I ran my 13th marathon last Sunday in Estes Park, Colorado. It turned out to be a lucky day.
The weekend before the race, we took a family trip to Leadville, where Rob ran (and dominated) the Leadville Trail Marathon. Leadville is about twice as high as Fort Collins in terms of altitude, and I was having trouble breathing while simply sitting down. I began to worry a little about how altitude would effect me in Estes Park (not as high as Leadville, but higher than Fort Collins). I tested the waters by doing a 12-mile run on the Mineral Belt trail (paved). It was fantastic. I was maybe a little bit light-headed while I was running, but only enough to be euphoric rather than ill. And I ran faster than I had ever run at the lower elevation in Fort Collins.
Marathon weekend arrived, and we headed out to Estes Park early Saturday morning—the day before the race. Rob ran for 5 hours in the mountains while Will and I drove around town, picked up my packet at Estes Park High School (I love marathon “expos" that take place at high schools), and found a playground where we could also have a picnic lunch.
It was the longest day of the year, but we all went to bed early so that we could get up at 4:45am on Sunday and head back to the high school for the 6:00am start.
My one and only goal for the marathon had nothing to do with running: it was to go “cup-less,” which is to say, be self sufficient in terms of hydration and not take any paper cups of water or gatorade at the aid stations. There’s so much waste in that. I wore my hydration pack (actually, it is Rob’s, but I’ve kind of taken it over) with about 50 oz of water. The hydration pack was brilliant, because it made me feel like this was more of an ultra than a marathon. And ultras are more relaxed for me. Plus, I could use the extra pockets of the pack to store everything I might possibly need: sunglasses, phone, Endurolytes, Fig Newmans, pretzels, and gel (which I can now again eat without getting sick!!).
The start line was pretty low-key, and also, had a very nice view of the mountains.
I situated myself towards the middle of the pack, and we were off.
I’d made the conscious decision not to wear a watch or GPS or any time/distance tracking device. This was a hilly course at ~8000 ft elevation, and I was coming off a 3-month injury. It wasn’t going to be a PR for me, and I didn’t want the pressure or stress of tracking my pace per mile. I just wanted to run, in the mountains, with several hundred new friends.
The course first did a small loop around Lake Estes, then headed north of town for two big loops. The elevation map on the marathon website was from last year and out of date because the route had been changed as result of the floods last fall. I didn’t really know when to expect the hills. A guy I was running with in the early miles told me he’d driven the course the day before and the long uphill section lasted from mile 7 to 10 along Dry Gulch Road. We’d hit this again on the second loop from mile 17 to 20.
In retrospect, knowing this helped immensely. I ran at a comfortable pace, never really pushing it, and when I got to mile 7, I was ready to tackle a 3-mile uphill. The people around me seemed to be struggling, but honestly, I felt fine. It was a really gradual incline, and even at 8000 ft elevation, it didn’t hurt.
Around mile 8, we got to some really beautiful scenery:
The clouds sort of hid the mountains from view, but kept the air cool.
I just kept climbing, ticking off the miles, and knowing when I got to mile 10, there would be a long downhill.
The descent felt nice, although there was one more kind of steep uphill thrown in, maybe around mile 11. I figured that would hurt a lot worse the second time around.
Rob and Will found me around mile 12, when I’d caught up with some half marathon walkers. Will’s superman costume and cowbell was a crowd pleaser for everyone.
Somewhere around mile 14 or 15, we split off from the half marathoners (their course was different, this was near the finish for them). We ran past the famed Stanley Hotel and began the second hilly loop.
I was doing surprisingly well on nutrition and hydration, considering that I typically vomit, or at least feel like vomiting, during these things. The hydration pack helped a lot. I drank little sips of water constantly rather than a cup every 2 miles. A lot of the aid stations had orange slices and bananas, and whenever these were available, I took some. The volunteers were really great. Whenever a runner was approaching, they’d call out to ask what you wanted and then have it ready to hand it to you. This made it feel like an ultra. I hadn’t anticipated oranges and bananas on the course, but I was thrilled that they had them. I did okay eating a Peanut Butter Gu, but the orange slices tasted amazing, and they were really all I wanted. I think because of the oranges and bananas, I was able to get by without having any electrolyte drink, and I never felt sick. I was also wearing my sea-bands (I’d had good luck with these at Farmdale), so maybe that helped keep the nausea at bay too.
