Sep 14, 2013

Leadville Trail 100: Race Report

Course Profile: A high altitude race
The history and altitude of Leadville beckons the ultrarunner.  Six years ago my good friend Joel and I backpacked the 486-mile Colorado Trail so I  have some personal history with the Colorado Rockies as well. After 13 months of not running an ultra because of the “Mental Burnout of 2012” I was toeing the line at 10,200ft.  I was feeling good, mentally engaged, and ready which was pretty much the opposite of last year at Angeles Crest 100.  How’d that happen?

The buildup to this race was fairly average with my primary concern being the altitude.  I’ve had some good experiences at altitude but running 100 miles that high was a question mark for me.  My acclimation started in mid-late May with weekends in the beloved Sierra Nevada.  I hadn’t run anything over a marathon (done 1 time) for about 10 months so I was nervous about getting back into long running, however I maintained a great base throughout the year.  I kick started my training with a 7 day JMT thru-hike with Prizzle in late June, knowing 30 miles a day for 7 consecutive days in the high country would kick my ass into shape; with the added benefits of being at altitude, having 12-14 hrs/day on my feet, and developing pure leg strength.   All of that came true.  My feet were hamburger meat and hurting by the end of that trip but they soon toughened up with some rest to withstand one hundred mile punishment.  After a couple of days of hobbling due to some skin breakdown in the bottoms of my feet, the training continued.  I had about 6 weeks until the race and that was the perfect amount of time for me to get in race-specific running.  After two 30 milers on consecutive weekends, three 90-105 mile weeks, spending several days in Silverton, pacing Prizzle at Hardrock, track workouts every Tuesday, I felt mentally ready to run.  That’s really not a lot of training for a 100 but based on previous experience, the base I came in with, and the need to feel fresh on race day I thought it was enough for me to accomplish my goal of running sub-25 and getting that gold and silver buckle. 

The guns fired at the obscene hour of 4am and the mob of 900+ (!) runners made their way down 6th Street.  I decided to use my heart rate monitor to gauge my efforts through the first half of the race.  This was especially important because the altitude (or frankly any race of this distance) will make you pay dearly if you go out too hard.  It turned out to be a great tool.  I had to allow my HR to be a little higher than usual because of the thinner air.  My breath was surprisingly slow and deep and that was a good sign.  The numbing cold in the opening miles was highly welcome and I was weaving around runners when I could.  I expected to see Marshall at Tabor Boat Ramp at mile 7 to get a refill on the one bottle I had but with the hoards of crew there was no way he was going to get there.  I luckily saw him at mile 3 with the news he’ll see me at May Queen at mile 13.5.  Dropping my warm clothes off I continued running.  Little did I know there was no water until that point and I was playing with 4oz for the next 10 miles.  Shit.  I hoped with all my might that there would be a creek someplace.  About mile 8 my hopes were answered and I filled up.  At that point I had finally broken free of the congo line of people and had some breathing room. I was feeling good and trying to run steady all while being very patient.  It’s a looong race.  May Queen was the first aid station and the crowds were a small introduction of what was to come.  I was stunned. As I made my way on a .25 mile paved road, people 2-3 deep lined either side waiting for their runner.  I had no clue where my crew was so I slowed down to a crawl and just gazed from left to right, hoping to spot someone.  As I kept going, I started to get nervous that maybe I passed them and I should go back.  It was like playing “Where’s Waldo?” while running.  I was relieved when I barely spotted Marshall and grabbed my pack and trekking poles to ascend my way up Sugarloaf Pass. 
"Wizard Sticks" in hand

I decided on using trekking poles (aka “wizard sticks”) for this race on the climbs, figuring it would help my hiking over the passes.  It turns out LT100 just isn’t that steep to justify using them. Who cares though, I felt cool.  I had fun running down Powerline and was soon on the tarmac heading into Fish Hatchery.

