Thursday, August 25, 2011

RR: 2011 Leadville Trail 100

2011 Leadville Trail 100
August 20-21, 2011
Leadville, CO
(View The Video HERE)
I think all that needs to be said about my thoughts heading into this race have been said in previous posts on this blog. To recap, I ran in the 2010 Leadville 100 as part of the Grand Slam of Ultra-Running. After running in the Western States 100 and the Vermont 100; after a season of lackluster training.. I showed up in Leadville, terrified and tired. From there, the wheels feel off around every turn and after 61 miles of running, I was pulled from the course for missing an aid station cut-off by 15 minutes. My quest for the Grand Slam wear over.. and for the next year Id live with the personal pain and torment of my first DNF via. Time Reaper.

This years race was all about Redemption. I trained hard for the last 4 months, awaiting my shot at Leadville once again. I had many omens heading into this years race. A night of horrendous Thunderstorms heading into the morning of the race. Meeting up with a runner who was actually at the finish line of my first 100, cheering me on (though he doesn't remember). Wearing bib number 495, the same number of the Interstate highway I'd travelled so many times back East. There were a number of great omens and at this years starting line.. I was prepared mentally and physically. This.. is my story of redemption and how I sought it out, fought it out, and walked away from Leadville Colorado with a new belt buckle in hand.

The Start
What a difference a year makes. Standing under the darkness of the early morning hours, I felt strong and magically ready. A far cry from how I felt last year, at this same hour, on this same street. Last year being tired, terrified, annoyed.. unmotivated. This year I'm motivated, I'm rested, I'm trained, I'm ready. I hang out with my new friend Tim Urbine who has lined up for his first, and likely only, 100 mile race. He looks nervous, he's quiet, and in a bad mood. Maybe it's just focus??.. later I'd find out it was G.I. issues. I said yellow to Nate Sanel as he walked to the front of the line, the front of the line which is all of 20 yards away. Last year I was at the very very back of the line... shivering and scared. This year, my bull horns are on and I'm ready to get this on. I talk with John Fegyveresi, a runner from back east who makes me feel right at home. He encourages me, tells me they missed me at Vermont, and now I'm fired up. And just then.. we count it down..the gun goes off.. and the mass of runners is bounding down 6th Street in Leadville, CO.

I try my very best to not get caught up in the excitement of the race. I watched, as always, as a few hundred first timers take off like it's a 10K. I know better and stop to walk that first short hill on 6th. Those of us who know, know that this race is long and we've only just begun. After the hill, I finally settle in to my race stride. I'm comfortable and loose. Breathing calmly and never going aerobic. These points would prove the most important as I continue to make my way out to the 50 mile turn-around. Patience. Tim and I hoped to run together, but he kept checking out his watch. I don't wear a watch.. and it was driving me a bit crazy. So I leave him back a bit and just run comfortably. My plan for this first section is to make it to May Queen by 2:00-2:30 into the race. This would allow me the chance to be ahead of the cut-offs as we really start to duke it out.

We run past Sugar Loafin' Campground and then make our way up a steep hill. I find myself next to Cindy Stonesmith, a popular and FAST ultra-runner from my new town here in Colorado. We had a really nice conversation as I marvel at her efficiency. She's so comfortable and smooth. In trying to keep up with her I kept feeling my heart rate jump up. I didn't want this, so I stopped for a bio break and let her get on by. What little time I had with her I greatly enjoyed. After this hill I found myself running along the shores of Turquoise Lake. A light breeze was causing waves to crash calmly amongst the shore-line rocks. We could see a dense fog bank nestled over the top of the lake. I have more conversation with a Navy Boy who is quite perturbed by the runner behind him, who has now step on his heels 3 times in the last mile. This infuriated the Navy Boy and I thought for sure we were gonna see a show.. though cooler heads prevailed and the heel stomper took off running.
I was enamored by the number of runners out there who were running this race in a pair of the Hoka's. These shoes really interest me. They look ridiculous.. and not enough, qualitative, peer-reviewed research has been done to prove their effectiveness. What I spotted early though was that most runners in them were over-pronating and had their toes facing in.. like being pigeon toed. This isn't healthy for sure and I was interested in seeing how this played out. And then, there we were. Off of the lake and running down the camp road to May Queen Campground. Someone shouted out "2:18!" I knew we were 2 hours and 18 minutes into the race and I was actually right in the middle of where I wanted to be. But for some reason it felt fast.

