Thursday, September 3, 2015

Leadville - Racing across the sky

For a while now, I've wanted to run Leadville 100 - it's an iconic race!  Beyond that, I've raced a few times in Colorado at TransRockies Run, and I was anxious to see how 100 miles in that beauty would be.  Luckily, Brian and I were both selected in the lottery for the 2015 Leadville 100.
The race, starting in the dead center of downtown Leadville, was much trickier with pre-race logistics.  Brian and I almost missed the start of the race, since we were busy trying to park the car, find a bathroom to use, and then enter the starting chute.  I did my best to not let the adrenaline start flowing as we were weaving around folks to get to the start as the National Anthem was being sung.
Anyway, the race went out and I just relaxed.  I slapped high fives with folks as we exited the town.  I had read about runners starting too hard and paying the price later - so I was determined to take it easy and run smart.  Hundreds of runners, lit up by headlamps, spread out on the road ahead of me as we worked our way towards Turquois Lake.
An hour later, we were on the single track around Turquois Lake.  I could already hear the crews cheering at the Tabor Boat Dock (mile 7?, unofficial crew support stop).  On one hand, I was enjoying the sounds of cheering drifting across the water as I ran through the woods...but even as the cheers sounded so close, I still ran and ran before I got there.
I saw my crew, which was one of my training buddies Sara and my brother Carleton, at the Tabor Boat Dock quickly as I ran through.  Just past the dock, I caught a toe and supermanned across the trail, scraping up my right leg and butt.  Otherwise, the run through the single track along Turquois Lake passed without incident.
(Cruising through the early miles)
At the first major aid station, May Queen (mile 13.5), I was excited to arrive and see my crew.  The sun had come up so I could ditch the headlamp (yay!).  I checked my time and was right on schedule, and everything felt fairly relaxed and easy. 
Just after May Queen, the course turns onto the Colorado Trail for a bit, and I was jazzed as I ran along the New England-y trails.  The single track trail went over rocks and wooden bridges as it followed the back side of Turquois Lake.  I chuckled, realizing how long after May Queen I could still hear the cheers. 
My stomach was a bit cramp-y and bloat-y already, I assumed this was because I wasn't able to do my ritualistic pre-race poop.  I said a little prayer that I would be able to poop soon so my stomach would return to normal.
The trail finally turned up a bit, and dumped us out onto a dirt road that was the climb up Sugarloaf Pass (the back side of the powerline).  I wanted to continue to chug up the gradual climb, but remembered that I was at over 10,000 feet so I slowed to a power hike.  I made note, thinking of how nice this would be to cruise down later in the race.
(Enjoying the 'scenic' powerline trail)
Reaching the top of Sugarloaf Pass, it started to spit rain on us.  The powerlines overhead crackled and buzzed, it was a slightly unsettling noise even though I enjoyed the cooling effect of the rain.  I enjoyed the downhill, but got down it as fast as I could to avoid any mishap with electricity and water...
At the bottom of the powerline was a mile of paved road before we entered the Outward Bound aid station (mile 24.5).  My time was still good, and I felt fairly relaxed and strong.  Except for the minor stomach issues, I felt like I was in control and running smart.  My crew, in realizing that I hadn't eaten much so far in the race, was already getting concerned for me.
(Taking advantage of any downhill I can!)
Leaving the Outward Bound aid station was the world's longest field - I think it was at least a mile of straight, flat, grassy field that we ran on.  I shouldn't complain - the soft surface is always welcome over paved roadway...but I felt like I was running on a treadmill - my legs were moving but I wasn't getting any closer to anything. 
A few miles later, things started to unravel.  My stomach really felt bad (and the micro-poop I managed to squeeze out a few miles earlier didn't relieve the issue at all) and my energy was starting to wane.  I walked the flat dirt road and did my best to get in some fueling. 
(Leaving Outward Bound in the 'Race Across the Sky')
My energy didn't come back, as I continued to walk past the Treeline (unofficial crew stop at mile 27), past the Halfmoom aid station (mile 30.5), and past the Mt. Elbert aid station (mile 36.5).  I did my best to run a quarter mile here or there as folks continued to stream past me - matching their stride and hoping I would draw energy from their enthusiasm, but ultimately I quickly found myself walking again.
