Friday, September 7, 2018

Leadville 100 / Pikes Peak Marathon Double 2018

One of my big goals for 2018 was to break the record for the combined Leadville 100 and Pikes Peak Marathon.  Sounds like a challenging combo, until you realize that they’re both run on the same weekend, with only hours in between the finish at Leadville and the start of the Marathon, and a 122 mile drive in between.  Even so, it was something on my mind ever since I had read Marshall Ulrich’s Running on Empty years earlier.  He ran this crazy double two years in a row (1992 & 1993) and I felt that I could follow in his footsteps.  Despite my lack of experience, I felt that his best time of 30:15 was within my grasp.

In 2016, I finally had a great race at Leadville, breaking 20 hours and finishing in the top 10.  I felt that I was ready, but I didn’t get into the lottery for 2017, and being in Belfast for the 24 Hour World Championships, I missed my chance to earn a spot via the Silver Rush 50.  I settled for crewing and pacing a friend through the last 50 miles, which was a different, but totally awesome experience.  Early in the following week I came across an article about Michael Wardian having completed the feat, and setting a new mark of 26:20 - 20:18 at Leadville and 6:02 at Pikes Peak.  My best Leadville was 26 minutes faster than Wardian and my best Pikes Peak Marathon was 66 minutes faster.  The bar was now raised significantly, but I still felt that I had a shot at this new record, if I could put together a perfect weekend.  How hard could it be?

I had been putting in lots of miles in the first half of 2018, but in the 10 weeks before Leadville, I hadn’t been able to top the 100 mark a single time.  I even had a couple of sub 50 mile weeks, and I certainly wasn’t making up for the distance with any kind of speed.  My weight finally dropped below 160, but not by much.  The only thing I sort of had going for me was that I did spend a decent amount of time at altitude to minimize its impact on race day(s).  But even those evening climbs up Mnt. Bierstadt weren’t nearly as fast as they had been a couple of years earlier.  The bottom line was that I wasn’t feeling like I was in my prime going in.

I just didn’t know what to expect but I was glad to finally get started once the shotgun went off.

I started pretty close to the front - not because I wanted to, but because I entered the corrall from the front and didn’t have time to move back much.  Wearing a hat and loose-fitting long-sleeve, I was unrecognizable to most for the first few miles.  I tried to take advantage of my downhill abilities without pushing too hard, hoping I could bank some easy time before the climbs.

As usual, there were many runners around me that should have been going out much slower.  I know this sounds arrogant, but that’s the last thing I intend.  There were runners alongside that were running their first 100 miler.  Normally, I keep quiet, but this time as we chatted, I very politely suggested to a few of them that we were on a 19 hour pace and they might want to consider saving some of their strength for later on in the race.  No one took my advice seriously.  Some even passed me, as I tend to go slow up even the small climbs around Turquoise Lake.  Some finished close to 30 hours, some not at all.  One of the exceptions was Roger, an American living in Brazil.  Though this was his first 100, I wasn’t too worried about his abilities as he had previously run up to 80 miles and was clearly in good shape and a fast runner.  He beat me to Winfield, then slowed down a bit but still finished in an awesome debut of 21:23.

As we passed the Sugar Loafin’ campground, I tossed my hat and recognized a passing runner’s form - Christy Burns, a fellow Belmar Running Club member who had previously finished 3rd.  We chatted for a bit before she passed on by.  As we got to Turquoise Lake, I tossed my shirt as I was starting to warm up and didn’t want to get too sweaty.  Part way around, I got caught by Steve and Gina Slaby, two of the US’s best 24 hour runners who I had first met during the Capitol Reef 100, 3 years earlier.  We chatted for a bit as we traded positions back and forth.  I also got to watch Brooks puking his guts out by the side of the trail.  He’s from the Springs and his Leadville PR is within a couple of minutes of mine.  I met him because of his father, Parks, who now in his mid 70’s, is still running strong.  For the first few years, though almost 30 years my senior, he was actually kicking my butt.  He really inspired me and showed that age can be irrelevant.

