Enjoy as Katrin Silva of New Mexico shares her Leadville 100 adventure!
“Save the planet, save the whales, save the quads.” – Katrin Silva during the Leadville 100
The 2012 Leadville 100 was my first 100-miler. I finished in 26:50, but after the initial elation wore off, I began to wonder if I could improve my time. The 2013 Leadville 100 was my third 100-miler, and at 4:00 AM on August 17 I toed the starting line with the confident knowledge that, barring ultra disasters like a bad fall, injury flare-up or continuous projectile vomiting, I could cover the distance.
For the first time, I treated a 100-miler like a race: I wanted to run as fast as possible, not just finish somewhere under cutoff and more or less alive. This changed my approach: instead of heading out without a plan, I wrote down split times and actually carried them with me. Instead of trying to keep up with the fast crowd in the beginning and paying for it later, I conserved energy early and moved at a decent pace in the second half. Instead of crawling along at a death march for the last twenty miles, or the last thirty, like at Western States, I finished strong. Could it be that I’m getting not just older, but wiser?
The weather forecast is perfect: high of 72, low of 41, very little chance of rain or thunderstorms. I pack my gear and supplies, a strategic game of weighing the benefits of traveling light against those of being prepared for anything. The non-negotiable essentials: Garmin, rain jacket, clif bloks, salt tablets, ginger, toilet paper, chapstick that can double as bodyglide. Sunscreen and sunglasses in the May Queen drop bag, warm clothes, dry socks and shoes at Twin Lakes.
Chaos reigns at the corner of 6th and Harrison, where excitement fills the air, along with lots of apprehension and nervous chatter. The finishing rate of the Leadville 100 is consistently around 50 percent. Altitude sickness, nausea, twisted ankles, falls, cramps, blisters, dehydration and hypothermia take their tolls, and every one of those 1000 or so very fit-looking people secretly dreads the real possibility of a DNF. Last year, this palpable energy led me to run down Sixth Street at a much too fast pace, and to fly down the powerline section among superhuman front runners that were clearly out of my league. This year, I consult my Garmin early and frequently, which helps me maintain a measured, controlled 10-plus minute mile.
The people of Leadville have every right to be upset by large crowds of runners, loudspeakers and shotgun blasts at 4:00 AM. Instead, they choose to hold a block party. Music and cheers from porches and front yards send us on our way toward the mountains. Springsteen’s “Born to Run” has never sounded better.
I make my way around the lake and reach May Queen in 2:23, a few minutes after sunrise and a full ten minutes behind my goal time. David, my husband, aka my crew, pacer, sponsor, cheerleader and race photographer, seems a little worried, but I run off toward Sugarloaf, trying to stick to my plan of saving energy and quads for the second half. This is not easy. The day promises to be almost overwhelmingly gorgeous. As the sun rises, surrounding mountains appear in a crisp and inviting panorama view, bathed in the glow of the early morning light. Wooden bridges punctuate the uphill singletrack section through tall, moss-covered trees. Keith Straw, easy to recognize in his pink tutu, is on his third Grand-Slam 100-miler, spreading his usual good cheer but struggling with the thin mountain air. I pass him as we make our way up Haggerman pass and reach the top, from where the long, steep, and totally straight powerlines trail appears to beg for a fast descent. Every year, these lines seduce runners, especially innocent Leadville virgins, into hammering down toward Fish Hatchery as fast as they can. Last year, I followed their siren call blithely, and paid for a few minutes of exuberant fun with wasted quads and hours of excruciating misery on the way back. This year, I resist the temptation. Like Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship, I descend at a measured, easy pace, allowing other runners to blaze by me while inwardly pitying the poor fools.
Outward Bound is a busy place. David snaps a few pictures, informs me that I’m still seven minutes behind goal time. He takes my jacket, and I’m off. On the road section toward Half Pipe, I begin to pass people. The descent into Twin Lakes confirms that my quads are in good working order, ready for the Hope Pass double crossing. At Hopeless, someone tells me I’m the ninth place female. Once more, I remind myself to maintain a conservative mindset on the downhill toward Winfield. Save the planet, save the whales, save the quads…My legs are still tired from the climb, which is a good thing: I feel much less temptation to hammer the descent.
