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Race Report: Mount Evans Ascent 2016

I like to run up mountains. Originally the name for this blog was going to be “Of Mountains and Masochism,” and even though I don’t have the legs (yet) to take on those ultras that sprawl up and down entire mountain ranges, any race that looms an intimidating enough peak in front of me gets penciled into the to do list, usually multiple times. Which is how I found myself at the starting line for my third Mount Evans Ascent in as many years.

Mount Evans is a bit of an oddity for a mountain race. Usually summiting a mountain involves a lot of trail work. But Evans prides itself on having the “highest paved road in North America,” and every single step of the ascent takes place on that paved surface (even during the years when snow and ice have literally torn entire lanes of the road off into the void). Its other claim to fame is a fun little tradition where runners get a reward rock if they can beat certain time limits (2:40 for men and 3:00 for women). It might not seem like much, but it’s weirdly motivating, and you hear packs of runners at the start line, and various spectators all the way up, discussing the odds of taking home some gravel.

As for the shape of the course, there’s not much to say. You’re going up. Okay there are a few brief exceptions. Around the six and the eleven mile marks there are very short (I’d say 100 to 200 yards tops) and very slight downhills. And then there’s the crusher. At about the eight and a half mile point you end up on an extended downhill trot to just past the 9 mile point, which should feel great except it’s immediately followed by a mile and a half of what always looks (and feels) like the steepest uphill on the course, only made worse by the fact that the legs you’ve spent 8+ miles getting accustomed to an uphill grind just lost all of that acclimation during the dip. You earn every step of that particular climb (as a random aside, there’s a speed limit sign on this upwards stretch admonishing everyone to keep it under 20 miles per hour, and while I know it’s intended for the cars, my oxygen deprived brain always takes it as a joke on us poor, barely moving runners). There’s not much to look at either. Once you pass the 3 mile mark you’re above the tree line and the views open up, but the landscape is pretty barren, composed mostly of rocks, the occasional wall of ice, and, if you’re lucky, a couple mountain goats and marmosets (who inexplicably chirp at the exact same pitch as a carbon monoxide detector).

I’ve discussed in my past several race reports how out of shape I am, and why. And that’s fine for a 10k. It can be a little depressing to toe a starting line and realize you have no chance of PR or really anything near your last time at a particular distance, but you still show up with a pretty good idea of how you’re going to do. You just roll back the time a little. For a race that challenges you to summit a mountain, things are different. You don’t just run slower, there’s the question of whether you’ll be able to run at all. But you can’t dwell on that going into this kind of race because so much of the grit you need to keep putting one foot in front of the other once the quad burn settles in and the oxygen runs out is mental. Unfortunately that’s exactly where my head was at and it had me in such a funk that I was not only unprepared to confront the psychological challenge, but I was even screwing up the very basic physical things, like forgetting my watch for timing splits and trying to track my progress.

In my experience most of the runners who come to Mount Evans fall into two categories: the first try to blast out of the gate (relatively speaking) to bank some time ahead of their inevitable collapse from the altitude, the sustained uphill slog, or some combination thereof, and the second, already intimidated by the as yet unseen snow capped peak, start off at a virtual crawl to conserve as much energy as possible for the challenges ahead (there are a few who actually pace this thing properly too, but you can generally think of them as unicorns, albeit slightly more rare and composed of gamier meat). I’m in that first category, which I know isn’t technically a wise decision, but I’ve been there and done this a few times in the past, and I know almost no one gets up this peak without smacking hard into a wall at some point. However, it seems like no matter where I place myself at the start I always seem to get pinned behind a group of the leisurely inclined runners early on. And it feels like death. There’s something about running up hill at slower pace than you’re comfortable with, it seems to wear you out just as (or more) quickly, and you’re not even getting anywhere for your trouble.

Still though, once I broke out I was powering along better than I expected, with my legs and body holding up pretty well through the early parts of the course, but whenever I managed to find someone with a watch and occasionally check in on my progress it was apparent my speed just wasn’t up to snuff, and was getting further and further from the mark as I chugged along. In the last two years I’ve managed to make it to the final aide station (about the 11.2 mile mark) and a little further than 12 and a half miles before my first walking breaks (don’t laugh, almost everyone walks at some point on this mountain… almost everyone). And my original thought was if I could somehow maintain at least a similar breakdown point I might be able to somehow squeak under the limit for one more souvenir rock. But as I crept closer and closer to the finish line, even though I was still moving at something you could nominally call a run, I was feeling time loom. I somehow churned all the way past the 12 mile mark before I finally broke (literally) into a walk. At that point another racer I’d queried for the time earlier let me know how much time was left as he went by and I had the crushing realization that the famed rock was out of reach.

From there the finish was a mess. I could get a pretty good power walk going but I couldn’t find my feet under me long enough to run for more than about 50 yards at a time, and even those spurts were few and far between. One of the volunteers asked me as I approached the last switchback if I had anything left in the tank, and I gestured back with the tinniest of distances between by forefinger and thumb. He replied “Well, you’re so close, now’s the time to use it,” and I jokingly told him I had to save everything for that last burst to look good going across the finish line, and all kidding aside, even that didn’t work out. Jogging the last 100 feet or so, my muscles suddenly started locking and unlocking in random patterns. I looked like a puppet being jerked around by a kid going through heroin withdrawal while having seizures. But I did manage to finish, and immediately plopped my butt down on the nearest rock to wait out my body’s indignant betrayal and the shifting spots that started appearing in front of my eyes. The final time was more than 7 minutes too long for a rock, and almost 20 minutes slower than my previous ascent. In the end even the mountain goats looked at me cross eyed (some of you may think that’s just the way their faces look, but deep down I know that look of confusion and disgust was for me… and the apparently debilitating taste of the mountain fauna, but mostly for me).

Overall Impressions: I like the Mount Evans Ascent. Only a masochist would run a race they hate 3 years in a row… Okay, and only a masochist would actually try to run up a mountain in the first place, but still. It’s a solidly put together race, with one of the better post run picnics you’re likely to see, and a fun little gimmick to get you to push hard for a better time. Moreover it’s doable. Many mountain races tend to lend themselves only to the hardcore runner. But if you can do a half marathon and come out of it with a decent time, while you’ll be to slow for the coveted reward rock, odds are you’ve got a fairly good chance of at least not embarrassing yourself in front of the mountain goats (figurative and literal) on Mount Evans. If I had one major criticism it’s the difficulty of fighting through all the damn cars taking up space on this tiny little two lane thoroughfare. Last year the road was closed for all non race traffic due to snow damage, and it was a literal breath of fresh air. If you’re running hard enough, sometimes breathing, even on flatland, can be a bitch. Doing it at 14,000 feet above sea level is another thing altogether. And if you’ve also got an endless stream of cars belching fumes in your face, well, as the punchline to the old joke goes, it’s exhausting. But the road is a busy tollway generating buku bucks for the mountain, and the only way the vehicle bound can get up, so odds of it getting closed again, outside of another repair related emergency are somewhat scant.