R/C racer Samuel Hammonds on earning his sub-25-hour buckle at Leadville

The following race report is from Rock/Creek Race Team member Samuel Hammonds, one of a large contingent of Chattanooga-area runners who made the pilgrimage to Leadville this year.

Sam, thanks for the great race report, and congrats on earning that oversized <25:00:00 buckle! ~J

Leadville was my first attempt at earning a 100-miler belt buckle. It was a great time to attempt such a task. Leadville is one of the most prestigious races in the country, and nine other Chattanooga trail runners joined me.

My plan was to take it easy at the beginning, maintain a moderate level of effort, and get to the 50-mile mark at Winfield in around 11 hours. Completing the race would be a satisfactory accomplishment, but doing it in less than 25 hours would be a wonderful bonus. In order to give myself a shot, I had to meet that 11-hour goal. Four a.m. start. There was so much excitement in the air as 944 runners from 48 states and 17 countries lined up.

Racers were making last moment checks to their equipment, reconnecting with old acquaintances, and chattering to strangers. I was ready. My equipment had been checked two days before and, with a quick prayer, I was good to go. The first mile of the course was a mass exodus out of town with ruthless townies ushering us away from their quiet little Leadville. Paved road turned to gravel. Hundreds of headlamps replaced the glow of streetlights. We appeared as a swarm of fairies perusing a quest. Within the first few miles, runners stretched out in preparation for the single track that lay ahead.

The trail around Turquoise Lake is eight miles of single track. After a couple of miles, I eventually settled into a steady pace behind a gentleman from Charlottesville, Virginia. Numerous experienced runners joined in behind us. They expressed contentment with current pace and advised how patience is the key. The race begins in the second half. I found comfort in this and relaxed en route to the first aid station at May Queen.

Leaving May Queen toward Outward Bound aid station was the introduction to the Colorado Trail, the climb to the pinnacle at Sugarloaf Pass, and then down the power line. Proceeding out of May Queen, hundreds of supporters cheered each runner on as the transition of night to day matured. Colorado Trail greeted each runner with a single-track technical section with a gradual climb. I felt at home with each rock that I clambered over. I was not aware of how much climbing there was till it dumped us out on a crushed gravel road. As runners continued their climb to Sugarloaf Pass, May Queen was visible stretching out hundreds of feet below. It all seemed so small, yet it was so large just an hour before.

Daniel Lucas and I spent one week training on this course. I remembered the view of the valley below. Even though it was on the outside lane of the road, I still had to peer at the lush valley with the stream meandering away. Great view – it never grows old. From here, the climb continues to the first major peak at over 11,000 feet. Then it is mostly down hill via the power line. Just as you would expect, the power line trail takes the shortest route down the mountain. No switchbacks here.

Outward Bound to Half Pipe and then to Twin Lakes aid stations. Stephanie, Randy Whorton’s Sister, greeted me as I pulled into Outward Bound. When I began to look for aid I heard, “What can I get for you?” It was Jarret Kinder.

“Water,” as I handed my bottle over. The water station was a bit of a mess here. Too many folks with too few spigots. I had two bottles to fill but I could not wait for both. I could make do with one. Next aid station is just 6.5 miles. Good enough.

This was the most runnable section of the course. It was a steady climb starting on paved road for three-ish miles to forest service road. I kept going back to the advice from Turquoise Lake and advice from Brian Costilow. Patience.

As I headed south on a huge valley floor I could see from north to south Mt. Massive, Mt. Elbert, Mt. Hope, and Mt. Quail. Settled between Mt. Quail and Mt. Hope is Hope Pass. I was still 20 miles away, but I could see it lingering in the backdrop. It was so surreal. That was where I was going.

The balance of the run to Twin Lakes was uneventful. I pulled into Twin Lakes to again find my friend Jarret asking what he could do.

Twin Lakes to Winfield and back. Heading out of the town of Twin Lakes, again we were greeted with cheers and support. Almost into the willow field, I saw Stephanie with Randal and Betty, Randy’s parents. With a quick go-get-it, I was on my way to face Hope Pass.

Two miles across the willow fields and easy water crossing, the climb began. Elevation is 9,200 to 12,600 feet. There was nothing easy about the climb. You just do it. I tried not to think about how much further. It was not a good answer. Even when I reached the tree line around 11,500 feet, there was still 1,100 feet to go. The air was thin, and did not get any better.

