Part One: Planning the Dream
By Gary Dudney
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Last year, Ian Torrence wrote about his ultrarunning Grand Slam in a series of articles found on this web site. Grand Slam Dreams captured the grand sweep of Ian’s “Slam” attempt, graphically describing the problems he encountered along the way: cliffhanging brushes with injuries, destroyed quads, stomach problems, dehydration.
Those problems notwithstanding, Torrence crushed the races, one after another. He finished in eighth place overall at both Western States and Vermont, sixth at Leadville, and fourth at Wasatch. He might have had his ups and downs, but it was mostly the competition that was feeling the hurt. In fact, Torrence performed so well in 2002 that he now owns the Grand Slam record for lowest total cumulative time. Rest assured, in this account of the Grand Slam you will find no accounts of remarkable times or high finishing places. This series will be about mid-pack slamming, by guys that perhaps shouldn’t be thinking of slamming at all. This will be Grand Slam Lite.
Robert Josephs and I are not the first runners that come to mind when you think about the Grand Slam. Both of us had been to Leadville once and failed miserably. I would still be sitting on a log halfway up Hope Pass if a llama had not come along and offered me a Coke. I dropped out at Winfield, the halfway point, despite the llama’s best efforts. Robert rolled about a third of the way up to the Hopeless Aid Station during his attempt and then rolled back down to Twin Lakes where he too threw in the towel. Neither of us has even attempted Wasatch. I dropped out in my first start at Western States (at Foresthill) and managed to finish on my second try with only 23 minutes to spare before the final cutoff. Robert has racked up three finishes at Western but has also come up short four times, once at Highway 49 (mile 93). “Nothing on heaven or earth could have made me run another step,” he said about that incident.
In other words, we are marginal pretenders to the high throne of Grand Slammerdom. I certainly had no intention of making 2003 the year of my Slam attempt. After testing the waters at Leadville in 2002 and sinking like a stone with a death wish, I figured it would take me at least two years of monk-like devotion to training to think I could even cut it on Hope Pass.
“Robert,” I said after we had both made it through the Western States lottery and thus had the chance to try the Slam, “Wild horses could not drag me back to Leadville this year.” “Look, Jerk Wad,” he replied. “We’re getting old. (I’m 50. Robert is 46.) We’re never going to be in better shape. We’re going to get more injured as time goes by, not less. I’m doing it so we might as well do it together and split the costs. You’ll never have a better chance.”
I was swayed by the part about splitting the costs. In addition, it gave me leverage to use in discussing the plan with my wife. Every year, she makes me promise that I will do only one 100-mile race. I then have to scheme shamelessly to wriggle out of my promise. Since by definition the Grand Slam is four 100-mile races, it seemed to me that having that as a goal would nuke her one-race-a-year rule. I thought long and hard about how to approach the situation. Then it came to me. “Honey,” I said. “You know what. Let’s go buy you a new car.”
Once the decision was made and blessed, the next step was dealing with all of the mechanics and logistics that flow out of such an undertaking. Planning for the summer roughly approximated Napoleon’s preparation for the invasion of Russia, aside from the fact that he did not have two teenage kids and a full time job. Applications had to be sent off. Reservations for planes, hotel rooms, and rental cars had to be made. There were volunteer requirements to fulfill. There was recruiting pacers and crew from a pool of long lost friends who happen to live near Vermont, Utah or Colorado. I ordered more shoes, bought more energy gel, and stocked up on drop bags. I leafed through catalogues for the latest in high-tech flashlights and lightweight shells. I spent every weekend running punishing long workouts on gnarly trails. I entered a whole series of springtime races. I set aside Memorial Day weekend for the Western States training camp but quelled at sneaking in a quick trip to Leadville to train on Hope Pass. I wasn’t going to get that one by the wife, and by that time I was having trouble remembering my kids’ names anyway.
Inevitably, the training Robert and I managed to do seemed inadequate. Even the most elaborate training runs, six hours of humping up and down the hillsides around Monterey, paled in comparison to what we knew we would face at Western States in the high country or the climbs at Wasatch. Not only that, but the Monterey Bay area never got hot enough for serious heat training and was obviously too low for altitude training. How in the world would we be ready for the punishment we would have to endure over the summer? We poured ourselves into good showings at the American River 50 Mile in April, but that effort seemed puny compared with the 100-mile distances we were contemplating.
Then there were the short intervals between the races to worry about. Typically, we would run a 50-km or 50-mile and then luxuriate through weeks of recovery before even training hard again, let alone yet racing. The anticipation made for an anxious spring. Time crept by so slowly that I swore I was looking at the same Panda on my wildlife calendar for three or four months before I got to flip it over to the stolid-looking Galapagos turtles. I obsessed over every little ache and pain, certain my sore hamstring was going to turn into a career-ending injury. The pain in the arch of my foot had to be a stress fracture. I imagined myself walking around in a cast while Robert was leaping happily over Hope Pass.
Then, without warning, it was June. The Grand Slam race dates for 2003 stacked up like this: Western States on June 28; Vermont on July 19; Leadville on August 16; and Wasatch Front on September 6. (Beginning this year, Old Dominion is no longer considered an alternative to Vermont for the Grand Slam.) Western States created some kind of weird time warp vortex that sucked up all of June, like a Ren and Stimpy vacuum cleaner. The race was three weeks distant one day, and the next thing I knew my wife was asking me, “Shouldn’t you get packed? We leave for Squaw Valley tomorrow.”
