So I know what some of you are going to say. A half marathon is not a long run! It sure feels like it when you start out trying to hang with the leaders because you really want one of those wooden clock trophies that go to the top 3 finishers. Being just a week before Leadville, I had thought about taking this race “easy”. Maybe I would “joggle” it and just have “fun”. But this was my hometown race, and I wanted to perform for the hometown crowd. This was my fourth time running the Mora 1/2. In 2013, I came in 4th, one place shy of the podium. Last year I missed the race due to a state tournament baseball game. Maybe it was a bad idea to try to be racing, but when the gun sounds, it’s time to go.
Two runners, one with shoes in hand, shot off the line, establishing an early gap between them and the rest of the field. I joined the following pack of about 8 runners. The group stayed pretty tight, only 10-15 seconds back of the leaders for the first couple miles through town. Then things began to shake out. A skinny young runner broke away from the chase group and started picking up ground on the leaders. I tried to go with him. I hung on for about a mile before I was cooked and had to back off. I would eventually finish in 17th place with a 1:40 time, my slowest half to date. I was happy to find out that the skinny young guy won it. He was a nice kid, Henry Burt, a runner for Gustavus Adolphus College. Second place was the guy who started in bare feet (he stopped and put on his shoes at some point during the race), and third went to the other fast starter, 15-year old Spencer Kotys from North Branch. It was a strong day for local runners as well, with 10 Mora runners making the top 30: Chris Goebel (4th) Michael Schwinghamer (7th) Anthony Nikodym (13th) Wade Weber (16th) Erik Raivo (17th) Cole Carlson (18th) Robert McGovern (20th) Matt Ergen (23rd) John Schwinghamer (24th) Caleb Weinand (28th).
So, what the hell was I thinking, blowing myself up in the mid eighties heat and heavy Minnesota humidity just a week before I was to attempt the biggest thing in my life? As it turned out, a minor blow-up might have been just the thing my body needed to wake up for what was to come. After all, I had a whole week, including a 16 hour drive with which to rest and recover. I just needed to relax. But there was no time for relaxing, for my other summer passion was calling; baseball.
The Mora Blue Devils had just wrapped up a regular season for the record books, having not surrendered a single game in Eastern Minny League play. We were headed into the final weekend of the Region 1C tournament in Hinckley, which would determine seeding for the State Tournament, hosted this year by Cold Spring and Watkins. If we could come away with the top seed, we’d earn a bye next week, and I wouldn’t have to miss any time. As it was, our biggest region rival in recent years, the 2013 State Champion Sartell Muskies, still had our number, holding us scoreless in Saturday night’s game. Being our first loss in the double elimination tournament, we could still gain the top seed with two wins on Sunday. After defeating the Hinckley Knights in the morning session, we got another chance against the Muskies. But it just wasn’t to be, as our bats were once again held in check. Therefore we would advance to State as the #2 seed from the region, and would play an opening round game the following weekend.
We got matched up with the Fort Ripley Rebels for an 11:00 am Saturday tilt. Only I would be 7 hours deep in 100 miles of mountains at that time. So, naturally, I spent the next 2 days stressing myself out about how I was going to break it to Coach, that I would miss that opening round game. I felt defeated. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my teammates after the game. I think in my mind I was still trying to figure a way out of it, but it was my mom who made the obvious statement that I didn’t want to accept. “Well, you can’t do both”, she said. Damn, she was right.
So I texted Coach an apology Tuesday night after I’d crossed well on into the state of Colorado. I never really had any question in my mind whether I’d come to the race, but it was very hard for me to admit that I would not be there for the baseball team. The best I could hope to do was send some positive spiritual vibes from the trail…
I had made it back to Leadville. A rush of euphoric excitement swept throughout my body. I called Aaron, and we arranged to meet up at the grocery store in town. I followed his Subaru back to the campsite where he’d been staying for several days now. It was well after dark, and the drive back into the woods was rutted and rocky. This was real camping. I pitched my tent, where it would stay for just hours shy of the next full week.
The next day, I was still feeling wasted and drained from the hot MN weekend. I had to force myself to join Aaron for a trek up to Mt. Huron. I was pretty sore, but by the end of it I was convinced it was the best thing I could have done for my legs and body, with the race just a few days away. “Flash acclimation”, I like to call it. Give your body a quick shock of 14,000′ altitude, and then 10,000′-12,000′ won’t seem so bad. I was very tired that night, but the next day I felt better.
