26 Aug 11 by James Elson

Leadville 100 2011

Leadville had always been high up on my list of dream races. As it was we flew out to the mountains, the Tuesday before the race and I was beaten up from a weekend of high stress and almost no sleep at our NDW races. I had finished sweeping the course in darkness on the Monday night having run the last 17 miles with a pack and a pair of scissors clearing everything from the trail.

A good friend of mine, Hully, who had come over to London from Sydney to run the NDW, was flying out also to crew for me through Leadville After a 10 hour flight, we touched down in Denver and he drove us the 4 hours up in to the mountains. Our accommodation for this one was a huge house situated just off of the main street, which we were sharing with Drew Sheffield and Tim Adams, two British ultra runners with bags of experience. When we arrived we hit the sack almost immediately in our designated room, a huge children’s bedroom up in the loft space complete with 4 separate single beds, some kids desks, a VHS player and an 80s TV.

Leadville, Colorado, prides itself as being the highest incorporated city in America at 10,152 feet above sea level - to be honest there isn't a lot more to say about it other than that. I’d been to the Rockies twice before and struggled both times to breath during sleep the first couple of nights. This time was no different and I woke up a few times gasping for breath. It sounds dramatic but it is pretty disconcerting waking up and having to think about breathing… Hully drove Tim, Drew and I over to Twin Lakes the following day and we spent some time messing about on the stretch that serves as mile 40 – 43 and 57 – 60 on the out and back route. This section is the lowest point on the course at 9000 feet above sea level, but in the midday heat it felt very hard to get moving. Running at altitude was clearly going to be a major issue and we hadn't really left time to acclimatise properly so it was all about just going for it with everything we had. All of the pre race literature suggested coming out to Leadville for 3 weeks prior to the race but that just isn't feasible for normal humans. Out on the trails we took it really easy, made our way over and back through the knee high river crossing, as we would do on race day, and aborted the climb up Hope Pass after all of 200 yards. Thank god we didn’t go any higher as if I’d gone back to Leadville knowing what was actually in store for us on race day I would maybe have had a panic attack. After an hour or so messing about on the trails we drove up to 12,000 feet and lazed about (Drew didn’t – he hiked up to 13,000 feet) to try and help speed up the acclimatisation process.

Thursday we hit registration and weighed in, then attended a pasta dinner at which the legend that is Marshall Ulrich gave us a quick talk through some of his Leadville experiences and his book 'Running on Empty'. Marshall's most outstandingly insane feat was having completed Leadville in 21 hours, before driving to Pike's Peak to run the Marathon there the same day.  Drew managed to get him to give James Adams, a friend of ours currently just 4 days from completing the LA to NY footrace, a call on his mobile. That left only the pre race briefing for Friday which was, as usual with US 100s, way too long and overblown but gave me a chance to catch up with a few people from the Grand Slam.

It was awesome to finally be traveling to a big race with a good group of guys once again. It’s been a couple of years since we finished the 4Deserts as a team of 5 and in the interim I have travelled to the States 7 times to run 100s, mostly on my own. At each race I meet up with US runners whom I’ve got to know over the years, but sharing a big house made the whole pre race preamble that much more enjoyable.

Race morning came around and we got up at 3am. I like to leave the house at the last possible minute and was delighted to find that Tim and Drew were happy to do the same. I’m not overexagerrating when I say that we locked the front door ar 3:57am, 3 minutes before race start. We jogged to the back of the crowd, the shot gun blast came and off we went without pause. No time to get cold!

Tim shot off pretty much straight away, I don’t mind admitting that I did fear he would go too hard too early in his first 100 but he went on to totally blitz the course in an incredible debut. I knew that Drew and I would be there or there abouts all day and although we hadn’t spoken about running together we started off at a similar pace. With the help of some early bathroom breaks, we got split up within that first 13.5 mile section and cruised in to Aid Station 1: Mayqueen, just a minute or so apart. The three of us wouldn’t be more than an hour apart for the next 25 – quite incredible in a race of this length.

Those who read my Western States blog will know that I found it incredibly tough because I thrashed my quads to pieces inside the first 20 miles. On a 100 mile course with a net downhill of 23000 feet in total, that isn’t good planning. The first 13 miles of Leadville were downhill and flat but on a low grade, making time disappear. I left Mayqueen at 13.5 in about 2:25 and made my way up Sugarloaf mountain with Micah True, otherwise known as Caballo Blanco from the book ‘Born to Run’. He had a steady gait, running the hills but pacing only as fast as I could power hike. For a guy who is pushing the years now he is in great shape but man he did not smell good and after an hour or so of running with him I had to push on. A lot of people ran past me at the bottom of Sugarloaf giving me the ‘Jeez dude you’re walking NOW, there is NO WAY you will finish if you are walking here!!!!’ kind of look. Well I’m finally becoming a bit more experienced at 100 mile races (this was my 8th)  and I trusted my judgement.

