Training & Racing

Leadville Trail 100 Run: Live Low, Train Low… Race High

Leadville Trail 100 Run: Live Low, Train Low… Race High

I live at about 800 feet here in San Antonio — give or take 100 feet. (Probably take.) So signing up to run the Leadville 100 in 2010 was a bit of a leap of faith. The race starts at 10,152 feet, never drops below 9,200 feet, and climbs up and over Hope Pass at 12,600 feet – twice. I’ve worked in Leadville multiple times for both Outward Bound and the Wilderness Medicine Institute, and the altitude there never fails to humble me. My first hike up Mount Elbert (14,440 feet) left me lying in a fetal position on the side of the trail wondering whether I would vomit before or after my head split open. I felt like I was reliving my worst college hangover, — with pine needles substituted for the pink carpet in my dorm room. Another time I taught a class about Acute Mountain Sickness in one of the 10th Mountain Division huts outside of town relying solely on my personal symptoms and travel history. “So I flew in to Denver from San Antonio yesterday afternoon, drove up here to 11,000 feet, and only managed to sleep three hours last night. I woke up with a pounding headache, couldn’t stomach breakfast, and I’m probably going to need to step outside to vomit in a minute. So let’s talk about why I feel so miserable – and what you can do for me.”

Most lowlanders heading off to mountain races understand that they’re going to suffer more than runners who live in the mountains. The oxygen molecules are not packed as closely as they are at sea level, which means you take in less oxygen with each breath. The decrease in atmospheric pressure also makes it harder for oxygen to move from the lungs into the blood vessels and also offload in the muscles. Additionally above 8000 feet, many people suffer Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS: A headache with one or more of the following: nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue or weakness at rest, or insomnia. Wilderness Medicine, Tod Schimelpfenig.)

So what’s a lowlander to do?

Leadville Trail 100Well, ideally you’d travel to a place like Leadville three to six weeks prior to the race and give your body time to acclimatize. You could sit around eating pizza from High Mountain Pies while your body produced more red blood cells, more capillaries, more mitochondria, more myoglobin, and more of the enzyme that helps your red blood cells offload oxygen.

You say you don’t have a month and a half of vacation to devote to your ultra running hobby? Well then, give yourself as much time as you can. The longer you’re in town, the easier the run will feel, and the less likely you’ll suffer any altitude illness. The headache and hangover symptoms of AMS usually start 6 to 72 hours after you arrive at altitude and take 1 to 2 days to resolve (if you don’t ascend higher). So arriving 4 or 5 days before the race would certainly help guard against altitude illness during the run. Of course, someone with a tight work and life schedule could gamble and drive into Leadville the day before the race too. Maybe they wouldn’t get AMS at all, or maybe they wouldn’t get it until after they’d finished the race. Regardless of whether they get sick though, they won’t perform as well if they arrive on Friday as they would if they’d given themselves more time to acclimatize. You’re close to 80% acclimatized after 10 days. 95% in 6 weeks. I managed to get out to Leadville 12 days before the race in 2010 and I didn’t feel the altitude on the course.

Speeding up the process?

Drinking water won’t speed the acclimatization process, but it will help keep you from getting dehydrated. (Crazy!) You breathe faster at altitude to draw in more oxygen, and, as a result, you lose more fluid in the form of water vapor than you do at sea level. You also urinate more at altitude after a few days because your kidneys excrete bicarbonate in order to normalize your blood pH, which was lowered by your fast breathing. (So keep a water bottle with you and drink when you’re thirsty.) The prescription drug acetazolamide, Diamox, can speed the acclimatization process by forcing this bicarbonate excretion from your kidneys. Someone who takes Diamox two or three days before arriving at altitude will have more alkaline urine. This lowers their blood pH, which causes them to breath more rapidly, which increases their oxygen levels, which prevents AMS. Unfortunately, I’m unfamiliar with any research on the safe prophylactic use of Diamox for ultrarunners. No other drugs have been proven to speed acclimatization.

Besides acclimatization, is there anything else?

Train hard. And train to run hard. Turn off your Garmin and concentrate on perceived effort. Your pace will be slower at altitude and it will feel harder. You can’t do much about the pace if you can’t arrive early and acclimatize, but you can train your brain that the feeling of hard work and fatigue is acceptable – that it’s okay to keep running hard. This is Dr. Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Model. (http://www.marathontalk.com/podcast/episode_47_prof_tim_noakes.php at 33:40) For me that means lots of hill running on the treadmill and pushing the intensity of longer runs. And running when it’s nice and hot out– which is always in San Antonio in July and August.

Ultimately there’s no way to predict whether you will suffer altitude illness or how much altitude will affect your performance. Lowlanders are generally at a disadvantage in mountain races, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have great races – especially if they train hard and give themselves time to acclimatize.

See you in Leadville!


Note from Trail Running Club: in 2010 Liza Howard was the 1st Female Finisher at Leadville Trail 100 Run and 14th finisher over-all. Join us in wishing Liza godspeed in the 2012 Leadville Trail 100 Run on August 18-19.

All photos courtesy of Brian Ricketts.



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Liza Howard is an ultramarathoner and coach who lives in San Antonio, Texas with her husband and son. She has won several hundred-mile races, including the Leadville 100, as well as, the USATF 100k and 50-mile national trail titles in 2011. Her 15:33 100 mile PR is the second fastest time run by a US female on trail. She uses her running experience to coach athletes of all abilities to meet the many challenges of long distance running and achieve their goals.

Liza has been a field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School since 2003, teaching leadership, backpacking, climbing and mountaineering skills to student groups on two-week to month-long wilderness expeditions. She also teaches emergency medicine for and the Wilderness Medicine Institute. Liza has a Masters of Education, a BSN, and a BA in History.

Liza's race results from 2009 to 2011 include:

• 2011 Javelina Jundred 101.4mi, 15:47, 1st female, 4th overall, course record
• 2011 USA Track and Field National Championships 50mi, 08:09:59, 1st female, course record
• 2011 Rocky Raccoon 100 mile, 15:33:09 , 1st female, fifth overall
• 2011 USA Track and Field National Championships 100k, 09:35:23, 1st female, course record
• 2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50mi, 08:48:46 , 7th female
• 2010 Leadville Trail 100mi, 21:19:47, 1st female
• 2010 Rocky Raccoon 100mi, 15:45:03, 1st female, 2nd overall
• 2009 Cactus Rose 100mi, 21:02:00, 1st overall, course record

Liza Howard is sponsored by:

Traverse Trail Running New Balance Drymax Sport Socks GU Pure Performance Energy Airrosti Rehab Centers. Dt. Stephen Offenburger, DC, ACP



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