A Too-Long Intro
Crested Butte is amazing. Anyone that’s been there knows that. If you’ve been around someone that’s been there, you’re probably sick of hearing that. But there’s good reason you hear that. It’s amazing in the winter and spring, when it shines as the self-proclaimed “last great Colorado ski town”. It’s amazing in the summer, when you can ride the miles of trails on your bike and not be able to see over the wildflowers on either side. It’s amazing in the fall, when the mountainsides all around are lit with the bright yellow of the changing aspen. There are national forests or national wildernesses on all sides. The landscape is majestic and the town is welcoming. It’s an outdoor recreation paradise.
These same miles and miles of rolling, steep, and beautiful trails are also amazing to run on. It’s got all the aspects that make trail running appealing to me. There is gorgeous scenery that is ever-changing and keeps you in awe. The trails are technical enough that you must keep your mind engaged but have enough cruiser sections that you can gaze out upon the views around you. The trails will take you above the tree line, in the realm of jagged, alpine peaks and they will take you along (and through) lush streams in the valleys between. The climbs are a tough push up and fun to bomb down.
Why isn’t there an organized trail race specifically centered around Crested Butte? The closest is the Grand Traverse, which is an amazing 40ish mile race from Crested Butte to Aspen, on the other side of the Elk Mountains. But that is a point-to-point race; you’re not starting and finishing in Crested Butte. And it misses all the trails east of the butte. Enter Mad Moose Events to fill in this void.
I’m an ambassador for Mad Moose Events, so this part is a shameless plug. I’ve run in their races and volunteered at their aid stations. Justin Ricks and his family all participate in hosting these races. They are always well-run and welcoming. When the inaugural Crested Butte Ultra was announced early this year, I was on board.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to participate in any races this year. My winter offseason was plagued with patellar tendonitis in both knees. My first born arrived in April. I had to commit a lot of time to physical therapy, a training plan, and helping my wife raise our newborn son (plenty of recovery sleep there). And I had to do it during the 5 to 9; I still had one of those full-time job things. But Crested Butte is amazing!
So, I sat at my desk at work and let my ambition build more and more and eventually influence me to sign up for the 105k distance (a 55k distance is also offered). This would be the longest distance I’ve run. And the 50 miler I did last year left me with some injuries. But, dah well, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and listened to a friend’s recommendation and started seeing a physical therapist. I created a training plan that was more aggressive that I would have liked (my base mileage was low due to the injury). And I figured out which trails near me were able to accommodate a heavy-duty baby stroller.
It was time for me to re-evaluate my training. I looked back at when I’d get injuries last year and noticed they’d typically be on my “rest” weeks when I’d cut my mileage by 50% to recover. I’m not well-versed enough in physiology to tell you why this occurred. Maybe my muscles tightened up when the load was reduced; maybe I wouldn’t run with enough intention and would be careless. Either way, I reduced my “rest” weeks to a 20-25% mileage reduction. I also started warming up with lunges and dynamic stretches and cooled down with static stretches. Easy stuff to do when running alone but I had to make sure to arrive early for a group run because no one else I know warms up.
When it came to the race, I approached it much more systematically than I had in the past. I figured out how much liquid per hour and calories per hour I needed to stay on top of things and I practiced consuming during my long training runs. I took the race route and mapped each segment between aid stations on CalTopo (really just another great excuse for me to play with maps). With these maps, I could figure how much I should eat and drink between each, how much stuff I should take, where I can drop off/pick up head lamps, where I should be hiking, where I should be running, what is coming up before the next aid station, etc. I had a plan for each of those sections. I uploaded the routes to my phone because it’s known that people not involved with the race will mess with the route markings (whether with good intentions or bad). I didn’t want to take a wrong turn. I wanted to really know the course without having run any of it.
I made it through all of my training plan, which never happens. I didn’t allow myself to get excited about that until the week of the race. Even during my taper period, the thought was still in the back of my mind that I could get injured. But during the week of the race I made a conscious decision to think confidently and allow myself to get excited rather than my normal routine of doubts (“I didn’t get enough miles in, I needed more elevation gain, I should’ve done more speed work, I should’ve done more strength training”, etc. etc.). I also always build a contingency to offset possible race-day disappointment: During my long training runs, I intentionally go to new areas with amazing scenery, typically high in the mountains. A lot of times the trail is too steep or technical to run, or I try linking trails together with sections off-trail that involves scrambling on rocks. It might not replicate race conditions but those days are the days I have the most fun. It makes me happy to know I can do those big days. So, if the race doesn’t go well, I don’t care. Those big days in the mountains I had during training were awesome and those memories will stick with me.
