March 24th, 2019
2009 Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run
Saturday August 22nd, 2009
UltraTails - 2009 Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run
Poised at 10,200 feet and surrounded by famed 14,000+ foot peaks Leadville is a high mountain town in Colorado. It was silver that originally beckoned adventurers up to Leadville and by 1880 the population ballooned to 40,000. Nowadays some 3,000 call Leadville home but each August density swells with the migration of endurance athletes craving their own high altitude adventure.
The annual influx includes flatlanders... like moths to the light our internal circuitry trips and we're pulled by forces we cannot understand to heights we probably should not tread. In early July I committed and made plans with fellow midwesterners' Beth & Larry Hall. Trail buddy Michael Davenport learned of the plan and couldn't resist joining. All of us had run the Leadville Trail 100 before... Larry, our most experienced was going for his 8th finish. I shared a rental house with Beth & Larry. Wife Michelle arrived on race eve to crew for me.
Saturday August 22nd... At 3:45 am the intersection of 6th Street & Harrison Avenue was bursting with excitement. Runners, accepting their last wishes & kisses, detached from crews & family and queued into the starting pen. I met up with experienced Leadvillers' Tom Schnitzius of Dillon, CO and Jasper Mueller of Salt Lake City, UT. A one minute warning was issued. Michael Davenport tapped my shoulder, "Why did I let you talk me into this?"
Leadville Mayor Bud Elliott fired a shot skyward.
500 runners went west.
A mile of downhill blacktop road spread the pack to the outskirts of town. From there dirt roads led us farther west into the Arkansas Valley dropping to near 9,600 feet in elevation. In chaotic headlamp beams participants darted into and out of the woods seeking over-hydrated bladder relief. Around 5½ miles the gliding ended as we scaled up 200 feet in a quarter mile popping out at the beaches of Turquoise Lake. An hour into the run and still an hour before dawn we bounced the Turquoise Lake Trail counterclockwise along the east and northern shores. The day's earliest rays of sunlight beat me to May Queen... our first aid station at 13½ miles.
One of the bigger challenges of running Leadville is coping with its lack of aid stations... only 11 spread over 100 miles. With an average of nine miles between stations it's critical to make the most of each. Station gluttony is rewarded with balanced energy reserves and earlier in the race it's easier to binge... later, the calories don't always stay down. Moving westward through the tent I consumed 'one of each'. Michael and I left May Queen together, optimistic morning sun shining on our shoulders, heading toward the Colorado Trail and mountain terrain.
The Colorado Trail cuts thick forest, southerly through the Mt. Massive Wilderness of the Sawatch Range. Ruggedly it grants access to some of the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains including the tallest, Mt. Elbert at 14,443 feet. The Leadville 100 course adopts segments of the Colorado Trail but also diverges along backcountry roads. I met up with first-time Leadville runner Paul Doi of Arizona as we paced up Hagerman Pass Road, a smooth mile of easy uphill jogging. A steeper 4WD road took us the next two miles to Sugarloaf Pass at 11,200 feet... the 2nd highest point of the racecourse. By 8:00 am we were crashing down the other side on a sun bleached path under crackling power lines.
"Go Billy!", Michelle greeted me at Fish Hatchery aid station, nestled at the base of the mountains. We walked up the driveway and into the garage that serves as shelter. I grabbed a lightweight shirt from my drop bag. Outside, young cutthroat trout were progressing in tanks of the second oldest federally operated hatchery... oh yeah, and runners were checking in -n- out like ants marching in parallel processions near their nest. Michael & I posed for a photo while applying a new layer of sunscreen. Michelle double checked my gear then stuck a stack of pringles in my hand and pointed to the exit.
Paved Highway 300 took us away from the checkpoint and east into the valley. It felt great to road-run for three miles while munching salty chips. I hooked up with ultra-friend Brad Drake of Sun Prairie, WI as we followed Halfmoon Road heading west back toward the mountains. The comfortable morning was morphing into a warm day... no clouds over our stunning views of the mountains. 1¼ miles up Halfmoon Road we detoured south, away from the traditional Leadville 100 trail. Three days earlier a tragic helicopter accident on Mt. Massive had claimed the lives of four servicemen. A wide swatch of area around the crash site was secured by the military. Kudos to race officials in their rapid response to this event... rerouting the course and relocating the Halfmoon aid station to Box Canyon.
Brad, Michael and I made the Box Canyon aid station at 10:45 am. My GPS watch read 9,900 feet / 30.8 miles traveled. I scaled in two pounds lighter than my starting weight. So far, so good... but we knew the real test was yet to come. 1½ miles up gentle double-track trail linked us back to the Colorado Trail and the traditional Leadville 100 course. Pure ultrarunning bliss as we climbed single-track to the 3rd highest point of the racecourse at 10,700 feet, delighted in dizzying views through vantage points of the high-forest, then careened down to Twin Lakes dropping 1,500 feet in 3½ miles. Even me, an awkward downhill technical trail runner made great time with minimal effort along this section.
