This year, having completed IRONMAN Boulder in early June. I decided that it was time to explore some new challenges. A friend had been competing in the Imogene Pass Run for a few years and it sounded like an interesting event…a 17 mile run on a rustic 4 wheel drive road from Ouray, CO to Telluride, CO, crossing Imogene Pass at 13,120′. The run begins in Ouray at 7800′ and gains altitude for 10 miles to the summit, then descends for 7.1 miles, finishing in downtown Telluride. Having never attempted an offroad race, nor raced at such altitude, I was curious as to how the morning would unfold. This event is very popular and limited to 1500 entries. The signup always takes place on June 1 for the race that happens every year on the weekend following Labor Day, and typically fills within 15-30minutes. I had mentioned the race to my friend Charles Garabedian a week or so before June 1 and he was smart enough to set an alarm on his phone that also triggered a text notification to me. No excuses and we both got in. The big question was, “how do you train for this?”
I still had some triathlons on my schedule and Charles had races and travel, so we didn’t get to do much organized training together, unless you count our weekly 5k beer and pizza run at the Flatirons Running store. Still, we both managed to complete some offroad and trail runs and arrived in Ouray “ready” to race. Here’s an example of one of my training runs at Hall Ranch that actually was a decent representation of the conditions we would experience. http://www.relive.ccc/view/1157228654
With a high altitude event such as this, weather can be a huge factor (and the event organizers continually stress this, seemingly attempting to instill fear and uneasiness into the athletes with tales of gale force winds, hailstorms, accumulating snow, and frigid temperatures) but we were definitely blessed with near perfect conditions for the morning. It was nearly 50F at the start and mostly clear skies. I experienced a few drops of rain in the final half mile to the finish line, but some later competitors spoke of hail at the summit and the showers in Telluride continued off and on through the early afternoon.
The race started on time and was a little crowded for the first half mile. There are a couple sections where there are alternate routes allowed and the group separates as they scramble up different paths and rejoin again on the “road”. During the early miles the incline is moderate and somewhat rolling, so the majority of the field in my vicinity were still running. I had set a target heartrate and my pace varied with the incline, but I still was moving through the field and felt good about everything. My fear of heights kept me away from the edge of the road and the sheer drop to be found there, but i had plenty of room to maneuver through the group. I was, however, overdressed for the conditions and found myself shedding my jacket and hat early on, tying the jacket around my waist and shoving the hat in my waistband. all was good.
Aid stations were well stocked and staffed with enthusiastic and supportive volunteers. They were spaced a little over 2 miles apart on the ascent and by the Lower Camp Bird station at 5+miles, the grade started increasing and running segments became fewer and far between. Pushing on to the Upper Camp Bird station at 7.6miles was a mix of jogging and power hiking. This is also where the road really kicked up and the altitude became more of a factor. For reference, my time at LCB 7.6miles and 11, 235′ was 1:50:33. The 2.5 miles to the summit at Imogene Pass (13,120′) took me another 58:28 of mainly hiking as fast as I could.
I found that once above 10,000′ I couldn’t use my Camelback because the effort of drawing on the water tube and not breathing for that short time caused my heart rate to instantly drop 15-20BPM and start the world spinning. I resorted to gulping down a couple cups of water/Gatorade at the aid stations instead.
My goal for this event was to simply finish but, little did I know, I was in 2nd place in my age group at the summit. Had I been aware of this my downhill strategy might have been a bit more aggressive as I finished in 3rd, giving up my 11 minute lead and another 8minutes to the eventual 2nd place finisher on the 7mile descent.
Usually my downhill running is strong and I can use it to my advantage, but this day it was my downfall (although, thankfully, I didn’t fall down). The descent is not only steep in many places but, being a rugged 4 wheel drive vehicle path, it is strewn with rocks, boulders, and loose dirt/gravel. One has to pay close attention to the conditions on the ground to maintain footing, and a lot of time is spent maneuvering around this obstacle course, constantly adjusting the chosen path. Meanwhile, the cool air, combined with the heat emanating from my body was causing my glasses to constantly fog up, blurring my vision, especially when they would slide down my nose a bit, since the fogging was heaviest at the top of the lenses. Constantly stopping to wipe my glasses was unknowingly costing me my 2nd place finish. Oh, well, “better safe than sorry” was all that was on my mind. I probably would have been best to just take them off and stick them in a pocket. Speaking of pockets, there was also the issue of my jacket (remember, tied around my waist earlier on) that twice slipped down to my knees, almost taking me to the ground.
