Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Leadville Trail 100

The idea of running the Leadville Trail 100 had been bouncing around my head for a few years. I ran my first 100 last year, flat loops at sea level, and then Pikes Peak giving me experience at altitude. Since those races didn't kill me, I felt running Leadville was achievable, albeit an extreme challenge. It probably would have been smarter to start with a lesser mountain 100. But nothing about running 100 miles denotes smart so I took the plunge and signed up on January 1st as soon as registration opened.

I decided Leadville would be my only goal race for the year. I would structure all my running and racing around preparing for LT100.  By January I already had a solid base of 50 mpw. In February I ran a 50K and finished almost an hour faster than the previous year. This became a case of finding my form too early though and by March I was struggling with a bulky shin and had to cancel a 100K. I took about two weeks off and then ran the very difficult Bear Mountain 50M course in May. I struggled with this race but used it as the jumping off point to really ramp up my Leadville training. Between June and July I racked up more than 610 miles in 61 days and ran another 3 ultras. I also attended the Leadville running camp which gave me the opportunity to run the entire course, including a double crossing of Hope Pass. By the time I started my taper I had forgotten what it felt like to be anything other than exhausted and limping 24/7. My goal was to finish in 28:00 +/- 2 hours. That would keep me well ahead of the 30 hour cutoff and I could tell from previous results that I was unlikely to go sub 26:00. It felt reasonable on paper but ultra-marathons aren't run on paper. It was time to put up or shut up.

Maybe so but it is NOT great running at 10,200 feet

I didn't have time for extended acclimation so I flew out of Newark airport Thursday and arrived in Leadville less than 36 hours before the start of the race. We spent Friday doing last minute errands, prepping drop bags and impressing the employees at Family Dollar. Yes, I’m buying a dozen bags of candy and yes I might consume all of it in the next two days. We also drove around to familiarize my wife, Tracy, with some of the aid stations. Leadville is a 50 mile course out. Then you turn around and run the same route back. The plan was for her to see me either at the Boat Ramp (mile 8 / 92) or May Queen (mile 13 / 87) and then again at Twin Lakes (mile 40 / 60). She would assist where possible but I wasn't counting on her to actively crew for me. I had arranged for my pacer, Katie, to meet me at Twin Lakes inbound and she would run either 16 or 26 miles. For the rest, I would be on my own. There were close to 1000 starters so I was never really alone.

The forecast looked excellent, 70F / 40F with a slight chance of rain and almost no wind. I set my alarm for 3AM but awoke a few minutes early. I downed a bagel and some Powerade (should have eaten more) and headed down to the start in time to get a few pictures before the 4AM gun. Once we got underway I settled into a very comfortable pace of 10:00 miles. The first section was mostly downhill on paved / gravel roads so we made quick progress. I passed the boat ramp at about 5:30AM and stopped for a minute to see Tracy and swallow a Gu before regaining my spot in the single-file line of runners. Later Tracy texted me to say there was no parking at May Queen so she wouldn't see me again until Twin Lakes. After following the shore of Turquoise Lake for the last few miles, I arrived at MQ aid station at 6:30AM and found it to be well stocked but extremely crowded. I stopped for a bathroom break and grabbed some coke / cookies but still spent what felt like way too much time navigating my way through the mass of runners.

After MQ, the route joined the Colorado Trail and became somewhat technical for a few miles before opening back onto gravel roads for the first serious climb up Powerline. Finally the crowd of runners started to break and I felt very relaxed power hiking this section which offered beautiful views back down to Turquoise Lake. Cresting Powerline at 11,500 ft we immediately started the long, winding descent to the bottom where we rejoined the road for the last few miles into Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound aid station at mile 24. At this point I ditched my headlight and long sleeve into my drop bag. I grabbed some calories and a change of socks, refilled my water bladder, then headed for the medical tent. I could feel a hotspot developing and wanted to get ahead of it as I still had more than 20 hours to go. The medic fixed me up with some moleskin and I was moving again in less than 10 minutes total.

Easy trail near mile 27

The next section was mostly flat on paved roads, then dirt roads before reaching Half Pipe aid station at mile 30. Along the way I saw my first familiar faces, Emmanuel and his support crew from NYC who offered me a variety of drinks and snacks although I waved them off still feeling fresh. At Half Pipe I met Jeff whose house we were renting in Leadville. He was very busy coordinating the volunteers and I didn't need much so I was quickly on my way, eager to get to Twin Lakes and see Tracy again. To this point I hadn't really been paying attention to the cutoffs. My goal was to finish the first 40 miles in 8 hours (2 hours ahead of cutoff) and I arrived in TL pretty close, about 8 minutes behind schedule. Tracy had my drop bag and I planned to change shoes to keep my Hokas dry and use my Salomons to cross the river as they are much better at shedding water. I refilled my bladder but couldn't find a good spot to sit near the aid station so I ended up removing my shoes about 100 feet beyond. I knew I had a few hot spots so I asked Tracy to get some moleskin from the medical tent. Instead she came back in 5 minutes with a medic in tow who insisted on providing in person service. He quickly fixed me up and I was on my way with about 12 minutes of down time, probably my longest stop of the race.

