2013 Leadville 100: Running the Unknown

Unknown. This was my feeling on the days before the race, and unknown meant to me a lot of excitement mixed with fears. Overall, this was going to be my first 100 miler attempt and, while the reason I run is because is it makes me happy, I have to admit there is a good amount of competition within myself.

Mike Randall with his family and his pacers (Matt and Andres), Ryan Lassen with his dad, Chris, and pacers and I all stayed together in Leadville on the days before the race, thanks Mike :-)! The emotions were getting more and more vivid and we all were very eager to start. And after a 2am pre-race breakfast (more like a feast!) we set off!

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Rocky Mountain Runners t-shirts and bibs (Alberto
left, Ryan right).T-shirt designed by Leila Degrave.

The first 23.5 miles (start to Fish Hatchery AS) went pretty easily running conservatively and chatting with my good friend Ryan Lassen. After a quick stop at the AS I was back running with a mental intermediate goal to get to Twin Lakes (miles 39.5). The first 3 miles were on flat paved road and at this point I started feeling something wasn’t going too well. Both Ryan and I felt the toll from the pounding of the hard surface but my legs kept being heavy and fatigued even after the course turned into a non-technical fairly flat soft trail. Here is were I questioned (many times) whether I was really ready to complete an 100 miler of this caliber. However, I was very motivated to keep going, I got to know my body very well with months of fun (and hard) training and I was confident that I had at least 50 miles on my legs in this terrain. All I was trying to focus on at this point of the race was to get the turnaround (Winfield AS, 50 miles) and then eventually make the call there.

Getting in at the Twin Lakes AS (39.5 miles) was disorienting, there were people everywhere. All I wanted was to get a mental and physical break, whereas I felt lost and confused! Trying to figure out my way through the crowd I spotted Ryan Smith (a green RMR t-shirt was the best idea ever!) that told me I was looking great, my answer was pretty straightforward: “I feel like s**t”. Suddenly, I could hear the voice of Kristen, my crew member, calling me and soon after I spotted her and my pacer Ben. I wasn’t planning on meeting them there so this was a very pleasant surprise for me!

Still a bit worried about my physical and mental weakness I got back to running heading to the 3000+ ft climb over the North side of Hope Pass. I never considered myself a strong climber and I knew this was going to be a long hard climb, so I decided to take this easily. I set my steady power-hiking pace and I kept going up, up and up. Almost unexpectedly, at about one third of the climb I found myself in a good physical and mental state. The altitude was beating me up but I wasn’t in that lethargic state anymore and I was highly motivated to fight back and get the (first) crossing of Hope Pass over: the less time I would spend at this altitude the better it would be for me. Sadly, here is were my friend Ryan, whom I always considered an incredibly good climber, started to have issues. I was feeling good and wanted to take full advantage of my “high” sure that Ryan would catch me soon, so I kept going up, up and up!

Going up the South Side of Hope Pass. Photo: Ben Barthe

Going up the South Side of Hope Pass. Photo: Ben Barthe

Finally I got on the downhill side of Hope Pass which would take me to the turnaround point. In an attempt to save my quads for later in the day (at this point I had another 55 miles to go!), I took a comfortable pace down. Soon I met my friend Cassie who seemed super happy to see me and gave me some good words of support; however, she also told me that our friend Mike Oliva wasn’t doing well. I caught Mike a few switchbacks down and he told me that it was game over for him. I jogged with him for few minutes encouraging and pushing him to keep going, that he would soon be back in the game if only he had run with me for a bit. I know how strong Mike is but he seemed totally unmotivated to move on. I wish I could have done more at this point for Mike, but his face was clear enough: “Alberto move on, I’m out”.

On top of Hope Pass with my pacer, Ben. Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake on the far back, that's where I came from and that's where we are going to!

On top of Hope Pass with my pacer, Ben. Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake on the far back, that’s where I came from and that’s where we are going to!

