I had a bit of a crazy time getting to the race, though it was more a fault of our plan than any big mishaps. My friends and I were on a 9pm flight out of JFK that ended up about 30 minutes delayed – not a huge deal, but cost us some time. When we landed, it took longer than we expected to get our bags/ski equipment, get our rental car, and drive to Keystone Resort where we were staying. We finally got in around 3am, and I had to be on the road at 6am to get to the marathon. Good thing I had slept on the plane!
The drive down to Salida was beautiful. I got to go through Breckenridge (I’ve always wanted to vacation there for the skiing and breweries!), and then most of the rest of the drive was just through the beautiful, beautiful mountains. I love the Rockies! Every time I go through I am just absolutely stunned by their beauty, and this trip was no exception. It was a perfect day for a drive too – the sky was a beautiful blue and the sun was shining.
When I arrived in Salida, I found street parking pretty easily and headed into the packet pickup. The runners here were serious! Everyone was in totally appropriate trail-running attire and seemed very experienced – I felt pretty out of place. However, the woman behind the registration table told me that it was actually a really nice day and not too cold, as they had feared – it would probably only be in the 40s up in the mountains. Excellent! I had been really worried that I was ill-prepared for the conditions, but now I thought I was fine. Famous last words…
We lined up on a dirt road with a big “start” banner across one side of it. I had been warned to carry a water bottle at the last minute (well, maybe not at the last minute… but I had ignored the warnings on the website about carrying one!), but not having a special one for running, I just snagged the empty seltzer bottle that was in the car with me and figured that would be good enough. I chatted with a few other runners, and asked one what finish time he was aiming for. “Oh, I just want to finish by the 7 hour cutoff.” While I never judge people by their running speed, I did assume that he would be way far back behind me somewhere, and took him for a bit of a novice. HA! How wrong I was.
The race started with a simple “ready, set, go!” (as they say in the course description, “We are a smaller non-profit race and there are no bands, dancers, jet flyovers, etc.”), and that was it – we were off. I had actually woken up feeling pretty well-rested and ready to go (despite that crazy night and long drive), but now, as I took my first running steps – wow, I was tired! My legs felt like lead and my cardiovascular system felt like I was at the end of the race instead of the beginning. Uh oh, you know what means – altitude! I’ve dealt with altitude a few times in races, and have always followed the advice to just get to the location right before the race (and not come in a day or two ahead of time – if you want to do that, you need to get there 3-4 days in advance to give your body time to acclimatize). This strategy has always worked well for me in the past, but this time it failed me – I felt so tired! I tried to run for a bit (because how pathetic is it to START a marathon by walking?), but quickly settled into a run/walk routine. Yuck, this was not going to be fun!
Around mile 2, I met a guy named Marius who was also aiming for 50 states. The more we chatted, the more we realized we had in common – he even knew my friend Andrew, whom I first met at the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa! Marius was from Minnesota and was also struggling with the altitude, so we decided just to walk together and aim for a 6 hour finish. Walking’s not so bad when you have a fun walking buddy!
We were definitely near the back of the pack – the other runners were seemingly hardcore! (Or maybe just locals who were used to the altitude). The first 6.5 miles (to the half-marathon turnaround) weren’t too bad, though they were definitely on a slight uphill. Still, it was a gorgeously sunny day, not too cold, and with a nice dry dirt road as our running surface, we were pretty content. To make things even better, the aid station at the half marathon turnaround point had these crunchy, lacy, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies! Fantastic way to get some extra energy 🙂
Neither of us really knew the course that well – I thought it was a straight out-and-back, and Marius thought there was some sort of lollipop involved (where you run out, do a circle, and then run back). Either way, we comforted ourselves with the idea that any uphill we were doing right now was going to be a downhill on the way back, so we’d gain some time there.
Around mile 9, we started seeing snow on the side of the road, and this turned into ice on the road on which we had to run. It was around this time that we started to see runners coming back the other direction – they were fast! We went through a pretty hilly section, still walking, but figured it wasn’t TOO too bad just yet.
And then we hit it – the worst hill I’ve ever faced in a marathon. Actually, calling it a hill is definitely an understatement – it was more like hiking up a steep mountain than doing any kind of run, and I couldn’t imagine how the leaders (judging by how far along they were already) had managed to run up it. I struggled to even WALK up it without taking a rest break to catch my breath, and I wished I had a walking stick to plunge into the ground and help pull me up. To make the ridiculous incline even worse, it was covered in snow and ice and rocks, so every time you took a step, you slipped a little bit on one of those elements.
In addition to the walking stick, I was now fervently wishing I had trail shoes to wear to give me a little better grip. Marius said he was slipping too (and he was wearing trail sneakers), but it seemed like he was doing at least a little better than I was. I worried that I was slowing him down, but fortunately, my endurance made up for what I lacked in foot grip, and he told me that I was actually going at exactly the right pace for him. Too bad that pace was fast wearing me out!
