Leadville 100 Trail Run 2016 by Tommy Barlow

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Leadville 100!! Wow, what an event!! When I decided to attempt the Grand Slam the only thing I knew about Leadville was what I had read in the book ‘Born To Run’, and what I had heard anecdotally from other local runners which was a vastly contrasted accounting on both sides. The book made the course seem like one of the most epic courses in the world, and the challenge seemed impossible when I initially read about it over 5 years ago prior to having even considered myself a runner. In fact, a couple of years later my first time ever driving near Leadville with my work-sponsored Ragnar Relay team (don’t judge we all start somewhere), I recall seeing the sign and turnoff to the little old mining town and thinking in my head that there was no way I would ever dare take on that beast. It seemed almost like hallowed ground for someone who was intimidated by running 20 miles in 3 different legs during a 2 day relay. On the other side of the coin after jumping into running ultras last year and talking to the local experts about the course I was surprised at how much negative sentiment there was. People told me it was “too hyped” “too corporate” “too crowded” “all about the money” “poorly supported” “not that hard of a course” and more. So basically I was about to take on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of hundos.

 

When it comes to any endurance event or undertaking that intimidates me in life I become a research junkie. I read any and all race reports from DNFs to winners, listen to any podcasts, lookup and cross-reference archived finishing times of other athletes, watch Strava Flyovers, and I swear by the time I am done I have mentally completed the event several times before the starting gun sounds! It’s how I deal with the anxiety-knowledge has always been a comfort to me. It’s this type of research that also piques my curiosity and was what got me into the slam in the first place…mentally envisioning myself taking on something that seemed impossible, then slowly watching it unfold in real life before me. I can’t overemphasize my belief that our thoughts which we allow in our minds and hearts eventually become our words, and finally those words translate into our actions which make up who we are and what we do in this world. It all starts with thought.

 

In the first leg of the Grand Slam I was really unsure if I would make the start line of Leadville because of the hamstring issue I had, but after finishing Western States and Vermont while battling through some minor injuries in each my body was actually feeling stronger by the time we got to Leadville. In fact, the 3 weeks between WS and VT 100’s flew by and I felt like I was scrambling just to get recovered enough to even think about running, but the 4 weekends off between VT and Leadville felt like an eternity and I was actually excited to get after it, although I had a healthy level of intimidation and respect for the course. As was the case for my first recovery period I did very little running- maybe 15 miles per week with some hiking as Ian Sharman had suggested in his quick tips for the Grand Slam. I made a point to spend time at high elevation which included a trip to Leadville my second weekend off where I was able to train on the hardest section of the course from Twin Lakes to Winfield and back with my fellow slammer from Utah, Brandon Wickes. I’m so lucky that he invited me out to stay at his family’s house in Colorado and get that experience on the course as it added physical and mental prep that proved invaluable on race day. Also, it was just a great time with an amazing guy. Brandon is one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet and is as gritty and fearless as anyone taking on the slam in only his second year of endurance sports. Although his slam attempt fell short, he will be back one day for sure!

 

By the time race week rolled around I was feeling a higher level of anxiety than other races because the research that normally added comfort and confidence was proving to have the opposite effect. It seemed that in my search for race reports more than half of them were DNFs, and in fact I found two people who had DNFd there over 5 times. More research, more DNFs… turns out the average DNF rate among starters is historically over 50%. When looking at those who managed to finish the race in under 25 hours for the “BIG buckle” I consistently found that it seemed to be a place reserved for people who either lived in Colorado and were acclimated to the altitude or really fast runners. Taking those findings and comparing them to the Grand Slam archives I found more of the same, and based on people who had finished Western States and Vermont in similar times as I had (23:26, 22:15) I calculated that my projected finish time would be somewhere around 26 hours which would officially be the longest run of my life. Yay! The other thought that kept coming into my mind was what if I started getting blood in my urine again like Vermont…if I had to slow down at Leadville could I be up against the cutoff? How would I deal with that mentally? Am I tough enough when things are stacking up against me? At this point in the slam you just don’t have time to add any fitness, change any major aspects to your racing strategy, or expect things to get easier so I packed up my bags along with this new anxiety and got ready for this awesome adventure that stood in front of me.

