From 10,000 feet above sea level you could look down on Chicago and see the roof of the Sears Tower some 8,000 feet below... and the Sears Tower stands 1450 feet tall. From 10,000 feet above sea level you'd still have to look up to see the ground if you were at Leadville, Colorado. Leadville is the highest city in the United States scored into the Rocky Mountains at 10,152 feet and surrounded by peaks that rise over 14,000 feet. Every summer Leadville hosts a series of endurance runs and bike rides culminating in August with the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run, aka: "The Race Across the Sky".
As a Chicagoan I heeded the warning, "get up to acclimate" and arrived in Leadville six days prior to the race. I spent those days gasping in the thin air and scoping out segments of the race course. In one particular workout I climbed up and over Hope Pass - the highest point of the course. It took me 2:41 to cover an estimated 7.5 miles, which left me wondering... could I finish this race in the allotted time limit of 30 hours?
The days passed, runners arrived and I moved into a rental house shared with runners Larry Hall and Beth Simpson - both from the Midwest and both have successful finishes at this race. It was great to house with them and glean race strategies from their experiences. On Friday morning I went for one last easy jog then lined up 12th for racer weigh-in, which was recorded on my official race wristband, which was buttoned by an official around my wrist. The Denver airport lies 125 miles away where I rushed down to pickup my wife Michelle who'd arranged some time off work to crew for me.
There is one stop light in downtown Leadville. It hangs over the main street at the intersection of Harrison Avenue and 6th Street. Early Saturday morning at 3:45am it was pulsing red and yellow in the crisp electric darkness as underneath some 500 runners checked in and greeted one another in the starting pen. At 4:00 sharp a shotgun blast sent us westbound, down 6th Street leaving the lights & bustle of Leadville behind.
Within ¾ of a mile homes, churches, schools and paved street were replaced by a dirt road cutting through pine forest. It was easy running pitched slightly downhill with great footing for four or five miles synthetically lit by our headlamps & flashlights. Soon we were bumping along a rockier trail looping around Turquoise Lake reaching our first aid station, May Queen at 13½ miles. Daylight beat me to the checkpoint as did Aaron & Joanne who were serving as crew for Larry & Beth. Aaron is the twenty-something son of Beth and Joanne is his girlfriend. To the best of my knowledge this was their first time crewing hundred milers but they served as expert veterans - giving up sleep and making every station. I dropped off my headlamp and grabbed some quick calories.
We left May Queen climbing trickier trail on our initial ascent of Sugarloaf Pass - an occasional footbridge assisting us over rushing mountain streams. The ascent continued up Hagerman Pass Road, which broke free of the forest ridging up Sugarloaf Mountain for one mile. The smooth road slanted gently but most at my pace chose to hike, taking in the view back down to Turquoise Lake as we rose above some early morning clouds. Finally a more rugged, steeper switchback road took us the last two miles to the top of the pass at 11,100 feet. The road then had no place to go but down and we had no choice but to follow. It felt great to open my stride and use gravity in the full morning light. At the bottom we connected again with blacktop road which brought us to Fish Hatchery at 23½ miles.
And that's where Michelle greeted me with a big smile and personal escort through the aid station. It was a quality visit but kept short with the task barely started. She relieved me of my morning jacket and sent me off rejuvenated and inspired. The road leading out of Fish Hatchery was a casual downhill. Being much more comfortable on roads I opened up and clipped off a few quick miles. As the road turned back westward toward the mountains I caught up with Bob Redwanc - race director for the Zane Grey Highline 50, and together we hiked up toward our third aid station.
Halfmoon at 30½ miles is a gateway aid station separating flatter roads of the Arkansas Valley from the more technical Colorado Trail, which twists through the mountains of the Sawatch Range. The entire course is marked by an abundance of diagonally striped pink and black ribbons. The trails can be steep and rugged, strewn with boulders, roots and scree... pure ultra bliss. On occasion I would stop to allow myself a look down the mountain through the vistas as we neared Twin Lakes. I wasn't sure if it was the views or the altitude that was taking my breath away! On schedule I made Twin Lakes at 39½ miles in 8½ hours to find Michelle ready for me at the aid station.
It was thirty minutes past noon. I chowed down as Michelle related racer reports. The sun was making brief appearances through the thick clouds but the temperatures could never quite climb above mid 60's. Knowing the difficulty factor of the course over the next 10 miles we agreed to meet in four hours at the 50 mile turnaround. A hug for luck and Michelle sent me off down the short street of Twin Lakes, through a small parking lot, across a single tracked green field into the shadows of Mount Hope. The course went through four unavoidable oversized puddles before popping out of scruffy bushes at the rocky banks of a double river crossing. Ironically the low point of the course is in the river at 9197'. Ironic because once out of the thigh-deep rushing waters you start climbing immediately to the high point of the course.
