Leadville – 100 Mile, “Race across the sky.”
A few months ago my buddy gave my a book the was titled, The Most Difficult Endurance Challenges in the World. Knowing I am always up for a good challenge, I believe he thought it would be a good guide for me to create a “bucket list” of events I’d like to complete before I died. So much so, that he apologized to Holly, my fiancè, the day before he gave me this gift of inspiration. I often flip through the pages of this book and certain races and challenges stick out to me at different times. To name a few, The Mountain Man, The Western States, and, Marathon des Sables. The first one I decided to attempt was the Leadville 100 mile, “Race Across the Sky“. As if running 100 miles over 6 summits on Rocky Mountain trails in under 30 hours isn’t a challenge enough, Leadville sits 2 miles above sea level and the infamous Hope Pass waits for you at the 40 mile marker. Hope Pass can crush the strongest of trail runners, I speak from experience. You drop to an elevation of 9,200 feet above sea level and climb to 12,600 feet above sea level over the distance of 5 miles. Oh yeah, The Leadville 100 Mile Trail Run is an “out and back” course. Therefore, once up, over, and down this challenge, you turn around and do it again. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? This is where I lose most people, but if you said, “yes” just now, I understand. Some people question the sanity of those attempting to run an event like Leadville. I assure you from being around enough ultra runners this past year, although quirky, these are some of the most generous, put together, and down to earth athletes I’ve engaged with in my athletic career.
“The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race; it’s to test the limits of the human heart.” – Bill Bowerman
It was 3:30am the day before the gun was to sound, launching the 2014 Leadville 100 mile trail run. The “Race Across the Sky” as it has been lovingly named. I would like to say the only reason I was up was because I was fixing my sleep schedule to match that of race day, but I was restless and nervous for tomorrow. I wasn’t the only one up. I cooked up some coffee and went for a walk around our campsite just outside the Leadville, CO city limits. As I walked, I ran into a man named Jonathan. He was sipping coffee as well, looking out toward the mountains. I met Jonathan the day before. It seemed fate that we were to become friends, as we continued to cross paths several times in the coming days. I approached, and asked what he was looking at. He smiled, whispering, he replied “my route.” Little did I know we were looking at the race route, and I asked him to point it out to me. He pointed, and I followed his finger. As we talked, what seemed like mile by mile, a lump came into my throat. The sunrise was just striking Mount Elbert, then Jonathan fell quiet. Took a breath, and asked if I could see the far peak on the range. I replied with a yes. He asked me to follow that peak down to the “saddle” between the two peaks. I told him I was looking at the spot, he patted me on the back and said, “That’s Hope Pass.” Jonathan has run this race before, when he said Hope Pass, it was as if he was talking about a mythical creature from the depths of the ocean. We stayed in that field conversing about ultra marathons we had run this past year, the training, the lifestyle commitment, and on and on. There aren’t too many books or training information on ultra marathoning for obvious reasons. Most techniques, gear, and nutrition methods are shared amongst runners. We talked for over an hour, and then went back to our campsites. We had a busy day of race meetings, medical check-ins, and last minute race preparations before tomorrow.
For a race of this magnitude runners need a crew. To crew a crazy race like Leadville is a tall order, which is usually why the crews are made up of of best friends and family, that put it all out there for their runner. That’s exactly what I had . My fiancè, Holly. My best friend, Corey and his girlfriend Lindsay. I love these people. They were my support, my rock, and they really did a nice job. We were all rookies at this, and I think we did a great job, learned a lot, and enjoyed ourselves. I think the last part came with the community of people we are around. “There are no spectators at Leadville.” Corey told me after the race. Everybody is working. Everybody is helping. From residents, to a 6 year old boy that was instructed to run to the car, over a mile away, to grab an item that was left behind. Everybody is 100% invested in what’s happening with the race and the runners. My crew was no different, and I had the joy of the people I care for most prepping me at each aid station. It doesn’t get any better than that.
A good crew is prepared, but they also need to work together. No time for bullshit. No time for ego. It’s all about the task at hand. This was my crew. Corey was the chief, making sure the items were there, and the team stayed together, Lindsay was there, prepping food, and supporting route information, and my dear Holly was there for the most important element I could ask for, she gave me love and support the whole journey. The selfless giving a crew offers the runner is inspirational. Another lesson in humility and community.