Michelle waited at the Twin Lakes aid station, entertained by runners negotiating a steep scree chute that covered the final 50 feet of descent. She had me framed as I floundered my final steps... thankfully the photo didn't capture this reality of gracelessness! I grabbed a chair next to Ida Lee of Hong Kong. We met two days earlier during a warm-up run in Leadville. We ate, drank and chatted... aware that the real test was coming up next.
Hope Pass is the biggest challenge of the Leadville Trail 100 mile run. Hope Pass puts Sky in their moniker, "Race Across the Sky". Hope Pass tops out at 12,600 feet. A round-trip traverse of Mt. Hope is less than 22 miles but runners know that this section can take more than one-third of their race in time, and most likely even more in effort. August weather on Hope Pass can be perverse with rapidly changing conditions of wind, rain, sleet, snow, hail, lightning, exposure... potential for real danger. Ultrarunning is not necessarily rational. Hope Pass is the primal attraction of the Leadville race.
Leaving Twin Lakes 1¾ miles of open meadow trail, featuring a knee-deep river fording brought us to the base of Mt. Hope at 9,200 feet. "Here we go", I whispered to myself, commencing the forest climb. Former Leadville champion, Anton Krupicka and his pacer flashed by, already racing inbound. Within a mile I pulled even with Ida.
"This is really difficult", she acknowledged my presence.
"Yeah, it's awfully steep", I panted in agreement.
"No, it's not that.", she corrected, "We race steeper trails in Hong Kong. It's the altitude that's affecting me."
I was moving well compared to those at my pace. Some were drafting but refused to pass when I offered up the trail. We'd marched up 1,700 feet in the last 1½ miles and were only halfway to the top. Farther ahead we turned a corner and I saw Brad struggling, sitting on a fallen tree. Seems the altitude was putting the hurt on him too, but he waved me off when I offered to help. Two hours after leaving Twin Lakes I arrived at Hopeless aid station... a net distance barely over 5 miles. I found a seat on a log and a hearty attendant brought me soup and coke as liquids had become my only digestible calories. He obliged me a photo with a llama in the background but refused to let me ride that llama to the top saying something about, "a probable rules infraction, worthy of your disqualification."
23 minutes later, under my own power I summited Hope Pass! A handful of intrepid race fans gave a round of applesauce... one snapped a photo for me. The views were incredible but sense of accomplishment tempered knowing the race requires that each runner make two trips over the pass. I packed my camera and stepped south, down the switchback trail en route to Winfield and the 50-mile turnaround. The southside trail is as steep as the norhtside for its top half... then it becomes even steeper. Thankfully its net elevation is 800 feet less. Much of my clumsy downhill running was spent making way for inbound runners coming up the trail and outbound runners passing from behind. The trail bottoms out at 9,900 where dusty County Road 390 rises 400 feet in 2½ miles. And there we were... Winfield, Colorado.
Michelle was there snapping photos and encouraging runners. She ushered me through the station and filled my pack with packets of sport beans. At 4:50 in the afternoon the day was still warm and the miles were adding up... 50 to be precise. Even so, warm soup was my favorite food. The tent was getting crowded so I surrendered my chair and made for the exit.
Winfield is described as a ghost town. You wouldn't believe that if you saw the traffic on County Road 390... in both directions rental cars and vans were navigating the two lanes dodging runners and clogging the mountain air with dust. Some runners ran the road's center in an attempt to slow speedier driving, which causes more haze. Some wrapped bandannas around their face or tucked their chin into their shirt trying to filter the filth. By the Sheep Gulch trailhead I was eager to turnoff from the road smog.
Spitting and tearing I started my inbound ascent of Mt. Hope... up through the aspens and early switchbacks. Michael was coming down... I wished him well letting him know that Michelle was waiting at the turnaround. I started to strain climbing through a boulder field and thought, "maybe that rich dust wasn't as bad as this thinning air."
Runners around me were suffering... some were stopped on the trail as their pacers tried to provide comfort and inspiration. It took extra strength to extend good luck wishes while passing, so I stopped doing that. To stick with my strategy of 'relentless forward progress' I had to keep redefining 'forward progress'.
1¼ miles from the top of Hope Pass I took a peek up and my knees began to buckle. I sat on a small boulder off the side of the trail, my heart racing. Above and below, runners were grinding their way up the switchback trail. Approaching, a runner and pacer asked if I needed anything.
"Got any salt tablets?", I exhaled.
"Give him two", the runner instructed his pacer as he edged by, not breaking stride.
