Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Race Recap: Pacing Val Wrenholt at the Leadville Trail 100

Val Wrenholt is a relatively recent addition to our running group. At first glance, she doesn't look especially fast. But on the first day I ran with her, this past spring, me and a couple friends were planning a long run at a relatively fast pace for us. Val had shown up and since I'd never run with her before, I wasn't sure she'd be able to keep up. We told her our plans -- I think it was a hilly 17-miler -- and asked if that would work for her. Seemingly unconcerned, she said "yeah, whatever."

We took off at around a 7:45 pace and started chatting about our upcoming races. I asked Val what she had planned and, just as nonchalantly, she said "I'm doing the Leadville 100." I stifled a gasp, because I knew Leadville was one of the toughest ultramarathons in the country, and one of the most famous. The Leadville Trail 100 starts in the town of Leadville, Colorado, at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, and climbs four passes over its 100-mile route. The cumulative elevation gain for the race is over 14,000 feet — meaning that there is more climbing every 25 miles than I experienced in the entire super-hilly Crater Lake Marathon!

As you might guess, Val had no trouble keeping up with us that day -- in fact, it was the rest of us who struggled to keep up with her. I later learned that Val had already been the women's winner of the 2011 Table Rock 50 Miler and finished second among women in the Umstead Trail Marathon this year, so if I'd been keeping up on the big trail races in the area I would have known who she was.

Over the next couple months I ran with Val several times, and when she heard I would be in Colorado over the summer, she asked if I'd be interested in pacing her at Leadville. I had been planning on a quick return to North Carolina after finishing at Crater Lake, but given that Leadville was just a week after Crater Lake, and that I'd have to drive back through that area anyways, I decided to give it a shot. (It also helped that all my ultrarunner friends were drooling with envy that I might have the chance to run a part of the legendary Leadville 100!)

Val wanted me to pace her for Miles 60.5-72.5, with an option to tack on an extra four miles at the end. I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle 16 miles one week after running a marathon, so I only promised I'd be able to do 12. The next problem was finding lodging in the area. With 800 runners and their crews descending on a town of just 2,600, all the motels within 50 miles were booked up months in advance. Fortunately Val had grown up in Leadville, and her parents still lived there. They'd let me sleep on an air mattress in their basement.

I arrived in Leadville with my 19-year-old daughter Nora on the Friday before the race. Val had written out her race goals and projected splits on a couple sheets of notebook paper. Plan A was to shoot for a 22-hour finish. Plan B was 25 hours, and Plan C was 30 hours, just beating the cutoff time for all runners in the race.

Leadville is known for having very difficult cutoff times: Fewer than half of those registered in a given year actually finish in the allotted time. If Val finished in 22 hours, she could very well be in the top 5 women: In 2011, only 5 women finished in under 22 hours. Indeed, only 9 women finished in under 25 hours! But Val had never run any 100-miler, let alone such a difficult one, so all this was really idle speculation. We'd have to wait for the race to see how she would perform.

The race starts at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning. Runners are allowed to have pacers to carry gear and offer support starting at the halfway point of the race. If Val was going to finish in 22 hours, she would be reaching Mile 60.5, where I was meeting her, at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Val also needed me to drive her to the start of the race so that her husband Ross, who'd be the primary crew person, could get a couple extra hours' sleep. I was happy to do it.

I set my alarm for 3:15 a.m., enough time to get up, throw some clothes on, and head out the door. But I slept fitfully and woke up at 3:05, so I decided to take a quick shower before heading upstairs to meet Val. She was already up too, and hadn't slept much either. We hopped in the car for the 5-minute drive to the start. I got a quick photo of her before the race:

As ready as she'll ever be!

I'd been in Leadville a couple times before, but now, at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, was the most crowded and active I'd ever seen it. All the coffee shops were open, and there were probably close to 2,000 people wandering the streets. 700-plus were there to run, and the rest were there to watch and help.

About 10 minutes before the start I wished her good luck, then headed just past the start line to watch the herd of runners stream by in the dark. Here's the video I made of the start; it was an awesome sight:

I couldn't see Val in the video, but if you look closely you should be able to see two-time Leadville winner Anton Krupicka running by shirtless around 18 seconds in.

