heart it paces.

I leaned over to dip the half empty reservoir in the slow trickle of a stream and a gel packet fell from my hydration pack and teetered on the brink of a 20 foot drop.


Shifting my weight to stay upright while reaching for the gel and pinching the reservoir under my left arm, I managed to dislodge two remaining packets which also fell into the water.


I set down the reservoir, like I should have done in the first place, and collected the wayward gels.  I stuffed them deeper into the pocket on my shoulder harness, turned around and, in the process, booted the reservoir to the other side of the stream.

Shit, shit, shit.

My first official pacing gig was not going as planned.

A few feet behind me along the Continental Divide Trail that led toward treeline and on to Hope Pass above, Kelly Agnew sat catching his breath, gathering his energy and contemplating the effects of the fall he had taken on Powerline some 25-30 miles and 5-6 hours ago.  My task of refilling Kelly's water bladder with ice cold runoff, the first and thus far only thing he'd asked of me in a measly 2 miles of work since the 50-mile turnaround at Winfield, was proving more difficult than I expected and my want to accomplish it expediently was only serving to make me that much more clumsy.

Finally having managed to fill the reservoir and stuff it back into Kelly's S-Lab pack, I handed it back to its rightful owner who drew a few unsuccessful tugs on the bite valve before handing it back to me.  In my haste I'd forgotten to reattach the hose to the bladder.


My competitive nature is oddly inconsistent.  I never quite know when it will rear its head, but, whatever the reason, trail running doesn't seem to summon it, at least not with regards to my own race performances, my finishing times or my final place in the standings.  It likely has much to do with the mediocre talent for the sport that I possess, but I think it also stems from how much I really do love "just being out there".  I find little motivation to put myself in a place that diminishes that feeling.  If it takes another half an hour, hell, several hours more to get where I'm going, that's just that much more time I'm out in the woods, on the trail, up on a high ridge enjoying myself.

So, with that said, other than taking part in certain races that grab my attention, I don't assign much in the way of performance goals.  "Today not tomorrow" has become a personal motto and it doesn't so much mean that I must sink teeth into some great adventure this very minute, as it does that I look for the adventure in whatever the day brings, rather than counting the minutes, days, weeks until the next such-and-such great event is going to happen.

While I signed up for a handful of races in 2013, I intended simply to take them as they came, hopefully readying myself sufficiently beforehand for each one to reach the respective finish lines and have a wonderful time doing so.

That laid back approach changed as soon as Kelly and I agreed that I would pace him for the last 50 miles at the Leadville 100.  He would be returning to the iconic race for the 3rd time in three years and was firmly resolved to go under 25 hours and obtain his first "big" buckle for doing so.  Leadville had been Kelly's first 100 miler back in 2011 and he ran incredibly well for his first go, finishing in just over 25 hours and 55 minutes.  He suffered, unfortunately, from stomach issues the following year and his finish time dipped to 28:33:52.  Keep in mind, we're talking about a race with a 30 hour cutoff and a finish rate that hovers right around 50% and Kelly had walked away with two silver buckles

Kelly's results were solid, but he had eyes on the prize of that silver AND gold buckle.

I couldn't blame him and, in fact, I found myself wanting it for him desperately.  My long runs stopped being just about being out there and started to become litmus tests.  How much leg did I have left at the end of them?  How did fueling go?  Did I drink enough?  Drink too much?  Did I hold up well enough during the run that I could have attended to someone else's needs without having had to even think about myself?  Could I have concentrated entirely on someone else and still moved along at nearly the same speed?  It was different and not without certain stress I hadn't before assigned to running, but it wasn't unenjoyable.

Actually, I grew fascinated by the satisfaction I was taking in small successes measured solely by how they would make me a better pacer come August.

In April I "ran" the Hyner Challenge with the conscious intent to stay within myself and just be solid and consistent all day long.  That mission was accomplished and my time on the tricky course, while hardly awe-inspiring, did include some good running late and a body that felt really strong the day after.  A long solo, unsupported effort on the Black Forest Trail a few weeks later followed that same blueprint but also reaffirmed the need to stay hydrated all day long, not just MOST of it.  A mental lapse as day turned to night led to some calamity, but even that slight misadventure found me afterwards with plenty of leg left over.

More encouragement.

A blow up in the Laurel Highlands in June appeared on the surface to be a major setback.

And while it was, psychologically, it also served as a wake up call to remain aware of electrolyte intake and stay on top of things early in the day before things get too far out of hand.  With informative input from Kelly, who had the misfortune of having to hear the doubt through the telephone that had crept into my voice after Laurel, I experimented  and tinkered with Hammer products until I seemed to land on an electrolyte ratio that kept my body working properly.

