Thursday, August 22, 2013

Chasing Aish: Leadville 100 Crew Report

When you wake up the day after crewing a 100-mile race, and you notice your legs are sore, it's a sign you may have been involved in something extraordinary. And so it was, crewing for Mike Aish at the Leadville 100.

I wouldn't normally feel inclined to write a race report about crewing. But I'm pretty sure Aish ain't the blogging type. And I'm damned sure his pacers Jason and Scott won't be posting anything. So I guess that leaves little old me. There's some great stories from the day worth telling, and I figured someone should tell them.

I asked Mike if he minded, and, with his trademark super laid back style, he said, "go for gold." So here goes...


I've been acquainted with Mike for years, as two of my best friends from high school ran cross country with him at Western State up in Gunnison. But I got to know him pretty well in June when the two of us went to South Dakota to pace and crew Bryan Williams at the Black Hills 100.  Long story short, that weekend I volunteered to help crew him at his return trip to Leadville.

Now, Mike knows a lot of guys who are amazing runners, all far out of my league. And he knows a ton about running, too. But he doesn't have many people in his inner circle who know much about ultrarunning. And as someone who's been at Leadville five of the last six years as a runner, pacer, or spectator, I thought I might have something to add.  Mike's a bad ass and a total crack up. I was happy to ride along.

Unlike many ultra guys, Mike's the antithesis of an anal-retentive super planner. Four days before the race, he sent me an email, the first line of which said, "How am I going to race this thing?"  The day before the race, he prepped one tub of food and one tub of clothes. But he still said things like, "yeah, whatever you want to give me at the aid stations is fine. Probably water and some EFS maybe. I trust you. Whatever you think is right is fine." I probably could have told him that jello shots and margarita mix were the keys to success in a 100 miler and he would have gone along with it. Not that he isn't smart. Quite the opposite. He's just that trusting and laid back.

He eventually settled on needing one bottle of water between every station, except for Twin to Winfield, where I would give him two. And we'd trade out an EFS container at every station. One of his pacers also made him some rice cakes based on a Scratch recipe. He'd have one or two of those between every station, too, if he could stomach them.

I told him to throw on the ground at every aid station anything he no longer wanted and I would hand him his new stuff as I ran alongside him. In and out. No wasted time.



We went to the start line a half an hour before the gun went off. I hung out with his wife, Nicole, and said my hellos to as many buddies as I could find in the dark crowd.  It was cool to be back at the start one year after racing. But I was happy that I didn't have to go through all of this again.

May Queen 

Mike's wife Nicole, and a camera guy hired by Mizuno, Mike, and I headed out to May Queen at about 5:30. I knew that the fastest split on the first section was about 1:37, so I was little nervous we would arrive late, with all the traffic and clustery-ness. I had run with Mike on Friday and he damned near dropped me on the three-mile shakeout run. Dude is crazy fit and fast, so I knew that anything was possible.

Mike arrived at 5:45, at a 1:45 split, at the front of the second pack of runners. Ian Sharman was a couple of minutes ahead. Mike looked like he hadn't started yet. He tossed his bottle and EFS to the ground. Bottle, EFS, and rice cakes all eaten. Conservative first split. Check. Check. Check.


Outward Bound (Aid Station Formerly Known as Fish Hatchery)

I took one look at this aid station and knew that it was going to be an unmitigated disaster. One lane of traffic, coming in and out. 1000 crews going to the same place within an hour or so of each other. 1000 runners converging on the same place. All 1000 runners being forced to pass through and dodge in and out of the one lane of traffic immediately adjacent to the aid station. Pretty amazing that such a venerated race could make such a horrific logistic decision. But anyway...

Mike came blasting in to this aid station all by his lonesome. Last year he had a plan not to go ahead of the leaders, to the point where he literally stopped and waited for the others on a half-dozen occasions. This year, he decided to go by heart rate.

He muttered something about not knowing what happened to everyone else and then asked where to go. The aid station had you take a hairpin turn, stop, and immediately do a 180 to go in the other direction. I guided him through the cluster and got ready to hand him his new supplies.

"Don't need 'em." He said.

"Excuse me?"

"I've already had enough food. My stomach is way too full."

I looked and noticed his bottle (only 13 oz.) was nearly full.  His EFS almost untouched. Rice cake not eaten. Over the ten miles between May Queen and Fish Hatchery, he probably consumed 100 calories and drank 4 or 5 oz. of water.

