Monday, January 9, 2012

Finding the Edges - A journey to the Leadville 100 Run

Finding the Edges
By Adam Mackstaller

Becoming a runner

In the fall of 1993 I was doing something out of the ordinary for me – I was sitting on a couch watching TV.  The show was a documentary on a small race in Leadville Colorado that absolutely captivated me.  It was called the Leadville Trail 100 and it was a 100 mile running race.

I could hardly believe that people could run 100 miles, over a 12,600’ pass (twice) with a total climbing elevation of over 3 miles straight up (≈ 16,100’) and to top it all off - in under 30 hours (“30 hours of running? This is nuts!” I thought to myself).  But I was so deeply inspired and gripped by the trials and tribulations and the courage of these people that I committed right then and there, that I too would run the Leadville 100 before I was 30… errr, 40.

It took me until 2002 before I even started becoming a runner.  In the spring of ’02 I signed up for the Boulder Bolder and with medium training finished with a time of 43:11 (which is decent, but by no means blazing fast).  Upon reminiscing with my best friend Keith, I declared that the next year I would run a “sub-40”.  Keith, a long time avid runner, laughingly chastised me saying “…you don’t just knock 3 minutes off your best 10K time!”.   Now…I don’t know about you but when my best friend says something like that, there are only 2 words in the English language that could possibly fall out of my mouth next: “Watch me”.  

I was on my way to being a runner.

The next year, I teamed up with my good friend Bill to train for the Boulder Bolder in order to hit my Sub-40 goal.  After a late training start in March of that year we began training in earnest.  Finally race day came in May of that year and although nervous I was confident that the Sub-40:00 goal was just within my reach.   It was a tough race… I went out way too fast, but managed to hold on until finish line with a final time of 39:53.  I did it… I “just knocked 3 minutes off my best 10K time”, and hit my sub-40 goal.  Thank you for the inspiration Keith…  

In the recesses of my mind I remembered my old vow:  Leadville.  However, it didn’t even occur like a possibility for me until Bill and I ran a 200 mile ultra-relay race on a team with 4 other runners.  We each ran a total of 33-35 miles over a 24-hour period of time, running from Ft. Collins to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  We were inspired.

With that accomplishment behind us, Bill and I were buzzing with excitement.  We started talking about ‘what’s next?’.  I knew there was only one answer:  Leadville.  It was discussed and agreed that first we would tackle the Leadville 50, then the 100. 

After declaring my goal openly with friends, I met with resistance from some who insisted that it couldn’t be healthy to run that far, and that the human body wasn’t made to do that, etc etc.  

Here is what I’ve learned about ultra-running (apply freely as a metaphor throughout life).  We are all vastly more capable than we believe ourselves to be.  And the human body was designed as a running machine…

The 2010 Leadville 50 however, was no walk in the park for me.  Actually, it was hell.

After a great spring training session and an extraordinary run back and forth across the Grand Canyon earlier in the summer, I thought I was ready.  I was in the best shape of my life, and had already put some killer long back-to-back training runs under my belt.

When the shotgun went off marking the start of the Leadville 50, I was like an eager kid on Christmas morning.  I couldn’t contain my anticipation. I blasted up the first 10 mile climb as if the race was a half marathon.  The race started in Leadville at 9900’ feet climbing steadily up the valley finally summiting at 12,200’. Upon reaching the 13.5 mile aid station, I discovered to my shock that I was in 10th place – behind some very accomplished ultra-runners.  This was very bad news.  I was out of my league, and I had over exerted myself in just the first third of the race.  The worst part was, I could feel it.  My legs felt like cinder blocks.  There was only one thing to do from that point forward:  keep moving forward as best I could.  It was painful.  There were many low moments and it felt like I was constantly being passed by other runners (later I would learn that this was a relative feeling). 

Numerous times during the race I vowed I would never do anything like it again.  The thought, “…why does anyone actually do this?” circled through my mind.  The possibility of running the Leadville 100 had completely slipped away from me.  What I would later learn in hindsight, was that I had not manage my nutrition and hydration well.  I was actually over hydrating and under eating.  In addition, I didn’t stay in my “zone”. 

My biggest lesson from the race wasn't about managing my eating and drinking, it was the importance of managing my mental universe.  Our minds have a way of running off with negative thoughts like a band of wild horses – and they won’t stop until they’re redirected/distracted/confronted/quieted.  I was challenged for 7 hours with this over and over and over again.  The thought, “I went out too fast… I’m spent. Can I finish?” kept circling through of my mind.  My only solution was to drag my attention into the present and keep my focus on making it into the next aid station (short term goals in service of my ultimate goal).  This kept my feet moving… and my mind off of the debilitating chatter.

In spite of all of these challenges, I did managed to keep moving and in the end finished in 9hrs 11 minutes in 24th place (out of 180 starters).  It felt like a great accomplishment, but it was a mixed bag given the low points of the race. 

As women often forget the challenges of child birth (almost immediately), so too do ultra-runners quickly forget their race day low points.  It took me about a day… before I was re-committed to the 2011 Leadville 100.

