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Leadman; Nothing worthwhile is ever easy

Leadman; Nothing worthwhile is ever easy

Leadman; Nothing worthwhile is ever easy

I am spiritually drawn to two places on Earth, the Pacific Ocean and the Rockies.  I am emotionally drawn to challenge myself in physically and mentally demanding ways.  Where I am drawn to Geographically is obvious to anyone who has stood in those awe-inspiring places. The latter however is harder to explain. One of my favorite all-time quotes seems to say it all; “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary.  For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”  

In 2002 I ran my 1st marathon (Boston) and competed in my 1st Ironman (Panama City, Florida). Since that time, I realized that the motivation, for me anyway, wasn’t the actual run or specific race, but more the choosing of something that is hard to do, and then training for it to see what can happen/what is possible. And make no mistake, I love to compete, and always want to do well, but it’s the quest, not the grail that motivates me.  Marathons turned into Ironman, Ironman into Ultramarathon, and Ultramarathon into the Lead challenge (formerly known as the Leadman/Leadwoman challenge).

I first fell in love with the idea of Leadville after watching the movie “Race Across the Sky” when Lance Armstrong was Lance Armstrong, Tour De France winner, not Lance Armstrong, liar and cheater.  Years later, with 2 close friends and after recovering from a fractured heel, I ran the Leadville 100-mile trail run as my 2nd ever 100-mile Ultramarathon. 

It was then where the little town of Leadville, Colorado, elevation 10,152’ nestled among the highest peaks in the Rockies, captured my heart and soul.  While finishing in 28 hours, 14 minutes, I felt I could have done better (there is a 30-hour time limit to finish and earn a belt buckle and if you finish in under 25 hours, then you earn a bigger buckle and some bragging rights).

The following year in 2016, the year I was stung by bees and had to be taken away in an ambulance at mile 15, at the awards ceremony after the race, my friends and I watched people being called up for completing something called the Leadman challenge and received their award/reward, a Pickax. 

As we would learn, the Leadman challenge includes participating in each of the Leadville events throughout the year; the Leadville Marathon, the Silver Rush 50-mile run 3 weeks later (you can choose the 50-mile bike too, but where’s the fun in that, or you could choose both), the Leadville trail 100 (105 actually) mountain bike race 5 weeks later, the Leadville 10K the next day and the Leadville trail 100-mile run the following weekend. 

Finish all events in under the cut off times and you earn the Pickax.  Watching these people limp up to the stage to grab their reward and seeing the level of satisfaction, and pain, in their faces and feeling that sense of accomplishment from afar, I just knew that at some point I wanted that.  I wanted that feeling, that sense of accomplishment, that pain, and yes, that Pickax!  

Logistically, that means 3 trips to Leadville Colorado, which is a challenge unto itself living in Massachusetts.  From a training standpoint, it means in addition to logging many miles of running, there would have to be intense training on the Bike which is something I haven’t done in 14 years.  With the 100-mile mountain bike and the 100-mile run a week apart, the training takes a unique approach that is as relentless as the terrain you cover. 

To improve my chances, I hired 2 coaches; Tim Snow from QT2 Systems who is a former professional triathlete, friend and someone who also has done the Leadville mountain bike race a number of times.  Tim has trained me for all of my fastest marathons and I love our partnership and knew I wanted him guiding me.  The other coach I worked with was Ryan Krol from Boundless Endurance.  Ryan has completed Leadman before and as a Colorado based athlete and coach, his business is helping endurance athletes train and complete ultra-endurance events and Leadville specifically. 

Training for me began in earnest in December 2001 with early miles on the indoor trainer.  Hours and hours would be spent on that bike indoors over the next 4 months until it was feasible to get outside and ride.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, there was lots of sweat, sport drink, energy gels and LOTS of early wake ups.  There were hours spent in my snowshoes and hours spent with my running shoes IN the snow.  In addition to my day job and home life, training averaged around 10-12 hours a week between biking, running and strength training.   

 

Wilmington-Whiteface 100K mountain bike race, Lake Placid New York (June 4, 2022) 

This was the 1st race of the season and my 1st mountain bike race in 13 years (only my 3rd ever) and I had zero expectations of what I could do or would do.  Spending almost all your time on an indoor bike trainer gives very little objective feedback about what it’s like pedaling on real hills or into a strong wind or biking with others, so I really had no idea how I would do in a race setting. I thought that anything under 6:30 (6 hours, 30 minutes) would be good and anything under 6 would be great.

