About my blog

Welcome to my trail running site. I enjoy being on the trail where I can take in nature and clear my mind. I prefer running in the mountains, but anywhere rural will do. I have completed four 100 mile trail races and many other ultramarathons. I spend countless hours running in the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, TX. I call it "going to church". I'm a member of Team Red, White and Blue. "Enriching the lives of America's veterans."

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Silverheels 100 Miler

Lungs don't fail me now. Come on heart you can do it. 1-2-3-4-5 steps, rest. Breath...1-2-3-4-5. Repeat. How much farther can it be to the top? This is truly a soul crushing climb up to Hoosier Ridge at over 12,000 feet elevation. My lungs are searing, my head feels swimmy, but I keep plodding relentlessly hoping I can make the top. Finally I reach a sign, the turnaround point where I'm supposed to pick up a playing card to prove I was here. I look around for the deck of cards only to find a marmot turd and a few chewed spades and hearts. I pick up half a card and stop to take in the expansive view of the Mosquito range of Colorado. It really is spectacular and most of my discomfort temporarily subsides.

I'm at mile 42 of the Silverheels 100 miler that started in Fairplay, CO south of Breckenridge. Several days before the race, I received an email informing the 40 participants that the course isn't 100 miles at all, but over 105 with 18,000+ feet of elevation gain. This is the most ambitious run I've attempted to date and I have a lot of doubts about finishing it.

We started at 4:00am this morning and ran from 10,000' elevation up to High Park at 12,000'. The course was mostly on dirt roads, but near Alma, the highest incorporated town in the US, we had to switchback through the woods to criss cross the road that went straight up the mountain. It was still dark when we reached this section and there was some confusion because we could see a string of headlamps glowing higher up on the road, but we made sure to follow the course flagging. In the long run, everyone figured it out.

Once I reached the top, the sun finally peaked over the mountains revealing orange and pink clouds. The weather was atrocious the last few days with downpours and temperatures in the 40s. The race forecast was calling for 60% chance of thunderstorms, but we were dry so far. I reached the High Park (mi 9) aid station in 2.5 hours and then ran an out-and-back stretch to the Silverheels mine.

Silverheels Mine
Silverheels was a mysterious dancing girl who suddenly showed up in town during the 1860s Gold Rush. Stunningly beautiful, she made a lot of money from the miners in immoral ways, but when a smallpox epidemic struck the town she didn't leave. No, instead she risked her own health and cared for the miners one by one until they recovered. Unfortunately, by this time she contracted the disease, which causes pockmarks on the face, and was carried to her cabin to be cared for by an elderly local woman. In the mean time, while Silverheels was convalescing, the surviving miners raised $5000 to pay back their care taker, but when they arrived at her cabin, she had mysteriously disappeared. No one ever found out where she went or what happened to her so they named a nearby mountain in her honor.

Anyway, I reached the mine, a dark watery hole in the mountainside, and paid my respects to Silverheels. I then ran back to High Park where I grabbed a slice of bacon for breakfast and started down the mountain along Beaver Creek. The dirt road was quite smooth for the most part, but then I came to a deep creek. A lady who had just crossed said, "There's a few cinder blocks as a bridge upstream if you don't want to get your feet wet." Thanks, I may as well put that off as long as possible.

It didn't take long before I came to a beaver dam where the race director, Sherpa John and some volunteers had built a "bridge" of old pallets across the marshy creek bottom. You can wage a battle against beavers, but they will win every time! Here there was no way to cross without getting your feet soaked. Part of the route went right across the beavers work of rocks, sticks and mud and it was all I could do to keep from ending up in the beaver pond. After crossing this obstacle I continued on to the  Poor Man's Gulch aid station (mi 21). After eating a bit, I  grabbed a cream cheese sandwich and an extra water bottle out of my drop bag for the 10 mile stretch that lay ahead. Then I backtracked across the beaver dam just in case my feet weren't wet enough already.

