Monday, September 17, 2018

Race Report: Leadville Trail 100


I don't want to say that Leadville was the culmination of my years as an ultra runner, partly because I think I can run it faster and partly because that sounds kind of final and I'd like to think that I still have a few good races left in me.  But it certainly feels like an apex of sorts, and I think marked the beginning of a new phase of my running career.  Ultrarunning may have been an inevitable destination for me; at every stage of my life as a runner, I've always gravitated towards, and found the most success at, the longer distances.  But the move to the 100-mile distance was by no means a given.  I can still remember, having already completed multiple 50Ks, telling a friend that he was crazy for running the 40-mile Mount Mitchell Challenge (a race I've since run three times).  Mike Siudy still reminds me frequently that I swore I'd never run 100 miles.  And even once I had decided that a 100 was probably in my future, the idea of running Leadville--one of the original Grand Slam 100s, with nearly 16,000 feet of climbing at an elevation between 9,200 and 12,600 feet above sea level--seemed ludicrous.  (I can recall thinking that Leadville finisher Ken Posner was insane...though I still think that's true about anyone who voluntarily runs Badwater, let alone a double.)  Having completed, with some modicum of success, a race that previously scared the crap out of me does remove some sort of self-imposed limitation that may have constrained me in the past.  There are still going to be races I have no interest in doing, but the idea of a mountain 100 is no longer a daunting, impossible prospect.

I flew into Denver nine days before the race and caught a ride out to Leadville with Josh Sprague, the owner of Orange Mud, one of my wonderful sponsors, who was attempting to complete the Leadman (all of the Leadville Race Series MTB and running races in the same summer).  I was in for a bit of a shock.  While I knew I wouldn't have any hope of sticking with most of the high-country natives in a running race, I had been fairly diligent about my acclimatization, and I certainly did not expect to be short of breath climbing the single flight of stairs in the house I'd rented.  Alas, such is life at 10,150 feet.

I spent Friday, my first full day in town, helping Josh and a bunch of other OM athletes at the expo for the 100-mile MTB race that would take place the next day.  I headed out for a shakeout hourlong jog that evening before dinner to get my bearings and see how much the altitude was really going to affect me.  The answer: quite a bit!  I ran a 7-mile section of the Mineral Belt Trail, a paved bike loop around town that passes many of the abandoned silver mines from Leadville's 19th-century heyday.  I soon realized that it would be very tough to run under 9-10 minutes/mile on even gentle uphill grades.  Flat stretches seemed generally OK, though, once I got used to the sensation of breathing much more rapidly, and taking more frequent deep breaths, than at sea level.

Saturday was mountain bike race day; I took Josh's truck out to Twin Lakes, the main aid station and crew access at the 40- and 60-mile marks of the out-and-back course.  I'd never crewed a bike race before, so I took my cues from fellow OM athlete Kristen King, who was supporting her husband Jesse.  The crew station was a very cool scene, like an ultra aid station on steroids.  There were dozens of pop-up tents set up on either side of the dirt road spanning the Twin Lake dam that the riders would traverse.  With 1500 racers coming through at 20-30 mph, it was a madhouse trying to pick an individual rider out of the crowd.  Somehow it worked, though, and the racers managed to find their crews, fix mechanical issues, take care of their nutritional needs, and everything else familiar to a regular ultra race.  Watching the leaders blast through in either direction was impressive; they did not stop at all, and seemed to maintain an insane pace and effort level throughout the day.

After seeing Josh and Jesse successfully through, I drove a few miles into the town of Twin Lakes (such as it is), where the run course would pass through a week later (the bike and run courses share similar trails, but parallel each other for long stretches, and the major climbs are quite different).  As it turns out, I parked the car in basically the exact spot where my crew would set up their Hypoxico tent one week later and undertook a reconnaissance run/hike of Hope Pass, the biggest climb in the race.  This section starts at about mile 39 at Twin Lakes and traverses a flat field for about a mile, crossing the Roaring Fork River at the low point of the course (9200') and then embarking a a 4-mile climb to the top of Hope Pass (12,600').  The race drops down the far side of the climb and continues about five miles to the turnaround point at Winfield, but I scouted only the initial climb on the north slope.  With my collapsable trekking poles I actually found the climb to be fairly reasonable, and was able to maintain about an 18:00 pace despite not pushing very hard on the way up.  The descent started off a bit technical, but after I got back below the treeline I found it to be very runnable and enjoyed it thoroughly.  In all I round-tripped the 10+ miles in a bit under three hours and felt really good about it; a huge confidence boost for the following week.

