Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Race Report – Colorado Relay

Friday, September 11 – Saturday, September 12

10-runner team; 170 Miles; Georgetown to Carbondale

Team Robe Runners

Last weekend I joined a team of nine other runners in the 170-mile Colorado Relay race, an annual affair which sends runners from Georgetown to Carbondale, crossing three high mountain passes – Loveland, Burning Bear and Vail Passes.

I joined the nobly-named Team Robe Runners at the invitation of Evergreen running pal Steve F. The team came complete with a storied history and strong pedigree, having won the race last year. This year, though, there only were four runners returning from last year’s winning team. Six of us were new.

We all met Friday morning around 8 a.m. in Georgetown. We had two big SUVs to ferry us to the 30 individual exchange points, where runners would hand off the race belt and number to the next runner. T-shirts, contributed by Boulder-based Newton Running, were handed out, introductions were made and check-in was completed.

Steve F. had assigned runners to each of the 30 race legs. He even helpfully provided predicted times for each leg, giving us a time goal to strive to reach. Overall, our goal was a repeat win, and a finishing time of less than 20 hours.

The race uses a staggered start approach to help ensure teams cross the finish line within a reasonable multi-hour window. Start times are assigned based on self-reported team 10K times. Some teams began as early as 5:30 a.m. Our team, and about 10 others, was scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m., the latest start time.

Due to a large mass of unstable rock on Guanella Pass, southwest of Georgetown, the pass was closed and the race course was altered. The first four runners would each run a leg up Loveland Pass along bike paths, frontage roads and service roads alongside I-70 to Loveland Ski Area. Here, the fourth runner would run a delightful 1.5-mile route 1,000 feet up and back down the ski hill. The collective time of the first four legs would be added to the time of the other 26 legs run on the original race course.

While our Loveland Pass runners -- Steve F., Steve G., Steve S. Brian and Frank -- took on Loveland Pass, the rest of us -- Simon, Paul, Kris, Phil and I -- drove back to Evergreen to Highway 285 to Grant and the south side of Guanella Pass where we would pick up the original race course.

I was runner #5. My first leg would be a six-mile run up and over Burning Bear pass, featuring an 1,100-foot ascent and descent. At 2 p.m., four-and-a-half hours after our first runner left Georgetown, it was race time at Burning Bear. As I stepped to the race line with four other guys, I lined up next to a familiar face. Standing next to me was none other than mountain running legend Matt Carpenter, the current and 10-time Pikes Peak Marathon and 6-time Pikes Peak Ascent winner.

Before I could do some proper calculation as to how long it would take for Matt to leave me in the dust, the race official began his countdown. Right at 2 p.m. we were off. As expected, Matt set off at a brisk pace. A fit looking guy wearing black compression socks took out after Matt. I settled into third, wondering if Socks knew who he was chasing and how long it would take before he was cooked. I kept Matt and Socks in sight for about a mile. Once the trail entered a pretty dense forest and the trail grade steepened, Matt disappeared and I caught glimpses of Socks starting to walk through rock gardens and up short, steep pitches. At about 1.2 miles I caught and passed Socks. I knew Matt was well out of reach, so I focused on keeping a steady pace and ensuring no one caught me from behind.

After cresting the pass and flying down the other side on a steep, rocky trail, I was dumped onto a road at Exchange Point 6, where I handed off our race number to Phil, who was ready for some trail fun. (48:40; 8:20 average pace)

Matt beat me by six minutes. Such an impressive runner! I reckon Socks had no idea whom he was running against. We left the exchange point before the other three runners emerged from the woods.

At Exchange Point #7, I had a chance to chat a bit with Matt. Turned out, his team, Daddies Gone Wild, was in the “Non-conformist” category, which includes teams of 6-12 runners. Matt’s team had seven runners, including a couple from out-of-state…sea-level states.

Phil and Kris ran the next two legs, which featured similar terrain to Burning Bear…steep climbs and descents, lots of forests and a fair dose of golden-leafed aspen trees. Together, they managed to pick back up two or three of the minutes I lost to Matt in leg 5. The race was on…and it was crystal clear that Daddies Gone Wild (DGW) would be our toughest competition.

The longest leg in the race was leg #8, which goes 13 miles up and over Georgia Pass. This leg belonged to Paul, an accomplished runner and ultrarunner and Newton Running employee. Paul had the unenviable task of chasing Matt Carpenter on this leg. And, as if that weren’t fun enough, Paul was still recovering from several broken ribs and hadn’t run in about three weeks. Still, he looked fresh and ready to go. And go he did…sore ribs and all. I don’t remember the splits, but Paul didn’t give up much time to DGW.

After Steve F., Simon and Steve S. ran impressive legs from the bottom of Georgia Pass to Copper Mountain. Robe Runners and DGW were neck in neck at Exchange Point 11, at the Copper Mountain base. With a climb up Vail Pass in the darkness looming, Frank and Matt Carpenter set off together. Frank ran a great leg, flying up the staircase at the Vail Pass rest area just two minutes behind Matt. From here, it was all downhill…literally.

