Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leadville 100 Race Report (Part I)

['13 race report here. '12 race report here.]

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...

1 comment:

  1. Dude, great write up! Looking forward to Part II.