The Leadville 100 club: Local trail runners take on the big one | SummitDaily.com

The Leadville 100 club: Local trail runners take on the big one

John O’Neill
Special to the Daily

Since 1983, Leadville's iconic 100-mile running race, happening on Saturday, Aug. 20, is thought to be one of the most daunting endurance events in the world. Among the competitors, several locals will tackle the course that travels 100 miles with 18,168 feet of elevation gain and all of it above 9,200 feet of elevation.

These athletes will face legendary climbs, such as Hope Pass that tops out at 12,600 feet, freezing temperatures, darkness and sleep deprivation made more formidable by a strict time cutoff. While it may sound like an unpleasant feat, each of the athletes has a reason for running. These are a handful of the local men and women taking on this year's Leadville Trail 100.

Eric Pence

The seasoned veteran

Having just turned 50, Eric Pence is an experienced ultra runner and veteran of the Leadville course. This year, he will embark upon his 26th consecutive start and attempt his 22nd finish.

Throughout his career as an ultrarunner, Pence has had his highs and lows. His three failures to finish the Leadville course were among the toughest times. In 1991, his first attempt, he dropped from the race due to an injured iliotibial band (ligament that runs on the outer thigh from the hip to the shin). His second failure to finish was in 1992, when sleep deprivation caused him to rest and miss a time cutoff. In 1996, he suffered a mental lapse when his wife, Anne, was pregnant with his son, Ethan, a testament to the raw focus it takes to tackle Leadville.

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However, for those three hard years he has had 21 more, each with its own positive story. One that particularly stands out was the year members of the Tarahumara tribe from Copper Canyon, Mexico, came to race.

"Seeing them run was something else," Pence said. "They wore robes and shoes they made from old tires they found in the Leadville landfill days before the race. They were running these fast times, and sharing the course with them was incredible."

Throughout the years, Pence has also seen evolutions in the race. The gear has gotten lighter, the competition has gotten faster and the field, overall, has gotten younger.

"I remember running with MagLite flashlights," Pence said. "You would have to carry extra batteries because they wouldn't last through the night. Sometimes you would have a bulb blow out and you'd be left running through the dark."

When Pence first started running the Leadville 100, he was 24 years old and by far one of the youngest in the race. Now, another local, Josh Braun, who has had some guidance from Pence, will look to have a similar experience as the youngster this year.

Josh Braun

The youngster

Braun was a freshman in high school when he helped pace Eric Pence over Hope Pass. Now 19, he returns to the Leadville course as a competitor. Should he finish the race, he will be one of the youngest, if not the youngest ever, to finish the Leadville Trail 100.

"It was pretty obvious to me then," Braun said of running with Pence. "I knew I had to go back and I had to run it for myself. It is an atmosphere that you can't ignore once you've taken it in."

A product of Battle Mountain High School's cross country team under coach Rob Parish, and a 2015 BMHS graduate, Braun has dedicated the past year to crossing the finish line at Leadville.

He completed the 50-mile Leadville Silver Rush running race in July. It was, to this day, the farthest distance he has run, making the finish line at the 100 all the more difficult.

"I think it is something you prepare yourself for going in," Braun said. "When I was racing the 50, I was ready to only run 50 miles. Now I'm going in prepared to run 100 miles."

Megan Morrissey

A mom on a mission

Usually the start list in Leadville hosts a 1:4 women-to-men ratio. However, women typically hold a higher finishing rate than the men. One of these tough ladies is Megan Morrissey, and she is searching for redemption.

The 47-year-old has started Leadville five times. Her first two attempts were successful. Her most recent three attempts were not.

"I had two DNFs (did not finish) that were injury related and one when I tried to start with a chest cold," Morrissey said. "You just can't start with any issues or injuries and expect to be successful."

She returns to Leadville to shift that momentum and prove to herself that she can once again make the finish line.

"When I haven't run it, I feel like I'm missing out," she said. "It is an experience you can't forget. I really feel at home out there and I want to finish really badly."

She'll have her work cut out for her but will have the help of several pace setters, including her son, who will help her through one of the most difficult sections later in the course when severe fatigue sets in.

"You feel so bad, the race can take you so low," she said. "You're physically drained and feel so defeated. You have to have someone there. It is really important for me to have my son pace me."

Emma Giebler

A naive newcomer

It all started with a dare for 27-year-old Emma Giebler, who only took up running two years ago. At the time, she was feeling emotionally stuck and stagnant in her career. It was a challenge from a friend that brought her to run her first marathon. From there, running long distances would liberate her from those doldrums.

