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Leadville Marathon Race Report by Dalton Wilson: Mountains, Marathons, and Mental-Mending

Enjoy as Texan, Dalton Wilson, shares his Colorado adventure at the Leadville Trail Marathon.


dwilson-artIn spite of not having completed a significant big race in over two years I entered the Pb-ville Marathon on the heels of some of the most painful losses of my life. Most significant was the death of my brother Perry who was the reason I got into this whole ultrarunning nonsense to begin with when I ran 45 miles from Abilene to Sweetwater the night of Sat Sept 24th 2005, the day Hurricane Rita hit Texas, as a way to raise money for his prosthetic legs. I thought the race would be a good way to end a vacation in the mountains with my girls and hopefully lay some old ghosts to rest. The plan was to drive up to Crested Butte, Colorado and camp at altitude a week prior to the event to get acclimated, then head to Leadville for the race Saturday morning. Right after the race, jump in the car and drive 13 hours to Las Cruces, New Mexico to see my other brother, who is leaving to England for six years… then swing by my 92 year old grandmother’s home in El Paso whom I haven’t seen in four years… finish it all off with a grueling 10 hour drive back to Graham just in time for my girls to go to summer camp in Oklahoma. Piece of cake.

Before I get to the race there are a few things I learned from this trip.

  1. There are such things as “mini tornadoes”. Although I’m tempted to call this a good ol’ Texas “dirt devil”, the one I watched was a bit more than a little vortex kicking up dust. The Rocky Mountain version is a bit more impressive. This particular one passed over a neighboring camper’s 6-person tent, gear included, and sucked it vertically from its stakes 30 feet into the air and dump it into the river.
  2. John Sharp is my favorite ultrarunner of all time. I met John at mile 70 of Cactus Rose 100 miler back in 2008 while I was puking on the trail in the middle of the night. He’s not your typical runner, physically or personality wise. Ex-Army, powerlifter, and at 5’7” 195#, he more resembles a bulldog or cage-fighter. John T. lives hard, plays hard, and runs LOUD … and routinely shows up to big races undertrained. Despite this, he brings it on race day and is the toughest MoFo I’ve ever met.
  3. The prettiest women are in Texas. While I absolutely LOVE the Rocky Mountains, there is something to be said about the women. Between the unshaven armpits/legs and the weathered saddlebag tans, a lot of mountain girls are just not easy on the eyes. “Colorado… where the men are men, and the women are too.” Or as John T would say, “where the women look like horses.”
  4. Trailrunner-Beards rock. The hardcore mountain-runner lifestyle resembles a cross between rock star and a hermit…and they have the beards to prove it. I’ve seen some pretty awesome beards in the CrossFit community but they don’t hold a candle to what’s beholden at a mountain run.
  5. Heavy barbells, kettlebells, wallballs, sprinting, etc performed at high intensity for short periods of time (ie. CrossFit) are excellent for altitude training. I came to Crested Butte in ’09 for a week to acclimate before Bighorn 100… a 100 mile trail run through the Bighorn Mountains. Like most runners from sea level, elevations above 7,000 feet have always given me problems…breathing, headache, nausea, excessive farting, etc. I did my last training run there in ’09 and recorded it in my log (note, the importance of training logs). The run consists of 8 miles of dirt road, pavement, and trail with over 4,000ft of elevation gain…essentially uphill (or up-mountain I should say) the entire way. My bodyweight at the time was 176lbs taking me 2 hour 23 minutes. This year I did the same run in 2 hour 11 minutes at a body weight of 188lbs with absolutely NO altitude issues whatsoever. The only thing I’ve done differently is CrossFit.
  6. The “Super-Moon” was totally legit. Although I didn’t climb a 14er with no lighting as planned, I can say when I got out of the tent to relieve myself at 2:00am the morning of June 23rd , the moon was TOO bright to look at. Although we camped at a very remote location, it was light enough to read a book… seriously.
  7. Teenage daughters are high-maintenance, but absolutely worth it. Experiencing a “Daddy-fail”, the 40F sleeping bags I bought for my daughters 10 years ago proved inadequate camping at 9,000 feet even in the summer when the temps drop to 30F. I ended up sharing my bag with two crying girls with cold feet prompting the purchase of another bag and a dozen “toe-warmer” inserts the next day. It’s truly heart-melting how an independent 18 year old young lady ready for college can still need her Daddy like when she was four.

