I asked Chris to pick a state earlier in the year for us to visit, that is one of his little benefits to travelling with me for some of my races. He gets to pick a state he wants to visit! Colorado was his choice for 2011.
After a summer of recovery and training, I decided to attempt to run the full marathon that I had registered for in Colorado Springs: The American Discovery Trail Marathon on Labor Day Monday. I had never run at altitude before, the race started at an elevation of 7200 feet and finished around 6000. I loved the idea of the race because it was smaller and had excellent reviews.
Reading about running at altitude I assumed there was no way I would finish strong. The air is thinner, so most “flatlanders” have a harder time adjusting to running at high altitude; they usually tack on a percentage of time per mile to compensate. I decided to just enjoy the race and finish around 4:45. My past three marathons all ranged at similar finish times: 4:29 – 4:40 so I guesstimated my finish with these factors in mind and zero pressure on myself.
The day before the race I found a place that made gluten-free pizza and a Wendy’s was right around the corner from our hotel, so my traditional pizza/potato carb-load was possible. I also found that traveling with celiac you eat out a lot less and rely on grocery stores a lot more. I was amazed that Chris never once complained, he would eat wherever it was safe for me and never gripe about the monotonous fare. We managed to enjoy Chipotle once, but overall we mainly ate things like yogurt, fruit, nuts and sandwiches with GF bread.
We spent three days in Colorado adjusting to the altitude; we literally scaled new heights the day before the marathon when we drove to the summit of majestic Pike’s Peak, and gaped in astonishment driving through the Garden of the Gods. All in all it was a wonderful time, and having a few gluten-free months of experience under my belt, no glutening mistakes were made this time around. I had become wiser and more aware.
The morning of the race I stood alone in the lobby filled with other marathoners waiting for the bus to take us to the start at Palmer Lake. The race took place on the American Discovery Trail, a 5,000 mile trail that literally stretched across fifteen states (and D.C.) coast-to-coast. The course itself ran on the Santa Ana trail which was made of finely crushed gravel, sand and dirt and eventually gave way to asphalt, a first for me! My other races took place entirely on roads, this would be much more to my liking; I did a lot of trail running at home, so this would be an exciting attempt.
This course was impossible for Chris to spectate since the trail was so remote, so I told him to sleep in and meet me at the finish line in the America the Beautiful park in Colorado Springs. I told him to meet me at the finish around 11:30 am just in case I finished a little sooner than expected, but I had my doubts and assured him to take his time getting ready. I was a regular Negative Nancy when it came to my expectations of this race.
At the Palmer Lake start, we shivered and tried to keep warm while waiting for the sunrise. It was around 43 degrees and the air was crisp and cool. Perfect running conditions! The forecast looked to only be around 72 degrees by the time I finished with humidity around 30%. I stood in line for a last minute Porta- Jon break and chatted with other runners from various states; many of us shivered and bounced up and down just to keep warm. It was fun swapping stories of races, and very inspiring for a prospective 50-stater such as myself. The starting line was low-key, literally just taped lines on the ground and the race director standing to the sideline. No huge starting line, no DJ, no corrals, no fanfare. Just runners there to enjoy the morning for the love of running. It was my kind of race from the very start.
The starting signal was simply the director yelling “Go!” and we were off. The sun was still low in the sky, but the it could not have been more breathtaking. With Pike’s Peak to my right, and nothing but natural splendor on all sides, it truly felt like a training run in the middle of nowhere. There were no spectators; occasionally a hawk hovered overhead or a deer could be seen grazing in the distance.
The first mile was slow since we were bottlenecked with a narrow trail; my watch time said I ran around an 11-minute mile and I groaned to myself good-naturedly. No PR today if it was going to keep up at this rate. Once we got past the lake section the trail opened up and spread out and we all managed to get into our own rhythm and run at individual pace. It was a spectacular morning, and I marveled at the sights around me. I don’t think I ever ran a race so quiet and beautiful before. I was used to big city mega-races like Disney, Philadelphia or Las Vegas. A race of this nature was a true diamond in the rough. It was rough enough for me to stop several times to pour dirt and pebbles out of my shoes from the trails. I noticed other runners had special socks that looked like waders that fisherman use, and they ran without a care. I made a mental note to myself to invest in those for a future trail race. Fortunately I wasn’t alone, several other runners had to stop as well and we chatted briefly before moving on.
I expected to fare poorly, but the low humidity, cool temps, and soft surface of the trail really kept it pleasant. As the miles ticked off I waited for the pain. I had expectations that it would be like Vermont revisited, and was ready for anything to go wrong. Regardless of the beauty of the course, I didn’t think my body would be able to handle things yet. But surprisingly things went very smoothly.
