July 17, 2011
Silver Rush 50 Mile Run
48 Miles – Leadville, CO

“Nobody trips over mountains. It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble. Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain.” ~Author Unknown
It wasn’t but 2 weeks ago that I decided to sign up for the Silver Rush 50. A last minute decision I was waiting to make based on my ability to train and my adjustments to the altitude after having moved to the Boulder area at the end of May. I didn’t know what to expect heading into this race as most of the information I had research online pertained to the Mountain Bike version of Silver Rush and not much in the way of runners info. What I did find was on youtube, a series of short and rather well done videos of the race, which helped me prepare for the inevitable. The inevitable being altitude, relentless climbs and a very long day in gorgeous Leadville Colorado.
My crew and I chose to camp in Leadville the night before the race. Our accommodations were at the Sugar Loafin’ Campground just 3 miles from the race start towards Turquoise Lake. Our tent site was nothing fancy, but enough to huddle around a warm fire on a 40 degree night as we watched the clouds dance across the Mosquito Range as I cooked shish kabob, corn and baked potato over the fire. I woke up around 4:45am and quickly readied for the race before we headed over to the start.

A Man Without A Country
At the starting line I felt like a man without a country. It’s been a very long time since I’ve had this feeling at a race. Back in New England I always had somebody I knew to hang out with, talk to and joke about before the start of the race. I always had someone to share the first few miles with at a leisurely pace.. here I have no one. I’m incredibly lonely and as I think about the Vermont 100 going on back East, I get a bit choked up over missing my friends. The ultra-culture out here in the west is vastly different the that of the East. This morning.. I’m feeling how exclusive the culture here is at first though I hope this will change with time.

I grab my bib and chip and mill about in a field filled with the foggy breath of all the excited runners. Looking around I can easily see that many of those here today are first time ultra-runners. I can sense this most just by listening to the many comments (mostly negative in tone) of their first time crew-persons. Many jumped around, rubbed their arms trying to stay warm and looked like deer in head lights unsure of what really lay before them. Life Time Fitness runs the show here now. With a huge video screen I watched as video rolled of Mountain Bikers… this amazes me since racing in Leadville started with the 100 mile run many years ago. I do get however, that the mountain biking is more profitable. With the count down started, it was go time and as the clock hit zero, we all ran up a steep hill and were on our way outbound in the Silver Rush 50.

Super Sherman
After climbing that first hill we headed out on a series of forest roads that wound their way around the frontage roads of Leadville. We weaved in and out and even at times seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, that is to say, away from where the turn-around was. I found myself gasping for air early and in trying to figure out why.. it wasn’t hard to guess. Many of the runners ahead of me, perhaps 100, ran out of the gate at a blistering pace. Yes.. they took off like it was a 5 or 10k road run. I was stunned yet at the same time it forced me to slow my pace down to a walk. In doing this, I let all the speed demons take off until folks running at a more comfortable pace had caught up to me. Once they did, I settled in behind them and allowed my heart rate to settle, myself to catch my breath, and I quickly began enjoying running once again.

I was stunned by the early morning view where we ran down through the powerline with Mount Elbert, not just the highest point in Colorado but the highest in all the Rockies, laid out before us in all it’s magnificent glory. We then finally turned into the woods and started our first long climb.. all 6 miles of it.. towards the Mount Sherman trailheads. Along the way up the hill I was still shaking my head a bit at the fast ones when I overheard a couple talking. I quickly realized through short conversation that it was Ronda Sundermeier (Oregon) and a friend of hers named Michael. Finally I had someone I knew (though not well) about ultra-running and be communal with. Though I’ll freely admit that after 15 minutes of trying to chat with these guys, I wasn’t in their league running wise and I feared I was driving them crazy as “the talker.”