Like Dorothy and her band of followers in The Wizard of Oz, no sooner had we scaled the peak (it was maybe 1/4 mile to get there, but it took us about 10 minutes – my Garmin said we were going at a 34 minute pace on our ascent!) than we were besieged with a series of obstacles. When we reached the top, we tried to catch our breath as we kept walking on, but the trail now had a series of ups and downs along the top of the mountain – no rest for the weary! To add an element of difficulty, up here, the snow had (mostly) melted), leaving us with huge sucking mudpits we had to cross. At first, it wasn’t so bad – we would reach a muddy section but be able to find a path through that was on relatively solid ground. As we progressed, though, we came upon areas where the mud stretched across the entire trail, and there was nowhere to go but through it. Some of these mudpits might as well have been swampgrounds too, with the mud at least a few inches deep. It coated our sneakers all the way up to the instep, and also proved difficult to maneuver as our shoes would get stuck in the mud. I had luckily tied my shoes pretty tight, but Marius actually lost his at one point and had to fish it out and put it back on! What a nightmare.
At this point, we were alternately running and walking, depending on the terrain. When we got to a muddy downhill, it was sometimes easier to just run down it and allow gravity to aid us in picking up speed. Plus, the lighter we were on our feet, the less our feet got stuck in the mud. Of course, the downside of running through the mud is that we kicked it up behind us, so after a few miles of this, both of us were covered in mud from head to toe.
Finally, we reached the turnaround between miles 12 and 13 (definitely not a straight out-and-back, as we had extra miles to make up at the end). We found a really nice aid station set up there, with fruits and candies and Powerade and Gu, and there were a few other runners clustered around it, including my new friends Peter and John (whom I had just met at the start). We took a little break there, commiserating with the other runners, and then headed out once more. Having looked at our watch, we were quickly approaching the 3:30 mark, and with the course having a 7 hour time limit, it was critical that we hit the halfway point by then.
As Marius and I headed back up the muddy downhills we had enjoyed on the way out (there were some uphills as well that now became downhills, but those didn’t seem quite as plentiful), we realized that we weren’t seeing anyone passing us on the outbound leg. It seemed that we had actually been in last place until we got to that turnaround aid station and left a bit sooner than the people there! No sooner had we realized this than Peter and John passed us, putting us dead last again. We managed to pass an older guy who was just ahead of us, but now we were really worried. We knew it was going to be tight making the 7 hour cutoff, but particularly if we were in last place, they probably wouldn’t hold the finish open for us. We needed to gain some ground!
We crossed the halfway point in 3:28, meaning we had an extra 2 minutes banked for the second half. We hoped that because we were walking instead of running, and because there was supposed to be a significant downhill stretch in the last few miles, we would make the time limit… but we didn’t know. We now started pushing pace as much as we could, but the mud and the ice and the hills were making it really tough.
When we got back to that big steep 1/4 mile mountain descent I had taken ten minutes to do in the first half, I headed down it quickly, hoping I wouldn’t fall or twist my ankle in doing so. As I learned at the Albany Running Exchange Trail Running Camp two years ago, I tried to take quick little steps that would keep me agile in case of a misstep. I also discovered that on the way down, it was better to run in the uncleared snow in the middle of the two tracks left by the runners (on the left, going uphill; on the right, going downhill). While it required extra energy to punch through the foot of snow and then pull my foot out (and also got my shoes wet to do so), it seemed safer than potentially slipping on the steep, icy, and rocky tracks that most runners had used on either side. We played cat and mouse with Peter and John while traversing this section, and I saw that John was using the same strategy as me – which reaffirmed my beliefs that it was probably the right way to handle it.
We eventually finished the tough mountain descent, and were now back to the very mild mountain road as our terrain. There was a bit of a wind now, but it still felt like heaven compared to the treacherous surfaces we had previously been traversing. We chugged along at a jog, hitting about a 10 min/mile pace as we approached the final aid station of the course… at mile 17. We really needed to stock up at this one!
We caught up to Peter and John here, as well as two other runners who had previous been ahead of us but stopped to grab a beer (yes, they had beer at this aid station; no, I did not partake). We all tried to eat a bit to give us energy for the rest of the race (I had some potato chips to help with salt intake, since I felt I probably hadn’t had nearly as much as when I usually drink Gatorade every mile or two). The aid station volunteers commented that we were probably the last people who would make it through before the cutoff, and we advised them that there were at least three people behind us on the course. However, with that ominous warning in my minds, Marius and I decided to get a move on pretty quickly. I put some Gatorade in my water bottle to get me through the rest of the race, but didn’t bother really topping it off since I didn’t think I’d drink all of it.
As we turned onto the next section of the course… boy, snowy indeed! There was about a foot of snow on the trail, but a vehicle had been driven over it to tamp it down, leaving two tire tracks in which we could run. They were much too far apart to run with one foot in each track; unfortunately, if I ran in just one track, one foot would go right in the center and the other foot would go out to the side, sliding down the icy mini-embankment created by the tire track. It was only really flat in the exact center of the track, so any step that wasn’t dead on was a slippery one, and I face planted in the snow twice in this section (no harm done, but it sucked nonethless). We were trying to hustle along as best as we could to make the 7 hour cutoff, but it was hard to run on that slick and snowy trail.
