by Caolan MacMahon
The Leadville Trail 100, the “Race Across the Sky,” did not go as I hoped it would. After decades of running and racing, I left Leadville with my first DNF instead of a shiny, new belt buckle.
But what did I really hope for? Going into this I pragmatically made the decision that this one was for my ongoing education. I had so many points against me leading up to this that, intellectually, I knew the odds were against me, and I was okay with that. I was okay with that intellectually. Emotionally, I’m devastated and whatever my rational mind is trying to do to convince me that it’s okay, it feels awful. And it can’t be undone.
Going into this I knew my training was nowhere near what it needed to be. Doing two hundreds in a span of two and a half months was uncharted territory for me, and recovering from Kettle Moraine 100 took more time thanks to the issues I had that left me with a very painful compensation back injury. I did what I could do, but I knew it wasn’t nearly enough. That said, I usually go into these things on training most would think woefully inadequate and make it through thanks to my fairly stubborn mind.
But where was my mind? Leading up to the race, life seemed to be plotting against me. The walls seemed to be closing in from all directions. I hadn’t slept well in weeks, worrying about things I either could not control or didn’t know how to address. Why the hell did it all have to hit at once? Running is simple. Life is not. I wanted to just run, but life just kept kicking me in the teeth. That’s how it felt. On Wednesday night, sleep deprived and stressed concerning so many things that are out of my control, I broke down, sobbing to my husband: “I just can’t do this. I just can’t even think straight.” I could not even fathom doing what I really wanted to do.
Somehow I gathered myself together and made my way to Leadville, still feeling disconcertingly out of it, but somehow going through the motions. Friday afternoon, one concern was lifted as I received the message that my mother’s biopsy came back negative (she will be cancer free for five years in December and this little blip caused considerable concern), and my daughter had a good day at school. And with those two bits of news, I actually was able to sleep some that night. Too little, too late, but it’s something.
3 a.m. Saturday morning. Gabrielle and I prepare for the day and night to come, bleary eyed and nervously quiet. Abbie and Gabi’s husband, Jim, walk with us through the dark, cold morning, greeted by the bright lights and bustle of the starting area.
It’s hard to say what I’m feeling. Actually all I’m feeling at this moment is the need to pee. One nice thing about long runs is that you know you really don’t have to waste mental energy worrying about whether you will need to stop to pee along the way. You will. So no need getting uptight about it at the start. I find Mitch and wish him good luck. Lots of nervous energy fills the air as the bright lights push away the darkness. We are in a bubble of light and promise. What will this day bring?
And like that we are off at 4 a.m. and the road is lined with people cheering. Music is blaring as we are ushered off into the unknown. The first section is crowded as we head off the road out of town and turn north. At times we are brought to a standstill thanks to wet trails – which I find very frustrating becasue why the hell is everyone stopping? It feels like a stupid traffic jam for no reason. When we hit the Turquoise Lake trail I feel good but face continued challenges getting past people. The farther out, the more spread-out things get and Gabi and I, by luck, are running together. I know this part of the trail fairly well. Just don’t fall.
I get to May Queen, mile 13.5, in 2:39, which is both where I want to be and ahead of when I told Abbie I would be there. Here I make the first of many mistakes: Because the aid stations and crews are separated, I am not sure if Abbie will be here yet. So I grab my dropbag (which I have in case my crew misses me) and prep my bottle with HEED. The fuss and bother takes several minutes. As I leave the aid station I see Abbie on the other side of the fence holding two fresh bottles of HEED. Dammit.
I head out and up Sugarloaf, the second highest point of the race, feeling good, alternating running and fast walking. I notice that I am passing some of the same people I’ve passed already. Gotta get faster at the aid stations, I tell myself. I will repeat this over and over throughout the day. I summit and start heading down the steep descent. My left knee immediately complains with sharp jabs of pain, but thankfully that passes. I’m still nervous about it though, and take the downhill very easy, which is hard to do given the angle of things and the loose, sandy trail.