The race was very Leadville like in the long, sustained climbs and at 68 miles long, the race was a great test of fitness. It also happens to be a Leadville qualifier and depending on your race result, gives you the ability to move up in corral seeding for the big race in August.  My race ended up far exceeding my expectations as I finished in 5:38 and even ahead of my training partner Jim Hughes (also from Boylston, MA) who happens to be a much stronger rider than me. 

I raced it hard and was beat up for a good week after.  My legs were toasted, and my left hip was hurting to the point where my old pelvic stress fracture fears resurfaced.  My wife and I had a trip planned to NYC the following week which was a good 3-day respite from the bike, and I was able to get in a 90-minute easy run along the Hudson. 

On our last day in New York my throat started getting scratchy and I had some lung congestion and a dry cough. When we got home on Saturday, 1 week after the Wilmington bike race and 1 week before the opening event in the Leadman series, the Leadville marathon, I tested positive for Covid.   Into quarantine I went.  Unfortunately, my wife tested positive the next day and she was hit hard for 3 days not able to leave the room.  My symptoms never worsened, I never had a fever or body aches thank goodness, and I was forced to be Mr. Mom for the next 4 days.

 

Leadville Marathon (June 18, 2022)

With my wife feeling much better, our son testing negative each day, I felt good about leaving for Denver on Thursday evening.  With our flight set for just after 8 pm on the 16th, Jim and I arrived at the airport around 6.  Boarding was delayed as we gathered around the gate as the flight crew and plane were there and ready, but JetBlue was awaiting a pilot to be assigned to the flight.  And we waited. 

The flight started out being delayed 2 hours, which would have gotten us into Denver at 12:30 AM, but at least we would be there.  Then around 9:30 PM they cancelled the flight as there wasn’t a pilot available.  With all the other airlines canceling a ton of flights that day due to weather, there were absolutely no flights available in the northeast that would get us to Leadville for the Saturday marathon. 

We looked at Waze and if we left at that moment and drove, we would potentially have a few minutes to spare (30-hour drive), but the hope was to find an airport between Boston and Colorado to shorten the driving time.  In the Ted Williams tunnel, stuck in traffic, Jim found 2 round trip tickets from Cleveland to Denver the next morning on Frontier airlines.  It was our only option available, and we took it. 

If we didn’t make it to this race, or any of the races in the series, there is NO series and no more races.  It would have meant that the 6 months of training, all the early wake ups, hours spent on a bike or in the trails to chase this personal goal, was over.  On to Cleveland, out to Denver, up to Leadville at 10,200’ above sea level and ready for race #1.

As far as marathon’s go, this one is a beast!  With 3 major climbs to tackle including the trek to the top of Mosquito pass at 13,208’, there was just over 6,000’ of climbing and 6,000’ of descending over the course of 26.2 miles all in the thin air.  Thankfully for me, covid did not seem to hit my lungs hard and the breathing difficulty was only altitude related. 

On that note, in my previous 5 trips to Leadville since 2015, I suffered from terrible headaches, nausea and an inability to sleep due to the altitude.  It was better in 2019 but not perfect.  This trip I had no headaches, no nausea AND the night before the race I slept about 8 hours which is probably close to the total amount of sleep I had in the prior 5 trips combined! Though, it is also quite possible that I slept because we had been up for almost 48 hours by that point given the travel fiasco.

The race begins going uphill and keeps going uphill for about 5 miles.  The terrain is road, dirt road and then gravel trail.  Up, up and up.  It made me realize, as if I’d forgotten, just how hard this challenge was going to be.  At just over 12,000’ and 5 miles there was a 2 mile downhill on dirt trail with loose rocks and wash outs that was somewhat technical.  Unfortunately, this 2-mile stretch was reversed at mile 20-21 and was a real ass kicker. 

The halfway point of the marathon was somewhere on the way up Mosquito pass.  The summit was at over mile 14 and the out and back climb had the race leaders descending while we hiked up the loose gravel and rocky ledge above tree line to the pass.  I definitely struggled but not as bad as when I did the race in 2018. 

After a quick drink, gel and photo at the top with Jim, we started the run back down.  The last big climb around mile 21 was brutal, but it finally ended as all big climbs do, and then the trail turned downhill.  Save for 1 small hill left, the last 3 miles were downhill.  Jim and I must have passed a bunch of people that passed us early in the race and the earlier climbs at some point after the Mosquito pass climb. 