Marius and I kept calculating the average per mile pace we needed for each mile left in the race in order to make the 7 hour cutoff, but every time we finally thought we were gaining ground and could relax, we’d hit another brutal uphill that would wind up sucking our time dry. We passed several others in this section of the race, but any kind of passing required you to wade through the snow in the middle to get to the opposite track in order to pass. Sometimes it was easier to just stay behind someone at a slightly slower pace than try to pass!
However, the truly scary part of the course came around mile 20. After some more intense uphill running to get to that point, we found ourselves winding around the edge of a mountain. To our left, the mountain went steeply uphill – so the downhill-sliding snow and ice was landing on the left track and making it not quite as clear and tamped down as the right track. To our right, however, just two feet beyond the track was a really steep cliff that didn’t even seem to have a bottom – so while the track was a bit easier to traverse, any misstep that caused a fall could push you over the edge. It was a tough call to make (at least by my goal-oriented mind): should I run in the left track, which was safe but a lot slower? Or should I run in the right track, which was more clear but had the potential to cause a serious problem if you fell? Marius and I opted to run on the right track, but I definitely found myself eyeing the cliff the whole way, and planning which trees growing out of the rock I could hit/grab onto to keep myself from falling all the way down. What a scary course!
Even with the added danger of the cliff, it seemed there was just no end to the uphills. Every time we thought we must finally have reached the top and that the course must start coming downhill, we were wrong. We knew that at least the last two miles were downhill, and also that the snow was supposed to let up at mile 23, so that was what we hoped for. It took a while to get there, but eventually, mile 23 did come and the snow was gone. Hooray!
But not so fast. As it turned out, the smooth snow may have actually been a blessing in disguise, at least as far as injury was concerned. Where once we had a solid carpet of white, soft snow, we now had a completely rocky trail that was just begging for an ankle to break. Spurred on by our watches and our feverish desire to make the 7 hour cutoff, we recklessly plowed through the trail, hoping that by being light on our feet we could avoid any turned ankles or injuries. I did turn my foot a few times, but staying light on my feet helped it to be just a misstep and a momentary feelign of pressure instead of a crippling injury. Phew! Still, we had to be careful as we wound our way down the mountain, all the time checking the time and trying to make sure we’d get to the finish line before the cutoff.
Finally, in the last mile, the course changed to a dirt road with no more rocks and just a nice downhill. I got myself scared at one point when I looked ahead and saw two people climbing a peak slightly ahead of us – did we really have to go up that now?! – but it turned out they were just two sightseers not affiliated with the race, and that was not part of the course. When I got to relax and look around, I saw that the view into the valley was gorgeous, and the course reminded me at this point of the gorgeous Run With the Horses course in Green River, Wyoming… too bad the rest of this one wasn’t as easy as that!
In the last mile, there was a volunteer on a bike who was encouraging all of us to hurry up. However, it wasn’t in the usual “you can do it!” way, but more in the “ugh you people are slow; step to it!” kind of way. Marius and I (and the other runners we had caught up to around us) were not happy with him! I took advantage of the fact that as a volunteer, he might know what the race director’s policy was on the time cutoff, so I asked if it was a strict cutoff. As soon as he said “no, he’s a nice guy I’m sure he’ll let all of you finish,” we finally were able to totally relax. We thought at that point we’d finish a minute or two shy anyway, but it was nice to know that there wasn’t a ton of pressure to do so.
Hopping over some railroad tracks, we finally found ourselves in civilization again. We were now on a paved road a short distance from the finish (I knew the area a bit from having driven around looking for parking). My watch already said mile 26, but I thought we were still about 1/2 mile away. We passed a park and did a u-turn to go down under the bridge that had taken us there, and finally we saw the finish ahead… but up a short steep hill! I couldn’t believe there was an uphill finish, particularly when it would have been so easy to just start the course back a few hundred feet and make the finish flat and fast… I guess they just had to get one more challenge in 🙂 Though I knew at this point it would only make a difference of a second or two, I decided to embrace the challenge and sprint up the (very short) hill, passing one more guy as I did so. Woo hoo! It may have been a tough journey, but I was finishing strong and proud 🙂
State #41 done… only ten to go (including DC)!
*Please note: the official results are incorrect, but they seem to have the order of finishers right – just the times are off. It makes me wonder if my Garmin time got really screwed up in the woods? In retrospect, we did run for parts of it, and when we walked, we were keeping up a pretty fast walking pace… so maybe that’s what happened? My watch shows me finishing in 6:57, but the results show Marius and I finishing in 6:17. What I’m posting below are the official race results.*
Distance: 26.2 miles
Overall place: 91/108
Gender place: 17/34