On August 20th, at 4:00 AM, I lined up for the Leadville 100 mile trail run. And I felt at home. I was confident. While I was about to tackle one of the toughest 100 mile races in the world, I didn't have the same emotions that plagued me at the start of my first 5K. A lot has changed in 14 months.
Leadville is an iconic race and known for being extremely challenging. The race includes extremely steep ascents, reaching 12,600 feet, followed by technical and dangerous descents. The thin air and constant elevation changes make this race stand out among other popular ultra-marathons. This also accounts for the extremely high DNF rate. The majority of starters will never make it the finish line.
This seems like the ideal venue for my first 100 mile race.
We woke at 2:00 AM on Saturday to get ready for the 4:00 AM start time. By 3:00 AM, the little town of Leadville was alive! The race starts downtown, one block from our hotel. From my room, I could hear the announcer getting the runners fired up. The energy was incredible and I was drawn into the excitement. It was almost intoxicating and I took it all in.
At 3:50, I walked out of our hotel lobby and took my spot at the start line. I was amped up and ready to go!
Following tradition, the Leadville 100 starts with a shotgun blast. At exactly 4:00 AM, we were off!
It's a surreal feeling to cross the start line knowing I won't return for more than 24 hours. And in that time, I'll cover 100 miles on foot.
The runners exit Leadville and head to Turquoise lake to run along the banks on technical single track. At the Tabor boat launch at the 7 mile point, there is a crew access area, but not an official aid station. I met my crew there and filled my hand held bottles, ate some food and headed back out.
Jo took this picture of the runners headed to Tabor.
After fueling up at Tabor, we started a mild ascent through the woods, headed to the May Queen aid station at mile 13.5. The sun was coming up at this time, so I dropped off my headlamp, got fueled up, and headed out.
View from May Queen aid station..
From May Queen, I had a 10 mile trek to the Fish Hatchery aid station at the 23.5 mile mark. To get to this point in the race, we ascended Sugarloaf Pass to an elevation of 11,200 feet. The climb to the top was slow and brutal, but the descent on the other side was steep and technical.
Fueling up at Fish Hatchery...
Leaving Fish Hatchery, I traveled 16 miles through rolling hills and visited 2 aid stations that didn't have crew access. I met up with my crew again mile 39.5 at the Twin Lakes aid station. I was still feeling really good and having a good time.
Leaving Twin Lakes meant the start of the ascent of Hope Pass. This pass is a ridge line that extends from Mt. Elbert, the Tallest peak in Colorado and the second tallest in the lower 48 states. From Twin Lakes, it's a 5 mile climb to the pass with a total ascent of 3400'. The climb was relentless.
As I passed through the treeline near the summit, there was an unusual scene. The race organizers have an aid station at 11,800' set up in a meadow above the treeline. As I climbed into the clearing I could see a series of tents and a field full of Llamas that were used to pack all the supplies 2600' feet into the mountains. It was amazing to see medics and race volunteers at that elevation. The attendees in the aid station were making soup for the runners and handing out a wide variety of food. It was so out of place in that remote location.
After another 800' of vertical ascent, I topped the pass and headed down the other side of Hope Pass on steep, technical trail.
The top of the pass provided stunning views of the Collegiate Peaks and the surrounding area. It was a beautiful vantage point that most people will never see. It was truly amazing.
After making the descent down Hope Pass, I made my way to Winfield at the 50 mile mark and turnaround point in the race. Winfield is an old ghost town in a scenic valley.
I rolled into Winfield feeling very good and happy to see my crew again.
I had to run into the medic tent as soon as I arrived so they could take my weight and check out my physical condition. I ran full speed into the tent screaming "Wooooooooooo!!!!". They assumed I was in good enough condition to continue.
After my medical checkup, I met my crew, stuffed my face and changed socks.
This is also the point in the race when I can pick up my pacer. For this job, I chose my friend Shannon Price. He's a fantastic athlete with an impressive running resume. It's his job to keep me motivated, fed, hydrated and thinking properly. This is an important job in a 100 mile race and Shannon is the perfect man for the job and I was lucky to have him with me.
This is an out and back race course, meaning that after leaving Winfield, I had to go straight back up Hope Pass. This is where most runners elect to drop from the race due to the demoralizing effect that Hope Pass has on most runners. It's an epic challenge for sure.
Me and Shannon headed out of Winfield to kick Hope Pass in the teeth!
Making the ascent back up Hope Pass is likely the hardest thing I've ever done in a race. After running 50 miles, an ascent like that is brutal. If I hadn't had a skilled pacer to keep me moving, I may have never made it over the top. Shannon saved my race on that mountain and I will never forget it.
