Collegiate Peaks Trail Run Tale

by | Nov 2, 2011 | News Articles

Here is my summary of the Collegiate Peaks Trail Run that was held on Saturday, May 5, 2007 in Buena Vista, CO. The race is a 25 mile loop through national forest land on the east side of the town, along the Arkansas River. Runners have the option of completing the loop once or turning back around and running the loop again in the opposite direction for a 50 mile run.

The pre-race meeting the night before was concise but informative. The trails were to be firm with no muddy sections. There would be one river crossing where we should expect to get at least our shoes wet since the water was ankle deep at minimum. The aid stations were to be manned by the BV Optimist Club members and available every 4-5 miles. The weather report called for temperatures in mid 30’s with possible snow Friday night and Saturday morning.

Michael Orendorff and I arrived at the race site (Conference Center) about 30 minutes before the start and there were ample parking spaces nearby. We debated heavily on how much clothing to wear for the run as the current temperature was in the low 30’s with a slight wind and heavy, dark clouds filling the sky.

Someone recommended going with less clothing; he said when he finished the race last year, he was stripped down to a tank top and shorts and the weather was similar to this year’s start. I had just started antibiotics for strep throat only 24 hours earlier and was still suffering from a sore throat and other cold symptoms. I figured I’d rather have more protection in case it snowed or the wind really kicked up.

I went with a long sleeve dri-fit long sleeve shirt, a fleece vest (as opposed to a wind-breaker nylon vest), shorts underneath long racing pants, a pair of bicycling socks and trail shoes. Wearing the ear band was the perfect head accessory and my thin racing gloves were on and off during the race. I also wore my Polar HR monitor and, for the first time ever in a race, I wore headphones (iPod shuffle). I figured that there will be a lot of time where I wouldn’t see anyone around me as I’d be bringing up the rear of the pack and it may get a bit lonely out there in the woods by myself. Plus I had been training with the iPod, after going most of my life making fun of people who used headphones as a crutch in their training.

I wore a fuel belt that held six 6-oz bottles that mostly contained a carbohydrate/protein mix that is high in calories and easy to digest. In the pocket of the belt, I had several electrolyte tablets and a bag of jelly beans.

The race started exactly on time, even with several runners sprinting to the starting line after hanging out in their cars until the last minute because of the cold. There was no horn or loud noise to signal the start of the race, just the race director yelling “Alright, GO!” The first few miles were the flattest part of the race and the only section that was on pavement as we ran behind the city softball fields and down a road along the west bank of the Arkansas River.

I started at what I thought was a slow pace but was shocked to see 150bpm on my HR monitor. I wasn’t breathing heavily. It could have been the surge of excitement of starting the race but also it very well could have been the elevation. Living in Pueblo, CO, I train at about 4700 feet elevation and we started the race at 8000 feet. You can definitely tell a difference!

As soon as my HR and I started to calm down, it was time to hit the trails and start the up and down terrain that would continue for the remainder of the race. If you weren’t going up a steady or very sharp incline, you were going down. For the most part, the terrain was not technical although at times, you had to really watch your footing or you may trip on a root or rock or lose your balance and fall down a cliff. At times it was difficult to take advantage of the awesome views of the Collegiate Peaks to the west or look around for emerging wildlife because of the constant turns of the path or varying terrain.

The footing was very solid as the trails were mostly packed with sand. We had heard horror stories about the muddy traction of previous races but were very content with the condition of the trails on race day. What an amazing area to hold a race! I’m jealous of the locals who have access to this beautiful National Forest land anytime they want for training or exploring.

The course basically has three big hills (or mountains depending on where you’re from) of 800-1000 feet elevation increase over 3.5 miles in duration for each one. The maximum elevation for the day was at the peak of the third hill (9400 feet). The third incline or hill definitely was the longest and most drawn out while the second hill had the sharpest degree of incline near the top which not only reduced people to walking but almost crawling.

Running in the back of the pack, I quickly noticed how everyone would run on the down portions of the trail and stop at about the same point on the up hill portions to start a fast walk. It was rare that anyone around me would challenge the up hill sections so I figured they had experience in running such trails and I followed suit. Plus I have heard how some runners waste their energy on running up the large inclines on the Pikes Peak Ascent race and then later are reduced to walking on the flat or downhill sections because of their built up oxygen debt.

During the early part of the race, my long legs helped me walk faster than others and I quickly found a comfortable fast-walking pace going up the sharp inclines. As soon as I reached the apex of an incline, I started to run and continue down while keeping my sight ahead of me to look for upcoming rocks or holes to avoid.

