It all began at the Silver Rush 50 miler in July 2018 (my first ultramarathon). After the race was over, I stuck around for the drawing and won a gold coin entry to the Leadville 100. I was thrilled to get a coveted spot into this legendary race! I had volunteered and crewed at the Leadville 100 before, and now it was my run.
Training began mid-January, after Jay & I returned from Peru. As I looked at my training plan and the volume of miles that laid before me, it was overwhelming. I told myself to just take it one week at a time. In addition to running, I also swam once a week and went to yoga and spin class a few times a month.
The first milestone in training was running the Desert Rats 50K in mid-April. Sacha & I ran it together and had the perfect day with spectacular scenery and lots of laughs.
The next major milestone was a trail running adventure from the Pyrenees in France to the Mediterranean Sea in Spain. We covered unforgettable 85 miles that week. It was epic!
Upon returning from Europe in early June, I was in a consistent cycle of 3 heavy weeks of training (70+ miles) followed by a recovery week (35-40 miles). It was the most running I’ve ever done in my life. I explored a variety of beautiful Colorado trails I’d never run before. The wildflowers were over the top this year, making the scenery even more spectacular. All of the trail running was simultaneously tiring and invigorating.
The historic snowfall this year made it difficult to train at higher elevations as trails above 11,000 feet were buried in snow until July. Jay’s 100 mile mountain bike race in Breckenridge mid-July was cancelled due to snow and avalanche debris. The Leadville Marathon and Silver Rush 50 courses went on, but had to be rerouted.
On Hope Pass (the highest section of the Leadville 100 course), there were 12 avalanche slides that had to be cleared. When we trained on Hope Pass the last weekend of July, most of the snow was gone, but the course was very wet and muddy. We wondered how much things would dry out by race day, which was now just 3 weeks away. The reality of the race was starting to kick in.
Two weeks before for the race, I met with my pacers to go over the game plan for race weekend. At Leadville, you can have a pacer for the last 50 miles of the course. It’s an out-and-back course, so you are solo outbound and can have pacers inbound. I had a dream team of pacers assembled: Carrie Wallace (Winfield to Twin Lakes), Kasia Lundquist (Twin Lakes to Outward Bound), Nick Stengl (Outward Bound to May Queen), and Kristy Peterson (May Queen to Finish Line). Being a pacer is a selfless act of friendship and support, and I am beyond grateful to these four individuals for stepping up for me.
That same weekend, Sacha and I met with Don and Grace Sims (Leadville 100 finishers). Countless questions filled our minds as race day was approaching and it was extremely helpful to talk everything through with them.
Next thing I knew, it was the weekend before the race. I spent hours that Saturday laying out all my gear and nutrition.
As I stood there with all the items laid out before me, I visualized every detail of the day from waking up race morning to reaching the finish line the next day. I visualized what I would eat for breakfast, what I would wear to the start, how it would feel lining up at the start line, what I would eat and drink from each aid station to the next, how I would pace myself through each section of the course and its varying terrain, when I would see Jay, when I would see each of my pacers, when the sun would rise, when the sun would set, and when it would rise again. I visualized coming into the finish line alongside Sacha and surrounded by my pacers, friends, and Jay. I played through the entire race in my head, step by step. I went through this visualization multiple times. A sense of calm washed over me. I felt ready. Now, I just wanted the waiting to be over. I placed this bible verse on my bathroom mirror, and recited it in my mind again and again in the coming days, anytime I caught myself worrying about something.
The day before the race, there was a mandatory athlete briefing at 10AM. We met inside the Leadville High School Gymnasium. The placed was packed and buzzing with energy. The briefing started with talks from the race director and medical director. Then, Merilee Maupin and Ken Chlouber (founders of the race) came on stage along with Cole Chlouber (Ken’s son). Cole gave quite the inspirational talk. The part the really stuck with me was when he said, “Inside us all is an inexhaustible well of grit, guts and determination. And tomorrow, you will have the opportunity to prove that over, and over, and over again.”
Next, Ken took the mic. A couple tears filled up in my eyes as he said, “There will be a moment in that race will define what you are made of, seize that moment.” Signing up for this race was one of the scariest things I have ever done. Typically, fewer than half the starters reach the finish line. I do not like to fail and I have never DNF’d (did not finish) a race before. Over nearly 20 years of racing, I have showed up to and completed every single race I signed up for. Yet, this race was on a whole new level. One hundred miles of extreme Colorado Rockies terrain — from elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet. Weather conditions ranging from below freezing to hot, from clear & sunny to thunderstorms & hail, and everything in between. A 30 hour time limit, with the majority of finishers taking 28+ hours. I believed I had what it takes to do it, yet knew it would require pushing myself beyond limits I’d never experienced before. The emotions of it all were overwhelming.