After impressive legs by Brian (busting sub-5:40 miles down the west side of Vail pass) and Steve G. (running so smooth and fast through East Vail), I took the handoff at 10:30 p.m. in Vail’s Ford Park and set off on a nine-mile gentle downhill jaunt to Avon and its Battle Mountain High School (58:40; 6:37 average pace). I felt very good this entire run. I don’t think I’ve ever run that fast that long before. I just focused on keeping the pace up, the breathing steady and the mind on the nine other people counting on me to run hard (and Steve F.’s 60-minute time prediction for that leg). I finished the leg in a full-on sprint to keep a sneaky runner from passing me in the final stretch. I held him off, but, in my zeal, managed to pass Phil, who was waiting there in the finish scrum for me to hand off the number so he could get on with leg #16. Once I settled down and managed to locate Phil, we completed the handoff and he was off. And, Steve G., Brian, Frank, Steve S. and I headed off to Eagle High School for a catnap and to wait for the other half of the team to do their thing.

Through the early morning hours, Phil, Kris, Steve F. and Simon each ran their asses off. As the hour grew later, we lost track of where we were time-wise in relation to the Daddies Gone Wild team. We knew we had passed them on west side of Vail Pass, but little more was known. We were now running not to be caught, with the additional goals of beating Steve F. predicted leg times and getting to Carbondale in under 20 hours.

The last legs for the five of us in Vehicle A were the legs to and through Glenwood Canyon. Steve S. ran a blistering pace to the mouth of the Canyon, followed by Brian and Steve G. going all out along the dark bike path parallel to the noisy Colorado River.

My final leg was a four-mile stretch from the No Name exit off I-70 to the Glenwood Recreation Center. I took the handoff from Steve G. at 5:09 a.m. and ran alone through the last three miles of the canyon and into Glenwood Springs.

I was warned ahead of time that the route through town was a little tricky. I managed to follow the odd collection of signs, fading glow sticks and flashing red lights on an eclectic collection of bridges, bike paths, sidewalks and roads to get from Glenwood Hot Springs to the rec center (25:38; 6:23 average pace). After a final handoff to Phil, Vehicle A was officially done with the 2009 Colorado Relay.

As we drove to the finish line to wait for the Vehicle B runners to finish their final legs, we started doing the math. We all had run our legs in times very close to what Steve F. had predicted. If we continued that trend, we figured we’d finish in under 20 hours.

We drove on to Carbondale and settled in at the finish area to wait as the rest of the team completed their final legs. Before we knew it, the whole team was together at the finish area waiting for our last runner, Simon, to complete the race's last leg.

Suddenly, Simon came barreling around the final corner into the finish area, chasing one more runner. Colorado Relay rules say the entire team must to cross the finish line together. Simon was about eight minutes ahead of schedule, and we weren’t ready. Simon passed the runner he was chasing, as well as the rest of the runner’s teammates limping after him. Unfortunately, due to our inattention, we didn’t get the entire Robe Runners team across the finish line with Simon.

As a result, officially we were the third team across the finish line (the first two teams had started the race two or three hours before us). We had the fastest overall time, finishing the 170-mile race in 19:34:59. Daddies Gone Wild, running with just seven runners (three fewer than us!), came in second, with a time of 20:25:59. (Additionally, DGW went off course at the top of Loveland Pass, ceding 10 minutes. That made their overall time even more impressive!)

All in all, the Colorado Relay experience was great. The first half of the course is beautiful and challenging. Thankfully, the long, flat and boring (and somewhat dangerous) stretches of I-70 frontage road from Avon to Dotsero were run in the dark. I couldn’t imagine running those stretches in the daylight.

The volunteers were fantastic. Even in the middle of the night, they were attentive and informed (thank you!). The course was pretty well-marked. No one on our team went off course. The best part, though, was running as part of a team. The camaraderie and encouragement from teammates was uplifting and the unspoken pressure to perform for the team was inspiring. And, the shared suffering from running all night resulted in a strong bond among a group of near-strangers.

A special thanks to Race Director Garrett Bell, all the race sponsors and the countless volunteers that made this event so special, and raised significant funds for Outward Bound. And, thanks to my Robe Runners teammates for pushing me to run faster, harder and longer than I thought I could.


  1. Hi Jim,

    Phil and I just finished reading your blog about the relay - fantastic! So much fun to re-live last weekend's madness. We look forward to running with you again. Until then, Happy Trails!

    Kris & Phil

  2. Nice work. I think you summed up the experience perfectly!

    It's alot more fun sometimes to re-live it a week or so later when the tiredness and soreness had worn off than it is in the actual event!

    Thanks for joining our team this year and running three exceptional legs. We certainly couldn't have repeated as champions without your efforts!