Pace Report: Leadville Trail 100 Run

No, the heading is not a typo. After running the Leadville Trail 100 Run as my first 100-mile event last year, this year I returned not to race but instead to pace. I would pace Mike, one of my pacers from Western States (check out that Race Report), for the final 40 miles of his race.

I arrived in Leadville on the Wednesday afternoon before the race. I was sharing a house with Mike (who is an ex-pat Canadian), Dennis (a transplanted New Zealander who first suggested Mike to pace me), and another Australian also called Mike who was just out for the race. The Australian Mike mentioned that he was speaking to another friend and it sounded like he was starting a joke when he mentioned that he was sharing a house with an Australian, a New Zealander and a Canadian. On Friday we were joined in the house by Duncan (Mike’s coach and the official Leadville coach), and another runner coached by Duncan along with his wife. Therefore by Friday night the house (which can sleep up to 14 people) was populated with a total of 7, including 4 racers, 2 pacers, and 1 crew member.

We spent time relaxing, preparing (pacing charts and drop bags), attending race events (mandatory briefings, optional briefings, race registration), and even squeezed in a couple of last runs before race day. On the Thursday Mike and I went out for a 7-mile run along the Half Pipe section of the course, and on the Friday I completed a solo 6-mile run along Turquoise Lake. On Friday night we sat down for an early dinner, and I even felt relaxed enough to enjoy a beer. Then it was off to bed in preparation for an early morning start. Despite feeling relaxed about my involvement on race day I still struggled to sleep, possibly only sneaking in 2-3 hours before being woken by my alarm at 3 AM for the start at 4 AM.

I walked with the guys down to the start line, grabbed a coffee once they were in the starting pen, and then positioned myself in front of the start line to watch almost 1000 people (up from 800 last year) run down 6th Street on their way out of Leadville. Once all the runners had cleared the area I walked back across the start line (which is also the finish line), as I would do once again more than 24 hours later.

Mike would run the first 50 miles to Winfield, where he would pick up Duncan as his pacer on the return leg over Hope Pass. Once they reached Twin Lakes on the return I would join Mike for the final 40 miles back to Leadville. Therefore I needed to make my way to Twin Lakes. I had arranged to work with the crew for Denise Bourassa, who I had met at Western States, through until her return to Twin Lakes so that I could await Mike there. Then Mike and I would return to Leadville on foot. It was to be my first time crewing a trail race as well as my first time pacing a trail race.

Crewing Denise

After the start I met up with fellow crew members Ken (Denise’s husband), Todd and Amy, and we made our way out of town to the first aid station at Mayqueen, 13 miles (21 km) into the race. We watched the leaders through the aid station before the sun had risen, with Denise in a good position running just behind an unknown female, Ashley Arnold and Tina Lewis (last year’s winner).

We then moved to the bottom of the Powerline descent as an alternative crew point to the aid station at Outward Bound. In the light we realised that the unknown lead female was actually a male so Denise immediately leapt a spot to third. We provided food and hydration, and everything was going smoothly.

The next crew point at Pipeline was only 6 miles later. We once again watched the leaders head through, chatted with other crews, and then provided food and hydration when Denise arrived, still in third place. As she was about to leave she requested her visor, which turned out to still be in the car. I said that I would retrieve it and ran to find it. But Denise was not waiting so I then had to sprint down the road to hand it to her before she ran off into the distance. It was to be one of my two speed workouts for the day.

Next up was Twin Lakes, the most vibrant of the aid stations. Denise lives in Oregon, and the Oregonians form a tight-knit circle, so upon arrival we chatted with some of Scott Jurek’s crew since it involved Hal Koerner, who would be pacing him from Winfield. By the time Denise arrived she was into second place, having overtaken Tina.

Then for the 12-mile dirt road out to Winfield. We were at the car working on some lunch when Mike Aish came through in first place overall, but I was right alongside Ryan Sandes as he discussed his withdrawal with his planned pacer Cassie Scallion and partner Vanessa Haywood. When Ian Sharman arrived in second place overall even his crew were surprised since he is not known for his mountain climbing ability. Denise dropped into the aid station still as second female, and things were looking good. Amy set off with Denise to pace her back to Twin Lakes.

On the way out of Winfield we started to realise what an organisational disaster was occurring behind us. The queue of cars down Winfield Road went on for a long way, and there were pacers and crew walking for miles to reach the aid station in time to meet their runners. I even spotted Duncan walking towards the aid station to meet up with Mike.

