(workouts this week are comical compared to what you are about to read...)
Today: strength training and sleeping in...
Yesterday: 30 minute hill treadmill workout, 15 minutes stairs AM, Tennis PM
Let me start out by saying that even though I swore that I only do ONE race report a year—and used that up for Badwater in July—I simply couldn’t leave the Leadville 100 hanging, especially not after what happened on the fateful days of August 16th and 17th. Of course, in keeping with tradition, this is a VERY short race report.
As I noted in my Badwater report, because of several tendon issues, a Baker’s Cyst, and a broken pinkie toe, my build-up for the Badwater Ultramarathon really wasn’t what I wanted. As a result, it made it tough for me to try to reach my goal of breaking 32 hours in the 135-mile race, particularly on a tough course in pretty decent heat (even by South Florida standards). I used every ounce of physical and mental strength just to finish in 36 hours, 45 minutes. I was, of course, incredibly proud of that achievement, as I’ve wanted to run Badwater since my first ultra in 2012. But, in the back of my mind, my real challenge of 2014 wasn’t breaking that finishing tape on Mount Whitney on July 22nd. It was always about Leadville.
To put it in context, a few runners reached out to me earlier this year and said Leadville was going to be their first 100 miler and they wanted my advice. I honestly didn’t know what to say. Leadville was going to be my 8th race of at least 100 miles and my 11th race of at least 50 miles. I’ve learned so much (usually the hard way) in each and every one of those races. What I did say in warning them was this: “I’m running Badwater and Leadville this year. I know Badwater is going to be tough. But Leadville SCARES me.” That’s how much respect I have for the course, the very tough cutoff time of 30 hours, and a race that has a finishing rate that is barely above 50%--even though most of the entrants live at elevation.
Because of the level of muscle soreness following an endeavor like Badwater, my coach, Ian Sharman, had me keep it real minimal between Badwater and Leadville, since I only had 3 ½ weeks before I’d be on the starting line. Keeping it to just some power-hiking and limited running was great, as I was dealing with the kind of soreness that you get post-ultramarathons, which isn’t your garden variety 5k or even marathon soreness—that lactic acid build-up that goes away in maybe 4 days. This is a much deeper version. I would describe it as more tiredness than soreness. In other words, it doesn’t hurt to walk around even 2 days later, but try going out and running an 8-minute mile if you want to get humbled. It feels like you are running on fumes.
The biggest challenge in my mind with Leadville was going to be my ability to adjust from South Beach (elevation: 0) to Leadville, CO, (elevation: 10,200 feet), thus making it the highest incorporated town in the United States and giving it the nickname “Two Mile High City.” Clearly, I’m a man who likes moderation in his physical challenges, if you haven’t picked up on that by now. But I’m also not a complete idiot (maybe just a partial one). Because of that altitude issue, I took a few steps:
--I purchased a Hypoxico machine. These machines can simulate altitude from just a few thousand feet up to 13,000 feet, and they do so by effectively reducing the amount of oxygen that you are breathing. I opted not to use the altitude tent (which many ultrarunners sleep in over several weeks)—for fears that I might sweat to death in my sleep in my unventilated bubble when that Miami sun hit my bedroom each morning. There are a lot of ways I probably should have died at this point, but going out as the Bubble Boy in my sleep isn’t happening anytime soon. So, I instead went with the sleep mask and also the exercise mask with my Hypoxico machine (thanks Dylan Bowman, a.k.a. DBo, for getting me set up). I wasn’t able to use the machine quite as much as I would have liked because of travel and also since I was recovering from frequent races in 2014 (so I wanted as much oxygen as I could get my hands on). Mostly I just used the Hypoxico when I took naps or when I would do a quick core workout. In the case of the latter, I would set it to 13,000 feet and see what I could do. New motto: You haven’t done plank until you’ve done it at 13,000 feet.
--I planned to go to Colorado a full week before Leadville and acclimate and train at altitude. More on that in a second.
--I was sent a variety of altitude products by Acli-Mate (thanks Al for hooking that up), and I planned to use them to minimize the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). The prospect of blinding headaches, nausea, vomiting, and the inability to walk straight kind of seemed like things to avoid, particularly in a 100-mile race over rugged terrain.
So, with my altitude plan in place (sort of), I was off to Breckenridge for 4 days before spending the final 3 days in Leadville leading up to race morning at 4 A.M. on August 16th. Let me just say that packing was a real challenge this time around. I had to plan for a myriad of weather conditions: warm (but not hot), cold, REALLY cold, wind, rain, possibly even hail or sleet. It took two pretty full checked bags and another carry-on, but I made it (Note: My gear, including hydration and nutrition items, weighed 80 pounds). Maybe that’s a new equation: Your ultra gear during travel must weigh at least half of the runner’s body weight. Since I clock in at 162 sans clothing, I think I’m making it.
