by Bill Hoffman
Eight years ago I read “Born to Run” (BTR), took off my shoes and started to run. I was so excited about running, I wrote an article for Adirondack Sports. In the article, I described my first marathon the Hudson Mohawk River in 2011. I am pretty sure I was not ready for that race as it still stands out as one of the hardest races I have run (4:42). Since th
en I have run 37 marathon or ultra distance races, and this past August I ran my first 100 mile race at Leadville, Colorado. I have run all of these races either barefoot or in Luna Sandals.
Coach and pacer
This past winter on a cold day (-20F) in the Adirondacks I found myself ascending Giant Mountain with some guy named Tom. He was coming off a running injury and I of course talked his ear off with my running story and tales of great adventure at Wakely Dam Ultra, Manitou’s Revenge, the Great Range, Inca Trail and others. It was only after finishing the hike/run did I realize I had been talking with Tom O’Grady, a 2:28 Boston marathon runner who seemed to have won every single road race I entered when I started running. Tom and I became friends and I was eager to show him all my favorite trails (Moreau in the snow and Spring, Lake George Buck Mountain 50K training run). When he heard about my coming Leadville attempt, he wanted in as a pacer.
Experienced manager and LT100 veteran pacer
I have worked and run with Matt Turek for many years, and he has been a pacer and crew for two other runners at LT100. As soon as I won the lottery for LT100, I emailed Matt and he said he was in. He also recruited his friend Dan (who lives in Boulder) whom Matt paced at LT100 in the past to be one of my pacers.
All in the family
My cousin Doug lives in Aspen and thinks I am crazy for running as much as I do, but ever since I suggested he read BTR, he has been asking when I would run the Leadville 100. Well, this was the year, and he jumped all in providing a base camp in Aspen and tons of support. My wife Naomi also joined the team as crew, pacer, cook and much appreciated hugs at all the aid stations, I think she also wanted to be there if I died on the trail…
Training for a 100 mile race at altitude
When people hear about my mountain adventures, they often ask how I train for altitude in Clifton Park. Well obviously we don’t have thin air around here. However, we do have some of the most rugged and beautiful trails in the vast Adirondack wilderness. For a race like this I train to elevation gain. I will try to get 10K to 20K a week. I also entered several other trail races to help prepare for the adventure. I ran 7 Sisters, Manitou’s Revenge, Wakely Ultra, Great ADK Trail Race (followed by a BQ Lake Placid marathon the next morning). I also went to Moreau 2 times a week.
Getting there and acclimatization
I flew out to Denver the Saturday before the race and drove directly to Steamboat for the Honey Stinger half marathon. To continue my 2018 run streak, I stopped at a random trailhead just outside Steamboat for a one mile run (https://www.strava.com/activities/1765960700). The next morning I ran a respectable but restrained 2:04 half marathon (https://www.strava.com/activities/1767487060). After finishing the race, I ate some food, got back in the car and drove for another three hours to Aspen to stay with Doug and his family.
Aspen is an awesome place where a runner could make a full time job of exploring trails and enjoying the vibe of the town. On Monday, I started the day with my Monday mile https://www.strava.com/activities/1769206003 , and followed it up with a great hot yoga class with my cousin-in-law Dipika. I had the usual pre-big-race aches and pains as my body tried to trick me into not toeing the start line. On Tuesday, I ran up the Ute trail to Aspen peak https://www.strava.com/activities/1771593352 .
In the afternoon Doug and I made a recon mission to Leadville, where we planned to check out some of the crew stops. Instead, we had lunch and met the one and only Barefoot Ted McDonald (BFT) outside the coffee shop in Leadville. BFT’s enthusiasm for running and life is even more contagious in person. He talked about how the LT100 would be a lifetime in a day. I would be born, be young, middle aged and if I was lucky and smart make it to the ripe old age of 100 miles.
The Fellowship Assembles
Wednesday was the big day when the crew would arrive. I opted for a barefoot flat paved run in the morning https://www.strava.com/activities/1773888736. The crew arrived arrived around 10 pm at Doug’s in Aspen. We then all moved to a condo at Snowmass.
On Thursday, after sleeping in, the crew explored the local trails at Snowmass https://www.strava.com/activities/1776458819. We then headed into Leadville for a recon mission and early packet pickup. Once again we ran into BFT, who this time anointed me a Luna Sandal “Amigo Grande” with a handmade necklace.
Going to Leadville
On Friday, we had lots of stuff to do. We had to pick up a GIANT SUV from the Aspen airport at 8 am, then make it to Leadville by 10:00 am for the race briefing which is a show not to be missed! I did get in a few miles (https://www.strava.com/activities/1778282429) Everything went relatively smoothly and the briefing was amazing complete with the history of the race and ending with all the runners chanting “I will commit, I will not quit!” (even though over half would not be finishing). We then checked into an Airbnb in Leadville where Naomi made an awesome last meal and we all tried to get some sleep before the 4 am start of the race.
