Myself, Scott, Jenn, and Sam lined up at the front of the pack in the bone-chilling wind at the start of the Wyoming Marathon on Saturday. The skies were clearing, the winds were picking up, and Scott was in his kilt – today, the Fort Collins Trail Runners would dominate the race.
The race started and someone in a red singlet shot off like he had a rocket in his shorts. Sam and I figured he was either a fast half-marathoner or gunning for the course record. Either way, we kept a conservative pace down the first hill, holding down second and third place as we were inevitably passed by the faster half-marathoners in the first 30 minutes. The dirt road passed streams, campgrounds, and rock outcroppings as we wound our way through the thick pine forest. Despite the natural wind break, the occasional gust would rip down to the surface and blast us with cool air.
Not so minor side note: quite a lot of trees in the Medicine Bow National Forest have been attacked by the mountain pine beetle. In some stands, as many as half of the trees are that eerie purple-brown shade - shame.
It's almost all uphill on the way back!
When we hit the 4 mile mark I latched onto the heels of a passing half-marathoner and started to pull ahead of Sam and Bud. As we cleared the forest and hit the rolling hills, we were buffeted by a fierce headwind. The last climb before the aid station and half marathon turn-around afforded some protection, and I used the opportunity to charge past the half-marathoner and push it to mile 7.
I was surprised when I didn’t see Jeremy from Team Nebraska turn around. He was running the marathon? I crossed under the overpass to the road on the windward side of the highway to see him off in the distance, and clocked him just over two minutes ahead of me. Out here, we were completely exposed, and gusts would push me off toward the ditch and suck the air out of my lungs. Word is that the sustained wind was between 25-35 mph, with gusts upwards of 45 mph. Nevertheless, by mile 11 I had whittled Jeremy’s lead to 30 seconds, but he held me off for the next 2 miles.
The twisting labyrinth of dirt roads, campgrounds, and trails through the Vedauwoo rocks threw me off. Or maybe it was just low blood sugar. Either way, I slowed down and lost sight of Jeremy until the turn-around. At 13.1 miles I was about twenty seconds back, at 1:30, and he was looking tired. I quickly refilled my bottle and charged into the long uphill back out of the Vedauwoo rocks to see Sam, Bud, and a few others within a minute of us. It was still a close race.
Beautiful rocks weathered by the relentless wind. Photo by Rebecca Watson.
I passed Jeremy a couple of minutes past the turn-around and poured everything I had into the climb. I was greeted with a headwind when I crested the hill and had to fight that for another mile or so until turning toward the north. In spite of the strong gusts scraping over the plateau I pushed harder and widened the gap between first and second.
I took a quick moment at the ~20 mile mark to refill my water bottle from the jug left on the side of the dirt road. No frills means no frills. With just over six miles to go I was feeling great and I attacked the winding downhill back into Medicine Bow National Forest. When the road leveled out I was hit with a wave of fatigue and I could feel the burn starting in my quads. Mile 21 to 22 was the worst stretch, slightly uphill and endlessly winding through more campgrounds.
Wide open skies and wide open lands. Photo by Rebecca Watson.
I finally crested a small hill and abruptly stumbled into the last aid station.
“Any salt caps?”
Man, this was bad. I started with one S-cap and had that at the halfway point. Would that be enough to get me to the finish? I crammed salty chips into my mouth and hoofed off, singularly focused on preparing myself for the final climb. The next mile was a shallow uphill, and I blew through the crowd of runners and volunteers at the 5K finish. I started using half-marathoners as targets, sighting them in the distance and then picking them off as fast as I could. After a long straight stretch of dirt I looked back – no one in the distance.
I slammed a gel before the second-to-last climb, knowing that I would need it to power into the finish. I let the hammer fall on this section, refusing to slow down. My calves were burning as I launched off my toes over the dirt rollers and followed the shortest line around the curves, trying to eke out precious seconds.
We used to run intervals over the rolling hills of our home course in cross country back in high school, and we were always reminded to “turn ten at the top” – to increase our speed over the crest of the hill so that we we’d be at full speed before the downhill even started. I’m not sure where the “ten” came from – maybe ten steps? At any rate, it was hard at mile 2.5 in a 5K to pull that off, but this was something else. I pushed so hard over the crest that I wheezed a little – breathing at 8,500ft late in a marathon can be tough.
The calf burner at mile 25. Photo by Rebecca Watson.
I let gravity do its work on the short downhill and hit that last climb at top speed. No matter how tired you are, there is always one last ounce of strength left to kick it in. I started sprinting as soon as I saw the finish line in the distance and crossed the line in 3:06:46.
Sam took a commanding second, 12 minutes ahead of third place, and Scott took sixth, both PR’ing, and Jenn won the women’s race. All around a fantastic showing for the Fort Collins Trail Runners. I see a Fort Collins domination at Bighorn in the near future.