Double Back Long Run Road Trip Part 1: Afton 50k to Silver Rush 50

Volunteering is important.  I honestly believe that my personal trail running successes of the past year would not have occurred as they did without my instances of volunteering, and striving to be a “trail person” rather than just a “trail runner”.  Last year I had the opportunity to be an aid station volunteer at Chippewa 50k and Voyageur 50.  I also spent a day doing trail maintenance on the Superior Hiking Trail.  I didn’t make it up for SHT trail work this spring, but was able to give a day at Afton State Park.  Now I get to work an aid station in the same spot I was clearing buckthorn just two months before!

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I kind of wished I was running today.  Surprisingly, I felt really good just a week after going through the wringer in the Black Hills.  As I hiked out to my aid station post for the day, I thought back to last year.  Afton 50k really was the first significantly relevant training run that prepared me for the oven like temperatures at the Black Hills 100.  A year ago I remember it being disgustingly hot and very humid at Afton.  Today was off to a cool start, but the typical Afton heat and sun would make its presence felt before the days end.

I had added the Afton 50k to my 2015 running calendar, at the request of my friend Jay.  We had been talking about doing the race, and it seemed like a decent addition to my training schedule.  I was building up to run the Leadville 100 in August.  The weekend after Afton I was traveling to Leadville for the Silver Rush 50, in an attempt to get some altitude exposure, and see just what I had gotten myself into.  Having not run much since the Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon in mid-May, Afton seemed like a good thing to get me moving again.  It was a tough day.  While sections of the trail keep you shaded in tree cover, other parts are fully exposed to the sun.  By the second loop, my clothes were completely drenched in sweat.  I ran controlled, and felt strong enough, finishing my first 50k in 5:45.

When I reached the aid station and saw the amazing collection of trail people I was about to join, I no longer wished I was running on this day.  I knew that Aaron Boike, who I’d shared miles with at Chippewa, would be working there.  I quickly picked him out of the group and we got to chatting.  My pacer at Leadville was Aaron Ehlers.  His wife Mary and son Joey were also spending the day working the aid station.  Aaron, meanwhile, was off in Leadville, prepping for the 50 mi bike and 50 mi run this weekend as part of the Leadman Series.  Another runner who’d had the pleasure of being paced by Aaron was here as well, Justin Youngblom, who has run strong finishes at Superior, Leadville, Black Hills, and most recently the Cruel Jewel in Georgia.  Other volunteers in the group included men’s FANS champion Doug Kleemeier and Gnarly Bandits John Maas(2014) and Janet Hausken(2015) among others.  It was a good day, it went pretty quick, and I even got to pace my girlfriend for a mile and a half during her second loop.  I saw some old friends, made some new ones, acquired a pacer for Superior, yeah, it was a decent day.

I finished the race, Jay finished nearly an hour after me.  He was not in great spirits.  He headed for home.  I hung around a little longer.  I wanted to stay until the end, and maybe even help with some cleanup.  I had to go though, the anxiety was ballooning within me.  I had to get home and pack and prepare.  I was leaving tomorrow.  I had never taken   a road trip of this magnitude.  I was driving to Santa Fe, where I’d stay with my sister for three days, then make my way to Leadville for three more.

Other than a family vacation to Denver when I was 13, I had never spent any time at altitude.  I was nervous as to how my body was going to respond to the foreign environment.  In researching the topic, I found that it was highly recommended to get a week or two of exposure a month or two before the race, then another at least a week immediately before the race.  While I wouldn’t be able to execute this schedule exactly, I was able to follow the guideline, with some adjustments to suit my needs.

Sunday morning was spent packing and pacing.  I was on the road by 3:30 in the afternoon.  I left Minnesota, drove through Iowa and into Missouri before stopping at a rest stop for a 6 hour sleep.  It was here that I discovered an innovative new sleeping position in the Tracker.  By placing pillows atop my full clothes basket and cooler situated in the back, I was able to create a nice bed, with my legs left to dangle over into the front seats.  I give it four stars.  Monday morning I was up and geared for driving.  I drove across the entire state of Kansas, stopping for a visit in Garfield, the home of our 20th President, as well as a few other sites of historic interest.