Our run led us up through an amazing Aspen Grove to our left and amazingly crafted beaver dams on the right. Upon closer investigation you could see the carnage the beavers wrecked on the aspen grove, taking down whole trees just to bite off the smaller limbs and drag them to the dam. Even more surprising was the clarity of the water. Back east all the beaver ponds are a dark murky brown/black. This beavers water was so clear it was turquoise… or maybe that had something to do with the sediment in it.. either way.. I could see the bottom of the pond and it was spectacular. We soon entered the first aid station called Black Cloud. At seven miles in I was on the hunt for banana’s and oranges. This early in the race, it was evident that race staff hurried to this location just to be here and the fruit was left behind. All they had was soda and water.. I decided to pass and just kept right on going.
About a mile and a half later, up a steep incline that seemed to go on forever, we finally hit the top of the climb. I knew I was there because I heard Ronda give off one of her “yahoos!” I took the turn at the top and was now on an access road. The road was a leisurely and gradual run downhill towards Printer Boy aid station, which was the first crew stop. I remember thinking on the way down this road that the run back was going to be great given how gradual this downhill was.. more on that thought later.
Coming Back Might Suck..
I ran into Printer Boy after a short uphill climb where my crew was ready and waiting for my arrival. I entered the station and there were as prepared to make the transition as they’ve ever been. We’re all treating today’s race as training for the 100 in August. Sarah’s done this numerous times in the past, she’s a pro simply trying to shake the cobwebs out. Ray is new, Sarah’s cousin’s fiance, and a very well built dude. This is all foreign to him yet I can see he’s both excited to be here and nervous about doing it right. I take my waist pack off and Sarah clips the new one on around my waist. Not only is it ready to go but the water is cold in the bottles. Ray is shooting video and taking pictures at the same time while Sarah feeds me gels to suck down and a few S-Caps which I’m desperately needing. The elevation is causing cramps above 11,500 feet and the S-caps are gonna help. I hope.
I thank them for their help and take off down the trail again. Except I’m still running downhill. After a short downhill I hit a bump which after running up and over I’m downhill some more. This usually doesn’t trouble me except I’m starting to think about the way back. Finally I hit the bottom of the hill and the next climb begins and its another doozy. One of the hardest things to do in an ultra-marathon and something I feel too few people train for, is the transition from running downhill to hiking uphill. Or vice versa. I climb as swiftly as I could without gassing myself. I was really working on my patience this race and I knew it was going to pay off. Or so I hoped. The climb passes quite a few old silver mine sites. Different colored stones were piled up along the trail with mining equipment sitting inactive on the mountain side.
I came to the aid station before Ball Mountain cone. I don’t remember it’s name as there was no sign. I did spot a sign on the garbage can indicating that StumpTown turnaround was just 6.5 miles away. I grabbed some fruit and a little coke then headed out after a short stay. As I began climbing the summit cone proper of Ball Mountain, I was hiking with a young woman who was having some difficulty. I noticed her breathing wasn’t too consistent, she was weaving back and force and then she threw up on the trail. A few runners asked her if she needed salt, if she was ok and she was unusually irritated. I guess I would be too if not feeling well but it was a no brainer what was going on. I noticed she had a running partner and as she tried pushing harder after complaining that she wasn’t doing so hot, I tried to calm her down. “Hey.. we’re on 10/10:30 pace right now and you have 14 hours to finish. Slow down pace yourself, and enjoy the ride. No need to kill yourself over it.” After that she simply tried to take off. After she put a little distance on us I told her running mate that she had early on-set Altitude Sickness. Ultimately it was up to her to continue or not but I suggested that she not return to 12,000 feet.
I was rather enjoying my jaunt through the high Rocky Mountain Meadow. The flowers are in bloom in the high peaks. Yellows and purples with sprouts of red are sprinkled amongst the green grasses. It really is breath taking especially with the view of the divide behind you and the Mosquito Range ahead. Everywhere I looked was 14,000′ mountains and I quickly realized that in all the years I’d been running Ultras; this was the most visually stunning course I’ve ever run on.
Having A Ball
I also quickly realized that this weekend was the six year anniversary of my first ultra. It was the Damn Wakely Dam 50K in the lower land hills of New York’s Adirondaks. I’m a long way from there and it’s easy to think about the road I’ve run down while high atop Ball Mountain. After cresting the shoulder of Ball, we dipped downhill again before coming out in another high mountain meadow which switchbacked it’s way to the pass. There we ran through a small snowfield, hit up and over the ridge and then began the long run down to the turn-around. At this point I’ve high-fived the leader on his way back to Leadville.. and I’ve begun counting the number of runners who I “bread-and-butter” with while on their return trip. My pounds get pounded as I carefully run downhill being very careful not to kill my legs. I change my posture numerous times on my way downhill as I made my way ever closer to StumpTown.
