Leading Myself to Leadville

It’s official. I’m registered for the 2010 Leadville 100 mile train run in August. This will be my first attempt at 100 miles. I’ve ran four 50 mile races in the past year and a half, and I’m ready to take it a step further (well, I guess it’s more like taking it 16 or so hours of stepping further). Part of me thinks there is no possible way I can finish. Although, I always think this before every race—even if it’s a 50k I’ve ran four times before or a simple and quick fun 5k. But then there’s this HUGE part of me that KNOWS I can do it. I almost feel as if I was born to do it. I have no clue what my time will be—probably somewhere between 24 and 30 hours. Yes, that’s a big window of time. For now, though, I’m not even thinking about time. What I’m thinking about is me and my desire to move with my body for this distance. To do it because I know I can. To re-learn how to take really good care of myself. To learn how to tend to my pain, to listen to it, and then to move with it.

For the past week I have been worried that I wouldn’t be able to do Leadville this year. Not because of any sort of training concern, but because I didn’t know if I would financially be able to do it. I don’t have $300 for registration. By a weird, random, and surprising turn of events, an incredibly gracious stranger and fellow ultra-running enthusiast stepped in and paid my registration fee. And thanks to my incredible skill of putting tons of money on my credit card, I have racked up a good chunk of American Airlines miles and will thus not have to pay for the plane tickets. A freaking amazing independent running store in Chicago, Universal Sole, is even looking into providing me with all of the gu, electrolytes, and other nutritional needs to support my training and through the race. And, if that weren’t enough, my wonderful mother has also insisted on paying for the Leadville since she lives in Colorado. (I’m also asking her to pace me for the last section of the race…the death march…when I’ll be hobbling it in and hallucinating).

So there you have it…financial barriers taken away! Everything has fallen into place, and now I can continue with my training (not that I ever stopped, although I did falter for a few weeks after finishing up the Ice Age 50 miler and not knowing when my next ultra would be). As I prepare myself to run Leadville in 3 months (holy shit!), I look back on what first inspired me.

John Genet.

My uncle.

My uncle who is not actually my uncle because my aunt and him aren’t actually married, but it’s easiest just to call him my uncle.

My “uncle” who runs ultramarathons and who is also in no-way blood related to me, so you can’t say that ultrarunning runs in our genes. Weird, huh?

I paced John for a part of Leadville last year. He’s completed Leadville 6 times now, and while he didn’t finish the 2009 run, he did do an awesome job for the time that he was out there. John is competing in a different type of ultra now—bone cancer treatment—and every time I run a long run I think about him.

Pacing John last year was an incredible experience. I wrote two journal entries that day—one right after I saw the 4am start of the race, and one a few days later after it was all said and done with.

I share these two journal entries with you here. As I re-read them they continue to inspire my own training, as well as keeping me in check with how I’m taking care of my body. With that said, anyone wanna pace me at Leadville, or during a night-time training run in Chicago?


Just after the start of Leadville:

I want to run. I can feel it in my bones. If Leadville had race-day registration, I might have considered it. Am I being cocky? Am I not fully realizing what it takes to run 100 miles? Probably, but I feel like I could do it. I feel like I could run 100 miles today. It might not be pretty, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be fast, but I think my strength and courage could carry me

How else to explain it other than saying I can just FEEL it? I can feel my body, mind, spirit telling me to go for it and just do 100.

There are so many people here. And I know that of the 500 or so starters, maybe half of them will finish. So I wonder, what does it take to NOT finish? What has to play through your mind, what thoughts run through your body to tell you to stop? I feel like my body is always telling me to keep going. Especially when I’m in pain. Run through the pain. When in doubt, just keep moving. Because to stop would probably hurt more—and I know it would be harder.

Seeing everyone start this morning made me think that anyone who really wanted to could run 100 miles. And I guess that is what it’s really about—who would want to? I love the pre-race buzz. To see the main street in Leadville alive and awake at 3:30am was beautiful. The bookstore and coffee shop were open. People waiting in line for a good latte, and standing in the doorway of the independent bookstore, just hanging out and waiting for it all to begin. It almost felt like a party. I almost expected for all of the bars to be open, too. I think everyone here is too drunk on excitement and the love of running to want to drink, though. Maybe ultra races are a runner’s own type of inebriated madness.

On a side note, I am surprised by the lack of women running. But then again, I guess I’m not that surprised. I don’t understand why more women don’t run ultras, though. I mean, why not? They can free your mind and body of so much stress—which I think women especially have a lot of in this society—but maybe it’s that we were/are never encouraged to consider running long distances. Gotta keep us close to home, right?

I’m so awake right now. I was going to sleep once I saw the start—try and get a few more hours of rest—but I’m awake and excited. I need to remember that I’m going to be running 50 miles in about 11 hours or so. I’ve never started a long run in the middle of the day before. I’m so curious about what this will be like. To see the sun set instead of rise, to have my eyes and body cool down with the day instead of opening up and rising with it. It’s a totally different type of running. Plus, you know, headlamps. Weird.

