Leadville Trail 100 - 2012

This is largely a story about eating soup and throwing up. And it's super long, sorry. Pretty repetitive too. But isn't ultra running in general?

Leadville CO is a tiny little town with a very important main street. Lifetime Fitness is slowly turning the Leadville race series into the Wal-Mart of endurance events. There are tons of events they host in Leadville including the mountain Bike ride and 100 Trail run. They have set up a headquarters with tons of merchandise.


The race starts in the center of town dark and early at 4 AM. The street with the starting/finish line on it is closed off to traffic for a block and adorned with the LT100 arch. Based on the hype and prestige of the race I felt chills just looking at it. This was it, a real and difficult western US trail ultra.

I met with a TARC'er at the start and mulled about waiting for the race to begin. With 800 racers there are a lot of supporting folks at the start line. I snuck to the front to try and sneak a peek at Anton but I don't think he gets in line till the last minute. It must be so he doesn't have to deal with annoying fans like me. Being quite the production there were camera crews and even a weird UFO hovercraft thing with a camera attached to it. With a loud bang the 30th Leadville Trail 100 run was off.

800 headlamps bounced along the street as we traveled down 6th. There is a small hill within a few hundred feet of the start and for some reason it was comical to me that many stopped to walk it, just minutes from the start. After a short distance on the roadway we bounced onto a dirt road where I began to listen in on snippets of conversation. One of the runners in front of me said she read a race report where someone said that this initial stretch would soon smell like a portapotty. Sure enough people began dropping to the side of the road to take care of their 1s and 2s. I even caught a glimpse of a girl peeing standing up. (I wasn't going looking for it, it was hard to miss). The headlamps created a beautiful line of lights, like a snake slithering through the woods. I often looked back just to see the body as it wrapped around curves. I imagine an aerial view of this looks pretty sweet. The sky was filled with more stars than you could ever see on the clearest Newton night.

We began to travel around turquoise lake and entered into some single track. At this point you were rather locked into the pace of the people in front of you. You walked when they walked. There was very little talking at this point where I was, which seemed odd for an ultra at the back of the pack. Some people did try to move up the ranks but this seemed to be a frustrating and ankle breaking move. The single track was very single.

Hints of daylight began to illuminate a sight which I've seen tons of times since being out here but one that never gets old. The lake itself was quiet and gorgeous. Mist rose from the top, and it was surrounded by looming chunks of geography. It was at this point that I began to get the feeling it was going to not be a good day. My stomach just wasn't right. I had a bit of a snickers bar for breakfast and finished it off an hour in. I found myself not even remotely hungry by 2 hours in but knew I needed to eat. I began nibbling on a cliff bar. My plan was to stick with solid food till it wasn't going down.

The first aid station was a madhouse. It was awesome. A giant group of people cheered us on as we funneled into a tent where drop bags and aid station workers and food and drinks all switched hands and flurried about. Yelling. Frantic. Madness. Hectic as it was, It was nothing compared to the other aid stations we'd see on our journey. Always a refreshingly jarring experience after running in the quiet woods for hours. The cheer of the crowds at the aid station could be heard half a mile away and this would become a recurring theme throughout the day, the screaming and clapping told you that you were almost there. There were also gobs of people along the roadways and trails cheering us on, camped out wrapped in blankets at 5 AM to see the runners pass by. We went by a few campgrounds and there were contingencies outside screaming bloody murder.

I reached Mayqueen (Side note, I finally get the deal with having names for aid stations, it makes the stories about ultras sound awesome. Just using the phrase "I left Fish Hatchery…" sounds cool) around 2:37 I think? Which puts me a little over a 5 hour first marathon. That is about where I wanted to be. I still wasn't the least bit hungry at this point but I was able to gobble down a good amount of food.

