This is a postscript to my last post, “Humbled,” about training for the Sept. 12 Imogene Pass Run from the town of Ouray to Telluride. As that post detailed, the 17-mile Imogene Pass, which summits at 13,100 feet, loomed large in my mind. Family history and childhood memories ran through the precipitous rocky road, while the high altitude and above-timberline views left me awed and short of breath.
The rule of thumb for estimating a finish time at Imogene is to use your regular road marathon time. Imogene is only 17 miles, but it takes roughly as long as it takes someone to run a flat, paved 26. As with road marathoning, a sub-3-hour finish time is the benchmark for real bragging rights at Imogene, and sub-4-hour is quite respectable. I knew I wasn’t in shape to finish near my marathon PR of 3:05, but I hoped for a finish close to 3:15. Then I went on two training runs on the Telluride side of the course — including the one I wrote about in “Humbled” — and I was thoroughly cowed. Please, just let me finish uninjured and under 4 hours, I thought.
As the race director commented at the starting line, this event is a rite of passage for Colorado trail runners. How would my sea-level legs and lungs fare?
Like the course profile, this story has two parts: UP and DOWN.
A groggy but good-natured Morgan drove me to Telluride at 5 a.m. Saturday morning to catch a bus to Ouray. He was supposed to run, too, but three weeks ago he fractured his big toe on a training run. It was hard to say goodbye to him; I wished he were boarding the bus with me. In his absence, however, I was more inclined to strike up a conversation with others, and sure enough, I met a few people who reminded me of how friendly the trail running community is.
First, I met Margaret Grove of Flagstaff on the seat next to me, and our conversation about our families and running made the hour-long bus trip fly by. (Turns out she’s an extremely talented runner, finishing way ahead of me and winning the 45 – 49 age group.) Then, in the bathroom line, I recognized and chatted with Darcie Gorman of Salt Lake City, the winner of last fall’s Firetrails 50M in Oakland, who told me about her involvement with a very worthwhile charity called Project Athena. I also said hello to Rick Susak of Colorado Springs, whom I had “met” through facebook. He had an infectious enthusiasm about Imogene and about trail running in general, even as he nursed a bloody knee at the finish. He and a runner I met on the trail named Eddie Gleason, a younger guy with hair gelled into a fauxhawk, were nice enough to let me use their photos here, since I left my camera at home.
The social networking and chatter of some 1300 runners on the main street of Ouray died out as soon as the race began at 7:30. I ran with the flow up the canyon toward Camp Bird Mine at the 5 mile mark.
There was something solemn about so may runners quietly running up a rocky road in the canyon, the sound of their footsteps and labored breathing muted by the great outdoors. It’s not just that no one wanted to waste breath on small talk; the quiet seemed in part to be a reverence for the surroundings. I thought of my grandfather a great deal during this stretch and pictured him riding a horse on his way toward a job at the mine, fighting the chill of the snow and on the lookout for avalanches. The canyon on this day was sparkling clear, with a hint of yellow in the aspens and blue skies above.
There’s not a whole lot to say about the climb from the Upper Camp Bird aid station (at mile 7.5) to the summit (at mile 10) beyond the fact that the trail got rockier and rockier, and steeper and steeper, and I got slower … and slower … and ….
I ran until everyone around me downshifted to a walk, and then I walked as well. My head in the clouds, I lost all motivation to race; I decided to write this off as a challenging hike with a few runnable spots. At some points around Miles 8 and 9, where everyone followed single-track trails that made shortcuts between the road’s switchbacks, the slope felt as steep as a ladder. A wind carried a chill, and like others around me, I donned a jacket, gloves and hat. I had to take off my pack, dig out my jacket, fumble with my zipper, put the pack back on, put down my water bottle to put on my gloves — a process that wasted a good minute or so — after which I cracked to no one in particular: “Good grief, I’ve never had so many wardrobe malfunctions!” My voice sounded inappropriately loud and startled even me; no one replied, and I felt apologetic, as though I had shouted in a theater.
My pace was averaging 20+ minutes per mile, or more than three times my regular 10K pace. Did I care? No, not really. I visualized being one of the mules that used to haul supplies to the mines on this enormous hill — plodding but stubborn, steady and surefooted. I didn’t doubt that I could make it to the top; I was fatigued, but not in a painful way. I simply knew I had to take the time I needed and keep moving one foot in front of the other. I was uncharacteristically patient and mellow. I might have even dozed off for a few seconds, in a state similar to light anesthesia — my memory is pleasantly foggy at 13,000 feet. And when I got there, to the wind-whipped aid station at the summit, volunteers in grass skirts and plastic leis were cheering. I know this was not a hallucination, but it seemed so unreal.
It had taken me 2 hours, 28 minutes to go up about 5300 feet over 10 miles — or a 14:48 average pace, the slowest and steepest 10 miles I’ve ever climbed.
I woke up at the summit — I literally told myself, “The race begins!” I looked at my watch and realized I could break 3:30, maybe even 3:25, if I got myself down the mountain in about an hour. Seven miles wound downward to the finish line at Telluride — an elevation drop of almost 4300 feet — and I decided to be a snowball that turns into an avalanche. Leaning forward, I let my legs turn over as fast as they could. To put on the brakes felt more painful and risky than going all out. Even around Tomboy Mines at mile 12, where the road turns to ankle-twisting, busted-up boulders for a good mile, I tried to flow as quickly and smoothly as I could over the rocks rather than slowing and picking my way around them.
I shed my jacket, pack, water bottle, gloves and hat at an aid station, to be retrieved after the race, and decided to play the Road Kill Game that teammates on a relay team and I have played in the past. You pass a person, and that counts as one road kill; you get passed, you subtract one from your total. I challenged myself to earn at least 10. I looked at my watch in the final 5K and tried to keep my pace around 6:30 – 6:45 minutes per mile. One by one I passed people — I think three women and more than a half-dozen guys — and only one guy, with whom I raced all the way to the finish, kept trading places with me. (Consequently, I lost track of my road kill total since I became focused on staying ahead of this guy, or catching back up to him when he passed. Dang it, he finished a few strides ahead.)
I had a ridiculously fun run down and crossed the finish in 3:25:11, 32nd woman and 7th in my 40 – 44 age group, 186th overall.
The woman’s winner, 28-year-old Keri Nelson of Gunnison, Colorado, finished 9th overall in an incredible 2:35:59. Margaret, the woman next to me on the bus, finished in 3:08:25, and Darcie finished just seven seconds behind her. Looking at their results, I felt a twinge of disappointment with myself; they had pushed it, and must have run a lot more on the uphills, and I should have too. Well, maybe not. My heart rate was plenty high going over that pass, and it usually seemed that I could power walk faster than a jog.
I snuffed out the disappointment and focused on my joy from the fast downhill, and from the fact I made it over that scary, stupendous mountain without falling or passing out. No hail storm or bolt of lightening got me. I traversed a mountain pass whose paralyzing bumps and terrifying drop-offs have intimidated me ever since childhood, when our family would take nearly a whole day to traverse it in a 4-wheel-drive truck. I ran and hiked up a road where my grandfather used to ride to work, and raced down a road where his stepfather used to lead a mule train. By coming to Telluride four weeks earlier and joining all these Rocky Mountain runners in a 36-year-old tradition of running Imogene, I felt as connected to Colorado as to California. For those reasons and more, I’m immensely satisfied and grateful to finish in 3:25.