Friday, March 21, 2014

Salida Marathon 2014

It's a short three-hour drive from Fort Collins to Salida, a trip that takes driver and passenger through classic Colorado country, and one that never gets old. You roll up through the Denver foothill towns of Conifer and Bailey, give a nod to the somewhat incongruous hillside Jesus statue at Camp Santa Maria as you make your way up to Kenosha Pass, before crossing the Colorado Trail and dropping into the high and huge South Park Basin, which encompasses a massive 1,000 square feet all at approximately 10,000 feet above sea level.

It's a harsh environment and this year the snow fences to the west of Highway 285 are completely buried, a sure sign that it has been a cold and wet winter in the Colorado Rockies. But the highlight of the drive for me is always the drop out of South Park into the Arkansas Valley, which is punctuated by the massive Collegiate Peaks of the southern Sawatch range.

Camp Santa Maria.
The view of the Collegiate Peaks is far better when unobstructed. 
The Arkansas Valley has its own dry and remarkably warm microclimate. It is often referred to as the Banana Belt of Colorado. The rolling hillsides covered in scrubby pinon and juniper for some reason remind me of childhood summer vacations to Forna, a small village just inland from the Mediterranean coast near Valencia, Spain. An old Moorish castle sits above the village on a hill covered in similarly scrubby vegetation. The trek up to visit the castle would always be a highlight of those trips.

Forna Castle. 
So anyway, it's always good to be back in Salida enjoying what fees like a late winter mini vacation.

The family couldn't make it out this year, so I opt for the budget-friendly pad in the back of the Xterra for the weekend's accommodations. As I make my way to Safeway for donuts and coffee early on race-day morning I bump into Joe GFM, who'd be dwelling a few alleys down from me that night, and we catch up with one another's goings on before heading down to the rail yards under clear, but slightly parky skies.

Paul Hamilton was a name on the start list that I was looking forward to racing, so I was slightly disappointed not to see him on the line as we got underway. I'd figured he'd be in contention and would help push the pace along, but as it turned out it would be just me and Josh Arthur off the front once we started climbing.

The first two miles at Salida are always a fun time. It's a casual two mile loop to and from the start to space the race out before hitting singletrack. The banter is always good and offers a chance to catch up with folk that you haven't seen all winter. Timmy Parr, a regular and multi-time winner of the race, has moved to Leadville I learn. It's been a tough winter up there at 10,000 feet and he talks of having not much more than the roads around the Fish Hatchery to run on.

After the warm-up lap, I decide that I'm going to go about setting the pace up the switchbacks that lead to the wonderful snaking, rocky contour trail of the new course. I want to avoid the slow start of last year so I can run an honest marathon effort the whole way around. Once we get up to elevation, I'm surprised that it's just me and Josh. The pace feels right, nothing crazy. We shoot the shit for a bit, chat about Altra Zero Drop, both of us now sponsored by the aggressive start-up out of Salt Lake, before slotting into a good rhythm that we'll hold for the rest of the race.

We spit out onto the Ute Trail at a little under 59 minutes, but neither of us can remember what the split was from last year. I'm pretty sure we're ahead of it as we find our stride up the railroad-graded dirt track. This is always a tough section of the race. The grade is fairly mellow at about 300 feet per mile, but given the awesome footing you really have to stay on the gas to make the most of it. If you hit it too hard though your back 13 miles is going to be miserable.

Josh and I run stride for stride the whole way up to the turnaround at 9,000 feet (1:34), dropping off our bottles at the aid station along the way and getting them back refilled on our way back down. As we make the turn onto the rugged jeep track section of the back half of the course, we quickly realize that conditions are improved versus last year. There isn't a great deal of snow on the ground and a set of tire tracks has packed things down decently where there is. We have to negotiate some ice and tricky cut up snowy sections along the way, but it doesn't cost us a lot of time.

Again, we stay stride for stride as we make our way back to town, both seemingly comfortable at the pace we're setting. We alternate in the lead, until finally with perhaps eight miles to go and a half mile before the precipitous descent to the mile 20 aid station, I decide to push the pace along just a little harder. I don't look back until the aid, and am massively surprised not to see Josh. I think I've done enough in those couple of miles to seal the win and settle into a significantly easier rhythm. That, as it turns out, is a big mistake. A mile later, on the switchbacks up the final climb of the race, as we start to pass half marathoners I am shocked to look back and make direct eye contact with Josh.

