Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Month in Review (March)

March training history.
Well, somehow-- and I'm not quite sure how-- I survived March intact. I met all my training goals for the month, building on top of the solid work I did in February.

I spent about half my time at sea level in March: a week in Florida on vacation with my family, and a week in Boston for work. All that oxygen and flat terrain meant that I managed to set an all-time monthly mileage PR (241.7 miles). Still relatively modest in the grand scheme of things, but a nice PR to set so early in the year. All my other high mileage months have been May, June, July, or August. Of course, mileage isn't everything (far from it) and while March was #1 for mileage, it was only #15 for total training time, and #18 for total vertical. So, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

I crossed the 40-hour mark for March, which was a 5-hour improvement over February. That was relatively easy to do since I'm now trying to run a long run every week. That certainly helps boost my total training time without any change to my midweek running schedule.

4 weeks of training.
I pretty much ran 6 days a week during the month. Travel or illness were generally the reasons I took a day off. And, man, have I been ill lately. Not fun. It started with a head cold upon my return from Florida, that along with a nasty back injury (not running-related) put the Salida Marathon in jeopardy for me. My cough lingered for a few weeks. I'd hack up a lung after any run where I pushed the pace. Ugh. And just when I thought I was turning a corner, I came down with a fever, aches, and chills on the second-to-last day of the month. I was bed-ridden for the entire day, but luckily it passed relatively quickly and I was back running the next day, albeit very slowly. I blame travel. And kids. And Obama.

I've tried to mix things up with my training a bit, given the variety of conditions I was running in. I focused on speedwork while I was at sea level, running perhaps my fastest mile ever near the end of the month in Boston. And, since vertical wasn't an option, I'd try to run a bit longer, which meant a full marathon on the beaches of Florida. But, during the weeks I was back in Colorado, I'd switch to more vertical-focused training. Probably my best workout of the month was a 5-hour, 20 mile, 6,800 vertical run up and down Midland Hill in Buena Vista, tagging the summit four times. The trails around Leadville are still snowed in, so any chance I get to run on trails is a joy. I was worried that doing hill repeats would be boring, but the terrain is so different than my typical midweek run at this time of year, I actually look forward to them.

My big race for the month was the Salida Marathon, of course. Despite my head cold, a sore back, and incredibly sloppy trail conditions, I managed to set a 5-minute PR for the course: 4:41. It was truly a miracle. I mean, just three days before the race I wasn't even sure if I would be healthy enough to start! And, judging from past results, I'd say the course was about 10 minutes slower than normal due to all the snow and mud. This was my fourth consecutive PR for the course, which I attribute to slowly increasing my early season training volume every year. I tend to run fairly conservative races, I'd say, but this year for Salida I planned to run a bit harder during the first half of the race. Why? Well, despite it being almost all uphill, it's where the most runnable terrain happens to be. The second half of the course is mostly downhill, but it's also where all the snow and mud are located, and most of the technical terrain. I can never seem to run it as fast as I'd like. So, this year, I pushed the uphills a bit more knowing that I probably wouldn't be able to make up much time on the downhill. My plan worked perfectly. I was 16 minutes ahead of PR pace at the halfway point. After that, I kept losing time as I fumbled through all the snow and mud. But, I managed to build enough of a cushion that I still crossed the finish line with another PR. I was psyched that I pulled it off. I knew I was in better shape on paper, but it's still nice to have some concrete evidence.

A week-by-week comparison of March training for the last few years.
So, yeah, despite a few obstacles, I managed to log my best March ever. My training is heading in the right direction, I think. It'd better be, since I'm now more than halfway done with my training for Hardrock-- at least as far as the calendar goes!

April will be tricky. It always seems to be a tough month for me. I'm fairly confident that I can log roughly the same amount of training as I did in March-- approximately five 1-hour workouts plus one 5-hour workout per week. But, the real question is how best to take it to the next level? I've got to keep ramping things up if I want to be in a position to properly absorb the training I've got planned for May and June. Counter-intuitively, I'm actually not too worried about those two months-- my peak training months-- because I'll have so many options to run in the mountains around Leadville. Plus, with Hardrock looming on the horizon in July, I'll be supremely motivated.

Certainly, the highlight of April will be my R2R2R run on 4/18. I gave that a shot two years ago, but failed. (It's a pretty funny story.) A big, audacious run like that is exactly the kind of training stimulus I think I need. I don't want all my weeks to start looking the same. Beyond the Grand Canyon, I think the key to April might be Mt. Elbert. It's probably time I started trying to bag a peak at least once a week. Probably early one morning-- maybe midweek or on Sunday. Hopefully it should only take 3-hours or so, depending on the conditions. I think some high-altitude hiking will help-- especially in the vertical department.

Well, there you have it. Another month of training! More numbers! More dry statistics! I'm sorry these blog posts aren't more entertaining... Maybe when I start tapering I'll actually have the time to be a little more creative...

Two members of my elite Hardrock crew.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Month in Review (February)

February training history
Solid. If I had to pick one word, I guess that's how I'd describe my training last month. Certainly not jaw-dropping, but respectable. The last week of February was my 13th week of training, so I'm just emerging from my base building phase and entering... what, exactly? The no-man's land between base building and peak training!

Though my total training time was only 2 hours greater than my total training time last February, it was much more run-specific. I spent almost 10 more hours running this February than I did last February. 44 more running miles. 12,000 more vertical feet. I only resorted to the bike trainer twice, and the skis once. Not too shabby.

4 weeks of training.
The first week, I kicked things off with the Leadville Snowshoe Marathon. We had beautiful, sunny weather. It was a great day to be outside. The warm temperatures made the snow a bit sticky, but it wasn't as bad as I had feared. I took things very easy during the race, knowing that simply jogging at a conversational pace for 5+ hours was going to be challenge enough for me. I felt pretty good throughout, but definitely faded a bit in the final miles. Still, it was a very positive experience. Great camaraderie. Great swag. (I scored a $50 Melanzana gift certificate just for finishing.) A big thanks to Smokey for organizing this event. It's definitely made my February training much more fun these last two years.

Thanks to Cindy DeMarco for the picture!
The second week of February was by far my favorite week of training this year. More beautiful, unseasonably warm weather. I had the opportunity to run down in Buena Vista twice, where the temperatures soared up into the low 60's. The trails were almost completely melted out. It was simply amazing! Shorts! T-shirt! I had a grin plastered on my face all of Saturday as I ran up and down Midland Hill three times, logging almost the equivalent amount of vertical as a double-crossing of Hope Pass. I'm sure this will be a workout that I repeat several times during March and April.

The reality of winter returned for the third and fourth week of February, which were more typical training weeks for me at this time of year. I just ground out the miles around Leadville, jogging up and down all my typical winter routes. Nothing sexy. Just getting it done.

A week-by-week comparison of February training for the last few years.

I don't think I've ever hit double-digit weekly training time this early in the year before. So, I'm pretty stoked to have managed to have logged two 10+ hour weeks this February. I usually only hit that level of training in the May/June time frame.

So, yeah... while I may not be training as much as some folks, I'm very happy with where I am right now. I feel good. My fitness is definitely improving. And I'm slowly, but surely getting myself to a position where I can hopefully absorb some truly epic mountain runs in May/June. 20+ hour weeks. 20,000+ feet of vertical. That's the goal that's looming on the horizon.

It's hard to believe that in only two more weeks, my training for Hardrock will be at the halfway mark. Frightening!