Trips to Boulder and Salt Lake in mid-July and earliest August allowed me to log on-trail time up high with good friends and strong runners.  It wasn't the same as spending my nights sleeping at elevation or within a Hypoxico tent, but it was something and bolstered confidence that I could hold up at altitude.

I reviewed course profiles for Leadville, read race reports and blog entries from former entrants, crew members and pacers.  Pacing and crew guides from Leadville as well as other races were fully scrutinized.  When I worried I was putting too much into my cup of a brain, I quit pouring and hoped that I'd be able to draw from what I'd learned when the time came and instead went back to concentrating on being as fit as I could be.

Starting Leadville week off right, I attended the TransRockies Run for the second straight year, this time running just the first three stages as a single entrant rather than participating in all six stages as a member of a 2-person team.  Still, thankfully, I scored the same tent mate as last year, bunking up with my partner from 2012, Sean McCoy.  As I suspected based on the year prior, he proved far speedier solo than he did tethered to me ahead of checkpoints and finish lines.  Despite a head cold that seemingly would have floored most any other runner, Sean not only finished all three stages, but did so in impressive fashion, ending up on the podium in second place overall in the Men's Open Division of the Run3 event.

Photo courtesy of Jo Agnew

I did not end up on any podiums and, in fact, suffered through a Stage 1 that was remarkably similar to my much photographed pukefest in 2012.  As was the case in my first go round, Stage 2, the march up and down Hope Pass, brought some improvement but was not without discomfort.  Stage 3, which starts in downtown Leadville and follows a diverse 24-mile course of pavement, jeep road and singletrack all the way to Camp Hale, was a turning point and I felt really, really good all day long.  I purposely held back but still ran solidly throughout and arrived at the finish line (and my Run3 finisher's medal) with all kinds of gas left in the tank.

I told Kelly as much and could tell by his grin and high five that this was good news.

Photo courtesy of Jo Agnew

Both Kelly and his lovely, big-hearted wife Jo were eager to whisk me back to Leadville after my standard post-stage soak in a nearby stream, but I had one more trick up my sleeve to ensure that I left TransRockies as ready as I could be for my pacing stint.

After my torturous first day, an Arkansas angel (an Arkangel?) helped to put me back together by suggesting I try, of all things, a stomach massage.  Frankly, it sounded awful, but there was something reassuring in the way Ms. Carlie Mock (www.excelmassage.com), a fixture at TransRockies, coaxed me into coming back to the massage tent after dinner to give her a shot at rehabilitating me.

I had vomited repeatedly that afternoon and was about to put a hearty meal into my otherwise empty belly.  Sounded like a recipe for disaster and, honestly, I considered skipping out on our appointment to save myself the embarrassment of throwing up on my well-intended, would-be rescuer.

But I did show up, and she worked miracles.  I climbed off of that massage table afterwards and headed to bed feeling renewed and with abdominal muscles that had probably not been that relaxed since, well, maybe ever.  Neither of the second and third stages could possibly have gone as well as they did without that tune-up and as I closed in on Camp Hale, I had every intention of stealing another session with Carlie to prepare for the weekend.

Other than being squeezed into a busy schedule, I was shown no mercy.  Bless her.  I still cringe at the recollection of how usually ignored parts of my body (no, not those parts) were manipulated and cajoled back into working order.  It was horrible and wonderful.

Photo courtesy of Jo Agnew

It was magic.

If you are ever at TransRockies or attend any number of endurance events across the country at which Carlie does what she does, don't be an idiot, get fixed.  Word of warning, don't get lured into a drinking duel.  My gut, my expertly massaged gut, tells me that she will bury you.

And speaking of being buried, Kelly did his damnedest to undo all that I'd done right ahead of race day by having Jo drive us directly to the impromptu 2013 Leadville 100 Beer Mile.  This ill-advised venture cobbled together a ragtag bunch of contestants, some of whom excelled at chugging cold ones, others who shined at running, a few exceptional "athletes" who were pretty skilled at both and, um, me.

Photo courtesy of Jo Agnew

Photo courtesy of Jo Agnew

I could and probably should park on the subject and give it its full due, but it has already been addressed properly and better than I possibly could by both Patrick Sweeney and Francois "Flint" Bourdeau.

See/read for yourself:



Suffice to say, pounding 4 beers during a 1 mile time trial at roughly 2 miles above sea level probably wasn't the ideal day-before-the-day-before preparation for the Leadville 100, but I survived, barely, and did so with incredible stories to tell (or not tell) of the shenanigans.

