“Alex left Winfield at 4:45.” Finally, some communication from the mAy Team! It is 6:00 pm, and I am standing on a quiet street in Leadville, Colorado. It’s raining ever-so-slightly. My friend Alex May is running the Leadville100 trail race today. My wife Celeste is his crew chief, and his family including his wife Ean and our friends are also here helping him out and pacing, including Mindy, Cat, and Kyle. In fact dozens of my trail running friends are up here this weekend, racing, pacing and crewing, including my friend Lindsey, who was pacing her friend Danny. And that’s what I’m doing here as well; I’m standing in front of Mike Hinterberg HQ in Leadville, preparing to pace Mike for the final 24 miles of his attempt at the Leadville 100. Mike has been out on course now for 14 hours and over 60 miles. At this moment my friend Dan is pacing him from twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they are keeping dry. 30 minutes ago I left Dan and Mike at the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 60 of the course, and soon I will meet the two of them and take over pacing duties from Dan at the Fish Hatchery aid station at mile 76 of the course, and hopefully bring Mike the rest of the way to the finish line. But I have a couple of hours to wait, so right now it is time for dinner, a nap, and most importantly a good hot shower.
I needed a shower because although I was getting ready to pace Mike these last 24 miles, Dan and I had already ran a race of our own that very morning; the Pike Peak Ascent. So we had 13 miles and 7,300 feet of climbing and a lot of accumulated dirt and sweat and drool in the books already. Dan and I woke up in Colorado Springs that morning at 5:00 am, one hour after Mike and Alex and Danny and more than 600 other participants began their “Leadvillian” quests to run 100 miles in less than 30 hours. When the gun sounded for our race in Manitou Springs at 7:00 am, they were all ripping through the first aid station at May Queen and making their way up the north shoulder of Sugarloaf Mountain in the cool misty morning air. At 10:00 am I was climbing the famous “16 golden stairs” at 14,000 feet with less than a mile from the finish of my race, which incidentally featured exploding electrolyte tablets, vomiting, general wooziness, and a nip of lukewarm PBR just below the summit. It was fun, I assure you. More on that later. But while I soaked up the always inspirational view from the summit of Pikes Peak at 10:07 am, Mike, Danny, Alex, et al, were making their way from Fish Hatchery to the village of Twin Lakes, running along the east flanks of two other 14ers, Mount Massive and Mount Elbert. And while Dan and I drove from Manitou to Leadville Saturday afternoon to meet up with Mike, they were all hoisting themselves 3,000 feet up and over Hope Pass to the turnaround at Winfield, in order to turn right around and come back over that same ironically named pass to Twin Lakes, and back to Leadville.
Quite honestly Dan and I thought we had no business trying to pace an ultra-runner after racing to the top of Pikes Peak, but we wanted to be part of the excitement. I would have been up at Leadville anyway, just to cheer on Alex and hang out with Celeste, so when Mike asked if I wanted to pace him about a month prior to the actual event, I agreed. And then I drug Dan into the fray as well, although he didn’t really require much convincing, suffering as he does from the same sort of mental illness as I.
That’s how we found ourselves in Twin Lakes at 3:00 pm that day, waiting for Mike to come back over hope pass so Dan could start running with him. Dan was getting much less rest than I, having to pace Mike first, but I had to run farther. I couldn't decide which of us drew the shorter straw, but I wanted to run the later sections to get more experience with night running, in the event I ever decide to do one of these myself someday (that wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no either).
It was hot at twin lakes, hot for 9,000 feet anyway, and I speculated that our runners and indeed all the runners would be having a tough time in the heat. Some clouds were building in the west, and the shade would be welcome so long as it didn’t develop into anything more serious. The previous night Leadville got raked by a nasty thunderstorm that lasted several hours. No one would benefit from a repeat of that tonight, so I kept my fingers crossed and wandered around Twin Lakes in search of a cup of coffee. I was going to be up late tonight.
Mike arrived at the twin lakes aid station, 60 miles into his race, at about 5:00 pm. His shoes and socks were soaked from several stream crossings so he decided to sit down and change his socks, which was a wise move. Barring any deluges from above the rest of the course would be dry, and keeping one’s feet dry is an under-appreciated and important part of long-distance running. Blisters can ruin your day. Mike looked really good, particularly considering he’d already ran farther than I have ever run in a single day, and Dan and he trudged up the short sharp slope leading out of Twin Lakes in fine form.
