Leadville or Bust
By Jeff Jones
For those who haven’t lived and breathed the Leadville Trail 100 for the past eight months, here's a little background to the race. I took an excerpt from Tom Ley’s "Boom or Bust; 48 Hours at Leadville’s Treacherous Ultra Marathon."
The Leadville Trail 100 was born out of failure. In 1982, the local molybdenum mine, Climax, the backbone of Leadville's economy for more than a century, was shut down―because, perversely, there was too much demand for its product. The growth of electronics made large-scale molybdenum mining worthwhile, and the small-scale operation in Leadville was squeezed out. The town was devastated financially; within 18 months, 40 percent of the population had left.
The year after the mine closed, a former miner, Ken Chlouber, came up with the idea of hosting an ultramarathon in order to inject some economic life into his hometown. As an avid marathoner himself, Chlouber was committed to making his idea a reality, despite being told by a local hospital administrator that such a race would surely lead to someone's death. Chlouber is said to have responded, "Well, then we will be famous, won't we?"
Those who know me, know that I love running, but even more, I love a run with culture behind it. When I first learned of the Leadville 100, I fell in love with the idea of running this race.
Friday morning I woke up in the parking lot of the Leadville Courthouse, after driving all night and pulling in town during the early hours of the morning. My crew was still asleep in the rental car, and I was already beginning to get pumped. As I stepped out of the car and looked down the street, Leadville appeared to be straight out of the "Andy Griffith Show;" all-American old downtown USA, and my heart began to swell with a little pride. I gave myself a morning stretch and yawned slowly turning around, and that is when I saw it for the first time. The mountains were so enormous and beautiful that I immediately began walking toward them trying to get a picture that would capture the beauty. Unfortunately this was harder than it appeared so I started running, I ran for a couple of miles around town taking pictures and getting a feel for the altitude. I had a bit of shortness of breath and began to realize that this race would be no joke.
I went back to the van and woke everyone up. We spent the day doing race briefs and taking in what the town had to offer. The race brief was long but very entertaining. In the end, the message I heard was “You are better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.” “You will have to dig deep." Honestly, I underestimated this statement and this course. I thought eh, I got this. We spent the remainder of the day soaking in the beauty of the area and relaxing, because 2 a.m. Saturday would come quick.
As the alarm went off, I felt like I had a pretty good night’s rest. I finished making my last-minute decisions (which I do not advise) put my race vest together and pinned on my bib. I had decided to go out with more gear than I originally had planned, but still kept things light. The first-aid station would be about the distance of a half marathon so I made sure that I had just enough fluid to make it and ate heavily (something I normally don’t like to do) that morning. In addition to a good-sized breakfast, I mixed a protein/glycogen shake, which I normally don’t use until mile 25. Today though, I did a lot of things I don’t normally do until late in the race or when things start to go bad.
The start line was full of energy. I met with my crew and the other crews of all the area runners. The Idiots Running Club and OMRR was well represented at Leadville this year. AC/DC's “For Those About to Rock” was booming in the background. People were jumping up and down. Fans were screaming from the bleachers. It was more like a rock concert than the beginning of a race. I made a joke that I haven’t been real successful on races with a downhill start to the guy standing to my left and he laughed and said, "Just remember it’s an ultra, start slow and then taper off from there." I heard people start yelling simultaneously and looked up it at the clock 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 (I felt a little lump in my throat) 5, 4, 3, 2, (my heart began to pound) 1. With a huge blast of the shot gun we all took off…..at a walk. Yep, it was a huge group, it took a while to get to a slow trot.
The race began going a mile down 6th Street and hitting a dirt road to head out of town. I would say that the first 6 miles were fairly flat – dirt jeep roads and campground drives. At this point two things were going through my head; one, this race is going to be overrated, and two, I hydrated way too much. Then we hit, what I thought, was the first climb. The road tapered into a smaller trail about wide enough for one car and immediately began a steep climb that I would compare to the steep hill on the Silver Trail in Busiek State Park, for you local trail runners. I kept hearing the term “Power Line” thrown around and I saw some power lines running overhead so thought this must be it. I hit this hill at a good clip, since we were still in a pack it was difficult to run, but I thought it was way too early to take off anyway. I feel like it took me 10 to 15 minutes to get to the top of this hill, and we were on our way to run the lake portion, and again I thought “over rated”.
The lake area was pretty insignificant. It was small rolling hills, and as the sun came up was a pretty view. I remember thinking that this would be a wonderful trail to have close to home. This portion of the race was very runnable and had enormous amounts of crowd support. Many of the locals and run crews were hanging out by the boat ramps and picnic areas cheering on their runners. The one thing I was curious about was how hard will these thirteen miles be on the way back? Maybe this race might be a little tougher than I thought.
