Leadville ultra a beautiful beast

Matt Friedrichs/ESPN.com

Runners pass through Hope Pass, the low point in mountains above, during the Leadville 100.

LEADVILLE, Colo. -- Almost a thousand lights bob down Sixth Street early on the morning of Aug. 17, a fresh melt of energy and exuberance from the start of the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon, flooding across the valley just below the Arkansas River headwaters.

The runners' individual headlamps light their steps as they leave the streetlamps of town behind, a mile down, 99 to go. Almost all who finish back here will travel through another night.

Visitors who earlier in the week drove through Fremont Pass, past the slurry, past the Climax mine, probably felt they could reach out and grab the moon. Campers here for this 100-mile test probably imagined they could reach out and trace the Sawatch range, taking care not to prick fingers on the highest peak in the Rockies.

Now the runners cross the river toward Turquoise Lake, where they'll trace the far shore with their feet.

A line of headlights and taillights begins patience-testing pursuit. From Leadville to the May Queen aid station on the back side of the lake is 13.5 miles for the runners, about the same for the drivers, but the true counts here aren't on odometers.

The crews, windows closed against the 4 a.m. chill, see a necklace of lights across the water. They unload crates and plastic bags loaded with everything their runners will need: hats, sunglasses, socks and trekking poles; food in the form of gels and goos and bars and calories packaged for baby-like ease of ingestion and digestion; ointments, drinks and shoes.

Matt Friedrichs/ESPN.com

In the morning darkness, a crew member checks a race plan.

It's reminiscent of a NASCAR pit, if drivers had to power their own cars for 100 miles through thousands of feet in elevation change, through 40-degree temperature swings, with the potential for rain and snow, with no sleep for as much as 30 hours. Their roving pits would be marked with neon glow sticks, or a knitted hat in the form of a pig.

Those whimsical touches are invaluable for people trying to find each other in the dark. The leaders fly by, but no one standing here can really tell who has taken off fast and who's in the pack behind, because faces and numbers are invisible.

Among the first missed connections of the day is Cole Chlouber, who charged up the crowd the day before but now can't find either of his parents -- even though they have been involved in the race since its founding 31 years ago. He'll run on without the expected resupply.

"One aid station down and eight to go," says a crew member, consulting a map and a list of stops, cutoff times, and pages detailing the logistics of cajoling a human body through a seemingly impossible distance given the time allotted.

It is dawn by the time most runners head upward to Sugar Loaf pass, a mere 11,071 feet, and they've run what most people would consider a half marathon. Eight of the starters' clocks stop: they Do Not Finish.

How much is too much?

Ultrarunner Andrew Jones-Wilkins asked in July whether races like the one in Leadville have gotten too big, too popular, too commercial.

It's a question for any growing sport, especially when corporate logos pop up on tents and the cars chasing the runners. Although there are a handful of low-tech runners, including some in sandals, most on the course are equipped with a checkbook's worth of sweat-shedding, body-cooling gear.

Bryon Powell, the "runner in chief" of iRunFar.com, which featured the column detailing Jones-Wilkins' musings, says that only a couple guys make a living off sponsorships, although there is an upcoming race with a $35,000 purse. Here the winner gets a trophy, but all anybody talks about is the massive belt buckle awarded to those who finish in 30 hours or less. (Finishers who come in under 25 hours get an even rarer buckle.)

You can buy a Leadville-model running shoe, and a jacket named after the mining town, too. "Official" crew shirts and hats are $20 at race headquarters. The Climax molybdenum mine, whose closure caused desperate locals to draw a long, jagged line on the map and encourage people to follow it, reopened in 2012 and is a race sponsor.

A town built on tailings and holes in the ground has become its own brand of hard-core exercise authenticity.

The Leadville Herald asks its readership, which has been inundated with people on three consecutive weekends -- including the Leadville 100 mountain bike race the prior weekend -- whether the town should limit races, but it's clear from the lines at restaurants and the dearth of bananas in the grocery stores that business owners will answer with a resounding "No!"

"Almost 1,100 runners -- and in the past Turquoise Lake has been like a conga line," notes one runner the day before the race. Fortunately for him, of the 1,219 bib numbers issued only 943 make the starting line.

This is an aspirational race, made famous in part by the book "Born to Run." It has history, being one of the oldest 100-mile ultras, and challenging and beautiful terrain.

There's no qualifying requirement, and the field has grown generously from the 44 runners who took part in the first race. People from all over the world, including a fair number attempting this distance for the first time, apply for bibs.

For the runners, it is a "people's race." Which may be why in the days leading up to the start there's an entrant buying a pillow at a thrift store and many more in tents, and not just a few sleeping in the backs of their cars.

At a coffee shop downtown, it's possible to get an impromptu photo with 2012 women's champ Tina Lewis, or 2008 and 2010 men's champ Duncan Callahan.

