Plan, prepare, and push hard—but know when to listen to your body.
Trail Run Project Journal | August 2016
At the eleventh hour, the course for the marathon changed. There was still a wall of snow in the Leadville high-country around Ball Mountain, which I learned at the Leadville Race Series store when I picked up my registration packet. Fortunately, the reroute included the promised elevation gain: an accumulative 6,000 feet. I haven’t put in elevation training for nothing! I thought. And laughed at the possible irony of running the race, instead, on flat dirt roads.
Most importantly, though, I didn’t let the slight course change lead to a rabbit hole of new fears. I’d learned from training to trust in my adaptability, physically and mentally. Circumstances that are beyond our control can pop up anytime, the day before or during a race.
Nearly 560 runners signed up for the 15.5-mile Leadville Heavy Half and close to 500 others committed to the Leadville Marathon. I met athletes from all over the country including Florida, Nebraska, and Iowa. The race day forecast was perfect: Blue skies and a low 50 degrees Fahrenheit at the 8 a.m. start. The crux of the race, I calculated, would be between miles 20 and 24. By then, if my estimated pace proved accurate, the temperatures would be 75 degrees or higher. Heat was my nemesis during training—it slowed me down, a lot—and I’d need to be diligent maintaining my hydration. Plus, the course’s singletrack and mining roads sat between 10,400 and 13,200-feet in elevation, close to the sun and exposed.
Looking back, I learned a lot. In addition to applying plenty of sunscreen, here are four other pieces of valuable advice from my first trail marathon.
1. Prepare for Race Day Mentally as Much as Physically
Completely stoked, I woke up energized and ready to run. The week leading up to the race I prioritized taking care of my physical needs: adequate sleep, hydration, nutritionally balanced meals, foam rolling, stretching, and recovery activities. I prepared mentally by visualizing the course, thinking about my race goals, and what I would say to myself when I hit difficult moments. I reminded myself to maintain an upbeat fast-hiking pace on the ascents and to relax and go fast on the descents. And, no matter what, to cheer on other runners and enjoy the incredible views.
2. Map Out Hydration and Fuel Carefully—and Stick to Your Plan
The hardest section of the marathon for me was not the notorious Mosquito Pass. It was at mile 21, during the second-to-last climb: a steep ascent filled with loose rock, gaping to the sun. My stomach was in agony. I’d timed my nutrition intake but only consumed gel and chews (ugh!). The mix had worked fine on my 20-mile training runs, but—as I know now—cannot sustain my body come race day. I was also dehydrated simply because I’d neglected to drink frequently enough.
3. Pre-race: Rest and Recovery Are Just as Important as Training
Leading up to a race, I think the most important piece of advice is to listen to your own body—which isn’t necessarily in sync with what you want to do or with what another athlete is up to. I took a semi-conservative approach during the seven days before the race. I’d trained hard the week prior to it, and my body was calling for the rest. As eager as I was to be on the trails, I restrained from going on my normal runs and kept distances to a few miles a day, with intentional rest and recovery in the 48 hours beforehand. Included: hiking, yoga, and stand-up paddleboarding.
4. A Little Generosity Goes a Long Way
I’d dabbled in trail running before I signed up for the race and wanted to make it a greater part of my life. Training for a goal added an exciting realm of strategy to an adventure activity I love and introduced me to an awesome community. I was blown away by the kindness shared between all of the racers and volunteers. Case in point: During my race crux, a woman offered me a bottle of water to pour over my head. Immediately after, I got a bloody nose (due to the heat and dryness, most likely) and was worried I’d get pulled into the medical tent at the next aid station. Before I could protest, she pulled off her shirt and handed it to me to stop my nosebleed. It was a stark reminder of the power of generosity and thoughtfulness, which can truly help people get through their tough moments. At the top of the climb, I reached the aid station, forced down a slice of a PB&J with an electrolyte drink, and caught a second wind to the finish line five hours and 49 minutes after I began.