by Allison Macsas
That’s the response I tend to get when the subject of running 100 miles comes up. My answers ranged from “peer pressure” to “I need a change from the road” to “it’s a great excuse to get out of Texas!” Indeed it was all of these things – this came about after running 50 miles last summer with four college teammates as a “reunion” and did serve as a great change from marathon training and the heat – but did I really know why? Not really
Three of us signed up together – myself, Kevin and Trevor, who both live in Tampa. My training included a lot of good, and a lot of bad. The good included 100 mile weeks, lots of hill drills, a 50 mile R2R2R run in May, plenty of heat and humidity and wisdom from Paul Terranova, Sydney Pitt, Cindy Henges. The bad? No single run over 35 miles since May, little to no trail running, no altitude exposure and very little downhill training, a known weakness. But, time flew as it always does and soon, it was August.
Travel was smooth, and the four of us met up in Denver on Thursday. We slept in Keystone that night, and were up early on Friday to head to Leadville for check-in and the pre-race briefing. Gabe, my boyfriend and tentative pacer began to take the crewing thing seriously and proceeded to crash-course the maps and aid station details. Our other two crew members, Jeremy and Chris, arrived that afternoon and we killed time by driving to the aid stations and getting the team oriented. Our plan was to run together, with the three of them splitting up pacing duties. We hit the Safeway, checked into our mountain house, cooked an early dinner then the crew worked on logistics while the three runners sorted and packed gear. We were all in bed by 8.
Alarms started going off at 2:15. I made coffee, ate some oatmeal, checked and double checked my pack and clothing and bags for the crew. We were in the cars at 3am sharp and headed down the mountain into Leadville. Parking was easy, and we had plenty of time to hit the toilets, take a few photos and make our way to the starting line. There were no typical race nerves – something this long was incomprehensible, and therefore not terrible nerve-wracking. I was more anxious to get moving and warm up a bit.
The field was HUGE! Somewhere around 1,000 runners. We found ourselves near the back of the corral, which felt strange to three former collegiate runners that are accustomed to taking the lead, but it really didn’t matter in an event like this. The gun went off, headlights came on, and off we went!
THE START TO MAY QUEEN
We began with a surprising amount of road running – score! After heading out of town on 6th St, we turned off around Turquoise Lake and spent quite a bit of time on hard-packed dirt road where we held a steady – but very conservative – pace. It was dark and everyone was excited – conversation and laughs everywhere. I eavesdropped a bit and tried to pick up whatever bits of veteran wisdom that I could. Eventually the dirt road headed into the woods and became trail, getting more and more technical as we went. Because we were fresh and wide awake, it wasn’t too hard to navigate in the dark and we held a nice, easy rhythm. By 5:45 or so we were able to switch off our lights, and before we knew it the trail spit us out into a campground parking lot. Normal people sat outside their tents and RVs, drinking coffee and cheering while the crazies ran through the campground and into the May Queen aid station, 13.5 miles in. We grabbed some M&Ms, gave our headlights to our crew, kept our warm clothes and continued on…
MAY QUEEN TO OUTWARD BOUND/FISH HATCHERY
This section began with some fairly technical single track. There wasn’t much room to pass or be passed, so we settled where we were and talked with the characters around us. There was the former ranch kid-turned vegetarian hippie whose first running race ever was a 100 miler, the Spanish age group record-setter who informed us that he was actually a “road runner – beep beep!” and a girl with one leg. Bored we were not!
The single track eventually gave way to a rocky jeep road as it began switchbacking up for 2 miles or so – nothing super steep, but we hiked most of it and enjoyed a stunning view over the valley. Eventually it crested and we began to head down Powerline – THIS was steep! My inability to run downhill was quickly apparent as Kevin, Trevor and seemingly everyone else took off, leaving me to carefully tiptoe my way down. We reconvened at the bottom, where our crew was stationed, dropped jackets, picked up snacks and then headed another two miles to the aid station for more snacks and water refills. We were 24 miles in.