Favorites, including Scott Jurek, the former U.S. record holder for miles run in 24 hours, interact with fans on Twitter and in other online forums. And because this is an out-and-back course, the start isn't the only time slower runners will see the elite athletes, who respond to and offer encouragement as they run.

Staying the course

"Did you see Scott Jurek come by?" asks a crew member in her 50s.

"I don't know who he is," replies her friend.

"Oh my God, he is so cute."

The runners are now on "power lines" -- a trail underneath high voltage cables that hum as though they are transmitting electricity generated by those churning knees and slapping feet.

For the first time, some are really grimacing, feeling the effects of a climb and descent, or the altitude, or a fall or dehydration or stomach woes, or the full realization of what they've signed up for. But it's too early to judge. Like a boxer who's been wobbled, if they can stay on their feet they can recover.

Matt Friedrichs/ESPN.com

Ian Dunican runs through Twin Lakes, headed toward Hope Pass. He finished in 27:42:29.

With the sun out at 8:30 a.m., the air is warming. They swap out poles and restock drinks, but a surprising number don't have a hat and aren't putting on sunscreen through the crew stops and fish hatchery.

Then it's almost 3 miles of pavement, which would be the scenic highlight of just about any other run in America, with 14,440-foot Mount Elbert and 14,428-foot Mount Massive to the west. Instead, it's viewed by some here as a slog.

Callahan says that compared to other ultras, this course is relatively flat, with gradual elevation changes. Even though they'll be in the mountains, elite runners may do speed work (he averaged 5.6 mph in 2010).

Another stop for new socks and duct tape. The guy borrowing tape ran the Western States ultra; he surely knows how to patch blistered toes. The meticulous planners' spreadsheet dictates a buffet of salt tablets, calorie-packed bars, anti-diarrhea pills, creams, and drinks.

They've now run a traditional marathon distance, but it'd be a mistake to glance more than once or twice at that soft-looking saddle of the rock far to the south they'll climb. Right now, beware of the first bonk, a section of Colorado trail that bumps along Elbert's flank and then skitters down among the pines and aspens.

Not everyone has reached the "pipeline." The last runner on the road as crews race out and on to Twin Lakes is behind people who have slowed to a walk. Many are sun-soaked, rusty and shuffling. Too many are already concentrating only on their next step.

The last runner slowly glances over a tired shoulder, twice, three times to see if anybody else escaped the hooks of the six-hour cutoff.

Up ahead, flying through checkpoints and over the rock, Mike Aish has escaped to the front and reaches the turnaround at Winfield at 11:38 a.m., near record pace.

Back by the lakes, supporters picnic and cheer the runners coming through. Add dogs on overly long leashes and kids without tethers to the potential tripping hazards already on the trail.

The last 50 feet before this aid station is a slippery mix of loose dirt and stone that drops 30 feet and allows one at a time off the hill, unsteady legs and all. After restocking -- nutrition, fluids, a gentle word about goals -- runners soak up the crowd, cross the blacktop, follow the meadow and wade the stream that marks the low point of the course at 9,200 feet.

Now is the time to consider the pass at 12,600 feet in elevation. Sure, there's aid ahead at the "Hopeless" station near the timberline and a ghost town on the other side, but  will fanatically prepared legs survive to carry them 3,000 feet up and 2,000 down?

Not everyone's feet are pointed straight ahead after 40 miles. Some have blood in their urine, systems fouled. The worst scrape along, or lean to the side, or hitch and jerk, windup toys in need of new springs and batteries. The clock ticks.

"Make the most of the downhill so you make the cutoff," is the mantra for the plodders.

Balancing running and all else

To get to the turnaround, the crew cars speed back out to the highway, past the fly fishermen with their waders comfortably tucked into the Arkansas River, and turn onto a bumpy gravel road. They grind to a stop. Officials are letting only 10 cars at a time jump ahead until they hit a second official, who is doing the same.

Matt Friedrichs/ESPN.com

Lisa Morton (sister of the author) and her husband, Chris, check her feet for blisters during a stop.

There's time to contemplate. More than one husband or wife is supporting a spouse. Even people who train enough to simply attempt an ultra think about balance, especially after they start a family.

After his first child was born, Callahan, the two-time winner, pushed his training earlier, getting up at 3 a.m. and running the same distances, but the lack of sleep was unsustainable and his body shut down. He hasn't trained for two months, but he's in a race to get into Winfield to check on the 10 runners he's coaching.

Other parents have kids in the backseat, sleeping and quiet for now. The ones who really want to run are always negotiating times and juggling schedules. A man who flew in from Houston to pace a friend has permission to be here this weekend, but he has to be back to take the kids to school on Monday.

And the husbands or wives ambivalent about running really question the time commitment required to be prepared to run an ultra, especially more than one a year. After all, balance goes only so far in the face of obsession.