That confidence mostly vanished the following day when, with Brian's encouragement, I decided to jump into the Leadville 10K, which would give me a taste of the first and last 5K of the full course.  The first three miles were a barely interrupted downhill on mostly wide dirt roads; I struggled to keep my breathing under control and hung on to the back of the top 10, hitting the turnaround in about 20 minutes flat.  The return was pure, lung-searing torture;  I staggered home with a second half of 24:30 for a 16th-place finish in 44:55--somehow under my goal of 45:00, but severely shaken at how hard the uphill had been.  I was cheered a bit by the realization that Brian's time in 2013 had been only a few seconds faster, when he had gone on to run 22 hours for the 100; if I could pull that off, I'd be pretty pleased.

The girls! (I like trains.)
I did very minimal running the rest of the week.  Jodi, the girls, and my parents arrived late Tuesday night, along with Brian's girlfriend Kali.  We spent Wednesday morning on a very low-key whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River, and the afternoon on a scenic ride on the historic Leadville, Colorado, and Southern Railroad (which I enjoyed immensely).  Brian and his sister Katie arrived Thursday afternoon, just in time for Brian to place second in the Leadville Beer Mile (while dressed as a squirrel) in a very impressive high-altitude 8:25.  Friday was very low-key; I spent most of the morning hanging out with Brian and Dylan at the Hypoxico tent, and spent the afternoon readying gear and putting the crew plan together with Brian, Kali, Katie, and Kevin, who joined us that evening after some business meetings in Denver.  At this point we had ten people crammed into our very cozy rental, trying to grab a few hours of sleep before the 4am start.
At race check-in, with LT100 founder Ken Chlouber

I actually slept fairly well and felt good as we walked the 3/4 mile from our house to the starting line; I was a little nervous but mostly excited and chomping at the bit to get started.  I had a stated goal of 20 hours, but in reality this was mostly a pipe dream, and I knew even with a great day and great weather this was unlikely.  I mostly wanted to just make sure not to do anything stupid and be able to run strong over the latter stages of the race.  I knew the opening miles would be fast and I'd have to keep myself under control.  I was hoping to reach Outward Bound (23.5 miles, the first time I'd see my crew) in about 4 hours, to reach Twin Lakes (39-ish miles) in under 7 hours, at to reach Winfield in under 10 hours.  A 20-hour day would actually take about a 9:30 split into Winfield, which I thought was possible given how well I had climbed Hope Pass the week before, but more than chasing a specific split, I was determined not to burn myself out too early.  The benefits of a controlled start are pretty obvious, and any successful ultra I've had has always come as a result of starting out slower than I think I should, but the best of intentions are often waylaid in the heat of a race, especially a long one where the opening miles feel much easier than expected.  Only a few days before, though, I'd read a nice article from David Roche about starting races slowly.  It wasn't anything earth-shattering (though it was well-written and spot-on, as all of Dave's articles are), but it had come along at exactly the right time for me to be reminded about the benefits of a nice, easy start, and as we headed down those fast pre-dawn miles, I kept my pace well in check.

It was dark, but there were so many runners around me that I didn't even need to turn on my headlamp.  We reached the bottom of the initial drop and traversed a nice flat 1.5 miles or so of pavement before we reached the rolling singletrack that circled the north and west shores of Turquoise Lake.  I tucked myself in the middle of a single-file line of seven or eight runners, running a very relaxed pace, but after awhile I got tired of hearing one of them talk loudly about himself to anyone who would listen  and took off, settling onto the back of a pack of much quieter runners as we reached May Queen, the first aid station at 12.5 miles, in about 2:05.  It was still nice and cool, and I was feeling very comfortable with a full bottle and several gels in my OM Single Barrel Hydraquiver, so I ran straight through the aid station and the thick, accompanying crowds and headed towards the first major climb of the day.