Photo courtesy of Bryon Powell

The next 48 hours were a blur of laughing, eating, attending the iRunFar contributor get together at High Mountain Pies, bellying up repeatedly to the bar at the Silver Dollar Saloon, reveling in the exhortations of Ken and Cole Chlouber at the race briefing, hiking around the base of Mt. Sherman to survey Saturday's 100-mile route from its vantage point, seeing Kelly and 900+ other runners off at 4:00 AM and soaking in the manic, festive energy of the Twin Lakes aid station where I got to see and cheer for friend and first-time 100-miler Zac Marion and my pal Terry Sentinella who was in the midst of the third of four races in the Grand Slam of Ultra Running (he'd already done Western States and Vermont earlier in the summer and would toe the line at Wasatch just three weeks later).

Photo courtesy of iRunFar

But, in the late afternoon sun, halfway up the climb to Hope Pass, the Beer Mile, TransRockies, the antics of the last few days, the weeks and months of preparation, all of it seemed a distant memory and I was turning out to be a fraction of the pacer I had hoped to be, a fraction of the support I intended to be for my friend.  I'd garnered a heap of beard love on the hike up from Winfield but I began to cringe at each new "now that's a beard" shout-out, suspecting that each utterance likely further frayed Kelly's nerves.

I finally did manage to reconnect the drinking hose and even delivered a sympathy/retribution blow to my shin by accidentally smashing it against the log that Kelly was sitting on when I handed the actually-now-able-to-deliver-water hydration pack back to him.  Can't imagine that inspired any greater confidence, but at least it underscored the fact that he and I were in it together.  

Under the circumstances, I made a point to make as little a deal of my shin whack as possible.

Back on his feet, Kelly returned to the slow march up toward Hope.  We fell into step with Anthony Parillo, a tremendous endurance runner and an acquaintance of Kelly's, who had won the venerable Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run in Virginia back in June.  He was also having a difficult day and he and Kelly slipped into conversation that suggested they were both teetering on the brink of shutting things down on account of the fact that they'd both finished Leadville before and, frankly, they didn't "need this shit" anymore.

At least that's the way I interpreted it.  And it scared the crap out of me in that I doubted my ability to swing momentum if that psychological snowball got itself rolling down the mountain.  I did my best to offer positive reinforcement without being a fresh-legged pain in the ass.

With periodic breaks to regroup, Kelly soldiered on and we began to inch closer to the pass and eventually put some distance between ourselves and Anthony who I believe did end up calling it a day at or before Twin Lakes (to fight another day, no doubt!).

I kept telling myself and Kelly (with a little less frequency) that topping out at Hope Pass was going to bring not only a pleasant change of scenery, but the rejuvenation of having put the longest climbs of the day in the rear view and settling into several miles of gravity-fed relief to the valley below.

Though it took a lot longer than either of us would have predicted before the race started, we finally topped out and had lots of daylight left to cover the downhill and flat miles from there to the far side of Twin Lakes where Jo and Sean awaited our arrival.

The trail scooted over the top of the pass and corkscrewed down a number of switchbacks to the iconic llama-and-mule stocked Hopeless Aid Station that lay nestled in a lovely alpine meadow basin.

This promised my first chance at redemption and I asked Kelly what he needed before rushing over to the volunteers to fill his request.  What he wanted was Coke.  What the volunteers wanted was the cup that I apparently needed to have in order for them to part with their Coke.  Needing a cup to bum drinks at Hopeless hadn't come up at the briefing and so we were without one.


Kelly had also requested potatoes.  The aid station had those and, oddly enough, they were being served in paper cups.  I had the volunteers ladle a startling scoop of liquefied potatoes into a cup and hurried back to find Kelly.  He wasn't sitting where I thought he'd be and I went into a mild panic before a "Leon, what the f@$* are you doing?" alerted me to his whereabouts.  He wasn't too thrilled by the look, taste or texture of those potatoes and didn't put much of a dent in them.

The news about the Coke didn't seem to go down well either.  As I turned back to the aid station, I realized I could dump out the potatoes, clean the cup and bring back the sought after treasure of carbonated calories.  Of course, the only thing I had to clean the cup was my sweaty shirt, but that seemed far better than walking away empty handed.

I proudly thrust the cup back at the very volunteer who had first informed me that I wasn't getting anything without a cup.  She mumbled something about the Coke being "a little watered down" and proceeded to scoop out the most vile, semitransparent, not-carbonated-anymore beverage I've seen this side of a discarded fast food drink originally filled too high with ice and then left melting in the sun for three hours.  The slight sheen of leftover mashed potatoes the cup added didn't do anything to make the drink look more palatable.

