[Note: I wrote this article prior to the Leadville Trail 100 taking place. Unfortunately I was unable to post it before the actual event. So, I am keeping it written as is and posting it now. I plan to write a follow up article about how the actual event went and my experience being there. ]
My friend Andy is running in the Leadville Trail 100 mile race. He asked Abigail and myself, along with a few others, to help crew and pace for him. Abigail unfortunately had to decline due to her pregnancy, but I accepted his offer and request. In preparation I have taken a few measures to not only ensure that I am ready, but to also ensure Andy himself is ready.
The Leadville Trail 100 is, as the name implies, a 100 mile trail race throughout the small former mining town of Leadville Colorado. Fun fact, at 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city and second highest incorporated municipality in the country. The race allows for pacers after 50 miles, has a 30 hour cutoff time, and ranges in elevation from 9,000 to 12,600 feet. Andy asked myself and one other friend to split up pacing him. We will each run two different legs totaling around 25 miles.
Prepping Myself Physically
The biggest physical obstacle I will face is the fact that the entire race is above 9,000 feet of elevation. Unfortunately there is nothing remotely close to this in southern TN, so as much as I would love to have an altitude tent to sleep in, I just bought a house and have a kid on the way so I’m a bit out of luck prepping for that. The best thing I figured I could do is continue training on my local trails to maintain fitness and get some decent elevation gain in on my long runs. Well, that all sounds nice and dandy but life happens sometimes. My training to maintain my fitness could have gone a little better. I didn’t get quite as many good long trail runs in as I would have liked. I’m not starting from scratch with zero fitness going into this though, and Andy will have just run 50+ miles before I even take off down the trail with him, so the pace isn’t going to be blistering. With that said, running at elevation is a huge unknown for me and I’m interested to see how my body handles it.
I arrived in Colorado on Thursday, with the race starting early Saturday morning at 4 AM. I estimate I’ll be starting to run my first leg with Andy between 8-10 PM Saturday night, so I will have had two and a half days to “acclimate” before actually running. I may do a very short light run before to test the body out and knock off the travel rust. Andy fortunately has been able to be out Colorado for three weeks, which is an optimal amount of time to get one’s body acclimated.
The aid stations are relatively farther apart than the races I’m used to and the weather can change on a dime from what I’ve been told. Couple that with the fact that I’m running a night section as well and my current go to race pack, the Orange Mud VP2, just wasn’t going to be able to handle my gear needs for this situation. Fortunately, the folks over at Orange Mud make a variety of packs for multiple race scenarios. I have been eyeing their 2L bladder based Endurance Pack for a while now so I finally pulled the trigger on buying it. My one concern was with the single large reservoir of fluid on the back, as opposed to the two smaller bottles I’m used to on the VP2. I like to switch flavors up on runs to give my palate some variety and I don’t really want to commit to preparing 70 oz. worth of drink mix all at once. Fortunately, I found a solution in the Hydrapak Full Force reservoir. This replacement bladder comes with a pressurized squeeze bulb on the end of the hose (as opposed to the traditional bite valve) that allows a large burst of water to be easily dispensed with each squeeze. My thought is that I can run 2L of water in the bladder on my back and a 15 oz. soft flask of Skratch Labs exercise hydration mix in a pocket up front. I can refill the soft flask with water easily from the Full Force hose and pour in some additional Skratch powder that I’m carrying in the pack. As a bonus, I will be able to fill Andy’s bottles in the middle of the trail if he needs some extra fluids. All of this sounds great on paper, but it did not come without its own set of challenges.
I knew from the start that this hydration concept was going to be an experiment. I experimented with numerous different options with how to carry the squeeze bulb itself comfortably and practically before I found one that actually worked well enough to stick with. Numerous options I tried were uncomfortable or caused the hose to leak. I’m happy to say I think I finally found a winning method that allows for quick access and easy use of the water on my back to fill up other bottles.
