This may be a little long….
I got my 1st DNF but the DNF has not got me!
Leaving May Queen aid heading up Hagerman road towards Sugarloaf Pass and Powerline.
Much was learned this past weekend in Leadville. And, it hasn’t been comfortable ever since 1:21am when my wrist band was cut at Half Pipe 71.56 miles and 21:28:40 into the toughest ultra I have ever done so far.
As with many things in life, uncomfortable things cause us to either adapt and conquer or fold to the very challenge that lies in front of us. The pain, the agony of defeat, the let down to my crew, family, friends and followers. These are all uncomfortable for me. But, it will not break me.
Leadville, Colorado(elevation 10,200’) lured me in circa 2012-2013. The dream of one day getting to run this race. I had SO much to learn of what kind of training would need to happen. What type of ultra runner takes on this challenge? How would one train for this while living a tad above sea level their whole life? What would the field look like, my age group, how would I stack up?
This race has evolved over the years. When I look back to the early days of my entering the ultra scene, I just couldn’t fathom going the distance of 100 miles let alone at that altitude! Lifetime Fitness markets this race and the Blueprint for Athletes series greatly. In terms of other ultra events, this may draw more than your average crowd to put in for their lottery each year. Because there are no requirements to run any other 100 mile race or comparable ultra, it tends to draw a lot of “first timers”. Probably explains a DNF rate that hovers around 50% each year. My hat is off BIG time to those who step up to this race as a 1st hundo!! For a small group of us, we had already submitted our chance as a group from the AZ TraiLeggers for the 2016 race but were unsuccessful in the draw. It would be a very lucky thing for me to earn my 2017 ride. More on that in a second.
I’ve compartmentalized the areas I feel would best represent milestones and manageable take aways for anyone seeking some perspective on the subject. After all, the most common phrase(s) I hear folks say of us Ultra runners are “You’re crazy” and “That’s insane”.
My race summary will come after which I will make it short, I promise! It must be short, after all, I didn’t take a single photo out there on the course! #amazing #whoami #notlikeme #photowhore
- The Journey
For me, it started long before winning the Gold coin last year at Silver Rush 50. I liken this scenario where one who starts on the roads running 5K's, 10K's, Half's and full Marathon's hears of this race called the Boston Marathon. Seems once we start hearing more and more about what this race stands for, the challenge to qualify, most of us at least "try" and get in. Leadville was my Boston Marathon comparison early on. Once I started hearing more about it, reading about it, hearing of it during podcasts on TRN(Trail Runner Nation), I just knew I would have to do it one day. This was circa 2012 when my ultra career was just beginning. 5 years later, ~40 ultras, various other races and my buildup and experience led me to believe I was ready.
The infamous Gold Coin and the letter...
- Winning the “Golden Coin”
Was this really the best way to get in? How can one get into this prestigious event? The good and the bad about earning your way in to LT100 is this. You can submit your name for a lottery draw along with the masses(+/-thousands), win a Golden Coin entry(you still have to pay for the race), race in their other races, and even Volunteer your way in... In 2015, I signed up for the Silver Rush 50. A very tough race in Leadville and part of the series. Tons of climbing(up to 12,500’ 4 times during race). As an entrant, you receive a ticket on your bib to throw in the hat at the end of the race. Ken Clouber, Leadville's toughest cowboy, former miner and creator of this great race(1983) draws the numbers from a cowboy hat AFTER you finish the SR50. I would be freezing at the end of this race and really not in the mood to stick around for another hour for the draw. I also figured this year, I would just put in for the lottery in December anyway.
It was in the summer of 2016 after the second SR50 I would stick around at the end for that draw. After we came across the finish line, my crew helped me stay warm, went and got Pizza for us to chill on the grass and wait for all the finishers and the draw. We tore my ticket off and threw it in Ken's cowboy hat. I was the second to last number to be drawn.. the GOLD COIN was mine! I got it! I can still hear the roar and cheer from my crew, specifically Meghan Slavin. She has a loud cheer : ). I walked away with a smile from ear to ear and an envelope with special instructions as to how to enter. Mind you, they give you a VERY short window to "pay up and sign up" or else. I think my deadline was the following Wednesday. I signed up and secured my spot. There, I finally had ONE of my races planned for 2017. It would become my "A" race.