As the trail turned down to the Twin Lakes aid station (mile 39.5), I was able to jog again.  While I didn't have any energy to run the flats or uphills, I found I could cruise the downhills.  I took advantage and allowed gravity to carry me for a few miles.  Of course, as soon as I worked up to speed, I quickly caught a toe and found myself face down on the trail - further scraping up my already bleeding right leg.
I coasted into Twin Lakes on fumes, unsure how I was going to survive not one, but two climbs over Hope Pass.  Sara and Carleton did what they could to get me going, but I was honestly beginning to wonder if it was possible for me to finish.  I tried to jog, but mostly walked, as I crossed the flats below Hope Pass (or, as I was thinking of it, the calm before the storm).  As I waded through the river crossings, I could only think of the open cuts on my legs that were being washed off with stagnant murky water.
(Running the flats in the Leadville course)
As soon as the trail turned up, my body shut down.  I could barely stumble forward, and I knew I was in deep trouble.  I sat on a log and forced myself to eat an entire packet of energy chews - hopeful that it would give me the energy to climb up the pass.  Then, I resumed my slow trek up.  I walked for about 5 minutes before I needed to take a break and regroup.  Several folks passed me before I gathered the strength to stand up and continue onward.  This pattern continued for the entire climb - 3 to 5 minutes of slow hiking followed by sitting for a minute to rest and harness my energy for another push. 
Hundreds of folks passed me as I ever so slowly made my way up the climb.  It was truly humbling, I started to seriously worry about the cut-off time.  I grew increasingly concerned that Sara wouldn't even get to pace me over Hope Pass - it's what she flew across the country for!  I saw Brian at the Hopeless Aid station (just below the top of the pass, mile 44.5) on his return trip, and told him that I was physically exhausted.  He was doing well - but didn't seem to be in any better spirits than I was.  I downed coke at the aid station and hoped it would rejuvenate me, however the last 1/2 mile to the top of the pass was more of the same.  I began to wonder if I was in last place, since it felt like the entire race field had passed me.
(Doing my best to hang on at Twin Lakes)
Finally cresting the top, I took a moment to sit and take in the view.  I was so pleased to have made it, but physically spent and extremely worried - I did not think I had the power to do that again.  Clearly, my body hadn't been processing any food all day and I was running on fumes.  I did my best to cruise the downhill, and found that I was passing a few folks back as I took advantage of the downhill and technical trails.  Of course, I also super manned down Hope Pass (and with the steep angle, it was a LONG fall), and fell on my right leg...again...the scrapes on my leg was pretty deep at this point.  I had to walk a few minutes to rebury the tears that were too quick to appear, hoping this wasn't my breaking point.
Reaching the bottom of Hope Pass, the course turned to the Colorado Trail for what I am convinced is the longest trail known to man.  I thought I was moving, but the trail went on forever!  I kept hoping every downhill would lead me to Winfield, but they were all just followed by another uphill.  My worries about reaching Winfield before the cut-off time were renewed.
Eventually I made it to Winfield - mile 50, at last.  I collapsed onto the ground near Carleton and Sara - unsure how I could turn around and do it all again (the race sign reading 'thank you, may I have another' wasn't funny in the moment).  On the bright side, I finally had company - so if I collapsed on the trail, at least someone would be there to take care of me.  However, I honestly wasn't convinced that I could finish the race.  If a cut-off time didn't get me, I worried that I would simply run out of energy before I reached the end. 
(Sara and Carleton, patiently waiting for me at Winfield)
Sara and I started back towards Hope Pass...slowly.  With company, the trail that never ends seemed a bit shorter.  So, before I knew it we were climbing up the steep side of Hope Pass again.  I did my best to stay strong (so Sara wouldn't see how weak I was), but I was quickly in the same rhythm of slowly hiking for 3-5 minutes before taking a break to regroup.  Other runners, with their pacers, streamed by me - making me feel like I was going backwards even faster on this climb.  Thank goodness I had Sara with me to keep my focus on the views rather than on my slow progress.