I ran through the aid tent, picking up what fruit and bagel I could on my way through. After running out and down the road I spotted my crew. Sarah and Ray were ready with my waist pack. I took the old one off and threw the new one right on. I made sure I had everything and sucked down a few gels. I watched as Laura Bleakley Ran on by. Her legs are covered in mud and I yelled, "You're not supposed to be that dirty yet!" She came back to drop her headlamp off with my crew and she started to explain to me how she'd fallen 4 times all ready. "What the hell is wrong with you?!" was my response. I then followed her up the short paved road and into the woods.

After ducking back into the woods I found myself huffing and puffing up a steeper single track trail. Some folks are wanting to run, I'm still just wanting to power hike. So I do my own thing and tune everyone out. Laura and I leap-frog back and forth a few times before she eventually just takes off running herself. We pop out of the woods and onto a high mountain road.. a forest road it seems... and we begin to wind our way up and over Sugarloaf Mountain. As I climbed this winding hill I was blown away by the continuously rising sun and how it's rays war reflecting off of Turquoise Lake a thousand feet below. Mist slowly rose above the Lakes waters only to have my eyes ripped away from the scene by the sheer mass of mountains that rise above this lush green valley.

As I climb the hill, I meet up with a guy named John. John and I met at this same exact location during last years run and yet.. here we were again. I was determined to run with this guy, stride for stride as long as I could this year since he dropped me pretty early last year. John is a Science teacher from Grand Junction, CO and probably one of the nicest Colorado Folks I've met yet in the Ultra-scene. John and I immediately fall into conversation as we wind our way to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain and then down the other side. The run down is called "Power Line." John tells me about how killer it was for him last year on his return trip to Leadville. After a few miles of downhill, quad punishing running, I knew what he meant. I was now dreading the run back myself. We popped out onto a road where I spotted two friends from back in New England. Amy Lane and Bryan Ruzecki were here to cheer someone on, surely not me and yet they did anyway. I got a hung and a hand shake as we walked a bit up the road towards Fish Hatchery. It was so great to see old friends from back in New England who offered up some of the very best subtle motivation I could get.
I filled John in to who they were as we continued on down the road. It wasn't long that we were running up the hill into the Fish Hatchery Aid Station. We checked in, grabbed fists full of fuel and headed down for our crews. I figured John's was in closer then mine so I went right for them. Once again, Sarah got me all squared away while Ray was taking a quick nap to catch up on some sleep. I was in an out of the second crew stop on this course in less then 3 minutes. Things are clicking well for my crew and I and I can't ask for anything more. I look up and see John come around the corner and we're off together. His crew-person gives me a tylenol to cure a headache I woke up with and a few miles later I realize it worked.

Pound It
John and I head off down the hill out of Fish hatchery and then down across what I consider to be the toughest and most vital section of this course. After getting slightly ahead of the cut-offs heading into May Queen, and hanging on for the ride into Fish hatchery, this road section is the next imperative section where a runner is required to push to get a little further ahead of the cut-offs. So John and I continue our conversation and match each other stride for stride through this section.At the end of the road, we climb a short hill and run into a place called Tree-line. This is the next spot our crews can meet us and it's all of 3 miles from Fish Hatchery. This stop is nothing more then a parking area filled with crew cars. John spots his wife and swigs down some water. I call for Sarah to bring me the same. I take the water and drink a bit before heading back off into the woods.
Back in the woods we work our way through a hot open area and quickly make it into the Half-Pipe aid station. John and I walk in and grab some food. I stop to refill my bottles worth fresh water and energy drink. Another runner has come in and he's describing to a documentary film crew what exactly he's doing. What a pain in the ass that has to be.. and then I realize that where they're stationed is also a pain in the ass. I can't get around so I run through and John and I continue on down the trail. This next section is where the "work" has come to a pause and it's time to just get comfortable. We settle in together and take our time walking up the steeper hills and running every step that we comfortably can. The evergreen forest quickly turns to the aspen grove. We run along this amazingly lush roller-coaster chipping away at folks that are ahead of us the whole time. But soon I feel my stomach turn and I need to run to the woods. When he isn't looking, I duck into the bushes and take care of business. I would't see John again for a few hours.