The 2018 Leadville 100
Birth to 13 - everything is great in the first 10 miles of a long race
After not enough sleep it was time to go. The weather was good, not too cold and not yet raining. I started the race in a Wakely Dam t-shirt, some shorts and my Mono 2.0 Luna sandals, a Nathan pack with some water, a running shell, and some dried pineapple.
Before I knew it the shotgun went off and I was on my way. The first few miles were on a road, I went super slow and tried to soak up the race. I kept hoping to see BFT but never did. I made small talk with a few runners and we eventually made it to some double track. Still a pretty crowded race at this point. All of us young and exuberant. The next big section was the single track around Turquoise Lake. I found this section a bit frustrating because it was so crowded, but I had a long way to go and I could be patient. The first stop was May Queen aid station where I grabbed some food, they had PB&J wraps which were great. On the way out I ran by Liv (Barefoot Ted’s Wife), received a much appreciated hug and some encouragement, and I was on my way up a road to the next trailhead.
13 to 25 - settling in but still young and spry
My next stop would be the Outward Bound aid station where I would finally meet up with the Team Sandal crew! The trail connected to a dirt road in an unmemorable way (that would come back to bite me later in the race). The dirt road switched backed up a mountain with dark clouds looking ominous in the distant mountains. On my way up a guy was walking his puppy and recognised my Wakely t-shirt and remembered running with me at that race a few years earlier (cue “It’s a small world”). Along the way I continued to make small talk when I could and someone said we were about to get to a 3 mile downhill along “Powerline”. Well, that sounded just fantastic to me! Once I crested the top, it was 3 miles of downhill bliss.
Once off the trail, it was back to a bit of road running, and at 24.5 miles just as the rain was starting I rolled into Outward Bound and met the crew. I swapped packs and opted for my OMM raingear to be put in the pack. The crew then pointed out all I had to do was repeat the distance 3 more times and I would be done! Sounded easy enough at the time.
25 to 31 - starting to feel a bit old
I left Outward Bound feeling pretty good, but starting to feel the miles. I crossed a big open field and headed to another road section. The rain started in earnest so I walked while I pulled the jacket out of the pack. Around mile 28, I found myself walking along what must be a commercial forest area with side trails with signs like “fence posts” this way. This was the first low point for me. I remember thinking to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” Only 28 or so miles in and I was walking on what seemed like a flat trail in the cold rain, how could I handle another 72 miles!
Eventually, I arrived at Halfpipe aid station. There was no halfpipe! There was warm soup, ramen noodles, potatoes, and watermelon, and most importantly a tent to hide from the rain. But all good things must end, and I had to leave and head out for Twin Lakes (8.5 miles away) the next spot where Team Sandal would be waiting for me.
39 to 45 - middle age is setting in, older and wiser
Start to Twin Lakes
Heading back into the rain was hard. However, at some point the sun came back out and I packed away the jacket. My spirits began to rise again as we negotiated some single track ups and downs. Somewhere along here I came to the conclusion that I was an old broken car with first gear, neutral, and no f&#%ing brakes! I could climb pretty well, fly downhill and only walk the flats.
Running a long race like this is all about acceptance. Every step of the way you have to accept the you that you are at that moment, and do the best you can with what you have. Along some nice single track I came up on Jeremiah from TN who was listening to some music on a speaker instead of headphones. I told him if he was going to play it out loud we had to sing out loud, so we sang some Boston and Sweet Home Alabama. I moved on with some small climbs and lots of rolling downhill. I passed a water and GU only aid station complimented them on the bit of muddy trail with blow down just before the station that I was sure they had set up just to make East coast runners feel more at home.
I finally arrived at the Twin Lakes aid station! Grabbed some food at the official aid station and hustled over to where the crew had set up. With much needed hugs from Naomi, food, drink, change of packs, and a slathering of sunscreen (it was now hot and sunny not cold and rainy), they sent me on my way to Hope Pass.
45 to 50 - feeling a bit old and having a few setbacks
I was feeling pretty good and loved the stream crossing in Luna Sandals. I loved it so much I ruined the pro-pictures by taking out my cell phone and taking pictures of my feet underwater and only noticing that I was already being photographed after it was too late.
The climb up Hope started great, I shifted into first gear and started to climb. I passed a bunch of runners and was feeling great. About a third of the way up, my stomach started to feel bad and I had cold sweats, uh oh! I slowed and people passed, I stopped and sat on a log. Well, relentless forward progress was all I could muster, and I death marched my way to the aid station. Once at the aid station, there was an awesome volunteer that took care of me. I got some soup with mashed potato and he got me going again. I then realized the aid station is a false peak and there was good 700 more feet to climb, yuck!
