by Zac Marion
The brisk cold morning air was disturbed by the hustle and bustle of runners anxiously and nervously double, and even triple checking, their already pre-checked gear. As I lined up, I repeated my mantra for the day; “relentless forward motion with purpose in every step”. I made sure that I was far enough behind Scott Jurek, Mike Aish, Ian Sharman and all the other quick dudes that I didn’t get pulled out too fast. The shotgun sounded and, like a heard of wild horses rearing to break out in stride, the runners left the corral.
As we hit the dirt road, I quickly fell back and started talking to others around me. Ensuring that I could hold a conversation would force me to take a much more sustainable pace for the first bit. After some surprisingly technical ruts and a few turns onto the single track around Turquoise Lake, we filed into a steady line with passing being pretty difficult at this point.
After about a minute of not recognizing the trail I had run just the day before, I glanced around for some course markings. DAMN!!! I quickly let the rest of the group know that we were off course and got just about the same reaction I gave myself. Luckily I stayed in the camping sites we happened to be running through and after scarring the crap out of a few campers, the 15 or so of us got back on the trail. Adding a short distance and losing a few minutes at this point wasn’t detrimental to my game plan so I shrugged it off.
What did become detrimental to my game plan was using a flask of EFS gel for the first section of the course. It usually worked well for me but I hadn’t trained with it in last few months, much less at altitude. It wrecked my stomach something fierce. Enough that I decided to just suck up the next hour without gels and make up for it at the aid station when I switched to my tried and true VFuel.
The camaraderie occupied my mind until we arrived in Mayqueen. I dropped my long sleeve and light off, picked up my Visor Buff, 2 flasks of VFuel and headed out the chute a few minutes ahead of schedule. I was shocked at how well I felt, all except my stomach that was still turning every time something, anything, went into it.
The next section to the Fish Hatchery involved the long climb up to Sugar Loaf Pass. I was forced to take the climb at a strong power hike while still trying to get my stomach to settle from the EFS blunder earlier. The mental games started up and I began to doubt my ability to run anything uphill and lost confidence in my nutrition. Even after just a few yards of running, my stomach felt almost comical in its attempt to rebel against me.
After about an hour or so, things started to turn around and I was making up some ground again. Those who know me could only imagine my excitement when I was finally able to reach the pass and, with a complying stomach, start on the first steep technical downhill of the power lines. After a nice rest up the mountain I was feeling like I was ready to let loose on the downhill and make up some of that time I lost. I may have taken it a bit hard but I passed about a dozen and half runners who passed me on the uphill and felt extremely comfortable doing it.
I made sure to stay comfortable on the road to the Fish Hatchery. Knowing I was still behind on nutrition, I pulled into the aid station and tried to make up for the deficiencies by downing a slim fast and about six hundred other various calories. Instinctually, I also downed a RedBull on my way out of the aid station. Mistake number 2.
My stomach had immediately bloated to a painful state just a matter of seconds down the road. Knowing I had put myself ahead of schedule by 20 mins or so, I gave things some time to digest. I took my sweet time walking down the road. It was super frustrating not being able to run more than a 100 yards without heaving and watching other competitors just prance on by but I reminded myself that this was my race and I was moving forward and the purpose of my steps was simply to get to the next aid station and take care of the problem at hand.
This led to a long walking and jogging section up to the Halfpipe aid station and not only losing my 20 minute lead but getting behind by about 30 minutes. Still, I never lost my mantra for the day. I vowed to relentlessly and unremittingly continue onward toward the aid station until I got there.
I also never felt bad for myself. If my stomach was upset, my legs hurt, dehydration set in, etc., it was just motivation to get to the next aid station faster. Besides, this is part of the game. EVERYONE was feeling as bad as me, or worse. No time for a pity party, just time to move forward.
As we moved toward Twin Lakes, the canopies opened up a bit and we became a bit more exposed. I was able to draw some energy from the warmth of the sun on my skin. Most people don’t like the heat but I actually prefer a little warmth in the day. I made some good time hitting the descent with some gusto, knowing that I would be to the aid station soon enough.
Twin Lakes was a MAD HOUSE! Such a huge aid station and crew access. The positive energy from the crowd, getting the much needed hydration and nutrition in me, a few cokes and some friendly faces really turned my spirits around. Or maybe it was fact that we were only at 9,200 ft elevation and at low point of the course??? I left Twin Lakes feeling great and had a renewed resolve to get to Winfield where my pacer, Leslie, would be waiting to turn me around and push me back up and over the pass.
