The crisp mountain air wafted through the campsite as we finished pounding in the posts to our tents. The sticky smell from the pines relaxing the built up angst from another week of work. We settled into our chairs looking over Turquoise Lake planning out the weekend and tomorrow’s race.
Unlike my last two races, there was a calm about the campsite brought on by the lack of expectations. Kaitlin planned on pacing her sister Megan along the course, while Megan was simply excited to be doing a “non-pussy” hike in the mountains. I lapped up the anxiety free atmosphere as the intentional bitterness of my pre-race beer brought a smile to my face watching the sun set over the Rockies.
When I left Leadville after the marathon 2 years ago, I said that I would never be back. The number of people, the miles of mining road, and the drab rocky mountains highlighted with snow did not stoke the fire that had been burning at the time. It ran counter to the small intimate trail races that I was used to. Each detail of the race increasing the bottom line.
Yet here I was, walking into the mass of pre-race excitement, excited to toe the line for my second race in two weeks. Instead of nit picking what the race wasn’t, I let the energy wash over me and appreciated the celebration of the local trail running community. I searched out friends excited for the coming adventure and tucked myself in to the back of the pack to start alongside Kaitlin and Megan.
The freedom of running without expectations and injury allowed me to float through the first few miles. I weaved my way through the crowd that had overwhelmed me two years ago, but instead of wasting my energy scoffing, cheered people on along the way. About a mile in, I fell into step with my pace crew for the day. We proceeded to leap frog one another up and down the steady climbs as I kept my eyes a switchback ahead on the backs of heads that were just out of reach.
I kept my effort medium as I knew my legs weren’t recovered from the 50k and didn’t want to jeopardize my upcoming training push. I was running with just a hand held as I knew the distance between aid stations would be sufficient to meet my hydration needs. I feared the need to refill with Roctane when my Tailwind expired, but I knew I’d survive the strife.
As we approached mile 5 and the beginning of the steep climb to Mosquito Pass, the pace of my fellow racers slowed and the wind picked up. I turned on my extra climbing gear and caught up to the backs of the heads that for the last hour had been out of reach. I made sure to take in the mountain views behind me and wondered how I had questioned their beauty two years ago.
At the time I know that I was enamored by the expanse of wildflowers still present in the foothills that had long outlasted the stunted spring of southern California that I had recently left behind. I knew of the mountains, but had not yet experienced them in their full glory. The familiar was chasing pockets of alpine flowers, not rocky summits. In the time since I have spent many hours exploring these summits and passes and have learned to appreciate the starkness of spring mountains still uninhabitable due to late snow. I smiled looking out into the infinite nothingness that was everything.
By mile 7, the wind had picked up to a point where it was hard to breathe. It didn’t help that I was now well above 12,000’, but I alternated hiking with my nose in my elbow to slow the wind and take a deep breath. The turn at the top was at 7.75 miles and 13,185’. In my previous attempt, there was a bit of a party at the top as runners took in the view before their decent to the start. As I pushed through the wall of wind to crest the top, I was met by a ghost town of rock and the whir of the timing device to record my ascent. After a summit spin, I turned to head down towards refreshments only to meet an invisible wall. I pushed hard to try to break through and teamed up with gravity to build momentum to keep moving. I laughed out loud at the unadulterated joy stemming from this experience and wondered what 1999 Mike would have thought of this being the place where I ended up.
As I descended, the challenges of the climb gave way to the challenge of footing and space. The uphill congo line of runners seeking the turn was filled with good people making way for those of us fortunate enough to be headed down. I tried to spy friends’ faces based on the tops of their heads and their low tilted hats; faces turned toward the ground focusing on the grind and avoiding the wind. I found Kaitlin and Megan about a mile or so down the trail much farther along than I expected. They were still smiling and appeared to be enjoying the struggle while not being dissuaded by the wind.
Upon descent, I quickly realized that I had forgotten to cut my toenails prior to the race as they poked into the front of my shoes. This made me focus on my form and make sure to catch each step with my hamstrings and pull back to prevent my toes from jamming forward. I was mildly successful in my efforts, but each technical step required recalculating that altered my line. Even with these excuses, I found myself moving down much more fluidly than I had two weeks prior at the Dirty 30. Not fluid by any means, but better.
Two miles down, I got a quick refill on water and a handful of chips as the slope eased and I started searching for friends running the marathon. I checked off high fives, hugs, and cheers for the four people I knew and then refocused my energy on the race as I approached the final aid station.
My effort had been medium all day, but I had been keeping my eye on my watch hoping to hit splits that would allow me to finish in under 3 hours. I had also been filming the race with my GoPro, so by no means was I focused, but at each check point my goal seemed attainable, yet just out of reach.
As I hiked up the final hill on the course approaching the final aid station at mile 12.7 the clock was approaching 2:40. This meant that I had about twenty minutes to run 2.8 miles. I did quick math in my head and knew that I had to run about 7 minute miles to make this happen. I figured I would see if I had any of the downhill training left that I put in to prep for the CO Marathon and decided to let it rip.
I took off without stopping for aid alongside a woman who I had been near on the whole descent. Our turnover quickly doubled from the final uphill slog and I kept my eye on my watch to see how the growing pain in my legs was translating to speed. The smooth mining road was perfectly graded for speed. The first mile flew by in 7:03 and I felt good enough to keep pushing through. The conflict of gravity and the strain of being on my feet for almost three hours waged through my body as the town of Leadville appeared far below.
My breathing was labored, yet my legs felt good pushing harder in a race than they had in sometime. I thought back to my runs down the Tenaja Truck Trail towards the Blue Jay Campground seeking solace with Big Baz and his Tecate and Doritos. I tried to keep my steps smooth as not to waste energy as my pace slowly climbed outside of goal pace. I knew I had a little more inside of me, but this untapped energy had been left dormant the last few weeks as I rested and recovered from previous races, and therefore I wasn’t sure when to go all in. I didn’t want to end up hitting the NOS to soon only to get passed by my expectations at the finish.
I the dirt turned to asphalt with about a half mile to go and I knew that if there was a chance for success I needed to take advantage of the extra traction. I gave in to the growing nausea from the increased effort and doubled down to the finish. I stopped looking at my watch, because the numbers at this point were just a lie. Whether the race ended at 15.5 or 15.6 was out of my control, but would determine my fate. The only answer to how fast I was going was not fast enough.
Thinking back to my speed work on the track earlier in the year, I was reminded how far yet how short 800m could be. I tried to gauge the distance as the finish line came into view and the music from the afterparty became audible. I smiled at the quaintness of the edge of town and allowed the cheers from residents on their porch to guide my effort towards the finish.
With a hop, skip, and a jump, I leaped across the finish line to look down at my watch and see 3:00. I had missed it, not knowing by how much (16 seconds), but pleased with my final effort and the life left in my legs. I think back to the three seconds at Red Hot and how I can’t catch a break with the clock. I knew that I could have hit the goal if I had made it a priority; filmed a little less, tried a little harder, eaten less at the aid stations, but I wasn’t concerned with the result.
I was back in the mountains. This indeterminate place that has become my summer home. The thin air pulsing life through my veins, the long wait of winter and spring giving way to the expectation of adventure.
As I basked in the sun, with my hoppy rewards I am greeted with a text from Kaitlin 1.5 hours before initially expected, “Coming in hot!” I position myself along the finish way to cheer her and Megan across the finish line, excited for their success and smiles. We huddled with friends to relive the wind, the climbs, and the stunning views along the way.
We all leave flush from a successful adventure. The sun and wind and the rocks draining the energy from our bones while stoking the fire of our future. The story of the summer is just beginning.