The Leadville Trail 100 is one of the “big ones” as far as 100 mile runs go. It’s been around for over 20 years, starts in a town who’s elevation is 10,200 feet above sea-level, never drops below 9,200 feet, historically about 50% who start will finish, and has 2 climbs (going out and coming back) that reach an elevation of 12,600 feet. All in all, there are just enough things stacked against you to make this already daunting task, a little more daunting.
I was lucky enough to be provided the opportunity both from work, and more importantly, my wife to get out to Leadville about 2 weeks early to try to acclimate to a very foreign high altitude climate. I grew up and continue to live in Illinois so mountain peaks are pretty rare. Heck, hills that climbs much over 200 feet are scarce in my neck of the woods. On top of that, I’ve only been above 10,000 feet one time and that was during a little weekend get-away to Denver 2 years ago where my wife and I took a hike in Rocky Mountain National park. Ok enough of that. You get the picture, I am a flatlander.
I packed up my truck and headed west on I-70 on August 9th. I arrived in Leadville that night at the Super 8 motel that would be my home and office for the next 9 days. During my first few days I was really feeling the high altitude working on me. I was nauseas, bloated, tired, and gassed from just walking from the motel room to my car. Luckily these symptoms lessened more and more each day. By day 3 I had shook most of the feelings of being ill and decided to try to run a bit. I noticed the Mineral Bike Trail just across from my motel and went for a 6 miler. My heart rate was though the roof the whole time, even at an easy pace. However, this was better than I thought it would be. I was actually able to run the whole time, just at a cost of about 1 to 1.5 minutes per mile in terms of effort to pace of what I am used to at sea-level. I ran one other time before the weekend then hooked up with my friend Paul Schoenlaub, who was running his 8th Leadville, for some climbs on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday we hit Mosquito Pass then climbed a little higher to the radio tower to get to around 13,600 feet, This climb had me hurting really bad. I had a headache all night and into the next morning and even contemplated skipping the climb up Hope Pass on Sunday. I figured I would benefit from seeing what most feel is the the worst part of the course so I went ahead and just dealt with the issues. I was glad I did my headache cleared up and we had a beautiful day ascending and descending the pass. This was the last I would run or hike before the race. Both videos below are from those climbs the week prior to the race.
Mosquito Pass -
Hope Pass -
My wife Micaela, Father-in-Law, and crew chief for most of my big events as of late, Ron, and my good friend Howard who got me into all this ultra stuff to begin with arrived Thursday. I was really glad to see them as I was starting to get a little stir crazy hanging out in Leadville solo except for a few days here and there shared with Paul, along with two other SLUGS, John and Steve, who came out to watch the Leadville 100 bike race. My last 2 crew member who I had met crewing for Ryan Dexter out at the Vermont 200 got in Friday night around 8. We all met in one of the two rooms we had at the Timberline Motel to discuss everyone's’ roles and responsibilities for the next day then called it a night to get ready for the 4 am start. Shortly before hitting the pillow I received a call from my good friend and training partner Jason Eads wishing me luck and giving me some last minute confidence.
The 2:30 am alarm never went off. I slept just a few hours but was able to sleep some so that was a plus. I got dressed, pulled all my gear together then walked the few blocks to the starting area with Ron to check-in. It was in the upper 30’s, lower 40’s at the start which is pretty much perfect for shorts and a long sleeve shirt. The forecast called for mid-70’s which may be a little warm to the locals, but coming from the 100 degree heat and high humidity of the Midwest, I was not going to complain. I situated myself about a 1/4 of the way from the front figuring that gave me the best chance of getting behind some slower runners to keep me honest at the beginning but not so far back that I would get stuck walking a bunch when we hit the single track around Turquoise Lake.
Start to May Queen 13.5 miles
The gun went off and 652 folks ready to run all day and night took off down 6th Street. I did my best to just settle in and relax. There were way too many miles and hours ahead of me to get worried about pace now. The course works it’s way slightly downhill for the first several miles so it’s easy to calm down and just let the slight pull of gravity take you. While there was crew access 7 miles in at the Tarbor Boat Ramp I decided to forego this option so that I could just get into a groove wait until the next crew point at May Queen 13.5 miles in to refill my fuels. I made my way around Turquoise Lake’s rocky and rooty single track trail with a group of about 10 other runners all in a line My goal had been to get to May Queen in about 2:10-2:15. I landed 2:15 on the nose. Dropped off my headlamp, swapped my bandana for my running hat, and grabbed some sunglasses from Micaela and Ron while my pacers hung back at the motel room for some extra winks that they would need as we pushed on late into the night.
