The third time is the charm....or so they say. For me, this year's Leadville race was the culmination of three years of hard work that finally paid off. When I first registered for the race back in 2009, I hadn't even run the Vermont 100 yet. In fact, I hadn't run any 100-miler yet. Somehow though, I thought I could break 25 hours at Leadville. Perhaps a touch of hubris, and maybe a lack of humility and respect there. When I arrived in August of that year and set out through the mountains of Colorado, I was hit with the quickest reality check ever: Running 100 miles is hard. Running 100 miles at altitude is really, really hard. I barely limped across the finish line that year after over 29 hours of suffering and almost missing the cut-offs.
2009 Finish: 29 hours, 13 minutes
Last year, I went into the race considerably more prepared and with a score to settle. I wanted to prove that I could get that sub-25 buckle now that I knew what I was doing. I did everything right. I trained hard, upped my mileages, I leaned up, got into better shape, and I arrived in Colorado over a week early to acclimate. When race day came, I was ready! After a hard-fought effort and an honest push...I still came up short. I crossed the line in 25 hours, 36 minutes...missing the mark by a mere 36 minutes. I was ecstatic over my nearly 4 hour time improvement, and thrilled to have finished in the dark, but somehow I was still unsatisfied. I wanted that sub-25.
2011 Finish: 25 hours, 36 minutes
So naturally, this year one might think I was coming into the race gunning hard for that sub-25. But what I found when I came to Colorado was the exact opposite. After an extremely difficult and draining year of ultrarunning, I found I simply wanted to run Leadville for the pure enjoyment of it. The thought that excited me the most was not of getting a sub-25 buckle, but of being on top of Sugarloaf at one in the morning, gazing up at the stars. I wanted to giggle, as I made my way along the beautiful stretches of the Colorado Trail. I wanted to laugh and retell stories with other runners at the Hostel. I wanted to immerse myself in the mountains. The buckle...just didn't seem that important anymore. I like to think that perhaps my relationship with ultrarunning has matured past the level of buckles and awards....and I've realized that like thru-hiking, it's simply being out-there on the trails that is what makes me feel alive. I think surviving the PCT as well as the Barkley, has changed me forever in this respect. Before the race even began I found incredible enjoyment by just climbing 14ers in and around central Colorado. The race was honestly still buried away in the back of my mind and not really a high priority. I worried a bit that my training was lacking since Badwater, but what could I do? I found hiking up big mountains was more fun than running 10-milers along the streets of Denver anyway.
When race weekend finally did sneak up on me, it soon dawned on me that not only was I entering my 3rd Leadville, but that I was entering it with no crew, and no pacer. I was running the "solo division" so to speak. Yet somehow, I happily welcomed this thought. I had images of me, running alone, in the woods, on the trail.....under the stars. mmmmm. I went into the race with a very comforting sense of calm.
Before race-day, I went on-line and finally downloaded my splits from last year. I set a loose goal of at least trying to keep pace with 2011, but honestly it didn't really matter all that much to me. News came out in the days leading up to the race that a new section of trail was being instituted to replace the road portion leading into Winfield at mile 50. This also meant that course would be about 2-3 miles longer in total. The thought of breaking 25 just seemed so far out of reach that it almost put me at ease knowing I shouldn't even try. So instead...I put a smile on, and headed to the start line just eager to breathe in some mountain air.
Rather than boring you with endless detailed minutiae, I will try to keep the report mostly simple. 802 runners lined up at 3:45 in the morning and promptly set off at 4:00 at the sound of the gun. My only goal in the first few miles was to push a little bit just to snag a good position once the single-track began. In the past, I've been stuck in the proverbial "conga-line" that inevitably forms once you reach trail at Turquoise Lake. This always slows you down. I wanted to be able to actually run the 13.5 miles to Mayqueen. My 2011 time for the first leg was about 2:13. I wasn't really trying to improve much on that, just to get less backed-up by the trail. I pushed a bit down the "boulevard" and when we did hit that single-track I didn't feel bottled-necked. I comfortably ran the entire lake-side trail all the way to Mayqueen. It was really a nice way to enjoy the sunrise. I found myself in good company too, as I ran a good portion of this trail with Alyssa Wildeboer (friend and fellow Barkley crewer). I arrived at the aid station just as I was shutting off my headlamp in hair over 2 hours. I had improved my time from 2011 by over 10 minutes by doing nothing other than getting a little out in front before the bottle necking. It made a huge difference. I was in and out of Mayqueen rather quickly and immediately started processing the fact that Sugarloaf was forthcoming.
