Winfield – Twin Lakes (50 – 60.5)
With Rui by my side, we strolled out of Winfield. I was now wearing gators over my shoes as I was sick of wasting time, stopping to remove stones. I was digesting food on the road back to the trail section so it was a pretty slow start. Even so, I was excited to show Rui Hope Pass. He would be my witness to how tough this was! I had two concerns going on. My stomach wasn’t happy and climbing Hope from the south side was going to be a steeper grade and test me.
The trail was a little congested with runners coming towards us making their way to Winfield. An unwritten rule is that whoever is in front has right of way, so it got under my skin when some of these folks didn’t seem to care about this and made me wait for them to pass. It reminded me of the NYC subway system, a complete free for all with people getting on the train before allowing people to get off. When the terrain was flat or down, I ran, if it was uphill or slightly technical underfoot, I went back to walking.
We reached the sharp left turn, the start of a 2.5 mile climb up approximately 2,400ft. Embedded rocks acted as steps and skinny trees acted as a handrail to propel me up the mountain. When these natural objects weren’t available, it was good old-fashioned steady relentless steps, the ‘no stopping’ rule again in full force.
Rui reminded me to drink water. I guess the altitude wasn’t making me believe I was sweating and therefore threw my brain off the necessity to hydrate. Also as we climbed, the temperature was dropping, another factor as to why I wasn’t dying of thirst. I had a sip or so every time he said it but it was not easy. Eating and/or drinking going up is tough. You’re trying to take down energy or fluids while your body is going up. Not a great combination.
About halfway up the climb, Rui pulled me to the side of the trail to eat. My glucose was in the low 200’s so we opted for some potato chips, carbs without the sugar. This was also the best food source to fight off nausea as well, so it had a double effect at 11,000ft. I took down two chips real slowly. I’m pretty adamant my face looked no different from when I was 7 years old refusing to eat my greens while my Nana told me how good they were for me! Rui was doing a good job playing Nana. He didn’t let up. He made me eat several more before allowing me to continue the climb.
As a big group came towards us up the climb, I was down to the last chip. We didn’t want to get stuck behind this group so we jumped back on the trail, onwards and very much upwards. The surrounding trees soon thinned out which meant we were close to the top (if you count a mile as close). We climbed a section where it was hands and feet stuff before getting onto the switchbacks to the top.
A few runners were sitting down with their patient pacers. I gave them a high-five or a tap on the leg to try to get them going but refused to focus too much on their agony, it could be me any minute if I let my brain think about. The climb was now really tough with the thin mountain air in full effect. Certain parts involved climbing on tippy toes. If you were to put your heel down, you would have fallen backwards. I was playing real life Snakes and Ladders and I refused to land on any snakes! Rui paced slightly ahead and we were in a groove rolling double sixes all the way up.
For the first time in the race, I felt rain. On went the rain jackets. I borrowed one from Francis only the day before. It was a thicker jacket than the one I planned to use. I wasn’t motivated to throw it on because of the rain though, this was just drizzle to a Brit. The reason lay in the temperature drop. It was significant and the winds were now swirling all around us.
We hit the top of Hope Pass. We looked back, we looked forward. Such incredible scenery. I instinctively grabbed a rock to keep as a memento.
Rui adjusted his jacket as the wind was kicking our asses all over the place. His brand new cap flew off his head and he could only watch it as it flew away. He thought it was cool rather than getting annoyed at his misfortune. I didn’t want to hang around to lose my hat so off I went descending the trail. I was pretty confident he would catch up!
It was half a mile to Hopeless aid station. I had run further than ever in my life while climbing Hope Pass twice. A guy called Donny told me Thursday night “Don’t quit, you’re going to want to quit. Probably around mile 55”. Donny couldn’t have been more wrong. Me and Rui were two big kids flying down this famous mountain without a care in the world. We startled a few runners ahead with our enthusiasm and energy. Should I have held back a little bit? Maybe but I wasn’t going to win this thing, I was here to enjoy the experience and I was most definitely doing that.
Hopeless aid station was full of runners refilling water bottles, getting hot soup or fixing their feet. We stopped and I did a blood test; 193. I took off my rain jacket and grabbed some water and a cup of soup. I wanted to keep the descent going to bring the glucose down but Rui again held the reins on me and told me to eat before we continued. Besides, when would we next eat soup next to llamas again?! My stomach was already feeling better than back at Winfield. My pacers persistent caloric intake was working, even though my brain was saying ” just run”.