Part Two: Western States
Suddenly, there we were at Western States, the granddaddy of 100-mile trail races, the Boston Marathon of ultrarunning. What ultrarunner has ever toed a starting line and not wished someday to be at the Olympic Plaza in Squaw Valley at five o’clock on Saturday morning on the last weekend of June? The landmarks along the way at Western have become as familiar to ultrarunners as the cross streets in their neighborhoods: Robinson Flat, Devil’s Thumb, Michigan Bluff, Foresthill, Rucky Chucky River Crossing, No Hands Bridge.
Here was the very spot where Gordon Ainsleigh pioneered 100-mile trail racing in America with an amazing leap into the (endurance running) unknown. And there he was for heaven’s sake, walking around at the orientation, laughing with friends, striding up the hill to Emigrant Pass with the rest of us, still running the race himself, looking to perhaps break 24 hours. It’s like visiting Appomattox Courthouse and finding Grant and Lee still sitting at the table shooting the breeze, or traveling to Eisenhower’s boyhood home in Abilene and finding all the Eisenhower boys wrestling in the dirt in the front yard.
Western States, wreathed as it is in the traditions of ultrarunning, heightens the adventure of the Grand Slam, but it also serves notice that the four finishes are not going to come easily. As one friend put it, “The hardest 50-mile race I ever ran was the first 50 miles at Western States.” Waiting for the shotgun blast to start the race, it struck me that four out of every ten runners around me were not going to see the stadium at Placer High in Auburn, at least from the viewpoint of trotting around the tartan track to the finish line. Then the moment arrived and the long months of anticipation were suddenly over. Robert and I wished each other well as the clock ticked down to zero. The race—and the Grand Slam—was on.
I was nervous striding up the hill, mindful of every little ache and pain I felt as I loosened up. Was it hard to breathe at this altitude or was I just tense? Was I exhausting myself by starting out too hard? Who was ahead of me? Who was behind me? I took some deep breaths to relax. Amazingly, it seemed as if everyone around me was comparing notes on the Grand Slam. I suppose since 33 runners were signed up to attempt the Slam (making us about one out of every ten runners), it was not surprising. A typical conversation went like this: “First time at Western?” “No, I’ve done it before.” “Doin’ Vermont?” “Yeah.” “You slammin’?” “Yeah. You, too?” “Yeah.” There was a certain calculated lack of enthusiasm in how people owned up to being Grand Slammers, almost as if they were scared they might jinx the whole thing by being too direct about it so early in the game. I felt that way, at least.
Topping the rise, I turned to look at the long sweep of Squaw Valley far below and Lake Tahoe in the distance. The dawn had come and with it a strange feeling. I felt like I was leaving something behind. There was my life before I attempted the Grand Slam of ultrarunning. That was over. Whatever I would experience from here on out would be in the context of having tried this great thing.
Skipping down that curving sweep of single-track trail after cresting Emigrant Pass, I had my first premonition that things were going my way. The climb had not fazed me. I was running comfortably and easily keeping up with the runners around me. The long transition through the Granite Chief Wilderness along the ridge flowed by, despite the many rocks, tricky footing, rollercoaster jigs and jags on the trail, and slippery stream crossings. In the past, by the time I had completed the climb up to Robinson Flat I felt beat up and worn. This year we arrived there after running only 25 miles instead of the usual 30 because of the alternate routing to keep us out of a fire damaged area. It seemed we were slipping into the aid station under false pretenses. The Little Bald Mountain section after that was all new and exciting to me. I breezed into the canyons feeling just fine.
Then it got hot—and I mean hot. I started dunking my head in every stream, bucket, sponge, horse trough, and mud hole I could find. At the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, just before the Devil’s Thumb climb, I made a beeline for the river. It looked like a beach party along the shore, there were so many runners stretched out on the rocks. By the time I got to El Dorado Canyon, I was walking all of the sunny and open stretches—up, down or flat. I could feel that just the slightest extra effort was going to send me over the line into the red zone. The only consolation was that everyone else looked just as bad as I felt. The day hadn’t quite given up torturing me as I wound down through the hot Volcano Canyon. But the heat faded as I reached Foresthill. I didn’t know it then, but the race had pretty much taken its best shot at me and failed to score a hit.
Leaving Foresthill, I felt a little shaky. My new flashlight seemed awkward in my hand. I wasn’t used to the LED type light. I couldn’t even remember which hand I usually carried it in. I had a pacer, but he was not someone I had run with a lot and I was unsure of our dynamic. I shouldn’t have worried; we gelled immediately. Once I started rolling down the California Street trails and had gotten used to running with the light, I entered a zone. My mind was suddenly occupied by a constant stream of Doors songs. I didn’t seem to have any control over the song selection or the volume. “Come on, baby, light my fire, try to set the night on fire…” “People are strange when you’re a stranger…” “I’m a back door man…” “This is the end, my one true friend, the end…” The music in my head was so loud I thought my pacer could hear it. The aid stations were appearing out of the dark like cheap bars on ruined streets and then disappearing behind us like jilted lovers. The air had cooled, and as we descended to river level I could hear the water rushing by next to me.
Rucky Chucky was the usual scene out of Apocalypse Now, and since I was coherent and feeling good, I enjoyed the whole weird process of crossing the river and sitting on the far side, changing clothes and wolfing down food. The ultra gods made one final bid to stop me somewhere between Auburn Lakes Trails and Brown’s Bar aid station at mile 90. I was falling asleep on my feet, weaving so badly I had to stop right in the middle of the trail and take a nap. “Let’s get to the next aid station,” my pacer urged, but I was incapable of another step. “Five minutes,” I said, and I sat down and put my head on my arms. I was vaguely aware of a couple of runners going by and my pacer saying something to them softly. Then he was waking me up.
