Sunday, June 1, 2008

Race Report: Getting My Money's Worth at Gateway

Getting ‘Rev. A’ of a product is like a double-edge sword. You’re the first on the block to have a ‘whats-it’, but you’re also the guinea pig upon which all future revisions of the gadget are built. The same could be said about the first draft of the Sky Pass Trail Marathon in Gateway, Colorado. I signed up on a whim and was unsuccessful in luring any of my friends to tackle the long drive for an unprecedented trail marathon. The race was sponsored by Gateway Canyons Resorts, a burgeoning getaway about 45 minutes southwest of Grand Junction. Race Director Luke Reece built this one from the ground up, supplying prospective entrants with detailed course maps and profiles, barely 2-D facsimiles of what was to come.

I made the solo trip from Denver on a bunch of podcasts from Endurance Planet and a gutful of pre-race jitters. The sun had dropped behind the cliffs of Unaweep Canyon before I could reach the sleepy town of Gateway, a smattering of tired cabins and other relics from a bygone era. Just downstream were the resort grounds, oddly modern and amenity-rich, ripe with optimism.

I had booked a room at the Gateway Trading Post, and made several passes through the old town at a decreasing rate of speed, finally parking in front of what appeared to be an antique shop with a gaping front door and the lights on inside. Before me was a row of four rooms, possibly a couple mobile homes connected end to end. A Trans Am was parked in front, doors open, and fiesta music blasted forth, amplified by the cliffs surrounding the town. ‘This cannot be the place’, I muttered to myself. This was the place. As I prepared to write off a good night’s sleep, a middle-aged man standing at a campfire near the rooms started in my direction. As he got closer, he called out, ‘You Kirk?’ ‘Yeah!’, I replied. ‘Runnin’ kinda late aren’t ya?’ I explained that I left Denver in the middle of rush hour and didn’t expect the trip to take me this long. ‘Well, I got the room all ready for ya’. He directed me where to park and how to get there, right next to the Trans Am. Several RVs, whose occupants appeared to be stoking the campfire, were scattered about the property. I’ve since forgotten the gentleman’s name, but I solicited from him a brief account of the town, which involved uranium mining, an Indian school, and a trading post that survives as the only business in the old town. He then invited me to join him and the other tenants at the campfire, who had been here a month or so, cashing in on the rapid expansion of the resort. I politely declined and retired to my room, while the thirsty traveler in me wanted to christen the next round of beers.

The room was like any other $50/night stay I’ve experienced: Lots of paneling, mismatched shag carpeting, and a resident daddy longlegs in the bathroom sink. To my relief, once I arranged my gear on the second bed and slipped into my own, the outside ruckus disappeared behind the wall-mounted AC. Since the race was to start at 8AM, I set my alarm for 4 and lined up my customary breakfast on the nightstand. When the time arrived, I even managed a photo, despite several previous unsuccessful undertakings where I looked like hell.

As expected, I was the first to rise in the hodgepodge camp, and I made my way to the resort, about a mile down the road. Registration was swift, but the race was to start another ten miles further south. I had given myself a fair amount of time, so the drive was leisurely and without sound. A couple tents on the left signaled the close proximity of the starting line, and I made a right turn toward a minor commotion in a rudimentary dirt lot.

Immediately recognizable on the side of the dusty two-track was Bernie Boettcher, squatting precariously close to a desert wildflower, digital point-and-shoot in hand. It was only fitting that while everone else stood nervously in line at the single porta-potty, Bernie was taking pictures of flora. I pulled in behind another car and slipped out to survey the scene while squeezing in a couple last-minute stretches. I looked up for a moment to catch Bernie admiring my ‘TRLRNNR’ license plates. ‘Nice plates. Mind if I take a picture?’ ‘No, go ahead! By the way, I’m a big fan of your writing.’ I say this because I know he has many fans, but all may not know he is also quite a gifted color writer, most notably for Trail Runner Magazine. Someday, maybe I’ll get a ‘Hey, Kirk! That raggedy red bandanna you always wear to races is a real inspiration to me’. Maybe not.

Kirk and Bernie - all smiles before the race

As is customary, I sized up the competition. Hmm, the guy standing near the water cooler tent looks pretty fast. I exchanged greetings with a few runners, although Bernie was the only guy I recognized at first. The actual start of the race was 0.2 mile up the road, and Luke periodically interrupted the reggae music blasting over the portable PA to ensure that we were ready when the race was to start. I chatted briefly with Scott Shine from Montrose, the guy whom I remarked earlier as ‘looking fast’. The race was shortly underway, and Bernie broke out to an early lead, with Scott on his heels. I hung around the middle of the pack, testing the waters as the hierarchy began to take shape. The course followed Salt Creek with an average grade of about 3%, perfect for a slow-starter like myself. Looking at the final standings and then remembering who was in front of me, I’d say that the positions for the faster runners of the group were cemented within the initial mile of the course, although I did my best to mess with the mix. At about Mile 2, I caught up to a shirtless Jim Mykelby, a 63-year-old legend from Leadville. We ran together until the first aid station at Mile 4.2. I noticed that a handful of runners were making gains on us, including Meg Tomcho, so I wished Jim luck and moved on. I started pulling away from this ‘chase group’ and had my sights set on the runner in front of me. At this point I had 5th place in hand and made strides to catch the 4th place guy.

The segment between the 1st and 2nd aid stations was a gentle two-track stretch with a grade of about 4%, transitioning into a cobbly climb up a wash pointing toward a distinct cliffline. Unlike Fruita, where I was in ‘conservation mode’ from the start, I allowed my heart rate to climb into the 170s, running with almost reckless abandon. That Coke I chugged before the race probably didn’t help! I wondered how long I would be able to redline in this environment, especially since I’m no ship of the desert. I reached the 2nd aid station at Mile 8.2, signaling the onset of an atrocious climb. This section was about the width of an ATV, with a small gully bisecting it into two clumsy paths. I chose to hike this leg, bouncing from side to side, whichever offered the least resistance. Soon I reached a flatter section rounding a hillside, and I could hear the gnashing of gears as an elderly gentleman maneuvered a tricked-out Jeep in my direction. I offered my standard ‘I-can’t-hear-you-over-my-iPod’ greeting as I started a welcome descent. The man said something at the end that I didn’t quite catch, but as I was already enjoying the downhill, it registered only as an afterthought. As the slope continued, I noticed that the prints I had been following suddenly turned from shoe to hoof, and by the time I had realized I missed a turn I had already dropped about 300 feet and covered 0.8 mile. I retraced my steps in disgust, certain I had mangled my odds on a top-5 finish.

A while later, there it was, the right turn I had missed because I was more focused on the oncoming vehicle. I joined a group of several who were laboring up the next steep section. I passed seven runners in this short span and wondered how many lie ahead. At this point my current self-depreciating frame of mind pushed me to the apex of the course, with the promise of an extended downhill section. At the top was an aid station at Mile 10.7 (12.5), manned by a trio of obliging volunteers, including the older four-wheeler guy. As I was filling my handheld, I playfully interrogated him with ‘You were telling me I made a wrong turn, weren’t you?’ ‘Yep.’ He stated with a wry grin on his face. I asked the aid station registrar for my current place. ‘11th, and there’s a few just in front of you’.

I thanked them and darted off along a wiry singletrack through a grassy meadow. By then, I was thinking a top ten finish would be nice. Within a few minutes I could see Jim making his way up a short ascent, within striking distance of two more runners. He was a bit surprised to see me, and I explained my temporary spaceout. We then struggled to negotiate a section of the trail that crossed private land, where the landowners had converted several hundred yards of this former thoroughfare into an obstacle course, forcing us to hurdle deadwood like steeplechasers. After leaving Jim, I passed two more runners, landing me in 8th place, before the course began its decline toward the finish. The next few miles through lush greenery were to be the most enjoyable of the entire race. My legs were literally flying from beneath me as I clicked off a few sub-7:00 minute miles in succession. Several times I struggled for control in the most deceptive of muddy sections, where balance was frequently interrupted by slippery sidesteps. Still, I picked up two more spots during this time - 6th place. The end of the gravity cruise came too soon, however, forcing me once again into the throes of the high desert.

The course followed a semi-improved dirt road through sagebrush and juniper, the ambient temps climbing in earnest as I crossed a mild highpoint with a view of the bluffs cradling the Dolores River below. Again the familiar race flagging disappeared and the shoe prints were replaced by critter tracks. I stopped and spun wildly, searching in vain for another runner, surveying the surrounding hillsides for any sign of movement. My gaze soon became fixed upon a runner further down the road. It was Meg, performing the same fruitless act of desperation. I scurried to meet her, and we commiserated for a moment or two, deciding to press forward in the supposed direction of the finish line. In retrospect, the smartest course of action probably should have been to return to familiar terrain, but at the time the thought of moving anywhere but downhill was not a very convincing one. Meg was noticeably frustrated and rightfully so; she had the women’s win in the bag. My placement hopes disappeared quickly after this second mishap, so my objective at this point was to find the finish line intact. The pressure was off, and I welcomed a new adventure.

