I ran the Leadville Trail Marathon on Saturday, 7/3. Going into the race, my strategy was...to race it. But about 7 miles into the race, as I was running 14th, a volunteer inadvertently misdirected me, sending me down the wrong trail. About a quarter-mile down the trail I realized I was off course and had to run back up a hill to the aid station, where the volunteer apologized and got me back on track. I had lost about 5 minutes and any hopes of decent placement were dashed. This is all a part of trail races! No worries!
It's difficult to imagine a harder marathon. A good case could be made that the Pikes Peak Marathon is harder, as it does travel 7,300 feet up a 14,115-foot mountain. But on the way back it's basically all downhill and it does start at a manageable 7,000 feet. Starting at 10,200 feet, the Leadville Marathon isn't all downhill on the way back. It brutalizes you in both directions, bringing 13,000 feet of gain and loss and plenty of thin air the whole way, with two passes on 12,000-foot Ball Mountain and a turnaround on top of the very rocky 13,185-foot Mosquito Pass--the summit being above treeline. These passes make the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill, which many consider the "toughest" hill of any marathon, look like a parking lot speed bump. In fact, the Leadville Marathon is far harder than any 50K trail race I've ever done. Ask me again in a year or two what the hardest marathon or 50K I've done is and my answer may be different than it is now. For now, it's the Leadville Marathon.
Throughout the 26.2-mile course, you're in the historic mining district east of Leadville, which is the highest incorporated city in the U.S. The course consists mostly of old mining roads and trails, as Leadville has quite the mining history. You pass by old abandoned mining facilities that are quite spooky. These are the reminders of the good 'ole days that have long passed and left a city with an extraordinary history to tell (and show) and a desperate reliance on tourism and racers. The city sure knows how to put on a good race. That's what has made events like the Leadville 100-Mile Run legendary, and it's why Lance Armstrong and others come to town every year for the 100-mile mountain bike race.
First, the basics: I finished 28th overall with a 4:55. Very disappointing. My goal was 4:20 or better. However, the conventional wisdom has it that a finish of better than 5 hours at the Leadville Marathon is very respectable.
Going into the race, I had tapered for the previous six days--wracking up just 34 miles--on the heels of a 94-mile week. So I thought I was fresh enough for a good effort at Leadville.
When the shotgun (yes, shotgun) went off at 8:00 a.m., we were off, heading down 5th Street and eventually making our way onto the mining roads going up to Ball Mountain. The first six miles were basically all up hill, topping out at around 12,000 feet. I felt pretty solid on this section and let it rip on the downhills going into the second aid station at 7.1 miles. My confidence was quite good.
But after the debacle at the second aid station--losing 5 minutes and more than 10 positions after being misdirected--the air had been let out of my sails. No matter, I still let it rip on the mostly downhill section from the 7.1-mile aid station to the foot of Mosquito Pass (about 10 miles into the race). I picked off a few runners, but it was obvious to me that I'd lost a lot of ground in those 5 minutes and the best approach now was to just do my best. If I tried to make up the time, I might blow up.
The three-mile climb up Mosquito Pass starts at about 11,200 feet and ends at 13,185 feet. It's on very rocky ATV road with three switch-backs. Only a third of the way up Mosquito Pass, with half-marathoners flying down the mountain (they'd run an abbreviated course to Mosquito and were thus way ahead of the marathoners), I was humbled by the realization that I still have a ways to go before I'm fully acclimated. Don't get me wrong; I didn't have any meltdowns and I was always pushing ahead hard. But I did a lot of power-walking up Mosquito when I really should have been running. I was breathing pretty hard. My legs were tired. My back was aching from too much leaning foward on the uphills--and probably the 70-ounce Camelbak that I should have left behind. I felt discouraged, especially during one mile that I covered in 19 minutes.
In Ohio, I could power up the hills. I won a 100-mile race--the Mohican--notable for its hills. And here, despite the fact that I'm knocking off weeks of 90-105 miles in preparation for the Leadville 100, I'm just a guy struggling up huge-ass mountains when in my mind I should be running up those things. I saw Matt Carpenter run all the way up 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, gliding along the Barr Trail, and, even though I'm no where near the the super-freakish talent he is, in my mind I too should be able to run up a mountain. To this, a line from "Top Gun" most certainly applies: "Son, your ego's writing checks your body can't cash!"
