Thursday, August 28, 2014

Leadville - an epic adventure with a twist of recovery

I try to limit my use of the word "epic" because it is so overused these days and more often than not in hyperbolic fashion. When my 10-year-old throws a football a considerable distance, categorizing it as epic is a bit of an overstatement. That being said, the experience I had recently traveling to Colorado and crewing for my husband, Ashby, at the Leadville Trail 100 Run truly was epic, in my opinion, and it was well worth the wait. For those of you who don't know, Ashby is not just a runner - he is an ultrarunner, which is a little bit crazy, and he just finished (on his third attempt) the Leadville Trail 100, which is a little bit crazy on a whole other level. You can read about the details of the race and his experience with it here

My job this year, as in the last two years, was to crew for Ashby during the race. In the past, I have done this alone or while toting two small children around with me (I'm still trying to figure out how/why we thought that was a good idea.) This year, I had friends along to help. My friend, Paige, agreed months ago to come along this year and help me crew. I'm not sure what possessed her to agree to such a thing. After all, she is not really interested in pursuing ultrarunning herself (although she is an athlete and runner), and there are no blood ties between her and Ashby that obligate her in any way to assist him in achieving his dreams. But that's Paige - always a supportive and generous friend - and I was looking forward to the experience so much more getting to share it with her. Ashby and I have traveled to Leadville together the last two years, but it's a 30-hour race, where the plan involves seeing him seven times along the way for a few minutes at a time. Crewing is a lonely business when you're a crew of one.

Our third crew member was Karl, a friend from Raleigh, who also planned to pace Ashby for most of the second half of the race. Karl is the husband of one of my colleagues, and I hadn't actually spent a lof of time with him before. Karl came into the mix sort of at the last minute. He has only recently gotten into ultrarunning and has become one of Ashby's more adventurous training partners. He had some personal interest in experiencing Leadville first hand, but it was still remarkably generous for him to take time out of his life and away from his family to fly out to Leadville for the weekend. He was all about being there for Ashby and attending to whatever need he had, and I think he made a world of difference in helping Ashby get to the finish line comfortably. 

To elaborate on the crazy, running a race at altitude requires months of preparation  - weird preparation, like sleeping in a hypoxic tent or, in the alternative, sleeping in a mask attached to a compressor that has the same effect. Also, training with a mask on to limit the amount of oxygen you get during strenuous exercise. Basically, there's a lot of mask-wearing. When you hear your 8-year-old daughter's friend ask, "Why does your dad sleep with that thing on his face?" you suddenly realize that possibly this whole thing has gotten out of control. However, that is the level of dedication Ashby has had when it comes to Leadville. It's been a life lesson for the whole family on how to deal with failure; how to accept it with grace; how to learn and grow from it; and how to persevere and conquer the things you fear the most. Our whole family had to come together and support this effort, and we all did what we had to do to make this happen. We hoped anyway. The first time, we were naive, and then we felt defeated. The second time, we thought we actually knew stuff, so we took steps to prepare appropriately, and then we felt defeated. Now, the third time, I wanted to believe it would happen - that the new preparation had been enough - but I would be lying if I said I felt sure. Nevertheless, I had a lot of hope.  

Ashby had driven to Leadville a week early to acclimate, and Karl had joined him on the Thursday before the race. Paige and I were flying out Friday morning, and I would drive back with Ashby after the race. As a person relatively early in my recovery, travel has been an interesting way for me to observe my progress. I remember the first time I traveled after getting out of treatment. It struck me that my entire approach was different. I didn't choose hotels based on whether they had bars nearby or minibars in the rooms. I didn't have to plan activities around my drinking schedule or make sure activities included alcohol (because before I could see no point of doing an activity if there was no alcohol involved.) When I was drinking, the whole idea of traveling filled me with angst because it messed up my routine. I wouldn't have my regular stores, my regular stash, my regular hiding places. Travel was a burden. The world is vast, but my world was microscopic. Wherever I was in the world, I was still trapped in the same ugly place. There was no freedom from my obsession with alcohol. In very early sobriety, travel continued to make me quite nervous. Being outside of my comfort zone - away from my regular meetings, out of touch with my support network, and out of my predictable routine - felt dangerous and threatening to my recovery. Over time, I have grown to love it, and I've found that I feel safe as long as I'm in a good place with my recovery. I can be present and experience it, and my world has become infinitely bigger and more beautiful. It's very illustrative of the freedom I've been given in recovery. 