I now run alone down a long and winding series of banked turns. I run right through the Mt. Elbert aid station without even stopping, knowing that Twin Lakes is just below. The sun is blazing down on my from overhead and it's hot. I'm making sure to take my time running downhill into Twin Lakes, so that I don't destroy my quads with so much race left to go. I pick my way down the hill, unsure of what time it is, and I determine that I'd like to find out. A fellow runner tells me it's nearly noon and then asks, "You got somewhere to be?" "Yeah... 6th and Harrison." I continue down into Twin Lakes where I check in, grab some lunch type foods and then look for my crew. I run through this small village and across the Highway to where I see Sarah and Ray waiting for me. I sit down in my chair and eat some lunch. A few short minutes later I rise up and have Sarah spray me once again with sun block, put on the body glide, change into my crummy shoes and head out for Hope Pass.
I run across the marsh land of Twin Lakes while still munching on fruit and a sandwich. I run up to Dan Brendan who is running in the Grand Slam for like the 9th year in a row or something. We talk for a bit, he's a great guy and then we start running through the small streams. The stream waters are a mix of warm to cold to colder and then eventually we come out of the woods at the shores of the river crossing. I'm not even sure what the river is called but I can tell you that the water is flipping cold. I grab onto the rope and walk my way across the river. On the other side, I pick it up and run to the base of the Continental Divide Trail. I immediately start walking and my pace slows down to something almost... stopped. Yet I push on. I walk patiently and slowly up hill. About a quarter of the way up I see my first two runners sitting on the side of the trail and one of them is throwing up a bit. I push on by and keep moving. As I reach tree-line I look ahead and see Laura again. She's upset at the number of people who have passed her on the uphill. I tell her, "So what... run your own race.. get them on the downs." We enter the aid station and start looking at the food for a bit more energy. At this moment, a female runner I know from previous McNaughton Park races comes barreling into the aid station. She's yelling "Gels! Gels! Gels!" She comes into the tent, grabs a fist full of gels after pushing is all out of the way and then she takes off. You'd think she was in first place or something.. or maybe she just thinks she's pretty damn important.. she's not. We give chase.

I pass Laura and push on up the hill. I'm into the upper switchbacks now and I can see the top is near. People are pushing themselves up to the top of the hill at all kinds of speeds. Some better then others. I reckon I'm probably in the middle of it all. And then.. my favorite moment of this entire race. I crest Hope Pass and am treated to that amazing, breath-taking view out over the Continental Divide. I look down below to see runners zig zagging their way down the back side of Hope. Only half a dozen runners have run past going the opposite direction (ie. The Front runners) and I'm feeling really great. I tuck everything in and start picking my way down the mountain. I'm careful to not trash my quads because.. you guessed it.. plenty of race to go. About 3/4 of the way down the mountain, Laura catches up with me and she blazes by at a blistering pace. I told her to chill and she said, "Aren't you proud of me for coming back from the dead?" I kind of chuckled and told her, "You're trashing those quads.. and I'll see you later." She disappears and I make chase.

At the bottom of the hill I head out onto the road into Winfield. This is the dodging cars and other runners section of the course. I'm glad I'm here when I am, great timing. And yet.. as cars line up to actually get into Winfield.. and as runners and their pacers come running at me, double file down the road like if there's room.. I feel myself getting immensely annoyed. Yes.. it's getting to be that time. I've come all this way in the race being clear of mind mentally and not sore physically. Is there where i'm going to fall apart? I see John bent over on the side of the road as he vomiting into the woods. I ask if he's ok, he laughs, I tell him to get the lead out. "I'm trying!" I keep moving, shuffling up the road and eventually into Winfield. My friend from college, Bryan, is now a part of the crew and he's waiting to help. I check in at Winfield and head into the tent. Here is where we finally weigh in for the first time. 169 pounds.. I'm dead even with the pre-race weigh in. I grab more food and sit down as a light rain begins to fall. Ray is ready to go and I'm finally starting to look tired.