The entire flight to Denver I couldn’t contain myself. Eric Spencer was going to take on Leadville. The race I’ve dreamed of since I first read about it 4-5 years ago. The race that has created so many running legends. The race that makes you refer to yourself in the third person. Badwater was a challenge that I’ve wanted to do—I might even say that I HAD to do—but Leadville, to me, was my real A-race in my very young ultrarunning career. It was also the first truly trail 100 miler—complete with technical trails and huge climbs—that I’ve attempted.
Driving from Denver to Breckenridge was incredible. I went from sea level to the Mile High City to all of a sudden climbing mountain passes on the way to my new home for the next four days. Even though Leadville takes the title for highest elevation for a town, Breck is no slouch. It clocks in at just under 10,000 feet. I got there on Saturday afternoon—with one week until Leadville—and couldn’t wait to walk around and start acclimating like a pro.
After a great dinner and a sampling of a couple of local micro brews (Colorado kills it in this category), I peacefully went to sleep eager to do my first 6-mile test run the next day. Mike Tyson famously once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” So true. I woke up (and I’m being conservative here) probably 27 times that first night. I could barely breathe. My head was killing me. I felt sick to my stomach. So THIS is what 10,000 feet feels like when you haven’t adjusted? It’s like the worst Vegas hangover you can imagine basically. I remember texting friends my doubts and fears immediately. How was I going to run 6 miles when I couldn’t even sleep (when no exertion was occurring)? Or climb Quandary Peak (14,265 feet) the next day? Or how about why I was here in the first place—Leadville? Could I last for 100 miles with huge climbs at this kind of altitude?
It took me all morning and every trick of the trade that I knew: Tylenol, Acli-Mate products, a LOT of water, a steam shower to open my sinuses, and finally by early afternoon, I felt like I was human again. So, I threw caution to the wind and went and did the 6 miler. And you know what? It wasn’t so bad. I ran pretty similar splits to South Beach (for that effort level). I was LOVING this cool weather, which apparently doesn’t exist in Miami, even in the winter. Our thermostat bottoms out at like 65 degrees.
The next morning I took on Quandary Peak. This is the highest mountain close to Breck. Even though the trail is only 7 miles roundtrip, it climbs 3400 vertical feet in just that 3.5 mile ascent. You think you’ve done a hard workout on the StairMaster? Come do Quandary Peak. I promise you Buns of Steel in no time. The views were incredible though. I was starting to gain confidence. I was passing all of the locals going uphill with pretty minimal effort. So, of course, I simply had to take it up a notch and began running up an 18% grade at 13,500 feet. A woman stopped me and half said/half asked, “You’re running Leadville aren’t you?” I smiled and nodded. She simply added, “I can tell. What you just did there was pretty damn impressive.” I wanted to high-five her.
Here’s a great pic from the summit at 14,265 feet, and thus the 2nd highest mountain I’ve climbed:
The next day I took it a bit easier and ran to both Lower Mohawk Lake and Upper Mohawk Lake. The scenery was once again almost indescribably beautiful. Here’s a shot from Upper Mohawk Lake at just over 12,000 feet:
What became apparent in my time in Breck was not only that I was adjusting very rapidly to the altitude, but also that I felt confident in my ability to take on Leadville. I was doing runs with thousands of feet of elevation change and seemingly handling them well. It was race week, so I couldn’t get any more fit before the race. It was simply time to show up and take care of business.
If Breck is the fun ski town, when you drive into Leadville you get a very different sense. Yes, rugged mountain beauty surrounds you on all sides. But this town has grit. It has toughness. It feels like a steel town in Pennsylvania. And that makes sense. Leadville once had a population of over 30,000 when mining was booming in the region in the late 1800’s. After mining went a bit dry, the town dwindled to where the population is today—just over 2,000 people. For a while, Leadville actually had the highest unemployment rate in the United States. That has since changed, but walking around town you can tell that this is a no frills, we mean business type of place. Also that the locals not only appreciate the toughness required to do this race and wish you well, but even more that they appreciate what the Leadville 100 does for commerce. The race brings in approximately 700 runners, plus their race crews and families. It’s a major impact for Leadville’s economy.
On that first day in Leadville, I drove along part of the course and went out to Twin Lakes (the major aid station at mile 39.5 and 60.5…in other words just before and just after Hope Pass the second time). Looking up at Hope Pass and thinking about how I was going to climb to 12,600 feet TWICE in the middle of a really hard 100-mile race, only one word came to mind. I won’t repeat it here in polite company, but it starts with an “F” and it rhymes with luck (which I would need if I was going to pull this off).
I did another short training run in town and made sure that I finished right on the corner of 6th Street and Harrison, which is the iconic finishing spot of the Leadville 100.