I was super excited to put my early season fitness to the test this week at the Salida Marathon. On paper at least, I should be in much, much better shape than I ever have been for the race. But, sadly, things have not exactly gone according to plan. Last week, while on vacation in Florida, I hurt my back while playfully rough-housing with my wife in the ocean. Then I came down with a nasty head cold on Sunday. Let me tell you that coughing while suffering from a significant lower back strain is pure torture! Ugh! I was hoping that I would be healed up enough for the marathon by this Saturday, but my recovery has been painfully slow. I can barely get in and out of a car or even dress myself. Bending over to put on a pair of shoes is a nightmare. So ridiculous... I've got three more days to try to recover. Maybe-- just maybe-- I can heal enough that I could slowly jog/hike the course, but a PR is pretty much out of the question. It's frustrating, but I'm trying not to get too depressed. An injury/sickness-enforced rest week, I guess.

That's life!

How to survive Leadville's winters.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Month in Review (January)

January training history
With a disappointing, injury-plagued year behind me, and Hardrock only six months away, I've put an embarrassingly large amount of thought into how I want to improve my training this year. I say "embarassing" mostly because after all the time I've spent pouring over my historical training data, listening to podcasts, and reading articles and books on the subject, the conclusion I've reached is ridiculously simple: I just need to run more.

Specifically, I need to run more consistently during the week during the winter months. Not bike. Not ski. Run. And I'm not talking about running faster or harder or longer, just running more regularly. That, in a nutshell, is my main early season goal.

I feel like historically, I do a good job of getting in an adequate number of long runs on the weekends (starting with a few easy efforts in January and February, but then logging one long run/week from March onwards). My long runs really add up over the course of a season, but I haven't been as disciplined as I could be about my midweek runs-- especially before Leadville's trails melt out.

During the summer: no problem. Motivation is not an issue. My bike trainer is quickly forgotten, and I'm out running on the trails around town almost every day. Training volume quickly shoots up (both time, mileage, and vertical). I just need to start that process earlier in year, suck it up, and slog through the snow.

So, I can happily say that everything pretty much went according to plan this January. You can see my renewed focus on running in the chart above. 9 more hours spent running than last year. 50+ more running miles. 6k more vertical. I only resorted to the bike 4 times, usually the day before or after a long run. While my total training time was only 3 hours more than last January, it was much more run-specific. That makes me happy.

I'm definitely seeing improvements in my fitness since I began training in December. At this stage, all it takes are ~35 slow miles/week to provide enough stress to encourage my body to adapt. My times on all my regular routes are steadily dropping. They're not quite at PR pace, but I'm getting closer. My philosophy is to not force anything. Anything resembling a quality workout comes as a surprise to me after I'm out the door. I try to run without any pre-conceived notion as to how hard to push it. That said, I did take advantage of a business trip to Boston last week to attempt something resembling some speed work. After a 20-minute warmup at MAF (which seems to be about 8:00 min/mile for me at sea level right now), I tried some mile repeats with a quarter mile of rest in between. 7:38, 6:46, 6:35, and 6:25. Probably 3 of the fastest miles I've ever run! (Don't laugh.)

My two biggest fears-- my lingering injuries from last year-- have been manageable. Everything seems to be under control. My Achilles is occasionally tight, and my knee sometimes feels mildly sore, but these little niggles have all been fleeting and haven't interfered with my training at all. In fact, they've kept me extra vigilant. And, I think they're slowly getting better as they adapt to my 6-9 hour/week training load.

9 weeks of base training.

The spreadsheet below has become probably my favorite way to visualize my training progress this year vs. the last three years. I've found that weekly historical data is the best resolution to judge how my training is going. Monthly is too coarse-grained (and months aren't all the same size), and daily is too fine-grained. What I'm generally working towards is improving upon my training in '13, by far my best year-- especially that sweet, 9-week stretch starting at week 26. That was the best block of training I've ever managed to pull off. If everything goes according to plan, my dream is to exceed even that level of training in the weeks leading up to Hardrock this year. I'll be in unknown territory at that point...

Dark green means a higher training load. I track total training time and running distance/week along with my historical max.

This week-- the first week of February-- will be a high volume week for me. I've got the Leadville Snowshoe Marathon this Saturday. I'm excited! The weather looks good. The conditions should be much faster than last year. I'm not planning to taper for it, nor am I really going to "race" it, but it will provide an excellent excuse to get outdoors and get in 5+ hours of jogging.

Hopefully, February will look a lot like January for me: just unremarkable, steady, consistent training, with a little bit of extra volume. Nothing too drastic yet. I'm looking forward to the Salida Marathon in March, which will serve as my first real race of the season. Plans for another R2R2R attempt with my buddy Alex are materializing for mid-April. That'll be so fun. I've got so much to look forward to!

I just gotta keep pluggin' away...

My new tele skis. I'm not worthy.

Our household has a new family member: meet Luna the puppy!

The shack.

Leadville style.

Extra motivation.

Ah, pre-dawn, early morning winter runs.


A plethora of traction options for winter in Leadville.

I'm avoiding this-- no, not the beer, the bike!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Month in Review (December)

December training history.
Well, I managed to survive the holidays-- and my first month of training for Hardrock-- intact.

So far, so good.

The highlight of the month was our annual hut trip-- this year to Uncle Bud's, up above Turquoise Lake. Each year, about a dozen of us (HMI faculty and friends) rent out an entire hut for three nights and enjoy backcountry skiing, eating, and drinking in equal measure. It's always a challenge to haul the kids in, along with the ridiculous quantities of food and alcohol, but it's always worth it. This year Santa gave me some sweet new Black Diamond skis to replace my aging Tuas, so it was especially fun. And the skiing was as good as it gets. Hero snow.

After my less-than-stellar experience at Leadville this year, I spent the fall simply trying to recover from my summer injuries. No fall races for me. I was done for the season. I'd test my Achilles and my knee a few times a week with short runs on the trails around town. And, I joined my wife on a few longer runs as she trained for the Golden Leaf half marathon. (It was a ton of fun. We rarely get a chance to run together like we did when we were first dating. Ah, kids...)

Initially my soreness/stiffness faded relatively quickly, but it took quite a while for it to fully disappear. The last 10% or so of my recovery dragged on and on. (In fact, I probably still have 1% to go.) I diligently followed every Achilles and runner's knee treatment protocol I could find (mostly calf dips, foam rolling, and single leg squats, plus higher-drop shoes), but it took wearing an embarrassingly awkward night splint for about a month before my Achilles finally recovered. It wasn't bothering me much on my runs-- just a few brief periods of stiffness during the first mile-- but my first few steps in the morning were always a little sore. The splint fixed that. Old-fashioned static stretching for the win! In retrospect, I wish I had experimented with the night splint way back late May when I first came down with Achilles pain. That might have saved me from the tedium of 1,000,000 calf dips.

During September and October I just ran whenever I felt like it, with no particular goal other than to overcome my injuries. In November, I started trying to string together some very modest workouts, all run at MAF. I just wanted to see if I could actually train multiple days in a row without regressing. After a bit of trail-and-error, I finally convinced myself that I was progressing in the right direction. So, when December rolled around, I was ready to give it a go, and jump back in to everyday early season training. The Hardrock lottery was still a week away, but I wanted to get started a bit early, just in case.

Of course, seeing my name drawn for Hardrock was a dream come true. Five years of waiting. Think about it. Five years. That's the amount of time I spent as an undergraduate and graduate student combined. Damn. That's a long time to wait. However, it's undeniable that having such an inspiring race in front of me is fantastic motivation. And, I'm almost certainly better off having waited. More experienced, and in a much better position to appreciate it.

