Warning – this is a really really long post, and relevant to perhaps 1% of the population. If you just want to peruse the photos, feel free! But remember, I ran for 24 hours to get the buckle, so maybe ten minutes of your time is commensurate!

Thanks to the wildly successful book Born to Run, many people have heard about the Leadville Trail Race. For those unaccustomed to the race, a quick potted history: In the early 80’s, the Climax Molybdenum Mine, the biggest employer of people in Leadville, shut down and with it, the town faced almost certain collapse. A couple of visionary local residents, Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin, conjured up an idea to revitalize the community: a 100-mile footrace from the main street of Leadville out to the ghost town of Winfield and back. The thinking behind the 100-mile distance was that, unlike a shorter race, anyone taking part in a 100-mile race is more likely to spend more time (and hence, spend more money) in town.

And so was borne, 36 years ago, the Leadville Trail 100 Run, more affectionately known (except when you’re doing it) as The Race Across the Sky. Leadville packs in a not insignificant, but not unheard of either, 15,000” feet of vertical gain in its 100-mile distance. The difference with Leadville, when compared to other big 100 mile races, is the altitude. Leadville prides itself as being the highest city in the US at just under 10,100”. The race goes all the way up to 12,600”, and the summit of Hope Pass (twice) and so for someone who is used to training at sea level, racing fully two miles higher in air that is significantly thinner than at home is a huge challenge.

I’ve read Born to Run dozens of times, indeed, like so many other ultrarunners, it was probably one of the things that first got me intrigued with the concept of racing trail ultras. But I’d never really considered racing Leadville – I only raced my first 100-mile event a year ago and Leadville, much like the other big-name milers, Western States, UTMB, and UTMF, just felt way out of my league.

Be careful what buttons you click on the internet

Which is why opening race lottery entries early, and enabling people to make rash and spur-of-the-minute decision to click the button is such a good business model. When the lottery opened late last year, I discussed it with Viv and, without much thought, put my name in. I never suspected that in early January I’d get the email telling me that my lottery entry had been picked and that my pre-approved race entry fee had been accepted.

The fact that I’d already committed around $300 to run the race meant that there was no backing out. The slight technicality that there was another several thousand dollars worth of expenses to fly to Colorado, pay for accommodation and rent a car to get to Leadville was a mere detail – I was in!

Committed, but not telling anyone

I have a regular bunch of guys that I run with several times a week. The self-named Hagley Hombres (so-called because our main training ground is Hagley Park in Christchurch) is a group of like-minded, middle-aged weekend warriors who have dreams of greatness (well, in fairness, DJ Grimmy, arguably the speediest member of the squad, is actually great, at least if his Strava Segment list is the measure. The rest of us, however, probably won’t deliver upon our heroic ambitions!)

Add to that my eldest son Yonni, who also races ultramarathons and has an encyclopedic (some would say anally retentive) knowledge of the professional racing circuit and the social media missives of the various pros (Hi Lucy!), and you have a good group of people who would be most interested in the idea of one of their tribe attempting a race like Leadville.

But despite getting into Leadville in January, it was months before I told anyone other than Viv (since the bank account is in her name as well and there was the slight complicating factor that I was planning on taking her to crew for me). Even with my entry, flights and accommodation booked and paid, it still felt like a bit of a dream.

The leadup

Despite not really believing I’d actually do the race, my training mileage ramped up and approached fairly ridiculous levels. Partly it was a “quantity not quality” Strava-driven thing, but partly it was just a case of really enjoying running ridiculous amounts, but I put in around 4,000kms in the seven months between getting a starting spot, and the race itself.

There was very little quality in that training – no intervals, fartleks or structure (Sorry Kerry and Ali, I’m a lost cause). But what was there was a significant amount of long, moderate speed runs back to back. Running four or five sub-four-hour marathons in one week is actually pretty great training for an all-day race. You learn to run tried, to drag your sorry ass out the door when you really can’t be bothered, and to deal with all the niggles that high-mileage brings.

Destination: Colorado

I have an old school friend who now lives in Colorado and, in the past few years since Facebook reacquainted us after a 20-something year hiatus, I’ve taken the opportunity to visit her and her family as much as possible. Indeed, despite living at opposite ends of the world, my family and hers (both our generation and the next) have struck up firm friendships. We spent the first few days at their place in Fort Collins (which is, conveniently, half the elevation gain between sea-level and Leadville.) While staying in Fort Collins we hiked every day, and I got in a few short and easy runs. It was cool spending some time hiking in the Rocky Mountains National Park and it was awesome to slowly acclimate to the elevation with some walks that took us up higher than we’d go on race day.

