Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Leadville 100 Race Report

When the MC of the Leadville 100 started the final 10-second race countdown at 3:59:50 in the morning on August 18th, I just remember this irrepressible smile coming across my face. It's something I've never done before -- smiling before a race. But this one was different. I have paced three people in this race. I'd watched it four times. I'd been on crews, and I've followed it on the internet. Back in the day, I read about it in newspapers and magazines. And now, finally, I was about to run the damned thing.

I don't have any pictures of the start
Start to May Queen (Mile 13) 2:07

The main thing I remember about the first couple of miles was that my headlamp kept slipping off the top of my head. I was wearing a white safari hat backwards, to keep the hat's bill from blocking the glare of the lamp. I spent the first few miles fidgeting with my hat, when I should have been soaking it all in.  It just seemed so dumb and trivial. Eventually, it occurred to me to just give up and turn the hat around. Duh.  

Ahh, now I could finally focus on the race.

Once that was done, I relaxed and started jogging at a pace I knew would get me to the first aid station, May Queen in around two hours.   

At around six miles we arrived at the Turquoise Lake trail. The trail is pretty narrow, and my plan was to settle into whatever position I arrived there and just follow everyone around the lake. I got there at the back of a group of a half dozen runners and just followed their footsteps. Initially, this worked fine, but as the miles progressed, the group slowed into an erratic and inconsistent pace. Someone would stop at a puddle or a group of rocks and the rest of us would have to put on the brakes. By mile 10, there were 15 of us trudging around at an uncomfortably slow 12-minute stop-and-go pace.

May Queen to Fish Hatchery (13 - 23.5) Total Time 3:50

I arrived at May Queen in 2:07 and immediately blew through the aid without stopping. In training I usually ran this uphill road section at about 10 or 11-minute pace. On Saturday, I ran it in 8:30, and probably passed 30-40 people in the process. I was just sick of the conga line, and I wanted to be able to go at my own pace. It felt great to actually be able to run.

The Colorado Trail section went by quickly, as did Hagerman Road and Sugar Loaf. I ran about 90 percent of the hill and passed another 20 or so runners in the process.  When I got to the top, I heeded the sage advice of my pacer, Mike Hinterberg, to proceed with extreme caution on the downhill to save the quads. For the first time since May Queen, about a half dozen runners started streaming past me.  This was to be the same story all day. I passed others on the ups, and they passed me on the downs.  

Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes (23.5 - 39)  Total Time 6:30

Arrived at the Fish and spotted my brother, Brian, and his girlfriend, Sarah, pretty quickly.  I still had the huge smile on my face. I had been terrified over the last month that an injured leg was going to force me to miss the race or drop. But here I was, nearly a quarter of the distance behind me, and I was feeling great. As I told Mike when I saw him, I felt fresh as a daisy.  I knew the hurt would come eventually, but I was enjoying the moment while it lasted.

The road out of Fish was uneventful. Once we got on the trail, I passed a few people, and as the hills started rolling toward Pipeline and the Mt. Elbert trailhead, I really started to pick up places.  It was somewhere in this area that I passed Darcy Africa and a couple of Salomon's sponsored women. I knew now that things were going well, and I just rode the wave. Things were going great, until about a mile outside of Twin Lakes, where I took my worst digger of the day.  When I fell, I didn't hurt myself much, but my legs started cramping up.  It was a slight cause for concern with 60 miles + ahead of me, but it still wasn't enough to wipe the smile off my face.

Without looking at the number, I would guess I had probably passed 70-80 runners between May Queen and Twin Lakes, without a single runner passing me and staying ahead of me. I felt great. 

Twin Lakes 

In my prior years watching Leadville, I probably cheered on 2000 runners as they descended into Twin Lakes. Now, it was my turn. When I got there, there wasn't anyone within a few minutes of me, before or after, so I got a great reception.

My brother, Brian (in the green Irish jersey) was there to greet me.  

And so were the rest of this group.

I spotted the big Irish flag on the car and knew I had arrived. It was an amazingly warm feeling. 

I wanted to stop, hang out, hug each of them, and thank them for coming, but I was determined to get in and out of each aid station quickly, so I grabbed a carrot juice and went on my way. 
Speaking of hugs
Twin Lakes to Winfield (39 - 50. 6) 9:34

I left Twin Lakes, and immediately bumped into Scott Jaime. I knew I was having a pretty decent race, but Scott's a runner that's totally out of my league.  I know he didn't have a good day by his standards, but it boosted my spirits to be near him, even on his bad day. A few seconds later, Woody Anderson came up behind. I knew he was shooting for a sub-22 hour finish. And he was telling me he was ahead of his planned split times. Was this really happening?

