On January 15th, 2018, Justin Turnbow decided he was going to run Leadville 2019.
"There's only one problem," his supportive and sunny wife, Andrea, pointed out. "You don't run."
A Loss Leading to Leadville
Fourteen days earlier, Justin had participated in the annual Polar Plunge at Lifetime Fitness. "I hadn't realized there was a run attached to it," he admitted later. He ended up running one mile, and walking the remaining one and a half miles, before taking the plunge into the pool.
Two days later, Justin and his family received devastating news. Justin's son, Keaton, had been battling a brain tumor for fifteen months, and had endured three surgeries in the course of his treatment. After each surgery, Keaton bravely re-learned how to use the right side of his body. "He was always positive about it, and never gave up," Justin recalled.
But on January 3rd, 2018, Keaton's fight came to an end. Keaton's family was able to take time to say goodbye and to spend time with him, but the loss understandably devastated his father and upended the world of Keaton's entire family.
Sixteen Weeks of Firsts
Twelve days later, Justin set his mind to run Leadville, both as a coping mechanism and to honor the fighting spirit of his son. "I chose a race that was so much bigger than me, that was practically guaranteed to fail. I needed a race that required something beyond me to finish it." Justin was so single-minded in his goal, he didn't incorporate any other races into his original training schedule. He simply downloaded a "8 Weeks to a Marathon" training app, and got to work.
Justin joined Lifetime Fitness's running crew, and met a new host of coaches, trainers and fellow runners through the program. He noted that he was worried about slowing the other runners down, but found that the more he engaged with the runners, the more they became interested and immersed in his goals.
He was gently pushed to incorporate other races into his training schedule, and eight weeks into his journey, found himself toeing the start line of the Oklahoma City Marathon. "I bought the VIP package," he admitted, "thinking that it would cut down on confusion. They would just put me into a corral, and I could get advice from the other VIP runners!" When asked why he chose a marathon as his first race, Justin responded, "People told me that you have to at least run 23 miles, because that's when the magic kicks in." It seemed that this experience was not universal, because at Mile 24, Justin, "had a full blown argument with myself. I wanted to give up, and I said, 'Why don't I? Keaton did!' Then I immediately began yelling at myself, saying, 'How dare you! Keaton never gave up!' All of this was out loud. I was so grateful no one else was around to hear it."
Justin survived his first marathon experience, and immediately pushed forward to a second race: The Midnight Madness 50 Miler. "It was hell on Earth," Justin summarizes. He notes that his pacers were paramount to his finishing the race: "My pacers were these amazing ultrarunners and IronMan finishers who had run so much farther than 50 miles. I did't want to quit in front of them." Justin finished Midnight Madness 2018 with 15 minutes to spare before the cutoff.
The Worst 5k Ever
March 30th marked Keaton's birthday, and to celebrate his son's life, Justin planned to run his first 100 miles event. TATUR Racing helped secure the park permits, and Justin ran 100 miles in alternating 5k/10k loops through a local park, over the course of 33 hours.
Justin expected around a dozen people to show up in support throughout the event, and was shocked at over 150 people participated in pacing, volunteering, and cheering on the memorial run. The event also was inadvertently happening on International Walking Day, and received local media attention from news outlets.
When asked about his most challenging training moment, Justin cites Castle Rock 50k, which marked his very first DNF. It's worth noting that Justin's record on this race is technically listed as a 25k finisher; however, he considers it a DNF because "I didn't meet the goal I set out with." He also adds, laughing, that the course description of "rolling hills" is an absolute lie, just in case anyone else is registering for the race.
Over 590 days and three thousand training miles later, somehow avoiding injury for over a year and a half of intensive physical challenges...Justin found himself at the crest of Leadville 2019.
All Aboard the Struggle Bus to Leadville
Justin describes the ten hour drive to Colorado as "surreal" paired with "a wall of doubt." "I kept running through this laundry list of things i had to do, and the weight of my reality grew heavier the closer we got." His wife, Andrea, wisely chose to sleep most of the way in preparation for supporting her husband in the days and trials to come.
When asked about the feeling around Leadville the night before the race, Justin's face splits into an almost-disbelieving smile. "It was electric," he finally manages to say. "There are ultra-gods like Anton (Krupricka) just hanging out, like casually, with the rest of us! With me!" He recalls that the elites were very humble and mellow, sheepishly owning up "feeling very star-struck around camp".
In terms of the surroundings and the feel of Leadville, Colorado itself, Justin uses one word: "home". He had participated and completed the Leadville Camp, Marathon, and 50 Mile races , and had formed solid and significant relationships with Leadville founders and organizers, Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin. Justin and Merilee had bonded over their mutual losses; Merilee had tragically lost her daughter around the same time as Keaton's passing. Justin refers to her affectionately as, "Mom". "Overall," he summarizes, "that last night in camp felt like coming back home to family."
Before the race even started, Justin knew his biggest obstacle was the cut-offs. "The Leadville cutoffs are very tight up front, and for good reason. The race could drag out forever," if cutoffs weren't aggressive from the start. Justin repeatedly stresses that this is his opinion, and others may disagree with it; he claims that, "a 9-10 minute marathon pace is necessary to meet the cutoffs."
