Fifty Miles Forward

Madison Wilkinson is currently working for a nonprofit called Kiva and is interested in developing her writing. In her free time, she loves to spend time in the mountains with her friends and her dog, Murphy. If she could have any super power, it would be to be able to eat all the spicy food on earth and only taste the good flavors, not die from spice. One day, she hopes to travel much of the world. She also hopes to accomplish more ultra marathons.

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20 hours before running straight up Dutch Henri Hill to mark the start of the Leadville Silver Rush 50 Race, I got on a zoom call with my manager, heart beating out of my chest, words running together, sweating, and quit my job.

My entire family was set to arrive in Leadville in T-minus two hours and 10 minutes. Shit.

I get up from my now ex-employers’ computer, walk into the next room, find my friend and race-partner Jordan seated at the kitchen table. She looks up at me expectantly.

“I did it… I just quit”.  

“Shit….” She says with a pause. “How did it go; how do you feel?”

“I think good. I have no idea but I think good.”

Both of us take a breath in, both of our faces a cross between high-eyebrow concern and the start of a laugh forming on our lips.

I start to crack first and a laugh starts to escapes from my stomach making a similar sound to the hissing of a hose with a kink in it, letting out bigger gulps of laughter as my air rushes out of my body.

Jordan’s laugh comes right as my first big sputter leaves my body, hers with shorter, closer together claps.

We look at each other and then look out the window of the house we are staying at with a view of town.

“So… I guess it’s time to run 50 miles” she says.

“Time to legitimately walk that one off” I say and we laugh some more. “This is about to be a full body exorcism.”

We both look at each other and I let out a sign. A much-needed release of all the anxiety built up the past week as well as past 6 months for both of us.

But then just as relief washes over us, so returns that very small pit in your stomach feeling of nerves.

What are we about to do?

Neither Jordan or I have ever run 50 miles consecutively. Not once. In training, the longest run I had been on was a marathon, hitting 26 on a weekend after weeks of building slowly up and then immediately began to taper back down.

Jordan was in the same boat.

We had done a few of our long runs together. We noted that we felt strong, but also noted that we had no idea if we had actually been training effectively and what it would even feel like to push our bodies past 26 miles, not just a little, but to run that far and then turn around and run that far back again in the afternoon Colorado heat at elevation.

There were some real nerves thinking about where we were and how we were going to cross over that line and complete what we had signed on to do.

For those not familiar, The Silver Rush 50 is a notorious out and back trail, starting at 10,000 feet above sea level and ascending to over 12,000 feet above sea level in some areas, with an overall 8,000-foot change in vertical feet.

Add on full sun exposure above tree line and right there is a real adventure to be had.

I had asked and then convinced Jordan to run with me around November. I know right, I’m a great antagonist.  

Both of us had lived in Leadville for short stints and had long held the town and community very close to our hearts since we were juniors in high school.

I learned how to love running while living in Leadville. Watching some of the incredible women around me run and push themselves in the alpine farther, faster, higher, then I had ever previously thought possible at 15 years old, opened my eyes and mind to a world I wanted to keep living in forever. I know Jordan feels similarly. At 15, after being introduced to that lifestyle in Leadville – it seemed the world was full of endless opportunity and endless adventure. I went on to watch those same women run the 50 and the 100 courses, inspiring me to want to do the same.

While it’s a good thing in a lot of ways I’m not 15 anymore…24 has truly stumped me.

After going to college, learning and moving constantly for four years without a ton of time set aside admittedly for self-reflection; cut to immediately being thrown out of that intensively creative, safe, caring, intentional space and community into a 2020 pandemic world – you could say that my grip on the world of opportunity around me started to slip.

What does a 23-year-old college grad with a liberal arts degree in Anthropology and only really half formed ideas about the future do when she finds herself living in an apartment in Denver in the depths of COVID winter needing a job do? What anyone this age is doing right now. Take a tech sales job your friend referred you too and told you that you’d be great at.

“Don’t worry! I have no idea what I’m doing either but it’s a job and it looks good and you’ll make some money and be fine.”

Now, I’m not here to bash the tech bros. We’ll save that conversation for a glass of wine.

I am here instead, to tell you that about a year in I was grinding my teeth so hard in my sleep from stress last June, that a cap I had on one of my front teeth since I was 13 years old (chipped it) actually came clean off revealing what my partner, Will, refers to as “swoop toof” to the world.

With “swoop toof” front and center, I looked myself in the mirror and finally felt my body react.

