Monday, August 20, 2012

Leadville 100 Race Report

Before I start with my report, I have to say thanks to my sister, my family, and my pacers. This was a long journey and they all had a huge part in making it happen for me. Their sacrifice and selflessness was inspiring to me. It was very appropriate that they got to walk the last few hundred yards with me.

Leading up to the Race

The week leading up to the race was difficult for me. I am always a bit of a mental mess anyway, but this week had a new twist for me -- an injury! As I finished my weekend of taper, I began to notice some pain in my left knee. By Monday, I couldn't run a mile without severe pain. I spent the week in and out of doctors' offices trying to determine what was wrong and what I could do about it. All three doctors that I saw agreed that there was no structural damage to my knee and it was just some inflammation. That meant I was alright to run as long as I could handle the pain. I spent the week on heavy doses of anti-inflammatories. By Friday, the pain was manageable and I was able to do a short shakeout run. Still, there was no way I would run 100% pain free. In most other races, it would have been an easy decision to DNS, but not this race. I was too invested emotionally and financially to throw in the towel without at least trying.

Thursday afternoon we drove up to Leadville to pick up my packet and check-in to our rental home. The town was already buzzing with attention. Out of eight hundred runners, I wound up weighing in next to Anton Krupicka.

Next we checked into our rental home for the weekend. There would be three racers and more than a dozen people spending the night at various points over the weekend. It worked out great to have such a wonderful place. All the pacers met my crew there, many of them took naps, etc... As a bonus, the cabin overlooked Hope Pass.

Later that evening, we attended a BBQ hosted by Brandon Fuller. It was a great place to visit with a bunch of other runners and try to remain loose.

On Friday there are a series of race meetings to attend. Ken Chlouber usually puts on a good show. This year he was not able to attend due to the death of his brother. In his place, his son Cole gave a motivating speech, asking everyone to dig deep and not to quit.

Cole's speech gets me more fired up every time I listen to it again.

After the race meeting, we were waiting outside for my sister to attend the crew meeting. Anton was hanging around and my daughter insisted we ask for a photo. He is really cool about all the attention he gets. Notice I am the only person in the photo looking awkward! Anton is the two-time winner of this event and eventual 4th place finisher this year.

Race Morning

With three racers and crews sleeping in the house, not much sleep was had on Friday night. The alarm was supposed to go off at 2:45 am, but almost everyone was awake by 2:15. I think I got about three or four hours of sleep, which is a lot for the night before a 100. To my surprise, the whole family wanted to get up that early and see me off of the start line.

Applying KT tape to my sore knee at 2:45 am.

Breakfast consisted of PocketFuel and an energy bar.

Start to May Queen

After the gun went off to start the race, I settled into a nice easy run with Tony. We talked a little, but I tried to remain focused and save my energy. Besides, I hadn't been able to run more than a mile without pain in almost a week and I was trying to determine what I would be dealing with today. We were in the middle to back of the pack, but I knew that the majority of the runners around us were going too fast (even at a 10 min pace). We kept slowing down to ensure that we warmed up our aerobic system and eased our bodies into the long day. My family met us at the Tabor Boat ramp (mile 7) to check on my knee and make sure I could keep going. The good news was that my knee felt fine -- plenty good to run. The bad news was that we  managed to lag so far back that we were caught in a traffic jam along the lake. As a result, we wound up more than ten minutes behind our schedule (2:30 instead of 2:20) to May Queen. While May Queen is a major aid station, I told my crew not to meet me there because it is a major headache getting there this early in the race (and late in the race for that matter).

Nutrition may be the most important part of a 100-miler. I made a highly detailed plan for eating enough calories during the race. My sister and I separated the items I would be eating (gels, PocketFuel, and Hammer Bars) into baggies by aid station. I made up my mind to force those calories in as long as I could. The plan worked to perfection and I think I successfully ate close to 6,000 calories during the race (not including what I drank). I ate tons of fat (almond butter mostly), some protein, and relatively little sugar (particularly early in the race).

May Queen to Fish Hatchery

Leaving May Queen we had finished one of the easiest stretches of the race and now headed for the first climb of the day up to Sugar Loaf Pass. The climbing meant that we were mostly in power-hike mode, but we mixed in some running to try and make up for lost time during the first section. Tony and I continued to work well together and I continued to chug down the calories. In fact, I had eaten almost 1000 calories by the time I reached Fish Hatchery.

