SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The Leadville Trail 100 is arguably one of the most grueling tests of human endurance worldwide.
The annual ultra marathon requires competitors to not only complete a 100-mile course near Leadville, Colorado, it throws in an uneven, rock-filled trail that includes more than 18,000 feet of ascending - all in a required maximum time of 30 hours.
Heath Busche, a contractor for the 2nd Space Operations Squadron took the challenge this Aug. 16-17.
Despite missing out on months of training due to an ankle injury, Busche crossed the finish line in Leadville with a mere hour to spare, in 28 hours, 59 minutes, 43 seconds to be exact. But, he says there is no way he could have completed the feat without the help and support of a couple of his Schriever teammates.
Seth Cannello, Schriever Sports and Fitness Manager paced Busche for a 26-mile stretch of the race, while Will Conner, Busche's 2 SOPS work mate, ran the last 13.5 miles along with him to help him reach the finish line.
"Half of the competitors who attempt the Leadville 100 every year don't finish," said Busche, who suffered a rather severe ankle injury in February, which hampered his training and nearly kept him from competing. "That should help people understand the difficultly level of this race."
The race takes competitors on a 50-mile trek from Leadville, Colorado over three mountain passes to the ghost town of Winfield, where they turn around and run, hike or walk back to Leadville.
Cannello met Busche at the bottom of Hope Pass on the inbound side. That was at roughly the 60-mile mark.
By that point, Busche had already climbed Sugarloaf Pass and Hope Pass, hit the half-way point, turned around and climbed, then descended, Hope Pass again.
"I was nervous going into it," Cannello said. "Thanks to my own foot injury, I wasn't able to train as much as I would've liked."
Busche strolled up to his meeting with Cannello late on August 16, about 16 hours into the event.
"Luckily for me, he had slowed down by the time we met," Cannello said. "My job was to help push him on and I think we made good time for 15 miles. When it came time for me to pass him on to another pacer, I felt really good. My injured foot didn't hurt and I got caught up in the excitement of it all. So I told him I could go another 11 miles to the next checkpoint."
A couple of miles into the next section, Cannello began to regret his decision. He tweaked his injured foot at some point along the route and began feeling pain along with intense fatigue.
"We reached a point on the trail that went straight up for six miles," he said. "Plus, the trail is full of rocks. That's one of the hardest parts of this race. Competitors are not running on groomed mountain trails, there are holes and rocks everywhere. You have to be careful where you plant your feet."
Visibility was also problematic at 1 a.m. Cannello estimated racers could barely see more than five feet, and that was with headlamps.
"The descents weren't any easier, because you relax a little going downhill, but you're still working to decelerate and you're still dealing with the uneven surfaces," Cannello said. "I was stumbling a lot, my hips began to hurt and even my good foot was aching."
Busche said at the time, that all he heard was encouragement from Cannello.
"It was below freezing at that point," Busche explained. "Seth was carrying a backpack full of gear, including his food, water, rain gear, cold water gear and lights. He was also carrying my rain jacket, gloves, food and water. He ran a complete marathon and did all this while building my confidence, assessing my physical situation and helping me manage my time."
Once the pair reached the May Queen aid station, Busche had 13.5 miles left to go, but Cannello had had enough. Without fanfare, he ensured Busche was prepared to continue, wished him luck and found a ride back to his car.
"I wanted to be there at the finish line, but I was spent," he said. "I had been up for more than 24 hours."
Bright eyed and bursting with energy, Conner met Busche at the May Queen aid station,
where Cannello dropped him off roughly 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Hungry, thirsty and tired, Busche's body wanted nothing more than to just stop.
"My goal was to have him thinking only about the finish," Connor said. "I tried my best to talk non-stop about how he was almost done, how great it was going to be to finish the race and collect his awards."
Busche's recollection of the meeting was a little different.
"I met a drill sergeant at May Queen," he said. "And, that's what I needed. I also needed a cheerleader, a statistician to help me keep my time, an analyst, a sounding board and a running coach - and Will was all of those."
Though Connor appeared upbeat and energetic to Busche at the start of the final leg, he was exhausted, sore and limping by the time the pair neared the finish line.
"The big shock for me was seeing how grueling this race is and how it took a toll on the racers," Connor said. "I was also surprised at the atmosphere surrounding the race. All the fans cheering the racers along the route was amazing. Their support really helped participants finish."
Sure that Busche would be successful, Connor dropped him off less than mile from the finish line. But, it wouldn't quite be appropriate for such a grueling race to end with a flat, easy, final stretch. Nope, runners finished with a 500-yard uphill climb.
Busche felt good enough to run the final section and crossed the finish line in an easy trot - 45 minutes ahead of schedule.
"My pacers deserve the lion's share of the recognition," he said. "I could not have finished without Seth and Will. "Both of them demonstrated what it means to have integrity, endurance, humility, determination and character. I thought the race would help develop those same qualities in me and show others that I had some already. Rather, through Seth and Will, I now have a better understanding of just what those attributes entail and a glimpse into the chasm that seperates who I am from the person I want to be."