Wednesday, August 26, 2015

2015's Leadville 100 Trail Run: Becoming a Statistic

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” stated former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.  While seated in a gymnasium full of runners, the Leadville 100 trail run (LT100) founder, Ken Clouber, recited the quote but added his own touch of flair to the statement.

“And the Leadville 100 will punch you in the face…lots of times!”

I felt ready for the fight.

The LT100 was a slow and steady infection over the past several years.  Like many, Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book, Born To Run, planted the seed for the infection as I absorbed the words from his novel which contained wonderful coverage of the LT100.  Having volunteered the past 2 years at the Hope Pass aid station, the infection continued to fester.  I love trail running and although this mighty event spooked me, it still hauntingly called out to me.  So, I submitted an application to enter the race.  In January, the email arrived announcing my name had been drawn in the lottery.  The challenge was 7 months away.

Because of the elevation, the event is frequently advertised as "The Race Across The Sky." The course is an out and back, so the elevation profile has a mirror image at the 50 mile turn around point that showcases the challenging "bunny ears" of Hope Pass. This year was the 33rd anniversary of the event and historically, around 50% of the runners who start the race do not make it back to the finish line.  I did not want to contribute to the population of non-finishers and the day prior to the race, it was announced that 650 runners picked up their race bib numbers.

Everybody, and I mean everybody, has opinions about training, nutrition, hydration, gear, race day strategies, pacers, crews, etc.  I listened, read and processed everything. 

Like most people, other life responsibilities took precedence over excessive training, but I did what I could, when I could. Crossfit blended with joyous trail runs, climbing 14ers and other mountain adventures were all incorporated.  I felt, and believed, come race day, I could accomplish my goal of finishing the 100 mile race in the required 30 hours.  I did not need the “big buckle” for finishing under 25 hours (I don't even wear belts except when jeans fall off from excessive training) and I would be there to only compete against the course and its race clock. 

Real quick: The history of 100 mile trail runs goes back to a 1974 California 100 mile horse race where H. Gordon Ainsleigh’s horse came up lame, so he gave the laces on his sneakers a tug and toed the start line—and was the first to cross the finish line.  Awards for horse events were typically belt buckles, so the traditional award transferred into the 100 mile foot races as well. For the LT100, finish under 30 hours, you earn the small buckle.  Finish under 25 hours, you get the next size up. Complete the event 10 times, the big 1,000 mile buckle awaits.  How about 20 finishes?  A huge 2,000 mile buckle will conceal any type of bulging belly.  And, yes, although not pictured, there was a 30 time, 3,000 mile finisher last year where the buckle resembled a medieval shield from ancient warfare and, when worn, concealed any signs of chilled nipples poking through a shirt. 

As race day drew closer, I fretted over equipment.  With the forecast being in the upper 30’s at the 4 a.m. start, I knew a beanie with a headlamp, a t-shirt with separate arm sleeves, gloves, shorts and my sneakers would suffice.  Once in motion, heat generated from effort would knock off the chill and a hydration vest would carry fluids and a rain jacket.

Likewise, I fretted over what to pack in drop bags that would be scattered along the course’s aid stations.  Having previously volunteered with drop bag handling, I knew to secure items in hard plastic containers as they literally get thrown around.  

The first aid station, May Queen (misspelled on the above graph as Mary Queen), was at mile 13.5. I rationalized arriving there after daybreak so I would need sunglasses and more Tailwind (nutritional supplement to provide energy and electrolyte replacement to mix in hydration bottles) .  With such few items, I only used a Folger’s coffee container as my drop bag.  Because the course is an out and back, I wanted to carry the beanie, arm sleeves and gloves deeper into the course and tuck them into later drop bags for my return trip. Likewise, in case my evening headlamp malfunctioned on the return trip, I also wanted to carry my morning headlamp further into the course to store in a later drop bag as a spare.

Outward Bound was at mile 24.5 and replaced the former Fish Hatchery aid station as the #2 spot for drop bags and aid.  I used another Folger’s coffee container.  Again, more Tailwind was the only item stored.

Aid station #3, Half Pipe was at mile 31 and moved  from the previous years' Half Moon location.  I recognized my return trip at this aid station would probably be as the night became chilly, so I packed thermal base layers, a jacket and would leave my arm sleeves, beanie and headlamp in my drop bag during my initial visit heading out on the course. So, a larger tote was used to accommodate the gear, to include more Tailwind.

