From Sea Level to Altitude!
So how do a couple of Brits who live at sea level end up tackling the so called “Race Across the Sky”, America’s highest ultra, the Leadville 100 Trail? Well, you could say that Colonel Gadaffi is to blame...well at least indirectly!
Back in February my Other Half (OH) was due to fly out to Libya to tackle the Libyan Challenge (a 125 mile desert race) and was all set to go until a little bit of argy bargee between Libya and Switzerland resulted in Libya putting a ban on a number of European countries. Now, as a Brit my OH was fine to enter the country, but as the race was being organised by a French company and 95% of the runners were French and Colonel G had banned the French, her Libyan dream came to a screeching halt! I had not entered this one having spent the whole of 2009 unable to run following a Gilmore’s groin operation and was not ready to tackle something of this magnitude.
So, with a very frustrated OH chomping at the bit for a running challenge, we found ourselves scouring the race calendars for a suitable replacement. A number of different countries were considered but I was favouring a trip to the US where the amount of 100 mile trail races is second to none and it is relatively cheap and easy to get to. However, the only problem is that most of the big races get filled up quicker than Usain Bolt and most require entry via a lottery and completion of 8 hours trail work...that is, most except the Leadville Trail 100. Unsure about whether this was really the case I decided to fire an email to the Leadville Race Director to check whether we could still enter and what the entry requirements were. The response that flew back was as follows:
"There are still spots available and no prerequisites required; if you think you're tough enough----so do we!"
With that kind of call to arms being thrown at us we were sold...we were going to Leadville!
How to Describe Leadville?
Race co-founder Kenneth Chlouber, an avid marathon runner, conceived of the race as a way to make Leadville famous and bring visitors during a period of economic downturn. When he told the local hospital administrator about his idea he was told, "You're crazy! You'll kill someone!" Ken responded, "Well, then we will be famous, won't we?"
The Race Across The Sky, as it has come to be known, is a 50-mile (80 km) out-and-back dogleg, starting at 10,200 feet (3,100 m). The centrepiece of the course are two climbs up to Hope Pass, an ascent to 12,620 feet (3,850 m), encountered on both the outbound trek and on the return. In total runners climb and descend 15,600 feet (4,800 m).
The best description of what this race is like was penned by Christopher McDougall in his book “Born to Run”....
“To get a sense of what he came up with, try running the Boston Marathon two times in a row with a sock stuffed in your mouth and then hike to the top of Pikes Peak.
Great. Now do it all again, this time with your eyes closed. That’s pretty much what the Leadville Trail 100 boils down to: nearly four full marathons, half of them in the dark, with twin twenty-six-hundred-foot climbs smack in the middle. Leadville’s starting line is twice as high as the altitude where planes pressurize their cabins, and from there you only go up…
…Fingers crossed, Leadville has yet to polish anyone off, probably because it beats most runners into submission before they collapse. Dean Karnazes, the self-styled Ultramarathon Man, couldn’t finish it the first two times he tried; after watching him drop out twice, the Leadville folks gave him their own nickname: “Ofer” (“O fer one, O for two…”). Less than half the field makes it to the finish every year.”
Much has been talked about the low finishing rate (which was 56% in 2010 and 55% in 2009) and whether this is due to the fact that there are no lottery and no entry requirements, i.e. it attracts runners who don’t have the qualifications to get in elsewhere. Having met a lot of runners at Leadville this year, I can tell you that this does not appear to be the case. Nobody we met was an inexperienced ultra runner and most had multiple 100 milers under their belt...from the chap who had 1 Leadville buckle and had been back 8 times to try and repeat this (failing each time as he did again this year), to the one who had done Western States 100 and Vermont 100 this year already (along with 14 other 100’s in prior years) on his path to the Grand Slam (completion of Western States, Leadville, Wasatch and either Vermont or Old Dominion in the same season) and again came unstuck on the slopes of Hope Pass. Those that were first timers tended to have crews and pacers who had done the race previously...we felt very lonely without either!
Every runner we met completely understood the unique challenges that this race poses and combining the altitude with the extreme wilderness of the Rockies can prove a lethal combination...no-one on that start line took this for granted! There is no doubt that the altitude does make a number of people think twice about doing this race and being acclimatised does make a big difference... 45% of all finishers came from Colorado itself with many more from surrounding high altitude states!
Race Specific training?
