The Leadville Trail Marathon was quite possibly the greatest physical challenge that I have had the pleasure to endure. The course itself was great, and all things considered the race shouldn't have been that difficult, but it seemed the universe conspired against me and everything that could go wonky did go wonky.
I got to Leadville, or more specifically the neighboring town of Frisco, two days before the race in a desperate attempt to acclimate. In Seattle, where I trained for the race, my GPS sometimes read below sea-level so almost needless to say the altitude bug bit me hard. Simply walking up the five flights of stairs to my hotel room required concerted effort; this did not bode well for the race.
The night before the race I wanted to get some carbs in me, and what is better than Italian food for carbo-loading? My family and I went to Tuscato Ristorante Italiano on main street in Frisco. I mention this restaurant by name, and very explicitly, because not only was their food awful but immediately after dinner every single person in my family had serious digestive issues. While I doubt it was food poisoning in the strictest sense, they must of used something vile in their sauce because I was physically in pain.
I hoped my digestive issues would pass by 4:00 AM when I woke to get ready for the race, but alas they did not. I didn't want to eat or drink anything because something gnarly was happening inside me. I knew I needed to eat but my body just said NO! with emphasis on the exclamation point. My buddy Zach drove me and my brother-in-law Grant to Leadville from Frisco, and all I could think about was my gut. I started pounding Pepto because the thought of running while feeling like this scared me.
The race started with 100s of people milling around the starting line. In good form the race was started with the blast of a shotgun. Very quickly I got left behind by Zach and Grant. Not only are they in better shape than me but also they live in Denver which gives them a 6,000 foot acclimation advantage. About a mile in to the course the half-marathoners broke away from the marathoners as we transitioned from dirt roads to trail. At this point I had been so consumed by my digestive issues that I didn't notice my asthma acting up. I had been fighting a cold for two weeks and when I have a cold my asthma can be problematic. I thought I had kicked the cold but apparently not.
At this point I think you can imagine why the Leadville Trail Marathon was the greatest physical challenge I have had the pleasure to endure. Luckily despite my body revolting I did enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Running through the forest was ho-hum, but once we got above tree-line the mountain views were simply amazing.
The crux of the run was supposed to be the 2,000 foot climb to the high point of the race at over 13,000 feet. I say supposed to be the crux because I fell into a steady hiking pace and marched my way up. It wasn't easy but it wasn't agony inducing.
All things considered I was feeling pretty good when I got to the top of Mosquito Pass. Before the race I had been worried about calf cramps so I bought some Zensah sleeves. Maybe they worked or maybe it was a placebo effect but my calves felt strong even with all the climbing. After a brief pause at the top of Mosquito Pass I started the long run down, and like a fool I ran down the mountain. I made the same mistake of running too fast down a long hill at the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K. I felt great all the way down, and I was passing people left and right. I had hauled my 200 pounds of body weight up that mountain, and by golly I was going let gravity do its thing all the way down. This bit of gravity assisted fun took its toll. Once the course flattened out the lactic acid caught up and in the words of George Oscar Bluth, Jr (G.O.B.) I realized "I've made a huge mistake."
With the supposed crux of the race behind me I thought the last 9 miles would be easy. A few rolling hills, a jog around a mountain, and then a 3 mile downhill to the finish line. I thought wrong. The last 9 miles was my personal crux. I only have myself to blame because I had hardly ate or drank anything since the start. Yes, I had been sipping some Roctane and slurping some GUs but because of my digestive issues, the altitude, and my asthmatic breathing I could not force enough nutrition down my gullet. The wheels fell off the wagon and I sunk into a death march of epic proportions.
I'll spare you the details of the last 9 miles except to say that there was a lot of walking and cursing the mountain gods for making these "hills" so long.
The last leg of the race follows a long stretch of road through town. Despite being able to see the finish line, hear the music pumping, and practically taste the beer, I could not will myself to pick up the pace and finish strong. My overall performance was sad. I finished in a little over 7 hours, but damnit I did finish. Despite my objective failure at running a good race the announcer made me feel like I truly accomplished something; that simply surviving was an achievement.
