Heading into the start of the Grand Slam this summer, all of my eggs were tossed into the Western States bucket. All of the lead up and all of the preparation was built around maximizing performance on race day. With the training being so difficult to juggle around work and life, there thankfully wasn’t much free time to worry about the other three races, let alone anything else.
Post Western States, the 20 days before Vermont were a complete blur. With a body that was battered and unfortunately with little time to recover, Vermont was an exercise in pain management. Relatively speaking, the five full weeks between Vermont and Leadville felt like an eternity.
The plan after Vermont was to heal up and work on getting stronger. Not being able to walk without a limp for a couple weeks wasn’t the best scenario for “training,” but at least it forced me to not run and spend my time hiking and in the gym.
The first gym workout post Vermont was absolutely atrocious!
One of the many mistakes I made in the lead up to WS was cutting out full workouts and focusing primarily on VERY basic exercises. Although my fitness level climbed due to the increased workload, my body wasn’t fully prepared to take on all the miles, and not surprisingly broke down after Western States. With less than three years of ultrarunning experience, my body didn’t have the luxury of the accumulation of miles that many runners have entering this sport. Strength training has definitely helped in allowing my body to absorb the increased training over the years, but letting it slide while training for WS was a major mistake that I’m paying for now.
Listening to podcasts and reading race recaps from fellow Slammers, my plan for the first couple weeks post Vermont was to do nothing but weighted hiking and get my ass back in the gym. Timing worked out perfectly week one, as Thomas and Dylan were hiking their way around the Tahoe Rim Trail and wanted some company.
Carly and I made our way up the Friday after Vermont to spend three days hiking the TRT with Thomas and Dylan. For 12 days, Thomas’ wife Valerie, their son Luke and Valerie’s dad were an amazing support crew, driving supplies back-and-forth nearly every other day to remote locations around the lake, while Thomas and Dylan made their 180ish mile adventure around Lake Tahoe. A thru hike providing breathtaking views, both literally and physically, with passes over 10,000ft, the TRT isn’t a beginners hiking trip.
Carly and I met Team Reiss at their house near the lake, and Valerie drove us to Barker Pass to meet the guys early on Friday afternoon. Albeit dirty and smelly as all hell, Thomas and Dylan looked pretty solid for having already completed 90ish miles. Fortunately I haven’t had the pleasure of looking at a mirror 90 miles into a race, but I would bet the barn that I look like hammered poo 100 out of 100 times.
We had a great time hiking with Thomas and Dylan on Friday and Saturday, and ended up 8-9 miles farther than we initially expected on Saturday evening. Carly and I hiked back to Tahoe City on Sunday morning to meet up with the support crew, and although I was forced to hobble my way through the 33ish miles, my body felt ok and it gave me some confidence that I’d be able to heal up enough to tackle Leadville.
The four remaining weeks heading into Leadville were filled with a significant amount of weighted hiking, two gym workouts each week, daily core exercises, and only around 100 miles of slow running. I was even able to spend some miles on the trails with Nick, as he and his wife traveled down to SLO for a wedding. With the body feeling healthier and stronger than at anytime after WS or Vermont, although nowhere near 100%, I felt confident in being able to battle the mountains.
My dad and good buddy Aaron met up in Denver on the Thursday night before the race. They flew out to help crew, and this would be Aaron’s first ultra experience. I did my best to talk him out of it, but Aaron’s pretty damn stubborn and insisted that he was coming. After a short night of sleep due to a very extended flight delay, we woke up early and made our way out to Leadville.
The old mining town of Leadville houses roughly 2,000 tough and gritty residents. A booming mining town once populated by thousands digging for silver and gold, Leadville’s local mine closed in the 70’s and crippled the town overnight. A former miner turned politician, Ken Chlouber, decided on an unorthodox idea to save his town. Creating a 100 mile footrace to showcase the ruggedness and beauty of the area, Chlouber’s race sparked an interest in Leadville from not only athletes but tourists as well. Flash forward 35+ years, and the Leadville 100 has stood the test of time, as one of the oldest and most iconic 100 miles races in the US, and regarded by many as the savior of the town.
We rolled into Leadville at 9:30am on Friday morning, with plenty of time (30 minutes) to check in for the following days race. For an event the allows 800-900 starters, the check in process was the most efficient I’d ever witnessed. Likely because 99% of runners didn’t wait till the last minute to pick up their packets, I’ll just tee it up to incredibly efficient race management.