We arrived back at Twin Lakes and set ourselves up. By that time the male leaders had built up a sizeable enough lead that they had already passed through. We had an idea of what time to expect Denise based on pre-race predications as well as by extrapolating times from the race so far. We watched Ashley Arnold pass through and then waited while our expected arrival time, and then our latest calculated arrival time passed by. Something was wrong (although we were unsure of what), and Ken realised that we would need to modify some planning. The headlights that were planned for pickup at Halfpipe would need to be carried from Twin Lakes, but they were still in the car. I was handed the car keys and went off on my second speed session for the day, a tempo run to collect the headlights.

By the time I returned Denise had arrived and was seated. The elevation had affected her on the return over Hope Pass but she had picked up the pace towards the bottom of the descent. Ken and Denise set off from the aid station, and despite the lost time Denise was still in second place. I said farewell to the rest of the crew and would now wait for Mike to show up.

Waiting at Twin Lakes

I had checked Mike’s splits as we returned into Twin Lakes, and he had departed Twin Lakes on his outbound journey perfectly on schedule according to his pacing charts. Once I was left alone I borrowed a phone and checked Mike’s status. He had clearly struggled on the climb over Hope Pass, taking almost three hours to reach the top. Even more concerning was the fact that close to two hours had elapsed since he crested the pass and he was still not reported as arriving at Winfield. I considered for the first time that if Mike did not make it back in time then I would end my night by hitching a ride back to Leadville.

I walked around Twin Lakes for a while looking for a comfortable spot to sit down in the shade, and just after doing so I looked across the road to see a familiar face. I had met another runner named Sean at the race last year, and he had returned again this year. Set up directly across the road from me was his wife along with the rest of his crew. I moved across and was introduced to her parents. As an incredible case of six degrees of separation it turned out that her father was South African, knew Bruce Fordyce very well, and had in fact been paced by the nine-time Comrades Marathon champion when he completed the race for his first time. Another positive from meeting this group was finding out that Sean had already left Winfield yet his split was also missing from the tracking website, and therefore Mike could possibly already have been on his return over the pass.

When I said farewell to Denise’s crew I had left most of my things in their car to collect the following day. The only things I had with me was my hydration vest and a plastic bag containing some food and my cold-weather gear for the evening. Everything remaining with me would either be eaten, thrown out, or carried 40 miles back to Leadville. As the sun moved lower in the sky and the temperature dropped I slowly put on the additional layers i had with me. Sean arrived back at Twin Lakes after a great return time over Hope Pass, and when he left his crew joined soon after.

I borrowed a phone to check Mike’s splits yet again and found that he had crossed over the pass on his return. That split provided me with the first update to his position that I had received in 4.5 hours. I could now estimate his arrival time in Twin Lakes, and it was looking tight. The earliest I could foresee him arriving (if he had a great descent) was 21:15, and the cutoff was 21:45. The other problem was that it would be completely dark by the time he arrived. I had brought warm clothing with me based on the assumption that I would be moving by the time the sun set, so even wearing all of it I was going to be cold. I made my way to the brightest area just before the aid station and chatted with some other pacers also awaiting their runners. We were all cold and wondering whether we would get to run.

At around 21:30 I spotted Mike and Duncan.

Pacing Mike

I ran with Mike and Duncan into the aid station area, and worked out what he needed. Mike changed into fresh shoes and socks. Duncan handed me some remaining Cadbury chocolate that I had brought back from Canada, and told me that it was the main food he was eating. Once we had everything we needed we set out from the aid station. We were 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff.

We immediately commenced the steep climb out of Twin Lakes. Mike was hiking well and we continued to pass people as we ascended. We walked side-by-side up the rough gravel road, although I made sure to give him the easiest path. Once we moved from the gravel road to single track Mike moved ahead and he set the pace with a combination of running and walking. I realised that I needed to keep Mike taking in calories so I started passing him a piece of chocolate every 20 minutes.

We were maintaining a great overall pace and as I continued to recalculate splits I realised that we were pulling well ahead of the next cutoff. By the time we pulled into Halfpipe Aid Station we were around 70 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I managed to get Mike to take in some potatoes at the aid station, and put some more into a zip-lock bag to carry with me. We set off for the easiest and most runnable section of the course. I calculated the pace required to maintain our buffer through to the next aid station and would attempt to keep us moving along at that pace.

