Leadville Trail 100 founders Ken and Merilee
I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how experienced you are or how perfectly your training has played out, no 100 mile finish is guaranteed. While “Speedgoat” Karl Meltzer claims that “100 miles isn’t that far”, a lot can and will happen over the course a 100 mile run. Completing a 100 race is about patience, planning, and constant problem solving. But until you are out there running, you never know what will happen. This year at the Leadville 100 I had trained well, planned thoroughly, and with my crew and pacers addressed each minor challenge that arose but it wasn’t until I started climbing the “boulevard” at mile 95 that I felt 100% confident I would finish.
This is my lengthy race report. I had an amazing amount of clarity for the entirety of the race. Many of the details seem superfluous but are ones I want to always remember.
My 2018 Leadville 100 was all about redemption. After earning a DNF in 2017 by missing the cutoff at Outward Bound, I wasn’t sure I still had the physical or mental capacity to stay focused and make the tight cutoffs. I knew I needed help so I hired a coach and followed her training plan almost obsessively.
My coach, Lori Bulwith is not an elite coach but definitely a badass athlete who is an an ultra runner and a triple ironman finisher. As an experienced endurance athlete and a fitness trainer, Lori incorporated heart rate workouts that kept me balanced and healthy while ensuring that I didn’t overtrain and get to the start line exhausted. Having her in my corner gave me renewed confidence.
While the heart rate based training took away a lot of the relaxed spontaneity that I love about trail running, it helped me develop a new mental focus. Having to think about my running kept me fully present. It also revealed that even after over 20 years of running, I had no sense of what kind of effort my body was truly producing.
To be very honest, I was intimidated by 90% of my workouts. It wasn’t the distance that scared me, it was the intensity that made me nervous. Whether it was 5 miles or 50, each one was a small triumph and strengthened my resolve.
I won’t write about my specific training but here are some pictures of the highlights.
Most memorable day climbing 14ers Mount Massive and Mount Elbert (24 miles 9,100 feet of gain)
Steamboat RRR course (28 miles, 6,563 feet of gain)
14ers Columbia and Harvard (15.5 miles, 6,100 feet of gain)
Hill repeats on Loveland Pass at 12,000 feet
14ers Redcloud and Sunshine (13.5 miles, 5,300 feet of gain)
So flash forward to race day.
At the start with Raquel and Don
And we’re off…
I’d slept well, which meant I at least got 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep. I felt calm and centered as I lined up at the start. I stood next to Val Zajac, a friend and grand slammer My eyes teared up as the national anthem played. I felt like this was my first 100 miler and wanted to soak it all in. When the shotgun blast sounded, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as my legs did their thing.
Val and I chatted as we ran down the road. I hadn’t run with her all summer and was happily catching up on news. I was careful to check my heart rate frequently so I wouldn’t run too hard during these downhill miles. Val commented that she felt terrible (this was already her 3rd 100 miler since June) so we slowed down a little.
Around Turquoise Lake I was thrilled that I’d found my own little bubble. There was a group about 200 yards in front of me and nobody directly behind me so I could clearly see the trail ahead and didn’t feel pressured to push the pace faster than I liked. I “whooped” for Kurt who was taking photos near the boat ramp, but didn’t get a response. Somewhere along this stretch I lost Val but I knew she’d catch up once we hit smoother ground. I savored these miles and the beauty of the sun rising over the lake.
Emerging from the May Queen aid station felt like encountering of those “soccer parent tunnels” that went on and on and on. It had a surreal feel after the solitude of the lake. While the crowd was overwhelming, the cheering was energizing.
The short stretch of trail up to Hagerman Pass Road is one of my favorite sections and it passed too quickly. I noticed my heart rate had settled down as I ran most of the lower section of road. I enjoyed being on the dirt road because it gave me a chance to relax and chat with other runners. I met runners from Chicago, Littleton, Iowa, Minnesota, and Boulder. With the sun fully up we could see darker clouds moving in. The wind started gusting around us. The forecast had said we’d get rain and I hoped it would hold off at least until we were off the high point.
For the first time in all the years I’ve run the race, as I ran this section I paid attention to some of the details of the trail. I wanted to have specific landmarks to keep me motivated during the night. This year I wanted to stay more focused during the night so I wouldn’t resemble a zombie or sleepwalker.
