Just before 4AM on the morning of August 18th I stood at a starting line on the corner of Harrison Ave and 6th St in Leadville, Colorado (USA). At 10AM on the following morning the race that was about to start would be cut off after 30 hours with the firing of a shotgun. Between those two points in time stood approximately 102 miles of running and walking in order to complete the Leadville Trail 100. For more details on the race (stats, history, course) check out my earlier post here. For details on my Leadville experience I will try to enlighten you below.
I had arrived in Colorado a week before the race, and after spending a day driving through Rocky Mountain National Park I made my way through to Leadville to spend time acclimatising to the 3,000 metre elevation. I spent my time in Leadville relaxing, scouting the course, going for a couple of runs along sections of the course, and finalising the logistics of the incredible variety and volume of nutrition and gear I would spread amongst drop bags along the course. My nutrition plan during the race included 27 energy gels, 3 energy bars, 3 energy shakes, 24 electrolyte tablets, and chocolate coffee beans that I would provide myself, plus whatever else I felt like consuming at the aid stations. The gear requirements included two sets of lights since my race would include running in the dark at the start and end, and clothing to handle alpine weather that can include temperatures ranging from below zero overnight to 25 degrees during the day. Having scouted many parts of the course I also spent time tweaking my pacing chart, planning rough times through each of the major aid stations for my main target of breaking 25 hours. Then I looked at where I thought I could potentially save time if all went well, in the hope that I could achieve my stretch target of completing the run within 24 hours.
The morning of the race I rose at 2:30AM to consume an energy shake and a banana for breakfast, showered to relax my body, and then dressed in my neatly laid-out clothing and gear. The house I had rented was barely over 100 metres from the start/finish line, and just after 3:30AM I exited the front door for the very short walk to the start. Standing at the start line with almost 800 other runners I was about to run 75 km longer than my next longest run but I did not feel nervous at all. I was excited and ready, and it wasn’t too long a wait until 4AM came around.
Start to May Queen
The first few kilometres were about settling into a running pace that I would normally consider slow, so whilst frequently glancing at my watch to ensure I was on pace I made my way out of town, transitioning from sealed (tarred) to unsealed (dirt) roads on the gentle descent towards Turquoise Lake. I remember looking at the large number of people in front of me as we travelled along the unsealed road nicknamed the Boulevard, and thinking that if all went to plan very few of those people would finish ahead of me. Arriving at the lake we transitioned onto the single track around the lake that would take us all the way to the May Queen aid station. The single track forced a line of runners, each lighting up the ground in front with a headlight, that snaked its way along for the 13 km of trail until reaching the May Queen campsite. This section was almost entirely runnable, with only an occasional walk for short uphill sections of the trail. Prior to reaching the aid station the sun rose above the horizon and headlights were switched off. I spent 3 minutes at the aid station to discard my lights, put on my hat and sunglasses, fill my hydration pack with water and collect my nutrition for the next section. I left the aid station 7 minutes inside my sub-25 hour pacing target and was feeling good.
May Queen to Fish Hatchery
Leaving May Queen involved a short paved section to a trailhead of the Colorado Trail, which marked the start of the first real climb of the day. The trail climbed up to deposit us on Hagerman Pass Road, an unsealed road with a long, gentle climb that includes some great views down on Turquoise Lake, showing how much climbing had been completed so far. Having set off at a very gentle pace it was in this section that I started to pass people in noticeable numbers. We turned off the smooth Hagerman Pass Road onto a rougher and steeper forestry road, and the amount of walking started to increase. Over the top of the pass was the steep powerline descent (inspiringly named because it follows the power lines). Towards the bottom of this descent I started to feel some fatigue in my quads that was slightly concerning coming so early in the race, so I knew I would need to be conservative on the downhills. I reached the short section of paved road that would lead me to the Fish Hatchery aid station, where I had left no drop bag, and spent less than a minute to fill my hydration pack. I left the aid station 13 minutes inside my sub-25 hour pacing target and felt confident knowing that I was about to start a section where I expected to be strong.
