Leadville 100 Race Report
By Anton Krupicka
Aug 23, 2010
Well, for the second year in a row, the Leadville Trail 100 managed to serve me an especially heaping plateful of humility. I went into this year's rendition of the event with a markedly different mind-set than what I brought to the starting line last year, but by time my race was over Saturday evening it would appear that the two year's outcomes were virtually identical. In a strict results sense, that would be true, but in reality the two experiences were indubitably unique, and I am grateful for the opportunity to once again emerge from the race weekend with a valuable, if hard-earned, education.
Despite fairly rampant speculation and assumptions to the contrary, I had no specific intent this year of chasing Matt Carpenter's 2005 course record time standard. Instead, I planned to employ a strategy that has been working pretty well for me all year long---simply focus on competing well with the other runners in the field and trust that this sort of competitive emphasis will result in not only a victory but a satisfactorily quick finish time.
I was especially looking forward to this particular race strategy at Leadville because I believe that the length and inherent unpredictability of 100 miles can make early split times meaningless (and even harmful, if obsessed over), and, because I am extremely familiar with the LT100 course, it is easy for me to get too caught up in worrying about these intermediate splits. Additionally, after satisfying runs at both the Western States 100 in June and the White River 50 only three weeks ago, any self-imposed pressure to perform at a high level on Saturday was much lower than it was last year. I had two explicit goals for Leadville this year: win, and finish no matter what. I didn't care if it took me all night, the last thing I wanted to do was DNF at Leadville two years in a row.
Jocelyn and I drove up to Leadville early Friday morning and immediately rushed to the mandatory pre-race medical check with less than 10 minutes to spare. Afterwards we drove down to Sugarloaf Dam for a final pre-race jog out to Tabor Boat Ramp and back. It was the first time I'd set foot on the race course since the race last year and everything felt in order and ready to go. We slept that night in The Roost in my customary spot and rose at 2:30am the following morning to perfect weather conditions and a gigantic, orange, gibbous moon sinking behind the shoulder of Mt. Massive.
With a few hundred extra racers this year, the start was even more electric with anticipation and nervous energy than usual. Right from the gun I felt extremely comfortable with the pace; it was predictably quick through the first couple miles up in the front group but I was very relaxed even as I lost a little ground as a result of several pee breaks. On the short, sharp climb up the Powerline cut to the lake trail I took the lead from Hal, and Bob Sweeney fell in immediately behind him. We crossed the road in 43min or so, which I knew was quick, so I tried to slow down a bit but even so the three of us hit Boat Ramp all together in one hour flat.
Surprisingly, the three of us were already well clear from the rest of the field and on the rest of our tour along the shoreline to the first aid station I commented to Bob and Hal how this was by far the loneliest run around the lake to Mayqueen that I'd ever had at Leadville where there's usually a good pack of 10-15 dudes cruising along together in the dark. I led us into the Mayqueen aid in exactly 1:39, which was three minutes faster than my previous fastest split there last year but was encouraging because it felt so much easier. Last year I come into Mayqueen concerned with the effort I was having to put out to just stay with the front group whereas this year I was deliberately holding back, just like one should feel in the first two hours of a 100 mile race.
Like usual, the first 10-15min on the Colorado Trail up to Hagerman Road were a bit tricky after dropping our headlamps at Mayqueen (although, I think Bob kept his), but I like to use that as an excuse to check the pace even further--no use in getting in over one's head. On the mile-long Hagerman Road section I finally submitted to the need to hit the ditch for a quick pit-stop. Fifty seconds later Hal had caught and passed me, but by the end of the first long switchback on the 4WD road leading up to Sugarloaf Pass I had caught back up and Hal and I ran to the summit together. The sunrise on the top of the pass was exceptional this year, and in general I was just enjoying the opportunity to share some trail time with a good friend on a familiar mountain pass. Whereas last year it seemed like Tim Parr and I were already pushing the pace on each other, this year I was content and relaxed with the tempo Hal and I were running.
