Taking To the Hill | VailDaily.com

Taking To the Hill

Geraldine Haldner

This is one tough cookie of a trail race – illustrated by the fact that race organizer Mike Ortiz of the Vail Recreation District is bumping along at top speed just to stay ahead of the racers giving chase on the dirt road. “Sorry,” he yells back now and then, though he never seems to mean it judging by the steady speed at which the breath-taking scenery sweeps by.

But it isn’t just the swiftness of the runners, which shocks the careful observers, perching perilously in the pickup’s bed. It’s the relentless rise of the terrain evidenced in the unsettling experience that even a Ford 150-Pickup struggles on some of the especially steep inclines on the race course.

How can they run up a hill like this? The shock-absorbing observers wonder out loud while trying to get comfortable in between bouncing Camelbags and lumpy goodie bags.

“Crazy, this is crazy,” repeats Nino Licciardi, who is bouncing along to volunteer duty at the Mile-4 water station.

“I’m just here for the T-Shirt,” he grins in between his crazy-chant, then catches himself during an especially curly curve.

Support Local Journalism

“It’s these kinds of events that make me proud of being the chairman of the Vail Recreation District Board,” he announces, before another curve catches him unguarded.

It’s almost 9 a.m., 75 degrees and the race has been on for just a little more than 20 minutes – still Ortiz is worried that the finishing line won’t be set up in time for the first racers to cross it. He keeps revving the truck.

At 24, the oldest race of the recreation district’s 2002 Teva Vail Mountain Trail Running Series, the hillclimb is a breath-constricting 2,200-feet altitude feat that brutally zig-zags sans slope from Vail Village up to Eagle’s Nest, only intermittently offering reprieve through shady Aspen stands.

The race’s unstated motto is, it’ll you down until the finishing line at 10,350.

It’s a physical challenge even for the area’s running elite, who have come to the final selection race for the Teva United States Mountain Running Team. Shaking loose the last of sleep, their svelte and stretched bodies wind up and twitch on a postcard summer morning in Slifer Square. It’s a sight only the uninitiated can truly appreciate.

“It’s the lack of guts that makes me nauseous,” says Dough Bell of Dallas, Texas, in spite of a physical stature betrays his home state’s unofficial bigger-is-better motto.

He is surveying a starting line-up of sinewy muscles shortly before 8:30 a.m. and reacting to a comment by his wife, Lynn, about all the long legs poised before the the trigger.

The Bells are here to cheer on son Brendan, 33, a newcomer resident of Edwards, who falls into an optimistic trot somewhere in the middle of the pack as the signal for the start is given.

“I’m going to try not to start to quick and pace myself,” Bell says minutes before the race, as his parents scan the scene and carefully conceal any doubts for his stated goal to finish the race in under an hour and 15 minutes.

While the elite runners, from Anita Ortiz, to Kari Distafano and Simon Gutierrez to Mark Werner, have sped off in what seems like a dead sprint – the less defined but no less determined bringing up the back of the 486-racer field are off on a path to personal victory.

“For us it’s two hours away from husbands and kids to gab,” says Eagle-Vail resident Susie Vickerman, a return hillclimber who has brought along best friend and work colleague, Ada Borg, an Eagle resident and reluctant first-timer.

“She made me,” Borg shrugs sucking down the last of a liquid brown sugar mixture, promising to make her faster and stronger. “I guilted her into it,” Vickerman admits adding by way of last-minute motivation, that the two will go “slow and steady” and aim to finish in less than two hours – of chatting and climbing.

David Martin of Westminster plans to be quiet and pay attention to his heart-monitor, strapped on for the occasion.

“I just try to finish,” he says, massaging a left leg that gets about 21-miles in weekly training, though on flat territory.

“I run without any hills to speak of,” says Martin, a triathlete who left his wife snoozing in a hotel room to do this “just to relax and chill.”

“I do think altitude is going to be a big factor here,” he says, tapping his heart-monitor and smiling brightly at the impending treat to torture.

Ivan Marsh, a 28-year-old runner from Ashland Nebraska is as cocky as only a first-timer can be.

“It is not a factor,” he says more to convince himself than anyone of the fact that running at 10,000 feet may feel a bit more taxing than where he usually roams at barely 2,000 feet. “This is going to be a piece of cake, that’s what I tell myself,” he says slightly less confident before adding that he “will keep it simple and run at a pace where I feel good.”

No one is planning on walking, though many eventually do.

“I just can’t stand walking,” says 32-year-old Jill Wilcox of Silverthorne, who is on her third hillclimb. “The goal is not to walk,” she says, “though that’s easier said than done, sometimes you see people walking faster than you can run.”

Tom Moorhead, Vail’s former and now Eagle County’s attorney, is smiling his trademark grin above his trademark bare chest. Himself, a hallmark for any running race around here, Moorhead, who is training for yet another marathon, says his reason for running is simple.

He is not a shy man and laughing with an open mouth won’t stop him in his tracks.

“All your friends from town show up. It’s a great social scene and you can eat all the dust you can at no extra charge,” he grins before he is off greeting another old running buddy.

Up at the top, the sun is heating up at 9:05 a.m. and the dust from Ortiz’ fast and furious ride is slowly settling.

“Sorry,” he shrugs one more time before sprinting off to fix up a finishing line that he hopes will be crossed by Anita Ortiz, his wife who has been making a name for herself as one of the fastest women around the mountains.

The observers have barely freed themselves and scrambled out of the pickup bed, when the first runners appear below – sweating profusely and breathing heavy but slowing to a crawl.

In the end, everyone is a winner.

Simon Gutierrez at a gut-wrenching 50:09 minutes, followed by Paul Low with less than 20 seconds to spare. Anita Ortiz defends her home advantage with a time of 1 hour and 44 seconds – a one-minute and 26 seconds lead over her closest challenger Kari Distafano and another 31 seconds ahead of fellow elite runner Kelly Ryan.

Bell comes in two minutes over his goal, but nevertheless excited when he reaches the finishing line where his parents are in awe.

“It was hard,” he says afterwards. Moorhead finishes at one hour and 28 minutes, all grins and smiles.

Marsh apparently outdid altitude, coming in eleventh in his age group of 34 runners. Wilcox may have walked some at 1:55:39 and Borg, the “guilted” runner actually beat her friend Vickerman by four seconds.

The two only took one hour and 31 minutes of time away from their families – to gab and run up a hill, most people only ski down.

For upcoming races check the recreation district’s web site at http://www.vailrec.com or call (970) 479-2279. For complete race results, see Sports A 21.

Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com

Support Local Journalism