With some concerns about the altitude for most of Colorado’s trail races, I had identified several options including the American Discovery Trail marathon, Aspen Backcountry, and a tiny little marathon at much lower elevation than most Colorado trail races. Among the marathons on the list was Mueller, directed by Mad Moose Events. When my BFF (since we were about 13, so yes it really is an appropriate abbreviation) told me she was looking at maybe, possibly running a marathon during their family vacation in Colorado and Mueller was one of her top 2 choices, the decision was made for me.
The marathon is near Divide, CO in Mueller State Park. I knew the entire race would be at or above 9,000′ BUT the elevation gain would be ONLY 4,000′ total. In my mind, this was nothing compared to stupid SweetH2O. I had been training on power lines all spring for the Georgia and Vermont races so I figured I was in decent shape to handle the elevation, if not the altitude. I consulted with my crew to be sure. He considered the trail run project map linked from the race website and carefully pointed out some areas of potential concern (e.g. mile 20ish) but was supportive.
Elevation profile from website. No problem!
The course map was harder to decipher but we could see it was a single loop without any backtracking of the same trails. Here are my results with mile markers:
Of greater concern to me than the elevation was that my BFF had run three road marathons before and each time took her training and race times very, very seriously. She planned to take a more casual approach to this race and not to worry as much about time or about running every single prescribed training mile. She agreed to train on local trails with me at my slow pace. It wasn’t too bad until the 20 mile training run that we ended up cutting back to 16 because our pace was so slow and it was already quite warm in Texas in early June. I reassured her we’d be fine and then we had some margaritas to start the taper.
While she and her family drove with multiple stops to Divide, my Companion and I flew to Denver. We spent our first night there to start the acclimation to altitude. I only had a headache but had symptoms been worse, there was relief just across the street.
We made the 2 hour drive to the park in Divide the next morning and marveled at the scenery along the way. We drove around the park and checked out some of the trails while I tried not to puke. We easily found some of the access points to aid stations so my awesome crew, now recovered from Infinitus, would be able to hike in and meet us – crew is allowed at all aid stations. Our next and final stop for the day was the amazing 3 level cabin my BFF had rented for the group near Cripple Creek, about half an hour from the start. We enjoyed a quiet evening and great views of the night sky before an early bedtime.
Race report: At the urging of our crew, we got an early start (but not before sunrise which is really, really early!) and arrived at the park over 45 minutes before the race start. We had plenty of time to hike up the hill from the parking lot to nearby bathrooms, then warm up in the car again. Marathoners started with 25k runners at 7am after a few words from the friendly and funny RDs.
I was feeling ok despite the altitude, but definitely noticed a difference in breathing ability. My goal was to stay slow at the start, but BFF was flying already. The trails were not technical at all (photo above is representative of most trails we were on), so most of my attention was on continuing to breathe. We met another 50 stater at the back of the pack and her goal is also completing the states on trails. We compared notes and then she wisely slowed some. I looked back wistfully and went on to catch my BFF. Our awesome crew was waiting at the first aid station and he quickly took care of our needs and got us going again. He was happy that he had only about a 10 foot walk over to the next aid station, while it was over 5 miles away for us.
The views were fantastic and the miles went by relatively painlessly but I realized I was missing markers, only because I’m not usually distracted with conversation at these races. It was a nice change, but BFF was a little concerned about my direction finding skills. Fortunately, her husband and super fast running son were there to surprise us just after the halfway point. They had some treats for her and she got to share her excitement about the PB & honey sandwiches at the aid stations. We continued to the next aid station but hit a monster hill just before it. Our thoughtful crew took a picture but the looks on our faces would scare children so I can’t include it. We were greeted with cheers by the volunteers and reassured that we had made it before the cutoff but were among the last expected to be able to do so. I chugged some icy cold coke and we continued.
The next section was a little more technical in places, maybe for a mile at most, and for a little while we didn’t see any trail markings. We weren’t sure we’d gone the right way a few times, but would then see flagging. Meanwhile, the trails were amazing.
Then we hit a very, very big hill. I remembered from the elevation map that the last and most monstrous climb was around mile 18, so I reassured my BFF that we were in the middle of it and almost done – YAY! She encouraged me to go on ahead. She also muttered a few other things, but I didn’t catch them all.
Although the trails were not technical, there was a lot of small gravel that kept working its way into my shoes. I hadn’t invested in gaiters yet and hated stopping to clean out my shoes. But when I got to the top of the hill and a bench was waiting, I took advantage and cleaned out the pebbles. Putting my feet back in those pebble free shoes was one of the best feelings in my life. The next few miles were spent musing on how we tend to accommodate and adapt to minor irritations instead of just removing them. Before I got to share my amazing insights, we found ourselves at another, somehow more monstrous climb. The biggest climb of the course was not, as I’d reassured my BFF at mile 18, but is clearly at mile 20ish if you can read the elevation chart above. Oops.
At the top, we didn’t find the expected aid station, but found my amazing boyfriend/crew waiting with snacks, cold drinks, and ice. The trail to the aid station he and I thought we’d identified the day before was not the right one, so he ended up hiking over 3 miles round trip and up that same huge hill. But he did it with a heavy pack that included supplies for us. He’s pretty awesome! We thanked him profusely and continued on. The next aid station was less than a mile away and her husband and son were waiting for us. With less than 6 miles to go, and no more climbing expected, we moved on in better spirits.
Of course, if you scrolled back up and looked at that elevation chart again, you know better than we did that there was still a LOT of climbing left. I eventually stopped making jokes about more hills. The mood was pretty grim at mile 23 when we next saw our crew. The views were still amazing and the weather was perfect. The course also passed by a tiny house and I was excited to see one in person. My enthusiasm was not shared for some reason.
After countless additional long and short climbs, we passed the aid station we had last seen at mile 15, where the 25k course turns to the finish. The end was finally near and in our excitement, we ran the last mile to the finish! No, not really. It was more of a frustrated hike to the almost end and then a jog to the finish. The RDs were waiting with plenty of hot food and drinks although we were the next to last through the finish line. My BFF left pretty quickly with her family and I decided maybe to give her a little time to recover at the cabin while we did some sightseeing in the park. By the time we got back to the cabin, all was well and she was glad she was not staying in the upstairs bedroom.
Overall, it was a beautiful course and well supported race. My BFF is a badass for picking that as her first trail marathon.
Off trail: We happened to be near the town of Cripple Creek during their world famous Donkey Derby Days. The festival is well worth a visit.