It felt like I had started out noticeably faster than previous years, so I was a little surprised to learn at  May Queen that I was only a minute ahead of my PR pace.  I was only slightly disappointed, taking comfort in the fact that I was not going out too fast.  Looking back on it now and over analyzing things as I do, the fact that I thought I was going faster than I was should have been a signal that I was working just a little too hard.  Unfortunately, these kinds of small signals are way too subtle to pick up on during a race.

It was hard to stay within my comfort level of mostly walking as the Slaby’s ran up the backside of Powerline.  I was surprised to catch up to them just over the top and learned that Gina was having stomach issues, apparently due to the altitude.  She was no longer smiling, yet despite struggling through these issues all day long, she pushed ever on and wound up finishing 3rd.  I wish I had that kind of perseverance.

As usual, I had a blast flying down Powerline and then caught back up to Christy on the pavement before we headed into Outward Bound.  Even without a crew, the aid station volunteers are so amazing at Leadville that I was able to get my drop bag, restock the depleted snacks in my shorts, guzzle a can of Coke, and head off within about 30 seconds.  I called out for the time as I ran out.  I had gained another 4 minutes on my PR pace and was now 5 minutes ahead.

This next section to Half Pipe is where I slowed a bit in 2016 so I figured I should gain some more this time around.  I wasn’t quite as fast as I thought, even with a slight tailwind, but still managed to gain another 3 minutes in less than 6 miles.  I ran parts of this section with Christy and Roger (from Brazil).  It’s always nice to chat with old friends and make new ones.  Before getting into Treeline, Christy  asked for a salt cap, which I had plenty of.  Despite her great pace, she was apparently dealing with some muscle cramps and nausea and would eventually drop at Winfield.

From Half Pipe to Twin Lakes, I mainly ran alone.  This was also the section where the forecasted rain finally hit.  It was never too heavy, just steady for about an hour.  The temperature didn’t drop and there was no wind, so I was still comfortable without a shirt.  It may seem silly, but I find it much more comfortable for the rain to wash down by bare skin than to be covered by a wet, heavy shirt.  The only downside to getting caught in the rain is that all the accumulated salt from earlier sweating gets washed down into my eyes.  The first 5-10 minutes is painful and somewhat dangerous as my eyesight is diminished.

Just before getting to the Mount Elbert water station, there was a large, nasty puddle that took up more than the trail width.  I tried to step on some logs and boards, but they sank in the deep water and my shoes got soaked.  On the return, I would notice that there was a hidden bypass.

Even though there would only be about 15-20 minutes to the next aid station, my bottle was empty so I stopped to fill.  I’m pleased with myself for keeping well hydrated throughout the entire race this time.

I ran down the final steep little hill into the Twin Lakes aid station, gaining another 5 minutes.  Again, with the help of awesome volunteers, I was in and out in well under a minute, after having downed a Coke, club soda, and restocked my snacks.  Though the rain had stopped, due to the forecast and still cloudy skies, I opted to tie a long-sleeve shirt around my waist and stuffed a small jacket into the back of my shorts.  I usually just take my chances, but this time I played it safe.

The trail through the grassy meadows had a few inches of standing water from the morning’s rain but for the first time since 2014, the section leading up to the main creek crossing was dry.  In previous years, we had to maneuver through knee deep muddy water.  The creek was also quite low, never getting up past mid-calves, where previously it had been close to crotch deep.

I didn’t feel super powerful climbing up to Hope Pass, but I plodded on, passing quickly through the lama supplied aid station.  With the sky mostly clear, I tired of the shirt around my waist and dropped it off at the aid station, figuring that if the weather turned or as it got later and cooler, some underprepared runner might make use of it.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, I moved well enough through this section, hitting the top of the pass two minutes faster than last time.  At the top, I was now 15 minutes ahead of my PR time.  Down the other side I went, enjoying the runnable upper portion, then I managed well through the steeper sections that are more breaking than running.  I hopped out of the way for Rob Krar and the next couple of runners, who weren’t all that close behind him.  I finally hit the right hand turn and wondered if any runners would mistakenly fly by it.  This next section that parallels the road always seems to take forever and now it was about ¾ mile longer.  More and more runners were coming up but I stopped counting after 10.  After what felt like a lifetime, I made the final left turn towards Winfield, down the final descent, across the creek and into the aid station.