Heading to Leadville

After a few days in Fort Collins and environs, it was time to make the pilgrimage up into the mountains and head to Leadville. Leadville is an old mining town that has arguably seen better days. it reminds me a lot of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand and shares that region’s mining heritage and the high proportion of weathered and no-nonsense residents. Leadville is a quiet, ramshackle town, but one that grows on you. It was fantastic to stay within walking distance of the main street and to be able to just walk around and get the vibe of the place.

The first day in Leadville we decided to do a recon of the hardest climb of the race, Hope Pass. We drove to Winfield and hiked the roughly 3,000” to the summit. It was hard, more for its steepness than its technicality, and it was the altitude (think light-headedness and lots of having to stop to take deep breaths) that made it hard rather than the terrain per se.

Lead up to race day

I’m normally pretty chill about races, but I have to admit Leadville really had me rattled. Pretty much everyone in town was well aware of the race, and at every turn, there was another person who was a superstar ultra runner. It didn’t help my nerves any that only a couple of days before the race another event, the Trans Rockies Run, came through town and a full cohort of ultra-ruining superstars was in town. There was certainly a fair amount of imposter syndrome going on in my head!

Luckily we met up with some other citizen racers and chattered about the event – Phil a new found Kiwi friend who had similar ambitions in the race as I did, and Doug, an American with a stellar 30+ year history of ultrarunning in the biggest events. It didn’t relax me any when I found out that this was Doug’s fourth attempt at Leadville, having been pulled from the course after missing cut off times on his previous three attempts!

It was also cool to meet up with the legendary ultra runner and endurance athlete Rob Krar. Krar, like most from the ultrarunning community, is incredibly warm, friendly and approachable and seemed generally interested to hear my story and plans for the race.

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Hanging out with Rob Krar, he’s the one with the huge beard who doesn’t look like he’s partly star-struck and partly in panic-mode about the race to come. Also, he obviously has teeth and I was weirdly hiding mine.

Race briefing

Despite the event now being owned by a professional events company, Ken and Merilee are still the faces of the event and race briefing, the morning before the start, was a chance for Ken to, as usual, regale participants with his views. He was quick to tell people that he didn’t do speeches, and he didn’t do motivation, but what he wanted was a commitment from us all. His oft-repeated quote that “You’re tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can,” wound all the participants up. And then he made everyone stand up and promise that:

I commit, I won’t quit

I have to say it got everyone, with their already heightened tensions and emotions, incredibly fired up. And fired up they needed to be, this race generally has only a 50% completion rate, a factor of altitude, toughness and perhaps inexperience of some people signing up, decimating the list of those who start.

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Ken and Merilee – founders and figureheads of the Leadville Race Series. Note the Hagley Hombres team top, it went down a treat in Leadville

Go!

The race starts at 4 am on Saturday morning, with the US national anthem, a rousing roar from Ken, and the firing of his trusty shotgun. Thereafter just over 700 seriously apprehensive athletes crossed the starting line and embarked on their journey of discovery.

Going into the race I really didn’t know what to expect and so had four potential scenarios. Bearing in mind that I’d invested a lot of time, emotion and money into the race, and considering I’ve not yet left a race unfinished, quitting wasn’t an option for me. If I got pulled from the course because of not making cut off times that would be one thing, but I was committed to not quitting. My four scenarios were, therefore:

  1. Finishing, but outside of the 30 hour cutoff time for a buckle
  2. Finishing sub 30 hours
  3. Managing sub-25 hours to win the famed “Big Buckle”
  4. Doing it all in under a day

I perused the web and found a few different pace calculation tools, more for reference than anything else, and worked out what a 24-hour run would look like at the various aid stations. I printed it out and then promptly lost it. After which I hand wrote it, put it in a plastic bag and in my race pack and also forgot about it. Viv had some time checks, but essentially I was flying pretty much blind.

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A very (very very) nervous Ben getting some much-needed support from Viv just before the start

Start to May Queen – 13.5mi

The first approximately 12 miles is mainly downhill, with some lovely single-track running alongside turquoise lake to the May Queen aid station. One of the other Kiwi entrants, Ben (another Ben!) found me at the start and I sussed out some of his race results and realized he was pretty competitive. So for the first few miles, I shadowed him trying to calm my heart rate and breathing and warm up in the pre-dawn air.