Mile 17 began the second long uphill section. I’d figured it would feel a lot tougher this time, but surprisingly, I felt fine. I could tell I was going a little bit slower than the first time I’d done these hills, but it wasn’t bad at all. I passed a lot of people who were walking (and offered encouragement when I could) and just counted down the miles. I was definitely eager for the downhill section to come, but never got in a bad patch.
The clouds drifted away by this point I could actually see the mountains that had been obscured on the first trip down. Even at mile 21, it’s hard to feel bad when you look ahead of you and this is what you see.
I leapfrogged for a while with a lady from Nebraska who was doing a walk-run strategy— she’d take walk breaks, and I would pass her, but when she started running again, she went faster than me and would pass me back. Whenever we caught up with each other, we gave each other a little cheer. Nebraska’s walk-run method seemed to be working really well for her (conserving her energy on the steepest parts of the hills), so I decided to walk up that nasty little jag around mile 21 (it had been mile 11 on the first loop).
Rob and Will found me again around mile 22.
Immediately after I smiled at them in this picture, I felt a sharp, searing pain in my left lateral knee. That had never happened before. Going downhill was quite unpleasant, and I had several miles of it.
Around mile 23, I stopped to hold onto a post in the road and stretch my knee. By this point, my IT band felt like it was shredded, although I certainly hoped it wasn’t. Nebraska caught up to me and asked if I was okay. I said it was just a little twinge and we ran together for a while.
Around mile 24, we had to cross Highway 34. If you have never been to Estes Park, let me just say that Highway 34 is the main thoroughfare going into and out of Rocky Mountain National Park. Which on a weekend in June, is a lot. Major gratitude to the volunteers whose job it was to stop traffic so the runners, mainly very spread out and going through singly now, could cross. And also major props to the motorists, who didn’t get road rage and instead opened their windows and cheered as we crossed the highway and then ran parallel to it for a while. That was pretty amazing— to be running along 34 while a giant line of people stuck in traffic cheered us on.
So close now I could smell the barn. I tried not to worry that I was causing irrevocable damage to my IT band, and whispered shut up, legs. The pretty mountain views were behind us as we coasted around Lake Estes and towards the high school, retracing our steps from this morning.
It took forever to get to mile 25, but at last, I did. Just one mile left now, and some change.
Finally, Estes Park High School came into view. I could hear the cheering and music. I wanted to get to that track. Would I ever make it there? Nebraska was on my heels. We coasted onto the track together. One lap around and we would be done.
I could hardly believe it when i saw the clock and it said 4:18. I’d expected my finishing time to be closer to 5 hours, and without a watch I’d had no idea I’d been running this fast. I was thrilled. I felt fantastic.
“Photo finish!” Nebraska said. I tried to keep up with her, but she crossed the line about 2 seconds before me. We said congratulations to each other, and a volunteer handed us our medals.
I stood there on the track, bewildered for a moment, and a guy in a sky-blue Altitude Running t-shirt said to me, “Welcome home.” Maybe he had an Australian accent or an English accent or no accent at all. I didn’t know if he was some kind of race official or volunteer or just another runner himself. But I think I started crying and told him this was my first race in Colorado and that it had been such a long, long journey, but I really and truly was finally home.
Miraculously, the instant I stopped running, the pain in my knee completely disappeared.
Will and Rob found me at the finish line, and we discovered that my time of 4:18:29 was good enough for a third place age group medal. Not that that’s saying much— there weren’t a whole lot of 30-39 year old women out there running the Estes Park Marathon that day. William was impressed with the medal, though, and I gave it to him so he could play with it. We headed back to the playground for a while so he could run around and burn off some more energy. Then we headed back home, to Fort Collins.
I really liked the Estes Park Marathon—it was one of the best organized races I’ve ever run, and the volunteers were fantastic. I never struggled too much, which might mean that I didn’t push myself enough, or maybe that I prioritized looking at the mountains and being happy rather than striving for a fast finish. It is my slowest marathon to date by about 2 minutes (I ran a 4:16 at the Illinois Marathon when Will was around 8 months old and I was still nursing him), but I don’t really care about the time. I felt good, never got sick, and enjoyed the mountains.
It was a little weird running a road marathon again after a couple years of doing ultras. It was definitely easier and over a lot faster, but I think I prefer ultras anyway. At the moment, I don’t really know what is next. I am terrible at racing on trails, but I don’t really feel quite like I belong on the roads anymore either. I guess I will have to look around for a while, and hopefully find something amazing.
Thanks for reading.