I'm still nervous that my body hasn't fully recovered from the summer, so I'm trying to be very disciplined about my training load and my recovery. I don't want to screw this up! Looking back, I noticed a pattern of getting injured every other year. ITBS in '10, injury-free in '11, ITBS in '12, injury-free in '13, and Achilles tendonitis and runner's knee in '14. So, I should be fine in '15, right? No problem!

During the fall, I obsessively poured over all my training data from December through May, looking for an explanation as to why I became so injured this year. At the month-to-month level, nothing immediately jumped out at me. It's not like I trained twice as much as I had in the past or something crazy like that. My training hours each month were approximately the same as they had been previously. Yes, I was training a bit more trying to prepare for a big June race (as opposed to my normal August-focused schedule), but nothing too dramatic. I won't bore you with all the details, but I eventually came up with a theory which involved too much cross-training, too much "quality", and not enough easy, midweek jogs to support the long runs I was running every week. Basically, I was pushing too hard on a regular basis without enough of a base of easy, midweek runs. Though I was probably fitter than I'd ever been at that time of year, it was a "fragile" fitness. My body just wasn't prepared to absorb the crazy race schedule I set for myself in May. Simply put, I had spent too much time on the bike trainer and not enough time jogging.

The other funny quirk I noticed was that I never got sick in early '14. So, I had no enforced rest from January through May. In contrast, I came down with an illness in late February and in early April in '13, which forced me to take a few days off from training and recover. Probably a blessing in disguise. In '15, I'd like to be a little more willing to take a few days off each month if I'm feeling beat up. I don't want to blindly chase a training streak just for the sake of streaking.

So, in light of all this, I've tweaked how I track my training this year. It's all about time now-- not miles. And, I split apart my running, biking, and skiing into separate categories to help make sure that I maintain a properly run-focused ratio of workouts. Instead of retreating indoors to my bike trainer when the weather is grim, I suck it up and plod down the Boulevard. I'm always bundled up and running on snow, so my times are pretty pathetic. But, I don't care. In fact, more time is better! I start by saying to myself something like, "This month I want to train approximately 7 hours/week, with no more than 1 hour of cross-training per week. And, I want to get in two 3 hour runs." Then I start to slot in workouts to match the required time. At this point, almost everything I'm doing is at MAF. If I'm feeling motivated I might push things a bit-- but only once a week. No more. And these quality runs aren't planned in advance. It's all by feel. I want to build up a solid base of easy jogging so that when I really start to ramp things up in the spring I can properly absorb it.

Primarily tracking training time makes sense to me for a variety of reasons. It's something I've always thought about doing, but never truly embraced.

First, it's the best metric I can think of to track and compare training across multiple sports-- my primary activities being running, biking, and skiing. And, believe me, I need some variety to survive Leadville's winters. It can't all be running all the time. Of course, time is not perfect. An hour on the bike is not the same as an hour jog (that's part of what got me into trouble last year), but it's a better metric than distance. (I mean, how much is a mile of skiing "worth" compared to a mile of running? How about a mile of biking?)

Second, it's the best metric for my training environment. I'm training at 10,000 ft. I just can't get in as many miles as I could at sea level. Comparing my weekly distance to runners at lower elevations is just depressing. And, during winter, I'm very much at the mercy of the current snow conditions. Sometimes I'm wearing screw-shoes, sometimes microspikes, sometimes snowshoes. My pace (and thus distance) is all over the map. I can't really control it. But I can control the time I spend training. For example, if I set for myself the goal of 40 miles/week, that would be relatively easy to accomplish on a business trip to Boston or a family vacation to Florida. It might only take me, say, 6 hours. But in Leadville? During a snowy week? Probably 8 hours or more. Those are two very different training loads. Better to start with a goal time and work backwards from there.

Thirdly, coming off an injury-plagued season, I feel like I need to do everything I can to "reward" easy running. Tracking training time doesn't incentivize speed. Of course I want to be fast, but hopefully that will come naturally once I've put in the required time. I've got to be patient. The quality will come. And when it does, it has to be balanced with the appropriate amount of jogging at a conversational pace. (The 80/20 rule.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I'm going to be very focused on high-altitude vertical in my training for Hardrock. (Duh.) That will eventually mean a ridiculous amount of hiking up the local mountains. Comparing the miles I log this year to the miles I logged in previous years would be misleading. Even though I plan to train harder than I ever have before, I may not actually log more miles! Again, using training time for comparison purposes seems like the best option to me. I can better gauge where I'm at compared to previous years.

What I've been up to since Leadville. Yellow = bike. Blue = ski. Green = 90+ min workout. Distance is run-only.
December-August training hours per week. Blue '13, Red '14, Orange '15. The huge spikes that go off the graph are Bighorn and Leadville. Ideally, I'd like a 4-week chunk above 15-hour mark just before Hardrock.
What I've been up to the last 5 years! Training time by month, generally peaking in June/July each year (but May last year). 

Saturday, December 6, 2014


I first registered for Hardrock back in '10 after I had staggered across the finish line of my first Leadville 100. I'm not exactly sure why. It just seemed like a cool, burly, and scenic race. I guess it must've appealed to the hiker in me.

Of course, I wasn't selected, but I didn't really have any expectations that year since my odds were so slim.

I've registered every year since-- it's become a fall ritual, but the lottery has only ever brought me disappointment. The race seemed to be growing in popularity in proportion to the number of tickets I accumulated, so my odds always hovered around 8-10%. This year, with 16 tickets to my name, my odds finally improved a bit, but I still had only a barely 1 in 5 chance of being selected.

I was trying very hard not to get my hopes up.

So, instead of staring at my Twitter feed, and neurotically hitting refresh all morning long, I went skiing with my family at the local mountain. When my name was pulled from the proverbial hat I was probably snowplowing down the bunny slope holding my two year old son, Ethan, between my legs-- my quads on fire. It was his second time skiing in as many weeks and, while he enjoys it, he's probably most accurately described as a sack of potatoes at this point.

There's no cell service at Ski Cooper, but later when we retreated to the Nordic Center for lunch, I couldn't resist, and logged into their wireless network.

And there it was: my name.

I was simultaneously elated, shocked, and humbled. I'm still not sure I believe it.

Thanks for all the emails and messages of congratulations and support.

And congratulations to everyone else who was lucky enough to be chosen this year. It's going to be a great race, with a great group of people. I look forward to toeing the line with all of you in Silverton this July. For all those who didn't get picked: hang in there. Your time will come.

Me? Well, as my wife jokingly said tonight, "Shit just got real."

I'll be 42 come July. And the plan is to be in the best shape of my life.

Training starts: now!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Leadville 100 Race Report (Part II)

This is Part II of my Leadville 100 Race Report. Here's Part I.

Hope Pass to Winfield

I didn't have any ambitious goals for this split. My hand-wavy plan was to run it a few minutes slower than last year. Of course, once my knee started hurting going down Powerlines it threw all of my plans for downhill splits into doubt. I didn't know what to expect, but I wasn't optimistic.

The long descent to Winfield would be the third major test for my knee. As I crested Hope Pass, and gingerly started negotiating the trail down the backside, the first thing I felt was a sudden wave of nausea. Whoa. It came out of nowhere and, luckily, it was gone almost as quickly as it came. What was that all about? I had just slurped down a cup of potatoes and soup at Hopeless, so maybe that played a factor? I don't know. I popped two antacids, and thankfully it disappeared after a minute or so. And my knee? I couldn't feel anything! The ibuprofen that I had taken before the descent into Twin Lakes must have been working its magic. With each passing switchback, I kept waiting for some soreness to surface, but no... nothing! Ah, the wonders of modern medicine.

