Yesterday I ran the Mount Evans Ascent: America’s Highest Road Race! It starts at Echo Lake at 10600′ (3230m) and follows the paved road all the way to the summit at 14264′ (4347m). With about 4000′ of elevation gain over 14+ miles the road maintains an average of 4-6% grade climb with just two short dips at around mile 9 and then again around mile 11. I’ve run much steeper climbs and much longer distances but I had never run at that elevation or for 14+ continuous uphill miles so I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that there was a special award for men who finished the race in under 2:40 and women who finished it in under 3:00, so I tentatively set my sights on a sub-3 hour finish knowing full well that it would all depend on my body adapting to the thin air.
Boulder loves to flaunt its “high altitude” claiming that running here at 5430 feet above sea level is so tough, but honestly, it’s hardly noticeable. In my opinion, it’s not until you head above 10,000 feet that you can really say that the altitude hits you hard and once you break the 4000 meter barrier (13,000′) then you definitely become aware that you are at the mercy of the thin air. The percentage of oxygen in the air is always constant, what changes with altitude is the amount of oxygen that each breath gives your body because the air molecules become more dispersed. This is what causes you to feel out of breath. To put it into perspective: One breath at the top of Mt Everest (29029′) delivers one-third of the oxygen that the same breath would give in Miami.
With that in mind, I tried to relish in the fact that I was inhaling good fresh mountain air up here on the high road. The temperature at the start was about 50 degrees and contrary to the norm, this would be the warmest part of the course. I ran with a short sleeve top and gloves, and with a merino long sleeve shirt wrapped around my waist. The race requires runners to have a long sleeve or jacket with them at all times since the weather can change dramatically in the mountains. Sure enough, while the sun shone brightly on me through to the finish, the wind definitely began picking up in the final hour or so and within 45 minutes of having finished it was pouring rain and hailing!
Since the road is not closed to cars for the race it’s very easy to spectate. Ryan and Kea drove up from the start to mile 5 and then stopped every mile or two to cheer me on and take lots of photos. Apparently between trying to find where the squeaky marmots were hiding, stalking the nimble mountain goats and watching me come and go, Kea was on high alert all morning!
After breaking above the tree line, the road ascends gently for the middle section from mile 3 to 9. You can see ahead for miles which is both really cool and really mean. On one hand the setting is absolutely gorgeous. The sky feels huge and the vistas are endless. But on the other hand it’s hard not to look at that far away section of road and know that the end is still far beyond that.
Instead of focusing on the distance yet ahead, I sighted the runners in front of me and focused on picking them off, one by one. I felt like I chased down this particular pack of men for an eternity:
But I finally caught up to them, made my move, and never looked back…
The final 2.5 miles are the toughest not just because it’s nearly the end and not just because you’re running above 13000′ (although that certainly adds to the challenge), but because of this:
Switchbacks. Lots of them. The view from the top down to one of the switchbacks below:
In this last stretch, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t my lungs that were burning or my heart rate that was soaring, it was my leg muscles that were feeling the lack of oxygen. With my running stride turning into a more of a shuffle I could feel my pace dropping but couldn’t do anything about it. I put my head down and focused on keeping my arms pumping and continuing to move forward as swiftly as my little shuffle could take me.
I definitely didn’t feel as comfortable and graceful on the road up here as these local did!
I crossed the finishing mat in an official time of 2:28:06. I’m extremely pleased with my time and how the race went for me. If you would have told me at the start to shoot for sub-2:30 finish I would have told you that you were crazy.
Assuming that the course was 14.5 miles long (the “official” race map states 14.33 miles yet the race website & results indicate 14.5 miles) my overall average pace was 10:13 min/mile. And assuming that every aid station was exactly 3 miles apart (which wasn’t the case but it was the only thing I have to go by), here are my splits:
|MILE |||ELAPSED TIME |||MILES BETWEEN AS |||TIME BETWEEN AS |||MIN/MILE PACE|