I come into Outward Bound (mile 24.5) with a 34 minute cushion, but again screw up the aid station-crew separation. I find my crew, but I run right past the porta potties which are now way behind me. I tend to some hot-spots on my feet and head for Half Pipe. I’ll pee when I find a place. I don’t have time to go back. As I leave Outward Bound behind, I find I am passing the same people yet again. Damn. What is my freaking problem?
I make my way to Half Pipe, then the Mount Elbert aid station. The volunteer asks if I can make it the three downhill miles to Twin Lakes on one bottle since they have to truck water in. Since I’m out of HEED I need to take a gel, and that requires water, but I’m also feeling uncomfortable asking for what I need because now I’m feeling that that might be a bit selfish. I take one bottle (17 oz) but don’t take the gel so that I can conserve the water. This is my first serious fueling mistake.
I make it into Twin Lakes (39.5 miles) at 1:21 p.m., now 39 minutes ahead of the cut-off. Okay. That’s good. I again run past the porta potties and spend too much time at the aid station. I eat some PB&Js, chips, get two fresh bottles of HEED and grab a couple gels, my jacket and trekking poles, and head off toward Hope. I’m behind a guy at the water crossing who says something to the volunteer and hands him his phone. The volunteer crosses to the far bank and starts taking pictures of the guy crossing who then stops, holding on to the rope, and kneels down into the rushing water. At this point I’m right behind him, standing thigh deep in the water and I can’t get past. “Ummm, may I please pass?” I push by as he stays kneeling and neither say a word to me.
For the first four miles out and up Hope Pass I am keeping a solid pace around 24 minutes per mile (ahead of the 27 minute pace necessary for that leg) trying to keep my heart rate steady. The climb, from the course low point in Twin Lakes at 9,200 feet to the course high point at 12,600 at Hope Pass is long and very hard. About a mile before the aid station I am low on fuel and my pace slows precipitously. Looking back on this now, I know I set myself up for this back before Twin Lakes. My poor fueling choices are starting to catch up with me.
I get to the Hopeless Aid Station 500 feet below the summit and refill my water and take a gel. I grab a cookie (should have grabbed several) and head up the last steep switchbacks. I cross the Hope Pass mat at 4:07. The cut-off is 4:15. Shit. My cushion is gone. I start trotting downhill to Winfield trying to make up time. My legs still feel good, but the combo of a 22% grade, loose rocks, and runners coming the other way make this almost impossible. Losing time is so much easier than making up time.
I get into Winfield, now starving, with 10 minutes to get back out. In the tizzy of getting out, I neglect to grab the things I need. Abbie refills my water but we don’t grab the gels from my drop bag. I leave the aid station with two gels and two hydroflasks of water. Importantly, Abbie carpooled out to the aid station, something we did not plan for, and so I don’t have some of the things – like my hat and a charged watch – I need from my bin of goodies. As we make our way back up to Hope, the arduous climb plus my fuel deficit hits hard. With a couple miles to go I am out of fuel, running low on water and feeling hypoglycemic – slightly dizzy and out of sorts. The sun begins to sink lower in the sky and the bitter wind chills me to the core. I throw on my jacket, but my glacial pace and my low blood sugar threaten to leave me hypothermic as I shiver my way up the hill. Several steps. Stop. Several steps, stop. Repeat. Every step takes everything I have. I want to just go, to suck it up and push, but I have nothing left. Nothing. I know what I need but there’s nothing I can do. I have to get to Hopeless and eat. All the way up we see other runners coming undone. Some puking, some despondent. A pacer runs past us to get help for his runner below who isn’t moving…
I get to the summit of Hope at 8:24 p.m. I don’t know this because my watch has long ago died. I assume it’s about 10 p.m. based on the darkness. I don’t even ask. What’s the point of asking? The cut-off at Twin Lakes is 9:45 (though they let people though until 9:50 I learn later). Twin Lakes Inbound is the final really tough cut-off. After that the required pace eases up. Had I been able to go at my normal pace from here I would have made the cut-off, but I had no choice – I had to stop and eat and give it time to hit my system. I spend 20 minutes at the Hopeless aid station. It is hopeless indeed.
