2012 Leadville Silver Rush 50 Mile Run

Overall Time: 9:31:33
Pace: 11:25
Place: 66 of 479 (429 finishers)

Weather: 45 degrees at the start
Start Time: 6:00am

I can’t really remember how it all started, but at the beginning of the year one of my friends who ran the Lookout Mountain 50 miler started talking up the Silver Rush 50 Mile Run in Leadville, Colorado (yes, the same Leadville of the famed 100 miler). Somehow, most of my Lookout 50 crew and I decided that another mountain-y 50 miler would be in order for 2012, and we all ended up registering for the Silver Rush 50. It’d be Mike S, Jonathan W and Daniel G heading over to Leadville to go run through the mountains like maniacs.

Almost all ultramarathons seem to have a “thing” — extreme weather, difficult terrain, crazy climbing, wild bear zombies chasing you. For the Silver Rush, it was the altitude. The race starts in the town of Leadville at Dutch Henry Hill at 10,200 feet. On 4 occasions (technically, 6) you ascend to above 12,000 oxygen-depleted feet above where normal humans live. Having done the Atacama Crossing earlier in the year (8000 – 10,000 ft above sea level) I was somewhat familiar with how it felt to run an ultra feeling like you have a sock stuck in your mouth as your lungs burn for air. “It’s not so bad,” I told myself when I signed up.

“It’s not so bad,” soon turned into, “why again did I sign up for this?” as July 15th approached. Having just run a successful Reach the Beach in May and ready to start preparing for the Chicago Marathon in October, this sort of threw a wrench in my ambitions to run fast this year. I’m not saying that it’s not possible to run ultramarathons and still train for speed at shorter distances, but I prefer the idea of specificity of training. And 50-mile mountain trail races have very little to do with marathons on flat roads.

Unfortunately I had committed to the race not so much by the $95 registration fee, but by the commitment of buying a plane ticket to come from France to run this thing. Had it just been the entry fee, I may have opted not to run it and call it a lesson learned. I would have called it the lesson of Don’t-Get-Swept-Up-In-Everyone-Else’s-Fervor-For-Random-Ultramarathons-Thousands-Of-Miles-Away. But with a round-trip international flight, I was sort of pot committed.

I did make one concession, though: I would not be racing this. I’d put in enough effort to get me over the finish line without embarrassing myself, but I would not run with guns ablazin’ because I knew that when I left Colorado I would need to resume Chicago Marathon training immediately.

I flew into Boulder on Thursday night. Daniel is a Boulder native and was staying at his parent’s place. He’d offered Jonathan a spare bed to sleep on, so conveniently we were all in the same town together in the days before the race. Boulder is only at slightly more than 5000 feet above sea level and any hopes of trying to acclimate to the altitude were dashed knowing that the race started at twice the elevation.

Arriving in Leadville on Saturday afternoon, we didn’t do much other than the standard packet pickup and go for a nervous-energy-expending walk through our surroundings. We were joined in Leadville by Jonathan’s sister (there for support) and her husband Jimmy (who would be running the race).

After a vegan dinner (their idea, not mine…. but it was good) we headed to bed and I tried my best to sleep. God did I need to sleep. Since having landed in Denver two nights prior, I hadn’t gotten more than 3 hours of sleep in the past two nights. I’m normally able to sleep before big races, so I had good hopes that my generally knackered state would mean that I’d pass out as soon as my head hit the pillow at 10am for the 4:15am wake-up call. I was wrong. I tossed and turned all night, and worse — I was in a bunk bed. I had to be conscious of not disturbing Daniel G sleeping below me so I just laid there facing the ceiling (all two feet from my face) praying I’d catch an hour or two of sleep.

I was already awake when my alarm went off, and I hopped in the shower to try and shake the grog of not sleeping. After a coffee and some fruity bready thing that the boys had picked up at the Boulder’s farmer’s market the day before, I checked my pulse and realized it was sky high for me. It was the lack of sleep or the altitude, or both — but I wasn’t feeling good. I really wanted to pull out of the race but I ended up getting in the car like a good soldier and we headed to the race start.