Feebly, I held it out to Kelly and meekly accepted the "I AM not drinking that" that I deserved and fully expected before pitching the mess into the trash can.


Resigned to the fact that little aid had come our way or was going to come our way at Hopeless, we began picking our way through the narrow, rutted singletrack that crosses the meadow before reaching the smoother trail that tumbles several thousand feet to the lakes below.

I offered to dip Kelly's hat in one of the cold mountain streams that parallel the trail, as I'd done with mine on the way up to Hope Pass.  He informed me that, yes, that would be great.  He also informed me that, in fact, he'd said "yes" up on Hope Pass when I'd first made that same offer BUT I'd never actually followed through.  To be fair, I hadn't heard his response, but, still, it was another reminder that my daydream image of being the best pacer ever wasn't exactly coming into focus.


Despite all of that calamity, the lack of fueling at Hopeless, and increasing soreness and stiffness from his fall, Kelly was actually moving pretty well on the descent.  The flat approach to the Arkansas River and the couple of rollers leading into Twin Lakes went a little slower but we hadn't fallen too far off his race plan when we arrived at the aid station and we seemed to have gotten back in sync and settled into comfortable conversation.

Jo and Sean helped us fuel up, rehydrate and grab headlamps for the night that would surely fall before we saw them again at Fish Hatchery some 16 miles later.

There is a rather long, sustained uphill out of Twin Lakes that, despite being runnable on fresh legs, is pretty punishing when you're 60 some miles into your day and are trying to battle the compounding effects of a digger earlier in the day.  Instead of running, we alternated between hiking and shuffling along gingerly.

A week in a dry, humidity-free environment quite foreign to my Pennsylvania stomping grounds had led to some wickedly arid sinuses.  Tired of rubbing away the accumulated crust in an effort to clear my nasal passages, I pressed down on one nostril with the pointer finger of my left hand and blew out the right nostril with all the force I could muster.  Then I switched fingers and blew out the other nostril.  It worked.  It also started a nose bleed that would linger for the better part of an hour and began an internal drip-drip-drip of blood that would threaten my stomach and leave the brackish taste of iron in my mouth the rest of the way.

Like my shin, this struck me as something that paled in comparison to what Kelly was tackling and I determined to save further comment until we were done with our march.

Night came and temperatures cooled.

The buzz of Winfield and Twin Lakes was gone.  The trail, no longer a two-way thoroughfare with cutoffs having cleared the path of southbound traffic, was far less crowded.  There was a stillness and a quiet that, at times, made it feel as though it was just me and Kelly out there in the Colorado darkness.  While feeling for Kelly and the effort he'd already given and still needed to give, I guiltily couldn't imagine wanting to be anywhere else in the world or with anyone else at that moment.

I kept that to myself until we hit the next aid station where a grin on Kelly's face seemed an open invitation for me to remind him that even though these dark-of-night way stations and 100-mile endeavors had become something we'd grown to see as "normal", there were, in the grand scheme of things, very few people on the planet who engaged in such activities or even considered the possibility.  Our undertaking may not have been as rare as it once was, but it was still known by few and we were privileged to be in on the secret.

That warm, fuzzy moment could only last so long, as we still had a long, long way to go and only so many hours left on the clock to "officially" get there.  We could "hug it out" later, if, after another 30 some miles either of us had any interest in doing so.

Fatigue, darkness, the looming consciousness of the Powerline ascent that still lay ahead, and a rather monotonous stretch of jeep road and eventual paved road combined to make the remaining miles into Fish Hatchery seem longer than the actual distance.  Kelly's legs weren't allowing for much in the way of running and his stomach had begun to protest too.

The aid station was surreal, especially after the subdued miles that had preceded it, with fires burning, music playing, grills blazing and lurking out on the fringes of the bustle was carnage.  Ruined bodies and broken spirits slumped and slept.  Heads rested in hands and the underlying vibe was one of diminishing hope.  Kelly needed some time to refuel and get himself back together but I was concerned that the "why go on?" theme of Fish Hatchery might take hold if we didn't get back on our feet sooner than later.

A week or two after I returned home, I read Buzz Burrell's report on the Ultimate Direction blog about his visit to the Leadville course for a few hours on Saturday afternoon (http://blog.ultimatedirection.com/leadville/).  A couple of his sentences seemed torn right from my head during the several minutes Kelly and I spent at Fish Hatchery:

"So if a friend of yours, someone you care about, looks to be suffering, is the right thing to encourage them?  Wouldn't a friend want their friends to be comfortable and happy?"

