It’s been a few years since I last ran the Mount Evans Ascent. The last time I ran it, it started out as a nice June day, but turned into a raging blizzard above 12,000 feet. I was on pace for a PR on the course on that particular day, but after the snow started to fall and swirl and it became complete whiteout conditions, I felt lucky just to finish the race. (Just one runner finished after me that year, before they closed the race, so I truly was lucky to finish the race.)
That race was in 2003, and while, for some perverse reason, I’ve always liked this race, I have not been back since. In 2004 the race was not held, and then for the last two years, the race has fallen on the same day as the registration for Ride the Rockies. But this year, RTR is a loop route, beginning and ending in Frisco. An easy drive from Denver. And Mount Evans is right on the way. What could be more natural than fitting in a little run on the day before the big ride begins?
It’s all good in the planning stages, but the reality sets in at about 7 p.m. on Friday night, when I am still sitting at my desk, working, while at the same time starting to panic about all the things I have to do before (theoretically) getting to bed early so that I’m well rested for the race start. Criminy – I have to prepare for a week on the bike, camping on the way, as well as for an epic run! Somehow, I manage to pull it altogether: get packed for RTR, get packed for Mount Evans, find some pasta for dinner, load up the car with the RTR camping gear, and make sure that my stuff is all ready for a very early up-and-at-‘em on Saturday morning.
Saturday morning is no nonsense for me – do not hit the snooze button, not even once. Up at the sound of the alarm, pre-marathon type meal even though I’m not at all hungry and have to choke down the food, feeding meds to my 16-year old cat Oliver (happy birthday, old grumpy!), and loading the bike and last few items onto and into my car before starting on the drive up to Echo Lake. I’m amazed that it goes as smoothly as it does. I arrive and quickly find a place to park, hike the mile or so from parking up to race start area, and pick up my bib and chip (first time for me that this race has been chip timed). There’s plenty of time for regular pre-race nervous activity – slathering on sunscreen, going thru the port-a-potty line eighteen times, taking a small glass of water, and eyeing the other runners. As we line up for the race start just before 8 a.m., I overhear a conversation between some of the rank-and-file guys and Anita Ortiz. I’ve seen Anita’s name time and again over the last few years – she’s a legendary Colorado trail/high altitude runner – but have never really seen her in person before. Kinda cool to start a race behind a local legend. She’s unassuming and, if you didn’t know her bio, you might never pick her as the favorite to win the women’s race (she finishes second woman – and fifth overall – how’s that for some serious competition).
Ah then, the race takes off. Uphill. All uphill. How could I have forgotten? What was I thinking? This thing is nothing other than a sufferfest.
It’s a sufferfest from the get-go, and never relents. In the last few years, they’ve increased the capacity in this race a bit, but the only relevance of that fact for me is that it just means there are more people on the road to pass me. And pass me they do.
It takes a long time for the field to make its way around me. It feels like the entire city of Denver has gone by. This is not a surprise, though, since I feel just like a complete slug. Huh. Maybe the Fargo/Deadwood combo in three weeks – with Deadwood just two weeks ago – really did take something out of my legs. Who woulda thunk it?
In case you missed the previews, this race starts at Echo Lake, at an elevation of around 10,000 feet, and goes up 14.5 miles on the Mount Evans highway to an elevation of 14,000-something. This road is billed as the Highest Paved Road in North America. And the uphill on this Highest Paved Road is just relentless.
Ah, race amnesia. It’s a glorious thing. If I had not completely forgotten how painful this race is, I might not have paid good hard-earned U.S. greenbacks to enter the thing. Today, however, race amnesia is a thing of the past. Today, it’s just all a slow crawl up the hill.
So I do the only thing I can: I just run. Slowly, but I do run. There are only four aid stations on this race, and the first one comes at mile 3. I pride myself in running the entire way to mile 3 – and then taking a gel and some water at the aid station, walking as long as I can rationalize it – but later wonder if I’ve been a complete fool. Maybe I should have taken some walk breaks earlier.