I stopped at an icy stream to dip my hat. Putting that icy cold hat on my head was the best idea I’ve ever had. Too bad the Colorado air is do devoid of any humidity that my hat dried in less then 5 minutes. Finally I made it to the roads as my runner count was above 60. I was not happy, much further back in the field then I initially thought and StumpTown was always around “just another corner.” For awhile I started to deny that it even existed. I was draggin’ my feet and I’m only at the half way point. As I shoot some video while coming around the bend, I hear Sarah yell “Get The Lead Out.” I wasn’t happy to hear this. My stomach in knots and I need a bio-break of the #2 variety in the worst way. When I finally entered the station I just ditched my waist pack with my crew and ran for the porta-potty. Then it was off to the aid table for watermelon, ham and cheese sandwiches and some coke.
Back at my crew’s stop, they had ice cold coke waiting for me. I was in heaven! I drank half the soda and ate some more sandwich. I sucked down some gels, drank more coke and then left. I ran as best I could out of that aid station, trying to keep up with my time on the roads. My time to here was around 5:30. I was on pace for an 11 hour finish yet had my soul set on sub 10 hours. I needed to run a massive negative split to get this done and I was focused and poised to do it without blowing my level of patience.
Hail to the mountains!
As I started the climb out of StumpTown and now on the return trip to Leadville. I finally met a friendly runner named Tim. He lives a few towns over from me in Boulder County but truth me told he’s originally from Pennsylvania. Maybe us East Coasters just like to talk more during these things.. I don’t know. But Tim and I hit it off and were having a rollicking good time as we climbed back up Ball Mountain. The sky got pitch black but instead of raining, we were in the middle of a hail storm! The hail came crashed down out of the sky and each little pellet stung my sun burnt skin. The one that hurt the most, of the pea-zized pellets, was the one that was a direct hit on my ears hard cartilage. It hurt enough to let out a loud and proud “S.O.B!”
We quickly turned to laughter as the hail piled up enough to make our feet slip and slide a bit. As quick as it started, the hail storm was over. The sun came back out. And the towering thunderhead was out behind us as lightning flashed against the mountains and the thunder echoed loudly in the valleys. We knew we dodged a bullet. We hiked together most of the way up to the pass again, and when we finally reached it, we stopped and raised our arms in the air, took a deep breath and gave a “woo hoo!” A tough climb up “Ball Buster” Mountain but worth every penny of the experience. I left Tim behind as I picked up the pace a bit heading back towards Printer Boy.
I ran right through the high mountain aid station after taking only a slice of fruit and another sip of soda. It was a long downhill from here and I wanted to make up some time. I ran at a comfortable pace, singing songs to myself, and doing my best not to really push it too hard. I just felt so damn good. I ran all the way back down the low spot where I made a quick turn left and started walking uphill again. I took a few S-Caps when a fellow runner thanked me for taking my trash with me. “What do you mean”.. “I mean.. the course is full of trash and it’s nice to see another runner take his trash with him instead of throwing it on the ground.” I guess this guy was running the Silver King, and in all the races he’s been in, this was the dirtiest. He had a point. This was indeed the dirtiest most litter filled course I’ve ever un on myself. It was pretty appalling.
I made quick work of the next return incline and after a short downhill I made quick work of the next. One the way inbound I thought these would be awful on the way back and they weren’t. I was back at Printer Boy in no-time. 10.5 Miles from Stump Town to Printer Boy in 2:20. My best split of the race. I was feeling great. After another well prepared and executed crew stop at Printer Boy I was on my way very quickly. I told my crew I hoped to see them in two hours at the finish line. At 7:50 race time.. 2 hours for the final 14.5 miles would put me at under 10 for the race.
After taking off from Printer Boy I hit the next hill. Remember that gradual downhill we ran on the inbound trip.. the one I said that would be easy on the way back? Ok.. we’re there in the adventure. About a mile into this climb my body hits a wall and I begin to slow. I struggle to take this hill like I had all the others today. I’m tired and no matter how much I drink I’m thirsty. In the hot sun on the long dirt road with no shade, I get nauseous and dizzy. Now I’m the one weaving left and right, trying to catch runners ahead of me yet only to be passed by others. I quickly realize that my sub-10 hour run was out the window.. I now set my sights on sub 11.
