I discovered the book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” by Christopher McDougall about 3 years ago. It must have been on someone’s Pinterest board or blog or podcast or some such stream that feeds into the fire hose of information I drink every day. Or perhaps it was dumb luck, I mean, divine intervention, because a book about the journey of ultramarathoners, including the Tarahumara Indians who reside in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, to ultimately cover 100 miles of unfathomable terrain in Leadville, Colorado, isn’t my typical jam. But I read every page. And I’m telling you, I loved it.
It had history, suspense, running tips, entertaining exchanges between characters, adversity and, of course, plenty of perseverance (our word of the month). I was so taken by this story, I became a book pusher; urging anyone who would listen to dive into McDougall’s masterpiece. In my mind, Leadville, and the superhuman race held in its mountaintops, were fantastic fictional plot elements.
So when my old editor posted an Instagram declaring she was in fact training for the balls-to-the-walls, take-no-prisoners, merciless, infamous, real life Leadville Trail 100 Run, my fingers couldn’t keep up with my thought bubbles.
“Casey! Are you doing this race?!?!?!”
“Holy shit! You are such a badass woman. When is it?”
“Badass or crazy. In August.”
“Gah!!!! I’m so excited for you. You’ll kill it.”
“You should come run some of it with me.”
I felt it was best for all parties involved to insert a laughing emoji and slide out of the conversation at this point. I marked August 20 in my calendar and immediately started stalking her training through social media.
A bit of background on Casey. We worked together on a food magazine in Indianapolis for about five years after I graduated from college. She made me nervous because her talent demonstrated where the bar was set for grownup writers, but she was never cocky or condescending. The opposite actually. She was hipster before hipster was a significant social class, with her PBR and her folk jams. And she was living proof that life beyond my post-college, early 20s buzz wasn’t entirely bleak. I adored and admired her.
To know Casey is to know Casey runs. She ticked off a full marathon or two in the time we worked together and spent hours encouraging me to get out there. That passion is just part of her, like a loud laugh or short temper. Her husband Bill, a respected educator and writer in his own right, is a runner as well. They’re really cool people. As a result of this street cred, and the sheer awe of the feat ahead of her, Casey’s quest to conquer 100 miles in the air-sucking altitude of some of Colorado’s toughest peaks conjured up some strong supporters.
Her story of Leadville, much like Christopher McDougall’s, is a master class in courage. Brave, to me, is pushing yourself beyond what’s comfortable and familiar. Brave is sharing what you learn about yourself, even if it could be perceived as weak to some. Brave is this post. In “Rising Strong”, Brené Brown writes, “I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage, or we can choose comfort, but we can not have them both. Not at the same time.”
I hope you enjoy reading Casey’s recount of her journey because I tell ya, she really is some kinda Superwoman.
“You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless.”
— Christopher McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen)
By Casey Kenley
AT THE BASE OF HOPE PASS, ABOUT 40 MILES into the race, everyone around us pulled retractable walking sticks out of their backpacks — everyone except us. It was the first real sign that I might be out of my league. I was attempting to finish the Leadville Trail 100 Run in the Colorado Rockies, an ultra-running race with an elevation gain of 18,168 feet and fittingly called “the race across the sky.” With hundreds of other runners tricked out in headlamps and running gear, I had crossed the start line back in Leadville at 4 a.m. that morning and had already made it up two big climbs; down a slick, rut-riddled descent; and across plenty of miles of rocky trail.
I was at the base of Hope Pass for a few reasons. First, nine months earlier, I was still flying high from my first 100-miler when my good friend Holly suggested that I put my name into the lottery for Leadville. I assumed my chances of getting in were slim to none, so I filled out the online form in December 2015, said goodbye to my $15 registration fee, and waited. If you are accepted into the lottery, you are immediately registered and divested of $315. I was one of the lucky 356 people from around the world who got in. And second, I was at the base of this mountain because I was avoiding a challenge that seemed far greater than running 100 miles: writing a book. When I trained for my first 100-mile race, I spent every Friday for nearly five months running for hours on end. I told myself that once I checked that distance off my bucket list, I would devote all those valuable Friday hours to writing a book. When I got into Leadville, that was impossible because I had to start running again.