The next day brought race check-in and med checks. You know the race is no joke when they give you a wristband that must be worn at all times which lists your emergency contact, your medical conditions, and any medications. That way if they find you balled up and crying in the fetal position somewhere on the Colorado Trail, they know whom to call. The race officials also weigh you and write it on the wristband, as you get your weight checked a couple of times during the race to ensure that the runner isn’t becoming overly dehydrated. Because it was chilly and I had some layers on, I tipped the scales at 167.
Here’s a good pic from right after check-in. As you can see I just got the bare essentials for a successful weekend at the Leadville 100:
Now that all of the legal work was done and I had my race number, I was waiting only for my girlfriend, crew member, partner-in-crime, Spencer-whisperer, etc., Meg.
I had to pick her up in Breck later in the day, so before that I decided to go witness the spectacle known as the Beer Mile. For those of you not familiar with this concept, basically you must consume one full beer, then run ¼ of a mile. Then consume then next beer and run the next lap. And so on. 4 beers and a mile later, you get your finishing time. If you puke, which happens quite a bit anytime you mix fast running with a full stomach and carbonation, you have to do an extra lap. The Beer Mile is often hotly contested on tracks all over the world (random factoid: The World Record is 4 minutes, 57 seconds).
Well Leadville steps up the Beer Mile a bit since A. it’s at 10,200 feet B. it’s run on part of the actual course…a dirt trail that starts downhill for 1/8 of a mile before the runners must turn around and finish each lap uphill. Then they consumed their next beer before heading out. Ian Sharman was the MC/official timekeeper. I realized as I started snapping pics and taking GoPro videos that I was in Leadville, Colorado, sipping on a cold beer, standing between Ian Sharman (my coach and the defending Leadville 100 champ) and Nick Clark (who finished 2nd to Ian last year and was there to pace Mike Aish this year…more on that later). This is yet ANOTHER reason why I love ultras. You often feel like you fit right in even when surrounded by immensely talented individuals.
Here’s a great pic from the start of the Beer Mile:
For the record, the winning time was 7 minutes, 20 seconds by Patrick (wearing the yellow compression socks and the Luna sandals), who would also run the Leadville 100 just 2 days later AND be among the top finishers. Complete champ.
Later that evening I picked up Meg and tried to contain my excitement as I described all of my outdoor activities over the past several days. Knowing that I would get almost no sleep the night before the race, we turned in early and got ready for the race meeting.
The Leadville pre-race meeting just hours before the start on Saturday morning is hard to describe in words. You just need to be there to see it. When you have 690 Leadville starters, their crews and families, and many former Leadville finishers-turned-volunteers, the feeling is electric. After a number of great speakers, the man himself got up. Ken Chlouber. The founder of the Leadville 100. Let’s just say if Ken and the Dos Equis guy crossed paths, I know who I’d have my money on, and he doesn’t have an exotic accent. Here’s a pic of Ken (note: I want my LinkedIn pic to be something similar if possible):
Ken has completed the race himself 14 times, so he knows how difficult it is and the depths of your soul that you need to go to in order to reach 6th and Harrison in under 30 hours. His speech was simply epic. Here are my two favorite quotations from it:
“I am not here to give a motivational speech. Motivation only lasts until the first time you throw up tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow you are going to go up. Then you are going to go WAY up! Then you are going to STRAIGHT up! And we’ll see you at the finish line.”
The whole school gym erupted after that second one. I was ready to storm the beaches, or become the 301st Spartan and fight off the Persian army with King Leonidas, or climb any mountain in the world (including Hope Pass). Seriously, the Army should consider hiring Ken to boost their recruiting numbers.
When we got back to the hotel, I arranged my gear for the next morning for probably the 32nd time. I studied the elevation chart for the race (see below), even though it was already permanently burned into my brain from months of preparation.
I did some visualization. I came to Leadville not to merely finish, but to finish well. My goal was to come in under 25 hours for the 100 miles and receive the coveted Big Boy Buckle (see pic). Obviously, just finishing in under the 30-hour cutoff is a tremendous accomplishment, so I wasn’t going to be broken up if I was between 25 and 30 hours. But, damn that buckle was nice. The thing is the size of a small cocktail tray.
As part of my planning to run under 25 hours, I had carefully figured out how where I thought I needed to be at certain points in the race for this challenging course that goes 50 miles out and then right back the way it came. I wanted to reach the first aid station (Mayqueen) at mile 13.5 in around 2 hours, 20 minutes. Then battle over the first two mountains and descend into the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 39.5 in under 8 hours. From there it would be hopefully 7 hours for the 20 miles of going up Hope Pass, down the steep other side, reaching the Winfield aid station (mile 50), turning around and going immediately BACK up Hope Pass, and finally pounding it down to Twin Lakes again. If I could get back to Twin Lakes in under 15 hours, I would have 10 hours to get those final ~40 miles, which doesn’t sound fast, except it involves climbing the same two mountains from earlier—on the steeper sides this time. Plus it would be dark, and I would likely be a bit cold. Not to mention that this race was all run at altitude. I had no idea how my body would react over time.