Me at the top of Hope. Damn happy to get that behind us.
After cresting the pass, Shannon and I headed down the mountain toward Twin Lakes. The descent was exhilarating. It was a powerful downhill run and we both felt great. We were hunting down other runners, reeling them in, and putting them behind us. We were simply crushing this race and it was a blast!
We came into Twin Lakes feeling great.
At this point, we're 60.5 miles into the race and we have to start thinking about nightfall. So I switched from carrying handheld bottles to my Camelbak. I had to pack a jacket, headlamp, flashlight, extra food, batteries and water into the pack. This is added burden, but can't be avoided.
Me and Shannon getting ready at Twin Lakes...
At this point in the race, there was little doubt that I would finish. But we had another large pass to ascend and another 40 miles of trail to cover. As the run continues, I will start to deteriorate and will need to stay focused. While I was feeling great at 60 miles, anything could happen.
We continued back toward Leadville, passing through the Mt. Elbert and Half Pipe aid stations and we were making solid progress. I was on pace for a sub 25 hour finish and was focused on that goal while Shannon kept me updated on our split times, as well as our time and distance to the finish.
Shannon and I rolled into the Fish Hatchery aid station at mile 76.5 feeling very optimistic.
At this point, it was dark, cold, and we still had a lot of ground to cover, including a trek back up Sugarloaf Pass. After leaving Fish Hatchery, we began the LONG ascent back up Sugarloaf.
This is where the wheels came off...
The climb was devastating for me. I was running out of oxygen, my legs were rubbery, it was cold and painful. I looked at Shannon and said, "I'm starting to lose it". Shannon could see what was happening and patiently coaxed me up the mountain. He made sure I ate and kept hydrating myself, and we eventually crested the pass.
This is why pacers are so critical. If I had elected to run solo that night, I may have dropped right there. But with the right pacer, a runner can do amazing things. Late at night, in a bad situation, a good pacer becomes the brain. The pacer makes the decisions and essentially babysits a depleted runner. They have a tough job and I admire the men and women that are willing to take the task on.
After getting over Sugarloaf, we rolled into the May Queen aid station. At this point, Shannon was relieved by my second pacer, Paul Peters. Like Shannon, Paul is an excellent athlete and a reliable friend.
Paul and I headed out for the last 13.5 miles of the race. By this time, I had accepted that a sub 25 hour finish was out of reach. But I was confident that we would make it the finish line together.
Paul did an amazing job leading me through the woods and into Leadville. I was mostly useless at this point and Paul ran ahead in the dark to confirm the course markings and he kept us on track. I was in intense pain and was suffering from dehydration, sleep deprivation and was entirely exhausted.
Paul and I finally made it back to Leadville and crested the hill toward the finish line. It was a painful journey but we had finally made it.
Paul and I found Shannon along the way to the finish and we all ran in together. Emotions were running high as we neared the red carpet at the finish. This is a scene that I've watched on video so many times, and now it was my turn to run down the famed red carpet in Leadville. It was overwhelming.
Coming to the finish...
I finished the race in 25:55:14, more than 4 hours ahead of the cutoff. That put me in 102nd place overall out of more than 600 starters. Leadville has a 60% drop rate, meaning the majority of runners never see the finish line. I was ecstatic to be a finisher of this race for my first 100.
Ultra running is not a solo pursuit. For me to tackle these races, I need solid support from a dedicated and experienced crew. In this case, I had a 4 person crew supporting me for the entire distance. Like me, they didn't sleep for almost 30 hours. The devoted themselves to my every need in an effort to ensure I would complete the race. It's humbling to have people take that level of interest in my success. I had 2 dedicated pacers, Shannon and Paul, as well as 2 support crew members, Jo and Megan, that kept me fed and taken care of. It's amazing to have that kind of support. It's a major effort on their part and I could never achieve this without them. I am forever in their debt.
Me and my pacers, Paul and Shannon right after the 100 mile finish.
It was an epic journey and I was elated to be able to finish such a demanding race. It had been a dream for a long time and I was proud of what we all accomplished together.
I am now a proud owner of the widely sought, but not easily acquired Leadville 100 finishers buckle. This simple object is what drives so many men and women to tackle such an intimidating task.
I'm lucky enough to have a circle of friends that help me become a better person and athlete. While I struggled with the immensity of the task at hand, I received so much support from the people around me. I need to thank Derek Schultz, Shannon Price, Paul Peters, Ron and Helene Horn, Bart and Laura Yasso, and my wife Jo. These are all amazing athletes and I am humbled to receive their support and couldn't do it without them.