Monday, September 3, 2012

Leadville 100 Trail Run - 2012 race report

"When a miner stands at the bottom of that mineshaft and stares at that solid wall of rock... that is called "The Truth".  And that is exactly where you stand this morning, staring at that wall... The Truth." ~ Leadville pre-race meeting

Leadville 100 Trail Run, Leadville, CO - August 18, 2012

I arrived in Leadville on Monday of race week to get acclimated and rested.  It was a great week of hanging out at the coffee shop, hiking, and lying around.  As my Crew rolled in during the week my excitement grew.  Sharing the experience and the pre-race nerves made it a bit more tolerable.   My training had gone so well.  I had done the work.  I had run more training miles than I had ever run in my life and avoided injury. I was healthy and rested and in the best shape of my life.  I stood at the start line with a deep healthy respect for what was coming, but confident that I was ready. (For some background you can read a previous post: Leadville: The Big Goal)

The Start, Saturday 4am - The race starts in the early morning darkness and heads out of Leadville towards Turquoise Lake and the mountains beyond.  I remember telling myself to relax, slow down and soak it in.    Every experienced Leadville runner had told me to hike the early inclines.  Many runners were running the uphills.  I soon realized that runners are runners and, whether a 5k or a 100 miler, they will lose sight of the plan, ignore the advice... and go out too fast thinking the rules of payback do not apply to them.  I stuck to my plan.   I also took a "GU Energy Gel" and an "S Cap" every 45 minutes when my watch beeped.  We made the loop around the Lake towards the "May Queen" aid station without incident.  My goal was to roll through May Queen (mile 13.5) in 2:20. I went through in 2:21.  I grabbed a few bananas, a few cups of GU Brew and kept moving.   I would not need extra nutrition or gear this early, so I instructed my Crew to skip May Queen and just meet me at the Fish Hatchery aid station.   We left May Queen and immediately hit the first climb of the day over Sugar Loaf Pass (elevation 11,071').  This is not a super steep climb.  It is just a long gradual grind.  The scenery, combined with sunrise, made for a good distraction.  Once over Sugar Loaf Pass the quad pounding descent of Powerline awaits.  I ran this long steep downhill but tried to do it under control to avoid a fall and protect my quads for later in the race.  

Fish Hatchery Aid Station, 8:10am, mile 24 - It was great to roll into the aid station and see my Crew for the first time in four hours.   Big crowds and big energy here.   I went through the aid station and grabbed a handful of PBJ sandwiches and bananas.  My crew awaited with a restocked running vest and I traded my arm warmers and headlamp for a visor and sunglasses.  It was quick and smooth and I was off, hiking out of Fish Hatchery trying to get down the bag of calories that I would need to fuel the day.  The GU energy gel was my base line fuel but to make it through 100 miles it takes real food to get in the necessary calories.  As much as I didn't want to finish the bag of food, I did.  The next few miles were... just... ok. I think my stomach was trying to process the food.  Finally it settled down and I felt good again.

Half Pipe Aid Station, 10:06am, mile 30 - I felt good when I saw my Crew at Treeline just before the Half-Pipe aid station.  They refilled my nutrition and applied sunscreen. The weather was beautiful with sunny skies and temps approaching 70. 

(Self-check: six hours in, 30 miles, and I felt really good and relaxed.  I had one hot spot on my foot that I knew was a developing blister.  My stomach was in good shape.  No leg cramps).
The route from Half-Pipe to Twin Lakes is one of my favorite trails.  Beautiful rolling single track along the base of Mt. Elbert that ends with the beautiful descent into Twin Lakes.  