After the athlete briefing, Jay & I headed to the campground to setup the luxurious pop-up camper. 😜
After setting up camp, we were off to the race expo. Not two minutes after arriving, I ran into my training partner, Sacha. We had also randomly run into each that morning at the grocery store in Frisco as we drove up to Leadville. It was serendipitous.
I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the campground. I posted tracking info on Facebook and soaked in all the encouraging comments and posts from family and friends. I was surprisingly calm. We ate an early dinner, then Don and Grace came by our campsite with some final words of encouragement and support. By 7:30pm, I was in my sleeping bag for the night. I somehow managed to get about 6 hours of sleep. As soon as I got up in the morning, I immediately had butterflies in my stomach. Race day was finally here!
We arrived at the start line at 3:40AM. After one last bathroom stop and a couple photos, I made my way to the starting corral. As the national anthem played, I thought of the countless soldiers who had endured far more than I would face in this race. It helped put things into perspective. There were 829 starters. I was in the middle of the pack as we set off into the darkness at 4:00AM.
It felt so good to start running. Finally, I was no longer thinking about running the Leadville 100, I was running it! What a feeling! My legs felt fresh coming off the taper. It was a feeling my legs had not known for months. I took deep breaths in an effort to calm my nerves, and repeated the following verse in my head over and over again that my friend Christie had sent a few days prior. It was hard to settle down my emotions.
About an hour in, I reached the singletrack around Twin Lakes. This was where I fell twice in training. I was watching my step carefully. The moon was shining brilliantly across the lake and the sun would soon rise. I arrived at the May Queen aid station (13 miles) at 6:27am, a few minutes behind what I had planned but relieved to have made it without falling. After a much needed bathroom break and refilling a water bottle, I was on my way.
Sacha passed me shortly after leaving May Queen. She told me the story of how her chapstick had fallen into Turquoise Lake (Sacha always has the best stories while we are running). I told her that if it’s the worst thing that happens all day, it’s going to be a great race. We were both smiling and laughing as she moved along. I looked forward to seeing her on the course again later on.
As I headed up Sugarloaf Pass, my stomach started hurting. It was around mile 15. I stopped fueling and decided to only sip water until my stomach calmed down. Next was the steep 4-mile decent down Powerline. Wow, that was fun to run down! By the time I reach the bottom of Powerline, my stomach started feeling better again. I hoped I had that all behind me. I felt good as I came into Outward Bound (23.5 miles) at 9:02am and as I came into Treeline (26.5 miles) at 9:46am, where Jay was waiting for me.
At Treeline, I started to pick up my fueling again, and my stomach starting hurting again. I moved slower in an effort to calm things down. The next section of the course went by fast. I talked with a number of different runners along the way, some first timers like me and others previous finishers. Everyone seemed in positive spirits. The next thing I knew, I was descending into Twin Lakes (38 miles). I arrived at 12:34pm, 53 minutes behind what I had planned but still had plenty of time to make the upcoming cutoffs. Right as I arrived at Twin Lakes, I was greeted by Jay and a pack of friends who took care of my every need and got me ready for the climb over Hope Pass. It was incredibly re-energizing to see everyone.
About a mile after leaving Twin Lakes, the water crossings started. There were 4 or 5 smaller pools to walk through, and then the big river crossing where there’s a rope to hold as you go across. I was nervous about this section going into the race, but the freezing cold water was refreshing after 40 miles of running. I had an extra pair of socks in my pack in case my wet feet got cold, but ended up not needing them. It was a warm and sunny day and it only took an hour or two for my socks and shoes to dry out.
Roughly a mile after all the water crossings, I reached the trees and started the 3,400′ climb up Hope Pass. This is where things started to fall apart for me. I knew I needed to be fueling, but couldn’t stomach anything but water. I was moving at a snail’s pace, but still staying positive and talking with runners around me. I told myself to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress.
