Beer, milkshakes, elk burgers, hot springs, tents, blisters and of course, mountains. Traveling down to the San Juans is never a disappointment and for the second time this summer we found ourselves in this incredible corner of Colorado, that is becoming one of my favourite places to run. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Telluride and Ouray may just about be the most beautiful towns in North America. So when I initially heard about the Imogene Pass Run which connects the two towns together via a 17 mile, 5,300ft climb, point to point course, there really was no choice…..this race was a must. A large contingent of Boulder trail runners clearly agreed and descended on the small town of Ouray for what promised to be a painfully awesome experience. It did not disappoint.
Imogene is not your typical mountain race. For starters there are a lot of people there. 1500 or so participants had signed up and I believe around 1200 would start. Secondly, this isn’t some meandering single track jaunt around the mountains. It is unashamedly direct. 10 miles straight up, 7 miles straight down, all on rough 4×4 roads. One punishing ascent, one painful descent, 17 miles. I hadn’t run such a ‘short’ race in quite some time. There was nowhere to hide. I was intimidated.
We opted to camp in an RV park in town which proved to be a great decision as it was merely a few mins jog to the start line in the center of town on race morning. We lined up along the main st in Ouray and I chatted with friends from Boulder and elsewhere. I glanced back down the starting area at the masses of anxious but happy people. Everyone looked stoked and rightly so. This was going to be epic.
The starting pace was fierce. After about 50 meters of flat running we headed uphill. This would not change for the best part of the next two hours. We headed up the Million Dollar Highway for about 1/4 of a mile before turning off onto jeep roads where we would remain for the rest of the race.
The first few miles went by reasonably well. I was in 4th place pretty much from the outset. First and Second were well ahead and out of sight fairly quickly but I held on to 3rd place visually for a while. After the first few miles I decided I didn’t have my ‘A’ game with me. I was ticking along okay but the effort felt too hard and my legs were flat. I could hear people breathing down my neck and on the easier sections where I should be opening up my stride, it just felt flat and any gains I made on the steeper stuff quickly eroded. I hung on anyway. This was supposed to hurt.
I went by the first few aid stations glancing at my watch which confirmed what I had though. I was behind schedule. I wanted to run under 2:30 and closer to 2:20 if at all possible but that now seemed tricky. I went by Upper Camp Bird aid about 3 mins behind where I wanted to be. I looked up and ahead to what I thought was the pass. I was wrong. After another 10 mins of steep rugged 4×4 switchbacks I came up to this crest and looked ahead at the soul crushing reality. There was probably a further mile and several hundred feet of steep road to go. Damn. Shortly after this bombshell I took a walking break for the first time. Shortly after that, Eric Bohn, a Salomon runner from Flagstaff overtook me. I was hurting but I tried to cling on to him anyway.
I summited Imogene Pass roughly 1:49 minutes after leaving Ouray. I was beat. Prior to the race I was actually mostly worried about the descent because I had heard it was not that technical and feared being outrun by faster road runner types. Luckily it was sufficiently steep, rocky and treacherous to play into my hands. I literally flung myself downwards. I quickly regained my 4th position from Eric and vowed to open up the gap quickly and decisively so as not to risk a challenge. I switched off my brain, opened up my stride and gave it a good dose of recklessness abandon.
The first mile hurt. I lost 1000ft and most of the skin from under my heels. In minutes the game had changed. I wanted to run uphill again! My feet were in agony but I didn’t risk stopping. I just wanted to get to the end and hold onto my position. In retrospect I think I was a little cavalier in tying my shoes that morning and I was paying the price. I barraged on-wards regardless. Grimacing as I went. Although the first few miles of downhill antagonized my stomach with the intense pounding I soon got into a rhythm as best I could and took a glance back every now and again which confirmed that I was in no danger of being caught.
I rounded a bend and to my surprise saw Telluride a lot closer than I had imagined.
Two more miles and the suffering would be over. I heard a yell and saw Silke up on a bank above taking some photos.
I knew then it would be over soon and turned a corner onto the paved road of Telluride and enjoyed the final 200 meters of shouting, cheering and clapping spectators as I ran into the finish in 4th place for a time of 2:32:23. Slightly over my goal time but I was pleased to have held it together and pulled back a mediocre ascent with a solid descent, albeit with some painful blisters.
We hung around in Telluride for the next few hours, cheering on the rest of the Rocky Mountain Runners and Boulderites. A dunk in the river, a grilled cheese sandwich and some great banter all while hanging out in the most beautiful town in North America. What a day!