A rich history, a 13,114-foot pass high in the San Juan Mountains, weather of infamous unpredictability, and a fabled 17-mile route of dirt and scree that links two iconic mountain towns: These are the ingredients for the Imogene Pass Run—a 42-year-old tradition that draws a sold-out crowd of athletes to southwestern Colorado every September for a day of running, hiking, scrambling, and grunting from Ouray to Telluride.
The 2015 race will begin, as it always does, early Saturday following Labor Day (this year, it's Sept. 12). A mass of runners that ranges from teenagers to grandmothers will gather for the start in downtown Ouray just past 6 am, before the sun has had the chance to touch the bottom of the box canyon, and take off en masse toward lofty Imogene Pass. From there, they will make their way down the other side to Telluride to cross the finish line in front of a celebratory crowd. By mid-afternoon, barring injuries or foul weather, the field of competitors will be resting muscles, soaking in the sun, drinking well-deserved beers, and basking in the experience.
Whether you're watching or running this year, here's what you should know about the staple of San Juan scrambling, which is one of the longest-running running events in Colorado.
It has very humble beginnings.
Rick Trujillo, a legendary mountain runner who grew up in Ouray, started the Imogene Pass Run in the summer of 1974, quite unintentionally. Trujillo, a billy-goat of a man with almost inconceivable stamina, was training for the Pikes Peak Marathon. One day, after a shift at the Camp Bird Mine, he ran the 17.1 miles from Ouray over to Telluride. He didn't intend for anything to come of it, but when he encountered some Telluride folks along the way, he piqued their interest, someone called the newspaper, and that led to the establishment of the Imogene Pass Run two months later.
The inaugural IPR took place on Sept. 29, 1974, a race that had six participating runners. Trujillo, naturally, crossed the finish line first (2:21:18). Today, the run sells out at 1,600 spots, with athletes coming from all over the country and world to run the route.
It boasts some jaw-dropping statistics.
Here, a breakdown of some of the key figures in the race (you may have to read some of them twice).
10: Miles from the race start in Ouray to the top of Imogene Pass
5,300: Feet of climbing in those 10 miles
1,600: People who sign up for the race
1,200: Estimated people who finish (many drop out before race day)
4,000 : Peak population of the ghost town of Tomboy, which racers pass on the descent
2:05:56: Course record, set in 1993 by Matt Carpenter, who also holds several age group records
2:58:40: Oldest record, set by Betsy Farney in 1983 in the Women 15-19 category
40: Minutes it took for registration to fill in 2015
8: Inches of snow that fell on the pass during race day in 1985
It has quite a diverse field.
The Imogene draws the gamut of athletes—from casual first-timers who want to see if they can just complete the 17-mile route to elite athletes who are among the fiercest in the long-distance running world. This year, 2014 champions Daniel Nally (2:25:43) and Nora Coenen (2:41:25) are both returning to defend their titles.
But according to race director John Jett, winners often come out of left field. “We think the people who have done well in the past are going to be in the front, and then we are totally surprised,” he says.
The views are unforgettable—for everyone.
The race traverses breathtaking country, with a route that passes the rubble of both Camp Bird and Tomboy mining towns, climbs through the dinner-platter scree of Imogene Pass and descends into Savage Basin, which can hold snow year-round. “You are starting in Ouray and climbing to some pretty spectacular country,” Jett says. “The views are awesome. If you are up on top on a clear day ... it’s a pretty tremendous experience for people.”
That said, it’s a great experience for spectators, too. Most people gather at the start or finish line, but spectators can also climb to a vantage point to watch a stream of runners make their way through this high-alpine paradise.
Act fast if you want to sign up for next year.
Back when Jett started as race director,around 2000, it would take weeks and sometimes months for registration to fill up. Today, it sells out in less than a day—in fact, it took just 40 minutes to fill up in 2015.
While the demand exists for expansion, organizers are adamant about preserving the best possible experience for runners. "The whole thing that holds us back from making the race bigger is we don't want to degrade the racers' experience," Jett says. "We want to keep it what it has been, a hallmark of mountain trail runs. It’s a big, little race. That's what I always call it.”