Have you ever run a long distance race in high altitude? I had not up until yesterday when I ran the Vail Valor Marathon 2014. This marathon is part of my “Run three marathons in two weeks” challenge. Honestly, I did not really put much thought into this when I signed up for the Vail Marathon. I had to remind myself later on that this would be a high altitude race for me because Vail is at about ~8,400 ft. altitude and the air starts getting thin up there. I live in the Denver Metro Area at around ~5,900 ft. altitude, so the net difference was not too bad, but I definitely expected an impact – I just was not sure how it would look like.
I drove up to Vail on Sunday afternoon and the weather gods decided to play a little bit with the environment. First it rained, then it snowed and at one point I was driving through Blizzard conditions. High up the roads were covered with snow and slush and I felt quite under dressed with wearing shorts and T-Shirt.
Fortunately the weather improved that evening and on the next morning the weather was perfect for running. We had blue skies and temperatures in upper 30s at start time and by the time I reached the finish line the temperatures had reached the low 60s. I stayed at a Comfort Inn motel in Avon – just east of Vail. It was cheap – in regards to price and value. It looked like the rooms were renovated the last time when Bill Clinton was just voted into office for the first time, but it was Ok for a 12 hour stay.
I went to bed at around 8.00 PM on Sunday night, but did not sleep very well. I woke up close to 3.00 AM and then fell asleep off and on up until 5.30 AM. Then I got up and got ready for the race. The motel offered free breakfast for guests, but I had also brought some bagels and Nutella to get a head-start on topping off my glycogen stores with carbs. Then I loaded my belongings into my car and drove up to Vail. During summer Vail offers free parking in their heated parking garages near the town center and from there it would be just a short 5 minute walk to the start/finish area.
I arrived early and waited inside my car for about 20 minutes before walking up to the start area. It was quite chilly outside and I did not want to stand out there freezing. My concerns were for nothing, they had actually a building open and so all the runners were able to stay inside until shortly before the race. While waiting I had the opportunity to talk to a few other runners and it seemed like all bib numbers between #1 and #20 were reserved for the marathoners. I actually had the #1 bib which I thought was pretty cool to have. After the race I heard that only 20 people had registered for the marathon. They had 2 no-shows and 2 people drop down to the half-marathon during the race.
About 10 minutes before the official start of the race I stepped outside and got to talk to two other runners. They were doing the marathon as well and it turned out our goal times were very close to each other. The two were treating this marathon as a training run for one of the Leadville Ultras. We ran about 17-18 miles together and having company for such a long time made time fly by fast. I started feeling the hills in my legs at around mile 17/18 and had to slow down a little bit and let the 2 go. They respectively finished the race in 3rd and 4th place, while I came in as 7th. While we were running together we chatted quite a bit about running and other things and as mentioned it really made time go by fast.
The course was leading us through the eastern parts of Vail and overall it was a very beautiful course to run. We ran through some million-dollar home neighborhoods and then through some open space trails along a golf course. Due to the heavy snowfall in spring the marathoners had to run the half-marathon course twice – the original plan was to run 13 miles on paved surfaces and the second 13 miles on dirt trails, but the snow simply made those trails not suited for a race this time around. The course had some mean hills built in and while this was fine for a half marathon distance, I really felt it the second time around. I am not sure if that was due to the high altitude or because I had run the Colfax Marathon just a week ago, but I guess it does not really matter at this point. For the last few miles I slowed down to a 10 minute/mile average pace, but walked up the steep hills to conserve energy. I was fine on the flat stretches and on the easier hills which was good because I hate walking during a race. Overall I was very happy with how my legs felt the entire race.
I did not have any noticeable problems with the high altitude and was able to easily keep conversations going while running which is a good indicator that you are running a pace matching your physical abilities. If you run to fast and have problems keeping a conversation going, it is a sign that you are running too fast. I noticed the thin air a few times when running uphill and making the “mistake” to drink from water bottles at the same time – I had to catch my breath for a few moments when doing so. As mentioned before, I am not sure if my legs felt the hills because of the thin air (high altitude) or because I had run a marathon just a week ago.
How well was the race organized?
I admit, I had some concerns upfront. I am used to seeing a lot of race information published weeks or even months before a race, but all that did not happen for this marathon. All necessary information was sent out just about a week before the race. If I have any concerns at this point, I would say that the communication before the race lacked a little bit and there I would see some room for improvement. However, the race itself was organized very well. It was a small event and it allowed you to personally interact with the race organizers which really makes a difference in my opinion. I chatted with Karl and Cynthia – the race organizers – after finishing the marathon and they are both super nice and put a lot of effort in organizing their races. You can tell that their personality carries over into the race events and it makes a heck of a difference in a very positive way. The race had plenty of aid stations and the volunteers were awesome. The aid stations had water and Gatorade and they also carried a ton of gels from many different vendors. There were also powerbars, bagels with peanut butter, as well as oranges and other goodies. The volunteers were very pro-active and extremely supportive and cheered us on which helped a lot on the second go-around. It created an awesome atmosphere and I really enjoyed this race for this very personal touch.
Once I heard that there would be only 20 marathoners I got concerned that I would end up coming in as last. It’s a small race and I expected some “crazy-competitive” runners to do this race because a high-altitude marathon is not your ordinary race, but my concerns were completely unwarranted. While there was some competition in this race, I think it was a great mix of all different abilities. We marathoners cheered on each other when passing each other in either direction. I came in as 7th finisher with a time at around 4:19 (I am waiting for the official results to be posted online) and that meant another 9 people were still on the course. Several of those I saw on their way out to the half-way point of the second go-around while I was already just a few miles short of reaching the finish line, but I mean this in a very positive way. Running and finishing a marathon – no matter the final time – is an accomplishment in itself and it shows a lot of dedication and character to keep on running even though you know that you might come in last. As 7th finisher I still received a small award which I thought was totally cool. For one I had the one and only #1 bib and top of that I received an award. I doubt this will happen to me again because I am simply not such a good runner, but hey – I take it and it also adds to my impression about this race. Small, well organized, perfectly executed, and a lot of personal touch. I had a great racing experience this weekend.