Nate Boyer looked up as he began his climb to Hope Pass about 40 miles into the start of the Leadville Trail 100 mile race. The four-mile section covered a 3,200-foot elevation gain and took runners to an elevation of 12,600 feet above sea level. He had to climb the steep incline, walk seven miles down the other side to a turnaround, and repeat the process. The sun was beating down as he maneuvered down the path with no shade.
“It's ironic that it's called Hope Pass because that's the most hopeless feeling,” Boyer, 42, said after the race. “As if you're doing your best to take the next step — and not gaining ground.”
At mile 47, Boyer accidentally caught his left foot under a rock. His shin swelled and his leg hurt. 53 miles to go, he told himself. keep moving
Life in football was associated with completely different pains.
David Vobora, 37, began vomiting as he began climbing Hope Pass. He alternated between walking and jogging while throwing up. A runner in her 50s stopped and rubbed her back as he bent forward again.
Eventually, Boyer and Vobora met along the way. They hugged and said encouraging words. The two have been friends for years – and their experience of tough physical challenges sets them apart from most other runners.
Vobora was the last pick in the 2008 NFL draft and secured the annual title “Mr. Irrelevant.” During his four-year career, he worked his way up to becoming a starting linebacker for the Rams and then the Seahawks.
Boyer, a former US Army green beret who went on to play football at the University of Texas, was an undrafted free agent who played preseason games for Seattle Long Snapper in 2015.
Now, both men are attempting to become the first former NFL team members to complete the grueling 100-mile race before the 30-hour deadline.
“Just this distance, this height, this length of time – the mountain will make cowards of us all,” said Vobora. “It feels more spiritual than going up against an opponent. It's about you and who's going to show up internally.”
Following Vobora's NFL career, he founded the Adaptive Training Foundation in Dallas, which provides free training and fellowship to wounded, ill and injured military veterans and civilians. He became interested in leading Leadville after letting a friend walk 18 miles up and down in 2021.
Vobora had started running during the pandemic. One day he ran 10 miles and felt surprisingly good afterwards. In April 2021, he completed a marathon, running laps around a pond, and then attempted to cover 100 miles in 24 hours, allocating nine minutes.
“I was completely confused after that,” Vobora said. “Lying on the floor. I couldn't eat. I peed blood.”
But he said he also thought, “How far could I go with this?”
To prepare for Leadville, Vobora embarked on an intense training schedule. He stopped drinking alcohol and ate only meat and fruit, losing from 110 to 100 kilograms and gaining a more runner-like build.
“Before Leadville, it was about taking on the task and staying on top of things,” he said, referring to that belt buckle Runners receive for completing. “Now it was like, ‘You're going to do this because you said so.' There was so much at stake and I had to train 100 percent of myself, maybe for the first time since football. That was something I missed.”
Boyer is a filmmaker and co-founder of Merging Vets and Players, a nonprofit organization that helps combat veterans and former professional athletes transition into new lives. He also hosts the Discovery Channel show, Survive the Raft, in which contestants complete challenges together on a raft.
In 2022, Boyer ran the Austin marathon and five weeks later a 50K. After the last race, he said, he no longer felt the bone and joint pain he had after the marathon.
“I thought, ‘This is interesting,'” Boyer said. “‘Maybe I'm better suited for this distance?'”
So it was Leadville.
“I don't know if it's even about running,” Boyer said. “It's a challenge to find out what your body is capable of. A lot of it is most likely rooted in a very deep-seated insecurity – the feeling that you have to do something incredible with your life.”
Gummy Worms and Pretzels
The Leadville 100, which begins and ends in Leadville, Colorado, started at 4 a.m. on August 19. Runners traverse the Rocky Mountains in what organizers call a “real high-altitude roller coaster” route. Elevation sections, hiking trails and paved roads, and technical sections of the Colorado Trail add up to a net elevation gain of over 15,000 feet.
Seven hundred runners between the ages of 18 and 72 started. Only 365 made it within the time limit.
Six and a half hours after takeoff, Boyer reached Twin Lakes, the aid station at mile 37.9. His team of three distributed gummy worms, energy bars and gels, pretzels and other snacks. Boyer sat in a folding chair and changed his socks and shoes. He drank coconut water and ate blueberries and a banana.
“My legs are killing me,” Boyer said. “My back hurts. And I'm dehydrated.” He paused and smiled. “Other than that, life is great.”
