I sit here on the couch at the Leadville Hostel still going over the past two days in my head. I have not only successfully completed my second 100 mile ultrarun (within 5 weeks), but have completed one of the most difficult 100 milers in the country. I came into this race very worried for two reasons. I would only be spending a day and a half at altitude and have no time for acclimatization. Also, I knew that I simply had not trained enough after vermont. Sure, I had a 100 miler as a base, but in the 5 weeks leading up to the race, my body was still recovering and I just couldn't put in the miles on the long runs; my longest training run was only 21 miles. I ran way too hard at vermont so as to finish in under 24, and paid a heavy price for it.
I made the decision earlier this week for Leadville, that I just wanted to finish in the time limit. I didn't even realize that you received a buckle for just finishing. (thinking you had to break 25 hours). There was a point early in the race (mile 13.5 where I was actually well under a 25 hour pace, but that quickly faded). Overall, I feel infinitely better today than I did after Vermont. That being said however, this Leadville race itself was in an entire class of intensity above Vermont. It was as if I combined Vermont, with the single hardest day of hiking I've ever had....and put it at 11,000 feet. The cutoffs were very aggressive, and I came very close to dropping. One things for certain, I would not have made the finish without Elizabeth (crew) or Kati (Pacer).
I arrived in Leadville on Thursday evening, checked into the hostel, and met up with Elizabeth. I got my gear all together and turned everything over to her so she could set up her car as she wanted. I made sure I got a good night's sleep. The hostel was packed full of runners.
On Friday morning, I headed up to the town Athletic Association building for my medical check-in and the mandatory meeting. I weighed in at 161 and was given the "briefing" about altitude. At the meeting, the race director gave us the details on the race and informed us about the black hawk helicopter crash on Mt. Massive. Because of this, part of the course was to be rerouted. Four army servicemen were killed in the crash and the race director asked us all to remember, that this is only a race...and that these four men's lives were infinitely more important (so not to bitch or gripe about course changes). He then went on to give us a little pep talk and told us that we are all capable of finishing. It was quite the motivational speech, as we all chanted, "Commit....Don't Quit!"
I got up at about 2:00 am and had a nice full breakfast at the hostel. The owners were nice enough to do an early meal for the runners. Elizabeth came over around 2:30 and we started getting everything together. We made our way down to Harrison Avenue and I officially "checked in" with one of the race officials. Elizabeth and I went over our crewing plan one last time and made a last minute decision to ditch the 7 mile Tabor Boat ramp crew stop. I told her just to go on ahead to Mayqueen at 13.5. This would give her more time to get up there and get stuff in order. I did a last minute video just before the race to capture my "nervousness/excitement" and headed to the starting line.
Course Note: The Leadville 100 is a 50 Mile-out-and-Back course.
4:00 am - Start to Mayqueen (Mile 0 - Mile 13.5)
The gun sounded and we were off. For the first 10 minutes or so, we ran down 6th street away from town. I trotted along at an easy pace. After about a mile we turned onto the packed dirt road that the locals dub "the boulevard". This road took us for a few miles downhill and I was able to run at a good clip. I knew that the first leg to the mayqueen aid station was fairly flat and it was a good place to build a time cushion for later. At mile ~5, we hit a steep climb up a power line cut. It was the first tough climb of the trip, but it was short. At the top, the course progressed along Turquoise Lake all the way to the first aid station. I felt great on this stretch and passed a lot of people. I arrived at the aid station in just over 2 hours, a great time for 13.5 miles. I was brimming with confidence and even starting to do the math for a sub 25 hour finish. Little did I realize that this was the last time the course would be "easy". I made my way quickly through mayqueen and met up with elizabeth. She had my gear laid out and I switch out my waist pack for my backpack. I loaded it up with gear and an extra water bottle (in lieu of actually filling a water bladder in the pack...I actually prefer to carry bottles). I grabbed my trekking poles, thanked elizabeth, and prepped myself for the first real climb of race: Up Sugarloaf Mtn.
