This past weekend I took part in the 2013 Leadville Trail 100 – without doubt, the toughest, most challenging event of my 32 year running career. This recap could potentially turn into my longest ever blog post, so please bear with me as I attempt to process my many thoughts, memories and emotions.
Number of starters – 943
Number of finishers – 497
Finish rate – 52.7%
Finish time – 27:16:17
Finish place – 209th/497
Age group position – 53rd/125
Gender position – 183rd/415
The legendary “Race Across The Sky” 100 Mile Run takes place on extreme Colorado Rockies terrain, from elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet. I signed up somewhat on a whim way back on New Years Day, just over a month before attempting my first 100 Miler. Most people probably would have waited until after their first 100 before signing up for another one, but I didn’t want the Leadville 100 to close out and risk not getting an entry slot.
The plan was to focus on the Rocky Raccoon 100 in February, have fun at a 24-HR event in April, then start the training cycle for Leadville in early May. Meanwhile, I’d read as much about the course, the conditions and the cut-off times.
We arrived in Colorado a couple of days before the race, and made our way to Leadville via a Whole Foods in Denver where we stopped to pick up supplies and grab lunch. We were soon checked into our 3rd floor guest apartment located just a few blocks from the start of the race, where I unpacked some of my gear and started to get organized.
The next day or two consisted of a short shake out run, more planning/strategizing, a reccie of most of the aid stations/crew areas and probably most important of all, attending the mandatory pre-race meeting which was packed with almost 1,000 runners plus their support teams. After an awful pre-race dinner at The Silver Dollar Saloon (their food was just as bad as their web site), it was time to set the alarms and turn in for the night. Despite feeling just a tad nervous and a lot excited, sleep came surprisingly easy.
The first words I heard on race morning were “I’m glad I’m not you” courtesy of super-crew member, and loving daughter, Shannon. Thanks. I think. Sustained Energy was the breakfast of choice, which I sipped easily as I layered up into my race gear. Head crew Ally was getting her stuff together as Jeff & Ryan (the two other crew/pace guys on my team) rolled up outside the apartment. Minutes later the crew vehicle was loaded with gear, and we made our way on foot down to the corner of 6th Street and Harrison Avenue for the start.
The Start to May Queen
- Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra Shoes
- Swiftwick socks
- Zensah Calf Sleeves
- Nike shorts
- Salomon EXO S-Lab Tee
- Mission Athletecare cooling arm sleeves
- Generic gloves
- Petzl Nao Headlamp
- Gore beanie
- Salomon waist pack
After a somewhat emotional start (lining up with almost 1,000 runners about to tackle one of the most challenging races in the USA really hit home), we were finally off and running. The goal was to keep things very easy on the initial downhill stretch to Turquoise Lake. I looked for Maddy in the hope of running some of the early miles together, but it was too dark and crowded to find her in the mass of runners crunching their way along the gravel of The Boulevard. As expected, the first 5 or 6 miles passed pretty quickly. The temperature was cool, but not cold, and pretty much perfect running weather. I alternated sips of Tailwind Endurance Fuel and water, and just concentrated on finding a good rhythm.
The first challenging section of the race was a short, steep, rocky slope known as Mini-Powerline. Everyone ahead of me stopped to walk, so I followed suit and just tried to pick out the best line. The climb didn’t last long and pretty soon we were crossing a road and heading towards the single track trail around Turquoise Lake.
The trail was narrow, rocky and rooty with not too many chances to pass or be passed. Actually this suited me fine as my pace was good and it kept me from pushing too hard. I wondered where Maddy was, and even shouted out her name in the darkness in case she was close by and we could run together. Worth a try, but alas, there was no reply. We quickly reached and crossed the Tabor Boat Ramp, then continued on the trail around the lake and towards the May Queen aid station.
