Months of preparation – physical, mental, and financial – led to Leadville where, this past weekend, I toed the line on 6th Street with almost 1,000 runners. I felt well prepared and ready to run a fast time, capturing a silver buckle of “under 25 hours” seemed doable. I probably should have relaxed and simply enjoyed the run, because instead of a shiny new buckle, I can only hobble away with a DNF. I set some lofty goals and at times in the past few weeks, even several hours into the race, I felt it was likely to come together. But mountain runs, especially 100-milers, have a way of putting things back in perspective and of putting even a little exuberance back in its place.
I was pulled from the race at 3:18 AM having missed the 23-hour mandated cut-off time (3:00 AM) at the Outward Bound – Fish Hatchery Aid Station, 77 miles after starting in downtown Leadville at 4:00 AM. How did I get there?
The alarm went off in the trailer at Father Dyer Campground on Turquoise Lake at 2:30 AM – a few clouds, but rather warm for 10,000 feet in elevation. I did my typical pre-race intake of banana-blueberry smoothie with yogurt and Udo’s Oil along with 20 ounces of Roctane electrolyte as we got ready. At about 3:20, Dennis, Mary, and I headed for downtown while Des took the truck to the Mayqueen Aid Station (Mile 13.5). She’d meet Dad and Mom back at camp after I came through that first station.
At the start line at 6th and Harrison, I joined several other runners in the morning ritual of hoping to get into a porta-john. Successful, I got into the start chute so that I’d be about 20 people deep and waited at the edge of the barricade. In this position I could hand my jacket to Dad and Mom a minute or so before the gun. I was feeling very ready at this point, relatively relaxed and simply wanting to get underway. I’d never started with a field this large, spread across an entire street and each person ensconced in their own personal headlamp halo. I’d long dreaded the single-track pinch at Turquoise where we’d encounter the rocks, stumps, and roots of the trail. But for now, we stood through a cheesy recording of the national anthem, I handed my jacket away, and the countdown culminated in a shot-gun blast ringing through town – it’s 4 AM, time to run.
I held an easy pace down 6th Street actually finding it pretty easy-going, not as crowded as I expected. I ran the first 5K in 28 minutes, a little fast but all downhill and easy. I couldn’t see much around me but I had a pretty good feeling of where I was. Things bogged down at the first real hill below Turquoise Dam, but it’s short and soon we crossed to the single-track. The hill staggered the runners enough to make the transition to single-track uneventful. I soon set a comfortable pace, probably a little under a 10 min-mile, and decided I’d simply sit in and let those that wanted to pass, pass. As long as I was going smoothly, I wouldn’t pass anyone, I’d just keep an even spacing so I could watch the trail.
There was a lot of chatter on this section. Most of it seemed to be old-timers coaching rookies on what to expect, where to look, how to get it done. The advice varied from the immediate – make sure you drink – to advice on how to navigate this same trail on the inbound twenty-some hours from now. I was feeling so good I didn’t care what they said and simply enjoyed the endless string of headlamps circumnavigating the lakeside trail. It appeared to have no beginning and no end so I figured I was placed just about right, midstream in the scheme of things.
I saw Dad and Mom quickly at Tabor boat ramp where they had walked over from camp. I was about seven miles in. A bit later, I’d just turned off my headlamp in the growing sunlight when I transitioned to the pavement of the Mayqueen Campground. I cruised through the station in 2:15 just a bit ahead of my projected splits and feeling great. Exiting the gauntlet of cheering people, it seemed like thousands lining the little campground road, was exhilarating and one of my craziest experiences in running, ever. And then I saw Des waiting with my Nathan pack. I dropped off my headlamp and handhelds, squeezed into the pack, took a sip of coffee, and headed out. Perfect.
The climb on the short section of the Colorado Trail to Hagerman Road passed quickly. I broke between a walk and a run on the single track and easily jogged the road as it climbed to Sugarloaf. It was still a little crowded with runners but the graded dirt road spread things out. I was relieved to be away from Turquoise but already missed the single-track. The climb is moderate and you quickly rise above the lake and the early morning views confirm you are truly engrossed in Leadville. With the summit upon me, I dropped down the other side chatting with a young runner from Washington DC, a roadrunner who’s picked Leadville as a first 100. I let him run away.
I tried to hold it in on the steep descent to the Hatchery road. I’d run this before and remembered most of it very clearly. Crossing a creek, I was soon scrambling onto the road and turning to the 23-mile Aid Station. Yes, road. There is a crazy amount of road running in the Leadville Trail 100. Probably ten percent or more is heavily traveled two-lane road. It’s the first of several cracks in the boastful reputation surrounding the event. For a few minutes, however, I forget it because I’m entering another string of race fans and well-wishers prior to the Aid Station. I easily forget I’ve almost completed a marathon in about 4:30 and enjoy the festivities. Until I run into the cars.