The section alongside the lake was lovely, a line of hundred of headlamps poking through the trees and picking out the rocks and roots we had to jump. Coming into May Queen itself was amazing, there must have been a couple of hundred of meters where spectators were lined up on both sides of the road – it really felt like racing in the Tour de France! Given that it was early and the participants were all still fairly close together, I decided to not stop at May Queen and continue on to Outward Bound to fill my bottles and grab some food.

May Queen to Outward Bound – 11mi

After we left the May Queen aid station, there was a roughly two-mile section of single track through the forest. It was fairly technical, but we were all still really fresh and I managed to find some other participants to run with and suck up as much advice as I could from. After the trail section, we popped out onto Hagerman’s Road, a gravel climb that, while fairly shallow, seems to go on for miles (probably because it does).

After turning onto another (although slightly rougher) gravel road, we continued our climb to the top of Sugarloaf. From here it was the infamous Powerline descent – a track that was bulldozed literally up the face of the mountain to allow for power lines to be installed. Powerline starts as a fairly meandering up and down but soon turns into a very steep, very rutty descent. Perfect for either twisting an ankle or really blowing up some quads early in the race.

At the bottom of Powerline, we turned right onto the road and ran the couple of miles to the Outward Bound aid station where I stopped for some fuel and to top up my bottles.

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Posing Descending down Powerline. And, yes, that is a bit of a paunch there. Middle age, dammit!

Outward Bound to Half Pipe – 6.5mi

Perhaps the least exciting part of the race, this section saw us leave the Outward Bound aid station and run across bare fields for a couple of miles before turning onto a road for another few miles. Thereafter we cut back onto some more fields and rambled our way through to an access track which ran flat and straight to the Half Pipe aid station. Since it was only a short section, I didn’t bother stopping here for fuel, since I had a specific strategy to minimize aid station time as much as possible – I still had relatively full bottles and food in my bag so I kept trucking on.

Half Pipe to Twin Lakes – 8.5mi

I had a bit of a low spot in this section. We left Half Pipe and carried on the track for a while before cutting onto some nice single track through the forest that gradually wound its way up Mt Elbert. While a nice section of trail, I’d run around 50km by this time and was a little bit tired. I was still running most of it, with the occasional power hike up steeper climbs, but I had less of a spring in my step. Luckily I spent time running with a chap, Andre, who proved good company and we yarned a bit. I was somewhat incredulous when he told me that the majority of his training he does on a treadmill – kill me now!

After another descent, this time off Mt Elbert, we came into Twin Lakes aid station where I met Viv for the first time since the start. She told me I was around an hour under my 24-hour schedule, but given I was feeling a little weak I didn’t think too much about that.

I grabbed some much-needed food, filled my bottles and quickly made my way out through throngs of supporters’ tents and gazebos and hit the next section.

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Refueling at Twin Lakes. 10 out of 10 for color coordination.

Twin Lakes to Winfield – 10.5mi

Only 10.5 miles, this will be a doddle, right? Well, not when you consider that it was 70kms in and included some pretty steep climbing with around 3,000” of vertical ascent. Leaving Twin Lakes we had a mile or two of flat running through fields and crossing a river, before starting the Hope Pass climb. I was actually hiking pretty well and managed to keep a pretty good pace. I was particularly pleased that, despite the altitude, my breathing and heart rate were still reasonably good.

I called into the Hopeless aid station, just below the saddle of Hope Pass but didn’t dither, wanting to press on and get to the summit and down the other side.

The descent was pretty good – I’m nothing flash at going downhill, but didn’t have too many people pass me. It was pretty cool to pass Rob Krar near the bottom – he was heading back up Hope Pass on his way back so at that stage was probably only a couple of hours ahead of me  – I wished him well and, despite breathing pretty hard with the ascent, he said howdy.

Winfield was the halfway point and from the bottom of Hope Pass to there was a few miles of new single-track. It was lovely, but seemed to go on forever – made all the worse by the fact that the trail actually goes past Winfield for a bit before looping back. After 50miles even a mile detour seems interminable.

At Winfield I had a slightly longer stop and tried to regroup – I was getting pretty tired and was pretty worried about the climb back up Hope Pass that was to come.

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Crossing the Arkansaw River after Twin Lakes before climbing Hope Pass. Either looking for a fish or a sign for motivation

Winfield to Twin Lakes – 10.5mi

I knew something wasn’t quite right when I hiked most of the five miles or so from Winfield to the bottom of the pass. I couldn’t quite find a rhythm or the motivation to run. The heat was getting to me and, in retrospect, I hadn’t taken on nearly enough fuel. The section from Twin Lakes over to Winfield and back again takes around seven hours through the heat of the day. That coupled with the significant climbing means that serious fueling is needed – I undercooked that aspect significantly. That under-fueling led to some cramping issues. I didn’t have any full leg lockups, but the next 30 miles or so saw me concerned with fairly constant early signs of cramps.

