Last Sunday I ran the Silver Rush 50 for the third time. It is (and has always been) my final tune-up race before the Leadville 100-- my last chance to try out new gear and new strategies in a race situation before the real deal in August. Some folks worry that it's too close to the 100-- that there isn't enough time to fully recover from it-- but I disagree. I think the five weeks that separate the two is about perfect.
What did the race teach me this year? That running 50 miles is hard.
As sobering a lesson as that is, it's good to be reminded of that fact before the 100. It insures that I toe the starting line with a healthy dose of respect for the distance. I keep waiting to finish a 50 feeling as strong as I do when I finish a marathon, but that has yet to happen. Maybe it's not possible... I mean, yes, of course I expect to feel more fatigued after running almost twice the distance, but when I cross the finish line of a 50 I am utterly spent. It's a whole different order of magnitude.
I woke up at 3:45am on race day to make sure I had enough time to eat (and digest) breakfast before the race began at 6:00am. I've learned that trying to sleep in later just makes for a rushed, anxious morning. I'd much rather loose a little sleep and be able to take my time, arriving at the starting line calm, organized, and well fed.
Immediately I pushed the pace a little bit, trying to take advantage of some flatter/downhill sections in the first few miles. I usually run races very conservatively, but I consciously didn't hold back early on in the race-- unless it was so that I could take a moment to eat or drink. On the way into the Printer Boy aid station (at mile 13) I ran two sub-8:00 min/miles. That is basically my fastest vaguely sustainable speed at altitude if the conditions are perfect. It has taken me three years of racing to become bold enough to go out that fast in an ultra. It takes some self-confidence (or wishful thinking?) to do that, knowing that I'll still be running 8+ hours later.
I arrived at Printer Boy about 2-3 minutes ahead of schedule. It was great to see my crew and hear everyone's cheers. Of course, I was happy to be ahead of schedule, but I was also happy because I had been eating and drinking well. After 2.5 hours of running I had already drunk 50 oz of fluid and eaten 750 calories. If I had skimped on calories, I certainly would've arrived even sooner (since I generally walk while I'm eating), but I swore to myself that I was going to hit my nutrition goals for the day.
I managed to stay on top of my calories and my hydration up until the halfway point. It was pushed back this year by almost a mile. Instead of simply dead-ending, the course now curls around in a little loop which climbs up a steep section of hill on a rocky trail. Ugh. I had been warned about this ahead of time, so it wasn't a surprise, but that didn't make grunting past the old aid station's location any easier. I had slowed down a little bit during this 11 mile section from Printer Boy-- running it at about the same pace I did last year, though I arrived a few minutes later because of the extra mileage. No problem. My high level race plan was to finish the race strong and make almost all of my gains during the last 13 miles. I didn't really expect to reach the halfway mark any faster than I did last year. Of course, there's always the secret hope that miraculously I'll be in better shape than I have been in the past, but my training routine hasn't radically changed from year-to-year-- especially by mid-July-- and my fitness is pretty comparable. The main difference year-to-year is my growing experience, and to a lesser extent: new gear.
My crew (my sister-in-law Jennifer, her husband-- and super human mountain biker-- Jeremy, and my 3 year old daughter Sierra) met me at the aid station and took great care of me. It's so nice to have a dedicated crew at aid stations-- especially when they take care of the cumbersome chore of re-filling your hydration pack!
I asked my crew to bring my old pair of New Balance MT101's to Printer Boy. (The same pair shoes I ran the 100 in last year.) My Hokas were chafing my ankles again-- just like they did in the SJS50. It was annoying, but something I'd have to deal with for another 11 miles until I met my crew again. I thought the chafing was due to the extremely narrow single track that we ran on above treeline during the SJS50. However, it was happening again on the relatively wide jeep roads of the Silver Rush 50. I had even taped my ankles in the morning in anticipation, but I guess I had chosen the wrong spot. As I ran, I began to look for lines that would cause my feet to tilt outwards to reduce the friction. Annoying.
So far the weather was holding up great. The forecast was for a 50% chance of thunderstorms, which around Leadville means a 100% chance of thunderstorms. It's just a matter of when. Glancing up at the sky it looked as though I'd be able to make it around Ball Mountain before the skies opened up. Good. As I climbed up Ball I felt my first twinge of nausea. I'm not sure why. My hydration and nutrition were spot on at that point. But I took a slurp of gel that I could barely choke down. Hmmm... I tried to keep consuming calories at regular intervals, but in hindsight the amounts became smaller and smaller...
A small storm cloud passed overhead on the way back to Printer Boy, dumping some hail on me. It quickly moved on. I felt myself slowing down a bit-- nothing too dramatic, though. I was still running what I should be running and walking what I should be walking, but probably a bit slower than last year. I managed to choke down a few more calories before the aid station and I finished another 50 oz of fluid. Coming into Printer Boy, I was about 15 minutes behind my time from last year, but again the extra mileage accounted for most-- but not all-- of that.
I met my crew and plopped down in a chair they had set up for me. I switched my shoes and sipped some Coke. I had them fill up another bottle with 12 oz of Coke and ice to carry with me for the next leg. The next 6 mile stretch up and down Iowa Gulch is always the toughest one for me. It seems so easy during training, but in the heat of the afternoon, after 33 miles and ~6,000 ft of elevation gain, it's brutal. I had never made it to the next aid station without throwing up. And this is the stretch where I planned to set a PR! All I had to do was not completely blow up like I had in the past.
