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Embracing the grind of the Leadville 100: a how-to guide

Annie Weiss Leadville

Post by: Annie Weiss, Swiftwick ambassador. 

There is no better way to put this: Leadville is no joke. It was a race unlike any other and not because of the distance but rather because of the internal highs and lows. One moment you have a couple miles of what feels like complete bliss. I’m frolicking through wildflowers on a sunny day singing gleefully to myself. Maybe it’s mile five and maybe it’s mile 85. Either way, I feel like I’m on cloud 9. And then in a matter of seconds, it feels like daggers being dug into my body and twisting with every step, all while feeling like everything on the inside is either empty or caving in. And then back to bliss – and so it continues…

Here’s how my first 100-miler went in five steps – the “how to” of embracing Leadville from start to finish (or any other 100-miler!).

Step 1: Embrace the Elements

Annie Weiss LeadvillePreparing for a race at 10,200-13,000 feet with 18,000+ feet of gain is not easy in Wisconsin, but guess what? Anyone can do it and be successful. You don’t have to live in the mountains to run in the mountains and do it well. I refuse to fall into that trap that I have to be in the elements to overcome them.

To be a great runner, you have to run with heart and be completely dedicated. Being great at Leadville does not mean moving to the mountains to live at altitude nor practicing how to run through a river crossing 140 times. Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer to live in the mountains simply for the scenery, but for right now, the flatlands don’t hinder my capabilities – because I won’t let them.
Embracing all the elements of Leadville is not easy. You are tackling high altitudes and quick changes in elevation. When I run in Colorado, I pretend I’m at sea level, and I have yet to suffer from altitude sickness. I’m actually not sure exactly what I’m supposed to feel, but what I know is I don’t let it beat me. I have trained my mind to not care about altitude.
Leadville started in the 40s climbed close to 70 degrees (which felt like a million degrees atop Hope Pass), and then quickly fell back to the low 40s, if not 30s, during the night. Unfortunately the quick change in temperature and distance between aid was what I was not prepared for. I suffered for this – experiencing hypothermia by mile 76 and needing to take some time to recoup from it because I was not going to quit. This first-timer mistake created a much different finish for me, but my crew kept the momentum going. Within an 1/8 of a mile after aid at 76, I was like a new person! Just had to embrace the elements.
Step 2: Embrace the Pain

It hurts so good… said no one that has ever completed Leadville. That is a super myth I think. It hurts horribly and to the point of wanting to quit. But again, if your heart is in it, you just don’t operate that way! There is no such thing as letting pain win. But that comes back to the question, “How bad do you want it and are you willing to tolerate any level of pain?” If you can answer those questions with a BAD and YES while actually out there experiencing pain, you can achieve it all.
The super lows are not something I’ve ever experienced before until Leadville. I think it can be assumed there will be lows with that distance, so why would I subject myself to that prior to doing Leadville?! Someone questioned my ability to run Leadville because it was going to be my first 100, and as much as I wanted to punch him, I also felt sorry for him because clearly there is no insight into what goes into ultra-distance training. You don’t have to run 99 miles to run a 100-miler, and it doesn’t matter which one you run- they are all going to hurt like hell! So my advice- don’t let others dictate your goals. You can run 100 miles and anywhere you want to experience it. The highs and lows will be with you matter what. Embrace the pain and let it work with you not against you.
At one point this past weekend, I recall being so low I was unable to speak clearly. I was seeing things. I felt pain in every single step after mile 75. It was not soreness – it was beyond that. Embracing pain is not easy, especially in the moment, but always come back to your goal. And for me, that was finishing Leadville strong. There was no doubt I was going to do that this past weekend. I embraced pain the moment I was accepted into the race.
Step 3: Embrace the Climbs

So the closest I’ve been to 12,000 feet, outside of Leadville, is when they say on the airplane “you can now use all electronic devices.” Yeah, living at sea level with some hills that take one minute to get up becomes a challenge when you have to train and race climbs that are miles upon miles long. Not knowing what to expect was the best thing for me. I knew there would be climbing, and I was told Power Line would be the harder of the two because it’s at mile 80 or so. I completely disagree! Hope Pass, a gain of 5,000 feet over five miles and then basically repeating it, was the second hardest climb I’ve ever had to do. I’ll be honest, watching people power up Hope Pass was incredible to me, and clearly I need to keep working on my climbing ability. I was envious, but I also was able to remember that my strong suit is the downhill- for some reason its a “no fear, do or die” attitude at that point.
I started my Hope Pass journey on my own (miles 40-50) with many people passing me along the way. It really stung, but I knew I had to keep my own rhythm going and not worry about other people’s races. And it really should be a rule that if you use trekking poles, you have to carry them the entire way, as it’s an advantage. This is a likely excuse for a runner getting passed, but really – think about all of us that didn’t use “helper sticks” along the way. At some point, I picked up two fallen branches, a perfect size for my makeshift natural trekking poles. I called this “pulling a Rivers” from his strong finish at the Flagstaff Sky Race last year.

