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).

Alaska’s Winter Wilderness Ultra – The Little Su

There’s an Ultra event held every February that bills itself as a Race Across Frozen Alaska, and it’s the real deal.  Race temps stay below freezing (by a lot), it’s all wilderness through snow and ice, and the starting line is x4 Iditarod Champion Martin Buser’s kennel.  As a skinny economist with bad eyesight and zero wilderness intelligence, I decided to face a laundry list of weaknesses by making this Little Su 50K my first attempt at Ultra running.  Last Saturday, it went down.

Minutes from the 11:00 a.m. Start

It’s possible there are safer options for a first 50k, but safe has always just felt like another word for dull. After 4 years of OCR, rope climbs and bucket carries feel slightly less exhilarating nowadays… but I still really love trail running and getting lost into the unpaved nowhere.  So just after the temps rose above 0F last Saturday morning, I lined up with 76 bikers, 4 skiers and 25 runners in my home state to try a different sort of running experience (sans obstacles) over 31.4 miles of arctic fun.

the Little Su is Underway

My goal was to run the entire thing, but anything faster than 11 minute miles in snowy conditions would put that at risk. Snow is slow, and it sends a heart rate to the stratosphere if it’s treated like pavement (imagine beach running over squishy sand). When I saw my first mile clocked in at 9:50, I checked my ego, hit the brakes hard and watched the field pass. I wondered how many of the faster runners would gas out at mile 20. Not many (if any) did, they were just in much better shape.

Early in the Run

Around mile 4, I saw a glorified bunny hill and decided to let gravity placate my racing ego with a brief sprint.  Seconds later, I felt like a world-class idiot after my foot sank into a deep snow pocket and rolled my ankle at full speed. It was a potential setback that the SealFit coaches would have ridiculed as a quinjury (i.e. pain quitters use to justify quitting, even though they can continue).  The nagging pain from there on out was a fun reminder that technical running isn’t just for rocky trails.

A mile or so later, I came to a 50’ish foot section of funky brown ice and crossed to the other side without much thought. It looked sort of thin, but the lakes had been frozen for weeks and nothing cracked underfoot. Then I heard a guy yell at me from behind “Hey!!!” as he pointed over to the trail I was supposed to be on. Drat.  After some cathartic expletives, I doubled back across the weird ice to rejoin the right trail.  Shortly after I got home, I looked this section up and realized the funky colored ice was actually the Little Susitna River… Oops.

Roughly 40 minutes later, the snow density changed to something less fast and my pace slowed to stabilize the heart rate. For the next 20+ miles, I saw just a handful of racers. At this point, running became almost meditative and felt like a mushy communion with nature. The remaining hours were spent taking in the Alaskan winter experience… Snowmachines zooming by, low flying planes passing overhead, and picturesque views in every direction with zero wildlife. To all the dutiful bears honoring their proud tradition of hibernation: thank you!

Typical Trail Section Plowed by Snowmachines

Mile 17 Checkpoint w/ PingPong Ball Drop to Prove you were there

After being on the course four 4+ hours, silly songs like “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen and every Christmas Carol I’d ever heard started going through my head. I’d been alone in the wilderness for so long that I started talking to myself. Somewhere the dialogue stopped being just in my head and I caught myself carrying on the conversation out loud. I choose to believe this had more to do with being lost in the Ultra moment than temporarily losing my mind, but either explanation seems plausible.  It’s weird how quickly a person can get lost in their own head without obstacles to distract them every 1/4 of a mile.

The day had its expected opportunities to Embrace the Suck. I constantly worried about my 3L of water freezing (it didn’t), and the Gu’s started making me gag 4 hours in. The potential quinjuries multiplied: my ankle hurt progressively, an IT Band acted up, an Achilles felt like it had partially torn, and a PT tendon went achy for a brief spell. None of these were legit injuries, but my mind wanted in on the day’s challenge to see if it could ruin an otherwise beautiful experience by being a drama queen.

Winter Sunsets last Over an Hour

Around the marathon point, the long sunset was starting as I met a skier 5’ish hours into the race. A few miles later, Iditarod champ Martin Buser zipped by on a snowmachine saying “you’re almost there!!!” as he sped away.

Martin Buser Patrolling the Course  – Photo by Andy Romang

Soon after Buser’s encouraging words, my 6½ hour day of living the dream by running 31.4 miles through frozen Alaska ended under a warm (10F) sunset.  The last time I finished something this far out of my skill set, my Uncle Don was waiting at the beach to greet me as I finished the swim from Alcatraz in to San Francisco. Thanks to the incredibly gracious event photographer, I was able to get one final post-race photo with Uncle Don (who passed 12/20/17) at the finish line.

Sunset Finish – minus the gear – Photo by Andy Romang

Running for 6.5 hours in the snow at these temps was a way different experience than completing the Sun Peaks Ultra Beast in Canada or any other event I’ve done that celebrates our ability to suffer. Bridging the gap from OCR to Ultra distances was a lot harder and more technical than I thought it would be. But thanks to my coach Nickademus de La Rosa (formerly Hollon) sharing his otherworldly endurance knowledge, it’s something I was finally able to manage without a red lantern (last place) or DNF to show for the effort.

