The Leadville Trail 100 will always be a special race for me. A year ago, it was my first 100 miler, and anybody that has run it will testify to its epic qualities. It's the perfect mix of beauty and pain, although it may be more parts pain than beauty on occasion. And now that I think of it, once the sun goes down, its all pain and no beauty. Nonetheless, its a pretty awesome event.
The 2012 Leadville 100 was my 100th race. I ran my first race in May of 2010, and since then, I have raced and trained in so many amazing places, but none are as incredible as the mountains of Colorado.
The Leadville 100 was my goal race for 2012. I preformed well in this race last year and I felt like my additional training and experience would help me crush my previous time. Unfortunately, that's not how my race played out. But such is the life of an ultra runner.
Jo and I spent the entire week relaxing and enjoying the Rocky Mountains. We hiked, climbed, and spent 2 days tracking the Trans Rockies Run as it passed through the Leadville area. We enjoyed the company of a lot of great friends and we made several new friends during the week.
All of this, accompanied by a high level of confidence, kept my mind focused and calm leading up to the race. It was the most relaxed I have ever been before a 100 mile race. I felt like I was in my zone.
One of the highlights of my week was running into Tony Krupicka. He was a very sincere and genuine guy and definitely one of my heroes in the sport. He's won this race twice and has all the potential to claim the title again.
Me and Tony in Leadville
One of the highlights leading up the LT100 is the pre-race briefing. I've been to several such events, but here in Leadville, its a big deal. With the increase in the size of the field, the 6th Street Gym was packed to the rafters.
I'm also proud to say that the PA trail running community was well represented this year. My very good friend Derek Schultz was in town to pace Ian Torrance. Additionally, the famous Keith Straw was running Leadville as part of the Grand Slam. Some studious ultra runners will know Keith as the tutu wearing runner at Badwater. He's built a solid reputation for being a bad ass...in a pink skirt.
Me, Derek and Keith
The race begins at 4:00 AM and unlike the night before most 100 mile races, I slept really well. I woke up at 2:00, had coffee, ate and got in my gear. Everything felt good and I was ready to go without an ounce of hesitation.
Me and Jo at the start
The weather was ideal, approximately 44 degrees and clear. Even though the race starts in the center of town, they had blood pumping rock music blasting through the loud speakers to get us motivated. It was an electric scene.
We counted down the remaining seconds on the clock and off we went. This race starts on asphalt and transitions to a dirt road outside of town. After about 5 miles, we're deposited onto a single track trail at Turquoise Lake. This trail is relatively flat, but rocky, rooty, and kind of technical. From where I am in the race, we're moving along pretty quick.
Our first chance for aid is at the Tabor Boat Ramp. It's not a real aid station, but has crew access. I flew in, got a full bottle, some fuel, and was off again.
We continue around the lake to the May Queen aid station at the 13.5 mile mark. My race plan suggested I should arrive in 2:30 and I was 15 minutes early. Not a bad time for a LONG half marathon, on technical trail, at 10,000 feet of altitude. And I felt good.
After May Queen, we begin the climb over Sugarloaf Pass. This climb takes us up to nearly 12,000 feet in a short amount of time. The sun was beginning to rise and it was revealing a stunning day.
The view from Sugarloaf looking out over Turquoise Lake
After cresting the pass, we have a very steep descent down the other side. Footing is tricky here, but a good downhill runner can make up some time from the climb.
At mile 24, we come into the Fish Hatchery aid station. Jo was waiting for me with all my race goodies. I fueled up, switched out some gear, grabbed my music and hit the road. I never listen to my iPod while running a trail race, but this next section has a lot of paved road and no scenery, so I knew I would need a boost. I was now 30 minutes ahead of my race plan.
Coming into Fish Hatchery
The look on my face says "Yeah! I just ran a marathon! Now give me 3 more!!"
Shortly after Fish Hatchery, I realized the fun was over.
There is a lot of climbing for the next several miles with very little aid in between. I had lost a lot of energy but pushed on. I was focused on making it to the Twin Lakes aid station where I could fuel up and rest for 2 or 3 minutes. The Twin Lakes aid station is critical because it's the last chance for fuel and preparation before heading up and over Hope Pass.
Me coming into Twin Lakes
I grabbed some food from the aid table while my crew filled bottles and my hydration pack. Then Jo led me to our crew vehicle so I could eat, hydrate and check my gear for the climb.
Shortly after my ass hit the chair, my entire race took a turn for the worse.