Nevertheless, I am still very much a creature of habit, and I knew that this particular trip was going to take me outside of all of my comfort zones. I'm terrified of flying; I would have to fly there on two different planes. I hate being cold; night time in Leadville was going to be around 40 degrees in August, and I strongly feel that 80 degrees in August is a little on the chilly side. I hate not being able to work out; I was off my training routine for what ended up being five days - the horror. I enjoy my sleep; over the course of the five day/four night trip, we only got one real night of sleep. I have no patience and hate waiting; this trip mostly involved waiting on stuff. I hate being in the car; this trip mostly involved being in the car. I hate using public bathrooms and/or using the woods as a bathroom; I think you can see where I'm going with this . . . They tell you in recovery to beware of finding yourself hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, and this trip was likely going to entail a little (or a lot) of each.

Paige and I arrived in Denver around 1:00 in the afternoon on Friday. Karl picked us up and drove us the two hours (actually more like three because of construction traffic) to Leadville where Ashby was attending pre-race meetings. I watched the outside temperature reading on the inside of the car on the drive. It went from 90s in Denver to 40s and back up to the 70s over the course of the drive. WTF? It was just the beginning of the temperature fluctuations we would experience over the next 48 hours. Leadville temperatures would get up into the 70s in the afternoon and as low as 38 during the night, and for some reason 70 degrees in Leadville with clouds feels chilly but without clouds feels like you might burst into flames. Another atmospheric note - the altitude in Leadville is no joke, people. There were times just walking up a slight incline made me stop to catch my breath, and I had a raging headache within a few hours of arriving that didn't go away ever . . . well, until I got back to 5,000 feet in Denver. That being said, the scenery in and around Leadville is breathtaking, and the weather for the weekend was actually probably about as good as it gets for that race. The skies were bright blue and beautiful, it didn't rain, and the temperatures were mostly comfortable with proper layering and unlayering. 

After driving to Leadville, we collected Ashby and drove another 30-40 minutes or so to Buena Vista, where we had reserved a small two-bedroom cabin until Sunday at noon. Although it was 30-40 minutes from the start/finish, it was only about 15-20 mins from the aid station we would be at twice on either side of the midpoint of the race, so it was a pretty good location for a home base. The cabin was not fancy, but it was comfortable. I'd rather not discuss the bathroom. Suffice to say, after my first shower before the race, I opted to forgo showering for the rest of the weekend, and after I stepped in leaking toilet water in my socks, I opted to wear shoes inside for the rest of the weekend.

By the time we were settled, it was time to eat dinner, have a quick crew meeting to go over our race plan, and then go to bed for a few hours. We got up at 2:00 a.m. and hit the road a little before 3:00. Race start was 4:00. I tried to get a sense of how Ashby was feeling, but he didn't say much. I just felt a calmness from him that he didn't have the last two years. I didn't think it was necessarily a confidence that he would finish but rather an acceptance of whatever happened. What he was really feeling, I have no idea, but that's what I imagined.  Meanwhile, I was a bundle of nerves. There is something even more nervewracking about the start of a big race when you're invested but not the one doing it - being left behind to wait and imagine the thousands of things that could go right or wrong out there. And in this race, with those conditions, I do believe there are that many variables. We watched him run off into the night and then shuffled off to the van to drive to Mayqueen, the first aid station we had planned to crew at mile 13.5.

One of the challenges of crewing is trying to figure out how long you want to sit outside and wait. Ashby had provided us with goal time windows for arriving at particular spots, but anything can happen, and you certainly don't want to miss your runner. On the other hand, the car is cozy and warm when the sun's not up and it's 40 degrees outside. Mayqueen also seemed to be the coldest spot on the course, at least from a crew/spectator perspective, so I didn't want to hang around outside any longer than we had to. Parking at Mayqueen is along the road, so we had to walk about a half mile from the car to the aid station. Karl went ahead as soon as we parked. Paige and I stayed a while longer, I ate my second breakfast (because altitude apparently also makes me hungry all the time, even more than I'm already hungry all the time), then we packed our backpacks with crewing necessities and hoofed it in. After waiting about an hour and seeing the sun come up, Ashby came through around 6:30 a.m. He looked good and was in good spirits. We took care of his needs, and off he went. Of course, it was too early to know how things were really going, and I tried not to read too much into anything or make any predictions. He was on the outside of his time goal for that aid station, but I knew the first section had a lot of single-track where passing was difficult, so pace would largely be determined by the crowd. I also knew that it was wise to be conservative at the beginning of such a crazy hard course. We all had a long way to go.

