Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The God's Honest Truth: Leadville 100-Mile Run Report

Note: These are some post-race thoughts that could be characterized as "raw." I'm still processing the entire experience.

I have no idea how I finished the Leadville 100 this past weekend. Between non-stop vomiting from Winfield to the finish, severe leg cramps (the likes of which I've never experienced in my life) and the horrible consequences of those cramps (totally trashed legs), I don't know how I got it done, much less crossed the line in 24:09--three hours slower than my goal time--to earn another big buckle. I think it came down to what race founder Ken Chlouber told us on Friday afternoon at the pre-race meeting: "dig deep."

Noah and me coming into Pipeline outbound (mile ~27)

Leadville is a very hard race as the course is between 9,200-12,600 feet, with two crossings of Hope Pass. The sheer challenge of this event is not appreciated the way it should be. That's partly because a few self-absorbed, elitist, chest-beating mountain ultrarunners, who think Hardrock and UTMB are the end-all, be-all and everything else is "meh," enjoy publicly describing the course as "flat" and mostly road (both of which are untrue) even as Leadville has done in plenty of great athletes over the years. When these ridiculously false statements are made in public spaces like podcasts, people form an impression of the course, and then some of these people, who are now suckers, show up in mid-August and get their asses handed to them. Moving on....

Unless you're super human, it's difficult to put up consistent performances at Leadville every year because the mountains are so fickle. On Monday night, I looked at several regular Leadville athletes' times over the years and they're mostly up and down. That high mountain air sometimes isn't too bad, and then other times it tries to destroy you. Over the weekend, I was stripped down to nothing; the course and terrain tried to hurt me, and they did. But I refused to give up.

When I look back on it, things went to hell in a hand basket when I was on the way to Twin Lakes outbound and experienced at about mile 35 what was without question the most painful leg cramp I've ever had in a race. It was in my left quad and it happened when I stopped to pee. My quad seized up and I just fell to the ground screaming in pain. I couldn't put any weight on my leg for 3-4 minutes. It was awful and a few concerned runners asked me if my leg was broken. One runner put his arm around me, which I really appreciated. It was such a delicate moment that I thought about my mom and dad.

Eventually, the cramp let up and I was on my way to the lakes, only to have another wicked cramp after crossing the very cold, refreshing river and preparing for the big climb up Hope Pass--a climb of 3,400 vertical feet. My legs never recovered from those cramps. The best way I can describe the aftermath is that it felt like my legs had been wrung dry. They had nothing in them--at all. They were drained. Every step hurt. I had been taking Salt Sticks but maybe I hadn't taken enough...or perhaps I was dehydrated? Or maybe my muscles were starved for oxygen?

Between Pipeline and Twin Lakes outbound, about where I got hit with that first cramp.
Credit: Lifetime Fitness

Despite it all, the climb up the frontside of Hope wasn't too bad. I ran into my friend, Scott Schrader, who would go on to finish the race shortly after I crossed--his first 100-mile finish, which is just awesome. And I had some amazing mashed potatoes at the Hopeless aid station. But then when I began to descend the backside, things turned bad. My quads were gone. Nothing. So it was an incredibly slow, morale-killing descent. Despite my dejection, it was amazing watching Mike Aish (with pacer Nick Clark) and Rob Krar (solo) climb the backside as I was going down. Krar looked to be in the zone and he went on to win with the second-fastest time in the race's history. Just want to point out that despite being in the lead and having Krar on his butt, Mike high-fived me and wished me well. I also slapped hands with Nick.

Descending into Twin Lakes outbound (mile 40).

Winfield was a tough spot. I got into mile 50 hot and dehydrated (like most other runners), apparently down 15 pounds (which I still don't believe), so I got right to work with refueling...only to puke it all up right there next to the tent. Hardrock legend Diana Finkel, who is a stalwart volunteer at the turnaround point, was there (once again) to help me through the moment. I cannot say enough good things about Diana. She's supportive in every way and a truly wonderful person. I would hug her if she was here now.

After about 15 minutes of sickness, I was on my way-with my pacer and good friend, Mark T. (who I also work with at Delta Dental), eating some Fig Newtons and a gel before that nasty 2,600-vertical foot climb up the backside of Hope. All in all, I handled the climb fairly well, having to stop and take a few breaks now and then. It was just after cresting Hope on the return trip that a horrible case of puking and dry-heaves happened--episode number two. I lumbered back down to Hopeless and got in some calories, thinking maybe I could turn things around. The descent from there was slow. The quads wouldn't cooperate. I stopped and hugged a woman who was crying as she climbed up the frontside, likely because she knew she'd miss the cutoff. Or maybe because the mountain had crushed her.

