Monday, August 24, 2015

Pacing Matt Curtis at Leadville

On Saturday, I paced Matt Curtis at the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run. I met up with him at the turnarond at Winfield, a ghost town located at mile 50, and then paced him over Hope Pass and into Twin Lakes. Matt was on fire coming into Winfield, arriving ~8 hours and 45 minutes into the race. Always a tough competitor, Matt looked focused and ready for the challenge--a challenge he knows well because this was his sixth Leadville.

I have known Matt since I was seven years-old. He was, I think, five, when we first met in the early eighties. Our parents were very close friends and we all lived in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community situated between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, DC. Matt, his sister Caroline, and I ran cross-country for the Howard County Junior Striders and our team even went to the Junior Olympics (despite my crappy showing at the qualifier at Slippery Rock State College) in (I believe) 1986. We took vacations together and during the summer went on occasional day trips.

Except for a few visits here and there, we all went in separate directions when my family moved away in 1987. But then in 2010, when my family and I moved to Colorado, Matt and I re-connected (he had been living in Colorado for five years when we moved here), got to talking and ultimately found that running remained a common bond after all these years. We both signed up for Leadville (his first ultra!) and never looked back. Because of busy schedules, we don't get together much, but we've gone on some fun training runs, like a rather interesting adventure with Jason Romero in June 2010 from Twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery with a wrong turn that took us up Mount Elbert. We ran out of water and things got dicey (we drank from streams), but we persevered.

So on Saturday, when I met up with my old friend at Winfield, I took comfort in the fact that I know this man well. I know how tough he is (very tough) and how deep he'll dig (very deep). I know he'll fight tooth and nail and never give up. This is a guy who, with grit, guts and determination, WON the freaking Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2014 and, over the past few years, has worked himself up to a top-10, sub-20-hour-caliber runner at Leadville--select company. Just as I started to lose a step to aging and my stomach started giving me fits in 100s, Matt's running really took off. It's been fun watching him perform so brilliantly even though there's still an element of friendly competition between us.

Anyway, back to Leadville. From Winfield, we got right to work on the rolling Sheep Gulch Trail connecting up with the Hope Pass climb. Matt was running strong and drinking pretty well. The climb up Hope...well, what else to say except it's a monster. That climb has a few sections where the grade is more than 40% and you gain 2,000+ feet in two miles. It's a murderous 2,600-vertical-foot climb to the top of the 12,600-foot pass. But Matt battled and got up to the top and then just hammered it back down. Not far down the pass on the the front side, as I was working to keep up with him, I suddenly lost my footing (again, we were hammering it!) and fell on my right hand. I honestly thought I had broken my hand but then a few minutes later the pain subsided and I was OK. Matt was on fire going into Hopeless!

When we came into Hopeless, he needed his bottles filled and I stopped to take care of it while he quickly got some soda and then took off. Unfortunately, the water dispenser was temporarily down and there was a line of people waiting for it to be fixed. Meanwhile, Matt was already a few hundred meters down the mountain. Realizing that, if I didn't get out of here soon, I wouldn't catch up to him, I got his bottles filled with GU and took off down the trail as fast as I could run! Finally, about five minutes later I caught up to him and reported on the fiasco, knowing he'd be disappointed because this far in the race you need not just calories but also water. "Hey, bro," I said, "I have good news and bad news." "What?" he asked. "The good news is that I got a bunch of Roctane so we're OK on calories. The bad news is that the water machine was broken so we don't have any water."

Roctane notwithstanding, all I had was a bottle half full of creek water that Matt could use to douse himself, but we both decided he shouldn't drink from it.

So we hammered it down the pass and, before we knew it, were at the meadow making our way toward Twin Lakes. Matt ran the meadow and through the water crossings super strong and got into the aid station at 3:30pm (11:30 into the race) looking tired but good and determined. My pacing duties were done and it was a good thing because my quads were singing a bit from the Pikes Peak Marathon six days earlier! From Twin Lakes, he had two other very capable runners--both old college cross country buddies (one of whom is his brother-in-law)--to help him get to the finish.

