Race Report: 2011 Leadville Trail 100
4th time’s a charm. Or not.
Leadville again. Hard to believe after last year’s brutal finish (2010 – Embrace the Suck) I would find myself squished into a starting corral with 600+ other runners in the pitch black darkness of 4am Leadville, Colorado. Waiting for the shotgun blast to do it all again. What. The. Hell.
This would be a little different, though. I was treating the race as just another one on the list to get through and move on. Rather than a huge buildup and peaking process like I’ve gone through in the past. I had run a 50K, two 50 milers, a 12 hour event, and a 100 miler since the end of March. I was used to the ultra thing now and in a pretty good groove with it, but I was lacking the sharpness that comes with focused training. No real expectations. I didn’t carry a split chart with me and just planned on starting out VERY slowly and seeing what developed.
In a way, Leadville sort of felt like Dreadville to me. Knowing that I was in good enough shape to finish, but not really good enough to do anything special was a hollow kind of mindset for me to be in.
I did have my 2009 splits memorized, just in case…
This year I wanted nothing to do with the suck, but it found me anyway.
With work and family commitments, I wasn’t able to make it up to Pb-town until Friday morning. I sat through the pre-race meeting and had a good time seeing friends old and new. Then it was off to my usual spot to pack up my drop bags. I swear that is harder than running the race. Since I was going solo (no crew, no pacer) this year, I had to have those bags completely dialed in. No room for error.
Sticking with my sharpie-on-the-knuckles tradition, this year I wrote the initial of each of my kid’s names across my fingers. A lot was said in the meeting about respecting and honoring the sacrifices that your family makes for you to be able to do this sort of thing. I knew that at some point in the race things would likely get unbearable, and I wanted to be able to look down at my hand and remember my kids. I wanted to show them what is possible. Not necessarily in the literal sense of running 100 miles, but in the broader sense of doing something you set your mind to. And I knew it would spur me on to the finish line. No matter what happened or how badly I was feeling.
I set up camp high above town in a spot with a most excellent view. Evening brought rain and gnarly looking skies. I took several pictures and one of my favorites of all time is below. I love it because on the left there is doom and darkness, and on the right is light and hope. Good and bad all in one frame. Mount Massive in the center looked like it was boiling over with fire. To me it was the perfect symbolism of all things Leadville 100. I can just gaze into it and get lost in the feelings of past races and the anticipation of future ones.
I laid in bed with terribly aching quads, unable to sleep. This exact same thing happened last year and I wondered if it was from leaning over the picnic bench to reach the table for two hours while sorting out my bags. Whatever caused it, I was none too pleased about it.
The first 50:
I got up a couple of minutes before my 02:22 alarms went off (another tradition), and made my way into town. Thankfully, the huge thunderstorm from the night before had abated and things were calm and pleasant. I said a few hellos and took a spot way back in the crowd, purposely not carrying any caffienated gels and wanting to go into the race a little tired and groggy. I figured it would help me stick to my plan of going out really slow. Four in the morning is no time for this old man to be amped up (unless it’s coming back in to the finish!).
This video from Woody’s crew captures the excitement of the start really well.
Things went smoothly for the first couple of hours into the aid station at the May Queen campground. I was stuck behind what seemed like thousands of people jamming the singletrack, but it didn’t phase me in the least. I glanced at my watch when I arrived at the aid station tent and saw I was 20 seconds ahead of my 2009 split. Interesting.
I jogged and hiked the Colorado Trail section, then jogged easily up most of Hagerman/Sugarloaf and down into Fish Hatchery at mile 23. I’m a little fuzzy on my split here, but I was ahead by a little bit. I ran some easy miles to Pipeline catching up with Jim who was on stop #3 of his Grand Slam quest and looking good. I ran most of the way from Pipeline to the Colorado Trail with Tom. It was great to trade a few stories and hear about each other’s races. Tom was running a very smart race and pacing himself for a super strong second half, cruising easily to hit Winfield in 11:25, and then turning on the jets to finish in 23:42!
I was still feeling good and jogged into Twin Lakes – 20 seconds ahead of my 2009 split. Hmmm.
I took on a 3rd bottle here, planning to catch up a little on the fluids during the long hike to the Hope Pass aid station. The climb was stout as always, but didn’t feel that bad to me. After doing all of the backpacking and 14er climbing last month, grinding up a steep trail came naturally. I had the 3rd bottle filled with GU Brew, which I had never tried before but seemed to go down ok.