It was definitely sunny and a bit toasty on the south side of Hope Pass. I was thankful that I had spent so much time in the sauna in the preceding two weeks. Just like I had on the north side, I stopped at every stream crossing and drank extra water, splashing more water on my head to try to stay cool. I continued to try to balance my water intake with my energy drink intake, trying to make sure that the contents of my stomach didn't get too concentrated. I was moving pretty well, conservatively on the steep stuff, but still jogging the flatter sections. I was still drinking my energy drink, getting plenty of calories. And, I was in relatively good spirits, cracking jokes occasionally, and cheering on all the runners that I knew who were headed in the opposite direction.

Then, just as I started descending down to Clear Creek Road off of the Colorado Trail, I felt another sudden wave of nausea. This time it was too much, and I doubled over and threw up. A mixture of water and energy drink came up-- probably everything I had consumed in the last 20 minutes or so.

Damn it.

I only made it to mile 49.5 before vomiting. I was hoping for at least mile 60. Last year I made it to mile 51. (Yup, I keep track of these things.) In retrospect, even though I puked 1.5 miles before I puked last year, I probably puked at almost exactly the same time. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not...

I tried to shake it off as I slowly jogged into Winfield. Physically, I felt okay. The nausea quickly subsided. But, mentally... I was demoralized. Confused.

I didn't get it. What had gone wrong? I had executed my nutrition plan just as I had hoped to, but it hadn't worked...

My theory was that I hadn't been drinking enough water last year, and I was confident that I was doing a much better job with that this year. I'm certain that's why I felt so great while I was climbing up Hope Pass. But, my stomach ultimately succumbed.

My plan had failed.

Yet, I was just about to complete my fastest Hope Pass split ever: 3:21. I rolled into Winfield at the 10:51 mark, exactly 15 minutes behind my time from last year. I nailed the split from the top of Hope Pass, coming in 1 minute faster than planned. Amazing.

Only 15 minutes behind? I couldn't believe it. I was happy, but also shaken up...

What the hell was going on with my stomach?

And how long would my knee last?

Winfield to Twin Lakes

I met Jeremy just outside of Winfield. He had biked in from where he had parked the car alongside the road. The aid station was much less chaotic than last year. Not having to dodge cars on the short stretch of dusty road was a welcome change-- at least for runners. I weighed in at almost exactly my starting weight. Maybe even a little over-- I can't remember. Definitely within the margin of error. So, my hydration seemed good. I grabbed some broth, some Coke, some watermelon, some nut butters, two bottles of energy drink, and a PB&J sandwich.

Even though Jeremy had brought extra supplies for my knee (as requested in Twin Lakes), I didn't want to mess with it since it hadn't bothered me on the downhill. I was still wearing my knee warmer and an IT band strap-- probably overkill at this point. I took some time to finish half the sandwich, some broth, a few swigs of Coke, and a bit of the melon before setting off again. It wasn't a super quick aid station stop, but it was reasonably efficient. Maybe 5 minutes?

Leaving Winfield, I was doing a few things differently this year: no pacer and no poles. In hindsight, I don't think either of those decisions was necessarily a bad one-- at least for this split.

But, now I started making decisions that I question in hindsight.

Of course, it's easy to question things in hindsight, but as I look back, I'm not sure what I was thinking. Certainly, vomiting up all that energy drink made it hard for me to continue to consume it. Having an alternative flavor to switch to probably would've helped. I was rattled that I hadn't been able to stave off nausea much longer than last year. Up until this point, the nausea had been coming in waves-- it wasn't continuous, but it was throwing me off of my game. I knew I had no chance at a PR unless I was able to control my stomach. I certainly wasn't in better shape than I was last year, so I couldn't count on making up any time that way. I was also nursing a knee injury. I guess I thought I had to try something different.

So, consciously or unconsciously, I decided to try real food for a while. Mistake? Yeah... probably.

I've resorted to real food in many races in the past and it's never really been successful, so I'm not sure what I expected to happen. The thought of more maltodextrin just wasn't appetizing.

As I hiked back up to the CDT, I contemplated my fate. I wasn't depressed. Confused might be the best adjective I can think of. I ran into more of my friends along way, cheering them on. I was happy to see Craig, a local friend and personal running hero. We ran Smokey's snowshoe marathon together way back in February. (God, that seems like forever ago.) He was suffering from back pain. He almost hadn't started the race. Since I was basically a walking medicine cabinet, I offered him a variety of painkillers. He declined, he was already set. (Sadly, I found out later that he dropped out at Half Pipe.)

Right before I hit the junction with the Sheep Gulch trail, I sat down and finished the second half of my PB&J sandwich. That's the problem with real food. It's really hard for me to chew late in a race. I got it down, but it must have taken me 5 minutes. Ok, another 150 calories...

Time for some more uphill!

I actually felt pretty good going up the south side of Hope Pass. I certainly wasn't woozy and in a weakened state like I was last year. The problem was that I stopped one or two more times to eat some more real food. This time it was a nut butter. Another 200 calories. The south side of Hope Pass is never easy, but this might have been the most comfortable I've ever felt going up it in a race. But... I was taking too many breaks to eat food. I was drinking water from my handheld, but the bottle containing my energy drink was still full. Dead weight, when in reality it was the solution to needing to stop and eat.

Forward progress? Yes. Relentless? Not really.

So, all-in-all, it was a wash. I crested the top of the pass in almost exactly the same amount of time as last year. I was amazed that my time was so close given the ridiculous number of stops I made on the way up. I must have really been hurting last year. Indeed, it was my worst split. I had planned on climbing up 20 minutes faster this year, but alas... it was not meant to be. Or, rather, I didn't make it happen.

As I started the short, steep descent down to Hopeless, my knee immediately reminded me that it was injured. Shit. I had forgotten to take more ibuprofen on the way up in preparation for the downhill. Over six hours had passed since I had last taken it. Down went two more little brown pills. I limped along as best I could.

I grabbed some more soup and potatoes at Hopeless. Man, they were incredibly salty! Too salty for my taste. (I guess I was doing okay on electrolytes!) Juggling two handhelds of water, plus a cup of soup, I carefully jogged down the narrow trail back below treeline. (I had finally dumped out my last bottle of energy drink at the top of Hope Pass. Untouched.) I promised myself I'd stop and fill up one of the bottles with energy drink on the way down.

Yeah... Sure you will, Andy.

My inefficiency continued. I stopped near the stream and took a moment to finish my potatoes and soup. My knee was not feeling great. Okay, but not as good as it had felt on the previous descent.

I continued on.

I stopped again.

This time to empty out rocks from one of my shoes. They had probably gotten in there during the river crossing miles and miles ago, but now my socks were dry enough that the grit was rattling around and becoming annoying.

As I finally emerged from the woods, it was still light out. This would be only the second time I've made it to Twin Lakes before dark. It's still a magical feeling.

The river crossing went as smoothly as could be expected. Soon I was slogging along through all the muddy puddles and tributaries on the far side. I knew I was falling behind on calories. I needed to eat something. How about a gel? I had grabbed one at Hopeless. Steeling myself, I ripped off the top and tried to suck it down. Ugh. I could only finish half. I couldn't do it. I almost gagged. I stuffed the half-empty wrapper into the breast pocket of my shirt.

