The Build Up
Moments before the race, contemplating the coming day
It was only one year ago that Barefoot Ted asked me to pace for him at the 2010 Leadville 100 Trail ultra. I couldn’t have been more excited or honored. Just a year before that I was putting in my very first miles training for the Seattle Marathon wearing headphones playing Chris McDougall’s “Born to Run.” Of course I agreed to pace for BFT and soon we were on a plane to Denver.
I ended up pacing a measly 13 miles from the Fish Hatchery, over Powerline, and into Mayqueen. This event was the most important training in my running career - important not because of the physical exertion it took to run over that massive hill, but important because I got to see that the athletes running 100 miles over brutal terrain were not superheros, but normal dudes. I’m a normal dude. I’d never ran an ultra but, I knew I could do this.
Over the next year Luna Sandals grew quickly, most of my free time was occupied by building the business. It really didn’t leave much time for running, but this wasn’t such a bad thing. Ted came up with the idea of testing the limits of the minimal training necessary to complete 100 miles. My lack of time turned into an experiment to begin to turn another one of Ted’s wacky ideas into a solid philosophy, and my training schedule turned into running an ultra event every 6 weeks with just a couple ~10 mile runs in the weeks before. Leading up to this years Leadville I ran the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, Born to Run 50k, and the Vashon Island 50k, often taking entire months off of running.
There’s some debate at Luna whether miles run can be “junk miles,” and after my experience I definitely believe in running the minimal amount necessary to get ready for an ultra. I’d like to take it one step further and say that there are not only junk miles but also “harmful miles,” and on the flip-side, “golden miles.”
Harmful miles are the ones that you don’t want to be doing, the ones where you wish it were over. These miles will actually hurt your future performance, especially running in an event. Running with negative thoughts in your head is only going to make the negative thoughts come more easily next time. In an ultra, negativity will stop you faster than a brick wall. Golden miles on the other hand, are exactly the opposite. They’re the kind of miles you spend running with your best friends, or alone on a trail feeling like you’re flying through the forest, or where the rain won’t stop coming down and the smile won’t leave your face. These miles are worth millions. I strive to make all of my miles golden miles. Even though my training may average 5 miles per week, you’d be hard pressed to put in a better 5 miles than I do.
Of course, when it came time for Leadville I felt the terrifying reality that I had to put these ideas into action in the hardest, longest, and most difficult run I’d ever approached.
Leadville to Fish (Mile 0 - 23.5)
Before the shotgun blast signaling the beginning of the race, BFT and I hung at the back of the pack to chat with our amazing crew (Jules, Dennis, Sweeney, Shawn, Eric, and Eli). We started out slowly, and within the first few miles it was clear that Ted wasn’t feeling great and was little demotivated. At this point we were probably in about 600th place.
Before MayQueen he signaled that I should go ahead. Feeling pumped from the thrill of just starting my first hundred I let my legs flow with the ground. I started to whiz by runner after runner, not pushing it but having fun. I rolled in and out of MayQueen quickly, this was the only aid station where my crew wouldn’t be there to greet me, we figured they could benefit from the extra few hours of sleep and that a dropbag would easily suffice this early in the race. The sun was out by the time I left MayQueen, and as I headed towards the Fish Hatchery things really picked up. My three favorite things about an ultra are: chatting with amazing folks, passing people, and floating up and down hills. This section was full of all of those things. Running down the Powerline section was great. My LeadCats performed flawlessly; I could really let myself fly down the technical terrain. “Woah, sandals?!” was a common phrase heard whispered in the wind with each group of runners I passed. I couldn’t have been happier.
Fish to Twin Lakes (Mile 23.5 - 39.5)
My feet in LeadCats at mile 40
Seeing my crew at the Fish Hatchery instantly demolished any fatigue I was feeling at that point. They treated me like a king, one offering sports drinks, another handing me a tempeh-avocado burrito, a third filling my bottles and packing my belt pockets with new snacks. Salt and Vinegar chips had just made my morning.
Word on the trail was that Ted still wasn’t feeling well and he was quite a ways back toward MayQueen. I had also heard from Maria Walton that Caballo was only about 10 minutes ahead of me. My new goal was to catch the elusive White Horse.
