Ever since I started running ultramarathons a few years back, this has been on the bucket-list. Western States, Hardrock, Wasatch, UTMB, Leadville - all iconic hundreds - it's definitely up there as one of the must-do 100 mile foot races.
I raced the MTB course back when I was on 2 wheels. The atmosphere, the beauty of the area, the crazy altitude - all above 10,000ft, and the incredible pre-race pep talk by race series founder Ken Chlouber, were all a big draw to get back to Leadville. To try to earn the esteemed run big buckle, to match my bike big buckle attained on my 'hardest day ever on the bike', a big effort was needed. Sub 25 hours for the Run buckle - definitely within my reach, I thought.
This year, I lined up with 1000 other aspirants. 4am, 6th & Harrison. Amidst the almost palpable nervous energy, there was an electric atmosphere. Saira photographed me standing there waiting to start. To say I look a little anxious is an understatement! Settling in to start a 100 mile foot race is an indescribable feeling, like stepping off into the unknown. You know that the next 24 or more hours is going to bring with it pain and elation, but there's always a nagging doubt. I doubt these thoughts ever go, even with more experience. Have I trained enough, is my gear right, did I eat enough last night, did I eat enough this morning, how is my stomach going to be after 10 hours of gels and gu? But as the gun goes off, and I cruise away with the lead pack, the nerves are gone, and I try to soak in the atmosphere. It's incredible. 6th avenue, Leadville, is lined with people, despite the ungodly hour. We ease into the race, gently downhill at first. The Rocky theme music blares out from a front garden, drunken all-nighters cheering us on. And then it's quiet, save for my breathing and the footsteps of my racing companions as we pad down the Boulevard.
Soon we pass Sugar Loafin' campground. My family are all there, with high fives and cheers. It's a great felling. And then it's all quiet again. We hit the single track of Turquoise Lake in good time. Is this pace too fast? Hard to know. The months of training and the long taper have left me strong and ready. The pace feels easy, deceptively easy, but it's great to run with the top guys. Ryan Sandes, a past winner, Scott Jurek, the legend. Ian Sharman jokes that Nick Clarke is trying to drop him already, their third 100 of the Grand Slam.
Turquoise Lake flies by, then the madness at May Queen! It's like the Alps in the Tour de France. Hundreds line the course, all blinding me with their headlamps as support crews strain to find their runner. 'Dad, dad!!' I hear and I'm with my crew. A fresh bottle, 2 new gels and I'm gone in 20 seconds. Feeling good, now we start to climb. I relish the run up the Colorado trail. Little do I know how I will hate this later, but for now it's all grins, and easy aerobic climbing. I consciously run easy, taking care not to roll an ankle in the half light. My friend and pacer Wade Jarvis once remarked - 'rocks don't move when you kick them here'.
Soon, daylight arrives. The views from the top of the infamous Powerline trail are inspiring. In the distance, Hope Pass peers back, but for now, I take care to watch my footing, and try to hold back as we roll down the Powerline trail. This is not the time to trash the quads. After a short spell on pavement I hit the Outward Bound Aid station, right on schedule. I'm loosely following a 20 hour pacing schedule. I arrive on the minute. Another quick top up by my pit crew, words of encouragement and warnings to stay within myself.
The next section is pavement. It sucks. I'm not a road runner and I find the harsh surface painful. I feel like I'm fuelling well. A marathon completed, only 3 more to go. Then it's a long and hot gradual climb. The day is getting warm and the trail feels harder than it looks. I start to feel a little fatigue set in, so I plug in the headphones, and start eating. The gels are going down OK, and the music spurs me on. Upbeat tunes from my run playlist take my mind off the hard effort. Soon, I am through the Pipeline Aid station and climbing the Colorado trail again past the Mt Elbert trailhead. It is a beautiful section of trail. Trees shade me, and despite the tough climbing, I am feeling good. 'Stand up for the Champions' comes through my earbuds. This really gets me going! An old Transrockies theme song! I whoop out loud, loving the whole experience.
And soon I am descending from my favourite section of trail so far, and then in a flash it's a steep, loose technical drop in to Twin Lakes. The atmosphere is rousing, with music, cheering and eager volunteers. I feel great, running well, seemingly fuelling well. 40 miles down.