Outward Bound was also a zoo but the spectators were corralled behind fences. Since I had so many tasks: fill my water, use the port-a-potties, pull out my jacket and plastic gloves, get some snacks, drop my trash, get vaseline; I felt very disorganized and must have looked confused. I’d wander back and forth through the aid station with no real sense of direction. I did accomplish all my jobs and headed out to the gopher field and the imminent rainstorm. Not surprisingly, with her speedy legs, Val passed me. She had found her groove. She said she had wanted to drop out before May Queen but was feeling much better now. I ran with her for a little bit but needed to drop back.
Rain started falling and I put on my jacket and rubber gloves. I was being extra careful and didn’t want to chance getting soaked and cold. The rain made this normally hot stretch runnable. I could tell all the long flat runs and track workouts Lori had incorporated into my training were paying off. Not only was I running the flats, I was enjoying them.
My favorite memory of this section was meeting a Leadman who told me that Iowa has 7 times as many hogs as people. He was proud that ALL the bacon from the Bourbon and Bacon Festival in Denver was from Iowa. Ironically he was vegetarian. For some reason learning these bits of trivia made me gleeful all the way to Twin Lakes. (Maybe there was something other than water in the water . . . ) I felt a sense of camaraderie with the runners around me like we were all pooling our energy to get to Twin Lakes.
Twin Lakes 1 Photo credit Leslie Jones Cortright
Twin Lakes was a HUGE party complete with tents and cowbells. I was overwhelmed! With an uncharacteristic laser focus I was able to fill my pack, restock food, eat a variety of foods (including my tailwind spiked with coffee), and even think ahead about what I would need once I returned. I loved seeing Terri, Leigh, Abby and Lisa. The huge hug from Abby was like an energy boost. As I headed away from my crew I was pleasantly surprised to hear them calling out Val’s name! I was stoked she and I could climb up Hope Pass together.
Obviously we were having fun crossing the river. I don’t remember why I was laughing but this picture shows the way I felt 90% of the race.
Next up was the first climb up Hope Pass. I have an odd relationship with this mountain. I LOVE going uphill and think Hope is beautiful but it seems to always undo my confidence. While some would argue it’s because it is 40 miles into the race, I think it is because my expectations don’t match my actual experience. I expect this to be the best part of the race and when it is not, my mind turns against me. Also, because I consider climbing to be my strength, I have a tendency to compete with other runners in a way I don’t on any other part of the course.
To counteract this mental mismatch, I’d intentionally prepared myself for two LONG, difficult climbs by telling myself how hard it would be. I also reminded myself that the goal was to maintain equal efforts out and back. Strangely this twisted way of thinking worked. I was moving steadily and staying alert to the leaders zooming by on the trail. It was exciting to see Rob Krar bouncing down the trail.
I will admit I had one moment when I was envious of a runner who passed me like I was standing still. Less than 10 minutes later when I saw him sharing his lunch with the trees, I realized sticking to my plan and not worrying about my pace had its benefits.
LOVE this Hope Pass crew photo credit Jenn Coker
Thank you Jenn Coker for the HUGE smile and photo at the top of Hope Pass.
Descending down the back side was fun especially seeing all the friendly faces heading back up. I tried to draw energy from the other runners in order to avoid thinking about the rolling section of trail that separated Hope from Winfield. Often this was one of the mentally toughest stretches for me. While I maintained an average pace, I made the BIG mistake of not drinking enough. When I finally reached the aspen grove that marked the descent into Winfield I felt a sense of relief.
Kurt met me in Winfield. He filled my empty water bladder, gave me food, and his upbeat energy shifted my mood immediately. I was able to run most of miles to the base of the climb (something I’ve never been able to do). I didn’t eat quite enough but with his encouragement kept snacking. Kurt definitely looked the part of the mule, carrying both our fully loaded packs, one on his front and one on his back.
The climb was steady and Kurt chatted constantly with everyone. I think I might have uttered a total of 10 words during this stretch but I was saving all my energy (and responses) for the downhill. The beauty of having an experienced pacer is that Kurt totally understood my silence and didn’t take it personally. He knew I was putting all my effort into climbing. Based on my energy level I knew I had paced myself well to this point and would be able to run down into Twin Lakes. That was a comforting thought.
Around mile 53 between Winfield and Hope Pass 2 photo credit Kurt Hardester
As hard as this section felt, looking back, it was one of my favorite parts of the race. I soaked up Kurt’s encouraging words, his funny banter, the beautiful scenery, and being in a place I love. Once we reached the prayer flags at the top of Hope Pass, I kissed Kurt and started the descent. Our roles shifted as his body protested and caused dry heaving. (A common reaction I was used to whenever we climbed up high). The runners ahead of us were trying to block out the awful sounds and Kurt reassured them that this was normal for him. It was a funny moment and once the heaving stopped, we both laughed.
