Shaun Higgins – Race Report
It’s Friday September 30th. One week ago I was in my Hotel room in Silverton, CO getting ready for the longest running race of my life, the Silverton Double Dirty 30 – nominally a 100K, roughly 60 miles of mountainous terrain with upwards of 11,000 feet of ascent to contend with.
I wasn’t sure the race was going to happen. When I woke up Friday morning in Ouray (there weren’t any hotels available in Silverton on Thursday night), it was pourning. As I went to lunch around 11 it turned to snow, so I decided I’d better jump in the car and head over Red Mountain Pass over to Silverton before it got too dangerous. This is the most beautiful and scary section of the Million Dollar Highway in my opinion. I didn’t have much trouble getting over the pass, but I saw plenty of vehicles that did, including a few jackknifed semi trucks. As I drove into Silverton my head began to swirl with doubts. I definitely wanted the race to happen, I’d invested so much time, energy, money and my wife and new kiddo Ryder had put up with my long weekend runs and road trips like this one to chase my dreams; but, I was nervous the weather would force the race to be cancelled or shortened.
Doubts as to whether or not a race may happen can really mess with your head as you try to mentally prepare for what you’re about to put yourself through. It’s hard to be psyched up and preparing for disappointment simultaneously. Athletes I met in the hotel didn’t do much to quell my fears as they talked listlessly about 6+inches of snow accumulation at Molas Pass on the course. It also made me nervous that packet pickup seemed not to be starting on time. I figured the race director, Megan Finnesy, had to be out on the course making sure it would be possible to hold the race safely. So after killing some time bellied up at the bar drinking a Cutthroat Porter I decided I’d better just drive up to Molas Pass and check out the trails myself. There was snow and slop, but by my measure only a couple knuckles of it and I was feeling optimistic.
So I drove back to the hotel and right as I walked in I ran into Megan, on cue she confirmed that the race would still be on, just absent one fully stocked aid station (more on that later). I told Megan I didn’t have anything to do and that if I could help she should put me to work. She got on her Bluetooth headset, which I think all race directors need, and sent me down the road a few miles to help someone lay plywood on a railroad tie bridge across the Animas River. I was thinking I would help by filling registration bags or something, but this was obviously a greater area of need so I happily headed out.
I drove my Xterra as far down the road as I could, walked down a dirt road dodging puddles and slop and then followed course markings to the river crossing. I made a mental note at this point to do a better job paying attention to course markings the next morning as I had an embarrassingly hard time figuring out where the trail was supposed to be. I met a local gentleman who was working on laying the plywood already and took his direction and got to work. 45 minutes of decently hard labor later and we were done. As we were wrapping up the sun emerged for the first time on the day and I felt that this unconventional pre-race workout must have earned me a few bits of good Karma. I headed back to the hotel at this point.
It was nearly time for the pre-race dinner, so I spent a few minutes laying out my clothes, shoes, food, and other race accoutrements and started to wonder how I’d prepare my drop bags. I went down to the pre-race dinner, it was classic pasta, and made a couple new friends with some other loners at the event. We exchanged nervous guarded chit chat about the race and our goals for a bit and then Megan took the floor for the pre-race meeting. She introduced a lot of folks who had helped make the race possible, the forest rangers, the mayor of Silverton, the folks from big brothers big sisters, her friend from adventures in thumbholes, the ham operators and then introduced the man who would be running search and rescue and medical efforts on the day. He gave a speech about safety and the dangers of hypothermia that scared the crap out me, and probably a few others in the room. Was I prepared enough? This is my longest run by almost double, can I really expect to do it in these conditions? I’d better get to my room and prepare my drop bags with dry clothing options.
As it turned out I didn’t really plan on having five drop bags, as I hadn’t imagined running in this weather. So I went next door and bought a few canvas bags and their half used masking tape to mark up 5 drop bags. I packed every base layer, jacket, tights, pair of socks, etc. that I’d brought with me to give me options to stay dry and warm on race day into my 5 drop backs trying my best to imagine what type of clothing I might want to wear at each time of day, definitely packing my down jacket for the dark I may find myself in at 12,000+ feet.
After about an hour of packing and re-packing I began to feel as ready as I figured I would get and started to relax. Fortunately my timing worked out to be just about perfect for when my crew, pacer and great friend Wade would arrive in Silverton after a massive travel day to come support me here. We exchanged brief pleasantries and then headed out to drop off my car at aid station 6 as he was planning to pace me from aid station 4 to 6 the next day, roughly miles 38 to 56. After the drop off we headed back to the room where I chatted at him like I was on coke, super jittery with pre-race nerves. We came up with a rough gameplan for the next day and then slowly settled in for sleep. Per normal I slept roughly from about 1am to 5:30.
