100 Miles at Leadville: The Fire Rages On

September 9, 2021

Tyler Andrews is the founder of and coach for Chaski as well as a professional runner for HOKA. On August 21st 2021, he ran his first 100 mile race at the Leadville 100 in Leadville, Colorado (altitude 10,200 ft.), part of the “Grand Slam of Ultra Running,” the 5 most competitive races in the USA.  With eyes set on finishing first, Ty struggled over the last 35 miles to finish 16th in 21 hours, 35 minutes. He recaps the race, including what went well and what went wrong, in the write-up below.

All photos courtesy of John Baston.

I almost run into the lead vehicle as I get off the line a bit too hot. After 30 seconds or so, I look around and settle in next to Ian Sharman and we plunge down the initial road descent into the darkness. The legs are feeling good.

My mistake -- a mistake which will end up costing me the race -- is that I don’t look at the heart-rate (HR) screen on my watch during those initial dark minutes, or for any of the next 40 miles.

In my build-up to this race, this has been the first time that I’ve consistently used heart-rate as a prescriptive datum, i.e. in the past, I’ve looked at my HR after workouts and races (mostly out of curiosity), but this block was the first time where I actually learned what various HRs meant and would use it as gauge to make sure my effort was appropriate, especially on long runs.

I developed a clear understanding of exactly what various HRs meant given the altitude, temperature, pace, effort, and how tired I was. It became, arguably, the most important metric in my training, more so than pace or gradient or altitude or even my own perceived effort. Many times, I’d saved runs which “felt easy’ by recognizing my HR was too high and actively slowing myself down.

So, why wasn’t I looking at my heart rate? Why didn’t I check it until after passing Twin Lakes, some five hours into the race?

The truth is that, for the past few months, I’d felt fantastic almost every day of the block, until the past week. I’d noticed that my resting HR had been way too high at the beginning of race week (about 50% higher than normal) and, with that, I noticed I felt extra congested, stuffy, and generally just not great at all. Still, I had a fantastic tune-up run on Tuesday (running 5x 1km at just a tick over 3’00 at 10,000 ft, feeling super controlled) so, I tried to convince myself it was all in my head.

I was in denial. On Thursday, two days before the race, I felt like shit. I’d slept terribly, my heart seemingly racing all night, but I again tried to chalk it up to nerves (though, I didn’t actually feel nervous). That afternoon, I went for my penultimate training run and jogged down the first few kilometers of the race course. Despite a pace and effort that should barely have woken me up, I found my heart-rate jacked up close to the level of my fast intervals a few days before. This is not good, I thought.

I tried everything I could think of. I took a pause to catch my breath and see if that would “reset” things a bit. I took a layer off. But nothing seemed to make a difference and I cut the run short and told myself I’d take some cold meds for the next 24 hours.

Thus, I found myself popping dayquil the day before my first 100 miler -- not a situation in which I’d hoped to find myself. That morning (Friday), I did my final shakeout run, driving Ol’ Del (my rented Hertz cargo van) out to the one short section of the course that I was yet to run. I actively didn’t look at my watch this time and just let myself go.

To my (pleasant) surprise, my legs felt fantastic and the effort felt appropriate. I was then (unpleasantly) surprised to find after the run that the HR had still been jacked up (though not quite as much as the day before).

At this point, there wasn’t much I could do. I told myself I’d focus on resting, keep the dayquil going until I went to bed, and hope for the best tomorrow.

Throughout the day, I did feel better and better -- at least, I think I did, or else I did a very good job of convincing myself. I went to bed early and slept well for a few hours but again, woke up for a few hours in the middle of the night with a high HR and trouble falling back asleep. When the alarm went off at 02:00am, I actively decided not to check the resting HR but just hoped for the best.

Spirits were great that morning and I got to the line feeling excited, confident, and ready. Then, we took off.

The first 5km flashes by in the pitch-black night. Ian Sharman is out front and, surprisingly, pushing the pace as we run the first (downhill) 5K in about 21 minutes. By the time we hit the “lil loaf” climb up to Turquoise Lake, a handful of other runners, including Cody Reed, have joined us and we hit the single-track as a group of maybe 6 to 8.

As expected, the flat lake-side trail is monotonous, tedious. I find myself at the front for a bit and actively try to relax, slow down. I know we’re a bit ahead of pace at this stage and am happy to run a bit slower and focus on not eating-shit on the winding trail.

