Race Report: 2010 Leadville Trail 100
This was supposed to be it. The time to run a mountain 100 miler under 24 hours. Which has been my primary goal since I started running just under 4 years ago. I was ready. I trained well over the summer and had done my homework. Experience was on my side – this would be my fourth trip to the Leadville Trail 100. I volunteered at the Winfield aid station in 2007, dropped out after completing 77 miles in 2008, and had a fairly successful race on pretty light training last year running 24:44 with a lot of room to improve. Game on. I knew from last year’s splits where to hold back, and where to let it fly. I needed 45 minutes and had a well thought out plan on how to get them.
I gave up riding my bike for the summer to focus on putting in the running mileage. Got up before 05:00 on the weekends to get my long runs of up to 35 miles in. Skipped other races I wanted to do in favor of more training. Rehabbed my injuries like crazy – that is an exhausting process in itself, but I needed to get closer to being healthy than I was. Researched and tested out many packs, lights, shoes, and other gear. Came up with creative ways to trim minutes from my aid station transitions (running without crew). For the first time, I accepted offers to pace and had two friends (much more on them later) step up to help me out in my race. In short, I took this attempt pretty seriously and with confidence from last year and some solid training this year – I thought my chances were good.
I got my customary <15 minutes of sleep before the race and shut off my alarms before they went off at 2:22. I felt good and was excited to get started. The weather forecast was outstanding and I was ready to run smart, pace well, and get this done. I hung out at the Provin’ Grounds and soaked up the vibe and exchanged ‘good lucks’ and knowing head nods with friends and other runners. By the time I made my way to the start it was packed! Somewhere around 700 runners were lined up this year. I found pockets of space in the crowd and worked my way forward, thinking about how not very long ago I would just stand off to the side or sit at the back. Now I was looking down at my #55 pinned to my shorts (your bib number reflects your placing from the year before if you come back to race again) knowing that I had earned a spot just a little closer to the front of the crowd. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it reminded me of just how far I had come – which is always good to remember.
I hate the 04:00 start time, but I do love setting out under the absolutely black sky after a huge countdown and shotgun blast to get us rolling. No fear, no worries this time. No drama about thinking how huge of a day it was going to be. Just execute and get it done.
I hit my split to the first aid station at May Queen campground right on the money – 2:20. That is painfully slow, but I knew from last year it would be just right. It’s too early (both in time of day, and time in the race) for me to do more than just a completely comfortable jog. I did have some weird stomach pain going on, but chalked it up to the handful of vitamins I had taken before the start. I didn’t really mean to do that, mostly just out of the daily habit. I had to frustratingly make stops to retie my shoes as they just didn’t feel right. I had purposely tied them tighter than normal before the start, in an attempt to avoid needing to stop and tighten them up, and now I would end up making 4 different stops trying to get them dialed back in. Dumb move.
I planned to ramp up the effort by just a few notches in the next section to Fish Hatchery. I was buried deep in the crowds on the singletrack and fought the urge to expend any energy passing unless it was totally necessary. There will be wide open roads for the next 10-15 miles, plenty of time for passing there. I caught a Green Day song on my iPod (21st Century Breakdown – if the bridge in the middle doesn’t get your legs spinning, I don’t know what will) just as I was cresting the climb and this propelled me up and over in a great mood. Passing people, playing the air drums, stopping to retrieve a gel flask that a lady up ahead had dropped. Climb one done, here we go! I cruised into Fish Hatchery a perfect 5 minutes faster than last year, passed 72 people in the process, and was out in 3-4 minutes after dropping off my long sleeve shirt, reloading my gel/blok supply, and chugging 16 ounces of Ultragen. Normally, Ultragen is reserved for use as a recovery drink after a hard day of training, but I had success last year with taking a serving every 20 miles – the extra shot of calories, protien, and aminos seemed to help. This time something went very wrong. I started feeling terrible, woozy, and ready to spew my guts out. I kept running all the way to the the Treeline turnoff, but could probably have walked it faster. My body just went into absolute rejection mode and I really suffered for a while feeling completely miserable.
Once off the paved road and back in the trees, I started making a slow recovery. I hadn’t even run 30 miles yet and the wheels were already starting to wobble. I knew then that I was likely to be in for a much longer day than I had planned on. Thoughts of quitting started to creep into my mind. It’s tough to keep going when things aren’t ‘fun’ anymore – and when you’ve already had a good race here. C’mon, just bag it and save something for the future… I started to worry about my pacers. They we’re sacrificing a big chunk of time and energy to help me out. If I just quit now, I could call them off and they could at least salvage something out of their day. Wow, I was really starting the downward spiral! I had to have a pretty firm talk with myself, and resolved to finish this thing – no matter how long it took. The sting of having dropped in 2008 still fresh enough to motivate me two years later. I recalled the phrase from the movie Jarhead, “embrace the suck”. This would be my mantra for the rest of the race. Take whatever the race gives you and just keep doing the best you can.
