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Race review: Leadville Marathon

Six thousand feet of elevation change, swirling winds at Mosquito Pass and a fun post-race party make this an epic, memorable event.

I arrived in Leadville, Colorado, and its 10,151 feet of elevation the day before the June 17 marathon. It would easily be the most challenging marathon for this flatlander who resides at 627 feet of elevation.

I put the Leadville Marathon on my bucket list a couple of years ago, with the thought of using the race (and others) as tests on whether I would be able to move up to attempt a 100-miler. During the race, I was enchanted by the views and also the notion of the Leadville 100 in the future.

But first things first. I had a monumental task in front of me. I went into the race confident, taking the proclamation Leadville Trail Race Series founder Ken Chlouber to heart, “You’re better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.”

Packet pickup

I arrived late afternoon in downtown Leadville, found packet pickup and asked other runners about how they were preparing for the weather. The forecast for race day in Leadville was around 50 at the start and climbing to the low 70s later in the day. But since the race is an out and back — turning around at the top of Mosquito Pass, elevation 13,185 feet — I wasn’t sure how to properly prepare for the cooler temperatures at the top.

It seemed like everyone had a different idea — carry a jacket, wear a ¾-zip, brave the chills with just a short-sleeve tech shirt. The Orange Mud pack I brought didn’t accommodate carrying extra clothing, so I wore a long-sleeve tech shirt. That gave me the flexibility to have the sleeves up or down, depending on the warmth. I was also able to carry gloves in my shorts, which I pulled out when the cool air hit.

As for packet pickup itself, it was flawless. The race rules require IDs for packet pickup, which is clearly communicated on the website and in e-newsletters. In addition to the race T-shirt, some Gu products and other typical race swag, I picked up a sample of beet juice at one booth and an Orange Mud water bottle from some friends at that booth.

Later, I caught up with my friend Chad Prichard, who was running the marathon in preparation for the Leadville 100 this August. (Chad has an incredible story of his running and redemption, which I will share in a future blog.)

Race day

On race morning, there was plenty of free parking nearby. I found a spot less than a mile from the race start at an elementary school parking lot. The port-a-pots line was extremely long as the minutes counted down to the race start. Fortunately, I found a shorter line in the nearby gym. While the line was slow, I was able to get back to the race start with about 10 minutes to spare.

There I chatted with Mike, a 50something school principal from Pennsylvania. Like other first-timers, we commiserated about the hills — make that mountains — we were about to face. As the seconds ticked down, we shook hands, wished each other luck and started out slow.

Really slow.

Facing a total elevation change of 6,000-plus feet, my goal was to take the first half easy. Much of the first half was uphill, including the first two miles. My first two miles were 12:34 and 16:17. My time goal for the first half was 3:20 and a second half of 2:40, making my A goal an even 6:00, but realistically I was aiming for 6:00-6:30.

The Leadville Marathon offers a Heavy Half Marathon options, which is actually around 15 miles. A couple of miles into the race, the half marathoners split to the left and the full marathoners went to the right.

The marathon is an absolutely challenging and beautiful course. It is not for the faint of heart or breath.

Up, up and away

After leaving the pavement of Sixth Street, runners experience a mix of trails, off-road paths and, rocky climbs and descents. Much of the middle and later stages of the course are run through rocky sections. There was some water on the course from snow melting (course officials actually rerouted the course due to the snowfall presence on the normal course) but no river crossings.

The first half has climbs from roughly the start to the 2-mile point, then 3.1 miles to 5.4 miles, 7.6 miles to 8.6 miles, and then an epic climb from Mile 10 to the halfway point.

The final climb up Mosquito Pass is unforgiving. One uphill step after another with percentage grade ranging from about 5 percent to 20 percent. This year, volunteers removed snow and ice from the course so that we could climb up the pass. There was plenty of evidence of ice.

As we climbed up the thin section of trail, those who had already hit the turnaround point were flying past us, side by side. The edge of the mountain on our left, the end of the icy shelf to our our right.

The winds had picked up. The temperature had noticeably dropped. But our collective wills remained strong.

It’s all downhill from here — well, not really

Standing on top of Mosquito Pass gives the sensation of standing on top of the world.

But as relieved as I was to get there, my immediate challenge was to remain standing. The fierce winds — gusts to 60 mph, much stronger than what many previous runners said they had experienced — made it difficult to stand still long enough to take a selfie. I noted the time on my watch, around 3:40. I had been on pace for my 3:20 goal until about Mile 12 when the combination of climbs and winds slowed me down.

With one hand holding my hat on, I focused on finishing the second half faster so I started to descend the mountain. These winds were no joke. It became difficult to breathe as we were now facing the wind, and it almost literally took our breath away.

I turned my head toward the icy shelf so that I could breathe. That lasted for a couple of minutes until we were down far enough to breathe normally, well, as normal as possible for being at around 13,000 feet of elevation.

It was no surprise that there was not an aid station at the halfway point — I mean, really, it was hard to enough to get there much less keep stuff from blowing away. There were four aid stations — including an unmanned, water-only stop — that runners passed in both directions.

The aid stations were fantastic. The volunteers were extremely helpful and encouraging. The food included the traditional aid station fare for similar events — peanut butter and jelly squares, fruit, cookies, M&MS, chips, pretzels, and drinks like water, Coke, Sprite and Roctane.

I focused on fruits — I think I nearly ate a half watermelon throughout the race — and chips for the salt, which I needed. I used my Tailwind Nutrition and that worked well. At one stop, I tried Roctane and didn’t like the taste of it nor how it affected my stomach.

I also enjoyed some Honey Stinger gluten-free cinnamon waffles that I carried with me, which were helpful during a couple of low points.

Given the location of the race, the rules forbid runners from leaving waste behind. In fact, any attempts to litter are grounds from being booted from the race. The aid stations all had separate containers for compostable and trash — I would hope that more races copy this practice. And the volunteers helped tired, brain-weary runners on where to drop their particular piece of orange peel, wrapper, cup or whatever.

The finish

A runner I had been walking and running with during the second half had warned me about the last couple of miles. When you see the town up ahead, he had said it “seems like it takes forever to get there” because it’s a fairly straight downhill run to the finish line. I kept that in mind and focused on running hard to the end. In fact, my last mile was by far my fastest, clocking in at 7:56.

I bolted to the end and ended up passing about eight or so runners. (Overall, I had gained 51 spots from the halfway point to the finish, so my go-slow approach paid off.) As onlookers cheered finishers, including me, my thoughts turned toward how amazing this feeling is — to live and train with minimal elevation and finish a damn tough race at elevation. I finished in 6:21:36, 283rd out of nearly 600 runners. And not only did I finish in my goal range, I was pretty close to my 2:40 goal for the second half.

After crossing the line, I received a medal and finisher’s mug. I met up with some friends post-race, enjoyed a free Mexican meal and beer, and began to let the accomplishment sink in.

Finisher. Of the Leadville Freaking Marathon.

And with that my thoughts turn to the Leadville 100. Not this year. But soon. Stay tuned.

Run this race if you:

  • Are looking for a challenging marathon that you will never forget.

  • Want to experience beautiful views.

  • Are training for an ultra with significant climbs.

Don't run this race if you:

  • Are opposed to a race with significant climbs.

  • Feel the need to have cheering sections throughout the course.

  • Have experienced issues in higher elevation areas.

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