Leadville 100 mile trail run - first of two, 2008
The Leadville 100miler (160kms) was held in the worst weather in the history of the race. It is Sunday, I'm back at 10,200ft (3,100mtrs) and I have just crossed the finish line - I'm toasted! My feet are twice their normal size, I have 9 black nails, ruptured blisters across the soles of both feet and a knee that has refused to bend for hours. On the plus side, I'm one of only 187 finishers after 600 registered on Friday and 500 toed the start line on Saturday. Ken Chlouber, the race owner, must have eaten his stetson when he saw the forecast for race day - rain, hail, spectacular lightening storms, strong winds, and of course, snow to low levels.
Despite all that…
what a fabulous, huge, scenic, challenging, painful, monster of an event packed with the most refreshing competitors. The competitors make no excuses - there is no talk about what time they are after, what time they will do next year, why they couldn't, didn't, should have or would have done more or less training. They toed the line - no excuses, ready and willing to take what they got on the day and take it on the chin. If only these attitudes were more common.
During the pre-race briefing, Ken told us all… "you are better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can". Leadville was both my best and my worst race. I had to dig deep within… here's the story.
After three and a half weeks of acclimatization in Leadville, Colorado, its 4am and off we go in a flurry of snow, headlights on. A great atmosphere, surrounded by the best prepared group of lean athletes I have ever started with. All appear relaxed, no wasted energy.
45 minutes later we join the track around Turquoise Lake in single file heading to Mayqueen aid station at 13 miles. I am wearing a lightweight waterproof Marmot jacket, ¾ Pearl tights, beanie and gloves and a long sleeve polyprop. Apart for about 4 hours later in the race - I will pretty much wear the same gear all day.
It is pitch black - no ambient light - the weather is simply too bad for that! It's a good trail through pines with rocky sections, shingle and bridged streams. I drain 3 x 600ml bottles before reaching the aid station and Denise (crew wife hybrid). I down300 calories in the form of Spiz liquid and simultaneously have a long pee - getting 2 jobs done at once. I take a new bottle beltcomplete with a number of food options including gels and food bars and head up into the bush as snow comes again and a spectacular lightning storm emerges. The race organizers are getting nervous - the lightening storm is so severe they are considering pulling competitors from the course. Dawn is emerging.
The next aid station is Fish Hatchery 9 miles away. The first part of the trail is rocky, uneven and bush clad and climbs up toSugarloaf Pass at 11,00ft (3,350 mtrs). It is hailing now - so hard it hurts your head. We hit a shingle road before commencing a rutted uneven descent to the aid station and the first medical checkpoint. It is snowing and the wind has picked up to around 30 knots or more. It is hard, however, to ignore the beauty of the spectacular area of the country. I am now 3:56 into the race. I down creamed rice, change my polyprop and put on thicker Pearl gloves. It is raining heavily and we push on into the wind towards Halfmoon, the 3rd aid station. Lightning crashes all around.
I hit Halfmoon after 5:15 and over 30 miles in (about 48km). For the first time in any race I have done, my stomach is rebelling and I am having real trouble eating. I know I did not eat enough between Fish Hatchery and Halfmoon. The planned nutrition strategy goes out the window and we switch to a strategy of simply eating whatever I can get down. We have brought along about a dozen grilled bacon strips - for some reason - I find these the most palatable and will eat them at the next few aid stations. I switch to the hot soup provided in the aid station. This is not good but distances like this test food tolerance, knowledge and flexibility. I am not the only one with nutritional issues - the aid station is a war zone!
I run up The Colorado Trail through a marvellous forest and towards Twin Lakes 9 miles on. Quite a climb with just one runner ahead. I have time to think about the bears that live here. I manage to consume my gels and empty two bottles of electrolyte drink before I see Twin Lakes village far below at the lowest point of the course (9,240ft / 2,800 mtrs). It sits next to a large lake with a braided river which we must cross. A rocky descent goes on for a long way before entering a big crowd, through the station to Denise who has food and clothing ready. In general, I am feeling o.k. and feel good that my physical training has prepared me well. I am however, concerned. For the first time ever, I have blisters on the soles of both of my feet and they are now extremely soft from being wet for over 5 hours. I also know that I am not consuming enough calories but can do little about this for now. 500 cals between each station is the goal together with electrolytes drinks. Only 60 miles (96km) to go with the big mountain ahead to do twice.