I could only get Mike to run for short sections, and I started to realise that some chafing he had mentioned earlier was seriously impacting him. There was nothing I could do to help that so other than reminding him to treat it as much as possible at aid stations I decided to leave that problem in his hands. The temperature had really dropped and we were both feeling extremely cold on this section. I started to set targets for each of our runs by suggesting we run to the next corner, the second house, etc. But we were not running enough to maintain our buffer and by the time we arrived at Outward Bound we had given back some time.

I remember sitting down for some potato soup at this aid station last year, and I was looking forward to some soup this year based on how cold I was feeling. Mike and I both put on an additional layer of clothing, I found some chilli for Mike to eat, and I started switching over some headlight batteries. Then Mike said he was ready to go so I told him to head off. I quickly picked up some biscuits (which would not be quite as warming as soup) and ran off after Mike while carrying his hiking poles under one arm, pulling on my gloves and trying to eat.

I caught up with Mike and we ran some of the remaining road section before we reached the climb that is Powerline. It would be the biggest climb that I would complete with Mike, and according to Duncan it contained five false summits. We settled into a walking pace, and I occasionally walked in front of Mike in an attempt to maintain a good pace since I was becoming concerned with the time remaining. We overtook plenty of people in the early part of the climb, but then slowed towards the top and started leap-frogging a number of other racers towards the top. After counting way more than five false summits we eventually crested the climb and commenced the descent on a road that was initially quite rough.

We walked along the rough gravel road and I started talking to Mike about running the upcoming gentle downhill on Hagerman Pass Road. It is a section of extremely smooth gravel that only lasts for a mile but I was hoping to run a good section of it. I talked up this section by pointing out to Mike that if I was to pick one more remaining section to run for the entire race I would pick this one. Unfortunately my talk only translated into a couple of short running sections, one at the beginning of the road and the other just before we turned off it onto single-track along the Colorado Trail. We walked our way along the trail, and then I pushed Mike on our longest run since before Halfpipe as we made our way on the paved road towards Mayqueen.

We headed out of Mayqueen aid station just as first light appeared. I performed a calculation of our pacing and determined that we needed just over 18:00 min/mi (11:11 min/km) pace. We would be able to walk it if we could keep up a good pace, but I knew we needed to allow extra time to cover any stops or mishaps. We ran the entire way across the paved campground roads until we reached the trail that would take us 7 miles (11 km) around the lake.

Then we started walking. I looked down at my watch and decided that we weren’t walking fast enough. I had let Mike walk and run in front of me through until that point, but then I decided it was time to set the pace. I overtook him and called out over my shoulder that I was going to set a pace between 17:30 and 18:00 min/mi. I noticed that if I walked too fast he would start to fall behind so I realised we would still need to include some running. On the first flat, smooth section that we encountered I told Mike that we would run for just 50 paces, shifted into a run, counted out 27 paces on my left foot (I thought every extra pace would help) and slowed back to a walk. I looked back over my shoulder and Mike was still there. I would continue to throw in 50 paces of running as we made our way around the lake.

At the Tabor Boat Ramp we arrived to support in the form of Duncan. It was good to see a familiar face and we were closing in on our target. When we left the trail along the lake Duncan was awaiting for us once more. I handed him some extra things I was carrying, and then we took the steep descent away from the lake. As soon as we reached the bottom I recalculated our times and realised we were safe. I turned to Mike, told him that we could walk the entire way to the finish without needing to run another step if he wanted. He took my up on that offer. We walked our way towards town, surrounded by other people who were comfortable in the knowledge that they would make it. All of these runners would cross the finish line.

We crested the final hill and had our first glimpse of the finish line. I pointed out a pedestrian crosswalk ahead of us and suggested that we would run across the line from there. But when we arrived I decided it was too far, so when we reached the barricades that closed off the finish from cars I turned to Mike, and told him that now he runs. Mike ran across the line for a finishing time of 29:33:23.

Leadville Trail 100 - At the Finish with Mike and Duncan
Leadville Trail 100 – At the Finish with Mike and Duncan

It was my first time pacing someone in a trail race, and it was an amazing experience. I am glad that I was able to help Mike across the line when he would have struggled to finish alone. But at the end of the day, as we ran around that lake 50 paces at a time, not a single one of those steps was hurting me. Mike managed to push through the pain and earn himself a belt buckle. I am just glad that I was able to be a part of it.

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