 

By the recommendation of my pacer and friend Zac Marion we had booked a cabin at Win Mar which was located really conveniently almost smack dab in the middle of the course near Twin Lakes. The cabins are ancient and super basic, but you can’t find a better location if you have a crew, and for this race I decided I wanted to bring my entire family so that my kids could share in this experience. The. Whole. Family. Which also means my massive horse dog Duke and our little midget dog Ziggy. Fortunately for me I enjoyed the drive to Leadville with my crew master and buddy Mike Allen while the kids and dogs rode with my wife and mother-in-law. Take notes- that’s a huge strategic victory ; )  We arrived on Thursday, all crammed into the cabin, and headed out for Mexican food in town for dinner. At night we had all three kids and two dogs in our room and my plan for family time started to backfire on me almost immediately. Duke the horse dog came down with severe dog diarrhea and I literally found myself outside at 1:00 AM walking him around so he could have a cleansing blowout. This happened about every hour through the night, leaving me with about 4 hours of sleep.

 

On Friday Mike and I went to the pre-race meeting and got really pumped up by Ken, the founder of the race. In his speech he made us all commit not to quit and told us that this race is all about learning to dig deeper…try harder…give everything you can so that you can take the stronger version of you after this race out into the world and be a better person for it. “You are better than you think you are! You can do more than you think you can!” It hit home to me because this is the real reason I do any of these 100 milers or Ironmans. It’s all about making myself a stronger and more resilient person as I’m not an elite athlete or at least one who would actually be competing in these large events for anything other than personal progress. At the meeting we also met as the 30 remaining Grand Slammers and took a picture with almost all of us and I was able to hand out buffs donated by Discrete Clothing to each Slammer so that we could recognize and encourage one another while on the course.lr12

 

On Friday evening I went for a shake out trot with Jonah and Duke and had one of the best moments of the entire weekend that totally made the extra hassle and cost of bringing the whole clan along worthwhile. We started a run uphill and could immediately feel the lack of air at 10,000 ft elevation. Jonah hasn’t been running as much as last year when he was doing triathlon camp for kids during the summer and he immediately started to struggle. I told him it was OK for him to head back to the cabin and that I was only going a mile then turning around. He turned back and I started running again, then after hitting a little over a mile I turned around and saw Jonah not far behind me. As I ran back to him he said “I was going to quit, but then I thought to myself that I better keep going if I’m ever going to beat all your 100 mile times”. It was priceless and that moment stayed with me throughout my race and through the eventual finish (spoiler). I’ll remember and cherish that moment more than anything I’ve written above in this recap. After our run I also called my dad and had a special moment talking to him, telling him that I was intimidated by the course and altitude and him reassuring me that I was going to kick this thing’s butt.

 

I brought out the maps one more time and settled on creating race splits between just barely under 25 hours as a best case and 28 hours as worst case. We ate some pizza, wrapped up race planning with Mike, Zac, and Kenzie and I tried to get to sleep by 9:00 PM. The horse dog Duke was feeling a lot better and was subdued by the Sudafed that I spiked his dinner with so I felt like my sleeping odds were in better shape this night, but the girls had a little too much Coke and were wired, giggling incessantly for the next hour. I think I finally hit a deep sleep at around 10:00 because it felt like 30 seconds later when I awoke to the jolting of my own body and thinking that I had just drifted a bit. I looked at my phone to see that it was now midnight. My alarm was set for 2:00 AM so that I could eat and digest breakfast by the 4:00 am start time. I don’t know why exactly, probably nerves and anxiety but my brain immediately started running the race at that moment and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I laid there going back and forth from closing my eyes and seeing nothing but a frantic scramble of running, to opening my eyes and thinking about the fact that I wasn’t sleeping AGAIN and that I was creating an energy deficit which would rival that of our national debt. Sucky feelings either way.

 

Finally 2:00 came and I got all of my running gear on and headed to the kitchen for my breakfast of a bagel with cream cheese, fresh fruit, and some Gatorade. I was a little paranoid about the lack of sleep but couldn’t do much about it. Mike and Kenzie drove me to the start line, we took some pics, I saw more familiar faces including Kelly Agnew who in on his mission to get to 10 finishes there, then the countdown was on. It was a bit funny because they started the national anthem and the clock was ticking down and I kept thinking that the anthem wouldn’t be finished before the clock struck zero, but alas the ending was almost perfectly timed and before I knew it we were trotting down the Boulevard.