Matt went on to battle hard and earn yet another big buckle. He might not have had the race he wanted this time around but he nonetheless battled hard and got it done. His grit was inspiring.

A few things I learned from the weekend:
  1. Being focused but relaxed and pleasant is critical. My friend, Chuck Radford, who ran an 18:43 and finished fourth overall, looked so smooth coming into and out of aid stations. The entire vibe with him and his crew was one of quiet confidence but also levity, like when his crew chief, AJ, jokingly asked for a kiss at Outward Bound inbound after Chuck kissed his wife and kids. You never detected any distress even though Chuck was suffering like everyone else. Chuck was so dialed in and as cool as a cucumber. This is a guy who's in his forties, works full-time, has a family, doesn't get enough sleep (I'm in this category for sure), etc. Amazing!
  2. Water is the foundation upon which a solid nutrition plan is built. It all starts with staying hydrated and having the right electrolyte balance.
  3. At the risk of stating the obvious, the key to Hope Pass is forward progress. Just keep moving, even if it's slowly. Stopping wastes precious time when the goal needs to be getting up and over the mountain as quickly as possible. Matt did a great job of moving up, over and back down the pass. His descending was very impressive.
  4. Only a few runners can truly compete at Leadville. You can be a very good runner and still under-achieve at Leadville; it's just one of those races. For most of us, the key is to run our own race. In a sport full of overachievers, it's easy to fixate on pacing goals and get sucked into what others are doing but you have to run your own race. If you run too hard, even in that first 13 miles to Mayqueen, you're going to pay for it at some point. Just stay within yourself and enjoy the day.
  5. Smile a lot. It changes your attitude, exudes confidence, and gives your crew the lift they need--which in turn helps you out as the runner. Smile because this is supposed to be fun!
One final thing that I've always known but I was reminded of yet again this past weekend: Leadville is an incredible experience and race. I know of no other race with the vibe Leadville offers. That's why I'll be back next year, lottery gods permitting. It's just an incredible experience.

Now, go run!

Friday, August 21, 2015

10 Reasons Why the Leadville 100 is Awesome

With it being Leadville week, I'm pretty pumped to have been quoted in this excellent Runner's World story about Lifetime Fitness' ownership of and aspirations for the race series. I'm sure not everyone will agree with my assessment and that's OK. I do want to say that, while I love the Leadville 100 with all of my heart, I also do have concerns. Its brand is growing so big, especially with a major motion picture in production, that I worry about demand far outstripping supply. I don't worry about Lifetime (it's a good company, folks) but the thought of a private equity firm owning Lifetime and, by extension, the Leadville Race Series does give me some pause.

But enough with that. It's race weekend and I wanted to use this opportunity to share my own 10 reasons why the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run is such an amazing experience for all.

10) Leadville is a kick-ass mountain town with a fascinating story. It's situated at 10,000 feet in the heart of the Rocky Mountains and you won't find a town in the US that has thrived and then struggled and then thrived in its own unique way more than Leadville. In places like Vail and Breck, everything is perfect. In places like Leadville, you see ruggedness and feel the ghosts of the past. The race was borne from Leadville's "boom and bust" history. Plus, right there before you are two of Colorado's highest peaks, Mounts Massive and Elbert.

9) The course is challenging but runnable. Some people love hiking courses and others like to run the whole way. What I most love about Leadville is that it's mostly runnable but it throws enough good climbs at you, most notably Hope Pass in both directions, to keep you honest. The biggest challenge with Leadville, though, isn't the course or even the distance; it's the altitude, which leads me to #8.

Me with that "what just ran over me?" look after coming
into Twin Lakes inbound at the 2010 race.

