Runs and Places

Aspen, Colorado and the Perception of Limits

Aspen - Trees

Am I getting too old for this?  I mean really, I just turned forty earlier this year… maybe I should start thinking about what my limits are and whether or not I’m trying to do too much.  I don’t know very many people my age who still run and travel as much as I do.  So why do I keep doing stuff like this?  I’m sure I could find something else that I like….

Those are the thoughts that went through my head during the first mile of the Golden Leaf Half Marathon in Aspen, Colorado.  This was the first time I’ve ever seriously thought about whether or not I had hit the limit of what I’m physically capable of doing… and it was actually the first time I had ever thought about whether or not I had any limits at all.

Why did I suddenly decide to start asking myself those questions then?  Well here are a few things you should know about the first mile and a half of the Golden Leaf Half Marathon Course:

  • The course starts in Snowmass Village where the elevation is just over 8500 feet.
  • The start line is on a service road near the top of a ski slope and runners literally stand at an angle in their corrals and immediately start running uphill as soon as they cross it.
  • There’s an elevation gain of just over 860 feet within the first 1.5 miles, which works out to a grade of roughly 11%.
  • I have a friend from another part of Colorado who is used to running at an altitude of close to 5000 feet and even he struggled with it.  I’m from Chicago, which is pretty much at sea level, so running on that steep of an incline at that altitude was an exercise in brutality.

So as my quads burned, my heart pounded against the inside of my chest and my lungs strained to take in as much oxygen as they could from the extremely thin air that I was attempting to run through, for the first time in my life, I actually contemplated saying “screw this” and giving up.

Then things started to get a little bit better.

About a mile and a half into the course, there’s a water table.  Most runners stopped there for a welcome break from the insane climb they had just finished.  At that point, the course changes from a service road to a single track trail and takes a downward turn.  So I grabbed some water and started running downhill.  It was an amazing change. I felt my breathing and heart rate start to level off and as more oxygen entered my lungs, I suddenly went from not being sure if I was even going to be able to finish the course at all to running fast and feeling like superman.

Golden Leaf Half Marathon Start Line

The first mile and a half is definitely the hardest part of this course, but the rest of it isn’t necessarily a cakewalk.  There’s a lot of up and down through the first 7 miles and with the exception of the first 1.5 miles, almost all of it is on single track trails that have a variety of rocks, tree roots and other obstacles.  The total elevation gain for the course is 980 feet.  The highest point is just below 10,000 feet.  There are also a few spots along the course that run alongside cliffs where falling is a real danger for anyone who isn’t careful.

After about 7.5 miles, the course heads downhill and then levels off around mile 11 and finishes in downtown Aspen.  That part doesn’t sound so tough…. except that it is.  You see, after the 980 foot climb, the descent is over 1,700 feet (-8% grade)… still on a single track trail…. with just as many rocks, roots, streams, branches, twists and turns as the first half of the course.  I saw people fall.  I saw people limping off to the side and nursing bloody knees and legs, and I saw a number of other near misses.  By the time I hit mile 11, I was happy that the course had leveled off and was at its lowest elevation, but at that point, the downhill had taken such a toll on my knees that I felt like someone had spent the previous hour and a half pounding on them with a hammer.   The last two miles were nice and flat, but they were also pretty slow because my legs were hurting pretty bad.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that not only was this the toughest race I’ve ever done, it was probably one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done, period.

So why would someone do a race like this?

Well, for one thing, even for as tough as the course is, the scenery makes it totally worth doing.

Aspen - Golden Leaf Half

Aspen - Golden Leaf Half

Aspen - Golden Leaf Half

Besides that though…. as beat up as I felt when I finally crossed the finish line, something occurred to me:

I am absolutely not too old for this and it definitely wasn’t the limit of what I’m physically capable of doing either.  For that matter, I don’t even know if I have a limit.  I can do this race again and I’ll probably even look for a tougher one at some point.

The only limits that any of us really have are the ones we create for ourselves.  We create our own limits for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes we’re afraid.  Other times we simply doubt our abilities to do certain things.  But the truth is that all of these limits are based on our own perceptions of ourselves.  Every time I’ve gotten to a point where I thought I hit my limit on something (running related or not), I’ve always found that as long as I kept making progress, I could eventually get past it.  And there’s really nothing special about me – anyone else can do the same thing.

