410.5 miles raced in 2009
Race: Leadville Marathon
Place: Leadville, CO
Miles from home: 456 miles
Weather: 60-70s; mostly sunny; brief thunderstorms
Revenge is sweet.
It had been three years since I had last set foot in Leadville to run the marathon back in 2006. (Has it been that long? Wow.) While I can hardly say I was either rested coming into the race or acclimated to the altitude there at 10,000 feet (and more) I can definitely say that I was in better condition than I was ~1,103 days ago. For example,
* instead of this being my 26th marathon of the year, it was only my 12th.
* instead of going from 50 feet above sea level to Mosquito Pass at 13,000+, I was coming from a home address in Salt Lake City of about 4,200 feet (even if I am rarely there).
* and instead of missing a flight completely and fretting all night about whether I would make the cross-country trip flight in time to make the race, the wonderful airline people only delayed my one hour flight by an addition 90 minutes (sitting and stewing on the tarmac.)
So, I was in much better shape in 2009 and ready to not stare up at the mountain and be amazed and trepidatious.
In the weeks leading up to this marathon, I had paid less attention to the weather, course and competitors than I had in many of my marathons. First of all, I knew this course well from having previously run it, which alleviated some of the trepidation of ignorance. I was aware running on its trails was going to hurt and that sense of knowing put me at ease. Second, I knew weather can change in an instant in the Rockies so having knowledge of what the weather was like a few days before the race (or hours for that matter) meant very little. You must prepare for just about any sort of weather. Finally, this race was all about me completely smashing my time from three years and not caring a whit about where I finished in the overall standings (well, sorta.)
I found it hard to believe I had gone 41 days without running a marathon when, in about the same amount of days earlier this year, I had done 8 consecutive marathons. During this 41 days I had only one race – a 62 miler at elevation in Idaho. Writing that last sentence, it is pretty hard for me to believe I had gone so “long” without racing but in thinking about it, that is hardly all that great of a time period. I had begun to swim more in the past month to prep for the Aquathlon National Championships in August; I had been putting the finishing touches on the Drake Well Marathon I am directing; and I had made trips all over the US from California to Florida, promoting my book and running in wonderful places. 41 days can fly by.
Which brought me to Leadville. Three years ago when I toed the line, I was still smarting from a calf injury sustained at the Estes Park Marathon two weeks prior. Leadville simply became a statistic: my slowest marathon ever. Even food poisoning in China which reduced me to lay face first on the pavement of a street in Dalian had only produced a 4:40 marathon. I never wanted to even sniff the odor of a 3:30 marathon again, let alone 5 plus. As much as others have told me I said I would never do the race again (which I am not sure I said definitely, by the way) I knew a desire to come back and try my hand (or is it feet?) at this monster would always be gnawing away.
As 2009 started and I was playing out the year, I saw that Leadville would be close to my 100th lifetime marathon. Knowing that I was going to run the Pikes Peak Marathon in August I figured I might as well run what are considered two of the hardest marathons in North America as my 99th and 100th overall. At the very least, it would make for good story-telling and a great way to spend a major personal marathoning milestone.
I arrived in Denver on the Thursday before the race and met up with one of my DC running pals, Mike Mills. I had last seen Mike at the Kentucky Derby Marathon in April, a race that proved to be rather disastrous for me as I ran a 3:24 and for the first time ever, did not accurately pace my 3:10 group to the finish (as a small caveat, no one else came close to hitting that 3:10 goal either.) Mike and I took the day and a half we had in Leadville to take in some time seeing some of the sites. I risked injury to myself, nearby people, and many prairie dogs by hitting a few ground lasers at the Mt. Massive Golf Course just a few miles away from Leadville.
Billing itself as the highest golf course in North America and named after the local mount of the same name, it still struck me as a name Bart Simpson would name something in his backyard. "Mt. Massive". Is that like Team America or Fort Awesome? Mike did not find this nearly as humorous as I did but it provided me with many a guffaw as I would take quintuple bogeys on a par 3.
Quincy's Steaks and Spirits was our reward for our golfing. We entered and they asked if we knew their menu. Having never been asked that particular question before, they said: "Well, we have Filet Mignon with salad and baked potato." *long pause*. I look at Mike, he looks at me. "That's it?" we say in unison. "Yep!" was the reply. "Good thing we wanted steak." And it was good. And cheap. But the weirdness and quaint coolness of Leadville continued.
We then spent the next day searching for a ghost town near Winfield and driving all over God's creation until finally finding nothing. Well, we found a foundation for a house or two but that was about it. I did learn that Mike has absolutely no desire to sit still previous to a marathon. I am a little different, especially when I know what the race the next day holds.