It was a good thing, because that afternoon was the beer mile. I had never heard of a beer mile, but Aaron seemed really stoked about this Leadville beer mile, so I said “Hell yeah I’ll run the beer mile”. There were about 30-40 people gathered on a dirt road on the outskirts of town. Mostly it was a gathering of crew and pacers. There were about a half dozen of us who were running the beer mile and the 100. The rules were pretty simple. You bring your own beer, four 12 oz cans of your choosing (must be a minimum of 5% abv to be considered official). You drink one can at the beginning, followed by a quarter mile of running, beer, quarter mile, beer, quarter mile, beer, quarter mile. You have to drink all your beer, and you can’t puke. It was really hard. I didn’t make it easy on myself either, as I for some reason went with a 6.5% Happy Camper IPA from the Santa Fe Brewing Company. It was a good beer, but I wasn’t a very happy camper by the third leg of the run. I really didn’t think I was going to finish the race when I was on that third beer. I was struggling to drink; my slams weren’t amounting to much more than small sips. Aaron came running in to finish. He had run a strong race drinking Coors Banquet. I told him I didn’t think I was going to finish, and he immediately jumped into crew mode, talking me through the rest of that third beer. Soon, I was balls in the air and burping on the third quarter mile. “Running is easy, drinking is hard!” I made it back and worked slowly through beer #4. Beer gone, can crushed, I was going to finish this thing. I didn’t think there was anyone else left on the course during my final half lap, but just as I was coming toward the finish fully half of the group who’d met on the road took off to do one more lap with a struggling girl who was working down PBR tallboys.(almost as bright as me and my Happy Campers)
After receiving maybe the most unique race award of my life, in a plastic sand scoop encrusted with real California beach sand, the party was on. There were two race parties happening that night: one hosted by official race sponsor Team New Balance, and the other hosted by Team Mizuno and Aaron’s coach Michael Aish. Aish set course records in both the marathon and 50 mile run this year. Many expected that he would follow suit in the 100 mile race. Both parties were great, with plenty of food, drink, and amazing people. And it seemed like Aaron knew just about everyone and everywhere to go; it was better than having a personal tour guide, I imagine.
Friday was my day to rest, sleep and stay off my feet as much as possible. Aaron was off early again to hit another 14ner. I slept in. All I needed to do today was ready my drop bags and bring them to town, eat, drink, and sleep. I got good rest. Aaron came back sometime late that afternoon. Another guy from Minnesota named Michael Gibino joined us at our campsite that day. He would be pacing in the race as well. Mike recently (7-24-16) completed a 1200 mile cross country run from MN to PA to the Democratic Convention in support of Bernie Sanders. Karen showed up later that evening as well.
Back in early June, I walked in to our local running store, Twin Cities Running Co (TCRC) in Maple Grove. I needed new shoes. A week earlier, I saw Steve Connolly wearing these big foamy green clown looking running shoes. They were the Altra Olympus. We chatted about shoes, and he explained the concept of the wide toe box. I have often had issues with my toes getting squeezed together by narrow running shoes. So I went to the store to get a pair of these Altras. I got the Lone Peak 2.0, and it was probably the best purchase I’ve ever made. I could rave for hours about the shoes and how they’re the best I’ve ever had, but I picked up a lot more than just shoes that day. There were two girls at the store who helped me with my purchase. One of them happened to be Aaron’s sister-in-law Kate. After a few minutes chatting, she realized that I was the guy Aaron was going to be pacing. The other girl, Karen, was moving to Denver a few weeks before the race in Leadville, and right there at the checkout, she offered to pace me, too!
Karen met me at Winfield Aid Station, the turnaround point. The race had gone smoothly up until then. I started strong and kept the pedal down. I arrived at Winfield close to the exact time I had planned/estimated, about 11:15 into the race. It was too early to really be thinking about a sub-25 hour finish, but I was putting myself in the position to be thinking about it soon. I was feeling great. I scooped up Karen and we were off. We hadn’t made 10 minutes of the return trip before my insides had turned south and I was into the bushes for a pit stop. The next ~5 miles would be the worst I’ve ever felt during a race. I know more than once during that portion did I say, “Never again”. I sat on a log at the Hope Aid Station for 10 or 15 minutes, still trying to nibble on this Honey Stinger Wafer Karen had given me a half hour earlier. I refused to throw it away. I regrouped, and we continued on. Steadily, we moved downward, the air thickened and gravity became my right-hand-man. The long descent back to Twin Lakes felt freeing. After trudging back through the water, a mile or so portion of multiple knee deep puddles and river crossings, we arrived at the crowd lined streets of Twin Lakes. It was a marathon-like crowd in the middle of a 100 miler, pretty cool. Karen brought me through undoubtedly the toughest section of the course.