Fish Hatchery to Half Pipe
The section after Fish Hatchery is the longest section of paved road on the course and quite flat, and I was confident that I would run it well due to the amount of road training that I had completed. I ran the paved section at 5:30-5:40 min/km before turning onto a flat trail and unsealed road section that would lead me to the Half Pipe aid station. It was during this section that I completed my first marathon for the day, and at around that point I added a walk break to give my legs a short break. Unfortunately the aid station appeared considerably later than I expected, and by the time I reached it my watch was recording a distance almost 2 km longer than planned so that despite running faster than target pace and recording my fastest paced section of the entire race I completed the section only a few seconds faster than my target.
At the aid station I discarded my long-sleeve compression top, applied vaseline under my arms, picked up suncreen and my nutrition, refilled my hydration pack, and was out again within 5 minutes. This was the first section where I had not improved relative to my sub-25 hour pacing target, but I was still 13 minutes ahead.
Half Pipe to Twin Lakes
From Half Pipe there is a gradual climb along a single trail before descending into the low point at Twin Lakes. I had expected to walk considerable stretches of this ascent but I found it very runnable and only walked a few stretches. I ran straight through the Mt Elbert fluids-only aid station, shouting out a thank you to the volunteers as I passed. I crested the high point and then began a gradual single-track descent that lead to the rough forestry road that steeply descends into Twin Lakes. I had completed a training run on the sections of the course both before and after the Twin Lakes aid station, so it was nice to be able to recognise turns in the road. I paid careful attention to my quads on the steep descent and luckily they did not seem to be getting any worse. As I descended into the town of Twin Lakes I was confronted by the bustle of the aid station, which is by far the biggest spectator spot along the course. It was great to run through a big throng of people, and I smiled, waved and thanked the spectators as I reached the aid station. I recorded the section as being shorter than planned, and due to that and walking less than expected I had made good time.
At the aid station I packed a waterproof jacket and mid-layer top into my refilled hydration pack, consumed some energy shake and picked up my nutrition. I left the aid station having improved my time to 40 minutes ahead of my sub-25 hour pacing target.
Twin Lakes to Winfield
Not long after Twin Lakes I crossed a knee-deep river and then started my way up Hope Pass with my wet shoes and socks. Once the ascent began I walked almost the entire way to the top, except for a few very short flat sections which I ran so as to give my legs a rest from walking (strange as that may seem). I had chatted periodically with other runners for short snippets up to this point, but as we climbed up Hope Pass I fell in behind a Canadian runner and began a conversation that took us a fair way up the climb. He eventually allowed me to pass and as we neared the treeline he started to fall behind. As I reached the very friendly and helpful volunteers at the Hope Pass aid station I was asked what I needed, and I responded by kindly telling them that I didn’t need anything. A volunteer then smiled and asked what I wanted, to which I responded “I want to reach the top of this pass so that I can start descending.” The views from above the treeline back towards Twin Lakes and then all the way through to Turquoise Lake (which I had left behind 50 km and 6.5 hours ago) were absolutely stunning with perfect blue skies above. Shortly after the aid station I crossed over the pass and the steep descent began.
Not long into the descent I passed Anton Krupicka leading the race as he made his ascent in the other direction. I then passed eventual winner Thomas Lorblanchet 2.5 minutes later, followed by a spattering of other runners as I continued my descent towards Winfield. I had made good time over the pass, but the new section of trail from the bottom of Hope Pass into the aid station took more time than I was expecting. I occasionally had to stop to allow returning runners past on the narrow trail but eventually reached the end of the new trail for the short section of unsealed road to the aid station.
