Veteran's Journey Through Leadville 100
by U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Charles Rivezzo
September 10, 2023
In the heart of the Rocky Mountains, where the air is thin and the trails unforgiving, the Leadville Trail 100 Run stands as one of the most grueling ultramarathons in the world.
The course spans 100 miles through challenging mountain terrain, subjecting runners to not only the physical rigors of distance and elevation but also the mental hurdles of isolation and self-doubt.
Among the athletes who gather here is Patrick Buzzard, 53, a man whose journey to this starting line is as compelling as the race itself ... a journey of service, setbacks, and unyielding determination.
August 18, 2023 - Patrick Buzzard, U.S. Space Force Space Delta 12’s 4th Test and Evaluation Squadron security manager, in front of the Leadville Trail 100 Run sign near Leadville, Colorado. The Leadville Trail 100 Run is a 50-mile ultramarathon held annually on rugged trails and dirt roads through the heart of the Rocky Mountains. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from courtesy photo provided by Patrick Buzzard.)
From Marine To Marathoner
After high school, Buzzard's path took a turn towards service. His commitment to service was deeply rooted in family tradition.
“My dad served in Vietnam, and my grandpa was a Marine during World War II,” he said. “My great grandpa was in the artillery during World War I. Almost all the men in my family, from my uncles to my cousins and my brother, have served.”
“Growing up, I believed that to be a good American and a responsible citizen, one should serve in the military,” he continued. “That's why I chose the Marines. Despite having a college degree, I wanted to be infantry. I aspired to roles like Recon or Scout Sniper.”
Serving as a rifleman and a Scout Sniper from 1992 to 1996, Buzzard discovered his aptitude for running, breaking the 16-minute mark for his 3-mile physical fitness test. While in the Marine Corps, his fondness for running grew, often pushing himself to cover greater distances. Each marathon he participated in taught him more about the intricacies of long-distance running.
“It was a motivating experience for me,” he said.
However, as his enlistment ended, his passion for running waned. Buzzard transitioned to academia, attending Texas A&M for an MBA in International Relations.
“I’m a proud member of two of America’s finest brainwashing institutions,” Buzzard said jokingly.
After Texas A&M, life took Buzzard overseas, where he worked as a NASA diplomat in Russia for nearly a decade with two tours. A chance meeting with a young woman, a subsequent marriage, and an opportunity to run in the Moscow Marathon reinvigorated his passion for running.
The Road To Leadville
Upon returning to the U.S. and transitioning from NASA to a civilian security position in the U.S. Air Force and then the U.S. Space Force with Space Delta 12’s 4th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Buzzard stumbled upon a book that would kick his perspective on running into a higher gear. "Born to Run" wasn't just a book for him; it was an inspiration.
“Be careful; it could profoundly change your life,” he warned with a laugh. “You somehow decide that trying to run 100 miles in the mountains sounds like a great idea.”
This led him to his first attempt at one of the world’s most difficult ultramarathons in Leadville, Colorado.
His first attempt at Leadville in 2019 ended in a DNF ... Did Not Finish.
“One of the most soul-crushing and devastating things is when you're at an aid station or the finish line, and a runner misses the hard cut-off by just a minute or two,” he said, echoing the sentiments of Leadville Co-Founder Ken Chlouber, who advises runners to “Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone.”
The 2022 race was another DNF, but it fueled a fire.
“Since the 2022 DNF hurt more, I really put more time into thinking about my race strategy,” Buzzard said.
He immersed himself in Leadville lore, watching YouTube videos, reading about strategies, and even considering hiring a running coach.
For 2023, Buzzard felt more prepared than ever. His training was meticulous, informed by past failures and bolstered by successful runs in the Air Force Academy’s Falcon 50 Race and Leadville Silver Rush 50.
“I was in better shape and more knowledgeable about Leadville and trail-running than I ever had been,” he said.
But it wasn't just physical preparation that set 2023 apart; it was the community rallying around him. Buzzard had a team of experienced pacers, a dedicated crew, and the emotional support of his 16-year-old daughter, Hailey, who would accompany him for the final 12.4 miles, and his wife, Christine, who had been his rock throughout this journey.
“I had so many friends and family, who were supporting me and praying for me to be safe and successful,” Buzzard said. “I was ready. This was the year.”
Race Day: A Test of Will
On August 19th, in the dim light of 3 a.m., Buzzard’s friends and family stirred for the journey ahead. They were all a mere five-minute walk from the starting line. The air was thick with excitement as the national anthem played, followed by the startling blast of a shotgun. After hugs, kisses, and a few quick photos, he was off.
