Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Friend Like Humpty

I thought he was crazy. Billy thought he was crazy. And yet, maybe Billy and I were crazy for agreeing to participate.

My brother, Scott, called me several months ago and told me he was preparing to run in the Leadville 100—a 100 mile trail run that starts in the second highest city in North America, Leadville, and only gets higher as it winds through the steep terrain of the Rockies, above the tree line, and over an oxygen deprived mountain pass on Colorado’s highest peak.
In the book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall tries to put the difficulty of the Leadville 100 in perspective by writing:
 “Try running the Boston Marathon two times in a row with a sock stuffed in your mouth and then hike to the top of Pikes Peak.  Done? Great. Now do it all again, this time with your eyes closed. That’s pretty much what the Leadville Trail 100 boils down to: nearly four full marathons, half of them in the dark, with twin twenty-six-hundred-foot climbs smack in the middle. Leadville’s starting line is twice as high as the altitude where planes pressurize their cabins, and from there you only go up.”

“Wow,” I said, “Sounds like fun.”
While I’m not sure my response was entirely truthful, I knew Scott well enough to expect this kind of news from him. He’s one of the toughest people I know. He’s a rare breed. In high school, he captured three consecutive state wrestling championships and earned the reputation as being a wrestler with an endless gas tank. If matches lasted sixty minutes, I’m not sure he would have ever lost a single match. And the scary thing…I think he’s probably in better shape now.

He wasn’t just calling to inform me of his upcoming adventure, but he was also inviting me to join him. “Gabe,” he said with confidence brimming in his voice, “I want you to pace me, to run 25 miles with me and keep me going.”
“Keep you going,” I thought to myself, “If I were to run 25 miles at that altitude, you would have to use your helicopter pilot skills and fly my half-dead body off that mountain.”

But, the words that actually left my mouth were, “Sure, count me in.”
His next objective was to find an additional pacer, and he knew exactly who he wanted—Billy Gabel. Billy and Scott had been best friends from the time they could waddle around the neighborhood in diapers. Where there was a Billy, there was a Scott; where there was a Scott, there was a Billy. Their friendship only grew over the years, and the year Scott won his second state championship, Billy claimed his fourth in as many years. Billy blazed a trail in the state wrestling history books as he became the first ever 3-2-1A wrestler to become a four time state champion, a feat that even landed him in an issue of Sports Illustrated.

I think Billy would gladly admit that he is not in better shape now than he was during the glory days. In fact, shortly after he agreed to be a pacer, Billy commented, “Gabe, I don’t get it. Scott signed up to run a 100 mile trail run, and he chose ‘Humpty’ and ‘Dumpty’ as his pacers.”
I’m not sure if he was referring to me as the "Humpty" or the "Dumpty", but I really couldn’t argue his point. We were in the same boat. At one point we were each successful high school and college wrestlers, but those six pack abs were a thing of the past. We now look like…Well, dads who are each working, raising a young family, and working through graduate school at the same time.

Neither of us had adequate time to train, but we cared enough about Scott to show up in Leadville last weekend with our running shoes on and our nerves running high. The only thing higher than our nerves were the herculean mountain peaks that appeared to be taunting us as we pulled my exhausted four cylinder car into a parking space in downtown Leadville.
“I wonder which one is Hope Pass,” I said as I punched Billy on the arm. Silence hung in the air as the reality of what we were about to experience became clear.  I followed it up by emphatically declaring, “You got this, man.” By the look in his eyes, I wasn’t sure he agreed.  He had signed up to take the first section of the paceable course, which happened to be the section including the lung squeezing climb over the infamous pass. He simply responded by saying, “I wish I would have trained more.”

The race started at 4am on Saturday morning in downtown Leadville. By 9am, Scott was passing the 25 mile marker, and we welcomed him into Twin Lakes after fifteen more miles of steep mountain hills shortly before 1pm.  He looked fairly strong, but he was about to embark on his first ascent up Hope Pass. He had to make it ten more miles over the pass and into Winfield before he was afforded pacers.
Billy and I (along with many other wonderful family members and friends) hurried to Winfield where we waited anxiously for him to appear. The race rules state that all runners have to make it to Winfield (50 miles) before 6pm if they are allowed to turn around and continue the second half of the race back to Leadville.