May Queen Outbound -
May Queen to Fish Hatchery 23.5
Heading into miles 13.5-23.5 we started climbing. We were on the Colorado trail for a bit before turning onto Hagerman Road. Hagerman was a gradual uphill climb for several miles. Runnable under most circumstances but I had made a deal with myself to walk anything that resembled a hill in the early parts of the race. Finally I hit the top and was greeted with a fairly long decent down Power Line. I like downhill running so this should have been great, but for some reason my calves hurt something awful. WAY to early for this sort of thing to be happening so I decided to change it up at the aid station. I came in about 10 minutes off my goal time but there was way too much race left to worry about that. The crew met me coming in, I shed the rest of my layers then headed to the chair to get my calve sleeves off. I was not sure if they were causing the pain or not, but I figured that sticking with what wasn’t working was probably not wise so I took them off. Plus I had about 4 miles of road ahead of me before the next crew stop so if the calf sleeves were not the issues I could put them back on in an hour or so.
Fish Hatchery Outbound -
Crewing at Fish Hatchery -
Fish Hatchery to Pipeline 28 miles
I cruised out to the road and was starting to feel better. Not great but things were loosening up. The sun was out and getting warm and I was about a quarter though this run. “Not bad for 9 am” I thought. This section was tougher than it should have been. Just running out here was taxing. My heart rate would spike at the smallest climb and running what should be an easy pace was really wearing on me. I just pushed though and kept running when I could and walking when I couldn’t.
Road to Pipeline -
I rolled into the crew stop at pipeline feeling rough. This is common for me at this point so I tried to just ignore it and keep going. No need to sit down and adjust anything, just get a one fresh water bottle get some sun screen on and keep moving to get out of this funk. Micaela walked with me all the way through this crew section until we hit the “no crewing” sign and I started running again.
Pipeline Crew Stop 28 miles -
Pipeline to Twin Lakes 40.5
Most of the way though this section I was feeling rough. It was somewhat flat but it was just so much freaking work to run that I was walking a lot more that I should have. Finally I had to kick myself in the butt. “I chose to be here. I knew that altitude would hurt more. Accept it and start running.” I told myself. I was forcing myself to run no matter what. I ended up in a group of guys who were running very smooth so I just hopped in with them and started having fun again. We were making the decent down to Twin Lakes and the downhill running felt great. I just kept pace with these guys and started pouring in gels and keeping the fluids high. Finally we popped off the single track and on to the fire road down to Twin Lakes. I could hear the voices and bustle down the way and started smiling. We dropped down off the road and into the aid station. I was coming back around, feeling good and ready to keep pressing. I was almost 40 miles in. I hit the flat ground, gave Ron a high-five and my wife a kiss and made my way to the aid station to chow down.
Fish Hatchery Outbound 40.5 miles -
Twin Lakes to Winfield 50
Twin Lakes is the lowest point of the course at 9,200 feet. Directly after leaving this “low point” you begin you ascent to the highest point of the course to 12,600 feet above sea-level. I was really looking forward to this section. I had done it the weekend before and I enjoy climbing so it was nice to know that all I had to do was just go uphill for a long time (about 3.5 miles) and not have to use my running muscles. However I was getting killed here. I was able to maintain a good climbing pace, but the lower sections of the climb are steep so I was working extra hard to keep moving. My heat rate and breathing rate would get very high and I would have to stop for 10 seconds or so to catch my breath. Once the trail leveled off a little and got into the switch back near the top I was able to keep things under control a little better and avoid stopping. I hit the Hopeless aid station and was just laughing to myself. I could not believe that there were enough people available to actually man an aid station up here. On top of the people here. there were llamas, that’s right, they used llamas to pack all the food and supplies up for the runners. This was one of those moments you just have to see to appreciate and I did, I made sure to take it all in and thanks all of these folks for their hard work. I stopped at the aid station to fuel up before descending down the back side of Hope Pass. There were a lot of runners here that looked really rough. Most of the time Hopeless aid station is not a place to hang out. Normally the weather is unpredictable at this altitude so it could be 70 degrees below but snowing, raining, gusting wind, or hailing up here. Luckily it was just sunny and cool today. I slammed down 2 cups of soup, 2 cups of coke, and ate some potato chips to get me into Winfield where I would be able to pick up my first pacer. I said thank you to the aid station workers then continued the climb about another 1/2 a mile past the aid station to the top of Hope Pass where I started my decent. Once off the trail you step onto the dusty congested Winfield road. There were runners and cars coming and going. It was a mess. I just tried to stay on the shady side of the road and not suck in too much dust. The road was a slight uphill so I continued my “walk when it looks like a hill” strategy until I arrived at the aid station. I reached the halfway point in just under 11 hours. I still had a chance at the big buckle for finishing under 25 hours. Though I knew from researching lots of historical splits that the odds were against me.
