Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Leadville Experience

Last week I had the amazing experience of flying out to Colorado to visit my friend/mentor/former triathlon coach Sharon McDowell-Larsen and spectate the Leadville Trail 100.  My trip started in Colorado Springs and since I was determined to get in 60 miles of running, the first thing I did after landing was run 10 miles on a relatively flat trail.  Colorado Springs sits at about 6,000 ft which doesn't sound like that much, but trust me it's a lot higher than sea level!  I felt the altitude and my legs felt heavy from the plan ride so I just re-adjusted my pace goals (a theme throughout this trip) and enjoyed the beautiful scenery.

Hard to be too upset about your pace when this is where you're running!
While in The Springs I also got to collaborate with Sharon on some food demos at The Center for Creative Leadership!  This was soooo much fun!  We picked out a few healthy recipes that are quick n' easy to make and video taped some cooking tutorials.  Here is the first finished product:  Asian Quinoa Slaw :)  Recipe courtesy of Heidi Bucher, thanks Heidi!!!

From Colorado Springs we traveled up to Breckenridge.  From my last trip to Colorado back in Jan 2013 I remember Breckenridge as being a winter paradise, a snow-covered playground.   I had skinned up mountains, snow shoed, down hill skied, nordic skied, and more.  This time around I got to experience the cute little ski town in the summer time and it did not disappoint!  I hiked and ran as much as I could in the thin air of 10,000 ft ;)  Being out in the wilderness on those trails you really feel like you could keep going forever.  I felt so calm and at peace in the throes of nature.

Sharon at home on her mountain bike
I also got to visit America's highest running store!  Cool!
Then we drove to Leadville and things started getting real.  We began prepping for the main event:  The LT100!  Sharon had been training for this race for quite a while and unfortunately had developed a severe case of IT band syndrome.  She had been getting massage, physical therapy, and giving her legs complete rest 3 weeks prior to Leadville.  We were all hoping that come race day she would feel good and be able to complete the beast.  If you are unfamiliar with Leadville, it is a 100-mile running race on trails.  It starts at about 10,200 ft and goes up and over Hope Pass (elevation 12,600 ft) twice. It is a grueling test of fortitude and endurance.

Leadville was an interesting town.  Back in it's heyday it had a population of 30,000 people, fueled by the mining business.  When that industry dwindled some 30 years ago Leadville literally became a ghost town.  There were no jobs so people simply left their homes.  The economy was broken.  Then Ken Chlouber, an avid marathoner, had a brilliant idea that put Leadville back on the map.  He created the Leadville Race Series, starting with a 100 mile mountain bike race.  This eventually expanded to the Leadville Trail 100 and the Leadman Competition (which includes the 100-mi mountain bike race, a trail marathon, 50-mi mountain bike race, trail 10K, and the LT100).  His vision was to allow people to "race across the sky" and experience the beauty of mountainous terrain of Leadville.  Because people are crazy his idea caught on like wild fire and now Leadville is one of the most well-known ultra events in the country.  Nowadays Leadville has a population of 2,700.  The inhabitants generally take vacation during the race series; they leave town and rent their homes out to racers like us!

The Official Leadville Race Series Store
The energy at Leadville was contagious.  There was certainly some nervous excitement in the air the day before the race as we went to packet pickup, the pre-race meeting, and shopped around at the official Leadville Store.  The drop-out rate for this race is ~50%, so I'm sure everyone had the same question on their mind, "Can I do it?"

The evening before the race we finished packing up all the gear that Sharon would need.  Prepping for this race was like getting ready for a triathlon with 20 transitions!  There were about 10 aid stations at which we would see Sharon throughout the race and we had to make sure we knew exactly what to have ready to give her when she came through.  When I say "we" I'm talking about the "race crew."  For these ultra type events, most people gather a few friends to comprise their "crew" and they have the job of "crewing" for the racer.  The crew's job is to wait for the racer at each aid station, provide necessary fuel, equipment, & motivation, and also take turns pacing the racer in the back half of the race.  Matt, Sharon's husband, was our crew chief, responsible for delegating tasks to everyone else, driving us from aid station to aid station, and generally making sure that we all carried out the plan.  Larry DeWitt was another member of our crew - as a 3 or 4 time Leadman overall champion he has invaluable experience in this race!  And Marry Barry was ever-shining ray of light in the group.  Her bubbly personality and positive spirit was a source of energy to all!  This was my first time being part of a crew and I couldn't have asked for better people to crew with!