Everything about this was fun. The race staff and participants were just nice across the board, and the event’s host was one of the more gracious people you’ll ever meet. After doing one, I get the draw to these events and can’t wait to do more…  Just as soon as my freshly diagnosed Grade II ankle sprain heals…  Apparently some of the pain wasn’t just in my head.

As I was driving away under the sunset, superhuman people were still out there running and skiing the full 100 mile version of the course.  Props to them for stamina and grit, but the full 100 is a goal for another day… maybe.

The Course Just after Sunset – Photo by Andy Romang

 

Photo Credit: Daniel Delfino (thanks GoPro!), Andy Romang, Martin Delfino

Spartan goes to Iceland and brings back a new race format

What Was that Spartan in Iceland All About?

While this is a challenge for all of us who write about OCR, my biggest concern in writing about the Spartan Iceland Ultra World Championship was avoiding overuse of the words “epic” and “grueling.” My solution here is substituting the words “saga-worthy” and “difficult,” because Iceland is a land of difficult terrain that inspired centuries of sagas. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This summer, Spartan announced that it was launching a new race in a new location: Iceland. I’ve been before, but I wanted to go back, and this seemed like a great excuse. Spartan also announced a new format:  a 24-hour UltraBeast consisting of 5-mile loops. My first reaction was “So, this is going to be World’s Toughest Spartan?” The staff at Tough Mudder must have been pleased, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. My next reaction was to note the date: December 16, a month after World’s Toughest Mudder and, more important, a time of year when the sun barely shines in one of the world’s northernmost countries. The flip side of this was that it would make viewing of the northern lights while racing a real possibility.

The Great Unknowns

Racers were stymied at first, as Spartan’s website was ambiguous about what exactly the race would consist of, where it would take place, and who could participate. Many were reluctant to fork over $750 for a race without more details – Spartan promised it would be “epic” and “grueling”, but not much more. Eventually, enough people signed up that Spartan committed to the event and provided a travel agent to arrange hotels and transportation. The exact location was kept secret until close the date of the event, though it was easy enough to guess from Spartan’s description (a quick web search of the term “thermal streams,” one of the course features, pinpointed the site as Hveragerdi).

Adding to this uncertainty was one of the first data points provided by Spartan: a mandatory gear list. While Spartan has made some gear requirements for races in the past, particularly to make sure that racers would have enough water on the Beast and UltraBeast courses, the gear list provided was more reminiscent of what was required for the Death Race or an Agoge. In addition to a pack for water, racers were required to have on their person rain gear, warm clothes, lights, backup lights, and a very specific foot care kit. While I could imagine hikers needing an Ace bandage out in the wilderness, the need for one on a five-mile loop was less clear to me, and an informal survey after the race turned up no one who used it out on the course. The list caused considerable online puzzlement: would we be disqualified before the start if our rain jackets didn’t have the correct type of waterproof taped seams? Would there be pack inspections along the course?

What’s Icelandic for “Athlete Briefing”?

Racers met the day before the race for a mandatory briefing at Reykjavik’s Harpa, a concert hall and conference center, something like Iceland’s Carnegie Hall, but sleek and modern. Before we got to the important race details, we were treated to what might be the Icelandic equivalent of a motivational speaker. Bjartur led us all in a chant, having us cry “Wiking! Yes!” and jump in the air. Yes, Scandinavians have trouble with word-initial v’s, and it’s funny. The next few days included plenty of cheers of “Wiking!”

Next, Spartan Founder Joe De Sena took the stage and explained that staging the race had cost over a million dollars, and he expressed gratitude for some last-minute sponsors who had made the event possible. Given how expensive Iceland is, this was certainly credible. Finally, we were given the details of how the race would work: the loops would be six miles, not five unless bad weather forced the closing of part of the course. We were shown the bling, and we received a lengthy explanation of how that bling would be allocated. The format of the race would have different levels of finishers, one for those who completed over thirty miles, and another for those who completed over thirty miles and did so over twenty-four hours. Calculating the twenty-four hours involved crossing the finish line just after 9:00 am on Sunday, but not after 12:00 noon, which would result in not completing the race at all.

Iceland Ultra medal and belt buckle

At The Start

We picked up our timing chips and race bibs: purple for the elite competitors, black for us civilians, with reflective areas to make us visible in the dark, and so to bed. In the morning (still in the dark – remember, Iceland gets about four hours of sunlight a day this time of year) we were picked up from designated hotels in Reykjavik by bus and taken to Hveragerdi, about 45 minutes away. Iceland is powered by geothermal energy, and Hveragerdi is one of the locations where the steam pours out of the earth. We had been warned to stay on the course during the race because cutting corners could land us in the middle of a scalding thermal pool. Not a good reason to be disqualified.

In addition to pervasive eerie steam, Hveragerdi has an inflatable dome that provides an indoor rec center for the locals – basketball court, putting green, soccer field. This served as the Transition Area, and we were provided tables to store our gear, mandatory and otherwise. Cheerily, it was announced that in the wee hours, there would be cots and inflatable hammocks available for napping or for more comfortable viewing of Christmas movies which were to be projected on the walls.

