The 2018 Leadville Trail 100: Redemption

Here’s to trying, failing and trying again and succeeding.

Leadville 2018 was all about redemption for me and restoring confidence. A voluntary DNF at the 50 mile mark at Winfield in 2016 had been eating away at me for over a year so in Dec 2017 I signed up with coach Ryan Krol for a 2nd bite at the apple.

This is the race report of my 2018 bid and if you like short reports this is not the droid you’re looking for. But if you’re planning your own assault on Leadville then hopefully my detailed memories will be of some use to you.

Training

I winged it in 2016 so I knew the only way to get the buckle at the #LT100 was to do things right and that meant outside help. That meant Ryan Krol.

I followed Ryan’s training plan as best I could, hitting most of my weekly totals, not always hitting my workouts on the assigned days but making up for them on subsequent days. This was largely due to work related travel which I found really throws off any kind of planning you might have. E.g. good luck running on anything but a treadmill in India and when you lose 22 hours off your week due to flying. It’s hard to catch back up. I kept track throughout the year on this giant piece of paper which kept me motivated. Whatever works right?

I don’t talk about my training much but it really was enjoyable. About 240 hours total and over 1500 miles of training runs before the event. Check Strava for more detail.

In terms of fitness I’m probably in the best shape of my life. I ran London this year in 3:54 and without being immodest the flat course felt like a training run, despite 80F heat. In terms of weekly mileage the long run was usually 3 hours spiking up to 5 hours on a Saturday. Back-to-back Friday, Saturday, Sunday runs of 2, 4 and 2 hours respectively is about the most I did. 65–70 miles/week at peak. Lots of hill repeats, hill sprints, injury prevention workouts, fartleks, tempo and intervals thrown in. Ryan did an amazing job of keeping me healthy whilst keeping the schedule interesting and motivating as we burned down the months.

I ran the LT100 Camp in June and found it beneficial for a few reasons. First and foremost you get to see how you do at altitude which is always a wildcard. Leadville is at 10,500' and the race spikes up to 12,600'. It’s no joke. As it turned out I felt worse at Camp in June than I did at the race in August.

Next you get to see the entire course, including Turquoise Lake at night where I snapped this epic pic.

(Most of the photos in this article will be from Camp since I didn’t take my phone on the race itself.)

During Camp you get to test all your gear and tweak/tune it down to the minimum. It was here I realized my ultra-light shell would be fine for Hope Pass and no need taking my heavier shell.

Another camp benefit is you get to meet other people on this weird journey and share some stories and encouragement along the way. That helps a lot.

Lastly the camp lets you establish some baseline times for key portions of the course that you can compare to your pacing chart for the 100 miles. Granted these are on relatively fresh legs but they’re still useful. If you do run the Camp be sure to wear a watch and HR monitor to capture this valuable data.

In camp we ran the following:

  • May Queen to Twin Lakes — 23 miles, 2,789ft or so in about 5:05 hours
  • Twin Lakes to Winfield to Twin Lakes — 22 miles, 6,572ft or so in 6:50 hours.
  • May Queen to home — about 13 miles, 2:30 hours or so.

I should’ve mentioned another huge benefit of Camp: You get to meet Merilee and Ken! They were really heavily involved throughout including handing out water from a pickup truck on Hagerman road!!

Leaving camp I felt really nervous. I’d struggled with nausea and stomach problems from the altitude, hadn’t used my in-race nutrition and generally had felt sluggish and tired around the course. I was thinking how in the heck will I string all these miles together when I feel so bad after 25 from May Queen to Twin Lakes? I just felt there was no way. Here’s where Ryan stepped in and settled my nerves. He gave me a kick in the pants when I needed it most saying “you just need to start believing you can do this”. Something I hadn’t considered. I realized I’d relied on the tangible task of completing runs and workouts all year without much focus on the mental side of the race. This was something new to me. Particularly since I’d voluntarily dropped in 2016.

After camp the weeks flew by, we had some vacation in Ireland in July and before I knew it I was headed out to CO for race weekend.

The Crew

A brief note on my crew: I had an amazing group comprised of family members Kate, Chris, Mike, Jim and Catherine. They each had their own superpowers that combined to make a great team. None of them had experienced an ultra-marathon before and certainly nothing like this event. No one had experience at altitude or crewing or pacing for a runner. One thing they all had in common was they knew how much this meant to me and how much I’d worked for it. They came through in spades for me and embraced the event with a great attitude and that’s what won the day.

