Me at the base of Hope Pass
2010 Leadville Trail 100 Race Report
In the fall of 2009 my coach, Jack Pilla, sent me an email saying that he and his friend Joe Carrara were going to do Leadville and that I needed to sign up. My immediate first reaction and response back to him was, "no thanks". I have done only two 100 mile races, and they were the same race, the Vermont 100. While I was gaining experience running I really didn't feel ready to tackle one of the toughest races in the country.
At face value, Leadville really doesn't look very hard. The elevation gain/loss is about the same as Vermont (aprox. 15,000) and a lot of it is runable. The race has two features that increase it's difficulty significantly. The first is that is starts at an elevation of 10,200 feet. The second is Hope Pass. Leadville is an out and back course, and the pass starts at around mile 41 and ends at mile 47. At the base of the climb the elevation is at the races lowest point, 9200 ft. At the summit it is 12,600 ft. Being an out and back course, you just barely recover at mile 50 before having to turn around and go back over it again for miles 53 to 59. And on the return trip you are heading up the steeper side. I'll get back to that later.
In June I decided at the last minute to attend the training camp. I flew out on a Friday. I landed in Denver and drove the two hours to Leadville. Over the span of three days the camp covers about 40 miles of the course, showing the attendees about 80% of the course. After arriving I immediately noticed that I had a low grade headache and felt stoned. I was prepared for it and drank lots of water as recommended. It helped a lot. Naturally I did what any Ultra runner would do and went for a short run. I only went 4 miles, but was surprised to find that the elevation really didn't seem to affect me that much. So far so good!
The next day on Saturday the group of about 100 runners met for breakfast then we were bussed to the May Queen Aid station, which is mile 13.5 during the race. We ran about 24.5 miles of the course to the Twin Lakes Aid Station. It was a beautiful run which I did in about 4:45. Again, the elevation didn't affect me, but I was alarmed at how fast I became dehydrated. I drank at least double what I normally do but I still got behind on my fluid consumption. I made a mental note of it for the upcoming race.
The next day we again met for breakfast and were bussed to a campground near the beginning of Hope Pass. The route was a little bit different that what it would be on race day, but this was to be the most exciting part of the camp. I was going to finally see the dreaded Hope Pass.
Unfortunately my day ended only 3/4 of a mile into the run when I twisted my ankle. It make a loud "crack" as I landed on it and I knew immediately that this was no ordinary sprain. I was sure that I had just broke my ankle. So was the girl that I was passing on the course when it happened. She told the people around me that were helping that she heard it snap when I landed on it and she was sure I just broke it.
I was diagnosed with a Grade 2 Sprain which means I tore (but didn't separate) a ligament. I flew home a day early and began freaking out. I had been training extremely hard and was in the best shape of my life. I had no idea how long the ankle was going to keep me from running but I was terrified to loose the fitness I had worked so hard for.
My plan had been to run the Vermont 100 4 weeks before Leadville. I was planning on that to be my A race and race it hard. Then I would go to Leadville and just try to finish in under their allowed 30 hours. Just finishing the race is considered a huge accomplishment and the normal finishing rate hovers around 40%.
For the next two weeks I could not run a single step. I took to training on my road bike to try to keep my aerobic fitness up, but I know that riding a bike and running are two very separate things. I did a couple of very small runs on the third week and my ankle hurt a lot. I decided that it wasn't healing fast enough so I called my favorite PT, Brian Verville. Brian owns Granite State Physical Therapy and has fixed me several times in the past. He is simply awesome. He understands what I put myself through and doesn't give me shit or think I'm crazy. He just helps me....successfully....every time. By this time I only had 3 or 4 weeks until the race. I pushed myself hard during this time period. Every run hurt, but I was just walking that thin line between hurting myself worse and getting better. Luckily sprained ankles need activity to heal. I certainly obliged. I even incorporated a 47 mile day into my training on a Sunday. I ran 17 in the morning with some friends and then left home at 9:30 at night and ran another 30. I continued to go to PT right up to the week I left.
In the last few weeks I ran weekly mileage totals of 98, 69 and 65. My ankle was slowly hurting less and less on the runs and my confidence had increased to the point where I wasn't that concerned with it hurting my chances of finishing the race.
