Sometimes, when I don’t like the forecast from my Weather Channel mobile app, I check their site on my laptop. They rarely agree. Still, there’s little difference between an 80% chance of rain, and 70%. In a semi-desert state like Colorado, anything over 20% means rain. Lots of it. So my Running Dead trail relay team drove up to Snowmass for our trail relay on Friday with soggy expectations. We were surprised at how so much rain could go unnoticed. We had a total blast. From left to right in the back row is Chris, Allison, the Dead Runner, Jill, Jen, and me. Up front is Keith, Rychie and Steve.
We arrived with just enough time to pitch our tents and watch the team safety video before Steve kicked off our relay by running the 3.9 mile green loop. Our race instructions listed the green loop as 3.3 miles, but a conversation with the Here Kitty Kitty team captain Brian suggested it is more like 3.8 miles. My Garmin recorded 3.9 miles. Running the extra distance wasn’t an issue for any of us. We came here to run. But no one likes surprises when their legs are drowning in lactic acid. The pre-race intel was critical at setting our expectations. This was Steve’s first race after heel surgery. Some suspect his first real run. He performed like a champ.
Steve handed off to Rychie who ran the 4.1 mile yellow loop in our first rain shower. She reported the wet trail conditions as apparently difficult for bigger, heavier guys as they struggled to negotiate the muddy slopes, but that she was able to nimbly maintain sure footing. Rychie’s training with Jill on the rocky Picture Rock Trail in Lyons proved itself invaluable for these conditions. Jill followed Rychie on the 6.9 mile red loop, which was advertised as 6.2 miles. This began on paved trail and road for two miles, mitigating the danger of slipping in mud. Jill and Rychie’s strong runs kept us on our pre-race schedule, despite being over one mile longer than plan.
Rychie and Jill are new friends for me. I discovered on the ride up that like me, they both are mid-westerners. Rychie is a farm girl from Fremont, Nebraska and Jill is a farm girl from outside Chicago. I’m from Davenport, Iowa, which one could argue is a distant Chicago suburb. I was a Bears fan back in the day. Rychie manages the professional development of school teachers now while Jill owns a landscape enterprise in Longmont. Both sounded disappointed, and just plain pissed with themselves that they had to walk a few steep slopes of the trail on their first runs. I explained to them that it’s not really walking on mountain trails; when you’re primarily running, it’s a shuffle. They didn’t really accept my shuffle concept. These girls might look like innocent working professionals, wives and moms, but they’re the reason Lance Armstrong doesn’t own a second home in Boulder County to train. The women on Mesa Trail aren’t intimidated by the Aspen elites.
Keith was our 4th runner and started out on the green loop to repeat our 14 mile cycle of green-yellow-red. He returned elated over the beauty of these trails. And no doubt happy that he ran quite well, passing many other runners. Jen, always strong, ran 5th on the yellow trail, followed by Chris for a repeat of the red trail. This completed two rounds of the three loop sequence and brought night fall over Snowmass. I waited by the bonfire for Chris to finish as the temperature dropped with the sun.
Chris didn’t report any issues navigating the trails via his headlamp. I was apprehensive as trail running at night was a first for me. While I believed I could pass runners immediately, I held back to gain comfort with reading the trail. My caution paid dividends as the grade of the green loop rose dramatically the first half mile and the runners in front of me fell back from oxygen debt. I had to walk a few steep steps the first mile and again the second mile, but mostly maintained a steady cadence up to the top of the mountain, just under two miles into the loop. I held my pace under 10 minutes the first mile, and under 12 minutes for mile two.
Returning downhill in darkness was surreal. Running under an 8.5 minute pace via headlamp felt like playing a first person shooter video game as I weaved my path around the curvy, tree-lined course. I passed more runners on the downhill than up, no doubt they were being cautious. The only reason I couldn’t soar down this trail faster wasn’t the turns. I could see those fine with my 550 lumens Olympia EX550 headlamp. Rather, my difficulty was in reading the shadowy dips in the undulating trail. I alternated from hyper extending my stride on deeper troughs than I expected and jarring my hips on the steps that came up short. I slammed into a wooden foot bridge hard when I didn’t see that the initial on ramp was twice as steep as the middle of the bridge. I nearly buckled. I took the foot bridges slower after that.
Our team ran through the night rain free. Rychie shared my initial nervousness but everyone agreed afterward that nighttime running was a total trip. Anything leading you to run slower was a good thing in terms of pacing you for the total half marathon over three loops. A good two hundred runners on the trails kept you in close company at all times. I woke up at 3am for my second run amazed to see streams of light from runners’ headlamps snaking along the sides of three mountainsides. Very cool. My second run was on the 6.9 mile red loop and coincided with sunrise near the top of the course. This trail photo above is of the path leading to the top at around 3.5 miles. I was able to turn off my headlamp for the downhill, which was a total scream. I didn’t kick too hard though because I was expecting to have to run another loop. The plan was to either run with Allison on the next leg, or for Steve on the leg after. Both had injuries.
Allison blazed her leg on her own but 50 minutes later I ran Steve’s yellow loop for him. This was much tougher than I expected. My heart rate was still elevated from the red loop and my legs took a good half mile to loosen up. Fortunately the yellow loop begins with a graceful slope and I was able to unwind. Once I got going, I felt great and ran my fastest pace of my three runs, an 8:49 pace. Steve nominated me for team MVP for my unselfish act. I lost to Jen who later ran the 6.9 mile red loop on her third run in a torrential downpour. Understand that nearly every runner mostly walked their third loops. As Jen reached the summit of the red loop, all the runners were turning around, too afraid to descend the river of mud. Undaunted, and frankly disgusted by all the sissy runners retreating, Jen screamed down that mudslide full throttle. Here’s a photo of her shoes afterwards.
Had Allison not been out barhopping with some runner boys during the MVP selection committee’s discussions, she might have won MVP for her final performance. My final run was spectacular – my fastest yet. An 8:20 pace. But I ran it on the very unspectacular yellow loop. Like Jen before her, Allison ran the red loop. The trail of heroes. We were chasing Here Kitty Kitty for the last 20 hours. Our Longmont competition, four hours from home on a mountainside in Snowmass. On the longest loop, with the greatest elevation gain, Allison outran their team captain to bring the glory of victory to our team. But as I said, she was out drinking during the awards ceremony so Jen won MVP.
Naturally, the sun came out once the relay was over. We spent the night in a couple of Snowmass Village condos where we washed off twenty-two hours of mud, sweat and grime. I never once expected this relay to be so grueling. So totally exhausting. And what’s wrong with my friends and neighbors to make them not only want to do this sort of thing, but to so thoroughly enjoy it? Is this what it means to live in Colorado? I think it does. The mountains exist for running. I came with zero plans for speed or achievement of any kind. Just the social aspect of running on mountain trails with good friends. And yet, every loop was an amazing race. I ran strong every mile and was never passed. This was the most extraordinary running boot camp I’ve ever participated in.
We were presented with participant medals that carried the seal of non TSA approval. Seriously, they came with a warning to not try sneaking them past airport security. Not sure how to describe them really. Some sort of survival utility toolkit. Think of a one pound razor blade that could take out your enemies with a flick of the wrist. Half our team cut themselves within an hour of the relay’s completion.
The sun rose the morning after in a cloudless sky. We brunched at Aspen Over Easy and stopped by the Maroon Bells before heading home. We took the slow drive over Independence Pass. Hard to imagine things getting better after the most thrilling trail run ever, but I swear to you, it just kept getting better.