The 2013 Leadville 100 consisted of endless stream of extreme highs and lows. This was my goal race for the year and came in very prepared focusing for months on mountain runs and mixing in some fast flat marathon running to keep my turnover sharp. I had finished the 2011 Leadville 100 in 21:33 while living in NY and based on my training I thought a sub 20hr finish was a reasonable goal this year. The game plan was to run the first 50 miles in 9 hours and run less than 11 hours for the next 50 for a sub 20 hour finishing time and if things went perfectly maybe finish under 19 hours. As is the case at Leadville and many 100 milers; things did not go as planned.
This was the first 100 mile where I had a full crew and pacer set up so I was pretty pumped about this! Ryan Smith who is a fast marathoner and mountain runner was committed to pace the full 50 miles from Winfield to the finish with me. Ryan’s wife Silke Koester raced the Pikes Peak ascent (finished 7th) in the morning and then drove up to crew the rest of the race for me. My friend Malory Peterson crewed the entire race with Ginna Ellis and Heidi Marks helping out in the first half. We all camped out Friday night before the race and woke up to alarms at 2:30am for the 4am race start.
I stuck with my race plan for the first 25 miles going very conservatively reaching the first aid station at 13 miles in 2hrs and coming into mile 25 in 3:53. I knew something was off but couldn’t pinpoint it. My biggest concern going into the race was getting enough calories in my system and I had been eating at least 400 calories an hour; mainly cliff shot blocks and honey stinger waffles. My fluid intake was about 16oz per hour and I was drinking gatorade and water. When I started out from mile 25 I knew something was way off. You start on a flat road which is where I excel yet my legs felt wobbly and I was struggling with my stride. Looking back I should have stopped and really tried to pinpoint what the cause was but instead I just told myself to plow ahead and that the issue would simply “go away”.
I struggled with tired legs for the next 15 miles to the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 40. I wasn’t feeling like eating or drinking anything. My crew packed my bag with some different foods for the 2,500ft climb up Hope Pass which peaks out at 12,600ft. The climb was a disaster. Everything went bad which included my legs seizing up, lightheadedness and nausea. I sat down a few times on the way up but it felt just as bad sitting as it did moving so I kept moving. I made it to the peak at 12,600ft but on the descent is where I totally bottomed out. The Winfield aid station at mile 50 is about 4 miles from the peak and you descend about 2,500ft only then to have to turn around and climb right back to the top of Hope Pass! With about 2 miles of descending to go to the Winfield aid station I had trouble even walking a step. The nausea really set in and I began to dramatically overheat and was sweating profusely. I felt very close to blacking out. I wanted to go into the woods to lie down and pass out but was worried if things went really bad people wouldn’t be able to find me. I ended up seeing a pacer (Neil Alvarado) waiting for his runner on the trail. I decided to lay face down in the weeds across from Neil thinking that if I did black out at least someone would know and could go for help. It was humbling listening to all the footsteps passing by me but refreshing to hear all the offers of help. Neil would tell everyone I was okay and not to worry about it. I managed to sit up after 15 minutes and just sat that way for another 15 minutes. I finally got up and started to move again. I had gone from a goal of racing under 20 hours to worrying if I could even make it the next 2 miles to the Winfield aid station. Every step was pure misery. I eventually dragged myself into Winfield at mile fifty in 11 hours and 18 minutes after I had started with the intention for the first time in my life to quit and DNF.
My pacer Ryan Smith just simply ignored me when I said it was game over and that I was dropping out. I lied down on the cot in a fetal position for about 20 minutes. Ryan brought over some chicken broth, noodles, and saltines and I managed to get a little bit down which was nice because I hadn’t been able to drink or eat anything for at least 2 hours. The weigh in at Winfield was extremely concerning but eye opening. My pre-race weigh in was 143lbs and my weight at mile 50 was 133; I was down 10lbs. I am usually very steady and during events I rarely lose more than 3lbs. I had been eating more than adequate calories for most of the race so it hit me that the weight loss had been coming from fluid loss which meant severe dehydration. The solution on paper seems simple. You just drink a gallon of water or other fluid (which is about 8lbs) and bam you are back to normal. The problem is that the effects of severe dehydration take a while to recover from and even sipping an ounce of water was very difficult to do because my system couldn’t digest or process anything.