Mile 15 came and went. Mile 16. 17. I glanced at my watch and did the math in my head. Could it be possible? Are the mile markers off? How could I possibly feel this damned good? Especially at altitude? Me…a “flatlander” from Pennsylvania?
But my mind was abuzz with excitement: if I kept up this pace even with some walking to spare, I would PR today.
The marathon was uneventful in that there weren’t people in costume, bands, cheerleaders and beer stands. But the Colorado Springs marathon was going to be exciting nonetheless. I think I was going to beat a time I never thought possible.
In 2009, I ran my third marathon in Philadelphia. My previous marathon times at Disney were 5:10 and 5:12. Nothing too exciting to brag about, all I could say was I finished. In Philly I managed a 4:29 and was thrilled. I never thought I could do better than 4:45 in my lifetime, and Philly was a nice little victory.
I kept glancing at my watch and marveled at how well I was doing. It was exhilarating, things couldn’t have gone better! I enthusiastically thanked the water stop volunteers, telling them how much I loved the race; the volunteers were pretty much the only spectators we had for miles. I chatted with other runners as the miles passed; we encouraged one another, asked the usual “Where are you from?” It was nice to see their reaction when I told them I was from PA and had never run at altitude. I couldn’t help it, I was just as surprised myself! Many commented on how strong I looked, and honestly, I felt strong. It was so exciting to feel this good for once. I hated admitting it felt good to pass guys that looked like they’d leave me in their dust on a normal day, a term I have heard in the running community as “getting chicked”.
The sun was at full blast at this point of the race, and the dirt trails had ceased, transitioning to pavement. We were suddenly joined by recreational bikers, hikers, and strolling families; the marathon wasn’t closed off to other traffic, so we often had to weave around the pedestrian and bike traffic. Most of them seemed a little put off by runners in bibs on their trails. I don’t think they realized a marathon was going on that day! Not only that, but it started to look a little more industrial as we passed office parks and residential areas. The natural beauty of Colorado Springs had given way to the urban sprawl.
A lot of people seemed to have a lot of difficulty with the altitude, but I didn’t really seem to notice it. I think the weeks of training in high humidity were paying off. PA summers are known for heat and humidity; my highest training miles were in August, one of the most brutal months. Running at 65 degrees with 30% humidity was a treat even with full sun!
Granted a marathon is never a stroll in the park. The pavement made my knees ache…a little. My feet hurt…a little. But in comparison to the pain of Burlington, I felt like a million dollars. It truly was a glorious victory for me as a celiac to run a marathon and feel this good.
The finish line loomed and I glanced at my watch a final time. It was true, I would PR today. I crossed the finish line with my arms triumphantly in the air and whooped. As I slowed and glanced at my watch for the millionth time I saw it: 4:19. I PR’d by ten whole minutes!
I realized, though, with the PR, came a small blow. Chris missed my finish! I assumed I would have finished much slower, and instead I crushed my estimation! Grabbing several cups of water, I shuffled over to the finish line tent. As expected, the finish line food was lacking in GF options. I didn’t even care, I was still fueled by adrenaline.
Chris arrived with a backpack full of clean clothes and a Think Thin bar and I enthusiastically showed him my time. He was so proud and once we got cleaned up we had plans to go to the neighboring town of Manitou Springs where they had a, gasp, 100% gluten-free crepe restaurant!
That afternoon we settled in at Coquette’s Bistro and Bakery where I could help myself to anything on the menu. All of it was gluten-free and it was more than I could handle! I gushed to the waiter that this was the best possible reward to have too many options to choose from, including things like French Toast, cake and cookies! With a sigh of contentment we watched the tourist crowds pass, and I dug into a delicious New Orleans style crepe and thought “Things couldn’t be any better than today.”
I was back, and couldn’t wait for my next race. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to beat my time of 4:19, but I was so proud of that time it didn’t even matter.
Finish time: 4:19:37
Overall Place: 209/ 420
Sex Place: 65/ 171
Division Place: 12/ 28
What I Learned from this Race
- You never know how you will fare in different climates. Some thrive at high altitude while others may thrive in cold temperatures. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and do your best! You just may surprise yourself!
- Smaller races, I find, bring out the nicest runners. Most of them are prospective 50-staters and Marathon Maniacs, and a lot are there to enjoy the race without a lot of PR pressure. I have found the most friendly and supportive runners are Maniacs, and I am happy to say I am now a Maniac myself simply because I was so impressed with how nice the group was at every race. I have run into some attitude and rudeness on courses that have a larger field, but let’s face it, the more people, the more chances there are that there are a few arrogant or rude runners in the bunch. I think it depends, because Disney definitely brings out some great people, so I don’t want to say this as an across-the-board statement!