Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ouray 100

The "Bridge of Heaven".  It seemed like an appropriate place to finish some 40,000 feet of climbing over the last two days and nights.  One final bib punch to mark my arrival, though my hands were so cold that even the simple task of punching a hole through my race bib was more than trivial.  Tired, weary, and cold, I knew that it was all downhill back to the finish in Ouray.  I knew that another 100-mile finish was almost in the books.  A very satisfying feeling, especially on this course.

A little over a year ago, I took on the Crawford 100.  Only two of us would make it to the finish line that weekend.  Along the way, I got to know a young race director who was new to Colorado but obviously had grown very fond of the mountains around the area he would now call home.  This race director also seemed to like the idea of creating race courses that bordered on insane.  Thanks Charles!

After committing to return to Crawford this year for the Beetle Kill 200K (a revised version of the Crawford 100), Charles, unfortunately, had to cancel the race.  I guess there just weren't enough people crazy enough to do it.  So instead, I decided to jump into the Ouray 100.  At the same time, Charles got a whole new course approved that would feature way more climbing and trails than last year's inaugural race, which was mostly forest roads.  I was very excited about this new course which would now have more climbing than Hardrock and a 50 hour cutoff.

A small group of 45 of us would gather at the park in Ouray at 4am on Friday to start this thing.  From the start, and throughout the race, my mind would not think about the miles or the number of feet climbed.  Instead, I just told myself, "14 climbs".  That was the best way not to get caught up in the enormity of this challenge.

Climb 1 (Silver Basin):

With a full moon trying to glow through the clouds, I would find myself in the familiar place of climbing Camp Bird Mine road.  Just three weeks earlier, I was pacing Adam at Hardrock up this same road.  With a few runners out ahead, I would settle into a comfortable mostly hiking (occasional running) pace with Jeremy, who shared much of the Crawford experience with me last year.  Jeremy runs more 100s than anyone I know, including Grand Mesa just the weekend before Ouray.  This makes me feel better about my run at the Never Summer 100K the previous weekend.  I really don't know what fresh legs feel like anyway.  It was fun catching up with Jeremy and we topped out at Silver Basin right at timberline and just as the sun was rising.

Climb 2 (Chicago Tunnel):

After retracing our path back down to Lower Camp Bird, the next climb then began up to the Chicago Tunnel.  I separated from Jeremy, and was now running alone.  This climb would eventually change to singletrack (all road up to this point) and put us well above timberline.  I am constantly in awe of the scenery.  The San Juans never cease to amaze me.  After a slight hesitation in course-finding, I spot a man on a dirt bike carrying flags.  It is Charles, and I am relieved that I am on the right trail.  The climb, like the one before, goes quite easily for me.

Climb 3 (Fort Peabody):

Again, it was back down the same way we went up, at least down to the trees.  The next climb would take us to the highest point on the course.  For the first time I would feel the altitude a bit and would slow a little on my hiking pace.  Near the top, I meet up with Charles on his dirt bike again.  He informs me that the turnaround would be Fort Peabody (a structure at the top of the peak), instead of Ptarmigan Lake due to the ice and snow.  This actually shortens the course some, so I am all for it.  The views, as expected, are amazing!  Mountains in all directions as far as the eyes can see!


Climb 4 (Richmond Pass Out):

While difficult to choose just one, I would say the climb over Richmond Pass was my favorite section of the course.  After traversing some snow fields and fun rocky terrain to get over the pass, you were then treated to some absolutely jaw-dropping views of the Red Mountains and beyond as you descended the singletrack to Ironton.  So far everything was going great and I was enjoying every minute.  Mostly fueling on candy bars all morning, I was getting ready for some lunch and the Ironton Aid Station came through with some great Campbell's Sirloin Burger soup, which hit the spot.  My first extended stop (maybe 15 minutes) as I took the time to get lots of calories while my appetite was still intact.  I headed out for the first loop (counter-clockwise) of the Red Mountains with a full stomach.

Climb 5 (Red Mountain Loop 1):

I went into full hiking mode for a while, slowly eating a turkey sandwich and drinking a Coke.  The climb up a jeep road would take you near the summit of one of the Red Mountains.  I would be passed by a few jeeps taking in the scenery the easy way.  A funny looking touring jeep was packed with tourists who I think had a hard time comprehending why I would be climbing this road on foot.  I had been alone since leaving Jeremy many hours earlier.  I did have another runner in my sights (Cory) who left Ironton just before me.  I also noticed a lot of storm clouds building.  The loop ended with a few miles of great singletrack through the forest and back to Ironton where Cory was still there with his crew and I had another big bowl of soup.