I flew out the Monday before the race with my wife Amy, my two kids and my mom. I had done a lot of research on how to acclimate and there seems to be a lot of different thoughts as to the best approach. I decided to spend a week at altitude and just not worry about it.
On Tuesday I met up with Adam Wilcox who came out with his wife Miriam a couple days before. Adam is one of my two pacers for the race. We decided to hike Hope Pass since I didn't have a chance to see it before. We had a beautiful day and we took about 5 hours to hike up to the summit and run down. We decided to skip going down the other side because I didn't want to do too much so close to race day. In hindsight I wish that we had at least gone over the pass a little bit so I could see what the terrain was like. The backside of Hope is the steeper part but I just figured that it was similar to what we had just done. Man was I wrong! I'll get to that in a little bit. I was worried that it took us so long to cover what I thought was only 6 miles. I was very happy to discover later that the route we took was actually closer to 12 miles, which included a little side excursion that we took when we took the wrong path..
On Wednesday I decided to bag my first 14,000 ft elevation mountain and met Adam and Miriam to go to the top of Mt. Sherman. Sherman is one of the "easier" 14k peaks and I just wanted to see what the elevation would feel like. The hike was only 4 miles round trip and I felt great. It only took me 1 hour and 48 minutes to go up and back to the car.
|Looking down from the top of Mt. Sherman|
The next two days were spend with the family. We had a great time seeing the local sights. We even took the train out of Leadville. It was really fun and I learned a lot about the local history of mining.
I didn't run a single step on Thursday or Friday. Thursday Jeff Waldron also joined us as he was going to pace me with Adam. They had worked out that Adam would pace me the 37 miles from the halfway point to May Queen and Jeff would pace me the last 13.5 to the finish line. Thursday night my brother Barry flew in and we all spent the next day attending the race briefings and driving the course so Barry and Amy could see where they would need to go to crew me.
Its hard to explain the mental game that goes on when I sign up for a race like this. I usually commit to a 100 mile race 7 or 8 months in advance. Then I go through a period of investigation to see what I'm getting myself into. I become obsessed and find out everything I can about the terrain, finish rate, etc. During this time I work on getting better at not just my running, but my diet and overall conditioning. This year was no different. I went from weighing 173 pounds in October to 148 pounds the week of the race. Its is not an understatement to say that every single step I took in training was consumed with the idea of being ready for the race.
I have found that this pattern is exactly the same pattern to achieving any goal I have in my life. Running 100 miles is inconceivable for most people. I really think that is only because they don't understand that achieving something like this is just the result of working a plan. For me it is a pattern that keeps repeating itself. The more you repeat the pattern the more confidence you gain that you can do anything.
It starts with an idea. Then that idea becomes an obsession. Actually it becomes more of a burning passion. Then I work on believing and visualizing that I can actually accomplish it. I cannot emphasize enough how important that is. When you set BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) for yourself you have to get to the point that you believe that you can do it. Then you have to do the work to be ready. In this case its training super hard. In other cases, like building a business, its doing all the planning and research and building the infrastructure. Either way, its the same thing. Idea, burning passion, belief, then accomplishment. Failure doesn't even come into the picture because when you have the burning passion you will keep trying until you achieve your goal. It doesn't matter that you might have to keep trying or that every person on earth won't see it your way. Your burning passion and desire to accomplish your goal over rides all obstacles.
Saturday morning we all got up at 2:30 in the morning so we could be ready for the 4am start. I was strangely calm. We all walked the few blocks from the house we were staying in to the starting line on 6th street. The weather was perfect. It was about 40 degrees and not a cloud in the sky.
At 4 Ken Chlouber fired the shotgun that starts the race and we were off. This year there were almost 800 people signed up. From what I understand about 650 showed up at the start. I started from the 3rd or 4th row of people. I didn't want to get caught up in a slow group around the single track 7 miles into the race around Turquoise lake as it's to narrow to pass.
|Rocky trail around the lake (photo - Sherpa John)|
At the same time I didn't want to go out to fast and burn out early. As it turned out everything was fine and I arrived at the May Queen aid Station in a little over 2 hours. I was going nice and easy and everything felt great, including my ankle. The 6 mile section around the lake was rocky single track and it took a lot of concentration being in a huge conga line of runners. Once in a while I looked back and saw a gigantic row of headlights bobbing in the woods forming a line around the circumference of the lake. It was a beautiful sight.