Just before Mayqueen (mile ~13)....Still dark out
Mayqueen to Fish Hatchery:
This leg of the race always seems to go by rather quickly and is broken up nicely by several distinct sections. You never get the feeling that any particular piece is "dragging on". Well...at least on the outbound leg. It's a very different story on the return leg. I quickly made my way along the beautiful section of the Colorado Trail that parallels the lake and terminates at Hagerman Pass Rd. I could hear the constant roar of the Mayqueen aid station crowd across the lake. Once on Hagerman, I trotted along the slightly inclining road up to the the turnoff that leads up the steep jeep road to the summit of Sugarloaf. My first real climb of the day and I felt remarkably good. All of the hill training through the year was definitely making a noticeable difference. I topped out on the summit under the powerlines in no time and then enjoyed the next three miles of rolling jeep road along and around the ridge-line. This section is always so lovely on the way out. I chatted a bit with a few other runners, but mostly was just enjoying the perfect sunrise, and cloudless sky. The steep powerline drop came up quickly and before I knew it I was on pavement en route to the Fish Hatchery. In both 2009 and 2011 I had told myself I would run the entire 1.5 miles to the hatchery, but inevitably walked some of the small uphills. This year, I held to my conviction and ran the entire way to the aid station. I rolled in after 1 hour and 55 minutes, shaving another 5 minutes or so from my 2011 time. And then the annoying course change came....
Fish Hatchery to Halfpipe:
Before the race, we were informed of a second course change in addition to the new Winfield trail section. This additional change was a re-route near the "treeline" crewing stop half-way to the Halfpipe aid station. On paper in seemed inconsequential. We were told a bridge was out and that was the reason for the reroute. What we weren't told was that this change added at least 1/2 of a mile to the course in each direction! This doesn't sound like a lot, but it adds up. When I left the Hatchery I was in good spirits and contently jogging along the paved road section that follows. When I passed the normal turn-off towards treeline and got my first look at the reroute, I was immediately irritated. It was clearly out-of-the-way, and seemed unnecessarily long. I tried not to let it bother me, but it was hard to let it go. Once at treeline, I tried to put it out of my mind, but was still annoyed. Quickly, however, I was at ease when I found myself back in the woods nearing the Halfpipe station. I remembered having considerable stomach discomfort during this section in 2011, so was happy to still be doing remarkably well this year. I thanked the volunteers at the aid station once I arrived a few short minutes later, and was out in under a minute wolfing down some quick food and a gel.
Halfpipe to Twin Lakes:
Normally this section drags on for me, but I tried to concentrate on the beautiful section of the Colorado Trail. There is a lot of uphill hiding in this section...which means a lot of walking. I had come to terms with this and simply tried to take in the lovely single-track. I was getting a bit behind on salt and nutrition, so took a few extra gels and s-caps. My new pack was working perfectly for the race as well! The single large bottle was the perfect amount. I rolled along for a while and started noticing that I was beginning to feel a bit sluggish. I made the decision to slow my pace a tad and let others pass me. In retrospect, I believe this was a turning point in the race as I feel that it conserved much needed energy that I would use later in the race. I passed the Mt. Elbert water station and began the 3 mile descent to Twin Lakes on what I can only describe as a delightful portion of trail. It's well-groomed, mostly downhill, and very scenic. I always enjoy this bit. I arrived at Twin Lakes right at 7 hours. I knew I would take a few minutes at this stop, but told myself not to exceed 5. When I pulled in, I quickly, yet methodically, tore through my drop bag for exactly what I would need for the two climbs up and down Hope Pass. I grabbed my poles, my rain shell, hat, gloves, extra gels, swigged a gatorade, downed an ultragen, ate a boatload of food, and graciously thanked the volunteers. I walked out of the station with sandwiches in hand in under 4 minutes. My pack had just the right sized pouch to hold everything that I needed.
Twin Lakes to Winfield:
This year I was very curious to see how I would fare on the climb up to Hope Pass. I had considerably more hill training and was hoping it would pay off.
....and it did.
I climbed the 3500' of gain very consistently. It wasn't a fast pace, but it was a smooth pace (if that makes sense). I passed at least a dozen people on that climb and never once felt winded or tired. Spending two weeks at altitude before the race probably helped too. When I arrived at the Hopeless Pass aid station, the lead group still hadn't come over the top yet. In 2011, Ryan Sandes was tearing down from the pass just as I was leaving the station. I had sort of hoped to make it to the pass itself before the lead group made its way back this year. I downed a quick cup of ramen noodles and a coke, and was out in less than 30 seconds. I weaved my way through the switchbacks and the final 500 feet of climb to the top of the pass. As I was turning at the very last switchback, just 50 meters from the top, the lead runner (Anton K.) came over with his pacer. Doh! So close. Still I felt good that I was notably further than where I was in 2011. I crossed the timing mat right on the top and began a slow jog down the backside switchbacks. It took my legs a few minutes to get back into running mode, but I felt incredible regardless. As I made my way down I started passing several of the lead runners that were heading up. The descent down went quickly and consisted of a lot of side-stepping to avoid other runners. I felt good and continued with my running until the new turn-off on the Colorado Trail. The new section was meant to replace what has been a 3 mile stretch of dusty, dirty jeep road. Running the road is a nice change of pace, but all of the crew vehicles historically kick up a lot of dust...making it a bit rough to run along. The new trail, parallels you along the road, but up along side of the mountain...thus avoiding the road. The upside is that the section of trail was breathtaking. The downside was that it added about 600 feet of gain, and over an extra mile in each direction. It was considerably longer and more circuitous than simply running the Winfield road. Most people were quite unhappy with this new section...I was a bit annoyed, yet somehow ok with it. The trail was truly beautiful, but it was absolutely and no doubt longer. I ran down the connector road from the new trail into the Winfield station just as as Alyssa and Travis Wildeboer were heading out. Alyssa was looking strong and you can't have a better pacer than Travis. I wished her luck and headed into the station for my mandatory weigh-in. I checked in about 2 pounds light and was warned to drink and eat more. I agreed and immediately turned around.
