Let’s start off with facts & numbers; those are the first things most humans want to know in order to understand an event.
This was my second attempt at the Leadville Trail 100, and I didn’t finish. I missed the time cutoff at mile 60 by 2 minutes.
Leadville is a 100 mile race run at elevation, the lowest point is 9,200 ft and the highest (Hope Pass) is 12,600 feet above sea level. It’s an “out and back” course, so you run 50 miles out then turn around and come back. This year 690 people started the race and about 300 finished. You have 30 hours to finish it. It starts at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, and finishes at 10 a.m. on Sunday. If you finish in under 30 hours, you get a nice silver belt buckle. If you finish in under 25 hours you get a big gold belt buckle. The winners come in around 18 hours.
Ok, those are the numbers. As I started checking my messages this morning after waking up, I saw a bunch of people who were really fired up for me throughout the race. Thank you so much for your support and interest.
At this point (the morning after), the most common thing I’m hearing is along the lines of “Hey, sorry you didn’t make it, you must be super bummed.” Again, thank you so much for your support, but I’m not bummed, I’m stoked, and here’s why:
Leadville is a test. On the one side, it’s a numbers test; can you finish in the allotted time period? This year (and last year) I didn’t.
Running Leadville involves another test, and passing or failing that has nothing to do with the numbers. That test has two parts: Did you lay it all out there? and Did you quit?
Those happy few of you who read my blog know me, so you’ll understand when I say that as a young man I was pretty sure I was a tough motherfucker. Still, being tough in your early twenties is no guarantee that you remain tough the rest of your life.
I’m not going to debate the merits of “toughness”, I believe it’s important and part of being a man. I am going to say that this time, running Leadville for me was a validation that I will lay it all out there every time and I will not quit. I validated (this was not a known for me) that when I’m faced with a decision regarding whether or not I should incur & endure physical pain in order to attempt a goal, no matter how badly I hurt, I will go for it.
You may think, “Well Nik, I knew that about you, you’ve always been…blah blah blah.” While you may have a picture in your head of who I am, I don’t have the same confidence in that vision, and it requires consistent self testing for me to know what I’m capable. of. Validating that idea of still “having what it takes” was the important part of the race. That I didn’t finish the race has relatively little importance to me.
Ok, with that most important piece out of the way, let’s get to the race report & lessons learned.
The first 23 miles were good; on schedule and while I felt a little overtrained I was still confident in my ability. I worked running downhill in my training a bunch this last year and it paid off.
At about mile 24 I started to cramp and fade due to not eating enough and not taking in electrolytes. At mile 25 I found a total angel at Treeline (one of the crew stations) who gave me a ziploc baggie full of salt tabs. It saved my ass, but it would take a while for the salt to absorb, so by mile 26 or so I was completely cramped up on the side of the trail, unable to move my legs for about 5 full minutes.
The cramps were unlike anything I’d experienced before in my life; completely incapacitating and extraordinarily painful. Runners going by asked if I needed help, but there wasn’t anything they (or I) could do.
After 5 minutes I was able to start taking tiny staggering steps, which eventually led to a shuffle. It was a struggle and a fight to move and not quit, and it took a good hour or so until the cramps finally released, and by that time I thought I was out of the race and would miss the time cut off at mile 40.
About mile 35 I started to be able to walk, and by mile 36 I could shuffle. At mile 37 I passed a Marine on the trail, he was staggering with hip issues. Those guys are tough. We talked briefly and he convinced me if I hustled I could actually make the time cut off at mile 40.
I thought of the folks who supported me throughout not just the race but the previous year of training, and I didn’t want to let them down with anything less than my best efforts. Mostly I thought of my wife Lee, and how much of her time she devotes to supporting me train, making it possible for me to attempt this race. I can’t claim that what I did next came entirely from me; knowing Lee was waiting for me and counting on me to hustle provided most of my inspiration.
I rallied (the first of 3), I ate the pain like I used to in the old days, and I got out of the 40 mile station (Twin Lakes) with a roaring crowd and 15 minutes to spare. While you may think of this as solely the efforts of one runner, none of us does this alone. Having a supportive community allows you to be better than you think you are (one of the trademark phrases of Leadville is, “You are better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.”)
The cramps at mile 26 seemed like they added 40 miles of running effort to my legs, so I was stoked about pushing through the next section.
From Twin Lakes I had a 3,000′ climb in 5 miles up to Hope Pass. Last year I held about a 36 minute/mile pace going up to Hope (not a typo, it’s hard climbing at altitude.) Fired up from seeing Lee and my friend Kevin Montford at Twin lakes, for the second of my 3 rallies, this year I held a 16 minute/mile pace going up to Hope Pass. Charging hard and as my good friend CR would say, proud.
I stormed over Hope Pass and had to move & shake 3,000′ back down to Winfield. I passed a bunch of folks who had given up making the time cut and I got to Winfield with 10 minutes to spare. Blasted in and out of there four minutes before cut off and had to rally for the third time to get back up & over Hope Pass and run down the other side back to Twin Lakes.
I was fading but not slacking. I went as hard as I could, passed another bunch of folks who just gave up trying, and when I came in to Twin Lakes (mile 60) and missed the time cutoff by 2 minutes, I was totally OK with it. I had given it everything I had.
Now, lessons learned:
First, 30 miles a week training is probably the minimum for me to have a good race. Aside from the major cramping issue I had between miles 23 and 35 I felt like I’d run enough to hit the sub-25 hour mark.
Before next year’s race I’m aiming to run at least a 50 mile race and to increase my weekly miles to between 40 & 50.
Second, nutrition. I tried to go totally Paleo and it was a disaster. The burritos I made (Paleo turmeric wraps with avocado, sweet potato, and bacon) tasted really good before I ran but the thought of them as I came into the first station was revolting, so I didn’t eat. That was the first in a series of bad moves that left me with full leg cramps (calves, quads, hamstrings, and a particularly tender muscle high on the inner thigh that I didn’t know I had) at about mile 26.
Second (b), electrolytes/salt/pills & powders. I used those last year (2013) and didn’t realize how much they helped. I just thought taking them was a pain in the ass and it didn’t make a difference because I was naturally awesome. I’m not, the pain in the ass was worth it, and I won’t neglect that aspect again.
Third, race crew is mission critical and often overlooked. Lee crewed for me this year (and last year), and without her help in picking up on everything from fine grain details like where warm clothes should be placed to big picture ideas such as making a total change to how we’d handle nutrition on the fly when it became obvious that my plan wouldn’t work, she’s a total star. Without her support during the race or in the 12 months before it, I flat out wouldn’t be able to do this.
That wraps up most of the race.
The final piece is the idea of facing the unknown. Most of the things we do on a daily basis involve “knowns”, from how long it takes to drive to work to when you’ll eat to how hard your workout will be. Those of you out on the sharp end live with mortal unknowns all the time, and running a trail race pales in comparison, but for most of us we rarely face the unknown.
What do I mean when I say “the unknown”? Aside from the obvious (and unknowable), I’m referring to how much pain we can take, how long we can endure, what we’ll do when we’re faced with an easy fail or a hard victory, how we behave when we’re under pressure, how we treat others when we’re hurting, and to what lengths we’re willing to go to accomplish a goal.
They’re unknowns because there’s no way to test them under anything other than “real” conditions. We can lay on the couch or sit at the coffee shop or dream in the shower about what might be, but the only way to pull back the curtain is to, in finest cliched fashion, step into the fucking arena.
Facing those unknowns is not necessary to stay alive in today’s world, but for those of us who hear the call, regularly seeking them out and peering into the void is critical to living.