My 2007 Leadville Trail 100 mile run adventure

Find a comfy chair and a cup of your favorite beverage before diving into this post. It's a long read but I think you will find it enjoyable! The photo is of me coming in at the 40 mile mark feeling fantastic and ready to conquer Hope Pass!

Before providing my full race report, I think it is important to give the background behind this race and my motivation to do it again. Yes, I did say again. I am often told how strange (that is actually stating it nicely as you can imagine) I am for even contemplating entering races like this and while I cannot fully explain why I do, it’s just something that I have to prove to myself. I don’t do these types of endurance events for anyone else. It is purely an intrinsic motivator.

Okay, rewind to the year 2004 when I decided to enter the 2005 Leadville Trail 100 mile run. I just came off of completing the 2004 Leadville Trail 100 mile mountain bike race and was so impressed with the entire experience, I felt like I needed that next endurance test. The 100 mile run was it. Now I don’t call myself an experienced runner but something about running 100 miles at altitude intrigued me. My 2005 preparation went well. I did my first ultra-run of a 50k in April of 2005 and had a decent running base going into Leadville. I talked with many ultra-runners and read as much as I could to prepare. However, when I arrived at the start line in 2005 I was still terrified. I had no idea what to expect. I knew I could run but my longest training run was 36 miles so I did not know what my body would do after that point. I think my biggest fear was my nutrition. Even though it is my passion (and my job), you just never know what your body will or will not do during a 100 mile run.

Saturday, August 20, 2005. One day before my Mom’s birthday I toe the line for my true introduction to the crazy sport they call ultra-running. Cold, scared, anxious, excited, nervous…all emotions going through my head at 3:55am, five minutes before the race director’s shotgun started us. I vividly remember the first 47 miles of the race because I was having a great time. Nutrition was good, my body felt great and my mind was holding strong. As I began my 3400 foot ascent of Hope Pass (at an elevation of 12600 feet), I paced myself wisely by powerhiking and walking. As I reached the aid station just below the summit, I began feeling a bit of pain in my right shin. By the time I got to the summit, it was stabbing pain and was getting worse with each step. The hour descent from Hope was probably the most physical pain I have ever experienced in my life but I was able to hobble into the 50 mile turnaround where my crew took care of me. I told them of the pain in my shin and also told them that I was okay to continue (maybe I was just delirious from the pain!). So my pacer and I packed it up and headed out to complete the last 50 miles. Unfortunately, it was very apparent that I would be walking it to the finish line. Running was more painful than walking and walking was painful enough! Needless to say, 18 hours later I did finally cross the finish line, with 36 minutes to spare under the 30 hour cut-off time. It was a huge accomplishment and one that proved to me that physical, mental and nutritional limits can be tested! Oh, and by the way, that shin pain that I mentioned turned out to be a stress fracture! Yep, I walked the last 53 miles with a stress fracture in my lower leg. Live and learn I guess!

Now, fast forward to this past weekend. Before the race report, it’s important to understand why I would enter another Leadville. Say what you will but I did it because I needed to feel like an athlete again. I know it sounds strange but the athlete in me seemed to go into hiding when I moved to Florida. During the short time I was there, I felt unmotivated and did not want to train for anything. I did manage one half-marathon but that’s it. So, entering the 2007 Leadville run was a homecoming for me of sorts.

My preparation for this year’s Leadville went well. I was up to a 3.5 hour long run in early March and then it happened. During a trail run, I had the unfortunate experience of breaking my first bone…ever! It’s amazing what planting my right foot on a little rock in just the right place does to a fifth metatarsal! Luckily I did not need surgery but eight weeks in a walking boot set my training back a bit. I could not run, could hardly put any pressure on my foot while cycling and could only swim with a pull-buoy between my legs. Oh, and did I mention that my first race of the season before Leadville was Ironman Coeur d’Alene the last weekend in June? Needless to say, I finished the Ironman (for my sixth finish) in not a blazing time but with 5 weeks of run training, I was extremely pleased. Eight weeks to go after Ironman was Leadville and my training was ramping up well. I had recovered from Ironman and gradually got to running on the trails again. I had to be a bit careful with my healed broken foot but I did manage some great long runs. My longest run in preparation was 32 miles with a few 2:00, 3:00, 4:00am starts along with two bear sightings throughout the last eight weeks of training!

August 18, 2007. Leadville, Colorado. Elevation 10200 feet. I was mentally, physically and nutritionally ready for this race again. I felt completely ready to take on this challenge again. My crew and I arrived at the start line at about 3:30am, I checked in and was excited to run! Here’s my recap of the run aid station to aid station.

