Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Leadville 100 Trail Run - When running is a team sport

Some time back in the 90s as a teenager, having not met my future wife or even visited the USA, I read a brief paragraph about the Leadville 100 trail run in a UK backpacking magazine.  The author, Chris Townsend, was someone I had followed because of his legendary long walks and he happened to be passing through Leadville around race time.  He commented that he could hardly get up the stairs in his B&B at the 10,200 ft altitude and couldn’t imagine how runners could move all day and cover 100 miles in the aptly named ‘Race Across the Sky’.  That snippet captured my imagination ever since and was something I thought about over the years, as met my wife 16 years ago, moved to America, then to Colorado; and ultimately found myself at the start of the race in Leadville itself.

Profile pic courtesy of Irunultras

I actually first entered the race back in 2000 but didn't yet have an appreciation of ultra racing, thinking that marathons and lots of trail and mountain experience would be enough to get me through.  After a DNF at mile 35 of a double trail marathon in Winter Park following some crazy hallucinations, I joined the 30% or so of registrants that typically pull out before making the starting line.  

As you learn more about the race and hear that around 50% of those who start and 80% of first timers don’t finish, you start to understand and appreciate the unique challenges that the event delivers.  The crushing altitude, high and low temperatures, steep climbs, relatively tough cut-off times, and even the flatter sections that taunt you with runnable terrain. All combine to create a cauldron of factors that can derail your race at any moment. Even experienced ultra runners with multiple hundred milers under their belts have a DNF at Leadville as the only asterisk for races they still want to finish.

I’d promised myself that I wanted to do something in Felix’s first year that would be inspirational to him one day, as he is already an inspiration to me.  To have him grow up knowing that even the most difficult challenges he might face in life can be overcome with the right amount of commitment and drive, and that even the seemingly impossible can be a reality. With his 1 year birthday coming just a week later, the race felt like the perfect opportunity to celebrate him and such a memorable first year of life.  

How did this year go so fast!

With no family help close by, having a great crew was going to be essential to success-- the last thing I wanted was to put Wendy and Felix through a huge day of supporting the race.  The commitment it takes for crew and pacers to help in these types of events is enormous.  It sounds cliche to say it, but I couldn't have done it without them.

Start to Mayqueen (13.5mi)

To describe the whole day start to finish would be an ultra in itself. I'm finding that even recalling the events of the day are difficult and coming in bits and pieces as I remember things here and there that now seem like a dream. Did we really get lost in the first 7 miles of the race? This was a section I was worried about only for the return leg, not in a group of 40 people following each other in the freshness of the first few miles! The guys all running near me were shooting for 22-23 hrs and had plenty of experience, but it just goes to show how letting your guard down just a little bit can mean trouble early on if you are not careful.

Maybe it was the two hours of darkness that started our journey, feeling like I was partially asleep led to a lack of concentration and acting like lemmings. It was only when sunrise hit beautiful Turqouise Lake near Mayqueen Aid station that the slumber lifted from the body and the 4 am start time faded to memory. Seeing the distant peaks rise up from the land in early morning alpenglow was both a welcoming and formidable sight of terrain yet to come later in the day.

The pink and black flags were a constant companion throughout the day.  Unless you got lost.

Mayqueen to Outward Bound (~25mi)

The already mild morning got warmer as we ascended Sugarloaf to 11,000 ft and started the famous Powerline descent. The views continued to open up and for the first time in the day there was a sense of the true distance we were hoping to cover. While the gaps between runners were thinning out there was still enough company on the trail for groups to form as a sense of camaraderie of battling the task at hand developed. My descending legs were feeling good but going up hill was a different story and that would be the theme of the day. For the first time in years though I wasn't feeling too badly from the higher altitude so maybe spending the week in Breckenridge and using Acli-mate every day really helped with the adjustment. When you don't have the luxury of being able to spend 3 weeks up high to get the full affects, any shortcuts are welcome!

