trip, he leaned back on his hiking pole and looked up at the lights of various headlamps in the distance. Each light continues to rise forever into the sky. He took a deep breath, dragged his leg, and we moved forward.
The Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile running race to and from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, was Cody’s first ultramarathon. The former Selinsgrove resident has completed a variety of long-distance events in the past, including triathlons, marathons and open water swims, but Leadville was a different animal altogether. Named after the city of Leadville, his third-highest corporate city in the United States at 10,158 feet, this endurance race involves an elevation gain of over 15,000 feet over the course of 100 miles. From the moment the starting gun goes off at 4am, the athletes have 30 hours to cross the finish line.
I’m not, or perhaps what others might call, a long-distance runner. I’ve completed several long-distance races in the last ten years, but he never seriously considered the idea of running a marathon, let alone running 100 miles in the mountains. However, as part of the Leadville 100, after completing his first 62 miles, the runner is allowed to have one pacer per section he has. When Cody asked me if I’d be interested in running with him from mile 76 to mile 88 (starting from Outward Bound, climbing Sugarloaf Pass, and reaching May Queen), I said yes. I thought it would be possible somehow.
Despite my overall enthusiasm, I was vaguely apprehensive about Leadville’s elevation. Sugarloaf His Pass rises about 10,500 feet above the Susquehanna River Valley. I had never run at night before, especially in the wilderness, but the plan was to start the section around 10pm. I was also worried that I wouldn’t be able to do my only duty as a pacer: set the pace. Cody was simply the faster, better-conditioned athlete.
Any doubts or uncertainties I had about my performance were quickly dispelled by the arrival of race day. After a few hours of intermittent sleep, we woke up at 2:30 am and drove from our Twin His Lakes cabin to Leadville. When the starting gun blew 90 minutes later, the six of us who made up Cody’s support crew watched as Cody and about 800 other runners headed west into the mountains. When he was out of sight, we drove back to the hut, some of us slept for a few hours while others got ready to meet him at the next aid station.
Although the act of running 100 miles undoubtedly rests on the endurance of a single body, and the literal ability to put one foot in front of the other is ultimately a matter of the runner’s will and ability. , there is also a layer of team support that is logistically complex. support the race. As Cody ran, hiked and roamed in secret through forests and mountains, a crew led by his wife Cindy followed his journey. Between an hour or two of sleep here and there, we loaded up the car and stocked Cody with everything he needed: sunscreen, blankets, jackets, shirts, clean socks, snacks, food, water, toothbrushes, insects. I took everything and headed to various aid stations. Repellent, sunglasses, headlamp, backup headlamp, backup-backup headlamp.
On his 38-mile check-in, we were all blown away by his pace. He arrived at the Twin Lakes aid station early in the morning and sat under a canopy Cindy had set up to keep him out of the sun. The sky was clear apart from a few different clumps of clouds floating overhead. We gave him the sunscreen to wash off and he told a few jokes before leaving. At least in the early morning hours, he seemed to just ski the rest of the course.
The crew and I drove back to town. While we had lunch and browsed downtown shops, Cody tackled the biggest challenge, climbing and descending Hope Pass, which has a water station aptly named “Hopeless.” When we drove back to the Twin Lakes aid station, we did so expecting to see him around 6:50pm. We set the propane grill on fire and made a ramen bomb. It is cup noodles cooked in a thick stew of instant mashed potatoes. Seven o’clock came and left. Time passed. As the sun set further behind the summit, we worried about the fact that he still didn’t have a headlamp. How does a runner need to go down a mountain in the dark of night with no lights to guide them?
Shortly after 8pm, the sun disappeared and the valley turned a soft blue, and Cody appeared on the horizon. It had only been ten hours since I last saw him, and in that time dozens of miles and thousands of feet of elevation had transformed him. his back hurt. his knee hurt. He said he was, almost bluntly, thinking about giving up around 50 miles. He ate a little and then left with Josh, the first pacer of the night.
When we reunited with him at Outward Bound, it wasn’t the 10pm we originally expected. Instead, Cody and Josh arrived after 1:00 am. The sky was clear and full of constellations that I could not discern. A procession of glowing orbs entered the aid station from the darkness, and support crews lined the road with camping chairs and blankets. We made hot dogs and heated up leftover pizza on the camp stove. Cody ate some slices. He looked even more exhausted. We refilled his water and Cindy stuffed my running vest with a few extra headlamps. When we left together, Cody enlisted the help of Paul and I packed my gloved hands into my vest and walked.
We trudged along, stuttering about movies, books, and the mouse we saw running across the kitchen counter in our cabin. We discussed people we remembered from high school, the pain in our bodies, and the pace we needed to maintain to beat the 30-hour time limit. When we checked our GPS watch and realized we had gained 1,000 feet on Sugarloaf Pass and apparently still had hundreds of meters to climb, we cursed the climb, the trail, and the run itself. And after peaking, we didn’t talk much. We settled into a kind of stuttering rhythm. Occasionally, I built up enough momentum on the descents to achieve a lopping jog. Cody’s hiking poles worked with his legs to make it look like he was walking down the mountain on all fours. In the narrow forest, I turned to rocks, roots and uneven terrain. Around 5:30 am when the promise of the day began to crumble, we slipped through the trees and arrived at the last aid station. After a few minutes of rest, Cody headed for the finish line with Kashin, his final pacer.
After returning to the cabin and taking a shower, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. About 90 minutes later we woke up again, got in the car and drove to downtown Leadville where the race would end, just as we had started the day before.
It’s impossible for me to describe how I felt when Cody crossed the finish line. Perhaps the complex web of relief, pain, accomplishment, and more that wells up in the mind of someone who has just spent the past 30 hours accomplishing what many consider to be physically impossible. It may be something.
Of the more than 800 athletes who started the race, just over 360 crossed the finish line within 30 hours. Cody was one of the few who recorded a final time of 29:33:12. I was standing on the side of the road taking pictures as he and a member of our support crew crossed the finish line with him.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe what I felt then. Perhaps it’s a blend of relief, accomplishment, and pride, but it also includes a deeper sense of fulfillment that’s hard to name. It has something to do with connection, not just with race, but with being a part of each other’s lives. There I was exhausted, sleepless, hungry, and deprived in the most basic sense, yet all I wanted to do was live in the moment that we worked together to create.