Start to May Queen campground, 13.5 miles. The five hundred plus field didn’t start to thin out until around mile 5. I knew this would be slow going from 2 years ago so I didn’t stress and just had a nice 13.5 mile warm-up. Got to the first aid station, got some fluids and food from my crew and on I went.

May Queen to Fish Hatchery, 10 miles. This section saw some great singletrack in the forest and also an ascent up Sugarloaf Pass to 11000 feet. Descending the infamous Powerline is always fun as it can be quite a quad burner. My strategy was to take it easy this year and go slower on the way down. I pushed it a bit too fast last time and theorize that this was one of the reasons for my stress fracture. It was a great hike up and descent to the next aid station. Grabbed more fluids and food, stripped off some clothing as it was getting hot, sprayed some sunscreen on and off I went again.

Fish Hatchery to Halfmoon to Twin Lakes, 16 miles. The first part of this was all on asphalt and dirt road. After checking into Halfmoon, it was a few more miles to the turn-off to the Mt. Massive trailhead. True to its name, after about a mile on this trail, there was an enormous climb. I was in a pack of about 10 runners and it was slow going for all of us. One foot in front of the other and my heart rate sounding like a drum beating in my head. After this summit, it was a beautiful singletrack run down into Twin Lakes. I was feeling fantastic and ready to conquer the summit of Hope Pass, the 12600 pass that posed a significant challenge for everyone.

Twin Lakes to Winfield, 10.5 miles. After loading up with fluids, food and rain gear, I was off. After about 8 stream and river crossings it was time to begin the hike. It took me almost 2 hours to get to the aid station just below the summit. About halfway up I started feeling something I had never felt before. It is hard to describe but it forced my steps to become shorter and slower and my breathing much more labored, even when my pace slowed down. It wasn’t one thing but a myriad of lightheadedness, dizziness at times and dry mouth. I suspected I was feeling a bit of altitude sickness. Great, spend 25 years of my life in Colorado, move to Florida for one year prior and look what happens? Have I no altitude advantage any longer? By the time I reached the aid station, I was in dire need of fluids. I filled up on some Coke and mashed potatoes and headed out to the summit. On this short, oh about 1 mile walk, I felt like a baby could have crawled faster than I was walking. There were many times that I had to stop and catch whatever breath I could at 12600 feet. I finally made it to the top, sat down for about a minute and decided to start my descent that would take me to the turnaround. Did I forget to mention that it rained the entire way up to the summit from Twin Lakes? Yeah, Mother Nature was not kind and the trail was turned from a nice dusty, rocky trail to a mudslide. More on that later.

Now one thing that I must have not remembered too well from 2005 (or I just conveniently chose to forget!) was how difficult the descent from Hope really was. There were many times that I could not stop unless there was a tree that I could latch my arms around. Rock fields, boulders, loose dirt and rocks made it challenging to get down in one piece. At about mile 47, I planted my foot on a rock right where I broke my foot 5 months prior. It hurt but not like it was broken again thank goodness! I had about half of the gnarly descent left so I did everything I could to protect my right foot from more danger. I finally made it to the Winfield dirt road and began my 2.5 mile trek to my crew and the 50 mile mark of the race!

Winfield, the halfway point. As I entered Winfield, I met my crew, they stripped off my wet shoes and socks, I lubed up my feet with some Hydropel, put on new shoes and socks and was ready to start again. Yes, I was feeling good and ready to get back up Hope Pass again. My pacer carried all of my gear on her back and we headed off. Immediately after leaving Winfield, my stomach began to give me problems. We walked and ran portions of the 2.5 mile dirt road to the trailhead and in that time, my stomach went from good to bad. The ugly part came soon thereafter as we began our ascent to Hope Pass. Braving the rain and very painful hail on the way up, it took us just over 2 hours to summit Hope, I was unable to eat anything and every time I drank water or sports drink, I felt nauseous. We did finally make it to the top and stopped for a chance for me to eat a piece of white bread and water (and to take some amazing photos from the top of our world!). By this time, not only was I not able to consume many nutrients but I was also cold, well, freezing to be exact. I was shivering furiously on the mile descent to the aid station and my pacer was beginning to worry. I sat down and consumed three cups of Ramen noodles with broth, then sat by the fire the volunteers had made before heading down to Twin Lakes again. Now, I had been challenged before in 2005 but not with my gut. This would prove to be a very enlightening as well as long 2 hour trek down the mountain; a trek that should have taken half that long on a good day!