I walked into the Hopeless aid station and checked my watch – 20 seconds ahead of my 2009 split. What is going on here?? It was starting to freak me out a little.
Took an extra salt cap or two as well, trying to get rid of my slightly puffy hands. Which seemed a little counter-intuitive, but I was going off something I had read the night before. I am working on some research to try and nail down the exact cause and effects, but I think I would eventually go way overboard on my salt intake and it came back to bite me in a big way. Such a rookie still.
For now, I was feeling good and ran down the back side of Hope Pass about as well as I ever have. Greeting many friends starting their trip back up along the way. Cory caught up to me on the road to Winfield and would also go on to finish sub-24 as a nice little cap to his Leadman effort. It was great to share some miles with him and hear about his adventurous summer (10th ever MTB ride was the LT100 during Leadman – wow).
Cory and I rolled into Winfield together, I glanced at my watch and…. you guessed it, 20 seconds ahead of my split again!! C-R-A-Z-Y! Over 50 miles and all kinds of terrain, my body just seemed to be on autopilot, replaying the 2009 run stride for stride. And I felt way better than 2009. Not fast by any stretch, but comfortable and ready to put in some work now.
I started up the huge climb back over Hope Pass feeling quite optimistic. I was having a decent day, and going better than I thought I would. Sometime after I got above treeline, the problems started. I felt like I was dragging an anchor behind me. The legs were willing, but if I increased the effort even just a little bit I couldn’t breathe. My chest felt tight and my hands were swelling up again. Very similar to what happened last year.
I immediately recognized that my race had just drastically changed, and threw all splits and finishing time expectations directly out the window. Now it was all about survive and finish. I was optimistic that if I didn’t bury myself with an effort, I could maintain a slow pace and be able to continue without a total breakdown. The wheels hadn’t come completely off yet, but I was down to the last lug nut.
Lots of people passed me in this section, but it didn’t really bother me. I knew better than to try and push any harder. I made it over the pass with a huge feeling of relief and got my legs going again for the run down to Twin Lakes.
I took a very long 20 minute stop there and changed shirt/shoes/socks, got my night gear together, took in some calories, and adjusted my mindset for the next 40 miles. I didn’t bother checking to see if the documentary crew was rolling cameras while I replaced band-aids and re-lubed the tender bits. Ahhh, what a sport this is… I went from shaving my legs as a cyclist to putting band-aids on my nipples as a runner. Fair trade, I suppose.
I actually looked forward to cruising along through the night not having to worry about the cutoffs but just maintaining the sweet spot between 25 and 30 hours. It looked like the good weather would hold and my favorite part of the course and time of day were coming up. Running at dusk on the Colorado Trail on the flanks of Mount Elbert (highest peak in CO). Completely awesome to roll down the trail with Seger’s Like a Rock smoothly tickling the eardrums. Love it.My hands were steady,
my eyes were clear and bright
my walk had purpose,
my steps were quick and light
And I held firm,
to what I felt was right
Like a rock
Like a rock
I was strong as I could be
like a rock
Nothin’ ever got to me
like a rock
I was somethin’ to see
I stood proud I stood tall
high above it all
I still believed in my dreams
I did alright over the next 10+ miles, generally taking it easy and just trying to keep up a reasonable rate of progress. Then just after Pipeline, that final lug nut popped and the wheels came completely off.
My hands were huge and getting bigger, I could feel my calves filling with fluid, and the same thing was happening in my chest and lungs. Even the slowest of jogs caused me to gasp. It would be walking only from this point on. 27 miles to go. I wasn’t blind to the danger of my condition, but I knew I could make it if I was careful. I monitored my intake and output well and tried not to make things any worse.
I walked slowly into Fish Hatchery and took some time to eat a little and change the batteries in my headlamp. I knew it would get really cold up on top of the next climb so I made sure I was prepared for that.
I got some nice cheers from Ryan on the way out that gave me a great boost, and he would continue to cheer me on all the way as we leapfrogged our way to the finish – thanks! Time to head up Powerline, the graveyard of Leadville dreams. I was moving slowly, but very happy that I wasn’t resorting to the dead-branch-as-a-cane routine like last year. Still getting passed at regular intervals, still not caring that much. My mind was on the finish, not placing or time.
