Wednesday, August 24, 2011

2011 Leadville Trail 100 Race Report

Running the Leadville Trail 100 is quite the job.  Negotiating the climbs, the descents, the rollers, the flats and, of course, the altitude over 100 miles ain’t easy.  Some call Leadville a “runners course” though I highly doubt anyone has or could actually ever “run” the entire course- save for possibly Matt Carpenter.  Conversely, the course and event itself is worth every penny, every day off work for travel, every day of training, every moment paid in emotional toil and anxiety.  The climbs, the descents, the rollers and, even, the altitude.  They’re exactly what we hope for.  Add to the mix 14,000 foot Rocky Mountain peak scenery, dutiful event management, a critical mass of active volunteers, fired up spectators, the charm of Leadville itself and what we runners are treated to is a spectacular exercise in self-punishment and what we’re left with is a lifetime of memories.

Approximately six or seven miles into the race, at the boat ramp along Turquoise Lake, I departed company with the lead running pack for a momentary pit stop.  Running with the lead pack, among no one I had yet to know, felt comfortable enough though all things usually feel more or less comfortable at the beginning of such an event.  Once back on the trail my orginal running mates were out of site and I felt something of a relief.  I figured I would see most of them later- possibly much later- in the day and that there may be a chance I would not see as many as two or three at all (except at the turnaround).  A few moments later I passed the second pack, and found myself running in no man’s land- not quite with the lead group and ahead of the following chase pack.  I thought it odd running all by my lonesome so early into a long event filled with +/- 640 runners.  It didn’t matter.  Setting my own pace along the lake and watching first light slowly gather over the eastern mountain horizon was far more interesting than worrying about the position of other runners.

Moments before entering MayQueen aid station I passed a few runners, positioning myself somewhere around number 10 or so.  I was shocked to see and feel the energy of the crowd gathered at MayQueen- the sun had not even risen yet.  Running out of the aid tent area I felt like the tip of a thread navigating a long shafted needle head.  A crowd, one, two and three people deep on both sides, with only feet in between as a makeshift path, cheering, whistling, clapping for what seemed like running the length of a football field.  What a crowd.  At an ultra no less.  Before sunrise!  Only in Leadville.

The next section, climbing Sugarloaf, I felt a little off.  As soon as I hit the trail heading up the thought of the job ahead of me that day wrapped and knotted itself around my brain.  Was I up for it, really?  My breath felt off since the first few steps leading out of town.  My stomach had just forced another pit stop and left me with the feeling that more were to come.  All of the sudden I felt slow and paranoid that I would be slow all day.  Nonetheless, I soldiered on.  Strangely, if I ever have a thought of not finishing an ultra it usually comes within the first hour or so of running- never late.  I guess that is a good thing.  Soon my spirits were quickly lifted as I approached another runner, Duncan, chatted with him for a moment and pushed forward with renewed momentum.  I remember thinking, ‘geez, that is Duncan Callahan, former two-time winner, maybe I am okay after all.’  The climb continued up, so did my energy levels and so did my attitude.  I passed a few runners by the summit of Sugarloaf and began the Powerline descent.  Duncan caught back up after I surrendered to *another* pit stop and we ran into Fish Hatchery together.  Our pace was solid.  Things began feeling right.  I zipped in and out of Fish Hatchery, ahead of Duncan, stripping down to bare essentials and hit the road section, feeling the strength and warmth of the risen sun.

Outbound.  Fish Hatchery.
The literal version of me running-my-own-race continued along the road section.  I moved well though Duncan caught back up with me at Pipeline.  I was actually glad to have company and to be holding a conversation for the first time in the race.  It is funny looking back on mine and Duncan’s conversation now because, partly, we spoke about who we thought would finish top three and what their times might be.  We ran together up to Half Moon aid station and Duncan pulled ahead from there as I was forced again to stop for a few moments.  At this point forward, all the way until Fish Hatchery inbound, I ran alone.  I must say, too, the Colorado Trail section worked me over.  35 miles or so created a space where my legs felt wobbly.  The rolling hills proved difficult.  It was out of my control.  I kept moving, kept a level head and remembered patience.  The few miles of downhill leading to Twin Lakes aid station, mile 39, is where I caught Duncan again and finally passed him for good.  My quads felt strong, at the perfect time, running technical downhill.  I took advantage.  I was in sixth place, and there I would stay for a while.
I was in and out of Twin Lakes outbound aid station in about a minute.  At this point my previous stomach issues finally felt resolved.  Back on the trail, crossing the meadow, I thought I might have a chance of catching a runner or two climbing the front side of Hope.  Once I hit the climb I realized that might not happen.  My breath became very labored and I pretty much hiked the entire way up, through Hopeless aid station, and to the summit.  I simply could not draw enough oxygen out of the air to move the way up the mountain I wanted.  It was a struggle at best, and I knew coming back up the back side would be even worse.  A quick descent, an uneventful out-and-back gravel road run up to the 50 mile turnaround point at Winfield and I was back on Hope, hiking up the backside.  I picked up a second bottle at Winfield, almost forgetting the other contents of my drop bag, because I knew the heat of the day would be on my back during this section.  It was.  My labored breath returned and my forefeet and calves worked overtime up the climb.  I was surprised to see so many descending runners looking roughed up coming at me.  I must have looked twice as bad going the opposite direction.
Hope summit returned and I cruised down the mountain, across the meadow, through the river, to Twin Lakes inbound, having not passed a single runner and not knowing how close or how far Duncan, Billy or any other trailing runners were in proximity to me.  Gaby told me I was about 10 to 12 minutes back from where I should be at that point, that Mike Arnstein was five minutes ahead and that I needed to “close the gap” with the other runners ahead of me.  “How did they look” I asked.  “They looked good,” she said.  Gaby often knows what to say to motivate me at aid stations, sometimes even resorting to trickery to do so, but I believed her and for the first time I became worried about my eventual place in the race so I took to the climb out of Twin Lakes with purpose.
Inbound.  Twin Lakes.  "Gaby, honestly, do these shorts make my ass look big?"

