On the drive out Friday night with Nick, Mike and Caroline, I was trying to make sure I was clear on all the bets I had riding on the race: first race of a five-race series against Ryan, one of three against Nick, and beat Brownie by more than 26 minutes for a 12-pack of beer. Okay, think I got it.
Didn't get a great night's sleep in the bunk room at the Simple Hostel in Salida, but woke up feeling decently motivated to get out and run some hard mountain miles, especially as the sun was up and it was looking like we were in for a perfect morning.
From the off by the railroad tracks it seemed like 10-15 people shot out ahead of me. As there were three races taking off at the same time - 2 mile, half and full - I wasn't unduly concerned about the situation. As things settled out through the first mile or two, it appeared that one guy had taken a flier (Michael Trahan - half winner), with John Tribia in pursuit (second in half), closely followed by Timmy Parr, a couple of other guys and two women, one of whom looked like Mount Washington winner Brandy Erholtz.
The first ten-mile section of the Salida course is essentially a steady 2,000 foot climb on a dirt road. It offers the best running of the whole race, with no major grunts in grade, allowing for an honest and even pace. The half marathoners go 6.5 miles up the road and then turn around to head back down, while the marathoners head out to the ghost town of Turret where they turn around to retrace their steps to mile 18, before hitting some gnarly jeep track back into town. Total elevation gain is in the 3,500' range.
After about four miles, I was sitting in sixth place between the two races, catching slowly up to Brandy who was leading the women's race over Kim Dobson who looked to be having a good run.
By the 6.5-mile half marathon turnaround, I had eased past Brandy and two of the guys in front of me made the turn, leaving Timmy Parr and an unidentified runner ahead of me in the marathon race. Timmy had two to three minutes on me, and the guy in second had maybe 20 meters. Dan Vega was sitting on my shoulder as he had been from gun.
From here on in, the conditions underfoot deteriorated significantly. The road started to get sloppy at mile seven and by the time we hit the Turret road (8 miles) at 9,000' or so, we were dealing with a mix of mud, ice and snow. The trip out to Turret was as long and drawn out as I remembered it from last year, and at the 12-mile turn (1:30) I was about five minutes back on Timmy, a half step ahead of Dan, maybe 20 seconds ahead of the guy who had been in second on the climb (Andy Henshaw), and two to three minutes up on a hard-charging Ryan.
It felt like Dan and I kept a strong effort going on the way back out of Turret, which is where I started falling apart last year, and by the turn back onto the county road (16 miles), Dan was sitting right where he'd been all morning - on my shoulder - with Andy still hanging 20-30 seconds back in fourth. Timmy was out of sight in first.
It was beginning to look like we had a race brewing for second.
I upped the tempo on the mile or so of downhill to the turn onto the trail section of the course, but couldn't lose Dan. We hit the last aid station at the 17.8-mile turn and I got a quick fill of Gatorade, purposefully slowing to let Dan set the pace for a while. Things slowed so I figured he was breaking a bit. I was content, however, to sit back and regather.
Andy got back in the mix here, which was my cue to go by Dan and start working again. I held off Andy for a bit, but I could tell he wanted to pass. Problem was we were stuck running in narrow jeep tracks with deep snow on either side. By the time Andy found a spot to get by, Dan had fallen off the pace and it looked like we were down to a two-man race for second.
Like Dan, Andy slowed soon after he passed me on a climb, so I was able to keep comfortable contact. Internally, things seemed to be firing pretty well - the legs had been feeling heavy all morning but were getting the job done, the breathing seemed good and the workload still manageable. The snowy/icy/muddy track was a real grind however. Andy and I switched on and off in the lead through the rollers in the next two to three miles, between what were probably miles 19 to 22. We both put in mini surges here and there, but neither one of us seemed able to create a gap of any significance. This one looked like it might go down to the wire.
I knew my best chance to create some separation would be on the mile or two of steep descent back into town, and I did manage to get something of a gap on Andy here. However, when we finally got off the snow and back onto dirt, maybe two miles from the finish, I had no more than a five second lead. Andy was quickly on my shoulder saying something about 'third' being 300 meters back (he had actually said Burch).
I upped the tempo and we went stride for stride for a while as the grade mellowed out, but I could tell Andy had a bit more in the tank, so with about half a mile to go Andy got some separation and I let him go.
Coming back down to the railroad tracks I took a glance over my shoulder and saw Ryan for the first time since the turnaround. He was out of real estate however, so I was able to finish out the last few hundred meters at a comfortable pace.
I ended up finishing five minutes faster than last year in 3:19, six minutes behind Timmy (3:13), just under a minute behind Andy, and 40 seconds or so ahead of Ryan. Dan ended up about ten minutes back on me, Keri Nelson maybe 20 back for first in the women's race and Nick P a minute behind Keri in seventh.
Brownie finished 35 minutes after me and I immediately put in an order for Guinness.
Thanks for the Brewskies Brownie and for bringing home my Bandera hardware.
All in all a pretty solid race. I was pushed for most of the race by Dan and Andy, but was able to respond when necessary (except when it counted). Andy's a tough runner, who should be a threat at most of the races he runs this year. He says he's looking to post a fast time at American River, so I'll be interested to see how he goes. If he's got the necessary leg speed for the flat course he should be in contention.
Another great day in Salida with a bunch of strong mountain runners in all the races. This is a great early season tester and definitely one for the calendar.