I leave, heading across the grassland, wading the river and braids. The water is bloody freezing and waist deep. We then head up into into the bush towards the 12,600 ft (3,800mtr) summit and Hope Pass. Hail pings off the trail and my beanie and another competitor shouts "aint this some tasty shit"- yep it is.
The climb up to Hope Pass is steep. Mix this with the altitude and you have a lung-screaming climb! After 9:23 I emerge just below the pass at Hopeless Aid station. What a place! desolate and big! The aid station tent is surrounded by snow-coveredgrazing llamas amid Tibetan prayer flags! Inside the tent runners are sucking on oxygen from cylinders. Because the race organizers are concerned about the weather impact on runners there is another checkpoint about 500 metres up on the ridge. Two people are huddled in bivvy sacks with a puppy lying between them. They are covered in snow - it is a beautiful sight. They are counting the runners. After muttering "couldn't you find a bigger hill" which they thought was hilarious - I head up, over and down toward the race turnaround point of Winfield - a couple of hours away.
The descent is difficult - my quads are all wobbly! The impact of the weather, altitude and distance becomes more apparent… I pass one lady passing bloody urine - she is not a happy bunny. She knows her kidneys are in trouble and a trip to medical is in order - game over. A few are walking or sitting by the road trying to fuel up. Many competitors are now in survival mode but a number will drop out at Winfield - no way I am but my bloody feet are painful. Leaders are now passing me heading back.
After a pathetic jog for 15 minutes I run about 55 minutes straight down to the dirt road leading to the ghost town of Winfield and hours ahead of cutoff. I am now 13 hrs into the race (50 miles/ 80 kms gone).
Denise has found Daniel to act as pacer for me but I'm not at my best so no wisecracks. I change my socks again but I know that my feet are history and changing sock and shoes is not going to help. More fluid and soup then off. The rain has stopped and we power up the mountain on the way home. Daniel encourages a really good cal stuffing session at Hopeless which helps plus cracker view enjoyed sitting with the Llamas - I now enjoy my best running so far to Twin Lakes, back to legend status! This feels great and we truly run down the mountain passing about 20 people, across the grasslands, wade the river (where my feet sting and skin floats around in my socks) and run even better into the village. My heart rate is great at 136 bpm and Denises worried Winfield look is now a smile - she mentions that I'm back on for 25hrs. This is not going to happen but I'll take all I can get after 60 miles / 96kms .
It is now late in the afternoon and we are heading back into the dark. We grab head torches and move uphill into the bush towards Halfmoon 9 miles on and 69 miles / 111 kms into this beast. I'm tired! but still mentally alert and keen. I still have my sense of humour but I know what is in store for me.
Daniel is great and we fall into a lonely rhythm in the dark. He reminds me to eat or drink, I put my hand behind me for the small morsel. A bond which some will understand is formed in these difficult hours. I've got trouble with my right knee and ITB - a new problem that I think may be due to changing my footfall to compensate for the pain caused by blisters. I drug up as best I can, suck up the pain and keep going. I am now approaching survival mode! We arrive shagged at Halfmoon after 18 hours with 69 miles / 111 kms in the bag. The tent is full of people really wanting to go on - but some are vomiting; one has collapsed; and a few others are just sitting there with a hundred mile gaze. It's becoming intensely painful to run with my knee but I am quite strong from my training. I recognize that the time has come to dig deep and enter the zone required. I'm frustrated because I'm used to being competitive but this is my first 100 miler and you can't skip some learning. I get that lonely feeling that I am at the back of the field - I have been passed by a few and the journey from Twin Lakes to Halfmoon was extremely slow. What I don't know is that probably around 150 runners have already dropped from the race and there are about 100 still behind me.