The simple calculations are 3400 feet of elevation gain in about four miles... game on. As we escalated the first 1½ miles of trail a parallel waterfall cascaded downward in a roaring thunder. The lead runner along with his pacer came thundering down, appearing in lock step with the waterfall. My heart was redlining, lungs aching as I passed a sign reading "Hopeless Aid Station - 2 miles ahead". One mile higher a new sign let us know we were a mile closer... then, ½ mile to go. Finally llamas grazing on high mountain grasses came into view along with tents, a campsite and the aid station. I sat down and had some soup and soda. Catching my breath I looked up to see traffic in both directions in the next half mile that led up to the top. It was about 500' higher without trees - I headed up. For 45 miles I'd run with a camera taking random shots along the way but nothing compared to the view at 12,600' - the top of Hope Pass. Prayer flags were strung to a rope blowing their blessings of peace and goodwill down the mountain. Looking north you could see all the way back to Turquoise Lake and east of that to Leadville. Looking south the trail fell away steeply until it disappeared into the forest some 600' below. South was our outbound direction so south I went. The trail was steep and narrow and making way for the inbound runners was sometimes harrowing - clinging to the edge. In 2.6 miles we dropped 2700 feet... back to the tree line... and eventually through aspen and pine forest to a dirt road.
Before making the road a light rain turned heavy bringing with it stinging beads of hail. I snatched my emergency hefty bag from my pack - the one that Larry Hall insisted I construct & carry - and put it on. Like armor it repelled the hail, still I was soaked and shivering by the time I hit the turnaround aid station at Winfield. It was crowded in the tent but Michelle got me a chair and helped me into dry clothes and new socks. I sucked down hot soup, soda and an orange. About 20 minutes later I was back in the battle this time with a rainproof poncho. Jogging down the dirt road to the trailhead I saw newly transplanted permanent Colorado resident Jane Moser Cox. We exchanged good lucks heading in opposite directions. Within minutes the rain stopped and Michelle drove by. In a risky maneuver I tossed her the poncho banking on clearing weather with less to carry - hey, I still had my emergency hefty bag. At the trailhead began the steepest of all climbs I'd ever done... 2.6 miles up the 2700 feet back to Hope Pass. At times it felt like my lungs were collapsed... and my heart might burst through my ribs. My sweat was evaporating quickly in the cool dry air and I refused to stop moving. At the top a feeling of extreme relief washed over me as I took a quick look but no photos this time. Leadville looked a long way off... because it was.
It's much easier than going up but being an awkward downhill runner I was passed by many in the descent of Hope Pass. That did not bother me, nor did fact that darkness had descended by the time I was crossing the river before arriving back at Twin Lakes aid station. It was the rain that was coming down hard again that had me concerned. The warmth and shelter of the checkpoint provided temporary relief as Michelle and I went through the routine of refueling, reclothing, and refocusing. Out into the night rain, poncho outer shelled I started climbing the trail. Luckily the storm was again brief and within ½ hour I peeled and packed the poncho. Temperatures stabilized in the 40's which kept me comfortable in short sleeves - provided I kept moving, hiking the uphills and running downs. The trail gave way to backcountry access roads that led us to the aid station at 69½ miles.
Those last nine miles took me 3 hours to cover and it was a couple minutes past midnight as I recovered in the oversized tent of Halfmoon. Runners were seated in a circle around a gas heater as station attendants assisted with their drop bags and nourishment needs. Beth and her pacer George bade me good luck and were on their way. I packed my wet used gear and pulled a fresh short-sleeved shirt & socks from my drop bag. A runner advised me to wear tights and a warmer top to which I informed everyone in the tent that my plan was to run the entire roadway to the next aid station generating enough heat in my light clothes. I sensed doubt from some in the tent but others said go for it!
Now some may have considered it too risky but being a roadrunner first and foremost I had always planned to run this full section of roads from Halfmoon to Fish Hatchery. This was my kind of running and I'd budgeted my energy reserves accordingly. I set off at an easy jog and let that loosen into a nice downhill tempo. Soon I made the supplementary station at Treeline where Michelle surprised and met me. I slowed and walked a few steps with her skipping past the aid table. "Go Billy", she sent me off. My plan worked! I was able to string together sub-10 minute miles for those seven road miles and pass lots of runners in the process.
