An ultra trail runner's gut check crucible at Colorado's classic 100-mile odyssey

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About the race

In the midst an economic depression in 1982, Leadville Trail 100 co-founder Ken Chlouber started the race with an economic objective. The race continues to grow and is credited with keeping the town alive. "This is all we've got to bring people into our community," Chlouber said.

In the midst an economic depression in 1982, Leadville Trail 100 co-founder Ken Chlouber started the race with an economic objective. The race continues to grow and is credited with keeping the town alive. "This is all we've got to bring people into our community," Chlouber said.

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Jennifer's journey

Follow Jennifer's journey through the eyes of her husband and support team member Rick Akin. It was clear at the 40-mile mark that Jennifer was in pain. "If we get these cramps cured, we're fine," Rick Akin said. "If we don't we're in big trouble."

Follow Jennifer's journey through the eyes of her husband and support team member Rick Akin. It was clear at the 40-mile mark that Jennifer was in pain. "If we get these cramps cured, we're fine," Rick Akin said. "If we don't we're in big trouble."

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Medic

Leadville Trail 100 race physician Dr. Tom Maino was asked to talk about the pounding a human body takes during a grueling 100-mile race. "I guess the question is, "What does this race not do to somebody's body?" he asked.

Leadville Trail 100 race physician Dr. Tom Maino was asked to talk about the pounding a human body takes during a grueling 100-mile race. "I guess the question is, "What does this race not do to somebody's body?" he asked.

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100 miles in 16 hours, 14 minutes

Anton Krupicka crossed the finish line just before dark on Saturday with a time of 16 hours, 14 minutes and still had the energy to talk about the race. "It was the easiest 100 I've ever done," Krupicka said. "I just trained so hard this year."

Anton Krupicka crossed the finish line just before dark on Saturday with a time of 16 hours, 14 minutes and still had the energy to talk about the race. "It was the easiest 100 I've ever done," Krupicka said. "I just trained so hard this year."

Leadville Trail 100

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Leadville Trail 100 elevation change graph

Leadville Trail 100 elevation change graph

Leadville Trail 100 map

Leadville Trail 100 map

— Sometimes you can beat the mountain.

Sometimes.

Long before the sun rises and hits the corner of West Sixth Street and Harrison Avenue on August 18, a field of 472 willing participants sets out with little more than LED flashlights and running shoes to test themselves against a mountain course that has humbled and elated the world's toughest ultra-distance trail runners for the past 25 years.

The route is 50 miles out and 50 miles back. Runners gain, and lose, nearly 15,000 feet of elevation running from and back to the highest city (10,152 feet) in North America. The time is set at 30 hours. By the next morning, when Leadville mayor Bud Elliott fires off his rifle to signal the end of that time, only 210 of those runners have made it back.

Welcome to the Leadville Trail 100.

"Once you leave the starting line, you will be tested, forged, ground, splattered, ripped, tempered, and then refined and regenerated," reads the ominous race overview penned by race founders Ken Chlouber and Merilee O'Neal.

Before running the L.T. 100, Jennifer Schubert-Akin decided to start with a 5K.

"I just started running to get fit in 1990," she said of what led to longer 10Ks and, three years later, a marathon in Big Sur, Calif., that got her hooked on distance. Jennifer moved from Austin, Texas, to Steamboat Springs in 1995, started an accounting business - she owns Marathon Accounting Services - and heard about "L.T. 100." This led to prolonged training, pacing other runners and eventually five cracks at the race.

"It is so hard to fathom when you hear about it, but now a 20-mile training run seems short," Jennifer said. "It is the ultimate physical challenge : you're expanding what is possible in your mind and can learn a lot - once you do it, a lot of everyday stuff and problems seem possible."

In Jennifer's third attempt, in 2002, she finally finished in 28 hours, 40 minutes. In 2005, she did it again, four minutes off her previous time.

"By mile 80, it's cold, you're at 11,000 feet and everything hurts," Jennifer said. "But then the sun comes up, and you cross that finish line - you know you are self-reliant at that point."

Jennifer turned 50 on Aug. 14. She thought another shot at the race after a summer of training seemed right, especially as the perfect means to raise pledged funds for Mike Wilkinson, a close Austin friend suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Over the woods, through the river

Jennifer's husband, Rick Akin, has rounded up a couple of his buddies and his old college roommate from the University of Oklahoma, David Stringer, to help him undertake the effort to "crew" Jennifer's race. A daunting task in its own right, crews have to be ready at four aid stations in each direction in addition to the turnaround point - around the clock, ahead of their runner, and with the right mix of gear, edible fuel, medicine and moral support to keep runners in the hunt.