The nap worked wonders. I jumped up, tied my jacket around my waist, and used the thought of the Grand Slam to propel myself down the trail at a steady pace. When I felt like I was flagging again, I resisted the urge to walk and kept running until I’d knocked out a good mile. Then I went back to walking the up slopes, but by the time we got to Brown’s Bar, I knew I was home free. From Highway 49 to the stadium was like a dream come true. All my exhaustion fell away in the morning light and I floated over the final trails stunned that it was possible to feel so good at the end of 100 miles.
I sped around the track at the stadium to the finish in 27:13. That was more than an hour faster than the goal I had set on my pace chart and almost two and a half hours better than my previous finish at Western. I was jubilant and bubbly, although an impartial observer might have said I was acting like an idiotic gasbag. Either way it was a great moment, but one that suddenly took a wrong turn. My wife was there and after things quieted down she said, “Robert didn’t make it.”
I was stunned. We’d hop-scotched with each other at the beginning of the race, but then I had gotten slightly ahead. That kept us separated all the way to Michigan Bluff, but he’d pulled in there just as I was leaving and we’d exchanged the usual “good job” and “way to go.” He was still just a few minutes behind at Foresthill. At Highway 49, I’d heard he had taken quite a bit of time to get to the river crossing, but that he was across and pushing on. I learned later that things had gone downhill from there. A bad stomach touched off by the heat had kept him from eating enough. The lack of energy caught up with him by the time he’d gotten to the Auburn Lakes Trails station and he calculated that he was not going to finish at the pace he was going, so he dropped there.
I’d lost my partner in crime, or at least I thought I had. Robert spent a couple of days thinking it over, and then he sent me an e-mail. It said he was very sorry that he wouldn’t be able to come to the other races to help me out with the Slam, the reason being that he couldn’t be there to help me and compete against me at the same time. He’d be seeing me in Vermont and I’d better be ready to run hard if I expected to beat him to the finish. We were back on for the whole show! I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so gracious had it been me that didn’t finish at Western. In all, nine of the original 33 Grand Slammers saw their dreams slip away at Western States. For me, it was on to the Green Mountain state for the Vermont 100.
Part Three: Vermont
Having passed the first Grand Slam test, I was faced with the next challenge, ramping up for a second 100-mile after a short three-week break. I followed my usual post-race practice of rest and recovery for the first week. Throughout the week ominous pains popped up in one muscle group after another, but each flared and guttered into nothing. By the end of the week I risked a few rides on my mountain bike, sticking to flat trails and gentle climbs. During the second week, I was back into my usual lunchtime run routine. At first my legs felt stale, but each successive run went better until by the weekend, I was ready for a moderate long run. Robert and I gathered up our running group on a hot Saturday afternoon and put in an honest run of more than three hours. While we didn’t feel great afterwards, we also didn’t feel any major organs give way. That would have to be good enough.
Neither of us had any firsthand experience with Vermont. We gleaned what we could from various ultrarunning websites, reading race reports, checking splits of runners we knew, poring over the Vermont homepage. I talked with a friend from Virginia who had run the race several times, but he was in the 19-hour range, too rich for my blood. I eventually latched on to Stan Jensen’s splits as something useful and planned my drop bags around his sub 24-hour time.
Vermont is the easiest of the four Grand Slam races statistically, with approximately half of the field besting 24 hours each year. There is also the added incentive of a silver belt buckle for those under 24 hours, versus a plaque for the finishers between 24 and 30 hours. Once again, neither Robert nor I had ever been close to 24 hours, so the belt buckle seemed like an unrealistic goal at best. Packing the drop bags and labeling them with the unfamiliar aid station names caused my anxiety to soar. I looked back over my race plan: I’ll change socks here; I’ll pick up my flashlight here. But where was here and there? I had no idea what it would be like. I’d never raced anywhere on the East Coast. For that matter, I’d never even been to New England before. I had to remind myself that good planning would help in the race, but it was dealing with the unexpected that would get me to the finish. So Vermont would just have to be one long exercise in dealing with the unexpected.
It’s hard to describe just how strange the whole trip seemed to someone who has raced almost exclusively in California. It was like I’d stepped into Superman’s Bizarro world, where everything was the opposite of normal. The Western States trails pass through rugged mountains and isolated canyons; signs of civilization are few and far between. In Vermont, the foothills of the Green Mountains are low and rolling; farms are scattered along the country roads. Cabins pop out of the woods at every turn. Stone walls line the roads. Western passes through the crumbling remains of the Gold Rush era, abandoned graveyards deep in the forest, and rusting mining equipment. In Vermont the stone churches, covered bridges, village greens, and Federal style houses evoke early America and the colonial past. Western is gold miners and lumberjacks. Vermont is dairy farmers and innkeepers. Western has its glitzy Squaw Valley Ski resort and Olympic tradition. Woodstock has its historic Killington and Mount Tom ski areas, and strangely, Woodstock claims the honor of being the site of the first rope tow for skiers in the United States on a place called Gilbert’s Hill. I imagined that first rope tow, powered by a Model T Ford truck motor, next to the huge, high-powered gondola that carries tourists up to High Camp in Squaw Valley. Cal it old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity versus high-tech, space age California technology.
The race in Vermont began at 4:00 a.m. Robert and I sat in our hotel room fiddling with the alarm clock, working out when we needed to get up. We wanted to arrive about 3:30. It was going to take us about an hour to get up and get ready. We left another half-hour for the drive over in case we got lost (which we did, leading a caravan of six cars past the turn to Smoke Rise Farm and into a neighbor’s driveway). That meant we getting up at 2:00 a.m. Eastern time, which was 11:00 p.m. Pacific time. In the end, neither of us slept a wink, so we were going to have to cover the 100 miles without sleep for two nights, not just one.
