“The Race Across the Sky.” LT100. Leadville. Whatever you call it, it is now in the books for 2015. Less than half of the nearly 650 brave runners from all over the world who started the race managed to power themselves across the finish under the 30 hour time limit. I was the 281st finisher of the 2015 Leadville Trail 100, earning a finisher’s medal and shiny new buckle on my first attempt. To be completely honest, I am still amazed by this fact. There were several points during this race where I just didn’t think that I was a strong enough runner to move fast enough to stay ahead of the cutoffs. While I never seriously contemplated quitting, I several times resigned myself to the fact that the next aid station would probably be my last before my time ran out. But first, let’s rewind a few months and lay the groundwork and build the context of this ultra-adventure.
This was the first year that the race had moved to a lottery based entry. It is not weighted, requires no qualifier, and is purely random – as far as I know. It was pretty simple, once December rolled around, you would pay your $15.00 and cross your fingers. In January I received a congratulations email that I had been selected and needed to confirm, which I immediately did. I was totally geeked up and telling anyone who would listen that my flatlander ass had gained entry to one of the oldest and most well-known 100 mile mountain ultras in the country. In about 8 months I would be climbing over the Rocky Mountains on foot, digging as deep as I could dig to find that “inexhaustible well of grit, guts, and determination” that founder Ken Chlouber so famously references each year at the pre-race meeting. Eight months is a long time to focus, train, and plan toward a single goal. This takes us to training.
I was dedicated to working hard. I was dedicated to the idea of doing everything in my power to give myself a chance at success. Hard work was the core strategy of my training plan. I decided on running faster, higher intensity miles but reducing the total number of miles in a traditional 100 miler plan. My point was that I had a strong mileage base and knew I could power hike a good long time if need be. What I needed was the power to be able to make the long, steep climbs Leadville is notorious for without eating up a massive amount of time. Scattered throughout the months of January, I also ran several races that broke up the cycle, and each forcing me to take a step-back week after a hard effort. I did 25k, (2) 50K, (2) 6hr timed, 50 mile, 60 mile track, 101K, and 30 miles of pacing on a road race. Nearly all of these efforts ended up as new PRs for the course or distance. Two highlights were an 8:40 50 mile finish at Prairie Spirit and a 10th overall sub 5 hour 50K at War Eagle in Arkansas. One major observation throughout this process: Staying focused on a single race for 8 months is very challenging. Breaking the time into sections with step-stone goals (races) was definitely helpful.
The last 10 days or before the race were brutal for me. The steep drop-off of training miles and idle time resulted in me damn near driving myself nuts. Over-thinking, over-analyzing, and just pure anxiety were the central theme of this time period. I had trouble focusing on anything not related to the race and sleeping at night got really restless and somewhat frustrating – to be honest – it really sucked. But, eventually the time passed, the race van was packed, and by 8:30am on Thursday, August 20th 2015 we were on the long desolate road across Western Kansas that would eventually take us to Leadville Colorado.
Candi had taken care of most of the packing and organizing of our gear and aid stuff that we would need for the race. She did an excellent job at making sure we had everything we would need, without filling all of our bags and the van with a bunch of crap we wouldn’t use. On top of being a master at logistics, my wife is a total badass who can go for days with almost no sleep and does not know the meaning of the word “quit”. She can crew and pace with the very best of them – and I am DAMN GLAD she is heading up my Leadville crew. I would definitely need her if I stood a snowballs chance in hell to finish under 30 hours – plus she is really hot!
Ryan showed up well before the scheduled time, and only a few minutes behind “schedule” we hit the road. Ryan Schwatken is a fairly new ultrarunner, but has already notched several 50K finishes, 101K at FlatRock, and a very gutsy 50 mile effort where he demonstrated a toughness and tenacity that I am not sure that I have seen matched. Ryan made it to that finish despite nearly EVERYTHING going wrong for him and walking 20 miles on two of the largest blisters I have ever seen. Ryan has also crewed for me before – taking on the horrendous driving responsibilities at Ozark Trail last fall. He is a solid addition to any 100 mile pace/crew and a great friend.
After five stops in two hours to drain the excess hydration, our first real stop was Wichita to pick up one of the most undeniably entertaining and inspiring humans I have ever met, Mr. Epic Ultras himself – Eric Steele. Eric has been running ultras himself for more than 20 years and now puts on the best ultras in the Midwest. Eric also earned his own Leadville buckle some 15+ years ago. A fountain of ultrarunning knowledge and motivation, Eric is more importantly my brother-from-another-mother. We picked up Eric and met with another Wichita ultrarunner, and good friend, Dave Meeth for lunch – who provided us with a bunch of great energy and mojo, wishing us luck and sending us on our way.