Twin Lakes Aid Station 1, 12:40pm, mile 40 - This tiny village is where the Crew spent the majority of their day.  It's the gateway to the double crossing of Hope Pass, so crews wait here for hours on end for their runners to make the 20 mile round-trip to the turnaround at Winfield.   Up until this point everything was easy and relaxed.  No problems.  I went through the aid station and medical check-in.  My Crew waited for me a few hundred yards down the road with supplies and my trekking poles for the Hope Pass climb.  They did their best pit stop routine and had me restocked and on my way in minutes.  We high-fived at the end of the road and I set out down the trail towards the infamous Hope Pass climb.  
(Self-check: Hope Pass just ahead, no stress yet, legs feel pretty good, Crew was in good spirits...wait... what??  My food?!?  Where's my food bag?? Crap.)  
Somehow I got out of town without my food bag.  Big giant error #1:  I looked back and town seemed very far away... too far to go back...  I had my GU and the next aid station was less than 5 miles away.... just keep moving forward.  

Hope Pass #1, mile 45.5, 2:40pm - The double crossing of Hope Pass is what makes Leadville famous... or infamous.  Runners go from the low point at 9,200' to the high point on top of Hope Pass at 12,600'... in five miles, with most of the elevation gain in the last 3 miles. .  It is a slow, steady lung-burning climb.  As the air thinned and my legs got heavy, the missing-food-bag-bonk ensued.  It wasn't a big ugly bonk, just made the climb tougher and much slower.  I had an awesome cup of potato soup at the top of Hope Pass and then started the descent down the back side towards the turnaround at Winfield.

You would think it would be a relief to get over the top.  It is, briefly.  The backside of Hope is very steep and rocky and did I mention... steep?  So now take a bonk-weakened brain, paired with feet and quads that are getting chewed up with each downhill step... and you get ... the DARK PLACE.  Crap.  I finally made it down to the turnaround at Winfield.  But I was not happy.  I was not feeling good.  And I was now over an hour behind schedule.

Winfield, mile 50, 5:25pm - Karen, my first pacer, was waiting. She noted my delayed arrival and haggard appearance and sprung into action.  Another friend, Daniel, was at Winfield and helped get food and fluids  stocked up for our return.   We didn't waste much time at the aid-station.  Karen took over the key role of a Pacer: thinking for your runner.  As you leave Winfield you are, of course, faced with the soul crushing reality of going right back over Hope Pass. Off we went towards the steep climb back over.  In the two miles before the climb Karen was making sure I ate and drank until I had finished most of the food bag.  I actually recovered from the bonk and was moving well.  Kudos to Karen for getting me ready to go back over the Pass!

(Self-check: Ok, made it to Winfield.  That was brutal but I am still moving. Recovered from the bonk. Having a Pacer helped brighten my mood.  Legs are back.  Can't wait to change my shoes and socks at Twin Lakes and get this nagging blister taken care of.)

Hope Pass #2, mile 55, 7:40pm - The ascent up the back side is so steep.  It was all about one-step-at-a-time.  Just keep moving... and breathing.  The top would eventually arrive.  I think Karen enjoyed the breathtaking beauty of the Pass.  I did not.  I was in tunnel-vision mode.  Finally... back over Hope Pass.  A short, brief victory.   As we restocked at the Hope Pass aid station, a few sobering realizations:  I was way behind schedule.  My plan to be back to Twin Lakes by 7pm was gone.  It was getting dark.  Fortunately, Karen had a headlamp.  But only one.  Big giant error: There was never a thought of being this far behind schedule and getting back to Twin Lakes after dark. We headed down the mountain towards the deep forest... racing sunset. We didn't make it.  Again, Karen did an awesome job getting me down the mountain, on a technical trail, in the dark.  Not sure how, but she did.  That's what great pacers do. 

Twin Lakes Aid Station 2, mile 60, 9:00pm - I still didn't realize just how far behind I was.  