I hit the first aid station “May Queen” at a little over two hours. I was thinking this is a great time – a 2-hour half marathon, and I'm feeling good on one of the hardest ultramarathons in the U.S. I am killing it. I grabbed a little food and filled my hand bottle and said hi to my crew told them I was feeling pretty good and asked them to have my protein shake ready at the mile-25 aid station so I could stay ahead of nutrition. And I was off.
Somewhere after May Queen and the second aid station, I began to respect the race. I am sure that it was somewhere on top of THE REAL “Power Line climb”. As I began to ascend Power Line, I saw people slowing so I did the same. I decided that these people know something I don’t, so I started fishing for info. I came up next to a runner and they told me that this was “Power Line.” I said how long do you think it takes to get to the top? He laughed, "It’ll take a while." but that doesn’t really matter, what matters is how you run down “Power Line”. Sure enough, the up was bad, but the down was worse. To make matters even worse, I had the wrong shoes for sure. I would say my trip down Power Line was half a run, half a slide, and a lot of near falls. The advice I received at the top of the hill was “Save your quads, you will need them for later.” So I tried to run the downhill portion conservatively.
As I came off Power Line I met with my crew at the Fish Hatchery aid station. Not only did I pick up my protein, I ate as much as I could and for the first time, filled all of my hand bottles, and topped off my reservoir. I thought it seemed a little early for this, but for some reason it seemed right. I told my crew I was a little tired, but everything was going well. I felt that I was running conservative, and then I told Derek Glos that last downhill was ruthless and we are going to have to head back up that thing later and like a trooper he said, “Bring it on!” I got a little laugh and took off through the field.
The portion of the course from the Fish Hatchery to Half Pipe aid station was mostly flat. This would be a great time to make up time, but at about mile 29 it felt like something came in and sucked the life out of me. My arms went heavy, my feet felt like they weighed 800 pounds, and my eyes began to close. All I could think about was taking a nap. I walked slowly with my eyes closed for about 200 paces wondering what was happening. I AM SOO SLEEPY. Well against my better judgment I did something I only do when absolutely necessary and usually not until after mile 70 minimum. I pulled out my emergency Ziploc and swallowed a caffeine pill. I suddenly came back alive and trotted my way to Twin Lakes Aid Station.
Coming in to Twin Lakes was amazing. It was a small town but the streets were lined with hundreds of people. Derek was again waiting for me right up front and helped me find my crew. This would be the last time I would see them for 10 to 12 miles. The big climb was coming, so I slammed down as much fluid and food as I could, got a smootch from my wife and started the trek up to Hope Pass. After a few water crossings, I made it to the base of the mountain and looked up in awe.
As I started the climb, I was told to take it slow and save my strength because coming back up the other side would be much more difficult. I was starting to see a pattern here. I was running a race conservatively that I would always need to run more conservatively. So I began the slow march up Hope Pass. I feel like some of the miles ranged in the 20 to 30 minute per mile pace (Seriously, I’m not kidding 20-30 minute miles). I felt that I must be getting close to the top, but every time it seemed like the climb had to be close to the end, I would hit another. Climb after climb, switchback after switchback, the air grew thinner, and I began gasping for air. And I finally saw it….
Hopeless Aid Station. For any of you who have read the book “Born to Run,” this is the aid station you hear so much about. They have to have llamas carry the aid station supplies up because there is no other good way to do it. I guess they could air drop them??? Hopeless lies right at the base of the tree line, so although it seems like you have made it, you haven’t. I looked past hopeless at another half mile to mile climb up over the pass, and the air got thinner. At this point I felt truly defeated, but continued on.
As I reached the top of the pass (12,600 ft.) I felt like I had truly done something great. I turned slowly and looked back and saw the most gorgeous view I have ever seen, Twin Lakes sitting between two of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Colorado. I turned back and a radio crew was calling back numbers, I smiled and one of the crew said, “Congratulations, you just climbed a mountain”. I thought, yeah, I did. Unfortunately, if I wasn’t humbled yet, I was about to be. I realized at this point I really should have taken this race more seriously. This was no joke.
The downhill of Hope Pass was the steepest trail I have ever run. It was about 4 miles of a controlled fall. By the time I finished my quads were on fire. I absolutely hated myself, and thought for a second that I really did not like this. As I trotted in to Winfield aid station I was met by Derek Glos, one of the best runners and pacers I know. He asked me how it was going and I told him, I actually feel bad about taking him back over Hope Pass with me. I could think of a few people I didn’t like that I would gladly take over, but I really couldn’t do that to a friend. He laughed, grabbed my race vest to refill me, and put it on his back (muling is allowed at Leadville, and I won’t lie, I needed it).
