Sunday, July 22, 2012

Race Recap: Kendall Mountain Run

Silverton is a quaint old mining town in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, at an elevation of about 9,300 feet. Other than the dusty, paved main drag, Greene Street, all the roads are gravel. An antique tourist train comes to town around lunchtime every day, and most of the tourists are content to have lunch, visit the local shops, and hop back on the next train to Durango.

Here I am on one of those gravel roads, literally at the end of the tracks:

Even though the town is already at 9,300 feet, the surrounding mountains are quite a bit taller!

Of course, my plan wasn't to ride the train, it was to run up Kendall Mountain, a 13,000-foot peak that looms over the town. Here it is looking especially foreboding:


It would be the highest mountain climb I had ever attempted. And if I needed medical or clerical attention, the available facilities did not look good:

This may or may not be Silverton's only church / hospital

After dinner in a colorful local establishment, I settled down for a fitful night's sleep. The next morning I'd be running the Kendall Mountain Half Marathon, ascending from 9,318 feet to 13,066 feet at the top of Kendall Mountain, then running back down. I'd made elaborate plans and predictions, but truth be told I had no idea what to expect. Not only was this the highest race I'd ever participated in, when I reached the top, it would be the highest point I'd ever stood on. A few days earlier I had set my previous record, by driving to the top of Independence Pass, at 12,095 feet.

Finally I awoke at 6:30 and packed up my gear. Despite the fact that the race had aid stations every 1.5 miles or so, I had decided to carry a hydration pack. But since there was water along the route, I only filled it halfway. I also carried a camera, and some gels. Because of the large scar on my left arm, I've been wearing a compression shirt for all my runs this summer. I thought briefly about wearing my DART singlet over the shirt, but decided it would be too warm, so I left it in the room.

Around 7:55 the race director made a few announcements: Stay to the right, yield to the downhill runners, and be careful during the final scramble to the top. Then at the sound of a very loud starting pistol, we were off! 

Lining up for the start. There may have been more spectators than runners!
I'm in the center of this picture, in the orange hat.

The only flat sections of the course would be the first and last mile. At least that's what I thought. I had been hoping to put in a quick 8-minute mile for the first mile of the race before heading uphill. But actually the slope started about .75 miles in, and we had a nice 150-foot climb at the end of Mile 1. As Mile 2 started, I was already walking.

My plan had been to take a 1-minute walk break as infrequently as possible. Initially I was hoping these would be after about 3 minutes of running, but by the end I was thinking I'd be doing a 1-minute run followed by a 1-minute walk. If I could maintain this pattern all the way up the mountain I'd actually end up with a pretty good overall time, possibly faster than 2:30, which would put me solidly in the top third of all finishers. By the end of Mile 2, I could see that even a 1-minute run/walk cycle was unlikely, it was simply too steep. Somehow I managed to keep on a 14-minute-mile pace through Mile 3, but at Mile 4, things got really steep.

Another runner pulled up next to me and asked "are we there yet?" I should probably put runner in quotation marks because at this point, we were both walking. In fact we weren't even halfway up the vertical of the climb. We'd ascended about 1,100 feet and still had 2,600 to go. Miles 4, 5, and 6 would each have more than 800 feet of climbing.

Different competitors had different strategies. One runner who passed me early on kept a slow, steady running gait for pretty much the entire run. I don't think I ever saw him walking (although he was well ahead of me by the time we got to the steepest part of the run). Another woman pretty much walked the whole thing, but at a very fast pace. Indeed, she too was well ahead of me by the time we reached the summit.

I was spending so much time walking I figured I might as well get my camera out and take some pictures.

The "are we there yet" guy is to the left. Full-time walker is ahead in green

Me and a few of my friends taking a stroll in the woods.

As we ascended I ended up spending a lot of time with a guy from Durango who told me his wife had given birth to their first child earlier in the week. She told him he might as well still do the run, so here he was!

We kept climbing, mostly walking, up and up and up.

As you can see, the road is quite rocky. While the grade was relatively even, there was rarely an extended stretch of smooth ground. I began to wonder what the descent would be like.

