So, with a healthy respect and a good bit of fear of the Leadville course, I set about training the best I knew how with the trails available to me in the Black Hills. The training itself really wasn’t all that different from what I did for Bighorn last year. In fact, I did a lot of cutting and pasting from my Bighorn plan when I sat down in February to devise my Leadville schedule. I upped the weekly miles a bit and vowed to do as many of the long runs as possible on trails, a vow I ultimately did a fairly good job of keeping. The simple fact is that there is no way to simulate the high altitude of Leadville in the Black Hills. I figured the next best thing was to get my legs and lungs used to running up and down hills and hope for the best. Crow Peak, just outside of Spearfish, became one of my go-to trails for achieving max elevation gain (and loss) per mile. Three or four consecutive summits of Crow always left my legs feeling pleasantly jello-ish, but at the same time every time I set foot on the summit and saw the sign that said “Crow Peak Summit, 5670 Feet), I couldn’t help but think that the race I was training for STARTED at almost twice that elevation.
Despite the uncertainty of just how I would be able to handle a course at such high altitude, I set a big goal for Leadville: finish in under 25 hours. At many 100s, sub-24 is the de facto “big” goal; finish the race in one day. I guess at some point the organizers of Leadville decided its difficulty warranted an extra hour to earn the “big buckle” (which is, in reality, quite large). I figured if I was going to go, I was going to go big. But, at the same time, heeding the advice of others who had run the race, I was also planning to run smart; to not chase the sub-25 goal too aggressively and subsequently not finish at all. With a typical finish rate somewhere in the 50-60% range, just finishing Leadville isn’t a given by any means. I certainly didn’t intend to invest several months and 1800+ miles of training, not to mention a good bit of money in the form registration fees, shoes, clothing, food, travel, etc. to come home from Leadville empty-handed, with my first ever 100 mile DNF hanging over me.
While the actual running of a 100 mile race can be a solo endeavor, and my first 100 at Lean Horse was completed entirely solo, sans pacers or crew, many participants bring along a cadre of crew members and pacers that assist the runner at designated stops along the way and run/walk along with the runner in the 2nd half of the race. Ultra races are designed in such a way that having a crew isn’t necessary; you can get by just fine on the supplies provided at the aid stations. But, having a crew allows you to have your own personal items and volunteers to cater directly to your needs, not to mention the oft-overlooked advantage of seeing some familiar faces every few hours. Pacers can be an even bigger help, especially in an event such as Leadville. At most races, the act of “muling” (i.e., the pacer carrying supplies for their runner) is strictly forbidden. Hell, it’s forbidden at the Black Hills 100, the race that I co-direct. Leadville is one of, if not the only, exception (I don’t know of any others off-hand). In a nod to the old-time hardrock miners and their pack burros that the race was inspired by, pacers are allowed to carry anything the runner wants them to, with the exception of the runner themself, of course. Besides that, it doesn’t hurt to have someone with fresh legs and, more importantly, a clear head to accompany you in the middle of the night after 15+ hours of running. For Leadville, I put out a call for help that was graciously answered by running friends Carolyn and Neil, who offered to crew (they both still think the actual running of a 100 mile race is totally insane, but I’m convinced I can turn them toward the dark side). I was also able to line up two pacers, Johnathan and Mike. In a nod to the unselfish nature of ultrarunners, and runners in general, Johnathan was on board to pace two separate sections (about 20 miles total) just a week before his first 100 mile race at Lean Horse. Mike happily agreed to pace me the last 13.5 miles after already pacing another runner, Nick Clark, who would end up finishing 2nd overall, earlier in the night. And Neil, who is recovering from Achilles surgery and was not really planning on pacing at all, jumped in to join for a bit as well. Maybe all of us runners, and ultrarunners especially, are totally insane in the eyes of the non-runners out there, but you’ll never meet a nicer, more selfless group of crazy-ass people in your life.