And Back...
As a light rain fell over winfield, I headed back out for Hope Pass with my pacer Ray. Ray is the fiancé of my wires cousin. He told me about a month ago that he;d like to pace me during this event and that he wanted to do Hope Pass. He'd never run further then 10 miles previously and after a 5 hour torturous training run, I determined he had the guts to get it done. He then surprised me by running 50K two weeks ago as a training run and he completed it in 7 hours. Ray was my guy for this important part of the course. As we ran down the road out of Winfield, I was passed by a female runner. She came up beside me and said, "Hey.. I was in your Silver Rush Video. Yeah.. you said that half of these people won't finish. Well.. take a look at my time!" She said it with every ounce of attitude in her. I could tell she took exception to what I said in my video.. but I did say, HALF of those folks weren't going to finish. I'm glad to know she was in the half that dad.. and at the moment of writing this, I could give a flying crap what her time was.. that's not why I run ultras. :)

Ray and I pushed on and eventually made it to the trailhead. The climbing was slow from the get go. I was finally a bit gassed and all read starting to wonder how the hell I was going to do this. I was at the Winfield aid station, Mile 50, in 12 Hours flat. I have 18 hours to return to Leadville.. and it's a long ways away. Ray is carrying my poles for me and as I start the climb I decide that yes, I'd like to have them. I grab the poles from him and start using them. I'm not ashamed of this fact. Its a contentious issue in our sport. Do they add an advantage? I actually don't think so.. because after while my arms and back were killing me from using them. I felt like we were at the dead end pack of the race at this point. Slinking our way up the mountain. Every so often you'd see a false summit that Ray thought was the top. Then we'd get there and look up and he'd realize we had much more to go.. then this repeated again. Finally we got to a point where you could see the top. I stopped and pointed up for Ray, "Ya see those little specks? Those are runners... we're going there." He responded.."oh my god....." Ray knew we were about to climb high, he had no idea it was that high. And yet.. he stuck with me and we did it together.

Eventually we made it to the top of Hope Pass once again where we stopped to marvel one more time at the views all around. Words cannot describe it. It's breathtaking and it's worth every effort to get there once.. every effort to get there twice. Last year I watched the sun-set from here. This year, I'm a bit faster. Ran and I carefully begin our descent down to the Hopeless aid station. We laugh at all the llama's hanging out in the grass. We stop and grab some quick things to snack on. I took a few cookies and headed out. Ray caught up and we took turns leading the way with a pack of other runners. We did our best to again, run downhill without trashing our quads. Soon we reached the base of the mountain and back into the Twin Lakes Valley. We run with a few other seasoned vets. One of which says, "They say if you get to Twin Lakes II before dark.. you could walk it in." I wasn't sure if that was true but I certainly wanted to believe it. We cross the river once more, Ray has his breath taken away by the chill of the water. We wind our way through the swamp and the sun finally sets. I take out my flashlight and lead us into the aid stop.

At this point I change my shoes back to a dry pair and thank god. My right foot, big toe, has it's usual HUGE blister underneath in the crook. My left foot is suffering from the skin fold blister that plagues wet wrinkled feet. It was great to have new socks and shoes on. Now I was relieving Ray and taking out Bryan. Bryan and I went to UNH together where we both graduated from Outdoor Education. Also, Bryan was here at Leadville last year. This redemption is every bit as much his as it is mine. We grab our gear for the night time. It quickly chills down so I throw on a long sleeve shirt, and we head out into the darkness. I scramble up that first hill and then take the poles again. Bryan leads me into the night.. ahead of me enough so that I can still hear him but I almost have to chase him down. We never went over how this pacing this was going to go. I hate chasing people.. but it looks like I have no choice.

We catch up on folks we know and the good ole times from UNH. We talk about last years race.. and why I'm so controversial on my Facebook updates. Bryan is a good kid. I really like him a lot and he is definitely one of those guys who has the balls to take on big things. He loves moving at night and he's leading me great. Only thing is, I don't feel much like running right now. More and more runners get past us and I feel like I'm in last place. For some reason I don't care. We do our best and march our way through the night. Soon I'm begging for The Half Pipe aid station, in need of a break as my feet are killing me. I just want to sit down.. and just as I'm at the end of my rope, there it is.