This is EXACTLY 30 seconds before shit went south
After sitting down, I slammed two bottles of Ensure and took a few drinks of Coke. Then suddenly, I felt terrible. Everything in me just stopped functioning correctly and I was in a daze. I had just ran 40 miles in a little over 7 hours and my body began to revolt.
Then it happened....I puked all over the parking lot. Not in a neat little puddle, but more of a projectile discharge in a rather large radius. This roaring aid station instantly went silent, with the exception of a few "OOOOOHHHHHH's" and similar stunned commentary.
This really bothered me because in 100 races, I had never puked. I had no idea what to do, so I grabbed my gear and headed up Hope Pass. Not another word said.
This is where we're headed
In case you get lost. We would hate for you to miss the best part of the race.
I don't believe you can gather two or more Leadville runners without listening to an animated discussion about Hope Pass. It's a punishing climb that never seems to end. It takes you from the lowest point on the course to the highest point. All in a very short distance. It's disgustingly fantastic.
After losing my lunch at Twin Lakes, I was feeling destroyed. I had no fuel in my system and the thought of eating was repulsive. I climbed the pass slowly, considering my options. They didn't look good.
Before I broke out of the treeline, the first runner and pacer came flying downhill toward me. It was Anton and he was being paced by Dakota Jones. It was just fun to watch. Later in the race, Anton was paced by Scott Jurek, but I would never see that part of the race.
I eventually made it to the Hopeless aid station at the top of the pass. Grabbed a few items, after realizing I couldn't eat, I threw them away and pushed on.
The top of Hope Pass is amazing for several reasons. The view is really fantastic, but the llamas and the crew are amazing. It's almost like being in another world up there. I love the top of the pass, but I hate getting there.
This smiling face greeted me near the top of the pass
I eventually made it to the top, well behind schedule. But I'm a strong downhill runner, especially on technical trail. There was some hope that I could make up time and hopefully recover along the way.
Another llama taking in the view
Hope Pass looking back toward Leadville
Hope Pass looking toward Winfield. We go THERE...now. Then back up.
I made the descent down the pass, keeping a solid pace. This side of Hope Pass is much steeper than the climb up and far more technical. Which wouldn't be bad if we weren't going to come right back up it.
Outbound Hope Pass
I made good time down the mountain and was making up for lost time. I was even feeling a little better on the way down. I thought there may still be a chance to save my day.
On the descent, I ran into Derek and Ian while they were on their way up. They both looked good and I was excited to see friends on this epic trail. We paused to chat for minute, but we both had work to do.
Derek snapped this picture on my run down Hope Pass
The Leadville course has always dropped off Hope Pass then followed a dirt road into Winfield, which is the 50 mile mark and turnaround point. After 30 years of this same route, the race eliminated the dirt road section in favor of a new trail that bypassed the road entirely. At first glance, this seems like a great idea. Until I had to run the new trail.
The new trail ALMOST gets me to the bottom of the pass. But then takes my back uphill on a steep climb, then runs flat for a long time. A REALLY LONG TIME. I can see Winfield about 800 feet below the trail. That's salvation. That's my crew, my pacer, my food and my water. And we keep running. Right passed Winfield, leaving it behind us. THEN, we turn and run BACK toward Winfield. The descent at this point means another NEW climb. This great new change adds about 4 miles to the 100 mile course. I'm not a fan of the improvement.
After a huge amount of frustration, I finally get to Winfield. I was now 30 minutes off my race plan, which was an improvement. At the medical check, I had lost 4 pounds and was cleared to go on.
Getting weighed at the 50 mile mark
After my medical check, I let Jo go to work on me, getting me fueled and hydrated. I rested for a while, knowing what was ahead. Getting to Winfield is the easy part of this race. The hard stuff was yet to come.
Rolling out with my pacer, John West
John and I made our way back up the pass and my condition continued to worsen. Since my little puking episode 10 miles earlier, I hadn't been able to eat much of anything and the results were obvious. John pushed me up the pass as hard as he could. And I resisted mightily! It was at this point that I realized we were racing to a finish, not a sub 24 hour completion like I had hoped.
As any good pacer would do, John tried to tell me that we were well within reach of my goal, but I knew better. We would be lucky to beat the cutoff if things didn't improve.
We eventually struggled up the steep side of Hope, fueled up at the Hopeless aid station and began a fast downhill run toward Twin Lakes. Things almost seemed promising for a while.
