Back in the early spring, my good friend Jeff and I decided we needed to take a running trip. It didn’t take long for us to decide that we’d go to the mountains and run the Leadville trail marathon. Little did I know what that would involve.
We scheduled a 5 day trip which had us staying in Colorado Springs 2 nights before traveling to Leadville for the race and then back to the Springs before flying home. What we didn’t schedule was the biggest wildfire the Colorado Springs area has seen, which altered some of our plans. But we were only indirectly affected and it really didn’t impact our trip. We also didn’t plan on Jeff’s back injury, which prevented him from running the race. But we had a great time, nonetheless. We hit several brewpubs and ran the Manitou Incline while there, which I will go into more details about in a later blog post. This one will be about the most difficult race I’ve ever run, the Leadville trail marathon, a race that started above 10,000 feet and climbed to 13,185 feet.
We got into Leadville at about 3:00 Friday afternoon, checked in to our hotel and headed to packet pickup. There is an entire retail store devoted to the Leadville race series right on the main drag in the heart of town. Pickup was simple and we browsed the store before heading across the street for dinner and pre-race beers at the Silver Dollar Saloon. After that we drove the first mile and a half of the race course, then jumped over to the second aid station at mile 10/16.5 to get a glimpse of the climb to Mosquito Pass. Needless to say, it looked like quite a challenge and I knew the altitude would only make it even more difficult. We then drove west of Leadville to Turquoise Lake, which was beautiful, and chatted with a local who was running it. His reassurance that it’s the toughest marathon in the country did little to boost my confidence.
Race morning started at 38 degrees, but it didn’t feel that chilly outside. It warmed up quickly by the time we arrived at the start and I only needed a t-shirt. We took a few pictures and video, then the 8:00 start was upon us. The first 3/4 mile was on 6th street toward the east side of town and, naturally, straight uphill. I quickly learned that really wasn’t uphill though. Uphill began when we hit the trail. Most of the race was run on rocky fire roads and very little of it was flat. It was either up or down. It didn’t take very long for my run to turn into a power hike, then a not-so-power hike. And I wasn’t alone. There were very few people (OK, none) around me that were actually running up those rocky hills. So at least I was in good company.
Mile 1 1/2 to mile 4 was just ridiculous. The rocky uphill climb just wouldn’t stop. It was hands behind the back, lean forward and hike. The altitude made it tough for this sea level dweller though. The effort was hard enough, but the altitude made breathing more difficult, and thus I got winded much faster. My hamstrings were burning, yet I was only 4 miles in. I knew it would be a long day, but I didn’t realize the extent of it.
The first aid station came at mile 4, and it was welcome. The next 3 miles looped Ball Mountain, and naturally the first 2 were uphill. We finally hit some singletrack around mile 6 and it went downhill a bit, which allowed us to actually run to the aid station at mile 7. But at mile 6 1/2, I managed to step in a hole and twist my ankle while passing someone on the side of the trail. It hurt for a minute, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t let it stop me. The next several miles were downhill and on smoother dirt roads, so the going got easier and I was able to make up a little time. I pulled into the aid station at mile 10 in just over 2 hours, which was roughly what I expected. I didn’t expect the next 6.6 miles to be as hard as they were though.
Jeff met me at the aid station and took a few pictures. He ran/hiked with me for probably half a mile so I’d have some company on the way up to Mosquito Pass. I was thankful that he filled up my water bottle as he left me, because it was a long hike up. There was no running at all. It was big sharp rocks and uphill for what seemed like an eternity. Several times on the way up I questioned my sanity and why exactly I thought doing this race seemed like a good idea. The switchbacks got steeper and the air got thinner. Finally, after an hour and fifteen minutes of climbing from the previous aid station, I was able to reach the summit of Mosquito Pass and a much needed aid station. But it isn’t an aid station, if there’s no aid, is it? Yep, they were out of water and sports drink. I was able to get a couple ounces of water before the coolers went dry. A sip of Sprite was all I could have, which isn’t my ideal fluid replacement drink. To put things in perspective, I ran the Louisiana Marathon in Baton Rouge last January in 3:24. It took me the same amount of time to reach Mosquito Pass, the halfway point of the Leadville Marathon. It was chilly at the top, but not overly cold, and I didn’t have to put on my rain/wind jacket. I tried to enjoy it while I was there, because the views were breathtaking.