I get into the aid station and sit in a chair with my feet up. I tell Bryan I wanted grilled cheese. He asks a volunteer if they have Grilled Cheese and they say no. He asks, "What do you have?" The volunteer says "we can make anything he wants." Bryan responds, "Ok.. how bout a grilled cheese?" The aid worker was pissed and pointed to some turkey and cheese wraps that have cream cheese in them. I HATE cream cheese.. so I ask if we can get one without cream cheese.. guess what the answer was?? So I settle for fruit, a turkey and mayo sandwich and some chips. I then tell Bryan I could use a Tylenol. He asks the medical if they have any.. the answer is no. I freak, "Does this aid station have ANYTHING THAT I NEED?!"... "Nope."

So with that we get up and slowly walk out into the night. Thank god we left that station because as runners started to come in they all started to quit. That's not a situation you want to be a part of. I go from a walk to a shuffle and eventually into what you might be able to call something that resembles a run. Bryan and I start talking and he tells me that as soon as we reach Tree-line and the crew, we'd stop so I could take a quick nap. I wash;t sure if this was a good idea or not. I didn't particularly feel tired but it's not every race that someone openly gives me permission to nap before I even ask. As we reach the station, I guess I am tired as I head right for the car where I lay down wrapped up in down jackets and pass out for 15 minutes.

I woke up when the car door was opened. I hopped out of the car like Clark kent from a phone both.. only wearing the same shit as before. And now, I'm ready to go. I take a 5 hour energy shot and suck it down as fast as I could. As we head off down the dirt road Bryan tells me I have my headphones with me. I pull my iPod out and for only the second time ever in all the Ultra's I've run.. I put the tunes on. Magically I'm running as fast as I've run all race. This is that road section, mostly downhill from here to Fish hatchery and after the epic march I just made from Twin Lakes II to Tree-Line.. I needed to make up some time. Especially when my crew told me how close to the cut-off I actually am. Bryan keeps up with me as we boogie down the road. At one point, with music blasting in my ears, I we turn our head lamps off to marvel at the stars and the night-time shadow of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive.

As we stroll into Fish Hatchery, I check in and hear that I have 15 minutes before the station closes. It was like a deja vu moment from last year. Even with my back now firmly up against the wall, I step into a port potty and take my sweet ole time. I come out, grab my new belt and Bryan and I head off again. I thought Ray was going to take over here but Bryan is hooked, fully invested and Ray.. Ray is taking another snooze cause I'll need him later. Bryan and I take off out of the aid station and down the road. As we climb the subtle hill, I notice someone awake in their house. I then spot what appears to be Speakers in their front yard and just as we turn to head up Power Line.. the music comes on. They're playing Chariots of Fire.. traditionally the song that plays for an hour before the start of the Vermont 100. I feel like this is another omen.. and we've got to get moving.

As we climb Power Line towards the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.. I'm struggling to keep up. Bryan is blazing the way up-hill again and I'm struggling to hang on. It's been an hour or two since I took that 5 hour energy and it's all ready done. As I clamber up the hill I feel myself fall asleep and then, I'm laying my head down on my fist which is planted firmly on the top of my hiking pole, and I'm taking a quick breather/nap. Bryan comes down to pull me along, I rise up and follow as best I can but the higher we get on this hill the more exhausted I become. Finally we get to the point where I'm falling asleep while hiking uphill. I take 2 steps forward and fall back 5. Bryan comes back and taps me awake.. I try again.. only to repeat the sleeping process. He begs me to take the other 5 hour energy... I tell him that I think I'll take a 5 minute nap "in the dirt here" and when I wake up.. I'll take it then. It's a deal and down I go.

While laying in the dirt I hear other runners coming up and asking Bryan if I'm ok.. he responds, "Yeah he's fine.. just takin' a nap." Then all I hear is the echo of Bryan eating the potato chips he's carrying for me, through the woods. After 5 minutes, I bounce up, guzzle the other 5 hour energy and we take off again. I hike slowly to the summit of Sugarloaf and at the top of the mountain we look down and see the train of headlights winding their way around and down sugarloaf to May Queen.. and then more heading away from May Queen and along Turquoise Lake. We're finally a bit overwhelmed.. can we do this? Are we running out of time? As I try to break into a run, my stomach goes south from those energy shots and I duck off into the woods. This is not good.

