My five year road to Leadville
Justin McCune 
Idiot #398

I thought it would be worthwhile to sit down and write out my journey, and ultimately goal of reaching the finish line of the Leadville 100. The journey has taken me over 5 years to finally complete. At 8:35 on August 21st, 2016 my dream finally became a reality! Surrounded by friend and family I stepped across the finish line, after moving through the mountains for 28 hours and 35 minutes. My official time was 28:35:30. This is what it took me to get to that point.

    I, like many others first read about the Leadville 100 in the book Born To Run. I won’t go into the details of the book, as many of you have read it, and if you haven’t, I suggest you do. After reading the book I was hooked. I read magazines, searched online, and talked to as many people as I could about it. Being from small town Oklahoma, there are very few people, think none, locally who have even heard of the race. I spoke with a few people online, and got some training suggestions, but that was about it. To say I was way out of my league, and completely lost, would be an understatement! I wasn’t even an average runner. I had faked my way through a few 10k and half marathons, but that was it. I had never ran farther than 13.1 miles, ever. So why not sign up to run one of the tougher 100 mile races in the U.S. What could possibly go wrong?

    I reached out to a guy named David Clark, from Colorado, on Facebook. I messaged him my resume, insert laugh, and asked if he thought someone of my skill level could finish Leadville. His simple answer was yes. If I did the work, I could finish the race. But what did the “work” look like? I believe he told me to run, a lot. Sounded good, but what was a lot? My usual weeks were in the 15 MPW range. Probably not going to cut it. So I started running. My long runs were 7 to 9 miles at most, and were taxing to say the least. Well crap, already signed up, so might as well do my best. On a side note, I have never really had a coach. I’ve never been a stellar athlete. I don’t feel like I am a gifted runner, or have the genes of a freak. Just a regular guy like so many others. I was overweight, and had been suffering from back issues.

    As my training progressed, I began to have bad lower back, leg and ankle pain. I had injured my back years before, and periodically it would rear its ugly head. It got to the point, that I was limping severely all the time. I couldn’t walk straight, let alone run. I finally broke down and had an MRI. My primary doctor called, and gave me the results. Severely herniated discs at L5, S1, with a piece detached, pressing against my sciatic nerve. So what does that mean, can I run? According to him, I needed surgery. Thankfully for me, my mother had worked in the rehabilitation field, and recommended we get an appointment with a neurologist. I met with the doctor, who after an array of strength tests, and questions about my ability to pee, sent me on my way. No surgery! I asked him about running, and his advice was, run a ¼  mile, and see how you feel. Add a quarter as you can. Yeah, thats not going to work out. I went home and ran seven miles. I began stretching, and working on flexibility, and was soon back to running virtually pain free. I eventually got to the point of running 12 to 15 miles on the weekends, and averaged about 25 to 30 miles a week. Well short of where any rational human being knew they needed to be.
On the advice of a friend I signed up to run the Midnight Madness 50 miler in early July. I was terrified. I had still never run more than 15 miles at once. Let’s do a 50! What the hell am I doing here was apparently the only mantra I could come up with. No fueling strategy, my father was my crew, and I knew nobody. I somehow managed to run, walk, and stagger my way through to finish in 11:30 something. My feet were so sore, I could hardly walk on them. My legs and feet were swollen for days after, but hey, first ultra complete. Now just to run 50 more miles. In the mountains. Which Oklahoma has none of. We don’t even have hills.

So for the trip out, my father, and cousin Chris and myself, drive in on a Thursday before the race. My mother, and her husband Mike would arrive on Friday, making up my crew. None of which had any inkling as to what was about to happen. But of course, neither did I. I got checked in, weighed for medical check in, and got my bib #. On Friday, we drove to all the aide stations, so that they had some idea as to where they would be meeting me. At several different occasions I had the “oh shit” feeling of what have I gotten myself into. I have to go up there? Twice? I had literally done hill work on a ¼ mile hill about three times. That wouldn’t get me to the starting line. I was now officially scared!

