Saturday, Sept. 9, 2000 dawned clear and brisk in the mountains of southern Colorado. I was one of 1,000 runners converging on Main Street in the idyllic mountain town of Ouray for the start of the Imogene Pass Run, a legendary and grueling 17.1 point-to-point race over the San Juan Mountains and down into the ski town of Telluride.
Ouray, aptly nicknamed “the Switzerland of America,” is nestled along the rushing Uncompahgre River and enclosed on three sides by massive mountain faces. The only way in or out of town is either via Highway 550, or by a maze of improbable, burly, rocky dirt roads originally built by intrepid miners during the silver and gold rushes of the late 1800s. The IPR course follows one of these roads 5,400 feet into the sky to the top of 13,114-foot Imogene Pass. This would be one of my longest runs ever, and though I knew that I was committing to a huge effort, I had no idea that I had arrived at the starting line of what would be for me much more than a race.
For the previous decade, much of my life revolved around an oval. As a middle-distance runner at Penn State, I barreled non-stop through a redline haze of anaerobic burn, training throughout the year—on the track, roads and in the gym—for a shot to knock a few seconds off my fastest 800-meter time. After several tough seasons with minimal improvement, I came on strong during my last year as a collegian, tasting enough success to motivate me to continue racing for two more years. As I grew weary of the arduous cyclical grind, something else was calling: The promise of adventure in lands over the western horizon. Like many before and after me, I answered the call, and found myself toeing that line in Ouray.
Boom! We were off, jostling for position on paved roads. Take away the cliffs above town and this start felt oddly similar to scores of mad dash road race starts that I had previously endured. But it was quickly apparent that this was a different beast as pavement gave way to the more rugged dirt of Camp Bird Road to begin the ascent to Imogene Pass.
I paced myself pretty well until the 7-mile mark at tree-line, when suddenly, I was smacked with the reality-check of high altitude mountain running. With heart rate sky high on the steepest part of the course, I was passed by many as skyrocketing heart rate and screaming legs forced me to hike, anathema to a short-distance specialist unfamiliar with accepted trail running tactics. Hitching gags emerged from my throat, and actual tears of delirious agony were shed as I suffered my way ever-upward on the increasingly rugged jeep road. The final 3 miles to the Pass were the longest I had ever experienced.
Then finally, I arrived at the top and a welcome aid station. With the world below my feet, the pain was replaced by a sense of accomplishment different than any I had previously felt. Knowing it was in the bag, the remaining 7.1 miles down Tomboy Road into Telluride felt like atmospheric re-entry as I gleefully ignited the afterburners, surging to a respectful 14th-place finish in my first real mountain run. But what stuck with me most was the feeling that I had experienced a journey of the body, mind, and spirit. I knew then that I would answer the call of outdoor adventure for the rest of my life.
I couldn’t get enough. The next morning, I shook off prolific soreness to charge up the legendary 14,158-foott Mount Sneffels, the monarch that reigns over Telluride. This time, there was no need to run back down, so I basked in the sun for an hour at the summit, absorbing the myriad of peaks around me. I watched raptors soar on thermals overhead, gazed downward into the dark couloirs gashing the northerly aspect of the mountain, and started to dream about all the other places that I wanted to go.
Over the past 16 years, the modes of travel during my journey have diversified, leading me to adopt various technical skills in the pursuit of personal challenges that seemed previously unattainable, like summiting the Grand Teton, climbing desert towers and snowboarding steep mountain faces. For a while, I ran very little to pursue other mountain activities, but have recently come back to trail running for its simplicity as life becomes more complicated with work and a child. To me, the trails deliver the essence of adventure, and all I need is a backpack, a weather-resistant shell, and a good pair of shoes.
Two years ago, I returned to southern Colorado for the Imogene Pass Run; this time in support of my wife Michelle. With our then-infant son in my arms, I joined the throng of spectators lining the final stretch in Telluride. Just as I was imagining the younger, super-aggro me crushing down that last 100 meters years ago, Michelle rounded the corner, her face illuminated with a charge that spoke of the joy of her own journey.
About the Author:
Jason Smith is the Director of Outdoor and Endurance for Inkwell Media, a social-first content and influencer distribution network based in Boulder, Colo.