I try my best to keep up with bryan as he takes off down the hill. I pass one group, two groups.. three groups of runners. Then We're running even with one through the woods and Bryan and I do the math.. it's 13.5 miles from May Queen to the finish and I'm going to have 3 hours to get it done. Considering that I ran out to May Queen at the start of the race in 2:18, I'm doubting it can be done.. yet.. I keep quiet and simply move. Bryan gets antsy and takes off into the darkness while a rising sun takes over the landscape. I knew that yesterday it was daylight at 6:15am. I have a bit of time left before we're there and the cut-off at May Queen is 6:30am. Bryan is barely in sight and pulling me into May Queen. I stumble into the aid station where I find out it's 6:07am.. I made it.. but I only have 23 minutes to spare.
For Glory
I sit down in the chair and take off the fleece pants I'd been wearing. Bryan sits down and Ray stands up. I get my iPod back and it's loaded with music. 87 Miles into this run I need to dig deeper then I ever have before. I ran back to the aid table and grab two pancakes then head out of the station like a bat out of hell. 20 minutes later I'm still running, listening to tunes and making Ray sweat bullets. About 2 miles in I see Laura.. and I ran past her with a pat on the back and a small hug. We're all in this together, no matter what.. I'm pumped and I'm taking this on. Ray and I continue to run whenever we can along the shores of Turquoise Lake. I told him about Pac Man and we're playing now. Every time I see a runner in our sights, we go after them and pass them. Nothing against them.. this is against the clock and I'll use anything to motivate me. By the time we reach the Tabor Boat Ramp, we've passed 7 runners and their pacers. Up and on top of the hill, we see Sarah, Bryan and Katey.. our crew had stopped for one last hoot! I well up with tears as I give my wife a high five.. we've made up enough time to be ahead of the clock still and we're going to make it.. I know it..
We give high fives and head down hill. Soon we're on those final dirt roads leading into Leadville. It's all uphill from here and I can't run anymore. I'm waisted but I'm still listening to tunes. I'm listening to them because it helps keep my mind off of the pain and keeps me moving. Even while power hiking up these hills, I'm still playing pac man and blowing past runners. My body fills with adrenaline and I continue to push. Soon, we're on 6th Street and I've got an arm around Ray... We did it. This is it! Redemption...

We crest that last hill and then we see the finish line. We walk in as fast as we can until the roar of the crowd is so loud it hurts your ears. Bryan runs out and hands me my beer.. it's called Redemption and it's about to taste real good. One whole calendar years since I last tried this race.. my last attempt at an official 100 miler.. I've done it. REDEMPTION. I force Ray to kick it into an all out sprint for the finish. We pass by groups of runners until it's just us. With my beer raised in the air.. we cross the finish line at the corner of 6th and Harrison. The mayor calls my name and my town and says "Done." Done indeed. I pop the top off my beer and chug it down. Redemption is bitter sweet and tastes so good. I turn and get my medal and then.. David Snipes from Virginia gives me a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek. I did it.. I DID IT! I got the damn buckle.. the monkey off my back and even when my back was again against the wall.. I gave Leadville everything I had from start to finish and redemption was finally mine.

What an odd runner's high. I focused on this race for so long and even when I doubted I could do it, I priced myself wrong and once again realized my potential as a human. I've realized now that I hate the part of 100s where you don't go to bed. I really love sleep and being in bed.. but there is something inherently cool about being out on your feet all night. Still, I feel as though 50 miles is plenty enough when running these races and I don't have a nee dot run multiple hundreds every year anymore. For now, I have my Leadville Buckle... it's shiny and gorgeous.. and I'm going to cherish it for a very long time to come. I've never been prouder of my effort.. or the efforts of my crew. This was an all out team effort and I have them to thank for it. I also have many old friends, who showed up in Leadville, for their support as well. I miss them.. and it was great to see them all. Cheers!