I was really hoping to see Celeste and the mAy team arrive in Twin Lakes before I left, but as it turns out they were still in Winfield at the time, having paced Alex to the turnaround at 4:45 pm. Although dozens of friends of mine were out on the course, racing, pacing and crewing, I was not able to see them for the most part. I considered waiting around Twin Lakes until they showed up, but I had to make sure I would be ready to run with Mike later, so I left Twin Lakes on my own and headed back to Team Hinterberg HQ in Leadville for a shower, a burrito, another burrito, and a quick stretch and nap on the floor. We thought Mike would make it to Fish Hatchery by 9:00 pm so I left Leadville a little before 8:00 pm just to make sure I would be there on time. Mike’s crew skipped this aid station so I would fulfill crewing duties as well as begin my pacing duties at this point.
Mike was ahead of the teeming masses at this point, probably running in about 30th place overall, so the Fish Hatchery aid station was pretty quiet and un-crowded when I arrived. I got to see a pretty impressive duel between two of the top female runners, both of whom came in within a minute of each other, and some of the other top male runners came through while I laid out all of the clothing and lights I thought Mike and I would need for our journey. While I waited, dusk settled into the hatchery. The trees began to whisper and the crews got quiet and started putting on their jackets in nervous anticipation of the arrival of their runners. The little rainbow trout and cutthroat trout in the hatchery pens turned from silver and pink into little blurs of grey, their energy, if not their colors, undiminished.
I felt more like a trout and less like a tree, walking back and forth along the aid station in anticipation as well. Finally I’d had enough and started jogging down the road to where Mike and Dan would be arriving from Twin Lakes. I brought along a couple of headlamps because I knew that Dan did not have one, and Mike may have forgotten his as well. That was a mistake on our part, since those two did have to travel about 30 minutes in the dark on the paved road leading up to the aid station. I jogged only about one quarter of a mile before I saw them coming up the road, as silent dark shadows cast against the forest gloom. Arrival at last, and now it was time to get to work. Dan and I got Mike all geared up for the evening and he drank some fluids and had a couple of snacks, and we were off.
Now it was me and Mike, and the night, and 24 miles of road and trail separating us from Leadville and the successful conclusion of his 100 mile adventure. My job was to keep him moving and motivated, distracted and entertained. I love a stage! Right way I started with the exciting and improbable tale of my Pike Peak Ascent race from earlier that same morning. I now present it to you as I presented it to Mike, so please enjoy,
The Tale of the Exploding Salt Tablet, as told to Mike by Slush:
“So I'm running well, probably in 25th place, heading into the Barr camp aid station [roughly half way up Pikes Peak], when all of a sudden I feel like I'm having an asthma attack on the trail. I'm having trouble breathing, my heart rate shoots way up, and I'm beginning to see stars and get dizzy. I've never had asthma or had anything like this happen to me before so I'm kind of freaking out! I know my effort having just ran this at the Barr trail race in July, so I know I wasn't pushing it too hard, but I don't know what the problem is. I make it to Barr camp, walk a bit, take some Gatorade and eat some grapes and slow down for a minute to see if it gets better. I feel a little better so I start up again, and as soon as I do I start hacking and coughing, and lo and behold I heave a mighty hack, and forcibly expunge a mostly-intact salt tablet that I had ingested a little before Barr camp! And hey, now I can breathe again! Aaah. I ate a salt tablet a little before Barr, but instead of swallowing it as recommended by most runners I must have lodged it in my windpipe!
“Well, I thought, that could have been a lot worse, as in not being able to breathe at all and what not. So I was happy to breathe again but the salt tablet had mostly exploded on the way out of my mouth, so my throat, mouth and even my sinuses and nasal cavities were now coated with salts, which really stung! Also as you know one way to make people vomit is to force-feed them a tablespoon of salt. So I now quite involuntarily proceeded to go to the side of the trail and puke; the first time I've ever puked while running! Isn’t it nice to get that rite of passage over with? All the while I'm losing time, and position, of course, and now quite frankly I'm freaked out and off my game. But at least I can breathe again!