After Mayqueen the snake had thinned and I was able to get into my own little groove. We traveled through some more good looking single track. It was of a biome type that I don't even know. A lot of birch trees I think. We began climbing at some point along a dirt service road. This was the ascent up the blip in the topographical map compared to hope pass. It was getting warm as we were in direct sunlight on a dusty road. I hiked a lot of this and ran the flat parts. The views were incredible and I kept turning to other people in the race and asking, "Isn't that fucking incredible?!". I often stopped just to take them in. I wish I knew the silhouette of each of the peaks in CO so I could call them by name. There were moderate climbing sections here that would be runnable to a runner stronger than I. A few really long stretches of really tiny incline here too.

During the downhill on Sugarloaf people were flying past me. I love crashing down technical terrain but I can usually only do it once per race because of how hard I go. I felt it would be better served to save my quads for the inward descent of Hope. There were some really steep parts that looked like they'd be tough nuts to climb on the way back home. Power lines (I think it was at least due to the buzzing of the power lines above our head) was a crazy downhill that felt a bit like a ski slope complete with moguls. After sugarloaf we spilled back onto the roadway towards Fish Hatchery.

Right before Fish Hatchery there were two girls SCREAMING their lungs out as runners passed. Delivering very personalized motivation. I heard them a few hundred feet away and saw a fella standing on the side of the road with a grin on his face. I told him I was surprised they weren't hoarse and he said they stated the day off even louder. I coyly hid my face as I passed which just egged them on more. They called me handsome. A tunnel of humanity awaited us at Fish Hatchery all screaming and cheering. After a jaunt through the crowd, another well stocked and crazy busy aid station. My stomach was on near revolt at this point. I ate a few chips and realized I was going to have to take awhile to walk and digest. I grabbed a handful of turkey tortillas and bagels and potatoes and started back out again. It was a struggle to get the food down. I saw the winner of the NYC100 which just brought all sorts of self doubt about my ability to finish the distance. Nothing to do with her, just memories of the race. She asked how it was going and I made it clear that it sucked already.

After Fish Hatchery was an absolutely depressing bout of on road running. It was in a very flat part of the course where you could see the 2+ miles up the road to where you would have to run. The late morning sun was beating down pretty hard in this section. Again another part that seemed like it would be tough nuts coming back through. We bounced off the paved road and onto a fire trail that wasn't much better. I was mixing nuun and regular handhelds and tried to up my water intake. I could feel the heat was getting to me. My feet started to ache a bit. We hit another, smaller aid station before Twin Lakes (Half pipe?) which I took a sit down at. I tried to take in some bubbly beverages and food here. The sections before Twin Lakes were some more mundane trails that seemed to drag on forever. Somewhere earlier I had hit my first marathon time around 5:30 I think.

Not the exact road section, but something like it.


I slowed down a lot coming into Twin Lakes even though it was some nice gradual downhill. I had stopped urinating as much and could feel my toenails getting abused. Again the commotion of Twin Lakes arose long before we got there. The last section before the aid was some boulder laced switchbacks (That is part of the Elbert trail system?) and a final tiny steep section that dipped below a tree to reveal just a ginourmous crowd of people. This was the most hectic of all the aid stations I would see during the day. People were camped out everywhere on lawn chairs and lined up to create a giant funnel into the aid. The actual aid station was housed in a fire house garage and had cots and chairs and a giant pile of drop bags. There were a large number of aid workers cutting up food and filling water bottles and just plain taking awesome care of us. I sat down for awhile feeling the need to really let my stomach settle before climbing up hope pass. Some salt ramen noodles seemed to help along with bubbly drinks. The sit probably lasted longer because I was enthralled with the hustle and bustle of the aid station. I began to see why it would be so cool to volunteer at a station for Leadville. It's people watching on a grand scale. Leaving the aid station I saw a runner shotgun a beer, crush the can and toss it in a trash can to the amusement of his crew. They let out a loud cheer.

It was at this time that I started to fret the cutoffs. I had about 5.5 hours to get up and over hope (A distance that was 10-11.7 miles depending on who you asked). I wanted plenty of time to let my stomach settle on the other side but had an inkling the cutoff time meant we had to be out of there by 6:15 PM. The quicker I got to Winfield the better.