At the aid station I packed my hand torch into my pack (which I placed at this aid station in case I ended up behind target and darkness descended before I reached Twin Lakes), consumed another energy shake as well as some oranges and watermelon, and picked up my additional nutrition for the journey back over Hope Pass. Amazingly plenty of people arrive at Winfield and volunteer to pace runners, so I accepted an offer for a pacer on the return journey to Twin Lakes. I was introduced to the 16-year-old high school student who was to be my pacer and we set out after a lengthy aid station stop of 15 minutes, but I was now 1 hour ahead of my sub-25 hour pacing target. At this point I had a fairly small percentage of the field ahead of me, so I would be passing a large number of runners on the climb back up to Hope Pass.
Winfield to Twin Lakes
My pacer and I ran a considerable amount of the way back to the trailhead that started the much steeper ascent of Hope Pass on the south side. From there we walked the entire ascent, stopping to sit on rocks alongside the trail on 3-4 occasions for short rest breaks. We greeted each person we passed heading in the opposite direction with a “well done” or “looking good”, while I tried to draw conversation out of my pacer in between. My pacer was a junior in high school who ran in the athletics team favouring cross country events, hoping to eventually run Leadville, and his age drew plenty of comments from other runners. I responsed to a number of these comments that I was “training him to win this race in a few years time” and continued my climb up Hope Pass. After cresting the pass we continued down to the Hope Pass aid station where I forced my pacer to take on some food and fill his water bottle, since he was carrying one water bottle and no nutrition for our shared 3+ hour section.
Having seen to my pacer and taken on some orange and watermelon for myself, we took off on the descent of Hope Pass, running back below the tree line and then amongst the trees down to the swampy area around Twin Lakes. This section is soft underfoot and well sheltered, runs alongside a picturesque stream for a section and I was feeling very good and thoroughly enjoying my race. We crossed the river and shortly after that we reached the buzzing area around the aid station. Running towards the aid station I looked at my watch, clinically evaluated my physical condition and despite still having 40 miles (64 km) to run I was totally confident that I would break 24 hours.
At the aid station I packed away a headlight, gloves and beanie, consumed some energy shake, filled my hydration pack, and picked up some nutrition including chocolate coffee beans to hopefully assist with any fatigue. I had included a fresh pair of shoes and socks in my drop bag but made the decision to complete the race without using them, knowing that I had a number of blisters that would not stop me from finishing and not wanting to even look at my feet. I left the aid station 1 hour 28 minutes ahead of my sub-25 hour pacing target.
I had stumbled on my second pacer, Hillary, by a series of connections that almost reaches six degrees of separation, but it was definitely a great piece of luck. I read a post on a Leadville Trail 100 forum a month or so prior to the race from another runner named Sean, who was travelling to the race from Africa and attempting to run under 25 hours. As I was also travelling from Africa to attempt a sub-25 run I contacted him via email and we started chatting, so that I found out he was an American currently living and working in Nigeria. Once we had both arrived in Leadville we met up at the local coffee shop (which was permanently full of other racers), where I found out that he had managed to arrange a crew and a pacer through people that he knew. The day prior to the race he sent me an SMS and mentioned that one of his crew (a friend of a friend of a friend if I get the degrees of separation correct) was actually interested in pacing someone, and wanted to know if I was interested. I was put in contact with Hillary, and we agreed that she would meet me at Twin Lakes to pace me for the 10 miles (16 km) through to Half Pipe.
Twin Lakes to Half Pipe
Hillary and I set off from Twin Lakes and almost immediately started walking the steep ascent. We reached the top of the ascent and started running the flats and downs, eventually passing the Mt Elbert fluids-only aid station with a friendly thank you but without stopping. Hillary had talked to people to understand the section we would be running together, kept reminding me to take on calories, and most importantly we were able to maintain an easy conversation. Hillary was in training for the upcoming Imogene Pass Run, and we talked about running, life, family and friends. With good company and my body still feeling strong this section passed very quickly, and before reaching Half Pipe we discussed the upcoming section to Fish Hatchery, with Hillary deciding to continue on until then.
