Sunday, June 5, 2011

Race Recap: The Steamboat Marathon

The best-laid plans come to naught when confronted with the immutable laws of physics. At 8,000 feet above sea level, the air contains 25 percent less oxygen than it does at sea level. While the human body can adapt to these circumstances, all else being equal, it will never perform as well during aerobic activities at altitude as it does at sea level.

Somehow I thought that this fact of nature wouldn't affect my attempt to run my fastest marathon (in two attempts). I was wrong.

I felt great as I awoke this morning at 5:00, having spent the previous three days carbo-loading and acclimatizing to the altitude. I strolled into the town of Steamboat Springs and hopped onto the bus that would climb 1,300 feet to an elevation of 8,124 feet, near Steamboat Lake, exactly 26.2 miles away. I chatted nervously with the other runners on the bus, each of us revealing our plans for completing the race. Mine, as it turned out, was hopelessly optimistic. My strategy was to run a 7:40 pace for the first 20 primarily downhill miles, then try to hang on for a 3:30:00 finishing time, an average of 8:01 per mile.

After my experience at Big Sur, I was prepared for a long, cold wait at the top. I brought an extra layer on top of the $8 secondhand sweats I had bought, ready to discard if necessary at the starting line. I got a fellow runner to take my photo at the starting area:

Nice and toasty!

It was about 40 degrees, so perfect weather for running, but a little chilly for sitting around trying not to waste too much energy.

After a short speech, the starting gun went off without so much as a "on your marks, get set." I settled into my planned 7:40 pace but almost immediately found myself a little out of breath. The first 10 miles or so of a marathon should be relatively easy. The miles add up, and if you work too hard at the start you'll have nothing left for the finish. The first mile was downhill, then there was a short uphill, followed by another long downhill before the first major hill of the race in Mile 4. I decided to take it easy on the hill, running up it at an 8:30 pace. Then we started the long, 16-mile descent. Here's a photo of the Mile 4 hill from my preview yesterday.

There's a climb there, honest -- right after this long straight stretch

Even on the rapidly declining Miles 5 and 6, where we would descend about 600 vertical feet, I still found myself laboring for breath. Splits for miles 1-6: 7:41, 7:43, 7:41, 8:24, 7:41, 7:40.

Starting at Mile 7, the course leveled out a bit, but still continued downhill. I found it increasingly difficult to maintain my planned 7:40 pace, and gradually slowed over the next six miles. As you can see here from another preview photo, the course was beautiful, but it still didn't inspire me to run any faster:

The scenery just went on and on...

My pace for Miles 7-13: 7:47, 7:43, 7:45, 7:55, 8:08, 8:09, 8:16. This simply wouldn't do. If I was going to make my goal of an 8:01 pace for the whole run, I needed to take advantage of this extended downhill, and I just couldn't do it. I was spent. We had arrived at the half-marathon start, with its legion of porta-potties, and I decided to take a quick bathroom break, as pre-constructed in this photo Nora took during the preview drive:

Imagine me at the other end of the row, looking totally exhausted

This did not have the desired effect of making me totally refreshed and restored. Instead, I gradually got more and more exhausted. I began to contemplate taking walk-breaks. By Mile 17, I was taking a 1-minute walk-break every mile. My splits for Miles 14-20 were 9:44, 8:43, 9:12, 9:28, 9:52, 8:47, 9:52. I remember thinking that my 8:47 on Mile 19 would probably be my last sub-9-minute mile, and I was right. There was beautiful scenery all along this section, but I was hard-pressed to enjoy it. Here's a sample from the preview drive:

How picturesque! Too bad I was too exhausted to care...

All along this section of the race, the road was partially open to traffic. Runners could use one lane, but cars and (mostly) trucks were being escorted up and down the other lane. I'm not sure if this was better than just letting vehicles fend for themselves, because we ended up coughing on diesel fumes as 20 pickup trucks passed us at a time. Then at Mile 20, we passed the area where a long line of vehicles were waiting their turn up the road. I had the rare pleasure of running past a half-dozen highly-aromatic fully-laden cattle trucks. 

