Whelp, that one hurt(s). 30ish miles of lung busting, ridge running, dust eating, trail. The course is truly beautiful in that classic Colorado way. Grand vistas from high tundra ridges, steep climbs and descents, thick, lush forests, hot, dry mountain slopes, and high alpine lakes. This race really does have it all! The course is marked to perfection, aid stations are well stocked, and it’s one of those good ol’ races with the old school ultra vibe. Really, everything you can ask for in a backyard ultra.
Derek twisted my arm to do this race and we drove down the night before and crashed at a little motel in Empire. We woke up early, slammed some coffee, partook in our respective morning constitutions, which is arguably more important than the training leading up to a race, and went to check in and get on the shuttle bus to the start. We rode up to the Henderson Mine, where the race starts, and shivered in the early morning mountain air. We lined up and after an “on your mark” we were off up Jones Pass Road.
This race was a shedding of skin, of sorts. The past year has been overwhelmingly positive in so many ways and I was able to settle into a good rhythm with family, work, and running. And it was a blast! I’ve taken the focus away from running and somehow I’m running more and running faster and stronger. Without a race on the immediate horizon, I was excited about the prospect of another one. I had some of the old pre-race phobias creep back in, but Derek and I somehow keep things light enough, and act like 12 year olds, that there really wasn’t much room for nerves of any kind. It was just another run.
On a side note, I have a love/hate relationship with race reports. Primarily, I hope that this gives someone contemplating the race some tools or info they can use, in one, either making the decision to register, and two, if they’re already planning on running, I hope it offers some good info on the course or the experience to help them in their planning. But aside from that, these things kind of seem like bragging to me, or at least some sort of boastful self promotion. I hope it doesn’t come across that way. It’s simply the retelling of an experience regarding something I truly enjoy taking part in, trail and ultra running. On to the race…
Enjoying the latest episode of Lance Armstrongs “The Forward” podcast I made quick work of the climb to the first aid. Jones Pass Road is pretty easy running. In hindsight, I should have ran the whole thing, but hiked the last mile and a half or so to the aid. 4 miles total and hit it in fifty eight minutes or so. From there the scenery just got better and better. Turning south on the CDT the trail rolls you along the ridge top over open tundra and broken outcroppings. Flirting with 13,000 feet, we finally top out at 13,200+ feet before beginning the first big descent. This stretch was freakin awesome! The tundra and the alpine is my favorite zone in the mountains. The land above the trees has always captured my imagination and seems to up the ante as far as demanding landscapes are concerned. Sure, it can be gentle and relatively harmless, and usually is, but it’s typically remote and any kind of weather is typically amplified up there. It’s a windy day, well, above tree-line it’s a hurricane. A thunderstorm rolling through? Above tree-line it’s a pant crapping game of russian roulette with Thor. A bluebird day? Well, above the trees it’s a literal paradise. I love it. So any chance to be up there, especially on a run or in a race, is a gift and I do my best to soak it in.
The stretch went by almost effortlessly. The elevation was a complete non-issue, the rocky terrain seemed like little pillows underfoot, and the steep little climbs were trivial. It was just one of those days where things were clicking. I was right on, if not a few minutes ahead of, my goal splits (I was looking to finish in seven hours or faster) and I kept getting stronger as the miles clicked by.
Once the descent started I just fell in with a nice group of about 5 guys. Some were running the 25k, some the 50k, and we just clicked along. I looked up and saw my buddy Eric Lee! It was so great to see him as it has been over a year since we’ve been in the same spot, let alone the same continent. He’s been off funempolying his way around the globe trying to make the rest of us regret our life choices. A high five and a few seconds of ‘catching up’ and I was cruising down toward Herman Lake. This segment went by quicker than I thought. It was only about a mile and a half or so on the full out and back section. The lake is right at tree line and a in a beautiful setting. I figured I’d see Derek here, but missed him by a few minutes. And honestly thought he may have been ahead of me. He has the ability to shut out pain and move pretty dang quick. On the first climb I kept looking back and didn’t see him, so either he was having an off day and was way back, or was 10-15 minutes ahead. Turns out his race started off with a bit of frustration as his rain coat fell off his pack right at the start. So he literally started dead last as he bungeed his coat back on his pack.