Now, since I started wearing Hoka Mafate 2's in April when I was battling through a case of ITBS, I've been pretty darn happy with them. Even ecstatic at times. I've set my biggest PRs this year while wearing them! That's a pretty strong endorsement. However, since they started chafing my ankles during the SJS50 I had cooled a little bit on them. And now with the chafing reoccurring during the first 33 miles of the Silver Rush I was starting to get a little pissed. I think even the biggest Hoka advocates need to do what I did on Sunday at least once: run in them for 7 hours, then take them off and replace them with shoes that weight 6 oz less per shoe! Holy crap! When I stepped out of my chair to begin up Iowa Gulch I was shocked at how light my newly shod feet felt. Shocked. It was like my shoes had disappeared. My feet felt so much lighter. 12 oz lighter, in fact. That's 3/4 of a pound that I was carrying on my feet: gone. Now, on the flip side, the first time you wear a pair of Hokas it's shocking as well. They feel so different than normal shoes. So comfortable and amazingly cushioned. But, believe me, that comes with a price. When I examined my Hokas more closely after the race I noticed they had developed a huge (1/2") depression in the foam right underneath my arches, on the inside edge of the shoe towards the back. Somehow the foam in that a particular spot had become severely compacted. I mean the whole sole looked distorted. This must've been causing my feet tilt inwards and rubbing the outside of my ankle against the lip of the shoe. That spot on each of my feet had been turned into hamburger. I've never heard of this happening before... why would such a severe compaction occur in this one area of the sole? It probably has something to do with my stride and the size of my feet. I don't know... but it has me suddenly very doubtful that I'll be using Hokas during the 100.
Anyway, back to the race. My condition was slowly deteriorating, but it was better than it had been in past years. I actually managed to slowly jog a few of the flatter sections of the road up Iowa Gulch. And I managed a few 9:00 min/miles on the way down. I fought a bit of side stitch on the downhill and had to drop to a walk for a bit and catch up on fluids. When I finally pulled into the next aid station, I wasn't feeling great, but I also had managed to survive the leg without puking my guts out by the side of the trail. How's that for victory? Trail running is so glamorous.
At the final aid station I sat down again and sipped some more Coke and ate a few bits of potato. I also grabbed another 12 oz bottle of ice-cold Coke for the next leg. Coke and potatoes: that was my nutrition plan for the final 13 miles! At each of the last three aid stations I had asked if they had soup. I desperately wanted some soup to eat. No luck. It's readily available at the SJS50 and the 100, but not during the Silver Rush. I should've prepared some in advance for my crew to bring. Next year.
At this point I was pretty sure a PR was in my grasp, but not by much. I had 7 more miles to go. I ate about 200 calories at the final aid station, told my crew I'd see them at the finish line, and took off. I ran pretty strong for about two miles or so-- even running some of the gentle uphills. I wasn't feeling great, but I was hanging in there. The thunder and rain arrived giving yet another reason to finish the race as quickly as possible. Unfortunately I started slowing down with about 4.5 miles left to go. Soon my 10:00 min/miles turned into 11:00 min/miles and then into 13:00 min/miles. Ugh. I probably should've sat at the aid station until I was able to force down 400 calories. The initial surge of energy kept me going for about 30 minutes or so, but then it was survival mode. The pack of runners I was running with all started to gap me. Soon runners were coming up from behind and passing me. I must've been passed by 20 runners during the final 5 miles. I just had no energy to keep up with them. I always underestimate these final miles, expecting the finish line to appear sooner than it does. I let my guard down because I think the finish line is so close, when it's really 45 minutes away. I only ate approximately 200 calories during this stretch-- all of it fluids-- and I ended up being about 16 oz of water short for the final 13 miles. (In other words, I finished the race with about 16 oz of water in my hydration pack when it should've been empty.)
Not content to just push the halfway point farther away, the race organizers had also altered the last 0.25 miles of the race. We stayed up high on Dutch Henri Hill, ran past the starting line (above it) and then looped down the sledding hill (?!) into the finish chute. This was exciting for the spectators because you could see your runner cross above you and hear their name announced before they dropped down to finish, but after 47.6 miles I just wanted to be done. I managed to sprint to the last 50 yards to the finish (to avoid being passed yet again) and collapsed with a time of 10:54.
I finally broke the 11 hour barrier. An 11 minute PR on a course that was 1 mile longer. So, not quite the epic PR I was dreaming of, but still a respectable improvement. I then proceeded to dry heave for about 5 minutes.
This year's Silver Rush seemed more shades of grey rather than black and white. In past years I'd made what now seem like obvious mistakes. This year seems a little murkier. Why did I fade so badly in the final miles? Would another 200 calories have made a difference? 16 oz of fluid? More of each? Should I be sitting at aid stations longer rather than trying to consume all my calories on the move? Am I still feeling some lingering effects from the SJS50 three weeks ago? I honestly don't know.
I guess it's time to let this latest experience sink in. I've got four long runs left before I start tapering for the 100. They should provide plenty of time to contemplate what I could've done differently.
If it's possible to be simultaneously feeling excited, confident, and humble, I guess that's what I'm feeling.