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My 13 Hours Over Leadville: A Success Story at the Highest 100-miler in the United States

August 21, 2012

{NOTE: I just saw how the title of this post reads and I could be accused of being grossly misleading.  I DID NOT RUN THE LEADVILLE 100 IN 13 HOURS.  I paced for 13 hours at the Leadville 100, covering about 52 miles over the back half of the course. }

Harry Hamilton ran the Leadville 100 Trail “Race Across the Sky” in 25 hours and 8 minutes, in the process very much earning my respect, admiration, and a bit of envy.  Though I was only with him for the second half of the race, I got to be part of a truly awe-inspiring feat of mental and physical toughness unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  Harry kept running – I mean running hard enough I had to try to catch him – even 85, 90 miles into the event, each step resulting in a tiny grunt, every turn painful but deliberate, heavy breathing through unwavering determination hour after hour after hour.  Congratulations, Harry, you really earned this one and you should be supremely proud of how you proved yourself yet again, this time in one of the most physically demanding events in the world.

While we had talked a bit over the last couple of months, I hadn’t met Harry until Thursday afternoon.  He needed a pacer (everyone needs a pacer) for his first stab at running the Leadville 100.  Despite his deep experience in running, including multiple prior 100-milers, he was just a few days removed from life at sea level and about to take on a race over terrain many can’t walk for more than a few minutes, due to the ruggedness and, more so, the oxygen-deprived air at the high elevation.

Harry and I talked a good bit on Thursday and Friday but we hadn’t yet run a step together before he got to the turnaround point for the race at a little non-town called Winfield.  He had a super specific race plan, including goal times for each leg of the race and gear to exchange at precise intervals.  His expectation was to meet me at halfway at 4pm, 12 hours into his race, and run with me for just under 13 hours back to the start.  The timing was critical, as breaking 25 hours at Leadville is a major feat that earns the runner a coveted “big buckle” for the performance.

On the Tuesday of race week an exciting announcement came from the race organizers: a section of the race that has historically been on road was being re-routed to trail.  This is a trail race, after all, and the slightly altered course made for a more scenic and, perhaps, safer route since it avoided a stretch that otherwise shares space with vehicles.  The good news, however, meant that the race just got harder and longer, as the changed route included 800 feet more of elevation change (400 up, 400 down) and nearly 3 miles of added distance.

It was explained, reluctantly and only after public questioning, by a race official in a race briefing (with low level booing from the crowd) that the former course in use for 30 years was actually slightly less than 100 miles.  The new course, by most estimations, is right about 102 miles.  This fact turned out to be rather significant for Harry, who missed the coveted 25-hour finish time by a mere 8 minutes – a time difference of no more than a half mile.

Back to where my full-on Leadville experience started, right about 3:40pm.  Harry made it halfway 20 minutes under his original goal of 12 hours but was dissatisfied, as he had really hoped to make it in about 11 hours to provide a bigger cushion.  It almost goes without saying that one needs more time to run the second half of a very long race, as a runner is dealing with all kinds of fatigue, along with the slowing course conditions including nearly pitch black darkness.  How much additional time is needed to make the return varies greatly on the runner and the particulars of the day but by the time we left together, after getting some food and drink in Harry and a bit of foot maintenance – his feet are a mangled mess in the best of times – we had just over 13 hours to make it back for his “A” goal.  (His “B” goal, like most ultra-runners, was to finish under the time cut-off for the race, which is 30 hours for Leadville.)

It is worth mentioning that many people who try very, very hard don’t finish in ultra-marathons.  100 milers, in particular, are unsurprisingly difficult to finish even for fit, well-training, focused, and committed athletes.  Leadville offers challenges not found at many other 100-milers and the high constant elevation is perhaps the greatest.  Fewer than half of starters finish the Leadville 100 run, year after year.  This year only 358 of 795 starters made it to the end.

Harry and I took off right from where he had just been, retracing his steps of the last nearly 12 hours.  I was super eager to run well, both for my own training and to prove myself to be a competent pacer.  Fellow Boulder friend and a pacer for another runner, Silke, wrote a great post of her own pacing experience, with terrific photos and descriptions of the Leadville course.  You see some of the pics I took and I always fail when try to adequately describe mountains so I’ll stick to what comes naturally: talking about myself.

The long day taught me a lot about what I need to think more about for my own 100.  Things that have crossed my mind but proved to be more important than I would have thought before spending over half a day on the move with an experienced 100-mile runner.  What I learned includes:

  • Every second counts.  Harry wanted to finish in under 90,000 seconds but the race took him 90,499.  Less than 500 seconds over more than a day-long activity.  That’s not much of a difference.  It is close to nothing.  If you pee once an hour and each stop costs a total of only 20 seconds, that’s 500 seconds.  I will not be wasting any extra time peeing by looking for an ideal spot just a handful of steps off of the trail.  Instead, when I need to pee, I will coast to a stop, minimally adjust my shorts to allow for a stream, turn my genitals away from approaching runners, and go right where I am.  Simple manuever can save me at least a handful of minutes.
  • Carry as little as possible.   I started my pacing day with a jam-packed race vest, including a water bladder, gels, three lights and extra batteries, safety and comfort supplies, an extra shirt, a jacket, warm hat, 2 pairs of gloves, a phone, and on and on.  At some point I also was carrying a bunch of Harry’s stuff, including gloves, a bandana, and thick shirt stuffed in my shorts and his hip pack with dual hydration bottles around my waist.  When I run my 100 I will wear as little as possible and carry almost nothing, perhaps just a hand bottle.
  • Use the aid stations as much and as fast as possible. When, 12 hours in I almost threw up just thinking about another gel – not an exaggeration, I started to heave before I even opened the packet – I realized that I will be eating other things if I want to finish a 100 mile run.  My plan was “gels and water only” for my 100 but I’ve found that I’ll have to take in whatever I can.  New plan – eat a gel every 20 minutes no matter what, unless the what is imminent and certain vomiting, in which case eat a lot of anything else.
  • A pacer really, really helps.  This is not bragging, though I think I did help Harry get through the course quite a bit faster than he’d have done without me.  He’d have finished, I’m certain, but it would have taken longer, been more difficult, and probably not have been as much fun.  There are a ton of little things a pacer can and often should do that I only realized as I was doing it.  There are basics, like reminding the runner to eat and drink and maybe take salt or medication or put on sunscreen or a hat.  Or keeping the runner moving and on course.  But there are countless little other things, like computing time to the next aid station or running on the non-trail rough terrain next to the single track the runner is on in order to help shine an extra beam of light for the runner to follow or taking the sticky trash from there hands and stowing their trash or heading first down the steep loose rocks to establish the best line or answering routine questions asked by other runners and pacers so your runner doesn’t have to waste energy talking when tired or following behind, silent for hours at a time just to give the runner a sense they aren’t all alone out there in the heat or the cold or the wind or the rain or even under a perfect starry night.
  • Finishing a 100 depends on two things: not getting hurt and continuing to move.  For the Leadville 100, that means hiking an average of about 18 minutes a mile to finish within 30 hours.  That’s not very fast.  Of course the climbs are slower than that for most who run Leadville but anyone who can walk at a leisurely pace for a day without stopping much can finish Leadville.  That’s a big if but, barring injury, it is doable for most who would be willing to train for a year or so.  For highly trained trail runners who have been at it for 5, 10, 25 years, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.  If I ever DNF a race, I can only imagine it would be for an injury that physically prevents me from continuing.  That could certainly happen.  But, otherwise, as long as I just eat a lot, drink as necessary, and don’t stop for more than a minute or two at any aid station, there’s absolutely no excuse for me not to finish.

As I mentioned, I was Harry’s sole pacer covering half of the race plus some distance added due to doubling back for aid station necessities and scouting ahead to be sure where we were going and taking all the wide turns.  We didn’t want him to stop for anything away from aid stations, but I had to quite often to get things for him from my bag, or change batteries, or adjust gear in one way or another.  This meant fairly frequent 1-2 minute fartlek run-style efforts to catch up with him as quickly as possible.  (Even with the “break” this sort of running is far more tiring that covering the same distance at a steady effort). And I was standing in as Harry’s entire crew to get him fed, hydrated, clothes on and off, drop bags searched and rearranged, medicine dispensed, and future needs anticipated.  Just for fun, since Harry mentioned rarely having pictures from his races, I also tried to be his personal photographer, which meant sometimes scrambling off (usually up) trail to get in position for a shot.

[Above, Harry at 5:30am after race.]

All of this, along with trying to provide some humor and motivation and a positive attitude for so many hours, takes it’s toll.  I finished tired, with heavy legs, wanting very much to sit and be taken care of.  But, I didn’t feel done.  I didn’t feel truly exhausted.  I was able to pretty much go on with my day.  There were very few points in my pacing experience where I was feeling really taxed.  I had speed and endurance in reserve and nothing hurt.  I knew, without question, that I could turn around and run some more.  Now, I’m thinking that next year I’ll maybe go and run the other direction and find out if I can make it all the way back again.  It is premature to plan that far ahead but, if I do take it on as a competing runner, I better start getting my plan together.  Just to be sure I’m prepared for any contingency,the Mike Randall 2013 Leadville 100 Run Pacer Sign-up List starts here in the Comments section.

  1. Josh permalink

    If you’ll have me for 20 miles or less, I’m in.

  2. Josh, many (most?) Leadville pacers do just a single leg between consecutive aid stations. I have no doubt you can handle 20 or more miles at ultramarathon pace but even being along for 7-10 miles would be hugely helpful.

    • Josh permalink

      I guess I have my next training program to start working on, after nov 4 race. Looking forward to it.

  3. Proud of all selfless stuff you did. Too bad on those 8 damn minutes! Looking forward seeing you in great shape in 2 months.

  4. Anonymous permalink

    Great Report, I am friends with Harry and have paced him @ North Face 50M. He is an animal and I am sure he appreciated everything you did. Good luck next year at your attempt. Randy

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