After a quick lunch at the oldest saloon in Leadville, built in 1887 with what looked like an original bar and signature noose hanging in the entry way to the dining room, we spent the remainder of the day meandering around town. Assuming Leadville would have a Virginia City feel with wooden walkways and a Wild West cache, I shouldn’t assume. This town is old, rugged and definitely proud of itself, as nearly every store sold their own version of a Leadville souvenir.
Deciding to walk to the pre-race meeting at the local high school, we didn’t realize it was a damn mile outside town. Sucking wind on our leisurely stroll to the high school gym wasn’t entirely comforting, as this would be hopefully the slowest we’d be moving all day Saturday. The pre-race meeting was relatively short, compared to the post-crew briefing that the Grand Slammers had to wait through so we could snap our pre-Leadville photo. Several hours later and after a surprisingly delicious pizza dinner, we called it an early night.
Up early and feeling pretty tired from the lack of recent sleep, I followed my pre-race ritual of leaded coffee and two trips to el bano. The Delaware Hotel where we stayed for the weekend (thanks Phil for hooking us up with the reservation), was perfectly situated less than two blocks from the race start, so we could take our time enjoying the brisk morning.
An interestingly Leadville hotel, the Delaware was really, really old. Full of trinkets and with the feel of an old brothel, you weren’t sneaking up on anyone at this joint, as every step sounded like it would be the last for the baseboards.
Heading over to the starting line at 3:50am, for the first time in 20 ultras, the temp was cool enough (36 degrees) to warrant a jacket and gloves. Trying to weasel into the middle of the pack, I settled in with Sean Bowman, a fellow slammer that had completed Leadville once before. After reciprocal “good lucks,” we were off.
Our gameplan for Leadville was to start out VERY conservatively. I wasn’t too worried about early pacing considering how battered I was from WS and Vermont, but I made an extra effort to let hundreds of runners take off, settling somewhere in the mid-pack for the first 13 miles to the May Queen aid station. After several miles of downhill paved and/or hard packed road, we made our way onto the singletrack trail that runs around Turquoise Lake.
Butts to nuts for the remaining 7ish miles to the aid station, we were running slow… really friggin slow… and I loved it! With zero race experience at altitude, as Western States doesn’t count with only the first 20-30 miles being around 7-8k, I really had no idea how my body would respond. Forcing myself into the mid-pack early would guarantee that I would have time to figure out if all those hours in the Hypoxico tent would payoff. Fortunately, it did.
Feeling great coming into the May Queen aid station at mile 13, after making a quick offering to the porcelain gods, I switched out my headlamp for hat and sunglasses and headed out towards the first big climb of the day.
The Leadville 100 is an out-and-back race, with essentially three large climbs, or six in total. The first and last significant climb of the day comes between miles 13 and 24, and is called Powerline. Primarily because there’s a big ass power line that runs parallel to this jeep road, it’s significantly steeper on the return.
Making our way up and over Powerline, my plan was to slowly work up the ranks throughout the day. Making a concerted effort to relax over the early miles, I slowly made my way up to Tommy Barlow, an awesome Slammer with little experience like myself, who would later complete an outstanding sub 24hr finish. Tommy’s backyard is the Wasatch mountain range, so we’re expecting big things from him on September 9th.
After a few more miles I ran into Tyler Tomasillo, a Luna athlete, race director and always high quality beer mile performer. We chatted about his upcoming race, the Hideaway 100k in Colorado, and it sounds like an absolute blast. For anyone looking for a rugged and beautiful CO race in the fall, sign up for Tyler’s Hideaway event.
Cruising into the 24 mile aid station with likely a couple hundred runners still in front, I quickly spotted Aaron and my pops, but unfortunately didn’t get to interact much other than a thumbs up and, “See ya at Twin Lakes.” With several flat miles heading out towards the second significant climb of the day, I started to settle in and find a comfortable pace in the cool mountain temp. Nutrition and hydration seemed to be going well, as I was certainly not to going to make a similar hydration mistake as Western States, getting in 500-1,000ml per hour.
Cruising into Twin Lakes, I felt great ready to greet Aaron and my pops, but unfortunately they were nowhere to be found. In hindsight, the crowds were large and loud, and I ran right past them. After a brief frigid river crossing, I ran into Jennifer Benna, F3. We spent the entire climb up to Hope Pass together, and chatted briefly in between our frequent deep breathing. She’s an incredible climber and would later finish in 3rd.
