If you’ve read the blog at all over the last two weeks, you could probably guess the theme this race report was going to take.
There’s really no way to fully describe the magic and the grandeur of an event like the Leadville Trail 100 in earthly terms – and with my relative lack of both preparation and acclimation going into the race, I knew I was going to be dependent on some higher power to make it through. So be forewarned, the spiritual references will be coming in droves.
However, there’s a fair bit of nonsense here as well – because the craziness you see at this race is completely off the charts. The weirdness began from the opening shotgun and continued almost nonstop for the next 100 miles (actually, for even more than a hundred miles – more on that a bit later.) Whatever your personal theology may be, one fact is undeniable: Leadville is one massively insane party.
Sounds like quite the dichotomy, huh? You get a lot of that at Leadville, too; triumph and defeat, strength and weakness, dizzying highs and crippling lows – many times merely a few steps away from each other. One of them happens right on the start line, which seems like the right place to start our race report.
(Remember, click any photo to enlarge.)
Start to Mayqueen: Miles 0 - 14
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.”- Proverbs 3:4-7
I’ve already explained how I didn’t quite have the preparation I would have liked before coming to this race – and as a first time Leadville runner, I had virtually no understanding of the challenge I was embarking upon. The only thing I knew for sure was that a positive attitude and unyielding faith would give me my best chance of making it to the finish.
Exactly how that might happen I had absolutely no idea – and when you’re relying on faith and trust more than training and course experience, that’s a somewhat frightening place to be. All of which explains my deer-in-the-headlights look as I stood in the starting corral.
As it happened, the first surprise of the day hit me before I even crossed the start line: namely, I started crying. I guess I didn’t realize how much pent up emotion I had been storing over the past several weeks and months in anticipation of this race – but in my defense, the scene at the start is truly electrifying, with the steady countdown to Go Time over the PA system, the emboldening thump of rock music (the one that stood out most was AC/DC’s For Those About to Rock – I can’t think of a more appropriate choice), and a huge crowd of spectators cheering for 750 runners who are absolute powder kegs of nervous energy.
Before I knew it, I heard the shotgun blast to start the race, and absorbed one of the loudest collective yells I’ve ever heard with one voice standing out over all of them: that of Race Director Emeritus Merilee Maupin on the loudspeaker shouting the race’s battle cry: I commit – I will not quit! I commit – I will not quit! And by the time I crossed the start line, I had tears running down my cheeks. So much for my game face.
Fortunately, it was less than a mile before tears turned to laughter, thanks to this guy and his sidekick. Keep in mind that it was about 35 degrees out when this dude was blowing his whistle, gyrating to his boom box, and yelling “100 Mile Party!” over and over as we passed by. We had gone from the sublime to the absurd in the space of about 10 minutes … and there were still more than 99 miles to go.
Since the race begins at 4AM, the first couple hours are passed in the dark, on a gently rolling single track around the perimeter of Turquoise Lake. I was actually kind of glad for the early darkness, for fear that anybody would be freaked out at the wide-eyed expression on my face. Over and over again, the only coherent thought in my head during this stretch was, Oh my gosh … I’m RUNNING LEADVILLE! The whole notion seemed too surreal to be true.
This would turn out to be another theme for the day as well – because even after the sun rose and we closed in on the first aid station, I could never entirely shake the feeling that I was as much an observer in this race as a participant. It was as close to an out of body thing as I’ve ever had, and I was terribly eager to see what happened to this idiot who was attempting the Race Across the Sky on little more than the training equivalent of a wing and a prayer. The only way I’d find out what would happen to that guy was to keep running.
(I’ve mentioned before that ultras do weird things to your head, right? I suppose it figures that Leadville would start the mental game right off the bat.)
Mayqueen to Fish Hatchery: Miles 14 - 24
“The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.”- Ecclesiastes 7:8
Despite the fact that I was alternately blubbering and laughing and suspending belief and having a minor transcendental experience, I like to think that I kept a steady head on my shoulders. I fully recognize that doesn’t make sense – just think of it as one of those dichotomy things again.
