ASPEN - Zeke Tiernan struggled to convince himself that he'd ever see the finish line.
He had just passed mile 23 in 2008's Leadville Trail 100. Unrelenting rain and sleet soaked him to the core. Thunder cracked overhead as he darted under massive power lines.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'God, I hope they call this. If they do, I won't have to run another 70 miles,'" the 36-year-old Aspen native recalled Thursday. "You have to combat that thinking.
"One of the things about a 100-mile race is that you have to make the decision before the gun goes off that you're going to finish. If there's any doubt, if you can come up with any excuse to find a way out, you're going to take it."
The Aspen Country Day School history teacher was not going to be denied in his first Race Across the Sky.
For more than 18 hours, he cast aside the doubts. Spurred on by family and friends, he endured the agony, kept pushing forward and, at long last, reveled in the unbridled joy of completing the most demanding of challenges.
After nearly a decade of tribulations - one in which the former University of Colorado All-American runner candidly admits that his life veered off course - it was a seminal moment, one capable of shaping his outlook and his future.
"It was definitely a life-changing experience for me," he said of his third-place finish. "Since then, I've gotten back to a healthy lifestyle, I've gotten married and had a daughter. ... Running was a tool that helped me refind happiness. That's certainly the biggest motivator."
A similar passion drives Dylan Bowman.
The former Colorado State University lacrosse player still remembers reading about Tiernan's Leadville exploits in the newspaper. That was right about the time when, on a whim in the summer of 2008, he signed up for a trail marathon in Breckenridge and wound up finishing in the top 10.
"It was just pure curiosity: 'Holy crap, people can actually do that?'" the 26-year-old Aspen resident and Little Nell front-office manager said Thursday. "I had never ran competitively, but I wondered if I could do that, if it was even possible. It became an obsession.
"I was just sort of wondering if I was man enough."
As it turns out, he is: The Boulder native finished third in Leadville in 2010, one spot behind Tiernan.
The two struck up a conversation during a chance meeting that day (Bowman took a spill in the dark on Leadville's Turquoise Lake Trail, and Tiernan just happened to be right behind him). They started chatting and became fast friends and close training partners.
"There are very few areas in the world that offer both the combination of terrain we have to train on and somebody who can train on it with you at the same level," Tiernan said.
Added Bowman: "We literally ran the next 75 miles (of that race) together. We were instant friends. That powerful experience of really battling each other but mostly ourselves, it was like a shared accomplishment.
"Sometimes Zeke crushes me and sometimes I manage to hurt him a little bit. We definitely make each other better."
The two top ultrarunners will be in the same field once again next Saturday in California when they tackle their first Western States Endurance Run, deemed by many as the sport's Super Bowl.
"This is much bigger in terms of competition level (than Leadville), and yes, it's more prestigious. It was the first trail 100-mile race, so it's sort of the granddaddy," Bowman said. "It's really difficult to get in, so I want to take advantage of my opportunity. My plan is to go for it, run as hard as I can and take myself to a place I've never been in terms of suffering and performance."
Bowman suffered mightily in last year's Race Across the Sky. He wound up second, but dehydration led to repeated vomiting and concerns about kidney failure.
Still, he can't help but gush when recounting the experience.
"At the same time you're feeling horrible physically, you're on cloud nine - especially if you've had a good race," Bowman said. "It's indescribable, really. The feeling of accomplishment after 100 miles in one day is just amazing. Especially at Leadville, when you've got so many friends and family and they're sharing that with you, it's an emotional, beautiful experience."
Bowman's 2012 season has been replete with memorable experiences. He kicked things off with a fourth-place finish in January's Bandera 100K in Texas, then overwhelmed the field at the La Ruta Jungleman Marathon in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. He crossed the line a full 30 minutes ahead of his nearest competitor in
3 hours, 12 minutes, 25 seconds - a feat that's even more impressive when considering the entire course was loose sand.
Arguably his most impressive showing to date came in late April's Leona Divide 50 in Southern California. Bowman ran with the lead pack for the first 30 to 40 miles, then opened up a sizable gap down the stretch en route to a convincing win in about six hours.
The effort, which shattered the previous course record by 21 minutes, helped Bowman secure his spot in the Western States 100.
"That was definitely my best race ever, and it has provided me with a certain level of confidence," Bowman said. "At the same time, though, 50 miles is a lot different than 100 in terms of what is required of you. A part of me is certainly nervous."
The task before them is daunting, but Tiernan said success at these distances requires focusing on tangible, easily attainable goals.
"I break it down to aid stations and think of some good incentive there. My wife and kid will be there, and I get to kiss them, or there's Coke or Pepsi waiting," said Tiernan, who qualified for Western States by virtue of his win in September's Run Rabbit Run 50-mile race in Steamboat Springs. "Little things like that recharge you for the next seven, 10 miles or whatever.
"There's this thing people have been (bandying) about on the Internet: that ultrarunning is just running. I think there's a lot of truth to that. For me, I approach it mentally and physically almost the same as when I was trying to be a top collegiate-level racer. Preparing for all those highs and lows you go through in a race are similar - they're just protracted in a 100-mile race. They just last a lot longer. ... The way to approach it is the proverbial 'take it one step at a time.'"
He continued: "We don't believe we're as insane as people think we are. ... It's a big mental block in people's heads, the idea of running 100 miles, but most are capable of running this far. The way to understand it is to go to a race like Leadville right before the end and watch the people come in. You see all different sizes, ages, some limping or hobbling, and you're like, 'How'd that guy make it 100 miles?' It's really inspiring and humbling."
Tiernan and Bowman will be tackling 100 new miles next Saturday. They'll start in Squaw Valley at 6,200 feet and climb to Emigrant Pass at 8,750 feet in the first four-plus miles.
From there, they'll follow the original trails used by gold and silver miners in the 1850s, climbing 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before finishing in Auburn.
"Beyond what the Internet can tell us, I don't think either of us will step foot on the course before race day. It may be a disadvantage, but I'm excited about having it all be fresh and new," said Bowman, who has not taken a day off training in five months.
"The big X factor to me is going to be the heat," Tiernan added. "It can be 100, 110 in the canyons we're going to drop down into - that's going to be a big battle. My goal is to pay attention to how I'm feeling and think about whether my pace is one I can sustain for 100 miles while still racing guys. I don't want to end up doing too much racing and not enough taking care of Zeke.
"I had a really good coach in college who always harped on us to be prudent, be patient and be smart about our racing - and that was when we were running six miles. Now, I'm running 100, and those lessons become even more important."
While he admits he can't help but
second-guess his training and preparation in the days leading up to a race he has been contemplating for months, Bowman said he is confident.
"I'm certainly going to be more comfortable taking risks and running with guys who I previously didn't think I'd be able to keep up with," Bowman said. "All the work is done before you get to the start, and obviously the most important thing is mentally embracing that this is daunting. ... We understand what we're taking on.
"Setting concrete goals along the way sets you up for disappointment ... but I think we're both capable of having really strong performances. If Zeke is in front of me at mile 95, I'll certainly try and catch him, but I'll be rooting for him to do as well as he can."