Ever heard of the Leadville 100?
It's an ultramarathon near Leadville, Colo., that's been luring runners to the starting line since 1983.
- Run a total of 103 miles through the Colorado Rockies. (Blame it on logistics. It's 103 miles, not a mere 100).
- Climb 11,000 feet in elevation at altitudes around 9,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level
- Eat and drink enough to fuel your body to go the distance
- Run through the night illuminating the trail by headlamp and flashlight
- Battle the effects of sleep deprivation
- And finish before the 30-hour cutoff
Running Is A Solo Sport...Or Is It?
Running is selfish. That’s not a bad thing; plenty of good comes out of the strength, understanding, and happiness that we find on our feet.
Runners become the kind of driven and resilient people that give back to the world as much as they put into themselves.
The process of building that strength through running, though, absorbs a lot of our energy. Committing to anything in life usually means sacrificing something else in return, since science hasn’t figured out how to let us clone ourselves yet.
Plus, running may seem like a solo sport on the outside but takes a village behind the scenes...
- Family and friends shoulder an extra burden so that we can enjoy the privilege of running
- Those rides, parenting trades, cheer squads, aid stations, and stocked fridges make room for training and racing
- And all the other things that make it possible for us to run don’t just come out of nowhere.
I’ve been on the receiving end of these favors more and more often over the years as I‘ve grown as a runner, but I hadn’t had the chance to see this sport from the other side of the glass until this year’s Leadville 100 Ultramarathon.
Here are a few lessons I learned from the whole experience...
Lesson #1: It Takes A Village to Run an Ultramarathon
At the upper end of ultrarunning distances, there are certain roles that need filling:
- Crew members
- Shuttle drivers
- Gear suppliers
- And bright rays of relentless optimism.
It’s easy to lose track of the many details that piece together a safe and successful ultramarathon, and spreading the load across a team of people makes the undertaking at least a bit more manageable.
Runners need genuine help throughout the whole event:
- Transporting their supplies
- Switching out gear
- Keeping up with food and water
- Moving at the right speed
- And holding onto any semblance of a good attitude, when the race gets hard
My friend and racer Genevieve Harrison drew most of her support from an experienced team.
- Her husband: An ultrarunner himself who completed the same race at a quick clip two years ago, drove shuttle for gear and pacers all day and night, with their two young kids in tow to boot.
- Her father: A former competitive runner and Leadville resident, opened up his home to anyone playing a part in the race.
- Her three pacers: Her sister and a good friend from our shared hometown had both run and crewed top-tier ultraraces in the past and knew exactly what she would need at each checkpoint without her even having to ask. And I was her third pacer with one 50-mile ultra under my belt.
- The rest of the gang took on cheerleading duties, which may well be the most important roles in the whole lineup. Never underestimate the power of positive energy after so many hours on foot.
Lesson #2: Move Like a Well-Oiled Machine
When I first met up with Genevieve to take on my pacing duties, she’d already covered over half of her total distance.
COVID concerns changed the nature of crewing at Leadville 100 this year, and runners had to wait until mile 62.5 after going up and back over Hope Pass before picking up pacers.
Still, she looked better than I’d imagined she might by that point in the race...
- Her tired eyes lit up with joy at the sight of the crowd we’d formed
- Her children were running circles around her mud-splattered legs
- She’d lost enough of her wits over the hours to try sitting in the dirt to switch out her shoes, but we guided her towards a camp chair instead.
Then the crew went to work...
- One person unlaced her shoes and pulled off her socks
- Another slathered Vaseline between her toes and taped up her blisters
- A third refilled her bottles and stuffed more gels in her pack
- I grabbed a cup of Ramen for her to shovel down while hiking through the steep climb that rose up right in front of us
- About THREE minutes after she rolled in, we were ready to go again.
Despite being surrounded by a supportive crew, the struggle to run an ultra is REAL...
Ultrarunning obviously does a number on the body, but the mind may take an even bigger hit. After a certain point, “runner brain” takes over.
- For example: Ever forget the name of your best friend or what you just ate for breakfast during a long run?
Multiply that ten-fold to understand the brain fog that settles in during extreme efforts.
Many hands make light work, and also make sure that every need gets taken care of instead of swept under the rug as a side effect of slipping into survival mode.
Lesson #3: An Object in Motion Stays in Motion
Ever wonder what a pacer does during a 100-mile ultramarathon?
So did I...Refueled and restocked, we headed up that climb on her first leg with a pacer.
That term made me think that my job would center around helping her meet goal pace, but it’s both more broad and more specific than that.
I monitored our speed, but let her take the lead for the most part while I handled all the underlying concerns:
- Food timing
- Hydration reminders
- Form checks
- Conversation starters
- Relentless enthusiasm
- Keeping up the momentum
It’s much easier to just stay moving, no matter the pace, than it is to stop and start up again.
When the body and the brain are both pushing up against their maximum capacities, maintaining the momentum can be the one thing that keeps either system from shutting down completely.
I learned that my main priorities as a pacer were to:
- a) Keep tabs on her health and mood
- b) Keep those legs pumping
As long as one foot kept moving in front of the other, we were on the right track...
- Baby steps
- Power hikes
- And full strides all add up to the same thing...
CONSISTENT FORWARD MOTION.
Stopping that momentum brings in all the risk...
The second that the notion of rest weasels its way into such a tired mind, that drive begins to fade.
The idea is to almost trick ourselves into believing that we could carry on like this forever, that running is our only reality for the foreseeable future so we might as well carry on with it.
Keeping the engine roaring - or even just pitifully mewing - holds the key.
Our two aid station stops together turned into a balancing act of filling up the tank without losing the groove.
- I would run ahead to grab supplies and - of course - more cups of Ramen while she found the closest seat to regroup from.
- 30 seconds to sip up the salty goodness
- Another 30 to dissolve a fresh electrolyte tab...
Lesson #4: You Can’t Pour From an Empty Cup
While running with Genevieve, I tried to keep all of my focus on her health and performance. After all, this day was all about supporting her and I dove deep into that goal.
However, I realized close to the end of my pacing section that I hadn’t done a very good job of taking care of myself.
- I’d forgotten to keep track of my own needs: calories, hydration, body temperature, etc.
- I ended the run hungry, dehydrated, cramping
- And feeling an old niggle in my foot, because I hadn’t stretched at all before starting.
It wasn’t a huge issue since our mileage was low and pace slow compared to my usual training, but it was a good lesson for the future.
No matter how much we care about helping someone else succeed, we can’t give what we don’t have.
If I’d actually bonked or if unforeseen circumstances made our run more difficult or drawn out, I wouldn’t have had the resources to take on the role that Genevieve trusted me with.
Taking in energy gives us more to pull from. This applies during our own efforts and those of our friends.
Genevieve ended up taking 2nd place among all of the female competitors in the Leadville 100, finishing in just over 22 hours - two hours faster than her goal, and six hours faster than her previous time. She was patient, determined, aware, and - most of all - grateful for the opportunity to chase such a lofty dream. She proved that “effort and attitude”, her race mantra, wins the day.
Playing a part in making her dreams a reality has filled me with more gratitude and inspiration than I’d expected to find from my spot in the backseat. Giving back to her and to the ultrarunning community gave me a sense of earning my place as an athlete when my own time comes to ask for help. I’ll appreciate that support all the more because I know what the effort looks like from different angles.
Running is selfish, yes. But I believe it all balances out in the end, if we rise to a different kind of challenge: taking the valuable time to lift up others.
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