Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Mother’s, Wife’s and Misfortunes: A Leadville 100 Race Report

I have really been taking it easy between races in the Grand Slam this year to include finishing up self-indulgent race reports but it has worked for me thus far so why break with tradition after Leadville?  The 2012 race came with a new trail segment that was added in just 4 days before the race.  This is something that most people knew was coming but nobody knew when.  I was astounded that the “when” was on race week.
The new segment is a new part of the Continental Divide trail and it begins a couple miles down from hope pass at the Sheep’s Gulch trail head, at least I’m pretty sure that’s what the location is called.  In any case, the new trail segment begins after you come down off Hope Pass but just before you would have normally hit the dirt road to Winfield.  People have been complaining about the road to Winfield for a long time saying that it was dusty and dangerous with all the car traffic.  Frankly I never saw an issue with it but then again I’ve only run Leadville once before.
The new trail segment “parallels” the road to Winfield and keeps runners mostly in the woods and mostly on single track trail.  As the trail was being built various people posted updates on the progress of the trail building and in the end their experiences in running the trail.  Based on those reports I was expecting that the new trail would add about 750 to 800 feet of climbing, add about two miles to the course, be pretty runnable and be nice and wide.  A friend of mine who has now run Leadville 9 times ran the new segment during a training run and told me that it would cut the finishing rate by 10% right off the top.
When I hit the new section of trail I was feeling pretty good.  I had just crossed Hope Pass so I wasn’t exactly spry but I was certainly in decent shape and a nice amble up the Winfield road would have seen me in to Winfield feeling ready to refuel and be on my way.  Instead, I arrived in Winfield feeling kind of grumpy, more tired than I would have liked and in need of rest and serious rehydration.
The beginning of the trail segment was indeed runnable and it was a well constructed trail for its entire length.  However, it wasn’t wide by any means when you consider that you have traffic going in both directions.  Still, it’s a wilderness trail so in that respect it was perfect.  I don’t recall just how much of the beginning of the new section is relatively flat but soon enough, almost imperceptibly, the trail starts to climb and shortly after that it is quite obviously climbing, nothing like Hope or Powerline but you know it’s there, you can see it and feel it.  At this point I was starting to get pissed off at Lifetime Fitness for pulling this crap on us at the last minute but then I had to admit that the trail was considerably more scenic than the Winfield road and, let’s be honest, Leadville is a trail race so…So I trundled along the new segment of Continental Divide trail alternately grumbling to myself and admitting that the new section was both appropriate for the race and nicer.
Personally, I think that new trail section may have added somewhere in the ballpark of 35 to 40 minutes to my race.  Just for reference I ran Leadville in 2010 in 27:35 and this year I finished in 29:14 but I had another couple issues this year that I didn’t have in 2010 so the extra time is not all due to the new trail segment.  I also saw an interview with Anton Krupica and he said he thought the new section may have added 25 minutes to his race so if you are planning on running Leadville this is definitely something to consider.  It looks like this is particularly true if you have only run Leadville at some point since the course was changed in response to the 2009 crash of a Black Hawk helicopter on Mt. Massive. 
According to all accounts I’ve heard the course was made both easier and slightly shorter after the 2009 Black Hawk crash.   The historical data bears that out since the average finish rate between 1993 and 2008 was 46.5% and then suddenly in 2009, 10 and 11 the finish rates were 55%, 56% and 56%, respectively, the highest finish rates in the history (since 1993) of the race.  In that case the new trail segment really just brings the Leadville course back up to the old standard.  The finish rate for this year was 45% (also bearing out my friend’s startlingly accurate prediction).  I have heard some speculate that this newest Leadville course might be fractionally more difficult and possibly longer, than any Leadville course in the race’s history though if you just look at finish rates that’s not what it looks like.  It looks more like I said earlier; the race has been brought back to the old standard.
All in all I think this is a positive step for the race.  It would be a real tragedy to see the race really devolve into a Rock-n-Roll marathon type event where the course is made so easy and with such heavy support that the challenge of a hard, 100 mile mountain race is removed.  There are already plenty of other grumblings that Lifetime Fitness is turning Leadville into the Rock-n-roll event of the ultra world with all their incessant self-promotion, unmitigated crowds and unabashed fawning over the Leadman series of events much like R-n-R does with their “Rock Stars” and “VIP” entry options.