Here’s what I mean, though: I never lost sight of the fact that the challenge I was commencing was extraordinarily daunting, so above all else I made it a point to stay conservative in the first half of the race. Whenever I had an opportunity to spend a few extra seconds watching the sunrise over Turquiose Lake, I took it – because I constantly reminded myself that the end of the race was more important than the beginning, and I made absolutely certain to not let patience get overrun by pride. (In fact, I found myself singing this classic G‘n’R song more than a few times in the first 40 miles.)
It was much more tempting than I thought to keep things in check, though, for a couple of reasons: 1) The climb to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is remarkably gentle, as seen here on Hagerman Road, and 2) The altitude wasn’t bothering me very much at all. I figured this first pass over 11,000’ would be a harbinger of my aerobic function for the rest of the day, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that I wasn’t suffering excessively.
I still kept my cool, though, and let a ton of people bomb past me on the long Powerline descent. This seemed like a key stretch to spare my quads as much as possible – and sure enough, I heard afterward from a lot of runners whose legs first starting blowing up while going down Powerline.
Besides, when you’re barely 20 miles into a 100-miler and people are passing you like crazy, there are two logical conclusions to draw: you’ll either see many of those folks again later in the race, or you have no business trying to keep up in the first place.
So I cruised to the bottom of Powerline and enjoyed the relatively flat, paved stroll at the bottom of the hill – including this sign reading “More whiskey and fresh horses for my men.” I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what that had to do with running an ultra … but I also kind of liked it. Sometimes it’s better to experience than to understand.
Approaching the Fish Hatchery aid station, you get another dose of the craziness that happens at Leadville. Crowds like this were commonplace, and stretched more than a quarter mile on either side of the checkpoint. In most ultras, you’re lucky to have a handful of spectators cheering you into the aid stations; at Leadville, you run through literally hundreds of fans who are clapping and yelling and ringing cowbells at every stop. If you’ve ever run Western States , think of the main gathering spot at Foresthill – and now imagine a scene like that at every aid station you run through, at all hours of the day and night. It didn’t even matter if you were a stranger like me – if you were wearing a race number, the crowd treated you like a rock star. No matter how tired I was going into an aid station, I always left them feeling like I could fly. When you’re trying to run across the sky, that’s a very cool feeling to have.
Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes: Miles 24 - 40
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”- 1 John 4:7-8
Leaving the Fish Hatchery commences a portion of the course that many find surprisingly challenging: a long, mostly flat stretch that begins with a few miles of pavement. With no proximity to trail features that ultrarunners love, and no variability in terrain to keep things interesting, this section is more of a mental test than a physical one.
However, I found this section pleasantly energizing for a few reasons. Most importantly from a physiological standpoint is that it’s one of the lowest portions of the race, hovering just below 10,000’ on average. Secondly, the views of Colorado’s two highest peaks – Mount Elbert to the south, and Mount Massive looming directly in front of us – were simply awe-inspiring, even on a somewhat hazy day by Rocky Mountain standards.
What I found most noteworthy about this stretch, though, was how social everyone seemed to be. Runners began to travel in packs – and with more than 750 starters, there were plenty of packs spread around to choose from – and there was a lot of casual chatter within many of the groups. People had pretty much settled into their respective paces by now, which meant that the faces around you here were the ones you would see off and on for a very long time to come.
So while cruising at a relatively comfortable pace, on relatively mellow terrain, with people that you’d already spent a lot of time with, there was a lot of love and good vibes to go around. If there’s any part of Leadville that can be called easy, it was probably this section.
However, all it took was a glimpse of Twin Lakes below to remind us that we were getting close to the heart of the Leadville 100, and all those good feelings might vanish very soon.
Before hitting the aid station though, you pass through another massive phalanx of cheering fans. Near the middle of a beautiful summer day in the Colorado mountains, this was definitely the main party spot on the course, with several hundred well-wishers …
… including these three girls who were absolute maniacs when it came to cheering for people. They were jumping up and down, yelling and hollering and doing high kicks and high fives and otherwise getting as many runners fired up as humanly possible. And they were remarkably effective at it. What’s more, this was the second time I saw this trio, because they were also performing the same antics at the Fish Hatchery when I passed through there earlier in the day. You’ve got to admire that kind of dedication … and I’ve got to include it in the race report.