8) It's all between 9,200 feet and 12,600 feet. With the exception of Hardrock, you won't find a 100-miler out there that takes you so high for so far. That's why it's called "The Race Across the Sky."

7) Despite what a few naysayers claim, the Leadville 100 is fundamentally the same race today as it was under Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin's watch. The course is pretty much identical to what it was back in the day. Sure, there are some differences, like the new trail into and out of Winfield and the new aid station at the top of Powerline. Plus, there's the grass section between Outward Bound and Pipeline (I'm not a fan of this change) and the re-route that the helicopter crash near Halfmoon forced a few years ago. But it's still fundamentally the same course. It still has the same power that it's always had; now it's just a bit bigger because of the McDougall book and the Lifetime brand.

6) You earn a seriously badass belt buckle if you finish in under 25 hours. See above. You could eat a Thanksgiving dinner on one of those things. Some people say they don't care about their buckles. When I'm 90 and broken down, they'll mean something to me.

5) Hope Pass. In the middle of the race, you climb and descend over 12,000 feet in the span of 21 miles. That's a hefty amount of gain and loss and it comes smack-dab in the middle of the race, when you're starting to feel fatigued. Adding to the experience is the Hopeless aid station, where you're greeted by the friendliest volunteers and the famous llamas they use to transport supplies up the mountain.

Leadville Trail Marathon elevation profile.

4) If the 100-mile distance is a bit too much too soon, you can still experience the "holy sh$t" power of Leadville by signing up for the Silver Rush 50-Mile Run or the Leadville Trail Marathon. I've never done the 50 but I've done the marathon five times and it's a doozey, taking you through the old mining district and up and back down the 13,185-foot Mosquito Pass.

3) They give you ways to keep upping the ante. If you ever reach the point where the 100-mile run doesn't so much excite you anymore, then step right up and sign up for Leadman! Perhaps in a few years I'll be stupid enough to go the Leadman route.

View of Mt. Elbert from the Outward Bound aid station.

2) The Powerline climb. It's hands-down my favorite part of the course. Situated at the very time of the race when you're in the pain cave, Powerline either makes you or breaks you.

1) The motto of the race series provides the secret to finishing. It comes down to, "You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can." Another favorite: "Dig deep."

Bonus: It's often a family affair. Here's a photo of me with son at last year's race.

So there you have it. Enjoy the race, folks!

Now, go run!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Pikes Peak Marathon Race Report

When we moved to Colorado in April 2010, I couldn't believe my good fortune that there in my own "backyard" (an hour away) was the legendary Pikes Peak. Within two months of arriving in Parker, I drove down to Manitou Springs and summited Pikes, accidentally going off trail (by a lot), over icy ridges (again, off trail) and through waist-deep snow en route to the top (the date was June 6, 2010). I didn't realize at the time that what looked like only a little snow on the mountain was actually a lot of snow. It was an incredibly grueling experience, but one I'll never forget because it introduced me to the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Fast forward five years. This past Sunday, I ran in my first Pikes Peak Marathon, which I was told is the third oldest marathon in the USA (behind Boston and Yonkers). Someone also told me that in the early years it was a challenge between smokers and non-smokers. This was the sixtieth running of this iconic race, which takes you from the streets of beautiful, charming Manitou Springs (elevation 6,300 feet) up to the summit of the hulking 14,115-foot mountain. Very few mountains anywhere offer the absolute gratuitous vertical that Pikes does--almost 8,000 feet of gain from the starting line of the marathon to the top. But that's only half of the challenge. Once at the summit, you run back down--an abusive pounding of your legs and hips. As my friend Mike Wilkinson says, "it's two races--one to the top, one back down." How true.