The first few miles were road – flat, fast asphalt, just our thing! We cruised past lots of people and enjoyed the smooth ride. It was now late morning and was pretty warm outside – nothing compared to home, but we were sucking down tons of water nonetheless. The Half Pipe aid station came and went, and most of the trail was runnable with some uphill walking. Still, I could feel my hip flexors starting to tighten up from the distance – we were nearing 40 miles – and really hoped that it would pass and that I wouldn’t be fighting it for the next 60!
I could tell that we were nearing Twin Lakes when we began to see aspen trees, but “near” is a very relative word out there. I felt like we could see the lake and hear crowds for HOURS, but never seemed to emerge. Eventually the trail started to head downhill – steeply – and I quickly lost Kevin and Trevor. It was doubly frustrating because tons of other people were passing me, and I’d get anxious any time someone was right behind me, knowing that I was in their way. After what seemed like an eternity I came out of the woods and into the aid station.
Twin Lakes was PACKED and the energy was great! I fueled up and then caught up with the guys before searching for our crew. They were there, and Gabe had brought along birthday cupcakes to surprise me! This caused everyone around us to start singing Happy Birthday while he lit the candles. Definitely a great boost before heading up Hope Pass! Once we were packed and ready, it was time to head up the infamous mountain…
TWIN LAKES TO HOPE PASS
This section began on a nice, flat trail through the meadow, towards the mountain. Feeling renewed, the three of us ran all of it and got through the river crossing easily. Before too long we hit the trees, and the trail headed UP. And up and up. Climbing is my strength, however, and I felt great all the way from 9,200 to 12,600 feet, passing plenty of people. We took one snack break, but otherwise got up with little issue. The aid station up top was by far the best – all of the gear had been brought up by llama, and people by their own feet. They had a big encampment and took great care of us, filling our bottles, handing out soup, offering all sorts of verbal support. The view was stunning, the breeze was cool and it was a great feeling to have reached this point.
HOPE PASS TO WINFIELD
Of course, nothing is that simple. The trail continued to go up past the aid station – it wasn’t exactly at the top – and it got steeeeeeep. Again, I didn’t mind – just took it slowly – but a lot of people were really struggling. This is about the time that we saw the lead men FLYING down the hill at warp speed. There wasn’t really room for any sort of passing, but somehow we made it work! I was blown away.
Once we crested the mountain (for real this time), things went downhill. As all of those who’d struggled up started to run down, I once again found myself falling behind, terrified of falling on the steep, extremely technical terrain. To complicate things, the further down we got, the more leaders and pacers I encountered heading the other way. The five miles to Winfield seemed to take an eternity – in fact it took me just as long to get down as it took me to get up – and I’d never been so relieved to see an aid station.
Winfield was absolute chaos, with crew cars and runners and medical checks and volunteers, and I didn’t really want to hang around. Now that I was done descending, I was feeling better, but unfortunately my team was not.
Kevin, who has been dealing with a torn meniscus, was in a lot of pain. A LOT. After quite a bit of debate we convinced him that he needed to call it – 50 miles on such an injury is incredible, and it would be several hours before he had another chance to bail. He couldn’t keep going. Trevor was feeling pretty low, so we took quite a bit of time eating, drinking, gathering ourselves. Finally, it was time to head out with Jeremy along as a pacer – we were 12 hours in.
WINFIELD TO HOPE PASS
UP, up up. With a ton of traffic coming down, down, down. Jeremy was fresh and great to talk to, while Trevor was still in a tough spot and not saying much. We found ourselves in a tight line of 30-40 runners, inching our way up the steepest parts – there was no possibility of passing or being passed, and it was now clear that a lot of people weren’t going to make it much further. Some 3500 ft. later we once again reached the top and headed down to the aid station – as usual, I was continually passed as I inched my way down the rocky decline.
The aid station had run out of a lot of stuff – namely cups, which made soup a challenge – and we didn’t stay long. I told Trevor and Jeremy not to wait on me, as we had 5 miles straight downhill ahead of us, and they didn’t. I spent the next two hours doing some sort of strange run/tiptoe/slide down the mountain, getting ever more discouraged as others flew by and as dusk set it – my headlight was with my crew! This was the first time (and not the last) that I had to fight back some tears, but I got past it and kept going. Finally, FINALLY I came out of the trees, saw that it wasn’t that dark outside after all and was able to run through the meadow where I saw Gabe, running towards me with a headlight. So much relief!
But, not that much relief. My head was in a bad spot, and I was starting to rationalize – internally – that 60 miles was PLENTY. I could get in the car, go back to the house, take a hot shower. I didn’t have to head out into that dark, cold night! Gabe, Kevin and Chris, however, didn’t give me any opportunity to voice this. They sat me down, helped me change socks, restock my food and asked what I needed. I said that I needed Gabe to go with me and, despite the fact that he’d be planning on nothing more than the last 7-10 miles, he went to change clothes, without so much as a blink.
TWIN LAKES TO HALF PIPE
I spent way too long at Twin Lakes, but it was needed. Once we finally headed out – up! – I got a second wind. Having a light, a warm jacket and, most importantly, someone that I fully trust with me worked wonders. Suddenly I was energized, ambitious and talkative. We were able to run a lot of the trail, even in the dark, and I felt good about things.
For a while. The stretch to Half Pipe is long, and seemed twice as long on the return trip. As the night went on and I got more exhausted, my attitude went downhill and I continually insisted that they moved the aid station! I stopped being talkative, and instead became angry. At what? Who knows. Gabe would point out the amazing starscape, the beautiful weather, all sorts of things, but I didn’t care. I.just.wanted.the.aid.station. Everyone with a map or a gps or experience would tell us how far away it was, but in truth, no one really knew. We just had to keep moving.
Finally, there it was! Soup and hot chocolate and toilets, everything I wanted in life! Rejuvenated, we continued on. Walk, run, walk run.
HALF PIPE TO OUTWARD BOUND/FISH HATCHERY
Gabe left me at the Treeline crew point after 13 miles with me – as much as he wished he could stick with me for all 40, it just wasn’t going to happen. His longest recent run was 7 miles. He was determined to come back later, and I told that I’d be fine for a while –there was road up ahead! Beautiful, flat, smooth tarmac that was so, so runnable, even at mile 70-something. I ran all the way to the Fish Hatchery aid station, finally passing people again and feeling like I was going to get through this after all.
Fish Hatchery was another chaotic stop, jam-packed with runners filling the tents, crew members huddled around campfires and volunteers churning out hot chocolate as fast as they could. I think it was around 2am. I took care of business and moved on – Gabe had told me that he’d meet me at the start of Powerline, not so much to help with the steep uphill, but more with the downhill that would follow.
POWERLINE TO MAY QUEEN
My memory was far from sharp at this point, and I wasn’t prepared for the sheer length of Powerline. Straight up for nearly 4 miles, a 1500 ft. climb. Of course I would rather have been going up than down, but this was mile 80-something. My feet were killing me, enthusiasm was gone. Gabe continued to be upbeat and encouraging, and I continued to offer one word answers and lots of negativity. I did notice the stars, and the incredible sight of runner headlights along a ridge in the distance, but it wasn’t quite enough to bring me out of the funk.
Eventually we reached the top, and went down. It wasn’t terribly steep, but it was rocky and each stone felt like nails underfoot. In short, I was no better at this downhill than any of the others! People passed me, I got more and more frustrated. I had to stop to drain a blister using a safety pin off my bib number. Secretly I hoped it wouldn’t work so that I’d have to quit, but no such luck. We kept moving forward, very very slowly. The May Queen aid station was visible below nearly an hour before we actually reached it. I’d totally forgotten about the technical single track that led there. I was mad at Gabe for being so positive, and for continually reminding me about all of the support coming from home. That meant that I couldn’t quit. I angrily apologized for being angry. I realized that the final leg was going to be a time crunch. I might not make the cutoff. I wasn’t doing well.
