Leadville 100 2009: A Sandbagger’s Journey – Part 1

I’ve now had over a week to reflect upon my 2009 Leadville 100 and I couldn’t be more pleased with […]

By on September 2, 2009 | Comments

Leadville Trail 100 mile runI’ve now had over a week to reflect upon my 2009 Leadville 100 and I couldn’t be more pleased with the race, more proud of the effort I gave, and more excited about my future in ultrarunning. Likewise, reflection has allowed me confirm that the race was my best 100 miler to date. In this post, I’ll talk a bit about my final preparations for the Leadville 100 and then jump into the blow-by-blow of my race.

Final Preparations
I’ve already laid out my training since March in my will I or won’t I Leadville post, so I’ll spare you that. You can take a look back if you’re interested.

The two weeks before the race saw me cover an unexpectedly large portion of the course on less than expected mileage. Two Tuesday’s before the race, I ran out of Sugar Loafin’ campground, west on the dirt road, up a small powerline cut, and then around Turquoise Lake to just past the Matchless boat ramp for a total of five miles. The next day, I joined Paul Schoenlaub and Devon Crosby-Helms for a double crossing of Hope Pass. We started at Willis Gulch (avoiding the river crossing and the boring Twin Lake flats) and turned around when we hit the road on the far side. I felt merely ok on the climb up the north side, while I felt marvelous gliding down towards Winfield and equally great marching back up. To my surprise, I was off on the descent back towards Twin Lakes – one of my favorite stretches of running around Leadville. My stomach cramped after eating a bar up on top of the pass and I was never able to open up my stride. A cold soak afterward made me remember it as a great day, regardless of down times during the run.

Devon Crosby Helms Leadville Hope PassDevon Crosby-Helms atop Hope Pass

One week before the race, I ran easy up the Powerline climb and back down Sugarloaf to May Queen while watching the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. I met Duncan Callahan and one of his pacers-to-be when jumping onto the Colorado Trail section from Hagerman Pass Road. I really enjoyed meeting the extremely humble and amicable Duncan.

Lance Armstrong Leadville 100 mountain bikeThe leader of the Leadville 100 mile mountain bike race nearing the top of Powerline

After a day off, I ran an easy three miles on the same course section as the prior Tuesday and could breathe more easily up the steep and rocky powerline cut. On Tuesday, I attended the Vasque media day and ended up running from Halfmoon Road over to Twin Lakes on the Colorado Trail with Duncan. Due to a busier than expected work schedule (seriously, check out my video interviews with Duncan Callahan and Anton Krupicka) and last minute race preparations, I didn’t run again before the race, as I had planned to do. I felt a bit antsy during these final days, but never as much nor as fresh as I’d expect. Perhaps, that’s because I refused to let myself get excited about the race.

Duncan Callahan Leadville 100 runI really hoped I wouldn’t see Duncan coming at me between Twin Lakes and Halfmoon on race day.
That would mean he’d have a 25+ mile lead on me!

While seeing the course in the weeks before the race was no doubt an important part of my mental preparation, the most important part of my physical preparation came from simply being at high elevation. In general, I’ve been up high since just before the Western States 100 at the end of June. Aside from a brief trip to low-altitude Annecy, France, I rarely, if ever, ducked below 4,000′ (Salt Lake City in late July) or 4,500′ (Banff in late July and early August).

Beginning August 5, I went high and stayed high. Starting with the 5th, I spent time in Grand Targhee, Idaho (8,000′) for three days; in Park City, Utah (7,000′-9,800′) for two days; and Carbondale, Colorado (6,200′-9,200′) for a day. From there, I went over to Leadville where I spent nine days camping at 9,600′ at the Sugar Loafin’ campground. That’s plenty high in my book.

The final three nights saw me go higher and yet rest up. You see, the good folks of Vasque footwear were kind enough to take me in and provide me with a comfy bed for a couple days. Not only was I at 10,200′, but I had a bed, was within three blocks of the starting line, and was in great company! (That company included returning Leadville 100 champion, Duncan Callahan.)

One key part of the preparations included nailing down a crack team of pacers the week of the race. Brave volunteers stepped forward. I’ll share their stories as each enters the tale of my 2009 Leadville 100.

