Saturday, July 23, 2011

Glory to Dust: A report from the Leadville Silver Rush 50

The dust has settled and the aches have subsided. Time to write a race report.

My preparation for this race could be barely be described as recreational running. The Leadville 50 mile would be the first ultra I've done since my (hopefully not so) temporary move to Boulder. Though I'm thouroughly loving my time here and enjoying every mile of trail I get to run, those miles haven't been as frequent or as plentiful as I'd hoped. Many factors have gone into this but they can be summed up as follows:

life happens

Working an unpaid "big boy" job in therapeutic recreation has proven to take up much more of my time than my lacksadaisical approach to academia. 30-60 hours a week have been the first thing to take their toll on my running.

Leaving the majority of my support group has proven to be more of a detriment to me than it has for them. Without my arsenal of joggers to drag me out on multiple daily runs, my motivation has waned. This has taught me the value of support from others. Give it when you've got it, take it when it's offered.

Now that I've compiled a hefty list of excuses, I will go out on a limb and say that I did do a few things right. Nearly all of my runs consisted of higher intensity climbs. My fascination with peaks has driven me to climb Green Mountain, Bear Peak, or Mount Sanitas most of the days I hit trails. My road runs had been mostly quicker efforts or long climbs on mountain roads. I let the terrain dictate my training.

Did a substitution of higher mileage and more runs for higher quality and more fun work out for me in the end? I think there are too many variables to tell. My recovery from Mind the Ducks was slower that expected, but I did manage to steadily work my way up to a 75mile week before leadville. My longest run since moving to Boulder was a 3 hour run at altitude that took me a marvelous 13 miles. Clearly, I was resting on the laurels of my 12 hour, 77.24 mile run back in may.

How woould a decent midwest runner do when completely out of his element? I've won a couple 50milers, a 12 hour, and placed in a few others over on the east side of the Mississippi. I don't feel as though my adaptation  to mountains was complete before this attempt, but time waits for nobody.

Like how I start each race report with a line of excuses and bullshit? On with it already.

Okay, the weekend itself

Sam and I slept in on Saturday morning, knowing we would be deprived of our precious slumber in due time. We both sleep like infants for some reason. Once I finally rolled out of bed, I got a few things done that I knew I wouldn't be motivated to do in 48 hours. Mowed the lawn, prepped the car, cleaned up outside the house, all that boring stuff. Sam was getting into "crew/caregiver/general saint" mode and made an awesome lunch of pancakes and fruit.

We checked to make sure we packed everything, I put on my most adventurous hat, and we were off. I remembered the easy drive to Leadville from our last trip up there, so we kept the GPS in the glove box.

A couple hours of road trip music later, and we were at 10000ft. Our first order of business was to check into our campsite and get our tent set up. Sam and I are different combinations of frugal and adventurous, but we both decided that our little Coleman tent would serve as the most effective means of housing.

I don't know what the hell that string is for.

After getting set up, we meandered back into town. It was a bout a 4 mile bike ride into downtown Leadville, so we took the bikes off my roofrack and made some tracks down the gravel road. I wanted to see if I could avoid getting up at 4am and pick my race packed up early. No dice - I missed the early packet pickup time. Oh well, I needed to add a challenge anyway, right? Why not throw a 4am alarm into the mix?

We rode down the hill to the start/finish area to catch the tail end of the mountain bike race. The atmosphere was pretty cool, but after looking around a bit, we headed back into town for ice cream. It only seemed fitting that I eat Rocky Road flavor.

The ride back to our campsite was all downhill, so we made it back quite a bit easier. The ride in the AM to the race start was going to be a cold, dark, bitch of an uphill ride. Oh well. We hopped back in the car and went back to town for the best reason to do any type of physical activity. Authentic Mexican food by the pound! I was quite suprised to be the only runner in the restarante at 8pm the night before a race. Don't other people know the power of refried beans, tortilla, cheese, and some good hot salsa? It' lead to some success in the past and it sounded good, so we went with it.