As we began the descent on the mudslide called a trail (seriously, at times our shoes were buried 2 inches in mud!), I soon realized that the ugly that I had experienced climbing up to Hope, turned hideous. I started off fairly well from the Hope aid station but it only took about 10 minutes for the nausea and vomiting to surface. I don’t remember the exact intervals but the “slide” down the mountain included bouts of normal conversation with my pacer (that is, when she wasn’t having so much fun sliding in the mud!) with immediate bouts of stopping, grabbing my knees and giving the “heave-ho’s”. It actually brought me back to my freshman year in college but that’s another story! The long and the short of it was that during this 4 or so miles of coming down, I managed to dry heave more than I can count on my hands and vomited fluids a few times. And it always happened after I tried to drink. Red flag!

So here I am, the sports dietitian in me is trying to analyze the situation as best as possible. I had adequate fluids in the ascent and descent, was relatively okay with my sodium intake (the Ramen saved me!), was still peeing about every 1.5-2 hours but was still throwing up (albeit, not much since there was nothing in my stomach!). Take a drink, stop and try to puke. Hmmm…seemed a bit like a disaster in the making! My pacer and I finally made it to the bottom of the mountain, it’s dark and we have to cross the streams and rivers again. Now the entire time coming down, I was hotter than a Gator football player during two-a-days (hint: reference to my last job as a sports dietitian at the University of Florida in what I thought to be the most hot and humid place on the planet!). As I place my foot into the water for the first river crossing, I immediately broke into severe shivers. The kind where you think your teeth are going to fall out because they are crashing into each other so violently! Okay, so we make it through the water crossings and back to Twin Lakes, finally! I came in with 45 minutes before the cut-off time. We find our crew and I immediately lay down on the ground. Whoa, shouldn’t have done that! My crew freaked out a bit but they didn’t understand that I was coherent, just a bit tired of the rain, hail, mud, downhills and my gut by then! After a few choice photos taken of me on the ground (I hope to post a few later!), my crew helped me up and I changed into some warm and dry clothes. Here’s where the challenge really began.

The challenge was not physical, well not really. The decision that I did not want to make was finally upon me. Did I continue on and try to finish or have my wristband cut signifying my first ever DNF? I didn’t take this decision lightly, mind you. I took 35 minutes to make it and in that time I drank fluids, walked around, assessed the gut situation and really, really assessed the “why” behind what I was doing at Leadville a second time. As I mentioned previously, Leadville called my number again because I needed to find the athlete in me again after arriving back home in Colorado. Had I done that? Did I accomplish that goal? I had trained for Leadville since January, completed my sixth Ironman, had numerous long runs of 20 plus miles. Was I comfortable with the direction my life had gone? Decisions, decisions, decisions. My crew of course gave me their input and it was mostly to stop as they feared my health being severely compromised. They knew I hadn’t been able to keep all of my fluids and food down since the turnaround and they did not know what would happen if I had continued on to the next aid station 9 miles away. Would I make it? Would I pass out? Would I have to be hospitalized? All great questions they were thinking as was I.

So here it was. The clock was ticking. I had to make a decision. Back to the real reason of why I was here. Was it to prove that I could finish a 100 mile run? No, did that two years ago. Was it to prove to myself that I could do it again? Not really, I already did it once. The bottom line, after much self-reflection, was that I had already accomplished my goal. I found the athlete in me months ago during the journey of preparation. The race was nothing more than a means to an end but did I want it to end? Along my journey of finding my inner athlete again, I managed to inspire the athletes whom I coach (and some who had crewed for me), my kids, my wife and my mom through my training. I had learned that even though I didn’t feel like the athlete I was upon returning to Colorado that the pure joy of being in the mountains again brought back the life and athlete to me. But hands-down, the most important thing that I considered before making one of the toughest decisions in my life was that even though continually testing your physical limits is exhilirating, there comes a time where embracing the journey of health and fitness is more important than taking risks.

Could I have finished the race? Who knows. From a time perspective, the answer appears to be “yes”. But I learned more during those 35 minutes sitting at mile 60 in Twin Lakes, Colorado than I have in 14 years as an endurance athlete. I learned that the journey is truly more important than the end result.

Enjoy life. Love your family and friends and as my posted note on my computer screen at home reminds me daily, “do the right thing”.

Thanks for reading!

Coach Bob