Arriving at Crested Butte
The morning before the race, my wife, Lauren, my now 5-month son, Logan, and our dog, Cypress, loaded up and headed out from Evergreen, bound for Crested Butte. I wanted to get there early enough to run a few miles of the course as a preview and get my legs loose. We checked in to our hotel at Mount Crested Butte (which is the town just outside the town that is built up around the ski lifts) then headed to the nearest single-track that would be part of the route. I ran 2 miles out on the trail amongst big aspen, a few rocky sections, and a flowy up-an-down through thick trees. I would be running this section in the dark tomorrow and was glad to be able to see it in the sun beforehand. I reached a little man-made lake then turned around to run the 2 miles back the car where Lauren, Logan, and Cypress had just finished their mini-hike.
We ordered some pizza for takeout and met up with our good friends Ryan and Caitlin. Ryan was due to run the 105k and Caitlin was going to run the 55k but injuries forced both to drop. Both sets of their parents came to Crested Butte, under the guise of celebrating their daughter’s first birthday, but it was really to babysit while they crushed the race (which both had a great chance to do). They know how to make the most of a situation and instead used the weekend to crew me at an aid station and hike with their parents. As we left their place with our messed-up pizza order (another story), I got the typical Ryan statement of encouragement/pressure: “go crush for those of us who can’t.”
3:00am the alarm goes off, accompanied with a small shot of natural adrenaline and I get up. This was a common theme throughout the night. Wake up randomly, adrenaline, realize the time, go back to sleep. I may be relatively new to the ultra-running game, but I’m seasoned enough to know that you never get good sleep the night before a race. So I at least had no stress associated with the few hours’ sleep I got. I got most of my stuff ready before I went to bed so it was just a matter of getting in a few calories and water, a half cup coffee to empty out the digestive system, then kissing Lauren and Logan (and patting Cypress) before heading out the door for the 4:00am start.
Thankfully our hotel was about a 5-minute walk to the start. It was also not nearly as cold as I was expecting (high 30’s). I got to the start 15 minutes before the bell, left my two drop bags in the appropriate spots to be brought to their respected aid stations during the race, then walked away to do my warm-up routine. There is a love/hate feeling for me at the start of races. Everyone is nervously making dumb jokes to try to settle themselves and I really just want to turn my introvert self up to 11. I’ve got the same nervous excitement as everyone else but I just want to try my best to not let that propel me out of the gate faster than I need, a common problem I’ve had in the past. As I corral to the start gate, I find Ryan there to see me off. He always makes excuses that his daughter woke up early or he can’t sleep but this is the second pre-dawn start he’s seen me off for a race he’s not running. I’m pretty sure he’s just being a good friend. I make him take a picture of me with a purposely dumb, nervous smile, I send it to Lauren, then put my phone in airplane mode. I make sure to turn on the satellite tracker I decided to haul with me (so Lauren can figure out when to head to the aid stations and my parents can follow me remotely throughout the day). I checked that water is flowing well through my hydration pack. I check that the high beam on my headlamp works. I give Ryan a man-hug, guard myself against the famous Ryan-Denison-starting-line-ass-slap, then head out in the middle of the pack of 40-45 runners.
The Actual Race
Within the first mile, the course heads up a ski slope briefly, cuts over on a small portion of connector trail, heads down a road, and moves to the single-track I previewed the day before. After entering the single-track, the pack started to separate into groups. I fell behind a girl that was moving at a pace I was comfortable with. I let her set the pace so I didn’t push myself too hard at the beginning. Another guy fell in behind me and we cruised through the dark forest and around to the other side of the butte. From here, the course opens to a dirt road for a while before climbing a two-track on the other side of the valley to the first aid station. The guy behind me passed me and started to pick up the pace on the road. Since it was on a slight downhill, in the cool dark, and my heart rate was still in check, I decided to keep up with him. We climbed the other side with some intermittent power-hikes, neither one of us wanting to spend too much energy this early in the race. At the first aid station, he stopped and I continued. I still had plenty of supplies so I grabbed an orange slice and passed a few others that were refueling. The course left the two-track in the forest on the other side and began a steady climb on a single-track. I felt the grade wasn’t too steep so I push through on a run. I passed a handful of people that were walking because their headlamps (or hand-held flashlights in some cases) were so dim they couldn’t make out the rocks and roots on a run. This wouldn’t be the first time I would pass people simply because they were unprepared.
