Trails of Glory
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Tuesday, August 27, 2013
A Summer Spent in the Mountains – 2013 Leadville 100 Mile Race Report
My Leadville experience started one year ago when I traveled to Leadville, Colorado to crew and pace a National Guard Marathon teammate, Troy Frost. I had heard many stories about the 100-mile race in Leadville and finally got to see the course in person. We drove to all the aid stations and I paced the last 24 miles through the night. Troy did very well finishing under 25 hours and I knew that I would come back in 2013 for my turn to take on the challenging high elevation course.
The elevation really is the toughest thing about Leadville even though there is also 16,000 feet of ascent and descent along the way. The town of Leadville is billed as sitting at the highest elevation for an incorporated city in the United States at 10,192 feet. The race starts in Leadville and eventually heads south over Hope Pass at 12,500 feet and down to the 50-mile turnaround. The low point of the race is at 9200 feet at mile 39 and 61 of the out and back course. Living in the Tucson area and training on the trail systems nearby closely simulates the training effect needed to prepare for such an event.
For 12 weeks leading up to the race I had amassed over 600 miles on various terrain and inclement conditions. It started with assisting Bob Bachani in Flagstaff, Arizona where one Saturday in early June we ascended Mt. Humphreys (12,600 feet) four times from a starting elevation of 9,400 feet. I did this with Bob in order to be prepared to pace him at Hardrock 100 in July in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado where I covered 45 miles and attained 16,000 feet of elevation. I climbed three passes over 13,000 feet and two more at 12,300 and 12,700. Back in Tucson I trained with Chris Fall where we spent a lot time on the top of Mt. Lemmon (9,157) and Mt. Wrightson (9,453) running up and down trails that I hadn't used before. I employed the use of back-to-back days on a couple of weekends in order to cover 35 miles in two days thus duplicating the tired leg effect on day two. One of my less interesting but productive training runs was circling around a 1-mile loop in 105 degree heat 52 times in Bruce Gungle's neighborhood (Westside of Tucson) over a 12-hour period. Some studies show a correlation of physiological adaptation between training in the heat and at altitude. I managed to stay injury free and with two weeks left before race day I felt as ready as can be.
I used a two week taper to give my tendons and ligaments a break from the strain of excessive training. I went for a couple of massages and increased my protein intake during week one. The second week I carbo-loaded and upped my hydration. During the middle weekend I went out for a 10-mile run on Phoneline trail at Sabino Canyon. It felt good to stretch my legs out on something runnable, albeit I managed a 10-minute mile pace when most of my training was at 12 to 20 minute mile pace. My wife Trish and I flew to Denver on Thursday two days before the race; rented a vehicle and drove the 100 miles to Leadville.
We met up with a couple other Guard team runners, Mike Hagen, who was also entered in the race and others who would help crew and pace, Mike and Connie Streff, Becky Lindner, and Mike ZIegle. We all headquartered out of a large house outside of downtown and began to prepare drop bags and catch up on rest. At check-in I weighed a hefty 166 pounds, 5 pounds over my normal weight. I attribute this to my taper diet. Nevertheless, Trish and I made a big pasta dinner for everyone on Friday afternoon and we settled in for the evening around 7pm. The race starts at 4am so to get 5 hours of solid sleep the night before is rather lucky.
I woke up at 2:30am Saturday morning and took a hot shower to loosen up my muscles. I ate a banana and a cup of oatmeal and grabbed my 70 ounce Nathan's hydration pack filled with water and a 20 ounce handheld bottle used for electrolyte fluid. I had pre-packed a stocking cap, gloves, and lightweight shell in the pack in case of inclement weather. The forecast was low 40s at night and low 70s during the day with intermittent mountain rain showers. Due to the unpredictability of conditions over Sugar Loaf Pass early in the race and Hope Pass later in the day, I opted to wear compression shorts in order to keep my hamstring and quadriceps muscles warm. I also wore calf sleeves and Smartwool socks. I started the race in Montrail Masochist trail shoes that had less than 200 mile of trail use on them. At 4am it was necessary to carry a flashlight for at least an hour and a half.