Race day! Slept about 25 minutes on Friday night. The crowd was electric. Temps were cold, below freezing I believe. Everyone had a nervous shiver. Some people were pumped up, and beating their chest, some were talking with friends nervously, but excited, and I stood there alone, like a baby deer in a field of wolves. Freaked out wouldn’t even come close. I didn’t belong there, and I knew it. I had no plan. My crew had no plan. My fueling strategy wouldn’t get me through a marathon, and I had the clothing for a cool 5k at best. At 4am, Ken Chloubler fired the gun, BOOM, and we were off. Merillee was chanting “I commit, I will not quit”, over and over as the runners poured past. And just like that it began. The miles came easily at first, as we made our way down the Boulevard, and around Turquoise Lake. I was caught in the line of people who alternate between walking and running as the trail permitted, often too narrow and treacherous to pass safely. I had no business passing anyway. Shortly after the first aide station, Mayqueen, we climbed up Sugarloaf Pass, to approximately 11,100ft elevation. At the top, we began our descent of Powerline. Powerline gets its name from the high voltage power lines that run down the mountain. The voltage is high enough to hear the crackle and growl of electricity flowing through them. It is a steep dirt right of way, with deep washouts running its length. This first year I didn’t run much of it. At Fish Hatchery, which is the next aide station, I was already walking a ton. 24 miles in, and things were already unraveling. I wasn’t eating much, and had already gotten into my head. I continued on, slowly towards Twin Lakes, and the only water crossing of the course. This was a first for me. I had ever ran a race where my feet were going to get wet. Being such a newb, that really worried me. How would they dry? Would I get blisters? Is the water really cold? Its embarrassing to say now, but I honestly had those thoughts. After crossing the river, the climb up to Hope Pass began. This is the high point of the race at 12,600ft, and lies at mile 45, and 55 respectively. Holy hell its steep! I could feel my heart beating in my throat. People were lying on rocks, vomit all over the ground. What hell was this? I don’t remember reading about people puking, moaning and groaning on the ground. Is this what is going to happen to me? The higher I climbed, the harder my heart would beat, until I had to stop every 10 feet to bring my breathing out of a pant. Finally, after about 3 days of climbing, I reached Hopeless aide station. Oh look, llamas, I thought, aren’t they cute. For those that may not know, they use llamas to carry the supplies to the aide station, because thats about all that can get them up there. It was at Hopeless aide station my first attempt at Leadville was over. I beat the cut off to descend into Winfield, but my will to continue was gone, and I knew I wouldn’t make the cut off in Winfield. So, after eating the best Ramen noodle/instant mashed potato soup I have ever eaten, I began the long trek down Hope Pass, to my crew waiting in Winfield at mile 50. I was defeated. I was sore. And I was hooked. I was so far away from where I needed to be, but I felt I had out performed what I ever thought I could. And I hadn’t quit. At least not outright. And I had learned a ton!

The next year, I ran several different distances from a 50k, up to 64 miles a couple different times. At a local race dubbed the Autism Run, a timed event consisting of 6 mile loops beginning every 90 minutes, I met David Murphy. I had already signed up for Leadville in 2014, and I was using this run as a training run to prepare. This was my first interaction with The Idiots Running Club, and David. I was immediately drawn to David, as I learned he had considerable knowledge of longer distance races, and had 100 miler experience. Beside the fact he was just a genuinely good guy. Whether he knew it, or not, I picked his brain throughout the day for anything he was willing to share. This brings me to a point I will dwell on a little later. Before you begin a journey such as this, surround yourself with good people! My weekly runs progressed well, until I pulled my calf muscle, sidelining me for almost a month. I trained hard after my injury healed, and made the most of my last few months. I was far and away a better runner than I was in 2012. I still had not cracked the 100 mile distance, but felt I was ready to do so.

