This past August marked a whole new running experience for me, specifically my first gig as a pacer in a 100-mile ultra-marathon. Earlier this year, my friend Juan Moran invited me to help him pull off the best race he could muster at one of the most iconic American 100 milers, the Leadville 100 in Colorado. Leadville is an interesting out/back course composed of a lot of beautiful single track trails, jeep road, some pavement, and two burly climbs over Hope Pass above 12,000 feet. At first glance, the initial challenge of Leadville seems like it’s the high altitude, with the lowest point at 9,200 feet above sea level. I think the bigger challenge for many runners are the strict cut off times. Considering that Leadville allows runners to compete without a qualifier, many will attempt it with very little ultra experience, and therefore more than 50% of the field doesn’t make it to the finish.
My journey to Leadville started in the ethereal San Juan Mountains, with a solo night of camping outside Telluride where I got some night solo running in. I also met up for coffee with Heather, an old track teammate from High School in Kennewick, and an actual Telluride local! After stopping through Grand Junction to pick up Annie, we made our way to Leadville and met up with Juan’s family in a cabin bed & breakfast. Friday felt like the calm before the storm for all of us, especially Juan and his wife Jen, as they finalized all of their race prep.
Annie and I went to the mandatory pre-race meeting, which we think was more of a motivational speech aimed at runners unsure of their ability to finish. Hanging out that evening, we crushed some pizza which is Juan’s trusty pre-race ritual, then we called it an early night.
When I woke up on Saturday, Juan had already been running for close to four hours after a 4 AM start. He was holding in the top 20 which is the perfect position for placing well in a 100 miler. After a decent breakfast, Annie and I made our way out to the Twin Lakes aid station which was a bit of a madhouse. I know this race is huge, and there were probably close to 2000 people hanging out at this aid station. We arrived just before the cut off which impacted numerous runners as they were hobbling up to the 40-mile mark. Our challenge was to find a place to chillax, and take it easy while waiting for Juan to come back from his second Hope Pass trip. The return trip through Twin Lakes marks 60 miles for runners. It was very sunny, but we found some shade, then it invariably got cold and a little stormy, and then sunny again. It was a little tough for me to not be apprehensive while waiting, but once the race leader Ian Sharman rolled through, I knocked out a warm up routine and got my gear in order. About 45 minutes later, Juan rolled up in fifth place, and it was game time!
The mindset of pacing required me to stay in tune with Juan from the beginning. After 62 miles of running, his body was wrecked, but he was ceaselessly moving. My challenge was to find the right balance of ensuring he stayed on pace, but not push him beyond his physical limits. I was there to improve his chances of finishing, not hinder them. So I had no intent of slowing Juan down, yet I did manage to fall head over heels more than once. As Leeadville allows pacers to mule for their runners, I was carrying Juan’s water bottles and continually passing him a bottle every few minutes to keep him hydrating and fueling. Soon after we joined up, his stomach started to fail and he wasn’t able to fuel as ideally as I’d prefer, but he persisted.
I have received several questions about the Leadville course, and the section between Twin Lakes and Half Pipe was really lovely forested single track, at the foothills of Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. After the Half Pipe aid station, the course is primarily jeep road and this was where we took over fourth place. The jeep road continues on a long, gradual down-hill until passing into the large open field east of the foothills where we hit pavement for about two to three miles, then we reached the Outward-Bound aid station in the middle of an open field nearby the Leadville National Fish Hatchery. Rolling in, Jen, Anna, and Juan’s kids were waiting to restock us, so I called two minutes as our time limit.
Outward Bound marked mile 76, and soon we were heading off toward the climb up Sugarloaf Pass. This was the part of pacing I was really looking forward to, moving up the powerline climb on a steep, buffed out mountain bike trail. Juan’s approach with the long climbs was to change gears into power hiking, effectively calling it break time. Heading up to the top at 11,000 feet, I think we probably hit about four false summits, and this was the section that I noticed some altitude effects, specifically the flow of blood in my ears. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite have enough water during this part, and I ended up passing Juan one of my water bottles which left me persisting on a slightly dense mix of Heed. Honestly, Juan was the one running 100 miles, so it was a no brainer to take care of him. At the top, we come on a “hidden” aid station with a gigantic banner that said “Nice F#$king Work” full of some really jazzed up volunteers all saying the same thing, “nice f#$king work!” It was surreal.
Right after we left the “NFW” aid station, we got passed! What??!! The whole time we were climbing, and mind you we never stopped, we never had sight of anyone behind us. We were very likely stalked. Getting passed was unexpected, but falling into fifth place we pressed on the downhill section to the May Queen Aid Station at mile 86. Trying to pull out our head lamps from my pack while running, I swear Juan was speeding up. With headlamps donned in the dark, we rolled onto forest single track that was probably the most technical and rocky terrain I had been on yet. After 24 miles of running, I started to hit a bonk and became really cold during this section. At one point, I unintentionally stepped off the trail into open space sending me to the deck again. Yes, Juan was moving, and it was tough to keep with him. Inevitably, we rolled out of the forest into the aid station, and my pacing duties were done.
In the last 12 miles, Juan went on to retake 4th place from the same runner who passed us after Sugarloaf, and that’s where he would finish his second 100-mile race, with an overall time of 19:16:36. Considering the competitive field, the prestige of Leadville, and the challenges of the course, we were all genuinely blown away by Juan’s performance. For me, it was inspirational to see him navigate through the mental challenges of persisting when his body was wrecked, staying calm when his stomach prevented him from taking in calories, and keeping his head in the game the entire time. The mental toughness on display was second to none, and I don’t think Annie and I could have had a more positive experience pacing and crewing at a 100-miler than this.
Reflecting on this experience, of course I wonder about my future. When will I attempt a 100-mile race? Humbled by the challenge of what it takes to finish a race like Leadville, I feel a draw to the event, but in the short term I plan to wait and gain more experience before I enter the game. It is a massive commitment for the runner and the people who support him/her, so I don’t quite think of 100-milers as an event to casually sign up for. But I have faith. One day, maybe I’ll go do something really crazy.