Saturday, August 15, 2015

Silverheels 100-mile Endurance Run; Fairplay, Colorado

The Silverheels 100 mile endurance run The first pre-dawn miles were an easy affair—gliding along at a nine or ten minute mile pace under the cover of darkness and guided by the frequent sighting of an orange ribbon marking the course. Take it easy. It’s a hundred miles after all. You’ll be at this for at least 25 hours, probably longer.

Hundred mile endurance runs are different than other ultra-distance runs. They are a journey as much as a run. Marathons, 50K’s, 50-milers, and even 100K’s can be run as a straight-out race, but you will need a different mindset and unique strategies to get through the hundred. I’ve had five successful completions and four DNF’s at the 100-mile distance. Out of all the other races I’ve run I’ve had only one DNF—that includes 136 marathons.

Starting in the downtown metropolis of Fairplay, Colorado we ran dirt roads to Alma, which at 10,578 feet is the highest incorporated town in North America. From the unmanned water-only aide station we climbed steadily to the fully stocked Highland aide station. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the dawn’s early light suffused the landscape and Mt Silverheels dominated the scene. I left my hydro-pack at the aide station and filled up a collapsible handheld with water for the five-mile round trip to the Silverheels Mine, knowing that there was water available at the mine. The out and back is close to 12,000’ and rolling. It was easy enough to run the downs and most of the ups this early in the race. The scenery of the high country above treeline was glorious in the early morning. I counted the runners ahead of me as they came back towards and put myself at 12th place. So far, so good.

In order to raise my 100-mile completion rate I had to change my mindset from “racing” to finishing. My strategy now is to overcome adversity and to quit only for legitimate reasons—no excuses or because I’m tired of running. For instance, I know that I always suffer nausea about sixty miles into these things. Before changing my mindset I might have dropped out for that reason (excuse.) Now I’ll take a quick catnap, let myself settle down, and see if that works to overcome it. I’ve also found foods that I can take in without problems—clear vegetable broth with no spices and orange juice. I’ve gone for forty miles taking in only vegetable broth for calories. There is a fine balance between taking in just enough calories and too many calories. You don’t need a lot of calories to get through 100 miles. At least I don’t. You do need some though. It’s that fine balance that you have to achieve between maintaining the body and bonking. Tolstoy in his classic novel, Anna Karenina started it off with (paraphrasing): “All happy families are alike, all unhappy families are different,” or close to that. For me the Silverheels journey and indeed all of my 100-mile journeys are of the latter category—not necessarily “unhappy” but very unique in what I have to do to overcome adversity.

In the Silverheels run I would had to overcome three moments of adversity: a fall which produced a large goose egg on my forehead, an asthma attack while climbing the steepest and highest point of the race, and the old familiar nausea.

At 19 miles I met my crew, Rebekka for the first time at the Gold Pan aide station. Just before arrival I had plunged through a creek, so I got a fresh pair of socks and carried them back over the creek before putting them on. It was ten miles to the next aide station at Trout Creek, so I made sure I had water and gels.

Running on the old jeep road I heard a set of about six ATV’s behind me. They weren’t going much faster than I and it was annoying to hear them slowly creeping up on me. Finally they started passing me, one by one. The last ATV was driven by a woman with a toddler on her lap. She passed me then stopped because of a severe washout in the road. The driver ahead of her had gone up on the grass to the left of the road, but there was a difficult lip to traverse to get up there. While he was trying to advise her how to maneuver up there she started rolling backwards. I had my head down, pulling it up just in time to jump out of her way. I sped past them and it was some fifteen minutes before they passed me for the final time, the toddler now on the man’s lap. A set of orange ribbons marked where the course left the dirt road to embark on a single track trail. There was also a big orange “X” marked on the ground in that same direction, where I caught up to Lance Dockery puzzling over what to do. Meanwhile another runner backtracking from the single track told us that it was the right way. Lance and I weren’t sure to believe him--we thought the course might continue on the road and vandals might have moved the ribbons to confuse runners (it happens.) So, we decided to continue on the road for a quarter mile to see if there were more ribbons up there. No, there weren’t. We returned, adding half a mile to our day, followed the single track and seeing markings further up the trail we realized it probably was correct, so we went back to rub out the orange “X” so more runners wouldn’t be confused.