It’s just about go time. I had my breakfast, a banana, a nut butter filled clif bar and a cup of Yerba mate. Did my morning business, got dressed, dropped off my drop bags with the race officials and then headed off to stand nervously with about 33 other people as silly as me.
I can’t remember if there was a starting gun or they just said go. But soon enough we were running south on Main Street in Silverton. We jogged slowly and oddly I found myself in the lead making small talk with an old college classmate Vince who was also doing the race for about the first mile and a half before we got close to the river crossing. My chance to see my handiwork from the day before. Fortunately the plywood was covered with a light dusting of new snow, instead of a sheet of ice, and we all appeared to make it safely over the river.
For the next several miles we were running south along the Silverton to Durango railroad tracks, picking our best footing on the tracks to the left or to the right, frenetically. This stretch was marketed by Megan as being one of the scenic highlights of the day. While it was definitely beautiful, I think I was eager to put it behind me as I was worried I would roll an ankle or mess up my legs from the goofy stride I carried as I tried to negotiate the tracks safely. This was definitely a unique treat and I reminded myself that although awkward, these were probably going to be the easiest and fastest miles of the race. I chatted briefly with a few folks here as I started to be passed by probably 10 runners down the tracks and enjoyed learning about what brought other people to ultra running as I reminded myself to run my own race and not to push too early. Here I also began to execute my conservative fueling strategy for the race, one food item every 30 minutes, electrolytes every hour and sportslegs lactate buffering tabs every 2 hours. For food I had packed a lot of vfuel, honey stinger chews, scratch drops and a few different kinds of clif bars.
Eventually we ran into a railroad car stocked with race supporters cheering for us. I gave them a smile and thanked them for being there for us and shortly we turned right to cross the river and begin our ~2000 foot climb up Molas Pass. Here I began to figure out that I was going to use a combination of hiking and running if I wanted to keep the effort level in a safe place on the day. I tried to run any reasonable grades and hike the shorter steeper stuff. I found picking an ambulatory mode hardest early in the race. When you’re close to other runners and notice people hiking as fast as you are running it messes with your head. Eventually I was able to settle into my own rhythm and feel smooth. I kept religiously to my fueling strategy here, drinking plenty of water as I went and felt pretty good that I had consumed about 400 calories by the time I made it to the first aid station at Molas Pass. I was probably sitting in about 10th place at this point, chatting with a dude named Iain about our work lives and our families back home. Wade was cheering for us as we entered the first aid station and quickly filled up my racevest (Ultimate Direction AK 3.0 for the record) with water and the foods I’d packed the night before and I was off.
I met back up with Iain on the other side of the aid station and we began to hike/run our way on the rolling climb up to the highest point of the race about 22 miles in at ~12500 feet. We caught a few folks and picked up guy named Andre who told us about his childhood in Brazil and just continued to try to move efficiently. At one point Andre left us behind and then as we encountered a few rolling descents I began to move quicker than Iain, and so I began my quiet time in the race probably about 16 miles and a bit over 3 hours into the race. I wound up surprising myself and catching and leaving Andre shortly after this and continued trekking upward. It was in this stretch, as I stuck to my fueling schedule that if I wasn’t using my vfuel gels it was taking me almost the entire 30 minute interval between feeds to get down my food. Looked like I’d be enjoying a lot of gel on the day! The climb was long and continued to be interspersed with downhill sections, giving back elevation and increasing the length of time we were going uphill. The terrain varied between rocky and wet, icy, snowy and slushy. I psyched myself up for the sections of bad footing, telling myself, right or wrong, that I was probably gaining ground on others in those sections as much of my training is on trails with tricky footing. Finally getting towards the top I was getting cold. I kept doing what I was told is a xc ski trick to warm up my hands as I was afraid if they got too cold they may never recover on the day. This involves pinning your arms to your sides and holding your hands at a right degree angle with your palms down and pumping your shoulders up and down. I passed a couple more runners as I neared the top and the diminished 2nd aid station. Horses were meant to carry water and supplies up there, but the weather meant that they couldn’t, so the aid was stocked and manned by a few brace souls from the Durango Running Company. I appreciated their efforts and took a swig of Coke and surprised one of them by knowing their name (Christian Gehring I think) because he finished close to one of my buddies in another race. Tell me your name and I’ll forget it 1 minute later, if I read your name in a race result or yearbook I will never forget.