We grabbed what we thought would be an early dinner but it took forever to get out food to us. Why, we have no idea. But it gave us a chance to relax after a day of driving and hiking with nothing coming to fruition. With an 8 AM race time for the race day, we were quite happy to get to bed relatively early and still get a full night's sleep.
Race morning broke with blue skies and a bright sunshine. I was a little concerned because I knew that this sunshine could indeed wipe many of us out, especially at this altitude. I met another running friend, Jeff Cate and we looked around at the assembled masses and did our best to not look up at the hill we were about to climb. Anton Krupicka, one of the definite favorites to win was on the line and exactly how I described he would be to Jeff - shirtless with long hair and beard which made him look about 20 years older than his mid 20s age and almost Christlike.
People crowded the starting line, and there were obviously many who should not have been that close. As the Heavy Half and the Marathon all started at the same time and ran together for X miles, I can understand why so many were pushing the frontline. But, expecting to be in the top 25 (my main goal for this race) I just shook my head and wondered why I had to jostle for position in the 5th row of runners.
You can see Anton on the extreme left in this picture and another running friend, James Winfield on the extreme right in his burgundy race shirt.
The shotgun start got us going for many hours of thin air racing.
First Aid Station split (3.8 miles): 44:11 - 11:38 average
With the first mile or so of the race being on pavement, I took this opportunity to get around runners not in their correct places and tried to get in position behind the main group of runners. As we passed some spectators, one older woman said: "They are going so slow!" I threw a comment over my shoulder as we ambled : "Sorry, ma'am. We will try to pick it up."
A few laughs followed and one guy said: "I will run with you if you crack jokes the whole way." I told him he had about 2 miles until I ran out of oxygen.
Soon we left the paved road and began running on a well packed dirt road. I had a plan to powerwalk any of the main steep portions of this course, regardless where they fell and just 9 minutes into the race my first opportunity came. I have learned that I can walk up a steep hill at altitude just about as fast as anyone else can "run" it and with significantly less energy output. A few seconds of walking later, breath restored, I would start running again and would quickly overtake anyone who had passed me.
As we all began to walk on some significant steep uphills, this allowed runners to converse and get to know one another. One chap was "running" next to me and going to exact same speed as me walking. As we had talked, I found out he was relatively new to marathons (there were an astonishing number of runners doing their first marathon here at Leadville on this day) and I dispensed a little advice about how power-walking was nearly as fast as running on some of these sections. As I explained how this was a great way to conserve energy, especially when you are trying to get used to the altitude (we were already approaching 11,000 feet) the woman's leader passed us ever so slightly. Obviously having heard our conversation she half-snorted: "Well, if you walk you can't really say you ran the marathon, can you?"
I was dumbfounded. Here she was, barely moving any faster than us and gave what was a very snide and ridiculous comment. Before I could even retort another runner said: "We will see if you run up to Mosquito Pass!" We will indeed. In fact, I said my only goal had been to have fun on this day but now I really wanted to whoop this runner as well. But fortunately, I stuck to my goal.
As we continued on, another running acquaintance named James (who I identified in the picture above, and who had also run in the Kentucky Derby Marathon) came up beside me looking really strong. I had a feeling he was going to have a great day.
Upon cresting the hill at last and hitting the luxurious aid station, We took a look back down at the town below. Hard to believe that 3.8 miles took 44 minutes but that's what happens at Leadville!
Second Aid Station split (3.3 miles): 33:47 - 10:14 average
Cumulative time: 1:17:58
I spent just a few seconds at this aid station, downing a glass of water and some Gatorade. I was pleased that the sun did not seem to be taking too much of a toll on me but knew it was early and there were few clouds in the sky. Leaving this aid station, runners go down a quickly and steep downhill of about 400 feet before going back up and then down again, leaving desolate treeless swatches of land to run on a dusty and slightly technical trail amongst multitude of pines. I kept up my running and walking regiment which I had originally decided to do for various reasons.
First, for over a year I have had a nagging Achilles injury which I have no problem pushing through when I am on flat ground. But when it comes to these hills, I was not taking any chances. Hoping that some rest and lower mileage this year will help heal it, I have been running lower miles this year than last (200 less at this exact same point than in 2008) and doing what I could to help its healing process.
Second, as I wish to accurately represent the difficulty of Leadville versus Pike's Peak, I wanted to race them at about the same intensity level. With the Aquathlon in two weeks I knew I could push this race hard but not too hard. And with PPM just two weeks after the Aqauthlon, I would hopefully be able to recreate that effort level to see which of the two marathons is more difficult.