Crewing involves a lot of waiting and watching, watching and waiting, and then more waiting. Finally, you see your runner, and then you have a few minutes of frantic activity, during which you try to assess and gather as much information as possible on how the race is going at that point in time. I tried hard not to overwhelm Ashby with questions, because I know he doesn't deal well with chaos. I generally tried to gauge how he was feeling, how his heartrate was, and whether he was taking in (and keeping in) his nutrition. When we were waiting, I would feel all this anxiety, wondering whether he would come dragging in feeling terrible, hoping he wouldn't say he wasn't eating or, worse, that he'd thrown up. I was desperate for information. After he ran off, there was a sense of relief that I knew where he was and how he was doing, but I was always left with a head full of questions I wished I'd thought to ask. 

When Ashby left Mayqueen, we scooped up discarded items, trash, empty bottles, etc., loaded up our backpacks, hiked back to the van, and made our way to the next aid station, Outward Bound, at mile 24.5. This was the best aid station for parking because it was set up in a field rather than along the side of the road. Visibility was good - you could see the aid station from the car, and you could see the runners coming in from quite a distance. We made fresh bottles, loaded up our gear, and walked in and set up shop. It was mid-morning, and it was starting to warm up and get comfortable. We ran into a friend and chatted for a while. Before long, Ashby came in still looking good but needing to do some blister repair on his feet. It worried me that he had blisters this early on, but he didn't seem all that concerned. Otherwise, he reported that he was feeling strong, his heartrate was on target, and things were going well. It was about to get warm, so he changed into his warm weather gear, we sprayed him down with sunscreen and replenished his nutrition, and he was off again. 

The next stop was Twin Lakes at mile 39.5. The parking again was on the roadside, so we parked, made bottles, loaded up our gear, and hiked in to the aid station. The sun had gotten hot, and all of the shady spots were taken, so we set up in the blazing sun and waited. I was a little nervous about the heat because I know that Ashby traditionally has a hard time with heat, even when he's not climbing mountains at 10,000-12,000 feet. The last two years, he wasn't all that chipper coming through this aid station, which was the last place I saw him before he missed the cut off at the halfway point. This year he blew through shortly after noon looking strong and reporting that things were still going well. No blister complaints. Whew. I wished him luck and told him we would be in the same spot when he came back through at mile 60.5. That would be the next time we would see him, and it would be a while. He had almost 6 hours (6:00 p.m. was the cutoff at the halfway point) to go 10.5 miles. Seems like it should be doable, but it's no ordinary 10.5 miles. This section had been the end of the line in the past, and I was incredibly nervous for him as he set out to tackle Hope Pass.

With several hours to kill, Karl, Paige, and I hiked back to the van and headed back to the cabin to take a break. Karl was planning to pace Ashby for the rest of the race after his return to Twin Lakes, so we tried to get him to rest. Paige and I went out and got some lunch and a few forgotten but necessary supplies like hand sanitizer and paper towels and a Snickers ice cream bar. I tried to take a nap back at the cabin, but I was too nervous to get to sleep. I knew if Ashby made it back to Twin Lakes and felt okay, he would have this in the bag, and the waiting and not knowing was killing me. Finally, it was time to load up and head back to Twin Lakes. It was starting to cool down by the time we parked and hiked back in to the aid station. We arrived and set up in the same spot and waited. We ran into friends again who reported that they had seen Ashby at the halfway point around 4:30, and he looked great. I was excited and cautiously optimistic. The time cut off back at Twin Lakes was 9:45 (or so we thought - turns out they pushed it to 10:00, but none of us knew.) As it got later and later, I got more and more nervous. Karl had wandered up the trail to find Ashby on the course, and he finally came back around 9:30 to announce that Ashby was on his way. However we were on the wrong side of the aid station, where Ashby had to check in before 9:45. Since he didn't want to risk stopping before check in, and he didn't want to check in and then backtrack to where we were set up, we frantically grabbed everything we could and moved it down the road to an area right outside the aid station. Ashby came in looking a little worse for wear. He was still in good spirits but said that he had a rough stretch where he had felt sick and thrown up, and that had significantly slowed him down. This was not good news. I was very nervous to hear he'd thrown up. I knew he needed to rebound from that soon and start taking in nutrition or things could really go downhill. He didn't want to drink his food bottle as scheduled, but Karl promised to carry it with him and make Ashby drink it as they moved. I felt helpless to do anything to make him feel better, so we got him into his cold weather gear, changed out his water and nutrition, and sent him on his way. Paige and I cleaned up, packed up, and headed back to the car. We were headed back to Outward Bound next, but it would be a longer break than last time since Ashby was moving slower, and we were close enough to the cabin to head back for another respite.