Mayqueen to Fish Hatchery (Mile 13.5 - Mile 23.5)
I booked it out of mayqueen and headed to the timberline trailhead of the Colorado Trail. Incidentally, this was the same spot that I got dropped off last year to finish up the the Holy Cross section of the Trail (and my thru-hike). The course took us up the steep, rocky climb to the Hagerman Rd. At the road, the course turned right and we followed the gravel road for a couple miles on a gradual incline. I kept thinking that "wow, these climbs aren't bad at all!". At that point we turned off of the road and headed up to the summit of Sugarloaf. It was a couple mile climb and it took a lot out of me. I was still feeling good though and I pounded the downhill on the backside. Towards the bottom of the descent, the trail followed a powerline and became insanely steep. I knew this was going to be fun on the return trip (if I made it that far). At the bottom, I turned right onto a paved road and ran for about a mile and half on and off until I could hear the cheering at Fish Hatchery. Despite making it ~24 miles in 5 hours, the climb up Sugarloaf sapped me a bit. With two climbs up and over Hope Pass coming later, the thought of shooting for a sub 25 were all but faded. (despite being on a great pace still). I met up with Elizabeth again and handed my gear off to her. Kati (pacer) and Tami (Kati's Friend) were now hanging out and helping me as well. Kati escorted me up to the aid station where I checked in and put down a ton a food. I handed over my trekking poles too, since I didn't need them until Hope Pass. The next stretch was going to be a 3 mile road stretch followed by the new rerouted section (due to the helicopter crash). It was starting to get very hot out, and this added to my doubts of making any kind of fast finish time. I knew the heat would sap me. My plan was to just try to jog the entire 3 mile stretch of road. It was a good place to build some more time cushion on some "easy" miles.
Fish Hatchery to Box Canyon (new rerouted aid station) (Mile 23.5 - Mile ~30.5)
I headed out of Fish Hatchery with a nice easy jog going. I kept my head down and was on a mission to conserve energy and simply "not walk" I ran the ~3.5 miles around the road section and turned at the "Treeline" crew access area. Elizabeth hadn't planned on setting up here, but to my surprise I saw her cheering for me and offering me cold drinks and food. It was a nice surprise. Even though it was only 3.5 miles since Fish Hatchery, it was a tough 3.5 of hot road running. I was quick at "Treeline". I filled water, and took some gatorade swigs, and headed out. There was no aid station, so I only spent about 2 minutes with Elizabeth. Following "Treeline", the new rerouted course wound its way through a lot of exposed trail (very little tree cover). This section, while it didn't have any steep climbs, did undulate a lot. I found myself doing a lot of jogging-walking-jogging-walking. It was really getting hot at this point too. The temps were nearing 80. The new Box Canyon aid station came up fairly quickly and I was in and out fairly fast. There was no crew access at this new makeshift station, so Elizabeth had to drive up ahead to Twin Lakes. This meant I only had access to the food/drinks at the station and wouldn't see her for another ~9 miles. The staff asked me how I was doing, and I told them I was feeling ok.
Box Canyon to Twin Lakes (Mile 30.5 - Mile 39.5)
The stretch from Box Canyon to Twin Lakes started off very similarly to what I had just run the past 3 miles. Moderate trail, exposed a lot, but not too difficult. I jogged most of this section, and found good running company to chat with. I was trying to keep the thought that the Hope Pass climb was coming up soon out of my head. At about mile 37, the trail started the 1500 foot descent down to Twin Lakes. This section of trail seemed very familiar...and then I realized I was on the Colorado Trail and was remember landmarks from last year's thru-hike. The last mile down to the Aid Station was fairly steep, but allowed me to run hard and build up some time cushion for the Hope Pass climbs. I came down the steep hill into the parking area at Twin Lakes with over an hour and half of cushion. I still didn't know just how to feel about finishing times yet, until I tackled the Pass (twice). I met up with Elizabeth and Kati, grabbed my trekking poles and headed out to start the 3500 foot climb up to Hope Pass.