Another runner and I had developed similar backup strategies for this stretch of the race: Run as long as you could, then walk as long as your conscience allowed. Our runs and walks were out of sync, so Inadvertent Galloway Guy and I ended up passing each other repeatedly during this section, trading frustrated comments about how this wasn't the race we had been hoping for. After an uphill section through Mile 22, Mile 23 was finally downhill, taking us along a busy road that was open to traffic in both directions, relegating runners to a narrow, dusty shoulder. By Mile 24, I was walking more and more. My splits for Miles 21-24 were 12:51, 11:58, 10:03, 15:29.

As I approached the Mile 25 marker, I began to wonder if I would be able to run at all for the final 1.2 miles. In the distance, I could see a woman walking opposite the direction of traffic, clearly looking for a friend. When she reached the Mile 25 marker, she let out a shriek as her friend ran past me toward her. They exchanged ecstatic greetings, and then her friend ran on toward the finish. I was walking along and asked Shrieking Girl if I could be her friend too. She shrieked convincingly in support of me, but just as I passed her, my left calf cramped badly. I couldn't walk; I could barely stand. I asked Shrieking Girl to help me sit down so I could stretch my calf. She wasn't sure that was allowed because she'd be assisting a runner (I'm pretty sure it's okay to help someone as long as you're not assisting them moving forward), but finally she helped me sit down. I stretched, and it seemed to feel better. Somehow I hobbled to my feet while Shrieking Girl walked further up the course looking for more friends. A man headed the other way in his car asked if I wanted a ride to the finish. I said "Are you kidding? There's just a mile left!" I was going to make it to the finish under my own power, whether it was a 10-minute pace or a 30-minute pace.

After about a quarter-mile of walking, I decided to try running again. I told myself to go slowly, but just to run. I was gradually able to pick up the pace, until I was actually running credibly for the final mile. Mile 26 pace: 15:29. As I approached the finish, I saw Nora and Greta, who had been patiently waiting for me. I had told them to expect me around 3:30 from the start. My actual finishing time was more like 4:08 (the official results haven't yet been released), so they had been waiting a loooong time. Despite the long wait, Nora was ready with the camera, and got these shots of me at the finish:

While this wasn't the race I had planned, I was genuinely excited to be finishing!

They still give you a medal if you finish 38 minutes slower than you had hoped to.

It was about 68 degrees at the finish line, but they were handing out ice cold towels for runners to cool off with. I guess in Colorado this counts as hot! I got rid of the towel and obtained a bottle of water and lowered myself gingerly to the grass in the shade in front of the county courthouse. They were a bit stingy with the water at this race, and since I wasn't able to get up on my own power, Greta and Nora had to keep going over to the water tent to get me new bottles. Inadvertent Galloway Guy had settled nearby, and we both joked about how pathetic our races had been. It was good to see that I wasn't the only one struggling today.

After sitting on the grass guzzling water for 45 minutes, I finally confronted the problem of how to get up for the 5-block walk back to our hotel. My quads were absolutely shot, so every time I tried to stand up, I had to sit back down. Finally we found a folding chair I could use to pull myself up with, and I limped back to the room.

After a shower, four Advil and wearing compression socks for a couple hours, I was able to walk relatively easily. We went out to dinner at the local steak house, and after a couple glasses of wine, my finish in the race didn't seem nearly as disappointing.

The Garmin plot of my race is below.


  1. Summary: High Altitude + Running Downhill = HARD

    Way to keep it going. Be glad you didn't get actual altitude sickness. You would have been begging for a ride all the way back to Denver.

  2. That's still pretty damn good, Dave. When finishing grad school at Florida I was running 42-44 min 10Ks then went up to Denver to look for an apartment for my postdoc there. I went the weekend of the Bolder Boulder (about 5400 ft) and ran just over 58 min. I was dying. I can't imagine trying to do Steamboat. I think you did great!