Leadville 100 is different than any 100-mile race I am familiar with. First, the race organization allows up to 1200 runners to enter. Typical mountain 100s are only permitted to a few hundred. Out of 1200 about 1,000 make it to the start line uninjured from their training. There is no qualifying run for entrants to be able to sign-up. Most 100s require at least the completion of a 50-mile race beforehand and oftentimes within the last year. Due to the lack of a qualifier a lot of people that enter the race aren't really prepared for what this course has to offer and about 50% of the field will drop out. There is also a 30-hour cutoff to finish with other mid-race cutoffs along the way. Similar races of this difficulty have 32-38 hour cutoffs so you will find a couple hundred finishers bunched up in the last hour before the cutoff.
Chris and I came to Leadville with a lot of confidence in our conditioning and ability to keep a conservative pace. At the same time we both thought there was a chance if we ran smart and within ourselves we could contend for the sub 25-hour 'big' finisher's buckle. To make the 30 hour cutoff a runner would have to average an 18 minute mile pace but to make sub-25 that pace average drops to 15 minutes. I chose not to wear a GPS watch due to the variable nature of the course. I didn't want to expend mental energy worrying about fluctuating from an 8 minute mile on the road to a 27 minute mile on Hope Pass. My main plan was to run an 11/14 split; 11 hours for the first half and 14 for the second half.
Finally, after a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner the race corral of 1,000 runners erupted in cheers and surged forward down 6th Street of downtown Leadville. The race announcer sent us off with, "See you tomorrow morning!" It is kind of neat to look back and see hundreds of LED lamps bouncing up and down in the darkness. The first mile of the race is on pavement and then turns to a smooth dirt road. With a gradual descent the road becomes rocky and at 4 miles turns onto single track trail through campgrounds around Turquoise Lake. The single track continues around the lake to the first aid station May Queen at mile 13.5. All of the trail is runnable to this aid station but depending on how far back you were up at the start line it is easy to get stuck in a Conga line of runners and held up. I took it easy and relaxed my pace coming into May Queen at 2 hours and 15 minutes.
After May Queen Campground we continued on pavement for a short stretch and then entered a wooded section of rocky single track ascending to Hagerman Pass Road. The dirt road travels for a couple of gradually ascending miles up and over Sugar Loaf Pass into the Powerline section of trail. The Powerlines are kind of fun going out because there are runnable rolling hills with an ultimate descent of a few hundred feet. The sun is up, the weather is cool, and the trail is downhill. After the Powerline the course turns onto pavement for 2 miles making its way to the second aid station at Fish Hatchery or Outward Bound at mile 24.5. I caught up to Pam Reed coming into Fish Hatchery. She was running for her 7th Leadville completion. I got into Fish Hatchery at 4 hours and 20 minutes; still on 25 hour pace.
At Fish Hatchery I was able to see Trish and crew/pacer Mike Zeigle. I filled my hydration pack and grabbed a quick snack. It's really nice to see friendly faces and share your experiences on trail but time spent at aid stations adds up quick and before you know it you've spent 2 hours not moving during the entire race. I managed to be expedient most of the time. Leaving Fish Hatchery the course runs a mile on pavement and then turns south for a couple more miles of pavement. A person can really make time here if they choose. I employed a run/walk strategy through here in order to save my running legs for later. After the pavement the course goes back to dirt for a few miles heading to 31 miles and the Half-Pipe aid station.
