Leadville 100, Mile 56. I begin to feel sharp pains in my stomach and have to stop cruising downhill, and instead alternate walking with shuffling. Mile 57, the pains intensify. I have to alternate keeling over with walking. Mile 58, I stop for long spells, hunched over in immobilizing pain. Everyone I have passed on the way up to Hope Pass has now passed me again on the way down. More than 50 people…
Almost two hours after the pain’s onset, I am still making my way to the Twin Lakes aid station. An easy down and flat 5 miles, but my hardest two hours of the race, every step, and even the rests full of grimaces. My biggest focus is stepping off the trail every time a runner passes so they don’t have to slow. Shame as the floods of people passing me when I was miles ahead of them before. “You can do it bro. You can walk it in from here and still make the 30 hour cutoff.” Yes, I maybe could, if I could powerwalk. Now I can’t go even 1 mph. 40 more miles to go.
The pain is too much, I have never felt this level of sharpness, save the aftermaths of the surgical scalpel. I arrive to Twin Lakes, splay out in the back of the truck. I’m sure it’s over. I really tried my hardest, but I am not going to be able to continue in this state. My pacers Daniel and Adam will have to carry Tim’s ashes alone…
Yes, still representing TCSD and Virginia…
The Leadville 100 Mile Trail Run. Leadville is like the Boston Marathon of Ultrarunning. It’s old, big, high, prestigious and hard. Not the biggest or oldest (Comrades), not the highest (Everest at 17,000′), not the most prestigious (probably Western States, Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc, or Spartathlon), nor the hardest (maybe Badwater, Barkley or Hardrock) but Leadville is more like the soul of ultrarunning culture, filled with history and pageantry. Plus the whole course’s low point is 9200.’ Mostly it’s above 10,000.’ Before Born to Run was published last year Leadville was the country’s biggest and most well-known 100-miler. Now, after, it’s even more well known…
I met Marshall Ulrich and Caballo Blanco there, some of ultrarunning’s most recognized personalities. Barefoot Ted also ran this year, though I never met him.
Before even reading Born to Run, Tim and I had signed up to run Leadville this year. Of course Tim passed this May after the PCT 50. Immediately after I had no desire to run Leadville. I had no training partner, and even more so, I didn’t feel it was right to go on and run our joint vision when Tim wasn’t there. After a few days my opinion begin to change and I came to think that the best tribute to Tim would be finishing the race in his honor (see here for my memorial blog post on Tim).
The week before the race, I met Daniel out in Colorado for some acclimation and fun. 3 days at some of Boulder’s best multipitch crags (Flatirons, Boulder Canyon and Rocky Mountain NP’s Lumpy Ridge), followed by some higher acclimation on 14ers: Quandary’s (Tenmile Range highpoint) Inwood Arete and Mount Elbert’s (Rockies overall high point) hiking trail. Perhaps it was a little more activity than was ideal, as my quads felt a little fatigued, but I was definitely acclimated…I took Friday off to get the race briefing while Daniel tagged Mount Massive, CO’s 2nd highest point…
Tim’s crew, Adam, Bethany and Emily, joined up with mine, Liora, Reed and Daniel the day before the race. Tim had an honorary race number and we wrapped it around his ashes, for me to carry the length of the course.
It thunderstormed and hailed the night before the race, forcing us into the car instead of the tent. But still I got a few good hours of sleep. Wearing my Kua (bushmen) necklace those great Kalahari Desert runners had given me last winter, I was psyched. At 3:45 I met Nick, my friend from Badger 100 and now my running partner for Leadville, per the plan. At 4am the gun went off and we rolled out in the dark.
An hour in my old headlamp began to die, forcing me to go a bit slower in order not to stumble (I was saving the good headlamp for the next night). I let Nick go around mile 7. But it was ok, the pace was fast enough. I went through the half marathon in 2:03. I tried to just relax for the long day ahead.
The sunrise was unreal orange and the mist off the lake was spectacular (no camera, sorry!). The trail was some of the best I’d run on. I began to see why this race was so highly regarded. Up and over Sugarloaf pass, mile 18, I felt great. Striking the pullharder pose for the cameras I crested the pass then bombed down the other side. Probably a bit too fast, it took my quads a while to recover. But Leadville so far was going easy peasy…
Pullharder pose, Sugarloaf Pass!
