Coming from sea level, my primary concern as I prepped for Leadville
this summer--other than, you know, getting in shape--was how I would survive a 100 mile race that takes place entirely above 9000 feet. Fortunately I happen to live about three miles from the CEO of Hypoxico
, the world leader in altitude training systems. Brian
came by the house in mid-June with a generator, tent, and a mask/reservoir system for the treadmill, which was exciting but also increased my apprehension quite a bit. Before I started on my acclimatization, though, there was another matter to attend to: a little race I like to call WESTERN STATES.
This was my third time making the trip to Squaw Valley for States. My first was in 2005, the first ultra I'd ever been to. I had spent some time in 2004 working at the Yosemite Medical Clinic in Yosemite Valley, where my main supervisor was Gary Towle, a WS100 board member. He convinced me to be a medical volunteer at States the following summer, where I got to witness Jurek's final, dominating win; the experience is basically what turned me into an ultrarunner
. I went back in 2014
to crew and pace for my good friend, Salomon athlete Glen Redpath.
This year, the circle was completed. Glen is the one who had introduced me to Brian almost five years ago, before Brian moved to New Paltz; now I'd be pacing my training partner over the same twenty-mile stretch I had run with Glen four years earlier.
|Brian ready to go at the start.|
I made it to Squaw on Thursday afternoon and did a brief 30-minute jog before meeting Brian and his friend Kyle for dinner. Friday was a busy day. First, Kyle and I jumped into the Altra Uphill Challenge, a 6K climb on the opening miles of the WS100 course. I had not yet started any acclimatization, so I knew I'd be suffering from the altitude, which started at about 6500' and climbed to nearly 9000' at the finish. And suffer I did. I started off a bit too aggressively over the first half mile, and started to leak places past the mile mark. But overall I felt much better than I had four years ago; despite temps in the upper 80s, the lack of humidity had me feeling pretty good, and I held on for a top-20 finish in 36:45, nearly three full minutes faster than I'd run in 2014--a nice confidence boost heading into my altitude training. After a shower and lunch, we headed over to the mandatory pre-race meeting. Then I was able to grab the great Eric Schranz
for an interview for the Pain Cave
. Then we had a race-strategy chat with DBo
, our third crew member/pacer, before Kyle and I drove into Tahoe to pick up some last minute supplies for race day.
|Hydrating at Michigan Bluff|
Race morning was clear and cool, but the heat promised us later in the day ultimately did not disappoint. Kyle and I saw Brian off at 4:00am and immediately headed out to Duncan Canyon, the 24-mile mark. Brian came through in slightly over four hours, looking pretty strong; after a brief stop during which we loaded him up with fluids and ice, he took off to meet DBo at Robinson Flat (30 miles) while Kyle and I drove ahead to Dusty Corners (mile 38). By this point the day had really started to heat up; despite the low humidity, temperatures in the high 90s/low 100s are not conducive to distance running, and Brian looked a bit worse for the wear when he passed through a few hours later. He headed into the infamous canyons section of the course and the heat of the day, and we headed off to rendezvous with DBo at Michigan Bluff (mile 55).
We had a nervous couple of hours where Brian stopped showing up on the race tracking, wondering if he had dropped, but eventually he got back on track and came through looking reasonably well. The heat had become challenging, and his stomach was not cooperating, but Dylan got him on track drinking more GU Roctane and he picked up the pace heading into Foresthill (mile 62) where DBo picked him up to pace the next 18 miles. The two of them moved well down Cal Street and had moved up over ten spots by the time I met them climbing up from the American River on the way to Green Gate at mile 80.
|Late night, Placer High School track.|
By this time the had started to drop into the mid-80s, and I thought we might really start to hammer. But Brian's stomach was still causing issues, keeping him from taking in anything but liquid calories and necessitating a brief puking spell at around 83 miles. We kept pounding Coke and Roctane and struggled through to the 90-mile aid station. Brian was able to move fairly well on the flats, but we had to hike every climb, and he wasn't up to his usual prowess on the downhills; we made slow and steady progress, picking up a few spots here and there, but couldn't find a strong, consistent rhythm. We saw Dylan and Kyle at the 94-mile aid station which seemed to rejuvenate Brian a bit, and he charged downhill with renewed vigor, passing the Speedgoat, Karl Meltzer
, about a mile before we reached No Hands Bridge at mile 97. At this point we were trying to hold off Brian's friend Alex Ho, with whom he had tied for the win at Bighorn in 2017 and had been trading spots throughout the day; as we crossed No Hands we could see his and his pacer's headlamps less than a minute behind. We started the half-mile climb to Robie Point with maybe a 30 second gap, but Brian pushed hard up the hill, suffering silently but running much of the way. By the time we crested the hill past Robie with a mile to go, we had stretched the lead to about 90 seconds, and we were cruising to the finish until we stupidly missed a turn, ran an extra half mile, and lost two spots in the process. Still, Brian ran an excellent 20:28 for 38th place, on a day when he did not have his best stuff. The guy really has an extraordinary ability to make himself hurt, and it was pretty amazing to witness firsthand.
I tried to use this brief period of altitude exposure to jumpstart my acclimatization, and when I returned home I began training in earnest. I started by sleeping in the tent at a simulated altitude of about 6000' and increased gradually until I was sleeping at 10-11K about 5 nights a week. I also increased my hill training, combining some short-duration hill repeats (2-4 minutes each) with long climbs on Lenape Lane (3 miles of steady climbing between 3-10% uphill grade). About four weeks out I started incorporating the altitude mask into my training. I did a little bit of easy jogging at 10,000 feet, but mostly I would just crank the treadmill up to a 15% gradient, set the mask to 12,500', and hike uphill at about an 18-minute pace for half an hour or so at a time. This was much worse than it sounds; within about 45 seconds I'd be gasping for breath and my heart rate would be up around 150. But I could feel myself getting stronger, and while my breathing never got "easy," it definitely improved after a few weeks of this kind of torture. Two weeks out I put together a couple of medium-long days with Phil in the Catskills--not my cup of tea, but it gave us an opportunity to do some extended 2-3 mile climbs at 15-20%, and to practice using trekking poles. I've grown up as a cross-country skier, and so this came fairly naturally to me; by the time we finished the first big uphill hike with the poles I was convinced that I'd be using them on Hope Pass in Colorado. I also volunteered to sweep the legendary Escarpment Trail Run
with Phil and our friend Rick, which provided a long, if slow, day of climbing. All in all, I boarded my flight to Colorado feeling more excited than nervous about the adventure to come, and fairly confident that I'd be able to handle myself on the Rocky Mountain trails.