Sunday, August 2, 2009

Leadville to Winfield

Three years ago I did not yet really know what going running in the mountains all day was about. All I knew was that I'd been sufficiently cajoled into giving the Leadville 100 a shot, so I'd better go see what I was considering getting myself into.

Three years ago, on July 29th, I took a significant step towards becoming the runner that I am today. There were three weeks until the 100, and I'd never run further than about 32 miles at one time, ever, so I thought I would satisfy two curiosities by A) running 50 miles, and B) making that 50 miles the first half of the Leadville 100. I felt fortunate that--due to the pure out and back nature of the course--I could see every inch of the 100 mile trail by only running 50.

I remember that things went surprisingly well--for 40 miles. Then the morass of swamp and brush and rushing creek between Twin Lakes and the base of the Hope Pass trail confused me mightily (I was going only by a printed out description of the course tucked in my waistband) and I spent precious time and calories looking for the trail. Here I was attempting by far the longest run of my life and I couldn't even find the trail over this forboding pass. Finally it made itself clear, Hope humbled me considerably, and I arrived in Winfield after 7h36 both exhilerated and disheartened. I commented to a friend, directly upon finishing: "There is NO way I can turn around and get myself back to Leadville!" Of course, after a few hours reflection, sitting around a campfire, drinking a Pabst or two, my thinking changed, and two days later I sent in my entry fee. And, of course, in three weeks I was able to get myself back to Leadville.

Today, three weeks out from the race, I completed the same run, but 28 minutes faster. Maybe my favorite part of the Leadville course (except, of course, for the upper reaches of Hope Pass) is the ~20 minutes of trail that goes from the Mt. Elbert South trailhead down into the town of Twin Lakes. The singletrack is narrow and precipitous--it is carved precariously into the mountainside the entire way. Aspen groves abound. After nearly 40 miles of running, gravity lends a rejuvenating hand. And when one pops out onto the final mile or so of jeep road down into town the views across the valley to Hope Pass and Twin and Rinker Peaks are stunning. Of course, in the back of one's mind is the thought that I must now get my body up there. Somehow.

Today was no different. My run had been encouragingly quick and comfortable as I arrived in town after five hours and five minutes of running, but on a very fundamental level there was a sense that things were about to turn south. I was hungry. A gnawing, vacuous feeling existed where a satiated stomach should have been. No problem, I thought, I still have three gels left! There was a problem, though; over the previous five hours of running I had only consumed three gels and I would soon find that my body was operating on a pretty hefty deficit. After the creek crossing I hit a gel and tucked into the climb with a measure of confidence and a conviction to keep it slow and steady. Unfortunately, I wouldn't really have any other choice.

A good, honest, high altitude climb exploits any weakness, and today Hope was unflinchingly savage. It simply did not care. It did not care that I'd already run 42 miles. It did not care that my shorts pockets only hold six gels. I held things together for all of approximately ten minutes. After that I was reduced to what I perceived as the saddest of shuffles. An embarrassing shadow of my typical uphill pep and cadence.

No matter, another gel is clearly in order, despite having downed one only 25 minutes prior. This did nothing. Less than nothing. Within minutes it seemed I was even more ravenous. Another, final, gel. Three gels in forty minutes when my previous three gels had been spread over three hours.

The walls of life necessarily close in at moments like this. Everything, everything becomes about the current step. Each step has a wall constructed around it that prevents seeing forward or looking backward. There is no thought of how far one has already come or of how far one still has to go. Occassionally, wrenchingly, the mind endeavors to poke its neck up, scale the barrier that surrounds each step, peer over the top, and see out. If it is successful the results are borderline-catastrophic. Game-ending. The enormity of the task, the context of miles and elevation that bracket each step are simply too much to bear. The only way the thing can be done is to brace up those walls around each step and do one's best to not peek over.