The drive out to Colorado was mostly uneventful and consisted of food and pit stops. You see, I was given the following advice: “The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to be massively hydrated.” I followed that advice before a training trip to the mountains in July and it worked perfectly. The downside is having to stop every 50 miles in order to keep your bladder from bursting.
After a long drive beginning in Southeastern Kansas and finishing up in the haze obscured mountains (courtesy of the California wildfires) of the high country of Colorado, we arrived at The New Summit Inn in Frisco. We got checked in and relaxed in our room. Ryan and Eric went on a beer run and watched some local teenager wiggle on the ground outside of the hotel. This is its own story, but basically they supposed he had too much of the newly legalized recreational “Colorado herbage”. I slept decently, knowing I still had one more day before the race started and that basically everything I could do was already done.
Friday would be the first time we drove into Leadville as a team. We arrived at the packet pickup on Harrison Street and I got my swag bag complete with my #5 bib. I was also given a wristband with name, d.o.b, and relative medical info. This band signifies your entry into the race, if you quit or miss a cutoff, they cut it off. If the band is cut, your race is over. After getting checked in, we had a couple hours before the pre-race meeting, so of course, we ate. After breakfast we walked around checking out the town. Leadville has a really touristy yet throwback kind of feel to it, and the streets were filled up with runners, their crews, and family members. I remember feeling a really cool vibe as though we were all on the verge of something pretty important. At Lake County High School gym, completely surrounded by a massive herd of runners and crew, the pre-race briefing had the hairs on my neck standing on end. The speakers featured Dr. John, the funny medical director, who was giving out great last minute advice in a very funny and most entertaining way, followed by race founder Ken Chlouber who has the ability to motivate a large crowd with just a few words. According to this old cowboy (and 10+ time Leadville 100 finisher), “You are better than you think you are and can do more than you think you can do.” At the end of the meeting, I fully believed him. I took his oath and repeated out loud, “I commit to NOT QUIT.” After the meeting was over, we drove out to the village of Twin Lakes where I would have aid available at mile 40 and 60. It is also the final aid station before the round trip over Hope Pass. After a while driving in the mountains, we ended up back in Frisco eating one of my favorite pre-race meals; KFC. Finger. Lickin’. Good. After a short trip to the store to get ice and water and we ended up back at our lodge and began to get my gear ready for the early (more like middle of the night) wake-up call needed to get us to the 4am start line on time. I had a couple pre-celebratory beers with Eric and Ryan, and Candi helped me get my race clothes ready and my race vest loaded for action – ensuring I didn’t end up at the start line with two left socks, no underwear, and missing a glove. Did I mention how great she was?
Start to May Queen
The start of the race was pretty chilly (35-40 degrees), but Ryan let me wear his hoodie for the 20 minutes or so we waited around the start line. At exactly 4:00am, Ken blasted his shotgun signaling the start of the race. More than 600 unacquainted best friends all sharing a single goal, we effortlessly rolled downhill and out of town eventually getting to Turquoise Lake where the trail became single track. We were in an extremely long conga-line but somehow I never felt like I was being either pushed or held up. It was quiet and dark, not much chatter. The first 2 hours and 22 minutes went by in a flash, and before you know it I had made half a loop around the lake and was at the May Queen aid station 13.5 miles into the race. I was quickly in and out of May Queen, filling my bottles and grabbing a bit of food. We had decided in advance that the crew would skip this stop because 1.) I really wouldn’t need anything. 2.) Driving out to this aid station is a pain in the ass on a single road with 600 other crews. It was the least I could do for my crew considering what they were doing for me. It was a good decision as I didn’t even stay at the aid station for a full minute. My plan was well established from the start – I figured I could maintain the required pace, but would not have much extra time to screw around at aid stops – I kept telling myself to plan ahead, get what you need, and move your ass on down the trail.
May Queen to Outward Bound
The first good climb is in this section on a bit of gnarly single track that takes you up to some dirt roads to get to the top of Sugarloaf. I mixed in some good powerhiking here at the steeper spots and ran what I could without sending my heart into an explosive range. Got rained on a bit as a little thunder shower rolled through. It was mostly overcast and but the sprinkle did seem to knock out the smoky haze somewhat. Eventually I crested the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and got to bomb down the section known as Powerline. Powerline is exactly what it sounds like, a trail/jeep/maintenance access road that runs under the power lines. No switchbacks, it can be very, very steep at times. I was trying to hold myself back so I didn’t trash my quads, but found it very difficult to run slow. It was a lot of fun blasting down the side of the mountain! At the base was a couple miles of road that led past the Fish Hatchery (previous site of this aid station) to the Outward Bound aid station. This was basically set up off the road in a pasture. Candi, Eric and Ryan were here standing by the timing chute ready to crew me for the first time of the day. They took my trash, filled my bottles, and restocked my vest. This was roughly 24 miles into the race, and I still was not in need of much, so I was in and out of OB very quickly and headed on toward Halfpipe. Knowing the first 40 miles of the race are the “easiest”, I wanted to make the most of them, without pushing too hard. That is a difficult balance to find, but I was for the most part sticking with my plan.