One final note on the new trail segment that is really messed up; I have an acquaintance who is a good friend of several of my friends who was going for his 10th Leadville finish this year, his 1000 mile buckle.  This guy is not a young man and has been pursuing the 1000 mile buckle for a while.  At one point in his recent past he even came back from a heart attack to knock off a few more Leadville finishes though none as fast as in his youth.  Over the past three years he has been a consistent 29+ hour finisher but with the last minute course change me was pushed over that magical 30 hour edge and ended up dropping at Fish Hatchery inbound because he knew there was no way he could have made it to the finish line in time.  He missed his shot at the 1000 mile buckle and within a week after Leadville he was involved in a car accident and fractured three vertebras in his spine.  I haven’t received a status update on him as yet but suffice it to say it’s another blow to his ability to eventually get that 10th finish though I know he’ll be back.
As far as my own race goes I felt really good all the way to Twin Lakes inbound and then I made a critical error in nutrition decision making.  Because night was coming on I asked my wife to give me a mixture of coffee and cocoa to take with me for the road.  I’ve used it before but it’s been two years and after it made me sick I suddenly recalled how it had made me queasy in the past.  The thing that complicated matters even more is that I literally took no other calories at Twin Lakes, just that stupid bottle filled with a coffee cocoa mix.  I remember looking at the food available at the aid station and feeling mildly put off because, in typical Leadville style, it was the exact same food that had been offered at every aid station all day long and I thought to myself, “I have this coffee drink, there are plenty of calories in it” so I headed out with nothing, almost immediately started getting sick to my stomach (I think the drink is too heavy on caffeine and too chocolaty) and actually thought to turn around and head back to the aid station for aid but then decided against it because I didn’t want to waste time.
I ended up wasting a lot of time getting increasingly sick and increasingly drained.  In the section between Twin Lakes and Half Pipe my probable finish time plummeted from something in the late 26 to early 27 hour range to the over 30 hour zone.  People were passing me like they were riding an escalator.  My one advantage is my level of experience and this helped me fight off the negativity and self-criticism that would have only made things worse but still, physically, I was a real mess and by the time I finally rolled into Half Pipe I was desperate for calories.  Fortunately I didn’t try and force the calories issue en route so by the time I arrived my stomach was pretty much settled and I was able to consume quite a lot.
However, a significant toll had been taken on my energy reserves, which were soon to be taxed even more.  At Half Pipe it was time for me to change into my warmer running gear because the night was getting cold.  I had put together a large Ziploc bag with a spare long sleeve shirt, some light gloves and a running vest.  I figured this would be sufficient to carry me through at least until Treeline when I would meet my crew again.  It turns out that I didn’t adequately convey my intentions with respect to the Ziploc bag, which was to keep the clothes in the Ziploc and stuff the whole thing in my hydration pack so they would stay dry and therefore warm.  Instead, my crew removed the items from the bag and put them directly into my pack so they were damp with sweat when I retrieved them.
My wife and I have had the crewing responsibilities several times since she is always my crew captain when I have crew and while we both agree that a crew needs to be able to put aside their own needs in order to take care of the runner it is equally true that pretty much no matter what goes wrong in a race it is the runners fault because it is, after all, their race and their responsibility to develop a plan and communicate that plan clearly and effectively and if things don’t go as planned, well, then obviously it wasn’t communicated as needed.
In any case, I put on my gear and headed out to Treeline to meet my crew, or so I thought.  Treeline came and went and no crew.  I found out later that I had inadvertently agreed to meeting them next at Fish Hatchery when my wife said, “Well see you again at Fish Hatchery” and I off handedly said “Ok.”  Again, my fault.  It’s not like I was out of it.  I was feeling good just not paying a whole lot of attention.  So I passed through Treeline and slogged my way to Fish Hatchery and I was absolutely freezing my ass off.  The freezing part made it doubly hard to come back from the nutrition debacle but I was able to pick up the pace slightly.  By the time I rolled into Fish Hatchery inbound I was really beat, zapped of energy and freezing.