The Winfield AS was, again, a big crowd everywhere and I had no idea where to go, luckily my friend Leila spotted me (I believe thanks tho the awesome t-shirt she designed!) and directed me to the medical check-in and through the AS. There I met again my crew member Kristen who was ready to help me and my pacer Ben was pumped to take me back up Hope Pass. At this time I was dealing with an intense headache likely due to the altitude and the baking sun. However, the idea to have somebody with me (should I say for me?) on the remaining part of the journey was very reassuring. Ben and I power-hiked the whole climb up the South side of Hope Pass. I moaned every single step, complaining how steep and never ending that climb was. I agreed with Ben that only if I made it to the finish line would he be allowed to tell everybody how much I complained! Hitting tree line was a game changer: first I knew where I was going because I could finally see the Pass, second it made me even more aware of the “danger” to spend more time up there where the hemoglobin saturation (one’s ability to bind oxygen in the red blood cells) is reduced by almost 50%. Once we reached the Pass, we snapped a quick photo (clearly looking tired!) and I told Ben we would need to get at lower altitude as soon as possible. He flew ahead of me to the Hopeless AS and refilled my bottles and grabbed few gels; the goal was not to stop until we reached the bottom (9200 ft) where we could eventually rest a bit, with more oxygen. Again, the pace I set was comfortable to save my legs (still 45 miles to go…) but we never stopped, with Ben carefully taking care of all my nutritional and liquid needs (but he didn’t have toilet paper…later on a photographer saved my race with some Subway napkins!!)

One of the very few moments of relaxation during the race. Nothing better than cold water to refresh my tired legs! Photo: Silke Koester

One of the very few moments of relaxation during the race. Nothing better than cold water to refresh my tired legs! Photo: Silke Koester

At the river crossing we met with Silke who, as always, was super supportive and pumped me to keep going as strongly as I could! I took a quick dunk into the cold river to refresh my legs and mind and off we were again headed to the Twin Lakes AS. Here I met my girlfriend Chiara, my crew members Kristen and Pam and my other two pacers, Dan and Marty.

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Ben and I getting to Twin Lakes #2. Happy to see the crew cheering for us! Photo: Chiara Babolin

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Carbing up at Twin Lakes #2. left to right: Ben, Marty, me and Chiara.

They all cheered me up and told that I was still looking relaxed (I disagreed!). I ate some solid food, changed shoes and took off right away…my pacer Dan seemed like he couldn’t wait one more second to start running! We power-hiked the first climb (1200+ ft) with easy runs on the less steep sections to keep the muscles loose. Reaching the top of the climb was another game changer. With the sun slowly hiding behind the peaks, the temperature started to drop and the air seemed more humid. Soaking my head few times on the creeks and the cooler air made my headache to go away. We were at “just” 10500 ft which compared to Hope Pass seemed to be a huge difference to me. We had passed several people and that helped me stay positive. My legs on the flats and downhill weren’t feeling too bad. In few words, I was feeling quite well. I remembered my friend Mike Oliva saying that this is a section were if you have legs, you better use them. The next section will be a solid climb (Powerline) that you are gonna have to power-hike anyway (unless you are a sub-20 finisher) and then after it the adrenaline will take you home, in Leadville. Mike is a solid runner and a wise guy. Game on! We started moving at an average pace of 10-12 min/miles which felt really good knowing that I already had a solid 65 miles and 15h 30min on them! I was still moaning every single step but the feeling that Dan and I were making miles so quickly energized me and I just wanted to keep that momentum, the long searched “zone”, going on for as long as possible. We decided to keep the pace as solid as possible until the next aid station (Half Pipe at mile 70) and then rest there while getting some real food. I looked at my watch and estimated about 1 miles left so we decided to kill it…it turned out it was at least 3 miles away! We rested for 2-3 minutes at the AS where I also met again Leila smiling as always! Few miles later I was supposed to meet my crew again at the Half Pipe Crew Zone. I was desperately craving for a mango and some more tasty food, and needed to take care of a blister and my knee which started to ache badly. Dan and I kept running in the dark through the long line of cars looking for them until we reached the last car, where all my hopes vanished: I was in a bad mental spot. It turned out that the organizers closed one road so my crew could not get there and they were waiting for me at the beginning of the paved road, about 1 mile from where I was. Their warm and cheerful presence was a boost of mental energy, however, I was worried to get into the paved road section – again scared that it would have the same effect as it did hours earlier in the day. There was only one way out, run it, and do it as quickly as possible. The road to Fish Hatchery seemed never ending, we could see the lights, but it seemed they were moving away from us. Once we got there, my whole crew was there and many friends from the RMR group, everybody doing their best to support me. This is ultrarunning!

Fish Hatchery #2, where I picked up my last pacer, Marty. He clearly hasn't realized yet the hard job he will have to do to keep me moving! In the meantime, Chiara is trying to keep me motivated and positive. Silke (cut on the far right) is updating me on my friends' status. Photo: Pam Harvey.

Fish Hatchery #2, where I picked up my last pacer, Marty. He clearly hasn’t realized yet the hard job he will have to do to keep me moving! In the meantime, Chiara is trying to keep me motivated and positive. Silke (cut on the far right) is updating me on my friends’ status. Photo: Pam Harvey.