Right out of the aid station you pass through about 1.5 miles of fields, under baking hot sun. I carried a cup of potatoes with me in the hopes I'd be able to get them down. It didn't work and I ended up carrying a cup of potatoes for a mile. There were some kids filming a movie with some nifty camera gear (This weird slide bar thing). Someone had also left a go pro on a tripod on the course so I gave it an extreme closeup. The fields were of course surrounded by beautiful mountains including our target, the hope pass.

About 1 mile from Twin Lakes there is a creek crossing. It's actually 2 different crossings, one was up to mid shin while the other was up to mid thigh. It was incredibly refreshing. My feet were soggy the rest of the day but it didn't bother me too much. After a bit we were back into the woods and began the climb.

The tree section of hope pass alternates between switchbacks and some plain steep ascents. A stream runs down the side of the trail inviting one to take a dive. I felt like all the hiking in CO I had done in the past 2.5 weeks really helped out here, I was able to hike pretty hard given I was 40 miles in. In conversation with folks going up the peak I gathered that the leaders usually come through when middle-back of the pack is halfway up Hope. Sure enough about halfway through Tony came blazing down with his pacer. I shouted something really dumb at him, I think I said "I have a man crush on your persona.". He didn't even look my way as he continued killing the downhill. He had a pretty good lead at that point given when I saw the next person coming down, but he came in 4th overall. He's still my hero.

A little over halfway I decided puking was going to happen before Hopeless. Looking back on it, maybe puking isn't a good option? I can't tell if it helps me keep food down afterwards. It usually feels pretty good immediately afterwards, but what is the point if I can't keep anything else down 5 minutes later? Maybe it's best just to suffer through extreme nausea and try to eat till I forcibly vomit instead of planning it out. It's not like I stick my finger down my throat but I just have to lean over a log and BAM. Either way, I leant over a log and BAM. Somewhere around this time I ran into a buddy I met at Umstead. It was a pleasure seeing him as I find his presence appealing. We gabbed about ultra running and life in general.

After we left tree line we closed in on the hopeless aid station. This is one of the more unique experiences in ultra running. I use the word surreal a lot to describe moments in the races I do. It's a bit like going on a vacation in that you break up the normal routine and places in life and experience a different schedule, emotion, outlook. Add to that the feeling of being exhausted and angry and disappointed and hopeful and drained. It's the emotional equivalent of doing squats if you haven't done them in a long time. You hit parts of yourself that you just don't get to hit often.

Anyway, the aid station is near the peak and sits at 12,000 feet. Volunteers grab your water bottles before you are at the station and run up to fill them for you. Seeing them run up the hill with ease made me smile. There is a campfire ring, a large tent for food, another large tent for cooking, some smaller camping tents, and a tent used as the medical tent. All of this nested right below your typical CO highland. The view was astounding and Llamas milled about (They are used to carry all the supplies up.) Since I had just evicted the contents of my stomach I sat down with some warm soup. I informed the medical crew of my nausea because they asked how I was. They told me to sit down and eat soup much like I was doing. I parked it in the shade next to a fellow who before I left would take an IV ending his race. One of the unique things about Hopeless is that if you drop, you have to get yourself to an aid station under your own power. At least that is the first thing they try, just getting you up and running enough to get to the next station.

Not the race course, but you get the idea.
I soaked up this atmosphere and tried to get things down for a good amount of time. I had some of the Roctane Energy/Electrolyte drink which was another helpful ingestion. Maybe I should be trying Heed in some races, I dug that stuff when I used it in training. I forget why I stopped using it. Too lazy to go back and read my own log about it. I threw on my warm clothes because I was starting to shiver and started up the remaining 1/4 mile to the peak. It was again more traditional Rocky CO terrain. Big ass ankle twisting rocks and switchbacks. The other side of the peak was beautiful with little to no signs of civilization which made me wonder where the hell the aid station was. I caught up with 2 folks who were pondering over whether or not we'd make the cutoff. We started a fairly hard downhill (Not Kilian hard, but hard). This was much like going up on the other side, rocks and switchbacks that descended into the woods with rocky/loose dirt terrain. This was becoming a high traffic area too as the ahead of middle and middle pack runners were coming up the same single track. Numerous times I had to stop and stand to the side to let the fast mofos pass.

