A little more than two months from now, the 3rd annual Aspen Backcountry Marathon, one of the most challenging races on the trail running circuit, will kick off on June 27, 2015. The course features 3,806 feet of elevation gain and 3,737 feet of descent over some of Aspen’s top trails, including Smuggler, Hunter Creek, Van Horn Park, Government, Little Cloud, and Ajax. The ABM is especially difficult because the race starts around 8,000 feet, which tests runners who are not acclimated to Aspen’s high elevation. Other notable challenges include long descents that test downhill running mechanics.
Tempted to tackle it? Now's the time to start training, if you haven't already. We caught up with Steve Szoradi, an Aspen-based ultra runner and partner of Aspen Alpine Guides, which organizes training runs, sets the course, and provides race-time medical support, and Aspen local Kirsten Newhard, the 3rd-place finisher in her age category in the 2014 race, to glean some insight for a successful race. Here, their pro tips for the Aspen Backcountry Marathon.
1. Commit to a Training Program.
Most marathon training programs feature two to three peaks, but Aspen’s unpredictable spring trail conditions and the marathon’s date only allow for training program with one peak. This timing challenge puts locals at a disadvantage and makes adhering to a strict schedule all the more important.
Szoradi suggests sticking to three days a week (Aspen Alpine Guides organizes training runs every Thursday at 6:30 pm and every other Saturday at 8 am, starting from the Aspen Power Plant). “Two weekdays should be a shorter tempo run and then one long run on the weekend,” he says.
2. Mix Up Your Training.
With 3,800-plus feet of elevation gain in the race, it’s important to train for the long hill climbs. Szoradi suggests Aspen’s Sunnyside trail, which is a challenging section of the course. To keep your stamina uphill, explosive strength training like high-intensity classes and CrossFit are great, he says. Newhard, 47, an Aspen Crossfit coach, says she has been better able maintain her running fitness as she ages when incorporating explosive training.
It’s also key to train for the hills, no matter where you live.
“There’s always a short hill somewhere that you can repeatedly train on if you’re coming from New York or Boston," says Szoradi.
3. Stay Focused on Running Mechanics.
Coming down Sunnyside, the course’s most challenging and sustained descent, takes considerable concentration. If you can maintain strength in your quads with proper running mechanics, you’ll be better much off for the rest of the race.
And it’s all about how your feet are hitting the ground, so start paying attention to those mechanics.
“Try to run silently,” says Szoradi. “If you’re pounding, you’re putting your joints in a bad place.”
Newhard adds that the only way to train for the downhill is by running downhill. In addition, there's never a better time for a new pair of shoes to inspire you to hit the trail and get in your mileage.
4. Get Acclimatized Prior to the Race.
Compared to some other backcountry marathons, the ABM doesn’t feature an incredible amount of gain. The challenge, rather, is the elevation. It’s especially important for out-of-towners to get as acclimatized as possible prior to the race. If possible, try to get some training in at altitude beforehand, and if you can, try to arrive in town a couple of days prior to the race.
“Your muscles get strength from oxygen, and when you’re running at altitude—and you’re not used to it—you’re deprived of oxygen," says Szoradi.
If you aren’t properly acclimated, you're far more likely to fatigue, putting your performance (and your whole experience) at risk. Also keep in mind that marathon time at elevation is typically longer than it is at or around sea level, so plan accordingly.
5. Stick With Familiar Food and Hydration.
Pack energy and hydration that you’ve trained with, and don’t try something new on race day. It’s also recommended to incorporate hydration with electrolytes and high-quality carbohydrates into your training regime.
“Try not to overload,” says Newhard. “Stick with the status quo.”
In the off chance that you run out of hydration or energy during the race itself, there are stations and race volunteers along the course ready and waiting to help you. (Even so, it's best to be prepared with your own backup fuel, too.)
6. Don’t Be Afraid To Walk.
Once you leave the starting line, just enjoy yourself and have fun, says Newhard. You've put in the training, mileage, and effort, and now it's time to relax. Lose yourself in the beauty of Aspen's wilderness in the summer, some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the country (and the world, for that matter), revel in the strength of your body, and maybe even make a new friend along the way.
“I ran the first eight or so miles with a guy from the [Colorado] Front Range and we talked the whole way," says Newhard. “At the finish we realized that his wife and my sister are great friends, and we still keep in touch on Facebook.”
And don't beat yourself up if you have to walk, especially if you’re having an off day or are not entirely acclimatized. Plenty of people always walk large sections of the course, says Newhard.
But if you find yourself with a burst of energy at the finish line, don't hesitate to blast through it. There's a finisher's medal, as well as well-deserved beer (or two), in your future—all of which you've really earned.