Sunday 17 August 2014

Leadville Trail 100 - How Many Second Winds Can One Man Have?

Photo: Caleb Wilson

Leadville was an amazing experience last year as part of the Grand Slam and I had a great trip to Colorado again, especially the two weeks of hiking in the mountains. The race didn't quite go to plan but I felt I got the most out of my legs on the day - both a result of last year's 100-milers. The fatigue has been lingering all year at Rocky Raccoon 100 and Western States 100 thanks to not taking a proper long rest after last season, but the plus side is that I really feel I've learnt how to adjust mid-race and maximize how the day goes, no matter what issues I have to deal with. Luckily it's an easy fix as I just need a little time off and won't be running a step for at least a month (mountain biking and hiking are another story).

Back to the race itself and it turned out to be something I'll remember for many years to come. It started off with a lot of similarities to last year. Firstly I led into Mayqueen aid station at mile 13.5 by a few seconds, just like 2013 (although I spent 45 mins with my headlamp on minimum since the battery went flat well before sunrise despite a full charge). Then I dropped to 9th by the top of Sugarloaf at mile 18. Back into 5th at Outward Bound aid station at mile 24.5 and into 4th just before Twin Lakes at mile 39.5. All identical to last year, plus Mike Aish was 20+ mins ahead in the lead which he did in 2013 too. It was just slower and the legs felt fatigued compared to last year.

There was a stunning sunrise over Turquoise Lake and a sunny day throughout which made for beautiful running conditions. I was behind my 2013 splits the whole way out but had a solid hike up the major climb of the day at Hope Pass, which ascends over 3,000ft to mile 45.5. On the way down to the turnaround at Winfield (mile 50) I squeezed past Zeke Tiernan to get into third, but then the race started to get really crazy.

Mike Aish had a huge 25 min lead over me at the turnaround and picked up my Grand Slam nemesis (and good friend), Nick Clark, as his pacer. Rob Krar took a wrong turn due to what must have been trail sabotage, costing him around six mins so he was perhaps 10 mins back from Mike. I would have gone the wrong way too but saw Rob heading back up the turn I'd have missed. That got re-marked in time for the next competitors but meant that Zeke caught up to me.

A quick turn-around and I picked up my first pacer, Brendan Trimboli, getting out of Winfield in 8:07, about 17 mins slower than last year. We saw Timmy Parr right behind Zeke but were mainly focused on power-hiking the crap out of the steep two-mile, 2,000ft ascent back up to 12,600ft after the rolling few miles from the aid station.

I felt much better by this stage and had accepted that my legs didn't have quite as much pep as 2013, but knew sub 17hrs was on the cards if I kept my head. The climb went well with a steady, fast power-hike that put a small gap between myself and Zeke. Then the descent was just as much fun as last year as I let myself go and caught up some time on both Mike and Rob, plus saw several hundred runners coming the other way who were really gracious and made it very easy for me to move past them. Brendan played a big role here by going 20ft ahead to warn that a runner was coming through (I'd been told in advance this was a key benefit to having a pacer on this section).

Amazingly I caught up to Mike just before Twin Lakes (mile 60.5), seemingly done for the day with swollen knees and quads. Last year I caught him walking at mile 67 to take the lead, so it looked like things continued to play out like 2013, but with the addition of Rob Krar ahead. Despite only half a mile to the aid station, I put five mins on Mike and assumed he'd be lucky to finish. How wrong I was!

Running through a XC section. Such a perfect sunny day. Photo: Brendan Trimboli

The 1,400ft climb out of Twin Lakes is more gradual than Hope Pass but steep enough to force me to hike almost all of it. It was also hot so my second pacer, Aaron Keller, carried some iced water to pour on my neck at regular intervals ('muling' is allowed at Leadville). I assumed the game had switched to a safe second place and maybe first if Rob faltered, but around mile 66, Mike Aish flew past me while I ran close to 8-min/mile pace on a flat section. By the Half Pipe aid station (mile 69) he was three mins ahead. How had he turned things around and could he sustain it for the first time in a race this long?

I kept moving at a very respectable pace but by Outward Bound (mile 75.5) he was over six minutes ahead, despite 'looking bad' according to many reports. I've learned that people can look like death in an ultra (eg. Nick Clark, who's famous for looking spent but continuing to move fast) and still run well, so I didn't pay too much attention to that.

A couple of rolling road miles took me to the bottom of the steep Powerline climb with my third pacer (I was spoiled with such a good crew), local Leadvillian, Dana Kracaw. I still had a solid uphill power-hike available and zoomed up, catching Mike a mile from the summit. This time I was sure he was out of it, but kept pushing the pace (I got the Strava CR for the section over Powerline to Mayqueen, showing I wasn't hanging about). Down the gentle downhill I ran sub 8 min/miles then heard Mike charging behind me. I pushed to go faster and zoomed along the jeep road but he still passed me and put about a minute lead on me by the turn into the single track. How did he keep coming back from the dead like this?

A few minutes into the technical single track I'd dropped my pacer, Dana, and caught up to Mike as he looked like he was bent over retching (I found out after the race he was taking his shoes off due to a blister!). Within the next two miles down to Mayqueen (mile 86.5) I gapped Mike by five mins and was pushing along the road section, not stopping at Mayqueen at all. Dana arrived a minute after me but I'd teamed up with Brendan again for the final section.

Last year I ran 1:57 for the Mayqueen to the finish split, basically the same as Matt Carpenter's CR split. I'd pushed myself to the brink because of a charging Nick Clark, although he had blown up right after the aid station and slowed considerably. This time I thought I'd secured second and had a tiny chance of catching the 30 min gap to Rob Krar if things went south for him.

