The roads from Athens to Sparta were even more punishing than I had imagined. In fact, by the double marathon mark, about 52 miles (83km) in, just after crossing the engineering marvel of the Corinth Canal, but with over 100 miles (160km) still to go, I began to realise that this was the start of the race and my legs were already in shreds. I reconciled this rather depressing outlook with thought that I was nearly at the first major checkpoint and that hopefully some decent food would be available. The cup of hot soup with noodles I was subsequently offered there was taken with immense gratitude – efcharistó (Thank you!)
I was competing in the 153 mile Spartathlon, which can legitimately claim to be the ‘original’ ultra-marathon, as it covers the route taken by the messenger Pheidippides from Athens to Greece, in his attempt to secure the services of the Spartans with the Athenians in the Battle of Marathon, against King Darius of Persia in 490 BC .
Clearly, Pheidippides would not have had to contend with any punishingly hard tarmac roads in 490 BC, but then I guess he would also not have had sleek trainers, advanced nutrition, water checkpoints every 3-4km on average, wicking technical tops and shorts, in fact the ‘buff’ he would have experienced would have been of an entirely different type to that I had on my wrists from the start of the race.
Anyway, I’m sure you get the point that Pheidippides, the father of the marathon, was a pretty awesome dude to have been commemorated in the writings of Herodotus by running the first ultra marathon. Fast forward 2500 years to the beginnings of the burgeoning ultra running scene and in 1982 five British RAF officers, Wing Commander John Foden and four others travelled to Greece on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden, John Scholtens and John McCarthy.
Since 1983, it has been an annual footrace from Athens to Sparta.
Back to the present day and I had entered the race as it had been on my bucket list for some years and yes, you’re not mistaken, you can sense the ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ coming hurtling down the trail at break neck speed.
I had arrived on the Wednesday and spent a couple of days going through the registration / drop-bag planning / briefing process, all the while getting to know my team mates on the British Spartathlon team. Although unofficial, the team is well supported and organised by individuals who have competed in past years (Rob Pinnington and Paul Ali) and James Ellis (#158) who was going for his third finish this year. I noted a certain ‘team envy’ from other competitors and this is due in no small part to the efforts from these three gents – many thanks!
The 360 or so starters were delivered from various hotels mostly in the coastal resort of Glyfada at the south of Athens, to the base of the Acropolis, where the race was due to start at 7am. All of the runners prepared in their own way’s, some excitedly, others pensively, most taking pictures to record the occasion marking the start of an event which would mark the culmination of many months of training, perhaps for many, as for me, it would be their ‘big’ event of the year. The time ticked away inexorably with many nervous glances towards watches and then suddenly the appointed hour was upon us.
Daytime / Friday 29th Sept 2017
I was located near the back when the starting gun set us off, but with several of the other British team members and after the obligatory 20 second walk to the starting mat, we were on our way. The sun was just rising, marking the start of our first 24 hours.
We now had until sunset tomorrow to reach Sparta. 36 hours.
I had been told the first section of the race, to Corinth, was largely flat and road based although there was a nice downhill section leaving Athens which Paul Beechey (#326) and I ran down now. This was the fastest part of the race, and we even put in a couple of sub-5 minute kilometres. I made a mental note to slow up a bit though as a didn’t want to overcook it quite so early.
The streets of Athens were busy, even at this early hour of the morning and many police motorcycles were out escorting the runners and stopping traffic at many major intersections on the way out of the city. Despite the obvious inconvenience to their daily lives, the Athenians were sounding horns, shouting cheers and applauding the runners as they ran past.
I stuck with Paul for a while, and we passed a number of the others in the British team including James Ellis (#158), David Bone (#226), Darren Strachan (#252), Jamie Holmes (#163) and Cameron Humphries (#335) but at this early stage I did not anticipate that the positions would be fixed by any means. With any long distance race, anything can happen, especially in a race where there are so many unknowns. Eventually I let Paul go on as his pace was too fast for me this early on and he was clearly on a mission to improve his time over his finish last year 🙂
We were out of the city within about 5 miles, and at the coastal region, the Gulf of Elfsina, after another couple of miles. The next 70km was on a secondary road skirting the coast to Corinth.
I saw a number of the other members of the British team who were running well, chatting briefly with three of the female runners Sarah Burns-Morwood (#219), Ali Young (#168) and Katherine Ganly (#195) who were all going well and at about the same pace at this early point in the race. We were at the first marathon point (only 5 more to go) within no time and this was the first major crew stop so I carried on my way and then had a long section towards Corinth on my own.
In the hotel in Athens prior to the race, I had shared with a Polish runner, Rafal Szymanski (#288), and as we were both newbies at this race we quickly struck up a friendship based mainly on fear and panic! The blind leading the blind is an appropriate metaphor. I caught up with Raf around this point, and we again chatted away to wend away the endless hours. He had completed the UTMB less than a month ago, and although his feet were suffering, he had planned to change his shoes on a regular basis to alleviate the pressure points on his feet. Nevertheless, he was already concerned about a knee problem and was adopting a run / walk strategy.
Although the heat was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, I was starting to get cramps in my quads after about 60km, and was thankful of some S-Caps (sodium tablets) to stave off the impending pain. Having experienced this before, I knew I had to slow down before I cramped up completely. As I approached the double marathon point, I began to wonder if I was going to start to pay for my early pace. The nature of the cut-offs was such that a fast pace was expected for the first third of the race as so I had little choice but to maintain the pace I had set. The hard tarmac was starting to tell as well, but making the Corinth Canal and then the first major checkpoint, C/P 22 at 80km, with the promise of the cut-offs subsequently easing was also a major milestone.
Getting going after my all too brief respite was a different matter. With seized muscles unresponsive to my desire to increase my speed, it was a struggle to loosen up and settled into a rhythm again, even a slow, shuffling rhythm. My next psychological milestone was the onset of darkness although having covered the first 50 miles in 8:30, I still had another 2-3 hours of light and wanted to cover as much ground during the first day as possible.
Although the route was all on road, I passed the time taking in as much as I could of the Greek countryside. During the earlier part of the day, up to the Isthmus of Corinth, the route had followed the coastal road around the Gulfs of Elefsina and Megara, but now a small group of no more than 5-6 others, running at a similar pace to me, were traversing mainly olive groves and vineyards, which at least was more pleasant and relaxing than the oil refineries and industrial areas scattered around the Isthmus. The route also passed through many ancient cities, with newer villages built up around the ruined remains of what were clearly, at the time, major settlements, such as Ancient Corinth and Ancient Nemea, and I was frequently reminded of the historical significance of the area I was travelling through.
Along this stretch, I was caught by the group of five British runners I had passed right at the start, James, Dave, Darren, Jamie and Cameron. I had a chat with James and David along the way for a couple of checkpoints, but they were going better than me at this stage, so again, I decided to let them go.
As I had no crew with me to assist at various checkpoints, I had made arrangements to drop items of equipment at various checkpoints along the way. This included items such as a torch for the night stages, battery charger for my watch and phone, and changes of clothes. I also had energy gels at checkpoints, sufficient to have one gloopy, gelatinous sachet every 10km.
Hence I arrived at my first problem. In my inexperience, I had overestimated my pace and mistimed the point at which I had stashed my head torch for the impending darkness, and in my energy-deprived low blood-sugar state, it began to dawn on me that I was going to be, at best, 30 minutes into the night before I made C/P 32. One of the advantages of a road race became clear though, as the smooth surfaces had little impact on my ability to navigate with some semblance of forward motion, whereas running on trails, with jutting tree-roots, boulders, loose scree and shale, would have been a different matter altogether. Nevertheless, I soon had to befriend another runner, Juan-Carlos Pradas (#350), a French runner who was on his seventh race, having already finished 5 times. Respect! We chatted away, and soon arrived at the checkpoint of my salvation and wished each other farewell as he peeled off to meet his crew.
Armed with my head torch, more chicken soup and a change of socks, I left C/P 32 around the top of the first 1000ft hill, for the long haul through the night.
I had 10km to go to 123km – the halfway point.
With only 362 starters in the race and, as I later found out, many retirements even before this stage, the field had spread out quite considerably and I spent many hours during the race on my own. Far from sinking into the depths of loneliness though, I learnt long ago to enjoy these meditative periods of calm and peace and as a result the time passed quite rapidly.
Nevertheless, it is often great to run with someone, and the second half of a long race is generally the point at which the pace of your fellow runners is sufficiently synchronised for conversations to be started and bonds of friendship to be struck. In the hotel in Athens prior to the race, I had shared with a Polish runner, Rafal Szymanski (#288). We had been leap-frogging each other a few hours earlier, but he had stopped for some time at one of the previous checkpoints and I had lost touch with him. He now strode up behind me and we again had a few hours chatting and putting the world to rights on our way through the Greek countryside!