Winfield 50 miles -
Winfield to Twin Lakes Inbound 60.5
I was weighed by the staff to make sure I was not dehydrated or hyponatremic. I was only down 1 pound since initial weigh-ins so I felt good to not have to deal with anything on that front. My stomach was a little off so I was having trouble eating. I tried some boiled potatoes but they were over done and tasted horrible. I almost lost my lunch here. Dema was my first pacer and he was ready to go. We’d made it 1/2 way. From here on out we had more steps behind us than we had in front of us. Time to go back though this course the reverse of what I had just done on the way out. I was hurting again on the beginning of the climb. It was steep and I was working hard. I had to stop several times to catch my breath and let my heart rate drop a bit, but we kept pressing. I was getting dizzy. Dema made me eat and eat. He said “don’t think about what it tastes like, just get it down.” I remembered this the rest of the race and just kept forcing the food down. We finally broke tree line and could see the switch backs to get to the top of Hope Pass again. I was coming around. Calories were up and the climbs were less steep so I was able to maintain good climbing pace without working as hard. We crested Hope Pass and I told Dema that I wanted to stop at the aid station and fill up my bottles and get some more calories in for the 3.5 mile downhill section. Once again coke and soup were what I grabbed for first. I let them settle then we throttled it. I was really hitting this section hard. My legs felt great and were keeping me moving on this big downhill. I passed a lot of people here because I was able to run this downhill hard. We were yelling “Big Buckle!!” I was feeling like it was possible to get there in under 25 hours. I was starting to hit my stride 54 miles into the race. We popped off the mountain and into the prairie flats working our way toward Twin Lakes aid station where I would pick up my second pacer Randy to get me to mile 73.
Twin Lakes Inbound 60.5 miles -
Twin Lakes to Pipeline 72
Randy and I steadily walked up the rocky hill before hitting the upward climbing fire road. I had come into Twin Lakes feeling pretty good but had ran hard and my stomach was turning especially after I shoved in as much food as I could. We walked up and up until we hit some trail we could run on. Randy was awesome and jut kept me motivated. We talked about about running and life and everything else. The moon was almost full and we were running down a wide dirt road so I still did not have my headlamp on. Finally it was dark enough where I needed to wear it. I was actually pretty excited that I had gone 65+ miles before having to turn on the lamp. We kept talking about the big buckle and then how sub 24 hours was within reach. “Whoa, seriously” I thought. I had pretty much thrown out my pace chart around 30 miles in because I had fell behind it by over a 1/2 hour. I still had something left so I was going to do what I could to get it done. I had asked him when we would see an aid station and he thought we were several miles away. With in a minute of me asking, we look up and there is a strand of lights in the trees. SWEET, completely unexpected, here it was! It’s funny how when you strip away all comforts that something so simple can be so exciting. Just the idea of hot chicken noodle soup and a cup of coke was pretty much heaven to me right now. We got out the the aid station as quick as possible and charged on. Finally we could see car lights up in the distance, we were at Pipeline. My leg with Randy was done and I had just over a marathon left.
Pipeline Inbound 72 miles -
Pipeline to Fish Hatchery 76
I picked up my next pacer Howard who was ready to go. I told him that we had a road section ahead of us before the Fish Hatchery and that I wanted him to make me work. Knowing some things about the course is a bit of a curse. I knew that once we left Fish Hatchery we were going to hit Power Line. Power Line is a section of the course that is basically a dirt road that climbs up hill, with a few false summits, for about 3.5 miles. I had to bank time now if I could because once we hit Power Line, we were walking and there is not much more I could do there. He kept me talking. We admired the moon and the clear sky full of starts as we ran. I was still in my same socks and shoes since the start and had picked up enough silt, sand, and dust throughout the day that I needed to get different socks on and cover up some hot spots before that got any worse. I was feeling great at this point. Fish Hatchery was jumping! Music was playing, people were cheering, it was a great atmosphere. I even danced a little in the aid station while eating some food.
