Leadville, what can I say that hasn’t been said. She is a brutal course, full of challenges. This is what attracted me, along with hundreds of others, to the race. Perhaps the allure of some of the best views in ultrarunning tempt us to forget the trials and hardships to get there.
While 4 a.m. may sound early, it can’t come soon enough when you are full of anticipation and excitement. The early time also provides for a nice cool start (38 degrees). In the darkness of the hour, the excitement and anticipation could be seen and felt in the air. We were all here for the same reason. The personal challenges lay before us, spread out over 100 miles.
The race starts at 6th and Harrison Avenue, right in the middle of town, a fitting place since it seems that the entire town revolves around this race for several days. We followed 6th street to the edge of town, then turned on to a dirt road. It was here that my first surprise happened. While I had studied the course, it never occurred to me that over 600 runners hitting a dirt road at once would create so much dust. While my training had been on dry dirt roads, it just never crossed my mind that I would encounter these conditions in Colorado.
This section did provide a couple memorable sites that one can only see during the race. While on the dirt road, we had a small climb. It was here that I looked ahead, only to see a glow of headlamps accentuated by the dust in the air.
I had read that the headlamps reflecting in the waters of Turquoise Lake create a majestic site. This year it was only enhanced by the glow of a nearly full moon. It was here that the photographer in me came out, torn between my two passions, this day running would be first.
This first section was the only one that I was even remotely familiar with. Last year we had camped on Turquoise Lake and I had ran several miles of the trail around it. I knew that it was somewhat technical. This section would be my downfall.
Around mile 10 my left foot landed on a rock at an odd angle, it twisted my foot and knocked me off balance. When I fell, I tucked and rolled, managing to come out unscathed-or so I thought. No blood, no foul. As I continued on, I started feeling an aching in my left leg. It seemed to be centered behind my knee and radiate into my calf and hamstring.
The first aid station, May Queen, came up at mile 12.6, the plan was to exchange my jacket and headlamp for sunglasses and get out of there quickly. As my wife helped me, I mentioned the fall in passing. I still thought it would be ok, the pain was a dull ache, but nothing major. I managed to move in and out as planned. Off to the next aid station at mile 23.5-Outward Bound.
This next section provided me with the other big surprises of the day. The first being that after a couple of miles of climbing, I could hear cheering in the distance. I knew that I was nowhere near the Outward Bound aid station. I also knew that it was in a flat field, we were on a mountain. I looked down the mountain, towards the cheering and realized that I had climbed up the mountain above the aid station, those few miles had been steeper than I realized, but I was feeling good.
The other surprise of this section was the flatness. While I had heard that there were some flat sections, I envisioned something more like the small Arkansas hills, not the Kansas plains. I could actually see the aid station for about a mile and a half before I got there. It was on these flats that my leg started getting worse. The combination of flat areas and asphalt must have aggravated it.
One of my biggest fears before the race was not being able to find my wife/crew in the crowds. While there were many people crowded around the aid station, I found my wife right of the bat, she had positioned herself so that I could find her without looking too hard.
My R8 Recovery Roller was pulled out. While this device can feel intense, I knew that this is what I needed. The plan was for me to only stay for a couple of minutes, drop my trash and reload my pack and get back out on the course. I did take a little longer than intended, but I needed the time to massage my leg. This extra time wasn’t anything to worry about since I was doing well on time.
Leaving the Outward Bound aid station, I had been warned that it was a field riddled with unseen holes created by prairie dogs. This fact kept echoing in my mind, I did not want to take another fall, so I eased through the next mile or so, eating, scanning for those small pits and wondering when I would get back on those mountains.
Little did I know that before I could get back into the mountains and trees, I would have several miles of roads, both dirt and asphalt. These miles were painful. It started to feel like a stabbing on the back side of my knee. It radiated up into my hamstring and down into my calf.
Finally, I started to get into trails again and start climbing Mt. Elbert. This mountain is the highest peak in Colorado. While I would not scale the peak, It felt like the climb would never end. It was here that I realized that I should have been carrying my trekking poles for the entire race. Not necessarily using them, but carrying them in my pack in case I needed them.
Short of flying out to Colorado, the only way to know the course was to study maps and race recaps. I spoke to people who had been there, who had run Leadville, who had hiked the area, but there was a gap in my mental picture – Outward Bound to Mt Elbert. All I really knew was to watch the field leaving Outward Bound. I wonder if this would have helped me plan better when things went wrong.