Back at the cabin, it was dark and deserted and creepy. We were seriously out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains and nothingness and really dark darkness. Paige and I began to entertain every worst case double murder scenario imaginable. I was also antsy times a thousand wondering how Ashby was doing. We had planned to head back to Outward Bound (mile 75.5) around 1:30, but I was able to pull up the tracker on the Leadville website and see that they were making quicker progress than I thought. I was sort of relieved to pack up early and get the hell out of that cabin/potential crime scene, but I was even more excited at the thought that things were going well out on the course. On our way back to Outward Bound, in the wee hours of the morning, after not sleeping for almost 24 hours, it became glaringly obvious why not painting lines to divide the lanes on your 55 mph, two-lane highway is a bad idea. It messes with your head in a serious way, and we did not enjoy it. Nevertheless, we arrived in one piece and hauled our packs out to the aid station and waited a very short time before Karl and Ashby popped out of the darkness just after 2:00 a.m. Ashby looked great - strong and relaxed. He took a short rest, got his things, and went on, and that was the moment I knew. He was going to finish.  

We met him again at Mayqueen (mile 86.5) at 5:45 and one final crew access point where there was no aid station (mile 93) shortly after 7:00. He looked strong but obviously tired at both. He didn't need much from us; he just wanted to be done. I know him well enough to know what motivates him, so I tried to offer words of encouragement. Crazily, he seemed to be picking up his pace. Each time he surprised us by arriving earlier than expected. At the last stop, I was just starting a sandwich when he rolled up. I thought I had time. I mean, how about a little consideration for me, right? I put down the sandwich and went to see if he needed anything. I told him he had plenty of time. He called me a liar and ran away. Whatever, I figured he was probably just losing it. I know I was - from 29 hours of no sleep and not just running 93 miles.

At this point, our crewing duties were done. All that was left was to head to the finish and wait. Our waiting skills were pretty honed by now. We parked the car in downtown Leadville and walked about 3/4 of a mile out from the finish line to meet Ashby and Karl on their way in. For the last few hours, every time I thought about the moment he would see the finish line, I could feel my throat tighten and tears stinging my eyes. It caught me off guard, and I would quickly think about something else. When he came into view, and it was really happening, I didn't even try not to cry. I had experienced the agony of defeat along side Ashby for the last two years, and I truly got to experience the thrill of victory with him on that stretch of 6th Street. It was the culmination of three years of training, planning, attempting, failing, doubting, fearing, regrouping, overcoming, and ultimately achieving a goal that seemed nearly impossible to achieve at times and that most sane people would have abandoned long ago. I've never known him to want something so badly that was so hard to get, but it was never in him to give up. I could see all of that in his eyes as I took his hand and we walked toward the elusive Leadville finish line. At the end of the road, I peeled off and watched him cross, looking almost as fresh as he had 29 hours ago when he crossed the start in the same spot, however the hell that's possible.

You would think this would be the time to go relax, shower, maybe eat, and get some sleep, but we actually went the opposite way. It was shortly after 9:00 a.m. on Sunday when Ashby finished. After that, we got back in the car for the 30-minute drive back to the cabin in Buena Vista, where we had to clean up, load everything into the van, and check out. Then we got something to eat and drove back to Leadville, where they had the post-race awards ceremony at noon. This is maybe the only time I was actually cranky on the trip, but only because they chose to have a ceremony with time-consuming award-presenting and speech-making two hours after the end of a 30-hour race in a crowded, hot, stuffy gymnasium, making smelly runners and crews (some with raging altitude headaches) who had been awake for 32+ hours wait until the end for them to give out the fucking belt buckles. I'm not saying crankiness was the best approach in this situation. I felt bad putting a damper on Ashby's buckle excitement. I'm just saying . . .   

Belt buckle in hand, we then had to go back to the race store to pick up Ashby's personalized jacket. This race gives really nice swag, but they do make you work for it, even after you already worked your ass off for it. While Ashby and Karl hit the store and Paige collected Ashby's drop bag, I downed more headache powder and booked a hotel room near the Denver airport. Karl and Paige were flying out around midnight that night, and Ashby and I had no real plan except that we were going to drive back to Raleigh. With a room near the airport, I figured we could all sleep until they had to catch their flight, and then Ashby and I could sleep until morning and hit the road. There was one small hitch in the plan - the 3 hours worth of mountainous highway separating us from our hotel room. We had to make a decision about who among us was least likely to fall asleep behind the wheel. Although Ashby was obviously the most physically exhausted, he was also wired from all of the recent dream-achieving, so he took the wheel. Until he couldn't, and then Paige took over, and eventually we straggled into a Hyatt where sweet, sweet sleep would soon come. After pizza. Only after pizza. Later that night, we said farewell to half the team, as Paige and Karl headed off to catch a shuttle to the airport, and early Monday morning Ashby and I embarked on our 28-hour journey home. That's right. 28 hours. Straight through. Because why not?