At the Half Pipe aid station I packed away a thermal top, consumed my third and final energy shake, filled my hydration pack and picked up still more nutrition. I had started to relax considerably by this aid station, took a longer stop than required, but had allowed on my pacing chart for completing the section from Twin Lakes to Half Pipe in an hour longer than the outbound journey. I left the aid station 2 hours 20 minutes ahead of my sub-25 hour pacing target, but was about to start the only section on my outbound journey where I had not made up time. I had also allowed myself only 5 minutes longer for the return journey than I had taken for the outbound journey when putting together my pacing chart, so I knew I would give back time in the section to come.
Half Pipe to Fish Hatchery
As we left Half Pipe it was still light but sunset was fast approaching, and by the time we reached the paved section that would take us through to Fish Hatchery we turned on our lights. To allow for the possibility that I would run slower than my target pace I had packed my hand torch at Winfield, my headlight at Twin Lakes and had started stocking replacement batteries from Twin Lakes. By staying so far ahead of my target pace I had reduced the amount of nighttime running I would complete on single track and rough roads. At this point the lights were primarily to ensure that we could be seen by oncoming traffic since we were running along smooth roads all the way through to the Fish Hatchery. Even after having already run 115 km to this point I was able to maintain 6:00-6:10 min/km pace along the sealed road towards the aid station. As darkness descended we could clearly see the lights of the aid station, which seemed so near, yet for quite some time the distance simply didn’t seem to close. When the road started to slightly ascend just before reaching the aid station we started walking, and walked our way into the aid station.
Taking another long stop at the aid station I consumed some potato soup, put on my thermal top, handed Hillary a number of extra energy gels that I knew I would never consume (as I had been consuming fewer than planned for some time), and enjoyed a well earned seat. I also happened to arrive at the aid station approximately one minute before another Australian, Mike Le Roux, who was completing Leadville as part of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (the completion of the Western States 100, Vermont 100, Leadville Trail 100 and Wasatch Front 100 all within a calendar year). Hearing his accent we struck up a brief conversation before he set off first. I gave Hillary a big hug and thank you and set off for the final 37 km on my own. I left the aid station 1 hour 59 minutes ahead of my sub-25 hour pacing target, and had decided to target a sub-23 hour finish time.
Fish Hatchery to May Queen
After a short paved section upon leaving the aid station I turned off the road for the nasty climb up the powerline section, which I immediately started walking. With it now well and truly dark it was possible to see other runners some distance ahead by their headlights. I tried to keep up a strong pace on the climb, and once I had reached the pass I immediately started to run on the descent. When I pulled up alongside a runner and his pacer walking along this downhill section I slowed and started chatting, more out of a desire for company than any need to walk. I chatted with the pacer while his runner stalked behind us silently, as he was feeling ill and struggling to hold any food down. After a few minutes of walking and chatting the pacer suggested to his runner that they try running, but when the runner said that he wasn’t up to it, I decided it was time for me to keep moving on. I wished them well and took off at a slow run and soon reached Hagerman Pass Road for the smooth descent down to the Colorado Trail, and May Queen beyond that.
I reached the start of the Colorado Trail section, which had seemed very short and quick when I had run it some 16 hours earlier. Even though I was now descending along the trail it seemed to continue on and on. I started hearing the announcer at May Queen to my right, knowing that I would turn right once I reached the trail head after crossing a wooden bridge. When I crossed a wooden bridge but a few minutes later still hadn’t reached the trail head I started to wonder whether I might have missed a turnoff while I struggled to recall whether there had been any other bridges in this section. I eagerly started looking for a trail marker to ensure that I was still on track, but kept running and running with no trail markers in sight. When my headlight finally reflected off a marker I calmed down but kept holding out for the sight of the wooden bridge. I finally reached the bridge, ran through the trail head car park to the road and soon turned into May Queen campsite, and the final aid station.
