Every year during the month of December, Buddy highlights the Twelve Days of Fearlessness. Whether it is getting up the nerve to lace up your old ice skates with your five-year-old or conquering a halfpipe like your teenage days, fearlessness is not just situational for all- for some, it is a way of life.
Through what we endure, we grow.
There have been a few rather significant walls in my life, with more undoubtedly ahead. I’m not terribly unique in that regard. Where I may start to differentiate myself is by consciously seeking out other walls, in order to get over one in particular. The latter, much larger wall (self-dubbed, the ‘Great Wall’) is that of having a child with special needs, and the lifetime challenges it presents. The other walls come in the form of running. Or more specifically, running a 100-mile race, in the mountains of Colorado, at an elevation of 10,000+ feet, over the span of 30 hours.
When you stare at the Great Wall, you can’t imagine any possible way over it. It’s massive! Where do we even start? There are no ladders that reach the top, and no rope long enough. The top of the wall isn’t even visible, with all of the dense, hazy, dark fog that surrounds it. You feel so small standing next to its formidable presence. You gulp. Maybe we should first practice with smaller walls and work our way up? Maybe, with all of these walls built on top of each other, we’ll get high enough to see through the fog?
So for me, it began. A 10k wall - more like a stepping stone. A half marathon wall - a nice place to take a seat. A marathon wall - about eye level. A 50k trail race - ohhh now we’re talking! 50 miles - the bottom of the fog is within reach. Ok, ok, ok...100 miles it is, this one should do the trick.
The most daunting part of the Leadville Trail 100 is the climb over Hope Pass. Starting at mile 41, you ascend ~3,200 feet over the next four miles in order to reach the top, which weighs in at a stout 12,437 feet. It is as brutal as it sounds, and exceeded all of my suffering expectations. What you don’t hear about, or maybe I wasn’t listening, is the long, slow, technical (read: ROCKS) slog that ensues as you head down from the pass towards the 50-mile turn around point. That’s right, you get to do an about-face and do it all over again!
The technical terrain meant I was working harder and going slower than I wanted. As a result, I ran out of water around mile 46 and had to suffer for the next hour. As I zombie-shuffled into the aid station at mile 50, I was in rough shape. Luckily, my brother (and crew chief) was awaiting my arrival. He later said it was at this point that the thought occurred to him that I might not finish the race. My voice was hoarse and faint. I was dizzy, uncoordinated, and dehydrated. My legs and feet burned. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my wall. The wall I had heard about so many times before. The wall that I, on my own accord, had sought to find.
There was no rushing this aid station. I sat down. My brother gave me broth and ramen. I drank water and coke, ate pretzels, a banana, potato chips, and another GU. We discussed the strategy of the race. Maybe my good friend and pacer, Andrew, should join me at mile 62 instead of the originally-planned mile 75? It also dawned on us that I needed to reach the next aid station, located at mile 62, in less than five hours or I would miss the cutoff, thereby ending my race. It had taken me four and a half hours to get from that aid station to this one, and in the rough shape that I was in, getting back in less than five hours was a challenging feat, to say the least.
After 15 minutes, some food in me, my water bottles filled, and a pep talk from my crew chief, I was on my way to tackle the second half of the race. For the first time, I put in my headphones and started my playlist. I planned it this way so I could have something to look forward to during the first half of the race. The music was a welcome relief from the sounds of heavy breathing and footsteps. This, along with the recent food and hydration intake, gave me a pep in my step. The climb back over Hope Pass was a meditative flow-state accompanied by the soundtrack of my favorite songs. As I went over the pass for the second time, darkness began to set. With my headlamp on, I arrived at the mile 62 aid station in exactly four hours, an hour ahead of the cutoff. I was met by my brother, my dad, and Andrew, who was geared up and ready to run 38 miles with me, no questions asked. I changed my shoes, added some layers of clothing, and off into the night we went.
Crossing the finish line at 9:30 the next morning (29 hours and 30 minutes in total) is certainly the highlight of the race. I was met by family, friends, and cheering strangers. I held hands with my wife and daughters as we stepped over the last timing strip, moving across the finish line together. It was emotional, overwhelming, and a moment that we will all remember forever. But it was the proverbial wall I hit at mile 50 that taught me the most.
Thanks to this experience, the fog has started to dissipate and the top of the Great Wall is getting clearer. Not because of other, smaller walls, that are getting higher and higher, but because the Great Wall is...shrinking? Well, not so much shrinking, more like we, as a family, are growing above it. Maybe the outcome of perseverance is not to build up walls, but to build up ourselves. If that is indeed true, then we are getting taller every day. So, while holding hands with my wife and daughters, we step over the not-so-great-anymore-wall, moving forward together.