 

I had started in the first quarter of the pack and kept a decent pace with the intention to avoid the log jam around Turquois Lake per the suggestion of my friend and fellow Utahn Jamen Nelson who is 7 for 7 starting and finishing Leadville. At the start of 100’s I always feel a bit of elevated HR and breathing but I don’t worry much as long as I settle in after a few miles which proved to be the case here. Between the town and the lake I was pacing on the heels of Hoka Elite Jenn Benna but there was another runner nearby who kept coughing almost every 10 seconds and for some reason it was really annoying me. I took the chance of giving up a few spots to stop and pee and let coughing person get up the path a bit. Funny what annoys us during these events! I actually passed coughing runner pretty shortly thereafter and eventually found myself back to almost the same spot just as we got on the tight single track around the lake. The starting temp was around 38 degrees and it stayed cool for quite a while as well as DARK. I had a cheap headlamp which in hindsight worked really well for me because if I could have seen the trail better I might have been tempted to run faster, nonetheless I was running at a good pace and had completely avoided any congestion. I had it in my head that there was a hard climb coming up but before I knew it I had rolled into May Queen aid station at 13.5 miles in 2:01 which was on pace for my best case scenario-yet still very early.

It was now getting light and I finally was able to shed my bulky headlamp. From May Queen you have a good climb up to Sugarloaf pass which was easy to spot because you could see where the powerlines headed up the mountain and I knew we would be under them. At around mile 17 I started getting passed by a few people which I was ok with because I knew that I had started a little fast with the intent of avoiding the cluster I had heard so much about. The challenge is that I was feeling the lack of sleep and started having some doubt. Everyone I looked at seemed to be stronger than me and moving faster than me, then I heard a familiar voice and looked over my shoulder to see fellow Slammer from Cali, Jadd Martinez making a pass. I was shocked that I was ahead of him at that point because he is the fastest runner in the slam by a long shot so this gave me some encouragement even though I knew that Jadd was just pacing himself better at the start and probably got stuck a bit around the lake. We gave each other some words of encouragement and he slowly disappeared up the mountain. Near the top you could see the first descending section of Powerline where I got my last glimpse of Jadd and then started running with another runner that I called “pole buddy” because he was already rocking the trekking poles and doing really well with them. On the descent we both cruised past some people who had outclimbed us and I felt like the whole “your quads will blow out here” talk around this section was a little overhyped as it was a fun and smooth downhill for someone like me who runs a lot of technical downhill.

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From the end of Powerline there is a road section that seems to take forever to get you to Outward Bound at the fish hatchery which is around 24 miles into the race and the first time I would see my crew. In looking at my watch I was now about 15 minutes behind best case but still well ahead of worst case but I felt increasingly fatigued. After the never ending pavement slogfest I got to see my crew and put on a happy face for them. Kenzie was as efficient as ever at getting me back out on the course and I had just enough time to give an IG buddy Ironbeard a manly hug and then head out.

 

After clunking through a grassy field section I found myself back on the pavement and suddenly feeling extremely tired. More people were passing me and the reality of having more than 70 miles ahead of me was sinking in. Mentally this is a rough spot to be in and the terrain didn’t make it any better because I despise running on flat surfaces (which turned out to be a false flat with slight uphill grade) in open spaces. I watched what seemed like a line of runners for miles up the road creeping away from me, then finally noticed that they turned off the road towards the hills, so relief was in sight.

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I worked my way, very patiently back up towards Mt. Elbert climb and the Half Pipe aid station. The steeper the climb got through those sections, the more I started reeling some runners back in and making up some of the time I had lost in the doldrums of the flat sections. After that long but gradual climb I started feeling a little bit of life coming back to my legs as I thought about the downhill section ahead of me. I hit the water station at Mt. Elbert and started the descent. From that point I never broke my running stride to a walk for the next 3 miles and was swiftly catching and passing runners again. At one point I got chastised for making a pass on the tight singletrack but I replied by telling that runner that we all run to our strengths and I had to take what the course was giving me.

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I came into Twin Lakes at mile 39 to the best emotional lift of the day getting to see my kids for the first time in a 100 mile race, and man did I need it. I was tired and feeling overwhelmed by having the hardest section of the course standing in front of me, which I knew all too well from my training section. I vocalized to my crew that I was fatigued and they provided words of encouragement, fresh water and calories, and my trekking poles. It was time to face what I had esteemed to be the crux of the Grand Slam…Hope Pass at mile 40 of my 3rd 100 mile race in a span of 8 Saturdays. Leaving the aid station I had a hard time feeling any running rhythm and it was starting to get warm so the river crossing was amazingly refreshing. Another runner asked me if I knew where we were going and I loved that he had no clue as to what was coming up next so I took delight in pointing at the gap that chased up the nearly 14K foot mountains to Hope Pass which sits at a low point between two peaks at 12,600 ft.  The masochist in me loved this moment! After letting that settle in I switched to full on power hiking mode, started loading calories, and put in the headphones.

