Katie is somewhere around mile 54 of the Leadville 100, and a few hundred feet below the top of 12,600-foot Hope Pass. The 3,200-foot climb seems pretty brutal to me, who has traveled a mere 4 miles. Katie, on the other hand, has already scampered up and down Hope Pass once, then slogged through 3 miles on a dusty, hot road to Winfield, an aid station in the middle of nowhere, where she weighed in, filled her water bladder, teamed with me and turned around to trace her steps and go another 50 miles to the finish line.
Closely-timed splits don't matter so much in ultras. Twenty-minute miles, where an athlete is "running", are more the rule than the exception. What matters more: Resilience. Mental toughness. The knowledge that ups follow downs, and that downs hit every racer, probably more than once.
More than anything, you have to have high expectations for and an unbreakable belief in yourself. Hard enough to do in everyday life--a thousand times more difficult when you're traveling 100 miles on your own feet.
As we ascend the double-black-diamond slope, every ounce of her is concentrating on the other thing that matters in finishing Leadville: relentless forward motion. So I'm surprised, when at mile 54, out of nowhere, she blurts out, "I really thought I could do this, Dimity. I really thought I could." I'm blown away because she's talking in sentences in the thin air. But I'm more surprised because even though this was the fourth time I'd been in Katie's presence, I knew self-doubt wasn't part of her vocabulary. She is one of the most determined runners I've ever met. "I'm not quitting," she told us, her crew at the pre-race meeting, "That just isn't an option. I'm finishing this race."
Far from conceited, Katie doesn't cast an I'm-an-ultra-runner-and-you-think-a-5K-is-hard attitude; she is, simply put, somebody who loves to run and wants everybody to love running as much as she does. She's somebody you want on your side, cheering you on, whether you're running your 5th or 5 millionth mile.
So for her not to cheer on herself was not a good sign.
I immediately go on the offensive. "Of course you thought you could, Katie, because you can," I say, taking a break to catch my breath and trying to think of something better to say, "You are. You're getting it done. One foot at a time, one switchback at a time, just climbing strong and steady."
Even though she did look solid and healthy, she was going too slow, even for a race
where splits don't matter. Over the first 50 miles, she fell increasingly farther away from her predicted finishing times, and now we were under the gun. We had to make it to Twin Lakes, the next aid station, by 9:45 p.m. or she would've been pulled from the race, which has a 30-hour time limit.
As I watch her calves, covered in lavender compression sleeves, go higher and higher, I do some mental mathematics: If we make it by 9:45, that gives her about 12 hours to go 40 more miles. That's a little more than 3 miles an hour, which seems doable until you factor in that she'll already have 60 miles on her legs; there's one more 1,200 foot climb ahead; and 40 miles, even without those circumstances, is far from easy. Put another way: I spoke to a guy--a multiple Ironman finisher, a multiple Boston Qualifier, a runner who never seems to have a bad day--today who said it took him 5 hours to go 12 the last miles. "The hardest 12 miles of my life," he said.
Twirling numbers around in my head, I am not optimistic. She might not quit, but she may not have a choice. So once we start down the rocky, technical pass, I make the situation as simple as possible. "Run as much as you can," I say, "But don't go too fast that you get hurt." Seeming to forget her earlier wishy-washiness, she immediately picks up the pace. I, somebody who wishes for the finish line at about mile 2 of a half-marathon, am in awe. Here, my quads are struggling to finish 10 miles, and she wants 12 more hours of running. She wants to make every cutoff, she wants to go the full 100 miles, she wants to claim a coveted belt buckle, a finishing prize whose low profile belies the magnitude of the task required to wear it.
Not surprisingly, we make it to Twin Lakes about 10 minutes to spare, and she does a NASCAR-worthy pit stop: changes shoes, grabs some layers, gulps some Powerade, then sets off with Julie, who was on duty for 17 miles. I shake out my rocky-filled shoes, down some gorp, then head back to Denver.
When I pull up the covers around 1 a.m., I think, somewhat amazingly, "Katie is still running," and give her a little shout-out prayer. When I wake up at 7, I hope she is still running, but am pretty sure she isn't. Only 40% of the entrants finish the brutal race, and as much as Katie expected herself to, sometimes expectations aren't enough.
I troll Facebook for some updates; I call a couple people, but nobody picks up. I finally leave a message for Tyler, her husband. He calls me back when I was napping--I wasn't kidding when I said my 10 miles wiped me out--and said Katie didn't make it.
But that wasn't the whole story. Katie sent me a note this morning with more details: "A volunteer at the trail head before the last aid station said, 'I've got good news and bad news. If you run to the aid station 1200 meters ahead, you'll make the cutoff. But you have to run around the lake if you want to finish in under 30 hours.' I kicked it in pretty hard--actually ran fast--to make it with six minutes to spare," she wrote, "But I knew then there was a good chance I wouldn't make it to the finish line in time for the cut-off. Even so, I still wanted to keep running and finish what I started."
And so, with her sister as her final pacer, Katie continued her forward motion. She continued even when 30 hours passed. She continued as the sweep truck, the one who follows the last racer, basically pinned his bumper to her butt. She continued as a self-described grump, a huge admission coming from a woman whose doppelganger is Rainbow Brite. (Proof? just look at the cheery clothes she wore through the race.) She continued because she expected to finish, and anything less wouldn't suffice.
Katie, a mother of 3, crossed the line in 30 hours, 30 minutes, which put her on the official DNF list. Did Not Finish? Wrong. Her crossing the line might not have been how she pictured it, but running--and life--isn't always so neat and amenable. She expected to finish, and she did. "I knew I could quit," she wrote me, "And come back next year. But I had to set an example for my kids. I had to show them you finish what you start, no matter how big the task."
And that, as all mothers know, is worth way more than any belt buckle.