August 20th, 2022
Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville race series and Johnny Cash look-alike, gave a rousing speech at the pre-race meeting. “This race will change you. […] You are going to have not one, but several opportunities to prove to yourself that you can do more than you think you can. […] If you’re here, you’re motivated to finish. But motivation will not take you to the finish line. Motivation disappears as soon as Pain shows up. But Commitment—Commitment will get you to that finish line. So, stand here and say this with me: I commit! I will not quit!”
I had the opportunity to race Leadville on Team First Descents, a wonderful non-profit that provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions. I’d encourage you to check them out.
There’s a race report for my Leadville 2022 experience below (spoiler: I committed, I did not quit), but—if you’re going to race Leadville for the first time and are here looking for advice, here’s what I’d give you:
- If you still have time to train:
- Practice your speed. A lot of this course is very runnable.
- Improve your running economy. Because of the altitude, the higher you can push your ceiling threshold, the better effort you’ll be able to put out.
- Practice climbing steep. The faster you can get up Hope Pass each time, the better your race will go.
- If it’s race day:
- Keep the train going. The cutoffs sneak up on you in this race. I normally finish in the top 20% of runners in trail races, and I got damn close.
- Finish. I briefly ran with Marge Hickman, the woman who has finished Leadville more times than any other. “Finish” is the advice she gave me, and it’s what I’d give you. Get to the end no matter what.
The night before, pre-race nerves were getting the best of me. We drove in the day before and camped down at Turquoise Lake—Tess, one of my crew members, is apparently very good at lucking into last-minute campsites, so we were only 10 minutes from the starting line. I packed my gear, shoved some Whole Foods pre-made pasta into my mouth, and anxiously tinkered with our camping gear until Sydney ordered me to sit down. We played Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza, a phenomenal card game for people with room temperature IQs like myself. I went to bed at 9pm, and fell asleep at 10pm.
I woke up at 2:55am.The race started at 4am, but we were really close, and I wanted to maximize cozy-time. I had a checklist of things to do (“apply nut butter”, “brush teeth at car”, “take a shit”, “have fun!”). As a good perfectionist, I checked things off my list. We got in the car at 3:25am, one more porta-potty break at 3:32am, walked to the start at 3:36am, and I was in the chute with ~15 minutes to go.
It was a zoo. Headlamps, cameras, nerves, smiles. I’d never seen such a big trail race, with nearly a thousand runners packed in the chute. Said bye to Sydney and Tess, and made my way forward. They played the National Anthem, thanked first responders—gosh, I hope we don’t need SAR today—and shot the starting gun.
Start to May Queen (0 mi—12.6mi)
My race began 15 second later. Lot of runners in this race. Thank God for chip timing. I tried to run at my own pace in the crowd—not too fast, not too slow—remembering the conservative race strategy that my coach (Eric Schwindt) and I had planned. I was supposed to try to run even splits out and back, ideally aiming for sub 25 hours and, above all else, not to start too quickly. I veered to the right so that I could wave at Lily (our dog) in the car. We’ve raced together a few times, and she would never have tolerated a conservative race start.
The first 5 miles alternated between asphalt and dirt road, which is a blessing for us nervous runners who need to settle into a pace and chill out. The entire town seemed to be out at 4am, cheering us on. We made it back down to Turquoise Lake and got onto the single track that circumnavigates the lower half of the lake. Our first aid station, May Queen, was almost a half-marathon from the start, and I’d heard that you could get stuck far behind and screw yourself time wise. I was pretty happy not to be stuck in the conga line. I focused on breathing calmly and savoring the moment. It would only get more difficult from here.
The sun came up over the lake, the first of three golden hours that I’d see. I got into the May Queen campground, after having run easy in. Used the campsite bathroom, crossed the timing mat, and then walked in, knowing that Sydney and crew would probably be late. I was targeting a 7am arrival, and had rolled in at 6:20. Stupid, but oh well. This happened at my other 100 miler in 2019 (shoutout, GoBeyond’s Mountain Lakes!) and it ended well, so maybe that was good luck.
