The "Race Across the Sky" has been a bucket list hundred mile race for me since I was drawn to the wild and crazy sport of Ultrarunning. Aptly named, the Leadville 100 has an average course elevation over 10,000 ft. and while it affords beautiful views, the air is thin and there is little room for error.
I had a great summer build up of running to Leadville with the guidance of my coach Mario Fraioli, highlighted by three weeks of exploring the mountains of Colorado with my good buddy Brian, the crew at GU and detailed my training build up here.
Heading into the race I felt fit, acclimated (or as much as a sea level athlete can be) and healthy. I knew this could be the most challenging 100-mile race I had yet to run but was looking forward to giving this classic everything I had. Spending a few weeks in Colorado gave me a unique perspective heading into race day and I had my eyes on a sub-20 hour time and a top-10 finish. Leadville was the most competitive race I had entered, but I felt fit and ready to roll the dice.
Start to Outward Bound 1 (Mile 24.5)
With a gunshot from race founder Ken more than 700 hundred runners left Leadville at 4:00 AM with high hopes to return within the next 30 hours. I have started quite a few ultra's in the last five years, but never at 4:00 AM and with nowhere near such a large field. The excitement and energy were palpable. Running through downtown Leadville with so many runners was a special way to start the day, but within minutes I found myself nestled into a group of friends and Bay Area locals Brett Rivers and Devon Yanko. Brett and Devon, both accomplished runners and wonderful humans, had high hopes for the race and we chatted through the pre-dawn morning as if we were back home out for a Saturday run at San Francisco Running Company.
We knew how easy the first 13 miles of the course was and we made a conscious effort to take the pace out very comfortable. As we came into Mayqueen we separated, but I was confident we would link up throughout the day. Three hours into the race as the sun was coming up and I was descending Pipeline with the out and back nature of the course I knew all too well that I would be journeying back up this fire road. I realized if I ran my goal splits I would hit the same trails as the sun would be setting. The mind makes interesting connections when outputting significant efforts and I found it astounding that I could be so early in the race and already think of my return trip. I made quick and easy work of this descent and rolled into Outward Bound where I would see my crew and pacer for the first time.
Outward Bound 1 to Twin Lakes 1 (Mile 39.5)
As I came into Outward Bound six minutes ahead of my splits I felt great physically, right where I wanted to be in the race and stoked to see both my lifelong friend Josh who had driven up from Denver and my good friend Travis who had generously flown all the way from the Bay to pace me the last 50 miles of Leadville. I took a few minutes to re-stock, fuel and absorb their energy before heading back out to the trail.
As I left Outward Bound while I felt mentally strong, had good pop in my stride and was eating and drinking comfortably I was starting to feel a heaviness in my quads. I knew the next 15 miles were mostly flat and runnable and it would be key to conserve my energy and make sure I didn't exhaust my legs too early in the day. It was disconcerting to be feeling some discomfort 30 miles into my journey, but all I could do was roll with what my body was giving me and respond accordingly.
I started working on taking hike breaks every 20-30 minutes as well as increasing my GU intake from every 30 to every 20 minutes, giving me an additional 100 calories per hour. By mile 35 I was feeling more energetic my quads had stabilized and while they still felt heavy, the hike breaks and increased calories had a positive effect on me. Throughout this section, I started to catch runners who had gone out hard but unfortunately caught my good buddy Stephen. Stephen is an incredible runner, but was feeling the altitude and starting to suffer. We ran together for a few minutes and I tried to give him as much friendly energy as I could, with hopes that he was going through an early low patch and would catch back up to me.
I loved this 15 mile stretch of the course, it was miles that I had consciously chosen not to run in training so part of the course would remain new to me, and it was a pleasant surprise to be flying through beautifully wooded single-track. Leadville is very much a high-alpine fire road race, and while Hope Pass affords amazing views and the fire roads allow for fast times, it was great to enjoy some single-track miles.