As we descended Powerline, I discovered that running downhill was going to be a problem for my sore knee. Up until now, the pain level of my knee had averaged about a two (on a scale of ten) and would occasionally get to about a four before quickly subsiding. Running downhill would increase the pain to an eight pretty quickly. It was very hard to work through that pain and try to force myself to keep a gait that would not cause compensation-related problems. (I settled on shorter, choppier strides for downhill running, but that eventually resulted in sore quads from so much braking.)

After the long, painful descent down Power Line, I rolled into Fish Hatcher at 8:35 am feeling pretty fresh and still about 10 minutes behind schedule. Tony wasn't feeling quite as good as I was, so I started to separate myself. I think we both knew this was likely to be the last time we saw one another, at least for a while.

My daughter and wife waiting for me at Fish Hatchery. It sure helps to have a dedicated family when you want to run 100 miles.

Rolling into Fish Hatchery: Savannah took my hydration pack to refill for me while I checked in.

 After applying sun screen, my sister gave me my bag of goodies to eat by the next aid station.

Fish Hatchery to Halfmoon

Leaving Fish Hatcher I was all alone. Time to get to work. Leadville is sometimes referred to mockingly as a "road" ultra and this section is partly why. It is almost entirely road and gently groomed jeep roads. Many runners hate it and find it to be a mental grind. With my road running background and experience, I found it to be a good section for making up time. In fact, I was running five minutes at a time and then switching to a power-walk for two to three minutes and still able to average a comfortable 11 minute pace. And, I was passing dozens of runners doing so. By the time I rolled into Halfmoon, I had put on an iPod and just started getting into a run-walk groove. I stopped to fill up my handheld and then just kept on eating, drinking, and powering ahead.

Halfmoon to Twin Lakes

Suddenly, I was making up ground on the field and on my projected splits. There were points where I had to walk five or six minutes in order to keep myself from going too fast. I used the additional time to eat more and more calories. The course turns very stunning when you turn onto the Colorado Trail and begin descending into Twin Lakes. But this descent was once again very painful. However, the pain was not building. Each time I stopped to walk or slowed my pace, it would "recover" and I could continue moving again without much difficulty. I arrived in Twin Lakes in 7:35, now almost 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

At this point I discovered my only other real problem of the day, gels were not agreeing with my stomach at all. After two bathroom stops, I decided I would bail on those for the remainder of the day. My crew once again reloaded my hydration pack with a fresh bladder, applied sun screen, and shoved me off to Hope Pass.

Dropping down the final big pitch into Twin Lakes.

I applied sun screen once again and was ready to battle the mountain.

My daughter and self-appointed crew chief (though she was second in charge to my sister!).

Dylan was all smiles as usual.

Twin Lakes to Winfield

Leaving Twin Lakes, my stomach remained a little unsettled from the gels. I once again had to get off the trail to take care of business. My system soon settled with some Immodium and I resumed my run-walk pattern through the river (felt great!) and on up to the base of Hope Pass. Once I was on the mountain, I began power-hiking hard and caught a dozen or so runners before I had hit the summit. The last half mile was a bit of a struggle. Other than that, the ascent was a huge success. I saw Anton coming inbound at 9:13 and on course record pace.

The descent was the opposite of the ascent -- miserable! I just could not run downhill without sever pain. As a result, many of the runners I caught on the climb passed me. At the bottom of the trail, the course turned onto a new single track trail that runs parallel to the Winfield road. This trail is a blessing so that runners no longer have to run with traffic into Winfield. However, the trail added some climbing and nearly three miles total miles to the course (now a 101.8 mile run). This section went on forever and I was hungry, thirsty, and ready to see my crew. After a final, painful descent I reached the halfway point in relatively good spirits and ready to pick up my first pacer of the day, Chuck. Despite the longer trail, I was almost exactly on pace at the halfway mark (11:28).

My crew and Chuck did a great job once again getting me ready to go, giving me specific instructions on what to do and handling all my hydration gear. Winfield was the only aid station where I was required to weigh in.  My weight was 190 lbs, or down about 2 pounds from my pre-race weight. I was given the green light to get going again.

Crossing the stream on my way to Hope Pass. I sat down in the ice cold river to cool off and rinse off -- it was magical!

Top of the world, the summit of Hope Pass at 12,600 feet. This is my favorite photo of the whole adventure, sort of symbolic of my whole race and adventure. I made it to the top of the mountain and lived to tell.

Just after the summit running down the steep (21% grade) backside of Hope Pass. I look stronger than I felt.

