It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
No, really, it was.
You see, Imogene Pass is a poster child for Dickens’ mountain running classic, a Tale of Two Races. This race was in three acts.
Act 1: The preparation
Mollie, Jess and I headed West out of Denver on Friday, opting to stay in Telluride, Colorado, where the race would finish. A beautiful day lay in front of us as I took in the incredible views that only I-70 West can provide. Mollie had a new friend, Mr. Dragon, to accompany her throughout the trip and 1/2 a tablet of Dramamine seemed to do the trick as she curled herself up into a ball and drifted off to sleep.
However, this is Mollie, not asleep.
Instead of the original plan to head straight to Telluride, we decided packet pickup was better and went to Ouray, where the race begins. Ouray is a small mountain town of 1,000 people, referred to as “The Switzerland of the United States” For a small town, the area was bustling with a certain hum only dace day can provide. Runners and families snapping photos, friends greeting old friends and small shops and bars full of patrons.
I picked up my packet and was swiftly greeted with the news I would be cut down two legs for this race. (aka running poles were not allowed). Disappointed, but undeterred, I knew a good time was still in my grasp.
After getting the obligatory stickers for Pacman (aka our 2012 Yellow Ford Focus) we met up with Walt and Melissa that evening for a quick dinner. Walt ran Imogene Pass last year and introduced me to the race in 2013. He also registered me as I was running Golden Gate Dirty 30 during the registration opening, which sells out in record time each year.
A quick bite of some normal tasting food and we pointed the car towards Telluride and our daily-deal acquired hotel. Jess is the queen of finding a good deal, and this one may have been the best yet.
Telluride is a very quaint mountain town, with two areas. Telluride proper (aka the normal city) and Telluride the mountain village (aka the ski village). Our hotel was in the mountain village, and it did not disappoint. Completely out of our league during the ski season, the hotel was incredible and the most dog friendly hotel I have ever seen.
We headed to our room and not only were greeted with fantastic human amenities, but Mollie was even given her very own puppy bed and fresh dog bowls.
Just what we all needed for a good night’s sleep prior to race day. We tucked in, set the 4:30 alarm and it was lights out.
Act 2: What goes up, must come down.
Inevitably I wake up one hour before my alarm on race day. I’m petrified I’ll oversleep. The microwave clocked showed 3:30 and I stumbled out to hit the bathroom and lay in bed a few more minutes. I did fall asleep until 4:30 and hopped right out of bed. Race day breakfast were leftover scrambled eggs and a mix that Jess made me the morning prior. Spinach, feta, tomatoes, perfect for a race morning.
We gathered everything and headed out the door ON TIME at 5:15 for the one hour drive to Ouray and to meet Walt and Melissa prior to the race.
Slowly, sleepy eyed runners began to make their way into the streets. The four of us met at a local coffee shop and had a quick bite to eat, surrounded by runners taking in their caffeine fix to prepare for the looming ascent. A small blueberry muffin and a tea and I was ready for the race to begin.
Walt and I made our way to the start line and settled in. He was a very competitive cyclist and loves running uphill. I knew he would be faster than me, probably by 15-20 minutes, but with a smallish race, we lined up together. Right before the gun went off, we shook hands and said, “See you at the finish.”
No nerves. Just ready to go.
This is where I should say “Boom” but I said to Walt it sounded like a $1 cap gun you get at Dollar Tree.
Anyway…we were off.
Imogene Pass gives the best directions I have ever seen for a mountain race. The website race walkthrough couldn’t be more precise, giving you hill grades, distance and elevation. So, I knew what was coming. The race is 17.1 miles 9.8 miles and 5,000ft of climb were in front of me.
Here’s an example of the course maps:
Mile 0.32– At the beginning of a left hand 180° hairpin curve in the highway, most runners turn 90° left , leave the pavement, pass between some large rip rap boulders, and shortcut cross-country south some 280 ft. to the US 550/ Camp Bird road junction. This shortcut saves 50 yards, but some runners may want to continue on the highway around the curve due to the early race congestion.
