By Rebekah McWin
Running a hundred miler had been on my bucket list since getting into trail running back in 2018, but living in the flatlands of Memphis with only 3 or 4 trail running options left me with feelings of inadequacy in regards to distance, vert and terrain. Even with the limitations I felt, I had my sights set on eventually getting into Western States. States was, in my mind, the one and only 100 miler I ever wanted to run. A one and done if you will.
So in 2020 I set lofty goals of getting my first lottery ticket. I signed up for my first 50 miler and 100k to prepare and qualify, and my husband Chris, who had coached me since we met, started setting out my training plan. In the midst of training the stars aligned and I found myself interviewing for a job in Reno. I vacationed in Tahoe as a kid, and I had been dreaming of States so this felt like a dream come true. In January of 2020 I flew from Memphis to Reno to interview for my now job. A large group of runners took me to run from Forest Hill to Deadwood Cemetery and back, and it felt like running fate. Being able to run the WS trail with new friends and realizing the potential opportunity for so much more variety to train had me feeling confident I would crush my training calendar and get my lottery ticket. Then Covid happened and the wheels fell off. My entire calendar of racing was cancelled (like probably everyone reading this) and with that went the ability to qualify for States.
Because of Covid I reflected a lot during 2020. I realized I had taken so much for granted: my community in Memphis, the ease of signing up and running a race, and the trail running atmosphere. I wish I knew how much time I spent in 2020 searching Ultrasignup and Instagram to find any semblance of a race I could run, because I know it was a lot. I missed it so much. Towards the end of the year as the talk of the vaccine rollout began, I started noticing people talking about races opening back up. I was dying to have a goal to train for and to run a race.
One random day in December I was mindlessly scrolling Instagram, and I saw the Leadville page post that their lottery and training camp registration was going live in 30 minutes. The post said the spots were very limited, but if you signed up for camp you received an automatic entry into the Leadville Trail 100 Run. Leadville had NEVER crossed my mind, despite having read Born to Run thousands of times. The thought of being able to actually sign up and run a race was more excitement than I could bear. I missed it so much. Without hesitation I sat around for 30 minutes refreshing the registration page over and over again, and once it was live I signed up. After signing up I sent a text to my husband asking what he thought about me potentially running Leadville. He responded with positivity remarking that “it would be incredibly badass to run your first 100 in Leadville.” I had to respond with “good, glad you’re on board, because I’ve already signed up.” Oops…
Fast-forward to race week. My husband was trying to get into the mountain bike race so we had booked a place in Leadville for almost 2 weeks prior to the trail run. Unfortunately he did not get into the race, but we decided to keep our rental for a bit of a vacation and altitude acclimation. Everyone talks about either getting to high altitude around a week before your event or the night before, and I found getting there 10 or so days prior to the race really helped me out. Most of my runs those first few days felt horrible, and I was starting to get very nervous about my abilities over 10,000ft. As the days went on however, it became easier and easier, and I was feeling more and more comfortable and confident.
Since the race, I’ve also heard people say getting there too early hyped up the entire race and gave them a lot of anxiety because all they could think about was the countdown to race day. Luckily or unluckily for me, I had to work the entire week leading up to the race. This took my mind off the daunting task at hand.
The day before the race was the pre-race meeting and packet pickup. Leadville puts on a great show. The pre-race meeting was incredibly inspiring. They showed clips from Billy Yang’s The Why to psych us all up. Unfortunately, the week before the race Ken Chlouber found out he had blood clots in his lungs, and he and Merilee stayed in Denver so he could rest. I believe it was the first trail race they had ever missed, and during the pre-race meeting they Skyped them in so Ken could give his inspirational speech. It was emotional, and many tears on Skype and in the audience were shed. As is customary in Leadville at the end of the speech, Ken and his son Cole lead us in cheering the mantra “We commit, we won’t quit”. I decided to put that mantra away in my back pocket, because I had a feeling I was going to need it.