Aid station #4, Twin Lakes was at mile 40. (Mt Elbert aid station was in between Half Pipe and Twin Lakes, but only provided water with no drop bag service).  This aid station is crucial as it sits at the base of crossing a river to summit Hope Pass and hit the 50 mile turn around aid station on the other side in Winfield.  I elected to pack my better climbing sneakers, my Salomon Hornets, and would leave my Altras in the tote to change back into on the return trip. Because of the river crossings, I packed dry socks, a fresh t-shirt and a hand towel to dry off my tootsies.  Most importantly, I discovered my climbs are far more efficient and faster using trekking poles, so they were also nestled inside the tote. Of course, more Tailwind was also stored. 

All container lids were secured with super-sexy pink zebra striped duct tape and would be easy to spot even if I didn’t have to scribble my name and bib number all over them in permanent makers.  I felt comfortable with equipment and drop bag strategy.

Because Tailwind is a blend of everything that is needed in terms of energy for fuel and electrolyte replacement, I opted to pack no food.  The race is incredibly generous with food at their aid stations where stocked items include: GU gel packs, Coca-Cola products, water, coffee, bananas, oranges, watermelon, turkey and ham sandwiches, bagels, boiled potatoes, cocoa, Top Ramen type soup/hot bullion, cookies, M&M’s, pretzels, soda crackers, graham crackers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  With a selection like that, why even bother stressing over food? Even though Tailwind is marketed as all inclusive, I figured I would graze as needed at aid stations--sometimes a tummy just needs real food.

I scouted most of the course either by foot or vehicle and as race day approached, nights became sleepless while tossing and turning about the event.  Gear? I felt comfortable.  Drop bags? They caused little worry after leaving them with staff to scatter at the various aid stations.  Training?  Sure, I bet nearly everyone wishes they did more prior to any athletic event, but I felt I adequately prepared. Health?  My surgically repaired Achilles tendon from 16 months ago still isn’t 100% and worries me some but everything else is pain free.  Strategy?  This was the number one concern.  One experienced ultrarunner told me, “Go out fast since cut-off times are aggressive in Leadville.”  Another experienced ultrarunner, and friend, told me the opposite.  He strongly advised not going out too fast and to be patient with a steady pace because going out too fast pays harsh dividends later when the body revolts.  While racing, he tells himself as multitudes of runners pass him, “I’ll see you later.” I had faith in his strategy and would go out slow and steady and follow his directions to virtually walk all inclines, regardless of steepness or distance , until the course levels out or heads downhill.

Another night of tossing and turning only yielded 2 hours of sleep, but race morning finally arrived and I looked forward to getting to work.  I had the rookie jitters while waiting on the street for the 4 a.m. start with runners representing 46 states and 26 countries. Finally, we were off.

The race heads down paved streets to dirt roads and because of the number of runners, I didn’t need to even turn on my headlamp. Dancing shadows decorated roadway surfaces and I frequently looked skyward.  Starting at 10,200 feet, I felt closer to the stars and the sky was cloudless to showcase the diamonds in the sky. To ensure I was holding back on the throttle to control a slower pace, I focused on strictly breathing through my nose.  This appeared to be an effective governor for my pace and I felt good.  My lungs were happy, my heart was happy and my legs were happy. Even my ears were happy.  Normally Korn, Disturbed, Tool, etc blast away in my ear buds but Kenny Chesney’s melodic voice told stories that calmed the running beast and made me smile as my virtual pacers accompanied me on the journey.  Summertime in the Rockies, it's all good.

Eventually, runners funneled from the streets and onto a single track trail skirting Turquoise Lake. I reached up and clicked on my headlamp to better scrutinize rocks and roots as the trail paralleled the shoreline.  Being far enough along into the race, I was with a group with a similar pace.  Was there temptation to really start running instead of the slower pace?  Yes, but I remained steadfast with the reduced speed as we ran the level, lakeside trail. I was fortunate to follow a runner who was very fluid while running as if he was floating along the trail. But, it was short lived as an impatient runner from behind darted in front of me and had the complete opposite running style.  He stammered along, stumbled, tripped, cleared his throat and farmer blew his nose a couple buh-zillion times and, thankfully, headed out into the dark woods to take care of business.  I caught up to the floater and we hit May Queen aid station, mile 13.5, in 2 hrs 24 minutes with a 10:46 min/mile pace.