(Crew notes from Ted:  "The return trip to Twin Lakes aid station was expected to be around 7:00pm.  Good thing Karen and I put a headlamp in the pocket of Kevin's jacket, because a night time trek down the mountain was not planned on.  Arrival at Twin lakes at 9:00 was a full 2 hours later than expected.)
We rolled into Twin Lakes feeling good.  I had eaten well and was in good spirits.  My Crew was waiting.   Ted & Crew had fresh shoes, socks and food ready.  I went straight to medical to have my blisters repaired.  It was quite amusing and reassuring to have my friend and mentor, Marshall Ulrich, leaning over the doctor giving blister-repair advice.  Marsh is an endurance legend and drove up to assist the Crew.  He ended up staying with us all night.  Ward would take over pacing duties and was ready to go.  Repaired blisters, fresh, dry shoes and socks, food, a few layers of clothing and we were off. 
(Self-check:  In a good place mentally & physically.  All things considered, feet and legs feeling good.  No realization of time or distance... just... keep moving.  We are doing this!)

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe - Ward did a great job of keeping me fueled and hydrated... and distracted.  We made the long steady climb out of Twin Lakes and then were moving well on the rolling forest trails of Mt. Elbert.  There was some bargaining over food and "not another gel, please".  But like a good pacer, Ward did the thinking for me and kept me on schedule.  But then an interesting thing happened.  I heard another runner discussing "cut-off times" with their pacer.  There are rolling cut-off times to reach each aid station.  Arrive after a cut-off time... and your race is over.  "Cut-off times??  I never fathomed that I would be worried about cut-off times at the aid stations".  

I asked Ward if missing a cut-off was a concern? 
Ward: "You want the truth?"  Of course.  
Ward: : "You were less than 45 minutes ahead of the cut-off back at Twin Lakes"  WTF?  It hit me how much time I had lost on Hope Pass.  There was no panic.  Just the sobering realization that things were serious and there was some added urgency.  I later learned that my Crew was well aware of the time concerns and was already planning ahead to manage the issue. Again, Crew thinks, runner runs.  

Half-Pipe Aid Station, mile 71, midnight - Ward handed off pacing duties to Jeff.   

(Crew notes from Jeff: "I got my marching orders from Ward: S-Caps, one every hour, make him eat every thirty minutes, drinking every fifteen minutes or so…and keep him moving.  Kevin isn't really wanting to eat much, but he should…and soup is working well for him and still appetizing")
 I drank a cup of soup because it was warm and my stomach was handling it well.  As Jeff and I headed out, Marsh walked along for a bit giving some tips and motivation.   Jeff and I had a short, flat 5 mile leg on the valley road that leads to the Fish Hatchery aid-station.  No big deal.  A good place to make up some time.  No... this would be the road to... the reckoning!  I was getting a bit chilly.  I had on a hat, two layers, a windproof jacket and gloves. But... no pants or tights.   Much more than I ever wear in the winter.  Big giant error #2: I didn't realize the effects of the cold on a body that had been up and running for 20 hours.  
(Crew notes from Jeff: "At the time…cold did not appear to be of issue. No complaints, no warning signs. Marshall was concerned about cold at this point. As we continued to walk, he felt Kevin’s legs; they felt warm enough. “Do you want pants?” he asked. No…Kevin affirmed he was fine. “Are you sure?” Yeah")  
We hit the valley road and the temperature had dropped below 40 degrees.  I starting getting a few shivers and my legs were feeling cold.  
(Crew notes from Jeff:  "Kevin is getting colder…and quieter. I thought nothing of the silence. Would I feel chatty after running for 22 hours? Probably not. But Kev is obviously getting colder…and starting to comment on the wind. He’s fading, but I’m still not thinking it’s EXTREME. Just COLD.")

