Monday, July 5, 2010

Leadville DNF

Leadville proved to be too much for me.  No excuses.  I gave it as good an effort as I had in me that day . . . but it wasn't enough.

Hard to describe the area . . . maybe a mixture of incredible beauty with a mix of man-made ugliness of the old mines thrown in.  Some may think the mining remnants are historically interesting, to me they were just plain ugly.   But I just chose to focus on the area's beauty and there was plenty of that.

Got there early . . . a beautiful hours drive from Vail.  My body was still on east coast time so the 8:00 am start was really 10:00 am to me.  Checked in and had my packet by 7:00 am so I just hung out and talked with folks.

One of the highlights of the day was finally getting to actually meet in person my e-friend, Jennifer Nichols.  Jenn lives in Bristol, VA near my hometown.  We had run two races together earlier, but never officially met.  I expected nice, but Jenn way exceeded my expectations.

My race plan was fairly simple . . . walk the uphills as fast as I could, and run all the downhills I could.  My right knee is giving me some issues, so I wasn't sure how it would do walking, let alone running (my doctor made me promise I wouldn't run . . . sorry Doc!).  I knew there were steep, downhill sections, with tons of large and small loose rock (scree) that I would have to walk for sure.  Had no idea just how much there would really be!

The race had an uphill start (altitude 10,100 feet) that lasted a full 3.5 miles.  Half sections were steep but the other half were moderate.  Right off the bat, I struggled to get enough oxygen.  Two results are 1) you breath heavily and rapidly trying to get the oxygen you need, and 2) your muscles get really tired, really quickly.  Very strange, like you're just having a bad day and you're tired from the previous day's workouts.

The first 1 1/2 miles took us through an old mining area- not all that pretty!

But then we hit a wooded area we ran (aka walked!) through that took us up to the first aid station.

Quick in and out and into one of the prettiest parts of the day as we ran up and around Ball Mountain.  This was our first time to run above tree line.  Fields, single-track, wild flowers.  Quite beautiful, just as Jenn had promised.!  Very cold and windy -  I put on my wind jacket and wished I had my gloves . . . bad decision to leave them in the car.

 We peaked somewhere along here at about 12,500 feet and I got my first areas where I could really run!  But I found I couldn't run like I had planned - no oxygen!  I got out of breath every 4-5 minutes and walked some to try and catch my breath.  I tried to press hard through here as I knew what was coming and needed to gain time anywhere I could.

Passed the same aid station for a second time and continued down through tons of mining remnants on to aid station #3.  During this section the leader passed me heading home!  We both exchanged encouraging words as we passed.  The leader had about a 5 minute lead on the second place runner.  Amazing running and it always amazes me how supportive everyone is!  Even the guy leading the race makes time to say something positive to me.

 Finally got to aid station #3 (elevation 11,200 feet or so) where the marathon course rejoins the Heavy Half marathon.  Now was the time for the really hard work to begin as I headed up the mountain to Mosquito Pass (elevation 13,200 feet).

By this time I was seeing tons of folks on their return trip . . . marathoners and half-marathoners alike.  The trail here became really tough - scree the whole, frickin' way!  Big loose rocks, medium loose rocks, small loose rocks . . . and fine loose rock.  People slipping, sliding and tripping all the time.  Really, this wasn't a fair test of anything . . . just lucky foot placement!

Guess I was 1/8 of the way up when Jenn passed me on her way down.  Clearly, we were both struggling, but a quick hug from Jenn gave me renewed spirit . . . but sadly a positive spirit was not going to be enough this day.

By this point I was walking 100 yards, and then stopping to regain my breath.  Then repeat!  I had imagined I would be able to walk up this whole mountain at a steady pace, but not a chance!  My knee had remained in good shape, with only maybe two instances of real pain, but the uneven, loose rock was treacherous.

This climb was killing me,  I found myself almost hoping my knee would go out so I would have an excuse to stop.  I had been warned about the five switchbacks and that two of them gave you a false sense of nearing the top.  I passed these but wasn't deceived because I knew some of the folks ahead of me and hadn't seen them yet.  The trail got even more steep, and even more loose rocks.  I remembered the elevation charts and knew it wouldn't last too long, but oh, was it hard for me.

The views back down the mountain were spectacular!!  You can see the last aid station just behind the second lake.

I wasn't last . . . but I was next to last!  Passed one nice lady and her dog out for a hike and she asked if she could take my picture for me.  Believe she my have been an aid station volunteer that just decided to hike down.

One by one I saw folks I had been with earlier in the race as they were headed down.  I exchanged words of support with each one, and each told me to hang on . . . it was much easier going back down hill!

Soon the trail steepness backed off and I surprised myself with about a quarter of a mile of no stopping at all!  Saw the sign and soon saw the aid station at the top!  13.1 miles done.  My hardest 13.1 ever - by far.  Cold and windy up here!

Got a cookie and re-filled my fluids, took a few pictures and headed back down.

