Last weekend was a huge weekend for area trail runners. In fact, I'm almost certain that every person I've met in the running community was involved in either the Pikes Peak races in Manitou, TransRockies, the Leadville Trail 100, or some combination thereof. For myself, after testing the 50 mile waters in 2011 at Lake City and then Pagosa Springs, Leadville was beckoning me to the "hundy" distance.
For some, having an intricate calorie and hydration plan complete with watch alarms that beep every 7.5 minutes ensures a successful day. For me, coming up with such a super detailed race plan is often counterproductive and just tends to stress me out. But when one prepares to begin running before sunrise and finish well after sunset, variables outside of nutrition like crew location and clothing needs become relevant. And considering this was my first 100 mile rodeo, I obviously had more questions than answers. Fortunately, I was able to draw upon the guidance and wisdom of some top knotch friends, Brendan T, Aaron M, and Reese R. Each member of this all-star cast had been involved in either pacing or racing at Leadville last year and they did wonders to put my mind at ease. I provided them with an estimation of my aid station splits based on a sub 20 hour finish time so they'd know when to expect me. Honestly, I wasn't sure how realistic this goal was. The odds of things going south at least some point over the course of 100 miles were probable. Doing anything for 20 hours has a tendency to expose cracks in one's armor. Thus, I decided a successful day meant having fun and enjoying the run while minimizing mistakes and subsequent suffering. To help attain success by this definition, I drew up Pacer/Pacee Contract Agreements with the following requirements:
Reese, Myself, Aaron, and Brendan
From Manitou, the idea of running 100 miles was still incomprehensible and distant. But when Reese and I rolled into Leadville early Friday for the the medical check, packet pickup, and the pre-race meeting, the other 800 runners gave some tangibility to what was about to go down. At 2:37 am the alarm clock ended an agonizingly restless night and it was finally go time!
4:00 am Start to May Queen: 1:57 split (5:57 am) @ mile 13.5
Taking advantage of as much indoor heating as possible meant showing up later and sacrificing a front row spot for something towards the end of the front 1/3rd of the corral. OK by me really. I'd never heard anyone who'd run 100 miles say "I had way too much left over at the end. If only I'd taken it out a little faster." I picked out a couple familiar CRUDers among the crowd and was able to offer quick words of encouragement before the gun went off. A mile into the race, the herd traded pavement for the dirt of the "Boulevard" and descended towards Turquoise Lake. I glanced at my watch every mile or so, just out of curiosity with no intention to make any pace alterations based on what I would see. I found I was hovering between 8:30 and 8:45 minute miles. Perhaps it was nerves. Perhaps I was still half asleep. In any case, I felt was working way too hard to keep this conservative pace so early. But once we got to the trail around the lake, an 800 person long, single file train of runners developed and I began to relax more into the pace. The first 13 miles were covered in just under 2 hours. At this point, I had plenty of fluids and decided to keep moving through the first aid station.
May Queen to Fish Hatchery: 1:40 split (7:37 am) @ mile 23.5
After a short road segment, we hit more single track before dumping out on Hagerman Pass Rd. At some point in this stretch, I met up with more friends, Joe and Wyatt H, before settling into a comfortable climbing cadence with Kyle P. At this point, the sun was coming up and running easy felt more efficient than hiking Sugarloaf Pass. So that's what we did. And coming down the Powerline side of the pass, I was careful to save the quads, holding a pace somewhere between blazing and excessive breaking. In spite of my efforts though, I became aware of a little fatigue setting in already. I decided to just acknowledge it and then put it out of my mind. It would either get better, worse, or stay the same and I could handle those odds. Finally, after about 3.5 hours into the race I hit the Fish aid station and saw my amazing crew for the first time. Pictures snapped, handheld bottles traded, jacket dropped, headphones donned, and I was on my way again.
Outbound at Fish [photo credit: Luke C] [photo credit: Reese]
Fish Hatchery to Half Pipe: 1:04 split (8:41 am) @ mile 29.1
From here there were a couple of flat road miles to travel before hitting trail again. Though I always dreaded this section during my pre-race mental preparation, actually being able to lengthen my stride felt surprisingly good and I was able to work out some fatigue. I came across Patrick S here and though it was sad to see him struggling, I was happy to be able to personally congratulate him on his top 10 Hardrock performance. I rolled through the HP crew area, giving a wave to familiar faces but not stopping.
Half Pipe to Twin Lakes 1:40 split (10:11 am) @ mile 39.5
After HP, the trail held some gradual rollers and imperceptible climbing before dropping to the low point of the course at Twin Lakes. Over this stretch I came across Tina L (she'd become the eventual women's winner), who I'd met on one of my Inclinathon training sessions. Always a sucker for some running company, we ran together for a good bit. She was concerned about some IT band issues and mused whether her body could hold up to running Western States and Leadville in the same year. But as we passed a struggling female Salomon runner, Tina moved into the 3rd overall women's spot and she started to look like she was feeling better. I moved a little quicker on the ups and Tina would fly by me on the downs. This would pretty be the theme for the rest of the day. Eventually, we dropped into the Twin aid station which was bustling with activity. Relieved to see my crew again, I traded water bottles again and grabbed some more fuel for the upcoming climb. Temperatures were starting to rise but the skies looked great. No need for a jacket at this point.
