Sometimes when an opportunity comes up, you have to say “yes”. And when I was asked by a former co-worker, Morgan, to pace her at Leadville Trail 100, my response was an emphatic “YES!”. I also extended my trip to 6 days instead of just a long weekend.
For some background on Leadville, in 1880 it was one of the largest silver camps with a population over 40,000. After the last mine was closed in 1982 the city took a downturn and all of the residents fell on hard times. That’s when Ken Chloubler started the Leadville 100 Trail Run. There is now also a 100 mile mountain bike race that takes place a week before the trail run as well as a series of other trail races in Leadville. Tourism is now the main economic driver to this unique city. It’s also notable for having a large number of 14,000 foot peaks that are viewable and accessible from town. Leadville is the highest incorporated city sitting at an elevation of 10,152 feet and is well suited to host one of the toughest 100 mile races in the country. For some perspective, there were over 800 participants that toed the line at this years event. Only 377 finished.
I arrived Friday Morning in Denver and drove to Leadville by the way of Copper Mountain which would serve as home base for the weekend. I was able to check out the expo and pick up my “Pacer” bib and sign a waiver. By the time I got to the expo things had slowed down and it was relatively quiet. I also spoke to the Event Manager regarding flying a drone during the race and was informed that permits were required and needed to be submitted a month in advance. Anyone flying a drone without a permit would have it confiscated but would be returned at the end of the weekend. It’s always a good idea to ask for permission and find out about any restrictions beforehand. By the way, I did have a GoPro with me in addition to the drone. I did manage to get some great video but it’ll take me another week before I can start putting it all together.
I was able to catch up with Morgan at a friends house out at Twin Lakes where we had dinner. We then drove back to Copper Mountain to prepare for the morning. We were up by 2:30 am for a 4:00 am race start. I was able to see the start of the race and then drove back to Copper Mountain for a couple hours of extra sleep. After some breakfast, I got my pack set up with two soft flasks of Tailwind Nutrition, a sports drink I use regularly for long runs that contain all the electrolytes and fuel I need without any stomach issues. Of course, we keep Tailwind in stock in all 7 of our Big Peach Running Co. locations. I also threw in a couple Clif Bars because no matter how many liquid calories I take, I always need some solid food or I feel hungry.
To prepare for my pacing duties, I ran several 12 – 15 miles of trails on the weekend. I was only going to pace for about 6-7 mile but it was possible to go as much as 15-20 if we didn’t pick up the next pacer. I was a bit nervous due to the altitude. The Atlanta area is around 900 – 1,000 feet of elevation and I was going to be running 10X higher than my normal elevation. Even running up Kennesaw Mountain would only get you about 1,200 feet in elevation. Of course, I also had to worry about Altitude Sickness due to the lower amounts of oxygen at higher elevation.
I was on my way to Twin Lakes with the plan to see Morgan on her way out around mile 38. It was at this point where we(pacers/support crew) all got a text with the bad news. Morgan had withdrawn from the race at mile 30. We all knew she was experiencing some issues with her hip but after getting into the Leadville lottery and training for months, she made the decision to start the race with hopes that her hip would hold up for 100 miles. Unfortunately, the hip issues made picking up her feet difficult and she took a bad fall at mile 4. After 26 miles of excruciating pain, she pulled the plug. It was the right move. She was courageous and strong, going as far as she did.
She put in a lot of training and even qualified for Ironman 70.3 & 140.6 World Championships in June when she came in second in her age group. She’s a strong athlete and competitor. As her former Coach, I’m so proud of what she’s accomplished. As her friend, I can’t wait to see how well she’ll do in the future. A couple days later we found out she indeed had a Pelvic Stress Fracture in addition to some Ilipsoas Tendinopathy. We regrouped back at home base and along with the rest of the pacers and support crew we had dinner and drinks and did our best to keep Morgan in good spirits. While she felt bad for me for making the trip and not actually getting to run, I assured her it was okay since I planned on staying longer and enjoying the trails on my own.
The following morning Morgan left back for Colorado Springs and I headed out to experience the rest of my trip. I had the crazy notion that I wanted to do a 14er, basically climb a 14,000 ft peak. With Mt. Elbert just south of Leadville and near the Leadville 100 course, I figured it was as good as any peak to attempt. Little did I know that Mt. Elbert is the highest peak in the entire state with an elevation of 14,440 ft. I started on the southern trail before noon. I should’ve started much sooner.