And they're off!
The race started at 4 am, which meant we had to get up at 2:45 am!!!  That is definitely the earliest I've ever had to get up for a race, haha!  I'd describe the race start as a bunch of maniacs let loose with head lamps :)  At 4 am someone fired a shot gun up into the air and the race was off!  Any racer who finishes under 30 hours gets a shiny belt buckle!  Any racer who finished under 25 hours gets a bigger and shinier belt buckle.  Any racer who finishes the race 10 times gets an even bigger and shinier belt buckle!  Well you get the point - we saw one man who has finished the LT100 THIRTY times!!!  His belt buckle was the size of his entire torso, LOL!

Sharon was off and we crew drove to the first aid station and set up camp for a couple hours to wait until she came through.  Time went really fast due to all of Larry's stories of previous years of racing!

Chillin' at T1
I saw Mr. Jeff McClintock from Greensboro come through.  Way to represent NC!!!

Jeff McClintock of Greensboro NC
When Sharon came through I could tell her leg was really hurting her.  I felt so gutted for her - it's not a good sign when your leg is hurting 13 miles into a 100 mile run.   We swapped her pack and encouraged her and she's such a machine that she kept going!  We caravanned with the rest of the crews over to T2, which had an incredible back-drop.  Posting up there and watching all the runners go by was certainly not a bad way to spend the day!

While at T2 we got a phone call from Sharon.  She was on her way down one of the climbs and said that the pain in her leg was excruciating.  When you have an injury like that there is really nothing you can do but listen to your body.  While I was so disappointed for Sharon b/c I know how hard she had worked and how much she was looking forward to this race, I was also really proud of her for making the right call.  In a way it would have been easier to push on, creating more damage than make the smart call of stopping.  Anyone who's been racing for a while knows what disappointment feels like.  I remember how terrible I felt after getting my first DNF back at Rev3 Knoxville in 2013.  I felt like a failure and I felt like I let everyone down who had helped me and taken time out of their schedule to come to that race.  But, I really believe experiences like that make you a stronger athlete. So much of what we do requires mental toughness and it's only when you are really tested that you develop mental grit.  As per Ken Chlouber, "you don't know how strong you are."  It's easy to have a bad experience and then just hang up your cleats.  It's much more difficult to process everything (including the bad feelings), get back to training, and come back to your next race with even more confidence.  But that's what we do and that's why sports are so helpful in life.  They teach you how to get back up again after you fall down.

Sharon - you are an amazing athlete and have accomplished so many incredible athletic feats!  We are all proud of you and support you 100% in all your endeavors.  Thank you for having us be a part of your race crew!  Whether the race is 2 miles or 200 miles, we've always got your back!  :)

Vertical Runners!
The rest of that day we just chilled out, had a pic-nic at Turquoise Lake, and then Matt, Larry, & I ran 11 miles on the Leadville course back to our rental house.  OMG that run just about killed me!  Running at 10,000 feet is hard.  Really hard.  I don't know how anyone can complete Leadville without first acclimating to the altitude!

Turquoise Lake
I spent my last day in Colorado back in Breckenridge.  Matt had the genius idea that we do a 14er!  Of course Mary agreed and we decided to hike up Mount Quandary.  The three of us spent 4 hours completing the challenging hike and it was so much fun that I had to make a video about it :)

Overall, I had an awesome time out there and can't wait to make a return trip!  Oh, and even though I only got in 50 miles of running/hiking, I can live with that given how much harder it was to run up there than I thought it would be ;)

1 comment:

  1. Tara,
    It was so wonderful to have you here in Colorado with us!! Your spirit and wonderful energy is ALWAYS welcome...please :) !!! Love your guts. Mary