Back to campsite, where Samantha and I had an obligation to fill. That obligation is to eat several S'mores in the presence of a campfire. We would have been in remiss to not enjoy the wonder of marshmallow, graham cracker, and chocolate...and Pabst.
My 1-woman support crew, roastin' some mallows.

Hold the "Brokeback Mountain" jokes. The ignorant author attempts
to start a fire without the use of 1.5 gallons of gasonline.
We sat up talking until about 12am. I know that neither of us fell asleep until at least 1. Not a big deal. It's not like we had to be up early or anything.

...3 hours later...

Alarm goes off. Sleepy. I contemplate just staying in bed. "The race is chip timed, right? I could just start it at 9!" Of course, I did get up a few minutes later, even if it was rather reluctantly. Brushed my teeth and changed with my headlamp on, threw on some pants, a couple shirts, and a jacket. The weather app on my phone said it was about 36 degrees. Since I was rather limited on breakfast options, I had one Carnation instant breakfast, then packed another for when we got to the race start. I threw on my backpack with my race supplies in it and headed to town with Sam.

little known fact: Im a professional phtographer.

 Without further ado - the race

I rolled up in the dark to a a few folks setting up EZ-up tents. The ski hill at the start has outdoor lighting, a few minutes after I arrived, the lights turned on. People started shuffling in, taking their pre-race deuces and fidgeting with this and that. Some smiled happily as they milled about, talking to anyone about anything. Others anxiously avoided eye contact and did strange calisthenic type movements. I've learned not to take anything like that personally. In spite of my passive attitude, I know that running 50 miles at 12000 feet is a big deal. We all deal with the anticipation in different ways. I just sort of wandered around, filing my water bottles, stuffing my shorts pockets with GU, drinking some weird energy drink, covertly adjusting my...unmentionables.

I drank a bottle of water while standing around

shivering at the start line
The announcer called out "5 minutes to race start!" so I eagerly made the 6 to 10 foot journey to the start line. It suprisingly took less than 5 minutes. I always do that. The RD explained that at the top of the ski hill pictured above, there were two silver dollars-  one for the male and one for the female that reaches the top first.


I've never seen a candy machine that takes silver dollars, so I just hung midpack as adrenaline pulled me up the hill.

I climbed this hill two weeks ago with Sam. After that, I had no intention of actually running up it on race day. The surge of adrenaline drove me up the hill much faster than I anticipated. I weaved in and out of the hoard of people, relentlessly clawing my way up to the top. By the time I got there, I had actually made it into the pack that was after the silver dollar. Probably not the best strategy for someone who was trying to be steady, so I backed off a little and just tried to get comfortable after the course leveled out. I tried to fight the urge to pass people as I felt like I was in ROTC formation. As I slowly learn from my experiences in ultras, I've created a simple motto: don't resist anything.  If you feel like running faster, run faster. You will hurt later, whether you keep tugging at the reins or not, so let it fly. This goes against the grain of conventional ultra wisdom, but our sport is entering a new era - speed rules.

The first few miles went pretty smoothly, I talked briefly with a group of people as we hung together. My plan to stalk the leaders immediately went to shit. I just started running my own race. After a few attempts at a surge, I decided that the diesel of a man next to me was going to be my pacer for a bit. He looked like my friend Phil, so just refered to him as such in my head.

After a completely silent 7 miles, we reached the first aid station. I estimated that there were roughly 7 people ahead of me. The sun had come up and I was treated to the most spectacular sunrise I've ever seen. The snowcapped mountains blazed in an orange glow as if they were molten hunks of the ore that lie undiscovered inside them. The beams of light pierced the pines as we ran through the trails on our way to the high country.

