There was a time when the elite runners inspired me more than anyone in a race. I still find them to be amazing, but I’ve come to realize the truly dedicated runners who deserve the kudos are not the ones who finish the race first, but those who finish last. Because those runners have to run the same race as the fast people, only they are on their feet for so much longer. It’s really remarkable what one can accomplish when they set their mind to it.
When I signed up to run the Copper Mountain Half Marathon, which is part of the Under Armour Mountain Series, I knew this would likely be my slowest half marathon ever. I did the Mt Bachelor Marathon Relay in the series in July (read about my experience here and Matt’s experience with the Half Marathon here,) and I felt like that was a good warm-up, but I knew I couldn’t really compare the two. I’ve been running a lot this summer so I knew my body could do the mileage, but there were a couple of terrifying challenges ahead that brought me to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to come close to PRing at this race. The 1st thing was the obvious, right there in the title.. “mountain.” There was 3,239’ of elevation gain on this course, and that was all in the first half of the race. But it was the 2nd thing, the thing I couldn’t truly prepare for, that was really scary, and that was the altitude. In case you didn’t know, Oregon is at sea level. This race starts at 9,772’ elevation and rises all the way up to 12,045’ elevation. Hills were something I was sure I could handle, even if my quads were going to scream, but not being able to breathe was a whole different matter, and the sort of thing that could send me to the hospital. Even worse, I was on a very tight schedule and I knew I wouldn’t have time to acclimate to Copper Mountain before the race.
I arrived in Denver, CO the day before the race and took the Summit Express from the airport to Copper Mountain. The driver of the shuttle was very friendly and knowledgeable about the history of Colorado as we passed through several areas on 2+ hour journey. I didn’t arrive at the stunning Copper Mountain Resort until after 6:00PM, but my hotel was located at Village Square which turned out to be a very short walk to Burning Stones Plaza where packet pick-up was. I had a pretty bad headache despite the fact that I had been chugging water all day, so I turned in early and was grateful that my start time wasn’t until 10:00AM the next morning.
After getting some breakfast and watching the marathoners take off for their start up a sizable hill, I found myself getting more and more nervous for my own expedition. Finally, I got to run up that same hill and then another and another. The combination of the hills and the altitude were challenging, as I knew they would be, and I found myself discouraged because I had to walk a lot. The terrain was rocky and some of the single-track trail was a bit tricky to maneuver. There were also several areas on the trails where I’m pretty sure I heard rattlesnakes, but maybe I was just paranoid from my husband warning me to look out for them.
I know I could have pushed myself harder, and I would have if not for that elevation that was ascending at pretty rapid levels. 2 miles in, the resort where we started looked really far down the mountain already, and I knew I had at least 4 more miles of much worse in front of me. When I got to aid station 2 and I was about 6 miles into the race, I was told we were at 11,000’ and we still had to climb another 1,000.’ Further up the mountain I climbed, and when I got to the top, I felt a bit light-headed and a little sick. It took me 2 hours to climb that mountain, the total time it would typically take to run any of my previous half marathons, and I still had 5 or 6 miles to go.
Now that I’d reached the top of that mountain, I felt I could finally let go and run harder for the descent down. So I took off and it felt good. But then, at mile 9, the thunderstorm started. It had been a beautiful morning and early afternoon, a bit warm even. But now it was raining and the thunder was loud and ominous. Still, it all felt manageable until the hail started. I was at mile 10 and it physically hurt my body, especially my bare shoulders. I regretted wearing a tank top though I’d been grateful for it for the first half of this race. There were no trees to shelter me from it, so I just kept running. But running downhill in what was quickly becoming muddy terrain was not easy. The single-track sections looked like chocolate milk-infused streams of water, which was very difficult to navigate my feet through because I couldn’t see the rocks beneath the water. Everything was slick and it was hard to figure out where to put my feet in some places. Still, I kept going.
Once I’d reached the 13 mile mark, I knew that the course had either been measured a bit off or I had taken a wrong turn somewhere, because I knew the finish line was a bit further from when it should have been. I later found out the course was actually more like 13.7 miles instead of the 13.1 that I had prepared myself for. That being said, the course was very well marked and there was never a point where I felt like I didn’t know where I was going. The aid stations were also very well stocked and having 4 or them out there for this distance was a welcome sight. When I rounded that last bit of mountain and saw the finish line, I was hit with a wave of emotion and I almost started crying as the announcer called out my name. One of the volunteers put a medal around my neck and brushed some of the day’s weather off my shoulders and she was suddenly my best friend in the whole world. I never looked at my final results but I know my finish time was somewhere in the 3 hour range. In the end, it doesn’t really matter because done is done!
What saved me on this race was the views. It was a little piece of heaven out there. I saw things I’d never seen and maybe never will again. Every bit of this race was scenic and I was amazed more and more the further I traveled. Also all the people out there, from the volunteers to all the runners with their own struggles through this race, made me want to keep going. It was like we were all on the same side of a very difficult battle that we all knew we could ultimately win if we just kept going. This was truly the hardest race I’ve ever done, and for sure my slowest. It’s also the race I’m the most proud of because I’ve never felt stronger than I did when I completed it. A lot of people don’t understand why I would want to do this to myself, but a lot of other runners out there will get it. It doesn’t matter how long the journey took. It was the journey itself that mattered.