Race day in Leadville #2! No more baby deer or wolves! I was nervous, but calm. I was chatting with people, and not staring in disbelief. I had a bigger crew this time, and pacers. Kathy Fowler whom I had met only briefly in Leadville the time before as a spectator, had graciously signed on again as crew. Little did I know how loyal she would become to my endeavors, and I now consider her one of my closest friends. Then there was Kerri. She had signed on to pace, along with a co worker Jeremy. Kerri has also become a close personal friend as well. My father and uncle played their typical chaperone duties, and mom and Mike were there as pacer and crew as well. Again, surround yourself with good people! This year there was a heavy IRC presence in the race. David was running, a guy named Jeff Jones, and his pacer Derek Glos, and others were lining up also. I could have never guessed how fortuitous this meeting would be. The race began almost identically to 2012. I started easy, and slowed from there. Powerline came and went with much more running this time, as did much of the first half. I caught Murphy at one point, and found out later, it just wasn’t his day. I won’t try to explain that for him, but many of you who really know him, know what took place. Secretly, passing him was a boost for me. He didn’t know this until now, but I hope he takes it as a compliment. I knew I was passing a superior runner, and under the circumstances, I didn’t care the reason. Sorry David. I climbed and descended Hope Pass without incident, and picked up my pacer Mike at Winfield, mile 50. At the trailhead leading to the trail up Hope, I asked him to grab more water. He complied, and sent me up the trail with the intention of catching me soon. BIG MISTAKE!!! After we parted, I never saw him again, until Hopeless aide station, where I had been waiting on him for several minutes. I climbed a couple thousand feet, with only a bottle of water. I had thrown up, and was done. No jacket, no headlamp, no fuel. I quit right then and there. Suddenly he came hiking over the top. He was hurting as well. We gathered what we could of my shattered will, and headed down, rejuvenated. We made Twin Lakes with minutes to spare. I changed shoes, and Kerri and I were off. Kerri leading the way, and I was following, which is what I had told her to do. I was hurting badly by this point. My knees were shot, and things were setting in badly. Lesson #2 learned from Jeff and Derek, don’t walk too much. Oops. We came into Mt Elbert aide station, mile 69 ish, where another mistake bit us. Over planning. Kerri had a card with several different times on it. Cut off times. During that section, the times got confused, and we thought, or at least I thought we missed the cut off. For quite some distance I walked slowly in the knowledge we didn’t make it. As we came in, the realization hit us that we had, in fact beat the cut off! At that point, I never regained any sense of where I was at, either in time, or position on the course. We made it to Treeline at approximately mile 71, where I quit. I literally quit. I was cold. I was hurting. And I was done. Kerri has carried that burden with her for TWO years! The self imposed burden of failing at something she had never done. Initially I blamed her also. The times were right there on the card. All 10 of them. No pressure, right? How could one get those confused at 1:30 in the morning, hiking through the mountains on no sleep? I would later revisit those moments on many occasions. And I often questioned bringing friends in on another trip. I couldn’t ask them to do the impossible, and then judge them when I failed. These people gave up time with their families to help me achieve my dream, and now they were suffering. That doesn’t make sense. I spent the next two years trying to convince Kerri that it wasn’t her fault. That I had over planned, and put too much on her. I think she has forgiven me, and honestly hope she has forgiven herself. I headed back to Oklahoma, head low in the intent of never returning to Leadville.

