I was lying in bed wide-awake staring at the ceiling. It was August 21, 2014 and I had just let the cat out of the bag—I wrote a blog and publicly announced that I would attempt the Leadville 100 Trail Run the following year. (This is a 100-mile running race that begins at 10,200 ft., includes climbing 4 mountain passes, and must be completed in less than 30 hours.) It was a dream that had been in my heart for several months, but now I was actually committing to it. As soon as I pushed “Publish”, my hands became sweaty and my stomach turned to knots. I didn’t sleep well that night as my mind contemplated the monumental training effort that was in front of me.
Last Friday—August 21, 2015, one year to the day—I found myself lying in a different bed (in a Leadville hotel room) but still wide-awake and staring at the ceiling. My stomach turned and my legs were fidgety. I was filled to the brim with nervous energy. I had spent countless hours over the past year running in the mountains and training, and now I was less than 6 hours away from the 4am start of the infamous race. I rolled over and thanked Ashley for her unwavering love and support, and then tried desperately to catch a few evasive hours of sleep.
By 2:30am, I was trying to force myself to eat breakfast. I was anything but hungry, but I realized if I didn’t eat a substantial breakfast I would be in trouble on the course. One of my biggest concerns coming in was being able to sustain constant blood sugar levels throughout the duration of the run. I knew from past experience that when my blood sugar drops too low, it is very difficult to recover. My plan was to eat something small every twenty minutes to ensure a consistent intake of calories and fuel. This is very challenging to continue throughout a long run, but I knew I didn’t have a choice. Eating would have to be an act of the will.
We arrived at the start line shortly after 3am. I sat on a park bench and smiled as I looked at my faithful crew. Ashley, Laura, Matt, Travis, and Bobby were all there with me braving the cold mountain air and waiting for 4am to arrive. My nerves continued to build, but I was comforted by the presence of such dear friends.
I joined the herd of runners within the gates at the starting area and stretched as I watched the final minutes tick away. I stood next to a man in his 50’s who looked like he had been here before.
“You look like a veteran at this,” I said as I wondered about his running resume.
“Well, this will be my 7th try, but I’ve never made it past mile 50.” After a pause, he continued, “Last year, I showed up to pick up my shirt at the starting line, but then I went home and never returned.”
“That was an expensive shirt,” I quipped and we both laughed as the final countdown continued.
The loudspeakers roared as the man on the microphone shouted, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6…” I looked over and blew Ashley a kiss, turned on my headlamp, and ran through the starting line and into the darkness of the night.
The first mile was festive as spectators lined each side of the street, but things got very quiet by mile 2. We were now outside of Leadville and heading towards Turquoise Lake. The sound of running shoes on a dirt road was about all that could be heard. A long line of bobbing headlamps in front and behind me was all that could be seen.
It was during this stretch that I was particularly aware of God’s presence. I could sense His pleasure that I was taking on such a challenge, and the still small voice of the Lord spoke to my heart: I am with you, Gabe. I was reminded of what He spoke to me many months ago when this story started: I want to take this journey with you.
I spent the next several miles staring at the feet of the runner in front of me while also quietly praying and enjoying the Lord’s company. Many of my prayers were for my brother, who was embarking on his third attempt to finish the 100-mile course. He had trained hard over the past several months, but he injured his knee the weekend before and was limping around town the day before the race. He looked like he was in no condition to toe the starting line, but I knew he would still give it a valiant effort.
By 6am, the sun started to rise over the lake and the beauty of the course was exposed for the first time. I looked up to see high mountains on each side, and there was a glorious reflection coming off the water. The only view that was more enjoyable was when I caught the first glimpse of the aid station at mile 13.5. I was ahead of my anticipated time and feeling great. Ashley and Laura re-stocked my supplies, and I quickly left the aid station and made my way back to the trail.
A long line of runners soon fell into lock step as we started the approximate 1,200 ft. climb up Sugarloaf pass. After steep climbing, the trail spilled onto a dirt road before turning back onto single-track trail for more climbing. I started running along the dirt road before I felt the first squeeze of a calf cramp. I really hadn’t dealt with cramping on any of my previous training runs, so I was surprised by it. After getting back on top of my hydration, the cramps started to subside as I continued to climb the pass.
The forecast was calling for a beautiful day of sunshine, but this was not the case on the mountain. Clouds moved in, the wind picked up, and a light rain started to fall. I eventually made it to the top of the pass and prepared for a steep and intense run down the other side, the part of the trail named “Powerline.”