I didn’t get to bed early on race-eve, but that’s no surprise. In fact, the night before the race someone in the Vasque house referred to me as “the guy downstairs working on the computer drinking a beer?!” (It should be noted that pre-100 miler beer drinking is a technique I learned from some experts.) I hit the hay around 10 p.m., slept well, and never blinked at the house’s early wake ups. I woke at 2:45 a.m. and quickly readied myself. All the practice of getting ready for DC run commutes in under 5 minutes paid off. I was left with time to relax and gather myself before heading down to 6th and Harrison just before the start.

It was a warm enough morning that after giving Steve Burton, my excellent crewman, my pants and jacket, I was comfortable standing around in my running shorts, short-sleeve Atayne shirt, and Salomon S-Lab Exo Calf.

Start – 0 miles – 0:00 () – 0:00 ()
[My convention for this post will be to note: the aid station – aid station mileage – my 2009 split (place) – my 2006 split (place), where available]

In 2006, I ran what I thought was a great Leadville 100 by going out very conservatively. I remember chatting with one of the top women not far into the race and joking about how many folks were going out too fast. At that point we were a few miles into the race and likely between 50 and 60th place.

While I was hoping to emulate that same model in 2009, it wasn’t to be. Well, not exactly. When the gun blasted, I set off down the pavement at a comfortable pace and a reasonable heart rate for the 3+ miles down to Turquoise Lake. Early on this stretch I fell into running with two good friends – Garett Graubins and Andy Jones-Wilkins.

As a brief aside, I met both Garett and AJW when I volunteered to pace them at various 100 milers. In 2005, I answered Garett’s ultralist request for a Hardrock pacer and took him from Grouse Gulch to Ouray, including a fantastic evening run down Engineer Pass (pictured below) and the Bear Creek Trail. Now that we’re both at the Outdoor Retailer show twice a year and I pass through the Front Range every so often, I get to sneak in a run with Garett a couple times a year. Back in 2007, both AJW and I were both running for the Montrail-Nathan team. While planning a trip to the Grand Teton and Wasatch 100 with crewman Steve, I remembered from a team email that Andy was running the Grand Teton 100. I offered to pace him and he accepted. I paced him to the win at Grand Teton and again at the Vermont 100 in 2008 and paced him at Western States earlier this year. It’s only a matter of where, not if, I pace AJW next year. In fact, he only waited until the Sunday morning after States to reserve my pacing services for next year… if I don’t get in.

Garett Graubins Hardrock 100Garett Graubins atop Engineer Pass in Hardrock 2005

Anyway, back to Leadville ’09. Garett, AJW, and I run down “The Boulevard,” the two and a half mile dirt road heading out of town, all together. There’s a decent leaders pack ahead of us with Anton Krupicka, Duncan Callahan, Timmy Parr, and others. A couple other folks intermittently join our second pack. The pace didn’t feel too quick, but when Tony et al. don’t quickly retreat into the darkness ahead, I become a bit worried.

Not long into our jaunt, we three make the northward turn for a short stretch that takes us from The Boulevard to a short paved section before Turquoise Lake. It’s here that I thank both AJW and Garett… two key people that helped convince me to run Leadville this year after deciding NOT to run the race just three week earlier. I thank them for getting me out there for a morning run with the two of them. Little did I know that I’d see a whole lot more of them throughout the day.

We cruise the two flat miles consisting of the northward turn, short paved stretch before the Sugar Loafin’ campground, and a longer flat dirt road section. What’s next is the first jolting section of the race – a rocky quarter-mile scramble up a power line cut that delivers runners to the sweet single-track around Turquoise Lake. AJW, Garett, and I stay close up the climb… though the heretofore ever present chatter noticeably dies off for a short while.

On the few meters of pavement before arriving at Turquoise Lake (mile 5.6), I ease up and ask Garett if I can follow him. He was using a small-batch Black Diamond LED headlamp that’s far superior to the five year old lamp that I’m sporting. He graciously takes the lead and allows me to soak up his brilliance.

In short order, a small train of half a dozen or so runners forms up on the gentle trail along the lake. The group continues at a somewhat reasonable pace… though my heart rate too often drifts above my desired 150 beats per minute (bpm) target and into the 154-58 bpm range. If it hadn’t felt so comfortable, I would have eased way off. More important, I was having a great time chatting and bantering with those partaking in our little lakeside promenade.

Tabor Boat Ramp – Mile 7 – 1:05 (??15-20??) – unknown 2006 split
Ok, so I swear that between 2006 and 2009 they must have changed at which boat ramp the unofficial aid station is located. My 2006 crew instructions mention Matchless boat ramp, the first boat ramp one encounters when circling the lake counter-clockwise on race day. This year we blew through Matchless without seeing a soul.

