Take 5: Max Bonenberger, 14-year-old ultra runner and Silver Rush 50 finisher
Max Bonenberger was somewhere around mile 38 when the pain took hold.
“I was just thinking, ‘This is brutal,’” Bonenberger remembers. “That wasn’t very fun.”
That memorable mile marker, found more than halfway through the Silver Rush 50 trail run in Leadville on July 10, was brutal for everyone. It came after a four-mile uphill and led to a 10-mile downhill, all spread across the boulders and dirt roads and loose scree of the town’s high-alpine trails.
And that wasn’t even the end. Bonenberger and hundreds of trail masochists had another two miles of running at 10,200-plus feet before they could finally — finally — cross the finish line and sit down.
The life of an ultra-runner isn’t an easy one, and Bonenberger wasn’t like every other runner on the course. At 14 years old, he finished in 12 hours and 18 minutes to become one of the youngest finishers in the history of the race. He’s an avid athlete — the sort who pays hockey and lacrosse between road biking, rock climbing and trail running — and running the fabled Leadville race was the top of his young yet impressive bucket list. He’s already a regular at the Summit Trail Running Series, and on an average day you’ll find him getting in about 10 miles on the Flume trails or Blair Witch at Horseshoe Gulch.
What’s on the horizon for Bonenberger? For now he’ll enjoy the end of summer before his first day of classes at Summit High School in a few weeks. He looks forward to joining the cross-country team as a freshman, and, with any luck, will get plenty of time racing and competing against bigger, stronger runners before his next challenge: an XTERRA off-road triathlon. From there, it’s onto qualifying for the king of them all: the Leadville 100 run. He had a taste of the course at the 50 and, even though mile 38 hurt, he’s not too nervous — yet.
The Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Bonenberger a week after his finish to talk about the race, his training regimen and why classical music is the only music for his daily 10-mile run.
Summit Daily News: You’re in the Outer Banks of North Carolina right now. What brought your there?
Max Bonenberger: I have some friends who own a house. I know them from school. It’s been great to have time on the ocean. I’ve been doing a little bit of running every morning, some surfing — just laying around at the beach most of the time.
SDN: I think you deserve a beach after the Silver Rush 50. When did you first set your sights on that race, and why Leadville? It’s a serious place to run.
MB: I read the “Born to Run” book (by Christopher McDougall) and I saw it in there. I had just started getting into long-distance running this year and thought I’d try it. This wasn’t a quick race, something that you’d just be done with really soon. It feels like survival. You’re on the trail for a long time.
SDN: Talk about surviving on the trail: Have you ever felt that way on a run before?
MB: No. I hadn’t done anything longer than a half marathon. Well, I guess I did a marathon two weeks before this, but the 50-miler was longer than anything else, and it felt longer. I probably should have run more before the 50 to train. I just did about 10 miles of running everyday to get ready.
SDN: Do you think that hurt you on the course?
MB: I don’t know. I just don’t think I put as much time into it as I should have. I did cross training instead, like hockey, lacrosse, road biking, some climbing.
SDN: When did it hit you that you were running longer than ever before?
MB: I don’t know. I’d say right in the middle of the race. I was just thinking, at mile 38, “This is brutal.” We had a four-mile uphill followed by a 10-mile downhill. That wasn’t very fun.
SDN: Was the 50 also your first time on those trails?
MB: Yeah. I’d seen the maps online, but I’d never been there in real life. I just had to prepare with the elevation gains (and) the course maps to see what I was in for. Right before the descent into the halfway point I was kind of shocked. It was a really, really big hill — not really a hill, but more of a mountain.
SDN: How did it feel when you finally crossed that finish line?
MB: I was shocked. I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to finish it. I was also relieved, I guess, because I knew that I didn’t have to run anymore. My brother and my parents and two of my friends from Golden were there. It was good to have some friends out there, and my parents. I didn’t really want them to see me fail, so they convinced me to run further.
SDN: Do you want to keep with long distance running?
MB: Yeah, I’m planning on the (Leadville) 100 next year, both the bike and the run. I’m not really sure what will happens years ahead, but I definitely want to do more.
SDN: This is your first year in high school. Will you run with the Summit team to train?
MB: Yeah, I think I will. The courses there aren’t as long as I want them to be, but it’s something. The shorter distances really help me with my speed. Pacing myself was hard at the 50-miler, but I’ve learned how to deal with that by just running 10 miles at a time. When I was at the Leadville race I stuck with the runners who have done this type of thing before. I knew that the first 25 miles was just getting through it, and then the next 25 miles is mental.
SDN: How did you feel the morning after the 50?
MB: I didn’t feel that bad the next morning. I went to an amusement park with my friends, down to Elitch’s. My friends were on a long vacation right before that but I figured I’d go and have fun. Surprisingly, I really wasn’t that sore. I did a little bit of running for recovery and that helped.
SDN: You said you weren’t as prepared as you wanted to be. What do you need to do before the next ultra?
MB: Just do more races, be competitive, remember what it’s like to be out for more than 10 hours. There were several times during the race when I was fighting with myself. A lot of the race is mental, and if you don’t think you can get through it you probably won’t. If you can get past that mental wall I think you can make it.
SDN: Have you thought about finding a coach now that you’re getting serious?
MB: I like running with my dad when I can. But no, I don’t think I’d like a coach. I just have my family support, and they were there at the 50 and that worked really well. My dad doesn’t train that much running right now, and we don’t have the same pace, so I’m not training with him too much. We’ll probably train together once a week, maybe.
SDN: Do you train solo then?
MB: Some of my friends like to run a little bit, so I’ll go with them, but I usually run by myself and just listen too my music. It’s nice when you don’t have someone to distract you. It’s too much of a distraction.
SDN: What kind of music do you listen to on the trail?
MB: I listen to classical most of the time. I don’t have any favorite composers, just whatever comes up on Pandora.
SDN: What trails are your favorites around here?
MB: I really like the Flume trails and Blair Witch. Anywhere in the Highlands is a lot of fun. I live maybe a mile away from Lower Flume, so they’re really accessible.
SDN: Now that you’ve finished a 50-miler, what comes next?
MB: I want to do the XTERRA series and get into Nationals, or even Worlds after that. I think the rest of the XTERRAs are half marathons, but I haven’t looked to see when they are happening.
SDN: You’re still young, but where do you hope running takes you? Do you want to be a pro when you grow up
MB: I don’t think I’ll have a career in it. It’s just a fun thing to do on the side right now, but if I could have a career I would take it, definitely.
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