Life changing events are rare and often unexpected as I learned this summer. The pandemic of 2020 has been that way for all of us and the following is about an experience that would have never happened if it had not been for Covid-19. The HighFive 100 was the greatest challenge and most amazing 100 Mile Ultramarathon I’ve tackled. I hope you’ll enjoy the following story about this adventure and the many individuals who played a role in helping me along the way.
Many thoughts, anecdotes, and bible verses went through my mind during two day journey in the Rockies. As I reflect on this this race and entire year, I’m reminded that what matters most when encountering challenges from massive mountains, difficult people, or unrest in the world is how I chose to respond and hopefully change for the better as a result. While I still have a lot to learn, I pray the positive lessons, opportunities, and friendships from this race and throughout all of 2020 extend far into my future.
Getting To The HIGHFIVE 100 Endurance Event
Summiting five amazing 14’ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains is an awesome feeling. Although that accomplishment is worth celebrating, you can not when realizing that you are only half-way through the HighFive 100 in Lake City, CO. It’s a race like no other that stretches across some of the storied terrain of the HardRock 100 course. It exposes runners to beauty and difficulty unparalleled in any other ultra-event I know. Ultimately I would never have signed up if it hadn’t been for pandemic.
Running Hardrock has been my dream since 2013. To increase my odds of getting into the race, I volunteered at the Sherman Aid Station for the past few years. My time there has introduced me to a wonderful group of friends from Lake City. They make up a community of individuals who love the outdoors and welcome visitors like me with open arms and big smiles. These amazing people are an incredible example of the type of individuals who drew me into this sport 9 years ago. Logan Rhodes is one of those volunteers who has become a good friend and is the Race Director for the HighFive 100. When he shared his concept for this race years ago, it sounded incredible, insane, and a race that I would never do. I was excited for him when he organized the event and ran in it for the first time in 2019.
After multiple failed attempts to get in to Hardrock, I was selected as #3 on the waitlist in 2019. Based on the statistics from previous years, I had almost guaranteed odds to get in. Unfortunately it was cancelled in 2019 due to massive damage and safety concerns caused by avalanches and cancelled this year due to COVID-19.
Disappointment After Disappointment But Then Opportunity
As the virus spread across the world, I felt the sting of disappointment as events everywhere were cancelled. It was difficult as running is a big part of my life and my mental well-being. Races are an essential part of my daily motivation to get out and run. Unfortunately I had plenty of new challenges that provided excuses to not run. From getting used to working from home to having four kids virtually attend school (including two who had been away at college), all my routines were thrown into chaos. I felt overwhelmed at times as to when the day began or when it ended. However these very same things were also a blessing. We would have never spent as much time together as a family as we have this year and I enjoyed not having to sit in traffic daily. Overall there were some silver linings in the clouds of this pandemic that are easiest to see when looking back.
In a moment of desperation, I decided to apply for the HighFive 100. While it was the type of race I would have NEVER considered based on its format, I was thinking this was one race that might actually happen this summer. The race dictates less than 30 runners would be accepted, there are no aid stations, and runners are not required to follow a specific route. Therefore there are NO course markings for runners; however you must proceed to 17 Proof points, 6 of which are considered check points where volunteers verify you’re following the correct order. This format forces runners to decide between technical difficulty, elevation changes, mileage, time and effort. The potential elevation gain can reach close to 40,000’ and over 100 miles…terrifying. As a guy who grew up in NYC and lives at sea level, aka “Flatlander”, I could not even fathom the idea of this type of event growing up back in the Bronx. “Bad decisions make for great stories” is routinely referenced in the Ultra community and now it was time to test it out.