I always have pre-race nerves. Rarely do I get more than a couple of hours of sleep before a race, even if it’s a marathon. Well, I think I broke that record at Leadville. I got in bed around 10 P.M. to try to catch 3 hours before my 1 A.M. wake-up call to get ready for that 4 A.M. start in the dark in historic Leadville. My excitement (and worry) simply couldn’t be contained. I thought of my intended split times every 5 minutes. So, if you are asked a Spencer Leadville trivia question involving how many minutes of sleep I got that night, I can tell you—0. Zip. Not one a single minute. I just laid on my back staring at the ceiling for 3 entire hours.
Once Meg was up and I had taken in some coffee and calories, we drove over to the starting line around 3 A.M. It was a balmy 38 degrees out. Hey, if you give me a choice, I’ll take colder over blazing hot any day of the week. My two best races ever occurred when it was below 45 degrees.
We snapped a few pics at the start/finish:
Finally we had the 10-minute warning and it was time to line up. I was so amped to be standing near the front of a field of runners which featured the likes of Ian, Rob Krar (the Western States 100 champ and a heavy contender at Leadville), Mike Aish, and a couple of former Leadville champs, as well as about 680 other people who wanted the challenge of a lifetime.
Here I am with 1 minute until the start:
As we waited for the start, the National Anthem was played, which is always an emotional moment for me. The famous words of Ken Chlouber were repeated, “You are better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.” And of course, “I commit. I will not quit.” You know the funny thing? You actually start to believe it when you hear it enough.
At 4 A.M. the shotgun blast sent all 690 of us off down 6th Street and into the early morning darkness. Because this is the largest ultramarathon in the United States, it almost feels like the start of a marathon, except that everyone is decked out in trail running gear and wearing hydration packs and headlamps.
I did my best to rein in the horses. It was unreal how many people passed me in those first 3-4 miles. I was running 9-minute miles, which was faster than I intended, and at least 200 people were taking this thing on like it was a half marathon. After about 1 ½ years of running 100-mile+ ultras, I’ve determined the hardest thing for me. No, it isn’t finishing. I’ve never DNF’d any race in my life. It’s holding back when other runners who you know you can beat are surging ahead. I mean, I really WANTED to chase them down, but you have to be smart in these races. I had 96 more miles to catch them. And ultimately, starting too fast is probably the #1 reason that people DNF. You have to manage your effort level early, because, trust me, you will need energy later.
I just got done telling you that the hardest part of racing is holding back when it’s tactically smart to do so. Okay, I lied (sort of). The hardest part is continuing when a pretty nasty injury pops up. In my case it didn’t take long. Around mile 6, as we were running in the dark with our headlamps on, going around Turquoise Lake, on a rocky, technical trail (that one runner called “treacherous” a mile earlier when I was talking to him), it happened. My toe caught a rock when I was pounding a short downhill. Before I knew it, I had flown 5 yards in the air and then slid down the rest of the hill on my side, slamming my tailbone against a boulder, and then both knees against another boulder.
It was the by far the worst fall I’ve taken as a runner. Both knees were bleeding (as was my elbow even through 3 layers), and I thought for sure I had broken something. I sat there in shock for at least 30 seconds. Several runners asked if I needed medical attention because the vision and the SOUND of that fall were just absurd. I waved them off. In that state of shock, I had no idea if I could continue. When I was hit by a car while running in Brentwood last year, I remember the same feeling. The feeling of “no bones are sticking out, but something just isn’t right.”
Rather than sit in the dirt, I got up and decided to try to run again and make it to Mayqueen. Right away, I could feel the bruising particularly in my right knee. Each step hurt. When I had to use my legs to brake on the downhills, and thus use my knees a considerable amount, it REALLY hurt. So, there I was, sort of running at Mile 6 in the Leadville 100 and the worst thought came to me right then and there. “What if I can’t finish the race?” In all of my years of racing, I’ve never seriously thought failure was likely or even a possibility. I always finish. But this time was different. I had a nasty injury and 94 more miles of tough terrain and a strict 30-hour cutoff.
It took me a couple of minutes to get my mindset altered. I asked myself what I could do right now. I could run the next mile. Then, from there, I could run to Mayqueen and meet Meg (who had driven to the first of the 6 spots she would see me). So I did that. And amazingly, even with the fall and the slowdown that followed, I made it to Mayqueen in 2 hours, 12 minutes, a full 8 minutes ahead of my ambitious schedule.
(Note: Feel free to pause, take a bathroom break, have a snack, etc. before continuing.)
