Why run the 2011 Mt. Evans Ascent? Why not? It would be a new challenge. I would rather ask, why run the same races year after year? You might as well mix it up some, right?
The Mt. Evans Ascent is the highest road race in America. It starts at 10,600 feet, and ends 14.5 miles later at 14,264 feet. My buddy Trevor and I would both be running this race. We had done a training run about three weeks prior from the start to the first cut-off spot (Summit Lake), about 9 miles (link to a photo of us on that day). It was fun, tough, cold, and breezy on that day. We then ran it back down to make a nice 18-mile day. Trevor and I both came away from that run thinking that the race was totally doable (and I resolved to remember my gloves).
Saturday, June 18, 2011. I arrived at the start, hoping to get a good parking spot and somehow find Trevor (he was going to be camping out in his car near the start the night before). It turned out that I really didn’t arrive very early, and had to park about a mile away from the start. I wasn’t completely pressed for time, so I considered the walk a good warm-up opportunity. At least I wasn’t one of those folks who parked a mile out, got to packet pickup, and then realized they’d forgotten a photo ID. Another round trip to the cars for them!
I picked up my packet, and was already shivering. The breeze, which I hadn’t noticed on the drive up, was already getting strong. Plus, at that elevation and time of the morning, it was quite chilly! Luckily, Trevor’s car was literally 6 feet from packet pickup, and we both got to wait in his cozy car. That meant we didn’t have to be out in the little snow/rain squall that rushed in before the start. Ugh, not a good omen. Luckily, the precipitation stopped pretty quickly. Trevor and I both got in a quick potty break, got over to the start, and five minutes later we were off!
Off slowly. The course is all road, and it starts off easily for the first minute or two. Then it goes uphill and rarely goes flat or downhill. We are running up a mountain, after all! I settled into a slow jog, determining not to slow to my first walk until the first aid station, about 3 miles in. I actually managed to keep this resolve, unfortunately dropping Trevor after about two miles. He was never far behind, however. We both knew that it was important to run our own races, not requiring one person to stay with the other. We start out together, and then gradually find our own paces.
The race was fairly pleasant until that first aid station, even though we’d had another light brush of snow flurries. After mile 3, however, we encountered the full blast of Mt. Evans’ furious wind. This was something we’d have to contend with the entire race. It turned out we had sustained winds of 30 mph, with gusts up to 50 mph. If that wind was in your face (headwind), only the best competitors that day could continue running. The rest of us had to walk and endure. After a while, I was walking so much that I seriously wondered how I would ever make the Summit Lake cutoff of 2.5 hours. Excuse the language, but over and over in my head my favorite label for the day was “Mother Fucker!”
We did have the occasional treat of a tail wind. I’ve honestly never been blown up a hill like that! I remember one time thinking that it felt like a giant, invisible hand shoving me up a very steep incline at a fast run (something that I would have ordinarily walked). Shame we didn’t have that more often! Whenever we were treated with a tail wind (or had a bit of protection from the worst of the gusts), I tried to make myself run. That was the best I could do, and that was pretty much what everyone around me was doing. There was one time when I was hit on my left side by a huge gust, and I swear it bounced off the rock wall on my right, because I was then buffeted from that direction. It felt like I was being bitch-slapped from both sides!
I did make it to the aid station cut-off with about half an hour to spare, happily running down one of the two downhills on the course (the two downhills totaled about half a mile). I have no idea how I managed to make that cutoff so well, and I prayed that Trevor would have similar success. The aid station volunteers were amazing. They were hearty souls who stood out in that freezing wind, just so some crazy runners would have their liquids and little food treats. At least we were moving – I have no idea how they stayed warm.
I continued moving up the mountain past Summit Lake. I’d driven up to the actual summit before, but running this was new territory for me. It was only 5.5 miles more to the end, but it seemed like it was taking forever! I continued to try and run when possible, and the other racers around me would congratulate me for actually running. Dang, you know it’s a tough race when that happens! Really, I just wanted to be done, and I was trying to stay warm. I was dressed in capris, and a short-sleeved shirt under a jacket. I also had on gloves and a camelbak. The pack really wasn’t necessary, but my original plan had been to run the mountain back down after crossing the finish line. I’m training for the Leadville 100 in August, and thought about getting in a nice ultra distance for the day (about 29 miles). I also had on a hat – don’t ask me how it stayed on in that wind. The pack probably helped my back stay warmer, but the closer I got to the top, the more it felt like I was wearing nothing at all. I could barely move my fingers, and my arms didn’t want to move back and forth to help my momentum up the mountain.
Ugh, where was the finish? I saw the mile marker for 14 go by, but when I looked up it looked like the course snaked up for at least one or two more miles. It didn’t seem possible that there was only 1/2 mile to go. Those markers were lying to me! I slogged on for a few minutes more, and suddenly there was the finish line! It turned out that what I saw were a few people deciding to take the trail from the parking lot finish to the actual summit of the mountain. On a nicer day (meaning much less windy), I would have done the same. Screw that, hippies! I crossed the finish line, accepted my medal, and tried waiting around for Trevor to finish. I hoped he’d made the cutoff at Summit Lake.
My plans for running the course back down to the start were erased. I was simply too cold and couldn’t put up with that wind any longer. I couldn’t feel my face, and my lips were too numb for me to even talk coherently. I began to shiver uncontrollably after just a few minutes of waiting for Trevor. Luckily, someone saw my miserable plight, and I was ushered into one of the mountain rescue vans to try and warm up. It was sad – I couldn’t even step up into the van unaided. Egads! Another girl and I warmed up a little, and then someone said that a shuttle taking runners back down the mountain was getting ready to leave.
We both hurried over, but the shuttle was already full. We were first in line for the next shuttle, but no one knew when it would arrive. That was when I saw Trevor walking over, looking happy to have finished (and faster than his predicted time), but also looking very cold. He picked up his drop bag, and also wound up spending some time in that rescue van. I began shivering again, and was lucky enough to get offered a ride back down the mountain by another runner and her parents. I accepted quickly, and eventually made it back down to the start. It was warmer down there, and not as windy. That was all I needed. Trevor and I eventually hooked back up, ate some food at the finish, and then drove our separate ways back home.
If you’re considering the Mt. Evans Ascent, don’t let this race report scare you into not signing up. If you’re into uphill running in a beautiful location, and you think you’ll be okay in the elevation, then go for it! If you’re one of those folks looking for a ‘training race’ at elevation before August’s Pikes Peak races, then this is a popular one to run. Do let this scare you into being as prepared for potential weather conditions as possible. Bring gloves, a jacket, a head covering, and long pants. DO NOT wear shorts, or bring just a short-sleeved shirt, or neglect to bring gloves. You will regret it, and risk not finishing. The race director said that 2011 brought some of the worst weather conditions for the race that he’d ever seen. However, there’s nothing to say that it couldn’t be worse next year. Or, there could be amazingly perfect weather. It’s a mountain in Colorado – you’ll always be rolling the dice!