Hard, high, and lonesome: Silverheels 100 race report || 1st place, 23:17

After running for 105 miles and over 23 hours alone, it was entirely fitting to have a spectator-less finish line at 3:15 AM.

After running for 105 miles and over 23 hours alone, it was entirely fitting to have a spectator-less finish line at 3:15 AM.

Even after a few days of recovery and a substantial amount of sleep, I do not seem to recall my Silverheels 100 race as vividly as others. This may partly be a function of the course, which favors many shorter segments over a few extended efforts. But I think it’s also a reflection of my experience: by the finish, I was more exhausted physically and mentally than I’ve been since Leadville in 2008. Let’s ensure that I don’t forget more of it:

4 AM start

Based on the race entries, I thought that a win at Silverheels was possible, if not likely. But I was at least hoping that I would have some company for the first 25 or 50 miles. Nope. Within one-hundred yards of the start at Fairplay’s humble Cohen Park, and despite a very casual pace, I was alone in the lead. Silverheels had just become a 105-mile time trial.

When outbound, the first 4.8 miles — which are also the last — are easy and pleasant: a quiet, well maintained, and generally level gravel road. For most runners, they don’t pass by as quickly or easily on the return trip.

Lingering cloud cover from the prevailing monsoon pattern had kept overnight temperatures relatively mild. I warmed up within a few miles, and stripped down to my singlet, shorts, liner gloves, and headband.

Early pacing

Since I was free to “run my own race,” I tried diligently to keep my heart rate in the low-130’s, consistent with my intended pacing strategy. If it bumped higher, I immediately backed off, even if I had to hike grades that I could have easily run. I noticed our 10,000-foot baseline altitude, but its effect only seemed subtle.

At the out-and-back at Silverheels Mine (Mi 11) I had a 5-minute lead. It would have been more, but I had to squat in the bushes along the way. Hey, it’s hard to squeeze everything out prior to a 4 AM race start! To prevent monkey butt (i.e. anus chafing) later in the race, I also stopped for a backcountry badet.

On the descent to Poor Man’s, I maintained the low-130’s heart rate. I probably should have backed off, to save my quads for later and to drop my average HR to a more sustainable level, which is probably in the high-120’s for a 105-mile effort at altitude with nearly 18,000 vertical feet of gain. Unfortunately, I pegged it at 129-135 for the first 42 miles, even as it became more clear that I would probably regret it. In hindsight, I probably should have started listening to my body more and watching my heart rate less.

A consistent heart rate for the first 42 miles, rather than the usual starting line spike and gradual fall-off.

A consistent heart rate for the first 42 miles, rather than the usual starting line spike and gradual fall-off.

The start of trouble

The course has four out-and-backs, i.e. run to a specific point and return on the same trail, then continue on. Two out-and-backs are done twice, for a total of six out-and-backs. At three of the turnarounds, you can look forward to an aid station. The namesake Silverheels Mine serves as the destination for two of the other efforts, the first and last. The remaining out-and-back is at Mi 42, when the course climbs to a 12,100-foot lookout on Hoosier Ridge. It’s a great view, but it’s the most contrived section of the course.

If it hadn’t taken so much out of me, perhaps I would have appreciated it more. Thereafter, I was never able to match my output from the first forty miles. It felt altitude-related: I had a foggy head, a desire to nap, punch-less legs, and no appetite. It took me 83 minutes to make the round-trip from Gold Dust Aid, seven minutes longer than it should have.

The weather was not helping my mood either. As forecasted, it had started to rain, and I began to imagine several hours of running in cold precip. On a positive note, I quickly concluded that the Sierra Designs Elite Cagoule is remarkably well designed for running. Its long torso kept my legs dry, and its air vents minimized the buildup of heat and perspiration inside. I’d rather a full-zip instead of a pullover, however, and thus would more strongly recommend the UL Pack Trench.

If you dislike road running and if you’re hurting, the seven-mile descent on Boreas Pass Road — a relatively high-traffic scenic byway between South Park and Breckenridge — is a tough section. It looked inviting to me, however, and I took the opportunity to regain some momentum and some time.

But it may have been a mistake — the hard-packed gravel and repetitive landings took a toll. At the bottom (Mi 53), I stopped to stretch my hips and to massage my gluteus medius muscles (below the love handles). These areas had been bothering me for a while, and I was no longer able to ignore them.

When I pulled into Tarryall 2 (Mi 59) I knew I was in for a long last 46 miles. I was more fatigued than I should have been, and did not seem to be catching a second wind or stabilizing. My legs were tight. And I’d been running alone now for 11.5 hours. When a race is really just getting underway, this is not how I want to feel.

The out-and-back to Camp Como confirmed my situation. I’d lost only a few minutes off my pace chart, but it was much harder than it should have been.

My pace chart tells me the distance to future landmarks and an estimated time for getting there. I based my splits on last year's winner, plus 5 percent after factoring in course changes.