I went back to the house and tried to sleep a bit, but ended up getting up for good at about 6. I spent the day waiting around the house, playing with Val's two adorable daughters, and trying to stay off my feet as much as possible. The race website gave split times at each aid station, and we could see that Val had had an excellent start. She arrived at the Half Pipe aid station, 29 miles in, in just 5 hours. When she arrived at Twin Lakes, 39.5 miles in, at 10:47 a.m., she was still pretty much on her target pace. But then Ross called and let us know that while she was looking very good, she was concerned because she hadn't been able to eat much. Ahead of her was the toughest part of the course, the ascent of Hope Pass and the descent to Winfield where all the runners turned around and climbed Hope pass again. Here's what it looks on the course elevation profile:

Hope Pass is the tall pointy thing on the right

As you can see, it's a dramatic 3,200-foot climb, followed by a descent almost as long, all in a space of only six miles. Then she turns around and does it all again.

I would be meeting her at Twin Lakes at the end of that descent, and running with her 12 to 16 miles. By this point I had decided that I could definitely handle all 16 miles, so I prepared myself mentally for a long run.

If all went well and Val stayed on pace, she anticipated coming through Twin Lakes again at 4:30 p.m. giving her just under 10 hours to do the final 39.5 miles. But we had also learned that the reporting system was breaking down ahead of her. The aid stations at Hope Pass and Winfield weren't getting good cell / satellite reception, so there were few reports of runners' times at those critical stations. Val's other pacers were Kelli and Nathalie, both natives of the town of Leadville. We had heard that Twin Lakes was a tough place to park, and Winfield was a difficult drive, so the plan was for Ross to stake out a spot at Twin Lakes, and just wait there for Val to go all the way to Winfield and back. Meanwhile Kelli would drive Nathalie out to Winfield to get Val her supplies, and for Nathalie to run the first pacing leg, the tough 10.5 miles from Winfield back to Twin Lakes.

I decided to arrive with Nora at Twin Lakes two hours early at 2:30, just in case Val was really cranking. Fortunately Ross was able to find a parking spot for us and we had nice comfortable chairs to sit on. All we could do was wait. 4:30 came and went, with still no sign of Val. Runners were coming through the aid station, and we amused ourselves by trying to figure out when they had passed through going the other direction, and how that compared to Val's time. Finally Kelli showed up and said she had seen Val at Winfield, but that she hadn't looked good. She still hadn't eaten anything and the lack of energy was beginning to take its toll. Then Kelli went home to get a little rest before her turn pacing Val.

After she left, we realized we had forgotten to ask what time Val had arrived at Winfield, so we were left to figure, plot, and speculate some more. Finally around 5:30 we heard from Kelli, who had received a text from Nathalie saying that Val was at Hope Pass, sitting and eating a cup of ramen, and wasn't in a hurry to leave. At least she was finally eating something! So how long would it take for her to make her way back down to Twin Lakes? It was anyone's guess. It was also possible that she had actually arrived at Hope Pass much earlier, and that Nathalie's text hadn't been sent until later when they returned to cell phone range. It seemed like Val should be arriving at any time.

We waited and waited, but Val didn't show up.

Finally Ross decided to hike up the trail a ways to see if he could see Val. He'd text me and Nora when he saw her and we could be ready to meet her. Nora and I waited another 30 minutes or so, but still heard nothing from Ross. Finally around 7:00 Ross showed up in person. "Did you get my texts," he asked? We hadn't. "We'll she's here! She'll be coming up the road any second!"

I quickly loaded up my gear, and soon we saw Val and Nathalie, both looking quite chipper. The ramen had stayed down, and Val had picked up the pace. "You better be ready," Nathalie said, "It was all I could do to keep up with her!"

Val headed to the aid station, and Ross and I triple-checked to make sure I had everything we needed. I would be carrying a hydration pack, a jacket for myself, and a long-sleeved shirt and pants for Val. I'd also have two handheld bottles for Val: One filled with water and the other with Gatorade. After Val ate another cup of Ramen and some oranges, we headed quickly up the trail, which was a steep, rocky climb for the first 200 meters or so. Here's the photo Ross snapped of us on our way out of the aid station:

I swear I look more like the person who's already run 60.5 miles

I was a little concerned about hand-carrying the water bottles because I hadn't run with handhelds since I had surgery on my left arm about two months before. I was also out of breath within a quarter-mile. Although we were just walking, it was a steady climb, and Val can walk very fast. She later told me that she often trains walking uphill on the treadmill at 4 miles per hour. My maximum walking pace is probably closer to 3.4 mph. I think the main reason I was out of breath is that I wasn't expecting to start, and I hadn't mentally prepared for it. After a mile or so I settled back into a regular stride and felt fine.