At the first aid station, I removed my flannel, tech shirt, and knitted hat. (I hope I get them back). Shirtless, sweating, and running through the mountains with some of the best runners in the world. I was living a dream and everything was perfect. I was presented with a few creek crossings. I had faith in my shoes' water draining abilities, so I carelessly splashed through them as the trail turned upward. The guy I had been running with had started taking long strides, hiking up the mountain. I was losing ground as I "ran" behind him. I emulated the true mountain runner and immediately felt more comfortable. This was where I met Craig. He's from the Boulder/Longmont area, so we talked a bit while we scrambled up the trail into the thin air. One volunteer commented out how comfortably we carried on a conversation as we drove our knees up the incline.

Craig Howie and me running up a flooded trail. Photo: Zazoosh.

Craig and I caught up with Matt, the guy I had been running with earlier in the race. After a few miles, comraderie takes precedence over any competition. We chatted as w trotted a downhill to the 13ish mile aid station. This was where it really started to feel like a big mountain race. There were support crews, volunteers, and aid station workers everywhere. People cheering, tending to our needs. I felt the urgency in the air. I was further up the pack than I had originally thought. I didn't bother to ask where exactly I was, but I didn't waste any time. Craig and Matt had both taken off, so I decided to give chase.

I slowly made up some ground on these two, but quickly lost it on the next long uphill. Who gets dropped on any climb longer than 3 minutes? An asthmatic from Michigan in Leadville, thats who. I also got passed by another guy. I didn't get a good look at him since I was running with my head down. Some miles of climbing passed, and I had reached air that was thinnner yet. The trees were smaller and I had reached what I assume was the tree line. As the trail leveled off, I saw the next aid station. This was the Rock Garden AS, where Samantha was working along with other volunteers at a rather desolate looking station. She was a sight for sore eyes as I was exhausted and out of water.

The view from this AS was spectacular. A 360 degree view of snowcapped mountans.

Sam walking me into the mile 18 AS

I was informed here that I was in 4th place. It didn't really put any pep in my step.
I swapped a full bottle with Sam, ate a Honey Stinger Waffle, stuffed a few more GUs in my pockets, and headed off toward the Stump Town turnaround point. There were some nice downhills into a beautiful valley. There was snow all around me as I ran in solitude through the grassy valley. This was certainly a high point for me as I ran up a winding path through a snowy section of trail.

The next section consisted of a long, mostly downhill gravel road to the turnaround. A mile or so from the turnaround, I realized I've seen nobody coming toward me. Before I can even finish the thought, I see Craig, the guy who was running with me earlier in the race. He put some serious ground between us and it was awesome to see him on his way back to the finish already. He was in first place in his first 50! This meant that despite my rough patches so early in the race, I was still in decent shape. I surged on to the turnaround, where I fiddled with my drop bag for far too long and grabbed by bandana to cool my neck off as the sun grew higher and hotter.

The long, technical downhill before the turnaround was an even longer, nastier climb as I hiked up to the snowy peak again. There was a creek crossing on the way to the top. On the way out, I took the rickety bridge across because I was the only one nearby. Now that I was on the return trip, the rest of the pack was doing a conga line across the bridge. I didn't want to wait, so I just hopped in and cooled off. The water was nearly waist-high as looked up and saw my fellow racers crossing the bridge. As the trail wound up the hill for me, it was winding down for pack that was running toward me. I remembered how tough the downhill was, so I moved out of the way as best I could for them. Most of them looked a hell of a lot better than I felt, so I figured I'd rather nurture their good condition instead of nursing my poor condition. At this point I started to get light headed, but kept climbing. I then noticed that I was stumbling, but the trail wasn't all that technical. Just when I started to realize that I was probably feeling the effects of the altitude, it happened.

I proceded to projectile vomit on the side of the trail. Sitting there alone on my knees, puking up GU and Carnation instant breakfast on the side of the mountain.