I kept working on the fluids and the calories and things continued to improve. Not to any great levels, but at least good enough to where I knew I could keep after it. Leila came by on the way to Twin Lakes and it was super to have a friendly face in the crowd for a bit. I fell back at first, then was able to keep up all the way into the aid station.
Mile 40. My 24 hour plan was out the window, but I was still within 8 minutes of my arrival time last year. Maybe I could chase those numbers instead. I reloaded my pockets and was quickly off again, plowing through the boggy marshland and crossing the ice cold river. I ran to the bottom of the huge climb to Hope Pass and started up. I really suffered here last year and thought that I could at least match my time from back then. I stayed strong for half of it, then started to exponentially slow down. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this would be a theme for the rest of the race. I could run at the lower elevations ok, but as soon as I crossed over some line while ascending to higher altitude my chest would tighten up and my available lung capacity would drastically diminish. My airway felt fine, no fluid build up that I could tell, no hacking cough, no ratlle or wheeze. Just couldn’t get any air when my respiration needs increased.
This slowed me down a LOT.
I felt better once I headed down the other side and ran much of the road into Winfield. Making it there at 11:17 into the race. Way off where I had planned to be. Even so, I had moved up from 308th position at the first aid station, to 159 here. There was Ben waiting to pick me up for the 10 mile stretch back over the pass to Twin Lakes. It was great to see him there and we got rolling quickly and jogged most of the road back to the trailhead. Now the work begins. This side of Hope Pass is super steep and tough to make very quick progress. We passed a few people after starting the climb and I was determined to work hard and use Ben’s help to at least get back on track with last year’s time. You can’t really not push hard on this climb, but I was trying to manage the effort and keep it at a sustainable level. It was hard, but things seemed to be going ok.
About 1/3 up the climb, the chest thing started up again. Ok, I thought, just go a little slower. Next thing I know my head is spinning, I can’t breathe, and I gotta sit down – FAST. I just plopped on the edge of the trail and tried to keep from passing out. I felt awful. I wanted to throw up, but couldn’t. I was very dizzy and was sweating out what seemed like pure water by the gallon. Dripping everywhere.
This was probably the worst possible place for me to stop, as the trail had nothing but a steep upslope on one side, and on my side was a steep drop. I was sitting with my butt right on the edge of the trail. Compounding things was the mass of two-way traffic trying to navigate past me. Solo runners still on their way to the turnaround at Winfield were in a hurry to get down, and runners with pacers were trying to slog their way up. And me, getting in the way.
I curled up with my head between my knees and was just trying to get things to stabilize a little. It seemed like every person would give me a few words of encouragement, a pat on the back, or a little squeeze on the shoulder as they stepped around my sorry ass. At first, this annoyed me greatly. I was in a very dark place, and couldn’t even think about responding to anyone or anything. Thankfully, Ben was super at the public relations gig and handled the questions and interactions for me. That was a huge help.
I don’t even know how long I sat there. It was a while, that’s for sure – I would end up losing 168 places in this section! Once I started to feel a little less dizzy and could sit up it was time to evaluate the situation. I wanted to continue, but should I?? It seemed the best option might be to try and head back down the way we came and get a ride back. As I sat there trying to decide my fate, the words and the pats continued. I started to feel a change come over me and those gestures that were really getting on my nerves a while ago started to sink in. And build. It’s like every person that passed by offering a word, a pat, a touch, or even a hug (thanks, Beth!) freely gave up a little of their precious energy and strength – to boost me up. People that run these races are a special breed, and I’m happy to be associated with them.
Poor Ben. I felt so bad for him, just having to stand over me and wait. He was a saint. Never got overly concerned or freaked out. His steady presence is exactly what was needed. Ben knows suffering, having walked it in to the finish from 40 miles out with a destroyed knee in last year’s race. He was the perfect person to have there with me. As long as he was sticking with me, I’m going to try…
I stood up. Holding onto a tree for a while, letting things settle down. I knew it was going to be ugly, and there were miles of climbing left to go, but as long as I could make any sort of forward progress at all I was going to get over the top.
Then I tried to walk. Oh man, how am I ever going to make it? I found a 7 foot long dead tree to use as a walking stick. That helped a bunch. My progress was so slow, six inches at a time. I still couldn’t get enough air, but as long as I kept the engine on idle and just crawled up I was ok. One rpm higher and I would have to stop and recover. It even got to a point where I was hanging onto the stick with both hands and leaning on it with my shoulder – stabbing it at the trail ahead of me and then hauling my carcass up with my hands. What was happening to me? I’ve been up in the high mountains plenty of times and never had any problems like this at all. No idea – just getting over the top and descending was all I could think about.
After you get halfway up the climb, the terrain opens up and you can see all the way to the top of the pass. It seemed like so far away! I was crushed, physically and mentally. But the spirit was still alive, and continuing to gain power from all of the encouragement that was still being offered by those that passed. I have never had to rely so much on those around me, always preferring to do things myself. At first I tried to fight it, but once I gave in it really helped turn things around. This was rapidly changing from the ‘me’ show into the ‘we’ show. It felt good.