The race got underway in the cool darkness, to the strains of Chariots of Fire played on an electric piano, with bursts of fireworks exploding overhead. But the excitement quickly dissipated as we entered a dark forest. The initial chatter died down as we picked our way over a muddy trail with our flashlights. In the close foggy air my breathing echoed in my head. The first trails gave way to country roads lined with crumbling stone walls and maple forests. Fog hung low over duck ponds next to the road where cattails hugged the shore and frogs croaked dissolutely. I was monitoring the state of my legs, wondering if exhaustion from the lack of sleep and a second 100-mile effort would come crashing down on me early in the race. But all seemed normal. I plugged along in the growing light, checking my split times as the many aid stations came and went.
The course consists three big loops that center around an aid station called Camp 10 Bear. The first loop is about 44 miles, followed by a 24-mile loop and then the final 32 miles. The first loop was not difficult, offering the opportunity to cover the first half of the race quickly. I reached the halfway point in about ten hours. From the second or third aid stations on, I’d been ahead of my target splits, which would bring me in comfortably under 24 hours depending on how the night went. I was already fantasizing about a fast enough finish to avoid being up all night, which I figured would help with the sleep deprivation I was bound to face later on.
Because of the early start, it seemed like we had been running forever by the time early afternoon rolled around. The weather was very forgiving. Prepared for heat and humidity, I keep looking up at a broken cloud cover that was keeping the sun in check and knew we were catching a break. By the time I managed the second big loop and returned to Camp 10 Bear at mile 68 well ahead of my splits, I had some revelations. Nothing major was wrong with me physically. I was handling the second 100-mile in good order. I was probably going to collect a buckle here at Vermont. But most importantly, for the very first time since this all began, I was feeling like I might have a shot at going all the way in the Grand Slam. I had carefully kept that kind of optimism in check, for fear of feeding too much red meat to the monster of disappointment that might await me, but hope seemed to be spewing out of me like soda pop from a dropped can.
But there were still 20 miles to cover as darkness fell, and those were the miles I’d been warned about. One of the longest gaps between aid stations occurred as we ascended the aptly named Blood Hill. It was like being teased all day and then spanked. The glow sticks kept beckoning from impossibly high above us, like distant stars, and just as hard to reach. The final segment of 3.9 miles seemed endless, more so since both of my ankles were in pain from pounding on the hard roads all day. Everyone nearby was asking about the finish. Was this the final hill? Were we above Smoke Rise Farm yet?
At last I trotted up to the finish line at the barn, making a poor attempt to spray a little water out of my bottle in celebration. No one seemed to notice, since a local favorite finished just ahead of me and was drawing everyone’s attention. I steered my little Grand Slam tugboat into safe harbor without fanfare in 23:01. I was through Vermont. Two down, two to go.
Robert found me a couple of hours later, fast asleep in the back of our rental car. He told me he had dropped at Jenneville, mile 90, but I was too wiped out to see he was kidding. He strung me along for awhile and then told me the truth: he had finished in 25:40. He looked happy and ready for more.
As I finish this account, I am packing my suitcase and loading up drop bags for Leadville. The first two races of the Grand Slam have gone well for me, better than expected. Yet I can’t help but feel that the whole summer will be on the line in the Rocky Mountains and that everything up to now has been just a run up to the Big Show. Leadville typically wipes out about half the Grand Slam field. All 24 remaining Grand Slammers made it through Vermont. But at Leadville, the finish rate for all runners is only about 40 percent. How many of us would emerge to go on to Wasatch and get our chance at the eagle head trophy? We would just have to wait and see.
Part Four: A Return to Leadville
The plan is to sleep low and run high. We’ll fly to Denver, stay in a hotel near the airport, then make a lightning strike at Leadville in the morning. We will take no prisoners and give no quarter. With any luck, we’ll snatch our belt buckles and be out of there before anyone notices. Well, that’s the way I picture it happening. The reality might be a tad bit less tidy.
The first problem is that the hotel I booked isn’t next to the airport where it is supposed to be. It’s a long drive down I-70 in a part of Denver that looks like time forgot. Due to cheap air tickets, we arrive too early to check in, so we have the concierge escort us to the empty hotel restaurant. “Are you open?” I ask. “Oh, yes, Sir. We are open.” Fifteen minutes later, when no waiter has appeared, we leave in a snit and drive across the street to a chain restaurant that manages to serve the world’s worst omelet. Trudging back to our rental Apero or Aspro or Alero or whatever it is, I feel like I have a boulder in my stomach.
Back at the hotel, we walk by several disgruntled looking people cooling their heels in the lobby and again ask the desk clerk for our room. She brightens up, “Lookee here. They must have just put this in. You two have the very first room.” Soon Robert and I are kicking back and watching television. There is breaking news from the East Coast, namely that 20 million people are having to do without electricity. This puts our own lousy morning into perspective. Then we discover the hotel has a racquetball court ready for us, free of charge. It is tailor made for two ultrarunners in need of burning off excess energy by whacking a hard rubber ball around a room. A dip in the pool afterward and suddenly we feel like we’re puttin’ on the Ritz.
