The 2014 Leadville Trail 100, Part 3

(This is Part 3 of my Leadville Trail 100 race story.  Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here if you want to catch up! Also, I’m verbose. I hope I don’t lose those of you who’ve read these so far!)

Rolling into Outward Bound (24.5) and onto Treeline Crew access (29.5)

I saw Emily (aka Pandora) first. Well, actually, I heard her before I saw her.  She was out at the road, just at the turn off before the aid station.  She cheered and yelled and I let her know that Joey (aka Oso) was not far behind.  She, in turn, notified me where the rest of the #WCE was set up…

As I turned onto the dirt driveway into the aid station, I saw Sarah (aka Lynx) as reports were being shouted back and forth and the crew was springing into action.  I gave her my pack with instructions about food and a notification that I would definitely NOT be eating the breakfast burritos Melanie (aka Golden Retriever) had carried up the mountain from Santiagos in Arvada a couple days before, and that she had carefully and lovingly heated up for me that morning… because all I could consider eating at that point was gels.  But, in glancing at the aid station table, I saw watermelon, and I can always eat watermelon. Always.

Chomping watermelon, drinking Sprite

Chomping watermelon, drinking Sprite

Lynx trotted ahead as I chomped watermelon and grabbed a big handful of extra gels.  If gels were all I was going to be able to eat while running, I had better make sure I had enough…

I hustled over to the crew area and the #WCE was in full effect.  My niece Chelsey (aka Marmot and the newest member of the #WCE) asked me my series of questions I needed asked at every stop (Nasal spray? Eye drops? Antacids? And something else, I can’t remember but seemed really important when I asked her to ask me the night before as we were packing and planning…). Lynx helped with sunscreen, Golden Retriever refilled bottles and managed my pack… it was organized chaos for a few moments and I was off again…

The #WCE has ultra-crewing completely dialed in.

And some of you may be asking yourselves, what’s with the “aka’s” and this weird hashtag WCE thing?  It’s kind of hard to explain… A club?  A family? A community? A cult?  All of the above?

Some of the #WCE

Some of the #WCE

The #WCE is a group of people that have loosely gathered around this idea of shared struggle and the celebration of effort and achievement.  The name is an inside joke that would take some time to explain, and would really not be that funny.  #WCE is short for “hashtag Worst Crew Ever” and it is exactly not the worst crew ever.

The #WCE is an assemblage of some of the best people I’ve known.  I love them all very, very much.

And to make your envy complete, we all have “spirit animal” names, too.  I’m Grey Fox.

Any ultramarathon is such an undertaking that it becomes a team sport, and the #WCE has seen me through every one… Today would be no different.  I would simply not be able to attempt Leadville with them…

I was filled with such gratitude and at every station I thanked them and told them that I loved them, because they could have all be doing something much more fun than watching a pasty white middle aged man shuffle through the mountains.  These friends and family sacrificed their time and energy and sleep to see me through.  It’s an overwhelming gift.

With their support, I was on my way, and I was working to re-hydrate and re-fuel after having been out of water for so long.  But, it seemed that no damage was done and I was feeling good.

This year, the race was re-routed off of a road section and across the property of Outward Bound, which sounds awesome, but was actually pretty terrible.  The course was not routed along a path or gravel road, but ran directly across a cow pasture.  I don’t know when was the last time you made your way across a cow pasture, but let’s just say it’s not conducive to moving quickly.  They’re filled with ankle-endangering holes and rough, uneven and uncertain terrain.  It was absolutely treacherous and took great concentration to not snap one’s lower leg.

But mercifully, it was a short section and I was soon back out along the road.

In a quirk of how the course is laid out, the next stop for crew access was only 5 miles from Outward Bound, and as the #WCE drove by me, the snapped this pic, one of my favorite on the day.

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It was super sunny, but not overly hot.  It was turning out to be an absolutely glorious day.

A turn off the road, onto a gravel path for a short bit, another turn or two and I was at the Treeline crew access, which is just an open field where your crew can meet you.

