Leadville & Cascade Crash & Burn
by Joe Prusaitis
Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run
Dropping to my knees, I roll onto my side, then flat on my back. My chest expands and contracts rapidly, hyperventilating. An unhealthy wheeze escapes my lungs. I begin to wonder if maybe this isn't my day. It's time I got off this beast. Slowly, I get up and then begin my fall off the mountain.
After running Bighorn and Hardrock, I know that Leadville is chancy. Matter of fact, I have decided not to do it. But there are a few friends who know where my buttons are and they push them. I am easy prey. So, I enter and make my plans. Itíll be tough, with little vacation time leading to a fast in and out. Two weeks at Hardrock gave me plenty of altitude, but itís now four weeks behind, leaving me cold at ground zero. The aggressive intermediate cuts will also force me to go out quicker than Iíd like and the final 30hour cutoff will keep me from slowing much. I can run a good pace now and then and I can run at altitude reasonably well, but I can't seem to run fast at altitude. The combination of circumstances seems to gang up on my weaknesses at the cost of my strengths. Still, I am confident that I will find a way. I usually do. I always seem to be able to adapt, to recover. I have to believe it. To think otherwise is to fail before I even begin.
Arriving on Thursday, I feel comfortable at Leadville's 10000ft elevation. It'll feel different once I start running and again and when I start to climb, but that'll have to wait until Saturday. Check in and drop bags go according to plan, and Joyce hooks a ride for crew and pace chores. I spend the day eating well, drinking a good bit of water, and getting plenty of sleep: a simple plan with no stresses or hang-ups.
With a 4am start, our 570 strong herd thunders down the paved road in the dark. Butch Allmon and I go out fast and I quickly fail my first test with simple mathematics. I have 2 water bottles and 1 flashlight, but only two hands. I should know better. I neglected to bring my third hand. I must be getting forgetful or more correctly, just not thinking. My pants have large front pockets, but the full water bottle doesn't sit there well. I try holding the flashlight and 1 bottle with one hand, but my arm gets tired quickly. I end up holding the 2 bottles with one hand, but it's hard to drink. Every combination still leaves no free hands to take my salt or pick my nose. I drink one bottle quicker than usual, just so I can put it in my pocket. Thatís about when Butch and I reach the lake perimeter trail, where a guy bangs on a large base drum. It's also when we realize this is too fast and back our pace off just a bit. Butch stops to wiz every few minutes, which provides ample opportunity to test another combination that might work, but does not. Eventually the sunrise solves the problem for me just minutes before reaching May Queen. I stash the flashlight in my other pocket, leaving me with just 1 water bottle in 1 hand and a lot more freedom to scratch every itch. What an idiot!
We reach 13mile May Queen faster than I normally would. Our pace is insane, and short lived too. I feel good, but so far, it has been flat. The jury is still out when we start to climb, but the verdict arrives too soon, and judgment is passed. On Sugarloaf, bad news comes with a whisper. A roughness in my breathing, a wheeze that slips out with each exhale, a very slight rasp. The 2000-pound gorilla is aboard. Itís not a good sign. Quietly, I back off even more, trying to go easier with less effort, but it makes no difference. I'm trying to determine if Butch is waiting on me or struggling also. I tell him to let me be, but he's waited on me before and seems content to do so again. My breathing seems to be getting rapidly worse as I go. We walk up Sugarloaf together, talking up old times, and making plans for new ones. A couple of old fools who know better and care less. We'll take what the mountains give us, and odds are good it will be bad. A tingling in my fingers confirms the thought. The powerline crackling overhead confirms the beginning of our descent, and where I usually get even with this type of course. We do run much of the downhill, but not with the same flair as usual. The last mile leading into the Fish Hatchery is nasty olí asphalt that we share with a few cars. I don't care much for paved road, but I have run a bit of it, so I'm surprised how much it seems to bother me. Even though the people in the cars are friendly, I'm irritated by their presence. I must be real low on calories. We're still well under the cutoff, but the telling signs are evident that all is not well.
Joyce is waiting on me, and helps with my drop bag. I trade one of my water bottles for the lightweight Camelback. I've been drinking well, but my stomach is bloated and uncomfortable. My salt caps have been at regular intervals, same as usual. I could be eating more, but I'm doing ok. I begin to wonder if this is another symptom of edema. I try a bowl of hot oatmeal with hope that it'll help. Joyce walks out with Butch and I, handing us a tortilla sandwich with avocado and tomato.