As I climbed and exchanged greetings with the people around me it was painfully obvious which ones were the runners and which ones were the pacers. The runners could usually only manage a grunt or two between us, while the pacers were bright and cheerful.
One lady passed me and said to no one in particular (but I was the only one around), “I AM SOOO SICK OF PERKY PACERS!!”.
Then mockingly, “Are you OK??”. “Are you OK??”. “Are you OK??”.
“YES!!!”, she yelled.
And off into the night she ran.
Finally made it to May Queen. 13 miles to go. It would take a few hours at the rate I was traveling, but I knew I had plenty of cushion to work with under the cutoff. So while I was happy to not be stressed about that, I was still dreading the long march around the lake and into town.
The sun started coming up as I was finishing the lake section and I raised the level of effort for a while to try and get this thing over with a little faster. Plus I was chilled to the bone and hadn’t been moving fast enough to generate any real heat for quite some time. I was miserable.
The sustained effort came back to bite me again as I almost completely shut down with 2 miles to go. If there would have been an easy way to drop out there, I would have seriously considered it. As it was, I had my trucker’s hat pulled down as low as it would go, and my jacket’s hood on over the top of that. I stared at my shoes as they shuffled through the dirt seemingly a millimeter at a time.
I pulled off my glove and looked at my grotesque swollen hand and wrist. The race wristband was cutting into my skin it was so tight. The skin on the back of my hands felt like it would split wide open if I made a fist. Then I saw the initials written on my knuckles. The kids. Thinking about them helped keep me going.
I was in a lot of pain, and wanted to stop so bad. I just couldn’t let myself. That is one thing that really stinks about walking 27 miles, you can’t slow down and walk to take a rest like you can when you are running. If you are walking, walking is the only option! Man, was I ever sick of walking.
I finally made it to the last mile. Asphalt. Scattered groups of spectators that would ring cowbells wildly into my ear as I moved past them at .000000001 mph. Then realizing that I was going to be there for a while, they would trail off awkwardly. I was hurting so bad I could hardly lift a finger in recognition to the cheers.
I hit a school crossing with about a half a mile to go and my brain recognized and cursed the effort it took clear the raised-up paint on the road!
As I approached the finish Stephen popped out of the crowd and walked with me for a minute, giving some great words of encouragement and support. What a class act and nice thing to do. Thanks, man.
Even the slowest of finishers can usually muster up a sprint for the last 10 feet on the red carpet to break the tape to the wild cheers of the crowd. Not me. If I would have had the ability to run at all, I would have used it long ago. Nothing left now. Walked across the line. Done.
There would be 340 finishers out of the 622 that started. I was very happy to be one of them, no matter how ugly it had gotten.
I had walked the last 27 miles of the race and finished in 28:23 with an hour and a half to spare. No huge drama or theatrics, just grind it out and get it done. Recognizing that those 27 miles were basically an ultra within an ultra.
My attitude towards running 100 milers has changed drastically in the years since I dropped out at mile 77 of my first Leadville attempt in 2008. I thought I had it so bad then, I just couldn’t continue. These days I look back and laugh at myself. Have gone through a lot worse now, buddy. Quit yer cryin’ and get movin’. Back then I was more interested in a ‘good’ finish, rather than ‘just’ a finish. Now ANY finish trumps no finish to me – by a long shot. I’m so happy to come away with another one no matter how awful or slow it was.
I smiled when my teenage son posted this on his Facebook wall after getting my text message. Made that final 10 hours totally worth it.
(Agile Fox is the trail name bestowed on me by my son’s scout troop. That story is here).
I’ve proven, too many times, that I’m good at slogging out a finish. Time to put a little more of the ‘run’ back in ultrarunner. I’m in good shape and ready to keep rolling this year. Feeling motivated and strong. The chronic injuries are subsiding. I’m already back to running again, feeling good, and hungry for more. I know it wasn’t my legs that totally failed me, and have some good leads on what I think happened that I will talk about another time.
Gotta say thanks and congrats to all my friends who lined up and gave it a go. So great to share the experiences leading up to the race and out on the trail as we all chased our goals. You all continually inspire and motivate me. See ya next year! I’ve got some work to do…
Chris 1 – Leadville 3