I've had something of a shoe obsession over the last couple of months, as I've struggled to find the most comfortable shoe with lots of cushioning. Even though I have been in Hoka's since they were first launched, they have never been the perfect shoe for all day events. Altra's and Hoka's made the cut as did my Saucony Peregrines, which have no match on tough technical terrain--especially when your feet are going to get soaked. I was planning to start in an older pair of Hoka's and switch at mile 40 when I saw everyone at Twin Lakes. The problem is, I was already getting a blister and I wasn't even 25 miles in yet. I really hate stopping for little irritations but every ultra veteran I've talked to always says to treat a hot spot early otherwise you are going to be miserable later. Fortunately, at the Outward Bound aid station I was able to get in the Med tent and have some help getting a dressing on. The doc wasn't too optimistic it would hold to Twin Lakes but it was better than nothing. A few minutes here could be time well spent later on.

Outward Bound to Twin Lakes (40mi)

The expectation of running a long ultra is that you assume you should feel great in the early going as 25-30 miles is still relatively early in the day. In my last few races however, it's around this distances I've had some of my bigger struggles. Sure enough, that would be the case again. It's crazy that it's surprising really, as this kind of distance would be a very long training run; of course you'd feel tired at the end. It's just one more example of how you have to re-wire your brain to trick yourself into thinking it's still early days.

Outbound at Outward Bound

The new 2-mile section of trail didn't help matters as what amounted to a cross between a rabbit warren and a prairie dog colony begged for an ankle to disappear and was frustratingly slow. A nagging backache had now reappeared and I was starting to dwell on how long it might stay with me. Unbelievably, 2 nights before the race I had thrown out my back as I was lifting Felix out of the bath and twisted in an awkward way while passing him to Wendy. It was only through the good fortune of bumping into massage therapist Todd (crewing for Craig) that I was able to have some work done the evening before we started.  It was going to be touch and go if it flared up, but was just one of those things that you can't do anything about but plow on.

We were now on our way to entering one of the largest Aspen groves in the US and a steady climb through to the Half Pipe aid station and beyond to Twin Lakes. While most of these grades were runnable, my pace was way off what I thought I could sustain and the enormity of the challenge was starting to sink in.  

Most dropouts occur at Twin Lakes, probably for a couple of reasons. You are likely to have a big crew of family and supporters there and it's just a very easy, convenient place to throw in the towel. You also have the massively imposing Hope Pass in your view as you head down the hill into the aid station and the prospect of crossing it to Winfield and then back again makes you think about all your doubts. Mentally I had prepared for the race in thirds: to Twin Lakes; the 20 miles over Hope and back; and the last 40 miles. Even though it was 20 miles, I knew the next stretch could take between 6 and 8 hrs depending on how things were going.

Good to get to Twin Lakes

What an awesome cheering crew!
Super nice surprise!

The energy at Twin Lakes is fantastic. You can hear the noise rise up through the trees on your final descent and coming into the raucous cheers of encouragement is one of the races true highlights. It was great to see Derek and Charles waiting and have them usher me through to the aid station before I could head over to where the rest of the crew was stationed.  

While I was replenishing on soup and salty potatoes, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Ken Chlouber was hanging out in the corner, quietly observing all of the action. Ken in some ways is the soul of Leadville and a real hero for helping turn around the town 30+ years ago when it was struggling with the highest unemployment in the country from mine closures. He had the brainchild for the Leadville races that are now so well known starting with the 100 mile run 31 years ago. He gives a great speech to the racers the night before the event and delivers his famous quotes "You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can!". While some think it's a bit cheesy getting the audience to chant, "I commit, I will not quit!", I believe him when he says that we are all part of the Leadville family and that they are there waiting for us at the finish. He came over and we chatted briefly. He asked me why I was doing it and after I told him about my son, he got a little choked up as his son Cole was also racing this year. I expressed some of the doubts I was having and he gave me a big bear hug and some gritty words of encouragement that I can do this plus a big slap on the back to get back out there and get it done. It's a moment I'll never forget and a perfect reminder of how you can always dig deeper. 