I am sitting here writing this trip report after drinking some coffee from my finisher's mug. I have noticed that I reach for that mug a lot. I don't particularly like the shape of the mug, or the feel of the handle, but I still reach for it because damn I am proud of it. While the Leadville Trail Marathon was the most physically challenging event I have undertaken I can't wait to do it again next year.
The Yakima Skyline Rim 50K is a trail ultramarathon in the high desert of Washington that traverses 31 miles and has ~9,500 feet of elevation gain. It was both my first ultramarathon and my first organized race of any distance. To be upfront about it, my complete lack of experience makes me wholly unqualified to offer advice on training, never mind training for an ultramarathon. That said running the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K was a transformative experience and I am going to share my atypical training experience none-the-less.
About six months ago I decided to train for the Leadville trail marathon. I started running consistently and built up enough endurance so that my long runs were in the high teens. Like so many novice runners I did too much, too soon and the end result was an inflamed posterior tibial tendon. Besides adding milage that my body wasn't ready for I also purchased a pair of Merrell Road Gloves for my short runs. I really like the Merrell Road Gloves now that I have sufficient arch strength but at the time I had no business running in a minimalist type shoe for any distance.
My training ground to a halt because of my inflamed tendon. After a month of complete rest I started going on one and two mile runs. I slowly rehab'd my foot and about two months ago I was finally back to where I could run six miles pain free. At this point I wasn't in good shape but I wasn't in horrible shape either.
I started doing CrossFit because I was concerned that my foot wasn't strong enough to handle the mileage of a traditional training program. The CrossFit gym I go to is CrossFit 206 in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle. If you are looking to try CrossFit I would highly recommend CrossFit 206. Their workouts are fairly standard in that there is 15 minutes of mobility training, 30 minutes of strength training (deadlifts, squats, cleans, etc), and then the workout of the day (WOD). The WOD is an intense 5 - 15 minute workout that is nonstop and usually done as fast as possible.
The WODs leave you exhausted but it is only 15-ish minutes of exercise. Can that really be enough of a workout to adequately train for an ultramarathon? My full training program for the 50K was CrossFit three to four times a week and then going on one longish run, 6-10 miles, and a couple of short runs, 2-3 miles, after CrossFit sessions. Well, after only two months of going to CrossFit 206 I finished the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K with a semi-respectable time of 8:09. Surprisingly my body felt good and I was not zonked when I crossed the finish line. I'll admit I was a little sore all over and my calves were acutely sore for the two days post-race but I have been more sore after some of the WODs. On a side note: the CEP compression socks I wore really helped control cramps and spasms in my calves as I climbed seemingly endless hills. Just look at the profile of the race and tell me that doesn't look like a calf punishing day of fun.
I think the 15 minute CrossFit workouts were able to prepare me for an 8 hour run because for those 15 minutes the focus is solely on developing fundamental strength. By fundamental strength I mean strength developed by full-body exercises that engage all the primary muscles as well as the stabilizers that are so often neglected. The fundamental strength helped in a number of ways. While running on loose rock I noticed that I was more surefooted because of the stronger stabilizer muscles in my legs. While trudging up thousands of vertical feet of trail I was acutely aware of how much stronger my legs felt. Despite weightlifting being the antithesis of distance running, the squats, deadlifts, and cleans really paid off. While running down thousands of vertical feet of trail I noticed how much stronger my core was and how I could engage my core to control my descent and relieve my quads.
So is CrossFit good ultramarathon training? I'd say that it worked for me but I caveat that with the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K is "only" 31 miles. Would CrossFit be enough for a 50 or 100 miler? I think it would be if your longish run was scaled appropriately. Now that I have the ultra-bug I am toying with the idea of a 50 miler and I am pretty sure I am going to continue the CrossFit + one long run training plan.