Leadville Trail Marathon Race Report by Rob Jansen
|Rob and Ben at the Leadville Marathon finish line|
I “ran” the Leadville Trail Marathon this past Saturday. It hurt. A lot. I’ve climbed some mountains in my life and have had some days stretching over 17 hours, but the 4:48:38 that I took to complete the marathon course Saturday was three times tougher than anything I’ve ever done in my life. At least.
I wasn’t much of a distance runner in high school or college, but when I saw that registration had opened for the Leadville race series I knew I had to give this marathon a go. I love hiking and climbing, and have never had altitude issues despite climbing 65 peaks over 14,000’ in my life. I felt that this combination could help me to a decent time on what is widely considered the toughest marathon in the country. The argument can be made that the Pikes Peak Marathon is harder, but those people almost always say Leadville is the second hardest.
I went over my strategy one final time at 7:58am on Saturday morning during the national anthem. Starting at 10,200’, go easy the first 3.8 miles to aid station A at ~11,400’. From there, jog as much of the 12,000’ Ball Mountain loop before returning to aid station A at mile ~7.1. Run from A to aid station B at 11,200’, which marks the 10 mile mark and the beginning of the 3.1 mile, 2,000’ ascent to 13,185’ Mosquito Pass. Hike hard to the pass and let it rip on the descent back to aid station B at mile 16.2. From there, keep it reasonable without redlining for the entire Ball Mountain circumnavigation, and run the final 3.8 miles back into town without falling and hurting myself. If I could keep all of my miles under 20 minutes I figured had a good shot a breaking 6 hours.
The shotgun was fired at 8:00am, and the pack of 1,000 runners slowly jogged past the starting line and up 6th street out of Leadville. I had run this stretch in training and knew that the first 6 miles would involve nearly 2,000’ of elevation gain up to Ball Mountain. It took my 8:35 to reach the dirt roads at the east edge of Leadville, and shortly after that the marathon and Heavy Half courses split. We continued up scree-laden jeep roads, and I figured I had covered the first mile in roughly 11 minutes. Having left Ben and Bryan behind (they were shooting for sub 6:30) I followed the line of runners up a steep slope and took a 30 second walk to as to let me heart rate even out. I looked at my watch, which read 12:35. “Great,” I thought. “My first marathon ever and I’m walking after 12:35??? Just stay conservative early. Run within yourself” I ran from minutes 13 to 25 before the course turned up a very loose, steep jeep road and everyone switched to a hike. I passed a few dozen people on the hike as my breathing was steady and my heart rate consistent. Running the occasional flat and down, while passing 4 or 5 puking athletes in the process, I made it to aid station A, at 3.8 miles, in 50:50. I knew that 5 hour pace to here was 47:00, so I was happy that I hadn’t gone out too hard (I was aiming for under 6:00). I figured I was probably on 5:30 pace, which was reasonable. No worries yet.
I had the aid crew fill my water bottle (I carried a 20oz bottle as well as 940 calories in the form of Shot Blocks and Fruit Straws), and left aid station A at 51:00.
The course continued up, and I knew another ~700’ of climbing was in store to get to the Ball Mountain Pass at ~12,200’. My legs felt strong, and when a 200’ downhill appeared I eased into a running pace, maybe 7:30 or so. I didn’t dare go faster than this, even on a descent as I knew I could easily spike my heart rate and dig a deep hole; not something I wanted early on. When the course evened out and began ascending again, I could see a long line of runners in front of me winding up toward the pass. I hiked the ups and jogged the occasional flats. Even if a flat stretch was only 30’, I would run it as I knew from my 14er TTs that every bit of running adds up.
Cresting Ball Mountain Pass was a high for me. The jeep road switched to dirt singletrack that I ran downhill back to aid station A, which I reached in 1:28 (7.1 miles into the race). Despite enjoying this section I knew it would be a b---h on the way back.
I refilled water at Aid A and left after just 10 seconds. From here, I jogged ~80% of the distance to aid station B, located at the base of Mosquito Pass. Only 7.1 miles in, my legs still felt strong so I decided to keep the jog controlled and easy, knowing that Mosquito is often the beginning of the end for many racers.
