Duane Bronson's memoirs from Leadville Trail 100 August 17-18, 2019
I was told in the early ‘90s that, “anyone can run a marathon.” Provided there are no injuries, handicaps, and defeatist attitudes, marathon training is a formula that works for almost everyone. If you are currently running three miles a few times a week, increasing training by two to four hours per week for 20 weeks is what’s required to be marathon ready. The excuse, “I know my limits” really means, “I don’t want to learn my limits.” However, this formula does not apply to 100 mile races. It really takes a special kind of insanity to run 100 miles.
In November, I followed my friend, Molly Karp, for half of a 6 hour trail ultra marathon. I was hooked and started daily running. The premier ultra is the Leadville 100, and lottery signups for August were currently open. I figured a big race would be the best motivator for me, although I didn’t actually expect to win an entry. Is 8 months enough to train? No, but I somehow made it work.
I joined a running club that had been meeting at my house for the last few years that I had been unaware existed. Another friend, Scot Dedeo, gave me his old 100-mile training spreadsheet that I adapted to make my own plan. I signed up for progressively harder training races with appropriate spacing. After I was laid off in February, the training was much easier and I had the opportunity to spend time in the mountains “easy-hiking” up 14,000 feet and getting acclimated before race day. I did everything I thought I possibly could do to prepare for this race.
It was hard to sleep the night before the race, but six hours was enough. At 3am, I grabbed my gear and scarfed down the hotel oatmeal. I didn’t know it then, but this would be my only meal for the entire weekend. It was cold and dark outside, but I walked down the street to the start line hoping I didn’t forget anything. “It’s happening — I’m really doing this,” I thought. The rest of the start is mostly a blur now, but I do remember the national anthem being sung so well that nobody else wanted to add their voice to it. And then, the gun went off.
I didn’t need to turn my headlamp on for the first 3 miles because there were so many other headlamps illuminating the road and the moon was nearly full. The moon shining over Turquoise Lake was beautiful. I took a minor dive on the trail and earned my first battle scar, but it was nothing serious. The sunrise came behind me, so I didn’t get a good look at it. But I made it to the 12 mile aid station, May Queen, and I was feeling great and right on pace.
The first climb was an easy, steady incline that was too steep to run, but gradual enough for a fast walk. I had a good pace and conserved energy for 8 miles. Then, there was a few miles of steep downhill called “power line” that gave my quads a heavy workout. I made it to Outward Bound, the 23 mile aid station, where my mom was somewhere waiting in the crowd. I cried “Mommy?” a few times to some laughter and found her quickly.
I had created a spreadsheet for my mom to know when to be at each stop, what to have ready for me, and a checklist of things for me to think about while I stopped. My goal pace was a little aggressive so I could stay ahead of the cutoff times but not outrageous. I finished the first thirty miles with incredible precision — within 2 minutes of my goal. Mom went through the checklist with me to the last item, “hug”, and then I ran off.
The next section was flat to the Half Pipe aid station and then into the woods continuing onto the Continental Divide Trail with gradual climbing to the Mt. Elbert aid station. Next, there was another steep descent into a tiny town called Twin Lakes. The views of Twin Lakes from this trail are spectacular, and the sections of aspen forest are brilliantly lit since the sunlight reflects off of the white bark. When I arrived at the Twin Lakes 38 mile aid station, I was 13 minutes off of my goal pace, but I didn’t think that was too bad. My mom was waiting for me, but Brenda, my aunt, should have been there too. I did some tech support for my mom and said, “just reboot it.” We went through the checklist, hugged, and I headed toward the crux of the race — Hope Pass. But, now I have poles. On my way out, I found Aunt Brenda still making her way past the crowds and gave her a big hug as I raced by. She made it just in time.
Before the longest climb (3000 feet), I needed to pass through approximately 10 shin-deep puddles and a knee-deep river. Sure, we could have been routed over to the bridge, but that would have made it a 102 mile race. I did what everyone does - got my feet soaked. A mile later, I didn’t even notice, though. The climb alongside noisy creeks was beautiful. I followed behind someone who had a steady pace, so I didn’t need to think. Just above the tree line, there was an aid station where I had some cheap ramen soup that tasted wonderful. There were dozens of Llamas hanging out that had carried all the supplies up during the days before the race. I wanted to sit here and enjoy the surroundings, but I pushed those thoughts aside and trudged up the remainder of Hope Pass and down the steep descent to Winfield, where my pacer Jill Olsen waited. All of the steep descents were wrecking my quads and you could even see bruise marks on my skin where there was hemorrhaging.
I found Jill through a Facebook group. I wanted a pacer that wasn’t expecting a champion runner. Jill was perfect because she could run a marathon distance and help me through the toughest parts of the race, yet I wouldn’t let her down by not giving her enough of a workout. I wasn’t quite sure why people needed pacers, but her presence through the race made a huge difference in the end.