Headlamps were already turned off due to the rising sun and spectators had the aid station alive. I went to the drop bags and replenished my supply of Tailwind and grabbed my sunglasses and immediately returned to the course. The course had a very friendly uphill grade which, true to my strategy, I briskly walked and walked and walked. A bystander stood with a leashed husky where a runner dropped her hand which the husky licked.  I followed suit and was bit!  Little shit, but I asked for it!  Dark clouds with light rain had me dig out my rain jacket as I hiked to the top of Sugarloaf Pass that crests over 11,000 feet.  I knew the forthcoming descent was named Powerline and it can be a quad-thrasher so I again throttled back and did not fly down the trail.  Downhill trail running is my favorite and typically I have reckless abandonment while letting gravity boost the speed, but I stayed true to my strategy. 

The prior week, the first fatality in all Leadville race series events happened on Powerline during the 100 mile mountain bike race where 55 year old Scott Ellis was competing in the race for the 19th time and died from a heart attack.  During the pre-race briefing in the high school’s gymnasium, there was not a dry eye when they inflated an arch with a large version of his bib, #1249, hanging under it.  Kudos to Lifetime Fitness to retire his bib number and honor him in such a manner!

Upon reaching the bottom of Powerline, my quads told me they had been worked, but I had some uphill on a road to walk and then about a mile of downhill to ease along in the steady pace where I hoped my quads would recover.  Outward Bound aid station, mile 24.5, was reached in the total time of 4:48:27.  The leg from May Queen averaged 13:05 min/mil over Sugarloaf with my overall pace at 11:47 min/mile.  Being that an overall 12 min/mile was my goal pace, I felt good about the time and my body was not complaining. I heard my name and smiled as Rich Airey extended his hand from the crowd that I met with a fist bump. (Rich was highlighted on this blog under “Selfless” (very, very fitting) and finished 7th in last year’s LT100 and unfortunately broke his foot in June training on the course and was sidelined in a boot while healing.)

More Tailwind and some chocolate chip cookies and I was out of the aid station chugging along the course that graciously ran across Outward Bound property which alleviated running on county roads like during previous years.  As spectators were left behind, I was surprised by my wife and daughter with our dogs coming up beside me. It was great to see them and I reported I was feeling good and kept moving along.

The pasture was exited and the course returned to pavement where I did some math in my head and realized I had a good lead on cut-off times and convinced myself to run some and walk some.  I do not like road running, so walking stints down the road were welcomed.  We finally left the road and eventually hit a wide swath cut into the pine forest where a huge pipeline is buried.  Spectators were parked in rows down the long clearing and I began to walk more as I realized my fast walk was almost the same speed as some fellow runners were running.  They would shift into a walk and I’d pass them and they would return to running and pass me.  I assumed I was being more efficient and opted to continue to briskly walk.  When single track returned, I began to again run and walk in intervals, but my quads were not happy and IT bands began to tickle the outside of my knees.  It’d been several years since my first and only IT incident and I immediately became concerned as I remembered how crippling they can become.

“What is going on?!”  I analyzed and scowled why my IT bands were catching fire and found no answer and then it happened.  Running downhill was taken from me.  My favorite part of trail running was snatched from the race as IT bands turned into fiery daggers plunging themselves into my knees with any downhill terrain.  I made it to Half Pipe aid station, mile 31, in the total time of 6:01:59 with the leg from Outward Bound averaging 11:13 min/mile.  Total pace average was 11:40 min/mile.  Tormented, I took my time removing arm sleeves and beanie to store in the drop bag for my return trip.  Tailwind began to taste shitty and I shopped in the aid station’s groceries with nothing grabbing my attention.  M&M’s any other time in my life are gobbled by the handfuls, as are cookies.  Nothing was appealing as I left the aid station very concerned about the race.

The course snaked along the base of Mt Elbert and had ups and downs where ups were fine and downs were outright awful.  One racer was flat on his back along the trail and I helped him back to his feet.  Another racer was bent over, heaving.  Much to my dismay, I heard the torrent come up the pipe and splash on the ground where I nearly joined him.  His misfortune made me reflect on my condition. 