Reaching Fish Hatchery #1 (mile 23.5) was an even bigger clusterfuck.  The amount of cars and people lined up for at least ¾ of a mile along the road and in a big group circle around the aid station was mind-boggling.  I had no clue where anyone was so I assumed they weren’t there after looking around and yelling out their names.  Frustrated, I didn’t want to waste any more time looking for them, so I filled up my pack, stuffed some gels, and off I went.  A quarter mile out of the aid station, I spot them on the side of the road.  We all agreed it was a nightmare for crews and that they would be waiting for me AFTER the aid station from now on.  I grabbed a bottle, ditched the pack and was off running still feeling good. 

Half Pipe Crew Access came quickly (27.5 miles, 5:02) and this is where I would need my pack again.  I arrived ready to just grab the pack and run but there was no one from the team in sight.  I ran all the way to the far end of the crew access point and didn’t see anyone.  I backtracked (which I supremely hate doing) and kept looking around. No crew.  With no fuel and one bottle for the next 12 mile section I was starting to get quite irritated.  I waited five more minutes, trying to score fuel off people, and trying to get some water.  I was about to leave in a poor mental state when I finally see Marshall.  He says it took over an hour just to drive several miles from Fish Hatchery.  I was stunned, but with my pack and fuel I wanted to make up the 20 places I lost waiting around.  I was still feeling good and kept running at a steady effort.  I soon caught everyone who passed me with no extra effort and the bonk I usually get after 30 miles never showed up.  I was excited at that prospect and when I finally started the descent into Twin Lakes I let it out a notch. 

I arrived at Twin Lakes #1 (mile 39) feeling on fire and with thoughts creeping into my head that this could be a really good race for me.  I arrived at the checkpoint in 6:47 and was hoping I could continue this great timing going over the crux of the day, Hope Pass (twice).  I quickly saw The Onion and I asked where everyone was. He says, “No one else is here.” Me: “Ok, do you have my pack and trekking poles?” Onion: “No, I don’t have anything, it’s with Marshall.”  With my adrenaline already on high, my irritation started to increase.  I backtracked again to the aid station to fill up my pack and grab whatever gels I could get.  How could they not be there? It’s almost been two hours since I last saw them; why weren’t they there?  Honestly, I was extremely pissed off and for the next 7 minutes, which felt like an eternity, I was venting to The Onion.  I was about to leave when I finally see Marshall running towards me.  Without saying a word, I took my poles and tried not to show my emotions.  I was quickly informed that it was a nightmare for crews.  Not only did they have to drive through an hour of traffic, they had to park 2 miles away. However, it took a while for my emotions to dissipate after I left them.   

Leaving Twin Lakes, I was extremely looking forward to the climb up to Hope Pass, at 12,600 ft.  I felt that no one could touch me on this.  This was my territory: high altitude fast hiking.  I uncorked my sticks and within the first several yards of the climb, I had NOTHING.  My eyelids immediately became droopy, I had no energy anywhere in my body, I couldn’t even get my HR past 130 uphill even though I had been running the race around 155.  I didn’t understand what was happening.  I started to weave and feel tired.  I sat down several times, just wanting to take a nap.  By the way, it’s 11am.  I tried to force myself to vomit, to no avail, take 2 salts (which I didn’t plan on using at all, but I was desperate for a solution).  Nothing made anything better.  People were passing me by the droves.  By the time I got to Hopeless Aid Station, at least 20 people passed me.  I was slow and demoralized. 