Getting help at Treeline

Getting help at Treeline

I learned that Joey was moving well and was only a few minutes behind me, and I also learned that Becki was crushing it, flying along WAY ahead of me.  Great news on both counts.

We took a bit of extra time here, as I wouldn’t see them for another 10 or 11 miles.  Sunscreen applied, pack packed, drinks drank and I was on my way, once again.

Treeline (29.5) to Twin Lakes (40)

But essentially, I’m not thinking of a thing
All I do is keep on running in my own, cozy, homemade void
My own nostalgic silence
And this is pretty wonderful thing
No matter what anybody else says

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I heard this quote this summer, as I listened to this book on my commutes to and from work, and I had to stop the play back, rewind a bit and listen again and again, and then making into a note on my phone so I could come back to it later.

Heading out of Treeline to Twin Lakes

Heading out of Treeline to Twin Lakes

Murakami perfectly sums up those certain beautiful, glorious moments where the world simplifies into self-locomotion.  It’s one of my favorite aspects of this sport… that everything is boiled down to simply getting from point A to point B.  Such simplicity is beautiful and creates a space for thoughts to come and go freely, or not at all.  It’s wonderful.

I moved through most of this section alone like this… occasionally striking up conversation or sharing and receiving encouraging words from other runners.  The vast numbers of runners seeking to get back to Leadville means that you’re never actually far from others at any time during the race.

But here, for a while, I experienced these wonderful things: movement, beauty, mountains, effort, glory, difficulty, struggle, internal silence, nostalgia, memory, anticipation, hope…

And then I began to be aware again that it was getting hard.  Like, really hard.  I realized that we’d been going up and up and up for a while.  It wasn’t steep… well, occasionally steep, but mostly gradual.  Up.  And it was beginning to take its toll.  I began to feel just kind of terrible.

I’d fallen into something of a conga line with half a dozen or so other runners, as the gravel road we’d been on narrowed into trail.  We must have been somewhere around the 35-36 mile mark and I was right on schedule with my feedings and my water intake was good, but I was in a real low patch. But, I was in a line with people who were moving strong, so we kept making our way.  Blah.

This stretch of trail runs through stunningly beautiful aspen forests and the crisp, cobalt blue sky peeked through the shimmering leaves, dappling the sunlight hither and yon.

If you’re going to feel awful, there’s really no better place to do so…

At 3 miles out from Twin Lakes, around mile 37, we finally came to the top of the hill, ending the long, slow climb up from Treeline.  The last 7 miles had all been up: sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes dramatically, but it was all up, and I felt it.  But, the second of the day’s six great beasts had been slain.

Now, we got to go down and I absolutely love going downhill!!  Soon, my low patch faded and I felt great as we made the rather extreme descent into Twin Lakes.  It was good to run hard again for a bit!

Coming through Twin Lakes

Coming through Twin Lakes

Twin Lakes during the Leadville Trail 100 is really something.  The usually sleepy little town is transformed into an endurance athletics mecca as hundreds of runners and their crews cram the streets along the course.  There’s music, cheering, shouting, yelling, whistling, hooting and hollering.  There are dogs and kids and strollers and wagons and carts and coolers and tents and shelters.

After being inside one’s own head for a couple of hours, it’s all a bit much to take in!

I made my way through the aid station, grabbed more watermelon and another handful of gels and headed through the streets to where I knew the #WCE camp was to be found.  Twin Lakes is our longest “base camp” of the day, as the crew sets up there to see us runners through outbound and then waits for us to return inbound.  All in all, I believe our camp is set up for around 8 hours or so in Twin Lakes on race day.

Ultramarathons take a long time.

The #WCE helping and cheering.  Note the lump of cheese bread in my hand.  I ate like 4 bites, then donated it to the birds...