We headed down the road to where I could see Wendy, Felix, Laura and Chuck and it was such a lift to see familiar faces after 8+hrs on the trail alone and feel the wave of support coming my way. We took a quick look at the weather, decided to go light and not pack much rain gear, switched out bottles, shoes, socks and nutrition and had a pretty good turn around before heading off across the valley bottom outside of Twin Lakes.

The man who started it all - Ken Chlouber

Twin Lakes to Winfield (50 miles & half way)

The marsh quickly turned to stinky putrefying soup and then deeper water crossings. One after another, they got deeper and longer as the shin high wading went on and on. Finally after 6 or 7 we reached the real river crossing. Higher than most years and nice to have the rope across for stability. By the time I was done, my feet were numb and even getting moving again was slow going as things thawed out. There's nothing like climbing a mountain to warm you up though and within a few hundred yards of the lower slopes of Hope Pass, I was thinking about how I'd like the cold water again.

To say I was on the most difficult part of the course was an understatement. The front side of Hope may not be as steep as the return journey, but it has more elevation gain and seems to take forever. It was nice to be back in the trees next to the rushing river as the day was heating up and any shade was going to be welcome through the afternoon. I tried to get into an all day hiking pace, conserving oxygen, not going too deep where I would have trouble recovering from and just make steady progress. The one disappointment of the day was my uphill hiking. It was that stuck in 1st gear feeling that so often comes at higher altitudes for me. I was getting passed a lot and just had to come to accept that I had to run my own race and not get sucked into what others were doing. Remembering that the race doesn't really start until mile 60-70 also gave me some confidence in trying to be as patient as possible before halfway.

I was pretty close to the Hopeless aid station where I saw the first of the lead runners making their way back. Former track Olympian Mike Aish was heading back down as the lead runner. Rob Krar was only a minute back and it was quite a gap to Ian Sharman, last years winner after these two. After struggling across the pass and down the other side I was stoked to see Craig Howie coming up in 5th or 6th place. He and his pacer Adam were killing it and looking so strong. I was so happy to see Craig go on to another amazing top 10 finish and sub 20 hr PR. In addition to being a fantastic friend, he's a brilliant ultra running and triathlon coach that has really helped me get the most out of the tools and time I have to put into the sport.

Craig had warned me that there is a never ending section of trail that heads out to the turn around point at Winfield. He wasn't wrong. I really suffered on this part with the trail constantly rolling uphill and I was out of water and getting parched on the south facing slopes as the hottest part of the day was now here. It was getting slow going too as the narrow trail made passing other runners and their pacers difficult as they made their way back on the return leg. While there are rules for yielding it always ends up as a bit of a free for all in squeezing by each other and this was to become one of the most tiresome parts of the day. As most folks pick up a pacer in Winfield, you are instantly doubling the number of trail users and it quickly gets congested in the middle of the pack.

Rolling into Winfield I was dizzy with fluid loss and annoyed that I was going to be made to step on the scales to get a medical check in. I'd worked really hard all day to keep the hydration going and was hoping that I hadn't blown it in the last couple of hours. Fortunately I was at 170 lbs and only 2 pounds down on my starting weight so got the all clear to carry on. Oh yay. Only 50 miles to go!

Arrived in Winfield out of water and bone dry

Winfield was crazy with activity

Winfield to Twin Lakes (60 mi)

On reflection I stayed at Winfield way too long.  I actually don't even know how long it was.  What felt like 5 or 10 mins could have been nearer 20-25 mins.  I really needed to load up on fluids and food and the guys were quickly noticing that not much in the way of solids were going down.  I was chugging everything I could.  Sprite, noodles, Coke, noodles, cookies, Coke. Warning Chuck that we were going to have to walk for a bit to give this any chance to settle.  It's no joke that 100 milers are eating competitions with running thrown in.  It's all a fuel/energy equation when it comes down to it.

At least Chuck is in a good mood!  
Finally we were ready to head out.  Chuck asked when it would be the longest run I'd ever done and one step out of the aid station I said 'right about now!'  Everything from this point on was going to be an exploration of the unknown and it felt so good to have some company as Chuck was a massive boost to the spirits.  As we hit the Colorado trail, Chuck was already distracting me with trail talk, adventure stories and later pointing out ski descents on the nearby Fourteeners and talk of future expeditions.

The backside of Hope Pass is steep, loose and hot.  Not to mention pretty crowded given the two-way traffic.  Leadville got a lot of criticism last year after bumping up the number of entrants and I can see why because even with reduced numbers this year, it was hard to get any kind of rhythm around all the passing and single track trail.  

A couple of miles in and we see Trent on the trail. He's the founder of Elevation Tat that makes tattoo's of race course profiles and are a handy reference when you are out on the course. He was bent over on his poles and looked to be going through a bad patch as he made his way on to Winfield. If I had to put money on it in the moment, I would have said there is no way he would be finishing as he looked in a world of hurt. It just shows what determination and fortitude can do as he must have dug so deep to get through that bad patch and have a strong finish.

After a near messy puking episode on a fellow competitor, we eventually made the top of the pass on the return trip and took a moment to soak it all in.  If you don't leave time to enjoy the view then...

Chuck doing a great job of propping me up.
Heading down to Twin Lakes felt like such a relief.  Lower altitude with every step, being able to stretch out and Chuck blazing the way with a fast tempo and some good incentive in catching up with folks that passed us earlier on the climb.  A trudge across the marsh and the water crossings and it was back to Twin Lakes and 60 miles done!

Felix wondering what the heck is going on!

Talking strategy and seeing how slow I'm going :)

Have you ever seen a pacer more ready!?!

Twin Lakes to Outward Bound (~75mi)

We had a great pit stop with the crew.  I may have dreamed it, but I remember a neck and foot massage, and we were off again with Charles G. leading the way.  For his 17 mile stretch he had the brilliant idea of bringing along a bluetooth speaker which hung on the outside of the pack that I dutifully followed for so many miles. The playlist was awesome too, everything from British invasion to my favorite Paul Oakenfold tracks which seemed very appropriate after we lost all the daylight and our headlamps meant that we were often drifting into a trance to trance music.  

Many people say that a good Leadville includes running the trail through Half Pipe after you crest the big hill out of Twin Lakes.  I was happy to be jogging along here and we were making good time and catching lots of folks.  If there was one section that seemed like zombie land, then this was it.  Lots of carnage with pacers helping their runners take one step at a time, folks caught out at night without headlamps, those feeling the cold and already dressed in puffy jackets and full winter wear.  If you were having a bad patch and not moving well through here it would be a tough hole to dig out of knowing there were still 30 miles or so to go.  

Charles pointed out rocks and roots for hours upon hours and even with an awesome headlamp (thanks for the loan Jody!) we were still stumbling here and there as so much time staring at a beam started to play tricks on the mind.  With the clearing sky came a rush of cold air and the night started to suck all the heat out of me.  By the time we hit a small road stretch near the changeover, the teeth were starting to chatter and the last 2 miles over the rabbit hole strewn field to the aid station couldn't come quick enough.  By the time we rolled in, I was starting to get those uncontrollable shakes that only a good warm up can get rid of.  Fortunately Laura and Mike managed to barge a path to an open fire that some crews had going and get me a front row seat to warm up while they ferried me over some hot ramen and broth.  That fire was a life saver and it was really hard to leave.  I later found out that a lot of folks had sought refuge at that fire through the night.

