clue that this was no ordinary race came in the first paragraph of
the course description. It said: "this may well be the continuously
highest and possibly hardest marathon on earth." On Earth! I gulped
and read on.
"The start/finish is the lowest point on the course
at 10,200 feet; the highest points are over 14,000 feet."
are a few landmarks along the ridge that the course will cross: Peerless
Mountain, 13,348'; Mt. Sheridan, 13,748'; Mt. Sherman, 14,036'; Gemini
Peak, 13,951'; Dyer Mountain, 13,855'; and Mt. Evans, 13,577'."
Evans and Dyer is the only jagged section that may require hand-assisted
running/walking." (I will explain this "little" understatement later
"Fourteen miles of this race will be above timberline. (11,400')
"You will have to see this course to believe it; pack a double lunch
Under the general information section of the entry form, I read the
following tidbits: "Carry food, clothing and water with you. Lightning
can be expected in the afternoon and freezing rains are not uncommon."
"There will be aid stations at 8, 17, and 21 miles."
should send fellow contestants ahead so that help may be returned
as soon as possible." (Yikes!) Recalling the last time I tried to
run at his kind of altitude, (Pikes Peak Ascent, 1988) I was naturally
a tad concerned. Actually, at Pikes Peak, once I was higher than 12,000
feet altitude, I didn't run so much as stagger forward with the sensation
that my head was disconnected from the rest of my body. I decided
to give the race director a call to get some more information and
have him assure me that this race was not really as difficult as it
sounded. Once I got him on the phone, I asked him for a description
of the race. "Well," he said. A looooong pause. "It's very hard!"
Knowing how Coloradoans can be masters of the understatement, I explained
that I lived at sea-level, and did he think that fact might be a problem
for me? His response to me was that ambulance fees and Flight For
Life air evacuation services would be the runner's responsibility.
With this overwhelming vote of confidence under my belt, I was off
..... The day before the race, I was in Telluride, Colorado, elevation
8,800'. I decided to go for a little run to see how my body was adapting
the altitude. Most experts say it takes 2-3 weeks to get used to altitude,
but unfortunately I had only two days. My three mile run in Telluride
at a 9 min./mile pace yielded a heart rate of 165 BPM. Prior to leaving
on my trip, I had bought a heart-rate monitor from Dennis at SBR Sports.
I would use this device to help me try to maintain a steady pace during
the race. The next day's race was going to be interesting, indeed.
..... The next morning's 6:00 A.M. start dawned overcast and chilly.
(About 40 degrees at the start.) My clothing consisted of shorts,
tights, a long-sleeved polypro top, a singlet, a Gore-Tex jacket generously
loaned to me by Darrel Jeffries (Thanks, Darrel!) , gloves, silk balaclava
hood, and a baseball cap. I wore a two-bottle pack and carried another
bottle in my hand. My pack was stuffed with a banana, raisins, and
four Powerbars. At 6 A.M. 116 hardy souls (fools) started up the mountain.
My goal was to maintain my heart rate at or preferably below 150 bpm.
A half-mile into the race, 90% of the field was already ahead of me,
and none of them were doing any walking. Damn, these Colorado runners
are tough! I was blazing along at what was probably an 8:30 to 9:00
min./mile pace when I checked my heart monitor for the first time.
175 bpm. (First reality check of the day!) I started to walk. I might
have some ego, but I'm not crazy. There was a long way to go.
..... The course was paved and uphill for about the first 4 ½ miles,
rising 1,000 feet. After a short, steep downhill and a turn onto a
dirt jeep trail, the trail started ascending again through forests
and alpine meadows. I reached the first aid station (8.4 miles) in
the Empire Gulch, in 96 minutes, feeling ok. I was walking all of
the steeper uphills and jogging any flat or downhill sections. My
heart rate had stabilized to 140-150 bpm. Past the first aid station
there were many small streams to cross and some thick brush to bushwhack
through. It was at about the 10 mile point that I noticed I wasn't
running very much anymore. It was all steep uphill at this point.
Nobody else was running, either, so that made me feel a little better.
We were now at the base of the Empire Amphitheatre, and surrounded
by steep slopes on three sides. I knew that we were going to have
to get to the top of the ridgeline that towered over us, but how?
Surely we couldn't go straight up the mountainside, it was too steep!
(Second reality check of the day.) We did go straight up! How steep
was it? How about rising 1,380 vertical feet in a half mile! There
was not much of a trail, so the footing was very treacherous. There
was also a lot of loose dirt/gravel; so much slipping and sliding
was being done.
..... I finally reached the ridgeline. (Peerless Mt., 13,348') On
top of the ridge there was no protection from the wind, so it started
to get pretty chilly. Also, once on top of the ridge, the trail basically
disappeared. The ridgeline consisted of rock fields, broken up by
the occasional patch of grass or snow. As one might guess, a lot of
trail-following improvisation was used here. The next mile and a half
took us up over Mt. Sheridan and down to the base of Mt. Sherman.
