When I started planning my journey to run 12 Marathons in 12 Months to bring awareness to the fact that 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide each day, I was advised by many to pick “easy” races. Read: little to no elevation gain, relatively flat, etc. Translated: Running up to 13,185 ft and then back down is not a great idea. Well, I’ve never been a great listener, and running 12 marathons in 12 months isn’t supposed to be easy.
So I signed up for the Leadville Trail Marathon, and on June 18 I toed the line a mere 18 days after my kickoff marathon on Memorial Day. Little did I know that by the end of the day I would experience a whirlwind of sensations that ranged from panic and exhaustion to sheer awe and exhilaration — all mixed together with a healthy dose of nausea. It was not my least painful marathon and certainly not my best time, but I would do it all over again (and I probably will; runners can be crazy like that).
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Take a gander at the race profile below. As you can tell, the course is basically always either going up or down — there is no in between. But in return, there is no shortage of spectacular scenery.
The first half of the race, which ends atop Mosquito Pass at 13,185 feet, went pretty well for me. I stayed true to my plan (keeping in mind that my first marathon was a measly three weeks earlier and I likely hadn’t fully recovered) and hiked the steep uphill, jogged the (limited) flat sections and ran the downhill. Miles 4-6 featured a climb up Ball Mountain — a steep and rocky ascent, but the views were totally worth my burning butt and hamstrings.
The descent down Ball Mountain was steep and VERY rocky. We’re talking loose crumbly rocks that look like twisted ankles waiting to happen. I was running with another girl at this point and I said to her: “This is going to be a bitch on the way back up.” Let’s just say I was right, but more to come on that later.
When I finally reached the aid station at the bottom of Mosquito Pass and got my first glimpse of what lay ahead, I was more than a little intimidated. The people in front of me looked like tiny ants performing a death march up the side of an impassable mountain. No time to worry about that though, it was time to dig deep and make it to the top. It was not easy. I put my head down and climbed the 2, 000 feet to the summit passing snowbanks, river-like runoff and other tired racers. The terrain was very rocky and it was difficult to move quickly, and the climb seemed to last forever. As I neared the top, I finally took notice of how spectacular the scenery around me was — I was on top of the world.
After several more gut-wrenching twists and turns, I finally saw the “Mosquito Pass” sign and a race volunteer that signaled I had made it to the top — the race was half over. After taking a few moments to savor the view, I started back down. That’s when the problems started. Almost right away, I started developing a nagging nausea that stayed with me and intensified all the way down the pass. I stopped eating for fear of getting sick, even water was tough to stomach. The combination of altitude, heat and lack of food/water took its toll and when I got back to the dreaded Ball Mountain ascent around mile 20, I was done.
Every step was harder than the next, and my nausea was intense and I was getting a bit dizzy and disoriented. I sat down on the side of trail several times on the way up, something I have never done in any race I have ever run. I was bolstered only by the fact that the aid station at Mile 21 was sitting on top of Ball Mountain and I knew if I could get there, I could get help. When I reached the aid station after what seemed like years, the volunteers and a medic swooped in.
Somewhere around the 20-minute mark of trying to force down Sprite and watermelon, someone gently suggested that it might be better if I got a ride back down,= rather than trying to run the last five miles of the race. I took a moment to consider that suggestion. I was in this predicament because I committed to running 12 Marathons in 12 Months in order to honor the 22 veterans that take their own lives every day. Compared to what they’ve gone through, this race was a piece of cake. Now was not the time to give up. Come hell or high water, rocky descent or steep climb, nauseous stomach or not — I was going to finish this race.
The medic gave me her blessing and an anti-nausea pill (the most miraculous invention), and I started the last five miles of the race. The pill kicked in and I started to feel good with about three miles left. I pushed myself a bit and hit a 7:55/min. pace on my last mile into Leadville. Turning the corner and seeing the finish line in the distance was one of the happiest, proudest moments of my life. My boyfriend, a U.S. Marine who did two tours in Afghanistan, was waiting for me at finish and enveloped me in a sweaty, exhausted hug.
We joined in the festivities at the finish line which featured a free meal and two beers for each runner. I wasn’t ready to stomach a beer just yet, but I gave one to Matt and his dad to thank them for standing in the blazing heat for seven hours waiting for me to finish. That’s right, the race took me over seven hours to complete. That is literally twice my personal best marathon time. But you know what? I learned more about myself and what I’m capable of during this race than during all my others combined. I’m proud that I finished when it would have been easier to just give up.
Thank you Leadville for teaching me that I am way tougher than I ever knew I was. Thank you for spectacular scenery, encouraging runners and awesome volunteers. Thank you for reminding me that no matter how close you are to giving up, you can press on. There is ALWAYS hope. 12 in 12 for 22 rolls on.
Kristin Burke started running 12 Marathons in 12 Months on Memorial Day 2016 to raise awareness and donations for Active Heroes. Check out her page to follow her story and see how you can help her cause today.
> LEARN MORE