Leadville’s Silver Rush 50 Mile Race Across the Sky

Leadville’s Silver Rush is a gritty 50 miler serving up the ultra-dream in the thin air of the Colorado Rockies. Nestled between 10k-12k feet (that’s two miles high!), this photogenic Race Across the Sky gains over 7,700 feet as it zig-zags through the town’s old mining district.  And as a special bonus this year, racers were treated to afternoon thunderstorms straight out of the Old Testament.  If you haven’t read the Bible, that’s the part where people got their minds right the hard way.  More on that later…  

As the story goes, when Ken Chlouber floated the idea to host the first 100-mile race in Leadville, one of the locals told him “you’re crazy. You’ll kill someone…”  Chlouber responded, “well, we’ll be famous, won’t we?”  I wasn’t worried about dying, but the city’s thin air did conjure images of suffocating and altitude sickness.  So, I decided to test Leadville’s waters with their “short” Silver Rush 50 miler.

After all, I live at sea level.  Most people, myself included, only know 10k feet as the point on a plane ride where the flight attendants get to unbuckle their seatbelts and start walking about the cabin.

The 6:00 AM Start

When Ken Chlouber fired the starting gun on race morning (yes, it’s an actual gun), I was calm.  To be more precise, I was yawning.  The day before, I’d done the mountain bike race over the same course and it had been brutal.  Thanks to two crashes, I’d crossed the finish line bleeding like a stuck pig and was absolutely exhausted.

After two hours of sleep, here I was for round two: on foot.  I wasn’t fresh, but I could move.  And I was relieved to not worry about crashing anymore.  As the gun fired, I ingrained Chlouber’s words from the day before as my mantra: “Going slow isn’t a character flaw, quitting is.”

 

Walking Towards the Light Ended up Being Prophetic

After a few rolling hills, we started the cold morning with an 8-mile climb to the first of four 12k peaks.  To my surprise, doing this part without the bike was much easier!  Thanks to my 50-mile pace targets, I was able to chat with a few runners while enjoying the mountain sunrise and got to run alongside a volunteer from the day before that I’d forgot to thank.

He was one of the coolest people, and it was amazing to be able to tell him how much his being positive had meant in the last parts of the mountain bike race. The first few hours should have been a tough slog, but they were genuinely happy.

I was taking in all of the mining sites and hilltop vistas that I hadn’t noticed the day before.  My pace was slow, but I was moving and felt like I could keep after it all day.

 Nerding out at 12k FeetThe Historic Mines we Ran Through

Summit Number 2 of the Day

Racing the Clouds to the Halfway Point

The morning temps quickly climbed into the 70s, and as an Alaskan that felt oppressive – especially above the treeline.  Somewhere after the halfway point, a light rain started and it felt heaven-sent. I was thoroughly enjoying the cooldown from mother nature, but then the wind kicked up and turned the water sideways.  Oh well, it was just rain.  A few minutes later, claps of thunder started.  No worries, I was back below the tree-line…  Then it started to hail.  I tried to sugar coat the hail by telling myself “at least it’s not lightening,” but my ability to find the positive was being severely taxed.

Afternoon Mountain Weather

An hour earlier, I had been overheating under the blazing sun.  Now, I was soaking wet, cold, and being pelted by bb-sized hail all over my body.  Sure, I could have waited out the storm behind a tree without incident…  but those cutoffs were looming.

I’ve missed race cutoffs before, that sucks.  The hail wasn’t comfortable, but missing a cutoff would be worse so I plowed forward.  I may have hiked the hills with all the grace of a three-legged donkey, but I was climbing through the storm.  And climbing isn’t quitting.

 

When the weather finally relented, I reached for an applesauce packet to start making up the calories I’d missed during the thunderstorm…  Only there was one problem.  My fingers had stopped working!  Eating would just have to wait until a runnable spot appeared so I could get my hands working again.

Feeling Small

As strange as this might sound, mile 30’ish is where I fell in love with Leadville. I was two miles above sea level, racing in the clouds and finding out just how much heart was really in my body. Physically, things were sucking… bad. But all of this was happening against high mountain backdrops that could make the cover of National Geographic.  And the people I was struggling alongside to beat the cutoffs were inspiring.  I can’t speak to what it’s like in the front of the pack, but seeing racers push with everything they have in spite of having little chance to beat the cut-offs their racing reminds you how awesome people can be.

In most write-ups, this would the part in the story where the author overcomes the trials and pushes through to a triumphant finish.  In this story, the journey ended around mile 40 just after I’d crested the final 12k summit.  I was part of a small but determined group that had been racing from cut-off to cut-off for hours, but several of us fell just short at the final cut-off 12 hours in.  The race crew rounded us up right at hour 12 (they actually sent 4-wheelers down the trail after folks) and delivered us en masse to the finish.

But not before I convinced a safety guy to snag a “finish” picture of me and another racer who’d been pulled.

Photo Credit – Cool Rescue Staff that took this Pic and Gave me a Ride

After 21 hours of running and biking, climbing over 15,000 feet and traveling almost 90 miles through America’s highest incorporated city my weekend was over.  I’d crashed, broken my glasses, bled, triumphed and lost all in the span of 48 hours. It was a blast!

Days after the race, I wondered if I’d let coach Nickademus down, or if it was partly his fault for not firing me as a client when I proposed the lofty goal of doing both races back-to-back. I’d never done a mountain bike race or a 50 miler, so a cogent argument could be made that I was punching out of my weight class.  Regardless of whether it was a dumb idea or awesome (I still think it was awesome), I left with an ear-to-ear smile and a genuine passion to head back next year for a repeat.  The people, the race’s story, the mountains… just everything about this place is special.

For a five minute video of the two races set to mariachi music, click here (Spoiler Alert: you’ll see me crash).

Daniel Delfino

A middle aged guy with a day job that deals with stress by training for obstacle course races and extreme endurance events.