It’s About To Get Real
“10-9-8-7…” yelled the race director’s 8-year old son, Landon at 5:59:50am on August 14th. The setting was unique as 22 runners stood in the quiet road, most unsure of the tortuous journey we were about to endure. We hadn’t even gone a mile before two runners chose different routes at the start. Despite differences in routes, where we lived, and various race strategies, we ultimately had more in common with one another than some might expect. Individuals lining up for this type of race share a love of the outdoors, challenging our bodies to the limit, and supporting one another before, during, and after races in a way that I believe is unique to our sport.
In the first 50 miles of the race, we encountered five 14’ers and the first one was the highest peak in the San Juan mountain range. Uncompahgre Peak (14,301’) looks formidable as you approach it from the east and then up the south side on the main trail. A few nights before the race, I found out that last year’s winner had opted to go down one of the scree chutes on the west side to shave off close to 3 miles to the next peak. I thought that was ludicrous, but as I began my descent, I made a wrong turn and found myself looking down the very chute I’d heard about. I tried to summon my inner “Kilian” and ran down the scree which I would NOT recommend. I was successful initially; however the rocks began to move quicker than my feet. My heart was thumping out of my chest and turning back was an even worse idea that crossed my mind. As I began to slide, I leaned back to glissade down with the rocks rolling alongside me. Eventually, I scrambled and climbed down some pretty sketchy stuff at the bottom, while all the other runners took the much safer way down.
It was probably one the most transformational points in the entire race and I was only 16 miles in. I have no idea what I was thinking and as I still reflect on this decision, I struggle to understand how or why I did it. It scares me as much as it excites me to think I did something that was so far beyond my comfort zone. I mentioned Kilian above and realized many who read this may not know who I am referring to. Kilian Jornet is one of the greatest endurance athletes ever. He is an inspiration and I have watched one of his movies, “Summits of My Life: A Fine Line” (Movie trailer at end of blog post) multiple times. The following line is from Kilian and I always found its meaning moving:
“Life isn’t something to be preserved or protected,
it’s to be explored and lived to the fullest…
…to make the most of it we need to be in the mountains,
we need to be here and if we pay such a high price at times,
it’s because we’re really making the most of life.”
I can’t help but to think that I can now understand and appreciate its significance better than I had before.
A Mixture of Running, Hiking, and Climbing
My adrenaline was pumping, and I was feeling good as I climbed Wetterhorn Peak (14,015’), a class 3 peak with huge exposure. I had traveled out to Colorado for business in July and ran this section. When I began to approach this summit alone the month before, I almost turned around. I could not find the trail, had no idea how to get to the summit, and was petrified that the only way they would find my body was if my Garmin InReach (GPS communicator) did not get smashed when I fell to my death. I told myself that if I couldn’t ascend, I should drop out of the race and save myself a trip in August.
Somehow I was successful but once wasn’t enough to instill confidence. I made it a point to get out there over a week early in order to try and acclimate my body to the high altitude and to see this one peak that had filled my body with fear again. I was fortunate to have Logan guide me up Wetterhorn for the second ascent. It helped on race day but each time the descent was still treacherous. The exposure would take my breath away and I had to remind myself to breath. Despite trying to remember the path I had taken the second time down, it was hopeless and know each time I used a different route.
Time To Get Some Help
The descent down Wetterhorn soon became runnable and I felt good picking up the pace toward the next checkpoint. Going into Capital City at mile 29 was exciting because it would be the first time I would see my crew, Giuseppe who would pace me for the next 8 miles, and other familiar faces from Lake City I got to know over the years.
Giuseppe was ready to go and we didn’t waste too much time for the challenge ahead was daunting. It’s crazy to think that the most difficult climb isn’t up a 14,000’ summit but rather a few miles after this check point up Lee Smelter Gulch. There was no trail for the next +3 miles and we had to bushwhack our way up thick brush and through tons of avalanche debris. While I had a GPS file of the course, I relied on Giuseppe’s sense of direction that was truly impressive.