I was quickly off. One thing I always can count on finding at ultras are people even crazier than me. The next few miles were paved road and it was starting to really heat up. I slowed it down a bit and chatted with a couple of the crazies, hearing stories of self-supported Leadville attempts made on a whim and runners with recent near fatal injuries giving it their best. The miles were still going by quickly, and I rolled into Twin Lakes with a smile on my face, but still behind the Horse. BFT was waiting for me at the at the aid station (he had dropped out at mile 28), but he met me with a grin, saying “Beat ya here.” Next I was greeted by my newly doubled-in-size crew with the offering of coconut water, an organic burrito, and the lickings of an empty salt and vinegar bag (so good).
Leaving Fish Hatchery, feeling great!
Lakes to Winfield (Mile 39.5 - 50)
Puddles! How to approach this?
I was so happy to leave Twin Lakes knowing the next twenty miles, including the back-to-back 4000 foot climbs over the 12,700 foot pass, would either make or break me. I couldn’t wait to see what I was really made of.
The lone spectator telling me that the river crossing was 15 minutes ahead didn’t prepare me for the dozen ponds I would have to tromp through first to get there. The first pond I came to I slipped off my sandals and ran through barefoot. I threw my sandals back on and didn’t trot for more than 30 seconds before I came to another pond. Figuring this was going to be a recurring feature of the course, I decided to run through with my sandals on. This felt a little weird the first few steps - the water between my foot and the sandal created quite of bit of drag, putting a lot of tension on my laces and making movement awkward. I quickly adjusted my step by pointing my toe as it left the water and pulling it straight up, lifting my leg high, and spearing my toes back into the water. This method allowed my to move almost as effortlessly as I did barefoot. I probably looked a little strange, like a cat forced to run through shallow water, but it got the job done.
More ponds. Finally I came to the river, crossed it without any problem and headed toward Hope Pass. Still no Caballo. I wondered if I was slowing down or if he was speeding up. Hiking Hope Pass the first time felt easy; I was still passing a lot of runners and having a good time. A short ways up the mountain the first place runner flew by me on his way back to Twin Lakes. He was over 15 brutal miles ahead of me. These guys are amazing. On the way up three more runners zoomed by, in fourth was a runner being supported by my buddy Nick Coury. A quick high five from Nick provided a nice little boost to my morale.
Approaching the Hopeless aid station I finally caught The Horse. He was solemn, but looking strong. At this point some people seemed a little distraught at the idea of turning around only to climb this brutal hill once more. The top of Hope Pass was invigorating. I took a moment to look at the amazing views from that altitude, and to think: I’m doing this, I feel good, all I have to do is trot down the mountain, run into Winfield and I’m halfway there.
Halfway! AND I felt good! Holy shit! I was really going to do this. There aren’t words to describe that feeling; I can only recommend you go do it, then you’ll know. The steep stretch down the mountain was certainly the most technically difficult section of the course. Having to dodge the increasing number of runners heading the opposite direction of the course didn’t make things easier, but the miles flew by. The stretch of dirt road was the first section that felt a little grueling. In my head I foolishly thought making it over Hope Pass meant I was in Winfield. Thinking miles are going to go by like nothing makes them drag twice as long, but knew that I was doing fine on time, so again I geared down and took it easy into the aid station.
Winfield to Lakes (Mile 50 - 60.5)
Sweeney and I leaving Winfield
Calmly celebrating my second trip over hope pass
My hip belt was starting to feel a bit like a burden, so I handed it off to Patrick Sweeney, the man who was going to take me back over Hope. Dark clouds were visible in the sky, but nothing serious. More coconut water, sandwich, and snacks. Ted had been saying all week: “Running a 100 is like aging: if you’re not feeling good at fifty, you sure as hell ain’t making it to a hundred.” Barefoot Ted was right, of course. I checked my systems, feeling good? Yep. Let’s do this!
Within the first mile, Sweeney started playing fart baseball (see Sweeney’s account of the race for gameplay details). Some rain started to fall and Sweeney pulled out my rain coat. I envisioned was the two of us climbing Hope Pass in hail and lighting, but before I could even finish that thought the rain subsided. Whew! dodged that bullet. It was actually a perfect little downpour to hold the dust down.
Sweeney, having paced back-to-backs at Badwater, is a pro pacer. Going up Hope Pass the second time I didn’t need much talking up; my legs still felt strong so I just powered up that beast. Coming down Hope, Pat and I stopped for some photo-ops with the llamas who hauled the gear for the makeshift latrine I used. Toward the bottom I started to feel some fatigue. Walking sounded better and better with every step and I started to get a little cranky, but Sweeney had a different plan. He kept me up to pace with jokes, kindness, and farts. He did his job so well that my time out and back from Twin Lakes only differed by a few minutes. Thanks Sweeney!