We thanked the volunteers and said our goodbyes. We had 3 miles of descending to do. Without doubt, this section was the most fun. Not too steep or too technical so we upped the pace all the way down making up some time from the outbound section, whizzing past cautious runners. As Rui was ahead I had a path to follow. If it looked good I followed, if he had to move his feet out of a tricky situation, I took a different route.
What felt like sub-7 pace was actually 8:30’s. The average pace of last years winner Ryan Sandes was 10/min miles for the whole race so if I could just sort my climbing out I’ll one day start cashing checks for having this much fun! Here’s to dreaming. The trail widened and flattened out as we reached open meadows. This meant the river crossing was near and I was far too excited to share this experience with Rui. He wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as me to run through the iced cold water. It was about 7:30pm, sunset. I guess he had a point that cold feet with no sun isn’t the best mix. But we had no choice!
I went first and showed him how much fun it was. I ran through as fast as possible. It seemed to have got deeper than four hours ago and I had forgotten there were two parts to it. The second part, even deeper. What a great way to stay alert!
A couple of girls were running alongside us. The pacer of their group had a radio hanging off her backpack with M83 playing. I ribbed Rui for not having one of these as we ran into Twin Lakes with them, laughing as the music blared. I don’t know what Rui did, but I was feeling so much better after that stretch. I was ready for fresh clothes, some food and my next pacer, 49 years young, 2:41 marathoner, Frankie Bubble aka Francis.
Twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery (60.5 – 76.5)
I sat down and had a large choice of what to eat. Francis and Keila had gone off to buy me sandwiches from a deli (god knows where they found one!) Savory food items were something we did not factor for as much as we should have. Complex carbs with fat and protein. This was ideal food to put on some weight while not spiking my blood glucose. I grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich and some chips as roadies. The one definite savory item that was working for me provided by the aid stations was the Ramen soup with noodles and crushed crackers. Never try something new in a race. Screw it. 100 miles was new and it was working out just fine, the same way I borrowed Francis’s jacket over Hope Pass.
After 60 miles and more importantly, two river crossings it was also time for a wardrobe change. Off came the shoes and compression socks. I looked for blisters although I felt confident this wasn’t that necessary a procedure as my feet felt pretty good. I found about five, oh the power of adrenaline! I slapped on Vaseline, put on new socks and a fresh pair of Cascadia’s. This pair actually belonged to Francis, another late decision. We realized how little give the trail road gave from our Thursday shake out run and my own spare shoes; Brooks Pure Grit (a light weight trail shoe) and Brooks Ghosts (a neutral road shoe) wouldn’t be as suitable. Thank god we were both 11.5!
I changed leukaemia T-shirts, threw on my long sleeve Brooks top and my thin weatherproof Brooks jacket. Lastly, on went the wooly hat and the headlamp. I didn’t think I would need this until the end of this section but it was getting slowly getting dark. Off we went saying goodbye to my parents, Rui and Keila.
This 16 mile section was known as being the most runnable but first we had to climb. I told Francis a statistic I remembered about the race. If you make it out of Twin Lakes inbound, you finish the race. Hope Pass was over with. If he was worried about my mental state, he needn’t of as I confidently told him that. I felt like I was back in the game and the sub-25 buckle was still very much a tangible goal.
I had forgotten that this ascending section was quite long before I could try to run. The plan was to knock out 16/min miles for 10 miles (to Half Pipe aid) and then 14’s into Fish which was flat for 6 miles. My blood glucose was hovering around the 200’s and my caloric intake was still not hitting 500 calories between aid stations but my stomach was trying its best to understand what I was trying to get done out here!
We hit double track trail which was great news. We could run side by side on a track each. We could run! And run we did, at least that’s what it felt like to me in the pitch black with our two headlamps and a flashlight to guide us. I drank a lot more here. Why did i start to drink more now? Probably because it was flatter terrain, I was running and I knew I needed to put on weight for the dreaded next weigh in, especially as I was still under-eating. That had to be at Fish Hatchery.
We arrived at the aid station feeling good, looking good, talking all the way there. Half Pipe sure was a busy Saturday night hang out for the middle of nowhere. Lots of runners looked far too happy to be sitting down and chilling for my liking. I said to Francis, let’s make this a quick stop. I chugged two cups of water, grabbed some fruit and Ramen soup. Maybe Ramen soup will sponsor me for my next 100? That’s right, I was definitely not in a “never again” kind of mood, this was fun, this was what I had trained so hard for over the last six months.
Off we went for 5.6 miles of runnable miles to go. Francis kept encouraging me by telling me the average pace was dropping quickly and we were heading towards the planned pace for the section. We passed through a crew section which was pretty lively. We didn’t use it for Team England and I was glad. My crew needed some sleep and me and Francis were having a grand old-time anyway.