 Maybe 1/4 mile from the top I met the one guy behind me.  He was suffering a lot but continued on, committed to getting to the top!  I understood his pain for sure!

Going down took way less energy, but I found I couldn't run much at all due to the poor footing.  Every once and I while I could see a way through the rocks that looked stable enough to run, but not often.  Very frustrating because I was feeling much better and really psyched cause I knew the bad part was over!  The only negative I was feeling was a toenail on my right foot was getting banged into my shoe's toe box . . . a rookie mistake on my part to not trim my nails close before the race.

About 3/4 of the way down from Mosquito Pass, the aid station volunteers passed me in the 4-wheel drive trucks and I saw my friend from Atlanta who had been behind me.  Guess I was now officially the last place runner.

Miles passed quickly and my spirits were high.  Came to an aid station with a few cheering volunteers and  I told them they could finally go home!  Then I saw the race director who told me I was way past the cut-off and he would have to ask me to stop.

I almost cried.

I felt so good, and I knew there was just a little uphill left for me.  Mostly down hill left.  I had paid my dues in pain and suffering and now I wasn't going to get my reward.  I was crushed.

Rode back to Leadville with one of the aid station volunteers and another runner who was cut-off.  Spent a few minutes cheering some finishers . . . but I was just totally bummed.  My heart wasn't in it at all.  Saw all the folks walking around with their medals, congratulating each other.  Looked for Jenn, but figured she was resting and taking a shower.  I KNEW I could have finished this race and not finishing just sucked.

Hard to explain the feelings I was having . . . feelings of failure, feelings of pride of having completed all the hard parts, feelings of relief that the pain was over, feelings of anger at being made to stop.  Bottom-line I was just crushed and I had no feelings of celebration or success.  The race has a dinner for all participants and everyone goes up to the stage for recognition and I had planned to stay for that . . . but I just couldn't stay and be with everyone else that had sucked it up and finished...  so I left.

I retrospect, I'm glad I tried this.  For me, it was more like an ultra than a marathon,  I put forth more effort than either of my 50 milers.  This was hard, very hard.  I do believe if this were run in the North Carolina mountains I would have easily finished well within even tighter cutoffs, but the altitude and resulting lack of oxygen did me in.

Maybe I should have done the Heavy Half Marathon, a least I would have finished it and gotten a medal.

Here are some more pictures.

Will I try it again?  I doubt it.  To be successful, I believe you really need to spend at least a week at 10,000 or more prior to the race.  And I probably won't be willing to do that.  But I sure would love to be able to run under this sign . . .


  1. Great pictures, and a great write up, and dammit my friend, what a great effort. DNF > DNS :)

    Oxygen is a beautiful thing.

    Give it a few days, and I reckon you will be chomping at the bit to sign up for next year. Knowing you though, you will probably decide to have a go at the Leadville 100 instead!

  2. Great report Frank. I was a bit surprised at how different the marathon course looks compared to the 100 miler. we headed out of town the opposite direction. beautiful pictures and I especially liked the view looking back toward town and I could see Turquoise Lake way off in the distance. The 13.5 mile point of the 100 is on the far side of that lake

  3. I know what it's like not to finish, but not being able to start is worse. Be proud of the effort and the guts to take a chance -most people never do.
    Congrats. Glad you got to met Jenn, she's one in a mil.
    Come run with us sometime,

  4. Frank, although a VERY different race, I shared some of your feelings when I had to DNF at Disney. I was sick, and never should have started the race. I finally pulled out around mile 18. The difference between your race and mine. . . I no longer had the will, and pulled myself out. You just ran out of time.

    Many more great races are still ahead for you my friend! LOVE the pictures.

  5. Frank:

    it was SO great to get to meet you in person:o) You did GREAT! I'm so happy you made it to the top of mosquito pass! it was a very hard day! You are one tough dude!! I am going to borrow some of your pictures for my blog!
    don't be down about the DNF, I have had several over the past couple of years. They aren't fun, but what doesn't kill us makes us stronger! and time limits suck.
    hope to see you and run with you again soon!


  6. Incredible pictures. Impressive report. You must be very fortunate to have had this experience. Some people live there whole lives and never have the opportunity to attempt Leadville or ran as far as you have run.

  7. What an experience. Certainly not the outcome you wanted, but when you look back at things, you really had a great run under tough conditions. With knee issues and the lack of running or even living at high altitude, you beat the tough part of that course. I have a feeling you will go back and you will know a little more what you need to do to help prepare for that beast. Glad you finally got to meet Jenny in person. She is a special friend.

  8. Great pictures, Frank! My favorite is #3509 (towards the end of the set), it really captures the experience in my mind.

    All things considered, I think you did a hell of a job. Like Rick said, you beat the tough part of the course, so you should consider it a victory!

    I know you are disappointed, but you gave a valiant effort... and at a time when you probably didn't need to be running anyway. That's what you call true grit!!!


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Littleton, North Carolina
World's Slowest Runner . . . well, at least in contention for the honor. Just your average "below average" runner.