I ran virtually every step along Turquoise Lake, pushing myself up the little rollers and certainly going faster than 2013. Then the short, sharp drop back on to the road and just 5.5 miles to go. The only problem was that Dana and Aaron were there with news that Mike was only a minute behind! He'd turned on the after-burners one last time and was flying at an unbelievable speed (or maybe not when you consider he's a 27-min 10k runner). I sped up as his crew plus mine cheered along the last flat section before the turn back on to the unrelenting uphill to the finish. He'd said on Powerline that his uphill legs were blown so I hoped I could remain ahead if I got to the climb and the last 3.5 miles first.

It was a full-on race with us both running close to 7-min miles and he caught me right at the turn uphill onto the steep first 400m uphill. We both settled into the fastest power-hike I've ever seen, neck-and-neck. As the gradient dropped to around 10% I started running, maybe 5 feet ahead of him. My watch showed 8-min mile pace and it felt hard, but he drew level and accelerated. I tried to match him but couldn't and had to drop to a more sustainable 9-10 min/mile pace, hoping he'd blow one last time. Afterwards he told me his split for that mile was just over seven mins!

As dusk turned to dark we approached the turn into Leadville and the switch back from a gravel road to asphalt, but Mike was around two minutes ahead. I couldn't see a way to close that within under a mile, especially since he was running, not walking. So I settled down into a slower pace to avoid the minor high altitude pulmonary edema issues I had last year (I succeeded) and ended up crossing the line in 16:41:38 (11 mins slower than last year), three minutes behind Mike and 32 mins behind Rob, who won in the second fastest time ever, 16:09. Mike's split from Mayqueen to the finish was 1:49:46, over seven minutes faster than anyone else ever. Considering how many low points he had that's just mind-blowing - Rob and I both ran around 1:58 for that section.

I wanted to end my season giving everything to the race, although I hoped I wouldn't feel so tired. Thanks to Mike I can walk (or limp) away with the satisfaction that I pushed to my limit on the day, wrapping up the season with a podium and becoming the first person to break 17 hours at Leadville twice. The podium's times were the 2nd, 6th and 7th fastest in history, so we certainly made a race of it. Zeke came in with his second best time on the course, in 17:35, and Dave Mackey was next after rallying for a negative split 100-miler to finish as the first of the Leadman competitors in the 100, in 19:10.

The women had a close race for first and second too, with Emma Roca running the first five miles in the lead with myself and Zeke before taking a bad fall. Emma and Liza Howard yo-yoed ahead of each other all day with Liza sitting as high as fifth late in the race. They finished with Emma in 8th overall in the third fastest time ever (19:38) and Liza just behind in 20:01. That must have been an epic battle too and I can't wait to hear more about it from Liza.

Full results here. Plus my Strava data here.

Thanks to everyone involved with the race as it was very well organized and seemed to deal with the overcrowding and other race management issues from 2013. It was another memorable, special day and I feel lucky to be a part of this sport.

Off season time:

Post-race with a super-tight jacket courtesy of Dana.


Scott Kinabalu T2 shoes
UltrAspire handhelds
Drymax Maximum Protection Trail socks
Julbo Dust shades
Clif Bar gels (approx 40) plus other Clif products

Saturday 9 August 2014

Update pre-Leadville

It's a week until my last main race of the year, certainly my last ultra, at Leadville Trail 100. Last year was so much fun with two weeks of Colorado fun, including seeing some of the Hardrock 100 course in the San Juans.

This year I didn't have the Grand Slam to deal with so I was able to fit in the Badwater pacing on the adjusted, non-Death Valley route (see write-up by Eric Spencer here) plus the San Francisco marathon three weeks prior to Leadville race day. That marathon is a race I love, especially with the section running over the Golden Gate Bridge and back. In addition, the local ultra community was out in force with some good banter on the start line with the likes of Alex Varner, Jorge Maravilla and Devon Yanko. A quick summary - I had a head cold but wanted to move my legs a bit faster than any time since Western States, so I ran a 2:43 negative split (1:22/1:21). Much more encouraging than my fitness pre-Leadville last year where I felt worn down with no speed at all. At a guess I'd say I could have run a marathon just under three hours at Leadville last year, so that seems like an improvement.

For the past week I've been staying in Leadville for the period pre-race (10,150ft), compared to Durango (6,700ft). I did get up higher for a few days last time, but this year I've already summited three 14ers at Mt Elbert, Mt Massive and Mt Sherman (see photos below). I also had a few days at 6,200ft at Lake Tahoe before coming to Colorado.

So on paper my preparation is better and I feel stronger and better adapted to altitude already, with another week left. Who know if that'll translate to a better run, but it feels good to be ready. A last minute addition to the field of Rob Krar means the course record is certainly under threat, plus Mike Aish has the potential to run around that time if he can nail a race this long and Zeke Tiernan returns after previously running one of the six sub-17hr times ever run on the course. The field may not be as deep as somewhere like Western States but at least one guy will nail it and run a very fast time.

Some photos from the past few weeks:

Tahoe sunset

Sunrise over Emerald Bay, Tahoe

Tahoe sunrise at Emerald Bay

View from Mt Tallac looking away from Tahoe

Echo Lakes, Tahoe

First day in Colorado, near Leadville at 12,000ft

Mt Elbert (tallest mt in Colorado) with Dana Kracaw and Alberto Rossi

Mt Massive from Mt Elbert

Twin Lakes on the Leadville course

Looking down at Leadville from Mt Sherman

On the way up to Mt Massive

Selfie on top of Mt Massive

View from Mt Massive

Telluride Valley from above

Bridal Veil Falls, Telluride

We're in an ultra boom right now. Even the construction industry knows it.