The window to make the Leadville finish line in less than 25 hours was gone or nearly so and would, at the very least, require an unlikely second wind and physical recovery that simply wasn't going to happen without a few days of rest.  All that was left to do was move forward or, well, not.

On we went and within a mile or two, we were creeping our way up Powerline.  That steep incline, deeply carved by erosion is a nasty obstacle all on its own, but, appearing as it did 80 miles into a course that had already doled out more than its fair share of challenge, it may very well have been the crux of Leadville.  Picturesque Hope Pass gets all the glory, but those in the know know full well what is asked of a runner on the return trip to Powerline.

We actually navigated it rather well, certainly in comparison to those folks that we found curled up by the side of the trail or kneeling, wordlessly in our path.  We offered subdued encouragement but needed to maintain our own forward progress if we were going to get up and over it ourselves.

After several gut-punching false summits, the top was reached and we skirted along the ridge top trying to make sense of the bobbing headlamps strung out widely on the trail ahead of us, below us and all the way out around the sleeping Turquoise Lake off to our right.  We could hear murmuring at the May Queen aid station but knew it was a long way off.

And it was.

Those few miles felt like 20 and we continued to catch up with runners in various states of distress.  At one point I hung back to try and help a pacer who was barely managing to support her staggered partner.  He was slouched in a squat position and would likely have been in a prone position without his companion.  His eyes were open but he was totally unresponsive.  The two of them were clearly done but still needed to find their way to the next road or aid station.  I got them back on their feet, oriented them in the appropriate direction and assured them that they were within a mile of pavement before hurrying to catch back up to the reason I was out there in the first place.

Kelly was actually in pretty good shape, all things considered, cursing the course and ultra running on the whole like I'd have expected this far into the race.  All was as it should be, except we were now way behind schedule.

We made pretty quick work of the May Queen aid station which seemed wise as the mood there was even more bleak than at Fish Hatchery and anyone wasting too much time there was likely to go no further.

WE were going further and, in fact, at this point I no longer had any doubts about our getting Kelly all the way back to Leadville.  The only question was how long it might take.

It took a while.

Running was over.  We were power hikers at that point.  Pretty damn good power hikers.  Kelly set a  solid pace and I locked in on his shoulder.  It didn't seem the time to tell him (or maybe it was) that I was incredibly proud of how hard he was pushing despite the fact that we both knew he wasn't going to get the big buckle he coveted.  The sky was slowly brightening, signalling the break of day and the start of a 26th hour on the race clock.  

Finally, the outskirts of Leadville emerged at the top of the long, dusty boulevard that had hosted our ridiculous beer mile a few days earlier.  We shuffled our way up 6th street and I slunk off to the side to let Kelly make his well-earned trip up the red carpet for his third successful finish at a race that many will not ever manage to complete even once.

Now it was time to hug it out.

Photo courtesy of Sean McCoy (http://www.seanmccoyphotography.com/)*
I have no idea if I managed to make up for my early bumblings.  I have no point of reference to convince myself that I did a good or a bad job.  My goal was to help Kelly finish in less than 25 hours and the 26:19:23 result would suggest that I failed him.  To fully accept that I failed him, however, I would need to believe that he failed and I don't.

For 50 miles, I witnessed a runner putting in work, physically and mentally, on a demanding course and in spite of a body that had taken an unexpected beating hours and miles earlier in the day.  When the intended time goal had slipped away, Kelly didn't drop.  He didn't even back off the pace, as would have been understandable.  In a vehicle of a body that was without all of its gears, Kelly shifted into the highest one still available and we did nothing but pass people from within a mile or two of May Queen all the way to the finish line.  Over the course of that final 13+ miles, we probably caught and passed 30 sets of runners and pacers.  Maybe more.  It was impressive, it was inspiring and I'd be lying if I said I didn't tear up a time or two to watch my friend digging so deep.

It was truly an honor to spend those 50 miles and 15+ hours by Kelly's side.  There were countless individual moments and snippets of conversation that I will hold dear as long as I live and the entire experience will live among my fondest memories forever.

You know, Buzz, I'm not sure if it is the right thing to encourage a friend to continue to suffer, but if they're determined to, I want to be there with them.

If they'll have me, that is.

Where to next, Kelly?  I'm ready.

*(For more of Sean McCoy's amazing images and his recap of the Leadville crewing/pacing experience, check out his post on GearJunkie.com:  leadville-trail-100-run-recap)

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