Friday, August 22, 2014

Hope Pass 2013

As a prerequisite to future blogs that are rolling around in my head, I offer the next piece.  It is quite lengthy, so do not expect a quick read.  Sit back and hopefully enjoy what it is like to experience volunteering on a 100 mile trail running race at an unusual aid station that is talked about worldwide.



Finally!  Having escaped miserable suburbia, I stood on Leadville’s lush courthouse lawn on a mostly sunny Friday afternoon of August 16, 2013.  My job, from 3-5 pm, designated by volunteer coordinator Megan Henning for the Leadville 100 trail race (LT100), was to inspect runners’ drop-bags for the May Queen Aid Station.  I grimaced upon realizing I had to police labels to ensure the runner’s last name, bib number, aid station and if the bag was outbound, inbound or both were all clearly visible.  I wanted to be a “laid back dude,” not a rule enforcer.  I took 2 days off from work, and here I was, once again, barking orders and telling people to get their shit together.  Fortunately, most followed the rules.  My pile of assorted bags, boxes, coolers, and various Tupperware containers steadily grew like shipwrecked luggage on a sandy beach when a lady approached and handed me her bag.  Like most, she was trim and appeared athletic and I noticed she was wearing a “Leadville 100” belt buckle.  Not wanting to squander an opportunity to speak to a veteran, and to avoid looking like a perverted oogler fixated at her groin while straining to read the finer details on her buckle, I had to ask, “What year did you earn the buckle?”

“Oh, I got that last week from the 100 mile mountain bike race,” she replied.  “I need a pacer,” she added, “can you pace me tomorrow?”  My eyes opened wide and my mind raced.  Heck Ya! Was my first thought.  
Whoops, wait a minute.  Reality set in.  “I’m volunteering at the Hope Pass aid station,” I replied. 

“That’s okay, you can pace me from there.  I’m number 24 and will be looking for you,” was her departing comment.
Hmmm.  I wonder if I can volunteer and pace?  Guess I will cross that bridge if it arrives.

A Budget rental box truck screeched to a stop and we began tossing drop-bags in the back like kids playing hot potato.   Mental note:  Never, ever pack anything fragile in drop-bags.  They get pitched around like flaming bags of dog poop and if the bag is not bomb-proof, contents are guaranteed to spill out to never again be reunited with the rightful owner.
Over 1200 participants had signed up for the ”Race Across The Sky” and after mistreating nearly all their bags, I was released from my duty and quickly driving to some distant trailhead down by Twin Lakes.  As Leadville vanished in my rearview mirror, my eyes were peeled for highway 82 where I turned west and frantically began searching for the discreet turn off.  Fearing I had missed my exit, through pine trees I caught a glimpse of several trucks with attached horse trailers that were parked beside the river.  I bounced my truck over the makeshift road of rounded river rocks and knew I was in the right spot after seeing llama bumper stickers on the vehicles.  Whew!

My borrowed external aluminum framed, 40+ year old backpack was zipped tight and cords cinched down.  This thing was so archaic that Velcro had not yet been invented.  It was top heavy as I swung it on and tightened the rusty buckles.  There, I was set for the next adventure scrambling up the trail to the Hope Pass aid station.  Volunteering at Hope Pass (mile 44.5 in the race) was my main objective when I signed up to help at the LT100 and drop-bag duty was simply a courteous favor I felt obligated to do since I was going to pass through town anyways.  Plus, as an added bonus, it provided me an opportunity to learn the do’s and don’ts of drop-bag strategy.
A detailed map was emailed to me to follow up the mountain and I became one of those pathetic techno-weenies walking forward, but seeing nothing since my nose was deeply buried in my I-phone.  Instructions said go left after crossing the bridge, so I did.  I wiggled through riverbank brush and skirted muddy bogs by playing leap frog on exposed rocks and, after awhile, the trail simply disappeared.  I stood shaking my head. 

I cussed myself, the map and the feeding mosquitoes bombarding my exposed skin.  Turning around, I realized time was limited since the sun was setting.  Although I had brought 2 headlamps, matches, a sleeping bag, etc, I wanted to hit camp before dark and not be forced to make an emergency camp, or worse, sleep in my truck.

