What follows is a long-form article from Daniel Lucas, tracing his path from completing his first 50-mile trail race to completing the Leadville Trail 100. It’s long — so long we split it into two parts — but I think it’s a fantastic read and well worth your time. If you’re a trail runner who has done a 100-miler or is thinking about trying one, grab your favorite beverage, treat this like a magazine article and start here. We’ll have part two ready in a couple of days. ~Jeff B
LEADVILLE, PART 1: THE JOURNEY TO THE STARTING LINE
by Daniel Lucas
As a child, I recall being at the water park and seeing this one slide that seemed as high as a skyscraper. It was incredibly intimidating and, of course, someone would peer-pressure me into getting in line to experience it with them.
Unlike the line for the other slides & rides, this one seemed to move so incredibly fast. I would stare into the sky, fixated, as I watched the next person howl and scream as they plummeted for what seemed like an eternity. I would repeat to myself: “It will be over quickly, and then I can relax and go about my normal day.”
The slide was straight down, until the end in which it took an abrupt curve parallel to the earth. This would cause the patron to skip across the surface of the water until they eventually stopped. They were then free to stand up and tug on their thong, which only seconds ago was a pair of swimming trunks. I half-expected to witness someone experience some form of gory misfortune, at which point the staff would nod their head and announce:
“Another one bites the dust. Standard procedure folks, we have to shut down the ride for the rest of the day.”
From there, I would be free to go back to the safe, manageable slides that could, at their worst, cause some sort of skin discomfort when I peaked out at 5 miles an hour while swirling in a circular motion, just before emerging in a urine-saturated kiddie pool.
In the early afternoon of January 1, 2013 an alert went off on my phone. As planned, I selected the url in the reminder, answered a few questions and received confirmation that I had, in fact, just registered for the Leadville 100 trail run.
2. 100 Miles
I was high on my one-year anniversary of trail running, which I commemorated by completing my first 50-mile race (the Lookout Mountain 50 miler) just a few weeks earlier. Out of boredom, stupidity or the need to complete a bucket list item — most likely some combination of all 3 factors — I had decided I should try to compete at Leadville this year.
The course is legendary with ultra runners, and for good reason; McDougal’s stories about it in Born to Run have only served to heighten its allure. The course begins at an elevation level of just over 10,000 ft and has the lowest finisher rate of any major race; less than half of those who start the race complete it, and roughly 20% of those who register are absent on race day. It’s also one of the oldest 100-mile races in the US.
I put my phone away, and realized that I had just over 9 months to prepare. As you might have guessed by now, my perception of time over the following months would parallel that of my experience of waiting in line at the “Slide of Doom,” which is to say it was a lucid blur fueled by fear, excitement and adrenaline. I competed in several trail events during the winter and spring of 2013, most of which were marathon or 50k distance.
It wasn’t until a 3-day training run in early April, where we pre-ran an early 100-ish mile version of the Thunder Rock 100 course, that I began to sense the full gravity of what I had willingly agreed to do.
The experience of running 100 miles of trails in 3 days had left me fatigued and overwhelmed. I recall it taking me nearly 2 weeks to recover before I began to resume my ‘regular’ training. And what was my regular training? I was fairly clueless as to what my total miles per week should be leading up to the race, so I simply tried to ensure I ran at least 5 days a week with one or two long runs. On a regular basis, I couldn’t seem to help but ponder… how will this all play out?
At some point in every training run or race, I would have flashes of insight as to what running 100 miles might feel like and how my body would hold up: my head down, my legs cramping while projectile vomiting as nearby trees served as stationary crutches to keep me from laying in the forest and being found by a Leadville course sweeper. They would eventually find me lying alongside the trail with my frail body still attempting to move forward. Then they would lift my head up and ask me “What were you thinking? You have no business being here.”
Slowly my lips would softly mouth phrases like “Bucket list” or “I gave it my all” or “Let me continue” or “Tell my kids Daddy loves them” or “I don’t f’ing know what I was thinking, that’s why I’m in this spot.”
The imagined response phrase was usually relative to my current perceived level of exertion during said fantasy. On days where my training runs were weak and seemed endless, the fantasy would involve a stretcher and an IV (cue the slow, minor-key orchestral piec; maybe Pavane, or Adagio). On days where I felt strong, it was mostly cramping and nausea (perhaps Chariots of Fire, or the Gladiator theme).
