Running The Leadville 100 Miler
It started as a passing comment from another athlete… 6 months later I entered the Leadville 100 miler in Colorado. It starts at 4am August 16th at 2,800m climbing to 3,800m. The out and-back course winds over mountainous off-road trails, through rivers, pine forests, alpine rock and serious, serious climbs over Sugarloaf Mt and Hope Pass. A ghost town marks the turnaround! 40% of the 600 competitors finish inside the 30 hour cutoff - most will drop out before 70 miles (120km).
The Leadville 100 certainly instills fear! I've competed in the 250km Marathon des Sables in Morocco twice, the 79km Swiss Alpine Marathon at altitude and the 60km Kepler Challenge in the mountains around Te Anau 4 times - but Leadville scares me! Imagine running 100 miles in the mountains, at altitude - these types of races take people apart mentally and physically.
It's going to be a challenge but I've learnt a lot from other races - below are some of them. Some seem abundantly simple - but it's amazing how people seek out complexity when it's the simple & practical aspects of racing that need the attention and focus.
In 2006 I competed in the Davos Swiss Alpine Marathon - a 50mile (79km) mountain run starting at 1,500m & climbing to 2,600m. As altitude starts impacting performance at around 1,100m I had tried to train and adapt for this and will have to do the same for Leadville. It's also very important to remember, that living and training at altitude makes you susceptible to illness (particularly lung infections!) and once you get sick - it takes longer to recover. Barometric pressure drops - the oxygen % remains the same as at sea level (20.93%). The pressure drop impacts the oxygen uptake into tissues.
Preparing To Race At Altitude
Break this into 2 broad areas: 1/ before departure 2/ after arrival at race location (acclimitisation). The following ideas on preparation are based on research, past experience, and input from professional athletes who have lived & trained at altitude:
- Before departure
Altitude Simulation - intermittent hypoxic exposure at rest (breathing hypoxic air through a face mask ). An example: two 3 week sets of daily 40 minute sessions: Set 1 - 12 weeks prior to departure; Set 2 - 3 weeks prior to departure.
Don't risk your race by not doing this. Although it is difficult to fully substantiate the benefits, it does appear to help. NB. Now, some years after writing this article i have raced many more times at altitude... I look back and am not convinced this programme is needed or even effective. I now prepare as best as possible but go to altitude in correct time, adjust the diet to maximise red cell production weeks before and step my acclimatisation. This has proven very effective. For instance i go to Denver three and a half weeks prior to Leadville 100, after running a last distance run at home, take it easy for two days and go up to Boulder for 4 or so days training then up to Leadville itself for three weeks of detailed work in the mountains. I would also say i have found it easier to acclimatise with multiple trips. This note added May 2013. Back to original article.
For important or long races like Leadville - allow time to acclimatize. Serious athletes with time and money acclimatize for 1 to 3 months. With this amount of time, your body will produce extra blood cells. For the rest of us… 2 to 4 weeks is good. This gives your body time to adapt. Less than 10 days is cutting it fine.
General Pointers On Acclimitisation
Be wary how high! Higher is not always best - get some adaptation at lower levels first. Leadville is at 10,000 feet so going directly there is not an option - it will floor me meaning I won't be able to train for days. I'll go to Boulder first (6,500ft) and will carefully lift the altitude to 14,000ft after several days.
Be aware of training time and intensity. Reduce training times and intensity for a few days. You can easily drive yourself into a hole and get sick. Walk and jog and have lots of naps in between. Initially your heart rate will be elevated.
Increase fluid by 20 to 30%. You loose more water at altitude because of the dry air and increased fluid loss.
Increase food intake. Your basal metabolic rate increases at altitude. Carbohydrates appear more palatable at altitude and should represent around 60% of calorie intake. Carbs are easier to burn and replace glycogen.
Eat iron rich foods. Red meat, dark leafy greens, prune juice and take an iron supplement (Floradix). Iron is necessary for the creation of red blood cells Supplement with vitamin E.