Mile 0.37– US Highway 550/Camp Bird road junction. Move due south at the junction onto the Camp Bird road (you will pass a large white highway information sign on your left). If you miss this road junction you will find yourself heading to Silverton instead of Telluride.
The beginning .5 miles winds out of town on paved road. Once you hit the Imogene Pass, you begin to climb. The first seven miles of the course is fairly repeatable. There are some short, steep sections, a few longer, runnable climbs, and a few flat sections where you can actually run. Those three types of terrain are mixed in as you wind your way up the pass towards the top of the mountain.
For my lack of climbing skills, I settled into a nice routine, despite being passed by a metric fuck-ton of runners. I know climbing is not a strength of mine, so I bided my time and ran/walked where necessary. My breathing was okay based on elevation and without incident, made it through the first aid station and headed toward the second.
At Mile 4, I began to feel lightheaded and weak, something that never happens to me. Even on the toughest days where I may be very low on calories, I never feel that bonk. My mental state normally goes before the physical, but this time, I felt out of gas already.
At the second aid station, I took in everything I could. A few pretzels, some M&M’s trail mix, typical trail/mountain race food, and got my wits about me.
I’m sure glad I did.
After Mile 5, you begin to wind up to your left and take on some very gnarly ascents. The grade easily reaches 15-20% and your legs begin to burn, burn, burn. I put my hands on the small of my back and just kept climbing uphill. One foot in front of the other.
At this point, you can see roughly the next 1.5 miles of the course, winding up to a ridge which looks like the end (but, trust me, it’s not). Lines of runners were slowly making their way towards the jeep road and it’s path over the ridge. I just kept looking and often referred to my “Harden the Fuck Up” rubber bracelet on my right wrist. A constant reminder to do just that.
I reached the false summit, and knew according to my Garmin it was at least a few miles to the real top of the pass.
Mile 8.92– Summit of the headwall (12,290 ft.). The road curves left as you exit from the diagonal bench through the head wall cliff. The grade slackens, reaches a crest, then drops into a steep trough and coasts gently uphill to the Mile 9.0 cone. It is only natural to hesitate a second or two at this crest, to recover from the climb of course, but especially to gaze at the summit ridge known as Imogene Pass, in plain view at last, straight ahead and 830 feet above.
Do you know the feeling where you have a huge task to complete, let’s say, cleaning your garage. You clean it for a few hours and think you are done, but then find three more boxes with more stuff than the entire few hours you cleaned previously?
Welcome to my world when I turned the corner and saw the actual top. The road actually became 20-22% grade and the top of the Pass was in sight. As much as I truly wanted to stop, again, I kept going. I pushed, my legs burned, and some crazy lady in front of me sang “Titanium” in the most off-key voice I have ever heard.
Mile 9.30– As with Murphy’s law, nothing worthwhile ever comes without sacrifice. The pass is ever closer, but the effort intensifies as you move out of the trough. The road mounts another effort to repulse you with a merciless hill which climbs 230 vertical feet over the next 0.2 mile (1050 horizontal ft.) at a gradient of 1150 ft./mi. (21.8%).
Further, further, further, up and up I went. After 2:40 of hard work, I reached the top, and for me, where the fun began.
Cowbells, yelling and horns honking. Sounds like a mountain race to me. I grabbed a few snacks, had a volunteer snap two photos at the top and I was off, down the mountain.
I wanted to ascent in 2:30. All things considered, 2:40 worked for me!