2011 Leadville Trail 100

View Leadville 100 Run in a larger map

In December of 2010, shortly after the registration was opened for the 2011 Leadville 100 race, I hopped online and registered.  I wasn’t taking any chances that the race might fill up and leave me without a spot.  I would be turning 40 at the end of 2011, and if I were going to hit my revised 1993 goal… this was it.

In January I started talking with Bill about training targets and he sent me a copy of his very detailed Leadville training plan.  I adopted his spreadsheet for my own training and we were under way…

But there was one slight wrinkle...  I was starting from scratch.  After the Leadville 50 the prior summer, the vision dwindled and my running tapered off.  In January 2011 my first runs preparing for the Leadville 100 consisted of a 2.6 mile run around Washington Park in Denver on snow and ice.  I was starting at the ground floor.  And because of some injury concerns, my running coach Douglas forbade me from adding more than 10% mileage per week.  I remember feeling winded in those first 2.6 mile loops around the park.  The negative mental chatter was borderline self-abusive.  I remember feeling so far away from my goal.

But fortunately I didn't focus on the August 20th 4am start, I just focused on doing that days run, and hitting my meager mileage goal for that week.  And doing it again...  and again...  and again.  Having a weekly plan was VITAL.  If I hadn't had a plan that kept me present, I would have been daunted by the enormity of the task.  

Soon, my training through the spring was the most consistent period of training I had ever managed.  By no means perfect – but I was getting my miles in.  Most of which I was managing to get in on the trails in the Denver foothills with a fair amount of steep climbing and descending.  There are a few good loops that have very easy access to town that I consistently hit.  I was building my base.

My Saturday long runs were starting to get longer.  They were quickly at 7 miles, then 8, then 9, 10, and then 11 miles.

In spite of my best intentions there were many weeks when I would miss my target mileage, sometimes by a long shot.  There were numerous low points that had me seriously question the likelihood of my success.  
I remember one morning in particular in late March or early April.  I came home from an 11 mile long run famished and exhausted.  I remember wondering, "How will this possibly work??  I'm exhausted and I only ran 11 miles...".  

Where do you fall back to, when you deeply question something that you've said you're so committed to?
I had created 2 things to catch myself...  1) I had created a passionate vision of crossing the finish line before sunrise on August 21st in downtown Leadville so clearly in my mind that when I imagined it, I could actually feel the cold air on my skin.   2)  then I told everybody I was doing it, I raised money for, and I lined up my sponsors and friends to help.  I was NOT going to let all these people down.  For me personally, this is what I fell back on.

My Training Low

I truly questioned my sanity when we ran the San Juan Solstice 50 miler in June.  Up to that point our longest training runs had been 2 back to back days of about 20 miles each day (a common training technique).

But that would prove insufficient for San Juan.

It was the single toughest day of my entire life.  It included 13,000’ of climbing (and descending) in only 50 miles.  There were a few flat sections, but the balance was intense climbing and descending.  On top of it all, for the first 34 miles I wasn’t feeling well. 

In the first section of the race, something funny happened.  Due to a poorly marked course, the lead group of runners got lost twice in the first 2 hours of the race.  I had managed to follow the proper course each time, bringing me into the 2nd aid station in second place overall.  When I learned of my position in the aid station, I laughed.  What are the odds?!  These guys that I was running with were World Class runners.  2nd place was a total Coup in this pack (and purely a mistake).

But quickly the leaders started passing me out of the next aid station, and I was getting passed for the next 10 hours.  If you've ever been in a race of any kind with some intention of doing well, you might be able to relate to the dreadful feeling of being constantly passed.  It was incredibly demotivating.  Finally, after 11hrs and 45mins the agony was over.  I finished in 42nd place.

Get a grip of yourself...

After the San Juan Solstice, I told my ultra-running friends that I ‘seriously questioned my ability to finish the Leadville 100’.  They insisted that it was a different animal all together and in fact, with those results I would do just fine.  This was very hard to believe. 

“How could I run a 50-miler, and be crushed beyond belief – and then imagine turning around and doing it again?”.  I was plagued by this thought for the next 4 weeks.  It was challenging me so much that my training mileage dropped off significantly.

To complicate my state of mind even more, I had developed some strained plantar fascia tissue on the bottom of my left foot from the San Solstice run.  This condition is known for causing many a runner incredible discomfort, and even bringing their running program to an abrupt halt.

I wouldn’t shake this entirely until just 4 weeks prior to the race, when I started spending time with a new group of ‘ultra’ folks.  What a great group of people – Charles, Jurney, Chris, JP and crew.  We ran a good 30 mile training run out on the Leadville course as our final pre-race run prior to tapering.  This helped me shift off of my heels and back onto my toes, mentally speaking. I was finally leaning into my goal again, just in the nick of time. 

Charles was nice enough to invite me stay at his place the night before the race.  His house was just a few short blocks from the starting line.  A quick side story:  Charles is famous in Leadville because he has managed to successfully finish the ‘Lead-Man Series’ 4 times and he was currently working on his 5th.  The a Lead-Man (or Woman) is someone who finishes the Leadville 10k run, Marathon, 50-Mile mountain bike ride, 100-Mile mountain bike, and finally the 100-mile run all in one season.  He’s a bruiser…

Because of the medical check-in and pre-race briefings, we had to be in Leadville by 10am the day prior to the start.  This was possibly one of the most nerve racking days of my life.  All I wanted to do was SOMETHING, but there was nothing to do but wait.  It was torture.  "Will I finish?"  "Will the plantar pain in my foot prematurely end my day?"  "At what point will I loose my stomach? (vomit) and how bad will it get?" "Will I have the courage to finish?".