The traffic – oh, the traffic – of crew vehicles is a huge conundrum. And here, we are sharing the road with the traffic as we leave the station. My crew has smartly chosen to skip Outward Bound and go directly to Treeline, Pipeline, or Halfpipe Crew Area (whatever it’s called) to avoid this traffic mess. I check in and out and re-join the road to run along white fog-line while the traffic nudges past. It gets old quickly.
It’s a relief to leave the pavement and head toward the forest. I meet the crew at the “treeline” and trade my Nathan for handhelds. This is the first race I’ve used a gel bottle holding the equivalent of five gel packets. It stows nicely in my pocket and keeps things simple – a good idea. I seem to be keeping up with the intake too. The climb to Half Pipe is gradual and I skip through the aid station having just seen my crew a couple miles earlier. I’m now on a nice section of dirt road changing to the Elbert section of the Colorado Trail, now we are trail running. But it seems to take a long time, and I understand why Darren struggled with the inbound portion of this in 2011. I top off my bottles at Elbert (fluids only) station and begin the steep drop to Twin Lakes. Still on target.
The drop into Twin Lakes is a blast. I take it easy trying to not pound the downhill and soon I’m in the town. My wonderful crew has taken up a spot at the cabin of John Trent’s crew (the Trent Family) just past the fire-station. Here, I gulp down an Ensure and trade my handhelds for the Nathan with my poles attached. I’m a little over 8 hours in at 40 miles and feeling very good. But it’s also here that the cracks in my race and the event in general begin to grow.
I didn’t expect the climb to Hope Pass to be completely un-runnable. I’m not sure why, but I thought there’d be a few more switchback sections. It’s a good hike and I try to keep a rhythm going. Soon enough, the front of the pack comes cruising the downhill. At intervals, I step aside for Mike Aish, Ian Sharman, and Nick Clark, along with their pacers. I actually only recognize Nick, as he’s sporting his usual Pearl Izumi jersey. He gives me a cheerful “good work” as he passes. Not long thereafter I see Footfeathers coming down the trail. Wow, I think, but then his pace seems different as he stops to tell me his body just won’t let him continue and that he’s dropped at Hopeless. As we pause, Hal Koerner comes by pacing Scott Jurek who doesn’t look so good but is still moving quickly downhill.
Although the chaotic mix of inbound and outbound runners is just beginning, Hopeless Aid Station still has the feel of its classic reputation. The llamas are grazing nearby and a few tents dot the little plateau just above tree-line. I pause to fill my water and continue the walk upward; I’m now an hour and a half behind my projected pace and have to re-focus on the now crowded trail. There is, however, a highlight that makes Leadville special. An exceptional mountain panorama spreads out before me as I attain Hope Pass. It jolts me to life and I’m suddenly looking forward to running into the scenery below.
Start and stop, start and stop. I’m trying to be courteous to those climbing the steep trail but it’s frustrating. Little packs of runners moving in opposite directions on the narrow trail. The climbers are hurting in their efforts, but we wait. Off the trail, it’s too steep to pass side-by-side. But I guess this is the nature of this segment of the race.
John Trent (Reno, NV) falls in behind me as we approach Winfield. It is here that it becomes evident that the event has taken a turn for the worse. We drop onto the road and begin a jog among two-way vehicle traffic, most of which isn’t moving. It’s a slalom course between sideview mirrors and scattered crews. Des sees John first as I missed their little set-up, but then she escorts us both to the Aid Station. Once over the timing mat, it’s complete chaos. The small station tent was a mess, so I simply grabbed a coke, got my water filled, and left the tent. That was my plan anyway. Turns out that Des, Dennis, and Mary had to hike into Winfield from several miles down the road, having seen the traffic situation ahead. It was almost as tough for them as it had been for me. I should have left a drop-bag at this station, but then I heard that it often took considerable time for drop-bags to be retrieved by the few volunteers struggling with the onslaught of traffic, crews, and runners. Who knows? But thanks to my crew for the beyond-the-call effort, I felt better for seeing them. Although we sat inches from idling traffic, I paused at Winfield for too long – almost a half-hour. I left at 13:15 into the run.
