He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below He saw everything as far as you can see And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun And he lost a friend but kept his memory
Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams Seeking grace in every step he takes His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake
- John Denver, Rocky Mountain High
The race across the sky. Leadville, Colorado. 100 miles from elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet.
We started early on Saturday morning, with the alarm ringing in our ears at 2:30 a.m. A fresh pot of coffee was the first priority of the day, along with a warm shower and a final check of Dave’s gear. Headlamps with fully charged batteries, a double check of the layers of clothing before our pickup truck lurched out of the driveway of our rented cabin a few miles from downtown Leadville.
Thousands of people descended on this old mountain town, this humble miner’s homestead, this gritty, loving community on the weekend of August 18th to 19th to have their lives changed forever.
The story of the Leadville 100 cannot be told without mentioning founders Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin. When mining took a downturn in 1982, their lives, along with the livelihood of the entire community fell into despair. With the loss of over 3,000 mining jobs, they looked for solutions of how to bring economic prosperity to their community. By hosting a 100-mile race, Ken realized that visitors would need to spend at least a night, and dollars from tourism would keep Leadville from turning into a ghost town.
The Leadville races (aside from the 100-mile trail run, there are other distance runs and bike races, along with camps) now bring over $20 million yearly to Leadville. The Legacy Foundation, established in 2009, gives all graduating high school seniors pursuing any form of higher education a $1,000 scholarship. Ken and Merilee clearly understand their “why.” They want to change lives.
Ken Chlouber, Founder of the Leadville Trail 100
And so, we were eager upon arrival that morning, as we watched Dave line up with the other nearly 500 runners and watched them take off into the darkness of the woods.
Josh and I scrambled back to the cabin to prepare gear for the first aid station: a cooler of waters and chocolate flavored Ensure; a large plastic bin filled with Ziploc bags – one for medical supplies, one for gloves and socks, one for headlamps, charging devices, headlamps, one for scarves and hats, one for race nutrition; another couple changes of clothes and another pair of trail running shoes.
We drove to the northwest side of Turquoise Lake to the very cold May Queen Aid Station. We lined up in the chute with other crews and spread out Dave’s gear along with a folding chair. And waited along while the sun slowly rose over the trail. Dave came into the first stop with a big smile on his face – stopping for pictures and changing out his hydration and nutrition. The most predictable pace for the race, we knew this first stop would be an easy one – and that they’d all be more challenging from this point forward and the remaining 10 aid stations would be more waiting, more suffering, more…
Outward Bound was the next stop. Another 10 miles out, the terrain was an open, windy field with large clouds moving in fast. It started sprinkling as we once again brought out the chair and our Ziploc bags to re-supply our runner. Josh and I laugh every time we look at a crew lugging big plastic bins down a trail to support their runner. As you never quite know what you might need, it is easy to over-pack. We were thankful that in Dave’s third race of this distance, he was more aware of his needs and willing to lighten the load.
We watched in awe as Dave Mackey came along 10 minutes prior to our Dave, just as he had at the last aid station. Mackey is a professional ultra-marathoner who decided to have his leg amputated in 2016 so he could continue his running career. A year prior, he was on a typical training run outside of Boulder, Colorado when he fell from a ridge and a 300-pound boulder pinned his leg. While nearby hikers were able to remove the boulder, Mackey suffered compound fractures in his left tibia and fibula. For the next year and a half, Mackey underwent extensive surgeries and still suffered constant pain and infection. And so, he decided that life had another plan for him – and has, post amputation, became part of the adaptive athlete community and worked eagerly to have a running prosthesis to take on endurance events again.
Mackey and his crew continued to race as you’d expect a professional team to do; swiftly and encouragingly but surrounded closely by a camera crew. This would be his first 100 since his accident – the furthest he’d run prior was a 50-miler.
I could see the runners coming in along a road before taking a 90 degree turn into the aid station. I was scanning for a cobalt blue shirt, black shorts, trucker hat… there he was! I saw a slight limp in the left leg.
“Oh crap,” I said to Josh. “That’s not looking good.”
He stared hard. “Lauren, that’s not him. Dave’s wearing black socks. Those aren’t his legs.”
Cracking up, I replied, “Oh Josh, you know my husband’s legs better than I do, don’t you?!”
