Saturday, February 4, 2012

Your Guide to Finishing the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run (Part II: Mile 51-Finish)

Continued from Part I

Winfield (50) - Twin Lakes (60.5)
A lot of runners drop at Winfield either because they're out of gas or because they've missed the cut-off time. My biggest advice as you leave Winfield is to stay positive and not think too far ahead. If you fixate on the super-steep, crowded climb up the backside of Hope Pass, you're liable to get really discouraged and never get out of Winfield. Take it one step at a time. Enjoy the gradual descent on the trail connecting to the Hope Pass climb. Talk to your pacer. Be sure he/she understands your needs. Leadville allows muling, so give all or most of your stuff to your pacer. Sorry, but that's what he/she signed up for!

Buckles from 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014.
I'm not going to bullshit you: The climb up the backside of Hope Pass is an ass kicker. It is very steep especially in the "lower" section, and it's difficult to get into a groove because of the busy two-way traffic. Once you get above treeline, it seems like it's never going to end. I usually take a few breathers here, and I always tell my pacer not to worry about me. I may look like hell going up the backside of Hope, but I know from experience that once we're at the top and descending again I'll come back from the dead. Hope Pass is about refusing to give up.

Once at the top of the pass, give yourself a pat on the back. You just accomplished something pretty impressive. You may feel inches from death--that's likely because you're at 12,600 feet! Believe me when I say you'll feel better as get "lower." Now get going! The descent can be treacherous in sections, mostly because of the altitude's effects on your mind. Little things become big things. A small rock looks like a jagged boulder. A gentle descent may look like a cliff. Be patient and have confidence in yourself. Above all, stay upright! The view of Twin Lakes from the top of Hope Pass is spectacular. That's where you're going!

You'll come upon the Hopeless aid station at about mile 55.5. Again, get what you need, but don't take too much, and then get going! You have five more miles until Twin Lakes. It's usually here that I see a lot of carnage. I've seen outbound runners (as I'm going inbound) sprawled out on rocks, exhausted. I've seen runners in tears. I've seen runners who have given it their all, but who know they've missed or will miss the cut-off. Encourage them, but focus on yourself. You have to get down this mountain. Run as much as you can, but don't be hard on yourself if you need to walk a few sections to save your quads. Just get 'er done.

Coming into Twin Lakes inbound with Mark T., 2014
Ah, you're down the mountain and back on the meadow again, with those water crossings ahead. Relish the water. Take a quick soak in the river if you're hot. Give yourself some relief. The meadow trail is soft and flat. I can usually cruise here and my spirits are high because I know my crew is just ahead.

Before you know it, there's the Twin Lakes aid station. Here's something to think about: In the last 20 miles, you've climbed and descended a hefty ~12,000 feet. Multiply all of that by 5 and you get 60,000 feet of gain/loss over 100 miles. That's still less gain/loss than Hardrock! I say that for perspective's sake--it could be much worse (or better, depending on your perspective)!

But I digress.

Entering Twin Lakes, you're now a little over 60 miles into the race. A lot of runners have already DNF'd, and more will drop at Twin Lakes. But not you. At Twin Lakes, get what you need, refuel and get out of there without a thought. Let me say that again: get out of there without a thought. If the letters D-N-F enter your mind, simply turn off your brain and run! It's not supposed to be easy; yes, you're supposed to be hurting after 60 miles. The finish line in all her glory comes to those who are tough enough to withstand the pain.

Another note: If it's cloudy, keep that emergency poncho on you as you leave Twin Lakes. If it's late afternoon or early evening, take a headlamp as a precaution. Remember to get your pacer to mule for you (they'll need their headlamp, too). If you don't have a pacer, keep it light leaving Twin Lakes; you have a long, gradual climb in front of you.

Training tip for this section: Practice in the mountains by running up and back down the biggest peaks you can find. Also do some weight training to strengthen your leg muscles for the descents.

Twin Lakes (60.5) - Half Pipe (70.9)
Those who make it out of Twin Lakes now have a very good chance of finishing the Leadville 100. I love the climb out of Twin Lakes, maybe because the aid station is so hopping and I leave really pumped (for me, miles 60-80 are usually my best). The climb is gradual but long. You're on that same rocky road, and then trail, that you flew down on the outbound. If you keep it light and use your pacer as a mule, the climb isn't too bad.

Finally, when you reach the top of the climb, you can top off your bottles at the Mount Elbert water stop and then cruise into the Half Pipe aid station. At the 2011 race, this was without doubt my best section. I ran every step (except for when I had to make a pitstop) at a pretty good clip and made up lots of time lost on Hope Pass, where I'd struggled a bit. The trail is gentle and there are no bad climbs that slow you down. This is a section to run! Just crank it and Half Pipe will be there before you know it.

Training tip for this section: Practice your hills and be sure to run some flats, too. Leadville isn't all mountains!