After running with the 2 folks a bit I decided I wanted to cash in my quad card and bomb down the mountain (Kilian hard). I figured Winfield wouldn't be too far from the bottom so I could recover and get my stomach back (Since going hard would undoubtedly upset it again). As I flew down doing what I love doing someone even complimented me on my foot work. After I reached the bottom the trail leveled out for a bit and then took a few ups and downs and finally squirreled into the aid station down some switchbacks. This is the section that many people were upset about. It had been added just this year, Tuesday in fact. We first heard about it at the runners meeting. One of the Lifetime fitness individuals mentioned that the previous route was too close to traffic. This did seem to add some mileage to the race though. To this end the cutoff going inbound was increased by 15 minutes. I thought this aid station was a lot closer and had to pull it together pretty hard to run/walk another 45 minutes or something to make it to Winfield.

Much happier Winfield memories.
Winfield again was preceded by the shouts of the cheering fans. As I drew closer I saw my Umstead buddy who was taking a sit down on the road. Even further down the road was lined with people and cars coming in and out of the aid. Winfield was the first area that runners could pick up pacers which added to the buzz. This was also the first medical check in and as I approached the scale the aid fella asked me how I felt. I told him the scale was about to tell me but I felt pretty listless and nauseous. To my surprise I was only 2 pounds down.

So here comes the crux of my race. I am in a bad place. Bonked and puking. Either the scale is wrong or my problem isn't dehydration per-say? I arrived at something like 13:40-13:50 hours. This is horrible for me. Even for Leadville I think I could have done 12-13 given a stronger showing from my stomach. I have to be out of the aid station in about 30 mins in order to not DNF at Winfield. If I leave right at 6:15 PM I have 3H45M to do a section of the course that just took me like 5 hours or something crazy. Part of me thought if I had an amazing few minutes of rest I'd be able to do that. The backside of Hope is steeper but I could bomb down the long downhill. The cutoffs would get easier as I got farther inbound. I began to wonder how I'd get home if I didn't finish, as I was 40+ miles from Leadville.

I sat down with some soup and mulled this over. Since we were so close to the cutoff the aid station was beginning to transition to shut down mode. They were running out of water and weren't going to make more electrolyte drink. A man behind me was discussing passionately with his family and the race staff that with the new addition of mileage the 15 minute cutoff increase seemed not fair enough. Another individual next to me fretted over the fact we had less than 4 hours to do the hope crossing again. Race staff came over and reminded us that we had to be leaving soon or we'd be dropped.

Sip. Stare at my watch. Sip. Stare at my watch.

I felt like shit but wasn't to the point of wanting to drop. I refilled my bottles with the scarce water they had left and hit the road about 6:10 PM. I walked hard up the hill as people cascaded down trying to reach Winfield before the cut off. I warned people best I could that they only had a few minutes to get in and out of there. After the 6:15 PM cutoff time I didn't know what to say to people. Some knew. I saw one women crying so I told her no matter what she thought right now, I knew she was fucking awesome. I saw people running down the hill as hard as they could and I cheered them on. A thought suddenly struck me. I was now near dead last in the race. The only people behind me were the people who left in the 5 minute window after me. Turns out it wasn't too many.

A short while walking up the switchbacks I fell into pace with a gentleman and his very chipper and professional looking pacer. He had potato chip bags strapped to his waist and knew what he had to do to get his runner moving. They adopted me and we were soon joined by others. A sudden fellowship had been formed. Deeper than just the Ultrarunning "Oooh we like the same thing" bond, it was the looming darkness of a DNF by cut off time creeping behind us. Like a shadow consuming the course as we covered it. We had to keep a pretty good pace up the steep climb. And we were doing good. It was like we were on a pub crawl, closing out all the aid stations on the Leadville course. We were the snakes tail, the last ones on the course.