Coming into Twin Lakes
On my way to tackle Hope Pass
I made my way around the meadow and through the river crossing in quick time and passed a handful of runners getting to the base of the climb up to Hopeless Aid station. I continued to run up until I felt that the effort was too much, which ended up only being a few hundred yards. I dropped to fervent but comfortable hands-on-knees power hike. It was time to shut up, put my head down and do work.
I just settled into a good rhythm of breathing and stepping. I wasn’t intimidated by the mountain or elevation, but I made sure to respect it. I found purpose in my steps and moved relentlessly forward again, focused only on getting to the top.
I pressed on passed other runners, some puking at even the slightest baby steps up the mountain. 18 other runners fell behind me as I made my way up the mountain. I was so focused and determined to get to the top that before I knew it I could hear the 80’s rock leading us into the aid station. In retrospect, my focus may have been a little too narrow. I only drank from my bottle once while I was eating some chews, maybe 5 ounces. Mistake 3.
I was planning on feeling like crap as I came down Hope, but this was ridiculous. Although I gained a slight energy getting a fist bump from Hal Koerner and an enthusiastic yelp from Scott Jurek, I still couldn’t put together any sustained elevated heart rate without getting dizzy and nearly passing out due to the thin air and overly thick dehydrated blood. I wanted to get down the mountain as fast as possible but falling down the mountain wasn’t exactly in the game plan. So I drank and drank to hopefully thin out the blood a little bit and pressed on slowly, still never allowing myself to stop or take it too “easy”.
Getting into Winfield was kind of a joke. I hiked/walked up the slightest inclines and stopping for the runners heading back up was a momentum killer and time leeching pain in the ass. I again lost my lead and dropped back 15 minutes by the time I made my way into the turn around. Nothing was more motivating to me than knowing I was going to see my crew and pick up my pacer once I got there. Wrong idea!
Apparently, a town built for a few hundred people doesn’t quite have the infrastructure to handle almost 1000 runners with their crews. Luckily my crew chief Bob, who recently had ACL reconstruction surgery, hitch hiked and ran a few miles up to the aid station with a little pack of a few gels, RedBull and a SlimFast. I was so happy to at least see him there.
I entered the aid station and already knew I was dehydrated and suffering quite a bit. After checking my weight I saw that I was down 8+ lbs. I sat, rehydrated and took in anything liquid… except the RedBull, I learned my lesson earlier. After 15 minutes and about a liter and a half of liquids, I was ready to start walking out. I knew my crew wasn’t going to come in to see me and I had to let my stomach digest the calories and mentally gain some resolve by the time I attacked Hope again, knowing I wasn’t going to have a pacer like I planned.
I left without much fervor and slinked my way off the road and onto the trail. I found another runner and chatted with him for a bit and tried to hold onto his pace. After a few minutes he said he was going to fall back but wanted a picture with me. Although I thought it kinda weird, I agreed. I began to take off and he asked me why I wasn’t pacing Scott Jurek. Then it hit me, this kid thought I was Anton Krupicka! A more out of shape and pasty version I guess. Ironically, this happened about a dozen more times on this section.
I turned the corner to head up the steep section of Hope and who do I see on the trail waiting for me. BOB! He gave me just the energy I needed to get up that beast one more time. As I hugged him and got ready to hit the trail, a group 3 guys with blue “mountain climbing team” shirts and wizard sticks came flying past me. They settled into a train and took off up to the pass quite intimidatingly. I hopped on behind them and we pushed up the mountain.
I felt like crap and was moving slower than I wanted to but still managed to pass the mountain climbing dudes and a few others. As I crested the mountain, I received a little relief mentally knowing that this was the high point and it was going to be fun getting to Twin Lakes again.
I took a few minutes at the top, grabbing a Tylenol, a few cokes and a cup of ramen and mashed potatoes. I ate while heading down and then something happened. I don’t know if it was the sweet reprieve of the downhill or the food that was starting to digest, but I snapped the low I’d been in for a few hours and found that high gear. It started with some easy running down hill and quickly snowballed into an all-out speed work session. It felt great to let the legs turn over and fly passed other runners. I was even able to drop my pacer for a few minutes.