I returned to the bridge, took a deep breath and let common sense take over.  The river was roaring as I plunged my I-phone deep in a pocket and returned to my roots--be a hunter.  I knew the Hope Pass aid station was remote and road-less, forcing llama pack trains to carry all the gear up the mountain.  These gentle beasts of burden left little trace of their passing, but their goofy splayed-toed tracks periodically were discovered and I humped up the trail scouring the dust and rocks for additional tracks.  No llama poop pellets were noticed for well over a mile and I began to question my backcountry skills.  Are these so-called llama tracks I’m following actually remnants from a mutant strain of Leadville elk who happened to be traversing the mountain?
Gratefully, I came upon an acrid urine puddle absorbed into the dusty ground that was top-dressed with a fresh load of llama pellets.  What a glorious sight and smell from these ruminating ungulates. (Hint: Big words intentionally thrown in to offset my potty mouth and justify my college edukayshun.)  The sun slipped behind the very mountain I was trying to scale and my lungs began to burn while zig-zagging up the steep switchbacks.  My backpack’s nylon waist belt, devoid of any padding, felt like a malnourished boa constrictor cutting into my sides as I strained for hearty, deep breaths to calm my racing pulse.  The shoulder straps, with cushioning equivalent to a Tampax maxi-pad, bit into my shoulders.  I crossed an irrigation canal dug high on the rocky mountainside long ago by rugged men with shovels, picks and slips behind horses.  My whining about my antique backpack came to an abrupt halt while reminiscing how those old timers really had it tough.

Nature's Beauty
A strong running creek with green mossy banks and white waterfalls was crossed and I intersected another trail where I noticed triangular metal markers for the Continental Divide Trail and the Colorado Trail nailed to selected stumps.  I glanced up the trial to see ribbons streaming in the breeze from low hanging pine branches and knew that the trail was also part of the LT100.  I power hiked up the trail, totally frying my dainty thighs, and soon encountered an old cabin crumbling with age.  How I wish the old logs could talk. 

Trudging forward, 2 more dilapidated cabins were passed and I spooked a pig-fat mule deer buck with antlers encased in velvet.   He pranced away in his robust 4-legged hop that thundered the ground with each landing. 
It was dusk as I began to question if a headlamp was going to be necessary before I made it to camp.  With a whumping heart, searing lungs and quads screaming for rest, I kept marching and soon came to a clearing.  Dogs barked, llamas hummed to one another and voices were heard.  A towering camp fire flame was noticed through the few trees as I walked up to the group. 

“Hi, I’m a volunteer and Tom is my contact,” I announced to the group while trying to subtly knee and swat a pack of dogs who were rudely butt/crotch sniffing.  Everyone turned towards me and sat in silence while staring with glassy eyes from ghostly faces that flickered in the dancing fire light.  Since I’m not outgoing or gregarious, I don’t mind awkward silences, but I had a fleeting thought I had entered a camp as bait for some whacked out snuff movie. 
My eyes darted from person to person sizing up who would be the biggest threat when an older gentleman stood, extended his hand, and said, “I’m Tom.”  We shook hands and he looked above my head with a smirk and arched eyebrows.  I assumed he noticed the external backpack frame and was going to comment how I must have burglarized the alpine museum in Leadville.  “What all did you bring?” he quizzically asked since the top of my pack soared above me like a skyscraper.

“Well, my sleeping bag, clothes, jackets, food and the like,” I answered.  Recalling an email he had sent telling me that tents, sleeping bags, food, water and snacks were all provided I reminded him, “I said I did not want to impose on anyone so I came self-sufficient.”  Tom chuckled and took me over to the canopy that was attached to the cook tent. 
“Hey, Vicky, this is a volunteer and he’ll be sleeping in the cook tent with you,” Tom said to a silver-haired lady who straightened from a stooped position and reached out her bony hand for a firm handshake.  Tom faced me, pointed down and chuckled again. “I hope you like dogs,” he added as he headed back to the fire.

I looked down to witness 2 small black bears standing before me.  Squinting in the fading light, I realized the bears were actually 2 humungous black dogs with equally gigantic heads.  Their muzzles were graying and Vicky introduced me to Big and Rich, “They’re full brothers and a St Bernard/ Labrador mix.”
 Hmm…I wonder what Tom was implying about “I hope you like dogs...”

I stabbed my American flag attached to a wooden dowel into the mountain tundra and dropped my backpack on my side of the tent and was introduced to the group around the fire.  Most names were immediately forgotten, but Gary was remembered since we had exchanged a few voicemails the week before.  He was the aid station captain and had been doing it for years, but Vicky’s experience trumped him since this was her 26th consecutive year on Hope Pass.  (This race was the 31st annual LT100).  Gary clutched a plastic Vita-water bottle in his left hand and I soon noticed he had a severe, AND I MEAN SEVERE, inner-ear problem.  His balance was scary, especially near the fire with all the gear lying about.  He spoke, without slurring, and while he spoke, his feet had a mind of their own and took him away into the darkness.  He’d return, only to have his feet whisk him away in a different direction.  This was non-stop and his booming voice did not falter as his feet took him out of the circle of firelight with arms reeling for something steady to grab.  Gary would briefly return into the flickering light, only to vanish again.  No one seemed concerned as I waited to hear him pile up somewhere in the darkness.  Then, Gary’s shadowy figure was noticed stumbling to a nearby log where someone lifted a box of wine.  Gary filled his plastic Vita-water bottle and I then realized his “weeble-wobble but won’t fall down” routine was not medical.
Speaking of medical, Tom’s gentle voice informed me, “Our poles for the medic tent came up late on the llamas, so putting the tent up is first thing in the morning.”  I nodded and was introduced to the medic team consisting of Linda, Nadia and Jenn.  Linda was older and bossy with a large and in charge attitude.  She was a P.A. while Jenn was a full-blown M.D. who had come to Denver 2 weeks prior after finishing her residency in Oakland’s emergency room.  Nadia was a Leadville local, trained in medicine, with a bubbly, perky personality who beamed with energy.