Fast forward to March 2015. I signed up for the Prairie Spirit 100, in Kansas. I decided it was time to run an “easier” 100 to get the monkey off my back. The training leading up went well, until I developed a stress fracture in my ankle. Two weeks out, and I wasn’t running. Happily I had my usual crew of Kathy and Kerri on board again. And this time, Jeff Jones was pacing the back 50. We had only briefly met in Leadville, so I didn’t have a lot to go on. The first 30 miles ticked by well. My ankle was sore at first, but amazingly must have gone numb by mile 15. I played leap frog with Shane Naugher, who Derek, and eventually Murphy was pacing, and went on to crush the course. Another great guy, and tremendous runner! Coming into 50 miles, I was hurting. Flat 100’s in my opinion hurt worse than the hilly/mountainous ones. At 50 miles, Jones jumped in. What ensued could best be described as a Broadway show on how to pace people! He was this animated, dancing, singing production of energy, and good vibes. My race changed immediately. Apparently Bruno Mars was the music of the day, so away we went. The things I learned on that run, I carry with me today. They are not obvious. They don’t always make sense. But if you want to be a pacing superfreak, you must know them. I wanted a meatball sandwich so bad before I even knew they had them. He convinced me to eat when all I wanted to do was puke. He made me run when I thought I couldn’t walk. We chased headlights through the night, like a game of cat and mouse. I clearly remember him saying, “there’s another headlamp up there, let’s go get these fu@#ers”! All I could hope for was, no more headlamps. We would start running more. Chasing other runners. As our voices got louder, you could see them turning around to see how far back we were. Eventually they would speed up, in an attempt to stay ahead. Slowly we reeled them in, one by one. I bet we passed 30 people that night. I was destroyed, but always ready to pursue the next light. That is how you motivate someone! That is how you pace! It is an art. You don’t just walk up and pace without experience. And I had asked others to do so, in one of the toughest races in the U.S.. I still feel terrible about that. I eventually finished in a time of 22:48. My first 100 mile finish. I hope my crew, and Jeff understand what that finish means to me. That was the beginning of me feeling like a runner. I felt like I belonged. I also realized I couldn’t do these things on my own. I finally had my buckle. To me the buckle symbolizes everything a 100 means. It’s the crew, the pacers, and the friends you make along the way. Its as much their achievement as it is mine. 

After completing Prairie Spirit, I was still having issues with my ankle. I didn’t run much for the weeks following, as I had pushed pretty hard there, and wasn’t recovering well. I decided to run a half marathon almost a month to the day after, in hopes of a PR. I signed up to run the Oklahoma City Memorial half, as my mom was walking it, and it was my first half I had run years before. I was able to eek out a 1:47 finish, which was a large PR for me, but was also quite painful with the ankle. After, I took several weeks off to hopefully let it heal. I ran mostly for fun after that. No real goals in mind, no plans to race. Until December, I believe, when I entered the Leadville 100 lottery, for just one more shot.

Eventually I heard that Jeff, and Derek were running the Rocky Raccoon 100 in February. I wanted to be a part of the race, and hoped to be a part of Jeff’s race if I was needed. I didn’t feel obliged to pay him back, but I had hoped the opportunity might arise so that I could get my own payback. I made the trip down to Texas, and basically hung out all day, watching the guys work. If you ever get the chance to do so, jump on it! Watch people, talk to people, and learn from what they do. That experience is priceless. I paced Jeff for about 27 miles of Rocky. Pacing Jeff, is like pacing your running buddy on a 5 mile jog. All I did was enjoy the run, and occasionally ask if he had eaten much, or wanted to run this, or that section. Pretty cake. At one point, Jeff remarked as to how well I ran the root covered trails at Rocky, for someone who hadn’t run there previously, at which point I ate shit about three consecutive times. He then said, never mind, you suck. Jeff killed the course that night, and reset the fire inside me for sure. I now understand why most people would rate pacing higher than racing. It’s a very rewarding experience. 

I was notified by E-mail, that I had been selected in the lottery for Leadville. Time to really focus on the training, which over the years had evolved into a much more specific regimen than my original approach. I started hitting some bigger mile weeks, along with much more hill work, both on the treadmill, and what hills are available in our area. I focused on quality, over quantity. My bigger weeks were in the 70-80 mile range, somewhat smaller than the 100 mile weeks many use. I just feel this style training fits me better, and I really wanted to stay healthy. Something that had eluded me for the past year. I chose a fairly tough mountainous race in early May 2016. Collegiate Peaks 50 is at an average altitude of 8500 to 9600 feet elevation, with a 7000ft gain/loss per 25 mile loop. There is so-so aid, and no crew access except for the 25 mile turn. It would be a great indicator for where I was at for Leadville, and what my weaknesses were that I needed to work on. I was able to pull off an 11:36 finish time, where only half the field made the cut off. That includes the fact that most of the runners were from Colorado. Not a fast time, but I was happy with the finish after seeing what the course was made of. I needed to work on my climbing for sure, and my nutrition was borderline, but working. The next few couple months flew by, as they always do. I had done some recruiting, and was elated when I heard Jeff and Derek were going to make the trip out to pace and crew me! Kathy, Kerri, and Tifiny as always were already on board, as well as my mom, and stepfather Mike. My father, and uncle, played their usual chauffeur roles, making these races much more affordable. I could never have dreamed I could have this group of people around me, and I can’t express enough to any one of them, what their presence meant to me. Who travels 10-15 hours across the country, just to help others reach their goal, and ask nothing in return? I am indebted to them all. It was literally my dream team.