Mayqueen was a complete zoo because so many runners were still bunched together and their crews were waiting for them at the aid station. I quickly found Meg, told her (and showed her) what had happened, and got the hydration and nutrition that I needed. Already my right knee was swollen and I couldn’t bend it all the way. So I did what I do best when stuff like this happens, I got angry. I mean REALLY angry. Not at Meg. At the course. I was going to take it out on the next 86 ½ miles of this damn race. It thinks it can trip ME? It’s not taking MY BUCKLE away from me? Not today.
And I took off out of Mayqueen like I was on fire. I quickly found myself in a fast pack headed up the first climb over Sugarloaf Mountain, which is at around 11,500 feet. Even though I saw people running the uphills (even the steep ones), I stuck with my plan…power-hike the uphills and run as much of everything else as possible.
As I descended towards Outward Bound, the next aid station at mile 24, I realized just how steep the descent on the Powerline trail was. I would describe my descending technique as an awkward, controlled fall. Let’s just say there was a lot of braking and sliding on loose rocks. I also realized that I would have to climb back UP this monster around mile 80, and I wasn’t liking that too much.
Here’s a pic of the Powerline climb—just one part of it:
I saw Meg again at Outward Bound and made some quick gear changes as it was already warming up quite a bit, and I wouldn’t see her again until Twin Lakes at mile 39.5. I left from there and took off across a pasture and then along a road, as we were in the really flat part of the Leadville course, before a slight climb to mile 31 and the next aid station (with no crew access).
Mentally I was still kind of in shambles, but at about mile 28 there were some friends and families of racers along the trail cheering and pushing us on. Every time I heard “Let’s go #642!!” it gave me a rush. Then I saw a five-year-old boy standing at the side of the trail holding his hand out. None of the racers seemed to notice. I swerved over to give him a huge running high-five and he cracked a big smile. I’m sure that made him happy, but he has no idea how much that meant to me. It got me back to feeling good—that I was meant to be here and ENJOY the Leadville 100.
I remained in a pretty steady group of runners, and it always amazes me at the range of people who can take on these feats. I was running with a woman who couldn’t be younger than 60, a couple of guys in their early 20’s, and then maybe 3 guys roughly my age. We ended up sticking together for almost 12 miles of climbing and then some ups-and-downs on Mount Elbert.
Since my fall, I had kind of taken my mind off of that sub-25 hour finish. It just wasn’t possible. How could I expect myself to attain the splits that I needed? But then a funny thing happened. I looked at my watch as I started descending at mile 37 towards Twin Lakes at mile 39.5 and realized that I was going to come in under 8 hours—exactly my goal. How did THAT happen? I never really stopped at all during the first 37 miles and had either been running or aggressively power-hiking, despite the pain. Now here I was. On schedule.
I came down to the slope into Twin Lakes and was greeted by more cowbells than in the entire country of Switzerland (if you’ve been, you know what I mean). Twin Lakes was probably the greatest aid station that I’ve ever seen in my life. The emotional lift from the crowd there was indescribable. Meg, who hadn’t seen me in a few hours, was shocked to see me so soon.
Knowing that Hope Pass and several river crossings were up next, I switched from my trail Hokas to my go-to Asics 33’s. These shoes and I have had some fun on trails before, and I wanted a more rugged shoe for the next 20 miles. I laced up, somehow managed to get down a peanut butter and honey wrap and some chips, and away I went.
Because the snowmelt was greater this year, what is normally just one river crossing at around ankle deep levels, turned into about 15 river, stream, and very large puddle crossings. The actual river crossing was up to my knees and up to some girls’ upper thighs. It felt good to be in that freezing, fast-moving water, but we definitely needed that rope that they had strung across the river. Without it, I’d probably still be floating downstream somewhere (without my Leadville finisher’s buckle).
Once I got across the river, the 5-mile ascent to the top of Hope Pass began. My knowledge of Hope Pass was limited merely to what I’d read in books or in race reports, and of course whatever I’d seen on YouTube. The stats are pretty overwhelming. In just 5 miles, the runners go from the low point of the race (9,200 feet at the river crossing) all the way to the highest point of the race at the top of Hope Pass (12,600 feet). So, it’s a 3400 ft climb from miles 40-45. Ultimately this is the climb that makes or breaks people, as you’ll soon see.
I found myself in a solid pack that consisted of a mixture of Leadville veterans and rookies. Because the trail is single track, we had a steady line of 8 of us powering our way up. While the exertion was tough, it felt good to not be landing hard on my knee. Also, the altitude didn’t seem to be troubling me too much.
