Each July near Silverton, Colorado, runners converge from around the country to run laps around a one-mile, hand-carved loop trail at the foot of Kendall Mountain. Many runners have been heading for Silverton for decades, the race a highlight of their year. And it’s probably unlike any trail race you’ve ever seen before, which is what draws an eclectic crowd year after year.
You see, though it’s a five-day race (used to be six), there is no official start time. Or even day. Nor is there an official distance or amount of days one must run. Runners are free to stop running and leave the course, whenever they want, too, as long as they start from the very same spot when they return. There’s not even a DNF possibility since you make up your own distance or time. Really, the only rule is that competitors must switch directions on the mile-long loop track every six hours.
That’s pretty much it.
The race was inspired by an 1809 bet, in Newmarket, in which a Scottish man named Robert Barclay insisted he could walk one mile in each consecutive hour, for 1,000 hours straight—basically six weeks. Barclay had wagered with a man called James Wedderburn-Webster 1,000 guineas he’d succeed, roughly 20 years of income for the average farm worker at the time. Barclay easily managed the feat and became something of an endurance legend, so much so that the organizers of this race were inspired by the tale when they created this race.
The Steep Camp race was, in fact, originally called the Silverton 1000 in honor of Barclay’s achievement, and today there’s an exclusive club of runners who have accumulated 1,000 miles in the Silverton 1000/Steep Camp race—they even get anl emblazoned jacket. Runners who hit the 100-mile milestone during one race, whether they do it in one day or five, receive cool commemorative belt buckles. Racers can choose between one, two, three, or the full five days of racing, with winners for each set amount of days. The race happens in July at 9,300 feet in the Rockies and temperatures can be all over the place. Runners at night typically face below freezing conditions. “This event is not for the faint of heart!” warn the organizers.
Over the course of the mile, the loop gains about 250 feet of elevation, which at first doesn’t seem like all that much, but given the track is at 9,300 feet it’s a lung-buster. But if a racer runs 100 miles, they’ve gained 250,000 feet. That’s a lot of feet. Also, there’s something almost sadistic about a mile-long loop that gains only a couple hundred feet that runners circle over and over again. What could be so hard about a mere 250-foot gain, runners might say starting out. After a dozen or so laps, they find out.
Something about the terrain, the structure, the challenge draws runners from everywhere. Part of the allure could also be the tremendous support at the race. At the highest elevation of the race is Steep Camp itself, an aid/motivation station, filled with a bounty of snacks, places to rest tired feet, and friendly encouragement from staff and fellow runners, many of whom have been coming year after year.
“You know, this race is a driving force in the year for a guy like me,” Criss Furman, a 70-something who has competed in several of these races, told REI in an interview. “To have this kind of support around the clock, it makes running 100+ miles way more realistic for most of us.”