Tents were sprinkled throughout the alpine meadow with 33 llamas staked to the ground via long leashes while, on the other hand, 7 loose dogs rambunctiously bounced around.  (Actually, 5 dogs bounced around since Big and Rich simply occupied a lot of real estate either standing or lying down.)  Some llamas wore a lone jingle bell on their halter where the ball rolling inside the bell provided a constant rhythm as they chewed their cud.  One llama escapee, who belonged to Gary, stood near other llamas, but walked away like a spoiled rotten horse whenever anyone approached him and he roamed free for the night.  One by one, people trickled away from the fire and headed to their tents.  I ducked into the cook tent where Vicky was fastening custom-made flannel jackets onto Big and Rich. As I yanked my sleeping bag out from its stuff sack and it expanded on the tent floor, one of the monster dogs nonchalantly walked over and plopped down right on top of it like a mother duck settling onto her nest. 

I did not even have a foam pad to sleep on and there was no way this galoot was going to bed down on me AND my sleeping bag.  Big (or was it Rich?) was steadfast despite my gentle pleadings to move his big ass off my bag.  I filleted the zipper open and poked my feet into my bag and began to slide into it.  Upon hitting the immovable object, I stabbed hard into the meaty mass with my feet.  Finally, after some solid Muy Thai kickboxing practice, Big (or Rich) grunted, stood and plodded over towards Vicky where he laid down with a big, end-of-the-day groan.  Positions were set and the night began.
When packing my bulging backpack, I had sacrificed a foam pad figuring it was a luxury I hoped I could live without and soon seethed with my poor decision.  The hard ground quickly caught up to my hips and I would awaken in discomfort while on my left side with knees slightly pulled up in a loose fetal position.  I’d roll onto my back, but would stiffly awaken to rotate onto my right side.  The aching would later awaken me to have me return to my back, then later to my left side.  This broken rotisserie pattern was constant throughout the night and usually accompanied with some cussing while I thought of the foam pad at home doing nothing more than collecting dust.  Suddenly, I was startled awake, but not from aching joints.

Was that a nearby thunderstorm?  A chainsaw?  A moto-cross race or monster truck rally?  Nope.  It was Big and Rich snoring with Vicky occasionally performing a solo act.  H-O-L-Y  Shit!  The tent must look like a giant breathing creature with the fabric swelling to nearly seam-ripping extremes and then deflating only to puff up again in rhythmic fashion.  Oh, the amount of air the trio was moving.  I flopped for awhile during the symphony and noticed first light in the dark night sky through the tent’s window.  Amidst another one of Vicky’s solo acts, I slipped into my sneakers and darted out of the tent to enjoy the morning silence. 

Leadville's Lights barely visible--about 2/3 up from the lake.
I purposefully blew into the mountain air and was unable to see a condensation cloud before my face, but the morning was still cool.  I made Bear Grylls proud by scavenging kindling from the meadow and huffing on hot embers to re-ignite the campfire.  Quickly, flames were licking along the mass of tented branches I constructed and I stood before the warm fire, admiring the scenery.  From camp, looking far to the north across the massive valley, I noticed Leadville’s city lights twinkling like distant stars.  I looked at my watch and realized the runners had already put 2 hours of running in since their 4 am start.   I could hear the tinkle of a nearby llama’s bell as Vicky stepped out of the tent and immediately went to work banging and clanging cookware.
Being at timberline, firewood was somewhat scarce on my short ventures to nearby lonely trees and slowly people arrived at the fire.  Tom had a steaming cup of coffee, compliments of Vicky, and I learned he was an engineer type and responsible for making water.  He camped below everyone along a tiny stream that ribboned through brush from the basin’s small lake.  MacGyver-like, Tom had invented a water purification system made up of a solar panel, batteries, filtration units and a windshield wiper pump. 
Vicky needed an old-fashion metal triangle to hammer on with a steel spoon to announce, “Come and get it.”  She slaved over the propane fueled, fire breathing cook stove while making everyone eggs, hash browns, pancakes and ham.   “I want everyone full of energy because when the runners show up, it’s gunna get busy,” she commented to me.