Despite my growing stomach woes, I was still jogging. I was able to maintain a fairly respectable 13:00 min/mile pace through the rolling, sodden meadows just before Twin Lakes. The terrain reminded me of Bighorn.

As I acknowledged the cheers from the crowds of spectators lining the course, I glanced at my watch: 1:35. Okay. Not great, but not terrible. Certainly not disastrous. I expected it to be worse. Instead, my time was only 5 minutes slower than my modest goal for the split. Only 7 minutes slower than last year. Yes, I was slowly slipping off of my overall goal pace, but all was not lost.

A PR was probably out of the question at this point, but another big buckle?

Maybe, just maybe...

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe

As I write this section, I find myself pounding my desk and shouting at my monitor,

"Andy! Why did you stop?! Don't stop, you idiot! Stopping never works! Never! It's just a waste of time!"

As I approached my crew prior to the aid station proper, it was 6:55pm. Last year, it was 6:23pm. (I just looked it up.) How is that possible? After a July spent on the couch, running with an injured knee, without a pacer, and stopping every other mile from Winfield? You got me. I don't know.

But, as they say, the race doesn't start until Twin Lakes.

Mile 61.

And how did I start the race? By plopping down in a chair for 15 minutes.

I switched out of my wet, muddy shoes, prepared for the night to come, and tried to reboot my stomach. Two out of three of those were good ideas and could be accomplished in approximately three minutes. Rebooting my stomach by sitting down and nursing a Coke? Not advisable.

You can do that shit on the move, Andy.

I briefly contemplated eating some of my crew's leftover pizza, but I couldn't quite bring myself to do it. I knew things were continuing to go downhill with my stomach, and that this was an important inflection point in the race. I sipped some broth. It wasn't exactly inspiring. It had no significant calories and wasn't the solution I was so desperately searching for.

Then, who should jog past at that very moment, but Andy W.! The man, the myth, the legend! I had been ahead of him since he dropped to walk to eat a gel just before Pipeline. It was only a matter of time until he caught up. I was not surprised in the least. We exchanged cheerful hellos as he trotted past. Did he stop for 15 minutes, feeling sorry for himself? Nope! Did he big buckle? Hell, yes!

As I write this, I realize that I'm being hard on myself. It's easy to pass judgement from afar, from the comfort of my own chair. And, knowing what I know now, I had probably already sown the seeds of own my destruction long ago. A big buckle was very unlikely no matter what I did at that point. I was a ticking timebomb. It was only a matter of time until my knee became too jacked to run. The ibuprofen that was coursing through my system was surely making it harder on my stomach. Some amount of nausea seems inevitable in a 100-- but it's almost guaranteed when you take ibuprofen.

At a certain point, you can't control your stomach. You can only control your reaction to it.

And that brings me back to the mantra I opened this race report with in Part I:

Embrace the suck.

That was probably the best advice I could've given myself at that point.

Instead, I kept trying to wish it away.

Finally, I dragged myself out of the evil, seductive chair and headed out. I don't think I actually managed to eat much of anything while I was sitting there. Mostly Coke, I think. Some broth. Maybe a little bit of watermelon? I had also popped a caffeine pill. And I was still clutching a bottle of energy drink. Part of me knew that was my only hope. A nice portable source of steady, liquid calories which I could consume on the move. It was what had finally resurrected me at Bighorn. But, I continued to nurse the small bottle of Coke which I had stuffed in my vest pocket.

The climb out of Twin Lakes did not go particularly well. Once I got off the jeep road and onto the trail another wave of nausea washed over me. I puked again. Mostly Coke this time. And lots of stomach acid. Ugh.

My goal was to run this split faster than I ran it last year, when I also felt queasy and nothing felt appetizing. Once you reach Mt. Elbert, it becomes very runnable. It's a great section to make up some time on if you're feeling good. Unfortunately, that's a big if.

Could I rally?

I felt a bit better after my second puking episode and started moving again. I caught up to and passed by a few groups of runners who had passed me earlier. (Everyone had a pacer at this point. Why did I think going solo was a good idea again?) I jogged some of the flatter sections on the way up. At Mt. Elbert, I restocked on water and actually started hitting the energy drink. I'd take a small sip, and then wash it down with a sip of water. Wait 5 minutes. Repeat.

The jogging started to increase. It wasn't exactly effortless, but I was moving. In the growing darkness, I finally stopped and took off my vest to get out my headlamp. Fumbling around, it was one of those moments when I realized how nice having a pacer is! I was able swap gear on the move last year.

The jogging continued. I was feeling pretty good. Teetering on the edge, but good. I was now passing everyone-- especially on the gentle uphills, which I stubbornly refused to hike. I kept looking at my watch, checking my time for the split. It was going to be close. Very close. I really wanted to beat my time from last year and set a PR.

Folks around me were still commenting hopefully about the possibility of a big buckle.

12:00 min/miles... 11:00 min/miles... 10:00 min/miles...

Where the hell was Half Pipe?!

I kept hearing phantom generators in the distance, thinking I must be almost there. Finally the aid station emerged from the darkness, shrouded in light.

My PR time was 2:22:12.

I made it to the aid station in 2:22:46.

My goal was 2:15:00.

So close.

Half Pipe to Outward Bound

Yet so far.

That was it. That was my race. It ended at Half Pipe. Mile 70.

I completely shutdown.

I sat in the overwhelming warmth of the aid station tent and slowly drank a cup of Sprite. I tried some more watermelon. I pulled out my rain jacket and put it on for warmth.

I was back out on the course after not too long-- maybe 10 minutes-- but something had changed.

It was cold, so cold.

I found myself desperately trying to keep my eyes open while I wove back and forth across the dirt road.

Why was I so tired? Why was it so cold? I had run the next 25 miles in shorts and a t-shirt last year. I knew it wasn't really that cold. It couldn't be. This was all about my metabolism-- or lack thereof.

I walked every step of the way to Pipeline, staggering along, trying to stay awake. It was only 9pm! What the hell was happening? I had already taken 200mg of caffeine at Twin Lakes-- way more than last year-- and that was just for insurance. I shouldn't be falling asleep yet?! Hell, I don't usually struggle to keep my eyes open until 2 or 3 in the morning.

I didn't touch my energy drink, which the friendly aid station volunteers had refilled. I don't think I ate anything.

Whatever shred of willpower I had left evaporated in the cold, dark night air.

I lost it.

I collapsed into a chair at Pipeline. Quickly, I put on every warm layer I could. I was now wearing more clothing-- at least on my upper body-- than I wore during the snowshoe race last February (when the high for the day was in the teens). I was still cold. Christina and Jeremy draped two sleeping bags around me as I sat there, staring vacantly into space. I was able to drink an espresso without too much trouble, and I started working on a bottle of chocolate milk. I needed calories. Badly.

A PR was gone. A big buckle was gone. I was way, way down on my list of goals now. All I wanted to do was to make the nausea end. Somehow. I didn't care about my time any more. 25 hours immediately became 30 hours. I did not care. I hated 100s. I was so tired of battling my stomach.

After maybe a half an hour or so, I walked off towards Outward Bound. I was in the middle of the most runnable section of the course and I ran absolutely nothing.

Zombie-like, I made my way across the pasture, still desperately trying to keep my eyes open. Only the fear of stepping into one of the ankle-breaking holes that littered the course kept me awake. A nap sounded like a great idea. I dreamt about my nice, comfy bed only a few miles away.

Outward Bound to May Queen

Worst. Split. Ever.