We geared up, but before we could go outside there were two more groups to take the stage. First was a cohort from the concurrent Agoge that had started the day before. I don’t know what they had been up to on their spiritual and physical journey, but they looked miserable. A crowd of hundreds was cheering their efforts, but they all appeared too exhausted and demoralized to crack a smile. I did not envy them. Next were two Vikings (Wikings?), or the modern reenactor equivalents, who led us in a Viking prayer, which consisted of calling out the names of gods in each direction (Thor! etc.) and pouring out mead.

Genuine Wikings

Icy Start

We filed out of the dome into what little daylight there was. The weather called for rain, freezing rain, snow, some clearing, and then more precipitation. In short, a miserable day to be outdoors. Still, there was a race to complete, and twenty-four hours had to start eventually. At noon we took off for a 5K “prologue” through the town. This was a clever way to stretch out the field, and it gave us a taste of what the conditions were like: icy. Even before we started on the trails, we had to figure out how to keep upright on slick surfaces. Running up even a slight incline on ice is tricky.

After the prologue, we headed to the hills and the obstacles. One of the first obstacles was a pipe that was part of the landscape and replaced the usual hurdles that can be found on Spartan courses. Some of the obstacles (Monkey Bars, Twister) were closed on the first lap to avoid backups, and we soon came across another nod to the local conditions: the “farmer carry” obstacle had racers carrying… ice. Handles had been frozen into large blocks of ice. Nice touch, Spartan, and I always appreciate it when races that somehow acknowledge the course settings (think tire carries that used to be part of the Tough Mudder course at Raceway Park in New Jersey).

Why they call it Iceland

Soon we were directed up the side of the mountain. Spartan has steep climbs in its races, but this was among the steepest and most difficult I could remember. This wasn’t running, but rather climbing up the side of the mountain, pulling yourself up on whatever you could grab and hope that your footing wouldn’t slip. Also, hoping that you weren’t inadvertently kicking loose rocks into the faces of those below you. Video of that climb here

At the top of the mountain, it became clear exactly how treacherous conditions were: winds of more than 40mph pummeled racers on the exposed summit. The combination of the slick ice underneath your feet and the strong winds made it tough to stand even on a flat surface, and the wind was powerful enough to blow the snot out of you. Apologies to anyone who might have been downwind from me.

Going down the mountain was not easier: there was simply not much stable footing. Between the ice and the freezing rain on top of the ice and the wet terrain below the layers of grass, my feet were wet, cold, and unstable. The obstacles were spaced out fairly well as a distraction, but when your hands are cold and wet and the surfaces are icy, even simple obstacles like a rope climb are challenging. A complaint I heard from several people was that the sandbag carry was the most difficult obstacle; the sandbags were 60 pound Spartan “pancakes” (who knew they came in this size?), but these bags had been left out in the freezing rain, where they absorbed water and froze into awkward shapes. One noteworthy innovation: Spartan had replaced the typical round of thirty burpees with other penalties for some failed obstacles. Instead, some obstacles had short penalty loops, bucket carries or barbed wire crawls. In another twist, the elites had to carry a “passport” with them where volunteers recorded how many obstacles the racer failed. At the end of each loop, the elites did all of their burpees in one session.

All that steam eventually turns to ice

The obstacles were all familiar, which was a relief given the unknowns of the terrain. As it got darker and as the rain started fogging my glasses, it was tougher and tougher to see the course markings, though I was brought back on course by helpful fellow racers. As I trudged up yet another hill, I had one of the highlights of my OCR career: I got passed by Robert Killian. As he danced up the hill past me, he said “Good job!” What a mensch! [Editor’s Note: Mensch is a person with honor] It says a great deal about our sport that one of the top elite athletes would spare the breath and brain power in the middle of a race to offer some encouragement to someone at the back of the pack. Thanks, Killian.

Robert Killian, OCR mensch

Throwing In The Towel After Throwing In The Spear

I was cold, wet and not sure how I was going to finish one loop, let alone keep going for twenty-four hours. As I tried to figure out the best way to get to the next marker, I found myself asking “What would Bear Grylls do?” I also remembered that Bear had once taken on Iceland.  But I’m not Bear Grylls, I’m definitely not Robert Killian, and the appeal of warm air and dry clothes back at the dome was overwhelming. I also realized that I should have signed up for the Sprint, not the Ultra, and one loop was going to be enough for me. Trying to hit the spear throw is difficult enough, but doing it in heavy winds, in the dark, and then having to do burpees in an inch of freezing water? I know when to say when, and I opted to avoid the risk of a broken wrist, or worse, from slipping on icy paths.

After admitting defeat, I settled into the world of the Transition Area, the dome where racers warmed up, changed clothes, recovered from each lap and refueled. There were cots and water jugs supplied, and the overall appearance was that of a refugee camp, albeit for especially buff refugees fleeing a repressive Gore-tex based regime. The dome was a veritable festival of DryRobes. There was food for sale, the camaraderie of fellow racers, a festival atmosphere for the few spectators and crew, and loud top-40 hits to keep the mood high. Myself, I took a nap in one of the Spartan-branded inflatable hammocks (pro-tip, Spartan: if you are going to note how expensive the race was to mount, maybe hold back on putting your logo on the hammocks next time).

It was warm and dry in here.

Deflated by De Sena

As I recovered, wedged happily in one of the hammocks, who should stroll by but Joe De Sena. Knowing his goal to yank the world up off the couch, I asked him if he was going to revise his pledge to rip 100 million people out of their inflatable hammocks instead? “They also deflate, you know” he replied.

