An argument for the love of suffering:
A runner tests his limits at the Leadville 100 mile ultra marathon
By Rachel Goodman
Danny Schiff sat for the first time in 60 miles. The 34-year-old slipped off his black trail running shoes, peeled off his knee-high black and lime green compression socks and inspected what he had suspected: blisters everywhere. There were the ones beginning to fill with pus on the pads of his feet, one under each toenail and the beginnings of more on the tops of his feet. The pain would become so intense that each step sent excruciating sensations radiating up the rest of his body.
Schiff suffered, but enjoyed it in a way, even thrived on it. That was the point.
A month earlier, Schiff had landed in Colorado to spend time acclimating in the area where he was now over halfway through the Leadville 100 Mile Trail Run on Aug. 20.
In a time when completing a marathon can be accomplished by the common man or woman, the ultra marathon has emerged as the quintessential test of human limits. Leadville, the highest incorporated municipality in the country at 10,200 feet, brings an added battle with altitude to the distance equivalent to about four marathons in a row.
At 4 a.m. that day, in pitch black, he left his mother, Cindy, father, Ron, sister, Tamara, and her boyfriend, Justin, at the corner of Sixth Street and Harrison Avenue. They watched as his 6-foot-1, 160-pound frame weaved its way to the middle of the pack, his shoulder length reddish-brown curls illuminated by the glow of runners’ headlamps encircling the crowd.
He took it all in: the 40-degree mountain air, the national anthem reverberating from the loudspeaker. The collective mix of excitement and fear of what the next 24 to 30 hours might bring for the 650 runners surrounding him felt palpable on his skin.
For 225 days, he marked off the boxes on his calendar. He witnessed hundreds of sunrises running almost 2,000 miles in the eight months leading up to race day.
Never once though did he go more than 50 miles on a run. You don’t prepare your body for Leadville by running the race’s length. You prepare for Leadville by making your body suffer. You prepare your body to keep moving forward in the hardest moments.
So, that’s what Schiff did.
He’d run in extreme heat, when he hadn’t slept the night before, when he had an especially draining day at work as a high school math teacher at The American School in Switzerland.
But really, his training began when his parents entered him in his first road race in New York at 3 years old. The sport didn’t interest him much as he grew. His height pushed him towards basketball and his quickness lent well to tennis.
But, he was built like a runner. That helped when he decided to join his mom in training for marathons.
They’d both wanted a change — Cindy looking to make a healthy lifestyle transformation and Danny, disillusioned with typical party school antics, sought something more purposeful. On the weekends, he’d drive 1.5 hours from the University of Florida in Gainesville to Tampa to train with his mom.
“Nothing was ever too big,” Cindy said.
He completed the A1A Ft. Lauderdale Marathon in 2007; an Ironman in Tempe, Arizona in 2009; the Firenze Marathon on his 30th birthday in 2012; the Istanbul Marathon in 2014. Those are just a few. It became his way to explore cities doing what he loved most.
While in Italy, he purchased the neon orange Kalenji brand shorts he sported race day in Leadville.
They became his symbol during the 25-hour adventure. It’s how his family spotted him for the first time when he made it to the National Fish Hatchery Aid Station at mile 24.
Every runner has a crew, a support group of friends and family to provide food, clothing and encouragement along the route. Each team lined up on the designated path, most with large blankets, foldable chairs for their runner, a plethora of food and drink.
The Schiffs appeared unprepared. They didn’t even have a blanket – Cindy took off her jacket, laid it on the ground and piled up a few protein bars and an extra pair of socks. She laughed at her makeshift aid station: “Dan wouldn’t want it any other way.”
He grabbed a couple Clif Bars, downed a few GU energy gels and a Gatorade and off he went. “See you after the next marathon,” he said with his almost ever-present grin.
They watched until his orange shorts faded into the distance.
At 2 p.m., 11.5 hours into the race, he made it to the summit of Hope Pass.
Elevation: 12,600 feet.
