Last weekend, I raced the Leadville Trail 100 for the second time. Last year's race was physically brutal; I sat curled up at the 50 mile point, 11 pounds light and unable to keep down fluids, for almost two hours before rallying and banging out a strong second half for a finish of 26:15 (strava report). That race earned me the silver belt buckle awarded to all finishers under 30 hours:
Badass, right? Not as badass as the ungodly huge GOLD belt buckle you get for finishing in under 25 hours.
(Not sure whose crotch that is.) I knew that if I could figure out my nutrition issues, I could break the 25 hour barrier. Last winter, with this arbitrary goal spurring me on (I don't even have a belt that can support one of these), I registered again for the Leadville Trail 100.
A lot's changed in my life since last year. I quit my job at Twitter, founded PaddleGuru and moved to Boulder with Jenna. Running in the mountains instead of the streets of San Francisco has given me a huge confidence boost, though I've been logging fewer road miles than last year, and Leadville has a good deal of flat… oh my god, did I screw up my preparation? I should have run more road!! Thoughts like those flared and faded all week. I guess it's impossible not to be anxious before a 100.
My parents, my brother Mike and his girlfriend Katie flew in to Boulder the Sunday before the race. I ignored the race and showed off the town. We drove up to Twin Lakes on Monday to get used to the elevation get into Leadville zone. The cabin we rented had an unbelievable view of the town of Twin Lakes, mile 40 of the course, over which towered Hope Pass. It was hard to breathe, as expected, but Jenna and I had been up to Leadville for training runs this summer and weren't surprised. Here's the view from the cabin porch:
This year I'd be racing with three friends. Aaron Steele from Berkeley was flying out Friday to compete. I'd met Michael O'Brien after the Leadville Marathon, where he came in 4th (!!). Jason Antin is a fellow member of the Satan's Minions scrambling club in Boulder and just an absolute crusher, gentleman and mountain man. Thinking of this as a "competition" was refreshing, as absurd as it sounds to race a hundred miler. Something to focus on besides the slog.
I gave up on preparing my clothes and food early. My anxiety builds as the race gets closer, and packing up supplies the day before the gun goes off is soothing. As long as there are tasks, I don't have to think about the race. And I managed not to think about it, not to really acknowledge it, until the day before it started. I spent so much time this year telling Michael and Aaron about last year's race, about my lack of salt, about how you need to go SLOW, but it felt like a story I'd read, not suffered through. Forced to think about it, I knew that I could BEGIN the race. I knew I could get to mile 40, walk slowly over Hope Pass, then see about coming home. Of course I could do that.
Aaron Steele showed up Friday AM with my parents. He looked cool, just the consummate 100 miler. I'd paced Aaron through an amazing 100 at the Rio del Lago last year, complete with a bonk at mile 72 and a HUGE surge in for a 22:35 finish. Dude's an animal.
Aaron and I did a 30 minute shakeout on a nearby trail and I pointed out Hope Pass for the 15th time that week. I felt a goofy pride at being able to identify markers on the course, even markers as obvious as the enormous mountain pass looming above the town. My confidence faltered when a runner we saw on the trail told me that the right turn out of Twin Lakes I'd been describing vividly to my parents - "This is where you see the town as you roll downhill!" - was actually a left turn. I think I've been manufacturing memories of the course all year. Frightening.
Aaron went to bed at 6pm. I stayed up for another couple of hours, packing, growing jittery, snapping at Jenna and my parents as they asked routine questions. The whole thing was getting to me. Finally, bedtime.
I got up at 1am with Aaron for a pre-race breakfast of coffee, a bagel with Nutella and PB, a yogurt and a banana. I like to eat about 3 hours before the race to give my stomach time to empty. We couldn't stop giggling and woke the crew. Both of us had loopy dreams. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I laid in bed and sent out a burst of tweets about the race preparation. Backfire, as the sound of a Favorite interrupted sleep for my remaining hour.
At 2:30 it was game time. Full body smearage of Aquaphor to prevent chafeage (and I mean full body - I hit the bathroom and slid INTO the toilet); short shorts, warm shirt, hat, fancy Salomon pack, the works. Into the car, to the startline, jacket to the parents, and there we were, lined up again in the dark at 4am. Oh my fucking god.