The next 7 miles to Fish Hatchery is flat and a low point for me as I struggle on. I'm locked on target despite the failing ability to generate much speed. The mind is clear and focused on the objective. 3 times in 30 mins I urinate - not a good sign, no way am I that well hydrated, plus its way too clear. Electrolyte tabs followed by food are the go then slowly rehydrate. Now I feel sick so I pop some Pepto Bismol tabs - the race is turning into a physiological puzzle! I even forget Daniels name for a while until the food seeps to my brain. My head torch is failing, no surprise with the cold and altitude shortening battery life. My knee is killing me!
Fish Hatchery is an island of warmth and friendly faces as the lightning and rain hammers down. Next to a heater, I grab a new torch, try to get my shivering under control and eat. Even with fresh clothing I'm still cold with teeth chattering - never been this cold before. In a desperate bid to retain food I hoe into coffee, soup, jellybeans and potato. Now I can see why people might eat pizza or crisps in these things, whatever works for you has to go in. 2 soaked women next to me are trying to get their show on the road with a worried mother helping but the racer is cold and slow to respond to her pacer. Opposite, one guy is fast asleep on a plastic chair under a blanket, race over. No way am I ready to chuck this in, I'm suffering quite a bit but still functioning.
The legs groan a bit with blisters squelching as we head out with me clutching a cup of mashed potato. The girls are still trying to get going. Much later I find out they went further but not the whole way.
Now, the big climb of Powerline to Sugarloaf Pass then on to Hagerman Pass. Only 10 miles to Mayqueen. The fun has gone. I'm no longer a legend and it's now officially the most painful part of any run I have done but oddly, few people are passing me and uphill I'm passing others. On the rocky bits and downhill my blisters are terrible but worse the knee is agony, despite taking the pain it won't bend so is slowing me and a few people slip past, hate that! I struggle into Mayqueen in terrible pain and get the Nurse and Doc over. Socks cut off reveal swollen feet and lifting nails plus huge blisters all over with ITB insertion agony. Good news though, no further damage can be done by continuing - apparently its just a question of pain and some days off! The doc straps my knee, the nurse bandages my feet (luckily I stopped her using silver duct tape, I've seen the results in Marathon Des Sables despite sometimes being the only option) and I take a nice cocktail of painkillers and anti-inflammatories.
As I stand I know its crunch time with 13 miles to go in the dark to get my Leadville buckle. Off I hop and hobble with Dan catching up fast after a pit stop in the bushes. I would rather not relive this stiff legged 'experience' around the boulders of Turqoise lake but somehow we make it as the dawn breaks and rain continues. I actually hop pretty fast up the street to the finishing line with the mountains all around snow covered for the first time since I have been here. Relief is one word but not a good enough one. Lance Armstrong had been here a week earlier in the Mt Bike 100 but he didn't appear to shake hands so I spend a few minutes sitting before heading home.
Final time 28 hrs 28 mins in 104th place from 500 starters. Only 187 finish. At the house I lay in the bath with legs over the side holding the shower over myself, exhausted but happy. The award ceremony is about 3 hours later and I'm surprised it's packed full of smiling people despite only a few finishing. All competitors and their supporters - regardless of whether they started or completed - have come to acknowledge the success of those that got over the line. If only more in our world could be so optimistic, strong and display this kind of serenity. Worth every minute of training and pain, you gotta do it. My thanks to Pearl Izumi, Marmot and Leatherman knives for their help. Congratulations also to Dan Greig and Lisa Tamati who at this time also went to the US to success in Wasatch 100 and Badwater respectively.
Would I do it again? You bet I would and probably will. It was my best and worst - my best because I now know how deep I can dig - my worst - because I actually had to dig that deep.
Russell Maylin is an ultra athlete running Action Potential Sports Massage and Coaching based in Parnell, Auckland.