Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Leadville 100

"You're tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can!"

Even though I knew the line was coming, the delivery from Ken Chlouber at the pre race meeting made the hair on my neck stand up. After months of training, and then a week of rest and relaxation in a remote mountain cabin with my family, my legs felt fresh, and I was full of nervous energy. There was a lot of excitement in the air, and I couldn't wait to get to the start line.

Me and Max at the pre-race meeting
The Leadville 100 was created over 3 decades ago by Ken Chlouber. It starts and finishes in the highest incorporated city in the US, and contains somewhere between 15,000-18,000 feet of elevation gain. The terrain contains everything from dirt (and even some short sections of paved) roads, to steep, loose, rocky trails with large amounts of exposure.

The plan
The Wakeup


The loud rock n roll alarm at 1:45am wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, since I'd woken up on my own 10 minutes before it was set to go off. I'd spent the whole afternoon before planning and coordinating logistics with my mom, my wife, and my buddy Ian. So when I woke up everything was ready to go. After eating my breakfast of ramen and tuna, and then lubing every place imaginable to avoid chafing, my mom and I left our motel in Frisco headed for the start line.

Up before the alarm, which was set for 1:45am
At the start line excited to get going!
Start to May Queen (13.5) - "Easy Does It"


Ken fired his shotgun and we were off!

"Nice and easy" I reminded myself. I did not want to get caught up in the excitement and start the race too fast.  I needed to conserve my energy; it was going to be a long day(s). I let the fast people go, and settled into a slow jog down the mostly downhill start. At one point there was a short section that was slightly uphill. Most of the runners, including me, continued to jog up and over it while one older fellow was waving his arms and yelling at everyone to slow down. Crazy old loon, or wise old man? It felt like we were moving pretty slow, but were we all still going out too fast? Only time would tell.

After several miles of rolling dirt roads the course entered a narrow single track trail that circled around Turquoise Lake. On the elevation profile this section of trail was shown as flat, but in fact it consisted of many tiny hills. Up, and down, and up, and down. The trail was fairly rocky too. At this point the course was so crowded that everyone was moving in one continuous line of people. This, combined with the fact that it was still very dark, made the trail feel a bit treacherous. You couldn't see the rocks that you had to avoid until the person right in front of you had already hopped over them and they appeared in your headlamp beam at the last moment. The person in front of me kept tripping and nearly falling. The person in front of him totally wiped out. After helping him up, we continued with the dark run.

Eventually the sky started to get less dark. The added light made the rocky trail running more manageable, and even fun! During a downhill stretch I started to get impatient being stuck behind people who were carefully (and slowly) picking their way downhill. At the soonest opportunity I started passing people and began to fly down the technical downhill. It was perfect trail running and my grin was from ear to ear.  The thought that I might be going too fast occurred to me, but I was having too much fun to slow down, and isn't fun the whole point of this thing?

I got to the first aid station 13.5 miles along in about 2:22. I wanted to focus on getting in and out quick to avoid wasting time. I scarfed some watermelon and bananas, refilled my water bottles, said hello and dropped my headlamp off with my mom, and then kept trucking.

13.5 miles down, 86.5 miles to go!
May Queen (13.5) to Outward Bound (24) - "Oops #1"

A quarter mile past the aid station I realized that in my rush I'd forgotten to refill my pockets with Gu (packets of sugary goop that make it easy to eat enough calories to keep running). Crap! 10.5 miles to the next aid station and I only had one packet left. I knew that if I wanted to finish this race I needed to keep up the calorie intake since there would be no catching up if I fell behind. Oh well, nothing I could do now, so I just planned on waiting longer than the 30 minutes I was planning to eat my only Gu, and then toughing it out to the next aid. Just then I remembered that I'd stuffed one extra Gu into a small pocket on my pack strap at the last moment. Phew! Two packets wasn't the 4 or 5 that I'd planned to consume during this time, but it was much better than 1!

Shortly after the aid station we started the first long climb of the day up "Power Line". On the elevation profile the climb had looked steep, but in actuality it felt very gradual. The big challenge here was to keep restraining myself. I wanted so bad to run up the climb, as walking felt painfully slow, but I knew I would regret running it later. Sometime during this climb we were treated to a beautiful sunrise.