And then I threw up again. A lot. Every tiny increment of food and liquid I consumed was duly accounted for as it left my body. I wasn't alone this time, others around me were having similar troubles. I tried to wait till people were out of earshot before retching so it wouldn't set other peoples stomachs off. I fell in and out with the man and his pacer for awhile until his pacer began to get a bit concerned about my stops. The altitude wasn't really bothering me except for the fact the increased heart rate was making me sick. I was keeping track of how many times I puked but lost count somewhere after 10. It soon became clear we had no hope of making the cutoff. But if we just got to that next aid station it would be a 60 mile cutoff. If we went back to Winfield it would be a 50 mile drop. It was getting dark and we had a peak to climb. The temperature and my ability to generate heat were dropping. I was getting really cold when I stopped to catch my breath.

Amidst all this, it was so serene and beautiful. I was just so drained of everything, that feeling I love in ultras. The only thing that could be done (And still hit 60 miles) to improve my condition was to climb where it was colder and there was less oxygen, travel more switch backs, and find the hopeless aid station. I remember a joke someone had made as we ascended Hope pass. "Don't worry, there is still hope at the top." Looking up you could count the number of switchbacks left by how many headlamps you saw ascending them. All moving at a zombie pace. Some headlamps sat still. Others looked down at the contents of their stomach on the dirt of the pass. The stars in the sky were innumerable and the cloud of the galaxy was clearly visible.

I began to worry about finding my way down the other side of hope in the dark. It was a pretty straightforward trail but it was still running through the woods in the dark. Would hopeless even be operating when we got there? If it wasn't… I didn't want to think about it. I thought of the sweeping crew that was supposed to be behind us. Maybe they would have electrolytes for us? I saw a flashlight above, were the search and rescue and doctors of hopeless helping people?

After much bumming we reached the summit again. A gas powered machine clicked away our timing check in through our RFID tags. All that technology and it couldn't help me a bit. I nervously peered over the edge of each switch back looking for the lights of Hopeless. Eventually a bonfire came into view and I stumbled into the aid.

The scene was that of a jovial campground. Some runners and aid workers gathered around the fire. The workers would stay the night there in tents and pack up in the AM. One runner eventually had to be helped from the summit of Hope and stayed with the crew for that night. Another runner got lost on the trail below and search and rescue had to go down and find them. These are the logistics problems that face an ultra trail race. I sat down and tried to get some soup down. The workers were still amazing after all that time helping people. I had some more electrolyte drink. I found another runner who was heading down soon and tagged along with him. We hiked pretty fast but my stomach recovered a bit and it got warmer and more oxygenated as we went. The trail was marked with eerie green glowsticks.

We finally spilled out onto the fields before Twin Lakes. The night was darker now than on the back side of Hope the stars looked even more incredible. All urgency was gone and we stumbled along. The stream crossing was a little less refreshing at 11 PM when it was high 30's low 40's. The aid station was fairly empty when we arrived. Our bands were cut and our collective races were over.

This marks my 5th 100 attempt, with only 1 success. It's embarrassing. I always dread letting my family and coworkers know that I failed to accomplish my goals. The hours and hours I've spent training amounted to little. I did enjoy most of them but it would still be nice to know that I've succeeded in what I set out to do.

I have fun doing these races so I don't feel like I should stop trying. But having a closet full of shirts detailing my failed adventures is depressing. My training isn't preparing my stomach for races. Maybe I'll just stick to planning my own long distance trail runs in NH and forget about doing races. Or I can do more research to find something that works for me. No more races this year though. I am going to take some time to lift and put extra effort into work. Next year I'll hopefully start training again.

View from Mt. Elbert


Popular Posts