Cole Chlouber’s impassioned voice bounced off the walls of the Lake County Middle School gymnasium, growing louder each time he repeated a simple message: “Dig deep.”
It was 16 hours before the start of the Leadville Trail 100, and soon the runners would need to heed Chlouber’s advice if they hoped to successfully complete the journey from Leadville, over Hope Pass, down to Winfield and then all the way back to the downtown finish line in less than 30 hours.
100 miles, more than 18,000 feet of vertical gain; an entire race taking place above 9,200 feet and climbing above 12,400 feet … dig deep, indeed.
Sherrie Klover lowered her head and her eyes watered as Chlouber said it again: “Dig deep.”
She was nervous; she was excited; she was ready.
I was in Leadville to be one of Sherrie’s pacers, and during the course of the 100 miles – and in particular during the 26.6 miles I ran and hiked with her from Winfield, over Hope Pass and back to Outward Bound Aid Station (formerly Fish Hatchery) I saw first-hand just how seriously Sherrie took Chlouber’s message.
TICK, TICK, TICK…
Eleven hours came and went, followed by hour 12. It was 4 p.m. – exactly 12 hours since the start of the Leadville 100 – and Sherrie was nowhere to be seen at Winfield Aid Station. A 3 p.m. arrival would’ve meant she was going way too fast, but 4 – 4:30 p.m. seemed more realistic.
I grew nervous when 4:30 passed and she still hadn’t arrived. Altitude can play some nasty games with the head and stomach, and rocky, mountainous single-track can be equally evil on the ankles. I wouldn’t know if one or none of the above had occurred until Sherrie showed up.
Finally, at 4:52, I saw her emerge between a swarm of runners and even more vehicles making her way down the gravel road to Winfield. She was flustered from a two-way traffic jam on the trail where upward runners wouldn’t let the downhill runners through, and she was dehydrated from going the last two miles without water on a hot afternoon.
Also, for the first time ever, she was concerned about beating the cutoff.
She dug plenty deep just to get to this point, and she was only halfway done.
Sherrie and I departed Winfield at 5 p.m. sharp, exactly one hour before the firm cutoff for that aid station and with the knowledge that additional course cutoffs loomed further down the trail.
We had work to do, plain and simple. There was minimal wiggle room and no time to dwell on adversity.
We wasted no time getting out of Winfield. Sherrie’s brother, Bill, brought her soup while I refilled her water, chews and gels. She was in the chair no more than four minutes before rising to her feet and heading back down the road. We hiked for the first half-mile, Sherrie consuming some much-needed calories while I watched out for vehicles that seemed intent on running us over. Once we hit the trailhead and bailed off into the woods it was time to trot. The next two miles flew by as we went up and down some rolling single-track that led to the base of the climb.
Sherrie asked me in her pre-race notes to set an aggressive pace up hope, and that’s what I tried to do. It took a little while to get a feel for how hard Sherrie could push while still keeping her heart rate in check. We worked out a good rhythm where I set a steady march for a few minutes, and when her heart rate started to ramp we’d pause for a 10-second break to breathe. We passed at least 25 runners during the 2 1/2 – mile, 2,300-foot climb to the top of Hope Pass. Some were moving at a snail’s pace; others had stopped to sit down in utter exhaustion; a few keeled over on the side of the trail throwing up.
Sherrie dug deep. She never sat down, and she never stopped for more than the 10-second breathing breaks.
She wasn’t happy – she’d been in a dark spot since before Winfield and hadn’t shaken out of that rut – but she didn’t let it slow her down. She was strong and steady for every step.
We cleared Hope Pass and made the half-mile drop to the mountain’s aid station, arriving less than two hours after departing Winfield. We made good time on the climb, and Sherrie had pushed hard.
Sherrie needed three things from the aid station – a cup of soup, a Coke, and a refill for her hand-held water bottle. The Lifetime Fitness race management struck out royally by undersupplying the hard-working aid station volunteers. They had no soda. They had a few scoops of soup left, but no cups for it. We filled Sherrie’s hand-held half way with soup instead of water and took off down the mountain.
The next few miles went quickly. We weaved our way through the woods along a creek. We started to pick up the pace, but darkness soon fell and we slowed down to pick our footing wisely while dodging the rocks and roots. The base of Hope Pass snuck up on us, and soon we weaved through a field, splashed across three water crossings, and made our way into Twin Lakes where the crew was waiting.
The water crossings gave Sherrie a bit of a pick-me-up mentally, but she still seemed frustrated. The day had been a grueling grind, and she ran low on water again coming down Hope thanks to the soup-in-the-water bottle necessity. Her crew was about the help turn things around – at least for a while.
COMING BACK TO LIFE
Sherrie’s fine-tuned crew sprung into action at Twin Lakes, getting her warm, dry clothes, and swapping out the food and fluids in her pack. In addition, her husband, Henry, cooked up some hot quesadillas and soup – exactly what she needed to put some real food in the tank.
By 8:45 p.m. we were leaving Twin Lakes, again one hour ahead of that aid station’s cutoff. A 1,500-foot climb lurked just ahead of us on Mt. Elbert, so we once again settled into a steady upward march, pausing only to shed layers when it warmed up and to let her sip some of the Mountain Dew I carried. The hot food started working its magic by the time we’d gone the three miles to Mt. Elbert Aid Station. All she needed was a refill of the hand-held, and then we were back down the trail.
