Spoiler Alert: My Leadville Trail 100 did not go as planned.
Monday morning quarterbacking is easy when your resting heart rate is below 50. Everything looks much cleaner when viewed from behind a desk. The struggle is real when on the trail, light headed and sucking what limited oxygen there is through what feels like a straw. The fight beats you down physically and emotionally in the middle of a four mile long climb to the sky. In that environment, in that setting I did my best and made the best decisions I could. It was not enough.
(Eric, Josh, Andrea, Marilee, Myself and race founder Ken Chlouber)
I love the Leadville Trail 100. I’m drawn to the running community that this race attracts. I embrace the rough edges, the unique vide of the runners who quest to conquer the highest elevation 100-mile race in the country. I wanted to conquer the roughest and the toughest of Colorado mountains. I vowed to dig deep just like Ken Chlouber asked me to do.
You can live the drama of this race in Running to Leadville, by Brian Burk. Available on Amazon and this blog.
60% of the field failed that day…..it doesn’t make it any easier.
(Race Morning, Jeff, Josh Eric, Me and Michele)
Start to May Queen, 13.5 Miles, 2:32:13 – I stood on the starting line under the Leadville Trail 100 banner very calm and collected. My wife, friends, and race pacers walked me to the corral, wished me well, and sent me off on my journey. I thought I would be a ball of nerves, but surprisingly it was all business as the star spangled banner was sung and the famous shot gun went off releasing a rampart of gray smoke into the night sky.
I ran the entire way from 6th and Harrison to the Turquoise Lake trail head. Once on the trail I fell in line and followed the conga line of other runners around the lake. I ran the “runable” sections and hiked the hills or parts of the trail that may have been hazardous on footing. I passed other runners where it made sense and held back when the risk seemed too great. Coming into the aid station I believed I had run a smart and effective opening segment of the race. I was 45 minutes ahead of the cut offs and I was feeling awesome.
May Queen to Outward Bound, 24.5 Miles, 5:05:06 – Leaving May Queen and hitting the trails toward Sugarloaf pass I knew there would be some climbing in front of me. My legs felt great, I was tired but nothing out of the ordinary. I settled into my run/walk plan running when I could and power hiking when it made sense. The climb topped out at just over 11,000 feet. The effort was long but manageable. The views…spectacular.
The down hill was rapid and wicked. Once off the descent I was happy to be running on black top roads and fairly level ground was we ran past the Leadville Fish Hatchery. I rolled into Outward bound again making up time on the cutoffs and feeling GREAT. The day was going as planned and the race I believed was coming to me. My crew was awesome. Josh and Andrea cleaned the rocks out of my shoes and got me in and out in amazing speed. Kendra and Jeff fed me and provided encouragement. Michele walked with me as I went back out to battle the clock.
Outward Bound to Twin Lakes, 39.7 Miles, 8:32:00 – The run to Twin Lakes was a mixture of black top, fire roads, and jeep trails with two aide stations, Half Pipe and Mount Elbert as we topped out at 10,500 ft. On the backside we again were faced with a steep and fast downhill making our way to Twin Lakes. My legs felt good climbing but here I noticed that my knees where quiet painful from all the braking action on the descents. As I ran down the short but step down hill into Twin Lakes I was happy to have two of the six climbs out of the way. My plan was to arrive in Twin Lakes between 8 and 9 hours from the starting gun. I arrived 1.5 hours to the good on the cutoff times. Although I was feeling confident, I knew Hope Pass loomed in the distance.
(video thanks to friend and pacer Eric)
In my plan for the race I gave myself the same 4 hours that the race provided in their recommended pacing/cut off sheets. I figured this was a conservative time to make my way up and over Hope Pass.
Twin lakes to Hope Pass, 45 Miles, 11:27:42 – There is a field section from the Twin Lakes crew zone leading up to the water crossing and the beginning of the trails up Hope Pass. As my good friend Jeff walked me into the field after my crew stop I told him “This shit is hard.” I had no way of knowing how true that statement would be.
Mistake #1 I fast walked the field section deciding to conserve my legs for the climb to come. Looking back I should have ran this rather flat section. Once across the river and on the trails I began the 3,400 foot climb. Within a mile on the trails towards Hope Pass my legs just would not move faster than a slow walk. My breathing got messed up and it seemed my heart rate was way to high. At a snails pace I had four slow, agonizing, and defeating miles to go. It felt like forever. I don’t want to be over dramatic here but the majority of the climb up Hope Pass is without switchbacks with an angle of attack well above a 20% grade.
Rob Karr passed me on his way to winning the race. A brush with greatness…
Hope Pass to Winfield, 50 Miles, 13:23:23 – Crossing over Hope Pass I felt my life renewed. The down hills were awesome although I got caught up in the line of runners going down hill and although I made “Okay” time I was not able to capitalize on gravity the way I would have liked. Mistake #2 I did not push passing people when I could have or when I should have. I believe fatigue caused me to run to conservative again. Reaching Winfield I lost 45 minutes of my cutoff buffer.
