Day BeforeMy sister arrived in town on midnight Friday (Saturday AM). I was feeling lousy, so my wife was kind of enough to go get her. She and Johanna got up and ran Saturday morning while I relaxed. Then we ran a few errands and headed up to Leadville. As soon as we arrived in the parking lot of our motel, I was greeted by a Leadman Competitor (he actually completed it last year). He teased me about doing only 2 of the 3 running legs. Nice guy. We checked in, relaxed and then headed for dinner. After realizing that the town was busy (duh!), we settled on dinner at High Mountain Pies (delicious pizza!). I managed to eat half a pie all by myself. Despite being sick, I think I did a reasonably good job of eating the days leading up to the race.
We went back to the motel and pretty much crashed right away. My sister and Johanna had been up late and then woke early to run, so they were tired. Savannah was tired from a lacrosse camp that day. One little thing that changed when my sister decided to come visit was the sleeping arrangements in our 2 queen bed room. Johanna and I wound up sleeping with my son Dylan -- short straw :) He's like the Tasmanian Devil when he sleeps. You usually wind up feeling like you were in an MMA bout the next morning. Anyway, he was not tired and tossed and turned and generally nagged us for at least an hour. My mind was spinning so I tossed and turned as well. Finally, at about 10 pm, I managed to fall asleep. Then at 2 am, we all simultaneously woke at the same time dehydrated. It is easy to get dehydrated at this altitude (10,200 feet). We finished ALL our water we had brought for the trip and went back to bed. In addition to being dehydrated, everyone was complaining about the heat. I was the only one not hot because I was running a temperature (maybe 101 or 101.5, enough to make my wife nervous). In fact, I was freezing. After a few minutes of tossing and turning, I decided the best thing to do was take a hot bath and break the fever. It worked, but I was not back in bed asleep until nearly 3 am. I woke again at 4 am and never really slept again. Oh well. I don't think anyone ever sleeps great before a big goal event, but it was the circumstances that I think made mine unique (more whining).
Start LineI woke up at 4:45 and started getting ready, then we made our way over to the start line a little after 5:15 (race start is 6 am and I had not picked up my bib). The race start was "on the other side of town", but in Leadville that is literally about 1.75 miles. We were way too early. After picking up my bib and chip, we stood around in the cold (mid 40's) for a good 30 minutes. My wife shot this wonderful picture of me. Don't be fooled, I'm freaking out.
I decided to go with my brand new New Balance MT101 minimal trail shoes for this race. The whole day was a crap shoot, so why not? They were amazing. My toes got beat up pretty bad, but I'm not sure any shoe would have prevented that. The rock plate in the shoes definitely helps to soften the blows of technical terrain. And they are very light weight and quick drying. Great shoes. I wish I had bought them months ago.
I also decided to skip the Nathan Backpack in favor of two handhelds. My reasoning was two-fold. First, two handhelds are 44 oz of water, only 20 shy of a pack. And secondly, I find the packs to be kind of a pain on race day. It is harder to drink from them while running (my opinion) and they are harder to fill. I don't think this decision hurt me either. In fact, I will definitely roll this way as long as aid stations are 1.5 hours (or closer) in proximity.
Segment 1 of 8 - To Black Cloud Aid StationThis section of the course is almost entirely ascending, but it's mostly gentle. It covers less than 1000 feet by the first aid station.
Goal Time 1:20
Actual Time 1:24 (11:48 pace)
The gun goes off and you start the race running up a sledding hill known as Dutch Henry. The start line is actually at the top! You run the hill for pride and a silver dollar (to the first person up). If you look closely, I'm at the bottom of the picture already in "trudge" mode.
The profile that I posted of the course a few days back does this section no justice at all. It is mostly a runnable grade (average about 2.5% grade) and rolling. This is a VERY runnable section. And you have to run some of it if you want to be a stud finisher. I tried to run it as best I could to take advantage of the cool temps and easy grade. I was nursing my electrolytes and following my nutrition plan already. The only significant draw back in this section was that I was stuck in the pack and the trail was very wet and crossed several small run off streams. Consequently, you would lose the occasional 10 seconds as you waited for a mass of people to decide how to cross without getting their feet soaking wet. If I run this race again, I will be more aggressive on this section. First of all, a decent ultra runner should be able to run a gradual hill like this with ease because hills and ultras go hand-in-hand. And secondly, it would have paid off to push to the front of the pack and avoid the herd. Nonetheless, I had done pretty much what I wanted to this point.