May Queen to Outward Bound (12.6mi—23.5mi)
After 30 minutes, Sydney, Tess, Laura, Adrian and Lily ran in—over a mile of cars were backed up on the road. They had my nutrition and poles for this next section, so I couldn’t have left without them. I put some more sunscreen on, grabbed my poles, and started climbing over Sugarloaf Mountain.
This is where things got more interesting. Leadville draws in people from all 50 states. Many of those states don’t have mountains. Despite keeping an easy pace, I passed quite a few people heading up Sugarloaf. You could tell who was a ‘flatlander’, and who wasn’t—but everyone seemed happy and ready for the long day ahead. We had beautiful views. We were fucking doing it!!
Other racers were able to move fairly well on the less technical downhill—though I made a mental note that a steep section would suck on the way back. We had a few miles of rolling road hills that felt good to flow on our way to Outward Bound. I came into the aid station feeling smooth, light, easy, and fast, a mantra that Tess’s sister Emma—and First Descents staffer—had given me. I would later abbreviate it to SLEF, which isn’t as catchy but easier to remember. SLEF.
Laura (crew!) had run ahead to find me on my way into Outward Bound, and guided me to my crew. I switched shirts, grabbed more nutrition, and got the fuck out of there. Feeling good… for now!
Outward Bound to Twin Lakes (23.5mi—37.9mi)
This section flew by. The Outward Bound field is weirdly long to run out of, then there’s fast asphalt, then dirt road. Miles, miles, miles. You climb gradually out the entire time. This is where I ran into the aforementioned badass Marge Hickman (“Finish. Love ya, kid.”). After a couple miles, there’s an unofficial aid station, where people’s crews come and cheer you on. It’s a nice dirt road section, very runnable. You then keep climbing. You cross a timing mat, which feels miles away from the actual aid station in the middle of this stretch (Half Pipe). I refilled my Roctane there, but kept moving.
I met Andrea there, a middle-aged woman originally from LA who had moved to Madagascar. She had run Diagonale des Fous four times (just. terrifying.), so I was pretty sure she’d be fine doing this. I also met a runner with her arm in a sling, and a bunch of other friendly badasses. Every third or fourth person seemed to have done the 100 mile mountain bike race the weekend before. Who are these people??
Eventually, you get off the dirt roads, and onto the Continental Divide Trail. This felt really familiar and easy to me, having trained in Leadville over past summers with Sydney and Lily. A sharp pain in my left butt cheek brought me out of my reverie—swatting at it with my left hand, I realized I had smushed a hornet. That woke me up.
I could hear the cheering at Twin Lakes from a mile away. Absolutely electric energy. Ran in, saw my crew, ate a bit, refilled food, and got ready for the long day ahead. They told me that I was running about 15 minutes slower than my schedule—I was surprised, because I felt like I was hauling ass, but oh well. Hard to be mad when we were set up across from Courtney Dauwalter (who was crewing for someone). So cool.
Twin Lakes to Hope Pass (37.9mi—43.5mi)
I’ll admit that I was sad (and a bit scared) to leave my crew. You leave by running flat into a field, which just makes Hope Pass even more daunting—you have to gain 3,000ft in this section, so every flat mile is a bad mile. I crossed two rivers, changed my socks while swatting away mosquitos, and then began the long climb.
This climb took way too damn long. I had settled into a few mantras at this point, but the one that made me laugh every time was my anti-nausea mantra. I knew that at some point I’d grow tired of my Spring Energy Awesome Sauces, but in order to stave it off, whenever I’d have one, I’d sing a little thing to myself. “Yummy, yummy, Awesome Sauce, Wow I love my Awesome Sauce.” This would work until mile 72.
I passed a few people on the climb who were taking it conservatively. At mile 42, Adrian Macdonald (the eventual winner) came flying down the mountain. So cool. Tyler Andrews was 20 minutes behind him. At this point, it had started raining and getting fairly cold—I pulled over to layer up, and realized that I had somehow managed to bring two right-handed gloves. Stupid. I also realized that if my first mistake in a 100 miler was 42 miles in, that I was doing better than normal.
The Hope Pass aid station was phenomenal—they use llamas to bring everything up there, so it’s just an alpine lake, a fire, some llamas, and cheery volunteers. Right when I pulled in, I saw Ryan Kaiser, another Oregonian, and told him that third place was 7 minutes ahead—”Got it”. I’d later find out that he made the podium. Woo! I refilled my water and had a bit of soup by the fire. Still 600ft to go from there to the crest of the mountain.