The race starts at Dutch Henry Hill is an old hill used for tubing when there’s snow. It’s a crazy hill to try and run up, but the race organizers stood at the top of the hill and handed out two entries to the Leadville 100 next month — one to the first male and the other to the first female that reached the top first — and this was enough that a few souls went scrambling up the hill with reckless abandon to snatch their way into the already sold-out 100.

Daniel and I leisurely walked up the hill, as did half the field. In any 5K you can’t win the first mile but you sure can lose in the first mile. Let’s just extrapolate that for a 50 miler, and you can imagine why I had no incentive to go straight up hill at the beginning of this race with any sort of speed.

I settled into a nice little groove with a few people and noticed that I wasn’t feeling so good. I don’t think it was the lack of oxygen so much as it was how tired my body was with no rest. The first few miles were nice and easy, with Jonathan and Jimmy ahead of me and Daniel behind me. Despite “nice and easy” I was already having doubts about finishing by mile 5. I just tried to keep my head down and reach the first aid station at mile 7.

I tend to measure distances in ultras by aid stations to break down the race into manageable chunks, and 50 individual miles are hard to pay attention to especially as this race I ran without a Garmin. Aid stations at the Silver Rush are roughly every 7 miles, which is a decent distance to focus on each time — surprisingly I completely missed the first aid station. How in the hell does that happen?

I suppose after having doubts about finishing at mile 5, I managed to zone out and let my legs find their own gear. The next 6.5 miles to the Printer Boy aid station at mile 13.5 were up and down. There were 3 miles of uphill and it was here that we ascended to above 12,000 feet for the first time. It’s very clear when you do this because all the trees suddenly disappear. Even they can’t be bothered to go beyond around 11,300 feet in the Rockies and it becomes a very disturbing feeling to be above them. I just kept thinking to myself, “I want to be around trees already!” when I found myself climbing and starving for oxygen.

Ironically, knowing my lack of enthusiasm for uphills, I passed Jimmy during this uphill section although he never seemed to trail me for more than a few meters when I glanced back. Daniel had told me that he wanted to put in a good effort at this race and would be going out hard but I wondered if he’d have the stamina to keep it up. I wasn’t racing this all-out, but I was at least still competitive with those around my speed.

Desperate for trees again, my prayers were answered when the climb was followed by a lovely 3.5-mile downhill along nice dirt road.  With good traction and a nice downward slope, this section would be a nice time to stretch out the legs without exhausting myself. Unfortunately, as I noted to myself, as an out-and-back course I would have to deal with a 3.5-mile uphill climb toward the final miles of the race.  Shit.

At mile 13.5 I reached Printer Boy and made sure not to miss it because I had run out of water in my sole 21-oz handheld bottle. It was here that I tasted my first gout of whatever Gu-brand energy drink they were giving out. It wasn’t bad, but it was a little strong in the middle of a race. I made a note to mix it with 50% water next aid station and passed through the aid station without hesitation. I had picked this up from the suggestions of others, and having seen Debbie Livingston do it last year at Lookout. With 7 aid stations, lingering an extra 3 minutes at each one ends up being a lot of time. I made it a point never to stop more than the 30 seconds needed to fill my water bottle and stuff my face with some watermelon.

Leaving Printer Boy I knew that we’d begin another tough climb to the next aid station at mile 18. With only 4.5 miles to run we’d ascend to 12,000 feet two times (a slight dip each time) and each time we’d hope to get back beneath that tree line. The only good thing about this section for me was knowing that when I reached the mile 18 aid station I would be on my way to the turn-around point and half the race would soon be over.