There were about 10 more runners that were ahead of us over the last few miles of descending back into Leadville and Jim had made a move to start passing them.  I couldn’t match his move initially and I tried to keep him in sight a few hundred yards ahead.  With about 2 miles left I started to pick it up and close the gap.  Jim was running very steady and passing even more people, and I was picking it up to try and at least keep it close. 

Finally, with about a ½ mile left I made my move to catch Jim and together we passed someone who wanted to beat us, but we weren’t going to allow it.  We finished that last mile at around 7:15 or quicker and finished in lock step feeling incredibly happy and absolutely spent.  Our 3rd amigo Todd Pizzi (formerly of Shrewsbury, MA and now living in San Diego, CA) finished about 25 minutes later and had a great race himself.  Jim and I finished at 5:49 which was a significant improvement over our 2018 time, and we had plenty of energy at the end which is a great sign going forward.

After an afternoon of refueling and relaxing, each of us was in bed by 6 pm.  Thanks to JetBlue, we had to wake up at around 12:30 am Sunday to drive back to Denver, take an early morning flight to Cleveland and spend fathers-day driving the 9+ hours from Cleveland to Worcester, home by 8:30 pm.

 

Silver Rush 50 (July 9, 2022)

The week following the marathon was spent trying to actively recover on the bike. The following weekend I biked for just over 5 hours and it was an ugly day.  I felt like crap the entire time as my legs were shot.  The following week was a different story with a great bike week culminating in an almost 6-hour, 100-mile ride, my first since 2008. There were a few runs sprinkled in and we were 1 week away from the next race of the series, the Silver Rush 50.

This time, the travel was uneventful. Rather than wait for a late Thursday night flight, we decided to play it safe, switch airlines, and head to Denver 1st thing on Thursday which worked out well.  The race began at 7 am Saturday and straight up a small ski hill for about 200 yards, through the timing mat and then onto the trail. 

Like the Marathon, this race started uphill and continued uphill for many miles.  While the Marathon hits 12000’ twice and 13,000’ once, the Silver Rush hits 12000’ four different times on the mostly out and back course with a large figure 8 loop at the turn around.  The 1st 10 miles was essentially a long, slow climb from 10,000’ to 12,000’ with the next 4-6 miles down, then back up to 12,000’ and then off to the turnaround point. The distances were a little off a true 50 as apparently the EPA shut down a few miles of the course, but I didn’t find this out until after the race.

Despite some intestinal distress, I was able to move very well after the 1st climb up and while the heat was increasing and forcing many to slow, I started to pass a lot of people and kept moving forward. Feeling great about myself at this point, and after the 3rd pass through 12,000’, on a fast descent along a wide dirt road, I was caught daydreaming about the finish and how good I felt and must have caught the only rock sticking up (may have only been sticking up a ½” even) with my toe. 

I turned into a comic book superman, flying forward with outstretched arms, hands hitting the gravel, rolling over the right knee, elbow and shoulder and popping up facing the other way.  As I looked down at my hands, there was a rather large flap of skin dangling from my palm and a fair amount of blood.  I had to peel that off, use some water to wash it, and wash out my right knee wounds and keep moving.  At the next aid station, I was able to get some antibiotic ointment and a large band aid that had no chance of sticking.

That fall snapped me out of whatever good mental feelings I had and awoke the pain of already running 38 miles up and down the Rockies. Just as the 1st 10 miles were uphill, the last was going to be downhill. I continued to move well and pass a lot of people despite feeling less than stellar.  The intestinal issues continued to some degree, but being on the final leg of the race, it was just time to be done.

The terrain was very similar to the Marathon with dirt roads, single track through the trees, loose rock and ruts in places, but it was a very runnable course (especially if you live at Altitude). I ended up finishing in 9:23 and overall placed well at 5th in my age group and 71st overall (out of 390 finishers). The run ended up being “only” 47+ miles due to the course re-route, but it was the same for everyone and given that the 100-mile mountain bike is 105 miles, I’ll take the generous reduction in this race.  My friends also had great races and finished in 10 hours and 10:15 respectively. We ended up taking the Sunday red eye home, uneventfully, and onto the real meat of the series.