The climb back to Hope went pretty well and I kept the pace I’d projected for that upward and inbound section, and that includes my idle at Winfield. But Hopeless was beginning to look pretty ragged. It’s designed to be a “safety” station supported by hearty volunteers who pack their llamas in-and-out several times in preparation. It wouldn’t work without them. But they were overwhelmed, and supplies were running low. Runners shared broth from a single metal cup, others scavenged a cup or two from trash bags. I donned a warm shirt and my headlamp and ducked into the forest. In the dusk I began to lose energy. I fueled with gel but the downhill seem too steep to run, my quads began to revolt. The over-effort started to weigh on me, and my confidence waned. Would I reach Twin Lakes by the cut-off?
And so the chasing of cut-off times began. As I descended, it seemed too many people were passing me. I was eventually at the river-crossing and the water felt great, but I had to keep moving. I tried jogging through the meadow area below Twin Lakes and it seemed to work. But what should have been a beacon (wasn’t I once exhilarated by the cheers), turned again to chaos. I had to get into the timing mat before the cut-off at 17:45. This forced me to run past my crew, though Dad had met me at the highway crossing. We jogged into the firehouse and then found the timing mat. I was in with 18 minutes to spare.
It took a little time to get going again. I pulled on some pants and added a second long-sleeved shirt. The station had very little warm food (only oatmeal), but I’d down an Ensure and a Starbucks double-shot can. A volunteer kindly handed me a subway sandwich in a plastic bag, one for the road. And from there I climbed out of Twin Lakes.
I spent the next three and a half hours (really?!) getting to Half Pipe. At times I thought I was going pretty good, but obviously I spent a lot of time simply walking. This should have been a bit of a recovery section due to its gradual downhill following the climb from Twin Lakes. Seems I could barely keep a 20-minute mile going. I could eat just fine; I’d downed the sandwich and kept the gel intake going (I think). The night was perfect, a gibbous moon following the trail, but I couldn’t respond. I made Half Pipe by the cut-off, but I could see the cards about to be dealt.
I moved onward hearing a goofy trumpet far off in the distance, probably someone’s crew at Treeline. But it seemed very far away, and soon I noticed I was on the Treeline dirt road and a few crew cars were parked up ahead. Finally, I came upon my crew where Dad was ready to go – we’d agreed he’d pace me this section to at least the Fish Hatchery. Although I’d suspected my race was about over, it seemed good to keep going. Maybe something would jolt things back in order, and all were encouraging me to keep at it.
And so Dad and I set out from the same spot I’d joined Darren in 2011. We chatted about that symmetry as we headed toward the dreaded pavement. It was at the road where the trumpet was blaring as a kind of warning of the impending cut-off (it wasn’t an actual trumpet but one of those non-musical horns so common at soccer matches). Quiet please. We jogged the road ever so slowly. I searched for leg-power, but it wouldn’t come. At one point, my pacer even dropped me as another pair passed us. He hung with them until realizing I hadn’t matched up. And then the time cut-off passed as we were about a mile from the station. The lights ahead pulled us in, but I arrived at 17 minutes past 3 AM and 17 minutes beyond the cut-off. My race was over.
The Fish Hatchery (i.e., Outward Bound) station was relatively quiet and had certainly seen better times. With a kind hug the station chief cut off my timing band and we climbed into the truck. Soon we were back at camp, the eastern sky just beginning to hint of Sunday morning.
I’m not really sure what happened out there. It is likely that my confidence got the best of me and I enjoyed the early racing too much. I felt pretty good until about 55 miles, the point of my return to Hopeless. There, the combination of effort-at-altitude, downhill hesitation, fuel mismanagement (possibly), and deterioration of the event’s personality (the valiant volunteers, thank you all, were overwhelmed) seemed to conspire against my forward motion. And yet, mountain ultras are all about overcoming obstacles – internal and external – and I lacked the ability, in this case, to do so. It is something I look forward to working on.
The blogosphere is rife with criticism and sadness that storied Leadville has lost its soul. I would have to agree, but that can’t be the cause of my DNF. My exuberance made it fun and allowed me to push harder than I thought I could, but the costs were ultimately too great and I could only continue until time ran out.
Thanks so much to all the volunteers that kept at it amid the growing chaos. The Trent crew was very generous and happily allowed us to share their Twin Lakes spot; and way to go John! Immeasurable thanks and love to my crew – Desna, Mary, Dennis, and Tephra. You fought the demons with me and even with the setback, I had a most excellent adventure in your company. Dad, I’m proud to have run a little bit with you, wish it could have been more. To Darren, Tim, and all the trail-mates who shared the prep time with me, many thanks – and let’s find some redemption and regain some trail-running soul none too soon. Keep going…