Part 5: The Leadville Trail 100: Who Took all of the Oxygen?
by Ian Torrence
They sure got one thing right. The Leadville Trail 100 Mile truly is “The Race Across the Sky.” With my hip abductor injury finally cleared up, I approached Leadville with confidence. I was concerned mostly about the effects the altitude would have on me during the race, since the entire race is run at elevations of between 10,000 and 12,000 feet.
In order to prepare, I employed a different training technique. The weekend before the race I met my good friend Hal Koerner in Leadville. Our plan was to run and drive the course in order to get a sense of its magnitude. Hal had finished second in the Leadville 100 Mile Run last year and knew the course very well. He was my tour guide. We covered the trail sections on foot and opted to drive the roads, saving the monotony for race day. With the time we saved we decided to run several of the surrounding 14,000-footers. We ran and hiked up Mt. Elbert, Mt. Massive (the two highest mountains in Colorado) and Mt. Sherman. We took a road trip to the south of Leadville in order to sightsee around the quaint town of Buena Vista. Our evenings were filled with eats and rental movies. It was a good time, the way it ought to be before a big race.
I met my girlfriend and crew Anne the Friday before the race. We got all logistics sorted out. I felt that Leadville’s aid stations, awesome as they might be, were fairly spread apart. There are long distances between stations, water and food. Race management does allow support crews to meet their runners at several points in between. I had Anne meet me everywhere it was legal to do so. Due to the altitude and warm temperatures (84 degrees F at Winfield) on the day of race, I felt the nine to 13-mile distances between aid stations would leave me very dehydrated. The halfway points where Anne met me were to be crucial in my survival at this race.
Race morning came very early. Anne dropped me off 15 minutes before the 4:00 am race start and left for the Tabor Boat Ramp, the first place I would see her along the course. Almost 500 runners started this year’s race, so you can imagine the scene at the starting line!
The first portion of the course was a breeze—or so it seemed at the time—and passed quickly. The road portions seemed to float by in the pre-dawn hours. The single-track trail around Turquoise Lake was awesome. I left the May Queen Aid Station (13.5 miles) just as dawn arrived. The climb up and over Sugarloaf was easier for me than it had been during my training run with Hal. I ran and hiked toward the first ascent of Hope Pass (the highest portion of the course at 12,600 feet). It was a blast to finally poke my head above tree line and see the Hopeless aid station in the middle of an alpine meadow, surrounded by the llamas that had carried all the equipment and supplies up the mountain.
I descended Hope Pass slowly and carefully, so as not to destroy my quads early in the race. The trail is steep and rocky at times. It was hard to keep my mind focused on the task at hand, as I found myself gazing off onto the surrounding mountainsides, lakes and ravines. As I neared where the trail emptied out onto the Winfield road, I encountered Hal Koerner, Chad Ricklefs and Paul Dewitt on their way back up Hope. They had about a five-mile lead on me at that point and did not look like they were going to slow down and wait! On my approach to the Winfield Aid Station (mile 50), I caught up to Steve Peterson, last year’s Leadville winner. He was having difficulty; I urged him to run with me to the turnaround at the aid station. Steve decided to call it a day there.
While passing though the aid station I collected more company for the run back up Hope Pass. David, a happy soul from Boulder, was more than happy to pace me back up to Hope Pass; his company was much appreciated. The return trip back over Hope Pass was unique in that I got to see the rest of the field on their way out to the Winfield turnaround. I exchanged pleasantries with many of the runners as we passed each other. That made time pass quickly.
From the bottom of Hope Pass (about mile 58) to Fish Hatchery (mile 76.5) I ran alone. I made contact with my crew and volunteers at all the aid stations in this stretch, but on the trails and roads in between I managed to keep myself running on the flats and downhills and hiked the uphills strongly. At “Treeline” (mile 72), while I was fumbling with food and water bottles, I was passed by eventual woman’s winner Anthea Schmid. She was moving well; I was unable to keep up. She went on to win the women’s race in the second-fastest time at Leadville in its 20-year history!
At Fish Hatchery (mile 76.5) I picked up a new, unplanned pacer. Until then we had only corresponded via e-mail; this was the first time I had met Justin Snow face-to-face. He offered to join me for the remainder of the race; his help was well received.
On my way out of Fish Hatchery I bumped into Hal, my pre-race training partner and tour guide. His fast tempo early in the race had finally caught up with him. His stomach had rebelled, so he couldn’t keep anything down. Hal tried to regain his composure and continue, but he would later drop from the race.
Anne crewed for me for most of the race alone. She would periodically find other crews to talk with as she progressed from aid station to aid station. As the day’s light grew long, a friend of hers from Denver, Mike, arrived. He helped crew during the dark hours of the night; I was glad for that. As darkness fell my pace had deteriorated and I started to have “issues” out on the trail. The time waiting for Anne between aid stations began to grow long.
As I started the 1,000-foot climbs up the Power Lines and Sugarloaf, my body rebelled. One moment I was moving well and the next my stomach and legs just didn’t want to have anything to do with moving forward. It took a long while for me to regain my form. Justin’s positive talk helped me disassociate from my stomach pain. By the time we had reached the top of the climb I was able to slowly begin running down the back side to Turquoise Lake and the May Queen aid station.
From May Queen (mile 86.5) to the finish was a long plod for me. I would run several steps and then walk for several. I clicked off the miles in that fashion. My stomach would get sour every so often during those last 13 miles. I wasn’t able to ingest anything solid for the last 20 miles of the run. I drank water and coke, but nothing else. As Justin and I moved around Turquoise Lake we had good views of the moon on the water; it was calming.
Running down “The Boulevard” back to the town of Leadville I was able to turn back and see the lights of Eric Soloff and his pacer. As my adrenaline rushed, I picked up my pace and pushed it to the finish. I crossed the line in 20:38, good enough for sixth place overall and first in my age group. After finally completing the race, I almost crumbled to the ground. Anne pushed me into the tent at the finish line, where I proceeded to suck an oxygen bottle dry. I had noticeable congestion in my lungs. Taking a deep breath was impossible. When I tried all I accomplished was to start a coughing fit.
As my color and spirits returned I was able to joke with Anne, talk with other runners and begin to bask in my accomplishment. Anne, Mike and I returned to the hotel room and crashed. I awoke them at 9:00 a.m., as I wasn’t really sleeping. We went to breakfast before the awards ceremony.
Leadville was a great experience for me, as well as a huge challenge. It was the third leg in my four-leg Grand Slam quest. The Wasatch Front 100 Mile in my own home state of Utah will be the fourth and final chapter. Hopefully, my hometown advantage will play a positive roll in the outcome of this race. I now have two weeks before that run will begin. I am hoping all will go well there. Stay tuned for my final report and wrap-up of my Grand Slam Dreams!