Twin Lakes - Winfield (Mile 39.5 - Mile 50)
The first mile out of Twin lakes was across a completely exposed open field. It was brutally hot. When I got to the infamous "river crossing" I was ecstatic to be walking through an ice cold knee deep rushing body of water. It was at this point that I got a MAJOR reality check. As I was fording the river (about mile 40.5), the race leader Anton Krupicka was coming in the other direction. He had already made it up and over Hope Pass twice and was on his way back, and now 20 very hard miles ahead of me. He dunked his head in the river, and ran past me. I gave him a shout out and told him he was kicking ass. (Anton ended up dropping out of the race at mile 80 due to heat exhaustion. He was on pace to beat Matt Carpenter's course record too). I quickly made my way out of the field and into the woods and climb started....I did not have my altimeter watch, so I had no way of knowing how many feet I was climbing. Something, that in retrospect, I would have really liked. The climb up to the pass was never ending and relentless. I have climbed hundreds of mountains, and I consider myself a strong hiker....but this climb absolutely kicked my ass. The altitude was obviously affecting me, and I had to stop so many times to catch my breath. I was passed by over 20 people on this climb. I was also passed in the other direction by the eventual race winner Tim Parr and last years winner Duncan Callahan (who got 3rd this year). Every time I though I was nearing the top, another false summit presented itself. I was becoming extremely discouraged and losing a lot of time. Finally, after about 2 hours of climbing, I saw the "Hopeless Pass" aid station at mile 44.5. This station is a very limited stop a few hundred feet below Hope Pass, that gives runners some much needed encouragement to keep going. There were some hardy folks up there hanging out in tents and cooking hot soup with camp stoves. I was very happy to see them. I was really starting to get worried about finishing at all. I started doing the math, and was now thinking if it were to take that long to go up the back side, I would not make cutoffs. I knew I had to at least make it down to Winfield. The climb out of the aid station was terrible. Even though it was less than a mile and only a couple hundred feet of elevation gain, it was over 12,000 feet and I was really hurting. When I got to the top of the pass, I stopped for a second, turned to look back and saw Leadville way off in the distance and realized at that moment that no matter what happened, I had come 45 miles in the Leadville 100, had great weather, and was seeing beautiful Colorado from the top of a 12,620 foot mountain pass. My discouragement turned into a content feeling of accomplishment and I started heading down to Winfield with the thought firmly planted that I would probably have to drop out. On the descent, something got into me and I started running. The descent was steep, but quick. I passed a lot of people...some in very bad shape, and was down at the road in 40 minutes. I had cruised. The next 3 miles were the most horrible of the entire race. From the trailhead to the Winfield area, the course followed a dusty, dirty, nasty packed dirt road that was the only access in and out of Winfield. This meant all of the crew vehicles were driving back and forth kicking up a lot of dust. In addition, it was 3 miles of moderate climbing, and after such a great descent from Hope Pass I didn't want to walk. In the end I shuffled a bit, but mostly walked to Winfield where I finally met up with Elizabeth and Kati. I was not doing well...both physically and mentally. I felt myself giving up and I HATED it. I thought about what the race director said at the meeting about how we all can accomplish great things, and it was burning me up. I weighed in and was over 4 pounds lighter. The staff warned me that I had better hydrate more or they would pull me. I collected myself, calmly walked over to Elizabeth and Kati and said, "I don't think I can finish this in the cutoff times. the climb up Hope pass was awful, and I still have to do it again. I lost way too much time and will lose even more going back over." Kati looked at me and said, "Nonsense! I didn't come all this way, for you to quit now and for me not to get any pacing in. We are going to tackle this effing mountain and you are going to kill it". Fair enough I thought. She did come all this way, I had to at least give her her money's worth. And there it was. The last little motivation I needed to turn my despair back to Hope. And we were off to make the trip up to the Pass..........again.
Winfield to Twin Lakes (Mile 50 - Mile 60.5)
Kati and I left the aid station only 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff time. I was in real trouble. If I could only make my way over Hope Pass confidently, I might be able to make some time back up on the stretch after Twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery. We jogged most of the dirt road back to the trail head at the bottom of the Hope Pass climb. It felt good to have a running partner, but it felt bad knowing that the runners I was now passing would not make the cutoff. There were a lot of sad and upset faces passing me. I mean...what do you say to someone in that position? Kati was a slave driver (in a good motivational type of way) up the climb, but I'm grateful for it -even if I was cursing under my breath at times ;-). Every time I stopped to catch my breath, she would push me to keep moving. The climb went surprisingly fast. I don't know if it was because I had a good distraction, or because I was more used to it, but before I knew it I was above treeline and within view of the Pass again. I gritted my teeth and told myself I can make it up this climb, the rest of the climbs on the course will be less than 1500 feet of gain and all under 12,000 feet. We finally hit the saddle, and I walked over the rock cairn, kissed it, and told the Pass to go screw itself. We had made it to the top in well under 2 hours. Unreal. Not too much slower than my trip down...when I was actually running. This proved to the turning point in the entire race for me. I was reborn. We literally skipped the 1/2 mile down to the aid station where they were starting to pack up. I didn't let it discourage me, and I was in and out in 2 minutes. I told kati I wanted to run as much as possible on the down. Maybe make up some time. We did just that. We jogged/ran probably 3000 of the 3500 feet down. It ended up being great timing too, as it started to rain behind us up on the pass. We were down at the bottom in record time and I was feeling great. Crossed through the river again, and ran up to the Twin Lakes aid station where Elizabeth was waiting and super excited that we were still on good time. Despite a great climb up and over Hope Pass, I was still only 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I made up no time. While this bummed me out a little, I was too determined at this point to let it get to me. I knew I had a tough 1500 foot climb out of Twin Lakes and so I didn't spend a lot of time at the station. If I could only make this last climb, I knew I could make up some time on the flatter section to Box Canyon and to Fish Hatchery. I put a long sleeve shirt on, grabbed my warm hat and gloves, and headed out. I thanked Elizabeth for sticking with me and giving up her sleep to continue to crew for me.