I left Raf some check points later as he was nursing a knee problem and I returned to practising my mindfulness with relentless forward progress. The route took what appeared in the dark to be a valley route parallel to the main highway which was no more than 200m away, but at a higher elevation and illuminated, so seemed somewhat surreal in the mist of the late evening / early morning which was starting to descend and transmute into an unfamiliar Greek drizzle. As I arrived at C/P 43, the village of Lyrkia, where I had my waterproof coat stashed, the heavens finally opened and I thanked God for the perfect timing. This was also the first checkpoint within 100km of the finish although there was still the small matter of a couple of hills to negotiate, and I still wondered if Pan might be putting in an appearance.
Snuggled in my light but windproof and dry jacket, I got a second wind and started to pass a few others again. Although the kilometres were counting down painfully slowly by this stage, I consoled myself that each step was one more behind me and closer to meeting Leonidas. We were also snaking our way uphill into the mist which I knew meant the 3000ft+ climb up Mount Parthenio was underway. I am relatively good at hills, but was still surprised at my ability to catch and pass others as we wended our way up the incline where at times I struggled to see a couple of metres ahead, and more than once had to stop myself at an edge as the switchback changed direction. Soon enough we hit the infamous ‘mountain base’ – the last checkpoint before the trail section which heads steeply over the mountain. We were now well and truly in the clouds with the Gods, but the wind and rain obviously deterred Pan somewhat and he never made an appearance that evening. The rain made the track very slippery, but the brief section was over quickly and I was up over the rise as fast as I could manage to avoid the exposed conditions in the saddle of the mountain.
The temperature became noticeably milder as I descended the beast and the blisters on the balls of my feet also started to mature noticeably on the uneven trail section, as my broken quads tried valiantly to slow my descent. The remaining hours until dawn were filled with little in the way of major stops and the monotony of the vineyard terrain in the dark, combined with my lost sleep deprivation battle meant a few dicey moments of sleep-running, and semi-conscious hallucinations – I stepped gingerly around several Labradors laying quietly in the road, was surprised by the intricacies of a miniature native American totem pole at one point, but also decided not to dwell on the shape coming towards me from the vineyard I was running through – Maybe Pan had arrived after all!
Day / Saturday 30th Sept 2017
In the final hour before the sun came up, I was caught by the last of the British contingent, Lawrence Chownsmith (#224), and we chatted together for a bit until reaching C/P 53 at 172km, the village of Nestani, where they had the best salted potato wedges I had ever tasted. We both hurried on, conscious that the cut-off times may not be so generous in the daytime as they had during the night and also that the heat of the Sun, from which we had been spared for the past few hours would also soon be returning to add to our challenge.
Laurence was feeling stronger at this stage, so I let him go on ahead, choosing rather to maintain the one-hour-to-cut-off strategy which seemed manageable and had served me well as a plan to gauge my time between stops during the evening hours. Laurence was ahead, but I frequently passed him at the checkpoints, as he recovered with his crew (Martin Ilott). At one point he was far ahead, but then the next he was feeling nauseous and stopped to recover – such is the nature of ultra running – full of highs and lows. We plodded on through the day, with the temperature rising to the next major checkpoint C/P 60 at 195km in Tegea, where more fallen stone columns faintly outlined the past glory of the area. It was just before midday, and I had over eight hours to do 50km. I started to allow myself the luxury of thinking this might be possible and for the first time I started to visualise an emotional finish, rather than merely the 3km to the next checkpoint.
I don’t remember exactly where it happened, but eventually Laurence and I were running together all the time and slowly counting down the milestones on the way – 50k, 30 miles, the final marathon, 20 miles, less than 1/2 marathon, 10 miles, 10km…
Then, almost suddenly, having crested the final hill, there was a first sight of Sparta and the goal for which we had been aiming for what seemed like days now, the images of the start and Athens already consigned to a distant memory. The final downhill into the town lasted longer than I would have liked and the frequent checkpoints with cut-off times did not let up even at this stage. We had slowed over the last few hours while nursing an injury to Laurence’s foot, but were still 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off times coming into Sparta. The final checkpoint, with only 1.5 miles to go, was a 5 second ‘grab-and-go’ which had become the norm in the last few hours as we strove to keep ahead of the death-bus, forever nipping at our heels and ignored a couple of times as we converged on our final destination.
Martin gave us a Greek flag which we proudly held aloft, much to the delight of the residents and spectators as we ran through the streets of Sparta, with seemingly the whole town shouting and cheering us along. The final corner turned, the street was a sea of faces and the everyday roadway was temporarily turned into a promenade of glory. With our British Spartathlon shirts proudly displaying our heritage, our sentiment of carrying the Greek flag was appreciated even more by the populous, shouts of ‘bravo’ from the sidewalks and cafés, the local children cycling and running along behind us – a magical and hard won moment.
Finally, we were there.
The statue of King Leonidas loomed large in front of the stadium, and an instant a wave of euphoria erupted over me. The effort of the last 36 hours, the nervous energy preparing for days before that and the prior months of training preparation suddenly culminated in this moment. We had both made it and could finally stop.
The tradition of the event is emphasised by presenting the finishers with a wreath and offering them water from a goblet (supposedly) filled from the Eurotas River, the life giving source of water within the fertile valley for thousands of years.
In total this year, there were 369 starters and 265 finishers, giving a 72% finish rate, which although the highest ever finish percentage, gives some idea of the challenge.
In the end it wasn’t pretty or pleasant, and it certainly wasn’t perfect, but as an event it was stupendous. To have completed such a distant is a testament to the human spirit and to have met and been part of the British Spartathlon team was an honour. To have been part of such a huge and traditional part of Greek culture, travelling through history with every step, was also astounding and a privilege and I count myself lucky to have been able to compete in this inspirational event.
Would I do it again? At halfway, definitely not, but now? Now the rose tinted spectacles of achievement have dropped into place and the pain has subsided? Well, never say never…
I would like to thank Laurence and Martin for their company during the second day, in the end, I think it made a huge difference. I would also like to thank Paul Ali, Rob Pinnington and James Ellis for all their efforts organising and coordinating the team, providing advice and making the British Spartathlon Team then envy of the world – It was a pleasure meeting you all and a privilege to be part of the team. To those of you who finished the race, many congratulations and to those who did not quite make it this time, don’t give up hope – there’s always next year. Finally, I’d like to thank my long suffering wife and family for all their support during my training and during the race, albeit from afar. I missed you on the road to Sparta.
If you have enjoyed the story of my challenge, please feel free to contribute to the charity ShelterBox for whom I was running. I have set up a JustGiving page to allow contributions. Shelterbox is more appropriate now than ever after natural disasters have shown once again how fragile life can be, with earthquakes in Mexico, multiple hurricanes wreaking devastation in the Caribbean Islands and flooding in Bangladesh, ShelterBox provides quality tools and materials to help people create quality shelters and start rebuilding their lives. This is a charity which my parents, who have both passed away over the last few years, were keen to support and we are keen to uphold that tradition in their memory.
Sitting in our hotel at Twin Lakes, in my semi-exhausted state, looking back out at Hope Pass, the frenetic activity of less than 24 hours ago seemed very surreal.
The dichotomy between the two days was stark; the crews, auto-homes, gazeboes covering tables of gels, wraps, sandwiches, crisps, pretzels and other runner nutrition or hastily laid out on the car trunks, lining the gravel drive from the exit of the trail to the main road were all gone. The village of Twin Lakes had once again returned to a sleepy hamlet on the Independence Pass road to Aspen.
24 hours beforehand, the historic village had been host to one of the main aid stations of the Leadville 100 Trail Run. Now in its 31st year, the race is an out and back jaunt through Lake County, Colorado, from the old mining town of Leadville, west around Turquoise Lake and up Sugarloaf Pass, before continuing back down the other side of the pass and turning south through the Leadville Fish Hatchery to pick up the forest trails through to the lowest point of the course at Twin Lakes and then immediately ascending 3,400ft over the highest point of the course in the form of the imposing Hope Pass before turning briefly west again to the ‘ghost’ town of Winfield and the halfway 50 mile point, and then turning round and going back through the whole thing in reverse.
24 hours beforehand my life had also been very different. Much less relaxing and my passage through the aid station at twin lakes had been much less sedate than today’s calm outlook might suggest.
I had reached the 40 mile point in a shade under 7½ hours, just before midday on Saturday morning having started the race at 4:00am.
The start was exactly as I remember from 3 years ago; dark and emotional, with almost 1000 excited runners toeing the line, the occasional waft of deep-heat and the inevitable huge queues for the ‘restrooms’. I tried not to shine my head-torch in Liz’s face after we moved away from the illuminated area to the side of the exit pen, in front of the start line. We said goodbye to each other and I promised to see her in a couple of hours at the first aid point, 13 miles away.
The figures of the clock counted down ominously towards their zero point, although strangely I was not as nervous as I have been on some previous races. Perhaps experience was starting to tell, or perhaps it was the 2:30am wake up call or the altitude numbing my senses.
