Lessons From Leadville

The founder and CEO of Life Time recounts a near-death experience and the lessons it taught him.

Bahram Akradi racing in Leadville

The Leadville Race Series is legendary in the world of endurance racing. Each year, athletes from all over the world test their grit, guts, and determination in one or more of the series’ events, which occur over two months, including the Leadville Trail Marathon, Silver Rush 50 Mountain Bike or Run, Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike, Leadville Trail 10K run, or Leadville Trail 100 Run.

For most, completing just one of these is an incredible accomplishment. Few are crazy enough to attempt all five in a single season — known as the Leadman — but I did in the summer of 2011.

I’m not quite an ultra-athlete, but as the series began, I was fit and healthy, well-rested and injury-free. My cardiovascular health was excellent; I’d trained and spent time at altitude. I was surrounded by people who motivated me. I was prepared, physically and mentally.

The marathon was painful, but I got it done. The 50-mile bike race was tough, but definitely doable. A pre-race chest cold slowed me down during the 100-mile bike race, but I managed to finish in under 12 hours.

Recovery came easy, and the next day, the 10K was no problem. The only thing between me and the coveted Leadman Belt Buckle was the 100-mile run, just six days away.

I had done the math, and to finish the race in under 30 hours, I planned to fast-walk it. But two days before the run, I had to switch strategies after Ken Chlouber, the Leadville founder, who’s also a dear friend and supporter, shared some horror stories: “You won’t know who your mother is. You won’t remember your own name.”

“Oh, no,” I laughed him off. “That won’t happen. I can fast-walk it.”

“You can’t do that,” he said.

“Of course I can. That’s 100 miles, 30 hours, 3.3 miles per hour.”

He explained that I had to reach the Twin Lakes checkpoint at mile 40 by a certain time or be eliminated.

Doing this math, I came up with 4.5 miles per hour — I would have to run.

Had I known, would I have changed my mind? A year of training, having completed four of the five Leadman stages, being supported by a caring crew, and feeling as excited as I was?

I was committed.

Breaking Down

The start of that race on a predawn morning is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever witnessed. Pitch dark, 800 runners, all wearing headlamps. Looking forward, looking to the athlete next to me, wondering which of us would finish — and who would not.

The gun went off and we started, beams of light from our headlamps bobbed in our steps. We were like one great, glorious swarm taking flight.

At mile 18, Sugarloaf Pass, things began to get interesting. Going up was easy, going as fast as I needed.

Going down was a different story. With every step I felt excruciating pain in my knees, as though someone was taking a baseball bat to them.

The crew met me at the bottom, and I pleaded for Advil. I had been warned about the dangers of ibuprofen, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t realize it breaks down in your kidneys, making them lethargic.

I also didn’t realize I had rhabdomyolysis, a life-threatening condition caused by severe muscle trauma. The release of too much myoglobin from the muscle breakdown, coupled with the ibuprofen, can stop the kidneys from functioning.

I took a double dose and continued.

At dawn the next day, after running all night, I was back at the peak of the Powerline ascent — mile 81 — and faced the part of the out-and-back course that had almost killed me the day before.

My knees were crazy, my mind was nuts, but I kept going. I thought about how much I love short sprints, and I remember asking myself, What kind of a moron would do this? I had to fake both my mental and physical game, but not once did I consider stopping, despite the warnings from my body.

In the end, I finished the race. Last. In over 30 hours, but it didn’t matter.

The memory of that finish line is seared in my mind. Hundreds of people lined the streets, waving and cheering, knowing how the last runners need it as much as, if not more than, the first. It had to have been buoyant happiness that carried me down Main Street, because my legs barely hobbled, my body felt detached.

My memory of someone placing the medal around my neck is vivid. There was my family, a celebration, and a disbelief that despite everything, I had achieved an amazing accomplishment.

And there was a doctor, concerned, but unaware of the war raging inside of me.

The Day After

There is typically an hour or two after these long races where you feel awful. Usually, when you give your body time, it recovers. Mine didn’t. I couldn’t sleep, and I felt awful all day. A nurse came on Monday and took a blood sample. Hours later, the course doctor frantically returned.

“You told me to tell you when it’s time to go to the hospital,” he said. “It’s right now. We’ve got to go right now.”

A medevac helicopter took us to Denver, where a handful of concerned ICU specialists were expecting me.

The doctor in Leadville hadn’t told me what had freaked him out — that my potassium was at 7.5. (The kidneys, functioning at their optimal level, keep potassium between 3.6 and 5.2. If it drops to less than 2.5, or rises to 6 or above, it’s life-threatening.)

The odds of my being alive were less than a half of 1 percent. When potassium levels become so high that your heart stops, there’s often no coming back.

Within minutes I was connected to dialysis; I hadn’t urinated, because my kidneys had shut down. The effect of dialysis was immediate, lowering my potassium levels and protecting my heart. Because I was otherwise healthy, the care team was cautiously optimistic that my system would start functioning again.

I had no idea the challenges ahead of me. My weight ballooned from 167 pounds to 190 pounds. I still couldn’t urinate. I was pumped full of fluids, in pain. The Friday before the race, I had felt like I was 23 years old; by Tuesday, I felt more like 93.

Through the week, I could feel the concern mounting. Still no urination. One of the less emotional doctors told me there are 1.5 million filters in each kidney and mine were all plugged. “You will never be the same,” she said.

At best, I would spend the rest of my life on dialysis.

Recovery

Even in these dire circumstances, I would not tolerate self-pity. What had happened had happened.

Life might be different, but there was no changing the past, and it looked like my future would require adapting to a life with nonfunctioning kidneys. A machine would run every night while I slept, allowing me to resume my active lifestyle. I was prepared to accept this way forward.

On Friday, they took me to the community dialysis room, where everyone looked severely aged. One patient was quarantined in plastic, attended by people in yellow plastic hazmat suits. I felt a stark sense of reality about what a future on dialysis really meant.

But then — and there are no eloquent words to describe this — I started peeing. It was a celebration . . . the first sign of progress! After nine days in the hospital, I was cleared to return home to Minnesota. A few days later, my creatinine levels dropped for the first time.

About three weeks postrace, my kidneys started to come alive — and that’s when my mindset began to shift.

I no longer accepted my fate or the fear that I might never recover enough to feel well and function normally again. I wanted my life back.

My daily routine was devoted to medical care, blood work, doctor visits, and progress checks. As soon as I could, I started to do light workouts here and there. I ate a healthy diet. I began to feel stronger, and that feeling of possibility and potential started to pulse through me, physically and emotionally. One day at a time, I worked to rebuild my health.

By November, I was miraculously back to my normal weight, my muscles rehabilitated, creatinine stabilized. Nobody understood it. I had made a full recovery from the worst case of rhabdomyolysis that had been recorded.

It was like being in a fiery car crash and walking away — but there were lessons I took with me.

Since I was a child, I’ve felt invincible. I would set goals and achieve them; even with doubts, I would soldier through. The courage to take risks has always been part of my DNA.

Yet, because of Leadville, I now have a different understanding of life’s fragility — the delicate balance that keeps the earth spinning with the just- right tilt of its axis. One slight shift, everything changes.

What’s true, in both endurance races and life, is that things will get really hard. There will be highs and lows. Our goal is to find that balance — to listen, to learn, and to let go of our pride at the same time we continue to believe in what we’re doing.

It is in this constant, forward motion, that our prayers can never stop. Prayers that ask for help, for guidance. And the most powerful, necessary prayer of all: the strong, deep, simple thank you.

is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Life Time. Hear more from him at BahramAkradi.com.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Newsletter Signup
Weekly Newsletter
Special Promotions