My pace chart tells me the distance to future landmarks and an estimated time for getting there. I based my splits on last year’s winner, plus 5 percent after factoring in course changes.

Into the night

When I pulled out of Tarryall 3 (Mi 69), I had accepted that a heroic Run Rabbit-style finish was not in the cards. Instead, I would need to enter “survival mode” to simply make it another 36 miles. Uphills felt better than downhills — since I could no longer run or shuffle the latter, I knew I was hemorrhaging time.

At 9:30 PM I pulled into Poor Man 2 (Mi 85) and suited up for the cold night ahead. I swapped out my singlet for a lightweight long-sleeve, and added a fleece pullover, fleece gloves, and wool neck gaiter. With my rain shell I was just warm enough, but I would have been happier with one extra layer (or a warmer layer). The aid station volunteers were awesome and encouraging.

The appeal of sleep became irresistible at the base of High Park Aid, and I laid down on some duff beneath a spruce tree. I zonked out immediately; when I woke up a few minutes later, I felt remarkably refreshed and coherent, but disappointed that it’d be hours until I could do it again. Since I’ve never had to sleep mid-race before, I think it’s a sign that something was off. Caffeine, by the way, was no longer working for me — the 200-mg pill I’d taken at Poor Man had given me no bounce.

The finish

The final turnaround at Silverheels Mine (Mi 94) is emotionally significant, since it’s a straight shot and almost entirely downhill to the finish. I tried to pull it together for these final 11 miles, but it was not happening. Between High Park Aid (Mi 96) and Alma Aid (Mi 100), I averaged just 16 minutes/mile pace. And for the final five easy miles to Fairplay, I managed a shuffle at just 14 minutes/mile. Ouch!

When I arrived back at Cohen Park at 3:17 AM, not a single person was there. Or so I thought. When I gave a small celebratory, “Woot!”, race director Sherpa John sat up in his car, in which he was sleeping nearby.

I think John felt bad about the lack of fanfare surrounding his two-year-old race, saying, “Hopefully it will be different next year.” But I honestly explained to him that I was indifferent — efforts like Silverheels can only be justified by something within.

Posted in on August 10, 2016


  1. Dave Eitemiller on August 11, 2016 at 8:22 am

    I know we compared thoughts after the race and how much of a slog the last 40 or so miles were but now seeing your split to Alma at 16 min miles – wow! You were hurting!

    On of the things that really surprised me on reviewing my splits from this race was how much a good, strong power hike can reduce stress and still move you at a totally acceptable pace. Some splits where I know I was power hiking the whole way, I am moving at a better average pace than splits that I was trying to get up an efficient run gate. My leg recovery is different this time around because of the amount of power hiking and intensity of it during the later part of this race – nursing recovery from anterior tibialis tendon inflammation.

    You mentioned the rough terrain in some areas, rarely able to find a clean line between, rock, eroded ATV trail and slick mud – this I am sure contributed to how my shins are beat up as well.

    Nonetheless, we completed another 100 mile race; and I found the course much more enjoyable than what I originally expected – some nice single track, forested and open terrain – and if you run at my pace – two fantastic sunrises looking out to the Mosquito range.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 11, 2016 at 10:59 am

      The power hike observation does not always apply. It’s more likely to at altitude and on steep grades, when running is really hard. But on more mellow grades and at lower elevations, the difference between running and hiking is significant, especially if you are fit enough to sustainably run that kind of terrain.

  2. Garret Christensen on December 18, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    What did you think of the scenery? You mention the gravel roads, but how about the singletrack? (I need a mountainous summer 100 and always prefer one I haven’t done before.)

    • Andrew Skurka on December 18, 2017 at 2:48 pm

      It’s generally pretty good. About on par with Leadville or Bighorn. Some nice miles up high and through some woods, including some light tread that feels adventurous.

  3. Alex on January 11, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    Congratulations on your win and finish at the Silverheels in ’16. I came across your blog searching for info on Silverheels, which is hard to come by. I am thinking about doing the Last Call 50 miler this year, which leaves from Fairplay directly to Tarryall and then shares the Last 37 miles with Silverheels. Of course my race experience will be quite different as a slow back of the packer, plus the midnight start for the Last Call race. But do you have any specific recommendations for me if I go ahead and try this race? 16 hours seems pretty generous, but again, I bring up the rear. Thank you!

    • Andrew Skurka on January 12, 2018 at 8:19 am

      I could give you some general ultra advice (e.g. be way more patient than you think should ever be) but I’m not sure that’ll be super useful. And any route-specific advice is best captured in the “notes for next time” post (I assume you found it). My memory of the race was much fresher when I wrote that than it is now.

      • Alex on January 13, 2018 at 12:20 am

        Thanks Andrew for pointing me to the race notes, I’m on mobile so all the links don’t always immediately show. Good info!

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