"Dude, you need to eat."

"I'm fine; I feel fine."

Before I could process this information, he was out on the road and bombing down the pavement at some crazy-ass pace. He hadn't even taken the time to drop off his headlamp or pick up his iPod, as planned.

"Slow down and eat," I screamed at the top of my lungs, but I doubt he heard me amid the ruckus of arriving first at the aid station.

At the rate he was going, I knew we needed to book to meet him at Treeline. So I sprinted back to the car with Nicole, jacket, iPod, and unused bottles in hand.

We pushed our way through the cluster, picked up Mike the camera man, and headed back on the road. When we caught up to Mike (almost two miles down the road), we screamed at him that he needed to slow down and eat. He said he was fine, and he tried to hand off his headlamp to Nicole out of the moving vehicle. I told Nicole that crewing outside an aid was grounds for a DQ, and we told him we'd meet him up the road.

Looking behind, there was no one to be found. He had already built up about the biggest lead I had ever seen at this stage of the Leadville 100.

Nicole and Mike were excited. But I was super anxious. I knew that 100 calories and 5 oz. of water over 10 miles were a recipe for disaster in an ultra.

Tree Line

Fifteen minutes later, he was running up the trail to tree line. 27+ miles in at 10,000 ft., over a mountain pass. 3:38 time elapsed. 73 miles to go. Holy balls.

I stood in the middle of the trail and told him to stop and walk. He claimed he'd already consumed 2,000 calories, but that sure seemed like ultra math to me. I had mixed up a diluted EFS and water mixture and ordered him to drink it. He had a couple of sips. He said that he couldn't process any more food. It occurred to me that he might not have enough water in his stomach to process all the calories, and so we had him drink 20 oz. of water, and that seemed to help.

I said he was going too fast and he said he felt totally relaxed and comfortable. I took a glance at his heart rate monitor and saw the following, "119""118" "115." Ok. That's low. Maybe he wasn't going too fast.

But he definitely needed more calories. We gave him an EFS container, a fresh bottle of water, and a rice cake and said he had to eat them all by Twin Lakes. He assured us he would. Okey doke. He was on his way. 3:41 elapsed.

It was ten minutes before the next two guys showed up. Ten minutes is a serious lead 27 miles into a 100.

Twin Lakes Out

I figured Mike would get to Twin well ahead of Carpenter's course record splits. The only question was how much.

He danced down the hill 5:10 into the race. Twelve minutes ahead of Carpenter's split. Yikes. I don't remember how many calories he had during that section, but I remember it being more than the previous one, but almost certainly not enough. So I figured he had to be waaaay down on calories. But he still looked super fresh. I tried to get him to stop and eat something at the aid station, but he blew right on through.

He asked for poles, and we fiddled with them for a few minutes. I assumed (wrongly) he would want them folded up, because it's more than a mile to the base of the hill. So he stopped for a minute to open them up and get them ready to go.  But once they were locked up, he sprinted through town at what felt like sub-6 pace. I've never seen a human being run anywhere near that fast in a 100. I'm sure he had crazy adrenaline going through him with the crowds, but still, way too fast. I honestly felt as if I was going at max speed to keep up with him to badger him about getting more calories.

I handed off two EFS containers and two bottles, and must have repeated five times that he needed at least 600 calories by Winfield, but I could barely keep close to him, he was going so damned fast. He bolted off onto the trail, and I shouted as he left, "Slow down and f%$^ing eat!"

I'm not sure he heard me.

We waited for the next few runners. They were a full 20 minutes back.


As always seems to be, it was sunny, exposed, and hot at Winfield. The time gap between Twin Lakes and Winfield is the longest of the day, and so it was a nervous section for the crew. This was the section where Mike blew up last year, so we were anxious to see him again.

He came in around 7:37, just a couple of minutes behind Carpenter's split. Unlike the previous aid stations, he was willing to walk and eat and drink for a couple of minutes. He walked the last few hundred feet to the aid station with his wife and first pacer, Jason Donald (3rd at Salida Run Through Time this year).

At the aid, he took a few minutes to down four or five shots of coke and 8-10 orange slices. Near as I could tell, that about doubled his calorie intake over the last 30 miles.  And it was a good sign that he could (and would) eat.

He and Jason set out of the aid at a brisk jog, but more controlled than at Twin Lakes.  Jason is a cool customer, a great runner, and works for a food nutrition company. Pretty much exactly what Mike needed at that stage.

