As anyone who has been reading this blog knows, I spent a lot of effort preparing for the 2012 Race Across the Sky. I ran over 1,200 training miles and spent six weeks sleeping in an altitude chamber from Hypoxico. I felt stronger and healthier than I ever have going into a race. I had remained injury free since February and was consistently running 60 to 80 miles every week, which was a record for me. I felt that I had done enough. I thought I was as ready as I could be, both physically and mentally.
ARRIVING IN LEADVILLE:
We decided to turn the race into a two week family road trip. We left Raleigh bright and early on Monday before the race and drove to Leadville, arriving on Wednesday afternoon. I managed to pick up a cold on the first day of our trip and was full on sick by the time we got there. Sore throat, sinus pressure, cough, runny nose, elevated heart rate. It wasn’t at all what I was hoping for. I had reached a point in my training that my resting heart rate hovered around 46 or 47 beats per minute. By the time we got to Leadville, between my cold and the altitude I was lucky to keep it down in the 70s, and if I walked across the room, it spiked into the low 100s. Ever the optimist, I chose to ignore this and the cold in its entirety and rely on my training.
We rented a house from Alpine Realty which was clean and had more than enough room for the four of us. We quickly settled in and then set out to explore the town. Our house was only 3 blocks from the start finish and 2 blocks from the 6th Street Gym, where the race briefing would be held on Friday.
Our first night there we had a nice dinner at Zichitella's. Although they aren’t in any way healthy, I highly recommend their homemade potato chips.We spent the next couple of days relaxing and shopping for supplies.
PACKET PICK UP:
|Getting weighed in during the medical check at packet pick up.|
I was anxious to get started with the process so I went to early packet pick up and medical check on Thursday morning. It went smoothly and was very exciting and somewhat surreal to finally be in Leadville with a bib number and timing chip.
DRIVING THE COURSE:
After picking up my packet, we decided that we would drive around and find as many of the crew access points as we could. If you are planning on running Leadville, I cannot stress enough how important this is. The roads in Lake County wind around and fold in on themselves and can get very confusing if you aren’t familiar with them. We spent a fair amount of time somewhat misdirected and turned around. The directions to the crew points in the race book were not as detailed as I would have liked, and our GPS was a little out of date and kept giving us wrong information. Finally I broke out the iPad and was able to pull up a detailed map of the area and plot our course. We found Tabor Boat Ramp, May Queen, Fish Hatchery, and Twin Lakes. We weren’t able to find Tree Line with the directions they gave us and ran out of time before we could get to Winfield on Thursday. Fish Hatchery and Twin Lakes are very easy to find, but you need to be sure to coordinate with your crew where to meet so you don’t run into the same problem I did on race day.
|The kids playing on the shore of Turquoise Lake.|
|The trail from Twin Lakes toward Hope Pass.|
|The view from the road between Fish Hatchery and Half Pipe.|
Friday morning at 11:00 I headed into the 6th Street Gym, along with 800 other racers and their crews and pacers. The energy in the air was palpable. I don’t believe I have ever been in the presence of so many fit people, not even at my two previous Ironman races. We got an introduction and some general information and then a really excellent talk by the race’s medical director. The last thing on the agenda was the traditional speech by Ken Chlouber, who founded the race 30 years ago. Sadly, Ken’s brother died the Wednesday before the race, and he wasn’t able to make it. Instead he sent his son, Cole, to speak to the runners. Cole had grown up with the Leadville Trail 100 run since he was 8 years old. He has 5 bike finishes as well as one attempt and one finish of the run. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hear Ken speak, as he is an iconic part of the race. I shouldn’t have worried. Cole did an outstanding job. By the time he was finished, I had tears in my eyes and was fired up enough to eat nails. The entire gym was on their feet cheering. It was an amazing experience. Cole’s words echoed in my head throughout the next day.