Giuseppe and I have known each other for several years, primarily through social media despite living about 20 minutes apart. The conflicting demands of our personal and professional lives made running together difficult. As businesses shut down in NYC, he was furloughed and got to spend lots of time at home in PA. Given how his schedule had opened, I was fortunate to train with him and we became good friends as a result of this pandemic. While he had planned to run CCC in Chamonix France, it was unlikely that this would happen and he offered to help me out if it was cancelled. He is an incredible athlete and great at orienteering. Given these skills, I only had to follow my guide’s feet up this ridiculous section that another runner who had run Hardrock said was more difficult than anything he’s encountered on that course.
Fighting Sleep and Searching My Faith
While I thought I was doing well, I wasn’t able to beat the looming darkness on my ascent up Handies Peak (14,058’) with my new pacer, Matt who I had met at the base. Night fell, and, along with many others, I struggled immensely to stay awake and stay warm. Unfortunately I did not have gloves and my hands were frozen. Matt was a lifesaver and gave me his gloves which saved me from being in a really bad place. However, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and knew a 15-minute nap could be a game changer when I got down. When we arrived at the second checkpoint around mile 41, I was able to get some desperately needed aid from my crew. I was sleepy, starving, and in need of food and fluids.
I grabbed a breakfast burrito, took in some of the nutrition I brought (Starbuck double shots, bacon, snickers and other favorites), changed my clothes, and was ready to take a quick nap. However, after changing my clothes I could not find my bib. This was huge since it had the marks for all the previous proof points I had reached. It was a requirement and I began to freak-out tearing the truck apart looking for it. I was getting nausea and hot as the truck seemed to be getting smaller as clothes and bags began to pile up. I decided to go ask the guys for help since I knew I had marked the bib at the proof point before getting in the truck. As I opened the door, there it was on the ground staring back at me just waiting for me to come get it.
Despite my efforts to lie down, I was now too anxious and furious at myself to rest. I decided to sleepwalk my way up Red Cloud Peak (14,041’) followed by Sunshine Peak (14,007’) under the amazing star filled sky with Giuseppe guiding me once again. I felt like the climbing would never end as we ascended this moonless landscape that felt like we were on another planet. Giuseppe seemed to be struggling as well given he had been up for as long as I had. There was little conversation and I decided to listen to some music to help avoid climbing too deeply within that dark place in my head.
I couldn’t have finished this race without Giuseppe and Matt but I do enjoy running other 100 mile races alone as well. There is something about looking deep within oneself with no distractions of life but only the focus of putting one foot in front of another. I find peace in this solitude on trails that allows me to hit some sort of mental and spiritual reset button. One song I listened to was Highlands (Song of Ascent) by Hillsong UNITED. The entire song is powerful while struggling in the mountains. One verse had more meaning to me at this time when I needed a spiritual pacer more than a physical one:
“And oh, how fast would YOU come running
If just to shadow me through the night?
Trace my steps through all my failures
And walk me out the other side”
Day 2- A New Day And A New Attitude… After A Brutal Descent!
A spectacular array of colors filled the sky as the sun rose on our approach to the summit of Sunshine Peak. I remember the beauty of the entire view before me and the warmth I felt as this new day began. I hoped it would bring a fresh perspective and momentum as it had at other races but the suffering I was experiencing in the pain cave would prevent that for the time being.
While I tried to be excited at reaching the halfway point, heading down to Mill Creek from this summit is the most difficult descent I have ever encountered on what is supposed to be a trail. It began with a scramble off the peak and down a boulder laden ridgeline. This was followed by a runnable grassy plain before some treacherously steep dirt trails and boulder fields. It was ridiculous and despite using poles and trying to carefully place my steps, I kept slipping and falling. I got to a point where I didn’t care and just wanted to get down despite multiple falls. I was fortunate that I didn’t get injured and Giuseppe was patient with my inability to remain vertical.
After trashing my legs on the descent, I was greeted by 3 miles of dirt road but my efforts to move quickly were thwarted as the morning sun beat down. We finally reached the next checkpoint which also serves as the Sherman Aid Station during the Hardrock race. Here Logan and his wife greeted me along with other volunteers and Matt who would help me navigate the next 27 Miles.
