Sometimes I am in awe of the serendipity of life, of the chains of events that lead to something happening.

For example, the fact that I married my husband Tom in 2010 can be traced directly back to the fact that I was teaching at Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, Colombia in 2003. If I hadn’t done that, Tom and I never would have met. Life is weird and unexpected.

Tom and I are signed up for the Laugavegur Ultra in Iceland this summer.

"Running" through the wilds of Florida

“Running” through the wilds of Florida

But as the time passes and the July 18 date nears of the ultra, and we train on these flat hot swamp trails – the fear has set in.  How are we going to handle climbing glaciers, mountains, technical terrain, when all our training is through the dead flat boggy Everglades?  Don’t get me wrong – the trail running here isn’t easy (see here!).  Our runs are still unbelievably slow as we slog through yet more wet bush and wrestle with alligators, but nonetheless, it’s flat.

 

 

So discussion ensued how to get some practice runs in with some actual elevation.  And then we saw that Beth from Shut Up + Run blog was suggesting people join her in running the Leadville Marathon and/or Heavy Half. Yes, that’s the same Leadville as the famous Leadville 100 mile race. And as detailed previously – in a matter of 12 hours, we had bought our flights and registered for the race.  Thanks Beth!

Ok, first things first – we got to meet Beth at the start line.  How cool is that?  Turns out she is a real person and there is no panel of 25 writers putting together her hilarious blogs.  Yep, the real deal, and she didn’t freak out that I was some stalker who followed her 2,105 miles across the country (didn’t think of THAT, did you, Beth, eh?).  Here is our celebrity photo shot:

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Karis of See Kay Tri on the left, Beth of Shut up and Run in the middle.

 

Don’t forget to check out those big snow-covered mountains in the background.  Now have a look back at that wild green swampy photo above, and then back at those mountains.  Then take a big gulp and imagine how we were feeling.  Oh, and did I mention that Leadville is actually the highest altitude city in North America, at 3094m (10,200 ft)?  And that the marathon took us up to 4019m (13,185 ft)?  In case we were to forget about the altitude, there was this nice big sign there to remind us:image

Yes.  So, altitude sickness was on all our minds, and shortness of breath was in all our lungs.  But we were excited!

You might have thought that the elevation profile of the race might have given us some warning as to what we had got ourselves into.  In theory. Tom claims the race was as he expected, but the rest of the Flat Florida crew just really had no idea.

So here was our elevation profile, courtesy of Strava, post-race:

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See that tall skinny peak in the middle?  That’s called Mosquito Pass and up until last week, it was entirely covered in snow.  Wonderful race volunteers actually went all the way up there to shovel it.  Yes, they actually shovelled us a path up to Mosquito Peak.  This was the photo that Leadville Race Series posted for us just a couple of days before the event:

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Maybe you’re beginning to understand some of our trepidation in getting ready to run this race!

It was a nice leisurely 8am start (races in Florida start much earlier to beat the heat) and Colorado was having a heat wave.  Although we headed to the start line in jackets, we stuffed them in our packs before the race even started.  How does Leadville start?  Just like the Leadville 100 – with a gunshot!  I jumped out of my skin…but it was ok, we were far enough back from the front that I had time to recover before we shuffled over the start line.

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As you will see from that elevation profile, we headed uphill from the moment the race started. We all ran at first, and then slowly as the lithe Colorado-bred high-altitude gazelles overtook the rest of us, we settled to a fast walk. Oh, how naive we had been. Heading to the airport on Thursday evening, I had announced to the others, “I think we need to be realistic – we will likely be walking some of this race.” Oh hahahahaa. Some? Some!?! No. We had to walk pretty much every uphill, and by uphill, I mean each massive mountain. We even lost the will to jog for the photographers.

But it was beautiful.  The mountains surrounded us, and the higher we went, the more snow appeared, much to our delight (thanks to the wonderful shovelers, though, we never had to run in it!).

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We were excited when we reached the first of the snow at around mile 4. Travis celebrates by throwing a snowball at me.

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Ben, Tom, and Travis climbing to the top of Ball Mountain, our first mountain of the day.

Although the Heavy Half (so called because it’s actually 15.5 miles, rather than the traditional 13.1) started with the Marathon, the split was very early on, so we didn’t see Karis for a good few hours until we met her again as she descended from Mosquito Pass. The rest of us stuck together pretty much until the end. There were 9 aid stations so we were well fuelled for the well over 7 hours it took us to get around this marathon. Watermelon has never tasted so good as it did atop of Ball Mountain.

Ball Mountain was a relatively gentle climb compared to what was waiting for us going up Mosquito Pass. Remember that snow? This is where it got real.

It went up, and up, and up. And it was much steeper than it look in these photos.

 

And it got steeper, and more and more snow appeared….

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And then finally, blissfully, as the winds picked up to 50 mph, we rounded the corner and there was the top of Mosquito Pass at 4019m, or 13,185 feet, with a timekeeper sitting there bundled head to toe in fleece and windproofs.  It was – unsurprisingly – glacially cold. The wind was a furious smack of ice and I couldn’t feel my hands anymore. Tom snapped a quick photo of me before the wind blew me away (that’s no joke) and then we headed back down the mountain.

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I found the climb up Mosquito Pass a real struggle.  In fact, Ben and Travis were about 10 minutes ahead of me by the time I reached the top. I managed to make up the time coming down the mountain to meet up with them all at the aid station at the bottom, thankfully (or else it would have been a lonely rest of the marathon). Travis took a great little video of Ben descending and running into me. I think this gives you a real idea of what the marathon was like, more than any of these still photos:

The race was out and back, so it meant that we then covered the same ground as before – back up and down Ball Mountain once we finally descended Mosquito Pass. The clock was ticking and we were worried about making the cut-off of 8.5 hours, especially since the slog back up Ball Mountain seemed even steeper than before. But we made up the time on the downhills and we even managed some sort of proper run for the last few miles back down, with Ben hitting 7 minute miles (“I got mad,” she said.  “I just wanted to be finished.”).

imageTom parted ways with us at the 21 mile mark due to ongoing issues with his foot, so Ben, Travis and I all finished together and were met at the finish line by Karis sipping a cold beer.  Oh, and her finish?

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OK, so this photo was staged the night before. I wasn’t there when she finished, but judging by how fresh she looked, I expect this was probably accurate.

All in all?

This race was one of the best I’ve ever done, and it totally kicked my ass.  Results-wise, we did terrible! (ok, if you must know – I was 109th out of 155 women!) but we had a blast. We lost around half an hour at aid stations and I am pretty sure I left half of my legs up Mosquito Pass. The altitude crushed us, the footing was technical, the ascents were brutal, the descents required goat legs, the scenery was magnificent, the company was tremendous and we had so much fun.

Bring it on, Iceland. I may well come last – but I’m gonna love it.

[Update:  Karis has now written her own race report, a most excellent one – you can read it here.]

6 Comments

  1. Pingback: In sickness and in health – run that by me again? | Rule 5

  2. Pingback: Leadville Marathon & Heavy Half Race Report | See Kay Tri

  3. Wow, Julia. Your toughness and positivity are admirable – well done!

    • Thanks for your encouragement as always, Tammela! It was epic! But my favourite trails remain the old railway path, Highgate Woods and Hampstead Heath!

  4. That was epic! Thanks for this amazing write up!

  5. Wow! looks amazing. Kudos on making it through.

    • Thanks Alison! It was such a treat to have Karis with us! Good luck in your upcoming Ironman!