The race officials cautioned the crews to not expect to be able to get from Twin Lakes to Winfield in time, so choose either one. My mother failed to mention that to Brenda, so she hopped on the logistically challenged bus to Winfield with the pair of dry shoes I needed on my return through Twin Lakes. Oh, no! Fortunately, she made it to Winfield in time. She bandaged my hands where the poles rubbed, and she found Jill for me. I was still feeling pretty good considering I had run 50 miles, but I could tell my quads were going to give me difficulty.
Even though the hike back up Hope Pass is 500 feet less, it’s steeper. Hope Pass claims most of the DNF’s. As Jill and I left Winfield, we passed dozens of pacers that would never see their runner.
My glutes were in great shape thanks to all of my volleyball, ultimate, and hill workouts back home, so I had no muscle problems. I did, however, have oxygen problems. My friends, Eric Sebesta and Nancy Huntingford, had casually mentioned breathing patterns as important in races and high altitudes. Using their advice, I adapted a four beat breathing pattern - sharp inhale, rest, two 6beat exhale. Drinking water while breathing required a lot of concentration to fit only one swallow into that rest beat. If I swallowed at the wrong time, I ended up gasping and choking. I can’t believe I had to relearn how to breathe and drink.
The sun set as Jill and I visited the llamas and we took the downhill in the cold and dark. On my way back, through the water crossing, the unthinkable happened. I slipped on some mud and soaked my shorts. My body temperature dropped as we run/walked the next mile to Twin Lakes. Fortunately, Aunt Brenda made it back from Winfield in time with my dry shoes and emergency clothes; had she not, my race would’ve been over. I know it was dark, but I was briefly naked from the waist down in front of three ladies. Just then, a race official ran through the crew yelling, “Runners have 3 minutes to leave the aid station.” What? I’m that close to the cutoff? How did I lose my buffer? I didn’t have time to think about it, so I pulled up my pants and raced on.
Next, was a 1500 foot ascent followed by a few miles of flat. It was a piece of cake with a big old wrench baked in — my headlamp was out of power. Didn’t I charge it all the way? It was time to improvise. I attached the headlamp to my external battery to use it as a handheld light. I had to stow a pole, but poles are for steep sections. The problem was solved until Power Line’s 2000 foot ascent— the last hard climb of the race.
I checked in at Half Pipe, but wait — my number and timing chip was still attached to my wet shorts! I won’t get credit for leaving Twin Lakes on time! Will they trust that I didn’t sneak around the race officials? I texted my crew so they knew to bring it to Outward Bound. I told the official at half pipe the wrong bib number, too. This is what happens at 1am. After picking it up and making back some time, Jill and I got to Outward Bound and couldn’t find my crew. I called mom and she said she was still driving — uh oh. It was time to call an audible; I took out my emergency jacket and scarf, which was all of the warmth I had. I knew it would drop another 10 degrees and it was four hours till dawn, but it would have to do. Jill had come as far as she could go, so she gave me her headlamp and I said my final goodbye. She told me I would finish this race, but not by walking. Those words stuck with me for the rest of the race.
I had made up 20 minutes off of the cutoff times, so I was feeling more confident. I couldn’t drink enough to keep my mouth from feeling dried out, and I was peeing every 30 minutes. I didn’t feel like eating, but I was hungry, and the rule of thumb is that, if you feel hungry, it’s too late. I thought I had an emergency TUMS in my pocket but, nope, it was in the wet shorts.
I powered up Power Line easily, passing people along the way. My uphill muscles held out, but I lost all of that ground on the downhill. My quads were shot and I couldn’t run anymore. Well, maybe just the next 200 feet. Nope. Now they are done. Ok, let’s try again... ouch ouch ouch, done. Then I remembered the motivational speech the race founder, Ken Chlouber, gave the day before the race. “You can do more than you think you can.” I told my quads to shut up and listen to me, and I ran the trail down into May Queen as the sun came up. My crew was there to give me my bib and take my jacket, but there was no time for anything else (Well, there was hugging.) as they shuffled me out of the final aid station with seven minutes until the cutoff.
The last 12.2 miles are a piece of cake for most people, but they weren’t easy for me. I could still do a steep climb (glutes), but flats and downhills were very painful (quads). The cutoff times were representative of people who run their butts off on this flat section. If I didn’t push through this pain, I wouldn’t beat the 30 hour mark. My quads were on fire, but I sucked it up and pushed them even further. The next nine miles, I managed 70% running and I was overheating, but I didn’t have time to take off layers. I took the last steep downhill faster than I should have and rounded a corner with 45 minutes left. The man told me there were three miles left in the race and my heart sunk. I could maybe keep up my 15.5 minute pace for the last nine miles if they were flat, but I was looking at a gradual uphill for the next three miles. That was the point that I finally gave up. I would still finish my first 100 mile race, but I could no longer get that buckle trophy. If I was going to miss it by three minutes, I might as well miss it by 15 minutes.
