Estes Park is way up high… 7500 feet. The marathon is advertised as “the highest paved marathon in the world.” The area’s geography also can make Estes Park a windy place. And holding a marathon in June means that it might be hot. Sure enough, all three factors came into play for race morning – it was hot, it was windy, and there’s no getting around the fact that the race is way up high. The course itself is basically a loop – we started at the middle school and finished on the high school’s track next door. But the course does not make a simple loop shape. Instead, after a quick one mile loop around the schools, we headed out for some gorgeous (though tremendously challenging… I’ll come back to this), meandering trips through the hills, by the lakes, and around the town. The race went all over the place. In fact, there were other races that are happening at the same time. They all ended at the same finish line, but they all started in different places and had somewhat different courses. This made for some interesting middle miles in the marathon as we spotted runners on totally different paths going in other directions. “Are we lost?” No. The course was supremely well marked and had tons of red shirted volunteers at the turns. We were just witnessing other races in progress.
And now, a quick word on hills. By running over 100 marathons all over the country, I’ve learned that the word “hill” conjures up different images to different people in different races. The hills in the Estes Park Marathon were not hills nor Hills; they were HILLS. Somewhat steep – not trail marathon “I better walk it” steep, but hard work. And two of them were really long. The first one started around M1 and didn’t crest until M5.9 at the highest point on the course – over 8,000 feet. The second one started at M16 and crested around M20. In both cases, the road twisted around and around and we just never knew whether we were nearing the top until we got there. However, the course is a loop, and so it is very fair. All that elevation we gained we got back in various downhills along the way.
Race morning itself started out weird. At 6a, weather.com reported that it was 48 with a “feels like” of 44. So I bundled up in three shirts plus a throwaway layer and headed out for the school, which was about a one mile walk. Immediately outside my hotel’s door, I was blasted by hot air. It was the opposite of a chill factor. Wow. Off came the shirts… it was going to be an unexpected singlet-only day at 7500 feet.
I met quite a few maniacs, 50-staters, and coolrunners before the start. A couple folks were from Colorado, but most of us were a bit apprehensive about the altitude and the heat. We should have been a little more worried about the hills and the wind… but we didn’t know about them yet. It would not take long to learn.
My goal for the day was basically “sightseeing”. I burned myself out the day before by attempting to run Marathon to Marathon fast… and blowing up in the middle. Then there was that pesky altitude thing. The heat I did not mind one little bit, but I knew it wouldn’t make me faster. The hills and the wind? Treats yet to be discovered. I figured that sightseeing at 7500-8000+ feet meant a 5 hour finish. But I really had no idea.
7a, 3-2-1, we were off. My legs forgot my plans, and I went out too fast, somewhere between 8:30-8:45 pace. 3 minutes in, and I was immediately paying for this. It felt like someone hit me in the chest with a shovel. I adjusted my pace somewhat, but I also decided to tough it out for 10 more minutes just to see if my body would adjust. Altitude is weird. Aside from some definite altitude sickness problems at Leadville (12,000 ft), it doesn’t usually do much to me except slow me down. So when I feel short of breath at the beginning of a high race, I start wondering if it is real, or if my mind is messing with me, or if I’m simply not warmed up yet. The truth in this race was basically a little of all. Around M1, we started up the hill… and this adjusted my pace a bit for me. However, I kind of got into the hill, I forgot about being worried about the altitude, and my breathing began to regulate properly. Silly mind.
Ah, but then the wind started. As I got higher and higher up this hill, it started to get really gusty. I played leapfrog with a maniac/coolrunner friend named Amy. After telling Amy that I thought the hill would go on until M7 based on the elevation chart, we crested at M5.9. Ha. Heading down the other side towards a small lake, the wind absolutely howled. First it was a headwind that I thought might blow me back up the hill. Then we turned and it became a side wind that staggered me a few times. It was amazing, but it came with amazing views. It was warm and it wasn’t raining. I wasn’t a big fan of the wind, but it was an ok price to pay for the other aspects. I did have to switch to “backwards hat running”, though, and it felt strange.
As the course led us back towards town, the wind died down a little bit. Temporarily, at least. Around M8, Amy was just in front of me and came within about 10 feet of an elk. At first I thought it was one of those goofy statues that people put in their yards. Nope. When I went by, up popped the elk’s head. I said hello. He looked at me. A few things about this elk. For one, it didn’t try to eat me. Then again, it wasn’t a mom with a calf. For two, elk are big! For three, he (she? No horns) had no fear of me. He didn’t spring away like a deer. Pretty cool. Goodbye, elk.
