Monday, August 28, 2017

Leadville, Too Damn High

While reflecting on what I would post for this race report, another blog post came out that you may want to read first because it captures much of what I was already thinking.

As my previous post covered, I have been dealing with some (minor) issues that have been making running not that fun to me lately. Over the last 18 months I have run many long races and, for the most part, have been successful. I failed to finish Western States which was disappointing but I accepted it in the immediate aftermath. As time has gone by, I have been questioning what could have been in that race. I "succeeded" at Vermont but found very little joy in running a race on a course that, in retrospect, was idyllic and beautiful. This was how the table was set going into my attempt at the iconic Leadville 100.

If you've read Born to Run, and if you run you probably have, then you would be somewhat familiar with Leadville. The course is roughly 50 miles out to the turn around at Winfield and then 50 miles back to Leadville. The elevation at the start is just over 10,000 feet. Thin air to be sure. There are a few ups and downs before the big climb just after 40 miles. This is the climb up to the high point of the race at Hope Pass, around 12,600 feet above sea level. You then drop down into Winfield, turn around and go back.

I flew into Denver on Thursday and drove down to my hotel in Frisco. From there I met up with Scott from Ten Junk Miles Podcast who had offered to crew and pace and we headed down to Leadville for the annual Leadville Beer Mile. This was my first beer mile and was bit more difficult than I thought it would be. It was, however, a great time. I even earned a finisher's award.
Four beers. One mile. No puke. 

I picked up my race packet and relaxed on Friday. Unlike my last few races, I had a fitful night of sleep, waking up around 2 AM. I had plenty of time to dress and have some breakfast before the 4 AM start. I felt a little sleepy but not bad as the excitement of the race gave me some early energy.

Ready to go

The start line was packed with runners with their friends and families. The temperatures were perfect for running. The countdown began, a shotgun blast and we were off. The first aid station at May Queen was 13.5 miles away. The loose cut off time was listed as 7:15 AM so I wanted to run easy but still get there without worrying about cutting it too close. I tried to get over early race excitement and settle into a relaxed pace.

It was around 3 miles in that we finally reached some single track trail and the conga line effect set in. This can be frustrating when I am stuck behind someone going too slow but it also can be good by keeping me from going too fast early in the race. A little after the 6 mile mark I tried passing one of these slower runners and suddenly slammed my big toe into either a root or rock. I caught myself on my other foot and both hands and began running again. That one kind of hurt.

We followed the trail along Turquoise Lake as the sun came up. Around 6:30 I rolled into the campground at May Queen ahead of what I expected. Things were looking good. As I ran in I saw my brothers and sister in law standing just ahead of the station. I gave them all a hug as it was a special treat to see them all. I grabbed some food in the station and move the far side and sat to take a look at my toe, which was still throbbing from the incident earlier.

Leaving May Queen we immediately started to climb. The slope was not too bad but slowed everyone to a hike. We switched back and forth and could look back over the lake and look down on the campground we had just left. I felt very good and was moving well. I enjoyed the views and took a moment or two to take them in. I wanted to just stand and look at the scenery but there was still along way to go.

Climbing up out of May Queen

Reaching to top of this long climb was not so bad. I was hiking well on the climbs and running the flats. A little over 20 miles we reached the Powerline/Sugarloaf section which in this direction is a long descent into the second aid station called Outward Bound (formerly Fish Hatchery). This section was a little steep in places but not too bad. I ran down trying to gain some time but also trying not to wear out my quads taking it too fast. It seemed to go on for a while and I was thinking that it would be quite the climb on the way back.

I arrived at the station a little after 9 AM which put me nearly an hour ahead of cut off. My crew was there which gave me a little bit of a boost. I was in and out very quickly not wanting to waste time. I was a quarter of the way through the race and felt great. I was feeling like this was going to happen and not be a problem.

The next section followed some roads and I was quickly in touch with my crew again after just a few miles at an alternate crewing location prior to the next aid station which wasn't for another 4 miles or so.  I rolled along talking to other runners here and there, just letting the miles go by. The Half Pipe station was uneventful and again I was quickly in and out.

The next nine miles to Twin Lakes consisted of a long gradual climb and then a gradual decent into the station. I was getting a little tired but still able to run most of the flats with short walking breaks mixed in. You could see the aid station almost 2 miles before getting there as we wound down and around the trails waiting for the turn that would send us towards it.

I arrived at Twin Lakes at 1 PM, which is 40 miles in 9 hours, better than 4 miles per hour and plenty fast enough to finish in time, at least to this point. My crew was waiting along with my brothers. This gave me another boost. I lubed up some hot spots on my feet, which were holding up nicely, and grabbed my trekking poles for the climb up to Hope Pass that was just ahead. Again, I was in and out quickly. I had 5 hours to get up and over the pass to Winfield, just 10 miles away. Sure, it was a long climb at altitude but then I would be descending and would make up some time. 2 miles per hour to make the cut off seemed easy to do.