Carl Cleveland, who we had met in the hotel the previous day, seemed more anxious than me; he needn’t have worried, having paced a colleague for 90 miles at Badwater recently, my perception was that he certainly had the right credentials, but then this was his fourth attempt at the race. As he said, he was giving it a lot of respect. We spoke briefly as we watched the countdown and listened to the announcer motivating the assembled crowd and then, to the sound of a real gunshot in the air, we were off down the first of the dusty roads.
I seem to remember heading off marginally faster last time, but with 100 miles to go, I didn’t have an issue with settling into a rhythm. Even so, I pushed on as much as I could on the initially wide downhill roads until I found myself maintaining a fairly consistent pace with my fellow runners; a good strategy, I felt, given the narrow track I knew we were shortly to encounter. The first easy 3-4 miles of the course was over far too quickly though and I was surprised at how soon nearly 1000 starters had thinned out, although I had to wait a couple of times for my opportunity to enter the trail at a couple of bottlenecks and when we hit a short but tricky ascent up a boulder trail, I noted that this wouldn’t be much fun on the way back.
We were soon finding our way round the tree-line of Turquoise Lake, skirting the shore of the beauty spot in single file, the water sometimes appearing perilously close from the dark to our left. There were many campers and other temporary residents of the area to keep us company though, wrapped up in thermals, sleeping bags and puffa jackets as protection against the single figure temperatures at the high altitude, but enthusiastically cheering the runners on even though it can only have been 5am; one small group were even helpfully holding out reams of toilet tissue, reassuring the competitors they would be grateful for the impromptu supplies later on.
The trail around the lake was relatively tricky, with the roots of the trees providing a challenge in the dark, although with so many head torches up ahead and behind it was relatively easy to maintain a moderate pace. Indeed, I felt I could’ve gone marginally faster through the tunnels of trees, but also had vivid memories of stumbling on my previous occasion around this point. One runner just ahead of me took a heavy fall and two other concerned runners and myself stopped briefly too assist. As we got back underway and started to emerge from the first forest, I thanked God I had survived this far without my usual tumbles.
There was a brief section of tarmac, lined again with eager spectators and crews watching intently for their runners in the pre-dawn light, before the main checkpoint which was chaotic as the crews jostled to set up their stalls to service their runner’s needs.
I ran through the cheering crowds after the chip on my wrist had obligingly beeped, indicating my official arrival at the first aid station / check point and then I heard Liz shouting for me, seconds before I saw her and I ran on for my first break.
Time In: 06:08:24 (13.5 miles – 2hrs 8mins)
MayQueen to Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound – 10 miles Leadville – Stage 2
This early in the race I did not need much in the way of food or drink – I had hardly touched my water bottle (with Lucozade in it) so after a brief chat and relinquishing possession of my headlamp, I was on my way again.
This was the first real ‘hill’ but there was a twisting, turning switch back of a forest trail before the main route up to near the top of Sugarloaf mountain. I don’t remember thinking this would be particularly difficult in the dark but this section, amongst others, was to prove my undoing later on in the race.
Nevertheless, although we were still in shadow, the sun was definitely on its way into the world, and after a final steep rise, we hit the Hagerman trail to take us to the top of the pass. The road was relatively good, by which I mean not too steep or uneven, but covered with dust, gravel and the occasional rutting requiring most runners to oscillate from side to side to stick with the ‘easy’ route.
There were quite a few photographers on the race as a whole, their presence generally heralded several metres beforehand by a flag or sign flapping some way down the trail, indicating a smile would shortly be required!
I did not take that long to negotiate to the top of the pass and with the sun now fully up, although hidden behind some ominous looking clouds, I took advantage of the long downhill through the ‘power line’ area; a straight down stretch to the road following the electricity distribution for the area downhill.
The gradient and rutting on the section was variable and although I managed well with the majority of it, I caught a protrusion at one point and slammed down awkwardly onto my right knee and rolled onto my left hip, to produce my now familiar bloody mess of gravel rash. After a moment to catch my breath, dust myself off and recompose the little self-dignity I had remaining before being caught by the runners approaching from behind, I then started moving stiffly again but was again thankful the mess seemed superficial in nature.
After a slightly more steady descent than I had anticipated, I reached the road for the start of the main Tarmac section. The Leadville Fish Hatchery was not used this year as the aid station had been positioned marginally further on in order, presumably, to improve access for crews, but on turning the corner the traffic was horrendous and as I turned into the checkpoint, I wondered if Liz had made it through.
Luckily she had and, after some more frantic shouting, I spotted her in the crowd.
Time In: 08:07:52 (23.5 miles – 4hrs 8mins)
Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound to Half Pipe – 5.6 miles Leadville – Stage 3
I was glad of a couple of cups of coke at this stage as the heat had begun to rise and I changed from my long sleeve top to a short-sleeve ‘tee’. The race hadn’t really started yet though, so after another brief stop, we said goodbye and made our arrangements to meet at Pipeline; the impromptu stop just before the no-crew access Half-Pipe aid station.
This section, only about 4 miles, was predominantly on road as I travelled due east past the queues of cars waiting to get into the aid station I had just left, before turning south along a road parallel to the main county road Liz and I had used so many times over the last few days, to get from Twin Lakes to Leadville. The southbound road was mostly clear of traffic and I took the opportunity to run at a steady pace, passing a few others, before turning off-road and up a trail before emerging at the Pipeline row of cars. The heat on the tarmac was starting to rise, so I was glad to reach the shade of the woods as I once again entered the treeline at the base of the mountains, although knew this also indicated I would be going gradually uphill for the next few miles prior to the last 3-4 mile descent into Twin Lakes.
I smiled as I reached Pipeline as this was practically the last point I had seen on my return journey 3 years ago, where we had stopped and I had laid in the back of our car distraught but then tried in vain to carry on in the dark, with 26 miles ahead of me.
Unlike previously, on my present journey I had managed to stay in text contact with Liz most of the time, which at this point was essential to see if she had managed to extract herself from the traffic madness of the Outward Bound Aid Station; She apparently had been a bit cheeky about getting out and was now waiting for me. Nevertheless, there was some confusion as neither of us actually realised this wasn’t the official checkpoint, but I eventually found her and we chatted for a couple of moments while she thoughtfully offered me loads of stuff, none of which I really fancied. I was on my way in a flash and promised to see her again in a couple of hours.
The route was now a pleasant meander through the trees on the dusty trails and although the heat was still increasing, the spruce, pine and birch woodland afforded some protection and since we were off the roads and far from any transport induced haze, the route was most enjoyable. Several times there were fantastic vistas as I came into a clearing and the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains once again came into view. I was starting to remember one of the reasons why I spend early mornings training and invest so many of my lunchtimes during the week in preparation – this is, after all, what it’s all about and I was cognisant of this throughout the entire race.
It was not long before I came across the Half Pipe Aid Station and even though barely a third of the race was behind me, I was already slipping into a routine of quaffing as much coke as I could and trying to force down a few crisps for salt, sandwiches for carbs and protein and grabbing a banana for the road. I had made the first 29 miles in 5½ hours which I was more than happy with, but was under no illusions that the real race had yet to begin with Hope Pass, which was starting to loom ever larger in my vision, an imposing barrier ahead of me before I even reached the halfway point to turn back and do the whole thing again – the majority of which would be in the dark. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the task at hand, but repeated steps, no matter how small, will always get you to your destination.
Time In: 09:32:56 (29.1 miles – 5hrs 33mins)
Half Pipe to Twin Lakes – 10.4 miles Leadville – Stage 4
This final section before Twin Lakes is basically a brief foray up into the edge of the Half-Moon trail, which is an eponymously shaped valley between the bases of Mount Massive to the north-west and Mount Elbert slightly to the south which, at 14,433ft is the highest peak in the area. The ‘up’ section is around 6.5 miles and the down section, a steep but fast descent for around 3 miles. I was not too concerned about the disparity of the effort at this stage, and was looking forward to the longer ‘down’ section on the return match in a few hours time.
The route continued to be a dusty trail, but it mattered little since, by this stage, there were only a handful of runners around me and there was little dust being kicked up.
Suddenly, I happened upon Nick Greene, a fellow Brit who I had spotted at the briefing in Leadville the previous day wearing a 2013 SDW100 finishers t-shirt! Small world 😉 He had managed around 18 hours on that occasion, but was clearly pacing himself at this stage as we parted company during the next running section, briefly making me wonder if I was overcooking things a touch – only time would tell.
I enjoyed the beautiful route as we were creeping up on midday, as it seemingly passed by all too quickly with the memories of each section coming flooding back at every turn; I rounded a corner to a vista section, where the trail followed round the contour of the bowl of a significant crease in the landscape, the blue sky and the green trees continuing with the trail on the opposite side providing a counterpoint to the void in-between. There were also several tributary streams flowing down the side of the mountains perpendicular to the trail which we had to navigate, some of which had simple stepping stones as assistance, but others with large purpose-built structures to allow their crossing – The sound of the water as I approached from a distance was always tempting and a couple of times, I took a few seconds and dunked my hat in the cool mountain water to cool off.