My pacers and crew started to arrive later in the day, and the excitement of seeing my friends caused the nerves to start to hit. We had a nice pre-race pasta dinner, and even though I wanted to stay up with my friends I had not seen in forever, I tried my hardest to go to bed early. I went to bed with my alarm set for 2am, because the race was to start at 4. I tossed and turned all night, and I dreamed I missed the start of the race because my husband cleaned the rental and lost my running pack. Ha!
Race day; I do not know if I can say I woke up, as I am not sure I ever really slept. But I got my gear on, had a small breakfast, and we all walked to the starting line. My friends all woke up to see me off, and then my pacers were going to go back to sleep to get ready for their miles later that night. The plan was for my husband and friends to chase me around all race to crew me, and my two girlfriends would pace me the last 38 miles.
The starting line was electric in the pitch black of morning. Everyone had the jitters as we stood waiting for the gun to go off. When it finally did, we took off. I knew the first 3 miles of the race were downhill, and I should use this opportunity to make up a little time and get in a good place for the single track conga line around turquoise lake. I looked as my watch clocked the first mile and it said 9:27. I thought to myself, “oh shit, I’m going way too fast.” But as I looked around, I was getting passed by people left and right. I was waffling between laughing to myself about everyone who was going to blow up later for going sub 8’s for the first 3 miles or worrying there was some good reason everyone looked like they were running a 5K. I knew time cut offs were going to be incredibly challenging for the first 100k, so this started to put a seed of doubt in my mind.
I ended up in good position getting around the single track around the lake. I heard you could lose a lot of time if you get behind a slow group, and luckily I never found myself in that scenario. You can see almost the entire shoreline of the lake from the trail. All the runners looked like fireflies in the night with our twinkling headlamps. As the sun started to rise over the lake, I was getting closer and closer to the first aid station and seeing my crew. Everything was going relatively well except for my hydration intake. I had been training all summer with Spring Energy Drink, but on race day it tasted horrible. Every time I would try to take a sip, even within the first mile, it would make me want to throw up. I did not realize until after the race that my crew had accidentally doubled the dosage in each of my water bottles. Therefore, I went the first 13 miles with almost no hydration. When I got to my crew, which happened in great time – around 11:15 pace – well before the cut off, I told them what was going on and they refilled my water bottles. Unfortunately in the haste of dealing with the hydration issue, and because I did not want to spend more than a minute or two at the aid stations until getting to 100k, they forgot to give me any gels. So we went from under hydrating in the first 13 miles to under fueling in the second 13 miles.
After the first aid station was the first major climb of the race. It’s about a 6-mile climb partly on the Colorado Trail to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. The descent is famously known as Powerline, as it’s one of the hardest parts of the mountain bike race. I got up the first climb in really good time, but I started to notice I was feeling nauseated while climbing. It wasn’t too bad at this point, so I tried to just rehydrate and listen to some music to keep my mind off my stomach. I had such a fun time running down Powerline, passing people as I went. From there we had a few road miles before making it to the next aid station. Luckily my husband and I had run it a few days earlier, and I knew it was some rolling terrain, so I took it easy and coasted into the next aid station, Outward Bound. My crew and I decided they would meet me a few miles down the road instead of at the aid station. I looked at my watch, and I was still making great time even with the long climb. I had almost an hour and a half to spare on the cut off.
I quickly went to the bathroom and kept going. The next section of the race is just trudging through an open field with no trail, and I will admit it’s probably my least favorite part of the entire course. However, running through all the crew cheering for the runners was a fun experience. I saw one of my newest friends, and she gave me a huge hug and told me I was winning… in her mind. And I saw a big group of Silver State Striders waiting on their runner’s Katie and John Trent. Everyone was all smiles, and it was electric. As we were running across the field I noticed a group of runners pouring water on a smoldering plot of grass. A fire was literally starting in the field, and the runners put it out. I knew my mind would come back to this at some point during the race…
I made it to my crew, finally got some gels, and tried to eat some real food. Unfortunately by this point I could not eat anything but gels. I tried peanut butter cups, quesadillas and pickles and everything was making me gag. So I grabbed the gels and kept going. It would be another 15 miles or so before seeing my crew again, so I tried to stock up on what was working. The next section of the race is gradually uphill for 10ish miles before you drop down into Twin Lakes, and it is incredibly beautiful. You are primarily running between aspen grove forests at the base of Mt. Elbert, and it just feels special. Trail magic. There is a quick aid station with no crew access in the forest, but I didn’t stop and kept chugging along. The nausea was starting to get worse on the climbs, but I was recovering well on the downhills. So I just kept trying to suppress my feelings and put one front in front of the other.