It was a couple miles across some open valley plains before reaching the climb. I could see the pass off in the distance and kept looking to get the climb started and over with. The open fields ended and there in front of me was a path going what looked like straight up forever. Here it was. All I had to do was get over it, head back and shuffle through to the finish.

I was moving well at first but then the same thing that happened at Western States started to happen here. My heart rate would spike and I couldn't catch my breath. I would try to slow my pace but nothing would slow my heart down so I would feel a slight panic and stop to try to breathe. This repeated itself over and over. After what seemed like an eternity, I felt I must be getting close to the top, I saw a sign that said, "Hope Pass 2.5 miles". I was crushed. There was no way it could be that far after how long I had been going. I trudged on slowly and finally came to another sign that said the pass was 2 miles away. I sank further.

I looked at my watch. I told myself that if I made it to the pass at 4 PM I would have 2 hours to get down the 5 miles into Winfield. Plenty of time with a descent. I hit the Hope Pass aid station and saw that there was still a 600 foot climb to the top of the pass. Crushed again, but I still had time to make my 4 PM goal at the top, which I did eventually make on the nose.

On the descent I started to feel better. There was traffic coming both ways regularly now as runners were making the return trip back up the pass. I figured I would make it to Winfield with a good half hour to spare which was not ideal but at least I would make the cut off. Time ticked away at it seemed I never got any closer to the station. After an hour I passed some volunteers guiding us at a turn and they told me it was about 3 miles to the station. I ran for another half hour and started asking runners how much further. 2.5 miles. There was no way. How could it be that far still? Time ticked down and I began to realize I wasn't going to make it. How was this section so long?

I ended up running into the station about 5 minutes after the cut off and immediately sat in the chair my crew had for me. I spent a few minutes letting it sink in that it was over before walking over to the station. A line of large men stood across the road with a little lady in front of them. This was the dreaded Cutoff Queen. She held the scissors in her hand that cut off the wristband showing that I was participant in the race. She told me I did great and gave me hug. It was only halfway but my race was over.

Good bye friend

This was another failure but this one was different. I failed at Western States and was ok with it but still questioned whether or not I could have done something different. I still do. Vermont was a "success" but I did not find any joy in the race. I was miserable the entire way and finishing, while helping show I could still do this thing, was unsatisfying.

What made Leadville different was that I had fun. The views were beautiful and the people I met and spent time with were wonderful. I appreciate the time I spent in the mountains with friends, family and with myself. As the post I referenced at the beginning discussed, I just didn't have what it took this day but I know I learned something. 

Given another chance at it I truly believe that I can do much better with what I have learned. Nearly two years ago I failed halfway through the Tuscobia 160. That failure taught me a very valuable lesson. Thinking about what it takes to complete these races is often much different than what you actually encounter. At Tuscobia I learned what happens after 80 miles of bitter cold and wrecked feet. I learned what to do to take the next step and a year later I finished that race. In failing I was given the knowledge needed to succeed later. It was only a matter of time and doing.

So I learned a few things in Leadville. First, I need to be in much better shape. I've race too much and not trained the way I should. That is easily fixable. Being in better shape would also help me not have to carry so much weight over Hope Pass next time. Mentally I need a reset too. I'm cutting back on races next year to give myself time to physically train properly and time to mentally recover properly. I learned that getting over the pass requires a mental toughness I didn't have this time. Of course, next time I think I would arrive earlier and try to acclimate better to the altitude. I am now certain that altitude is a weakness for me that I will be working to improve on.

The good thing is I also had some lesson in what went right. I think I have finally found the right socks to prevent (most) blisters. I have reduced my aid station time immensely which means more moving time and finishing faster. I've improved my hydration and nutrition intake as well which helps keep me running later in the race.

It was strange to wake up the days after the race to feel like I barely did anything. I had one day of mild soreness and that was it. The toe that kicked the rock has been another story. It was hurting enough that I went to the doctor fearing it was broken but X-rays showed it was not. I tried running on it but stopped due to the pain and wanting to let it heal as much as possible before Wasatch in September.

I'd like to thank Scott, Julio and Angela for taking the time to crew me. I looked forward to seeing you all at each station and your support was very helpful and appreciated. I owe each of you a great debt, so if you ever need anything, just ask. I only wish I could have given you the chance to pace me on the way back. 

Thanks also to my brothers, Matt and David and sister in law, Karen for coming out. It is always a treat to see you and especially out on the trail. It would have been great to celebrate a finish this time but we'll get there. I love you all and appreciate you coming out. 

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