More chair. More low-level, energy-sucking nausea. Some ginger ale. More caffeine. More ibuprofen. A valiant, 45-minute attempt to eat a hamburger. Nothing was really working.

In some ways, I had been through all this before.

Late-race nausea was the name of the game in '10 and '11. It was nothing new. But, the big difference was how far ahead of the cut-offs I was this year. Even after sitting at Twin Lakes for 15 minutes, walking from Half Pipe to Pipeline, sitting at Pipeline for 30 minutes, and walking to Outward Bound, I was still 3 frickin' hours ahead of the cut-off! I had absolutely no motivation to move. In previous years, I'd be flirting with being cut-off, racing against the clock. Stopping was simply not an option. This year I discovered that fear can actually be an advantage.

Instead pushing through it, I tried to make the nausea go away by sitting and nibbling on real food.

My wife was starting to get worried. She scrambled to line up a pacer for me for the next section, over Powerlines. I briefly contemplated it, but... no. No pacers. That was the one of the few goals that I still clung to. Before the race, I had asked Christina if she wanted to pace me the last 7 miles to the finish, if she felt up to it. She had always crewed for me, but never paced me. I thought it might be fun. Or end our marriage. Plus, she was training for the Golden Leaf Half Marathon in Aspen. She needed the miles! So, I was looking forward to that, but up until then... I was on my own.

In total, I spent an hour at Outward Bound. 1 hour. 60 minutes. Sitting there. Trying to eat. Waiting.

I never seriously contemplated dropping. Sure, I desperately wanted to go to sleep. I was apathetic. I was freezing. I was frustrated. I swore off 100s. I hated my stomach. But no DNF. I was going to finish this damn thing.

Finally, I dragged myself out of the chair and trudged back out into the night. I wasn't getting any closer to the finish line just sitting there. (Genius!)

All-in-all, the climb up Powerlines wasn't absolutely horrible. It wasn't good, but at least you're not supposed to be jogging up it. So, the fact that you're hiking up it doesn't feel like total defeat.

My knee had been bothering me more and more as the night wore on. I'm sure sitting down so much wasn't helping. (There are so many reasons not to sit down!) I wasn't limping yet, but even if I had the energy, jogging would've been difficult at this point.

Near the top of the first big climb I suddenly felt an intense, sharp pain in my right knee. I cried out. I swore loudly. Fuck! That was it. For a split second, I thought my race was over. My knee was shot. But, no... no... it was okay. I limped for about ten steps, but then it settled down to its normal, grumpy self. I guess it just wanted some attention!

Shortly after, I took a small sip of some energy drink. I hadn't drunk any since Half Pipe. Not to be outdone by my attention-seeking knee, my stomach immediately rejected it, and I found myself doubled over and throwing up for a third time. That was my last energy drink for the remainder of the race.

As I neared the top, my pace actually picked up a bit. I was hiking pretty well. Soon I saw the lights of Space Camp-- an unofficial aid station that some of my local friends had set up on the top of Powerlines this year. I had been looking forward to it all race. There was Smokey, Luke, and Jeff. All cheerful and full of energy. It was great to see them, but I was embarrassed to be moving so slowly, and to be in such bad shape. I filled up my water bottles and sipped some ginger ale. Smiling, Smokey joked how great it was to be watching the 100 this year instead of running it. We had both big buckled together last year. I rolled my eyes and laughed. After recounting how badly my race had fallen apart this year, I finally said thanks, waved to everyone, and wandered off into the dark.

The downhill sucked. My knee was having none of this downhill running shit. So, I walked. I sat on a rock. I ate another nut butter. My eyelids grew heavy again. I could barely stay awake. I zig-zagged across the trail, stumbling, trying to fight off sleep. Eventually, I discovered that as long as I was talking to someone I could stake awake. Soon, I started introducing myself to everyone nearby.

"Hi! I'm Andy! I don't have a pacer! I'm about to pass out! I need to talk to someone so that I can stay awake! What's your name? Where are you from? Is this your first Leadville?"

I kept up this routine until dawn. It worked wonders, and I met a lot of great people. Of course, in my delirium, I can't recall their names, but they were all awesome. Some first-timers. Some veterans. A multiple-time Leadwoman. Time passed by more quickly. I still wasn't moving fast, but at least the race didn't feel so much like a chore.

Every so often I glanced at my GPS, noting the time. Ironically, I did this not necessarily to track my progress this year, but to calculate where I had been the previous year at the same time. It was sobering.

I watched 24:28 pass by on my watch. Still 13.5 miles to go. That's what separates disappointment from victorious euphoria in this race.

May Queen to Finish

I met my crew just before May Queen and plopped down into the chair again. (Damn that chair! I should burn it!) I drank more chocolate milk. I don't know what else I did. Sat there, I guess? Who knows?

I actually didn't stay seated too ridiculously long. 10 minutes? 15 minutes, maybe? I knew I had to keep moving. It was still dark, but dawn wasn't too far away.

So, I kept walking, nursing my chocolate milk. My stomach still wasn't happy, but it was vaguely, kind of, sort of... manageable. I didn't dare run, though. It was all walking at this point, with the occasional exhausted groan mixed in for good measure.

Along the way, I ran into Sheila Huss-- the same runner who generously gave me her extra set of batteries at Bighorn! I had been chatting with her for a mile or so, trying to stay awake, before I realized it. Crazy! She was pacing her friend to her first Leadville finish. I thanked her again for saving my race.

Dawn finally rose about halfway to Tabor.

As I approached the boat ramp, I saw my wife jump up in the distance as she caught sight of me. She was wearing her running clothes, ready to pace. I was so thankful!

I had some business to take care of first, so I visited the nearby toilet. There was actually a short line so I stood there waiting, twiddling my thumbs, chatting with Christina. Ah, the incredible intensity of the final miles of a 100!

After not too much time, we set off. We were walking briskly. Better than I had been earlier. I was nursing a bottle of ginger ale, trying to get some calories in me. Every so often, Christina would cajole me, trying to get me to jog. I wasn't ready yet. More ginger ale was required.

I warned her that I'd probably trip and fall on my face going down the impossibly technical powerlines to the dam road. Somehow, we survived. With no poles, even.

At the bottom, I could see a long line of runners stretching into the distance on the pancake-flat dirt road. Oh, God. I have to jog this. This is ridiculous. I was supposed to jog this entire split, dammit!

And so I jogged. Finally.

It was a respectable pace for this late in the race. I was passing folks with ease.

I peeled off my warm layers and handed them to my wife, who was quickly becoming loaded down with all of my extra gear.

We passed by Jay and Leah, two friends from Leadville. Leah was running her first 100 and Jay, her fiance, was pacing her. She had been battling Achilles tendon pain all summer just like me. Leah was on the verge of tears, but she was still slowly moving forward. Everything hurt. (A few days later my wife would run into her again at the local coffee shop. She was already planning what she'd do differently next year. Welcome to the Leadville addiction, Leah!)

Shortly afterwards, Brian Costilow jogged past. A former Leadville-local, he was shooting for his 10th straight finish! He looked happy and full of energy. We cheered him on. His monster-sized, 1,000-mile buckle was in the bag! Simply amazing.

I was now out of ginger ale. So, I resorted to nibbling on a few chocolate chip cookies that I had stuffed in my pockets at one of the aid stations miles ago. I power-hiked strongly up the initial hill of the Boulevard, and continued jogging. This was familiar territory.