The dirt path road turned a corner and we saw car lights in the distance. It was route 24, the main spine road through Leadville that crew cars had been using to hit up all of the aid stations. Then we saw closer car lights and I knew that was the asphalt road that led me 2 miles into Fish Hatchery. I went for another sip of water from my bladder. It was mostly air.
Rather than waste time and pour water from Francis’s bladder to mine, we adopted the scuba diving ‘buddy breathing‘. He tucked me under his wing as I took water from his mouthpiece whenever I needed it. We had a good laugh at how ridiculous this looked yet no one was actually around to witness it.
Next came the realization I was still wasn’t eating enough food for the weight watchers medics eagerly waiting for me. I ate the second half of the grilled cheese sandwich and some chocolate. This was the plan. Eat and definitely don’t pee in the last miles coming into Fish. I was also now adopting Francis’s warmer jacket as a fourth layer over my backpack. Apart from a water bottle sticking out of my chest, it would take an eagle-eyed medic to realize I was wearing my backpack under the jacket (the crazy ideas you think of at midnight!). I also had on my hat, headlamp and two pairs of gloves. After all I was in the Rockies!
We heard some wild Texas music up ahead. Wow, the aid station is pumping out some Cotton-eye Joe pretty hard we thought. Then we realized it was two southern dudes doing their thing to motivate the runner. We had buddy breathing and ideas to cheat the scales, they had cowboy music. Two different ways to pass the time and entertain ourselves!
We ran into the aid station. The pros had all finished and I’m sure a boatload had not returned from Winfield either due to time cut offs or pure exhaustion. I ran into the food area alone. Frankie had done his shift and done it awesomely. I looked for the dreaded scales left and right. Nowhere. I walked ahead. Nothing. Should I ask someone? By the time I considered that I was out of the aid station and back with Francis, Rui and Keila ready for her night shift. No weigh-in, after all that deceiving and well thought out plan!
Fish Hatchery to May Queen (76.5 to 86.5)
My feet felt fine. No need to address them or change shoes. We filled my empty water bladder back up to the max 50oz, reloaded the hand-held with Gatorade and tried to eat a granola bar and some fruit. From the calculations we had done, if this could be a slightly faster than planned 10 miles, Rui would have the chance to whip me back to the finish in sub-25. We all believed it was on.
Keila and I walked out of Fish Hatchery shortly before 1am. I was eating (nibbling) and needed time to digest it but unfortunately I now had an even more painful area to deal with than my stomach. I was chaffing in my groin really bad. I know, not pleasant reading. Trust me, it was far more uncomfortable trying to knock out the last 23 miles in the discomfort. I had been adding Vaseline at every aid station all day and night but for whatever the reason, my body and my Salomon compression shorts were not getting along down there. I’ll leave it at that.
The road rolled up and down, to the right and then dipped left onto a dirt path. This was all very runnable stuff but I wasn’t running now. I just walked it as fast as possible towards the start of pipeline climb to the peak of Sugarloaf Pass. I knew the climb would be slow and grueling so I justified that walking towards it would converse what little energy I had left for the long climb. Neither Keila or myself knew the exact distance, we just knew it had several false summits.
The first section was straight up for one mile. We saw a spectacular view of headlamps ahead of us. From memory, this climb then turned left and kept bending around the mountain for at least another two miles. Just like Hope Pass, I told Keila this wasn’t the time to focus on the average pace plan for the ten-mile stretch. This was about what pace could I go without having to stop.
The pace was good. The path up was very smooth if you discounted the huge cracks we kept jumping over in the trail where water must gush down at a frenetic pace during thunderstorms up here. We were however lucky with the lack of rain for the race. The straight up section was done in no time. After two more miles, I found I was only being passed by runners/pacers with trekking poles. I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of these accessories in ‘running’ events. Did they work? Absolutely. We’re they anything to do with running? Absolutely not. I asked a guy who seemed experienced (yes he had trekking poles!) how much further until we hit the summit? He confidently said one mile.
One mile later I was still disappointed that it wasn’t the top. People with trekking poles are also liars! Keila felt my frustration as I would say “this is definitely it” for the umpteenth time. I wish I never had asked anyone. I wish I had said at the bottom it was at least 5 miles of climbing and then I wouldn’t have got myself into this emotional mess of false summits. I was warned but the newbie in me didn’t listen or research this section enough.
