Starting at 10,152 Feet: Reflections on my Leadville Marathon

The Leadville Marathon started as an experiment… my brain works in mysterious ways and it sounded like the perfect training run as I focus on altitude and technical trail training for the TransRockies Run in August. As race day approached, I realized this was a challenge on its own and to call it a “training run” was underestimating the altitude, the mountains, the trails, and the overall Leadville race experience.

Unlike your typical marathon, the Leadville Marathon is run primarily on Jeep roads and technical (and steep) single track. As you may also know, Leadville sits at an elevation of 10,152 feet. It is the highest incorporated city, the second highest incorporated municipality in the United States and the lowest point of this challenging marathon course. On race morning, I woke up and had a light breakfast, drove to the start line, and got situated with plenty of time to spare. My race strategy was thrown out the window when race organizers did some last-minute changes to the course due to deep​ snow on some sections. I still decided to gauge my speed/effort on the original course’s splits (marked by aid stations) which seemed to break the race into shorter segments.

The race started right ​on time and without wasting much time, we started going up. In less than 3 miles we had already gained 800 ft. I hit my first virtual checkpoint a few minutes ahead of schedule and continued to push through the climb. I had a hard time finding a rhythm as my heart rate seemed to be getting out of control, but I felt good to not be struggling (read: breathing obnoxiously loudly) as much as many of the other runners. I had to power-hike some of the steeper sections, but was always able to pick up the pace when the terrain flattened a bit.

After a grueling 6+ mile climb where we reached 11,800 ft., I finally had some time to have some fun with a small 2.5 mile descent. It went by quickly and sooner than expected I was starting to climb again. After a steep 1.5 mile climb and a short 1-mile descent I reached the 10 mile marker and it was time to tackle the 3.5 mile climb to the top of Mosquito Pass. The first mile didn’t seem as steep and I managed to ​maintain a respectable pace. As I gained elevation, the trail became steeper, the air became thinner and the views… well, the views were just breathtaking (literally). I felt as if I had slowed down to a crawl, but I continued to put one foot in front of the other. Sooner than expected (but 3 minutes behind schedule), I reached the summit.

The run downhill was supposed to be fun… but trying to run down with a 30 mph freezing headwind on a trail that seemed like a scree field was no walk in the park.​ I used this as an opportunity for active recovery, keeping my breathing light and getting my heart rate back in check. The descent went by fast, and with this being an out-and-back course, I knew what was up ahead and got mentally ready to tackle a couple more climbs. While I did manage to make up some time, little did I know that the first 2.5 mile descent that I had enjoyed so much on the way out,​ was steeper going up than it had ​felt when bombing down it a few hours earlier. I, again, felt like I had slowed down to a crawl but gracefully continued to put a foot in front of the other.

I reached the last ​aid station at mile 21 with what I thought was a tight window to finish on time to meet my ​goal. But, aside from a short 1 mile climb, the rest was all downhill to the finish. I bombed down some of the less technical hills averaging sub-9 min/mile pace for a couple miles which helped make up some time. The hill came and went faster than expected and all of a sudden I was back in town. I crossed the finish line in 6 hours 33 minutes and 13 seconds; a whole 7 minutes faster than what I had hoped for originally. This was good enough for 18th place in my Age Group (out of 35) and 53rd overall female. It was an amazing experience, an incredible challenge and I did better than expected.

Looking back at my overall performance, I am happy. I’ve had some races where I was still trying to figure out the best approach and best nutrition plan for better performance; but it seems to me that I’ve finally figured it out. Running at high altitude was scary, but my number one advice is to focus on running by effort and not by pace. We usually run slower at higher elevations and you want your heart rate to be your guide. But also, don’t forget to drink a lot of water. The air is drier at higher elevations so you will need about twice as much water than you do at sea level. Staying hydrated is key to allow your body to adjust more easily… and recover faster.

As far as nutrition goes, I’ve learned the hard way to come up with a plan well before race day and make an effort to stick to it. There may be times during the race that you may not feel hungry or may not feel like you need additional calories, but when you remind yourself that you thoroughly planned and studied your strategy, it’s easier to stick to it on race day. This time, my strategy paid off.

The one lesson I take away from this race is that I need to work on becoming a faster hiker. These are the Rocky Mountains, and these “hills” are steep and at high elevation. I believe I lack power-hiking abilities and while my running regimen keeps me fit to go on the occasional hike, I would like to be faster at it. ​This may require multiple trips to the local trails and tag a few summits even if I feel like a hike is not good enough workout. Going up steep trails should be as important as my speedwork once a week.

With all that said, if you’re up for a challenge, I highly recommend this race. The views and the feeling of accomplishment are absolutely worth it. As for me, while my main focus has now shifted to TransRockies, the Leadville Marathon is a race I will most certainly do again.

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Gaby McCash is an Outdoor Prolink Pro who loves running. 


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