The Race

We arrived in CO on Wednesday, this time hoping the shorter time at altitude would work in my favour. It worked. Despite some shortness of breath the first/second day the nausea and stomach troubles I’d experienced in camp never surfaced. Thursday we toured some of the aid stations to show the crew what they looked like (they look different on race day and even more so in the dark) and Friday we attended the mandatory briefing in the high school.

A final Mexican lunch at Casa on main street and we were ready to race!

Friday night I didn’t get much sleep, waking at 9PM, 12PM and then sleeping through the 2AM alarm. I awoke at 2:30AM and hurriedly got ready. 3:10AM and we’re in the car heading to the starting line. I ate 3/4 of a plain bagel.

Right before the start line I stepped aside with “the crew” and made sure to thank them BEFORE the race. They’d each sacrificed to be there and that meant a lot. I also emphasized that things would go wrong and that would be OK, it was more important that everyone have a great experience than everything go perfectly smooth.

That was it. After 2 years and months of training I was back at 4AM in 6th & Harrison Street and it was time to race!

Start to May Queen (0–13 miles)

The start was surreal. As we stood around in the starting group I found myself thinking back to 2016 and wondering what the next 30 hours held in store. By chance I was standing next to one of my camp buddies, Bob from Ohio. He settled me down with some idle chatter and the next thing you know they were singing the national anthem. The gun went off at 4AM and we started running.

After about 1/2 mile I checked my heart rate — it was 170+!!! I started to wonder if my HR band was on right. It was. So I slowed right down and decided to run my HR rate for the first few hours. I got into a groove but felt frustrated all around the lake as I couldn’t find a group that matched my pace. I really have a dislike for the Turquoise Lake miles.

May Queen to Outward Bound (13–23 miles)

I got into May Queen around 6:30AM, behind where I wanted to be by about 15mins but no big deal. I didn’t have any crew there in the morning so grabbed a mandarin orange, half a bagel and a gel from my drop bag and rocked on.

The trail out of May Queen is not too bad and you’re rewarded with an incredible view back across Turquoise Lake. Here’s a shot I took in Camp (I took no camera with me on race day).

Out of May Queen I got chatting with a few folks one of which had run Leadville 11 times, he said this was his slowest start ever. That didn’t bother me but I felt worried when he took off down Hagerman road and I didn’t keep up.

I ran/hiked the trail and bounced out on Hagerman feeling good. I shuffled this whole road until the upward turn that climbs up to Sugarloaf. From there I decided it was time to eat a bit more and I ended up hiking with a cool guy from San Fran. He’d paced this race a ton but never raced/finished. He told me the last few hundreds he’d run he had ended up throwing up blood! That’s worrisome! We partied on to the top and split up from there. I would yo-yo with him for the first 50 miles until I think he dropped at Winfield or Twin Lakes due to stomach issues.

Coming down Powerline I passed a guy who was legally blind, running with a partner. He was killing it. The runners in this race never cease to amaze me and it’s humbling; everyone has a struggle that’s probably worse than yours.

The road into Outward Bound worried me — I felt slower than I was supposed to be, because I was. On my laminated pace chart I was not even on the chart — slower than a projected 30 hour finish. The road portion (which is only 2 miles) felt really long. I shuffled my way along and got into Outward Bound where Jim was waiting on the road and I met my AWESOME crew for the first time. It was 9AM.

Outward Bound to Half Pipe (23–30 miles)

At Outward I dropped all my cold-weather and night time gear. I’d already started running in a singlet so temperatures were good. It was cloudy but I felt warm. I dropped my garbage & headlamp, grabbed some food & my wide-brimmed hat, porta-potty break and I was off running again. I jumped both feet over the timing mat and headed out into the meadow. It immediately started raining! Cold rain. I threw on my ultra-light shell and that helped keep me warm as I shuffled across the endless meadow, over the road and then up Pipeline. I reached Half Pipe in good form after about 6hours 9mins of running at 10:10AM.