When bored, I would find myself staring at the Google search page, wondering what series of words may lead me to some super training insight that would help unlock my hidden ultra running potential or at least help me make it to the finish.
During one such search, I found that a few old-school ultra runners would do something called “bonk training” about 3 weeks prior to a long race.
4. Bonk Training
The concept? On the night prior to the run, eat your typical dinner, perhaps a bit earlier than normal. The next day, skip breakfast and see how long you can run with nothing but water and maybe some salt.
Because of my parenting schedule and current workload at the office, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to try this training before race day but, alas, I found a half-day open… in which I was free in the am, but the second half of the day was completely booked with important appointments. “Aha!” I thought, and promptly set my alarm for the next morning.
It was an exceptionally muggy day, but I was determined to try this method and this was likely the last date I could fit it into my training. I specifically recall being about 90 minutes into the run and thinking that I should run ‘on empty’ more often. I completed the first 13-mile loop feeling great. I walked to my car and refilled my water jug, knowing that the next time I saw the car I would be done… and probably not feeling so chipper. I placed an “emergency gel” in my running jug and resumed my run.
At about two and a half hours, I noticed I was panting heavily and the hills were taking their toll, but I had yet to fall into a walk. At just over 3 hours, I noticed I had involuntarily started walking even the slightest of inclines.
The next 50 minutes would rival or trump my worst running moments. On no less than 4 occasions I found the emergency gel pack in my hand, with no recollection of how it got there. I would slowly tuck it back into my running jug before attempting to go back into a jog. I developed a sort of ad-hoc mantra: “Must make it back to the car… no calories ’til then.”
Another thing I heard myself repeating was “This hurts a lot, ultra running blows and you are one dumb, self-destructive son of a…” I preferred the first mantra, though, and for the most part stuck to it. The occasional hiker would overhear me and somehow misinterpret my words. They would respond slowly and deliberately to me as if dealing with a foreigner: “Buddy, I’ve already told you I can’t call an ambulance from here, we don’t have a cell signal!”
I considered overtaking an elderly woman because I was convinced she had trail mix and cold beer in her purse, but her leashed pug seemed to sense what I was thinking and I declined. I had completed 21 miles when I made it back to my car. Just as I had played the scene so very many times in my mind, I grabbed a handful of spare change from my car, walked up to a vending machine and purchased a Powerade.
For a moment while inserting the change, I became concerned that I was a bit short on money. I thought to myself, “If I have to walk back to the car to get more money… it will take a while, and it will be… ugly.” Then.. victory! I sat in front of the vending machine, slumped over with my cold powerade — a beverage I normally abhor — sipping in the calories.
I finished the drink, stood up and walked about 10 steps before spraying the entire Powerade and my morning coffee onto the sidewalk. The pressure was so abrupt and intense that about a quarter of the fluid sprayed out my nose. Giving my stomach that Powerade was like giving Sasquatch a party favor.
I have a few takeaways from this training method.
The good news is that this will most likely be much worse than anything you will experience during a race, so you may be more psychologically prepared to endure the trials of race day.
As is often the case with big accomplishments in life, it’s probably best you don’t know the challenges that lie ahead when you set a goal. In my case, the challenges would not be one-dimensional but, rather, quite multi-faceted. The training schedule and regimen had begun to take their toll on my physical and personal life. Ten weeks before I was scheduled to race at Leadville, I suffered an injury that was so painful I decided to have an x-ray.
I was certain it was a stress fracture, as more than just a few minutes of running would cause me to wince in pain each time my foot struck the ground. In a nutshell, I got off easy. My body was sending a message, and that message was that over-training had taken its toll. I decided then and there to back off my aggressive schedule and stick to the training level that had worked for me in the past. It was a proverbial reboot, both physically and emotionally, and — fortunately — it worked.
My work and parenting schedule were also becoming strained. I was using my vacation time and funds to train, and returning to work (and single parenting) after a week of five-hour training runs on the other side of the country is less than refreshing.
I was beginning to feel less like an ambitious athlete and more like a very selfish parent for having to alter my time & schedule with the kids in order to pursue a personal goal.
Three weeks before the race date, I traveled to Leadville with Samuel Hammonds to preview the course. After our flight landed and while waiting to disembark, I received a call from my good friend who was dog-sitting for me. Through no fault of his, my dog had died and he wanted to know what to do with the body. This was a blow that took several days to silently digest.