One has a limited window of time to enter... and pay, winning the Gold Coin didn't make it free :)
- The "A Race”
We are supposed to have an "A" race for the year. What does this really mean? For those not in this sport or new to it, most of us who plan our years in the fall for the following year will identify one as the A race or the one that we will adjust life for basically to train, prepare, learn about and target amongst a smattering of other races we may participate in leading up to said race. Leadville was for sure that race for me. Although I would still through my hat in for two other hundo's (Western States 100 and San Diego 100), I was not sure of the odds of me getting in to either of those. Most lottery draws are in the December/January timeframe.
I missed out on WS 100 for 2017 (my 3rd yr putting in) BUT would be successful in the San Diego 100 entry. This really got my excited. For one, I heard so many great stories about this race over the years about the awesome RD, Scott Mills and the shear toughness and terrain was something I felt would give me a good experience and training for the LT100. I really thought the timing was better for me since it was the 1st part of June rather than the end of June for WS100 which I felt may be pushing it for another huge hundo mid August. On I went into January, learning of my friend's plans to do their races and finish up my race calendar knowing what I had in front of me now.
I've come to this realization as many respectable athletes have. The best of planning and training does NOT guarantee a successful outcome! Questions running through my mind after I signed up... What would be different about my training? Should I do any other races during 2017? Could I devote the time necessary to this? How does one simulate the entirety and complexity of the Leadville course? They don't. Plain and simple. Yes, they do run training camps in the mid summer timeframe for this course. They are broken up and do not cover the entire course.
Targeted vs. Actual weekly mileage ramp ups to both SD100 and WS100.
I would peak at 62miles in a week about two weeks prior to the race. During my ramp up, I incorporated an Ultra series (1/mo averaging 50k per race) plus the San Diego 100 on June 9th. I’ve included my training ramp up graph for those interested. Climbing weekly was a factor as well.. Closer to the race, I was fortunate enough to also hit Telluride for two massive peaks (Ajax and Sneffels Highline Loop) which really helped. We hit Flagstaff just about every weekend as well leading up to the race. As far as peaking for climbing, I was able to hit 9000 the week of Telluride(mid July).
Elevation Training totals by week leading up to both SD100 and WS100.
Let’s touch on sleep quickly. I am a HUGE proponent of getting as much sleep as possible. I alleviate distractions starting at 8:30p every night and try and at least get in bed by 9pm. Even with many 4am wake up calls, I was able to average 7hrs very consistently. This was steady weeks leading up to San Diego 100 and then following for the rest of the weeks leading up to LT100.
Deep tissue massage from Mackenzie at least once every 3 weeks was also part of my regimen. I continued this even the week spent in Colorado prior to the race. It’s helped a lot and has been a part of my routine for the last 3yrs or so.
Alcohol and Nutrition. I scaled back to almost zero alcohol since Feb of this year. Although I haven’t been a heavy drinker in the past, I can probably count on two hands how many beers or glasses of wine I had during the months leading up to both hundos. I feel this helped immensely!!! BIG time improvement with sleeping too! I never really changed my diet per se. I don’t like to think I “diet”. I ate all the time. Mostly high fat diet, veggies and occasional meat about 1-2x/2weeks. Plenty of Bulletproof coffee thanks to Christopher Bean!
Have coffee, will travel! After all, this blend has the word "Mountain" in it.Training takes time and dedication and takes us away from our duties at home, our family, our time with spouses and sometimes even work. The sacrifices are numerous in exchange for 24-30hrs of racing. As ultra runners, we should never take this for granted. I have a truck load of thanks to hand out to all who support me.. Number one, my wife. She has put in a lot of time supporting, organizing and crewing me. Even when training for her own races and managing our kids and daily lives, she’s been there. I love her! My training partner, Meghan Slavin who even with no hundo of her own, spent literally almost every mile running with me out in the heat of summer, the darkness, the rain, the cold. Training partners offer so much to the equation and I am grateful for this. Pacing is no small task. I would have her husband, Brian Slavin pacing me at LT100 and he did an absolute stellar job! Probably a little nervous going into this but his encouragement and help got me past mile 50(my 1st consideration for dropping), mile 60.5(my 2nd attempt) and finally to Half Pipe.. more than 75 miles in. Thank You to all for your support!