So there I was, on Aug. 20, 2016, facing Leadville’s deal breaker of a climb, moving from a flat, grassy plain up into dense woods. The pace almost immediately slowed to a slog. If your thighs deserve some punishment, you won’t find any mercy on this hill. Every 15-20 minutes, I stepped to the side of the trail, planted my hands on my knees and coerced my lungs to pull a decent breath of air as we climbed from 9,200 to 12,600 feet elevation. I waved people coming up behind me to pass. My heart never raced like this during my runs in Indiana.
I was making my way up the mountain with Jessica, who I’d met about 20 miles back on the trail, when we had both avoided a nest of ground bees that had settled right on the race course, or rather we had blazed our trail through their home. Either way, they were not happy. Jessica lived in Los Angeles, moving there from the East Coast just a few months prior after a tough breakup with a long-term boyfriend. She ran in college and was about 10 years my junior, with a gloriously broad smile and straight brown hair. I was the “veteran” ultra-runner, with several 50-milers and one 100-miler completed. We shared stories about our families and jobs. We clicked.
The uphill switchbacks just kept coming. When I looked anywhere besides the trail under my feet, the steep drop-offs made me wobble and lean. There was no groove to settle into. My legs and those organs that typically are useful in long-distance running weren’t going to get comfortable with this sort of effort. I wasn’t a complete lost cause. I dressed well: compression shorts, a long-sleeved technical-fabric shirt and the ball cap that never failed me. The hydration vest on my back held plenty of water, its front pockets armed with Fig Newtons, electrolyte supplements and salt tabs. A couple miles back, we had waded through a freezing creek up to our knees, which brought relief to tired legs for a while. Still, my footfalls became lazy and short.
“Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone.~Ken Chlouber, Colorado miner and creator of the Leadville Trail 100 mile race”
— Christopher McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen)
“It’s not long now,” someone said. An aid station would be at the top of Hope Pass. Once we hit that aid station, I thought to myself, we’re home free, back down the other side of the mountain to hit mile 50, the halfway mark on this out-and-back course. Aid stations at ultra races are oases for runners. Eager volunteers refill your hydration bladders and water bottles. Covered edge to edge are tables laden with potato chips, pretzels, PB&Js, cups of ramen noodles, boiled potatoes with salt for dipping, M&Ms, chunks of banana and orange wedges, and more. My favorite: bubbly Coke to ease upset stomachs and give you a jolt of sugar and caffeine. Aid stations appear about every five miles in ultra races, and the key is to make sure you’re eating enough calories to sustain up to 30 hours of nearly continuous running, about 9,000 calories total. The key is to do whatever it takes to just finish this 100-mile race.
After about two hours of climbing, I knew I was in trouble. At most of the aid stations at Leadville, you have to arrive by a certain time in order to continue. My cushion of about 1.5 hours ahead of the cutoff times was dwindling. The idea is that if you can’t make it to each checkpoint by a certain time, there is no way you can finish the race under the final cutoff time of 30 hours. Race organizers don’t want delirious, damaged, reckless runners on the trails during a race they’re managing. And when you have run 20 hours or more, chances are pretty good that your judgement is impaired. I once came across a runner during a 50-mile race who had curled into a fetal position to take a nap in the woods. He was carried out by the race director on an ATV. I met a guy during a 60-kilometer race who was slicked with mud all up his right side. He told me he had dislocated his shoulder and then popped it back into its socket. When I asked him if he was going to cut his race short, he said no. (I thought that was a little extreme.) Stories about hallucinations, falling asleep while running, being chased by stray dogs and all kinds of injuries are common among ultra runners. It’s part of the lifestyle and “charm.”