Outbound at Twin Lakes [photo credit: Reese]
Twin Lakes to Hopeless 1:45 split (11:57 am)
Luckily, the stream crossing this year was apparently pretty low. Running with soggy feet is never fun but after some initial discomfort, they dried out and I seemed to have escaped any blister issues. Here, the trail opened up a bit through a meadow and I could spot a couple runners ahead. I hiked all but a few level stretches of the Hope Pass climb at a sustainable pace without redlining. Though 3,400 ft climb, holding a running cadence had begun to wear on me and I welcomed the hiking reprieve. With 90's hits keeping me going, I unintentionally passed a handful of folks here, it was way to early for me to think about racing. Eventually I came upon the llamas and the Hopeless aid station above tree line. Almost to the top!
Hopeless to Winfield 1:08 split (1:06 pm) @ 50+ miles
At the top of the climb, Todd G, who pushed me most of the way through San Juan Solstice this year, was coming on strong and eventually passed me on the descent. My right IT band had started to flare on the downhills but I was able to keep running, just not smoothly. Shut up legs! Just before the parallel Winfield Rd trail, I came across two big names ahead of me, Tony K and Thomas L followed by Nick C, and Michael A a little later. Always inspring to share the trail with world renowned athletes! And as I pulled into the halfway point I figured I was somewhere in the top 20. Here, I'd pick up my first pacer. Just hold on for 50 more miles!
Winfield to Hopeless 1:43 split (2:49 pm)
A quick weight check at the aid station and I'd gone from a pre-race weight of 144 lbs to 142 lbs Not too shabby! Brendan found me at the tent and I got an immediate mental boost from seeing my friend. He had not disappointed with his costume attire and I couldn't have been more pleased. A fitted pink tech shirt and fairy/butterfly/angel wings. Absolutely incredible! We walked a bit out of the aid station so I could get a turkey/avocado burrito down and caught up on the day's unfoldings as we moved. Food was still appetizing and I was going through water bottles pretty quickly. I was feeling great at this point and we made quick work of the climb back up Hope. Bottles were refilled at the Hopeless aid station and we carefully but deliberately ran down to Twin. Along the way, nearly every runner commented on Brendan's costume. Again, outstanding!
Atop Hope Pass [photo credit: Brendan's camera]
Hopeless to Twin Lakes 1:06 split (3:55 pm) @ mile 60.5
On the trip down, some of the carnage of the day was beginning to manifest. An outbound runner who had collapsed was getting an on-trail IV. Later in the open meadow, we came across the 2nd place female who was hurting and forced to walk the flats. A sobering reminder of how quickly things can go bad. Brendan led the charge into Twin and received more accolades for his attire. At this point, being able to smile and laugh was just as important as calorie intake. The shoes and socks were soggy but I figured they'd dry along the hike out of Fish. No changes with footwear here.
[photo credit: Brendan] [photo credit: Reese]
Twin to Half Pipe 1:48 split (5:55 pm) @ mile 70.9
Brendan stayed with me through the aid station and would continue his pacing duties until Fish. There was a runner close behind so we tried to get in and out as quickly as possible. The battery for my music had died so I traded it out for Reese's iPod. And as I fumbled with the settings, I did a slow motion, uphill walking face plant on the climb out. Perhaps a indication of how the next hour or so would go. I didn't feel horrible. No vomiting. No cramping. And I didn't have to sit or stop moving. But after cresting the climb out of Twin, the trail leveled out, yet I couldn't get my body to start running again. Shut up body and do what I tell you to do. I informed Brendan of my predicament and he recommended I eat, reciting the menu of trail running specialties of the day. An Uber bar later and my world had changed. I think in my excitement of picking up a pacer, I'd neglected some of my calorie intake. But after his suggestion, I was able to find and hold onto a sustainable running pace again. Along the way we continued to feel intermittent pressure from the runner from behind but was able to hold him off until Half Pipe.
[photo credit: Brendan]
Half Pipe to Fish: 1:09 split (6:53 pm) @ mile 76.5
Brendan and I made a quick stop at the aid station. Gels and yes, even peanut butter (gasp), at this point did not entice me at all. Salty boiled potatoes and chips were the only things of interest so that's what I went with. I had Brendan mash the chips into a fine powder because apparently chewing was becoming too taxing for me. Just before the road section, I let the stride open up a bit to pass a couple more runners, including the current women's leader. The road seemed like it went on forever and I didn't want to force anything but instead stay comfortable. My mind began to wander ahead to the Powerline climb. I soon became a bit overwhelmed and reminded myself to not think about the 70 miles I had covered or the 30 that remained. Just focus on the now. This step. This step. Then this step. The road seemed like it went on forever but as the sun's intensity started to ease, I was able to relax again.