The sun started to rise as we crested the first small climb and I found myself behind a group of two other runners. They had a good pace so I decided not to pass them. We started to traverse another valley and move downhill toward the second aid station and the first set of drop bags. I felt the group I was running with were taking the downhills slower than I’d like but it wasn’t worth asking to pass them this close to the aid station.
At the aid station, I filled my bottle with some Tailwind and had the aid station volunteers mix them well with water. While they were doing that, I stuffed my vest with all the gels and Tailwind I would need until the next drop bag. I got rid of my headlamp and Buff and ate a handful of chips. I think several runners passed me at this station because it took me a while to fill my running vest with items from the drop bag. But that was my strategy, I didn’t want to run the first 14 miles carrying stuff I didn’t need to carry.
I left the aid station on another two-track and, within a mile, turned off to a steep climb up a single-track. After the initial steep climb, the trail continued on a more gradual climb through the forest where I decided it was runnable. I passed one runner and was starting to come up on another when I felt the ole G.I. track bitching about something. I started to look for any trees/rocks that might provide some cover. The trail came over a ridge and I started jostling on a downhill. Then there was no time to scout a good place, I needed to get off the trail immediately. I climbed over a bunch of deadfall, far enough off the trail that no one should be able to see me and I cleared out. This is when I’m thankful for experience. I always carry some sort of TP and hand sanitizer in my vest. Feeling better, I made like a cat and then climbed back over the deadfall and back to the trail. I caught up to the same guy I just passed and he asked if I got lost. I explain that I had to “unleash the fury” and passed him again, both of us feeling good about a laugh.
There is about a mile out-and-back to get to the third aid station. Out-and-backs are nice to see where you stack up in the pack. At 20 miles in, I knew the leaders would be well ahead of me and done with the out-and-back. But the people I did see in front of me was encouraging. One girl, a group of 3 guys, and one solo guy. I had a goal to catch up with at least one of those groups. I got to the aid station, had the volunteers fill up my hydration bladder and bottles and ate anything that sounded good while I waited for the refills. What sounded good to me at this moment happened to be pickles (a new race fuel for me). I left the aid station knowing that in about a mile I would start my first big, long climb of the day.
From my procrastinate-at-work research, I knew this would be about 2,500 feet of climbing with little relief until the summit of one of the crests on Double Top Mountain. I hit the steep stuff and started my power-hiking. After about 30 minutes, I started to catch up with that solo guy I saw from the out-and-back. I was climbing faster than he was but he was staying ahead of me (barely) by running every little 50-foot stretch of flat that I was walking. He kept looking over his shoulder at me which probably motivated both of us to not stop during this push. I was feeling thankful that I had been taking the stairs to work every day for 2 months leading up to the race. Taking stairs to the 11th floor, two at a time, with a pack containing a laptop and full Nalgene, translates surprisingly well to power-hiking. We reached a saddle and I was close enough to the guy in front that he relinquished his lead and decided to be social. After discussing how much we’ve climbed and realizing that we still had 800 more feet of gain before going downhill, we exchanged the basic pleasantries.
I learned that his name was James, he was from Colorado Springs, worked in IT, and had both completed and failed several 100 mile races for his longest distance. We talked about typical trail running things (read: we talked about gear) until we climbed above tree line to the ridge crest of the Double Top trail. From there, the views shut us up pretty abruptly. To the north, we could see the back side of the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. To the east, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. To the southeast, Gunnison and San Isabel National Forests. The haze from the week of wildfires seemed to settle in the valleys and the landscape appeared much more crisp form that altitude. We passed another runner glued to the ground at the top, taking pictures. After a moderate pace across the crest, stopping for pictures ourselves, James let me take the lead for the downhill to the 4th aid station, aptly named Double Top (at mile 30). The steep downhill through the forest had been made much more technical by cinderblocks that were embedded in the trail. This was to give the dirt bikes some traction and hopefully reduce erosion. I tried to keep my best pace while being mindful of the rebar anchors holding the cinderblocks down. James kept pace right at my heels and we swapped leads often on the way down.
When we were about a mile from the aid station, we caught up with the group of 3 guys that I saw during the out-and-back. We fell in line behind them and cruised into the Double Top aid station (mile 30). But not before first crossing a stream of snowmelt. It was immediately obvious that there was no dry crossing and we would just have to plow through in our shoes. So we crossed over, I gave my bladder and bottles to the volunteer to fill up and I started to swap my wet socks with the dry pair I had with me. I also decided it was time to get a bit more real food. I downed a cup of vegetable broth and grabbed a handful of salted potatoes and started to head out.