Arriving at Outward Bound, 24 miles in.
photo: Joe Azze
After a few gradually uphill miles through some tricky singletrack, we popped out on a dirt road and began a steady uphill grind to Sugarloaf Pass, a little over 11,000 feet.  I picked up a few spots, but not many.  I was determined not to race this early, and used my breathing as a proxy for effort; anytime I felt my breathing pattern increase, I eased off the pace.  After cresting the hill the course dropped precipitously over the next several miles down what would be known as the Powerline climb on the return trip; I focused on trying not to trash my legs and just get down with minimal effort.  At the bottom of the climb we turned onto a rolling rural highway for a two-mile stretch to the Outward Bound aid station.  I suffered my first mild down period on this section, moving steadily but slowly, and feeling as if a faster past was well beyond my capabilities.  But seeing my crew at the aid station, along with Elizabeth Azze (there to crew a client), and my parents, lifted my spirits, as did the fact that I had exactly met my target split of four hours (I mean exactly--like, to the minute).  Brian and Katie fueled me up with GU and Coke, and after about half a mile of easy jogging I started feeling good and found a nice rhythm over the next several flat/gently uphill miles.

Enjoying a bit of rain.
photo: Leadville Race Series
I fueled well and ran well over the next few hours, moving quickly through aid stations, listening to music, enjoying the scenery, and just letting the miles pass.  I had been dreading the climb on the lower slopes of Mount Elbert but I didn't even notice it.  I traded places with a few other runners but did not worry about it at all, just monitoring my effort level and cruising along.  A steady rain started, but as I was about to start getting too wet to stay comfortable, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and I dried off immediately.  Before I knew it I was descending from Mount Elbert towards Twin Lakes and my main crew station.  Again on the descent, I suffered a bit of a bad patch; this would become a theme most of the day, as my climbs were insanely strong all day long but I struggled to find a good rhythm on the downhills.  But once again I was re-energized by my amazing crew.  Katie swapped out my hat and pack (I wanted a little extra carrying capacity and fluids for the Hope Pass section); I pounded a full can of Coke and a couple of GU Roctane gels, grabbed my poles, and headed off toward the pass.

Heading towards Hope Pass
photo: Joe Azze
I crossed the river and started the climb, falling into a strong power hike, and I immediately started passing people.  And I mean, passing them like they were standing still.  I was trying not to get too fired up, but it was hard to keep the emotions and the pace under control, feeling this strong and having this much positive feedback.  The climb seemed to pass in an instant and I reached the aid station, located about half a mile from the summit.  The enthusiastic volunteers refilled my bottles as I kept hiking, then ran them back out to me; I never broke stride, just smiled at the llamas grazing on the mountainside slopes (so that's how they got supplies up here! Llama train!) and pressed on to the top.  Less than five minutes down the far side, I passed Rob Krar, the race leader, already nearing the top on the return trip, hiking purposefully, without a pacer and with about a 20-minute lead.
Crossing the Roaring Fork
photo: Leadville Race Series

The descent was much steeper than the northern side, and I picked my way down slowly, surrendering a spot or two, but I felt generally OK as I neared the halfway mark.  However, I hit a real down period on the three-mile rolling trail that stretched from the bottom of the descent to the turnaround at the Winfield aid station.  This section was much longer than I had anticipated, and my energy levels dipped precipitously.  I ate a gel, but it wasn't enough, and when I reached Brian at halfway I may have been at my lowest point all day.  Still, though, I was in good shape, exactly 10 hours in; I had moved up about 15 places since leaving Twin Lakes, and 21 hours was still a possibility.  I sat for the first time all day, eating some noodle soup, bananas, and Coke.  After a few minutes we made our way back out on the trail.  It took a few minutes of walking for me to get my legs back under me, but once the calories kicked in I started moving pretty well again, and we picked up a couple more folks as we approached the return climb.
Return climb on Hope Pass
photo: Brian Oestrike

Once we hit the climb I locked in my poles again and started hiking like a madman.  We caught three people in the first few minutes and I was not about to slow down.  Fortunately Brian recognized that the effort was not sustainable.  He gently took the lead and slowed the pace down enough for my breathing and heart rate to get back under control.  We were still making up ground, but at a much more manageable rate.  I flagged a bit as we neared the top and the climbing got very steep, but we had picked up another seven spots by the time we reached the top.  I jogged the first several minutes from the summit very cautiously before settling into a better rhythm just beyond the aid station.  The upper slopes were not particularly enjoyable, and I surrendered a few spots here.  But in the last two miles of the descent I hit my stride (despite one rather loud and unpleasant fall, which miraculously did not result in any injuries) and arrived back at Twin Lakes tired but happy that Hope Pass was behind me for the day.  Here I took the longest break of the day, sitting in a chair while Kevin dried my feet and changed my socks (thanks buddy, sorry to put you through that) and crushing a PBJ and more Coke.  By the time Brian and I headed back on the trail I was feeling pretty good again with just over 40 miles to go.