After miles of climbing that seemed to never end, I was relieved to reach the Hope Pass aid station, stocked courtesy of the pack of llamas! One of the volunteers from a local cross country team ran to meet me and asked what I needed, I handed her my water bottles. She ran ahead and had them refilled before I even reached the water jugs. All race volunteers are awesome in my book, but the ones on Hope Pass are particularly special as they have to hike 9 miles round trip just to reach the aid station. 🙌
I had a cup of coke at this aid station, which I hoped would settle my stomach. Now, only a half mile of climbing to go! I made it to the top of Hope Pass at 3:36pm (39 minutes before the cutoff). I was now cutting it way closer than I wanted, but optimistic that I could make up time on the downhill descent. I am a strong downhill runner and I just needed to turn it around on the downhill. As I started to run down Hope Pass, my stomach cramping escalated into a sharp, stabbing pain on both sides of my stomach. It felt unbearable to run, the bouncing was too much to handle. I resolved to walk as fast as possible. At the same time, the singletrack trail was starting to get crowded as hundreds of runners and their pacers were now making their way back from turnaround in Winfield. I saw Sacha and Ewen on this stretch. All I remember was Sacha yelling “pink!” (I was wearing a pink t-shirt).
Going into the race, missing the cutoff at Winfield hadn’t even crossed my mind. I had planned on getting there about 2.5 hours before the 6:00pm cutoff. Now, I found myself in a position that missing the Winfield cutoff was a real possibility. The contents of my stomach refused to stay in my body. I’d been passed by so many runners since Twin Lakes (Athlinks shows 59). I looked at my watch. The reality of situation hit me: I needed to step up the pace or I was going to miss the cutoff at Winfield. My body just wanted to stop, just wanted the pain to be over. At the same time, I knew I would be beyond disappointed in myself if I gave up. I thought about what Ken said at the athlete briefing, “There will be a moment in that race will define what you are made of, seize that moment.” This was my moment. I was not going to give up. I resolved to do everything it took to not get passed by anyone else. I determined that I would catch up to the next runner ahead of me. It was excruciating. Carrie was waiting in Winfield to pace me. If I could just make it to Winfield.
Finally, I saw the end of the singletrack and the dirt road to Winfield. Shortly after, there was my pacer Nick. He said, “You can make it to Winfield in 8 minutes from here, and you have 18 minutes before the cutoff!” I started running as fast as I could. It felt like I was sprinting, but I was probably running maybe a 10 minute pace. Returning runners and pacers rooted for me as they passed, telling me I could do it. The dirt road was lined with spectators on both sides. They were cheering so loud, the loudest I’d heard people cheering all day. It felt like an Olympic moment. And in the adrenaline of that moment, I could no longer feel the pain.
It was THE BEST SURPRISE to see Nick, Kristy and Cadence in Winfield. I knew Carrie would be waiting for me, but didn’t know those 3 were going to be there as well. Between the 4 of them, I was in and out of the Winfield aid station with 10 minutes to spare before the cutoff. I was re-energized again, and now had Carrie to help me back to Twin Lakes.
Carrie seemed convinced that I was going to make it back before the 10:00pm cutoff, and it helped me believe it myself. We managed a decent pace for a while (except for all my stops to eliminate the contents of my stomach). The momentum ended with 2 miles left to the top of Hope Pass. That’s when the trail becomes a steep climb. I was now barely moving. Carrie gave pointed out markers to keep me motivated (e.g. a certain tree, a certain rock, a certain trail marker). Each time I reached a marker, I got a 5-second break to catch my breath. This continued on, and on, and on. I was light-headed and dizzy. I wasn’t uttering a word to Carrie, I didn’t want her to know how bad of shape I was in. But as she started telling me things like “see if you can walk a little straighter” and “stay on this side of the trail, away from the edge”, I realized she could fully see the state I was in. At this point, my focus shifted from wanting to make the cutoff at Twin Lakes to just wanting to make it back to Twin Lakes on my own two feet. The worst of the climb was now behind me and we were getting close to the summit. Carrie pointed out how beautiful the view was right now. I hadn’t even noticed until she said something.
At the top of Hope Pass, you can get a cell signal and Carrie pulled her phone out to text Jay. It was 8:55pm. It had taken us 2 full hours for the 2 mile climb. I never anticipated it could possibly take that long. It was now only 65 minutes until the Twin Lakes cutoff. From this point to Twin Lakes, an average runner takes 2 hours. The female winner of the race this year (Magdalena Boulet) did it in 63 minutes. I had only 65 minutes.
When we reached the Hope Pass aid station a half mile later, there was a sign stating 5.5 miles left to Twin Lakes. I asked Carrie to calculate the pace we would need to make it. I don’t remember the number, but it was ridiculous. I knew making the next cutoff was out of reach. The strange thing is, instead of getting upset or crying about it, I just laughed. And then, I started coming out of the pain cave and back to life again. I started talking again. Not just to Carrie, but to EVERYONE. I might have been delirious. But I also think it’s because I had been pushing myself so hard for so many hours through excruciating pain to stay in this race, and now, I could let it go.