So having signed up we started casting our minds forward to what kind of shape we would have to be in to complete the LT100. This course is very runable and although there is significant ascent and descent, not so much that makes it hard going from that perspective. So in terms of training we decided to stick to our usual regime of long runs around the Surrey Hills, which at least has the benefit of some steepish hills. We also signed up for the Lakeland 50 as we figured that this would give us a good mountainous workout a few weeks prior to LT100 and enable us to test out race kit and strategies. This proved to be a good call and was a great race to boot.
The other aspect of my training, which in retrospect really helped me with the hills, was road biking. Having had complications with a Gilmore’s Groin operation in 2009 I had spent the entire year being unable to run and confined to my road bike. Not knowing when I would be able to return to running I decided to sign up to a charity ride (the “Tour de Force”) which was going to undertake the entire Tour de France route two weeks prior to the main event this summer. Some hardy souls signed up to ride the entire 3 week route...however, the thought of spending that much time on a razor blade of a saddle filled me with horror, and so I signed up to ride 5 stages including the 4 key mountain stages in the Pyrenees.
Having signed up I spent a significant amount of time on my bike training and then had 5 days of hard cycling in France for 8 hours to 9 hours a day, with climbs that often lasted for 2 hours...having completed those 5 stages my respect for those Tour riders has increased significantly...no wonder some of them used to consider doping to get through 3 weeks of that! Never having been a great advocate for cross training in the past I can now preach its benefits. There is no doubt that the biking helped develop my endurance base (in a low impact way) and the hill climbing acted as great leg strengthening. This was highlighted by the fact that I knocked about an hour off my time in one 40 mile trail race which I had done pre- and post- the surgery and bike training regime. I know most runners will find the idea of biking long distances very dull...but if you want to develop strength, improve endurance or are susceptible to injury then I would highly recommend incorporating some of this into your training routine.
Dealing with the Altitude
With the training regime taken care of we then decided to face that great big ugly gorilla that was sitting in the corner and taunting us...ALTITUDE! We, like most people in the UK, live at sea level (give or take 100m) and so the thought of tackling a race which started at over 10,000 feet was pretty scary...but then this is the main aspect of the Leadville challenge.
The altitude is a tricky one. From everything I have read it appears that unless you can spend c. 3 weeks at altitude before a race then it is unlikely that you will have enough time to acclimatise...unfortunately given work commitments and our three year old we simply did not have the time for that
The theory if time is tight is that you should simply get to altitude as close to the race as possible (i.e. within 24 hours of the start) so that your body does not have a chance to adjust...the technical explanations for this are beyond my grasp of physiology but there is a good article here if you are interested:
Link (roll over me to see where I go)
So we decided to swoop into Leadville the day before the race and hope for the best. About a week before we left we did start to take a herbal remedy, Ginkgo Biloba, which is supposed to help alleviate the issues associated with altitude sickness and was recommended by our GP who is a serious mountain climber (has summitted Everest). The other (and probably more entertaining solution if you get the right stuff) is to take a form of Coca leaves...this can be found in a herbal remedy form and others have found this to work well.
Did it work? Safe to say that we had mixed results. I did not appear to suffer from altitude sickness but my OH did and it totally scuppered her race by slowing her down to a snail’s pace on Hope Pass after having made great progress to that point. We met many people who went out to Boulder for 3 weeks prior to the race to acclimatise, and there is no doubt that they felt stronger and more prepared for the challenge. We could not have done that, and I suspect most people will be in the same boat.
The only other alternative would have been to undertake a course of Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT). IHT is a technique which involves breathing short bursts of “alpine-like” air through a mask, alternated with room or “ambient” air. The air changes occur every 3-5 minutes and a session lasts approximately 60 minutes. The word “Hypoxic” literally means reduced oxygen. The percentages of oxygen you breathe are set at predetermined levels (from 15-10%) to simulate conditions found at slowly increasing altitudes; this is then alternated with breathing room air which is 20.9% oxygen. In theory this enables the body to adapt to breathing low oxygen air and adaptation takes about 15 days. Machines cost about £500 per month to rent from places like “The Altitude Centre” in London or you can book in for sessions at the centre. It does add another cost to the trip, but if we were to undertake a high altitude challenge like this one again then there is no doubt that we would do this...your body does not always have a common reaction to altitude and I might not be so lucky next time!
