Immediately upon finishing the Lean Horse 100 last August, my thoughts turned to what would come next (well, maybe not IMMEDIATELY following….finding a chair was the first order of business). In the few months following Lean Horse, I considered damn near every ultra in the west. Ironically, Collegiate Peaks was not one of them. I was aware of the event, had even heard some good things about it, but for whatever reason it just didn’t enter my mind. Until, that is, occasional fellow Black Hills runners Paul, Ryan and Nathan mentioned in January or February that they were running it and asked if I wanted to tag along. Well, hell, if you’re gonna twist my arm….
By that time, I had actually settled on a race plan for 2011 (or thought I had, anyhow). After I suffered my first ever DNF at any distance at mile 34 of the Bighorn 50 last June, it was obvious that I had to go back for redemption this year. So, I had formulated a training plan that would build toward that race on June 18th. As it turned out, that training plan called for a 30 mile long run on May 7th and a 10 miler the following day for a weekend total of 40 miles. Tack on another 10 miles and cram all of em into one day, and I’m set, right?
As for the actual training, my one mission this year was to get in more trail miles. I’ve progressed as a runner over the years from 5Ks to 10Ks to marathons (I skipped the half-marathon step) to ultras. As a result, I’ve also started delving more and more into trail running in the last couple of years. I’ve now reached the point where, if it were logistically feasible, I would run the majority of my weekly miles on trails. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible, so I still find myself pounding pavement for the most part while hopefully catching a couple of short trail runs during the week and then maybe a long one on the weekend. Not the most ideal training for a mountain ultra since, well, mountain ultras take place on trails in the mountains. I did manage more trail miles this winter/spring than I ever have before, including a 30 mile run on the Centennial Trail (the first 30 miles of the Black Hills 100 course) a few weeks before Collegiate Peaks. I tapered the last couple of weeks before Collegiate Peaks and was feeling reasonably good by the time race day rolled around.
We made the 9ish hour drive from South Dakota down to Buena Vista (which is either B-you-na, B-way-na or B-when-a depending on who you’re talking to….most locals go with B-you-na) on Thursday evening. Lucky for us, an old college buddy of Paul’s lives in BV and offered up his camper, which was large enough to sleep all four of us, for the weekend. Free lodging! Can’t beat that. On Friday, we loaded up in the vehicle again (because we just hadn’t gotten our fill of driving on Thursday) and headed up to Leadville, about 35 miles north of BV, to check it out. Paul had lived there before, so he showed us around and took us on a mini-tour of the Leadville 100 course. I was actually quite surprised by how much of the course consisted of roads. Not that that makes it an easy race, because the climbs we saw were pretty insane (Hope Pass, in particular). Plus the fact that it starts at over 10,000 feet. Maybe I’ll come back someday and find out how hard it really is. Maybe. After the Tour de Leadville, we headed back to BV and checked out a small portion of the Collegiate Peaks course. While doing so, we noted how overly warm it felt, even though it was actually only mid-60s. The cold spring in South Dakota hasn’t offered up much in the way of heat acclimation with only a handful of genuinely warm days. This observed “heat” (which we will consider “chilly” in a few months) would prove to be a factor on Saturday. After dinner at the race-sponsored pasta feed, which was actually fairly decent, we headed to the pre-race meeting and then back to the camper for a surprisingly decent night of sleep.
We were up at 4:30 on race morning to get dressed and down some breakfast before we headed into town to seek out coffee, which we found at the 7 Eleven. We pulled up to the community center, which serves as race headquarters, about an hour before guntime and got a rockstar parking spot very near the start/finish line. This was desirable since the race does not have any accommodations for drop bags on the course….if you want to resupply you have to wait for the halfway point and get your supplies from your vehicle. Having a parking spot so close allowed us to do so fairly efficiently. We milled around a bit, fighting off the pre-race nerves, before we were ordered to line up. Immediately after doing so, I spotted Mike, who I’ve met at a few other races in Colorado and South Dakota and at the Boston Marathon and we chatted for a bit. Then, with absolutely no warning whatsoever, no 10-count, nothing, an air horn went off and the race was on.
The Collegiate Peaks course is a 25 mile loop mostly consisting of ATV trail and Jeep roads with a short section of pavement and couple of sections of single-track trail. They have a 25 mile race in conjunction with the 50 mile. Participants in both events complete the loop clockwise. After the first loop, the 50 milers turn around and run the loop again, but counterclockwise the second time. 50 milers are also given the option of stopping after the first loop and becoming a 25 mile finisher. The first couple of miles included the paved section that took us along the Arkansas River and eventually onto what seems to be a twisting maze of ATV and Jeep trails through the hills east of BV. Fortunately, the course was marked very well, so taking a wrong turn was never really a concern. Early on, I was feeling pretty good and actually ended up running much more of the first loop that I had thought I would. There were a few climbs, primarily in the second half of the loop, where it seemed more prudent to hike, but for the most part I was cruising along and didn’t feel like I was putting too much effort forward. I ran and chatted with a couple of other guys along the way, one of whom told me he was considering running the Black Hills 100 or the Bighorn 100 as his first 100. Lucky for him, I told him, he had randomly managed to find and run with one of the Black Hills co-directors. I told him a bit about the race before we eventually parted ways. We’ll see if it worked. The course starts at about 8,000 ft. in BV and tops out at about 9,300 ft. I really didn’t feel like the elevation was affecting me much during the first loop, but I did take note that the last 6+ miles of that first loop included quite a bit of downhill, which of course would become an uphill during the 2nd loop. As I was heading down that long decline, I passed Ryan, Mike and Nathan on their way back up, who were all looking good. I hit the bottom in exactly 4:30, resupplied at the vehicle and headed toward the start/finish. When the dude with the clipboard asked if I was going out for the 2nd loop, I didn’t hesitate and said “yes I am” thinking I was on pace for a possible sub-10 hour finish. Wrong.