I pulled into Aid station B at 1:48 (10 miles), tanked up on water, and jogged out on the jeep road toward the road split. I hit a 70 calorie fruit straw before the road began sloping up, and passed Dave from run club here. Not to sound cocky, but passing him gave me extra motivation to hammer the Mosquito ascent. I’ve climbed enough peaks here to know how I handle hiking, and I was confident I could do some damage on this section.
Eventually the flats ended and the road aimed toward the sky. At this point, the Heavy Half course had merged with us, so I had no shortage of targets to try and catch. I kept my back straight and my steps short but quick, as many people (most likely flatlanders) were bent too far forward while hiking, a red flag for incoming disaster.
I ascended past the lakes near 12,000’, cheering for Ray, Jason, Sylvia and Jenni as they came down the pass (they were running the 15.5 mile Heavy Half Marathon). About 20 minutes into the ascent, with my breathing feeling unexpectedly relaxed, I picked up the pace even more and really started passing people. As I neared 13,000, Wyatt Hornsby (100 mile trail run champion and LT Race Series vet) came running down. I figured he was either having a terrible day or I was doing better than I had anticipated. Probably the former, as I’m maybe 1/100th the runner he is.
As we reached the final switchback I knew that the pass was close, and began to jog deliberately. The road here is covered in scree and sand, and it impossible to run on without looking carefully for foot placement. Several half marathoners ate it big time on the descent as they approached me, which wasn’t comforting to see. Just below the pass, an ATV came down with a runner on it, clearly injured and done for the day. Another scary sign of what could happen up there.
Finally, the ATVs and 4wd vehicles appeared ahead. 13,185’ Mosquito Pass, and the halfway point of the course. I had the crew fill my bottle, grabbed a quick cup of Sprite, and immediately tore into the downhill. I glanced at my watch and gasped. 2:41. Had I accidentally stopped it earlier? No, it was running! At that point I realized I had CRUSHED the climb up to the pass in 53 minutes. Quickly realizing that the 5 hour split for Mosquito is right around 2:44, I knew I had done serious damage coming up there, and, legs feeling good with over 4,500’ of climbing and 13 miles down, made the decision. Game on. Break 5 hours. 5:00:00 and 5:59:59 were now the exact same thing. Realizing I still had ~2,000 of climbing, 13 miles, and endless opportunities to bonk or role an ankle (or worse) I steadied into a run down the road, dodging those still ascending.
Around 16 miles, near the bottom of the pass, my quads started to feel it. I maintained a jog back to aid station B, where I refilled my bottle, hit a 30 calorie Shot Block, and downed a cup of electrolyte mix. I said hi to Siobhan as I left, and started back up to Aid A after 3:01 on the course. 30 minutes to descent 2,000’ and 3.1 miles on Mosquito Pass. Not bad, but I had wanted that section to be under a half hour.
In all of the race reports I’ve read, people talk about they’re low points in this race. At Leadville, the unanimous agreement seems to the re-ascent to Ball Mountain Pass at 12,200’, which features some soul-crushing climbs that are the graveyard for many marathoners.
I knew I’d have a rough patch, and it turns out it came around mile 18, which has some gentle yet long climbs, all approaching 12,000’. Having jogged the majority of miles 16.1-18, I realized I might be redlining and switched to my trusty 90/30. This strategy of hiking 90 seconds and running 30 seconds, or different versions of it depending on the terrain, has helped me on my 14er TTs in the past, and it saved me here. As I approached Ball Mountain and aid station A, I remembered what Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville Race Series, once said: “There comes a point, no matter how good an athlete you are, no matter how well trained you are, that it’s going to transcend the physical, and become about the mental. You better get rid of that comfort zone real quick.” I continued my 90/30 on the unrelenting uphill, once again cresting treeline. This was likely my lowest moment. The Heavy Half Marathon had split off from the marathon course, and I had no one behind me, and just a couple of marathoners stretched out hundreds of yards ahead. Nothing but my thoughts, sore legs, and heavy breathing accompanied me here.
