Leadville makes nothing easy. When I tell people that I completed a marathon, I emphasize that this was the Leadville Marathon. Over 6,000 feet of climbing with half of that being in a 3 mile stretch, altitudes above 12,000 feet with the turnaround being at 13,185 feet, and loose dirt trails. Rain, blistering sun, wind, hail, thunder, and lightning. All of those elements make no normal marathon.
And this is why I love Leadville.
Jumping to the end of the day for a moment, my son asked what over 6,000 feet of climbing was like. I paused for a moment and said:
Imagine that a step on a flight of stairs was 1 foot high. Now imagine going up over 6,000 of those steps.
That moment made me realize with a little more clarity what I had accomplished. Damn.
My alarm clock sounded at 3:30a. After being interrupted by a hail storm during the night, 5 hours of sleep feels as short as it sounds. I tried a new breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes that were leftover from the day before, and added strawberries with light syrup. I downed half a cup of coffee and was out the door to pickup Derek.
Today would be Derek’s first race. Ever. And he was bold enough to register for the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon.
Why is it called a Heavy Half Marathon? A traditional half marathon is 13.1 miles and on moderately flat pavement. In Leadville, it is 15.46 miles with almost 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Welcome to Leadville.
How did Derek decide to register for this race as his first? You’ll have to read about that in another post as it is deserving of its own space.
Derek and I hadn’t talked much since last year’s Leadville 100 where he was on my crew. The 2 hour ride was filled with topics of web design, what to eat on long runs, past mutual co-workers whereabouts, training for this year’s Leadville 100, and kids’ activities.
We arrived in Leadville and found my favorite parking spot. It’s 500 feet from packet pickup and 2 blocks from the starting line. There are only about 30 spots in that lot, so was happy to see a few places open.
Derek and I headed over to get our packets, bibs, and timing chips. I walked him through the steps, gathered our new race shirts, and headed back up to the car. It was great to share my tips on attaching the bib number and other lessons from my pain (chaffing and sunscreen) so others could enjoy the experience.
We still had over an hour until the start, so walked over to catch a view of the situation.
Derek: You weren’t kidding when you said the start is uphill.
No amount of looking at a map can really make you appreciate this. It is truly uphill. Not a gradual incline, but uphill.
We ran into some other runners I have met in Leadville, talked about the day and past events, then made our way into the lineup. A dark cloud drifted over the starting line and a drizzle of rain began to fall. It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that we were told to Go! and into an uphill trot we went.
Running uphill is one thing, but starting the uphill climb at an elevation of 10,000 feet is another. Your lungs gasp for air and heart rate easily doubles. Legs feel fine, but it is a mental challenge to deal with the increased fight for oxygen. It wasn’t going to end anytime soon as the first 4 miles were uphill.
Derek stuck with me for the first half mile and then at the 1 mile mark, he split off onto his course. As I started the climb on the dirt road I could see him. In many ways I envied and reminiscence on my first race at Leadville. Great pain, but great memories.
It was barely mile 2 when I started the walk up. Mentally I was prepared that this would be almost all walking and for the most part it was. For me it wasn’t so much how steep it was, but more the looseness of the ground. That makes your entire body work even harder to cover the same amount of ground.
Mile 4 – First Aid Station
As the course broke above the trees, many of us stopped to take in the views. Just a short climb left over the dirt hill would reveal the first aid station and energetic volunteers waiting for us. It is worth noting that volunteers at the Leadville races are different. They have either participated in a run or bike race up here or been volunteering long enough to know what is happening. Too many times I’ve been in a city marathon and at mile 22 have someone yell about almost being there. The last 4 miles of a 26.2 mile race are not almost there but I appreciate the attention.
I strolled up to the table and took in the view.
Me: This is the best buffet I have seen all day!
Volunteer: I bet you say that to all the aid stations.
Me: To be fair, this is the first one, but I will let you know when I get back.
Volunteer: Did you notice we color coordinated the M&Ms with Roctane drink?
Me: You are awesome.
Mile 5 – Look behind you
This leg of the course was familiar to me from running Silver Rush 50 a couple of times. It is also on this descent that I had my favorite memory … an epic 20 foot face slide down the trail.
I came up over the hill and the lady in front of me stopped to take a photo.
Me: Don’t forget to look behind you.
Behind us was a snow-capped mountain range view covering the entire horizon. It is a spectacular site that makes Leadville even more special.
Lady: Wow … thank you!
I already have the photo and my focus was on moving forward before the engine decided to give out. It is a good reminder to glance behind you every once and awhile. While forward motion is the goal, knowing what is behind you helps.
Mile 6 – Snow on the trail
Again with Leadville, they provide every experience possible … including variations in weather. At this point we were climbing over another peak and snow covered the trail. Well, there was a trail through the snow covered in mud. Each side had a good portion of cold wet stuff that made it hard to resist sliding down. I resisted.