At the end of the trail, we popped out on to an asphalt road which made for a pleasant change from the early miles rocks, roots and gravel. The noise ahead clearly meant we were close to the aid station, and just as it came into view, I heard someone shout my name from behind. It was Maddy – big smile on her face and running along at a good, controlled pace. We exchanged a few words, but soon got separated again at the aid station where I took the opportunity to ditch my Petzl Nao Headlamp and exchange water bottles. It was great to see my crew after a couple of hours of running, but there was no time to hang around before setting off on the next leg of the journey.
May Queen to Outward Bound
The next 10 or so miles consisted of a gradual climb up to the top of Sugarloaf Pass (approx. 11,000ft), followed by the pretty steep and nasty Powerline descent. I hiked the steeper sections of the climb, stuck to the plan of gels, Tailwind and SaltStick capsules, and was really enjoying the experience of “running Leadville”. Some of the runners were super chatty, but others (like me) were more focused on their races and in the zone.
The Powerline descent was a bit tricky on the dusty, rutted trail. Some parts were pretty steep, so I tried to find the balance between trashing my quads and maintaining a good pace. Somewhere on this section a runner (Charlie) introduced himself to me, and asked if I was the Hundred Pushups guy. Amazing! We chatted briefly before wishing each other well and going our separate ways.
Once at the bottom of Powerline, there was a nice paved road where I could draw from the crowds and pick up the pace slightly to run to the Outward Bound aid station. I expected to be weighed at Outward Bound, but for some reason the volunteers just ushered me in and out without any checks, leaving me to hunt down my crew for another handheld bottle/gel exchange. I think the only other change was to ditch my beanie which I’d stowed in my waist pack, pick up a visor to shade my eyes from the sun and get sprayed with Mission sunscreen to keep my head from burning. Again, I didn’t hang around and was soon heading to County Road 11 and the next leg of the race. 24 miles down, 76 to go.
Outward Bound to Half Pipe
The sun felt great on this relatively short section, and I was able to pass several runners without having to pick up the pace. The road was paved, fairly flat and it was cool to be passed by my support team as they made their way to the next crew station. After navigating through a grassy meadow, we made a left turn where the crew zone soon came into view. I’d only carried one handheld on this section, so picked up another before continuing on to the Half Pipe aid station located 2 or 3 miles away.
Half Pipe to Twin Lakes
I stopped briefly at Half Pipe to ditch a couple of annoying sticky gel wrappers, and took the opportunity to grab a quick slice of watermelon and a cup of water. The next 4 or 5 miles were a gradual uphill until we popped out at the Mount Elbert trailhead and the Camelbak-sponsored water station. Again, I took the opportunity for a quick water top-up, high-fived the young lad operating the spigot, then took off in good spirits towards Twin Lakes.
This section was mainly single track, with some rocky switchbacks to navigate the closer we got to Twin Lakes. Oddly enough, I was able to hear the aid station before I could see it, and after a short, steep descent (where I’m glad to report I didn’t fall), I hit the road running in the search of calories and my crew.
Once again it was a big boost to hook up with my support team. As I concentrated on taking in calories, my crew swiftly changed shoes (Saucony Kinvara Trail) and socks (Drymax), and applied more sunscreen. I switched out the visor for a hat (knew it was going to be extra sunny at the top of Hope Pass), strapped on the Nathan Vapor Wrap pack, and without thinking too much about the massive climb ahead, took off across the meadow and towards the river crossing. 40 miles down, 60 to go.
Twin Lakes to Hopeless
Running swiftly across the meadow, I attempted to brace myself for the toughest 20 miles of the Leadville 100 – firstly a 3,400 ft climb to the summit of Hope Pass, via the Hopeless aid station, then a wicked descent down into the ghost town of Winfield. At Winfield, you grab aid and a pacer and do it all in reverse.
