Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Leadville Trail Run 2014, USA : 100 Miles

"I commit, I won’t quit! ….. I commit, I won’t quit!" 

At the end of the runners’ briefing for Leadville Trail 100 Run (LT100), and less than 24h before the start of the race,around 700 runners were invited by Ken Chlouber (founder of the race) to repeat again and again the above mantra. Just a few minutes earlier, he had given us a very inspiring speech, where he tried to give us the motivation and determination to dig deep at the race for a possible finish in one of the toughest and legendary races in the USA. I have never attended any other races where an organizer motivates runners in such a touching and genuine way. He was like a father giving advice to his sons and we were like a big family there on that day at the school hall.

Ken Chlouber & his wife

I came out from the briefing feeling totally motivated and I told myself that this time, I have many reasons to push hard and make another dream of mine come true :-

1/ For the very first time before doing a race, I had the prior chance to run some of the most challenging parts of the course. My wife and I had arrived at Leadville one week before LT100 to acclimatize to the high altitude. This has given me a lot of confidence and knowledge of what to expect during the race. And once the confidence seemed to settle down, we took a road trip to the neighbouring state of Utah, where we explored the geological wonders of Canyonlands-Arches-Fisher Towers and this helped to relax me and make me stop thinking too much about the race. We had 3 unforgettable days of exploration in one of the strangest and most unique landscapes we have ever visited.

Our road trip to Utah

2/ I was blessed to be introduced by a good friend (Christopher Ballou – my tent mate at Atacama Crossing 2012) to 3 amazing local guys from Boulder (Ryan, JP and Mike ‘Dutch’, all of whom had run and paced in the LT100 before), who had agreed to sacrifice their precious weekend to crew me. From our very first meeting with them in Boulder 10 days before race, I instantly knew that these guys will do a great job crewing me. Their no-nonsense-military-approach and their questions about my strategy (food-drink-clothes-predicted time to cover distances between aid stations during race) convinced me that they will make a huge difference to my whole experience and even my performance at the race!

My first meeting with Ryan (left) & JP (right) 

3/ Another assurance for me to do well came from the fact that my good friend Dave, from Auburn, CA, had agreed to come all the way to pace me to the Finish. He did an amazing job last year where he paced and literally ‘pulled’ me to the Finish of the Western States Endurance Run 100 in 21h and 36m. He had now come to complete his second mission. I have always believed that pacing requires not only a good runner who runs ahead of you and who constantly motivates you. It is also necessary for the pacer and you to have a kind of chemistry, where despite having to run in deep silence (which is my preference), he can understand you and modify his pace to suit or push yours when necessary. Dave is this kind of guy for me and I was so happy he had agreed to pace me again.

Dave & I

4/ Finally, I will be in the company of my 2 ‘runner brothers’ (Kostas & Padelis) from Greece this time, who had come all the way to run the race with me. With me living in the UK and being far away from my good friends, this is an exciting opportunity for me to catch up and to share with them the experience of running a legendary race like LT100.

Padelis (left), me & Kostas (right)

With all these good things falling into the right places in my life, it was not surprising that I was feeling really good at the Start Line, despite having managed to sleep only about 2 hours during the short night.

The temperature at the start was low but as we ran on, we were blessed with blue skies with soaring temperature which gave us the best running conditions for this high altitude race.

When the final countdown started, I saw a guy with a rifle coming out from a 4WD and was ready to shoot into the sky to mark the start of the race…!!! Him and the gun reminded me of one of those wild, wild west movies I have watched when I was young, amplified by the fact that we were in one of the wildest area in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, with a turbulent history of glory and decline, related to its mining history.

I told myself then (in a macho cowboy way, of course!) that it was time to prove that I can be part of the glorious finishers in a race with one of the highest percentage (50%) of DNF.

My strategy was clear from the very beginning. I plan to run fast for the first 60km, up to the Twin Lakes Aid Station, where there are some short climbs and most of the terrain is nice and flat. I am totally aware of my weak point in conquering ascends, having lived and trained in the flat landscape of England. That is why I strategise to gain time where I can be fast on flats. Indeed, everything went exactly as I had planned and I was able to keep a very good pace without any big effort or fatigue. The combination of great weather and the warm welcome I received from my amazing crew at the aid stations were making my day!!

Me arriving at the Fish Hatchery Aid Station : 38km

About 2km before arriving at Twin Lakes, I got panicked. I had just overtaken 3 other runners by ‘flying’ down a very steep downhill path when I felt a sharp pain in the metatarsal area of my left foot. My worst inner fear was finally coming true!!