Winfield is a zoo. Lines of cars, with people weaving between them. Pacers and crews are sprinting up the road, trying to connect with their runners. I don’t see David, and am not surprised. In anticipation of Winfield’s chaos,I have stashed dry socks, more peanut butter and clif bloks, extra sunscreen and other essentials in my drop bag. Five minutes later, I head back out. The decision to run without a pacer until mile 75 seems a wise one as I negotiate the single track and the steep climb back up the pass. There are more than enough people on this trail, in both directions. I run strong, passing several others, until the climb starts. Holy cow! I had forgotten just how steep, just how relentless a climb it is. The downhill runners look as dazed and out of breath as we uphill runners, and I use the term “runners” very loosely — uphill snails would be more accurate. We crawl up the singletrack, using trees and rocks for leverage, gasping for nonexistent air. Traffic is not too much of an issue — though the downhill runners officially have the right of way, everyone, no matter which direction they’re headed, seems more than happy to step aside, and let others pass. Are we being overly polite, or just looking for an excuse to stop moving for a few seconds?
Oxygen becomes an even more precious commodity above treeline. I notice my shoelace has come untied, and take this as an opportunity to stop briefly. A little below the top, my hamstrings begin to cramp, and I find a rock to sit down on while I dig around my pack for a couple of salt tabs. But other than that, I move forward and upward, at a slow but fairly constant rate, finally reach the crest, and soak up the view for a moment before beginning the descent on unsteady, quivering legs.
Hopeless seems even more aptly named on the way back. The llamas stare at the carnage before them with slightly bewildered expressions on their adorable faces. Hypothermic runners are shivering under space blankets and sleeping bags. Others sport bloody knees, sprained ankles, revolting stomachs. Altitude sickness takes its toll, and several people sit with their heads between their knees, dizzy from exertion and lack of air. I don’t feel wonderful by a long stretch of the imagination, but at least I’m upright and moving, and jog on out down the mountain in the afternoon sun in an optimistic mood, toward warmth and O2. My strength returns, along with more reasonable oxygen levels, but I still navigate the downhill carefully. Like a catholic virgin, I want to save myself, and like a catholic virgin, I resist the temptation to rush things.
The river crossing is an excellent opportunity to sit down in the ice-cold water. My quads are grateful, and dry shoes await at TwinLakes. The crowds have thinned considerably by this point. There is more carnage, and more people visibly wrestling with the DNF demons, but David and Bobby greet me with my drop bag, big smiles, and big hugs. I have not seen them since this morning and feel overwhelmed with gratitude. This is the longest planned stop: change into dry shoes and long tights, tie jacket around waist, stuff headlamp into pockets, take hat and gloves along. The sun is still up, and it won’t be dark for a couple of hours, but I morph from a catholic virgin into a good Girl Scout and reason that it is better to be overprepared than underprepared.
I am sick of clif bloks by now. It is dinner time anyway, so I pack a ziploc baggie of turkey and peanut butter sandwich bites. This whole pit stop has only taken a few minutes, and I head on up the hill, toward home. To my surprise, my legs feel strong. I am able to run everything except the steep uphills and don’t need to turn on my head lamp until Half Pipe. My stomach feels worse than my legs. I try to soothe it with fizzy coke and ginger. Nothing much tastes good, but I nibble enough to avoid a bonk. A little after 10 pm and still running, I arrive at Outward Bound, mile 76, where my slightly undertrained stepson Bobby is wearing his pacer number, smiling but looking apprehensive. We hike through the darkness up the powerlines, then run toward May Queen. Last year, the downhills were excruciatingly painful by this point, and running had turned to mostly walking, accompanied by a soundtrack of my whining and whimpering. This time around, I run strong all the way into the aid station, passing several people who look like I did in 2012. Running the earlier downhills like a catholic virgin was a good idea, it seems. I have no idea where I am in the field, but am guessing still in the top ten. No women have passed me since before Winfield, and I may have passed a couple. Since most runners have pacers, it is difficult to know who is running and who is pacing, and I try not to worry about such lofty goals as age group awards.
Bobby is barely keeping up with me as we blaze into May Queen. I’m proud of him. He calls me a beast, hands the pacer number to David, visibly relieved I have not dropped him, and staggers off to retrieve the car. My Garmin has died at mile 75, but it is only a little after midnight. I have more than four hours to make it back to Leadville before the 25-hour cutoff. For the first time today (and, technically, yesterday), I allow myself to think of this dream goal as not only achievable but likely. Even if I walk the remaining 13 miles, I will make it.