The beautiful 60th anniversary jacket and finishers medal they gave me on Sunday.
Although I've summited Pikes on two occasions (the last one being October of 2010), it's been almost five years since I was last at the top by my own power. In my last two or three summit bids, the weather forced me to turn back. Happily, I know the trail from the base up to A-Frame (which is right at treeline) quite well, so going into Sunday's race I felt comfortable with the thought of running to the top of Pikes and then back down. I had also made a point to read the many race reports George Zack has posted over the years to his blog. What I wasn't sure of was how the actual race would transpire for me. This being my first Pikes, I decided to be humble and let the race come to me, instead of jetting out of town and then crashing and burning from oxygen debt by Barr Camp--a trap many runners, even the good ones, fall into.

The Barr Trail sign at the base of Pikes. Taken in June 2010.

Before I go any further, I'll just put it out there: I finished in 5 hours, 39 minutes and 23 seconds--good for 71st out of almost 800 finishers. Not bad for a guy who's 42-years-old. As I've aged, I'm come to gain such a deep appreciation for being out there in these races and giving it a go. I'm grateful for the gift of running. No longer do I fixate on my times, though time is important to me. What I fixate on now is just the joy of doing these crazy races, and I try to maintain the deepest gratitude for the fact that my 42-year-old body still lets me run up and back down a 14,115-foot mountain with no issues at all--my quads were steel. My stomach also held up beautifully, which was such a confidence-booster after the Bighorn debacle. I think the key to my good stomach was that I'd hydrated really well in the week leading up to Pikes. I drank a lot of water. I also think my pacing on Sunday was smart. I needed a race with no stomach issues and got it on Sunday.

I took this photo on my first summit of Pikes in June 2010. Impressive, eh?

I also want to say that when I think of this race I think of Matt Carpenter. In his prime, Carpenter operated on a level I think we've never seen since. To do what he did on Pikes, at the Leadville 100 and at many other races is just crazy. People will say Kilian is just as good, if not better. Having seen Matt in action at the Barr Trail Mountain Race in 2010 (and heard lots of stories about his course record at the 2005 Leadville), I can say that the guy knew how to drop the hammer and crush his competition. Whereas Kilian has been known to wait at aid stations and kind of lolly-gag en route to new CRs like at Hardrock, Carpenter's MO (from what I've heard) was to just put his head down and hammer it from start to finish, living in the pain cave the whole time. I'm not sure Kilian could mentally deal with Carpenter if you put both athletes on the same course with Carpenter being in his prime, but maybe he could? Having said that, on Sunday I was looking for the now-retired Carpenter--thinking he might be spectating--but never saw him. I wanted to tip my cap to him (not that he'd care). The dude is a legend and I simply don't understand the times he put up back in the day.

So, in the final analysis, my result on Sunday was respectable but not great. I know that. With the benefit of some experience, I feel I could take off at least 20 minutes if I went back next year. The thing about Pikes is that it exploits so badly my big weakness as a runner. I'm not a good descender at all. If you put me on a hilly course with lots of ups and downs, then I'm pretty good. But if I have to descend a mountain for 13 miles, it's going to be tough for me. I spent the first almost 37 years of my life at sea level. My confidence on rocky mountain trails just isn't great. In the summer of 2013, having spent every day on trails, my confidence on descents was good. It's really a game of repetition. I wish I had rocky trails closer by. That's a long way of saying I'm OK with my result on Sunday because I understand who I am: A guy who works a full-time job, has a family, and lives in the suburbs. I think I could improve on my time by a good bit, but I'm happy and content with what I did on Sunday. Like I said above, I'm just grateful that my body lets me run in these races. A lot of 42-year-old men are broken down and sit around talking about the gold old days. Not me. I'm living the good old days now.