I feel myself fading a bit.  Jeff had shed his coat and put it on me. I'm shivering head-to-toe.  Trouble talking.  Hip flexors and quads are stiffening rapidly   WTF is going on??  And then... stopped... in the middle of the road... in the middle of nowhere... in the dark... I can't move.  
(Self-check: Brain is fuzzy.  In that instant I felt the entire thing unraveling.  I was certain ... if I made it to the aid station... that medical would pull me from the race.  I never once considered quitting... or not making it to the finish line.  To be pulled from the race by medical?  No!  It can't end this way)
(Crew notes from Jeff:  "Then it happens. Or rather, STOPS happening. Cramps. Hip flexors, he tells me. Even with the cold, I’m not certain that this is the cause.  He tries to stretch, we keep moving, but things don’t want to turn loose. Slowing makes things even more cold…and it brings that cutoff time even closer.  Ted suddenly appears in the dark, having headed toward us following my last text about Kevin's condition. He throws a ski jacket on Kevin, which helps"  
(Crew Notes from Ted: "At 2:45am something wasn't setting well with me, so I told Ward to monitor his phone, that I was going out to see for myself what was going on.  When I found Kev, he was shaking, stumbling and freezing.  I asked what was wrong, he replied he was cramping.  I asked if he wanted my ski coat, he snapped ”I don’t know.”  With that I took it off and wrapped him in it, and called Ward to tell them Kev was hypothermic and needed blankets, soup and pants.  He almost stumbled off the road, but I pushed him back on.")
Somehow, I started moving again.  

Fish Hatchery Aid-Station, mile 76, 3:00am
(Crew Notes from Jeff: "We keep moving, finally making it to the transition area…and it’s all hands on deck.  We are inside the cutoff time, but barely. Kevin is walked into aid station.  Here’s some soup. Eat it. Someone has come up with long underwear to pull up over his running shorts. More soup. A blanket…over the ski jacket. Another blanket. The “Endurance King” is massaging his legs. We've got to hurry. Tick. Tick. Fill up his water bottles with hot broth. "Guys, you've gotta go", says Marshall. Tick. Tick. "They will pull him from the course if we don’t get him out…NOW". 

I sat there in the aid station and felt the energy coming back into my body as it warmed.  There was a flurry of activity going on around me.  I was handed a cup of soup and bottle of broth.  Marsh was kneeling in front of me telling me what I was going to have to do.  And it suddenly hit me.. this thing is NOT over. A race official whispered something in Marsh's ear.  Marsh reached down, grabbed me by the jacket and picked me up and said it was time to go.  I later learned the official said that if they didn't get me up and out that the medical staff was going to take a close look. 
(Crew Notes From Ted:  "After 8 minutes and with only SIX minutes before the cut-off, Marshall said his friend told us to get Kevin out of there!  We got him standing and he proclaimed “let’s do this bitches!” We walked him out of the aid-station")

Fish Hatchery to May Queen - (Self-Check: Ok,  I'm back.  Wow.  It is not over. Not sure how it happened but I am moving with purpose.)  
Brandon has taken over pacing duties and we are headed towards one of the toughest climbs of the race.  Powerline is a long climb with several false summits.  Brandon does an amazing job of keeping me fueled and in a rhythm.  The Powerline climb takes one hour & forty minutes. Not a bad time, especially in light of what had happened just two hours earlier.    We try to make up time on Hagerman Pass Road.  But my quads are mush and I cannot run the downhills.  We move with purpose though.  Brandon is keeping a close eye on pace and cut-off times. I don't want to know.  I just listen to Brandon as he implores and encourages.  And then... the sky begins to change.  It is sunrise # 2 of the race.  Hmm, that's quite interesting.  I've been out here a really long time.

May Queen Aid Station, mile 86, 6:40am 
Well, it all comes down to this.  I make it out of May Queen with FIVE minutes to spare.  Just over three hours to make it to the finish line in Leadville, 13.5 miles away.  I never imagined that my day would come down to this.  There was no other thought or problem in my world at that moment.  It was simple. Just keep moving.  Doug took over pacing duties and made sure I was aware that I would be "the last runner to beat the 30 hour cutoff and get a belt buckle or the first one to miss it".  It resonated in me and I assured him that I would give absolutely everything I had.  I ran when I could and walked with purpose when I couldn't run.    We reached the road that signals 5.5 miles to go.  I was fully engaged and alert and I knew the 30 hour time limit was in jeopardy.  But quitting was NOT an option.  I was going to finish this race.
With a few miles to go, Brandon rejoined the pacing crew and decided the only shot we had was a 3:00 run/ :30 walk pattern over the final few miles.  I didn't think.  I didn't say much.  I just listened to Brandon's countdown and ran when he said run... and walked when he said walk.   I am really not sure how I was still running at mile 97.  The mind is a powerful thing.  Don't think.  Just run.   
With one mile to go, I knew we were going to miss the cutoff.   But my Crew kept me running and we eventually crested the final hill.  With the finish line in the distance, I heard the telltale shotgun blast signifying the 30 hour time limit.  We kept running.  
There was a big crowd at the finish and the outpouring of support from them and the race announcer was amazing.  I reached the finish line.. and finally... could stop.  30:05.  Missed it by 5 minutes.  A race official congratulated me and placed that Finisher's Medal around my neck.   My crew grabbed me to keep me stable and the emotion of the ordeal sunk in.   All of the training, all of the sacrifice, my amazing Crew, the support of my giant running family... and I was finished.  I had run 100 miles.  It still sounds surreal. 