The first aid station is water only outbound. What?! Total FAIL in my opinion. This is an ultramarathon, where nutrition is paramount. You should be eating and drinking from the first step you take. Why the heck do they not have at least some electrolyte beverage and fruit here? Insane. I had finished off my GU drinks and refilled with water (my only option). I also ate a Bonk Breaker bar (250 cals) along the way.
A note about nutrition: A good ultra runner knows that nutrition is the key to a strong/quality finish. I followed an excellent plan to near perfection for 7 hours. After the Leadville Marathon I was concerned about my calves cramping, so I "pulled an AJ" and started researching like crazy. (I can't turn off the analytical mind!) Turns out I was likely not getting near enough electrolytes. In the conditions I'd be running I would need as much as 800 mg of Sodium per hour. Your average electrolyte beverage provides less than 300. Sodium pills? Those only provide an additional 40 mg each. No way I was eating 10 of those an hour. I finally found a SUPER electrolyte version of my favorite GU electrolyte beverage (600 mg of Sodium). The race also serves GU, but they use some other formula I'm not familiar with. So I decided I would mix my own every time I saw my crew (3 times) and make do in between. Again, this worked for 7 hours. The other part of the equation was to eat no less than 100 calories per 30 minutes and then all I could stomach at aid stations. I wound up eating mostly watermelon and other fruits at the aid stations. Watermelon with some salt tastes surprisingly good in the heat.
Segment 2 of 8 - To Printer Boy Aid Station*This first half of this segment is marked with a steepening grade (maxing out at 12,000 ft). The remaining three and a half miles are a descent down a dirt road to aid station.
Goal Time 2:30
Actual Time 2:45
Section Time 1:21 or 12:05 pace
The first part of this segment is the final 3 miles of the initial 10 mile ascent. Again, it is very runnable by an accomplished runner. My guess would be that a half mile, maybe one full mile, is actually too steep to run. It seemed to take forever to get to the top, particularly because the steepest part was the last part. And again, I was stuck in the herd.
Then you get to the top and start heading downhill to the aid station (roughly 3.5 miles). This is the first area where I think my illness was noticeable. It wasn't so much that I was in pain, it was that I was fatigued and just didn't have the gear I wanted. This hill was very runner friendly -- mild grade and well groomed gravel road. I just didn't get it done here. As a result, I probably lost 7 or 8 minutes of time just in those 3.5 miles.
When I arrived at the aid station, I was very happy to see my family and get some real food. My sister and daughter prepared some of my favorite GU beverage for me. However, Savannah had not figured out the logistics of pouring the wide mouth packet in a small(ish) opening like my water bottles, so she pretty much missed entirely! I ran over to my wife, who had the goodie bag, and grabbed another packet of powder to mix. As I set the water bottle down to dig in the bag, the remaining water and GU spilled all over my foot and soaked into my shoe. Awesome. Fortunately, Savannah kept it together and that was the only issue we had all day. Did I mention how amazing my crew was? I ate some fruit (watermelon, oranges, banana) and grabbed some more chews and hit the road.
Here are a couple of me coming into Printer Boy. This is the first time I had seen my family in nearly 3 hours and the first time I was getting aid.
My sister trying to give me some motivation and see what I needed.
Just after the aid station, there is a section of road that intersects the course. My crew was smart enough to rush down there and catch this photo (probably about a mile past Printer Boy).
Segment 3 of 8 - To Venir Aid StationThe first mile of this section remains in descent until a trough of about 10,800 feet. Then climbing resumes toward to the aid station, with the grade steeping as the miles go by.
