Last weekend the Leadville 100 Trail Run saw the full range of emotions, all packed into the 30 hours of competition. Runners have up to 30 hours to complete the 100 mile race, which goes twice over 12,600-foot Hope Pass and has runners moving from the 4AM start until as late as 10AM—the following day. Witnessing the race as a spectator was like being in a terminal ward in a hospital—but not in the way you might think.
The course is tough, with long climbs and descents, short, sharp hills and rugged footing. And it is, after all, 100 miles long.
Running that distance takes athletes through a full spectrum of emotions and mental states. At times, they are elated, perhaps when finishing a trail segment on schedule, or having something to eat that doesn’t cause a full-scale gastrointestinal riot. At other times, they are deep in the pit, wondering why they ever signed up for this, or even who invented this event.
Nowhere on the course are their emotions more raw than at the end of their race. And for many hundreds of the 800+ who toed the start line, the end of their race was not the finish line.
In this year’s race, 360 runners completed the 100-mile course under the 30-hour cutoff time. That means that more than 450 starters dropped out or missed a cutoff at one of the aid stations.
Everyone has heard of the stages of dying, popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the her 1969 book On Death and Dying and brought to the screen in the movie All That Jazz starring Roy Scheider. Kubler-Ross found that people n confronting death go through a series of emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
At 1:30AM, at the Half-Pipe aid station, located near mile 70 of the run, athletes had reached the cutoff time. Those who ran through earlier than 1:30 continued on toward the next aid station, and they hoped, toward the finish line. Those runners who hit the aid station after 1:30 had missed the cutoff. Their race was over.
David Moll ran this race in 2011, when severe stomach trouble caught up with him at mile 50. This year, with a new fueling program and another year of mega-training under his belt, he was back for another try. David entered the aid station at 1:35, five short minutes behind the cutoff time.
A race official waited outside the aid tent to give athletes the news that their cutoff time had passed. The temperature had dipped into the low 30s under clear skies. Runners had been moving in the dark for more than four hours, and for 21.5 hours since the start. The course was cold, dark, rocky and lonely. Being on scene was like watching Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work in action.
The race official greeted David outside the food tent at the aid station. “I’m sorry, you missed the cutoff time.”
““WHAT????!!!?? NO!!!!” (Stage 1—David expresses denial).
“I DIDN’T COME ALL THIS WAY TO QUIT NOW!!!!!!” (Stage 2—David feels a brief flash of anger).
“Sorry, these cutoffs are hard deadlines. I didn’t make them up, I just have the job to tell you.”
“Okay, look, just let me through this one. I’m only five minutes behind. I’ll make it up on the next leg. I promise, I’ll make it. Just let me through. The course is long this year—they are making allowances for that.” (Stage 3—Now he is bargaining).
“We can’t let you back out there. It’s really cold. If you are here at 2:30 it means you won’t make it to the finish line by 30 hours. And it’s not fair to the other runners.”
At this point, David and the other runners move into the shelter of the food tent, where chairs, food and a space heater wait for them. There is not much conversation, only deeply fatigued athletes pulled deep inside themselves. A few silent tears trickle down the faces of more than a few. (Stage 4—depression).
The course marshal enters the aid tent. To everyone’s surprise, David manages to get to his feet and approach her. He says, “I need something from you.” The course marshal replies, guardedly, “Okay.” David says, “I need to give you a hug.” (Stage 5—acceptance—and a very classy move).
More tears stream down the runners’ faces, but not tears of depression. Amazingly, some even begin talking about next year’s race.
Granted, a 100-mile, 30-hour running race is way out there on the scale of endurance endeavors. Yet even shorter races have these emotional cycles contained within them.
If you are ever surprised by your emotional state during or after a race, you may just be going through the grief process. Recognize that this is a more or less normal response, refocus on your goals, and carry on.