Twice more on the downhill I had to head to the side of the trail to lighten my load, thereby sacrificing ~2.5 minutes total on this section over Sugarloaf. I continued to try to relax the pace on the asphalt lead-up to the 23.5 mile Fish Hatchery aid, but even so Hal and I arrived essentially together in just a few ticks under 3:06.
The Halfmoon Road section out and around to Treeline/Pipeline passed in the same manner that it always does: squinting into the rising sun, trying desperately to not go too fast even though it all feels so easy, and eating and drinking a lot while still on tame terrain. At the Pipeline crew access point Hal dropped off while I continued on and that would be the last bit of running I would do with a fellow competitor for the remainder of my race.
After a few more minutes of flat running on the Pipeline road the course turns right towards Mt. Elbert and ever-so-slightly uphill as it begins to climb towards the ~10,300' contour of the Colorado Trail. On this nearly imperceptible incline I started to feel the first twinging aches of effort in my legs. At nearly 30 miles into the race, this is typical and acceptable. There is no real fatigue or discomfort yet, just the gentle reminder from my hamstrings that I've been running for almost four hours now. However, after a few minutes, the feeling progressed from acceptable fatigue to the beginnings of a bona fide rough stretch of running. As such, I consciously paid very close attention to my effort level and made sure that the pace was still as easy as was reasonable.
I passed through Box Creek at 4:09 with nothing more than a topping off of my half-empty bottle and continued plugging away towards the Colorado Trail and Twin Lakes. At this point I was determined to run extremely relaxed, never putting out any more effort than what felt absolutely necessary. I wasn't concerned with course record pace or really even the positioning of my competitors; all I wanted to do was get to Twin Lakes and complete the double-crossing of Hope Pass with as little damage as possible.
A short while later, I came to a path up into the woods that I very vaguely remembered from last year as being the route that the new course takes up to the CT, but it was explicitly flagged left/straight ahead, so without breaking stride I continued down that track for approximately three flagless minutes until my altimeter confirmed that the trail was indeed going downhill (I knew we needed to be heading up), so with a good shot of adrenaline I flipped around and charged back the way I'd just come. As I headed up the correct trail part of me was sure that I was now in at least 2nd place (due to my 5min excursion) but I soon realized that I wasn't seeing any tracks on any of the muddy patches, so within minutes I relaxed again and ended up almost completely putting the little mishap out of my mind. I would later learn that, unfortunately, Hal and Bob both went much more significantly off-course at this very turn.
On the CT I continued to monitor my pace in an effort to stay relaxed and keep working through what was now starting to feel like a fairly extended bad patch. My energy levels improved on the 20 minute downhill into Twin Lakes, but now my always tricky right knee was beginning to ache and twinge a bit, something that made me pause at the thought of entering this race at all. Fortunately, the knee twinge was only intermittent and by time I made it down to Twin Lakes in 5:17 I was on the exact same pace as last year if I subtracted the five minute diversion off-course.
Seeing the crowds and my crew at Twin Lakes significantly lifted my spirits and I headed over to the base of Hope Pass feeling confident and looking forward to the break in pounding that the uphill would afford my legs, and more specifically, my knee.
The run up to the Hopeless aid station went well. I would occasionally mix in a few short stretches of hands-on-knees power-hiking on the steepest stretches or whenever it was time to eat a gel and mostly just made sure I wasn't inadvertently crossing over any sort of red-line in my system.
However, from the very beginning of the race, I hadn't been able to eat quite as much as I usually do in ultras. Typically, I'm taking down three GUs almost every hour, but on this day it was all I could manage to take one every 30 minutes and a couple of times I went 40-45min at a time to eat because my stomach was a little off. This only worsened as I gained altitude, but I was heartened to see that I arrived at Hopeless in 6:25, a split from Twin Lakes that was essentially as fast as I've ever done it during the race despite feeling like I was taking a deliberately conservative approach the whole time.