Mile 10.05– Imogene Pass and aid station (13,120 ft.). As you move west along the road from the trail/road junction, the road and summit ridge meet. This is Imogene Pass. In good weather it is pleasurable to pause briefly and look back at where you just came from, and forward to where you are heading. Ouray is completely hidden in the deep valley to the northeast, from whence you just came, to the right of the now insignificant appearing United States mountain. Telluride is relatively close to the west, and although the green lower valley and mesas are clearly visible, the town itself is hidden behind nearer high ridges. Even in good weather the aid station volunteers are usually dressed in cold weather clothes at this exposed summit ridge aid station. In mixed or bad weather, you will be doubly thankful for their presence as you briefly partake of their aid and immediately begin your descent.
The IPR course will now use the road exclusively all the way to the finish line in Telluride. At this narrow pass-on-the-ridge known as Imogene, the westerly heading Imogene road makes an abrupt 150°left turn and begins its descent as Tomboy road, south into Savage basin. At 0.25 mile below the pass the road switchbacks right, and the runner moves westerly over loose footing down an unrelentingly steep relatively direct route to the 11.0 mile marker cone. This is the single longest and steepest uninterrupted descent gradient on the course (900 ft. vertical in 0.95 mile; 950 ft./mi or 17.9% gradient). With legs accustomed to moving constantly upward It is easy to loose control in this first downgrade with its steep grade and treacherous footing, so be careful. Most injury falls in the race occur in this stretch.
Act 3: Welcome Home
I love running downhill. I always have. Hovering on the brink of top speed and being out of control. I wondered if I had burned up my legs on the ascent.
There was only one way to find out.
I left 13,114 ft for 7.1 miles of straight, technical downhill. I immediately passed five runners in a quarter mile and set myself a goal.
Pass 100 runners, come in under 1:00 for the descent.
The first two miles of downhill is fairly steep and very rocky and technical. Just what I love. My steps felt heavier than normal. My legs were beginning to adjust to the immediate switch in terrain and after one mile, I felt much lighter on my feet.
My legs woke up and it was go time. I began to tick of runners at a good clip. We are all out there on the mountain chasing the finish line and right now, bombing down the mountain was my time.
The descent continued. About 3.5 miles in, the course leveled out for a quarter mile and when I tried to run the flat, they began to tighten. I wondered if I had enough to finish the next three miles the way I wanted to. So, instead of slowing down, I ran faster, and again my legs shot to life.
I passed the final aid station and had 2.8 miles to the finish and an entire conga line of runners a half-mile ahead of me. Sights were set and I went for it.
I ran along the ridge and two miles from the finish, the city of Telluride popped into view. I could hear the cheers of family and friends lining the streets and the shouts from the race M.C. It was to be a very welcome home.
I found the best lines and kept my body loose, pushed forward along the border of face-plant/yard sale and top speed. I sped past more runners. My breathing increased, my legs burned and the cone signaling one more mile had just went past. It was time to finish strong.
I tore off down the mountain and began to descent more into the houses. With a half-mile left, there were more and more people and the cheers became louder.
I took the final left hand turn and saw the finish ahead. The steep road was perfect to let out what I had left in the tank. I saw Jess, Walt and Melissa on the side of the road and smiled. It was finally over.
I crossed the line in 3:34. I passed 72 runners total on the descent, was passed by no one and completed the descent in :55 minutes.
Walt crushed the day in 3:07, a 13 minute improvement from last year. We snapped a few post race photos and then headed out on the town in Telluride to enjoy the day and evening with plenty of beers and wine to go around.
The dichotomy of this race make it different than any other I had done previously. Straight up, straight down. Nothing in-between. Love it. Can’t wait to come back next year.
I’ll be back next year, with an audacious goal of going sub-3:00. The pass awaits, and I’ll be there again to take it on. Rumor has it, Melissa and Jess will be joining us as well!
A massive congrats to Walt, again, who crushed it with a 3:07.
Mile 17.10– After you cross the finish line at the south edge of the Oak street/West Columbia avenue intersection, you can stop. You’ve done it. You have moved on your own power, the old fashion way, over Imogene Pass between Ouray and Telluride. Time now to philosophize on the greater and lesser meanings of life.