Heading up Hope Pass the second time was pretty tragic. I started getting woozy and thought I might pass out. I had lots of stops where I hung my head on my running poles and closed my eyes. Despite willing myself to be somewhere else, when I opened my eyes again I was still on that brutal Hope Pass climb. It was nice to bump into Doug and Phil going the other way, and have a quick chat to them but, other than the aforementioned tragic stops, I just wanted to get up and over the pass.

Luckily, and as everyone told me would be the case, every step that I took down the other side made me feel better. After a mile or so descending from the pass I was able to start running again and by the bottom was feeling pretty good. I ran in the flat section to Twin Lakes feeling tired but relatively confident about the remainder of the race.

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe – 8.5mi

At my first visit to Twin Lakes, I told Viv that I thought I might need a pacer to run with me for the last section (Leadville allows pace runners from Winfield all the way to the finish – I didn’t want one from Winfield to Twin Lakes, but thereafter it seemed prudent).

When I got to the aid station Viv introduced me to Richie, a guy who was volunteering at the aid station as a way of getting a preferential entry for next year’s event. I told Richie that I’d be crap company, would run like a dog and would pretty much be a total downer of a companion for the next 10 or so hours, and he seemed stoked to hear about that. The most comic thing about Richie as a pacer is that he’s one tall dude and there were many comments as to whether dehydration during the race had shrunk me!

After some much-needed refueling and newly invigorated by the promise of some conversation with a great guy, Richie and I left Twin Lake and began the climb up Mt Elbert.

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Yes, he really is that tall! My awesome pacer, Richie and I about to leave Twin Lakes

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe – 8.5mi

I suspect it was having the novelty of someone to run with and talk to but this next section went like a charm. I’d been warned that the climb out of Twin Lakes was deceptive and goes on longer than most people think – to be honest, despite telling Richie that I’d be unable to talk while running, we managed to chat a bunch and I found out about him and his life. Super excited to hear his first child is on the way and I’m seriously looking forward to reading reports of him carrying his infant across the finish line in next year’s Leadville in a sub-20-hour time.

I wasn’t running much of it, but even when walking managed to keep up a pretty good pace and didn’t have too many people passing me – I guess everyone was in a similar state to me by this time.

Half Pipe to Outward Bound – 6.5mi

As we were coming into Half Pipe the sun went down and this made the section between there and Outward Bound more palatable. Since we couldn’t see the depressing boringness of the flat field and road sections, we just kept on putting one foot in from of the other. I actually quite enjoyed the road section, since I do a lot of my training on the road I was able to pull out some pretty fast miles in this section and Richie and I had another couple of runners to accompany in this section.

We met Viv at Outward Bound who got me fueled up and made sure I had enough warm clothes on. She decided to come to May Queen as well so I said goodbye, and planned to see her again in a few hours.

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Still smiling, still hopeful and still ridiculously tall (well, one of us) at Outward Bound

Outward Bound to  May Queen 11mi

Having run down Powerline in the morning, I was well aware of how steep it was and was hence pretty nervous about this section. The fact that there is a couple of miles of undulating road to run before you get to the base of Powerline made it worse. As it turned out, it actually went OK. I think the fact that it was dark and I couldn’t see how steep and long the climb was actually helped – I could just focus on one foot in front of the other.

Powerline is difficult not only because of its steepness but also because it is very rutted and has some quite loose shingle sections. That necessitated a bit of backward and forwards as I found the best line – but luckily Richie did an awesome job of telling me where to walk and making sure I didn’t screw anything up.

At the top of Powerline is a surprise for participants – it seems to be a well-known, but a little-documented secret so I’ll leave that as a bonus for anyone who makes it that far in future races.

After the summit we headed back down Hagerman Road, just as we did so it started to rain – fairly heavily and very cold – not ideal since we were about to embark on a rocky, technical section. It was lovely in the dawn light when it was dry, but would be another thing altogether in the dark and wet.

Luckily we caught up to another racer and I just stuck on his tail all the way along the single-track – he was intermittently walking and running, but overall I think I made a better pace since I had his feet to follow.

A quick road section and then we were at the final aid station, May Queen.

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Yeah, I’ll admit it, I was pretty over it by this point. I want to go to bed!