My low-cut Injinji socks trapped a bunch of dirt and grit from the river crossing before Hope Pass.

My crew meeting me at Winfield: halfway done! Every mile from now was a mile beyond my longest distance to date.

Winfield to Twin Lakes

Chuck and I took off from Winfield and I was feeling pretty darn good. It was nice to run with someone again. And, he was carrying water bottles in my GoLite pack so I no longer had to carry a hydration pack. (Leadville is one of the few 100s that allows pacers to mule and I took advantage!) As we made our way back along the Winfield trail, I was keeping a good steady pace and running most of the downhills, occasionally taking a break to let the pain in my knee subside. It was a little crowded on the trail because there were now hundreds of runners going in both directions.  The runners heading inbound were in a hurry trying to reach Winfield without missing the cutoffs. We passed Tony at exactly twelve hours; he was in good position to finish the race.

After a while, I told Chuck I was ready to get onto to Hope and "dance with the devil". I knew what was in front of me and I was ready. We once again climbed really well and once again passed a dozen or so runners. It is a steep climb, but I felt good the whole way, only stopping a few times to catch my breath. Once we reached the last few switch backs, I knew that I was going to win this battle and was in prime position to finish the race and have a "quality" finish time. I was pumped up and started shouting "you ain't so bad" at the mountain in between bouts of singing along with my iPod.

My enthusiasm quickly shifted to disappointment when we started going downhill. It is the longest section of downhill on the course and I was limping along on a bad knee. And I got passed by a dozen or so runners again. It was so mentally frustrating to not be able to run the downhill -- even with my limited downhill skills -- after banging out the ascent. I tried to remain positive and on pace. Once we reached the bottom, I ran hard along the trail leading into Twin Lakes. It felt good to be running hard and strong with such a large crowd of people cheering me on. I was now about fifteen minutes behind pace due to my downhill fail and the lengthened course.

At the aid station, my other two pacers had arrived and we once again had extreme precision in the transition. I changed shoes from my Peregrine to Montrail Masochists. (If I had it to do again, I think I would have just changed socks. I am not sure the Masochists where a better shoe choice.) Chuck took a spot on my crew and I left the aid station with Jen.

Running along the single track after passing the Winfield turnaround point. Still running and smiling 55 miles later! This was one of my strongest sections in the race.

Chuck took this photo of me near the summit of Hope Pass.

The view toward the south side of Hope is amazing.

Heading in from Twin Lakes with my pacer Chuck Radford. I ran this section hard, my last continuous hard running of the event.

Twin Lakes to Tree Line

The climb out of Twin Lakes -- the fourth hardest on the course -- is tough coming right after Hope Pass. And it is a mental shift because it is past dinner time and starting to get dark. I tried to remain patient leaving the aid station with Jen because I respected that climb. I couldn't believe how much I continued to sweat, even after dark. I was hoping it would cool off, but not today! This was the point in the race when I planned for some tail off in pace. And, my nutrition was suddenly becoming a burden. Thankfully, Jen brought along some gummy bears -- her running food of choice -- and I ate nearly the entire bag.

After a few miles, the course turns downhill. Once again, I was unable to take advantage. I was getting frustrated by the pain I was feeling and I started falling off of pace. During my pacer meeting, I gave everyone some tips to try and keep me moving in low points. Jen used them all. She managed to coax me into running a few minutes at a time. Before long, it was pitch black and we were gradually returning to our pace target. When we reached the Halfmoon aid station, I abandoned my nutrition plan altogether, but I kept eating anything that sounded appealing at aid stations -- mostly flat coke, sandwiches and turkey wraps. And I would eat the remaining Hammer Bars that my crew packed with my pacers. My stomach kept telling me I was hungry and I kept eating like clockwork. And, I was urinating every 45 minutes or so, which meant I was fully hydrated. Nonethless, I lost steam and was a little flat coming into Tree Line.

With a big hug and some encouragement, Jen passed the pacing duties to Jon. And off we went! It was now 10:45 pm and there was lots of work left to do.

Tree Line to Fish Hatchery

My crew and pacers were texting back and forth and I put in my order for Red Bull before arriving at Tree Line. As we left, I was nursing a big bottle of caffeine and it felt great. Given that the course was flat and road, I think Jon was expecting to run more than we did, but my legs were declining rapidly. And, these next 15 miles are sort of a no-man's-land in the course -- I had already run 20 more miles than my longest run of my life but was not quite at a place where I could "smell the finish line" -- so I was having my lowest point of the race. Jon did a great job of continuing to push me to run periodically and continue working hard.