Kali has a frightening encounter with the Pacer Squirrel.
photo: Katie Oestrike
I was once again probably overly aggressive on the climb up to the Mount Elbert aid station, passing several folks and getting myself into a bit of an energy deficit that I paid for a few miles later.  Brian was able to do a nice job of steadying my effort level and getting the pace to be much more consistent over the next several miles.  I went through another down patch from miles 68 to about 74, but my spirits were revived by my crew at a brief stop at the Tree Line aid station, when Kevin burst out of the woods in full squirrel gear.  Brian and I covered the last few miles back to Outward Bound (mile 77) at a nice clip, recovering a couple of spots, and I was happy to have the whole crew, including my parents, Jodi, and the girls, meet me there.  After changing into a long sleeve shirt and powering on my headlamp, I started the next section with Kali along as pacer #2.

We ran very comfortably on the road section for a couple of miles but unfortunately missed the turn (along with a few other runners) off the road and added on about 3/4 of a mile with that mistake.  However once we found the trail and started the Powerline climb I was moving well again.  Having been warned by Brian, Kali kept me in check, and for once I didn't give back any spots on the way down, in fact picking up another place or two in the last mile before reaching May Queen, slightly more than 12 miles to go.

I had left Outward Bound with what I thought was an outside chance to break 22 hours, but our missed turn, which had cost us probably ten minutes, had wiped that out.  As I left May Queen with Kevin, my last pacer, I needed to run the last 12.5 miles in under 3 hours to break 23:00.  This was not a guarantee; I remembered all too well the final 3 miles of the 10K the week before, which climbed almost 500 feet--not an insurmountable grade, but one that I though likely would reduce me to a walk at this stage.  Twenty-minute miles were not out of the question.  I figured I needed to reach the base of the climb with an hour to spare in order for a sub-23 to be relatively safe.

I got quite cold leaving May Queen, and Kevin and I took a few minutes to get going while I put on my winter beanie and my Patagonia Houdini jacket.  A few minutes later it started to rain, and it rained fairly hard for the next ten minutes or so.  We covered the first few miles at 13-minute pace, walking in a few spots, but I started to find my rhythm on the north side of the lake and settled into the 12:00/mile range.  Kevin was very aggressive about pushing my calories and fluids, making sure I didn't neglect any needs, and as we hit the road section leading from the lake to the climb I actually felt very strong, pushing the pace down near 10:00/mile.  We hiked the first minute or so of the uphill, strewn with ruts and loose rock, but as we reached the graded dirt road, the slope eased off, and I found maintaining an 11:00/mile jog was pretty easy.  We walked for about 4-5 minutes with about two miles to go, partly to ensure we'd finish strong and I think partly to savor the moment.  Before I knew it we were back on 6th street in Leadville, with the finish line stretched out before us in the distance.

Jodi and my dad were at the finish, along with Katie, Brian, and Kali (the kids were mercifully asleep back at the house with my mom).  I was struck in that moment at how far they had all come and what they had sacrificed to get me to this point, and I broke down in the medical tent afterwards, overwhelmed by gratitude and so happy to have them all there with me.  Safe to say this experience will stay with me for quite some time.  The race was incredible: the organization, the trail, the scenery, the competition, and the time I was able to share with my family and friends out on this course.  Leadville truly is one of the greatest US trail races, and I hope to be back many times again.

Gear
Salomon Sense Ultra and Agile shirt
Injinji Ultra No-show socks
Patagonia Stride Pro shorts
Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles
Orange Mud Single Barrel Hydraquiver, miles 0-40 and 60-100 (also used an old-school Ultimate Direction AK vest for Hope Pass)
GU Roctane and gels, mostly Birthday Cake, that's just delicious
Orange Mud trucker cap and beanie (also used my GU five panel crusher for Hope Pass)
Petzl Reactik + headlamp

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