All through the night, racers trickled in and out. At about 1:30 in the morning, an announcement was made: the skies had cleared and the northern lights were visible. This was enough to get me out of the warmth of the dome, and it was enough to justify the entire adventure. Photographs do not do the phenomenon justice, but this natural wonder was augmented by the tiny lights from the headlamps of the racers out on the course. Saga-worthy.

Spartan’s professional photographers capture the northern lights.

Northern lights plus racers in the night, as taken by my phone.

International Attendance

While this may happen more often at Spartan races in Europe, one notable aspect of this race for me was how international the field was. Joe De Sena has worked hard to build the race series around the world, and the athletes that traveled to Iceland had come from over thirty-five countries. According to Spartan, 48% of the racers came from the US, with 40% from Europe and the rest from even farther away. It was an eye-opener to see how global OCR has become. Also, it afforded a few entertaining cross-cultural opportunities:

Me: “So, where are you from?”

Another American Spartan: “I live in Scranton.”

Genuinely bemused Spanish Spartan: “Wait, that’s a real place? Not just on ‘The Office’?”

American Spartan: “Yes, it’s real. But they made some stuff up for the show. We don’t actually have a Chili’s in Scranton.”

Shortly after 9, Morgan McKay crossed the finish line to win the race for the women, and not long afterward, Josh Fiore claimed the title for the men. He did so in romantic style, having carried an engagement ring in his pack for the entire race and popping the question at the finish line.

ORM’s Matt B. Davis MC’s the proposal from the warmth of his DryRobe and my borrowed warm socks.

You can read more about Josh’s race experience here: Not to be left out, Morgan got engaged soon after.

Iceland Recap

Apart from diamonds, what are the takeaways from Spartan Iceland Ultra? To be sure, there were some rough spots. I try to keep in mind that this was a debut of a new product at a new venue. As an organization, Spartan does not shy away from a challenge, and I respect them for their daring. Still, I’ll point out some mistakes, some of them that were probably avoidable. Too many details were kept under wraps for too long. It’s one thing to tease, but if racers are going to commit to training for an endurance event, they need to know what the event is going to require of them. I was unsure if Spartan HQ was being coy for much of the run-up to the event or they were just not sure what they wanted to produce.

My biggest criticism of the event was one that struck me as soon it was announced: December is the wrong month for the race. I appreciate that the weather and the darkness were part of what made the event so difficult, but bringing an event to a place of spectacular natural beauty only to schedule it for a time when participants can’t see the scenery seemed like a waste. My suggestion: try March instead. You still get 12 hours of darkness, the weather is just as unpredictable, the northern lights could come out, and dates that are not so close to Christmas and coincide with school vacations would all bring out more racers. It also avoids the end of season conflicts with Spartan’s other championship event, with OCRWC, and World’s Toughest Mudder.

Downsides

Iceland is remote. This is part of what makes it appealing, but it also means that it is an expensive trip for everybody (well, almost everybody). There will never be one place that is convenient for everyone, but no one was going to be piling into a car for an affordable road trip for this race. And on the topic of accessibility, the initial price point of $750.00 was off-putting, especially given the additional costs of travel to the venue. Discounts were offered, and hotels turned out not to be too expensive in Iceland at this time of year, but sticker shock was enough to keep many away.

There were other problems that might have been avoided: the timing software was not yielding updated results throughout the race, which is particularly crucial in a twenty-four-hour race, where elite racers’ strategies can be built on how many laps competitors have completed. Even for regular racers, the results were not finalized for weeks after the event, which made the medal vs. belt buckle element confused at the end of the race. Speaking of which, apparently many of the medals that made it to Iceland for the Ultra had ribbons denoting Hawaii as the location. While both are remote volcanic hotspots, the contrast could not be greater. Another gear-related snafu was that there was supposed to be unique Spartan Iceland-themed swag on offer, but only samples were available at the race, to the disappointment of many. I understand that the setting made everything more difficult (absolutely everything: I heard that Spartan lost not one but two drones to the heavy winds, resulting in a lack of aerial footage that definitely would have been described as “epic”), but shipping race merchandise should be a no-brainer.

Final Complaints

Of all the obstacles not to bring to Iceland, there was no fire jump. Normally I think of this as a silly photo-op rather than an obstacle, but when you are in the Land of Fire and Ice, you bring the fire. That’s just what you do, especially when the race is mostly in the dark. I’m hoping a risk-averse landowner was to blame for that. More seriously, Spartan once again has problems measuring its courses. The original plan was five-mile loops, and the day before the race we were told loops would be closer to six miles. In reality, the loops were closer to 6.8. I raise this because it is a flaw I have seen at almost every Spartan course. This isn’t a matter of under-promising and over-delivering. Getting the distance right at an endurance event is Race Management 101. Spartan has enough experience by now that even at a new venue they should get this right.

In the end, the event was a success. It was difficult: 600 racers started the Ultra, and only 322 finished (208 finished the two sprint waves out of 250 who registered). This is not an event for everyone.  While the race could not have been a financial success, it was a way to launch a new product, the Ultra, which appears to be getting its own series separate from the Beast. Exactly how this is going to happen is still murky. The only clear message we received about the new product is that its colorway is going to be purple. However, in the same way that Tough Mudder has used the Tough Mudder distance to generate the multi-loop Toughest Mudder event at its regular venues, it appears that Spartan is using this format to create a much longer event without having to wrangle a longer race course. Very clever.