It was at this point when I searched for my Road ID that I realized I lost it sometime between airport security checkpoint and now. If you don’t have a Road ID, I highly recommend that you always where it. It contains emergency contact info as well as important medical info for First Responders and it can save your life. I always joke around that my Road ID is how they’ll identify my body. If anything happened to me on this trip, it would make it difficult to contact someone to identify my body. Instead I started sharing Instagram Stories on my travels to let my friends and family know I was alive. A friend of mine coined the term “Proof of Life” for these type of posts.
Not really knowing what to expect because of the altitude, I wanted to run the downhills and the easier uphills. I’d walk when it got really steep and stop when I needed the rest. Of course, stopping to take pictures was a great excuse to rest. I didn’t really experience any shortness of breath or dizziness until I reached about 11,000 feet.
For planning purposes, I used the All Trails App. It’s a great App and I would highly recommend it for any interested in hiking or trail running. It’s got a great database of trails and users keep into up to date by posting reviews and photos. The only drawback is that the GPS on your phone can get “wonky”. A few times it showed me off the trail when I was clearly on it. I connected to the Continental Trail which was part of the Leadville 100 course and still had flags marking the course. I came to a fork in the trail, misread the map and continued down the Continental Trail instead of up Mt. Elbert. It was enjoyable 1.3 mile downhill that got me to thinking, “shouldn’t I be going uphill?”, which made me check the map. Sure enough, I was off course. This added approximately 3 miles and 40 minutes to my trip. Once above tree line, it gets steeper and more difficult, so I did a very slow hike. I did run into several other hikers on the way down and they were very encouraging and said I was making good time with a noon start.
One of the things that I didn’t realize until the next day is that it’s highly recommended to start early in the morning because weather can change as thunderstorms can roll in quickly and can be dangerous to anyone that is exposed on the mountain. While I was in Colorado, there was a report that a hiker was struck by lightning in the Rocky Mountain National Forest. As our Co-owner Steve DeMoss says sarcastically, “safety third!” and that’s exactly how I approached this run.
At 4 pm I was around 12,800 feet and still had another 1,600 feet to reach the summit. I figured I had another 60-90 minutes of climbing. If I continued, I’d reach the top by 5 – 5:30 pm. Which would mean it would have taken me at least 5 hours to reach the summit. It also meant that at best, I would descend in 2.5 – 3 hours. Which would put me back at the trailhead at 7:30 – 8:00 pm and that would potentially be in very low light, assuming that it didn’t take me longer. Since I had not anticipated being out that long, I didn’t bring a headlamp. I’m surprised that after 4+ hours of climbing that I still had the mental capacity to think rationally. I made the decision to descend. I would not reach the top of a 14er on this day.
The descent wasn’t easy, especially above treeline. It’s really rocky and steep. So I was a very careful with foot placing and took it easy until I hit the treeline. At this point, I ran almost the entire way. Keep in mind that running downhill can fatigue your quads quickly as well as increase the impact on your knees and hips. Basically, I would run a mile, then walk for a bit. I kept this up the entire way back to the car which I reached at 6:30 pm. While I was a bit disappointed not making it to the top of Mt. Elbert, I made the right decision to turn back when I did. I didn’t make it back to Copper Mountain until 8 pm and I was exhausted. The Relive video below shows my route and it does look like I was maybe a mile or less from the peak but it would have meant a much steeper climb. In total, it was close to a 16 mile run/hike.
Here’s a video of Mt. Elbert that I wished I would’ve watched before my trip. Sage Canaday is an elite runner but his video is very informative about the area and the climb.
While Mt. Elbert has some incredible views, I was really surprised by the views overlooking Breckenridge. I’ll share those in my next post.
Below are some photos from the first couple of days. The views are truly spectacular and worth the climb.
I would recommend flying into Denver and renting a car. While I could have flown into Colorado Springs, Southwest flies into Denver but not Colorado Springs. That made a huge difference in costs as Southwest allows for 2 checked bags at no charge plus one carry on. I only had one checked bag. Some of the cheaper flights to Colorado Springs were still more than Southwest and they charged $40 for each checked bag.
I used VRBO to find lodging but you can use AirBNB as they’re very similar in pricing and offerings. If there’s no major event in Leadville, you can find a house there, otherwise look at Copper Mountain. It’s about 25 miles north of Leadville and right off of I-70.
Dave “D2” Martinez is the Big Peach Running Co. Director of Marketing & RUNATL Podcast Co-host.