Akin could easily teach a seminar on how to crew an L.T. 100 runner, and he has, with a 17-page packet of crew notes prepared for all contigencies, down to the exact calorie and PowerBar Gel pack for each station, living by the motto that "it never hurts to be early, but it is catastrophic to be late."

Akin watches his wife from the 4 a.m., Leadville start with clear skies and temperatures in the low 40s, one he calls "the nicest I've ever seen." At the first aid station, 13.5 miles out, and the second, 23.5 miles out, Jennifer makes it through to the projected minute Akin had established based on previous times. By the next, she is falling a few minutes behind.

Each aid station has a designated "cutoff" time that, if missed, race organizers at the station literally cut off the racer's wristband in a symbolic end.

Cutoff at the outbound Twin Lakes aid station is 2:30 p.m. At 1:30 p.m., the crew begins to get antsy, seeing Jennifer slip a half-hour off her estimated arrival.

Suddenly, Jennifer radios in, citing stomachaches and cramps as she nears the steep switchbacks down to the station.

After she passes through the station - number and time relayed to headquarters and an impromptu medical check that includes a weigh-in and a few quick questions ("What's your name? When have you peed last?") to note mental and kidney condition - Jennifer greets the crew.

"I guess it's good that my stomach hurts - it'll take my mind off my legs," Jennifer manages to muster, obviously in pain.

Akin finds some ibuprofen pills. Stringer swaps a Snickers Marathon bar and four gels, two in each pocket, with empty wrappers in Jennifer's waist pack. She knows the bar is not much use because she can't keep any solid food down. But she pets her dog Boomer and kisses Akin, telling him, "I'll do the best I can," as she departs.

Her best is what she needs for the next leg. She must cross the swampy delta of Lake Creek's entrance to the Twin Lakes Reservoir, through a mile-long lattice of streams and mud bogs, searching out pink trail markers attached to a maze of bushes and shrubs. Then there's the creek crossing itself. Afternoon showers have brought high flows to the icy, teal-colored creek that is now thigh deep at the crossing. This is the low point of the race at 9,200 feet and, in the next five miles, the runners must climb to the highest, over Hope Pass at 12,600.

All this with soaking feet as dark thunderheads rumble above and begin pouring rain.

Just after Jennifer embarks on this crux section, the various packs of crews at Twin Lakes are caught off guard by the first runner coming the other direction.

Anton Krupicka, a 24-year-old Colorado College paraprofessional, sheds a layer as he heads up the steep trail back toward Leadville. He is nearly two hours ahead of the next-fastest runner, running 9.5-minute splits.

Mind, body and energy gel

Stringer runs out from the mining ghost town of Winfield to see if Jennifer is coming. She's cutting it close. Winfield is the turnaround point. Crew cars going to and from the aid station share the road with the weathered outbound and returning runners. It's 5:30 p.m. and still no sign of Jennifer. Cutoff is at 6 p.m.

Steamboat's Betsy Kalmeyer is ready to run. On the returning 50 miles, runners can have pacers, and Kalmeyer will take Jennifer back to Twin Lakes, where Stringer, Kalmeyer and Steamboat's Jenna Gruben will divide up the remaining legs to bring her in the rest of the way.

Kalmeyer did the L.T. 100 as her first 100-mile race in 1988. She's completed it four times since. 2007 would've been her 20th anniversary of racing 100-milers, but having already completed the equally as grueling Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in July, Kalmeyer is content to help pace her training partner and friend.

"You're there for moral support," Kalmeyer says. "It's good to remind them to be eating and drinking and just always telling them, 'you're looking good.'"

At 5:38 p.m., the familiar face of racer Brenda Geisler arrives at the station. The 46-year-old Steamboat Springs friend and personal trainer jokes that she "blames" Jennifer for inspiring her to try her hand at ultramarathons. She completed the 2003 race and in 2004 was crowned as an elite "Leadwoman" for having completed the Leadville race series' five events.

But halfway up Hope Pass, she had hit a wall.

"My body just started shutting down - when you pinch the back of your hand and the skin stays up, you know you're dehydrated," says Geisler, who opts out of the race at mile 50.

Halfway up the pass also is where Geisler says she was used to Jennifer passing her in previous races. Maybe Jennifer has the same stomach bug as Geisler - when Jennifer arrives at 5:43 p.m., she looks pale and cannot chew a handful of saltine crackers.

