Sunday, July 12, 2009

Running Leadville

I enjoy running and I enjoy the mountains... and I’m one of those sadistic folks that enjoys running in the mountains... well, I use the term “run” rather loosely. :-) Some of my favorite marathons have been the tough, scenic courses such as Pikes Peak (’03), Crater Lake (’06), Death Valley (’07... the trail marathon... not that Badwater thingie), and Big Bear (’08). So it’s only naturally that sooner or later I would find myself toeing the line in Leadville. It actually was supposed to be sooner (’07), not later (Saturday) since I was registered two years ago... but I DNS’ed due to injuries (overtraining for Boston)... even though that year I was actually in the town of Leadville the day before the marathon (very heart-breaking to say the least).

When I say that I wanted to run Leadville, I need to clarify what I ran... the trail marathon. Even though that might seem daunting enough in and of itself, it’s actually one of the easier races that Leadville hosts (no exaggeration). For those with courageous hearts (or lacking mental sanity), there’s also the famous Leadville 50- and 100-mile races later in the summer. Some marathoners might be disappointed that the Leadville Trail Marathon is not the toughest race in town, no matter how grueling it is... but I actually like it that way. Those crazy ultra runners make me look reasonably sane. And for those who are truly border-line loco, they can run all three of those races and do the Leadville 50- and 100-mile bike races in a single year (5 events... two of which are on the same weekend!) and became a “Leadman” or “Leadwoman.” Suffice it to say, there’s not many of those intrepid souls. But they do end up with their names and all their race times on a nice plaque in the LT100 race store on Harrison Avenue (main street in Leadville).

If you've never been to Leadville, you've missed out on a fascinating place. It’s a small mining town high in the Rockies, in the heart of “14er country.” Well, it’s small now (not even 3,000 in population), but at one time in the 1800s it was the second largest city in Colorado. It has a fascinating history that includes such interesting things as the Ice Palace of 1896 (google it... pretty amazing) and such colorful characters as Doc Holliday, Oscar Wilde, and the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Today, the town is famous for being the highest incorporated city in the country (10,152’)... and thus a summer recreational mecca for cyclists, runners, hikers, climbers, kayakers, and rafters.

What makes the Leadville Trail Marathon (LTM) so tough is not just that it starts (and finishes) at 10,200’, but that’s actually the lowest point on the course. Every step is above 10,000’ ...and the turn-around point halfway is 13,185’ at Mosquito Pass, the second highest open-road mountain pass in the country (only Argentine Pass at 13,207’ is higher, by 22’). Mosquito Pass is a rough, steep 4WD road that connects the mountain towns of Leadville (west) and Fairplay (east).

But what makes LTM even tougher is that it doesn’t just go uphill to the turn-around and back down... that would be too easy. It actually goes up to 12,100’ and then drops down to 11,250’ and then goes up to the turn-around at 13,185’... and yes, that means on the back half of the course (around miles 16-20), the course does the converse by gaining 850’ in elevation. To go uphill that high and that late in a marathon is just pure evil. It makes Heartbreak Hill in Boston seem like a speed bump. Oh, and there’s also a nasty little climb around mile 24 as well. The only other marathon in the country that is arguably as difficult is the Pikes Peak Marathon (which goes higher, but it starts lower and has no uphills on the back half). So the total elevation gain for LTM is ~5300’ (all of which is above 10,000’).

My training for Leadville

Unfortunately, my training for this race was limited since I’ve been battling plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tendon in the arch of the foot) much of the winter and spring. As late as June, I had pretty much written off attempting Leadville this year. But in the five weeks prior to marathon day, I managed to run three 20-milers and decided to go for it in Leadville on limited training. I even contacted the race director to see if I could back out of the full and only run the half marathon instead if my foot didn’t cooperate. But I really didn’t want to run the half. I wanted the whole experience.