After about an hour recovering at Winfield Ryan convinced me to continue. I told him are you sure you want to do this because I plan on being out there another 17 hours and finishing the race in about 29 hours. He said he was totally committed and I was impressed because pacing what I call the “death march”; the slow tortuous all night walk is extremely challenging for a pacer. A little after leaving Winfield we couldn’t find the bag of saltines we packed and Ryan ran back to Winfield to get some more. When Ryan came back I told him the bad news that I had also forgotten my sunglasses so he ran back to Winfield again for me to get those! I went from never having a pacer during my previous 100s to being the most demanding pacer out there. I told Ryan before the race having him pace me would save a half an hour off my time. It turns out having there saved my entire race!
After about a half hour of power hiking back up Hope Pass I started feeling much better. My stomach still had major issues but the lightheadedness went away and my mind came back. The stiffness in my legs began to subside. Ryan had brought a bottle of coke and a bottle of water. I had been sipping on those and the combination of intense sugar, caffeine and fluid had major benefits for me at the time. We began hiking very quickly and towards the peak I began to run again and it felt smooth. We took a picture at the top of Hope Pass and ran the short distance to the “Hopeless” Aid Station.
I was able to get down two cups of this heavenly potato soup and some water as well. I felt phenomenal compared to two hours ago but still had major issues because while the severe dehydration was subsiding the damage it caused would linger such as not being able to stomach real food and having to sip fluids in extremely small doses to avoid nausea and stomach cramping.
The good news was that my legs were back and I told Ryan I was now certain my problems were purely nutritional because my legs felt fresh; I had no muscle fatigue or soreness. We bombed down the mountain cruising it at a really nice pace all the way into mile 60 at Twin Lakes. Malory and Silke were there and it was a huge boost to see them.
I caught up with my friend Ryan Lassen who was racing and had seen me earlier struggling to even hold on. He was shocked to see me looking so much better and we ran a good while together after Twin Lakes. We both were having tough days and it was a huge boost for both of us to see each other fighting and soldiering on. At about mile 62 we left Ryan Lassen. My pacer Ryan and then just began to kill it. We were on a smooth dirt road and my legs felt good so I started picking up the pace running sub 7 minutes miles and definitely hitting a couple miles close to 6 minute pace. I would sip very small amounts of coke and water and eat a couple saltines. We stopped at about mile 68 to go to the bathroom. I had only peed about 3 times all race and (I know this is too much information) I dropped a deuce here as well. I thought doing this would make me feel even better. Unfortunately for some reason emptying out my system magnified my stomach issues. My stomach cramping and pain came back with a vengeance and instead of getting back into our sub 7 minute groove I was struggling again to walk because of the stomach pain. I would try and skip along for a few minutes at a slow pace but any jostling to my stomach would be too painful so I would have to stop and start walking again. Ryan and I did this painful walk/run for the next 7 miles to the Outward Bound aid station at mile 75. Malory and Silke were there and I told Ryan I was immediately going to lie down on a cot and did this for about 15 minutes. I think I may have taken a couple tums here as well. I was out of solutions when Malory suggested what at the time seemed to be a crazy idea. She told me they were grilling hamburgers and asked if I wanted one. I thought about it and said to myself; things can’t get much worse so sure, why not give it a try?! I devoured the burger and asked Malory if she could grab another one for me. After a prolonged stay Ryan and I headed out with warm clothes packed and a burger in my hands for the 5 mile 1000ft climb up what they call the “Powerline” because it is basically a jeep road with power lines overhead. Ryan and I walked, and finished off the hamburger for the mile on roads before powerline. The second burger was definitely more forced down but I knew that while my hydration was coming back slowly there was no way I could run another 25 miles without getting some more intense calories in my system other than saltines! Getting two burgers and buns down which probably totaled 1000 calories seemed much easier than getting down a 1000 calories worth of saltines. The thought of eating was painful so eating two burgers turned out to be like taking a pill and I wouldn’t have to worry or think about eating for a while.
