aaronsteele.io

2014 Leadville 100 miler

30 August 2014

I got up and headed out—I didn’t say a word.

My thoughts were black. At the trailhead I stopped. Unclipped my vest. Handed Dan my bottles. I told Stacie to run to Twin Lakes without me. I’d meet her there and crew whatever distance she wanted to go.

Then I quit. And it wasn’t even that hard to do.

I was hoping to report that high altitude, a lack of acclimation, and inadequate training ended my race. But that’s not what happened.

It wasn’t altitude. It wasn’t training. It was just me quitting.

The thing about racing ultras is that it’s difficult. You go through these huge highs and lows. During the lows you try to dig deep, solve problems, and move forward. That’s one reason why ultras are so incredibly satisfying for me. I’ve always solved problems and moved forward.

I’ve always finished the race.

But on this day, at mile 50, I didn’t have the answers. I was feeling good for 46 miles and then boom, everything came crashing down. The final 4 miles into Winfield took almost 2 hours. It destroyed me mentally. I used all my tricks and had nothing left.

So yeah, it has been an emotional week. It seriously fucked me up. First denial about quitting, then depression about it. Now acceptance. The dust has settled and it’s not the end of the world. It’s an opportunity to learn about myself and grow as an ultra runner.

Thanks to Tina and Sam for encouraging me to write about my experience. Here’s my report.

Before the gun

Packed and confident I swung into the airport shuttle, waved goodbye to Tina, Noah, and Amélie, and headed South for San Francisco.

I’d put in quality miles with good results. 3rd place AG at the Ordnance 100k in February and again at the Ohlone 50k in May. I was ready to test myself by running 100 miles through the mountains.

I arrived in Denver and linked up with Sam’s parents in Boulder. We joked about salt pills and renal failure then I went to bed. Early the next morning we hit the road for Twin Lakes.

The ride from 5 to 10 thousand feet was insanely inspiring. We casually crossed the continental divide at 70 miles per hour.

With my drop bags organized, Sam and Jenna suggested a shake out run on Colorado Trail. Yes. I was a little out of breath as we cruised the singletrack, but no headache or stomach issues. Good to go.

After lunch we all drove the course together. So fun! Lots of joking around about crew malfunctions from last year. Sam and I were constantly giggling about ridiculous race scenarios.

After a late registration we beelined to the cabin for a homemade dinner. I made a few gear adjustments, said goodnight, and was the first to bed. I thought I’d fall asleep immediately. Instead I laid awake gazing at a waning moon.

Race morning

Up before the alarm. Moon still there. Sam tapped my door.

“Hey Dude it’s 1.”

Sam suggested 500 calories 3 hours before start. I ate 1000. We joked endlessly over bagels and Nutella. So casual. It was like we weren’t about to spend 20+ hours on our feet.

After a second cup of coffee we headed back to our rooms. I spent time loosening up, listening to music, and looking over the course map.

At 3a we piled into the car. 45 minutes later we were geared up and standing on 6th Street in Leadville. I hugged Andrea, Jenna, Bill, Adam, and Pretzel. I loved their company and was pumped to start this adventure together.

We moved to the front of the pack. Snapped a few photos. Cracked a few jokes. The Star spangled banner started. I thought about Tina, Noah, and Amélie back home. Ken interrupted my thoughts with some final words.

“Whatever you do, do not quit!”

The shotgun blast went extra large. Game on.

Start to May Queen

We jogged down 6th street. I watched Sam dissolve into the mass of runners and headlamps. “Go get it Sam.”

I wouldn’t see him again until the backside of Hope Pass.

I settled into my own race now. I wasn’t sure about the altitude so the race plan was simple. Bring everything to bear that I’d learned about racing ultras. If I took it easy to mile 60 and felt good, I’d crank out the final 40 as fast as I could.

This part of the course is basically downhill with a few bumps. Heart rate felt higher than normal but sustainable. I ignored my watch and ran by feel. I passed a silhouette of a paddle boarder moving across Turquoise Lake. It was peaceful.

As the sun came up I rolled into May Queen and checked my watch. 3 hours. Waaaay slower than expected but no problem. I grabbed my drop bag and went through the routine.

“Cutoff in 30 minutes!”