Upon reaching the aid station I was approached by a friendly volunteer who informed me that he would personally look after me until I left again. I filled my hydration pack, replaced the batteries in my headlight and hand torch, put on my waterproof jacket for some extra warmth, ignored the nutrition waiting in my drop bag (as I was still carrying more than I could see myself eating through to the finish) and forced myself to eat a pancake that I was offered. I had planned to take 3 hours for the final section in my sub-25 pacing chart so I wanted to leave the aid station by midnight to allow me that amount of time to complete the section and come in under 23 hours. I lingered at the aid station longer than planned, eventually leaving 6 minutes after midnight but still confident of reaching my new sub-23 hour target. I was 1 hour 54 minutes ahead of my sub-25 pacing target.
May Queen to Finish
I set off for the final section with approximately a half marathon remaining to the finish line. After running through the campsite I found myself back on the single track that would take me around Turquoise Lake. After running for a few minutes on the trail I caught my foot on an object that I never saw, stumbled and fell to the ground, slightly grazing my hand in the process. I quickly got back to my feet and continued to run with no major damage, however shortly after I caught my foot on another object but this time managed to regain my balance without falling. After my third near-fall I began to reevaluate my position: my physical fatigue meant that I was running with minimal leg lift and little clearance from the ground, while my mental fatigue meant that I was not spotting obstacles or reacting quick enough to avoid them. To continue as I was going meant to risk hurting myself and potentially to miss out on achieving any of my targets. I decided that 23 hours was not an important target and that I would walk the remainder of the way around the lake, which would still see me comfortably within 24 hours.
I walked for a few kilometres before I was overtaken by another runner and pacer. They checked that I was alright, and when I explained my falls and near-falls the pacer pointed out that the rocky section of the trail was now behind us. I decided to attempt running again and just as I decided that the ground was indeed more level I caught my foot yet again, this time stumbling, falling and completing a slow motion roll onto my back. Among approximately 12 km of trail I had managed to roll into the only puddle that I could recall encountering. I let loose with a shout of frustration (censored on this blog), rose to my feet, and slowly started walking while I checked myself and my clothing for damage. Other than getting water and mud over my jacket and pack I was fine, so once again I reevaluated whether to run or walk. It dawned on me that there was a middle ground so I started jogging at a very easy pace, and at the slower pace I found I was able to maintain my feet without further falls. I once again started eyeing off a sub-23 hour time.
I finally reached the end of the trail and took it easy, running and walking the last couple of uneven sections that lead me back to the Boulevard, where I started running while calculating my required pace for the final 5 km to the finish. I knew that I would climb a very slight gradient for almost the entire way to the finish, evaluated the importance of breaking 23 hours, and instead decided to walk the remainder of the Boulevard. I reached 6th Street and climbed the short, steep hill that welcomes runners back into town. I started running as I crested the hill and was greeted with a view of the finish line. I ran down the hill, straight past the door of the house where I was staying, and onto the red carpet. I crossed the finish line in 37th place after 23 hours 9 minutes, and received a hug and my finisher’s medal from race director Merilee. As the finish line photo proves I was smiling as I crossed the line.
I was ushered into the medical tent, where I was weighed and found that I had lost a modest 3 lbs (1.5 kg) for the duration of the race. I had not taken anything other than water for the final 90 minutes of the race and I was feeling very hungry. I went into the finish line aid station, sat down with a blanket beside a gas heater, and enjoyed a chicken noodle soup. I chatted with other runners, some of whom had finished and others who unfortunately had not. I eventually roused myself for the short walk home, and a well-earned sleep. After a few short hours I rose, walked back to the finish line and stood cheering as the final finisher crossed the line 5 minutes before the gun went off. At noon I assembled with an assortment of tired, sore and hobbling runners for the awards ceremony where I was presented with my sub-25 hour silver and gold belt buckle.