I sit briefly and eat, and grab my pack, with 2 fresh bottles. I take a jacket for the double crossing of Hope Pass, undoubtedly the crux of this race. It may be cold up top, and the weather can change in a flash. A storm at 12,600 feet without a jacket would be no fun. I also decide to take trekking poles. A bit of a hassle to carry on the flats, even though they are as light as it gets, but I know from past experience that I will not regret having poles on the long descent into Winfield, 10 miles away. My wife Saira warns me to take it easy. She has seen me hit the wall in races, and is keen for me to keep the effort modest. My pit crew are dialled in. They know what I need, and Saira knows what to say to me. My two sons are a great motivation, with their enthusiasm and smiles, and they quickly fill me in on who's leading the race, and how I am doing. My pacer Wade tells me I am pushing towards the top ten. In the past I have cramped at this point in races, but today I know that I have been conservative in my early pace, and there isn't a hint of cramping. Even so, I take a glug of salty pickle juice, my go-to remedy! Then I am off, eager to get across the only wet section of the course. I know the cool creek crossing will feel good, and will breathe some life into my legs, and it does.
The climb up Hope Pass is slow, although I manage to run the flatter sections. The poles are a great help, but even so it is harder than I remember from my recce a few days earlier. It seems steeper and longer. I am passed by a couple of runners on this section and I try not to get negative. This is a long race and a lot can happen later. I listen to more music and march on up, as quick a pace as I can muster. A breeze picks up and a few drops of rain fall as I reach the meadow of the Hopeless Aid station, but the rain never amounts to more than a few drops. And it's true, there really are llamas grazing up here, having carried up the supplies for the aid station! Friendly volunteers cheer me on, and soon I am over the top, breathing well at 12,600 feet. The vista is inspiring. I stop briefly to enjoy the view, then back to business, cautiously dropping down the steep switchbacks. I'm feeling good again. No blisters despite the wet socks and my shoes will soon be dry. The trail feels incredibly steep, and the poles provide security on some of the turns. Near the bottom of the climb the lead runners come by me on their return journey. It takes my mind off the running as I watch them come by. Michael Aish, in the lead, looks spent. Then Ian Sharman and Nick Clarke, both looking good. Then a grinning Hal Koerner, pacing a tired looking Scott Jurek. Pretty cool to be racing these guys, I think!
A few more miles of rocky trail and I drop into Winfield. It feels like a furnace down here. I have been running for nine hours, right on pace. I am hurriedly weighed and I have dropped 6 lbs in weight. But I feel fine, and I know I am drinking well. Drink to thirst, Noakesy says, and that's what I am doing! No need to worry about the weight loss. My crew are there again, as efficient and motivating as always, tending to my needs, restocking my gels, filling my bottles, asking all the right questions; and this time I have the added boost of picking up my chosen companion for the return trip - Wade Jarvis, a 10 time Leadville veteran. 'OK, let's take 'er in!' exclaims Wade. I whoop again as we leave the station. 'Let's go to Leadville, bud!' And we are off, running at first, trying to digest the calories I've just stuffed in. I glug on a red bull; I need all the help I can get for this return leg, I think. 'Gives me wings!' I remark to Wade, as we hit the climb. I have ditched my pack, as Wade is my mule for the trip back up and over. All I carry is my poles and a single bottle. I feel light, and climb starts well.
Halfway up, the fatigue starts to set in. I find myself needing to stop. I sit for a few moments, and it feels good. The climb seems unbelievably steep, and it is hot, hot, hot. The trail is narrow, and the runners still descending are considerate and jump out of our way, but even so, it irritates me that we have to pass. There is plenty of encouragement, and Wade seems to know half the field. 'Hey, Wade!', 'Jarvis, how's it going man!'
We cross a couple of small creeks and I douse my visor and face in the cool water. It helps, but I know I am struggling now. The first woman, Ashley Arnold, passes. She looks fresh, and is grinning widely! Impressive, I think, as I struggle to keep moving. I feel slightly nauseous. Wade realizes I'm in trouble and hands me 2 gels - get these down, but I gag, and it's an ordeal.
This is not good, I think. I sit a few switchbacks down from the top of the pass. 'OK, Wade', I say, 'let's not worry about splits, now, I don't care about my time.'
I've entered that dark place again, that only ultra runners know. Deep negativity, intense pain, a strong desire to stop, lie down, give up, and take a car ride home. It happens in every long race at some point. It's a feeling of utter misery, and hard to describe - but I've been there a few times now, and I have learnt to accept it, in the knowledge that surely it will pass. 'Just keep plodding, it'll get better', I tell myself. A couple of high fives from familiar faces at the top of the pass, spurs me on, and then we are dropping. My toes feel sore, and my legs are tired, but what can I expect, I'm almost 60 miles in! The Hopeless Aid station looks like a refugee camp. It's a zoo, with myriads of exhausted looking runners milling about. Wade hurries me on and we descend well. We cruise down steadily, and I feel like I'm still running well on the descents; I am feeling more optimistic, but asmwe hit the flats again, I am slowed to a walk. This time the creek provides little relief as we cross. We plod into Twin Lakes, and I am beat. My kids are there, worried that I am off pace, and they jog slowly in with me to the aid station. I feel utterly done now, and I think about dropping. I have tears in my eyes as I slump into my seat. 'I am in a bad place right now' I say quietly to Saira, and I am not sure if she hears me.