It never got better. At Twins Lakes inbound (mile 60), after refueling in the hopes, once again, that I could turn things around, I began vomiting and dry-heaving before crossing the timing mat--right there in front of hundreds of onlookers. After vomiting and dry-heaving easily a dozen times in front of the mat, the lights went out. I fainted, falling to the dirt road. My brother later told me seeing me go down like that scared him. I came to quickly and heard the doctor say, "you're going to need to drop; I gotta put an IV in you," to which I said, "I'm not dropping from this race; I intend to finish." He was irritated, I could tell, but that was how I felt--dropping wasn't an option. As I left Twin Lakes, still tasting puke and my nostrils burning from the vomit, I saw Tim "Footfeathers" Long and Shad Mika and said, "It never always gets worse" (a well-known saying in the sport). And, honestly, it didn't get worse; Twin Lake was the bottom.

Under no circumstances would I drop. I remember the pain of my 2012 DNF all too well to ever drop from a race again unless permanent damage is a real consideration. So I more or less ignored the doctor and went on my way with my other pacer and friend, Scott W., by my side. I left Twin Lakes with zero calories in me. Scott later managed to get some Fig Newtons in me, but they were too little, too late. The magic I experienced in 2013 in those last 35 miles wouldn't happen this year.

So from Twin Lakes inbound on I was running on empty, as my stomach could keep nothing down. It was a game of burning body fat. I actually ran a fair amount, albeit slowly because my legs were shot. And that's how the rest of the race unfolded--eat a little, puke it back up. You may be wondering: What was my nutrition? I had water and VFuel gels for the first half, along with some Carbo-Pro starting at Pipeline. I supplemented all of this with things like Coke, Fig Newtons, potatoes, and Ramen. None of it stayed down. I even puked up watermelon and soup at Mayqueen (mile 86.5). It was one of those days.

With Mark at the finish line. We were friends before the race; now we're even closer.
We went through a lot together. Scott unfortunately missed this photo.

I am so thankful for the support my pacers, Mark and Scott, provided every step of the way. They were amazing. I don't even know what to say to these two guys who gave up time from their busy schedules to help me run Leadville. I am eternally grateful for the love and support of my wife, Anne, and our son, Noah. Without them, I couldn't have finished and that's a fact--they inspire me to be the best man I can be. It was a thrill having my brother, Will, and sister-in-law, Gretchen, there with me. They showed love and support from start to finish, attending to my every need. I thought often about my mom and dad; I knew they wanted to be there. It's humbling to get that much support.

I want to thank my coach, Andy Jones-Wilkins, for his support and encouragement along the way. AJW had me in very good physical and mental shape going into the race. Unfortunately, shit went down despite the great condition I was in. AJW's training plan gave me not only a higher level of physical fitness but also the requisite mental fortitude. In short, I had the tools to grind it out when the shit hit the fan.

I also want to thank the many runners, crew members and volunteers who were out there working hard on Saturday and Sunday. It's just an awesome display. Several people told me how helpful this blog was in their preparation. I appreciate it all. Whatever I can give to others, I will give...moral support, a hug, words of advice, a gel, whatever I can give.

Josh Colley, his team and all of the volunteers nailed it. This was a spectacularly-run race. Every detail was well-executed, though I wasn't a fan of the new Outward Bound grass field, which was laced with random holes (these holes just need to be filled in before next year's race). I loved the surprise aid station atop Powerline (amazingly, I actually ran a little of Powerline). It was obvious Josh and his team took all of the feedback from last year's race and made some major improvements. To those who sought to throw the baby out with the bathwater--in this case, one of the original 100s and a race with more history and legend than 99.9% of other ultras--after last year's troublesome Leadville, I say this: I hope you are now satisfied. Leadville has turned it around. What say you now?

The big buckle--my fourth El Plato Grande buckle.

As for me, I'm not sure I'll return to Leadville next year. I have already booked our cabin, in the event that I do return, but at this point it's 50/50. If I get into Western States, there will be no Leadville for me in 2015. This race has more or less vexed me since I began this adventure five years ago, when I was coming off a win at the Mohican 100 that made me think I was talented but, in reality, out West I'm just a schmuck. I've never figured out fueling at Leadville--what works one year fails the next--and to this day I'm unconvinced I've run my own perfect race there. Maybe I never will, or maybe I will. The altitude and my stomach seem to do me in every time. I am seeing a nutritionist specializing in fueling in ultras next week. I need help. My daily diet is pretty clean; it makes me think that I'm just not used to the sugary crap I consume on race day, though this summer I did train with VFuel and had pretty good results.

One lesson learned: The next time I run Leadville, I will wear Hokas for every mile except the Hope Pass section. I'm getting old and I need the extra cushion. This year, I wore New Balance 1210s for the first 60 miles and they didn't do me any favors. I needed my Stinsons. I didn't switch to my Stinsons until mile 60; by then, my legs were shot from the cramps, though my feet were in good shape (one small blister) and I had no joint pain whatsoever.

Huge thanks to all who made the weekend a special one.