When the spreadsheets are done, reviewed, the meetings are done and the questions answered, does this ensure success? NOPE. I’ve always been a spreadsheet guy. I am of the opinion this helps the crews greatly. There is a benefit to putting it together to ensure you are not forgetting critical items. You can estimate arrival times into each aid station, which has proved to be extremely helpful. I have a pretty good track record of estimating pretty well with the help of Meghan Slavin who trains with me a lot. She and numbers.. well they get along real well : ).
For the two races this summer, I had large course maps(~24”x36” poster size) printed in color and stuck them to a board. Each time our team and crew met, we would review this. They also brought these with to help them understand the territory and see where I planned to have drop bags, get aid, crew access and the like. They proved to be worth the investment!
A few times during each training phase, we would meet to review strategy, goals, plan and just get on the same page about needs, gear, etc.. this is something we’ve been doing for a couple of years now (Brian, Meghan, myself and Tara).
The 1st DNF is hard. It's unknown territory. Like anything that is uncomfortable, it hurts bad, read bad. It's what we do with it to learn for next time. For the record, I have not finished two other races in my career. One was a 54k of which a huge monsoon caused the event to be shut down and the other was the Bryce Canyon 50m of which I ran 50k of this race and dropped due to blood in the urine. Neither of these hit my Ultrasignup results(a site in which tracks the history of ultra racing and their status, times, placements, etc., etc.).
As I am writing this, I am accepting this DNF. I am human. I realize there is no such animal as a sure thing, perfection or a guaranteed outcome. I guess if I am to reflect on the length of my running career (~2006 and many races, racing injury free since), I have a proud history. I am holding onto that. In essence, I may have been due for a DNF! I am not going to let it break me. Period.
- Lessons Learned
What would I walk away with from Leadville that I can immediately put into action and what can I do to better myself for my next hundo?
Taper sooner. Even though I was still running and taking it easy, I feel I could have scaled back a tad more. I did not feel 100% rested prior to this race. I never felt fatigue during the race except for that top section coming up the return of Hope Pass.
Incorporate more cross training. Although this was my routine in the past, I had to scale back due to a C Spine flare up in March this year which had me very nervous about getting back into the gym. I still hit the gym from time to time to work on core but feel more training specific to building running muscle and strength is needed.
Stress less. Although I had never felt overwhelmed at the enormity of what was going to go down, there were times when the travel, the planning, the research and trying to balance every day life seemed a tad much.
Climb more. Climbing is my strength but I am not a great downhill runner. I feel binding up in my quads often on the steep downhills. So, with a course of >10k ft of climbing, you can bet there will be as much descent. I really need to incorporate both for the longer haul of a 100 mi race. I felt I could benefit from this at San Diego as well.
Come up with a solid Plan “B”. I feel like we talk a lot about a Plan A and march to those orders. When and IF the sh!t hits the proverbial fan, the entire team needs to be on the same page as to what to do IF things don’t go according to plan.
How long would it be before I return to Leadville? Did I see myself coming back during those 71 miles and why would that decision be different now after the fact? Leadville hasn’t seen the last of me. Will it be next year? Probably not. I plan to put in for both WS100 and CCC in Europe. We shall see. We’ve made Colorado trips for summer races now for about 6 years straight. I will definitely get back to Colorado next summer on plenty of my favorite trails in a handful of awesome mountain towns. Leadville and the people there, Ken and his wife are such great people. The town has much to offer! Like Ken C said, you are part of the Leadville family now.
- The Support Team
We can't live without them. They are our family, friends, colleagues, competitors, sponsors, and more. Even though a core team of 2-4 attend these long events in town, out of town and the like, there are extended support systems. I’ve had a very fortunate opportunity over the years to have a fairly large and close knit group of fellow runners who share the same interests, train for races, come to our Sunday AZ TraiLegger group runs, on and on who sent me numerous messages along this journey and after offering their kind words. It means a lot and I am forever grateful.
