Runners conquer Pepi’s Face-Off |

Runners conquer Pepi’s Face-Off

Competitors run up Pepi’s Face on Vail Mountain Sunday during Pepi's Face-Off.
Barry Eckhaus/Courtesy photo

Seventy-eight people ran in the legendary Pepi’s Face-Off competition this Sunday, which challenges participants to run as many laps up and down the Pepi’s Face ski run on Vail Mountain as they can in 30 minutes.

Runners go 860 feet straight uphill, gaining 250 feet of elevation before declining down a winding catwalk to start the process all over again. Once the 30-minute horn sounds, runners complete the lap that they are currently on and run through the finish line for their time.

This event is considered one of the most grueling of the GoPro Mountain Games, and it was quickly apparent why this is the case. Many started with a quick first lap, digging into the steep incline and muscling through with momentum into the second, but it wasn’t long before the mass of people began to look like a zombie army from the Walking Dead, dragging their bodies against gravity’s heavy pull to complete a third, fourth and fifth lap.

The top eight runners managed to complete six laps within the allotted time frame. Cam Smith, 26 years old of Crested Butte, took first place, completing six laps in 31 minutes and 51 seconds. This was the first time that Smith has attempted the Pepi’s Face-Off, but he said that he is a regular skimo, or ski mountaineering, competitor, and his training on skis translated well to the steep incline run.

“I really like the steep climbing, especially with poles. My weak point actually is coming back down,” Smith said. “I’m fit from climbing in the winter, but I can’t run that fast, like the guys that run along on the roads and track.”

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Smith said that the first lap was the hardest, but he was quickly able to find a rhythm, and his main focus was keeping a distance between him and the runners who were right on his tail.

“When there’s someone behind you, it feels really stressful when you’re going as hard as you can and there’s still somebody right there. It’s like, I can’t go any faster,” Smiths said. “I went really hard on the fifth of six downhills and got a few seconds on them, and when we’re that close a few seconds is a significant margin.”

Twenty-two women ran in the Pepi’s Face-Off this year, and the winner for the women’s category was Janelle Lincks from Thornton. Lincks ran five laps in 35 minutes and two seconds, beating runner-up Karley Rempel by 22 seconds.

Even after completing multiple leg-busting laps, many of the competitors broke into a full sprint heading for the finish line, summoning all of their remaining strength to shave a few seconds off of their completion time. This is even more impressive considering that for some of the runners, this was not their only race of the weekend, or even of the day.

Western Colorado University athletes Caroline Benney, 22, and Sam Burke, 19, had just completed the 10K Spring Runoff race on Sunday morning before heading over to Pepi’s Face. Benney and Burke also ran in the Après 5K on Saturday, and said that it was their goal to take advantage of as many races as they could at the games.

“It’s one of the few great opportunities that we’re doing with the team, so for me, I was ready to do it all,” Burke said. “We were both on our warm-up jogs for Pepi’s and just feeling every single thing. I think it got a little better as we got going, some of the adrenaline and competition takes over, but legs were definitely screaming all the way up Pepi’s.”

While many incredible feats of athleticism were witnessed on the mountain this Sunday, none surpassed that of nine-year-old Zeke Morris of Silverthorne, who completed three laps on Pepi’s Face-Off in 42 minutes and 19 seconds. Morris was the only child to participate in the race, and is believed to be the youngest competitor to ever complete the challenge. Not only did he run the grueling laps alongside competitors three times his size, but he did it with a huge smile on his face that had all of the spectators cheering on in sheer amazement.

Morris ran alongside his mother, Lizeth Morris, who said that she had no doubt that he would be able to finish. 

“We gave him the choice, we said ‘look, it’s going to be hard, dude,’ and he said, ‘no, I can do it,’” Lizeth Morris said. “He doesn’t have any quit in him, he just doesn’t. He keeps going. He pushes through really well.”

Morris also completed the Après 5K with his dad, Enrique Morris, on Saturday. Enrique Morris said that he had underestimated the elevation gain of the 5K and was having some doubts toward the end of the race, but Zeke had no problem conquering that course either.

“Sure enough, shortly after I finish he comes across the finish line with a big old smile on his face,” Enrique Morris said. “He just did fantastic, so I wasn’t worried about him on this one at all.”

When asked what it was like to run the Pepi’s Face-Off, Zeke Morris had one word:  “Tired,” said with a smile from ear to ear.

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