Imogene Pass Run Race Report


The stage

I ran my first Imogene Pass Run last weekend and it was a monumental experience. The race was both exhilarating and brutal. The environment and scenery were stunning beyond words (but here are some words.) Living in Colorado, we get used to seeing some amazing scenery. That said, the landscape of this race course was inconceivably dramatic. The San Juan Mountains are the creme de la creme of what Colorado is all about. My wife and I loved the town of Ouray and we can’t wait to go back.

The wife, dog, and spectacular Ouray, CO

The wife, the dog, and spectacular Ouray, CO

The weather was beyond perfect. No rain whatsoever until just after I finished in Telluride. I can’t fathom running this race in foul weather, but run this race in foul weather indeed they do.

Before going much further, I must give credit to my coach, Mary-Katherine Flemming for helping me prepare for this monster. My hiring her to help me was an excellent decision. She planned a variety of progressively challenging workouts, gave me honest, useful advice, and made me feel confident as I moved toward the race. I plan to enlist her again in future races.


I was very pleased with my uphill abilities. None of the climbing was easy but 99% of the time I felt strong and able. The final mile was rough. And by rough I mean nasty. (I’m holding back on the foul language that’s essential to describe what I’m talking about.) The average gradient was 18.9% with a max gradient of 33%! Steep slopes plus an ever thinning supply of O2 was almost overwhelming. That the fastest runners are still running at this point in the race is an absurdity to me!

A brief pause before the summit. Look closely at the trail below. Can you see the people?

A brief pause before the summit. Look closely. Can you see the people on the trail?

Slow-slogging it was an attractive option at times. I saw many participants doing a sort of meandering tromp and the siren song of a slower pace was enticing. It definitely felt good to slow down just a bit. I didn’t allow myself to get comfortable though. I was there to do the best I could, not be comfortable. I didn’t “just want to finish.” So when the going got very tough I continued to push as hard as I realistically could while not blowing up.

I found smaller quicker steps were better than long strides. Try climbing stairs two or three at a time vs. one step at a time and you’ll experience this. Sure you can go faster if you take longer steps but you’ll burn out faster too. That’s not a successful strategy for this race.

The hard part is over! The MONUMENTALLY hard part is about to begin.

The hard part is over! The MONUMENTALLY hard part is about to begin.



Savage and unrelenting are good words to describe the descent. The entire route was loose rocks and dirt of the sort that demanded constant attention, focus, and concentration. There was never ever an opportunity to coast, to relax, to take it easy in any way. To let the mind wander was to fall and f__k oneself up badly.

The start of a long, technical downhill. Much soreness awaits.

The start of a long, technical downhill. Much soreness awaits.

I experienced a very strange sensation during the descent. There were were times when I wanted to close my eyes and fall hard asleep. It was almost like I had narcolepsy or something. I’ve never had it happen before. I actually felt like I could’ve napped on my feet. I have no idea why. Do I have to mention that this experience was no help at all?

The technical descent demanded that I focus just a few feet out ahead to know where and how to place my feet. This was an exceptionally difficult task, especially as the descent took over an hour. The urge to let up a little, concentrate a little less, and look well down the trail was alluring but it would’ve been a disaster had I done so. So the entire descent involved determined concentration. If you’ve ever had to concentrate while (extremely) fatigued then you know it’s a uniquely difficult task.

I have no idea where that switchback road goes. I'd like to find out.

I have no idea where that switchback road goes. I’d like to find out.


Battling cramps with ducks & pigeons

I had some cramping near the top of the ascent. They continued to flare up during the descent. I had some cramping episodes during training runs and I wasn’t surprised to cramp during this race. What worried me is that I’d cramp badly and be reduced to a walk. That would’ve crushed me. Fortunately, I developed a strategy during training that allowed me to keep the cramps at bay to an acceptable degree. I employed that strategy in the race and though not perfect, it again allowed me to keep running.

