Great Expectations: Ultra Long Race, Ultra Long Post

Katie and I, heading for the hills.

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

A few more steps to the top, then a few--or a million--more to the finish.

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.

Katie, looking like the resilient runner she is 99.9% of the time.

55 responses to “Great Expectations: Ultra Long Race, Ultra Long Post

  1. Katie,
    Not only is your story inspirational and motivating to all that have read it but I’m sure you will resort back to the story and comments by your friends, family and fellow runners to inspire yourself on your next ultra. I may borrow them too! As an ultra runner, I know how easy it is to quit especially when faced with the clock that runs out, legs that won’t support you, feet that are torn to shreds, and not to mention the nagging intestinal issues. I am so impressed with the will power you constantly pulled on to cross that finishline. You truly are the winner that never quits! I am proud to have you as an ultra friend!

  2. Katie, you will probably NEVER know how many people’s lives you have touched by the way you finished the race and in the way you dealt courageously with the adversity and disappointment that confronted you at the end. I know that I have been changed and inspired as I heard about your accomplishment and read this amazing detailed account of your successful finish. I can’t wait to do St. George with you and spend time with such an amazing and inspirational woman! GREAT JOB!

  3. Yep! Sign me up with the weepers because that’s what’s going on as I type this. Katie – you HAVE set an example for your kids about quitting plus you’ve inspired more people than you will probably ever know. My hope for you is that every time you need a bit of “atta girl” you will turn to this post. I know I will.

    Dimity – excellent writing!

  4. Katie is such an inspiration. DNF is Did Not Fail. What an amazing accomplishment and excellent role model for her kids, and all the rest of us RLAM’s.

  5. Wow!!! You will get that belt buckle, I KNOW you will! Your will and determination is unmatched to anyone I know. Congratulations to you, Katie!!!

  6. Great post Dimity. You captured Katie’s spirit so well. It was truly inspirational to be a part of Katie’s crew and pace her through the night. Although I will never (and it’s a never not an if) do an ultra marathon, there are so many different kinds of ultramarathons in life including being a mother. Katie’s determination, training, patience, humor, and support from her family and friends were such a great experience to be around over the last year that I just hope that some has rubbed off on me and made me a better mother/friend/spouse.
    I’m back in for next year!!!!

  7. Katie thank you for running and then letting them post about it today. Way to go!! I think I needed to read this. I have been in a running slump BIG TIME. I have no desire to go but after reading about what you did makes me think I need to quit acting like a pansie and get up and run. Great job!!!

  8. WOW. Congratulations, Katie, on your FINISH at Leadville! Thanks for the inspiration and I will channel your energy and determination on my next long run (and marathon!).

  9. Katie, You ARE a finisher!! You ARE amazing!! You ARE inspiring!! You ARE an exceptional role-model to your children and everyone’s life you touch, including mine.


  10. this is from step dad bruce. i remember katie getting down and doing 20 push ups like a man at age 12. i guess i should have known then that she would be doing extrodinary things. she was built like a small tank. arms like steel. amazing. u see few people like that. im proud of her. the kids, our grand kids that is are already following in her footsteps. running fast and hard at 5-14 years old , all three of them. quite a familly. glad to be a part of all of this. love bruce

  11. I was fortunate enough to finish Leadville this year but I think I am most inspired by runner like Katie. In my mind she represents the true soul of ultrarunning, when all meaning appears to have dissapeared you simply create your own and forge ahead. I am sure she will be back with a vengence.

  12. Another one crying here. I’ve been struggling with the mental toughness aspect of running lately. I’ll be thinking of Kate on my next long run.

  13. All I can think of is WOW! That is amazing! I will definitely be thinking of her as I work on my running and during my next 5k…I’ve had the sweeper truck glued to my butt during all 3 of the 5ks I’ve done so far…always the last place finisher. Not quite the same thing as what she went through, as I was only doing a 5k, but not totally dissimilar either.

    Great job Katie! I think I named my youngest daughter quite right, Katie seems to be a good name for determined strong women!

  14. Thats my gal. You are an inspiration to me also as I see you are to many others. You are a great Mom and daughter. I love you so much and are extremely proud of you.

  15. I don’t know if non-mothers are allowed to post here (I’m a dad…sorry), but I wanted to add my two cents. I was blessed to be a member of Katie’s crew for this race, and am even more fortunate to consider myself her friend. Being there and watching her grind through this ordeal while maintaining her grace and spirit (and even a bit of humor) — well, it was one of the most inspiring and memorable events of my life. Dimity and Katie’s other pacers also deserve kudos for their wonderful support and effort, and it was amazing to see how the entire ultra-running community pulls together to support their compadres during an event like this. But the best part may have been watching her kids striding by her side during the last torturous mile to the finish line, and seeing each one give her a gigantic hug at the end.