Twin Lakes: Mile 40 - 41
“You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, set your hearts on it.”- Proverbs 8:5
At Twin Lakes, I appeared cool and collected, but it was here that I made my first rookie mistake at Leadville. Here’s the situation: it was about noon, and I knew I would return to this spot 20 miles later after going over Hope Pass and back. I had been averaging about 5 miles per hour prior to this point, and was trying to estimate if I could return here before running out of daylight, so I wouldn’t have to carry a headlamp over the mountain with me. Figuring that it would be dark at about 8:30, I guessed that gave me almost 8 and a half hours to go 20 miles. Sounds like a slam dunk, right? As you can see in the photo, I left the lamp behind.
Well, I guessed wrong. And I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me on Hope Pass before I returned.
Approaching the hill, the course is extremely mellow, passing through grassy meadows and a very shallow river crossing (which in some years is thigh deep, but this year barely got my knees wet). If it weren’t for the enormous mountain directly in your path, the whole scene would be rather peaceful.
Hope Pass to Winfield: Miles 42 - 50
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”- James 4:10
One key strategy I’ve learned in ultras is to never let my ego get the best of me on a major climb – and for a challenge like Hope Pass, that philosophy is absolutely essential. Sometimes it’s tempting to try jogging a few steps in hopes of reeling somebody in or boosting your average pace per mile by a few seconds, but at Leadville I didn’t even bother to try.
Nevertheless, the climb of 3400 vertical feet in less than 3 miles absolutely crushed me. Perhaps the only bright spot was this random crazy person standing in the middle of the trail yelling his fool head off at all of us. (And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t make up that description as an insult; when I passed by him, he asked “What – you weren’t expecting to see a random crazy person yelling his fool head off?” So there.)
As I was trudging my way up the hill, I was trying to think of some fitting descriptions I could use to describe it here. Interminable came to mind, as did brutal and diabolical. The one I settled on was soul-crushing, because between the length, steepness, and increasingly thin air, this climb demoralized me more than any other I’ve ever done. And all the while, I was trying to block out one nagging course detail: this was actually the more gradual side of the hill.
In other words, it’s a good thing I checked my ego at the base of the hill, because it would have been tattered and trashed by the time I reached the top - and I’ve probably never been happier to see an aid station as I was to see the Hopeless Aid Station crowd near the top of the pass.
This is Leadville’s iconic way station, staffed by a group of llama farmers who use their herd to carry supplies to the top of the hill. It’s considered a “limited” station – although considering the difficulty involved, the amount of stuff they have available up there is pretty amazing – but what they lack in supplies they more than make for in warmth and hospitality. It’s exactly the kind of thing you need to repair a shattered ego …
… which is a good thing, because with about three-quarters of a mile remaining to the summit, you’re not quite done with the climb yet.
At the top of Hope Pass, I was definitely feeling the effects of the altitude, but I made sure to take a few extra seconds to enjoy the view from the direction I came …
… as well as the direction I was headed. A friend of mine who ran Leadville previously described this view as the trail equivalent of an infinity pool, with the path seemingly vanishing into the horizon. I like that description – but a few paces further down the trail …
… the pool turns into a water slide as the trail plunges down one steep switchback after another, and you start giving elevation back in a hurry.
The Leadville weirdness doesn’t stop at high altitude, however, as this angel-in-fairy-wings pacer will attest. Her 6-word explanation said it all: “My runner made me do this!”
Continuing down the back side of Hope Pass, I knew I was in for a rough go: in addition to dropping precipitously, the trail is little more than a rock scramble for long stretches.
Between thin moccasins, tired legs, and oxygen-deprived brain cells, I knew I had better take it reeeeeally easy to make it through in one piece. And the whole way down, it’s impossible to shake one alarming thought: I have to go back up this thing??
