Plunging downhill and nearing the finish of the inaugural Telluride Mountain Run Hill Climb (“Hill Climb”), I had just passed the second-placed female and moved into 5th place overall (fourth male). I was trying my best to run like Ellie Greenwood, who’d flown past me early on the descent and left me wondering a) how that speed could possibly be good for her lower-extremity stress fracture, and b) whether I could ever learn to run downhill that fast. That’s when I started to feel the skin peeling off of both my heels. Uh oh — I was going to be in trouble real soon…
It’s been a few days since the race, and I’m still riding the post-race high. I’m also hobbling around like a duck because of the massive blisters on both of my feet. I don’t know if the blisters will heal in time for the Pikes Peak Marathon this Sunday, but even if they don’t, the Hill Climb will still have been totally worth it.
I’ve been trail running seriously for almost two years*, which at my age (middle) isn’t a hugely long time. Most of that time has been spent watching YouTube videos of famous runners running famous races, people like Kilian Jornet Burgada (whom I named my dog after — it’s a long story), Ellie Greenwood (who was actually on the same course with me at the same time, OMG!) and Dakota Jones (who was one of the race directors of this painful but delightful little race). I have spent a lot of time on trails in the Seattle area and in Colorado, running up and down hills, around trees, through mud, in rain and snow and cold and heat. While I have had fun on every run, I have often wondered whether any of it was making a difference in my ability as a trail runner. Well, I still have little objective evidence of any improvement — I don’t faithfully time myself on the same routes or repetitively try to beat my PBs on a given trail (hey, I’m not Anton Krupicka). But my subjective experience at the Hill Climb is that yes, I’m getting better. That is hugely motivating.
On to the blow-by-blow, which in an eight mile race isn’t going to be a long drawn out kind of thing. I could paraphrase Dakota after his 2012 Lake Sonoma 50 victory: “I ran alot, and then I finished sixth.” But I know you want to know what it was like, so I’ll elaborate.
1) Cameron Clayton disappears: It was fun to start the race in the same small field as elite runner Cameron Clayton, who had just come off an uncharacteristically low (for him) 14th place at Speedgoat against a world-class field. As we started to climb, he moved out ahead of the pack by about ten feet, turned back and said something like “anyone coming with me?” and then took off up the hill and disappeared into the distance without anyone going with him. I can’t be sure that’s what he said — I was surrounded by the sound of huffy breathing and stomping feet, so I might have heard wrong. Anyway, it was exciting to run alongside him for about fifty yards or so. This is why trail racing is so fun!
2) Mucus Monster. I caught a cold a few days before the run, and this resulted in massive quantities of mucus in my upper respiratory tract, which extruded itself during the race on account of all the heavy respirations I was doing. This didn’t seem to slow me down during the race, but it was annoying and probably very unsightly. Good thing I’m not a sponsored runner who has to look good for the photographers!
3) Steep as Sh#t: This course was steep. Which meant that most of my climbing was done in power-hiking mode. It was amazing to watch Cameron Clayton and Marco Zuniga actually run that grade, and even more amazing to watch Simon Kearns (age 13) do the same. Both of them took off right from the start and I was sure I’d never see them again on the uphill.** I climbed more-or-less (OK, slightly less overall) at the same rate as former Imogene Pass Run winner Kari Distefano, me passing her, then her passing me. Her style was to run the whole thing — I guess it’s just a matter of what gait is most efficient for you.
3) “Beating” Ellie Greenwood: I reached the turnaround point at the top of Gold Hill ahead of Ellie Greenwood. That is amazing. Yes, I know that she does not consider climbing hills to be her strength. I know that she had just arrived in Telluride from sea level. I know that she had not raced for months because of a stress fracture. I know all of those things, but still — Ellie Greenwood! For the non-cognoscenti, I mention that she was the one who finally broke Ann Trason’s record at Western States. Then there is Comrades, and the long ultrasignup.com list of almost unbroken victories — read all about her as much as you want, and then you will understand that it was exciting to get to the top of the hill ahead of Ellie Greenwood. Even though she was far from full strength. It was cool!
4) Being blown away by Ellie Greenwood on the descent: Soon after the turnaround at the top, Ellie Greenwood blasted past me on the descent. Which reassured me that I was not running in some alternate-reality universe. Before she disappeared down the hill, I paid close attention to how she was running the downhill, and while I can’t claim to have learned any super-secrets, I will say that I saw her running very fast. I will try to put this lesson into practice in future races.
5) Battling Kari Distefano: She and I had traded places a few times on the ascent until she pulled away slightly just before the top. But on the descent I found that I was gaining, and that was exciting! I knew that if I pushed just a little bit harder that I would beat her to the finish. So I pushed. And I passed her! And then the skin peeled off my heels, and I was running on my toes to avoid the pain of the heel blisters, and my calves started cramping because I was running on my toes, and she passed me, and I finished sixth overall instead of fifth. Drat. It was also disappointing to have to hobble past Ian Sharman who was taking pictures near the finish, but hey, I will survive.
To sum up, the Hill Climb was a great experience. Dakota and Reese were right on two counts: there were mimosas at the aid station, and I did finish in the pain cave. It may or may not have been a sign from God that yes, all my trail running has made me a better trail runner (I’m militantly agnostic about the existence of God, you see), but it has motivated me to keep trying to get better, and to keep racing. I thank everyone who ran faster than I did: Cam Clayton, Marco Zuniga, Patrick Hummel, Ellie Greenwood, and Kari Distefano — you all inspire me to get faster.
I thank the RDs for all their hard work. As a runner, I look at the race directors the same way I look at the hosts when I go to a party: I’m glad you do it, because I would never want to do it! All the planning, all the preparation, all the clean up… whew! Thanks for the pint glass. I needed another one of those. Thanks for the T-shirt; it’s one of the best-looking ones I own. I hope this race happens again next year. Ideally, I’d like to see the hill climb done a day before the long run, so the hill-climbers could volunteer at the mountain run (or do them both). In a perfect world, I’d like to be able to do this race with my dog, because running with my dog is always better than running without my dog. But I realize that yes, the permits are tough enough to get without allowing dogs, and probably impossible with allowing dogs. But I can dream… dogs!
* I have done the Pikes Peak Marathon three times, and the Pikes Peak Ascent once, back when I was in medical school, but I didn’t really train for those races and wasn’t training for anything else, either.
** I did manage to pass Simon right near the top of the hill. Cameron, well… I saw him on his way back down. Briefly.