In short, the end result of my race was very disappointing. I dropped at 50 miles after having a relatively solid start, or so I perceived. My overall cardio seemed to be fairly comfortable at high altitude, and in fact I was capable of maintaining a pretty good pace early on, which may have been my undoing. If you want to know how I came to such a lousy ending, then by all means read on.
The 2010 Leadville Trail 100 started under a crystal clear canopy of stars. At 4am the starting gun fired, and the record number 800 runners began their way down the legendary 6th and Harrison route. My race started off frantically as I found myself barricaded from the crowd of runners, and thereby trying to work my way through the masses to the middle of the pack. In the melee to get to the start I lost a glove and was forced to dart off into the chilly 40 degree morning with just one glove on. Not the way I pictured starting the fabled Leadville 100.
The first few miles went by quick and I found myself talking with a few local runners about the race. In the heat of the moment I couldn’t believe I was running Leadville and really soaked up the crowds and atmosphere. Smooth roads soon gave way to single track trail as we made our long circumnavigation around Turquoise Lake. From this point to the first aid station there would be little room for passing. I decided to settle into a comfortable, and at times frustatingly slow pace with the peloton. At seven miles we could hear the front runners passing through the Tabor boat ramp, and within ten minutes we were there as well. As I continued to chat with fellow runners it was noted that we were on pace for a 20 hour race, which seemed oddly fast considering how much I felt like I was holding back.
The early miles of the race were easy, flat, and I felt absolutely no discomfort running at 10,500 ft. Other “flatlanders” were noting horrible headaches, being short of breath, and nausea, but I hadn’t felt any symptoms of high altitude sickness. All in all it seemed like I had a great day of running ahead. Meanwhile things were still very surreal as I looked back behind me and saw a mile long parade of headlamps around the lake. Between the firefly like train of lights, the clearest of morning skies, and the slight glow of sunrise being revealed, this was by far the most enchanting race start I have ever experienced.
I arrived at May Queen (1:58 elapsed at mile 13.5) and was making solid time, but again not pushing too hard. While this looks brisk on paper, I could have easily let myself get caught running closer to a 1:48-1:50 split, which would have only been ten minutes behind the leaders. Instead I was intent to sit back in 68th position with 700 plus runners still behind me. “Be smart, start slow, and kick after the halfway point”. That was my mindset in the early hours, but soon I found myself being more aggressive than necessary.
At 20 miles we climbed the semi-steep Hagerman Pass above 11,000 ft, but instead of feeling winded because of the altitude I was feeling strong and starting running the climbs. This push allowed me to pass a hearty number of runners, and no doubt placed me in the top 50 arriving at the fish hatchery (3:48 split at 24 miles). After the fish hatchery we made our way down four miles of open road that literally lives up to the Race Across the Sky name. The views of neighboring Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, Colorado’s two highest mountains provided a distinct back drop that really added to the grandeur and enormous scope of the course. This was, however, where my race began to unravel.
For a good number of early miles I leapfrogged with Steven Baker, a really fast youngster also from Virginia. Between miles 25-35 we both noted having extremely heavy feeling legs, a feeling I know is not typical for me, or Steven. Given the moderate pace early, ease of the course thus far, it was clear that the dead feeling in my legs was far from normal. At any rate I made my best effort to jog the flat sections, but soon ended up walking the gentle hills and even downhills. Something was very wrong. My legs felt like they had already run 100 miles, I was getting passed by many runners, and we were just arriving at Half Moon (5:28 split at 32.5 miles).
After some solid calories I rebounded and was able to make an honest effort down to Twin Lakes at mile 40. It was here I prepped myself for several chilly river crossings and the notorious climb up to Hope Pass, elevation 12,600 ft. Although I dropped at mile 50, my race basically ended at mile 44. The climb to Hope Pass is long, steep, and seemingly endless. You climb forever through the woods, climb forever to the tree line, and still have a long trudge across the pass. At first I needed rest breaks every quarter mile, but soon it became every 100 feet and eventually every 20-30 feet. By the time I made it up and over the pass, I had been passed (the term pass was ironic on so many levels here) by 30-40 runners. Runners with trekking poles and those from high altitude made the climb look effortless.
Before Hope Pass I legitimately believed I had a shot at a 22-23 hour finish. I saw that time slip farther and farther away as the mountain kept climbing. When I got to Winfield, I was 1:15 slower than my goal and it took me 4 hours and 20 minutes to go ten freakin’ miles! My fifty mile split time of 11:15 was an indicator of an impossibly slow second half, and the sub 25 hour finish needed for the gold buckle was gone. At this point my will was still strong, but my legs were rendered useless. Quads shot, calves trashed, feet throbbing, and ham strings tight. While climbing and descending Hope Pass was certainly a massive feat in itself, I certainly don’t think it was enough to wreck my legs as much as they were.
After an hour sitting, drinking, and eating at Winfield I got up and attempted to jog. The legs were non responsive and by now it looked as if my body would not allow me to return back over the daunting climb up Hope Pass. At this rate I risked being at above 12,000 in the dark, without my warm clothes, and probably missing the cut-off at mile Twin Lakes II (mile 60). The horrible reality was that my day was over, and my quest to finish the Leadville 100 fell miserably short. However, I never once questioned my decision to drop. My legs simply did not have enough to make it to mile 60, no less the finish line.
Things I learned at Leadville
1.Altitude not only effects cardiovascular performance, but also muscular recovery. Although my breathing was surprisingly efficient above 10k ft, lack of oxygen to my muscles (and lactic acid build up as a result) made my legs worthless after 25 miles and almost non functional at 50 miles. Two days post race the lactic acid is gone, and my legs feel good again. Go figure.
2.Trekking poles are priceless. I saw many runners with these going up Hope Pass. After using hiking sticks to climb Mt. Elbert the day after running 50 miles at Leadville I realized the value. Mt. Elbert is a tougher, longer, steeper climb than Hope Pass, and I hammered through it almost nonstop with tired legs. The use of trekking poles takes a TON of weight off the legs on not only the climbs, but descents. I believe if I had used these at Leadville this race report may sound drastically different. It’s almost unbelievable how much energy is saved with poles.
3.In further retrospect I sincerely don’t believe I ran too hard. However, my nutrition was shaky at best. I consumed plenty of water and salt, gels every now and then, but was in a serious deficit which probably made climbs much tougher than they needed to be. I focused too much on drinking, and not enough on eating. The fact that I had only lost 2.3 lbs at 50 miles was a bit misleading in terms of caloric intake.
4.Three to four weeks at altitude is essential for running well at Leadville. This means living at 10,000 ft and not just hanging out in Denver at 6,000 ft. Obviously, because of work, this is not realistic for most people and definitely not realistic for me. Where can I find one of those altitude tents?
5. Pacers are allowed to carry the racer’s gear. This is usually not allowed, but Leadville is okay with. I wish I knew because I had offers for a pacer, but declined. Lesson learned.