Lance and I ran steadily up through a meadow of high grass and wildflowers. After a while we slowed to a walk and I observed, “a good rule to follow early in these 100 milers is to ask yourself if you will be running this same grade ten hours from now or not. If not, then walk.” Indeed, fourteen hours into a 100-mile run I for one will be walking all ups and running only the downs. The single track trail crested, traversed east for a short stretch, then bent south for a long downhill. I pulled away from Lance and found myself running free and easy—down, down, down. Near the bottom of this long descent I was surprised when an older runner caught up to me. I let him go around me, but kept him in touch as we joined a dirt road. I watched him scoot under a gate, but I noticed there was a latch holding the gate so I unhooked it and stepped across. Mistake--I should have scooted underneath. I spent a good minute trying to force my weakened arms to close the gate. I caught up to and passed the older gentleman (I am three years older than him) a couple times before he pulled away.

Ten minutes before the Trout Creek aide station I plugged in my earphones and started a new audiobook on my iPhone. With the aide station in sight I caught a rock with my toe and suddenly launched—slow motion, frozen in flight, going down, no chance to avoid it, the crash is coming—Boom! Lying on the ground—where does it hurt? I reach for my forehead and feel a ping pong sized goose egg. I look at my fingers—blood streaming. Shoulder hurts, knee hurts. I rise and walk to the aide station. They had seen the fall. No bandaids, but hey! They have a nurse practitioner! I fill my bladder and press on. See you on the way back!

Five miles before the first of three visits to the Tarryall Aide Station at mile 35 where I’ll see Rebekka, my crew. First though we have a long climb that culminates in a steep climb through a meadow under the hot sun. Then down, down, down a single track trail, cross a creek, and up to the road and the long awaited chair. Decompress, change socks, shoes, fill bladder, take in calories, get up and go. Steep climb, then easy winding trail, running--mountain bikes like this trail. Next aide station, Gold Dust. Familiar faces greet me: Carolyn, Steve, Christian. Short stop before the major climb to above 12,000’. I had no idea how hard this would be, a difficulty compounded when I found myself struggling for air--Asthma attack! Can’t go. Walk three steps, stop and try for air—lungs can’t get oxygen. Climb a few steps. Stop. Other runners pass and express concern. I’m all right. More steps. Stop. Finally above tree line. Can’t be much further. A runner running down with trekking poles stops to ask me if I’m all right. Yes. Do I want to know where I’ll be going? Yes. He turns and indicates a snow field high on the slopes. I can just barely make out a few human forms way up there. Sherpa John is up there, he says. I can do this.

When I finally reach the top, I look so bad that Sherpa John later tells me if it wasn’t me he would have pulled me from the race. As it is, I get down as quickly as I can, which isn’t very fast. Back at the Gold Dust Aide Station, fortunately one of the volunteers has a breather that I use to recover my ability to breathe. My breather was with Rebekka, another 16 miles away. He loans me his breather for the next miles—I would return to this aide station. I’m a new man.

Climb on trails to Boreas Pass, where I had skied with Julian Smith several times over the last two years. We would skin up from the Breckenridge side and ski the very slopes above Boreas Pass that I now had to climb—only three-quarters of a mile climb--with full lung capacity now, I marched up with ease. This time I fully appreciated the expansive views that extended to Breckenridge and peaks beyond. I returned to Boreas Pass just as Rebekka pulled up in the Subaru. Sherpa John had run down to the Tarryall Aide Station to tell her to get up to Boreas Pass in case I needed anything. Every aide station for the rest of the course knew who I was, thanks to John, and closely monitored my well-being. I was back in form now though--running down the road from Boreas Pass I ran a ten minute mile pace for seven straight miles—not bad with over 50 miles on my legs.

At the bottom of Boreas Pass Road, the course turned right, following a rough jeep road that climbed back up to the Gold Dust Aide Station. I walked most of this section and in the waning sunlight felt my old nemesis nausea coming on. Soon everything I’d taken in from the last two aide stations came up. At Gold Dust I refused all sustenance, but did sit down for a bit to settle down, and returned the asthma breather, which I hadn’t used since leaving Gold Dust over two hours before. I ran and walked the easy two and a half miles down to Tarryall for the second time. Rebekka was there with fresh socks. In the waning daylight I pushed off for the ten-mile out-and-back to Camp Como. Rebekka was going to drive down to meet me there. My spot headlamp on button wouldn’t work and I was forced to trudge the last two miles in gathering darkness, fortunately making it before the lights went out totally. As I sat in a chair at the aide station with Rebekka asking what I needed I looked to my right. “Well, hello again.” I said to Lance Dockery. I had last seen him on the climb from hell as he bounded easily by me. Now he was suffering and said he planned to drop out after returning to Tarryall. We left together for the climb back, but he dropped back after about three miles.