Finally, we made the top. It was now freezing. I still had my two pairs of gloves on and four layers so felt warm enough however. This was now the time I had been waiting for to descend the remaining miles into May Queen. I had told Keila “don’t you worry, when we get to the top of this, we are going to run all the way down to the aid station”. The words were positive but somewhere over Sugarloaf Pass, I let my brain do some more calculations. Even if I could have run down this section, I would have needed a sub-2 hour half marathon finish to get the bigger belt buckle; the under 25 hour finish. Francis had told me earlier that it helps to be really, really stupid in these races, meaning don’t think, just do.
Unfortunately for me, my brain would not shut down. I had run over 80 miles and I was still alert, still calculating, still not being sick! But atop Sugarloaf, my brain told my legs, forget it, that big buckle is not happening, not this time anyway. My legs went into complete sleep mode and would not run. I wanted to, I wanted to so bad but their was nothing. I knew I was going to finish, even if I just walked in. I think i also and knew that if I had tried to run in for the last 18 miles to a sub-25, I risked a very high chance ending up in hospital for a long time. So, I was caught between two not very appealing options and dragged ass to finish in that huge five-hour window.
We walked and talked all the way downhill on very runnable road to single track to road where a row of cars were parked just before May Queen. We almost kept on going but then realized one of the cars was Team England! It was 4am and it was now the coldest part of the race so far. Sorry Keila, I gave you ten miles of walking but you sure helped me keep moving all the way.
May Queen to Finish (86.5 – 100)
Francis had the chair ready by the side of the car and was open for business! “What do you need Stevie?” I probably muttered something sarcastic like “to finish this race”. Rui was bundled up head to toe. This was August 19th right? My Mum also looked unrecognizable in numerous layers shaking her hands. This wasn’t triumphant shaking, this was freezing shaking. I pleaded with her to get in the car which Keila had already done to get warm where the heat was on full blast. She finally listened to my advice. Looking back at this scene now reminds me how much determination and positive energy I had the whole time. We got a great tip from Gary Brimmer the day before the race; don’t let him (me) see the car ever. We liked it. We also didn’t use it and it never crossed my mind even for a spilt second to jump in the warm car and call it quits. I had six hours to complete a half marathon and therefore complete my first 100 miler in Leadville, the highest ultra marathon in the States. You could have shown me a warm bed, a shortcut, a free pass to the finish line. Would not have made a difference. I was going the way I came and Rui was going to get me there, absolutely no question.
Off we marched down the road into May Queen aid station. Again, it was jam-packed. Runners camping out trying to get warm, taking their time, some contemplating if they would ever get going again. I wanted something hot unsurprisingly. I said to Rui I wanted Ramen soup and a cup of cocoa. He advised against this combination so I changed up the menu and just went for the cocoa. A nice hot roadie with enough sugar to keep me from having any hypo problems. We broke this last section into two. 7 miles of single track along Turquoise Lake until we would see Francis again at the boat basin (a crew area).
This stretch was my real low point. The sub-25 game had long gone as we walked the trail by the lake. What I remembered as easy trail running on the outbound had now become a really hilly and technical section. I started to get dizzy and told Rui to slow down (he was going as slow as possible) in case I passed out. I tried to munch on some potato chips and sip water as this was the best cure. It worked but then repeated itself every few hundred yards. I think we knocked out those seven miles at about 25/minute per mile. Sounds impossible right? I guess I like making the impossible possible but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind! Rui told me I looked like Iron Man. I corrected him and said I was Ultra Man! The humor didn’t last long. When I saw a face in a rock I knew I needed to wake up fast. I guess after 25 hours I had finally become tired.
Just as I had told Keila earlier, I told Rui as soon as we get beyond Boat Basin, the trail flattens out and the road widens up to the finish. I promised him I would get faster. I felt this huge amount of guilt that he was having to go so slow in such cold conditions when only hours before we were two kids flying down Hope Pass at 8:30 pace.
Before I could start thinking too much about how far Boat Basin was, Francis appeared on the trail. What a great sight! The car and that comfy chair couldn’t be far away. We high-fived and kept walking. Only a handful of spectators were siting outside by the lake watching the sunrise. My Mum and Keila were passed out in the car but Francis had it all under full control. I needed more Vaseline I exclaimed! I sat in the chair for a while with the throw over me to try to get warmer. My sugar was over 200 but I didn’t care. Better than dealing with a hypo at this stage of the game. Runners were passing through slowly. I noticed that none of them looked cold. They also had less layers on than me. That was it. To hell with all these layers! I took off my track suit pants, gloves and one of the jackets. If I was cold now, I would just to have to move faster!