The frustration on the road grows as idling teams want to get pacers to runners who will be re-climbing Hope Pass. From the midpoint on, each runner is allowed a companion. In a nod to mining history, the pacers can carry, or "mule," poles and water bottles and anything else the runner requires.

The faces coming off the mountain are lined, hollowed, serious, turning to stone. They're walking, some tapping the dusty road with sticks they've picked up as poor men's trekking poles, not rushed because they've already tucked one mountain into their thin outfits and now have to shove it down again.

But fresh legs and lungs await. A woman who hasn't run all day, but soon will, shouts and jumps up and almost into the arms of a friend she will pace.

"I guess I need to do a little ballerina move when I see my runner," is the response of another pacer, sitting on the porch of a historic log building.

They suck on fluids and food and renewal if it'll go down. Rest if it doesn't, and there's time. The pacers pepper them with questions; the runners respond at their own, tempered pace.

"My stomach's killing me."

There's a discussion of dizziness and hydration. The worn-down respond with nods or gestures, saving rare verbal acknowledgement for runners they suffered with coming over.

"It's just the altitude. It's clearly a different game."

Sixty-three runners record their finish time here.

Matt Friedrichs/ESPN.com

A runner cruises, more than 26 miles into the race by mid-morning.

All the way out, and back again

Halftime never ends so quickly, and here it turns into a slow-motion replay in reverse.

That aid station back up in the sky is accessible only by foot. Everything there -- and could it ever be enough for such a brutal but beautiful stretch of EKG? -- was packed in by foot and llamas. Runners who make it back but can't continue will still have to walk down eventually.

At 8:30 p.m. while many, many runners are ascending or descending Hope, Ian Sharman finishes with the fourth-fastest time ever.

Back at Twin Lakes, everyone looks smoother. Maybe it's the pacers, maybe it's that the two biggest climbs are done. The daylight fades, but headlamps still zig and zag up near the pass. Either those failing mechanically didn't make the cutoff on the other side, or they're weaving far behind.

The temperature drops and sunblock is no longer on the buffet. Seesaw pace on a seesaw trail. Feet slapping, bodies still warm.

At 10:22 a runner bitches through pipeline: "They said you won't be able to make 25 and I said 'screw that.'"

He's intent on earning that buckle reserved for those who finish with 5 hours to spare.

A few minutes later and a few degrees cooler, reality: "My prize is to finish. Walk some, run some, walk some, probably finish about 8 a.m."

It's now near midnight and the heater in "Candyland" -- the aid station just before this crew spot, now brightly lit and scarily seductive -- also has drawn runners, moths who will find it very hard to get up and move again. Twenty-three finish the race here.

Feet strike the ground, everything inflamed. Emotions are raw, and so is skin. (For five minutes of horrifying stories, ask an ultra runner about chafing. No detail will be spared.) A corneal edema might result in blurred vision, halos around lights and the sensation of foreign bodies in the eye, but it isn't fatal.

At this point, questions don't make sense. Calm, sleep-deprived support feels irrational to the runner.

The most common request: painkillers. It's too late to fix feet. Bodies hunch like the abandoned ranch buildings that dot the valley. They lurch, exhaling horse breaths through fluttering lips.

The night again holds uncertain connections. Will the runners the crews and pacers are to assist actually arrive? Chattering, killing time, pacers hold early-morning vigils for runners, for lost time, for lost goals.

A shadow with a sense of humor passes the marker signaling 26 miles to go.

"You look awesome," shouts a spectator.

"I look better in the dark," comes the reply.

And then, against all math and factoring of previous times, the names previously assigned tombstones begin to arrive.

"Let's go! Over here."

They leave again, their headlamps a line of lit matches stretching into the dark.

Back at the hatchery at 1:30 a.m., there are grilled hamburgers for sale to crewmembers. Smells great to someone who's been running, but how would that go on the stomach? Instead, hot water and salty instant noodles for the third straight stop. Now's not the time to experiment.

Keep moving, and don't look back. Don't look forward beyond the lit area in front of your feet. The lights of Leadville bring on thoughts of warm beds, sleep, and the comforts willingly abandoned 22 hours ago in favor of continuous suffering.

It's too early to think about the finish. They have to be at May Queen by 6:30 a.m., where the light will dawn on them for a second time. And it's uphill with batteries.

Climbing power lines again, one runner notes, "they added a lot of hills since we came down this in the morning."

On the map, the north end of the trail looks like a crow pecking at Leadville's kidneys. Or maybe a hummingbird, jamming its needle-like beak into quads and calves to suck electrolyte-laced fluid out as fast as it is consumed.

Meltdowns at the final aid station are fine, but not pulmonary edema, which is fluid in the lungs that can lead to coughing up blood, dizziness, liver problems, or worse.