After the mile 3 aid station, I finally start to run again. I’m slow. It’s uphill. It’s a grind. But I do manage to pass a couple of people. (How many passed me? Let’s not go there.) When I trudge around others, people ask me if I’ve done this before. Yes, I answer, several times. These folks all look at me like I’m looney-tunes. I get the impression that they will not be signing up again next year.
I manage to run (if you can call it that) the rest of the way to the mile 6 aid station. At mile 6, once again I take a gel and walk through the aid station as I drink a cup of water. Still slow, still shuffling along. But I do remember this road, this course, and I know what to expect. It’s a small comfort.
Part of the small comfort comes from knowing that mile 7 flattens out a bit – at least marginally. So far, it’s been a perfect day, weather wise. Nice 50-something temps and cloudless skies at the start. But we’re at high elevation, and the weather is bound to deteriorate as we climb the mountain. Now at mile 7, I’m starting to get chilled. I put on my gloves, but it’s not enough, so I put on my jacket, too. Ah, perfect.
But then mile 8 climbs again, and I start to get overheated. I end up taking off the gloves and the jacket again, and stowing them in my camelback. Another excuse to stop and walk.
As I watch my Garmin, it becomes clear to me that I can walk faster than I can run. Weird. But hey, who am I to argue with Garmin? Walking feels better, too, so why put myself through the grief of running?
Well, the fact that mile 9 is mostly downhill is the one good reason that I come across to run again. I force myself to run this, and to run it hard. “Hard” is a relative concept, and although I’m not really going that fast, the effort feels gargantuan to me. Still, it feels good to finally be covering some tracks in this race.
Having been here before, one of the motivators for running mile 9 hard is that I know that the steepest part of the race awaits me. Nope, this section has not (magically) gotten flatter over the last few years. As soon as we start steeply uphill, I start to walk. Why fight it? Garmin tells me that I’m running 17+ minute miles, but am walking 15-16 minute miles. Walking feels easier. Why try to make sense of it all?
There’s another brief downhill at mile 11, and I force myself to run here again. As soon as it starts uphill again, though, I’m walking. It’s getting cool again, so once again, the jacket and the gloves go on. I’ve tried the run-walk thing for the last few miles, but I have not been able to find a rhythm. Now, I try to keep some momentum by not watching the clock, and just counting strides, and that finally seems to work. Count to 25 walking, then count to 25 running, and then walk again. Perhaps not documented as a race strategy in any of the running literature, but in the high altitude, twisting, winding switchbacks on Mount Evans, this strategy seems to work for me. Pretty soon, I’m passing people, and very few pass me in return. It’s too late in the day to have a big impact on my overall finish in the race, but at least this way I feel good as I turn those last few corners and power my way across the finish line in a time of 3:35:59. It’s a full five minutes slower than my previous slowest time in this race, but I’ll take it. Some days it’s good just to finish.
The oddest thing of all about these uphill races is that as soon as you pass the finish line, you end up back in line, waiting to get into a shuttle that will take you down the mountain, negating all that work you just did to get up high. But that’s okay – it always is. It’s always cold up here at 14,000 feet, and today the weather is turning. By the time you get to the summit, you’re ready to turn around and get back to lower altitude.
In the shuttle on the way back down to the start, I’m greeted by views that I failed to notice while crawling my way to the top. The clouds have moved in, and there’s a lightning strike on a nearby rock outcrop. Over here, there’s a herd of mountain goats, and over there, a bunch of long-horned sheep. The views out east to Denver are amazing, and to the west, to the Continental Divide, it’s spectacular. The dropoff down to Lincoln Lake is, as always, scary, but then the trip through the thousands-of-years-old bristlecone pines is gone in a flash. At first, it seems like a long ride down, but then, magically, they’re dropping us at our cars. If it weren’t for the medal around my neck and the lead feeling in my legs and the sweat crystallizing on my body, I might not even know that I ran a race this morning.
And what of it, anyway? I need to get to Frisco to get registered for a little bike ride that starts tomorrow morning.