I wondered, "Maybe this is how soldiers feel before going off to battle?".

RACE DAY – August 20th
I awoke a few minutes before my 2am alarm went off.

No one else was up yet, which was surprising given that we had a 4 am start time.  Charles finally came downstairs around 3:10am… obviously this wasn’t his first rodeo.

I had been nervous over the last few days, but now I was 'ready to puke' nervous. 

The pre-race briefing the day before shed some light on a running performance issue I had never understood before:  hyponatremia.  It’s a condition of too little salt in your body, caused in our context by over hydration (and lack of salt intake).  I knew it existed, but upon hearing the symptoms, I realized that I had previously fallen victim to its grip.  Today I was going to be watchful, drinking when I was thirsty and not overdo the fluids.

Charles was busy getting ready, but it was nearly 3:45am.  ….Ahh… Charles?...  We finally left the house around 9 minutes prior to the Start.  We drove down the hill and Charles and I unloaded in front of the starting line.  With a quick ‘good-bye / good luck’, I darted up the street into the start group.

Christine and my Dad were going to meet me around Start, but since I had gotten there so close to the Start I figured the likelihood of actually seeing them in the sea of people was slim-to-none.  However, upon slipping into the start group about 2/3’s of the way back I turned to my right and saw Christine scanning the crowd from the street corner.  It was 2 minutes until the start.  We said our good-byes and a my Dad snapped a quick photo.  I wouldn’t be seeing them again until the second aid station at mile 23.5.

It felt like time was moving so fast at this point…  I didn’t feel ready.

I want to put my hands out in front of me, as if that would slow things down – I needed more time…

to feel ready...


The shotgun went off at 4am on the dot beginning what would become the longest day of my life (and ironically, at the same time the shortest day).

Amongst the hoots and hollers and cheers, the crowd rolled forward walking at first, then shuffling, then jogging.  No matter how much I wanted to hit the gas, I had vowed that I wouldn’t go out too fast.  So, I held myself back at this uncomfortably slow pace until we rolled out of town out onto the first dirt road section.

In Leadville there is a saying… “The race doesn’t start until the Twin Lakes aid station” (mile 60).  Going out fast is not a good game plan, unless you’re an elite runner gunning for a medal. 

We rolled out of Leadville in the early morning darkness – a sea of bobbing headlamps 650 strong, working our way out of town and then down the long dirt road to Turquoise Lake west of town.  It was odd being amongst so many people, with just the sound of shuffling feet.  We were all quietly wrapping our heads around what lay before us.

After a half an hour, I couldn’t stand it any more and began picking up the pace.  I vowed that I was going to stay in my sweet spot.  I wouldn’t push, but I wouldn’t lag either.  I would just stay in my zone where I felt strong. 

By the time I arrived at the edge of Turquoise Lake the runners had thinned out into a single file line.  It was still dark.  As we circled the lake I began anticipating the first aid station at the far end (May Queen). 

As we wound our way around the lake we encountered our first cheering section.  50 or 60 people were lining the trail in the dark near one of the campgrounds along the lake hooting and hollering and cheering us along as we ran through.  The fact that these people got up this early to cheer us on so vigorously, baffled me.  But I was grinning ear to ear. 

Before I knew it, we had made our way around the lake.  It was beautiful - the lake, the soft glow building in the sky, reflecting off the lake.  As dawn was breaking, I emerged from the trail in the woods out into the May Queen campground.  It was only 6 am and the campground was quiet, but that was about to change.  I ran through the campground, then up the short hill into the May Queen aid station.  Things went from serene solitude, to cheering throngs of people.  It was a bit of a shock.  I grabbed a few sandwiches – washed down a banana, smiled in appreciation at all the revelers and was off.  Within a few minutes it was all quiet again.  It was just me and my fellow runners, and the trail.  One aid station down, eight to go – 13.5 miles complete.

The early morning light was filling the mountains.  Soon we were making our way up Sugarloaf Mountain, which would be our first and then ultimately our final climb of this very long day.  The rule for the day was simple: Power-walk the climbing sections and run the flats and the down hills.  This is how to survive a 100 mile run.

Occasionally I would be moving at a similar pace with another runner and we would share a few thoughts about our progress and the day, and then our respective paces would change and we would depart with some version of "good luck today".

Finally, with the first big climb behind us we began our descent down the famous ‘Power Line’ trail heading towards the Fish Hatchery aid station.  On the descent I saw a woman that I recognized.  It turns out Tina was the first place woman finisher in the San Juan Solstice 50 miler back in June.  We chatted for awhile as we ran along.  She wasn’t feeling well and was already struggling a bit at this point.  Hmm… I thought, “just hold it together Adam.  Stay in the sweet spot…”.   I would be seeing Christine and my Dad shortly.  We were approaching Fish Hatchery.

