Aspen Backcountry Marathon

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As she passed me close to the finish of the Aspen Backcountry Marathon, another racer said, “this is the worst thing I have ever done.”  I replied, “Yeah, me too.”  She also mentioned that we had 12 minutes left until the cutoff time.  Since my watch had died hours ago, and I had no idea how long I had been out there or how far I had left to go, I figured it would be best to pick up the pace.

The weekend started out well enough.  I picked Tricia and John up at the airport, and Boris greeted them enthusiastically.  Boris is typically very mellow.  When I come home from work, I’m lucky if he so much as twitches an ear or opens one eye to show he noticed my presence.  For Tricia and John, however, he showed true excitement.  They will always have a special place in his heart, not only because they are the ones who took him in off the street and found him a home (despite the fact that he tried to eat one of their cats), but also because they have taken him running many times.  For some dogs, the way to their heart is through food or petting or cuddling.  For Boris, it’s running.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I can blame this whole running thing on Boris.  I wasn’t a runner when we got him.  Actually, if you look at my performance in the Aspen Marathon, you would probably still say I’m not a runner but in fact more of a moderately paced hiker with kind of a bad attitude.  But when we got Boris, it became clear that his purpose in life is to run, and I had better at least try to run with him or I would have to suffer the consequences.

So, it’s Boris’s fault that I ran an ultra earlier this summer.  And somehow I figured that after that, running a marathon would be easy, and so I failed to really train for it.   There’s also the lack of motivation to run.  I often found myself, on long runs, wondering why I was running, and then I would walk, and then I would quit the run early because I just didn’t have a good reason to keep going.  Or because it was lunch time, or whatever.  So when it came time to run a marathon, my longest training run (which I had mostly walked) was 17 miles.  I also hadn’t been going to yoga or PT or stretching or any of that other stuff that would have helped me make it through a trail marathon, because I was burned out on running and just didn’t care.

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The marathon got off to a good start, though.  After a mile or so on pavement to warm up, it began up a steep but wide fire road, which allowed the crowd to thin out and great sunrise views of the mountains and town to be had.  Then it entered some singletrack in the aspens, with nice soft trail.  The cutoff at the first aid station was supposedly 1 hour after the start, and it was 3 miles in, which I thought might be a bit tight for such a steep section.  It turned out I was right- I hit the aid station at minute 56- but it was also half a mile farther along than it was supposed to be, and they didn’t look like they were actually paying attention to cutoffs anyway.  This half mile late trend would continue throughout the race, with all the aid stations showing up a half mile to a mile later that I expected.

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The first 13 or so miles of the race passed through some pretty sections, including huge aspen groves (I guess that’s why they named it Aspen), with mountain views.  I felt justified in walking a lot, since this section was mostly climbing and I was enjoying the views and more or less treating it as a hike.  I was not particularly motivated to run much, even on the flats, so I didn’t.  Then came the downhill.  I had been dreading the downhill a bit because I knew we would lose all the elevation gained so far (> 2000 ft) in just a few miles, and lots of downhill can be hard on the feet and knees.  But what I forgot is that downhill is my favorite part of running, and that my mood cycles almost perfectly with the grade.  I was grumpy and unmotivated on the uphills, as always, and euphoric on the downhill.  I must have passed 10-15 people in this section, which was somewhat steep and just technical enough to keep it interesting, but totally runnable.  I looked at my watch and realized I was on pace to finish in 6:30, which was much faster than I expected, despite my lollygagging on the uphills and flats.  This was definitely the best part of the race.

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Then we started running on bike paths and roads, which immediately put me in a bad mood.  I’m not a huge fan of pavement in general, hadn’t trained on it, and in my minimally padded trail shoes after a big downhill and with 18 miles on my feet, it hurt.  Plus, this was labeled a backcountry marathon.  We soon joined back up with some trails and emerged on a ski run, which also put me in a bad mood because it was hot and exposed as well as steep.  I’m pretty sure we ran up a blue.  It was much less scenic than the other side of town, and I began to fantasize about climbing up one of the poles to a ski lift and trying to ride it down.  Note to race organizers: if a lift goes there, it’s not the backcountry.  The course then went down into a ditch along a river which reminded me of the arroyo in Pasadena.  Yay.

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Then it was back to roads and bike paths for a while, so that when I hit an aid station around mile 23 and saw a very steep trail climbing away from the bike path I was extremely glad to see a trail marker there.  Any amount of steepness was worth being back on dirt for my sore feet.  I think it was about this time that I can across a stream and decided I needed a break, so I stopped and soaked my feet for a while.  The water was divinely icey, and my feet went numb which also meant they stopped hurting, if only for a few minutes.  Sadly, they didn’t stay numb for long after I started moving again.  I began cursing myself for not dropping out of the race earlier, since the first 18 miles had been nice and everything since then had been, well, uninspiring.  But, now I was too close to the finish and it was too late to quit.  I knew I could make it, but I didn’t really want to.  I walked along, up and down the hills just above Aspen, where I could see the finish line below but knew I would have to take the most meandering route to get there.  I would occasionally motivate myself to run a few steps by telling myself that I would never actually make it to the finish at this rate, and would be stuck out there forever, like Zeno’s paradox.  After a few steps of running, the pain overrode any rational thought and it was back to walking.  Even on the downhills, every part of me hurt so much that even the jiggling of my skin was too much to take and I would walk again.  I just wanted to crawl into the woods, lie down, and die.  Who thought this was a good idea?  Oh right, it was me.

Eventually, I did finish.  My time was around 7:40, well within the 8 hour cutoff despite the course being a mile and a half long and with an extra 1000 ft of climbing.  Toberer, Tricia, John, Jenny, and Boris were there at the finish line to greet me (having finished more than an hour earlier), and commiserate about the difficulty of this race.  I still have no idea why it was so hard.  The website bills it as “the hardest marathon you’ll ever run.”  I laughed at that before the race, because really, how hard can 26 miles with 4000 ft of gain be?  Even at 27.5 miles and 5000 ft of gain, it doesn’t sound that hard on paper.  But somehow, almost 2 weeks later, I still haven’t been able to convince myself to run again (despite poor Boris’s pleading).  Maybe I should train next time.  Or maybe it’s time for winter.  I’m looking forward to some extreme hot-chocolate drinking and couch-sitting.

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