A seemingly endless stream of runners stretched before us. I caught a few of them, before dropping to a brisk walk again. I didn't quite have enough energy to sustain an uphill jog to the finish. My knee ached with a dull pain. It wasn't happy. Running 100 miles should definitely not be part of your recovery routine for runner's knee. I can confirm that.

The last benchmark that I briefly considered trying to beat was my time from '12. That would make this my second fastest Leadville time. But, after doing the math, I figured it would've required me to run 7-minute miles uphill to the finish. Um, yeah... that wasn't happening.

So, I just tried to enjoy these last few miles. Happy to be almost done. Knowing that soon I'd get to see the rest of my family. Just as we reached the pavement, we passed by Chris Boyack, whom I recognized from the blogosphere. I thanked him for his video report about his Bighorn experience. It definitely helped me with planning my own race this year. He was about to complete his sixth Leadville 100!

At the bottom of the 6th St hill, I started slowly jogging again. I saw my family cheering in the distance. Christina grabbed Ethan, carrying him in her arms, and Sierra and Aunt Jenn ran along beside us. Everyone was cheering now. I had a big smile on my face. I had been looking forward to finishing with my two kids for a long, long time. It was what helped me finally get out of that chair at Outward Bound.

Leadville '14 was ugly.

I made too many mistakes to count. Some obvious, some not so obvious.

But the finish was beautiful.

28:38:03. I got it done. Finish #5.

I'm already starting to plan what I'll do differently next year...

On a 6-mile, family hike two weeks later! (My knee was still hurting.)

A water obstacle.

See over there? That's where Papa threw up!

Future thru-hiker? Ultrarunner?

Throwing rocks into Hagerman Lake.

A huge thanks to my wife/crew/pacer. I couldn't have done it without you!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leadville 100 Race Report (Part I)

Embrace the suck.

That should've been my mantra for this year's Leadville 100.

Instead my mantra was more like:

Try to avoid the suck. See what happens. If suckage occurs, slow down and maybe it will go away.

You'd think I would've known better since this would be my fifth consecutive running of Leadville. But, alas, my optimism won out and I thought that I could control my stomach if I just took it easy and drank plenty of water. Crazy, I know. Such hubris.

But let's rewind a bit.

Here was the situation as I toed the starting line at 4am on race day.

My training was solid from January to May. After a May full of racing (126 miles spread over 4 races-- Collegiate Peaks, Quad Rock, Sage Burner, and the Turquoise Lake Half), I came down with a sore/tight left Achilles. I stopped any significant running in early June and tapered aggressively for Bighorn. I went to PT and exercised/stretched/massaged/iced twice a day to help my Achilles heal. It didn't get much better, but it magically disappeared at Bighorn after about four hours of running. My right knee hurt after Bighorn (runner's knee). There were 8 weeks until Leadville. Too much time to just sit on the couch. My enthusiasm got the best of me, and I returned to normal July-level training too quickly and aggravated my knee. Dumb. Soon I couldn't run more than a mile without limping. I stopped all running with about 6 weeks to go. I went to PT and exercised/stretched/massaged/iced twice a day to help my Achilles and now my knee heal. I slowly worked my way back to hiking up and down 14ers. Eventually, with about 2-3 weeks left until Leadville, I managed to go on a couple of 10-15 mile training runs without any pain. I ran a few shorter routes at very close to my PR pace. (Probably because I was thoroughly tapered and well-rested.)

July was my lowest mileage month of the year. My lowest mileage July ever. I'd run more miles during the week of Leadville (106) than I ran during the entire month of July (105).

Not exactly a textbook training block.

So, it was hard to know what to expect. How worried should I be about my Achilles? My knee? What should my race strategy be? How should I pace myself? Certainly, if either of my injuries acted up then a second sub-25 hour finish was out of the question. But even on the longer course in '12 (which was 103 miles) I still managed to finish in 28:19 with excruciating IT band pain. So, it was still possible to finish with an injury, and finish with a pretty respectable time, too. (Possible? Yes. Smart? Perhaps not...)

Well, I basically decided to assume the best case scenario and just go for it. (Pro tip: never assume the best case scenario.) I wanted at least a shot at setting another PR. I envisioned basically two possible scenarios:
  1. My injuries aren't a factor. I control my stomach. I run faster during all the splits where I was nauseated last year. I set a nice, fat PR.
  2. My injuries are a factor. I slow way down. I control my stomach. I enjoy some real food, and leisurely finish somewhere around the 27 hour range.
Note the common phrase: I control my stomach. Therein lies the flaw.

What actually happened:
  1. My injuries were a factor, but not quite as bad as previous years. It wasn't entirely clear what my goal should be. I was in some kind of performance grey area. I eventually lost control of my stomach. I slowed way down. I tried to enjoy some real food, and a leisurely finish. That didn't work.
Ah, stomach... how I hate you.

Oh, I finished. Two minutes faster than Bighorn, but more than four hours slower than my Leadville time from last year. There were some triumphant high points, but there many, many low points. In a lot of ways, the low points were nothing really new. Perhaps that's what was most frustrating: I thought I could manage my stomach, I had a plan, but I just descended into the same enervating world of nausea that's happened in pretty much every 100 I've ever run. I would've been totally content to finish in 30 hours if I could've managed a nausea-free race. At least that would've been progress!

For the curious, here's how it all unfolded. 

Start to May Queen

I was excited to race.

Despite all the ups and downs of my training this year, insufficient desire-- at least on race day-- was not an issue. Sure, I had my doubts. I was in a different head space than I had been in since probably my first run in '10. That was the only other year that I started the race knowing that I was probably going to be battling an injury for much of it. (My ITBS in '12 was a race day surprise.)

I wasn't really worried about not finishing. I figured I could walk about 60 miles and still finish. But there were many unknowns. How ugly would it get?

I spent a good portion of the morning stretching and warming up my legs-- quite literally, as I strapped multiple heat packs to them. I wore knee warmers (primarily designed for biking) for some extra protection from the cold. I also strapped on two IT band straps-- one above each knee-- and wore compression socks in an effort to baby my calves. I didn't exactly feel nimble. More like a tank. If some minimalist, sandal-wearing nut had gushed about Born to Run at that very moment, I probably would've punched them in the face.

The start line was electric, as usual. There was so much energy. You could hear the commotion from my house a few blocks away. In the middle of the crowd, I bumped into Brandon, who I hoped I'd see a lot of during the race. We both had vaguely similar goals. I handed off my puffy and heat packs to my wife.

The shotgun fired, and we were off.

As impressive as the starting canyon at Bighorn is, there's nothing quite like the start of Leadville. More spectacle than scenery. A police escort leading a sea of runners down 6th St to the Boulevard. Cameras flashing. Spectators cheering, screaming, jumping up and down. Music blaring. A giant wave of headlamps stretching out into the night. During the first mile I always make sure to take a moment to turn around, to witness the ghostly mass of humanity illuminated behind me, headlamps bobbing up and down. We're all crazy enough to try to run 100 miles. At two miles above sea level. Even to a jaded veteran like me, that's still pretty inspiring.

The Boulevard and the dam road passed by quickly. I was neurotically checking my pace and my perceived effort and trying to compare them to last year. How out of shape was I? I couldn't really tell. Everything seemed normal. Routine. My Achilles was detectable, but actually felt pretty good. I hiked up the mini-powerlines climb and started comfortably jogging around the lake. My trip around Turquoise went smoothly. I somehow managed to fall into a gap for a while, and was able to jog almost all of the split without being right on top of the runner in front of me. That was a first. The reduced number of starters this year (back to '10-'11 levels) seemed to be having an effect. Dawn came, and I was able to turn off my headlamp as I passed by the second mine entrance-- a confirmation that my pace was about right. Fueling was going well. When I hit the pavement at May Queen I saw that I was basically right on schedule. I walked for a bit and ate a nut butter. That put me at ~850 calories and ~50 oz of fluid. I crossed the timing mat 3 minutes behind schedule-- a completely negligible amount this early in the race.