After some more nice trail, we hear hollers in the night and come upon lit up masses. I enter the aid station having eaten my two gels (I’m planning on eating a gel at least ever half hour from the gun to the finish), having kicked my one bottle of sports drink (Lemon Lime GU Electrolyte Brew), and intermittently shouting “Steve!” and “Burton!” in the hope of alerting my crewman amidst the throngs of humanity. No luck. Garett and AJW blow through the aid station as they won’t meet their crews until later. I decide to follow suit since I neither hear nor see Steve.

As I leave the aid station I utter a few expletives. They’re not aimed at Steve or myself or anyone in particular. I’m just frustrated as I won’t have any gels or fluid for the remaining 5-6 miles to the May Queen aid station at the far side of Turquoise Lake. This is particularly worrisome as my Garmin measured 7.87 miles to Tabor…. for a pace of 8:16 per mile… which is blisteringly quick for me running 50 miles… let alone in a 100 miler.

I start to panic a bit. What should I do? How will I recover? After a bit, I calm myself down and collect my thoughts. I’ll simply continue to enjoy running with my friends, drink a bunch in the next aid station, and switch over to a gel every 20 minutes for an hour so once I pick more up.

This works well enough. I run some more with Andy and Garett. Luis Guerrero, who I teamed up with on the final day of the Marathon des Sables this year, is also near me heading towards May Queen.

Once we hit the pavement, Garett and Luis pull ahead a bit. It’s then that that Aaron Schwartzbard, a friend from my DC days, pulls up along side me. We chat for a bit before his road speed carries him away, too. This will be the last I see of Aaron for a long while.

May Queen – mile 13.5 – 1:49 (18th) – 1:57 (33rd)
An hour and 49 minutes into the run, I pull into May Queen in 18th place. That’s 8 minutes faster than in ’06. It might not sound like much, but with the runnability of this section, that’s a huge difference. As a point of reference, hearsay has Anton Krupicka telling the pack he’s with at May Queen, “No one, including myself, should be here at 1:40.” Everyone is burning up the trail.

My arrival at May Queen in 109 minutes also meant that I hadn’t eaten or drinking for 45 minutes. [ALERT: I include discrete mention of some bodily functions at this point. This sentence is the only such sentence in the post.] However, I peed a few times between the boat ramp and May Queen, so I’m not overly concerned. Still, I’m upset at myself for blowing through the aid station tent (I must admit that I really don’t like the May Queen aid station – it’s just too much aid station) without drinking.

Steve is prepared with the resupplies I’d requested – a Nathan Elite 1 Pack single-bottle running belt, one Nathan Quickdraw Plus handheld, and a few gels. While we’re swamping out supplies, I get worried that I’ve not drank anything in such a long time. As Steve doesn’t have extra water on him, I go so far to ask Garett’s crew for some fluid as we were all exiting the aid station together. No dice. They haven’t any extra on them either.

The worries quickly fade as I head up a short paved section toward the Colorado Trail. Luis enters the trail just ahead of me and I follow him. The CT section is “flat,” but winding with some mildly technical footing. I’m enjoying it as the sky lightens and take Luis up on his offer to let me go around him. In retrospect, I probably pushed these two miles a bit too hard.

As I start up the hill, I settle back into low gear… into all day pace. I feels good to be back at 152-52 bpm on a steady climb. The morning is cool, but not cold. The growing light illuminates the majestic beauty of the Colorado Rockies.

Bryon Powell Leadville 100 mile runRob O’Dea capturing the morning beautifully

I run most of this climb alone though I know Garett and AJW are at most a switchback below. Sure enough, Garett catches me after we leave Hagerman Pass road en route to the Sugarloaf summit. Luis passes me outright on the climb and heads out of sight.

Around the summit, Garett and I group up with Jason Koop, who’s running his first 100 (I think). The three of us cruise down the Powerline section. Not far down we joke that AJW, who I know first-hand is a crazy fast downhill runner, will catch up by the upper most false summit. Much to my surprise, he doesn’t catch Garett and I on the downhill.

On the road mile into the Fish Hatchery aid station, Koop and then Garett open up a gap on me and AJW comes rolling on by. I’d forgotten about this road section and didn’t really enjoy it this time even though there’s nothing difficult about it. I’m not one to visualize a race beforehand, but maybe there is something to having a concept of the race course in your head before race day.