The following afternoon I received a text from my dear friend stating that she was now too injured to be my pacer at Leadville. I was beginning to wonder whether participating in this race was truly the right thing for me to do or whether it was simply my ego pushing me to compete in some esoteric challenge.
After that, it’s a nice ride with a slight decline so you can coast the last 4 and enjoy the view (and I mean gorgeous views, like something out of Heidi or Sound of Music). I finished, ate a popsicle and took a ski lift back to the bottom.
The race experience was… humbling. The runners here in Vail were amazing. There was much more participant diversity than we had in the South. I couldn’t help but wonder how it would have played out if we had been acclimated to the elevation. I chatted with a few runners during the race and can pretty much sum up every conversation this way:
Runner – “So, where are you from?”
Me – “TN (AKA sea level)”
Runner – “How long have you been here?”
Me – “16… no …maybe 17… Yeah, 17 hours.”
Runner – (after a long pause) “…Are you out of your mind?(!)”
After the race, I was looking for some advice on running Leadville. With each sentence, my subject’s appraisal of my cognitive skills would decline. “So you’re from sea level, the furthest you’ve ever run is 50 miles and you’re going to do Leadville next month as your first 100? …….Good luck, buddy.” I took this as a compliment with a warning label that was in plain view, like the one protruding from your mattress.
The implied warning was “this could very well blow up in your face and you should be cautious with your commitments” …or… maybe it was a kind way of saying that I was, in fact, bat$hit crazy.
I’m not sure Samuel would want me to mention this, but by the time we got off the ski lift we were both so tired and disoriented we ended up getting lost in downtown Vail. The local shop owners watched through their store windows with amusement as we kept going back and forth past the same landmarks every 10 minutes. We tried to play it cool, but it didn’t help that we took turns having emotional break downs and making a public scene.
Samuel went on one of his Soylent Green rampages and we ended up getting banned from the Oakley and North face shops. They were cool about it, they even served the restraining order in a color-coordinated gift basket. We were starving, and had left our wallets in the car. The car… where… where is the friggin’ car? When I finally got to the coffee shop, the barista explained to me that Vail had banned caffeine over 5 years ago. I threw a handful of “Sugar in the Raw” packets at her and stormed out.
7. Training at Elevation
I can honestly say that I would not have signed up for Leadville if I had previewed the course before registering. During my 5 days of training in Leadville the altitude played havoc with my heart and head.
And the hills… oh man, photos and elevation maps just didn’t do them justice.
I will say that training in the heat and humidity of the South did help prepare me in many ways. I would often try to schedule my daily runs in what most people would consider to be the worst time of the day to train, usually around 2 PM.
It was ironic; back in Chattanooga I would sweat profusely and take an occasional sip of water. Here, it was so dry I never seemed to sweat, but I couldn’t seem to drink enough water to stay hydrated.
Samuel and I made the most of every training day we had during our week in Leadville. We made sure that we focused on the hardest parts of the course, and on our last day on town we decided to hike a 14er. Gasping from fatigue and oxygen deprivation, I was within 20 minutes of the summit of Mt Elbert when there, standing in the trail staring at me, was my dog.
I didn’t react but rather just stared intently until the owner called him and he went away. It’s so ironic that here, on the second-highest peak in the US, was a boxer bulldog so similar to my late friend. Perhaps it was the effort, air (well, lack thereof), scenery or my string of current setbacks, but the journey to Leadville had now become both personal and even spiritual.
I decided then and there that I was obligated to give this race everything I had, because to do anything less would be an insult to all the sacrifices I’d made to get to the starting line in the first place — as well as to all my friends who’d shared their unwavering (and somewhat ignorant) belief and support that I would succeed.
Three weeks later, with this thought in mind, I looked up at the timer board and counted aloud with 1,000 runners as the clock ticked down the last 10 seconds to a 4 AM race start. I was now staring down from the top of the water slide, but in this case it was less of a leap and more of a series of steps — many, many steps — that separated me from my reprieve.
The buzzer sounded and I slowly marched into the dark, with silent hopes that each step would bring me closer to adventure, accomplishment, and perhaps vindication.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Daniel’s story: the Leadville 100 Mile trail race itself.