We decided to stay together until rejoining the course, further straying from the proper route. Eventually, we found ourselves off trail and making our way through an old burn area, the carcasses of thousands of trees strewn about, preventing any kind of rhythm. At the time I thought our best strategy was to follow a drainage which appeared to lead in the direction we should be traveling. I gradually banked to the right toward a ridge, and beyond it lay an improved dirt road, painfully separated from us by a 50-ft cliff! Undaunted, we decided to stick to the cliffline as we descended toward the river valley below. We would revisit this ledge once more before abandoning our attempts to travel south. Instead, we followed a cluttered drainage that funneled into a short bouldery section. Once beyond the rocks, that same road came back into view, and about 100 yards later we were embracing it like two seasick boaters stepping onto a pier. However, our adventure was far from over. A pickup truck was parked about 200 feet to the south, and I ran towards it, hoping to find the owner inside. No such luck. Returning to where Meg was standing, we decided to head north, alternating between a slow jog and power hike. The road began to pitch to the left and climb steadily back toward the cliffs we had just left behind. Finally, our bearing just didn’t ‘feel right’ and we started to second-guess our decision to travel in this direction, retracing our route back to the south. By now both of us had run out of water, and I had taken the last of my S-Caps. My confidence began to deteriorate when I began to consider the consequences of continuing without precious water, having suffered miserably in the wake of previous miscalculations. Then, as if a prayer had been answered, a pickup truck appeared, pulling an empty horse trailer in our direction. I flagged down the driver who turned out to be a local guy named Dave tending to some livestock with his young teenage son, Caden. I told him we were looking for Gateway, and he replied that we were going the wrong way. He offered us a ride, not entirely to the town but to a junction where we could continue on our own. In my desperation, I eagerly accepted his offer, looking to Meg for confirmation. She seemed equally grateful to be rescued by these Good Samaritans.

Life Savers - Caden and Dave

Each of them offered their canteens to us, which again were gladly received. The vessels were covered in a variegated cowhide and filled with the sweetest nectar I had tasted in a long, long time. As we bounced around in the back of the pickup, I figured we had strayed only a mile or so, until the second, then third mile ticked off. ‘Wow, we were really off course!’ I remarked to Meg, and we occasionally exchanged incredulous glances as the ride wore on. Finally, after four or so miles, Dave pulled over and we jumped out, eyeing a couple runners to our left, descending a roadcut from the ridgeline. I had long since emptied Caden’s canteen, and apologized for returning it to him empty. We thanked these trail angels profusely and then made our way toward the junction that Dave had promised, thinking we were in a stone’s throw of the finish line. I noticed a vehicle parked there, and then the familiar blue of large water containers on a collapsible table. ‘Uh, I hope this isn’t the 19.5-mile aid station.’ It was the 19.5 mile aid station! We still had almost seven miles to go! I looked at my GPS – 28.5 miles!

A couple runners were refueling here, with the help of a friendly volunteer named Pearl. We began to relate our incredible tale while tanking up for the last arduous drop into Gateway, with no particular haste. The wind had long left my sails, and the only comfort in continuing was knowing that the last seven miles would be downhill. I asked Meg if she was able to finish on her own, and upon her go-ahead, I took off toward the finish. Only, the first few miles were not ‘cruising-with-a-smile-on-my-face-downhills’, but feet-slapping, brake applying, quad-blasting downhills. I simply had nothing left for those kind of slopes. I passed a couple runners on my way down, but in the wake of the preceding taxi ride, the victories were small and empty. The grade began to mellow, and I took the opportunity to coast into the finish.

With about two miles to go I caught up to Beverly Carver, a 49-year-old road runner from Colorado Springs. I decided I would stay with her until through the end of the race, hoping I could be a good motivator. We completed the course together to the applause of the finishers lounging in the grass beneath a grove of behemoth cottonwood trees. Once word got around that I had just completed a 35-mile marathon, Luke walked over and I shared my two miscues in mock frustration. I could tell he had already been compiling a mental punchlist for next year. After a few more runners crossed the line, he announced that we would be getting a reduced price for next year’s race. No matter. I would have paid full-price for another chance to also make things right. Besides, I figure I’ve already gotten my miles at a discount!

Race course details - Wait, you said this was a marathon.


David Ray said...


Well that was certainly worth the wait. A saga of epic proportions.

Firstly that luxury suite was well equipped, complete with fancy ash tray.

And that pic of you eating breakfast? That was the good one?

The scenery pics are fantastic. As soon as I can kick my kids out of the house, I'm coming west to do some running. Really like that shot of Beverly in the road.

Thanks for writing it up. One of the best I've read.

funkylegs said...

Thanks, David!

Trust me on the breakfast photos - Bad, bad, BAD!

Blackberry doesn't do *too* bad with photos. Bernie was carrying a much nicer camera, and maybe I'll be able to get some shots from him.

Sorry about the double posts - still trying to work out the kinks on this one.


Chris said...

Hey Kirk,
Glad you lived to tell the tale! Really enjoyed the report, great job finishing in good ultra-style.


Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Whoa, that tops my PR for bonus miles! See you soon (or already did).