4 for 4 at Leadville
Another year at Leadville has come and gone...and as always, it has been incredible. This year I certainly had my ups and downs along the course, but in the end came away with exactly what I was hoping for: A wonderful time along a stunning course.
This year I particularly struggled with the altitude, which I found odd since I had been climbing 14ers with no issue the days leading up to the race. I suppose the additional strain of "racing" just compounds the low O2 effects. I found myself on more than one occasion bending over my poles to suck in some much needed air. I also ran into a rather new experience this year as I was plagued with an uncomfortable cramp/stitch in my side that I fought through for over 20 miles. It slowed me down considerably and I was worried it would linger for the entire race. Thankfully, it finally went away around mile 65 and I was able to run confidently again. Still, having not really experienced this in a race before, I wasn't sure what appropriate way to mange it was.
Yet with all this said, I was still somehow able to squeak across the finish just under the 25-hour limit and secure myself a 2nd "Big" buckle. When I arrived at Mayqueen inbound (mile ~87), I honestly thought I did not have enough time to make it under 25. But then I was overcome with a huge boost of energy and I ran hard for almost the entire remaining stretch to the finish...even on the uphills. It was seriously looking like I would cross the finish in just over 25. After running for 24+ hours, I was not going to let that happen, so I pushed incredibly hard the last 5 miles and managed to cross in 24:47. I somehow made up 10 minutes and ran the last 13 miles over 15 minutes faster than last year (which I already thought was fast). In the end while it is nice to have the big buckle, it was still the opportunity to run along the beautiful course that brought me the most happiness. I really don't like running "stressed", yet so many times I find myself in this situation; gunning for that specific finish time. It's hard to not dwell on times when you are so close to an important cutoff. In both my runnings of the Oil Creek 100, I found myself trying to squeak in under 22 hours for the elusive "gold buckle". Now, for the past two years, I've found myself running hard the last 13 miles at Leadville in order to secure the big sub-25 buckle. When it's all over, I suppose I'm glad to be holding the "better" prize, but then I remember that the buckles and awards don't really matter. Honestly, I think it's just something about the thrill of running hard at the end of a race that is exhilarating.
....So, I sit here today content with my effort, surprised by my late-run push, and a little perplexed by my altitude and cramping woes. Somehow though, I've managed to go 4 for 4 here at Leadville, something I am incredibly humbled by. I will head back home now having had my fill of the beautiful mountains again. I was able to enjoy some 14ers, throw in a fun road trip out of it all, and run a fantastic and fulfilling LT100. I will say though...that I can't wait to get home.
A quick Race Run-Through:
When the gun sounded at 4:00 am, I had pretty much the same strategy as last year; push a moderately quick pace to get ahead of the big pack. This way I would ensure I wouldn't get stuck behind the conga line around Turquoise Lake. With 900 starters, I was particularly concerned about this. Throughout this entire section, things went smoothly though, and I ran what I considered to be a "correct" pace along the lake, enjoying the cool morning air. By mile 7 at the Tabor boat ramp, I was already in a nice pocket on the trail with no one on my heels. I kept it comfortable and rolled into Mayqueen aid station in exactly 2 hours (1 minute faster than last year). I refueled quickly and was out on the lovely section of the Colorado Trail that leads up to Hagerman Road. I always enjoy this section as it inevitably brings back fond memories of my CT thru-hike. Once on Hagerman, I jogged slowly up to the steep part of the powerline climb, where I eventually started hiking. This was the first point in the race when I noticed my breathing was slightly labored. I chalked it up to basic fatigue due to insufficient morning breakfast. Still, I was a bit surprised at my issues with the climb considering I had summited a couple of 14ers just a few days earlier without issue.
Once on top of Sugarloaf, my energy returned and I comfortably ran along the top and down the steep cut towards the road. I kept it conservative down the steepest part in order to keep my quads fresh. This strategy paid off last year, so I decided to not mess with a good thing. This year the fish hatchery station was moved down the road to the outward bound location. This meant running a bit further down the course, but also meant not having to run into and out of the hatchery road. While I liked the new location better, the traffic congestion around the station made for some nervous running along the road. There were hundreds of cars all trying to get into and out of the station, while the main pack of us runners were trying to squeeze by on the narrow shoulder. Needless to say, I was brushed by more than one rear-view mirror.
I was in and out of the station and ran a nice and smooth pace along the road to the treeline crew access area. This section is generally not a favorite among runners, but does allow for a nice change of pace with some pavement, and the 4 miles go by quickly. In no time I was running past the slew of cars at treeline all waiting to crew their runners. I always enjoy running past these folks as they are particularly vocal in the support. Lots of cheers.