I ran while internally and externally rotating my femurs. In other words, I’d run for several strides alternating between a duck-footed or pigeon-toed position. Somehow this would push the cramps away for a while. I had to do this several times during the descent. It’s definitely not an optimal way to run, especially over rough ground, but it worked. I also had to walk but only a very little.

My belief is that I employed the principle of reciprocal inhibition to relax my cramping muscles. Here’s an example: The muscle opposite your bicep is your tricep. Contract your bicep and your tricep will relax to allow for elbow flexion. That’s reciprocal inhibition and that’s how we move. In my case, my adductor muscles (inner thigh muscles, aka hip adductors and internal rotators) cramped. Thus I guessed that by activating those muscles’ opposite numbers (my hip abductors and external rotators) that I might be able to calm the cramping inner-thigh muscles. Seems to have worked. Further, it’s possible that by altering my bone and joint positions with this weird running technique it allowed some of the cramping muscles to rest just a little bit.

External rotation of the femurs

External rotation of the femurs

I won’t go into all the details of muscle cramps but I’ll say that it’s highly unlikely that it’s either dehydration or electrolyte depletion that causes them. It’s more along the line of intramuscular dis-coordination. For a brief and worthwhile discussion on the current ideas on muscle cramps and how to avoid them, then follow that link.

Internal rotation of the femurs

Internal rotation of the femurs


The final statistics

To see all the final stats for all runners go here. My numbers are as follows:

  • Time: 4:07:47
  • Overall: 451 out of 1227 finishers (Roughly top 1/3 of participants. That’s pretty cool!)
  • All males: 311 out of 645 (Top half of men. I’d love to improve on that.)
  • Males 40-44: 36 out of 82 (Top half. I’m happy about that too and improvement would be good.)

I like those results. This race was no easy fun run. You have to come prepared to finish it. I worked hard and I feel like I belong among some high-end athletes. I want to do my best and I want to get better. The top finisher in my age category finished in 3:02. I wonder how close I can get to 3 hrs… Coach Flemming, what are your thoughts?

(Honestly, I’m amazed that I’m thinking of running it again. After that finish I was certain that I didn’t want to run anywhere for any reason maybe ever again. What nonsense!)

What would I do differently?

I would love to get this thing done in under four hours. That seems realistic in good weather. If I want to race this race faster and/or just feel better then I need to improve my downhill conditioning.The descent is 7.1 steep, loose miles which is a very long distance. With that in mind,  I need to dedicate more time to running downhill on witheringly tired legs. There aren’t many opportunities outside of this race course to descend that far. (If you know of one in the Front Range area, please let me know about it.) I will confer with my coach on the subject but in my mind, I might want to incorporate something like giant hill repeats. For these I would run up something like Chimney Gulch, Mt. FalconDeer Creek, parts of the Bergen Peak Trail, or maybe best of all, Herman’s Gulch, then run back down and repeat the whole nasty process a few times. I think a few near-crippling workouts like this might help me survive the horror show/descent a little better.


Here is some superb photo documentation of the race. This guy isn’t me and I don’t know him but he deserves accolades for how well he captured the runners and the exquisite scenery.

The Imogene Pass Run Looms Before Me…


The main event for the year is the famed/notorious Imogene Pass Run. (Three days and a few hours to race time! Am I ready? Doesn’t matter does it? That’s when I’m running.) The website gives the basic description:

“The Imogene Pass Run (IPR) is a 17.1 mile point-to-point mountain race within the western San Juan mountains of Colorado, run along a route which connects the towns of Ouray (7810 ft.) and Telluride (8750 ft.) by way of 13,114 foot Imogene Pass.”

This race has us climbing 5300 ft. After having run multiple 3000+ ft runs, I can confirm that THAT’S A LOT OF CLIMBING. I ask you to ponder, as I have, this passage from the course description:

“Mile 5.45 –   Lower Camp Bird bridge (9755 ft.), spanning Sneffels creek. At this point the runner might philosophize a little and consider just where he or she is in this effort called the Imogene Pass Run. At this bridge you have climbed 1945 feet (net) of elevation in 5.45 miles, at an average of 356 ft./mi., or 6.8% gradient overall. To reach Imogene Pass from here you must climb 3365 feet in the next 4.60 miles, at an average of 731 ft./mi., or 13.85% gradient overall. Your effort so far has simply been a warmup. The steep gradients of the named hills below you are now less than the average gradient ahead of you.”

