When Colorado-resident Lucie Hanes stepped up to the starting line of the Silver Rush 50-Miler Ultra with 472 other runners, she wasn't sure what ticking off 50 miles would look like.
An epic race from start to finish? Highs and lows? Maybe a podium finish? Or maybe a crash-and-burn kind of day?
When you face a challenge you've never experienced before, there's always a lot to learn.
Finish the race or DNF...Lucie reached that tipping point where there's only one way to find out.
Step up to the starting line and find out.
Something happens at 10,000+ feet high when you're running in the mountains. "It will leave your lungs burning, heart pounding and eyes completely amazed," says Leadville Race Series organizers.
When Lucie decided to test her limits at the Silver Rush 50-Mile Ultra, she learned even more than that...
1. Embrace the Unknown
I have trouble living in the moment. I’m constantly on the hunt for the next challenge, bouncing quickly from one goal to the next before the high wears off. It only makes sense that I would heed the siren’s call into the world of ultrarunning. Luckily, diving in has changed my perspective on this sport - and life in general - for the better.
What's an ultramarathon?
Ultramarathons include anything beyond a standard marathon, and technically start at the 50k distance. Even just that handful of extra miles past 26.2 adds a noticeable weight, so the jump into ultra territory takes guts and grit from the very start.
Find out what you're made of
There’s something special about crossing the fifty mile line. Every step over that line takes you arguably closer to the limits of human endurance than you are to the couch.
The stretch of miles between 50 kilometers and 50 miles wages a whole new battle on the human mind and body.
You navigate extremes on either end of the spectrum, from euphoria all the way down to existential crisis and back.
Riding the waves means continually making the choice to keep moving forward through it all.
Expect the unexpected
That being said, I had no idea about any of that at 6am on race morning when the clock started ticking. In my mind I was equally likely to top a podium as I was to DNF.
I barely tried to imagine what those later miles would feel like mentally or physically, because the concept seemed so foreign that even my imagination couldn’t really reach there. I went in with an exploratory mindset so that, at the very least, I’d know more for next time by the end of it all.
2. Learn to Focus
On your mark...get set....GO! I’m shivering in the dawn chill (something I’d look back on fondly after a few hours under the sun) looking around at the crowd while imposter syndrome wreaks its normal havoc - when I realize that I’m still wearing my jacket, haven’t mixed in my electrolytes, and my right shoe feels too loose. There’s about thirty seconds left in the National Anthem, so I pick one and toss my extra layer in my boyfriend’s general direction. Better than nothing.
The struggle is real...
I still use my thoughtlessness as an excuse to berate myself throughout the first five miles. I understand on some level that my brain is choosing to fixate on these little mistakes rather than face my real fears about actually stepping foot into the arena, but I take the bait. It’s easier in the moment to care about my shoelace than look all those gremlins of self-doubt in the eye. Needless to say, that opening stretch from the bottom of Dutch Henri Hill through the foothills of Leadville puts me off to a rough start full of negative thought spirals, hurried gear adjustments, and nausea from the nerves on top of the altitude.
3. Choose Joy
I’m a late bloomer on long runs. It’s easy to get caught up in the initial aches and pains, grinding along as I try to find the flow, but that flow does eventually come. Someday I’ll learn how to have patience until it catches up with me.
Take time to find your flow
When it finally does, I can breathe again. A good flow doesn’t necessarily feel easy or effortless, but brings a sense of joy into the challenge. Settling in my flow state, I have the power to decide where the rest of this day goes. Sometimes simply making that choice to dig deep and smile at the chance to do so just does the trick.
Rising above uncertainty
The Silver Rush includes plenty of elevation gain, over 7000 feet of it, but spread out such that most of the climbs creep up gradually. It’s a very runnable course overall, which played a major role in my change of heart.
Once I pick up some speed and there’s not much in my way to slow the momentum, I turn into the Energizer Bunny: going, and going, and going…
Miles five through 25 passed by in a blur over rolling hills alongside the calming trickle of a trailside stream, and suddenly I found myself at the halfway point.
I don’t remember how fast I ran, who I passed or who passed me by, what I thought about, where my eyes traveled, only the steady rhythm of my feet and that stream.
4. Chase the Ponytails
I’ve only recently started to understand the meaning of friendly competition. I’m ambitious to a fault sometimes, and I have in the past viewed races as all-or-nothing experiences: fighting to win, or forgo really trying at all.