I made the trip down to Leadville in two parts, driving as far as Fort Collins, where I bunked at Mike’s place, on Wednesday night. That left me with a short 3 hour drive to Leadville on Thursday. As luck would have it, my friend Paul was hired on by Lifetime Fitness, which organizes the Leadville Race Series, in June and he and his wife Katie had offered up their couch for the weekend. I happily accepted as I had quickly discovered upon registering for the event that lodging in Leadville during race weekend was a book- a-year-in-advance kind of deal (small, old mining town with 2600 residents + a couple thousand runners/crew/family/friends = zero lodging). Besides the big advantage of being free, the ability to relax in a house rather than a hotel room (or tent) can’t be understated. And, I got to play Chutes and Ladders and Candyland for the first time in forever (thanks Wilson!).
As for altitude acclimation, there seems to be two schools of thought. Either get to high altitude 2 or 3 weeks in advance and train there or get there within a couple of days of the race and dive into the deep end before your body realizes what the hell you’re doing. Obviously, I chose Option B and hoped for the best. I spent Thursday getting checked in at race headquarters and doing some shopping downtown. Friday was the pre-race briefing and expo and just general sitting around and making sure all my gear was organized. Neil arrived Friday afternoon and we went over my planned arrival times at each crew location and what gear I might need. With a fairly ridiculous start time of 4:00 AM, I headed off to bed fairly early, around 9:00 and was actually able to sleep pretty well, right up until my 2:00 alarm.
After getting dressed and eating some breakfast, I found Johnathan sleeping outside in the yard, having arrived overnight along with fellow Black Hills residents Jim and Sara, who would be pacing/crewing for another friend of theirs. I caught a ride to the start line with them and milled around a bit until it was time to line up. Often, in those final moments before the gun fires, I find myself wondering what in the hell I’ve gotten myself into and questioning why I’m really about to put myself through this. At Leadville it was different. I was very calm and relaxed and just ready to get going. In no time, we were off.
Start to Mayqueen (0 to 13.5 miles)
The race starts off with a few miles of downhill along paved and then dirt roads exiting Leadville before jumping onto the rolling, but mostly flat, single-track trail around Turquoise Lake. One piece of advice I’d heard from many sources was to not go too fast on this section, which is fairly easy to do with the downhill and adrenaline of the start working in conjunction. I did start out fairly fast on the roads, but didn’t feel like I was really overdoing it too much. Once on the Turquoise Lake trail, you fall into a conga line of 900+ runners and passing can be difficult. I tried to be patient when the pace slowed along this section, but there were moments when the pace started to feel ridiculously slow and I ended up jumping off trail to pass clogs of runners. I’m not sure how many times I repeated the phrase “On your left, thank you”, but it was a lot. My goal was to reach Mayqueen at 6:10 AM. I got to Mayqueen at 6:10. Woulda been a few minutes faster if not for a stop to crap in the woods along the way. Off to a good start. Because I’d heard that the congestion here was a real bitch in the morning, I had told my crew to not even bother and just meet me for the first time at the second aid station, Fish Hatchery. So, I made quick trip through the aid station and grabbed some M&Ms and a PB and J for the road.
Mayqueen to Fish Hatchery (13.5 to 23.5 miles)
This section features the first real climb of the race as you exit Mayqueen campground and climb Sugarloaf Pass via the Colorado Trail and Hagerman Road. My legs were feeling good and I ended up running much of the trail section and then falling into a run/walk along the road. The climb went by fairly quickly and it was time to descend the infamous Powerline. As the name suggests, the descent into Fish Hatchery is along a powerline corridor that is washed out in many places and features a few steep pitches alternated with flatter, easier downhill running. This section would become the bane of my existence later on, but early in the morning it all felt fairly free and easy, although I did have to make another stop to crap in the woods (this would be last one of the day, thankfully). My goal had been to reach Fish Hatchery by 8:05 AM and I rolled in at 8:13. If not for that crap, I would’ve been nearly dead on again. I found my crew (or, more accurately, they found me) right away and quickly refilled my hydration pack and restocked the fuels I had consumed (I was going off of GUs, Clif Bars and Honey Stinger waffles for the most part). They also had a PB and J ready to go, which I took for the road. In no time I was out and on my way for what I was hoping would be a quick section to Twin Lakes.
Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes (23.5 to 39.5 miles)
There is actually another aid station (Half Pipe) in between here at about mile 29 and a crew location a couple of miles before that, but I had told my crew to skip ahead again to Twin Lakes to try and avoid congestion. I anticipated that this section would go by fairly quickly since it starts out with a few miles of paved and then dirt roads, all of which are fairly flat. Oddly enough, this was the first time all day that I really started to feel like the elevation was affecting me. Those road sections just were not as easy to run as they should’ve been and I ended up taking some unplanned walking breaks along the way. After the Half Pipe crew zone, the course takes to some two track trails through the Half Pipe aid station and then eventually on to the Colorado Trail again. I was still struggling a bit to find a rhythm along the road section, but finally found the groove once I hit the single track. The thing about it was that I didn’t seem to be the only one struggling in this section….everyone around me seemed to be in the same boat. Regardless, by the time the trail descended into Twin Lakes, I was feeling really good and, although the section overall felt ridiculously slow and it felt like I had lost a ton of time, I came into Twin at 11:19, compared to my goal of 11:10, so I’d basically only lost one additional minute. Given that all of my goal times for the day were fairly arbitrary and unscientific, I was totally fine with that.
Twin Lakes to Winfield (39.5 to 50 miles)
This is perhaps the most iconic section of the Leadville Trail 100; the climb up and over Hope Pass (and then back up and over). At 12,600 feet, it represents the high point of the course. Just below the pass itself is the Hope aid station, often referred to as “Hopeless”. Aid station supplies for Hope are carried up the mountain on a pack train of llamas, creating the surreal experience of ascending the trail above treeline to come into a field of grazing llamas. The climb starts after the only real creek crossing of the day just past Twin Lakes. After running the flat trails to the base of the Hope climb, it was pure hiking mode after that. I put the new trekking poles to good use but was quickly feeling the effects of the climb. This was the 2nd time that I felt like the altitude was taking a toll. Granted, this climb wouldn’t be all that easy at lower elevation after 40 miles, but being at 10,000+ feet certainly didn’t help. It felt like I was absolutely crawling up that hill, probably because I damn near was. I just didn’t have any push in my climbing legs. I stopped a few times to drink some water and at one point forced myself to choke down a GU, which took some considerable effort, but it went down and, more importantly, stayed down. My stomach felt fine, and had all day, I just didn’t have much of an appetite at that point. Just below tree line the race leader at the time, Mike Aish, came bombing down the hill. Not long after, Ian Sharman ran by in hot pursuit (he would eventually pass Aish and hold on for the win).
By the time I got down the other side of the pass to the new Winfield trail, I was feeling pretty good again, but at some point along here I realized that I had made a totally stupid and careless mistake up at the Hope aid station. Upon arriving at the aid station, a volunteer had asked me if I needed my pack re-filled with water. I reached back to feel how full the hydration bladder was and it felt almost full, so I declined. Well, turns out that what I had felt wasn’t the water in the bladder, but my jacket and hat and gloves bundled up in the exterior pocket. By the time I got down to the Winfield trail, my hydration bladder was in fact almost empty. I guess I was drinking more water than I had thought, which was a good thing, but now I was almost certainly going to run dry before the Winfield aid station, which wasn’t so good. As it turned out, I only ended up going about a mile and a half without water, so not a huge deal, but it also could’ve been easily prevented.
Winfield is a ghost town that springs to life for the Leadville 100 and was quite the madhouse when I arrived. From all the crew reports I’ve heard, including the account of my own crew, getting into Winfield with all of the race traffic was quite a chore. In fact, at one point my crew was so concerned that they wouldn’t make it into the aid station before I arrived that Johnathan jumped out of the car and took off running the last couple of miles to the aid station, hauling a bunch of random crap he thought I might need with him. Thankfully, another crew who had gotten past the gridlock stopped and gave him a ride and by the time I got there my entire crew had made it in. My projected arrival at Winfield had been 2:30 PM and I arrived exactly at 3:00, not bad considering I had already been behind my projected time leaving Twin Lakes and spent a little bit of extra time at Hope. I’ve run 50 mile races (Quad Rock and Bighorn) in longer than 11 hours, so the fact that I was able to cover the first half of a 100 in exactly 11 hours was encouraging (or, it meant that I had gone WAY too fast).