But maybe it won’t be all that different. Running is running is running. It’s always one foot in front of the other and inching into that freeing little mental corner I find with each step. Whether it’s an easy 5 miler before work, or the end of a 30 miler on a Saturday afternoon (or now, the end of a 50 miler at 1, 2, 3, 4, or possibly 5am) I expect for it to feel the same, yet I also know it will be so incredibly new, different, and fresh. I also need to remind myself that it might be hell. Torturous. Grueling. It’s possible I could stop. It’s possible John will stop. I get the sense that neither of these things will happen.

It’s 4:45am. Right now, people are running. They’re 4-5 miles into a 100 mile run. Damn. How small and insignificant those early miles must feel. But they’re the starting point—the base for what will become something larger.

I can’t wait to be out there.

gettin ready to run



John and I head into an adventure together.

Post Leadville:


You can’t ignore your body. Especially during a 100 mile run. I feel as if during some of my long runs I will try to simultaneously ignore my body—her pain, her voice, her limits—while also at times trying to stay incredibly attentive to and in tune with what she’s saying and what she needs. Ignore the body while also attending to it—what a delicate balance.

I saw John stumble and weave on the line of this listen to/ignore the body last night. I met up with him at the 50 mile turn around—Winfield—and he was already about 45 minutes slower than his predicted slowest time. At that point, it was obvious he was just going for the finish rather than under a certain time. And soon enough, the cut-off time of 30 hours became the new time he was aiming for.

Just try to finish.

After hiking up and down Hope Pass it also became obvious that the rest of Leadville would not be a run for him, but hopefully a strong and steady hike. Pain, fatigue, trepidation about your health. All of this was going on, but I think John knew he could finish it. It would be grueling, ugly, in no way enjoyable, and possibly wreck his body for weeks and maybe even months after, but he could do it.

At mile 76, though, he called it a day.

Honestly, I think this was smart. For me, it came down to the fact that he just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.

But then, that’s another balance. I don’t think he was enjoying himself any more at mile 65, or mile 72. So why then? Why at mile 76? Aside from the comfort of the aid station, the actual race officials being there and what not, it really got me thinking about why we call it quits when we do—and why we even start in the first place.

76 miles is a really fucking long way to go—especially in Leadville, Colorado. At what point can we feel satisfied and done with ourselves at mile 76? Does it take “a real ultrarunner” to push for another 24 miles?

I think these things as I consider running a 100 in February. I’ve always thought that between miles 70 and 80 has got to be the hardest. You’re so close, it’s just another 25 or so miles to go, but dude, 25 miles is a really long way.

Will I have the mental strength to tell myself to keep going at mile 75?

Will I have the mental strength to know when to say stop?

I’m incredibly proud of John. I think stopping is probably harder to do than to keep going. It’s such a weird conflict. I think everything in his body was telling him to stop, but I also think every part of him was telling him to keep going.

How do we listen to that?

Part of running 100 miles is to not listen to that shouting at 1 a.m. that is telling you to stop.

But being a smart, good, and I would even say passionate runner is also knowing when it would just be stupid and “crazy” to keep pushing. People call us crazy all of the time for running such long distances. We’re not, though. We’ve just found something that we really love and we’ve adjusted our lives, minds, and bodies to keep after that love.

The crazy hits when we start hurting ourselves—when we go against fully listening to ourselves and damaging a part of ourselves because our minds are so wrapped up in this one thing. And that hurt and damage may not even be physical—in fact, I think injury is not a sign of “crazy.” It’s what we do with that injury—how we respond, how we came to it, and what we let that injury tell us—that points to our running sanity.

I know I’m guilty of running through injuries. Hell, I’m doing it right now. In the perfectly sane and healthy world, that Chelsey would take 4-6 weeks off from running, ice at least twice a day, do some prescribed stretching routines, and let’s throw in some drink-more-water-and-less-caffeine-and-alcohol advice for the hell of it.

It’s not going to happen.

This does not make me crazy.

I don’t go to the doctor for hurting my ankle, because I know what she would say, and I know I won’t take her pills or advice, so let’s not waste each other’s time. If it comes to something serious, I’ll make a date with her. But you gotta trust that I know how to take care of and trust myself.

