Black Canyon Ascent

Near the start of the Black Canyon Ascent. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Near the start of the Black Canyon Ascent. Elizabeth Riley photo.

As the dense grey clouds slowly lowered over the rim of the Black Canyon, signaling immanent rain on a quiet Saturday morning, Jan Peart, face adorned with a gigantic smile, began banging on a giant round gong. The peace now sufficiently disturbed and the few people milling about alerted to the arrival of the first runner, the way was paved for Peter Maksimow to come sprinting across the finish line to win the 2015 Black Canyon Ascent.

Sitting inside around frosty beer mugs and a blazing warm fire on the evening before while the rain and intermittent snow dumped down outside, Elizabeth and I wondered what we should do the following day. The forecast called for more of the same dreary weather that had kept us inside and restless with pent-up energy for the last week. The prospect of another Saturday spent trying to get in a long run through freezing rain was not inspiring. Hungry for more writing and photography opportunities, and figuring the worst-case scenario was we would meet some new people, we came up with the idea to check out the Black Canyon Ascent race outside of Montrose the next morning. Our plan was to take some photos and write an article and see if we couldn’t find a place to get them published. So the next morning found us scouting locations to take photos and watch the race on the road up to the Black Canyon.

This year marked the 40th running of the Black Canyon Ascent, making it one of the oldest running races in Colorado, and the second oldest on the Western Slope (the Imogene Pass Run is in its 41st year in 2015). It starts at the corner of US 50, just outside of Montrose, and the East Rim Road, which climbs for six miles to the entrance to the Black Canyon National Park. The road is paved the entire way, but the climb is continuous and rises over 2,000 vertical feet to the finish. Only in the last half mile, once inside the national park, does the road dip slightly on its way to the first parking lot where the finish line is located.

On this Saturday morning the light was perfect and so were the running conditions. The rain had ceased, but low lying clouds and fog hanging in all the nearby valleys made for quite an impressive scene. Although more rain was in the forecast, the sun decided to peek out from behind the clouds at just the moment that the race started, enhancing the already perfect setting. The runners quickly dispersed into a long line of very brightly clad dots along the road as they all settled into their own pace for the climb.

Peter Maksimow after his successful race. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Peter Maksimow after his successful race. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Immediately gapping the rest of the field were two Colorado Springs mountain runners Peter Maksimow and Simon Gutierrez. Maksimow was looking to defend his title from the previous year and hoping to challenge the course record, while Gutierrez was also a former champion. They were running neck and neck by us at our first photo perch roughly one mile up the road.

Our game involved setting up in a scenic spot to take some photos, taking them quickly as the first group of runners passed, and then hurriedly jumping in the van and driving on up the road to the next photo spot, leap-frogging the runners in the process. In a typical mountain race the course would be longer and the runners moving much more slowly, so we would have time to see many more runners, but here it was like a race just to stay ahead of the leaders. Twice more we stopped to take photos as the race played itself out. Along the way Maksimow managed to break open a lead on Gutierrez that slowly grew all the way to the top. The women’s course record holder, Kim Dobson, was all alone and pushing hard, although obviously cramping.

Kim Dobson powers uphill all alone about halfway through the race. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Kim Dobson powers uphill all alone about halfway through the race. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Forty short minutes later we stood at the finish line with Peart banging her gong and Maksimow sprinting it in for the finish. With a time of 40:30, he was unfortunately 32 seconds behind his goal of the course record, and although a good sport, obviously disappointed to have been faster. About a minute later Gutierrez crossed the line, and then Dobson came in fifth or sixth overall, and first female by about eight minutes.

As I was hoping to write an article for the local paper, I had my voice recorder with me and got the chance to interview the elite finishers. What I found most interesting in particular was how they each felt about the course. While not the type of mountain running race I am accustomed to, with longer courses, more climbs, and mostly on trails, the winners were clearly mountain running specialists. The Black Canyon Ascent is a mountain running race in the vein of the Mount Evans Ascent, Pikes Peak Ascent, or Mt. Washington Road Race in New Hampshire. But to succeed here certainly requires a road running background, and the singular skill of being able to run very fast – uphill.

“This one for it being six miles, it’s shorter than the usual ones, but it’s tough,” said Simon Gutierrez. “The thing about it is they got some good climbs, there’s some places where you can pick up the pace a little bit. The weather is always tricky. It’s either warm and windy, or cold like today. There are other races that might climb a little more, but this one climbs about 2,000 feet, so it’s not easy. We have some climbs in Colorado Springs that we do but a couple of us thought this was harder.”

“This is such a challenging race cause you always have to run fast and it’s uphill so it just kills you,” agreed Dobson. “And I always get this massive cramp.”

Kim Dobson, winner and course record holder of the Black Canyon Ascent. Elizabeth Riley photo.

Kim Dobson, winner and course record holder of the Black Canyon Ascent. Elizabeth Riley photo.

“It’s hard to compare to a trail race because it’s fast and the grade isn’t too obnoxious, like some parts of the Barr Trail,” said Maksimow. “But it’s a great race. A sprint compared to some of them like Mount Evans.”

He went on to enlighten us a little bit more about his strategy for the day.

“Last year we went out a little bit too hard in the first two miles, and that affected us by the end. This year I was trying to stay as close to or under 7:00 minute miles, but there’s two of them that were just over, one 7:02 and one 7:12 maybe, and then that last mile was pretty fast, 5-something.”

In the end Elizabeth and I got the pleasure watching a really cool race unfold. We met a bunch of new runners from around our local area, took some photos, and wrote a short article for the Montrose Daily Press. They chose to publish the article Tuesday morning, and it can be read HERE.

Or, since you have to pay to read it, here is a photo of the article where the whole thing can be read:

Montrose Daily Press article page 1

Montrose Daily Press article page 1

Montrose Daily Press article page 2

Montrose Daily Press article page 2