In summary, I feel like I ran a smart race. Here's how it broke down in sections:

Start (6,300 ft.) to Barr Camp (10,200 ft.): Right before the gun went off, I had the pleasure of talking for a short bit with Jeff Valliere (who I'd never met but whose blog I check now and then), JT, and Brandon Fuller. I also had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Reed, who I know through my work. It was good to chat it up a bit with the guys. But we all had work to do! Starting in wave two, I ran this section mostly at or below MAF. I was never breathing hard and kept my heart rate under control because the last thing I wanted was to go into oxygen debt. I got to Barr Camp, which is about halfway up the mountain, in 1:38 feeling fresh and good. A lot of people around me were breathing very hard. This being my first Pikes, I felt it was important to get to Barr Camp in good shape and then let it all come to me. The weather thus far was great, which was a relief because the forecast called for scattered thunderstorms.

Barr Camp (10,200 ft.) to A Frame (11,950 ft.): Again, I felt good in this section and stayed in an aerobic state. I hiked a few sections but ran much of this stretch. I got to A-Frame, which is an emergency shelter right at treeline, in 2:23. A-Frame is at mile 10.2. It could be said I was sandbagging it a bit as I was aerobic at nearly 12,000 feet, but I really wanted to save "something" for the section above treeline because I knew it would be terribly difficult. I noticed that the sky started getting cloudy but I saw no immediate threats from Mother Nature. All good.

A Frame (11,950 ft.) to the summit (14,115 ft.): From A Frame to about 13,000 feet, I felt reasonably good. At one point, I even teased JT about hiking when this was a running race. JT went on to have a really strong race, besting me by 14 minutes. But then above 13,000 feet it got really hard. That high, the trail is rocky; the frontrunners are coming back down (meaning you have to yield to them); and you're operating at about 50% mental capacity. It's really a game of just putting one foot in front of the other and remaining calm. I got passed by a few runners in the last mile to the summit but I didn't let it get to me. I finally reached the summit in 3:29--not bad. I remember thinking when I took my first step back down, "Overall, I'm doing OK because I've run a smart race so far. My legs are tired but they'll give me what I need for the next 13+ miles. Let's do it." I also knew a sub-5 was probably not going to happen. So my new goal was sub-5:10.

Summit (14,115 ft.) to A Frame (11,950 ft.): In a word, bad. The crowded trail as I was descending really got to me. Or, I should say I let it get to me. There were hundreds of runners coming up (about 700 coming up) as I was going down and it was difficult to dodge folks even as the vast majority yielded (as you're supposed to do). Still, a few didn't yield and we bumped shoulders. I found the section from the summit down to about the Cirque to be maddeningly congested. Some runners can deal with this quite well; for me, it was a slog. After the Cirque (13,300 ft.), the trail got a bit less congested and my pace picked up. Still, my quads were a bit weak and I started to worry. I decided the weakness wasn't about a lack of strength or shot quads; it was about the thin air! I got into A Frame in a piss-poor 4:08. Sub 5:10 was now doubtful. Maybe sub-5:20?

A Frame (11,950 ft.) to Barr Camp (10,200 ft.): The crappy descending continued though my speed had improved a little. The trail was far less congested so I had no excuse for my slow descent other than it plain sucked. I'm just a really crappy descender. The mental fog that had come over me above 13K was now mostly gone and my legs started to feel better. I got into Barr Camp in 4:36. I looked at my watch and knew a sub-5:20 would be tough. But I remember thinking to myself, "Let's see what we can do in the next 24 minutes and then we'll take it from there." As I got two waters (one to drink and one to pour over my head), an aid station volunteer looked me in the eyes and said, "You can do this, Wyatt." She meant it and I appreciated her encouragement. That's how the volunteers at Pikes work; they show a lot of love. When you're the man in the arena, it means a lot.

