Monday, July 1, 2013

Leadville Marathon Race Report


If you've been following my blog then you know that I've been pretty happy with how my training has been going so far this year. So, admittedly, I approached the marathon with a certain degree of confidence. I tried to downplay it and not to get too excited about the race, but I'm not so sure I was successful. I didn't get much work done on Friday, as I was fairly distracted. I found myself pouring over my past splits, revising my race strategy, and fiddling with my gear.

If I had one over-arching goal for the marathon I guess you could say it was to not fade at the end of the race. Finish strong. The goal was not the top of Mosquito Pass (the halfway point and the highest point of the course), but getting back to the top of Ball Mountain in good shape. What would prevent me from doing that? First: poor hydration, secondly: poor nutrition, and a distant third: pushing too hard too early in the race.

I also had a few micro-goals that I had set for myself:

  • Don't go out too fast. (Don't make the central governor panic.)
  • Get to the first aid station in 46-50 minutes.
  • Stay below 20:00 min/miles climbing up Mosquito Pass.
  • Run the last 0.5 mile to the top of Mosquito Pass (which is flattish despite being at 13,000 ft).
  • Get to the top of Mosquito Pass by the 3 hour mark.
  • Run all the way from the base of Mosquito Pass back up to the Venir aid station. No hiking.
  • Stay cool: make good use of the snow and water crossings on the course.
  • Stay hydrated: don't get a side-stitch while running the big downhills.
  • Run the last 2 miles at a <8:00 min/mile pace.

The Leadville Marathon is interesting because my times over the years are tightly clustered together-- all within a few minutes of 5:50, with my PR being 5:48 in 2011. Unlike the 50 and the 100, my marathon times haven't steadily decreased each year-- there's been some fluctuation, with my '11 time being better than my '12 time. Why? Probably due to running the San Juan Solstice 50 miler the Saturday before the marathon last year! 13,000 ft of elevation gain will tend to do that.

Even though I live and train in Leadville, I actually don't run that much of the marathon course during training. Sure, maybe I make the climb up Mosquito Pass or Ball Mountain once or twice a season, but that's about it. I prefer other options around town, and I do almost all my long runs on the west side of the valley, in the Sawatch. So, it's not like I have a ton of historical data from training runs to precisely judge split times with-- I just have the GPS data from my two previous races. (I didn't own a GPS in '10. Hard to believe.) This is in contrast to, say, the Collegiate Peaks course which I run almost in its entirety two to three times each spring prior to that race. Consequently, I didn't really have precise goals for each split other than the hand-wavingly vague: run it faster than I did before. Considering residual fatigue from the SJS50 in past years, my surprisingly improved fitness this year, plus my more foolproof nutrition plan, I thought that a time of 5:20 would be a realistic goal. Approximately a 30 minute PR. Sure, I thought maybe I could better, but planning on a bigger improvement seemed a bit... cocky? I could finish in 5:20 and be happy. And that's ultimately what I wanted: a performance that I could be happy with. I didn't want to set an unrealistically ambitious goal, miss it by a few minutes, and then be disappointed. (It's all just mind games.)

The Taper

I promised myself I would maintain at least 50 miles/week (and 10,000 ft of vertical/week) this summer-- even leading up to a race. I didn't want my weekly mileage to fluctuate as much as it did last year as I took days off to taper for non-focus races. So, I carefully calculated my daily runs to come in just over those minimum marks. However, I found myself driving down to Salida on Wednesday to pick up 50 lbs of organic, grass-fed beef from a local rancher (mmm... protein), so I stopped off in Buena Vista and ran up Midland Hill. I had never been to the top; it was a sweet, very scenic trail, but also 1,700 ft of vertical in 2.3 miles! I ran the whole way up in the mid-day heat. Maybe not smart, but a lot of fun!

The splits to beat.