Side note on driving 28 hours straight from Colorado to North Carolina - don't. There was a moment around 3:00 in the morning when I was driving through Indiana or Ohio or one of those states that starts with a vowel, when it was dark and the fog was so thick I couldn't see more than a few feet in front of the car, and for the third time in the last four nights I found myself behind the wheel of a minivan at 3:00 in the morning, and I might have started to hallucinate a little, and suddenly that illusion of control I have when I'm driving went completely out the window, and I actually thought, "I'd rather be flying." So you know it's bad.

Obviously though, we made it back home alive and well, and I've done a bit of reflecting on the whole thing since. What it comes down to is that I'm grateful for the once in a lifetime experience and for what it showed me about my life. The race itself was amazing to watch, as always, and crewing is a fun and rewarding thing to do. It is mind-boggling how difficult the course is, and being there to see the runners at various stages, at their highest highs and lowest lows, is a profoundly human experience. Getting to see someone I love cross the finish line after working so hard to get there was pure joy. I'm grateful to have been a part of it.

I'm grateful to be where I am in my recovery, which gives me the freedom to experience this kind of adventure and be present and appreciate the magic in it rather than focusing on my own discomfort. I was cold, I was tired, I was hungry all the time, I had a headache that wouldn't quit, and any one of these things would have been something that ruined everything for me once upon a time. When I was in active alcoholism, these things all would have been reasons to drink. A lot. I would have obsessed about finding alcohol. When I was in very early recovery, I would have obsessed about avoiding alcohol. Now, I don't have to think about alcohol at all. I have a network of friends in recovery to lean on who are not out of touch even when I'm far away, and I have tools to deal with situations as they happen. I'm so grateful for my freedom in recovery.

I'm grateful for the relationships I have in my life. Ashby and I have both been overwhelmed by the support he's received from family and friends during this endeavor. A lot of people reached out to wish him well, encourage him, and congratulate him. We are so fortunate to have family who support us and watch our kids while we're off gallivanting across the country achieving personal goals. We are so fortunate to have kids who are such cool little people that we can't wait to get home to see them - so much so that we're willing to drive 28 hours straight to get home. And then to have friends who go above and beyond and take time out of their own lives to drive and/or fly across the country to participate in our personal adventures . . . well, we have been gifted with remarkable people in our lives, and I'm grateful for that.

Speaking of, shout out to Paige, who has been one of my closest friends for many, many years. We've known each other since junior high school, and we've had plenty of adventures together over the years. We chat nearly every day and share our fears and flaws along with the mundane details of our lives. We can talk about anything or be comfortable in silence. She has been a huge supporter in my recovery, and we share a lot of interests and views on life. Even knowing that this trip wouldn't be the most "fun" all the time, she jumped right on board and crewed her heart out. I never had to get past the halfway point of the race on my own before, and now I'm so glad I didn't have to, because the difficulty level increases exponentially when the sun goes down Saturday night. I figure she at least cut in half my chances of driving off a cliff or getting murdered in the middle of nowhere, and she made it a lot more fun. One of my favorite memories was the second time we were at Mayqueen. It was around 5:00 a.m. It was cold and dark, and Paige and I were each wrapped in blankets, sitting in camp chairs under a very starry sky. I was tired and delirious, nestled in the hood of my down jacket. We were chatting and people-watching and waiting. My voice was starting to fade and crack, and Paige said, "Tell me a story."  And I thought to myself, this is real friendship. I'm grateful for that.

FInally, I'm grateful to be married to Ashby, who I've said before is an amazing person. There's no need to go into all the reasons why here, although he's going to wish that I had. Yes, I know him well enough to know that the man loves compliments. It's not because he finished Leadville, although I truly admire the dedication it took for that to happen. But what I learned about our relationship on this trip was that, even after a 30-hour race that took a lot out of both of us, we looked forward to spending 28 hours together in a car because we like each other. And we actually had fun spending 28 hours together in a car, even though we probably came pretty close to dying a few times. That is saying something, and I'm grateful for that.

So, after a week of assessing, that's how Leadville 2014 shakes out for me. Long story short, it was epic.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful story and perspective. So glad he finished!