The meadow was easy to navigate, although the Nathan pack containing 2 liters of water felt heavier than I remembered in training. Ugh. The river crossing was refreshing though. Not too deep, but cold enough to numb my feet for a few hundred meters. Nice. Once the feeling in my feet came back, I realised my Drymax socks had scrunched down with the weight of the water and were causing some friction on the back of my ankle. I quickly tried to pull them up, but decided to press on rather than spend too much time messing with them. Note to self – stick with the Swiftwicks next time.
The climb up Hope Pass was just as tough as everyone makes out. However, I switched my Garmin to display elevation and was surprised at how quickly the number increased – 9,200.. 9,400.. 9,700.. 10,000.. 10,300… I was able to keep my breathing under control until about the 10,800ft mark where the grade seemed to kick up a few more %.At Twin Lakes I’d made the decision to leave my Black Diamond Trekking Poles behind – I hadn’t trained much with them, and figured they’d be more of a hindrance than a help. In hindsight I should have carried them “just in case”, as I soon found any kind of forward progress was difficult without some form of aid. Luckily I found a longish stick on the side of the trail which I used quite effectively for at least half a mile. The stick was quite spindly though, so I kept my eyes peeled for something sturdier. As luck would have it, tucked just off the single track I spotted two almost perfect sticks which were MADE for the climb.
From this point on, progress was good and the effort level under control again. I made it to Hopeless, topped up my Nathan and sucked down some Tailwind from the Salomon flask I was also carrying. I munched on some Sport Beans, thanked the awesome volunteers (and llamas) at the surreal aid station, and trekked on towards the summit.
Hopeless to Winfield
The switchbacks seemed never ending, but eventually I made it to the top. I took a deep breath, turned myself around and spent a good 30 seconds just looking back at the amazing view with the tiny town of Leadville in the distance. I shook my head in disbelief at the miles and terrain I’d already covered – 45 miles so far and we weren’t even 9 hours into the race. No time for sightseeing though, so I turned around again and began the treacherous descent into Winfield.
I have to be honest here; the descent was pretty scary for this flatlander with limited downhill experience. The trail was narrow and dusty with a sheer drop on many sections of the descent. It would have been way too easy to lose control on the steeper sections and go barreling off down the side of the mountain, so I took things rather gingerly and made sure of my footing.
The cool part of the descent was having to step aside for the race leaders – first Michael Aish, closely followed by one of my favorite runners Ian Sharman, then Nick Clark with Scott Jurek and his pacer Hal Koerner not too far behind. It’s not often you get to share the trail with some of your idols, so I tried to take inspiration from them, and continued the descent with a bit more confidence.
The trail to Winfield seemed to snake on forever. To take my mind off things I started to count the runners in front of me who were over halfway done and heading back up to the summit. I lost count after about 50, but at the same time I could hear the noise and excitement of the Winfield aid station. Finally I popped out of the trailhead onto the dusty, washboard road and bounced along to the aid station where I realised I was still carrying the trusty old school trekking poles.
Ryan, my pacer, was there to greet me – he grabbed the sticks and directed me into the tent where I was to be weighed. I think I was about 3 pounds down. The medical guy looked me in the eye, asked if I was okay (I was), then ushered me out of the tent where I picked up some soup and salted potatoes before plopping myself down into the crew chair.
Once again I was able to consume some food while my crew took care of a sock change, Garmin 910XT exchange, Nathan hydration top up and an awesome sponge down of the legs and head. I also decided to pick up my Black Diamond poles before heading off for the second half of the race. 50 miles down, 50 to go. Halfway split 9:54:56 – almost an hour ahead of schedule, but feeling surprisingly good.
First Half Garmin Stats
Winfield to Hopeless
According to many blog reports/race recaps, a lot of runners quit at Winfield. The Hope Pass crossing is pretty crazy, and I guess it can easily psyche you out. My plan was to get in and out of Winfield as quickly as possible so that quitting would not be an option. I can honestly say that pulling out here was never an option. Sure, the climb was going to be brutal, but I was halfway done and my legs were ready for the challenge. Ryan and I set off in good spirits. It felt great to have company and I was looking forward to spotting a few friends on the climb back up Hope Pass.
