Couch to 100K: How a Running Challenge Changed My Life

I had never run more than 40 miles total — in my life. But this summer, I ran 309 miles over 41 days for the Leadville 100K Challenge, and I’m not even a runner.

It takes a certain level of determination (and stupidity) to essentially go from the couch to completing a 100,000-vertical-foot running challenge. It just so happens that determination and stupid ideas are my specialties.

As a matter of fact, prior to taking on the Leadville 100K Challenge, I had only run 40 miles with a grand total of 9,000 feet of vert in my lifetime. And, oh yeah, I was at least 50 pounds overweight. Nevertheless, I signed up.

A do-it-yourself, season-long challenge, the Leadville 100K dared participants to get outside and run. The goal: Attempt to reach 100,000 feet in vertical gain in a period of 10 weeks. My newfound interest in trail running, combined with my COVID lockdown motto of “Let’s see what my body can do,” pushed me to consider giving it a shot. Living in Colorado and wanting to bag some of America’s most amazing peaks in the process put me over the edge.

Now on the other side of 100K, I can say my life hasn’t been the same since I made that decision.

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Pre-Challenge Mindset

There is nothing easy about a challenge put on by the Leadville Trail Series — not even in a year when races are canceled and the world reels from a pandemic. So naturally, the series’ organizers decided to remind everyone that adventure isn’t canceled. The outdoors aren’t canceled. And, as I would learn, human triumph through pain, suffering, and sheer will is emphatically not canceled.

100k of vert challenge bryce denton
The author cooling off in the snow on a 13er peak during a trail run; photo credit: Bryce Denton.

Except … I’m not a runner. Frankly, I have a history of quitting athletic endeavors when they get hard, and I’ve never been a strong finisher. So this challenge was basically a giant exercise in exposing and overcoming my worst traits.

At the end of 10 weeks, I had climbed 100,757 vertical feet covering 309 miles over 41 days of running. And in those 41 days, everything changed — my body, my mindset, and my way of life. By the end of the challenge, I could no longer imagine a world where I wasn’t waking up at 4 a.m. to run.

Mental & Physical Obstacles

I was born with a body built for power and short bursts of speed. To give you an idea, my youth football coach’s nickname for me was “The Tank.” I take to sports like hockey, skiing and, lately, rock climbing.

I’m not by nature built to go long distances or climb up mountains for hours at a time. Additionally, I was born with a minor heart arrhythmia; anytime I ran for a long time, my heart felt like it would never recover.

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A challenge like the Leadville 100K is not only physically challenging but mentally challenging as well. I’d heard that trail running is as much mental as it is physical, that pushing through mental barriers is a hell of a lot harder than expanding physical limits.

I learned firsthand how true this really is. Getting on the trail and pushing through the miles and vert turned out to be the easy part.

leadville 100k vert challenge

The mental challenge of running and hiking 100,000 vertical feet over 10 weeks was far more draining. There was planning — spreadsheets, hours on AllTrails, and reading weather reports. Then, here in Colorado, having to cancel runs due to smoke, wildfires, and poor air quality only added a psych-out aspect.

The Biggest Challenge of All

And then there was the discipline I needed to quiet my inner critic.

Are you sure you should be doing this? You’re too fat to do this. No one out here looks like you. Don’t be stupid. Just quit and save yourself the time. What makes you think you can do this? 

To be completely honest, my inner critic almost crushed me on several occasions — right up to the final two weeks. By that point, I was all but certain that I would finish, but that voice made one last effort to derail my mental and physical growth.

Luckily, the other voice urging me forward — the one that grew louder with each week of the challenge — won the battle.

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Leadville 100K Challenge: How I Changed

I came out of this challenge more mentally fit than I have ever been. I started this challenge with immense doubt and negative self-talk. But I emerged 10 weeks later with a renewed sense of self, a fit body, and mental resilience that will benefit me physically, professionally, and personally.

The way I look at my body, myself, and the world around me has changed dramatically. I’m starting to realize — after years of body shaming — that how your body looks often has very little to do with how it can perform.

