Monday, August 23, 2010

Leadville 100 Race Report--Part I

My initial reaction to my result at the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run, also known as "The Race Across the Sky," was one of relative disappointment. As a rather ambitious runner, I had set out to finish this race in less than 20 hours, which I knew might put me in the top 10. I knew that was an ambitious goal for a guy who'd lived at elevation for less than 5 months but I nonetheless aimed high with my expectations. Here's how the organizers describe the course:
The 50-mile out and back course is in the midst of the Colorado Rockies. Low point, 9,200 feet; high point is Hope Pass, 12,600 feet. Majority is on forest trails with some mountain roads. Pacers allowed after the 50-mile point (exceptions only by request).
Here's the elevation profile for the LT100 (click on the image for a larger view):

So basically for the full 100 miles you're running 2+ miles in the sky--hence "The Race Across the Sky."

Well, the sub-20-hour finish will have to wait for another year. In the meantime, I'll remain proud of the fact that I was one of only 98 runners among a field of over 700 starters who finished Leadville in under 25 hours (24:47/92nd overall), earning the very prestigious, sought-after LT100 gold and silver belt buckle and a lifetime of memories. Kind of like the tough-as-nails hard-rock miners who make Leadville great, in the LT100 you have to go through hell to get the gold and silver at the end.

Throughout the race, there were many sources of inspiration and motivation. I'll say more about my wife Anne and our son Noah, as well as my big brother and mom, who crewed for me, and also my pacers, Henry, Lance and Maureen (a.k.a. Mo), a little later. Here and now, though, I want to say how inspiring it was to hear some powerful words from Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville 100, during the pre-race meeting and pep rally. As Ken apparently says every year, "You're better than you think you are and can do more than you think you can!" Playing on Leadville's extraordinary mining history, he also told us to "dig deep" when it got tough during the race. Those may sound like platitudes, but when you're 86 miles into this insanely challenging race and very sick, those words start to mean something to you. More on that later.

My crew consisted of my mom and my brother Will, who flew in from Atlanta, as well as Anne who was with Noah. We stayed in a large cabin in Leadville with fellow LT100 runner Matt Curtis (27:47 finisher) and his family and friends. This was Matt's first 100-miler--pretty courageous, if you ask me. I've known Matt for literally 30 years. We ran cross country together and, in 1986, went to LA with our team, the Howard County Junior Striders, for the Junior Olympics (I didn't deserve to be there--such a crappy runner as a kid). His parents and my parents are dear friends. We now live only 25 minutes from each other and had gone on a few LT100 training runs together. It was great spending time with Matt and his family and friends. There were about a dozen of us in the cabin--a very large cabin located just outside of town near Turquoise Lake.

On race day morning, some members of Matt's crew, including his wife, Eileen, drove both Matt and me to the start at 6th and Harrison streets in downtown Leadville. It was in the 30s and the town was festive, as runners were everywhere. After checking in, Matt and I went to the front of the gathering pack awaiting the countdown. An electric atmosphere, to say the least. Finally, the shotgun blasted at 4:00 a.m. and we were off.

Start to Mayqueen (13.5): 2:00
I arrived at the Mayqueen aid station (13.5 miles) in exactly two hours, having navigated the fairly technical though mostly flat trail along Turquoise Lake while spending some time talking with Regis Shivers, Jr., who had also moved to Colorado from Ohio, and John Rice, both of whom I knew prior to the race. The trail along the lake had slowed me down a little as I'm still working to improve my trail skills. My goal for Mayqueen was around 1:50. I wasn't in the best of spirits when I arrived. My left foot, which had been hit hard by plantar fasciitis only three weeks before the race, was bothering me but fortunately it was stabilized and supported via KT Tape, which had made it feel so much better the week prior to the race. Entering Mayqueen, I was freaking out inside my head. The look on my face probably was not what my mom and brother wanted to see from me after they'd graciously traveled halfway across the country to help me. I spent less than a minute at Mayqueen and was off. Something about coming into Mayqueen and seeing my brother and mom waiting for me, with my stuff all arranged for me, was deeply touching. I knew I was in very good hands and decided that at the next aid station I'd try to be cheerier.