It's a beautiful spot to sit - the view is fantastic, and I contemplate what I've just done. The hardest bit really is over now, but there are still 40 miles left to cover. The 20 hour goal seems to have gone now, and i don't care. I sit there, and enjoy the break. Saira feeds me food, lots of food. Turkey, avocado, mandarins, pickle juice, grapes. Ginger ale tastes like heaven, I greedily glug. I eat, and eat, and sit there for what seems like an eternity. I'm enjoying the view and the rest, but Wade looks anxious to get going. I have been passed by a whole bunch of runners as I sit and gorge myself, but I don't really care. Saira leans over.
'Listen……. you need to HTFU right now!'
I cannot believe what I just heard, but it spurs me into action! My kids ask me if I'm dropping, looking worried. I reassure them I'll get to Leadville, even if I have to crawl. I down a quick coffee, some noodle soup, and we are out. It is steep hiking for a while, no running, for which I am glad, as my belly needs to time to deal with what's just hit it! We climb for 1000ft out of Twin Lakes, and as we turn onto the single track of the Colorado trail, I start to feel good. I start to jog, and soon I am running the ups again. I realise Wade is struggling to keep up a bit. 'You OK?' I call back. 'Fine! You look good, keep going, don't wait, I'll catch you!' he calls back, so I plug in the music and get going. And soon I am flying! It is a seemingly miraculous turn around. The calories and fluids have kicked in. My legs feel fine, and I relish the quick pace. The trail is beautiful, and it angles slightly downhill for miles. I start passing runners. I pass 4, 5, 6 runners and pacers. I see more ahead, and it spurs me on. I pick up my pace, and soon I am logging 8 minute miles. 'Keep this up' I tell myself, as I know it will likely pass. There is no sign of Wade, but I have a bottle and a few gels, and I grab more as I pass through an aid station, stopping only briefly this time. I estimate I pass 10 runners in total on this leg, and I feel on fire as I hit the pavement. The 8 and 9 minute miles continue. More great tunes, and then I see my kids, jumping excitedly half a mile out from Outward Bound. I bring it in fast, with my sons breathing hard beside me. They are amazed by my pace. 'Where's Wade?!' a surprised Saira shouts, jumping up, as I come in sooner than expected. I explain he's dropped and I haven't seen him in ages. I grab my light, stuff in more calories, and I'm off again, heading towards the dreaded Powerline climb. I'm 77 miles in, and I am loving every minute again. 'Find me a new pacer for the next leg!' I shout as I leave, and it's back to business, as the temperature starts to cool and evening sets in.
The Powerline climb flies by. I manage to run large chunks of the steep climb, and I pass several more runners. I chat to an friendly italian runner for a while as I power-hike up. But soon he drops back, and I march on as I want to summit before dark. I am almost at the top when I put on my light for the first time. I started in the dark at 4am this morning, have run through a whole day and now it is night again. A bizarre feeling. I am slowing but my progress is good. I feel a blister starting on my left heel and wish I had changed into dry socks at Outward Bound. The descent down the Hagerman Pass road seems to take an eternity, and I worry I have missed a turn but soon I see the flagging, and I drop sharply into the woods. I revelled in this section of trail earlier in the day, at first light, but it is a brute with fatigued legs and brain, and in the pitch black. It is impossible to find a rhythm and I can barely get running. I stub my toes over and over again - Wade was right - these rocks don't move when you kick them! I wince at the pain, knowing I have some black toenails to look forward to later on. The lack of rhythm is tiring, and after what seems like an eternity I stagger into May Queen Aid and take a chair.
I meet my new pacer - Anne from Silverton Colorado. She was here supporting another runner, but heard I needed a pacer, and very generously offered to 'run' the last leg with me. She is a fast road runner, and is no doubt looking forwards to a pleasant run back to Leadville. As I try to stuff down some noodles and more ginger ale, I tell her that I doubt there will be much running, judging with how I am feeling, but she's still game. A brave soul, offering to take over pacing duties with someone she's never met, 87 miles into the run. This could get ugly I warn her! My wife and Wade have the unenviable job of patching up the blister on my left heel, but I enjoy the break and fuel up.