It was not long before I came across another photographer and I could’ve hugged him when he confirmed the downhill section was just ahead. The Mount Elbert ‘mini’ aid station (mini, merely because it was supplying only water) was shortly before this, and the huge tanks of water, impressively brought up into the wilderness, were fittingly plastered with ‘Camelbak’ marketing.
The ‘downhill’ section was a little further than I had been led to believe (photographers will do anything to get people to smile, it seems) but it was fun to get into a rhythm with a bit of speed again and I was soon back at Twin Lakes, and down a final technical section with a steep and loose dirt slope delivering me to the front entrance of the fire station, which the food and checkpoint staff had taken over for the day.
Liz was waiting for me as usual as we had been in text contact recently as I updated her on my progress, and her me. The phone network was infinitely better than it had been 3 years ago, when we had had to buy cheap temporary phones on another network in order to stay in contact. I always have difficulty doing other things while I’m running (cue the jokes about males and multitasking) – I find eating and running difficult enough and texting on a phone and running even more so, especially when it is an alien, unfamiliar handset, so at least this time life was marginally easier. We were also lucky that we were staying in Twin Lakes, for the simple fact that we were effectively ‘residents’ and consequently had a reserved parking space at the front of the Inn, otherwise a long walk, jog, or wait for a shuttle bus (promised, but not actually arranged, apparently) would have been in order.
Time In: 11:26:39 (39.5 miles – 7hrs 26mins)
Twin Lakes to Hope Pass Aid – 5 miles Leadville – Stage 5
I sat down for the first time, drank coke and tried again to force down sandwiches, with little success though. We chatted for a bit and I kept taking more liquid on but perhaps the thought of the now imminent ascent of Hope Pass was causing me more of an issue than I would care to mention; looming large, both physically and mentally ahead of me, I had stopped for 15-20 minutes before I realised it. We walked our way to the road, and I stopped once more to empty my shoes of stones, seemingly procrastinating to the last, but eventually I was on my way.
The support of the crowds through Twin Lakes, as with the entire course, was stupendous – the crews expectant for their own runners, but still providing a most welcome boost to all of the others they saw.
There is a flat section from the village to the river crossing, all of this at the lowest point of the course at 9,200ft, prior to moving onto the hard ascent to reach the highest point of the course, at 12,600ft, over a mere 3-4 miles.
I had considered taking my shoes off to keep them dry but on reflection had decided against it. My previous strategy was blister management based, and since I’d not had any problems with this for some time, I decided the time saving was of higher priority. There was significantly less water in the pools and ponds obstructing the route this time anyway, and even the river seemed a lot lower and calmer, barely reaching up to the top of my ankles. Even so, the chill in the water had a marvellously reviving effect, and I wished I could have stayed there for longer, but noted this as something to look forward to on the return trip!
The route up Hope Pass began in earnest now, marked by the entry to the tree line, but unlike a couple of hours ago we weren’t following a contour, we were crossing the tightly packed lines at a far more acute angle and nearly going straight up.
There is no respite on the way up Hope Pass; no minor flats, very little in the way of zig-zagging switchback and certainly no undulations except for up and more up, until you reach the top. No; there are only the sound of the streams coming down in the opposite direction which the trail occasionally gets close to, and the promise of a final corner where you realise the trees are thinning, the worst is behind you and the aid station is imminent.
It was just prior to my arrival at the aid station (well, about 40-50 minutes as it happens) that the front-runners started coming through – one of those peculiarities of out and back races, albeit initially a welcome relief from the uphill slog and a moment to reflect and marvel on the capabilities of those in the ‘elite’ bracket – Michael Aish (#107) was first down the hill, at just after 1:00pm (9hrs in) followed by Ian Sharman (#1010) hot on his heels, then another 5 minutes later Nick Clark (#268) bounded past. These three were in a class of their own though as Scott Jurek (#594) was at least 35 minutes behind Clark.
The ‘Hopeless Crew’ (as they are very affectionately known) provided the most enthusiastic support of the day, running (downhill) to greet the oncoming competitors, to grab their water bottles and save them precious moments in the (highly unlikely) event that they chose not to stop! The Llamas who have hauled the fare for the runners uphill, on the previous day, were spread out resting, having earned a well deserved break, prior to their journey back down after the return cut-off later in the day.
Time In: 14:00:39 (44.5 miles – 10hrs)
Hope Pass Aid to Winfield – 5.5 miles Leadville – Stage 6
On the way out, there is still another ½ mile to the top of Hope Pass. Even so, the feeling of reaching that aid-station was as good as reaching the top, but I still chose not to stop for any length of time here, conscious of the longer ‘rest’ I had had at Twin Lakes some hours ago.
The extra ½ mile consists of a series of rough switch-back channels, hewn out of the side of the mountains by successive footsteps, the man-made erosion uneven and irregular in the gravelly surface. The front-running competitors were starting to come thick and fast by this point and out of courtesy my fellow compatriots and I, on our slow, uphill, outward journey, all stepped to the side when the faster, returning, downhill runners went by.
Upon finally reaching the top of the pass, which is a ‘saddle’ in nature, going down to the north (Twin Lakes) and south (Winfield) but ascending further to the peaks of Quail Mountain and Hope Mountain to the east and west respectively, I felt had to stop briefly to enjoy the view and took a couple of pictures, before then starting my way back down to Winfield.
Just after this point, early in my descent I was following another runner, gaining on him rapidly, and had to slow at the same time as one of the front-runners was coming uphill, and a photographer was sitting at the side of the trail. The sudden eccentric contraction of my calf muscles as I tried to slow after so long extending it on the uphill portion, was clearly too much and my left calf instantly cramped and I stopped at the side of the trail and tried to stretch it out. The photographer, fearing a worse scenario, came over and helped me, kindly massaging the back of my left calf as I stretched it – over an above the call of duty for him, but typical of the generosity of spirit which is engendered in these races.
The contrast between the slow effort of the uphill and the almost frenetic bounding and caution required for my foot placements was a joy, Suddenly, I was no longer struggling to breath, but more in danger of suffering from exposure due to an inability to raise my core temperature, such was the lack of effort required to progress downhill. There were still people coming uphill, and I was surprised that their progress seemed to be as slow as mine had been some moments earlier. The ‘traffic’ down this side of the mountain was nevertheless frustrating and the courtesy given by the uphill runners on the north side of the mountain, didn’t seem to be equally as forthcoming on the narrow trail down the south side.
In relative terms, I quickly made it down to the trailhead, but turned west onto the new Colorado Trail prior to reaching the Winfield road, another departure from the route I was ‘familiar’ with from before. The advantage of this was purportedly to allow runners to take in more trail, reduce issues with dust and fume inhalation from the vehicles sharing the same road on the route to Winfield. The trail was rough and narrow though, and far more undulating than I would’ve liked at this stage – the Winfield road had been dusty before, but wide and after the narrow trail up and down Mount Hope, had afforded the opportunity to pass others and get up a little speed and rhythm even if only for a couple of miles. So, with the promise of the halfway point at Winfield so tantalisingly close, it was frustrating to have to negotiate such a narrow trail stopping and moving aside for more of the front runners who were already heading back.
Despite my frustrations of course, I eventually reached the point where the trail turned sharply south and downhill towards the noise of the assembled masses in Winfield; the normally quiet area in the wilderness of the Rockies, serving a few hikers and bikers as a launch point for their adventures, was today a bustling metropolis, with expectant crews and, for the first time in the race, pacers ready to pounce on their runners and service their every need on the way back to Leadville.
After the steep downhill trail, I found myself at the road, with the turning in sight within a few hundred metres. There were few cars and I had noticed that the cell reception had been non-existent since the top of Hope Pass; not entirely unexpected, but the sudden drop-off had taken me by surprise and I had thus been unable to contact Liz to keep her informed of my progress.
As I turned down the service road to the site, there were cars, competitors, crew, supporters, pacers and organisers, all jostling for position on the narrow path. The dust was the least of it for that short 100 metres to the checkpoint area. Liz was dutifully waiting and immediately smiled – I was looking much better than at the same point 3 years ago.
Winfield was like the triage area of a M.A.S.H. camp. Total chaos with crew and pacers looking for their runners, runners looking for their crew, organisers shepherding everyone through the right areas and funnelling them into the weigh-in and half-way medical check area.
My weight had reduced about 15lbs which was a touch worrying, but the medical staff just suggested I drink and eat a little more, especially after I confirmed I had had my previous weight taken with heavy shorts and jacket. After the revaluations in Tim Noakes book ‘Waterlogged’ everyone is a lot more relaxed about hydration than even a couple of years ago.
I passed through the marquee and met up with Liz again and as all the chairs were occupied, I grabbed a coke, downed it, grabbed another along with some noodle soup, and went to sit down in the shade of a van outside.