My heart rate at the start last year fluttered around 100 and hit 120 with the gun. This year it held closer to 80.
The gun goes and we're off, moving down the road toward May Queen, our first aid station at mile 13.5. Aaron and I started at the front and let the pros stream past us. Aaron let me pull ahead, but I was determined to start slow and ran the first few miles looking back over my shoulder, trying to keep him in sight as he snuck in and out of other runners. The headlamps behind us looked like fireflies and washed out all details of the trail. Betsy Kalmeyer, the woman I paced at this year's Hardrock, told me that in the mountains she sometimes mistakes these lights for stars.
Aaron's plan was to run a really conservative race and hit Winfield at 12 hours, then cruise back for a strong, sub-25 finish. I was trying to break 11 hours into Winfield to match last year's pacing. If I could do that and subtract my 1:40 bonk, I could break 25 and get that big gold buckle.
Two miles in I noticed Michael and our friend Patience to my right. Yes! Company! We talked about how happy we were to be going slow, how we weren't worried, and how great it was going to feel to reel in racers later in the race. Lots of bluster. It always feels like you're going too slow at the beginning. I pointed out spots to remember on the way back to give them hope during their finish sprints. A stump. Some random parking lot.
On the dirt road 4 miles in, moving toward the first huge uphill, I noticed another runner ten feet off the trail, sitting against a tree, taking a shit and pointing his headlamp directly at his ass. Burlesque, baby! Someone's always gotta start strong.
As we hit the uphill and get onto the single track around the lake the runners around us start to break out the stories. One old man tells me about his drop 10 years ago. He's been running hundreds ever since, and is finally prepared to attempt this one again. Later, on the single track, another guy tells me he's here because of a Dean Karnazes quote he'd memorized:
"If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra."
I'm not as fuzzy about the "experience" of running - I think those Talk to God moments are mostly because of mistakes in nutrition and pacing - but I smiled and told him he'd come to the right place. I felt bad when I had to cut him off so I could wheel off into the woods and pee by headlamp. There's always an agenda to self-talk in a 100, my "I feel great!" chatter included. Really, I'm so desperate to have someone to run with that each time I stop to pee, I run hard back up to Michael and Patience, risking ankle carnage on the rough single track.
At the boat ramp, I saw my crew, hugged Jenna and Pretzel (my dog) and tried to mentally beam the message that this day is going to go BEAUTIFULLY, then on into the night again. I hit May Queen at mile 13.5 about ten minutes slower than last year and feeling calm.
Last year I had to wait at May Queen for ten minutes while my crew scrambled to fill my pack with food. This year, I'm ten minutes slower, but the crew was spot on. Such a great start to the day. I grabbed some snacks and a new bladder of Perpetuem from Jenna, hit the sunscreen and hustled up the road to join Michael for the hike up Sugarloaf. We started passing people right away on flat sections of trail, jumping around on rocks, keeping the heart rate low. A girl from New York City kept pace with us for a while and told us about her training runs in Central Park. Her boyfriend was pacing her, and he'd already eaten a good amount of her supplies for breakfast by the time she'd seen him at mile 13. Just a sad situation all around.
She was moving and breathing way too hard for me to believe her stated goal of "just finishing", but one thing I learned last year is that no one will be honest with you about their time goals. No need to tempt the race gods by declaring that you want to do go fast; better to stay humble and pretend you're just trying to sneak through the damned thing.
The climb up Sugarloaf went by much faster than last year. I still walked almost every uphill, Now that I'd seen the course I could relax and not wonder how much farther I had to go. My nerves about rolling the ankle I'd sprained weeks before were fading! Michael and I talked to Barefoot Alex, a stud in huaraches and dreadlocks who seemed to know everyone on the course.
Near the top of the climb, Alex said, "it's funny, my fingers are swollen up like sausages!" Holy shit. That's what happened to me last year. He confirmed that he'd been peeing a lot all morning.
"Dude, you've got to start taking salt pills." I pulled a couple out of my pack and pushed them into his huge hands like a salt evangelical. He was ME, and I had to fix him. He took the pills.
Phew, crisis averted. I cruised down Powerline, moving through familiar territory. I pulled away from Michael a little on the downhill, trying to move fast but favor my quads. I passed Jason's girlfriend Jenny on the way down and asked where Jason was - she said he was WAY ahead and hammering. So impressive. There went my chances of winning our little group race.
