words and images by Eric Lipuma
Leading up to the Leadville 100 I was in the best shape of my life. I had some early season success with winning my first National title and was very excited to test myself on one of the countries more well-known trail races. During winter I had focused exclusively on road ultras and was pretty confident that the relatively flat Leadville course would be a great place to combine all the speed work I had done earlier in the year with the trail running I had been doing recently.
The week of the race was filled with stress and anxiety. My parents and two of my long time friends had just arrived in Colorado to help support me. The Wednesday prior to the race we drove out to Frisco, CO, where we would be staying. It felt great to get out of Boulder and into somewhere quieter. The few days leading up to the race were filled with back and forth trips from Frisco to Leadville in order to take care of all the pre race responsibilities. The town seemed like it was filled with all my friends from Boulder. Running into everyone calmed me down somewhat but I was still never really able to relax which was starting to worry me.
The night before the race always feels like you’re attending your own funeral. I laid out about three different outfits I could possibly need for the race as my Dad watched Cops on the tv. It wasn’t even 6 o’clock yet and everyone was preparing for bed. We ate a quick dinner of pasta and scurried off to bed but not before setting our 2:30AM alarms. I actually ended up sleeping pretty great the night before. It was the longest I had slept over the past few days so I took this as a good sign. I hoped in the shower to loosen up and then headed down stairs to eat my customary race morning bagel, something I had done before every race since college. I also run with a seashell in my pocket but I had forgotten the magic barnacle in Boulder. We hopped in the car and were once again on interstate 70 going west towards Leadville. The first song we played was Octopus’s Garden by The Beatles in an attempt to calm down. After that a strange mix of funk and Gucci Mane was played in order to get to the necessary stoke level. Arriving in town that morning felt like a weird dream. The air was cool, and it was still very dark as it was only four in the morning. I talked to some of my friends who were also running and then made my way to the starting line. I had been waiting months to hear the bang of the shotgun and just like that we were off. We had a solid pack of about 15 runners during the nice, long descent to turquoise Lake. I was reluctantly running towards the front but was confident knowing the pace was still pretty easy and people were chatting away. Once we started around the lake the pack strung out quite a bit as runners began to succumb to how the race interrupted their usual morning bathroom schedule. I came through the first aid station with the top group of runners and feeling very relaxed. My friend of 20 years, Casey Peckio, flagged me down and led me over to the rest of my crew as he had done for me at the Bighorn 100 just over a year prior. A quick water bottle exchange was all I needed, and I was now on the 12 mile stretch to Outward Bound. A few runners had passed me while I switched water bottles so we were back to running in a pack that now included future champion Rob Krar. I have a sticker of his face on my water bottle so I felt a bit strange running next to him. We ascended up the backside of Power Lines breaking up running with some quick hiking on the steeper sections. The sun was up at this point and the weather was still perfect as we began descending this section of the course. Once we hit the road, Krar really started running and I was happy to share a fast mile with him down to the Outward Bound aid station where we would once again meet up with our crews. By this point we were running in first and second place but I had to take a few minute pitstop at the bathroom which had to happen sooner or later. This caused a few more runners to catch up but no big deal since we are only about one marathon in.
I was now running towards the Twin Lakes aid station which is the biggest and by far the most exciting. I shared a few miles with 2nd place finisher, Ryan Kaiser who was actually listening to music and singing while running, a true renaissance man. This is around when shit started to hit the fan. Out of nowhere my stomach began rebelling. Sharp pain throughout my entire abdomen slowed me down to an eventual walk. The pain persisted getting so bad that I was doubled over on the side of the trail in pain hoping I would explode from either end. I hobbled the next eight or so miles eventually seeing my friend Gavin Coombs who was equally in pain from a long-standing hip injury. We chatted a bit which helped raise our spirits and we eventually stumbled into Twin Lakes. My crew was rightfully concerned as I was about an hour late based on my splits and they quickly got me a chair to sit down in. I tried just about everything to regain control of my stomach and after 40 minutes nothing had worked. At this point I knew all my goals were out the window and I wanted to drop out. A soft bed was only a few minutes away. Hey, I’d run 40 miles at this point, that equals at least a pizza and a few beers in my head. I had trained for months for this race. Before work, at lunch, after work, every weekend running for hours. I knew I couldn’t quit after putting in that much time (and money) into something so I decided I’d give myself a few more minutes to feel better before I made the race ending call. After unsuccessfully attempting to make myself puke, my Dad suggested I lie on the ground with my knees to my chest to try to force out some pressure. This worked too well and I failed to sprint to the bathroom in time. Oh well, At least I could run again! I told my crew I was leaving, quickly grabbed my rain jacket and bottles and was back on my way. I still couldn’t really run and the pain returned once I was a few miles outside of Twin Lakes, just in time to climb up and over Hope Pass for the first time.