Twin Lakes to Box Canyon (Mile 60.5 - Mile 69.5)
The climb out of Twin Lakes was tough despite it being "shorter" I had forgotten just how long I had run downhill on the way in. I took breaks, but being at lower elevation now, it was easier to push the climb. We wound our way back up the Colorado Trail until we hit a small group of locals camping along the trail. I had remembered they were there earlier right at the spot where the descent started. This meant, the course was about to "flatten out" a bit, and it was time to start jogging. I told Kati not to let me walk any of the flats or downhills. I needed to make up precious time. She agreed, and true to her word we made good time to the Box Canyon station. When we arrived I checked my watch, and I was now on a 40 minute cushion! I had gained 10 minutes. This was 10 more precious minutes I had to keep me safe later on Let's keep this up I thought. I was quick at the station, had some ramen, and booked out of there. It was starting to get cold out and I was glad to have my hat, armsleeves, and gloves.
Box Canyon to Fish Hatchery (Mile 69.5 - Mile 76.5)
We maintained the same strategy for the short ~3 miles to "Treeline" where elizabeth was waiting for us and had everything set out. We were still doing ok, but Kati had asked if it were ok if she drove ahead to Fish Hatchery. She was getting stiff, and was worried that the 3.5 road run/walk would screw her up. I told her no problem, I had planned on doing some "head down" shuffling along the road anyway. I ended up power walking a lot of it but still pulled into Fish Hatchery 1 hour ahead of the cutoff! This was great. I knew I had one last tough climb over Sugarloaf, but now had a nice 1 hour cushion to work with. I made the mistake of sitting down for a minute at the aid station, and almost didn't get up. Bad move. Don't ever sit this late in a 100 miler. If I were alone, I would have probably quit. I could feel my body saying, "is that it, are we done? Yay!" NOPE. Still need to beat you up for 24 miles! Kati joined me again and we were off to make the steep "powerline" climb up to the top of Sugarloaf. I knew if I could just make this climb, I would be at mayqueen in no time, and the course was nice and easy around Turquoise Lake.
Fish Hatchery to Mayqueen (Mile 76.5 - Mile 86.5)
We did the easy mile and a half road jog to the trailhead at the bottom of the infamous "powerline climb". I took a deep breath and said, "let's get this out of the way...and quickly". It turned out to be not so quickly, as I was reeling from the past 76 miles catching up with me. I had to stop a lot to rest, and ended losing a good portion of my cushion. I was glad I had started this leg with about an hour, otherwise I might have been in trouble. The climb took a while and when we finally made the summit, I found it very hard to even jog the downhill. I was walking a lot of it. I was mad at myself that here i had some easy downslope trail, yet I couldn't motivate myself to jog. I managed to get in a little jogging here and there but not much. At the Hagerman Pass trailhead, I knew I had a technical steep section of the Colorado Trail ahead of me for the next couple miles. I told Kati I was going to try to do this section quickly. While I didn't run it, I was still going well over 3.5 miles per hour hopping over rocks and pounding down it with the help of my trekking poles. I was gritting, but going fast. Kati was hurting again and told me to go ahead and get myself to the aid station. She had told me that she didn't think she could finish and would instead get a ride from elizabeth and meet up with me at the bottom of "the boulevard" near town and do the last ~5 miles with me. I said no biggy and raced up to meet Elizabeth at the last aid station. I checked in, ate very little (I had lost all appetite at this point), and got my gear together for my last 13.5 miles. Right as I was leaving the station, Kati pulled in and said something to me that pissed me off at the time, but I am so glad she did. She said, "John, you have 4 and a half hours to make it to the finish. You really have to run some of this last part if you want to finish". Goddam it I thought. I didn't want any pressure. I thought I was golden on time, but she was right. I had to average over 3 miles an hour to finish. This mean some running. Crap! I was hoping to power hike to the finish. I had so little left that the thought of running was almost inconceivable, but I did not come 90 miles to miss the cutoff at the finish line. Elizabeth told me she would go to the 7 mile Tabor Boat Ramp stop to meet me one last time if I needed anything. And I was off...
