Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Race Report: Salida Trail Marathon

(Note: To skip past the personal race prep goo and go straight to the race report, look for ‘And we’re off!’ This wasn’t meant to be a novel, but it sorta ended up that way.)

When I decided to tackle the longer trailrunning distances several months ago, my anchor race became the Kettle Moraine 100K in June. I then pieced together a race schedule for 2008 that would build up to this marquis event, starting with a 20-mile snowshoe race in January, a 33K jaunt in Moab, and recently a trail marathon in Salida, Colorado. Each occasion was met with a ‘Sheesh, am I ready?’ attitude, as the fear of bonking or DNF’ing lent to some anxiety in the closing days and hours before a race. The Salida Trail Marathon, dubbed ‘A Run Through Time’, was no exception and would be my first attempt at this distance. I had just finished a 70-hour workweek in the field, during which I ran zero miles, got little sleep, and spent my days inhaling jet fuel fumes at a military installation. My longest training run to that point had been around 12 miles. To my benefit, being away from home spared me from the latest cold bug, and I felt healthy.

As a drive home from my field location would have added quite a few hours to my return trip, I decided instead to take the shorter route directly to Salida on the day before the race and spend the night in a hotel. Dave had graciously reserved a room for me at the Woodland Motel, after jumping on a last-minute cancellation in this popular bedroom community at the gentle bend of the Arkansas River and a snowball’s throw from Monarch Mountain. As I pulled into the berg, heavy snow began to fall, adding to a fresh base that appeared to have been building throughout the day. I arrived at the Woodside and went straight to Dave’s room where he had been relaxing in front of the TV, and we joked about the size of his quarters and the gratuitous signage adorning it, instructing guests on which towels to use and how to set the thermostat. As is custom, I commended Dave’s cache of race food, a feast in of itself. I appreciate the fact that he likes to reach a race destination a day early, decompress in the hosting city, and inspect the first few miles of the race course. I’ve learned that having a general idea of what to expect prior to the race gives one a bit of a mental edge.

I checked into my room, and we immediately drove in the direction of the race course. Fortunately, this particular circuit would follow a two-lane paved road feeding into an improved dirt two-track into the foothills northeast of Salida. Both Dave and I ran the half-marathon last year, and although he briefly flirted with the idea of joining me in the full, decided as the date came closer to stick with his original plan. As we climbed into the foothills, the snow grew deeper and the drive more treacherous. The course appeared vastly different in this virgin blanket of snow, and there was some confusion as to the location of the half-marathon turnaround point. Finally, we reached a spot that we both remembered and decided to push onward into the full-marathon course. The route was well-marked with pink flags, most likely placed by Chaffee County Running Club stalwart Tom Sobal on one of his ‘leisurely jaunts’. The marathon course was to follow the main road to the former mining town of Turret, now reduced to a collection of rustic summer homes cast in the shadow of its former glory. Dave and I figured, What the hell, let’s go check it out while we’re here. However, it was not meant to be. The road conditions had deteriorated beyond the comfort level of my new Outback and its driver, and we wisely returned to drier ground. I remember joking to Dave that snow was ‘The Great Equalizer’ and was almost giddy with excitement that this was gonna be more like an adventure race than a marathon.

Dinner was consumed at the Twisted Cork Cafe, perched next to the Arkansas west of town. It’s almost not worth the trouble going into a trendy restaurant, scanning the menu and predicting the fuel content of a pre-race meal when the entrees include ingredients like red peppers and cabbage. My mouth was watering at this point and I struggled to select the safest meal possible, finally settling on a noodle dish with a spring roll, while Dave got a penne pasta dish with a side of steak fries. We both inhaled our meals with copious amounts of ice water and left the restaurant painfully satiated, putting my ‘no farting in the new car’ rule to test.

Each of us returned to his room, and I began arranging my gear for the next day, vacillating between bare-bones and overkill, eventually reaching a happy medium. I watched a bit of TV and then drifted off with the promise of a challenging race in the morning. My alarm sounded at 5, and I scarfed down a carbo-rich breakfast before stealing another couple hours of shut-eye.

