Aspen Backcountry Marathon Race Report

While it was a far cry from “the most challenging marathon” I have ever or probably will ever run, it definitely had its fair share of spice, as any trail race has.

I signed up for this race at the beginning of the month primarily because the timing fit in perfectly with my Run Rabbit Run 50M training. I like using races as long hard training runs because, while I usually don’t race them, I do run them with more intensity than I would do on a casual marathon-distance weekend trail run with friends. I purposefully don’t taper for these races, in fact, I try to do the opposite by scheduling them right smack in the middle of my peak training. This helps me to build up my recovery speed (which, to me, is just as important as training for the race itself) and gives me a sense of my mental & physical readiness for my big focus race.

I’d never been out to Aspen so this was a good excuse. We drove over to Aspen on Saturday after watching the USA Pro-Cycling Challenge zip through Boulder. The road through Leadville and over Independence Pass is simply gorgeous:

And the Aspen area itself, is, well, almost too picture perfect to be real:

The race course started off with about 10 minutes on the road through the town of Aspen before turning onto a dirt road for another 10 minutes and then finally taking us through beautiful forested single track trails for the next 15 miles. There were 2 more sections on the road once we came back through the town but none amounted to more than a mile in length. The trails were beautiful and fun – not too rocky or steep but twisted and turned sharply throughout.

Shortly after crossing paths with a fat berry-eating bear, Ryan & Kea hiked about a quarter mile up from the mile 17 aid station to catch me coming down the long 2000′ descent into the Aspen valley.

At this point I knew that I was in 2nd place but I had no idea by how much. I had been toying with the idea of trying to kick things up a notch to see if I could make a move for 1st, but I hadn’t decided yet how much I wanted to suffer for it. I was feeling great and the miles had ticked by quickly and easily but I didn’t know if I should flip the racing switch in my mind or even if I could catch the lead woman… Thankfully, Ryan showed up just in time to flip that switch for me. He yelled at me (while simultaneously trying to take pictures and catch Kea who was more than happy to run the rest of the race with me) that the leader was just 3 minutes ahead.

And then he said just want I needed to hear “You’re looking much stronger than she is. Go get her!”

So I did just that. The “should I?”  and “could I?” in my mind turned into a definitive “I will”. I blew through the mile 17 aid station and picked up the pace through the short pavement section ahead. Ryan was waiting for me a mile down the road, stop watch in one hand and camera in the other. The leader was now only 2 minutes and 17 seconds ahead.

At this point I took a calculated risk and threw my waist belt at Ryan as I passed. While I hadn’t had more than a half-bottle of my water and had only eaten 1 gu and two orange slices at an aid station about an hour ago, I felt fine and decided I would push through the next 8 miles with minimal sustenance. It was game on. I was 100% committed to taking the lead position.

A short mile later I could hear the sounds of the next aid station on the hillside above me. I looked up and saw not only the crowd of aid station volunteers but the lead woman. I had gained 2 minutes and was now within striking distance of my target. I threw a cup of water down my throat and left that aid station amidst cheers from the volunteers and spectators. Ryan and Kea ran beside me for a few seconds on my way out of the aid station area. He told  me I’d be back through this aid station in about 2 miles time, in the meantime I needed to take the lead. No time for a verbal response, I just lifted my hand up in acknowledgement as I took off onto the trail.

2 miles later I was welcomed back at that aid station with a roar. I had taken the lead! 

I’m not gonna lie, it felt amazing! I felt super charged with energy as I made my move, passed her, and pushed on up the hill taking down 3 men in the process too. I kept on pushing the accelerator, just because I had overtaken her didn’t mean I was done. I needed to open up the gap between us.

When you’re behind someone you have the advantage that you can see them ahead without them knowing that you’re there. You can calculate your move and take them by surprise (trust me, I’ve been ninja-ed before…). But, being ahead also has its advantages: you can play a psychological game with your “opponent”. And that’s exactly what I did. Well, I have no idea if it had any effect on her but it was psychological for me as much as it was meant to be for her.

Once I decided to make the move to pass her I did it in one fell swoop and carried the momentum until I was well out of sight. The point is to “intimidate” the other runner by making it look easy. Fake it if you have to: straighten your posture, control your breathing, greet & thank the runner graciously and make them think “oh man, there’s no way I can put up a fight” as you pass them.

There wasn’t much that Ryan needed to say to me as I swept into the aid station, downed a cup of water, and took off over the bridge. I was still running as if the woman I had passed was hot on my heels. I knew that he knew that I knew (confused yet?!) that I could hold her off.

This next stretch took us along a paved bike path for a bit before shooting us straight up & then straight down the ski slopes for the final 2 miles to the finish.

I continued to pass runners ahead of me. I must have passed 5 or 6 of them in this final section. I knew I didn’t need to (I was now in the lead by a solid 6 minutes) but it felt good and I was having fun so I kept it up. It’s always a nice feeling when your increase in effort is matched by an increase in speed.

I rounded the corner off the trail and popped onto a flat park path. The finish line!

This is that “faking it” face I was talking about earlier…

A certain fuzzy butt couldn’t have been happier to see me come through the finish, first place or not!

Either it was, in fact, “the most challenging marathon you’ll ever run” or all the fast Colorado trail runners slept in — only two runners finished in under 4 hours and only 3% of the women (2/58) and 25% of the men (30/113) finished the race in under 5 hours. Either way, I’m pretty pleased with how I felt out there and how I’m feeling the day after. Yesterday was definitely a solid confidence booster for the 50 miler coming up in 3 weeks.

Total distance (miles)
Finishing time
Average pace (min/mile)
Overall place
Gender place

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