As we approached the aid station, we began seeing enthusiastic fans along side the road cheering us on.  Some of our supporters were VERY enthusiastic.  Two ladies in particular were standing in the middle of road giving it everything they had – cheering, hooting, hollering – showering forth so much positive energy we couldn’t help but feel better, and laugh.  God bless the volunteers...  they were incredible.

Entering the Fish Hatchery was surreal.  Hundreds and hundreds of people were cheering us on, lifting our spirits.  I ran through the Aid station and found my way back to Christine and my Dad.  I grabbed a couple of sandwiches, got a spray down of sun screen – fortunately remembered to say “thank you”, gave Christine a kiss and was on my way.  I would be seeing them again in another hour or so at “Pipeline”.   Two aid stations down, seven to go – 23.5 miles complete. 

At this point I was feeling solid.  I could sense just a slight fatigue in my legs, but they weren’t hurting per se.  The section just before Fish Hatchery and for about 3 miles after is the only asphalt section of the entire race.  In hindsight, this would mark the beginning of one of the tougher sections of the day for me.

From Fish Hatchery (mile 23.5) to Twin Lakes (mile 39.5) was challenging.  I think I had become a bit dehydrated in this section and was consequently feeling pretty low.  I felt as though I was getting passed consistently and memories of my San Juan Solstice race came seeping back into my mind.  I was working hard to keep the negative chatter at bay.  But I was also feeling crummy. 

As I finally made my way into Twin Lakes, I was smiling but under the surface I was struggling.


As I came through the timing and scoring building to “register” the timing chip embedded in the race number on my shirt, I felt a pat on my back.  It was Jake… my friend who would be my second pacer, picking me back up here at Twin Lakes after I went out to Winfield (the turn around point) and back.  He saw that I was feeling low and tried to give me a pep talk.  I tried to put a smile on – but I wasn’t there. 

This was my lowest physical/mental point in the race.  I felt guilty as I was being a bit snappy with Christine and my Mom.  They were doing everything they could to give me what I needed – nutrition, some foot help, and some Tylenol.

Jake walked along side me all the way out of Twin Lakes to the edge of the blacktop…  I was walking, not running.  I had taken some nutrition but not a lot.  I set out across the marshes, waded across the one significant river crossing. 

Later Jake would admit that he had called his wife Meshi, after I came through Twin Lakes.  He told her, “Well – it’s either going to be a very short day for me, or a very long day.” – meaning, I was either going to DNF, or I would be dragging butt all the way to the finish line.

As I walked/jogged away from the river crossing I got another tap on the shoulder.  This time it was my good friend and running companion, Bill C.  Given how I had been feeling for the last 7-10 miles, I was surprised he had not passed me yet.  Bill was upbeat and feeling strong – I was still not.  A few words were exchanged and then finally Bill said, “Well – I’m going to take off, so I’ll see’ya”.  And with that Bill blazed ahead and started climbing the infamous Hope Pass, as I slowly followed.

As I watched Bill consistently pulling away, I struggled to keep the negative chatter in check.  The pitch of the trail heaved steeply upwards.  From this side of Hope Pass, the climb was over 3,500 vertical feet. I continued up after him straining to at least keep him in sight.  Somehow I managed to take a good tumble on one of the switchbacks but caught myself, and finally decided to sit down.

I took off my shoes to clear the gravel out and stomached a significant amount of “food”.  I took a deep breath and stopped for a few minutes to collect myself.  After a few minutes with no other excuses left - I laced my shoes back up and pushed on up Hope Pass.

As I pushed along, I slowly started feeling better.  I had been up this side of the pass before so I knew that I would be breaking above tree line shortly.  As I did, I could see the tree line Aid Station.  There were volunteers running down the trail to us, taking our water bottles and drink orders then running back up to the Aid station to get them filled by the time we arrived.  As I watched these energized volunteers I realized – I too was energized.  I was feeling vastly better and continuing to improve. 

As I walked above tree line (around 11,400’) past the Aid Station with freshly filled bottles I looked up ahead to see Hope Pass looming another 1200’ above us – and there, three hundred yards ahead of me was Bill, plodding along. 

Cresting Hope Pass - w/ Bill right behind me
By the time I caught up to Bill we were just two switchbacks below the pass.  We briefly checked in with one another, and Bill waved me ahead.  I could tell we had flip-flopped our mental/physical states.  I was feeling stronger by the minute and this time it was Bill that was a bit low. 

I blew over the pass and was finally eager to get the show on the road.  I knew that Bill would be passing me again soon, as he is much faster on the down hills than I am.  It took awhile, but finally about a third of the way down the back side of Hope, I waved him by and tried to hang on to his pace.  We bombed down the trail passing the occasional ascending runner.  The lead runners had already gone out to Winfield and come back up over Hope Pass just as we were reaching the summit.  So we were expecting to see many of the runners that were ahead of us to be ascending Hope Pass, as we were descending. 

Back side of Hope Pass, heading for Winfield
Once we reached the road Bill waved me on.  I could tell that his energy was not quite at optimum levels still.  I slogged ahead up the final three miles of ascending road to Winfield.  After about ten minutes to my amazement, Henry Fischer ran up next to me. 

Henry Fischer is my neighbor and along with his wife Stacy, he founded Willa’s Wheels – the organization I had been fundraising for leading into the Leadville 100.  Willa’s Wheels was created after Henry and Stacy’s daughter Willa died of brain cancer.  Willa was just a few days older than our daughter Cleo.  As they were going through the process of hospitalizations and treatment with Willa, they saw many other families doing the same.  Many did not have the financial means to be able to take time off of work to help their loved one with treatment, if they wanted to keep their homes and jobs.  During this process they learned about the Raymond Wentz Foundation – an organization that helps Coloradans with financial assistance if they are struggling while helping a family member through cancer treatment.   (if you would like to contribute check out

So… there was Henry, out of the blue.  He was a sight for sore eyes… I immediately started feeling better about getting to Winfield and turning around for my second 50 miles.  Henry was slated to pace me from Winfield back to Twin Lakes where Jake would be picking me up and pacing me to the finish line.

We slogged up the rest of the road into the Winfield turn around.  Having not been to Winfield before, I didn’t realize that the road climbed so much after getting off the backside of Hope Pass.  FINALLY… we crested the last hill and descended into the turn around staging area.  And because Henry is so involved in the Leadville 100 race series, I got first class treatment from the moment we ran in.  Immediately I was received by Dr. Ari an ER emergency doc, who also rides on the Willa’s Wheels team…

Dr. Ari escorted me to the food / medical tent while Henry went off to find nutrition and sunscreen for me.  As we walked to the tent Dr. Ari made some sort of comment that he didn’t realize Henry was pacing a “fast” runner.  Up to this point, I had no idea how I was doing in the race.  Dr. Ari said at that point we had come into the turn around somewhere around 70th place.  “Huh”… I thought, “that’s cool”.

As I sat down he immediately helped me get my shoes off as I had mentioned a hotspot on my foot and irritating toe nail that was rubbing my sock with every step (maddening).  Other volunteers scampered off for medical tape and toenail clippers as we stripped my shoes and socks.  With no toe nail clippers to be found, Dr. Ari produced a pair of ER trauma shears to trim my toe nail.  As far as toenails go, trauma sheers are the equivalent to bolt cutters. Before I knew it, he slid the shears up against my pinky toe nail – mentally sized up the cut and CLIPPED.  “OUCH” I said… both of us wondering if that cut, was the end of my race…  Immediately I thought he had clipped it too short as the pain shot up my left leg.  But fortunately, after a few minutes I realized that it was just what I needed.  Phew...  that was close.

With the other heal taped up and shoes back on I jumped up to grab some nutrition, and found my 2 new best friends (minus Henry of course)…  Coca-Cola and oranges.  I chugged down a cup of Coke for the first time and ate two entire oranges. 
part of a typical aid station spread

I felt like a new man.  We were in approximately 70th place (out of 650), my feet were fixed up, my energy was back, I had Henry to run with and we were now past the halfway point heading home. This was my turning point… in numerous ways.

As we left Winfield and headed down the road back to Hope Pass, I started stretching out my stride for the first time in quite awhile.  Henry and I started passing runners - a lot of them… 

Bill had gotten into the aid station after Henry and I had, but managed to get back out before us.  So as we descended down the road I could see him ahead.  As we passed by, I called out to him, “Jump in with us Bill”, but to no avail.  That would be the last time I would see Bill in the race.

Every step I took after Winfield (the 50 mile mark) was a new distance record for me.  50 Miles had been my longest prep run – ever.  So it was a little daunting to think I had _another_ 50 to go.  Best not to think about that…

We continued down the road to the trailhead and started our ascent up the backside of Hope Pass.  Our plan was simple – Henry leads the climbs, I lead the descents.  We huffed and puffed up the pass stopping a few brief times - long enough for Henry to pour gaspingly cold water over my head.  As we continued climbing we saw more and more runners pouring down the trail passing us, continuing their journey out to Winfield. 

Within a little over an hour we were cresting the pass and on our way back down.  Now the hard part…

I had been concerned about the descent down Hope Pass ever since I had pre-run it two months earlier.  On my training run I kept asking myself, “How am I going to climb this pass twice and then DESCEND this twice…”.  At that point a few months earlier my quad muscles felt like they were going to explode and the question kept circling through my mind… “So how would it feel descending this after already running 55 miles?”. 

Amazingly, Henry and I managed the descent without incident – but I did take it a bit easy on the steeper sections so as not to pound on my quads.  As we reached the bottom of the trail where things started leveling out, I just couldn’t get over how good I was feeling.  My legs were feeling as solid now as at any point in the last 8 hours.  So we once again we began to pour it on…

We crossed the river and circled back through the marshes on our way into Twin Lakes.  I began to feel euphoric.  I will never forget it… 
Henry leading me from the marshes back into Twin Lakes

The trail wound around the last outcropping on the edge of the marsh, providing us with view of the multitudes of people waiting to cheer on and support their runners.  I felt as though I was triumphing in an epic battle, and all these people were there supporting me. 

I ran all the way through town with a big smile on my face.  This visit to Twin Lakes had shaped up to be very different from my last visit 6 hours earlier. 
Pulling into Twin  - Henry was a life saver!

My whole family was there in their spot by the Aid Station, so happy to see that I had turned things around so drastically from the last time I came through.  We immediately got to work – changing shoes, refilling water bottles and grabbing plenty of gels.  I thanked Henry for his incredible service, and said hello to Jake my buddy who would be pacing me all the way to the end.  I quickly said my goodbye’s to my kids and the rest of the family – thanked them, and we were on our way.
Getting a shoe change, some nutrition and picking up Jake...

On the way out of the Aid Station I grabbed 2 big cups of Coke and about 12 orange slices - my new best friends.

Jake grew up on a farm in Nebraska.  He’s strong and tough.  I was a little intimidated having him pace for the last 40 miles.  If there was any whining to do, I’d be doing it in my head only.  My respect for Jake and his athletic ability and accomplishments (he’s successfully completed 3 ‘100’milers,and shortly after this race went on to finish a Triple Ironman – yes you heard that right… and no, he didn’t stop.). 

Final refueling before leaving Twin Lakes for Pipeline

the whole gang

In retrospect, creating this powerful team of important people around me that I loved and respected – was a crucial ingredient in my success.  I wasn’t going to be letting these people down.  The thought of all the effort my family and friends went through to support me running this race focused and galvanized me.

And Jake was the perfect pacer for what was next.  We had just begun, what would be the new highlight of my day – the Twin Lakes to Pipeline section.

As we ascended out of Twin Lakes we settled into our routine.  Every twenty five minutes he would hand me a gel, and like it or not – I would gulp it down (usually trying to avoid even tasting it).  Every time Jake would stop to grab another gel out of his pack – I couldn’t resist the temptation to pick up the pace (grin).  I was playing a little game to see how long I could go before he would catch up.  I didn’t confess my game to Jake until after the race, as he commented on how hard he had to work to get caught back up to me.  (Smile)

the man... Jake Holscher
As a pacer, Jake was allowed to carry my food and water.  But a good pacer is much more than that.  They are there as an extension of the runner… If trusted and allowed, pacers ‘hold the space’ for the runner to go through all of it – the emotional physical and spiritual ups and downs of such an endeavor.   They are vital team member, indispensible to the runner’s success.

Once we climbed high above the town of Twin Lakes, the trail rolled north along the Collegiate Peaks Range.  It’s a stunningly beautiful section of the Colorado Trail cast amongst epic groves of quaking aspen trees. 

We rolled on into the early evening with the sun setting behind Mt Massive, the looming fourteen thousand foot peak that dominates the Western landscape of this part of the run… 14 hours of running down, and nighttime to go.

I was feeling so good through this 10 mile section that I really began to lean into my stride.  I was trying to modulate the burning in my quads by eating and drinking consistently enough to get all the right amino acids and other nutrients as my body needed them.  We were running sub 8 minute miles consistently (but also with a growing burn in my legs). 

I’m convinced if we listen closely enough to our bodies, they let us know what they need.  My goal throughout the day was to stay inside my “zone”, and not over do it.  I made the decision not to wear a watch because I didn’t want to get stressed about hitting pace or mileage time targets.

In my running, as with life – I notice that if the feeling that “I’m behind” or “I’m not where I’m supposed to be” comes up, I tend to force things.   And as in life, this would be very counter productive to my success.

Soon we arrived at the Pipeline Aid Station (mile 72’ish) after an extraordinary 10 miles.  As we rolled into the aid station, Jake went for water and I began my routine - drinking Coke and eating oranges.  Another runner was sitting down on a chair in the aid tent.  He asked me if I had a time goal that I was shooting for.  I told him that I was “just trying to break 25 hours.”.  His response floored me.  “You could basically walk in from here and still break 25.”

This was the first moment that I actually knew I was going to reach my goal.  I was a bit stunned, uplifted and amazed all in the same moment.

Those last 10+ miles of sub-8 minute mile pace coming into Pipeleine had taken a toll on my legs.  I could no longer modulate the burn in my quads by drinking more fluids or eating gels.  The burn was here to stay. 

As we headed down the road we passed a few runners that had passed me earlier in the day.  When they had originally gone by me, I never thought I would be seeing them again.  But as I learned, 100 miles is a long long race and no matter how good someone is feeling or looking at mile 30, 50 or 60, anything can happen.

With the burning in my quads growing, I told Jake I wanted to modify our pace once we hit the 5 mile stretch of asphalt on our way to Fish Hatchery.  In another mile we would be stopping by the “crewing” section of Pipeline where Christine and my Dad would be waiting for us.

I was mentally feeling good – but I was physically hurting.  Darkness was descending as we rolled up to Christine and my Dad, and we were all business.  In her haste to get a great spread of options out for Jake and I to choose from, Christine had misplaced the Tylenol.  We quickly grabbed various gels and ginger (to keep my stomach settled), and then I asked for the Tylenol. 

You would think that such a small thing – is no thing.  But as we flurried around looking for the Tylenol and time ticked by my anxiety level rose sharply.  In my peak state, I regrettably barked at Christine.  We quickly abandoned our search and asked the neighboring crew awaiting their runner.  They kindly obliged, and Jake and I were back on our way - the guilty frustration lingering awhile, slowly evaporating off my shoulders as we continued down the trail.

