The Leadville Silver Rush 50 is a great race. Sunday morning, around 300 (of nearly 600 registered) runners lined up at the Dutch Henri Hill starting line to tackle just short of 50 miles of mountainous jeep and foot trails at elevations from ten to 12,000'. The starting area was already bursting with energy as music blared and the announcer counted down the time to the shotgun start. At 6 A.M., a run in the mountains seemed like a good idea.
The weather was clear and cool in the morning after some light rain the night before. The race begins with a short, steep climb up Dutch Henri Hill before entering a pine forest and beginning a slow, winding climb up to the first aid station around mile 6. Going into the race, I knew that alot of the course was on jeep trails and wasn't expecting it to be as fun as my beloved single track but I was impressed early on with the trail's footing, varied technicality and overall runnabilty. Once the intial pack stretched out a bit, I ran with a nice guy from the Denver area for a while, chatting it up about elite mountain runner Matt Carpenter's idea of "even-ness of effort" as we got warmed up. I moved ahead after a few minutes and ran within myself for a while just getting into the groove. What I found most impressive about the course were the incredible and expansive views of the very large mountains in the area around Leadville both initially and then, at the higher points of the course. Around mile 3, the trail paralleled a wide valley, Iowa Gulch, with some relic mining structures from the abandoned Hellena Mine and massive tailing piles at the foot of several enormous, treeless peaks. After Aid 1, the trail continued up the gulch on the rough jeep road through an open area with bushes and the occasional fir or spruce tree to the base of the Iowa Amphitheatre, watched over by Mount Sherman (14,036'), then met up with dirt County Road 6 for a 3 mile descent to the Printer Boy Aid Station (mile 13.5). Here, I met up with Katy and Bronwyn, who had come down to crew for me and did so in smashing style, I might add. As rolled in, I handed my water bottle to Bron, who immediately filled it and asked me what I needed and what I wanted to eat. Katy got some sunscreen on me and refilled my running vest with a fresh supply of gels and trail mix. I changed my shirt and was out of there in under two minutes.
A short, fast descent through a pine forest on near-single track trail greeted me next and I was elated to be in the cool trees as the morning temperature began to climb a bit. After about a mile descent, the course crossed a road and began a steady climb up a dirt road for the next mile or so before turning onto a double track that continued the climb back in the trees. So far in the race, I had kept my pace conservative and my effort even. Elevated, but even. I was running easy on the downhills and flats and hiking very well on the climbs. I was feeling really good and in control. As the climb continued above treeline, I was affored an awesome view of the town of Leadville, Turquoise Lake and Mount Massive (14,421'). Spectacular! Around here, I met Adam Whitehead, a native of Zimbabwe, living and working in Denver now, and we shared the climb. I asked Adam what he did for work and when he replied that he was into wealth management, I commented that I did the exact opposite. In addition to doing the 50, Adam was competing in the Leadman competition, which means he's a badass. We talked it up and took in the impressive views as we climbed up to 12,000' on a rocky jeep road. After cresting a false summit, the course descended a bit before climbing, again to 12,000' in prepartion for the descent to the race turnaround at Stumptown. A little ways into the descent, I partnered up with a runner named Jason (Jay Baker), a Frontier Airlines pilot and triathlete from Denver. We were both in the zone and chatted like a couple of old ladies about racing and life, all the while cheering on the front runners who were now passing us on their way out. Because I was having so much fun talking to him, I was a little sad to part company at Stumptown as I handed off my vest to Bronwyn and frantically chewed on some food. I continued on a convoluted loop climb up to the proper turnaround and met back up with Bronwyn to grab my refilled vest and water bottles. At this time, I took on a second water bottle filled with Gatorade in anticipation of the afternoon heat and headed back on the course. I hit the turnaround in under five hours.