As mile 18 passed though, so did the hills. I knew aid station A was close, and before reaching it, I gained on one runner in front of me. As I closed in, I saw he was wearing a 2012 Mount Evans ascend shirt, and a smile overcame me. It was Abe, “FireOnTheMountain” on 14ers, and the person whose Mount Bierstadt climb time I had beaten the weekend prior. I shook his hand, exchanged words, and continued my 90/30 as I started to gap him. Then it hit me. He ran this race last summer, at age 24. Finishing in 5:14, it was his first marathon ever. He had told me he was shooting for sub-5 this year, and again, just like atop Mosquito Pass, I began thinking. “Can I get to the final aid station before 4:20? That will give me 39 minutes to run 3.8 miles, mainly downhill, to the finish. Am I still on track for sub 5?” I tried to remember Ball Mountain’s ups and downs from the outbound portion of the race earlier in the day, but struggled to. It was all running together. No matter, I kept my 4:59:59 or bust mentality. I hit aid station A for the third time at mile ~19, filled my water, hit a cup of electrolyte, and left immediately. I was focused on the task at hand: Ball Mountain. Again.
I continued to 90/30 up to 12,000’, where the road switched to singletrack and I began jogging toward the 12,200’ pass. I passed the race photographers, who spurred me on despite my deteriorating state, and aimed for Ball Mountain as the wind kicked up and thunder rumbled to the west. Gapping Abe more, I staggered the last few steps to 12,200’, steadied myself, and began carefully running down the south side. Nearly 20 miles in, my legs were starting to wobble, and I found myself worrying that I would stumble to the ground and hurt myself. I forced myself to drink as I reached the bottom of the pass, and focused on a lone marathoner maybe 100 yards ahead of me. “Just get to mile 22 and it’s nearly all down back to town,” I thought. Trying to keep him within reach without redlining, I hiked up around Ball Mountain, running any flats or downs, and finally saw trucks in the distance. It was aid station A, at 22.2 miles. The fourth and final time I would pass here.
As I filled my bottle and hit my final cup of electrolyte mix, I heard a familiar voice,” Roberoo!!!” It was Ben, coming up to aid station A for his second Ball Mountain loop just as I had finished mine. “You’re my hero dude!” I don’t know where his energy came from, but it helped me. We quickly hugged, exchanged encouraging words, and went our separate ways. Only one problem:
In the process of filling my bottle, chugging fluids and hugging Ben, I had become disoriented, and didn’t know which was lead down to the finish, (there were three paths leading out of aid station A). Without hesitation, I yelled “which way is down?!?!?!” The crew members pointed in a certain direction, and I was off. A quick check of the watch. 4:18. 42 minutes to go 3.8 miles, 90% of which was downhill. “Be careful and run within yourself,” I said.
I staggered down the rough jeep trail into the forest, and settled into the best rhythm I could muster. Wondering if I could keep a 10 minute mile pace for this section, I focused more on my footing. With over 22 miles and 6000’ of climbing on my legs, I was becoming more unsteady with every mis-step, and prayed that I wouldn’t slip and hit the deck. With no one around me, I was able to stay in the tire tracks and off the worst of the scree, but I still found myself flailing my arms to stay upright. I passed by an intersection where a race volunteer said it was all downhill to the finish. Thanking him silently, I rounded a corner, and was greeted with the most demoralizing sight I had ever seen. A 100’ ascent. I stuck a middle finger out at it, and “hiked,” (more like a pathetic walk) up it, before regaining my difficult jog.
Then, at mile 24.5, with another runner ~30 yards behind me, I nearly bit it hard. A missed foot placement with my left caused me to stumble, and a shoved my right foot out to stop myself while quickly lifting my arms for balance. A fell into an uncontrolled stride at an awkward angle, and managed to catch myself before falling face first onto the scree. “Whoa there,” came from behind me. Not wanted to waste energy talking, I simply lifted my hand to let the other marathoner know I was alright, and continued down, now beginning to cramp heavily.