Sure enough in the 4 mile climb I ate back the crowd that came past me lower down who were forced into a walk by the later stages. The descent down powerline the other side is a steep and rocky/ rutted trail but I flew down it. The confidence in my downhill running was slowly returning, it’s always been the best part of my game and is the reason I have managed my better results in steeper trail races. I cruised down into the Fish Hatchery aid station at mile 23.5 in good shape and hully met me there with some more gels and a bag of cheese cubes - pure gold. I was still eating and drinking well out on to the 4 mile stretch of road to Half Pipe Aid Station and cruised all the way into Twin Lakes at mile 39.5 after a long grinding climb and an awesome quick 3 mile descent.

Down the Hill into Twin Lake

The first 40 miles of the course had been forgiving, straight forward running in reasonable temperatures and with the help of Hully crewing me at each place, I had kept on top of nutrition and hydration. I realised I was finally starting to have a good 100 mile race, I had never had one before and I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear.

I came down the iconic little bit of rocky trail into Twin Lakes outbound, had a quick pitstop to eat a bagel, some bananas, coke and crammed my pockets full of gels, crisps and sandwiches for the climb up Hope Pass. I also grabbed my poles. I wasn’t sure that I’d need them but in the end they were a big help in the section before I ditched them again at mile 60. On route to Hope Pass there are three water crossings and once significant river pass which soaked sore feet and left debris in our shoes. I pushed on and began the ascent of Hope which runs from 9000 – 12,600 feet in the space of 4 miles or so. Up and down is where I do best and I was immediately disappointed to find that on a stretch that everyone was forced to power hike, I lost ground to the dozen or so people around me. I couldn’t work out what was going wrong but I think on reflection that the altitude was finally starting to bite me a bit. The climb up Hope begins in the woods before breaking out into Mountain meadows at the top as you creep above the treeline and I knew I was nearing the aid station ‘Hopeless’ just shy of the summit, when I saw a runaway llama, used for fast packing the aid equipment up to the summit being chased by a volunteer. I came into the aid station and grabbed the same level of food as I had at Twin Lakes and moved straight on up the grinding last 600 feet to the top of the pass. Up here were just scree slopes and falling grass. Everything looked exactly as the photos of Hardrock do and it made me realise how much I want to run that race. The altitude really came in to play up here though and it was noticeably even harder to breath up there than down at the Lakes.

Just before I crested the mountain Ryan Sandes the men’s leader and eventual winner cruised back down the hill, paced by Anna Frost and we made way for them as they streamed away from us. Roughly 9 very hilly miles up on me by then it was actually a much better situation than I’d expected on no training. The descent into Winfield was totally unexpected and brutal. The pitch of the slope that side of Hope is something people don’t warn you about. It drops hard and fast and is pretty technical in places. At the bottom we were spat out on to the road for a 2 mile dusty run into Winfield Aid Station at mile 50, which I reached in around 11 hours. A great foundation to build on.

Winfield Mile 50: More Cheese

To think as I weighed in at that point, that I had to travel back to the point at which I’d started wasn’t anywhere near as horrendous as I’d anticipated and preapared for. I felt shitty for sure but I had a good feed, visited the gents, ate two more bananas, headed out onto the road and began the run back down to where we came off of the mountain. Leadville’s sting in the tail is the fact that it is an out and back and the climb back up the near side of Hope was twice as severe as the front side, made worse by the fact that it had begun to rain and I was getting cold. I was passing a lot of people still headed towards Winfield at this stage. The cut off to get there was 14 hours and some were cutting it fine.

The climb broke me twice on the way back up the mountain. I pushed as hard as I could without red lining but it was almost impossible to stay under the threshold and keep moving at any kind of pace. I wasn’t in a hurry but I didn’t want to labour up something that would slow burn my reserves. I did reach a balance but whether psychological or otherwise, I was struggling to get my breathing rate down by the top of the pass. Down the other side once again I pushed straight through Hopeless and ran most of the way down the back side of Hope towards the rivers and Twin Lakes once again, this time at Mile 60.