I was very happy to see the first aid station, which seemed like forever to reach, at the 5.2 mile mark and near the top of the first hill. There were several volunteers handing out cups of water and dilute Gatorade and a long table outfitted with bowls of potato chips, pretzels, half-cut bananas, plain M&Ms, store-bought oatmeal cookies, and chocolate chip cookies. When I first approached the table, I felt a brief sense of nausea and quickly had a flash back to my Ironman Arizona experience last year when I could not tolerate any solid foods on the marathon and had to resort to GU gels and fluids.

I thought I was in serious trouble if I already couldn’t tolerate solids this early in the race, especially with this excellent spread of treats. I live and train to eat, basically, and the aid stations of a marathon are usually a buffet for me as I stop to take in what is being offered like a little kid trick or treating for Halloween. Thankfully, I regained my appetite and drank two cups of Gatorade while chomping down an oatmeal cookie and a handful of M&Ms. The M&Ms tasted really good especially in combination with the Gatorade. It reminded me of my favorite snack combo in high school, which was plain M&Ms and Mountain Dew.

I stuffed a handful of M&Ms in my pants’ pocket for later use, grabbed another oatmeal cookie and took off down the trail. I felt a pleasant surge of energy and felt confident in running up some of the inclines a bit longer than I had been before slowing to a fast walk. I usually prefer to run up the hills, but at this elevation you have to be a bit careful not to overdo it.

The oatmeal cookies tasted delicious at the aid stations when consumed with the cups of water, but I noticed that when I nibbled on them while running, they quickly formed a dry paste in my mouth that demanded me to either wash them down with the precious fluid on my fuel belt or just spit it out. The fuel belt is very helpful to have in this type of race but I’ve noticed that it’s difficult to take the bottles in and out of their “holsters” while running. I found it easier to deal with while running up a hill but a nuisance when running down a hill because of going faster and having to be more on the look out for obstacles to avoid at the faster pace.

I had also taken half of a banana at the last aid station and ran for at least a mile with it in my right hand. I was a bit apprehensive about eating the banana during the run since I hadn’t really incorporated eating a banana with my run training. I have had no trouble eating bananas while bicycling but it has seemed to give me gas when I tried it while running. I basically held it for awhile as a safety valve because I thought I may need it for its electrolyte content.

I remember the aid station director saying that the creek we had to run through would be at about the 9 mile mark. There were no mile markers on the entire course except at the aid stations so I never really knew how many miles I had run. At the first aid station (5.2 miles), my watch read 70 minutes. I tried to figure out the math of how long it had been since then and how far I may have run but just soon forgot about it and looked forward to reaching the creek.

I noticed many runners sitting down at the first aid station and strapping on some type of shield over their ankles in preparation for the creek crossing. I didn’t have such accessories and started to wonder if the creek would be so high with the runoff and recent rainfall that I may have to swim across. Visions of me being swept down the river like Billy Crystal and the calf in City Slickers soon came to an abrupt end when I spied the creek down the path below me. People were stopping and then hopping across along a broken tree branch. I tried the same but my right foot slipped off and sank into the cold water. Luckily, the depth of the creek was shallow and only the mid-foot portion of my right shoe got wet with my left shoe staying completely dry.

Soon after crossing the creek and continuing up the second big hill, I became very tired in a short amount of time. I thought of my medical director at work telling me that he wouldn’t recommend running 25 miles within 24 hours of starting antibiotics for strep throat. I was thinking that I may have to stop at the next aid station and pull out of the race. Was it worth it going on and trying to finish this race? These thoughts resurfaced as I staggered up a very steep portion of trail near the top of the second hill. I think I took a few steps backward instead of forwards, which must of prompted someone who went by me to ask “You alright?” I mumbled something and was happy after the next few steps to not only see an unobstructed view of gorgeous Mt Princeton but the start of the decline of that treacherous hill.

Ahh, time to run down now! My energy picked up somewhat as my legs churned faster to run down the hill and before I knew it, I was arriving at the second aid station. I stood at the food table and feasted on the available offerings like it was the last meal of my life. I almost forgot that I was part of a race that was being timed. I soon came back to reality and continued on down the trail with more energy than I had at the start of the race.

A little piece of paper taped to the table read “11.7 miles.” I thought for sure the volunteers were going to tell me that we had only run 10 miles. 11.7 miles? That’s what, only 13 miles left? A half marathon? I could do that! And off I went with the promise of a new day!

At that point, I just concentrated on running from aid station to aid station and not quite thinking about how many miles I had left. I had used this strategy during the Ironman for both the bike and run legs since they each involved three loops. After finishing one loop, you focus on two more. The next aid station was at the 14.5 mile mark, which was only 3 miles from the last aid station. They place it early so you can fuel up before heading up the last of the three monster hills, with the third one apparently being the toughest. “It’s mostly downhill to the next one” a volunteer shouted to me as I headed on down the backside of the second hill from the aid station. Usually I hate when people say “it’s all downhill from here” or “you’re almost there,” but this volunteer happened to be correct. Except for a few minor rollers, the majority of the next three miles were downhill.

