By Scott Prater
First Lt. Dan Bar, 4th Space Operations Squadron, has been fascinated with the idea of testing the limits of his endurance for as long as he can remember.
He first heard about the Leadville Trail 100 a few years ago while attending the U.S. Air Force Academy.
He participated in the marathon club while at the Academy and met a friend who convinced him to try qualifying and running in the Boston Marathon, which he eventually did.
He enjoyed running in Boston, the novelty, the prestige and the challenge of the event, but something about Leadville stuck with him.
“I promised myself that if I ever got stationed in Colorado, I would attempt Leadville,” he said. “You have to take advantage of the opportunity. If you’re stationed in Florida, it’s impossible to train at 10,000 feet.”
The Leadville 100 is known throughout running and fitness circles as one of the toughest tests of endurance on the planet. The “ultra” marathon challenges runners with a 100-mile course, from the mountain town of Leadville to the ghost town of Winfield and back.
Bar says most participants stop running after the first 20 miles. From there, it’s a hike — and no, not a flat one.
“Runners” start in Leadville at 10,000 feet. Around mile marker 40, they begin to climb up Hope Pass, an obstacle that tops out at 12,260 feet. By mile 50 they’re back down to around 10,000 feet at the town of Winfield. But once they reach the town, the course reverses back on itself, and up runners go again.
“Those miles from 40 to 60 are half the race I think,” Bar said. “You just expend so much energy there.”
Those were the miles that actually did him in last year.
“I had to drop out last year at mile 70,” he said. “My ankles and shins didn’t handle the course very well. When I reached the 70-mile aid station, my ankles were the size of softballs.”
Following the debacle, Bar told his family he was done, but less than a month later he had already signed up to compete in this year’s race.
“It was on my brain the whole year,” he said. “I just knew that it was going to be now or never.”
While training for this year’s event he found some off-the-beaten-path trails on Pikes Peak and ran the Schriever base perimeter as often as he could.
“I actually did a lot of my training right here,” he said. “It’s rolling and flat, a real good training run.”
So with a solid year of training in and a meticulous meal plan, he felt confident he’d beat the Leadville trail this year. His parents, Richard and Margaret came out to support him during the race and his wife, 1st Lt. Clare Bar, 2nd Space Operations Squadron, agreed to pace him the last 24 miles.
Then, as he was busy preparing the night before the Aug. 19 race, he stubbed and cut two toes on his right foot.
“I thought, great, a year of training, all of this trouble, then to go out and ruin everything with a toe stub the night before,” he said. “I was frustrated. Went to bed with an ice pack taped to my foot. Of course, I maybe slept for an hour that night.”
As it turned out, his toes would be fine. It was his stomach that rebelled.
The meticulously placed gel packs he had set up at each station along the route the night before were useless.
“The gel made me gag,” he said. “My ankles were fine, I didn’t even notice my toes, but I couldn’t get the gel to go down, and in this race if you don’t eat, there’s no way you’ll make it.”
He estimated he’d need to consume 350 to 400 calories an hour, so Plan B included noodle soup, pretzels and peanut M&M’s.
“I was trying to get everything I could down him,” Clare Bar said. “Nothing sounded good until we found noodles, flat cola and those M&M’s. I asked him, at certain points, how he felt, and he said it was the worst pain. For runners, imagine running that last portion of a 10K, when you’re gutting it out. That was what his last eight hours was like.”
With assistance from his parents and with Clare pacing him, Bar pushed through, eventually crossing the finish line in 29 hours, 32 minutes. Less than a half hour ahead of the maximum time allowed.
Spectators lined the route through Leadville, but were there only to support participants. There was no entertainment value in watching people finish.
Event organizers had laid down a short section of carpet at the finish line, but all Bar could manage was a short shuffle at the very end.
“It was very strange at the end there,” Clare Bar said. “You see the finish line and people are cheering and yelling for runners to go, but the scene resembles a death march.”
Bar’s real finish came a few hours later, when the family stopped for a post-race meal during the drive home.
“That was the best milkshake and double-cheeseburger with onion rings that I’ve ever tasted,” he said.
More than month later, he’s still feeling the effects of the race. He said his hips are shot and will be for some time to come. His first competition will be October’s Schriever Half Marathon, where he’ll tackle that familiar training run around the base perimeter.
Though he swears he’ll never run another ultra marathon, he says anyone who would like tips or advice can simply look him up. He’s also offering to help pace runners who would like to attempt the Leadville 100 in the future, but not next year.
“I’ve had to put off running the Pikes Peak Ascent for the past two years because it’s held at the same time as Leadville,” Clare Bar said. “ All I can tell you is I’m running Pikes Peak next year.”