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This past Sunday was the 18th running of the Breck Crest Marathon. I signed up late this year because I was looking to do one more hard training run before the Bear Chase 50 mile, and knew that this would fit the bill. (I ran it in 2011, taking almost six hours to complete.)

The Race.

  • Start to Aid 1. A quick jaunt through town and across a dry ski run leads to the trail proper. Most of the time the trail in this section is wide enough to pass (or easily move to the side to allow others to pass) whenever necessary. After my 2011 experience I realized that trying to push it through this section would likely leave me feeling spent for the downhills during the second half of the race. So I tried my best to run a measured and controlled pace all the way to Aid Station 1.
  • Aid 1 to Aid 2. A bit more road and double track leads to the first of two trips to above 12,500’. Beginning roughly at mile 5.4, there’s a 1.2 mile climb that gains over 1,100 feet. I’d love to be able to complain about the conga line of other racers slowing me down and holding me back, but I was happy to just zone out and follow the person ahead of me. In fact, I think if I had been all by myself I might have taken it it a little too slowly. Once over the crest there’s the high alpine terrain that’s always more challenging than I remember; trails that turn into little brooks and marshes (“where the heck is all this water coming from…?”) and slippery rocks that require deliberate foot placements.
  • Aid 2 to Aid 3. Over the course of this 3 mile stretch, the trail gently drops down from the aid station to hit a short climb (150′ vertical in a quarter mile), then loses over 1,000′ over the next 1.4 miles. Finally, the last 3/4 of a mile before Aid Station 3 climbs of roughly 600’. Thankfully the weather was cool, because the climb up to Aid 3 is tough.
  • Aid 3 to Aid 4. This is where I started to have problems in 2011. The shoes I wore that year felt fine on the slow uphills, but gave me little protection or confidence coming down. I’ve done more downhill training since then, so I think my legs were in better condition to handle the downhill pounding. While my 2013 split up to Aid 3 was only a couple minutes faster than it was in 2011, I managed to run the 5 mile section from Aid 3 to Aid 4 about 17 minutes faster this year.
  • Aid 4 to Aid 5. This stretch of course feels tougher than a person might assume after looking at the elevation profile. Compared to the two big climbs in the first half of the race, the little bumps in this section shouldn’t be so challenging – but they are. Every little hill or bump in the terrain presents an easy excuse for walking. I was able to force a jog over many of the short uphills, but not all of them. Still, I completed this section about 11 minutes faster than in 2011 (although this segment was shortened by roughly a quarter mile by virtue of a re-located Aid 5).
  • Aid 5 to the Finish. Finishing along the sidewalks and pedestrian thoroughfares of Breckenridge is a weird juxtaposition to the mountain and forested trails that came before. Up there we can concern ourselves with nothing more than trying to keep the balance between moving forward as quickly as you can while not blowing up. But once back on the Breckenridge sidewalks in the steady traffic of pickup trucks, SUVs and shuttle buses you’re jarred back into the reality of a world with lots of other people and noise and traffic. Thankfully the course quickly turns off pavement and back onto a local trail and dry ski run back towards the finish.

The Course.

While labeled a “marathon,” the race is actually a few miles short of the standard 26.2 mile distance, and there’s not tons of climbing (around 4,700’ total) compared to a lot of the other mountain races in Colorado.

But you’ve go to do that running and climbing up high (more than 10 miles are run above 11,000 feet, and more than half of those miles are above 12,000 feet), over sometimes very technical terrain.

Regardless of whether it’s a “marathon” or not, the Breck Crest is challenging and fun. The course is a great example of not messing with a relatively obvious loop just to try to meet a standard distance. Looking at the overview map, the race course makes a natural trip up to the Colorado Trail, along the crest, then back into town – adding a side loop or spur or out-and-back for the purpose of tacking on an extra 2.7 miles and getting up to 26.2 would be an unnecessary distraction, and out of character with the rest of the race.

Gear and Fueling and Hydration.

The night before the race I was trying to decide between running in a pair of Hokas and my new Pearl Izumi EM Trail N1. I thought the Hokas might be nice for the extended downhill sections in the second half of the race, since that’s where I had problems in 2011. But the Hokas also seem to collect and retain mud, and I didn’t want to suffer the traction penalty on those same downhills. I decided on the Pearl Izumis because it looked like it had rained the night before, so the day would be spent running on damp trails. This was my first long run in the Pearl Izumis, and they performed really well. Enough cushioning for 5+ hours, good grip, nimble on the steep and technical downhills, and relatively light (at least compared to the Hokas…).

I took in 5 gels (including one that had 100mg of caffeine!) and 2 packs of Stinger chews, as well as 2 S-caps to help calm my stomach a bit during the last half of the race. If I had been racing longer I probably should have worked to take in more calories throughout, since I felt kinda flat by the time I finished.

I stuck with water throughout, except for filling my handheld bottle with Powerade at the last aid station just a couple miles before the finish. My total fluid intake was probably 80-90 oz. I ran with a 12oz handheld and a 13oz Simple Hydration bottle, and filled both at each aid station. Next time I do the race, I’ll probably just use a single 20oz handheld (assuming it’s not 85 degrees).

Race Management and Organization.

For all the discussion about trail racing becoming too big, too corporate, and too focused on money and hype, the Breck Crest events had a pleasantly relaxed and local feel – most runners were from Colorado, and a surprising number were from Breckenridge.

The entry fee was $65 for the marathon. This gets you five perfectly adequate aid stations, a very well marked course, and a t-shirt. Does there really have to be anything else? (Looking for a huge post-race banquet? Well, this race probably at least $40 or $50 less than what you would’ve spent a comparable race put on by a large corporate sponsor, so that money and head down to Main Street and sample some of Breck’s local fare.)

Fortunately, I don’t get the sense that anyone signs up for this race to be able to check a box on their to-do list or to impress their friends with the fact that they’ve crossed the line of a famous race. This is a race for folks who just want to run a neat race, even if it’s not a so-called “marquee” event.