After passing over this peak, it’s a nice rolling downhill of trail surrounded by picturesque mountain range views. This provides an opportunity to stretch the legs out and let gravity finally lend a hand.
Mile 10 – Base of Mosquito Pass
The part of the trail I had been planning for. Time for an epic climb after already climbing 2,000 feet over 10 miles in rain and sun. I started the climb with Bob whom I had been yo-yoing with for a few miles. We chatted about where we were from, the need to puke, and saving our energy for the climb. As we started the climb, it didn’t sound like he was doing well. He talked about cramping and upset stomach, so he stopped for a bit saying he would catch up. I pushed on (yes, still just first mile of the climb) up the hill while remembering to take in the views
The climb was also a chance to see Derek on his way down Mosquito Pass and see how he was doing. His course took him there 5 miles before mine, so knew we would cross paths. It was almost a mile up the trail that we spotted each other. We both stopped and chatted a bit.
Derek: That climb was more brutal than I imagined and I still have 6 miles to finish!
Me: Ummmm … I still have to climb this damn thing and go another 15 miles … but I get what you’re saying.
Other than that, the topics were around nutrition, breathing, and getting to the finish line. Normal running fodder. I wished him well and apologized for the hours he was going to be waiting for me at the finish line.
Upward. It wasn’t more than 20 minutes later I came across the first person that was not fairing so well. She was talking to the sky, her water bottle, and breaking down in tears. All you can say to someone at that stage is to sit, drink, eat, and move on. After all, I could be that person 10 minutes from now.
The climbs are steep and the footing is loose. About halfway up I started to see other marathoners making their way down. They were gingerly coming down as well being careful not to hit a loose rock. It got to the point that I had to stop every 5 minutes and catch myself. Head was woozy, breathing was heavy, and questioning myself getting louder.
Turn around at 13,185 feet of elevation and the wind was picking up. It probably got up to 20 mph so it was time to put on the jacket. At the beginning of the race I had questioned whether or not to carry it with me. Good call to have it.
I know when I’m starting to lose it. To say that the altitude
hadn’t wasn’t getting to me would be a lie. In fact, I had been lying to myself for a good 2 hours by this point.
I noticed the volunteer had a can of PBR behind the table.
Me: You have PBR and you’re not sharing?!?!
Volunteer: It’s medicine.
Heading back down the mountain, I knew I could pass the time in the first half mile by sending words of encouragement to those climbing up. Putting their focus on the food and drink available to get them some energy back. Letting them know it’s not really just around the corner, but the 3rd corner. I made sure to let them know to ask the volunteer for a can of PBR. How could I resist?
Even after almost an hour and a half of walking up the mountain, I found myself walking down the mountain. My legs were stiff and the up-and-down motion was nauseating my stomach. I was feeling a bit woozy, but didn’t know if it was altitude, dehydration, or lack of calories. Or, all the above.
Mile 14 – Descending
I could see Bob up ahead. He was wearing a vibrant red shirt which made him easy to spot on the side of a mountain. In fact, I could see him laying down! It seemed to about 10 minutes later that I finally caught up to him.
Me: Bob! What the hell are you doing?!?! Get moving!
Bob: I’ve been cramping and vomiting for the last hour.
Me: Welcome to the party! Get moving!
Harsh? Yeah, but sometimes you need to snap out of the self-pity whining party and move forward
Around the corner was a pile of snow on the ground. Yes I did make a snowball and chuck it over the edge of the mountain. I went for a mountain trail run and started a snowball fight. Bring it.
Mile 15 – Lady just don’t care
There have been many things I have seen in a race. Animals, people passing out, tears, face-dives … but I was not prepared to come around a corner and see an almost 50 year old lady squatting on the trail doing number 2. To her credit, we were above treeline and off the side of the path would mean a long fall to the bottom (not a shortcut you want to take). She was done by the time I passed her which I appreciated.
Base of Mosquito Pass … BOOM thunder. It echoed and roared through the valley making its presence known. Soon after raindrops followed. They weren’t large raindrops and it stopped after a few minutes, but it was enough to notice the lightning up ahead. The storm was right over the direction I was heading.
I came into the aid station at the base and helped myself to cookies, soda, and pretzels. These are things I don’t plan, but just listen to that voice inside my head that tells me what to eat. Sadly no donuts there.
Volunteers have sense of humor at Leadville:
Me: That lightning looks close.
Volunteer: You know how to avoid being hit by lighting, right?
Volunteer: Run with that guy over there. He’s taller than you.
Laughter is the best cure for pain. That joke still makes me laugh.
Mile 18 – Making friends
Derek made a comment at the beginning of the race: It’s like we’re going off to war.
This is true, but would I really enjoy about the trail and ultra running community is that we all recognize a day can turn bad quickly. We are going off to war, but we are going together.
At this point I knew that I was going to take longer to complete the race than I did last year. I went through the normal stages of grief:
Anger: What the hell did I do wrong? I have doubled my training and done all my running on a treadmill!