This energy continued all the way into Twin Lakes, which was still a party. Bob rushed ahead to find my crew and get the aid ready. Half way up the main road, as I was gaining energy from the crowd again, I saw Leslie running towards me. A quick embrace and a pat on the back, then she became all business. I sat down for the first time that day, changed my Injinji socks, took a few pictures and off we went with a full stomach once again. Only 45 minutes behind schedule at this point.
Look at all that energy… I’m talking about Leslie of course. I was busy shaking off a low point in the race
Looking toward the climb ahead with Leslie
I marched up to road toward the trail head with the same kind of resolve as going up Hope the first time. In little time I was able to hit the Colorado Trail and was pushed by Leslie to run anything flat or downhill. Thanks to Leslie’s meticulous hounding of water, nutrition and salt, I started feeling surprisingly great. Almost like I was on just another training run.
We hit the long and slightly downhill section I’d been waiting for. I quickly turned up the pace again and just let it happen. I took a little pride and found it pretty fun to drop my other runners and even my pacer, again. I really was just taking whatever the day was giving me at that point which, as Leslie pointed out, was running 6:45’s down the trail and smiling.
It was about here that, for the first time of the day, it finally hit me that this was the LT100. Freaking Leadville! One of the largest and toughest races in the 100 mile distance. And I was running the back half with ease and excitement.
We had run almost all of the next section to Half Pipe. I wouldn’t let Leslie tell me what my splits were or what amount of time we had made up. I really liked the idea of just running with that I was capable of at that moment. Never pushing to reach a goal that would eventually lead to my blow up but also never taking it easy because I was ahead of time. We marched into Half Pipe and I ate another Pop Tart, took a cup of coke and noodles on the road and literally walked right through the aid station. We clicked our lights on just down the road and started weaving our way towards that dreaded pavement that I knew was coming.
For the second time that day, I ran right through the Treeline crew access. We veered onto the road and after a little struggle on the road with the quads starting to feel the day’s work in them, we made the turn for the straight shot to the hatchery.
In less than 5 minutes my crew had me out of there. Again, walking and eating for a few minutes until I reached the Power Line climb up to Sugar Loaf Pass. I’d been feeling great with my hands on knees approach all day and it was working pretty well. But about half way to the pass I couldn’t bend over very well without my gluteal muscles cramping. I changed up my form a bit and that seemed to work well.
The only frustrating part about this climb was the amount of false summits. You think you’re to the top, you can feel the breeze of the pass and then you turn the corner to see another long uphill. I got so frustrated that at one point, I took off with a mad burst of energy and passed about 8 more runners, dropping my pacer again (although in her defense, she did have a headlamp that needed a change of batteries). Once we got to the pass I knew I had this course in the bag. That sounds a bit presumptuous with 20 miles left, but my legs felt great and I was mentally strong.
We were able to take the downhill pretty fast but still maintained a conservative approach as we were both using the same headlamp since Leslie’s was only putting out a few lumens at this point. I gathered another boost of energy after eating a Pop Tart on Haggerman Road and when we dropped onto the trail into Mayqueen, I let the legs fly once again.
By the time I got to the aid station, I was out of water and starting to really need some new batteries in my lamp and a flask of gel. I knew I was way ahead of schedule when I walked into the aid and startled my half asleep crew by calmly announcing myself. By the time I refueled, got new batteries and tucked a shirt in my shorts for the 13 mile trip home, Leslie had caught back up and was ready to push me to the finish with a fresh headlamp.
We walked out of the aid station and I was feeling just fine. My legs weren’t turning over as fast as they were earlier but I guess that’s what happens when you put 90 miles on them. This was about the only section where I used my competitive demeanor. Every time we saw a new set of lights in the distance, Leslie was to lead the chase until we safely passed and then we could ease up. Picking off the carnage kept me in a great a mental state and happy that I was still moving so well comparingly.
With about a mile of trail left before we got back onto the boulevard, I remembered reading that it was really cool to look back up the pass we climbed about 10 miles earlier and see all the headlamps behind me. I was happy to use anything to take my mind off the pain of the legs and overall exhaustion from the day so I obliged myself the opportunity. I looked down at the trail, smooth as butter. Took a glance ahead of me for about 10 yards, same thing. The second I picked my head up from the trail to look back, WHAM! I was on my back in a cloud of dust before I even knew what happened.
Leslie ran back frantically asking if I was ok and checking to see if I was broken or bleeding anywhere. Truth was, it was the easiest fall I could have ever taken. Not even a scrape. But the ground was so soft that I just wanted to lay there for as long as possible.