My plans for a quick turn-around at Winfield were rapidly vanishing into thin air as I sat, semi-catatonic, on the floor, staring at my soup and sipping. I might have looked better than last time, but I certainly wasn’t feeling a great deal better – other than a significant lack of pain in my left hip, of course, for which I was thankful. Liz chatted away, asking me various questions about feelings and needs, and timings for the return journey, as I explained about the narrow trail and passing other competitors. Her journey had been even more fraught than mine, due to her perception she was losing time in the queues into Winfield, and the complete disarray in the organisation of the cars (given the road was not being used by competitors now), she had actually parked up and run the final 5km or so to the aid station.
Having finished my soup, and several more cokes, I laid down; just for a second, but was immediately reprimanded and sufficiently chastised to force me to raise myself to a vertical inclination again and start to walk through the crowds to the exit, and back to the trailhead road (after negotiating some ridiculous traffic). Liz was obviously going the same way back to the car, so we continued to chat for a bit, for the few hundred metres to the entrance to the rise which would take me back up to the Colorado Trail. We said our goodbyes and I was gone again up into the wilderness.
The route back up was steep but short, and I had the promise of a marginally downhill section back along the trail to look forward to. There were still people coming down the trail towards me, but I don’t remember seeing any of the other competitors I had made contact with before the race during this section even though I was looking out for them.
The turn southwards to take me up Hope Pass for the second part of our prearranged ‘away’ fixture seemed to come all too soon and I started my way back up in earnest, remembering that this had seemed the harder part of the journey before as well for any number of reasons I could name; the way up this side is slightly shorter, but correspondingly steeper, albeit with more switchbacks. The tree-line is also lower and as a consequence competitors can see exactly how much further it is to reach the top, long before they actually reach it.
I remember stopping to ‘rest’ through pure fatigue several times on the way back up last time and this time was similar, although I think I stopped less and passed more others. It’s difficult to tell exactly. Either way, the feeling of reaching the top for the second time that day was priceless. The Sun was not yet set, but certainly wiping its feet on the doormat of night-time ready to leave our presence but as a result the top was not quite in shadow and I took that as another good sign that I was on schedule for my target of sub-25:00 hours; my optimistic 21:00 hours had long since disappeared into oblivion. I marvelled at the view once again from the top, but largely carried straight on.
The cut-off for the Hope aid station on the way out is particularly strict; the organisers want to minimise the chances of people getting stuck coming back over Hope Pass, and realistically, if you haven’t made it out by 4:15pm (i.e. 12:15 elapsed time) to the 45 mile point, you would struggle to make it back over before darkness. The steady trail of people coming down the hill had slowed to a trickle by the time I was within sight of the top – indeed, some coming down had already had their chips / tags removed and were somewhat happily (knowing their race was over) making their way to meet their crew at Winfield.
After crossing the tipping point of effort, life was, for a few miles at least, going to be considerably easier than it had been for the last couple of hours. The jog down to the aid station was fast, and I stopped for no more than a minute to grab a very flat coke, in a ‘used’ cup – such was the state of their supplies when I transited.
Time In: 17:58:37 (55.5 miles – 13hrs 59mins)
Hope Pass Aid to Twin Lakes – 5 miles (60.5 miles) Leadville – Stage 8
The way down from here was a pleasant run down the hill, although I was conscious I was unable to reach the same speed and rhythm as I had previously – I’ve had plenty of opportunity over the last 3 years to analyse the minutiae of my original exploits in Leadville and have come to the conclusion that pounding fast downhill for the best part of an hour played a significant part in my injury; it was at Twin Lakes it really started to ‘smart’!
This time though all was fine, and although slightly conservative in my approach I made it down without breaking anything, without stumbling, and managing still to pass a few people. Admittedly, a few others sped past me as well, but I was not concerned at this stage, still believing 40 miles in 10 hours was eminently doable.
The slightly more gradual descent was most enjoyable; although there were still sections where I had to remain conscious of the tree routes, the rutting from repeated erosion of downhill streams and weathering on the side of the hill, along with gravel, pebbles, exposed stone and rocks leading to a somewhat uneven terrain on occasions, but on the whole it was only marginal and I was down quite quickly.
I reached the flat section before the river which, after travelling downhill for such a long period was suddenly a flat come uphill struggle, but I made it to the river crossing while there was still plenty of light, even though the Sun was now setting behind the Rockies. The crossing was again like an oasis in the desert; cool and welcoming and I waded through as much as I could, taking in the additional ponds and puddles in the trail, filled with the most clear, refreshing water you would ever see, even on a muddy trail after the passage of a few hundred sweaty runners.
The photographers were still out in force, having changed the orientation of their shots and taking as much advantage of the remaining daylight as possible – many of the earlier and later camera bearers were aided with significant flash equipment on the side of the trail but others, presumably, preferred to be more mobile and take advantage of the more natural light during the day.
The route back into Twin Lakes was lined with hundreds of people cheering for all the competitors and I made my way proudly through the cheers of “Good job!” and “Looking good runner!” – it is amazing how much motivation such simple words from complete strangers can impart when you have been running for over 15 hours.
Liz was waiting for me again, outside our hotel and we walked together back up to the Fire Station, and I once more sat, while being plied with coke and this time also a steak sandwich and fries! – she had picked it up on the recommendation of our chef from the Twin Lakes Inn, Matt. I always struggle to eat solid food while on the run; it always seems to get stuck in my gullet, not to put to fine a point on it – lack of saliva lubrication, or something, but I’m sure that’s enough detail for the moment. Whatever the cause, today was no different and although this was exactly what I felt that I fancied, I still struggled to force it down without several gallons of coke and tea.
Since I had been through the river crossing only recently, I needed to change my socks for the final part of my journey. This was something we had planned, so not a problem, although my trainers were wetter than I had anticipated and it is amazing how much difficulty this imposed. This was only compounded by the fact that I was starting to stiffen up and bending down to even reach my feet, let alone remove my shoes and injinji socks was a struggle to say the least; I began to understand the advantage of some crews having multiple helpers and loungers with tables around to temporarily hold food and drink in the frenetic activity of the aid station stop. I simply didn’t have enough hands to eat, drink, change socks, shoes, and reapply foot cream at the same time.
In the end Liz did a fantastic job, but I had stopped again for longer than I had hoped – probably 15-20 minutes and I was conscious that my ‘contingency’ was starting to run out.
I started back out of Twin Lakes with my head torch at the ready. It was not yet dark, but it was certainly well into twilight and I would not be making the next checkpoint without needing it.
From the low point of the course, the exit from Twin Lakes is about 2-3 miles of uphill, not massive in ultra terms, only about 1000ft of ascent, but slow through the trees and actually greater similarity to Sugarloaf than most people would imagine. I had been anticipating this but now with the dark appearing as well I found myself unable to go as fast as I wanted. Note to self, practice uphills with gnarly tree routes and uneven trails in the dark before trying this again! 😉
The promise of a steady downhill spurred me on though and I made my way slowly back up the course, power walking most of this and running where I could to pass a few people and keep my average up.
I didn’t stop at all at the Mt Elbert mini-stop, having filled up at twin lakes and since night had fallen upon me and my fellow runners, the air was already cooling and I was consequently in need of far less liquid.
The terrain always looks different in the night compared to daylight and I may as well have been on a totally different course, rather than retracing my steps – the night-time has its own attractions though. The stillness of the evening, combined with the thinning out of the runners, led to a very memorable time. Except for the fact I was not here to remember, I was here to race. I was feeling good during this stage and caught and passed many others – although given that the majority had pacers, I only gained half the equivalent number of places!
The moon was in its second quarter, not quite full and also quite low down so was not providing much assistance to me, but was still like an old friend, turning up occasionally, casting a beam of surprisingly bright light and a silvery shadow through the tall pines.
I soon made it through to the Half Pipe aid station, looking along my journey for the display of fireflies over the pond I had stumbled on previously, and smiling at the section where I had looked in vain for an impromptu ‘crutch’ from the forest branches to help me along; this time I was feeling so much stronger and finishing was never in doubt. My time was slipping away though.
Time In: 21:56:59 (70.9 miles – 17hrs 57mins)
Half Pipe to Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound – 5.6 miles Leadville – Stage 10
I did my usual coke grabbing exercise as I entered the aid station tent, but immediately realised I was actually starting to feel rather cooler than I had for most of the day. Standing in the vicinity of the heater in the aid station brought home just how cold it was becoming outside. I tried again to force down some crisps and pretzels, but as usual they got stuck in my mouth like quick drying cement and I gave up on this as a bad idea. I thought a cup of sweet coffee would be rather more palatable, and even though the Nescafé blend was not a barista latte, I drank it anyway and moved off at my earlier pace to meet Liz at Pipeline.
Whether it was the cold or simply the previous 70 odd miles I had already covered, my legs were starting to slow down at this point, in so much as I was struggling to maintain a pace of better than 7min/km so although the Pipeline Aid point was only 3-4 km, it still took me a further 25-30 minutes to reach it with my slow, baby steps.
