Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hopeless Aid Station...Leadville Trail 100

One of the first runners cresting Hope Pass
in the 2011 Leadville Trail 100

In August of 2011 I helped out at the Hopeless Aid Station just below 12,600 ft Hope Pass (see blog post of the hike itself).  This aid station is the most remote station on the 100 mile ultramarathon route and is so isolated that all tents, water purification, food, oxygen tanks, cooking equipment etc has to be transported in via llama.  The Hopeless Aid Crew have been doing this for over 20 years.  They are dedicated to the runners and to their llamas and are great group of people who are only slightly less certifiable than the runners themselves. 

The Leadville Trail 100  is a grueling, only-for-the-crazy, kind of event and it was amazing to watch from the vantage point of the most extreme point on the route.  The aid station is located at mile 45 on the outbound route and mile 55 on the inbound.  Hope Pass is traversed twice, a double wammy of sheer, painful oxygen deprivation.  I was surprised, however at just how bloody perky many of the runners were by the time they got to us, even for the second time.  I had heard tales from friends in the crazy-enough set who talked about hallucinations, hypothermia, and hypoglycemia. I can think of a few more words that start with an 'h', like "hypoxia" but I digress.  I was surprised therefore by the front runners who wore hardly any clothes and who were whooping with joy when they crested the pass.  Slower runners dressed in outlandish colors, which better complimented their more civilized pace.  Everyone had big smiles on their faces as if running 100 miles was!

Some runners of course were not so peachy by the time they reached us.  The medical tent had no vacancy at one point as runners were snuggled into plush sleeping bags and given effervescent doses of oxygen.  The race rules changed in 2011 and anyone accepting a quick trip to sea level via a nasal canular was automatically excluded from the race.  Many chose to take the trip anyway so they could finish the race, albiet unofficially.

The one-way elevation profile for the race.  The tall spike on the end is Hope Pass.
The cook and medical tents the day before the race.  The food tent will go up the day of.
My station was the water station.  It was pretty slow during the early part of the day, but by the time the runners and their pacers (folks in the crazy-enough set who run the last 50 miles back to help the main runners along) returned I was so busy I did not have time to blink let alone do anything useful like eat or drink.  The folks coming through were on a fast or be stranded in the dark on the trail up to Hope Pass.  My team and I opened water bottles, untwisted Camelbacks, and lugged around 5 gallon jugs of water.  After nine to ten hours of that I felt like I had run the race myself.  I had been kneeling on the ground the entire time and my quads were permanently contorted.  The folks in the medical tent were unsympathetic when I begged for an oxygen martini.  Imagine wanting to reserve it for the runners! The fact that I went and got the oxygen tanks from the clinic in town and put them on a llama should have given me insider privileges but no!  One final interesting note about the water.  All of the water used in the race was pumped from Little Willis Lake, run through a water purification system that looked like the innards of a nuclear reactor, and dragged over 300 ft up steep terrain throughout the event on the backs of llamas!

Looking back down the valley towards Leadville.  Imagine running that entire distance...twice!
Sunrise on race day.  The runners have been running for a while now.
I was coming down the slopes of Quail Mountain when one of the frontrunners crested the pass.  Just a dot in the wilderness, the elite athletes of the Leadville Trail 100 must train their psyches as much as their bodies.
Two of my friends worked in the cook tent all day.  The llamas brought up 300+ packages of Ramen noodles, which were prepared all day along with instant potatoes.  All this took several propane tanks, two cook stoves, numerous pots and more and more water from the nuclear reactor.  In the food dissemination tent, noodles, potatoes, pretzels, GU packs, bananas, orange slices, candy, and saltines made for a smorgasbord of easily digestible tidbits.  Uncarbonated Coke syrup was mixed with water from the nuclear reactor and paired with the edibles with as much attention to service as a wine dinner at the Palace Arms.  The Coke served to settle stomachs upset by their owner's total disregard for their digestive tract.  Unfortunately, like any all-you-can eat buffet, the choicest bits began to run out by the end of the day.   Still, the food tent felt more like a day at Ascot..."I can really have as many M & Ms as  I like, how very kind!" or "Where may I place my trash?"

The station in the early hours with only the first runners through.  The crowd on the right is the youngsters from the Golden High School Track Team, who run up the pass to help out.  Little, crazy Leadvilliers in vitro they are!
The food tent with just a few runners sampling the fare. 
It was well after dark when the last runners finally crested the pass. We could see their headlamps glowing in the dark as they trudged their way down to us.  With no hope of finishing on time, they hung out for a while by our raging fire, which also served as a literal beacon in the wilderness, before heading on.  The very last people through are two hardy souls on mountain bikes who cruised the route looking for the bodies of the fallen.  They were late in arriving because they had in fact ended up dragging a stricken runner back down the other side. 

The medical tent
The water station with the 5 gallon jugs of water.  The coolers contained an electrolyte brew.
The llamas on departure day.  I ended up leading the second string of fractious, overloaded, barn sour llamas down the steep path to the bottom.  Who knew I could move that fast!
As the hush ensued, the Hopeless Crew made a feast of pasta, cheese, summer sausage and wine some unknowing llama had trudged up the hill.  A celebratory vibe settled over the small group as the veterans regaled us novices with tales of years past.  All in all it was a phenomenal experience that very few Coloradans get to experience...that is unless you are just crazy enough to join the crew this year!


KT said...

How interesting! We watched the documentary on the Leadville mountain biking race a year or so ago...we haven't been there, but are very interested in making a visit! As for the ultramarathon...I don't get it, I suppose some peoples bodies are build for it (mine's not!).

Andy in Denver said...

Thank you, I learned something today, the meaning of the term "barn sour".