Around mile 43, we could hear some yelling from up the trail a bit. I knew it was the leaders coming down from Hope Pass at mile 57 for them. The first person that came by was the eventual champ, Rob Krar. What I found funny is that most people in our group didn’t know who he was—even with his distinctive beard. I stepped aside and said, “Good job, Rob. Way to push.” He gave me an appreciative look and said thanks. In my mind, I thought “well there goes Rob Krar. No one can catch that guy.” Of course, not even 30 seconds later, I saw someone just BLAZING down the trail. I’m not even sure (given my many falls during this race) how this was even physically possible. It was ultra legend Nick Clark pacing Mike Aish, who was in 2nd place and hunting for Krar. They went past and our group continued. About 10 minutes later, the scene repeated itself, except this time it was Ian Sharman and pacer flying past me. I yelled encouragement at him, but he was completely in the zone. He too was hunting (and would actually eventually catch Aish, setting up an epic finish for 2nd place).
Here’s the finisher’s photo of Rob Krar winning in the 2nd fastest time in Leadville history:
Here are Mike Aish and Ian Sharman battling around mile 72 for 2nd place. Aish would end up edging Sharman in a thrilling finish:
I deliberately chose not to wear my Garmin for this climb up Hope because I just wanted to get dialed in to getting to the top. Eventually the trees began to clear a bit, and I could hear a tremendous amount of cheering and of course more cowbells. This was coming from the Hopeless (fittingly named) aid station at mile 44.5, just below the top of the pass. I had made it. I wasn’t carrying a camera, but the view down to Twin Lakes where we had just climbed from was simply sublime. One of the runners in our pack said, “I’d take a pic, but everyone will think the background is fake.” THAT’S how incredible it is up there. I’ve never seen a better view in any race ever in my life.
Standing there in the full sun, it was definitely warmer than I had expected. I had been running with my rain/warm jacket cinched onto my Ultimate Direction pack the entire race. Only because I knew to expect them, was I not shocked by some other guests at the aid station beyond the volunteers and runners. Because no vehicles can get up to Hope Pass, the volunteers use llamas to get the gear up there. More than one person has sworn they were hallucinating upon seeing this—chalking it up to altitude sickness or extreme exertion. But, I can assure you that the llamas are real, although not overly friendly (you wouldn’t be either if you had to carry that much gear up Hope Pass).
There was no time to celebrate the victory because it was on to the descent to Winfield at mile 50. Right away, I realized a problem. This side of Hope Pass was STEEP. If you’ve been up there, then you know why I capitalized that word. The grade is around 21% towards the top, as runners climb (or descend depending on which way you are going) over 1000 feet per mile. That is simply absurd. Especially at that altitude. And in the MIDDLE OF A 100 MILE RACE!!
The other race leaders were passing me going uphill as I ran downhill and I stepped aside to let them go up. I can say definitively that of the 100 or so people I passed during that time NOT ONE PERSON was smiling. This was just a war zone. And these were the best runners in the race! I’ve never witnessed anything like that in competition. It’s surreal to think about how hard this course is at certain points.
This pic should give you an idea of how steep the backside of Hope Pass really is:
Here’s me descending Hope Pass towards Winfield. Don’t I look thrilled? Also, my knees are beyond swollen at this point.
For almost the entire race I had been looking for my friend Jimmy Dean Freeman. Jimmy heads up the SoCal Coyotes trail running group, is a coach, and is a majorly accomplished ultrarunner. He’s also generally hilarious and is one of the most outgoing people I know. Jimmy was in the midst of trying to complete the Original 6 100 Mile Races over just a 3 month period. So far, he was 4 for 4, with Leadville being the 5th (and arguably the hardest) in his quest. Given that I was struggling, I was surprised that he hadn’t gone past me up towards Hope Pass. I wondered if he might be sitting in the aid station at Winfield (mile 50) debating whether to stay in the race or to drop out. Even though I was really starting to labor and my knee was killing me, I determined that when I saw him, I was going to give him the biggest motivational pep talk to get him moving. I wouldn’t LET HIM drop out. Not when he was so close to a lifetime achievement.
Here’s Jimmy on the top of Hope Pass:
But I had it all wrong. Just a mile later (mile 48 for me, mile 52 for him), Jimmy and his pacer came face-to-face with me. I was in extreme pain and sat down a rock. Jimmy sat down next to me. And HE GAVE ME THE PEP TALK. He even sprayed me down with water because I was overheating pretty badly. It turns out that Jimmy had been throwing up for several miles and was just starting to get back on track, but it meant a lot that he wanted to make sure I made it back to that finish line. Jimmy would rally and end up finishing just under 25 hours—rightly earning that Big Boy Buckle and keeping the Original 6 quest alive.
Finally, after just over 12 hours, I arrived at Winfield (mile 50). The famous turnaround. It was an odd place, as there was a combination of just completely broken runners mixed with a collection of very fresh-looking pacers—eager to get into the race for the first time.
