Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Leadville Trail 100 – The Race Across the Sky (By Dave Yeakel jr.)

Here is part 3 of the Grand Slam journal written by my friend and guest blogger Dave Yeakel jr. This is Dave’s account of his Leadville 100 experience, his third race in the 2007 Grand Slam (Part 1 can be read here, and part 2 here).
Leadville has dominated my thoughts all year. 100 Colorado miles defined by unpredictable mountain weather, altitude averaging 10,500 feet prompting the catch phrase “Got Oxygen?” and some of the toughest miles on any course between 40-60 when runners must traverse Hope Pass at 12,600 feet twice on this out and back course. This race is not the hardest of the summer as that distinction is saved for the Wasatch Front, but it has the least mercy with a 30 hour cutoff and an ability to chastise those who lose focus, or who’s body it senses an exploitable weakness. Every year 50% of the starters never finish this race. Yes, this was the one to worry about because I felt the outcome was beyond my control.

The primary Leadville issue relates to altitude acclimatization, which is so eloquently described by the American Heart Association of Colorado safety brochures.

"A sudden change in environment from sea level to high altitude (above 5,280 feet) can produce symptoms of nausea, insomnia, diarrhea, restlessness, shortness of breath and air hunger. Palpitations or fast heart-beat, headache, nasal congestion, coughing, increased flatulence or “gas”, easy fatigue and intolerance to exertion also may be experienced. If the high altitude experience progresses, more shortness of breath, and increased coughing and edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) may occur requiring medical attention and possible hospitalization."

The general consensus is to acclimate for a minimum of two weeks or arrive the day prior to a high altitude race and take your chances before the body knows what hit it. Due to personal constraints and a belief that my body would respond to a shorter time period, I opted to arrive eight days prior to the race. Within six hours of landing in Denver I had managed to stock up food & supplies before driving to the parking lot atop Mt. Evans, Colorado - elevation 14,100 ft. This was to be home for the night as I put the seat back & settled in.

The road to Mt. Evans is the highest paved road in North America, and it doesn’t go anywhere except to a parking lot and an observatory. It’s amazing how many people drive to nowhere in the middle of the night as I took note of many visitors coming and going throughout a very blustery night. I lay in the car atop the mountain, all alone with the wind howling and rocking the car. It was so blustery that I moved the car to the center of the parking lot so as not to get blown off the mountain. Yes, a little over active imagination but then again why take chances! By 3am I had a screaming headache, stomach nausea, and knees that ached, but I took mental comfort that the shock-approach was working and I only needed a few more hours before driving to a more reasonable altitude for recovery.

At 6:20am Saturday morning I was finally coherent enough to move about and climb to the 14,268 foot summit, what a beautiful view standing atop the Rockies peering down on Denver miles away with mountain vista’s all around. After 15 minutes or so of soul searching I determined enough was enough and I was ready to go. I could not get to lower elevation fast enough, could not eat food without fear of recourse, and spent the remainder of Saturday afternoon lying in bed drifting in and out of sleep between bad movies on cable TV.

Sunday prompted a return to Mt. Evans, parking at Summit Lake (elevation 12,700) followed by a brisk rock scramble to the summit gaining almost 1,600 feet. In the thin air I should have been more careful as on the return descent I picked up the pace and promptly took a nasty fall banging my back and shoulder against the rocks. It took a few moments to collect my thoughts as my body was wracked with pain and my head was spinning, the mountains had just served notice that this was not going to be easy!

Monday thru Thursday were spent running the ridges of Loveland Pass (11,996 ft), hiking the jeep road to Mosquito Pass twice (13,186 ft), visiting the 50 mile turn-around located in the ghost town of Winfield, checking e-mail at the local university, morning walks with coffee in hand, resting, socializing and relaxing. This part of the prerace ritual I’m enjoying and becoming quite good at!

Thursday evening just prior to the pasta dinner the surrounding mountains were dusted with a summer snowfall as an informal omen to expect the unexpected. All that remained to be done on Friday was the medical check, prerace briefing, and delivery of drop bags to the courthouse lawn. As I had debated what to put in the drop bags all week I was quite anxious to deliver them as soon as possible so I could to end the mental acrobatics.

My room at the historic Delaware Hotel was strategically located just one block from the start/finish providing extra time for sleep and eliminating any logistical issues. Everything that could be planned for had been taken care of to the best of my abilities, now it was time to run. Once again, the 4am start arrived way to early but the adrenaline was pumping for this race and I was ready to test my limits at altitude.