Aspen - Golden Leaf Half

If you’re planning to do The Golden Leaf Half Marathon, here are a few tips to prepare for it:

  • Make sure you do your training on trails.  If you’re used to running on paved roads, a course like this will be exponentially more challenging for you both physically and mentally.  You’ll also have a higher risk of getting injured since your ankles won’t be strong enough to handle the uneven terrain.
  • Get a good pair of trail shoes and break them in about a month before the race.  This is kind of an extension of my last point.  I saw some people doing this race in regular running shoes… and not coincidentally those were some of the same people I saw slipping and falling and getting cuts and bruises all over their legs.  Trail shoes are simply better designed to handle the type of terrain you’ll encounter during this race.
  • Train at altitude if you can.  This was a tough one for me and if you don’t already live in an area that’s at a high elevation, I don’t really have a good suggestion for how to handle it.  There are elevation masks that runners can wear that limit the amount of oxygen you can breathe in to simulate running at altitude, but they aren’t the same as the real thing.  Plus they make you look like a Batman villain. If you can swing a few weekend trips to a higher elevation to run or do another race, that would be ideal.
  • Arrive a few days early to allow your body to adjust.  Like I said earlier, I have a friend who lives in a different part of Colorado and is used to running at 5000 feet elevation and even he struggled with this one.  Your body needs to get used to breathing extremely thin air before you should attempt to do a race like this.
  • Be creative with your lodging.  The course is a point to point that starts in Snowmass Village and finishes in Aspen.  Public transportation between Aspen and Snowmass is free so you can really stay in either location and be ok.  The only problem is that hotels in Aspen are extremely pricey, and hotels in Snowmass aren’t much cheaper.  I stayed at an Airbnb in Woody Creek Canyon, which is halfway between the two so I had an easy time getting to both towns.  I paid less to stay there for the entire weekend than I would have paid for a single night at a hotel in Aspen or Snowmass.
  • Bring your own water for the race.  This is designed to be a back road course and it intentionally doesn’t have a lot of services.  There are only three water tables and two medical stops throughout the entire course – mile 1.5, mile 6, and mile 11.  So use a belt or a camelbak or whatever you prefer, but make sure you have a way to hydrate during the run because you’re going to be spending a long time between water stops.
  • Pay attention to the weather.  There have been a few rare occasions when there’s been snow in Aspen in September but the average high is in the low 70’s.  Here’s the thing though – the average lows are in the 40s.  The temperature tends to warm up really fast as soon as the sun comes up though so I wore long sleeves to start the race and felt quite comfortable at the start line but halfway through the race I ended up wishing that I had worn something lighter.
  • Have fun.  If you’re not used to running at altitude and dealing with all of the challenges that come along with doing a trail run, you’re probably not going to get a PR in this race.  And that’s fine.  Like I said, the scenery makes it worth it.  The course literally goes over the top of a mountain and is scheduled specifically during a time when the fall colors are at their brightest.  It’s stunningly beautiful so make sure you take a few minutes to look around and enjoy it.

Aspen - Golden Leaf Half

A couple other notes:

There are two ways to get to Aspen.  The fastest (and probably most expensive) is to simply fly into the Aspen airport.  This is a small regional airport and I’m guessing that most flights into it require a stopover in Denver along with a plane change.  Your other option is to fly into Denver and drive from there.  This will take a few hours but it will be a nice scenic drive that takes you up into the mountains and through towns like Buena Vista and Twin Lakes.  It also takes you across the continental divide (where you can stop and walk around for a few minutes).  The mountains in the area are covered with a mixture of spruce trees and aspen trees (which is how the city got its name).  During mid to late September, the leaves on the Aspen trees turn from green to bright gold and the contrast of the aspen leaves next to the dark pine needles on the spruce trees is stunningly beautiful.  So if you have enough time, opt for driving instead of the flying.  You won’t regret it.

Twin Lakes

Continental Divide

Lastly, this race does not have finisher’s medals.  I’m not sure why and I know that the race directors used to give them out a few years ago, but for some reason they stopped.  I know some people who don’t care about race bling at all, along with other people who like to collect finisher’s medals and display them on their walls.  If you fall into the second category, be ready for the fact that you won’t be getting a medal when you cross the finish line in this one.  Personally, I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I get it – the race directors want this to be a stripped down back country run, which means that runners do it purely for the joy of running through the mountains and it shouldn’t include anything fancy like race medals.  On the other hand, this is probably the toughest race I’ve ever done and damnit I want something to show that I finished it.  Ultimately though, I found myself not really caring either way.  Medal or no medal, knowing that I was able to finish this race at all after having so many doubts about my own running abilities during the first mile was more than enough to make me leave happy.

Aspen - Farm

Aspen - Farm

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