Half Pipe (70.9) - Fish Hatchery (76.5)
If you didn't take a headlamp with you at Twin Lakes, take one now at Half Pipe (definitely stash one there). The road entering Fish Hatchery can be busy with cars and you want to be seen. But first, you need to get to Pipeline, where your crew is waiting for you. It's an easy couple miles to Pipeline--no real hills to speak of. I ran this section at about 7:50-8:30 pace during the 2011 race.

After Pipeline, it's all road into the Fish Hatchery. This is a mentally tough section for many, as it's dark and the stretches of road seem to go on forever. Jog if you can. If you can't jog, power-hike (I do both). Whatever you do, move forward. Think relentless forward progress.

Fish Hatchery inbound is where things can start to get interesting. You're now a little more than three-quarters done with the race. Your legs might be trashed and you might be feeling nauseous and woozy. If you're in a world of hell at the hatchery, welcome to Leadville! Most people feel like hell at the hatchery inbound. Focus on refueling and regrouping. Eat some soup and be sure to get your electrolytes back up. Take in some caffeine! Get a new headlamp and a back-up light, too. Consider adding a layer or two, as the temperature drops fast at night in the mountains. The last thing you want is to be out there in the Colorado high county exhausted and cold--a recipe for disaster.

Training tip for this section: There are no secrets to this section, except toughing out the miles. This is what you trained for.

Fish Hatchery (76.5) - Mayqueen (86.5)
I use the road out of the hatchery to regroup. At the 2011 race, I power-hiked this section while eating some potato soup my mom made for me. It's a good idea to get yourself mentally focused and physically dialed back in on the road out of the hatchery. Caffeine from here on out is critical. I didn't take in enough caffeine late in the 2011 race (in part because I had trouble keeping anything down) and it cost me at least an hour.

About a mile up the road, you'll come upon a marker telling you to turn left into the trail leading up to Powerline. This turn wasn't well-marked during the 2010 race and I missed it, adding 2 miles onto my race that ultimately cost be about 2 hours (I was mentally crushed from the extra 2 miles and also experienced some hypothermia and bonking at Mayqueen inbound). So whatever you do, be on the lookout for this turn!

OK, you're now on the Powerline trail. This "little" section may test your resolve. Remember how I said the key to Hope Pass is not giving up? Well, that's also the key to Powerline. It's a 1,500-foot climb of a few miles up to 11,100-foot Sugarloaf Pass, with many false summits. Few run Powerline inbound, instead power-hiking it. I'll be honest; Powerline has mentally gotten to me the two times I've done Leadville. This is where the race's motto really hits home with me: "You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can." Climbing Powerline, you have to really believe in those words--and in yourself.

Once atop Sugarloaf Pass, you're at about 82 miles and a little more than 4 miles to Mayqueen. For the most part, it's all downhill from here! The road here is rocky and, this late in the race, pretty technical. Eventually, you'll dump out on the rolling Hagerman Pass Road. Once on Hagerman, go a mile or so and then start looking for a left turn into the Colorado Trail. The trail will bring you down to Mayqueen. Again, you do not want to miss this turn. It was well-marked at the 2011 race.

Ah, the neverending Colorado Trail section connecting Hagerman Pass to Mayqueen. I love this section of trail on the outbound, but totally hate it on the inbound. This late at night, and in my exhausted state, the trail seems super technical, slowing me down a lot. What feels like a 10-mile trek is really more like 3 miles on the trail. By now your world is so small that everything, such as that little rock in front of you, might seem overwhelming. Relentless forward progress....

Once you leave the Colorado trail via a bridge and are on a road, you're only a few steps from the Mayqueen aid station. Depending on how fast you've gone, it could be dusk, the middle of the night, or dawn. Whatever the case, it's probably cold. You want to layer up at Mayqueen, even if you're comfortable going in. It's cold enough along Turquoise Lake that you can go hypothermic, which will end your race. Bundle up from here to the finish.

A word on puking: I'd never puked in a race until the Leadville 100 in 2010. I came into Mayqueen in bad shape and started puking after eating some burned soup. Then I started shaking uncontrollably. After an hour or so in a cot, bundled up in a sleeping bag with the medical volunteers attending to me, I finally got some food down. I was sure this was the end of the road for me, but somehow I came back from the dead and left Mayqueen determined to finish. I say all of that because it seems like Leadville has a way of making almost everyone puke. It's probably the altitude. Yeah, I puked at the 2011 race, too--but it was one of those pukes where I ralphed while running and never stopped, amusing my pacer, Lance. Here's a great clip of Andy Jones-Wilkins puking at the 2009 race after leaving the Fish Hatchery:

Training tip for this section: All those hills and mountain runs/hikes will pay off on the Powerline climb. As part of your training, be sure to work on your uphill hiking. Hiking is a hugely overlooked, neglected facet of training for a 100-mile mountain race.

