Sunday, June 30, 2013

Some up, Some Down and a Win !

after completing Mt Evans Ascent

Running the Colorado Marathon, just 20 days after Boston, seemed like a good idea at the time.  I felt like I'd recovered before the second race, and I did manage to run another sub 3 marathon.  But that race took it's toll.

I took a week off after, then slowly started running again.  Slowly being the operative word.  My legs felt very heavy.  Very little bounce in them.  Not exactly surprising, but unfortunately not good timing.  Over the winter I'd signed up for multiple races in June.  3 weekends in a row actually.  It had seemed like a good idea at the time.  Now I was regretting it.

June 8th was the Odyssey Odyssey - a low key 4 mile trail run at a local school

June 15th was a race I'd wanted to do for several years.  One that I'd signed up for in 2010, but had had to withdraw due to the achilles tendonitis.  Mount Evans Ascent.  The big mountain that looks over Denver.  The photo below is from City Park, where I run most days.  Several of my cycling friends had cycled up it - I wanted to be able to say I'd run up !

June 22nd was the Slacker Half Marathon.  A downhill half marathon, but one that has an altitude component.  It starts at 11,000 feet and has several ups along with the down.

This blog entry is mostly about the Mt Evans Race, but I'll touch on the other two briefly first.

The Odyssey Odyssey was run around bluff lake nature reserve in Stapleton on a combination of gravel, and single track.  I'm definitely not a trail runner, but knew the route and had run on most of it when I lived close by.  I had no idea what to expect and who might turn up to race but my son had asked me to try to win.  Big pressure !!!  As it turned out - it was mostly just parents from the school, and the older kids.  Some of whom went out at sub 6 minute pace, but quickly slowed and I soon found myself leading.  It was clear early on that I'd be winning, so I backed off and turned it into a training run, wanting to save myself for the Mt Evans race.  I kept looking over my shoulder, hoping one of the older kids would make a comeback so I could let him pass, but no.  So I reluctantly took the tape for my first win.  A 4.1 mile undulating relatively easy trail course in a little over 27 minutes.

The following weekend was Mt Evans Ascent.  More on that in a moment.

The weekend after that was the Slacker Half Marathon.  It was the course I'd set my then PR - 1:23:45, 2 years previously.  But in 2012 I'd barely broken 1:30 on it, so knew a fast time wasn't a given.  And my legs felt terrible.  Heavy heavy heavy.  I didn't feel like I'd recovered from the Mt Evans race the weekend before.  Picking up my bib on the morning of the race, I very nearly asked to switch to the 4 mile race.  I really didn't see any point in suffering through a miserable half marathon.  My mind wasn't into it and I knew I could be in trouble.  The start was once again delayed due to poor organization at the bib pickup, so the temps were already warming up.  Earlier in the year I'd had a pie in the sky goal of running sub 1.23 to qualify for New York.  Not that I had any interest in running New York again for quite some time - it was more just to say I had qualified on the new harder standards.  I didn't think I was in shape to do that today, but decided I may as well try.   I was wearing my lucky 'sub 3' shirt.  As has become the norm for me, I purposely tried to go out slower and watched many of my racing friends disappear into the distance.  I knew I needed to average 6.20 pace for 1.23.  I tried to keep things close, fully expecting to detonate after a few miles like I had in 2012.

But the detonation never came.  I was able to maintain pace and from about a quarter of a mile in, gradually picked off runner after runner.  No one overtook me that whole time.  I made my way up to 10th overall, and knew I was right around the 6.20 min/mile pace target - especially after a quick 12th mile.  That was as a result of looking back on a turn and being surprised to see running friend Dave, who'd run with me briefly in Boston before pulling away to run 2.55.  I'd over taken him earlier and thought he was well back.  He was my age group and I knew he had visions of pipping me late.  That gave me an adrenaline rush and I knocked out a 6.05 mile.  The last half mile at Slacker is miserable.  Uphill on a gravel path.  My pace slowed dramatically and I felt the time slipping away, but when I saw the finish clock ahead counting down - I sprinted and made it in as it showed 1.22.57.  I'd made it !  Except I hadn't.  The clock was wrong.  As soon as I checked my garmin I realized I'd just missed it.  1.23.02.  Still - a 43 second PR, on tired legs.  If I'd run this in March, I'd probably have run another minute faster, but was very pleased with the result.

Here are the splits:

One of my teammates, Ryan, had won, and the rest had all placed top 3 in their age groups.  A great performance for the BCSM Willis / Carney team.

Back to that 'other' race that I'd run the weekend before.

Mt Evans Ascent.

This was something different.  It's a 14.5 mile race, from the ranger station at Echo Lake, up to the Summit.  The starting point is 10,800 feet in elevation and the finish at 14,100 feet or so.

The course is all paved - one of the attractions to me - and is the highest paved road in North America.

It's not as steep as Pike's Peak Ascent, but still averages about a 5% gradient and has close to 4000 feet of total climbing over the race.  Take into account the altitude, and I had no idea how to approach it.

I haven't noticed a big lift in my performance going down to sea level.  I've run 13 marathons in total, and the fastest was at altitude.  So I had a theory that cardio-vascular was not my limitation when running.

If this was true, then my theory went, that if I went to higher elevation - I wouldn't experience such a drop off as those who get the lift going to sea level.  Tenuous, and with no scientific data - but I was going with it !

I checked the results from the previous year and looked at my age group.  I saw, outside of one mountain goat master who I realized was way out of my league, that to make the top 3 - I'd need to average in the low 9 minute / miles.