My heart and lungs were happy as I never once went anaerobic with my disciplined strategy.  My stomach was not complaining and, except for my IT bands, my whole body and mind were good.  But, steep descents nearly buckled my knees and I grew more and more concerned about the race. 

Dropping into Twin Lakes aid station, mile 39.5, I was 8:30:03 into the race.  The painful descents had my pace really drop...17:30 min/mile from Half Pipe.  My hobbling along where I should have been enjoying efficient and fast downhill running was very frustrating.  My overall pace became 12:56 min/miles. (Note: Since I do not wear Garmin types of devices or even a heart rate monitor, these splits were obtained from the chip timing results at the end of the race.)

I knew too well what was ahead.  Twin Lakes sits at 9,200 feet and is the low point on the course.  In 5.1 miles, there was a 3,400 foot climb to reach Hope Pass at 12,600 feet which is also the high point on the course.  To access the climb, a river needed to be crossed and I gimped over to my drop bag.

I must take a moment to mention ALL the volunteers along the course.  They are there for the runners and extend such an overwhelming desire to help that it is very, very humbling to be treated like royalty.  I sat down to switch out gear and was asked how I was doing.  I admitted how everything was great except excruciatingly painful IT bands on descents.  I asked about a foam roller to treat my pissed off IT bands and shortly thereafter, a volunteer handed me one that she had retrieved from her car.  It was pristine white and I could not find a proper place to roll.  I learned her name was Jenna and she did not care if it got dirty.  So, I plopped down in the corner beside 2 leashed dogs, an ancient Boston terrier that grunted with every breath and a black lab who was very comfy while nesting in a sleeping bag that was on top of a cot.  Both reached out to me as I rolled and they made my day--Half-Pint the grunting terrier and Rufus the king of the cot were a pleasure to meet. 

With enough time on the roller, I realized I was way behind on caloric intake. Chunks of salted boiled potatoes hit the spot as I ate several cups of them (some may classify my intake as potato flavored salt as I dumped the wonderful white crystals from the shaker) and even managed to choke down a small piece of peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  By now, I was sick of Tailwind.  But, I kept one bottle in my vest with the mix and the other bottle held plain water.

After rolling out both legs and getting some food in my nearly empty belly, I switched out shoes and grabbed my trekking poles. In all other aid stations I was in and out in the matter of minutes, but I took at least 30 minutes tending to myself at Twin Lakes and felt it was time well spent, even though the down time would eat away at my overall pace.  I headed out and crossed the highway, followed a path through the meadow and did a self-check.  I felt great!  I felt so good that I found myself smiling and was rejuvenated enough that I even caught myself singing along with Toby Keith. (I make dogs howl if I sing and, therefore, never actually sing aloud, but I had risen from the ashes!)  I trotted some and hit the water crossings feeling revived.  The icy waters felt wonderful and, I will mention, I had no blisters.  Wright’s 2-ply socks are worth their weight in gold.  I witnessed some other runners in the medical areas with epic blisters and was grateful I wasn’t burdened with those painful bastards on my feet. And, all my toe nails were intact and undamaged.

During my hobbled effort pre-Twin Lakes, I passed no one and was easily passed by 75+ runners and upon hitting the incline, I began to pass others.  My strategy was to start the climb at a pace that could be sustained the entire trip up and I switched my play list to the hard stuff.  My poles hit a rhythm and I did not stop.  Considerate racers allowed me to pass and suddenly, someone was yelling very loudly.  I looked up as the lead runner and his pacer were running down the rocky trail.  Running is an understatement—they were sprinting!  The section of trail was very rocky and their feet faintly touched rock as they flew down past me.  I watched in awe.  Not only did we start at the same time and they were roughly 8+ miles ahead, they were at a pace that was superhuman in such treacherous terrain.  If one would crash, broken bones were guaranteed.

After witnessing the spectacle in speed, I continued my uphill march as the 2nd place runner and his pacer came blitzing down the trail in an equally impressive performance of feet whispering across the tops of all the rocks.  I continued onward and upward and finally saw llamas and the familiar Hope Pass aid station.  Mom and my older sister were graciously volunteering and I asked about a foam roller to again tend to my IT bands.  (Last year a volunteer had actually packed one up the mountain!)  No roller was present, but a medic used high mountain ingenuity and wrapped an ace bandage around a small propane tank—perfect!  I rolled out both legs and choked down watermelon, instant potatoes, a few M&M’s and water.  The thought of more Tailwind nearly triggered the gag reflex and I did not want to start puking after doing so well in that department.

