LEADVILLE, COLO. — The red carpet treatment usually is reserved for the glamorous; famous folks who’ve spent hours perfecting their look for the cameras and throngs of adoring fans.
In Leadville, however, the red carpet is rolled out for the dirtiest, muddiest, sweatiest, grungiest of characters whose appearances have been carefully crafted not in front of the mirror, but through hours of marching over mountains and tramping down trails.
In Leadville, the goal isn’t to look good on the red carpet; it’s to make it there before the time limit elapses and the finish line closes.
That was my goal for 8 1/2 months since signing up for the Leadville Silver Rush 50-Mile Trail Run — my second ultra and first 50-miler.
As a flatlander, most of my training took place in the thick Kansas humidity to simulate the breathing difficulty that would come from running 50 miles at 10,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level. After an additional week of acclimatization in Colorado, I was ready to toe the starting line on Sunday, July 15.
Standing at the base of Dutch Henry Hill for the 6 a.m. start, chatter and anxious glances swirled through the crowd in the 44-degree temperature. The national anthem plays]ed. There wass a five-second countdown, and then the crowd surged forward and upward — a few sprinting, but most swiftly hiking — to the top of the hill. From there, the pace quickened with runners jostling for position. Separation happened fast as the leaders bolted ahead and the hikers settled into a steady cadence. I ended up somewhere in between.
The first 13.5 miles to Printerboy aid station passed quicker than I expected; barely 3 hours. Most of it was runnable, other than a 1,000-foot climb between miles 7 and 10 to 12,000 feet.
Rumor at the aid station was that most of the field of about 600 runners was ahead of the usual Silver Rush pace. The near-perfect weather probably had something to do with it. The sun was blocked intermittently by clouds, and temperatures were now in the low 60s.
Out of Printerboy, there’s a half-mile downhill jaunt through the woods, followed by a four-mile uphill run/hike to the Rock Garden aid station. At that point I was 18 miles in, and still feeling good thanks to well-managed hydration and nutrition, as well as a responsible pace.
Shortly after departing the aid station, race champion Michael Aish (6:54:34) blew past me on his return trip. Race runner-up David Ruttum (6:59.26) followed a few minutes behind, looking equally relaxed. I also was feeling fresh, although that’s primarily because I averaged nearly six more minutes per mile than they did.
My hope entering the race was that I’d feel good at the turnaround so I’d have enough energy left to grind out the final 25 miles to the finish line. The second climb above 12,000 feet started to take its toll, but the four-mile, 1,800-foot descent to Stumptown provided welcome relief. My best friend and crew had a chair, sandwich and fluid waiting. After a five-minute rest, I was back on my feet and headed back out for the second half.
I felt good, but it didn’t last long. Four miles and 1,800 feet of climbing awaited, and nearly everybody was walking. For us mortals in the middle of the pack, each step upward toward 12,000 feet was a challenge. Footing wasn’t good in some sections, and the wear and tear of the first 25 miles was setting in quickly. The objective was to simply endure this section, and after more than an hour of climbing I made up lost time hammering the next seven miles of mostly downhill back to Printerboy.
I arrived back at Printerboy in 8:05, well ahead of pace for my goal of a sub-12-hour finish, and actually in striking distance of sub-11 with 13 miles to go. My legs felt strong and my nutrition was good, so I decided to aim big. I ditched my hydration pack to reduce weight, grabbed a hand-held bottle, stuffed a few Hammer gels in my pocket and took off. I was after sub-11!
The lofty aspirations didn’t last long. A half-mile later, during the final three-mile climb to 12,000 feet, sharp pains began shooting through the top of my left foot with every step. My pace plummeted. Walking was the only option for the next six miles. The foot hurt too bad, and my legs started to lock up.
The wheels were falling off.
More than a dozen runners passed me en route to the final aid station at Black Cloud, just seven miles from the finish line. Rain began to fall as I arrived at the aid station and refilled my bottle. Moments later, hail stung my arms and I started to shiver.
The reality of a 50-mile mountain race was setting in quickly. After 37 miles of confidence, the final 13 were leaving me hobbled and humbled. Sub-11 wasn’t happening, and now I was in danger of missing my goal of a sub-12-hour finish.
With that in mind, I forced my legs to wake back up, tolerated the foot pain and found a way to run. It worked in spurts for the final seven miles; run for two minutes, walk for two or three, then run again.
Finally, the sounds of the finish line reached my ears. I heard the announcer barking out results. I heard the roar of the crowd as other runners were finishing. My pace quickened, and finally the finish line came into sight. I emerged from the woods, ran across the top of Dutch Henry Hill and heard my best friend cheering below. After a few fast, painful strides down the steep final hill, I rounded the bend.
There it was: the red carpet.
Numerous others already had crossed the finish line — some I’m sure looking fantastic, but most weathered and weary — when I took my turn as the 284th runner on the red carpet. As was to be expected, it was a very Leadville — not Hollywood — red carpet experience. Photo evidence revealed no flashy smile, no celebration despite finishing in 11:53:38 to meet my sub-12 goal. Instead, I looked like just about every other Leadville red carpet runner: dirty, suffering and relieved to be done.