Half Pipe to Twin Lakes (30–40 miles)

Learning from 2016 when nausea got the better of me I knew I needed to eat so again, no crew at Half Pipe, I had a drop bag waiting. The volunteers do an amazing job here of organization so I was able to grab and go out of Half Pipe with literally no time lost. Another orange, some rice portables I’d made and a gel. Off we go. Eating cold sushi rice was supposed to be my ace in the hole. I probably ate 3 or 4 small balls of rice over the whole race but they proved hard to digest. Lesson learned.

This section had a lot of tough, prolonged climbing, beautiful scenery but it was tough going. It’s hard to complain though with incredible scenery like the epic Aspen grove you encounter at the top of the Mount Elbert climb.

I ran/hiked what I could and got into Twin Lakes after 8:30 hours of running, about 12:30PM in the afternoon. I was feeling good, worried about the upcoming climbs in Hope Pass but I didn’t let on to my crew. I knew I was way behind where I’d planned and not even factoring on my 30 hour pacing chart. Being the awesome crew they were I knew they’d be concerned and if I was looking bad that would make matters even worse. I had a job ahead of me and complaining or fretting about it wasn’t going to change anything. Party on!

At Twin Lakes my awesome crew did everything they could for me. I’m sure I looked a mess. They slathered me up in sunblock and repacked my food. I grabbed hiking poles here and some more food and away I went.

Twin Lakes to Hope Pass (40–45 miles)

Twin Lakes has a deceptively long meadow to cross before the main climb of the race. You get psyched-up to climb the Pass but first you have to cross the meadow and it sort of takes the wind out of your sails. It’s like a bunch of body blows softening you up for the big haymaker of a climb to come.

I used to the time to eat and just got through it. I reached the tree line and immediately started hiking up Hope Pass.

This was a dark time. About 30mins into the climb I noticed I wasn’t feeling good, nausea was back and I was over heating. I realized I’d gotten sunburnt in the meadow and probably earlier on Powerline despite tonnes of sunscreen. Typical Irish skin. I was unable to eat and had a tough time drinking. I felt like the 2016 demons were waiting to pounce and this whole adventure was going to blow up in my face all over again. Why was I doing this? What an idiot! It was as much mental as it was physical at this point, probably one of my lowest points in the race.

At some point I heard “runner coming” and it was Rob Krar on his return journey. He was flying, full tilt down the mountain, his feet barely touching ground every 20 feet or so. I couldn’t believe his speed downhill. An incredible athlete with an even more impressive beard.

By the time I got to Hopeless Aid station I was toast. It was about 2:15PM.

I wasn’t able to eat anything at the aid station but an amazing volunteer offered me some sour-patch jelly babies and they worked. They literally brought me back to life. After a short break, 60 seconds or so, I got back up and powered up the hill to the saddle of the pass. It was 2:55PM when I crossed the chip on Hope.

My reward upon reaching the top of the Pass; infinite visibility. You can see Leadville off in the distance, Turquoise Lake, Twin Lakes and the full 45 miles of trail laid out before you. I’ll never forget it.

The journey down the hill was better. I knew this trail and bombed down the mountain, passing runners as best I could. I felt good all the way down, it’s about 2.5 miles I think.

At one point a runner told me “you’re looking pink, put some sunblock on”. Sunburn is a killer for me that I knew could end my day (stomach issues) so I stopped on the tight single-track to re-apply. I had to get off this trail but it was a sheer climb on one side and about a 70 degree drop off on the other. I reached out on the downhill side to put my weight on a random tree only to have the entire tree break at the root (it was rotten) and keel over. I was really surprised & terrified all at once but found the whole episode just as funny. Someone passed and said “pick the right tree” and I laughed. Good advice.

We finally leveled off and started the slow grind on the California trail out to Winfield. I was mentally prepped for this also, knowing it’s basically a prolonged steady uphill that doesn’t end until you get to the aid station. Mentally knowing the trail here was a big help.

The sunblock didn’t help and again I felt like I was going to burn on the exposed trail into Winfield so I untied my bright yellow shell and tied it around my neck. It covered my shoulders and neck and kept the sun off me but it looked like a cape. Someone ran by on their return leg and shouted “hey dude, good running! you look like superman!” and that was simultaneously funny and embarrassing. I didn’t really care, as long as I didn’t get sunburnt.