Twin Lakes 1 to Winfield (Mile 50)
As I descended to the low point (9,200 ft.) of the race at Twin Lakes I got my first true burst of adrenaline for the day. I knew coming out of Twin Lakes and ascending up and over Hope Pass to the halfway point at Winfield was imperative to my race and had visualized this first ascent over and over in my training. By this point, I had moved up to top 30 in the race and was 20 minutes ahead of my planned splits. I was feeling comfortable with my pace but was looking forward to testing my climbing legs and getting to the most scenic portion of the iconic course.
Josh and Travis had all my gear ready and after a few minutes in the aid station I started my journey up Hope Pass. I found a solid climbing groove and started picking off runners and by the time I reached the top I had moved up a handful of spots and was feeling excited to be executing my race plan. But as life generally goes, one minute you can feel on top of the world, in this case, quite literally being over 12,000 ft. and seeing all of the Rocky mountains surrounding me, and the next you can come crashing down. As I descended the backside of Hope to Winfield and the turn around I could feel my legs were not as responsive as I was hoping. The best way I can describe this is when running strong my legs feel like steel, they seemingly have the ability to go forever and there is no pain or exhaustion, just a constant sense of power and strength, but as I descended to Winfield my steel turned to lead and I felt I could be in for a long second half. I caught up to Devon at this point and was elated to see her running so well, she was moving comfortably and looked as fresh as when we had shared the first 15 miles together!
Winfield to Twin Lakes 2 (Mile 60.5)
I came into Winfield to cheers from the aid station and friends who had come out to support. As I had moved up in the race, I was now nine and a half hours into my run, within a minute of my planned splits and in the top 20 overall. I took time at Winfield to refresh, changes shoes and mentally prepare for the return trip to Leadville. I was pumped to be picking up Travis and I could tell he was ready to get moving as we had crossed paths with Brett just 15 minutes ahead of me!
Before I knew it we were out of the aid station and headed back to Leadville. As we made our way up Hope Pass Travis filled me in on his day and I pulled energy from my friend. One of my favorite aspects of the 100-mile distance is getting to share miles with your pacer. It is such a unique part of this type of distance racing and after 10+ hours of running a very welcome break from the solitude. Travis and I settled into a strong climbing rhythm and I was able to make good work of the second ascent back up to the top of Hope Pass. We ran into my buddy Billy Yang as we neared the top and it was great to see him crushing his race!
As we reached the summit I took a minute to simply enjoy where we were. It was amazing to watch so many runners coming up and over Hope Pass. As we started to make our descent back to Twin Lakes, the heaviness in my quads returned with a vengeance. I could tell my downhill pace was starting to slow and had my first low patch knowing how much further I had to race and that I could be in for some long miles if my legs didn't come back.
A mile out from Twin Lakes we had our final stream crossing and I took a full five minutes to crouch in the freezing water. I was hoping I could shock my quads back into freshness, or at the very least numb them into submission.
Twin Lakes to Outward Bound (Mile 75.5)
Travis and I came to Twin Lakes for the return trip and I was greeted by a crew that had swelled to include Mario as well as my good buddy and Marketing Manager for Sufferfest Beer Michael McSherry! I could feel their energy and excitement and did my best to make quick work of this aid station, even though all I wanted was a few minutes rest. They had me eating and moving and a few short minutes later Trav and I were out of the aid station.
Looking back this could have been an unwise choice for me. I was feeling pretty cooked, and for the first time, all day started to feel hot. Running above 10,000 ft. with not a cloud in sight, I had expected to feel the heat at some point, and it really hit me all at once. We slowed to a hike and I told Travis I needed to ease up on the pace for a few minutes and gather myself. After a few minutes, I took a turn for the worse, and for the first time while running became quite nauseous. I could barely move and I had more than 30 miles still to run! How quickly I had gone from the top of the world at Hope Pass to a snail's pace trying to keep from throwing up.
I pulled off the trail and just took a break. I wasn't really sure what to do, but if I could close my eyes and get my breath calm, maybe I could will this nausea into submission. After a solid ten minutes of silence and Travis's words of encouragement, I was able to get hiking again. My heart rate started calming and as much as I wanted to run, it took everything I had to simply keep my legs moving. While our intensity had dropped, we both were still upbeat and marveled at how amazing it was that our bodies were capable of running this far. As I was able to relax and reset we were back and I began climbing out of my second low patch.