After 20 of the most grueling minutes of running I’ve ever suffered through, the jeep trail merged with a dirt county road, and I knew I was no more than 10 minutes from the end. 4:40 read my watch, but it couldn’t lift my spirits. My back was now completely seized up, both hamstrings were shot, and as I staggered down the road at 8:00 pace, my left calf began to give out. I faltered slightly, going into a shuffle for 30 seconds before slowly accelerating again to ~8:00 pace. As buildings began to appear, I saw the pavement. I knew that it had taken me 8:35 to leave the pavement on the outbound, and figured I should be able to do the inbound section in less than 7 minutes. Yes, this entire section is downhill, but I was in such pain I couldn’t run faster than 8:00 pace. It must have looked pathetic / hilarious / very painful.
As my shoes left the sand and hit the tarmac, I turned down 6th Avenue and could see the finish in the distance. It was far away. Really far away. I told myself to just endure six minutes more and I’d be done. But I couldn’t. I focused on getting to Poplar Street and just stared at the pavement below me. After 30 seconds I looked up, and as I passed the Poplar street intersection, I told myself to make it to the house with skis in the yard. As I did this, a runner (a f*****g Leadman, it turns out), passed me. Only if a gun had been pointed to my head could I have gone with him. My back, hamstrings, and left calf were in such pain I couldn’t open up my stride, and I thought of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz before he was oiled up, (seriously, I thought of this). I simply couldn’t escape the robotic jog that was consuming me as I approached the finish.
I don’t really remember what I did those last few minutes, but the only thing that helped offset the pain was the finish line. Inching ever closer, if this had occurred at any other point during the race, I would have been reduced to a hike. As the clock came into view, I realized that, unless I broke down further and was forced to hike, I was going to break 4:50. My goal coming into the race was to go sub-6, and I was going to dip under 4:50. In the Leadville Trail Marathon. Finally I entered the finish chute, and the announcer came on: “This is number 270, from Denver Colorado, Rob Jansen!” The final moments were a blur, and my arms fell to my side as I broke the tape in 4:48:38 for 33rd place. I had to place both hands on my knees to prevent stumbling over, and a race official unlaced my timing chip from my shoe as a finisher medal was draped over my neck. The 32nd finisher hugged me, and I staggered around in a circle for a few minutes, too overwhelmed by what had just taken place to process anything.
After a dozen watermelon slices and five cups of Coke to settle my stomach, I cheered Abe into the finish. He went 4:53 in his second Leadville Marathon, and we chatted for a while at the finish. As we talked, I noticed someone approaching and did a double take. Tyler had shown up. He had just climbed Mount Elbert, and was on his way to Belford, Oxford and Missouri with his uncle, but had stopped in Leadville to see the race. It was a moment I won’t forget.
The three of us chatted as runners continued to finish. I struggled to take in the enormity of the experience, but slowly the pain retreated and I was able to see what had happened. Bryan, Ray, Sylvia, Jenni and Jason came over to congratulate me, and we spent the next two hours cheering in the rest of the HTB Run Club.
I’ll need to revisit this reflection over the coming weeks as my thoughts come together. With that, what can I say about this race now? It was hard. Really hard. The f*****g hardest thing I’ve ever done, by far. Mount Shasta has held that title for several years, but no more. I hammered the Mosquito Pass ascent as I thought I would, and probably passed 75 people on this stretch. Alternatively, portions of the second Ball Mountain ascent were some of the most difficult times I’ve had during any physical endeavor. I’ve never struggled to run an 8 minute mile (except maybe 5th grade and earlier), but I had literally nothing left at the end. I vividly recall looking to the sky and praying for strength during those final miles. Whether it was the altitude, the uneven terrain, combined 12,666’ of elevation change, or that and countless other factors, this race was indescribably difficult. You always hear “you need to see it / do it / experience it to really understand it.” Well, there can’t be many examples of that being truer than the Leadville Trail Marathon. I can’t wait for next year!