2007 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
 
Previous          Journal Topics by Date            Next
 

  WHAT WENT WRONG
FOR SO MANY RUNNERS AT LEADVILLE?  

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21

 
"Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."
- Vincent Van Gogh
 

 

I mentioned in the last entry that only 35% of the 592 runners who began the Leadville Trail 100-Mile  Run finished within the thirty-hour time limit this past weekend, which is the second-lowest finish rate in the race's twenty-five year history. I wrote about some of the "notable" finishes of those survivors, although every one of them was noteworthy because of the difficulty of this high-altitude mountain race.

So what about all those DNFs, the 382 runners who did NOT finish the race this time? (Do you realize that's twice as many runner as START some popular 100-mile races??) Some of them are very good friends of ours. One of them is my BEST friend -- Jim!  It broke my heart to see him miss the cut-off halfway by only three or four minutes. It's as tough as when I've barely missed the cut-off there.

It really surprised us that 65% of the field didn't make it across the finish line. That's a large percentage, even for this race in which the typical DNF rate is 50-55%.

  • The weather was the best Jim and I have personally seen in seven race events here, although some of the runners who went over Hope Pass before Jim got into heavy rain, hail, and wind going both directions near the pass, making for a muddy mess on their return to Twin Lakes. David Crockett's excellent report at www.crockettclan.org/running/lt100-2007.html chronicles the weather conditions he encountered. Davy finished the race in 60th place in 26:15.


View from Twin Lakes to Hope Pass storm about 1:15 PM on Saturday

  • The course is generally well-marked. It's not easy to get off-track here unless there's been some race-day sabotage to the markers or runners aren't paying close enough attention.
  • The volunteers couldn't be any more helpful and I think most are very knowledgeable, too. Many have been working the same aid station for years and years.


Twin Lakes aid station early Saturday afternoon

  • Aid stations are fully stocked, runners can leave drop bags five different places (with access nine times), and crews can meet their runners in several other places.
  • There is a larger percentage of runnable roads and trails than in many of the other western mountain hundred-milers, which should make it faster (but somehow doesn't for Jim or me!).
  • Runners can not only have pacers the last fifty miles (entire distance if you're over 60 or handicapped in some manner), but even pacers who mule for them.
  • And there's that motivational speech the day before the race that is unparalleled in U.S. hundred-mile race events . . . if that doesn't get you psyched up, nothing will!

The list of veteran 100-mile finishers (both in this race and in other races) who didn't finish this time is amazing and lengthy. Jim's in quite good company! The stakes were high for everyone who trained hard and spent a lot of money to come to this race, but they were even higher for the three Leadmen who didn't finish and the ten Grand Slammers who are out of contention after finishing Western States and Vermont. That's gotta hurt extra badly after finishing earlier races in those series.

I've thought about listing some of the "notable" non-finishers, but decided against it. I don't want to embarrass anyone or rub salt into any wounds. There IS one runner I will talk about because Ken gave her so much publicity at the awards ceremony. She's a good friend, an inspiration, and . . .

ONE CLASSY LADY!

Remember when I mentioned in the last entry that Jim and I were at our crippled truck on Sixth Street two blocks from the finish when the last few runners were finishing the race on Sunday?

After the gun went off at 10 AM, signaling the end of the race, we really didn't expect anyone else to show up. I went to get Jim's drop bags and he continued working on the truck.

About twenty minutes had elapsed from the time David Strong, the last official finisher, stepped on the red carpet. Suddenly we heard wild cheering from the few remaining spectators, looked west down Sixth Street, and saw our good friend, Marge Adelman Hickman, in the green top below, walking toward the finish line with her husband Mike and several other people. I didn't take her picture until she'd passed us:

I didn't know whether to cheer or cry. This former female champion and thirteen-time finisher -- the most finishes of any woman in the race's history -- would arrive about fifteen minutes late and not be an official finisher this year!