Climb 6 (Red Mountain Loop 2):

I headed out for Loop 2, same loop opposite direction, this time ahead of Cory.  I would meet another runner (Pierre) finishing up Loop 1 shortly after I left, but then saw no one for probably an hour.  At one point I even worried that I got off course and that was why I didn't see anyone.  I did miss a turn, but had only gone about 100 yards before realizing my mistake.  After getting back to the jeep road and approaching the pass, rain drops started to fall.  I topped out the pass to a close strike of lightning and then ran down swiftly in a heavy downpour as the jeep road turned to a river.  I would meet many runners climbing up Loop 1 with concerned looks on their faces.  They would ask me what the weather was like up higher and I felt bad to add to their concerns.  It's not clear and sunny.  I hit the Ironton Aid Station for a third and final time, completely soaked and the rain not letting up a bit.

Climb 7 (Richmond Pass Back):

With many people looking miserable at the Ironton Aid Station, I knew it would not do me any good to stop there.  I filled up my water bottles, had a quick drink of Coke, and got going.  Time for the climb back up to Richmond Pass, which I knew would be one heck of a climb based on the fun descent I had several hours earlier.  It was time to just put the head down and grind it out.  The rain was not letting up, the temperatures were dropping, and thunder was still booming in the distance, but what are you gonna do?  Just keep moving!  As I got to the edge of treeline, I stopped just long enough to get some gloves out of my pack.  By the time I got them on, I was shivering violently.  Time to move!  Just then Cory came up behind me.  There had been no lightning on Richmond Pass for a while and the rain was actually starting to lighten up, so we got after it in a hurry while the going was "good".  However, the wind was blowing right through my soaked gear and it was darn cold!  Cory and I stuck close together over the pass, the first time I had actually run with anyone since early in the morning, and it would be the last time really for the rest of the race.  I slowly warmed up on the descent back to Camp Bird Mine Road, where I was looking forward to the next aid station at Weehawken Trailhead.  Cory ran down the road faster than I did, so I would come into the aid station alone right at nightfall.  The stars were now out, the rain had stopped, and I had dry, warm clothes at the aid station.  All was good again!

Climb 8 (Alpine Mine Overlook):

I took my time at the trailhead, getting all fresh and dry gear for the night ahead.  Cory's crew and all the volunteers there were amazing, giving me everything I needed and more!  It was a short, 2000ish foot climb up and back down the Weehawken trail to the Alpine Mine Overlook.  It turned out to be a beautiful trail!  I met 2 runners coming down (one who would eventually DNF and Cody) on the climb up, and finally met Cory and his pacer not too far from the top of the climb.  The top greeted me with a great view of the town lights of Ouray below.  It was a beautiful night!  I took advantage of the cell phone service and gave Kristel a call to let her know how things were going.  I was still feeling pretty strong.

Climb 9 (Hayden Pass Out):

After a quick stop at the Weehawken trailhead, I headed down Camp Bird Mine Road a little further until turning onto a side road which would lead me to the Hayden trailhead.  Hiking up this steep road, I nearly got run over by a deer.  Seconds later, I see two sets of eyes coming at me which turn out to be two dogs, a sweet Black Lab and a playful Great Dane who is almost bigger than me.  They tagged along with me up the road to the trailhead and I figured they would eventually turn back for their home as there were a few houses nearby.  I started up the trail and they just kept coming with me.  It was quite comical as the Great Dane would keep pushing me off the narrow trail when he would pass me.  After about a quarter mile, I knew this wasn't good.  Luckily, the dogs had name tags and a phone number.  I dug out my phone hoping to have service and I did.  Even though it was just after 1am, I got in touch with a very happy owner.  I felt even better when he told me of his daughters who would be so happy to hear that their dogs were safe.  Bentley and Knox gladly accompanied me back to the trailhead where we waited for their late night ride back home.

I recommenced the lonely climb back up the Hayden trail (maybe I should have asked if the dogs could keep pacing me) and went through my toughest part of the race.  While my stomach was ok, I was losing energy and wanted to sleep.  This climb took forever!  I met the leader and eventual winner Graham as I was still climbing.  He had a huge lead by this point.  Finally over Hayden Pass, I would meet Cory closely followed by Cody.  Turns out I was in 4th place!  I just couldn't believe no one had  passed me over this section.  I arrived at the scenic Crystal Lake aid station shortly before sunrise.  I stayed just long enough to head back where I came from without the need for my headlamp anymore and hoping the new day would rejuvenate me.

