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Despite intense weather conditions and aching hips, Maya Silver shares how she set about to conquer her first marathon on the trails of Colorado.
In the days leading up to my first marathon, my nerves really started to get to me. A long-building bubble of anxiety that sat just below my rib cage expanded larger and larger with each report about the 26.2 miles of trail I’d soon be traversing in the Run Through Time Marathon in Salida, Colo.
“Muddy as can be,” race director Jon MacManus warned in one of his e-mails about trail conditions.
“Only one set of tracks through the snow.”
“The snowiest year in the last 10.
“Patches of ice in the shade.
“Up to your knees in powder snow.”
And lastly: “It should be a fun slog.”
Depends on your definition of fun. A 10-miler at a leisurely pace through snow and mud when I don’t have to worry about a cut-off time? Sure, that could be fun! A 6-mile adventure with Yaktrax spikes strapped to my shoes in a blizzard? I could get into that. But 26.2 miles through every treacherous trail condition imaginable with a 7-hour time limit? I wasn’t so sure. And that’s not taking into account the estimated 4,750 feet of climbing the course presented—or the fact that the Run Through Time took place on March 14, a race date that could bring snow, freezing cold, rain or abundant sunshine (fingers crossed!).
In the weeks and days leading up to March 14, I checked the weather forecast religiously. Thankfully, the heavy February snow began to give way to sunshine in early March. I prayed that the warmth would soften the ice and diminish the powder to at least shin or ankle level. During these pre-race weeks, I also spent a lot of time wondering why I had decided it would be a good idea to run a trail marathon in Colorado in the winter—my first marathon, no less.
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Hip Pain And Power
My resolve to complete a marathon first arose in my early 20s. The iconic race seemed the perfect way to culminate my track and field experience and love for the sport. How cool would it be to run a race that people had been competing in for thousands of years? Once I’d hatched this idea, to abandon it would be to back down from a challenge. So with curiosity and determination to rise to my own personal challenge, I added it to my bucket list.
Equal parts impulsiveness and blind determination guided my decision to register for the Run Through Time back in December. The story really began when I had to drop out of the first marathon I signed up for a year earlier—the Estes Park Marathon—due to debilitating hip pain. Bad hips run in my family; my mom and both of her sisters have had hip replacements. My own hip pain started in my mid-20s. I’ve had to take measures to mitigate it, including a stand-up desk at work and changing my running habits.
As I trained for the Estes Park Marathon in 2014, each run left my hips with a weeklong aching hangover that made both sleeping and sitting difficult. I even bought special, cushioned shoes—Hoka One One Kailuas—and borrowed Chi Running from the library to try to combat pain with better form. I knew I didn’t have the hips to be a lifelong marathon runner, but I was dead set on running one. After my Hokas and form adjustments failed to alleviate anything, I dropped out and began to face the sad fact that a marathon was not in the cards for me.
During the summer, however, I ran on trails often and had an idea. What if I ran a trail marathon? Trails were much easier on my hip joints. Post trail-run, my hips often felt fine or just slightly achy for a day or two. When I searched for local trail marathons, I came across the Run Through Time. Intrigued by its epic name, tough course and location in Salida—one of my favorite towns on Colorado’s Western Slope—I signed up.
The Run Through Time is one of the premier sporting events in Salida. The race takes its name from the history brimming in the Arkansas Hills its course navigates—from mining, to railroads, to ranching. “It was a wild place,” says race director Jon Macmanus. He and his wife, Rickie Redland, established Run Through Time after they ran what is now the course to train for the Hardrock Hundred 13 years ago. While only about 25% of the runners in the original race were female, in 2015 I joined a nearly 50% female running contingent.
Snow, Ice and Mountain Lions
After I registered for the Run Through Time, the fact that I’d be doing most of my training in the dark, cold and snow began to set in. With my 9-to-5 job, determination to continue skiing on weekends and commitment to training almost 100 percent on trails, a tough winter training regime was in order.
My friend Nina thankfully committed to run the race with me. Her Minnesotan upbringing made her adept at jogging through ice and powder without slipping, but my DC origins had given me no experience in navigating these adverse conditions. On a run up a steep trail of twisting switchbacks, we found much of the trail to be frozen over, like an ice skating rink winding its way up a mountain. I’d forgone the spikes that day. While Nina puttered along nearly effortlessly without slipping, another friend and I literally got down on our hands and knees to crawl our way up while trying to avoid falling for the umpteenth time.