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Climbing to Hope Pass outbound is really similar to a trail in Utah that leads to Mount Timpanogos only it is heavier wilderness for the first 3.5 miles or so. It’s a remarkably beautiful climb but has a relentless grade covering 3,500 vertical feet in about 5 miles to the pass. I had given myself permission during my race plans to take 2 short breaks climbing each side of Hope, but to my surprise the first climb went really well and I maintained a consistent forward progress all the way up to the aid station which sits maybe .5 miles below the actual pass. The volunteers were awesome, sprinting down to us ascending runners (power hikers) and grabbing our bottles from us for refills. I took in some broth, coke, chips, and a sandwich and quickly got moving as I didn’t want to spend any extra time at altitude. The remainder of the climb gets steeper and the trail gets tighter while the air gets thinner but I was steady in my effort and was unaffected. Just before summiting I saw the lead runner coming inbound, drenched in sweat and looking like he was moving fast but was uncomfortable. Turns out he had good reason because he was ahead of course record pace at this point, but like every runner since 2005 when Matt Carpenter set the course record Max King would blow up and Ian Sharman who at this point was probably 20 minutes behind would go on to finish 1st overall.

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The outbound descent of Hope Pass is extremely steep, losing around 2,800 feet in a little over 2 miles. The first mile features several switchbacks and some talus crossing so it’s more about foot placement and body control which I tend to have a knack for. As a result I was able to pass several people including fellow slammer Sean Bowman whom I tend to have this repeating theme with where he passes me around mile 30 then I pass him around mile 80…this time it was at mile 46 so again despite feeling tired I was encouraged in thinking that I was still doing pretty well. The last mile of the descent is almost a free fall if you let gravity take over- but there were still other athletes who had made their way to the turnaround point and were now heading back up the pass so I felt that the right thing to do was defer right of way to the faster athlete so I probably wasted as much energy breaking stride and allowing room to pass on a really tight trail, but nonetheless I made good time down and didn’t feel like my quads were blown out.

 

After the descent, the trail heads off to the right and traverses the side of the mountain with a gradual climb to Winfield and the turnaround point, which is also where I was going to pick up my first pacer Zac Marion. This section felt incredibly slow and I found myself breaking to a walk far too often. It was also surprisingly hot! Just as I was entering the aid station area I started to see some of the people that were passing me earlier in the day and I realized that I wasn’t struggling any more than most of them. Kenzie, Mike, and Zac met me and quickly got me rolling again and we were quickly off to tackle the steeper ascent back up to Hope.

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While I had fallen back from my best case scenario, at this point in the race things started to turn for me thanks to Zac’s help. He had me focus on my breathing and keep a steady effort. Again I had plans to make one or two stops on this climb to gather myself if needed but because of the steady effort and Zac’s Sherpa skills I was able to make the climb back up to Hope Pass without stopping. We also made several passes and upon reaching the summit I planted my second kiss on the wooden stick at the pass and looked over across the valley back to Leadville knowing that I now only had 45 miles to go and that I had done the hardest climbing of the day.

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The descent was bittersweet for me because I could see why there wasn’t a ton of congestion on my way back up Hope. They had recently instituted a time cutoff at the Hope aid station just below the summit of 4:30 which was in my opinion a pretty aggressive cutoff for those 45 miles (12.5 hours). It seems to me that the course overall has pretty tight cutoffs which is likely the primary reason for the over 50% DNF rate—you really don’t have margin for error and have to do a good amount of running in the first 45 miles. At the same time, I was feeling more confident than ever for the day and started a good steady run down the 5 mile trail back inbound to Twin Lakes. Upon arrival we had put 45 minutes back in the bank towards my best case scenario.

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Crossing the river the second time was super refreshing again- ambient temps had reached the high 80’s in some exposed sections on the mountain and getting cold water all over my body is always a good reset so I went all the way down for a dip and the volunteer at the river commented that I was looking better than when he had seen me on my way outbound. This time I kept moving in a “jazzy speed” pace back to the aid station for another quick and efficient pit stop.

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From Twin Lakes outbound we went back into steady climb mode and maintained focus on breathing. A handful of people would pass on long climbs, but then I would catch and pass them on the downhills. It became a strategy of “giving up 10 minutes to gain 15” through Mt Elbert and Half Pipe and knowing what was ahead of me helped to mentally plot out this plan of execution. Zac was incredibly helpful at keeping the water bottle in my face to drink every 15 minutes and forcing me to choke down calories to keep the engine running every hour. Drink. Eat. Jazzy Speed. At this point runners start to thin out and you see more of the familiar faces as you leapfrog one other and there is a lot of comradery that I find in these waning miles as well as funny one liners shared between runners.