As we began to circumvent Ball Mountain, I spent a decent portion of this race running with a fellow named Paul. Paul was kicking off his attempt at doing the Leadman with this race today. What is the Leadman (and Leadwoman)?, you might ask. Well, a ridiculously challenging series of events, the Leadman consists of the Leadville Trail Marathon, the Silver Rush 50 mile race, LT100 Mountain Bike race, the LT100 10K, and the LT100 Run all run within a few weeks of each other. I take extreme solace in knowing there are people out there whose efforts still make me shake my head in amazement. It allows me to deflect any statements of "You're crazy!" their way.
Paul would toast me on the uphills and then I would catch right back up to him as we went on the downs. We pulled into the next aid station feeling pretty good. Considering we were only 7.1 miles into the race, I would indeed hope that was the case.
Third Aid Station Split (2.7 miles): 19:50 - 7:21 average
Cumulative Time: 1:37:49
Paul (who was easily 6'5'') and I spent 95% of this next section in lockstep. Even though this section was mostly downhill, I was happy not to extend myself too much knowing the climb to Mosquito Pass followed. We talked without too much loss of breath and picked off a few runners here and there. The picture below shows the course as we made the short run between aid stations. You can see the aid station at the bottom of Mosquito Pass at the bottom which we were approaching and then the outline of the trek up to Mosquito Pass in the distance. (Follow the black line to see the climb I will describe next.)
I again only spent a few seconds at the aid station as I felt fine after the descent and knew the hardest part of the day was right in front of me. Paul and I left at the same time but soon he was climbing off into the distance.
Mosquito Pass Summit at 13,188 feet
4th Aid Station split (3.3 miles) : 58:27 - 17:43 average
Cumulative time: 2:36:16
As we began the climb up the beast of all beasts, I was glad that no marathoners had yet to begin their descent. The most technical part of the entire course, this 3,000 foot climb over three miles at this altitude reduces everyone to a powerwalk at best and a shuffle or standstill at worst. Even those who I knew were strong uphill runners were slowing crawling up the switchbacks in front of me. And lo and behold, the women's leader was walking too. I guess she will not be able to say she ran Leadville.
I knew from 2006 that it had taken well over an hour to get from the bottom of this mountain to the top at Mosquito Pass. I wanted to make it in far less than that and hoped to hit the top at 2:30. That would leave me with 2 hours to get back home for a tidy 4:30 marathon time which was a side goal of mine. However, as I crawled more and more to the top, I could see that while I would be close to 2:30 I would not quite make it.
Soon, mixed in with the half marathon leaders who were heading back towards us, came the very first marathoner. It was not Anton and Anton was nowhere in sight. I hoped that nothing had happened and wondered who the heck this machine coming down at me at Mach 5 was. I stepped clear of his path as there was only a sliver of trail that did not contain a multitude of loose pebbles, sharp, large rocks and roots.
A few minutes later, when I was about halfway up to the top Anton came cruising down. I offered words of encouragement but he did not seem to hear them. It appears he was suffering from some serious cramps and probably wasn't hearing much of anything. However, it is hard to feel sorry for someone when they are coming down the mountain you are still scaling!
Soon thereafter, just a ways from the top, both James(the burgundy shirt wearing fella in the picture above) and the chap I had offered advice to earlier on about how to attack the uphills, passed me. I was totally stoked for both of them and figured I would catch them on the downhill after we crested Mosquito Pass.
Soon I found myself at the top, taking in the view that 13,188 feet can provide.
I quickly went to the bathroom and saw that I was severely dehydrated. Uh-oh. I stood at the aid station and took in glass after glass of water, then Gatorade and then coke. As seconds turned into minutes, I knew it was more important to get the fluids in me and deal with the loss of time later. I had thought about bringing a handheld bottle but at the last minute decided against it. In the bright sun, I would have been wise to have had it along. Live and learn.
Finally, after three minutes at the top, I realized it was time to get going again. Forgetting to click my watch when I stopped, I figure my time to ascend was around 55 minutes - a significant improvement over three years ago.
Second half: 5th Aid Station split (3.3): 26:32 - 8:02 average
Cumulative time: 3:02:49
Now comes the fun part! As I began to billy goat my way down the mountain, I had to avoid those I was passing on the descent, those on their way up towards the top and also navigate the course which could easily turn one wrong step into many broken bones or a long fall down the side of a rocky cliff. I have often wondered if I am actually a good downhill runner or if that is something I have just convinced myself I am. Well, as I was able to overtake marathoner after marathoner (including some who would end up finishing in front of me overall) I guess I proved to myself I run downhill well.