Mayqueen to Fish Hatchery (23.5): 3:49:45
The climb up from Mayqueen via Hagerman Pass really wasn't too bad and it was here that my left foot actually started feeling better. With incredibly beautiful elevated views of Turquoise Lake and a spectacular sunrise, I felt pretty good on Hagerman, and I continued to feel good going up the trail to the 11,100-foot Sugarloaf Pass. On the way down Sugarloaf and the Powerline descent I had decided that my foot was going to be okay and so would I! All of that said, during the Powerline descent I realized that climbing this bad boy 80something miles into the race--in the dark--on the return trip was going to be quite challenging. More on that later!

Coming into the Fish Hatchery.

After descending Powerline and running the road into the Fish Hatchery (23.5), I was again greeted by my mom and brother, who were happily with Anne and Noah at the aid station. I was so glad to see my family and, with my foot now just fine and the conditions perfect, my confidence was high. I told them not to worry about my foot--I was going to be okay and finish this sucker.

Noah at the Fish Hatchery.

Fish Hatchery to Halfmoon (30.5): 5:14
The stretch between the Fish Hatchery and Halfmoon (30.5) isn't too difficult. There are some hills, but overall this is one of the more tame stretches. Three miles before Halfmoon outbound you're allowed to access your crew at the Pipeline area, which provides ample parking for crews. Halfmoon was reconfigured a bit last year due to a nearby Blackhawk helicopter crash, and this year the race organizers mostly stuck with the reroute with one tweak--crews had to gather at Pipeline, not Treeline. All good.

Coming into Pipeline.

My brother and mom were there at Pipeline and my needs here were minimal. My greatest need, actually, was a pair of roomier road shoes, which they didn't have because I had stupidly not included a pair in my crew vehicle stuff. All of my shoes were in my aid station drop bags. The shoes I had on, Salmon Speedcross 2 trail shoes, weren't roomy enough and my toes were hurting. The descent down Powerline had been especially uncomfortable. Once at Halfmoon, I changed into my nice, comfy Asics and felt like I'd been given new feet. They felt spectacular! A little pissed that I was running behind schedule but with spirits still very high, I was nonetheless off to Twin Lakes.

Halfmoon to Twin Lakes (39.5): 6:54
By the time I reached Twin Lakes (39.5) I was feeling magnificent even as I'd arrived about 40 minutes behind schedule and had mentally adjusted my goal finish time to 22 hours (from sub-20 hours). My foot was a non-issue and my legs were now totally warmed up and turning over nicely. After dropping nearly 2,000 feet to the lake, which is the low point of the course at 9,200 feet, I came charging down the short, steep connector to the town (this connector provides such a dramatic John Wayne-type entrance) and ran into the aid station pumped up. My mom and brother had thoughtfully set up shop right next to the aid station. This was a critical aid station since the next 21 miles would bring a double-crossing of Hope Pass (12,600 feet), involving more than 16,000 feet of combined elevation change. At Twin Lakes, I got my Black Diamond trekking poles and was off, seeing Anne and Noah just as I was leaving town.

Twin Lakes to Winfield (50/turnaround): 10:12
In my opinion, the Hope Pass double-crossing (with the turnaround at Winfield being inbetween) is the most physically demanding section of the Leadville 100. On the frontside, you climb 3,400 vertical feet, and on the backside after the turnaround you climb 2,600 vertical feet back up the mountain. Add it all up (including the road to and from Winfield) and you have more than 16,000 feet of combined elevation change in that one 21-mile section. Brutal! It's no wonder many runners contemplate life at Winfield, knowing they have to do Hope Pass again.

From Twin Lakes, I made my way across the meadow, running into Paul DeWitt (previous two-time winner of the Leadville 100) who was accompanying his brother-in-law in his first 100-mile bid. We crossed the river and talked for a little while going up Hope before spreading out. I was loving how my trekking poles gave me a little extra power and stability up Hope. I kept thinking that all I had to do was keep moving forward, even if it meant hiking. Everyone not named Matt Carpenter and Tony Krupicka hikes Hope Pass during the race (I ran a good portion of the front side during training). Your race can end on the pass if you're stupid or arrogant.