At this point there was limited aid station as llamas had carried the supplies. I bypassed this aid station, as I thought I had enough water. As I crested Hope Pass, I looked back to see the tiny town of Twin Lakes and Leadville even smaller in the distance forty-five miles back as the trail goes. No need to ponder, now back down. I arrived at 11:05 at Winfield right around my goal time.

Winfield, regardless of the remote location, was bustling. This was the first weigh-in and I was down only 4 pounds. Not too bad – I needed water, but I knew that already. Expecting to see Brian Costilow on the way out as I came in, I was surprised to see him and Kimber, his pacer, giving me a shout out and offering assistance in the aid tent. After some fruit, soup, water and brief rest, I was ready for the trip back up.

The climb back to Hope Pass, though not as great in elevation, was much tougher. It was steep, and runners were coming down, as Leadville 100 is a true out-and-back course. Just like at the front, I put my head down and climbed. How much further, don’t ask, just climb. With this crest I did not bother looking at the view. I just wanted back down. I needed air and precious water carefully carried by the llamas was waiting just down the pass.

While I sat on a log for a brief break, one of the courteous aid workers filled my bottle before I headed for the balance of the way down. At the base of the mountain, I was fired up going across the willow fields. Now the race begins. I had made it over and back across Hope Pass, and still felt good. Exiting the willow field, I scanned the tents looking for the Whortons. There they were with Sammie, Daniel Lucas’ pacer.

Randal quizzed me on how I felt. Do you feel strong?

I feel good, I feel strong!
Good, you can do it. You can get under 25 hours.”

He was excited. I was not sure I could do it, but his encouragement fired me up some more.

As before, Twin Lakes was hyped up. It was like the finish of a Marathon with folks cheering from all sides. As I pulled into the aid station, my friend Cal, the only Chattanooga runner I did not pass, was there. I knew he had to drop, struggling with an injury to his knee. He asked what he could do. Drop Bag, 496, red duffle bag that no one would steal. Got it. As Cal helped me, Jarret appeared in his pacing gear. Jarret was supposed to pace Cal. Now, he offered to pace me.

Twin Lakes to Half Pipe to Outward Bound. Cal and Jarrett confirmed Randal’s calculation. You can beat the 25-hour mark. I believed them, but my brain was not working, so we would just have to see.

The climb from Twin Lakes to the aid station on the side of Mt. Elbert took 45 minutes. I had seen this section of trail a few times with Daniel Lucas, and I was comfortable with it. Once there, it was rolling climbs with ultimately decreasing altitude. This was the section I was most worried about. I had never run this far or been on my feet for this amount of time.

Not sure how it would affect me. It was good to have company. It became dark. Conversation got a little ridiculous, and we were able to put miles behind us.

Outward Bound to May Queen. Big climb up the power line. I could see headlamps trailing up the mountain like an army of fireflies. Jarret wished me luck and left me at the bottom of the mountain. He had helped me the though the critical part. I really enjoyed the climb, as it was the last major one. Putting my head down, I power walked up the mountain and listened to a symphony of coyotes howling in the background. Once at the top it was a cruise down the first forest service road with the view of May Queen in the valley. Then single track on the Colorado Trail. This was the last large section that I could run.

May Queen to the Finish. As I entered May Queen I was looking forward to the “cruise” around Turquoise Lake. Exiting was a different story. My legs were so sore and tired; all I could muster was brief spurts of running. The temperature around the lake began to drop and I did not have my jacket. The trail seemed much more technical than before. I was just thankful that I was still making forward progress. Eating became difficult as I began to decrease my intake from three Cliff Shot blocks every 30 minutes to two and finally one just to avoid the bonk.

The gravel road leading back to Leadville appeared. I do not remember descending on the way out, but I will always remember ascending. During the climb, I felt myself nod off. Never thought it was possible, but I almost fell asleep numerous times as I watched the glow sticks approach me from above.

Finally, the glow of the city and gentle noise woke me from my slumber as gravel turned to pavement. Drowsiness turned to adrenaline. Cheers returned. The finish line was just half a mile away. Lights were flashing. I was cold, exhausted, sick, hungry, and just wanted to be done. Pulling from down deep, I kept my head high as that final hundred yards closed in. Even at 4 a.m., the crowd was there to greet us. A red carpet ushered me to the finish with lights flashing.

I was done, 100 miles in 24:11:52. My good friend Cal held my jacket in hand and was there to congratulate me. I had been hoping both would be there.

Not sure that I will ever run Leadville again. I consider it a bucket list race. For all those repeat runners, I wish you best of luck. The altitude requires such an additional effort and time to acclimate. It is truly a classic race.