Ultra Tales part 4 -- Not a whole lot of oxygen
The DNF at Wasatch didn't seem to curb my interest in ultras, though I wasn't in a rush to start another right away, and things had to be worked around the orienteering schedule.
Next came a very short ultra in February 1983 called the Tanque Verde Loop, 28.5 miles, in the hills just east of Tucson. Don't remember much about it except that it got real hot towards the end. That was all for 1983. And then in May 1984 I showed up for the Ice Age 50 Mile in southern Wisconsin, remember even less about it other than I had a good run, 13th of 148 in 7:47.
I do remember a lot more about the next one 3 months later -- Leadville.
This was the second year for Leadville, and it had already gotten a reputation. To have any chance of finishing you had to live at altitude. The first year only 10 of 44 starters had finished, and all 10 lived higher than 5,200'. If you were a "flatlander," forget it.
The reason, of course, was that Leadville's low point was about 9,000' and it's high point was 12,600' Hope Pass (aka No-Hope Pass). It was an out-and-back course so you got to go over Hope Pass twice.
So there were trails, and hills, and the long night, and no air. I remember standing on the start line with 50 other starters at 4 am feeling quite apprehensive.
I had done my best to get acclimated. The race marked the end of a three-week trip out West. The first week was in California where I was controller for the California 5-Day (how many know that ever happened?), with a quick trip to the top of Mt. Whitney squeezed in the middle.
Then a drive to Colorado Springs, staying there with Bob Ellis at nearly 9,000'. Saturday Bob did the Pikes Peak ascent, we drove our rental car to the top to pick him up, almost killing the car in the process and getting a good altitude headache. Up (and down) Pikes Peak again the next day, this time on foot, as I was running the marathon, maybe not the best tapering program 6 days before Leadville, but even back then life was short.
Then spent the next 3 days with a friend in Aspen, 9,500', by Thursday my quads no longer hurt. And then the last couple of days in Leadville, 10,200', checking out the course. All of this didn't add up to anything close to living out there, but it was a whole lot better than just flying out the day before.
So the race started. It got light in an hour or two. The course went up, the course went down. By midday I was heading up Hope Pass for the first time, walking of course, but also breathing as hard as possible just to get enough oxygen.
I had also discovered just prior to that I was in third place, despite having had at least 10 folks in front of me earlier in the race. I found out later that once again not all ultrarunners are good at staying on the course, and a group of guys had missed a turn and blindly followed each other a long long ways off course. I really was in third.
Down Hope Pass, the turnaround at 50 miles was not long after, I got there in 10:38. Stop for a minute, get weighed, and head back. The goal still was just to finish, the time limit was 30 hours, with buckles given to anyone under 25.
Over Hope Pass again, lucky that the thunderstorms kept their distance. On the way down I remember several times feeling really faint, and then I realized that I hadn't been breathing enough. Several deep breaths made an immediate difference.
Back through Twin Lakes, then a long trail section on the eastern slopes of Mt. Elbert, the day was getting on and I hustled along as fast as I could, wanting to get off that section before dark. Which I did, 70 miles done in 15+ hours, 30 miles to go, I was ecstatic. And after having been so psyched to get through that last section as fast as possible, I crashed, big-time. Left the aid station, now on a gently sloping downhill dirt road at 10,000', time to start running again, but my feet hurt and my legs hurt and my energy was low. And my psyche, well, it crashed too. Think about it -- it feels like you've been going forever, and now if you can't run here, the easiest possible place, you're not going to be doing any more running, so you've got 30 miles to walk. Including up and over Sugarloaf Pass. Realistically 3 mph. Do the math. 10 more hours to go. Depressing, isn't it?
Nothing else to do, I just kept walking, fast as I could though it wasn't very fast. At some point, maybe 80 miles, I happened to see a light behind me, and it closed pretty quickly, the guy was running. At this point I was still in third, and both guys in front of me, way in front, were from altitude. The guy came by.
How you doing? I asked
Real tired. Where you from?
Way to go....
I had heard all I wanted to hear. I was still the first flatlander. But I still had hours to go.
Headed up Sugarloaf Pass. Real tired, sleepy, too. Long climb. Passed a boulder just the right height to sit on. I sat. Really sleepy, but still thinking. Turn off your flashlight, save the battery. Now sitting there in the dark. And a little voice said, if you don't get up right now, you'll fall asleep here. And I reluctantly flicked the light back on and trudged onward.
Over the pass, Gail and the car were parked on the other side at a road crossing. Maybe 2 am. She was asleep, I woke up up for about a minute of assistance, then onward again, endlessly it seemed. 3 am, 4 am, 95 miles done, finishing was certain now, just the doing was left, and then with two miles to go a light way behind in the distance. I sent Gail back to find out where he was from. Chicago. Shit. Picked up the pace. The last long hill up into Leadville, sky starting to lighten for the second dawn, 25:42. First flatlander by 15 minutes. You take pleasure where you can.
Everything hurt, of course. But if you had asked me at any time, from right after I finished to now, if I was glad I did it, the answer, of course, would have been "Absolutely."