Most impressively, Val was passing runners (mostly walkers at this point) quite regularly. We passed a half-dozen on the steady 1000-vertical-foot hike out of Twin Lakes, and then we settled into a comfortable run on every flat or downhill segment thereafter, passing even more people.

Val did some quick calculations and determined that if she averaged a 15-minute pace for the remainder of the race, she would still finish in under 25 hours. All sub-25-hour finishers get a special gold buckle; it's an honor to receive one, and something most runners in the event — male or female — have no hope of achieving. Of the 795 runners who started the event, just 78 would earn a gold buckle. Only 10 women would.

I had planned to carry my GPS along my segment of the race but somehow I had left it at the house, so at one point when Val asked me what pace I thought we were running, I really had no idea. I guessed 11-minute-miles. In fact, over the 10.5 miles from Twin Lakes to the Half Pipe aid station, we averaged a 12:18 pace, including the walk all the way up the 1,000-foot climb, so I'm pretty sure that when we were running, we were doing better than an 11-minute pace.

My strategy pacing Val was to offer her water and fuel at regular intervals but not be pushy about it. I figured if she didn't feel like eating or drinking then forcing it on her wasn't going to do any good. Similarly, every once in a while if I felt like we'd been walking a long time, I asked if she wanted to try running for a bit. Sometimes she'd say yes, and sometimes no, and I didn't protest no matter how she responded, especially since we really were making very good time.

Val was actually quite lively and happy to talk for most of the time I paced her, despite being in some pain. She had twisted her ankle on the way down from Hope Pass with Nathalie, and was concerned that it might be serious. It wasn't stopping her from going on, but on some occasions it did stop her from running. It got dark, and we put on our headlamps. While we were stopped, I got a text from Kelli. I told Val to go on while I responded. Kelli wanted to know if we needed her or Ross between Half Pipe at Mile 71 and Fish Hatchery at Mile 76.5 (there was an opportunity for crews to stop at about Mile 72.5). I told her I didn't think so. By this time, Val was a quarter-mile ahead of me and I ran as fast as I could to catch up. It took a half-mile or so to do it, and I was sucking wind hard by the time I caught up. I decided I wouldn't respond to texts in the future unless both of us were stopped.

As it got darker we could see the headlamps of runners on the trail ahead of us. It was a beautiful, cool night, but not terribly cold. I began to wonder whether there was any point to me carrying pants and a shirt for Val. We could see stars above, and the bobbing headlamps in the quiet wilderness looked almost like ships drifting through a peaceful harbor.

But Val's ankle was bothering her progressively more, and she reminded me to give her some Tylenol when we reached the aid station at Half Pipe, Mile 71. At the aid station, she ate more ramen, more oranges, and drank some flat Coke. She was sitting next to a woman who looked pretty bad. "I think I know who you are," Val said, "weren't you one of the pre-race favorites?"

The woman laughed and said that she had never run more than 30 miles. She said she was ready to drop out. Later on the trail Val told me it was Kerri Bruxvoort, who had been the first-place woman at the Leadville Trail Marathon earlier that summer and had been given complimentary entry into the 100-miler.  Bruxvoort did indeed drop out of the race at Half Pipe.

As we headed back to the trail, Val asked for her sweat pants, and I was glad I had brought them. On the other hand, she would not take even a sip from the bottle of Gatorade I carried for 16 miles! I guess that's the point of having a pacer, so you don't have to worry about carrying more gear than you need.

One of the things we joked about as we ran along was how over-marked the trail was. There were ribbons, glow-sticks, arrows, rocks blocking off side-trails, and many sections of the trail were actually wide enough to run side by side, either because they were old roads or actually on existing roads. Val started playing a game in which she'd run to the next glow stick, which added a Vegas-like gambling element to the event because we often couldn't see the next stick. It might be a hundred yards off, or it might be a half-mile -- who knows? It was amusing in a masochistic sort of way.