The Ultra Appeal

Who will sign up for this new product? Plenty of people, apparently. One refrain I heard from several racers was that the race was not challenging enough. At first, I thought this was bravado, but when I talked to these racers, many were coming from an ultrarunner background; their events can be longer and more difficult than what they encountered in Iceland. There is a market for very difficult events, and remember that Joe De Sena has a background in adventure races. Those events are frequently multi-day challenges that test not just athletic endurance levels but also raw survival skills. The question remains whether the Spartan brand can pull together enough new racers into a product with this level of difficulty, either from those who regularly do more difficult events or from those who are attempting their first twenty-four-hour race.

Spartan is definitely going to try: after the race, it sent out a survey asking where racers would be interested in having next year’s Ultra Championship. Iceland was an option, and after the money and research expended to find this unique spot, it seems a shame not to go back. However, other Scandinavian countries were on the list, as were some closer to home. Wherever the Ultra Championship lands next year, one thing is for sure: it will be both epic and grueling.

The Lost Soul Ultramarathon

LSU titleLethbridge, Alberta, Canada – Saturday, September 10th 2017

At obstacle racing media, we cover more than just OCR. Why? Cause I wanna. Plus there is a lot to learn for our sport by participating in other sports! The crossover between OCR and endurance running is fairly clear; training for an ultra prepares you for the rigors of the Spartan Race Ultrabeast or the Worlds Toughest Mudder series and vice versa. Ultra distance events also allow you to tap into a great local community of runners to push you further and share training ideas. Consider this cross pollination.

As an introduction to my first ultra distance event, there seemed no clearer place to start than my own town – Lethbridge. 

Smoky LSU

Except, was not a clear day: visibility was about a mile or less – and trying to see the other side of the valley was like looking through a glass of skimmed milk. The driest, hottest summer in years had turned most of British Columbia into a tinder box and since mid August, vast forest fires have been pouring blue tinted smoke and white ash onto the prairies. By the time I arrived at the start line on Saturday it was clearing, but I did spare a thought for the 100K and 100-mile runners who had battled through air quality indexes at +10 for most of Friday.

The history

The Lethbridge Lost Soul Ultra Marathon (LSU) is organized through a running club and runners store in Lethbridge – Runners Soul. Now in its 18th year, the LSU it has been billed as “The toughest race on the prairies.” Not to put anyone off; it is also known as “the nicest [race on the prairies!]” 

There’s a long waiting list for this race, and when entries go on sale in January, it sells out in a matter of hours. I was about to find out why. 

The setup

The entry fee is CA$160 regardless of distance, which is an excellent value given the quality of this event. Three distances are available to choose from; the 54 kilometer, the 100 kilometer, and the 100 miler. The race is capped at relatively low numbers to maintain a great experience for all.

The course is separated into 6 legs, ranging in distance from 6 kms to 16 kms. 

LSU aeiral

The first half of the course accumulates most of the elevation gain and loss, covering the eroded spurs of glacial till that form the valley walls, while the second half hugs the grassy banks of the Oldman River. Now, you’d expect the prairies to be flat, but I know better, in fact my GPS logged 53.06 kilometers or 32.9 miles with 1,441 meters or 4727 feet of elevation gain and loss during my race. This is not a flat course by any means, and this race climbs the walls of that river valley from bottom to top at least 13 times. The relatively short descents and climbs on the first two legs are extremely steep, but never dangerous.

Underfoot the surface is mostly dusty single-track, which isn’t a particularly challenging surface to run on – apart from some sections with loose sand, deep gravel or powdery dust. Grip and breathability were really great in my Merrell All Out Charge. I felt like they were a good choice for the mix of conditions.

Shoes for LSU

 

Lisa Houle (4) LSU

Do not assume that Canada would have cooler temperatures by September – cactus thrive alongside rattlesnake in the river valley. By 11 am on Saturday the mercury had risen to a punishing 37°C (98.6°F) in the river bottom!  Dante himself could have found inspiration here for his inferno. It can snow this time of year in Alberta, and one week later at the time of this publication, it is a balmy 12°C! You have been warned: if it is a warm day, be prepared for the extended rigors and heat of the ‘North Loop’. Train in the heat!

River LSU

The power of experience

The guidance strategies and course markings on the LSU must have been finely tuned over the years because I never once felt lost. Pink flags were liberally placed for high visibility. 

LSU Snake

I guess that when you get good enough at the big stuff, you can start having fun with the details. The race was full of amusing or unique things to look at, like tiny rocks painted as Minions, the odd fake snake, or rocks painted with motivational statements. 

Lisa Houle (1) Rock LSU

The hills all had different nicknames, from the rather obvious ‘First Hill’ to ‘The Final Insult.’ Very funny.

Oh, and in the woods of the north loop, there was this…

Tracy Romelle Facebook Clown

By later in the day on Friday, someone dealt with it before he could float anyone else…

Clown LSU

This wink of knowing, dark humor kept me entertained and helped me keep perspective during the painful final hours of the race. 

Those aid stations!