Even though I was attempting Leadville on limited training, working in my favor was acclimatizing. For the twelve days leading up to the race, I was camping and hiking with my son at high elevations and staying with my in-laws (~9,500’) near Fraser, CO. So for nearly two weeks, I was never below 7,000’ (in such places as Flagstaff, Taos, Great Sand Dunes Natl Pk, and Leadville) and hiked with my son to such heights as 12,633’ (Humphreys Peak in AZ), 13,161’ (Wheeler Peak in NM), 14,036’ (Mt Sherman in CO) and 14,433’ (Mt Elbert in CO). Even though you can never completely “normalize” to such high altitudes, it does help... and I know I would have been considerably slower (not that I was blazing fast) if I hadn’t done this. To put it in perspective, the air pressure at 10,000’ is only 66% of that at sea level and at 13,000’ it’s only 59%... ergo, not much oxygen to suck to keep the body going. Geez, at these elevation, I get winded watching TV.

Me in Leadville

So on Friday, I drove over to Leadville to get my race stuff, camp and be ready for the race at 8:00am sharp on Saturday morning. At the LT100 store on Harrison Avenue, it was really cool to see printouts hanging in the windows with all the Leadville race results from last year. For example, the LT100 bike race was posted that listed Lance Armstrong second (to winner Dave Wiens) in 2008. It gave me goose bumps to know that if I managed to finish this marathon, my name would be listed in the store window for twelve months.

To get just a tad more acclimatization, I decided to camp way up the Iowa Gulch road near the trailhead to Mt Sherman, which my son and I had hiked just last week. I was able to grab the same campsite we had used... right at treeline (~11,500’).

I then drove back down to town to make one last check of weather reports. Things looked great. Zero chance of rain in the morning and the typical (for Colorado in summer) chance of rain in the afternoon. I used the wifi at the Provin’ Grounds Coffee Shop on Harrison Ave... btw, great, great coffee shop... one of my favorites.

As I was drinking my hot chocolate (I was avoiding caffeine to ensure good sleep that night), I happened to hear the barrister mention he was running the marathon the next day. We talked a little bit about the race. He had a wry little smile on his face as we talked. But what I didn’t realize until the next day was that it was none other than Anton Krupicka, the famous trail runner. I didn’t realize he lived in Leadville (although I’m not surprised) and worked in the coffee shop, and I didn’t recognize him with a shirt on (the articles I’d seen about him always showed him running shirtless... and he did so on Saturday). He’s won some of the toughest trail races to be found (such as the LT100 and the Rocky Raccoon 100), and this very marathon in 2006. Surprisingly, Anton didn’t win on Saturday. He ran 3:40 (which is crazy fast on this course) but got beat by some guy who ran 3:32 (which is off-the-charts fast).

Race Day

I broke camp, ate a PB & honey sandwich, drank some flat coke (sugar, caffeine, and no fizz), and parked near the starting line. Fortunately, I parked near a very helpful guy who had run this race before. We talked for 30-45 minutes and he gave me some great advice about such things as what to wear and what to take. I got a chance to thank him later on the course, otherwise I might have been overdressed and dehydrated. He recommended taking a hand-held water bottle (and I did) because the seven aid stations weren’t enough to keep you hydrated for this long race.

Being a trail race, there’s no mile markers on the course. Instead there are aid stations about every 3 miles. Going into the race I didn’t mention to anyone my goal time (mainly because I really wasn’t sure if this goal was remotely possible for me), but I was hoping to run sub-5 (even if it was 4:59:59). That seemed like a Herculean challenge on a course like this and I wasn’t even sure if I could get within 30 or 45 minutes of such a goal. So Friday night, I perused past race results and looked at the aid-station time splits for runners who had run 5:00 (see below). This would give me a good estimate how I was doing while out there on the course.