After a mile of quad-punishing descent, I bottomed out, crossed the creek and went up the short rise to the road that leads to Outward Bound and Treeline beyond. My parents hadn't seen Jason, so I figured he must be at least 45 minutes ahead.
Jenna walked with me and I switched to a hand bottle with Perpetuem and some snacks; Michael caught up and we moved on together, acting as pacers for each other by now. The weather was nice and cool, the conversation was good, and BOOM, there was the next aid station! We were maybe 23 miles in now, but Ultramarathon time dilation had set in and it didn't feel long at all.
"Michael, we're halfway to halfway!", I yelled. "Jokes" like that are a nice way to check in on your condition. If you're doing well, they're not funny, but maybe worth a smile. If you're heading down a bad road, the phrase "halfway to halfway" makes you want to cry and tuck into a sleeping bag.
The Perpetuem started tasting bad here. This had happened to me last year on the way up Hope Pass and signaled the start of terrible dehydration. Scared, I dumped the bottle at the aid station, filled it with water and at a PB&J. Crisis averted.
The next bit is usually a long road stretch, but the organizers had subbed in traverse across a grassy field. Cheers had gone up when they announced the change at the pre-race meeting. I was excited, but when I hit the grass I realized that the field was pocked with ankle twisting bomb craters. It was just an absolutely fucked up horrible little pasture that cows couldn't even use. I dumped water on my head and moved through it, feeling strong without the backpack, loving the cool breeze, and tried not to think about how dangerous this stretch might be at night. I hit the Treeline just ahead of Michael and we moved out to Half Pipe together.
The Half Pipe aid station came up faster than I thought. So good! I was feeling the heat and eating a bunch of salt pills, measuring myself against last year's ghost. Time is hard to measure here in the trees. It's very hot, and there's nothing notable about the long road rollers and the slow, insidious uphill. This section is a great to stage a push on the way home, but not outbound. Michael and I puzzled over the riddle of the three prostitutes and the two condoms to pass the time. I dumped water on my head at every stream to battle what was looking to be a very, very hot day. Finally the downhill arrived.
I rolled downhill behind a strong looking runner in a blue tanktop. His goal had been to finish sub 20, but he'd been hit with intense diarrhea, forcing him to go slow.
"It's actually really great for ultras," he said. "The diarrhea forces you to walk up hills and save up energy for that second half. Total blessing." Whatever you say, buddy. The state of his asshole bedamned, no way was I passing a guy whose time goal was five hours faster than mine. I stayed behind him into Twin Lakes. We hit the town stretch, and the watch confirmed what I'd suspected - I was back on track with last year's schedule, only about five minutes behind!
Last year I left Twin Lakes and immediately puked up the contents of my stomach. Melancholy set in on the way up Hope Pass, and I had to walk into Winfield, losing maybe an hour on my goal time. This year, my plan was to go easy and cross the Pass in great condition to run down. That alone would get me a half hour on least year; if I could get out of Winfield quickly and keep it together, I'd be on track for a sub 25 finish.
I brought my iPhone up Hope and listened to a Radio Lab about this tiny population of whooping cranes and an old man with Alzheimer's. So sad. I was close to crying when I caught diarrhea boy and tried to tell him about the podcast. He didn't have much to say about the cranes, and didn't seem affected emotionally. What a brute.
It was so hot. I dumped water on my head on the way up to keep the heart rate low and made it to the Llama field before the summit with my heart rate below 150, still calm. I pressed on through the aid station and past the bonfire. Near the top, one of the timers called out, "Great to see a smile up here on the pass!". You got it, brother.
When I topped out, I felt the urge to cry. I was so happy that I'd made it up without feeling like death or puking. Reverse self pity!
Heart jackhammering, trying to settle the rate, I moved downhill fast, busting up my quads on the incredibly steep terrain, then turned up the horrible, deceptively uphill two miles of Colorado Trail that leads into Winfield. Stay cool, get to the halfway point.