As far as the race goes, to call the Leadville Marathon a typical marathon in conversation with someone familiar with running events would be a misnomer. I unofficially ran the event back in 2011…“banditing” the course, but carrying my own water. When folks asked me what my time was and I told them “Almost 8 hours.” I always got the unimpressed look of “wow, you’re really slow.” Unlike your average Boston Marathon-type road event, Pb-ville is run almost exclusively on Jeep-road and single-track trail…in the mountains. When I say mountains, I don’t mean Stand Pipe. At 10,200 feet, Leadville, Colorado is the highest incorporated city in the lower 48 states. The race starts downtown and winds its way through the old mining district up the mountain 13 miles out and turns around at the top of Mosquito Pass… elevation 13,185 feet. If you’ve never ran through a skree field at 13,000 feet let me describe it for you…place duct-tape over your mouth and stuff cotton up one of your nostrils…then sprint down the worst dirt road you can find for a few hours.

Race morning I met Sharpie for breakfast at the Leadville Hostel (I highly recommend staying here at least once in your life… Wild Bill and Kathy will take good care of you). We all walked down to the starting line…except for Jos, she stayed in bed earning her the quote of the day the night before…“Dad, I’d get up and watch you start if it were a big run, but it’s just a marathon.”…spoken like a daughter of an ultrarunner.

Start to Aid #1 – We did all the pre-race routines of pics, s#!t-talk, etc with Sharpie sportin his Tom Landry fedora, looking all gangsta Blues Brotherish. The first mile of Pb is all pavement with a gentle uphill all the way out of town…this was nice as it gave time for the field to thin out and establish the fast from the not-so-fast. Once on the trail the next three miles is basically a steep uphill hike, slowing all but the elite runners to a marching pace because of the 1500 foot climb. This would be the only leg of the race Sharpie and I would not run together. I reach aid #1 around 55min…15 min/mile average.

Aid #1, Ball Mountain, Aid#1 – The loop around Ball Mountains is pretty tame with only a few hundred feet of elevation change and the only real single-track trail portion on the course. No big snowfield this year, so it was very runnable. I return to aid #1 at 1:42.

Aid #1 to Aid#2 – This is the least picturesque section of the course. Run on an old mining road through abandoned and decrepit mines with heavy metal seepage into nearby stagnant pools of wonderful colors like orange, green, and purple…WTF was in those old mines??? Definitely not a good place to fill your water bottle. I reach aid #2 at the bottom of the “Big Climb” at roughly 2:11.

Aid #2 to Mosquito Pass – The next three miles of the race is all about surviving the climb. Sharpie and I set a goal to do it in 1 hour 15 minutes. We take off and I hit my first low spell of the day about ½ mile out of the aid station and I tell JT to go ahead. I walk the next five minutes, shoot a gel, slam some water and suddenly feel strong again. As I hit the steep rise of switchbacks my legs feel stronger by the minute. I pass at least 40 people going up the mountain… many too wasted from the altitude to continue at any kind of pace. Although I notice I am breathing harder than normal at sea level, I have zero altitude issues that many of the runners around me experience. Thank you CFV! I reach the 13,000 foot pass in 1:00 flat! Sharpie is about two minutes ahead of me and asks me if I want him to wait and run down together. I tell him to go on and run his race. The guy at the aid station is sipping on a Pabst Blue Ribbon. He sees me eyeing it and says “Get your own at the finish line.” Good advice. I head down to get some oxygen and again pass another dozen people on the descent. I’ve always been a better than average downhill runner…I guess it’s either stupidity or the thrill of reckless-abandon that allows me to just GO. Toward the bottom I catch up with Sharp again as he is rendering aid to a hurting runner. We cruise down the mountain together…“wow there is oxygen down here.” Both of us now shirtless (and probably the the two biggest guys on the course), we pass a mountain biker who says “You guys look like Spartans!”…might be the best compliment of the day. We reach aid #2 at the base of the mountain at 3:59.