I unrolled the medic tent across the rough mountain terrain only to stare at a giant geodesic puzzle. Dozens of small flaps were lettered and numbered to facilitate sliding the poles through the correct sequence of sleeves to eventually pop the fabric into a North Face dome tent.  Once the huge yellow bubble was resting on earth, the associated yellow rain fly was tossed over and secured, transforming our camp into something resembling a base camp for a fancy Mt. Everest expedition.  The medical ladies moved in and inventoried their scant supplies.  “Radio man” hiked into camp and soon relayed the medical shortages to people down below.

Breakfast dishes were scrubbed and the Golden High School track team arrived for their annual help.  Tom disappeared to make water and Vicky was swallowed by the cook tent again to start cooking runner’s food that included Top Ramen noodles and instant potatoes.  Others manned tables outside of Vicky’s cook tent where M &M’s, cookies, coca-cola syrup, sprite syrup, pretzels, saltine crackers and gu gels were piled high.  Two large watermelons were carved into pizza shaped slices and I pitied the llama who lugged the dense fruit up the mountain.  Likewise, oranges were hacked into wedges and set out on the table.  Tom filled 5 gallon plastic water jugs where 2 were hung on each llama to carry up to the cook tent.  Soon, nearly two dozen plastic water jugs waited on the ground and other crew members strung down the trail waiting for the first runner.
“Runner coming up,” announced a Golden track team member at 1030.  Each would approach a runner and ask to fill their water bottles.  The first runner was actually power-hiking with trekking poles and politely declined on the high school runner’s offer.  But, later runners would happily hand over their bottles and the track stars would sprint up ahead to fill the containers.  Some runners wanted water, some Gu-brew, and some requested a custom blend of water and Gu-brew.  By the time the runner got to the actual station, their bottle was filled and handed back to them so no time was wasted.

Forty year old Scott Jurek, an ultra-running legend, was making his return to the race this year and I kept my eyes peeled for him and hoped he would capture the win.  After several runners passed, I recognized Scott and we all began to call out to him.  Each time his right foot landed, his faced winced and I knew something was wrong.  He was around 8th (?) coming into the station and was obviously hurting.  “How far ahead is Nick,” he asked as his competitiveness drove him forward.
“About 30 minutes,” I replied as he passed.

Not much later, the first female runner entered camp.  A blond pony-tail, heavier muscled than most endurance skeletal athletes and beaming with a huge white smile, scampered up for fluids.  Ashley Arnold sang out heart-felt thank yous as she headed out to climb the last .8 mile to the 12,580’ summit of Hope Pass as fresh as if she had stepped off a bus to enter camp.  After reaching the summit, runners drop off the other side to the Winfield aid station that also serves as the 50 mile turn around point for the race.

Two ladies (Patty and Gail) of “The Hopeless Crew” sat in a lean-to with binoculars and a telephoto lens on a camera to read bib numbers and write down times.  This year was the first LT100 to use timing chips, but “we’ve been doing it so long, we’ll just keep doing it.”  As one wrote down the bib number and time, the other would look up the runner’s name.
“Good job, Robert!  We’ve been looking for you.”  Each runner, startled by being addressed by name, squinted into the lean-to and got more encouragement as “The Cougar” (Gail) rang her cow bell.  “This one’s for you…I’ve been waiting for you…” The Cougar would add with a sly grin.  The younger and more handsome the runner, the more cajoling came from The Cougar.  The 2 ladies in the lean-to stayed steady, even as waves of runners came through.  The Cougar kept her spicy energy flowing for hours, bringing smiles to all except for the runners in a total zombie trance.  Some looked so startled that I expected them to reply, “Mom, is that you?  I didn’t know you’d be up here?”  A few runners were able to play along with The Cougar who immediately announced to the runner that they made it on her website due to their fun-loving bantering with her.

I watched a runner stumble along the rocky trail and press on.  Nothing unusual since most runners were stumbling, but then I noticed he had a bright yellow bib pinned near his racing bib.  “Visually Impaired” was silkscreened on the bib.  Two words for him:  Simply Inspirational!
I recognized the female from the drop-bag location who asked me to pace her as she came up the trail.  She told me she was number 24…she didn’t tell me she was “L24”. All bib numbers beginning with “L” meant the athlete was striving to earn the “Leadman” or “Leadwoman” title.  Without researching the title thoroughly, my crude understanding was the “Lead” titles were earned by participating, and finishing, all Leadville Race Series events, both trail running and the mountain bike races, in the same racing season.  Did they need to finish with times much faster than the mandatory cut-offs?  I don’t know, but such strivers had a whole lot more time to train than me to have such a goal. I asked if she still needed a pacer and was glad when she looked at me weirdly, obviously having forgot her request.  I’m still uncertain if it would have worked out…but glad I didn’t waste too much time stressing over the details.