This section was over far too soon. I enjoyed every bit as I felt like I was flying. Plus, after so many miles of walking and hiking it felt good to run again. Throw in the element of danger involved with this breakneck speed and I was wide awake and loving it. Hitting the small dip before the aid station I had been at 90 minutes before I only stopped for about 60 seconds, downing two glasses of Gatorade and one glass of water. The sun was still bright and full overhead and 10 more miles lay before me.
6th Aid Station split (2.7 miles): 30:53
Cumulative Time: 3:33:43
I vividly recall this section being just an absolute horrid in 2006. I was exhausted, my calf muscle was killing me and the uphill never would end. Here I was gladly running and walking, gaining a few second here and there on the runners in front of me, even with them seemingly running the whole time. I began to talk to a runner who was only doing his second full marathon. At age 22, Josh was kicking serious tail. He marveled at how often I would crush him on the downhills but I was quick to point out how here we were shoulder to shoulder. "Know your strengths!" I told him. And he took this to heart, quickly bounding up the uphill in front of us. I was content to continue my walk-run hoping not to lose too much of the time I had gained on the descent of Mosquito Pass.
Here I also made an executive decision to not make myself hurt. Not just Achilles pain or anything that was long-term but the short-term pain. It is hard to make these decisions sometimes because pushing through discomfort and welcoming the unknown of going beyond that barrier is why we race. But I was content to simply cruise on the best I could and see what happened. I was a little disappointed I did not tackle this section a little harder but I knew it was the toughest one remaining and soon I would be done.
Not long before this section ended, I was passed and chatted with a nice fella who was training for the Leadville 100. He was using walking poles which, while I am sure they did not give him the greatest advantage in the world, still seemed as if they gave some advantage. I did not have a chance to ask him his thoughts on this as he skedaddled by and was out of the aid station just as I got to it.
I spent little time here, exchanging a quick joke with the volunteers and thanking them for their help. These aid stations were indeed like oasises (oasisi?) in a desert.
7th Aid station Split (3.3):42:14 - 12:48 pace
Cumulative time: 4:15:57
About 150 yards into this leg I realized I made a wrong turn. Damn it. I turned around and saw one of the volunteers waving me back and shouting to get me to go in the right direction. Somehow I had missed a marker. When I got back to the correct place to make the turn, another runner named Bob had joined me. He immediately expressed his sorrow for the extra quarter of a mile I tacked on. "It's now an ultra!" I joked.
As we began our reverse trek around Ball Mountain, Bob was happy to join me in my walk-the-uphills routine. Bob too was training for a variety of events including the Leadman and I told him I was in awe. Soon thereafter, Bob said he was going to start running the uphills as he assumed I would catch him on the down. As I had developed a slight side stitch I wasn't too sure what the last miles were going to hold.
Bob disappeared around the corner of Ball Mountain and I stopped and watched. I could see Mosquito Pass in the way distance and could also see the aid station at the bottom of that mountain. Runners trickled up the hills and scurried along looking as tiny as ants below me. I would have liked to have a camera to catch this site but fully appreciated the view for my own mind's eye at the time. I decided it was time to run again.
A collection of downhills had me right on Bob's tail, as well as the fella with the ski poles. The last uphill of the entire race (or so I recalled), right before the aid station had them putting a little more distance on me again. As we descended another downhill and could see yet another up in the distance, I was a little confused. I flat out did not remember this section and felt we were totally lost. I fell back a dozen yards or so in case either of the gentlemen in front of me realized we were lost and turned around. But soon I could see the tent of the final aid station in the distance and a wave of relief passed over me. I had less than 4 miles to go.
Finish (3.8 miles): 28:02 - 7:22 pace
Just when I was pulling into the aid station Bob headed out. He said he would see me soon and I told him I wasn't sure but either way he was getting a headstart as I needed some liquids. As I took my time drinking up and enjoying the view, a female runner came in behind me, about to hit this aid station and then head out like I had about 40 minutes earlier. As there was no chip timing or anything fancy like that, volunteers kept track of all runners by writing down their numbers as they came in and out. As this female runner left, one of the volunteers said to the other: "Did you get her number?" I responded before the volunteer could by saying: " I don't think now is the time for me to be picking up chicks. I will wait until we finish." Their guffaws followed me down the hill as I began the descent.