Winfield to Twin Lakes (50 to 60.5 miles)
It’s amazing how having someone with you can take your mind off of things and just make you feel better. Granted, by the time I reached Winfield I was feeling pretty decent anyway, but having Johnathan along for the return trip over Hope helped take my mind off the fact that I did indeed have to make a return trip over Hope. Although the climb back up is shorter, it’s also steeper, but we made fairly good progress. And although Johnathan was pacing for the first time in an ultra, he took to it like an old pro, subtly reminding me every 15-20 minutes that I should probably drink some water, or take an S-cap, or eat a gel. I didn’t always feel like doing any of those things, in fact sometimes I wanted to stab him in the eye with a trekking pole, but knowing that it was for my own good, I grudgingly obliged. I won’t say that the climb back up Hope was easy, but it certainly went better than the first climb had. As soon as I hit the top, I thrust my trekking poles back at Johnathan for him to carry and ran down into the aid station, feeling much better than I had the first time I had arrived there. I didn’t get waylayed by the friendly medical lady this time and after drinking some Coke and ramen noodles (this would be my standard fuel for the remainder of the run as solid foods just weren’t appetizing anymore), I collected my hydration pack that Johnathan had refilled for me and took off downhill while Johnathan hung back to take pictures of the llamas (he was really excited about those damn llamas).
I found my crew right away this time, as Carolyn and Neil were at the same place I had found Carolyn and Johnathan the first time through. I ditched the trekking poles, gathered my jacket, hat and gloves from Johnathan and also grabbed a portable charger to charge my Garmin while I ran the next section (as an aside, this is the first time I’ve ever done this and it worked like a charm, allowing me to record the entire run on my Garmin 910….the only downside was that I couldn’t see my time or pace while it was charging since it only shows the percent charged and time of day while charging). I also grabbed a handheld bottle and filled it with Coke as I was done with GUs or any solid food at that point and wanted to have some form of calories with me.
Twin Lakes to Half Pipe (60.5 to 72.5 miles)
Heading out of Twin Lakes is a decent climb, but one that isn’t nearly as steep or strenuous as the double crossing of Hope. I was able to hike it fairly strongly and once it was over I alternated running and walking as appropriate on the rolling sections of road and Colorado trail leading back to the Half Pipe aid station. I didn’t have a pacer for this section, but felt fine doing it solo and ended up running a bit with other runners and their pacers. Somewhere along this section it got dark enough that I had to dig into my pack for my headlamp and turn it on before reaching the Half Pipe aid station. Once there, I refilled my pack with water and my handheld with Coke and grabbed some more ramen soup and some watermelon before heading out toward the Half Pipe crew zone a couple of miles past the aid station. While I had told my crew to skip that location on the outbound leg, I decided it might be a good idea to meet them there inbound in case I needed anything. When I got there, Neil was ready to pace the next 4 mile section of roads to Fish Hatchery, something that hadn’t been planned beforehand, but was welcome nonetheless. Having restocked everything at the actual aid station, I didn’t really need anything at the crew zone, although I did ditch the charger since my Garmin was back to 100% and would have plenty of juice to make it to the finish. The question was, how much juice did I have left??
Half Pipe to Fish Hatchery (72.5 to 76.5 miles)
Having just recently completed rehab from Achilles surgery in the spring and in the process of working his way back into running shape, I think Neil was a little concerned about being able to keep the pace with me. His concerns were quickly assuaged when he realized what kind of pace it was he would have to maintain. The miles had started to take their toll and my legs and feet just weren’t into it anymore. We alternated running and walking down the road, maintaining something around a 15:00/mile pace, maybe just a tad faster if I hit a good little downhill stretch and was really able to hammer it (say, 12:00/mile pace). The worst part of this section is that you can see the lights of Fish Hatchery basically all the way from the Half Pipe crew zone. I commented to Neil more than once that those damn lights weren’t getting any closer. He assured me that they were but, damn, it wasn’t happening very fast.
We did eventually get there, however, and it was again Johnathan’s turn to babysit me over a tough climb, one that will live in my nightmares for many weeks to come.