 

Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race (August 13, 2022)

Training for the mountain bike segment of the series is what takes the most time, accounted for almost all the early wake ups and was the most significant difference with anything I’ve done since 2008, at the end of my Ironman days.  Truth be told, while it had been 14 years since last training like this on a bike, it made me realize why I eventually gave up the sport so long ago. 

I loved racing long distance triathlon and I loved the training, but this type of intense training wasn’t sustainable back then, nor is it now. But, to see this event through, I had to just keep plugging away for 5 more weeks. And given the fact that we just completed a marathon and 50 mile run in the prior 7 weeks, there wasn’t much of a need to run much anymore.

You can run 100 miles off bike fitness, but you can NOT bike 100 miles off run fitness, so the training all along has been geared towards bike fitness.  To that end, the week after the 50-mile run, I rode just over 6 hours and another 100 miles. This time however, the ride was equally as brutal as the ride the week after the marathon. My legs seemed to have died about 2 hours into the ride.  The saving grace for this ride is that it was the reverse of my 50th birthday, 50-mile run, and it was a meaningful ride back to my hometown of Sharon, MA, past my brother’s house in Foxboro and back home to Boylston.

I was cramping severely at 68 miles, and it was a very long ride home.  The following week was another great bike build and the distress of the previous week was gone, and my legs felt great.  The week ended with my longest ride ever; 7 hours and 125 miles. The following weekend I had a single last long run of 4 hours and the next week a 4-hour bike and then off to Colorado to earn that Ax.

Getting to Colorado early for these long races is important.  Living at 500’ above sea level doesn’t get your lungs and body ready to deal with 10-12,000’ above sea level. We arrived 6 days before the race and stayed in the Aspen/Snowmass area doing some relaxing, race prep, a little biking and a little running to stay loose.

The race began Saturday morning at 6:30 am (6:40 for us with groups of riders starting in waves) and I tried to go out easy and stick to my power numbers (there are several ways to measure effort, one is heart rate and the other is power.  At altitude your heart rate spikes higher no matter what, but power is power and isn’t affected by anything other than your ability to produce it.  At altitude, your power output is diminished, and you can determine the appropriate numbers based on existing formula’s and my bike was equipped with a power meter). 

The race starts downhill for almost 5 miles with a beautiful decent towards Mt. Massive and the incredible Rocky Mountain skyline.  There was a large, almost full moon to the left and just above Mount Massive (2nd highest peak in the Rocky’s and right next to Mt. Elbert which is the highest) on a crisp, cold post card of a morning.

The 1st climb up St. Kevins was hard but doable.  Doable in that you are pedaling the entire time.  There were a lot of people around and it was good to get the legs going.  After a fast descent down Kevins (pronounced Keevins) we climbed the next big climb up Sugarloaf which sits at 11,500’ setting up the scariest portion of the day, the powerline descent. 

This 4-mile descent was at times frightening and was the one significant danger of this course that kept me awake many a night.  I almost crashed hard once with ruts and rocks and turns on steep descents with bikers passing me on the left and right. I was holding my breath, squeezing the breaks and praying that I didn’t fall, get a flat or have some other mechanical issue. 

Finally at the bottom of powerline and one of my biggest fears of this race out of the way, I was able to relax, hop on some wheels and draft through the faster section of the race. I had a good effort going forward but couldn’t eat/fuel the way I normally did given the terrain difficulty and the difficulty sometimes in finding food in my pack, in the back of my shirt or finding a time to eat where I could let go of the bars for a few seconds.

I was also really working hard to maintain power as the weather started getting warm. There was some beautiful single track through the pipeline section around mile 35 and that part was fun; and fun is something that was nice to remember when you are working hard to complete something hard. 

At the Twin lakes dam it was so busy and confusing (party scene) that I biked past the aid station and had to turn around, go back to find it and refill my fluids.  The next section was challenging as it led to the hardest effort of the day, the 8-mile climb from 9000’ to 12,400’ up to Columbine mine.  I probably wanted to get off my bike and walk 3-4 times but just kept pushing.  I knew I didn’t have my best that day and just kept telling myself to keep pushing forward and that it was the altitude making it so hard. 

I saw Jim on his descent as I neared the top and he looked good and was absolutely moving much better than me. Towards the top it was “hike a bike” time where the terrain became virtually unrideable and with so many other riders in front of me walking, the only thing you could do was hop off your bike and push it uphill until you could find some flatter terrain to hop on for a bit, until you had to hop off again. 