The first few miles were a blur of adrenaline and excitement. But as the race progressed, the challenges of the Leadville course became evident. Steep ascents, rocky descents, and the thin mountain air tested every runner's resolve.
The race was grueling, with the route peaking at 12,620 feet on Hope Pass. Many runners succumbed to the harsh conditions, and only less than half would finish.
The dedication, love and support of a runner’s crew and pacers are critical to success. Buzzard’s college friends from Texas A&M, Matt and Kristen, jumped into their car and drove from Houston to crew, when an unexpected medical issue required his original crew-boss and driver to stay home and take care of his family.
As night fell, the mental strain, emotional stress and physical pain intensified.
“At night is when your mind can start playing tricks on you,” Buzzard admitted, recalling a moment when a shadow on the trail looked like a gaping hole, making him jump over it and then laugh nervously.
“I don't know if that counts as hallucination, but it was a weird look for sure,” he joked.
At Mile 50, he was 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off time. His friend, Lt. Col. Christopher McGrath from the Air Force Academy, joined him as his first pacer. Together, they tackled the next 14 miles. “Let's go,” McGrath urged, and they powered through, despite Buzzard's growing fatigue and mental fog.
“There were definitely times where I didn't think we were on pace,” he said. “My mind was so groggy, I couldn't do the numbers right.”
At Mile 62, another friend, Benjamin, took over pacing duties. A firefighter and a beast of an athlete, Benjamin was passionate about the Leadville race. “Come on, man, keep pushing,” he encouraged, helping Buzzard build a time cushion for the final leg, which his daughter would pace.
When his daughter, Hailey, joined him, the emotional stakes were high. She was focused and relentless, reminding him to hydrate and keep moving. “Come on, dad, let's keep pushing,” she said. His hip flexors screamed, his feet were a mess, but Hailey's encouragement propelled him forward.
As they neared the finish line, the crowd's cheers reached a fever pitch. Buzzard felt a surge of adrenaline and endorphins.
“It's surreal. This is probably the greatest physical achievement I've ever done,” he said.
In a playful sprint, he faked out Hailey and crossed the finish line ahead of her. The crowd went wild, and the announcer declared, “That's the way to finish the race!”
August 20, 2023 - Patrick Buzzard, 4th Test and Evaluation Squadron security manager, left, and his daughter, Hailey Buzzard, right, cross the finish line of the Leadville Trail 100 Run near Leadville, Colorado. Hailey paced her father for the final 12.4 miles of the race. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from courtesy photo provided by Patrick Buzzard.)
He had done it. After nearly 30 grueling hours, he had completed one of the most challenging races of his life. His final time: 29 hours, 48 minutes, and 57 seconds. Every second counted as he narrowly beat the 30-hour time limit. Over the course, he burned more than 12,000 calories and lost nearly 8 pounds.
The finisher's medal was placed around his neck, and he received the coveted Leadville belt buckle, a symbol of his incredible feat.
But perhaps the most meaningful reward was the joy and pride reflected in the faces of his family and friends. It was a moment of triumph, not just for him but for everyone who had joined him on this extraordinary journey.
A Legacy Beyond Leadville
While the Leadville 100 is a personal challenge for every runner, for Buzzard it was also an opportunity to inspire others. Through this journey, he proved that with dedication and hard work, any obstacle can be overcome. As he wears his hard-earned Leadville belt buckle with pride, Buzzard looks to the future, ready for the next adventure, and eager to continue inspiring others to chase their dreams, one step at a time.
“Leadville is always in need of pacers, so I'm considering helping out in that capacity next year,” Buzzard said. “With the experience I've gained, I feel like I could be an asset, especially since unpredictable things can happen during such a long race.”
Buzzard also revealed that he's contemplating other, shorter races.
“I've thought about a few smaller races, but I'm not sure if I want to tackle another hundred-miler,” he said. “It's a 'wait and see how your body feels' kind of situation. People joke that I’ll want to do it again, but I've already told my wife that I'm done with the Leadville 100.”
However, he has some definite plans for the future.
“I'll definitely run the Falcon 50 every year, Buzzard said. “It's a great race held at the Air Force Academy. I'm also considering the Springs Marathon and maybe even the Pikes Peak Ascent. I hope after reading this article that other Airmen and Guardians will be inspired to start their trail-running adventures.”
As for the grueling experience of running 100 miles, Buzzard is still processing it.
“The hundreds are just rough. I'm still processing the whole experience, to be honest. But I'll never say never,” he concluded.
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