With elevation and night running in mind, I know I’m going to need versatile layers to get me through the ever changing temperatures. I’ve read that it’s not uncommon for it to be in the 70s this time of year then for it to be hailing as the elevation goes up to 12,600. While my pacing section doesn’t crest this peak elevation, I will still need to be prepared for whatever mother nature throws my way. Fortunately, my new Endurance Pack has a good amount of space for extra goodies like jackets, headlamps, batteries, etc. I opted to get the extra shock cord/trekking pole attachments for the outside so I can carry even more with me. To test out a fully loaded pack, I did a simulated run complete with 2L of water, several nutritional items, a headlamp, 3 extra layers, trekking poles, and some other odds and ends. I’m sure I got a few stares running around with all of this on an easily accessible trail in 80 degree weather but I like to test my gear out before I really need to rely on it. It worked beautifully and I feel it is one less thing to worry about going into this adventure.
Prepping to Crew
While running is second nature to me, crewing is not. I’ve actually only “crewed” once for Abigail during her Vermont City marathon. I would hardly call it crewing for that matter. I filled up and swapped out some of her water bottles a few times, but I was more of a glorified cheer leader during that race. Abigail on the other hand, has crewed for me countless times and has it down to a science. If crewing for an ultra were a NASCAR race, she would be the pit crew that everyone compares themselves to (I don’t watch NASCAR so I hope this analogy makes sense). So, naturally I asked her for help and give me some recommendations with what to do and expect. She gave me some good insight and ideas. She has crewed for Andy as well so it was extra helpful that she could tell me some specifics as to how to best help him as well.
Not everything in my preparation was uncharted territory for me. Some things were the norm. I studied the maps as usual to get a “feel” for the course and aid stations. I looked over the cutoff times. The race itself actually did something unique to me. They had a posted cutoff pace for each section of the race. Some sections will take much longer than others simply due to the terrain. The climb up and down Hope Pass to 12,600 feet, while only around 10 miles, has a cutoff pace around 4 hours. These types of figures alone provide great insight into what to expect going into the race. Some points are not accessible by crews, some only have fluids, most have specific parking instructions and will require a little bit of a walk to get to since so many people will be present. It’s good to have a general game plan in mind going into this but the prep work will definitely require a more structured sit down with everyone present to discuss specifics. It is worth noting too that Andy himself assigned some duties to the three of us that will be there. He asked that I bring some extra bottles and a spare pack for our friend Chris who will also be pacing/crewing. He assigned Jim as crew chief since he will not be pacing. He will be responsible for getting to the aid stations, setting up “camp”, and making the process as smooth as possible for all involved.
Prepping Andy Physically
Given the fact that I’m in Tennessee and Andy is in Texas, there isn’t a lot I could personally do to get him physically ready for the race. We did put together a Google Doc with the idea that we would both share our training logs leading to upcoming races, however I didn’t do a great job filling in my section or checking on his progress. So that plan never really took off. We ran the Chattanooga Mountain Stage Race together though and that provided ample opportunity to test gear, test pacing strategies, and get some good trail miles in together. Any other type of physical preparation fell completely on the shoulders of Andy. Fortunately his job allowed him to spend three weeks leading up to the race in Colorado at altitude to acclimate to the elevation.
Prepping Andy Mentally
While I couldn’t help directly too much with Andy’s physical preparation, getting him ready mentally was completely within the realm of possibility. Andy and I chatted and texted about numerous thoughts and feelings regarding the Leadville race. We bounced ideas off one another for strategies, gear to use, and training plans. My biggest contribution to this area however was inspired by the film, A Decade On, which tells the tale of Brian Morrison and his return to the Western States Endurance Run ten years after being disqualified 100 meters from winning the entire race.
In the film, Morrison is shown opening letters with a numerical countdown on the outside of them as the race day approaches. In these letters, friends and family wrote words of encouragement and motivation. When I saw this scene as a screening of the film, I knew I wanted to do the same thing for Andy. I reached out through Facebook to friends and family of Andy and encouraged them to send me letters for him. I compiled them into a folder and sent them to Andy with a cover letter explaining their purpose. Andy was extremely thankful for this gesture and has told me they are something he will hold onto forever. I’m hoping that these small tokens can help him get through anything this grueling race can throw at him.
Race day is soon upon us and months of preparation are going to be put to the test. Regardless of the outcome, I’m excited to get to be a part of this and experience a different side of racing for once.