Maddy was one of the first people I came across. She was about 1.7 miles from Winfield and still smiling like she was totally having a ball. I wished her well and continued the hike. I remember working hard back along the trail, feeling very thirsty and a bit lightheaded. I also remember having to constantly stop and pause on the trail – I’m not sure if it was the sheer volume of runners making their way down the narrow trail to Winfield, or the fact that I really needed to stop and catch my breath. It might have been a combination of both.
Somewhere on the ascent, the lightheadedness changed to a feeling of nausea and my breathing became more and more labored. My body was struggling to process the food I’d consumed at Winfield, and it was also trying to fuel my muscles for the tortuous climb to the summit. Something had to give, and it turned out to be the stomach. About 1,000ft from the top I stepped to the side of the trail to allow a few runners to pass by, steadied myself against a tree and threw up. Not once, not twice, but at least three times. Ryan was a little bit further along the trail probably wondering what I was up to. Thankfully I don’t remember too many details about this stage in the race, but I do vividly recall seeing the many switchbacks still up ahead. This was the first low point of the race. I felt weak, sick, despondent and totally drained of energy.
[Sidenote: The day after the race I mentioned to Ally that I wish I'd seen my friend Jon Vizena out on the course. Jon, despite giving it his all, decided Twin Lakes II would be the stopping point of his race, so I sent a text congratulating him on his gutsy 60 miles and apologized for not spotting him on the Hope Pass ascent/descent. His reply stunned me -- "Haha, I talked to you on Hope and I told you I was hurting. You were coming up as I was going down." Wow. I have no recollection of seeing Jon, let alone talking to him. I guess I was pretty much out of it at that stage in the race.
After violently throwing up the immediate challenge was to get up and over the summit, then down to the Hopeless aid station. Ryan took my pack to lessen the weight I had to carry, and would stop to give me water every time I needed it. My throat was the driest it's ever been in my life and I found myself stopping often to drink and wet my mouth. I was absolutely parched and the heat was starting to get to me. Thankfully Ryan stuck to me like glue, we somehow made it to the summit, and then down to the Hopeless aid station for the second time.
Hopeless to Twin Lakes
On reaching Hopeless for the second time, I was (a) desperate for calories and (b) ready for the Nathan pack to be topped up with water. Ryan took care of the pack while I made my way to the food tent to grab noodles and a drink. The noodles/broth tasted great so I grabbed another cup before leaving the tent to find a shaded spot to sit down. Seconds after plonking myself down on a small camping stool, the water and noodles came up. Twice. Maybe three times. Ugh. I asked Ryan if he thought Tums would help. He thought they would, so headed to the aid station to grab a couple. I chewed the first one, tried to swallow, but the stomach just couldn't keep anything down.
Next thing I know one of the aid station volunteers appears on the scene. She asks if I'm okay (clearly I'm not), congratulates me on the time it's taken to arrive at Hopeless Part II, then instructs me to sit still for ten minutes to allow my stomach to settle down. Ten minutes later she reappears with a cup of broth and a cup of flat coke and proceeds to spoon feed small doses out of both cups. Meanwhile, Ryan is phoning Ally to let her know the situation, whilst slowly, but surely, I start to feel more alert and desperate to get going. The volunteer lady has other ideas, however. First she motions for Ryan to pick up some Roctane for me to sip on the descent back down to Twin Lakes, then makes me sit for a few more minutes for the calories to settle. Finally she instructs us to be on our way. I thank everyone within earshot and head on out of the aid station with 45 miles ahead of me. See ya later, llamas.
