Leadville Trail 100 Run

The Leadville Trail 100 Run is more than a race, it’s an experience.

The altitude, community, volunteers, athletes, and founders, Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin, make for an unforgettable experience. Although some parts of race don’t exist in my memory bank, the parts I do remember are awesome, awful, and truly unforgettable.

At 4:00 AM, the gun went off and the experience began.

I don’t recall much from the opening miles besides being passed a lot. I also remember noticing fatigue in my quads and hamstrings, most likely leftovers from the mountain bike race. Overall, I made decent time into the first aid station, May Queen (2:11).

Next up was conserving energy over Sugarloaf Pass. Again, my memory serves me no good. Though, I do remember a guy saying I was in 153rd place coming down Powerline.

The course is quite runnable after that and I made good time into Twin Lakes (7:09). By this point, I was 39.5 miles (63.6 km) into the race, feeling some fatigue, but still running relatively strong.

The one part of the course that concerned me most was the river crossing. I’ve run with wet feet before, but never after fully submerging my shoes and socks. Fortunately, my Hoka One One Stinson Trails and Injinji NuWool Socks handled it with ease. If anything, running through the cool water felt refreshing!

After that, the real fun began in going up and over 12,600 foot (3,840 m) Hope Pass not once, but twice.

As it climbed, I began to struggle. While I felt acclimatized for the mountain bike the week prior, I didn’t feel as good this week – perhaps due to staying at a lower elevation for a several days. On the way up, I needed something to keep me focused on maintaining a good pace, so I imagined I was trying to keep up with my mother – she’s a fast walker.

Nearing the top of Hope Pass, it became increasingly difficult to focus and my breathing was labored. The only time I ever let myself stand still was at aid stations and since I wasn’t at one, I kept putting one foot in front of the other.

As much as climbing Hope Pass sucked, descending was way worse. My quads felt drained from hiking 3,000+ vertical feet and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to managing a rather steep 2,000+ vertical foot descent.

In short, I was not in a happy place. I thought I was slow to get up and over Hope Pass, but I felt even slower trying to make my way down to the turnaround at Winfield. Worst of all, I still had to do it all again.

I picked up my first pacer, Sonja, at Winfield. I told her how I felt, but I’m sure my expressions said it all. Sonja is awesome. She’s positive, upbeat, and encouraging. And that’s in addition to having 100 mile experience. A good person to have by your side after 10+ hours of running.

She talked me through breath control coming back over Hope Pass and kept me on a tight eating and drinking schedule. I still didn’t feel great, but I was making forward progress. Not before long, err, after a seemingly long while, we crested the summit and down we went.

“Running” down Hope Pass was also a slow going, as my quads and hamstrings weren’t happy. Regardless, the pace quickened ever so slightly, despite the amount of fatigue in my legs. I don’t know how it happened, but I gradually started to feel better and “running” began to resemble something like running.

Nearing the bottom, I asked Sonja if she thought a sub-25 hour finish was possible. Without hesitation, she replied, “Heck yeah!” We did the math and figured out I needed to average 4 mph (6.4 kph) coming in from Twin Lakes. Definitely doable, but no easy task.

We ran through the river and creeks once last time and upon making it to the Twin Lakes aid station, I allowed myself the one and only sit I’d get for the entire race – to swap shoes. Fresh socks and shoes felt amazing! Nevertheless, my legs were still fatigued beyond belief.

However, that’s the thing about running ultras. There comes a point where the pain/fatigue/soreness reaches its maximum. It doesn’t get any worse, it doesn’t get any better. It just remains. When that fact is realized, it makes your day surprisingly better.

As soon as you get out of Twin Lakes, the trails go up.

From the Twin Lakes aid station to Half Pipe, I managed to claw back 24-minutes in my “Best Case Scenario” pace chart (I was 18-minutes slower than anticipated coming back into Twin Lakes). The credit for that charge goes to Sonja. She kept telling me to “do the work now.”

My memory begins to fade again, because I don’t recall much of anything until Treeline, which is an alternate crew zone. It was there that Sonja passed the pacing torch to Mikki. By this point, I was ~72.5 miles (116.8 km) into the race and the sun had set.