She quickly figured out my intentions and gave me a gracious 5 seconds before she literally picked me up and dusted me off. We motored our way onto the boulevard from there and put our sights on getting home. With 5 miles uphill to go and our current speed, I knew it would take an hour. I used our last swallow of water to wash down a shot of gel and pushed on.
Over the next hour, I felt every emotion I had ever known up to that point. I only got overly emotional and needed to be calmed down one time, however, when the course became unmarked and there was a definite two lane fork in the road. I take this time to apologize to my pacer for having to hear a few f-bombs and other words of frustration. I just wanted to be home.
Then something that I will never forget happened. I found my new purpose in the steps of those few miles. I had run a selfish 98 miles up to that point. It was all about me and what I needed and my pace and my hard work and training and my shiny new buckle and my pride that was dictating what was happening. I knew that my wife and father were going to be waiting for me on the road to finish that last stretch. I had to do this for them. I wanted to make my father proud. Show him that the work ethic he instilled in me while I was young hadn’t been forgotten. I wanted to show my pacer that I could reach those goals we put down because she worked so hard in those 40 miles with me. I wouldn’t let her down now, not after all those hours of hard work.
Most importantly, I pushed hard for my wife. I needed her to know that her sacrifice of me leaving to do runs all hours of the day, taking off all day on Saturdays to get my long runs in, sleeping at night in an empty bed while I was out gallivanting around, working so hard to keep our life and house in order while I was too tired or injured to help, that her sacrifice through all that wasn’t in vain. She means the world to me and knowing that she was there waiting made something happen. She’s already dealt with so much during training and had a long day of crewing… I didn’t want her to wait any longer than she needed to.
I clicked into beast mode for those last few miles. Grunting, yelling, and crying my way onto the road. Once I hit the pavement, it was on. I ran every last step as hard as I could to my family and crew who were waiting just a few hundred yards from the finish line. Although it was uphill, I felt like I ran those last two blocks as fast I had at 4am the previous morning on my way out. Of course this was probably all in my mind and in reality I was moving only half as fast. I heard the cheers and calls from the family but I was already crying and couldn’t stand to look over at them for fear of completely breaking down and falling to my knees in tears. I just kept right on going until I crossed that line, spreading my arms and landing that plane in the runner chute.
It all hit me at once. I was done! I had completed the Leadville Trail 100 two hours faster than my goal time, secured a top 50 spot and came within a half hour of a perfect even split of the course. I was so glad to be done and sad it was over at the same time. The many emotions that I had shut out for that last 2 miles finally caught up to me and all I could do was lay down, right there on the side of the finish line, and succumb to them.
There were a few things that led to my success that day. First off, I never focused on anything more than what was at hand; getting up this mountain, moving into the next aid station, getting rehydrated, etc. I also never put any expectations on the day. I never told myself that there was a limit. Sure, I had a time goal in mind but I didn’t use it as a crux or definite. It was merely there as motivational hope, not a disappointment. I took what the day gave me and never asked for anything more and never gave anything less.
I also couldn’t have done it without an incredible crew and two amazing pacers. One of which suffered through 40 miles with me and happened to hit the biggest mileage week of her running career in doing so, and never once did I hear her complain. It looks like I’ll have some favors to return in the near future.
I will bask in the glow of this accomplishment for a few weeks. Now that I have one under my belt, I might be able to look at things a little more competitively. But my take away from this race was that it was fun. I loved every minute of the race and trails gave me so much energy while I was out there. I’m gaining a love and appreciation for my ability to traverse mountain terrain at fast speeds that I never thought I would have. And as weird as it sounds, I’m writing this while planning out when I’ll be able to run next and not if, but when the next 100 mile adventure will be. But until then, happy trails.
Nutrition- VFuel Peach Cobbler/Vanilla gels, Pop Tarts, Justin’s Choc. Hazelnut butter and lots of coke
Clothes- Team New Balance split shorts
Kicks- New Balance MT1210 “The Leadville” (Yes, I ran the Leadville at Leadville)
Headgear- VisorBuff (best thing ever!)
Socks- Injinji 2.0 mid crew (not a SINGLE blister!)
Pack- Ultraspire Quantum belt
Time to lay down and soak in the victory… I tend to get really emotional at finish lines
And this is why… I have an awesome crew and pacers!!!
The legend: Scott Jurek
Job well done… time to head home