The day began to warm-up after Half-Pipe running along the jeep road with little shade from lack of trees. I continued to run/walk and recognized my Guard team buddy Mike Hagen up ahead. I bumped him when I caught up to him and discovered he was having a sour stomach. I carried a Ziploc baggy full of e-caps, Tums, Ibuprofen, and ginger capsules. I gave him two ginger caps and handed out another to a nearby runner also having issues. We parted ways and I went ahead ascending into wooded single track trail topping out at Mt. Ebert aid station. Mt. Ebert is a water-only aid stop with 3 miles remaining to Twin Lakes aid so I didn't stop and kept going with 20 ounces remaining in my pack. The 3 miles of downhill into Twin Lakes is an exceptionally beautiful part of the course during daylight hours. You can see the lakes below and then the community of Twin Lakes nestled below the mountains. After dropping down a steep hill to the aid station you are welcomed by spectators lining the streets. It's like a big party. I came into the mile 39 aid station of Twin Lakes at 7 hours and 20 minutes. I was about 15 minutes slow on my 25 hour pace chart but not worried about it. I would need the energy I conserved to get over the first Hope Pass ascent coming out of Twin Lakes.
Twin Lakes is the low point of the course elevation-wise at 9200 feet. The next 6 miles of the course ascends Hope Pass at 12,600 feet. About a mile out of Twin Lakes there is a river crossing with no way of avoiding wet feet. This year the water level was lower than normal but still calf high and refreshingly cold. Shortly after the crossing the trail heads into the woods and climbs relentlessly toward Hope Pass. By relentless I mean non-stop, lung-busting switchbacks. Around this part of the course is where I first recall hearing other runners vomit from queasy stomachs. It is also where the front runners of the race were descending Hope Pass on their way to the finish. After 3 miles the trail lets out above tree-line and into Hopeless aid station mile 45. All of the aid provided at Hopeless is carried up by llamas the night before the race. There remains another mile of climbing to the actual pass and then a four mile descent into the turnaround at Winfield aid station mile 50.
After descending the backside of Hope Pass the course remains on the Colorado Trail until a half-mile before Winfield. At this point the trail lets out onto a dirt road where runners contend with race crew traffic. At mile 50 you must weigh-in to see how your nutrition and hydration is holding up. I was 3 pounds lighter than check-in but not down enough to be considered a problem. I took a couple of minutes to spend time with my crew. At the 50-mile mark you can pick up a pacer if you choose. I didn't have one lined up until mile 76 but it turns out that since so many runners end up dropping out of the race at the turnaround there are many volunteer pacers willing to go on with a stranger. Trish found one of those eager souls and I accepted. His name was Ben and he would watch me suffer for the next 26 miles.
I was still able to jog on the flats as we left Winfield as we headed down the road back to the trail leading us to the backside ascent of Hope Pass. The climb going this way is shorter but much steeper. I took several 10 second breaks bent over and holding onto my knees, stretching my hamstrings, and catching my breath. After what seemed forever we made it to the top and shuffled back down to Hopeless aid station. I had emptied all of my fluids getting here so I refilled. At 55 miles into the race and after two ascents over Hope Pass my legs were trashed. Luckily it was all downhill back to Twin Lakes II. I managed to shuffle down the hill while other runners seemed to still be able to sprint down the hill as they flew by me. Once we crossed the river on the return I could only manage a brisk walk.
I got back into Twin Lakes mile 61 at around 15 and a half hours into the race. I was about an hour and a half behind the 25 hour plan and decided to scrap that idea completely. I was still facing a 3-mile climb to Mt. Ebert and knew I would be hiking. I changed out of wet shoes and socks at TLII and evaluated my feet, no issues. Ben continued with me and we had a strong hiking pace going uphill. Whenever we came to a runnable portion of trail I couldn't even shuffle. The muscles in my quads and hamstrings were wasted. I was truly relegated to walking and had to come to grips with the fact that I would probably end up walking 39 miles to the end if I wanted to finish. Thankfully I had employed a lot of walking during training so when I walked now I kept a brisk pace. Unlike the 'walking dead' syndrome I was at least able to click off 17 minute miles. 8 miles later at Half-Pipe II my buddy Mike Hagen and pacer Mike Streff caught back up to me. We exchanged fatigued expressions but determinedly continued our trek. Mike still managed to shuffle ahead and was soon out of sight.