Mayqueen to Finish (Mile 86.5 - Mile 100)
With the nagging thought of what Kati said now haunting me, I started jogging....and it HURT. I passed over a dozen people on my way to the Tabor boat ramp, but I knew if I could jog the section along the lake even a little, I would be safe to walk "the boulevard" into town. I must have looked and sounded awful as I ran along the lake. I had my teeth exposed, grunting on every step, but I was making up time. When I couldn't run, I speed-hiked. The sun was now coming up and I was "waking up". I had taken a caffeine tab a while back, but it didn't seem like it was working...until now. I flew into the Tabor crew stop so early, that Elizabeth and Kati weren't there. They had just pulled and weren't set up yet. I panicked and didn't know what to do. Do I wait for them and lose precious time, or do I press on and hope they realize they just missed me? I only had one water bottle and it was half empty....with 7 miles to go. This was not a smart move, but I kept going. I screamed their names a couple times but go not response. I turned to another crew person at the stop and told her if she sees a woman matching elizabeths description, to tell her to go on ahead to the finish. And I was off for the last 7 miles. I worked my way around the winding trail along the lake for a few miles, came down the steep power line descent onto the packed dirt road and made my way up to "the boulevard". Right before I turned, I heard a car horn, and sure enough it was Elizabeth and Kati. They said they actually saw me run by at Tabor, but could get out of the car fast enough to get my attention. Didn't matter I was happy to see them. I gave her my hat, gloves, headlamp and filled up my water. Kati got out and said she was going to finish with me. I now was feeling good again. I knew I'd have company for the long uphill into town, and I knew Elizabeth would be waiting at the finish to cheer me on. They both told me that I made up so much time going around the lake, that I would definitely finish. I don't believe in the word "definitely", but I was still glad to hear it. Kati and I speed walked the flatter section leading up to the bottom of "the boulevard" where the last climb of the race began. It was a 3 mile long slow climb up to the paved 6th street. We kept a solid walking pace and pulled onto the paved road at mile 99 at 29 hours exactly. I had 1 hour to go 1 mile. Hell yeah. I had to fight my body wanting to shut down. I could feel it happening again like in vermont. I knew I was close, and I just kept talking to Kati to change the subject. We walked the hill at the bottom of town where at the crest I could see the finish line. I huge rush of excitement welled up from inside just as a race official radioed my number up ahead. I was getting choked up and couldn't keep it in. I tried to talk to Kati, but found myself breaking up. This of course was also making me a little dizzy. I laughed and thought wouldn't that be my luck to pass out 1/2 mile from the end. Once I got sight of that red carpet to the finish, I knew I was done. I started a slow jog, ran passed hundreds of cheering people, and broke the tape. I broke the tape at the Leadville 100 in 29 hours 13 minutes 11 seconds. While some may look at that and say, "Wow, that is a lot slower than your 23:15 in vermont". I would tell them there's no comparison. Not even close! This race took me to places mentally and physically that I thought were impossible following Vermont. It makes me wonder what people at Badwater or the Hardrock must go through. I am a Leadville finisher, and I am damn proud of it. I earned it. On top of that, this also means that technically I successfully completed 1/2 of the 2009 Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.
I actually feel pretty good today. My legs are working, I'm not nauseous, I don't have any foot problems. If anything, I'm a bit dehydrated. I have a long day of traveling ahead of me, but I can't wait to get back to PA, and finish writing up my thesis. I am going to take some time off from running and re-evaluate my planned races for the year. I'm just not sure what I want to do right now.
I would also like to add that I'm very glad that Elizabeth, Kati and Tami all had a good time and I am eternally grateful that they all came to Colorado (all the way from Utah and California) just to support silly old me. I owe you all big time!
At the Start