If you’re not familiar with trail running and/or hiking then these numbers may not mean much to you. If you are a trail runner and you’re a mere mortal such as I, then your head might swim.

My coach, MK Flemming, says she has no worries about my completing the race. That’s solidly reassuring to me. My hope is that I complete it in a respectable time. (That it’s called a “Run” is optimistically generous. Most of us will be doing something like a power hike up that mountain.)

The site suggests that our run time will be similar to our marathon time. My only road marathon was 3:57. A finish time of 4-5 hours sounds good to me.

I’ve done the work.

Not only do MK’s words give me confidence about the race, but I also I know that I’ve put in the time and effort to prepare for this race. I’ve spent a lot of time trail running. Training started in March. I’ve completed several 4+ hour runs. The race tops out at 13,000 ft. and I’ve been in and around that elevation several times. Runs at 10,000 ft. and above have been common in my training. Gaining elevation has been bread and butter on my runs. Several times a week I’ve gained anywhere from 2000 ft. to nearly 4000 ft. of elevation. Much of that work has been done on 15-20% gradients which is what I’ll encounter on the IPR.

The only minor worry that I have is that I haven’t actually gained 4000 ft. during a run. I’d planned to do so but there aren’t many routes that boast that elevation. I considered ascending one of the nearby 14er peaks but most of those peaks contain scrambling over boulders and scree to get to the summit. Those conditions won’t exist at the IPR. Again, this is not a major concern to me.

Loving the process

In order for success to happen, one must find a way to love the process. (I’ve discussed the idea here.) The mountains are my favorite place to be. I crave time in the wilderness. Solitude and epic views are magic. I always want to go and I never want to leave. (BTW, Time spent in nature can have powerful positive effects on us.) Trail running in the Rocky Mts is more than just fun or recreation. It’s church. Some of my favorite runs include:

I can’t say my heart swelled for every run. A good portion of my training occurred on the steep pitches of the service roads on N. Table Mt., Green Mt. and the short but utterly ridiculously steep Mt. Morrison Trail. These weren’t the most scenic runs. They were nasty and dirty. Thinking of them, I envisage a world filled with the most towering foul language. Still, I love the process.

Loving the gear

All that time on the trail demands adequate gear. Two of my favorite items are these:

Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3.

Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3 plus some dirt.

The Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3 has made my feet very happy. I’ve gone through two pairs. What I like most is the roomy toebox. I’ve had problems in the past with losing some toenails due to friction up front. I’ve had no such grotesque problems with these shoes. And though there’s plenty of room up front, the rest of the shoe is comfortably snug which is reassuring while running over variable terrain. The grip is very solid. The shoe is comfortably flexible and it has what seems to be just the right amount of cushion to protect my feet from sharp rocks and such.

Next, the Ultimate Direction PB Adventure vest has been an excellent purchase. It’s light, breathable, comfortable and it carries a lot of useful gear. Conditions can change rapidly in the mountains and it’s necessary to carry several items in case of bad weather or an injury. Starting at the top: 70 oz bladder, knit hat, soft flask, 1st aid kit and antiseptic, long sleeved technical shirt, waterproof jacket, light neck gaiter, gloves. I can also carry hiking poles but the race doesn’t allow them so I haven’t been using them. Not pictured: the phone which took this picture, lots of bars, gels, cheese sticks, and other fuel.

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest plus most of the gear I carry in it.

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest plus most of the gear I carry in it.


I am tremendously grateful to be able to train for this event. It’s been a memorable experience. I spent several years in my 20s unable to run due to chronic pain. That’s gone now. I’m very durable and strong. I take more than a little bit of pride in both my willingness to take on this race and my ability to train for it. This undertaking is not in everyone’s wheelhouse. It’s in mine though.