Let the Fun Commence
So having prepared as well as we could we set off for Leadville. We left the UK on Thursday and flew into Denver via Dallas (there are direct flights but we were trying to use airmiles and this was the only flight we could get). We arrived in Denver at 8.30pm on Thursday evening, picked up a hire car and headed for Leadville. As we got into the car we were greeted by the mother of all rain storms with lightning flashing over the Rockies...better now than in 36 hours time! The drive to Leadville took just over 2 hours and is very straightforward.
On arriving in Leadville we found our hotel, The Historic Delaware Hotel, and collapsed into bed at around midnight following 22 hours of travelling. For those thinking about the LT100 I can highly recommend the Historic Delaware Hotel. It is a bit quirky being part museum and part hotel, but it is positioned 2 minutes walk from the start and finish line and the hall (6th Street Gym) where all the briefings, registration and prize giving are.
The following morning we got up early (still being on UK time) and went for our medical check-in and registration. As usual we were looking around and only seeing mountain goats and people who looked far better prepared to tackle this thing than we were. However, we did meet a couple of great guys: Giuseppe, the only Italian in the race, and who had been planning his attempt at this for 2 years and had spent the last 3 weeks in Boulder acclimatising, and Russell, who was a Brit now living in New Zealand. Russell had completed the LT100 in 2008 and was back for more and hoping for a sub-25 hour buckle...he too had spent a few weeks in Boulder to get ready for this. The fact that the first two people we met had spent 3-4 weeks acclimatising obviously did wonders for our confidence and sent us into a panic about whether our 3-4 hour acclimatisation would really be OK?!?
Having registered we went for breakfast (gotta love those pancakes and maple syrup) and then returned for the briefing. Now I would suggest that it is worth entering this race just to experience the race briefing given by Ken Chlouber! This was one hell of a call to arms with a classic opening which went something like this:
"Your friends think you are a moron; your family think you are nuts; your work colleagues think you are one sandwich short of a picnic! But you are simply misunderstood. Take a look around...you are finally with your kind of people...welcome to the Leadville family!"
From there Ken took a meandering path which veered from safety and practical info to introducing past Leadville champions and legends...we happened to be sitting next to a very unassuming chap who had completed this thing 23 times and had a buckle the size of a serving plate to show for it! It all ended with Ken getting the room to chant in unison: “Commit don’t Quit”! Yeah, you could argue it was all very American razzamatazz, but coming out of that room I defy anyone to say they weren’t pumped and ready to tackle this thing.
The rest of the day was taken up with eating, preparing drop bags, more eating and trying to rest up ahead of the early start the following day.
Nutrition and Hydration Strategy
This is probably a good point at which to mention my nutrition and hydration strategy. Not having a crew to keep us topped up, my OH and I decided to carry as much of what we needed and then supplement this on the way. Ultimately this worked for me whereas my OH relied much more on the more than adequate aid stations.
I broke the race down into 3 sections in terms of nutrition: the Start to Twin Lakes (the final aid station at 40miles before the ascent of Hope Pass); Twin Lakes to Twin Lakes (20 miles including the turnaround point); and, Twin Lakes to the Finish. This meant that I could get away with only using one drop bag, i.e. at the 40 miles and 60 miles point. I was using my trusty 10 litre Salomon Vest Back Pack and packed this out with enough food and powder to get me from the Start to Twin Lakes.
The actual hydration and nutrition strategy was something like this:
• Hydration – drink 2 bottles of PSP22 (c. 1.5 litres) every stage. I carried one bottle as a hand held and had the other in my backpack. I switched to a 2 litre bladder at Twin Lakes so that I could use my walking poles up Hope Pass and still drink, and then kept using the bladder until the end. During the race I pretty much only drank one bottle per stage with the exception of some of the longer stages during the heat of the day. In the latter stages of the race I stopped using PSP22 and switched to High5 Xtreme Energy Source which has the benefit of being caffeinated.
• Nutrition – my plan was to alternate between taking Peronin and Powergels every 45 minutes. I have worked out that this works well for me and means that I am getting c. 230 kcals of energy every hour when I include the Carbs in the energy drink as well. If you have not heard of Peronin then it is something I would highly recommend. A 100g portion mixes into a 400ml drink (in either chocolate or vanilla flavour) providing 435 kcals and containing 56g of Carbs as well as 19g of Protein (which can be very important in endurance events when your muscles can start to break down). I mixed up 2 portions of this into a large bottle which I carried, providing me with 8 x 100ml servings of c. 110 kcals each. In the latter stages of the race I did eat some of the food from the aid stations to provide some variety, i.e. Ramen Noodle soup, watermelon, snickers and granola bars. I also switched to using caffeinated gels as well during the early morning for that extra kick.