I saw my crew for the first time at the bottom and they gave me pizza, sunscreen and prepared me for the heat from the newly risen sun. I went through the 23.5 mile checkpoint in 3:58. However by this point I began to hate gu, and wanted more liquid calories.
I caught up to Nick on this stretch and we came through 30 miles in 5 hours flat but at this aid station my stomach began to have issues. I felt pregnant, so full. I had been using Carbopro in my water (tasteless carbs) but I didn’t realize how much. This was gonna be the problem later. We took this section slow, as Nick was also having some issues. It was so hot, though the trail (the Continental Divide Trail/ colorado trail) was nice as it passed beneath Mt Elbert. We ran together down to Twin Lakes, mile 40. I’m glad I had some company on this hot stretch.
At Mile 40 aid station, my crew swapped out my bottles for my camelback and picked up some poles and changed shoes. It was time for the really rugged terrain: the 3500′ climb up above treeline to Hope Pass. First the trail held about a dozen creek fords; soaking myself completely felt good in the hot sun. Then the up. I was able to use the wet feet excuse to swap out socks one at a time in two mini breaks up hope pass. Efficiency!
The climb was long but mostly shaded. The poles helped. But I lost some ground on the downhill run on the backside, taking it conservative, and was passed by my friend Daniel from Texas. I was again in 2nd place amongst my friends…
Once off the steep Hope descent I ran most of the hot 2.5 mildly uphill miles into the turnaround while others were walking. This allowed me to catch back most of the ground I’d lost on my conservative Hope Pass descent. At the turnaround, surprisingly I was only 0.7 pounds down from my starting weight. Good news. And my time of 10:30 for the first 50 was exactly the median split for people who finish at 24 hours. I was strong and ready to roll…
I downed a coke and some other cold foods and was now allowed to have my first pacer: Reed. You are allowed pacers on the second half, mostly for safety. You start to go a little delirious out there.
The next few miles my stomach was all over the place. I thought the coke was the cause. It was, but the underlying issue was around 4000 calories worth of Carbopro. I’d used it in training but nowhere near that much. An upset stomach is no fun, but on the climb back up to Hope Pass it didn’t jostle so much and I felt great. We saw Caballo Blanco and my friends John (LA), Liam (TCSD) and Philipp (AT thru-hiker from VA!) heading down as we went up.
Reed and I cruised back up to the pass (elev 12600′) feeling great and we passed more than 50 people. No one passed us. I was making up ground, and sub 24 looked more than on target. We just beat the weather over the pass. We headed down for some soup and mashed potatoes at the aid station.
At the Hope Pass aid station (mile 55) we ran into my buddy Daniel from Texas- he had unfortunately been pulled from the race for dropping 16 pounds (water weight), even though he was doing well. It started to rain so we got going. Soon after, the disaster struck. The play by play is exactly like the intro. Reed spent most of this time waiting for me, not pacing. I basically totally imploded. My stomach had what is probably like extreme menstrual cramps. Some kind of chemical reaction was going on in there. I have not felt that kind/ level of pain ever. Turns out my body started to reject Carbopro.
But after 80 minutes at Twin Lakes (I was so happy to make it there), mostly lying in Reed’s truck and on a cot in the med tent and sipping just water, I could walk again and the side effect was only a regular upset stomach, not knives in the gut. If I was able to walk it in from here, with a bit of running I could make the 30 hour cutoff.
Liora reminded me of Scott Jurek’s record setting race at Badwater. Halfway done, he was lying on the asphalt puking with his top rivals miles ahead. He lay there, convincing himself he felt great- that he was fresh and that the race would begin again now. And it worked.
After losing more than 2 hours and still feeling bad now, my goal of 24 hours was not going to happen. But I could still finish the race for myself, my crew, and Tim…
With Adam now my pacer, we walked up the next climb. I was willing to turn around and turn over Tim’s ashes to Adam, but I never felt those sharp pains. So I kept moving. Eventually we’d run for 100 feet between walking. Then 200 feet. Adam was very patient. By the time we made it to the aid station at mile 70, my stomach was not perfect, but I was able to run consistently without walking. We caught back up to Nick (one of the many people who passed me during my down time), and unfortunately his IT band tendonitis was flaring up. He got relegated to the med tent. But I was feeling better than ever. Then, something that was unthinkable to me happened.
