Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"Welcome to the 25th running of the Leadville Trail 100, the Race Across the Sky.
- LT100 Runners' Handbook


Now that we're near Leadville, Jim is training in earnest for the "Race Across the Sky" on August 18-19. He is more determined than ever to avenge his recent DNFs on this course, the site of his very first 100-mile success back in 1999. If he could do it then, he can do it now. Right??

I certainly think so, and I'm doing whatever I can to see him finish it this time. When asked what he wants for his birthday on August 1, he always replies, "to finish Leadville." If only I could give him that! But I can crew him on his training runs, give him encouragement and suggestions, and crew and/or pace during the race.

For days (weeks?) he's been analyzing figures from previous races -- his own times between aid stations in the years he's run the race, the times in Dana Rouche's classic report on how to finish the race, and the times of runners who have finished in the 28- to 30-hour time frame. (Thirty hours is the limit in this race that seems to get longer and longer each year with various trail relocations.) Jim has concluded that he needs to get OUT of the Winfield aid station at the 50-mile turnaround with at least two hours to spare in order to have enough time for the second half, much of which will be run and walked in the dark. That means 13-14 hours for the first half, 16-17 hours for the second half.

He always gets to the 39.5-mile mark at Twin Lakes outbound with time to spare, but loses the advantage getting up and over Hope Pass, shown below, the literal and figurative high point on the course at 12,600 feet. It's a huge climb in 2-3 miles from either side and there are inevitably thunderstorms and/or sleet and hail in one direction or the other. Add to that the two-way runner traffic on steep, narrow trails and the difficulty multiplies.

Some years he times out or drops out at Winfield (50 miles). Last year he did better, but despite all the acclimatizing he did in Silverton and Leadville before the race he still had trouble getting back up from the south side of Mount Hope after fifty miles and timed out at Twin Lakes on the return (about 60.5 miles).

So how does he train differently this year to reach his goal?

He had a good string of 50K and 50-mile races this spring when he was doing more speed work. He had a tough 66-mile training run at Big Horn (I always try to turn DNFs into something positive!). And he's had lots of "hill work" and altitude training in Silverton. Is that enough? We hope so.

Now his challenge is figuring out what additional training in the next four weeks will best help him achieve his race goal.

One of his plans is to do a double crossing of Hope Pass at least four times in the next two weeks, allowing adequate time to taper before the race. Too many runners get here one or two weeks before the race and try to run too many miles for acclimatization and course familiarization -- then start the race on dead legs. Jim should be able to avoid that since he has four weeks until the race. He can afford to seriously taper for two or three weeks.

[For the non-runners out there, tapering means cutting back significantly on the mileage and intensity before a race so you can start the race on fresh legs. Milers do it. Hundred-milers do it. The concept is sound, but it's really difficult for many hard-core runners to effectively taper. Their minds and bodies are used to a high level of training and it just doesn't feel right to back off. The fear is that they will lose their training edge. In my own case, it's more a physical thing of not wanting to go into endorphin-deprivation. As I age, it gets easier and easier to taper, though.]

During the race, the double crossing of Hope Pass comes between approximately 42-48 miles and 52-58 miles into the race. Those are the real climbs and descents, leaving out the flatter miles to and from the Winfield and Twin Lakes aid stations. They total about 11,600 feet of elevation gain and loss, not easy to do when you've already run so many miles. Jim can't truly simulate that during practice, but he can do the crossing enough times to gain some confidence, strategize, and toughen his mind and body for the race ahead.

His goal today was to begin at the parking lot at Twin Lakes (not the aid station a quarter mile away), following the course over Hope Pass to Winfield and back for a total of about twenty-one miles (his GPS recorded over twenty-two). Last year he did the same workout in about 7:45 hours. He wanted to compare this year's time to see how he measures up. It took him just a little longer this time, but that was only because of ME -- he went slower the first mile-plus to make sure I got across "the river" OK.

Last year I chickened out crossing Lake CREEK, which looked like a river. Everyone calls it "the river," but it really is just a (very wide sometimes) creek. Today it definitely looked like a three-channel river, but I screwed up my courage (there's that word again) and crossed the bloody thing. It was the highest, widest, and fastest we've ever seen it. Many folks who are out here training run or drive upstream a couple miles to cross at a bridge. Not Jim. He wanted to do the real course.

We knew the creek would be high when we had to cross five or six large puddles on the gravel "road" heading from Twin Lakes to the creek. Usually they are fewer and lower:


I have no explanation why the creek is higher than in most other years we've been out here. There is very little snow left at the higher elevations. We've had a couple wicked thunderstorms with hail the last two afternoons, with perhaps two inches of rain at our campground yesterday, so maybe that's the reason it was so high today.