MAY QUEEN TO TABOR BOAT RAMP
Somehow, we finally came into May Queen. I had 4 hours and 10 minutes to make the final 13.5 miles, which should be an eternity for someone who has run a 1:15 half marathon, but that felt like a different life. Basically, if I hiked the entire thing, I wasn’t going to make it. That possibility had never even crossed my mind, yet here I was. I had to go!
I refilled my hydration pack and left, insisting that I didn’t want anyone else to go with me – I needed to be in my own head. Gabe said he’d meet me at the Tabor boat ramp, a little over 6 miles away. He told me that I had to run. I said nothing, just left.
The good part about being so far behind was that the sun had come up, and I could turn off my headlight. The next six miles were rocky, covered in tree roots and quite technical – while others hiked up and ran down, I did the opposite.
After an hour, some well-meaning runners informed a bunch of us that we only had ten miles to go, according to their Garmins. What?!? That meant that I was running 20 minute pace!! Impossible! I had a near panic attack and thought that it was all over. Then I came up behind a man and woman. The man was completely blind, the woman was talking to him, describing the footing, where to step, when to run and where to hike. He was running, and he wasn’t falling. I had no excuse! I latched on to them and kept going – 10 minutes later we at the boat ramp, just 7 miles from the finish. I’d gotten there twice as fast as Gabe had expected, and quickly realized that the Garmin-users were waaay off base.
Upon realizing that I had nearly three hours to get through 7 miles was the relief of a lifetime – this felt like my finish line. I was going to make it! A quick hug and it was time to go.
The mood was considerably lighter after leaving the boat ramp. Everyone that I was around had the same knowledge – we were going to make it, even if we walked as slowly as we could! I ran anyway, albeit the slowest pace of my life, and enjoyed hitting the open road again. No more trail! That seven miles stretched on forever, and had hills that I swear weren’t there on the way out, but it was okay – I just had to move forward.
Finally, finally we turned onto 6th St, the home stretch! Less than a mile – you could see the finish line. Though most people were walking, I had to run. The crowd turnout was amazing, especially after so many hours, and really helped me move. I crossed the finish line in 29:18 – 29:18!!! It was surreal, and almost anti-climatic – after being awake for so long, moving for so long, it just didn’t click that it was over. But it was!
I turned in my timing chip, hugged all of the crew, found Trevor in the med tent (he finished in 27:47, sans toenails) and we went back to the house. There was a flurry of showers and packing, and it all took some time to sink in.
A few hours later I finally had a chance to look at the hundreds and hundreds of Facebook posts, texts and emails coming from friends, family and even people I didn’t know. Overwhelming support, and an unbelievable number of well-wishes that had gone on throughout all 29 hours and 18 minutes. That’s when it finally clicked – I still don’t know exactly why I ran 100 miles, but I do know that it was worth it.
**Gabe, who hadn’t run further than 7 miles in months, stuck with me for over 20 miles. I think I’ve got a keeper!
**What would I change about my training? Downhill work! I spent way too much time working on uphills, when the descents are where I lost all of my time. I also need to trail run more than once every six months. My climbing skills, endurance, altitude tolerance and nutrition were spot-on, but that didn’t make up for the slooooooow descents.
**It *appears* that the final numbers include 1200 entrants, roughly 1000 who started the race and 497 who finished. Less than 50%!
**Everyone wants to know if I’ll do it again. Gabe tried to lock in a “no” by asking that question at mile 80. Luckily I know his tricks. Though I’m don’t feel the immediate urge to try this again, I know myself… this won’t be the only one.