About half way up Hope Pass is the Hopeless aid station and by the time I slogged up there that’s how I felt, hopeless. My stomach was now rebelling again and by this point my quads were trashed from my compensated running form. My friend Joseph was volunteering at this aid station and really helped keep me going by getting my bottles filled and grabbing any other food I needed. I once again had to lie on the ground with my knees at my chest to release more pressure. This wasn’t exactly my best moment, but it got the job done and Joseph got me back up and hobbling the remainder of Hope Pass and began my long, steep descent down into the mining town of Winfield. I was actually able to run a solid portion and was back to enjoying myself now. I knew I was no longer competitive, but I was committed to at least making it down to the bottom and half way point. I started picking off runners on the descent and four-mile flatter section at the bottom of hope pass which skyrocketed my confidence. I was racing! I jogged into the aid station tent and was greeted by my crew once again. I took about fifteen minutes to eat some fig newtons and then decided I was going to try to make it back over Hope Pass to Twin Lakes. I would never consider myself a mentally strong runner or human being and I needed to do this in order to prove something to myself no matter how long it was going to take. I’ve quit a lot of things in my life and Leadville wasn’t going to be one of them. Luckily for the rest of the race I could rely on a pacer to keep me going. My first pacer was Casey Peckio. Casey and I have known each other since kindergarten and even went to college together. Casey has been at every major ultra-distance race I’ve ever run and having him pace me up Hope Pass was a special experience. We ran our first ultra together in New Jersey back in 2016 and then we both coincidentally moved out west. In the weeks leading up the race we had expected this section to be relatively fast. Since that was no longer the case we were able to really enjoy the views and cheered on the runners who were coming in the other direction. For the next few hours we talked about life and Casey even managed to get me to run when I felt like my legs were made of bricks. We quickly passed through Hopeless aid station and hiked our way back down to Twin Lakes where I would drop off Casey and re supply on gels and water. Twin Lakes was also where I would be picking up my second pacer, Tristian Meyers.
Unlike Casey, I’ve only known Tristian for a year or two but we run a similar pace and our personalities are exactly the same so I knew he’d be perfect to run with for the marathon distance between Twin Lakes and May Queen. We hiked a lot but we also ran a lot, and those sections were fast! Anytime I could run we were generally cruising pretty damn well. Somewhere around mile 83 we encountered a pretty gnarly hail storm which kept us in an aid station tent for a few minutes eating potato chips and re supplying on gels. At this point the sun was beginning to set and the weather was cool. This was the only point in the race where I was actually a bit chilly so we threw our rain jackets on and set out towards the Outward Bound aid station where my family and friends were waiting. We had some very deep conversations during this portion of the race which made some of these miles fly by. Outward Bound was by far the hardest aid station to leave. There was a fire, chairs, warm soup, my parents who had flown in from Jersey just to watch this race, but it was also only one more marathon away from the finish line and I knew I could do it even if I had to walk the entire way. Tristian and I took our jackets off and began climbing back up to the top of Power Lines. We passed a few more people on the ascent and then really let it rip on the downhill until we started the steeper more technical descent back down to May Queen. By this point I was very loopy and was starting to get unnaturally afraid of the dark. I was seeing stone buildings that weren’t there and I think I was even freaking Tristian out a bit. After a few terrifying minutes that felt like hours we were back to May Queen where I would pick up my final pacer, Brittany Freidrich.
I knew Brittany from New York where we raced the prestigious Schroon Lake High School 5k together. She is also a world class Ironman Triathlete so I knew she’d have no problem keeping up with my now unfortunately pedestrian pace. We run hiked around Turquoise Lake and started the long road ascent back to Leadville and the finish line. I think we talked about every topic under the sun on that road and it was very comforting to have someone from back home running with me to the finish. Once we could see the lights of town it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I ran as fast as I could up to the finish line and hugged everyone who helped make this race possible for me. I had finished Leadville 6 hours slower than I thought I would but I was so proud of what I accomplished mentally by not quitting. I felt like I had broken through an invisible barrier and that I would be a better runner because of it.
This happens to everyone at least once no matter how fast you are and no matter how many races you’ve done. It’s a learning experience I’m glad I had and will someday return to Leadville to give it another shot. As for the future, I don’t think I’m done with the 100-mile distance and I think the Vermont 100 is calling my name. The outcome of Leadville wasn’t what I thought it would be, but it wasn’t all that bad either. Having to switch plans that drastically during a race was a first for me but I’m sure it won’t be a last either. The ability to adapt and overcome is a big part of this weird sport and it’s still something I’m learning to do. After Leadville I began to focus on my other interests and hobbies. A true off season is something that I believe is necessary for trail runners who want longevity in the sport. It’s important to take a mental break once a year for me and stop running until I truly want to run again. This time that took three weeks of biking, climbing, and drinking beer with my friends. I finally got that urge back and my legs once again felt springy and light. I’m looking forward to a few months of unstructured training but already have a goal lined up in the back of my head for the coming year. Until then I’ll be running here in beautiful Boulder, Colorado.
Eric Lipuma is based out of Boulder Colorado.
Graphic design portfolio: http://www.ericlipuma.com/