Slowly but surely, we made our way to the top and finally crested Hope Pass for the second time.  While my first time over the pass was completely humbling, I found that reaching the pass for a second time represented hope for me.  I still had 45 miles to go, but standing on the highest point in the race, no matter how depleted I was, gave me hope that I might be able to finish the damn thing.
(Celebrating as I crest Hope Pass for the 2nd time)
Sara and I slowly made our way down to the Hopeless Aid Station (mile 55.5) and I collapsed into a chair.  My spirits were on an upswing, believing perhaps I could finish...but my energy was still super low, having not really absorbed any fueling since the start.  As I sat in the chair and contemplated how I could possibly continue on, Sara scoped out the aid station found that they had potato leek soup.  Hallelujah, potato leek soup!!!  I downed a cup at the aid station and took another cup to-go down the trail.

(Utterly depleted at Hopeless Aid station, mile 55.5)

As the soup kicked in and the trail turned down, I was able to move the legs again.  Slowly, my body absorbed the energy from the soup and I let my legs loose on the downhill.  I was flying by folks, and feeling good for the first time all day.  We hit the bottom of the climb and I even had the energy to run the flats back to Twin Lake (mile 60.5) - my first running on flat surfaces in 30 miles.  I enjoyed splashing through the rivers this go-around.

My brother met us at the aid station and swapped spots with Sara.  They got a few more cups of chicken noodle soup in me as we climbed out of Twin Lakes.  I finally felt like I had a bit of power in my legs and I did my best to take advantage.  Maybe it was that I didn't want to seem weak in front of my little brother.

When we reached the top of the climb, I did my best to run the downhills - I employed a trick I use when training on the Seven Sisters, where anything that I walked on the way out is a section that I try to run on the return trip.  Now, given that I walked this entire section on the way out, it was a tall order - but I did my best, with the coaxing of Carleton. 

(Finally getting my legs back and able to run near Twin Lakes, mile 60)
I was actually really excited to have my brother out there crewing and pacing me - I've been running ultras for almost 10 years now, and this was the first time I'd really had a family member help me out!  In one of my first ultras, my sister (who was 4 months pregnant at the time) did cheer me on at the last aid station - that was the closest I'd ever had, so this was really special for me.  I did my best to make it a good experience for Carleton so that maybe I would get family participation again!

(My sister Jenny, and her dog Nera, taking care of me at the Jay Challenge in 2008)

About halfway through the section with my brother, he got a text message from Sara.  She had finished her first pacing section with me, and had a headache.  Once she stopped running, it got worse and she got sick...altitude was clearly affecting her.  There was a bit of panic, as my brother confirmed that he wasn't prepared to run 40 miles with me, Sara wasn't ready to run the last 25 with me, and I wasn't feeling good enough to think that I could do it on my own.  Then, Sara told us that she found someone to pace I would have a random stranger running through the middle of the night with me.

After many hours, and a few cups of soup, Carleton and I finally rolled into Outward Bound (mile 75.5).  The small amount of energy that I was taking in (in the form of soup) was giving me enough energy to maintain forward progress - and finally reaching Outward Bound, I was starting to believe I could possibly finish the race after all.  With this glimmer of hope, I turned to meet Chad, my blind date pacer (or, as Leadville affectionately calls it, he was my angel pacer).

Chad and I left towards the power line climb - as I asked him to hold a my cup of soup while I put on a long sleeve shirt, he answered with 'yes ma'am'.  Chad is ex-military...but I hoped that we would break the ice soon and drop the informalities.  (And, funny side note, my cup of soup from that aid station was I was eating it, I thought 'this is some mighty thick potato leek soup' and it had an odd texture to it.  When I finally asked, Chad told me that he asked the aid station volunteers for potatoes or soup, so the volunteers put soup in the potatoes.  So, I had a cup of mashed potatoes with soup to thin it out a bit, and with random noodles to add texture...whatever, it was actually pretty tasty!)  Anyway, Chad and I chatted and got to know each other as I did my best to power up the power line.  While I wasn't moving well, at least I was passing folks.

At the top of the climb, I looked up to see nakedness - a naked ass to be precise.  As the stumbling naked guy heard us, he drunkenly turned around and I saw his entire naked front.  I looked at Chad, to be sure that I wasn't imagining this...I was out of it, but was I really seeing a drunk, naked guy?  Oh, and was he really wearing a storm trouper helmet?  Chad and I laughed - and he immediately dropped the formalities after that incident. 

Turns out that the drunk naked storm trouper was part of an impromptu aid station/keg party set up at the top of the power line cut.  The sign across the trail read 'The Best Fucking Aid Station', and in that moment I believed it!  There were glow sticks, inflatable aliens, and a group of drunk and/or stoned folks with a table of yummy ultra treats.  I asked for beer - they tried to talk me into a keg stand, but I had a cup of beer and some snacks.

Leaving that impromptu aid station, I enjoyed the gradual downhill to the Colorado Trail, remembering how I had been looking forward to this cruise all day.  We could hear the sounds of the May Queen aid station drifting through the woods as we turned onto the Colorado Trail; Chad and I enjoyed the single track and technical trails, buoyed by the cheers.  I wasn't moving well, but after my struggles it felt like I was downright flying - could be that I had great company, could be that I was passing runner after runner (and with their pacers, it felt like I was passing an even greater number of runners!), and it could be that I was getting closer to the finish line.