I stopped very briefly to refill my water bottle at Hopeless and then power-hiked most of the remaining trail to the summit of the pass except for a few of the flatter switchbacks. Like usual, it took me 5-10 minutes to find my rhythm and downhill legs on the other side, but eventually I was most troubled by increasingly pounded toes and my twingy right knee. I made sure to drain my bottle in time to refill it at the creeks half-way down the south side of Hope (I finally remembered to do this after suffering up the hot, exposed Winfield road for each of the previous three years), babied my quads on the steepest lower sections of the trail and was soon running up the road to Winfield. This road didn't seem nearly as interminable as usual and before I knew it I was striding into the Winfield aid in 7:26 feeling maybe the most fresh I ever have there.
At Winfield I picked up my pacer--the talented Dakota Jones, whom I'd met for the first time after his stellar 2nd-place performance at the White River 50 only three weeks earlier--and when he asked me how I was doing I said pretty good except for the fact that it seemed like I'd been going through a bad patch for the past 25 miles. I told him I wasn't feeling like eating much so it would be important for him to put me on a strict gel-every-25min schedule. I also told him that I'd felt like I'd run this road section too fast last year so I was just going to continue to take it easy and not repeat last year's mistake of competing hard too soon. Dakota assured me that I'd had more than a 20 minute lead at Twin Lakes and that no one else in the field was going to climb the north side of Hope Pass faster than I just did so relaxing seemed like a great strategy.
So that's what we did. The south side of Hope Pass went by the easiest it ever has for me in this race. Dakota and I hiked almost everything up to the streams just below treeline and while I grunted a few times, by and large it was a virtually conversational effort. Every other year I've run this race I would climb the south side of Hope pretty much as hard as I could, sweating, grunting and swearing the entire way. This year was markedly different. We crossed Duncan in 2nd place at the very base of the climb, so I knew I had more than a 40 minute lead, which was a huge confidence boost. Above treeline I began to run a lot of the flatter stuff but all the while making sure I wasn't pushing too hard yet. The plan was to conserve, conserve, conserve until at least after Twin Lakes inbound and so far it was working pretty well.
At the summit I was surprised to find that I climbed the south side of Hope as fast as I ever have in the race, but on the short descent down to Hopeless things weren't great. Mostly my toes were killing me, but my twingy right knee would also strangely give out/collapse every now and then. I began to be worried that it wouldn't survive the trip down Hope and I'd be forced to call it quits at Twin Lakes. I ran through the Hopeless aid station in 8:46, which was exactly equal with my best ever race split from Winfield but with less effort than in previous years, and the soft tundra was a nice break for my toes and knees and set me up for a relaxed, encouraging run back down the hill to the soggy meadows and crowds of Twin Lakes.
Last year my pacer Alex and I had definitely run this stretch too hard in a best-ever split of 42 minutes and I had arrived at Twin Lakes in pretty rough shape. This year, Dakota and I just cruised this section in an un-pushed 44 minutes and coming into Twin Lakes I felt relatively great. Other than my knee and toes it was pretty easy to convince myself that I hadn't been running anywhere near the 9:30 it took me to get there.
Again, while leaving Twin Lakes I told Dakota that I was determined to not start pushing yet. Even so, I was feeling so good that there were several shallower stretches of trail on this climb that I ran with no prodding and as we got off the jeep road and back onto the beautiful singletrack up in the pines and aspens I was beginning to think back to the 2007 edition of this race when I ran this section strongly with Kyle Skaggs as my pacer during my 16:14 PR effort.
Just before the crest of the climb near the South Elbert trailhead, however, I started having another bad patch. Dakota had to start encouraging me to run some of the flatter sections of trail and I was having a harder time eating and drinking. There are two short uphill sections of trail between the top of the main climb and the beginning of the long, gradual descent down to the Box Creek aid station (69ish miles?), and as we neared the top of the second one of these I told Dakota I needed 30 seconds to regroup. So I sat on a rock, ate a gel, chugged our remaining water (~30 oz), got up, and ran every step from there down to the Box Creek aid (probably 3mi or so away) while Dakota refilled our bottles at the final stream crossing on the CT.