By the top of the climb, Josh is back on me, and I'm starting to feel beginner cramps in my hamstrings. A mile later and I'm surprised that Josh hasn't gone by me yet, as I know the pace isn't what it was just four or five miles ago, but he seems content to settle in. The half marathon traffic is pretty thick at this point and there's a lot of weaving going on. I figure Josh will wait until we spit out onto the doubletrack four miles from the finish to make his move. I'm right. But I've still got a little something left in the tank.

Once Josh assumes the lead, the pace is all of a sudden at the top of end of what I'm still able to push out, but I can still hang. However, on the last mile of the descent down to the rail yards, Josh is able to get a slight gap that I can't quite cover. With a half mile to go, he has maybe 10 seconds on me. We're now on the flats and running into a strong headwind for these last few meters and I can sense that Josh is starting to tie up, so I hit the gas for one last push, cutting the gap in half but ultimately running out of real estate.

I look at my watch and I see a new PR in the digits. This, in my 40th year and sixth time running the race, is something of a surprise. But a welcome one.

The post-race scene is as fun as always. Bill Dooper has enjoyed spectating the race, getting to all the aid stations along the way, and he is full of his usual banter. He tells me that it's mine or Dylan's year at Western States in 2014. I nod. Yeah maybe. I'm as fit as I've ever been at this stage of the game, so why the hell not?

Six Years, Six Podiums. Artwork by race RD Jon McManus.


  1. Yes, indeed. We need to catch up, Justin.

    You know, I always stop for gas in Conifer - some of the cheapest in the state for whatever reason.

    1. What is up with that Bradlees gas station? We hit it every time.

      Assuming that Krar is not coming back to WS? Apparently if King gets a slot in one of those upcoming qualifiers he is heading there as well. I love me both some d-bow and Sir Nick but I got to go with Nick here as the number of candles coming up on his cake will soon require a fire permit.

  2. Ha, a fire permit. Geez.

    Might take a crack at some master's marathon action late in the year. See if I can't finally crack that 2:30 barrier in the old-man category. But it would take some pretty serious motivation to go where you need to go to get the best out of yourself over 26.2.

    Krar? Didn't get that memo. What's up with that? Be interesting for sure to see Max in the field, but I fear experience over speed at the 100 mile distance any day of the week.

  3. Good old Dooper. It'll be good to have him in our corners out here in CA this year. He deserves a vacation. I still have PTSD from Transgrancanaria at this point. Trying not to think about 100 miles for another couple months... See you at Sonoma, though I'll be focused on drinking and spectating :).

    1. I'll be focused on jogging and drinking. Hate to say it, but LS won't be much more than a training run. Fuji two weeks later.

      PTSD! Ha.

    2. Nick, I'm jogging Sonoma too so am expecting to be well into the mid-pack. Would be good to catch up there with more trail miles after last summer.

    3. Cool - let's jog together. Looking forward to it.

  4. Great run Nick! What Altra kicks are you going to be using this upcoming year?

    -Cody C.

  5. Thanks, Cody! Bulk of the training miles are going to be in the Olympus to baby my aging knees, faster road miles in the Torin, and most of my trail racing miles in the Lone Peaks. That's pretty much the quiver.

    Been loving the aggressive traction of the LPs, especially on rock. Not sure if it's the rubber compound or lug pattern, but the LPs are sticky. Haven't felt as secure in a pair of trail runners in quite some time.

    1. From my experience, the LPs are bomb-proof. I just picked up a pair of Olympus (Olympi?) and have really been liking them for both road and trail.
      -Cody C.

  6. Great race Nick and loved the report. How do you compare the Olympus to the Torin? I'm in the Torin right now and love them but looking for more cushioning for the long days. Is the fit about the same? Good luck in the buildup to UTMF and WS.

  7. Thanks, David! Yeah, the Torin is just a really solid road shoe, and you can get away with it on trail in dry conditions too. I wear a 9.5 comfortably in both the Torin and Olympus. If anything, the Olympus might size just a bit smaller, but not to the point where I have to size down.

    The Olympus is fantastic on the roads with its aggressive toe-off, and great on trail in dry conditions. Altra markets it as a 'crossover' shoe, so the outsole is less aggressive than your average trail shoe, but still gets the job done on most terrain. Such a cushy shoe. My knees are thanking me.

  8. that's one of my favorite web site :) thanks for the article