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Although its organizers term the Leadville 100 a run, those who hope to be successful at the race seldom spend all their time running. "Keep the effort level dialed down to 'medium to low' and keep forever moving forward at a pace that results in even breathing and medium heart rate," running coach and L100 student Scott Weber advises in his online recommendations for how to compete in the race. "Steadily walking the uphills, smoothly running the downhills, and incorporating an 8 + 2 run/walk pattern on the flats...results in a near optimal pace at Leadville."
Weber suggests that runners follow one of four patterns to ensure they finish within the required time. The first, the "Go Fast Early and Die Later," proceeds exactly as its name implies. Runners attempt to cover as much distance as possible in the early segments of the race, and then simply concentrate on finishing it. "Despite the negative overtones," Weber writes, the pattern "does work and is arguably the best plan for the runner who is a bit unsure about handling the second half of the race." The second and third strategies are the "Buckler Pattern," named for Bucklers -- runners who have earned a belt buckle for successfully completing ten Leadville 100 races, or 1,000 miles, and the "I Think I Can, I Think I Can."
Weber has named his last race tactic the "Peterson Pattern," in honor of the Divine Madness Running Club's Steve Peterson. The hallmark of this model is remarkable consistency. "Steve is known for his steady running," Weber writes, noting that Peterson completes the first and second halves of the race in nearly identical times.
Peterson is a tall, gawky-looking fellow, with big feet and long legs that seem too knock-kneed to carry him any significant distance, let alone a hundred miles. In addition to the devoted support of his teammates, several other factors were in his favor going into this year's race.
The first, of course, was his experience. Peterson was intensely familiar with the course, and over the years he has been remarkably consistent from race to race, particularly considering the distance involved. The difference between his slowest winning time, of nineteen hours and 29 minutes, in 1996, and his fastest, eighteen hours and ten minutes, his time the following year, was only an hour and nineteen minutes. While 79 minutes sounds like a huge gap, it works out to less than one minute per mile variation over the one hundred-mile course over a span of four years.
Peterson's second advantage was his age. Because it is a race of extreme endurance, the L100 rewards both consistency and mental fortitude at least as much as strength. Both traits, it turns out, are hallmarks of maturity. Of the twelve fastest times ever run at the Leadville 100, only one has been posted by a runner in his twenties. (A woman, 33-year-old Ann Trason, turned in the fifth-fastest time, in 1994.) In fact, eight of the top twelve times have been run by participants 35 years of age or older; the oldest top finisher was 42-year-old Skip Hamilton, in 1987. Going into this year's race, Peterson was 38 -- prime age for another win.
Still, in the early going, the race was dominated by a younger (26-year-old) unknown named Paul South, of Broomfield, who was competing in his first L100. Although he was passed once, while changing shoes at the base of Hope Pass about forty miles in, by another first-time runner, 33-year-old Chad Ricklefs, South regained the lead about three-quarters of the way up the pass and seemed well on his way to a victory. Peterson was running a solid third.
But long downhill runs are just as grueling, if not more so, than uphills. A pounding descent can turn a runner's legs to hamburger quicker than an uphill can burn them out, and about two-thirds of the way through the race South felt a twang in his knee. While he still felt fine otherwise, it was clear there was no way he could continue the race to its conclusion. He limped into the Turquoise Lake aid station and stopped.
That left Ricklefs the leader, with Peterson next. Ricklefs is shorter than Peterson, but with Doric-column-sized legs. After South dropped out and he regained the lead, Ricklefs still had slightly more than a true marathon to run. "At 63 miles I really started to feel nausea -- lots of stomach problems," he recalls today. "I didn't hydrate or eat properly. At May Queen [86.5 miles], I knew that if I'd stopped, I couldn't have started again."
Although this was Ricklefs's first L100, he's no stranger to the genre; this was his eighth ultramarathon of the year, and the second hundred-miler. A 1990 graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder, he'd also competed at high levels in ski and bike racing for a dozen years, so he was familiar with the games of hopscotch played by the mind and body over a long-haul event. "It's amazing how quickly things can get away from you -- sore thighs, injured feet and so on," he says. "But when I hurt a lot -- nausea, my body telling me 'I don't want to do this anymore,' I know that it'll all change in an hour or so."