Editors Intro: Aaron Epps has been running, cycling, and balling since before he could walk. He is cautiously emerging onto the Colorado trail running scene, as he is still testing the boundaries of his capabilities and endurance. We’re sure that he has no boundaries and are glad to see him toeing the starting line. Turn up the dust with him this summer in Denver as he trains for his first 50K in September at ECS Park City, UT.
Aaron’s race read:
Let me preface this by saying that I’m still relatively new to the whole endurance racing thing (apparently you just… run?), so nothing that I say should be taken as advice. In fact, a better strategy would probably entail not doing anything that I do.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’d like to tell you about the time that I ran the 25-mile version of the Collegiate Peaks Trail Run (there are lots of people crazier than me who turn around and run the loop in reverse to make it a 50-mile race), which took place on May 2 in Buena Vista, CO. I’m not entirely sure why anyone would want to read about such an experience… I mean, I just ran… But you’re still reading, so I’ll keep telling.
I wouldn’t say that I did a great job of preparing for the race, per se. I trained, yes, but not as hard as one probably should when running one’s first trail race longer than a half marathon at altitude. Case in point, at two weeks out from race day the number of times that I had gone for runs of longer than 15 miles in the past year was a big fat zero. The main reason for the lack of high mileage training was the fact that I spent much of the months leading up to the race in Maine, which happened to receive record snowfall this year. I was stupider than most and still ventured out into the sub-zero blizzards, but I found that at about mile 8 my eyelids would start to freeze shut due to the ice buildup on my eyelashes and the ice in my beard became painful. The other reason for my relatively low mileage was my outlook on the race. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never run 25 miles before (if you’re going to run 25, why not just run the extra 1.2 and call it a marathon, amirite?), especially not in the mountains of Colorado. Because of this, I would have nothing to compare my time to, which meant in the months leading up to the race, my only goal was to finish. So that’s how I trained.
The next excuse I’d like to make is that I got the flu in the week prior to the race. If you’re ever looking to force yourself to taper, get the flu, it’s great for that. Unfortunately, it’s not great for eating solid food. The first real meal that I had in the four days before the race was the pre-race meal that was provided at packet pickup.
After picking up my race packet and bib, I headed back to my Airbnb (thanks Craig and Kim!) and decided I should probably figure out what time the race started the next day and try to come up with a general idea for how long I should expect to be out there. I checked the previous year’s results and decided that 4 hours seemed like a reasonable goal for me.
The next morning I arrived at the starting area in plenty of time and got to take in one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. The town of Buena Vista reminded me of a more rugged, less touristy version of Estes Park, in that it offers 360 degrees of beautiful mountain views. The race was to begin in the town, head out on a paved road for a bit and then meet up with the Four Mile trail system, which would be home for the next 23 miles.
The race itself started off more strangely than any I’ve ever been a part of. In typical fashion, racers were standing at the start line, socializing, performing their final preparations, and awaiting the race director’s typical 5-minute warning and eventual countdown to the gun. BANG! The gun went off, everyone exchanged confused looks, and took off. I heard a number of racers mentioning that they didn’t even have their GPS turned on and I saw a couple people pop out of the bathroom and jump straight into the pack of runners.
I started off at a pretty modest/aggressive pace of about 8:30 mile. Modest in that is was slower than what I was used to in my training runs; aggressive in that I was beginning a 25 mile race with no idea how my body would respond to the challenge. Right from the get-go, the vistas along the trail were buenas. The first mile or so led us alongside a creek with magnificent mountain views on either side. After the initial start on pavement, the trail consisted of mostly wide-ish ATV-type trails mixed in with some single track. I would consider the majority of the course to be a pretty typical dirt trail with the exception being a few sandy stretches for which I had a hard time distinguishing whether or not I was running on a beach. Honestly, it felt like an adventure run that had shipped in sand as an added challenge. Fortunately, these stretches were mostly in the first few miles because if I had hit one of these patches at mile 20-25, there’s no telling what string of expletives I would have come up with.
Given that the race was 25 miles, it seemed natural to break it into fifths. The first fifth was mostly spent keeping my urges to go faster under control and making sure I didn’t lose the trail. In order to ensure the latter, I tried to stay in sight of the person in front of me (which turns out to be easier said than done in a race like this). First, it was a man in the cutoff flannel (Dan – I think this should be your new racing giddyup), then it was the guy with the massive calves. For awhile, I felt ambitious and tried to keep pace with the guy who had taken a wrong turn and was trying to make up time (he should have followed the man in the cutoff flannel) but that didn’t last long. I hit the 5-mile mark just under 45 minutes, feeling great. I started to think that this might not be so bad after all and four hours would be well within reach.
Shortly after I mistakenly let these thoughts creep into my mind, the course hit me with its first extended climb of about four miles, known as Infant Wake-Up Hill. I’ve done plenty of hill and stair climbing as part of November Project workouts, but that was not enough to be fully prepared for the toll that running uphill continuously for several miles would take on me. The grade of the climb was really, really annoying. It was steep enough to make you work, but not steep enough to make you think that you should have to walk (though I did so for several stretches). A few miles into the steady climb I began to feel my hips tighten up, which caused my pace to slow and forced me to take several quick stretch breaks. So much for that whole 4 hour thing…
It’s at this point that I’d like to give a quick shout out to ElevationTat. They provided racers with temporary tattoos containing elevation and aid station information. I found my tat to be very helpful in knowing what to expect, how to pace myself, and how/when to consume water and gel packs. I applaud the idea and wish the company the best of luck.
