1997 Steamboat Springs Marathon
by Paul Hargrave
It is one of the best race T-shirts that I’ve seen. Runners in colorful attire floating effortlessly down a mountain road lined with pine trees. In the background is a majestic snow-covered peak framed against a blue sky filled with billowing white clouds. The T-shirt and the scenery were certainly the best features of Colorado’s Steamboat Springs Marathon. Unfortunately, the marathon started at 8128 feet, and there isn’t much air up there (at least for those of us who have been living and training at sea level).
Prior to the race, Dan Clark and I had been attending the annual meeting of the Road Runners Club of America in Colorado Springs. The meeting was scheduled in such a way that the attendees could run the classic Garden of the Gods 10-mile race the Sunday following the meeting. This sounded fine to me until I noticed that only a 4-hour drive would take us to the site of the Steamboat Springs Marathon. Neither Dan nor I had run a marathon in Colorado, nor one at altitude. Here was an opportunity and a challenge. Dan upped his mileage from 70 to 80 and finally to 90 miles per week. I increased the intensity of my training, resulting in a strained knee and a longer than usual pre-race taper.
Our drive to Steamboat Springs gave us an indication of what might lie ahead. We drove up and down winding mountainous roads in the rain and dark, arriving at our compact motel room at 10 PM. In an hour we had made our pre-race preparations and were ready for a few hours sleep. My sleep was interrupted at 2AM by the sound of Dan carbo-loading, munching bagels. My alarm went off at 4AM, giving time for pre-race loosening up, stretching and carbo-loading. I jogged along the Steamboat Springs downtown tourist area and startled a fox crossing the street. By 6AM we were aboard a school bus taking us to the start. The bus traced the marathon course in reverse, which included several stretches where the bus downshifted to its lowest gear and struggled upward. This was the 8th of June, but about a mile from the start we noticed patches of snow at the side of the road. Yet at the race assembly area it felt like the low 50’s. The mood was relaxed. We picked up our race numbers and packets from the Course Director who casually distributed them and dispensed vaseline from the back of his hatchback. Dan and I photographed each other with a lake and snow-capped mountain in the background.
The field of 475 runners watched the single wheelchair racer depart. Then we were off, and it was the last I was to see of Dan for the next 4 hours. The first few miles were relatively flat. I went out at what (at sea level) would have been a conservative 8:20 pace, but in the rarified air I was already beginning to struggle. Then came a slight uphill that caused me to slow to 9:15 pace. There was a stretch of unexpected trail running where the road was under repair, and due to the previous night’s rain we had to watch our footing. Then came a steep downhill. I remembered Jeff Galloway’s advice not to brake going downhill but to shorten your stride and keep your center of gravity over your feet. Trying to do this I sped down the hill at 7:20 pace, passing many runners, all of whom got to see me again rather soon. The downhill continued past pine forests and over a bridge crossing a stream swollen with rain runoff and snowmelt. The sky became overcast and threatening, but the rain held off. The miles went by and the effect of the downhills on my quads began their toll. 8:30 miles became 9:00+ by half-marathon, and 10:00+ by mile 21. Then it disintegrated to the survival shuffle with walking breaks thrown in. Four or five of us urged each other on to the next mile marker or the next telephone pole. It was a humbling experience — following five 3:30 marathons in the previous seven months — to be struggling to maintain an 11-minute pace. Dan met me at the finish line, all showered, dressed and rested. He had finished 7th overall in a respectable 2:52, but still tens of minutes slower than what he would have run for a flat course at sea level.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from this experience. For us mid-pack runners, it is always better to start out very slowly and conservatively, and to factor in race conditions (temperature, altitude) in deciding what is an appropriate pace. You can always make it up at the end. No matter how slowly I try to start out, it always ends up having been too fast. Having a little bit left at the end makes the race far more enjoyable than having to fight for sheer survival. And training for the specific conditions of the race is always wise. Finding the appropriate training hills would have been useful, and getting out to Colorado two weeks ahead of time to acclimate would have been nice, in the best of all possible worlds. For me this was a 3 GU-packet race that cost 4 toenails. But the body regenerates and the mind forgets. I’m already planning the Fall marathon schedule.