Winfield to Hope Pass (50-60 miles)

I got into Winfield at 4:35PM and spent about 10mins, maybe more here before getting out. My brother in law Mike was waiting and after a quick refuel away we went. I think I left about 4:45PM. Later than I wanted again but I was still positive and upbeat. The sun was already starting to dip behind the mountain and I’d wrapped up my shell. No more threat of sunburn. I was running well and we were passing folks along the trail. It felt great to be heading home.

Mike and I hit the left turn up the Hope Pass climb and things slowed down. We were pushing hard and I was getting hypoxic. I needed to get my heart rate down. We pushed up the hill and after another bathroom break I found I was throwing up. Mike was great and encouraged me to puke. Awesome! We partied on up the hill although the going was slow but I found I was still able to pass people on the way up. At one point I looked down the super-exposed section and saw a caravan of about 50 runners below me. An amazing sight.

Once we crested the Pass I was not feeling great. I had hoped to shuffle this the whole way down but found running difficult. I was nauseous and yet needed to eat. I tried biting a gummy bear into tiny pieces and eating just a sliver but ultimately that came back up about 800 feet from the top of the mountain. Again Mike was awesome but forgot to video tape the puke! Next time Mike. I looked down and there on the ground were…two gummy bears that I’d hoped were going to restart my stomach. So much for a digestive reboot! By now I’d run conservative all day, managing heart rate, eating, sun-blocking and generally trying to look after myself but I was way behind. After puking for the 2nd (and last) time something clicked and I started running.

By now it was twilight and we had no headlamps. I’d planned on hitting Twin Lakes by 8PM but that was not happening. We needed to make time and get there before dark so we literally bombed down the hill full tilt for 45 minutes in the half-light. By the time we hit the meadow it was pitch black and I was both glad we were down and amazed we hadn’t broken our necks. Mike never left me and was never more than 3 or 4 feet behind me.

After that long downhill I couldn’t run the meadow. It’s heavily rutted and pretty hard in the dark so we hiked across and fell in behind some other folks with headlamps. In our night-blindness I thought a small clump of trees was the Twin Lakes visitor center. Wrong! We partied on until we got into the bright flood lights of Twin Lakes. It was about 9PM.

Twin Lakes Inbound (60–76 miles)

I sat down here for a bit and I think I changed my socks. New socks = new feet and felt good. Jim was going to be my pacer for the next section and he was ready to go. Outwardly I was in good spirits but in my head I was really worried about my stomach. Having gotten up and over the Pass I knew we had a shot of finishing but without a functioning digestive system the next 40 miles would be impossible. I needed to find something to eat and reboot my guts. I found some ramen noodles in a cup and took a flat bottle of coke from the crew and off we went.

Jim was amped and ready to hike fast out of the aid station, the next three miles were uphill and he was ready to rock but I really needed to slow things down and eat. I ate ramen noodles with my fingers and drank the broth as much as possible. By the time we reached the Aspen grove (my mental landmark) my stomach was feeling much better and my spirits were up inwardly and outwardly. I started running and Jim and I made incredible time. For this section we’d budgeted about 5 hours but we finished in 4. I got into Half Pipe, 70 miles in just under 20 hours of running (almost midnight).

Next up we hit Pipeline and it started raining. Hard. The rain hit us right in the face with a driving wind and I put on my rain shell. I pushed poor Jim to keep running as his rain gear was a bit more involved and I didn’t want to lose the time getting it out. We ran to keep warm and got into Outward Bound at about 1:15AM.

Outward Bound (inbound) (76–86 miles)

At this point we were a full hour ahead of what my crew thought was possible. The net result was my crew wasn’t at the aid station! Panic? Nope. We dealt with it and I quickly told Jim we were leaving and he was going to pace the next section. He was not expecting this and granted it was a bit scary but he rolled with it. About 200 yards down the road we both realized this was the wrong move, he needed to stay at Outward Bound, find my crew when they arrived and let them know what was happening. Since the next few miles were on road maybe they could catch up.

That’s exactly what happened! I ran the next 2 miles on road alone and as I was 20 feet from the turn into Powerline, a car pulled up and my next pacer Chris jumped out of the car! I threw my hands up in the air and shouted “it’s a a Leadville miracle!!!!”. I grabbed Kate’s cow bell and started ringing it on the dark road in the dead of night shouting “I’ve found my pacer!”. The racers passing by smiled back, good times.