• Supplements – in addition to that above I also took a couple of salt tablets (Endurolytes which are made by Hammer Nutrition) per hour. We had been warned that you could dehydrate very quickly at altitude and I am always nervous about salt replacement. As I seemed to pee quite a lot I was even more nervous about flushing salts out of my system...but as night fell on the race I took less salt tablets but did make sure I was getting salt from other sources such as Noodle soup, etc.
Overall I would say my hydration and nutrition strategy was generally spot on. There were a couple of times when I had the usual gurgling stomach but at these times I simply switched to alternative foods until it settled down again. You are weighed periodically through the race and if your weight is significantly down on your pre-race weight then you will be held and asked to drink and eat until your weight recovers...I found that my weight remained stable throughout the race which must be an indication that I was doing something right.
I think keeping the drop bag strategy simple also worked. At Twin Lakes (outbound) I got my drop bag and replaced my drinking bottles with my bladder. On the return journey at Twin Lakes (inbound) I replenished my dwindling food supplies (extra gels and a new bottle of Peronin). I also had a fresh pair of shoes and socks in my drop bag in case I wanted to change them at the 60 mile point following the series of stream crossings which you have to negotiate between Hope Pass and the Twin Lakes aid station.
So Race Day commenced with a 2am alarm call, allowing us enough time to eat ahead of a 4am start. The entire town is geared to this race and our hotel was providing a 2am breakfast. In fact there were a number of diners and coffee shops which were also open to enable runners to eat ahead of the 4am cannon! The bars in the town were also closed on Friday night so as not to disturb any runners with late night music...this is one town that knows that this race (and the others in the Leadville series) has a major influence on the amount of tourism that comes through.
So we dressed, we ate, we fretted and we headed for the start line. On the way there (the 2 minute walk) we bumped into the other Brit doing this race (Richard Pomeroy), who also happens to live down the road from us in Surrey. Richard is an experienced ultra runner having completed the Lakeland 100 this year (in 32 hours) and the Cotswold 100 (which he won in just over 19 hours), as well as countless others in years past (UTMB, MDS, etc.). It was great to bump into Richard and his lovely wife Liz who was crewing for him...we would see both again on a number of occasions on the course.
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The start line was very calm, with a mass of nervous energy seething underneath. The wife and I had a final parting hug, kissed each, wished each other luck and then went our separate ways to get our race heads on. The clock approached 4am, there was a 10 second count down and then the canon went...we were off.
Start to May Queen
Distance - 13.5 miles; Time - 2:10
Cumulative Distance – 13.5 miles; Cumulative Time – 2:10
It is very easy to fly out of the gates. You are tapered, you are pumped and you are raring to go. The first section is the longest of the race but is gently downhill / flat and takes you out of town to Turquoise Lake. Everyone suggests you start slowly and take it steady out of town, which is what I did...this was helped by me stopping every 15 mins for a pee (maybe I overhydrated).
The first mile is basically pavement taking you to the edge of town. The next 2.5 miles are gradually downhill on a wide dirt road called the Boulevard. After about 30 minutes we took a sharp right, and started making our way towards Turquoise Lake...when you turn right onto a trail for the first time under powerlines, there was a very steep hill (which I walked) and at this point I had been running for c. 50 minutes.
While travelling on the trail around the lake to May Queen, it is a single track trail and difficult to pass people. There are places but don’t stress at this stage...there is a long way to go and plenty of opportunities later to pass. The trail started to roll with a series of small hills, but there nothing of any note and before I knew it I was into Mayqueen.
This section is real fun. The site of dawn breaking over the lake was just stunning and gradually the nervous silence gave way to the excited chatter of runners starting to get to know their fellow competitors.
May Queen to Fish Hatchery
Distance - 10 miles; Time - 1:56
Cumulative Distance – 23.5 miles; Cumulative Time – 4:06
I did not hang around at the aid station and on shooting out of Mayqueen there is a minor stream crossing and then a steady 5 miles climb to top of Sugarloaf pass. This starts on the Colorado Trail, then onto road and finally a steep jeep road to top of pass. Some people were running this but I did find that you could walk it at a fair lick and save precious energy. The 5 miles leaving May Queen to the top of Sugarloaf pass is a 1,200 foot climb.