My legs were still feeling strong and I maintained a solid pace coming down the mountain. It was hard work but very enjoyable navigating the rocks and ruts on the mountain. Halfway down Powerline, a sharp pain shot through my right knee. It felt like somebody stabbed me, and it caused me to lift up out of my running posture and shift all of my weight to my left leg while shuffling to a stop. My first thought was, That’s not good, but I also knew coming in that I would experience pain. I was hoping that it was just momentary pain rather than an ongoing injury that would plague me for the rest of the race.
I had to slow down and change my stride for the remainder of the Powerline descent. I could still feel discomfort each time my right foot landed, but it was manageable. I was happy to get to the bottom and back on relatively flat terrain where there wasn’t as much pounding. I was 2 miles away from the Outward Bound aid station (mile 24), and I was excited to see that I was about 15 minutes ahead of my goal time.
My parents had joined Ashley and Laura at the aid station, and collectively they took good care of me. I was soon re-stocked and ready to get back on the trail. This is a good place to mention how blessed I was by my crew: Ashley, my parents, Laura, Amber, Matthew, Bobby, and Travis. Crewing involves little sleep, enduring the weather elements, carrying heavy supplies back and forth from the car to the aid station, changing the runners nasty socks and shoes, and waiting….and waiting….and waiting. Crewing is a selfless and heroic act.
I left the Outward Bound aid station feeling pretty confident. I had a good pace going and the next few miles were fairly flat. After plugging along on the hard pavement for thirty minutes, I was glad to see the sign pointing us back to a softer trail. The next couple miles included a long and gradual rise up to the next aid station at mile 31. I arrived at the aid station 10 minutes ahead of my goal.
I didn’t spend much time at this aid station and I got back to work on the trail. The course continued to climb for the next several miles, so I settled into a steady hike. I was tired but still feeling good about my pace.
Everything changed at mile 34. The long incline was behind me, and I started to encounter quite a few downhill sections. While I loved running downhill on training runs, today was a very different story. The knee pain came back with a vengeance, and by mile 37 I was hobbling and awkwardly shuffling down even the gradual hills. I had to continually move off the course to let other runners by, and I realized my dream of finishing was in serious trouble. In order for me to stay on pace and hit the checkpoint times (you get pulled from the course if you don’t arrive at a checkpoint by a certain time), I needed to be able to run downhill. I tried to run several more times, but it was tough sledding (or more literally… “sliding”).
The next three miles were extremely difficult. It was all downhill—an elevation loss of 1,400 ft.—and my knee was only getting worse. I lost my balance multiple times on narrow and rocky portions of the course, and only aggravated the injury more trying to re-stabilize myself. Steve Pugsley saw my condition and quickly disappeared into the woods in search of walking sticks. He eventually popped back up on the trail holding a couple of sticks that I used as makeshift trekking poles.
I eventually came around the corner and slowly worked my way down the steep hill that dumps a runner into the little town of Twin Lakes at mile 40. The previous section of the course had delivered one blow after the next, and it was clear I was against the ropes. The Twin Lakes aid station has one of the highest dropout rates because Hope Pass stands next in line, taunting an already beat up runner.
Ashley was the first person I saw in Twin Lakes. She came running towards me with tears in her eyes. I was 30 minutes behind my goal time, so she had been worrying about my health. I then spotted the smiling faces of the rest of my crew, and they ushered me into a heavenly experience—which just meant I sat down in a chair.
Matthew prayed over my knee, and then proceeded to take off my shoe and sock to rub Vaseline on my foot in order to prevent blisters. Ashley worked on the other foot while the rest of the crew restocked my food and water supplies. Lastly, Bobby used some athletic tape to help provide some additional support for my knee, and before long I was up and moving again.
I was committed to continuing until I was pulled from the course, so I left Twin Lakes and started across the field and through the river that’s near the base of Hope Pass. This section of the course garners the most attention and respect from runners. Essentially, it’s a 3,400 ft. climb to an elevation of 12,600 ft. before a 5-mile drop back down into the ghost town of Winfield at mile 50.
The race rules state that a runner must pass through the Hopeless aid station (near the top of Hope Pass) by 4:15 and through Winfield by 6pm if they are allowed to continue. I was confident I could make it to the top of the pass in time, but I knew the descent into Winfield would be very hard with the condition of my knee.
My climb up the pass was simply one foot in front of the other. I could feel the pain, but it was nothing compared to what it felt like descending. I arrived at the Hopeless aid station around 3:50 (mile 45), so I was allowed to continue over the rest of the pass. The volunteers at the top of the mountain were outstanding, and I was surprised by how much food was available at the aid station. Because of the nature of the trail, the volunteers must use llamas (as opposed to motorized vehicles) to get supplies to the Hopeless aid station. They are a dedicated bunch.
