The ski resort is renowned for being one of the largest in North America. It is in a constant battle with Whistler Blackcomb for most skiable acres. Although it is famous for its skiing, it truly is an all-season resort. The famous saying in Vail is the "you come for the winters and end up living here for the summers."
When I arrived in Vail I already had checked into the race and felt that I would sign up on race day if I felt my body was acclimated to the altitude. Naturally, I couldn't check my ego and signed up anyway. After all, how bad could it be? Ooops! The altitude in Vail at the base of the mountain is 8150 feet. By comparison, Lake Louise is the unofficial title holder in Canada at just over 5000 feet. The Hill Climb starts in the Village and ascends 7 miles to the top of the gondola which is at about 11,500 feet. Needless to say, the oxygen is a little thin.
I showed up in the morning and instantly felt out of shape. Colorado is the US outdoor playground and attracts hard core athletes from everywhere. There are athletes in and around Eagle County that could easily compete anywhere but choose to live the laid back local lifestyle offered in the Vail Valley. Over 400 participants were primed for the challenge. I did a quick calculation of my own capabilities and had to convert the distance into metric. I figured that the race was about 12 km so I should be able to finish in about 1:30:00 given the elevation and terrain. Believe it or not, the podium finishers complete this jaunt in about 50 minutes!
The race begins with a short run through the village which serves as a nice little warm-up before the insanity begins. After about .75 miles, you turn and begin your ascent. Congratulations...you are now climbing for 7 miles! The course itself is not spectacular in its terrain. This is just a grind of epic proportions. The views at specific areas of the run are spectacular but it is difficult to enjoy the breathtaking vistas when you are suffering from oxygen depravation. This is essentially a mountain dirt road course that switchbacks up the mountain. Basically, you run the catwalks. It is hard to judge where the difficult parts of the course are because it never lets up on you. The switchbacks are the toughest part of the climb and there are a lot of them. There is only one short flat section at around the 5 mile water station but it is short lived.
I felt that in order to make my goal, I was really going to have to monitor my heart rate. Everything was going as planned and I actually felt pretty good until the unforeseen happened. Cramps! A combination of lack of oxygen supply to the muscles and severe strain from climbing began to seize up my calves and eventually my hammies. The last mile was a combination walk/run and I ended up crossing in 1:36:00.
The medical staff at the top was great and helped me get the muscles to relax, pumped me full of fluid and salts. I have never been so happy to finish a race. The swag bag was fantastic and the shirt was solid. In the end, I can honestly say that it was one of my prouder moments. This was a true challenge and extremely rewarding. If you get the chance to visit the area during the summer you should check out the wide spectrum of trail races offered in Colorado. Competing at that altitude is a unique experience that you will not forget.