I again made quick work of getting in and out, leaving with a fresh supply of snacks and a second water bottle.  The climb back up is long enough and typically hot enough to warrant two bottles.  This was the first time I would run the return without a pacer.  I was wishing I had someone to carry my bottles for me and hoped it would not slow me down too much.  I was pretty pleased to hear that it was 9:23 on the race clock.  That put me 7 minutes ahead of my PR pace, despite running an extra ¾ of a mile, which added 8 minutes to this segment.  I still felt good and I had every expectation that I could improve upon my return time.  Ultimately, I wanted to run an even split.

The return started out pretty well.  I was running the rolling terrain at a good speed and quickly caught up to a few runners.  One of the young runners and his wife/girlfriend pacer chatted with me for a bit.  They then asked “mind if we ask how old you are?”

“49” I answered.

“Holy crap!” they responded in unison.  I laughed out loud at their incredulity.  I laughed to myself as I passed them.  Unfortunately, they caught back up to me by the time I reached the top, but that didn’t last long.  Once over, my long, quick legs took over and no one had a chance to keep up.  The climb, being ¾ mile longer than 2016 took an extra 8 minutes, same as the descent.

Once back at the aid station, I quickly refilled my main bottle, dumped the empty temporary bottle, and continued on down the trail.  A volunteer recognized me and offered back the shirt that I had left on the ascent, but I declined.  The descent back into Twin Lakes is one of my favorite sections.  It is perfectly runnable and with my downhilling skills, I can recover from the previous climb while still moving quickly enough to catch more runners.  I even managed to better my time for this section by 5 minutes.

Back through the Twin Lakes aid station, this year I opted to not change shoes, or even socks.  I wish I had at least gone with a change of socks as my wet feet and loose shoes would eventually lead to annoying blisters on the bottoms of both feet.

The climb out of Twin Lakes is definitely not my favorite.  This year it was even worse because the ball of my right foot started to hurt and only got worse.  It felt like the bones were bruised and every time I bent the foot to step uphill, the pain got worse.  I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t let that pain hold me back and I soldiered on.  Surprisingly, the descents, where the pounding was worse, caused no pain.  I was glad of that, but worried about the additional climb back up Powerline.

I quickly topped off my bottle at Mount Elbert and continued on, avoiding the big puddle this time.  I was running reasonably well on the downhills, though losing more power on the climbs.  I made my way back towards Half Pipe, keeping an eye on the setting sun and trying to remember how it compared to 2016.  I made some rough mental calculations and figured I was still in good position to finish under 20 hours.  I had managed to run this section in the same time as 2016.

I ran through the Treeline crew area with lots of cheers all around then made my way back onto the paved road.  The morning’s tailwind was still blowing but now it was an unwelcomed headwind.  I had the same situation 2 years earlier, but then I relied on my pacer to draft off of.  This time, I was at it alone, with no other runners close enough to work with.  I eventually made my way back to the Outward Bound aid station thinking, based on the sun, that I was behind my PR pace.  It turned out I was 4 minutes ahead after running another section dead even with 2016.

Given a time reading from a volunteer, I knew I had 4 hours and 55 minutes to break 20.  Last time, it took 4:44 for these last miles.  I didn’t think that I could do better on the climb up Powerline, but I figured I might on the last section around Turquoise.

As I sat on a chair for half a minute to go through my drop bag and grab a shirt, lights, snacks, etc., a guy came up and asked if I had a pacer.  Answering “no”, he then asked if I wanted him to join me.  I gladly accepted and we were soon off.

Josh and I started talking and he mentioned that he was going to Manitou Springs the next day to help his friend photograph and film the Pikes Peak Marathon.  I then told him of my intentions to do the same, but to be running the Marathon.  He burst out in laughter as he realized that I was chasing Michael Wardian’s record and then told me that he had paced Wardian for the full 50 miles last year when he set the record.  What a small world ultra running is, and what an incredible coincidence this was.

Josh was a huge help.  Not just in carrying an extra bottle and supplies for me.  Without his companionship, I would have been quite lonely those last hours.  He did his best to spur me on, without being too pushy.