I’ll keep this part short, I promise. Rather than give you a play by play, I will summarize. This race starts in downtown Leadville on 6th. We leave town and head towards Turquoise Lake and head south for an out and back. The amount of roads vs. single track I would guesstimate at about 60%forest service roads, and variants/40% single track. Total climbing is around 18k feet and total distance is 100.4miles. There are 6 aid stations of which we hit 5 of them twice. These aid stations were the real deal. My hats off to the many hundreds of volunteers who made this event super enjoyable, had all the aid stations well stocked and ready to help. It was awesome!!
My #’s I was able to glean from Athlinks. 606 entries in race (although one week prior, I had noticed about 786 on the “start list”
287 Finishers out of 567 Starters
We were off! 4am start time. Everyone completely stoked! Ken C started us and down the boulevard we went. It was nice to start the race with Ryan Ingham, Deron and Melissa Ruse! I saw them often throughout the day. That was great. Temps hovered around the very low 40’s. Some forecasts were at 38-39 which was cold for sure but I don’t think it was that cold.
Left to Right. Jon Christley, Ryan Ingham, Deron Ruse, Melissa RuseI had reviewed target times with the crew and forecasted them somewhat conservatively. I knew logistics and the sheer volume of vehicles getting in and out of aid stations would be a challenge for them.
Mile 5.6. Stomach. Oh Sh!t. 💩 Literally. Normally, I can get away with running a hundo without hitting the restroom for #2. It has happened in the past, no big deal. This time was different. I had a sudden “urge” to go and nowhere to go. A conga line of runners were so packed in for these first 13 miles, it made it extremely difficult to find a secluded spot not to mention we were at the edge of Turquoise Lake and the pitch of the terrain was slanted pretty good. After making the pit stop, I realized I was coming in to the 1st aid station at least 20min later than planned. The conga line has its advantages for those who go out too fast. To give you an idea time wise: 13 miles was the 1st section. The cutoff was 3hrs. Basically this means you must move. This section was not flat but mostly single track and a little climbing here and there. Nothing major. Of all sections of the course, this was the longest with the least amount of climbing. I came in at 2:26. Aid station cutoff's for LT100 are no joke!
Things got better as I left. The team refreshed my pack and I told them I would gain some time over the next section. That I did. Coming into Outward Bound at the 25mi was awesome! Huge crowds and Meghan was at the front waiting for me to come through while Tara and Brian were working on my pack. I was able to hold things in tact so to speak while coming down powerline but definitely had to hit the restroom AGAIN. Ugh.
We all know what this little guy represents! #poop
The cycle of running, wondering when or if I could make to the JJon's or not was super frustrating for me. This continued unfortunately until the last aid station at 1:20 in the morning. Sparing all the details, I was super glad I had places to go and wipes on me!
Along the way, I was seeing friends, crew members other ultra runners I recognized. The cheering from the crowds at each major aid station was unbelievable.
Throwing down half of a Ginger Beer at the alternate crew zone.
From Twin Lakes, after another 💩 and a refresher of my pack, I had to mentally prepare myself for the massive climb. This climb would be the 1st time I would pull out the trekking poles. I have never run with them. I had trained with them the week prior and were on loan to me from Aaron Berger which I was super grateful for when things got super steep(climbing and descending). There certainly is an art to using them and they can help immensely.
Hope Pass is the famous name that is synonymous with the Leadville 100. It is the most feared section on this course. While the powerline road is intimidating, it pales in comparison to Hope in my opinion. Hope gets up to 12, 400 ish feet. The ascent up the north side starts around mile 40 and climbs 3000' over 4 miles. For those familiar Phoenicians it is like throwing in Humphrey's Peak smack in the middle of a 100 mile race. Except, this Hope Pass thingy has FAR less switchbacks. It starts out rooty, rocky and steep. The aid station was about a half mile before the top and we were greeted by Vicky Foster and her famous Llamas. That was cool.
Hope Pass Llamas! PC: Brian SlavinOh. Let's not forget about that dark cloud mass that swept over us when we arrived. The weather was hovering around 50 near the top until the sleet and hail started. I couldn't believe how cold it got.. Immediate scramble to put on rain gear and other items like gloves and a beanie. It kept up for about 15 min. Just about that time, I caught up to Billy Yang and we hung out in the aid station for a bit.