We arrived at Fish Hatchery in good time. My crew skipped this aid station since it arrives only a few miles after Tree Line. Instead, they went home and tried to sleep. While they napped, Jon and I refueled at Fish Hatchery (more coke and wraps for me). This time I sat down and had a little potato soup. Both were a mistake. Once I stood up, my legs were stiff and it took me a little bit to get a good walking gait going again. And the soup seemed to get stuck about halfway down and I was burping potato soup for about three miles. I remained unmotivated knowing that the Powerline climb was staring me in the face.

Fish Hatchery to May Queen

As we started up Powerline (see miles 6 - 10 of Jon's garmin data), I was once again hot. I had put on a jacket about an hour before, but the climb was making me work hard. And Jon kept forcing me to eat. There were several times I thought I might just puke on his shoes! But we just kept working hard, no complaining. Well, there was a little complaining. After about seventy-five minutes, we had summited the climb. The climb was so smooth -- a good fifteen minutes faster than I anticipated -- that we had made up ground and I was once again on pace for twenty-seven hours. I began getting motivated to move a little faster and finish this thing off strong.

They warned us about taking Ibuprofen during the race meeting because of the potential for kidney damage. But, I knew I was well hydrated -- I continued urinating frequently -- and the risks were low. I decided to take a few and see if my legs would feel better. About 15 minutes later, my quads felt better and we started mixing in some running down the back side of Sugar Loaf. By the time we reached Hagerman Road, we were running more than I had run in probably four or five hours. Then we jumped on the Colorado Trail and I continued working hard, even running a little bit of the technical descent in the dark. I could hear the party going on at May Queen and began to smell the finish line. It was no longer a question of if, but when. We had busted through no-man's-land in superb fashion.

Because my pacers were texting my crew continuously, I kept asking about the status of Tony. The last I had heard, he had not checked into Twin Lakes. I feared he was out of the race and possibly stuck on Hope Pass in the dark. At the summit of Sugar Loaf, Jon got a text informing him that Tony was still on the course and alive in the race. (Apparently the live tracking system was having difficulties). This was another mental pick me up as I was really pulling for him.

I ran the final half mile into May Queen and prepared myself for the final thirteen miles. Coke and a turkey wrap were once again the food of choice. My crew had a fresh Red Bull waiting for me. Jon told them that we were going to finish 30 minutes earlier than the twenty-seven hour projection. And we nearly did despite a longer course.

May Queen to Finish

During my pacer meeting, I told them to make sure I didn't "settle". I wanted to work as hard as I could the entire way. Jon made sure that he kept asking me to run little sections here and there. Most of the time I responded yes to his probe and we would run for one to three minutes. We must have picked off at least a half dozen runners along the Turquoise Lake trail. We managed a respectable sub-17 min pace by power-walking and mixing in a few minutes of running here and there.

Five miles later, we reached boat ramp and I was crashing again. My smell for the finish line was turning into the dread of knowing we still had almost three hours to go. After nearly 20 miles, Jon switched pacing duties back to Chuck and told me not to settle. With every passing mile I was losing the will to run and my power-walking was now down to an 18 min pace. We had a sizeable head start on twenty-seven hours, but fifteen minutes can disappear quickly in the middle of the night. I had to take several restroom stops and we lost a little time. I sensed twenty-seven hours slipping a little bit. The Turquoise Lake trail went on forever. When we finally popped out on the road, I managed to run a few minutes and instructed Chuck to make sure we managed at least an 18 minute pace or we'd have to run a little. We turned right onto a county dirt road and I started running in two to three minute increments. It hurt a lot, but I wanted to bank some time against my goal. Then we turned left onto the Boulevard and I continued alternating running and walking. The Boulevard went for what seemed like hours and it was entirely uphill. I must have asked Chuck every five minutes for updates on distance remaining, pace, and time of day.

Finally, we reached sixth street and I could hear the party at the finish line. I knew I had made my goal and after 100 miles I did settle. I walked the remaining distance. My blistered feet, sore ankles, and aching quads had had enough. I got a little emotional, but I was mostly just thankful to be done. With around a hundred yards to go, I ran up the red carpet to the finish line. Merilee (the race director), hung a medal around my neck, gave me a hug, and whispered "welcome home". I didn't know if I should cry or go to sleep. Maybe both. They took me over to medical and weighed me in, 190 lbs again. I didn't lose a single pound over 100 miles. That means I took care of my body!