When I got back to Tarryall for the third and final time I decided a nap was in order. I got in the car, leaned the seat back, put a bag over me and asked Rebekka to wake me in 55 minutes—after which I hoped to be able to take in food again. When I woke I was not quite refreshed, but I wasn’t nauseous and was able to take in some calories before heading out into the night with a good strong headlamp. Five miles to the next aide station--the second time to Trout Creek--but first I had to climb long and steeply. I could hear runners talking behind me—they would almost catch up to me, then they would fall back almost out of ear shot. When I got to Trout Creek and had settled in to a chair and had drunk the first of two cups of plain vegetable broth, they pulled into camp. They turned out to be Antonio and Enrique--we would travel the next ten miles together on the way to Gold Camp for the second time.

I left the aide station first, but soon became less than confident. I seemed to recall that the course should be going right climbing up slope. When there were no markers the doubt became greater, so I backtracked to wait for them to catch up. Antonio and Enrique said to continue on the road, and sure enough eventually we came on a marker. Indeed we continued for three miles before the course left this road to climb, first on jeep road and later into meadows. The climb from hell. It just would not quit. On and on we climbed. Another runner and his pacer caught us and passed us, but we would later catch them on the way down. Just interminable. Relentless. Into the early morning hours. Sleep mongers. Antonio and I agreed that we had to take a nap once we arrived at the Gold Camp aide station. When we finally arrived it was 5:30 AM. The sun was on the brink of rising, but it was still twilight. I quickly went to the Subaru and asked Rebekka to wake me after only 30 minutes this time. That was all I needed. Just a chance to get a bit of shuteye and rejuvenate. 30 minutes later, the sun was ascending, I felt like a new man, took in some recovery drink, and I was ready to go.

On the trails again I was completely recovered and running! I ran like it was the beginning of the race, passing competitors who were walking. I ran all the downs and most of the easy ups. Killing it! The climb to Highland Aide Station was very steep though and I had no choice but to walk that one. I left my pack there, filled a handheld with water (just like I did the first time through) and set off on the five-mile round trip to the Silverheels Mine. It was after 8 AM and the sun was heating things up. I ran the downs and most of the ups and reeled in more runners. After the turn around I noticed another runner who was running the downs. I made note of how far he was behind me (one third of a mile) and thought no more of it.

I stopped again at Highland, ate a couple orange slices, and met Fred Ecks for the first time. I knew of him and he knew of me, since we’ve competed in close age groups for years. Really nice guy. When he told me that I had only eight and three-quarter miles to go it gave me a real boost in spirit. I thought I had eleven miles to go. I told him that I could probably do that in about two hours if I kept on pace. Here goes nothing!

I did run a lot of the downs, but I also had to walk quite a bit. It was freaking hot! And while the course gradually dropped in elevation, there were a lot of ups in there. Finally I came to the long mostly flat road into Fairplay. With three miles to go Rebekka came out to run me in. What a sight for sore eyes! Together we made those last miles go by faster. I would say, “let’s run to that telephone pole on the left,” then “let’s run to the second orange flag,” and so on until we finally reached the pavement that meant we were almost there. With four blocks to go I told her that I was going to run it in and if she wanted to get a finish line photo she’d better head for the finish line. I ran it in and met Sherpa John at the finish line where he shook my hand. Done! 32 hours and 21 minutes. My sixth 100-mile finish.

Five minutes later someone said there was another finisher coming in. What? How could that be?? Someone had been catching me all this time? Turned out to be Enrique from the previous night's long night and the same guy who was only a third of a mile behind me at Silverheels Mine. Another strong finisher.

5 comments:

Native_Element said...

Thanks Steve, this was an outstanding account of your 100-mile endurance run! I loved reading about your amazing adventure because Lord knows I will never know what it is like to run 100 miles...not in this lifetime!! I admire your physical and mental strength to endure such an endeavor. Congratulations on your finish!! Yay Steve!!!!!!

Tom Johnson said...

Well Done mate! great stuff!

GZ said...

Congrats Steve. Well done. Those are some tough hills around that mountain.

mark cucuzzella said...

steve looking good! your old USAF friend and teammate Mark C. i did a fun 50k friendly this weekend. just enough to work up an appetite for some burgers and beer. 100M.....maybe someday.

Steve Bremner said...

Hi Mark! Good to hear from you again. I'm running a road marathon September 13th to try and get a Boston qualifying time. I saw Jon S. at Boston in 2013. We were in the same stall, but he cleaned my clock on the run.