More asphalt and traffic lead us toward Half Moon. Cars whiz by in both directions as we run & walk while we eat & talk. There are a lot of runners and a lot of cars on the road. A few miles, but way too much for me. I'd like to rip up this road and make it single track. My Achilles flare up on me more on roads than it does on hills now a days, and I can feel it starting to talk to me again. At the turn off the main road, the asphalt continues but with enough shoulder for me to escape. Butch and I hook up with Mike Riggs to share the road, along with quite a few others. We should all be quite a bit faster on this flat surface but nobody in this crowd appears either fast or happy. Are we all cussing the asphalt road? The heat seems to be up a bit, making me wish for a good storm right about now. If I had any piss in my vinegar, I'd pick up the pace to get off sooner than later. But, my piss and vinegar seems to be mush right now. Still dragging my legs, I watch as Butch manages an ambling run to pull ahead and slowly disappear. Mike also seems to have good energy, and has one heck of a fast walk. Watching him, I realize he's holding back, waiting on me. I suggest he unhitch me and get on down the road. I'm in a bad funk and he dare not wait on me. This seems to galvanize him as he quickly changes gears and speeds ahead. He's a good friend and I'm proud of him, his power walk paying big dividends. I seem to be in a middle zone, somewhere between good and bad, half awake - half asleep. Is this normal for altitudinally maladjusted individuals? I assume it must be, but I still need to eat and drink, so I do. Half Moon is a wonderfully shady roadside pull in. Two kids assist with my drop bag and cold drinks while I sit. I leave with Mike but again can't hang on. He's only walking but quickly disappears down the road. Even after some food and rest, I still can't get the motor going. Iím all sputter! I try on a few good memories and test a few high-energy songs in the back of my mind, but nothing seems to put the bop in the bee. I have no choice but to wait it out, as I have done before, but I do this while moving forward down the road, albeit painfully slow.
We finally leave the road for a wonderful single-track trail and I'm thinking this has got to help. It starts with a good stiff climb, but I like this and get into a rhythm as I climb. Ascending slowly, exhaling evenly, I pass a few others, and start to get that really good feeling back again. A hint of a smile begins to creep back onto my face. I pick up a rock now and again but usually just ignore them until one works itself into a position with the pointy end up. As much as I hate to stop, one of them does find that painful position, so I stop and remove it. Standing back up almost knocks me out. Seeing spots, I sit down and lean on a tree, breathing like a dog, rapid breath and edema rasp. The hyperventilation lasts much longer than I would have thought. A few minutes, then I'm up again, but moving slow again. I try to dial in a pace that allows me to move as fast as possible without stopping, a speed where I can breathe without going anaerobic. The pace I eventually find will kill my chance of finishing if I'm forced to stay on it. Past the steepest part of the climb, I start running again. It aint too fast or pretty but at least I'm running. The trail and the woods through here are gorgeous: my favorite part of this course. A tad cooler here in the shade and it may be that my body cools down some, giving me more energy. I don't really know for sure what it is, but I am starting to have some fun again. The final section into Twin Falls is a long downhill, so I give it a try. There are eight of us bunched up in a line and we soon discover we're in reverse order to our downhill speed. As each one pulls over, those following go faster. In this manner, I slowly get faster and faster as each person steps aside until I sprint past the last fellow in front of me on the jeep road leading into Twin Lakes. I pass Butch on the final turn just before hitting bottom. I walk into the Twin Lakes station in time to hear Mike tell Joyce that I'm falling back and may be awhile. He's surprised to see me and I am too. I'd never have believed that I'd catch him, and Butch too! For the moment, I feel good. But the joy flies quickly and fades to something else. Still, my time is good despite my condition. I've made all the cuts so far with plenty of time to spare, but I know that my condition is rapidly deteriorating. My energy's been a rapidly descending sign wave that should flat line somewhere up on Hope Pass.