It’s hard to describe this brutal course unless you see it for yourself. The race goes up East Sixth Street directly into the bright morning sun. Less than a mile into the race, the pavement ends and you’re now running (or power-hiking) on old dirt mining roads. At times, the roads are very rocky and very poor for footing. The course also follows some single-track trails (especially around Ball Mtn). Some of the route is exceptionally steep... so steep that when descending it’s hard to keep running because you’re having to brake your fall so much. You know it's a steep race when you see runners at the start line carrying trekking poles (no kidding, including one runner who finished ahead of me).

The route was well marked with pink tape tied to rocks, branches, and other landmarks to keep us on course since there were so many junctions. I still saw some runners who had to backtrack nearly a half mile because they had ventured off course accidentally. Ouch! Eventually, the last 3.3 miles to the turn-around is the steep climb up a gnarly road with switchbacks to the top of Mosquito Pass. I must admit it was disheartening when I rounded a bend for the first time and saw those steep switchbacks across the treeless tundra way in the distance.

My race

For me to complete this race in a minimal amount of pain, I knew it was absolutely imperative to not burn myself out on the first half of the course. If I overdid it, I actually risked not finishing the race at all... and to me, that would be worse than not even starting. Since it’s hard enough to run on flat ground at such altitudes, I knew I had to be very careful going uphill. That’s when you can spike your heart rate and eventually bonk miserably.

As the race started, I slowly jogged (but still this was exhausting at high elevation) up Sixth Street and on uphill on the dirt roads. I was proceeding very cautiously and slowly, careful to monitor my HR and breathing. When the race hit some of the first steeper hills, I started walking... probably only 2 miles into the race. A few of us joked that we had never walked so early in a marathon before (well, actually I had at Pikes Peak... but for similar reasons). In fact, as the race proceeded I ended up walking (or power-hiking with long strides) up almost all the uphills. Other than the opening couple of miles, I doubt I “ran” more than a half mile of the uphills. It was just too exhausting. But when the course flattened out or briefly went downhill, I picked up the pace and started running again. And FWIW, I talked to several runners afterwards who finished well ahead of me and they took the same conservative strategy of hiking almost all the uphills.

I must admit I doubted this strategy some in the opening ten miles because I seemed to be getting passed by a lot of people. But I’ve been in enough marathons to know that it’s less important how many pass you in the first half, it’s more important how many you pass in the second half. So I stuck with my strategy. But 11 miles into the race (while we were doing the steep climb up the switchbacks to Mosquito Pass), I was never passed again (until the last half mile of the race... I'll explain later)... but instead between miles 11 and 25, I kept reeling people in and passed at least a dozen people.

So as I mentioned, there are no mile markers for this race, only aid stations splits. My goal times below are based on the splits of others from the past four years of people who ran 5 hours even. My splits look disproportionate due to the ups and downs of the course, even though I made a very consistent effort all day long.

Aid Station Mileage Altitude (Goal Time) My Time
#1 at 3.8 miles at 11,600’ (0:47:00) 0:47:27
#2 at 7.1 miles at 11,600’ (1:23:00) 1:24:00
#3 at 9.8 miles at 11,250’ (1:45:00) 1:44:26
#4 at 13.1 miles at 13,185’ (2:40:00) 2:44:02
#5 at 16.4 miles at 11,250’ (3:10:00) 3:12:29
#6 at 19.1 miles at 11,600’ (3:40:00) 3:43:52
#7 at 22.4 miles at 11,600’ (4:25:00) 4:27:10
Finish 26.2 miles at 10,200’ (4:59:59) 5:02:52

Highlights of the run

The steep climb up to Mosquito Pass was grueling, but we were treated to stunning views thousands of feet below to Leadville and across to great mountains like Elbert and Massive. About 2:10 into the race, Anton Krupicka passed me coming down the mountain which is about where I expected to come across the race leaders.

I was never so glad to reach the summit at Mosquito Pass, but the bad part was that it meant I needed to turn-around and start running downhill. In some ways, even though it was hard work, hiking uphill seemed easier than running downhill. And so I ran. I passed quite a few runners on the way down... which I think I can attribute to acclimatizing and being conservative on my uphill pace.