And with that, a nod to my husband’s running brother. One of the deepest and most meaningful relationships I’ve ever witnessed. They’ve carried each other through Ironman races, pushed each other up mountains, held each other’s hair while they puked and celebrated across finish lines together. I can only scratch the surface at the depth of their experiences – but can say, without hesitation, that Josh is one of the best things to happen to our family.
I wasn’t surprised when I turned to talk to Josh and he was missing. He gets nervous waiting around for Dave and will run up to meet him whenever he can.
Two weeks prior, Josh attempted to complete the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run in the San Gabriel back country. Of course, Dave was along for the ride, ready to pace him. Unfortunately, Josh had broken a toe just prior to the race and the hours of climbing and descending were wreaking havoc on Josh’s hip. While still pushing to limp through the race, he missed a cutoff time about a third of the way into the race.
We knew Josh would push himself to help Dave through Leadville, but also recognized there was a chance his hip would not be ready, and we’d have to shift our pacing plans. He was committed to taking Dave up and down Hope Pass.
At 37.9 miles into the course, we met Dave again at Twin Lakes aid station, looking up to Mt. Elbert and Hope Pass. While the view was stunning, Josh and I were stress cases as we didn’t realize that we needed to park three miles away and take a non-existent shuttle bus to the aid station. After nearly a mile of walking, we came to this realization and so Josh raced back to the truck, picked me up along the roadside, and drove directly to all the action. I had Josh setup Dave’s gear while I found a new parking spot and sprinted to meet them. We setup just in time – although it was so busy Dave called my cell to ask where we were. This was certainly the busiest race we’d ever seen!
Once again, Dave looked great. He was following his plan and feeling strong. Luckily the rain had stopped and yet it remained cool.
This was where the race would move from tough to near impossible. Dave would go up and down Hope Pass, at over 12,500 feet, all alone. Then he’d meet us at the bottom, pick up his pacer, and do it all over again. So we made sure he had enough fuel to get him through a grueling four hours. We wished him well, then raced back to the cabin.
Waiting at the cabin was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. Dr. John Mancini, who Dave lovingly refers to as John Boy, was ready to join our crew. John and Dave grew up across the street from each other and were inseparable through high school. The Mancini family warmly welcomed Dave into their home, treating Dave as family. John and Dave stayed in touch, and we were proud to have him be a part of our wedding. And of course, when we realized that John, who now lives in Colorado Springs, was up for the challenge of being part of this crazy team, we were thrilled.
We quickly gave John a crash course in ultra-run crewing, threw his stuff in the truck and headed down to the mile 50 aid station, called Winfield. This turnaround was even more crowded than Twin Lakes! We had quite the small-world experience when we parked just a few cars away from one of John’s Colorado Springs neighbors who was there to help pace a friend.
Our range to expect Dave at this aid station was anywhere from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. We waited and cheered on the other runners, just crossing our fingers that Dave was healthy.
He arrived at the aid station around 4:15, looking just amazing for what he’d just accomplished. He was stoked to see John Boy and welcomed him to the race. He took time to fill up on soup and re-fuel. It was Josh’s turn to join the race, pacing Dave back up Hope Pass.
As Dave and Josh climbed along, they nodded at the runners descending to Winfield. As the cutoff time for the aid station was 6:00 p.m., some of these runners would make it and be able to continue, while others would be done for the day. As they went further up, they saw the distraught faces of those who knew they wouldn’t make it, those who worked so hard to be there but just couldn’t move fast enough. Given that nearly 50% of the runners do not finish, to even make it this far is an enormous accomplishment.
As they reached the windy, cold, miserable top of Hope Pass, Josh and Dave celebrated the accomplishment and took some photos from high up in the clouds. It was indeed cause for celebration, as the most challenging part of the course was over.
On the way down, Josh texted to let me know they were descending. I got overexcited and prepared all the gear. John and I got to spend the next couple hours catching up while having lots of fun people watching. We saw Dave Mackey come through; this would be the last time we saw him as he pushed even faster than even he expected and finished in under 25 hours. The first set of runners we watched looked like they were six miles into the race – certainly not 60 – with fresh legs and smiles on their faces. We studied the range of body types, the range of ages (incredible!), the range of experience. We reminded the crew next to us to give their runner and pacer headlamps – as we were approaching darkness and to go into the wilderness without adequate lighting would be a grave mistake.
I also knew in talking to Josh that his hip wasn’t well, and so it was time for me to take over for the next 14.5 miles. The sun went down and I prepared my headlamp and fueled up. While bummed that Josh was hurting, I was eager to join Dave at this point in the race.