My fear of being eaten by a mountain lion during training, however, by far trumped my dread of icy trails. One night, we decided to run South Table Mountain, a mesa of trails purportedly home to mountain lions behind my house. When Nina and I reached the top, we paused by a rocky outcrop while our dogs—my German Shepherd mix Uinta and Nina’s little terrier Macy—sniffed around.
From a darkened spot beneath large boulders, we heard the cry of a mountain lion: a quick, aggressive yowl like the sound my late cat, Rosie, made when she was ornery and swabbing at something—only 10 times more forceful in volume. We backed away, then ran, then sprinted as fast as we could down the trail. On several other runs, we would see eyes in the surrounding brush and freeze, paralyzed by the horror that we’d been stalked, only to be relieved that they were the pupils of deer.
Several months later, we’d marked fresh tracks through two feet of powder. We slogged through mud so deep that inches of it caked to the bottoms of our shoes. We ran up and down a 1,000-foot steep snowy hill at Green Mountain four times in 17-degree weather to practice for the 4,750 feet of elevation gain we’d face on race day. And I’d developed runner’s knee in my left knee, which required rounds of physical therapy to rehab it. We were as ready as we could be.
The week before the race, the bubble of anxiety nestled beneath my rib cage was so large that it felt pop-able. I backed off the miles on race week and did some fartlek speed work on the treadmill in my new Hoka Stinson trail running shoes. After work on Friday, Nina and our support team of one—our friend, Kristen—headed to Salida, nervously chattering about whether we’d even finish and how treacherous the trail would be.
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When we arrived at the pre-race pasta dinner, nerves were rampant. As we carefully noshed on plates of pasta and meatballs, we observed a small cross-section of the 224 other runners. There were more than a few T-shirts in the house alluding to ultramarathons past. We heard talk of the Run Through Time serving as a training run for these big races, some spanning 100 miles, and winced at our now seemingly pathetic fear of not being able to finish the much shorter 26.2-miler.
We arrived at the starting point 45 minutes before the beginning of the race and joined all the other runners huddled together out of the early morning cold in a nearby community center. As we waited for the 8 a.m. start time to approach, we eyed our competition, which sported vibrant colors and trail running gear—hydration vests and hip belts, compression sleeves, gaiters and spandex galore.
At around 7:40 a.m., we ventured out into the cold for a 5-minute warm-up jog. Our bare thighs reddened in the sub-30 degree weather. We had to dress for both the morning cold and the mid-day 65-degree, sunny conditions the forecast predicted. We wore shorts, T-shirts and light layers on top, leaving our legs, ears and fingers frigid.
After our short jog, we retreated back inside and stretched until the race directors announced it was time for everyone to head to the starting line. We positioned ourselves in the middle of the pack. As we shifted around nervously, trying to stay warm before the race began, I spotted a man dressed only in a pair of colorful swim trunks, the cold nipping at his pale pink flesh. While Hoka and other trail running shoes seemed to be the footwear du jour for Run Through Time, he wore barefoot running shoes, as well as a waxed handlebar mustache. I spied another man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and carrying collapsible trekking poles. Two girls dressed all in green, their cheeks painted with clover leaves in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, chatted behind us. These eccentric get-ups made Nina and I feel more comfortable with our lack of technical trail running clothes and gear.
An Anti-Climatic Start
Suddenly—without so much as a gunfire or an audible “Go!”—the pack was moving. The moment I’d been dreading for months, weeks and days had arrived. I focused on my breathing and tried to stick to a moderate pace to save energy. After a warm-up loop around a gravel road, the singletrack climb began, along with the complexities of passing on the narrow trail. Since you couldn’t just swing to the left or right of a runner, you had to either sniffle loudly enough to give them a hint, or say, “Mind if I pass?” between pants. In turn, I had to stay aware of those behind me to offer the same courtesy of a step aside.
Once we passed the first aid station after a mellow singletrack hill climb, my nerves began to dissipate, and I settled into my race mentality. Nina and I more or less stuck together, passing people in twos and threes, and eventually found ourselves seemingly alone on a rather peaceful and dry portion of the course.