[photo credit: Brendan]
Fish Hatchery to May Queen 2:09 split (9:02 pm) @ mile 86.5
My IT band issue seemed to present itself on the downhills but as long as I kept moving it would eventually loosen up. Thus, once again, I didn't want to linger or even think about sitting at the next aid station. I traded pacers and Brendan "Hope Pass Angel" Trimboli made sure that "Slow" Aaron/"Big Papa" Marks would keep me eating along the way. Ideally the Powerline climb is a place to load up on calories because it's pretty much all hiking. Plus, if you can get food in here, you'll minimize suffering over the last 16 miles. But as I started off with Aaron, I found myself exceptionally quiet and feeling a little low again. He let me go a little ways before placing demands but as we started the climb, my orders were to finish another turkey/avo burrito by the time we reached the top. So demanding! But with small bites every couple of minutes I eventually finished the task and began feeling much better about life. I was talking more and moving quicker. Aaron offered other delicacies. And sticking with the small, frequent eating theme, I decided that Gu Chomps sounded reasonable. So every 10 minutes for the rest of our time together Aaron handed me a sugary red cube. Towards the top of the climb we passed by Jason K and then Michael A. Both remained behind us on the drop down Hagerman Rd but wouldn't you know it, Tina and her pacer came flying by looking as strong as ever. I told Aaron to let her go. She'd run a great race and I didn't have it in me to go any faster.
[photo credit: Reese] [photo credit: Reese]
May Queen to Finish 2:29 split (11:32 pm) 100+ miles
As we got closer to the final aid station, Aaron ran ahead to prepare Reese, my final pacer, for her task. I had been warned of the temptation that is the May Queen tent. Stories of runners entering and being lulled into sitting, or worse, napping, in the heated shelter were forefront of my thoughts. So just like before, I checked in an kept walking. Even though the sun had gone down long ago, it didn't take long to spot Reese. A neon pink wig with matching attire with striped socks she'd somehow acquired from an aid station volunteer? Unbelievable! Yep, that's definitely my pacer!
Just as Brendan had done before, Aaron gave Reese the run-down of my eating schedule. We left the station in front of Tina but started off with a lot of hiking. Apparently I was going through another little energy slump and it didn't take long before Tina and her pacer passed. That's OK. We were now comfortably sitting in 7th based on what we'd been told. With the finish so close, my goals became more defined: 1) To finish under 20 hours. 2) To remain in the top 10. The exact place was irrelevant to me. I still wasn't talking much but Reese did a phenomenal job of leading the way and keeping my spirits high as she entertained me with ridiculous poems.
As much as I wanted to just call it a day over the last stretch, Michael and his pacer also cruised by putting us in 8th. Still OK. But I was growing more anxious. And when I saw yet another head lamp bobbing behind us, I had to try to make a move. Michael didn't get too far ahead before we were able to reel him in but Tina's light was no where to be seen. After leaving the Lake Trail we dropped down and had a little stretch of level running before the Boulevard climb. Reese had run the stretch the day before to get an idea of how long it would take to finish. Still somewhat concerned with going sub 20, I asked her if we still had a shot. She said it'd be close and that there was chance to do it, although I'd not happy with her prodding over the last mile. How does one even think about racing or making a push after 19 hours? But on the Boulevard ahead I could now see Tina's light. A glance behind and I saw Michael's. Crap. The incentive to not be caught was far greater than the incentive to catch. But as we reached the end of the dirt road and hit pavement for the final mile, we somehow moved passed Tina. The lights of the finish line were in sight. I was going to finish!
[photo credit: Reese's camera]
A jaunt along the red carpet, breaking the finishing tape, a triumphant hug and high fives. It was too much for words! Physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted I found myself wanting nothing more at that moment in my life. And as I sat for the first time in 20 hours with chicken noodle soup, Bailey's Irish Cream, and a vanilla milkshake I realized that life couldn't possibly get any better than this!
[photo credit: Brendan]
I ended up finishing 7th out of 362 finishers and over 800 people who picked up a packet. Incidentally, on this weekend last year, I also finished 7th at the Pikes Peak Marathon. Must be a lucky number. Oh, and about the fear that I had, perpetuated by Reese, about missing a sub 20 hour finish. Turns out it was all intentionally diabolical nonsense! At 19 hours and 32 minutes I could have walked the last couple of miles. Now that's a professional pacer!
For various reasons, many of my friends had rough experiences at the race. And looking back, I'm still not exactly sure how my day unfolded in the way it did. But after having some time to think about it, I'm positive that the combination of my incredible support crew and a healthy dose of luck had about 87.3% to do with my successful day. Outside of that, my plan wasn't to go fast. Just don't slow down.