After the race I stepped outside where I met two time Leadville champion Anton Krupicka. I wished him luck and asked for a quick picture. He was very friendly and accommodating. The briefing for the crews was set to start at 12:30, and I had a few minutes to spare, so I walked back to the house to get Wendy and the kids. We got back to the gym around 12:20, and the crew briefing was almost over. They had started it immediately after the runner’s briefing. Wendy and I were both frustrated because we really felt we needed some of the information. Wendy was worried about where to park and how I would find them. The gym was hot, and the kids were getting restless, so Wendy took them back to the house while I stayed behind to ask questions. The woman giving the presentation was also in charge of cut offs and was extremely nice and helpful. I followed her out of the gym, peppering her with questions, which she seemed happy to answer.
She told me that I should not have my crew meet me at Winfield because they have limited space and the traffic is terrible. My pacer (Jenn) was planning on meeting me there, so Wendy and I decided she and the kids would just wait at Twin Lakes. This decision also kept us from having to drive out to Winfield that afternoon to scout it, which was nice. We spent the rest of the day going over our plan - writing down directions to various crew access points and going over lists of supplies and potential times of arrival.
|Quick photo op with two time Leadville champion Anton Krupicka.|
I got up at 2:45, ate a small breakfast, and got dressed. Wendy got up while I was eating and got ready. Then we got the kids up a little after 3. They had slept in their crew shirts and bounced right out of bed, excited for the adventure. I had promised them they could stay up all night and sleep in the back of the van if they got tired. We walked down to 6th Street and Harrison with all the other lunatics where I got hugs and kisses from Wendy and the kids and headed off to find my spot in the starting corral for the 4am start. The weather was supposed to be perfect. It was right around 40 degrees at race start with a high of 68 and a low Saturday night of 38. No real chance of rain. It doesn’t get much better than that.
As I was standing on 6th Street, I looked up and saw Jen Cosco. I had met Jen at the Bel Monte 50 Mile Endurance Run earlier in the hear. She had attempted Leadville last year and was back for a second attempt. I have kept up with her blog, and it was nice to see a familiar face. We talked about nerves and training and whether either one of us was really ready for this.
A short speech, the National Anthem, a shotgun blast, and we were off and running.
|Posing with 2/3rds of my Race Crew just before start.|
|Ready for the start. They say ignorance is bliss, and I do look happy.|
START TO TABOR BOAT RAMP (Mile 0 to Mile 7)
Before I get into the nitty gritty of what happened, let me say this: In my preparation for this race, I read every race report, article, and blog entry and watched every video I could find about it. They were all full of lots of good and hard-earned advice. I read and processed all of it and apparently disregarded most of it. Every article talked about how crowded it can get on the single track around Turquoise Lake. I should have listened. I didn’t. I was so concerned about going out too fast too soon that I ran very conservatively for the first couple of miles. I was scared that I was going to go out too fast and blow up.
As always, I was wearing a Raleigh Running Outfitters shirt and hat. About a mile in a man commented on the shirt and said he was from Durham. It turned out to be Guido Ferarri. He is a regular presence on the running scene in and around the triangle. I had heard of him and we have a few mutual acquaintances, but we had never met. Funny that we had to be 1800 miles from home, running a 100 mile race in the dark in the Rockies to make a connection. He told me that he had one finish and one DNF at Leadville. We ran together for a few minutes before he pulled off for a quick pit stop.
After a couple of miles the route took a 90 degree right hand turn off the road and onto single track for a ways, then back out onto the road, and then back to single track around Turquoise Lake. This part of the trail was very frustrating to me. I was stuck behind a long line of people that were going much slower than the pace I wanted to run. I scooted around when I could but spent long portions of the trail walking behind people in front of me. I had no idea how far I had been, but I knew I wanted to be at Tabor Boat Ramp in a little more than an hour. It was close to an hour and 20 minutes before the ramp appeared suddenly out of the darkness, followed immediately by my family. I was surprised to see them and kept running after some quick high fives. (My son told me I missed his high five and hit him in the face. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he was none the worse for wear, and I see the humor in that story.)