Many of us have heard this before, of course, but I never quite believed it until I put my stubborn self through it. While I still have some work to do to feel my healthiest, I accept who I am today as more than adequate to take on the day’s challenge, whatever that may be.

I never expected this challenge to change my body, let alone my mindset. I just wanted to continue my COVID-19 lockdown motto: “Let’s see what your body can do”. But over the course of this challenge, I learned so much more about myself than I had bargained for. Sometimes, I’ve found, it pays to sign up for a goal that feels so far out of reach.

COVID-19 took a lot away from me this year. But this challenge provided me with something I genuinely never thought I’d find: self-love, a healthy body image, and acceptance of who I am.

My advice if you want to tackle a 100K vert challenge, or something similar: Reach out to your friends when you sign up and let them support you. Thank them when are you cranky and they keep smiling and cheering you on. Heck, lean on your dog for support. (Big thanks to my 10-year-old Lab, Annabella, who helped me maintain a nice, relaxing pace.)

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Leadville 100K Challenge: The Gear I Used

Completing this challenge required a lot of things, but here’s the gear I used the most. 

  • All Trails Pro: I’ve used AllTrails for years without signing up for Pro services, and now I realize what a mistake that was. For big adventures, the ability to download the maps and use them offline is a legit time- and lifesaver. Do it now. You won’t regret it.
  • Altra Timp 2.0: The wide toebox, zero-drop, ultra-cushioned Altra Timp 2.0 was like a dream on my foot. While a lot of people felt the upper was tight compared to the Timp 1.5, I promise you that after one to 3 miles, they break in. The Timp 2.0 is a far superior and more responsive shoe than the previous 1.5 model. Available in women’s and men’s models.
  • Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 5.0: I was not let down when I bought the Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 5.0. It was perfect for my small days, and it had more than enough storage for my biggest day — nearly 17 miles and 7,000 feet of climbing. That big day, I carried 4.5 liters of water (a 2.5L reservoir and four 500mL body II bottles) and used every drop. All while carrying my phone, baby wipes, IcyHot, earbuds, gels, and a sandwich. This really is a fantastic all-around vest.
used gear 100k vert
The author’s used gear post-100,000 feet of vert: left, the Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 5.0; right, the Altra Timp 2.0s.
  • Fuel: Every runner is going to have unique nutrition needs, but for me, the combination of Spring Energy and Tailwind was perfect. As a larger runner taking on massive vert days, my caloric needs were definitely higher than the average runner. So I went with the Spring Energy SpeedNut with caffeine (250 calories) and the Wolf Pack (300 calories and oh-so-yummy) as my staples. I was especially excited to try the Tailwind Nutrition product for two reasons. One, it’s made locally in Colorado, and two, I lost a ton of salt via heavy sweating, and a high-sugar diet kept me from bonking. So I became a big fan of Tailwind’s caffeinated endurance fuel. Each scoop contains 300mg of sodium and 25g of sugar. And, you can mix it into water. Let’s face it, you don’t always want to eat a gel, and liquid calories are easy to keep down.

100k vert challenge gear items

  • Suunto 9 BaroThis watch has way too many features to list, but it was invaluable in keeping me on track throughout this challenge. I used the Baro because I thought it was a nice feature to have altitude — and, therefore, vert — measured by both barometric readings and GPS.
  • Friends. As cheesy as this sounds, the most important piece of equipment I had through this whole challenge were those closest to me. Without their constant support, check-ins — and dog-watching services — no way would I have successfully completed this challenge. A good crew is as crucial to success as all the equipment listed above, combined.

Up next in my runner’s journey: The Mad Moose Events Rattler Trail 50K on October 24. Let’s see what my body can do.

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With a deeply ingrained love for the mountains, Bryce moved with his beloved black Lab, Annabella, to Colorado to access the state’s natural beauty on a daily basis. An avid trail runner, skier, and climber, he continues to discover new places that take his breath away. Follow his adventures on Instagram @bden10.