Outward Bound to Mayqueen

Having someone pass you and say "only a marathon to go!" didn't do as much for my spirits as they intended. To veteran ultra runners, that probably comes across as 'yay, we are in the homestretch', but to me it was another 'are you kidding me?' reality check of how much there was to go. Fortunately I had big Mike G. with me. Mike's the kind of guy you just know instantly you can depend on him.  A 15+ time Ironman finisher with that strong as an Ox type character, which was great for carrying all my junk. A father who manages to fit it all in around a wonderful family, and is a big inspiration to his kids.  Another big endurance athlete at 6'5", we must have looked pretty comical-- two former basketball players trotting down the road in this land of tiny endurance jockeys weighing barely 100 bucks soaking wet.  I know Mike loves the trails and has had some crazy antics up and around Mt. Sanitas in Boulder.  If you are looking for a good laugh check out this post. I'm looking forward to his return to ultras one day and hope he gives the 100 mi distance a go as I'd love to be there and get him through it.

Mike back in Boulder (courtesy of his blog).  I was getting this kind of service the whole way.
The famous Powerline was up next and is the last real hill on the course.  Energy was running low but Mike was running some funny cognitive tests on me and seemed be giving me the all clear.  He was saving a string of movie and motivational talks for when things got really bad in order to get me through to Mayqueen.  I kept chuckling at his honesty, as a lot of times folks will just sugarcoat things in order to keep you going.  There was no mind games with Mike.  "Man, this hill is REALLY steep!" "We're at the top...wait, never mind, I see lights further up above us, like WAY above us." It was just what I needed.  No BS and some great conversation that helped the hours tick by.  

Finally at the top of Powerline we got a welcome surprise with lots of whooping and hollering. An impromptu aid station had been set up with explicit banners across the trail, green inflatable aliens pinned to trees and trucks and some spooky green lighting as well as a very drunk town cryer type fellow greeting all the dazed runners. It was maybe one of the most surreal sights I've ever seen and if Mike wasn't there to witness it I'm pretty sure it would have ranked as the first hallucination of the day.  In addition to alcohol, there was Sprite and Coke and I tried to get some extra fluid down.  The problem was instead of cups, they had used something that resembled a cross between those little ketchup cups you get at fast food restaurants and a mini cupcake wrapper that became an impossible dexterity test with cold gloved fingers. Still, I couldn't complain with the enthusiasm, and even a few sips of caffeine sent us off down the other side in better spirits.  

The narrow Colorado trail down to Mayqueen was fairly uneventful until near the bottom when we both stopped dead in our tracks for a minute.  We could hear wild animal noises with lots of honking, grunting and guttural sounds.  It sounded like an unhappy Moose or Elk that was above us and getting closer through the woods. The lights we had seen behind us were now gone and for a second I had that wondering thought of what the hell would we actually do if we confronted some angry wildlife in the middle of the trail.  It wasn't as if I had the energy to run away - I was barely moving!  We carried on, only to turn at the first sound of movement behind us.  Phew, the light was back and we were passed by a runner dashing by while apologizing for all the throwing up back there.  He said he couldn't keep anything down but was now was feeling much better and he scampered off down to Mayqueen.

Mayqueen to Finish

The final changeover had arrived and I don't remember a whole lot from Mayqueen to the finish. While I was fairly 'with it' up until now, things really took a turn for the worse as Derek and I took to the Turquoise Lake trail and the final stretch to Leadville.  In hindsight, I needed to be eating more and had been running on fumes for a while.  Derek later pointed out that they were worried I wasn't eating a lot in the aid stations and given that I wasn't eating much in between, the deficit was now pretty big.  While I had been confident of finishing all day, I hit my low point around mile 95 and started having really big doubts.  I couldn't believe it. I had pictured this section as being the easiest of all as you 'smell the barn' and power home.  Now I was struggling to work out if I could make it in before the cutoff, doing bad mathematics in my head and hearing other runners and their pacers passing, saying "If we hurry, we can just make it".  