Picture near Twin Lakes
The valley below Twin Lakes
When we arrived at the Twin Lakes aid station, it was nearing nightfall, so we geared up for running in the dark. We fueled up a bit and headed out.
The next several miles are a gradual, grinding climb from the valley floor. It's now dark, cold and I feel like death.
We staggered into the Treeline aid station at mile 70 and I was well aware of my fate. Things weren't going well and I hadn't been able to eat anything of substance for several hours. I was fully depleted and there wasn't anything I could do about it. I had to either quit, or gut it out. So I pressed on.
I pressed on to Fish Hatchery, then up over Sugarloaf pass again. Like Hope Pass, Sugarloaf is much easier on the way out than on the way back. The route back to Leadville is much steeper and far more technical. It's a bitch. I chugged up the pass in a persistent death march.
Once I reached the top of the pass, I was able to get my legs moving again and ran the entire way to the bottom and eventually into the May Queen aid station where Jo was waiting for me.
May Queen looked like an ER trauma center, Runners were scattered everywhere. Some bundled in blankets sleeping, while others just looked like zombies. The best thing to do is to leave and not linger in that environment.
I was 13.5 miles from Leadville and determined to get there. I had navigated over this same trail 24 hours earlier and enjoyed every step. Now I was struggling to make my way over the rocks and roots that littered my path.
The sun was rising over the mountains and that's when defeat really began to set in with me. I had finished several 100 mile trail races, but I had always crossed the finish line in the dark. The arrival of the new day only confirmed the misery that I had felt all night. Some people are energized by the rising sun in an ultra, but I felt defeated.
I made it to the final crew area at the Tabor Boat Ramp, but Jo wasn't there to greet me. I was too tired to be concerned or to feel panic. I just chalked it up as another shitty thing that happened on my run and pushed on. I wasn't able to eat or drink at this point anyway, so it didn't change the game for me, but I really would have liked to see her.
I was 7 LONG miles from Leadville...I could almost smell the finish and the comfort of a warm bed.
The sun rose higher in the sky and I left the trail and head out on the dirt road towards town. All uphill and lonely, despite the long string of runners in front and behind me. I picked up my pace, knowing it didn't really matter, but whatever I had left needed to be left on the course. I tried to make small talk with the runners as I passed them but they were lost in their own world so I just focused on the finish.
As I crested the top of 6th Street I could hear the crowd below as they cheered for runners. The finish line eventually came into view and I could see the famous red carpet that we have to cross but it seemed like it was miles away. Even though I could see the finish, I was now even more depressed. The finish takes you down a steep paved road then forces you to run up a long gradual incline. It looked like hell but I wanted nothing more than to run through the tape.
As I was running down the hill I heard my name called and saw Derek snapping pictures of me. Derek has always been my idol and mentor and is a hometown runner. Seeing him made me feel so much better and when he started running with me to the finish, it felt almost effortless. This was always how I imagined finishing a big race like Leadville. Having a close friend with me, stride for stride as we finished a punishing race. My heart soared.
After a lot of punishment, grief and disappointment, I broke the tape in my 2nd LT100. It wasn't pretty, but I got it done.
I had covered 60 miles of serious terrain since I became sick and never recovered. I couldn't eat enough to generate the energy I needed to perform well and I was destroyed. I never trained for that scenario. I don't know that anyone does.
When I finished, I received my beautiful finishers medal and was immediately escorted to the medical tent for observation.
Being escorted to see the doc
Being weighed. I only lost 5 pounds.
I barely remember this moment. They're checking for fluid in my lungs.
A lot of runners come to this race with a solid, well established plan to do well. Very few actually do. 795 runners stepped off the start line and 358 of us made it back. I am happy to be among the finishers.
I had prepared all year for this race. I was focused but didn't meet my goals. But the same is true for a lot of runners, even the elite runners. I went home with another Leadville buckle so I consider myself blessed.
Getting another Leadville buckle
I can make excuses all day regarding why I didn't go sub 24. But the fact remains that ultra running is an extreme sport and we can't expect perfect results no matter how hard we try. There are too many variables and opportunities for failure. That's what makes the sport worthy of our best efforts. That's why we push ourselves and risk so much. The fear of failure is never an excuse not to try. I worked hard for the result I got, and even though it wasn't what I wanted, I still beat the course....again.
Jo and I will be back in Leadville next year and I'll keep chipping away at this beast. It's a great race and a true test for any runner. We won't stop until we've properly beat it into submission.