At this point, I was thinking no way did I want to go up to 12,600 feet again today! I would get to Winfield and tell the crew I was done. But, I was ignoring my own rule of Ultra running: Never despair when going up a hill, especially a steep high altitude one! I finally managed to crest the top and started the wonderful descent. It was technical with loose rock and too many people, but it was down and I was moving again. I soon forgot the pain of the top. As my mother used to always say, “This too shall soon pass”.
50 to 60 - a rebirth and new enthusiasm for the race
Then I reached the bottom and found there was another 4 mile traverse trail to the halfway point. I kind of figured the aid station would be at the bottom of the hill, a big fat NOPE on that one. (I know I should have studied the course, but I like to take things as the come…) It was a rocky long and slow traverse to Winfield.
Eventually I made my way to Winfield, I came in at around 13 hours, about an hour late. There was a group from Mountain Peak Fitness there as well. Joe Azze was there with his camera taking pictures of my feet just like he did at Manitou’s Revenge. Tom acted psyched and ready to go. He claimed I still had a shot at under 25 hours. I did not believe him, but was willing to go along with the idea. Tom would be my first pacer bringing me back over Hope Pass- about a 12 mile stretch with a huge climb.
I had never had a coach before. Tom shifted into coach mode and got me moving! Even on the horrible traverse he would have me run half a mile, then speed walk, just to keep the average mile pace down. Once we reached the big climb, we found ourselves at about the same uphill pace as two women and we became a human train of four with me as the little red caboose that had to. Some great trail magic happened here when the woman’s pacer lent me her poles. I kept saying, “I think I can. I think I can.” Every time we passed a group of runners I would dread it but somehow manage to follow along. We eventually made it to the top of the pass where I gladly gave back the poles and shifted to neutral and rolled downhill.
60 to 69 getting older now but still moving
We quickly made it to the aid station at the top of the pass, where I got some more food and flat coke. The next downhill was awesome. I was moving again 10 minute miles and even some half mile splits at 8:30s. Tom cleared the way and I followed recklessly leaping off rocks and flailing my arms around like a toddler to keep balance. We passed a bunch of folks. I even heard several, “No! I can’t be passed by the guy in sandals.” This was a huge boost to me and I was on top of the race again and having a blast.
The downhill eventually ended and I was again stuck in first gear, but Tom worked with me and with some clever run/walks we arrived at Twin Lakes and surprised the crew, we were about 50 minutes earlier than expected! We also had beaten the sunset and kept the headlamps in the pack.
69 to 75 - old man running
I grabbed some food from the crew and moved on to the official aid station where I grabbed a chair. Since we arrived early Dan was not ready with a pack, but after some more coke and food and some crew scrambling, Dan and I left for Half Pipe. The team was coming alive. At some point Dan said, “Do you realize what you are doing? You have passed like 200 runners and have significantly widened the gap from the cut off times.” Now I started to believe under 25 was possible.
We moved on to Half pipe aid station. I tried to move in and out as quick as I could. I thought maybe if I grabbed the soup to go and walked out with it that would help. Not so much, it was hard to walk and drink hot soup. Oh well, I dumped most of it and we continued on.
75 to 86 how the hell did I keep moving
We continued to pass runners like I was running a Ragnar section after some slower runners had finished their legs. But, this was just me, running into the night with headlamp and Dan blazing a path forward. We had a mile or so to go across a field to Outward Bound aid station where I would pick up the next pacer.
86 to 100 old man running
Because I was doing so well, Tom jumped in again for the next section which included the power line climb as Matt thought Tom would be a stronger runner. The crew hustled me through the aid station with an infectious enthusiasm. Tom and I were under way before I knew it and heading up a road with some rain starting. Again, I was able to cruise down the hills even in the cold dark rain. (I did have some Boston 2018 flashbacks, yikes!). Soon we left the road and started the Power Line climb. Tom became a drill sergeant and kept me moving at a brisk hike. He also started to force me to eat gels and blocks. At one point he said, “Why are you moving so slow?” and I said, “Because I can’t eat a gel and hike fast!” “OK,” Tom said,”then you can skip that gel.”
A few times Tom thought we were at the top, but I knew better, this had been a fantastic 3+ mile downhill, and would be a correspondingly hard 3+ mile uphill. The aid station at the top of Power Line is infamous for its character. When Dan ran LT100, he was greeted by a man in a stormtrooper helmet and nothing else! Fortunately, I was spared that sight. However, the aid station was complete with a big bottle of whiskey and legal in Colorado marijuana. Tom and I both seriously considered the whiskey but ended up with some flat coke and some other snacks instead. As we finally crested the climb, it was a wonderful dirt road switchbacking its way down hill.