Fish Hatchery to Mayqueen (76.5 to 86.5 miles)
Upon arriving at Fish Hatchery at 10:27 PM (27 minutes behind my goal), I was still solidy on sub-25 pace and, in fact, was almost exactly on sub-24 pace. But I knew that the next section would make or break my ability to achieve either of those landmarks. The Powerline climb has crushed many dreams at Leadville. I had heard various horror stories about it beforehand, but until you experience it you simply can not fathom how sadistically cruel it is. Some say it has three or four false summits. Others say there are six. I think I lost count at 27, give or take. I told Johnathan on at least three occasions, “If that’s not the real top, I’m going to sit down and cry”. On none of those occasions was it the top but, to my credit, I didn’t actually sit down and cry (although I wanted to). Also, my headlamp was starting to play tricks on me. Stumps along the trail were turning into deer, and I saw hundreds of snakes on the trail, all of which turned out to be branches or roots upon closer inspection. I kept repeating to Johnathan, “It’s never going to end, it’s never going to end” and “someone must’ve moved the trail markers, this hill wasn’t this long when we ran down it”. It was, quite honestly, like one of the nine circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno. By the time we actually did reach the top, an hour and a half later, I was a bit out of it. My legs were shot, my feet were raw and my brain was addled. I wanted so very badly to be able to run the relatively gentle downhill road down the other side, but I just couldn’t run for more than 50 yards at a time. In fact, I was having trouble just staying awake, as my headlight beam shining on long, straight, monotonous stretches of road was lulling me to sleep. Any realistic shot I had at finishing in under 25 hours evaporated as I walked down that road, unable to make up any of the time had bled away on the trudge up Powerline. I was able to pick the pace up a bit, and wake up, once we hit the Colorado trail again and the technicality of the single track gave me something to think about and focus on, but it was too little, too late (and not that fast, regardless) at that point.
We rolled into Mayqueen at 2:06 AM, over an hour behind my goal time of 1:00 and a half hour behind sub-25 pace, the first time I’d been behind sub-25 pace all day. That left me with 2 hours and 53 minutes to cover the last 13.5 miles and finish in under 25 hours. Under normal circumstances, a ridiculously easy feat, but nothing is ridiculously easy after 86.5 miles. Mike was waiting to take me the rest of the way into Leadville and he was much more confident about my abilities to earn the big buckle than I was, but I warned him that this last section would likely be a long, slow hike around Turquoise Lake. Ever confident, he said something along the lines of “We won’t rule sub-25 out” and off we went.
Mayqueen to Leadville (86.5 to 100 miles)
Although by this point I had basically come to terms with the fact that I was not going home with a big buckle, I also knew that I was going to finish and probably finish with a fairly respectable time. I was actually kind of concerned that I would finish painfully close to 25 hours and Mike and I had a conversation about how it’s almost preferable to finish in say, the 25:30-26:00 range, than to be within sight of the finish when the clock clicks over to 25:00:00. So, yeah, I was sandbagging a bit, but the reality was that I just didn’t have enough juice in the tank to make up the time I needed to make up.
As we started the trip around Turquoise Lake, Mike initially made good on his vow not to rule sub-25 out and tried to encourage me to test the running legs. And, amazingly, they actually responded a bit at first and we covered maybe a half-mile at a fairly respectable (for that point in the race) clip. But, my 2nd wind (or maybe it was my 22nd wind?) didn’t last long and before long we were hiking again. By that point, it wasn’t my legs that were the problem as much as it was my feet. I had been feeling some blisters forming for quite some time and the balls of both feet were absolutely excruciating whenever I landed wrong on a rock or root, making it exceedingly difficult to run any kind of decent pace on the suddenly technical trail (none of those rocks or roots were there in the morning, I swear to God). So, we spent the time hiking catching each other up on the goings-ons of the day and enjoying the view of the nearly full moon reflecting off of Turquoise Lake and, after the moon set, the brilliant starscape and Milky Way up above. The stars really do look closer high up in the mountains, far removed from any form of artificial light or air pollution.
