Lucky in Leadville

Lucky in Leadville

The lucky men running Leadville: Jeff Urbanski, Eric Schneider, Ryan Thompson and Matt Urbanski

I made it! I finished the 100 mile Race Across the Sky and while I know it’s a big accomplishment and that I dug deep in order to get through it, I also realize that there is indeed an element of luck involved. And while luck was in my favor, it certainly wasn’t there for everyone else.

The race took place on August 18thand 19thin the town of Leadville, CO, the town with the highest elevation in the country at a little over 10,000’. There were around 1100 runners that registered and about 800 toed the starting line on Saturday morning. There were 358 runners that made it under the 30 hour time limit. Historically, the finish rate is somewhere in the 40% range and out of our 5 runner friends taking part in this year’s race, we sadly were right in line with the odds.

Regardless of the low finishing rate, we had a great group of people to be with. There were 12 people in our immediate group along with an old friend from Cincinnati doing the run. In our group of 12, there were four runners, four pacers, and four crew members. We also had unlucky crew member number 13 that wasn’t able to make it to Colorado after getting stuck in Bogota.

I had awesome pacers and an awesome crew. Julie was the crew chief and my old college roommate Chris Reis along with Vancouver running friend Alex Asai took care of the pacing duties. These three made my race so much better than I ever could have expected; I doubt I’ll ever toe the line of a 100 miler again without this type of set up.

I was in good shape coming into the race but not with my normal training I prefer heading into such an event. Instead of running big miles to train, I dieted and did P90x to build overall fitness and core strength. I have had knee issues since the spring and I also didn’t have an optimal school schedule for good training. So while I felt fit and strong, I was also apprehensive because I knew I hadn’t actually run much.

I felt the knee early on and moved to plan B quickly. I took a calf sleeve and put it up around my knee as a brace. It was really tight and I’m not sure if the discomfort due to tightness numbed me to the typical knee pain, but I stayed fairly mobile the entire race. When the right knee would start acting up I’d adjust the sleeve and carry on. Thankfully, the plan worked better than I ever could have expected.

My plan was to go out slow and steady, like my brother does it, and to make every effort to stay positive throughout the race. The group split up shortly before the start while getting bathroom trips taken care of. As a result, I couldn’t find anyone at the start. I searched near the middle and back of the start corral of runners but never found Jeff or Eric. I figured that if I ran with them for the first part of the run, they’d keep me from getting too competitive, and thus avoid a fatal early race mistake. But since I couldn’t find them, I went off with the crowd at 4:00 am into the early morning night.

I think I’m catching on to the ultra marathon strategies necessary to finish these things in reasonable times. I walked pretty much every uphill, ran all the flats, and slowly ran the downs. Not everyone runs the downs slowly and I am exceptionally slow on the down hills. This is partly due to my knee issues and also because I’m simply a bit of a wuss when faced with steep, fast downs. It works for me though and I’d cruise past people that were walking on flat sections, I’d get passed by nearly all around me on the downs, and I actually powered past many while walking up the steep uphills.

I was happy as hell during most of the race, smiling and waving as I’d come into the aid stations or passing cheering spectators along the way. I really did enjoy myself until at least the half way point. I remember David Horton telling me to be chill through the first 60 miles and as I was out there, I realized why. Shortly after the 40 mile mark of the out-and-back course we hit the really big climb up to Hope Pass with an elevation of 12,600’. The climb up went smoothly as did most of the down. However, it took longer than planned to get to the turn-around due to a course change which apparently added some distance to the race. I was ok though and was excited to pick up Alex to keep me company on the way back.

The second climb was significantly harder though. For the first time in the race, I had to flat out stop on the course and catch my breath. My legs were burning on the steep ascent back up to Hope Pass the second time and as the air got thinner, my breaks became more frequent. But we got to the top whereupon I lay down for a few minutes. I gave myself five minutes and then the course literally pushed me onwards as rain clouds began to threaten. Alex and I shuffled down the hill to the next aid and as I neared the bottom and got some flat ground again, my legs came back and I was running well again.