But I had a new problem, albeit a good one; Tony was still on the course and he was going to finish. Instead of going to bed, I decided to stick around and support him. I snuck into the medical tent and tried to steal a nap. They caught onto the fact that there was nothing wrong with me -- other than the obvious issues associated with a 100 mile run -- and sent me on my way.

Jon and I gathering the final set of supplies we'd need to head around the lake and bring it home.

Just after sunrise, I started walking the final miles of 6th street.  The bottoms of my feet hurt too bad to run anymore.

Everyone joined me (except Jen) at the finish. From left to right: my daughter Savannah (and co-crew chief), my son Dylan, me, my sister (crew chief), and Chuck (pacer). Jon (pacer) was just outside the frame of the photo. My wife took the photo.

Finishing with as much "running" as I had left in the tank. I finished in 26:45, 110 out of more than 800 starters and 358 finishers. In addition to a 27-hour finish, I was thinking a top 100 place would be cool.  Almost.

At the finish line, exhausted and victorious!

I went into the medical tent to have some blisters checked. Instead, I got into a sleeping bag to warm up and try to nap while I waited for Tony to finish.


We waited for Tony and discussed the event of the night. I had separate conversations with half a dozen people (crew, other racers, pacers, friends, etc...) and it was kind of a blur. I stunk. I hurt. I really wanted to sleep. With some coffee and a breakfast burrito, I managed to stay awake and see Tony finish. I was so happy for him. His race didn't go as smoothly as mine, but he perservered. Just as I had predicted, his mental toughness got him to the finish line. He dug deep and refused to quit.

After watching Tony finish, we had to return to our cabin and quickly gather our belongings and check-out before returning to Leadville for the awards ceremony. My sister and my wife did all of the work while I fell asleep in the bath tub. When I awoke, they informed me that Tony stayed in the medical tent and we had to take his gear and is car back to town for him. His pacers were there and helped out with everything.

At the awards ceremony, I got my buckle. Flashing my hardware!  Like all Leadville runners, I was hoping for the "big buckle", but I was not at all disappointed with the one I got. I knew twenty-five hours was a stretch goal and was determined not to settle if it slipped away.

Post Mortem

(This part is in progress as it will likely take me months to "unpack" all that happened in those twenty-six hours and forty-five minutes).

Honestly, the race went off almost flawlessly for a first timer. I don't have any dramatic stories of epic lows to overcome. Mine was a story of a well prepared runner with a great plan that just worked his butt off and gave all he had. I executed flawlessly and performed up to my potential on that day. I was fully prepared for all aspects of the challenge -- nutrition, hydration, walking, climbing, and running. I kept a good mental attitude for the entire race except maybe the ten or so miles between Halfmoon and the top of Power Line. Mine was a story of a runner supported by people that cared as much as he did and made sure this day was special. I didn't get too emotional when I crossed the finish line because I didn't feel like this was my accomplishment alone -- they all had a part in making this happen. We did it together.

The only real negative of the whole event was my knee injury. I have no idea how to quantify if, or how much, that hurt my race. Perhaps I may have had a better race if I could have run downhill? Or, maybe I would have blown out my quads sooner running downhill? Who knows? It is too soon to know if I will run another 100-miler, but if I do, the goal will be the big buckle. I believe I have that capability and now I the experience to back it up. I have a great respect for the challenge and I know it would be easy to get burned out by it.


  1. Sorry it's taken me so long to post. I just wanted to say Congratulations and tell you how great it was to finally meet you and get to hang out with your family for a bit. It was great seeing you (and Tony) throughout the day and you really did an amazing job.

  2. Congrats from the Crew at PocketFuel! Stoked we were help fuel your run!

  3. Hey AJ!! Wow, congratulations, I am thoroughly impressed and inspired! I don't know how I stumbled into your page - probably through Facebook somehow. Incidentally, I just finished hiking the Colorado Trail a month ago, in the Vibram Five Fingers, which was very nice overall. I've not been much of a runner following some running injuries several years ago, but I just finished Born to Run (after numerous recommendations from people on the trail) and feel ready to start into running again, nearly barefoot. What McDougall talks about though, I think borders on spiritual. It's crazy, even after all these years I can tell from your writing that we think about things in a similar way.

  4. Great read. Thanks for sharing your story. I am running Leadville 100 for the first time in 2013.

  5. Thanks Chris! Good luck and feel free to ask questions if you want :)