Leadville Trail 100 | Colorado | August 21, 2004
Something There Is That Does Not Love a Lung
By Gary Dudney
Back for my third crack at the Leadville Trail 100 mile “Race Across the Sky,” I assumed there would not be a lot of surprises. Leadville is an out and back course, and I’d seen all of it my first year when I made it to the turnaround at Winfield, and more than all of it the next year when I’d gone 75 miles.
Race founder Ken Chlouber’s remarks at the pre-race briefing on Friday morning to a record crowd sounded familiar, if not comforting. “Make pain your friend and you’ll never be alone,” he advised. He also guaranteed us that we all had an inexhaustible well of power, grit and determination to draw upon, if only we could summon the courage to reach down into the well. Pain, courage, grit: easy enough concepts sitting in the 6th Street gym the day before the race. I wondered how easy things would be out on the trail the next day and night. Dr. John Perna, the race’s medical director, offered somewhat more concrete advice: “Pee yellow, bad; pee clear, good.”
We were introduced to Aron Ralston, the hiker who had rescued himself from almost certain death by cutting off his own arm which had been pinned against a canyon wall by a shifting boulder. Aron had crewed for the race the past year just months after his accident and was now entered as a runner. His previous racing experience? A 5K.
The 4 am shotgun blast Saturday morning kicked off the usual rush down 6th Street out of town and along a wide dirt road called “The Boulevard” toward Turquoise Lake. A seemingly endless trail dips and rolls above the lake’s shoreline until the first aid station May Queen appears a full half marathon from the start. The trail just beyond May Queen is a jumble of shin banging rocks and boulders and stimulated an attempt at humor as I ran along with some strangers, “Oh, I get it,” I said, “the ROCKY mountains.” The ensuing silence put my comedy career to rest for the day.
From the trail to Hagerman Pass Road, up and down Sugar Loaf Pass (11,600 ft.) to the Fish Hatchery, take the road around to Treeline and then the gentle climb to Halfmoon aid station, Main Range Trail up and down and up and down to the groves of aspen trees and into Twin Lakes, all familiar, first forty miles according to plan, get it done, no surprises, been there, done that. And then came Hope Pass and beyond.
A little rain crossing the valley over to the Hope Pass trail was nothing; more rain up on the trail got a little annoying; mud and slippery rocks, understandable; lightning at higher elevations, hmmm; gale force winds and heavy rain up on the pass, YIKES! The tent at the Hope Pass aid station seemed ready to pick up stakes and fly off the mountain. Whatever wasn’t nailed down disappeared. Trudging up over the lip of Hope Pass (12,600 ft.), head down into the wind, I imagined the scene in “The Perfect Storm” where the boat rides up the wall of a hundred foot wave.
On the back side of the pass, several sections of trail had turned into muddy slippery slides. I made it down, took the trip out to the turnaround at Winfield and arrived back at the trailhead ready to climb and here was my first big surprise. I had no power, no energy, no climb whatsoever in my legs. I was on the “arrive at the last minute and just run” program so having no acclimation under my belt, the altitude had left me with nothing. So I reached into the well. I must be able to do this, I told myself, so just ignore what you’re feeling and climb. It worked, but for the next forty some miles, every uphill section was the same: a test of mind over matter.
Back at the Hope Pass aid station, the wind had died down, so I took my coffee and soup over to a rotting log and had a seat. I needed to gather up my waning strength and resolve. Slowly I had the strange sensation that I was being watched. I looked up and found a nearby llama placidly staring at me. Dr. Dolittle came to mind. Somehow the infinitely suffering and marvelously patient look on the llama’s face spurred me on. I finished my coffee and potato slush, strapped on my belt, and sought my destiny down the mountain.
The night came on as I passed back through Twin Lakes. The stars came out. The cold air was bracing and kept everyone clipping along at a fast walk. In these mountains at this altitude after the long day, most people could only muster a walk. Attempts at jogging brought on so many aches and pains and seemed like such an extravagant waste of energy, walking just made more sense. Beyond Sugar Loaf Pass on the road heading to May Queen, I looked up at the magnificent stars hanging above the ridge I had just descended. The brilliant stars of Orion sat just above the ridge, and below, the lights from a string of runners’ flashlights zig-zagged down toward Turquoise Lake. It was a true ultrarunning moment.
On the way back to Leadville, sections of trail that seemed easy going out now broke my heart. Everyone can name a section of the course they found tough to get through, but everyone names a different section: It’s all hard on the way back. The last five miles were especially surprising. The morning before, in the dark I had no sense of the long roads leading from Leadville to the lake or how much of that stretch was downhill. Returning, the town was nowhere to be found, and the long seemingly endless uphill stretches that were run into the face of a warming sun were punishing.
Plus, I had a problem. Every deep breath brought on a cough. I’d been wheezing for hours. Now as I made my way up the last hills on Sixth Street I could barely breathe. I had to stop and lean over and take several breaths just to keep going even though I was in sight of the finish banner. I get it, Leadville, I kept saying to the race, I get it. Just let me finish.
But I managed to cross the line, got my medal from Merilee O’Neal, felt Ken Chlouber pat me on the back, and then made a beeline for the medical tent. From there I was sent quickly to the hospital and soon Dr. John Perna was explaining the fluid in my lungs as he administered oxygen. So it turns out, rapid ascent to high altitude and prolonged exertion does not sit too well with me. Go figure.
On the plus side, though, I am now sitting pretty with my new Leadville belt buckle and my sweatshirt with my name and time emblazoned on the sleeve…at last. Oh, yes, Aron Ralston has that stuff, too.