The #WCE helping and cheering. Note the lump of cheese bread in my hand. I ate like 4 bites, then donated it to the birds…

Once again the #WCE was in full effect, loading my pack, feeding me, cleaning me, entertaining me, cheering for me, encouraging me, and most of all, loving me.  It’s so humbling.

And once again, despite the low patch I’d felt, I was spot on for my projected times for the day. It was 1:00 pm.  I’d been on my feet, moving through the mountains for 9 hours. I’d covered 40 miles.

Now, it was time to attack the third great beast on the day: Hope Pass.

Twin Lakes (40) to the top of Hope Pass (45)

The first mile and a half out of Twin Lakes is across a flat field and brings you to what is supposed to be the only water crossing for the race.  But, this year’s high snowfall and plentiful rains meant that flat field had been turned into mostly stinky, mucky marsh, and then the one water crossing was extended into 6 or 7 water crossings over the space of a quarter mile or so.

So, that was awesome.

The town of Twin Lakes sits at 9,200’ above sea level, which is the lowest point on the course.  Hope Pass sits at 12,620’ above sea level.  And subtracting the flat mile and a half out of Twin Lakes, that means we had to climb 3420’ in the space of 3.5 miles.  That means an average slope angle of 18%.  But, there are long sections of trail where it is significantly less than 18%, which means there are also sections of trail where it is significantly steeper than 18%.

For reference, think about that big, long, sloping drive up out of Denver into the mountains… there, the slope never exceeds 7%.

But, I knew this.  I accounted for this in my training.  I worked at long, slow, arduous climbing.  I worked at power hiking my way uphill as efficiently as possible.

And I had read from others that the best strategy was to find and hold a pace that was just quick enough to make me work and just slow enough to keep me from needing to stop and catch my breath.  Forward progress.  Keep moving.  Don’t stop.

And so after clearing my shoes of the massive amount of sandy gravel accumulated from the water crossings, I got started and I didn’t stop. I hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked.  I ate when I needed to and drank often.  But, I kept going, up and up and up and up and up.

There’s not much to say about this other than it is really freaking hard.

Well, there are a couple of things to note.  One, race leader Rob Krar came FLYING by me on his way back towards Leadville, where he would be crowned champion in the second fastest time ever.  It is astounding to see how fast those leaders roll through the miles.  So cool.

It was also massively encouraging to see Matt Trappe just below the Hopeless Aid Station.  Matt had hiked up to the top to shoot the race for New Balance and his encouragement was a great boost as I was slogging my way up.

Hopeless Aid Station is a fascinating place, too.  Crazy people pack all the aid station supplies up to nearly 12,000’ or so on the backs of Llamas.  So, there are tents and volunteers and llamas everywhere.  It’s kind of awesome.  I topped up a bit of water and kept moving.

PSA to any and all that attempt Leadville: Beware of Hopeless Aid Station.  It’s kind of awesome, but it’s also kind of treacherous.  You’re going to feel awful because you’re 40+ miles into an ultramarathon and you’re at 12,000’ and so it may seem like a good idea to stop.  It’s NOT!  It’s a TERRIBLE idea.  Because you’re up so high, you’re never going to feel better up there.  The only way to feel better is to get DOWN to a lower elevation.  At 12,000’ a single breath only delivers 40% of the oxygen as at sea level.  There’s no way to feel “great” at 12,000’ apart from significant acclimatization.  So GET DOWN!

So, since we in the #WCE have all drilled that into one another’s heads, I moved on out, and the only way to get down is to continue up and surprisingly soon I was at the top of Hope Pass!  The third of the six great beasts was done.  There were volunteers manning the timing station, underneath strings of Nepali prayer flags.  The gulch below stretched out before me.  It was glorious.

But I only recognized this on a vaguely intellectual level.  I knew it was beautiful, but, I couldn’t quite take it all in… I had to get down to Winfield, to the turn around where Luke (aka Wapiti) was waiting to haul me back up and over this hill once again…

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Night is falling, and still the #WCE waits...

Night is falling, and still the #WCE waits…