Leaving Twin Lakes Outbound (about to start big climb)
Leaving Twin Lakes Outbound
The River Crossing (so shallow!)
The River Crossing
On Hope Pass Outbound
Just over Hope Pass Outbound
Just over Hope Pass Outbound
Winfield to Twin Lakes
Historically, the backside climb up to Hope Pass is my lowest point during the race. I wanted to break that streak this year. With my hearty hill training background I went into this leg confident. The new trail section was considerably more enjoyable on the way back as it generally trended downward...meaning mostly jogging. When I hit the main trail I started the slow slog to the top. The backside of Hope is much steeper and always a life-sucker at mile ~54. I put my head down and began a methodical pace to the top. I made it all the way until the final set of switchbacks when the effort finally caught up to me. I took a couple of short breaks at the switchback turns simply to regain my composure, but never found myself fully leaning over my poles like in 2009 or 11. Right as I crested the top and gave the pass my traditional middle-finger, I noticed a nasty rain cloud overhead. This lit a fire under my ass and I made quick work down the aid station just as the cold rain drops started falling. I knew I just needed to get into the trees and down the mountain and I'd be ok. I could see Twin Lakes down in the valley still bathed in sunlight so wasn't worried about getting rained out. It was just a high-mountain rain cloud that I needed to get away from. At the station I ate another cup of soup and left with sandwiches in hand. I put down several cups of soda as well feeling a bit lethargic after the big climb. Gingerly, I began a slow jog down long descent back to Twin Lakes but noticed my legs starting to feel the ache. I pulled over, took a tylenol, and slowly eased back up to a steady run after the wonderful pain killer began coursing through my veins. I hit the meadow with plenty of light left and slogged across the stream crossing. This year it was only ankle deep as opposed to last year's thigh-high ordeal. Also, it was the only place on the entire course where feet got wet. No other swamp puddles. I had hoped to make it to make it into Twin Lakes in under 14 hours. In 2011, I rolled into the station in 14:30 and hoped that all of my strong climbing efforts would result in a marked improvement. Instead, the extra 2 miles near Winfield meant that I just about broke even rolling into the station in 14:22, only 8 minutes ahead of where I was last year. Still I felt much better than I did then, and I knew the segment I lost most of my time in 2011 was on the return Sugarloaf climb....which was still to come. I went through the same routine at the aid station. Quick but methodical. I wanted in and out. I grabbed my headlamp, warmer clothes, and didn't even switch out my wet shoes. They would dry and my feet were taped so I wasn't worried. I was back on the trail in under 4 minutes again. I had decided to keep my poles for the remainder of the race too.
Twin Lakes to Halfpipe:
In 2011, this section killed me mentally. I just couldn't get into it. It dragged on and on. This year, it was a completely different story. I muscled my way up to the Elbert water stop a quick 3 miles later and was through the climb very quickly. It was one of my best climbs of the day and I felt fresh and renewed throughout all three miles. After the water stop, the trail and subsequent road generally trends downhill, so I found myself running nearly all of it. It was fantastic. I knew in 2011 I walked a good deal of this portion, So I was happy knowing I was making up some time. I was gliding along with my patented treking-pole-jog-shuffle as dusk was settling in. I decided I wanted to make the Halfpipe station before having to turn my headlamp on. I rounded turn after turn and yet the station still hadn't come. Just as I was about to flip it on, I rolled into the station with a big grin on my face at about 8:30 pm. I had run nearly the entire 6 miles from the Elbert water stop.
