Friday, March 4, 2011

Leadville 100 Tips for First Timers

Amazingly, the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run has already sold out. The field is now set at 750, and I am sure glad I'll be there on the line. Of the 750 entrants, ~100 won't show because of injury, cold feet and other reasons. Of the ~650 starters, about half will finish. And of the ~325 finishers, about 100 will do so within 25 hours, earning the big buckle. That's my guess based on stats from previous races.

Last year I was a Leadville rookie. Working off a previous blog post, here are some tips for Leadville first-timers based on stuff I learned:

It Ain't Easy. Your Momma Ain't Gonna Hear You Crying for Her from the Top of Hope Pass.
Know what you're getting yourself into. This race is run between elevations of 9,200 feet and 12,600 feet with over 30,000 feet of combined gain and loss. That is hardly child's play. It's clear that Christopher McDougall's best-selling book, "Born to Run," is bringing a lot of people to Leadville every summer. I wanted to run the Leadville 100 prior to reading "Born to Run," but certainly the book raised my interest to an even higher level. When I was coming down Hope Pass during the 2010 run, I saw lots of folks struggling badly up the mountain and clearly in over their head. That may sound elitist but it's true--there were a lot of people at the 2010 race who should have chosen an easier event for their first 100. I saw one guy lay down on a rock totally exhausted and gasping for breath. If you do Leadville, just know that this race is very different than a sea level event.

The Air Up There Ain't Like it is in Kansas
I used to live in Kansas, so I know! There are altitude races, and then there's the Leadville 100. Humans probably weren't meant to run 100 miles at 10,000+ feet. If at all possible, spend some time at altitude before the race, especially if you've never been to the Colorado high country. Also, work on your VO2 max and efficiency. In training for the LT100, I did three runs in Leadville (including the marathon). I summitted Pikes Peak. I did several training runs above 7,000 feet and lived (and still live) at 6,000 feet. I did a number of hard runs--as in 6:50-7:10/mile pace--on a treadmill set at 13% incline. All told, I ran 1,500 miles in 15 weeks. And that wasn't enough to compensate for my inexperience at high altitude. Ideally, if you can do the Leadville 100 Training Camp in June, go for it--it's a golden opportunity to experience the course, learn from LT100 vets (which I'm NOT since I'm just a one-time finisher) and meet other runners.

Here I am at Twin Lakes.
If you're from sea level, show up at least three days and ideally five days in advance of the race and just hang out. This will give your body some time to acclimate. If three to five days isn't possible, show up the day before the race.

Eating at 10,000+ Feet...Sucks
Have a plan for raceday nutrition. I didn't realize that what worked for me at sea level wasn't necessarily going to work at altitude. Going into the 2011 LT100, I'm going to experiment with liquid calories such as Perpetuem, try Vespa and other products (update: My fuel will be Hammer Perpetuem and Hammer gels) and just basically figure out precisely what works for me. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to raceday nutrition. I heard that when he set the LT100 record, Matt Carpenter drank Powerbars dissolved in water. Figure out what works for you, but know that for many eating solids at 10,000+ feet can be brutal, especially late in the race.

Unlike 10Ks and Marathons, Littering isn't Allowed
Littering was a huge problem at the 2010 race. This was very unfortunate and it speaks to the huge number of inexperienced trail runners out there that day. Most ultrarunning vets would never litter. Under no circumstances should any trash be left on the trail. Pick up after yourself. When I won the Mohican Trail 100-Mile Run in 2009, there were multiple times when I stopped--while in the lead--to pick up trash that I'd accidentally dropped. That is the way of the ultrarunner. I think the Leadville organizers should enforce a lifetime ban on anyone caught knowingly littering.

Take a Hike!
In the months before Leadville, work on your hiking, especially uphill hiking. You will hike some of the front side of Hope Pass and basically all of the backside of the pass. You will also hike a big portion of the Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass climb. Training runs are separate from training hikes, but you could incorporate both into your long outings.

My Pole Position
I carried trekking poles over Hope Pass and up the Powerline/Sugarloaf climb during the 2010 LT100. Do I recommend poles for all LT100 runners? For some runners, yes. For other runners, no. I will NOT carry them in the 2011 LT100 but my crew will have them on hand just in case. My concern about trekking poles at the LT100 is as follows--and please bear with me as I explain. Going up Hope Pass, you probably don't want to wear a Camelbak because it's too heavy. You probably want to carry a single water bottle and maybe have a second bottle on a belt. It's hard to handle a water bottle when you also have trekking poles. The same goes for Sugarloaf Pass.

Training Races
I would avoid doing the Leadville Trail Silver Rush 50-Mile Run, which many use as a training run, since it's 6-7 weeks before the 100 and I think that's not enough time to fully recover from 50 miles at altitude. Instead, I would do the Leadville Trail Marathon in early July as a trainer and plan to venture to Leadville plenty in the following weeks for training runs. Basically any race in Leadville is going to be a significant undertaking, so plan some recovery time if you opt for the marathon as a trainer. Disclaimer: The Leadville Marathon and Silver Rush 50-Mile Run are not run on the LT100 course!