Food LSU

There were three aid stations on the course, each of which sat like literal oases on the prairie. Each can be visited twice on each loop and one unmanned aid station could be found halfway along the longest north loop. A bag drop can be made for two of them (HQ and the northernmost station at Pavan Park). I’m not kidding when I say that the aid stations here are probably among the best you’ll ever experience. Where else can you get a grilled salmon sandwich along with a frozen lemonade? The choice of treats and drinks was diverse. Now, I know I might be gushing because I was high on endorphins, so take this with a pinch of electrolytes. Each was an oasis, that as you’ll read later, I found very difficult to leave.

Pavan Aid Station

Food

Volunteers

The volunteers at the LSU were THE BEST (again excuse my endorphins). I don’t know if this is a regular thing at ultras, but at every aid station, I felt revered and respected like some kind of holy cow. Whether it was an encouraging applause, the sound of cow-bells announcing your arrival, or a knowing look from someone who has almost certainly been ‘there’ (and by there I mean the deepest ‘pain cave’), I’ve never felt so supported on-course. People knew my number and my name. They interacted with me on a personal level. They were so engaged and ‘on task’ that there was no need to really ask any questions or do anything other than check in at the station, with any assistance you needed being delivered before you even asked. OCR needs this kind of volunteer.

Volunteers

My Race

I had a fairly smooth race until the halfway mark. This was home ground for me, so I was well prepared for the elevation gain and the distance. I knew these trails and was making good time, until the heat arrived. Lost Soul Glenn (3)

Staying hydrated in +35 degrees was a huge challenge, and as I came down from the ridges above the valley, I began to look longingly at the cool river running to my right. I was having a great time still, but I wanted to jump in right then. It seemed like the perfect antidote to the problem I was having with this heat. Heat had crept in and messed with my plans to finish strongly. It was the enemy and water was my ally. I thought about running down the bank for a minute and just standing in the water for a moment; it would take the pain out of my legs and lower my core temperature. It looked so inviting.

It would also leave me prone to blisters in my shoes and chafing. I might not feel like climbing back up the bank. The energy expenditure wouldn’t be worth it. Best to press on across the flood plain which was cracked and baked hard in the sun.

The distance seemed to dilate and grow as the temperatures and exposure took their toll on my mind. I’m pretty sure I had forgotten my salt pills. I checked through my bag over and over. Yeah… they weren’t there.

I took my shirt off and packed it for a while, exchanging it for my wide-brimmed hat to shield my head from the sun. I began to divert my attention away from how difficult it was and focused on keeping my running form balanced and maintaining the right heart rate, regardless of pace. I kept my mind busy – I was going to make it to Pavan aid station and recover a little before continuing.

This was a positive thought, yet in the back of my mind, I knew things weren’t going that well. I was overheating fast, and I had a very primal thought that I was going to get into trouble soon – maybe even on the way to Pavan. My watch rang out to me to take my nutrition. I was trying not to check my distance too much, but I let myself this time. I was 35km in – 20 to go!  The taste of the homemade gel I was using was starting to get weird. I struggled to swallow it: the task of eating and running was becoming burdensome. 

Where was Pavan station? I felt like it was taking forever. But I tried to keep my mind positive. This was such a privilege to be able to run out here and to experience this kind of test. The North loop eventually spat me back out, and I made it to the Pavan Park aid station – almost delirious from the heat. I got my pack filled with more electrolytes and I ate a big handful of dill pickle potato chips from my drop bag – the sodium felt like it would be enough. It probably wouldn’t be. I didn’t think to ask for salt pills; I had come this far, and I had heard that they might not matter anyway.

The mood at the aid station was celebratory, easy, accommodating. It really felt like an oasis there. I felt myself relax for a moment – part of my brain enjoying the atmosphere and the contrast with how rough things had been just a few minutes earlier on the trail. I had to force myself to snap out of the momentary stupor to realize I was far from done. It took more effort than I expected to leave that place behind and get back on the trail. 

I grabbed a frozen lemonade which I gulped down too quickly (hello brain freeze), and set off into the heat once again. I was cooler now, and feeling cautiously optimistic, knowing that I only had about 13 kilometers to go. I ran well for about 15 minutes before my pace began to falter again and soon I was unable to drink enough water without feeling sick. Heat exhaustion. Not enough electrolytes. It felt like I was drinking plenty, but in reality, I was taking in only small sips and becoming more and more dehydrated.

Lost Soul Glenn (4)

“Hi, I’m dying”

At that time, I got a message from my wife Deanna – she knew that my pace had died, as did everyone else; my family and close friends were watching my progress the whole time in real time via a Strava Live beacon. There was nowhere to hide what was happening, and messages of support soon flooded onto the screen of my smartwatch. There was plenty of help out on the course for me, but it was huge boost to know that I wasn’t going alone on this – not at all.

Moments like this put you through a kaleidoscope of emotions.  One thought began to persist – “this is what I signed up for.” I had become lost in an environment that was wild, inhospitable, and indifferent to my goal.

I had become that ‘Lost Soul.’ It was time to pick up whatever energy I had left and make it back to the finish.

Time for redemption.