There was still no sign of Scott at 5:50pm, and we were beginning to wonder if he was going to make it.  5:50 turned into 5:55, and our hope of seeing Scott finish the course was fading. Then, at 5:57, Scott popped out of the mountains and sprinted (more like Sprint wobbled) the final half mile to barely cross the marker in time.
We erupted in cheers as he gave a fist pump communicating he could go on. His hard work earned him the privilege of turning around and doing it all again. However, this time he would have "Humpty" and "Dumpty" alternating sections and helping him along.

It was evident the race had taken a toll on Scott as he made his way back to the trail head. Little did he know that the perfect storm was brewing. His body was already oxygen deprived, and the strenuous finish to the first fifty, combined with the lack of time to eat and resupply his body, left him feeling weak. It was a bad time to have a depleted body, because Scott was about to start the steepest and hardest climb on the course—the dreaded back side of the pass.  This time he would have Billy by his side, and like a skilled jockey on a race horse, Billy prodded and encouraged him to start passing one person after the next as they started the ascent.

It was less than two hours before they surfaced at the top of the pass. "Humpty" was feeling surprisingly well after charging up the mountain, but Scott’s body was fading faster than the Colorado sun.
They cleared the check point in time at the top of the pass and started the descent when Scott realized he couldn’t really move his lower body. The same legs that had been screaming at him for the past several hours as he travailed fifty-five miles finally decided they were done.  As bad as this realization was, it was about to get worse. They were still well over five miles up the mountain and more than a half mile from the aid station when Billy discovered that Scott was dealing with more than just muscle failure.

 While trying to lay down on a rock, Scott’s eyes rolled back in his head.  "What is happening?!?!" Billy thought to himself as he tried to formulate a plan in the dark of the night. His mind instantly flashed back to the previous night when he listened to my dad, while choking back tears, say, “Billy, I don’t care what you have to do, but just make sure Scott is safe.”

 Billy knew they didn’t have time to waste, so he grabbed Scott by the wrists, lifted him to his feet, spun around and loaded him onto his back. The jockey became the horse as he hauled Scott for the next several yards down a particularly steep section of the trail. They eventually arrived at the aid station where Scott was immediately placed on oxygen and provided with much needed medical attention.

After receiving oxygen and nourishment, Scott received more bad news. The only way off the mountain was to hike. The medical team had apparently enlisted a team of llamas to haul their equipment up the trail, and the trail was even too dangerous for an ATV to attempt a rescue. They only had one choice, so Scott and Billy (alongside search and rescue and medical personnel) reluctantly set out to tackle the remaining five miles in the dark of the night.

While Scott was determined to walk on his own two feet, he still couldn’t bend his legs in order to step over logs or any other obstacles on the trail. Billy spent the next several hours walking next to Scott, shining a flash light in front of his feet, and lifting him over rocks and logs that blocked his path.
At 6am—26 hours after starting the race and 12 hours after starting the second ascent of the pass—Scott, and his faithful friend, appeared in eyesight.  Their nearly frozen bodies (they had to walk through the frigid Arkansas River in the final mile) were met with warm smiles and hugs from family members before they were handed off to a doctor for further evaluation.

As for me, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as I thanked God for protecting my brother. The smile remained as I thought about Billy’s comment from several weeks prior: “What was Scott thinking when he chose ‘Humpty’ and ‘Dumpty’?”
I actually think he was thinking quite clearly. In fact, I think Billy was the perfect man for the job. Sure, "Humpty’s" waste line has probably grown a few inches over the years, but it’s nothing compared to the size of his heart.


Anonymous said...

Amazing Story!

Anonymous said...

Very well written and what a touching story! Both Scotty and Billy are amazing boys and have an amazing friendship! I am so glad that both are doing well! This story brought tears to my eyes!

Kelly (Renk) Schmidt

Tim Poling said...

This definitely left tears in my eyes. I hac-ve seen the HEART in both boys before

Anonymous said...

I managed to finish this race this year but only because of my pacers. Great write up Gabe, it's been a very long time.

Jennifer (Rehor) Bartel

Gabe Jenkins said...

Congrats on finishing, Jennifer! What did your training look like? Were you at altitude?