Finally at the top, I ate, peed and tried to get the hell down the mountain as fast as possible. The descent made everything feel better, as it usually does.  At the bottom however, the effort seemed harder to maintain and I was struggling.  After getting back through Twin lakes dam, the riders were spread out, the group around me was fragmented and a lot of people were suffering. There were significant headwinds, it was hot, it was slow moving on sandy single and double track and up jeep roads and I had almost nobody to draft with.  This was the case for the rest of the race. 

I was near cramping from mile 50 through the end so every hard effort needed to be tempered a bit to avoid seizing up.  I led a train of people who wouldn’t help me at all from pipeline (mile 70) to the base of Powerline (mile 81), which was so frustrating, but all I could do was keep pedaling.

The powerline climb was just horrible.  After a ½ mile of not terrible, it became so steep that I had to get off the bike and push it up the steepest part of the entire course for over a ½ mile. I had to stop a few times and try hard not to lay down and rest which is what my brain was telling my body to do.  The remainder of the climb was on the bike/off the bike/trying not to cramp and trying to keep moving forward.

I started fearing not finishing in under 12 hours as I didn’t know how long it would take to get to the top.  But when I finally started descending again, I knew that I was looking at a finish time around 11 hours which helped me relax a bit as the cut off for official finishers was 12 hours. The descent off sugarloaf was fun and fast, especially down Hagerman pass road and past the spot where I was stung by bees 6 years ago. 

The final climb of the day was up the road of St. Kevins.  It was a long, slow climb, but my legs finally started coming back and I pedaled strong, passed many and was passed by few.  The trail section of Kevins was also a lot of fun down the descent and then it was back into town toward the finish line.  The final 5 miles of the 105-mile (hundred mile) course was gentle and steady, and I finished the last 3 miles with a gradual uphill climb along a dirt road called the Boulevard, onto pavement, up and over the last hill of the day and through the finish line in 10 hours and 51 minutes

It was by far the hardest race I’ve ever done.  It was relentless, non-stop pushing for almost half a day.  I was so happy to have finished and have no mechanical issues or flats.  Jim finished a great day in 9:43 and Todd in 11:34 and we all survived the scariest part of the challenge, where things out of our control could happen in an instant and end everything just as quickly.

 

Leadville 10K (August 14, 2022)

A 10-kilometer run does not sound like a big deal in the context of the other races and race distances.  But a 10K run 15 hours after finishing the most grueling effort of my life changes the dynamic a bit.  While the bike race was brutally difficult, it doesn’t wreck you like the running races wreck you.  I was much sorer the day after both the Marathon and 50 miler than I was the day of the 10K. My legs were tired, exhausted really, and my right quad a little sore/tight, but otherwise fine.

The 10K race is the 1st and last 3.1 miles of the 100-mile run course.  The 1st mile is on road; downhill for a few hundred yards and then a big uphill, then downhill until the turnaround with just over 2 miles on a gravel road.  I ran steady at around a 7:30 min/mile pace for the 1st few miles and eased a bit near the turnaround as I knew I wasn’t going to have much left on the uphill home if I kept pushing. 

Jim on the other hand shot out of the start as if he was running a 100-meter dash! He was a little over 2 minutes ahead of me at the turnaround and finished a little over 5 minutes ahead of my time of 53 minutes with an amazing time of 47 minutes, good enough for 2nd place in the over 50 age group.  Hell of a race Jim!!  Todd was the smart one by running easy and just getting the race finished without traumatizing his body more than necessary and finishing in a little over an hour.  While I would never travel to Leadville specifically for a 10k, the race has the coolest start and finish views of any you could do and a great finisher medal!

 

Leadville Trail 100-mile run (August 20/21, 2022)

For those who sign up for the Lead Challenge, this is the event that strikes the most fear and worry because running 100 miles is hard.  Running 100 miles in the mountains harder and running 100 miles a week after biking a brutal 105 miles is harder still.  For me however, it was the bike that struck the biggest fear as I hadn’t biked seriously in almost 14 years and what could go wrong on the bike were things I couldn’t control. Plus, I had finished the 100-mile race twice before. Sometime after the 10K, probably a minute or two after crossing the line, I started to truly fear next Saturday’s run.  It finally became real.