Speaking of “L” bib numbers, one of the first runners to have his timing chip cut off at our aid station was, surprisingly, L45.  I noticed him coming down from the aid station and wanted to make sure he was accounted for when he politely informed me that people at the tent already took his timing chip and he was going down with a DNF (Did Not Finish).  Only days later did I make the connection that this striving Leadman was Tim Long, an entertaining blogger about racing who goes by “Footfeathers.”  He has multiple blogs that make me chuckle with his sarcasm and wit, especially his 3 part series on how to be a pacer.  He’s an accomplished athlete and something seriously must’ve been troubling him to be forced into a DNF.
Scott Jurek came off the summit, shirtless with nipples protected via adhesive pieces of tape, and returned into the aid station with his pacer.  I lost count, but guessed he moved up into 5th place or so.  His eyes were focused, but his facial expression still winced with every right footfall.  He’s a champion for a reason and running with whatever injury he sustained must have been sheer disappointment.

A medic hiked in, dropped off supplies and began his descent.  The 4:15 pm cut-off for the Hope Pass aid station was approaching, so I ventured down the trail to encourage nearby runners that if they hustled, they would stay ahead of the cut-off time.  I met a female zombie, salt-caked and glassy eyed. 
“Let me help you,” I said while approaching the lifeless creature.

“Down…the…trail...” she spoke with slow, deliberate speech.  “Sheila…is…worse…than…me…404…” she added through dry, cracked lips. 
I began to run down the trail and caught up to a runner who was my age and bounding down the trail, spry as a cat. 

“You’re looking good,” I said while behind him.
“Surprisingly, I feel good,” he replied. 

He was nearing 56 miles and fresh.  “What are you eating?” I had to ask.
“Natural foods.  Mainly potato burritos and a few gu gels.  I have to walk out of aid stations cuz I fill up so much, but it’s working,” he answered.  Mental note:  Remember this guy’s comments.

He allowed me to pass and further down the trail, there was Sheila, bib #404, with the medic who earlier had left camp.  I draped an arm around my neck and took hold of ther wrist.  My other hand went to the small of her back and we began a forced uphill march.
“I just want to lay down in the fetal position…let’s stop here…” she pleaded as we continued the forced march.  “I feel nauseous…I’m gunna throw-up.”

“Go ahead, just aim it off the trail and away from me,” I requested since stomach contents after 43 miles of jostling provided an image that nearly triggered my gag reflex.  No doubt if she tossed anything out on her side of the trail, I would have sympathetically joined her on my side.

We took 2 short breaks and I eventually had her in the medical tent.  The area was starting to fill like a scene from M.A.S.H., bodies strung hap-hazardly about the area, but nothing was too serious.  Sheila was later noticed asleep in a sleeping bag while the medics tended to others.

Even though the cut-off time expired, people coming up would gather themselves and turn around while runners ahead of the cut-off time would barrel into camp returning from the summit and prepare for the next 5 miles to the Twin Lakes aid station down below.
One runner returning from the summit and wearing nothing but skimpy running shorts staggered over to a short camp stool near the medical tent and collapsed.  Salt-stained and leaning forward with elbows resting on his knees, his body language depicted pure exhaustion. 

“I see your balls,” giggled medic Nadia while standing before him.
Ever-so-slowly, the runner raised his head and dryly replied with a scant smile, “I don’t even care…”

I was unsure whether Nadia threw out the comment as a distraction for him to temporarily leave his state of misery or not.  But, I was absolutely certain that I had no desire to investigate.  Sometimes it’s a curse to be so aware of your surroundings…
Suddenly, something caught my eye forcing me to make a double-take (no, it wasn’t anything dangling from a camp stool).   A female runner in shorts popped into camp and her left leg was a fiberglass prosthetic blade.  Two words for her:  Absolutely Incredible!  Okay, maybe two more words:  Fuck Ya!  The vision of her entering camp still brings goose-pimples to my skin and almost tears to my eyes.  May she inspire others with her gritty will and focused determination.

Water was been poured faster than beer at a renaissance festival.  Tom’s little water plant motor overheated, but, being an ever-prepared personality, he simply swapped it out with a spare he had brought along.  Llamas were steadily dropping off water and headed back down to Tom with empty jugs as I jumped in playing bartender pouring pitcher after pitcher of water into runners’ bottles.  (Embarrassingly, I will admit my right forearm was sore for days following the LT100.  My self-diagnosis?  Bartenderitis from steadily filling water bottles and hydration packs for 6 +/- hours.)
Supplies began to dwindle. The watermelon was immediately ravished by runners and quickly, only curved rinds remained.  Likewise, oranges were demolished with peels scattered everywhere.  Soon, the M & M’s were gone.  Cookies, gone.  Pretzels, gone.  Gu gels, gone.  Paper cups?  Gone, but fished out of trash bags and rinsed out by runners demanding ramen soup or gu-brew.  The instant potatoes reminded me of colorless infant diarrhea dribbled all over camp and it, too, ran out.  Gu-brew was then all slurped up so final runners had a rather easy choice:  water, Top Ramen or nothing. 

