Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Leadville 2015: Pacing and other thoughts

Warning, this one could ramble a bit....

First, I should set the stage. I've been running seriously for about six years now. My journey, as has been the case with my life, has always been about exploration and learning and tinkering. One core value for me has always been health. After ballooning to nearly 250 lbs before my 30th birthday, I decided that my 30's would be a decade where I focused on health, hoping that it would pay dividends later in life. Through that lens, I have always explored running as means of getting healthier and improving my life, not just performance. Not coincidentally, as my health improved, so has my performance. I have learned more about nutrition and physiology than some people who study them in school, because I have dared to follow those people teaching outside the box. Train easy to race fast. Eat less to run farther. Eat fat -- gobs and gobs of fat!

About half way into my journey, I met Chuck Radford, a co-worker of mine. As co-workers, we obviously saw each other quite a bit. But it was our mutual interest in running that really got us to be friends. Chuck is also an eager learner and has watched what I've done and taken what I've learned and applied it to his own running. I don't think of myself as his "coach" per se, but there is definitely an element of that in our relationship. These days, I really am just more of a friend and someone who can give him my thoughts and sometimes advice. I jokingly call myself his "mental coach".

Anyway, Chuck and I have been together through all of our ultras, pacing, crewing, and generally supporting one another. Our mutual friend, Jon, called it a "blood bond" we've made with one another. I like to think that my break-through race at Western States 100 this year inspired Chuck. This weekend, he took the lead and inspired me to wonder if I have new levels I can achieve, finishing 4th at the Leadville 100.

When Chuck signed up for Leadville I agreed to pace. I was also to be his pacer in 2014 before injuring myself on a training run the day before and having to stick with crew duty. We joked that year that none of us would be able to keep up with him. As it turned out, he had a pretty good race (as ho-hum as sub-21 hours can be!), but none of his pacers struggled to keep up with him. This year, I requested to pace him for 25 miles, thinking I was going to be able to hang. As the weeks went by, I decided give up some pacing miles so I could spend more time in the mountains that weekend and not have to "taper" for the experience. I enjoy climbing and getting out in nature on adventures and figured that would be a good compromise. That was such a good decision....

Chuck went out at what we thought was an aggressive pace (hindsight suggests he went out quite conservatively) and we knew it was game on. He was at least 25 minutes faster than we expected into Twin Lakes and we hurried out to Winfield to await him and my pacing section. Last year, Hope Pass really gave him a tough time and it took nearly 6.5 hours for him to do the double cross. This year, he arrived at Winfield just a bit before 12:30 and ready to rock. He was focused and composed. Without much lost time, we took off and by the time we got on the Sheep Gulch Trail, he was already pushing me. PUSHING ME. This guy has 50 miles on his legs and I am working hard to hang! I stayed a consistent 15-20 yards behind him, trying to keep up and trying to yield the right away to the runners (he was in 7th place, so pretty much the entire field) coming at us. It was difficult jumping into a pacing section in the heat of the day and without having had lunch. I was sweating like crazy. Mercifully, we started going up the mountain and I was able to catch up and chat with him. He moved very well, rarely stopping, but climbing is definitely a strength of mine. Plus, the wind was blowing near the top of the pass and cooling me off. We saw many of our friends (Matt C, Woody, Trevor, Jeremy B) coming back at us along the way.

Cresting the top, we caught two runners. One runner we easily passed on our way to Hopeless aid station. The other, Kyle Pietari, seriously floated down the mountain on his way to a 2nd place finish. That was quite impressive. I helped Chuck fill his water bottles at Hopeless and told him not to look back for me going down, sensing he was going to drop me easily. And he did. Within a tenth of mile I could barely see his orange shirt up 100 yards in the forest. I was on the way to breaking everyone of my Strava segment PRs on this section and I still couldn't hang! (Jon later told me he and I ran the second fastest split over this section all day.) Once again, I tried to yield to the on-coming runners, many of whom were just starting their first Hope Pass ascent and likely not going to finish. But, I had to have looked like a rhino rumbling down the mountain and many of them got out of the way just out of fear, I think. One or two even joked about him "working me hard". Indeed. I wasn't even thinking about pacing at this point, just trying not to get dropped and the teasing my friends would have given me back at Twin Lakes. Oh, and trying not to do a face plant on the rocks and tree roots in my path.

We arrived at the meadow and he seemed to slow a bit, allowing me to go into threshold pace and actually catch him. I got to jog (for him, run for me) the final few miles into Twin Lakes where he seemed to gain some energy as I began exhaling. I survived. No way I would have lasted the next 16 miles with him -- so glad I "gave up" those pacing miles. I will let him tell his story, but the short version is that he had just done a double Hope Pass crossing in 5 hours after running 40 miles!!! That was the moment we all knew he had a chance to make it a special day, and he pushed on for 40 more miles and delivered (4th overall in 18:43). I retired to a chair with some beer, happy for my friend and knowing I'd be sore as hell the next day.

This is about as close as I got to him during my "pacing" section. Who's pacing who?

A big thanks to my daughter for capturing my humbling moment

I am still thinking about 2016, but, as I said, Chuck has inspired me to think about new levels I may have. I thought maybe my 23:30 at Western States was my ceiling. Of course, I thought his ceiling at Leadville was 19:30. In fact, I am pretty sure I told him outright I didn't think he could break 19-hours at Leadville, something only a few dozen runners have ever done. He proved me wrong in a big way. And maybe that's the kind of thing I need moving ahead. Leadville is definitely on my short list for 2016. A big buckle is still one of my few remaining running goals. If not for the lottery, I may have already committed to that plan.

I keep thinking I'll give up 100s, but it is addicting. So much happens in those 24 hours that you just cannot explain to people. So much life. So much pain. So much joy. So much bonding. It truly is a transcending experience, impossible to explain to someone not present in that moment. Thanks to my daughter, I recently started listening to Zac Brown Band. And when I hear their song "Beautiful Drug", I think of running 100s. What a perfect, beautiful drug....

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