I usually prefer running up hills but the combination of the elevation, the fatigue from my upper respiratory and throat infection, and the 25 miles being a bit daunting distance at this point in my training, forced me to walk up the hills during the race. The sight of a downhill or flat terrain thrilled me and gave me a chance to not only move forward faster but also to calm my breathing at the same time.

My confidence was gaining after the second aid station as I began to actually race or at least try to keep up with certain runners ahead of me. There were over 200 runners on the course with about 60 of them planning on making the turn for another 25 miles. Someone was always either out in front of me to try and catch or someone behind me to motivate me not to stop or slow down. I was thinking that I’d be out in the woods all by myself for long stretches of time.

As I was approaching the aid station at the 14.5 mile mark, I realized that my long sleeve T-shirt had soaked completely through but my fleece vest was dry. The sun had come out and there was very little wind. At the station, I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my waist under my fuel belt and then put my vest back on and zipped it all the way up. I predicted that my shirt would dry out and that I wouldn’t be too cold with my shoulders and arms exposed to the elements. I quickly gulped down several cups of Gatorade, sampled a few chips and cookies, grabbed a big handful of M&Ms and set out to conquer this last mountain.

I started to run up the base of the hill but soon reduced my pace to a walk. There were two ladies in front of me that were talking a mile a minute and quite loud. I wasn’t really in the mood to listen or chat much myself so I turned up the volume on my iPod and shifted past them. I seemed to be making some time with my fast walk pace but the degree of incline seemed to increase in an inverse proportion to my soon-decrease in walking pace. I decided to spark a conversation with the lady in the blue shirt next to me since I had seen her earlier in the morning.

She said that she didn’t have any specific goals other than to finish since her longest run in training had been only 5 miles because of time constraints. I told her that she is doing very well considering. I soon left her behind as I chose to be by myself and return to my own world. At times I would turn off the iPod and just listen to my breath or to the birds and other nature sounds. On the third and final hill, it seemed like it was taking forever to reach the top. The degree of difficulty wasn’t as bad as the duration of the hill itself. It reminded me of those hills you are on for the first time and it curves around and you think you are about to reach the top when it just keeps on going and going. The scenery was a bit different as the forest was more dense with trees on this section with no views of the Collegiate Peaks. It was a nice change and I almost welcomed the isolation.

Especially on this course, I never was completely sure when we were on the other side of the hill and on our way back down. The course profile may show a steady incline but there may be rolling bumps during that incline with a net increase in elevation. I saw several cars parked in the distance though and surmised that it was the next aid station which was indeed on the way back down the third hill. Yes!

The first thing I looked for at the aid station was the little piece of paper with the mileage on it. I think I remember the sign reading 17.8 miles. Only 7 more miles to go! “And it’s all downhill” the volunteer proudly told me. ‘NO! Don’t say that!’ I thought to myself.

I took off my gloves, set them on top of a cooler, and put my T-shirt back on with the vest over it. I was munching on my favorite snack of the day, the plain M&Ms, when I thought it might be good to add some salt so I stuck a large rippled potato chip in my mouth. Yuck! M&Ms with a potato chip? I like fried potatoes but dipped in chocolate? I spit it all out and tossed down a cup of water before leaving the area. Whoops, I forgot my gloves and had to retreat a bit to retrieve them. I also filled up two of my bottles with Gatorade which became a huge help later on.

The first 2 of the last 7 miles were indeed very much downhill. I enjoyed stretching out my legs after the long walk up the hill. At about the 19 mile mark, the first 50 mile runner was approaching me from down the hill. I recognized him from photos in running magazines as the winner of last year’s Leadville 100 and ADT Marathon among others. His trademark must be running without a shirt no matter the weather conditions, he was always shirtless in the pictures and today as he passed me. Very brave soul, especially with the cold and snow we had for this race.

By the 20th mile, my legs and effort on the down-hills and flatter portions on this section of the course felt like I was going up one of the larger-up hills. My legs couldn’t continue at the pace I wanted; it almost felt easier to run than walk, but I was becoming too tired to run.

The last five miles happened to be the most interesting as far as scenery. There were fewer views of the distant peaks but the trail switched to single track soon after the last aid station at 21.4 miles. This included meandering through a canyon that involved running by large boulders of rock on either side of the trail. I thought “this area is too cool to just walk through. I’ve got to run through this section!”

