Leadville 100 Deep Dive with Jason Cohen
PATH projects KREW member Jason Cohen, went from 300 lbs to just 7 years later running the Leadville Trail 100 in 2018.
His incredible story has been documented in great detail in his documentary Heavy as Lead.
"I will never do this again."
He wrote a detailed article about his training, preparation and race day execution.
Jason: On August 21st, 2021 I found myself on the starting line of the Leadville 100 for the second time. I remember distinctly (and there is video proof) that in the final miles of Leadville in 2018 I promised my pacer over and over that "I would never do this again." Wrong. Another friend once told me that no-one who runs 100 miles does it only once, and here I was proving them right. The first time I ran/completed Leadville I did it with my little boy in my wife's belly as I crossed the finish line, and this time I was determined to cross the finish line with him in my arms.
One question that I had this year was how could I learn from my past experience to improve my race. In my my mind there were three major areas to focus on which were training, preparation, and race day execution. Here are some insights that I tried to build on and I hope that they may help someone out there as well.
Training for Leadville 100
One of the biggest mistakes in 2018 was that early on in training (9 or so months out from race day) I started training way too hard. Within the first month of training I decided it would be a good idea to race a 1/2 marathon which in the process I had a personal best, and also an injury that stuck with me through my 2018 race day. This meant long days on the indoor bike, aqua jogging (as terrible as it sounds), and hours on the elliptical machine. For my 2021 race I made sure to be much more conservative in my early training and ramped up much more slowly. This approach gave my body the time to adjust and absorb the training training load. When you have a big goal on the horizon it is very easy to be overly ambitious early on and to forget about the fact that 9 months is plenty of time when you train smart.
More Time Under Load
In 2018 I focused very heavily on running specifically (outside of when I was injured). This makes perfect sense of course when training to run 100 miles, however since I live in an area with very few trails, this meant that almost all of my miles were on roads, which meant that after longer runs I would often feel beaten up from all of the pounding on pavement. In 2021 I committed to doing more two-a-days where I would ride an indoor bike for 1-2 hours in the mornings and run for 1-3 hours in the evenings. This approach kept me from having those longer 3-4 hour runs on the road throughout most of my training.
I live in a very flat area which makes it a bit harder to prepare my legs for climbing mountains. One of the tools that I have found extremely helpful is a video by Coach David Roche (found here). The workout includes rear lunges, single-leg Bulgarian split squats, single-leg deadlifts, goblet squats, and single leg step ups. It is a very simple and effective set of body weight exercises (adding weights as you progress) that can be done just about anywhere. I typically do 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps and as I progress I will add in weights. WARNING! Ease into this workout if you have not been doing these exercises before this point. You will be surprised how sore this simple 20-30 minute workout can leave you for a few days. I typically do this workout 2-4 times per week in addition to other workouts. Another thing I add in is 50-100 squats when I return from a run (adding in a kettlebell for extra work). This gets your body accustomed to some hard work right after running which is very helpful for when you are having to climb during a race after a flat section. Lastly, I will often do 25-50 squats throughout the day at different times (right after going to the bathroom is a great reminder). All of these really add up to help prepare you legs for climbing.
Get on Course
I was very fortunate to be able to get some time on the course ahead of the race in 2021. This, combined with running the race previously, gave me a ton of confidence in knowing what to expect throughout race day(s). I have heard terrible stories of individuals who are extremely well trained and end up taking a wrong turn durning a new race, only to miss cutoffs because of the added (and lost) miles. Arguably the toughest section in Leadville is the Hope Pass part where you climb to the top of Hope Pass (12,600ft) at around mile 45 and again around mile 55. This was a large focus of mine when I was able to get on course. I did the double Hope Pass climb 3 times (20ish miles with 6,000ft of climbing) as well as a single climb once with my little boy on my back. Feeling the hardest part of the course in training was a huge confidence boost going into race day. I realize that this may not be possible for everyone, but it is something that I would certainly make every effort to have happen if at all possible.
Preparation for Leadville 100
I think that most people who sign up and get to the starting line of a long race take care of the physical training. Between coaches, online training plans, podcasts, etc, there are plenty of resources out there to help someone put together a solid training schedule. To me, the most neglected part of preparation is on mental side. I can't count the number of times I have had someone mention, "I am going to go out there and give it my best" or "I hope I can finish." The moment that we give ourselves an out, we start to develop a crack in our mental foundation. The best piece of race related wisdom I have received was a few months before my race in 2018 from a friend. I was nervous because it was my first 100 mile race and I was looking for any insight that she might be able to pass along (she had finished Leadville previously). As we were talking she stopped me and said, "if I can finish this race, then you can too." Until that moment I hadn't realized how important it was for me to believe that I was capable of finishing. From that point on I didn't allow doubt to creep in, even when training got tough or didn't go according to plan. Anytime I would talk out loud about the race I would be very careful about my word choices, my self-talk, and make sure that my only mental focus was on finishing the race.