With the toil and toll of the past 5 hours, I had mostly forgotten that Karen had lined me up a pacer for the next section. Apparently it is common practice at Twin Lakes Aid Station for volunteers to just show up and jump on as pacers. So I get what has to be one of the most experienced Leadville pacers ever. Not only did she have a lot of experience on the trail, having paced at the event every year for the past decade, but she was also surely one of the sweetest, kindest, and prettiest in the field. I guess Karen knew exactly what I needed. M.R. made the miles breeze by. We spent a lot of time walking and talking, keeping things moving, but comfortably. I remember telling her of my desire to simply walk it in and not worry about pushing pace or making the “big buckle” time. And so I let that go from my mind. It wasn’t until our last 4 or 5 miles together that that would begin to change.
A tall, lanky runner came trotting by ever so slowly, hardly faster than I was walking. He looked at his watch and said, “We can still make sub-25 if we do a 7 hour 50k”. I began to reply, “Ah well, we’re kinda just walking at this point…”, I stopped. I turned to M.R., shrugged, and said, “What the hell”. I shot off in a jog, blowing right by and soon out of sight of my fellow runner. For the next 4 miles, I pulled M.R. along, as if by an invisible tether. I think she held me back just enough so that I didn’t blow myself out during that bit. I was charged and it was on. By the time we made it to Aaron, I knew it was happening. I was ready to lay it on the line. With about a marathon’s length remaining,I was going to race to the finish.
After a quick aid station rest and a hug from my new friend, it was time to do this deal. Aaron was a talented operator, and I was ready to be his vehicle. He would drive me home to Leadville. And so we went, working together. He’d tell me it’s time to run, I’d run. I’d tell him I feel my heart beating up in my throat, we’d back off. We came to the power line section, a mile or two of continuous uphill, and I destroyed it, putting my hands behind my back, leaning forward and staring at the ground as I went, up, and up. Aaron later mused that I must have tackled that section nearly as fast as the elites, and he wasn’t too far wrong.
We continued on steadily, and made it to Mayfield, only once losing trail and logging an extra ~1/4 mile. The non-reflective flagging became difficult to follow through the dark of night. On to the single track trail around Turquoise Lake. And if I didn’t kick just about every rock on that trail… I wonder what Aaron was thinking as I toed rocks, but saved myself from falling time and again. We got through the trail and onto the road that would be a steady slight uphill for the last couple miles to the finish. At some point near here, Aaron disclosed to me where we were sitting on time, and it sounded good.
However, that didn’t mean we were going to let off the gas pedal. I must have passed some 20 runners during those last two miles. I might not have been moving that fast, but I was flying by people as if they were standing still. It was an amazing feeling, to have gas in the tank during the final miles of a 100, most certainly a new experience for me. We were onto the paved city street approaching the finish. Power walking up that last bit of incline, Aaron told me, “you’ve got to run it in to the finish”. And so I took off, maybe a bit too early. Aaron was behind me, sending Karen a text that we were coming in, as she was waiting at the finish. He caught up to me with less than two blocks to go. I felt my stomach starting to churn and come up. “I might have started running too soon”, I said. “Save it for the red carpet”, Aaron replied. I choked and swallowed, backing off the pace just a hair, but maintaining a respectable gait on through the finish line. And right there past the line, on the street, stood Ken in his cowboy boots, and Merrilee, with hugs and congratulations. “I dug deep!” I said to Ken. “Yeah, you did”, he replied chuckling, shook my hand, and clapped me once more on the back before I moved on. The pure joy and excitement on their faces could not have been contrived.
I stopped in at the medical tent, which was protocol. There were several others lying on cots in the tent. The medical personnel asked me if I was okay. I said, “Yep, I’m good”. They said, “Alright, good job, go get some rest”. I got a bowl of chili and a can of coke. I had just finished the Leadville 100 in under 24 1/2 hours. I didn’t know what to do. Karen was headed back to Denver. Aaron suggested I go get some rest, so we drove back to the campsite. I think I tried to go to sleep in my tent, but I couldn’t. I was up and down walking around in a state of much confusion. Eventually, I headed back into town and was able to see the final dozen or so finishers come down the street. I was glad I got to see those last few finishers. I saw people coming in looking broken in the now heat of day, fighting the clock, but pushing forward regardless. How was it that I had finished and had time to take a nap of sorts while these folks were out there fighting the whole time.