TABOR BOAT RAMP TO MAY QUEEN (Mile 7 to Mile 13.5)
I was able to make up a little bit of time during this section and got into May Queen a little after 6:30. I didn’t stop at the aid station; I just checked in and out and met my crew on the road. I got some new Hammer Gels and headed off. I should have dropped my light because it was daytime by now, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. It was great to see Wendy. She seemed very excited and happy for me, which helped motivate me. My son and daughter were just starting to wake up. My son had some stomach issues and threw up several times that morning on the sides of various roads, but he never complained to me once. Now that’s a crew member!
My plan was to eat one Hammer Gel every 30 minutes. I was already way behind. I started rationalizing stretching that out after the first 30 minutes. I was averaging about one an hour - not enough, as I would come to find out. Still, I felt pretty good and had no aches or pains, and my legs felt strong. It was hard to keep my heart rate down, I think because of a combination of my cold, the altitude, and the excitement of the race. The high heart rate was slowly starting to make me tired and my walk breaks were becoming longer and longer.
MAY QUEEN TO FISH HATCHERY (Mile 13.5 to Mile 23.5) 2hrs 21minutes
The 10 miles from May Queen to Fish Hatchery climbs over Sugar Loaf (11,000 ft) and down Power line Hill. The run up is on Hagerman Road, which is an old dirt road with a long but gradual grade. I was able to run portions of it without too much difficulty. I alternated running and fast hiking it in an attempt to save some energy. There were some truly amazing views as we climbed away from May Queen and Turquoise Lake. At the top the route plunged down a rough, rutted power line right of way. I was not able to bomb down it as I had hoped, but was able to run at a comfortable pace. After several miles of descent, the course popped out onto a paved road and continued about a mile and a half into Fish Hatchery. I checked into the aid station right around 9am. I had hoped to be there by 8 but I was still a full hour ahead of the cut off time so I wasn’t too worried. I grabbed some chips and a coke and headed out. Just outside the Hatchery I saw 2/3rds of my crew running down the road toward me. I followed them back to Wendy where I shed ear warmers, arm warmers, gloves, and the light I should have given them at May Queen. I got some fresh Gatorade, some more Hammer Gels, and a Red Bull and headed out. I was in a great mood and still moving well, if not fast. In retrospect I knew in the back of my mind that I needed more calories and that I was heading for a meltdown. However, much like a character from an Albert Camus novel, I seemed helpless to alter my actions and plodded contentedly on toward my inevitable implosion.
|Coming out of Fish Hatchery Aid Station, with crew escort.|
|Greeting my race crew with a smile.|
|Heading out from Fish Hatchery toward Half Pipe.|
FISH HATCHERY TO HALF PIPE (Mile 23.5 to Mile 29.1) 1hr 45minutes
Man, this was a long 5 ½ miles. The course followed the road from the Fish Hatchery for what seemed like an eternity. The scenery was gorgeous, and it was nice and flat, but I couldn’t make my legs go. I would run for a few minutes and then walk a few minutes. I resorted to using the countdown timer on my watch to make myself run for decent intervals. Here I played leapfrog with lots of different people. This is when I started to realize how far back in the pack I was. I kept telling myself that if I kept going at 4-5mph I would be more than fine. After spending what seemed like an eternity on the road, the course veered off and ran along a rolling trail with the mountains looming in the background. There is a crew access point called Tree Line around mile 27. We opted to skip that as it was only a few miles past where I had just seen my family. Just a couple of miles past Tree Line is the Half Pipe aid station.HALF PIPE TO TWIN LAKES (Mile 29.1 to Mile 39.5) 2hrs 21minutes
I made it to Half Pipe at 10:35. The sign at the aid station said that Twin Lakes was the next fully stocked aid station at mile 39.5 with a cut off time of 2:00pm. I already knew that. It also said there was a water station between Half Pipe and Twin Lakes. The problem was that I read the sign wrong. It actually said that the water was at mile 36. I thought it said the water was in 3 miles. I drank some coke and ate some potato chips and orange slices here before heading out. It was getting warm but nothing compared to the heat and humidity we have in North Carolina, so I wasn’t too phased by the afternoon sun. I took some chips in a bag with me for the trail. I hiked and ate and talked with another runner and shared my chips. I kept doing mental math - calculating and re-calculating my pace and how far I thought I had gone. The water station would not show up. I began to get really discouraged. I had been going for over an hour and still no water station. Surely I was moving faster than that. I was still able to run/shuffle along without too much trouble. I began to panic as I saw my watch get closer and closer to one o’clock. Finally, around a bend was the water station, along with volunteers who said that Twin Lakes was a little over 3 miles downhill. I was so relieved to know I was still moving as well as I thought. I came down off the hill and into the Twin Lakes aid station at 1:05. 55 minutes ahead of the cut off. Still nowhere near as fast as I had wanted to be, but I thought I was going to be fine. I had until 4:30 to make it 5 miles to the aid station on Hope Pass. Surely I could go 5 miles in 3 ½ hours. Right?