Trying to eat leaving Twin Lakes Inbound
Halfpipe to Fish Hatchery:
I left Halfpipe eager to get the other reroute over with. I knew how much it annoyed me on the outbound leg, and now with a hearty time cushion over last year, I was sure I would lose some of that time with the additional mileage. I continued my jog all the way to the Treeline crew area when I finally needed to walk for a bit. The late stage running had caught up to me and I was in need of a rest. It didn't help that I was falling behind a bit on nutrition either. I found myself alternating between jogging and speed walking along the 3 miles of road back to the Hatchery. I felt like it took forever to get there, especially with the reroute, yet somehow I still made it in pretty good time. Needless to say, the reroute did annoy me. At this point in the race I was very much alone. The runners had thinned out so much that there were no headlamps in front nor behind me. I was out there. I went into the Fish Hatchery station and happily sat for a minute as I ate some food trying desperately to catch back up on nutrition. I remember how sitting here in 2011, gave me considerable chills when I left...so I was careful to only sit for a minute.
Fish Hatchery to Mayqueen.
While it could be argued that the backside powerline climb is the worst of the race in that it has so many false summits....I truly believe that this section of the race is my favorite of the entire course. I was absolutely alone, in the middle of the night, climbing up a powerline cut, and feeling magical. I had a burst of renewed energy and powered my way up past all the false summits. Somehow, even knowing they were false, I didn't mind. It was too perfect and beautiful of a night. When I hit the summit ridge road, I stopped and looked up. Perfect sky...with infinite stars. It was absolutely stunning. I had to stop for a minute just to take that mental picture. There is always a moment in every race that I look for....that moment that I hope to find. It was this moment during my Leadville race this year that I knew I had found it. I took a deep breath and knew I could finish the last 15 miles content. I gingerly jogged the few miles back down to Hagermen Rd letting a few other folks pass me. When I hit the Colorado Trail section I told myself I would like to hit Mayqueen by 1 am. It seemed like a good time goal. I stopped looking at my watch, enjoyed the single track and when I walked into the station I glanced down at my watch which now read 12:59. Perfect.
It was only at this point that I finally thought I might be able to finish sub-25...and that I even cared to try. I figured with 13.5 miles to go...and 4 hours, I should have a pretty decent shot at it. I told myself I didn't want to feel pressured, but I knew I would have to run a little bit. So when I left Mayqueen I just told myself to try to jog as much as I could until the Tabor boat ramp. This way I could power-hike the last 7 miles and not worry about time. I ran the first few miles alongside Bob Ayers Jr. but found I couldn't keep up with him....so eased back. I weaved and wound my way around the curvy single track expecting it to take a long time to get to Tabor. In 2011...this portion of trail seemed endless. Yet...somehow, Tabor came up incredibly quickly and I had almost 3 hours left to still make sub-25. So I kept at it. I was able to keep the jog up all the way until the short powerline descent at mile ~96. At the bottom of the descent when I was back on gravel road, I finally ran out of gas. I was not able to really eat any food since Mayqueen too, and it had caught up to me. This was only now compounded by the intense burst of cold air too. It had dropped to about 38 degrees and I was really feeling it. My heart rate wasn't high enough to keep me warm, so I had to start layering. I took a pit stop, put my hat and gloves on, and began a brisk walk up to the jeep road before the climb up the boulevard. At this point other runners were starting to close in as many of us were gunning for that sub-25 now. At the bottom of the boulevard, a mere 3 miles to the finish, I was at 23:45 on my clock. I knew, pending some disaster, that I was going to do it; I was going to finish sub-25. I got a short burst of what I call finish-line energy and found myself pushing hard up the 2 miles of dirt road...even jogging at times. It helped that there was a headlamp behind me slowly catching up. I would not have someone passing me in the last two miles. When I saw the paved road I knew I was home free. I was too far behind the person in front of me to catch them, and the person behind me wasn't going to catch me (pending an all out sprint), so I simply eased back and soaked in the last mile as best I could.
I trotted down 6th street, not entirely gracefully, aiming towards the lit finish line stanchion a mere 1/2 mile away. Again, like in 2011, I owned the street. No one near me. But this time, I had no overpowering gush of emotion, just an incredible sense of contentment and satisfaction that I was able to do something I never thought possible: Break 25 hours...and on a longer Leadville course. I ran the last tenth of a mile hard up to the red carpet and crossed the line with huge smile on my face. The clock read 24 hrs 17 mins. I received my award from Marylee, and weighed-in at the medical tent 6 pounds lighter. They were a little worried, but I quickly put about 3 pounds of food back in me.
All in all, I had an incredible time and was able to walk away with a large buckle...even though in the end I came to realize that the buckle is not really what matters. I saw amazing star-lit skies, ran long beautiful single-track, finished my 3rd Leadville race, saw many friends, congratulated my pacer from last year (Sophia) as she finished her first Leadville in 28 hours, 50 minutes.....and had an experience I'll never forget.
Thanks again Leadville....you never fail to imprint indelible memories in my mind.
Just about to break the tape...
Some nerdy split time info (The Hope times were for the pass itself, not the aid station)