LEADVILLE, Colo. " Somewhere around mile 15 of Saturday's Leadville Trail 100, Zeke Tiernan's legs started to call out to him, telling him to stop.
Nearing the 45-mile mark, as he picked his way to the top of 12,600-foot Hope Pass, Tiernan felt alone and vulnerable. Doubt caught up to him.
"My spirits were down and I was like, 'There's no way I'm going to make it,'" said the 32-year-old Aspenite. "You go through periods where you're definitely like, 'I can't do it. I'm not going to make it.'"
Certainly not alone.
To complete one of the world's most grueling foot races, Tiernan needed a little help from his friends. He got it on the way down from Hope Pass when his traveling caravan of supporters " seven carloads of family members and friends " met him at the ghost town of Winfield, the race's midway point. There, Tiernan picked up his first of six pacers, and a much-needed emotional boost.
Fifty miles later, after running through pounding hail, rain and thunderstorms, a visibly fatigued Tiernan received a hero's welcome when he crossed the finish line at 10:37 p.m. in downtown Leadville amid steady rain. His final time: 18 hours, 37 minutes and 27 seconds, good for third overall.
Considering Tiernan's triumphant finish-line dash, it felt like first place. Only race winner Duncan Callahan received an ovation that matched the Aspen local's.
With Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" pumping out of nearby speakers, Tiernan, who was an All-American distance runner at the University of Colorado, shared hugs with his jubilant personal cheering section and race crew. Of his pacers, four were former CU teammates, including Carrie Messner-Vickers of Carbondale, the wife of childhood friend Matt Vickers.
Messner-Vickers " who just missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in steeplechase " said running with Tiernan in Leadville was a great anecdote for not being in Beijing. She joined her former college teammate around mile 88 and paced him for six miles before giving way to her husband, who carried Tiernan down the home stretch.
"It was great being out there with him," Messner-Vickers said. "He's one of my favorite people on the planet. ... Aside from his brother and my husband, the rest of us [pacers], we're old teammates. You go through a lot as teammates. You're out there to keep his mind occupied, keep him going, make him laugh, just take his mind off that pain or anything he's dealing with."
For Tiernan, the most meaningful part was when friends and family showed up and "were just unbelievable," he said. "It's pretty powerful."
Callahan won the race in his second attempt, finishing in 18:02:39. Callahan lost to Tiernan in the last two miles of the San Juan Solstice in June, a 50-miler beginning and ending in Lake City, but he was untouchable Saturday after grabbing the early lead.
Fellow Gunnison resident Andrew Skurka was nearly 15 minutes off Callahan's winning pace, crossing in second in 18:17:25.
Callahan vowed to return to Leadville in 2009 to defend his title, but after 10 months of daily training, he already had plans for an extended break.
"My wife has helped with everything, and just all the sacrificing of time was going through my head when I crossed the finish," he said. "I'm taking some time off, and we're going to spend a lot of time together."
Tiernan said he thought he would be more emotional upon reaching the finish of his first 100-mile race. But after running for nearly 24 hours, he joked that he didn't have the energy to get overly sentimental.
"It's hard to get to that part of your brain," he said.
He did offer up insight, however, as to what motivated him to set his sights on Leadville, nearly two years after he returned to his favorite sport. Before that, he had gone more than 400 days between training runs " a lost period where Tiernan said he lost sight of the person he wanted to be in life.
When he started running again, he started to rediscover himself. The goal of 100 miles in a day was important, if only for the journey it took him on as a person.
"I think that anytime you can set an ambitious goal and achieve it, it's really rewarding," he said. "I don't think I was doing it to prove anything to anyone or myself; I just think it was a hard thing, and I was in a different place when I set it. To have come from a place where I wasn't running and I wasn't happy, this helped catapult me back into my life. Being a good person and being happy.
"It was a vehicle to get me there."