Leadville 100 – 2011
Hundred milers are completely ridiculous. The challenges they offer are uniquely painful and profoundly humbling. My experience at the Leadville 100 last Saturday was very special. The distance whittled me to my core and left me genuinely appreciative of my existence, and the people I share it with. Ironically, there is nothing more life affirming than crossing the finish line of a 100 miler feeling like a dead body. It is incredible.
The race started at a casual and conversational pace with a large group of us chatting and catching up in the pre-dawn darkness. We had an awesome group and it was fun conversing with so many guys whom I look up to in the sport. As expected, Mike Arnstein was already way off the front by the time we hit the Turquoise Lake Trail, while our pack hit the bottle neck and finally went single file. The banter continued all the way to Mayqueen which I think we hit at about 1:43. My old man was there alone for the second year in a row to hand me a new bottle and take the sleeves I had been wearing at the start.
Nearly all the guys I had been running with had to stop for refills so I exited Mayqueen alone and continued up the road to the Timberline Trailhead. I intentionally hadn’t stepped foot on the course since last year’s race and had forgotten how frustrating and rocky the Colorado Trail section is that connects runners to Hagerman Pass Road. Timmy Parr caught up to me here and we soon caught Mike on the steeper sections of trail just before the road. Mike’s strength is obviously road running which he exhibited as soon as we hit Hagerman, beginning the climb up Sugarloaf Pass. Timmy went with him as I forced myself to stop for a bathroom break, fighting the urge to chase so early.
The sunrise was insane and the climbing was easy. I could feel myself really easing into the race as I began the long descent down Powerline to the Fish Hatchery. Good friend and ultra inspiration Ryan Burch soon caught me on the downhill (as usual) and we ran together for a while discussing the meditative utility of running in big mountains. Ryan is such a good guy. I’m so happy his race went so well. We soon caught Mike and Timmy near the bottom as we descended into the ground fog that had collected in the valley as a result of all night thunderstorms. It was pretty amazing to see from above.
The four of us hit the Fish Hatchery pretty much simultaneously and were greeted by a big crowd of supporters. Mike was out first and proceeded to lay down what appeared to be a sub-six minute pace out to Halfmoon Road. I was out second with another very quick transition, but Timmy caught and passed me maybe a quarter mile down the road. Obviously I was not concerned with place yet and acknowledged the fact that I could never run with these guys in a race on pavement or at a distance shorter than 100 miles.
Ryan Sandes soon came up from behind as we approached Treeline. We agreed that the early pace might have been a bit too hot so we both eased off the gas a bit. I got another new bottle from Courtnee at Treeline and made a concerted effort to drink a lot as the cloudless morning continued to warm up. I had already eaten a ton of food (something I think is important in the first 30 miles of 100s) so my sloshing stomach helped me to remain conservative, slow, and relaxed on the jeep road to the Colorado Trail. Ryan and I continued to run together and both stopped for refills at Halfmoon Aid. We caught Timmy, who was dealing with a little bit of a rough patch, a little after leaving and the three of us made the tricky right turn onto the CO Trail together.
I felt great and my spirits were high as we hit the shady, soft single track below Mt. Elbert. Burch soon rejoined our group and we ran as a four man wolf pack all the way to Twin Lakes on what is my favorite section of the race course.
The raucous crowds of Twin Lakes Aid were awesome but they were overshadowed by my growing concern about lack of salt intake. Butt sweat had already dissolved the pills I had in my back pocket and I did not have a resupply with my crew. I worriedly inquired in the garage as to where I could find some S! Caps but learned the race wasn’t providing any. I was a little pissed off to say the least. You’d think they could have afforded it with my $300 entry fee. I immediately dumped a bunch of table salt from a shaker into my palm and hungrily devoured it. Luckily Timmy’s crew handed him a bag of S! Caps and he was willing to share. Really a stand up move on his part.
Our wolf pack exited together with Mike still a few minutes off the front. What waited for us outside of Twin Lakes was the crux of the Leadville 100 race course. The Hope Pass double crossing is a place where the race can be won or lost, so I knew I had to execute over the next twenty miles if I was going to have a chance of doing well. My climbing legs didn’t feel like showing up for the first go at Hope though. Ryan and Timmy began running some of the less steep stuff and all I could do was watch as they pulled well ahead. Burch was hiking well also and it took everything I had to stay with him for most of the climb.
By the time I hit Hopeless Aid my spirits were very low and pessimism had snuck into my thoughts. I was really down and felt I had no business running with the accomplished men I’d been with all morning. Timmy was having issues of his own and I was surprised to see him sitting in the aid tent when I arrived. I could see both Sandes and Burch ahead but knew I had to focus on myself for the remainder of the climb if I was to pull out of my rut.
Luckily, with the help of a couple caffeinated gels, I was able to do just that. By the time I hit the downhill on the South side of Hope I was feeling much better. Soon after leaving the top, I did something I’ve never done before – I caught Burch on a downhill. He obviously wasn’t pushing the pace, but it did help to boost my confidence and make me think that maybe I was going to have a good day after all. We dropped down onto Winfield road together and I instantly felt a new gear in my legs. It was a great feeling and I rode this momentum all the way to the Winfield turn around at about 7:55 – a full 25 minutes faster than last year.
Ryan Sandes had taken the lead from Mike and they were about 7 and 5 minutes ahead respectively at the turn. I picked up good buddy, training partner, and two-time Leadville podium finisher Zeke Tiernan at Winfield and together we smoked the road back down to the Hope Pass Trail. Zeke was absolutely critical to my success this year. It was such an advantage to have someone so knowledgeable about running and familiar with the course for such a long period of time. I cannot thank him enough for his enthusiasm and companionship on Saturday. What a stud.