Medics finally convinced a stubborn runner he was headed down, and not up, and informed him he was going buddy system down the trail with Sheila.  She woke up pleading not to leave while the other runner voiced how he did not want her.  Honestly, I did not blame him…I wouldn’t want the responsibility either.
“You are not staying here!  Get up and get moving!  You are going down with him!” barked Linda. 

Wow.  She was short and very brash with Sheila to the point that I was beginning to feel sorry for her until Nadia whispered that Sheila did the same thing last year, but a member from “The Hopeless Crew” had to escort her down, leaving the camp shorthanded.  So, there was no mercy being extended and Sheila soon stood and began her descent with the other injured runner.
A runner made eye contact with me while he was chugging out of one bottle as the other was being filled.  “She’s only about 10 minutes ahead of you,” I said upon recognizing him and his wife from my previous day’s drop-bag duty and noticing her in camp only minutes before.

“She’s a climber,” he proudly stated after lowering his bottle as water briefly streamed from his chin.  “Thanks for the update,” he added as he hit his stride leaving camp.
I noticed most pacers appeared to be women and remembered Ken Chlouber, co-founder of the LT100, exalt, “All my pacers are women.  They get the job done.”  Statistically, 90% of women who toe the start line earn a finisher’s belt buckle while 50% of the men will toss out excuses why they did not finish.  I have not met Mr. Chlouber, but would enjoy having a few beers with him in a Leadville bar.  His statement about “Leadville is a home for miners, muckers and mean motherfuckers,” cracks me up.  But, one of my all time favorite quotes is a Ken Chlouber statement.

You’re tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.” 
Think about it.

 I love it. 
Thank you Mr. Chlouber for stringing those words together.

In addition to the popularity of female pacers, I also noticed, like most sporting events, how the Dr. Seuss population was racing; big ones, tall ones, short ones and small ones.  All body types were present, but I must admit there were much fewer heavy/bulky body types showing up at the aid station.  And, much like the body types, the assortment of gear also had a tremendous spread.  Shoes ranged from thick-soled Hokas to guys in sandals and everything in-between.  Socks, no socks or compression socks were noticed as well as running tights, skorts, running shorts and one crazy old man in a ballerina tutu.  Shirts varied from long-sleeves to tank tops to no shirt at all.  Most seemed to carry handheld water bottles (by far, Ultimate Direction was most popular brand) while a good number also wore hydration packs.  Mysterious concoctions, powders, pills, gels, salts and foods were hastily removed from pockets and rinsed down at the aid station with some of it immediately coming right back up.  Needless to say, you had to watch your step at the outskirts of camp.
Perched on a log near the fire were several tubs of Vaseline.  I found this area to be the “Boy’s Only” club as the only people I noticed plunging 3 fingers into the containers were male runners.  Upon extracting a mountainous scoop of glistening gel, they did not seek seclusion, but simply turned their backs and gingerly reached down into their shorts.  Oh-so-delicately they smeared the goo while their eyes rolled back into their heads and their chins raised up.  Then, they closed their eyes as if silently praying for mercy from the ugly chaffing god.  I purposefully did not monitor if anyone “double-dipped” and feel very fortunate that I have no experience with the fiery chaffing of body parts which forced the goopy mess inside their shorts.  I hope my streak continues and that I just didn’t jinx myself.

Headlamps began to click on and the trail coming down off the summit looked like a string of Christmas tree lights.  Simply beautiful.  With the falling sun, solar energy dwindled at Tom’s water plant and the batteries soon ran out of power.  He made over 700 gallons of water for the day as compared to 650 gallons from last year.
Many of the old timers from The Hopeless Crew complained how Lifetime Fitness’s purchase of the Leadville Race Series was detrimental to the quality of the race.  Too many runners and not enough supplies was a common gripe, but more so, if adequate supplies were allotted, how do “they” think the supplies get up on Hope Pass?  By helicopter?  Airplane?  Fairy godmother?  Gary had to make 2 trips up and down with his llama pack train and others weighted down their llamas to avoid an extra grueling trip up and down the trail.  Gary flat-out refused to pack the generator powering the timing mat up at the summit and told “them” that they needed to figure it out.  Then there was Tom, never a complaint, but he sat streamside for well over 9 hours making water to ensure runners could hydrate.  Vicky?  Saw her briefly twice all day when she emerged from the cook tent for some water.  Together, the crew complimented each other and I can’t imagine the aid station functioning without them.

“Hey, I’m headed up to check on that guy and see if I can get him going,” Dr. Gu-Butt said to me(Jenn sat on a gel packet that exploded).   She learned that a runner was literally stranded on the pass with insulin shock or something similar where people were whispering about a helicopter rescue.
“Dude…be prepared to leave in twenty….headlamp, shoes and a jacket.  I need your help carry the guy down from the summit in a stretcher I’m making,” a know-it-all Hopeless Crew member told me.  Headlamp and jacket?  No problem.  Shoes?   No shit you dumbass…you think I want to go barefoot?