While physically everything went well during this leg, mentally I felt a bit detached at times. I hadn't raced since Bighorn. I had barely run during July. Jogging around Turquoise Lake felt almost dream-like.

Is this really happening? Am I really racing Leadville? Funny... How did that happen? I don't remember training for it...

May Queen to Outward Bound

My aid station transition went like clockwork. I met my veteran crew (my wife, Christina, and my brother-in-law, Jeremy) and barely slowed down. I just dropped some warm layers and my headlamp, and picked up two new bottles of energy drink. I kept my arm warmers and knee warmers on-- which I definitely appreciated, as the sheltered, north-facing Colorado Trail in the upcoming section can be quite chilly in the morning.

As planned, I hiked a few of the steeper sections on the single track to Hagerman Road. Once I hit the road, I began jogging and jogged to the top of Sugarloaf, chatting with a handful of runners along the way. Things still felt pretty casual. I was a tad slower than last year, but that was the plan.

Then came the downhill. My first real test.

I immediately began to feel my right knee on the descent. Nothing too painful, but definitely tweaky and a bit sore. Damn it. I was disappointed. I was hoping to at least make it to the descent into Twin Lakes (at mile 37) before that happened. Ah, shit.

I had planned to take the descent easy no matter what, but my knee gave me even more reason to. I don't think I broke a 9:00 min/mile on the way down.

Outward Bound to Half Pipe

I glanced at my watch as I passed by the old aid station location. I was a few minutes behind schedule, but nothing significant. The new aid station was another half a mile up the road, making this leg 11 miles now. It's getting to be a bit far to go without an aid station, in my opinion. At least when compared to the rest of the course.

That said, Outward Bound's new location is vastly superior from a logistical standpoint. The chaos from last year was totally absent. I didn't have to dodge any cars. There was no awkward out-and-back across the timing mat. I met my crew, ducked under the rope, and quickly resupplied. I dropped my arm warmers and one knee warmer. I switched shirts. My crew wasn't sure they could get to Pipeline in time to meet me, so I took everything I'd need until Twin Lakes. No big deal. (That fear turned out to be unwarranted.)

I was curious to see where the new course took us. There was no real trail through the pasture, just a swath of recently-mowed grass. Ankle-breaking holes were scattered throughout. Not a problem during the day, but I took note of them for my return trip during the night. Less pavement is always welcome, so on the whole I think the re-route is an improvement-- especially as it allows for very logical aid station flow. It's unlikely that it's as fast as the old route. But we're only talking one or two minutes at most.

As I hit the pavement, I saw Andy W. and JT up ahead. Two burly Leadmen. I caught up to them and we chatted for a while. Andy seemed to be experiencing some kind of low-point and was very self-deprecating, commenting about how high his heart rate was this early in the race. Blah, blah, blah. I just smiled. I knew that whatever he was experiencing was totally minor and temporary, and that he'd crush this race just like he always does! I pulled away a bit as his watch beeped and he dropped to a walk to eat a gel. (The man is a machine.) We had been taking it fairly easy while we were chatting, so I arrived at Pipeline a little slower than planned-- faster for the split from Outward Bound, since it was closer this year, but slightly slower when everything was taken into consideration. Again, just a few minutes behind schedule.

At Pipeline, I met my crew again, along with my family. I gave my kids big hugs, drank some ice water, dumped the rest of the water bottle on my head, and jogged off. While passing through the crowd, I ran into Woody A., who I hadn't seen in forever. (I miss his blog.) Positive as always, he cheered for me and we exchanged a high-five.

I jogged all the way to Half Pipe, still trying to keep things relatively easy. This is where I began to make nutrition mistakes last year, so I was extra attentive to my hydration and nutrition. I made sure to drink more water (~24 oz/hour), and to not consume too many calories too quickly.

My knee had been nagging me since the Powerlines descent. It wasn't causing me to limp, but it also wasn't going away.

Half Pipe to Twin Lakes

Unlike last year, I actually took a few minutes to stop at Half Pipe. I drank some broth, topped off my bottles, and headed back out.

Again, I jogged pretty much everything-- maybe walking one or two short stretches of the steeper stuff. I kept listening to my stomach, and I waited until I felt hungry to consume more energy drink. I didn't force it. I was still maintaining a 300+ calorie/hour rate, while also drinking extra water. Perfect.

My knee, however, was getting worse. If it wasn't affecting my pace physically yet, it was probably beginning to affect it mentally. It's hard to feel fast when you're injured. I took two Tylenol a few miles past Half Pipe. I was doubtful they'd do anything, but I figured I'd at least experiment with the safer option before I started popping ibuprofen.

Nope. No change.

At Mt. Elbert I topped off my bottles again and, sighing, swallowed two Advil.

It was going to be one of those years.

Twin Lakes to Hope Pass

Despite taking the downhill super easy, I rolled into Twin Lakes only 10 minutes behind schedule (for the entire 40 miles). I was 30 minutes behind last year's pace. I pretty much nailed the split, running it in 1:51 with a goal of 1:50. Nice. Last year I ran it in 1:45, but when I hit Twin I was beginning to look pale and felt a little woozy. This year, I felt great energy-wise. My knee was my main concern.

I informed my crew about my knee and made a few gear adjustments and backup plans for Winfield, where I'd see Jeremy next. I drank some more broth and headed out again, probably stopping for a total of 3-4 minutes. Longer than last year, but fine.

The stretch of trail to the river was a swampy mess this year. It was the worst I'd ever seen it. I knew this was coming, as I had scoped out this section of trail a week prior. There's nothing you can really do about it. So, I just slogged through the mud as best I could. Lake Creek was running quickly enough that I actually had to face upstream in the deeper sections. I couldn't just stroll across. Given the conditions, I'd say everyone lost a few minutes on this section (each way) when compared to previous years.

Now came the first climb up Hope Pass. This was the first split I planned on running faster than last year. Could I do it?

Hell, yes!

In hindsight, these were the best miles of the race for me. Probably some of the best miles of my humble ultrarunning career. It was so satisfying to run strongly up Hope-- my nemesis all these years. It felt just like a relaxed training run. I jogged (!) all the flatter sections and hiked the steeper sections. I stopped at streams at every opportunity and drank water and poured more water over my head to stay cool. I kept up with my energy drink, still maintaining a ~300 calories/hour rate. And I chatted everyone's ear off-- as JT can attest to. I was feeling fantastic. Not a single runner passed me, and I must have passed easily 30+ runners on the way up. Last year I staggered my way up Hope, dizzy, and unable to drink. What a contrast.

I ran into the leaders, Aish and Krar, right after Hopeless. Aish was his usual talkative self. Krar, who I greatly respect, was silent. He's an ultrarunning machine. Humble and soft-spoken outside of a race, but while racing... he's all business. Fierce.

I jogged/hiked up to the top of the pass and checked my time for the split: 2:02. A full 15 minutes faster than last year. I had cut my total deficit in half in the span of a few miles. That was so, so satisfying. I had figured out what I had done wrong last year, made some simple adjustments, and executed.

It doesn't get any better than that.

Hope Pass. The high point of my race, both figuratively and literally.

To be continued...