The Race

I walked the four blocks from my house to the starting line and chatted with all my friends and neighbors that I spotted in the crowd. The energy level was high, but I tried to stay relaxed. I started way in the back of the pack; it took me a full minute to reach the starting line after the gun went off. I did this intentionally to slow myself down during the first mile, which I spent weaving in and out between runners as I slowly worked my way up. As I was looking at my GPS data prior to the race, I was somewhat surprised to find that the climb to the first aid station (at ~4 miles) has almost exactly the same elevation gain as the climb to the top of the Powerlines (~1,600 ft)! No wonder that section of the marathon always seems painfully slow-- especially considering the higher starting elevation and the generally crappier trail conditions.

I tried to keep my perceived effort at a relatively constant level-- aiming to stay just a bit harder than "conversational". Except for one woman just in front of me, who I ran the whole way up with (and finished right next to many hours later!), everyone else around me was alternating between bursts of running and hiking. They'd run maybe 10 ft ahead of me, then start hiking, then I'd pass them, then they'd run 10 ft ahead of me, etc. Even though the net result was often about the same, I personally prefer to stay in one mode or another for longer stretches of time, cutting down on the number of transitions between running and hiking. It feels more fluid and I think you can adapt to micro-changes in the terrain more easily. I think the slight bounce of a running cadence also helps me breathe better. But, I'm probably over thinking it.

Climbing slow and steady...
At the top, I glanced at my watch and saw 48 minutes. Perfect! I was already 4 minutes up on my PR. Since I was carrying two handhelds I could easily blow right through the aid station without stopping. I emptied the first bottle just a few minutes later and shoved it in the back of my shorts. 310 calories down. A rogue cloud had actually sprinkled on us a little bit at the start, and there was now some solid cloud cover-- a rarity in Leadville this early in the morning. The clouds kept things relatively cool throughout much of the day, which really helped with heat management, I think.

I continued running all the way around Ball Mountain to the second aid station-- only stopping very briefly to scoop up a handful of snow to plop on top of my hat. So refreshing! At the second aid station, I paused briefly to refill both my bottles with maltodextrin powder and water and continued on. I was ~10 minutes ahead of my PR pace now.

I kept things casual running down to the third aid station, not pushing it too much, chatting with fellow runners. I wet my hat in streams both before and after the aid station, and stopped at the aid station itself to top off one bottle with more water (which was about 1/4 full at that point). Now it was time to tackle Mosquito Pass. The biggest climb of the race.

Beginning the climb up Mosquito Pass.
Around 11,800 ft I switched to hiking mode. I wanted to hike this section really strongly. No one passed me, but neither did I pass many other folks on the way up-- that is, until I started running near the top. At the beginning of each switchback, I asked myself if I should switch back to running or not. I always found myself deciding to keep hiking rather than pushing it with a run/shuffle. I told myself that a hiking pace allowed me to keep ingesting more calories more easily, which is true-- and I did-- but I think that was somewhat of a cop out. But, though I just barely missed my <20:00 min/mile goal for one mile, I hiked it faster than I ever have in the marathon before. And I've only run it a few minutes faster during training, so I can't be that disappointed. I made a point of stopping at each snow drift to shove more snow on my hat and down the back of my shirt. After jogging the last half mile, I finally made it to the top at 2:49-- 20 minutes ahead of my PR! Excellent.

If you look closely, you can see the snowball on my head. Heat management!
I had emptied another bottle full of maltodextrin on the way up, but I still had another bottle full of water left (plus maybe ~100 calories), so I skipped the aid station at the top and started bombing down the mountain, trying not to kill myself. I logged a low 8:00 min/mile on some pretty gnarly terrain; any faster would have been near suicidal. In previous years I had come down with a sidestitch or some other bad cramp on this descent, forcing me to walk a bit and recover. This year I felt great, which I took to mean that was staying on top of my hydration: my #1 goal for the race. (Of course, the clouds also helped.)

