“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” Hebrews 12:1-2
On August 18th I finished the Leadville Trail 100 Run in 24 hours and 14 minutes. There is so much to share and tell about this experience. The journey truly begins with the impulse to sign-up in January for this legendary race and involves many amazing training stories over the last 7 months. Those stories will have to wait for future posts as I try to provide you with a brief review of the main event.
The race started at 4am with close to 1000 other runners. The temperatures were in the low 40’s and we had clear skies that cooperated throughout the race. In true Leadville fashion, the race directors shotgun blast told us it was time to start our epic “out-n-back” journey along this course that has become more popular as a result of Chris McDougall’s book “Born to Run”.
I began rather easy with most of the field during the first 6 plus miles of the course. This section takes place on mostly paved/dirt roads that are wide enough to accommodate the large crowd making its way from downtown. With so many runners alongside me, it lost the small ultra-feel I have previously experienced on trail runs but I knew that things would thin out later in the day.
My first regret of the race occurred long before the first aid station. The course funnels onto single-track and winds around Turquoise Lake. As a result of my patience in the first 6 miles, I ended up much further back on this long conga line for those next 7. This was slightly frustrating given we were going much slower than I would have liked. I used the mantra I had developed specifically for this race which was B.E.P (Breathe deep and easy, Enjoy God’s Creation, Patience). It seemed to work and I tried to enjoy the beautiful line of lights created by all the runners as we looped around this dark body of water in the pre-dawn hours of the morning. It was surreal and the pockets of supporters on the roads and in camp sites were incredible at this early hour.
My First Half-Marathon
The sun had begun to rise as I entered the May Queen Aid Station at mile 13.5. After putting my headlamp away, I grabbed some food and started up a long slow 4 mile climb on a wider trail. I got into my rhythm and reminded myself that these long climbs, which weren’t steep, would allow me to descend quickly late in the race.
Once I got to the top of this first peak, I faced my first major descent of the day. The Power-line trail quickly drops over 2,000 feet from less than 5 miles. It was technical at times and while I was tempted to take it easy and save my quads, I had too much fun descending quickly. This was one section of the course I had run back in May when I had first met my new friend and soon-to-be pacer, Leila. While I enjoyed going down, I knew the return trip at mile 78 would be a very different experience.
Strategy In An Ultra: When To Make Adjustments?
The aid stations (AS) average about 10miles apart and were well staffed with great volunteers. I made sure to fill my bottles with water and eat at least one PB&J while departing each aid station. Unlike my previous ultras, I didn’t spend much time in each AS and moved quickly through Fish Hatchery and others throughout the day. This was part of the strategy that appeared to work.
However I had made a conscious decision to not take my Heat Guard until mid-morning given how chilly it was in the early hours. Despite the name, Heat Guard provides important sodium that is crucial at any temperature if you are sweating important electrolytes. Recent literature has begun to question how much sodium is needed in a race. As a result, I began to second think my previous approach of drinking and taking Heat Guard at 30 minute regular intervals. Unfortunately I quickly learn that this wasn’t the time to adjust my plan.
Too Early For The Darkness To Appear!
After leaving the Twin Lakes AS, the awesome crowds there cheered us on at the lowest point on the course (9,200 feet). It is also the first water crossing before the major ascent to Hope(less) Pass at over 12,600 feet. Just before the climb I began to feel extremely tired. It was barely noon and I had motivated myself with the fact that I had technically seen 80% of the “out-n-back” course by the Twin Lakes AS (40 Miles). Unfortunately I wanted to sit down and close my eyes to rest for a moment or at least throw-up since my stomach was acting weird.
Things only got worse as I started the 5 mile ascent to thinner air. Other runners quickly began to pass but encourage me as they went by. The most important survival mantra that Bobby Goat had drilled into me as we train for these crazy events took over – “Keep moving with one foot in front of the other”. Despite my desire to stop, I kept moving, kept praying, and tried to diagnose my problem- Altitude sickness? Too much water? Not enough? Not enough sodium? Too many gels &/or PB&J’s?
By the time I arrived at the Hope Pass AS (mile 45) I couldn’t focus and hoped that sitting for a few minutes would help me regroup. A nurse quickly realized something wasn’t right and after a series of questions, instructed me to take the extra salt pills in my vest (Heat Guard), drink some coke, and handed me some chicken noodle soup.
The Runners Resurrection
My last ultra-resurrection occurred when Bobby Goat joined me at mile 75 in the cold wet morning at the 2012 Chimera 100Mile Ultra in Southern California. This time it was my Florence Nightingale with some wise advice who gave me my second wind in the early afternoon at mile 45. I had never thought of quitting but questioned whether I’d be able to finish before the 30 hour cut-off. My mountain top experience included prayers, wise advice, and looking forward to knowing that my first pacer would join me at the 50 mile turn around.