At some point, on one of the short climbs, Cody passes by us and takes off ahead. I’m glad to let him go and have someone to chase as the sun comes up.

It’s still 100% night time as we pop out onto the road and I quickly lead the entire race off-course, up the wrong stretch of pavement, before circling back and hopping a fence to get onto the right one. Sorry, y'all.

From there, it’s a few minutes until we arrive at Mayqueen, our first aid station at 20km. I don’t expect it to be quite this dark, but I easily find Alejandro, John, and Val and exchange my two bottles for two fresh ones.

I’d planned to be here around 1h44 and we’re actually just under 1h40. This is within the margin of error, though, and most of it seems to have come from a slightly quicker first 5K. I’m not panicking but I still haven’t looked at my heartrate.

Now, we have a short single-track section on the Colorado Trail, one of the more technical bits of the course, which spits us out on the smooth dirt road up to Sugarloaf Pass. Cody is still ahead and I’m now running with Michael Mitchell, a young kid who’s running his first ultra and is fresh out of college!

We’re chatting casually as we head up Sugarloaf and I’m very surprised to see him pull ahead as I take a quick pee. I’m not worried about him. (NB: he would grind out a finish in 26h46, props).

I hit the top a bit quick. And that’s a theme here; everything is “a bit quick”: a minute here, 30 seconds there. It’s enough that it adds up but not enough that I’m paying much attention to it at this point.

My legs are still feeling good, though I notice a bit of unusually soreness in the IT bands on both sides. Nothing that freaks me out, but just enough to be aware of and urge some more caution as I begin the descent down Powerline.

I’m feeling fantastic at this point and comfortably run down in 27 minutes (again, just a tick too quick) and hit the road section with tons of pop in my legs. I run easily up the little climb and then glide down the long descent, hitting the Outward Bound aid station

I’m stoked and full of energy at this point and quickly find Alejandro, John, and Val, make the exchange, and hit the road. Mitchell had been ahead of me by maybe 30 seconds, but we leave the aid station together and he puts a few seconds on me right away as we cross the gopher-hole infested field section for a mile or so until we hit pavement.

I very gradually catch up to him on the asphalt and, when I do, I realize it’s not Mitchell but Cody. Something must have happened at the aid station and now I’m all of a sudden caught back up to the lead. I try to stay on Cody’s shoulder and let him put some space between us as we head up towards Half-Pipe aid station and then I see him run into a port-a-potty and suddenly I’m leading.

I still am not 100% sure if I’m in first (I am), as I don’t know what happened to good ol’ Michael Mitchell, so I run super relaxed for the next few kilometers, eventually letting Cody catch up. We run together for a bit, but he passes me as I try my best to relax on this long, gradually uphill dirt-road stretch.

This is the first chunk I hit more or less on pace (actually like 30 seconds behind in 66 minutes), but I feel like I’m holding back the entire time. I try to stay behind Cody over the next few kilometers, hiking when he hikes, jogging when he jogs.

I hit Twin Lakes at 5h17, about 7 minutes ahead of my planned split, and take my first longer break of the day, sitting down for a second and catching my breath. The official race results have me in 3rd at TL but I honestly have no idea who, other than Cody, would have been in front of me at that point.

Leaving, I’m starting to feel a bit worried. The last stretch had been about 5 minutes BEHIND my planned race pace which wouldn’t be a problem until I (maybe accidentally) scroll through my watch and see that my average HR for these first five and half hours is 148, a solid 10-15 beats higher than it should be (which, at this rate, is a lot).

I make an active decision at that point to go back to using HR as my guide, especially as we now begin the longest climb on the course up and over Hope Pass.

Nonetheless, I can tell that the heart is going to be a problem. I can’t jog slow enough on the short approach section to get the HR to come down. As I begin the climb, I can tell that I’m going to have to hike most of it to keep the HR in a reasonable range, and I already know that in order to salvage any kind of reasonable result, this is the only way to do it.

So, despite having run up this climb under 60’ a whole bunch of times (at very moderate efforts), I find myself hiking the longest ascent on the course. I’m still trying to stay positive, though, at this point. I’m telling myself: “Hey you got out a bit too hard, but you can maintain this effort for a while as long as you don’t blow up on these climbs.”