She moved to Vail from Minnesota shortly after her introduction to running. She had been reading books about ultrarunning, one of which prominently featured the Leadville 100. Since she was suddenly living down the hill from Leadville, she decided to put her name in the lottery. She got in.

She has since been running between 60 and 80 miles every week in preparation for the race and has done three marathons and one half marathon.

"Running is really a medication for me, and I never felt that until I started adding on distance," she said. "It takes my body a while to warm up. Once it does, that idea that running is suffering goes away. It's like I get into a meditative state. It is definitely an addiction, but a positive one."

Joe Ryan

Realizing a dream

When 41-year-old Joe Ryan moved to the Vail Valley from North Carolina in 2007, he had two goals: get his fire badge and get a belt buckle, the finisher prize of the Leadville 100. He is now a local fireman working out of the Cordillera firehouse. He has attempted the Leadville Trail 100 three times. He has yet to finish.

This will be not only his fourth attempt at the running race, but also his first attempt at what is called the Leadman. This is a series of races in Leadville that includes the Leadville Marathon, an option of the 50-mile run or 50-mile bike race, the 100-mile bike race, the 10-kilometer run and the final 100-mile run. So far he has finished everything but the last run.

"At this point, for me, it is the incompletion of it," Ryan said. "The reason you sign up is to finish something that is so full of the unknown. Every time I've toed the line at Leadville, there is part of me that looks back at what I've put into it and I feel ready. But even then there is a lot of wondering if the body will hold up."

Ryan said he has used the marathon to get ready for the 50-mile race and the 50-mile race to get ready for the 100-mile race.

"When you are out there, you learn a lot about yourself. I've DNF'd three times," Ryan said. "I think this year I've finally got it right."

Lucas Rivera

A hero for his kids

Lucas Rivera had an unlikely introduction to running. A former college football player, the idea of running anything more than a mile seemed awful. He put it off for as long as he could.

"I would hate running," Rivera said. "After college, I did some intramural stuff, but it wasn't competitive. It seemed like what was left for competition was the endurance stuff. I had to start to running. Then I caught the bug for it."

Rivera first did the Tough Mudder and then an event called the World's Toughest Mudder that features 160 obstacles over 50 miles in 24 hours. After that, he thought, why not try Leadville? This will be his third start at the Leadville Trail 100, and he is hoping to log his second finish.

"Growing up in Colorado, you hear about the legends of the Leadville 100 but it always seemed impossible to me," he said. "They say it's your fitness that gets you through the first 50 miles and your mental game and your heart that get you to the finish line."

His personal mental strength has shifted away from strictly a competitive spirit. Rivera now draws inspiration from his wife and kids. A big reason he chases the finish line at Leadville, he said, is to be a role model and hero for his kids the same way his dad was for him.

"Seeing my kids out supporting me during these races or after I've finished is a crazy thing," Rivera said. "It hopefully helps them have a different perspective on not setting limits, aiming their goals high, and shows that most anything is possible if you put in the work and develop the right mindset."

Running tips for Leadville Trail 100

According to Eric Pence, who will participate in his 26th consecutive Leadville 100 on Saturday, completing the course is “not rocket science.” However, it might be easier said than done.

His first tip? Start out slow. A lot goes into training for this 100-mile running race. Often, all of the miles of training and anticipation for the race can cause a surge of adrenaline that causes an athlete to run faster than planned.

While great for shorter distances, this rush could be damaging to a successful 100-mile race, particularly one like Leadville that adds additional stresses to the body such as altitude and cold air.

“You always want to start out even more conservatively than you think,” Pence said. “If you go out too hard, you’ll start paying for it in energy just when you need it during those later parts of the race.

Tip two is to monitor your body and give it the fuel it needs. Always be sure to be drinking and eating at regular intervals, not necessarily just when you are hungry or thirsty.

“You can really start bonking if you get behind on your fluids or food too early,” Pence said. “Drink more, and slow down. Keep real food on hand. Eating things like GU and sports bars can be hard on your stomach after a while.”

Next, be ready for Hope Pass, a climb that goes up to 12,600 feet. You hit that climb twice in the middle of the race. It is as much about minding the pace uphill as it is about doing the same on the downhill.

“For me, I don’t like to bomb down the downhill,” Pence said. “It destroys your legs and can upset your stomach.”

Finally, don’t stop moving. One of Pence’s failures to finish came when he decided to stop and lie down. He would miss the time cutoff, as he couldn’t get his body moving again.

“Don’t try to sleep, and don’t stop moving,” Pence said. “Once you get comfortable, it is too difficult to get up and get going again. Just keep moving, even if you are just ambling along to the finish.”