I find it hard to hold things in perspective sometimes when I’ve cranked my focus so tightly onto a goal or an objective.  I often feel that if I could only soften my grip, my capacities and possibilities would multiply.  Indeed, I know this in my heart to be true. My lessons are everywhere.  Sorry my Dear Wife, you seem to be intertwined with many of them – and yet you love me anyway.  Thank you.
Christine was the MOST AMAZING support!! 

We quickly found ourselves out on the asphalt – finally.  Now I would get some reprieve.  We started running to one telephone pole, and then walking to the next.  Even though we were walking, we were still walking fast.  And when we were running, we were running even faster.  So our overall pace didn’t actually drop much at this point.  As a matter of fact, we heard another runner and his pacer behind us for quite sometime and finally after a few full miles, they passed us. 

Something my friend Charles said in preparation for Leadville, was ringing through my head:  “Leadville is about the relentless pursuit of forward motion”.

It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we condition ourselves to achieve an epic journey, we then stay in action and we pace ourselves.  Amazing.

As we rolled into Fish Hatchery (mile 76.5), the anticipation of the finish was beginning to build.  I ran through the food routine adding a cup of hot ramen, and then we quickly stopped by Christine and my Dad’s food blanket.  Nothing else looked appealing… except… wait… those beers. 

I had asked Christine to have beer on hand for it’s therapeutic qualities, just in case.  The fizz and the calories had historically proved surprisingly refreshing at the end of our long training runs, so I figured having a few on hand for our short breaks couldn’t hurt.  Jake and I began laughing at ourselves as we shared a quick beer.  Although not your typical sight in the middle of a 100 mile run, man did that hit the spot!  And like that, we were off.
the best beer ever...  at mile 77'ish

We quickly squared off with the last big climb of the race – Sugarloaf.  The only natural light left in the sky was the brilliance of billions of stars. As we began winding our way up the ascent, we could see a string of lights bobbing up the mountain.  The occasional words flowed between us, like “patience”, “we’re doing it”, “strong and steady”.  Although moving at a slower pace, we were still in aggressor mode.  Jake would later recount to me that he knew if we saw a light up ahead no matter how far away, it was only a matter of time before we would pass them.  And so it was.

At some point along the climb something sort of strange happened.  Jake asked me if I was tired.  The question really caught me off guard because the idea of "tired" had never even entered my mind.  I was so focused on the task at hand, apparently there was no room for "tired".

As we topped off that last climb, we encountered a runner sitting on a rock on the side of the trail with his pacer kneeling next to him.  He looked a bit out of it, and appeared to be nauseous.  We asked if they needed help, and he simply responded “I’m just having a bit of a hard time guys”.  It quickly reminded me of our fortune up to that point, and sharpened my focus to continue the now difficult process of eating and drinking.

Jake had been stressing the importance of running down the back side of Sugarloaf if at all possible.  So once we finally got pointed down hill, we started our run/walk routine again all the way into May Queen.  The trail was a mixture of jeep trail and single track.  By the time we were approaching May Queen my quads were burning so intensely I was seriously questioning my ability to continue running.

As we pulled into May Queen (mile 86.5), Christine and my Dad greeted us.  They looked weary, but still excited (they had been up for over 21 hours at this point as well).  We checked in with them, but then I immediately headed for the food tent to grab some hot ramen (and Coke and oranges of course).  While I was eating one of the volunteers told me that we were in 38th place at this point.  “38th Place!”  I thought to myself, “this is unreal”.
Of course, the winners had now been finished for a number of hours!

The air temperature had been dropping steadily since sundown, but as we arrived at May Queen it was hovering around freezing.  On the final descent in, I had finally donned my thin running jacket.  It’s fascinating how little clothing you need to stay warm if you’re generating even a small amount of body heat. 

Finally – we departed May Queen a little after 12:00am and we entered the home stretch.  By the time we ran out of the Aid Station and down the asphalt to the trail I began to walk.  I was no longer able to sustain a run.

At some point on one of our long training runs earlier in the summer Jake made a comment to me that was now ringing through my head.  He said, “Your goal is to keep the fight away from you as long as possible, but at some point the fight is going to come to you.  You just set your jaw, and work through it.”  It was at that point that I told Jake, “The fight has now come to me.”

We followed the course off the asphalt onto the trail to start the long process of getting back around the edge of Turquoise Lake.  A mere 20 hours earlier I had been watching the early morning glow, while heading the other direction.  The next two hours I was fixated on the back of Jake’s running jersey just ‘holding on’.  Although only walking, we were still moving at a good clip (about 4miles/hr).

Because we were walking, I was afraid we were going to start getting passed by lots of runners.  I figured, if we could “only” get passed by 12 runners we would still finish in 50th place...But as we continued around the lake only one runner passed us, and surprisingly we had passed another three runners.  We were actually holding our position.

Not many words were exchanged in those last three and half hours.  We simply focused and pushed on. 

By this time I was in significant discomfort.  My quads were burning like a brushfire.  But I just kept moving and soon we had worked our way around the lake and up the last long straight stretch of road to the edge of town.

The course weaved us into town and as we crested the final hill a volunteer on the side of the road radioed in my bib number.  Over the PA system they announced that I was closing in on the finish.  My family and a few dear friends had gathered at the finish line since about 3:15 am.  They could see our bobbing headlamps and began calling my name and cheering for us.