Racing in High Temperatures
In 2003 and 2006 I finished in the top 50 of the amazing Marathon Of The Sands in Morocco. 800 people step up for the 7 day, 6 stage event over the most spectacular countryside. Temperatures soar to 50o during the day and drop to -1 at night. You carry everything you need for the 7 days except for water rations. To duplicate terrain and temperatures, I trained in black sands and dunes of Auckland's west cost beaches where temperatures rise to the early and mid 40's. I knew I had to teach my body to race on a ration of 750ml of water an hour. I camped up for several nights to test gear and food. All these steps help condition mind and body:
- Acclimatize to heat. You need a minimum of 10 to 14 days. Ideally, you would simulate heat during training. If summer - go to hot places; if winter or you can't get anywhere hot - train in a sauna. As you adapt, you sweat less and can reabsorb sodium and chloride. You are trying to get your kidneys to reabsorb more water and excrete less sodium.
- Clothing. Light and loose fitting, protect head neck and eyes. I used Pearl Izumi gear - it is tough, light and comfortable. Test clothing thoroughly - if it is a multi-day event - sleep out in it, get up and run with no showers for several days.
- Sun screen. For a race such as the Marathon Des Sables - forget it. Dirt protects you. For others, apply the night before to allow absorption into the skin, don't shower in the morning & reapply again before the race.
- Avoid dehydration. Have regular drinking patterns, always know how much you have drunk. I'm a bottle guy - I like to see exactly how much I'm consuming and monitor the mix of drinks. Know and understand your fluids. And…. always start hydrated!
Know how to recognize & avoid sodium depletion (hyponatremia). This is important for races like Leadville. I have used salt tablets and electrolyte capsules. Reduce and increase amounts depending on the race and the type of drinks you are using. If taking tablets / caps generally don't take more than about 350 milligrams per hour. I'm talking about extreme races here. Short events don't require sodium supplements.
Get the most from aid stations. Top athletes move fast through these areas getting equipment, food and race information in a practiced manner. Don't stop at aid stations - move smoothly through them. Demons haunt aid stations - keep moving & you keep away from them.
Find out where they are on the course & what's available. Know distances between aid stations. Train on the foods and drinks provided as this minimizes what you put into drop bags. If crew are used they should be briefed as you will be forgetful.
Consume what you have planned whilst running, be ready to consume and re-supply as practiced.
Think about what you are going to do at an aid station before you get there! Bottles open and ready, instructions for crew or staff… You should know what you want before you get there.
Goal Setting, Training and Getting Tough….
Set a realistic goal and ensure enough time to get there. Unrealistic goals are common. If you want a 3 hour marathon you'll probably have to run 6 days week for several months; to win your age group in Kona you will need to train consistently around 30 hours per week. Budget for costs in the form of focused lifestyle, equipment, weight training, professional fees for those helping you such as a massage therapist or physio, excellent foods and supplements. Greatest improvements will come from your body and mind - don't be tempted by equipment - you can only buy more speed if you are already pretty fast…
Look ahead… prepare your body to accept training to come. This could be a year or two depending on your background and the challenge. Completing a half marathon will obviously be much less than this but doing a one day Coast to Coast or 160 km run may be 5 months or 2 years.
Are you going to participate or race? Nothing wrong with either but decide.
Regularity and consistency of training is vital. I like to train every day or 6 days a week It may just be 45 minutes of weights or an easy 1 hour run. The consistency builds a rhythm; once you have a rhythm it becomes comfortable and manageable.
Events. Carefully select events with your final goal in mind. Random racing stops! Races should typically have an objective.
Get help! …from an experienced coach with a proven track record. If you think you know it all - you are probably wrong.
Stop with excuses. Enter, plan & start training now. There will be no perfect time - today is as good a day to start as any.
We are soft. Our grandfathers and parents were tougher. Many of us need to toughen up and get disciplined about our training so we can race hard!
Get to your important races fresh - not fried.
So…in August I'll give a 100 miler a nudge. I intend to continue to run into my 60's and beyond…. I have looked deep into my soul in the wilderness so I think I know what to expect but mistakes happen. Either way its great stuff and I'll have tales to tell after the race. A warm thank you to sponsors Pearl Izumi for their excellent quality clothing, Marmot outdoor gear and Leatherman knives. Good luck to all you people out there this winter going for your goals ….. see you out there!
Russell is the owner of Action Potential Sports Massage (Auckland) and trains athletes in ultra/multi-day events.