There’s a reason the race is nicknamed “Race Across the Sky.” At that altitude, the atmospheric pressure is 25 percent less than at sea level. Without the pressure of the atmosphere pushing oxygen into the lungs, the body must work harder to compensate. Runners often battle nausea, dehydration and even disorientation.
But, with LL Cool J bumping in his ears, Schiff felt good.
He felt less good at mile 60, inspecting the blisters as he sat for the first time. A race photographer confirmed — those were the worst blisters he’d seen all day. He was eager to snap a picture. Schiff obliged.
He picked up a pacer, a friend of a friend from Breckenridge. As the sun set, they passed the time hiking the uphills and shuffling the downhills and flats recounting each of their trail running histories.
Schiff turned to extreme long distances when marathons became about nitpicking splits instead of hoping his body would hold up until the finish line. He liked the idea of getting stronger in the mountains, of the timeless and almost primal man versus nature challenge.
His support crew sat at mile 76. The cold was getting to his sister, Tamara. She’d promised her brother she’d pace him, but she was tired and Danny was taking longer than expected.
Finally, the bright orange shorts appeared in the darkness. Danny seemed out of it.
“You need to go, he really needs you,” the pacer said to Tamara. Without hesitation, she zipped up her coat and strapped on a headlamp. Danny downed a 5-Hour Energy. And off they went into the night.
At mile 85, Schiff’s tendon inflammation in his ankle was taking a toll. It was 1:30 a.m., he’d been running for 21.5 hours straight. He was coherent, but obviously dazed. Tamara told him what they had done throughout the day and they reminisced on their travels across the country to see jam bands when they were teenagers. Sometimes Danny responded, other times Tamara could tell his mind was elsewhere.
“Hear the buzzing?” he asked her.
Aside from the crunch of gravel beneath their feat and the rustle of the trees, she didn’t hear a thing. That worried her.
Had he pushed his body to the point of hallucination?
Her racing thoughts slowed for a moment when a few miles later she did, in fact, hear the buzzing emanating from the power lines strung alongside the trail. But, Danny’s slow mind and feet signaled a formerly untapped state of suffering.
“You can’t reach your highest highs without experiencing your lowest lows,” Schiff said later. “I firmly believe that.”
They moved along, staring up at the vast expanse of seemingly endless stars speckled above the Rocky Mountains.
It was a sort of nourishment in a way, something to help put one foot in front of the other.
“Relentless forward progress,” as Schiff likes to say.
Danny Schiff, 34, at various points throughout his Leadville 100 mile ultra marathon journey on Aug. 20, 2016 in Leadville, Colorado.
At mile 87, Tamara left and he picked up another pacer. He wanted to muscle through the end on his own, but his mother insisted.
He had heard that the last 13 miles often brought new life to runners’ legs.
12.9 miles to go …12.8 … 12.2 …. 10 miles to go. Relief never came.
“It was just a sufferfest,” Schiff recalled. “Every step hurt.”
Cindy and Ron walked back and forth between the finish line and the 99-mile marker. Tamara and Justin walked back and forth half that distance. They did it in part to combat the 37-degree temperature chilling their bones, but mostly out of anxiousness.
Finally, Cindy spotted orange shorts attached to hobbling legs and quickly shot off a text to her daughter:
As the sun began to rise on that second morning just before 6 a.m., Danny Schiff, hand-in-hand with his crew, crossed the finish line 25 hours, 56 minutes and 50 seconds after the starting gunshot.
The five-minute walk to the two-bedroom condo they had rented seemed unfathomable to Schiff. His family gingerly helped him in and out of Cindy’s white Kia minivan.
His muscles were shot, but that meant in the coming days and weeks they’d grow stronger. It’s scientific fact that muscle fibers increase and thicken only after they’ve suffered damage.
Suffering through Leadville served as empirical data for Schiff that it would generate similar results on his mind. For him, overcoming the deep depths of pain made experiencing life simply all the more beautiful.
The next morning, getting out of bed left him short of breath.
“I felt invincible.”