The cumulative compounding emotion of it all was building inside me.  As we walked those last few hundred yards I became aware that the trials and tribulations and incredibly hard work over the last few years was knocking at the door of fulfillment.  Running the last 1/4 in was absolutely out of the question, so we just powered on.

When I crossed the finish line, Christine burst into tears and with that I could no longer contain myself.  I sobbed with joy.

Christine had been supporting me and watching me head out for my countless training runs over the last few years, but for the first time I felt like Christine understood what the Leadville 100 was all about for me.

I embarked on the journey to Leadville to find the "edges" in my life.  What am I made of?  What am I capable of accomplishing?  When I strip it all down, who am I?  Where am I most powerful?

What I found that day was something much more vast.
  • I was reminded that 'Nature abhors a vacuum'.  And if we deeply desire to lead outrageous lives, it is our work to create a huge vacuum between where we stand today and our outrageous Visions/Dreams/Aspirations, (and then we must root those Visions deeply in our being).  I have been doing this semi-intentionally my whole life, now what's possible?
    • Mental chatter can be debilitating.  How do I best manage my mental chatter to stay focused on my mission?
  • Indeed I learned that the "edges" we seek to discover don't actually exist unless we define them.  We are indeed capable of worlds beyond our perceived limitations.  By defining myself, I limit myself.  How do I live my life beyond my tendency to define myself?
  • I learned that our personal power comes from presence (no past, no future, no ego).  Nothing served me more during Leadville than being present.  Through presence I became clear what my body/mind needed.
  • Every road to success is filled with setbacks and disappointments.  If we aspire to a dream, we must never forget this.  Setbacks are the universe's way of asking us how bad we want something.  When we experience the 100th or 1000th setback, but pick ourselves back up and answer with a resounding, "This shall be!", then indeed... it shall be.
  • And finally I learned that when I experience pain and discomfort I have a choice:  be present with the pain and allow it to be and it will transform  or  resist it and try to get away from it, and it will multiply.

I get a little misty even thinking about it. 

August 20/21st of 2011 was simultaneously the longest, shortest and most powerful day of my life.

I managed to finish at 3:32am coming in 36th overall (650 starters) with a time of 23:32:09, which put me in 7th place in my age division.  This was 30 minutes faster than my wildest dream finish time.  I am deeply humbled by this accomplishment.

I am finally “a runner”.

"You're better than you think you are.  You can do more than you think you can do..."   -  Ken Choubler, Leadville 100 Race Founder.  (this maybe borrowed from Winnie the Poo)

and it's DONE.

Ultra running is a team sport.  I could have never accomplished this without my incredible wife, Dad, Mom, kids, Keith, Bill C., Henry and Jake.  Thank you all so much.  I would also like to thank Douglas Wisoff my coach and Gail Laurence my most amazing massage therapist/healer.

Later that morning I woke up at about 7:30am after only a few hours of sleep.  I couldn't go back to sleep and I was very anxious to get back to the finish line to see how my friends had done / were doing.

As we got back into Leadville and made our way to the finish line, I was amazed to see the runners still coming in.  It was inspiring.  These people were still out there on the course - and had been for 6 hours after I was done.

If there is one message I want to share with you it's this:    The human spirit is indomitable...  no matter who you are - you too carry this power within you.

thank you Henry and Jake !

Also, amazingly I managed to complete the Leadville 100 with little more than 1 black toe nail (not even a blister).  Although while hobbling to breakfast the next morning after the finish, I managed to drive my big toe into the concrete curb tearing my big toe nail completely off the nail bed.  That hurt worse than any part of the 100.  Fortunately toe nails heal...

I am signed up for Leadville 2012 and have set a goal to run a sub 22hr time.


I have been asked to speak to various companies and conferences to share my experiences.  If you would like to contact me for a speaking opportunity, please call me (Adam Mackstaller) at 720-300-0280.


  1. Adam, Your story is truly inspirational and written with such love and emotion-you're not the only one that got 'misty'! (please submit this to the 'Leadville 100' org-they will be making you their 'poster boy'-seriously!) I ,like Christie,now understand your passion and feeling of accomplishment after 'experiencing' your 'day of a lifetime'! You -and your team-must feel a great sense of pride(as I do) for setting such a challenging goal and then more importantly going after it with such determination and passion. You inspired those around you (family and friends) to 'take up your torch', and I could tell just by the photos(especially the finish line)-your wife, kiddos and Mom and Dad also experienced 'a day of a lifetime' with you! Truly a team effort and what a team you had! Thanks for sharing your 'day' with us-it more than made my mine! Congratulations Son! Love you-Fatherrrr( John)

  2. Brother Adam! So happy for you, proud of you as a dear friend. Unbelievable story -- and I love the analogies back to life in general. (Your writing is amazing as well). Cheers! Chaz

  3. Bitchin', brother...that was a FUN READ.

    Thanks for this inspiring're blessed with an uncanny ability to remember vividly each of these moments in time. I'll be reciting this fondly in my head all the way through Ironman. JB

  4. Amazing story Adam. Obviously, you had many running accomplishments prior to running Leadville. The way you recalled the event, however, I could really see how much of a breakthrough run this was for you... "I am finally a runner".

    Really a spectacular race Adam...Great Job!

    Bill C