“The Leadville Trail Heavy Half was the single most challenging thing I have ever taken on, and the hardest thing I have ever completed. I left fat Joseph on top of that mountain, permanently.”
In the fall of 2016 Joseph Alexander weighed close to 400 lbs. He was diabetic, on multiple medications and had yo yo’d his way through many diets over the years. In January 2017 he joined Engine 2’s free Seven Day Rescue Group and has since lost over 200 lbs following a whole foods plant-based diet. He’s been a positive force in the group’s Facebook page and recently decided to test his own limits physically.
This past June, he headed to Colorado to run The Leadville Trail Heavy Half. I caught up with Joseph after his race and asked him to share his experience on running a very grueling race in one of our nation’s most difficult running locations.
The Leadville Trail Heavy Half is a 15.5-mile trail race in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The trail rises from the town of Leadville at 10,200 feet above sea level, to the top of Mosquito Pass at 13,185 feet.
What’s the furthest you’ve run before signing up for Leadville?
Not very far! My longest training run before the Leadville Trail Heavy Half was only 12 miles.
How did you hear about the Leadville race?
My first information about Leadville came from the book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. He outlines the origin of the Leadville Trail 100 and did a pretty good job writing about how tough it is. After I started running as a part of the Missing Chins Run Club, I found out that some of the guys from the club were using this race as a training motivation and doing the run to prove to themselves that they could accomplish anything.
What was going through your mind as you were signing up? (How long did it take you to press that “submit” button?)
I was scared out of my mind! Some of the guys from the Missing Chins who did the race last year encouraged me while letting me know that if I was going to be able to finish, I would have to work hard over the next several months to get ready for it.
What did you do differently to prepare for the race?
From the time that I took up running, I was interested in trail running as something to aspire to. I grew up camping, hiking, and backpacking in the mountains. When I signed up for Leadville I had done very little running on trails. Instantly the focus of my training became trail work. Miles on the up and down, in all kinds of terrain and conditions, is the single best way to prepare for a trail race.
Sometimes people don’t tell anyone they are doing “big things” to avoid being accountable. Did you share with anyone that you were doing this?
I told EVERYBODY!
By the time I signed up for the Heavy Half, I had lost well over 100 pounds. People could see the difference, and I was beyond being moved off-center by people screaming about needing meat and cheese to live. I wanted people to know that I was committed so that I couldn’t back out of it.
How did you feel as you stood at the starting line?
Still pretty nervous. The start felt amazing. I was in a crowd of hundreds, surrounded by a cloud of my personal heroes, people who are real success stories. We were doing a lot of hugs and a lot of photos. Tears were rolling freely. Someone sang an incredibly moving rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, then there was the countdown, and the pistol. The cheering was tremendous. You would have to either be sick or dead to not feel inspired at that point.
Talk me through some high and low moments during the race … what distance were you, what did you say to yourself or do to overcome the dark moments?
By far, the single most important thing was the people I was with, both on the trail and at the finish gate. I did the whole race alongside one of my buddies from the Missing Chins, Jason Harper, and we kept each other going through all of the good and bad. I wasn’t going to let him quit, and he wasn’t going to let me quit.
Most of the way up to the top, the halfway point at the top of Mosquito Pass, we were with our friend Josh LaJaunie who is one of the most inspiring success stories anywhere, and Josh’s sister Kassie LaJaunie Harrington, who was also having her first Leadville experience. Josh was telling me exactly the things I needed to hear.
Another thing I should point out is how open and welcoming the trail running culture is. I heard nothing but “good job,” “you’re doing great,” and “way to go, runner” along the way. For someone who been scared away from gyms and sporting events most of my life, this was really something. I will never again feel like I don’t belong among these folks.
As we approached the finish, in the last mile, members of the Missing Chins and their families, who had already finished, were strung out along the road, and high-fived us coming in. About a half-mile out, Josh LaJaunie, who could have easily finished this race in about a third of the time it took me, came out and ran in with us until we got to the chute. Hugging and tears were everywhere, and those moments were probably the most meaningful to me.
What’s next for you?
I’ll tell you what… I thought long and hard about this. The Leadville Trail Heavy Half was the single most challenging thing I have ever taken on, and the hardest thing I have ever completed. I left fat Joseph on top of that mountain, permanently. It changed me.
Having gone out there already, I know that I could sit on my butt for the next few months, then take up a regular training schedule, and go out there and do it again. I could definitely get a better time. But how would that help me in my transformation?
So I signed up a couple of days ago, on the day registration opened, for the 2019 Leadville Marathon, which adds 11 miles and a couple more peaks into the race.
What advice would you give someone who wants to try something of this magnitude but has fears and doubt?
90% of this is getting past your mental barriers. The most important thing is this: start. Just start. The hardest step is the first one you take, through your doorway.
Thanks Joseph! Best of luck!