Why do I compete in the fabled “Leadman” series? The reasons run deep. To tackle this series of five or six mountain bike and mountain running races over one summer is a physical and emotional challenge for anyone. Now that I compete with one good leg, whereas I had raced it with two, this legendary series takes on new personal meaning.
08-09-2019 By: Dave Mackey
I first competed in Leadman in 2014, a year before I had “my accident”. For 20 years I’d been competing and enjoying trail and multisport adventure races. I loved racing, the lifestyle, the community. It was well worth the price of training hours, travel, effort, sweat, finishes and DNFs. In 2014 I’d had my standard bread and butter meal of trying to win ultra mountain races but wanted something different that year. I’d also raced adventure races on a sponsored team years before I attended PA school and growing a family, and I relished the taste for multi-sport again. Leadman was the perfect race, and it culminated with the coveted Leadville 100 run, which for some silly reason I hadn’t raced in all those years, though it is right over the Divide from where I live. Also, Bob Africa and Travis Macy, both elite multisport athletes and two of my best friends and training partners, had also raced and won the Leadman series, and I wanted to see how I’d stack up against their feats. Bob was also competing in 2014, so misery loves company, right?
“Leadman” means completing five of the six races in the Leadville Race series over two months: a run marathon, 50-mile mountain bike race OR 50-mile mountain run on consecutive days (OR both to compete in the coveted sub-mutant Silver King or Queen duathlon), 100-mile MTB, 10k run, and finally culminating in the epic Leadville 100 run. The last week the two 100s and the 10K run are held; it’s a killer week and you can’t hide.
In Leadman 2014, my ultra racing killed my bike times. I hadn’t put enough time in the saddle and was chronically tired coming into the series having run Hong Kong 100K, Montara 50K, Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, and dropped at Lavaredo in Italy. Four race ultras before starting Leadman. In hindsight, I was run cooked coming into the first marathon. But I was an old school elite ultrarunner at heart and loved kicking my own butt on the trails. And I still do. So coming into the Leadville 100 run, and culminating apex of the series, I was 7th place in Leadman overall, 90 minutes behind Bob. NOT where I wanted to be. I wanted to be in first, but Bob was in first coming into the Leadville 100 run finale. And I wanted to catch him.
I felt good when Ken Chlouber fired the 100-mile shotgun at 0500. I raced like I always had, staying near the front, as I wanted to podium in the 100 run AND win the Leadman series. I went over Powerline at mile 24 with Ian Sharman in fourth place, all cylinders firing. Bob was somewhere behind me. The fact I’d raced the 100-mile bike and 10k run the weekend before hadn’t registered in my body...yet. I hadn’t competed in Leadman, so I didn’t know what would happen. And I sure wasn’t going to hold back. I felt just fine. And then the wheels fell off.
Coming off Powerline (24) to pass Fish Hatchery (26), I decelerated from elite run pace to a shuffle/walk. My medial quads were cooked and spasming. I proceeded to shuffle all the way to Twin Lakes, mile 40. Bob rolled by me by Half Pipe, looking strong and steady. I went from 4th to 90th place by TL. It was brutal. He was an hour ahead going into the 100, and every second ahead of me in the run was even more time in Leadman to make up. Other Leadman competitors, with their coveted Leadman race bibs, and dozens of other regular racers passed me, many of them expressing sympathy. I grumbled every kind word too, as I was flailing. I thought I was done, Leadman and the 100 run, finished caput. I walked into Twin Lakes mile 40 hurting.
Then something happened. Fortunately, I was able to eat and drink well, and that energy was slowly recovering my legs. The spasms and medial quad pains were lessening. As I came out of Twin Lakes heading through the meadows and creek crossing towards Hope Pass, I rebounded with a vengeance. My prior slowed pace was turning into an overall strength as the fuel fired. I accelerated (well, kind of as far as ultras go) up Hope Pass, down to Winfield mile 50, then back up and over, sans pacer. I felt solid! Passing tons of runners, back through Twin Lakes, with a brief stop, I ran the 1500 climb out of TL feeling strong. I was passing all the runners who’d cheered me on my prior walk. I still didn’t have a pacer, as my pacer Kendrick had run Pikes Peak Ascent that morning and was nowhere to be found. No matter though, I didn’t need a pacer as I felt fantastic.
I passed Bob and his pacer Peter Downing, at Half Pipe, rolling well. Bob said, “I knew you’d do that!” ...But I sure as heck didn’t! By then I knew I wasn’t going to crater before the finish, which was still 30 miles away, and every step ahead of him was one more in the bank to taking the overall Leadman series. At Outward Bound, mile 76, Kendrick joined me finally, and that was yet another boost, as he could mule for me and he was fine company and it was getting to be headlamp time. Over Powerline, onto the Colorado Trail to May Queen, mile 86, then powering around the sweet technical single track of Turquoise Lake, I ran the final three-mile climb into Leadville, dropping Kendrick, to a finish of 19:10, 5th overall in the run. The clock ticked while I waited for Bob, hoping 90 minutes would pass, securing the title.