Sunrise #1 on the Power Line Climb

Me, enjoying the start of a beautiful day

Coming down the other side of Power Line wasn't nearly as gradual. It was a steep rutted dirt road. I focused on staying loose and relaxed, and tried to let gravity do the work. I did my best to spin my legs and keep the rubber side down, and before I knew it I popped out onto an asphalt road. The cheering spectators said the next aid station was about 2 miles away. I chatted with some other runners as we trotted down the road.

The mile 24 Outward Bound aid station was a huge loud party! I pulled in, stuffed my face with a turkey sandwich and lots of salt covered fruit. I chugged coke, chicken broth, and water. This time I made sure to grab several extra Gu's. After leaving the food tent I found my mom and traded my backpack for a single handheld water bottle. From this point on the aid stations would be much closer together and I didn't want to weigh myself down carrying more water than I needed.

My mom at the Outward Bound Aid Station

Coming into Outward Bound
Outward Bound (24) to Twin Lakes (39.5) "Flatlands"

I left the aid station and headed onto a large flat grassy field riddled with treacherous potholes. Any thoughts of keeping a good pace here were immediately replaced with the fear of ending my race with a knee injury from an unseen hole.  I took up a slow, cautious jog.

A mile or two later we got to another asphalt road. Another mile or two and we turned onto a totally flat dirt road. This lasted for several miles. All this flat running was hard! At home I rarely ever run on totally flat terrain. While running up and down with lots of elevation change sounds hard, at least you are switching up the muscles being used. For me flat running becomes painful in a hurry. I alternated running and walking to switch it up.

After what seemed like a long time I eventually got to the start of the next long uphill. I was overjoyed. I set a brisk but steady walking pace and got after it. I was still feeling pretty good, much better than I had been expecting to a third the way through a hundred mile footrace!

Before I knew it I started hearing music ahead. It was the Camelback station marking the top of the climb.  I filled my bottle and got on with the downhill. Just as before I relaxed and tried not to fight against gravity. It occurred to me that I might be running downhill too fast, but trying to run slower felt like I was working harder, so I just relaxed and didn't fight it. I felt like I was floating as I ran, and was more aware of the wind in my hair and the nice view than of what my legs were doing beneath me.

Me, enjoying a beautiful stretch of the Colorado Trail
I blinked and I was at the Twin Lakes mile 40 aid station. I'd been moving for 7:48. I couldn't believe I was already 40 miles in, or that I was still feeling so good! After another chow down in the food tent, I found my family. My wife (aka super-woman) had managed to get our 4 month old son and our two giant rowdy labs to the aid station to join my mom. 

My mom and Max waiting at Twin Lakes
Coming into the Twin Lakes Aid Station
I swapped the handheld for a waist belt with two 10oz water bottles. It was hot and my mom looked concerned. I stuck to my plan though. Up next was 10 miles up and over Hope Pass, the biggest climb of the day. Once I got down the other side I would hit the turn around point and have to come back up and over the pass again. With over 6,000 ft of elevation gain between me and my return to this aid station, I did not want to be weighed down with extra water. Plus, it was only 5.5 miles to the next aid station. The only extra I carried was my windbreaker, which I managed to roll up and cinch to my waist pack in case of a storm.

Twin Lakes (39.5) to Winfield (50) - "Inspiration"

Before starting up hope pass we had about a mile of flat terrain through mud that was at times shin deep. All the runners around me were making jokes about this being a "tough mudder" event. The mud ended at the Arkansas River. A rope was strung across to help steady us as we crossed the thigh deep water. I laid down in the river to get totally submerged. The air was hot and the icy water felt great!

Shortly after the River the trail got steep and we headed up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Hope Pass trail wound through dense trees and was totally shaded. For some reason I had been expecting lots of sun exposure and heat, but the shade kept it pleasant. There was also a flowing creek next to the trail with ice cold and delicious water that alleviated any concerns I had about the small amount of water I took with me.