Fish Hatchery Inbound 76 miles-
Fish Hatchery to May Queen 86.5 miles
This was a slow going section. The climb up Power Line this late in the race is brutal. Luckily we had some a road section leading up to this so again I had Howard make me run with the terrain allowed it. Once we hit the dirt road up Power Line it was all power walking. We climbed what seemed to be forever. Again I was climbing well and made up more positions in the overall standings. It was not my intention to pass people, I was only worried about me finishing and getting off this damn climb so I kept pushing as much as I could. Finally we hit the backside of the climb and descended down Hagerman Road. My quads were shot and I could barely keep a running pace downhill but I did what I could. I started running from course marker to course maker. We’d see a glow stick in the distance and run to it then take a walking break. Finally we came off of Hagerman Road and back onto the Colorado Trail. I just kept moving though the rocky trail as well as I could until we popped out onto the road to May Queen aid station. From here I had just over 3 hours left to get under 24 hours and 13.5 miles to do it. I knew the splits and knew that the average finisher in the sub 24 range took about 3 hours to get in. I still had work to do. Howard handed me off to Dema.
May Queen to Finish 86.5 -100 miles
I rolled into the tent that was the aid station grabbed some soup and coke again then headed out the back of the tent. All of a sudden no one was around me. My crew had lost me going into the tent and I was just standing there alone. Finally they figured out where I was and we got moving. It was getting close to 1 am and everyone was beat. We’d all been up since about 2:30am and barely slept leading up to then so it was not a surprise that things were not meshing like they had been during the day. No matter though, we regrouped and got out of there. Unfortunately I was without my water bottles but we quickly fixed that as Dema ran back to get them while I kept moving toward the finish. We left at 12:55am and needed to be back to the the same spot we started in less than 3 hours and 5 minutes to get sub 24. The “big buckle” was mine, I could walk it in from here and get 25 but with the tricky footing around Turquoise Lake and the gradual uphill that the last 5 miles of the course, there was not much room for error. Dema let me go in front and I was actually running pretty well. Even on the tricky footing I was moving. That footing was a lot like my normal training routes here at home so even though it was not the best thing to be on with 87 miles on my legs I could navigate it just fine. With about 8 miles to go, I started loosing the trail. I was tired, having trouble seeing, and was just beat. I had Dema go in front of me and watch the trail. This way all I had to do was follow. I was mostly on auto-pilot and trying to navigate myself was possible but I had someone else here so I could offload that duty and just concentrate on one foot in front of the other.
We finally came off the trail around Turquoise Lake and hit what would be mostly dirt roads the rest of the way in. We did the same thing that Howard and I did. We would run to the glow sticks, walk, then run some more. Dema was doing everything to keep me moving and I was giving all I had, which was not much at this point. We’d power walk up a hill and when it would plateau I’d run as much as I could. Finally in the distance I could see a light. Not sure if it was on a building or a street light but I knew it was the town of Leadville. We were close. We came off the dirt road then hit the paved road. It was flat and I ran it up to the the hill. 2 more hills to go and I was done. Once we hit the top of the first hill I heard Howard and Randy. They drove down to cheer me in. I could also see the finish line so I ran down the hill then started back up the last one. I wanted to walk but Dema would not let me. “You have to make a statement” he said. He was right. I did not come all this way to walk across the finish line. I mustered up everything I had left and jogged it in crossing the finish line in 23:41.49
Crossing the Finish Line -
This was an unbelievable race. I ran as well as I could have hoped. I went sub 24 and finished 52nd out of 652 starters and 363 official finishers. It’s a great thing when you can set your sights on a race as your “A” race and it executes to plan. However, I am just one piece of this machine. My crew was instrumental to getting me to the finish line. Their care, support, and attitudes were top notch. Everything I could have asked for they did and more and I hope you saw that in the videos above. While I am the one with the “big buckle” we all share in what it stands for. I am truly inspired by a group of people willing to give up their time to help me finish what in the broad scheme of things is nothing more than a race. Ultrarunning is a special sport that has the ability to pull people together like nothing I have seen before. The other crews, runners, and undoubtedly the race staff all played a role in getting me though this. I thank you all.