Well, I finally got to the top of Mosquito, marking the half-way point but really for me 13.6 miles--2:35 into the race. Yowzers! Up top, the temperature was at least 25 degrees colder--the upper 30s, I'd say--and the wind was howling with gusts of over 50 miles per hour. With nothing but some shorts and a singlet on, I was cold and quickly slipped into my Under Armour shirt, which thankfully I'd packed in my Camelbak just in case. And then I was off!
Have you ever been on top of a 13,000-foot mountain? If you have, you know that at such elevations you are mentally not there. Still foggy in the head, I powered down Mosquito as best as I could, running fairly aggressively for a guy still learning how to navigate very rocky mountain trails and warding off gusts that felt like I'd encountered an invisible brick wall. I quickly stopped to help a half-marathoner who had fallen hard. I was moving quite well down the mountain but was still in a stupor when I arrived at the 16.4-mile aid station. The route split--marathoners this way, half-marathoners that way. I was so mentally fried that I didn't even notice the sign telling you where to go, and so I had to ask. As I ran off, I heard the aid station worked tell another, "It's the elevation--does them in mentally." Well said.
Miles 16.4 to 22.4 could be described in one word--uphill. At mile 20 you're back up over 12,000 feet--yes, Ball Mountain again. By now I was running at about 9-10-minute pace. I was never really out of breath. I was just really working hard on the uphills. At 12,000+ feet, it's like you're deflated. At 13,000 feet, it's like you're completely flat. At 14,000 feet, you are in slow-motion, working hard just to put one foot in front of the other.
After the 22.4-mile aid station, I was home free, basically running with an open stride downhill for the next 3.8 miles, losing about 2,000 feet until you arrive in downtown Leadville, elevation 10,200 feet. I wasn't in the greatest of shape by the time I was back out on 5th Street and making my way to the finish, but I was nonetheless moving at about 7:30 pace, having flipped the switch to "autopilot." A storm was gathering overhead, with a light sprinkle coming down. I didn't see any lightning, but I thought about the many behind me who were going to get whacked by the system.
So I crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 55 minutes--good for 28th place. My time was more than a half-hour off my goal. Had I not gotten misdirected, I might have run a 4:49 or 4:50--still way off my goal.
Yes, I was humbled by the Leadville Marathon, but I'm going to try hard not to let it discourage me as I prepare for the Leadville 100. When I look at the numbers, I see a marathon with nearly 13,000 feet of gain and loss over its 26.2 miles, and with three mountain passes and a high point of 13,185 feet. The 100-mile run has about 30,000 feet of gain and loss, with four mountain passes and a high point of 12,600 feet. That means that the ups and downs of the Leadville 100 will be more spread out, allowing for some "recovery."
Bottom line is this: By August 21, having lived here for about 140 days, I still might not be fully acclimated to the Leadville elevation, but I'll be ready to give it my all. Between now and then, I think it's critical that I spend as much time as possible way up there. On July 18, I have the Barr Trail Mountain Race, which goes up to 10,000-foot Barr Camp on Pikes Peak and back--a total of 14 miles. That day I'll work in some extra running at Pikes Peak, trying to get to 20+. Sometime soon thereafter, I want to return to Pikes Peak for a second summit. I might even spend a few nights up near Leadville, sleeping in my truck. With the understanding that family needs always come first, here are my mileage goals from now through Aug. 1, when my 3-week taper begins.
7/5-7/11: 100+ miles
7/12-7/18: 110 miles (Barr Trail Mountain Race)
7/19-7/25: 90 miles
7/26-8/1: 110 miles (hopeful Pikes Peak summit)
Before signing off, I have some great news to share. My mother and brother and maybe my dad will be coming to Leadville to crew for me--as will Anne and Noah. I also have a pacer, Michele V., and hopefully I can pick up a second pacer. I think asking 50 miles from Michele would be asking a lot. I am very excited about my family being there to crew for me and take part in their first 100-mile race. I'm a little worried about them going from sea level to Leadville with an inadequate acclimatization time in Denver, but I'm sure they'll stay hydrated and there will be opportunities for rest since we'll have a crew of 3 or more.
Run hard. Run happy.