Arriving in Winfield and looking at my watch this was the first time I believed my finish was in jeopardy. Making my way through the aid station tent and back to my crew, I told Eric I thought it would be hard for me to make it back over Hope Pass in time as I was moving so slow. I also told him I was not giving up and would give it everything I had but my legs were toast on the climb. My wife kissed me, told me she was proud of me and sent me down the road in good spirits.
I had 4.5 hours to do what had just taken me 5 hours….get back up Hope Pass and into Twin Lakes.
Winfield to Hope Pass Inbound, 55 Miles, 16:23:48 – Mistake #3 I fast hiked much of the road leading out of Winfield to the trails on the back side of Hope Pass. At the time I was trying to mount a rebound, I thought with fresh food in my stomach that maybe I would be able to climb up Hope for the second time a bit faster than the first. That did not work. The climb on the back side is much stepper than the front side. As I struggled and made my way up Hope, Eric and I talked about whether it was worth the risk of selling out to make the cut off or running a steady race and hoping to make it in time. The fear was if we went for broke that I might make the cut off but not have anything left to continue.
(Back Side of Hope Pass)
I stuck with a steady climb up hope.
Hope Pass Inbound to Twin Lakes, 60.5 miles, 18:15:?? – We arrived at Hope Less aide station, approx .7-miles on the other side of Hope Pass, moving pretty well. I was running the down hills at a pretty good pace in an effort to make up time where I could. My legs seemed to rebound with the help of gravity and for much of the run I felt like we had a frighting chance. At Hope Less I had a cup of noodles and some water as volunteers refueled my water bottles. At one point a volunteer told us we had 1 hour and 20 minutes to make the cut off. I thought it a slim chance but Eric and I headed down the trail. In the dark even with head lamps it was hard to run full out. I would run the sections I felt comfortable with footing and fast walk those that felt dangerous.
We made the water crossing and I estimate half way through the field section when Eric noticed that we were one minute past the 18 hour cutoff at Twin Lakes. We decided to keep pushing on like we had a chance. It was also at this time we could hear some cheering off in the distance. Unsure why the crowd was cheering we continued our fast hike through the field. Resigned that I missed the cutoff Eric and I talked about life, running and over coming this set back. I gave those final distances all I had. I noticed on my watch I was hiking/running between a 13:00 and 12:00 mile pace. I wasn’t going to quit.
As we neared the parking lot across the road leading to the Twin Lakes General Store people in the dark began talking and yelling about a “soft cut” that the gate was still open and I had maybe minutes to clock in. Eric instantly un-clipped my hiking poles. I dropped my vest and in my best impersonation of Carl Lewis I got up on my toes and ran as fast as I could. Reaching the edge of the parking lot I could hear our friend Kendra, and my wife yelling “RUN BRIAN, RUN RUN.” And I did.
(The mad dash for home….)
I gave it everything I had. I ran in an all out sprint. I made my way into the parking lot opposite the general store in a mad dash, we crossed the street with people cheering us on and a red flashing strobe light blocking traffic. My legs began to get heavy as we ran the short section of road to the final left hand turn and the run for the timer. With everything I had I put on a final sprint down Lang road sure I had made it in time. Everyone was cheering, the inflatable arch was still illuminated and the trail to Mount Elbert was right in front of me.
A voice out of a crowd gathered in the middle of the road called out. “You are too late, I’m sorry.” What? I couldn’t give up, I couldn’t stop running I ran into the pile of bodies in front of me at full speed. I nearly knocked the cutoff lady over and did in fact knock another runner to the ground. I then fell on my backside as my legs or it might have been my spirit finally gave out. As my arms covered my face I felt a cold hand touch my left wrist and a voice spoke up out of the darkness. “We have to get his timing chip. ” My soul lay crushed on the dirt road of Twin Lakes. Everything I dreamed about for three years was over in a few seconds at the beckoning of a soft and final voice.
“I’m so sorry” she said. I was beyond upset, I wanted to lash out. I wanted to yell out…”I would have made it if I knew about a soft cutoff.” I knew she had a hard job, I believe it hurt her as much as it crushed me. I thanked her for doing a job no one wanted to do. I told I respected her and understood.
I was angry that I did not know I still had time.
Inside I died. The runner I built myself up to be lay ruined in the street. I let down all those who supported me with their time and money. My confidence gone, the belief in myself gone…the person I wanted to be in shambles. I gave so much to have it end this way. I felt so bad that people had come this far to see me fail. I wanted to hide. My crew lifted me up, they hugged me and told me they were proud, that they knew I gave my all and that it would be okay. My wife told me she was proud of me.
In the days since my body and soul have recovered. Although it still stings, I’ve realize that one race would not define me. I made mistakes but I gave this race all I had. I dug deep, I was committed, I did not quit, I just failed to realize the toll the preceding 40 miles would take on my legs when I faced Hope Pass.
I will come back stronger, faster, better prepared and by all means smarter!