Hope Pass to Winfield (43.5mi—50mi)
That last section was surprisingly difficult. At this point, I had to stop to catch my breath during climbs, and the higher I got, the shorter the distance I could cover. I took a break to cheer for Clare Gallagher on her way down. Fuck yeah. Once I crested the pass, I took a moment to take it in. Beautiful. Worth it.
The way down was fun. I also realized that time was passing faster than I hoped, and that I was headlampless—an even bigger mistake than the gloves! Oh well. Hopefully I can borrow one.
I ran into Harvey Lewis on the way down, giving him a pat on the back and telling him he’s a legend and an inspiration (“Thank you. [brief pause]. That means a lot.”). It was humanizing to see that the winner of events like Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra and Badwater was struggling out here too. Then again—he was struggling 8 miles or so ahead of me. Time to move.
I met up with some dude who told me he had an extra headlamp. Thank god. Keep moving, getting a good pace going on some of the flat parts. At this point, my tank is starting to run empty.
After passing the Winfield cemetery sign (tl;dr “25 people are dead here, but we only know where two of them are”), I got into aid.
I desperately needed to get my shit together. My ideal target time was sub-25hrs, and my plan had been to run even splits—I pulled in at exactly 12h26 minutes, so on paper, things were perfect. In practice, they were not. Even though I had been taking in 300+cal/hr, my energy was lagging. My GI system wasn’t feeling too good. And I was demoralized by how much further I had to go.
A lot of people drop out at Winfield (i.e., “completing the Winfield 50”). Donna Marie, the aid station captain, wouldn’t let me do so. It might have taken me 30 minutes to use the bathroom, get some fuel in me, and change my clothes, but I got out of there and back on the trail.
Winfield to Hope Pass (50mi—56.5mi)
Dear reader; at this point, you’re thinking “damn, I have to read that much again on the way back?” Daunting, huh? I can empathize. You’ll be happy to know that the next 17 hours were more of a blur.
The backside of Hope Pass is steeper, and I was looking forward to struggling for less time than the way up, even if it was more intense. I booked it along the gradual downhill out of Winfield, desperately trying to bank some time ahead of the climb. This was one of the most important moments of the race for me—at this point, many of the people heading towards Winfield wouldn’t make the cutoff in time. They knew it as well as I did. Many looked sad. Some looked a little relieved. But all of them were working their asses off to complete the Winfield 50. I tried to infuse them with as much energy as possible on the way out.
And then, the climb. Steep. In retrospect, this is probably where I tore my left calf. A group of 6 fellas and I worked hard up that climb—we’d each push until we needed a break, the rest would keep going, and then we’d catch up. Sort of a vertical version of musical chairs. This proceeded through the treeline and towards the summit. At this point, whenever I was hurting or starting negative self-talk, I’d repeat to myself “Make friends with pain” until it drowned it out. In this conga line, I realized that I could also fulfill the matra by “Making friends, with pain”. That’s how I met Scott, and Anchorage John, and Angry Sandals Guy. We made it over the pass together. How relieving.
It was getting dark when we got into the Hope Pass aid station.
Hope Pass to Twin Lakes (56.5mi—62.5mi)
It was me vs sunset, and I was losing. Back at Winfield, Bib #687 had decided to drop and lent me his headlamp—one of those little Petzl’s without a lot of juice to it. I was going to have minimal visibility heading down Hope Pass. So, I booked it as best I could. Did you know that just telling someone to ‘drive safe’ makes it likelier they won’t crash? Sydney and I have the same thing with running downhill—we’ll tell each other ”no ankle twisties”. “No ankle twisties”, I told myself. That run down was a gamble, prioritizing light over taking nutrition at Hope Pass.
I made it to the bottom, unfed, and in the dark. At this point, it was pitch black. I was power hiking out, and Adrian, one of my pacers, intercepted me about a mile from the aid station. At this point, I was 2-3 hours behind schedule, and my crew was worried. I got into aid, happy to see them and grumpy as all hell. I was nauseous (no food!), having gotten myself into the ultrarunners’ Catch-22. No calories = no appetite.