The initial plan was to run comfortable and not push the pace like at Vermont but with 475 runners toeing the line, the top third was calling my name so I could run the trail sections around Turquoise Lake without much interference. With almost an hour of running until reaching the lake section I found a niche within the crowd and made myself comfortable. Early on I happily realized that my acclimation appeared to have worked, although the true test would not arrive until climbing Sugar Loaf Pass (11,000+ft) at mile 19 and Hope Pass (12,600ft) at mile 45.

Leadville’s course was far prettier and entertaining than I imagined as it twisted, turned, climbed and descended thru the mountains. Once again I was immersed in conversation with fellow runners and my mind occupied with a constant measure of pacing and physical energy levels as the miles rolled by. My least favorite section of this course came just after the Fish Hatchery aid station (mile 23.5) when the course travels a road for 7 miles, this section reduced my running strategy to running past three telephone poles before walking to the next followed by a repeat, over and over for almost the entire section until Halfmoon Campground aid station.

The “outbound” 9 miles between Halfmoon and Twin Lakes (mile 39.5) were some of the best as the course rolls across a series of three hills with a constant downhill bias ending in a screaming vertical drop on a jeep trail just short of the aid station. This bustling aid station really got the adrenaline pumping as the crowd was very enthusiastic and I was still full of energy as planned. This milestone brought me face to face with the menacing Mt. Hope indicating that the climb from the lowest (9,200ft) to highest (12,600ft) point on the course was soon to test my limits not just on the first climb but also 5 miles later on the “inbound” return trip.

Soon after departing Twin Lakes and crossing the river and wetlands feeding the lakes we began climbing and climbing and climbing. The ascent was not intensely steep but constant and wet as the mountain skies began dumping cold rain in the higher elevations. I will have to say it started looking pretty bleak from a mental aspect wandering where the top was after leaving Twin Lakes almost two hours prior. Finally, in a clearing, several hundred feet below the pass I could see the aid station and remember thinking I was almost halfway home. It was extremely difficult to summon the energy to re-emerge from that aid station tent into the rain and now hail to climb the final 500-700 feet up and over the pass but it had to be done.

The final push was wet and miserable, but once over the top an enchanted valley lay below. From the pass you could see endless switchbacks littered with runners looking like autumn leaves in there brightly colored rain gear. The initial descent was fairly mild but it was hard to look around as I was having issues with the height and a strange dizzy feeling like when standing on the edge of a cliff. It was best to focus my eyes on the trail and just keep moving.

It did not take long for the narrow trail to plunge to the valley floor, making passing faster runners on their return climb difficult. From the bottom of the mountain it was only 2.5 miles until Winfield and 50 miles (4:03pm). I had purposefully not packed a drop bag for the turn around because I did not want to dawdle too long. My goal was to get back over Hope Pass and put the worst of this course behind me.

Running in the mountains means that temperatures can change in just a matter of minutes. So while an hour ago at the top, it had been raining and hailing, it was now bright, sunny and quite warm on the gravel road between the trailhead and Winfield. Once again the aid station crowd was one of the largest I’ve seen and served to excite the adrenaline, however short-lived. Most of my adrenaline rushes are short lived after 50 miles!

On the road back to the trailhead I began looking for friends and taking mental measurements of their pace and energy hoping that each would make it to the finish. Once I was back on the trail the course got ugly real fast as the return climb was shorter but steeper. Whether it was from the wear and tear of prior races this year, the prior 50 miles, improper training for real mountains, or general fatigue from the higher altitude, I was forced to make repetitive stops along the climb. These were not just stops to look at the scenery these were full-fledged hands on the knees to rest or “tree huggers” to keep from falling back down the steep trail and lose precious ground that I had worked so hard for. It wasn’t my lungs stopping me dead in my tracks, but my legs screaming for a few seconds of rest and recovery. I know it looked pathetic but trust me I had company at more than one stop.

Never have I been happier to be above tree-line as I was on that climb knowing that it meant only another 1,000 feet or so of climbing. Of course the very cold rain and hail returned (surprise) along with dark gray skies, thunder, and wind to add to the excitement. Once again it was Dave vs. the mountain and my energy levels grew to meet the challenge as the conditions worsened. I was determined to get across that pass. The unfortunate aspect of climbing back up Hope Pass was seeing a large number of runners still coming downhill for whom it was mathematically impossible to meet the 14 hour time cut-off at Winfield. In other words they had already been eliminated by the course and knew it but they still soldiered on. Just as anticipated this return climb up Hope Pass was my slowest section of the course averaging 28minutes per mile – like I said, it hurt!