The town section of the course was interesting. I made a quick pitstop in a real non-porta potty. Around M10, we ran in a coned off lane of the main road. Down an embankment by a lake was a bike trail… and lots of runners. This was the “Am I lost?” section. I wasn’t. It was also the only part of the race where a lane was coned off for runners. I was thankful for this section, and would miss the cones later on. We cut over to some bike paths and circled the lake. I hit the half at 2:05. The wind was starting to whip us around a bit again.
At M15, we zigzagged through a neighborhood and then turned onto a major road. This one did not have cones. During the pre-race announcements we were sternly reminded to run single-file, and we were told that running more than two abreast might get us disqualified. I now understood why. This was a fairly busy 2-lane road, and it had no real shoulder. Ugh. It would turn out that we’d keep this experience with us from M15 all the way until about M23.
Around M15.5, we started up the second of the two giant hills. Up and up we went. Lots of people were walking. I ran most of it, except I did walk the aid stations.
The aid stations, by the way, were generally plentiful… and by the last 8 or so miles, they were very frequent. I needed that. As we headed up the hill, my throat started closing up. Between the altitude and the wind, I was getting dehydrated and I think my throat just physically dried out. I was taking two or three cups at each station. These were full cups too, so I was easily going through 15-20 ounces every mile. And my pace was mushy oatmeal. I wasn’t wheezing… I was breathing pretty much like I normally breathe in the later miles of a marathon. But whereas my pace in the late miles of a “bad day” is usually around 9:30, these miles were all 11s and 12s. That was all I could do, especially going up the hill.
I was between M17 and M18 at the 3 hour mark. Usually, I am between M20 and M22.
The actual crest of the second big hill was somewhere between M19 and M20. I’m not exactly sure where. I do know that I ran an 8:40 mile heading into M21. That was a nice downhill, and it felt like I was running much faster. It was also short-lived. The rest of the course was roly poly. Up we went, down we went. Sometimes the wind helped, and sometimes it did not. Amy had gotten pretty far ahead of me, and I lost sight of her somewhere in this section.
At M23, we turned by the Stanley Hotel. You may know this as the hotel from the tv version of The Shining (and also where King was when he wrote the book). What a cool thing to encounter during a race! However, it was a bit of a letdown to realize that the hotel is not, in fact, in the middle of nowhere. It is, in fact, near the Safeway.
Around M24, we cut back onto the bike trail we had used earlier in the race. All the volunteers were very encouraging. At M25, we hit the last aid station. While I was looking down, a volunteer decided to blast me in the face with a super soaker. NO. Just, no. If you ever volunteer at a race, please don’t do this. Ask first. For one, it is M25 and we’re all incoherent (though possibly in need of drenching). For two, I was looking down, and it was totally unexpected. For three, don’t shoot me in the face. Wearing glasses is a double-edged sword – they protected my eyes from the blast, but when they got wet, they immediately fogged over. Boo.
No matter. At M25.8, the bike trail cut down a ravine. Up at the top were people hooting for us. Cool. At M26, we entered the “stadium” (a field with some bleachers and an excellent track), ran around the track, and that was that.
4:24. Huh. Well, I beat 5.
Some of my maniac friends, including Amy had already finished. We talked for a bit and then went searching for the post-race party. It was great! Sandwiches, burritos, cookies, ice cream, fruit, beer, soda, music. From the party, we had a good view of the bike trail. When we spotted more friends (two more maniacs and coolrunners), I chugged back over to the finish to give them a woo. While I was there, I was met by a coolrunner spectator. How nice!
I have a list of “Hardest Road Marathons”. This is a work in progress because I tend to register for tough races. Estes Park is now going towards the top of the list. I still think Crater Lake is harder. But not by much.
Aside from being very thirsty, I felt great. I dig warm/hot races a lot more than cold races, and having incredible scenery just made everything enjoyable. Hard, but fun hard.
Up next? My goal race for this part of the year, and the race I’ve been excited about for eleven months and three weeks. It’s time for the Kona Marathon.
I’ll see you there. Wear sunscreen. I recommend Banana Boat Sport, in the orange tube.