Getting to the next aid station had to be fastidious. Even though we simulated my arrival at 4pm, I knew with that stop and the steep descent on the south side, I would come in a tad after. Cutoff time: 6:00pm. I have heard so much in the past about those who just throw in the towel at mile 50 which is where we could pick up our pacers at Winfield. Thoughts were going through my mind. I had to hit the plastic house once again when I got in there. 💩
Eating and drinking up to this point. I am one who relies on Tailwind to be my primary fuel source for all my ultras. It has worked for me every single time. I was taking in my TW pretty darn good up to this point. My only other fuel sources were an occasional Honey Stinger waffle, Honey Stinger Gold gel and Justin's Almond Butter. The team was keeping track of my calories at every stop. I was averaging about 300 cal/hr MOST of the day.
At this point, I knew what was ahead of me. a 10:00 cutoff for Twin Lakes. I was already doing the math. Brian my pacer and I left Winfield heading back out onto the Colorado Trail. It was slow going at 1st but we did run here and there between that aid station and Sheep Gulch. This is where the immediate left would start. When I say immediate left this is where the ultimate grind comes. When Ken C talked about "Digging Deep" this was no doubt the mantra going up this 2670' ascent virtually straight up to the Hope Pass saddle again.
Here we are.. Heading out of Winfield on the Colorado Trail. We were both smiling at this moment. :) PC: Brian Slavin
As we started up, the lines started again. Since we had some separation earlier between runners, those seeking to turn it up a notch were banding together with their pacers to beat that cutoff time over on the other side. It was a death march at the top. As if it wasn't already, when I glanced up near the top, I had a flash back of those movies about Mt. Everest. While Hope pales in comparison, the death marching did not. Everyone was moving step by step in very flow fashion getting up those last few switchbacks including yours truly. We were nearing the final switchback and all of a sudden my left quad (VMO, vastus medialis oblique) was binding up big time. Alien was a word Brian used to describe it. I had to stop for a few. I was not doing good at all. Luckily, at that moment, Amy Novotny and the Ruse's were passing. Amy's PT expertise suddenly belted out, "heel strike, Jon". That was awesome advice. The next few strides were long and slow and that issue went away. Thanks Amy!
The Hope Pass return broke me. That climb, considering how I was feeling, just simply kicked me square in the jingles. Emotions were low and sensitive, I was starting to get cold again, shivering and well yep, you guessed it, that sudden #2 urge was upon me once again! 💩 UGH. Brian was great about having me focus on doing one thing at a time stay up on hydration and to not worry about the looming deadline for Twin Lakes. I was once again doing the math and it didn't look good.
A million scenarios ran through my mind on that descent. Eating a bunch, huddling to discuss a potential drop, bone broth, swapping pacers, taking in caffeine(up until this point I had zero), getting in solids, changing clothes, all of it. We still had a freezing cold river to cross before hitting Twin Lakes at mile 60.5 as well.
With about 14 minutes to spare, we rolled into Twin Lakes at 9:36p. Twin Lakes was a defining moment for me. It was here that I really needed a push! I sat for a while contemplating all of the scenarios. With the constant stops, the inability to run for an extended period without the feeling of the lower bowels unraveling AND the relentless 3 mile uphill climb ahead, I was losing faith we would make the next cutoff. I had a quick chat with everyone, got some food in, some caffeine and off we went! Again, doing some math.
Loaded up and heading out of Twin Lakes for what would be my last section on the LT100 course that night. The look says it all :/I'll wrap up in the next two paragraphs. This last stretch felt impossible at times. More climbing, another 💩 stop and while we did break some running sections in especially near that final stretch, I came up short. She was there. The cutoff lady(sorry, forgot her name). With her scissors. It was 1:21a and the cutoff was 1:15. With a valiant effort and great pacing and pushing from Brian, my race was over. 71.56 miles and 21:28:40. Gone was my wrist band.
We huddled in under a tent with a flame thrower for heat. Others that also missed were huddled in there. The quietness, the lack of emotion, some with utter disappointment. We were all the same status now. DNF.
I was SO happy I toed the line with everyone this year. I was SO impressed with the roar of the crowds, the people saying "hey Jon", "great work 217", etc.. and especially grateful for my crew, wife, friends and others who helped support me this day. Huge Congrats to all who ran this incredible race and especially those who finished under the 30hr cutoff.
Leadville, you haven't seen the last of me!
I really did smile that day! ;) PC: Meghan Slavin