Near the bottom of the pass was a new feature for the 2012 race: instead of dumping onto the fire road that leads to the turnaround point at Winfield, we got to use a pretty single track that diverted us from the customary car traffic. That’s the good news. On the other hand …
… the bad news is that the trail adds about 1.5 miles in each direction, as well as a significant amount of elevation (I haven’t heard an exact number), and puts you in the maddening position of seeing Winfield at least 20 minutes before you actually get there. So while all of us out there were proud to be official participants of the inaugural Leadville 103, it wasn’t exactly an honor that we were celebrating at the time.
Here’s another fun fact about Winfield: it’s home to a spooky cemetery. As the sign says:
25 members of an early-day mining community lie buried in the solitude of this tiny graveyard. Some died at birth, others of childhood disease, and a few violently – by a gunfight, avalanche, explosion, fire, and lightning.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Winfield! It’s a wonderful place to be dead.
Winfield to Twin Lakes: Miles 50 - 60
“We urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”- 1 Thessalonians 5:14
Truthfully, the death analogy isn’t far off, because Winfield is by a large margin the most common spot for runners to drop from the race. And on a day with a 55% drop rate – that's correct, only 45% finished – races were dying at Winfield left and right. As for me, my mood perked up considerably …
… because this is where I met my superstar pacer Tom, a friend from Carmel who graciously travelled out from California just to accompany me in the last half of the course. It was cooler than I could imagine to see a friendly face, and he would go on to save me from self-destruction at least three times that I’m aware of, and probably a few more that I’m not.
Before the race, I kidded to Tom that my strategy was just to make it to Winfield alive, and let him drag me home from there. What he didn’t know was that I wasn’t entirely kidding. On some level, I knew that once we joined forces, it would take an act of a vengeful God to keep me from making the finish line – and as we’ve long since established, me and God were tight on this one. So my confidence was bolstered immensely …
… but I was still whole-heartedly dreading the climb back over Hope Pass that loomed ahead of us. Walking toward the hill, Tom and I had the following exchange:
Tom: How was the climb over Hope Pass?
Me: It was absolutely the hardest climb I’ve ever done in my life ... and by the end of the day I think it’s going to slide to number 2.
I mean … I just KNEW it was going to suck. On the steepest sections, it was all I could do to stay upright and take tiny baby steps in an effort to maintain forward progress. And a couple times along the way …
… I couldn’t even do that. I simply had to rest my legs, catch my breath, and gather up as much strength as I could muster just to put one foot in front of the other. Tom was extremely encouraging and supportive through here …
… and he bailed me out of my first crisis of the day by foraging for a couple of walking sticks that made the climb just bearable enough to continue.
A ton of people used high-tech walking sticks on both sides of Hope Pass, but I didn’t want to use them for what might be considered a silly reason: while they definitely are a benefit, they didn’t quite jive with the old-school style I was rocking in my moccasins . I’m pretty sure that Native Americans didn’t use collapsible, telescoping carbon-fiber trekking poles to haul themselves over high mountain passes … but it’s not unreasonable to think they found a couple of sticks to help ease the burden every now and then. So Tom’s resourcefulness turned out to be a win-win.
Also, see all those people lined up behind me? They were passing me in droves again near the top of the hill. It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t exactly a bowlful of sunshine to be around at this time … but my pacer kept encouraging and coaxing me along …
… and the next thing I knew, I was on top of Hope Pass a second time.
Another Leadville veteran had given me this advice before the race: Leadville’s all about getting over Hope Pass the second time. You’ll feel like hell, and you’ll feel like giving up, but that’s just part of the course. Once you’re at the top, everything is right again. I have to say that she nailed it: no sooner did I set foot on top of the pass than I had this overwhelming sense of joy and positive energy. Crippling lows and dizzying highs … sometimes just a few steps away from each other.
So when you’re in a wonderful mood at 12,000’ and there happens to be an aid station with friendly llamas and friendlier volunteers just down the hill, what would you do? …
… Take a break and enjoy the llamas for a while – at least, that’s what my pacer and I do. I don’t care how much time I lost doing this; how many other races give you a chance to make friends with a llama?