Inexplicably, I felt as if a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I felt free. Maybe it was the realization that it simply wasn't my day. I realized that no matter how this day turned out, I was living a dream that I've had for two years. I was in Leadville, Colorado, running with some of the best athletes in the land, giving the race everything I had. That in itself was enough to make me feel happy. Not every day can be mine, but I can always do my best for that given day. I wasn't just on the course anymore, but rather becoming a part of the race. How did I celebrate this revelation? How about a quick snow angel to pay homage to my long Michigan winter training runs?

A little hiking and some pleasant exchanges later, I was back at the Rock Garden AS to visit Sam again. I have to confess that at this point, I was seriously contemplating just quitting. I felt like shit, I was sick, and I had an easy out. Not if Sam had anything to do with it. I jogged up the aid station and was greeted with encouragement from Sam and her fellow volunteer Ann. They offered so much that the thought of escape evaporated from my mind. At this point I was still in 7th place. I knew more passing was imminet, which shook my fragile runner's ego. I was physically able to continue, so I did. I fueled up, drank some coke, and switched my shoes.

Looking more like an elite bowler than a hobbyjogger ultrarunner, I fuel up at Rock Garden.
The cool folks at New Balance sent me a pair of shoes to wear test, and even took some consideration to send them in time for Leadville. Switching into them for the last 20 miles of the race helped because it gave me a sense of purpose, even if it was just the miniscule task of field testing some prototype shoes.

I've passed out before, but never intentionally sat down in an ultra.
I guess there's a first time for everything.

I plugged along, feeling lighter knowing that I dropped a few ounces off of each foot after swapping shoes. Out and back courses are such a double edged sword. Strategically, they offer an advantage because you know the entire course when you're halfway done. The negative is that it seems so daunting when to me when I think, "I felt shitty when I was here 3 hours ago!" The path kept descending the narrow, rocky road while I picked up a couple empty GU packets. Odds are they were mine anyway. Back on a dirt road, where I saw an older guy standing there directing racers. This guy made me smile as he gave me the thumbs up and told me I looked good. I hadn't seen my reflection, but I know what I look like after I vomit. I could probably have passed for an extra in a Bruce Campbell zombie flick, but this guy knew what it was all about. Pushing past glamour and pride to see what we're made of. The guy wasn't bullshitting me and telling me that I looked good, he knew I was digging away at myself. That is, of course, based on the assumption that this man did exist and that he's an exististential overanalyzer like me. Thank you for the encouragement, sir.

More wide dirt roads, none of them flat. I headed up one of them to the 13 mile AS. I was told that I was in 8th place. I should have at least tried to look more enthusiastic as I smiled and shrugged. I was on my death march, just circling the drain. The entire pack could have stormed by me and I would have let them go. Refill the pockets, drink some nasty GU Brew drink, shuffle onward. The 3-4 mile downhill that Craig, Matt and I so effortlessly flew down a few hours ago was now an uphill shuffle into thin air under a scorching sun. My water had evaporated from my bandana and I could feel a sunburn creeping into my skin. I heard footsteps behind me, but didn't feel like turning around. After hearing the footsteps for a few minutes, I decided to make sure it wasn't a mountain lion. Thankfully, it was just another dude coming up for a pass. This time it was Ely, who I found out is another Boulder resident. He, like Craig, was doing his first ultra at Leadville. We had similar backgrounds, and both sort of laughed as we realized we were probably the only ones "dumb" enough to wear racing flats and no socks on such a notoriously nasty course. Run how you train.
I noticed that niether of us were sporting watches either. After running mountains for a bit, you get tired of a clock telling you how slow you are. During a race, why wear a watch when the answer is always, "go faster?"

Ely and I crossed a few creeks, ran some downhills, and parted ways after I gave him one of my Roctanes. He was cramping up a little, I had enough food to get me to aid, so I helped him keep his mojo goin' and he took off looking great. I, on the other hand, let him go as I barfed in the bushes again. Damned altitude. Why wouldn't 5 weeks be enough to acclimate from sea level Michigan to Boulder, then Leadville the day before? Excuses galore. My apologies.