Most runners choose to quit up at the McWethy-Sixth Street turn when it's inevitable they can't beat the final cut-off. It's just too heart-wrenching for them to get closer to the finish line, within sight of the banner and spectators. But Marge was determined to go the distance even if it wouldn't "count."

Know what? It damn well counts in MY book even if it isn't official.

To me, Marge is still a champion. She's still got guts and a lot of ability. At age 57 she's one of the oldest females to run the race. (The oldest female finisher this year is Rickie Redland-McManus, who is 53 or 54). Marge had the courage to START and do her best, so missing the cut-off at the very end was very hard on her, her friends and family, Ken and Merilee, and anyone watching her walk up that last hill. It's similar to Matt Mahoney finishing only a few SECONDS past the cut-off at Hardrock last month -- very tough emotionally on the runner AND those who witness it.

Early in the awards ceremony Ken Chlouber stepped into the audience to recognize Marge (next photo below). She was understandably a bundle of emotions at this point, having finished running a hundred grueling miles and missing her goal less than two hours ago. I give her a ton of credit for even showing up at the ceremony. She is an inspiration to me because she's only a year younger and still out there competing in difficult events.

I can tell you she wasn't the only one crying in the gym when she and Ken got done talking.

Ken has plenty of reason to cry himself. This is the first time in the history of the burro races (over 30 years) and the run (25 years) that he hasn't been able to start, due to a knee problem. He's also DNFd the LT run (and Bighorn) several times recently despite giving it his best effort. He's got to be getting as frustrated with this aging thing as Jim and I are!!

But Ken, Marge, Jim, many of our friends in their 50s and 60s and 70s, and I just aren't about to give up. We're all out there testing our (diminishing) limits until our bodies simply won't let us continue doing it any more.

I wanted to show the empathetic faces, above, of some of the audience as Ken gave his unconditional support to Marge. King Jordan is on the left. He's another 1,000-mile buckle holder who keeps coming back for more. King is one of the nicest fellas you'd ever want to meet. He has retired now as president of Gallaudet University. As a hearing-impaired runner, and also probably in his 60s now, he is another ultra runner who gives us inspiration for his grit and determination.

It's so hard to put in all the training required to do an ultra, especially a hundred-miler, and not reach your goal. I'm glad Ken always takes the time to recognize the runners who had the courage to try, even if they didn't finish.

SO WHY DID SO MANY PEOPLE NOT FINISH??

No one likes to DNF a race like this, regardless of the reason. And there are about as many reasons as there are runners. I'll hazard the following guesses as some of the reasons for the low finish rate at Leadville this year:

Lack of 100-mile race experience: LT100 does not have any requirements for entry other than sending in your application and a fat check! There are no qualifying standards and no race or trail volunteer requirements to limit the number of available entrants. If you have the money for Leadville, you're in. There appeared to be no limit to the number of runners who could enter this year, either. And it's amazing how many folks use this difficult race as their first 100-miler. Even though some of them finish (Jim did that in 1999!), the odds are heavily stacked against them.

Inadequate training for high altitude race conditions: the vast majority of entrants do not live at high altitude and most aren't able to spend two or three weeks at 9,200 to 12,600 feet to get properly acclimated. Some people apparently need 'way more time than that, even, like Jim and I seem to. We've been camped at 9,700 to 10,200 feet and regularly training up to 14,000 feet the last two months, and Jim still slowed down considerably on Mount Hope.


Near site of the Hopeless aid station, July 22, 2007

Inadequate training for the elevation gain and loss: there are 15,600 feet of gain and 15,600 feet of loss in this race, a significant amount for runners who don't have the opportunity to regularly train on long ascents and descents where they live -- let alone at this altitude. (Out of curiosity, Jim considered taking the GPS with him during the race to determine the total elevation gain and loss and see how long the course really is, but he wisely decided against carrying it. He needs to do it on several training runs instead.)