My climbing legs came to party on the South side of Hope which was very encouraging. We ran all of the flatter stuff near the top and could tell it was only a matter of time before we caught a fading Fruitarian. Sure enough we blew past Mike and his pacer about three switchbacks down on the North side descent and barely stopped at Hopeless aid. My game face was on and my legs were agile as we negotiated both the terrain and the outbound runners all the way back down to the meadows outside of Twin Lakes. I was simply on fire as we reentered Twin Lakes Aid to the energizing cheers of the crowd.
I chugged a whole can of Coke and quickly left hoping to take full advantage of what was turning out to be an extended patch of good, energized running. But the ensuing climb quickly became a slog. I ran as much as I could but was starting to worry that we had run the second downhill on Hope a bit too hard, as some pretty serious pain was starting to creep into my Quadzillas. Zeke could tell that things were starting to hurt and offered me tons of support and distracted me with conversation. I didn’t talk much but it was definitely nice to have him when the miles started to accumulate and drag on.
As we approached Halfmoon Aid there was a stake in the ground with a sign announcing that we had completed seventy miles of our journey. The sign really served to remove what wind remained in my sails. Mile seventy in a hundred is a cruel and brutal place to be. Everything hurts and you still have to mentally embrace running thirty additional miles. Holy shit. One step at a time.
We soon reached Treeline where Team ShredBo was amassed. It was such a boost to see them throughout the day but at Treeline I really needed their energy. They could tell that things were unraveling but were careful to lie and tell me otherwise. I’m so lucky to have those people in my life. Courtnee walked out with me and I could tell she was a bit nervous about my condition. She was a champion crew chief though and managed my race beautifully as usual all day long.
The road miles back to the Hatchery were a battle. I did not want to run but knew that walking was not an option if I was going to sustain my position in the race. I grunted and moaned and avoided Zeke’s insistence that I eat and drink. Things were really going downhill fast. We got back to Fish Hatchery in one piece but I was really hurting. Zeke and I hugged and I thanked him for his commitment to my race before leaving the Hatchery with good buddy, Clint Coerdt who was to take me back over Sugarloaf Pass to Mayqueen.
We got to the bottom of Powerline where the South Africans told me that Ryan was struggling also. I got a little shot from that but still did not have the energy (or the time) it would have taken to mount a comeback. Clint, who did Hope with me last year, did everything he could to pull me out of my funk on the climb up Powerline. My poor condition made me worry that someone was gaining from behind but we never saw a soul as we looked over our shoulders on the extended sections with good visibility. Our progress was embarrassingly slow and I couldn’t find a rhythm to save my life. I’d break into a running cadence every so often for about fifteen steps before confronting another wall of a climb that I’d have to hike. Fucking Powerline.
Clint continued to tell me how well I was moving when really I was in a pathetic crawl. I knew he was lying but I didn’t have the heart to tell him to shut up. The false summits kept coming and the morale kept dropping as we made our way up. Eventually we hit the top and began the downhill where I finally found a second wind. The quads still had life and were able to really hammer the downhill and CO trail section all the way to Mayqueen.
Feeling moderately better, I began strategizing the last half marathon. Local Aspen/Antarctic running legend, Rickey Gates was there hanging with Team ShredBo and he assured me that the gap between me and Ryan was not closable. He told me to just hold it together for a solid second place. This became my plan. Hold it together and get the damn thing done as quick as possible.
I dropped off Clint, who did an awesome job again this year, and picked up fellow Roaring Fork Valley resident and accomplished runner Jeremy Duncan who would escort me to the Red Carpet. Jeremy told me that Neal Gorman had moved into third place which made me really nervous. Neal is a closer and a very accomplished 100 mile guy who chased me hard to the end last year. I didn’t want to give him any hope this year so I did everything I could to crush the Lake Trail. And that I did, as Jeremy and I got off the Lake and down the Powerline cut before even turning on the headlamps.
I knew I had second place locked up so, once we hit the Boulevard, I lost all motivation to run. I walked pretty much every step up the Boulevard until we hit the pavement and enjoyed every minute of it. Jeremy and I crested the last little hill and could finally see the finish line. I could hear the well lubricated voices of my joyous crew from a half mile away and rode their cheers all the way down 6th Street, down the Red Carpet, and across the finish line. Officially I finished in 17:18:59, which was good for the 6th fastest time ever, while also being the fastest non-winning time on record. What an incredible day.
I can say with full confidence that my race at Leadville last weekend was the greatest race of my life, and maybe my single greatest accomplishment. I could not be happier with the way things went. That being said, I know I can do better on this course and will be back soon to try. I’m sure I’ll start thinking about Leadville 2012 next week and obsess over it until next August. That has sort of been the trend over the last two years.
I’d also like to say what an honor it was to share the trail and conversations with so many respected and accomplished runners up front last weekend. Among others, I had the pleasure of speaking at length with Ryan Sandes at the finish line on Sunday morning. What a classy and deserving champion. It would be really cool to see him come back.
The icing on the cake for me was seeing good buddy Rocky Kroeger cross the finish line in his first attempt at the distance early Sunday morning. Dude is the most passionate and enthusiastic guy I know and certainly has the heart to succeed at anything. I hope he chases a big buckle next year.
Finally, I’d like to thank my crew, the infamous Team ShredBo. I love you guys and appreciate the love you show me. I almost feel like it’s an unfair advantage to have you all in my corner. I’m so happy and lucky to call you my friends and family. For those of you who had to deal with ShredBo and its obnoxious size, I offer my apologies. It will be larger next year. Fire it up!
My brother did an incredible write up on the race from his perspective. He is far smarter than I. Read it here.