His pacer stopped and unzipped two capsules from a pocket, "Doing alright?"
"Just need to catch my breath", the words came out labored then seemed to bounce softly down the mountain. I swallowed the first capsule and chased it with a feeble slug of water. The second capsule came back up needing extra attempts. Watching the pacer catch up with his runner I knew my energy reserves were low and unwrapped some sport beans. Figured once over the pass I'd take some time at Hopeless aid station to consume heavy calories.
Stood up, regained my balance and leaned into the mountain... the trail continued its consistent 20% grade which immediately put me back in respiratorial redline. I maintained my stubborn 1.8 mph charge, finally making the last left-hand hairpin switchback, which eased up the final 100 feet in elevation to the crest of Hope Pass.
Looking north from 12,600 feet the whole world came into view... Hopeless aid station, 700 feet below... Twin Lakes, 5½ miles down... the town of Leadville, 45 trail miles away. Extraordinary vistas but night was closing in on this world as I began the steep descent.
At the Hopeless aid station a helpful attendant took my pack, "What can I get for you?"
"Water in one bottle, coke in the other, please, and can you bring some of your finest soup?", I sat on a log by a well tended bonfire. To my dismay they were out of coke, sprite, chips, and many high caloric-foods. I settled in with a used cup of soup and waited 10 minutes for hot tea & instant mashed potato-like substance. Hot tea hit the spot but the mashed potatoes would not go down... which is what I needed to do... so I waved thanks to the Hopeless servants, took out a headlamp and descended the trail as it reentered thick, now murky forest.
My downhill form was even more gangling in the new night. I bumbled down 2,800 feet of elevation in the 2½ mile stretch of forest trail, landing in the meadow at 9,200 feet.
Working through the thick grass floor toward the river crossing two girls ran past me. One alarmed, "You better hurry, the Twin Lakes aid station cuts off in 17 minutes!"
"That can't be right", I thought, but to be safe picked up my pace, rushed through the river and over the last mile of grass trail to Twin Lakes where Michelle and Michael were waiting, watching out from the darkness on the edge of town.
Michelle recognized my stride, "Billy, hurry up... the aid station's closing in a few minutes", we hustled up the blacktop and into the garage-like station. The clerk marked me 'arrived at 9:38 pm', a mere seven minutes before the cutoff... yikes! Twin Lakes was fully stocked with wonderfully tasty treats and cold sodas. I sat down for a hasty feast and visit with Michelle & Michael, who had pulled the plug on his race at 50 miles. Tom Bunk, Wisconsin's ultra running legend was there crewing for the father / son team of Ken & Steve Plumb. Ken had also just arrived and was contemplating his future.
Michelle & Michael escorted me back outside to the cool mountain evening. My legs felt fresh, energy levels restored, confidence high... Michelle and I planned to rendezvous in 16 miles. I jogged to the end of the road, then scratched my way up the steep scree chute that serves as first step skyward on a 1,500 foot / 3 mile climb along the Colorado Trail. Two sets of lights bobbed in tandem ahead... I hustled to draw even, then asked permission to draft. Kathy (runner from Minnesota) and Kathy (pacer from Colorado) allowed me to tail for 1¼ hours. When the trail started its gradual drop toward Box Canyon I moved on, reshaping my friendship with gravity.
Not much activity at Box Canyon aid station when I got there at 12:15 am. Tents were aglow, lit from within and fully stocked tables awaited runners. I grabbed a seat just inside a drawn back flap, emptying the dirt from my shoes while an attendant brought me soup & coke refills and asked if I'd like some company for the next 3¾ miles. It was there that I picked up Matt Nyquist who had originally intended to pace a friend but that friend ran into exhaustion and dropped at here at 68 miles. With his friend in good hands, asleep in the medical tent, Matt and I pressed on following the combined beams of our headlamps down the smooth dirt roads which had replaced the mountain trail.
At 1:30 am I was sloping solo down the tender pitch of Halfmoon Road. Stars sparkled over the valley but the night was void of any moon. Comfortably, in my coke-stained short sleeved shirt and shorts I clipped off 13 minute miles, then held that pace on the paved highway as it rose to back to Fish Hatchery. "Yay Billy!", Michelle called from the shadows outside the aid station. I looked up, still a block from the driveway but couldn't see her.
"I figured you'd be running and watched for a bouncing headlamp... everyone else is walking this road.", clever Michelle guided me to the shelter. I changed into a warmer, long sleeved shirt at the behest of an aid station volunteer who opined that Sugarloaf Pass is the coldest strip of the nighttime course. A paper sign taped on a wall read "76½ Miles!". Next to it a clock ticked 2:35 am. I had built a 25 minute cushion on the cutoff... still too close for comfort.