Climb 10 (Hayden Pass Back):

I can't say that I was a whole lot faster on my return trip over Hayden Pass, but I did improve.  I wondered how many were still in the race at this point and I would eventually meet quite a few, with Pierre the first, probably about an hour behind me.  The steep, loose rock on the descent back down the other side may have been more difficult now than it was going up.  When I hit Camp Bird Mine Road for the easy downhill back to Ouray, I struggled to run.  My legs were hurting.  I was finally back in Ouray where I was pleased to grab an ice cold Coke and leftover pizza from my car near the start/finish line.  It was late morning and it was going to be a hot day.

Climb 11 (Twin Peaks):

Twin Peaks is a mountain that literally rises straight up nearly 3000 feet above the town of Ouray.  This climb was steep, reminding me in places of the Incline with railroad ties often providing the only means for getting up this terrain.  The course took us right to the top of a small rocky summit, with a bit of scrambling to get to the very top where the bib hole puncher sat.  I was both cursing Charles for this and thinking this was pretty cool at the same time.  Besides it would have been a shame not to tag the summit after all the work to get up there and the view straight down onto Ouray below was amazing!  I met Pierre pretty shortly after getting down off the summit, so I figured I better kick it into gear if I wanted to hold on to 4th place.  It was probably good to be pushed a little and, thankfully, my legs responded as I ran pretty well down to the Silvershield trailhead aid station.

Climb 12 (Silvershield):

Three climbs to go!  This climb back from Silvershield would be the easiest of the 14 as well, so I was feeling pretty good about things and starting to smell the finish.  The climb was probably less than 2000 feet back to the trail junction to the Twin Peaks summit, but luckily no need to summit again.  Then it was back down the steep Twin Peaks trail to Ouray, which was quite a challenge on tired legs.  I came back into the town park just in time for a delicious grilled cheese sandwich.  No need to go to my car and I got out of there quickly for the next climb.

Climb 13 (Chief Ouray Mine):

I had forgotten that there was a 50-mile race on this day that was essentially the last 50ish miles of the 100-mile course.  I made the next climb to the Chief Ouray Mine keeping pace with what I would learn later were the top two 50-milers in their race.  As it would turn out, only one of them would finish, Natasha, as she would win the 50-mile race and be the only finisher.  I was feeling strong and really enjoyed this trail which would lead us to a cool abandoned mine named for Chief Ouray.  It was also cooling off as the clouds were building up.  I ran hard coming back down, on some very nice singletrack, which was much better than the loose, steep trails that seemed to make up much of the day.  I came back into town just as the skies opened to heavy rain and lightning flashing everywhere.  I jumped in my car without getting wet and hoped that the storm would pass quickly so I could get back out and finish this thing.

Climb 14 (Bridge of Heaven):

After about 20 minutes of refueling in the car, I detected a slight decrease in the rain intensity and no booms of thunder for a while.  It was time to get back out there.  I was bundled up, a bit overdressed when I started out, but I would be thankful for every piece of clothing before this climb was over.  It was almost headlamp time and for the first time ever I would be racing into a second night.  Shortly after starting the climb up Old Horsethief Trail, I met Cory and his wife/pacer Alissa.  Good to see them surviving the storm and Cory about to finish in 3rd place!

This was a big climb, nearly 5000 feet, so I just tried to focus on one foot in front of the other, which wasn't easy in my sleep-deprived state.  Then the hallucinations started.  First I thought someone left a backpack on a tree stump.  Then, it was a phone or some electronic device that got dropped on the trail.  I picked it up and looked it over for several seconds before realizing it was a rock.  My body was doing fine physically, but I was losing it mentally.  As I got above the trees, it got really cold.  Although there was a light rain, I was at least able to stay dry and fairly warm.  I met Natasha and her pacer looking frozen but moving fast on their way down to a 50-mile victory.  Then it was the moment I was dreaming of for nearly two days, a sign that read "The Bridge of Heaven".  I'm sure in daylight there must be an amazing view that inspired the name, but for me, just the sight of the sign was one of the best views ever!

I stumbled my way back down the mountain, just trying to keep enough focus not to fall down and hurt myself.  I passed by Pierre and stopped to congratulate him and thank him for pushing me.  Not soon enough, I finally found myself back in the quiet streets of Ouray.  I came into the park to a couple of cheers, the only people awake, and asked them where the finish line was.  I then found Charles asleep in the gazebo and decided I should wake him up so he could officially end my race.  After 45 hours and just after 1am on Sunday morning, my Ouray 100 race was complete!

Final thoughts:

For essentially a first-time race (given the course was completely changed), I thought it was a great event!  Yes the course seemed a bit contrived with all the out and backs, but a perfect loop or point-to-point course isn't always going to be possible.  The course featured all of the great trails around Ouray while being almost completely different from the Hardrock course.