Normally, I consider myself someone that experiences and listens to gut feelings pretty regularly in my life. However, I hadn’t had a true gut feeling pointing me in a new direction since I started working this job. My body responding to the stress, becoming almost entirely numb to the world, hibernating and waiting for the storm to pass, while my scarcity mindset silenced all my cells slowly one by one.

But in this moment, it was clear – I needed to make a change. The sign was clear and unmistakable, the swooped edge of my tooth literally cutting through the numbness and shooting feeling back into me.

My brain started racking itself for a goal, a change, a new thing to focus on. And I kept craving the feeling of running in that special mountain town. I think I want to run the 50.

You know, a very reasonable thought to have as a young woman with 1.5 front teeth. Right?

And that was that.

“Jordan. I’m going to do this. Are you in?”

Once Jordan and I were at the top of Dutch Henri Hill a little after 6am on July 9th, and we did a quick last wave to a few friends with signs waiting for us once we crested the top before disappearing into the woods, only then did the race feel minutely real.

To tell you the truth, adrenaline was pumping so loudly in my body that I was just thinking about my breath, my steps, water, where Jordan was, and when my next bite to eat was going to be.

I hadn’t slept hardly at all the night before, thinking nervously about all the thoughts I was going to have out there the next day in the wake of quitting,

But I didn’t have time for any of those existential crisis thoughts.

Instead, it went like this;

Step. Breath. Step. Breath. One breath in and two out. Smile at that person. At that one. And that one. Step. Breath. Water. How is Jordan doing? Good. She’s good. Smile.  I’m good. You’ve got this. We will finish this. Step. Breath.

Jordan edges comfortable to a few people in front of me and we stick to a comfortable pace for the first 18 miles.

At the aid station right before you descend all the way into the halfway point before turning around, ascending what you just ran down, Jordan and I fist pumped each other and had a brief hype each other up session. We felt strong! We were doing this! Let’s go! Almost to halfway and then we had the finish in the bag.

Right before this moment, I had been chatting with another very friendly race goer telling me all about how many calories he had been consuming and urging me to eat more.

So, at the aid station, I was feeling nervous that I hadn’t eaten enough. I did my best to take down two Stroop waffles, a handful of pretzels, and some chips to be washed down with some soda.

One mile into the descent, I reached for a small piece of waffle I had stuck into my vest to snack on proactively, and suddenly the world warped.  

Pure, unfiltered nausea waved over me, starting in my stomach and making my hands and knees feel immediately weak and tingly.  

Now, that was a bad waffle.

I slowed to a walk. My brain immediately starting to panic, “No! Oh my god, no. I just lost my stomach. It’s gone. I’m not getting it back. Evil has come for me. The devil is a waffle. I’m going to have to be pulled off the course in a stretcher. What am I going to do? Where is Jordan? Poor Jordan she’s never going to forgive me. I am so stupid to have listened to a man!”

I had two miles to halfway. I had been on the course for 5 hours. I was running ahead of schedule. Jordan and I wanting to make it to the turn around by six and a half hours at the latest.

This thought gave me an extreme wave of confidence.

I’m ahead of schedule. I’m ahead. Just slow down and breathe. One foot in front of the other. One at a time. Breathe.

I was moving and the nausea was slowly subsiding but I still wasn’t able yet to run without feeling my stomach turn.

But I could see the aid station tents at Stumptown. It was right there. Just keep moving. One step. One Step.

I approached the tents and I saw three figures walking towards me. I started to cry. Walking towards me was my dad and my two friends Claire and Walter. They had their arms up, “Yeah! Madison! Yeah!”

When I reached them, I felt so much intense relief. I told them what had happened. All I could really get out of my mouth was various strangely constructed sentences containing, “Bad Waffle”.

They just walked right in line with me and walked me to a chair at the half. I sat down and saw Jordan for the first time in four miles and I told her I was feeling rough.

“We got here so early. Now we know we’re going to make it. We’re going to finish”

“We’re going to finish” I repeated. And this time, I really believed it.

After re loading my vest with goodies, trying my hardest to avoid another bad waffle selection, Jordan and I group hugged our crew, looked at each other, and started back up the hill together.

We were in high spirits and even higher spirits after hearing the familiar “yip yip yippppppp” of longtime friend and Leadville resident, Liz Andrews. Liz comes running down the hill to us, having apparated from pure air, and reached Jordan and I in a hug. She sprayed us down with sunscreen and we all three started talking and laughing, climbing up the hill.

Reaching mile 30, the heat of the day above tree line in full sun had found us. Liz doing her best to keep Jordan and I’s spirits high. But she was going to split from us and catch us at the 35-aid station where all are friends and family were waiting to watch us come through.