Bridges near beaver dam

I made decent time and arrived at the Trout Creek aid station (mi 32) in about 8.5 hours which is good for me. Perhaps I was running the first half of the race too fast, but I felt strong and just went with the pace. After leaving the aid station, I again crossed a creek by hopping some rocks and walked through a marshy area. Before long I was climbing up a very steep trail that pretty much went straight up the mountain. I had to stop several times to breathe and let my heart rate settle down, but I eventually made it to the top. Dead sun bleached trees were sticking up like toothpicks along the grassy hillsides. Others were gnarled and twisted scattered about the ground like dead soldiers following a medieval battle. Large lush valleys could be seen in the distance.

The trip down the mountain was along a bendy single-track trail that was really fun to run. At one point the narrow trail closed in with tall purple and yellow wildflowers so I had to stop for some photos. Next I came to a tree with a massive burl (abnormal growth) on the trunk. Woodworkers love these things and make elaborate tables out of them, but many are poached from forests. After passing several abandoned cabins, I crossed a few railroad tie bridges and came into Tarryall Aid (mi 37).

Tree Burl

This is a large accessible aid station where many crews and spectators were hanging out having a good time. I ate a lot of fruit and drank a little coke until I spotted a sign on the table that said, "Bacon Wrapped Dates". I grabbed one and popped it into my mouth. I believe it was the best thing I've ever tasted. Sorry vegans; bacon tastes good.

Tarryall Aid Station

The next trail was more of a twisty trench, lined with soft pine needles except for the parts that were full of baseball sized rocks. It was mostly flat so I was able to run most of it. I arrived at Gold Dust aid station (mi 39.5) and then had to start my climb up Hoosier Ridge. As I said earlier, the climb was extremely tough and I can tell that my feel-good pace is starting to wane. I have 36 hours to finish the race so, if I can just average a fast walking pace, I have a chance to finish.

Hoosier Ridge and the Mosquito Range

After enjoying the view I start down the steep road. In the distance I can see several runners, but one is sitting on the ground. Have they given up? Hopefully just taking a short break. I pass a lot of climbers coming up as I'm going down. "How much farther is it?" they ask. I point to a bump on the mountain and offer some words of encouragement. Everyone I pass is feeling the same pain; no one is smiling, me included. Even though I'm going down, my legs feel weak and rubbery. How am I supposed to run another 60 miles!
Everyone felt miserable here, no one was smiling.
After passing through Gold Dust again, I continue on a looped section that takes me up to Boreas Pass Rd. This is another steep climb, but not as bad as Hoosier. I reach the dirt road which is a well traveled route to Breckenridge. The views are nice and the road is very smooth and downhill. I reach the Halfway Gulch aid station (mi 50.5) around 7PM (15 hrs) where I take a break to eat some ramen noodles.

After running downhill for another hour the sun begins to set. A brisk breeze is blowing and a light cool mist falls from the sky. I stop to don my rain jacket and turn on my headlamp. Once it becomes dark, I can barely see and wonder what's going on. I had my lamp in my pocket all day and it may have inadvertently turned on; running down the batteries. Luckily I have spares so stop to change them out. In my pack, I carry a compact LED pen light for such emergencies.

The drizzle stops after a short while and then I come to another creek crossing. There are no rocks, bridges or beaver's backs to hop onto so I just plow through soaking my feet to the bone. In no time I notice chafing on the top of my foot so I stop to put on some body glide and loosen the laces of my Altra Lone Peaks. A lady passes me asking if I'm OK. "Yes," I say and continue on feeling a little relief, but then the other foot starts to chafe so I have to stop once again. I had this same problem last year at Bighorn and my feet were bleeding by the end of the race. Eventually I get back to Gold Dust (mi 56.5) and, since it's only about three miles to the next aid, leave quickly so I can get to my drop bag and dry shoes.

When I arrive at Tarryall (mi 59), I tell the volunteers about the chafing I'm experiencing. Before I know it three medical personnel pull my shoes and socks off to inspect my feet. A doc recommends two pairs of socks to reduce friction, but I'm skeptical because my swollen feet might feel too cramped. Besides, I only have one pair of dry socks. The doc disappears with my wet socks while I put some glide on the chafed spots. Another volunteer puts the dry pair of socks on my dirty, smelly, black and muddy feet. What a trooper! "Your feet actually look great compared to what we've seen today." he says. The third volunteer goes through my drop bag and finds my dry Altra Olympus shoes while another lady serves me chicken broth and potatoes. After I finish the soup, the doc returns, having magically dried my wet socks. I go with his advice and wear the two pair. The volunteers here are truly awesome and I can't thank them enough.