Suck on a Straw
If you want a rough idea of what it's like to run at altitudes of 12,000+ feet, get on a treadmill and breathe through a straw or two for several minutes. If you live at sea level and have the resources, consider buying or renting an altitude chamber.

Head for the Hills...or Mountains
Do a lot of hill training. If you live in or near the mountains, there's your training ground.

CREW Means Cranky Runner Endless Waiting
Bring a crew and I would suggest two pacers. The crew will be critical especially from the first Twin Lakes aid station (mile 40) through the end. I would recommend at least two pacers--one who can pace you over Hope Pass and back down to Twin Lakes, and the other from Twin Lakes to the finish. Your Hope Pass pacer could also step in later in the race for relief work.

Part of Powerline. This is a shot from the bike race.
A Word on Powerline
When the chips are down and you're climbing Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass in the middle of the night with 80+ miles on your trashed legs, understand a few things. First, this is gut-check time. The Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass climb starts at about 78 miles and summits at ~82 miles, has many false summits and is an ass-kicker. It takes a lot of runners 90 minutes to get to the top. Second, look on the bright side; after Powerline/Sugarloaf, the big ascents are behind you! Third, if you believe in yourself, almost anything is possible. The Powerline/Sugarloaf climb is all about believing in yourself and not giving up. I made it over Powerline/Sugarloaf on experience alone. Do take a second to turn around and check out the many runners behind you, who are visible because of their headlamps. It's kind of a surreal scene.

Oh, and whatever you do, for God's sake don't miss the Powerline turnoff from the road out of Fish Hatchery like I (and a few others) did. We went a mile past the turn, adding two miles onto my race--an easy thing to do when you're tired and have been going hard all day. When you leave the Fish Hatchery, understand that the turn into Powerline is about a mile up the road on your left-hand side.

Hope Pass
The Hope Pass double crossing is, just on the numbers, the hardest section of the race. Over a distance of 20 miles, you're doing a double crossing of a 12,600-foot mountain pass that is above treeline, with over 12,000 feet of total elevation change. From Twin Lakes to the summit, you're looking at 3,400 feet of vertical climb. From the summit down to Winfield, you're losing about 2,600 feet. Now do it the other way. Add it all up and you get 12,000 feet. It takes anywhere from 5-8 hours for many runners to do this section. It's no surprise Winfield is a popular DNF spot.

Unless You Want to Camp in Your Car...
Get your race weekend lodging ASAP. Lodging in Leadville during the races goes fast. Reserve yours now.

Even in August It Snows...and Watch for Lightening Too
Bring plenty of gear, including gear for rain, snow and sleet. Colorado weather can change in an instant and afternoon thunderstorms are common in late summer.

When you get down to it, Leadville is a very runnable course. Eighty percent of Leadville, and really all of it, can be run with road shoes. For the other 20 percent, which is the Hope Pass section, LIGHTWEIGHT trail shoes would be ideal but are not required.

Keep it Light
Keep everything as lightweight as possible. At Leadville, muling is allowed. I never took advantage of this rule, to my own detriment. Let your pacer carry your Camelbak and other gear...because later in the race, like going up the Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass climb, carrying yourself is going to be hard enough.

Last But Not Least...Have Fun and Enjoy the Views!
The Leadville 100 is situated in an incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring section of the Rocky Mountains. The views are spectacular and you're running through some gorgeous high country while being supported. It doesn't get much better than that. The views I most relish:
  • The view of Turquoise Lake from Hagerman Pass Road on the out. It's a view I'll take with me to my grave.
  • The views from both sides of Hope Pass, especially the backside (the side closest to Winfield). It doesn't get any better than that.
  • The views of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert from the road section between Fish Hatchery and Pipeline. A lot of people hate this section but I actually like it since, at heart, I'm kind of a Road Warrior. You're looking at the two highest peaks in Colorado.
  • Runners behind me coming up Powerline at night. Surreal. Hopefully this year (2011) when I'm climbing Powerline it'll still be light out :)
  • And, of course, the finish line, where you're treated to a hero's welcome!
I used to take 100-milers super-seriously. And while I still take them seriously, I've come to realize that it's all supposed to be fun. Not everyone can or would do this, so enjoy the day, take some time (but not too much time) to show gratitude to your crew and pacers, and breathe in that crisp, refreshing (and thin) Colorado high country air!

Let me know if you have any questions! But know that there are many out there who have far more LT100 experience than I do. Consider joining the LT100 Yahoo! message board.


  1. Good writeup and very comprehensive. In 100 miles, PLAN for things to go wrong. That is what ultimately lead to my first DNF. I planned and trained for everything except for having a bad day and once things began to unravel, then it was all over. Can't wait to see how things pan out up there this year. I'll be pacing so I get to be an active spectator. :)

  2. Thanks for the tips. this will be my first time @ leadville this year. I have always dreamed about it but living in chicago it was a bit unrealistic (no hills). Moved to San Diego and training on the PCT as much as possible. I read your blog about the first time you ran it, it was definately a good read and inspiring.