OB to Half Pipe
This section kind of sucked. Leaving OB was a section of mowed grass leading across the pasture, followed by a section of pavement, finally followed by a forest road before getting to Half Pipe. It was pretty hot and dusty and I was firmly in my first rough patch, but managed to eat and drink my way through it. Along this section there was an alternate crew access point and I got to see my people for a couple minutes, which I did not expect. They filled me up, but more importantly they perked me up, which I was definitely needing at that point. Arriving in Half Pipe at the 50K mark in just a couple minutes under 6 hours, I was still right at my goal time. I am not really sure what the hell Half Pipe is, but it was a pretty cool aid station, just not crew accessible – so needless to say, I didn’t lounge around here very long. I grabbed a handful of GU’s, my primary fuel source, and hit the dusty trail.
Half Pipe to Twin Lakes
Once you leave Half Pipe it is a pretty steady climb for about 5 miles. Nothing real steep, just kind of always going up, and it is mostly not-really-that-technical single track. I got into a pretty good groove here, but was a little slower than I felt, I am guessing it was due to the steady uphill. It is 8.5 miles to TL but seems like at least 15. There was a small outpost on Mt. Elbert sponsored by CamelBak where they had fluids, but otherwise there is not much to break up this chunk. I was ok mentally but was a bit sleepy and kind of slow, which led to me getting to Twin Lakes at noon, about 20 minutes behind my goal time, but well within the cutoff. This aid station was freaking huge! I am telling you it was like a circus of people and shelters about a half mile long. The aid station was in an old fire station, or at least the bays where you park firetrucks. I found my crew, and they took expert care of me, getting some different foods in me. I think I managed to eat a banana and some mixed fruit along with some watermelon and sandwich quarters. It definitely felt like lunchtime, and I hit the aid table like an all you can eat buffet.
Twin Lakes to Winfield
Twin Lakes is the last stop before going up and over Hope Pass. In a span of about 5 miles, runners ascend from 9200’ to 12,600’ above sea level on rocky, single track trails. To make it even more fun, leading up to the climb, adventurous runners get to wade through knee deep water for about ½ of a mile after leaving the aid station to get to the base of the mountain. Once you get just above the tree line is the Hopeless aid station. This crazy group of volunteers pack all supplies up on llamas. Yes, llamas. They are an awesome bunch and made the best potato soup on the course. I fought like hell to get up the mountain – getting passed by a lot of folks who were either a.) Much better climbers than me. b.) Much better at high altitude than me. 3.) BOTH. Whatever the case, I just kept hammering away at the mountain, hiking 50-100 yards and leaning on a tree or sitting on a rock for 6 deep breaths. I was really struggling to keep my heartrate below about 5900 bpm. Eventually I made it to the Hopeless aid station, albeit much slower than I would have liked. I ate some soup and sandwiches, filled my bottles and sat for 3 minutes (I timed it). One would assume that since you made it to the aid station, it would be time to head on down the back side…. Nope… There are probably another 500 or so feet to climb before reaching the summit on some very steep switchbacks. Once cresting Hope Pass, I got to stare in awe for miles in both directions before beginning the steep ascent that would take me to Winfield and the half way point of this very tough race. The back side of Hope Pass is super steep, and I fell on my ass more than once. It was steep enough that I was not doing too much running, feeling like I would end up rolling off the side of the mountain and die should I catch my toe. At the base of the back side, the course turns and heads to the aid station that marks the turn around, and I thought it was much closer than it actually was. This section of the race was easily the most painful, depressing, and not very much fun part of the entire adventure. I came hauling my out-of-water-not-eating-anything-ass into Winfield at just before 4:45pm. The cutoff here was “gone by 6 pm”, and to be honest, I did not know if I would be ready to leave in time. I had planned on being here by 3:45 but took an ass-whoopin’ climbing up and down Hope. Ken Chlouber had quoted Mike Tyson at the pre-race meeting, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That had proved so true, and my jaw hurt like hell from the uppercut that the mountain gave me. Coming up the road I was greeting by my wonderful wife who had had been pacing nervously, waiting for me to arrive. I handed her my bottles and said, “Fix me.” She asked what was wrong, but honestly I was pretty loopy and said I wasn’t sure. Our plan had been made in advance, that WHEN I began to struggle, they were to force-feed me, take no excuses and kick my ass down the trail. Ryan and Candi were giving me food to eat (not options) while Eric was getting ready to pace. I asked for my knee braces because it hurt to run down – not a good sign when you are HALF way through a 100 mile mountain race. I also took an Aleve and drained a bottle of Sustained Energy (THANK YOU HAMMER NUTRITION). After 15 minutes and what felt like an eternity, they helped me get up of the ground and start walking me out of the aid station. This is where I could say that my crew saved my race, but it would actually be more accurate to say that this is where they STARTED saving my race – details to follow.