Leaving Twin Lakes.  "Seriously, do they?"

My neck got a serious workout over the next several miles as I kept looking back for Duncan and other runners.  Especially every time I hiked a hill.  Finally, I hit my groove.  At the makeshift water aid station, three miles up from Twin Lakes, a volunteer attendant told me the next runner was only two minutes ahead.  ‘Arnstein!’ I thought.  My energy and pace instantly rose a level.  There was blood in the water.  I was a shark.  It took a while but I finally caught a glimpse of Mike and his pacer around a bend in the trail.  A return to Half Moon aid station revealed I was only one minute behind him.  At that point I also learned my place instantly bumped from 6th to 5th.  Ryan Burch was sitting inside the tent, regrouping and tanking calories.  Another three miles or so and I caught and passed Mike along Pipeline. 4th place.  He was moving well- the guy always moves well- though he explained he experienced a meltdown coming out of Winfield.  Um, that was 20 miles prior.  The guy is hardcore.  Moments after passing Mike I see Timmy Parr and his pacer up ahead on the road section.  More blood.  Motivation for a third place position energized my legs even more along this section.  Eventually I caught and passed Timmy shortly before running into Fish Hatchery in the rain and wind.
Gaby told me that from Twin Lakes through Fish Hatchery not only had I made up the 12 minutes I had lost previously running into Twin Lakes inbound but that I had also gained an additional five minutes.  That was a nice thought but I was more concerned about climbing Powerline in the very near future.  I also learned at Fish Hatchery that Gaby and Jason Koop secured a pacer for me while socializing at Twin Lakes.  Kate, from Denver.  Wow.  She looked fit and ready to rip.  I was content to finish the race as planned, sans pacer, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to reject the energetic, selfless help of an able pacer to keep me on track all the way back to 6th and Harrison, in downtown Leadville.  I threw on some layers and we rolled out of Fish Hatchery, up the road towards Powerline, with Mike and Timmy nipping at my heels.  Kate was a trip and we clicked instantly.  We moved well up the Powerline, as well as can be expected, the goal being to put as much of a gap on Mike and Timmy behind us so that once we crested Sugarloaf we could widen the gap even more on the descent into MayQueen.  Mostly, the planned worked.  We saw Mike and his pacer a few times behind us coming up the Powerline and then eventually lost sight of him completely, never to see him, or Timmy, or any other runner, until the finish line.  Kate and I moved well down the front side of Sugarloaf and into MayQueen.  I ate whatever solid foods I could and we were back on the trail.  It was still light out.
Inbound.  MayQueen.
The solid foods at MayQueen helped my energy levels and mood running along the rolling, single track trail, paralleling Turquoise Lake.  Kate and I admired the natural beauty around us and mostly ran quietly, with heads down, focused on covering as many miles as we could before dark.  By the time we reached the dam at the other end of the lake it was pitch black.  We chatted and moved confidently.  At that point I knew a third place finish was secure, as Ryan “TV” Sandes and Dylan Bowman had run very well all day and were well ahead of us in first and second position.  Once we left the lake trails Kate and I continued running along the jeep and gravel road sections.  We passed the campground, crossed the rail road tracks, and hit the eventual, long, gradual ascending “Boulevard” gravel road, bound for Leadville.  This is where I got lazy.  I hiked a lot.  I could have covered this section much faster had I simply run the entire thing, though I just didn’t feel like it.  A sub-18 hour time was secure.  A third place finish was secure.  I was content.
The eye-closing satisfaction of a Leadville finish.
Me, Kate, Jason and his pup.

