Krupicka's Lessons Learned at the Leadville Trail 100August 30th, 2010
Gaining humility and respecting the distance
While it is one of the most tired clichés to state that we often “learn more” from failure than success, there is a sizeable amount of interesting truth beneath this cliché’s hackneyed surface that overuse can’t dilute. Failure provokes us to question, a practice that is all too easy to dismiss when one has recently experienced success and fulfillment of expectations. If one reason to engage in an irrational activity like racing 100 miles is to catalyze personal growth, then hardship, failure and the subsequent questioning become invaluable opportunities. This past weekend was certainly one of those opportunities for me.
The lessons I learned at the Leadville Trail 100 this year all have to do with three basic concepts: patience, respect and humility.
It should go without saying that running, even racing, 100 miles is an act of patience—biding one’s time, occupying the mind with an attention to mundane detail, whiling away the miles until the musculoskeletal damage accumulates enough to demand one’s focus, making sure you’re constantly covering the banal basics: sugar, salt, water. However, it is a race, too, and on Saturday, August 21, I let the don’t-waste-a-second mentality of racing override the take-the-time-to-solve-problems nature that is required for running 100 miles.
Quite simply, instead of stepping back for a second or two earlier on in the race and explicitly addressing the fact that I wasn’t getting enough calories, I soldiered on in easy denial. In, say, a 50-mile race, it is completely possible to incur a mild fuel deficit and still make it to the finish line without a significant bonk. However, in a 100-mile race, the distance is simply too long, and such depletion will almost certainly catch up to you before the race is over.
As early as 40 or 50 miles—when I had already built a 40+ minute lead—I should’ve significantly slowed the pace until I could stomach a few hundred calories and was back on top of my fuel intake. If I had even done this at the mile 76 Fish Hatchery aid station, I might’ve prevented the meltdown that occurred shortly thereafter. Being stuck in a racing mentality with a lack of patience doesn’t just apply to eating habits—it can easily bleed over into poor decision-making in other areas (pacing, gear choices, etc.) that can eventually end your race before the finish line. The ability to solve problems on-the-fly is something that I’ve always believed to be at the core of a successful 100-mile performance. However, what I forgot that Saturday is that some problems can’t necessarily be solved “on-the-fly” and sometimes you have to slow down to address the issue.
I have a renewed respect for the 100-mile distance. I don’t race 100 milers that often, compared to some. This year’s Leadville Trail 100 was only my sixth 100-mile start. This level of inexperience alone should enforce a healthy level of respect for the distance and should only be compounded by the fact that I DNF’ed this very race just last year.
Alas, with the eagle-eye vision of hindsight, I can see now that I toed the starting line Saturday with just a slight touch of hubris disguised as a newfound confidence for the 100-mile distance. This was almost completely a result of having what I felt to be a solid, almost physically flawless run at the Western States 100 earlier in the summer. I came away from that experience surprised by how relaxed the majority of the race had been, and felt enlightened by my ability to race so hard the second half of the day.
My subconscious thinking after Western States went something like this: “These 100-mile things aren’t so tough after all. It’s totally possible to race the entire distance just like any other race.” Of course, consciously I wasn’t thinking or saying these things, but every now and then they would pop up dangerously in the undercurrent of my thoughts.
The major caveat there was that I had near-perfect execution at Western States and I had the good fortune of not having any number of things that I couldn’t control crop up and take me down. There are simply too many variables—things fundamentally out of my control—that come into play over 100 miles in the mountains to assume, even subconsciously, that racing that distance will be an ever-smooth, challenge-free journey. I will try very deliberately in the future never to lose that essential respect for the distance again.
Finally, in this same vein, I learned that, at times, sheer willpower isn’t enough to get to the finish line. Before the race, a friend running his first 100 at Leadville this year asked me for some advice. My response was that if he wanted to finish, all he had to do was stand on the starting line with the absolute resolve that no matter what he was going to make it to the finish line. This is not the kind of pact that can be established easily in the long, tough, stupid middle miles of a 100 miler when the will wanes, doubt creeps in and the task seems overwhelming, so it must exist from the very beginning.
My underlying thesis for that advice was that if you want it bad enough, you can do it. That Saturday, I found out otherwise. I toed the line that morning with the basic conviction that I was going to finish at any cost; time and placing would ultimately not matter to me. My lack of humility was such that I truly believed that achieving this goal required only willpower. However, when I was struggling to walk up Sugarloaf Pass, stay standing and even remain conscious, some reptilian part of my brain realized that the central self-preservation governor kicked in and I no longer even had a choice.
Gaining the humility to realize that some things are simply out of my hands is probably the most important thing that I learned at the Leadville Trail 100, and ultimately, will probably be the thing that allows me to return to this event and be successful once again.
As featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine