"I have one goal" I told my husband before this past Saturday's Leadville 100. "I want to be the happiest person out there."
And while I will never be able to statistically analyze that goal compared to the field, I am certain that I was my happiest, best self out there. That to me is the greatest victory of all. Actually winning the race is just a sweet sweet bonus.
As I have reflected in many of my recent blogs, I have been all aboard the struggle bus for a while. I have been rumbling and trying to rise strong. There have been many false starts, many dead ends, many setbacks in this process. I feel like over the past few years I have no been able to be the version of myself that I want to be. I have not been able to find my own joy, grace and calm. My mind has been turbulent, the waves of emotion not easily quelled, I have been hurt, I have been humbled, I have been embarrassed and I have evaluated and examined everything. When I signed up for Leadville 100, after an unsuccessful run at Silver Rush 50, also in Leadville, I was starting to feel like I was on solid ground, but I knew that running 100 miles strips you raw. I knew I needed to have my mind, heart and spirit right. In past 100 milers, my emotions have played a large part in my experience, each time I had to pull myself out of a very dark place that largely existed only in my own mind. In the end, triumphant sure. But it still made me wonder, if I could spare myself from such torture and flagellation. Was the deep dark actually necessary? At Leadville, I resolved to find out. I feel like prior to the race I was a version of myself that I was proud of. Perhaps kinder, less intense, more joyful. The world seeming so dark, I wanted to be part of the light.
Leadville has been on my bucket list since before I even began running ultras 11 years ago. Over the years, my obsession with running the race has grown and grown. My willingness to sign up always tempered by the respect I had for how difficult of a race it is. Running at over 10,000 feet should be respected. The course which combines elements of speed and climbing is hard to get right. Ann Trason's record of 18 hours is no joke and was achieved only after she ran it numerous times in the 20+ hour range. If Ann Trason is running mid-20 hours, then I am sure as hell only attempting this race with total respect. Last year, I was signed up, but after trying to turn around from Western States and get acclimatized to the altitude, I realized I was digging myself into a deep hole and decided not to race. When I came out to run Silver Rush 50 in July, I didn't come to earn a spot in Leadville. But after not finishing the race due to a bum ankle I twisted prior to the race, I couldn't shake the intense desire to run Leadville. Thankfully for me race sponsor, as well as my source for optimal in race fueling, GU Energy had one sponsor spot left and were very kind to give me the spot.
I got to work. I had less than 6 weeks to prepare for the task but I was up for it. And I was realistic about where I was too. In good shape, but having not raced on trails for over a year. Healthy, but nearing the end of a few months of lots of racing and traveling. I also knew that my foot, which has been through a lot over the last year with injury and recovery, was suffering from some post-trauma (from the tarsal coalition) arthritis. My foot has hurt most days since about 10 days before Comrades. But it was pain, not injury and was manageable. I knew going in to Leadville that pain in my foot was probable, but that it would not stop me. Pain is inevitable, suffering is option. I accepted it and did not fear it. In those 6 weeks, I got myself ready as I could. Not perfectly prepared, not the fittest I have ever been, but definitely the most up for the task I have ever been. I assembled an amazing team of crew and pacers and made my way to Leadville. I could not have made it to the finish line without Nathan, Rebecca, Amy and Braden.
I made a choice to run this race with joy, grace, love and gratitude. I reminded myself again and again before the race that I was racing for "a big ass belt buckle and a finisher's sweatshirt", that these were the stakes and so what really mattered was enjoying myself. And I did. In fact, I would say that mentally, it is the best race I have ever ran. From the start gun at 4am, I ran calmly and easily and according to my own plan. I ate, I drank, I said thank you to every volunteer, I smiled at everyone, I gave hugs to friends. I was in my element, I was happy.
And that never changed through the whole race. I weathered the highs and lows with calm. I worked the problems and kept coming back to simply being happy. I didn't pay attention to the race ahead of me, I focused on my plan: getting through the early miles, conserving energy, running in control. I arrived into Twin Lakes at mile 40 with good friend Brett Rivers, who had an amazing day ultimately finishing in 6th! I was feeling good, despite some pain in my neck (turns out I had some vertebrae out of place) and prepared to take on the most difficult section of the race: double Hope Pass crossing. A daunting climb in both directions, deep into the race day, going up to high elevation. I have run it numerous times and knew it was going to be incredibly tough. But again, I was happy for the challenge and knew it would be hard but I would get through it if I just continued to move forward no matter what. I also knew mentally, it had the potential to be the darkest time. After grabbing my poles and gloves from my crew and restocking supplies, I headed out.
