Touching the Sky - South Park Trail Marathon

I'm a little out of order with this one - I haven't had the desire to sit down and write about the Growler yet. But last weekend's trail marathon has me thinking more towards July then into the past and so here we go. I decided that I'd do the South Park Trail Marathon when I signed up for Sheep Mountain. It shares the same first 8 and last 8 miles as Sheep Mountain so would be great way to check things out. I had a feeling that the last 8 miles on the road were going to be tough and I wanted to see for sure. It was also a good way to look at the race organization - see what I could expect at the aid stations, course markings and other things that can make or break a race. It also provided me a chance to check clothes, socks, make sure my pack was comfortable in the heat and start getting the little things figured out before July. And it was the perfect time for a long run - I was mostly recovered from Growler and Meowler so it was time to transition over to running.

Starting line - South Park City

The start was one of the most low key events I've been in. A herd of runners, milling around South Park City, waiting for the signal to start running. No gun, no whistle, just "go on, get outta here..." And we were off! Down Main Street and across the swollen creek - yes, there was a bridge but the snow melt had overflowed the banks and we were getting our feet wet within the first mile. Since this was kind of a recon race for Sheep Mountain, I really resisted the urge to run hard from the start. Settle in, be smart about the pace and just run. I knew the first few miles were all dirt road, so dialing down the pace was important. It's super easy to get excited and start out harder then intelligent when it's gently rolling dirt. The field spread out pretty quickly - I was comfortably in second, but not sure if the leading woman was doing the full or the half. And not worrying about it either. That wasn't the goal of the day.
Eventual Women's winner Christine O'Gorman running with Sheep Mountain in the distance

Once we got off the county roads and onto the forest service roads, it was easy to be distracted by the views. With where we were going looming ahead of us and the front range sprawled behind us, there was so much to look at and take in. I usually don't take photos during races, but had to make an execption this time. After all, I had my phone aka camera with me... I caught the woman in front of me after we turned into the trees, saw the low number and assumed she was doing the half marathon. A fast descent into the first aid station (I was already dreading the climb back up) and we turned onto County Rd 18. During my run out here last year, that road had been crazy busy. It was early enough for it to be quiet still. I was too busy looking around to pay any attention to the runners behind me. The road tipped upward, gradually climbing. I wasn't feeling all that great, walking more then I wanted. I talked myself out of the hole by telling myself it was all training for the 50 - I'll be doing plenty of walking there. But the road wasn't so steep that I shouldn't have been able to just motor along. Maybe I was more tired then I realized from the last three weekends.

Horseshoe - and then comes the moment. We are going all the way up there?!?

The road kept climbing, getting gradually steeper. And as we climbed, the temperature got hotter and hotter. My arms and back were already hot - and we hadn't reached treeline yet. I stopped at the Dauntless Aid station for a refill on my bladder and looked up. I couldn't see where we were going, but I could see snow! And runoff - there was no avoiding the wet feet! But I'd planned ahead - with wool socks and tape on my heels to prevent blisters. We turned off the main road after Dauntless and I looked behind me for the first time - whoops. I guess the other woman was doing the full! And my casual pace up the climb meant I hadn't gotten much of a gap at all. Oh well. With the climb to 13,100 coming up, I wasn't going to be pushing the pace that hard anyway. I was an easy target in my red tank top.
Which leads me to Lesson 1 - when getting ready for a race and you have a gut feeling that you should do something to cover your arms, listen to it. Back when I was running a lot, I actually did a lot of my long runs and hotter sunny races in a super light weight long sleeved shirt. It protected my arms from the sun and actually kept me cooler then a tank top. But I didn't listen to the whisper of what I used to do - and paid for it later. It does seem counter intuitive to wear long sleeves to stay cool, but it works. And it's what I'm going to do from now on.

Looking down into Horseshoe

One of the many snowbanks we crossed - this one had steps shoveled into it!