Winfield to Twin Lakes
I have now passed half way, and seen the entire Leadville Trail 100 course. I have Eric Steele pacing me for at least the next 10.5 miles back to Twin Lakes, with only 2 things standing in our way. The first is a big-ass mountain and the second is a 9:45pm cutoff. We left Winfield at exactly 5:01pm and the way I was feeling I might not make it back up Hope Pass before 9:45pm! As I had experienced in other ultras, I began to feel much better very quickly after taking in food and fluids. A combination of having someone like Eric to leech energy off of and the food I had ingested breathed new life back into me. After a while we passed people still headed to the turn and it hit me that they would not be making the return trip. They would be timed out at Winfield and their LT100 dreams would be over for the day. While I felt bad for them, it also lit a fire under me that I still had a chance and that I needed to push hard if I really wanted that belt buckle. Digging deep is a central theme of Leadville, and that is exactly what I did. I dug as deep as I ever had and propelled myself back up the steep side of Hope Pass. The front is steep, but the back side is a fucking wall. With the help of Eric’s expert singing and hilarious dirty limericks echoing on the mountain, we made it back to the top of Hope Pass, passing several runners on the climb. At this point I was feeling GREAT, literally and figuratively on top of the world! We stopped for a bite at Hopeless before jetting on down the mountain. Everything was going perfectly, and I was making good time as the sun went down. Once getting back under the tree line, it started getting dark very quickly. Eric and I bantering back and forth, tired legs, and dim trails led to a couple of falls fairly close to the bottom. Both times I rolled my left ankle just a bit, but both times it burned for a minute but was OK. We crossed the meadow and eventually made it back to the water crossing which at mile 60 felt pretty damn good to me. Upon arrival back at the Twin Lakes aid station the crew was excited and glad to see me feeling so much better. I was in at about 9:00pm, 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I thanked Ryan and Candi for saving me at Winfield and started eating. And eating. I also lubed up my feet and put on fresh socks and shoes. Amazingly, a fresh pair of socks and shoes can really give you a nice boost. Ryan was all set to pace, and after maybe 8 minutes I was headed toward Half Pipe and the 69 mile point – by way of a long climb up Mt. Elbert.
Twin Lakes to Half Pipe
There is not too much to say about this section aside from the fact that right after round tripping Hope Pass, you have about a 3 mile section of single track that gains about 1400 feet. To put this in perspective, that is only about 100 feet less than the Powerline climb at mile 80. Not sure why this section does not get more attention, but it is pretty rough. I had been warned by a number of people to be ready for it, and I was. The plan was to hike it as hard as we could and the try and make up some time on the 5.5 mile descent into Half Pipe. We stuck with the plan, and Ryan pushed me whenever he could, and always kept me eating on schedule, the method Eric had started on his section. This worked great, and my energy never lagged too much. We leapfrogged the same 12-20 people for the entire section into Half Pipe, and saw one guy puke at least 10 times. I just kept thinking, “I am tired, but I freaking glad I am not THAT GUY.” I was really slowing down at this point, but we still managed to gain back a few minutes and got farther ahead of the 1:15am cutoff. We got to Half Pipe and almost exactly midnight and I sat for a minute while Ryan got me broth and filled my bottles. I knew it was another 6.5 miles to get back to Outward Bound, which means it was almost time to climb the dreaded Powerline. It also meant that Candi would be pacing me soon, which is always a huge boost for me.