This is what a bad foot looks like (not mine).

(Image: Human Potential Running)

I leave Tarryall feeling like a new man. I have another out-and-back section of nine miles down to the town of Como. I feel a sense of urgency because I lost a lot of time getting my feet worked on and just want to ensure I make all the cutoff times. I come to a stretch of boulders scattered about willy-nilly. The "trail" weaves through them in a haphazard way with some sharp drop offs. I almost eat it several times because the angle of my light only allows me to see the jump off point, but not the landing site. I see a string of headlamps coming towards me; runners coming back from Camp Como. One couple is stopped by the trail; a guy puking his guts out. Another casualty of a brutally difficult trail race.

The course is marked with red and white striped flagging that is hard to see at night, but every third one or so is tipped with reflective tape which lights up brightly provided your headlamp is good. In addition, there are permanent reflective diamond trail markers attached to the trees, so I have no problem knowing where to go. All is completely quiet out here until an elk breaks the silence with a majestic bugle in the distance. The rain never materialized and the moonless sky presents the most stunning display of stars I have ever seen.

I make it into camp and pretty much leave right away so as to not waste any time. On the way back my lamp seems to be dimming and I really thought the batteries in my new Black Diamond Spot light would last all night. I don't have any more spare batteries since I already changed them out. Luckily I have a spare headlamp in my drop bag. This trusty light is much heavier, but the batteries last forever and there are enough lumens to light up the entire forest. I just hope I make it back before the light goes completely out.

I get back to Tarryall (mi 68) for the last time and have a cheese quesadilla and some more chicken broth. I notice that my feet feel great; the chafing has stopped and I have zero blisters. The doc was right. The lady who was pacing the "puker" earlier asks if I would like a pacer to the next aid station since she is camping there and her runner dropped from the race. Wow, what a rock star I feel like to be getting all this attention. I've never had the luxury of a pacer in my life. It's a cold dark night in bear country and they say to always travel with a friend as long as you are faster. Well, having run 70 miles already, I'm pretty sure I know who the bear is going to catch.

Approaching Tarryall in the daytime.
Anyway, I take off with Mindy where we start a long slog back uphill. She is great company and keeps me moving faster than I normally would. Occasionally I have to stop on the climb to let my lungs and heart catch up. I continue to have doubts about finishing the race in time, but Mindy ensures me that as long as I can keep my steady pace I will finish in plenty of time. We finally reach the top of the pass where we switch off our lights to gaze at the amazing universe for a few minutes. This is one of the high points of my entire run. Beautiful! We run down the mountain where time seems to fly and make it into Trout Creek (mi 73). I bid Mindy farewell and start the 10 mile trek to the next aid station.

Unfortunately I start to feel terrible. I'm completely drowsy, my legs are shot and "Negative Nelly" is talking in my head. I reach a very steep hill that I'm psychologically not ready for. I don't remember running this part yesterday, I think to myself. Well, that's because you were coming down; not going up! I slowly begin plodding up the trail along Crooked Creek having to stop frequently to rest. My legs are so sore and weak that they feel like they are going to completely give out at any minute. I doubt I'll be able to make it to the top and even if I do, I'm probably moving too slow to make the 8:30am cutoff time at Poor Man's Gulch.

I slowly keep climbing, making a few more hundred feet in elevation. I'm very dizzy now and wonder why I keep signing up for these distances while, during times like this, I feel absolutely miserable. David Lavender explains it perfectly in One Man's West. He writes, "Fortunately God gave man a poor memory for physical discomfort. The active ingredients which made the hurt so brutal at the moment lose their keen edge in retrospect; we are able to look back on them with certain detachment and even make them subject matter of our dearest conversation pieces."