Early Friday morning, we leave for Leadville and round three of our Grand Slam quest. From Denver, the Rockies look like a dark gray curtain drawn across the horizon. Highway I-70 rolls and bends through the foothills for a few miles; before long we are surrounded by steep canyon walls and conifer forests. Further along, we round a bend and a lofty peak comes into view, its rocky crest rising high above timberline into the sharp blue sky. Soon these behemoths crowd the skyline above us. My anxiety level starts to spike as each new ridge of jagged peaks appears.
We stop off for a mountain breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns and pancakes. (Cholesterol vigilance will have to take a break for a week.) We reach the Copper Mountain ski resort and just down the road we come to the Arkansas Valley and Leadville. Now my anxiety red lines as we park in the empty lot across the street from the Sixth Street Gymnasium. In every direction I look, high mountains bristle against the horizon. I know two of the peaks out there are the highest in Colorado, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. Immense clouds float overhead, huge white patches on the blue fabric of the sky. I can almost hear the orchestra playing the theme from Bonanza. I feel like an ant crawling around on the sidewalk.
We make our way through a crowd of chattering ultrarunners into the gym. The weigh-in takes only a minute. A florescent orange bracelet is clamped to my wrist. I find a seat near the front and sit down to wait for the briefing, otherwise known as the Ken Chlouber show. Chlouber is a Colorado state representative from Leadville, and not incidentally co-founder of the “Race Across the Sky.” His rough-hewn visage, shaggy hair, and rambling speeches are as entertaining as a beer drinking contest.
I try to get beyond my fear, but can’t seem to do it. Images from last year’s failure here keep crowding my mind. I see myself sitting in a camp chair at Winfield, totally beat up by only a 50-mile effort. I’m past the cutoff time by five minutes, but two or three race officials are all telling me I’m free to get up and keep going if I want. I don’t want. I just want the band to be cut off my wrist so I can give up the struggle and go in peace, done even before the sun goes down.
But now as I sit and watch other runners check in, an amazing thing happens. The fear, tension, doubt, and uneasiness all vanish. Something in my mind has clicked. One minute I am feeling like an outsider, secretly watching some sacred ritual, like an intruder at a Hopi ceremonial dance. Then I realize I am one of the dancers. My legs look like everyone else’s legs. I can last all day and all night and keep on running, too. I smile thinking about something I had said in the desperate hours to a group of runners I was with at Vermont. We were headed for the finish line but the trail kept curving back up onto a ridge. Every time we had to trudge up another incline, everyone was griping. I usually don’t have much to say at times like this; I just suffer along in silence. But I was feeling a little buoyant that we were coming in under 24 hours, so I said, “C’mon, guys. We’re ultrarunners. We can do this.” I’m sure the others were cursing me in the dark, but I felt connected to the sport at that instant.
Totally relaxed now, I sit back and enjoy Chlouber’s mock-bumbling race orientation, which is short on race details but long on inside jokes, funny awards, inspirational messages, and “you city slickers are out here in the old West now” tough talk. Afterward, Robert and I walk up and down Harrison Avenue shopping and searching out our crew members who are arriving at various times in the afternoon. I wear out the desk clerk at the Delaware Hotel asking for my friend who is coming down from Estes Park. We stop by Safeway for some sandwich fixings, chill out at the hotel for awhile, and then take our drop bags back downtown at three o’clock. I suspect that the timing of the drop bag drop off is arranged to get everyone back in town for a second round of shopping. As the mayor said at the briefing, “Welcome to Leadville. Spend all your money.” We run into Bob Boeder sitting in front of a bookstore selling copies of his book Beyond the Marathon: The Grand Slam of Trail Ultrarunning. I already have an autographed copy of the book at home. I’d studied it carefully and concluded that reading about the Grand Slam and doing it are two different things. I read about all four races in one sitting and wasn’t even winded.
That night Robert and I lie on each side of the clock radio watching the red numerals count down the hours that we are not sleeping. Ten, eleven and twelve o’clock go by. Then I see one o’clock. I begin to panic, as I am still awake to see two o’clock. At three we get out of bed relieved that our “rest” is at last over and we can smear ourselves with sunblock, lubricant, and insect repellent. Soon we are standing in the bright lights on the corner of Sixth and Harrison with 500 other runners. I pull out my gloves and put them on. The water bottle in my hand seems odd under the fabric of the glove. I strap the safety loop of my flashlight around my wrist. With five minutes to go, I work my way up closer to the start banner. There is a gap between the crowd and the starting line. Apparently even the swiftest runners here shy away from starting right up front. I bend over to stretch, pull a leg up behind my back, and remind myself to watch out for other runners in the first quarter-mile. I take some deep breaths. I am not calm, but then I am not scared either. This is our third 100-mile start this summer. I am very aware that patience is required. Nothing big will happen for the next ten or twelve hours—then we will engage the beast.
The shotgun blast, which must come as quite a surprise at four in the morning to those in Leadville not connected with the race, sends us down Sixth Street, toward our individual fates. Immediately I begin monitoring my condition for the answer to the big question: How am I going to handle the altitude? Is the sleep low, run high strategy going to leave me gasping for air and walking right from the start? To my great relief, after a few moments of adjusting my stride and settling down, I find I am running comfortably with the crowd. We top a minor hill, run down to the end of the pavement and are on the dirt heading toward Turquoise Lake. I had decided to start with a good flashlight, which I will dump at May Queen, so I have no trouble spotting the bigger rocks and potholes on the Boulevard. I feel great as we hit the first single-track trail near the lake. I start working my way past runners who have jumped off the line too fast and have to cut their speed back.