Competition vs. connection
Spending more time running with other people, now that I have a bit more of a social bug after all the isolation of the pandemic year, has turned all this around. Some of my best paces have played out to the tune of conversation, connection, and support from friends right there with me.
Competition, especially among women, comes with a bad reputation for being divisive or hostile. On the other hand, it can actually be an incredible connector and motivator if we can all keep our egos in check.
Run your own race...celebrate every runner
For me, friendly competition starts with really being friendly. I make sure to smile at everyone I pass and give them a thumbs up or a few kind words if I can spare the breath. Everyone is on their own journey out there, running different paces at different times. A few miles later, that person could be me - and I sure appreciate a little love along the way.
From there I try to treat each challenge as a gift. When another runner passes me by, they are giving me the gift of a challenge that will help me push my own limits. When I catch someone, I’m doing the same for them.
The 'Chase the Ponytails" strategy
Looking ahead for clues, I pick out the runners ahead that I want to challenge next. I generally choose women, both because they are my direct competition and also because we need more of a community out there on the trails. When we view a challenge as a gift, that becomes a special form of camaraderie that we can share.
It turns into a game of “Chase the Ponytails” as I select a target and work to catch her. She gives me the gift of motivation to build up some speed, and I aim to give her the gift of working to defend her place.
I chase down several ponytails ahead, and study the other women that zoom by on their way back around after the turnaround up ahead. They’re all wearing big grins and move at a good clip, full of the energy that comes with passing the halfway point, every step now closer to the finish than to the start.
5. Retrace Your Steps
The major up and downside of an out-and-back race is that you know exactly what you’re up against in the second half. Knowledge is power, but sometimes ignorance is bliss too. I don’t always want to know exactly what’s ahead.
Every race is a journey of ups and downs
I take my memories from the way in and throw them into reverse. Up to down and down to up, fast to slow and slow to fast. That’s all I allow myself to think about the route back. Overanalysis and detailed recollection only makes space for intimidation to creep in. I don’t want to dread the rest of this race, calculating every challenge and counting down each familiar mile.
Pay attention to the little details
A little naivety keeps things interesting. To hold onto that, I allow my mind to wander at a comfortable distance while my body taps into muscle memory. I pay just enough attention to keep my stride strong and my feet nimble. I’ve fought hard so far to find the flow. Now that I’m riding it, there’s finally room to let in those deeper trains of thoughts that just felt too heavy before.
Remember your "Why?"
I think about goals and the meaning of making them. What am I doing all this for? The metrics don’t matter. Clocking in at a certain time or at a certain place doesn’t change my value. Somewhere in the middle of the run back, I decide that it’s the very act of choosing and chasing a goal that carries the worth I’m always so worried about.
Cultivating the courage to simply show up for something new and difficult is what I actually care about. The remaining miles turn into a celebration of effort and bravery. I laugh out loud a few times, even, earning me some bewildered glances from the racers around and a few smiles from those who just might understand how I feel.
6. Celebrate Success
I choke down the last bites that will fuel me to the finish. I’ll be happy if I don’t see figs, dates, or peanut butter sandwiches for a while… or at least until my next long run.
The final stretch
The final two miles take us up and around the back side of Dutch Henri Hill, the one deviation from the initial course. The first glimpse of fresh scenery pulls me out of my trance just in time to hear the hum of a crowd below me. I turn the corner at the base of the hill and take on the fastest pace I can manage, passing one last racer in the seconds before crossing the line.
Medals and awards
Someone tosses a medal in one hand and a beer in the other. I’ve run all my initial goals into the ground, finishing over an hour faster than I’d dared to hope, and well within the top ten among hundreds of other women. Third place in my category earns me an award that I don’t have hands for anymore, so I reluctantly pass off the beer for now. Water first.
Finishing a race is never really the end...
I spend the rest of the day on the shore of Twin Lakes just outside of Leadville proper, stretching in the sand and finally drinking that beer (plus another, and a sandwich, and a burrito, and ice cream…). I’m still riding the high of adrenaline and appreciation, and realize that this is only the beginning.
The afternoon holds a beautiful motivation to start caring for myself as a human being first and an athlete second, because one feeds into the other.
If I can channel this kind of joy in the effort itself, holding it higher than metrics or arbitrary measures of achievement, then the rest will follow in its own time. There’s no ceiling in sight from here on out.