The noise and lights of the crews were evident long before the lines of cars parked along the narrow strip of land which, being the last point the cars can reach before Twin Lakes, has traditionally turned into an impromptu aid station.
The next problem I had was to find Liz! She had sent a message saying she was at the far end where she had been earlier, but in the dark, with so many cars, crew members, lights and torches shining in my face, I could easily have missed her, and did not relish the thought of running back up the other end of the parking lot to try to find her. I was therefore relieved when I heard her voice and saw her exactly where she had promised and I had expected her.
Time was moving on but she had brought me some hot sweet tea in a flask which I drank with relish! She had also got some sort of cold cappuccino, frappé, latte milkshake thing and that didn’t last long either. We briefly studied our timings and realised I was going to have to push things harder now, but after so much caffeine, I was on my way in a flash 🙂
The exit from Pipeline was a sharp right turn before a straight trail following a barbed wire fence on the left. I know it was there because I remember it from earlier when the bright sunlight was shining down on me. Now though, it was suddenly difficult to see but for my head-torch occasionally picking out the posts and rusting wire with the sparkling dust I was kicking up along the dry trail, in suspension in the black air.
I had already planned a strategy for this section, trialling it first off-road before moving onto several kilometres of Tarmac – my aim on this ‘easy’ stretch was to do a run-walk strategy to maintain a sub-7 minute pace (unimpressive, but all that my stiff legs could manage by this stage). The reasons behind this were many; firstly, I needed to maintain a good pace to get to the next aid station to give me a chance of meeting my goal for the race. Secondly, the next few kilometres were as flat and fast as you can get in a trail race and finally it was dark and along such a mundane stretch of road on my own, I needed some means to break the monotony.
I allowed myself the opportunity to walk to recover, but only after I had ensured my pace for the kilometre I was running was within my target on my Garmin; up it shot as I walked and down it crept as I ran. I played the game to get the best time I could during those few brief kilometres and, during the late, dark hours of Saturday night along the still and lonely roads on the outskirts of Leadville, with only the occasional passing SUV or truck for company, I soon found I turned the corner and saw the lights of the Outward Bound aid station. I continued my distraction for a while longer but eagerly entered the aid station, again passing the warmth of a fire, but a bonfire this time. I had made it in good time and Liz was happy.
Time In: 23:23:04 (76.5 miles – 19hrs 23mins)
Fish Hatchery / Outward Bound to MayQueen – 10 miles Leadville – Stage 11
I sat down after grabbing a coke and a sandwich, fairly pleased with myself, but the euphoria of reaching the second to last aid station (excluding the finish, of course!) quickly drifted away into the cool mountain air, helped in no small way by Liz’s valid insistence that I had to get moving, the realisation I still had 23.5 miles, or the best part of a marathon to do with Sugarloaf Mountain in the way.
23.5 miles. 5.5 hours? Doable, I thought.
Perhaps this is where the confusion and thought diminishing effect of fatigue and exhaustion were starting to play a part, nevertheless I was off and out relatively quickly and ready to tackle the mountain, leaving Liz and the heat of the bonfire behind.
I smiled again as I passed the entrance to the Leadville Fish Hatchery; this was where the aid station used to be located, and was the point at which I had had my runners wristband unceremoniously cut off and my chip removed three years ago with my next stop to be Leadville by car. From here on in, I was in new territory.
The road down to the start of the climb was longer than I imagined and I tramped my way as quickly as I could back along the Tarmac passing a group of people along the way. They were discussing meeting with their crew later on from their big pickup and the lights of the vehicle were brightly illuminating the dark road ahead. Their crew vehicle passed me a couple of times waiting for their runners, on the way to the trailhead, from which point we were all on our own.
The climb up Sugarloaf Mountain started out hard, the soft sandy soil giving way to hard compacted chalk and dry mud, with evidence of past rivulets eroding deep channels in the straight slope up, following the power lines down into the valley. It started out hard and remained hard for the next couple of hours.
I occasionally looked back across the valley, with the lights of the cars appearing to move at an incongruously sedate pace from my vantage point halfway up the hill, but actually scurrying from checkpoint to checkpoint and above, the clear night sky was emerging as my eyes became more accustomed to the dark in the light-pollution free, high-altitude area. Generally my focus was in the opposite direction though, uphill, uphill and more uphill.
On the way out I had covered the route up Sugarloaf predominantly in the early dawn light, and the way down when fresh, in the early morning as the Sun was making its presence known. Hope Pass I had covered in both directions in the light later in the day, so now I was essentially covering my first (and only) major hill in the dark.
I knew I could cover it, but it just didn’t stop going up.
“Well this sucks”, I thought to myself and I lost my sense of humour about halfway up the second ‘rise’.
I analysed the contour of this ascent afterwards and although difficult to see on the map, or even the race profile, I realised there were four distinct sections signified by repeated ascents and plateaus. Not knowing this part of the course had broken my spirit. Each time I reached what I thought could be the top I found there was more slow, slogging and because of the trees and the darkness it was impossible to tell otherwise. How different this section had been on the way out on fresh feet, coming downhill, in the early morning light. That now seemed like an eternity ago.
With each step I realised that I was using up the precious time I would need to get round the final half marathon section from May Queen into Leadville, but I still had the hope that I could find my way down the hill in a good time to allow me to meet my goal for the last stage.
The infrequent sightings of headlamps threading their way through the forest up ahead eventually stopped as they disappeared over the rise and to the left around the contour of the hill before finally starting a slow descent, initially through the trees with the now familiar gnarly roots, but then eventually onto a section of service road where so many hours, and miles, beforehand I had had my picture taken.
I ran (shuffle-jogged) as much as I could on this section, knowing it might be my last opportunity to make up some time for quite a while, but before I knew it I was heading off back down the narrow twisting trail, with the sound of the May Queen aid station still distant down the hill.
It was taking me far longer than I had hoped, although given the terrain and my state of fatigue, I should’ve allowed a little more slack in my estimates.
The final couple of miles down into the last checkpoint was very frustrating for me, counterpointed by the last few hundred metres after popping back out onto the trail road again. I ran as fast as I could into the aid station to Liz waiting there.
The look on her face was one of ‘concern’.
Time In: 02:29:45 (86.5 miles – 22hrs 30mins)
Mayqueen to Leadville Finish – 13.5 miles Leadville – Stage 12
The aid station was a lot quieter than it had been earlier in the previous day – I had seamlessly transitioned from Saturday to Sunday on my way up Powerline a couple of hours ago – but there were still the odd pockets of frenetic activity.
Not that I noticed them.
After 86.5 miles, I had 2.5 hours to do the best part of a half marathon; ordinarily not an issue at all, but in the dark, with tired legs, fatigued mind and the majority of it through some pretty tricky terrain. All these factors were conspiring against me but I needed to give it a shot anyway.
Liz wanted to get me out as fast as possible, but the aid station crew asked several times if I needed anything. I grabbed my usual fare and some banana to keep me going, said my final farewells and was off running again into the night.
On my own.
I ran down the Tarmac to the edge of the forest where it heads towards the western end of Turquoise Lake once more. I knew this would be the last smooth surface I would encounter for at least the next 5 miles, so I made the most of it.
I ran into the trees and disappeared for what seemed like an eternity.
The soft dusty route was not too bad to start with and I was ever hopeful that there would be a slight downhill gradient, at least to the shoreline, but it was undulating at best and the narrow uneven surface with jagged rocks and my new best friends the gnarly tree roots were doing their best to slow me down; and succeeding.
I reached the shoreline of the lake without too much ceremony, but I was struggling to reconcile the effort required to constantly recover and save myself from stumbling with my current levels of fatigue and the minimal gain in speed I was making, so I started a fast walk along an essentially flat course.
This did not sit well with my desire to push as hard as I could to reach my goal, but each time I started running, I tripped, stumbled or fell. The majority of the time I managed to catch myself, but my levels of frustration with my seeming incompetence were increasing with every jitter.
The beauty of the moment, while moving slowly around the edge of the lake, watching glimpses of lights from both crew and runners on the opposite shoreline, with the clear, star speckled skies above the mountain I had come down only a few hours previously was not lost on me though. There are some magical times in races, as in life, and, despite my frustration, this was one of them.
I passed through the open areas where there had been local supporters so many hours previously, but now there was nobody.
I made my way across a car park, which I struggled to remember from nearly a day before, but without the crew, vehicles, supporters and in the dark, it was an alien world; halfway across I questioned the route I was taking, but eventually spotted a familiar glow stick, so continued my lonely trek towards Leadville.
The eastern edge of the lake was a long time coming, but eventually I left the shoreline again for a short section, continuing in the same forest theme, before being ejected onto the road, and crossing it, away from the lake and now diving down the worst possible technical trail you could imagine. The straight drop along a boulder track could not have been more than a half mile down; in the distance and turning onto the road junction, I could see a couple of head torches bobbing away, but it was purgatory nonetheless. The combination of soft earth, large boulders and deep rutting proving impossible to negotiate at times; I was imagining that the front runners would have bounded down this point with a spring in their step, doing their best mountain goat impressions.