My crew was world class. They changed my socks, force-fed me mashed potatoes and broth (mixed together, yum!), and got me moving again. “I bet this is my lowest moment”, I thought as I went towards the timing belt.
Twin Lakes to Outward Bound (62.5mi—76.9mi)
Adrian suggested we take one last look in the aid station before heading out. I stepped in, heard the aid station captain say “who wants soup”, started feeling Very Nauseous, ran over the timing belt, and projectile vomited in the bushes. Wow! Damn. “Okay, I bet THIS is my lowest moment.”
Adrian went back to the aid station to get a ginger ale, and then we started climbing out. Adrian is a phenomenal ultrarunner (and 2:33 marathoner!) and man of few words—but I was brain dead and needed him to talk, so after a couple of failed conversation starters (“Where are you from?” “Forest Grove.”), I finally asked him to tell me his life story. Thanks, Adrian.
This section took almost 5 hours. I had to stop frequently on my way up the climbs, could run downhill until I felt too lightheaded or nauseous, and generally struggled. I managed to get in 500 calories,but then threw up at mile 72. “Stop looking at it and keep moving”, another runner told me. Pretty good advice!
We stopped at the Half Pipe aid station to try finding some food that would stay down. Watermelon, though calorically useless, was the winner. It was getting very cold. I was tired. We were alternating power hiking and jogging. This was hard. The best part was getting to know Adrian.
After a ridiculously long hike through the field, we pulled into Outward Bound, 20 minutes ahead of cutoff.
Outward Bound to May Queen (76.9mi—87.8mi)
I knew that I couldn’t make it to the finish without satisfying two conditions. First, I needed more calories. Second, I needed to be able to run faster and more frequently. As a crew, we decided that the best plan would be to shove some food in me, layer up, massage the left leg, nap, and then get out there.
After 15 minutes of glorious, glorious sleep, Sydney woke me. “They need you to get out of here, the sweepers had to start”. This was terrifying—sweepers go behind last place, how the fuck was I in last place?—and exciting. What an opportunity for a great story.
A man cried in his chair as I left the warming tent.
Laura took over as my pacer. Laura is, also, an incredibly strong trail runner (and 2:56 marathoner), and this time, we were able to move together. After I took the world’s longest pee break, we booked it, passing someone before the climb up Sugarloaf. We ran through the secret Space Camp themed-aid station (pretty cool, but I’d take an NWDC or W’yeast Wolfpack aid station any day).
We passed dozens of runners and their pacers over the mountain, and at least a dozen on the way down. I could run and eat again. We had a great conversation—a dialogue, not a monologue! I could engage!—and running felt smooth, light, easy, and fast all over again. Bouncing back felt so good.
May Queen to Finish (87.8mi to 100mi)
Sydney took me home. At this point, I knew that barring major incident, we’d make it. It was sunrise, and the first 5 miles were a little faster—I had a Red Bull in me, and was happy to be on the last trail section. We passed a few more people, and running, while painful (“make friends with pain”), helped us gain some time.
I was depleted, but it didn’t matter. I felt like a robot, power hiking at exactly 15:15 min/mile. The lake trail felt longer than ever. The climb from the lake to town was surprisingly hilly! What a cruel course. I wish I could run, but my left leg was too stiff, and also, I had just vowed to never run again. The poles helped power hike. I made my way up to town.
My crew walked in with me. Tess was zipping around, taking photos, wrangling Lily—she did so much to help behind the scenes. So grateful. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew.
I’m starting to shut down mentally. The last mile is electric. There is so much energy. My friend Yila was there, cheering for me. I jogged in the last bit, and walked over the finish line. 29.32.
They put a medal on me, gave me my buckle, and someone handed me a rose. I grabbed a beer and sat down. Done! Done.
I’m now exactly a week out from Leadville. I went on my first run this morning, and the left leg felt okay—it was swollen from knee to toes the first few days, but looks more normal now.
I’d like to run that one again, one day. What an experience. And I couldn’t have done it without the world’s best crew, who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
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I’ll do it with you! What a great experience dude!!
Thanks, Mike!! Be careful what you sign up for LOL!! See you at Petersen Ridge Rumble next year?
So awesome Philippe. Congratulations!