Over the Hill and Far Away

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I have been listening to the band Led Zepplin for almost thirty years, but it wasn’t until last Saturday that I officially got the “LEAD” out. Leadville, CO is a town of 2,600 people residing at 10,152 feet above sea level. It’s famous for many things including its mining past, it’s insanely cold weather, and the last known place that Doc Holliday killed a man. Oh, don’t let me forget, the Leadville Race Series. The race series started in 1983 with a mere 45 runners participating in a 100-mile race risking life and limb for the chance to simply finish. Since then the race series has expanded to include a 50 miler, a 10K, a marathon and the Heavy Half (15.5 miles). It also has a mountain bike portion of the series, but we don’t talk about those guys.

I first heard about Leadville after reading Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run”, and I have been intrigued ever since. After a couple years of thinking about it, I finally became physically ready and just crazy enough to try it. By it, I mean the Heavy Half. I have mental problems, but was smart enough to test the waters prior to going head first into the marathon. My wife and I arrived in Denver, CO on Friday and drove up to Leadville that day. The race information packet advises you to come early to acclimate to the elevation. I figured 12 hours was plenty of acclimation time. After parking and walking toward “downtown”, I officially got excited and nervous. This town of 2,600 people looked like it had a population explosion overnight. There were people everywhere. The packet pick-up was packed, the stores were busy, and the brew pub was standing room only. This by the way is my favorite thing about trail runners, pre-race day almost always contains a trip to the local brewery to take part in some proper hydration. We partook in what the town had to offer and made our way to our hotel in Buena Vista, CO to get some sleep. Of course, we had to see what Buena Vista had to offer in the craft brew department prior to sleepy time. Bravo, Eddyline Brewery!!! Now sleep!!!

Race day started with a big plate of eggs, bacon and a quarter stick of butter. Fat, every persons best friend. Upon arriving at the famous starting line located at the 6th Street Gym; the excitement felt like when the lights go down prior to your favorite band taking the stage. You could feel, hear, and sometimes smell the nervous energy built up inside everyone. The starter began the countdown to 8:00 am. 15 minutes. 10 minutes. 5 minutes. The emotions started to flood in. I gave my wife a hug and kiss and told her I’d see her again in 3-6 hours. The countdown, went from minutes to seconds, 3,2,1……. people started running, I started fighting back tears.

I got my emotions in check and started the long, arduous trek to Mosquito Pass. The first 1/2 mile is a road run out of town before connecting to the old mining road that leads to the turnaround point of 13,185 feet. I made it exactly one mile before the power hiking started (that’s my fancy way of saying I had to walk). This incline was no joke, if it was a joke it sure wasn’t funny. We climbed for the first three miles and then got a reprieve, a down hill portion. As I was cruising down hill I started to realize by going downhill I just erased all the work I had done over the last three miles. As the saying goes; every silver lining has a gray cloud. The fun down hill ended and right back into what felt like a never ending climb through hell. About mile four, I saw my first person going the opposite direction. My first thought was that that person is insanely fast, the course is an out and back, so I thought she already summitted and was on her way down. As people cheered on her greatness, she shook her head and mumbled, “no, I’m quitting”. I felt terrible for her, but at the same time realized she was ahead of me when she quit, so what the heck am I about to face. I finally hit the last segment of the climb to the top. This part is covered in large boulders and unsteady shale. This part of the race is approximately 2.75 miles of pure leg destruction. Hearing people call out the distance remaining just to get to the half way point was a perfect anecdote for what we were going through. I laughed during this when my watch beeped and a guy next to me said “please God tell me that’s mile seven?” I said yes, he grunted, and we continued the march. So, after 2 hours I finally made it, Mosquito Pass. It felt like the top of the world. People were fist bumping, hugging, cheering, taking pictures to commemorate their accomplishment. I was doing the same. Until it dawned on me, I still have to get down. We were celebrating something that was celebration worthy, but to use a golf analogy we finished the front nine and still had nine holes left. The run down was also brutal but done much faster. The one moment I will never forget is seeing a woman still climbing, hugging her husband and crying. I heard her say “I can’t, I can’t”. He just held her and let her have her moment. I kept running down, but a few moments later I turned to look and saw them climbing again. The human spirit at it’s finest.

About one hour and twenty-five minutes since leaving the summit I reentered the city limits Leadville. Half mile left, downhill on pavement, road running never felt so good. I attempted to pick up the pace, I’m not sure my legs got the memo. Finally, the red carpet (yes, really a red carpet). I heard the announcer say, from Las Vegas, Nevada representing team Red, White and Blue, Joshua Law. That was it, I did it. Race over. I found my wife in the crowd and grabbed her and cried. I don’t know if I cried from exhaustion, pride or sheer joy. I’d say the answer is, yes. She told me she was proud of me, she found me a glass of ice tea and we walked to the car.

During this race, I had one mile that took me under 8 minutes and one that took me over 24 minutes. I watched some of the most amazing athletes on the planet flying up and down mountain roads as if they were part goat and part cheetah. I heard and saw what humans can do mentally and physically when they refuse to quit. I witnessed the pride and satisfaction someone has when they accomplish an amazing task. I saw the pride others have in them as well. When I crossed that line, I was handed a medal and a coffee mug. The same reward as everyone else who ran. Some would say we got participation trophies. Your freaking right we did. Most of us knew we couldn’t and wouldn’t win the race and we didn’t care. What we didn’t know was if we could start and finish the race. And we did. We went over the hill and far away. And now we will take our memories, pride, beaten legs, coffee mugs and prepare for our next participation trophy.

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