By Spc. Robert Vicens | 14th Public Affairs Detachment
Three Soldiers with 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, participated in the Leadville Trail 100, an ultramarathon held on the outskirts of Leadville Aug. 17-18, 2019, “The Two-Mile High City.”
“The night before the race, you can’t sleep,” said Maj. Ernest Severe, company commander and MedEvac pilot, Charlie Company, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, 4th CAB. “Your mind doesn’t turn off — knowing that you’re about to put in 30 hours on your feet and 100 miles.”
The distance wasn’t the only challenging aspect of the race. The course, which is also known as “The Race Across the Sky,” snakes its way through 50 miles of scenic mountain paths, narrow dirt trails and unforgiving climbs up to 12,600 feet up and down the zenith of Hope Pass — before requiring runners to turn around and do it again. Every year, the trail defeats over half the starters, who either fail to meet cut-off times at the designated checkpoints or find the strain on their body is too great.
“We’re about to run 100 miles,” shouted Chief Warrant Officer 4 Isaac Smith, senior warrant officer and standardization pilot, 2nd GSAB, 4th Avn. Reg., 4th CAB, moments before the start of the race.
Grinning, Smith pointed a finger at his fellow racing partner and friend, Severe, “And it’s all his fault!”
Racing in the Leadville Trail 100 wasn’t always the goal for the two Soldiers. Originally, they had planned only to run a Leadville marathon. When Severe discovered the race was part of a series leading to the 100-mile race, he challenged Smith to participate.
Making it happen wasn’t easy. The Leadville Trail 100 has grown popular over the years since its inception in 1983, and the racer slots are limited. Ultimately the runners persevered and found a way to enter the race.
“I’m always looking for challenges,” Smith said. “I consider myself a talented aviator but I am always seeking improvement and making myself better.”
Both Smith and Severe believe it is in their nature to push themselves. They believe there is a correlation between success and people who challenge themselves personally and in the workplace.
“While I’m young, I challenge myself physically,” Severe said. “I still remember when two miles was a long distance. Then there was the Army Ten-Miler, then I did a marathon.”
Smith and Severe find their work-life balance improves by getting away and running in the beautiful Colorado backyard. It makes them better in the important areas of their lives.
“I needed this time outside of work to decompress so my wife has the best husband and my Soldiers have the best commander,” Severe said.
It is a sentiment Smith echoes as well.
“I’m considered extremely successful by the people around me, but I look at myself as an average person,” Smith said. “I never got straight A’s, and I don’t feel I’m anything special. I look at people as equals and I want people to feel comfortable coming to me with their problems so I can help them.”
Being fully present at work, despite his many responsibilities, becomes easier with an avenue to channel his energy, Smith said.
“Getting away and running is very soothing,” he continued.
That said, endurance races are very time consuming and require the discipline one would expect from high-speed Soldiers.
Preparing for 100 miles
In order to complete 100 miles in under 30 hours at such a high elevation, both Soldiers prepared themselves physically and mentally. They developed nutrition strategies to make up for the 12,000 calories they expected to burn over the course of the race. Like good Soldiers, they trained like they fought, hiking Pike’s Peak regularly on weekends to become more accustomed to running in a higher elevation. They practiced night runs using the headlamps they would need on race day. Most importantly, they made sure they were always fulfilling their duties with Family and work, in order to keep the support of their home and work spheres.
Morning of the race
“You’ve come from all over the world to run 100 miles on foot across the tallest, the toughest, the baddest mountains Colorado has to offer,” the race announcer’s voice echoed over the loudspeaker in the crisp pre-dawn air.
More than 800 runners eagerly waited at the start line, as well as the hundreds of friends, family and race crew that came out to support the racers in their painful 100-mile hour journey. In the end, less than 400 completed the journey in time.
“I was humbled by this great opportunity,” Severe said. “I was here to give my best and to make my best better.”
The shotgun blasted and hundreds of runners shot into the night in a tight cluster, headlamps like fireflies in the darkness. They stayed together for a few miles before everyone settled into similarly-paced groups.
Sometimes runners had company as they waded through the aspen trees and hiked the rocky roads. Other times there were long stretches of silence as the nearest participants jogged at their own pace, out of earshot.
Severe and Smith agreed to stay together as long as they could, but not to hold each other back. They also recruited the aid of 1st Lt. Frances Burghart, intelligence officer, Charlie Company, 2nd GSAB, 4th Avn. Reg., 4th CAB. Burghart agreed to act as pacer in case one of the racers fell behind.
Race must go on
Severe injured his ankle on Sugarloaf Pass early in the race. It slowed him down, but he pushed himself as long as he could. Having run 45 miles and hiking the last five miles on a bum ankle to the highest point of the race, only to be turned away minutes from his goal at the top of Hope Pass.
“There was no way I was going to stop unless they made me,” Severe said.
And when he could no longer participate, his role shifted from runner to Smith’s support team.
Smith plowed through the night, driving himself, borrowing one of Leadville’s mantras, taken from the city’s mining roots: “dig deep, don’t quit.”
Burghart jumped into the race for the last 12 miles, running alongside Smith for moral support and to keep the wearied runner on pace through the last leg.
Together they reached the last mile, where Smith’s wife and others from his race crew joined him in walking across the finish line.
Smith completed the race with only 22 minutes to spare, earning the coveted silver buckle — only awarded to those brave and resilient souls who trekked 100 miles through the “Race Across the Sky” —within the allotted time of 30 hours.
“This is probably the most difficult physical exercise I have ever done in my entire life,” said Smith. “Don’t ask me if I’ll do it again. Wait until after I can walk.”