From the top it is downhill to the next aid station (at top when go under power lines). The downhill section is very steep in parts (with underfoot conditions more like the rocky areas of the Lake District) and takes you down the famous Powerlines...this can be a quad trasher and so worth taking it easy downhill. Another stream crossing (with planks) faces you at the bottom and then a paved section briefly up and then down for 1 mile to aid station.
This section was great fun. I had warmed up, I was running with a couple of locals and the views as you made your way up Sugarloaf were just stunning.
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I was definitely on a high at this point!
Fish Hatchery to Halfmoon
Distance - 7 miles; Time - 1:26
Cumulative Distance – 30.5 miles; Cumulative Time – 5:32
This is a short segment of 7 miles, with the first mile a gradual downhill on pavement. The route continues on Halfmoon road, a wide dirt road leading towards the Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive trailhead. It is 4.5 miles to the tree line, the point where they won't allow cars to go any further, and only a remaining 2.5 miles to the aid station.
This is a very runable section and so if you want to make up some time then this is the section to do it. I was amazed by the amount of people walking this section...it is a mentally tough section being on paved road and boring dirt tracks which are in effect false flats. I had teamed up at this stage with a mountain guide from Wyoming who knew the course inside out...he had trained a lot on the course and was racing a friend who had done the race many times. His friend was a much better runner (expecting to finish in c. 18 hours) but if he could finish within 6 hours of him he could choose a costume for his friend to run their next 50 mile race in...and he had a “mankini” in mind. However, if he finished outside 6 hours then the compliment would be coming his way!
I enjoyed this part of the run as the roads made it very easy to run alongside fellow runners and shoot the breeze. I caught up with Richard at this point who was having a tricky patch, and although we tried to encourage him to run with us, he decided not to push it too hard and simply walk through his down moment. The line of crew cars at the treeline was also pretty special and there was a huge amount of cheering for all the runners coming through.
Halfmoon to Twin Lakes
Distance - 9 miles; Time - 1:36
Cumulative Distance – 39.5 miles; Cumulative Time – 7:08
If behind on pace this section can be used to catch-up. When you are back on the trail, there are 3 climbs with the rest downhill. The first is the toughest and will get your attention with about 400 feet of climbing over 3/4 of a mile. After the 3rd hill, there is a 3.5 mile downhill blast to Twin Lakes. You will lose about 1,200 feet in this section and can really make up some time. Like on Sugarloaf, you can simply let gravity do the job, but this is much less steep and more runable. The terrain is a soft mix of sand and pine needles, a trail runners dream, and you can really make some progress here.
This was the point in the race at which I started to have my first rough patch. I was ticking along with a group of 3 or 4 but had the first signs of a gurgling stomach. It was now gone 11am and the day was heating up and so I figured that my body was just trying to adapt to the increased heat. I managed to latch on to the back of the group on the hills and managed to recover in time for the downhill and then started pulling away. The final steep scree scramble down into Twin Lakes is awesome...it is a frenetic aid station packed with supporters and crew and the cheers and music are enough to turbo charge you for the what is to come.
Twin Lakes to Winfield
Distance – 10.5 miles; Time - 3:26
Cumulative Distance – 50 miles; Cumulative Time – 10:34
At the Twin Lakes aid station I grabbed my drop bag and switched my bottles and hand held for my bladder. I was once again keen to spend as little time as possible in the aid station and was out and running in the time it took to achieve the switch.
So this is the signature section of Leadville...the crossing of Hope Path. This year we were very lucky with the weather over Hope Pass, but everybody issues warnings which should be considered by all runners. On the warmest day, it is rare that it will hit 60 on the pass and most likely it will be 50. It could be 30 and snowing with a 50 mph wind and so everybody recommends that you do not start this section without carrying a jacket at the very least.
The course starts flat for the first 1.5 miles and there are a number of stream crossings which have to be negotiated. Most are only shin deep but the main stream can be anywhere from knee to waist height depending on the snow melt...we were lucky with it only being knee height on me and so probably ankle height on most others
After the crossings you continue running until you hit the trees, and then it is straight up for 3,400 feet. I had decided to use walking sticks for Hope Pass and am glad that I did as it certainly served to ease the pressure on the legs. It was near the top of this section that I came across the front runner, Anton Krupicka, absolutely flying back down Hope Pass towards Twin Lakes...at this point AK was on track to beat the course record and must have been an hour or so ahead of his nearest challenger but unfortunately came unstuck at around 80 miles and dropped out.