Both of them were running a bit faster than I was out of Twin Lakes, and I was fine with that. I just wanted to maintain a steady jog to the river crossing and the base of Hope Pass.  Compared to last year when I paced Mike, the swamp between Twin and the river crossing was decidedly un-swamp-like. Definitely made things easier.

I think he went that way

Scott bolted up ahead and then there was a group of three guys who were about a 100 feet ahead of me at the start of Hope Pass.  I had done the Hope Pass double crossing four times over the summer, and I was supremely confident in my hiking abilities on the hill. Within the first few minutes, I picked up all three who were ahead of me and then focused on keeping Scott Jaime within visual range. I figured if I could keep the guy who just finished 6th at Hardrock in sight on the steepest climb of the day, I would be good to go.  

I passed another group of four or five guys just before Hopeless Aid Station, including Wyatt Hornsby, I believe.  I quickly refilled on water and headed for the top. By the time I made it to the top, I passed both Scott and Jamil Coury, another elite ultra-runner I have always looked up to from afar. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be near, much less ahead, of either of these guys.  

I was feeling great, but with my injury problems over the past month, the descent from Hope Pass was THE section that scared me the most. I resolved to take it easy, and to my surprise, things worked out ok.  Jamil and Scott flew by me like I was standing still, but other than that, I maintained my place.  The new trail out to Winfield took forever, but I'd been on it before, and I was prepped for it mentally.  Jamil and I leapfrogged each other a couple of times, and I passed Scott, who was stretching against a tree. 

Here I was, 50 miles into the Leadville 100, and I wasn't just running, I was racing.  I was tired, sure, but no serious pain or injuries. I was over the moon. 

Winfield to Twin Lakes Inbound (50.6 - 62)

I stepped on the scales as soon as I arrived at the turnaround in Winfield. 153.2, down from 157.3 on Thursday. I felt dehydrated and warm. For some reason, 75 degrees at Winfield always feels more like 95 (a fact only appreciated by Leadville 100 runners, I suspect). I chugged about 50 ounces of water, ate six orange slices, two bananas, and I was immediately back on the trail. 

I was joined by my first pacer, Brandon Salisbury, whom I met years ago at the Moab Red-Hot 50K, and whom I paced two years ago from Twin Lakes to Pipeline, where he exited the race with a broken foot.  Brandon, as usual, was all energy and raring to go. We walked out of Winfield excited, and I mentioned the possibility of a sub-21 finish.  Things felt great. I was on top of nutrition and I felt strong. Given the fact that I tend to run pretty close to even splits in races, no matter then distance, I thought that this was going to be an epic day.

That is, until I started to run again. Suddenly, without any warning, the injury that had been dogging me the last month re-appeared in full force. Every time I tried to run a step, no matter what the pace, my left leg buckled underneath me in sharp, acute pain. I was totally fine walking, but any attempt to run was undoable even for a few steps. I just could not support any weight without sharp pain. I was hopeful that it was just that I spent a little too long at Winfield and that it would warm up again, but the entire 3.7 mile stretch to the Sheep Gulch trailhead, I was unable to run a step.  

I was confident in my power hiking abilities, and I knew that, given my solid start, I should be able to get a big buckle walking the rest of the way. But I was devastated that I wouldn't be able to keep up the  pace I had maintained the first half. I tried to remain positive and just hope that things might improve.

Soon we had the second trip up Hope Pass. The back side of Hope Pass is a straight vertical killer. It's around 3000 feet of elevation gain in less than 3 miles, and after 50 + miles of running, it's just brutal. And, much to my chagrin, on the first section of the uphill, my leg started to buckle and give out on the climb, too. 

For the first time all day, the possibility of a DNF entered my mind. Not because I was going to quit, but because I wasn't sure I was going to be physically able to make it up the hill on one leg.  It was at that moment that Brandon did something that might have saved my race. He went into the forest surrounding us, and he found me a big-ass walking stick. I took the walking stick, and started walking sorta-sideways up Hope Pass using my good right leg and the big-ass walking stick for balance. After a mile or so, the grade gets a little more reasonable, and I was able to put pressure on my left leg again.  

For the rest of the trip up Hope, I was pain free. Thank God.

By the top, I had passed back most of the runners who went by me when I was struggling and I had put distance on most of the runners who were gaining ground.  

As the popular saying goes in the ultrarunning, "it never always gets worse."

At first, I didn't even try to run down Hope Pass. Then, on some of the flatter grades, I tried a shuffle job where I put most of the weight on my right foot and dragged my left around. By the bottom, I was able to manage a semi-reasonable jog. Turned out my race wasn't over after all.