We started to climb powerline which is the beginning is very steep. I was definitely wobbling and looking like an old man going uphill. After about 5 minutes I told Ryan I was dropping on the dirt and taking a nap. I got in a fetal position and laid there for a few minutes. When we got up and started moving I came back to life again! We started power hiking really quickly. The intense stomach pain subsided and I began to actually run up the hill. We had brought all these warm clothes for the climb because it’s high up at about 11,000ft and after midnight so it usually gets very cold. But I was overheating all day just from the being sick feeling and we were running uphill so I actually took off my shirts and we just started hammering away again! We would stop and walk the really steep parts but run everything else up the hill. Once we reached the top of the hill we started killing it down the back side of the mountain to the dirt road. We were probably running close to 6 minute miles again for the 2-3 miles of dirt road which ends when you make a left on a technical trail section of the Colorado Trail. The entire time I went back to my routine of sipping water and coke while nibbling on saltines. My theory at the time was that we needed to go as fast as possible while I felt good because the longer we were out there meant I needed more calories, fluid etc. and it was much more challenging to eat and drink than it was to run 6-7 minutes miles. I came into the race well prepared muscularly and my legs still felt fresh.
We ran the next few dark and rocky trail miles into the May Queen aid station at mile 87. This is where I realized that we actually had a chance to break 25 hours and still win the sub 25 hour Leadville finisher’s belt buckle. It was well off my original goal but the sub 25 hour buckle is still a major accomplishment and I would definitely take major pride in earning it. Silke was waiting for us at May Queen but Malory was actually sleeping in the car because they didn’t expect us for at least another hour! We were flying. I didn’t even want to take a minute to fool around at May Queen. It was 2am and we had to run the next 13 miles in under 3 hours to finish in less than 25 hours and earn the belt buckle. Ryan and I basically took everything out of his pack. I left my backpack at the aid station. We only brought a bottle of coke and two bottles of water and saltines for the next 13 miles. I said it’s all or nothing Ryan. We are going to run fast and purely on fumes and if I crash again so be it; we will just have to walk it in.
The last 13 miles consists of a 7 mile single track trail along Turquoise Lake and then 6 miles of dirt roads which includes a pretty tough 3 mile climb to the finish line in Leadville. Ryan and I started cruising at a steady pace on the trail. It was too technical and rocky to run 7 minute pace but we were moving pretty well; probably around 9-10 minute pace. I lied in the dirt one time for about 3 minutes which definitely helped boost me up a little bit. The trail seemed never-ending though! It was dark, twisting and quiet. I was so nervous the stomach pains would come back which would basically paralyze me again and I knew we had to go fast because I basically stopped eating or drinking anything except small sips of coke and water because of fear of upsetting my stomach. We definitely were running on fumes!
The dark, twisting trail finally ended at mile 95 and we came upon a dirt road. I started really letting it out here. My whole body was tired and exhausted but my legs honesty felt fresh and we started running sub 7 minutes miles again. At mile 97 we turned up the hill which would take us into town. We walked for a minute or two and I think Ryan expected we were going to hike the rest of the way in. I decided to start running again and for the next 3 miles we never stopped. We were killing it up this hill. I am not sure of the pace but we were in full tempo stride for 3 miles to the finish; it was incredible!
Ryan and I crossed the finish line at 4:31am for a time of 24 hours 31 minutes which earned me a belt buckle and put me in 115th place for the race.
Without Ryan I think I would have finished just under 30hrs or potentially DNFd. Ryan had the toughest pacing job imaginable. He not only ran 50 miles but had to go through dramatic fluctuations ranging from barely walking to suddenly running 6 minutes miles. I don’t know anyone else who would have stuck it out with me for 50 miles in those conditions!
My whole crew was there for the finish and we were all smiles. It had been a day of extreme highs and lows but we all made the best of what was far from an ideal scenario and I don’t think anyone will forget the experience.