2013 Leadville 100: The Big One
I’d been hesitant to blog in the weeks leading up to my shot at running the Leadville 100. My training this year has been solid and I was reasonably happy with my lead-up races since May. But, there were jitters and creeping uncertainties, including concerns from a fairly big fall down the rocky descent of Mt. Sanitas two weeks before my biggest race of the year. Cut, bruised, and hobbling was not the ideal physical state leading into my taper and I had some real worries that the injuries would factor heavily in my chances to cover the 100-mile mountain course in Leadville.
Luckily, my body healed up reasonably well but my head was all sorts of a mess. Not only was the Leadville 100 my biggest event of the year, it was one I had mentally penciled in years before as something of a pinnacle of ultra running. Alison and the kids were coming along, the first time for any of them to see me race in Colorado. My Austin buddy, Andres Capra, was using his once-a-year vacation block to come pace me at his own expense. My other pacer, Matt Wiencek, was again selflessly stepping up to be at my side to face whatever might come in 100-miler. Many assorted friends from across the Front Range and beyond would be out there, including virtually the entire Rocky Mountain Runners crew. Almost everyone in my life knew I was doing this race and it is one of the few ultras that even non-runners might have heard of. So, the pressure was on.
After my first 100-miler finish last year at the Cactus Rose 100, I knew I had one primary issue to address: how could I run more and hike less to cover 100 miles faster on my second attempt at the distance? 10 months and a couple thousand miles of trail running later, I still don’t have the answer. What I do have, however, is a coveted finish on the iconic Leadville 100 course. It wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but I got it done in in 28 hours, 21 minutes, and 55 seconds. 943 runners started, only 494 finished within the 30-hour time limit, with over a quarter of all finishers doing so in the final hour of the race. I ran-stumbled across the line in 287th place. Now, for the 28+ hours leading up to that point…
Lots can and often does go wrong in a 100-mile race. Weather is unpredictable. Gear can be unreliable or get lost, broken, or forgotten. Blisters, stomach cramps, vomiting, dehydration, over-hydration, headaches, falls, hypothermia, hyperthermia, sunburn, windburn, chaffing, cuts, toenail damage, breathing problems, blurred vision, sprains, incoherence, hallucinations, bugs bites and stings, and crippling fatigue are some of the better known maladies but the full list is quite a bit longer and the affects often more extreme at a race like Leadville. Amazingly, I didn’t have a single one of these issues. That, however, doesn’t mean that the day lacked adversity.
The allure of Leadville is that the course throws a little of everything at the runners. Obviously, even for a well trained runner, 100 miles is a big chunk to knock off in one go. Many friends have asked me when runners stop to sleep. Answer: very few runners stop for much of anything and almost none stop to sleep, me included. The lowest elevation of the course is over 9,200′; most of the course is over 10,000′ and there are multiple points over 12,000′. That means very little oxygen, which is kind of a problem for people who need to breathe.
Starting line temps are in the 30s, daytime temps can jump to near 80 degrees which, due to the thin atmosphere of the high mountains, feels much warmer. Once the sun sets, temps again drop to near freezing. There are at least five significant mountain climbs and descents, most prominent among them being the climb up and over Hope Pass that then descends to the turnaround point, where the runners are sent right back up the same mountain for a total of nearly 12,000′ of combined climbing and descending in just a 20-mile section of the course between miles 40-60 of the race. In total, there is roughly 30,000′ of elevation change over the 100 miles, more than twice what I faced in my first 100-miler at Cactus Rose. Twice runners cross a river with the aid of a rope to keep from being swept away. The terrain varies from dirt and even stretches of paved roads to single- and double-track mountain trails, to rocky switchbacks and grassy fields. Oh, and the actual distance is said to be about 102 miles, not 100 miles.
With about 1000 runners starting the race and the out-and-back format, there are many miles of tight passes, including steep uphills and downhills, where weary racers jockey for position and pace, often nearly missing collisions of bodies and packs and trekking poles. And, unfortunately, there are many actually collisions, which can rattle the body and mind when trying to move quickly and navigate narrow trails that often has steep drop offs.
It is a long, long race for everyone. Only 12 runners finished under 20 hours; many runners – men and women – who routinely win races around the country took much longer and many hundreds of very fit, very experienced runners didn’t finish at all. So, it’s hard to give even a brief section-by-section overview of my experience and I’m not going to try. The broader experience was something like this: I ran easily for most of the first 40 miles, then my knees started aching to the point where I could run no faster than I could hike. So, I hiked. For the majority of the last 60+ miles.
Since my knees screamed on the downhills, where I normally move quite well, I would have to step aside to let entire groups of runners pass. In what felt like bizarro world, I was able to pass dozens of racers up every hill, as my energy was strong almost the entire race and hiking even fast uphill didn’t hurt. Up both sides of Hope Pass, up the climb out of Twin Lakes, up the grueling miles-long Powerline climb in the middle of the night starting at mile 77, all day and all night I was able to cruise uphill. It was really weird but great to essentially maintain pace on what are generally considered the toughest stretches of the course. Unfortunately, the pace I was maintaining was far slower than I’d have liked.