The long climb back up to 12,000' after Stumptown was the first time I really had to push the effort. Between the altitude and the steepness of the trail, the effort to get back to the top of this climb was substantial. Still, I stuck to my program of eating gels and real food (clementines and a trail mix I pre-made of cashews, dried blueberries and cherries and M&Ms) and drinking to ensure I was properly fueling my body for the effort. The next descent and climb went well but I was definitely shakier than I was earlier in the race. This was the section of the course that is above treeline so I distracted myself by looking far off into the surrounding mountains. At the next aid station, I refilled my bottles and grabbed some pretzels but they turned to paste when I put them in my mouth so I didn't eat many. As the trail descended again, the temperature began to rise but I felt steady again and I knew I was going to get to see Katy again at the Printer Boy Aid Station. (I didn't get to see her at Stumptown because my lovely pregnant wife was getting some rest.) There was one more climb before the aid but I still felt good the entire way, just hiking smooth and strong up through the pine trees. I got pumped up by the crowd of people amassed on the road as I exited the forest and ran a little harder to give the spectators a good show, looking for my crew all the while. Once spotted, they changed out my gear and I put on a fresh pair of socks. I paused to take a picture with a cute puppy at the race and I kissed my wife and left again.
Earlier in the race, I had been told by one of the other runners that the next section was the crux of the race and now I believe him. A short descent on paved road takes you back to a 3 mile climb on dirt road back up to foot of Iowa Amphitheatre. By now, the mid-day heat has arrived and you are completely exposed on that road as you climb achingly slow up, up and up. I shuffled, hiked and walked. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat for one hour. I reached the top around the seven hour mark and relished the idea of a mostly downhill finish. Mostly.
I found myself grinding away the final miles of the race. I had felt so good the first half, it was hard to believe that I was starting to fade and I just kept calculating the time-to-mile pace that would let me finish in my under-10 hour goal. I hit the final aid station, still in pretty good spirits and chowed on some watermelon and had my water bottles refilled. I had been diluting my Gatorade bottle with water and, in hindsight, I suffered on electrolytes toward the end because I had been doing that. Particularly because it warm. As a result, I just slowly faded over the last part of the race. I could feel it coming and tried to keep taking on calories in the form of gels but I just continued to struggle as the miles wore on at the end. I still managed a pace in the high 10 min/mile but it I could tell it wouldn't last as the wheels started falling off the wagon. With only a few miles left in the race, I linked up with another runner (Sean Wetstine) who was still feeling good enough to talk to me and provide some encouragement. We shuffled along and I couldn't believe it didn't feel like we were getting closer to the finish. I checked my GPS and it just didn't tick off the distance quick enough for my liking. Then, the nausea. Whoa. My stomach did a 180 and started messing with me. I finally stopped dead in my tracks and coughed, heaved and cramped. No vomit just pain. Oh. I'm in the hurt locker now. I just turned and started up the trail. Just move forward. Finish. I walked. I hiked. I shuffled. I looked at my GPS and saw that we should be at the finish and all I saw on the course was a foot trail climbing up a hill, into the trees. "Those fuckers. They added a mile to the course." I thought to myself and I was right. I just kept moving and actually managed to run again. I told myself to take advantage of the lie that my brain was telling my body and kept moving.
Finally, I saw and heard people as I crested the top of Dutch Henri Hill and relief overwhelms me. I ran hard down the trail to the finish line. I saw Katy and Bronwyn and the red carpet finish and nothing mattered for a moment except the fact that I was finished and I did it under 10 hours. 9:49:56. Then, I remembered to look for the runner who pulled me through those final miles so that I can thank him but he's lost in the crowd. I am humbled.
Silver Rush was another great experience and full of surprises. The course is definitely tough, scenic and worthy of the effort. Towards the end of my race, the clouds started moving in and it rained and hailed for a while a few minutes after I finished. I immediately thought of the 200 or so runners still out on the course dealing with the mountain weather and how we are just visitors to those high peaks that we spent the day running through, up and down. Despite feeling low at the end of the race, the overall experience was exceptional and I got to run with some really amazing people.