Soon after we passed the crew station at a place called Timberline, Mile 73, the trail became even wider, and we were running in an open field with no trees (which—duh—is why they call it Timberline). We were continuing to pass team after team, and though the ankle was bothering her more, Val didn't seem to want to slow down. She was doing great.

Then, I heard her foot hit a rock and watched her fall flat on her face.

It happened so quickly there wasn't anything I could do to help. Almost as quickly, she bounced back up. I asked if she was hurt, and she thought that she was okay, but she might have a scrape on her chin. There was nothing to do but brush as much of the dust off as possible and keep going. A couple of teams had passed us when she was down, but we passed them back and continued on our way.

I decided that we needed more light, and so I pulled out a handheld flashlight and started running with that in addition to our two headlamps. It was a bit of a balancing act, especially since I was already carrying a water bottle in each hand, but I decided that if Val could keep running after that faceplant, I could suffer through a few miles carrying an extra couple ounces in my hand.

Soon after, we reached pavement. Cars were driving along the road, but thankfully, they were pretty much all crews, so they knew to look out for runners and drive slowly. We passed team after team, continuing our glow-stick game but using lampposts or reflective road markers as our targets. Finally we reached a junction and Val said this was a mile away from the Fish Hatchery, so I called Nora to let her know we were coming. We ran and ran for what seemed much longer than a mile -- and as it turned out it was more like a mile and a half. But soon we saw Kelli and Ross. We were there, at Mile 76.5. I had done all I could to help, and now it was up to Kelli -- and mostly Val! It was 10:48 when Val arrived. She had just over 6 hours to run 23.5 miles and claim her gold buckle. A 15-minute pace would do it.

I told Kelli Val wasn't eating anything but the ramen and oranges at the aid stations, and wasn't drinking the Gatorade. I told her to give Val more Tylenol for her ankle. In what seemed like an instant but was actually probably 7 or 8 minutes, Val was out of the aid station and heading back on the course with Kelli. Ross asked me whether I thought Val had a chance at 25 hours and I said I was sure she was going go make it. We were on pace, and she wasn't showing any signs of slowing down. Then he asked me when he should get to the finish line. I said I didn't think she'd be more than 30 minutes earlier than the 25-hour prize.

I headed to Val's parents' house with Ross and Nora, updated her folks on her progress, had a slice of pizza, showered, and went to bed at about 12:30. I set my alarm for 4 a.m., an hour before the 25-hour target. I drove to the finish line, where Ross was already waiting. He was getting progressively more anxious as a few teams triumphantly crossed the line. They were crossing every 3 or 4 minutes, but there wasn't any sign of Val and Kelli in the distance. I reminded him that at the pace Val was moving, it was very unlikely she'd show up before 4:30. I was putting my bet at about 4:55. She knew what she was doing. Finally at 4:45 Ross decided to get in his car and drive down 6th Street opposite the runners to see if he could spot Val and spur her on. I watched from the finish line as his lights moved away from me, one block, two blocks. Then he quickly turned around, drove about a block into town, and parked. I could see the headlamps of four runners approaching. Two of those runners had to be Val and Kelli! A huge smile came across my face as I looked up at the race clock and saw that they had over 10 minutes to go two blocks. She was going to make it!

I tried to snap a photo as Val crossed the line, but all you can see is a blur. I assure you, this is Val, and the clock reads 24:49:53. She was the 78th runner to cross the line, the 10th woman, and the last runner to finish before the 25-hour mark. She had done it!


What an accomplishment for a person who had never run over 55 miles, and who had never run an ultra of any sort at elevation. Val headed straight for the hot trailer to warm up, and then to the medical tent to have her ankle looked at. The doctors at the time thought she had a stress fracture. Imagine running 45 miles on a stress fracture! As it turns out, it's likely that it is joint or tendon damage, but it still sounds incredibly painful. I'm amazed that she persevered for so long with such an injury.

One thing she was certain of — at least in the immediate post-race ordeal in the medical tent — was that she was not only never running Leadville again, she was never running a 100-miler again. We'll see about that. Either way, it was a race to be proud of, and I was proud to be just a small part of it. Congratulations, Val!

Ross, Val, Kelli, and me at the finish. Apparently Val was
the only one of us cognizant of the location of the camera.

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