A step back to the turnaround at mile 50. That’s where I picked up Andres, who paced me back up and over Hope Pass down into mile 60 at Twin Lakes. It was a huge morale boost to have him with me and really meaningful to be back on Hope Pass together four years after we teamed up for the 2009 TransRockies Run (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Andres tried mightily to get me to move a bit faster on the downhills and flats but, sadly, my knees just wouldn’t cooperated.
It was really nice to see so many friends all day on the course racing and pacing and crewing. But, it was only at mile 60 where I got to briefly reunite with Alison, Sagan, and Story, who were all wonderfully sweet and supportive. It would be another 12 hours until I’d see them at the finish.
Matt picked me up for his 26-mile pacing shift. Matt is, unquestionably, as solid a guy as I’ve ever met. In the many (8?) hours it took me to cover just a marathon distance he didn’t once complain or show a hint of impatience or frustration, which would have been completely understandable. As expected, he kept me fed and focused, part Sherpa, part therapist, as I trudged through some of the darkest, loneliest miles of the course. Through my nearly constant grunting (my Achilles swelled to the size of an apple), Matt moved me forward and got me to the final aid station in good spirits.
Andres was rearing to go at mile 87, eager to push me hard to the finish line. His enthusiasm was great, even if somewhat wasted on me. I made it clear that there would be no more running, a guarantee I broke a handful of times in those final 4 hours but mostly it was a power hike to the finish. With only about an hour to the end my mood, which had been genuinely good all race, went south. I guess that’s ok, as it was my only really low point of the entire race and it didn’t keep me from moving. Another sunrise – my second since starting the race – came and with it I knew I was going to finish. My primary time goal of sub-25 hours was out of reach by halfway, my secondary goal of sub-27 hours slipped away a few hours prior, but I was beyond pleased to know that I was, indeed, going to finish.
The very final mile to the finish line is an entirely uphill road into the heart of Leadville. With nothing left to lose, I committed to running it with Andres. My stride was so short that the heal of my front foot would barely extend beyond the toe of my rear foot but, goddammit, I was running! As I approached the line, Alison and Story were there to cheer and Matt and Sagan joined Andres and me in the final steps – a moment that will be part of me forever.
I expected I’d cry but the fatigue and satisfaction manifested only in smiles. With the help of Andres and Matt, the love of my family, and support of friends near and far, I finished the Leadville 100 run. Now I could sit down.
I had been trying to get updates on my racing friends all day and night. When only half of starters even finish the race, it is hard to know what to expect when so many friends are out there. I had spent the previous couple of days with fellow racer friends Alberto Rossi and Ryan Lassen, along with our crews and pacers. Our mutual friends, Mike Oliva and Greg Salvesen, were on the course. Harry Hamilton, who I befriended and paced last year, was back to better his time. I had heard that a couple of the guys were possibly going to drop at different points and, having witnessed their level of difficulty earlier in the race, it looked like some consolation was going to be in order for those whose races didn’t pan out. But, remarkably, every one of my friends finished! Alberto finished 75th overall in 23:44, an impressive result for any runner but stunning for a guy running his first 100-miler. Harry improved by nearly an hour over his 2012 run, finishing in 24:17. Mike Oliva, who was curled up in a ball on the ground repeatedly throughout the race, somehow pieced together a bunch of 6-minute miles in the second half of the race, going from a seemingly certain DNF to a sub-25 hour finish. Ryan suffered mightily but came through just 7 minutes ahead of me, Greg recovered enough from his difficulties to cross in 29:11.
There are so many friends and family members who supported me both in Leadville and elsewhere. The biggest thanks to Alison and the kids for their support and sacrifices for this lengthy race build-up, which included 7 out-of-town ultras in just the last 14 weeks and to my pacers, Matt and Andres, for literally being by my side to see me through the journey. As always, love to my parents, siblings, and curiously confused family spread across the country. The Rocky Mountain Runners have been invaluable for both training and emotional support this year, including (but not limited to!) Alberto Rossi, Ryan Lassen, Mike Oliva, Ryan Smith, Silke Koester, Cassie Scallon, Mike Grady, Leila Degrave, Kerrie Bruxvoort, and Neeraj Engineer. To my other CO running buddies, Sherpa John Lacroix, Marty Kibiloski, Brett Astor, Mike Sandrock, Anders Mavis, Dave Smitty Smith, Peter Hegelbach, Greg Nash, Eric Lee, and Basit Mustafa, thanks. To my veteran ultra badass and role model, Olga King, you’ll always be the first, best ultra runner in my life. And to my longtime friend and burgeoning runner, Josh Wallach, it has been awesome to have a fan.