I left the aid station and moved above tree line as I continued to make my way to the top of the pass. I was on the switchbacks near the top when I realized my vision started to get blurry, the first sign of low blood glucose. This was my biggest concern coming in, and it was happening at the worst possible time. I experienced a few of these episodes on training runs, and they caused what felt like an absolute crash to my system.
I sucked down a few gel shots and continued to hike up the pass. From past episodes, I knew the worst of it (blurry vision) usually lasted about 20 minutes, and the aftershock (headache, nausea, etc.) usually lasted a few hours. I made it to the top of Hope Pass 15 minutes later, but had little time to rest at the top. It was 4:30pm, which meant I only had an hour and a half to get down.
After the first few switchbacks on the descent, I came face-to-face with the reality that I would not be able to make it to Winfield by 6pm. The backside of Hope Pass is steep, rocky, and treacherous in places. My knee could not support my weight any longer, so I was limited to using my trekking poles as a form of crutches. At the same time, my blurry vision continued to get worse.
I started to get concerned after about 45 minutes with blurry vision. The gel shots and food I was eating didn’t seem to be helping much, and I was running out of food quickly. I didn’t have a choice but to keep working my way slowly down the mountain.
I had been descending for what felt like an eternity when I asked fellow runners (who were coming back up) how much further I had until Winfield. They said it was about 4.5 more miles, which meant at my hobbled pace it would still take a few hours to navigate the rugged terrain.
The strength and confidence that surged earlier in the race was a distant memory. I now felt vulnerable and exposed, still fairly high up on the mountain. I prayed for the Lord’s help and continued to take one step after the next.
The next ninety minutes were brutal. I would take a few steps, step off the trail to let runners going up pass, and then take a few more. I knew the pain in my knee wouldn’t kill me, but I wasn’t sure why my eyes were getting worse rather than better.
With my chances of making the cut-off time long gone, my new goal was to simply make it to the dirt road at the bottom of the mountain. I wanted a good challenge with the Leadville 100, and I was getting my money’s worth. In fact, there were a few occasions when I started thinking about my family and praying that I would be able to see them again. That may seem a bit dramatic looking back, but at the time I wasn’t exactly coherent and was very unsure what was happening with my health.
It took a substantial amount of time, but I finally made it to the trailhead at the bottom of the mountain. It was nearly 50 miles from the cameras and cheering crowds that accompanied the official finish line of this crazy race, but it would serve as my finish line. It was well past the 6pm cut-off time, so I knew my race was over. My knee was still throbbing and my vision was at an all time low. I ran over to some campers and explained my state and a man graciously gave me a ride for the final mile to Winfield where I met my dad who took me directly to the medical team.
After eating, drinking, and resting, my vision became clear again. The medical personnel at Winfield recommended I go back to Twin Lakes and see the race doctors. After being evaluated at Twin Lakes, a decision was made to take me to the hospital for further evaluation. I spent several hours at the hospital in Leadville and after a battery of tests, I was treated with breathing treatments, antibiotics, IV fluids, etc. and eventually released.
Meanwhile, my brother was still pressing on deeper into the course. He cleared the 50 and 60 mile checkpoints before falling behind pace and being pulled from the race near mile 73. He battled tough, and I’m very proud of him.
I’m currently still in the process of recovering physically. I’ve had my knee evaluated and will most likely follow up with a MRI. Everything else seems to be healing nicely. Ashley has been very helpful as she’s been a phenomenal nurse over the last few days. She has loved me well throughout this entire journey.
I still have much to process through this experience. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m confident that the God who walked with me each step of the way will help me gain clarity and understanding in time.
It’s difficult to swallow the results when they don’t align with expectations, but I guess that’s what makes a challenge interesting. Stories are the most compelling when you don’t know the outcome, when there are no guarantees. This is exactly why it takes courage to step into these kinds of stories.
The Leadville journey has been a story that’s been unfolding in my heart for a few years. It’s been compelling because I truly didn’t know how it would end. It was full of adventure, joy, fear, fun, friendships, pain, and uncertainty. In all of my conversations with the Lord, He never promised I would finish. He told me it would be extremely difficult, but He said He would be with me every step of the way.
And I guess in the end, that’s what it’s about. Where I seek results and accomplishments, the Lord seeks intimacy and friendship. While outcomes can’t always be predicted, the presence and faithfulness of God can be trusted.
Moving forward, I hope to continue to take on big challenges that test me at a deep level. I want to continue to live in a story where I don’t always know the outcome, a story where I have to lean into the Lord and trust Him in such a real way.
Does that mean I’ll sign up for the Leadville 100 in 2016?
Not a chance.