Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Leadville Trail 100: Pace Report

Earlier this summer, Whiting mentioned that her husband, Doug, was going to be racing the Leadville 100 Trail Race for the fourth time, and she asked if Trent and I had any interest in pacing him. Any interest? Are you kidding?! We jumped at the chance to be involved in this iconic event: a 100 mile ultrarun that begins and ends in Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in the United States, sitting at 10,200 feet above sea level.

Even though Doug had sent detailed instructions for pacing, Trent and I really didn’t have any idea what we were doing when we drove up to the mountains on Saturday morning. We met Whiting and the rest of the crew in Twin Lakes, which is where one of the checkpoints is located. We left my car in Twin Lakes, jumped into Whiting’s car, and headed to Winfield, which was the turnaround point of this out-and-back race.
Doug's detailed instructions for my leg.
The moment I stepped out onto the dirt road to walk with our supplies to the checkpoint to meet Doug, I realized we had entered crazytown. The race started at 4:00 on Saturday morning. By the time we arrived in Winfield, 50 miles away from the start, the runners had been out on the course for 12 hours. Twelve hours...and they were halfway through. As we unpacked our gear and stood around waiting for Doug to arrive, I began to learn more about what this journey entails.

Each runner has a Crew Chief. Doug’s was Whiting. This person is in charge of meeting up with the runner at each checkpoint and providing fresh shoes, clothes, food, drink, and support. She was also in charge of Doug’s pacing crew. Once a runner reaches the halfway point, they can have a pacer to run along with them, keep them company, remind them to eat and drink, and basically do whatever it takes to get them to the checkpoints along the course before the time cutoffs. Doug had 4 pacers: Trent, me, Maggie, and Ariana. Each of us would take a section of the course after mile 50.

I still can’t wrap my head around what it means to run 100 miles in a row. The Leadville course record is somewhere around 16 hours. The final cutoff is 30 hours. I've completed more than a couple of ironman races around the 15-hour range. I cannot fathom completing that and then TURNING AROUND AND RUNNING BACK. This is what these athletes intended to do.

I was told that less than 50% of the ~700 entrants finish the race each year. As I watched the runners entering the halfway checkpoint at mile 50, I started to understand why. Nobody looked cute or happy. By that point, they had been running for at least 12 hours. They had crossed over a mountain pass (Hope Pass), where they were rained and hailed on. They were having stomach issues, likely from the heat and altitude. Most of them looked miserable and hopeful at the same time as they ran into the checkpoint at Winfield.

We stood waiting for Doug to come around the corner. And waited. And waited. Waited until his expected arrival time had come and gone. Waited until there were only 15 minutes left before the 6:30 pm time cutoff. And then he came running around the corner, and we all cheered. Yelled at him to hurry up and cross the timing mat to make sure he was officially within the time cutoff. Trent carried a backpack containing food, water, and gear for both of them, and they ran away again, up and over Hope Pass, back toward the town of Twin Lakes where they had to arrive before the cutoff time of 10 pm.

Doug accompanied by Trent, Whiting, and Melina, their daughter.
We learned that Doug had arrived at the checkpoint 45 minutes later than expected because this year's course had 2 extra miles added to the Hope Pass segment. They didn't adjust the Winfield time cutoff to account for the extra distance. On terrain where it takes 30 minutes to hike a mile, this was kind of a big deal. It meant that many athletes ended their day at Winfield. It meant that Doug would spend the rest of the race chasing time cutoffs.
Maggie is pointing at Hope Pass from Winfield.
While Trent ran with Doug, the rest of the crew headed back to the cabin in Leadville to grab something to eat. Then we headed over to the Twin Lakes checkpoint, where I would take over pacing duties. We had the same stressful waiting situation there. We stood in the dark with a hundred other crews, waiting next to our little makeshift changing area that had a folding chair for Doug to sit in, warm clothes and dry shoes for him to change into, and supplies to take with us. Shivering in a beanie, tights, gloves, and 3 shirts, I became more nervous by the minute. Nervous that Doug would not make the cutoff, and nervous that he would make it, and that I'd really have to run off into the dark and pace him for five hours. With less than three minutes to spare, Doug came sprinting into the checkpoint. Trent had pushed him to his limit, but he had made the cutoff!