Reaching the roadway which was a short section east to the railway line, was a relief and strolling along the wide expanse of dirt track was suddenly like walking in slippers. There were few others around at this point; the competitor and his pacer I had glimpsed earlier were up ahead, but no one behind.
I concentrated on catching the two ahead which I managed by the time we reached the southerly turn down the final trail section parallel with the railway; in fact, I caught them primarily because they were going straight on at that point and ‘helped’ their navigation by shouting after them before they disappeared into a world of pain after 25 hours on the road.
It was here, that there was a sudden increase in the number of competitors around me. I noticed another couple of people up ahead and there was also another runner and pacer pair coming up ‘fast’ behind me – they jogged past me a few moments later, looking as fresh as daisies, chatting away, leaving me standing in relative terms. I resolved not to let anyone else pass me and to make my way as fast as possible to the finish, which by my reckoning was still at least 3 miles distant.
The significance of the passing of the 25 hour threshold at this point was not unexpected, but still a depressing thought after everything I had accomplished up to now.
My legs had long since given up the ability to run and from now I had also lost the will to run. The realisation I was unlikely to make the 25-hour cut-off was a low point, but I would struggle to say exactly when it occurred – perhaps going up Powerline, maybe coming down from Sugarloaf through the forests into May Queen, probably going around Turquoise Lake when I continued stumbling in my vain attempts to increase my speed and believe I could cover a mere half-marathon in 2½ hours. There was always hope, however small, but this time it was not to be and the inexorable march of time once again won the day.
The final trail of the race was about a mile in a southerly direction before turning onto a dusty easterly road. that so many hours before had kicked up mounds of sparkling dirt into the head-torches of 800 runners. The way was easy and smooth now but gradually uphill; a last couple of miles of torment that Ken Chlouber had devised for the route back into Leadville – with little choice, I suspect, for most routes into the highest incorporated city in the continental USA are going to be uphill.
The sky was slowly changing once again, with the veil of the stars being imperceptibly withdrawn; only the brightest in the dawn sky to the east in the direction I was heading, soon remained visible, the constellations of Pegasus, Andromeda, Perseus and Cassiopeia disappearing from view and no longer guiding me home.
The long slow drag uphill eventually came to an end and the tarmac took over at the outskirts of the City. It was strange to be on a road again after so long and I had to remember that the trucks, pick-ups and SUVs, on their lookout for their runners, technically had right of way. At that time in the morning there were few about though.
I passed Lake County School and turned my final corner onto West 6th Street at the aquatic centre where the briefing had been a couple of days before and I could now, in the distance, see the finish.
There was much evidence of partying through the night in the form of discarded bottles, cans, spent barbecues and unoccupied deck-chairs, presumably to welcome in the early finishers, and I suspect this recommenced later in the day up to the 30 hour mark, but at present there seemed to be an early morning lull in proceedings. Nevertheless the dozen or so people I did see were all still full of congratulation and joy on my behalf at the approaching conclusion of my challenge.
I seem to remember the final few hundred metres were uphill, but in reality it did not really matter; after everything I had been through over the previous 26 hours it was nothing. The sky was getting light now, even if the sun was still behind the mountains to the east of Leadville and I was ready to get that medal.
I ran the final stretch, suddenly finding a previously hidden battery of energy in my legs to propel me along the red carpet and across the finish line, with the announcer suddenly excitedly realising I was another ‘out-of-state’ competitor finishing.
Liz was waiting for me and we could do nothing but embrace without words.
Time In: 06:06:55 (100 miles – 26hrs 6mins)
Liz had had her own marathon throughout the last 30 hours as well. Supporting me on her own to the 11 checkpoints had not afforded her the opportunity to rest at all; the traffic (about which many people subsequently complained), had been awful and her journey each time had left her little time to prepare, let alone rest. At Twin Lakes she had managed to get through and park outside our Hotel on both occasions but only by virtue of the fact we were staying there, and many others had not been so lucky; the stories of runners actually getting to checkpoints faster than their crews, or missing pacers, had been prolific – even so, she had not had the opportunity to grab sleep, fearing she would not be around to meet and help me.
By the end then, both of us were exhausted; both physically and mentally, after the ups and downs of the day.
As a result, I found it difficult to describe how I felt at that point, in the moments after crossing the finishing line. I had completed the Leadville ‘Race Across The Sky’, the race I had dreamed of and visualised finishing for over three years, my 5th 100 mile ultra-marathon, in my 3rd fastest time, 156th Place overall (out of 944 starters and 497 finishers), 40th in my age group (of which I am approaching the ‘upper end’!), but I had set such high expectations for my finish, I was convinced I could get that sub-25 hour buckle – indeed, I still believe I can – and perhaps it was just the fatigue, but I was disappointed and only after several hours, if not days, could I look at the buckle I got and feel proud of what I had achieved.
There is always that nagging feeling I could have done better though – what is that? A psychological flaw, or just an inherent desire to always improve? Is that an ultra-running thing or just me? (Answers on a postcard please…) Either way, I have a strong feeling I will be venturing back to Leadville at some point in the (near) future 🙂
In the days afterwards, we mulled over the race and enjoyed the rest of our stay in Twin Lakes, very appreciative of the staff in the Twin Lakes Inn, Mary, Andy and Sue, who had made us feel such a part of their family, and Matt the chef, who cooked us some magnificent ‘recovery’ food after the event. The owners Liz and James also went out of their way to assist in any way they could and we would definitely stay there again if (when) we go back to Leadville in the future.
On our final night in Twin Lakes we had dinner at the Inn, and were lucky enough to be introduced by the staff there to Ken Chlouber and Merilee Mauqin, who co-founded the Leadville 100 trail race some 31 years ago. It was great to meet them – two people who in the simplest terms, co-founded and promoted a world class race to put their community ‘on the map’ when it was in the throes of an economic downturn.
Their vision of the race as a tough ultra-marathon and a perfect metaphor for life has been encapsulated in their phrase “You’re better than you think you are; You can do more than you think you can.” and embodies the spirit of the residents of Leadville and their desire to rebuild their lives. In many ways the story has come full circle with the reopening of the Climax molybdenum mine in 2012. Perhaps the end of the race is in sight for the Leadville community as well, but if life for the City on a hill starts to return to ‘normal’ they have given the world a fantastic event and experience which will become both their, and the town’s, legacy to the world.
Typically, we were beginning to enjoy our stay, come to terms with the altitude, the jet-lag of the initial outward journey and the exhaustion of the challenge just in time to make our move back to Blighty, and my challenge for 2013 was over.
So, I’ve not been in a writing mood for some time. I think that it took me longer to recover from the South Downs run than I anticipated, and I’ve had a huge amount on at work as well, in addition to persuing another few lines of interest in my life, which I’ll talk about in the future.
Still, excuses aside, I’ve had another race to prepare for and, as Frank Sinatra would say, now the time is near.
My final adventure for 2013 is the Leadville 100 trail run, the fabled Race Across the Sky, so named because of the altitude at which the race is run in the mountains of Colorado, USA, i.e. around the 10,000ft mark. This is the race which was covered extensively in the bestselling book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, a book which acquired almost cult status amongst runners some years ago. The race has a personal connection for me though, because as my regular readers will know it was at Leadville 3 years ago that I had to pull up at 75 miles, experience my first ultra DNF failure, and walk away with a ‘sore’ hip which was later diagnosed as a broken neck of femur (actually, I recall crawling away with the assistance of Liz and our good friend Mike who was helping us at the time).
The route is fairly unchanged from 3 years ago, with only a few modifications having been carried out in the entire 31 years of the race, so I am looking forward to covering it again – my memories of that day and the course have come flooding back, even if I considered that they had been consigned to some back room of my mind in the intervening period, this was such a significant event in my, and Liz’s life, that my recollection upon our return is as fresh as it could possibly be.
To cut a long story short, my physical recovery is over and I am back here in Colorado now with Liz, and it is as if we only left yesterday, the place seems so familiar, we have slotted straight back into relaxation and preparation mode, travelling the streets of Leadville ready for Saturday at 4am when the race starts. I am anticipating that finishing this race should complete my psychological recovery, filling the void left by my DNF and those 25 missing miles which I was unable to carry out on my return journey from the halfway point at Winfield back to Leadville. Ironically, I had already negotiated the difficult part of the course, the 3,400ft climb up Hope Pass to 12,600ft which has to be ascended at both 45 miles and then 55 miles on the return leg, but it had clearly taken it’s toll on my body, and I had to leave ‘buckleless’.
So, here I sit, in Twin Lakes, a few hundred feet from where the 40 mile aid station will be located on Saturday, and from the vantage point of our hotel in the village, I can see Hope Pass, perhaps tormenting me, playing a game with my mind, twisting it every way it can to throw off my preparation. My will to complete this race, in under 25 hours to get the ‘coveted’ gold and silver buckle, is far bigger than any mountain can throw at me though! Strong words maybe, but in the end it was not my will that was broken last time, only my leg 🙂
It was bound to happen, but at least I am now in good company.