Just a little after this aid, through the deepest snow yet (6-8inches maybe) I was to the top of the climb. It was finally time to go downhill. I had done this climb and descent once before as part of a multi day mountain bike trip in the San Juan Hut System. Seeing how beautiful this part of Colorado was on the bike trip was honestly one of the big reasons I’d selected this race. I knew I would enjoy the descent. The snow made for a nice cover on the first rocky section and despite a bit of off-camber sliding I really enjoyed losing elevation quickly. Eventually I was largely out of the snow and running in mud and ice. In this section I started to enjoy the first of what would be many creek crossings. The first several you could dance across on rocks or logs and stay relatively dry. Once I lost a couple thousand feet the trail started rolling again with a slight trend upwards. I passed two more people in these stretches, one of whom was having serious knee issues and I couldn’t believe was smiling and 100% intending to finish with more than half the race still in front of him (he did). At this point I began to wonder how many people were in front of me. As the elevation trended up I began to tread on snow again and began to play the game of trying to figure out how many unique sets of footprints had seen the trail before me. I figured it was at least 3 or 4. Soon enough I would learn I was close enough as I was sitting in 5th as I hit the third aid station. I would run across Vince who was in 4th at that point in that aid and he would recommend the grilled cheese. This aid was manned by the big brothers big sisters crew and they were cooking up some serious food. I decided to more or less stick with my boring gels as my stomach was tolerating them well and filled up my water in my race vest grabbing a pickle for the road.
From here I knew it would be about 8-9 miles till I would get to aid 4 and see Wade again. I figured it would be less than 2 hours but not too much less. I was right. The course was largely downhill, but it was steep and technical downhill on legs that already had 30+miles in them. We were out of the snow by this point and the downhills hurt. I stuck to my fueling religiously and I appreciated it because it made the 30 minute and hour intervals feel like they were passing more quickly. Soon enough I was running on more or less flat terrain and a little disappointed to find 10 minute miles were about all my legs wanted to do at that point. After a few miles of this I had my first real creek crossing. I did a double take before realizing I just had to walk across about 20 feet in the refreshingly cool knee deep water. This turned out to be great and made my legs feel refreshed for the next mile or so to the fourth aid station.
Wade met me about 200 yards out from the aid and ran with me to it. I saw Vince leave as I arrived and told Wade I wanted to sit for a minute and asked if he would pack my bag with my headlamp, my down a fresh buff, and my gels and another aid volunteer filled up my water. I gave Megan a hug here and as a few folks started to trickle down the trail to the aid I headed out. This part of the race was kind of the biggest low for me. I had been excited to be in 5th and see 4th leave the aid. I thought I’d done a decent descent and didn’t expect my chasers to be so close. As Wade and I headed out from aid 4 I knew I had a long rolling climb ahead of me. I asked Wade to remind me that my goal is to finish and that we were a long way out for me to start thinking about racing or protecting my position. After I noticed him looking back a few times I even asked him not to as it made me assume someone was right there and I didn’t want the pressure of feeling like I needed to speed up. In retrospect I was a bit of a headcase out there, but I wanted to take every precaution to make sure I made it to the finish line! I felt like I was going so slow. I was achy so I even struggled to run the flat or slight downhill sections. I tried to hike well on the uphill but felt like I was crawling. It took me a while to adjust to not being alone, to having Wade’s company. At first making conversation felt exhausting. Fortunately I made it over that hurdle fairly quickly and realized how incredibly lucky I was to have a friend doing what Wade was doing for me that day. He was happily moving very slowly through the mountains with me. We began to make natural conversation about our lives and our families. We talked about how incredibly lucky we are, how great Ryder is and how excited I am for Wade to have a kiddo on the way. Somewhere in there we started to find a rhythm again. Maybe the gorgeous scenery didn’t hurt as we began to see the face of Engineer peak on our left. It didn’t hurt that we caught and passed an affable Vince, which shocked me as I felt we were moving slowly still. This was good for my confidence as the pass, coupled with the fact that I hadn’t been passed yet meant everyone else must me hurting too. Before too long Wade and I hit the first mini summit and began what felt like a really painful and long descent that would end as our last big climb would begin. I remember red dirt and water for this descent and just not being able to do much on the downhill. I felt stiff and achy. I was happy when it seemed to be over and it was time to go uphill. I was even more grateful that the uphill was steep enough that running wasn’t even an option. So we hiked and hiked. Wade would keep me on my nutrition schedule and hand me gels and capsules and take my trash so that all I had to do was think about living forward. Eventually the red dirt and wet turned into snow and the sun began to get close to the horizon. It was starting to get chilly as we were getting close to the top. I asked Wade to help me grab my light jacket and I layered it on. It took a few minutes to push my gloves and watch through the sleeve holes and then we were off. In about 30 seconds or so it felt I began to shiver pretty violently. I’m guessing the standing for the previous jacket had caused it. I panicked a bit and asked Wade if he could help me fish out my down jacket. He did and I put it on and forced myself to run. I was terrified of getting hypothermic. Fortunately pretty soon my body heat built back up (thanks golite) and before long we were at the top. It wasn’t dark yet but it was coming. Wade and I talked at this point about how nervous we were for the people in the race who would be out for longer in colder conditions than I’d had to deal with, fortunately it seems everyone was prepared for the conditions.