Depression: Man I suck at this. What makes me think I can possibly finish the 100 mile run 6 weeks from now?
Acceptance: At least I am out here doing something billions would never fathom.
Fortunately, I was running a little bit more. Amazing the difference your body feels from 13,000 to 10,000 feet of elevation! I caught up to 3 other people and did some power hiking with them for a bit. We had a good talk swapping stories of recent races, overcoming, and what each did for work. Two of them were from NYC while the other Houston. Just proof again, that runners from sea level can run in Leadville.
Mile 19 – Sometimes you have to stop
I ran ahead a little of 2 of my new friends into the aid station. I was there for a little bit knowing that a 3 mile trip around a mountain would bring me to this aid station followed by 4 miles downhill to the finish line. Did my usual cookies and salty foods munch, then turned to see new friend being led into the aid station. It was clear something was wrong.
Turns out her fingers were blue, swollen, and headache had set in. They sat her down and began feeding her electrolytes. When you stop and think about those symptoms, it is hard for panic to not set in. Those are symptoms you should not ignore.
I headed off for the 3 mile loop starting the ascent of the last mountain climb. This was the part of the course at mile 6 I had so much enjoyed coasting down. There would be no coasting this time. Survival had become the name of the game. The NYC friend caught up to me and I asked how his friend was doing. He said she didn’t seem so good so was picking up the pace to get through the loop and back to her before she left. He moved on ahead and I focused on breathing while keeping a decent pace.
I caught up with Houston again as she had left the aid station before me. We chatted all the way down the backside with just over a mile to go. Forgot about this other climb. Ugh. Up we went and I reminiscence about this being part of the Silver Rush 50 course. Great memories!
Mile 22 – Aid Station
Finally saw a break in the trail ahead which meant the final aid station.
Volunteer: What can I get you?
Me: Well, my fingers are blue, I have a headache, and I haven’t been to the bathroom in 3 hours.
I knew exactly what I was admitting. I also knew that it was 4 miles downhill to the finish line and that no volunteer would try to stop me. He grabbed my fingernails, pinched them, looked at me and said you’ll be fine. There was enough pause in his voice to know that he meant you’ll make it to the finish line but then take care of that.
At this point it was 4 miles downhill. I would have been fine to fall into a tuck and roll move to get down faster. I recalled climbing this part several hours ago and enjoyed gravity again. It would have gone smoother had I loosened up a bit, but the pounding of the downward motion was increasing my headache.
Moving onto the dirt road, I made a new friend. We chatted about my symptoms and she offered me a lime flavored shot block. I wasn’t sure that it was going to make it to my stomach, but it did. She said think of it as just having a margarita. That works! Now I wanted a real margarita.
Once I hit the pavement it was push it to the red line. Well, I had already been dancing with the red line, but this was more just go and there were enough people around to see me collapse should that happen. I kicked as hard as I imagined I could until I hit that finish line. Such a cool feeling of pushing past the point of feeling it.
After crossing the finish line, I received my finisher’s mug (in lieu of a race medal this year) and went to find fluids. After a bottle of fluid, I headed to get a plate of the catered local Mexican restaurant food. I was able to get in almost all of the burrito, but stomach was still in a funk. It had little interest in eating while more interest in curling into a ball to enter a coma.
Derek found me laid back in a chair near the finish line. Mutual congrats were exchanged and it was awesome to listen to his story of the day. It is a feat of awe for him to have never run more than 10 miles on a treadmill to complete 15.46 miles at high elevation with 3,500 feet of climbing.
Derek: Are you able to drive? I’ve been done running for a few hours I know I’m not able to drive.
Me: I’m used to driving home after long races, so I’m good. May not be perfection, but I’ll get us back.
One of the cool parts of this race is how it ends. I’m not referring to the course, red carpet finish line, or food. What I am referring to is the ceremonial firing of the shotgun. Three minutes before the course time expires, the Race Director strolls out in front of the finish line, shotgun loaded on his shoulder. The announcer keeps encouraging on any runner insight providing an update of minutes left. Whatever you have left, there is no other time left to bring it.
With 10 seconds remaining on the clock, the crowd counts down. At the zero mark, a single shot rings through the air. Game over. For today.
Text from wife: Congrats on finishing! Do I dare ask how you’re feeling …
Me: No. Recovering slightly, but not fast enough.
The drive down the mountain was a bit of a daze. We stopped before getting on the highway and I knew I should eat something more. After grazing the aisles, I settled on a large Coke and can of Salt and Vinegar Pringles. I ate half the can while downing the Coke in no time. Still had a headache that would last for 2 days.
Overall, another unique experience at Leadville that many are not able to relate to. Even the days that followed, I couldn’t find words to explain the race to those that asked.
How did it go?
It was painfully hard.
That was all I could come up with. Even writing this recap took almost a week. I am able to find plenty of great things to say, but also realize I have a serious problem to fix for the 50 mile and 100 mile races in the very near future.
Still, moving forward and never quitting. Neither of those is negotiable in running or life.