About a quarter mile up the climb, after Brett and Mike Wardian had disappeared from view I hit my first real deep bad patch. I got really dizzy, my energy dipped dangerously low. I basically felt like I had got smacked in the face with a shit stick. But as AJW says, "shits gonna happen". And instead of getting upset that I felt bad, I thought of the above image. I raised my hands above my head and yelled "plot twist" outloud and immediately started laughing hysterically. I was able to feel bad and not go dark, not go negative. I just kept on climbing towards the oasis of the Hopeless aid station in the basin of Hope Pass, where I would see llamas (how they get supplies up) and smiling faces. I eventually made it, in great spirits and entertained all the volunteers by professing my undying love for Coca-cola during ultras.
I soon made it to the turnaround and was joined by Nathan as my pacer. He was full of energy and I was excited to have the company. Because the race is an out and back, I no longer could remain blissfully unaware of my position in the field. Yes, I wanted to be happy and enjoy my experience, but I am also competitive, I also wanted to perform and compete if my body was capable. At mile 50, I was still feeling on the good side of the spectrum having taken the early miles so conservatively. I discovered as I ran into Winfield that I was just over 10 minutes behind the race leader, Simona Morbelli. I knew I needed to get back over the even tougher second climb up Hope Pass before even considering trying to hunt her down. I know got to enjoy the energy of my pacer as well as the energy of the other runners on the out and back course. The single track was buzzing as people headed towards the turn around. I made a special point of encouraging every single person. The most dramatic moment of the race came a few miles after the turn around before reaching the climb up to Hope. I stepped to the side to allow outbound runners to share the trail and when I stepped back into the middle of the trail, I caught a toe on a rock, did a perfect pirouette and slammed into the ground, my head hitting a rock, the sound so loud my husband could hear it. I jumped up quickly, suddenly angry with myself for making the mistake, declaring "I just want to keep going". I had really hurt myself but didn't want to lose momentum. Nathan grabbed me by the arm, stopped me and bear hugged me. "Its ok if you want to cry. Just take a minute". At first I protested, I had resolved not to cry in this race! But then I realized, you know what, crying when you crack you head and destroy your arm is appropriate. I shed some tears and as was Nathan's intent, the emotional intensity went away. I felt it and moved on. It was just another "PLOT TWIST!", not a day ender and it was not going to be my undoing.
We kept charging. Every step closer to the top. Every step more joyful. I smiled at every runner and kept encouraging every single one. At one point Nathan commented, "they all know your name!" and it was such a cool thing to have so many people say, "Devon, you inspire me". I climbed ever closer to the top. I got hugs from friends Billy and Eric. And finally, I had made it. I was over the top of the most daunting part of the course. I flew down the other side, feeling amazing, ready to chase. I had been told by at least 150 other runners that I was closing on Simona and that she looked like she was hurting (at least hurting more than I was- since at least 20 people told me I was "having way too much fun"). I didn't push down Hope, I just continued to float along and stay within myself. Less than 2 miles after the top, I was told by a hiker "she just went around the bend". A moment later, I saw her. Nathan and briefly discussed how I wanted to do this. I wanted to make a definitive move, but I wanted to also show her the same grace and joy and encouragement I had to everyone else. In a moment, I was upon her, gave her a few encouraging words and then accelerated. I pushed more than I had all race to put myself out of sight, to create a gap. When I arrived at Twin Lakes, 1.5 miles later, I had apparently put 8 minutes on her.
Entering Twin Lakes in the lead was an electric moment. There were huge crowds, I got the most amazing tasting popsicle and my Oiselle teammates from the Colorado Volee where there. I was out of my mind happy!!! I moved through the aid station quickly, determined to use the energy to get me up the climb immediately after the aid station. Nathan took over carrying my pack, as Leadville allows muling. This made a huge difference as carrying the pack was making my neck pain worse and causing my hands to go tingly. My pacers literally took the weight off my shoulders. 40 miles to the finish line. It was time to grind.
