"Should I recognize you?" I quizzed the man with the snow-caked beard. "Didn't you win the Leadville Trail 100 run last year?"
"Oh," he chuckled with teeth flashing through his Grizzly Adams whiskers. "I was actually the second fastest beard in Leadville last year as I ended up in 7th place."
Noticing the Leadville Race Series was offering a free training run, and with a morning of what to do, I shrugged my shoulders and said to myself, Why not?
Chilly overcast skies with intermittent rain and snow storms greeted the thirty plus (?) people who showed up for the run. Late snows had the upper routes still buried, but an 8 mile loop or a 13+ mile loop were still offered that headed east out of town along the Marathon and Heavy Half Marathon routes. Also offered were bowls brimmed full of Gu gels, M & M's, pretzels, potato chips and some homemade bars. At 10,200 feet above sea level, people huddled with goose pimpled flesh and a raffle handed out t-shirts to nearly everyone except me...(no surprise!)
Anyhow, the pack headed out and I repeatedly told myself to compete against the course, the altitude, the weather, etc. I was there for the experience and to experiment with equipment, pace, etc. The course went up and up and up for the first 4 miles. Wind driven snow to the face forced a tucked chin with squinted eyes trying to enjoy the super boring scenery of feet slopping in the saturated dirt road. Periodically, sneakers in front of me came into view. I'd maintain my steady pace and slowly creep around the sneakers and kept plugging away. More sneakers, more going around. My seemingly snail pace kept my heart and lungs happy and my legs weren't complaining when I encountered the makeshift aid station. I looked through frosted eyelashes and noticed about 6 other runners briefly standing around. The leaders?
Hmm...I wonder if I can I run with them?
They headed out and I joined the pack. Beside me was a big beard who floated on his feet. I took notes as his Hokas seemed to barely touch the ground as he effortlessly ran.
We struck up a conversation where I learned he was not last year's winner of the Leadville Trail 100, but he finished in 7th place in under 20 hours. Let's see...simple math of 100 miles in 20 hours? That's an average of 5 miles every hour for 20 hours. Which means he averaged 12 minute miles scrambling over the treacherous course for 20 hours. Amazing.
We began to lead and The Beard had to dart out into the woods. Somehow, I was alone and in front with my brain convincing my body that we were the hunted with the hunters close behind. Stupidly (I can't emphasize that enough!), my brain convinced my body to quicken my cadence. Fearing a hunter was too close, which would have further destroyed any sensible pace, I did not look back. After about a mile, I stepped off into the trees with no hunters in sight. Feeling good, I resumed my pace with The Beard suddenly vaporizing beside me. His feet whispered along as if he was out on a Saturday morning stroll through the park.
After another mile or so of piss-poor pacing on my part, I was almost done. My legs were deteriorating and I told The Beard to go ahead as I needed to walk. I plopped into walk mode and, surprisingly, so did he. He ignored my pleading that I was ruining his run and I learned he's a special education teacher, a strength and conditioning coach, a high school cross country coach and had wintered in Oklahoma at the Olympic Training Center running on a treadmill in an altitude chamber--voluntarily! Sounds like pure punishment to me.
Rich Airey was the name associated to The Beard. He selflessly stayed right beside me. Whether I hobbled in a pathetically crippled run or was walking, he remained by my side. I repeatedly told him to go on but he refused. His presence guilted me into pushing harder that if I was alone. We eventually made it back, the first ones on the big loop, and shook hands.
Rich had totally sacrificed his training run which, in turn, elevated mine. I thanked him for the company and his humble reply was, "That's what it's all about!"
A later Google search revealed he offers coaching on line. (RunningWOD and another website, Breaking Muscle.) Folks, he's the real deal. A dedicated, talented athlete who understands hard-work and incorporating strength training to his running program.
Best of all, he's a total class act.
Few people sacrifice a damn thing to a complete stranger, but Rich did. I am humbled by his actions and grateful to have met him. He's training for the Leadville Trail 100 and will attempt Nolan's 14 several weeks after that race.
He's got a big fan who will be cheering him on!