This hill was relentless. Soul sucking. Humbling. Frustrating. I think back to the Pittsfield Peaks Ultra in Vermont and how the climbs at this race are akin to climbing the famous “Blood Root” 4 times in a row. I was getting my rear-end handed to me in the worst way when finally I had a small burst of energy. I pushed towards the top and finally made it. Once there I had to stop. I put my hands on my knees and struggled for air at 12,000 feet. One fellow runner was laying down in the middle of the road, saying nothing, another had sat down on a rock leaning back into some bushes. We said nothing and yet, I was the first to leave.
As I began the final long downhill I realized I was gassed. My legs are shot and not only am I unable or hike much uphill, I’m also unable to run downhill. I shuffle as best I can and even put in some solid spurts of running only to slow to a walk. That final long uphill, which measured a mere 7 miles in length from Printer Boy to the top had ruined my race. Yet.. all I could do about it was laugh and be thankful that I was out here. I knew I was going to finish. Yet I also knew that my time goals were all out the window. This race was now the race for survival. To seek the finish line and get it over with.
The Black Cloud
As I made it to Black Cloud I asked how the US Women’s soccer team had done. I heard they lost. That was the first bad news. I thought it was 4 miles to the finish from here.. and then I asked to be sure.. they told me 7.1 Miles. Ahh.. more bad news. I thanked them for their help and just soldiered on. It was a mix of running, shuffling, walking, and complaining from here on in. I kept running downhill more and more and more. I had small photocopy of the elevation profile in my pocket and each time I looked at it to find where I was, I was wrong. I was in that frame of mind where I just wanted to be done now. Now that my time goals had been whisked away. I just kept going. Near the bottom of this section I saw a mountain biker and I asked him how much further. I thought, “It must be 2 or 3 miles now” His response was “About 4 to go.” Grrrr.. I kept going when I saw a runner going in the opposite direction. “Gotta be a mile left… how much further.” “A little over 2 miles.” Grrr… Two miles felt like an eternity. Yet I sucked it up and pushed with whatever I had left.
In my mind I thought this course wasn’t going to be so bad. It wasn’t your typical “sharks mouth” elevation profile. 4 major climbs and 4 major descents. How bad could it be?! I was shocked and humbled. I took the final turns through the woods, back up through the powerlines and then I met a older gentleman. He looked at me and smiled, then in broken english, after pointing ahead, he said, “Almost.” Yes.. almost there indeed. Can’t be almost enough. Then he looked at me with this look I’ll never forget. The crazy, one eyebrow raised look then said, “Hard!” HA! NO shit that was hard. MY GOD!
Down another short hill I could see ahead a line of runners climbing a steep mound of dirt. This was now just insult to injury. I climbed this final hill and could smell the barn, just couldn’t hear it. As I took this last hill I couldn’t stop thinking about how this feeling never gets old. The feeling that no matter how long the day was, how trying the course, whatever you went through to get here… you still got here.. 50 miles on foot. I got a bit choked up and excited. I ran down the final hill and saw it. The Finish Line. I slowly ran that final 50 yards across the finish line where I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker. After crossing the line I received a very heavy finishers medal, and a silver finishers bracelet. I kissed Sarah, found my chair, sat down and was content. I may not be “10 hours Back” but I’m back none-the-less.
After Thoughts
I cannot believe how sad I was when I got home that I had missed the Vermont 100. For the first time since I moved to Colorado, I was pretty homesick. As peoples photos from Vermont came rolling in I felt myself getting choked up until finally I let it out and just kinda cried. I really miss my family back East, but I also miss my Ultra-Family back East. I’m still waiting for the local Ultra-Crowd to be as welcoming and inclusive as the ultra-family I’m used to.. but as I’ve noticed in the West previously, I just don’t see it happening. This saddens me greatly.
The Silver Rush 50 ended up being one of the more difficult 50’s that I’ve completed. The course was also the most littered of any race I’ve done in 6 years of ultra-running. Surprised that folks would choose to litter in a place as beautiful as this. Overall I felt that the aid stations were well stocked and well run. Volunteers were more then friendly, attentive and accommodating. And the race shwag made it more then worth the price of admission. Obviously the Leadville 100 is the big dance in this town but there’s no reason why the 50 miler shouldn’t have more runners then it does.. maybe someone needs to write a book about it. ::wink wink:: I do however thank Tim, Ronda and Michael for keeping me company out there, it was greatly appreciated.
Finally.. even though I didn’t reach either of my time goals, I’ll certainly take my 11:31 finish of a tough race. Somehow they think I’m 30 years old at the race which made me 60th in my division. A preview of things to come where as if they had my age correct at 29, I’d have been 25th in my division. I don’t think it matters but I may have them fix it. Regardless, I ran a patient and consistent race. I’m happy.. and ready to take on the Leadville 100. Bring on REDEMPTION!
Sherpa John
(Stay Tuned For Silver Rush 50 Video!)