The next question was how to do that.  Do you run faster at the lower elevations ?  To try and get an idea, I did 2 training runs on the course.  The first from the start, up to mile 3 and back, and then the following weekend from mile 3 to mile 10 and back.  From that I learned that the first few miles were pretty steep, and if I went too fast (which I did in training) then I quickly got into oxygen debt and slowed dramatically.  So I decided on an even pacing strategy as best I could.  Start off around 8:30 pace, but be prepared to run the bulk of the miles around 9 minute pace.

It's another early start.  7:30am gun time, but with the parking situation and hour's drive from Denver, I had to leave the house at 5:15am.  I chatted with some friends at the start, then we lined up - and were off.

I was shocked at the early pace.  I was running around 8:30 min/miles as planned, and was watching people fly up the road ahead of me.  I knew the mountain specialists could maintain that, but looking at some of the others - I wasn't convinced.  Still - I stuck with my plan and ran with the pack.

Slowly but surely though, I noticed I was moving up as others started to slow.  They were probably going to suffer unfortunately.  Already in oxygen debt 1 mile into a 14.5 mile race, with the worst most definitely to come.  I was very thankful I'd had a couple of 'test' runs over the previous weekends.

Soon we were single file, then gaps appeared.  

I maintained what I hoped was a reasonable pace and ticked through the first 3 miles.


Just after mile 3, having already climbed 1000 feet, we rose past the tree line.  From here to the top there would be no more trees.  There was something a little daunting knowing there were still 11.5 miles to run, and at an altitude that few living things could survive at.

It was getting harder, but I was still passing people.

I knew from my training run the previous weekend, that mile 7 wasn't as steep.  I kept telling myself to make it through mile 6, and then I'd get a bit of a break.


That's okay.  Pretty much what I'd hoped to be running.

Mile 7 indeed was easier.  And by easier, it was only about 200 feet of climbing, but that was considerably less than the previous miles had averaged.

I picked up the pace.  Each time I caught someone, I'd ask their age group.  During this mile the reply from a man was 40-44.  Uhoh.  That's my age group.  We chatted for a few minutes and then he clearly decided he didn't want to lose a spot and tried to accelerate.  I let him go.  Still a long way to run.

Despite that - it was still an 8.25 mile.  My fastest so far.

Mile 8 got steeper again.  9.11.  But I caught and passed my age-group competitor.  Time to stretch this out.

Mile 9 is the 'easiest' of the race.  Just 100 feet of climbing.  That felt flat at this point and I was able to pick it up.


Fastest mile of the race and now 9 miles in.  'Just' 5.5 to go.

I was feeling pretty good.  I was averaging around 8:50 pace, so a little quicker than my goal, and wasn't suffering too badly.  Still - I knew the worst was to come, and I hadn't run those miles so didn't know what to expect.  I'd met a group of ladies when I'd done one of my test runs - they said a lot of people just walk the last 4 miles.  "It's that bad" they'd said.  Great !

At mile 9.5 you hit summit lake, then make the turn.  This was the cut off point for the slower runners.  If you're not here by the 2.5 hour point - you're not allowed to continue.  No such issue for me fortunately.

We were very strung out now.  No one for 50 yards in front and probably the same behind me.  Temperatures were in the 40s at this point, with a wind that alternated from head to tail on the switch backs.

Mile 10.  9.11 again.  9-11.  Maybe symbolic ?  I hope not.

It was definitely starting to get harder.  In the next mile I crossed the 13,000 foot elevation point.  'Only' 1100 feet of climbing to go.  The altitude was starting to slow me.

Mile 11.  9:16.

Still pretty good.  Averaging under 9:00 pace overall.  Just 3.5 miles to go.  

I'm slowing though.  

Mile 12.  10.01

Uhoh.  10 min / mile pace ?  I feel like I'm crawling, but I'm holding my position.  I'm not gaining on the guy up ahead, but I'm also not losing ground.  I glance up to the summit and see the switch backs, and cars and runners crawling upwards.

Mile 13.  I really am slowing now.  322 feet of climbing in the mile and I'm hurting.  A lady passes me and I chat to her.  She's the first place female and is looking strong.  I looked her up later and saw she's a 2.50 marathoner, which made me feel a little better.

I look back down the road and think I can spot my age group competitor a few minutes back.  Don't let him catch you !

10:34 pace for Mile 13.

A friend drives past in her car and yells.  I pretend I'm happy and she takes a photo.    Still - it gives a good idea of how spread out things were at this point.  

It feels like I'm crawling.  I have a strong urge to walk.  I'm starting to feel dizzy with the lack of oxygen, but I push on.

I'm seeing my splits push close to 11 min / miles.  I figure that if I power walk, I'll be doing at least 15 min / mile pace.  I give myself permission that if I slow down to that level, I can walk.  But I have no intention of doing that.

I want to be able to say I ran all the way up Mt Evans.

Through mile 14.  11:00 exactly.  Ugh.  But just half a mile to go.

Up ahead I hear someone yell my name.  It's a running friend Amy who ran Boston.  She's out supporting several friends and is on the next switch back up.  I catch her and we run together for a short while and then she tells me I'm almost there.  Fortunately I know she's right.

One more switch back and I can see the finish.  Push on.  Actually speeding up a little.

Over the line in 2.12.52.  Average pace 9.10.  

20th overall out of 410 runners, and 2nd in my AG.  For some reason they took the other 40-44 year old guy out and gave me first place.  I won $40 worth of sports gear, an ice cream bowl, and the Mt Evan's 'rock' award.  That's given to all men who break 2.40, and women who break 3 hours.

All in all - I was very happy with this race.  It was my first ever Mountain Ascent, and despite having very little experience running uphill at high altitude, the race went almost exactly as planned.  I'm going to run this again, and maybe can hold things together those last few miles and break 2.10.

But whatever happens - I'll now always be able to point to the big mountain looking over Denver and say - "I ran up that" !!

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