Fun At The 2013 Horsetooth Half Marathon

Approaching the second, 9.2% grade

Approaching the second, 9.2% grade

I’ve long been registered to run the half marathon course for the Colorado Marathon in Fort Collins, Colorado on May 5th. Through a coincidence in work scheduling, yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in the 40th annual Horsetooth Half Marathon only two weeks before the Colorado. What an epic run it was for a flatlander like me!

The Horsetooth Half is a relatively small event for such a longstanding race; 1500 people registered this year. There The REAL Fat Tire cruisersare no big starting announcements or huge banners at the start, not even a starting gun (though it's timed). It's community sponsored, so you see Boy Scouts and the local running clubs doing all the work. Instead of a big expo hall, they use a community room at their primary sponsor, New Belgium Brewing. The logo gear for sale is on a 3' clothing rack. For participating you get a nice technical shirt, a pint glass, and for this anniversary, a small Lucite plaque with the now-infamous course profile etched into it (and your mind).  It's a nice contrast to the traveling circus of a Rock 'n Roll marathon.

The weather

Everyone was watching the weather closely this year. Fort Collins received about eighteen inches of snow in a spring WP_20130417_001snowstorm a few days before I arrived on Wednesday, and took another hit Wednesday morning as well. It was a bit surreal to sit on the taxiway in an 86-degree Dallas, wait for the Denver weather to clear somewhat, and once there drive up to Fort Collins in heavy blowing snow. This was the first year for a marathon course, and it was dicey as to whether it would even be held due to the snow (it was a mixed on/off road route). But the weather slowly cleared and we had great running weather on Sunday. As I write this, the weather is closing in again, and my flight to Dallas took off just ahead of another 1 to 3 inches of snow already hitting the Front Range cities.

The course

For the first few miles of its route, the Horsetooth Half follows Centennial Drive along the top of the artificial ridge of the Ascending the 9% hilldam that creates the reservoir. Then it descends down to the countryside, and follows the countryside until it joins the Poudre River Trail back into Fort Collins. The course profile shows a tough first few miles, plus the fact that the race beginning is itself almost exactly a mile above sea level. Within several hundred yards of the start, the road immediately climbs and switchbacks at 6.4% up to the top of the reservoir. After a short descent, it runs along the top of the dam (the top photo), then climbs at 9.1% to the highest part of the reservoir (“monster mountain”), all within the first two miles of the race.

At mile 4.5, Dam Hill is a half-mile climb at 5%, and finally Bingham Hill at mile 7.5 at 6%. STEEP descent off the high pointsAs if the ascents weren’t enough fun, the descents presented their own challenges, especially running down the back side of Dam Hill at almost 8%. At that grade, you just can’t put your feet in front of you fast enough, and a fall would be disastrous. So you have to balance speed descending (to help make up for what the inclines did to your overall time), with pounding your quads as you brake yourself as little as possible.

The experience

We ran in perfect 40 to 60 degree sunny weather alongside banks of melting snow. Nevertheless, the Colorado sun is so intense that when we rarely passed into shade I realized just how hot I was becoming. In some places we ran with snow-covered fields on either side of us, and the cool breeze off the snow was invigorating.

The woman running packet pick-up gave me sage advice: As you run up the hills, keep shortening your stride until your speed or your heart tell you to start walking. About half the people around me (including me) followed this advice. Even then, you have to be careful. Long, strong strides at this incline quickly wear out your Achilles, so you have to shorten up and take faster steps.

Shortly after the marathoners joined at mile seven, I had a pleasant surprise. One of the other runners asked if I was one of the marathoners! I can’t imagine why. I either looked like I knew what I was doing…or I looked exhausted from the muddy marathon course run. Another treat was that at the top of the last (Bingham) hill, what looked like the Colorado State University road cycling team all kitted out in their green and white jerseys, stood in a double line to high-five the runners as they went past. Nice!

The Poudre River trail that takes you the final six miles into town is pretty, but hard to appreciate at this point in the race. After all the ups and downs, you’re just trying to concentrate on a sustained fast run to the finish with whatever you have left in the tank. There are several long stretches out in full sun away from the water, and those are mentally tough. I felt okay by that point, but the hills had ground off any speed I might have had; my tempo pace finishing was the same as my easy pace back in Dallas – a full two minutes / mile slower. I knew I was tired when one of the hardest mental challenges of the race was making it up the short sharp inclines as the trail passes under a road! The grind was relieved by very non-Texas sights, like running past a couple of fly fisherman along the river, right at the edge of town.

When you finally exit the trail at Linden Street, you turn left for the final quarter mile to New Belgium; in two weeks I’ll turning right for the Colorado Marathon, which ends the same distance into Old Town Fort Collins. Your name is announced, no formal photos are taken, and the local Boy Scout troop presents everyone with their plaque. There’s a band playing. New Belgium had set up a truck with unlimited refills of Fat Tire, Rampant Imperial IPA, or Shift lager. I stood in line for a free massage, but by the time I was finished the last bus to take particpants back to the start had left. I caught a ride back from a generous race organizer, who I learned was just a few years younger than me and an awesome marathoner in his own right.

Recovery was all about the right things: A hot tub at my AirBnB home, some Odell 5 Barrel Pale Ale and Cheez-its, then a most excellent beer sampler at Equinox brewery just up the street from where I was staying, and finally a couple of delicious pizza slices from Coopersmith.

I doubt this will be an annual excursion for me, but I really appreciated the beauty of the course, the hospitality of the organizers…and the fact it didn’t hurt as badly as I thought it was going to! I’ll be back to Fort Collins in just a week to work in the office and run the Colorado Half with several of my coworkers…and I’m looking forward to it already.