Many, if not most of the top ultrarunners in the world have suffered defeat at the hands of their instrument of success – Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, Anton Krupicka……. It has to be expected and accepted as a normal part of such an extreme sport that not everything will go right all the time.
I had felt no more nervous about this race, the Leadville Trail 100 “Race Across the Sky”, than either of the previous 100 milers I had completed recently, although it did present it’s own unique challenge, but then that was why I had picked it. The altitude, as the name suggests, is not something to be taken lightly. Starting in the town of Leadville, Colorado, at over 10,000ft, this out and back trail run was certainly the most established ultra race I had ever contemplated although my first 100 miler, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc which I had completed almost a year to the day before, was the biggest. It was not arrogance that made me feel this way about the race, or even complacency, but after the experience of my recent races I certainly felt comfortable with the distance.
Liz and I had decided to go over for the few days without the children to give both us and them a break! So we flew via Atlanta to Denver, where we met Mike, an old friend from Liz’s school days who we had not seen for some time but who, when we had indicated we were coming to the race, jumped at the chance to fly out from Charleston to meet us since two of his siblings lived in the city of Denver. Jonathan and Theresa had very kindly offered to put us up for the night prior to us travelling up to Leadville, so we had a good sociable evening chatting about ultras, triathlons and diet, both sporting and otherwise, as Jonathan is a triathlete and vegetarian and follows many of the same ideals as Liz and I. Andrew, Mike and Jonathan’s other brother, also enjoys cycling and running, but appears rather more sensible in his outlook to sport and does it more for fun and fitness.
I had lost count of the number of times I wanted to abandon this race.
In fact, I could hardly believe, after suffering exhaustion in the early hours of Saturday morning, such that I was falling asleep as I was running (not advisable) and also after later in the afternoon lying down on my own in the middle of an exposed fellside for forty winks as it was starting to rain (definitely not advisable!), that I had actually made it to the final major checkpoint at Ambleside, 88 miles into the race.
[singlepic id=339 w=400 h=300 float=right]The Lakeland 100, Ultra Tour Lake District (UTLD) was always going to be a tough one – any ‘100’ mile event is likely to be for sure, but it is the distance I have trained for, so it was not that that was intimidating. Not really…
The Cotswolds 100 Ultrarace I completed a mere four weeks ago, although the same distance, was a flat, dry, forgiving, tow-path in comparison. Although the cumulative ascent of 6,971m (22,871ft) is short of the total for Mont Blanc, the vagaries of the Lake District micro climate and the self-navigation aspects around unmarked trails all added to the challenge.
As a result of this, I was stressed at the start. Seriously stressed.
We had travelled up the day before to have a relaxed time in Coniston, where the race began, and although the journey, arrival and registration were easy affairs, there were nonetheless constant undercurrents in my mind regarding the forthcoming trial.
The start was planned for 5:30pm Friday, 23 July and after a mandatory safety talk from the organisers and a motivational speech from the legendary fell runner Joss Naylor, we were left to our own devices for a further hour, but there is only so much time you can spend packing and repacking a rucksack so as the children played I tried to collect my thoughts.
The last couple of weeks have been a mix of recovery, endurance maintenance and speedwork in the form of a short race.
After the Cotswolds race, I had no choice but to rest for a couple of days; my quads were stiff from the sustained exertion, and at times, especially in my left quad, I felt a worryingly sharp pain. By the Wednesday following though, my feet were sufficiently twitchy for me to don my trainers once again and pound the streets of London.
When you are running through the stillness of the English countryside at 2:00 in the morning after a perfect summer’s day, chasing a full moon with nothing but the bats and badgers, foxes and fireflies to keep you company, there is a lot of time to think and enjoy the views and the imposed solitude of the environment.
So I was more surprised than anything that I found myself concentrating mostly on getting food and sickly sweet caffeine laced carbohydrate juice in my mouth and calculating my time to the next of the 10 mile checkpoints on the basis of my pace over the last kilometre for the majority of the one hundred and sixty kilometres in my latest ultra-marathon.
Not quite the romantic image one might have of a long distance runner but then perhaps I am sadly deluded that ultra marathon running has romantic overtones 🙂
The Cotswold 100 or, more officially, the UltraRace 50/100 was my second Rory Coleman (of seven times MdS fame) organised event of the year but the first of my 3 one hundred milers planned for the summer, so this was the moment of truth. How would my training pay off? How would this compare to Mont Blanc? The next 24 hours would tell – hopefully!
[singlepic id=189 w=320 h=240 float=left]The day had started in a far more relaxed fashion than some of the other races I have done; I had taken the day off and we travelled up to our guest house in Stratford-upon-Avon without incident and the only frustration was the traffic on the M25. The course started and finished at Stratford racecourse with a rather elongated circular 100 mile loop in between, traversing well known Cotswold places such as Snowshill, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Bourton-on-the-Hill and Chipping Campden and although the hills are nothing like the lake district or Mont Blanc, the Cotswold’s are certainly not renowned for being flat.
44 people in total had signed up for the races this weekend, 34 for the 100 mile and 10 for the 50 mile distance. Of those on the 100 mile run, 21 people estimated their times as +24 hours and so had already started (during the heat of the day!) at 12:00, and 10 were non-starters, leaving only 3 of us to go at the 6:00pm (sub-24 hour) start. The 50 milers were to start at 5:30am the next morning from checkpoint 5.
My wonderfully supportive wife and family accompanied me to the racecourse for 5:00pm where we waited for Rory and the anticipated UltraRace entourage to appear and although slightly off-put by the fact that only Rory in his mini-cooper turned up and that there were only three of us starting (having not know about the non-starters at that stage), we nonetheless listened to final instructions (follow the yellow-on-black ‘100’ stickers for 98 miles, then the red-on-white ‘Ur’ stickers for the final 2 miles) and attended to the usual pre-race prep, although this took all of about 3 minutes for all of us.
My last couple of weeks have been easy by comparison to the peak of my training schedule, but there is nothing better than having reached and passed that point without having sustained an injury. Nevertheless I have to keep telling myself it’s alright to have a rest, as I feel a bit lazy, a bit of a ‘slacker’ 🙂 having only completed a minimal 50 miles last week and with only a paltry 30 miles planned this week 😮
I will need all the rest I can get as the races I am attempting are only four weeks apart, so with a recovery week after each (to let feet and legs, body and mind recuperate) and a taper week before each race, that does not leave much time for training in between.
I am swinging from feelings of excitement over these races, to fear of failure, to loathing of the challenge I have set myself without fully understanding why I am doing it. I have been ‘training’ for this since the end of August after the UTMB – it is a long time to commit to lengthy Sunday runs and early morning starts.
At least this time the trains were running on time.
After six years, I had finally got a place in the London Marathon AND managed not to have to defer or cancel through illness or injury. Just.
I am convinced 90% of the battle with racing is actually getting to the start line, and this I achieved, albeit with a reduced level of confidence in my ability due to a foot problem I had picked up 3 weeks previously (see ‘The final days’). So although not in perfect form and having had three weeks without any form of training to speak of, I was at least on my way to line up at the start.
I met up with John at Guildford station and we had little trouble with the trains, unlike Reading, and after a rather cramped journey from Waterloo East to Blackheath, we walked up to the top of the hill and were presented with the Virgin marketing machine – chalk one up for Richard Branson (who was running on the day) from the array of tethered balloons to the largest banner I’ve ever seen being towed behind, or rather dangled beneath, a helicopter, roaming sedately amongst the many airborne television crews over Blackheath. ATC nightmare, I thought.
John was to start at the ‘Red’ start and I at the ‘Blue’ start so we parted with wishes of good luck and went our separate ways. It was about this point, at about 9:00am just after the women’s race had started and with the men’s and mass race due to commence at 9:45am, that it began to rain. Genuinely, I considered that this would be useful to stifle the predicted heat although later in the race would be better, but as the downpour got harder as I made my way through to the competitor start area, I began to regret not bringing a waterproof, or even a bin liner. Make a mental note for next time….
Sometimes we get exactly what we expect because we are so focused on all the different facets of an event, such as maintaining a certain pace at all costs, that it becomes the objective to fulfil and realise those facets. The alternate approach is to aim for something far more woolly and generic like ‘doing your best’ and while that certainly has it’s place, it is far less tangible and so more difficult to focus on.
The danger is that if you set your expectations too low, set them conservatively, then you may never realise your full potential. It is a constant dilemma, in life as well as running, to determine the goals for which you should be aiming.
At the Reading Half Marathon last year, I ran 1:27:07 but my levels of confidence were also significantly higher then, for some reason which I have yet to work out. Nevertheless, setting a goal for this year involved the usual discussion with John who in the end was the only other of my running buddies who was taking part, that went something like
John – “So, I’m going for 1:25 this year. What do you think?”