Three years ago I did not yet really know what going running in the mountains all day was about. All I knew was that I'd been sufficiently cajoled into giving the Leadville 100 a shot, so I'd better go see what I was considering getting myself into.
Three years ago, on July 29th, I took a significant step towards becoming the runner that I am today. There were three weeks until the 100, and I'd never run further than about 32 miles at one time, ever, so I thought I would satisfy two curiosities by A) running 50 miles, and B) making that 50 miles the first half of the Leadville 100. I felt fortunate that--due to the pure out and back nature of the course--I could see every inch of the 100 mile trail by only running 50.
I remember that things went surprisingly well--for 40 miles. Then the morass of swamp and brush and rushing creek between Twin Lakes and the base of the Hope Pass trail confused me mightily (I was going only by a printed out description of the course tucked in my waistband) and I spent precious time and calories looking for the trail. Here I was attempting by far the longest run of my life and I couldn't even find the trail over this forboding pass. Finally it made itself clear, Hope humbled me considerably, and I arrived in Winfield after 7h36 both exhilerated and disheartened. I commented to a friend, directly upon finishing: "There is NO way I can turn around and get myself back to Leadville!" Of course, after a few hours reflection, sitting around a campfire, drinking a Pabst or two, my thinking changed, and two days later I sent in my entry fee. And, of course, in three weeks I was able to get myself back to Leadville.
Today, three weeks out from the race, I completed the same run, but 28 minutes faster. Maybe my favorite part of the Leadville course (except, of course, for the upper reaches of Hope Pass) is the ~20 minutes of trail that goes from the Mt. Elbert South trailhead down into the town of Twin Lakes. The singletrack is narrow and precipitous--it is carved precariously into the mountainside the entire way. Aspen groves abound. After nearly 40 miles of running, gravity lends a rejuvenating hand. And when one pops out onto the final mile or so of jeep road down into town the views across the valley to Hope Pass and Twin and Rinker Peaks are stunning. Of course, in the back of one's mind is the thought that I must now get my body up there. Somehow.
Today was no different. My run had been encouragingly quick and comfortable as I arrived in town after five hours and five minutes of running, but on a very fundamental level there was a sense that things were about to turn south. I was hungry. A gnawing, vacuous feeling existed where a satiated stomach should have been. No problem, I thought, I still have three gels left! There was a problem, though; over the previous five hours of running I had only consumed three gels and I would soon find that my body was operating on a pretty hefty deficit. After the creek crossing I hit a gel and tucked into the climb with a measure of confidence and a conviction to keep it slow and steady. Unfortunately, I wouldn't really have any other choice.
A good, honest, high altitude climb exploits any weakness, and today Hope was unflinchingly savage. It simply did not care. It did not care that I'd already run 42 miles. It did not care that my shorts pockets only hold six gels. I held things together for all of approximately ten minutes. After that I was reduced to what I perceived as the saddest of shuffles. An embarrassing shadow of my typical uphill pep and cadence.
No matter, another gel is clearly in order, despite having downed one only 25 minutes prior. This did nothing. Less than nothing. Within minutes it seemed I was even more ravenous. Another, final, gel. Three gels in forty minutes when my previous three gels had been spread over three hours.
The walls of life necessarily close in at moments like this. Everything, everything becomes about the current step. Each step has a wall constructed around it that prevents seeing forward or looking backward. There is no thought of how far one has already come or of how far one still has to go. Occassionally, wrenchingly, the mind endeavors to poke its neck up, scale the barrier that surrounds each step, peer over the top, and see out. If it is successful the results are borderline-catastrophic. Game-ending. The enormity of the task, the context of miles and elevation that bracket each step are simply too much to bear. The only way the thing can be done is to brace up those walls around each step and do one's best to not peek over.
Of course, that is much easier said than done. All the mind wants to do is think about the end, some relief, some reprieve from the dizzy suffering. But then the darkening skies open up and finally dispense their contents, of course, when I'm staggering above treeline. Hail, graupel, rain, all come pouring down and I'm too far gone to even bother with putting my singlet on. But of course, the summit finally, eventually, comes and the downhill is life-giving, and the sky brightens and now all I have to do is shuffle my way up the road to Winfield where, once again, in three weeks, I'll have to turn around and do it all over again. But with more calories. And rested legs.