My sticks didn’t last long – Keith chucked them back on the trail when I continued to not use them at all. I was more successful grinding it out, hands on knees climbing. I embraced the climb of Hope Pass and knew that nothing could be worse. When I picked up Keith, and we reached the top (again!) I was nearly in tears. You could see Twin Lakes and even further, there was Leadville, about 45 miles away. It was beautiful, but not because of the mountainous scene, but because I embraced the climb with every single, painfully slow step to the top. In my head, it was all downhill from there.
Annie Weiss LeadvilleI will admit there were times climbing Hope Pass I wanted to sit on a rock and never get up ever again, but my saving grace was Keith. He will forever be the pacer with me for Hope Pass. Selection of pacer for different sections can make the biggest difference in your race! I knew that for myself with this climb and also because there were lots of pacers without their runners in this section . It was super bizarre to have runners drop their pacers and made us both laugh! (Which was much needed on this climb.)
Step 4 – Embrace The Pace

My goal was to stay under 25 hours. I asked my pacers what pace this would require, and I was shocked to hear “14 minute/mile.” Ahhhh, what?! This seemed doable, and in the past, I might have thought it was laughable. But here’s the deal- you have to embrace the pace of all sections of this race. There were times I was at a 25 minute/mile going up Hope Pass, other times at 730 minute/mile and everything in between. I don’t run with my GPS on, mainly because it’s not accurate, but also because I don’t want to fall into the pace trap. Runners get so caught up in pace, worrying so much about “staying on pace” that it makes the pace even slower. Let pace go and embrace the fact that your overall pace will likely be something walkable. By no means does it mean you didn’t do well or that people will think you didn’t run. It just simply means it’s tough out there! I always try to remember that the tortoise does beat the hare- especially when you are racing yourself.
During Leadville this past weekend, I utilized certain strengths of mine to allow for pace to be very far back on the burner. If I focus on short sections in the second half (and I mean really short, like reflector to reflector), I will overall run more. Playing games with two of my pacers allowed me to lose sight of a diminishing pace and focus on what was going well in that moment and that section of trail. It worked. Embrace the tortoise mentality to ultimately run faster.
Step 5 – Embrace The Finish

I was running the last six miles (of 13) with Brian, and I could feel myself hating everything in the world by that point. I just wanted it to be over. I was tired, whiney, wet, cold, achy and everything in between. This was a low for me and even more when my headlamp died with four miles to go. I pictured my finish being strong, but it was far from that. I had to embrace my own personal finish for this race.

I recalled my running mate Nick telling me that it’s going to suck but to crawl if I have to. That is exactly how I felt- like I was inching my way to the finish. But with every step, I was that much closer. I will admit that the last five miles of Leadville were probably the most challenging to get through, given I was feeling every single emotion possible. It was not until the last mile that I realized those emotions can be used as positive energy to turn a weak finish into a strong one.

The finish, which I could barely see from the top of the hill on 6th street, was so far away. As Keith kept reminding me through the climbs, “head down, lean forward.” I trotted my way down the hill and to the finish with my head down and leaning forward. It was the end. I made it through my first 100. Leadville was too much work to not finish. It was an incredible feeling to finish Leadville but even more of an incredible  journey for me along the way.
There are no road blocks to finishing 100 miles. Much of that lies in our heads. Being able to overcome the challenges and embrace the good and bad of racing is all it takes. I tend to roll my eyes at people when they act so surprised that a person can run 100 miles. You can do anything you set your mind to. It can be slow or it can be fast. You can be young or old. Any type of person can accomplish these goals. I dare you to embrace the grind of something. Take on a goal headstrong and don’t let the demons of your mind chatter. Embrace all the pain, struggles, and highs of that goal. That is the journey and it’s worth every minute.
Huge thank you to Brian, Keith, and Kyle for pacing/crewing for me in Leadville! Your guidance along the way made my race even better. And a big shout out to Altra Running, Swiftwick Socks, OrangeMud, Fluid Nutrition, and Oakley for all the gear and support. I love being a part of your teams!

This article originally appeared on Annie’s blog.

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