This time, Ian Sharman came in only 9 minutes back. Nick Clark was 12 minutes back. The experienced ultra guys were closing the gap. And both went in and out of the aid way quicker than Aish.

Twin Lakes Inbound

As soon as we got to Twin Lakes, the camera guy and I decided to grab a bite to eat at one of the local restaurants at Twin Lakes. But a few minutes after we started relaxing, Nicole came into the restaurant and told us that Bryon Powell had told her that Mike would be there in 20-30 minutes, a bit ahead of schedule.

So we quickly paid the check and ordered a couple of to-go cokes. I figured if he wouldn't eat EFS or rice cakes, we should give him a bottle of coke for his pacer to carry. He needed calories somehow.

Sure enough, a little while later he came bombing into Twin Lakes with Jason at some crazy pace. We met his pacer a few hundred yards ahead of the trail head, and Jason shouted "new shoes and socks." This wasn't a part of the plan, so I took off (again) at what felt like 4:30-mile pace across a brush-filled field to get the man new kicks. I rustled around the car, found his shoes and socks, and then flew across the parking lots screaming "leader coming through," just in time to meet him in town. We had him sit down on some random person's folding chair, and got him re-shod in about 45 seconds flat. He was cramping a bit here, but seemed relatively fresh.

He slammed a couple of oranges and coke at the aid and was off, dancing up the hill just as easily (or so it seemed) as he had come down. I told Jason to make sure he drank the full bottle of coke.

Seven minutes later, Ian Sharman came through. But he definitely didn't look as good as Aish. Ten minutes later, Clark came through. Everyone knows he's a tough mother, but man, he looked like shit.

Holy crap, I thought. He really is going to run away with this thing.

Treeline In 

On our way to treeline, we were all excited. Nicole could hardly contain her enthusiasm. Even the camera man Mike was jazzed up. Sure, there were 40 miles to go. But Mike looked gooooood at Twin. Plus, there was lots of runnable terrain in the last miles, and Mike's probably the best pure runner to ever give this race a go.

But after we had been waiting at treeline for a while, one of the guys who was waiting with us said that on the race tracking system, it said that Ian had passed Mike at Pipeline. And then iRunFar reported the same. And then they reported Nick going through Pipeline. When iRunFar finally reported Mike getting to Pipeline, it said he took 14 minutes at the station. Just like that, what seemed a likely victory had turned into something very different.

Nicole took off running toward Pipeline, just because she couldn't handle sitting any longer. By the time Mike came walking toward us, he was more than an hour behind the leaders.

Mike told us to give him a jacket and a headlamp and that he'd see us at the house. His plan at that stage was just to walk it in. He said his midsection had "seized up," but to me it just sounded like he was bonking. We listened to him complain a little and while he did I kept feeding him rice cakes and coke. But there was no fucking way we were going to let him walk it in. He was still in third place. There wasn't anything structurally that wrong with him. If he could just get more calories, there was no reason he couldn't still podium. We screamed at him that Jurek was still a half an hour back and if he got his head back in the game (easier said than done at mile 73), he was still going to get top three.

He eventually left the aid at a decent pace. We drove up ahead to pick up one of the camera man, and he and Jason came flying down the trail and onto the road. He got his groove back.

Outward Bound In

We prepped Mike's next pacer, Scott Nagelkerke that he needed to take in calories and to try to keep Mike in the right mindset to get top 3. Within a few minutes, Mike and Jason appeared in the distance, and soon thereafter, they were at the aid.  Jason prepped an electrolyte beverage of some sort and we walked Mike out of the aid. Mike had a nice chat with Bryon Powell of iRunFar as he was leaving, insulting the sport in jest, as I recall.

We waited for the next runner. Scott Jurek was a good twenty minutes behind, but he looked awful. Podium again seemed reasonable.

May Queen

Even when you're hanging with the leaders, 100-milers are still a long day. By the time we got to May Queen, we were all half dozing off. By now, we had all become close to the crews and pacers for Nick Clark, Ryan Sandes, and Ian Sharman. Everyone was friendly and collegial to the point where if you didn't know beforehand, you wouldn't know who was crewing for whom.

Ian showed up not long after we got there, and he looked fantastic for 87 miles. Nick showed up shortly thereafter, with my pacer from last year, Mike Hinterberg. Nick looked terrible again, but he was gaining ground.  Some speculated that Clark was going to catch him, but judging by appearances, that seemed unlikely.