To many people, this all sounds a little nutty, but I think that a third reason I found myself at the bottom of Hope Pass this year is because the prospect of living an uninteresting life scares me. I’m married and live in a suburb of Indianapolis. I have two wonderful little boys, a white picket fence and a porch swing. I’m a relatively good girl, but I need to feel rebellious, too. I want to feel like I’m living an exciting life as I also raise kids, go to the grocery and keep clients happy. I want to feel things intensely and let go of those things that don’t matter, and running helps me do that.
A few winters ago, as I drove out to Fort Harrison State Park in Indianapolis, the radio reported an outside temperature of two below zero with a wind chill in the negative 20s. Bundled in two layers of tights, multiple long-sleeved tops, a jacket, hat, mittens and scarf tied around my face, I covered 26 miles on lonely forest trails. My eyes watered and fingers stayed numb for hours, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I felt exhilarated. After that sort of exertion, my senses shift. The crispness and tartness of an apple are utterly magnified, a warm car is a miracle, and a hot shower is the ultimate luxury. The annoyance I might have felt when someone slopped water all over the bathroom floor before school doesn’t matter anymore; I’m too exhausted to care. A little pain — and a lot of discomfort — makes the rest of the mundane parts of my life so much easier to stomach.
I HAD NEVER NOT FINISHED an ultra race — or any race — but it’s not uncommon. It’s called a DNF: did not finish. When the woods finally cleared and the beacon of the Hope Pass aid station was in sight, I was convinced I wasn’t going to continue once Jessica and I made it down the other side of the mountain to mile 50. From the top of Hope Pass, it was six more miles to the turnaround at Winfield. There I would be greeted by my husband and friends Leann, Karla and Alison. My good college buddy Karla would be prepared to run with me for about 12 miles starting at mile 50, so I’d have to break the news to her that she wouldn’t get to endure four-plus hours of pain. During Leadville, participants can have pacers run alongside them to keep them company between miles 50 and 100. The rest of my four-person crew had their marching orders to join me during other legs of the race.
The Hope Pass aid station was shy of the top of Hope Pass. In fact it was 764 feet of elevation gain from the peak. To the left of the aid station tents, llamas tied up along a long rope rested in a field of golden grass. The animals had hauled up the tables, food, water and everything else needed to fortify the runners. A volunteer offered up a bottle of sunscreen and rubbed it into my shoulders and back — amazing! Another guy filled my bladder and handed me a cup of mashed potatoes. They were the best damned mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. Jessica went through the same motions, though I don’t know what was going through her head. I willed myself to get going, to leave the peaceful llamas and the felled log I was using as a bench, and I started to think about how I was going to tell Jessica that I would not continue after Winfield. I was going to DNF.
The switchbacks that cover the space between the aid station and the top of Hope Pass is exposed and windy. The sun shone brightly. Unlike on the dense forest trails, now I could see runners ahead of us trudging, stopping, finding the guts to move on to reach the summit. I was frequently stepping to the side of the trail to allow runners who had already made it to Winfield to go by in the opposite direction.
At the top, a string of tattered prayer flags waved frantically. The brightly colored squares had been zip-tied to the top of a tall stick, rocks piled around the base as a foundation. Traditionally, Buddhists use these flags to promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. They are also used to seek spiritual blessings for things such as reincarnations and the experience of Nirvana. Makeshift structures like the one on Hope Pass are often built at the highest places possible in the Himalayan mountains. The idea is that the wind that blows them carries the prayers far and wide to bless everyone. At that time, I could have used a little reincarnation, maybe a bird or mountain goat.
“I’m going to stop at Winfield,” I announced to Jessica after we dropped over the top of the mountain.
“No you’re not. I’m not doing this without you. You’re good. We are almost halfway there,” she said.
“OK. You’re right,” I said. It just came out! How could I disappoint Jessica, who had somehow over the course of a few hours become my top reason for continuing this race? But I knew the truth. I wasn’t ready for this event. Back home, I had trained the requisite 26 weeks for Leadville. I ran five days a week, up to 30 miles in one day, and 15 training runs that were at least 20 miles long. I was strong, in the best shape of my life. I had a signature trucker hat, minimalist and super-cushy trail shoes, a Subaru and no lack of feistiness, for goodness sake! Back home, I ran hilly trails, but nothing like the climbs in Colorado. And I would breathe in and out in Indiana no problem, but it was different in Leadville. It just didn’t add up.