From the top of the pass back to Twin Lakes it was a fun-filled, fast, muddy trip. The adolescent runner in me attempted to break out again but I reeled him back in so he wouldn’t hurt himself. At the aid station (60.5-miles, 15-hrs, 58-min) it was time to change shoes and socks after a very wet 20 miles. The sun would soon be setting and the next section would take some time, as it was primarily uphill. The energy level in me was waning a little but I still felt strangely content to be headed for home knowing that nothing short of a major problem could stop me.

As expected the inbound section between Twin Lakes and Halfmoon took some time with its uphill bias but even still it proved again to be my favorite as the woods were so dense and beautiful. At Halfmoon (69.5-miles, 19-hrs, 11-min) I had some difficulty, first with the volunteers actually getting my drop bag and then with self motivation to get out of the chair. I could feel extreme fatigue setting in and I knew the next 7 miles were my least favorite of the course.

It is two miles from the aid station to where crews are allowed to meet their runners, and while I did not have a crew I did collect a hug and moral support from Don Halke’s crew/pacer Ellen. Always nice to have a few friends! I had warned Ellen before the race that my only need may be to collect a hug from her and when Ellen’s husband Bill saw me and asked if there was anything I needed there was no hesitancy in my voice, “I’ll take that hug now! I really need it!” After the usual lies about how I was making this look easy, I confessed to them that I was really tired and the last 30 were going to be difficult. No major issues with my body or legs just extreme fatigue like I had never experienced before. I believe this extra level of tiredness was due to the altitude.

At most races the runners seem to “thin out” in the second half as people drop out and the time expands between groups of runners. In this race the number of runners on course seemed to expand in a strange phenomenon brought about by the western landscape with fewer trees on this section, pacers joining their runners, and the constant climb back up to 11,000 feet at the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain (mile 81). On several occasions I took the time to look back at the course and see what appeared to be a parade of lights extending for miles. It was really spectacular and served to remind me I was not alone and that I needed to keep moving because technically this was still a “race”.

From the top of Sugar Loaf the course descends back to the May Queen aid station leaving you at the doorstep of Leadville with 13.5 miles to go. But before you can count yourself a finisher you must first must traverse the rolling and rocky shoreline of Turquoise Lake, get past the Tabor Boat Ramp and back uphill the final three miles or so to the finish.

I had hoped to never see this section around the lake to the finish in daylight but it was already 4:50am when I arrived at May Queen and the sun would soon be rising across the lake. I continued to make good time inspired by a woman and her husband pacer who I had shared the trail with since the top of Sugar Loaf. Neither one of us was talking much but traveling together seemed to spur us on as we changed leads repeatedly but neither of us could break the imaginary rubber band that bound us together for those miles. That is until the Tabor Boat Ramp (mile 93) when my wheels finally came off and my running buddy slowly pulled away.

Once again, extreme fatigue had set in, my feet were now seriously hurting and while I could still power-walk I could not establish a run momentum further than 100 yards or so. Part of it was the knowledge that barring serious mishap I had survived the uncontrollable race. I kept a firm mental picture of how much time was left and pushed whenever my feet would allow so that I could put more “time in the bank”. The last few miles were tough as I had ignored scouting them before the race and never noticed the hills in the early race darkness and adrenaline. Now it was all uphill to the finish – I was determined that if the finish was not apparent by 8:30am I would have to run no matter what, as I could not afford a DNF at this point in the summer.

Thankfully, just before 8:30am the course was benevolent and provided a glimpse of the finish line three quarters of a mile away and uphill but at least I could see it! The entire idea of running went out the window as I walked all but the final 30 yards. One person passed me in that final stretch with a full sprint from about one half mile out, but the announcer said he was from Colorado Springs so I felt justified that he came pre-adjusted to altitude….he should be sprinting! Finally, at 8:38am on Sunday I crossed the finish line with a time of 28-hrs, 38-min, 17-sec.

A tagline used by the race this year, “There are no Shortcuts – The Leadville Trail 100” absolutely says it all and causes me to ponder the craving I have to return to this course in the future. A course that looks so deceptively benign on paper with only 15,600 feet of climbing and descent, but which exploits and chastises the challengers every year.

What’s next? Wasatch Front 100 mile Endurance Run and the final race of the Grand Slam
“Wasatch is not just of distance and speed; it is adversity, adaptation and perseverance.”

Dave Yeakel, Jr. (#293 – out)
139th of 210 finishers with 475 starters (yes, that’s a 44.2% finish rate)

Grand Slam Update – 30 registered runners:
05 DNF’s at Western States
02 DNF’s at Vermont
10 DNF’s at Leadville with–the “Lucky 13” still running

Way to tough it out, Dave! Now, rest up and bring it home at Wasatch!

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