“So I start back up again but the fire just wasn't there anymore, sadly. But I made a decent show of it until about one mile to go, and then I started getting dizzy from the altitude and couldn't run without feeling like I was going to fall over, so I power-hiked to the end, and came in at 3:07. I don't think I had 2:45 in me Saturday but I think 2:55 would have been possible without the choking, wheezing and vomiting. But for all that I'm happy with my time and it's something to build on for next year or whenever I do it again. Also I had a nasty headache after I summited, but I think that was due to the fact that I did not get my normal cup of coffee this morning; as soon as I got back to Manitou and got a cup the headache went away. Yes, it could have been the altitude as well but I know the lack of caffeine didn’t help any.”
Well that took up a cozy 5 minutes. All I had to do now is keep Mike entertained for another 5 hours and 55 minutes or so, depending on how long it took us to scale the heights of sugarloaf, wind around the north shore of Turquoise Lake, and trudge back to Leadville.
I quickly learned that at this point, 76 miles into his race, the Mike-machine was equipped with two useful gears; “slow jog” and “purposeful hike”. I idly wondered what sort of shape I might be in after traveling 76 miles. I knew that “stumble about” and “crawl” were also in the gearbox, but I hoped we wouldn’t have to shift into those. We were quietly moving along the flat road towards the steeps of sugarloaf when through the forest I heard the unmistakable sounds of Enya. “Is that Enya?” I somewhat stupidly asked Mike, completely blowing my man-cred. “Yup,” came the reply (utterly blowing his man-cred). Now that headphones are mostly frowned upon during races, some runners like to carry little speakers with them while they run. But this sound was clearly too loud and all-consuming to be coming from portable speakers. Up ahead we saw bands of soft yellow light coming from the source of the music, highlighting the tree trunks at the edge of the road. It was as if the music was actually flowing to us on these bands of light, it was a very eerie and otherworldly scene. And it was so loud! Enya’s music always sounds louder than it actually is, because she overdubs her voice so many times on her songs and creates a huge wall of sound. The juxtaposition of this ethereal music and strange light in an otherwise pin-drop quiet forest was distracting and disorienting. This was a good thing, incidentally. As we approached the source of light and sound, I discovered that we were passing a cabin in the woods, and the music was coming from two very large amplified monitors on stilts, situated in front of a house. The speakers and stands reminded me of little Baba Yaga huts. I could see Enya as a witch. The Enya song ended as we passed by the house, and a familiar guitar melody started up. “I know this, what is this?” I asked Mike. He answered right away; it was David Gray, Babylon. I was encouraged that Mike was still coherent enough to recognize the song that quickly. More than 75 miles into his race and he was still totally in the game.
“If you want it, come and get it, crying out loud.”
-David Gray, Babylon
Soon after that we left the road and turned up towards the climb to sugarloaf. The road was deeply rutted at the beginning, and fairly steep. We made slow but steady progress and picked our way up the road in good spirits. I assumed the role of “pacemaker” and route-finder for Mike, staying a few paces ahead of him on the long climb up.
Lindsey, who paced Cat on this section the previous year, had told me to be wary of false summits on Sugarloaf, so every time the trail began to flatten out I guarded against celebrating and particularly against telling Mike that we had “made it”. But as we reached yet another flat bit I could just sense that we had arrived at the rounded summit of sugarloaf. Even in mid-summer, on these windswept heights I already felt the chill of winter here. I thought that winter probably never really leaves this place, and thought that it was smart that I brought gloves along for the run.
At the summit I briefly turned off my headlamp and my hand-held light, and tilted my head up to the sky. The sky was clear, and since the moon was not yet up I was greeted by panoply of brilliant stars. I looked north to find Polaris, to get my bearings. Above and to the south I could even see the Milky Way, awesome in its mystery. Just then my eyes were drawn to a shooting star, knifing through the Swan of Cygnus, which was making its slow summer nightly flight from east to west above our heads. I realized that while I was pacing Mike, the stars had been pacing me. It was a comfort to know that a graceful Swan had been my faithful guide up the south face of sugarloaf. But we were heading away from Cygnus now. Perhaps the shooting star indicated that Cygnus was handing over pacing duties to the Wolf of Polaris. This seemed less comforting but was maybe necessary, for we had a long and potentially grim journey still ahead of us. The moment was brief but altogether wondrous. I considered that moments like this, moments that maybe last only five seconds, are why I seek out silly adventures such as pacing Mike 24 miles through the night. There are few things more fulfilling than cresting a mountain pass under your own power in the middle of the night and finding yourself bathed in silence and starlight.