I had never met Mikki prior to Treeline, so here she was pacing a complete stranger in complete darkness. She too, is awesome! Great spirit, encouraging, and supportive.

There was no doubt about it, I was hurting. However, in the worst case scenario, the pain I was feeling would only last for a maximum of 30 hours. Therefore, it didn’t seem all that bad.

After the Fish Hatchery aid station, I was having a difficult time focusing yet again. Thankfully, Mikki kept me engaged in conversation, though I doubt I was very comprehensible.

Then came the last big climb of the day, Powerline. By our pacing estimates, I now needed to average 3.5 mph (5.6 kph) to finish in less than 25-hours.

The climb was much longer than I remembered from the bike – probably because I was going so slow. At the top of Sugarloaf Pass, there was an unofficial aid station that was a huge spirit lifter. It was alien/UFO-themed and there were glow sticks everywhere. It was awesome. There was also water and pretzels.

I swear that wasn’t a hallucination. There really was water and pretzels.

I ran what I could on the gradual descents, but mostly power-walked, because I was beginning to not trust my judgements. One of my top priorities for the day was to not be a klutz and trip. On one particular smooth, gradual descent, I felt as if I was running uphill. However, I knew for a fact it was downhill, because I remembered it from the mountain bike race. Fun times.

There was some stretch of single-track through a forest, but I don’t remember it. I just remember coming into the final aid station needing to run 13.5 miles (21.7 km) in less than 4.5 hours to break 25-hours.

The pacing duties switched from Mikki to Jay, who I know from St. Croix. Jay faced a hectic travel itinerary to be able to pace me and was coming from sea-level. Despite that, he too was the perfect pacer! He pushed me just enough, so that we ran the majority of the way in.

While 13.5 miles doesn’t sound that bad after running 86.5 (139.2 km), my legs, knees, and back begged to differ.

Most of what was left to run was along the shore of Turquoise Lake. I didn’t remember it from the morning, so it was kind of all new to me. We kept a good pace and after doing the math, we could have managed 20+ minute miles and still have finished under 25 hours. However, the sooner the run could be over with, the better.

Most of what we ran through was a pine forest with fading green glow sticks to show the way. If it weren’t for Jay keeping an eye out for them, who knows where I would have ended up!

With about 7 miles (11.3 km) to go, Christen popped out of the woods and cheered us on. We exchanged words briefly – at least I’m guessing we did – but standing still didn’t seem to be something I was very good at anymore.

Jay and I continued down some steep and rocky terrain that I had no recollection of from the morning. Then it was relatively smooth sailing in, as it was mostly wide fire roads homeward bound.

Though, if you read my mountain bike recap, you’ll remember me saying that the last few miles are a bitch, as it’s a series of long, gradual climbs. It seemed more manageable on the bike, probably because the end of the road was visible.  Under complete darkness, it was anyone’s guess to where the inclines ended.

Regardless, I’d run for several minutes, walk for a few seconds to catch my breath, and repeated that process until we reached tarmac. The closing pace was rather challenging, but with the line so close, I could manage the physical and mental stress.

Jay and I power-walked the final bump and ran it in from there.

I thanked Jay being apart of the experience and he peeled off short of the red carpet.

There couldn’t have been more than 30 people at the finishing line, but I savored each and every cheer individually. I walked the final few steps to finish in 23:23:24.

Marilee then approached me, put the finisher’s medal around my neck, and gave me a big hug.

I’m not going to lie, shit got real, and I felt emotion.

How many races have you done where the founder stays at the line to give a heartfelt congratulations to every finisher with a hug?

Leadville is special like that. It’s a race that challenged me physically and mentally unlike any other and is most definitely a race I will never forget – even though I can’t remember parts of the race.

Without the help of Sonja, Mikki, Jay, and especially Christen, I don’t know how I could have gotten through such a grueling day. They were everything I needed, exactly when I needed it.

I’m more sore than I’ve ever been before, but doing both Leadville Trail 100s back-to-back was worth it.