Hope Pass safely behind me
Lakes to Fish (60.5 - 76.5)
Feeling tired at Twin Lakes
My fatigue began to show in Twin Lakes. Here Eric Rich would picked up the title of pacer. This was Eric’s first attendance at an ultra. On a run through the Wasatch mountains the week before he told me he was worried about his ability to pace at Leadville, all while he was sprinting up scree so steep I could hardly keep my footing. I knew he’d be all right, and he was.
This section was easily the most boring to pace. The sun went down and I got tired. Casually hiking through the forest holding my food and being my light source was probably not the action Eric had anticipated. The stretch between Twin Lakes and Tree Line felt extra long. I started to feel terrible, my left ankle was getting sore, I was slightly nauseous, and my core temperature was dropping. I just wanted to go to sleep in a warm bed. I fantasized about getting to the aid station, calling it quits, and falling asleep.
Not far from Tree Line I realized that I had to do something about my physical state if I wanted to finish this thing. I asked Eric to run ahead and get the crew to heat up the car to help me recover a bit. A while later, Eric came running back with the good news that I wasn’t too far away and my crew was ready to take care of me. Sweeney had rounded up a can of vegetable soup and a heat source. The car was sweltering, just what I needed. I sat and ate my can of soup and drank a mate for about 15 minutes. Each second that passed my body felt better and better. This was the best feeling of the night, I wasn’t failing, I just needed to eat! I hadn’t been eating enough; rookie mistake. But that’s ok, I WAS a rookie. Eric and I took off, nearly sprinting out of Treeline, I felt SO much better. I only stopped for a pee break between there and the Hatchery.
Hatchery to MayQueen (Mile 76.5 - 86.5)
Jules (my big bro) picked up the pacing here. Next up, Powerline. I’ve often heard returning over Powerline was the most difficult part of the course, but having paced it last year, and running it before a few days prior with Caballo Blanco, I knew what I was in for. Jules and I kept a steady pace, and again I started to pass some people. Most would probably disagree, but there is something about going up hill that is so satisfying. This hill captures that perfectly.
Running down the other side my fatigue started to catch up with me; having run for nearly 24 hours I think I had a pretty good excuse. This time was different though, no negative thoughts were going through my head, I was just good ol’ fashioned tired. Jules took the lead, my mind wandered. Watching Jules’ footsteps in front of me as a guide I often came back to the mantra Ted has been chanting for the past year: “One foot in front of the other.”
Getting close to Mayqueen my mind really started to get loopy. Eli captured one of my thoughts here on Twitter. Mayqueen was a welcome sight; there was certainly no quitting now. Only 13 more miles.
Feeling the night frost I sat in the warm medical tent for few a minutes to sip some ramen noodle soup. Again, the soup worked it’s miracles. While in the medical tent there was a man who really made me appreciate my sandals. His blister riddled feet were burning red with hot spots. Trying to take off his socks caused him to burst into a screaming fit, cursing and shouting at his crew. And here I was wearing sandals, feet fine, no pain. Not that I never get blisters wearing sandals but I know that mine are a much different kind of blister, they have access to air and are caused less by repetitive motions. They rarely even fill with fluid and I’ve never had one I would describe as a “hot spot.” I rarely notice them on the day or even week of the race.
MayQueen to Leadville (Mile 86.5 - 100)
Coming in the finish!
I left MayQueen with a good friend of mine, Eli Duke. This was also Eli’s first ultra event. Eli is full of energy which was a great way to start out this stretch. In the beginning, going around Turquoise Lake, we moved swiftly up and down the smooth, forested trails. The sun started to come up. It was a pretty powerful and invigorating realization that 24 hours ago I was watching the sun come up from the same spot - the first real acknowledgment that nothing could stop me now. I’m still in shock from actually completing this race so I’ll say it again:
I was really going to do this. Knowing it was almost over and there was no amount of effort that could get me that sub-25 hour buckle, I started to slow down. The last 6 miles I spent walking along with Eli. I was certainly tired, a little loopy, and looking for that finish line. The dirt road seemed to go on forever. I eventually made my way to the final stretch, the rest of my crew was there to greet me with some snarky jokes and good words. I could see the finish line. I started running when I could hear the crowd cheer. Busting through that finish line was one of the best feelings of my life.