A 100 miler isn’t anything to take lightly; we train hard, we plan out logistics, and we get ourselves mentally prepared. I’ve met entrants whose primary goal is to finish before that oh so important cutoff, others who shoot to break a specific time and then there are those who toe the line simply to try and prove to themselves and to those who have inspired them that running 100miles IS physically, mentally and emotionally possible. Everyone’s journey is different, and none are right or wrong, but some definitely inspire more than others. I was fortunate enough to witness such an event at this year’s Leadville Trail 100.

“Run the First 50 miles with your Legs, the Last 50 miles with your Heart”

By Eric J Lee

As with most runners preparing to run 100 miles, Von Cousin struggled to balance training, working full time and being a good father to his son. At 4am on August 20, 2011 he toed the starting line in downtown Leadville alongside 641 other runners, set to attempt the Leadville Trail 100, his first 100 mile. The thoughts of; had he trained enough, did he taper properly, was his crew fully prepared, weighed on his mind, but not as heavily as the “four angels” that had guided him through the past year. His grandmother who passed away in 2002, his friend Jon whom he had lost in March 2011, his mother on the East coast struggling with a double cancer diagnosis, and his beautiful son who inspires him on a daily basis.

For Von, as it does for many, the magnitude and difficulty of running the Leadville Trail 100 really did not kick in until mile 55 when he crested Hope Pass for the second time. Making the 50 mile cutoff at Winfield with half an hour to spare, both he and his pacer Paul knew time was of the essence. As they continued down toward Twin Lakes, Von jammed his back and from that point forward every step became an agonizing struggle. Paul kept him moving and they rushed across the timing mat at Twin Lakes with only a few minutes to spare before the cutoff.

The pain did not ease as they trudged through the night toward the Half Pipe Aid Station. At mile 76, Fish Hatchery, the notion of dropping and ending the pain swirled through Von’s head. 76 miles is a long way, and he could be content with that effort and achievement. At that moment, as they had all day long, one of Von’s angels came to his rescue. Crossing that finish line with the photo of his mother in hand, and what that would mean, was more than reason enough to keep struggling forward. The hike up the Powerline Rd is an endless climb, even for those who are feeling good. Chris, Von’s new pacer, did his best to keep him in good spirits and moving forward as quickly as possible, aware that the ever important Mayqueen cutoff was looming, the final cutoff before the finish line push.

Von Near Winfield Signs Along Winfield Rd, Inbound Von Fighting to Stay Awake

The lights of the Mayqueen Aid Station grew closer and closer, but not fast enough as it was now almost 6:30am (cutoff). Chris radioed down to Kari, Von’s next pacer, who was waiting at Mayqueen, “Take all the chairs away; do NOT let him sit down at Mayqueen. Do not even let him stop. If he stops, you may not make it to the finish.” As they hit the last bit of road into the aid station with only minutes to the cutoff Chris urged Von to run as hard as he could, but by this point in the race every step completely emptied the air out of his lungs and he struggled to breath. He crossed the timing mat just in time, where his next pacer Kari grabbed him and told him not to stop, just keep moving forward.

From Mayqueen to the finish is 13 miles of rolling terrain with several hundred feet of uphill into town, Von and Kari only had 3.5 hours to cover that terrain, a tall order for most runners. Kari knew this, and knew it would take an incredible effort to get Von to the finish line for the 30 hour cutoff. Kari knew Von’s lower back was in a lot of pain, but his calves and quads were still feeling ok, so prompted him to run the downhill on his tiptoes, “like tinkerbell”. That he did, alternating between a downhill prance and a flat/uphill walk, moving ever closer to the finish while the clock continued to tick.

As they hit the network of dirt roads leading back into Leadville and the finish, they settled into a power hike. Kari implored Von to run, just a few steps at a time; because that was the only way they were going to make 30 hours. Yet, Kari could not get Von to consistently run, so she asked “Von, do you care about the 30 hour mark?”, to which he replied that there were other things weighing much more heavily on his mind. Von told her about his four angels, whom he had been carrying photos of all day, and how they had inspired him, carried him throughout the past 29 hours and how he was running for each one of them in a different way. To him, what mattered the most was crossing that finish line in Leadville. Kari finally understood so she radioed ahead to Chris at the finish, “I just had a huge epiphany! This man, this incredible man, made every single one of the race cutoffs that really matters! He made all the ones that allow him to stay on the course. The finish line cutoff? It is arbitrary. It really does not matter.” And so they walked, not ran, right through 10:00 AM, along side the angels.

Von nearing Leadville Friends and Crew Join Von at the Finish Crossing the Finish Line, 100miles

They continued up the road onto the Boulevard, the street that marks the final half mile to the finish. As they walked down the road a crowd of crew members, pacers and friends joined them for the final bit to the finish, including myself. Von pulled out the photos of his angels that had guided him through the day, and could barely believe that he was about to cross the finish line of his first 100 mile. Von’s crew held up a piece of tape at the finish and Ken and Merilee, Leadville 100 race directors, were even there to congratulate him. Hugs, congratulatory remarks and many kind words were exchanged, then Von’s crew approached him and handed him a ceremonial Leadville 100 belt buckle (not an official finisher buckle), while he would not receive an official finisher time or a finisher belt buckle, he had made every single cutoff to stay on course and he had run 100 miles. There was one last thing for Von, to remove the prayer necklace given to him by his friend Mike that he had worn as a promise to someday run a 100 miler. He had fulfilled that promise with the help of a fantastic crew (Mark, Bobby, Mike, Suze, Patrick), amazing pacers (Paul, Chris, Kari), many friends, but most importantly the four angels that had been at his side through the entire race.

Von’s entire Support Crew Von and the angels In honor of his mother

As I watched Von struggle and ultimately succeed in his first 100 miler, it touched something inside me that I hadn’t felt in several years. His story was reminiscent of my own experience at the Leadville 100 in 2007, also my first 100 miler. In 2005 I lost my grandmother, the first person who was very close to me to pass away, and the one who had inspired me to explore the outdoors. That is when I rediscovered a long lost passion for the mountains, and a peace in life that nothing else could provide. I climbed my fist 14er, Mt Langley, only weeks after her passing, leaving a rose on the summit in her memory. Then in 2007, as I began to ramp up my training I learned that an old friend had lost his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, finally succumbing after battling for several years and inspiring hundreds along the way through his triathlon racing and charitable work supporting ALS. Jonny Blais, you will not be forgotten. Exactly a month before the race, I received a call that one of my best friends from high school/college had committed suicide after struggling with schizophrenia. All of these thoughts and memories weighed heavily on my mind on race day in 2007, that is why Von’s story rang so true in my heart. And while we set out with much different goals in our respective races, the way in which Von’s angels guided him, inspired him and carried him across that finish line made me feel as though I were reliving my 2007 run all over again. Ultimately I am merely a humbled friend, training partner and supporter who was blessed enough to have been apart of such an amazing journey and only hope that my words can do the entire experience justice.