Now with a couple hours to mosey around before the awards ceremony, it was time to take it all in. My life had changed in an amazing way over those past 24 hours. I’ve always been a dreamer. But my realization of what is possible took a dramatic step forward that weekend. I don’t know where or how this trip will ultimately end, but I’m going to intend to do what I’m supposed to do, in my heart. Making dreams reality is possible. The awards ceremony at the local high school gymnasium was a thing to be experienced in and of itself. Two long tables at the front of the gym were filled with hardware for the various awards to be presented. One by one, awards were given, for race series completion, overall champions, multi-year milestone finishers, and all the rest. I felt like an all star in a room full of super stars. It was a genuine Rocky Mountain High!
I submerged myself in the cold flowing creek water near our camp. The first bathe I’d had in days, it was highly refreshing to rinse away some of the dirt, grease, and grime. Then back at the campsite, I was free to bask in the accomplishment. Aaron left Monday afternoon, as he had a few other hiking spots to hit before going home. We made plans to meet up for one more hike on the way home Wednesday morning. Mike packed up camp and vacated Tuesday, but I was staying to finish the mountain sandwich this time. Elbert was calling my name.
So I set out from camp, walking through the woods towards the mountains. I had to skirt around some private land and cross over a creek before getting back on the mountain road and proceeding to the trailhead. Mt. Elbert was a long hike. It was by no means technical, probably less so than its Massive counterpart, but it was a long day. Fortunately, I found the company of two young ladies who were taking advantage of a day off work as rafting guides at a resort in Vail. They were moving a little slower than me overall, but I didn’t mind slowing up a bit. It was nice to have the company. After we came down, they gave me a ride back to my campsite, saving me a few miles of walking. The campsite was lonely now, with just my tent remaining. I packed up and put the last of my things in the Tracker. A single tear may have escaped my eye as I turned to leave. This journey was approaching the end.
But it wasn’t quite over yet. I followed the directions Aaron had given me to reach Torreys and Grays Peaks. It was after dark now, and this rocky mountain road seemed to keep going up and up and up. I shouldn’t have been worried, for the Tracker loved it, but I pulled off and parked before reaching the trailhead. I walked up the last mile in the dark to see that this was indeed where I wanted to be. I saw Aaron sleeping in his car in the parking lot. So I hiked back to my car, but figured I’d save it the little extra work and just stay parked there.
The next morning I was up early. I hiked up to the trailhead, and saw Aaron still sleeping. Wanting to get started but not wanting to wake him, I left a Bearded Brothers wrapper on his windshield as a sign. It was a pretty easy shot of a hike to hit two quick peaks. But it was a very slow day for me, as I was pretty tired from the events of the last week. Aaron and I connected up on the trail mid-way. We finished the hike. I think I’d gotten my fill of mountain hiking for the minute. I then followed Aaron’s Subaru into Denver, to meet up with Karen at Station 26 for a celebratory beer.
This was the most amazing experience of my life and I wouldn’t trade it. It really was living out a childhood dream. I remember first learning of the Leadville 100 Run. It was sometime in the mid 90’s, I was spending a late summer weekend afternoon beating a little heat in the house checking out the television options for the day; there weren’t many: 2,4,5,9,or 11. Five channels to find something to entertain yourself. My how things have changed. But it never seemed to be a problem. If anything, less choices might have made life easier? And there it was, an ABC Sports Special, the Leadville 100 Trail Run. I was enthralled by the TV set for the next two hours, as they showed runners throughout the pack, in battle against the mountains. I remember telling my mom about it that day and telling her, “I’d like to do that someday”.
And I did it! The sense of personal accomplishment was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. But what I learned over the course of the experience was invaluable. I learned that it is okay to ask others for help. It can even be a good thing. Maybe those who give the help can even benefit from the act as much as he who receives. Before Leadville, I don’t remember the last time I really asked someone for help. I do remember times I was given help without asking. This experience was a combination. I asked Aaron to pace and crew for me, Karen and M.R. volunteered of their own accord. They were all absolutely incredible. I felt weird the way I was waited on hand and foot, it was like I was royalty. Fill my water bottles, carry my water bottles, bring me plates of food, on and on. It was crazy to have other people really actively care that much about what I was doing. It is a testament to the culture of trail running, as well as a testament to these individuals. I was a lucky guy!
I left Leadville with a big gold belt buckle and memories that will last a lifetime. I also left with a new outlook, new belief, new set of mantras. “You are better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.” Those are good words to live by.