I top out at 67’34, about 10 minutes slower than I’d planned and my worst time up the climb in many attempts over the past few months. Going down the back-side doesn’t feel great and my HR is still way higher than it should be at this effort. I hit the turn for Winfield and am really struggling to run at all on this very gentle stretch of single-track without the HR spiking.

At some point, I catch a toe and hit the deck pretty hard, landing on my right hand. I shout some obscenities and am generally not having a good time at all. It’s right after this that Adrian MacDonald catches up to me and asks if I’m okay (I guess he’d heard my cursing and shouting) and I say “oh yeah, no problem, just took a tumble.”

He passes me but I more or less latch onto him as we head down into Winfield, Adrian arriving a few seconds before me.

One note - I’d expected to pass Cody heading the other way as we got closer to Winfield, as he’d left Twin Lakes in front of me. Every minute that we didn’t pass him was a huge boost as it meant I was closer to him than I expected. Finally, as we got closer and closer to Winfield, I just got confused. How are we so close to him?

But, then we get into Winfield and he’s not there. I quickly grab my drop bag, exchange bottles, grab a stroopwafel and some Ritz crackers, and head out in first place somehow. I figure Cody must have stopped at some point and I’d missed it. I leave at 7h50, 1 minute under course record pace (though realistically, about 15 minute behind as it’s pretty much impossible to even-split this race).

I have a head start on Adrian, but he quickly passes me on the short climb out of Winfield and (very kindly) says “I hope you start feeling better, Tyler.”

I hike every step of the Winfield climb to Hope Pass and mark my worst time for that climb as well (57’) by more than 10 minutes.

The descent down into Twin Lakes is similarly brutal. I focus mostly on not hurting myself and do manage to stay on my feet, but I lose a ton of ground. Somewhere near the bottom, I pass my friend Barry (heading up) and I really want to just stop and give him a big hug and start crying, but instead I think I just pat him on the shoulder and say something like “Ooof! Tell Sharman I look great!” Coincidentally, it’s literally seconds later that Sharman absolutely flies by me like I’m standing still, followed shortly by Anton K.

I’m slogging through the flat section across the river and back to Twin Lakes and hit the crew just about ready to drop out. This had been the point where I’d wanted to arrive feeling great, full of running, and ready to make moves. Instead, I find myself not even sure whether I’ll be able to keep going.

I spend 5 minutes in the chair, eating a few crackers, letting the crew change my shoes, and, somehow, maybe out of embarrassment more than anything else, I’m up and on my way. John B is jogging along in his freaking boot.

I hike the entire climb out of Twin Lakes to the single-track and things are not feeling good. My legs feel bad. I feel like I have no power. My achilles hurts. Everything fucking hurts.

I’m not sure why but I stop near the top of the climb. Maybe it’s because it starts raining. Maybe I just reach some new level of fatigue.

But I do. I stop. I’m still shirtless, wearing only my short-shorts and fuel belt. I don’t even have a shirt with me. And now it is indeed starting to rain and the temperature is dropping and I am really feeling quite sorry for myself as I begin to shiver.

I text the group chat with my crew and tell them that it’s over. I’ve found a tree to stand under to stay dry and I’ve decided that once the rain stops, I’m going to head back to Twin Lakes. I tried. But not today.

Alejandro says he’s coming up to meet me and I want to tell him not to bother. But I don’t. He’s going to bring some extra clothes and tylenol and then we’ll see. But, in my heart, I know I’m done.

I’m just waiting, standing, literally shaking from the cold rain under this miserable tree, hoping one of the frighteningly nearby lightning bolts will come and put an end to this.

Almost an hour passes but only a handful of runners pass by. Finally, I see Alejandro bounding up the trail. The thunder has stopped and the rain is dying down but I welcome a warm, dry shirt and a jacket.

I explain where I am right now -- ready to stop, head back -- but he convinces me (somehow) to take the tylenol and see if we can at least start jogging. We’re basically at the top of the climb, maybe 50 vertical meters from the top, and then it’s a long, gentle downhill to Outward Bound aid station at about 76 miles.

We walk to the top and then, crossing a small bridge, I try to jog a few steps. I’ve told him that I don’t want to walk all the way in, but if I can jog, well, we’ll see.

I’m surprised that the jogging actually feels fine and, despite it being a true, very, very slow jog, even downhill, we are not walking anymore.