The next segment held a long, steady climb up a dirt road. Nina and I took turns running in front of the other as we steadily made our way up. We passed others who were walking or alternating between walking and running, which made us feel better about being able to maintain at least a jog. It was on this hill that the sun finally peeked over the surrounding hills, and my fingers thawed enough to move again.
This isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. After all, I was on a dry road in the sun, and the Beastie Boys were blaring in my ears. In the distance, I spied the second aid station. Once we reached it, I was ecstatic that we’d reached the 11.8-mile mark. We had a bit more of the hill climb until we reached the turnaround point at the ghost town of Turret. I hustled up the rest of the hill and blissfully ran downhill back to the station, marking 13.2 miles. We’d been running for 2.5 hours, which meant that my worst fear—being cut off at the halfway point based on a 7-hour finish—was irrelevant. At the station, I tried to ignore my aching hips, refueled with a gel and curiously observed several runners chugging the PBR tallboys available at the station.
Let The Fun Slog Begin
For the first half of the race, I’d been wondering when the grueling climb and elements would strike. We’d encountered a little bit of snow and mud, but nothing to deserve the cautionary email sent to all the racers. Mile 13.3 is approximately where the “fun slog” began. It started with shoe-sucking mud that smacked with each step, splattering up our shins and catapulting into our shoes.
Then came the snow—a hardened crust layering about a foot of slush. The runners before us had packed down most spots so that large oval-shaped holes dotted their path up the trail. If you didn’t hop into the pre-established snowy footprint, you would land awkwardly and lose your balance. While the mud and snow proved challenging, Nina and I had trained well for these conditions; it showed in the sheer number of people we were able to pass.
While Nina and I hadn’t thought we’d stick together for the whole race, we ended up staying within eyesight of each other up to this point. Since neither of us was shooting for a record-breaking time, it was worth it to us to stick together for support and to pace each other when one of us slowed down. At this point, we agreed to cross the finish line together, holding hands, arms triumphantly raised for whatever cameras might be around!
The Not So Fun Slog
After these snowy ascents, we reached another aid station, which I anticipated marking mile 17 or 18. To our surprise, the volunteers informed us we’d reached mile 21.2.
“Five more miles! We got this!” I cried to Nina. We downed more gel, refilled our bottles and dipped back onto the singletrack at a fast pace. Surely I could endure the gnawing ache in my hips for a few more miles! All of a sudden, our lively hurdling over big rocks and across loose dirt turned to a steep and sloppy slog once more up a muddy, slushy hill—but that was just the beginning of the most challenging stretch.
We had only four miles to go, but they were the most difficult physically and mentally. Once we emerged from the shaded woodsy climb, we came out onto a hill and could see the narrow trail sprawled before us in all its upward glory. My jaw nearly dropped—more climbing? Really? Who would end such a tough race on uphill singletrack? As I struggled not to turn my ankles or trip over the smallest of obstacles, I tried to stay positive. Just a few more miles—just a mellow after-work training run. Hip pain? What hip pain?
Alternating between optimistic aphorisms about the close finish line and complaints about the trail’s persistent uphill climb, we pushed it as hard as we could as we approached the end. While we didn’t hold hands, we did cross together. “5 hours and 15 minutes,” a volunteer called. My pre-race bubble of anxiety had finally deflated. I was filled with relief at having finished and an enormous sense of fulfillment for the time, pain and resolve we’d invested to reach this point.
We’d done it; 30 people didn’t make it to the finish line. And we were injury-free. We were also thrilled to learn that we’d made much better time than we expected and placed 24th and 25th for females, as well as fourth and fifth for females in our age group of 20-29.
This news made the pain in my hips a little easier to bear. I called my fiancé and my sister as I stretched awkwardly on the sidewalk and guzzled tons of water. I took a few ibuprofen as soon as I was able to eat. After several days, my hip pain finally began to dissipate.
One and Done
My mantra throughout training—particularly whenever my hip pain worsened or when my knee issues developed—had been “one and done.” I didn’t want to push my luck with my bad hips. My goal had always been to run one marathon and then return to running shorter distances on trails for pleasure.
But now, as I settle back into a relaxed running routine, I’m beginning to miss the nervous anticipation, the grit I developed from running through cold, snow and dark, and the feeling of running toward something—a monumental goal. I began to wonder: Do my hips have another 26.2 in them?