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I was then supposed to just clip through the handle of Oklahoma, but somehow I missed an exit.  I think it happened when I was on the phone with my sister.  I ended up spending an extra 2 hours driving circles around the Oklahoma farmland.  It was like the Bermuda Triangle, except rectangular and on land.  Eventually I found a town with a convenience store and bought a couple of state maps.  Then I was able to get back on track.  So this part probably needs a little more explanation for some of you.  I don’t travel with any sort of GPS devices.  It’s not really my style.  But I’m not completely old fashioned enough to carry a map either.  My navigational tools normally consist of turn by turn directions from Google maps handwritten on notebook paper, coupled with my razor sharp sense of direction.  That’s the way I’ve done it for a long time. ?  I guess it leaves just enough uncertainty to keep me interested.

Moving in the right direction again, I crossed into New Mexico.  With a few hours yet to drive, I was going to be just shy of making it for my sister’s yoga class, the Oklahoma detour had nixed that idea.  Misty works as a Yoga Instructor at a small studio in Santa Fe.  I pulled into town about 6:30 and had an hour to kill before she would be finished with her class.  So I found a nice park with a big black train and a large mural of turn of the century super athlete Jim Thorpe painted on a building in front of a Little League field.  The perfect place to play a little poi!

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I met Misty at her studio, and we then drove to her boyfriend Claudio’s house, where I’d be making camp for the next few nights.  It was a nice little adobe hut, tucked away in the hills.  I slept on a couch outside, with a magnificent view of the rocky hills.  It was very comfortable, there were no bugs there.  It rained a lot, every day I was there, which is very uncommon.  The water soaked in quickly to the dry landscape, and the greenness that resulted was very pleasant.  As it would happen, Misty had the next two days off of work, so she was able to take me around to see some sights.

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Tuesday we took a trip out of the city to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.  The park is full of these “white cliffs”, formed from volcanic debris that has been eroded by water and wind over time to create the unique “tent-shaped” rock structures.  Returning to the city, we visited some shops and watched some music.  It happened to be the first night of the Summer Music in the Park series.  After a few minutes of sitting on the concrete and seeing a bunch of kooky older folks breaking it down on the dance floor to the upbeat salsa music, I had to retreat back to the grassy area of the park.  There I was able to comfortably pull out some juggling balls and play.  Soon we were joined by a couple young seeds, two little girls on vacation with their parents from Connecticut.  One of the little cutie pies gave me a quarter before we went our separate ways.

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Wednesday, we got out for a little more hiking, going up to the ski hill, and visiting the Audobon Center.  It was a challenge trying to dodge the rain, so we visited the Wheelright Native American Art Museum.  Santa Fe is full of neat places to explore, visit, and shop.  We also went to the Health Foods Store and at my sister’s suggestion I picked up a bottle of Chloroxygen capsules, a dietary supplement said to enhance the bodies ability to process oxygen.  Couldn’t hurt, I figured.  I could feel a little bit of physical effect from the thinner air here, but nothing highly noticeable or in any way detrimental.  But why leave things to chance?  After dropping Misty at work Thursday morning, I took to the road again, stopping off for a couple hours to relax and rejuvenate with a mud bath at Ojo Caliente Hot Springs.  Then it was on to Leadville and real  mountains.

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I arrived in Leadville Thursday afternoon.  I was here.  I made it!  Now I had a few days to further my altitude acclimation.  I’m not sure how to explain it, but I could feel the thinner air, it felt different in my head, my chest, my whole body.  I liked it.  Leadville, CO is the highest incorporated city in the entire country, sitting at 10,200 ft.  It is a magical place.

