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The Marathon Experience, Leadville Style

By Emily Booth

The true Leadville experience isn’t just found in the 100s. The pain, pleasure, tears and triumph that Leadville is famous for can also be found in the first run events of the season: The Leadville Trail Marathon and Heavy Half.

On a cold morning in February 2011, I sat staring at the computer and the taunting “Confirm Registration” at the bottom of the screen. My finger hovered over the mouse. Was I really going to do this? My mind raced with all the questions that surely every runner has before committing to run 100 miles for the first time. I took a deep breath and clicked.

Moments later, in my inbox, there it was: “Dear Emily, this email confirms your registration for the Leadville Trail 100 Run…” I was in. That brief moment of exhilaration was immediately followed by a wave of nausea and the troubling realization that I had no idea how I was going to train for this thing. As a lifelong runner, I had done my share of marathons, even a few IRONMAN triathlons and a 50K. But this was on a whole different planet. I reached out to a friend who mercifully gave me some great advice: “Why don’t you do the other races in the Leadville Series as part of your training?” Up to that point, although I knew they existed, I had no idea how invaluable participating in the series would be in preparing me to finish my first Leadville Trail 100 Run.

Held in late June, often with winter’s snow still lingering at the higher points of the course, the Leadville Marathon and Heavy Half (“heavy,” as in 15-plus miles) are the perfect introductions to running long above 10,000 feet. Topping out above 13,000 feet on Mosquito Pass, the courses provide amazing views, lots of climbing and a chance to test out your legs and lungs in Leadville. And with the introduction of the lottery system for the 2015 LT100 Run, the marathon may also be your ticket into the big show if the lottery results didn’t work out in your favor this round. Whether you’re hunting for a slot in this year’s race, training for this year’s race or you are simply Leadville-curious, the Leadville Trail Marathon is a great option (Only the marathon is a qualifier for the LT100 Run).

To provide some insight into experiencing, training for and racing these events, I reached out to several experts on the topic.

Given one of my most vivid memories of the 2012 race was that of a flying flash of muscles and blond pigtails (descending Mosquito Pass on her way to a decisive victory), I sought out Kerrie Bruxvoort – elite ultrarunner, Salomon Running sponsored athlete, Leadville Race Series Marketing Manager, mom of two and the winner of the 2012 Leadville Marathon. This is how Kerrie describes the race:

“The Leadville Trail Marathon is a one-of-a-kind challenge that every runner or hiker should have on their bucket list. It’s an event for beginners, road marathon crossovers and elite trail running veterans. The course takes runners on a tour of the historic mining district in east Leadville, via dirt mining roads and singletrack trails that wind to the top of Bald Mountain, where Leadville’s beautiful Turquoise Lake comes into view. From there, trails roll through multiple abandoned mines before leading breathless runners three miles up to the top of Mosquito Pass.

“Everyone needs to experience the astonishing view from atop Mosquito Pass. It is truly inexplicable and unforgettable. Standing atop the pass, you can see 360-degree views of the majestic Rocky Mountains from 13,182 feet above sea level. It’s an experience that will leave you changed forever.

“The Leadville Trail Marathon is the perfect way to experience a supported trip up the pass surrounded by other amazing adventurous runners and hikers. In fact, I think the Leadville Trail Marathon is the perfect gateway race to ultrarunning with a generous cutoff and fabulous support. I encourage beginners to give it a try and leave the boring roads behind. The Leadville spirit is so incredibly inspiring that it will change you forever!”

For another unique perspective, I talked with Pete Miller, National Director of Run and Cycle for Life Time. As a smoking-fast road runner who owns a 2:26:27 marathon PR (Grandma’s Marathon 1998) and more recently won the 2013 Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon in 2:46:20, Pete was kind enough to share his candid advice for the fast roadie from the flatlands looking to race in Leadville for the first time.

“Looking back on my experience at the 2012 Leadville Trail Marathon, I probably didn’t give the course sufficient respect prior to the race. I was in pretty good marathon shape, my long runs had gone well and I had done a significant amount of hill work during my buildup. I felt like I was in 2:45 (sea level, flat road) marathon shape. Four hours seemed possible at Leadville. Even at altitude, even with 6,000 feet of elevation gain, I thought I could average 9-minute miles.

“Obviously, I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

“While I felt like I handled the elevation well, I simply wasn’t prepared for mile after mile of climbing. Within the first 10K, I realized that I needed to walk the uphills in order to survive. The problem is that exactly half of the course is uphill. Any time goals went away in a hurry. I focused on staying with the runner in front of me and tried to ignore those who were passing. I was still able to run the downhills, which actually made the race enjoyable at times. It was a beautiful day in the mountains.  

“I crossed the finish line in five hours and 12 minutes. While I was initially very disappointed, I soon realized that I did accomplish four important things that day: I didn’t stop for any significant amount of time, I didn’t fall, I didn’t throw up (came close a few times) and I didn’t quit. After a very long day on the trail, that felt like victory. 

“I’ll go back to Leadville someday, but I’ll prepare very differently. I need to learn how to climb. Running the inclines won’t always be an option. Understanding how to move uphill, mile after mile, is an important part of managing the Leadville Trail Marathon course. It’s a skill that I have yet to develop.

“Like any marathon, you’ll want to simulate the race experience as closely as possible during training. For Leadville, that means climbing. Even if you’re training at sea level, try to find the biggest, baddest hill in your area. Back off your usual training pace and run the hill – slowly – until you can’t run any more. Then walk – or speed hike – until you can’t walk any more. Do this at least once a week, twice a week if you’re able. When I go back to Leadville, that’s how I’ll prepare.”

Finally, I talked with Ryan Krol of Life Time Run. An accomplished ultrarunner (with multiple LT100 Run finishes and winner of the 2014 Javelina 100K), Ryan is the official coach of the 2015 Leadville Run Series and the leader of the hugely successful Westminster, Colorado Life Time Run program. As evidenced by the number of first-time athletes from his program who competed in – and all completed – the 2014 Leadville Trail Marathon and Heavy Half, Ryan’s enthusiasm is contagious.

“I love the Heavy Half! It is a true mountain race topping out at over 13,000 feet, and a great challenge to someone who has done a road half or full marathon and wants to test themselves in the mountains at altitude. I think the training run in Leadville last year (held in May) contributed enormously to runners’ success in June. It took away from the mystery and anxiety of not knowing what the course was like. I am sure most beginner mountain runners were picturing cliffs and ‘death fall exposure,’ so when they got out on the course, it put them at ease and got them excited for race day.”

Kacee Watts, one of Ryan’s runners summed up her experience in perfect Leadville fashion.

“Every part of the race sucked for me. The altitude, the distance, the climb…I didn’t appreciate the gravity of the race until days later when I wasn’t feeling so sore. Only then was I able to look back at my experience and be proud of myself and what I did. Last year, when I crossed the finish line in tears, I said I wasn’t doing it again. This year, I’ll be stronger.”

So, if you are looking for the Leadville experience, look no further than this year’s Leadville Trail Marathon and Heavy Half. Pain, pleasure, tears and triumph await – and maybe even a slot in the 2015 or 2016 Leadville Trail 100 Run (Be sure to indicate your interest in a lottery spot when you register).

To be prepared, join Ryan and Life Time Run for the FREE guided training run to be held Saturday May 23 at 9 a.m. Meet at the Leadville Race Series Store on Main Street. Please click here to RSVP. Also, group training and a training plan can be found here .




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