Soon it was daylight, and I dressed and made my way to the race start near the base of Tenderfoot Mountain. The temp was around 15 deg F, and the thought of running in a T-shirt and shorts was initially a bit unappealing. But I’ve learned that if I can suck it up for the first mile or so, I don’t need all of those heavy clothes anyway, as my body temp shoots up pretty quickly even on the coldest days. The registration line for the marathon (inside the historical Scout Hut at Riverside Park) was about 30 people long by the time I stepped in (no one was in the half-marathon line), and I struck up a conversation with Bill Geist from Los Alamos, NM (14th marathon overall, 4:37:24). We talked about the weather and the course conditions, which were wildly different from last year. Soon I was pinning my bib number to my shorts and getting my food in order (Clif Shot Bloks and Power Bar fragments), looking for Dave among the masses enjoying their last few minutes of warmth before venturing out into the cold.

Stepping outside of the building I noticed the competitors making their way toward the start line, which was northeast across a bridge over the Arkansas, then a few hundred yards down a primitive paved road parallel to a series of railroad tracks. As I got closer, I recognized Dave, and I think we were two of only a handful of runners in shorts. Rounding out my getup was a (Warning: Shameless Product Endorsement Alert) tech tee, a Nathan hydration pack (minus the bladder), Dirty Girl gaiters, and a pair of Salomon XT Wings. I also caved in to the temps and had added a thin GoLite jacket. Joining the tech apparel was a Nathan Thermal Quickdraw handheld, an iPod Classic loaded with 165 BPM Podrunner mixes and a Blackberry Pearl.

And we’re off! The course further followed the tracks to the northwest, then split right to a dirt road fronting some ramshackle houses at the base of the foothills. The route quickly began to rise toward a municipal water tower, then dropped again, confusing newbies who were expecting a steady climb. We had covered about 1.5 miles of dirt then picked up a mile-long section of paved road, when I discovered that I hadn’t started my GPS (I was able to add that missing first section in SportTracks). I also ditched my jacket during this time and tied it around my waist, where it stayed for the rest of the race. I hung with Dave for the first 2-3 miles as I tested the waters after 5 days of no running. I felt relaxed and loose, and Dave and I overtook a number of runners who were having a difficult time once the course started climbing the Ute Trail.

After about a mile of climbing, I felt that I could manage a faster pace and bid Dave adieu, moving on ahead past a dozen or so runners. I reached the half-marathon turnaround point and pushed on into the extended course. By now the road was snowpacked, and the sun peeked out from behind the cliffs. I let my mind drift into its surroundings, as pace and breathing were being driven by the iPod. After another mile or so I reached a saddle with a great view of the wintry Collegiate Peaks. I stopped to get a couple photos, and a runner I had just passed approached me and offered to take my picture. We fumbled around with the BB for a minute or two trying to get the best shot (Hmmm, did that cost me a few places at the end of the race? I’d post the photo, but it didn’t turn out that great.)

Soon I was running again, overtaking a couple guys who had caught up during my ‘photoshoot’. For the next several miles, the course negotiated a series of extended uphills and downhills as I pushed on towards Turret. It wasn’t long before the frontrunners began to pass by me, and since this was an out-and-back, I began my customary counting to determine what place I was currently holding. The count slowly climbed into the teens, then the twenties, after which I stopped keeping track (23…24…25…, ah, whatever).

A brief steep and cobbly section led into the former townsite of Turret, where a table of goodies awaited. I snagged a banana and probably should have grabbed a fistful of Fig Newtons, but I wanted to stay ahead of the guys I had just passed. I started my return trip, picking off runners on the uphills and greeting those coming toward me. My ‘Runners-Get-Friendlier-Toward-The-Back’ theory definitely came into play as I made my way toward Salida, and I was encouraged to cross paths with like-minded competitors who were also truly enjoying the experience. Well, maybe enjoyment is a slight overstatement, as I would soon find out. I reached the ‘photoshoot’ site at the saddle, and being a first-timer, I assumed it would be a nice downhill cruise from there. However, at Mile 17.5, the course took a sharp left turn onto a snowcovered jeep trail save for one set of tire tracks. At this junction was an aid station, only a half mile up the road from the aid station at the half-marathon turnaround. I thought it odd when coming up the gulch that they’d have two stations so close together, but once I made the turn onto the snowy trail, I realized why. I would not be returning the way I came, rather taking a more southern route, eventually rejoining the original trail at about Mile 25.3. The second aid station was geared toward the return trip for the marathoners.

I had a bit of trouble running in the narrow, 6-inch trench left by the single recon vehicle, and thought the course couldn’t get any trickier until it went off-trail to the right at Mile 18. What proceeded was about five miles of post-holing through calf-deep snow covered by a thin crust of ice. The magic shell was only dense enough to handle my weight about half the time, as my pace ranged from a crawl to a scramble, as I was able to run more stable sections as short as 20 feet. I reached for my BB only to find it had fallen out of my hydration vest somewhere along the course (and later turned in by an observant runner). ‘Well, sh*t’, I said as I plodded forward, eyeing the occasional drop of blood left behind in the snow from one of the frontrunners as he blazed the trail for the rest of us. I looked down at my own legs and was surprised to learn that I too was bleeding. I came upon one of the other runners in shorts, and soon learned why I was able to catch him so easily. ‘Ah, racing flats’, I said, my smile pulling back into a wince.

Eventually, the trail turned south and I was able to enjoy some downhills on soft ground. Yes, downhills! My former bane had suddenly become a boon in the loamy Arkansas Hills. I attributed this to the sponge-like consistency of the ground surface, recently stripped of heavy snow cover by the sun, and the XT Wings, which added a noticeable cushion to each footfall. I caught up to Bill, and we traded positions for a mile or so, but I was able to pull ahead when the terrain became difficult. I could feel my left calf start to tighten up, but downed a couple S-Caps and the sensation subsided. I also noticed hunger pangs at about Mile 23, which is odd because food is usually the last thing on my mind at this point. Those issues were cleared up with a few Shot Bloks.

Between Miles 24 and 25, I passed three more runners and set my sights on a fourth (Rich Muzzy, 11th, 4:34:37) but he saw me approaching and stepped up his pace. Soon I was flying down that initial hill near the water tower, and I could hear someone gaining on me from behind. It was Scott Kunz, who I had recently passed. He had found a fifth gear and breezed past me with a smile, eventually catching Rich before the finish line for 10th place and a time of 4:34:20. His pace was such that I had no way of responding in kind, and the three of us cruised along the train tracks with no one making any real gains on the other. At this point I saw Dave and Aspen standing with my parents, who were visiting from Wisconsin and had arrived a day early to see me race. They were straddling that set of tracks I had to cross a couple hundred yards before the finish. Last year, my toe caught the last rail, and I went down hard and flat, pushing my front teeth into my bottom lip and causing an injury to my right palm that ached for weeks. I finished that one with my hand up to my face and a mouthful of blood. This time, I focused on clearing the rails and still managed to graze one of my feet on that last one. My Dad said later that a runner behind me did fall, injuring his elbow and bloodying his forearm.

The final 100-yd stretch through the grass at Riverside Park felt like an eternity, and I gave one last look over my shoulder to ensure that I wasn’t going to be passed before crossing the line. I finished and immediately went over to congratulate Rich and Scott. Scott was joking that his running coach teased him about not having a fifth gear, and he wanted me to call this guy and tell him otherwise.

Dave ran up to congratulate me and said that I had come in 12th place (4:35:09). This was a wonderful surprise, since I had lost track of my position about halfway through the race. Aspen and my parents soon followed, and it was great to finish a race like that and be welcomed by your loved ones. UnGuy was asleep in the Baby Bjorn, and he gave me a big smile when he woke up. I hadn’t seen him nor Aspen since Monday, which made the finish even sweeter.

Once I collected my things, I downed a bowl of chicken soup, a couple of those chocolate chunk cookies and about 40 ounces of Gatorade. This is probably the first of the longer races where I had an appetite at the finish, a welcome change (I couldn’t eat a thing after the Moab race for about two hours). Dave had to jet back to Boulder and said his goodbyes. We walked over to Amica’s for calzones before returning to Conifer as another trail race event came to a close.

Next up, a 50 miler in Fruita, Colorado. I’m already wincing.
Course Overview - Now picture it with snow.


Dave T Butler said...

Holy link fest Batman.

Great detail Kirk. Can't wait to do the full next year.

Chris said...

Nice run! I think I finished just a handful of seconds behind you. Looks like you ran a very well paced race. Sounds like we'll cross paths again at Fruita.