On race day you have one job, which is to run. Your crew have every other job. One thing that helped me tremendously was to write down and talk about every aspect of race weekend with my crew. I created a 10 page document that covered the obvious things like phone numbers, addresses, times, as well as aid station/transition instructions, crew personal items packing lists, pacer eating instructions, how to communicate with the runner at aid stations, having a spotter at each aid station, etc. My goal was that if my crew had any questions (or doubts) that they could simply refer to the document to answer all of their questions. I wanted to make sure that I properly communicated everything swimming around in my head to all of my crew and leave nothing to chance. I sent out my first version of this document to all of my pacers/crew a week before race day for feedback. The afternoon before the race we went over the entire document as a group to make sure that no-one had any questions or suggestions. *Feel free to reach out if you would like for me to share this document!
One mistake that I made in 2018 was waiting until the day before the race to pack all of my drop bags. In 2021 I packed my drop bags almost a week out when I could carefully check my lists and pack outside of the craziness of race weekend. This is a small tweak, but one that I can't recommend enough.
Race Day Execution
One of my biggest missteps in 2018 was going out too fast. It is a classic rookie mistake. I remember my crew being surprised to see me so soon at the first aid station (around 13 miles) and oh boy did I pay for that first fast 1/2 marathon (only 7 or so more to go!). In 2021 I decided that I was going to go out at a more reserved pace (over a 1 minute per mile slower than 2018) and give myself some time to settle in. This really paid off physically and mentally as I still felt fresh through the second aid station (mile 24.5).
Another mistake that I made in 2018 was to carry too much on myself throughout the race, both gear and food. I realized how much unnecessary energy was expended by carrying around a full size vest/pack during the first 1/2 of the race and decided in 2021 to move to a waist pack for miles 1-40. This allowed me to save my back for this section of the race. Rather than carrying 3 liters of water at all times, I just made sure to refill water bottles at every opportunity, and I never ran out. I also was more realistic with the amount of food I would be consuming during each section, rather than having every option imaginable at every moment. The belt that I used had 2x 500ml water bottles as well as plenty of storage for nutrition, jacket (if needed), first aid, TP, etc. I also relied more heavily on my shorts (Graves 7in) for carrying additional food/gels.
Aid Station Management
In Leadville there are a total of 7 main aid stations (in addition to the mini-aid stations). One of the dangers of this is that it is very easy to spend too much time at each aid station. If you simply spend 5 minutes at each station that will cost you 35 minutes, and 10 minutes at each station would mean a whopping hour and ten minutes! When I entered each aid station I had one person in charge of time who would set a 4 minute timer and one additional one minute timer. They made sure that I was in and out within that 5 minute time frame or shortly there after. When I would walk into an aid station my crew would take my belt, completely empty what I had been carrying in it, reload, refill water/electrolytes, make sure I was stretching/rolling my legs, and would send me quickly out of the aid station with something in my hand to eat as I was exiting. I also gave my crew directions to not set up a chair for me until mile 60 so I wouldn't have the temptation to sit and linger.
There were a few significant changes made to Leadville in 2021, one of which was that you could not pick up a pacer until mile 60 (previous years it was at mile 50 before the second - and more difficult - Hope Pass crossing). After talking to a few others ahead of race day, we all agreed that this meant leaning on each other up until mile 60 for support and encouragement. There were two points in the race where for myself, and others, this made all of the difference in the world. From miles 25-40 there is a fairly boring (and at times fairly sun exposed) section where things can begin to get pretty lonely. I was fortunate around mile 30 to find a group of 3 others who were also in a bit of a low spot and we stuck together until just before the next aid station. We told jokes, congratulated each other on how far we had already come, and it was a huge morale boost at a time that it was much needed. I know that 2 out of these 3 finished the race and we still stay in touch. The second time came on the back side of Hope Pass (around mile 53) at the base of the steepest climb. I found myself again with 2 other runners and we decided that we would slog out the tough climb together, one step at a time. When we got near the top of the climb, the gentleman who had been leading for most of it, turned around and said to me, "this is so hard, can I have a hug?". We embraced, continued to climb, and thanks to those two individuals I reached the next aid station with time to spare.
Roll With The Punches
No race is complete without some hiccups and one thing I learned in 2018 was not to waste mental energy on being frustrated with things going awry. At one point in 2021 I changed from shorts into running pants and I realized that my bib number/timing chip didn't make the transfer! No problem. My crew simply sprinted a 1/3 mile to retrieve my bib number while I sat and had a cup of noodles. At a later section I realized that I walked out without my trekking poles right before a major climb. No problem. I simply ran on for 3 miles while my pacer sprinted back to the last aid station, retrieved my poles from my crew, and sprinted back to meet me as I was starting the climb. There was no reason to get upset or frustrated because in the end that would not help me get to the finish line.
Conclusion Leadville 100
So how did it all go? 29 hours 47 minutes 32 seconds. I came in a little over 20 minutes slower than my race in 2018. Most of this was due to stomach issues/cramping that I had for the last 40 miles/12 hours of the race which left me unable to run for most of those miles. It is something that I still wonder how I could have avoided, but something that can only be worked out through trial/error. Beyond the stomach issues, I couldn't have been more happy with how the rest of my race went. I crossed the finish line with my little boy in my arms, surrounded by my wife and friends, with 12 minutes and 28 seconds to spare. Mission accomplished.
With all of that being said, what would I do differently in my next race? More leg workouts? Stretch more? Run more stadiums? Sleep more? Then again, I promised myself that I would never do another one.....