Mayqueen (86.5) - Finish
Leaving Mayqueen, quickly take stock of where you are in this epic race. You have 13.5 miles until the finish, much of it flat but technical. It's probably going to be cold (and keep getting colder), so hopefully you've bundled up. Your pacer should be carrying everything you need. Did you get enough caffeine back at Mayqueen? You're going to need the extra jolt.

At this point, 13.5 miles might seem like an eternity to you. Hundreds have a way of totally messing with your mind late in the game. Rather than look at it as 13.5 miles, or a little over half-marathon distance, just put one foot in front of the other. If you can run, go for it. If you can't run, try to jog. If you can't jog, hike. What you have to do between here and the finish isn't rocket science--just put one foot in front of the other.

At about mile 93 you'll come to the Tabor Boat Ramp. It's probably a good thing that your crew is here waiting for you. Are you properly dressed? Do you need more caffeine? Take care of any issues at Tabor Boat Ramp since this is the last stop before the finish, but don't take a long time. If you stop here, it should be for no more than a minute. If you're racing against the clock, maybe don't stop at all.

(Note on Tabor Boat Ramp: It can be challenging to find in the wee hours of the night. My advice is to mark it with your crew vehicle's GPS unit during a daytime visit. For that matter, mark ALL of the aid stations with your GPS unit the day before the race. If you don't have a GPS unit and it's not doable budget-wise [you can get a decent one for under $150], see if you can borrow one from a friend.)

The last 7 miles is a game of persistence and watching for course markers. The markers can sometimes be a little sparse toward the end, so keep your eyes open. The lake may seem like it goes on forever, but it'll end soon enough and you'll find yourself walking up a fairly hefty hill and making a few turns here and there as you make your way to the Boulevard. The Boulevard leads you into town, where you'll finish this sucker. There's a street light at the end of the Boulevard that's hard not to notice--that's where you turn before making a right onto 6th Street. The good news about the Boulevard is that it's very runnable. Run here if you can. If you can't, power hike it.
LT100, 2011. Coming in with a 22:35.

Once you make the left turn after the Boulevard, you are home free. The finish line is literally just around the corner and up 6th Street. When you make that turn onto 6th Street, you will see the finish. Go for it! Run your heart out. Those cheers are for you, and this is your moment. You're mere minutes from finishing the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run!

When you cross the line via the red carpet, Merilee, who directed the race for years with founder Ken Chlouber, will be there to give you a hug and your medal. If you need assistance, the medical tent is right there at the finish. It's heated and it also has lots of food and fluids.

This is a special moment--one you'll never forget. Take it all in, because days like this don't happen often.

  • The Leadville Trail 100 is a hard race. It's not the total gain/loss (32,000 feet) that makes it hard. It's not the course itself that's super hard, either, though certainly the course is challenging in sections (e.g., Hope Pass and Powerline inbound). What makes the LT100 hard, beyond the distance involved and varying conditions, is the altitude. You're running 100 miles between 9,200 feet and 12,600 feet. That's tough.
  • The inbound is much harder than the outbound. While it's possible to negative-split the LT100, few runners have actually done that. The fact of the matter is that the inbound/return trip is a hell of a lot harder than the outbound, in part because your legs are fatigued by then but mostly because the climbs involved are challenging (Hope Pass inbound and Powerline inbound being chief among them). What this means is that you need to run with patience on the outbound so you have gas in the tank for the return trip. There is very little margin for error.
  • Hope Pass is where dreams can die. I can run 80 of the 100 miles at the LT100 at sub-20 and maybe sub-19-hour pace. Where I've missed my sub-20 goal is on Hope Pass. Until I figure out how to cover the Hope Pass double-crossing in 5:30 or at least sub-6 hours, sub-20 at Leadville is never going to happen.


  1. wow, you are incredible. I want to join just for the buckle.
    Here is my blog. Vote for it first!
    Running man!

  2. This doesn't sound like fun. I really enjoyed your account of the race. I admire anyone bada$$ enough to do it.

  3. I'm pacing/muling leadville 2012, any words of advice?
    Chuck Bridgman

  4. Chuck: I don't know what sections you're pacing, but I'll assume it's the whole second half. My biggest advice is to carry as much for your runner as you can. Less weight for them equals better efficiency. Also, make sure they're consuming enough calories. Leadville has a way of making runners puke. If your runner pukes, it's not a big deal--make sure they keep going. The temp drops at night quite a bit (to the 30s)--make sure you and your runner are in warm clothing after the sun begins to set. Last, and this is equally important: take care of yourself. Many pacers are so focused on their runner that they neglect their own needs. At Leadville, there are a lot of miles between aid stations. You don't want to get into trouble between stops, so stay on top of your own needs, too.


  5. This is incredibly useful information, thanks!

  6. Wow, great read....I can't wait to toe the line.

  7. Love it! Maybe I'm a bit naive, but everything you wrote gets me more and more excited to run it this year. I'm also doing the mountain bike the week prior; any tips for managing them back-to-back?

  8. Great write-up. Thanks for the info!