"I'm just nervous - I've never had my stomach like this," Jennifer tells Kalmeyer, who immediately fires back encouragement.

"That's what happened to me at Hardrock, but I felt awesome on the last 30," Kalmeyer says.

The pair leaves to head right back up the pass next to a pair of homemade signs that read "Legs get you the first 50 miles. Heart gets you the second 50."

At this point, the only thing driving Jennifer is the basic mantra that she says focuses her during the most painful stretches: "You have to keep 'relentless forward progress' in your mind."

Boom or bust

With just a few gel packs to fuel her 10-mile run back over the pass, fatigue sets in. The darkness of a nearly moonless night that falls at the pass summit only compounds problems.

"If I can get back to Twin Lakes before dark, that will psychologically be helpful," Jennifer had said before the race.

The descent becomes an eerie sludge she compares to skiing down a mudslide. Kalmeyer calls it "four-wheel-drive running."

Nine minutes before the 9:45 p.m. cutoff at Twin Lakes, Jennifer radios in that she still has a couple miles to go. She arrives a half-hour later at the station. Jennifer knows she has missed the cut, so she spends some time catching her breath and chatting about the journey, prolonging the inevitable - the scissors to her wristband, which officially is cut at 10:30 p.m.

"We passed a lot of people on the way up," Jennifer says after her 60 completed miles. She is most disappointed knowing she had invested the necessary preparation time to train for completion. "My cardio and lungs were good, but when you get behind the eight-ball, time-wise, it's really hard trying to compensate on a 21 percent grade hill where you can't make up a lot of time : I guess sometimes you conquer the mountain, and sometimes the mountain conquers you."

A lasting finish

The sun hits the highest point in the state at Mount Elbert's peak and the adjoining Mount Massive backdrop long before its rays cover the fog-coated waters of Turquoise Lake. A bobbing line of flickering headlamps moves along the wooded north side of the lake to the Tabor Boat Ramp. Crews huddle in lawn chairs and blankets and cheer on runners who have made it through the night and have only a 7.5-mile home stretch to the finish. No one in the crowd knows, or is concerned with, the score of Saturday's Broncos game.

Bigger things are happening.

Steamboat's Josh Karzen has finished pacing his older brother Matt, a former Steamboat Ski Area patroller and 1984 Lowell Whiteman School graduate, in the loneliest night stretch from the Fish Hatchery at mile 76.5 to the May Queen aid station at mile 86.5.

"Running at night has a whole different quality all its own," says Josh Karzen of the pacer's job to find the trail from one marked glowstick to the next. "If things are going to get weird, that's when it's going to happen."

Now Josh and Brian Widmann, a law school friend of Matt's, must wait and hope Karzen will make the push so the entire crew can rejoin him for "the whole Chariots of Fire deal" on the final mile, together to the finish.

As they wait, Mike Ehrlich, a 44-year-old structural engineer from Steamboat, passes through the boat ramp in a sleepless daze. Aside from Mike Valenta - a friend planning to run his seventh L.T. 100, but who decided to help crew Ehrlich after a complication with his foot - Ehrlich's run has been a solo endeavor, one of the few without pacer support.

At the finish, tearful runners accept their medals and collapse on the nearby Lake County Courthouse's sun-soaked lawn. The 24-year-old Krupicka's 16-hour, 14-minute finish (the second-fastest ever) at dusk the day before has been long forgotten by the crowd there to cheer each of the 50 runners who reach the finish in the final hour before the 10 a.m. gun. Ehrlich and Matt Karzen are among them.

These emotional finishes are what race director Merilee O'Neal calls "raw courage just coming up off the street." She hugs each one and presents them with a hard-earned silver belt buckle medal.

"Merilee puts that medal on and gives you a hug you hadn't expected, and you feel the sincerity and rush of accomplishment," Karzen says after he's recovered. "Then 20 seconds later, every cell in your body is screaming in pain."

"It's so good to be done," Ehrlich says after finishing his ninth race.

He had put the training time in, as well, arriving Monday before the race and climbing Mount Elbert three times - in one day.

"In 25 years, we've learned to remove limits and change lives," Chlouber says as he gazes at the silver anniversary of his event while already thinking about next year's race.

Chlouber's statement rings true for Karzen, who had never seen the course prior to the race, or even completed a run of more than 50 miles.

"It's a celebration of the individual spirit of adventure, and everyone comes together for that," Karzen says. "You get to bond with your brother and your friends, in the cold, struggling in the middle of the night. I'll carry this with me for the rest of my days in ways I didn't even think about."

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