I checked into the aid station and sat down for two minutes to eat some orange slices, chips, and pretzels and drink a coke. I headed out looking for my crew, still very much enjoying the day and the crowds. I walked past the aid station, down the street, turned right, headed down to the parking lot by the trail head. No crew. Shit. Where were they? I really needed them. My plan was to switch shoes and socks, trade my two bottle belt for a hydration vest, and get my trekking poles. Most importantly, they had my headlamp and rain gear. I turned around and walked all the way back to the aid station. Still, no crew. I decided to hell with it, I would just go ahead and go. I walked back to the lot and there, about 15 yards past the end of the lot where I had turned around the first time through, sat my crew, anxiously awaiting me. By this time it was 1:20, and I had spent almost 15 minutes wandering around looking for them. I plopped down in a chair and changed my shoes and sock. I had a small hot spot on the outside of my big toe on my right foot so I cleaned it and put on a Band-Aid. I drank a Red Bull, grabbed my pack and poles, kissed my crew, and headed off to conquer Hope Pass. (12,600 feet)
|Being tended to by my crew at Twin Lakes.|
|Smiling and ready to conquer Hope Pass, which you can see looming in the background.|
TWIN LAKES TO HOPELESS AID STATION (Mile 39.5 to Mile 44) 3hours
I wasn’t too worried about losing 15 minutes. I was still moving well and was able to hike/walk about 3.5 to 4 miles per hours comfortably. I crossed the river and enjoyed the cold refreshing water on my feet and legs. I got to see the leaders coming back into Twin lakes during this section. The trail winds through the marsh to the base of Hope Pass and then turns up with a vengeance. Any ability I had to move quickly and comfortably quickly evaporated as I climbed up Hope Pass. The majority of the climb is in the woods and sheltered from the sun, which was nice. I forced myself to keep moving forward, no matter how slow or how tired I was. I expected it to take about an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours to get to the top. I wasn’t too far off. I finally made it to the Hopeless Aid station a few minutes before 4pm.
For anyone who is not familiar with the history of the race, Hopeless Aid Station is about half a mile down from the summit of Hope Pass and is staffed by incredible volunteers and has limited supplies because of its remote location. These supplies are packed in by Llamas. That’s right, I said llamas. As I broke free from the trees I was greeted by a volunteer who said, “Welcome to Hopeless Aid Station.” Behind her, scattered across the mountainside were at least a dozen llamas, hanging out grazing. To call the scene surreal is an understatement. Dozens of volunteers are running around fixing food and water and soup and checking on runners who are laid out all over the grass in various states of disrepair. It looks more like a MASH unit than an aid station. I spent a few minutes at Hopeless before pushing on to the summit. My head felt fuzzy, and it was hard to catch my breath. I knew it wouldn’t get any better until I got down the other side.