Mike said he tried to catch me coming up the Boulevard.  Next time he will undoutedly have a bull's-eye on me.
As I said after Leadville last year, I will definitely return to run this race again.  I can’t say it will be next year but I will definitely return at some point.  Looking back, I am confident I could have run a 17:30, at the very least, had I not gotten lazy at the end and maybe pushed it a little more up the Powerline.  To run any faster I think would require longer acclimatization than the four weeks I had under my belt.  Or just be in better shape.  Or both.  Four weeks of acclimatization is great but nothing beats actual sustained living at altitude, especially when it comes to performing at the highest possible level in Leadville.  If I lived in Colorado, at least for an entire summer, could I have gone sub 17?  Maybe, but only if every other factor, including my stomach-causing pit stops, all aligned perfectly and I ran every possible section and did not get lazy at the end.  That would be a nice goal some day, I think.  Running Leadville in sub 17.  TV did it.  He was only the third runner ever to do so.  Impressive.

Cheers to my bro, Cornbread, who finished the race, his second 100, after a return-from-the-dead puking-his-guts-out climb up the backside of Hope.  Imagine running the second half of Leadville, puking, not eating anything and laying down for 45 minutes at MayQueen inbound.  Also impressive.  Even I probably would have thrown in the towel.
Cornbread at the line.
A word about the woman standing beside me in the picture below.  Moms.  (Donna) As I often tell her, she epitomizes the raw ingredients of a tough endurance runner.  She has strength.  Stamina.  Patience.  Tolerance (for pain and other things).  A positive attitude.  A happy, healthy appetite.  An open mind and an open heart.  And a working pair of ears.  Nurse, artist and mother of 13 children- yours truly is #11- she does it all, including staying up all night, clear through sunrise, at age 74, to witness both of her sons cross the finish line in Leadville.  She has passed on to me all of the ingredients that I have, some of which I never even knew I had, that has allowed me to excel (to a minimal extent) at ultrarunning and, more importantly, to run happily.  She has spectated many of my races, travelling far, getting up early and staying up late.  You couldn’t keep her away if you tried.  She is a trip!  Last September she traveled to Utah because she said she knew I would break Joe Kulak’s Grand Slam record and she wanted to be there for it.  This summer she said she wanted to come to Leadville to see me win.  Guess I can’t always live up to the expectations, can I?  At least from this race I take another level of desire, motivation and confidence- things she has also passed on to me.  And for that I am even more excited than earning a third place finish.  Next up is Grindstone in October.  I’ve got my sights set on Karl’s 18:46:26.

Friday afternoon.  MayQueen campground.
Friday afternoon.  Checking out the fish at the Hatchery.  Me and the rest of the crew: Cornbread, Pattie and Gaby.
Finally, a treat from the New Wave era.  (I was seven years old at the time).  One I have enjoyed over and over during my time in Colorado these past weeks.  One that I will likely listen to in the future and when I do think back on this summer.


  1. Excellent, consistent race with a hard earned 3rd place. And enjoyable race report. And as for the shorts... no.

    Congrats to Paul, too- two 100's in 3 months. Awesome.

  2. One hell of a race, Neal. I followed the twitter feed from iRunFar pretty much off and on throughout the day, and the report from the turnaround was that you weren't looking great there. It looks like you made a good run of it in the second half and move up nicely into podium position.

    Good luck at Grindstone.

  3. Dude, great race! I am curious about your oxygen intake, did your lungs feel more constricted this year then last or do you think you were just pushing yourself a bit harder?


  4. Brennen- I felt better coming into Winfield than I probably looked, but I'm sure I didn't look great. Up and down Hope and then up the gravel road to Winfield is a be-atch, especially that time of the day.

    Jason- Good point. I remember running more up and down Hope last year but it could just be my perception. (Perception often trumps reality) Maybe my out and back split was actually faster this year. I made it to Winfield from the start in about 8:08-8:10 this year and I'm sure last year it was about 8:30. So it could be what you say, the fact I was moving more quickly. I do think pretty much everyone struggles with the air once you get up in the 12k feet range.

  5. Stellar race and report Neal. I hated knowing you were right behind me. Good meeting you out there. See you down the road sometime.

  6. I'm continually impressed man, great work. It was nice seeing you in the exact same spot on the backside of Hope Pass. Next time you come out for LT100 let me know, I'd be happy to pace.

  7. 13 children. She is 74. Holly no way! I guess the crazy kids made he never pass age of 45, or the tenacity she decided not to share all with you guys. Best to Moms. Congrats to you.

  8. What a great race report Neal. Congrats on a fine race, and for the credit you give those who helped you get where you are today. You are a peach! WUS is proud!

  9. Woot woot! Damn, that's some fast running! Super job, Neal. Enjoyed the report.

  10. I really enjoyed the read, Neal. You are fierce on the trails and humble in-between. We are proud of you and Paul (your Cornbread is my Homeboy.) You lost your bubble butt when you in kicked it into high gear with running...sorry.