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By the time we made our way back to Outward Bound/Fish Hatchery on the inbound trek to meet Kenzie we had made up over 1:15 on my best case. I was feeling the residual fatigue that I had felt at Vermont which is just what you come to expect in the slam. Ian Sharman had warned that you’d feel great for 20-30 to start legs 3-4 of the slam, then after that you’d feel like you were hitting 70 miles at that point and it would stay with you until the finish. I think this is spot on advice as I’ve never felt muscle fatigue that early at the 100 mile pace. When you’re at mile 75 you just do your best to hold on and get to the finish in good enough shape to turn around and run another 100 miler. Although I had plenty of cushion to go sub 25, we made the goal to hold that 1:15 gap but were careful to not push harder with Wasatch 100 coming up in 3 weeks. Kenzie and I immediately had a long slight climb up the pavement road then Powerline at mile 80 which I had been told was the hardest part of the day by previous Utah slammer Jim Skaggs. I told her about my strategy to give up 10 minutes on the climb in order to gain 15 on the downhill by maintaining a good breathing pattern, and while I think I tested her patience she stuck with it and picked up right where Zac left off by keeping me constantly moving forward and upward.

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Powerline was hard, but it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined it. We watched Salomon Elite Laura Perry climb away from us up the hill, then caught up to her and passed on the descent. When we got to Turquois Lake I told her it would be a long run with lots of rollers and technical footing and that I would do my best to run everything I could, but the main goal was to not fall in that section. Lucky for me I stayed on my feet but Kenzie hit her quota of one fall per run over 20 miles ; )

 

While I did enjoy looking back at the course and seeing various headlamps as well as the moonlight along the lake, I wasn’t in the mood to be a sightseer and just wanted to get done. Passing the Tabor boat ramp we saw someone who told us it was about a 10K left, but it proved to feel much longer than that. When we finally hit the Boulevard it seemed like an eternal climb and at this point I was pretty much done running. I just worked the heck out of my trekking poles and made sure that I was moving forward with purpose. We didn’t know how close we were, but I estimated that we were near 3 miles out that a 20 minute average would get us in just under 24 hours. I didn’t leave anything to chance and made sure I was moving at around 15 minutes per mile up the long dusty road and managed to pass another few runners in doing so.

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As we hit the top of the road and it became pavement I could hear and smell the finish. Kenzie pulled out the GoPro and did our traditional on-course interview before the finish. I started wondering where my kids were when we hit the last straightaway and saw my mother-in-law who had taken the time to join us and get the kids there for me. A few hundred yards past her my kids came running to me and I began running to them. I was able to put my arms around them and together as a family we crossed the line of the Leadville 100 trail run, something that just a couple of years prior I had deemed impossible for me, let alone as the third leg of the Grand Slam. It was the sweetest moment of the Slam to date and I had put together the performance that I am most proud of in an endurance race. Of around 700 starters I was the 50th person to cross the line. Of 340 others who were able to complete the full 100 miles the median finishing time was 28:10 and I had crossed in 23:40. I could hardly believe it, and allowed myself to enjoy that feeling thoroughly with my family and friends. Best of all I felt like I was healthy and had no real pain to speak of which is crucial in the slam.

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At the end of it all, Leadville was one of the best races I’ve taken part in. I agree more with the book’s accounting of this event and strongly encourage anyone to put this on their bucket list. The whole town is so supportive, and racing Leadville means becoming part of the Leadville family which is a very special group. I will be back again for sure to dig a little deeper, try a little harder, and come out an even stronger version of me.

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Special thanks to my number 1, Kenzie. She has been amazingly patient and supportive throughout the slam, taking me home as a pacer the final leg of each race and crewing her heart out up until that point. My kids for their constant love and support. They are all keenly aware of how hard this is and are always telling me that they believe daddy can finish the slam. Zac and Mike were amazingly supportive and infinitely helpful throughout the race experience. I’m so blessed to have people who will sacrifice their time and energy on my behalf. Thanks to the running community in general- whether it’s little messages on social media or phone calls and texts—I can’t even begin to tell you how much all of your words and gestures mean to me. Thanks to Tyler Shepherd and Endurance Athletics for supporting me in my gear needs for the slam. They are runners who get this whole experience and were the first ones to reach out and offer help in getting me through this journey- please support local shops-I haven’t been the best in the past at this but have made a conscious effort as I’ve come to appreciate their role in the running community. Lastly, thanks to my loving parents and my hero dad. His battle with his amputation has inspired me and pushed me beyond anything I can describe. I will never quit in this slam attempt simply because I know that regardless of what pain I may be experiencing I still have the ability to overcome. One thought of him and I am back moving forward—constantly forward!

 

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