Not tapering enough: we see it every year, and have probably been guilty of it ourselves even when we've been able to be in Colorado all summer: runners training on the course, especially Hope Pass, or climbing 14ers too close to race time and not giving their bodies adequate rest before the race. They want to get acclimated ASAP, get in some long climbs, become familiar with the course, have fun with friends they haven't seen in a while, etc. And then they have dead legs during the race and wonder what happened.


Hope Pass on July 22, 2007

Starting out too fast: I was surprised to see so many runners so early at Fish Hatchery (23.5 miles), the first aid station I went to during the race. The weather was great and lots of folks had "happy feet." Pacing is tough. You want to get in as many miles as you can while it's cooler and you're fresh, before the afternoon heat saps you or your body hits a low point during the night when it wants to SLEEP, not climb up the Powerline. But going out too fast can kill your race whether you're a newbie or a  veteran. Been there, done that, at every distance from a mile to one hundred miles!

Not managing fluids, calories, and electrolytes properly: high altitude affects all of these and runners not fully acclimated (i.e., the majority of them) may have had more than the usual problems with nausea, dehydration, swelling, cramping, etc. The bright sunshine at high altitude may have also increased dehydration problems this year.


Bright sun and no shade at "tree line" Saturday morning during the race

Inadequate training due to injuries leading up to the race: it seemed like a lot of folks we know or met had medical problems this year and weren't able to train as well as usual. Some chose not to start the race, but many did and ended up not being able to complete the distance. Either the injuries flared up or they ran out of steam from lack of event-specific training.

Higher water in the wetlands and creek near Twin Lakes: some folks may have been slowed down by this, but Jim guessed it added only about a minute to his time to cross the muddy, swampy area and Lake Creek, which was knee- to mid-thigh-high on runners. I know it added more time than that to MY time several weeks ago (July 22) when I crossed the deep, swift current twice without a rope. All those other smaller creek crossings were higher during the race than when I went through in July, too. Anyone who is short or timid about the water may have become unglued in this section!

  
Jim crossing Lake Creek (L) and one of the little creeks on July 22, 2007 -- all higher on race day

The heavy rain, wind, and hail some runners experienced outbound and/or inbound on Mount Hope: although the trail on the north (Winfield) side of the mountain apparently wasn't affected, some early and mid-pack runners encountered nasty weather going one or both directions near the Hopeless aid station and the trail was very muddy and slick going down the south side toward Twin Lakes on Saturday afternoon and evening. That'll definitely slow you down and wear you out faster.

Too many people in the race this year: each year more and more people are allowed to enter this race. I remember in 1999 when Jim and I had to send in our applications in January as soon as the race opened because it filled in just a few days (kinda like a lot of other 100s now!). The LT limit was lower then and it wasn't increased. Times have changed. With almost 600 people on the single-track trails around Turquoise Lake early in the race, difficult two-way traffic with runners and pacers on Mount Hope, and more runners in the aid stations at the same time, I'm sure some folks were slowed down because of the crowded conditions.


Main channel of Lake Creek on July 22, 2007

Cut-offs that are too tight for the conditions: I think this is one of the major factors in the traditionally low finish rate at Leadville. Even though the elevation gain and loss at Leadville isn't as great as some other 100-milers, the altitude is the highest of all of them  but Hardrock -- which allows eighteen more hours to finish! Thirty hours isn't realistic for many people (like Jim, again) who can finish other western mountain courses with more generous cut-offs such as Wasatch and The Bear. I think Jim has a better chance of finishing Hardrock than Leadville at this point.

I'm sure there are other reasons causing this year's high DNF rate that I haven't thought of. Some of these are true of ANY hundred-miler, but some are more exclusive to this race.

HOW CAN WE IMPROVE THE ODDS OF FINISHING THIS RACE?

Many of the factors I've listed above are definitely under the control of the runners. Some are not. All comprise the "variables" that make running one hundred miles such an interesting challenge from year to year, even in the same race.