Goal Time 3:30
Actual Time 3:44
Section Time 1:00 or 14:39 pace
I don't even know how to describe this section. It crushed my spirit. Ironically, I was pretty close to my intended segment split. But it was just a relentless climb and I was playing leap frog with several runners. Some of them passed me and I saw them later in the race. Others I never saw again. In general my power-walking helped me in this section. And it was getting HOT. This is a climb toward the same aid station that we used for the Marathon. However, it was a totally different path so I did not recognize any of it. At this point I was really doubting whether I had a quality time in me. Bad thoughts started to enter my mind. Instead of worrying about it, I just decided the appropriate thing to do was fight for each mile and eventually the hill would stop. When I got the aid station I once again got some of the "GU Brew", which I ended up hating, and some more fruit and kept going. On the ascent in here I had eaten another Bonk Breaker bar and still had some electrolyte chews.
In my opinion this was the second hardest segment on the course.
A note about the heat: It was 80 degrees in Leadville yesterday. That doesn't seem hot to some, but it's hotter than you realize. First of all, it was direct sun with very little breeze (most of the way). And on those dirt trails it just feels dry and kind of "Old West". Hard to explain. And secondly, at 10,000 or 12,000 feet in altitude the sun is much more intense and the air much more dry. It is estimated that the sun is 25% more intense in Denver (5200 feet) than at sea-level. While I doubt it's 50% more intense in Leadville, you get the idea: it felt hotter than 80 degrees! Sorry, had to whine about that for a moment. I am not a great heat runner, but I'm learning.
Segment 4 of 8 - To Stumptown Aid Station*The first portion of this section (2.5 - 3 miles) is a saddle back ranging between 11,600 and 12,000 feet. The remaining 4 miles are a descent into the aid station at about 11,000 feet.
Goal Time 4:30
Actual Time 5:04
Section Time 1:20 or 14:34 pace
After leaving the aid station you continue to ascend until you reach Ball Mountain. Again I was struggling due primarily to a lack of energy. Then we entered the "saddle back" portion and got a chance to go downhill. I didn't even bother. Runners were flying by me now. Once we started to climb, the pace slowed and a couple or runners stopped to chat for the first time in nearly 4 hours. The first guy was a Leadville vet and remarked about how he was surprised we weren't passed by the lead runners yet. "Of course I didn't see any of the elites here today", he says. The second guy that stopped to chat was from Lubbock, Texas. He joked that he has to run a parking garage to hill train. LOL. This was his first run longer than 25 miles. I was thinking, "I sure hope you ran that parking garage 25 times breathing through a straw". (He finished behind me, but I don't know where I passed him.) He remarked that he'd been following me (and my strategy) for 15 miles. I told him that was hoping for 10 hours, but doubting it was going to happen. The Leadville vet was about 50 feet in front us and shouted back that we could negative split the course. A very uplifting comment, but I was still not in a good place mentally.
For those of you that read my Leadville Marathon report, you know that we ran Ball Mountain in that race as well. And I generally liked the Ball Mountain portion. When we finally reached the summit (through the snow field that still remains), I expected to go left and kind of circle the side of the mountain like we did at the marathon. Nope, we were going straight down. It was so steep that it hurt my knees just to try and walk it. And it was technical. I cannot figure out how someone road a bike down that! (It would be appropriate to note that Leadville stages a bike race the day before on the EXACT same course. Some people do both.) So I continued to walk, and continued to get passed. Eventually you reach the bottom and the grade evens out and even turns a little rolling. I was still in a bad place mentally and generally low on motivation and energy. I started thinking "why am I bothering? Maybe at the turn I'll ditch the iPod and Garmin and just turn the second half into a nice scenic hike". I was seriously considering taking the wife's camera from her and just enjoying the rest of the day.
Then my mentality started to improve. First of all, I started to see other runners struggling and got the clue that the race was just starting. Secondly, I started thinking about how my wife was texting Jon and giving him updates. I had told Jon that if I was within 30 minutes of my time I would be OK to go for it. I was exactly 30 minutes behind, but still in that range. Finally, I started to enjoy myself and run a little bit into the turn and came in feeling positive. It was a huge lift to see my family, particularly because they were very efficient this time. They took my water bottles and made my GU, bathed me in sun screen, fed me and sent me on my way. Indy Car look out! I did ask for my "floppy hat" instead of my visor to better protect against the intense sun, but it was behind in the car (not in my gear bag), a half mile away. That was my bad, not theirs. They assured me it would be ready at the next aid station.