Yes, I missed the 30 hour limit and the belt buckle.  But I wouldn't trade that 30:05 for anything.  To bounce back from several big mistakes including nearly being pulled from the race and only miss it by 5 minutes?  To have the support of such an amazing group of people who gave of themselves unconditionally for MY goal?  There's no belt buckle that can ever top that.  Now, don't get me wrong... that 5 minutes is already gnawing on me.  I have to go back... and get my buckle

There are several basic lessons I will take back to Leadville:
Food - more real food earlier. And more liquid calories. 
Gear - Always have a headlamp in your pack after halfway.  Always.
Clothing - Always have extra layers handy, including pants.  Always. 

There is no way I would have ever finished this race without the total, selfless support of my Crew.  I didn't have to beg or bribe anyone to crew for me.  Each stepped up and said "I am in."  They are all special people and amazing friends.  I can never repay what they did, but I will try.  

Back: Brandon, Doug, Ward, Jeff, Marshall
Front: Ted, me, Karen
And thanks to some of the Memphis ultra community who offered me great training and racing advice and encouragement: Feb Boswell, Nick Lewis, Les Jones.  Super congrats to James Holland, the only Memphian to run under 30 hours this year!

Run Smart. Train Hard. Race Fast. 
Coach Kevin is an RRCA-certified Running Coach.  National Coach ~ Team McGraw, National Coach ~ St Jude Heroes.  He also writes the Memphis Fit blog


  1. Awesome! That takes care of my motivation for the week!

  2. Wow - CONGRATULATIONS! That was an excellent recap with all of the perspectives and details. You went far into the unknown and now you have great experience to call upon for your return.


  3. Congratulations Kevin! Great report! Have you considered submitting it to the Memphis Runners Track Club for the Roadrunner? I'll bet there are tons of other runners that have only heard of Leadville from the "Born To Run" book.

  4. Awesome accomplishment Coach Kevin. You are truly an inspiration to all runners and I am proud to have had you as a coach for Team McGraw for the 2011 NYC Marathon. I hope to get the chance to run with you someday in the near future, (but not a 100 mile . race, I'm not quite that gifted,lol)

  5. Great work! Incredibly inspiring. Need to read something like this maybe once a week. A prescription for inspiration.

  6. Amazing race. thanks for the in depth report

  7. Looks like you'd need an intense session with a massage therapist oakville after that one; 100 miles sure sounds painful on the legs.

  8. What a good read! I have a really good friend who did the Leadman this year and it's so motivating! I plan to get there one day but I still love watching others go through it allot.

  9. Stumbled across this blog via the Deadspin article. Congrats on the finish and the great story! I ran as well this year, finishing in 23:13.

    Once piece of unsolicited advice: the most useful training I did last year was uphill treadmill walking. If you have access to a treadmill, try to do one aerobic session a week walking up a treadmill at maximum grade (15% for most). After a couple of months, your pace at the same effort level will drop by two minutes a mile. That quicker walking pace makes all the difference on the hills and in the second half.

    Best of luck in 2013!

  10. I'm curious as to what regimen you took to prepare for this event. Considering the distance, I'm thinking some serious endurance training was done; good thing you didn't experience any injuries along the way.