I passed through the final AS, but had shoes full of rocks, so I sat down for a second to dump them out. I rested up, drank some coke, at a peice of bread, and decided that I wasn't done yet. I set the goal to run every step of the last miles of the course, no matter how steep or rocky the hills were. It wouldn't change my standing in the race, but I owed it to myself to give it everything I had. I may never get the chance to do this race again. I stormed off, knowing I was in for some hurt, but also knowing that it was what I came for. We don't do it because its easy, we do it to see what we're made of(and to blog and get buttloads of swag).

I vaguely remembered being on these trails earlier in the day. It had been so long ago. The sun wasn't even up yet the last time I passed through there. It was now sunny and hot, but even more gorgeous than it had been at dawn. The sun was shining brightly onto the bodies of water off in the distance as the wind whistled through the pines. I was completely alone as I kept pushing forward. Maybe it worked out for the best. This section of the course was awesome, and running it alone was just what I needed.

On I ran, feeling pretty quick for the first time in a few hours. I was on a flat section of power line that I remembered from the start. Deciding that I would take advantage of a flat section and down one more GU on the run, I stuck my hand into my shorts pocket. Plain. Why the hell did I grab "plain" flavored GU. I've nver had it, but I hate plain flavored anything. I needed the energy, so I ripped the top off and squeezed it. It hit my lips, and I immediately started gagging. So much so that wretched and vomitted all over in the grass along the trail. This was right up there with the scene from "The Exorcist" with regard to distance. I didn't miss a step, flushed my mouth out with my remaining water from my bottle and pressed on. No more GU for me. Another mile went by and I reached a puddle I remembered running around early on. Realizing that running through water filled my shoes with rocks(at this point I was sorely missing my inov-8 195s), I decided to gingerly run around the mud puddle. This would be my final mistake of the day. Snagging my toe on a rock, I went down like a ton of bricks, face first into the mud. Damn, I really thought I was better at running than that. For some reason, I still wasn't frustrated, and just kept chugging along. Another downhill through the municipal disc golf course, and I was in sight of the last mile of the course.
A grassy hill that wasn't any particular trail was the very last climb of the race. I, in a futile fit of stubbornness, powered up that hill as if it were the first one of the day. Nobody was taking the spot that I had earned in the last feet of the race. My stride opened up and I descended the final winding hills on my way into the finish line. I could see it. I could hear the announcer saying my name. Through the cattle gates. Over the beeping mats. Bend over and let the volunteer hang the medal on my neck.

I completed my first mountain ultra, the Leadville Silver Rush 50.

pensive...or sleeping?

The feet survived the day, and I get some shiny stuff to show my mom.

I gasped for air when I ran my first mile ever to impress her. 6 years ago.
 I'm glad she's still here.

I was worried that my standing in this race would hurt my ego as "post race blues" set in. It's been a week, and I still feel pretty good about what happened. I got to run with group of truly first class athletes and I felt honored to have been there. I played the hand I was dealt, and I hope some other people got some sort of benefit from my presence. Every single competitor that I met was a class act, and I hope to race with them again.


The day after Leadville, it was back to the grind. I taught a kickboxing class, coached paralympic swimming, and helped instruct a water aerobics class. The following day was 5 hours of adaptive waterskiing at the Reservoir and my first attempt at wakeboarding(abysmal failure...I'm a skier). Can't argue with the swiftness of recovery. Something about these mountains is awesome. I'm going to find a way to stay. This state has become home in just over a month.

Don't ever let an overdramatic, self indulgent race report sway you. You can do it. you were made for it.



  1. And awesome race reports like that are what inspire me to keep going! Love the report and congratulations!! Awesome feat that I hope to accomplish one day.

  2. --btw, I started up racing again to impress a girl as well 8) Despite not having the same luck as you, running has turned into an addiction!

  3. I'd say you're acclimated! Go, Pure Michigan!

  4. I guess I'm going to stay registered for the NCT marathon and not drop down to the half after all. Damn you Jesse!