by Bill Hoffman
For the second year in a row, I packed my running gear and headed to the mountains of Colorado to take part in the Leadville Trail 100 running race. Last year it was my first 100 mile race: this year it was my second. With plenty of other races to choose from I have to ask myself why Leadville? It takes place two miles above sea level and on the other side of the country, roughly two thousand miles from my home in Upstate NY. Logistics and assembling a crew are that much harder. Yet, despite these difficulties, I am drawn to this race like a moth to a flame and even now am trying to figure out how to get back for next year.
Leadville and my history are intertwined in a complicated, wonderful set of stories that gave me the ability to traverse 100 miles on foot through the mountains. The race was born out of necessity for the inhabitants of the town of Leadville. When the Climax mine closed in 1982, the town found itself with the highest unemployment rate in the country. Ken Chlouber, a newly unemployed miner and runner, came up with the idea of the town hosting a 100 mile foot race, because if they run 100 miles, that someone is more likely to spend the night! Leadville was first run in 1983, and that simple idea turned out to be a brilliant one transforming Leadville into a Mecca for Ultra running and outdoor adventures. In 1983, I was two years from high school graduation and never even considered the idea that anyone could or would want to run 100 miles in one event.
However, in 1992, a group of Tarahumara or Raramuri runners from the Copper canyons of Mexico first ran the LT100. The Raramuri came back to win LT100 in 1993 and 1994. In 1993 a 52 year old Raramuir Victoriano ChurroIn won the race (way to go old guys). 1994, five Raramuri battled Ann Trason in a highly publicized race. Twenty-five-year-old runner Juan Herrera won in a record time of 17:30 which lasted for 8 years, Ann Trason’s time of 18:06:24 is to this day the women's course record. Micah True known as Caballo Blanco in the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall met and paced the Raramuri at Leadville. This eventually lead to his creation of the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon.
Both the Copper Canyon 2006 race and the 1994 LT100 are featured heavily in McDougall's book Born to Run. That book was the inspiration for my running. It was also in the Copper Canyons that Barefoot Ted learned to make huarache sandals from Manual Luna and went on to found the Luna Sandal company. I run almost exclusively in Luna sandals through rain, sleet, snow and sun. Born to Run was published in May of 2009, in the Fall of 2010 my brother Tom recommended the book to me. In the Fall of 2011, I slogged through my first marathon. By the fall of 2012 I was running in Luna Sandals and qualifying for the Boston marathon. Without the Leadville Trail 100, there likely would not have been the book Born to Run, and I might not have heard the mountains calling, so I have a long history with LT100 that continues to grow.
A key part of the LT100 is having a crew including pacers to help you along in your journey. This year’s team included Volker Burkowski, Tom O’Grady, Tom (my brother and the one who sparked my interest in this race after suggesting the book Born to Run so many years ago now), and Matt Turek. My cousin Doug and my wife Naomi had to miss this year to attend a family wedding. However, Doug once again provided a launching pad for the race by allowing me to stay at his place in Aspen while I acclimatized to the altitude.
I flew into Denver the Sunday before the race, picked up the race vehicle, and headed towards Aspen. I stopped at Twin Lakes for a quick 6 mile out and back on the Hope pass trail. I discovered lots more water on the trail compared to the previous year with 4 or 5 knee deep puddles before the river crossing. A perfect year not to be wearing shoes and socks! I stayed in Aspen until Thursday morning when I moved into an Airbnb house rental in Leadville. Matt and Volker arrived via Uber into Leadville. After showing Volker around town and driving out to Twin Lakes, we went as spectators to the pre-LT100 beer mile! The mayor of Leadville participated and the winner was in Luna sandals. Barefoot Ted participated but made it a seltzer mile. The event raised money for the local animal shelter and was quite a spectacle to watch as the runners guzzled beer, ran in high altitude and tried not to throw up.
Start of the beer mile
A fun part of LT100 is the pre-race briefing where Ken Chlouber, the race director and creator has everyone pledge, I will commit, I will not quit! Although I don’t think the pledge helps much as it is common for 50% or more of the race participants will not finish. This was followed by the expo and bib pickup. Friday is a short day for racers and the team since the race starts at 4:00 am on Saturday. This means I should be in bed by 7:00 pm for a 3:00 a.m. wake up.