I replenishing my supplies and took in some nutrition. While I got ready Logan reminded me that the second half had many runnable miles. That sounded reassuring but I was happy to just put one foot in front of the other. I moved slowly up the climb to Cataract Lake. It is absolutely beautiful and familiar territory from my time volunteering in this area during Hardrock. Eventually we reached the Colorado Trail, the only section of the course that was completely unfamiliar to me.
Logan Was Right – A Pleasant Surprises
My legs enjoyed the rolling hills and I began feeling like a runner again. I could not have imagined that would be possible after summiting five 14’ers the day before. Stride after stride I felt better and Logan was correct in telling me I could make up time if I had anything left in my legs. The next 18 miles were on a spectacular single track trail that flowed along the beautiful landscape above 12,000’ most of the time. The Blessing around us were abundant: the views, the air, and the very special and unexpected conversation with Matt
Matt and I had met the previous September at the Sangre de Cristo 50 Miler. We ran together with a few other runners during the second half of this course. We talked, exchanged info following the race, and stayed in touch but didn’t really know each other very well. When I found out I had been accepted to run the HighFive, I reached out to Matt to see if he would be interested in helping out and he was all in from that first message.
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5
As we ran, I continued to feel better and the conversation flowed along with our feet on this gorgeous section of trail. Matt was awesome and it was cool to learn more about him and specifically about his faith journey. I shared mine and both acknowledged how we were blessed to be healthy and able to enjoy God’s amazing creation all around us. We moved at a good pace for long sections and I even appreciated the short hike up to Coney Point at the top of the Colorado trail (13,271’). We eventually descended back down below the tree-line and I looked forward to getting to the final checkpoint before the final push of ~16 miles.
Second Night And No Sleep Demons
I love how a race like this reminds me that our bodies and mind are capable of so much more than we all realize. My mood and entire outlook had completely changed from the time when I had started with Matt. I was in good spirits felt like I was ready to get this over with as Giuseppe and I left the Camp Trail checkpoint. While I never thought about dropping, I had worried I wouldn’t meet the 48 hour cut off after our descent off Sunshine peak earlier that morning. I felt more confident now about finishing and was excited to tackle this last section of the course we had both completed a few days earlier.
After over 80 miles and with dusk settling in, nothing looked familiar from our previous excursion on these trails. We hiked up the first 6 miles which became a grind with each step. I felt good but had trouble climbing. I was losing my breath if I tried to pick up the pace and we were relegated to a slow hike on another moonless night. I tried to take in calories as I wanted to finish strong but even eating became a challenge as it required additional effort on the climb up. As we ascended to nearly 13,000’ for the final time, I saw numerous flashes from the Perseid meteor shower light up the sky. The incredible firework show helped provided motivation to get moving and served as a powerful reminder of God’s presence once again.
It was weird to be so awake on this second night but was probably a result of the combination of fear and excitement of finishing. I was feeling so good when we reached the top that I tried to talk Giuseppe into taking another shortcut we had discussed on fresh legs but had not attempted. Fortunately he advised against this rash decision and we followed our planned track down the treacherous avalanche fields along the Alpine Gulch Trail. Historically this section is part of the San Juan Solstice 50 race course and normally well maintained. Unfortunately these trails have not been cleared after last year’s avalanches that cancelled this race along with Hardrock. The trails were unrecognizable and filled with debris as we climbed over tree after tree, trying to find the quickest way down which was much easier in the daylight. Eventually we descended low enough where we were on cleared trails and found the last proof point before heading to the finish.
Hallucinating To The Finish
We hit the road with just over 2 miles left and ran into Adam again who had been taking pictures for Ultrarunning Magazine throughout the entire race. He had been waiting there to capture us as we exited the last section of trails which I couldn’t believe. I was so amazed and grateful for another special person this entire experience had brought into my life.