I made good progress towards my 5-hour goal time all day long, but I never was completely on track for it. I knew it was going to be close and that really kept me going. Sometimes when I really didn’t want to pick up the pace, I thought to myself, “What if I miss sub-5 by just a few seconds... let's git ‘er dun.”

The weather was great for me, but I don’t think I can say that for everyone. Until noon, it was mostly sunny and cool (50s). It was pretty windy up near Mosquito Pass, but we weren’t there long enough to get too cold. By 12:30pm, dark clouds had formed and thunder could be heard. By the time I was at mile 24, the thunder seemed quite threatening and I was glad I was finishing soon. I looked back towards Mosquito Pass, knowing that there were quite a few runners still high on the mountain... and it looked like it was getting quite a downpour. That’s not good at all. Rain at altitude can be very cold and quickly cause hypothermia, and most runners don’t carry much extra clothing. I hope all the runners up there were ok. For me, the rain didn’t start falling until a few minutes after I finished.

Since the last six miles were mostly downhill, I was hoping to gain some time back and still finish sub-5. But by this point in the race, my limited number of long training runs was starting to affect me. In the last two miles, my sides and calves were cramping up so much that it was all I could do to keep running, even though it was downhill. Fortunately, there was a large amount of space between me and the runners behind me, but unfortunately two of them still managed to catch me in the last half mile of the race. I absolutely hate it when that happens at that point in a race. But there was nothing else I could do. I had maxxed myself out and couldn’t run one step faster if my life depended on it.

As these two runners slowly separated themselves from me towards the finish, I could see my chance at a sub-5 finish running off with them... but actually, neither of them made sub-5 either but they were a tad closer. And so my finishing time ended up being 5:02:52. Even though I slightly missed my goal time, I am completely satisfied with my effort. As I think back over my race, I can’t think of anything I could have done differently all day long to gain any more time. I honestly left it all on the course and was completely spent at the end... a very satisfying feeling.

So I finished 41st overall out of ~300 marathoners (from what I hear... I haven’t seen the final results posted yet... there was no chip timing). But I ended up 10th in my age-group (M 40-49)... which is not too surprising. There’s a bunch of us old farts in our 40s that focus on the marathon distance so the M40 AG is very competitive. Since we don’t have as much snap in our legs anymore, we go for races where we can outlast some of the youngsters.

So I guess this means I finished in the top 15-20% of the racers overall. I was actually hoping to be in the top 10% (top 25 or 30 overall), but you never know what the field is going to be like. Even though I missed my goal by ~3 minutes, that was pretty close. I talked to very, very few runners who made their goals for the day... even those that had run this race before. Many of them missed their targets by 15, 20, 30 minutes, or even more. This course is just that brutal and relentless.

Even though I wanted to run sub-5, I didn’t obsess about this goal. Basically, all bets are off in a race like this. You just go out there, make a strong effort, hope for the best, and be satisfied with the results. You never really conquer this kind of course, you merely cover it.

And I was determined to have fun out there. At most of the aid stations, I jokingly asked, “So is this halfway?” ...even on the back half of the course. :-) As were going up the steep climb to Mosquito Pass, I mentioned to some runners near me, “You know, it’s just rude when these people come down the mountain towards us with smiles on their faces....” At one aid station, they pointed us toward the route that went uphill, and I replied, “But I don’t wanna to go that way... I wanna go that way,” which was downhill. :-) When the course flattened out and runners near me stopped hiking and picked up the pace, I mentioned, “Now don’t be doing that, ‘cause now I gotta run.” :-)

So overall it was a very satisfying day. I can still walk. I didn’t end up in the hospital. Mary Ann didn’t have to execute my will, publish my obituary, or collect my life insurance (...yet). Sorry for such a lengthy recap... just be thankful I’ll stop at this point. It really was five amazing hours of quad-busting, lung-seering fun. Thanks for reading.