In the darkness it's hard to distinguish runners even if you're an expert crew. Michelle missed my arrival at Fish Hatchery but Aaron and Joanne did not. Their exuberance was infectious as they helped me through the station... so pumped that I left without my headlamp, checked out, doubled back for the light, and then checked out again. That caused slight confusion for the checkout attendants but they cheered when I promised to come back next year and check out only once!
Ahead lay Sugarloaf Pass... worthy of concern as still the 2nd highest point of the course. Was sure I had the momentum to get up & over and charged ahead. A mile after Fish Hatchery we were directed off road to begin the climb. I kept seeing and catching runners heading up the bleached-out jeep trail. What I couldn't see was the top. It was dark, void of stars and impossible to distinguish treetops juxtaposed against the night sky. The crackling of power lines offered no clue and every corner revealed more glow sticks ahead and above. So we just kept climbing. "Finally", I thought four times and four times I was wrong. When "finally" did finally come I didn't trust it until the consistent feel of downhill and easing of my heartbeat assured that we'd crested 11,100 feet and were in fact descending. I knew this section from one of my early "scoping" workouts and had always planned to run it out. About two miles of good downhill with moderate rock annoyances which gave way to a mile of smooth downhill on blemish-free Hagerman Pass Road. I caught up with Larry who exhibited the ultimate image of determination. The carefree running ended when we jumped back into single track rugged trail. I slowed and made my steps cautiously between the roots and rocks. Commotion ahead signaled the next aid station as directed "one quarter mile down the road" by a volunteer course marshal.
May Queen was our first and now last aid station. Michelle, Aaron and Joanne were there, tired smiles reflecting the length of their day. Still they eagerly helped me through the checkpoint customs. My biggest problem was a nauseas feeling in my belly. Joanne asked around the tent and brought back ultra legend Pam Reed who was also running the race. Pam pulled out a baggie of tablets and pills and graciously offered me tiny papaya & ginger candies, "These always help settle my stomach. Just suck on a few." I was up for anything and popped them in my mouth. Exchanging quick see ya at the finishs I exited the tent back into the darkness. A volunteer pointed out the course as it snaked behind a trailer where glow sticks led from there.
I had 13½ miles to cover in 4:45 to become an official finisher. Confident that I could do that... especially if my stomach calmed. It did and with the sunrise came beautiful views of Turquoise Lake as we ran the length of its northern banks. At its eastern shores we doglegged and followed the beach to its southern point at Sugarloaf Dam. We broke loose of the Turquoise Lake orbit following roads that were taking us back into the civilization of Leadville. The roads were of slight uphill grade and I was surprised at how many runners I was catching. Not that I was moving fast... I'd developed a game of running the length of two diagonally striped pink and black ribbons then hiking to the next diagonally striped pink and black ribbon. Not one other runner even tried to hang with me.
With ¾ mile to go course marshals were welcoming me back to town. At the crest of a hill the finish line came into view. Michelle, Aaron & Joanne were there encouraging me to kick in the last ½ mile of blacktop. Though I thought I already was, I looked down and saw that my feet were actually not leaving the ground. So I broke into an all out jog... a desperate shuffle up the final incline to the carpet and the final diagonally striped pink and black ribbon stretched across the finish line. The grandstand announcer read off my number and name as race director Merrilee O'Neal gave me a big hug at the end of the finishing chute. It was smiles all around... I was a Leadville Trail 100 finisher after 28:32 on the course.
As instructed by race personnel Michelle led me through the post-race medical tent for some equilibrium testing. We then hung out in the small bleachers watching runners come in, me sipping any liquid that was offered. At thirty hours race time a shotgun blast signaled the end of the 2006 Leadville Trail 100 and the course was officially closed. But the party didn't end... it just took a two hour recess and reconvened in the gymnasium at noon. There silver buckles were handed out to 199 finishers, and special achievements were duly recognized.
Congratulations to race champions Anton Krupicka of Colorado Springs, CO and Diana Finkel of South Fork, CO. This race is directed and managed by Merrilee O'Neal and Ken Chlouber who put on an outstanding show! Thanks to all the volunteers, aid station and medical personnel who helped us runners along our journey. Very special thanks to Jane & Dave, Leadville residents & race veterans, for their gracious hospitality and tips for around the town. My highest altitude thank you to Michelle for hustling up the mountains and seeing me through this extreme adventure... the mountains are most inspirational when you're amongst!