At the race briefing on the night before the start, Adam had been talking to Logan about where he could camp. Without knowing who he was I decided to invite him to crash with us. I had rented a large house hoping a bunch of my friends from home would come out and help support me during the race. COVID-19 changed their plans but unknowingly created space for an unexpected guest. Adam fit right in with the group and four of us had a great time hanging out before and after the race. His presence on the course was appreciated by many runners as you can see in the October issue of Ultrarunning Magazine. Most important for me was yet another new friendship was formed in the midst of this challenging Pandemic.
It was great to see Adam but knowing the finish line was close allowed me to move through the pain, exhaustion, and frequent hallucinations.
“Sorry but it’s not a mailbox in front of that house but a bush… we’ll start there”
I suggested to Giuseppe that we run/walk every quarter mile to get this over with as quickly as possible. I told him we’d start at what I thought was a mailbox in front of the next house on the right. Giuseppe acknowledged he didn’t see the mailbox and calmly responded:
“Ok, but I don’t see any house either!”
We started laughing as there was nothing there. Memorable mirages included a large inflatable finish line nowhere near the finish. I was seeing images covering rock walls along the road. Graffiti and impressive murals of football players, cheerleaders, and other random ideas were being projected on the rock face from my mind. I found them to be entertaining and helped the pain and time pass more quickly.
We finally approached the finish at the Lake City Town Park and the last proof point where Logan, Caitlin, Matt and several others stood waiting for us. I signed in for an official finish of 45:44 minutes. I came in 6th and was the oldest finisher this year and only “Flatlander” to have finished so far. It was the perfect ending to one of the most amazing, unknown races in the world. Logan and all the volunteers have created a race that isn’t for the faint of heart, but for the adventurous in spirit!
Thank You To Those Who Made This Possible:
I could have never finished this race without Giuseppe and Matt. They were instrumental in my success and I cannot possibly thank them enough.
Logan, Caitlin and their children are an amazing and loving family. They have done more for me this year than they can imagine. I cannot thank them enough for their support and hospitality. If it hadn’t been for Logan, I would have never attempted this race. You are wonderful ambassadors for the sport, Lake City, and so much more.
My family for putting up with my crazy runs and races. Alison is amazing in putting up with my excursions out West, long runs on weekends, and other outings many wives would never tolerate.
One of the most influential people and the biggest reason I fell in love with running in the mountains is Bobby “GOAT”. He first introduced me to Ultras when I paced him at his first 100 miles in 2010. While Bob hasn’t physically joined me for races recently, he is always with me in spirit. He writes amazing notes to me before each race to remind me of how far I have come as an athlete, a person, and how prepared I am for the race in front of me. The night before the HighFive 100 I wrote WWM on my arm. It was something I took away from the two-page letter he wrote that reminded me to “Work/Walk With the Mountains”. His words were powerful and played a big part in this race like many others.
To so many others who helped me get to this point and to YOU for taking the time to read this and in getting this far.
For those of you interested in this race, please feel free to reach out and ask me any questions. Otherwise the following are some recommendations:
- GO out and check out as much of the area as possible. It is not a race you want to show up to without seeing the “course” .
- While we all know that we shouldn’t try anything new on race day, this include attempting shortcuts on this course that could be dangerous, if not potentially deadly if you’re not careful.
- You’ll need to filter water so ensure you have a system that you’re familiar with and that is quick.
- Personally I think poles are a HUGE benefit but to each their own.
- Historically I have shown up to a race at altitude 1-2 day before and that has always worked. This time I was out there 8 days in advance and I believe that was huge as I was told 3-5 days before could be the worst for physiological reason which I won’t try to cover here.
- Get comfortable using a GPS system and be sure to have a backup plan!
- Please realize all the distances mentioned in this report are estimates and may vary greatly from others experiences.