My stomach is still acting like a finicky Chihuahua, or a spoiled toddler. It wants no more boiled potatoes, no more crackers, and certainly no more clif bloks. We argue for a few minutes until it agrees to a few spoonfuls of Ramen noodles. I pack a couple of sandwich pieces, and we (meaning: Katrin, David, and the protesting stomach) are off toward the finish line.
It It is not nearly as cold as last year. The full moon shines brightly over Turquoise Lake, a beautiful night panorama. My legs are finally getting tired, but the finish line is moving closer with every step. We walk the uphills, but still run everything else. I choke down some tortilla with cheese and implore my queasy stomach to please, please be a team player with the other body parts for a little while longer. While I hardly ever barf in an ultra, I have many times felt so nauseous that I wished I could. My stomach is really pretty well-behaved overall. Most of the time, it eventually settles, with a little walk break, a little ginger, a little tough love. Tonight is no exception. I follow up with some caffeinated jelly beans, and begin to feel less nauseated, which is good because my legs are finally getting stiff and tired.
The lake seems to go on forever. David’s skills as a trial attorney make him an excellent pacer: he can lie so convincingly that a jury will believe the sun rises in the North, and he can shrink his otherwise expansive heart to the size of a piñon nut whenever he thinks it necessary. He keeps telling me to pick up the pace because the tenth-place woman is right behind us. My addled brain does not stop to consider how he would know such a thing. The possibility that he is just making it up never crosses my mind. I dig around for my last reserves. The lake finally ends. Home stretch, six more miles.
We pass more people, whose pacers are obviously less skilled in the art of argument. The last steep downhill hurts, but not nearly as much as last year, when I had to negotiate it backward and with the help of an improvised walking stick. We run to the next pink ribbon, the next uphill, the next tree. Walk a bit, run again. “If we hurry, you can finish in under 24 hours.” I believe everything I hear. Like an obedient pony, I force my exhausted legs into a jog time and again. “This is not really an uphill” David points out. It looks and feels like an uphill to me, but what do I know after running continuously for twenty-plus hours? “You look great!” my husband asserts, and I finally think he may be stretching the truth with that one. The Boulevard definitely feels like an uphill to me. “Hurry, the girl behind you is gaining on us.” What? Does David have extra eyes with perfect night vision in the back of his head? But surely he must be right. It is still pitch dark, but pavement begins, and street lights appear.
The finish line is lit up like a Las Vegas (Nevada) casino. I dig even deeper, for my very last energy reserves. Run. Down 6th street, then up, toward lights and loudspeakers. The red carpet. The finish. I can stop. Merilee welcomes me home. The clock says 23:16, and I blink in disbelief. Fourth woman, first in the Master’s division. How did this happen? Am I hallucinating after all? I blink again. No, it seems to be true. I hug everyone in sight. I thank David, Bobby, Merilee, and anyone else awake at this hour.
What a day! What a night! What a team effort! And yes, what a buckle!
Hallucinations: 2012 — several scary ones. 2013: zero
Puking: 2012 — zero times, but came close. 2013 — exactly the same
Blisters: 2012 — quite a few, some on top of each other. 2013 — zero, except for one blood-filled monstrosity that formed the next day under my big toenail
Really, really low points: 2012 — one, complete with tears and whining. 2013 — zero
Walk breaks: 2012 — one long one . . . from mile 80 to the end. 2013 — a few brief ones
Falls: 2012 — two full face plants, resulting in bloody knees and bruised ego. 2013 — one very minor stumble
Sunrises witnessed: 2012 — two. 2013 — one. I kind of missed that beautiful second morning this year, but not enough to slow down and wait for it.
Giant belt buckles:
2012 — none, just its pint-size baby brother.
2013 — one. Have to say, though, that its impressive size causes ribcage pain when worn with yoga pants, bike shorts, bikini bottoms, or formal evening attire. Also, my husband complains that it gets in the way of marital relations.
I know that many runners were disappointed in this year’s Leadville 100. I know that ultras and large for-profit corporations like Lifetime Fitness are two concepts without much common ground. I know 1200 people are too many for the trail to Winfield. I know there were chaotic parking situations, traffic jams, and lots of missed crew and pacer connections, and that aid stations ran out of basic items. But Leadville is, and always will be, a special race to me. I sincerely hope that the original, incredibly positive spirit of the Leadville 100 is stronger than any issues runners experienced this year.
- Katrin Silva