Brandon had brought me back from the dead!

Twin Lakes Inbound 13:00

Brandon ran ahead and let everyone know about my issues and handed over the reins to Mike for the next 27 miles. 
Pacers extraordinare: Brandon and Mike
Full-on rock star treatment

Fist bump for Paul

Starting the climb out of twin
Mike is carrying 3 water bottles and a backpack
Not feeling terribly coordinated

Race competition was intense -- the beard competition even more so

Twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery Inbound 62-78 (Around 16:50)

Mike is a legendary pacer in the ultrarunner world. He's a bad-ass runner, and if he were not pacing me, he probably would have been pacing training partner Nick Clark, who got third overall. But somehow, I managed to hornswoggle him into dragging my ass around for nearly 30 miles.  He was perfect for the job. He's diligent, perpetually positive, with timely insight and relentless humor. I couldn't have asked for better company for those miles.

We did a decent job on the ascent out of Twin. Jamil passed me back on that section, and he wouldn't be seen again. But I think that was the only time I got passed on an ascent all day. 

The ascent went on, and I bitched and moaned to Mike. And then we crested the hill and the next 10 miles were mostly downhill, at which point I bitched about the downhills to Mike, too. It's a wonder he didn't slap me.

I was able to jog at just under 12-minute mile pace at that stage, and I was fine with that.  We went through pipeline and treeline without wasting much time. Mike insisted on my eating and drinking even when I refused. We continued on at a steady pace.

Still running and smiling at mile 75

When we got to the road section, I suggested we alternate running and walking on a five-minute jog, one minute walk schedule. But my leg started acting up and I decided to try 3-1 run/walk. It occurred to me that the walk/run strategy was making my leg worse. So I just said "fuck it" and ended up running the last three miles into Fish Hatchery on the road, as unpleasant as the experience was. I would have thought that by running the section that late in the race I would have been catching people, but somehow, two people still caught me on that section.

Trotting into the sunset

I suppose that's a testament to how slow I was running.

Fish Hatchery to May Queen Inbound (78-88.5) 19:40

The next day, when I talked to my crew, they told me that Fish Hatchery was the place where I started to lose my smile and sense of humor. I had some noodles, picked up headlamps, and went back on the road. My pacer Brandon had had a few beers and was filled with all the enthusiasm in the world, but I couldn't muster much of anything.

Mike and I half-jogged to the base of powerline, and that was pretty much the last running I would do all night. Powerline is a little less than a 2000-foot climb over four miles. Not too rough on fresh legs, but not so easy after 80 miles. About a half- mile into the hike, I fell on my ass on one of the slick sections. I dusted myself off and proceeded up the hill. I wasn't doing great, but I think I might have passed a few guys going up. Mike clocked us at 76 minutes from the base to the top, which isn't horrible. 

I got to the top, tried to run, and my leg was having none of it. So Mike and I powerhiked down sugar loaf, Hagerman, and the Colorado Trail, where our time together turned into Mike reciting lines from movies and me guessing the movie he was quoting. Mike really likes Waterboy, for some reason.

May Queen Inbound to the Finish (88.5 - 101.2) 23:13

Arrived at May Queen to raucous applause and power hiked right through the aid. I had 3:20 to go 13 miles and break 23 hours. This sounded like an easy thing to do. That did not turn out to be the case.

My new pacer was Joe Packard. Joe and I ran cross country together in high school. He went on to be a helluva college runner.  In fact, he was the captain of a cross-country team that included Mike Aish, Duncan Callahan, Chris Siemers, and Tim Parr.  He's never been directly involved in ultras, but he's an upbeat person and an inspirational human being. I figured he'd be the perfect company for the last 13 miles.  

Unfortunately, I did not reciprocate the favor. I whined every step on the way. I whined about eating, about trying to walk, and about trying to run. About our headlamps, and about our pace.  You name it.  

I knew I was minutes away from finishing one of the best races in my life, but I still couldn't manage to stay positive. The cumulative walking finally started to get to me. My feet were swelling out of my shoes. And my injured leg couldn't support an Olsen twin. It felt like it took us 20 hours to get around Turquoise Lake, rather than 2.

We finally go to the road and to the climb down mini-Powerline, with less than 6 miles to go.  

Mini-powerline is a super-rocky, super steep little quarter mile section that connects the road leading to Leadville with the Turquoise Lake trail. 