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I ended up staying at Silver Dollar Campground, right next to Turquoise Lake, just a few miles outside Leadville.  A short walk down the trail from my campsite brought me to beautiful views of the mountains overlooking the lake.  The camp host was a Texan named Chi-Chi, a real friendly old timer.  He and his wife were both retired, and they spent their days traveling around the country, working as camp hosts.  Wouldn’t be a bad way to spend a retirement, I reckon.

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I settled in and made camp, then gathered some wood for a fire.  “Darn it, next time I need to bring a hand saw.”  It was okay though, with a little bit of walking, I was able to scavenge up plenty of dead wood to burn.  The night was peaceful.  I sucked in the thin air with delight.  This was going to be alright.  It was so comfortable, the nights were cool and the air was dry.  I started off Friday morning with a nice round of poi juggling.  I had just discovered poi about six months earlier, and they had fast become my new favorite toys.  As it goes, I got a little carried away and stuck one in a tree.  For those not familiar, a contact poi is a ball attached to a rope with a knob handle at the other end of the rope.  So as you can imagine, they’ll wrap around a tree branch real quick.  I thought about climbing up to get it, but it wasn’t a real sturdy tree, and I was right next to the camp host.  I’d figure something else out.

I drove into town, first stopping at the general store to pick up supplies.  I found the race store in downtown Leadville and registered for the 50 mile run.  Then I walked around town visiting a few shops.  I went to the bookstore and picked up a copy of “Born to Run”, figuring I ought to give it another read before the 100 next month.  I then visited an art gallery.  The woman running the gallery happened to be a Minnesota transplant named Anne.  Concluding my business in town, I went for a scenic drive around Turquoise Lake before returning to the campground.

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I had picked up a length of rope from the store.  Tying one end around a Gatorade bottle filled with rocks, I fashioned a throw line, and within a few minutes, my poi was rescued.  Later, after having spent much of the afternoon drinking and lazing around the campsite, I figured I better do something.  So, wearing my camo crocs, I set out to walk the trail around Turquoise Lake.  I made it to Mayfield Campground after about 6 miles of walking.  The trail seemed to end there and turn into a road.  My plan was to go around the entire lake, but it didn’t seem there was much of a trail around the other side.  First I turned to go back the way I came.  Then I reconsidered, thinking I’ll go check it out a little further.  Two hikers went by, traveling in the direction from which I had come.  A couple minutes later, I realized it was probably in my best interest to just turn around and go back.  So I did.  I soon passed by the man and woman who I’d seen a few minutes before.  A few minutes later they passed me back.  We got to talking.  Sean was in training for the 100 next month also.  He had just put in a 25+ mile day going over and back Hope Pass.  Wow, sounds pretty smart.  Hope Pass is known to be the crux of the Leadville 100.  I would be waiting until race day to have the experience.  His wife Kristen would be doing pacing duties.  I think they were from Georgia.  I never found his name in the results or saw him during the weekend of the 100, but he seemed like a hell of a strong runner, I can’t believe he wouldn’t have finished.

During one of my alone portions on the Turquoise Lake Trail, I would make the most athletic move I’d made in years.  On the return trip, I had started picking up the pace and running some.  During one of those periods, I caught a toe on a rock.  My croc went flying and my legs went into overdrive, trying to keep up with the momentum of my upper body, which was on course to meet the ground below with a crashing bang.  But, somehow my legs caught up and I regained my center of balance.  Remaining on my feet, I turned around and walked back some 20 feet to retrieve my croc.  It was directly relevant training as it turns out.  It wasn’t until later that I realized that this trail around the lake was indeed part of the 100 mile race that I was preparing for.

I made it back to the campsite in one piece, gathered wood for another fire, and then heated up a 3-can dinner.  While reading through a visitor’s guide that night, I discovered that the two highest peaks in Colorado were right next to one another, and not far from where I was staying.  I formulated a plan to hike to the summits of Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert the following day.  Maybe doing just one of them the day before a 50 mile run is crazy, so why wouldn’t I do both?  I needed a challenge, and I didn’t want to sell myself short.  I was going to get my money’s worth out of this trip.  I decided that I’d be happy with one, but satisfied with two.