Looking back, it’s a little strange to think that I don’t have many recollections about this section being very hard. It sounds hard, yes… going to 12,000 feet never sounds easy… but I think it’s easy enough in the race that you still have energy, and the prospect of nearing the turnaround point makes you forget about the fact that you’re starting to get tired. You just keep your head down, and all of a sudden you’re at mile 18 with only a few miles to go until the halfway point. The roads were fairly decent and the climbing was nice and gradual. There wasn’t any big “fuck you” that the course threw your way going to 18.

The section between 18 and 25 were a bit of an odd duck. The first bit was easy, but then it got a little tricky. It was never flat, and the footing got a little funny. I kept thinking, “there were people on mountain bikes doing this yesterday?!” It just seemed a little dangerous at times due to the steep downhills and tricky footing. A lot of people were walking the downhills, afraid of losing control or killing their quads if they allowed themselves to jog down. I can just imagine someone starting a jog down and quickly becoming an arm-flailing maniac running at full speed despite their best intentions to stop. This was immediately followed by a fairly flat route toward the turnaround point where we would pick up our drop bags and have another chance to eat some yummy watermelon.

Heading to the turnaround I saw Jonathan looking very strong somewhere around 10th place. Thankfully we were both running on flat ground so we were both actually running in front of each other, instead of one of us walking an uphill, and we exchanged obligatory motivating shouts at each other. I had been counting the people coming “back” while I was on the “out” portion of the course and knew he was doing well so I said something to him about cracking the top 10.

At mile 25 I picked up my drop bag, but found that I didn’t need anything in it. Instead I added my arm warmers to it now that the sun had warmed the air up a bit. I shoveled down a handful of salt and vinegar chips and then learned that a friend of mile would be dropping from the race due to some severe headaches, stomach issues, and other fairly severe altitude-related symptoms. With this bit of bad news I had no choice but to continue on alone. Jimmy wasn’t far behind — maybe 5 minutes — but when he came in and I offered to run with him he said he needed to rest a bit at the stop and by then I was ready to go. So I went.

I picked up a few running friends on my way back to the start. There was a nice woman from New Mexico who seems to be a bit of an ultrahead. She was training for her first 100 miler and was having a conversation with a 100M veteran. I joined in the group and tried to soak up any free advice I could. Both she and the other guy were from elevation and at some point she asked me where I was from. “SEA LEVEL!” was my response, and it was about time we all had a good laugh. After running a marathon in the mountains you need a bit of distraction from what you’re doing and talking about 100 milers wasn’t really distracting me from running 50.

Soon I saw Daniel heading toward mile 25 and looking very strong. Unfortunately for me he caught me on an uphill section — which meant I was walking (!) while he managed to look cool and confident on his downhill run. The bastard! I had left Mile 25 approximately 20 minutes earlier, which means that I had around 40 minutes on him.

A mile or two into the run back, it got hard. Hard hard. The crazy downhill on the way out because a crazy uphill on the way back. People were walking. People were stopping! It was like climbing stairs for thousands of feet, except the footing was less than stellar and all I could think of was how much I wish Jimmy had run with me so that I could focus on someone else’s misery instead of my own.

After what seemed like an eternity (probably 15 minutes) I made it to the top. It was then that I really started seeing people who were making their way to mile 25 and started to think that it was going to be a veeeery long day for them. At the top of this walk I saw people who were so relieved to finally be going downhill but I hadn’t the heart to tell them that it was ten times harder coming back up. I kept my mouth shut, yelled cheesy things like, “you made it!” and kept going on.

Running to the aid station at Mile 30 was pretty simple after the crazy trek uphill. I was still with New Mexico and her 100M ultraveteran, often trading places depending on our relative skills (mine, downhill and hers, uphill). We stuck together as a group until Printer Boy at 38.5, when I just blazed through not wanting to stop. It was here that I couldn’t believe how many people were spending enough time here to have a picnic. After going straight through with only a top-off of fluids, I turned back a half mile into the course and couldn’t see anyone behind me. What were they doing, firing up a bbq?