Aid #2 back to aid#1 – Again, trudging uphill through the old mining district…not much running here, just lots of smack talking with Sharp. At one point JT has a coughing/hacking fit bringing up phlegm from the bottom of his lungs then spitting it on the ground in a fabulously loud production. A young girl passes us and sarcastically says to him “That’s sexy.” To which he replies “There’s more where that came from sweet thang.” Oh, Sharpie, no wonder you’re single. The clouds have now moved in and have provided us with the most perfect running weather possible. Lets hope they stay friendly. We reach aid #1 at 4:35 on the race clock.

Aid#1, Ball Mt, Aid#1 – We leave the aid-station for the short climb and almost immediately it begins to rain…and both of us shirtless with nothing more than shorts and shoes…and John’s fedora. The north face of Ball Mountain is completely exposed and things get serious when the wind begins blowing as well. Minutes later the first wind driven frozen precipitation begins to fall…not hail and not sleet, but marble size slushy snowballs that instantly explode upon impact to the ground or a dumbass naked runner. As experienced mountain runners we both know this is serious…hypothermia can kill quickly in the mountains…we quicken our pace…pushing, trying to get to the east face out of the wind and in the trees. With about a half mile left to go to the timber, a VERY close lightning bolt strikes the ground. We don’t even look at each other, JT says “Let’s get off this F’ing mountain NOW!”. We stick it in high gear and make the trees before the next strike passing a half dozen other better-clothed runners. Totally gassed from overexertion, the next mile to aid #1 is slow and torturous. We do get a little levity when a couple of mountain bikers happen along the trail cheering and beating on a cow-bell. This along with the obligatory Christopher Walken imitations liven our spirits and we pick up the pace. We are just under 5 ½ hours…if we can reach the aid station by 5:20, we have a chance to finish with our sub 6 hour goal.

Aid#1 to finish – We reach aid#1 at 5:31. With 3.8mile left of highly technical downhill running, our goal didn’t seem possible. Besides that, John is exhibiting signs of hypoxia…his fingernails turning blue and he uncharacteristically begins b!#ching and complaining about everything. I thought to myself “we have to get down NOW”. We leave aid#1 and begin the rocky descent to town. To put the next part of the course into perspective, imagine Spivey Hill, except two miles long…and someone has completely covered it with 50 million broken bowling balls and golf balls. The footing is treacherous to say the least. JT kicks a couple of rocks and almost face-plants as he lets out a loud “S#!t F*%&”… which by the way, ALWAYS makes things better. The going was slow after running over 22 miles through the mountains but we hit our rhythm and make it to the pavement of 7th street with just a mile to go. We cross the finish line and do the obligatory Burpee at 6 hours 13 minuntes and some change.

leadville_marathon13

The finish – Dalton followed by John Sharp

While I didn’t accomplish my sub-6 hour goal, I did PR the event by almost two hours and along the way was given some time to think in the most beautiful trails I’ve ever puked on. Over the years running trails have given me a gift that no other pursuit has ever been able touch…peace of mind. My trail running noob buddy ZT put it best with “there’s just something about running through the pasture that makes everything OK.” Being alone for hours at a time, with nothing but your wits against nature…engaging in a primordial activity as simple as putting one foot in front of the other has a profound healing affect on a man’s soul. I will continue to return to these mountains again and again for their challenge, cool thin air, and spiritual renewal. Run some trail.

“Not all those who wander are lost” J. R. R. Tolkien

– Dalton Wilson

About the author

Guest Author A groovy member of the TALON tribe excited to share some trail/ultra running goodness with you! Are you interested in sharing an article that will inform, inspire, or entertain our tribe on Endurance Buzz? Use the EB Contact Page to start a chat.

3 Responses to “Leadville Marathon Race Report by Dalton Wilson: Mountains, Marathons, and Mental-Mending”

  1. on 31 Jul 2013 at 12:42 pm lori enlow

    Loved your write up, nice to have similar experiences resonate from that place. Those mountains around leadville hold magic for me…or maybe the lack of oxygen just makes it seem magical.

  2. on 01 Aug 2013 at 7:27 am olga

    Ouch on the women description though!

  3. on 01 Aug 2013 at 3:12 pm Steven Moore

    Took me 6hrs and 12min to read your damn summary man! 🙂
    Great to hear about it and nice to know you are out running trails again amigo! Till we meet again, Steven ATX