We slowly start walking out of Hopeless - Ryan loaded up with both packs and both sets of poles, me carrying just a flask full of Roctane. The walk turned into a jog, then the jog turned into a run. Somehow I managed to run pretty much all of the descent, and 40 minutes later we were back at the meadow, about 1.5 miles from Twin Lakes. My energy level was waning again, so we just decided to walk it in across the river and towards the aid station. Ryan ran ahead to prepare some stuff for the next leg, while I kept plugging away, trying to stay positive. Seeing Maddy's Mom was a welcome sight and gave me a bit of a boost in the final stretch before Twin Lakes. Finally, I arrived at the aid station where Jeff was waiting to walk me to the tent and take care of my nutrition needs.
Twin Lakes aid station was the third low point of the race. Nothing on the table was enticing, I felt completely drained, yet knew I still had 40 miles to cover. We sat inside the tent for a while, then moved to an outside seat when the tent started to get busy. As my crew were buzzing around getting things together, I sat for way too long and considered the dreaded DNF. Again, being totally honest, I doubted I could make it to the finish and didn't want to end up stranded between aid stations in a sorry state. I remember shaking my head in frustration, and with every shake I was closer to calling it a day - there was no way I could go another 40 miles the way I was feeling.
Even when Maddy came breezing through the aid station, I made a motion with my hands to let her know I was done. I watched her speed off into the distance and sat for at least another 10 minutes. Thinking. Debating. Wondering. Still shaking my head, I sipped more coke, then something clicked in my mind and I announced I'd be ready to go in 5 minutes. I told Ally I didn't come here to quit and that I was ready to give it my best shot and finish this thing. Ryan prepared the gear and we set off walking out of the aid station.
Twin Lakes to Half Pipe
The next leg of the race should have been 8.5 miles to the Half Pipe aid station, but I think it turned out to be at least 10. The climb out of Twin Lakes was just as steep as I expected it to be, but somehow I was able to keep moving. We made it safely to the Mount Elbert water station where I just cupped my hands and took in some water. In truth, the next section to Half Pipe was fairly runnable, but energy levels were low and walk pace was all I could manage. I tried to eat along the way, but nothing sat right and all I could take was water and the leftover Roctane.
By now it was dark, the headlamps were on and there was a long night ahead of us. As the temperature dropped I also started to think about hypothermia. I was barely moving quick enough to generate body heat so pulled the Salomon wind shell out of my pack and kept on walking. Eventually we made it to Half Pipe and the comfort of a heated tent. Energy levels were really low at this point, so I took my time, enjoyed the heater and tried to get a few spoonfuls of fuel inside.
The next stage was just a couple of miles to where my crew were waiting and where Shannon would take over the pacing role. I felt fairly energised on this short stretch and made it to the crew zone in pretty good spirits. 30 more miles and I would be done!
Half Pipe to Outward Bound
Shannon took over the pacing and it was great to spend time with her. Conversation was good and thankfully the miles ticked away pretty quickly. I had coconut water to sip and knew that after this leg there were only *two* more sections to go, and one big climb. I wish I'd had more energy as this would have been a great section to run, but I needed to conserve as much energy as possible for the remaining 7 or 8 hours I predicted it would take.
It was really good to get to the Outward Bound aid station - lots of people, lots of distractions and a comfy chair to sit in. Again, it was the same routine - sit down, allow the stomach to settle, sip calories and go. Here I tried some oatmeal and chili, both of which tasted good and seemed to sit okay. It was now past midnight and time to ring in my 47th birthday, but all good things come to an end and it was soon time to move on for the next leg of the journey and the dreaded Powerline climb.
Outward Bound to May Queen
Powerline would be the last serious climb of the race. In the back of my mind I knew if I could just make it to the top of the 11,000ft Sugar Loaf Pass, I'd almost be in the clear and set for a sub-30 hour finish. Powerline was a cool, but cruel climb on a dusty, rutted surface. The cool part was looking ahead to see numerous dots of headlamp light from runners further up the climb. The cruel part was the 6 or 7 false summits that made the climb go on forever and ever. Somehow we made great progress up Powerline, and aside from one weak spot on the first part of the climb, the pace was good and we were able to pass several runners. Perhaps it was the miracle chili at Outward Bound?