So, 4 hours later I walked into Fish Hatchery II at mile 76.5 and sat down in a chair. It was now near 11pm and I felt the first cold night air coming on. I changed into some warmer clothes and chugged one-third of a Monster energy drink. This was the first caffeine I had in 3 weeks. I picked up my new pacer, Mike Ziegle, and we moved slowly up the road toward Powerline. After sitting for a few minutes I had stiffened up. I calculated that with the climb through Powerline and Sugar Loaf Pass I would have 3-4 super slow miles. I could still afford the slowdown and finish less than 30 hours. All hopes of anything close to 25 hours were out the window. Rather than fret about it I relaxed the pace and put my head down as we worked the seven false summits through the Powerline section.
Even on the downhill side of Sugar Loaf I managed to only walk. My leg muscles hurt too much to withstand the impact of running. Mike and I enjoyed good conversation and I continued to ingest gel packs to stave off hunger and bonking. I had eaten near two dozen gels during the race and they were not working anymore. I needed real food which I made a point to get at May Queen II mile 86.5. Trish drove over from FHII after Mike and I left. She was planning to get a longer nap before pacing me to the finish but got lost on the country roads. She did find her way just in time and got to the aid station just as Mike and I arrived.
I restocked my fluids and gels and walked out of MQII with Trish around 4:30am. I had 5 and a half hours to go 13.5 miles to the finish. I just needed to stay moving and awake. Staying awake was easy and I kept moving at a 20 minute mile pace. I had begun to feel a blister developing on the ball of my right foot several miles after the shoe change at TLII. Now it was becoming painful. It felt like a sharp stone was pushing through the bottom of my shoe. Keep moving, don't stop. The other irritating problem that had arisen was chafing. I wore compression shorts to prevent chafing between my legs. Well that worked but I still chafed everywhere else in the groin area. This was truly becoming a sufferfest.
We made it around Turquoise Lake as the sun began to rise; only 6 miles to go from the boat ramp. We continued to walk through the campgrounds wishing that some happy camper had fresh brewed coffee to offer, no luck. Runners and shufflers had been streaming past me for the last couple hours. It should have been demoralizing but what other choice did I have? Apparently my walk pace was no longer brisk as most walkers were passing me as well. I think my hip flexors were so tight I could no longer get good stride length. I was slowly locking up. We finally turned onto the Boulevard and had 3 miles to go. The sun was glaring in our faces and I was getting hot. We came to the end of the dirt road and a race guide told us we had one mile left. It's kind of cool to hear that you covered 99 miles and only have one mile left. My watch said 8:38am which meant that I could still get in less than 29 hours if I could walk a 22 minute mile. I continued to cling to this one last standard for some reason.
We turned onto 6th Street heading into downtown and with three blocks left I had 11 minutes to get sub-29. We were on a downhill so I started to shuffle then walk then shuffle. The cheering crowd at the finish seemed to cheer louder when I ran so I ran to the finish banner and came in at 28:55. I bent over in exhaustion and then was escorted to the scales to weigh-in. I was still down 3 pounds to 163. It seemed that everywhere on my body ached. I don't remember feeling this poorly after other 100-mile finishes but at least I was done and had completed my sixth 100-mile race.
It is hard not to ask questions and try to figure out what I may have done wrong or how I could have done something differently to produce a better outcome. My training was better than any previous 100-mile preparation. I was injury free coming into the race yet I still broke down after 60 miles and managed to survive enough for a completion. I guess there are several factors that have to be considered and one of them is age. I started the sport of ultrarunning in 1997 and had been running marathons since 1991. I am 46 and I still enjoy participating in these events but may stick to the shorter 50 to 100K distances to maintain longevity in the sport. I'm writing this report a week and a half later and still find that after 9 hours of sleep at night the alarm clock is waking me up. The blister I spoke of earlier is just now healing. I incurred a subcutaneous blister under the pad of the ball of my right foot. After the race it turned into an open flesh wound. I finished the race near 160 pounds but have lost a few more pounds since then. I'm looking forward to a vacation on the beaches of Kauai next week, even though I am running my 5th Kauai marathon on Sunday.