By Catherine Greer
Things I always feel just before a race: excitement, hope, determination, joy, a sense of belonging, optimism, anticipation. Something I have never felt before a race: raw, visceral, primal terror. Until Leadville.
The 2016 Leadville Trail 100 was my first time running the distance. Of course I was a bit nervous. But The Terror was so extreme it felt supernatural, like a malevolent entity – something bizarre and awful that was happening to me. It hit me in the parking lot of Leadville High School as I was leaving the pre-race meeting the day before the race. I stopped for a minute to look out towards the course at the spectacular view. It was a beautiful sunny day—fluffy clouds, mountains—yet suddenly this creeping dread came over me. I started hearing ominous horror-movie music in my head. I got tingly and cold, breathing became difficult, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my heart froze. A line from The Exorcist popped into my head– the possessed girl saying to an astronaut: “you’re going to die up there.”
I was—no other word for it—terrified.
There was no coherent logic to The Terror. It was more of a sensory montage: absolute darkness, bone-deep cold, a kind of pain I don’t have words for, and indescribably awful, enormous, cosmic isolation. I hoped it was severe pre-race anxiety and would resolve as soon as the starting gun went off, but that seemed too mundane. The Terror was uncanny and paralyzing—epic desolation awash in hideous dread, with a stupid horror-movie soundtrack. Beyond irrational.
In its initial potency, The Terror lasted maybe two minutes, but it lingered. That evening, panic and dread made relaxing or focusing impossible. My final preparations for the race amounted to unsuccessful efforts to quell The Terror with organizing rituals and masking tape. I got no sleep.
I trained my ass off for this race. I’d wanted to run the LT100 since way back in the late 80s. As soon as I was finally registered I started planning, training, and dreaming. In June I attended the training camp in Leadville, and came home excited, hopeful, determined—all those things I feel before a race—but in this case, it was more than a month before the starting gun. A lot can happen in a month.
A lot did happen. A cascade of circumstances including my mother’s illness and an airline fiasco resulted in over 48 hours of sleeplessness less than two weeks before the race. My oldest child prepared to leave for college on the other side of the country. Financial strains got worse. The national political situation was growing ever more disturbing. As I piled up gear for our road-trip to Colorado, my mother died.
Obsessing about Leadville became my way of shutting out everything else, the way gazing at a candle flame can dissolve distractions and allow for effective meditation. Several times a day I stared at the course map, concentrated on visualizing parts of the trail, compiled lists of supplies I might need or want at aid stations, created a whole notebook of instructions for my crew. Whenever the “distractions” of my life started to creep into my mind, I went for a run.
The Terror struck again at the starting line and it didn’t go away when I started to run. Every part of my body hurt. I knew this was all phantom pain—I was uninjured and well-trained—but it felt extremely hard to move my legs, and suddenly I was vividly imagining staggering through waist deep, icy-cold fast-moving water, alone in total darkness. This made no sense, but for the first hours of the race I was engulfed in nightmare hallucinations of freezing, rushing water, pitch blackness, drowning. Trying to run was exhausting.
The sun came up and The Terror subsided. The various pains faded away and my mind settled on the real and immediate issues of eating and hydration. I started to run at a decent pace and feel okay. But then very different images began to creep into my mind. Instead of the brutal sensation of fighting through frigid water in impenetrable darkness, I was sitting in the semi-darkness by my mother’s bed, wondering if she knew I was there, whether she was in pain. And standing in my son’s room as he decided what to leave behind when he moved three time zones away. Also an angry confrontation with my ex; also a pile of bills. Having spent months focused almost exclusively on Leadville, suddenly I couldn’t keep my mind on the trail ahead of me. I was overwhelmed by all the stuff I didn’t want to think about.
Just after mile 26 my watch battery died and in short order I lost track of time. On long stretches of trail where I was alone I absent-mindedly slowed to a walk. The more forcefully I tried to focus on the race, the more obtrusive these other thoughts became. I reached the next aid station less than 20 minutes before the cutoff time, which briefly renewed my focus on running, but my mind soon wandered. For hours I alternated between decent progress and bouts of despair that brought me to a standstill—complete immersion in some painful emotional challenge that had nothing at all to do with running. I shuffled along haunted by the terrible sound my mother made when I tried to touch her, a kind of primal gasp of pain. She was heavily sedated and probably unconscious, but this agonized gasp sounded like her voice, like she was speaking. It was the last thing she ever said to me. Shortly afterwards I had to leave and two days later she died.
I actually started to miss the mind-numbing Terror. The freezing river of death was horrible, but it was a weird kind of escape—the world reduced to basic survival. Kind of like an ultra: difficult but uncomplicated. The Terror, I realized, was not about Leadville—not about shockingly cold water or darkness or dying on a mountain. It was my subconscious awareness that every difficult emotion I had been avoiding was coming with me out on that course and was going to demand attention; that physical depletion and exhaustion and hours of solitude would strip away every distraction and defense and all of it—grief, frustration, fear, loss, anger, failure, doubt, sorrow, aging, death—would have to be reckoned with all at once. My real problem was not the sleep deficit but emotional exhaustion. I did not account for all the psychological burdens I had stuffed into my hydration pack. It was too much to carry.
I arrived at Twin Lakes (Mile 39.5) barely ahead of the cutoff time but feeling strong and motivated to take on 12,600-foot Hope Pass. Feeling that I had triumphed over various personal demons, I finally felt ready to tackle the race. I set off up the mountain confident and determined and made good time on the climb, but at the aid station near top (aptly known as Hopeless) I was told that I was too late. A very nice man tore the chip off my bib and crossed out my number with a sharpie. He said I’d have to hike the five miles back to Twin Lakes to have my wristband cut off and be officially withdrawn from the race. I was in shock. My first DNF. I sat down in the meadow, stunned.
Devastating as it was, being pulled from the race was also a relief. After trudging back down to Twin Lakes I got to ride back to Leadville in a car. I got to take a hot shower and sleep in a warm bed. No battling with personal demons alone in the mountains in the dark. But the demons don’t live out there on the course. My kids are still growing up. My mother is dead. Painful things still need to be acknowledged and processed, and now I have added a year to my age and another emotional burden: a DNF. I don’t get to avoid all of this—life—by stumbling along a trail for 100 miles. Not in Leadville, not anywhere.
As soon as I could, I registered for the 2017 LT100 and started planning and racking up miles. I may not be a paragon of emotional wellness, but I’ve learned that I can’t avoid difficult life challenges by staring at a Leadville course map (or any course map), and if I don’t deal with personal demons as they come they will gang up and take me down, possibly in the dark, somewhere along a trail.
My training plan now includes not only paying attention but actually logging my psychological state, right along with the mileage. Long run slowed by sadness? Hill repeats fueled by rage? If I have to write it down, I have to acknowledge it, which is the crucial first step in addressing it, whatever it is.While this does not guarantee success and glory, it does eliminate harrowing but imaginary trauma. No matter how long or difficult or iconic the race, it will not make all my troubles disappear.