It was very slow going, jumping from rock to rock, boulder to boulder.
I don't think I had done any running since the 9 ½ mile point. I started
the steep climb up to the high point on the course, Mt. Sherman (14,036').
The wind was really blasting now, and it had started to snow lightly.
A guy I was running (hiking) with at the time had one of those little
key chain thermometers and said that it was 30 degrees. Combine that
with a 20-30 mph wind, it was, well, you get the picture. I stopped
for several minutes, fumbling with my silk balaclava hood, putting
it on under the Gore-Tex hood and baseball cap. My hands were pretty
cold. I crested Mt. Sherman, the approximate halfway point of the
race (13.0 miles) in about 4 hours. As a reward for my achievement,
it hailed on me for about 10 minutes. (Thank God for Gore-Tex!) Remembering
the last time I was at 14,000 feet, when I got sick, (Hypoxia is the
technical term) I made my way down the back side of Mt. Sherman as
quickly as possible. I'd been told that the view from Mt. Sherman
was beautiful, but all I saw were the tops of cloud banks and the
occasional oxygen molecule!
Northern Sawatch Range seen from Mt.
Sheridan. Leadville is down to the left in the photo.
off Mt. Sherman is where the course got really interesting. The following
hour was spent gingerly stepping from rock to rock and trying not
to twist my ankle for the umpteenth time. A new type of obstacle had
started popping up, too. Snowfields that were on sixty degree steep
slopes that we had to traverse. The fields were about 200 to 400 yards
wide and very steep and slippery. The snow was about four feet deep,
so if you broke through the crust, you could expect to sink in up
to your waist. I saw a guy slip on one of these slopes, slide down
about 20 feet, and helplessly watch as his water bottle slid further
down the slope, over the edge, and hurtle into 2,000 feet of empty
space. (Reality check number 3!) After struggling through the rocks
and snow for a while, I came on a guy camped out just beyond Gemini
Peak. He had a ham radio set-up with him, so I asked him if he was
a race official. He said he was. "What mile point is this?" I asked.
"This is mile point 13.8" he said. The last 8/10 of a mile had taken
me 65 minutes to do! (Reality check number 4!) Nothing to do except
keep going, I guess. Little did I know that the most difficult part
of the course was yet to come!
..... After another mile or so of steep
rocky descent, I came to a section of "trail" where it was no longer
possible just to walk from rock to rock. This was the "hand-assisted"
section that was mentioned in the entry form. What the entry form
failed to mention, however, was that on some of the sections of the
rock the competitors literally had to climb hand-over-hand with their
feet dangling in mid air! There were six inch-wide ledges to tip-toe
along, and 50 foot high boulders to shinny up and over. This race
had ceased to be a running event, and had turned into a "survival
of the fittest" course. And having to do this at nearly 14,000' altitude
made it a bit more strenuous!
..... I finally climbed/hiked over Mt.
Evans and stumbled down the hill toward the aid station at 17 miles.
Being at over 13,000 feet elevation for nearly 4 hours had definitely
made me a bit light-headed and weak, so I was little bit wobbly on
the trail, but fortunately I was not nauseated. I made it to the 17
mile aid station (elev. 13,200') in 6 hours, 5 minutes. I descended
the next three miles (2,000 feet down) to Lake Isabelle. It was at
this point that the entry form had mentioned a "little 400' vertical
side hike". So I headed up this very steep hill (Much steeper than
Goat Hill in the Catalina West End 30k race) and made it to the top
thinking that there were no more bad uphills on the course. (Reality
check number 5- Wrong!) I rounded a bend just after the top of the
hill and was confronted with another 200-300 ft. steep uphill that
they didn't mention in the entry form. It was here that I finally
lost my sense of humor. Muttering to myself all the way up the hill,
I trudged into the last aid station at 21 miles in 7 hours and 7 minutes.
..... I must say that the last 5 ½ miles
(The course was 26.6 miles long) downhill into town were actually
quite pleasant, running through forests, along a railroad grade, and
finishing in town where we started. I even managed to run about 90%
of the last 5 ½ miles. I don't know where I got the strength, I guess
it was in knowing that the end was near. I finished in 8:09:47, 73rd
overall out of 116 finishers. There were only three runners in the
race not from the state of Colorado. I had heard that the wining time
was somewhere around 4 ½ -5 hours, but that seems hard to believe.
The race officials were expecting some of the runners to be out over
12 hours. I would believe that. All in all, it was a pretty, uh, interesting
day. If I've learned anything from this experience, it is that when
the race entry form says "Possibly the hardest marathon on earth",