There is a small aid station, know as the “Hopeless” aid station, about 0.5 miles from the top serving to enable people to refill water bottles...thank everyone here as they have had a huge trek up with Llamas to get the aid up here! From Hopeless it is 0.5 miles to the top and then 2.5 miles steeply downhill (21%)...it is definitely worth taking a moment to suck up the view at the top!
At the bottom you hit the road to Winfield and it is gradually uphill for 2 miles and will take 30 mins if walked...this was a tough bit of pavement which seemed to go on for ever and was not helped by a steady stream of crew cars throwing up dust into your face!
Reaching half way was a real joy, but there it was clear that Hope Pass had taken a toll. Winfield was the first aid station where I really took some time to gather myself...I ate some noodle soup, grabbed some Snickers (I love chocolate) and tried to steel myself for what was to come. Hey, but I was halfway in 10.5 hours and for the first time started thinking that I could achieve a sub-25 hour buckle...always the kiss of death to start dreaming!
Winfield to Twin Lakes
Distance – 10.5 miles; Time - 3:13
Cumulative Distance – 60.5 miles; Cumulative Time – 13:47
The first 2 miles is steadily downhill and provides a nice loosener for what is to come. It also has the benefit of enabling you to see some familiar faces coming the other way. I bumped into Richard again here who seemed in much better spirits despite having taken a number of tumbles coming down Hope Pass. The climb on this side of Hope Pass is shorter but steeper... the gain is about 2,400 over about 2.25 miles, and I definitely found this much tougher. However, once at the top the descent is very runable and I managed to make some good time down the mountain. Passing back through the streams was bliss for the feet and legs, but I was certainly feeling the quads burning by the time I came into Twin Lakes for the last time.
This was an emotional point in the race for me, as it was at this point on the climb back up Hope Pass that I found my wifelet coming the other way. She was clearly struggling with the altitude and was slowing down having been well on track until Hope Pass. We had a hug, shared some words of encouragement and went on our way...but I could see the worry in her eyes and I started to be really concerned for her. She would go on to make the half way point ahead of the cut-off, but given the struggles she had had with Hope Pass she made the tough but right decision that she would not be able to make it back over in time. I know better than anyone how tough this would have been for her...she had trained hard, she had “owned” the race, raced a perfect race plan and then been undone by something out of her control...the altitude. I am so proud of her and how her running and racing has developed and wish that I could have helped her get this buckle as she deserves it so much! The next day you would not have known she had run a tough 50 miles...her feet were in great shape, she had no aches and pains and was ready to run again...that is what makes it all so frustrating...she was in shape and ready and only undone by the lack of oxygen. She will be back...lessons on dealing with altitude have been learnt...I will come with her to pace her...and she will crush this race...of that I have no doubt!
At this point I certainly was feeling that I taken the downhills off Sugarloaf and Hope Pass both ways too hard...I had certainly made some good time but was starting to think that maybe I had trashed the quads a bit too much. Were I to do this race again then I would certainly take the downhills in the first 60 miles a bit easier...there are some very gentle runable downhill sections in the last 40 miles, but you have to be in a position to take advantage of them!
I did spend a considerable time at Twin Lakes refilling bladders and bottles, restocking fuel supplies and preparing myself for the night ahead. I made the call not to change shoes and socks...mainly as some of my toes were stinging from the downhills and I did not feel that my feet were in a poor state...my NorthFace Singletrack shoes were working a treat!
Twin Lakes to Half Moon
Distance – 9 miles; Time - 2:11
Cumulative Distance – 69.5 miles; Cumulative Time – 15:58
This was the last section on which I was to feel in any decent shape. It is safe to say that this section does not get the same attention as Hope or Sugarloaf passes but it is very tough. There are a lot of factors contributing to this. Physically you have travelled over 60 miles, you have just had the crap beaten out of you twice on Hope pass and you have been on your feet for over 15 hrs. You now have 1,400 feet to climb, mentally you are still a long way from the finish, you are annoyed by aches and pains and it is now dark and cold. If there was a section that I would have had a pacer, then this would be it.