The world is a funny place. At my exact moment of bliss, under the same stars, rebel fighters were pouring into Tripoli to unseat Muammar Gaddafi, ready to lay down their lives for freedom. Starving refugees were clambering into Kenya to escape Somalia, in a desperate bid to save their own lives. And closer to me, hundreds of tired and increasingly desperate competitors were scaling the heights of sugarloaf behind us, in pairs of runner and pacer. Danny and Lindsey were back there somewhere, and Alex and Cat, too, perhaps, or maybe Alex and Kyle yet.
It was a nice moment of contemplation, but I did have work to do, so I turned my lights back on, blabbered on about the beautiful stars to Mike for a spell, and led him down the north side of sugarloaf in wide switchbacks to the valley below.
Mike was able to jog a bit on this stretch so we made good time towards the next aid station at May Queen, on the far western corner of Turquoise Lake. As we descended, the waning moon ascended as if we were actually pushing up the moon with each step down towards the valley floor. I briefly marveled at its orange hue before it hid itself behind a band of clouds. I couldn’t decide if the newly noticed clouds were a portent of good or ill. Benign cloud cover helps keep the temperatures warmer, but they can also turn malevolent and rude, like they did the previous night.
At midnight we arrived at the May Queen aid station. After a quick stop, where Mike and I filled up on hot noodle soup and coffee, and stashed some cookies and mini chocolate bars in my pockets, we turned our attention to the final lonely stretch of the Leadville 100. May Queen is the final aid station on the course, and there are still 13 miles of trail separating participants from their goal at this point, with no assistance in the intervening miles. It’s a long dark road ahead, and best not to tarry at May Queen any longer than necessary.
The bulk of the final section winds its way around the north shore of Turquoise Lake, which was relatively flat, but the tail was faint. I had been warned that the trail was difficult to navigate through this section. Now that the moon was up, and the clouds were beginning to build, I had lost my guide, the dog star Polaris. And my swan star Cygnus was long gone, having descended over the mountains to the west for the night. It was up to me to navigate Mike through the old forest on the edge of the lake. A long trudge ensued. We were both quieter now, and colder. I slipped on my gloves, and pulled my hat down tight. On we marched, in “purposeful hike” mode, and periodically I offered Mike cookies and chocolate. Mike was impressive in his quiet resolve and determination.
We finally began to round the eastern shore of the lake, from which vantage point I could look in brief intervals over my right shoulder and spy dozens of lights behind us spread out along the shoreline. The lights, in pairs of two, faded softly into the long dark north shore of the lake, from where we had come. And higher, and across the lake, the lights of racers and pacers descending sugarloaf cascaded down in a serpentine pattern as if someone had set a pinprick to the stars themselves, and let loose a thin stream of lights from the heavens into the lake. It was difficult to tell where the lights ended and the stars began. I knew that somewhere back there one of those lights, probably on the shoreline, belonged to my friend and fellow pacer Lindsey, who was running her friend Danny to the finish. And farther back, winding down the mountain, a twin pair of lights surely represented my friends Cat and Alex, one pacing the other patiently down to the lake.
As I picked my way through the slumbering campgrounds and led Mike on the faintest of trails towards the dam, I thought about Lindsey, and Cat, my fellow pacers, and Danny and Alex, their runners. I thought about Lindsey and Cat in particular though, since the three of us were comrades in arms this night. We were together alone, each going through the exact same experience on the same night, but with different runners to pace, and separated from each other by time and distance, but not by heart. I hoped they were doing well, and I cast one last glance into the gloom over the now-moonlit surface of the lake and sent them all best wishes from the shore. I hoped that their runners were doing well, that they were dressed warmly enough in the rapidly chilling air, and wondered if they were thinking of me too, as Mike and I quite unexpectedly arrived at the dam, and therefore now at the end of our seemingly endless lake excursion. A Crowded House song came to mind, which is not unusual for me:
“Together alone, shallow and deep
holding our breath, paying death no heed
I'm still your friend, when you are in need
as is once, will always be
earth and sky, moon and sea”
We descended a tricky bit of “trail” that mimicked the length and pitch of the dam to which it was adjacent, and found ourselves on a flat, even runnable stretch of dirt county road. With renewed vigor and a sense that the barn door was ajar and waiting, Mike and I picked up the pace. The finish line is wonderful, but this is probably the moment I savor most of all; when the realization sets in that your runner is really going to make it. I have paced several friends to successful races, Lindsey, Kerry, Dan, and Nick come to mind, and now Mike, and each time my favorite moment comes before the finish. Maybe because in that moment it is still just the two of us, sharing in the struggle for accomplishment. The finish line always fades into soft white, almost out of time and place. The pacer’s work is done, and the runner is wrapped in glory. Whereas the miles right before, when success is all-but-guaranteed but for now nothing else exists but the determined footfalls and the bond between runner and pacer, those moments seem to stand out for me in sharp detailed relief.