A few hours later, Vobora jogged to Twin Lakes. His crew of eight had pitched a tent near the supply station's entrance.
His tone was all business. “My knees hurt the worst,” said Vobora, who also said he had cramps.
His wife Sarah unpacked his bag and packed it again. “Pack the big gloves,” said Vobora. “My hands were completely numb this morning.” Temperatures went from a low 40C at the start to a high 70C at midday and back into the 40C at night.
“I feel like I should be further than 38 miles,” Vobora said with a chuckle as he started jogging away. “My energy is good. My stomach was everywhere. I'm trying to force feed myself so I have the energy I need for the second climb to Hope Pass. My main thing is the clock. The timestamp for returning to Twin Lakes before 10pm. That's the deadline, isn't it?”
What went wrong?
Vobora had arrived in Leadville two weeks before the race to acclimate to the altitude. He had a detailed 28-hour race plan: go fast downhill, be aggressive uphill. Stay stable on the level. While football is a team sport that requires everyone to work together, for Leadville, Vobora would run alongside people with their own individual goals and motivations. He liked this particular challenge.
“Out of the hundreds of kilometers leading up to this race, I probably felt good about 10 percent,” said Vobora before the race. “Maybe 20 if I'm liberal. The rest was just work.”
After nearly 17 hours on the trail, Vobora trudged back to Twin Lakes. At Hope Pass he hadn't stopped throwing up for three hours. He had severe cramps. A medical official had advised him to drop out, and he relented.
As he rode the shuttle down the mountain, he leaned his head against the window and howled.
“Damn, man,” he said in an infectious voice. He started talking about his strategy for next time: He would station someone at every aid station. “They'll have a bag and they'll say, ‘Here,' and I'll keep running. I know I can run this thing.”
Vobora went to the tent where his crew was waiting. He and his best friend Mo Brossette, also a member of his support team, were trying to figure out what had happened: too many salt tablets? Too many food?
“I'm so angry right now dude — and I'm so sorry guys,” Vobora told his crew.
The next day, Vobora texted: “With every passing moment I'm more grateful that I didn't make it. Because the questions I ask and the places I explore… I couldn't be here without them.”
Boyer had arrived in Colorado the day before the race and stayed at a hotel 40 minutes from the start. As darkness fell and the temperature dropped, he tried not to think too much about the miles he still had to travel. “Focus on what you can do in the next steps,” Boyer had said before the race. “The mountain won't look like it's getting any closer if you keep looking at it.”
Vobora said the physical challenge of an ultramarathon is vastly different than the pain of playing soccer, which he says are “brief bursts that represent very aggressive, bellicose and violent action.”
He continued, “Ultramarathon running is the complete flip side of the coin. It requires patience. It's about a state of a kind of equanimity in dealing with difficulties and pain.”
Chris Long, an 11-year NFL veteran who now has a foundation dedicated to providing education and clean water around the world, is a friend of Vobora and Boyer; both have worked with him on foundation projects.
He said their experience of football prepared them well for the Leadville challenge.
“Playing in the NFL teaches you to turn off your brain, put your head down and work,” Long wrote in an email. “You get good at going to your ‘happy place' and taking your mind off the real challenge.”
“Is there beer?”
After more than 24 hours on the track, Boyer climbed the penultimate hill. Stars were scattered across the sky as he headed for the finish line a block south of Leadville's Main Street, his headlamp on. Small groups of spectators cheered as he jogged the final climb.
“Let's go Nate—what a degree!” Mitch Moyer, his crew chief, yelled as he ran alongside Boyer.
Boyer finished in 24 hours 31 minutes 7 seconds. The announcer called his name to the almost empty stands. Boyer was the 57th male finisher and 63rd overall. He hugged Merilee Maupin and Ken Chlouber, the co-founders of the race.
“Do you want something?” Moyer asked.
“Any beer?” Boyer asked, smiling. Moyer handed him a non-alcoholic beer. “It's actually better,” Boyer said. His gait became a limp and he began to tremble.
Racers who finish in less than 25 hours receive a larger buckle than other finishers. As Boyer went to get him, the pain started to be felt.
“Do I enjoy running?” he said, laughing. “NO. It's not. It's therapeutic – but therapy isn't always fun. There's nothing quite like finishing a run, no matter how far along it is. The worst thing is starting it, and the best thing is, it everything in between is an ebb and flow.”