Pacer #1: Leila Knew What To Do!
As soon as I entered the crowded (more cars than people) Winfield AS, Leila took control and got me to the mandatory medical check in. I had dropped at least 6 pounds (I believe it was probably 8-10 if not for my wet shoes and gels in my pocket) and I had shared with Leila what had happened at the top of Hope Pass. She followed the nurses orders and had me take more Heat Guard, drink more coke, chicken noodle soup, and top off my water bottles. She didn’t allow me to sit too long before we quickly took off back to the top!
I had warned Leila that I was struggling with the altitude on the uphill’s but assured her I’d recover on the descents. Despite going slow, she told me that she was impressed that I kept moving and would point out how many runners we passed who had decided to sit and rest rather than move and advance towards the finish.
We made it to the Hope Pass AS and I thanked the wonderful nurse who helped revive me. She was amazed at how well I was doing. However, I think Leila and many of the same runners who saw me on my first ascent were also amazed as I flew down the same trail I struggled to climb hours before. Leila is a top athlete who is sponsored by Innov-8 and has finished Leadville and Western States in the top 10. She has won several races including the Silver Rush 50Mile only a few weeks earlier. While I felt like I was flying down the trails back towards Twin Lakes AS, it was very encouraging to have her as a pacer and hear someone of Leila’s caliber acknowledge just how fast I was moving.
At the Twin Lakes AS I sat for the 3rd and last time until the finish. I changed my wet Brooks Cascadia’s for dry socks and my comfy Hoka’s. New shoes along with a dry shirt, head lamps for the night, and more nutrition were all further reasons to get me ready for the push to the finish. The next 16 miles basically involved me asking Leila to take it easy on the climbs up and flats while flying up ahead on the descents.
Pacer #2: Heidi – “You get the grumpy Nick”
Heidi took over from Leila at Mile 76 and I joked that while “Leila had the “happy Nick”, she got the “grumpy Nick”!”. However, Heidi had been with me all day and acted as my crew in both directions at Twin Lakes AS. In addition, she had been texting updates & pics to Alison to let her know that I was alive. This level of commitment by someone she barely knew was so amazing and is one of the many reasons I love this sport. There is a wonderful spirit that surrounds Ultra events that goes beyond the runner and extends to the pacers, crews, volunteers, and everyone involved with these races.
Heidi had the challenging job of getting me up over the steep and long Power-line climb. It was frustrating to have so many people pass me going up but as I had done previously in the race, I flew down the other side and made up significant ground. Heidi was calculating that I could potentially break 24 hours but I was still nervous that 25 hours might still be a stretch.
By the time we reached the May Queen AS and the last 13.5M lay ahead, both my Garmin watches had died. Initially this wasn’t a concern but I eventually began to stress about how far we had left and what time it was. Heidi was doing her best to assure me that we had plenty of time and tried to help me pick up the pace. Despite my insistent pestering of what time it was, asking others if they knew how far we had left, and beating myself up for not being able to move faster, Heidi was amazing supportive and kept me moving towards the finish line.
The Finish and So Much More…..
Somehow I hadn’t realized how much the first 3 plus miles of road were downhill from the start given the number of people. As a result the incline was somewhat unexpected and generally not appreciated! Heidi and I could begin to hear the announcer at the finish line and I did my best to dig deep. I pulled out my Romans 5:3-5 charm and read it just before I began my final quarter-mile “sprint” to the finish. I had asked Heidi to join me through the finish but she disappeared into the crowds as I crossed the finish line in 97th place at 24 hours, 14 minutes, and 25 seconds. This result was better than I could have ever imagined and not bad for a “flatlander” (someone from sea level) who showed up on the Friday morning before the race.
There is so much more to tell but I have exceeded this post by about 3 times the length it should be. In the coming weeks I will share many more details about the races, the events leading up to it, and the recovery afterwards. As of today I am feeling great and holding off signing up for my next adventure.
While I can’t thank Leila and Heidi enough for all their support on the course, many of you know that I am blessed with many amazing people in my life. First I am so lucky to be married to Alison, a loving and supportive wife who takes care of our wonderful children while I run around in the woods. Bobby Goat who is much more than a friend, coach, role model, and inspiration, first introduced me to ultra’s when I paced him for his first 100 back in 2010.
There are so many others who have been supportive: My family, friends at work, members of my church, my friends at Mission Pharmacal, and the Doylestown Christian Runners to name a few.
However it is the Lord who I must thank most of all for having truly blessed me with the ability to run. I know He was with me the entire race even when I struggled to wonder what would happen next. He deserves all the praise and recognition for none of us would be here if it was not for His love and grace.