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If I was going to go for the double, I would need to get an early start.  But I wasn’t in a hurry.  I woke up and started the morning with a little juggling.  Then my camp neighbor Gary offered me a cup of coffee, and I couldn’t help but accept it.  When I finally made it to the trailhead, it was pushing 9:30.  Both trailheads, and the surrounding roads were lined with cars.  Being Saturday, there were a lot of people hiking the mountains today.  I parked closer to Elbert, but decided to go for Massive first.  It was a challenging hike, and six hours later I was pooped.  There would be no second summit today.  Maybe I’d return to Elbert on Monday and make a mountain sandwich out of the weekend, Silver Rush 50 being the meat, Massive and Elbert the bread.

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Back at the campground, I was feeling good.  I didn’t get the two summits, but one was likely as much as I needed the day before the 50.  I was able to get up there and get the perspective, breathe the 14,000 ft air. It tasted delicious.  There was a loud group of campers down the way.  They were somewhat more subdued than the previous night, but still made their presence well known until quite late into the night.  I was up early to tear down camp.  I considered returning for another night after the race, but wanted to have things ready in case I wanted to drive.

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This was the most exciting start to a race I’ve ever been part of.  The lottery for next month’s 100 mile race had taken place in January.  I had my ticket.  The gimmick of today’s Silver Rush 50 is that it started with a real steep hill that shot straight up for 100 yards or so.  The first male and female runner to reach the top of the hill would earn a place in the sold out 100 mile race, provided they finish the 50 within the 14 hour time limit.  At the gun, about 20 people start sprinting up this hill.  It was ridiculous.

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I’d only run one 50 miler before, 12:41 at Surph the Murph.  My two 100 finishes were in 29:20 and 32:38.  So I’m thinking I break 12 hours and I’ll be having a good day, right?  Well, turns out I was having a great day.  I was tearing the hills and loving every minute of it, with the exception of a couple of hard falls.  The first one happened around 23 miles on a steep decline.  I just got caught running a little too fast, toed a rock and couldn’t recover.  I went straight down, sinking my palms into the jagged rocks below.  “Oops.”  A minute later, I received a boost.  There was Aaron, my pacer.  I’d been looking for him all day.  I had only met him that one time before during Zumbro.  I knew he was running today, but it was a surprise for him to see me.  As it happened, we both got a little boost out of the encounter.  I ended up finishing in 9:32!  Aaron was about an hour ahead of me.  He was there to meet me when I came in.  We sat at the finish together, talking about the run and the one yet to come.

I didn’t linger at the finish though.  The day was getting late.  After getting some food and drink I made my way to my car.  My palms were pretty tore up, and my knees a little bit too.  I had to get home where I could properly clean the wounds.  So I started on my way, with a couple hours yet of sunlight.  I drove into the night, for as long as I dared, this time driving home across the state of Nebraska.  I crossed into Iowa before stopping to take rest.  It had been close to a 24 hour push since getting up for the race the previous morning.  Good training.

After a 5 hour nap, I returned to the highway.  I entered Minnesota with my confidence running on high from the weekend.  My palms were stinging the whole way home, but a little bit of skin was a small price to pay for the experience.  It was most certain to benefit me for the big one.

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One thought on “Double Back Long Run Road Trip Part 1: Afton 50k to Silver Rush 50”

  1. Erik, You definitely have some Sisu in you to tackle those mountain trails and thin air only to be turned onto go back to it. You are having life time experiences that are definitely unique. Know that my spirit feet are running with you; but only in spirit. So glad you saw your sister as we all wonder how she is doing….I was surprised that you run in clogs, but they are very cushioned. Good luck to you. Your aunt from MN.

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