Half-Way Through This Beast
The next aid station was only about 3 miles away and it was a dirt road that took us there. James and I left the aid station while all the other guys stayed longer to refuel. Since both of us had eaten quite a bit, we walked for a while to make sure everything was going to settle well. We did a mix of running/walking until we got to the Crystal Peak aid station (mile 33). At this aid station, friend and all-around good guy, Kody “Kupcakes” Nathe was manning the station and gave just the right amount of hugs to get me motivated to start the 1,600 foot climb to Star Pass, situated at 12,300 feet between Star and Crystal Peaks.
After making Kody feed me pickles, James and I headed out with two other guys that caught up to us at the aid station. It was a half mile run on the dirt road, then a turn off onto the trail for the climb. By the time we pushed our way up to the tree line, we had lost one of the guys in our group. The remaining three of us crested a saddle to amazing views of the jagged ridgeline between Star and Taylor Peaks. We descended on the trail that headed over to the pass. This was the part of the course that I really wanted to be through before 1 pm, when there was a chance of thunderstorms. We weren’t alone up there though, there were several groups of dirt bikers making their way over the pass before us. We followed their noise and made it to the pass. This would be the highest point on the course.
James and I started the decent while other the guy we climbed with decided to stay on the pass for a bit to catch his breath. It felt good to be going downhill again but I was really starting to feel the miles by now. I led and James kept up. I really felt like walking but knew that this was the section to run. There’s not much excuse to walk this downhill. I thought I could even put some distance on James but no such luck, he stuck with me and I realized that this leg would be completed simultaneously.
The course info had this segment listed as 10 miles before getting to the next aid station. We had completed most of our descent, were at about 10.5 miles into the segment and still had no sight of the next aid station. This was when I was glad that I decided to bring my bigger pack; I still had plenty of water while James was about out. We made our way onto a road, passed a refreshingly courteous dirt biker (very unlike the rock-kicking ones I’ve encountered during Moab races), forded another stream, and were still going. At 12 miles from the last aid station, we finally saw the people of Teocalli aid station (mile 43ish).
The Teocalli aid station was where Lauren and Logan were, where Ryan and Caitlin were, and where I was to start the last big climb of the course. I lumbered in, trying to figure out words, gave hugs and kisses, and then suddenly Ryan was yelling at me to get going. Somehow, I got my pack replenished (thanks volunteers!) and I started heading out of the aid station.
The guy we left on Star Pass had caught up at the aid station and had already taken off. James was maybe 50ft in front of me. I was feeling exhausted. I wasn’t looking forward to this 12 mile loop up Teocalli Ridge with 2,500 ft gain. I caught up to James and he was in the same struggle bus. We decided to walk all the uphills and only run the flats and downs. The loop had been reversed from what was originally shown on the course map. This meant that the climb was more gradual than I originally thought. It didn’t matter. I was in a bad place. Luckily for me, so was James. I noticed we were walking the flats now too. And even a down or two. We saw the guy that left the aid station before us putting on some distance but neither of us felt we could do much about it. We talked little. I tried to take this downtime to eat as many calories as I felt comfortable with. I tried to make sure I was staying hydrated. There was supposed to be some unmanned water containers at the end of the canyon that we could use to fill up our bottles. The clouds were coming in, as if trying to influence my mood. But I was still in beautiful surroundings. I was feeling bad but enjoying it.
We hit the water jugs at the end of the canyon. They were about empty. I started to fill my bottle but realized I was alright on my water supply so I left them for the runners behind me. James had finished all his water so had no choice but to fill up. After this mini-aid station (there were a few gels there too), the course followed a trail with a steep climb out of the valley to gain the ridge. I put my head down and power-hiked my way out of the pain cave. Before I knew it, I was about to enter the trees at the top of the ridge. I looked back and saw that James hadn’t left his pain cave. He was struggling on the climb, a few hundred feet back.
I was feeling better and decided now would be my time to try to pull away from James. We shared probably 40 miles of that course but in the end, it’s still a race and it’s hard to shake a competitive feeling. It wasn’t a momentous event; he just happened to be much further behind me than I thought. It is bittersweet now that I can look back on it.
Once the trail gained the ridge, it wasn’t done going up. But it was gradual and I was actually able to run it again. I wasn’t happy about it (being able to run) but I was feeling better. I made my way to the end of the ridge and followed the switchbacks down through the aspen grove until it opened up to the valley below, where I knew Lauren and Logan would be waiting. I spent the next 3 miles dropping down the same amount of elevation that I climbed in the previous 9 miles, which made me quite thankful the loop direction had been reversed.
