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The race director greeted me as I walked up to the two orange cones that marked a starting line in Telluride Town Park. His event would begin in 15 minutes, but only a small number of runners were hanging out. I recognized no one, thank goodness. I didn’t want anyone I know to witness my potential blowup.
Unsure of whether to race, I had come seeking a low-key, no-pressure event.
“So,” I asked, “how long is this route?”
“It’s the Bridalveil 20,” Erik Dalton replied, mentioning the waterfall that gives the race its name.
“But the website says 25K, so I’m kinda hoping it’s closer to 15 miles.”
Dalton, owner of a local running and mountaineering store, chuckled. “I’m honestly not sure,” he said. “Let me know how your watch measures it.”
I lifted my gaze to the box canyon crowned by 12,500-foot peaks. Pine and aspen covered the base, and tundra and rock sculpted the summits, making the swath of mountains appear bearded and balding.
I had spent the past three months power hiking up, then running across and down, multiple 4,000-foot climbs like this in the thin air of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Whether the race was 15 miles or 20, it should feel pleasantly manageable, given my recent training.
I spent so much of the summer preparing for that 100-miler, that ultimate goal. So much self-worth and happiness became unnecessarily tangled in the outcome.
But I wasn’t feeling like myself. The mountain-running confidence developed from more than a decade of summers spent running and hiking here had evaporated a couple of weeks earlier, when at the nearby Ouray 100-mile race, I had failed at mile 66. Physically trashed and mentally foggy, I had succumbed to an unplanned nap on a pile of drop bags at an aid station, then woke up shivering, crying and barely able to move.
I was still grappling to make sense of what had gone wrong. After my meticulous preparation, how could my ankles swell to where I hobbled as if I had stumps for feet? Why did my lungs burn and constrict, making me breathe as if through a straw?
I had heard of this shorter race only two days earlier, when a friend mentioned it, and I signed up impulsively, as a test.
“We’ll start in one minute,” Dalton said.
I counted only 17 participants, four of us female. The gathering felt like a group training run more than a race. Suddenly the others took off, bounding like dogs off leash, and I followed.
I didn’t know how fast or slowly to go, or how much to push to keep up with others. A voice like an angel’s popped into my head, saying, Don’t worry about it. Just have fun.
Hiking up a ski slope, then breaking into a run when the trail traversed the mountainside, I felt comfortably cradled by the peaks. I sped up and breathed deeply, no constriction in my chest, no haze in my head.
Ascending an alpine basin, where trees gave way to spongy tundra, I passed two guys who had paused to catch their breath. I played tour guide and mentioned we were following a segment of the famed Hardrock 100 course.
“Wild and tough,” I said, broadcasting the Hardrock motto—a phrase I had repeated like a mantra during my recent 100-mile attempt, until I became so discouraged and weak that I mocked myself by switching it to “mild and fluff.”
I reached the wind-whipped, talus-covered summit and, glancing over my shoulder, spotted a woman with braids like mine passing those guys and closing the gap between us.
“Game on!” I told myself and vowed to run as best I could to the finish, surging on the straights of each switchback.
Hikers coming up the trail called out, “Bad-ass!” and, “First woman!” My smile broadened as I gained momentum.
I spent so much of the summer preparing for that 100-miler, that ultimate goal. So much self-worth and happiness became unnecessarily tangled in the outcome. I never guessed that an off-the-radar, impromptu short trail race like this could deliver so much joy and triumph in one day, softening the blow of that other race.
I reached the end elated and told Dalton that my watch measured 18.25 miles. Five minutes later, the woman behind me finished, and I thanked her for chasing me and my demons.
Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. She blogs at TheRunnersTrip.com.