The next section was from May Queen to Fish Hatchery. This is a 10 mile section that starts with a climb on the Colorado trail until it comes out on Hagerman Road. The road is a gradual climb that is flat dirt road and easy to run with such fresh legs. It takes a sharp left and then continues to climb. During this spot the sun is just coming up and you are treated with your first incredible views of the day.
|The view of Turquoise Lake from Hagerman Road|
You can see Turquoise Lake and the surrounding mountains and it is breathtaking. I was feeling strong here and trying to stay smart by powerhiking as the road got steeper. This road climbs for a while then starts to descend down the powerlines.
|Heading down Powerline (Sugarloaf)|
It is a long downhill and the first quadbuster of the race. I continued to feel good and was concentrating hard on eating regularly and drinking often. At the bottom of the hill you are dumped out onto a paved road and then run a short distance to Fish Hatchery.
|Fish Hatchery (taken at the training camp)|
I felt great here and met up with Barry and Amy about 5 minutes ahead of my plan. I used some of that extra time to use the porta potty and I emerged feeling great.
The next section of the race is a short 4.5 miles to "Pipeline" where we can see our crew again. This section is all pavement and flat. It is also tough mentally because it feels like you are going nowhere. The horizon is way off in the distance and you feel like you are not getting any closer to it. During the training camp I hated this section. During the race I felt great here. I was now over a marathon into the race and had only had one tough spot where I didn't want to eat anything sweet anymore. My diet for the last month and a half had no sugar in it. So far in the race I was living on Gu Roctaine Gels, Gu Chomps, Gatorade and Amino Vital Endurance drink. Everything was so sweet it was turning my stomach. Luckily my awesome crew was paying attention and soon started preparing noodles and broth for me. It helped immensely.
At most 100 mile Ultras you get a special belt buckle if you finish in under 24 hours. At Leadville the tradition has always been 25 hours because they feel it is harder. Every finisher at the race (in the allotted 30 hours) gets a buckle, but everyone who finishes in under 25 gets a special buckle that is silver and gold and has the words "under 25 hours" on it. Going into the race I wasn't sure I was in that kind of shape. Traditionally only about 10% of the entrants accomplish it. I had planned out my splits by both 25 hour pace and 30 hour pace. At this point I just hovering at my planned pace to get me to the finish line in under 25 hours. As I headed out to the Half Moon aid station I asked the crew what time I needed to be there by. They said 9:15 or 5 hours 15 minutes into the race for the 30.5 miles. I found this section to be tricky as the trail was wide, smooth and easy to run, but it was a gradual uphill and I couldn't run as much of it as I wanted to.
I was discouraged to find myself at the aid stations almost 20 minutes behind of the 25 hour pace.
I got in and out of the aid station quickly. This is one of two aid stations that is not accessible by your crew and it sucked not having them there to keep my spirits up. Up to this point I had talked with almost nobody. I was pretending I was alone and just staying in my head.
I get asked all the time, "what do you think about for such a long period of time?" Its hard to explain, but its easy to focus on something when you have been planning so hard for so long. I just concentrated on getting to the next aid station and managing my food and fluid intake.
After Half Moon there is a long downhill of about 3 miles. It felt great to open it up and really run in the woods. It felt like I was coasting and I was feeling great. The downhill ends with a tiny little climb and then you run down this loose, rocky mound of dirt into the Twin Lakes aid station to the roar of the crowds of people.
|Coming into Twin Lakes|
It felt great to see the crew again and I found that I was now 17 minutes ahead of 25 hour pace. It was a great mental boost which couldn't have come at a better time as I was just about to head over to Hope Pass. I had just run 39.5 miles and switched to my backpack/hydration pack . Even though it was sunny and 75 degrees the pack still contained a rain jacket, gloves, hat extra food and gels, as the weather can turn nasty in a second. It is a rare Leadville race where you don't get caught up in some kind of storm and the top of Hope traditionally can have rain, snow, sleet and intense lightning so you have to be prepared.