Twin Lakes was pretty crowded so it took a few minutes to run through all the spectators before we headed out of town, across a grassy meadow and to the banks of Lake Creek. I didn't cross the creek in June and wasn't sure what to expect. It turned out to be about 50 feet wide, knee deep in places and very cold. I hurried across and then to the foot of the climb up Hope pass. Having done a double crossing in June, I knew what was coming next and that it was going to suck; a 3,400 ft climb up to the top of Hope Pass at 12,600 ft. Then immediately dropping 2,400 ft down into Winfield before reversing it all back to TL. I figured the next 20 miles were the crux of the race. If I could get back to TL in reasonable shape I had a high probability of finishing. Therefore the goal was to finish the double crossing in 8 hours and simply maintain my near 2 hour cushion.

The climb up Hope was mostly uneventful. My feet dried quickly and I only had to stop once to catch my breath. About an hour below the Hopeless aid station I saw the leaders coming back inbound. I didn't recognize the first two but Nick Clark was 3rd and Scott Jurek 4th. Hopeless aid station is within sight of the top of the pass so I felt re-energized when I arrived. The llamas also helped to perk up my spirits and I reached the top of the pass 2h15min out of TL. On the back side of Hope I crossed paths with the Women’s leader and continued the very steep descent then rolled into Winfield and the turnaround at exactly 12 hours, right on schedule! Winfield was a circus and not in a good way. I stood for the mandatory weigh in and was shocked that I’d dropped only 1 pound. I took that as a sign to continue status quo on nutrition / hydration. I grabbed some fast calories and got out of Winfield in a hurry, dodging traffic as I went (literally weaving between vehicles stuck in place).

Far side of Hope Pass from 12,600 ft

The climb up the back side of Hope was torturous, as expected. I actually ran by Michael Oliva shortly out of Winfield. I’d never met him in person but recognized him from the net and introduced myself. I knew he was running Leadville this year but didn't really expect to see him. We kept company for a little while then he left me and proceeded to obliterate the Hope climb and the rest of the race in general finishing in a blistering 24:31. I continued at a much more measured pace and required numerous stops before I regained the pass again. Each time I would rest for 20 or 30 seconds to allow my heart rate to slow from ‘totally jacked’ to only ‘moderately uncomfortable’ before continuing on. Somehow I reached the pass 2h16min out of Winfield, only 1 minute slower than climbing from the other side. Hopeless had run out of cups at this point so I drank soup and coke from a communal ladle. Good thing I’m not a germaphobe. The rest of the descent to TL was followed quickly. I was actually looking forward to Lake Creek this time as I was feeling a little warm.

I hit Twin Lakes a few minutes before 8PM, exactly as planned, but spent a little time switching back into my Hokas and getting blisters treated. Katie was ready to go so we did introductions on the move. The climb up out of TL on the side of Elbert is steep and we did more hiking than running. Katie was good company and these miles passed quickly. Probably should have run more and talked less but I was actually enjoying myself. However, one thing I really struggled with was regulating body temperature. With the sun gone and the temperature falling I would rapidly swing from chills to sweating. I ditched the heavy shirt I added in TL and switched to clothing with zippers that I could vent frequently. Somewhere on the way to Outward Bound around mile 70 I realized my energy was lagging. Also the 20-odd Gu I had consumed were not settling well and I was plagued by stomach problems for most of the rest of the race, which really sapped my "speed".

Leaving Twin Lakes inbound at mile 60

By the time we reached OB there was less than a marathon to go and 10 hours to finish. I could feel my feet were blistering pretty good at this point but I was too tired to pay much attention. Katie noticed my headlight was fading and swapped out the batteries with some extras she had while I sat on a chair and commiserated with a fellow runner. Then we were up and moving again towards the base of Powerline. At the top of the first steep climb I tried to swallow one Gu too many and had an immediate gag reflex. For a few minutes I had a metallic taste in my mouth and thought I was about to empty the rest of my stomach but it slowly subsided and I was able to get moving again. That was the end of the Gu though. Powerline went on forever but we made slow, steady progress and reached May Queen at 3:30AM where we met up with Tracy and Katie's friend Marie. I was expecting Katie to drop but she said she had gone that far and might as well see me through to the finish. We left MQ with 6.5 hours to complete little more than a half marathon; at that point finishing was a mere formality.

The finish is all uphill

Funny thing about formalities though, you still have to do the work. My quads were trashed and my stomach was still in knots. Also, I was struggling with depth perception making it difficult to see the footing along the trail. However, we still managed respectable 15:00 miles through this section and passed a few runners. By the time we turned onto 6th Street the sun was up and the road was almost empty. It was an odd feeling having traveled the same section with hundreds of other runners only one day prior. In the distance the loud speaker announced the time, 2.5 minutes to break 27 hours. It was too far, the uphill finish too steep. I was resigned to coast the rest of the way. At my side, Katie kept urging me to run. Finally I broke into a jog, then a run, then I was "sprinting" up the red carpet and across the finish line; 27:00:19, I should have listened to Katie. Really though, I couldn't have cared less. I finished and nearly an hour under goal time, 198th of 944 starters and 497 finishers. We walked to Jeff’s house to clean up then headed back to the finish to watch my friend Jessie finish her first 100 in 29:26, success all around!

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