9 days ago, while I was doing my training coming down Hope Pass by wearing my new Stinson Trail ATR (bought only 2 days earlier in Denver), I had the same pain which made me stop running. I had at that time tried to walk for a while before starting running again at a slower pace but the nagging pain was still there. Back at the hotel, I used ice on the affected area but on the following day, a big bruise with swelling appeared on my metatarsal area. I was very concerned of the possibility that this small injury could compromise my participation in the race but 2 days later, when I ran Hope Pass again by wearing my old pair of Stinson Trail, everything seemed fine. The bruise and swelling subsided and I had hoped that this little injury had gone away for good. 

When I arrived at the Twin Lakes aid station, I did not know what to do. The pain was really sharp and I was almost already limping at this point. The enthusiasm and excitement of my crew from my great performance and good position (top 15) deterred me from expressing my real concern and fear to them. I just mentioned casually to my wife about the pain recurring, trying not to give them any stress about my condition.

Me arriving at the Twin Lakes Aid Station : 63.5km

I dreaded the idea of what lies ahead of me upon leaving Twin Lakes. I was to run through one of the most challenging and grueling part of the race - a 2000m elevation which will bring me to almost 4000m of altitude. All the earlier confidence in me had totally vanished by now. I was almost convinced that this race was over for me at that point in time due to the pain I was suffering from. Right before reaching the river crossing, I remembered what my wife had told me – if I need help and was out there alone, just pray. So, I started praying. For first time in my life while running an Ultra, I felt the spiritual need to talk to God and seek His help. The idea of not finishing this race after all my hard preparation and having a crew who has given up their precious family time time to come and support me, was making me crazy.

Just 5 minutes after having said my prayer and while my soul and spirit was still very agitated, I found myself having to cross several freezing streams. Every time I dove in these streams with waters high up to my knee, my feet would get numb and I could no longer feel the pain. After crossing the big river and starting the long steep climb of 8km to Hope Pass, I realised that the pain was almost gone! I was able to keep up a decent pace despite the steep inclination without getting the same sharp pain I had felt earlier. I was so relieved. I started thanking God for answering my prayer and I was so grateful to be able to continue with this adventure!

Step by step, using my poles, I climbed up Hope Pass and lost only 3 positions. When the descent to Winfield started, I was hesitant to go fast because I did not want to trigger the metatarsal pain again. Maintaining a steady pace, I arrived at Winfield without losing any further position and best of all, without any pain on my foot. My crew was telling me that I looked great and they started feeding me and motivating me. Unlike my normal practice, I decided to have a 5 minutes’ break for a good supply of calories and fluids before returning to the grueling Hope Pass. My spirits was also lifted because from now onwards, I was going to have my pacer, Dave, to run with me and I know that he will be giving me all the necessary support and help to survive what lies ahead of us. We left Winfield with a very good pace, with ONLY another 80km to run.

Dave getting ready to pace me

Me taking a breather at Winfield Aid Station : 80.5km

Me & Dave setting off from Winfield

My confidence came back and I was feeling optimistic again that I could have a very good performance in the race. On my Inbound run back, I had the chance to meet other runners who were behind me. Before starting the steep climb up Hope Pass again, I met my fellow Greek friends Padelis and Kostas. The former seemed to be in a a struggle, asking me about the distance to the next aid station while the latter had a broad smile and was looking really fresh.

Padelis receiving some TLC from JP

Kostas being playful and looking strong 

I could feel the difference when I climbed Hope Pass for the second time. I was less strong and fast this time but had the same determination to get rid of this endless climb as soon as I can. Dave was in front of me and he was very encouraging in giving me a good steady pace ahead. Once we reached Hope Pass, a long descent awaited us to bring us back to Twin Lakes. We had to immerse our legs in the cold water from the same streams and the river previously crossed by me. We arrived not long after that at Twin Lakes and found hundreds of supporters there, creating an amazing and very encouraging atmosphere for us.

Dave & I arrived at Twin Lakes (97km), flanked by JP (left) & Mike 'Dutch' (right) 

Leaving Twin Lakes, we had to deal with another very steep climb. Dave started first and he shot off in a crazy pace and was soon disappearing from my sight. I found him waiting for me at the top and we started off together again. The many climbs that follow seemed to go on endlessly. After a few minutes, I noticed that Dave was not able to keep the same pace as he had before. He was struggling with the steep inclination and was slowing down. On the contrary, I was feeling stronger and setting a faster pace which Dave could not keep up with. As you can imagine, this is one of the weirdest scenario which can happen during an Ultra! Your pacer, the one you rely on to get you going faster when you are weak becomes the opposite and you have to start slowing down your pace for him.