Heading out of the aid station there are several water crossings including a stream crossing with a rope across it to help you keep your balance.
|Stream Crossing on the way to Hope (Photo - Sherpa John)|
The water was freezing and felt great on my feet. Up to this point I had no blisters and I was hoping that that the wet feet wouldn't cause any. As I started up the trail I was in great spirits. I had just done this hike 4 days before and I knew what to expect. I personally don't think that this part of the climb is that difficult and I was power hiking it with ease. I passed a few people here who were struggling with the elevation (or maybe it was just lack of training) and I made great time to the clearing in the field known as the Hopeless Aid Station. It is not accessible by crew and it is so hard to get to that the food and supplies are brought up by Llamas.
|The Llamas at Hopeless Aid Station (Photo - Sherpa John)|
There were about 20 of them in all different shapes and colors and they really brought a smile to my face. It was one of those surreal sights that made me feel like what I was experiencing was a real gift. There were the Llamas, friendly volunteers who made you feel like a rock star and the beautiful view of the top of Hope in front of you.
One of the volunteers filled up my bottle, which I was using in conjunction with my hydration pack and I was off to tackle the hardest part of the climb. The last 600ft of the climb are steep switchbacks above treeline. During this time I saw the leader, Anton Krupicka running towards me down the path. Being an out and back course one of the neat things is to start seeing the front runners come back heading the other way. He looked smooth and in control and I was amazed that he had already put almost 10 miles on me in less than 9 hours. Amazing. Unfortunately his race came to an end about 13 miles from the finish line. I never did find out exactly what happened to him but the rumor is that he was taken away on the back of an ATV. He gave it his all and was on course record pace until he blew up.
I got to the top of Hope, elevation 12,600ft, and took a second to appreciate what I had just climbed. Took another quick look at the incredible views and then took off down the back side.
This was the part I had not seen before and I couldn't believe how steep it was! It was 20 minutes until I saw the second place runner and he looked like he was working hard to get the climb done. The descent took a lot longer that I thought that 2.5 miles should as it was rocky, rooty and just plain steep.
At the bottom of the climb you come out onto the Winfield Road which is washed out, potholed dirt and is flooded with vehicles going to and coming from the Aid Station which is almost 3 miles up the road. There is a huge amount of dust in the air and I found that I had to rinse the grit out of my mouth every couple minutes. I could really feel it in my lungs too. The road is mostly uphill and I power walked much of it.
|The Winfeld Road (Photo - Sherpa John)|
I finally got into the aid station and felt happy to be able to pick up Adam to pace me. I had to weigh in and was only down 1 pound. This was a great confirmation that I was doing a good job keeping hydrated. I was in good spirits and was now 27 minutes ahead of the 25 hour pace. I told Adam, "wait until you see how brutal this climb is going to be".
We took off down the dusty road and ran much of the way to the entrance of the trail. Almost immediately after getting on the trail I started to feel bad. I had no energy and the climb was brutal. There were several times that I had to just stop and lean against a tree to keep my balance. The most discouraging part of this section was that I was passed by a lot of runners and their pacers. I would have felt better if others appeared to be suffering as bad as I was, but that was not the case. Near the top when the trail rose above trail line you could see the other runners at what seemed to be a mile vertically above you on the trail. Ug. Almost at the top I saw my friend Sherpa John Lacroix who looked pretty good and said he was doing ok. He took a picture of me and Adam and later told me that I didn't look so good. Seeing the picture now I realize that he was right!
|Me and Adam near the top of the return climb up Hope Pass (Photo Sherpa John)|
Adam was great to have with me. He kept me moving and we were having a lot of great conversation which distracted me from the tough climb. After digging in and gutting it out I got to the top. As soon as the trail went downhill I felt great. It was like I had a chance to use completely different muscles and they were nice and rested. We made awesome time down the mountain and we cruised into Twin Lakes with more time in the bank. I was now 20 minutes ahead of 25 hour pace. I took 7 minutes here, which is a long time for me. I changed shoes and socks which was great to be able to do after going back through the streams and water crossings. I was just starting to get some blisters on the bottom of my feet and the dry shoes really kept them from getting worse (at this point at least).