The next aid station after Outward Bound is called Half Pipe. I could not remember how far it was, making the plan to run from aid station to aid station and not think about the miles getting a little harder. While it was only about 6 miles, it felt like much more due to my leg.
I made the decision to stay with the plan and get in and out. I topped off my bladder and got a cup of ginger ale, then pushed on. I knew the next station was called Mt. Elbert and from there is was only a few miles to Twin Lakes where I would see my wife again.
Mt. Elbert is 6 miles from Half Pipe. These mile felt like they would never end. The climb wasn’t what bothered me, it was that leg. Climbing has never bothered me. I cannot be called a fast climber by any stretch, but I relish the challenge. This day, however, was different. One quote from Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville 100, is known for is “make friends with the pain and you will never be alone.” It was during this time that this quote started echoing in my head.
As hard as I tried, the pain did not want to play nice.
I reached the aid station and made the call to rest a few minutes. I sat down and drank a quick cup of coffee. I tried to stretch my leg and reset my mental focus, but I knew that I had to keep pressing on if I was going to finish.
From there it was mostly downhill into Twin Lakes. I began to realize that the pain was worse on the downhill. This was bad news, since I have always been better on the downhill, I had lost my strong point.
The entrance to Twin Lakes is a steep drop. With my leg, my footing was unsure. As I came down the embankment, I lost my footing, TWICE! Luckily, it was steep enough that I managed to almost sit down on my butt and slide both times.
I hobbled into the tent that First Descents had set up (I got into the race by raising funds for them). I was ready to quit, but my wife pushed me to keep going. She massaged my leg while the rest of my crew put a fresh bladder in my pack and got my trekking poles out. My friend Chad, who was to pace me from mile 50 to mile 75, ran with me through the tiny town of Twin Lakes, giving me advice for the next section.
Every race, whether a 5k or an ultra, has its challenges and demons. The biggest two in Leadville were on the next section, the crowning jewel of the Leadville 100 trail run, Hope Pass. This is the section I, along with most first timers, focus on, dread and obsess over 4 miles, 3,000+ feet of climbing on a somewhat technical trail. But before you get to the climb, there are 2 miles of fields, marsh land and water crossings.
The biggest water crossing is a river that was nearly knee deep and flowing fast with snow melt. Race officials had stretched a rope for us to hold while crossing. The water was so swift that I could feel it trying to pull me with each step. While most people would not want to attempt such a crossing, I remember thinking how great this was and how glad I was that I had pushed on. I remember wishing that the water was a little deeper so that it would ease my knee a little.
I stepped out of the water and faced the beast. I knew from the course descriptions that I had read the climb would start soon after the water crossing. I had also read that there was a creek next to the stream that should be enjoyed for a minute before heading on. The creek was raging this year. The roar was a nice distraction from the climb.
The climb-while it wasn’t as steep as I had imagined, it was a little more technical. Perhaps it seemed worse because the pain in my knee was getting so bad. It had gone from throbbing to a stabbing, but I wanted to see the top of this climb. The final three miles to the Hope Pass aid station took almost 2 hours.
Volunteers who had finished their shifts were on the way back down the mountain encouraged all of us to the top. They kept telling us that we were only about half a mile from the aid station. I know that they were just estimating but after hearing that so many times, I started to grumble to myself every time I heard it, at least until one of them looked at her GPS watch and said that it was .62 miles left and I had less than 5 minutes to get there.
Given my average pace and the pain, I knew that getting past Hope Pass would not happen. This destroys a person’s drive, and I was no exception. I feel like I slowed down even more.
As I entered the aid station, there was a man standing there pulling our timing chips. I knew it was over, or I thought it was. You see, there is no vehicle access to this particular point, I was told that I would have to get back to Twin Lakes aid station on my own.
So six miles back down the mountain.
The trail seemed even more treacherous on the way down. Each step reintroduced me to the knee pain. The only solace was that I wasn’t the only one who was making the descent of shame. Together, we talked and worked our way through the emotional pain of missing the goal that we had all set for ourselves.
We were total strangers bonded by a common dream that was now lost and a future goal that we collectively set for ourselves, to finish this race.
Over the last few weeks, I have come to realize that the Leadville 100 trail race is not so much a race as it is a virus, an illness. Somehow this event gets inside a person. It takes over ones soul like a demon. There is only one true way to exercise that demon…