After a quick transition, Doug and I were off and running. Well, hiking. At this point, it was 10 pm and Doug had been racing for 16 hours. And we were walking straight up a gravel hill. As I huffed and puffed, Doug nonchalantly said, "this part lasts about 4 miles, and then it levels out a bit." As we climbed, the air temperature dropped. Eventually we could see each breath in the light of our headlamps.

We stopped every few minutes for Doug to take water from the hydration pack that I was wearing. He was great about remembering to eat. We paid attention to the time; we had to be at the Half Pipe checkpoint by 1:15 am. It took us nearly 3 hours to hike/walk/run/shuffle the 8.5 miles that it took to get there. We arrived with 10 minutes to spare.

We needed to complete our next 6 mile segment by 3 am. A 16 minute mile pace is what was necessary, and although that sounds easy, it wasn't. When we were "fast hiking" we went at a 16:30ish pace. When we were running, we ran 11:30s.

I learned that Doug moves faster when he's talking, especially when he's talking about Whiting and his girls, but as we continued into the night, there were longer silences. When my legs became tired after several hours, I couldn't possibly complain, because Doug had been on his feet for nearly a day. There were green glowsticks tied to the trees to guide us, and we ran from glowstick to glowstick, willing each other to move forward.

In the 14.5 miles that I traveled with Doug, we ran/hiked on singletrack trail, jeep paths and asphalt. The final mile was across a prairie dog field, where we had to be aware of holes we might fall in. The course seemed beautiful, but of course I couldn't see it. Every once in a while I glanced up at the sky, and beyond the glow of my headlamp I saw the brightest stars I've ever seen. The experience of running at night in the middle of nowhere was surreal and beautiful.

The night sky. Photo by Daniel Benjamin Morefield, a local photographer who was camping at Twin Lakes.
As we approached the final mile of our leg, we knew we'd make the cutoff, and we arrived at the Outward Bound checkpoint with 5 minutes to spare. Maggie and Whiting ran out to the middle of the field to greet us with hot chocolate and warm ramen noodles. It was 3 am. Maggie took over pacing duties, and Whiting drove me back to the cabin to sleep.

We knew that Maggie's section would be a challenge because it covered some difficult terrain and Doug had no time to spare to slow down. He needed to arrive at the May Queen checkpoint by 6:30 am. He didn't get there in time, and after 87 miles, the race officials at May Queen cut his wristband.

Doug: Ultrarunner Extraordinaire
This is the part where the mindset of ultrarunning, especially at this distance, diverges from your typical road running/triathlon point of view. You don't enter Leadville and say "I just want to finish." You say, "I wonder how far I can get." Doug made it almost to the end, and he was satisfied with his race. He's finished the race twice before, so he knows exactly what it takes: training, planning, discipline, and luck. He'll definitely attempt it again, and I hope my pacing skills were good enough to get me a return trip to Leadville with Whiting, Doug, and family.

I left Leadville on Sunday feeling sore, tired, and completely inspired. Although I've learned to enjoy trail running, there has never been anything appealing to me about ultrarunning...until this weekend. As we were leaving the cabin on Sunday, I told Whiting that I wanted to try a trail race. I think she surprised both of us by agreeing that she'd like to try one too. So of course, the next logical step was for both of us to sign up for a 50k at the end of September! I'm so excited to be excited to have something new to train for. There's no expectations because this will be our first one, and I love that. I can't wait!

I've told them a few times but I want to say it again here: I'm so grateful that Whiting and Doug invited us to join them this weekend. It was such a powerful experience and has opened a new chapter of things to come. When we signed up for the 50k today, I felt giddy with excitement and fear. I haven't felt this inspired in a while, and I love it. Hopefully I'll have a great race report for you in approximately 6 weeks!