About 600 vertical feet below the Hope Pass summit you are greeted by a surreal sight. There above treeline in a meadow you see a dozen or so llamas and the famous Hopeless Pass aid station. The llamas are used to transport supplies up Hope (as well as get sick/injured runners down the mountain). This is an unofficial aid station. Years ago some good-hearted, dedicated folks saw a need for an aid station on Hope Pass and so they got the race's blessing to create one. You really feel the culture and tradition of the Leadville 100--and Leadville the town--at the Hopeless Pass aid station. After partaking in food and beverage at the aid station table, I thanked as many folks as I could for being there and was off for the summit.

About 200-300 vertical feet below the pass, I saw the leader, Anton Krupicka, running down the mountain with his pacer. I love reading Anton's blog and seeing him come down the pass was really cool. His legs were turning over so efficiently and he was supremely focused. All of us yielded to him as you're supposed to yield to those going down the mountain. I wasn't struggling too badly going up the frontside of Hope. It wasn't easy but it wasn't too hard, either. The biggest challenges are knowing you have to climb this damned mountain again and making room for those coming in the opposite direction (in most cases, the latter is a mutual endeavor, though a small number of selfish runners make it your problem, not theirs).

Finally, after reaching the summit I felt some burn in my legs, which had tightened on me during the hike, and so my descent was sluggish and awkward at first...until finally my legs loosened up and I was able to coast with what was probably normal discomfort from 45 miles of high-altitude running.

I reached the bottom of Hope Pass, having climbed 3,400 vertical feet and dropped another 2,600, at about 1:45 in the afternoon and started making my way up Winfield Road, which leads to the ghost town of Winfield at 10,000+ feet. As many Leadville runners would attest, this 3-mile section of road sucks. It's at a gradual incline most of the way and it's narrow. But that's not the worst part. The worst part is the crew vehicles going back and forth, kicking up all kinds of dust. It's not the crews' fault. Hell, my crew was out there kicking dust up, too. I guess this is all part of the Leadville experience. I covered my mouth with a bandanna but it restricted my breathing too much and so I just endured the dust like most everyone else. But I suffered on Winfield Road, feeling the heat of the day and the high elevation, and arrived at the aid station in pretty rough shape at 2:12 p.m.--a little more than an hour behind my original schedule. I was staggering but had fortunately lost only 4 lbs. I'm sure my mom, Will, and Anne (who was with Noah) were concerned about me. But I knew I'd be okay--this was just a bad patch and it was, thankfully, the 50-mile turnaround!

I asked Anne about the whereabouts of my Winfield-to-Twin Lakes pacer--we'll call her "Mary"--and she said "Mary" had bailed on me. Apparently, "Mary" felt I was running too fast for her and that she could never adequately pace me. So she called Anne to say she wasn't showing up, leaving me without a pacer on the physically toughest and arguably the most dangerous section of the Leadville 100--the vicious climb up the backside of Hope Pass. Well, before I could get upset about being disgracefully bagged by "Mary," my crew had great news. Thanks to Anne's quick thinking and a little luck, they found a young guy named Henry to pace me back to Twin Lakes, and so Henry and I were off.

Leaving Winfield with Henry.

Was I pissed at "Mary"? For about 30 seconds I was pissed and had some choice words, but then I realized Henry was a million times the runner she was, and so I knew Henry was a better fit for me. But I was nonetheless shocked that a runner would bag a racer on the big day--the Leadville 100 no less. Somewhere in the unwritten rules of ultrarunning is the following commandment:

As a Pacer, Thou Shalt Never Abandon Thy Runner on Race Day. If Thou Feels Inadequate to the Task, Thou Shalt Allow the Runner to Drop You but Only After a Valiant Pacing Effort. Anything Less is Dishonorable.

1 comment:

  1. Wow on the pacer. But kudos to you - and your crew. I sense that Pb is a lot about problem solving, and if you carried that problem with you it could have unraveled your race. Way to let go of that being pissed.