The long trip around Turquoise Lake actually passed by relatively quickly, but by the time we reached the roads leading back into Leadville, I had totally forgotten just how long we had to travel on those roads to reach the finish. In the morning, on the way out early in the race, those roads had gone by in a flash. For some reason, in my mind, I was expecting to leave the Turquoise Lake trail and be back in town soon after, but that’s not the case. First, you have to cover a couple of miles of dirt roads before hitting the Boulevard, a three mile long, straight stretch of road that rises at a gradual but steady pitch up toward Leadville. I honestly barely even remember running down the Boulevard on Saturday morning, but I won’t soon forget hiking up it on Sunday morning. Like Powerline, I swore several times that it was never going to end. I could see the headlamps of another runner and their pacer maybe a quarter of a mile up ahead of us and, every once in awhile, the headlamps would disappear, which would lead me to believe that they had reached the end of the Boulevard and turned off, which meant we soon would too. But, alas, it always turned out that they had just disappeared over a small rise and would come back into view a short time later, revealing that I still had a long ways to go. I knew that we should be getting closer to Leadville, but there was no indication that we were getting anywhere at all…all I could see was a seemingly never ending, straight stretch of road lined with a wall of trees on each side with no streetlights or any other indications of an approaching town in sight. I was so out of it by this point that if Mike hadn’t been with me, I ‘m pretty sure I would’ve become convinced that I had taken a wrong turn and was not in fact even on the right road. Eventually, though, the end of the Boulevard did appear up ahead (way up ahead) and Mike said we still had a shot at sub-26, a totally arbitrary and meaningless goal, but one that became suddenly very critical to achieve. I couldn’t run at all thanks to the blisters on my feet, but I could power hike like a sonofabitch, so that’s what I did.
Upon reaching the end of the Boulevard, you find yourself suddenly in Leadville (after no indication that it even exists for the last few miles, it’s just suddenly there). A left turn followed by a quick right deposits you onto 6th Street, the final stretch of road to the finish. 6th street starts of with a short hill, which means you can’t actually see the finish until you approach the crest of that hill. I gotta tell ya, there are few sights more glorious than seeing the finish arch and red carpet up ahead when you do crest that first rise. Of course, nothing at Leadville comes easily, so after that first rise and a subsequent short downhill on 6th, you have to finish on an uphill. Although by this point it was obvious I would finish in under 26 hours, I initially had thoughts of running it in all the way from the top of the first rise. Those thoughts vanished after two running strides sent bolts of agony up from my blistered feet. Back to powerhike mode, but I vowed that, painful or not, I would run across the finish line. As I neared the red carpet, I heard the finish line announcer say my name and “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” playing over the PA system. At the end of the red carpet, I started in on something that may have resembled a run. It hurt like hell, but I did it anyway and held true on my vow to run across the finish. 25:53:14. Immediately after crossing the line, Marilee, the original race director of Leadville, was there to put my finisher’s medal around my neck and give me a hug. She said, “Welcome home”, to which I replied “It’s good to be home.” After that I was met by Neil, Carolyn, Mike, Johnathan and Paul and I believe my exact words to them were “Holy fucking shit.” How poetic, huh?
I guess the first question is: am I disappointed? Short answer: no. Yeah, I wanted a big buckle, but I also wanted a finish, and I feel like I fought the good fight to earn it. 943 people started the Leadville 100 this year. 494 finished, a finish rate of 52%. Finishing any 100 is never a given, much less a 100 such as Leadville, so I won’t take that fact for granted. Will I go back to try and get a big buckle? I honestly don’t know right now; much too soon to think about that. I don’t even know when I’m going to run again, much less what event I’ll run next.
I’ve said thank you to all of these people multiple times already, but it deserves repeating here in writing for all eternity. So, thank you to Neil, Carolyn, Johnathan and Mike for your support on the course, whether pacing or crewing. Having friendly faces out there was invaluable, especially in the wee hours of the morning when I wasn’t quite all there mentally. Paul and Katie, thank you for a place to sleep and cook and just hang out over the weekend. And, last but most certainly not least, thank you to Shannon and Caiden and Chloe for putting up with my obsession and for your support. Hey, I’m not running this weekend, we should do something!
Oh, and I slept until 6:30 this morning. It was awesome.