As expected, I got asked many times how this race compared to Hardrock.  I have finished Hardrock 10 hours faster than this race, and if that is how you rate a course's difficulty, then Ouray is harder than Hardrock.  But in my opinion, so many other factors need to be considered.  Ouray had no passes as technical and steep as Hardrock's Virginius or Grant-Swamp passes.  Ouray never put you in as remote locations as you find yourself in Hardrock, where if things go very wrong, you can be in major trouble.  Finally, and the most important factor to me, Ouray averaged about 1000 feet lower in elevation than the Hardrock course.  At no point during this race did I experience the nausea that I have experienced every time I have attempted Hardrock and I am guessing this was mostly due to the slightly lower altitude.

I heard a few complaints about the race.  With only 9 finishers, 80% of those who started, did not finish.  I think the course was more difficult than many expected and that can lead to negative feelings for some, especially after a DNF.  Those measuring distance had it anywhere from 104 to 120 miles!  I am glad I only counted the number of climbs and not the number of miles.

I joked with Charles after the Crawford race that he had created the "Barkley" of the West.  I don't know a good nickname for this one yet.  Anyway, this was a pretty bare-bones, low-key event, and some people expect more.  I have a feeling some of the early years at Hardrock, Wasatch, Bear, and others were not much different than this.  Where this race will go in the future, only time will tell.  I would highly recommend it and no doubt it deserves to be a Hardrock qualifier.  Charles also offered very generous prize money to the top 3 (I got 4th, ouch!), which you rarely see at these events.

I'll finish this long report by thanking everyone who made this event happen.  Charles, you again went above and beyond for a race director!  Hopefully you can get more support in the future and keep this event growing.  To all the volunteers and crew members who stepped in to help out as well, THANK YOU!  These mountains are special to me and I appreciate the opportunity to challenge myself in them once again.


  1. Great report and focus during the race. Also, it's commendable that you point out the positives in the event when all I've heard is negative feedback. It says a lot to me when someone like Charles is willing to take on such a huge commitment and challenge to organize an event with obvious logistical obstacles. Great finish. Congratulations!

    1. Thanks Footfeathers! As you know, the RD can be a thankless job that may seem like more work than it is worth. Glad to see you getting back to some trail running and racing!

  2. Great report!14 climbs, I like that climbs and more climbs who cares about the miles!

  3. You may have just sold me on this race! Great report and congrats :)

  4. Hey Rob, thanks for the great report, I am about to start the race in a couple of weeks, could I ask what sort of shoes you find appropriate on the course here?

    1. I would wear whatever your feet are most comfortable in. I normally wear Brooks Cascadias for 100 milers because I never get a blister. I know people who wear road racing shoes for Hardrock. I wouldn't stress too much over shoe choice.

  5. Thanks a lot Rob! I appreciate it.

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  7. Rob,
    I gather from your write up you had a positive experience with this event. I am signed up for 2017 and just today heard from another RD that this race is a cluster, no shirts, no buckles, RD late to start, no volunteers no food, race crews had to step up and help, course change mid way through, this was last years event he spoke of. Can you share some thoughts based on what stated. I'm just trying to get a complete picture, thanks! You can reach me at if that is easier. Thanks again and great write up!!

    1. JP,
      I ran the race in 2015, so I can not speak to how things went in 2016, but I do know that improvements to the race organization were made with runner tracking (SPOT trackers on all runners) and more volunteer support for the 2016 race. I personally had a great experience in 2015. What I value most in a race is a well-marked, scenic, and challenging course that can be run in a supported fashion with like-minded people who appreciate the surrounding beauty and the challenge of competing in such an event. Ouray easily fulfilled this for me. I found the aid stations to be more than sufficient in 2015 with good food and great people. I still prepare for these races with some level of self-sufficiency for my fueling anyway because you can never be sure of what will be at an aid station. The least important thing to me is the race "schwag". I think this sort of stuff is over-promoted at road races and maybe valued more by those who are used to this road race culture. For 100-milers, I do value the finisher buckle because I collect those. I received a great buckle, race shirt, and custom finisher jacket in the mail some time (a few weeks?) after the race. I also received a nice award for 4th place (cash to top 3) at the awards ceremony after the race. The RD was about 15 minutes late to the start in 2015. This was attributed to his lack of support and trying to do too much on his own that year. The race course was adjusted (shortened) mid-race that year, but I was clearly notified and it was a good decision based on the length and difficulty of the course. From my experience in racing and volunteering, all trail races will find things to improve upon from year to year. I would highly recommend the Ouray 100 in 2017, especially to those who hold similar values to my own. The San Juan Mountains are like no other!