Pretty much the first person I saw as we were pulling up to the registration cabin was Ryan Burch, so I knew for sure I'd have my work cut out. A few minutes later, I recognized the tall, skinny frame of Keri Nelson and was thinking a chicking was a strong possibility. Keri is one of the top two or three female mountain runners in the country, and in addition to winning pretty much everything she entered in the female division last year, she won the Leadville Marathon outright in a very impressive 3:59 (15 minutes faster than I ran it in '07). Milling around at the start line, I bumped into Nick Pedatella (winner of the Silver Rush 50, Boulder 100 and just a few minutes back on me at the Steamboat 50). I thought I recognized Tim Parr as well, and Ryan confirmed that it was indeed Tim, at which point I knew that any hope of a win was essentially gone. Tim is a very impressive runner and has already run a 2:28 road marathon (Houston) this year. Minutes before the gun then, second had pretty much become my goal.
Chad and I drove the course the day before - which turned out to be an adventure in itself - so I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The county road (Ute Trail) to the turnaround in the ghost town of Turret begins with a very steady climb of about 2,000 feet over seven or eight miles. It is hard-packed dirt and in great condition; perfect running. Once to the turn-off to Turret (mile 8.5) the course loses some elevation before scrambling up probably the steepest grade of the race to a brief plateau, which afforded breathtaking views of the Collegiate Peaks, and I do mean breathtaking. The skies were crystal clear and the huge muscular snow-capped peaks stood out in sharp contrast to the deep blue Colorado sky. From here the course drops off probably 500-600 feet over two miles into Turret and the 12.5-mile turn. The course backtracks up out of Turret and back onto the Ute Trail descending to a hard left turn at about 17-18 miles. And this is where the drive got interesting.
Collegiate Peaks. Credit: Airic Payne
The jeep track looked harmless enough from the Ute Trail, and continued that way through 3 or 4 miles of rolling hills, before beginning a very steep, rocky descent back to Salida. Not only was it steep, loose and rocky but it was only just wide enough for the Xterra's wheel base with sharp drop-offs on either side. After driving entirely too fast through much of this, I pinched a flat on the driver's front, and we were faced with the task of jacking the car on soft, rocky sloping terrain - far from ideal. We ended up finding a large flat rock to sit the jack on, after deciding that the results of the first jack-up looked way too precarious. Thankfully, the car was stable enough this time that we were able to get the lug nuts off without rocking the car off the jack - which would have been disastrous. We got the spare on in short order and got back on with the task at hand - to which we were now fully committed as there was absolutely nowhere to turn around.
Chad spotted me through most of the worst and we inched our way through the two or three miles of remaining jeep track. To say that we were relieved to be down would be an understatement. This is by far the toughest off-road test the banana has been through, and despite the shortcomings of the driver, it performed fantastically.
We camped just outside of town, down by the river. Neither of us slept at all well, and both decided that the prospect of running a marathon sounded far from fun, especially with the temps in the low teens. Thankfully, a cup of coffee and a couple of vistis to the toilet had me in a much more positive frame of mind, and when the sun started peeking up over the mountains shortly before the off, all the pieces seemed to be falling into place.
From the gun, a group of four half marathoners and Tim Parr set off at a pretty strong pace. I settled in with Ryan, clicking off low seven-minute miles through the opening climb. The road offered long views of the runners ahead. Two of the half marathoners had gapped Tim, and the other two were equally spaced between Tim, Ryan and I. We picked off one of them before their 6.5 mile turnaround, which we passed in close to 48 minutes. It seemed like we were pretty much keeping pace with Tim and he was in view the whole way up to the 8.5 mile Turret turn-off, which we passed in 1:01. I don't think Tim knew he had company until he stopped for a brief bit of bladder relief before the last steep climb to Turret. He saw us coming and took off like a jack rabbit. The last time I saw him before the finish was as he was heading back from Turret, with maybe a 3 to 4 minute lead. He looked really strong. Ryan gapped me a bit on the descent to Turret and had about a minute on me at the turn, which I went through in 1:31.
As usual the descent beat me up pretty good, and I was beginning to feel like I'd be happy with a third-place finish as I was climbing back out of Turret watching Ryan grow his lead. Nick Pedatella was looking good in fourth, probably five minutes or so back on me, with another guy I didn't recognize in close pursuit followed shortly after by Keri who was looking focused and strong - pretty much the opposite of how I was feeling at this stage. The grind out of Turret wasn't as bad as I had anticipated and before I knew it we were back on the Ute Trail at the 16.5 mile point. I concentrated on maintaining a strong pace through the descent to the jeep-track turn, and was surprised to catch sight of Ryan who looked like he had about four minutes on me.
I was starting to get a few cramp twinges in my right thigh and knew that I would have to slow down or face the consequences. I was not prepared for the hot, sunny day and would have benefited from some salt caps to fend off the cramping. I was also dealing with a bit of a side stitch and my groin was beginning to scream at me. Third, I was beginning to think, would most definitely be a result at this stage. I knew the worst of the course was to come, but I would have to get through a couple more rolling climbs first. I focused on maintaining a pace that wouldn't lead me into a cramping abyss, and was pretty much reduced to a crawl on the last few climbs. I was also spending a lot of time looking over my shoulder for oncoming runners.
As expected, the descent was grueling, slow and painful. I chuckled to myself as I passed the rock we had jacked the truck up on. I had been eagerly awaiting this point as I knew it was no more than four miles into the finish from here. I continued my over-the-shoulder vigilance through the remaining miles and was surprised that nobody was coming into view. By the time I got back to the county road, a mile or so from the finish, I was confident that third was in the bag. However, one last look over my shoulder revealed that I was indeed being caught. I made out the skinny frame of Nick and put on the jets to make sure he didn't catch me. Fortunately he was about as far back on me as I had to the finish line. I crossed in 3:24 and change feeling pretty well beat up. Nick crossed a minute later, followed by Rick Hessek and Keri, maybe 20 minutes later. She looked like she'd had a rough return leg. Total elevation gain according to my watch was about 3,500 feet, but it's not the ups that get you in this one, it's most definitely the downs.
Ryan and Tim must have killed the descent, posting 3:11 and 3:03 finish times respectively. Tim crushed the course record, while Ryan was just two minutes back on the previous mark. Having set a goal of getting in under 3:30, I was happy with my time, but couldn't help thinking that I could easily have gone under 3:20 if I'd had salt with me. Lesson learned.
Chaffee County Runners do a great job putting on this event. It is super low key, the course is well marked, the aid stations well stocked and the post-race stews were a treat. To top it all off, I received a wonderful print of an old mine shaft made by John Macmanus, a local artist and member of the race committee, for my third-place finish. Salida was shining in all its glory today, and it seems like a great place to hang out, browse the local artisan stores and launch into the mountains.