With 40 miles still to go, I knew the next section would be a mental hurdle. We grabbed more soup at the aid station and trotted up what seemed like a never-ending ascent. Dave warned me that the next three miles would be all uphill. I instantly started hating rocks. They were everywhere. Every size. And people were constantly passing us. I was huffing and puffing.
But I made sure to put all that aside, to focus all my energy on the man next to me who just ran 60 miles and needed me to get him through this next section. I kept telling him over and over: “You are amazing. I’m so proud of you.” I told the people passing us that it was our first date, and it was going pretty well. We talked and laughed, and the run got easier. And as would be my luck, the snow and freezing rain started. After running Boston, I thought I’d had my fill of running in cold rain. I’m glad I was there for Dave in this moment, when I could remind him how strong he was and give him my warmer gloves. The road back into the Outward Bound Aid Station seemed to go on forever, but in this part of the race I’ll remember how we laughed as I jumped over every dark rock – thinking it was cow poop, and we talked about what never quitting really meant.
As we came into Outward Bound, we laughed at the huge inflatable dinosaur and found Josh and John parked alongside, with the truck nearly stuck in the mud. It was about 2 a.m. and time for John to run. John’s run would involve the ‘Power Line Climb’ – a challenging ascent but then lots of “runable” terrain. They ran together from 2 until 5:30 a.m., an hour before the cutoff. John did an amazing job at his first ultra – he kept Dave in positive spirits and pushed him to keep the pace right where it was needed.
And finally, the last aid station was my turn again. Josh and I drove back to the lake at 2 a.m. and quickly fell asleep in the truck. I woke up an hour later, sick to my stomach. I quickly opened the truck door and puked down the side of a cliff. I’m happy to report that I was the only one of us that threw up during the race. And luckily I felt much better – just a sour stomach from not eating enough and being awake for over 24 hours. I went back to sleep until the alarm woke us at 4:30. We scrambled to fill the crew bag with random Ziplocs. We were so exhausted we had no idea what to bring down to the aid station. Still I was thankful Josh had enough sense, even in zombie state, to remind me to start eating and getting ready to run.
When Dave came in he looked surprisingly good for being at 87 miles. He had been running quite a bit with John and wanted to keep it going. He had more soup and I ate a banana and we took off to go get that buckle.
We knew we had four and a half hours to run a half marathon, so felt confident that even if we had to walk, we’d make it. Since we wanted to push for a sub-29 hour finish, we ran for the next four miles. The rolling hills around the lake, the rocks, roots, and general tiredness in our muscles made that an incredible challenge. We got into a groove, and I thought we were doing really well. I looked down at my watch to a 12:30 pace. We were both in shock – thinking we were cruising but seemed to have lead in our shoes. When we made it out of the lake and onto the road, we were both exhausted. We kept pushing each other: let’s run to that sign. Let’s run to that tree. We’d run and walk as much as we could. The last four miles were straight uphill. We struggled to make it happen but kept talking about the buckle. One of the great parts of this race were all the volunteers and aid station support. When we ran through one section, a group of spectators yelled to Dave: “Go get that buckle man. It will be the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen!”
He replied to them: “Second prettiest thing.” And smiled at me.
I couldn’t help getting choked up at that moment. Thankful that my husband, even after 90 miles of running, could be that thoughtful. I guess he can run another one of these, if he wants.
As we walked into town, more and more supporters were cheering for Dave, tipping their hat to honor the accomplishment he was about to achieve. I know he was taken aback by all the people, all focused on him in that moment.
About half a mile out we saw Josh and John, ready to bring us into the finish line. Their smiles were spectacular. The group jogged into the finish line and hugged each other tightly. This was one epic adventure.
We drove back to the cabin to see my mom (Bema), stepdad (Bebob), and our boys at the front door, waiting for us. We could not have done this without the support of Bema and Bebob taking such great care of our boys. When we asked them to fly from Florida for this, we knew they would do all they could to make it happen. They took the boys on their own adventure, from a railroad trip to the gold mine to the alpine coaster to go-cart racing to hours upon hours of Go Fish.
I know it sounds simple, but it’s too often neglected: Just show up. It’s being here, in the moment, that really matters. Leadville has reminded me of that. Watching Josh show up. Watching John show up. Watching David Mackey show up. Watching Bema and Bebob show up. Doing my best to show up for my husband. And never being prouder of him for doing the same.