A light rain is falling as Butch and I walk out. Accompanied by a stiff wind, we cross the river marsh. The race leader passes us coming in, and we decide that it's impossible that he's in the race! Multiple stream crossings sting our legs while the rain continues to fall. I'm quite comfortable in shorts but I pull on my rain jacket just to keep my clothes from getting saturated. The water feels great on my legs, even though itís a stinging cold. The open marsh turns to trees soon after the last water crossing and quickly begins to climb. Butch waits patiently on me for a bit longer and then finally turns me loose. He seems to be climbing well or least a lot better than I am. I try to dial in my best possible climbing rhythm but it's well short of pathetic. My cautious lazy pace cannot repair the difficulty of my breathing. My labored ascent quickly spirals down to a crawl. With Mike and Butch long gone, alone I focus on my breathing. I try to get my mind around it, but for nothing. I attempt to leave my body, escape into a comfortable place in my mind. It seems to work as I wonder about in my memories, but I come back to find that I'm standing still. My toes start tingling, so I back off even more, if that's possible. Runners are sprinting by in the opposite direction, wondering, I'm sure, why I'm standing still. I attempt to get out their way with little success. Hell, the sweat on my face is moving faster than I am. The Hopeless station comes with little relief and then much later, the summit. Takes me four and a half hours to get from Twin Lakes to Hope Pass and I'm exhausted. A false BM adds to my discomfort and body confusion. I lay down on the summit and it's an enormous mistake. My breathing rapidly accelerates: a hard, heavy, raspy wheeze that lasts until I sit back up again. I need to get off the mountain and quickly.
It's my kind of narrow track downhill, but with meager room for two bodies to pass, and full of runners coming up hill. There are so many people I can't get into a rhythm. Most are generous, moving over to give me room, while others barrel right through me with nary a nod. I'm not sure who has the right of way so I watch each one and react accordingly. I fall a few times as I struggle past one after another. I know many of these people on the 25hour bubble, and they're in a hurry to summit and move on. My breathing seems ok on the descent but it usually is. Still, it takes me way too long to reach the road.
On the dusty road to Winfield waits the 50mile turn-around. I move my bandana up to cover my nose and mouth, shove my hat down to block as much as I can, but still able to see the road. Cars are going both ways, most attempting to be considerate, but some not really giving a damn that they dust everybody on the road. The bandana makes it even harder to breath but it does keep out most of the dust. I try a few times to run but manage no more than a fast walk. I stop only once, when I see Butch, to lend him a flashlight. He's going to need it and I have another at Winfield.
The cutoff is 6pm and that's when I arrive. They're very friendly and attempt to hurry me through so I can make the cut and keep going, but I don't want to hurry. It's starting to rain. I ask for my drop bag and sit down to eat, but they can't seem to find my bag. I need warm clothes and my flashlight for the return.
Iím completed soaked with sweat and the cold rain is causing my body to shake just a bit. They're still trying to hurry me, but I know better than to go out without fuel and warm clothes, so I have some soup while they continue to search. Kathy comes over to help and finds my bag. She's asking me questions that I struggle with the answers, so I go off to change my clothes, before I answer. She's trying to gauge my status and I'm not doing too well with the answers. She says I have three and a half hours to get back over Hope to Twin Lakes. I tell her it took me five and a half hours to get here. She looks concerned and scrunches up her face but doesn't say a thing. I haven't felt well all day and I'm pretty certain my pace won't improve any time soon. The rain continues to fall and my body continues to shake. I can still hear the rasp in my breathing and begin to wonder about my health. It would be so foolish for me to go on, get half way up the mountain, and then lose control of my core temp. No way could I keep my body heat up at this miserable pace, not to mention at what point my breathing problems would become dangerous.
I don't have a medical background, relying more towards what feels right or wrong, and usually ignoring that. But this time, maybe it's time for me to stop. I wonder! I roll it round in my mind for a bit, then walk over and have the medical team cut off my band. It seems the smart thing to do.
This is not my first DNF. The first one felt awful for a long time. The second one wasn't much fun but I didn't dwell on it for near as long. This time, I just feel empty. Maybe I'm getting good at this! I want to beat myself up but can't find any good reason to do so. I'm not confused or disoriented: Just tired, bone tired! I can't seem to breath. I'm sure it's just the altitude I hitch a ride back to Twin Lakes where Joyce is waiting for my return. When I get there, I'm not sure where to find her, but I do see Butch's wife, Donna. I climb out of the truck and immediately begin to shake uncontrollably. I rush over to Donna and ask if I can please sit in her car for a minute. I can barely climb in as the shakes overwhelm my body. Joyce arrives with a lot of concern and a warm change of clothes. Everybody we know is waiting on somebody else, so for the moment, we're stuck right where we are. Joyce eventually talks a stranger into giving us a ride back to our room in Leadville. A warm shower and a night's sleep does wonders. By morning, I'm still exhausted, but my breathing is better. Only a bit of wheeze remains. I suspect it'll be days before my lungs recover.