As we went up and up I noticed that some of the people around me started to look like they were feeling the ever increasing altitude. I passed several people who were seated or bent over trying to catch their breath. I certainly noticed that the air was thin, but it didn't bug me too much. Apparently the week I'd spent with my family at altitude in a cabin outside of Salida was paying off!

At one point I heard some commotion coming from above. "Runner up! Runner up!" The leaders of the race were on their way back and absolutely bombing down Hope pass! Those on their way up scattered to make room. The first person I saw appeared to be Anton Krupicka! Weird since I didn't think he was running the race, but then I notice the word "pacer" on his bib. "Yeah!" I yelled. "Yeahyeahyeah!" Came the reply from Anton as he and his runner came blasting by in 1st place. I recognized Rob Krar running right on their heels. It was pretty impressive to see how fast these guys were bombing the downhill, and the inspiration seemed to give everyone a momentary burst of adrenaline as we resumed our upward hike.

I was in and out of the Hope Pass aid station pretty quick, and continued on to the top of Hope Pass. At the top I sat and took in the spectacular view for about 2 minutes to rest my legs. After the slight reprieve I took off down the back side of Hope Pass. The  trail was steep and loose as it switch-backed down the steep exposed slope. You certainly didn't want to go tumbling off the trail or you would roll for quite some ways. I didn't care. I was feeling good and having fun as I ran, slipped, and slid down the trail with reckless abandon. The whole time the thought that was creeping into my head was that we had to go back up this. Every step down would mean another step up in just a short while. About halfway down the descent I crossed two small streams in quick succession. I made note of them, as they would be the last water source on the way back up.

When I got to the bottom of the descent I was starting to tire. I had been keeping track of the mileage on my GPS watch. Thus far every aid station had come about a mile before it was supposed to according to the info published on the Leadville website. I figured my watch had just lost signal for awhile somewhere and that I had run 1 mile further than my watch said. This meant I only had to get to mile 49 for the turn-around. Misreading my watch I thought we had gone 48.5. Only one half mile to go. Sweet! It was time for a Gu but I elected to skip it and wait for real food at the aid station. One half mile later I looked down and saw that my watch now said 48. Crap, I realized that I'd misread it before. I was really feeling crappy now, and went ahead and ate the Gu. At mile 49 there still was no aid station. I asked a runner coming the other way, who said it was about a mile away. I guess my watch was right after all...

The last 200 yards down a dusty dirt road into the Winfield mile 50 aid station were tough. The sun was beating down, there was no shade, and I was beat. I had been going for 11:28. I found my way to the food tent, ate a bunch of cold watermelon, and found a tree to sit under for about 5 minutes. Once I collected myself, I went back to the tent, ate some more, filled my two tiny water bottles, and headed back out.

Winfield (50) back to Twin Lakes (60.5) "Let er Rip!"

I immediately felt better. It's amazing what a few minutes of rest and some food will do! I ran as much of the initial couple of miles of rolling terrain as I could, and quickly got to the start of the climb back up Hope Pass. I set a nice steady pace back up the hill. The bottom half of the climb was in the trees and thus not too hot. However, I made a conscious effort to drink as much of my water as I could before getting back to the two streams I had noticed before. At the last stream I drank until my belly was full, and I refilled my bottles. The water was ice cold and delicious! An older runner also stopped to fill up. He said that he had run this race many times and he always filled up here.

After the streams we were still chugging up the steep loose trails, but now the trees were gone and the sun was beating down. Step by step the top grew nearer. As it got closer, the number of people once again feeling the altitude increased. One guy was puking. A girl was sitting on the side of the trail with her head in her hands. Many others were reduced to a snails pace. The altitude was having its way, but I continued to feel fine.

This time at the top of the pass I didn't stop, I went right over the top and took the short, steep, loose downhill to the aid station at top speed! A quick snack, and I was off again. Judging by the number of downhill walkers I saw, Hope Pass x2 had taken a lot out of a lot of people. I didn't understand how I was still feeling so good, but I wasn't going to question it. I figured I needed to cover as much ground while I was still smiling as possible, so I ran for all I was worth. Bombing back down Hope Pass at top speed was the funnest part of the day.