A little more on nutrition: To this point I was executing to perfection. I was drinking 44 oz of electrolytes (at least 800 mg of sodium) per hour, 1 bonk breaker/protein bar (about 250 cals) every other hour, and a packet of energy chews in the other hour. Plus I was eating fruit at every aid station. I was easily consuming 400+ calories an hour. My best guess is that I consumed more than 400 fluid oz of liquid the entire day. I told you it was hot!
Reaching the half way point, one of the few times I felt decent all day.
Segment 5 of 8 - Return To Venir Aid StationThe first 4 miles after the turnaround start with a reasonable grade and then a steep climb (about 1,000 ft) up Ball Mountain, once again returning to 12,000 feet. The next 2.5 to 3 miles are back through the saddle back. You are in descent when you reach the aid station.
Goal Time 5:45
Actual Time 6:20
Section Time 1:16 or 13:57 pace.
Crazy how things change. Suddenly, even though I was mostly walking, I felt energized. I had decided to go for a 6 hour second half (11 hour total run). I figured that was a good number to keep me going and that I could achieve it by mostly hiking the second half. There was about a mile section to run when you first left the aid station. The people coming in looked worse than I felt. I'm not alone! After the brief run, it was back to power hiking. And I was actually passing people. Then a cloud rolled in! I stopped (mentally at least) and thanked the Lord. What a gift. For the steepest part of this climb, probably 1000 feet in a little over one mile, it was raining and hailing on us. I loved it. The runners around me were rejoicing as well. Funny thing is that it wasn't raining back at the aid station, according to my wife. At this point I was closing in on 28 miles and there were still people passing me outbound -- long day for those folks.
After getting up Ball Mountain I started running down the saddle back and powered into the aid station. I felt good and started thinking 10 hours could be in play, maybe even a given? Gotta love an ultra. Where else can you be 35 minutes behind your goal time and be thinking: "you're telling me there's a chance?". When I arrived at the aid station I was the only guy running (downhill). Here it was almost 30 miles into an ultra and I'm still running. Sweet! (I didn't know it yet, but this aid station may have been my undoing.)
I filled up with more of their "GU Brew" and ate some more fruit. And I took off. I had a good segment mentally, but this might be the hardest segment on the course. Again, no idea how someone gets a bike up that climb. I suppose they carry it.
Segment 6 of 8 - Return To Printer Boy Aid Station*The descent continues for the first couple of miles on this return leg. Then the climb back toward 12,000 feet starts a little after mile 30.
Goal Time 6:45
Actual Time 7:05
Section Time 47 minutes or 11:45 pace.
This segment outbound was a killer. Paybacks are grand. After I left the aid station I was running downhill baby. And I kept laughing about how much I hated this segment on the way in. I was still the only guy around me that was consistently running. However, I had stopped drinking. I figured it was because I was running downhill and that I would make it up later. At some point there was a brief hill that I hiked, still no drinking. Finally I made my way up a hill in a little forest and into the aid station. Both of my water bottles were half full. Uh oh. I had made good time, but at what cost?
When I handed the water bottle to my sister, I figured out the problem. That stupid "GU Brew" got all foamy when it was sloshing around in my water bottle. Why? That was the first time that happened all day. When we mixed our own, we never had that problem? I dumped my half empty bottles of foam and my sister made me some more of the good stuff. And they had the "floppy hat"!
They were shocked to see me come in so early. I had made up significant time.
Here I am coming back into the Printer Boy, the last time I would see my family until the finish (3 hours later). You can see Dylan (back to the photo), where he was perched on a rock and staring down into the forest on lookout for me. I high-fived him as I ran by.
Segment 7 of 8 - Return To Black Cloud Aid StationThe first three miles are in ascent to 12,000 feet (for the last time). The remaining miles begin the descent back home and toward 10,000 feet.
Goal Time 8:15
Actual Time 8:40
Section Time 1:32 or 13:49 pace
When I left this aid station I was feeling good. I knew I had a 3+ mile hike in front of me, but it was mostly gentle and easy terrain. (If I ever want to be able to go sub-9 in a 50 miler, I would have to be fit enough to run at least part of a hill like this). I started power walking and was enjoying it. The people around me were no longer passing me. In fact, I was the hunter. I passed a guy and chatted briefly. I had done some poor math somewhere and told him we had 2 miles left in this climb and it was downhill to the finish. It was more like 4 miles. Whoops. That guy must be pissed at me! Fortunately, I didn't see him again.