A few other runners are sitting on the side of the trail looking as miserable as I feel so I'm in good company. I pass them and slowly keep climbing. I start thinking to myself again, Poor Man's is not far from Fairplay at all and it would be easy enough to have Cara simply pick me up there in a few hours. The question is, can I even make it there without breaking down? There is nothing else to do, but lumber up the slope as best I can. I've developed a cough from sucking dry air all day and night, but I just keep moving forward even though these 10 miles feel longer than the third grade. I squeeze a gel into my mouth hoping for an energy boost.

Eventually I make it to the top and then run down for a while. The sun comes out in full force and the warm air recharges me. Because I'm going downhill, I feel like I'm making progress again. I never thought I would make it back to Poor Man's, but finally I reach the trail that takes me across the beaver dam. Who would have thought I would be so happy to get my feet soaked again? I cross this obstacle and see some other runners coming back towards me. They are all very encouraging.

I make it into the aid station (mi 84) with almost two hours to spare and relax for a few minutes to eat some ramen noodles. I gorge on fruit and then get out of there. I want to get this race over with. The next section is a 2000' climb back up to 12,000' elevation. There are some very hilly jeep roads that are more technical than you would think. All the roads in this mountainous area slope inward into a "V" because of erosion. Therefore you are always either running along the slope with your feet at an angle, or down in the "V" that is usually filled with rocks. Otherwise you ride along the upper berm which doesn't give you much room for footing. By this time I'm completely exhausted both physically and mentally trying to pick the best path.

When I approach the top of the mountain the road becomes so steep that I have to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. I look at my watch and know that I'll probably finish, but it is literally going to take every single ounce of energy I have left. I make it to High Park (mi 91) and immediately take off on the out-and-back trail to Silverheels Mine. The sun is high in the sky by this time with no cloud cover whatsoever. UV rays are much more intense up here due to the thin air and I can feel the sun's rays burning a hole in my flesh. I feel like an ant beneath a magnifying glass commandeered by a pubescent male.

Nevertheless, I make the trip out to the mine where other runners are also coming and going. We do a lot of fist-bumping and high-fiving as we pass each other as well as shouting "WAY TO GO!, NICE WORK! and GOOD JOB!" which really sounds like "GOO SHOB!" after you have been running for 30 hours.

I get back to High Park 45 minutes before the cutoff time and take a break to eat some hash-brown-bacon-cheesy surprise. The kind that is only available at remote ultramarathon aid stations. Yum! I leave by 12:30pm with only (ONLY!) nine miles to go and 3.5 hours to get there. Even though it is all downhill, I'm only able to manage a glorified walking pace. Usually I can muster a slow jog at the end of my hundred milers, but the high elevation, amount of climbing, not to mention the extra five miles, has all taken its toll on my body.

The road down seems to take forever especially as I near town. Every time I crest a rise in the road or turn a corner, I expect to see the finish line, but it never materializes. I grow impatient and try a running pace to hopefully finish sooner, but my lungs rebel and I start coughing so am forced back to a walk again. Finally, I see the park where we started over 35 hours earlier with Maddie running out to greet me. We run the last few yards together while everyone cheers for us.

Cara and Maddie in front of the old school house in South Park City 
I'm speechless and in shock that I actually finished because I had so many doubts over the last two days. This was definitely one of the biggest roller coaster rides of my life. I really enjoyed the first half of this race and felt strong the first day, but I had to fight with all my might to keep going the second day. Sherpa John shakes my hand and says, "Congratulations, I hope at least part of that was fun." "Yes, most of it was fun, but that was really mean." I replied with a wink and a smile.

The buckle
After the last few runners come in, Sherpa John presents all the finishers with a Silverheels buckle. Out of 38 starters, there were only 19 finishers. I'm proud to have received one of those buckles for finishing in 35:25. The runners who didn't finish this most brutal race are listed on the Human Potential Running Series website as Dance Hall Patrons until they can return in a future year to take care of unfinished business. I couldn't have completed this race without the selfless help of all the aid station volunteers, medical personnel, trail work volunteers, course markers, etc. Sherpa John put on a tough race through a beautiful forest in an area with a rich historical heritage.

Thanks to all my training partners back home who hit the trails with me every weekend and my Team RWB family. As always, I'm so appreciative of Maddie and Cara for their support in all my running adventures.

See you on the trail.

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