Off to the start
After a less than great half night of sleep I woke up before my alarm and started getting ready. I had placed everything out the night before so I would not to forget things. The crew was busy loading up the Suburban by the time I made it out to the living room. I ate two bagels with peanut butter and banana and drank some smoothie (fruit, tart cherry juice, turmeric, ginger and chia seeds). We loaded up in the vehicle when Volker asked me if I had my headlamp. Crap! I did not! I ran back into the house and there beside my bed was my headlamp and race bib! Yikes, that was a close call, way to go Volker! We made it to the start with plenty of time. The temperature was in the mid 40s so not a bad way to start the race.
Hastily putting on my bib near the start line
The way to think about running 100 miles is to break it down into smaller parts. With Leadville the best way to do that is via the aid stations. Since it is an out and back race, you hit each aid station twice. On the way back they even have a bonus aid station at the top of powerline that is known for its outlandish offerings and sometimes naked attendants. It is usually stocked with cannabis, hard liquor, and a bunch of crazy people.
The first aid station May Queen is located at about mile 14. The race starts by running down the street in Leadville. About three miles in I started chatting with a fellow runner from Boston and we found out we both ran the 7 Sisters Trail Race this year! Even stranger, another guy next to us overhead and said he also was this year’s 7 Sisters! The paved road is followed by some dirt road and a bit of single track. I eventually picked up the Turquoise Lake Trail which took me around the lake. By the time I reached the end of the lake, the sun was rising and I could lose (get rid of) the headlamp until nightfall. This year I took it out a little bit faster, but nothing crazy and felt in a better place while on the single track around the lake. I was not waiting on anyone and nobody was waiting on me, not too fast not too slow just about right. I had asked the crew to pick up my headlamp at May Queen, which apparently was a horrible idea as the logistics of getting a car in and out of that first station is really difficult. I won’t be asking for that again - sorry guys! Just like last year, the first person I saw was Liv McDonald, Barefoot Ted’s wife and CEO of Luna Sandals. Liv is always super encouraging and helped me find my crew where I deposited my headlamp and proceeded into the next section of trail.
A bit of a manic look at mile 14!
In between May Queen and the next big stop at Outward Bound is some fantastic single track, a switched backed dirt road leading to the top of Powerline, and a great 3 mile downhill along some very noisy power lines. Coming down Powerline the first time in the race is one of my favorite parts, and this year, much of it was re-graded making the trail even easier to descend. The big difference this year from last was the sun was out the entire time and dark clouds were not ominously hanging over the mountains. Once I reached Outward Bound, I was feeling pretty good and happy to see the crew. I fueled up and moved on, the next time I would see them would be at Twin Lakes just before the first climb of Hope Pass.
Coming into Outward Bound, love those mountains!
From Outward Bound to Twin Lakes there are some road sections, and lots of double track. I was feeling really good this year as I knew what was coming. The double track actually climbs about 1000 feet. I was able to speed walk a 13 minute mile at this point even keeping up with some folks running. Halfpipe is the next aid station where I stopped in for some food and moved on still feeling pretty chipper. The next section of trail is part of the trail leading up Mount Elbert. This is a fun section with some rolling downhill single track. At this point I found myself singing “Riding this train high on caffeine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed, trouble ahead, trouble behind...” I even had a few takers and we sang together. A fun time on the LT100.
Crew waiting for me at Twin Lakes
Thumbs up at Twin Lakes
Winfield halfway there??
I arrived at Twin Lakes faster than the year before, but avoiding any of the low points of the previous year. I fueled up, was covered in sunscreen, and grabbed my poles and headed to Hope Pass with more than a little bit of fear from last year, but plenty of hope for this year. The water crossings were fun and wet, perfect for sandals and no socks! Once the climb started, I felt 100% better than the year before. A guy from Tennessee locked in behind me, and I am pretty sure I ran with his friend last year in the Mount Elbert section, he was the one I mentioned in that recap who was running with music playing for all to hear and sing-a-long. We summitted Hope like pros marching up and feeling strong the whole way. A small snow field greeted us at the top. The backside is much steeper and kind of fun to bomb down. However, all good things must come to an end. Somehow in the 3 mile traverse from the bottom of Hope to Winfield I went from feeling great and in control to feeling like crap!