Inch by inch, the summit got closer. On the last switchback I had to sit down again. This time wasn’t a collapse, though. I took in some calories and water, and took a while to arrange my pack for the descent. The descent?? Yes! We’re actually going to get over this thing!!
Once on top, Ben snapped a few pics and I threw down the stick and started to run. My legs were nice and rested from that leisurely ascent and I felt better and better with every foot of altitude that we lost. Rally time.
I knew we’d be racing darkness once we dropped into the thick trees and started to worry about Kirk who was waiting to pace me at Twin Lakes. We were WAY behind schedule.
The rest of the run to Twin Lakes was awesome. I felt back to my normal self and greatly enjoyed running through the forest with a good buddy and catching up on old times. The legs were strong and the lungs cooperated once we dropped low enough to have an acceptable amount of available oxygen. We came up on Barefoot Ted who was moving very well in his running sandals. I asked to get by and he didn’t yield anything (understandable since you don’t want to step off-trail in those thin soles while cruising down a super steep hill). He just said, “You better do it now, with some conviction.” That fired me up in a good way and I made a pass reminiscient of the mountain bike racing days and kicked up the pace even higher. We flew down the rest of the hill and across the meadows to the river crossing, getting honks and waves from Ben’s family who were parked on the road. I had a lot of fun there – thank you, Ben!! Totally saved my day…
Kirk was waiting at Twin Lakes, he had the car set up with all of my stuff to transition into the next section of running into the night. I changed shoes/socks, grabbed more gels/bloks, got my lights, and was ready to get on with this. The return trip from Winfield took me 5:16!! That’s for 10 miles! All of that extra time was on the climb, as the descent was as fast or even faster than I’ve done it in the past. Needless to say, Kirk was a little worried about us – having been there for almost 3 hours waiting to see us come in. Now it was almost 8:30, getting dark, and we still had 40 miles to go. I told him that I hoped he brought a book to read, this could take a while.
We got moving and tackled the climb ahead of us. Kirk hiking strongly ahead, while I did what I could. I really like this section, it is a nice bit of singletrack through pine and aspen covered hillsides. Running it in the dark is always a treat, and it was a beautiful night to be out in the mountains.
I started feeling bad again near the top of the climb, my already slow pace dropping even more. We weren’t quite high enough to shut me down as bad as before, but I was feeling the same old chest routine again. I looked forward to the long gradual descent that was coming up and with Kirk’s help really got rolling again on that stretch. We moved well and passed a lot of people through here, running pretty strong down to the paved road leading to Fish Hatchery. Walked for a spell, then jogged the last couple of miles to the aid station. Considering the circumstances, I was happy enough to be moving ok – but at the same time casting a wary eye towards the next big obstacle. The Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass climb.
Sure enough, as I gained some altitude and started working harder, I got slammed again. Not as bad as Hope Pass, but I did have to stop a lot. At least this time I knew that no matter how slow I had to go, I could get it done. Kirk patiently guided me up the climb, as I staggered behind using another stick to hep me along. This one was shaped like a cane and fit the need perfectly.
We made it to the top after a very, very long time. I sat down on a stump to refuel and was completely wiped out. Just couldn’t get any air and wanted to curl up again. Perfect time to pull out the video camera!! I love this clip. It just shows that when you are at rock-bottom you can still rally. Sit down, rest a bit, eat something, drink a little – stand up and move on. What the video doesn’t show is that about 10 minutes later, after many tries, I finally got the legs kickstarted again and we were running well down the other side.
We made good progress to the last aid station at May Queen, stopped for a second to admire the absolutely brilliant night sky, and got back to work. I can’t say enough about Kirk’s companionship all through the night – he kept me engaged in conversation, running when the terrain allowed, and on track when things got bad. We still had 20 miles to go at the time I had originally been planning on finishing!
I progressively ran more and more of the trail, again using my relatively fresh legs to make up a little ground. My quads were absolutely killing me, but I could deal. The sun came up and we were still at it…
It seems like a bit of a tradition to just walk in the last few miles when you’re at the point I was. The glory times have all passed, and you are still under the finish line cutoff, so what’s the reason to push it? The route is a long and steady grind uphill back to town, but I ran it all once we got past the initial rocky climb. I wanted to give everything I had just as a way of saying thank you to the friends that had helped me out through the day and the night. Even though I didn’t have the race I wanted, I needed to give this my best effort.
Kirk paced me perfectly, giving words of encouragement along the way, and we slowly but surely increased the speed as we got closer to town. He graciously peeled off and I kicked with everything I had across the line. I made up 147 spots under his watch to finish in 27:52 and 180th place – running the 63rd fastest split from May Queen to the finish. I was thrilled. So glad to have stuck it out. So glad to have good support and that I took advantage of it. It was the most satisfying ‘failure’ I’ve ever had. I learned a lot out there….