About 45 minutes later, Jenn returned after reviving the guy who was headed down the other side of the pass since it was closer to vehicles.  Camp numbers began to thin as runners headed down into the pitch black trail.  Some runners, for who knows what reasons, did not even have a headlamp…trail running by brail sounds like a predictably painful experience.
A female runner collapsed on a log near the fire and her female pacer begged and pleaded with her to stand up and get going.  The runner flat out said “I’m done!” and refused any food or fluids.  I filled her Camelbak and asked her name.  “Andrea” was her response while her pacer encouraged her to eat some Top Ramen noodles.  “No!  I can’t!  It’s sooooo gross!” she blurted and then looked at me and apologized as if I was the cook of such fine cuisine that she had insulted. 

“Look, Andrea, you have come too far to give up now…you get moving now and you will stay ahead of the next cut-off time in Twin Lakes.  It’s only 5 miles and all downhill… if you quit now, you will think about this moment next week and wish you had pushed a little harder,” I said as I grabbed her hands and raised her up to her feet.  She took some water from her pacer, clicked on her headlamp, and they headed off together into the darkness.  Her brain was telling her to quit, but she looked surprisingly strong trotting along behind her pacer.
Radio man had ordered more medical supplies from the lower aid station that a doctor was huffing up the trail.  I volunteered to head down the trail to meet him and soon kicked my legs in free-wheeling mode as I strode down the mountain.  My headlamp beamed brightly on the trail and I pushed myself wanting to catch Andrea and her pacer with hopes to speak more words of encouragement.  Many runners were working their way down and I felt guilty passing them with ease.  To take the edge off the guilt I was feeling, as they would shout “Good job” I’d be sure to let them know that I was simply headed down for supplies and had not covered 56+ miles like they had done.  Much too soon, I bumped into Dr. Tom.  We transferred bags of IV fluids, catheters, tubing, etc.  I took off trotting back up the mountain and hoped Andrea had recovered enough while going downhill to keep trudging towards the finish line.

A nearly full moon crested the eastern mountaintop and cast a low-light glow in our high mountain basin.  Time passed and a single headlamp coming off the summit was noticed.  Much later, a pacer entered camp carrying his runner piggy-back style off the summit.  The runner was dumped into the medical tent while the carrier spoke by the fire how he admired his buddy and if he didn’t love him so much, he would not have carried him.  (Mental Note:  Maybe one should only pace if the runner is smaller?)  He spoke about his buddy wearing out 2 stair masters preparing for the race and how he couldn’t believe he carried him down off the summit.
“This gives a new meaning to Brokeback Mountain,” I said not being able to help myself.  GoPaul, a Hopeless Crew member, laughed out loud while others remained quiet.  Oh well. 

The local Search & Rescue team sweeping the trail had entered camp.  They topped off their water and Nadia announced she was headed down also.  She grabbed her trekking poles and stabbed them in the ground and nearly hit her chin.  Her poles had stretched and it was realized that a runner had set their poles down and picked Nadia’s up by mistake.  Nadia, the SAR team and Brokeback Mountain prepared to leave camp together as little Vicki stood to begin her performance.
Vicki, who happened to be Vicky’s niece, began her pyro-charged trash burning.  Instead of packing out all the trash on llamas, combustible materials were incinerated.  Little Vicki didn’t sort the trash, she simply tossed full bags into the fire.  Thick smoke rolled down the valley as she began a full-blown landfill fire.  Plastic melted, bottles whistled as they collapsed, hundreds of cups disfigured and eventually burned as she continued to feed and stir the ugly fire. 

I was getting sleepy and had stashed my gear in the medic tent that morning so it was out of Vicky’s way while she cooked all day.  I fetched my gear and noticed it had been pilfered.  Bubbly Nadia said she went through the gear initially thinking it was medical supplies and apologized for the mishap.  I transferred everything to my side of the cook tent and jumped into my sleeping bag as Vicky also prepared for sleep.   
As she buried herself in sleeping bags and blankets, she was scolding Big and Rich for occupying her space which caused one of them to come over to me and straddle atop my legs, preparing to bed down. 

Again? Oh no you're not!  Tom’s chuckling words from the previous night echoed in my brain, “I hope you like dogs….”
I did not need any such monster-sized Teddy Bear to cuddle with as I sharply raised a knee into Big’s (or Rich’s) sternum with a dull, yet very solid, thud.  He did not grunt, growl or even fart.  He simply stepped off my sleeping bag and bedded down on “his” side of the tent. 

Another night sleeping on the ground attacked my hips where the rotisserie cycle of left side, back, right side and repeat began.  The snoring trio was silent when I awakened to the sounds of something stirring in the trash bag outside of my tent wall. 
Great!  Some crazy alpine skunk, raccoon or one of the dogs was trash picking in the middle of the night.  I envisioned what a mess was being made and prepared to coax my stiff body out of the tent to chuck rocks when I suddenly heard a stern whisper.