The run down was wonderful! I could finally chat and I responded to all his conversation from the uphill section to prove I was listening. (Inside joke with Kurt – He had asked, “With Leadville over, what will we do next Saturday? In my head I had the perfect response and couldn’t wait until we were running downhill to tell him.) We made it to the river before dusk. YAY! Once we were across I sent Kurt ahead to alert the crew and Lisa, my next pacer.
In Twin Lakes I always feel like the most ADHD/spastic person trying to do 10 things at once. This year was no exception. I got my bra on backwards (but luckily Leigh helped fix that). She was like a patient mom dressing a 2-year old. I had my shorts on backwards (which I did not discover until Outward Bound). After I ate and got my lights I even tried to leave with my shoes untied. At least they were on the right feet. (I do recall an “R rated conversation” between Lisa, Raquel, and Kurt that even now makes me giggle. Another fun little memory from a race full of goofy moments).
As Lisa and I climbed out of Twin Lakes, I could tell my climbing legs were fatigued but vowed to run more of the downhills and flats to make up for any loss of time. I hadn’t seen Lisa in a few weeks so I was excited to have hours and hours to catch up with her. Lisa is the kindest friend you could ever have and I appreciated that even though she’d suffered through pacing me at previous 100s (with a mix of happy and miserable experiences) she was willing to take on the hardest section of this run.
I loved how she cheered for every runner who passed us (and there were A LOT) and her voice was like a spot of sunshine during the night. When we reached the Mount Elbert water stop it was great seeing our friend Sean Cook. I think Sean and the aid station workers thought I was wacky when I whipped out a toothbrush and started brushing my teeth. I’d forgotten to do this earlier and was hopeful that having clean teeth would allow me to regain my appetite. Sadly it didn’t work. Even though I wasn’t eating much, Lisa consistently kept encouraging me to try any kind of food.
The funniest part of our run was when she offered me a chewable antacid. While I sensed eating one was a bad idea, I thought I should at least try to see if it helped. settle my stomach. I chewed, and chewed, and chewed, trying to will myself to swallow but my body refused and it ended up as squirrel food on the side of the trail. While I couldn’t laugh at it in that moment, I did find it comical. Later we repeated this same process with neon blue caffeine gum. I did sort of worry that hurling unnaturally colored food on the side of the trail might be considered littering and I might be disqualified. (I might have to check the runner’s manual.)
Every year I become more and more convinced the Half Moon aid station is only a mirage. No matter which way you approach it or if it is day or night, it seems to suddenly appear out of nowhere.
Outward Bound Aid station with Neil Smith photo credit Lisa Mansfield
I’m amazed how happy we look at this point in the race. Look! I’m holding soup because I was trying to be an obedient runner. As we walked out of Half Moon, the rain started. We put on pants and jackets and hoped it would subside before we got soaked. I felt proud of myself for not only layering my jackets but especially for asking my crew for my heavy coat for this section. Having the rain seemed good because it forced me to just put my head down and run in order to stay warm and get to Outward Bound as fast as possible. I was staying warm but I think poor Lisa was turning into a popsicle.
We reached Outward Bound and planned to go inside so Lisa could change into a dry shirt and I could try to eat. I sat in the back of the aid station watching dazed and frozen runners come in to sit by the heater. I could feel my body start to shiver and the hint of fatigue tugging at my eyes … so I stood up and told Lisa we had to go. She agreed. We waved at my friend Andrew who was serving hot soup to the frozen runners and followed the string of headlights toward power line.
Once we started the grind up power line, I shifted all my energy into climbing. Head down, arms pumping, legs screaming… I wasn’t fast but I was moving up. Lisa kept offering me snacks and tailwind but I wasn’t taking much. She was quiet but kept encouraging runners and meeting people. I loved it. Finally, since I was stumbling around so much she tried a new tack, caffeine pills. Since I figured I had to do something, I agreed.
As we continued to climb, I felt the sleepwalker’s fog lift a little. Lisa had rescued me AGAIN! Once I was walking and thinking clearly, I worried that I didn’t hear the music and horns in the distance from the informal, psychedelic aid station at the top of the climb. Luckily we rounded a corner and there were blow up alien dolls and 100s of glow sticks lining the trail.