Derek was trying his best to get me to eat and magicked up one of Wendy's brownies from thin air.  He remembered from my pre-race notes that if I go quiet at any point it's probably because I need food.  I think I was silent for a lot of the last section.  The sun was now on its way up and while I hoped the warming rays would give me energy it was a reminder that we still had to move, and as quick as we could.  The blisters I had developed all along both feet were now almost unbearable and my right foot could hardly take any weight.  It all came to a head when I had an excruciating moment 3 miles from the finish where I pulled up lame on the edge of the trail.  Either the blister had popped or I just got a stress fracture.  It was hard to tell the difference for a few minutes until the pain subsided and I could try out my foot again.  Time was ticking and we were just standing still on the side of the trail wondering what was going to happen next.  Using my poles and going as gingerly as possible we started hobbling again and then finally moving faster through gritted teeth to just get to the finish.  We'd been getting inaccurate reports of how far to go from about 6 miles out so that the next section seemed to take an eternity.  In the end, out of sheer frustration to get it done, we got into a full run for the last couple of miles and just decided not to stop until we saw the finish.  

Derek took pictures all day and we didn't even get one of him.  Here he is with the locals in Asia.

I knew Derek would be perfect for the final leg of the journey, and after being out on the course more than anyone all day, sleeping in his freezing car, acting as photographer, and waiting and waiting for me to show up, his mix of calm Zen made it all come together.  We hit 6th St. and with the sun blinding our faces could just make out the gathering of folks at the finish in the distance.  Half way along, he was able to point out Wendy running toward us with Felix in the stroller.  I was just in time to see the comical way he went from bawling his eyes out, exhausted, to fast asleep in the space of a few seconds as we approached.  Mike had also just made it to the finish area and we were all able to cross together, finally done in 28 hrs 33 mins and 51 seconds later.  

I'd imagined crossing the line full of emotion and tears but there was absolutely nothing left.  I barely made it to the medical folks who weighed me in 1 pound heavier than I started (plenty of drinking!).  The exultation I had expected wasn't there and while I was feeling totally drained,  I could sense that the feeling of accomplishment was going to come later, over the days, weeks and months as the brain starts to reflect and process what just happened.  Maybe it's only fitting that after such a long struggle in a long race that the reward comes over time and sticks with you more than that quick satisfaction our modern lives come to crave.

The coveted finishers buckle.

Post Script

A few folks have asked me how this ranks compared to all the other races I've done.  I'm still telling them that I would trade all of those events and personal bests for this one day.  It ranks that highly.  

I'm not sure I'll ever do another and Derek remembers me telling him "this isn't healthy" plenty of times in those last miles. It was the first time I've ever set out to do something that I viewed as impossible for me and the sense of accomplishment that comes along with that is incredible.

Everyone that needed thanking has been thanked a dozen times and I hope they all remember that I couldn't have done it without any one of them. A particular shout out goes to of course Wendy for being there through everything and who is always so supportive in everything I do. Also to Craig Howie who has been the consummate guide/coach throughout this journey and a sounding board for every fear, worry and decision I stumbled my way through. I have a huge desire to return the favor in the months and years to come.

For those interested in the training, I averaged in the mid-40s mpw since the start of the year and nearer 50 mpw in the last few months.  You don't need a lot of miles to get it done.  In fact, as Ken Chlouber says, the most important distance is the 5 inches between your ears.  There are so many ways I could have improved things with more altitude training, vertical, miles etc., but it just wasn't worth the trade off with family, work and Felix's first year on the other side of the equation.

Here's a couple of screen shots from Training Peaks of my log.  If you are interested in more detail, leave me a comment as I'm happy to share anything about my preparation.

43mpw ave until race week.  Biggest week was 65mi
PMC Chart since Jan 2012.  CTL pre-Leadville was 75


  1. Great blog David, thanks for sharing! I've had a dream of doing a hundred miler for quite some time, perhaps one day this will be the venue :-) Tom

  2. Fantastic accomplishment & determination David. Loved your candid report. Enjoy!