  3. Great tips! This will be my second 100, but my first LT run. I live in Nebraska so hopefully your tips along with my determination will help me overcome the altitude.

  4. Hi Wyatt,

    My name is Diego and Im from Chile.
    Im going to be running Leadville 100 for my first time this year and Im a little worry about the shoes that I need. Im thinking in running the entire race with road is the downhill from Hope Pass?...Its slippery?

    Thanks a lot!!

  5. Hi Diego:

    Leadville isn't that technical. You could run the whole thing in road shoes and be fine. That said, I would recommend trail shoes for the Hope Pass section (miles 40-60), as the downs do involve some rocks, especially the steep section going into Winfield Road. It might also be nice to have trail shoes on the section from Fish Hatchery to Mayqueen (miles 76.5-86.5) as that section involves night running and some rocky areas especially after you hit the top of Hagerman Pass and start making your way down the Colorado Trail. Also, rain in the PM hours isn't uncommon, meaning potential slippery sections. All that said, you could do the entire race in road shoes and be OK, provided you have good technical trail running skills and don't have weak ankles.

    Critical: For the Hope Pass section, do not wear water-proof shoes. You have multiple water crossings and need shoes that will drain and then dry out (and they will dry out quickly thanks to the dry Colorado air). Waterproof shoes won't drain.

    FWIW, I'm wearing my Hoka One One Bondis or Hoka One One Stinson Evos for the entire race except for the Hope Pass section, when I wear my Salomons.


  6. Thanks a lot Wyatt,
    I really appreciate your answer :)

    I was asking because Im planning to wear my Altra Instincts the entire race but the other day I climb a very steep mountain and I had some problems in the downhill.
    Im not worry about the rocks, Im worry about a steep downhill. There is some places very steep and slippery???

    Thanks again!


  7. Diego: There's really just one area of the Leadville course that could be considered steep, and it's near the base of Hope Pass on the "backside," which is the side of the mountain closest to Winfield. The trail is mostly dirt with some rocks mixed in. You could easily do this section with standard trail shoes. Nothing highly specialized is needed.


  8. Thanks a lot Wyatt!!,

    Im from Chile so you are helping me a lot ;)
    Last question, can you tell me a little about your race nutrition? (solid and liquid).

    Thanks a lot!


  9. Diego: With nutrition, we're all an experiment of one. I have found that it's very hard to eat solid food at high altitude races like Leadville. The limited oxygen that high up can play havoc with your stomach, especially late in the race. I try to consume a lot of liquid calories (mostly maltodextrin) and limit the amount of protein and fat I consume because, at that altitude, protein and fat are hard to break down. I also use a lot of gels and late in the race I like soup. It's critical that that take at least 8 ounces of water after a gel. One thing about Leadville: It has a way of making almost every runner puke. But fear not if you puke; it's just your stomach's way of resetting itself.


  10. Thanks again hahaha,

    Last one, how do you consume maltodextrin?

    What products?

    Thanks a lot...I really appreciate your tips!

  11. Maltodextrin is a common sugar found in gels and sports drinks.

  12. Hi Diego,
    Good Luck! I use La Sportiva trail shoes going over Hope Pass and a lightweight trail shoe the rest of the course. But I wouldn't experiment with anything new at this point as your other shoes will be just fine if you don't go too crazy on the downhills!


  13. Wyatt, love to hear that you eat, sleep and breathe Leadville. Most excellent! My question: you say not to run the Silver Rush 50 b/c of one's inability to recover for the 100 next month. What might be some ways to acclimate in addition to the Trail Marathon in late June? I'm concerned coming from 600 ft elevation. Maybe I do my long runs sucking through a straw? Thanks for any ideas. I guess I'd plan to come out to Denver area end of June for a weekend and then 3 weeks after that for the same duration?

  14. Attended the Estes Ascent conference this year. One of the things put out about altitude training changed my strategy going forward. The Dr's on hand said that if you can't spend 3-4 weeks at the race altitude getting acclimated your best bet is to show up the night before. The reasoning was the processes that your body kicks off to acclimate hit full steam by day 2-3. Once they are in full swing you tend to feel worse when trying to perform. If you can show up and run before your system ramps up you'll likely feel much better. As with everything it depends on the person but this worked great for me with the Silver Rush 50.

  15. Your race reports/ information on Leadville are awesome. I just ran the marathon yesterday and Mosquito Pass nearly took me out - seriously considered DNFing. I know I was undertrained, and will remedy that before I take on LT100 in 2019, but can you compare the Hope Pass climb to the Mosquito Pass climb? Equally evil, Hope is far worse, etc.? Thank you!

  16. Thank you so much for your information/ race reports. I just ran the Leadville Marathon yesterday and now have a token for the 100. I'll do it in 2019. The Mosquito Pass aspect nearly caused me to DNF. I have never done a race with 6,0000 feet elevation gain so I was under-trained. I'll remedy that by the time I do the 100, but can you give me your opinion/ comparison of Mosquito Pass in the Marathon versus Hope in the 100. Is hope a lot worse, or about the same, or is Mosquito worse because of the miserable scree, etc? Thanks so much and I hope to see you there!