Figuring I spent a good two minutes at this aid station, I wondered who, if anyone, I would catch on the downhill. I immediately felt wonderful as I bounded down the slopes, twisting and turning, with my sight line rarely being more than a dozen yards or so. I saw a runner ahead and wondered who would be my first roadkill of this last leg. Ironically it was no one I recognized and figured this must have been someone I hadn't seen most of the day. I bid him adieu as I flashed by and kept my eyes open for another runner while trying to keep my balance on this rocky and slippery terrain.
Here, in almost a heartbeat, the sunny day clouded up, a few raindrops hit my sunglasses and thunder roared in the background. Oh, how quickly weather could can change in the Rockies. The flash of lightning behind me helped picked up my pace and illuminated the entire mountainside. In my haste to traverse the hill, I almost ended my day in bloodiness. Catching my foot on a rock, I was about 1 degree of tilt away from doing a face plant on rocky surfaces and receiving almost certain broken bones. I had passed a runner a few yards back who I had trailed for most of the day and had seen his dirty shirt and bloody elbows as evidence of his own brush with the mountain. Fortunately and inexplicably, I completely righted myself and continued to bound down the hill. Upon examination of my trail shoe later, I found I had torn a whole in the upper over the toebox. At least I felt like it was a solid rock which had almost made my day not fun!
I passed the guy with the ski poles in a flash and about 400 yards later passed another guy. Still no sign of Bob. He must be crushing this hill. Then I realized I hadn't seen James or the other runner I talked to earlier either. Well, darn it. I thought I would catch them. I passed one more runner before hitting the last mile or so and finally hitting runnable road again. I could see a few runners in front of me but by their gait had a feeling they were half-marathoners who had now rejoined the course.
Turning onto 6th street, the finish line appeared in the distance.
Appearing closer than it is, with one last, little, sadistic uphill about 2 blocks from the finish, this last .7 of a mile still allowed me to open up and run for the first time in hours upon hours. My personal goal to run under 4:30 was out the window but I still had a shot at 4:45 - if I hustled. Hustle I did and a 4:45:30 is what I had for my efforts.
In my 99th marathon, I ran my 98th slowest time ever, (only "bested" by Leadville itself in 2006) and was pretty darn happy about it. I had set a course personal best by 32 minutes and felt fairly refreshed and relaxed at the end. I really do think that I could get a 4:15 here at this race with more preparation on hills and a take-no-prisoners attitude. More importantly, this finish put me one more marathon closer to 100 in my lifetime. That amount is something I never would have thought I could achieved just a few short years ago.
James ended up running a 4:40 and just impressed the heck out of me. Way to go James! In 5 marathons that I know of, I still hold the 4-1 margin of victory but James must be quite pleased with his effort here. Bob ran a ridiculously fast-paced last 4 miles himself and it appears we ran the exact same paces as he finished just about 90 seconds ahead of me - or the time I spent at the last aid station. Paul crushed this course in his quest for Leadman and came in at 4:31:07. Mike cruised in to a 5:38 time with lord knows how much time added to his overall finish because of how often he would stop to take pictures. (In fact, I am waiting for pictures from him to complete this blog!) In either case, Mike seemed to enjoy his time on the course, even if he was stuck in the worst part of the thunderstorm with a few miles to go. Another friend, Jeff Cate, just missed his quest to beat 5 hours by running a 5:02:52. I pointed out to him how his time had the "52" in it (to go in line with my 52 marathons in a year) and how it is inescapable. Heck, even Leadville's city elevation is 10,152.
All in all, it was quite a day. Nearly 300 finishers added 10% of population to the town of Leadville (not counting family members or cheering squads). A new course record was set by Dennis Flanagan who ran a 3:32:30 and bested the previous course record by over 7 minutes. Ridiculous. Anton ran a 3:40 and just missed the course record himself. These guys are just too impressive for words. My hat goes off to both of them.
The course is a tough one and I enjoyed it but it is not exactly my cup of tea. The elevation, footing and steepness of the race make it virtually impossible to run every step. You can see the profile below:
However, I can see myself coming back again, even if it is to simply try my hand at the Heavy Half. Leadville has a great deal to offer and while the quads are sore and I am still trying to catch my breath (air pressure at 13,000 feet is only 51% what it is at sea-level) I would not be surprised to see my name on an entry form again.
Next up is the big one, both literally and figuratively. I will hit 100 Marathons at the Pikes Peak Marathon in August and also finally get to settle an internal debate about which marathon, Leadville or Pikes Peak, is more difficult.
Hope to see you there!