Fish Hatchery – mile 23.5 – 3:30 (16th) – 3:44 (26th)
Another 10 miles and another 6 minute pick up on my 2006 time. While I’m carrying the split card I made for the 2006 race with distances, a 22-hour projected time, 25-hour time, and the cutoffs for each aid station, I haven’t looked at the card yet. I’m not thinking about times or where I am in the field at this point. Heck, I don’t even want to know exactly what mile I’m at. I’m content to know that I’m around halfway through the outbound leg and still feeling good.

I try really hard not to think about the fact that I’ve covered all that ground in a mere three and a half hours! That’s frightful. Perhaps it WOULD have been good to have looked at my split card or 2006 split times, as I would have seen that the first half of the outbound leg is MUCH faster than the second half. Thank you, Hope Pass.

Anyway, Steve and I have a quick-like-a-bunny gear exchange and I’m off. Ugh, I’m off. Off to face 4 miles of road running. What’s worse is that there are folks around me… and in plain sight for a long ways into the distance ahead of me. I did not want to push the pace, push the effort, or to catch anyone. On the other hand, I didn’t want to give up any ground and everyone was flying. I clock the 4 miles to the old Treeline aid station in just over 35 minutes with the unfortunately high average heart rate of 156 bpm. Up the shallow incline from 0.75 to 1.5 miles into the leg I was running between 158 and 161 bpm. That’s way too hard of an effort than I like maintaining so early in a 100.

After the old Treeline aid station we are rerouted onto a portion of the Leadville 100 mountain bike course. Earlier in the week, a military chopper crashed into the top of Mount Massive and all four soldiers on board perished. The military was staging its investigation of the crash from the Halfmoon campground where the Leadville 100 mile run normally has an aid station, hence the reroute.

With a brief dip and rise we enter the new Treeline aid station. From there, we continue on a long, exposed dirt road section. Once again, I’m with Garett as we make our way along the Pipeline section of the course.

Far too long passes before we turn right onto another length of somewhat less exposed double track. Perhaps it’s because I’m trying to keep in Garett’s good company while he’s feeling better than I, but I continue burning the engines a bit too hot. My heart rate bounces between 152 and 156 bpm and then starts spiking to 158 bpm. I start to lose it. I’m feeling tired and my stomach’s not quite right. I decide to ease up significantly.

Despite being on a gradual climb, I drop my heart rate into the 145-48 range. I pop half a Double Espresso Clif Shot, normally one of my favorite gels, and nearly “reject” it. It’s the last Clif Shot I’ll eat all day … but only the start of my stomach problems. Youngster Nick Coury passes me in this stretch. I carry a half eaten gel for miles until I get to the Box Creek aid station.

Box Creek – mile 31.5 – 4:48 (18th) – in ’06 Halfmoon – mile 30.5 – 4:50 (24th)
It’s hard to compare times between ’06 and ’09 as the course was different. However, if Box Creek is a mile further than Halfmoon, I gave up a little of the lead I had on my 2006 self.

There was more dirt road coming out of Box Creek. Fortunately, toward the end of the trek to Box Creek, I was able to feel comfortable running at my target heart rate of 150 bpm. On the 3.5 mile, 1,000′ climb to the next high point, I yo-yoed between 147 and 156 bpm. This may seem like a wide range, but a HR graph shows a consistent pattern. It was a good thing. I was happily running a decent portion of the climb, while taking what turned out to be regular walking breaks when my HR got too high. AJW passed me once the climb transitioned from open road to canopied single tr
ack. I’m feeling alright, so he’s within sight for a good while after the pass. I’m content with my strong, but reserved effort.

Note the yo-yo pattern in the yellow range

Once I crest out, I enjoy the nicest section of the Leadville 100 course. Man, it’s sweet! I’ve heard the single-track up here described as buttery (did Krupicka say that?) and it is. So smooth. Not to mention this portion of the Colorado Trail runs through gorgeous aspen stands. Ahhh… and there’s the descent into Twin Lakes. While the footing is not always perfect, the combination of 1,300′ of drop in 3 miles is! After all running flats or up since mile 22, it feels nice to coast from miles 36.5 to 39.5.

I come into Twin Lakes outbound feeling fresh.

Twin Lakes – mile 39.5 – 6:07 (??) – 6:34 (20th)

It’s cliff hanger time for you, as it’s bedtime for me! Besides, I like tradition and I took a break at mile 40 in my 2006 Leadville 100 race report. Unlike the 2006 report, I’ll be back to finish this one off!

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.