With about half a mile left to Twin Lakes, I saw a group of people approaching. It was Jay along with a pack of my friends. I was so happy to see everyone. I was flooded with emotions. I was laughing and crying at the same time as we made our way to Twin Lakes together. It was overwhelming to be surrounded such love and support. Instead of feeling disappointed that my race was over, my heart was full of gratitude. Although things didn’t go as planned, I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome back into Twin Lakes.
Late that night, I got onto Facebook and posted the picture above along with the following thoughts that were on my mind. “Missed the cutoff at Twin Lakes, so the Leadville 100 Mile turned into Leadville 100K for me. So many emotions today, but the biggest one is gratitude. Thankful to have so many loving people in my life, including this crew pictured here who came up to Leadville today. After the Twin Lakes cut off, this crew found me on the course and we finished the final stretch into Twin Lakes together. I left it all out on the course today…struggled with GI issues starting at mile 15 and pushed myself through levels of pain I have never experienced before to get as far as I did. I know I gave it my all, surrounded by the love and support of those near and far, and that is really all that matters in the end.”
In the book, “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, the fourth agreement is “Always do your best.” The book explains that, “Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”
There is no doubt in my mind that I did the very best that I could on race day. And that makes the DNF easier to swallow.
After some rest, Jay and I headed back to the course to meet Sacha at the spot where there is one mile left to go. There was a group of us waiting to run the final mile with her. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses as I could not stop the tears from welling up in my eyes as Sacha approached. I was so proud of her and I was about to run to the finish line with her. It was just as I imagined that final mile, her and I running side by side…except, the reality was that my race was over and I would not be getting a medal when we reached the finish line.
After the race, Sacha sent me the following picture of the two of us running toward the finish line together. She said “That’s how I imagined it.” I told her, “Me too.”
There are many lessons I learned from training for and running the Leadville 100. The experience tested me in a way that made me a stronger and more courageous person. It pushed me to believe in myself. And, it humbled me in a way that reminded me that my character is more important than my performance. These are all lessons that I will carry into other areas of my life.
Yet, what weighed most heavily on my heart in the moments and days after the race was overwhelming gratitude for all the loving people in my life. If I were to start listing, this blog would be even longer than it already is now. So, I’ll summarize by saying I am filled with gratitude for my husband, my family, my friends, and my Revolution Running coaches & teammates. My life is brighter because each of you are a part of it.
P.S. In case you are wondering…yes, I will be back next year for the 2020 Leadville 100! Already planning my comeback.
You are so awesome Joann
Again I say Joann you are awesome!!!
Where are my Kleenex??? Seriously!! I am SOOO tremendously proud of you!! You have more perseverance and stamina than anyone I know!!!
I know when you are feeling healthy you are going to kill it on that course next year! Thanks for giving us such a detailed insight to your experience!
Thanks Sis! I needed Kleenex while I was writing it, such an emotional experience. Thanks for all your support and encouragement along the way. I’ll never forget what you said in your last text the night before the race. “Let yourself enjoy the journey…don’t stress about the outcome!” 💕
What a race you ran, despite such excruciating stomach issues! You should be very proud of yourself! Good luck preparing for next year! Enjoyed reading your account of this incredible experience.
Thanks Cheri! I know I gave it my all out there, and I’ll be back even more prepared next year!
You are courageous in how you approach and face things, even those that do not turn out as you planned. Thanks for sharing the moments that tested you as much as those that fulfilled you, and for sharing some of the scriptures that sustained you throughout. You know you truly gave it all you had that day (and night) as I know you will next time too. You are blessed to be surrounded by so much love, and especially a supportive husband, to fulfill your passion for running. I am truly proud to be your Aunt.
Thanks Aunt Becky! Yes, grateful to be surrounded by so much love and a supportive husband.
Thank you so much for taking the time & emotional energy to put your experience into picture & words for us. WOW!!!!! I continue to always be amazed at how you are able to race & hike these extremes & always with a beautiful smile for us (even though it seems to me it would feel like torture). You are after all as we all know, an IRONMAN so it’s no surprise as you take on all varieties of physical feats! You ARE a very STRONG woman in ALL ways; faith, body & mind! You have the will and determination of a champion in all you set out to do in your life & you are definitely making the most of your years here on earth! I’m printing this off as I have promised “this read” to several friends of mine that have also been intrigued and inspired by you! I’m so proud of you as is everyone who knows & loves you is! Yep, that’s my niece & I’m blessed to be your aunt! I’ll be cheering you on always! ~~love you Joann!
Love you Aunt Marty! Thanks again for the very thoughtful card you, Grandma, and Jeff sent just before race day. It was with me in Leadville. Blessed to be your niece. 💕
Hello mate great bloog