I was still feeling good and mostly running along the flat bits to the Halfpipe station. We were getting some intermittent cloud cover which was nice as well. The temps were truly perfect. At halfpipe I wolfed down some real food, restocked some gels and began what I consider to be the longest mental stretch of the course....to Twin Lakes. This section outbound is littered with a lot of sneaky climbing. You don't realize just how much climb there is though until later in the day when you are returning and realize how much downhill running you are doing. I always struggle mentally getting to Twin Lakes. It doesn't help that it also usually approaching mid-day and getting hot. Thankfully it wasn't too bad as the clouds were still keeping the sun at bay. On my descent down to the lakes I was still feeling ok, but overall I was noticeably fatigued....more so than usual at this point in a hundred-miler.
I made sure to take my time at Twin Lakes. I dug through my drop bag, geared up with some emergency layers in case bad weather were to roll in over the pass, and I pounded a full high-calorie powder drink. It felt nice to sit for a few minutes. I thanked the volunteers and began the slow slog across the swamplands to the base of the Hope climb.
The climb up to Hope started well. I felt great and rejuvenated after my Twin Lakes respite, but the feeling wouldn't last long. Just 1000 feet into the climb, I already was laboring incredibly. By 11,500', I found myself having to stop periodically to rest. It was all rather frustrating as only days earlier I had climbed both Mt. Massive and La Plata peak (both 14ers) without any issue. Yet here, at 12,000, I was basically a mess. Still, I pushed through it and made it to the pass in fairly decent time. Once on the backside, I bombed down at a fairly quick pace (much faster than last year). It felt good to run and I was looking forward to hitting the half-way point. This year, the race coordinators rerouted the section of trail that leads into Winfield in order to bring the overall distance back down closer to 100 miles. A big complaint last year was that the new section, while beautiful, added almost 3 miles to the course. When I got to the section this year, I was incredibly pleased with the new reroute and overjoyed at how fast I managed to run into Winfield. I rolled in after about 10hrs 45min total. I had a very soft goal of hitting the halfway in sub-11, so I was extremely content.
Topping out on Hope Pass outbound (12,600')
I was in and out of the aid station, weighing a few pounds light but feeling ok. On the way out I ran into an old Appalachian Trail friend who was pacing for another runner. I haven't seen him in person since 2007 so it was great to catch up. We parted ways and I climbed up the spur trail back to the CT. Once on the level trail, I began running back to the base of the big Hope climb. It was somewhere in here that my side stitch came on...and it came on hard. Any time I tried to run, it felt like I was getting stabbed in the side. If I walked I was fine. I have no idea what brought it on, if it was a hydration thing, a food thing, or simply an overuse thing....but it sucked. I sort-of walked-hobbled-ran what I could until the big climb began. The climb back up to the pass was brutal. I fared ok until above treeline at about 11,500. Then for the remaining 1000 feet I was constantly having to stop to rest. I'm pretty sure it was a combination of not only the altitude, but of not keeping up on nutrition. I was ridiculously depleted and gagged down whatever remaining gels I had...but they just weren't kicking in. I finally labored my way to the pass and stopped for a good two minutes catching my breath and trying to recover. It was in this exact moment that one of the Leadville photographers snapped a fitting photo of me.
Reeling after a terrible backside climb up to Hope Pass
The descent down from Hope 2 is usually one of my favorite parts of the race. With the knowledge of the toughest climb behind me, I can run a nice even pace down the easy descent back to Twin Lakes. I always end up making up some decent time in this leg. This year though, I was plagued with the damn side cramp and every time I began to run, it began hurting too much to maintain. My time down the mountain was decent, but not nearly as fast as I would have liked. By the time I made it back to the swamps I was abled to jog a bit and the pain was manageable, but still present. At twin lakes I sat for 5 minutes hoping the rest would give my body some time to relax. I grabbed a second shirt, my headlamp, and slowly made my way up the climb towards the Mt. Elbert water stop (Mile 63). The long hike allowed my body some time to relax from running and by the time I hit the water stop I was able to jog mostly pain free.