Back in battle I ran the tangents of a rolling blacktop road as it twisted for a mile before connecting with the Powerline trail. Up and away we climbed... 1,600 feet over 4 miles. Most runners had pacers but conversations were minimal. I caught up with Beth in a pack near the top of Sugarloaf Pass. Dropping the other side was two miles of dark rock kicking and ungainly windmilling recovery until we rejoined Hagerman Pass Road. Ahh, inbound Hagerman Pass Road... the easiest mile of the entire 100... point that beam way out in front and open your stride!
Progress slowed dipping into the Colorado Trail as my inner aflac duck resurfaced. I stumbled for the next 40 minutes covering only 1¾ miles. Many requested a lane to pass... trail running is a gentleman's sport... I acquiesced to each. Relief came in the form of dawn and asphalt. We exited the trail and ran downhill road to May Queen, no longer in need of synthetic light.
Michelle's eyes were sleepy, reflecting the strain of crewing at Leadville. She helped me change into morning-wear and force fed me cookies. This was the 86½ mile, and final aid station. Though five stations were listed as medical checks I'd been weighed only once. Were I to miss the 30 hour finishing time limit I couldn't blame it on long lines at the scales!
Leaving May Queen a ribbon of pavement allowed ½ mile of downhill running. Turquoise Lake Trail took over with its sometimes runnable, sometimes not undulations. I found myself in a game of "fox & hounds" with three sets of runners and pacers as we traded leads around the lake. At its far northeast banks I kicked a rock, rolled near the bluff, but recovered like a floor gymnast as if performing a routine. My (only) fall and nimble rebound raised applause from witnesses by Tabor Boat Ramp. I broke free from the Turquoise Lake orbit and wobbled down the last steep, rocky road. 5½ miles of road lay between me and the town of Leadville.
I had 1 hour 40 minutes to finish. I began to jog, keeping to the side of the road in the shade and immediately started passing inbound participants. Not entirely a surprise, but no one tried to draft with me. Michael appeared as a spectator near his site at Sugar Loafin' Campground and relieved me of my pack and water bottles. Now trimmed, I found a faster gear. Unexpectedly Michelle arrived on the trail with 3¾ miles remaining... sweet! Together we pressed the pace heading up the "Boulevard". Some pacers cheered our running... I told them this was far easier than the second trip over Hope Pass. We caught up with Jasper, then Beth reaching the end of dirt road.
6th Street was speckled with runners and lined with race fans. Michelle observed how rare to have such big crowds at the end of a 100 miler. We kicked up to the carpet and into the chute. Merilee Maupin hugged me home and strung a finisher's medal around my neck. I collapsed into a random chair, conveniently empty at the finish. The world blurred while I caught my breath.
With balance regained we watched other finishers hit the line and found our group in the tent. Jasper made good with his promise of a Sunday morning Pabst Blue Ribbon - he claims to be sponsored by its brewing company. The course officially closed at 10:00 am... signaled with a final shotgun blast by Mayor Elliott. Woefully, runners were still making their misfortunate trip up 6th Street less than a mile from the finish.
At high noon the proceedings reconvened at the East 6th Street Gymnasium. Masters of Ceremonies (and Race Directors) Merilee Maupin and Ken Chlouber awarded all runners with finishing buckles and personalized sweatshirt hoodies (sleeves were imprinted with individual finishing time : mine say 29:20:11). Special achievements were recognized for overall & divisional champions, 10 & 20 time finishers (!), and LeadMen & LeadWomen (can you believe that these folks successfully completed all five of the 2009 Leadville events: Trail Marathon, Silver Rush 50 Mile Run, 100 Mile Mountain Bike Ride, Leadville Trail 10K Run, and Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run).
A rhapsody of Thank yous
... to Larry, Beth, Michael, Paul Schoenlaub, and Jane Cox for being excellent trail-buddies.
... all brave souls who queued into the starting pen early morning August 22nd.
... to all who covered the distance and made it back to Leadville collecting silver buckles.
Way to go
... to all who made it back in less than 25 hours earning gold and silver trophy buckles.
You're the fastest
... to Timmy Parr of Gunnison, CO and hometown hero Lynette Clemons of Leadville who finished as race champions.
You're the best
... to Merilee Maupin, Ken Chlouber, their race committee and friendly team of volunteers who allow us this amazing adventure, "The Race Across the Sky".
Of course my biggest
thanks and deepest appreciation
... to crew & pacer Michelle who once again, without asking why, followed this flatlander by forces not understood to heights we probably should not tread
Want to see more?
Check out our photos under the "View Photos" tab above
(photos by Michael Davenport, Michelle Thom, Bill Thom)
Photos from the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race:
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Photos from a training run on Hope Pass:
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Photos from a training hike on Mt. Elbert:
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Photos from a training run near Turquoise Lake:
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For the official race website with full results and history please use the clickable link below
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