6 thoughts

  1. Good run and a great report too. Well done! I don't think any 50 miler at that altitude can be easy. I've been thinking about the Vermont 100. I'm from South Africa so I have to choose very carefully what I can run when I have the time and money. I'm sure you are recommending Vermont:) Rest well! One year when I'm really ready I'll get there for Leadville.


  2. Great job running a tough race! I was out there as well, and actually managed to finish better than I thought was possible for me. Shame you were always ahead of me (finishing faster by about half an hour). I would have been happy to talk with you. I don't want you to think we're all stand-offish out here. I chatted with one fellow early on, who has been in charge of marking that course in years past. He said that the mountain bikers drop most of the trash. He called it the 'Lance Armstrong Syndrome' – where people see Lance on TV just tossing his empty bottles and trash to the side of the road. If Lance can do it, so can everyone else, right? Sigh…I was more than happy to pack my own trash and throw it away at the aid stations. It wasn't hard to do. Shame you had to see all that litter. Here's hoping you'll do more races out here. If you want, do a search on the Bear Chase Race run in Lakewood in late September. Easier course with less elevation – it was my first 50-miler last year. The biggest challenge is that you run a loop 4 times. It gets harder and harder to start the next loop!



  3. I have been running ultras in Colorado since 1999, and the scene has changed in the last 5 or so as more and more runners migrate to ultras. When I started, it seemed like I would see a lot of the same faces at races. Now, I am lucky to recognize a half dozen. Still, I find that if I make half an effort, I can meet 5 or 6 people at every race. It all adds up, but it does take a while. (And I will not bag on the Leadville races, but they are not the cream of the crop of Colorado races, not by a long shot.)

    Todd Salzer
    Coal Creek Canyon


  4. Good job at this race! Running at altitude takes a lot of getting used to, that's for sure.

    If you're looking for a welcoming group, head to Silverton in June/July to go to the Hardrock trail marking and trail work parties, then hang out to watch and/or volunteer at the race. It's a really special event, I highly recommend it if you can make the time to get there just to see it.


  5. Great, talking with you John. Funny because Micheal and I were out of breath talking to you too and for the record good conversation will never drive me crazy. I felt like I had an elephant on my chest but wouldn't trade it for anything. I loved the course. Congratulations on your run and I will see you at LT100M. Take Care, Ronda


  6. I just read this for the second time. Very well done! It sounds like we had similar experiences that day. I really struggled on the stretch before Ball Mountain outbound and the climb after Printer Boy inbound — race killer! Being that it was my first ultra race, it was good to read about your experience and comparisons to other courses. If I didn't have a full plate already this year, I would do this race again for sure. You can actually see me (in a bright yellow shirt looking backward) in your third photo.


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