My wife and Joe my pacer for the Fish to May Queen segment immediately set about trying to put me back together so I could get back in the race but it was a tall order.  I couldn’t do anything for myself.  I was weak, my hands were numb, I could hardly think straight and I was pretty well spent.  Fortunately I still had the will to fight so I did do what I could to help make decisions that would keep me in the race.  This lead to me laying in a sleeping bag near a heater with blankets piled on me trying to get my core temperature back up.  I did this at Wasatch last year and it took almost an hour but when I left I was feeling pretty solid and ready to go but at Wasatch I had the luxury of time.  Right then and there at Leadville I did not have any such luxury.  I had burned all my spare time on the Colorado trail.  I think I had eight hours to complete then next 23 or so miles and that included a climb up and over Sugar Loaf.
Here is where, in retrospect, one of the major differences between wives and mothers were displayed.  My mom was at the race to watch her first 100 mile trail run.  When I came into Twin Lakes inbound she was there with my crew and I was feeling good.  As I was standing there I could tell by the look on her face that she was bothered by something and so I asked her, “You want to wipe off my face don’t you?” and she immediately started laughing aid said, “Yes, you’re so dirty!”  I had taken a header while running full tilt down Hope Pass and ended up absconding with a lot of the trail’s dirt.  I figured I looked like a mess.  No matter how old you are or what feats of strength and endurance you might perform you are always your mother’s boy and it just won’t do for you to be caught in public with a dirty face.
My wife, on the other hand, was all business.  She was my mate and had adopted my goal of finishing Leadville and the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning as completely as I had, made it her own goal in many ways.  When I was shaking and shivering at Fish Hatchery she was certainly concerned and would have much rather me have been in good shape but that wasn’t where we were at so she kept her eyes on the goal and the clock and made the decision to launch me from Fish Hatchery sooner than I would have liked and hope for the best.
She told me, “You have to get up, you have to go.  I’ll get you dressed and then you and Joe are going to take off.”  I sat up on the cot and she dressed me.  I was shaking so badly that it was hard for her to get gloves on my hands because they were moving all over the place.  I noticed out of the corner of my eye an aid station volunteer watching dubiously as my crew prepared me to run.  I imagined he was wondering if he should step in ad put a stop to this madness.  Joe, my pacer, just looked kind of stunned but he was ready to do whatever it took.  My wife got me to my feet and told Joe he had to get me to May Queen by 6:00 a.m. and had to get some calories in me and then she sent us back out into the cold of the night.
My mom would have been in tears and it would have pained her to see me in such a state and she may well have tried to prevent me from going back out on the trail and maybe that’s what a mom should do but as my partner in all things that’s not the role my wife played.  Fish Hatchery was a for better or worse, in sickness and in health moment and she stepped up to the plate and was with me 100% and got me going.
Despite my rough condition I departed and Joe fed me crackers one at a time as frequently as I could stomach them.  I eventually choked down a couple gels and increased my drinking and started to make a comeback but I never really recovered.  I arrived at May Queen almost 40 minutes ahead of the 6:00 a.m. target, ate some pancakes and then headed out on the final leg to the finish with my son as my pacer.  I maintained as quick a pace as I could until between the two of us we figured that I could go as slow as 35 minute miles for the last few miles and still finish just under the 30 hour cutoff.  That being the case I slowed to an easy amble so I could save whatever I had to save for the final race in the Slam, Wasatch.
I ended up finishing in 29:14 not feeling too bad considering my ordeal.  Probably more important is that I finished with a lot of motivation to move on to Wasatch after a bit of recovery so that’s what I’m doing now, this weekend, Wasatch.   I really love Wasatch though I’ve only done it once before and it is harder than Leadville.  However, Wasatch has a higher finishing rate than Leadville, 67% versus 48%, because of its generous 36 hour cutoff.  My goal is to run a sub-30 and get the cobalt blue buckle but of course I’ll be happy with a finish because that will still earn me my Grand Slam Eagle trophy.