Back across the river, I ran into the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 60.5 still feeling great! In fact, the knowledge that I was still feeling so good was a boost in itself. I was elated! The worst climbs were behind me (or so I thought), and I was beginning to have visions of the finish. It took me under 8 hours to get to this spot in the morning. If I could do the same distance in reverse in 9.5 hours, I  might even finish under the 25 hour cutoff for the bigger belt buckle! Little did I know that things would come crashing down and get tough in only a few short miles.

I was fired up and I had a plan. I had 16 miles to go until Ian would start pacing me. He had kindly offered to run the last 24 miles with me. When I got to my family, Ian and Julie had already joined them.

Ian comes out to run into the Twin Lakes aid station with me
"I'm going to cover the next 16 miles in 3 and one half hours, but I'd like you to be at the mile 76 aid station in 2:45. I'm moving slow on the ups, but be ready to bomb the downs!" I told Ian.

"I'm coming with you now."

"Your going to run all 40 with me?"

"Yup!" My good mood got even better.

Ian and me running out of the Twin Lakes aid station to tackle the 2nd to last climb of the day.

Twin Lakes (60.5) to Outward Bound (76) "The Bonk"

We said goodbye to everyone and blasted up the start of the 2nd to last long climb of the day.

On the way out the climbs had been long and gradual, while the descents had been steep. On the way back it was the climbs that were brutally steep. I was pretty excited about how well I thought I was doing, and proceeded to push harder up the climb then I probably should have.

A beautiful afternoon for a run
Looking back at Twin Lakes
Going up . . .
By time Ian and I reached the top only a few miles from the last aid station, I was feeling pretty tired. When we started down the other side I was still able to move at a good clip, and we got as far as possible before it got dark and we were forced to don headlamps. At the bottom I was pretty wiped, and ended up sitting in the mile 69 aid station for about 25 minutes before we resumed our travels.

Next came the dreaded 7 mile flat stretch. How could I be hurting THIS BAD only 9 short miles after feeling like the king of the world and dreaming about a 25 hour finish? I tried to run, but my running pace was the same as my walking pace, and the walking hurt a lot less. I settled into what I thought was a brisk walk. At some point Ian and I had a discussion about my 25 hour goal and both agreed that it looked unlikely at this point. We also both agreed that there was no way we were stopping before the finish line.

I walked. Occasionally I got a little inspired and jogged for a short distance. Mostly though, I walked.

When we heard lights and loud music ahead we briefly thought we'd made it to the next aid station, but alas, it was just the "alternate crew zone". Other than some smiles and cheers, there was nothing for us here.

Finally we popped out on the asphalt road. It was slightly downhill, and I did my best to jog all of mile or two of it. The stars were breathtaking. Most of the time I had to be looking down to see where i was stepping, but jogging on the road gave me the chance to look up and enjoy.  The Big Dipper was just above the horizon, and it looked like we were running towards whatever was pouring out of it.

The turn off the road and onto the Outward Bound field was marked with a bunch of  glow sticks. Although flat, the potholes once again "forced" me to walk to avoid hurting myself. Actually "forced" is the wrong word since I was happy to walk instead of run. I was tired and hurting, bad. I couldn't put my finger on where it hurt, since it hurt everywhere. The pain was most intense in my feet, and radiated upward to my ankles, calves, knees, and the rest of my body from there.

We could see the aid station in the distance, but it never seemed to get any closer. We walked forever. Eventually though, forever ended and we arrived at the Outward Bound mile 76 aid station 19:51 after I'd started. My 3.5 hour estimate had actually taken almost 5 hours from Twin Lakes to here. I was a bit wobbly and as soon as I stopped moving I got very cold. I made a critical mistake and sat down next to the heater in the medical tent.  I wanted to quit so bad.

My mom, very worried as I sat dazed and confused by the heater in the medical tent at the Outward Bound Aid Station
Outward Bound (76) to May Queen (86.5)  - "The Space Station"

Over the next 45 minutes I ate whatever food people brought me, and watched in a daze as Ian and my mom sorted out gear. During this time I saw all sorts of carnage come in. From leg injuries to people who had completely passed out on the trail.  My pain and tiredness began to seem trivial.