Barr Camp (10,200 ft.) to finish (6,300 ft.): This is where I really opened things up by my own standards and felt good about my pace. I got some relief from a nice rain now coming down (which also kicked up the humidity a ton). My legs were singing a little but overall my quads were there for me and never let me down. I was in the pain cave but I knew I could stay here for a while and that I faced no threat of bonking, etc. between here and the finish. I wanted to catch that SOB, JT! A few times I glanced at my watch and saw that I was at sub-7-minute pace and it felt good. My visits at the aid stations below Barr Camp were very short and a few I ran right by. Once five hours rolled around, I did the math and realized I was probably looking at a time of 5:40-5:45. I was going to take it into the finish as hard as I could. I passed a few runners (most of them much younger than I), especially on the handful of sections where the trail flattens out and even goes up for a bit. They were walking in these sections and I just blew right by them. While the speed was iffy on Sunday, the endurance was totally there. When finally at the top of Ruxton (the street that takes you into the finish), I felt so glad that the end was near. I was happy. That steep hill down Ruxton that takes you past Hydro Street was tough but once at the bottom I was able to keep it about 7:10-7:20 pace. I had incorrectly thought the finish was where the start was but I was wrong. The finish was a lot closer; it was just off the roundabout and actually startled me a bit. What a sight!

The 1.5-mile walk back to my car wasn't so much fun.....

So there you have it. This was a phenomenal race. The organizers have every detail dialed and the volunteers were wonderful. I even got a beautiful jacket and medal. What more could I ask for?

Because I plan to return to Leadville next year, I have no idea when I'll toe the line for Pikes again, but when I do it'll be to double (Ascent on Saturday, Marathon on Sunday). I can honestly say this was one of the best-run races I've ever participated in and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Now, go run.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Last Minute Tips for Leadville 100 Runner

With the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run a little over a week away, I wanted to offer a few tips to the lucky runners who will be lining up at 6th and Harrison streets next Saturday morning at 4am. I won't be in the race this year (but next year I will be!) but I'll be up there pacing and helping where I can. For me, this year is about giving, not getting.

Anyway, over the years, I've made lots of mistakes at Leadville, so accept what follows as wisdom gleaned from many foul ups! Also, check out the entire Leadville section I have on this blog. There, you can read detailed descriptions of the first half and second half.

1) Stay hydrated. The race is between 9,200-12,600 feet. That high up, you lose a ton of water. The problem is that you don't realize it because your sweat evaporates super fast in that dry heat. So go into the race well-hydrated and stay well-hydrated throughout.

2) Whatever you do, get out of Winfield. Winfield is the halfway point of the race, right smack-dab in the middle of the Hope Pass double-crossing. When you get to Winfield, you might be thinking, "Holy hell, I have to cross that damned mountain again! How am I gonna do it?" You might even want to drop. Don't. Get out of Winfield and just dig deep as you go up the backside of Hope. It'll get better.

3) Never, ever drop at Twin Lakes inbound (mile 60). When you come into Twin Lakes, you might be reeling from the Hope Pass section. Sit down and regroup if you need some time. Whatever you do, don't drop! Based on the numbers alone, the odds are great that if you get out of Twin Lakes you will finish the race.

4) Have plenty of warm clothing for the nighttime hours. By warm clothing, I'm not talking about a long-sleeve tech tee. I'm talking about insulated tights, an insulated jacket, thick gloves/mittens, and an insulated hat. The temperature at Leadville can get into the 30s---even 20s--at night. The last 13 miles, which take you along the lake and into town, are especially cold. Be prepared. If you leave Mayqueen with little on and it's still dark outside, you'll soon find yourself in deep trouble.

5) Soak it all in and have fun. It's easy to get so focused that you miss the scenery and don't have fun. Here are a few spots where you should make a point to look around you and smile: Going up Sugarloaf pass on the outbound trip (the sunrise is spectacular); right after the Outward Bound aid station, look to the west and you'll see Colorado's two highest peaks--Mount Elbert and Mount Massive; and the top of Hope Pass (both ways), which is in my opinion one of the prettiest views in Colorado (see video below).

Bonus: No matter how bad it gets, remember these words: "You are better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can." The key to Leadville is living those words and "digging deep."

There's a lot more but those are the key tips I wanted to share. Chime in if you have some other tips of your own!

Good luck!