May Queen to Finish – 13.5mi

After my horrible second ascent of Hope Pass, and a few low spots, I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t make my 24-hour A-goal. I told Richie this and said I was totally resigned to the fact and happy to do 25 hours. Like all good pacers, he ignored my words and quietly encouraged me to do what he was fairly certain I was capable of. Before the Hagerman Road descent on the previous stage, he quietly suggested that maybe I could run down the road since we’d lose a bit of time in the technical single-track section.

Again here at May Queen, he quietly encouraged me to make my stop as brief as possible and hit the single-track back into Leadville. I did so and started running again (where running is, as one can imagine, more of a stumbling kind of a motion after 20+ hours on the feet.)

After about 150 yards of what felt like a good pace to me, I promptly tripped on a rock and went face first into the dirt. Apart from bruising my hands and legs (not to mention my ego), I was OK, but I was aware that since I was tired my feet were dragging and even a small obstacle was a tripping hazard. This coupled with an ill-timed headlamp failure that necessitated a battery change had me a bit anxious about my time.

However, with fresh batteries and a bit of a shot of adrenaline, I was reenergized and had a pretty fast section. Looking back at the results I passed about 15 other competitors in this last section – I was pretty focused on finishing strong, and my competitive streak came in as I picked of headlights one at a time. Looking at the timing, it looked pretty hopeful that I’d actually make my A-goal of 24 hours, but it all depended on keeping up a bit of pace and getting over the last few miles without cracking.

After the section alongside Turquoise Lake, we came out on one of the County Roads near Leadville and had only what I thought was one or two miles to the finish. As it happens, this section is deceptive and the climb goes on for what seems like an eternity. I was still making pretty good time, but I have to admit I was getting a little bit towards the end of my tether.

Finally, we turned a corner near the Lake County High School and some spectators told us we only had a mile or so to go to the finish. We were running alongside a few other athletes and it seemed that I was the least destroyed (or, perhaps, the most competitive) I left most of them behind as I upped the pace to the finish. I suggested to Richie that we attempt a finishing sprint, but in the darkness, I mistook some road cones about 300 yards from the finishing line as the actual endpoint. After a couple of hundred yards, I suggested to Richie that we reassess and begin our sprint at a point more suitable given the length of time we’d been running. And anyway, it was dark so as long as we started the sprint from 100 yards out, no one would know – we’d still look like heroes.

Crossing the line I have to say I was ecstatic. I’d met all of my goals and more, and had navigated the dark places that one always experiences in an event like this. My final time was 23:42:45, enough to earn me a coveted sub-25 hour buckle.

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Jubilation on the finish line. That is all.

Thanks and reflections

Firstly I have to thank Viv who also sacrificed 30 or so hours of sleep to get me across the line. Crewing in an ultramarathon is a pretty horrible job – it’s cold and wet, you get yelled at and have to deal with an emotional/smelly/angry/sad runner who you have no idea when they will turn up. And then when they do OK they take all the credit! Viv did a stellar job and found a good balance of concern with pragmatism. She deserves a buckle as much as I do.

Richie was a godsend. Just having company for the final 40 miles and someone to quietly point me in the right direction was awesome. Sure he was keen to do it, and even enjoyed it (madness!) but I don’t think I could have done it without him so a little part of my buckle belongs to him as well.

There was a huge crew of people at the event – competitors, supporters and event staff – they were all awesome, helpful, supportive an friendly. It was cool to hang out with fellow Kiwi Phil in the days before the event and I was amped to go back to the finish line and see him come across the line within the cutoff. He battled hard and thoroughly deserved his buckle. Another Kiwi, Ben also earned himself a buckle so, given the low finishing rate that this event is known for, having three of the four Kiwis in the event finish was no mean feat.

Leadville is a pretty amazing race. To have read about it for years and heard about a town that has been reinvented by a race and then visit the place, meet the founders of said race and actually compete was something pretty special. The fact was brought home to me in the morning before we flew out, with an hour to spare we headed down to the local café to have a coffee. Pretty much everyone in the café was demonstrating the sure signs of having raced an ultra the day before and there were many an audible groan as people walked up the steps to get in. But as I savored my coffee on the seat outside the café, made in memory of Leadville local and ultra racing super-fan Bill Dooper, I realized that what Ken said about Leadville really being a family was true. The fact that almost everyone who walked on by gave me a cheery “Good job” on finishing the race just reinforced that, it felt really good to commit, and not to quit. Like Ken says, you’re tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.

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One last coffee outside City on a Hill enjoying the view from Bill Dooper’s memorial seat

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That’s one big belt buckle!

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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