Last year I fell apart horribly on this hot, exposed section, so it was a huge mental boost to be moving so well through there this year. At Box Creek (reached in 10:51), we refilled our bottles yet again and then I stopped for another 30 seconds or so to empty out the sand-box that was hanging out in my right shoe. That helped immensely and soon Dakota and I were rolling at a solid mid-7s pace towards the Pipeline crew access point. I slowed some on the flatter/slightly uphill approach to the crew access point, but by and large was in comparatively good spirits here where I'd experienced a complete meltdown the year before.
Next, however, was the paved Halfmoon Creek Road section back over to Fish Hatchery and it went fairly miserably. This is hands-down, without a doubt the worst section of the Leadville Trail 100. I've never run this race without this flat, hard, black, windy, exposed road at least putting some serious dents in my mental and physical armor. This year was no different. Dakota and I crawled along at a pathetic 9-10min/mile pace with the only thing keeping me from walking being sheer shame. Once I stopped to stretch a cramping hamstring and once Dakota let me walk for a few seconds as I ate a gel (poor, weak, weak excuse), but other than that I simply endured, repeatedly glancing longingly over at the dirt surface and uphill grade of the Powerlines climb as my salvation from the unvarying monotony and pounding of the road.
Finally, finally, we reached the 76.5mi Fish Hatchery aid station right at 12:06 and I told Jocelyn all I wanted to do was sit down for 30 seconds. Of course, good crew that she is, she said no, absolutely not, but that I could do so five minutes down the road with Alex (Nichols, my new pacer; he's been at every Leadville with me) so that at least no one would see me. Surprisingly, this was enough incentive for me, and it made me realize that of course I wasn't as bad off as I thought I'd been. Even so, on the 1mi+ of asphalt over to the base of the Powerlines I hiked the tiny little rollers. In retrospect, this should've been an indicator of the direction things were about to head for me (way, way, way down) but in my mind I was simply conserving and trying to stave off any sort of dramatic blow-up a la 2009. I knew I had nearly a 90 minute lead on Duncan (meaning he'd have to average 3min/mile faster than me for the rest of the race in order to catch me) and all I really needed to do was keep moving in order to achieve my primary goals of finishing and winning the race.
With these goals in mind, Alex and I headed up the steep lower section of the Powerlines at a strong hike as race photographer Rob O'Dea went ripping by on his dirt bike. On this initial steep stretch I knew I was no longer hiking with the authority needed to really nail this climb, but I also knew that I didn't need to, all I needed to do was keep moving. Alex was dutifully pushing water and gels but especially on the climb my stomach headed south in a hurry and I kept telling him "Soon" or, "In a couple minutes".
At the top of the first false summit I gamely broke into a jog down the gentle decline, but something about this took me completely over the edge. Once the grade flattened out I almost instantly felt terrible. Within the matter of a few hundred yards my hike waned to a casual walk and eventually degraded to a pathetic stumble. It was bad. I became increasingly mentally foggy and unresponsive, eating and drinking were out of the question, and whereas lower on the hill I'd been deliberately laboring up in the shade trying to avoid the sun, now I was alternately freezing and sweating feverishly. Soon it was really, really tough to even keep my eyes open and I eventually convinced Alex that a five minute nap right there in the middle of the trail was the best course of action. We were staggering along so slowly that it seemed to me that lying down motionless would hardly be any slower anyhow.
Within a few seconds I conked out with a water bottle as a pillow and before I knew it Alex woke me and was doing everything he could to get me moving again. I imagine it was like trying to roust a drunk. My body simply quit functioning. The desire to close my eyes and sleep was profoundly overwhelming, so much so that I was constantly swaying and tripping over my own feet almost losing consciousness while standing up.