Anne and I set off and for the first 3 miles along Turquoise Lake I feel OK. We manage to jog most of it. But then I'm walking again. I feel nauseous and am pretty sure I am going to vomit. Anne is great, she chats to me, and encourages me to jog short sections. She lives near the Hardrock 100 course, has never run a 100 miler , but would like to some day. I tell her I need to stop, and then I'm vomiting and wrenching - first time ever in an ultra for me. I feel better for a while - 'Anne, if this doesn't put you off running 100, then nothing will,' I joke. We shuffle, jog, and walk along the shore. It really is a beautiful night and lake is still and glinting in the moonlight, and for I while I enjoy the view. But I now repeatedly kick rocks, and my toes feel terrible. I apologize to Anne. I don't think she signed up for a midnight 10 mile walk.
At Tabor Boat ramp, Saira and Wade are there. I need to sit down, but I hear Wade tell Saira - 'Don't let him sit, he needs to keep going', so we are quickly coaxed out. Saira gives me some ginger ale in my bottle to try to settle the stomach. Anne gives me an electrolyte cap, and we continue our march.
Then we are dropping steeply down loose ground and beginning the final push past Sugar Loafin' (where my trailer is parked - and my bed - and it's very tempting as I shuffle by!) and onto The Boulevard. I remember flying effortlessly down here this morning, and it didn't feel too long, but now, it is interminable! It's uphill and it is never ending. We get passed by a strong looking runner. I am keeping up a good hiking pace, but I just cannot run. Anne and I chat, and she does a stellar job at keeping my mind off the effort. Eventually the lights of Leadville appear, and there we are, on 6th, turning the corner by the High School. More uphill, but now I can see the finish. Less than a mile to go.
At this point in a race, all pain fades away, and you become possessed. A jolt of Adrenaline kicks in, and weary limbs fire up again. The finish line becomes the focus of everything. My mind blurs, and all memory of what's gone before disappears. I am on auto pilot now, 'bringing' 'er in' as Wade would say. Then my 2 boys are beside me, and we are running. Saira and Wade are alongside us. Anne tries to disappear, but we don't let her - she is a part of this now.
Then I'm on the red carpet, and we are done. The relief is immense. I cannot believe I have walked the last 10 miles. Mary Lynn hugs me, as she does all finishers, and I receive my medal. I am hurried to the medical tent, where I am weighed - I've gained 4 lbs since Winfield, only 3 lbs down on my starting weight. My timing chip is cut off and I lie down. My family tend to me, and as usual the shivers set in, but I have a huge blanket wrapped around my shoulders. Wade and I joke - he cannot believe I dropped him, and I apologize, but I guess when you feel good in a race like this you just have to go
When all said and done, despite the 10 mile walk, I finished in 24th place overall, with a time of 21 hours and 33 mins. I am very proud of my effort, and the next day I receive my belt buckle, a large one, to compliment my Leadville bike large buckle. A little over 400 people finished the race, a testament to it's difficulty. Race winner Ian Sharman ran the 4th fastest time ever on this course in 16 hours 30 mins.Just incredible. When I look at the splits, I see that ultra legend Scott Jurek, was only a few minutes faster than me on the May Queen inward leg. I guess, I wasn't the only one in a world of hurt!
Leadville has been criticized by some, for the organization at Winfield, and the difficulties crews had in accessing aid stations. For me, I was up front, so this didn't affect me, and it is sad to read that some had a less than ideal experience. The volunteers were nothing but helpful. Leadville is a beautiful race, steeped in history, and has perhaps become somewhat a victim of it's own success. It's a runner course for sure, but despite what some say, it's not an easy hundred. Ask the 500 plus runners who dropped. The trail is beautiful - especially Turquoise Lake, the Elbert trail section, and of course the double crossing of Hope Pass. The altitude is a factor not to be underestimated, of course.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! The pain has faded, and I'm already scanning the ultra sites for more races, planning the next epic!
My Leadville gear
Shoes: Hoka One One Bondi B - Like Forrest Gump said: "Mama says they was magic shoes. They could take me anywhere."
Socks: Injinji 2.0 - comfiest socks ever
Lamp: Petzl Nao - is there a better light out there?
Bottles: Ultimate Direction
Pack: Ultimate Direction Anton Krupicka race vest
Poles: Black Diamond Ultra poles
Black toes: two
Pit Crew: huge thanks to Saira, George and Albert for keeping me positive and motivated, both through the long training runs, and the race. Couldn't do it without your support!
Pacers: I'm indebted to Wade Jarvis & Anne Martin, who got me through some pretty low points! I hope I didn't put you off Anne!
Special thanks to Compresssport Canada for the compression wear that has helped me recover!