There was a noticeable mood change for the next eight miles. After pushing through hours of mental darkness where she battled heat, dehydration, hunger, and overcrowding on the trails, Sherrie sprung back to life. She was chatty. She was happy. She took a few breaks to stop and stare at the clear, star-lit sky and enjoy the moment.
We hit some nice downhill sections and rolling hills and settled into a steady trot. The hour cushion we had on the cutoff rapidly grew. Soon we’d added nearly an extra hour to it.
She’d weathered hours of mental lows, dug deep and pushed through it, and finally enjoyed some happy miles in the mountains. It was inspiring to see. I’d spent hours focused on keeping us marching forward, eyeballing the clock and the cutoffs while telling Sherrie not to even think about it. She’d pushed so hard that every time she asked about the time I was able to tell her we’d added to our cutoff cushion. When we arrived at Half Pipe Aid Station around mile 71 I informed her that we’d made it there ahead of the cutoff for the previous aid station, Mt. Elbert.
The good vibes deteriorated again at the aid station, however. Despite making good time, another undersupplied aid station threw another boulder onto Sherrie’s trail to the finish line. She needed one GU pack for the final stretch from Half Pipe to Outward Bound – GU gel packs are the very first item listed in the race Athlete Guide that Lifetime Fitness promised would be available at the aid stations – and sure enough there weren’t any. Much like a water refill or a cup of soup, it was one of the few items she relied on the aid station for the entire race, and it was unavailable.
Two miles later, Sherrie started to bonk. We were back in hiking mode on a jeep road, conserving her energy as much as possible to try to make it to Outward Bound. The absence of a single GU pack at Half Pipe was threatening to derail her race. Luckily, that’s when we reached an unofficial crewing station where another runner’s crew had some GU to spare. Sherrie devoured it, and we quickly resumed hiking while waiting for the calories to soak in and work their magic. After that, we utilized a run/hike mixture for the next few miles before reaching the paved road back to Outward Bound. Sherrie needed more calories – more real food, in particular. I texted ahead to Henry to have hot soup and quesadillas ready for her; we could see the glow of the aid station in the distance.
Toe trauma made running on the pavement extra painful, so Sherrie requested that we hike the road, so we marched side-by-side the final 2 1/2 miles to Outward Bound at between a 15- and 16-minute mile pace. Outward Bound had an eerie haze to it. Hundreds of vehicles – as well as runners’ footsteps – kicked up a dirt tornado that engulfed the aid station.
I could taste the filth in the air from nearly a half-mile away. My eyes had been burning for the previous 15 miles due to dirt in my eyes from the roads and the trail, but the final stretch into Outward Bound rivaled Winfield as the worst in that regard. Vehicle after vehicle veered in front of runners passing in and out of the aid station, kicked up dirt on them, and blinded them with headlights. I may have complained about it a tiny bit, but Sherrie didn’t say a word.
She just kept marching forward, digging deeper.
Finally, her son Zach emerged through the dirt cloud and guided us through the aid station circus to the spot the crew had set up. They had a chair and warm blankets ready, as well as the hot soup and quesadillas Sherrie had requested.
Her crew again brought its ‘A’ game, pumping her up with hot food and fresh energy. My pacing shift was done, and I handed her off to Larry Long for the final 23.5 miles.
Mentally, Sherrie seemed to be in a much better place than when we’d joined forces at Winfield. She hurt much more now, but she was almost two hours ahead of the cutoff, she had less than a marathon to go, and she was in Larry’s expert pacing hands.
She was going to finish. Sure, it was going to be a long, painful final 23.5 miles, but she was going to finish.
DIGGING FOR THE FINISH
There’s a ton that I didn’t see during the final stretch. Sherrie looked incredibly happy and upbeat when we saw her at May Queen Aid Station with 13.5 miles to go. She and Larry had a good 10-mile run/hike to that point. They had banked additional time against the cutoff and now had a cushion of more than 2 1/2 hours. That cushion came in handy when her legs didn’t want to run for the final seven miles. Larry tried the mental games of “let’s run to this marker” or “let’s run for 30 seconds” to no avail. It was death-march time – but not quitting time.
Sherrie and Larry hiked and hiked and hiked, and right about 8:30 a.m. they crested the final hill that brought the finish line into view.
Although we were nearly a mile away at the finish line, it was clear how much she was hurting. The pain was visible in her stride, and her head was tilted down to the ground focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. She looked up when they reached the base of the hill and began climbing toward the finish line.
She started running about 100 yards out, came down the red carpet and crossed the finish line in 28:49:15.
She’d finished her third 100-miler, and this one didn’t include the jubilant celebrations of the first two. Instead, she was just glad to be done – and I was happy for her. I knew Sherrie was tough. She’s the Wonder Woman of our running group in many respects with her feats of endurance, speed, preparation and discipline, as well as her humility. She’d never been tested like this, though. The obstacles were relentless, the mental challenges constant and far greater than the rugged terrain. She dug deep through it all, and when things got worse she simply dug deeper.
I couldn’t be more proud of my friend for her effort, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to share part of the journey with her as a pacer.
Sherrie took Cole Chlouber’s words to heart. She stared down every obstacle imaginable, and she proved that the only way to get to overcome pain and conquer mountains is to dig deep and keep going.