August 18th rolled around, and we were on our way to Colorado. I felt strong, and confident. My training had gone as well as I could have hoped, and above all else, I was healthy. I got checked in on that evening, and everything else was set. We spent the majority of Friday going to the expo, and mandatory pre race briefing. Kathy and Kerri had volunteered for packet pick up that morning, and I just hung out talking to racers as they checked in. I was able to finally meet many of the people I had only known through Facebook for years before. After a bit of a nightmare with hotel arrangements, I ate dinner, and settled in for the night. I did the usual sleepless night gig, which I fully expected, sleeping maybe 1-2 hours at most. 2:30 came quickly, and it was time.

    The race begins at 4am. Derek and Jeff had arrived sometime during the night, and were somewhere around the start line. Tifiny had also arrived the night before, whom I had previously thought wasn’t going to be able to make it. I unfortunately ruined the surprise, which I am very good at, but it was a great surprise none the less. The gun went off, and we were on our way. Heading around Turquoise lake was the usual conga line of runners and walkers. I stayed calm, and enjoyed the easier section. I saw several heartbreaking incidents in which runners races ended quickly, reminding me just how fast things can go wrong. At Mayqueen, mile 13.5, I saw Jeff and the others, got my bottles filled and was on my way. A big focus this year was keeping aid station times to an absolute minimum. I don’t believe any of them were longer than 5 or so minutes, most in the 2-3 minute range. I made my way through the first half of the race in what I considered great time. Coming down into Twin Lakes at mile 40 though, I noticed the toes on my left foot were really taking a beating. The shoes I had chosen had gotten me through a 50 miler, but I had not run the sustained downhill like I was here. At Twin, Derek laced my shoes into a heel lock, which in hindsight, I should have done at the beginning of the race. Lesson learned. The water crossings after Twin were cold and clear. The main crossing was approximately knee deep, and felt amazing after on my legs and feet. The climb up Hope Pass was familiar, and while just as tough, I was at ease. It wasn’t new anymore. The trail was a bit more technical, as rains had exposed more rocks, and some roots, but that’s trail running. I made Hopeless aid station well before cut off, and after some Ramen soup, began my descent to Winfield, the crew, and Derek. My toes took another beating on the way down, so as I had requested they had shoes ready to go. I think I was about 1.5 hours ahead of cutoffs in Winfield, so after the shoe swap Derek and I were off. The climb was going well, but I soon noticed I was having trouble getting a deep breath. I focused on keeping calm, and breathing as deeply as possible. We passed a man who was hitting the “reset button” on his climb, or descent, and I had to focus on other things so as to stifle my own vomit. As we neared the summit, I took a gel, which I violently regurgitated all over the trail. After regaining my composure, we made our way into Hopeless for the second time. Derek pointed out many of the sheep that live up high, which was a beautiful sight. His constant company was a much needed break to the miles before. The scenery from atop Hope Pass is breathtaking. We made great time down the mountain, and as we descended, I felt better. As we approached Twin Lakes inbound, Derek was to run ahead, and get things ready for my arrival. His parting words were, “Keep pushing, and get into town; don’t be a pussy.” Pretty clear! Another quick shoe change, Jeff and I headed up the next climb out of Twin. If you haven’t noticed, there are a few climbs around the Leadville course. This was the beginning of the section that spelled my demise in 2014. I was apprehensive, and I needed to stay calm. I was struggling to breathe, and the brain worms were doing their thing. Jeff’s boyish enthusiasm, and steady conversation was just what I needed. We made good time over the next few miles, coming into each aid station with ample time to spare. I was still quietly confident, but there was so many miles left to cover, I dare not let myself believe it was in the bag. I had seen fresh people’s races end in less than 8 miles, just hours before. I was not fresh. At Treeline, Derek jumped back in, and Jeff went to get some much needed food, and rest. These guys had driven almost all night. Derek and I covered one of the more boring sections of road and trail, as quickly as I could, but my breathing was really starting to weigh on me. I didn’t want to bring it up at an aid station, for fear of being pulled from the race. At Outward Bound aid station, it was decided I would be paced by John Nobles, a friend of Derek and Jeff’s, and an excellent runner. I went with their decision, and we set out towards Powerline. I had plenty of years waiting for this moment. I had dreamed of how hard it would be. It did not disappoint! John was full of witty stories and bad jokes, all of which were very welcome, although I don’t think I had enough breath to tell him. He was an excellent pacer, and we moved well. Nearing the top of one of many false summits on Powerline, I threw up yet another gel. Between breathing hard, and being nauseous, I was struggling with calories. As I stood there, dry heaving, John grabbed my arm, and said let’s keep walking. He then promptly handed me another gel. I think it only took me 15 minutes to get that one down. We descended into Mayqueen just before daylight, where I picked up Derek for the last time. 13.5 miles to go, I just needed to hold on, Derek hiked hard, pushing me to keep pace. He had done the rough math, and knew what we needed to be doing. I was red lining the entire way. He kept telling me how well I was doing, and how big of a feat I was about to accomplish, keeping me in the game for as long as he could. I really wanted to run, but when I did, it took so long to regain my breath, it felt like a losing battle. At Tabor boat ramp, and about 8 miles left to the finish, Jeff jumped in for the last time. The home stretch. The home stretch that just will not end. You would think after 90 some odd miles, 8 more would be just a breeze. That couldn’t be more wrong. It drug and drug on. Trail turned to dirt road, turned to road, and finally there it was: the finish line. Jeff said he would run ahead, and get the others ready for my arrival, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I am not a sentimental person. I do not cry, and if I do, no one else will ever see it. As I came over the hill into Leadville, I knew I had made it. As I hiked along, tears rolled down my face for the first time since my kids were born. The emotions of the past 5 years were all so very raw. The failures. The victories. All the hundreds of miles I had run. And most of all the friendships that Leadville had brought into my life all came rushing to the front. I was happy that I had finally achieved what I had set out to do so many years before. Happily I was able to regain my composure as my mom ran out to greet me. The people that had been there from the beginning, were all still there to see it happen. I was asked if I wanted everyone to run across with me, and I said I wanted to cross the line alone. I still am not sure why, but it seemed like the way I needed to finish it. Hopefully they all understand that somehow deep down. Although I don’t fully understand it myself. My official time was 28:35:30. And I finally had my buckle.