I stepped on the scale at the turnaround and was down 9 pounds (5.5 percent of my body weight, getting pretty dehydrated). This didn’t seem to concern medical staff, but it did me. I have been watching my weight closely on long runs while training for Leadville for just this moment. I fully understand how much weight I lose and gain during runs and this was abnormal. I made a note of it and made a much greater effort to consume fluids. To look around, the Winfield aid station was a sad, sad, place. This is where most people drop or are pulled for medical reasons, and it looked like a war zone. I hate to admit this, but I used this as motivation to push me back over the other side of the mountain.
Derek and I took off from Winfield on our journey back up Hope Pass. Picking up your pacer is the biggest game changer on these runs, but picking up Derek usually is a race saver, and he didn’t fail me this time either. Shortly after heading back up Hope Pass, I felt something tapping on my shoulder. I ignored it at first, but as it kept tapping, I turned my head to be greeted by a random stick. Normally I enjoy Derek’s sense of humor, but this time I really didn’t get it. So I finally said “What’s up dude?” He said, “Take the stick.” Ohhhh... I use if for walking up the hill, I get it. And like that we picked up pace to a snail's pace from a slug's, but we were moving forward, and it was much more comfortable. By the way I kept the stick, stained and varnished it - my Hope Pass Stick, my Magic Stick.
The stick continued to be useful to help control my descent all the way back down Hope Pass as well. It took pressure off of my quads and knees and allowed me to pick up speed helping me make up a little time on the back half. Things were beginning to look promising again. As I came back in to the Twin Lakes aid station, I think everyone’s worries were pacified a little. I had been gone for quite a while since I had seen them last. I guess I looked good by their reaction, so I filled my fluids, ate as much as I could, found an unused set of trekking poles, and took off to finish it out.
I wish I could say that it was all downhill from here, but this is where it actually started getting a little rough. The next 10 miles were a little on and off running. We had one ascent and descent that was tough but compared to Hope Pass, it was very manageable. We seemed to be making decent time, and Derek and I used this little break in the chaos to discuss our strategy for the remainder of the race. We had about 7 hours to finish a little more than a marathon with one little hiccup, and we still had to climb the tough side of Power Line. I knew that would take at least 2 hours on its own, but if we could just run the descent then we would be able to have a chance at going sub 25.
We reached the Fish Hatchery aid station, put on what warm gear we had left, as it was cooling off quickly, discussed the race plan with the rest of the crew, ate a brownie (hind sight being 20/20 I may have skipped that, we were in Colorado) and stepped off for the last major climb.
The climb started off well, we slowed the pace, but not by much, and quickly gained ground on some racers ahead of us. Many people by this point were struggling significantly; most weren’t talking to their pacers. Every once in a while you would hear a pacer holler “hydrate” to their reluctant racer. Not only is the Power Line ascent a monster, it has what are referred to as false summits. I think we hit the top of the climb at least ten times before it was over. As we closed on the top I took one last caffeine pill, ate, and hydrated in hopes that I could muster everything I had left for a speedy descent.
We came over the summit at the same time as another group, and I looked over the edge of the road to know that we were for sure at the top. Then it occurred to me, this wasn’t as runnable as I remembered, the caffeine never kicked in, and I was starving – a bad mix of feelings when you need to make haste. I attempted to run and my legs didn’t want to go. I walked a few steps and my legs didn’t want to go. I tried to run again and my legs didn't want to go. We did the math again and the sub 25 was looking farther and farther from reach.
At this point, we slowly lurched into the mindless zombie walk. It doesn’t hit me often, but when it does, it is bad. Derek and I had several “dark times” through the next 7 or 8 hours, but they will all be memories that we will laugh about and lessons we have learned. After the sub-25 time expired we decided to stroll in. No need to end up injured for a few more minutes when cutoff was in the bag. It was a slow, miserable stroll, but we made the best of it.
The finish line would only have been more beautiful if it was at the bottom of the hill on 6th Street , but I guess that is not how they do things in Leadville. They make you work for every foot of that course. When Ken Chlouber said, “You are better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can, you will have to dig deep.” I took it for granted. Now I understand and have a greater respect for the course, the city, the people, the volunteers, the racers who both finish or even attempt this beast, and myself.
I have silently made an agreement with myself that when I go back, I will have learned from my mistakes. I know the course and will not underestimate it.
We had OMRR and IRC runners both running and crewing this event. Our travelling crew gets bigger every time we go out. They make these events so much more fun for the runners and other crews. This, like every event we have done together, was special. I wanted to thank all of you for your support.