As I came into Winfield I was listing to one side like a barge taking on water. I had made it 50 miles almost an hour faster than the year before, but still feeling like crap. My stomach was starting to rebel at food.Something was going on with my balance and I was hot, very hot. As I am learning the 50 mile point is less than halfway at Leadville.
Coming into Winfield with pacer Tom O'Grady
Twin Lakes ver 2.0
My pacer Tom got me moving again, but I have to admit I was pretty grumpy and my stomach was not good. We made our way back towards Hope. I had poles this year as did Tom, but progress did not feel as good as the year before. One bright spot along the way back to Hope was passing Barefoot Ted heading out to Winfeild. It was great to see him doing so well this year. After finally summitting Hope again, Tom tried to get me to eat some food. The trouble was that every time I ate, it gave me cramps and made it hard to run. We eventually got started on the downhill a little slow at first until my stomach settled. Then, we started to move and just like last year began to pass runners all the way down. This year we did have a couple of guys join our fast train down the pass, and the four of us had a grand time bombing down the trail. The guys passed us for a bit, but then we found them walking in a few minutes and continued to run all the way down. We made Twin Lakes with plenty of light left in the evening.
Return from crossing Hope and Hope
Outward Bound ver 2.0
I picked up my second pacer Volker at Twin Lakes. The weather was perfect for night running on the trails. However, I had to make several potty breaks along the way and my stomach was not feeling great. We did have some quick miles here and there as we made our way back to Outward Bound. The potty breaks hemorrhaged time like a lanced artery, but relentless forward progress was achieved. As we descended into the high plains, the temperature dropped and both of us got really cold. I slowed down more and walked way too much making me even colder.
Back to May Queen
Tom jumped back in as a pacer for the second time in the day back over Powerline. As we got started my headlamp started to flash which meant the battery was low. We did not have a spare battery so for much of the time I ran with the moon light and Tom’s lamp to save my battery for the downhills and trails. I have an awesome very bright headlamp that turns the night into day, but it uses custom batteries of which I started with three fully charged batteries - none of which did me a damn bit of good sitting in the crew truck. I must admit though it was a beautiful night with a full moon and running in the dark was fun. At this point, GU packets turned my stomach upside down and seemed to do more harm than good. When we reached the “crazy aid station” at the top of the hill they had some TUMS, I choked down a few. We made good time coming back down Powerline and on the single track in the woods avoiding last years wrong turn.
Getting ready for the final push
Final 14 Back at May Queen
May Queen is the final place to see the whole crew and pick up my final pacer Matt. Liv McDonald was there cheering me on as well. I think the TUMS actually were working a bit as I was hungry again, and decided to try a banana which went down well. Matt and I hit the road, but as soon as I tried to run, the banana almost came up again. I had to stop and do some yoga breathing to keep it all in. We walked for a while to let things settle. There was a lot of walking with some running in the last 14 miles. My hopes for the big belt buckle were over unless I ran a half marathon PR. As I moved down the trail along Turquoise lake, I noticed strange patterns of wet sand that I realized were the stomach contents of my fellow runners!
After 27 hours 8 minutes and 51 seconds, I crossed the LT100 finish line for the second year in a row. I was 124 out of 386 finishers, 110 out of 314 male finishers and 4th out of 43 old guys (50-59). Not a bad day in the mountains.
After the race, I decompressed in the heated tent at the finish line. Barefoot Ted finished about an hour and 30 minutes after me, so I did not get to see him cross the finish line as my crew and I really needed to get back to the house and rest a bit, but I did find out he was on his way to the finish line which was super exciting to hear.
Above all I want to thank my team, Tom, Volker, Matt, big bro Tom for following me around in a crazy big SUV for 27 hours while I ran around in the mountains. I want to thank cousin Doug for use of his coolers, chairs and for taking the crew out for dinner Sunday night after the race! Finally, I want to thank my wife Naomi for putting up with all the training, I know she wanted to be there.
It was another epic day in the sky and I have even more respect for this race and its amazing history. I know now I need to work on race nutrition for 100 mile events and already have some good ideas. I can get away with stuffing my face with whatever they have at aid stations for a 50 mile race, but LT100 is a whole different class of event!