By Colin Walsh, VES Class of 2022
"Now this is a story about how my life got flipped-turned upside down. I'd like to take a minute, just sit right there, I'll tell you how I became [mentally shattered on the side of a forest road in Colorado.]" The Last Call 50 Miler was in South Park, Colorado, home to the fictional, turgid, and animated degenerates by the names of Eric, Kenny, Kyle, and Stan. A lot of the ultra races are fused together into one event. The Silverheels 100-mile endurance run, you heard me, started 20 hours before and both races ended at the same time and place. Just a casual 36 hours for all my math majors out there.
Before the race, I had just finished 20 days of plodding up mountains and proceeding to cartwheel down them in a ragdoll-esque fashion at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. At Philmont, this specific trek is referred to as Rayado. Don't worry we don't actually tumble down mountains, but we do look like giant snowballs with our 50 lb packs on. Each group has 6-8 people from all over the country who have likely never met each other beforehand. Our crew pursued our musical aspirations during the trek earning us the name, "The Philmont Boys Choir and Improv Group." But this is a story for another time. The trek emphasizes expecting the unexpected and rolling with the punches. Little information is given to the participants before and during the trek. We would wake up, and ask ourselves I wonder where we are going today. It was nice not having to know that you would end up getting into camp at 11 PM that night. The trek was much more challenging than I had expected, so I was worried about dragging my blistered-up body all over the Pike National Forest 24 hours after I got off the trail. I had a minor cough, but other than that I felt as good as one can after such things. I was still concerned, to say the least.
When you read the description of the course for the race, you ask yourself, "Why does this exist?" It just looks sadistic. Here read for yourself: "Here's what we are going to have you do...you are going to run 54 miles with 9,000 feet of elevation gain and loss at an average elevation of 10,700 ft. Also, start at midnight. AND, if you want, you can hammer a few shots at the start line. It is called the last call after all." Don't worry, I was as sober as a BYU student on a Saturday night when I started the race. So I'm standing there at the start line awkwardly as a bunch of 40-year-olds down shots beside me. I hear the race director say to one of the runners, "Ahhh, it's alright, take another shot. You are going to get lost anyways." I'm like, this is an omen. The race director is telling people they are going to get lost. Ruh-roh, raggy. The race director was quite the personality. I distinctly remember him telling everyone that if we didn't have any fun that he was going to go out there himself and beat it into us. I audibly said, "Mommy, I just want to go home." I got a few chuckles.
The race started, and everyone began to shuffle out of town up the forest road into Pike National Forest. During the race, there were multiple aid stations where runners could slam some bacon-wrapped cookies and the blandest quesadillas imaginable. No hate to volunteers, but I am going to avoid quesadillas for a while. You could see your friends or family, AKA your crew, at two of the aid stations. My crew was my mom and an orange camping chair. If you know me, you know it has got to be orange. At mile 32, by the will of some almighty being, I was in 6th place. Night running hit different. When I wasn't worrying if I was being stalked by a big kitty, I was at peace. When your world is devolved to a 6-foot bubble of light (*SIZE SUBJECT TO HOW MUCH MONEY YOU ARE WILLING TO THROW AT REI), you stop thinking about how much further you have to run.
The sunrise was bonkers. It was like welcome to Narnia, you zombie. Aladdin was showing me a whole new world. After I left the aid station at mile 32, things started to get rough. The biggest climb of the race loomed ahead of me. I kept worrying that the race director would pop out of the woods like Teddy Roosevelt with a big stick and try to beat the fun back into me. Eventually, I made it to the top of the climb where the course peaks its elevation. The view was rewarding, but it was still like, "Yayy! Good job! Here are 11 more miles for you."
The final turnaround before runners descend back to the town of Fairplay/South Park was at the old abandoned Silverheels iron oxide mine. Mount Silverheels is the Kool-Aid man-sized mountain where the entire race took place. Its name comes from the legend of a dance hall girl from the 1800s who stayed and cared for miners in that area when influenza ran rampant. The miners honored her by naming a mountain after her.
I began the descent back down expecting to get to another aid station that had water I could refill on. I was not aware that the aid station was not there this year because of a lack of volunteers, so for the last 8 miles, I was thirstier than Bear Grylls when he drank his own urine. The sun was beating down on this monotonous rolling forest road. When I say monotonous, I'm talking like 24 hours of driving at night listening to NPR. My feet decided they were done with this BS, so no more running for me. I was not in a good headspace. I was walking painfully slow, drooling over the thought of water and the idolized chaïr (@ultrarunningmemes). I limped my way all the way down the Beaver Creek forest road and back to the track where the finish line was. Two people passed me in the last half mile; I promptly kept up foreign relations Top Gun-style. I tried to run the last lap on the track, but my foot felt worse than Bob Dylan sounded in his latest Christmas album. Don't get me wrong I love Bob Dylan, but that album should be an advertisement for The Real Cost. I walked it in, smiled and waved like the penguins from Madagascar, and collapsed into a chaïr as soon as I could.
The age range of the participants was very impressive. Soon after I finished I saw a 68-year-old man finish the Silverheels 100. I aspire to be like that when I am 68. There was another woman running the 50-mile race who was 71 years old and training for her 15th Leadville (a very famous 100-mile race nearby in CO).
After downing some food, I dropped like a pin meeting a bowling ball in the back of our camper van. I finished the race in around 13 hours and 20 minutes, with about 2 and 40 minutes before the final 16-hour cutoff time. Would I do it again? Absolutely, but that might not have been my response 5 miles from the finish line. Ultras are such a unique experience that really shapes you in such a short amount of time. Some people say you go through the highs and lows of life over the span of a couple of years during these races. These races are special. To see volunteers out in the middle of the national forest at 3 AM in 30-degree weather ready and excited to serve you some rock-hard “hibernating” gummy bears and to refill your water cup is incredible. The amount of work that goes into organizing these races is enough to make your head hurt, but they still find a way to beat the fun into 13 hours of running.