These words, uttered in the pre-race briefing, come back to me at mile 98. With two to go, there is certainly a lot of pain around. The athlete to my right dry heaves every ten feet. The guy to my left shuffles madly forward and then topples to the side. But my pace, slow as it may be, is even. I breathe easily and am in no danger of a personal protein spill. My pacer remarks that soon, we will see the finish. The trail abruptly turns to asphalt and the temperature shoots up ten degrees. More volunteers and crew appear on the sides, yelling and banging cowbells. In the distance, I think I can make out the finish. Could this really be the end?
The Leadville 100 is a brutal challenge: athletes cover 100 miles of raw, Colorado back country. They face everything from mountain passes and rocky trails to swollen rivers and muck-filled marshes. Not to mention, this is the highest 100 miler in the US, with an average elevation well over 10,000 feet. Altitude sickness is real and even if you do not fall ill, you are still operating on 40% less oxygen than at sea level. Add to all of this the time cut offs. Fail to make them and your race is over before your crew can get to the next aid station.
29 hours before, I stood at the start, more nervous than I had ever been in my life. With 29 career marathons and ultras behind me, I thought it would be easier, but this really was new territory. The faces around me told a similar story; lots of furrowed brows and anxious smiles. I rubbed the initials I had written on my wrist, for luck. They were my late father’s and I hoped that they would bring me strength when I needed it most. At the stroke of 4, a shotgun blast sounded, sending all 625 of us into the darkness.
The early miles were dense and crowded, with little light to see by and less space to pass. Along Turquoise Lake, spectators gathered quietly and in small groups. It is one thing to have a person bang a noisemaker at you and holler, but it is entirely another to have them appear, ghost like, out of the trees. The effect was chilling and for a moment I was distracted.
That was all it took. I hit a rock and then the ground; hard. Blood poured from my knee but in the back of my head, a little voice said “just rub some dirt on it,” so I did. I mashed a handful of muddy soil over the knee cap and got back to business.
As the sun rose and the miles piled up, I hardly noticed the injury. The views from the top of Sugar Loaf were gorgeous and the trail down Power line was challenging and fun. I went bounding into the Fish Hatchery Aid Station, at mile 23, feeling confident. My crew was amazing: they refilled my bottles, restocked my food and taped up my heels in less than three minutes.
By the time I hit Twin Lakes aid station, at mile 39, I was convinced I could go under 25 hours. Next to the outbound trail was a sign that read “Go big or go home” and I took it as a good sign. All I had to do was maintain a decent pace over Hope Pass and I would be golden.
A mile out from the aid station, I realized that I underestimated the course. The marsh that lies in front of the mountain was treacherous, the mud nearly ripped the shoes from my feet. Crossing the Arkansas left me with tiny aquariums in my Sportivas. All the way up to Hope Pass, water splashed out and I could feel the blisters forming. The grade just kept getting steeper and the more I had to hike, the worse my feet got.
After a quick look around, I realized I had little to complain about. The runner behind me had run out of water two hours before and was ghostly pale. A racer ahead of us had turned bright blue and was sitting on a log, laughing to himself. So what if I had a few blisters, I thought, as I dumped half my hydration pack into the dry guy’s bottle. At least I was the right shade of Mare.
The descent from Hope Pass proved to be even trickier than the climb; it was steeper and rockier and now there were returning racers coming back up the trail. Try running down a 15% grade, avoiding rocks and then get out of the way as another athlete comes barreling up the trail. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. My pace over this section slowed dramatically, and by the time I picked up my pacer at mile 50, I was over an hour late.
The full effect of my tardiness came into sharp relief on the descent back into Twin Lakes. Since I was so much later than my projections, darkness had started to fall and my head lamp was in a drop bag, six miles away. My pacer had a lamp, but unfortunately, the batteries were dying faster than the daylight. It became a race down the rocky hillside, us against the light, the lamp and the cut off time.
A competitor came to our aid with some fresh batteries, but one head lamp was no match for the darkness. While trying to navigate a switchback, I went down again; harder than the first time. My pacer screamed; she said later she was sure I had impaled myself with the trekking poles. Thankfully, all it amounted to was some more road rash on the knees. We were nearly off the mountain, but we still had the marsh and the river to go. The cut off time was 9:15 and we were perilously close.
For the first time, it occurred to me that the night may end early. But when I expressed this to Heather, she refused to acknowledge it saying instead “I promised your husband I would deliver you. We are almost there.”