Completing two of the final climbs was accomplished by crawling on my hands and knees and once I was back on the flats, the trail brought me back to the first aid station among a set of baseball fields. There I was immediately set upon by 3 volunteers who quickly recognized the symptoms of heat exhaustion. I told them I was going to try and finish, so they stuffed my hat and buff with ice, the buff loosely wrapped around my neck to cool me down. I drank a lot of ginger ale, which seemed to help too.

The final leg felt better – but the ice under my hat and around my neck was melting fast so I picked up the pace. Again, congratulations started to buzz through onto my wrist – my family had seen that I had passed 50 kilometers. It was a huge boost to know I had come this far. One final challenge remained.

I made it to the final climb at the base of Fort Whoop-Up and took this last photo. 

Final hill

I’ve run up this hill dozens of times. I’ve carried buckets up and down it. I’ve ran up in the snow and in the heat. I know exactly how long it is, and that it has a second ‘summit’. Its not a big deal, maybe 300 feet from bottom to top, but after 53 kilometers it felt as tall as Everest. The sound of cow bells at the finish line nearby kept me crawling, dehydrated and unsteady, shouting at myself to keep going all the way to the top. I crawled my way to the top of that hill before hobbling my way to the finish. I don’t care how small it looks in the photo or that people routinely do ultras that are much harder than this. To me it felt like the final character building moment in what had been a humbling day. It had taken me 6 hours and 48 minutes.

Crossing the line

Lost Soul Glenn (5)

Lost Soul Glenn (6)

Nice and Tough

Make no mistake – this is the toughest race I have ever done. I expected that. What I didn’t expect to hear was that the 100 miler had just a 33% finish rate and only about 66% of runners had finished the 50K. I felt grateful to have finished, but also understood that the line between finishing and not finishing didn’t have to become a badge of honor. No matter when you called it, it was a huge accomplishment for all. 

Lost Souls Ultra Finish

Prizes

Top category finishers received an etched rock as a trophy. All runners received a personalized tile, a North Face running jersey, breakfast the next day, and a chance to win prizes in a raffle. I’m really struggling to find a fault here with the whole deal…. um… it was too hot?

Conclusion

Views

LSU is that race that everyone wants to do because it feels authentic. It’s got that locally sourced, locally grown feel that contrasts with the escalating commercialization of athletics. Capping the race at smaller numbers mean it feels exclusive, yet so inclusive of each person on course. LSU could expand the number of entrants, but then that magic could be lost or watered down. The event isn’t pretentious or showy, and Runner’s Soul appeared to transcend self marketing or promotion pushing. It’s a race that shows restraint and maturity in that regard. On a personal level, it taught me some very important lessons about my own approach to training and managing my race during extreme conditions. 

The Lost Soul Ultra is one of those rare challenges worth waiting for. Make no mistake, this is an event where a person must journey through heaven and hell to make himself whole again. Despite the smoke, the heat and the brimstone I will be back next year.

Photo credit: Ralph Arnold photographics. Facebook contributors – used by permission.

Spartan Race – Killington Ultra Beast 2016: No Small Undertaking

The 2016 Killington Ultra Beast was no small undertaking. Two laps of one of the toughest Spartan Races on the map is not a feat to be taken lightly. One of the most challenging aspects of the Ultra Beast for me was knowing on the first lap that I would have to complete everything in front of me not only this time, but another. And when I dared set foot back out on that monstrous course for lap two, I already knew every last detail of what waited ahead.

I had never raced at Killington before, let alone attempt the Ultra Beast, but I figured why not. I know I could do the beast. Let’s push it a bit here.

My drop bin was prepped long before we arrived at the venue emblazoned with the words “You ran FIFTY MILES… You got this.” I was surrounded by family and friends, words of encouragement and good food leading up to the race. I was ready. Nothing much was different from any other race.

Saturday morning, my friends picked me up and drove me to the venue. They dropped off my bin so I could go directly to the start, being the only one in the 6 am heat. Standing around waiting, I got to talk to many friends I wasn’t expecting to see at the start, but I felt like I was in a daze. After a 15 minute delay and then 10 minutes of explaining the rules and singing the national anthem, we were finally off by about 6:25. Consequently, the cutoff times were all pushed back 30 minutes.

killington-ultra-beast-2016-start

From the very beginning, racers got spread out based on power hiking ability. The course started with a 1,000 ft ascent and from just those beginning miles, I was already thinking about lap number two – how much I didn’t want to do this twice. I knew it was far too early to think like this and I redirected my thoughts to each step, one by one.

It didn’t take long before I realized I was somewhere near the front of the pack. I could count the women in front of me: three. I wasn’t moving like I normally do through the obstacles though. I felt extremely sluggish through the first barbed wire crawl and practically powerless on the vertical cargo net. Something wasn’t right, but I knew I had to get it done; so I opted to keep my eyes on the women who kept passing me on the obstacles. I made sure I passed them back on the runnable portions of the course as well as the climbs seeing as that’s my strength.

killington-ultra-beast-2016-stairway-to-sparta

When we neared the festival grounds, my pace improved greatly, that is until I stepped into the lake. For the remainder of the swim, I was gasping for air because the water was so frigid. I climbed the ladder and made it to the top but chose not to go across the Tarzan Swing since one of the ropes was not knotted and I knew I would slip. I climbed down, swam the rest of the way across and completed my 30 burpees. Back in the lake, rocks and sand in my shoes, and then finally back on solid ground for some more power hiking – rocks and sand still in my shoes because I wasn’t taking them off.