I still walked as fast as I could, but that was at about an 18-20 minute pace. 20 minutes later, I saw Jill running down the hill after me. Was that Jill? Didn’t she need to drive to Dillon? “Hurry up!”, Jill yelled. “You can still make it.” No, I was defeated. I knew I couldn’t push hard enough to come in under the wire, but when she told me to run, I ran. She took my poles and pack from me, and I could then remove my emergency jacket and my long sleeve shirt. I was finally cooling off. I was back on my 15 minute pace for brief stretches and then, even longer stretches. My fast walk got faster when another pacer told me to swing my arms. I still didn’t make the 30 hour mark, but I finished strong and with a roaring crowd. Jill somehow gave me back 10 minutes in two miles. If I didn’t give up at the base of that 3 mile hill, she would have had me across that line in time. She was magic at moving me up that hill. She must be the mythical Jill from the nursery rhyme legend and I was her Jack.
A cool thing about this race is that they allow your entire crew to pace the last mile with you. Well, Mom and Brenda don’t have a mile of fast walk in them, so I directed them to walk across the finish line with me. When I got to the finish line, they were watching from the sideline. It was a sad moment for me because I felt they were just as deserving of this victory as I was. I crossed the line with my crumpled number in my hand because I never had the time to pin it back on. I was given a medal, a rose, and a hug from the race’s “First Lady”. I hung the medal from my neck and gave my mom, Rosie, the rose. After a few more hugs, I found a chair that became my home for the next 20 minutes.
My body was broken, but I stood up with some help and began the long one-block walk back to the hotel. Until this moment, I had never considered that I should have chosen a hotel with an elevator. A bath tub would have helped, but I took three bars of soap in the shower just in case I dropped a couple; I can clean my feet another day. I tried to nap, but I could only sleep 30 minutes. I tried to eat, but my body wasn’t interested. I wanted to go to the awards ceremony, but my body was shutting down and shivering.
By evening, it didn’t hurt unless I moved. I slept 12 hours with a pee break every two hours. I refused to crawl to the toilet, but that was a painful mandate. The next day I was able to eat again, walk, and slowly take stairs with help of the handrails. Two days later, I ran three miles and I was feeling like it was mile 60 again. It’s going to take some time to recover, but I have no major injuries. The next 100 mile race on my schedule isn’t for another two months.
So many people helped me along the way, and some without even realizing it. I want to give a shout out to these individuals and groups.
Rosie Jannick, my mom - your willingness to sacrifice a week of your life and a great deal of sanity to watch me inflict pain upon myself is above what most mothers would do for fun.
Brenda Bronson - I cant thank you enough for providing me with training grounds in Colorado for multiple weeks, setting aside time to familiarize me with the area, helping me complete a 50 mile training run, buying me beer, introducing me to two local Leadville runners, giving me access to the hot springs, and then helping at every aid station when your health should have limited you to one.
Jill Olson, my pacer - you took a risk by meeting some random dude you found on Facebook for a hike up in the mountains. I wasn’t really sure I’d get anything out of a pacer, but you brought me through some difficult times. I would have timed out at Twin Lakes without your help. You got me to Outward Bound with some bonus time. And, even though you weren’t with me, your words got me through May Queen with 7 minutes to spare and pushed my last 12 miles well beyond my breaking point. Your miraculous appearance at the end turned my spirit around and helped me finish strong. I am in your debt.
Chi-Ting Huang, my wife - I would never have ran my first marathon if not for you. You make me strong in ways I never knew I needed strength. You encourage me to do great things even though I frequently misinterpret your message.
Darren Bronson - thanks for encouraging me, worrying about my safety, training with me in the White Mountains, and most of all, being a lifelong friendly competitor. We have always strived to outperform each other, yet we also truly take pride of each other's success. We both learned to enjoy the competiton regardless of the outcome.
Lilikoi and Palila, my daughters - if not for your maturity, I would not have had the time to train. I’m so proud of you.
Molly Karp - you inspired me and showed me I could run ultras without giving up ultimate.
Scot Dedeo - your 100 mile training plan gave me all the confidence I needed to prepare for this race, your hills of pain gave me the strength to get through some tough climbs, and your long weekend runs got me out the door efficiently.
Becca Pizzi - you used your world record fame to promote running locally in Belmont.
Donal Reynolds - you let me pass you for a brief time in the Becca Pizzi 5k.
The Belmont Track Club - you are so encouraging about everything. It helps.
Shaun Logan, Adam Schwartz, Chris Hurwitz, and Annie Kim - you provided me good running destinations and sometimes even driving me a little to make the run more enjoyable.
Erik Sebesta and Nancy Huntingford - your breathing tips helped a lot.
Jennifer Skeels - you pointed me to the Facebook group and your suggestions were invaluable. Changing shoes at Twin Lakes was a great plan.
Trail Animals (TARC) - your trail races near Boston are wonderful.
Bari Berman - for proofreading this document.
Strava - Yes, an app can provide motivation to keep running.
2019 Leadville Trail 100