I ran at a tortoise pace at 10,500 feet, two miles east of the ghost town of Winfield, the location of our aid station in Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest. My mouth felt like a salted margarita glass. My eyes glazed. It was day two of the Leadville Trail 100 Run Camp, an annual three-day summer workshop for 140 trail runners from all over the country, and I was feeling the heat.
The camp’s 61-mile itinerary follows a portion of the renowned Leadville Trail 100-mile race course. Today, we ran and fast-hiked from Willis Gulch Trailhead to the top of 12,500-foot Hope Pass—a five-mile, 3,200-foot continuous climb—down the steep backside, and several miles west to Winfield—the race’s notorious turnaround point where many athletes drop. Ironically, the silhouette of the out-and-back elevation profile forms devilish horns, with 6,700 feet of vertical gain in 20 miles.
A rookie to ultra-distance training, I made one big mistake. I did not pack nearly enough water for the stacked mileage and immense elevation gain. But run camp is the perfect incubator. Here, you can make mistakes that will improve race days and unsupported mountain runs. I hydrated at Winfield, borrowed a volunteer’s watch (blunder two: my watch wasn’t charged enough), and ran back over Hope Pass.
At Willis Gulch, the campers’ relief was palpable. I ate lunch with folks from Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, Florida and everywhere in-between who had come to train at high altitude on the course. Most had registered for August’s big race. At 35 years old, the Leadville Trail 100 is one of the country’s oldest ultramarathons. With no prerequisites and an 850-person Forest Service permit, the run is also one of the largest century races in the country. In 2016, 637 athletes from 46 states and 25 countries toed the starting line. Roughly half finished.
A few runners weren’t signed up for an ultra-race at all, including me. I finished my first trail marathon six days earlier and felt motivated by Junko Kazukawa, who I had just met. A coach and two-time cancer survivor, she has finished 36 ultramarathons and EO readers voted her the magazine’s 2017 Endurance Badass.
I saw camp as a tool for me to learn about training with tips from athletes like Bob Africa, a Leadville finisher who spoke on the camp panel: “Hike 90 percent of the climbs, don’t bomb the downs, and train your turnover for the flat sections.”
We finished camp with a 15-mile night run around Twin Lakes. I fell into sync with Tim Barr, who not only became a good friend, but later asked me to pace him at Leadville 100. After three back-to-back high-mileage days, I felt a sense of confidence and inspiration. For the first time, not one person found my my lofty goals, like of running the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, crazy.
Post camp, I signed up for my first ultra, the Silver Rush 50-mile—and sprinted the start up Dutch Henri Hill in hopes of getting a gold coin that would allow me to pre-register for the Leadville 100. Sometimes, good health, motivation and luck align: With the gold coin in hand this August, I’m running Leadville.