Yes there are aliens on Hope Pass Photo credit Dan Spale
Lisa had the great idea of turning off her light to get the full effect of the glow sticks. I appreciate how she always takes in the whole experience and reminds me to enjoy these simple moments, even if I’m not feeling fabulous. She even noticed when Scott Jurek went by with his runner. She called out his name and he turned to talk to us. She complimented his kindness and patience earlier with all his fans and he graciously accepted her praise. I wish I’d had the exchange on video.
As we trotted down the road I started to realize the night was ending soon and I had a good chance of finishing. I still wasn’t 100% confident but knew I could relax a little. I loved taking on the technical section into May Queen even though I had started to notice an ache in my left arch. Wanting to be proactive, I asked Lisa for a tylenol once we reached the road.
As soon as we emerged onto the road two things registered: #1 It was dark still! #2 I could hear Kurt’s voice. Both were reasons to celebrate! I wasn’t sure Kurt would be here but it was a bonus getting to see him with Abby. They had gotten up early to meet us and that meant a lot. They also gave me updates on our friends Don and Raquel who had both finished under 25 hours to earn their big buckles.
Lisa searched for the tylenol but sadly she couldn’t find one. She apologized but I knew with only 13 miles left my foot would have to fall off before I’d stop.
Saying good bye to Lisa was a little sad because she’d pulled me through but I knew she was happy to go get warmed up and get some sleep. She’d more than earned it.
At May Queen my next pacer was my friend and coach Lori. She had never been to the race so I was excited to have her join me for the final miles. She must have thought we were crazy as my crew desperately searched for my sunglasses. In her nonchalant way, Lori asked, “Kurt, those don’t happen to be Laurie’s sunglasses on your head?” We all laughed. As we headed onto the trail, Kurt encouraged me to run as much as I could. While I thought I had plenty of time to make it to the finish, for some reason this comment planted a seed of doubt and made me worry about if I was moving too slowly.
Lori chatted animatedly about the race and kept me entertained. She had fantastic stories about her work, her niece, and her triple ironman race. Since the trail wasn’t steep I could participate in the conversation rather than just listen. She convinced me to drink some tailwind and when it didn’t make me gag, I agreed to keep sipping it. There was a light fog over the lake that shimmered in the sunlight.
At least a mile out from the boat ramp I could hear Kurt whooping and hollering. Except for my first and 2nd time running the race, I’d never had my crew come to the boat ramp so this was a special treat. We also ran into our friend Milan who was running around the lake and greeting the tired runners. Most of the people we saw along this stretch congratulated us, telling us we had it made. (Honestly though, in my head I still wasn’t sure if this was true).
When we got to the sandy beach sections, the nagging pain in my foot turned into piercing pain. I’d suddenly cry out and Lori would stop short. She offered me ibuprofen but even with the end so near, I refused since I suspected it would make me even more nauseous. Lori looked concerned but I assured her it was not a big deal. I was going to finish and the pain wasn’t that bad. I would just have to be careful about not pushing off too hard or stepping down on a rock the wrong way.
Even though we didn’t have far to go and I knew instinctively I was going to finish, I kept obsessively asking Lori about the time, pace and mileage. I was doing calculations in my head to be sure we wouldn’t come in after 30:00. She was patient with me and gave me details and reassured me that we were fine. I was grateful for her calm way of keeping me focused.
As we ran on the dirt road, Val and her pacer Raquel came up from behind. I was SO happy to see them. I knew Val had been about 45 minutes behind me earlier but she had gotten a second wind and was looking really strong! I wanted to run with her but her turnover on the flat section was much faster than mine.
It wasn’t until we started climbing the boulevard that I was 100% convinced I would finish. My legs kicked into gear and we climbed the steepest section with gusto. I watched the runners around me and tried to keep pace or pass them just to keep myself occupied and moving steadily. When we reached a spot where we could see the high school, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was smiling ear to ear with tears running down my cheeks.
Heading to the finish with Lori photo credit Kurt Hardester
Kurt and Abby were at the road and came up to meet us and join us for the final mile. As we looked up ahead, there was Val. We congratulated each other and kept pushing toward the finish. Having her next to me made me cry even more because we had started side-by-side, crossed the river together, and now would finish together. We finished in 29:23.
Leadville 2018 finishing with Val photo credit Kurt Hardester
The whole crew! So much love and inspiration in this group. photo credit Kurt Hardester
I could not have made it without this guy, my husband, and second coach, Kurt.
Could not have made it without this guy! photo credit Lisa Mansfield
My dad, the man who got me started in running and gave me the grit to do ultras. At 81 he still plays softball and drove up just to see me finish. He’s my hero.
My hero, my dad photo credit Lisa Mansfield