HOPELESS AID STATION TO SUMMIT OF HOPE PASS (Mile 44 to Mile 44.5) 30minutes
I departed the aid station right around 4 and began my trek up to the summit. It was very deceptive how far and how steep that last push was. The trail is narrow and rocky. I was really bonking -no food, no appetite, no oxygen. I was moving about as fast as an anemic slug. To complicate things further, there was an ever increasing number of runners returning from Winfield. The trail was narrow, so I had to stop and move carefully off the trail to let them pass. This added several minutes to my ascent. It took me almost a full 30 minutes to make it the ½ mile to the summit. It felt really good to get there. I crossed the timing mat and didn’t look back. I bent down to pick up two small rocks to give to my kids from the summit and realized I hadn’t even looked back to enjoy the view. By this time I was 15 yards past the summit and didn’t have the energy to back track for the view. I had from 4:30 until 6:15 to go downhill 5 miles. I was confident I would hit Winfield and be back. It might not be pretty, but I was sure I’d be back. I told myself if I could get there with just a few minutes to spare I could eat something and get some energy back before my return trip. I would have the advantage of having a pacer with me for motivation on the trip back up. I was still optimistic.
SUMMIT TO WINFIELD (Mile 44.5 to Mile 50+ish)2hrs 5minutes
This was one of those sections of trail that never ends. No matter how fast I tried to go or how far I thought I’d been the next aid station seemed to keep getting farther away. I figured I was moving downhill between 3 and 4 miles per hour. After about an hour I encountered a runner and his pacer coming back up. I asked them how far it was to Winfield, figuring about two miles. I was shocked when they told me it was 5 or more miles. They couldn’t be right. I waited until I passed another pacer, this time with a GPS and asked again. The first group had been right. Two things were happening. One, I was out of gas and moving much slower than I should have been. Two, the backside of Hope Pass is longer than advertised. The race director announced on Wednesday before the race that they had received permission to use a new section of trail into Winfield. The message boards were all a flutter with activity. The general consensus was that this new section added a total of 2.5 to 3 miles to the course and another 600 feet of elevation gain.
I kept moving forward, hoping the runners were wrong and that I would somehow make it to Winfield before the cutoff at 6:15. I tried to move as fast as I could, but wasn’t able to run more than a few steps at a time. When I did push harder and force myself to run, I was reduced to a crumpled, vomiting pile on the trail. I recovered as quickly as I could and got back on my feet to keep moving. 20 yards down the trail, I started vomiting again. I was not surprised or discouraged by this. In fact, they said it would happen during the medical briefing. I just kept on pushing as hard as I could and looking at my watch. 6:00 passed, still no sign of Winfield. 6:10, 6:11, 6:12, 6:13 - still pushing as hard as I could. Finally, I looked down and saw it was 6:16. It was over. I was done. Leadville had beaten me. I was still able to walk at a decent pace without any discomfort and headed into the aid station. As I passed runners and their pacers heading back up the climb after the cut off they were all kind and said supportive things, but they all looked at me like my puppy had just died. There was a lot of sympathy in their eyes and voices.
In the final quarter mile I passed Jen, who I had seen at the start. She had a bad day and missed a cut off earlier and was waiting on some friends. We shared a few words and I kept moving. I was disappointed, but it wasn’t real yet.
Then I saw my pacer. Jenn and I ran together at the Umstead Trail 100 last year. I was able to finish that one but Jen had to drop due to an injury late in the race. She came back this year and finished, and I paced for her. After the race she moved to Colorado and agreed to meet me at Winfield and pace me as long as I needed her. As soon as I saw her, it all became real. As she walked up to me, I got choked up, and tears filled my eyes. She gave me a big hug and told me I had done a great job on a tough course. We walked into the aid station, which was being dismantled, and I was approached by a race official with a pair of scissors in her hand. She seemed more upset than I was to have to cut off my timing chip. She gave me a big hug and told me what a great job I had done. Nice words, but they didn’t have much meaning to me at the time.
Jenn’s significant other, Nick, was there with his car, so we piled in and headed to Twin Lakes to meet Wendy and the kids. They were afraid I hadn’t made the cut off but weren’t sure. When we finally got out of the dead zone that is Winfield, Jenn had several texts from Wendy trying to find out what was going on. I called her and told her I was done - that she could pack up and meet us at the car.
I was a statistic. 1,000 people had signed up for the rae. 802 had started and 360 had finished. True to history, less than 50% of the field finished the race. At least I had lots of company.