Hitting what I thought was the top of Hope Pass was the “Hopeless” aid station. These awesome volunteers spent the entire day taking care of runners, hiking up all the supplies up 3,000ft using llamas… yes, llamas! Trying to move quickly over Hope Pass, as I wanted to spend the least amount of time as possible over 12,000ft, I crested the pass just as Max King was running up the opposite direction. Crossing paths at 8:41 into the race, mile 45 for me and 55 for Max, I expected him to either set the course record or blow up in epic proportion. Unfortunately for Max, it was the latter.
Making my way into and out of Winfield, the halfway point of the race, was the most difficult climb of the day. The second Hope Pass ascent is a giant kick in the stomach, as it’s much steeper than the other side. After an epic slogfest up and over Hope, we started the descent back towards Twin Lakes. Feeling a bit lightheaded and with what felt like an elevated heart rate, the trip down to Twin Lakes was really slow and I got passed by multiple runners for the first time in the race.
Coming back through Twin Lakes, Aaron and my dad were set up and ready for a quick pit stop. After changing socks and shoes, I took a huge swig of water and headed out. Starting the 5th of 6 climbs out of Twin Lakes, I continued to feel lightheaded and my heart rate was through the roof.
Not sure what the hell to do, I ate more calories and drank more water. A mile later my body was in even worse shape. I was forced to walk even the flats as I couldn’t get my heart rate in check. Racking my already mushy brain for reasons as to why I’d be dizzy and winded this late into the race, the only time I had heard these same symptoms was listening to Erik Dube’s 2015 WS story on hyponatremia. Thinking back through the earlier 65 miles, I had drank a ton of fluids, in weather than was cooler than any race I’d ever ran. Confirming that my fingers were ridiculously swollen, I decided to stop drinking entirely, take more frequent S-caps and continue eating 100 calories per hour until things got better or worse. Fortunately, it wasn’t the latter.
After pissing 5 times in the 10 miles after deciding to halt hydration, my body finally came back around. My sausage fingers had shrunk, the dizziness was gone and most importantly my heart rate was back to “normal.” Hitting approximately mile 75, I was finally able to move quicker than a shuffle, and started to open up the stride.
Pulling into May Queen at Mile 76ish, I caught up with Aaron and my pops briefly, and headed out towards Twin Lakes. Feeling exponentially better, I was able to run again and made sure to keep an eye on hydration, only taking in fluids when I was thirsty. With the sunset already past and the moderate temperature dropping, I didn’t expect to need much in the way of hydration of the last quarter of the race.
The second Poweline climb was an asskicker, as it was very steep and very long. Finally cresting this beast of a climb, a makeshift aid station was set up on the top. The theme looked to be sci-fi, as the greeter was dressed in a giant alien suit, and some girls were running around with weird lights wrapped around blankets. The top of this climb was also exposed and the winds were howling, so it was the coldest portion of the course. After declining a hit from one of many pipes, yes weed is legal in CO, I put all my warm gear on and started the descent into Twin Lakes.
Thankfully the body felt great, so I was able to move rather efficiently into the last aid station. With some late race chafing occurring, I stopped briefly and had Aaron pass me a wet wipe and lube so I could clean up and lube up the butthole before the final stretch.
The last 13 miles took us back around Turquoise Lake, and then on a gradual climb back into town. With legs that felt relatively fresh likely from the slow miles trying to reel in the hyponatremia, I was able to run well over the last couple hours and thankfully pick off 10-15 runners. With a long, gradual climb to finish the race, runners crest the final hill, and the finish line shows up in the distance. Approximately .5 miles to the finish, runners can really smell the barn, as they can hear the cheering and the announcer from afar. Finishing in 22:43 in 30th place, I felt surprisingly great with no pain.
After a quick cleanup and few hour nap, we had breakfast and hit the awards ceremony to pick up the buckle and finisher sweatshirt. With flights later that day, we made quick time back to the airport so my dad and Aaron could head home, and I could head out to Baltimore for a week full of work meetings.
What I learned:
- Hyponatremia is no joke and will definitely ruin your day if you don’t diagnosis and tackle it quickly!
- Running at an elevation of 10,000ft+ for extended periods of time is tough… altitude tent or not
- Strength training works. Just do it!
- On paper, Leadville looks like a very fast and manageable course. The race is not on paper
- The Leadville family is a warm and welcoming group, that does everything in its power to help runners succeed