And work and grind we did. Relentless forward progress. Focus on nutrition, focus on my breathe. Running in the lead can be stressful, so I fought the urge to play out "what if" scenarios. What if nothing, what if I just keep running my race and focusing on my joy and gratitude. And that is what I did.
Nathan handed me off to Rebecca who was going to take me the remaining 27 miles to the finish line. I was feeling good, I had legs, I just knew we had to keep grinding. And we did. We powered up powerline as fast as I have ever done in training. We dance partied into the night to a most excellent playlist she had created. We sang Rebecca's jingle about not tripping repeatedly. "We didn't trip. We're doing so great. We love our joints. We didn't trip." Soon it was dark and we were descending into the final aid station at Mayqueen with 13.5 miles to go. There Rebecca restocked her pack with an inhuman number of water bottles for one person to carry and all the GU and candy she could carry. Nathan asked me if I wanted to know what was happening the race and I did, so he told me that as of the previous aid station, I was only 18 minutes ahead. Simona had rallied after Hope Pass and continued on. 18 minutes is not a lot with 13.5 miles to go. A lot can happen. But then Nathan said the most important thing, "So you've gotta run hard. But this is your thing. No one closes like you do". And just like that the fire was lit. Rebecca and I headed back into the dark around Turquoise Lake. My legs were tired, but I was determined. I started running everything, I pushed the pace at one point joking, "it feels like I am moving fast, like I might be running 12 min pace!". At that stage of the game on the rolling terrain, that is pretty darn fast. Rebecca looked at her watch and she laughed, "we are running exactly 12 min pace!". I thought about the day, how much joy their had been. I thought about my team and how I couldn't have done this without them. I thought about what this race has meant to me. I thought about how I could leave everything out on that course because for the first time in my career, I hadn't already planned the next thing. I had only planned for an off season. I was going to leave it all out there. I had run conservatively all day and now I was just going to push.
The last 4+ miles are uphill, including the worlds' longest stretch of uphill fire road. When we hit this section, I knew that I wouldn't be walking like we had discussed. I just ran as hard as I could. I took deep breathes. I soaked in the darkness. I felt my body move. I appreciated that my foot had not hurt all day (#miracle), that I could feel no trouble spots in my legs, that my feet felt great in my HOKA speedgoat 2s, that I was tired but so so strong.
In the blink of an eye, we arrived at the road with one mile to go. My crew was there to run me up and in. I pushed up the hill towards the red carpet and the finish line. It was only then that I believed that I was going to win. I crested the hill and could see the red glowing clock of the finish line up ahead nestled amongst the quiet sleep streets of Leadville. I savored the moment. I ran this race in the way I wanted with joy, grace, flexibility and gratitude. I shared this experience with amazing people who kept me going. I could be a version of myself that I am proud to be and win the race at the same time. I broke the tape for the win, in 20:46. And while I may have had races that were faster or physically better, Leadville is my proudest moment. I would say my best race. I did everything I could with what I had, I retained the spirit that I intended to and I accomplished my goal of being the happiest person out there. To do this, in a race that has meant so much to me and means so much to Leadville, is everything to me. It is something I will savor and appreciate for a very long time.
I want to say thank you to my amazing crew and pacers again. Nathan, Rebecca, Amy and Braden. This was a true team effort. Thank you for helping me be my best self. Thank you to the Leadville Race Series. It was an honor to become a part of your family. Thank you to all the volunteers out there. You guys rock! Thank you to GU for giving me the opportunity to race. Thank you to HOKA, Oiselle, Ultimate Direction, Psoas Massage and Bodywork, Nuun, Hypoxico and Mammoth Lake Cribs! Thanks to my awesome coach Ian Torrence! Thank you to everyone reading this and following my journey.
So what now? That is always the question. Right now, I am enjoying my off season. I am taking time away. I am relaxing, recovering and absorbing a very intense and difficult year. And I am taking a break from social media for a month. Call it a social sabbatical. I will be off social media starting tomorrow (wednesday, Aug 22) for a month. If you need me, you can find me.
Thank you for reading!