Daniel was at the aid station to meet us. He congratulated my split on the last leg and gave me the report: Turns out, I was so ahead of my 24 hour goal that even losing that time left me within striking range for Leadville’s top award outside of a podium finish. If I averaged sub-13 minute miles from there on out, I could still break 25 hours– and get the Big Belt Buckle! It would mean reeling in lots of people. But it was possible!
I always love the challenge. It would be hard, as there was one large climb (Sugarloaf Pass), plus the uphill finish left. But 30 miles in 6.5 hours was doable, even on tired legs. There was hope. I kicked the next 2 miles at sub-8:30 pace. Not good for my hamstrings but good for my psychology. I could do it. I had the middle distance kick if I needed it. I believed!
Everything forgotton from losing those hours, now there was a new challenge. Adam kept my spirits up for the next 5 miles, and he guided me into the 76.5 mile aid station strong. We had made up time on that stretch (averaging 12 minute miles or so) and Adam passed pacing duties off to Daniel, the mastermind behind the new plan. Daniel would shepherd me home, and if my body and willpower held out, it would be under 25 hours…
By this time my stomach was doing excellent. I had been eating essentially nothing but water to keep my stomach in check, and residual calories were maintaining me. The climb back up to Sugarloaf Pass was long and hard. We took it conservative but it still wiped me out. Daniel was great here, pointing me always to the best places to step so he did all the thinking. He also did all of the talking and encouragement of the numerous racers and pacers we passed.
The next downhill was very hard but we needed to make it down to May Queen in 1 hour flat. It was especially psychologically hard because it was going to be another hard 3 hours after that, and physically this stretch was 5 long miles and hammered my legs. We passed a lot of people still, including my friend Mark, who was coherent enough to be happy to see us. He was looking strong.
On the single track it was dark and I was tripping all over the place. It was a bad scene. We wanted 22 hours at May Queen aid station, 87 miles, but came in at 22:08. No time for a sock change, no time for anything. I grabbed some watermelon and kept running.
On this next stretch we really pushed hard. It was rolling single track so we could run most all of it. We were passing people like crazy, Daniel was encouraging everyone and I was just hanging on. But the pace really worked me hard. Or, as it turned out, not eating for the last 30 miles wiped me out. I began to wobble and begged Daniel to be able to walk. I was really out of my mind here, and really began to doubt being able to go under 25 hours. Daniel quickly recognized my low blood sugar and fed me some gu. I recovered almost immediately with the gu and also psychologically because we arrived to meet my crew at Tabor boat ramp, 92.5 miles, at 23:08-just an hour later for almost 6 miles of trail. We had banked time, and now sub-25 seemed a likelihood.
We power walked a little bit with time in the bank (and to let me get the calories into my bloodstream), then started running again, peeling off the miles. This last 7 miles were pretty flat and a bit uphill, but nothing hard. I felt incredible. We caught a sizable pack of runners and their pacers all with the same goal as us, the big buckle with a bit of time to spare…with 1/4 mile left we were joined by Bethany and Adam. Together we kicked it hard up the last uphill, passed a last couple crews, and crossed in 24:47. What a feeling!
The Leadville 100 was one of the greatest experiences of my life. A beautiful course, great support from friends, pushing myself for a goal, obstacles overcome, and a substantive mission to honor Tim who was given a finisher’s medal as well.
The stats: 24:47:10, 78th man, 87th overall (of a sold-out 800 signed up, 625 starters and 347 finishers). Those numbers are about standard. Just over half the field finishes; around a quarter of those finishers get the big buckle…
My two 100s, and indeed all five of my ultras, have been some of the best things I’ve done, filling my heart with joy for days and weeks after. Leadville wasn’t quite as hard for me as the Badger 100 (report here), probably because I had Badger already under my belt, plus in Leadville I didn’t have to kick it hard to the very last (108th in that case) mile. But because of the mountain elevation, the Leadville course is indeed objectively harder. Hard yes, but so worth it. Remember, running is a very natural thing to do in some deeply evolutionarily psychological way, so in some sense it is very easy– we’re born to run.