Mike arrives at the hotel around 2am. He's staying in the next room but the walls are paper-thin, so I can hear his breathing is about as bad as mine. He made it as far as 70mile Half Moon before the edema took him also. Butch didn't quite get back over Hope before he started blacking out. Every time he stood up, heíd start to see spots, so he sat down just below the summit. The sag found him there and helped him over and into the Hopeless aid station. He spent the night under their care, eventually getting off the mountain in the morning, while Donna waited. Moogy made it to 77mile Fish Hatchery. He tried to push his body past all the issues that eventually overwhelmed him. They had to cut his ring off because of the swelling, and his leg was numb, but it was the edema that got to him.
Turns out, it was just a 50 mile training run at altitude. I have another race next weekend and precious little time to dwell on what went wrong. I have done better, but such is life. We learn more from our mistakes, I understand. I wonder about that. I had a great time hanging with Butch for most of the day and the weekend with Mike. Another grand adventure regardless the outcome. There will be many more, I am certain of that.
We skip the awards ceremony to wash our dirty laundry and then start our drive back towards Denver for our evening flight home to Austin. Even with a direct flight, we arrive home well after midnight. I get to work by 7am, trying desperately to keep up with my projects so that I can escape again on Friday. All week long is insane, including the unpacking and repacking on Thursday night. Joyce and I drive back out to the airport again at 5am on Friday, arriving in Seattle around noon. George Hitzfeld is waiting for us at baggage claim. We drive downtown for lunch and then an hour more out to Cle Elum for our hotel. Our travel plans go without a hitch. We are now ready for the next oneÖ I hope!
Cascade Crest Classic 100 Mile Trail Run
The Cascade Crest Classic starts at 10am, so we arrive at the fire station by 8am to sign in, deal with our drop bags, have breakfast, and hear the pre-race briefing. 10am sharp, we start on a relatively warm and sunny day. George and I run just a little at a very relaxing pace. The mood is laid back and easy, while the road is dirt and very dry. A fine powder dust rises from it, filling the air. A mile or more of this before we start up something a bit steeper. After Hardrock and Leadville, it feels nice to be able to breath this well while running. We reach the 1st aid station at the Goat Peak Trailhead. After only 3 miles, there is nothing I need, so I turn off the road and start up the trail.
I had hoped to get out of the road dust on the trail, but we remain inside of it. The trail looks fresh cut such that the pack I'm running with continues to raise dust even as we rise up towards Goat Peak. George and I hang together, making good time, and talking with our neighbors. I stop a few times to take pictures, but still continue to run and feel well. George pulls ahead during one of my picture breaks and then we summit and I get ahead of him when he steps off trail for a pee break. I feel great. The uphill went real well and the downhill goes just as well. I don't realize George is behind me until I stop and he catches back up. We roll along the summit with a few nice up and downs. George gets ahead of me in here and gone.
My legs start to feel a bit rubbery. I begin to trip a bit, I think because I can't seem to lift my feet. I wonder if I'm low on fuel. I had a good breakfast but I eat some hammer and continue to drink well. The sun has come out strong and I begin to feel the heat. I roll into the next station at Cole Butte to top off both bottles and then try some melon and a sandwich. With only 9 miles done, I'm surprised at how poorly I feel. I don't feel well at all and walk out trying to solve the problem: heat, calories, water, salt, sugar, altitude?
The starched white road surface on this high ridge seems to reflect the sun such that the suns heat and glare come from both directions. Iím surprised to find myself completely alone now. The road turns are not so obvious such that I have to stop at a few turns to find the ribbons and my way. My eyesight has been getting worse these last few years. I wonder about my ability to find my way because of it. A bit of breeze feels nice, but I wish for more. How about a bit of that famous Seattle rain or maybe even some cloud cover? I can't get my body to move well, even on the long downhill. I'm barely 10 miles in and already it feels like the late race downward energy spiral. I spot somebody running well below on the road across the bottom, which allows me to believe Iím going the right way. This helps me relax and run a little faster.
The dust rises from the road as I walk into the Blowout Mountain aid station at 14 miles. Itís sitting out in the open, baking under the sun. I refill my water bottle, eat some melon and start back out. The road quickly turns uphill into the glorious shade of a single-track trail. As soon is I slip into the wonderful coolness of the deep shadows, I step off the trail and sit down. Sweat pours off my head, running down my arms and back, drenching my clothes. A steady drop off one elbow creates a small mud puddle on the ground. Disoriented, I watch the muddy spot grow while a few people pass by. A couple slow to ask how I'm doing. If I look as bad as I feel, then I must look pretty bad.