Only one slight problem: I couldn't get down mini-powerline. I seriously think it took me over 10 minutes to cover this quarter mile. I fell three times. I tried sliding down the hill on my ass. My leg just wouldn't let me get down the hill. I contemplated barrel rolling down the hill on the rocks, because I didn't know how else I could get down the damned thing. Eventually, I figured this bouncing step maneuver where I would jump onto my right leg and drag my left as if it were completely limp. It took forever, but I finally made it to the bottom.

At that stage, I wasn't moving fast, so I started freezing. Joe had a few extra layers in his bag. I bundled up and trudged the last few miles into Leadville. It was a joyous moment. But I couldn't appreciate it much at the time, because I was hurting so damned bad.

We finally hit the top of 6th Avenue, and I saw Brian. He had been waiting at the finish for nearly two hours, because, up until that last stretch, I had been ahead of every single projected split I had given him.

I tried to muster a run down the hill, but I couldn't. By the bottom of the hill, I had six people trotting next to me. I then pulled on all my last reserves to hop on one leg the final quarter mile to the finish, dragging my left leg the whole way like a stroke victim.

At the finish, I collapsed into a crying heap on the carpet. I was, quite simply, spent. 

After a few minutes, I was in a good mood again in the medical tent, where we determined that you are, in fact, allowed to drink beer there. My feet were swollen, worthless stumps and my legs no longer functioned, but my spirit and taste for good beer remained strong.


Hobbling around Sunday at the awards ceremony, I looked as bad as anyone there. And I can assure you it was no affectation. My leg and feet were absolutely wrecked. I didn't have any profound medical issues, but mechanically, I was in rough shape. There have been some races I have run where I wondered whether there was something else I could have done to go faster, and whether I could have pushed harder. I will never wonder that about this race.

I first said I wanted to run this race in high school. I definitely set out to do this race in 2008. I was totally out of shape at the time. Just three years ago, I finished in 4:41 at the Collegiate Peaks 25 miler. I was a mid-pack runner at best at a small-time local race. 

On Saturday, I got 38th out of 802 runners in the biggest 100-mile race in the United States.  I'm not the most talented runner, but I've been consistent, I've worked hard, and I've achieved a lifelong goal. It's great when things work out for you.


Thank you Brian, my brother and crew chief. I want to think of a better word than special for what it felt like to share this with you, but I think that might be the best word. I could feel how sincere and profound your passion and support for me was every time I saw you. You were a perfect crew chief -- handled everything to perfection and never once complained.

Thank you Sarah, for putting up with sleepless nights and an endless day in Leadville. You brought a great smile that was wonderful to see at every aid station day and night.

Thank you Brandon, Mike, and Joe.  I had a great first half of the race, but you guys got stuck with me in the bad half (not that a bad second half is unique in a 100 miler). You handled my moodiness and struggles to perfection. You kept me focused on all the right things and positive throughout. I couldn't have done it without you.

Thank you Ryan, Carolyn, Jon, Paul, Shawn, and Dmitri. I really didn't expect you guys to come up to watch the race. Ultrarunning ain't exactly a spectator sport, but you guys made it into one. Thanks so much for your support.

And that's all I have to say about that.


  1. Nice job pushing through/beyond the pain you encountered. Sounds like you had your mind in the right place for succeeding and the rest just became managing details along the way. Also you're fortunate to have had such a great crew helping you reach your goal. Reading your report gets me excited for next year's race. I assume you'll be back for more...

    1. I can assure you that I will be running many races next year, and that Leadville will NOT be one of them.

  2. Hey Kieran - congratulations on a well run race! You battled through the demons and finished in a very good time! Rest up and have a beer!

    1. Thanks. I'm kinda glad it's in the rear view mirror. And yes, I'm enjoying a beer right now!

  3. Awesome job man, it was great being out there with you and your crew, and great to see you reach a long term goal with a well-executed plan. Cheers!

    1. Thanks, Mike. Couldn't have scripted a better pacer for those miles.

  4. Nice run Kieran. That last 13 miles can cause nightmares afterwards and you gutted it out as well as anyone could. Enjoy that big buckle. You certainly earned it.

  5. Thanks Footfeathers. I appreciate the comment. I'm certainly happy with the experience I had and the result.

  6. Simply awesome Kieran. I couldn't believe how fast you motored up Hope outbound. The picture of you on the ground says it perfectly...you left it all out there while battling through much adversity. That exemplifies the spirit of this race.

    1. You were definitely one of the people I was expecting to catch me at the end. I kept looking over my shoulder and expecting you to be there. Had the race been a mile longer, you probably would have been.

  7. Impressive.

    I am not sure why anyone would ever want to do this after reading all these reports ...


  8. Fantastic report. Fantastic perseverance. Beer is fantastic. Well done.