I kept the pedal down into the aid station. Lauren was there to help me fill up quickly, gab my headlamp and supplies from my last drop bag, and send me off. A helpful volunteer had taken over a fussy Logan, which made me laugh. I got through the aid station with a sense of urgency. I was leaving as James was coming in.
My watch read 55 miles. I had 10 more to go. There would be some climbing but nothing relentless. I left the aid station and forded through the last stream of the day. I put in my headphones to try to zone out any pain. My problem is that I don’t normally run with headphones. There were at least 2 occasions that I thought I had missed a turn because I was zoned into the music. I verified I was in the right direction with my phone and pushed through the rolling grassland that was dotted with bovine obstacles. I was not in the mood to tip-toe around the cows. If they were on the trail, my intention was to run at them and hope they moved. I wasn’t going to let them slow me down. Luckily, they were cautious of me enough to trot away when I got close. I was exhausted but pushing myself well. I kept looking back, expecting to see James on my tail but I never saw him.
The last aid station came up at mile 58 and I just waved to them and thanked them for being there. I had what I needed to get me though the finish. I hit the dirt road that takes you to the back side of the butte and saw the guy that left us at Teocalli about a mile in front of me. And he was walking. I thought I had a chance to maybe catch him. Instead of focusing on who was behind me, I focused on who was in front of me. I chased him for a while on the road but he saw me and started to pick up his pace too. By the time he left the road to run the last section of trail, I realized I wasn’t going to catch him.
It was starting to get dark at this point. I turned on my headlamp and started the climb on the last section of trail, leaving the road. Still no sign of anyone behind me. I left one earbud out so I wouldn’t freak myself out on the trail in the dark. About a half mile into the trail, I got Forrest Gump’d in the sense that it felt like something just jumped up and bit me! Directly on the back of the thigh, some little bastard bit or (more likely) stung me. I could feel the sting coursing up and down my leg. There was nothing I could really do but push on and shake my head at the ridiculousness of the situation. I would have a good welt on the back of my leg the next day.
The night was bringing in the cool air. I was arriving at the familiar section of trail I ran the day before (which seemed like a week before). I was injury-free this far into the race. I was feeling rejuvenated. I was feeling good. I was able to start to push. About 2 miles from the finish, I passed by the girl that was running so strong at the out-and -back section. She was walking so something must’ve crashed her. She cheered me on as I ran by. I was feeling good.
I hit the one section of paved road, right near the ski resort. Only a half mile left! I took on the trail connector that led me to the ski slope where I could see the finish. I cut over and crossed the line.
It took a while to process what was going on around me. Lauren and Logan, Ryan and Caitlin, their parents, Kody Kupcakes were all there at the finish. My friend Bryan Galante, that ran the 55k, was there too. It was so good to see everyone. Everyone was asking what I wanted. I had no idea. I wanted to sit down. I asked Bryan about how the 55k went. He smashed it, of course. I made sure to tell the race director, Justin Ricks, how amazing the course was. And confirmed that the Teocalli Ridge loop had changed direction. The forest service made him change the direction at the last minute. “You wouldn’t have wanted to do that climb anyway”, he said. Amen to that. I wanted to wait around for James and catch up with him but after about 5-10 minutes sitting, my body realized that it was cold outside and I was shivering uncontrollably. I immediately voiced that I just wanted to get inside. (James ended up finishing about 45 minutes behind me.)
As is sometimes the case in ultra-running, I wasn’t hungry after the race. It took me a long time before I got to sleep that night. My body was still in survival mode, burning all the carb and fat storage I had and wasn’t ready to shut down yet. The next day, I was finally ready to replenish calories and walk around. I felt better after this race than I had after many other races. I was sore but not limping. I was able to run a few days afterwards. I was able to enjoy the drive home, stopping to eat lunch in the grass with the family. It was a gloriously good time.
Distance: 65.35 miles
Elevation Gain: 12,333 feet
Total Time: 16 hours, 24 minutes
Place: 8th overall (7th male)
Race cutoff time: 20 hours, which resulted in only 15 total finishers (105k)
Fuel rate: ~180 calories/hr, ~20 oz H2O/hr.
Gear: Hoka One One Speed Instinct 2 shoes, Feetures & DryMax socks, Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch + HR monitor, Salomon Advanced Skin 12 hydration vest, Black Diamond Sprinter & Spot headlamps, La Sportiva Mad Moose shorts, FRXC shirt, Big City Mountaineers hat, Tailwind, Honey Stinger gels
Missed connection: I never got any contact info from James. James, if you read this, look me up!