The climb was also a warm one, so much so that I had to remove one layer and unzip the long sleeve Salomon top I had on underneath the thin wind shell. Much to the relief of Ryan and myself, we finally reached the summit and were soon able to make the long trek down to the final aid station. The rooty trail was quite windy and seemed to snake on forever. At one stage I thought we were close to May Queen, but the trail twisted away from the noise before looping back around to a small bridge crossing and the road to the campground. We made it. *Just* 13.5 miles to go.
May Queen to Finish
As we ran over the timing mat and towards the mass of crews and crew vehicles, we speculated whether Shannon or Jeff would be ready to take over the pacing role. However, Shannon was freezing and taking refuge in the Jeep, and Jeff was waiting with calories galore to help fuel me to the finish, including peanut butter, bread, soup and the strongest instant coffee ever! Despite a few minor hot spots, my feet were still feeling good, but I figured a change of shoes with just over a half marathon to run could be a good thing. The Saucony Virratas felt like carpet slippers and was definitely a great decision.
After several sips of broth and a spoonful or two of peanut butter, Ryan and I set off towards the rooty trail that would take us a good portion of the way around Turquoise Lake. Ryan won't mind me saying he was feeling pretty tired by now. The trail around the lake was monotonous, tedious and meandered on and on and on. It felt like you were running the same stretch time and time again.
We briefly stopped at the Tabor Boat Ramp, just in case the crew had made it and Shannon was ready to run the final 7 miles. The area was pretty deserted though, so we just continued along the trail, desperate for it to end. Eventually we popped up onto a road, ran a bit more rooty trail before scrambling down the wicked 1/3 of a mile Mini Powerline descent.
It felt so good to reach the bottom and exit left onto the wide gravel road. I tried to remember how far this point was from the start of the race, and guessed it was about 4 or 5 miles. Not too bad I suppose, but at this stage in the game all we wanted was to be done. To make matters worse, after the shelter of the lake trail, the exposed gravel road felt pretty chilly. Time to zip up the jacket again. The long stretch to the finish was pretty much all uphill, which surprisingly felt fine for the legs. A similar downhill could have been interesting the way the quads were feeling, but thankfully that was one thing I didn't have to worry about.
Eventually the high school came into view, and with the right turn onto 6th Street successfully navigated it was just a question of walking the final mile to the finish line. I glanced over at Ryan and said “I can’t believe I made it.” Squinting into the sun, I spotted Ally and Shannon in the distance, maybe a third of a mile from the finish line. It was great to see them again and quite an emotional moment for me. After almost calling it a day over 17 hours ago, somehow I’d managed to hike my way to the finish line. All that remained was to hit the red carpet running and cross that line.
Second Half Garmin Stats
I went into the race with the main aim of completing the course within the 30 hour cutoff, but also with a stretch goal of earning the coveted sub-25 hour gold/silver buckle. I thought long and hard about just playing it safe to make sure of the finish, but in the end decided to shoot high and go for gold, even if it meant blowing up and suffering for a bit towards the end. Despite the stomach issues, I’m glad I went for it, and strange as it may seem, it’s a great confidence boost to know I ran the first 50 miles of the Leadville 100 in under 10 hours. I’m sure I’ll return to Leadville one day, but for now I have other goals on my mind and lots of learning still to do….
As predicted, much like my race, this blog post has rambled on a bit it. To close, I’d like to sincerely thank my crew of Ally Speirs, Shannon Ralston, Ryan Knapp and Jeff Kline, and make it clear I wouldn’t have achieved my Leadville 100 finish goal without them. For them to totally sacrifice their weekends to support me, means a great deal. Thanks for reading. Comments are welcomed in the space below.
Photographs courtesy of Ally Speirs. Please respect the copyright ©