At this point I knew we should only have a couple downhill miles to aid 5. I told Wade that he could let me know if he had any idea if someone was close to us. He said that he was worried when we spent all the time changing jackets that someone was catching up and that on the downhill before the last climb it seemed like someone was catching us but that we seemed to be moving pretty well on the uphill and he thought we were decently clear. This excited me and my legs actually started to feel decent on this technical descent. It was getting dark, but I knew aid 5 was close and I wanted to wait to put on my headlamp till we got there and then see what my flat trail legs could still do for the last 10 miles. Soon enough and none too soon we got to aid 5, just avoiding tripping in the dark about a dozen times.
I was feeling warm and I dropped my down jacket here as I knew it was downhill to the finish. I put on my headlamp and asked Wade to grab the fuel and we were off. But not before I would be passed by Andre from earlier. Our chaser. This bummed me out a bit, but the excitement of being 10 relatively easy miles away from finishing my first 100k overpowered that. I asked him if he knew if anyone else was close and he said that no one was close at all. So off we went. It turned out my downhill legs were no match for our Brazilian friend, so I bid him farewell and Wade and I kept trucking into the night. Turned out 10 minute miles were still about all I could manage. That would have to do. This dirt road was the only non-railroad non-singletrack of the course and it seemed to last forever. It didn’t help that we ran into a truck that told us the next aid was just a couple miles down the road when it had to have been about 4-5 miles still. So we just kept trucking. After getting our hopes up and crushed about 10 times we finally saw and smelled the tiki torches of the last aid station! Here I grabbed a few gels and Wade and I headed off again. An aid station volunteer showed us the way to be next trail section and I asked her how far to the finish. She said it was less than 4.3 miles away, how exciting!
So any good ultra race director has a bit of a sadistic streak, even one as sweet as Megan, the next quarter to half mile was basically an off trail scramble up a steep hillside up to, across and up over the million dollar highway to a trail that the Hardrock 100 uses every year. Appropriately the trail has lots of hard pokey rocks that my worn feet weren’t too psyched about. Somewhere in here I sang Wade the entire song from That Thing You Do, and my headlamp battery died (i’m hypothesizing that the cold temperatures drained the battery, next time i’ll carry the battery next to my body instead of leaving it in a drop bag). Did I mention Wade forgot to buy a headlamp? Fortunately we are both millennials and our iPhone flashlights worked as backups. After a while of running above the city of Silverton, onedering (joke) when we would ever go downhill into it we saw race markings signaling the decent into Silverton. I was so excited! I had seriously actually done it! In just a few minutes I would cross the finish line and finish my first 100k! I gave Megan a final hug and went into the finish tent and promptly devoured a veggie burger. As the volunteer began preparing a second one for me I began to shiver uncontrollably again and she escorted me to my hotel room. I drew a bath, got cleaned up and got into bed. Sleep was rough, but eventually I took a painkiller after a few restless hours and stopped turning and waking up Wade every 2 minutes.
I woke up race morning and Wade droveme to my car at aid 6, as you recall he stuck with me to the finish line, at my request, instead of jumping in the car at aid 6. We drove back, I bid Wade goodbye as he headed back to his real life and I stuck around for the race breakfast and awards. It turned out I finished 4th, someone ahead of me had taken a wrong turn, I felt for them, by navigation is a part of racing. I also had the fastest dirty 30 + double dirty 30 combined finish times, which sent me home with a cool set of running poles. After breakfast I headed to my room to start my recovery, which I would do all day. My body was exhausted. I would sleep on and off till 7pm when I dragged myself out of bed to eat dinner and drink beer.
This was a successful mission, hopefully part one of three towards kissing the hardrock in a couple years. I don’t know if I have ever felt more proud of myself or thankful for others than I do after this race. I can’t express how great it is to have friends like Wade who are chomping at the bit to help however they can in moments like this. I also can’t express how thankful I am to have a supportive wife and partner who not only tolerates but encourages me to chase dreams like this!
On to the next one!