When Tim and I arrived at Fish Hatchery he immediacy peeled off to get the GeekGrl and make sure she cut the feet off my compression socks. I had used one pair of compression socks to hold my calf together from Winfield in and by the time I had been wearing the socks for 27 miles they had pressed my toes together and blisters had developed, popped and torn away. During the foot taping break at Pipeline I changed back to Injinjis but in our trip from Pipeline to Fish Hatchery it was clear that my calf would not last up Sugarloaf so I knew I still needed the compression and cutting the feet off is a little trick I had learned from the GeekGrl. Coupled with the Injinjis it worked great.
So apart from the sock maneuver when I came rolling in to Fish Hatchery my next pacer Mark was ready to take over for the next nine miles. Earlier in the day Mark had already taken another friend from Winfield up and over Hope Pass and in to Twin Lakes. During that journey he had a runner with all her faculties; by the time Mark got me my faculty had left for summer break and he was left to push a hyperactive golem up and over the dreaded Sugarloaf. We departed at a hobble and then a walk and then a jog. Amazingly enough I actually felt like I had been getting stronger since Pipeline when I was handed the magic elixir.
The climb over Sugarloaf is one of the most dreaded events in the Leadville Trail 100 not because it is as formidable as Hope Pass but because it occurs at about mile 79 and by most runners it is hit somewhere around 2 or 3 in the morning. Not only is there the time and distance factor but Sugarloaf is a psychological killer. In the dark you can’t see the top and there are about five false summits. The climb hits you up front with a steep, rocky slog up a jeep road and when you reach the top you feel very grateful and then there is a little downhill run that immediately turns upward into the second climb. This goes a bit less steep, flattens and then climbs again then takes a turn that looks like it will flatten and then it turns back into a climb and it goes on thusly until you reach the top.
Mark kept talking to me throughout the climb and I was telling him what exactly to expect from the climb since I had done it in the night during training. The combination of his talking and me describing made going up Sugarloaf almost like as easy as ride up an escalator. During the course of our climb while we were taking I mentioned to Mark that it looked like we were heading into the last ascent of the five false summits of Sugarloaf and he said “So this is the last ascent?” and just at that moment we were passing a zombie and his pacer and the zombie said “What, there is one more ascent?!” to which I said, “yeah” and he replied “SON OF A BITCH!” and slogged on. I assured him that he would know the top when there are no power lines in sight or hearing because just below the top of the last climb the power lines take a sharp turn off to the left, I think that is the south, so when you are at the crest they are no longer present.
After climbing sugarloaf Mark and I broke into a run on the downhill slope for as long as we could. The road down the inbound side of Sugarloaf is not steep but it is rocky and that late in the game when running at night you really don’t want to take any chances. We walked and talked and were eventually at the bottom turning on to Hagerman Pass road, the dirt road that connects up to the section of the Colorado trail that represents the final 2.5 mile leg to May Queen, the first and last aid station of the race, 13.5 short miles to the finish line. When we hit Hagerman Pass road I was ready to run. I told Mark this may be one of the last sections I was able to run so I wanted to take advantage of it and we really pounded it out. My legs hurt with every footfall but I just kept in mind that every step I ran was cutting huge time off what would otherwise be achieved through walking.
After we turned onto the Colorado Trail it became rocky single track again and there wasn’t much running to be done. I told Mark that there were four bridges along the trail with the fourth being immediately before the parking lot that was maybe 1200 yards from the May Queen aid station. As we were walking along the trail at a pretty good clip I stepped on a large rock on a downhill step and my right foot slid forcefully to the front of my shoe and my toenails seemed to catch fabric and were jammed backwards. The pain was excruciating and I let out a yell. Mark asked what had happened and I told him and said that I would probably end up losing those toenails. Mark came back with the perfect response…”Well, you have five more on the other foot, don’t you? How many toe nails do you need?” It just cracked me up. I agreed, how dare I be a greedy toe mail miser me and my fancy ten toe nails. The moment of humor almost completely dissipated the pain and we forged on into the night.
For the record I only have two or three toe nails that are serious candidates for falling off, four at most and they are not all on one foot so it looks like there is a good chance that I will keep all my fancy nails.
When we arrived at May Queen I really was out of it. I don’t remember Mark leaving my side I just remember the GeekGrl arriving and ready to run. I know Tim was there as well and I think I saw another friend named Steve but I don’t know what, if any, role they played. I grabbed some food and a couple cokes and was just completely focused on getting the hell out of May Queen and to the finish line. May Queen, surprisingly, is an aid station where a lot of people finally drop from the race. The problem that you face at May Queen is that you are pretty exhausted and your body is really trying to shut down so you don’t have much ability to generate your own heat. Combine that with the fact that it gets much colder there because it is both deep in the night and next to a large body of water, Turquoise Lake, and you have a recipe for hypothermia.
So, I was focused on getting out of May Queen and the GeekGrl was to pace me at least 5 miles down the trail to the Tabor boat ramp. From somewhere I got the news that a friend Margaret had only left the aid station 10 minutes ahead of me and then another friend Jean had left about 5 minutes before her. I’m not sure why but I had a strong desire to catch them so I took off running as hard as I could. I could tell that the GeekGrl was straining to keep up with me but she was hanging on so I kept pushing. At one point a runner called out to her and said “Hey, the pacer isn’t supposed to be that far behind their runner” but we just kept on trucking. First I caught and passed Margaret and then I went looking for Jean. I soon found and passed her as well and we hurried on down to the Tabor boat ramp where we were to meet back up with Mark and Tim. The GeekGrl’s plan was to drop me off at Tabor and let Tim pace me to the finish but when we arrived they weren’t there. We called their names but no answer so we forged ahead; the GeekGrl was going to take me to the finish line.
I was pretty winded from the recent burst of running so we started walking at a descent pace and just kept each other company. In fairly short order Margaret caught back up with us and had a fresh pacer. She passed us and continued running and I immediately took chase running just a couple steps behind. However, the GeekGrl was starting to fade and I knew she would be unable to hold the pace for the next seven miles so I broke off chase and eased into a walk. She admonished me like any good pacer and told me that I should leave my pacer behind and I put my arm around her shoulder and said, “Sure, but I’m not leaving my wife behind” and then we strolled through the Colorado morning together, watched the sun rise over Turquoise Lake and talked about our life together, the adventures we have had and the adventures yet to come. It was a magical experience. The veil of Leadville had been lifted from my eyes and like fog on a lake being burned away by the morning sun my life, and my wife were revealed again to fresh eyes.
The finish was glorious! I had lived within the confines of Leadville for six months and completed my Race Across the Sky in 27 hours, 35 minutes, and 31.2 seconds. I was surrounded by friends who hugged me and congratulated my effort. My cousin Chris and his wife drove up from the Denver area and spent time with us and went to the awards ceremony. I could simply not grasp the magnitude of my accomplishment, it is really something that is so much bigger than I. It felt like toughing the sun but I was more than happy to retreat from the moment into a good cup of coffee and joyous conversation with friends.
Ultramarathon is life. We forge ahead with our brazen egos, pound our chests and howl at the moon but it takes its toll, it beats us down, it makes us cry and in the end, if we are lucky, we enjoy fellowship with friends, we experience the kindness of strangers, the love of family and the peace of mind that we have not only come to the end but come to a good end.