I made quick work of the descent to the 25k mark and the first real aid. The vibe here was great! A small group of folks cheering in the 25k finishers and cheering on the 50k runners. I stopped and had a seat for a few minutes, refilled my bottles with VFuel Drink Mix, drank half a red bull, and took off back up the trail. I knew this next climb was going to ‘suck’ and it didn’t disappoint. I was doing some research on Strava about the race and noticed that this seven mile stretch had taken people in the 6:30-7:00 range like two and a half hours to complete. It didn’t compute so I figured there was something that didn’t translate on paper. Pretty soon it was evident why this was. The trail is steep. Very steep. And some of it, or a lot of it, just isn’t there. It’s called the Bard Creek Trail and lives up to its reputation. It’s not easy running.
I slogged my way through this stretch trying to maintain my position in the field. I figured I was 20th-25th and moved up a couple of spots. I got passed once and passed a few people, so feel pretty good about how this went, competition wise, but really think I left 10 to 15 minutes on this section. A little strength training would do wonders on this terrain. I just didn’t have the oomph in my legs that I had earlier in the year and I could tell. But the miles ticked by and I made it to the water aid at mile 21ish. I chugged some water, filled one bottle and shot out of there hoping to run the last descent as hard as I could.
The first stretch was rolling a bit and I was a kiss slower than I anticipated over that first mile plus. But then the downhill started in earnest and I was moving okay. The only issue was a bruised foot that happened back in August in Wisconsin on the trail in Peninsula State Park. So my left foot was pretty tender and I really couldn’t go as hard as I wanted just because it hurt. On a perfect day, there were five plus minutes left in this section as well. On the rougher sections of trail, or the uneven sections, I had to really dial it back. I also didn’t drink anything on that last stretch. At least not anything of significance. I took maybe three sips in that last nine miles and took in no calories. I think this cost me a minute or two in the last mile and a half.
I did my best to keep my foot on the gas and it was going pretty well. With about 3 miles to go I passed four people and was feeling pretty proud of myself. But then the trail, jeep road actually, leveled out a bit and it was like I was running through cement. This is where the lack of water and calories bit me in the butt. If I had just taken one gel in there or drank a bit more, I’d like to think I could have kept the pace up on the flat sections. Two of four guys I passed picked me off here with about a mile and a half to go. I picked it up a little, pushing as hard as I could thinking it was 100% downhill to the finish but with just under a mile to go the road flattened and even kicked uphill a touch. Brakes were on. Another guy cruised by me. Dang it!
I figured the damage was done. I looked back and saw one of the Rocky Mountain Runners, Jared, behind me quite a ways and figured I could cruise in without losing too much ground to him. With about a quarter mile to go, maybe less, he passed me like I was standing still. I heard his footsteps and was shocked that he caught me so quickly. We turned into the Empire Ball Field and he crossed about 15 seconds ahead of me. But I finished well and finally was able to have a great race while leaving it all on the trail. I was able to push from the gun and keep it on for the full race without any real lows.
I finished in 6:27:05 in 13th place just a minute and forty seconds behind 9th place, the first guy to pass me about a mile and half from the finish. That leaves a slightly bitter taste but, again, I couldn’t be happier with the day, all in all. The course was beautiful, my fitness actually showed up in a race, and I truly enjoyed the race experience again. Eric was at the finish so we got to hang for a while after the race as we waited for friends to finish. I filled my finishers beer stein with some good Tommyknockers beer, enjoyed the feast at the finish line and cheered in the other runners.
Derek had one of those blue collar days and grunted out a hard fought finish in 7:37 and change. He wasn’t thrilled with the result, but enjoyed the course and loved the race. After he finished we sat around eating and rehydrating as we cheered in other runners and watched the awards ceremony. As folks started filtering out we gathered our stuff and hit the road back to Estes. Another great adventure in the books!
I do feel like I left 15 to 20 minutes out there. Some was due to fitness, namely strength, and some on race management (nutrition/hydration). So it wasn’t a perfect day but it was dang close and that feels really good!
If you’re on the fence about running this race, just do it. It’s awesome. The most scenic part is definitely the first half with the most challenging part squarely along the Bard Creek Trail from mile 15ish to mile 20ish. Total elevation gain shows anywhere from 6,500 to 7,000 feet. If you don’t feel like you’re quite ready to tackle the 50k, there is no shame in the 25k as it’s tough and absolutely gorgeous.
I took a different approach to nutrition on this race. Being shorter than most races I do, I cut back on the calories hoping I could just push and get it done without focusing too much on eating. I took in 4 gels, 2 packets of VFuel drink mix, one epic bar, and half a Red Bull. Also 5 other bottles of water.