Now the math problem is clock-versus-remaining distance, and they're barely moving along Turquoise Lake. Contort forward. Someone misreads the distance left on a GPS watch and causes near panic.

Later a pacer yells, "You know, they have ramen at the finish aid station."

Everyone in earshot has snacked on it.

"I WANT that RAMEN," shouts a runner.

You could swap our "ramen" for "buckle." And if he makes Leadville in two hours or less, that runner can buy a belt to go with both.

Matt Friedrichs/ESPN.com

Molly Johnson finishes in 27:10:49.

The finish

Ken Chlouber, greeting the 100-milers, hangs a finishing medal on his son at 7:29 a.m.

The crowd steadily fills the stands, waiting for a name, a face, a number, a story. By 8:00 a.m., some 257 runners have crossed the line.

There's no shame in this slower pace. Second-place finisher Nick Clark walked and retched into the final mile. It's a sport that humbles the best-trained athletes, even if they're capable of three 100s in seven weeks in pursuit of the Grand Slam of ultras.

Four weekends spent walking 72 holes at each of golf's four major championships is nowhere close, nor could a caddie handle the elevated psych job of a pacer. 

Sharman and Clark weren't the first finishers, just the first to cross the line on Sixth Street where it all started.

Last year's women's champ Lewis hurt her foot and doesn't record a time after Twin Lakes. Hip pain and back spasms sidelined Ryan Sandes, who won in 2011 and was among the men's favorites, around mile 50. The official designation: DNF.

For some, they've never run farther and that will be enough. Others, who see that 73-year-old Hans-Dieter Weisshaar finished for the 10th time, will shake out the mountain grit that arrested their close-fitted gears, rewind and circle a date next August for the second or third or fifth attempt.

Regardless, they've done something incredible, even if they won't recognize the sliver of the moon they grabbed until it lights their path one night weeks after they're returned home. Jurek slipped to eighth, almost three hours off the winning pace.

Ashley Arnold won the women's race in 20 hours, 25 minutes. At 4:54 a.m., Chris Jones claimed the last of those special 25-hour buckles.

Local favorite Mario Varela finished for the 20th time. Bill Finkbeiner didn't run the first year, but he's now covered 3,000 miles of these trails over 30 races, and the oversized buckle he received as a 30-time runner could double as a shield in battle. 

Leadville is actually many races. There is competition among the potential winners -- who sure are friendly racing for such a big prize -- but everyone out here can root for everyone else to reach a goal, whether it be improving on a previous time, or simply finishing. This is a race without losers.

Family and friends may never understand why a person they love decided to cram every joint and muscle and bone through a rock crusher. What tiny percentage of impure ore, contained in that buckle and mined along this trail, could possibly be worth all that pain?

They may question sanity, but they still cheer.

A woman so tired she can't talk, just step, approaches. Her pacer acknowledges the shouts for her.

At a mile to go a spectator yells, "Good to see you this morning," and a different man, feet still moving, can think again.

"Better than the back seat of a car at 2 a.m."

The runners crest the hill on Sixth and now it's time to look. The crowd stands on sidewalks and edges into the street. The bells and cheers and clapping and volume rise in inverse proportion to speed.

Courtesy of Ryan Beard

Leadville was on Ryan Beard's bucket list. He finished in 27:53:37 and has the buckle to prove it.

These six blocks are the reward for thousands of miles of training. This is where all those steps in the dark, all that pain that no one saw, is paid back. This high will pull them back onto the trails in a few days, even though they're still sore. Many parade with their support team, kids, crew (there's the knitted pig hat), and pacers. If they have to, they drag themselves across sideways. If they can, they run faster than they have in miles, perhaps days.

At 9:57 a.m., nearly a day-and-a-quarter since the start, a man loads a blank into a shotgun. The spectators would love to stop the clock for anyone still on the course. They cheer in Terry Parham (29:57:29) and search the street for stragglers. Nobody comes.

Exhaustion washes away the brittle mixture of sugar, salt and determination that has propped some upright. They flop into waiting arms. They embrace the pillow-soft grass outside the finish chute. The gun sounds 30 hours, cracking the interest of the crowd, which dissolves. Relief is bare feet, even if they're bruised coal black or missing toenails or swathed in tape and covered by blisters.

Forty hours before during physical check-ins, the town had been stuffed with nearly a thousand very fit people wearing matching temporary bracelets, like they'd just been admitted to the hospital. Now there are 494, including those crashing in the medical tent, receiving oxygen, wrapped in warming blankets, who own one of those rare buckles.

Devin Farrell crosses in 30 hours, 26 minutes, 55 seconds and an official tries to hang a medal around his neck.

He leans back to decline because of the time, but then hears the explanation: this is for finishing, it's not the buckle.

He leans in and accepts that he, too, traced the Leadville 100.

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