One of the strangest things I found about the race was that no one was talking to one another. Everyone was just heads down, grinding it out. I generally like to strike up conversation on the trail and make new friends. I am not a very competitive runner, so it doesn’t bother me to pass the time by chatting up my fellow races. I couldn’t get a single person to have a conversation with me longer than a minute or two. Looking back, I think everyone was so focused on the cutoff times. They were just getting it done in their own pain cave.
The descent down into Twin Lakes was pretty steep, and I made a note that it was going to be a tough climb back out on the way back to Leadville. Twin Lakes is the last aid station before the crux of the race: the double Hope Pass crossing. Due to changes in the rules or the race, it also meant after Twin Lakes I wouldn’t see my crew for 25 miles. When I got there I had about an hour and a half head start on the cut-off, so I was feeling like I could comfortably make it over the hardest part of the race in plenty of time. I had climbed the front side of Hope Pass twice and the back side once prior to race day, so this was also contributing to my confidence in getting up and over. Coming into the aid station was like showing up to a big party. There were people everywhere cheering and screaming, and it was a serious morale booster. I was feeling super happy but slightly apprehensive with the nausea and knowing what was coming next. I stopped to talk to my crew for a little bit, and I took from them what would be my lifeline for the remainder of the race – my Black Diamond poles. I sat and tried to drink some pickle juice and eat some food, but I still could not get real food down. So I took a few minutes to just enjoy their company, and then I went on my way.
Right out of Twin Lakes there is about a 1 mile section where you run through a field with a few puddle crossings and one knee deep crossing. I hadn’t worried about this part at all, as it was beyond my control, but holy shit was the water cold. So for the next mile after the river crossing, I sloshed around in my shoes and worried about blisters. Luckily I had no issues! (Thanks to Bri Jaskot for the Ridge Supply Sock recommendation!) Unfortunately as soon as I hit the incline I started feeling insanely sick. Worse than any of the nausea up to this point. This out and back climb is the steepest of the race, and I was incredibly winded and sick almost the entire time. It was an absolute death march up to the top of the climb. I was being passed left and right as I had to stop on the trail and catch my breath almost every 400 meters. The only people I passed look like they were on death’s door, and I was convinced I looked as terrible as they did. The miles were clicking away so slowly. So much slower than any time I climbed the pass. Once you get above tree line you can see how far you’ve climbed out of Twin Lakes, but also how much farther you have to go. Fortunately you quickly come upon the Hopeless Aid Station which takes your mind off the remainder of the climb, because… llamas! There are llamas everywhere. The llamas every year carry up all the gear and supply to the aid station, and they are the cutest. I didn’t stop at the aid station because I was so worried about time. Once I got to the top of the climb, I looked around at my fellow racers. They were all excited, cheerful and taking pictures, but I just put my head down and booked it down the back side.
I must note that as I started the descent, fellow DPMR member, Adam Kimble passed me on his climb back up (only, you know, hours and hours in front of me). We exchanged a brief “OMG YOU’RE LOOKING AND DOING SO GREAT,” and off we went in separate directions. I held onto that exchange as a bright spot as I ran down the mountain.
Similar to all the descents beforehand, I started to feel better. The descent into the 50 mile turn around went well. I was feeling good again, able to run almost the entire section, and choke down some boiled potatoes. This is the most spectacular part of the entire run. It feels so remote, and it is just so beautifully scenic. It’s just you and the mountain giants. Even if you never run Leadville, I recommend running from Winfield to the top of Hope Pass and back. There aren’t many more beautiful places on earth.