I saw Jason Antin on the way in, probably 30 minutes ahead of me. I wasn't thinking about catching him at this point. He gave me a bear hug and yelled "Sam Ritchie!". I learned later that he'd seen Jenna at the aid station and told her that I'd be there soon - he could sense my presence on the trail. Not only is Jason an athletic beast, he's also a wizard. Here's Jason at the top of Hope Pass on his second crossing:
I reached Winfield 10 hours and 33 into the race. Jenna ran out smiling and walked me in past my parents. My weight was stable, maybe two pounds down from my starting weight. Much better than 11 pounds last year. I ate some oranges, refilled my water, stuffed some ice into my headband. We were out within 12 minutes. BOOM! Suddenly I had almost 40 minutes on last year's time! I wasn't 11 pounds light and on my knees in the dirt! Such a celebration.
I was feeling rough. Last year, even though puking outside the aid station tent wasn't exactly recovery, those two hours gave some minimal break to my stomach. This year I felt weak from the hot, hot sun. Jenna and I got to the Colorado trail and managed to keep up with last year's slow pace. The goal for the back 50 was to recreate what I'd done last year. No need to go faster. If I could keep moving, I'd be sub 25, earn my big arbitrary gold buckle and be free of the demons.
My stomach started to revolt on the way up Hope. My heart rate hammered up to 150 at the left turn onto the Hope Pass trail and wouldn't settle. I walked, let downhill runners fly by and tried to keep my food down. Jenna kept pushing me to eat. "How about just one Pretzel?" Even these took a few minutes to choke down. It was really hard.
The back side of Hope Pass has three phases. The woods, the boulder fields and the switchbacks. Each is about a mile long. Near the top of the woods phase we passed Jenny heading down. Jason had pushed, met her at the top of Hope Pass and proposed. "He even put the ring on this cord since he knew my fingers would be so swollen!" Everyone descending around her was smoked, favoring their quads and grimacing, but Jenny had the best smile on her face and was telling everyone she could about the engagement. She ended up finishing in 29:23. So awesome.
We met Aaron Steele about halfway up the boulder fields. Aaron looked worked. I had been worried about his nutrition situation, and it was clear that he was a little behind, but smiling as always. It felt SO good to stop and talk and let my heart rate drop down to 115. I gave him a Honey Stinger bar, told him to stay cool and dunk his head in the stream, then pushed on. Jenna was dousing me with water by now, filling up our water bottle with stream water and dumping it all over my neck and arms. The heart rate kept climbing. We hit the section of trail where I'd gotten the Strava CR weeks before… no chance of pushing anywhere close to that speed now.
And then, finally, we were at the top among waving Tibetan prayer flags.
At the aid station, Jenna took selfies with the Llamas while I tried to eat noodles and drink water. I felt like puking every time we started running. God, is there no way to avoid this after 55 miles? Maybe my body could only function with a two hour break halfway. Maybe I couldn't get through a hundred miles without getting so fucked up I had to stop… the only question was where.
Cranking down the shaded trail on the north side of Hope, I focused on moving over the slippery roots and making good time as Jenna pushed behind me. Finally we were at the bottom, still in full daylight. My stomach allowed me to eat more pretzels near the bottom. I got another mental boost when I realized that we might beat last year's Hope crossing by 15 minutes.
I'd already clawed back a couple of hours on my time; if I could hang on, I might be able to push the 24 hour mark. On the other hand, aiming for too fast of a time goal could cause another blowup. Well, what the hell. I started getting excited about going faster.
I changed my shoes at Twin Lakes and picked up Eric Coppock, a fellow minion who'd volunteered to pace me the final 40. There was bad pain in a couple of my toenails, but I was prepared to lose a few and didn't look closely when I changed my socks.
Water was still making me nauseous, but I loaded on on watermelon at the aid station, and DAMN was it good. Eric had a few bottles of Ensure in his pack; these had gotten me through the night last year.
Out of Twin Lakes, you climb up the Colorado trail to the Mt Elbert trailhead through groves of enormous aspens. It's a huge climb, but runners only talk about Hope Pass and Powerline, so it can come as a slap in the face if you're not expecting it. In the evening, it's one of the most beautiful spots on the course.
We hiked uphill. I described my day so far to Eric, trying to reassure myself by putting a positive spin on the tale. We'd only run once together at Mt Sanitas in Boulder. Eric was calm about the stomach issues and suggested, over and over until I agreed, that I try the Ensure… and, YES, it stayed down! There could be hope after all. After half of the Ensure my stomach had settled and I was able to start drinking gulps of water again. We started jogging the small flat breaks in the climb.