After spending at least 10 minutes at Hopeless taking in soda (ie caffeine) I continued on to the pass.  I didn’t feel any better.  Forever went by before I finally reached the pass.  The downhill wasn’t any better and after 5 more miles of feeling like crap, I arrived at Winfield in 10:45, ready to pick up Marshall and hopefully turn this thing around.  The great timing I once had went out the window.  I arrive at the weigh-in station and immediately recognize Diana Finkel as the volunteer. I burst out, “Are you OK?!”  This was because Chris and I saw her extremely pale, walking the downhill after Grant-Swamp Pass at Hardrock 100.  She laughed and returned the question.  I, clearly, was not as good as her.  After sitting for 15min, trying to regroup, complaining about the left side of my chest during inhalation, getting my O2 Sat taken (97-98%), and taking in Red Bull I apologized to Marshall for anything I may have said at Twin Lakes and I was extremely happy to have him there.  From this point on, a bottle of Coke and cups broth would be my fuel source.
Cresting Hope Pass 1
Heading back out I really wasn’t feeling any better.  We finally started a downhill section and all of a sudden I started to get life back in my body and mind.  I yelled to Marshall, “You’ve brought me back from the dead!”  We cruised the downhill section to the beginning of the Hope Pass climb.  This side of the pass was steep but the first 500 yards went well.  And that’s about how long those good feelings lasted.  This side of the pass turned out to be much worse.  Sitting down at every switchback, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, I didn’t understand what was happening.  After a 47-minute mile, I finally saw the pass.  It was probably not more than .5 miles away but it might as well been 5 miles.  We crested and soon stumbled into Hopeless #2.  I sat for 15 min trying to restart my whole system.  We finally left and as we made our way down I slowly started to feel better and better.  We were soon flying down, yelling “on your left!” constantly, and talking about awful the last several hours were.  We cruised down into Twin Lakes #2 where we immediately spotted Megan and Joel.  I was chipper and recounting them of the debacle that was the last 22 miles.  It took an astounding 7.5 hours for that section.

We left quickly and were soon hiking up the hill out of Twin Lakes well.  We are just grinding and soon hit a long downhill section where I started to really make up some ground.  I was feeling fantastic and we were having a good time talking about random things.  We got to mile 71, Half Pipe Aid Station, in 16:40, where I would pick up The Onion in a couple miles at the crew access. 

Dragging trekking poles up the long slog up Hope Pass 2
I hugged Marshall and after several minutes I was off with The Onion.  Marshall has been has paced me through my last 3 hundreds so he knows what he’s in for: for good or ill.  For whatever reason he still says “Sure!” when I ask him to pace.  Great friend.
This was the road section of the course and we were soon at Fish Hatchery #2, mile 76.5, in 18:14.  Finding the crew wasn’t hard this time and I sat down getting updates, refueling with soda, and getting ready for the next section up Powerline.  With Kate Martini Freeman telling me that her husband, Jimmy Dean Freeman (JDF), was “…right behind” me I got out of the chair immediately and was soon off with The Onion (It turned out to be an hour, but it was a huge motivating force).  I had a ton of juice in my legs and felt damn good, so we pushed it on the road, and it turns out, for the entire section.  This was my best section of the race.

While running the road section hard I remember saying to The Onion, “Whatever happens, I don’t want JDF catching me!”  And my pacer didn’t disappoint.  We hiked hard up the steep Powerline section and whenever the terrain got flat or even a short/mild ascent we ran.  We started passing folks by the droves roughly 2 dozen by The Onion’s count.  By the top of Powerline there was no one else in sight so we pushed the downhill looking for more.  Simply put, The Onion pushed me. He gave me some tough love and he saved me a bunch of time.  My headlamp started to fail on the downhill and with his sun-like flashlight he literally became my guiding light.  He led the way for me and with some tough moments due to poor lighting on the technical downhill section we arrived in May Queen, mile 86.5, with a 2:30 split, which turned out to be very solid. I told The Onion on the way down that I really wanted to break 24.  It was now 20:44 into the race with 13.5 miles to go, and I needed to average 14 min/miles from here on out towards the uphill finish.  It was doable.