I bundled up in 4 layers, including my large down jacket, and began to walk slowly down the road with a hot mocha (hot cocoa and instant coffee) in hand. A short while later I heard yelling from behind me.


"Over here!"

"Ha! You can't go wandering off like that man!"

Apparently I had neglected to tell anyone I was leaving. I just got up and walked out while Ian was grabbing food. Oops.

We walked and then jogged the two miles of asphalt to the start of the last big climb: Power Line. When I had run down it in the morning it had gone by so fast that I didn't remember much about it. I did remember a line from Born to Run stating that many people feared this climb more than Hope Pass.

The rutted dirt road immediately got very steep. Too steep. It couldn't stay this steep could it? The end of this ridiculous slope couldn't be far, right? I just put my head down and started putting one foot in front of the other.

Soon I noticed some lights moving in the sky. Sweet, UFOs. I must be hallucinating. Then Ian told me that they were in fact not UFOs, but headlamps. They weren't in the sky, but on the trail ahead. Apparently the trail could keep going up.

We kept walking up the insanely steep hill toward the UFO headlamps in the sky. Turning around we could see a long string of headlamps behind us down the hill. At least we weren't the only ones suffering.

Eventually the floating headlamps above disappeared, so we knew we were nearing the top. We pushed and pushed and finally made it. The road dropped down in front of us. I started to think about trying to run the downhill when we noticed more floating headlamps above. Crap! False summit!

The road dipped down for maybe 1/4 mile and then continued the grueling ascent.

Up and up, would this climb never end?

Left foot, right foot, repeat. Sounds simple but 3/4 the way through a 100 mile race it's a lot harder than it sounds!

And then I heard the Beatles. Music. Cheering. Drunken revelry. I knew these sounds well. The top! People must have driven to the top to cheer us on! I knew there was no aid station, but perhaps people drove up to cheer us on! We listened for awhile as the sounds gradually got louder.

"Nice Fucking Work!" The large banner proved that this was no official aid station.

Nice Fucking Work!
All I could see were neon lights everywhere. Tax Man by the Beatles was playing on some loud speakers. And then I saw it. A large green alien. Great, now I KNOW I'm hallucinating, I thought. I must not be at the top. I bet I fell asleep on the side of the trail halfway up and am dreaming.

"Welcome to the Space Station!" Said a long haired hippy. "Help yourself to water, coca cola, PBR, whiskey . . . Or if you want we've got a pipe loaded up and ready to go!" He gestured towards a glass pipe filled with the now-legal Colorado sticky icky.

"Thanks, but we've got magic brownies!" Came the reply from Ian. What he neglected to tell the impressed hippies was that the magic ingredient in these brownies was not the Ganga, but a full pound of freshly ground coffee grounds baked into them!

Me enjoying one of Ian and Julie's "magic brownies"
After scarfing one of Ian and Julie's magic brownies, we started to trot slowly down the road. Then the trot became a run. Then we were passing people. Wow those brownies were good!
We covered several miles downhill on the dirt road at a fairly good clip. Then the course took us off of the dirt road and onto a very rocky single track trail through dense trees. I certainly would have fallen if I'd tried to run this in my state, so I begrudgingly resumed walking. Man I hate walking downhill!

Eventually we neared the last aid station. We made a plan to try and get me in and out in under 5 minutes. We couldn't afford another 45 minute stop.

When we got to the last aid station at mile 86.5 I had been moving for 24:30. As I walked up to the food tent I heard someone yell, "Number 300! Number 300! Someone is looking for you, she's right back here."

"Thanks, but I've got to sit down." I thought I said. I was later told that I was a bit snappier with the nice volunteer than that. Whoops, I didn't mean to be, those guys and gals were staying up all night just to help us run a race! I owe them big time!

Somehow Ian managed to talk my mom into the tent, and they both got me food and water. My mom duct taped a fissure in the tender skin on the bottom of my foot. Overall we were 10 minutes in and out. Not quite the 5 we were hoping for, but far better than the 45 at mile 76.