You’d think that one would appreciate the downhills after such a tough climb. And normally one would. But not in this case. The “trail” was so rocky, that every step was a potential mis-step. You were in danger of tripping at any point, and landing face first on the rocks would be less than ideal. So while the physical toll on the legs was less stressful, the run itself wasn’t. I managed to keep myself upright and moving at a decent pace. That is, until my water ran out and I experienced my first hamstring cramp at mile 15.5. Then my other hamstring locked up, and I had nearly a mile until the aid station. I again resorted to walking, this time downhill. And if history serves as a good guide, I’d be fighting cramps for the duration of the race. I knew that the next 11 miles would be agonizing.
I finally made it to the aid station at mile 16.5 in 4:20, feeling like crap and obviously dehydrated. Jeff met me again and tried to keep my spirits up. But he could see all the dried salt on my face and clothes and knew I needed fluids. I don’t typically like sports drinks, but in this case I had to replace the fluids and electrolytes that I lost. I took some Saltstick capsules and saved the rest for the final 10 miles, because I knew it would be tough. Finally, I felt well enough to leave the aid station, but it was destined to be a tough finish. I jogged what I could until I reached a long uphill stretch. There I met a girl running her very first marathon. What a marathon to pick as your first! She and I walked the next 2.5 miles together, and we were making pretty decent time considering it was uphill the entire way. Fortunately, the cramps subsided and I obviously just needed some fluids and electrolytes. I got to the aid station at mile 19, and knew that there was the 3 mile loop around Ball Mountain followed by the rocky downhill back to the finish.
The first mile or so of that loop was uphill (it was the downhill that started at mile 6), so going was again slow. But as it flattened out and shifted to a downhill section, I was actually able to pass a few people. Being able to run and jog was mentally uplifting and the final aid station at mile 22 came quicker than I had anticipated. All that separated me from the finish were 4 downhill miles. Of course 2 of those miles would again be very rocky, and a mental grind as much as a physical one. My legs were starting to feel the effects of being on my feet for so long, so I really couldn’t pound the downhills. I knew I was one step away from cramping again or taking a nasty fall. So I just let the mountain take me down at its pace, and I think that helped. It wasn’t easy. Those 4 miles seemed to drag on forever. When I thought I was approaching 6th street, I’d round a bend and find more rocky downhill. At long last, I hit the asphalt and the finish line was in sight. Yet, it was 3/4 of a mile away. I could hear the finish party, but I wasn’t there yet. The pounding of the asphalt really took a toll on my legs, so I really slowed it down. But there were a ton of spectators cheering me on to the finish. That support propelled me toward that finish line, and I finally crossed it. It took me 6:36, which is 2 1/2 hours longer than any other marathon I’ve done. Yet it was probably the most rewarding, because I knew how much effort it took. And the views were absolutely worth it.
Jeff was at the finish to meet me with a celebratory beer (a Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro for those of you wondering) and I reveled in the moment. We took some pictures then ventured to the finishers tent where some Oskar Blues beer awaited along with some fantastic Mexican food from a local restaurant. I was able to replenish many of the calories I burned and my legs seemed no worse than any other marathon or ultra I had run. The shower back at the hotel was glorious, and it was nice to kick back and relax a bit before heading out to dinner back in town.
My recovery was quick. My ankle was a bit sore and swollen the following day, but after a hike around Clinton Lake 15 miles north of Leadville, all seemed well. I took off entirely until Wednesday, when I ran 11.5 miles on flat trails back home in the heat and humidity. All seems well now.
The Leadville trail marathon is not for the faint of heart. It will be difficult. There’s no way around it. But you will be rewarded with some spectacular views, many of which the camera doesn’t do justice. And I have little doubt that I’ll be back. After all, Jeff didn’t get a chance to run it, and he could use an experienced pacer when he does run it.
Cheers, and happy trails!