As I sit at Hopeless, sucking down broth and noodles, shivering in the cutting wind, I know that I am giving up my last hope of making it. The decision, though, is out of my hands.
After the soup settles in I feel better and we make our way down. Now there’s no hurry since it’s already a done deal. Abbie chats as we pick our way down the rock-strewn trail trying not to trip. It’s a tedious, seemingly interminable five miles. I can’t say much. I’ve never been in this place before. It’s not a good place to be. I reassure myself that I did all I could do. I didn’t quit and I still wouldn’t quit if I had that choice. But I don’t. I can no longer control this. The final insult, of course, is that my body, my muscles and tendons, feel better at this point than at any of my previous 100s.
The water crossing in the freezing meadow is the final insult and I laugh maniacally telling Abbie that she’ll never forget this. We make our way into a now quiet and fairly dark Twin Lakes. People appear from the dark clapping, “Good job runners.”
Good job? Good job? This is not a fucking good job. This is a DNF. I’m done. Done. I see my crew and hang my head. I feel awful. I feel I’ve let everyone down. But they are so gracious, so supportive. We joke and I try to shake the whole thing off. I don’t want to feel anything right now. Alex drives us back to town and I savor the heat blowing on my sticky, cold skin. Ah, creature comforts.
Eventually I fall asleep around 4 a.m. When I go to sleep I am okay with the day and the effort I made. I never gave up. Or did I? When I wake later that morning, that has all evaporated and I am left with sadness, regret, second guessing. I quietly pack up my stuff, trying not to wake Jim, and head to the finish to check on my dropbags and Gabi’s progress.
As runners come in to cheers and tears, I know I need to leave. I want to support the other runners, but I also want to just run away. I walk around the finish area with the noticeably stiff-legged walk of someone who obviously ran but didn’t succeed. I’m ashamed. I feel like a fake. I suck. I suck. “I suck” plays over and over in my head. Why don’t I have what it takes? I feel like I’m walking around a town full of awesomeness with a scarlet letter embossed on my forehead: Loser. All these other runners with medals around their necks – they can do what I cannot. Why did I even think I could do this? So, yeah. I sink into a pit of self-loathing despair.
The next day at home, I start combing through the details to determine how I came so undone. Nothing big happened at any one time, but many tiny cuts over time lead to too much loss. Comparing my progress with some of those who made it to the finish, I see that I did many things right, and my progress was actually well within the range of success, but my mistakes were fatal. Three mistakes, I believe, did me in:
1) Aid station management: I took too long and had a hard time adjusting to the set-up that Leadville had.
2) Fueling: I let things slide on the fueling when I shouldn’t have. The deficit started early and by the end it was too late to catch up. The rush at Winfield was the final nail in my coffin. Because I was already behind on fueling at this point I HAD to eat here, and I didn’t.
3) Poor crew management: If I were to do this again I would give my crew very specific instructions. They did a great job, but again, little things got me. I should have had them collect food for me and had Abbie carry stuff. At Leadville muling is allowed but I carried all my own gear and fluids. I have a hard time asking people to do these things, but it may have made all the difference. Not having a watch going out of Winfield took away MY ability to make my own clear judgements. I need to know what I need and I need to clearly communicate that to my crew. I was very very sloppy on this.
Because of the strict and tough early cut-off at Leadville, there’s not much margin for error. Had I gotten through Twin Lakes, the cut-off becomes more manageable, and I knew this. I knew I needed to get through that one and then just keep pushing and I’d be good. But I didn’t make that last really hard one.
While I know that the journey matters as much as the goal, I feel I cheated myself out of the whole journey. I wanted that journey. This was the first 100 that my husband and daughter would be at the finish for and I so wanted that moment with them. So many friends sent words of support and confidence. I feel I let them all down.