Finally, in Mile 6, we hit a few runnable stretches. The road seemed to level out just a bit as it headed up towards the summit. Then we rounded a corner and I saw why. We were headed towards a little notch, where the final aid station was located. After that, it was a scramble up a very steep trail to the summit. I could see 7 or 8 competitors making their way up the scree, more crawling than running, as one or two runners were making their way down. Before the race, we had been given the choice of making this climb, or taking a longer "mellower" route that wound around behind the summit. I didn't see anyone choosing that option.

I reached the scramble and began making my way up. Ever 30 seconds or so a runner would come crashing down, and I'd do my best to stay out of his or her way. I noticed a couple runners had thought to bring gloves to assist them on this climb/descent. Nice idea! The Proud Father was still with me on this section, but we were each too engrossed in making our way to the summit to talk. Finally, after 7 or 8 minutes of climbing, we were there! A few aid workers were handing out water, and I got one of them to take my photo holding the Summit Coffee sign!

Brian and Tim, I think I have a new decoration for your coffee shop!

(If you aren't a Davidson resident, you may not know about our local hangout, Summit Coffee. It was founded by a mountaineer and still has a lot of mountaineering-themed decor. It also serves at the unofficial headquarters for the Davidson Area Running Team. I'm hoping this photo will rate a spot on Summit's walls....)

Then it was time to start down. I had been a little spooked by the climb and asked the aid worker about the "mellow route" down. He said it wasn't marked and as long as I stayed to the left I probably wouldn't get lost. This didn't seem very mellow to me, so I decided to go back down the way I came. I actually found it easier than I thought it would be, and passed several people on the descent through the scree. Then I reached the road and tried to settle into a steady running gait.

Things went well for about the first mile or so, and I found I could maintain a 9-minute pace. Avoiding the rocks was a bit of an adventure, but somehow I managed to descend with few stumbles.

But after about a mile and a half, I began to feel a burning sensation under my left heel. I could tell it was a blister, and I stopped to tighten my shoelaces. It was about all I could do. I kept running, trying not to favor the heel too much. I knew this one was going to be painful and take a long time to heal, but grousing about it now wasn't going to help me get down the mountain.

The road got steeper, and I had to slow a bit. A few people passed me in this section. I find I'm just not a very good downhill trail runner -- probably mostly because I don't spend enough time on trails. Still, I was maintaining a fairly reasonable pace, and didn't feel the need to stop for breaks. Occasionally I had a sip of lukewarm water from the hydration pack.

Finally, I reached the bottom of the mountain. I had read a recap of the 2005 race saying that the hardest part was the flat finish. It was definitely a struggle transitioning from the long downhill into running form for the flats. I did have to stop and walk a couple times, too. It was not easy. For me the strangest part was the transition onto the smooth (albeit unpaved) roads of Silverton. It felt precarious, like I was running on a hockey rink. A crazy sensation. Then, about a third of a mile before the finish, I saw Greta, waiting to take my picture! My first thought was "don't take a walk-break now!" Here's the shot she got of me as I headed towards the finish line:

Victory (or at least sitting) is at hand!

Just a few more blocks to go, and I'd be finished. I crossed a small bridge into a park, and made my way across the finish line. I was done! The race director handed me an official Kendall Mountain Run glass (very nice!), and directed me to the water station.

As it turned out, the race wasn't a true half-marathon -- I had measured 12.18 miles on my Garmin -- but I wasn't complaining. This was most definitely the toughest half I've ever run, and nearly as hard as a full marathon. Soon Greta caught up with me at the finish area, and I sat for a while chugging down water.

I had made my way up and down a steep mountain, and even run some of the time. I had climbed higher than I ever had in my life, and back down again. I had done it in 2 hours and 42 minutes. This was a little slower than my "A Goal" of 2:30 or better, but it was right in line with my B Goal, and well under my C Goal of finishing in less than 3 hours. The official race results haven't been posted, but I'll update this post with the results when they are; I was pretty close to the middle of the pack. Not bad, considering most of the runners are from Colorado! I'm pleased with the result, but glad it's over. A great race, and an amazing experience!  

Update: Here are the race results. I was 49th overall, and 4th in age group. On the plus side, I was the first North Carolinian!

The Garmin plot of my race is below:

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