We get into a decent rhythm and make the long, gradual descent down the single track, onto the dirt road, and finally onto the pavement that leads to Outward Bound. We jog slowly up the asphalt and across the gopher-hole field and our spirits are actually fairly high as we hit the aid station. Seeing John and Val and my folks is a big lift; I eat a piece of pizza as I’m sitting down.

Now, the focus has shifted. I’ve completely let go of racing, of winning, of any specific time goal. But, I do want to finish. And Alejandro and I both know that we’re going to get there.

We head out in high spirits again. I know that the Powerline Climb -- the last significant hill on the course -- is going to hurt. But I also know that this can be done. It’s not impossible. We might even finish in under 20 hours at this rate.

Jogging up the paved stretch before Powerline, we actually pass a couple of runners and then, hitting the climb, we pass another two runners heading up. My mind is in a completely new spot and instead of feeling sorry for myself, I realized I’m still in the top 10 (despite everything). I’m pushing myself on the long power-hike up. This is one of the few spots in this entire last 35 miles where I actually feel good, excited even.

As we crest this last significant hill, it’s beginning to get dark and Alejandro and I strap on our headlamps. I’d hoped to be finishing by now, but we still have about 20 miles to go.

The descent down the other side, a gentle dirt road which, in training, I’ve struggled to run slower than 7’00/mile pace, is where things once again change for the worse. The two runners we passed on the way up zoom by us and I’m doing everything I can not to trip over my own feet.

But the one thing I handle really well, even during these brutal last hours, is to simply stay in the chunk of the race I’m in. I know the course so well that it’s natural for me not think of the 20+ miles remaining, but to simply think, “Okay, let’s get to the end of this descent” then “get through this little single-track section” and then we’re back at Mayqueen with 20km to go and I can really feel the finish.

I eat another piece of pizza at Mayqueen and -- my other big mistake of the day -- forget my poles (which I’d picked up at Outward Bound) and head off around the lake with Alejandro.

This is one of the most miserable stretches of “running” in my entire life. The darkness obscures any landmarks and the single-track seems one thousand times more technical, more rolling, than it did this morning.

I catch a toe on every route, twist an ankle on every stone. But I also know, with certainty, now, that we really are going to make it. We’re out of the top 10, we’re covering ground unbelievably slowly, but we’re going to make it.

These last few hours are where I learn the most about my mind. There are (and have been) so many opportunities to quit, to just stop and call John and have them come pick us up. In five minutes, I could be back at the house, eating Ben & Jerry’s, sitting in the jacuzzi, explaining to everyone why I couldn’t do it, why it was just too hard, not worth it. But, instead, I choose to continue with this now excruciating journey. Why?

I’m honestly not sure.

I’m a very stubborn person, hard-headed to a fault, and maybe that’s a strength in ultra running. For whatever reason, I really want this; I want to finish this race, despite the frustration and embarrassment and disappointment. I’m not thinking about those now. I’m just thinking about every moment, every step, dealing with the discomfort, and doing it again.

And that’s it. Alejandro and I continue on almost in silence, around the lake, down the Lil Loaf, and then follow the dirt roads all the way back to 6th St. and the final hill back into town. The family and crew are there and we shuffle towards the line, together. This was a team effort.

I run right into John B (literally) across the line and he gives me a giant bear hug.

“You fucking did it, dude. 100 fucking miles.”

“That was so hard,” are the only inarticulate words I can think of.

When the sun came up and I gingerly made my way to the bathroom, every muscle in my body screamed. And, sure, my ego had taken a beating as well.

It took me a while to figure out how to feel about this one. In the immediate aftermath, I found myself constantly saying “thanks, but... “ when friends or family sent congrats. Because, I did fail to reach my own pre-race goals. I didn’t run the race that I’d visualized on all those thousands of miles of training in this build-up. And I felt that merited an explanation.

But I did cover 100 miles in one day. And that bruised ego -- just like the battered body -- will heal. And deeper than that ego is an inner fire which has raged for as long as I can remember, a fire which feeds indiscriminately on both disappointment and success.

So, I know that this race, the memories of bitter disappointment and the obstinate refusal to quit, the embracing of discomfort and the feeling of finally crossing that line, will serve as even more combustive fuel for whatever comes next. That fire still burns brightly.

— Tyler Andrews

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