At the next aid station I was now ~24 minutes up on my PR pace. I stopped to dump my last two bags of maltodextrin powder into my bottles and topped everything up. I had finished all my water on the way down. Things were going great. I was excited to be this far ahead of my splits this early in the race as I knew that if I could hold things together I could continue to make up big chunks of time in the next six miles. I managed to run the entire way uphill to the next aid station. I wasn't moving particularly fast, but I was steadily trotting along. I have never been able to do that in the past; instead forced to drop to a hike for most of this grueling uphill. My only regret is that I didn't completely finish off a bottle on the way up to Venir. I drank maybe half of it-- not quite enough. I think I slipped a little behind on calories in this section, causing a small bonk just after I left the second-to-last aid station to circle around Ball Mountain one final time. There was a pack of six or so runners right in front of me as I crested the high point around Ball. By this time I had slowed down just a tad to catch back up on calories.

If you can believe it, this was my low point of the race.
I had polished off that bottle and started working on my final one. I started picking up the pace as my blood sugar increased (or the placebo effect kicked in... whatever, I'll take it) and started passing the folks in front of me one by one. My energy restored, I actually ran the final uphill into the last aid station, quickly filled my final bottle back up to about half full (with maybe 150 calories left in it), and set off for the final rocky descent down into town. Glancing at my watch, it read 4:33. Holy f---! I choked up just like I did at the 3:00 hour mark during the CPTR when I knew I could come close to finishing in 4 hours. Likewise, I knew I could run the final section of the marathon in very close to 30 minutes. 5:00 was probably just out of reach, but I was sure as hell going to come as close as I could! I turned my ipod back on. (I had been running with it off for hours now, trying not to get too excited.) The Chemical Brothers (Don't Think) and Daft Punk (Alive 2007) would carry me to finish line in record time! (You gotta love songs which have lyrics like "Don't think, just let it flow..." and "Work it, work it, work it, harder, harder, harder...".)

What can I say? My legs felt great during the descent. I was bouncing down the hill at a low 7:00 min/mile pace, passing another handful of runners along the way. I have always run this final section relatively well, but this year I was even faster. No tripping, no stubbed toes, no tumbles, alert and focused. My brain had plenty of glucose to work with. I ran up the annoying final grunter just past Adelade Road and continued truckin' along. It felt heroic. After some very emotional, triumphant miles, I crossed the finish line in 5:03:33. That put me in 63rd place out of 517 runners (chip time-- I actually gained two places over gun time since I started so far back in the pack). A 45 frickin' minute PR! That comes out to a 13% performance improvement. (Which is itself a record!) Ridiculous!

The second race of the year where I beat my family to the finish line!
As fantastic as my race was, I'd like to give a shout out to the 5 (!) Leadville residents and running friends who finished in front of me! Damn, this is a tough town to be competitive in! I think I was the second to last male finisher from Leadville... It was so great to have so many locals cheering me on at the aid stations! There is always great crowd enthusiasm during the marathon.

A Very Quick Analysis

The Leadville Marathon was the third race this year where I ran every single mile faster than my previous PR for the course. That's pretty solid.

Hell, yeah: another "all green" race!

You can see that I didn't quite reach my goal of keeping it under 20:00 min/miles climbing up Mosquito Pass, but I came pretty close. Other than that, I think I could have maybe run miles 19 and 20 a bit faster if I had consumed just a bit more calories leaving the aid station at mile 17. So, there's a little room for improvement, but honestly, not much.

I consumed 1,900 calories in 5 hours of racing. That's 380 calories/hour! And never mind the 300 calories I ate in the hour before the start (a Justin's Maple Almond Nut Butter packet and a GU Roctane gel). Plus, maybe ~600 additional calories of smoothie/coffee consumed for breakfast! Damn. I am an eating machine. Why do I need to eat so much? I have no idea, but I swear that I was feeling a slight hunger pang on the climb up to Venir. My stomach felt totally solid-- never sloshy. I never felt nauseated-- not even the slightest bit. This is the first time I've run this race without vomiting. As silly as it sounds, I think the best measurement of how well you fueled during a race is how quickly you can eat normal food after finishing. I was nursing a beer and wolfing down a burrito 20 minutes after the marathon. And to think that in previous years I'd shoot for Hammer Nutrition's suggested upper limit of ~280 calories/hour. Apparently that is not my upper limit. Fat adapted, I'm not.