AFTER THE RACE
I did my best not to be too upset because I didn’t want to be a bad sport in front of my son and daughter. After all, they are a main source of motivation for me. I was upset. This was my first DNF. I had sacrificed a lot to be here. So had my family, and I didn’t finish. That was hard to swallow.
We headed back to the house and hatched a plan for the rest of the week. We had initially planned on staying in Leadville until Monday and then driving home across the south west. Since we weren’t up all night Saturday, we decided to head out early Sunday morning and spend the next week driving down to Four Corners, the Grand Canyon, and any place we wanted to stop along the way back home. We ended up having a truly amazing family vacation. It was just what I needed to decompress and put the race into perspective. We arrived back in Raleigh the Saturday after the race, having driven over 4,600 miles through 16 states in 13 days.
PRACTICAL LESSONS LEARNED
It’s hard to even express how much I learned during this race. I think the most important thing is that I know the course now. I got to see the entire thing, even if was only in one direction. That helps tremendously in knowing what to expect.
- I learned that I have to put way more emphasis on nutrition. I have always half-assed my way through races, relying on a base level of fitness and determination. Next time around I will spend as much time training to eat as I spend training to run. (My legs weren't even sore the day after the race becaue I didn't have enought fuel to push them hard during the race.)
- As much as I love my kids and as much as they had an amazing experience, I would not come back with them as crew. It was too much for Wendy to try to crew for me and to babysit an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old. Simplify, simplify.
- I will plan nutrition bags that I can pick up at access points and carry with me that have more than just gels in them.
- I didn’t need a two bottle belt, and it weighed me down. Next time I will run with either a single bottle belt or a handheld. The hydration vest worked well, so I’ll keep that for my trip over Hope Pass.
- I’m torn on the trekking poles. On the upside, I used them a lot on the way up, and I’m sure they helped. The downside is that they are a pain in the ass to run with. I’m sure that I would have done a little more running without them. That will be a decision that comes later.
- Next time I will go out much faster for the first couple of miles to try to avoid getting caught in the never ending conga line around Turquoise Lake.
As I have said, I was and am disappointed that I didn’t finish. However, after a week’s worth of reflection, I have to say that I really enjoyed the experience. Leadville is a special race. This race experience taught me a lot about living in the moment and enjoying life for what it is, not what you wish it to be. There is an old Tibetan Buddhist expression that seems appropriate for my Leadville Experience. “If there is a problem for which there is a solution, there is no need to worry. If there is a problem for which there is no solution, there is no need to worry.” I might not worry about not finishing, but I’ll damn sure use it as motivation to make sure it doesn’t happen again next year.
Before we went to bed on Saturday after the race, Wendy and I talked about coming back. I told her I have to come back and finish, that I can’t leave it undone. She thought about it for a while without saying much. A short time later she said we should come back next year without the kids - that I should get the tent from Hypoxico again and that I should look into hiring a coach to help me. So that, ladies and gentlemen is the plan. I trained more for this race than I ever have for anything else, and I came up short. While that realization is daunting, I also see it as an amazing challenge. I will simply redouble my efforts and try again. Some people might refer to this as a flat learning curve. I prefer to think of it as dedication and determination.
I owe an incredible debt of thanks to Wendy. Without her support and encouragement, I never would have made it to the start line. She was behind me 100 percent. I look forward to returning the favor when she kicks ass at Ironman Florida this November.
Thanks to my kids, Sutherland (8) and Kettler (6), who think it’s normal to have a dad who gets up at 4am to run for six to ten hours on weekends and that all families drive across the country to run 100 mile races in the mountains. They were amazing sports throughout the whole ordeal and shed tears of outrage when "they wouldn't let me" finish the race.
Thanks to Jenn Coker for being the best almost pacer a guy could ever ask for. I’ll see you back in Leadville next year!
Thanks to Raleigh Running Outfitters, who has helped and supported me for the last several years. I truly believe they are one of the best running stores in the country. Thanks for everything guys.
Thanks to Matt Eckert at Hypoxico for all his help with dialing in my altitude training. While I didn’t have the race I wanted in Leadville, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did without you.