We hit the Mt Elbert mini aid station 3 miles up the hill, and the course began to flatten out. We started to crank downhill, hitting 8 or 9 minute mile pace. I needed a 15 minute mile average at this point to break 24 hours. It seemed daunting, but I knew that these long downhills would let us put a few minutes in the bank for the later climbs. Every 11 minute mile that passed was encouraging.
Running, drinking Ensure, drinking water. Trying to get a bottle an hour down. This was my life. We started passing people. The sun was still up, unlike last year, and I could run in a t-shirt and feel warm. My heart rate was down to 140 now that I was out of the heat. All I had to do now was deliver and use this excellent terrain to gain time before the sun set and the cold forced me to slow down.
To our right was the most beautiful sight I've ever seen in the mountains. I don't have a picture, and can't find one, but the mountains to the East were blood red. A storm was pouring rain in the distance, and ruby shadows flickered in the enormous column of water pouring down over the hills. I yelled to the runners ahead, "LOOK TO THE RIGHT!". Some turned and hooted, others kept marching, grimaces untouched. Hey, I tried.
At the Half Pipe aid station, I grabbed more watermelon and we moved out for the last two miles to Treeline. We took a walking break and prepped the headlamps. Eric's was this wild homemade deal with no on/off toggle that he clipped to his belt. It was incredibly bright, and seemed to give him energy. I think it was some sort of Ironman core.
It was dark when we hit Treeline with its line of cars. Treeline was quiet; we were going fast enough now that we were ahead of the 25 hour press, so runners were only coming through every couple of minutes. My parents, my beautiful parents, had COFFEE. Oh my god, so good. I clutched it and sucked it down like Gollum slurping fish guts. Jenna ran out with me, then realized after a few minutes that she hadn't brought a headlamp. Eric and I moved down the trail while Jenna stumbled back to the cars in the dark. Whoops.
The road section was hard. I wanted to slow down, but Eric was telling stories and keeping a fast pace, so to be polite I kept running and talking. Soon we hit the awful, cratered field near Outward Bound and slowed to a walk to pick our way around the rocks and bomb holes. I tried to run a little, but stuck my foot in one hole and snapped my knee backward, then did it again and almost rolled my weak right ankle. Enough. We walked into Outward Bound, fueled on watermelon and moved out toward the bottom of Powerline, where Jenna's brother Adam was waiting for his first pacing leg ever. Yesterday Adam had told me he was worried that he wasn't going to be able to keep up with me. With 80 miles in my legs, I knew he wouldn't have a problem.
I turned down the road to Powerline with Adam and Eric. Eric wanted all the training he could get for the Run Rabbit Run 100 later this month. His justification: "Well, it's going to be hard to start running again if I sit in the warm car for a couple of hours, so I'll just head over the summit with you guys." The stud factor was high.)
We power hiked every step of the uphill at a steady, 17 minute mile pace. My heart rate moved between 125 and 140. We were passing runners, jogging every short flat, downing Ensures. Powerline is the land of a 1000 false summits. Every few minutes, you think you've topped out when another green trail-marking glowstick looms high above you and you realize that no, this flat is only here to deceive you, the trail winds up and up.
At the top of Powerline (the last climb conquered!) we ran into an impromptu aid station of blazed guys and girls with glowsticks, water, Coke and a board spraypainted with the words, "YOU FUCKING ROCK!". Eric refilled our bottles and Adam and I moved on. Behind me I heard some girls whispering, "you have to slap his ass as he leaves!" right before a girl in a skeleton shirt and a glow stick necklace ran up and whacked Adam. His first pacing experience was going all right.
I didn't know how my feet were moving so fast down the rutted, rocky jeep trail. I felt disconnected from them in the wash of the headlamp. I looked down at my feet and saw them jumping over rocks and turning over at high cadence. I had no understanding of how I was making that happen.
I thought about how many steps I'd taken so far and felt a little sick. Just keep going. Finally, the flat section of Hagerman road. I ate a gel before the final, bombing single track downhill, the last significant downhill on the course. It felt endless, but Adam was so happy - "Sick!!" - that I had to smile and gutted it out. The technical downhill of this section required an IQ level that was beyond my reach. Keep drinking water, keep moving.