I was waiting and hoping that he will recover from this ‘crisis’ and get better soon. He was apologizing all the time and I could feel that he was feeling embarrassed about the whole situation. I tried to make him feel better and reassured him that unexpected situations like these can happen. I was feeling a little frustrated by this new turn of events as I was feeling well and was willing and able to run faster to get to the Finish as soon as possible, before darkness and low temperature lend misery to my run.

After losing a lot of time to reach the top of the hill at the slower pace, we started running down a trail in the middle of a forest. My happiness and confidence was being compromised when I realised that Dave was not getting better and was struggling even on the flat parts of the trail. We stopped at Half Pipe Station (114km) for some refuelling and I was hoping that Dave will get better after having something to eat and drink. Unfortunately, he did not and I started losing some positions when other runners started to overtake us.

At this point in time, Dave made a difficult but realistic decision. He gave me my headlamp and asked me go ahead without him. I could see his great disappointment and frustration. I know for a fact that he had tried his best but this was just not one of his good days. A lot of unexpected things can happen during an Ultra of 100 miles and this is just one of them, I guess. I took my leadlamp and parted ways with him to continue on my journey alone.

After all the mental turbulence and difficulty in making the heavy-hearted decision to leave Dave, I continued in a good pace heading to the Fish Hatchery Aid Station. Dave had arrived there before me as he managed to get a lift from a driver after we parted ways. So, before I reached Fish Hatchery, my crew had already known about my predicament and I could feel their agony and concern regarding the last 36km of my race. The trickiest part of the race, called Powerline, was awaiting me and the day was getting dark (just before sunset) with an expected drop in temperature to hamper my progress. I was tired, and without a pacer. For my crew members who had all run or pace the race before, this was not an ideal situation. At this point, it was already too late for me to find a pacer from the crowd as all of them had already been booked at the 80th km aid station, Winfield.

Me in crisis & Ryan being very concerned - at Fish Hatchery Aid Station : 123km 

One of my crew members, JP, instantly offered himself to pace me, even though he had not come prepared for that. He did not have any proper equipment and most importantly, he had not come with the mental preparation to carry out such a difficult job. But he was determined not to let me run the remaining distance on my own, especially not in the dark.

Thanks to him, we started off in a very good pace for the first 3km after Fish Hatchery and when the Powerline climb started, JP gave me very helpful motivation and encouragement, suggesting changes of pace based on the inclination which we were facing. Powerline is a steep climb of about 500m high, made by five ‘false’ summits. Every time you reach what appeared to be the highest part of the climb, you have to take a steep descent which makes you lose altitude and before you can stop to catch your breath, you have to ascend another steep climb. And you have to do this 5 times!!! As you can imagine, after having run more than 120km, your mental strength is getting weaker and all you need is someone like JP who knows how to push you beyond your limits. I was so grateful of having him with me as he was trying his very best to bring me to the Finish within my targeted time of 21h.

After we finished the cruel and endless climbs of Powerline, we started running down a wide forest road and were gaining speed. Going down fast and overtaking a few runners, I started to believe that there is still a chance for me to finish in a good position. May Queen was the last aid station, about 20km from the Finish and the course from there was one which was without any technical difficulties. My crew was waiting for us there and despite the offer by Mike ‘Dutch’ (another of my crew member) to pace me for the last leg of the race, JP said he was happy and confident to carry on his great job.

We left May Queen and by then, it was pitch dark and the temperature has dropped close to 5C. Our vision and orientation was getting more difficult as we were running through a forest. It took me awhile to realise that JP had by now changed his pace. He was walking and had stopped pushing me to go beyond my comfort zone like he did before. After having run more than 140km, I no longer had the mental strength to make the decision like I did with Dave. I no longer possess the strength to go fast. My body was complacent with this slower pace, which was so easy to keep up with, despite the knowledge that I was going to lose precious time and positions by carrying on at that pace.

Once we came out of the forest, we had to run on endless wide dirt tracks and were exposed to the freezing wind, which made me shiver for the first time during the race. JP was still walking at this point and he no longer tried to push me. I was feeling very sorry for him because I knew he was trying to do his best for me, but was just mentally and physically not prepared for that. Unable to run on my own, I decided to set a faster pace by walking 10’/km. JP tried to keep up with me and we spent the next hour in these dark dirt roads in that pace with more runners overtaking us. Time seemed to have stopped forever. I felt that we were going so slow and I even started believing that I could lose getting the gold buckle for not finishing below 25h.

