Sunday, August 3, 2014

Race recap: The Kennebec Mountain Challenge

A couple months ago, I was planning my training calendar leading up to the Pike's Peak Marathon. I knew I would be in Colorado for the final two and a half weeks before the race, so I figured, "why not do a tune-up race two weeks out." That led me to the Kennebec Mountain Challenge, in Durango, near Telluride where I would be staying. I signed up impulsively, before checking Google Maps to learn that it was about a two and a half hour drive from Telluride.

Fast forward to yesterday. It's 4:24 a.m. when I wake up to the noise of Telluride revelers outside my window. Really? I'm getting up for my race and you're still partying? But I needed to be on the road by 5 am to get to the race on time, so I packed up my gear, hopped into the rented car, and hit the road.

Two and a half hours later I arrived at the start to a well-organized event. There was a great map of the course, and a bulletin board with all the results from previous races. This was a 15-mile trail run that started at 9,000 feet and rose to 12,000 feet elevation before heading back down to the start. There was no chance I was going to win; I was just hoping to be finish in under 3 hours, which looked to be a respectable time based on the previous years' results. The winners would be finishing in closer to 2 hours.

Before I knew it, we had started. I was planning on taking it easy for the first mile since I was running the race with no warm-up. I had done a couple runs in Colorado and knew that my usual race pace for an event like this would have to be tossed out the window; at 9,000 feet my "easy" 8-minute pace involves considerable effort, even on flat, paved terrain. This meant that lots of runners were ahead of me; I was solidly in the middle of the pack.

Midway through Mile 2, we had already climbed over 300 feet, and the road was just getting steeper. The runners around me showed no signs of slowing down. I, on the other hand, was ready for my first walk break. "Run your own race, Munger," I told myself, and walked for 60 seconds. I was passed by a couple people but didn't lose much ground. I told myself I had to run for another 5 minutes before I could walk again. But when I got to the point where I was planning on walking, the road leveled out. Dang it, I can't walk here. I pushed myself another 5 minutes before taking another walk break.

My internal dialog went like this for the next several miles, but the road kept getting steeper and the walk breaks got more frequent. Finally the road got steep enough that I was walking nearly all the time. I wasn't getting passed any more, and I seemed to be keeping up with the other runners, even when they were running and I was walking. The valley opened up to some spectacular views.

Headed up into the clouds
If you look closely, you can see the trail and some of the runners above me.

I kept running -- mostly walking -- and ascended higher and higher up a progressively rockier road. It got to the point that it was really too technical to run, even if I could have managed it on the 15% grade at 11,000 feet above sea level. Some runners had started early, and in this section I was beginning to pass a few of them. It was impressive to see 60-and 70-year-olds tackling this terrain!

One woman ahead of me persistently ran up everything at a solid, steady pace. After a while, I began to realize I might actually be gaining on her, even though I was walking. A half a mile later, and I was beside her. "That's not fair," she wisecracked as I passed.

The views continued to be impressive, and I stopped to get a selfie:

Not sure where the camera is? Or just distracted by the scenery?

The scenery is prettier without the goofy runner in it...

Around mile 5 the route turned off the road and onto a rough trail. Now it was almost a scramble up rocks and scree. Then we hit a traverse across a steep field of scree. Every once in a while I needed to put my hand down to get my balance, and I realized I was sticking it out almost horizontally to the side and still touching the mountain. Finally we reached the top, at 12,000 feet in a fog bank. Instantly I was chilled and put on my gloves.

As it turned out, the gloves would come in handy. The trail down was steep and technical, with lots of slippery dirt sections. The final stretch had to be at least a 60% grade, and I was basically sliding down sideways, balancing on my feet and one of my hands. Then we were back on the roughest road yet, and had to head back uphill for a final half mile. Once again, the view was spectacular:

Here I don't think I'm distracted so much as exhausted
Finally I made it to the top of the pass, and I could see it was downhill from here to the finish. I stopped to tighten my laces and remove my gaiters, then plunged down the road. It was, again, technical and rocky, with grades in the 10-20 percent range, and it was all I could do to focus on stepping on solid ground on each step. Somehow I was managing around an 8:15 pace, and was even beginning to pass some runners. But unlike at The Scream, I was laboring for breath. Even a steady downhill was tough at this elevation.

It was also starting to get warm, and there were long, unshaded portions of the road. I passed the final aid station, and with 4.25 miles to go, I checked my watch. As long as I could maintain a 9-minute or better pace, I should be able to come in under three hours. But the incessant pounding of the downhill was beginning to take its toll. There were a few short uphill sections, and I actually let myself walk on one of them, to the surprise of the woman ahead of me, who must have been certain I was about to pass her.

With two miles to go I felt a rock in my shoe. I didn't want to get a blister, so I stopped to take the shoe off and got passed by a couple other runners I had passed earlier. I couldn't find the rock in the shoe, and when I started running again, it felt like it was still there. Oh well, nothing to do but keep running. Finally the finish was in sight, and I crossed the line in 2:56 -- solidly under my 3:00 goal. Here I am cooling down in the finish area:


Overall the race didn't feel too bad; I was able to push fairly hard on the downhills, though I was laboring towards the end. Hopefully that's just because I haven't gotten used to the elevation yet. I'd like to think that in two weeks at Pike's Peak, I will be able to handle the thin air. With 11 more miles of running and -- gasp -- 4,700 more feet of climbing, I'd better be!

My Garmin GPS record of the race is below.

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