Running (well, hiking actually) 26 miles of Leadville yesterday was hard on my body. My ass hurts today. So do my inner thighs and my hips. I live in Chicago. I can name all 4 hills in the city of Chicago—none of them were formed naturally. They were all either constructed for sleds in the winter, or old landfills-turned city parks with a hill. The biggest of the four hills is lovingly called Mount Trashmore. Yeah, that’s right. We don’t actually have nature in Chicago, but we do have a lot of trash. And now we have a hill of trash that was constructed for the little ones to have fun sledding down in the winter. Hope Pass ain’t got nothin’ on Mt. Trashmore!) I wish, anways. Hiking up Hope Pass wasn’t as hard on my lungs and breathing as I thought it would be. In fact, I was never gasping for breath. So the breathing at 12,000+feet wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. But my ass, oh gosh. The ass was feeling it.

My shins, too.

I know that I, too, could have finished the other 24 miles. I thought about picking up another runner to pace. I’m sure there were plenty of people there who would have enjoyed the company through the night and into the morning. But my body had been moving for 9 hours, my ass hurt, and the thought of a warm shower and a soft bed was just way too tempting.

Plus, it’s my vacation, and I’d rather be able to run 10 miles every day this week than finish the Leadville course with some about-to-pass-out-and-hallucinating-ultrarrunner that I don’t know.

Not crazy.

We know our limits. We know how to go beyond those limits. We know how to take care of ourselves when we go to far, and we know how to be kind with ourselves through all of it.

One last thing:

John was already planning his training for the Rocky Raccoon 100 and Leadville next year before he even got to mile 65. I think it inspired him to keep going. When you get excited about thinking about training for and running your next 100 while you are in the middle of a 100 that you might DNF—well, that’s when you know that it’s not about having the will or desire to finishing, it’s about listening to what your body is saying right then.

Or, it’s about math.

Best thing overheard at Leadville:

Guy with poles hobbling along around mile 65.

Other guy jogging past him says, “hey, how are you doing?”

Dude hobbling: “Awe, man. I was doing real well, then I blew out my IT band.”

Other guy: “Oh man, I’m sorry.”

Dude hobbling: “Yeah. I figure I’ll make it to the next aide station and then do some math.”

Ha! For him it came down to calculating if he could finish under the cut-off time.

I asked John last night if he cared about making it under 30 hours—that if he wasn’t going to make the cut-off time, did he still want to finish.

“Now that’s something to consider,” he said.

I think, though, that the math of it—the judging if you can make the cut-off time in X amount of hours going at a certain pace—became insignificant towards the end. He might have been able to make it in under 30. But did that matter? What’s a time limit mean to anyone just trying to get their body to move?

I don’t really know how to end this, because, like an ultra race, I don’t think it ever really ends. There’s the planning for the next time, the training and recovering for this time, and the learning from and thinking about all of the last times.

In a way, we’re always doing this because it’s what we love—even when it makes our ass hurt.

The full Leadville 2009 group. Crew members Carli (John's daughter), John, my Aunt Pat, and me.


8 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Pete Stringer said,

    You sound like you can finish. I like your attitude. I have finished it twice, the last time when I was 66. Now I’m 69 and could still finish it, but have not the time to go out for a week to acclimate. What it takes is the belief that you shall finish, that no other option is available (no rides back to Pbville). Arriving at Winfield with at least 45 minutes before the cutoff is almost necessary for a finish, so make that a halfway priority. The next most important station is the fish hatchery, because after that it is a piece of cake.
    Make sure you have a coat to wear available for the stretch from Twin Lakes return — it often is required. A pacer that is close to you personally is better than someone who is course-familiar but can’t talk to you intimately.
    All I can think of. Good luck. I’ll be following you. I love your spirit.
    Pete Stringer

  2. 2

    Bill Moyer said,

    Just have fun as you all ready know. Leave the real worries to all of us volunteers that come from all over the country (my wife and I are from michigan) to help you runner get through the race. See you out in Leadville in August.

  3. 3

    John Genet said,

    Hey Chelsey,

    Awesome! Pat and I look forward to being part of your Leadville 2010 experience! See you in August.

    “Uncle” John

  4. 4

    Lisa Butler said,

    You have already voiced more than many ultrarunners learn in a lifetime of running. Run as long as you are having fun. Then a little more if you are doing a race and not doing any damage. When the sun comes up you will get a new lease on life, don’t let your demons drag you down in the middle of the night. Know when the sun rises, they will vanish!

  5. 5

    Mom said,

    So Chelsey,
    How do I train for the 13 mile “death march”? Do you need to create a training program for me? Or should I draw on those magical moments when you began walking and I coaxed you each step of the way repeating, “Come on Chesley I know you can do it!”? Only 11 weeks “til take off! Love, Mom

  6. 6

    Jerry said,

    Hi Chelsey,

    My name is Jerry Holbrook. I live in Houston Texas and I will be running the Leadville 100 this August. It is my 1st 100. Will you be attending the training camp next week? I will be there. if not see ya in August. Good Luck

  7. 8

    […] journey comes from knowing when to call it quits. Last year when I paced my uncle for Leadville I wrote/thought a lot about how a person knows when to call it quits, verses how she knows when to push through the […]

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