Speaking of time – or more specifically, daylight – shortly after leaving the Hopeless aid station, I suddenly realized that I was running out of it. The descent down Hope Pass became a mad scramble as I was racing to return to my headlamp at Twin Lakes before dark.
I didn’t make it, and several times I put my race in more jeopardy than I should have by pushing the pace on a steep technical downhill in the dying light. About a mile from the bottom, I finally I came to my senses and commenced walking as the trail went completely dark – and this is where Tom bailed me out again. He had his headlamp packed with him, and used it to light my footsteps, even shining it down at his feet (and thus risking his own safety) when we were running single file.
The end result was that I slowed my pace down a lot more than I felt like doing … but for the tradeoff of arriving at Twin Lakes safely, it was totally worth it.
Twin Lakes to Half Pipe: Miles 60 - 71
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”- Psalm 19:1
We’re entering the portion of the race where I have the fewest photos … you know, because it was pitch dark. However, these miles were among the most memorable, thanks in part to the following:
* Entering the night is always one of my favorite parts of a 100-miler, because it’s such a unique feature of the event. I’ve had all-day runs that all kind of blend together in recollection – but each occasion that I’ve run through the night occupies a special place in my memory. Leadville was no different. In fact …
* Leadville was probably more memorable, because it remained incredibly surreal. Tom probably got sick of hearing me say I can’t believe we’re RUNNING LEADVILLE!, but I simply couldn’t shake the notion out of my head. Despite my professed faith in the outcome beforehand, I had some worst-case scenarios knocking around my head prior to actually venturing onto the Leadville course. I thought the altitude might crush me, or that my body would completely shut down, or that other calamities might turn the whole thing into some awful death march. So the basic fact that none of those things were happening, and that I was actually maintaining a steady jog alomst 70 miles into the race made me positively giddy.
* This might have been the coolest part: the night had no moon, and we were passing underneath the wide open skies on the flat part of the outbound course. This time through, instead of looming mountains, we travelled underneath a canopy of stars that shone incredibly bright and dense. Several times along the way, Tom and I switched off our headlamps and just gazed at the glory of the heavens - and at 10,000’, it seemed like we could almost reach out and touch it all.
However, that’s not to say that the rest of our journey home would be a breeze …
Half Pipe to Powerline: Miles 71 - 82
“Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured.”- Isaiah 8:15
Shortly after leaving the Half Pipe aid station, my stomach revolted on me, and I spent a couple of minutes bent over on the side of the trail. I’m chalking it up to cumulative effects of the altitude, figuring that my digestive system just slowed down too much to accommodate the steady stream of calories and liquid I was imposing on it.
It wasn’t a major crisis, but my stomach never quite felt settled the whole rest of the way. Tom helped pull me through again in a couple different ways. First, we had this exchange shortly after leaving Half Pipe:
Tom: Did you see some of the runners sitting around in there? A lot of people are having a lot of trouble.
Me: I purposely didn’t look at them. Too many ghost faces.
Tom: They look seriously messed up.
All of a sudden, I counted myself among the lucky ones simply for maintaining forward progress. The other thing that pulled me through was a handful of cookies.
Before the race, Tom had asked me if I wanted him to pack anything in particular, and I requested some ginger snaps. Now as we hit the base of the back-breaking Powerline climb at mile 77, I was nibbling ginger snaps like a mouse, slowly injecting some calories and settling my stomach enough to let me keep moving. When I say nibbling, I mean it; it took me about 45 minutes to eat two cookies, and I’m ashamed to say how happy and proud I was to finally finish them. I’ve mentioned that ultras do weird things to you, haven’t I?
Powerline to Mayqueen: Miles 82-88
“For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”- Psalm 91:11-12
This is a picture of the Colorado Trail during the day:
It’s nothing particularly noteworthy by Leadville standards: a medium-width single track trail meandering through rocks and trees on rolling terrain. When we ran it the previous morning, it seemed completely unthreatening.
By night, it was a different story. It was getting late in the race, and we were in the dead of night, and my body was starting to feel the cumulative fatigue and sleeplessness of the previous 80 miles. Consequently, I had a terrible time keeping upright – I seemed to stumble over every little root, or scuff my foot into every single rock, or crash into every stray tree branch that bordered the trail.