While I still didn’t have the soreness of body that is typical after the endurance running races, everything was tired and my right quad near my knee remained sore all week.  We had 2 short runs to keep fresh during the week but otherwise it was all about resting, recovering and getting ready to run.

In my previous Leadville 100 runs, I had pacers to help me from 50 miles in.  This year I had none until my run coach found someone a few days before the race to help me with one section, mile 75 to 87.5, which is up and over the last big climb of the day; that same powerline climb that was so hard during the bike race. While the courses are similar, they are not the same. The bike race turnaround is at the high point of the race at 12,400’.  Therefore, the bike race tends to be a negative split (2nd half faster) as you don’t have to do that hellacious 8-mile climb twice.

The run, on the other hand, has you summit the high point of the race at mile 44, Hope Pass, at 12,600’, then descend off the steepest part of the course for about 2.5 miles down the back side of Hope pass and then another 4 miles to the turnaround at mile 50.  And then it’s back the way you came, trying to finish in under 30 hours.

The race began with around 680 runners at 4 AM with a shot gun blast by the race founder Ken Chlouber.  Jim and I ran together to start and stayed together through about 6 hours.  We went very easy through the 1st aid station at May Queen, mile 12.5, in 2 hours, 20 minutes as the skies brightened on this mostly cloudy day.  Rain showers and steady rain was expected to start around 11 AM and go through 10 pm. 

At around mile 13 a runner right in front of me was stung by a bee which sent me into a mini panic.  Fortunately, I didn’t see any bee’s around and made it up to Hagerman Pass Road at mile 15 and past the spot where my race ended in 2016 being swarmed by bees. After the 1st summit of Sugarloaf we started down the Powerline descent which wasn’t nearly as scary as when on the mountain bike. 

Jim and I were feeling every bit of the bike ride on our climb up Sugarloaf with dead legs trying to power their way forward.  Descending is usually our strength, but we struggled down the mountain as you need to have quads that don’t hurt to control the speed and you need hips that can be relaxed to keep up speed.  We had neither.  That said, we made it down in one piece, popped out onto the road for a few miles and made it to mile 24 and the Outward-bound aid station where Jim’s brother’s, Dad and son were waiting.  I swapped shirts, used the porta potty, topped off my fluids, said hello and then Jim and I were off.

In years past this is when the heat would turn up and people who didn’t do well in the heat would suffer.  This year however it remained overcast and relatively cool. My body continued to feel stiff, my back sore and legs heavy. Around mile 30 or 31 I felt a little better and started to move with purpose and started to work my way forward, leaving Jim and truly starting my run. 

At mile 32 the climbing begins for a few miles and then there is a long, steep 4-mile descent into the next aid station at Twin Lakes; mile 38. I reached Twin Lakes at 7 hours, 40 minutes, 20 minutes ahead of what I thought my pace might be and all things considered, not feeling horrible.  Here I refueled, decided against a sock and shoe change as the weather to this point had been dry, grabbed some headphones, started my playlist and was on my way. 

Walking through the aid station and the hundreds of people who were cheering brought out my emotions and I had to fight back tears a few times.  It is an amazing experience knowing you are about 40 miles into a race, about to spend 7 hours to hike/run the absolute hardest section of this or any race and have all the support of those around you, those thinking of you from afar and the personal belief that all the training over the last 8 months comes down to this day, this moment. 

One of the songs that came up later in the playlist was Eminem’s Lose Yourself, and that could have been a very fitting song for that moment.  But the random playlist song that played as I left the aid station was Rhianna’s “Love on the Brain,” and I was off.  It was 2 miles from the Twin Lakes aid station to the start of the 4-mile Hope Pass climb, through grassy trail, hill and dale and through a strong river crossing.

In my previous 2 Leadville finishes I climbed Hope pass very well.  I wasn’t passed by anyone either time, yet I passed many.  In years past I also felt like crap for the 1st 8 hours of the race due to the altitude.  This year was the exception.  I had NO altitude related problems and felt as normal at 10,000’ as I did at sea level oddly enough.  Twin Lakes is the low point of the race at 9,000’ and it was previously where I would feel better and get my legs back.  While I wasn’t getting my legs back on this run (the legs left me last Saturday), I was focused on keeping my head down and plowing ahead.  And again, I passed many, and was passed by none.