About mile 34, the power walking didn't feel so good anymore. My stomach was suddenly a mess! It felt like really bad stomach cramps. Did I have use the bathroom? Was it gas? Was I hungry? Was it related to my illness? No idea. But it hurt. It hurt just to walk, let alone run. I kept walking uphill and made a decent pace to the top, but the stomach would be an issue nearly the rest of the way (more than 13 miles). Because I was so uncomfortable, I stopped eating altogether -- with nearly 3 hours to go. Drinking became an exercise in forcing stuff down. I would have been overjoyed at the sensation to go relieve myself in the woods, but it never came. It just remained uncomfortable.
As I said, I miscalculated and thus this hill went on FOREVER. What I thought was a gentle, easy power walk, turned into an infinite march up a dusty mine road. And it was getting steeper as we went. Finally, I reached the top and started down the 10 mile descent home. Unfortunately the stomach still hurt. And while I could maintain a slow jog (10 min pace) for brief periods (5 - 7 minutes), it was very uncomfortable. When I arrived at the aid station, a very helpful volunteer ran up the trail about .10 miles to meet me. He took both my bottles, ran down the trail, opened them, and refilled them. "Water only!", were my instructions. Screw that "GU Brew". They were so efficient, I barely stopped moving. He offered me food -- no way. Besides, I still had chews in my pocket from 2 aid stations ago that I hadn't opened.
Even though I felt lousy, I had 7 relatively easy miles remaining and 80 minutes to do it. I should have this in the bag, right?
A note about tummy issues: So what went wrong with my tummy? I don't know. But here's what I think. First of all, I think that foamy "GU Brew" created a bubbly/gassy situation in my tummy. Secondly, I think I may have pushed a tad too hard after I became over joyed that I was making up time. It was the heat of the day and I probably should have been thinking "conserve" instead of "huge negative split". And then, obviously, it just compounded as I slowly quit drinking and eating all together. A possibility I discovered after the race is the Ibuprofen I had been taking to keep my fever in check. Stomach and GI discomfort are a common side-effect for ultra runners using large doses of Ibuprofen.
Segment 8 of 8 - To The FinishThe remaining miles are gently downhill (and rolling a bit) returning to 10,000 feet in Leadville.
Goal Time 10 hours
Actual Time 10:07
Section Time 1:27, or a pace of 12:16
These remaining miles were the longest run of my life, and a MAJOR mind game. I have run 7 miles countless times, it seems so easy. Not today. I just couldn't get a consistent run going. Even when I managed to run it was about a 10:30 pace. I was really just shuffling my feet. It was stinking hot out! I passed several people that asked me how much distance we had left... "you people aren't wearing a GPS"? The runners left around me were in two camps. Camp one was the runners that were still feeling good enough to maintain a reasonable jog and let gravity bring them home. Camp two was runners that were in full on damage control mode. I was in camp two. I must have tripped eighteen times. Each time my calf would cramp. "Stop doing that, AJ!", I shouted in my mind. But everyone was doing it. We weren't even lifting our legs. We were tripping over ants (ok, exaggeration). I'm sure it was comical for spectators.
I finally started to get my stomach figured out (too late). Turns out it was gas. (I apologize to those who were running near me!). Again, I think it was partly the foam. Funny you think you plan for everything and a foamy beverage takes you down! Eventually the gas became a product of an empty tummy (I think). I was more comfortable "down there", but it didn't really help my finish because I was so far in calorie deficit. The only way to come back would have been to stop and eat. I wasn't doing that with so little left to go. I did managed to swallow about 100 calories of chews, but that was it. (Please note, I'm not trying to dramatize. I realize that all ultra runners go through this. It's sorta what ultra running is all about, at least for us mortals.)
With about 2 miles to go, a nice man stopped and asked me for some water. He only had 1 water bottle and had run out. I had stopped drinking almost entirely. Why not? I filled about half of his water bottle, though I could have easily given him all of one bottle. He could tell I was struggling, and in return for my generosity, he ran with me for more than a mile to keep me upright and moving. Turns out he's a Leadville vet as well. He has done pretty much all their events (both of them this weekend), including the 100 multiple times. When I told him this was my first 50, he congratulated me for a fine time (almost). Then he gave me a bunch of advice on recovery and how to handle the next few days. With about .75 miles to go I was spent and he shuffled on.