And that was pretty much it. After two and a half hours of staggering, stumbling and sitting (in year's past this section from the Fish Hatchery to the top of the pass has typically taken me an hour), Alex and I made it to a point maybe a hundred yards below the top of the pass where Rob had parked his dirtbike one last time (he'd been leap-frogging us all the way up the climb, unfortunately documenting my embarrassingly weak state) and I finally collapsed for good, 81+ miles along the course. Even though the sun was still plenty high in the sky and Alex was comfortable in only a singlet I was now getting uncontrollably cold and increasingly unresponsive. Up until this point, my plan had been to simply keep moving at whatever snail's pace I could manage to get to Mayqueen where I would stay until I could keep down food and water, bundle up in all of my clothes, change my shoes, and simply walk the last 13 miles into town with Jocelyn. I had long ago stopped caring about winning (though Duncan had yet to pass us) and was hoping to simply survive and finish.
Unfortunately, the hope of being able to make it down to Mayqueen under my own power essentially evaporated on top of Sugarloaf, and with my feeble, foggy sanctioning of his bidding, Rob beneficently zipped down the mountain on his bike to go get some help from the aid station. A short while after Rob left, Duncan and his pacer, and then a few minutes later, Zeke Tiernan and his pacer, finally came hiking by. Much to their credit, from what I remember, both offered whatever help they could before continuing on their way to successful finishes. Soon after that, race staff on ATVs who were hanging glow sticks came by, and after talking with Rob--who had returned from Mayqueen with warm clothes--gave me a ride down to the Mayqueen aid station where I was determined to be hypoglycemic and hypothermic and was administered an IV. Obviously, by submitting to an ATV ride and an IV I was officially disqualified from the race. Within a few hours, however, I had essentially made a full recovery.
The biggest difference between not finishing Leadville this year and DNFing last year was that this year I'd run myself into a state where I really no longer had a choice about finishing or not. Last year I never lost my mental faculties or ability to take in food or water. Instead, I simply lacked the mental commitment to continue with the race after my quads quit functioning. If I had started Leadville last year with the intent of finishing at all costs (like I did this year), I would've finished. This year, unfortunately, I got myself to a place where it really wasn't even a choice for me anymore.
The good new is, I'm hardly even sore from the race. Whereas last year I was crippled for days afterwards, this year, even on Sunday morning at the awards ceremony, my main sources of discomfort were the superficial skin cracks in my feet and a few battered and swollen toenails.
I have yet to completely process all the lessons I've learned from this one, but I want to make it abundantly clear that this wasn't another all-or-nothing attempt at running a super-fast time. Leading up to and during the race itself I was completely emotionally and mentally prepared to finish it out by just hiking it in. Instead, this was a failure to sufficiently address my non-desire to take in enough calories over the course of the day that eventually caught up to me in an extremely inopportune spot. If I had bonked that hard just a little sooner and had stayed at Fish Hatchery for a long enough time (you know, say, an hour or two) to get my body caught back up, I think I could've finished. Or, if I'd been able to make it to Mayqueen before my body completely shut down. But, I was on top of a mountain, and I needed assistance, and that's how it went. Obviously, with the lead I had on Duncan at Fish Hatchery, in retrospect it seems like that if I were merely interested in winning the race I would've spent a considerable amount of time there making sure I was ready to tackle Sugar Loaf. However, during the reality of the race, that would've seemed like a ridiculously conservative thing to do. I was weighed at Fish Hatchery and I was a mere three pounds down. There was no way to know that I was going to crater that badly only a few miles later.
I'm just extremely grateful that my pacer and Rob O'Dea and the race staff were there to bail me out. I said in a pre-race interview that running a race is an opportunity--granted by the support of others--to explore a different aspect of my running psyche. While during training I am sure to be as self-sufficient as possible, on Saturday, during the race, I took the liberty of inadvertently flirting much closer with the edge of my limits and taking myself to a dangerous place that I would never go alone during training. For this opportunity I am grateful, but it's not a privilege I take lightly, or for granted. Thank you to everyone who had a part in bringing me back to health so quickly.
If I return to Leadville next year, maybe I'll require that my pacer from Fish Hatchery carries a sleeping bag over Sugar Loaf, just in case.