I set out for the final push to the summit and reached the prayer flags being battered by the winds at 11:32:05 into the race.  Due to my extended stay in Twin Lakes and the big ascent, my overall pace slowed to 15:22 min/mile. But, that was alright as I envisioned running down the backside of Hope Pass where I could really make up some time and create a buffer with the advancing cut-off times. The view from Hope Pass is spectacular and I really wanted to put my legs in neutral and let gravity quickly pull me down the mountain.  In the first 40 feet, I learned otherwise.

My IT bands again revolted, in a magnificent manner.  The fiery daggers had turned into machetes dipped in acid hacking at my knee joints.  Despite the hampered progress, I was still over a hour ahead of the cut-off time at the Hope Pass aid station.  But, I knew that cushion was collapsing in dramatic fashion.  I used the trekking poles to brace each step down and the steeper the step, the greater the pain.  Little by little, I crutched down the trail . 

Total frustration set in.  Here was the perfect place to make good time and I looked like Frankenstein with a severe medical condition.  One slow-motioned painful step at a time I pathetically eased down the mountain.  I literally hiked in reverse for awhile which softened the ice picks plunging into my knees, but stumbling many times nearly had me tumbling down the mountain...a vision that was becoming rather appealing.  But, I'd probably survive the fall and force a rescue from others, so I returned to my agonizing forward motion. 

“You look great!”  “Good job!”  “Keep it up!” “You can do it!”  I heard it all from fellow racers and pacers.  They were gracious in their comments as I struggled down the mountain at a speed comparable to the growth of lichen.  I periodically glanced at my watch and knew the cut-off time at mile 50 in Winfield was 6 p.m.  I kept moving as best as I could while hoping that if I beat the cut-off, I could somehow get back to Twin Lakes where I hoped for another resurrection.  With the clock ticking, I kept hobbling forward trying to hit the aid station in time.  I watched as 6 p.m. rolled on my watch with the aid station in view.  Shortly thereafter, my timing chip was peeled from my bib and my wristband was snipped off. I got the standard hug from the "Cut-Off Queen" and felt like a loser.  My Hope Pass descent was a whopping 32:13 min/mile.  How pathetic! Peanut butter the wintertime, flow faster!  I was cut from the race right in between the "bunny ears" and became a non-finisher statistic!  Grrrr!!!

DNF!  DID NOT FINISH!  It’s a monstrous disappointment.  Everything felt good except my IT bands and I am still processing what happened and how my body let me down. 

It’s embarrassing. 

It’s irritating. 

It’s maddening and with my personality, it's failure in the purest form.

I do not like it, at all.

Mix in how my pacer and his family, not to mention my own family, sacrificed a weekend for my race and I feel like I also let them down.  My pacer was excited and had been looking forward to the experience. But, because of my candy-ass, he only got to experience a long wait on a dusty road to witness my arrival, and immediate removal, from the race. So sorry my friend!

Afterwards, friends and family offered well intended condolences of, "Look at what you accomplished!  You did 50 miles on a brutal course!"

Um, hello?  I signed up for a 100 mile race, not a 50.  Therefore, plain and simple, I failed.  It's frustrating having felt so good except for my IT bands and I will obsess over my failure for quite a while and hope next year's work schedule will allow enough training time to return for redemption.

LT100.  It’s no joke and it will punch you in the face…or rip up your IT bands.  (Side note:  Aside from my IT bands, the only other soreness after the race were my triceps that worked overtime while crutching my crumpled body down Hope Pass on trekking poles.)  True to it's history, 319 of the 650 finished, making the race another year of a 51% drop out rate.

But, I did witness a lot of common looking folks accomplishing an uncommon goal and admire their success. Congrats to each and every one of them!



1 comment:

  1. Moustache, you only fail when you stop trying! Yep, you didn't get to conquer the 100 grueling miles of a race that a fraction of 1% of the entire world runs and completes, but anyone who knows you has no doubt that you would have crawled over that finish line but for those four lousy minutes! You didn't quit, you fought against quit. Your body failed you, not your drive and determination! Give yourself some credit! Next year, you'll earn your small belt buckle, and the year after that, you'll earn the next size up, because that's just who you are. Ramble on!