At May Queen (mile 86.5), I was all business as I got what I needed and was eager to continue on and 'finish the fucker' (yes, I had officially reached 'finish the fucker' mode by this point).  I looked to Carleton and Sara to see if one of them would be running me in, but they both looked relieved when I relayed that Chad and I were having a blast so he would be great to continue with.  We left the aid station with a promise that I would see them in a few miles at the boat dock.

The run around Turquois Lake was nice - I was drawing as much energy from my limited intake of soup as I could, and Chad and I continued to pass folks.  Honestly, it almost felt like when I have run one of those team relay races (like Reach the Beach or Hood to Coast), where you are cruising past runner after runner, most of our conversation was 'excuse me, can I squeeze by you' to fellow runners - and how ironic that my return trip on Turquois Lake was more congested than it was 24 hour earlier!

We reached the Tabor Boat dock and found only one person, semi-conscious, sitting in a chair - my crew was nowhere in sight.  I figured they must be at the next boat dock instead, and continued to focus on reaching that.  No one was at the next boat dock, so I then figured they must have thought to meet me at the end of Turquois Lake - or else that I must have looked so bad at May Queen that they didn't want to give me an option to possibly drop...

(Running the final miles)
Either way, I never saw my crew as Chad and I reached the end of Turquois Lake and started the last road section back to the finish.  I was so tired, but excited that I was only 6 miles from the finish line.  I kept looking up and spotting folks, then focusing on trying to catch them.  Chad kept my energy up by giving a Ric Flair 'wooh!' to anyone we passed.  As I tired further and wasn't keeping up my end of the conversation, he started to tell jokes to keep me going.

I almost cried when I recognized the outskirts of Leadville, and knew we had less than a mile to go.  I was exhausted, running on fumes again, and wanted to finish and sleep.  We cruised down the last stretch, slapping hands with anyone I saw out there, using their energy to get me to the line.  A large group of folks actually created a tunnel with their arms, which I ran through.  When I could finally read the finish clock, it read '26:59:40', so I kicked hard to try to get under 27-hour (I know, it was completely arbitrary at this point), and watched as the clock ticked off '56, 57, 58, 59, 00' and let out a grunt as I was still a few seconds out from the finish.  It wasn't until I crossed the line that I learned that I misread the clock and finished in 26:57:05...I must have looked like an idiot as I did my best to sprint towards the line (after 99.9 miles), and that the 12-minute mile pace I was doing wasn't that impressive looking.

(With my angel pacer, Chad, who got me to the finish line!)

Anyway, I finished!  Chad and I celebrated, Abby Long (the registrar for Leadville 100, who I had gotten to know through my VT100 work) was there immediately to give me a hug.  I wanted to hug Brian, and Sara, and Carleton, but they were no where to be seen.  I slowly made my way to the medical tent, trying to figure out where they were.  Eventually, I found a co-worker of my brother who called him...turns out they slept through my passing through the Boat Ramp, but then sat there for hours waiting for me.  By the time they finally made it to the finish line to congratulate me, the joy of finishing had worn off and I just wanted to eat, shower, and sleep.

(Brian, Carleton, me, Sara, and Chad - the whole crew after the finish)
In hindsight, it's hard to wrap my head around my race at Leadville.  I am incredibly proud that I still finished - my body clearly wasn't acclimated to the elevation and I struggled the entire way.  But, I'm disappointed with how poorly the race went - I wanted to do well and had trained hard for the race, and none of that hard work mattered on race day.  The course itself was beautiful - much more scenic that I had realized prior to running.  The Lifetime Fitness crew put on an outstanding event, especially having RDed VT100 this year, I am aware of how much work goes into organizing a race like this and they did well.  I am grateful for the support that Carleton and Sara gave me - they didn't give up on me even when I had...and they put up with my grumpy and slow self for numerous hours throughout the 27-hour ordeal.  Lastly, I couldn't have done it without my angel pacer Chad, who I am so honored to have shared 25 miles with.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I'm super impressed with your mental fortitude in pushing thru this 100 miler. I think the altitude sort of drains us flat-landers just enough to sap our energy over time. Your description of climbing Hope Pass was very similar to my ascent of Mosquito Pass at the Ld-ville Marathon in June; walk a bit, then rest and repeat. 26 miles of that was more than enough for me. Congrats to both you and Brian for tackling this adventure.