Both JP and I did not have a watch with us (my stupid Garmin ran out of battery after 16h of run, as usual!). Whenever we tried to ask the runners we met, they also had the same problem and could not tell us what time it was. About 2km before the Finish, we finally met a group of volunteers who were able to tell us the time - it was then 1:36am. What a relief that was for me !! All of a sudden, I ‘woke up’ from my slumber and I asked JP to try to jog with me for the last 2km. Indeed, that was how we arrived at the Finish after 21h and 52m. I finally crossed the finish line in the overall 23rd position.

Me at the Finish Line

Me & my amazing crew (from left): Mike 'Dutch', Dave, me, Ryan & JP

I found out later that my Greek friends did not manage to make it to the Finish. Padelis ran out of glycogen and stopped at the 100th km, while Kostas had issues with an old injury on his heels, which made him stop just 36km from the Finish.

This was the first time I had finished a race with so many mixed feelings. I am going to be honest with my conclusion, as I always have.

From one point of view, I was happy to finish another difficult Ultra under 25h and getting the much desired gold buckle, when 50% of the runners did not manage to finish, with only 88 of us managing to go below the 25h limit!

However, my timing and position did not correspond with my real fitness and I felt that if my pacers had been fit and able, I could definitely have finished at least one hour faster.

Being a very competitive runner who is always looking to give the best possible performance, I find it very difficult to give peace to my mind and I am and will be a little disappointed with this outcome for the next few weeks.

The only thing which gives me a lot of confidence from this race for the future is the fact that for the first time, I finished running a 160km race without any sign of muscle pain or acid lactic. The only discomfort I suffered from the race was a black nail and 1 small blister. I think my body is finally getting used to ULTRAs and this gives me a lot of optimism for the future races which I wish to do.

Long distance races like this will always have something new to teach you. I think the lesson I learned from this race is that if you want to be a real Ultra runner, you have to rely less on pacers and more on yourself! The same principle is valid in life for everything. Perhaps the European approach of not allowing pacing should be the more appropriate one, making you strong and independent and less reliant.

On the contrary, I find the idea of having a crew to be a fantastic idea, allowing me to have my own choice of diet and food that I like. After a small experiment at the recent Olympian Race which I ran, I found out that the best energy supply for the last 40km of a big race is...MILK! Thanks to the milk which I had been having, I managed to survive when my stomach was unable to tolerate any solid form of food and sweet gels. This is a real discovery for me and I will suggest it to all the Ultra runners out there. Give it a try when your stomach is closing down on you. It could make a difference!

As I come to the end of my race report, I could not thank all these guys enough. They gave their best to help me achieve my dream. They left their family and job on their precious weekend, spent their money and energy to stay awake for 24h just for ME!

Dave, Ryan, JP, Mike ‘Dutch’ - a huge thanks is the least I can say to you guys! You have been so nice, kind and generous, just like your beautiful country, with your unique spirit of giving and supporting.

Never in Europe will you see so many runners who wait patiently on narrow single-track trails to give priority to the faster runners. Not a single one of the runners tried to stop or block us who are at the front. All of them stopped to encourage me, telling me that I was doing a ‘good job’. Some even called out to me by my bib number to motivate me and telling me how well I was doing. What a different and fantastic experience!

Thank you America and Americans for all these high emotions you have given me. I will definitely be back again in America one day to run the Badwater 135. The only thing stopping me from confirming to do this race is the change in its route last year (the organisers took out the most challenging and dramatic part of the race through the Death Valley National Park). I have been informed that they are negotiating with the officials to get the original route back on course and I will wait and hope that this will be successful.

In the meantime, I am thinking about doing the Spartathlon (246km) in Greece next year. I have always respected this race and thought that I need to do many Ultra Races before I register for this Big Challenge. Even now, I am not sure if I am able to deal with the long distance but I will definitely change my training surface, specifically to prepare for this race. If my body can survive all these rigorous training, I might give it a try next year.

A more realistic target and another dream to come true for me is to run the famous Copper Canyon Ultra Caballo Blanco in Mexico. Running with the legendary Raramuri (Tarahumara) runners to find out what makes them so special and fast, is going to be a good reason for me to register for the race!

In the meantime, many things can happen which could change my races and plan. However, one thing is for sure. These changes will not change the determination in me to live my dream and ambition by participating and ‘fighting’ in the most scenic, challenging, exciting races of our planet!

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