    It certainly takes individual guts and determination to do something like a 100-mile run, but it also takes family, friends, and community to provide the environment that makes it possible. So I say congratulations to Katie, but also to her family, and to every other RLAMer, runner, and supporter of events like this. Thank you all for giving me an amazing weekend I will never EVER forget, and an inspiration that will stay with me forever!

  16. Amazing job Katie! It would have been so easy to quit when you got to 30 hours, but you didn’t and that is the important thing. I know it is cliched, but you never win whenyou quit. To take that further, you ALWAYS win when you DON”T QUIT!

  17. So good to know I wasn’t the only one moved to tears. I can see this story replaying in my head next time I hit a wall during a run.

  18. Katie!! You are my hero!! Thank you for your attitude, your persistance and your willingness to push your body to places that are so amazingly difficult!! Congrats to you on finishing Leadville and never forgetting for a second why you started it! So thankful for you Dimity – your words are sheer music to my running soul!!

  19. Another amazing story, Dimity! Thank you for sharing. I am seriously humbled and inspired by her determination and absolute grit to FINISH the race. Wow, way to shine, Katie, way to shine.

  20. I read and re-read this today. Still have the same thought that I did at 6 AM. Holy cow! Katie you are amazing. I agree — we need to get her a RLAMer belt buckle!

  21. That absolutely brought tears to my eyes. I absolutely love that SHE DID IT!!! and pushed through to finish even when she knew she was after the cutoff. THAT is truly inspirational. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story – may we all have Katie’s determination and perseverance next time we are challenged.

  22. What a beautiful, powerful and strong woman! The fact that Katie finished 30 minutes after the deadline actually proves something I know to be true – we are all running our own race and we shouldn’t let anyone determine how, when or where we “finish.” I actually think that a runner who finishes the race when there will be no glory, record or belt is the greatest champion of all. Congratulations Katie – in our eyes – you won!

  23. Thank you, thank you RLAM’s for posting this personal story today. Katie, you are my hero, and I can’t wait to tell my kids tonight about the real life hero I learned about today. Thank you for your relentless inspiration.

  24. What an amazing story! I cry for the mark slightly missed but I cheer for the victory in having started and finished.

    It makes me feel like I could do this! How inspiring.

  25. Outstanding… And today, as my 39-year-old cousins lies dying of breast cancer, I needed this very sentiment. The idea of “finish line” has me thinking. This post and its message may be a theme of my eulogy…

  26. Wow Katie, you did amazing. It is unfathomable (is that a real word? SOUNDS good anyway :-)) to think of the strength one has when digging deep inside! Both physically and mentally…well done Lady! x

  27. Katie, you are absolutely amazing! I am in awe of the strength you have to dig that deep to show yourself and your kids that you could do it. Talk about finishing strong, you totally did!

  28. Ok, I’m glad I’m not the only one sobbing. Katie is a rock star. How inspirational is that??? I hope she is really proud of herself. She’s setting such a great example not only for her kids, but for anyone. I know I’ll be thinking of her as my marathon training progresses – 20 mile training run? C’mon, it’s only 20, suck it up! 🙂

  29. In tears here too! What an amazing woman and an inspiration to all of us RLAM’ers 🙂 I hope when the day comes that I attempt an ultra I can be a 1/10 as brave!

  30. she is my hero
    that is the stuff we all dream of having the opportunity
    to learn we are made of….
    that is true hero stuff there

  31. Wow- congrats. I too was in tears reading this. What strength you have- both physically and mentally!!!! Even though I dont know you personally, I am so proud of you. Someday maybe I will get enough guts and take something like that on. Isn’t it amazing how strong the power of our children are- last year I tore my IT band while training for the Chicago Marathon, but I knew that I had to go and finish despite the same thing (not getting the finishing time that I wanted). What an amazing amazing accomplishment!!!! Even though you didn’t get the buckle you got more than that- you got the power to know that you finished!!!!!!! Congratulations!!!!

  32. There’s a lot to be proud of in that DNF! Congrats to Katie…that mental toughness will get her to a belt buckle sooner or later.

  33. She has such amazing mental toughness and perseverance! Great job and Congratulations Katie! You should be so proud of your strong finish. There is no such thing as did not finish in utlras-it’s Did Nothing Fatal.

  34. Okay….I am SOBBING. As if I, myself, had just finished a 100 mile race 30 minutes after the cutoff. They are tears of elation that it’s over, they are excruciating tears of pain that “my” finish was 30 minutes after the cutoff. I am so happy for Katie….but more than that I’m proud of her. How right you are that the example we set is more important than having a “trophy” for our wall. Finishing a 100 mile mountain climbing ultra in 30 hours 30 minutes is AMAZING. Finishing it even when the official record will show DNF is well beyond amazing. I can only hope that when (not if but when) I attempt a 100 miler, I’ll be as determined to finish what I started….even if the sweep truck passes me by.

    Where can I send this woman a dang belt buckle??

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