There has been no sane way to ford the stream the last two years (at least without a rope) where the race has crossed it in the past. There is a steep bank and deep channel in that precise location now. But by going upstream about a hundred feet and carefully choosing where we crossed outbound, we didn't get in any higher than knee-deep this morning.

However, it took several minutes to choose our course and safely cross without getting swept downstream. My trekking pole helped me but the rocks were slick, even with my grippy-soled Montrail Highlines. I don't know how Jim got a grip on the rocks in his "screw shoes." He's experimenting with screws in the bottom of a new pair of Montrail Vitesse for the Hope Pass section during the race. That model fits him best, but doesn't have very aggressive soles for the steep slopes on Hope. He said the swift current in the creek was much more of a problem than the rocks.

Cody did fine, pack and all. It's great sport to him. (OK, for Jim and me, too!)

We came back separately because I went only to the pass and a little beyond, not down to Winfield. On my way back down the mountain I listened to the stream roaring like a freight train through Little Willis Gulch, trying not to panic about going back across Lake Creek (the mountain stream dumps into Lake Creek before my crossing). But that crossing was easier for me -- maybe because I'd already done it successfully and knew I could do it again.

Besides, I didn't want to hike upstream two miles to the bridge and back down to get to the truck!

This is just the first (and widest -- about thirty feet) channel on the way back. I bagged the camera until I was safely across the other two channels:

I picked the widest, most shallow channels and still didn't get in any deeper than my knees. Poor Jim went farther upstream in search of a better place to cross and ended up WAIST deep in strong current, but he made it across safely. We both got lost for a few minutes trying to find our way back to the main trail but eventually found it by going cross-country (Jim) or following the creek downstream (me).

It'll be interesting to see if the creek gets lower in the next month. If there is any change, I'll report it here when we go back out there again.

Jim didn't want to take a camera today so the photos are mine and mostly on the north side of Hope. Yeah, I know, I've taken photos here before but it's been three years since I went up that side and I just can't help taking pictures of beautiful scenery and flowers . . . Hope you enjoy them! Most are in the order in which I took them, beginning at Twin Lakes (minus the Lake Creek ones above).

During the race, outbound runners leave the aid station at the firehouse in Twin Lakes (39.5 miles) and head south through the little town, cross Hwy. 82, and run through about two miles of sage-filled valley land through which Lake Creek flows into the twin lakes (there really are twin lakes here!). Then they begin the serious climb through Little Willis Gulch from 9,200 feet to 12,600 feet in about three miles. (Start counting -- that's 3,400 feet.)

The first couple miles are through pleasant, shady forests of mostly spruce and fir, with an aspen grove near the bottom. Little Willis Creek flows near the trail for a mile or more. Today it was  positively thundering near the bottom with all the water it contained. It sounded like a train. No wonder Lake Creek is so high! There are numerous other creeks just like this one feeding into it.

The Continental Divide Trail comes in from the left and is the same trail as the race course through Winfield. The Colorado Trail was re-routed off Hope Pass a couple years ago and takes a more easterly route now on the flank of Quail Mountain and isn't nearly as interesting as going over Mount Hope. (It does eliminate several miles of hiking/running on Clear Creek Road, however.)

About a mile into the trees I was passed by four runners going the same direction. I didn't talk to the first really fast one (although he was walking uphill, not running - that made me feel better!).

The second one introduced himself as Mike James. We spent a pleasant few minutes walking together, although he slowed down to walk my tired snail's pace. Mike has finished the race several times and also did the five-race Leadman series last year, which includes a 100-mile bike race a week before the 100-mile run. He caught up to Jim before the top and ran with him back to Twin Lakes. Mike started at Tree Line, however, so he had another ten or eleven miles to run after Jim stopped.

As I was talking to Mike, along came Bob Reid, who remembered me from Big Horn and this web journal. Mike and Bob continued on together as I stopped to let Cody get some water (and for me to rest -- I really was a slug today!). There they go. Mike is on the left:

One more fella caught up to me soon after but turned around at the Pass. I don't know his name. He told me he's doing the Leadman series this year and did the 50-mile bike race yesterday! So much for resting after a hard mountain race. (He's young.)

The flowers were beautiful along Little Willis Creek once I got closer to its headwaters and out into more sunlight. The trees get more sparse around 11,000 feet. Up here the creek is quite benign and not menacing:




Millions of little asters color the high meadows between timberline and the tundra with carpets of lavender and purple:


The photo above is near the site of the "Hopeless" aid station at mile 45 during the race. Supplies are packed in on llamas, which graze near the small alpine lake at the top of Little Willis Gulch (you can see the lake in the photos I took going back down, later in this entry). This aid station is a godsend during the race, and the volunteers who (wo)man it are surely saints. This place can see some really nasty weather on race afternoon.