After leaving the asphalt road again, we headed over to the base of Powerline.  I wasn’t as strong as in 2016, but was still moving well enough.  We didn’t catch any other runners on the climb, which was a bit disappointing, but at least we weren’t passed either.  I clearly remembered last time having to turn on lights just before the top, so I was using that as a time gauge.  We were pretty close to the top again before turning them on, so I figured that the timing was similar.  And as usual, nearing the top, we could hear first the horn, then the overall jubilations of the unofficial aid station run by local partyers.  They keep outdoing themselves every year and this time the glow sticks lining the trail stretched out for a good distance before the party.  Josh and I took advantage of some quick snacks and gulps of Coke.  We then headed off into the darkness and down the other side.

My descent was good, but not as good as I know it could be.  I just wasn’t taking quite enough advantage of the downhill as I normally would.  We eventually made our way off the road, ont to the rocky single-track, and back onto the paved road to May Queen.

I knew that I had lost some time and now had 2:22 for this last section in order to break 20 hours.  This was just short of what it took last time, but given that I was better hydrated and remembering that I didn’t have a totally strong finish then, I felt there was still a shot.

That shot slowly slipped away as I was unable to run up the gentlest inclines and was losing some of my downhill speed as well.  It’s always a mental struggle, as well as physical, to get around Turquoise and this year was no easier.  When we finally made it down mini-Powerline and onto the gravel road, I kept turning back, fearing to see the oncoming lights of a runner.  Miraculously, this never happened, but I certainly wasn’t speeding along.  Though I ran most of the Boulevard, it was at a pretty slow pace.

A final time check when we reached the pavement cemented my 20+ hour finish.  I pushed a bit on the downhill and finally crossed the line in 20:17:59.  Not nearly where I wanted/needed to be, though still 58 seconds ahead of Wardian’s time.

After a few minutes to recompose myself in the warming tent, we headed down the block, in the rain, towards my car.  I gave Josh a ride back to Outward Bound where he was parked and headed off to a friend’s house to get a quick shower.  Unfortunately, when I got there, the front door that was supposed to be unlocked, was not.  I gave up and got back in the car for the long drive to Manitou.

Between the rain, subsequent fog, and my fatigue, I was not even driving at the speed limit most of the time.  I made slower progress than usual and by the time I got to Wilkerson Pass, I was no longer able to keep my eyes open.  I pulled over in the little rest area, crawled into the back of my Subaru and fell fast asleep.  I woke up 45 minutes later, surprisingly refreshed and drove down the rest of the way.

I parked as close to the start of the Marathon as I could and crawled into the back again for a bit more rest.  Unfortunately, as tired as I was, I just couldn’t fall back asleep.  I eventually got out, picked up my bib , and started getting ready for the race.

Normally, I take my chances during a race and go light.  This time, due to the weather forecast, repeated warnings from race staff, and knowing I’d be moving somewhat slower, I decided to be cautious.  I took a fanny pack with a rain jacket, gloves, snacks, and I wore a shirt.  As it turned out, I took the shirt off within the first mile and never used any of the other crap I lugged with me.

I was pleasantly surprised that my legs felt pretty OK.  There was no real stiffness or soreness.  Things were looking promising.  My best PPM was 4:46 and my worst was 5:25, back when I wasn’t as good of a runner.  Surely a sub 6 hour PPM would be practically in the bag.  How hard could it be?

Such arrogance rarely pays off.

I started the morning near the very back of the second wave, 2 minutes behind the first wave.  I instantly found myself being passed by every surrounding second wave runner as my breathing labored to keep me moving.  Another minute later and I was being engulfed by the third wave of runners.  My legs were not putting out much power and I was struggling even before we got off the asphalt.  I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that most runners go out way too fast.  Surely I would be seeing all of them on the upper slopes as they faltered and I surged.

Unfortunately, things didn’t improve.  I kept getting passed as the trail swept back and forth across the mountain side.  By the time we got to the No Name aid station, the passing slowed quite a bit, but I wasn’t making up much time.  I was running decently on the flats and downhills, but there are not enough of those on the ascent to really make a difference.

My breathing seemed to settle down even as we climbed above treeline, but my legs still had no power.  The summit was far off and I was still moving so slow.  I had chosen to run without a watch again, but I couldn’t help but hear snippets from surrounding runners.  It soon became clear to me that I wasn’t going to break 4 hours for the ascent.  I had figured that I needed 3:45 to give myself a good cushion.  That was now disappearing.

As we got to the final mile, I resigned myself that I not only had lost the cushion, but any realistic chance to break the record.  The wind totally left my sails.  I was defeated and this knowledge only served to slow me further.  As I topped out, the race clock read 4:19.  I had started 2+ minutes back, so I was actually still 28 seconds ahead of Wardian’s time, having lost only 30 seconds to him on the ascent.  Josh, my pacer from the previous night, was there to cheer me on.  He tried to convince me that I could still do it.  Unfortunately, I knew the truth.  I would have needed a sub 1:47 descent.  My previous record was 1:49 and I just didn’t have it in my legs.

I could have gotten down in a bit over 2 hours, but I totally gave up at this point.  I was tempted to bail at the top and hitch a ride down, but I didn’t.  Instead, I trudged downhill at an agonizingly slow pace.  It was a pitiful combination of jogging and walking.  My legs could have done more, but I just couldn’t will my body to run.  It was a real low point that lasted for miles.

After finally getting past Barr Camp, I started to jog a bit more, but I still walked up any little climbs.  What kept me moving was the knowledge that my wife and daughters were waiting for me down in Manitou.  I felt awful knowing that I was wasting their day with my pitiful descent.  That finally motivated me to run a little more.

As I got down among the top of the switchbacks, I heard some nearby runners talking about needing to break 7 hours in order to make the cut-off and get the finisher’s jacket.  Somehow, that struck a chord.  I was not going to finish off this pitiful weekend by missing the cut-off and not even getting a jacket.  A fire was rekindled and I took off, with much needed gravity assistance.  I ran those last 3 miles at a sub 7 minute pace, finishing in 6:53:17, more than 50 minutes off Wardian’s record.

Coming through the finish chute, my daughter Amy jumped out of the crowd and ran with me, hand-in-hand.  I was then interviewed for a nice article in PikesPeakSports.

As it turned out, there was no 7 hour cut-off, but the mis-information probably cut a good 10 minutes off my finish.

It was certainly not the race weekend I had dreamt about all year.  I had such high aspirations, but each dream vanished as the miles slowly passed by.  I was pretty disappointed with my performance, but as I got the chance to look at my detailed splits, I was able to better appreciate my effort.  Up until the return at Outward Bound, I ran 1.5 miles longer than in 2016 and was still 4 minutes ahead of that time.  With the exception of the segment between Hope Pass and Winfield, which had been lengthened, I ran every section faster until returning to Twin Lakes.  Then I ran from there to Outward Bound at the same pace.  Though I obviously fell apart from Outward Bound to the finish, I really had an awesome race until that point.  Even through those last 20+ miles, I still managed to move up 4 places and not be passed by a single runner.  Additionally, my legs were feeling pretty good the next morning.  They just didn’t have any power.  Where I really “failed” was mentally.  When I gave up, I totally gave up.  But as bad as I did at Pikes Peak, I still finished in the top 38% of the field, though it sure felt like I was vying for a DFL at the time.

I didn't break Wardian’s record, but I was close on his tail until the very end, and I became only the 3rd person ever to complete this crazy double.  I know now that I am capable of beating that record.  It will take a nearly perfect weekend, but it is realistic.  2019 has already been devoted to my first 6-day effort, but another attempt in 2020 is a real possibility!

Lessons learned:
A pacer going up Hope Pass would have been really nice to carry the water bottles
More sugar and caffeine (i.e. Coke) in the latter miles of Leadville
More sugar without caffeine (i.e. Ginger Ale) after Leadville
A shower after Leadville may have woken me up enough to make the full drive and get a little more sleep before Pikes Peak
More sugar and caffeine (i.e. Coke) going up Pikes Peak
Altitude training was good
Definitely need more leg strength training

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