There is an aid station at mile 43-43.5 (Hopeless) that is supplied by Llama’s and is probably one of the coolest things about this part of the course.  You climb up and up, above treeline and into the base of the pass with high mountain views, volunteers and Llama’s eating grass a few feet away; it’s surreal.  I had a quick refuel and then it was switchback city from around 11,800’ to 12,600’ at the pass. 

In all prior Leadville’s it never so much as rained.  Summiting the pass today the hail began pelting me and it was imperative to get up, over and back the hell down the back side as the wind, cold and hail were brutal. Several switchbacks later the hail turned to rain and the rocky descent became treacherous with poor footing over the rocky, steep terrain and with legs that could barely control my movement.  The rain stopped after about 20 minutes and at the bottom of the backside of Hope, and the next 4 miles were beautiful with clearing skies, rolling terrain and many runners making their way back in.

The last time I did this race, I reached the turnaround at Winfield in 11:35 or 11:40 and struggled to get out of the aid station as I felt like crap.  This year, without pacers being allowed at mile 50, and me feeling good at altitude, I decided to minimize my time at the stop, refueled my bottles quickly, grabbed my trekking poles and a head lamp in case I needed it before returning to Twin lakes and I was on my way.  At mile 51 I saw Jim who was looking great, and a mile later was Todd who also was looking great.  Here we were, the 3 of us that started this Journey last December, all around 50 miles from finishings.

The climb up the back side of Hope is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in a race.  The fact that this was my 3rd time didn’t make it any easier and the fact that I was to do it alone seemed even worse.  Yet again, I kept my head down and plowed ahead.  Passing many, being passed by none. It’s a crazy thing working as hard as you can, feeling like you are making progress, and then looking up and realizing you still have another 1000’ of climbing to go.  But such is the way up the back side of Hope.

Towards the last of the switch backs and top of Hope I was able to appreciate one of my truly favorite spots on earth, the back side of hope pass with views of multiple 14ers (14,000’ + peaks) in the backdrop, a valley of truly epic proportions and the hardest of the race out of the way (my other favorite spots on Earth are the Kona pier, Brooklyn Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge and anywhere next to my wife). 

While I couldn’t hammer the descent down Hope the way I had in the past, I continued to move really well (considering) and continued to pass many, be passed by none. Reversing direction, I came off the mountain, through the fields, across the river and back into Twin Lakes at mile 62 and ready to finish this damn thing!

One thing about ultra-running is this; no matter how good or poor you are at math, running math is damn near impossible.  While I knew I was making good time, it gave me an ice cream headache trying to figure out where my pacing was and what I was looking at for a finish time given that I could keep moving.  It wasn’t even 6:30 PM, I just had my best ever Hope Pass out and back in 6 and a half hours and while not feeling incredible, I was still moving.  I knew at this point that I could walk it home and still finish in under the cut off which was an incredibly good feeling. 

And now for some good news, for me.  When I found my run coach at his tent, he had a surprise as one of his athletes had to be pulled from the race at the top of Hope Pass and that his pacer wanted to pace me.  Maddy and I made introductions, and then proceeded to get to know each other over the next 4 hours back to the Outward-bound aid stop where I would be introduced to my other pacer, Cody, who is new to Ultrarunning and ironically enough a UMass Grad like me, only 23 years later.

Maddy and I left Twin Lakes around 6:45 PM and while emotionally feeling great, my body suffered up the next 4 miles.  While the climb isn’t as hard as Hope Pass outbound or inbound, it was just brutally hard to me, and I felt like I had nothing.  But again, I kept my head down and plowed ahead, this time passed by a few, passing no one. 

Eventually we made the top of the climb and started to descend and fortunately, I was able to run and keep the legs moving, despite some scattered rain. In fact, I was able to run almost all the flat and downhill sections which is essential to having a good Leadville run.  The real concern I had was that I struggled with eating as it was making me nauseous thinking about food let alone eating food.  But I was able to nibble here and there and was able to take in fluids with electrolytes.  Maddy and I were hiking, jogging, walking and running, but it was all forward motion and we moved in this way until about 10:30 pm to Outward bound and change of pacers.

At outward bound, I put on a smart wool cap and base layer, tried to eat mashed potatoes, broth and ramen and we were off.  As with the bike race, this section sucks! It’s a relentless 4-mile climb in the dark that seemingly never ends. Because I had done this race a few times before and because just the week before I had to push my damn bike up the same hill, I was able to make it up and over the pass on Sugarloaf about 20 minutes faster than my previous best AND was able to run down the backside well. 