The end is slightly different than the finish because you don't come back down Dutch Henry. Instead, they bring you in some side door that includes a fire road. And worse, it includes a hill. Who in their right mind decided this was a good idea? It was probably 50 feet of climb in half a mile, but it felt like Mt Everest. Finally I shuffled through the finish line, heard my name, and saw my family. It was over. I wish I had done a cart wheel or something cool, but I settled for hugs and high-fives from my family. Ten hours and seven minutes on the clock. I missed my goal by seven minutes. However, I secretly hoped for more like nine and a half hours. We have to dream big, right?
Delirious, I started wandering around. A lady grabbed me and put a metal around my neck. Another lady grabbed me and took my timing chip. I saw a huge bucket of Arizona Ice Teas and I went straight over and grabbed one. I had very little regard for who they belonged to, but I was assuming they were for runners. Then I stumbled over to my family and sat down. After I recovered a bit, I learned the ice tea was part of a post-run meal, so I grubbed on a pulled pork sandwich! We chatted for about a half hour while I ate. My family was impressed by many of the participants and told me stories of those they had seen and talked to. I think the 56 year old woman that finished in 9:15 impressed them the most, rightfully so!
After some quick math, we determined that we had to hit the road to spring the dog out of the kennel. And with that, we were blew right on out of Leadville quick as we blew in!
Rounding the corner, the longest 7 miles of my life is over!
Here's me trying to look tough and composed at the finish. After watching some of the other runners come in -- I looked like a million bucks.
Here is what your feet look like after 50 miles and nearly 16,000 feet of total elevation change. I've got blisters that look like new toes. Savannah called them Sumo blisters.
Here is my final Garmin Connect stats. After all that elevation change, no wonder my feet are mangled. I officially finished 80th overall (of 310 starters), about 30 spots lower than I hoped to be. It was good enough for 30th in my age group (M 30 - 39).
* - Indicates where I got to see my family/crew
Me as an Ultra RunnerThis is my first summer doing any real trail running or ultra running. Based on that, I would say it was a success. That said, I clearly need to improve my skills as a trail runner. I plan to continue ultra running and learning to be a better hill runner (up and down) is paramount to getting better and taking on longer, more challenging courses. On the positive side, I think I make up for a lack of skill with guts and intelligence. Understanding what it takes to be successful at ultras was a key advantage to my first time out. And I am a very good power walker: my guess would be I'm in the top 15% of runners in this category (thanks to my long-ish legs and "healthy" glutes). While it was not required that I do back-to-back long runs to be prepared for a 50 mile run, I'm sure glad I did. My endurance was the cornerstone of my summer, and I plan to continue that. I was very close to negative splitting a 50 mile run and I did negative split 3 marathons this year.
Recognizing OthersI simply have to thank my wife, sister and kids for being my crew. They were amazing. We had a few bumps in our first aid station, but they were a well oiled machine at aid station 2 and beyond. The dedication they showed by coming to Leadville and then standing around for 10 hours to catch 15 minutes of me is simply without parallel. I am so grateful that my sister was willing to carve 2 days out her crazy life to fly out here and be a part of this. Her prayers and support were awesome. Johanna has been a rock in this whole process. I know that being the spouse of a dedicated runner is not easy, and I thank her very much for making the most of it.
My crew (except my wife who was taking the photo). They dutifully toted around a bag with spare clothes, spare shoes, and a bag with nutrition all day. Studs.
Being part of a crew is tough work! It often requires that you hike half a mile or more from a parking spot to the aid station. This might be my favorite photo of the whole day. They are power walking and leaning into the hill, just like me.
And there's my beautiful wife. Apparently Dylan had shoe duty all day. He must have been disappointed as I went the whole race with one pair of shoes and socks.
And of course I have to say thanks to all my DailyMile friends (you know who you are) for their fellowship, advice, training runs, gifts, etc... I literally could not have done this without you guys. This extends to my friends Tony and Aaron as well. I am lucky to have the support of friends like you!