We left and immediately walked at a really brisk pace. It was probably around 15/min miles. Rui said “We are going to walk like bad asses all the way into the finish line and take back some places that belonged to me!” A random woman sitting right there said “Hell yeah!” We had no clue she was there but were amused she was a ‘fly on the wall’ to our crazy army talk!
Off we went. The first few steps were so excruciating, I cannot find clean enough words to describe the pain. But as soon as I got into astride, the pain numbed (slightly). It sure felt better going faster than 25/minute miles. I hadn’t gone this fast since running into Twin Lakes over 17 miles ago. We marched down a dirt road as the sun kept rising. We were passing people. One guy, then another, then one more appeared. The best part about this was they were still in running motion, we were power walking and it was no contest.
Rui knew it was 3.5 miles of gradual uphill to the finish. I had forgotten this part completely. He told me to swing my arms as if I was running while maintaining the brisk walking technique. Who was this guy? An English teacher or a marine? Our pace went from 15/min miles to 12:15’s with this technique! More people were passed.
This wasn’t to say it was easy. Far from it. I was real beat up doing this but happier than dragging ass into the finish. He had a game plan and I trusted him with my life. Occasionally Rui would ask the random spectator the actual time. His plan was foiled when one person responded “You can break 28 if you keep going like that”. I liked his plan, until he told me we would need to run the last mile. The last mile was 2/3 uphill and he wanted me to run it?! Would have been so easy, if only I hadn’t run about 104 before it!!
He firmly shouted “Go!” and we started running. Another runner said “You’ve got plenty of time” referring to the 30 hour limit. He obviously didn’t have a Rui pacing him home! After 100 yards of running though, I stopped and went back to walking hoping Rui wouldn’t notice. He turned and said “Come on!”. For one of the rarest times in my life I said the words I hate most “I can’t”. He didn’t let up and said it again and again. “Rui, you know me, right? If I could I would but I just can’t. Sub-28, 28 and change. It’s the same thing. Let me enjoy the final mile rather than kill myself. Their will be other times.” He sighed and gave in to my plea, maybe because I implied this wasn’t going to be a one and done 100 mile show. But what a pacer. This guy had never paced anyone before and here he was with these techniques and motivational words all the way home. 4 hours to cover 13 miles. I owe you lots of pacing brother!
We met Francis and Keila with about 3/4 mile to go on E 6th Street. I whipped off my backpack, jacket and top. I had to showcase the leukaemia T-shirt for the final stretch. Their was no need to run anymore but I instinctively did anyway. I ran that 3/4 mile as hard as I could with my three amazing pacers alongside me.
At just after 8am, I stepped onto the famous red carpet and broke the tape, a nice touch the organizers do for all official finishers. My eyes swelled with tears as I sent a little prayer up to heaven to my uncle. 28 hours and 2 minutes. I received my medal from a woman I recognized from the Leadville Race Series store. We hugged as if we knew each other for years, not two days. Then I was surrounded by my pacers for high fives, big smiles and more hugs and then my Mum which was such a special moment. We didn’t say much but I’m sure we were both thinking of what I had achieved in honor of Uncle Dave. Medics took me into a tent for a mandatory check up and weigh in. I was up 2lbs from Winfield, must have been all that buddy breathing with Frankie!
I left the finish area staggering out. Moments earlier I had just run across the finish line but now my body was in complete shut down. The brain is so powerful, its scary. I found a space on a bench and dumped myself onto it guzzling cold water next to Rui who looked as beat as me. He had run a marathon in total and not eaten or slept well for a long time either. That’s the thing about crewing/pacing, you are as tired as the runner and I fully appreciated that and everyone’s commitment. I did my post-race blood test; 178, OK, great. No need for any sugar or insulin, my brain could shut down. Francis got the car and we drove back to the hotel. Although it was only half a mile away I still managed to fall asleep during the ride! I got carried up the stairs to the room and I crawled into bed, fully clothed. Out cold with a smile on my face. Finishing is winning? Darn right, especially in Leadville.
Now that it’s all done and dusted, I’ve had lots of my friends ask “What was the worst part about it?” That’s a pretty negative question and my answer is relatively short. If they were to ask me “What was the best part?”, they would have heard what you just have read. Everything about it was the best part. From the training, the leukaemia fundraising, the build up races, the research, my friends and parents coming out to Leadville and of course finishing it. My place was 169 out of 364 finishers. A very low 45% completion rate. Those numbers make me feel proud, I’m forever part of the Leadville family as are my parents, Rui, Francis and Keila.