|Face-off: Sharman v Aish. Or we're about to kiss. Photo: Nicole Aish|
|After both crossings of Hope Pass I ran into Twin Lakes (mile 61.5) with my first pacer and fellow Brit, Ryan Smith. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks|
This was my third Leadville Trail 100, a race I first experienced as part of the Grand Slam in 2013. It's certainly not an easy race, but it is a runner's race, while I'd describe events like UTMB or Hardrock 100 as more like mountain-hiking races.
With 15,000ft of vertical gain (and the same loss) it has a lot of really flat sections that are quick, despite the fact the altitude varies between a low of 9,200ft at Twin Lakes and 12,600ft at the top of Hope Pass. There's something fun about mixing up easier running sections with steeper parts and this is also true of the appeal of a race like Western States 100 (18,000ft of gain, 22,000ft of loss), another event that really captures my imagination.
I knew that the main competition would come from former 10,000m and 5,000m Kiwi Olympian, Mike Aish, and I wasn't surprised to run the early miles in the dark with him around Turquoise Lake. The first half marathon to Mayqueen is basically flat and easy so we arrived close to course record pace in 1:42, but were 6 minutes behind Argentinian, Gustavo Reyes, who I've met a couple of times before and who tends to start fast.
Mike's tactics were clearly to 'man-mark' me so every time I hiked at any point up the first climb to Sugarloaf Pass, so did he, and we stuck together chatting away. The sunrise was beautiful and it felt like the perfect start to a race. I suspected we'd run together for most of the race, but at the second aid station at mile 24.5 I jumped in a toilet and he kept going so we got separated. He noticeably accelerated since Gustavo was now 12 mins ahead, while I sat back and keep things pretty relaxed in third. This was basically the theme through to the half-way at Winfield, but the difference was that we had the first ascent of Hope Pass just before the 50-mile turn-around, a 3,400ft climb followed by a sharp 2,400ft descent.
Gustavo and Mike slowed after the high point and I almost caught up to them both by the decent into Winfield, despite getting cramps in both calves for the first time ever in a race. Luckily it didn't seem to be too serious but I had to slow down and stretch both sides a couple of times too. My food and hydration were fine but I was concerned that I had a lot of miles left and cramps could end the race.
|Heading up Hope Pass outbound. Photo: Leadville Race Series|
On the return leg up Hope Pass I had my first pacer/mule, Ryan Smith, and caught Gustavo by about mile 52 then caught Mike just before the pass summit. I later found out he puked at the top and basically couldn't hold down any food for 4-5 hours, so his energy levels were plummeting. In contrast I was feeling really positive and hammered down the more gradual, but longer, side of the pass straight into the vast majority of the field who were on their first climb up Hope. I always love this section because the entire field is so positive and it's enjoyable to interact and pep them up too. In addition, it's a sweet downhill and is pretty fast.
At this stage I knew it was game on and also knew from the experience of racing Mike last year at Leadville that he's never down and out even if he looks completely spent. So I decided to push and see if I could gap him over the next 20-30 miles to such an extent that his phoenix-like come-backs wouldn't be enough. I was running faster (at altitude) on some of the easy sections than at Rocky Raccoon 100, a race that takes around four hours less time to complete. However, when in the lead you don't get updates regularly about how the chase pack is doing and those updates are always out of date, relying on splits to a previous aid station instead of how the chaser is currently doing. Altra team-mate, Josh Arthur, paced me through mile 61.5 to the final aid station and I hope my grunting, huffing and puffing wasn't too off-putting.
By Outward Bound inbound (mile 75.5) I heard I had a 23 minute lead at the last aid station, so it seemed like the effort was paying off. It needed to, since I was leaving very little in the tank for the final 20 miles. The steep climb up Powerline took me to around mile 82 and I was well ahead of my splits from the previous two years, but wanted to cruise it in since my legs were more fatigued than they usually would be at that stage. Luckily my stomach, head, cramping and energy levels all stayed reasonably OK, although by Mayqueen inbound (mile 86.5) I started to feel dizzy. My final pacer was Dana Kracaw, who lives in Leadville and knows the area and the mountains in extreme detail. I told her I probably couldn't talk much but that it would be a welcome distraction if she wanted to talk. So that section consisted of me sounding like I was giving birth while she told jokes and kept things more light-hearted.
At this stage I knew the race was mine to lose since I had a lead of at least an hour and Mike was dropping farther and farther back and still had stomach problems. He later dropped after Mayqueen and I missed the rivalry from the previous year, but was also happy to avoid the physical and mental stress of having him breathing down my neck.
As dusk fell the sunset looked incredible over the nearby 14er mountains, especially due to the small amount of smoke in the air from west coast fires. It got dark just as we hit the outskirts of Leadville with about a mile to go. That last section along 6th Street is deceptively long (around 3/4 mile) but you can see the finish from quite far away and it doesn't seem to get closer, especially since it's mainly uphill the whole way.
I wasn't running at maximum at this point since I wanted to finish and still be in one piece rather than shaving off a few minutes in the final miles but collapsing in a heap after stopping. It was a relief to cross that line, as it is for every single finisher, but also extremely satisfying to have a race that played out as well as I could have hoped, tactically, and to finish in 16:33. It also felt so good to redeem myself after turning up to Western States in June in the best shape of my life then running much slower that last year (and slower than this Leadville finish, given Western is usually about an hour quicker than Leadville for the top men). I felt fairly certain I was fit and ready for Leadville, but you never really know until you get fairly deep into the race. It'll remain one of my favorite memories from my races and it made me hungry for more Leadville action next year, especially since I really want to run it faster.
|Relief! Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks|
Here's the Strava data for the race, plus the full set of results and iRunFar's write-up and my post-race interview with Meghan Hicks. Congratulations to all who finished and all who attempted it, especially my co-worker, Liza Howard, who got her second win at Leadville and her first sub 20-hr finish in 19:34. That altitude really screws people up but it adds a challenge that makes the race special. It also helps that every trip to the race gives an excuse to play on the local 14er mountains in advance (but not TOO much).
Thanks for all the support and messages before and after the race, to my kick-ass pacing crew of Dana, Ryan and Josh, and to everyone who organized or volunteered at the race.
Shoes - Altra Lone Peak 2.5 with Altra gaiters
Socks - Drymax Maximum Protection Trail socks
Hydration - multiple UltrApire Isomeric Pocket 20oz handhelds
Food - Clif Bar gels (around 15), Shot Bloks (around five packs), Organic Energy Food (around six sachets and an assortment of stuff from the aid stations
Headgear - LifeBeam heart rate monitor Smart Hat
Shades - Julbo Venturi with Zebra lenses