The section from Hagerman Pass Road to the May Queen aid station at mile 87.5 seemed to take forever, but the math, as tough as it was to calculate, gave me almost a 4-hour buffer to run the last 12.5 miles and finish in under 25 hours; miles that took 2:20 in the early AM with relatively “fresh” legs.

The Leadville trail 100 run has a 30-hour cut off to finish and earn the coveted belt buckle. In many Ultra races, breaking 24 hours gives you more prestige, a bigger buckle and bragging rights. I’ve had some really good Ultra’s in the past including 2 sub-20-hour finishes; a 17th place finish at Javelina in 2016 in 19:37 and a 19:25 at the Vermont 100 in 2017 and an 18th place finish.  But Leadville is a beast of a course and being at altitude, they give you an extra hour for the “big” buckle.  Of course, that has always been the goal.  In 2015 I couldn’t run after mile 75 and walked it in for a 28:14. In 2019, while I ran well, I wasn’t going to make it under 25 and didn’t kill myself at the end and finished in 26:30.  But here was a real opportunity to break 25 by a good margin and earn the big buckle AND the pickax for being a Leadman.

I said goodbye and thanked Cody for pacing me up and over Sugarloaf and hello again to Maddy who was to take me home.  Both Cody and Maddy were amazing pacers and I felt like their Dad who was there to show them the ropes and not complain too much, and Maddy’s positive energy, helped me immensely.  While I couldn’t eat by this point and barely drink, I knew that I “only” had about 3 hours left to survive and managed by “puke pacing” to get that buckle.  Puke pacing is that speed or pace you need to stay just under the point that would make you throw up. I would walk when nauseous, jog when I could, but it was all about making forward movement. 

After May Queen, there is road for about a mile, then rolling single track trail along Turquois Lake for 5 or 6 miles finishing with a steep ¼ mile descent down to a dirt road and the final 5 miles. Again, I kept moving; jogging, walking and running as my body allowed. With just over 3 miles left, you make the turn from single track to the Boulevard and along the finish of the 10K run and the Mountain bike race.  By this point my ability to speed hike was better than my ability to run and Maddy and I were able to continue the forward momentum passing several other runners and pacers on the way back home.

There it was, the finish line.  After cresting the last of the hills and seeing paydirt, Maddie and I made our way down the road, then up the road and across the line at 24 hours and 23 minutes and into the arms of Merilee and Ken Chlouber; race founders, who were there to give out hugs and buckles to all the finishers throughout the night and the following morning. 

My time was good enough for 64th overall out of 367 finishers, 5th in the old man over 50 age group and 56th male finisher.  It also propelled me up the leaderboard of the Lead Challenge as I finished 12th overall out of 122 who started (2nd over 50 and one of only 2 other non-Coloradans in the top 12).  Best yet was the fact that Todd finished his 2nd Leadville in 28:14 (the same time I finished in 2015) and Jim finishing his 1st Leadville in 4 attempts in 29:35! All of us completing the series and earning the Pickax.  Out of 122 who started the Lead challenge, only 31 finished. Yet the 3 of us, the 3 amigos as our coach would call us, did it.

It’s hard to impossible to explain what it’s like to run 100 miles.  Harder still is to explain what it’s like to run 100 miles through the mountains at altitude. Even harder is how to explain what it’s like to train for a bike race of 105 miles at altitude over the mountains and then a week later run the 100 miles over almost the same course.  Dean Karnazes said that “if you want to know what it’s like to run 100 miles, you have to run 100 miles.”  This was my attempt to explain.  The fatigue in every body part, the utter exhaustion, the inability to walk downstairs and need for assistance in going upstairs as well as the incredible sense of accomplishment and satisfaction of knowing you just did something that few others would even entertain, let alone do is my prize.  What I saw in those Leadman finishers in 2016 I finally felt and at 52 years old no less.  Life is meant to be lived.  This, for me, was living.

 

 

Author
Dr. Neil Feldman Dr. Neil Feldman is a Podiatrist at Central Massachusetts Podiatry, in Worcester and Westborough. As an ultramarathoner, runner and triathlete, he loves to help his patients remain consistent with their regular activities, assist in getting patients back to health and dedicates himself to patients achieving their goal events and races from walking the Camino de Santiago, to a first 5k run, to Ironman to a 250 mile run…and yes, that’s a thing!!

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