As close as I was to the finish, an alarming thought went through my head: This isn’t over yet. One bad fall or twisted ankle could still take you out. It scared me enough that I stopped even trying to jog, and just picked my steps cautiously through the jagged darkness until I happened upon the final aid station of the race.
Mayqueen to Finish: Miles 88 – 103 (remember – extra miles!)
“Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come –
‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”- From "Amazing Grace", with one of my favorite versions here .
Leaving the Mayqueen station, I knew two things: 1) It was going to be a very long grind to the finish, but 2) If I didn’t do anything stupid, I’d be a Leadville finisher.
Twelve miles between aid is long by most ultra standards, but when it’s at the end of a 100-miler, it seems to drag on forever. (Especially when spectators keep giving faulty estimates of the remaining distance – but that’s a separate story.) However, I knew that I had enough of a time cushion that I could practically walk the whole distance, so when I started back around Turquoise Lake in the dark, that’s exactly what I did.
By this point, I had come too far and escaped too many potential catastrophes for anything to derail me, and I knew there was no other outcome but to make it home safely.
With the destination getting steadily closer and the increasing certainty that I would finish, the second sunrise at Leadville ushered in what felt like a walk toward transcendence. It was also the time to slow down and appreciate the moment just a bit – because even after more than 24 hours on the trail, my time out there all of a sudden seemed fleeting. My body certainly wanted to be finished … but on the other hand, I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to get the race over with. Dichotomies to the very end.
The surrealism never wavered, either; looking back at Hope Pass illuminated by first light in the distance, it was hard to fathom that we had recently gone over the top of it. I remembered all the times I felt miserable along the way, all the physical toils and snares that I thought might entrap me, and marveled at the protective hand that had led me through all of it. The events of the previous day were already feeling like a film I had watched of somebody else having a good day and fulfilling their grandest expectations. Except that person I watched was me.
Honestly, the final miles were fairly anticlimactic, since I was walking most of the way and knew the town of Leadville would appear eventually …
… but I managed to put together a meager shuffle-jog to finish with a kinda-sorta flourish. 28 and a half hours after starting, my Leadville 103 (yes, that's what I'm calling it - I earned those extra miles) was completed. And I still could hardly believe it.
I have a funny look on my face here … because a minute before this picture was taken, Tom and I hugged at the finish line, and I began to sob like a baby again. Remember how I described becoming emotionally unglued at the start? Magnify that by 100 – better yet, make it 103 – and that gives you a sense of what I felt at the finish. I tried to compose myself afterward, but obviously I left something to be desired.
Finally, a quick note about my footwear: I wore the same pair of socks and moccasins for the entire race. The socks are a Drymax prototype that I can’t say anything else about yet (sorry), and the mocs are Soft Star RunAmoc Dash Lites with special Elf embroidery that you can’t see here because they’re so dusty.
Here’s how happy I was with my RunAmocs: I didn’t take them off my feet for nearly 5 more hours after the race. I had a change of clothes (and Roo slippers ) waiting for me at the finish line, but for whatever reason I couldn’t find any place to rinse off, and I didn’t want to put clean clothes or slippers on dirty, stanky, nasty legs. So I took a brief nap near the finish line, then walked over and sat through the awards ceremony, and waited for another hour in the car afterward before I felt like taking off my shoes. In other words, after more than 36 hours and 103 miles of constant high-demand use, I was just as comfortable with my Dashes on my feet as I was when I started. I can’t imagine a pair of shoes earning higher praise than that.
Likewise, I can’t say enough wonderful things about the Leadville race. It’s very seldom that things you build up in your head for a long time actually turn out to be as good as anticipated, but that’s exactly what happened to me this time around. I understand that it doesn’t always work out that way – and remember, for the majority of runners here, it didn’t – which makes me even more grateful for the experience. Above all else, I consider myself blessed to be a part of this event, and if my feet never set foot in Leadville again, I’ll still be filled with enough good feelings to last a lifetime.
“What is impossible with man is possible with God.”- Luke 18:26-28
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