The first few miles going back up really weren’t bad and I was still feeling good. I passed Paul, who was on his way down, not far into the climb and that was the last familiar face I’d seen until the finish. I wasn’t running everything at this point, but taking walk breaks every now and then. I didn’t really feel like I NEEDED to walk at this point, but I thought it was prudent to do so knowing that I would be going uphill for awhile. A few miles into this climb, the course switches from trail to Jeep road and the steepness of the ascent sharpens noticeably. I swear to God, I do NOT remember running down that steep or long of a hill on the way down during the 1st loop. I was definitely walking because I HAD to at that point. I could see the road stretching out above me for a long ways and every time I got to the point that seemed like it should have been the top, the damn thing just kept going further. Finally, I did reach the aid station at the high point of the course. At this point, I was definitely feeling the elevation as my heart was hammering in my chest and my stomach was starting to voice its disagreement with the current state of affairs. My legs, while definitely feeling like they had covered 30+ miles, still felt reasonably okay. I still had aspirations of being able to run a good portion of the downhills for the remainder of the race. Those aspirations were quickly shot down as I discovered that running only caused my stomach to feel worse, which forced me to walk much more than I really wanted to. It was at this point that I started playing a very delicate balancing act between taking in enough water and calories while not upsetting my stomach. I ate a ginger chew at some point, which seemed to settle my stomach a bit and allowed me to start running the downhills again. The problem was, I knew that I needed to be taking in calories too but as soon as I did, whether in the form of a gel or solid food, my stomach would start to go south again and I would be back to square one. I would repeat this process of feeling bad and walking until I felt better, to running for awhile and feeling okay, to feeling bad again for the rest of the race. There was never a doubt in my mind about whether or not I would finish, it was just a matter of how long it was going to take.
Finally, I reached the last aid station, and was actually feeling pretty decent at that point with only five miles to go. Or was it six? No one seemed to definitely know the answer to this question. I thought it was six, but the sign at the aid station said I was at mile 45. By this point, my new goal was to finish in under 11 hours. Why? Who knows? Really, I think I just needed something tangible to work toward at that point. Whether it was five or six miles to the finish, I had an hour and a half to cover it. I decided I should probably just assume it was six miles and pace myself accordingly just to be safe. I left the aid station reasonably confident sub-11 would happen but still resolved to run as much as possible and started off pretty well in that regard. Then, after running a downhill section of trail, the course made a sharp turn up a hill. This hill was fairly steep, but also very short, something I would definitely power up under normal circumstances (of course, “normal circumstances” don’t apply to an ultra). I walked up it, slowly, and as soon as I reached the top I was hammered by a wave of nausea. I reached into my pocket for another ginger chew, but it was too late. I stepped off the trail and, for the 2nd time ever, I puked during a run (maybe not coincidentally, the 1st time was also during a 50 miler). I didn’t have much to throw up, water mostly, but I felt immensely better after it was done with. By that point, I was only about four miles from the finish and still on pace for sub-11. For the first couple of miles after emptying my stomach, I felt pretty good and was able to run quite a bit. After that, the course left the trail again and I was back on the road. This definitely should’ve been entirely runable, but as I ran down the road my stomach started feeling a little off again. I would run for a bit and then would have to walk for a bit while it settled down. Then I’d run some more until the nausea built up again. Wash, rinse, repeat. I got passed a few times along this stretch and really didn’t give a damn. My Garmin battery died at about mile 48, so I couldn’t track my pace, but I was at least able to walk strongly when I was walking and with the little bursts of running thrown in, I knew I was probably going to make sub-11. Finally, I made the last few turns and the community center came into view. Obviously, I had to save my last bit of running for the charge across the finish line, which I did, crossing in 10:53:59.
And, honestly, after finishing I didn’t feel all that bad. The nausea immediately went away. My legs were definitely tired, but not debilitatingly so. I met up with Paul, Ryan and Nathan and caught up on the events of their day. Paul proved to be the smartest one of our group as he called it good after 25 miles. Ryan hammered out an impressive sub-8 finish, good for 2nd in the Master’s division and top 10 overall. Nathan also fought off stomach problems (no puking for him though) and still ran a sub-9. All in all, a successful day. Yeah, I would’ve preferred to run this thing an hour or 90 minutes faster, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me on that day. I was able to fight through and finish, which is all I ultimately cared about (and more than I can say about Bighorn last year). After a quick shower in the coin-operated facility at the community center, we headed down to the Eddyline Brewery for some post-race beer and food. It was good. Real good.
Overall, Collegiate Peaks is well done. I have some small gripes, such as not having gels or ice at the aid stations and the fact that the last two aid stations ran out of Coke by the time I got there, but overall it’s a good event, especially as an early season training run for something bigger later on (say, the Black Hills 100, for example *wink wink*). Nice course, some great scenery, but you might want to bring your own oxygen if you’re not a Coloradan. Hopefully, it will prove to be good preparation for my return to Bighorn next month.