The only surprise is the mild pain I am feeling in the front of both my ankles. I recognize it as an echo of a problem I’d had during the last ten miles of Vermont. Then both ankles had gotten quite painful, but I was so close to the finish that I’d just gritted my teeth and barreled on. The problem cleared up in no time after the race and hadn’t bothered me in any of the running I’d done in the four weeks before Leadville, so I’d forgotten all about it. Now it seems like it will be only a minor irritant. I start my regimen of a painkillers a bit sooner than I’d planned and put it out of my mind. After all, it is so beautiful on the trail next to the lake. As far as I am concerned, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
We finally reach May Queen, 13 miles in, after two and a half hours. Even at the beginning of the race, 13 miles is a long stretch. Like probably half the other runners at Leadville, I am trying to follow Dana Roueche’s formula for finishing the race. He makes it seem so simple, like a cake recipe. Here are all the ingredients and careful instructions on how to mix them. All you have to do is pop yourself into the oven and hopefully you will emerge 29 hours and 30 minutes later fully baked at the finish line. On schedule, I set out over the Colorado Trail for Sugarloaf Pass. I remember struggling up this road toward the pass last year. It seemed like I should be running, but Dana’s instructions said it was o.k. to walk. This year I push through the same section with short walks and long runs and figure I am putting time in the bank. I reach the top and roll down to the Fish Hatchery in good time, still ahead of schedule and feeling much fresher than the year before.
The virtually flat section of the course from the Fish Hatchery around to Halfmoon is like some kind of ultrarunning twilight zone. Your normal senses are fooled. Your mind is warped. I think here is where the altitude starts to catch up with those of us who have the temerity to live at sea level. What should be an easy jog is turning into a death march for the runners around me. It takes all of my will power to pick a runner moving at a slow but steady pace through this section and hang on no matter what. It works. Instead of slipping off my plan and having to worry about catching up, I conquer Halfmoon and move right on to the rollercoaster trail to Twin Lakes.
Leaving Twin Lakes, I am ready for Hope Pass. I can’t wait to wade through the cool river and tackle the big climb. I have been anticipating this moment all summer. I’ve seen it as the biggest hurdle to overcome on the way to the Grand Slam. The time has finally come. The first few lengths of trail are much more forgiving than I had remembered. In my mind I saw something like a boulder staircase shooting straight up to the sky. Instead, it is a gentle slope with a chattering stream rushing along beside the trail. Before long I fall in with a group making a steady, careful ascent at a pace that I feel I can hold forever. A sudden rainstorm slows us just long enough to pull out our rain gear and adjust our hoods over our running caps. Even the bolts of lightning crashing close by as we near the top are just a sideshow. We pass through the breaks in the forest where the trees are smaller and more twisted and finally catch sight of the aid station just below the summit of Hope Pass. Having not made a single stop on the way up, I don’t even need to check my watch to know I am still on schedule. Last year, the climb broke me. This year it has confirmed that I have the race well in hand.
I am encouraged to see some of the lead runners in the race making their way back up as I head down the back side of Hope Pass. Once again I use the slight uphill on the road out to Winfield to walk a little and run a little, to bank plenty of spare time for when I reach the turnaround. Dana’s plan contains the extremely reassuring message that if you can reach Winfield in twelve and a half hours, you can just about turn around and walk all the way back.
I arrive at the Winfield aid station, mile 50, at fifteen minutes past four o’clock. I’ve taken just over twelve hours to get halfway. I will have more than seventeen hours to make my way back. I can hardly believe it as I stand in the aid tent helping myself to watermelon and peanut butter sandwiches. Can this be happening? Am I going to march through Leadville just like I marched through Western and Vermont? I pull my race plan from my fanny pack and take one more close look at my watch just to be sure I’m not confusing anything. No, there is no doubt about it. I’ve overcome what has been stuck in my mind as the greatest challenge I am going to face. I figure I have Leadville in the bag. The next stop will be Wasatch, where I’ll be hoisting the big Eagle trophy over my head and basking in the applause.
Part Five: Dreams Meet Reality
I have not seen Robert since shortly after the race began, when I could swear he ran up a hill that I was walking and then disappeared into the distance ahead of me. I catch no glimpse of him all the way to May Queen, and likewise see nothing of him all the way over Sugarloaf Pass. My crew at the Fish Hatchery has had no contact with his crew, so there is no news there either. I conclude that Robert is having a strong race and that his fear that he will not do well at altitude has turned out to be unfounded.
It’s not unusual for Robert to get off to a strong start. He typically takes off firing on all cylinders. I start more like a jalopy that needs a careful warm up so that parts don’t start falling off. At Twin Lakes, my crew has still not had any word of Robert. I figure I will catch him going up to Hope Pass, but the whole climb and descent goes by without a sign. When I get to the bottom of the trail and turn on to Clear Creek Road heading for Winfield, my crew is waiting with the news. I have been mistaken all along. Somehow I got out in front of him long before we even made it to Turquoise Lake. Comparing notes later, Robert swears he saw me go by and told me to have a good race, but I don’t remember seeing him or hearing him. I must have been completely lost in my own world.
The real story, I now find out, is that Robert stayed close behind, getting to May Queen only a few minutes after I left. After that he steadily lost ground, and in fact was discovering that his previous unhappy experience at altitude was playing itself out once again. At Twin Lakes he was beginning to feel the pressure of the cutoffs. It would have been a pretty easy decision to call it quits right there, without tackling Hope Pass. After all, he was no longer in the running for the Grand Slam; he was mostly there to support me and keep my hopes alive. The possibility of a finish looked very remote. He had pretty much come to the conclusion that the altitude was just too much of a hurdle for him to overcome even under the best of circumstances. But in Robert’s typical fashion, he pressed on.