The section from the Elbert water stop to Halfpipe on the return leg is almost entirely runable and so I was quite happy that my side pain had subsided. I jogged my way the entire bit back to Halfpipe and finally decided to look at my split times from last year to see how I was faring. I was about 35 minutes behind last year. At Winfield I was only a few minutes behind and so I had pretty much assumed at this point that I would not finish sub-25. I decided to just ignore the watch for a while and run what I could. The run into treeline was fairly uneventful, and by the time I made it out to the paved road that heads back to the Fish Hatchery, I was feeling fairly renewed. I managed a slow jog all the way to the aid station and took some time there to enjoy some nice hot cocoa and ramen. I knew I had the last big climb of the race left, but at the same time I knew I had what ends up always being my favorite part of the race too....the ridgeline running under starlit skies on top of Sugarloaf.
For whatever reason, the troubles I had had with breathing in the thin air subsided, and I was finally able to push hard on a climb. When I hit the powerline climb I muscled it out hard and actually enjoyed it! I felt good to push hard and not be too labored. I made it to the top in record time and before I knew it I was stopped staring up at the sky at my favorite point in the race. There's always a fantastic feeling associated with this spot in the race as you know that all of the big climbs are done and you are rewarded with a perfect sky and then a lovely runable descent down to Mayqueen. I did the usual at this point in the race and employed my trekking pole run-shuffle and managed a quick turnaround to Mayqueen. I told myself I would enjoy the station and refuel before checking my watch. I didn't want to feel pressured. I had already sort of abandoned the idea of a sub-25 at this point regardless.
Last year, I made the return from Mayqueen to the finish in 3hrs 17mins and it was a hard finish. I remember that had I pushed it quite a bit and ran a fair amount of the way, so I figured it I had any less than 3:17, I probably wouldn't make it under 25 hours this year. At my last check many hours and several aid stations earlier, I was about a half hour behind last year's pace which meant I was literally right on 25-hour pace. As I left the aid station, I turned over my wrist and read how much time I had left to finish:
3hrs 10mins. Damn. I wasn't going to make it.
"Screw it...I'm going for it."
I hate running "stressed", but I worked too damn hard to give up on a sub-25 this late in the race. I only had to run 7 minutes faster than last year and I immediately began remembering places that I had walked last year that I could run this year to make up that time. This all sounded like a brilliant plan in my mind until I get about 2 miles into the 13.5 mile stretch. Then...I realized just how extraordinarily bad of an idea it actually was. It felt awful to push this late in the race and had it not been for a group of about 8 other people running with me also all trying for sub-25, I would have probably just started walking. Somehow we all motivated each other and managed to grunt and groan our way along the lake constantly doing the finish math. When I made it to Tabor boat ramp I saw that I had 2 hours to go 7.5 miles. It started feeling like it might be doable. Still I continued to push and not ease up. Running the remaining few miles along the lake seemed endless and I was struggling terribly. The ~95 miles had caught up to me in full force and I was in rough shape. I made it to the short powerline drop down to the road at mile ~96 and managed to hobble-jog my way up to the base of the boulevard climb starting at mile ~97. At this point I had about 50 minutes to go 3.1 miles. I felt somewhat confident I could do it even with all powerhiking....but still I jogged what I could....even up hill. On and off I would run 100 steps and walk 100 steps, and run 100 steps, and walk 100 steps...etc. Finally, when I hit pavement with one mile to go, I looked at my watch again and it read 24:37. I knew I would do it. I had 23 minutes to go a mile.
I walked up the last climb on 6th street and when I hit the top I began running the final 3/4 mile. For the first time in 4 years, I was actually surrounded by many runners. For the past two years I've been alone on the road to the finish. Because of my placement just under 25 hours, there were a lot of other people all pushing for that big buckle as well. It was a regular party coming into the finish. About 200 yards from the finish I started sprinting with everything I had passing 2 people in the process. It felt good to finish as strong as I possibly could.
When I crossed the line the clock read 24:47. I was utterly and completely spent and collapsed right on the pavement. The volunteers helped me up and escorted me over to the finishers tent where I sat by the heaters and put down some much needed food. I was 7 pounds underweight and felt entirely depleted.
All in all I had a lot of fun...except for maybe those last 10 miles...but still, I'm glad I decided to push it and go for that sub 25. It felt good to race hard and go out with a bang and not a whimper. I think I would have always been moderately disappointed in myself if I didn't at least try.
So I have my first 4-peat race, having completed Leadville now for my fourth go. If I do indeed return next year I'd be going for my 500th mile...so definitely something to look forward too!
Thanks to all who helped and encouraged me out there. Incredible volunteers as always on the course, and it was great catching up with all my ultrarunning friends.
Time to start the long drive back to Pennsylvania....
(more pics to come once they are posted)
My hard-earned 2013 prize