I was weighed and was only down to 162, so my hydration was decent at least. The medical team took a look at my knee and didn’t exactly give me a major thumbs-up, but said it was up to me. I took a seat inside the aid tent. All around me I saw the full range of faces. From people who I knew were going to DNF to people with the steely reserved look (one that I try to have). I knew those people were going to leave it all out on the course no matter what.
It took me about 10 minutes to eat and drink and rally a bit. Then I began the trip back to the top of Hope Pass. Again, keep in mind that the backside is WAY steeper. I believe that this stretch of just 2-3 miles is why people DNF at Leadville the most. They either go down it to Winfield and think “Hell no, I’m NOT going back up that” and drop out or, if they attempt to make it back up to Hope Pass, they are so spent on the summit at mile 55, that they can’t realistically make it the next 45 miles within the cutoffs.
I once again found myself in a solid group of 20 people this time (counting the pacers). We just kept this steady train moving up the mountain. I had to sit down a few times to regroup and force down some calories, but we all just wouldn’t give up. I would later find out that only about half of us finished the race, which still blows my mind given how far we all had made it. Nothing is a sure thing in an ultra.
The most frustrating part is definitely the switchbacks just before Hope Pass. Every time you think you are on the last one, boom, you turn again and keep going up. Hearing the cheering from the top was a magnet drawing all of us up there though.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour of being within 100 yards of the damn thing, we emerged on top of Hope Pass. I had done it!! I had gone up Hope Pass twice. Yes, it took me more time than I had planned, but I DID NOT GIVE UP.
The descent back to Twin Lakes wasn’t anything that special. We just kept our group running as best we could. Many of us, including yours truly didn’t bring a headlamp with us from Twin Lakes because we figured we would be back well before sunset. Yeah…not so much. I got to the river basically right when it got dark. You haven’t lived until you’ve crossed rivers and streams completely in the dark in Colorado at mile 60 of an ultramarathon!
I got back to the Twin Lakes aid station, and, once again, the crowd was electric. High-fives and pats on the back all around. Meg saw me and I could tell she had been worried. It had taken me over 8 hours to make the roundtrip. My feet were numb from crossing the freezing streams. My body started to shake when I sat down to change shoes. We quickly opted for me wearing full-length running tights and a whole lot of warm gear for my upper body. I wasn’t about to lose Leadville due to hypothermia.
I got on the trail again at just over the 17-hour mark. There was, of course, no way I was going to break 25 hours anymore, since I still had 39.5 miles to go and had to climb the steeper side of two mountains before finishing in Leadville. I felt like I was safely under the 30-hour cutoff, but I wasn’t sure.
From miles 60-70, I really found my groove. I power-hiked the ups and ran almost everything else. I was steadily passing people and getting pats on the back as I went by with my headlamp illuminating my every step.
In the 2nd half of the race, I had two real low points. Mile 69 at the aid station was one of them. I was exhausted. My knee hurt. I was cold. I was forcing down calories, but nothing looked good. And the worst part was that I knew I had 31 more miles—another 50k basically. Usually at this elapsed time in a race, I would have been at mile 95 about to wrap things up.
It was at this point that I went back to my Badwater tactics. When you need a new goal, find the next shirt in front of you and catch them. So that’s what I did. If I saw a headlamp, I went after it until I passed it. I was power-hiking a bit more than I wanted, but I did make it to Outward Bound (mile 76) looking pretty strong. Meg was actually shocked that I didn’t sit down. She hadn’t seen me in almost 14 miles and I was still moving.
I got on the road out of Outward Bound and headed for that pesky Powerline climb to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Remember when I said I knew I was going to hate it at mile 80. Well, that was right. I was just wrong about HOW MUCH I would hate that climb. This was definitely the 2nd low point of the latter half of the race. It just seemed like this climb would never end. I was doing well relative to the people around me and was power-hiking with a fast competitor and his pacer.
When I finally got to the top and started the descent to Mayqueen, the final aid station at mile 86.5, I experienced the Paradox of Ultra Distances. This is where, owning to tiredness from lack of sleep, exhaustion from running with everything you have, and general inability to process anything with your brain, EVERYTHING seems like it is much longer than it should be. A mile seems like 3. If you see lights up ahead that look 50 yards away, it’s really 400 yards.
It’s also during this time that your brain plays tricks on you. In my case it was paranoia and the inability to do simple math. I was 24 hours into the race and I had figured it would take around 5 more hours to finish. Actual dialogue with my brain:
Me: Brain, I’m 24 hours in. If it takes me 5 more hours to finish, what will my finishing time be?
Brain: Hmm. 28? 29? Definitely in the 20’s…I think. It should be under the cutoff.
Me: Wait! Brain, am I close to not making the cutoff?
Brain: How do I know? I’ve been busy trying to keep you alive for the past 24 hours.