Last year they hadn't been able to climb all the way up to the Peerless Mine because of the snow levels. This year, up we went... Volunteers had shoveled steps into the steeper snow banks and there was enough melting to ensure that we'd be treated to the views only alpine terrain can provide. Once again, my camera was getting plenty of action! I didn't stop and take any photos of the flowers though - I wanted to but that seemed like too much work without my glasses. I wasn't even thinking about the return trip, just focusing on one step at time, climbing higher and higher. The runners ahead of me were little dots against the snow, the only sign of how far we still had to go for the turn around. Eventually, I saw one of the dots coming back down, slipping and sliding on the snow fields. And those snow fields were deep! I post holed in one all the way to my hip - that was interesting trying to get out of - with the snow getting softer by the minute!

View to the east - Sheep Mountain looming large

View to the west - Hello Leadville!

And then finally, the top. No fanfare, just a volunteer taking photos and a small sign saying "Turn Around." I stopped to take in the view - to east, Sheep Mountain, South Park and oh so faint, Pikes Peak. To the west - Leadville, Turquoise Lake and the mountains of the Continental Divide. Now came the hard part - coming down. Normally, I'm a crazy nut, blasting down the hills. But I learned my lesson at the High Drive Challenge and wasn't going to blow up my quads or risk falling on the uneven terrain of the steep descent down to Dauntless. I was careful and took my time. It meant I dropped into second, but I really didn't care at that point. I wanted to finish in one piece and there was plenty of road descending left. I didn't refill my pack at Dauntless, but got some water, coke and ginger ale - as well as the best tasting watermelon I've had.

Coming into the Dauntless aid station after the climb up
Photo - Joanna H
We left the aid station moments apart. I easily pulled up alongside and we ran together for over a mile. Then my racing mind took over my training mind and I picked up the pace a little, pulling away. We were on the long road descent on County Rd 18 and I wanted to see if I could make the move stick. But in the back of my mind, I was worried. I was feeling roasted already - like I was melting. How would the last few exposed miles coming into Fairplay treat me? I did get a refill at the Horseshoe aid station - as well as some more water, some gummy bears and a handful of cherries. I didn't fill up my pack that much - it was only 7 miles left. I wouldn't need that much, right?And there is Lesson 2 - while carrying the extra weight of the water can be slower, running out of water is even slower. I had a feeling that it was going to get super hot and I was on the brink of a melt down. But I didn't get as much water as I needed. Nor did I have my little hand held with me for an added boost of liquid

She caught me on the climb out of Horseshoe as I'd anticipated. I was walking - trying to remember that this was a recon race for Sheep Mountain. What were the chances that I'd be running with 20 more miles under my legs? I was also hot - very hot - and the walking was letting me cool off a little. Once she passed me, I tried to keep her in sight. There were only a few more miles left - even though I was trying to focus on July, it was hard not to think about the current moment. I was keeping the gap to between 3-2 minutes . In the interest of racing, I bypassed the water only aid station - just a jug with some cups really. There were only 4 miles left - I was fine... But really, I wasn't. We were fully exposed to the harsh sun and I was roasting - I'd gotten it the gap to first down to 1 minute and was intending on making a move to try to bridge and get back on. Didn't happen. I tried to accelerate only to realize that there was nothing. I couldn't speed up at all without feeling like I was well into the red - and not from the effort of the pace. I wasn't cooling myself off like I needed to run faster - and actually needed to slow down to get my temperature under control. Yikes.
Which brings me to Lesson 3 - racing is good and winning is great. But not at the expense of health. Recognizing that something is wrong is the key to health. I was out of water and on the verge of heat exhaustion - if I had kept pushing, things would have gone down hill in a hurry.
So slow down I did. I walked when I felt too hot and ran when I'd cooled off a little. It was a slow last few miles, but I was okay when I finished.

I've got a few things to iron out - and a month to do it in. A new light weight long sleeved shirt, remembering to use my handheld on daily runs so I get used to it, better with eating and getting the process at the aid stations down. Not that much, but enough to keep me busy.
I'd recommend the South Park Trail Marathon to anyone looking for a challenge. It was a well organized, fun and challenging race. And super low key - like everyone was approaching it as a long run with a number on...


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