We headed out into another big climb.
|Me and Adam head out of Twin Lakes|
About 1/2 mile before Pipeline Adam noticed a deer right next to the road we were running. As we approached it didn't move an inch. It was standing with its head lowered and its front legs spread apart, almost like it was drunk or about to puke. It had a mile long stare an just watched us as we approached. I became more freaked out as we got closer and it didn't move. There was something seriously wrong with this animal. I don't know anything about wildlife, but I strongly suspect that it was rabid. It watched us with it's hollow eyes and moved only its head as we ran by, less than 10 feet way. I kept waiting for it to attack us.
We got to Pipeline at 8:08pm and it was just getting dark enough to have to use our headlamps. I was now about 45 minutes ahead of the 25 hour time frame and starting to feel tired. The crew fed me more noodles and I also had a can of Starbucks Cappuccino. It was delicious!
|Mmmm - Starbucks|
I pulled into Fish Hatchery at 9:08 and was weighed by the medical staff. I was up 1.5 pounds from the start which meant I was retaining a little water, but it was nothing to worry about and they quickly released me. Adam was starting to look a little tired to me but I was only thinking about my race. Heading out of the station brings you to the most feared part of the course, the Sugarloaf (or Powerlines) climb. As soon as we got to the climb Metallica's Master of Puppets came on and I just got into a grove that matched the drums. I was a ways up the climb when I realized that Adam was no longer with me. I wasn't sure what the proper thing to do was. I was feeling awesome on what was supposed to be the hardest part of the race and I wanted to just keep in the grove. On the other hand my friend had taken a week off work and spent a lot of money to come to Colorado to help me achieve my goals. I slowed down and he caught up. I asked him what was the matter and he said he was sick. He couldn't hold any food down and had lost all desire to eat anything as he was now really nauseous. This is a very common thing to happen in an ultra and if you don't eat regularly you get sick to your stomach, which in turn prevents you from eating. This eventually leads to a complete shut down of the body. The only thing you can do to fix it is to eat, which is the very last thing you want to do.
I tried to make him eat a Gu Chomp and he dry heaved the moment he bit into it. He was now upset at slowing me down and wanted me to go ahead. At this point we were still about 6 miles from the next aid station and I wasn't comfortable with just leaving him sick on the trail. I got him to drink and he said that he felt better. But he still wouldn't eat. Looking back at it now I don't think he felt better at all. I think he was just trying to get me going and to stop worrying about him. Eventually we hit the long downhill section of Hagerman Road and I ended up running and listening to tunes. I kind of forgot about the entire world. I thought that Adam was right behind me, and it wasn't until miles later that I realized that he wasn't. I turned down the section of the Colorado Trail that connects Hagerman Road to the road to May Queen and blasted the downhill. I was singing at the top of my lungs and flying down the rocky trail. When I got into May Queen at mile 86.5 at 11:52pm the crew told me that I was now 1 hour and 38 minutes ahead of the 25 hour cutoff. This meant that I now had 5 hours to go 13.5 miles. I finally realized that I was going to get the big buckle, even if I had to walk in the entire way.
Adam rolled into the station while I was still there so he was never really that far behind me. I apologized for ditching him and he told me not to worry about it. I think he was worried that he might have slowed me down, but the truth is that he was an enormous help to me over the last 37 miles and I was glad to have him there.
At this point I picked up Jeff as my pacer. Jeff is 24 years old and had been helping the crew the entire day. He was supposed to get some sleep but he was having so much fun with Barry and Amy that he never did. He was super pumped up to pace me for the last section. It was here that I finally was told that I was somewhere in the top 50, maybe even higher. I had hardly thought about my finishing place all day as I had been so focused on my time. This news really fired me up and me and Jeff left for the trails around Turquoise lake under a full moon and mostly clear skies.
|Jeff, ready to pace me the last 13.5 miles.|
Jeff seemed amazed that I was still running and was super encouraging. He is the type of person that always seems to appreciate everything around him and I've hardly ever heard him say anything negative about anybody. He knows who every runner out there is and what their results have been. He tells me, you just left before Hal (Korner, Western States winner). I say, he must be having a pretty bad day to be back here with me. That's when Jeff starts to tell me I'm not a mid pack runner anymore and that I'm doing something special here today. It really put a lot of pep in my step.