I was elated that Chris was now pacing and hadn’t missed out on this amazing experience. We both were so amazed at what had happened and without even realizing we easily partied up Powerline’s false summits.

Everyone seems to complain about Powerline but it really went quick, about 1200' in 1 hour and before I knew it we were at the top at the Space Station. I think I had built up this image of Tony Montana with Snoop Dogg sitting at the top of the mountain handing out giant blunts but despite the rumors there was nothing but legit water and aid at the Space Station. I don’t know what all the fuss was about.

Next up was the descent into May Queen. At this point in the day I’d been awake and moving for over 24hours and I was starting to get a little loopy. I mistakenly thought that some runners’ headlamps up on the mountain was actually the Moon. Another time I thought a big rock in my peripheral vision was a White Wolf. I was conscious of these screw ups and aware of my own loopiness but they still happened. The pinnacle might’ve been me congratulating a runner pulled over on the trail with an encouraging “good work” before realizing he was taking a #2 bathroom break. Still encouragement is a good thing. I like to think he finished strong.

As we descended into May Queen we fell in behind another runner/pacer combo who were navigating the trail which was marked with ribbons and glow sticks. It was pitch black and I had tunnel vision pretty bad. I started to suspect we were on the wrong path, particularly when the trail wound up and away from the sound of the aid station. The May Queen voices were getting quieter and quieter and I eventually asked “are you SURE we’re on the right path”. My questioning was answered with a very tired “there’s a glow stick right by your head”. Touché. Note to self —when you’re loopy just follow the markers and don’t question the leader.

We got into May Queen by 5AM. Loads of time.

May Queen to Home (87-101 miles)

Catherine paced the next section and like Jim she was ready to rock. I again had to hold her back and we got going with a fast hike. I ran about 3 miles around the lake before my ankle finally barked back with some sharp pain. I really hate the lake miles.

The sun was coming up, we had lots of time on the clock and I didn’t want to do permanent damage so we speed-hiked the rest of the race. It was frustrating as I really wanted to run but the shooting pain in my foot meant that was a foolish option. So we hiked. We got into the finish line at 8:32AM. 28 hours and 32 minutes. Merilee hung the finishers’ medal around my neck, gave me a huge hug and told me “welcome home”. As I hugged her back I replied “it’s so good to be home”.

What Did You Learn?

This was probably the race of my life. So many miles, so many hours and so much love and support across so many months. The race itself was so challenging and so many things went wrong or caused problems. I think my expectations in 2016 were to have no problems and run a good race. When problems arose I was overwhelmed and quit.

In 2018 I was expecting problems. I was watching for them, waiting for them and when they happened I was able to deal with them and move on. That’s the lesson if there is one; life’s not about avoiding problems, it’s about dealing with them and moving forward. The key to hundred mile races is adaptation (as well as training, preparation and a great crew!)

So much happened outside what I’ve written here I can only say get out there and experience it for yourself. Go find a challenge that scares the crap out of you, where failure is a real possibility, lean into it and you can’t help but benefit from the experience.

A Word of Thanks

I really can’t say enough great things about my crew, Kate, Chris, Mike, Catherine and Jim. They all leaned way into the experience, gave tremendous support and hung in with all the changes and glitches in the plan. I couldn’t have asked for a better team. To my coach Ryan Krol, one of the best experiences of my life, he kept me injury free, gave me mental and physical training and got me into the best shape of my life. To Chris and Denise Sharkey, thank you for being a part of this race. We raised almost $6,000 and I hope it helps a small portion in your journey. To my beautiful wife Karen and the kids who supported me all year, with countless runs and miles and miles spent on the trails. Daddy’s done! I love you guys.

Having a goal and running a race like this is really personal thing. There’s no reason to attempt it other than those things that drive and motivate you yourself, especially after the failure in 2016. To come back and finish feels very special and I’m grateful to everyone that encouraged me and just allowed me to pursue it. Really means a lot.

What a race! What an event! What an experience. It’s hard to put everything into words and in my head I know much more happened on the trail than I’ve put down here. The aches and pains, the ups and downs, the struggles and the personal victories, those experiences and lessons will stay with me for years and years to come. I wish everyone could experience such a journey and there’s no better place to do it than in Leadville Colorado.

VP of Software at Peloton Interactive and ultra-obsessed.