My only goal, other than just finishing, was to finish in the 4:00 range. I don’t know how I arrived at this time, but it seemed like a good number. I ended up at 4:12:41, which was close enough for me, knowing that I could have gone downhill faster with a better plan. Rolling into the finish at Telluride, I came upon Charles and his fiancee Laura. We had breakfast, after which I found out I had an award to wait for. Charles finished in an impressive 3:24:18 for his Imogene debut, but the super competitive 35-39 age group put him out of the awards placings. So, Charles and Laura retreated to their lodging and I had a couple beers while I waited for the awards ceremony, then grabbed the bus back to Ouray where I soaked in the hot tub and enjoyed the rest of the day with my wonderful (and relieved, as well as amazed) wife Karen, who was seriously fearful of me possibly being carried off the mountain on a stretcher. Ending the day, I slipped on the Normatecs and started thinking about Imogene 2018. 🙂
CHEERS, and thanks for reading. Leave comments below, and for more info on the amazing Imogene Pass Run visit their website at http://imogenerun.com
You have seen them many times; Approaching the top of the hill, trudging along, panting loudly, slouched over at the waist, shoulders swinging from side to side, head like a bobble head doll, this runner is in total agony. Reaching the peak, they let out a huge sigh of relief and begin the descent with long slow strides, heel striking well in front of their body, leaning back to slow down, hoping to catch their breath after the climb. Well, DON’T BE THAT PERSON! Don’t be the person who dreads any run that has elevation gain. Don’t fear the hills on your run. Make them your friends and allies by learning to go up and down efficiently and quickly.
Hill running is an acquired skill that can give you an edge on courses that others avoid or slowly suffer through. The first thing to do is to adopt the mindset that even though a hilly course will likely slow you down some, there are ways to minimize just how much you slow down. Once you do this you will have the confidence to take advantage of the hills and use them to your advantage over your competitors.
Of course, you must train on hills to fully develop these techniques, so first find a hill that you can regularly use in your training regimen. This should be long enough that you are climbing or descending steadily for a few minutes from bottom to top (or reverse). Even when I lived in pancake flat south Florida we had causeway bridges over the waterways to run on, so you should be able something suitable. You can incorporate the hill(s) into your regular runs or set up a hill repeat session to be done on a regular basis. Once you have your hill it is time to work on your technique. Here are some tips that I have used through the years and try to instill in my athletes.
When running up a hill, especially a long climb, focus on the top. Keep your “eyes on the prize”, and imagine a force drawing you to the top of the hill. Feel it. Really…..feel it.
Keep your posture upright with a slight forward lean, but don’t bend from the waist, and have all of your body movements, arm swing and foot push off, directed to the top of the hill.
Minimize upper body rotation and head movement.
Maintain a high knee swing to produce a higher landing point as your body moves forward and up the hill. Combine this with a strong push off to generate more force to move you up and forward.
Visualize a hand at the base of your spine, pushing your hips up and forward. This will help to prevent bending at the waist by leading with your hips.
Maintain leg turnover. Keep the legs moving, even if your stride has to shorten a bit to do so.
Monitor your breathing and heart rate. Don’t blow up and lose form and stamina.
Once you reach the summit of your climb, carry through and push right into the downhill. Now is not the time to rest. Gravity will help you recover while you are moving down the other side.
Okay, now you’re at the top and it’s time to go down. Don’t be a slacker…this is where you can really make up some time and finisher places. One of my favorite ways to do some of my long runs in training has been to run up one of the canyons here in Boulder County. I pace the session to maintain zone 3 heart rate for anywhere from 5-10 miles going up. Then…..turn around and hold the same heart rate going back down. No rest for the wicked. This is a training drill, but the point is that one can go fast and even recover on the downhills.
Effective downhill running involves some technique changes. The risk of injury is high, especially if one tries to go fast without making some modifications to their flat land running form.
First and foremost, lower your center of gravity slightly, putting yourself in a position where it is impossible to completely straighten your legs and lock your knees. Nothing will shorten your running life like hammering down a hill and jamming your knees on every footstrike.
Don’t overstride and put on the brakes with a foot strike that lands downhill from your body. If you look straight down, your foot should disappear under your body an instant before it hits the ground.
Control your speed by adjusting your forward lean. More lean, go faster. Too fast, straighten up. Make these adjustments as necessary, depending on the pitch of the hill.
Raise your arms, if needed, and use them for balance. I, sometimes, just lift my elbows and keep my arm swing moving, like chicken wings. Still, avoid upper body rotation
The majority of leg movement is under and behind you, using a strong push off and kick.
Increase your leg turnover speed. Keep those legs moving. Again, shorten your stride if necessary. Don’t just lope along. This is free speed with gravity on your side.
In conclusion, one can learn to make hills a weapon rather than an obstacle. Practice and develop your technique to increase speed, reduce effort, and minimize potential for injury. Don’t wait. Start today.