The trip down the backside was more single-track trail, but steeper and more littered with rocks. I watched my running shoes maneuver step by step, willing them like a Jedi to land in the safest positions possible to keep me from sliding down on my ass or falling forward (my usual direction) so I could arrive to Winfield in one piece. About 45 minutes from the 50-mile mark, Jessica reported that she was feeling woozy.
“You’re depleted. We’ll get you some broth and food at the Winfield aid station. Drink some Coke,” I said.
“No. I’m done. There’s no way I can climb back up this mountain,” she said. Sweet relief!
“I have known I was going to DNF for hours,” I told her. “I just didn’t know how to break it to you!”
The last few miles down to Winfield seemed to take forever, but there were bright spots. The two nights before the race start, two Spanish brothers in their 30s and a Swede stayed in the same Airbnb as I. It was their first attempt at Leadville as well. We had sat together at the table in our hosts’ kitchen the night before the race and shared pasta and salad. The next morning, we met at 3:15 a.m. to walk to the start line together. I had been looking out for them ever since runners began coming from Winfield to set out on the second half of the race. Then I spotted the Spanish brothers hoofing up the trail. We hugged and kissed on each cheek. I told them how proud of them I was, that maternal instinct still kicking in when I had nothing left to give.
We finally made it off the trail and stepped onto the paved road that led a short distance to the 50-mile mark. Bill was there, and then Leann ran up with Karla and Alison. My voice cracked and a few tears fell when I told them I was done. Jessica and I were about 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff time, so I could have kept racing. But I didn’t. I DNF’ed. My crew knows me well, so they knew that there was no sense in trying to talk me into continuing. I’m stubborn, and I explained that if I tried to continue and failed to make the cutoff time on my return trip up to Hope Pass, I would be turned around and sent back to Winfield. It was all very logical, see? So we loaded up the car and I rode back to Leadville. This was not part of my plan.
When I returned home, people told me what I had done was awesome, amazing, tough! But I wasn’t proud of finishing 50 miles at Leadville. I had gone to run 100, after all. I failed. I’ve wanted to quit races in the past. During a road marathon in Indianapolis when my head was telling me to stop, I prayed for an injury to strike me down so I wouldn’t drop out on my own. When temperatures soared at a marathon in Tennessee and I threw up at mile 22, I hoped the race directors would call off the race, send a van to scoop me up and return me to my parents at the finish line. During my third 50-miler, my knee started to swell at mile 30, but I kept going. I never quit. I could always run through the pain or talk myself out of those dark places.
Running for me is like food, water, sleep and love. It is necessary. But like love, it can also break me and teach me unexpected lessons. The things that kept me from continuing on or finishing Leadville are complicated, but I think the main one is that I didn’t want it enough. Instead of committing completely to what it takes mentally and physically to prepare for a race like Leadville, I was using it partly to postpone my goal of writing a book. I wasn’t thinking about it that way during my training or during the race, but that’s what I was doing. It’s clear now. What is also clear is that I don’t want to write a book. If I did, I’d be doing it. I would create a book plan and tackle it with the same vigor I’ve tackled races in the past. Instead, I’m sticking to articles and essays.
“If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.” — Christopher McDougall (Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen)
Feeling like a failure sucks. There’s no getting around it. But being able to uncover the crux of why I failed has been important for me. Really wanting something means I’ll do everything in my power to make it happen, pushing myself to places of discomfort that I will welcome as points along a journey. I don’t want to live a half-assed life, but I don’t think finishing Leadville is a necessary part of my journey. I don’t want it badly enough, and I’m OK with that. My next big goal eludes me; I’m hopeful it will materialize soon. I want to go to more of those hard, fulfilling places. I just have to keep running toward them.
Want to see another Superwoman? Read about Ashlie’s amazing journey to motherhood.