Once I got to the turnaround aid station at Winfield, the nicest volunteers ever helped get me restocked and back out there. As we were coming into the aid station they would radio to the drop bag people our bib number so that as soon as we got there our bags were ready for us. It was so helpful and efficient. As I sat down to gear up, all I could think about was having to go back over the mountain again. This time back over Hope Pass would be much steeper, and I figured I would be much more sick. In that moment I truly thought about dropping out. The promise I made to myself, my friends and family, my fellow racers and Ken came to my mind, and I told myself, “No. You committed that you wouldn’t quit. So you aren’t quitting.” So I got up, and I got my ass out of there.
The next 12 miles were the slowest of my entire life. It took me 5 hours to go 12 miles and almost every step was pure agony. This was it. This was the dark place that everyone talks about. I had never experienced this place before, and I tried to relish it like I’ve heard Courtney Dauwalter and others talk about. Using the dark place to chisel out new trails in my mind. Screw that. It was misery. I puked over and over coming back up over the climb. Multiple times I sat down on rocks thinking there was no way I could take another step. The 2.5 mile climb took me 2 hours. I kept looking at my watch seeing my cut off lead evaporate before my eyes. It felt like I was crawling over the mountain. Continental Divide thru-hikers were passing me at 2x the speed, except instead of a light running vest they had full hiking packs weighing probably 30 pounds. It was demoralizing. Even writing this gives me the chills thinking back to just how bad off I was.
As I crested Hope Pass for the second time, the sun was starting to go down. I had really wanted to be back to Twin Lakes before the sun went down, but I knew there was no way that was happening now. I got back to the Hopeless Aid Station, and I had an absolute melt down. I sat by a fire, freezing from the rain that had been coming down off and on up the climb, and I cried. I cried because I didn’t think I could make it down. Because there were so many people tracking me who would be disappointed. Because my friends traveled from far and wide and wouldn’t even get to run a single mile of the course with me. Because I had lost hundreds of hours with my husband while I trained for this godforsaken race. Because I couldn’t eat anything without immediately throwing it back up. I had the ultimate pity party. The pity party of all pity parties. And then the sweet aid station worker told me, “Well, you’ve gotta get down somehow, and by the looks of it you still have plenty of time.” He was right. Once again I remembered that I said I would not quit. I got up, and I started to run back down. I thought to myself that if I don’t make the cut-off, that will be OK. At least I didn’t quit. I also kind of hoped, in a really sick way, that maybe the almost fire I had seen earlier in the day would come back and they would have to stop the race. In retrospect, I’m very glad that didn’t happen and slightly embarrassed that I even considered that as a potential option. Of course the universe decided to throw me one more wrinkle as I tried to get off that damn mountain. My headlamp strap broke. So I hobbled down 4 miles with a head lamp in one hand lighting my way and both my poles in the other. I looked absolutely ridiculous, and I started to laugh at how my luck had changed in between Twin Lakes crossings.
As I got closer to Twin Lakes, I could hear the crowds cheering. I knew my husband would be freaking out at this point, because we had planned for the crossing to take me about 8 hours. In reality it took me almost 10, and I was running dangerously close to the cut off. Just as I suspected, he was pacing on the trail about a half a mile from our aid spot. I told him I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it. The cut offs were too hard. He laughed and said what are you talking about, you’ve got over 45 minutes to get out of here. We aren’t letting you off this easily.
My crew rallied around me, made me laugh, told me that I was the best looking runner coming through (a bunch of liars, I tell you), and they did not let me linger for a second. I FINALLY was able to pick up a pacer. After running 100k basically alone, I was overjoyed at the thought of having someone to talk to. It lifted my spirits back up to where I was before the mountain climbs, and thanks to my friends I didn’t have another dark patch of the run. I was on cloud 9.