Weird. I hadn’t planned on being close to cutoffs. I didn’t know the cutoff times. But ultras are about keeping positive and solving problems. I adjusted by dropping unnecessary weight. Just the essentials now.

I grabbed a PBJ for the next section and headed out strong.

May Queen to Outward Bound

A fun singletrack links to dirt roads for an easy climb over Sugarloaf. Sections are definitely runnable but I settled on point-to-point to conserve energy.

The sun climbed higher. The mountains lit up. Tall and rocky peaks faded into wooded stream valleys. Everything emptied into Turquoise Lake below. The scale of it was incredible. It would only get better.

On Powerline descent I ate the PBJ and drained the last of my water. I realized two things. I didn’t have enough water and PBJ wasn’t working. Luckily an old man with a pickup truck was handing out water and coke. It was kind of surreal. He filled my bottles. I continued the descent.

At the bottom my stomach recovered and I ran the roads sustainably to the Outward Bound aid station. Same routine with two adjustments. I drank 40 ounces instead of 20 and switched to eating fruit only.

Through the checkpoint my chip beeped. Tina was awake now and would get the update. She’d be proud of my slow start and conservative racing!

I headed out into a wide open field of green. Hope Pass was closer now.

Outward Bound to Half Pipe

Through a field, along a road, back onto dirt. I passed people who blew their quads on Powerline. After the gravel pit I followed the treeline then turned right for some more climbing to Half Pipe.

Half Pipe already? 50k boom! Same routine. Still feeling good. Still moving slow but no nits. I downed water, bananas, oranges, and watermelon. Ramen soup looked good so I sipped that too.

Heading out I bumped into Bill. We knew each other through Ann. He was running his 31st Leadville and asked if I had a pacer. “You know Ann’s at Twin Lakes right?”. Nope, but not surprised. It’ll be good seeing a familiar face.

In and out. Feeling good. The trail rolled gently through the trees. I was hitting a high and decided to work. When you can run fast, run fast.

Half Pipe to Mount Elbert

The rollers steepened. Nothing huge but I backed off. My heart rate was high. I settled into power hiking hills and jogging descents. My mind wanted to work but my body said no. Elevation.

It was getting hotter now and I drank the last of my water. After what felt like a super long haul, I heard music booming through the forest. I crossed a small bridge. Hello Mount Elbert mini aid station. Water. I pulled over to refill, take salt pills, and pee. All clear.

Mount Elbert to Twin Lakes

The descent from Mount Elbert was steepish. Climbing back up would require patience. Twin Lakes appeared through Aspen trees lining the trail. Energy levels were feeling a little low but it didn’t feel like a bonk. It just felt like I was working hard despite moving conservatively. That was just the elevation again. No problem.

Instead of “get in get out” at Twin Lakes I needed a longer break there to pack on extra calories and re-energize before ascending Hope Pass at 12,600 feet.

Beware the chair! 30 minutes after hitting Twin Lakes I was still at Twin Lakes. Yikes. I asked about the Hope Pass cutoff. Getting there would be close. I got up and started running.

Twin Lakes to Hopeless

I was moving well through the meadow and found myself alone. At the river crossing I looked up. There was Rob Krar’s beard. A few seconds later Rob appeared. It was surreal. Rob, river crossing, Hope Pass. All three perfectly framed in front of me. He was walking. I stepped aside.

“Rob nice go.”

He looked at me, barely nodded, and was gone.

At the base of the climb I caught a runner with hiking poles. He had climbed this before and I asked for advice. He said “work”. I put on my headphones and started to work.

The music was helping. I moved pretty well and passed several people. The effort didn’t feel crazy. I didn’t want to miss the cutoff and figured the back side of Hope would be super runnable. I emptied my gels to keep the calories flowing.

10 minutes into the climb I jumped over as Aish and then Sharman came blasting down the trail, proxied by their pacers. Ian tripped but recovered. Both guys looked very game for another 40 mile effort. It was a race.

Hopeless Aid Station appeared out of nowhere. It wasn’t what I expected. Lush green grass with crowds of people, lamas, and tents. It was cradled by a moonscape above. I grabbed water but didn’t drink any. I ate fruit but only a little. I could see the summit and I rushed through.