You get the idea. For the record, it took me 10 minutes to figure out what 4+5 was. If you think I’m kidding, watch the first 5 minutes of the movie Lone Survivor when they show real Navy SEALs going through Hell Week on no sleep. They repeatedly ask a guy what 6x3 is, and he can’t process the answer.
Here is what my brain thought of the 4+5 VERY challenging math problem:
As I got to within a mile of Mayqueen, I could hear the cheering and that picked me up, but I was wary of the cutoff. That 30-hour limit was looming over my head. I made it to Mayqueen at almost exactly 6 A.M. (26 hours into the race). That meant I had 4 hours to cover the final 13.5 miles to the finish, which was mostly uphill. Of course I had looked at EVERY SINGLE RESULT from last year’s Leadville to see how long people took on average to cover this final leg of the race. Around 3.5-4 hours. Damn. I needed to get moving.
I told Meg I couldn’t walk it in. I was going to have to haul ass. I took off out of Mayqueen like I was on fire for the 2nd time during the 2014 Leadville 100. I immediately settled into a great pace with a runner named Dean. He had finished the previous year in just under 30, and he felt like we were safe. We ran the first 5-6 miles around the lake. We must have passed 30-40 runners during that stretch. All of them were walking. Had they figured out that they were going to make it under the cutoff? I still couldn’t do math and was having trouble focusing my eyes on each step in front of me.
Around mile 93 or 94, I got separated from Dean and ran and power-hiked on my own. I made a turn that a volunteer directed me to. Suddenly I didn’t remember having run this section 27 hours earlier going the other direction. Paranoia again. Even though the course markers were everywhere, it was like I didn’t believe them. It felt like a dream.
At mile 97, I was suddenly on a straight dirt road heading uphill. There were runners strung out all along the road, and every single one was walking. And here’s where it got weird. I didn’t believe any of this was real. Not for a second. It’s the closest thing I can describe to an out-of-body experience. I actually went up to 3 complete strangers and asked, “Am I really finishing Leadville? I’m being serious. Please tell me this is real.” One of the volunteers said, “It’s real. And YOU ARE KICKING ASS!!” I ran a few more steps and my eyes started to mist up. I was really going to finish.
With a couple of miles to go, I fell in with a couple of runners who were walking uphill, and we chatted and swapped war stories from the course. I told them that at the start of 6th Street, I was going to run it in. 6th Street begins with a very steep hill and then gradually climbs from there. From the bottom of 6th Street to the finish is around ¾ of a mile.
Sure enough, we made the turn onto 6th and I TOOK OFF!! I blew by people. The exhilaration was unreal. Leadville residents who were sitting in lawn chairs in their driveways stood and cheered for me. One of them got out of her chair and ran an entire block with me exhorting me to keep powering to the finish.
With 200 yards to go, I could see Meg pop out from near the finishing area. I had told her that we would run across the line together. She met me and we ran it in. I crossed the line in 29 hours, 9 minutes, and 21 seconds. As they announced my name over the loudspeaker, I could scarcely believe it. Then the finisher’s medal was hung around my neck. Instead of “Congratulations,” I was instead greeted with “Welcome home!” I almost broke down and cried right there. I would later give my finisher’s medal to Meg because I told her that without her moral support and outstanding job crewing there was zero chance I would have made it to Leadville. She earned that medal just as much as I had.
It turns out that I finished at a pretty good time. All of the race leaders come back to see the final finishers come in under the 30-hour cutoff, and, in fact, 113 more people would finish in just the 51 minutes after me. Ian was there. Jimmy Dean Freeman was also. He and Meg had been trying to figure out what time I would get there, and they were shocked that I had run Mayqueen-finish in 3:09 somehow.
The awards ceremony where we got our buckles and the overall winners were recognized was at noon, so Meg and I jetted back to the hotel. I wanted to shower and try to sleep a little bit. Finally, almost 60 hours after getting my last minute of sleep, I was able to take a 30-minute power nap.
It was fun to be at the awards ceremony and hear some of the incredible stories from other racers. I picked up my buckle. I can say without even blinking that this buckle means more to me than all the other ones I’ve earned. As Ken Chlouber says about the Leadville buckle, “Earned with guts. Worn with pride.” Truer words have never been spoken. Here’s a pic of me with the buckle.
In spite of my fall and subsequent knee injury, my geographical handicap coming from sea level to such an extreme race, and my lack of experience in running on technical trails, somehow I found a way to complete the Leadville 100. I would later find out that most of the people from Florida struggled and were unfortunately not able to finish. Of the 690 starters, only 360 runners crossed that finish line.
I’ve already been asked if I plan to run the race again next year. I loved everything about the Leadville 100. And I DO want that Big Boy Buckle. Let’s just say it’s strongly in consideration.
Until then, this Florida flatlander will be running races at sea level in 90 degrees with 85% humidity for a while.