Of course, that is much easier said than done. All the mind wants to do is think about the end, some relief, some reprieve from the dizzy suffering. But then the darkening skies open up and finally dispense their contents, of course, when I'm staggering above treeline. Hail, graupel, rain, all come pouring down and I'm too far gone to even bother with putting my singlet on. But of course, the summit finally, eventually, comes and the downhill is life-giving, and the sky brightens and now all I have to do is shuffle my way up the road to Winfield where, once again, in three weeks, I'll have to turn around and do it all over again. But with more calories. And rested legs.


PunkRockRunner said...

Based on your progress, I would imagine an epic day is in store for you in a few short weeks.

Your description of what I like to call "bonking" was almost poetic to a point that I was somewhat envious that you seem to get more out of the experience than I. Of course, my "wall" seems to show up about 20-miles into my non-ultra-running.

Oh, would it kill you to wear a fuel belt on these longer training days?

Stay healthy, fuel and hydrate!

Enjoy the mountain.


JeffO said...

That's why you're so fast.
I always bring a few trail bars. And I certainly have enough fat around my waist that I probably don't need the trail bars. But if I break a leg, I want something to feed to the lions.

Bipolar Boy said...

Great description of your suffering but you know these are the times we learn more about ourselves than our great successes that were easy.Go Anton you can finish first and maybe even break the record. Best of luck.


Anonymous said...

I love to hear we often have similar troubles. I went out to Twin Lakes one time to see what the hype was about Hope Pass. But, the creek was swollen and I ended up going through the brush sans trail. Then, I saw some coyotes licking their chops at my confusion. Luckily, I found the trail and all was well. I wish you well in your adventures.

Shane said...

Another good training run and enlightening description from you. You and I had a discussion about training calories at PG two years ago. After we split up that day I genuinely believed that I had been pampering my body with too much nutrition, so I cut back during all runs and climbs since then as I dialed in my needs while tempting my body to use my fat reserves. I still put down significantly more than you, though. :)
I hope your recovery from this run and overall taper produce that elusive record.
Tony - you are spot-on with your description of the trail into TL. The Pb trail course can not be described beautiful, but that section alone, with free-falling nature through the Aspen canopy, makes the adventure worthy.

Builder Dave said...

Tony...thanks for this. The climbing/bonk description is exactly what I was feeling going up Mosquito during the marathon this year. You're gifted not only with running ability, but with descriptive writing ability as well. I think a book would be in order someday...

dd said...

my friend and i saw you at the top of hope pass certainly didn't look like you were in trouble! i wish i'd known, my pack was full of food! we saw you in the coffee shop later and wondered how you'd got there so fast. I love reading your blog, this will be our first Leadville attempt...i wish you the very best on race day!

Anton said...


Oh I was certainly in distress when you saw me, moments before I had been hunched over on top of the pass, hands on knees, swaying unsteadily in the breeze.

Btw, I hitch hiked back to town from Winfield...that's why I was back so quick.


Collin said...

I can't wait to see how you do at Leadville. I've been reading your blog for awhile now and it's definitely my favorite running blog to read. It's always a good motivator to get me to go hit big weeks and get in shape for better ultra performances (though my big weeks have never topped 133, so they're far short of even your average... hahaha). Anyway, I'm sure you'll be gunning for that elusive daylight finish and 15:42 CR, so best of luck.
PS, Andy Jones Wilkins just posted on Facebook that he's got a good pacer/muler and that he's really hoping to beat you, so be on the lookout for him when you're coming back on the 2nd half and he's still on the 1st half. :)

brownie said...

Hooray Pabst!

Steve Pero said...

Great story, I've felt that empty feeling many a time...almost like drugs.

Steve P.

Anonymous said...

Your description of what I like to call "bonking" was almost poetic
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Unknown said...

I hope your recovery from this run and overall taper produce that elusive record.

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Tim said...


Prescient description of what I felt going up the Pass on Saturday afternoon. Seeing you guys blaze back down as I was halfway up didn't help my state any!

Best of luck on your next effort, your hard work invariably will produce epic results.


Christian Griffith, said...

Anton - I wanted to alert you regarding a review I wrote for the MT100s

The shoe is perfect for many of us that enjoy running in the 790s and appreciate your feedback and implementation with the New Balance team

Thanks and see ya on the trail.