Hopeless to Hope Pass

I was thinking about Tina, Noah, and Amélie on those final switchbacks to the summit. I’m a lucky Man. Amazing family. Amazing life. It was emotional and I cried it out.

My race chip beeped. Officially at the summit now. I had a crazy visualization of the signal traveling by radio, satellite, and server back to Tina at home. I turned back to look at Leadville.

This was the highest point in the race for me, both literally and emotionally. I beat the cutoff by 20 minutes. I was feeling good. It was downhill to the turnaround and the race for me hadn’t even started yet. Let’s move.

Hope Pass to Winfield

The backside of Hope drops 1000 feet per mile across several switchbacks. I had 10 ounces of water and no food. It was getting hot again. Before any of that registered, I saw Sam and Jenna.

“Dude you are crushing.”

I tried sounding upbeat. What came out was weak. Waaaait a minute. What is happening. I am suddenly feeling horrible? I’m trying to process but Sam interrupts.

“Dude this next section is super hot and hilly. There’s a stream ahead. Dunk your hat. Are you eating?”

That was the right question to ask. He and Dan paced me last year at Rio Del Lago 100 where I bonked at mile 72 from not eating, recovered after sitting in a sleeping bag for 2 hours, then rallied to finish in 22:35 after eating 8 slices of pizza.

They gave me some food just in case.

I got to the stream, bent over, dunked my hat. I looked up. The sun was really hot and in my face. I flipped my hat around, finished my water. Wait. Where’s my food? It had fallen into the stream. How long have I been sitting here? I don’t know. I got up and tried to keep moving forward.

Runners were streaming up from Winfield now. I was constantly stopping so they could get by. The footing was bad. The awkward angles were blistering my feet. I couldn’t hit a groove.

In a scree field I found a rock and sat down. I needed to check in with myself. How am I feeling? The answer was grim.

All of my feelings were normal feelings. Totally expected. But usually during a race the mental and physical pressure gradually become more intense as the miles pile on. It’s a slow process and I have tools for dealing with it.

But this time the difficulty of the previous 50 miles came crashing down all at once. I went from hero to zero in less than a mile. It was a shock to the system and things darkened quickly.

It took nearly 2 hours to move 4 miles. I was stumbling and demoralized.

Winfield—DNF at mile 50

I zombied into the aid station. Dan and Stacie were waiting for me. They were quietly concerned. I desperately hoped to be 20 pounds under weight. Medical would pull me from the course and that would be it. But the numbers didn’t lie. My weight was fine.

I had 20 minutes to pull it together before cutoff. It took me 4 hours from Twin Lakes to Winfield. I needed a 3:45 negative split back over Hope Pass.

“1 minute! Any racers still in the tent will be pulled from the course!”

Fuck. I got up and headed out with Stacie and Dan. I didn’t say a word. My thoughts were pitch.

At the trailhead I stopped. Unclipped my vest. Handed Dan my bottles. I told Stacie to run to Twin Lakes without me. I’d meet her there and crew whatever distance she wanted to go.

Then I quit. And it wasn’t even that hard to do.

Game over

Dan drove to Twin Lakes and we waited for Stacie. She ran back in a solid 3:30, crumpled into fetal position, then puked out the car window. The altitude got her.

Back at the cabin I walked Pretzel and did some laundry. Stacie and Dan went to sleep. I watched 10 minutes of Dodge Ball then climbed into bed. I looked out the window but the moon was gone.

Sam got back around 4a. We exploded into recaps of the day. He crushed in 22:38 for a 3rd place AG. I was so incredibly proud. I wanted details but our conversation was done. Without words he turned around and hobbled out. Long day. I went back to sleep.

The next morning we all drank coffee together and laughed. I was secretly battling regret. After multiple flight delays and taxi rides, I was back home in California. I walked into Noah’s room and he was reading a book.

“Daddy! Why didn’t you finish Leadville?”

This was the lowest point for me.

Epilogue

After serious reflection this week, and through writing this race report, I can now say that I quit Leadville (without feeling crushed).

Running 100 miles is hard. I hit my mental limit for the day and there’s no shame in that. I’m motivated to train hard and reach that limit again. It’s why I run.

Quitting made me stronger. Now I need to prove it to myself.