Back to the race… fortunately, as math would have it, for every uphill in a loop course there must be a downhill. I took full advantage of the downhill by quickening my stride and doing some weird hip wiggle things. There was also an unavoidable creek crossing somewhere in there that left me squishing for a few miles. In all of my downhill excitement and wigglry, I had forgotten to pay attention to the course! In a stroke of luck, a course veteran who was a bit behind me spotted me, and yelled to turn right. I was able to quickly make the turn and would estimate that my mistake cost me less than a minute of extra time. (Had I been wearing headphones, I’m not sure that I would have heard the runner’s warning and my day may have gone quite differently.) Shortly after, we hit aid station #2 at mile 11.7 and I thanked the man for saving me. We ran together for a little while out of the aid station and chatted along the way. After running together for a few flowing miles, I had to make a bathroom stop so we parted ways. I took the break as an opportunity to snap a few pictures of the scenery and re-group. I knew there was another lengthy climb coming up and that I would need all the energy I could muster.
Despite my slower pace in the second fifth, I was still feeling pretty fresh through miles 10-15, although this was probably due to the fact that the majority of that stretch was downhill. I ended up clocking a 7:45 mile for mile 13, which ended up being tied for my fastest mile of the day (I also ran a 7:45 at mile 19) However, I knew not to get overconfident because the previous year in another race I had been on pace to run a sub-3:00 marathon until mile 22 before completely bonking (a word I just learned) and having to walk virtually all of the last few miles. I attribute most of my crash to a lack of in-race nutrition and fluid and was determined not to make the same mistake again, which is why I elected to run with a hydration pack and carry more gel/electrolytes than I ever have before. I had my first Stinger gel about a half hour into the race and followed that up with another, caffeinated gel at the hour mark. In addition to the Stinger gel packs, I was also carrying three travel-sized hotel shampoo bottles filled with Rehydrate, a sport drink powder. (I learned this trick from my inventive mother. It makes me feel a little bit like a drug dealer, but it’s effective.) At the third aid station, at mile 14.6, I mixed up a Rehydrate and tried to loosen up my hips for the coming 3.5 mile climb, during which I would ascend close to 1000 ft.
Honestly, I don’t remember much of the climb other than the fact that I didn’t like it one bit. I continuously checked my ElevationTat to see when I would get a downhill release and how long until the next aid station and just hoped I could avoid cramps until then. However, it was during this stretch that I learned a valuable racing lesson: talk to people. I have never been one to talk to others during races because I don’t want to feel like I am tied to their pace and not able to do my own thing. However, during this race I noticed that most of the other runners were running in pairs, if not groups, with people that appeared to have been complete strangers just a few hours earlier. I decided to give in and start up a conversation with another runner who ended up being from Wisconsin(!). We chatted mostly about other races we’ve done, beer, Wisconsin, and how much we were looking forward to the finish. The conversation proved to be a much-welcomed mental break from the constant focus I had felt for the first part of the race. Just over three hours into the race, we hit the fourth aid station at the top of the ascent just shy of 18 miles and I felt overjoyed that the rest of the race was a gradual downhill back to the finish. My new friend from the Badger state was running the 50 mile race, so he urged me to go ahead while he took his time. I briefly basked in the glory of hitting the highest elevation on the course, and continued my running flow for the next few miles.
A few miles later I hit mile 20 feeling better than I had expected to, given that I struggled with my 20 mile training run which was on flat ground at an elevation that was a few thousand feet lower. I did a quick calculation in my head and figured out that in order to break the four hour barrier I would need to average 8:12 miles the rest of the way. Unsure of how my body would react beyond mile 20, I thought, “Well, what the heck? Let’s go for it.” I gave it all I had. I passed a few people, wondering “Shoot, am I screwing up here? Why aren’t they going faster?” But I was still feeling alright and there were only a few more miles to go. A few LOOOOOOOONG miles. It didn’t take long for my questions to be answered, “Yes, Aaron, you’re screwing up,” said my hamstring, as it began cramping. Fortunately I was able to stop and get a good stretch in before the cramp fully took hold, otherwise I might still be lost somewhere in the wilderness of the Collegiate Peaks. At that point it became (painfully) evident that I would not be finishing the race in under four hours. At this realization I let out an audible “**** this. This is stupid.” and I shuffled my way onward. At approximately mile 23.5 I received the lift that I desperately needed: Mr. Wisconsin approaching from behind with a smile on his face and words of encouragement. I immediately had a renewed pep in my step and felt my focus shift away from the pain in my legs. We chatted a bit until the trail switched over to single-track for the final descent, at which point I used him as a rabbit before sensing the finish line and taking off. I crossed the finish line with a time of 4 hours, 8 minutes and 3 seconds. It was the first time I had finished a race without meeting my goal while still feeling great.
I had a great experience kicking off my race season at the Collegiate Peaks Trail Run. I finished the race with a great sense of accomplishment and felt that I had pushed myself to my limit. I was proud to have held my own with much more seasoned runners, and ended up finishing second in my 20-29 age group. I learned some very valuable lessons about hydration and nutrition, and couldn’t believe how good I felt in the days following the race. Most importantly of all, I felt the comradery of the running community and experienced the power of encouragement. I can only hope that the next race lives up to this one.