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)

['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...