Anyway, unfortunately this departure from Printer Boy meant that I’d be facing that 3.5-mile section above 12,000 feet that I had made a mental note of during the opening parts of the race. What was before a lovely downhill was not a gruelingly long, winding epic of an uphill battle. Every time I turned a corner I thought I would see the end, but it never seemed to come when I wanted. Only when I grew desperate to see a hint of relief did I see the turn down to the brilliant sight of the treeline. I can guarantee you that nine out of ten people will remark that this stretch was one of the most demoralizing parts of the entire race. The distance of the uphill and the placement this late in the race made it a nice little challenge. Now that I’m done with it I can call it a, “nice little challenge,” but at the time I thought it was just bitch entirely unnecessary to my happiness.

With that final climb out of the way, the rest of the race would be at only 10,000 feet. It sounds scary thinking that 10,000 is some sort of a relief, but it was. There would be 3 more miles to the last aid station, and about 7 miles to the finish. Best of all, it would be net downhill and nothing too technical about the trail. There would be nothing for me to fall over (unlike Lookout), no crazy hills to climb, and not a whole lot of distance separating me from the finish.

I plodded along at my joggy pace and finished the last miles unsure of how fast to run them. Should I pick up the pace and try for a big PR? Would doing so kill my legs too much and force me to take the next week off? Is my ego in the 50 miler bigger than my training plans for Chicago? I was just a ball of uncertainty how to finish off this race, until I reached the aid station at mile 43. By then I had run out of water and forced myself to stay at the aid station to rehydrate and take in extra fluids before departing for the finish. I got into a quick conversation with some of the volunteers, which ended up in a joking debate about salted vs. unsalted watermelons, and that’s when I realized I should ease off the throttle a bit and not kill myself finishing this thing.

I set off for the finish alone now. New Mexico and her 100M friend had passed me somewhere along the uphill walk of death after Printer Boy, and the last 7 would be all me. I had plenty of time to think about the race now that I was confident that I would finish it in around 9 hours 30 minutes. I knew the last bit would take me just over an hour, so I enjoyed the views and started wondering how Daniel, Jimmy and Jonathan were doing. Jonathan was probably finished by now, and Jimmy and Daniel had to be close behind me.

There was nothing special about this last segment, except me thinking that I was glad it was easy terrain and I was glad that it was shaded beneath trees. It made it very runnable if you still had the energy, and I can imagine that there were some fast finishes from the top 10. There was a bump of a hill with about a mile left to go, but it wasn’t so bad. What *was* bad was the fact that at the top of the hill you could hear the announcer calling in peoples’ names — I was close! Not far in the distance to my left people were finishing! But wait… what’s this? Why am I turning right? NO NO NO I wanted to turn left and finish this! Why am I being led around in the forest when the finish is so near? It was a cruel thing to do to runners, but we meandered a bit through random trail turns before we were as close to the finish as we thought.

Inevitably I made it to the finish. It was spectacular — there was a massive drop straight down the same hill that we ran up to start things off (ok, a bit off to the side in case any of you want to get super technical — but the grade was the same). Arms were flailing, legs were kicking, and boom…. I was finished 9 hours and 31 minutes after I had started; an accidental PR for me. Even not racing this I managed to tick off a minute from my time at Lookout, and I felt like I still had a lot of energy crossing the line. It was a mild success.

Jonathan had finished in an astonishing 8:08, proving that he’s some sort of superman for not succumbing to the lack of oxygen. This placed him in 12th place of field of over 400. Jimmy would post a PR of 10:29, and Daniel would manage to set a PR as well clocking a 10:50, for his first time under 11 hours. It’s rare that I ever go to races with friends where we all have good races, so it made it all the more exceptional how well this weekend had been executed. I’m fairly certain this is a race that I would do again, if I can scrap together the money and time to do so. And I think the next time I go to Leadville, I’m racing this to shoot for sub 8:30.

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