I had experienced low points in past 100's and was hopeful that with 70 miles in my legs I had worked through this rough patch with not too much time lost. At this point, I had fallen off my 20-hour pace, but still had a good chance of going under 21-hours.
Outward Bound to Finish (Mile 100!)
Travis and I picked up the pace heading into Outward bound as we had reached the golden hour and the Rockies did not disappoint with an incredible sunset. Coming into Outward bound I was more than an hour behind my splits, but feeling strong and as if I could make up some of that time with my renewed energy. Josh, Mario, and Michael quickly went to work getting me broth, warm clothes for the fast approaching night and at some point, I looked at each of them with a sense of wonder. I felt so lucky to have great friends that were willing to come out and support my goal so enthusiastically, all I could do was give them each a big hug and thank you.
As Travis and I hiked our way out of Outward Bound I let him know I was feeling strong and ready to give the last 25 miles all I had left. We had one final climb back up Pipeline before our descent back to Mayqueen and then a 13-mile jaunt around the lake to Leadville. As we started the climb up Pipeline, I quickly slowed to an incredibly slow hike. My quads had officially called it a day, only problem was I was 20 miles from the finish. The next three miles were hands down the most difficult I have ever covered. Each upward step became a monumental task. As my body betrayed me, my mind went to the darkest place I have ever been running. My world shrunk to what my headlight lit up, and I felt as if we were scaling Everest. To top it off, I vastly underestimated how cold it would be if I was not running, and with my slowed pace I was generating very little body heat. When we finally reached the top of the climb, it took everything I had to not call it a day.
I sat down at the fire in the aid station, and within two minutes felt total stiffness wrap me, I didn't know if I would ever be able to unclench my hands. Travis and I have debated, and he is likely in the right, but I swear I was only at that fire for a couple minutes before he was pulling me out of the chair to continue on. In reality, it was closer to thirty minutes, but in my mind, I was ready to stay by that fire all night. The descent into Mayqueen was incredibly painful, each step shot fire into my quads, but I was able to move enough to not feel totally frozen. As we shuffled into Mayqueen I was passed by a steady stream of runners and it was disheartening to see how slowly we were moving. Travis even started doing calculations for what time we would finish if we walked it in.
When we arrived at Mayqueen I bargained for one more chair session by the fire and after fifteen minutes of thawing my legs I looked up to see Travis smiling right at me. All I could do was smile back and start laughing. For all the pain and suffering, I couldn't imagine being anywhere else. I was out in the mountains on an incredible adventure, so what if it hurts? I wouldn't remember the pain in a few weeks, the positive memories of my Colorado adventure would outlast them much longer. I pulled myself out of the aid station and we started our final 13-mile journey back to Leadville.
As we made our way around the lake I was able to find one last reserve of energy and grind out a halfway decent run. I was happy to not have to walk it in, and a few short hours later we were rounding our way back into town. I picked up the pace and Travis and I bounded across the finish line and I gave Ken a massive bear hug. It felt incredible to be done, I battled more lows in this race than ever before and to come across the finish line was so gratifying. Not to mention that both Mario and Michael had stayed up till 3:00 AM to watch me run it in, truly great guys!
In reflecting on my Leadville race I am proud to have gutted out a very tough race, I didn't hit all my goals, but going under 24 hours at my fourth 100-mile race and for the fourth year in a row is a consistency I am proud of. I have spent the last few months enjoying running with great friends and have had the immense pleasure of returning the crew/pacer favor to Travis during his first 100-miler at Oil Creek in his home state of Pennsylvania. I also got to pace my wonderful girlfriend Gabi Maudiere to her first 100-mile finish and win at Rio Del Lago 100!
I have no races on the calendar currently but have put in the lottery for Western States in '18, fingers crossed I get in, but if not I am looking forward to plenty of other races I have had my eye on. Who knows, I may even come back to Leadville for some unfinished business.