We knew it would be at least an hour before Mike got there. And it ended up being an 1:10 later. He was positive and still joking with aid station volunteers. No longer was there any doubt about whether he would finish. The only question now was whether a fresher runner might come up and catch him from behind. His pacer said he only wanted water. I said that was a bad idea. I tried to get the pacer to bring coke as well, but he wasn't having it. I convinced him to at least bring a bottle of scratch mix and to eat a few oranges.


Driving back to town, we saw Nick Clark emptying the contents of his stomach near the railroad tracks. So much for drama at the finish.

Waiting for the winners at Leadville always strikes me as anti-climactic. There aren't that many people in town. It's never been a close race any time I'd been there. And so it was this year. Sharman jogged in strong with an excellent last split, putting to bed any doubts.  You could tell he was thrilled that he'd pulled it off.

I hung out with some of Clark's friends, who were hoping he'd break 17. I told Clark's wife that he'd been puking, but she seemed pretty nonplussed. Par for the course, I guess. Right around 9 pm, Clark crested the hill and made his final jog into town. Another valiant effort, for certain.

We knew Aish would be at least another 30 minutes or so. We killed time by getting grub from the new local distillery (nice place, by the way). I then headed out to the top of the boulevard, and Nicole and Jason hung out in the stands by the finish. Mike needed a 2:13 last 13.5 miles to break 18 hours. I figured it was a long shot, seeing as how it'd gotten dark and Mike wasn't likely taking in (m)any calories in that last stretch.

Another one of Mike's friends, Andrew, another 2:13 marathoner, joined me at the top of the boulevard. Both of us were pretty nervous. 10:00 o'clock passed. 10:10. Ick. It was going to be close.

Then, we noticed a couple of people walking on the boulevard with their lights off. It was pitch black at this point, and impossible to tell who they were. We got close and eventually deciphered it was Mike and pacer Scott. Phew. They had turned off their headlamps to avoid giving incentive to anyone looking to catch up from behind. Clever man, that Mike.

Mike was in pain, as everyone is after 99 miles. But you could tell he was happy he'd decided to gut it out. He crossed the line in 18:27. His friend Alan busted open an $11 bottle of champaign he bought at a liquor store in Leadville and passed it around, to commemorate the celebration on a job well done.


I think Mike was by far the fittest man in the field. Most observers probably think he didn't win the race because he went out too hard. I disagree. He may have run slightly harder than he should have in those first 40 miles, but he was fit. Crazy fit. By far the bigger issue from my vantage point was that he didn't take in anywhere near enough calories.

He probably had around 1000 calories total from May Queen to Winfield. And then he survived almost exclusively on coke and a few oranges on the return leg. That's just not enough to keep the engine going at max velocity for that long. Or at least that's my amateur conclusion.

Still, 3rd place at Leadville is a great showing for your first 100-mile finish. He should be super proud of a job well done. Finishing that high in a stacked field is no easy task, no matter how fit you are.

I hope he decides to give ultrarunning a few more tries. It's a joy watching someone with that much talent and that much love of running out there on the trails. His love of the sport is pure. And that's a big part of why it's just so fun to watch him out there. I, for one, hope I get to ride alongside him again some day.


  1. Awesome write up and thanks for sharing the view from the side, front. Great stuff.

  2. Really enjoyed the write up! Thanks for sharing your perspective. Aish is a cool cat and was pumped for his race.

  3. Really enjoyed reading this - thanks. Sounds like you guys had a pretty exciting day. Good man for doing all you could to get calories in him. So often that's the hardest part of running 100s well. It was certainly an issue for me this time. I really appreciate Mike's laid-back approach to race day planning. Plans/tactics almost always go to hell anyway, so no need to over plan in the first place. Not only that, sounds like he had a pretty awesome crew he could trust. Great job to all of you!

  4. That was some great entertainment. Thanks for that. Aish is a legend!

  5. Great report and good running into you at Twin Lakes (and at the Black Hills 100). You're right, Mike was a lot of fun to watch out there.

  6. Great stuff, thanks for sharing. Great seeing you out there! He couldn't have had better crew, with a mixture of knowledge and laid-back/having fun while taking it seriously enough to crush it.

    Not sure what the craziest numbers are: min/mile outbound, kcals/hour, or heart rate. Damn!

    I hope he keeps doing this stuff.