I then picked up Chris and began another climb. We were trying to keep the pace up to get in as much distance in before the dark came again. I was good for the first 10 miles or so of this section but as it went to full darkness, I began to weary. As I walked into the Fish Hatchery aid station around mile 76 I knew it was getting to the real challenging part of the race. I sat down in the aid station, without a smile for the first time and said to my crew, “I’m really getting tired guys, sleepy tired”. They all took such good care of me though and had me ready to get back out there.

Alex led the next section and this is when the pacer benefit really showed itself. We had some tough climbing left which had us walking for awhile. While I wasn’t too cold yet, it was getting late and Alex came to the rescue. I was having a hard time physically and mentally getting running on the downhill. I had typically been in front with Alex or Chris right behind me. At this point though, Alex went to the front and led with a fast walking pace. So fast that I had to actually keep shuffling to a slow run to catch up. Eventually though, by doing this, my legs came back again and I actually came running into the last main aid station at 86.5 miles.

It was at this point that the sub-24 hour goal became really real. I knew I had to do the last 13.5 miles in around 2 hours if it was going to get done. Alex kept subtly pushing me to shuffle more and more and by the time we hit 94 miles where Chris took over pacing, we were well on our way to making it, or so we thought.

We weren’t sure of the exact mileage at the last point of contact with the crew but I thought I could basically walk it in if needed. I was chill and confident. I’d shuffle when I could but didn’t worry much. The last five miles were mainly uphill though and it took its toll on my pace. And there was the never-ending road that at 3:00 am in the morning got me worrying. I eventually pushed myself to running up the hill and when we hit the road with a mile to go, a guy yelled that I’d need a sub 11 minute last mile to get under 24. I then thought, “for crying out loud, I’ve run a low 4:00 minute mile in my life, I can run a freaking sub 10:00 minute mile!” I ran up the hill and though I was breathing hard and probably sounded like a big weenie, I could see the clock and knew my odds were good. As we got within a couple hundred yards, Chris said “You’ve got it buddy” whereupon he dropped off and let me run across the line to finish it up in 23 hours, 55 minutes.

It was so good to be finished. There was a fire truck that had heaters in it where they sent runners after the race. I sat there for awhile and then found my way to the medical tents where I slept for an hour. I’d stayed positive for the entire race (though I was losing it on that last never-ending road) and one of the mantras that kept me going was that I was sleeping as soon as I was finished. And it was so good.

As far as the rest of the guys are concerned, Ryan also made it. He was 32ndoverall in just under 23 hours. As for Jeff and Eric, they both missed the cut-off time at mile 60 and were pulled off the course. They got worked on the second climb as I did but were too far behind to have a shot at finishing. Most sad of all though was my friend Matt Van Cleave that ran with me for much of the first 13 miles of the race. He was well trained but had some issues late in the race that eventually had him carried off the course at mile 95! I think all of us had a good experience though and rumor has it that Eric and Jeff may already be planning on being back next year.

As for me, it’s nice to not have any races on the calendar right now, though that may not last long. Ultras are awesome and I love this new challenge. I spent the first few weeks after the race walking and thinking about what races will be next, and it seems pretty likely that another ultra will soon be in the cards.

Thanks go out to the Leadville race crew for putting on a really well run race too. The hype they generate and the pep-talk they delivered the day before were very unique and much appreciated. Thanks to the friends that took part and thanks so much to my amazing crew chief and pacers. You really did make the race for me and I am looking forward to returning the favor.

And finally, after a DNF in my first 100 mile attempt and a 27:56 finish with food poisoning in my second, I can happily say luck was on my side this time around and that things went smoothly for me in a 100 mile race. Maybe I should retire from ultras with this good feeling, but that seems silly because I am a runner and I still know I can do better.

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