Meanwhile, I am leaving Winfield and coming to grips with a growing problem. All day long the pain in the front of my ankles has been steadily increasing in intensity. Early on I went to my supply of painkillers, taking one or two tablets every hour. Between the painkillers and the miles clicking by as planned, I’ve managed to mostly put the ankle problem out of my mind, but now the level of the pain is becoming intrusive. I’m getting no bang out of my painkillers at all. It’s as if I’m not taking anything. The pain is a steady, unbroken presence. I take some comfort in the huge 17-hour margin I have to get to the finish and try to content myself with a fast walk down the road. I know that once I’m into the climb back up to Hope Pass, I’ll walk that whole stretch anyway. I’ll just have to wait and see how the running goes on the way down.
I’m on the last few treeless switchbacks up to the top of the pass when I see Robert coming toward me all bundled up in his rain gear. It is beyond the cutoff for the next aid station so he is out of the race, but he gives me a hearty greeting and wishes me a good race. He is pleased that he has conquered Hope Pass and will see it all before his race is done. I try to make a lame joke about blaming him for getting me into all this—he first came up with the idea of trying the Slam—but at 12,000 feet and still climbing, nothing I can say seems funny or clever. I push over the top and immediately run up against a hard reality. Making it down over the rocky trail—even as far as the aid station just below—is a struggle. I can’t even lean forward into a gentle jog and let gravity carry me down. The stretching that the downhill camber of the trail is forcing on my ankles is unbearable.
At the aid station I sit down and have some soup and coffee. That fortifies me for a while; I hurry downhill and tell myself to just accept the pain. Worse things have happened. Everyone has problems. This is how you feel when things are going well in a race. I repeat these mantras to myself. Crossing the meadow toward Twin Lakes, the best I can do is a strong walk, although I would love to be running here. I want to run, but I can’t. Hans-Dieter Weissharr is up ahead, also walking. I’m a little surprised, since I know he finished strong last year. I ask about our progress and he tells me we are o.k.. “I have been right here in the dark and I’ve finished, ” he reassures me. There is still daylight, but it is fading fast. At the river I get almost across and then just stand there for a moment, hoping the cold water will numb the pain in my ankles.
I check the time when I pull into Twin Lakes. For the first time in the race I am running a bit behind Dana’s schedule. The walking is taking its toll on my pace. I realize that while it might be possible to walk all the way to the finish from the turnaround, it would be at a fast walk, not a crawl. I climb up the ridge overlooking Twin Lakes on my way to Halfmoon. I have nine miles to cover to get there. It is not going well. It is dark now and cool; usually I enjoy the evening hours in a race, but the darkness today is bringing on a nightmare. Moreover, I see no prospects for working my way through this low point and getting to something better later on. There is nothing I can do about the awful pain.
A pair of women pass me using walking sticks. They have a fast walk going and move only slightly faster when the trail heads down and they jog. I make a tremendous effort to stick with them. I concentrate on the click-click of the walking sticks hitting the rocks along the side of the trail. When they run, I grit my teeth and walk harder. The trail seems endless and I recall someone writing about how this stretch on the return is a real killer. We seem to have topped a dozen crests but still the trail continues. I anticipate joining the road that drops down the last two miles to Halfmoon, but I’m disappointed over and over. I can feel my mental state crumbling, my resolve starting to fade. I’ve lost the walking stick women and am alone in the dark now. By the time I finally get to Halfmoon, I feel like it has taken forever.
In the tent at Halfmoon, I am exhausted. I ask one of the volunteers to wake me up in ten minutes and try closing my eyes. A nap has worked for me in the past, but I am too uncomfortable and can’t manage to drift off. I recognize some of the runners crowded with me in the tent as those who have finished here at Leadville—but only barely, in the final hour. Of course, over the past several hours, anyone running has passed me by, so I know I have fallen back to the end of the field of those who can still finish. My only thought now is to get to the Fish Hatchery, where I have a drop bag, warmer clothes, and more energy gel.
I get back on the forest road and engage the pain once again. It is after midnight and I can barely stay awake. Every once in a while I jog a few steps and the excruciating pain wakes me back up for a few moments. I get to the open valley and begin the long stretch on blacktop roads leading to the Fish Hatchery. Runner after runner goes by me, just about everyone I saw at Halfmoon. Most are walking, but I am amazed at how much better they are moving than I am, and how quickly they disappear ahead of me. Now my mood starts to swing wildly. One moment I’m telling myself I will stick this out no matter what and then next I am coming to grips with failing. When I get on the last stretch of road leading up to the Fish Hatchery, I look back into the valley searching for flashlights behind me. I can see probably two or three whole miles of the course from where I am and there is not a light in sight. My heart sinks.
Then an even more distressing thought occurs to me. Even if I make it to the end of Leadville, what are the chances that I will somehow recover and be ready for Wasatch? The answer seems obvious. At Wasatch I’ll run into the same problem, even earlier in the race. As I try to fight off total despair, I feel like I am in the ring with an opponent that has anvils in his gloves.
I finally trudge into the Fish Hatchery and try to work my last gambit. “I need to see a doctor,” I say to the first person I meet. I’m hustled over to the medical area where I am told that there is nothing I can be given for the pain. I listlessly pull on warmer clothes from my drop bag and check my pace chart. I’ve included times for each aid station and when the very last runner left that station in past years and still made it to the end. I’m only about 20 minutes ahead of that time for the Fish Hatchery and I’m not exactly making good progress. I lie on a cot trying to warm up, waiting to see if a mega-dose of Motrin (my own) is going to help.
Then a friend, Kathy Welch, who is crewing for Joanie Mork, discovers me and reads me the riot act. “You can’t quit. You’re in the Grand Slam. You get up and you can join Joanie. Now let’s go.” I know I’m in the Grand Slam; that is not really news. But Kathy does have a good suggestion. She has her car parked a mile down the road where the course turns up toward Sugarloaf Pass. “You walk down to my car and then we’ll talk.” Ten miles to May Queen I cannot face, but a mile to a car that can give me a ride home if I want, I can handle.
When I reach the car, I experience my last positive mood swing and have decided to continue. I hug Kathy and tell her, “If anything good comes out of this, I have you to thank.” I hike up the trail and make a turn into the first steep ascent. I take about five steps and come to a dead stop. I can barely move. The exhaustion, the hours of dealing with the pain, the climb, the thought that I am almost certainly not going to make it to May Queen in time…it all comes crashes down on me. At that moment four runners come up behind me laughing and chattering excitedly. They’re loving the night, the great hike in the woods, Leadville, life. They work hard at pulling me into the group, and I try keeping up for a few steps, but they are moving well and I simply cannot hang onto their pace. I stop again and watch them stride away. That is how you need to be moving to finish from here, I tell myself, and I ain’t doin’ it. In my internal debate with myself, I have finally run out of arguments. I shout after them to have a good race and then I turn around. I let go of Leadville and the Grand Slam. My summer’s dream is over.
Two more runners go by before I get to the asphalt road that leads back to the Fish Hatchery. I wish them good luck. Later I discover that they are the very last runners still in the race behind me. Kathy, of course, has taken her car and left for May Queen. I walk slowly back down the road. I am so sick of the pain in my legs; I can’t wait to get back to the cot at the Fish Hatchery. At least, I think, my ordeal will be over soon.
I have a strange feeling as I turn the last bend in the road. It seems to me that I should be just about back to the aid station, but I’m not seeing the lights. I see a white pickup truck pulling out into the road, leaving. Then I get a tremendous shock. It turns out I am right next to the aid station, but I didn’t recognize it because all the lights are off—and everyone is gone! I can’t believe it. When I left, the place was a beehive of activity, people everywhere, cars everywhere. There must have been a mad rush to pack up and get out of there when the last runner left. The truck I had seen was the last vehicle leaving the station.
I limp around searching for signs of life in one of the cars or campers still parked there. I check for phones, try the doors on the buildings. I am completely and totally stuck out here at four in the morning, and most assuredly not feeling too chipper. I imagine the search and rescue team getting called out when I don’t arrive at May Queen, thinking I’m lost on Sugarloaf Pass. I figure my only hope is that someone connected with the race will return to pick up one of the cars left here. I sit down to wait and curse my bad luck.
About 20 minutes later I see headlights turn off the road, heading towards me. The lights disappear into a low spot but then pop back up still going in the right direction. I position myself in the middle of the road and get my flashlight ready. I am going to either flag this car down or die under its wheels. It pulls up and stops. I breathlessly explain what is going on and the guy behind the wheel says, “Yeah, I can take you into Leadville.” On the way into town, I learn it is Tim Roy from New Hampshire. He is a Grand Slammer, too. In fact, through Vermont his cumulative times were second only to Joe Kulak’s. But here he stepped in a hole near Twin Lakes and messed up his Achilles tendon, so he is also out of the Slam. Tim drops me off at the finish line, where I have to repeat my story three or four times before I am taken to the proper room in the courthouse, so an official can cut off my wrist band. I have a message radioed out to my crew at May Queen and then it is up to me to make my own painful way back to the hotel. Robert has to get out of bed to let me in the door. “Now we’re both done,” I say, dropping into bed.
As I write this, it has been several weeks since Leadville. If things had worked out, Robert and I would be leaving for Utah and Wasatch tomorrow morning. I’ve had my problem diagnosed by an orthopedic surgeon and a physical therapist that specializes in the biomechanics of the foot. They agree that I have a pretty unusual case of acute tendonitis affecting the tibialis anterior ligament, which runs across the ankle and attaches the muscle on the lower outside of my leg to the inside bottom of my foot. There is also a band of fibrous tissue that runs across the ankle that aligns and holds the tendons running down into the foot in place that is also inflamed. The therapist tells me that had I persisted in running and wrecked that band I might have blown my whole running career for good. I could have kissed him when he said that. The root cause of the problem may be the orthotics that I have worn for five years. They were supposed to correct a neuroma in the front of my foot, but may simply be wrong for the amount of running I do. It took the stress of the Grand Slam to reveal this problem.
As Bob Boeder makes very clear in his book, finishing the Grand Slam requires a lot of skill, but it also requires a lot of luck. Mine ran out with this unexpected weakness I was harboring. As I look back over my summer, though, I marvel at all the things that didn’t happen to me. I had no blisters and no sprained ankles. I never had blood in my urine and never had renal failure. No vomiting. No heat exhaustion. No dehydration. No knee problems. No hip problems. I was never lost. I always had what I needed when I needed it in the way of supplies, clothes, and water. My crew was always where they needed to be. I never fell down. And when I sat in a chair, I always got up. I also had two spectacular races, by my standards at least, and discovered I could make it through the altitude at Leadville. I had some great races in the spring getting ready as well. When I reflect upon it now, I’ve had a great year.
Best of all, I still have the Grand Slam to look forward to in the future. It is a spectacular dream, so wonderfully motivating, and after this summer, I appreciate it all the more for having tried and failed. It took me all of one day after Leadville to start planning my comeback. Let the dreaming begin again.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5