I was tired, heavy and started to feel mentally exhausted. But I had to be fair and honorable to myself: at this point more than anything else I had to recognize how lucky I was that I had got this far, 77 miles, without any major breakdown. Pain only hurts, let’s keep going. I told my next and last pacer, Marty, to be ready because it was going to be a long night. I had this very tangible thought in the back of my mind that at some point, likely sooner than later, something in my body would stop working. We hiked the whole Powerline section (1200+ ft climb), taking advantage of the slow pace to eat and drink as much as I could. I was getting tired of the slow pace but I could not push any harder on this uphill. As soon as we got to the top, I immediately started jogging to feel the motion throughout my body. Jogging first and then finally running again on the downhill. Marty pushed me to run a bit faster than what I wanted to, but just enough below that threshold that would have broken me down: somehow he dragged me into the “flow”. I told him to stop talking to me if we wanted to keep this pace (10-11 min/mile), all I could do was just to focus on my feet. As hard as it was to keep myself moving, it felt amazing to realize what I was doing. We kept passing people over and over and that helped me to stay focused and positive. We got to the May Queen AS much earlier than predicted, Marty sprinted to refill the bottles and stock some gels. My friend Andy helped me to get some warm food and Chiara gave me some of my favorite snacks and told me I was looking great, better than on the earlier station. At this point, we only had 13.5 miles to go, no major climb (as far as I could remember…) and the idea that this whole 100 miles thing was happening energized me. We left the AS and for two miles we kept moving as fast as could, jogging the up, killing the down. We were both super excited and I felt full of energy. We looked at the watch and decided to add an extra challenge to the big challenge: a sub-23 finish. That meant 10 miles in about 1h 45min, a 10 min/mile pace. Very soon, however, things changed drastically. At about 92 miles in, I felt too tired to keep moving. My every step moaning noise, which accompanied me for the whole 50 miles back, became louder and louder, to a point it was annoying to hear even to myself. The only thing that motivated me to push forward was to see headlamps ahead of me, when the competitive instinct to pass them would give me 30-60 seconds of energy to run, pass them and gain some gap. But there were too many, one after the other, and then again. I was hoping that nobody else would be in front of me, because I did not want to move any faster. At 95 miles things really changed again. I had no physical limits that kept me from moving forward, my running form was still efficient and Marty was there to help me. But my brain shut down. After 95 miles and almost 23 hours in my brain could not handle this anymore. I told Marty I wanted to stop and rest, he said it was not going to happen. I repeated it, he answered the same way. All my brain wanted was to lay down on the dirt and sleep. All my muscles wanted was the input to run. All my heart wanted was to take me to the finish line. Heart, muscle, brain are the three components you need in an ultra like this. Whenever one of them is missing, it’s game over. Unless the other two do the extra duty, and my heart said I was not going to quit at this point. I tried so many times to run, I really wanted to run and I knew my body could run, but after few seconds my brain would take control over my body again and stop me. It was new and unreal to experience such feelings. It felt like I had lost the symphony of my body, I wasn’t anymore one synchronized unit but something disorganized, heart and muscles fighting against my brain. This agony went on throughout the last three uphill miles that separated me from the finish. Two people tried to pass me about half a mile from the finish, I hadn’t been passed by a single person in the last 40 miles and Marty told me that I could not let them do it. I let them go, I couldn’t care less. Marty did an incredible good job to keep me walking and we finally hit the road where I met my other two pacers, Ben and Dan, waiting for us. We walked together up 6th Street and then jogged and then ran… under the finish line!

Crossing the finish line at mile 100 with all of my incredible pacers (left to right): Marty, Alberto, Ben and Dan. Photo: Kristen Barthel.

Crossing the finish line at mile 100 with all of my incredible pacers (left to right): Marty, Alberto, Ben and Dan. Photo: Kristen Barthel.

There were to many emotions to be described. Hugging Chiara as strongly as I could, proud of what I accomplished, infinitely thankful for how she supported me and seeing her proud of me is my best moment of the whole race.

So many emotions in just one hug! Photo: Silke Koester

So many emotions in just one hug! Photo: Silke Koester

I am wholeheartedly thankful to Chiara, to my pacers Ben, Dan, Marty and to my crew members Kristen and Pam. To my friends, who also raced, Ryan Lassen, Mike Randall and Mike Oliva for sharing exciting moments pre, during and post race. To the RMR group for the training and support. To myself, for giving me such an awesome birthday present!

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Never been so tired and likely never been so proud! Photo: Chiara Babolin.

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Ben, me, Marty and Dan. My pacers worked incredibly hard to take me to the finish line. Photo: Silke Koester

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Mike Oliva and I proud of our earned gold buckle! Photo: Silke Koester

 

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