So, the obvious question: why the massive improvement this year? Well, here's some interesting data:

Evidence that there's more to training than total miles.

The chart above lists training data from all four times that I've run the Leadville Marathon. YTD Miles counts miles from 1/1 to 6/30. Long runs counts all the ~20 mile runs I've run prior to (but not including) the marathon. Then I've also listed if/when I ran the San Juan Solstice 50 that year.

So, you can see that I haven't run that many more miles this year than last, but I've been consistently getting in my long runs. That, coupled with skipping the SJS50, really helped, I think. If I had to break it down, I'd say I gained ~10 minutes from being rested, ~15 minutes from better nutrition, and ~20 minutes from being in better shape. Just a guess.

Boring Gear Details

Despite the plethora of loose, softball-sized rocks on the course-- especially on the steep, downhill sections-- I decided to run in a pair of Montrail FluidFlexes rather than my Hoka Bondis or Stinsons. (I ran the marathon in Hoka Mafates last year.) I have been doing most of my training in my Montrails and they have held up admirably. They're much lighter yet well-cushioned. Okay, I'll shut up now about shoes.

As has become my custom, I wore my Salomon vest but with the entire hydration bladder/tube removed. I use its many pockets to hold my bags of maltodextrin powder, plus whatever else I may need, and carry two 20 oz handheld water bottles. It's a very comfortable arrangement; and I can easily carry enough fuel for 6+ hours of running (~1,800+ calories) without ever having to take off the vest at aid stations to refill (everything can be stored in the front pockets). Depending on the heat, 40 oz of fluid is good for about 90-120 minutes of running, I find. That's generally plenty of time to get to the next aid station (or water source).


  1. Nice work out there. Congrats!

  2. Glad we got to meet finally! Great job!

  3. Thanks, Jim!

    Andy: It was great to finally meet you too. Man, your 100 run last year is an inspiration to me. We've both run the race the last three years and improved each time, starting at 29.5 hours and working our way down. But, damn, you're 26 hour finish last year was awesome! If I can even come close to that this year I'll be so psyched.

  4. Huge improvements this year, well done - congrats!!

    I'm trying to figure out the hydration thing for SR; I believe the tube in the hydration pack is causing me some stomach distress (thus, the issues in SB)....I like the idea of removing the bladder and placing bottles in there or using handhelds and the pack as a mobile aid station. Perfect. Thanks!

  5. I think we're going to need an official ruling on that mile 8 split!

    Awesome work out there Saturday!

  6. Thanks, Jaime! Ha! Yeah, I laughed when I saw that. Good thing it didn't take me 1 second longer to refill my bottles! Mad aid station skillz!

  7. Thanks, Jill!

    Yeah, staying properly hydrated during the 50 is going to be my #1 goal. I've really screwed that up in the past. It can get hot out there. There's very little shade on the course. Water bottles are the way to go, I think. They encourage drinking more, I think. The only downside to wearing the vest is that it probably makes you a little bit hotter, but as I found out during the marathon it also captures and holds snow/ice against your back! So, so refreshing! :)

  8. I should add that I think I barely stayed properly hydrated enough during the marathon. (I only peed once, I think.) If the clouds weren't there, I definitely would have had to drink an extra 4 oz/hour-- at least.

  9. Awesome. It has been very fun to watch you busting through on and progressing this year. Your remaining attuned to the lessons, being patience and working the process is paying off. Well done Andy!

  10. Thanks for the words of encouragement, GZ. Doing well in the marathon is nice, of course, but I think the 50 will be the real test. It's easier to fake it for 26 miles (sub-7 hours, really). If I can survive the Silver Rush without blowing up on the final climb up Iowa Gulch, it will be a huge confidence boost. We'll see... I'm trying not to get ahead of myself.