There are 3 rises that never seem to end. The first is the worst, most of the climbing is on a jeep road. When you hit the trail, it levels and you get a break. There are several smaller rises so if you are not familiar with the course, it's hard to keep track of the big 3. It's not important, just make sure you run when you can. You'll know when you're on the last rise because the trail turns left at a rock pile and quickly heads downhill to Halfmoon road. Once heading down, you can run most of the way to the next aid station and the sanctuary of a food fest In the aid station I was feeling in great shape, well on target for a comfortable sub-25 hour and headed out with a few people...but my race was about to take a turn for the worse
Halfmoon to Fish Hatchery
Distance – 7 miles; Time - 2:04
Cumulative Distance – 76.5 miles; Cumulative Time – 18:03
This section is supposed to be the easiest one of the course. It is gradually downhill on a dirt road for 6 miles followed by a 1 mile slightly uphill paved section, and is one that is generally runable and useful for making good progress before Sugarloaf.
I came out of the aid station feeling OK but rapidly realised that all was not right. My legs and body felt fine and ready to cruise this section but every time I tried running my lungs would seize and I would have to stop running. I took things easy hoping it would pass, but it didn’t. My mind turned to whether I had HAPE (High altitude pulmonary edema), but I could not feel the tell tale wheezing and my heart rate was still low. It felt more like a form of asthma (which I have experienced in relation to a cat allergy) but was still confusing me. It felt fine to walk and so at this point I decided that the only option I had was to crack on with a speed walk which should still give me enough time to finish...assuming things did not worsen.
Fish Hatchery to May Queen
Distance – 10 miles; Time - 3:27
Cumulative Distance – 86.5 miles; Cumulative Time – 21:30
This was the final real test of the LT100. Although the climb up the Powerline to the top of Sugarloaf is not as steep or long as Hope Pass, given that it comes so late in the race it is a real challenge.
This section starts with a paved road uphill for 1.5 miles along a log fence. You then take sharp left onto the trail and the base of climb. It should take max of 90 mins to get to the top...but the climb is made all the worse for the number of false summits. I struggled with my breathing all the way up and was overtaken by a number of runners, but was still hoping that I might feel better on the descent.
The downhill is a very runable section for 5 miles, but once again could not even break into a jog without my lungs exploding. I decided to suck it up and just get down as fast as I could walking, and try and ignore the runners who were passing me...this proved a mentally very tough section only made easier by the fact that I felt I could now crawl to the line and make it as long as I stuck to Leadville’s golden rule...however you feel just keep moving forward!
May Queen to Finish
Distance – 13.5 miles; Time - 3:28
Cumulative Distance – 100 miles; Cumulative Time – 24:58
The final leg was suddenly ahead of me. I knew I could now finish but the tightness in my lungs was getting much worse. I knew that the best way to tackle this section as to break it into 3 parts, getting to the Tabor boat ramp, getting to the Boulevard, getting to the finish. The Tabor boat ramp is 6.75 miles away with rolling single track trail. I walked the entire way, but had my lungs not been rebelling this would have been a great section to run (or at least shuffle).
After the boat ramp which is a concrete landing with people waiting for their runners, the trail widens and flattens and there is 3.5 miles of good running. After leaving the lake, you will cross a paved road and head down a torturous steep downhill for 1/3 mile dropping to a flat dirt, then paved road. I came across two runners in this final section who turned ankles coming down this steep downhill, costing them both a sub-25 hour finish...please be careful coming down here as it could scupper your race!
It was at this point at the start where I looked at my watch and saw that I had been running for 50 minutes...I looked at my watch again and saw that I had 1.20 hours left for a sub-25 hour run and started to think that it might just be possible. I picked up the walking pace again and tried to forge ahead...once I hit the Boulevard I knew that I had 3.25 miles to the finish and an hour to get there. It was mostly uphill but once I hit the pavement I knew there was 1 mile to go and 14 minutes to get there...a supporter was stood there at this point who told me that if ran the next 0.25 miles, walked the 0.25 miles uphill and then ran the final 0.5 miles to the finish I would just be able to make it in under 25 hours. I was checking my watch and monitoring my effort to make sure I kept moving forward and did try running without much success. I forced my way up the final hill and from the top could see the traffic lights in the distance which marked the finish line...I had 7 minutes to walk 0.5 miles!