From the Leadville start line to the first aid station, the May Queen, is 12.6 miles. Coming into May Queen, Justin had a decent lead on the first cut-off, with 32 minutes to spare. In order to cover the 10.9 miles to the second aid station, Outward Bound, Justin pushed himself well past his usual pace. With a brutal uphill section that flattens many runner's progress, known as the Sugar Loaf Pass, this path often require trek poles to ascend. At the summit, the route follows a rapid descent known as Powerline. "I had to sprint down Powerline, sometimes reaching a 6:15 pace." As a result, Justin battled a rebelling stomach and trashed quads as he "struggle bussed" his way into Outward Bound.
At Outward Bound, Justin was greeted by Ken and Merilee, and was encouraged to "Get going" by the group. Justin was ahead of the cutoffs by 28 minutes, but at this point, his legs were suffering.
The next stop, and cutoff point, would be Half Pipe about 5.8 miles away. However, that 5-odd miles was laced with additional rocky ascents, particularly one nasty stretch known as "Pipeline". 3.5 miles into the trek, Justin came across the Lifetime Tent and thought he had made it into the stop, just below the cutoffs. Unfortunately, he had a few more miles to go, and the clock wasn't slowing for anyone.
Arriving at Half Pipe Aid Station, Justin recalls seeing, "the cut-off woman, with arms outstretched, letting me know that this is where my journey would come to an end." Ken and Merilee were there again to support Justin. Ken reminded Justin of his fortitude, saying, "You didn't quit. You just ran out of time." Someone told Justin that they were sorry to see him cut, but Justin responded, "Why are you sorry? I had a great day. I got to run with amazing people. I got the chance to do something most people will never do."
The Final Cutoff
Justin caught a ride back to the festivities and to his crew, and spent the rest of the day absorbing his experiences and talking with crew members and other "sidelined" racers. The next morning, Justin and Andrea went to witness the firing of the shotgun at the race finish line, signalling the final 30-hour cutoff for the entire 100 miles. Justin spoke of looking down the home stretch towards the finish line, and thinking about "dreams that were so close to being a reality...just not this time."
Five minutes after the shotgun blast, a runner crossed the line. After 100 miles and 30 hours, 5 minutes of effort, doubts, pain and self-motivation...she had earned herself a DNF. Justin says her face will always stay with him; "She never quit. She was out there for 30 hours, and she knew she may not do it. But she never quit."
I have been following Justin's posts and journey ever since joining the ROTC Facebook group, where Justin posts most of his training updates and mental reflections from the miles. After following his story and efforts for over a year, I reached out a few weeks before Leadville, hoping to convince him to interview after the race.
"Sure", Justin replied to my Facebook message. "Just humbled that anyone would want to know about it, personally." We kept in touch off and on as the race approached, and I had my phone on ring during the day of the race, avidly following the Leadville updates online. When Justin posted that he had DNF'd, my heart sank. All of that training, brutal honesty, and pain felt like it had gone nowhere.
And then, I was proven wrong. Justin boldly posted a summary of his Leadville experience just a few days after returning home to Tulsa, With his usual style of genuine honesty, "ramblings", and self-depreciating statements, Justin shared the story of his race on Facebook. I quickly realized that this DNF was going to be even more interesting, insightful and heartfelt than most Leadville finishes.
That's how I found myself sitting across from Justin at a Starbucks in South Tulsa, a print off of his Facebook post in my hand and a litany of questions to ask him. While he certainly isn't a 262 lb couch potato anymore, Justin is still quite intimidating. Broad across the shoulders and now in superb shape, he also towers well above most people in terms of stature. He has a rough face that's certainly seen too much grief, but bright and intrigued eyes and a soft-spoken voice.
Justin kept reiterating his shock and disbelief that anyone would want to know anything about his race, let alone interview him. He admitted he rarely went to Starbucks and ordered an iced tea. As we chatted about organ donor practices and races we had in common, I realized that this monster of a dude, who had tackled a monster of a race...was really just another person, another broken soul looking for answers and redemption by tackling the impossible in trail form. That was why Justin's story was so intriguing, and why his posts about training have such an avid following. Justin doesn't pretend to be a super human; he's a human, trying to do super-human things. In order to bridge that gap, Justin relies on his running community, the support of his family, and his faith in God. "I picked Leadville because I wanted something that would take all of me to do...I got more...It took a man from reeling from the loss of his only son, to being surrounded by the greatest people this planet has to offer."
Coming Up Next...
I very well couldn't end the interview with Justin as an inspired mess with tears in my eyes, so in attempt to end on a more concrete note, I asked him what was next for him.
"Leadville 2021," he answers, without skipping a beat. He laughs, and demonstrates that he has grown to love racing and using races as training tools. "Also, Rocky Raccoon, hopefully with a sub-24 finish. I want to get a sub-4 hour marathon and get that 9-10 minute pace I need." Justin will also be participating in the Tulsa Urban Adventure 100 miler, as a runner for Ainsley's Angels. He also mentions Moab, and the upcoming Hennepin. "Literally, so many races," he says in summary.
And as for runners who will be joining him at Leadville 2021, he has a few words of advice:
1) Be able to hold a 9-10 minute pace for a marathon distance.
2) Climb every day. At the very least, be able to tackle all of the hills at Turkey without walking.
3) Prepare for everything to go wrong.
4) Have fun.