We can't control the weather, but we can be flexible and adapt to it. We can't change the race course, cut-offs, or rules, but we can pick our races based on our personal preferences. And we just have to adapt our training the best we can to make it as race-specific as possible.

There are also some ways that Ken and Merilee could make finishing this race more likely, but I doubt any of them will be implemented. There's a certain mystique or draw (and definite economic benefits) to having only half the field finish! What, me cynical??

These are my opinions . . .

  • I think the LT100 field should be limited to about 400 runners (I prefer races smaller than that, even).
  • I'd like to see a 50-mile option, since so many of us can only get to Winfield in the allowed time.
  • I think the time limit should be extended to 31 or 32 hours, especially if the field  remains this large. The course keeps getting longer and longer and the trails and aid stations are too crowded. Even when the race was smaller you had to step off the trail on both sides of Hope for the two-way traffic, and now it's worse.
  • I think either a trail should be built along Clear Creek AKA Winfield Road between the Sheep Gulch trail head and the aid station, or crews should be banned from the Winfield aid station (they are currently banned from the trail head area). Runners want their OWN crews at Winfield, of course, but hate having everyone ELSE'S crews on that road!



Anxious crews and pacers waiting for their runners at Winfield on race day

But this isn't my race and I have no business suggesting major changes! Races aren't democracies. If runners don't like the rules, they can vote with their wallets (and feet) and run elsewhere.

The only one of the suggestions above that's likely to happen is the trail between the Sheep Gulch trailhead and Winfield. I don't know how much clout Ken and Merilee have in that, though. I believe it's a project of the Forest Service and Continental Divide Trail. Both entities will have to rely heavily on volunteer help to get anything done because the government sure doesn't have much money for "non-essentials" like that.  (grrr)

I'd love to see a 50-miler on the course (during the 100-miler but starting later) going either direction, point to point. However, transportation for runners to or from Winfield in buses isn't practical unless there are serious improvements made to Clear Creek AKA Winfield Road and that's even less likely than a new two-mile trail along the road. An out-and-back course that doesn't include Hope Pass wouldn't interest many of us. That's the figurative as well as literal "high point" of this race.

Limiting the field of runners would hurt both the town's and race's bottom lines economically. (Have you ever totaled up an average of $200 per runner for the entrance fee alone, times about 650 runners? Then consider the 1,000 entrants in the bike race and the three other races put on by LT100 management!) The town's economic survival is largely dependent on summer visitors, and the LT100 bike race and run bring in a LOT of people for several days to several weeks. The addition of a 50-miler would bring in more dollars to the community. It would also add more people on the trails, which isn't my intention.

Regarding the current cut-off: there are several reasons not to increase it. The volunteers would be out there even longer, roads would be tied up even longer, and more money would have to be spent on the awards (sweatshirts, medallions, buckles, and necklaces and flowers for the women).

More importantly, Ken won't even discuss extending the time limit even though he hasn't been able to finish his own race for several years.

Think about it: if it was easier to finish this race, would dummies like Jim and me keep coming back to avenge our DNFs??!! There is a magnetism to races that are just out of our range of ability, a "fatal attraction" to keep trying and trying and trying . . .


South side of Hope Pass, July 22 (last year - 2006)

I seriously doubt I'll ever enter this race again, although I'm already looking ahead nineteen months to turning sixty and thinking about what races I might do in that new age group! (Clue: this one isn't anywhere near the top of my list.) After two LT50s, I don't want to waste my money here unless they extend the time limits.

Jim I'm not so sure about. Although he says he's had it with LT100, I won't be surprised come January to find it on his schedule of 2008 races, especially if he doesn't get into Hardrock.

Even if neither of us runs the race again, we love hanging out here in August and we'll be back to socialize with friends from around the globe, work the races, run the trails, climb the mountains, smell the flowers, and avoid the heat and humidity at home!

Next entry: what's next on our Rocky Mountain agenda. We aren't ready to go home yet.

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

Previous       Next

2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

-