An hour went by...Then Bob’s headlamp appeared over the last rise of 6th street from the west. He finished and won the Leadman title, and I secured second overall. I told myself I’d be back and win that series, whether Bob or then course-record holder Travis Macy returned, I’d be ready next time. I knew I’d be back to win my local multi-sport series.
But then I fell off Bear Peak in 2015, and my life changed forever.
The story has been well-told...many complications later, I chose the amputation of my left leg below-the-knee. The night before this 14th surgery, my friends and running community held a good-bye party for my leg...On Halloween night, 2016! I loved that, as I appreciate dark humor. The next year after that was spent adapting a prosthetic socket, walking, biking, and then gradually running again, and finally consistently running. I ran the Bandera 50K trail race in January 2016, after the longest run of 13 miles, with my marathoner brother who had never run an ultra. Then the Jemez 50K. These were milestones, but my biggest milestone was to come; returning to Leadman.
Though I was going to be competing with one leg, running with a dynamic (energy returning) carbon fiber prosthetic blade, and clipping into a SPD bike pedal as I always had with a bike shoe on a non-dynamic (static) “foot’”. Really, biking felt the same as it had before my accident; you sit or stand on the pedals as before, until your heart or leg muscles explode, then still work hard on the downhills and flats and savor the single track, which for mountain bikers is always the most fun. (I forgot to mention though. I was not only missing half of my leg. I was also missing my left vastus lateralis, aka the lateral thigh muscle. In my fifth surgery this was removed to be brought down into the initial fracture site at my tibia and revascularized there to provide blood flow to help the tibia heal, which failed. The whole surgical aspects of 14 surgeries warrant a whole other story.) So, when cranking on the pedals, or running or skiing for that matter, I don’t have the same thigh strength as before the accident.
Leadman 2018 was a return that I savored. It was a physical challenge of course, but most of all, and even now, I am trying to be as much of the person I was before the accident. A return to normalcy, to the motivated person I was before, to as whole a person I could become. Emotionally, I will never be the same. Once a person goes through a life-threatening experience and escapes, they are never the same. I feel I have a new outlook on life and feel a deeper appreciation for life, my family, my self. I’d barely escaped death from my fall on May 23, 2015, and I’ll never have the same perspective as I did before that fall. Leadman 2018 though, was part of the appreciation of life itself, but also a return to who I was. Plus, I’d promised myself I’d go back. But it was daunting too. There were many more variables to work with, more things to go wrong, in addition to the regular show stoppers of stomachs, sprains, crashes, I also had a socket and running blade, and running a marathon, 50-mile run, and a 100-mile run in two months, I thought invariably something catastrophic would occur.. Skin friction, socket failure, falls, and the unforeseeable. And I was about 40% slower than before, so more variables happen the longer out there.
The Leadville marathon, the kickoff to Leadman 2018, went much better than expected. I finished in 4:52, only 40 minutes slower than in 2014. Next was the technical Silver Rush 50-mile MTB, three weeks later. I raced this well, and the next day, jumped in and ran the Silver Rush 50-mile run. I had nothing to lose in doing this. I already had my required 50 mile finish the day before in the series, so if I cratered for whatever reason, it wouldn't matter. Plus, I was flying with family to the east coast to sit on the beach for a week, so a good back-to-back thrashing was optimal. I finished the 50-mile run and bike back to back days, then relaxed for a week, came home to Colorado. All was going smoothly. The last week of the series I raced the Leadville 100 bike 20 minutes faster than in 2014, jogged the 10K the next day to get a finish.
In the Leadville 100 bike, so much can go wrong. Mechanical issues such as flat tired, bent rims, endless baby-head cobbles to fly up into your shin and lax you up. And crashes. I didn’t have any in the whole series but saw on the last screaming descent on near mile 95 a rider splayed out on in the dirt, being attended to by other riders. I was well past and stopping to help would have been unnecessary by that point given all the help he had. I counted myself lucky it wasn’t me, but it easily could have been.
And then the 2018 run... I got through it, not fully in style, as I considered dropping at Winfield. I made it though, largely thanks to crew and Bob Africa, my pacer. I learned to keep plugging on, and much like 2014 Leadman, the pendulum swung in my favor to a strong finish. Overall, 12th in the series. I was so happy. My recovery was mostly complete.
But it’s not. I have maybe the deepest recovery yet to come. Now, in 2019, I’m back in the Leadman series, with only “hell week” to go. As I write this, in ten days I will be finished with the series, success or failure. All has gone smooth physically, but most of the miles and challenges are to come. I was lucky last year; not everyone finishes Leadman, 44 of 99 starters in 2018, and the variables are not all controllable.
What I have not addressed properly though is what my accident has done to me. And how I’ve responded to it. I have scars you can’t see. I still need to heal. I need to look deeper and address with therapy and writing and thoughts what has happened. I am fortunate simply to be alive. I feel that and appreciate life more. But trauma is trauma. I need to dig deeper, and that is where the real recovery will happen. I hope to complete this series again and spend the next year looking deeper in myself. I am not the same person before I fell, I am not as positive as I used to be, I feel more sensitive to situations. PTSD? I don’t wake up at night dreaming of the accident reliving it so I don’t think I have this diagnosis. I do have something though...