The next climb is a long slow head-hanging sweat drenching struggle. I tough it out as best I can, attempting to not look too bad as people come by. Itís a tough job trying not to look bad, and Iím sure I fail miserably. Once on ridge, I roll along a fun trace of a goat trail with breath taking views all around. The route twists about a bit before it finds the Pacific Crest Trail. A sharp right turn drops me into a deep old growth forest, cool and very soft. Not much sunlight gets through to the ground, but does light up an occasional low hanging branch in a brilliant blend of light & color. Majestic displays of natural art decorate the forest walls, making me wonder if art studios study the deep forests to see how to present rare art. Getting out of the heat and my own misery for a bit does wonders for my legs. My cooling core temp gets me going again, but itís the natural of my surroundings that lifts my spirits. For the first time in a while, I pass a few people, rolling into the Tacoma Pass aid station with 23 miles behind me.
I'm surprised and happy to see Joyce waiting here for me. This was not part of her crew plan. She loads me up with some ice-cold drinks and a sandwich of avocados and tomatoes. She asks how I feel and receives a negative evaluation. It surprises her because she's not used to hearing anything less than perfect from me. I hope for better, but I'm honest with her about how things have evolved up to now. The iced down drinks work their magic and I begin to feel much better quickly. The calories will work their magic later.
I feel much better and life is good when I leave. A gentle rolling climb starts me out and the deep forest soon thins to a high ridge where Hans-Dieter joins me. I don't have near the energy I'm used to, but I hope that soon it will return. I stumble along, hanging onto Hans as we roll off the summit and then start the next rolling climb. I have given up on trying to go easy. Instead I try to force the issue, to hang with Hans, and steal some energy. But, the heat and the hills quickly bring me back down to reality. My dexterity and grace gone to hell in a hand basket, I continue to force the issue. It's getting late in the day and although I do have a flashlight, I'd as soon get to Stampede before dark. The Snowshoe Butte aid station at 28 miles sits on a high single-track trail in the middle of nothing, three people with water and a table full of goodies. Hans gets a quick refill and goes while I take a bit longer to fill my camelback. I try to catch back up but each time I get close, he pulls away again. We pass through another of the deep old growth forests followed by a series of clear cuts. Regardless, my muscles have deteriorated, my energy deficit enormous, and my endless drive emptied to nothing. I seem to be slipping deeper and deeper into a big hole.
I come into the 33 mile Stampede Pass aid station a few seconds after Hans, but well before dark. Joyce tells me I look like hell but I've made up a lot of time from Tacoma Pass. I don't have much to say. I have a cold drink or three and a sandwich. I swap out of my funked up nasty shirt and start shaking in the process. George has been through and gone. Jan is here with Joyce, crewing for another George, and still waiting for him to come in. Hans changes his shirt and heads out, while Jan gets me some hot broth and then offers some hot chocolate too. Other people come and go while I continue to sit.
Do I want to continue to beat myself up? With 70 miles to go, my doubts and the questions become a high-speed spin round my mind. I'm not even close to recovered from Leadville and the edema. Hardrock and Bighorn took more out of me than I want to admit. But I don't want to quit! I still have plenty of time and Joyce wants me to keep going. She's ready to continue, but I do not. It'll be dark soon and I'll be much better now that the sun's not roasting me. I have been struggling with finding the course, mostly because my eyesight is so bad, but I wonder how much harder this will be after dark. They are all bad excuses and none of them valid. I've rarely heard one good enough to warrant quitting, yet here I am, sitting down, and knowing that I am done. I have no energy and no longer wish to drag my butt for another 70 miles. The joy is gone. I am no longer having any fun. I tell Joyce I am done. I take off the cow-tag number and give it to her. Jan's friend George comes in on a bum leg and calls it quits also. Joyce takes my number down to the station and comes back with another runner who has dropped. We offer Mike a ride back to his car at the start. He doesn't have a place to stay because he also had planned to run all night, so we offer him George's bed for the night. It is done. We climb in the car and follow Jan to the highway and the hotel. Pizzas and beer do little to ease the gloom from the dark cloud hanging over all of us. No warm fuzzies here, we each slip off to bed and a restless sleep.
In the morning, we go for breakfast and then settle in to wait for George. He comes in with an excellent time for his first mountain century run and a qualifier for Hardrock. He looks used up and sleepy, but extremely pleased for beating the dragon. His smile tells it all. I am very happy for George but I canít help but feel some envy. I miss what he is feeling right now. I feel the urge to beat myself up for this but I cannot. George deserves his finish and what it brings. I got what I paid for. I attempted a very rugged set of century runs and it kicked my butt. I gave it a go and it went. Time to move on to recovery, then rebuild, and plan the next grand adventure.