Jordan turned to me and goes, “I’m starting to hit my low”.

I looked up and nodded. And internally I felt this surge propelling me forward so strongly.

Keep going. Keep her going, we can do this, we can do this. One step. One step.

Seeing my friend start to waver, this force carried me up the hill and I started focusing on how to keep Jordan going.

Right when I felt myself tire, I looked up and standing at the top of the hill, God love him, was my dad.

“Keep going! Right around the corner!”

Jordan and I kicked it up a notch to turn the corner and see a group of 20 friends, arms raised, cheering us into the Mile 35 aid.

There wasn’t time to feel anything other than relief. Hugs. Laughter. Pouring doctor pepper in my mouth and seeing my dogs and being so grateful for a chair. More phrases containing, “Bad Waffle” were said.

After a few initial minutes of just fluttering around and eating, Jordan and I looked at each other and with not a word said we just started busting out laughing.

She couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. Everyone around us kind of looked at us and laughed as well, but a little nervously, definitely wondering to themselves and to each other, “these two are just a little crazy don’t you think?”.

We gathered ourselves. We took our time thanking everyone for the love. We turned and started off running feeling totally renewed and rejuvenated.

We found Liz again a mile down the road waiting for us with a “Yip, Yip, YIPPPPP!”

Our energy was high for the next two miles and then the heat and the sun at 10,000 feet with a five-mile incline ahead of us started to become a formidable opponent.

Jordan and I slowed to a walk. We were going to get to the top of this and just see what was left in the tank.

We start running calculations, ok in two miles, we’ve got ten miles left.

Liz looks at us both and says, “You can do anything for ten miles. Anything.” And that resonates with me so deeply I know it’s true.

It’s right around here, Mile 38, that I start to get teary eyed. Not because my body hurts. But because I am in true awe of how far Jordan and I have come and how many people are here today to support us.

And that’s when it clicks for me.

How lucky are we to even get to be out here today? How lucky are we to get to do hard things?

But the best part, the core of it, the reason I called myself here today, was for this truth:

The part of life that I find the best, the most beautiful is reveling in the privilege and joy of doing hard things, not alone but together, and to then get to turn at the absurdity and seemingly impossible nature of it all, and laugh purely and fully with the people around you, bonding you together in the knowledge that all it is, is just one step at a time now.

One step closer, every step taken, to the goal you’ve set.

I know I will make it, because I am strong. I can do anything for ten miles. In ten miles I’ll cross the finish line a winner and a stronger version of this self.

I felt another tear fall as my entire body filled with gratitude. I have no idea what I am doing. I have no idea what happens after this. But I finally feel so alive. So back in my own body.

Jordan and I walked until we could hear the crowd cheering with about a mile and a half left, we started laughing and cursing and picked ourselves up to as much of a run as we could finish off with, feet and hips just absolutely screaming. We were coming up on 6:45pm, a full 12 hours and 45 minutes since we started.

Things began to blur as we rounded the corner and started running to the finish line. I couldn’t see anything or anyone around me except the finish line. I held out my hand and Jordan took it and we just were sprinting in lock step.

We crossed the finish line and were immediately engulfed by the people waiting for us.

We hugged and I felt so proud.

We had done it together, with humor, one step at a time.

As I’m writing this, I’ve had close to a full month to reflect on this experience.

The dust I kicked up in my work life as well as in Leadville has somewhat settled.

My core is telling me there’s a lot more work to be had. At 24 (with no pension in sight), probably 40 more years of work to be had if we are thinking ahead here. Thankfully, I know there’s a lot more miles to run. A lot more dust to kick up. A lot more finish lines to cross.

What I’m left with for now, in the quiet moments, is more of an ask of myself then a lesson to share.

The message is clear:  

Move boldly forward; Stand tight with your community; Find the humor in the hard things; Take one step forward each day, no matter how big or small.

I don’t know where I am going, but I know my body can and will take me there.

Because I can do anything for 10 miles. Not only that I can get up and go 50 miles in one day. I can get up and take strides towards finding that feeling of pride.

I can and will take myself where I want to go.

About the Author

Madison Wilkinson is currently working for a nonprofit called Kiva and is interested in developing her writing. In her free time, she loves to spend time in the mountains with her friends and her dog, Murphy. If she could have any super power, it would be to be able to eat all the spicy food on earth and only taste the good flavors, not die from spice. One day, she hopes to travel much of the world. She also hopes to accomplish more ultra marathons.

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