Running, back in the Butte
I went back to Crested Butte and Gothic last weekend for the first time since leaving for good in May. I ran a race, ran for fun, drank some beers.
First, a note on the seasons. During the winter, when I’d see photos of the area taken in summer, they’d seem fake. Too intense were the colors. They were photoshopped, subject to tacky HDR manipulation, I’d think, staring back out the cabin window at the monochrome sweep of snow and dark trees. But now, here in high summer, the dog days, I’m forced to eat my proverbial trucker’s cap. Turns out Crested Butte really is that spectacularly hued. The totality and depth of its greenness in July cannot be exaggerated. The aspens and skunk cabbage in their brief months of growth and glory. Emerald tundra draping itself around the last long fingers of solstice snow. Tourists with marijuana-themed shirts.
Anyway, the race. Friday, July 4th was the 46th annual Gothic to Crested Butte 1/3rd marathon. Clearly, an event with some tradition. The course, a bit under 9 miles, grinds gently uphill for the first 4 miles on dirt road to 9600′ or so, then plummets five hard asphalt miles to town at 8900′. It’s a road race, but a classic, and given the vast number of times I had skied the first half of the route to get to town during the winter, I had to sign up.
We showed up at 2AM that morning and slept out next to the car at the fringe of a crowded campsite north of the town. I netted 3 hours of sleep before waking in a gentle rain to brew coffee and eat a banana. A few hours later, at the wave of a butterfly net, I was running off the starting line (a garden hose, actually) a bit too fast. The altitude hit, I slowed down, and got passed by three runners: two from Western State College in Gunnison, one from Grinnell (working at RMBL for the summer).
This moment in any race is always discouraging, and I’m not very good at seeing any other eventualities beyond the present reality, at least in these short, fast affairs. Fitness seems too fixed, the competition’s stride too fluid, my world too painful and narrow. But because everyone is hurting, more often than not, something gives. On this day I inexplicably began to gain on the second WSCU runner, then passed him on a short hill. As I pulled onto the pavement the Grinnell runner held 2nd place some 30 seconds up, and for the next few miles of hard downhill running he slowly increased that gap. I turned my feet over as quickly as I could, and didn’t look back for fear of the pursuit, but assumed my place was secure in both directions.
Queue the dramatic finish: as the grade lessened a mile from town, I began to gain on him, slowly but surely. With a half mile to go I pulled even and we blazed towards main street. We were both in a lot of pain, and some softer part of my being compelled me to clap him on the shoulder and offer an encouraging word as I began to pass. At which point he kicked hard and crossed the line a second or so ahead. Next time, I’m going to try to be demoralizing.
I ended up running 50:19 for my 3rd place finish, or around 5:45 pace, which I’ll take without complaint.
Third, a run for fun. Sunday, sore but less sore than Saturday, I joined Sean and Peter (who had also raced and finished a strong 4th and 7th, respectively) for a classic bit of Crested Butte mountain running. Leaving from Elk Avenue, we ran up the east ridge of Red Lady (12392′), traversed Scarp Ridge, bombed down to Lake Irwin, and cruised a mix of dirt road, adjacent singletrack, and asphalt back whence we came. Someday, I’ll try and put some words down that do justice to how life-affirming this sort of running is, to try and capture the electric thrill of looking up from filling your bottle with snowmelt rushing through the tundra at the mountains before and behind wearing nothing but shorts and racing flats. Suffice it to say it was a perfect morning. 22 miles and 4600′ was a bit of a stupid move taper-wise, but it toured as spectacular a landscape as I’ve seen in Colorado, and finishing something like that feeling as strong as I did is always a big confidence builder.
More importantly, though, life is short, and you just can’t pass these opportunities up.