Short but sweet.  I'm enjoying the quick 10 minute stop at May Queen, the last aid station.
May Queen (86.5) to Leadville (100) - "Digging Deep"

Only about a half marathon to go! We started back onto the single track trail that curves around Turquoise Lake. This stretch must have been 9 or 10 miles long, but felt much longer. In the (previous) morning, I thought this stretch of trail had been flat, but now I realized that it was in fact a series of hills.  30 slow steps uphill, then 30 steps down. Ian (who by this point had run farther than he ever had before) would run up ahead on the downhills and yell back as to whether he thought I could run them. If I got going down something and then discovered it to be too rocky I wouldn't have been able to stop, and would have totally wiped out. By this point in the race even small stones posed a large risk since I wasn't picking my feet very high off the ground when I ran.

Eventually the sky got less dark, and the we were treated to a beautiful sunrise over the lake.

I thought I would feel better when the sun came up, but no such luck. My legs were in excruciating pain. Every step sent more shards of pain radiating up from my feet. The good thing was that the pain was in both legs and not one spot in particular. This meant that it was only my sore tired body complaining, and not an acute injury.

Towards the end of this section of trail Ian was doing everything he could to keep me moving and get me to run the short downhill stretches.

It's a long way around Turquoise Lake

Then we were on a dirt road. There were some long flat stretches where we ran and walked straight towards the newly risen sun, there was a very steep downhill where I had trouble keeping my feet under me, then there were a few uphills.

Ian looks back as I run towards the sun
Finally we were about a mile from the finish line. My head was down, and I was focusing on the incredibly difficult task of continuing to put one foot in front of the other. Ian was telling jokes.

"What did the buffalo say to his kid when he dropped him off at school? . . .Bi Son!"

Then we got to the top of the hill and could see the finish line down the road. The cheering was loud and the announcer was encouraging us on. I knew we had to run the last bit to the finish.  I contorted my face and forced my feet to run. My downhill pace was probably better measured in miles per minute than minutes per mile, but I forced myself to continue.

The home stretch

Painfully forcing myself to run to the finish
The street was lined with people cheering. I saw Ian's girlfriend Julie on the side holding both of my giant dogs. The dogs didn't recognize me, so I tried not to look at them for fear they would break loose of Julie's grip and come charging onto the course.

Then I saw my beautiful wife Thy, with our beautiful baby boy in the baby bjorn. She came out and joined me. I teared up a bit. I put one arm around Thy and one around Ian, and we ran across the finish line together.

The end of a long 28 hours

My mom was waiting on the other side of the finish line with a camera and a huge smile. She had been up as long as I had just to crew for me. Wow am I lucky!

I finished in 28:13.

Hurting but happy at the finish

Ian the super-pacer with his girlfriend Julie and my yellow lab Ky.  Ian set a PR himself this weekend with the 40 miles he ran with me, since his previous longest run was a 50K (31 miles).  He made it seem easy at the time, always focusing on keeping me moving.  I don't think I would have made it to the finish line alone.
After a stop at the food tent, I headed back to the bleachers with victory beer in hand.  I cheered on the rest of the runners as they came in under the 30 hour cutoff. I'd shared conversations with many of them over the long journey.

The pain and tiredness I was feeling probably prevented me from saying it at the time, but what a great experience!

Victory beer with my family.  Could it get any better?


  1. Absolutely incredible! CONGRATS!

  2. Thank you for sharing in detail your journey out there! Great write up!! Congratulations!! I can't believe there were hippies and an alien on the top of that climb! I would have thought I was dreaming too! :D

  3. You are my crazy husband who will keep me young! Way to go honey!

  4. Great write-up Cory! It was an honor and a privilege to crew for you... What an incredible experience!

  5. Loved being there through your eyes! Congrats on a great race and sticking it out when the going got tough. That emotional high of crossing the finish line knowing you just did something only a few people can is one of the best feelings in the world, no matter how much pain you are in and no matter what the time on the clock is. Well done.

    1. Thanks Ryan! Of course you're right! Let's run this week!

  6. Way to go, Cory! Fantastic write-up. What an amazing accomplishment.