This section was weird. The road was smooth, dusty and gray. I felt like we were running on the moon, although my legs did not agree that it was moon gravity. Ryan eventually pulled out a handheld flashlight and it was super bright and helped a great deal to give depth to the world. I was in a hazy , dreamlike state and just kept shuffling along at this point – eating when Ryan said eat, shuffling when he said run. It seemed like no time before we covered 3 miles and returned to the alternate crew access point, which was good, because I was getting very sick of GU gels and was having a bit of trouble swallowing them. Candi and Eric mixed me up a bottle of Sustained Energy, and it was a great boost. We got in and out and made good time toward the OB aid station. A couple miles before the aid station we got to the open area out of the wooded mountain and it got cold. To me it felt as it the temperature had dropped 25 degrees. I was shivering and only had a light jacket on, and zipping it up only helped a little. Thankfully, Ryan had his rain jacket stowed on his pack and let me wear it. Chances are that I would have been battling hypothermia had he not had it. So once again, the crew just kept on saving my race. We got to OB a full hour before the cut-off at almost exactly 2am. Candi was on deck and ready to run! I sat and gathered myself for a minute and they briefed me on time, cutoff, and what I would need to do to get my buckle. It seemed impossible that I could go another 20 miles as tired as I was feeling, but I had long ago decided that it didn’t matter what the “outlook” was- I was just going to keep going until I either crossed the finish line or they told me I missed the cutoff and I was pulled.
Outward Bound to May Queen
Leaving OB at 2am means I would have 4 hours and 30 minutes to get up and over Powerline and back to May Queen, a section about 11 miles long. Aside from the steep-as-shit climb up Powerline (with 80 mountain miles on your body), there is also a section of really technical single track just waiting to twist your ankles and pop your knees for you. Also, if you get to May Queen at the 6:30am cutoff, that only leaves you 3:30 to cover the last half marathon which is either single track or going uphill at a fairly steep slope. 3:30 sounds like a lot to do a half marathon, but trust me, at the end of a Leadville, it sounds like a sprint. Candi prodded me out of the aid station and it was up the road until we got back to the Powerline trail. I took the advice of a few Leadville veterans and just kept grinding. Don’t look up to the top – just focus on the next 50 feet – then do it again. Candi did a mixture of cheering me on and challenging me to push harder. She is as good a pacer as she is wife, and I am sure glad she is mine. We grinded away at the climb and I rested when my heartrate got too high. Eventually, after the 200 or so false summits, we made it! At the top was an oasis we were not expecting – a party on the mountain masquerading as an aid station. While I am pretty sure this is not an officially sanctioned stop, I was glad it was there. Folks were partying their asses off and I only wish I felt good enough to sample the libations. We burned down the back side of Sugarloaf at a nice interval shuffle and eventually got back to the single track. It was slow going, but eventually we made it back to the road into May Queen shortly before 6am.
May Queen to Finish
Coming into MQ, the crew was there to meet us and take care of us as they had done all day and night. Eric and Ryan filled my bottles while I used the porta-John. I felt like time was running out and was somewhat in panic mode, even though I had 4 hours to cover the last 13.5 miles. I knew I had slowed down a lot and desperately did not want to be coming up 6th street as time expired. Candi gave me a Red Bull and told me when it was gone, we were running until we got back off the road and onto the trail. As we took off, a guy said, “Great job, but you need to RUN some around the lake, you need the time!” It was strange how hearing it from someone else can light a fire, and it did. We took off and actually knocked down a 12 minute mile in the first time since very early in the race. Candi told me to just take what the trail gives, and that is exactly what we did. We were able to run most of the way back around Turquoise Lake at about 15 minute mile pace, pretty good for 90 some miles into a race, over rolling single track. We got a surprise from Eric and Ryan at Tabor boat ramp, they had stopped just to cheer us on and ask if we needed anything, but we just took a hug and rolled on. After we finally came up off the trail and onto the road, it feels like you should be done… but you are NOT. I was also warned about this, and just kept telling myself that we are close, but not there yet. Time wise we were in pretty good shape and I realized in my mind I could walk the entire rest of the race and get the finish, but still had this strange feeling that something bad could still happen. We jogged/walked intervals off and on and I marveled at how damn steep these hills were while getting ever closer to town. We finally came off the last long dirt road hill and got back onto the pavement that would become 6th street and lead us to the finish line. In the last mile, Eric and Ryan joined Candi and I as we marched proudly toward the red carpet and ultimately the finish line. As we looked up the hill and saw runners and their families crossing the finish, it hit me for the first time that I was actually going to do this. With the help of my wife and best friends, we were going to make my Leadville dream a reality. We joined hands in unity, raised them in the air, and crossed the finish line together with about 30 minutes to spare. After a round of hugs for my team, Marilee hung the medal around my neck and Ken gave me a big sweaty hug. Needless to say it was a long, difficult adventure and that moment crossing the finish line is most definitely one that I will never forget.
Until next time… BE EPIC!