We alternated between running and walking the smaller hills around the lake. About 6 miles after leaving May Queen we ran into our crew at Tabor Boat ramp. We only stopped for about a minute as we didn't need anything but to keep moving. At this point I only had about 7 miles to go and I was now on pace to finish somewhere in the mid 22 hour range. As we ran along the lake I was starting to have a hard time seeing. It was as if I was loosing more and more light from my headlight, but it was working. I kept having to ask Jeff which way the trail went through the trees. Everything was getting dimmer. I had thought that my headlight batteries weren't fresh so I swapped headlamps with Amy at the boat ramp, but that one was working the same way. I slowly realized that it was me, not the lights. It did concern me, but I had heard about that happening so I really didn't worry that much about it. I had Jeff with me and he was guiding me just fine.
Shortly after the boat ramp I ran into my coach, Jack Pilla.
|Coach Jack Pilla|
As with any 100 miler there were some things that were starting to really hurt. My ankle was feeling fine, but for the past 20 or 30 miles I could feel the tendon that runs on the top of my foot starting to tighten up. I'm not sure if it was related to the sprain, but I have had this problem in the past. Mostly when I run a long (over 60 miles ) of pavement. I had done my best to ignore it and hope it wouldn't get worse, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to pretend it wasn't there. It was flat out starting to hurt. I could also feel the blisters developing in the creases of the bottoms of my feet. They were not that bad when I was running on a smooth surface, but when there were rocks involved I was having a hard time dealing with the shooting pain that happened every time I stepped on one.
Jeff and I came out onto a dirt road which was a slight uphill. I asked Jeff how much further we had to go and he said about 3 miles. He was wearing his GPS so I thought that he knew exactly how far we had to go. I looked at my watch and had about 45 minutes to get in under 23 hours. I was psyched. I pushed to run as much as I could and after about 10-15 minutes we were still on this stupid dirt road with no lights from the town in sight. I asked him again how far we had to go and he says, " about 4.5". I freaked out. What do you mean? You told me a while ago that it was only 3! Then he told me that he thought it would motivate me to finish quicker if I thought I had less to go. He said it was just a little fib.
It set me into a complete tailspin. I got super grumpy and stopped running. I knew that there was no way to get in under 23 hours and I knew that I was going to be in within the 25 hour time for the big buckle so I just figured I'd walk it in. My ankle was killing me, my blisters were shooting with pain and I was in a complete funk. It is amazing how fast things can change. One minute I'm on top of the world and the next everything is going black.
Jeff felt bad and apologized but by now the gloves were off and I was raw with emotion. I kept asking him why did he lie to me? Why would you do that to me? In hindsight its pretty funny, as were only talking about a mile difference, but when you are that cooked the weirdest things happen.
I pulled my head out of my ass when we finally reached the paved road. Now I knew that there was only a little climb on paved roads and we would be crossing the famous finish line. At the top of the rise it flattens out and you can see the finish line. Right when I got to that point Jeff all of a sudden says, "there's somebody right behind us, Jack, is that you?" Jack had turned off his headlight and slowly crept up to me, stalking me while I was sniveling!! He laughed and I turned and said to him, "No F-ing way are you going to beat me, sorry coach!!"
I took off like it was a 5k. I have about .25 mile to the finish line, I've just done 99.75 miles and now I have to sprint. I couldn't even look back! I asked Jeff if here was there three times and Jeff just said to keep going, he was catching us!
I made it to the finish line huffing and puffing. Right before I crossed the line my daughter started to run with me and I noticed that my son was holding the finish line tape. It was awesome. My whole family was there at 2:30 in the morning and I was finally done! The official time was 23 hours and 6 minutes. I found out that I finished in 38th place out of 780 entrants (about 650 started).
Jack came across the line less than a minute after me. He is awesome. In his last two Hundreds he has finished in First (VT100 2009 with a time of 16:30) and three weeks ago he finished 3rd (Burning River with a time of 16:22). I have huge respect for his ability to tough it out even when he was not going to finish near the top like he is used to. His coaching and support is the reason that I was able to finish this race with the time I did. Anybody who wants to step up their game and get serious about improving their times should consider using his services. You can find him here.
|The Big Buckle!!|