At 9:01 we rolled into Twin Lakes, just a shade ahead of the cut off. My second pacer was ready to go and he practically shoved me up the steep embankment that would take us back to the Colorado Trail. I had been in motion for over 17 hours and had slowed down quite a bit. We hiked up and up; I could not remember this much downhill from earlier. We could only see into the woods as far as the headlamps and flash lights would allow. When I asked Drew why he was scanning the trees with his light and he replied that he was “just looking out for eyeballs” I sincerely wished I had not asked. I have heard about people hallucinating in a hundred miler though I cannot say that I experienced that, every tree stump and broken branch creeped me out more than I ever thought possible.
We hiked as fast as I could, maintaining a steady 15 min per mile pace. I tried to run a little here and there, but after hiking so long my quads were having no part of it. All along the trail we found people holed up on the side, eating and resting. I knew that if I stopped, I would lose what little time cushion I had, so I kept moving. At the aid stations, I checked in and out quickly, never spending more than 90 seconds there.
We moved so fast through the Half Pipe aid station that it caused a panic. When we arrived at the next crew access point, my team was frantic. They had checked at Half Pipe and been told that I had not arrived. Convinced something had gone awry, one part of the team went out to search for us. As it turns out, we had moved so fast, the volunteer crew at the aid station had not even recorded our number yet. We hustled out onto the paved road that leads to the Fish Hatchery aid station and I looked back to see a long line of headlamps behind us. Drew said quietly, “most of those won’t make it” and it hit me that the cut offs were very real. Miss the next one and my night was done. I hiked faster.
The next 20 miles are hazy; the time spent awake and the physical exertion had taken their toll. I ate and drank as much as I could and tried to keep up with my pacer on the Power line and Sugar Loaf climbs, which both feature false summits. The lights on the trail were fewer and further between and I knew that I had to get to the next station just to ensure a chance at finishing.
We popped out above the tree line on Sugar Loaf and could see the May Queen station below. This was the home base! Make it there by 6:30 and all that separated me from a belt buckle was 13 measly miles. My husband, who was pacing me, predicted we would hit it by 5:30 and I was jubilant. But, as we made our way down, I got another heavy dose of reality.
Suddenly, the course became rocky and steep, swinging far left of the aid station. This was going to take much longer than I thought. Another runner took off down the trail, yelling to his pacer that they would not make the 6:00 cut off otherwise. Wait, was it 6:00 or 6:30? Michael did not know and now people were hauling down the trail. I had to leave him behind if I was going to have a shot at finishing this thing. I took off and soon found myself completely alone. Not seeing any trail markers, I started to panic. Which way? I hollered into the distance, but could only hear the noise from the aid station and it sounded a long way off. The only thing I knew for certain was that my watch read 5:55 am. I was 25 hours in, lost in the woods and about to miss the cut off time. I stumbled repeatedly on the rocks and cursed loudly. I searched the trees for markers, but saw none. I kept running, with the hope that as long as I kept moving I would be all right. Then, I caught the edge of root and nearly face planted into a tree.
I was losing it, and fast. I needed help and I had no one around. I did the only thing I could think to do.
I yelled for my father.
“Dad! I need you here! I need your help!”
The trail shifted up a series of boulders and away from the station.
“I have to finish this thing and I need you! Please Dad!”
The trail abruptly kicked right and then leveled out. In the distance I could see one of the markers. As I approached it, I saw another. And then I saw the road to the aid station.
The volunteer in charge of cut offs waited on the road. I huffed and puffed past him and asked if I had missed it. He smiled and told me to run for the timing mat at the end of the station. My crew chased me down, as I crossed the mat, to hand me cocoa and gels. Brendan, my final pacer smiled confidently and told me we would make that finish line. Then, he took off and I had to keep up.
So now it is mile 99.5 and it really is the end.
It seems like everyone in town is now standing on 6th street. Crews, volunteers, regular folks… they have all come out to watch. My whole crew has assembled behind me and is guiding me up to the line. I look up and can clearly see the finishing arch and the long red carpet that leads up to it. Finishing Leadville means special treatment; only half of the 625 who started will hit this mark.
A few feet away from the carpet, I bow my head and thank my father. I decide that walking over the line is no way to show my gratitude, for him or my crew, or for the hundreds of others who helped me to this point.
So I picked up my feet and I ran.
Mary finished the Leadville 100 in 29:45:46, just fifteen minutes ahead of the cut off time. While 625 people started the race, only 347 official finishers were recorded.