Plus, at the five hour mark, I had decided that my goal would be to finish under six hours. I quickly did the math in my head and figured that I couldn’t just walk the last 4-5 miles if I wanted to accomplish this new goal. With this in mind, and the beautiful boulder section to run through, I picked up the pace and started running stronger despite my fatigue.

The trail took a steep decline and then had a few sharp switchbacks and then heading back up another steep incline before leveling out again. The rocks and bushes edged very close to the trail at times during these last miles, almost making for a claustrophobic section to run through. I continued to enjoy this scenery but it soon opened up to an overlook where I could see the prison down below us. The route took a sharp right as we ran along the eastern edge of the Arkansas River. The town of Buena Vista lay below me to the left and I continued along this bluff.

I saw more and more people running towards me as they were embarking on the second loop for the 50 mile race. I then crossed a forest service road and the trail switched to another single track lane and began a sharp decline with many switchbacks as we were heading down closer to the river and the bridge to cross over to the other side.

A 50-something year old man, who I had been running near since the last aid station, was out in front of me. I was trying to at least keep up with him as he seemed to maintain a strong, steady pace. He may help me finish under my 6 hour goal without even knowing it.

I saw the bridge in the distance that takes you over the river and to the conference center/finish line, which was about a quarter mile from the bridge. I picked up my pace a bit more, which now could legitimately be called “running.” I saw on my watch that, barring a major leg cramp, I would safely finish under 6 hours.

After crossing the bridge, I ran down the gravel road leading to the Conference Center. The flags on the sticks that marked the course had us run around to the back of the center where we had started. Up ahead of me, I saw an older man with long white hair. I had seen him often throughout the race and had talked to him at one point. I remember in my mind calling him “Moses” because of his appearance.

Well, Moses was doing pretty well out in front of me. I was wondering if I should try and pass him at the last second. My pace picked up and his seemed to flounder. The finish line was 50 yards away and I went for it and passed him right before the chute. I heard a splatter of applause from the 10-15 people standing near the finish line. It felt nice to hear after 25 miles of no sight of a spectator and no one cheering me on. The finish line attendant tore off the bottom of my race number as I looked back to see how Moses was doing. Believe it or not, he was turning around to head back out for another 25 miles. Amazing! I was happy just to make it through the 25 mile loop once! I looked at my watch and was content to see 5:47:09.

Someone put the finisher’s medal around my neck and I stumbled down the lane towards my car to change my shirt and grab my fleece jacket. Michael had met me at the finish line after waiting around for the past two hours as he finished in 3:51. I then walked back to the center for my obligatory lunch. I would have been fine to just get in the car and drive home but the meal was paid for and I definitely needed to restore some calories and glycogen burned during the last 6 hours.

I could already feel a stiffness in my calves and outer thighs. The muscles between my neck and shoulders also had knots in them but I felt it was a good, deserved ache.

I usually don’t eat ravenously after a long, hard workout. It usually takes a while for my appetite to come roaring back. I remember after finishing the Ironman last year in just over 15 hours and 30 minutes that I waited until 2am to eat the hamburger, fries and two pieces of pizza given to me after that long, arduous race.

My appetite after this run was no different as I slowly nibbled on the turkey deli sandwich and sipped from the 12 oz can of Sierra Mist. I didn’t even feel like finishing the small bag of Doritos. On an airplane, I will often eat 1-2 bags of these same chips and ask for more.

We didn’t stick around for the awards since neither Michael nor I were to receive anything. I did manage to win a raffle prize from a local rafting outfitter for a free half day’s trip on the same river that I just ran along. As we were walking back to the car, I looked up at the ridge that we had just run over and beyond for the entire morning and realized it was snowing really hard now. Whew, I’m glad I finished when I did!

I crawled into my car and grimaced in pain as my legs reminded me of what I had just done. We drove down to Loback’s Bakery on Main Street. Whenever I’m in Buena Vista, we have to stop at this tiny bakery for their donuts, which are some of the most delicious treats I’ve ever tasted. My wife is native to Buena Vista and swears by the glazed variety, but I prefer the applesauce donuts. The glazed donuts usually sell out quickly and the applesauce are usually readily available which is even better for me. I asked for six, then changed to nine and then went ahead and bought an entire dozen. I should have bought two dozen as my family and I ended up finishing them within 24 hours of my arrival back home.

I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed the race while I was running this challenging course. The memories in the days after the race are more satisfying: the beauty of the trails, the breathtaking views of the Collegiate Peaks, and the solitude of nature barring pavement and cars whizzing by. I would hope to run this race again in the future. I only ran three days a week to train for this race and it was just barely enough. I am now aware of the sacrifice required to run and complete this race with a more worthy finishing time. It will be worth the extra work.

A total of 190 runners ended up finishing the 25 mile race, while 52 courageous runners completed the 50 mile race under the 12 hour limit.