After about 6 minutes, I was off with my good backpacking buddy, Joel.  I had run the last 30 miles quite well and all I needed were over a dozen more.  However, as soon as I started running, I could feel the wheels starting to fall off.  I started walking more and I knew what was coming.  I started to get slower, more fatigued, my eyelids drooping again, and the worst of it all, I started sitting down.  This was the exact same feeling going up Hope and I was stuck.  I didn’t know what to do.  I tried to make myself vomit again, I was apologizing to Joel for how pathetic I was, and I was sitting constantly now.  After seeing a 20-minute mile buzz on my watch I felt 24 hours slip away.  11 miles seemed like 50 now and I was sure that breaking 25 hours would be highly improbable.  I was desperate and I couldn’t figure it out.  I sat down again and just wanted to sleep.  Even though The Onion denies it, I swear I heard him say to down 3 Gu gels in a row.  So maybe this really rough patch could be fixed with a strong influx of sugar.  1 Gu down, 2 Gu down, 3 Gu….nope, I immediately started vomiting profusely.  Tons of water and Gu exited my system: One time, then a second.  I sat down: a third time. And a fourth.  It was nasty and exhausting work.  But lo and behold, I started to get my head back.  I said to Joel, “I can start running again.” We started running/hiking and I continued to feel better.  We still had at least 10 miles to go and I was adamant that I would not ingest anything else for the rest of the race.  I was hiking and running better and even ran some of the ups.  It was amazing how immediately my body responded once the stomach emptied.  It was the first time I’ve thrown up in a race. Now I wish it happened on Hope Pass.
We hit the tarmac and could smell the finish.  I thanked Joel profusely for putting up with my crap and I hoped I redeemed myself the last several miles.  It was his first time pacing, and his first time at an ultra event.  He did great, and to my amazement he would soon sign up for his first trail run soon thereafter.  We saw the finish line lights in the far distance, and we ran hard until the end, passing runners holding hands, walking, and celebrating in their accomplishment.  I crossed the finish line in 24:24, securing the sub-25 buckle.  I was feeling good, uninjured, and joyous to see Megan and Marshall, bundled up in the bleachers.  I was simply happy and carefree, and for the briefest moments there was nothing else in the world to weigh me down.  I found a chair and with my crew, I sat.

Finish w/Joel
Thank you to Megan, Marshall, The Onion (Garret Christensen), and Joel.  You got me through this. I love you guys.

Thanks to JDF and KMF for letting us use your house after the race as a place to crash and shower. Jimmy, you were a great motivation force at the end and to run two difficult 100’s within 2 weeks is nuts.  I still don’t know how you did it.  Thanks to Jason Healey for saving the first 40 of my race and letting me use your HR monitor (I left mine at home). 

With every 100, I learn new lessons that help me on the subsequent run.  Here are a few:

-90% of being successful at these races is race management.  It doesn’t matter how fit you are if you can’t manage your race well.  I’m talking about nutrition, pace, strategy, troubleshooting, managing low points etc.

-Don’t look at your watch. It’s just too damn long a race, with way too many variables to worry about pace.  I used my watch to monitor my effort, using the HRM, for the first 40.  Then the strategy became, “do what you can.”

-Better undertrained than over-trained.  It’s a fine line and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out unless you’re honest with yourself and are sensitive to it.

-Be patient; not only during the race, but during your training period as well.  You don’t have to redline every run in order to improve.  I ran 2 hard runs per week for leg turnover and max aerobic capacity with the rest hiking, slow running. After all, the race is 100% aerobic. My body was able to recover with each subsequent run building on the other.  The hole was never too deep to get out of in a manner of days.  I don’t think I ever had a bad run during the 6 weeks of race-specific training and each run had a purpose to the overall picture.

-Sleep. It’s extremely important during the last week.  I cannot stress this enough.  I’m talking 8-9hours.

-Keep the race-specific training to a minimum (6-8wks) but have a great base coming into that training period.

-Have different fuel sources throughout the race.  Maybe the first x-miles should have been gels, followed by liquid fuel, followed by……you get the point.  I’ll try that next time.

Post race BBQ at Joel's house with the great crew. (The Onion is not here. He continues to remain elusive to all, preferring to spend his time in the vast unknowns.)

Large and in-charge buckle

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