I tried running again and almost stopped dead in my tracks and so just carried on walking checking my watch every 30 seconds. It was going to be close and the announcer was screaming at me to run...he was then drowned out by my wife who despite having to pull out, had set aside her huge disappointment and was waiting there at the finish for me and was not going to let me miss the sub-25. She obviously did not know why I was ambling along like an old man out for a stroll and so came tearing down the road, grabbed my hand and started pulling me towards the finish. The noise was just something else and I ended up breaking the tape and into the arms of my wife in a time of 24 hours, 58 mins and 41 seconds...the last person to secure the sub-25 buckle!
What can I say about my wife at this stage which has not already been said. We are very lucky that we share a love of running and finding great races all over the world to have a crack at. She was the one who pulled me through my 12 months of injury misery in 2009...we train together, plan race strategies together...and she was the one who despite her massive disappointment at pulling the plug on this race was there at the finish line waiting to make sure that I did not miss that elusive sub-25 hour buckle. She will be back in Leadville at some point in the future and I will be there helping her get that buckle which she so much deserves!
The end was not quite how I expected it to be...soak up the atmosphere, congratulate my fellow runners, enjoy the moment...the final effort threw my lungs into overload and I was quickly whisked away into the medical tent. To cut a long story short I spent the next 6 hours in the medical tent and then the Leadville Hospital Emergency Room, where following a series of tests I was shown to have a seriously low oxygen concentration level (down in the low 70%’s when it should be around 95%) and pneumonia on the right lung The doctors were puzzled as they were convinced I had a High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) only for the X-Rays to show pneumonia...but they had no way of determining how on earth I had managed to develop pneumonia during the course of the race and still finish it. I was given some antibiotics and an oxygen machine to take back to my hotel room, told I would be OK to fly, and that we should get back down to Denver (5,000 feet lower) as soon as we could and go see a specialist as soon as I got home...which is what I am now waiting to do.
I made it out of the hospital just in time to attend the awards ceremony and picked up my gold and silver sub-25 hour buckle.
All finishers also get a LT100 hoodie with their name and finishing time printed on it. Having picked these up I headed back to the hotel, hooked myself up to the oxygen machine and let my dear lady wife wait on me hand and foot...there was an upside afterall
Looking back I feel incredibly lucky to have achieved what I did. Until I see a respiratory specialist I will still be slightly clueless as to what really happened...and it may remain that way after the appointment! All I know is that given the experience of my OH and what eventually happened to me there is a reason that you should tackle any challenge at altitude with extreme care. We both made some mistakes during this race and perhaps these lessons might help someone in the future:
• Seriously consider a course of IHT. It will add to the cost but could make the difference between success and failure.
• Do lots of hill work. The stronger you can become on the hills the better you will be able to cope with Hope Pass at altitude. Get used to long bouts of hill walking as you will not be running for 100 miles and if you can walk at pace it will be a huge advantage.
• Take it easy on the downhills. The second half of the LT100 course tends to have steeper climbs but longer and more runable downhills...make sure you get to these with some ability to benefit from them.
• If you can have a crew do so...we are used to running with packs and did not find it too much of a pain, but it would still save considerable time and effort if you did not have to.
• Consider using a pacer. This was the first time I have seen the benefits of using a pacer. At the LT100 you can use a pacer for the last 50 miles...there are generally lots of people hanging around at Winfield looking for a run who you can pick up, or use forums before hand to find volunteers.
• You can rely on the aid stations. Never before have I seen more well staffed and stocked aid stations. A typical aid station had: Water, Powerade, Powergels, Powerbars, Noodle Soup, Bagels, Cookies, Sandwiches, Wraps, a variety of chocolates, crisps, pretsels, cakes, etc. On entering every aid station you were swamped by people wanting to help refill your bottles, help you get food, etc. I carried everything I needed not knowing what they would really be like and I could have just relied on everything there and saved myself some considerable weight. I have to say, Leadville team certainly know how to put on a race!
And finally, it is worth saying this is just one of those races which you have to do. As one person commented post this race...we rarely take ourselves out of our comfort zone in everyday life...this race took us out of our comfort zone and some. Entering a race where there was a variable (altitude) which we had no control over was very scary...one of us survived it (just) the other didn’t. Knowing you are in a race where failure may be beyond your control adds a whole new dimension and one which brings all the runners closer together...I am still at a loss to describe the experience and so can only recommend that you go and experience it for yourself...you will regret it if you don’t!