    A final word on my crew. My father and my uncle have traveled hundreds of miles with me over the years. With a young family, it is financially tough to do many of these bigger races. They have made it reasonable for me to do so, besides driving me when my legs are shot. My mom and stepfather Mike, have also been there from the beginning. Providing crew, and even pacing duties in 2014.Then there is Kathy, Kerri and Tifiny. Through many training runs, and following me to Leadville and Kansas, they have been my super fans. Learning the ropes of crewing through trial and error. And supporting me at all times. You girls are the absolute best. Hands down, the best crew, and friends I could possibly ask for. And finally Derek and Jeff. These guys drove across the country to help me bring my dream to conclusion. They pushed me to get all I could out of myself, and never wavered in their goal to bring me to the finish line. You two have my utmost respect! I share this achievement with all of you. I may have run every step myself, but it takes a village to get these things done. 

    That is my Leadville story. A goal is just a goal, unless you finally achieve it. I never gave up hope that I would eventually get here. It took longer than expected, but remember, I had never run more than a half marathon prior to beginning this journey. I have now gone farther than a marathon more than 10 times, both in training, and races. I don’t say that to boast, but to give you an idea of the evolution that can take place if you will simply try. It’s really that easy. And I will end with my favorite quote. “I will do things today that others won’t, so that I can do things tomorrow that others can’t.”

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