“Whitney?!  Whitney?!”  Little Vicki’s voice was scolding her dog as she was still being a pyro and torching trash bags in the middle of the night. 
I rotated and rotated and the morning sky began to light up the tent where I heard Vicky rustle and caught her sitting up and squinting towards my side of the tent to see if I was still in bed.   She flopped back down and I realized she was rearing to get up and get going but was being polite and staying in bed.  Vicky earned a tremendous amount of respect from me and the last thing I wanted to do was get in her way.  Bones creaked and joints popped as I hustled out of bed and shot out our tent door flap and stoked the fire with more wood while sifting through ashes and fishing out non-combustible materials. 

Off in the distance, the city lights of Leadville flickered and I realized there were still runners moving forward hoping to reach those lights by the 10:00 am cut off.  “Keep plugging away,” I whispered to them.  ”You’re almost there.”

The sunrise was magnificent, nearly cloudless and bright on the opposing granite walls.  The Hopeless Crew slowly emerged from their tent burrows and the aid station, little by little, was taken apart and packaged tight.  Panniers were brought out and diligently stuffed and weighed by handheld scales to ensure the loads were equal on each side of the llamas. 

Another llama escaped and as we began to circle it, he/she decided to try to rush past me.  I tried to cut him/her off, but was too slow as it passed.  I reached out and, miraculously, the lead rope began to slide through my palm.  I gripped hard and the llama turned to face me and The Hopeless Crew gave me a cheer as loud as any runner who trampled through camp the previous day.

Camp was quickly transformed into piles of panniers and llama trains were pulled up, loaded and headed off the mountain.  Many of the dogs wore packs as well, even little one-testicled Bradford the asshole Beagle who constantly was picking fights with Big and Rich. It was 10:02 am and I thought about all the athletes who made it across the finish line, and all those who fell short.  Regardless of the runners earning a belt buckle or not, I tip my hat and give a heartfelt atta boy to all who truly pressed themselves to the limit and punched “the beast” who likes to show up with the only goal of getting you to quit.  I know the beast sometimes is victorious, but I salute those who will knowingly step into the ring and stand toe-to-toe to battle with the beast.

Pack trains headed down and Vicky, along with Big and Rich, patiently waited to go last.  She became a friend and there was no way a 66 year old lady who busted her ass for not only the runners, but for the entire Hopeless Crew, was going to go down the trail without anyone looking after her. 
“Hey Vicky, I almost forgot,” I told her as I reached into my pocket and removed a Garmin wristwatch.  “A runner found this on the trail and it needs to go into Lost & Found.”  It was one of those $500+ fancy gadgets that tracks time, pace, distance, altitude, price of gas, temperature on the moon and Justin Bieber’s latest tweet and is the size of a small PC to be worn like a watch.  I handed it to Vicky who asked if I wanted it if no one claimed it.  “No thanks,” I told her.  “I run based on how I feel and don’t need technology encroaching in on the fun.  I have my music and wonderful thoughts that keep me going.”

I stayed beside her and swept the trail of gu packaging, assorted trash, glow sticks and ribbons hanging in the trees.  She apologized of her proclaimed slow pace, but it didn’t matter.  I was still in the woods with no sights or sounds of civilization; my modern day fantasyland. 

A goodbye kiss from Hope Pass

As we snaked down the trail, I was impressed with the runners.  Yes, threats of disqualification for littering are in the rule book, but I analyzed the trail while heading out.  It remained a single-track despite hundreds of runners going up AND down on it (1215 signed up and nearly 500 finished the race).  I get disheartened when mountain bikers cut corners and bank high on turns because the single track soon widens to become a landing strip for 747’s.  But, these Leadville runners respected the trail.  Hardly any trash was collected and it remained a true single-track.  Thank you runners for the respect of mother nature…no wonder I enjoy talking to and reading material authored by trail runners…they “get it.”

Much too soon Vicky, Big, Rich and I reached our vehicles where we said our good-byes and I hopped my filthy, smelly, smoky self into my truck and headed down the highway. 

Just after the Loveland ski area, Sunday afternoon I-70 traffic was already backed up.  Stop and go all the way to Denver can get on a guy’s nerves (especially this guy), but I daydreamed being back up on Hope Pass.  If things go well, perhaps next year will have The Cougar ringing me in and, if I feel spry enough, I will banter with her to make it on her make-believe website.  Even better would be returning to camp from the summit, hopefully conscious enough not to drop onto a short camp stool in front of Nadia, while headed towards the twinkling lights of Leadville and the finish line. 
We shall see.

Ramble on…Only
(Achilles surgery 6 months later thwarted any chances running in the 2014 LT100....)

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