Sunday, July 1, 2012

Leadville Trail Marathon Race Report

First of all, how lucky am I to live in such a beautiful place? Sometimes I can't believe I'm so lucky to live within a two-hour drive of the high-altitude racing capital of the world (Leadville, of course)!

I finished with a 4:40 and 21st overall, out of 509 finishers, at yesterday's Leadville Trail Marathon. 6,000+ feet of vertical gain, all between 10,200-13,185 feet. From the start, my legs weren't feeling it. Despite a slight taper going into the race, my legs felt tired and sluggish. But because this is Leadville, where you have to dig deep when things get tough, I decided to battle through the leg fatigue and get 'er done. I left myself no choice.

The start of the 2012 Leadville Trail Marathon. Photo by the Leadville Race Series.
What I didn't see coming were some stomach issues mid-way through the race. Again, I dug deep and got 'er done.

My best guess is that I wasn't yet over the virus/bug I dealt with for the better part of the week (this virus has now affected others in the Hornsby house). The bug involved not only GI issues, but also reduced appetite. I just didn't want to eat all week--not a good thing going into a big race. Basically, I felt like crap all week.

Leadville Marathon course profile.

Remarkably, I ran pretty much the same time as last year (4:40 in 2012, 4:39 in 2011). I got to the top of 13,185-foot Mosquito Pass in 2:23 (2:24 last year), having fought hard on the long and rocky climb. When I started the climb, I was running about 14th. The pass was littered with half-marathoners (they take a short-cut to the hardest section of the course). I passed, I'd say, well over 100 half-marathoners, many of whom were in death-march mode, and one marathoner. The fast-walking in my training is paying off, because I was strong on the Mosquito Pass climb despite the tricky footing.

Finally, at the top of Mosquito, I took a Hammer Gel (I fueled with Hammer Gels and water for the entire race), downed some fluids and got going! When I started the tough, rocky descent, I was in 13th place, but still not feeling 100%. I just didn't know what I'd have in the tank for the return trip, but I tried not to fixate on what lay ahead.

I hit a low point between miles 18-22, a mentally difficult stretch that involves a bunch of gentle climbs at about 12,000 feet of elevation. Basically, my legs were shot and my stomach was complaining. I'm in pretty good shape, so I figured my problems were more about the virus I'd battled and not about conditioning. A few runners passed me while I shuffled about, trying to regroup and stay positive despite the fact that I'd run out of water (which meant I couldn't take any gels for the time being) and was starting to feel dehydrated. I'm sure the altitude didn't do me any favors, either, in my compromised state.

On the rocky, ~2,000-foot descent into town (which, of course, you have to climb on the outbound), I started to feel slightly better after rehydrating and taking a Hammer Gel, though my legs were still uncooperative. I descended with confidence and felt more and more positive as I knew the finish was getting closer. Finally, on the road into town I starting moving well, running at about 7:15 pace (again, this is at 10,200 feet) with the finish line in sight.

About 200 feet before the finish, a runner came out of nowhere and passed me. I wasn't about to allow that to happen, so I hit the jets and blew past him into the finish line, beating him by one second. I felt like Mark Cavendish, the famous cycling sprinter who has the ability to accelerate like a jet into the finish line. Lots of people complimented me on my strong final kick, which made me feel good. I may not be a beast in the mountains, but I still have good closing speed and will fight to the death if someone's trying to chase me down late in a race. Here's a photo sequence of how it happened:

He's surging past me! All photos in this sequence by Rob Timko.

I'm about to hit the jets. The finish line is less than 100 feet away!

A la Mark Cavendish, I overtake my challenger.
And I break the tape!

After the race I hung out at the finish for over an hour, enjoying the good company of friends like Matt C., Lucho (who finish second overall and is going to shatter the Leadman record), Rob T., Jeremy B., Leila D., Jason R., and others. I didn't get a chance to see Scott W., who had a strong result. Had I known Tim Deboom, the two-time Ironman Kona champion who finished third with a 4:02, or Susan Williams, who medaled in the Olympic triathlon in 2004 and finished with a 4:57, were there on Saturday, I'd surely have introduced myself.

I felt horrendous and just drank as much as I could. A few hours later, in Georgetown on the way home, I had a Subway flatbread sandwich and it actually tasted good despite the fact that I hate fast food.

All in all, I'm pleased with my result. I'm confident that, had I been 100%, I would have run at least 5 minutes and maybe 10 minutes faster. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I think this race is the hardest marathon in the U.S. It beats the hell out of you from start to finish, and the technical descents (and climbs) only add to the challenge. It is very hard to get decent footing on Mosquito Pass and on the climb out of and back into town. All that said, it's incredible how much the Leadville Trail Marathon has changed over the past three years. It now has the look and feel of a big-time mountain event (but could definitely use some improvement in the way of finish-line food).

I have five more weeks of training before starting my Leadville 100 taper. I have some key runs on my schedule, including a Hope Pass double crossing on July 30 and a Fish Hatchery-to-finish night run on August 4. In late July I'm also spending three nights in Keystone for business--good altitude exposure. It's hard to believe, but the big race is right around the corner!


  1. Bummed to have missed the festivities there this year. Looks like a decent day. Glad you battled through it.

  2. Missed seeing you there, Brandon. I look forward to the Leadville night run! Recover well and take pride in that awesome WS100 finish!


  3. Nice little test before the big dance. Dial these 5 weeks in!

  4. GZ: Thanks! Yes, I agree--a good little test. You should do the Leadville Trail Marathon next year and write a comparison between it and Pikes on your blog. Given your experience at Pikes, I'm sure your opinion as to which race is harder would carry a lot of weight and be of great interest to the running community.


  5. Yeah, I do intend to do it sometime as Mosquito Pass is a fun place for me.

    I am aware of the comparisons, but I am not sure that I'd get to a point as to which is harder. Pikes starts lower and goes slightly higher, so its grind is over 7800 up. But Leadville starts at 10k feet so you are in an altitude compromised state to start. Probably the biggest challenge I have heard in Leadville is that there are rollers BACK UP during the down. This alone sounds daunting to me because I think the nearly all pure down of Pikes makes it a much more do-able marathon. That said - 7800 feet of DOWN hurts like hell. Pikes also might be a bit hotter (on equal days) towards the close (as you are lower in elevation).

    If I ever get the gumption, I might have to do some time comparisons.

  6. Great run, well done! Certainly not an easy day out on the trails but I think the scenery makes up for it. Enjoy some good rest!