We hit May Queen over an hour ahead of the schedule I'd set out for my parents, and left the aid station just one minute before they arrived. Adam found a bar of service and called Jenna. "We're leaving May Queen." I could hear "What??" on the other end of the line, and then the service cut out.
At this point, my brain could understand the remaining distance. A half marathon, nothing crazy. I knew Jason was ahead of me, probably more than thirty minutes. These are dangerous thoughts with hours left, but I thought that it MIGHT be possible to catch him at the end if I pushed hard. Let's see.
The first four miles of lake is very technical in the dark. I had some hot chocolate at the aid station, which raised the IQ by a couple of points, and then we were back at it, walking the uphills, running the down, switching gears every few seconds at times. Don't think about how much time is left, just run.
We could hear the boat ramp, and then there it was! I was just a total asshole by this point. Jenna asked me, "Wow, how did you take an hour off your time?"
"By running fast, obviously… how did you guys take two hours to get May Queen?" Ouch. It's embarrassing to think about now. I was at a dark place, desperate to get the final Ensure and two gels and leave. We dropped Adam off and kept moving fast, passing a couple more runners. Eric was quiet and efficient, offering water, holding me back.
Oh, man, this was it. A 12 minute mile average MIGHT be able to get me in in under 23 hours. I knew that I could hammer the last five miles, but was the pain worth it? I decided I could at least try, and if I bonked and walked it in still get a time closer to 23 hours than 24, far faster than I'd ever expected. Okay. Keep eating. Almost game time.
We hit the rocky downhill off the lake. My nerves had calmed. I knew my final push was going to start at the bottom. I kept drinking Ensure. The calories had to be there for this part. I could see my breath and relaxed down the hill, ignoring my swollen hip flexors, ignoring the throbbing pain in my toes. We hit the dirt and started running, really running. My technique felt flawless, though it probably looked terrible. We dropped down to an 8:30 pace, and started to gain on the headlamps in front of us. Eric has his own 100 miler coming up and decided not to get too wild; after a mile of our insane push, he handed me the water bottle and a gel and sent me off to the finish. I knew the markers now. I knew I could go fast. Every minute below a 12 minute mile would bank me time if I bonked.
I was flying, slowing down on the bumpy dirt road by the train tracks, taking in a gel at the bottom of the turn to the last big uphill, hiking hard over the rocks, three miles to go, maybe a little more, don't think about how long that ACTUALLY takes - three miles is nothing! - I stopped looking at the heart rate monitor and watched my breath fog ahead of me. Headlamps flared up as pacers looked back at the noise. Everyone was wonderful, cheering for me as I passed. "Finish strong, man! Yeah!" Two miles to go, now. Don't think, don't look at the watch, just wait for the road and gun it.
Then, finally, I could see pavement. I hit the last dirt uphill and turned left onto the road, alone now, no fire in me for a final sprint but going as fast as last year. I'd been going this fast for miles, now, still down at 8:20 pace. Up the final rise, and I could hear the finish line now… and then, holy shit, ahead of me, could it be Jason? I recognized him by his huge calves. I didn't care about catching him anymore, just about finishing and fighting off the quitting bargain my brain was trying to make.
It was Jason! He saw me passing on the left and yelled, "Is that Sam? Is that Sam Ritchie? You're killing it, man! You're killing it!" So, so good to hear those words. We had maybe a half mile to go, and I could see the finish line, but I couldn't make sense of the patterns of lights. My vision started to wobble and I forced it steady, drinking water, not letting myself fade, trying to stay fast and steady uphill…. and there it was, the clock at, holy fuck, 22:38! Up the red carpet, looking for my parents and Jenna, hoping they hadn't missed the finish… and there they were. Finally, finally, I could stop. I stopped. I was sore, happy, and mentally there. And finally, finished.
Later, I found out that I'd gotten third in my age group. This is completely surreal to me. I used to be a kayaker, then a crossfitter. The running realm is intimidating. But whatever happens now, Leadville 2014 was an amazing time out in the mountains. Here's a shot Jenna took at the awards ceremony:
And, of course, the bounty:
UPDATE: Here's a fun Storify with social media from the day! Thanks to my lovely crew for firing these off while I raced.