My first pacer was my best friend Kaitlyn. Almost all our best (and worst) adventures have been on the trails, and there was no one I would have rather run with first. Moab, Mt. Whitney, thousands of miles around Shelby Farms… If we haven’t run it together yet, you can bet we are already scheming. Kaitlyn and I ran out of Twin Lakes and up the climb I had made a mental note of during the first half of the race. Because I was so happy and chatty, I barely even noticed the climb. We did so well on that stretch of trail that my crew had to cut their naps short. We made back over an hour on the cut-offs! All that time I lost crawling around on the mountain was back! Those miles went by in the blink of an eye. I was loving the race again. I was confident again. I was happy again. I wasn’t even bothered by the night. We yo-yo’ed back and forth with Katie Trent for much of night. If you don’t know Katie, she is an absolute badass who finished the grand slam this summer. Every time we would yo-yo we would have some funny laugh. Her attitude is absolutely infectious, and I consciously strive to be more like her, and less like the goblin I was crying on top of one of the most scenic locations in the United States.
We made it into Outward Bound, and I picked up my next pacer. Only 25 miles left! My pacer on this section is a 100 mile badass herself. She has finished multiple 100s, most notably in my opinion, the Arkansas Traveler in under 24 hours. She took my mind off the pain of being 75 miles in by asking me thousands of questions and forcing me to run even when I didn’t want to. We started to make a game out of passing people, and one by one we picked them off. We made it up the Powerline climb in record timing. At the top there is a trippy alien-themed aid station called Space Camp where everyone is donning space costumes and glow sticks. We didn’t hang around and rave with them, because we were on our own mission. Keep passing the people! Again with help from my friend, those 12 miles literally flew by.
My husband decided he wanted to run the last 13 miles with me even though he had been awake as long as I had chasing me all around the course. I was looking forward to spending these miles with him, after we had spent the better part of the last year talking, training and planning for this race. Everyone told me when the sun came up on the second day that I would have renewed spirit, and it would be like starting a brand new race. As we started around Turquoise lake the sun started to rise. I realized I had now seen the sun rise in this exact spot twice in the same race, and there was no one I would rather see it with. We laughed together about how ridiculous I looked hobbling around trying to run with my poles, and he pushed me to run almost every downhill or flat we came to. As we got around the lake, continuing to pass people one by one, I asked him the time. I did a little trail math in my head, and I realized if we hurried (“hurried” is a relative term at mile 90) I could go under 29 hours. Going in I didn’t have a time goal in mind. Because it was my first 100 all I wanted to do was finish. However, the mind games of trying to pass people were helping to take me out of the fact that I desperately wanted to sleep, and I thought maybe the next mind game could be to finish sub 29. He reassured me if we hustled we could make it work, and that is what we did. My last 5 miles were 1-2 minutes faster than my overall pace, because we were enjoying the time chase. I had a few funny hallucinations those last miles. At one point I told Chris that the rocks on the side of the road looked like monkeys, because in the moment they definitely did.
Once you get to the final mile to take you to the finish line, your entire crew can run you in. My two girlfriends and my husband helped push me to run up the final mile climb to make my cutoff. We were seriously still trying to pass as many people as possible. I think we got 2 or 3 in the last mile! As we got closer and closer, the crowds got bigger and bigger. Everyone was cheering. It was surreal. I was just a few steps away from finishing the Leadville Trail 100 Run. My friends were tearing up, and I was overcome with emotion. If I hadn’t been so dehydrated maybe I could have made tears. Ha!
I crossed the finish line and Cole Chlouber, Ken’s son, hugged me and told me “Welcome Home”. I had made it. I didn’t quit. I overcame the nausea, the negative self-talk, and the unrelenting desire to sleep. Looking back it was such a whirlwind experience, and I know this was one of those experiences I will look back on for my entire life.
While I know this was a long race recap. The TLDR version is this:
I learned two lessons while I was out at Leadville:
- Ken Chlouber is right – You can do more than you think you can, and you are stronger than you think you are. I learned through fighting through the double hope crossing that I can do hard things, and I can do them well. When I am doubting myself, I can now go back to that place and remind myself how far I can go.
- You can go far alone, but you can go even farther if you allow yourself to rely on your friends. My people were a huge factor in what got me to the finish line. They lifted my spirits, they made me laugh, and they pushed me when they knew I could do more. Don’t go at it alone. We go farther together.
If you’re still here, thank you for letting me relive one of the best days of my life. Sign up for a 100. You won’t regret it.
[And an Honorable Mention to Peter Fain for helping this flatlander embrace the vert.]