I shifted into neutral and rolled on down. We were having such a grand time going down we missed the turn off to the trail. At some point I said, “Tom have you seen a flag or a glow stick recently?” “ Nope.” I found the breaks and we came to a halt. What to do! If we were going the right way, we would not want to climb back up. If we were going the wrong way, we needed to head up right away. We checked the pack and no cell phone. I then remembered my Garmin has track back navigation and this was an out and back and we were heading back for sure (around mile 70 I think). With all those miles it took some time to compute the path back to the start, but as soon as it popped up, I knew we had missed the turn by about half a mile. Tom apologised. “I said don’t worry about it ‘Hakuna Matata.’ This is a trail race and I expected to make a few wrong turns. Let's get back to it.”
Although, this likely meant the end of the 25 hour dream, I was still having an awesome second half of the race. I was going to finish this thing well under the 30 hour cut off for sure. Still plenty of running to do, but I was going to make it. We made our way back up to the turn off. It was a technical rolling mostly downhill section in the dark. We passed a few people back that we had passed on the road after our missadventure. At this point, my body started to shutdown, but for some reason my legs kept going. I was becoming just a pair of legs running in the night:
I remember my face muscles went slack and my upper body listed to the right as if it wanted to throw me off the trail and down the hill, so I could get some rest. However, my legs kept going and navigated the trail with ease. All those trail runs and my efforts to improve my technical downhill running were paying off. I could run downhill at night with nothing but my legs fully operational!
We arrived at May Queen where Matt would pick up the pacing, and Tom would get a much deserved break after running 24 miles and two of the hardest climbs of the day/night. Matt and I would tackle the Turquoise Lake Trail. There were a lot less people on the way back than earlier in the morning. I was the classic racer running on empty at this point. But, somehow the legs kept going. Matt would tell me to follow him and keep up, and I would try. Sometimes finding myself actually running uphill somehow. We were able to keep a 15 minute pace for most of this section, which Matt assured me was awesome as other folks he had paced we only able to walk 20 minute miles at this point in the race.
I had no idea that I could be this tired. I actually was shutting my eyes and continuing to run. Less frequently than earlier we would come upon a headlamp and pass another weary runner. I was however feeling very much like Bilbo Baggin's after he had lived too long, “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”
Finally, I found myself on the last dirt road of the day climbing into the gradually lighting skies of Leadville. At one point, I thought maybe if I tried to sprint, I could get some running legs back and cruise in at a 9 minute pace or something crazy fast like that. I gave it my all for a 100 meter stride and made it about 20 or 30 feet before doubling over and trying to empty the contents of an already empty stomach. Well, that was a bad idea! I resigned myself to speed walking and was able to walk comfortably at a 16 minutes per mile pace.
Soon we were on paved roads and the end was near as the rest of the pacers joined in the last mile. We were even graced with one last downhill where I could run and passed another runner. After 26 hours 22 minutes 28 seconds, I made my way across the now familiar timing mat of another race finish line. At the finish all the crew of Team Sandal (Doug, Naomi, Matt, Dan, and Tom) assembled, and even Barefoot Ted and his wife Liv were there (add Toto too). It had been an amazing day and two hours.
I had truly lived a lifetime in a race. I was now an old man with a finisher medal around my neck. I learned that although trail running is a rugged individual sport, it can also be a team sport and with the right support you can achieve things beyond what you can do alone. I showed up to Leadville with the right amount of training, and somewhere along the way I turned myself over to my pacers and crew in something like a prolonged trust fall. It has been almost exactly 8 years since I read Born to Run, and this race was like reaching a summit. Not that it is a final destination but rather it gave me a thirst for the next summit. I feel like I am becoming part of that story 8 years ago. I do believe all able bodied humans have an inner superhero that can be tapped into. We were meant to run free over mountains and all of the world. Most are unaware of the genetic gift that awaits them if only they tap into their primal self.
I really want to thank my amazing crew: Tom O, the coach that turned the race around and pushed me beyond what I thought possible; Matt the detail man who planned as much as possible; Dan a Leadville 100 veteran who kept it positive and shared his home after the race; my cousin Doug who provided a most excellent base camp in Aspen and drove tired pacers all over the mountains and who’s excitement in my adventure was contagious and amazing; and finally to my wife Naomi who provided hugs and encouragement at every aid stop and was hustling food and supplies from car to trailhead all day and night and who cooked the pre race dinner for everyone.
Oh yeah, because if it is not on Strava, it didn't happen, so here it is on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1784157009