Almost more treacherous than the ascents were the knee shattering and ankle rolling descents. If we weren’t hiking through dense woods on extremely technical “trails” then we were on the ski slopes. Usually, I’d be cheering myself on at this point because downhill running is another strength of mine and typically where I would make up a lot of time, but not on this course. A few steps into each descent and I could feel the pressure building up in my knees. I decided to go swiftly, but not too daringly, at a jog.

killington-ultra-beast-2016-top-of-death-march

I missed the spear throw… SHOCKING. And then a few obstacles later, I made it to the final and easiest object on the multi-rig, the pipe, but just could not shift my left hand forward. I fell. 60 burpees right there at the end before I could get to my sweet salvation: potato chips, sour patch kids, and chocolate covered espresso beans. But why was I so out of it?

After the multi-rig, just before the slip wall (one of the final 3 obstacles), was an exit off to the left which brought us to the transition area. As I entered the transition area, there was a woman holding white bibs. She proceeded to hand me one and said congratulations, you’re in seventh. That was probably the first smile I cracked in several hours. I was extremely proud to be amongst the top 20 females, but I also knew how exhausted I felt. I long thought about stopping here, but it wasn’t what I set out to do. I needed to get back out there for another lap.

After 5 minutes of searching for my bin, which I just couldn’t seem to locate, others began to help and ultimately found it for me. I was greeted by my water, Gatorade, Clif Bars and Bloks, gummy bears and other treats as mentioned earlier. I also had a med kit, towel and extra socks, none of which I used. Very unlike me, I couldn’t be bothered to take my shoes off. A racer nearby took a massive container out of his bin and asked if anyone wanted a peanut butter & jelly. He must’ve had ten sandwiches! So yes, I ate one. I refilled my hydration bladder and packed my race vest with all of my new morale-boosting snacks as well as some solid calorie foods and I was off.

We set out on a short trail run beside the start chute which quickly reconnected to the course. It was there that it was apparent who had just begun the course and who was on lap two. The Ultra Beast participants jogged or even walked as Beast participants sprinted on by. But for the first time this race, I was running with people I knew. And as we approached that first climb once more, we got down on our hands and knees, crawling forward. Before long, I was by myself again and moving slower than everyone around me.

All of the obstacles were textbook Spartan with no real surprises. The course started off with some of the easier obstacles and proceeded to diminish your spirits and crush your soul as you went along. But by lap two, nothing was easy. The Bucket Brigade must’ve taken me 20 minutes the second time around. And at the Tarzan Swing, I barely made it up the ladder at which point my grip was fried. I reached out and grabbed the first rope and then let myself drop into the water. “Well, my headlamp’s gotta be dead now…” And it was.

killington-ultra-beast-2016-tarzan-swing

The burpee area was a mud pit by now and I was thankful we were getting back in the water afterwards. Upon exit of the lake, I took out my Ziploc baggie filled with sour patch kids and espresso beans, drained the lake water out, and ate the espresso beans. It only took 6 miles at a snail’s pace to realize that this would give me the boost I needed. The power hiking expert me was back.

As I climbed up through Norm’s trails in the woods once more, I was soon stuck in a very slow-moving line. I used every opportunity to climb rocks and tree roots just to pass people. Many cheered me on saying, “You go, Ultra Beast,” but I replied “More like ultra idiot.” Although I was completing the obstacles with the most ease I had all day and really began to boost my pace as I watched the clock tick down to 6:30, I was only at the plate drag. Regardless, I sprinted down the mountain to the sandbag carry, got it done as quickly as possible, and sprinted toward the cutoff. I heard a stranger say good for you for finishing strong just before I reached the rope climb… 15 minutes too late. I topped it off with a smile and a heel click, just what I said I’d do when I finished, but it wasn’t long before my timing chip was cut off and I could no longer hold back the tears.

We had 15 hours to complete the course twice. We had to be out of the transition area by 2 pm, giving us exactly 7.5 hours per lap. I completed my first lap in 6.5 hours and despite the extra hour, I still didn’t make it. Approximately 28 miles into the 32 mile Ultra Beast and all that remained from that point was the Death March with a number of obstacles back down at the base right before the finish. The Race Directors knew that racers wouldn’t make it to the finish by 9:30 pm if they didn’t get through the rope climb with at least three hours left to complete the final 4 miles. I knew if I could catch my friend and my mom doing the Beast I would make the cutoff, but I never caught up to them.

As I returned to my drop bin, I received consoling words from friends as well as strangers, none of which seemed to help. Still now, I’m not quite sure how to explain exactly what it is I’m feeling, but one thing I know for sure is that I earned my DNF.

I watched headlamps line the mountain slopes as racers completed the final ascent and descent while I waited by the fire. Everything about it was remarkable: from the simple beauty of the lights to the incredible challenge Spartan Race put in front of us on such a magnificent mountain. Although what stands out most is the physical and mental resolve of the competitors who took on, and more so those who were able to finish, the 2016 Killington Ultra Beast: no small undertaking.

killington-ultra-beast-2016-drop-bin

Photo Credit:Kevin Donoghue, Bill Durando, Spartan Race, Justina Rosado


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