I came in to Twin Lakes in significantly worse shape than when I’d left it earlier but was still eating and drinking well and felt like I had gas in the tank for the last 40 miles. My one issue was that I was without a pacer and ideally wanted one for the long night ahead. As soon as I began climbing the short rocky ascent out of Twin Lakes, a huge bearded runner in a chequered shirt stormed up behind me with a pacer bib on. I asked him where his runner was and he mentioned he didn’t have one so was just headed off on his own accord. I asked him if he’d perhaps want to stick with me and to my utter delight he responded yes. The guys name was Brian Ricketts and he’d just come off a finish at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and wanted a long training run before Wasatch in 3 weeks time. I’d struck gold much as I did with my pacer Jeff at Western States in that Brian had paced here before. We climbed up out of Twin Lakes and burned at a great pace all the way down to Half Pipe and Mile 70. I had to take a pit stop on route but other than that we ran pretty much the whole thing and I felt great.

Things only started to unravel once we hit Half Pipe, I quite quickly fell nauseous and just as we pulled in to the mile long stretch of people parked up watching runners come through, I started hurling. I puked most of the stretch whilst continuing to walk, silencing a lot of the clapping and cheering, but once I’d finished I said sorry to everyone and got a huge cheer which was pretty nice.

Brian and I ground out the 4 mile road section into Fish Hatchery Mile 76.5 and dropped the mile or so to the base of Power Line, the final climb in the story. Power Line is a brute of a hill, it is steep, rutted, uneven and worst of all has 4 false summits pushing you on higher every time you think you’ve finished the climbing. At the top I felt ropey and it was with a grimace that we shuffled down the other side. I noticed at this point that Brian was easily able to keep up with my running pace by walking but I stuck it out, tried not to look across at him and kept up the ultra shuffle. We then hit the single track and dropped down to May queen with just 13.5 left to go. I was very cold by this stage and knew that I had to get my core temperature up otherwise I may just manage to mess all the hard work up in the final throws. I grabbed some blankets and a chair and hully got me massive plate of pancakes and syrup and some hot coffee. I knew I had no hope of busting 25 hours at that point but also that I’d finish in good time so I spent about 20 minutes there getting back on track. I don’t think I’ve ever been at an aid station for as long (without being held back medically) so it felt weird and wrong but so good at the same time.

Pancakes at May Queen. The stuff of dreams

Brian and I pushed on around Turqouise Lake which seemed to be neverending in the dark. When we finally came back out on to the road we could see a trail of headlamps back 6 miles behind us. We hit a steep descent where inexplicably the organisers had a photographer out at 5am in the pitch black shooting us coming through, and then began the slow climb from the 95 mile marker up to the finish, ascending all the way on dirt roads that we’d left town on 26 hours ago. We crested the final summit and could see the finish line back on the main street of the town ahead. I was trying to look out for Hully at that point so that we could finish the three of us together, but he was nowhere to be seen. It turns out we ran straight past him and he waited an hour and a half after I’d finished before coming back to the house to find us there. Whoops. Brian and I crossed the line in 26 hours 29 minutes to a small crowd and a very loud speaker. Finally done and a good race in the bag.

I loved this race – but primarily because I felt so good for 71% of it ( I can be precise because the nausea and vomiting came on very suddenly and undid everything as usual!). Much like Western it is a runners course and the 30 hour cut is a tough one to meet. In the end I finished 114th out of about 627 starters. Only 50 finished for a 56% finisher rate and 100 of them were in the final hour. Drew and Tim both squeezed in under the 25 hour barrier for a three from three.

I owe this one to Hully, Brian and Tim and Drew, a great trip and thoroughly recommended. One word of warning though, we had blue skies almost throughout. If it had rained, this race would have gone from very hard to almost impossible. This isn’t Western States or Vermont, this is a mountain race and the weather can turn fast. All through the night preceeding the race we were in a huge thunderstorm with driving rain and freezing temps. Thank the lord we raced Saturday instead of Friday….

In case anyone is wondering, I would say on edge that Western States is slightly harder than Leadville, but there is very little to choose.....

For now that's it for my racing season. I have been injured for 8 months and need to give my body a decent recovery period so that I can get back on track for 2012. I would like to say it has been a total disaster of a year, but being able to finish both WS and Leadville in one summer is as much as I could have hoped for given two stress fractures and almost zero run training. It has been a year to remember in as much as I have learned a lot once again but am very grateful for being able to do what I have this year despite everything.