My alarm rang at 3:30am, the race starts in 30 minutes. Corey had already brewed coffee. The air was crisp, and it was a perfect day to start the Leadville 100 mile trail run. We drove to the start line made our last preparations, and waited for the countdown. I bumped into Jonathan. We exchanged pleasantries, and without warning the countdown began. THREE – TWO – ONE!!!! The gun fired, and a large puff of smoke lifted. We were off. I was in the middle of the pack, and could not move too freely. My plan was to run the first 13.5 miles in 2 hours, but I thought, maybe I should hang back and conserve energy. This was a mistake. I had a plan, I practiced my plan, and last minute I decided to change the plan. I let the pressure get to me, I knew it was happening, and I could not stop it from happening. I convinced myself, I was playing it safe and smart. The first five miles of this race is open road. Wide enough to pass people, and mostly downhill. There is no reason to “take it easy” The biggest lesson I learned in Leadville is to run hard when you can. I say that because there are parts of the race where running hard is not an option, so you must run hard when you can. At about mile 7 the course narrows to single track, so where you are in placement is pretty much where you are for the next 6 miles. My advice to runners is to start hot, to get in good position for this gorgeous run along Turquoise Lake. I made it through the first aid at May Queen with ease, and I felt great. I headed for the next phase of the race which was a trip up Hagerman Pass, elevation 11,125 ft, Hagerman is a high mountain pass that crosses the continental divide. I handled the next 10.5 miles very well, but I made another rookie error. I bombed down the back side of Hangerman, known as “Power Line” because of the power lines that run along next to the trail. This fried my quads, and I had nothing for the next leg of the race. The next leg is 7.5 miles across relatively flat ground. As I said earlier, Leadville is a race that you need to run hard when you can. I cooked my legs leading into an area that I recommend people run a 9 minute mile pace until they hit the base of Mount Elbert. Then slow down for the next five miles until you get to Half Pipe aid. I was so screwed up from my heroic efforts on “Power Line” I had to walk most of the flat between mile 23 and 30.5. I did not lose hope though. I knew if I hit Twin Lakes before 1:00pm, I had a shot at making this race a finish. So, I regained confidence at the Half Pipe aid station, and bombed out. I ran to next 9 miles a little over an hour. I flew into Twin Lakes at 12:52pm. I had a very good chance of finishing the race.
I was out of Twin Lakes by 1:15pm, and did two things wrong by my book. The first was I rented hiking poles the day before. This has been deemed a mistake because I had never used hiking poles before in my life. You might think as I did, that it would make the hike up Hope Pass easier, in reality I invested too much strength in the poles and they slowed me down. This was because I didn’t know how to use them, if you like them please use them, I doubt I ever will again. The other mistake was more subtle. I made the decision to walk to the Hope Pass trailhead. I must have been delirious. It’s about 4 miles! I was stubborn about it too. I felt it best to rest my legs. It took about an hour to to arrive at the trailhead, and I feel like I lost 30 minutes. I’ll say it again. When you can run hard at Leadville, you should. I started up Hope Pass at 2:00pm. I felt good, and confident I trained well for this very climb. As I mentioned before, I brought along hiking poles for the first time ever. I thought they would be an asset. I know many use poles successfully, but I never had the experience with this equipment. That is the moral here, “Never break formation.” I had climbed bigger, steeper, and more gnarly mountains than Hope Pass without poles, but I choked. I let the pressure get to me, and my decision to change my plan was one of panic and fear of not doing everything in my power to finish. I invested to much strength to the poles, it wore down my upper body strength, and I almost fell twice. I was almost to the top, and I was laughing at my rookie error. Under that laughter was shy sadness and grounded humility. I wasn’t done though, I still had fire. I summited Hope Pass at 4:30pm, this was only 30 minutes slower than the 2 hours I had given myself to complete the 2,800 foot straight up climb. I felt resolve back in my legs, at I started to chop down the back side of the mountain. I felt good, I felt like I had gotten by the worst of the trail, but I was wrong. I underestimated the run to Winfield. In preparing for this race, I was so focused on Hope Pass, that I over looked the 720 foot climb to Winfield. I came down the back side of Hope Pass, and I was cooking. I was damn near sprinting. When I hit the base, not even 2 miles from the summit, there was nowhere to go except up. I did my best, but this little climb was like a sucker punch to my heart. I could not hustle, my thoughts were clouded, I pressed on to Winfield anyway. I arrived at 6:02pm. Racers had to be in Winfield, medically cleared, and out of Winfield by 6:00pm. I tried to skate passed to the tent, by looking chipper and fresh, but they cut my band at 5o miles deep. I was congratulated by everyone there for my effort, and 50 miles, on this course, is a hell of an accomplishment. I felt pretty good, my legs didn’t hurt, but my heart did. My family, my clients, my crew, and Holly. All behind me. I felt, only for a moment, that I was a disappointment.
Then a thought came to me. Pain, failure, and disappointment are great feelings to experience. They create drive and growth. I learned a lot, in fact, I go back to a 50 mile race I did not finish earlier this year. In that experience I had not prepared enough on rocky, slippery, trails. I practiced. I am excellent on that terrain today. Leadville was my first 100 mile run ever. People tell me that’s crazy because it’s one of the most difficult endurance challenges in the world. That’s okay with me, because I want to learn the ropes on advanced courses, and I am. I have a few more races this year. A 50 miler in the hills of western Massachusetts, 200 mile relay in New Hampshire, a 50k in Vermont, and a road marathon in Rhode Island. I am training hard, and believe this experience will push me through these events, and I will enjoy sweet triumph all the more as compliment to the bitterness of defeat. I always test myself, because, breakthrough is right around the corner everyday. Step outside your comfort zone. Do the impossible, and live the TriJake Method. “You can do more than you think you can” (Ken Chlouber) Leadville 100 trail founder
Special thanks to all the volunteers and community of Leadville, CO and the surrounding towns. It means the world to people like me.