It's another half mile or more through rocks and tundra to get to the pass on this side:

That's the summit of Mount Hope in the photo above. Rinker Peak and Twin Peaks are to the right and visible from the trail. All are high 13ers.

In recent years the trail above timberline has become more and more civilized on either side of Hope Pass. It used to be quite treacherous on the steep slopes with loose rocks and dirt. Several switchbacks have been added to decrease erosion, as well as water bars like these that are made of rocks or logs:

The switchbacks are much more gradual than the shorter sections were that went straight up the slope. I'm going to hazard a guess that these improvements, which have lengthened the LT100 course, are more for hikers, cyclists, and equestrians on the Continental Divide Trail (and formerly the Colorado Trail) than for the race participants. The old trail would have been even more dangerous on a horse than on foot. But if the motivation to "improve" the trail is the same as on the Appalachian Trail, it is more to prevent erosion than to make it easier for anyone.

And suddenly we're at the top! This post and cairn have been here as long as I've climbed to the pass (1998 was my first time). The view below is looking south toward some 13ers in the foreground (Waverly, Pecks, Middle peaks) and 14ers in the background (Oxford, Belford, Missouri):

I went down the south side about a quarter mile to see if I could see Jim or any of the other runners below me, but I couldn't see anyone. Down in the valley 2,400 feet below me is Clear Creek AKA Winfield Road, which the runners take west for 2 miles to the turnaround at Winfield:

I was having fun but had to climb very slowly today. It took me 2:45 hours to get to the top. Cody and I sat down and enjoyed the warm sunshine and minor breeze for half an hour before going back down the way we came. Another runner came past us, waved, and quickly descended toward Twin Lakes:

Around noon I headed back down even though the sky was still bright blue. My granny knees were sore from this 65-mile training week and it took me two hours to reach the truck. I was grateful for the more gradual drop on all those switchbacks and let gravity take me down the sometimes-smooth, sometimes-rocky trail:

In the photos above and below you can see the lake at the top of Little Willis Gulch on the left. Down in the valley, the Twin Lakes are in the foreground and Mt. Elbert Forebay is in the distance:

I soon dropped down into the sub-alpine "aster zone" and marveled at the profusion of flowers:




I saw three more runners going up to the pass as I dropped back down through the forest, listened worriedly to the roar of the ever-increasing Little Willis Gulch stream, ran through the aspens, and popped out into the open valley west of Twin Lakes:

In the photo above you can see one of the lakes on the right and tiny buildings in Twin Lakes in the distance. Don't be fooled, however. It's still at least a mile to reach them. And ya gotta cross that river, I mean CREEK, again.

Runners continue to follow the abandoned jeep road on the other side of the creek and through a marshy area with more pleasant views of the lakes:

Hopefully Jim will be running back through here in daylight, well before the 9:45 PM cut-off at Twin Lakes. He'll run past the hillock and aspen grove below, past a nice bathroom, through the parking lot, across Hwy. 82, and another quarter mile through town to the aid station:

On race day I'll either be there to crew for him or I'll be pacing him. We'll see. In either case, this time he WILL be heading out under the cut-off and on his way to the Half Moon aid station.

Cody and I got done with out little twelve-mile run at 2 PM and waited in the truck for Jim to finish about 4:45. I brought the computer so I could catch up on ultra list and other e-mail and do some writing in my journal. While I was waiting, these birds and a crony were making quite a racket in a nearby tree:

I don't know if they were annoyed by our presence or if they were having a turf battle, but they all ended up leaving after a few minutes of squawking. They were fun to watch. Cody was more interested in the pocket gophers, however.

Jim came back from his run a very happy boy. He had fun running with Mike for about fifteen miles and he felt good about his run. His GPS registered over 22 miles, which he did in less than eight hours (he would have been faster the first mile if he hadn't run with me). He did 11,600 feet up and down, at altitude -- and he's looking forward to doing the same workout (or a longer one) three more times.

We celebrated with some rich, tasty Haagen Daaz (sp?) ice cream bars from the general store across the street. They hit the spot on a hot, sunny afternoon. We highly recommend them!

By the way, here is some good news for LT100 crews. Last evening we drove back Clear Creek (AKA Winfield) Road another twelve miles past our campground to the aid station location and to place a gallon of water for Jim to re-supply at the Sheep Gulch trail head today. The road is in better shape than we've ever seen it, at least to the Missouri Gulch trail head. The last three or four miles are still full of rocks and holes, but it's a definite improvement from prior years. Thank you, Grader Guy! (He's been busy at work since we arrived.)

Next entries: more of Jim's training runs on the course and my exploration of the new Colorado Trail reroutes near our campground.

Happy trails,

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

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil