When I moved to Colorado in March, one of the first items on my to-do list was to find a race in my new home state. Having been previously enamored with the Sawatch range and the surrounding areas, Collegiate Peaks 50 mile seemed like the logical choice. The history of the race, fast times, challenging terrain, and the horizon of immense peaks summed up my choice; I was registered in almost no time.
Being fresh out of Michigan, I slated elevation training to the top of my training objectives, followed by distance. I spent five of the six of the weekends of my short training/acclimatization period enjoying the vast landscapes of oxygen deprived Guanella Pass and Loveland Pass. My most memorable training run was 15 miles of the Continental Divide at Loveland Pass, at midnight, on April’s full moon; no headlamp required. The 12,000ft average elevation of this training run was a confidence boost as the race approached. For a “flatlander”, I was glad to be getting acclimatized well in this land of giants.
Before I knew it, I was driving toward Buena Vista on the night before the race, stuffing garlic-herb rigatoni and fig bars down my throat. I’ve only laid eyes on the Collegiate Peaks once before, about a year ago. Tonight, they were lost behind a blanket of darkness, waiting to be unveiled in the quickly approaching golden-orange rays of sunrise.
I practically sleepwalked into the Buena Vista Community Center to check in the next morning, to find out I had arrived about 30 minutes early. I found my tag, and filled the time with a nap on the floor.
Bill Dooper, “superfan” of trail running, walked through the door as my alarm went off. I greeted him and caught up with him for the first time since last year’s Hardrock 100. His love for the sport and genuine charisma can fill a room; it’s always a pleasure to see Bill at races.
Outside, dawn was in full effect, and the rays were about to light the tops of the peaks. I headed out to line the start with the rest of the athletes. The snowcapped Collegiate Peaks corroborated the chilly air in town, even some 6,000+ feet below. I stuffed my Ultimate Direction Fastdraw handhelds with water and plenty of electrolytes, as well as fig bars, because, heck, they’re amazing (notice the pattern?).
Legs started turning at 6:30am. From the start, the race was interesting. Tim Parr, Travis Macy, a few others, and myself were running through the first section of dirt, roughly a quarter mile into the race, when one of them snagged a poorly-laid trip wire to the stomach. Luckily, no injuries ensued. I stayed back to unwind the heavy wire from the tree branch and set it aside, bewildered that somebody would do such a thing. I am optimistic that this was a one-off scenario and that people are generally much humane than to do this.
A few minutes later I was back with the front group of assumed-to-be 50 milers, and we blazed our way into the real single track. A fun, rocky first decent emptied into one of many sandy, dry river bed crossings to would be found on the course. A herd of about a dozen deer jumped single-file over a fence beside us and crossed our path as the sun reflected off the dew covered field just to the other side of a stream beside us. It was a relaxing start to what would be an exhausting day.
The group of four of us took turns leading the way for the first 12 miles or so. We hurdled some cattle grates, joking about being subpar track/field hurdlers in high school, just before triple-jumping the rocks across a stream….. I’ve still got it. We separated at aid station two. I ran into Travis Macy again not long after, and he verified that everybody ahead of us was in the marathon. Woops. At least they were cool guys to go out way too fast with. I wound the corners of the next mile with Travis, and he too took off ahead. I ultimately made my way back up to one of the first guys I ran with, and we tackled the first major hill- about 7 miles long- together.
At the top, much to my thankfulness, an aid station awaited. I dumped the canister of salt into my palms and ate it straight, followed by about 30oz of water. The dry, desert-like landscape combined with a cloudless sky had been evaporating sweat faster than I could sweat it. I took a moment to lay in the nearby stream crossing to cool myself off. I was dry again in about half an hour.
From there, I was left with my mind and my shadow under the cloudless sky. The back half of the course grew thin as it passed through massive boulders. The seven miles I had just come up was now a seven mile descent, plus a mile give or take back down to town. I paced with a local track athlete who was getting in a workout for a few minutes. It was a good mental boost to run into another person!
I was welcomed back to town by a crowd cheering as I ran across the bridge that links the course to the Community Center parking lot. At the lap, I stopped to swap out bottles (mainly for the resupply of fig bars and salt caps that was in the little storage pocket 😀 ) and sloppily slathered myself in SPF 70 sunscreen; it’s a necessity out there. I turned around and began my second lap, which is just a reversal of the first.
My race strategy was pretty simple for this race: run smart on lap one, then run fast and take chances on lap two. That implied the 7-8 mile hill I just came down would be a tough climb back up. I focused on may leg turnover and breathing; the elevation was inevitably starting to creep up on me. I knew I’d have to minimize any unnecessary energy expenditure on the long climb. My situation didn’t get any easier once I caught a glimpse of the second place runner just ahead. From then on, I ran every step of the hill in pursuit of second place, rising up into the horizon. Behind me, the Collegiate Peaks put it all in perspective; it could definitely be steeper. Run fast and take chances…
I was just as happy to see the aid station at top as the first time around. Again, I had a few more rounds of Coca Cola and a handful of salt as I trash-talked the hill with the aid station crew. They wished me luck, and I began bombing down the other side of the hill at a pace that surprised me. It was such a contrast to the previous lap, coming up this steeper side of the hill. It felt good to move fast down the sandy slope and to hurdle over the rocks that reduced me to a walk/hike a few hours prior. Speaking of contrast… it started snowing. Last time I was here, I had just dunked my body in the river to cool off. It stopped stopped snowing as soon as it started, thankfully. I was warm again in no time.
I still could see second place ahead of me. I knew the road was about four miles ahead now, and from there, two miles to the finish. I did my best to reel him in, but it looks like he did an equal effort of staying ahead. We had our own race going within the race, and it continued at the aid station. I was about ten seconds behind at the aid station, watching and evaluating every move of second place as I approached. Water. Salt. Pretzels. Back to the chase.
We both wound our way through the sandy, dried river bed and back to the road, burning out our last energy reserves as the race grew ever closer to the finish. Reaching the road felt so good, but also was the longest two miles of the race. It made me realize how much everything hurt, and on the other hand, just how far I had come.
The final section of the race went along the banks of the river, begging for me to soak my swollen legs in it. The finish line stood across the parking lot from me; It’s been a while since I’ve seen metal barricades and chalk lines that looked so beautiful.
I ran down the finish chute, relieved to be here, falling right into the guy who had the medals. I was so lightheaded and nauseated from a combination of racing harder than ever before, and the elevation. Kaitlyn, my awesome girlfriend and running buddy, grabbed me under the arms and helped me walk off the course. I immediately found the guy who finished in second, about five minutes ahead of me. Colton and I shared an exhausted handshake and hug, and exchanged our congrats. I’m proud of him for earning a well deserved second place, and thanked him, with a laugh, for staying within my view and keeping me pushing my way toward the finish. He was an awesome competitor, and I feel we both ran a bit harder because of each other vying for the position.
As a finishing note, I’ll say that there is so much power in having a supportive, tight-knit community like that of trail running. The volunteers at the race were incredible and always ready to help, the spectators were supportive, and the athletes there to encourage each other to be the best they can be. Cheers to all the people out there for making the race everything it was. It’s one for the books, and I look forward to returning!
Altra Lone Peak 2.5 & calf sleeves
Ultimate Direction Fastdraw 10
Oakley Flak 2.0 Trail Prizm & compression top
Salomon S-Lab Exo short
Cloudine merino socks
I feel Morton Salt deserves a note here as well.