But don’t get me wrong, I was elated to watch Mike cross the finish line in Leadville, at 4:11 am, in the dead of the night just over 24 hours after he started. His cheering fans consisted of his family, his pacers, the race organizers, and a couple of foul-mouthed and drunk spectators. I had the distinct pleasure of spending 7 hours with Mike on the trail, and his spirit never flagged. He provided me an example of how to comport myself with both the determination of Polaris, and the grace of Cygnus, should I ever gird up enough courage to try this race or this distance myself. The moon and stars judged in our favor tonight.
“Show them you won't expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now
You've got to try”
-Joni Mitchell, Judgment of the Moon and Stars
We took pictures, and then Mike wandered off into the medical tent to get warm, and immediately my attention turned back to Lindsey and Danny, Cat and Alex. They were out there somewhere and more than anything now I wanted to bring them home as well. Tired as I was, it was all I could do not to run back down the course to meet them! But runners are really only allowed one pacer at a time, so I would have to leave them to their own judgments, and bide my time at the finish line in the cold and dark. I started to get really cold myself, standing in the 40 degree chill at 10,000 feet in naught but running shorts and a thin jacket, so I decided to trudge the two blocks up to Hinterberg HQ to put on some clothes.
But when I checked the voice mail on my phone from HQ, elation and satisfaction and nervous anticipation gave way to sadness. The call was my wife; the time of the call was 3:18 am. She was calling to tell me that Alex had dropped out of the race at Fish Hatchery at 3:00 am. Leadville, like most all ultra-races, imposes cut off times at various points along the course. Alex had made it to Fish Hatchery just under the cut off at a couple minutes before 3:00, so he was eligible to continue on to May Queen and hopefully to the finish, but Alex made a tough and courageous choice at Fish Hatchery, and decided to end his race there. My wife was his crew chief, and the emotion in her voice on the phone belied just how much she was invested in Alex and his journey. Runners who do these races really rely on their crew and pacers to keep them going, and they are always very appreciative of the efforts other people give to help them to their goals. But less noted is the emotional investment that crew and pacers place in the success of their runner. They are all in, so to speak. And since the finish rate at Leadville usually hovers around 50%, there were a lot of broken hearts out there in the dead of the night. Even runners who achieve their goals and finish, with arms in the air and all that, will do so with a touch of sadness for their friends who invested just as much into the race as they, but were not able to finish that day. And this emotional intensity lies at the core of what draws me to the sport. Witnessing this first-hand I came away with an enormous respect for everyone who was courageous enough to line up at the start, and put everything on the line.
Deflated, I went back to the finish line to wait for Lindsey and Danny, who I thought were about two hours behind Mike, but the cold and dark seemed colder and darker now, and the disappointed tone of my wife’s voice kept echoing in my head as I paced up and down the final stretch. I made the decision to head to Alex May HQ and go to sleep and be with my wife, whom I had not seen all day. But I wished I had stuck it out at the finish line a bit longer. I missed Danny finishing by about 20 minutes is all, ironically adding just a bit more disappointment to my evening. Not because Danny finished of course, I was really impressed with his performance and happy for both him and Lindsey. It’s just that I could have used another good memory in store as I crawled into bed next to my wife, fully clothed and ice cold, and slept for the first time in over 24 hours. Almost at the exact moment my head hit the pillow, Danny crossed the finish line with his pacer and my friend Lindsey in tow.
No one at May HQ had heard Dan and me come in at 5:30 am, so they were a little surprised when they woke up and we were there. After a huge breakfast and balloon animal festival featuring hearty pancakes and a really impressive balloon monkey with a working prehensile tail, it was time to bid adieu to Leadville and head back home, until next year. I will be back for certain, probably to pace, maybe to run, you never know.