A boy, 15 years old. A woman, 18 years old. A woman, 72 years old. A man, 80 years old.

These four runners, and 908 others, finished this year’s Imogene Pass run.

From 46 U.S. states and two foreign countries, they set out on foot from downtown Ouray on Saturday, Sept. 11, and ran uphill 5,000 vertical feet to the summit of Imogene Pass on the rough and rocky mining roads. Then running downhill into Telluride they descended 4,000 vertical feet, led by the men’s overall winner who clocked two hours, 18 minutes, and some change.

This year, in the 48th annual running of this iconic 17.1-mile mountain race, the first woman finisher did it in a time of 2:52:48. Almost two-thirds of this year’s runners were not yet born when this annual race was first run.

Training for such a run is always a challenge, and especially this year. Weeks of wildfire smoke and unusually high air temperatures this summer impacted crop production, forest health, and also physical activity choices — for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Every Montrose Daily Press reader who looked toward Grand Mesa or Mt. Sneffels this summer knows how frequently the smoke from our Western states blew in and obscured the sight of those landmarks. The inhalation of the fine particulates in that smoke is especially hazardous to the lungs of both healthy and immuno-compromised citizens, leading to many canceled exercise and training outings, both in this valley and on our surrounding mountain trails and mining roads.

Record-setting high temperatures in the U.S. reduced aerobic training opportunities for many outdoor athletes this summer. When so often our temperatures stayed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit even approaching sunset, heat injury became a threat. Hyperthermia risk increased for intense athletic training among everyone from students to the elderly, forcing football teams to adjust their practice schedules to later in the day, and runners to cancel evening runs.

Despite these challenges, Montrose had 19 runners who showed up and finished the race. The fastest finisher was Ryan Wisler, who hit the finish line almost five minutes ahead of the coveted three-hour mark, and just 30 seconds out of third place in his highly competitive age group. Kaitlyn Nagel was the first woman from Montrose to make the finish line, putting her in the top 25% of all of the women runners.

The Imogene Pass Run sells out and fills up in the first 20 minutes of the opening of registration on June 1 each year. Though the COVID pandemic kept the 2020 race from occurring, there were 1,236 runners registering for 2021. More than 300 of those who registered were unable to make it here to the starting line this year, a proportion which is about average for recent years.

Masks were necessary and required and worn this year for all indoor elements of this event, which included on-site in person confirmation of registration, and also for the hundreds who rode the buses back from Telluride to Ouray after the race’s completion. For the first time ever, no awards ceremony was held, so as to minimize any further chance for the coronavirus to spread. Instead, awards will be mailed to the top three finishers in both sexes’ age brackets.

The second finisher from Montrose was Heath Hibbard, who won first place in his age group, ahead of three-quarters of all ages of men in the race.

Also from Montrose, the next local finishers were Chase Jones, Ryan Cushman, Josh Eastham and Evan Jones. Then Liba Kopeckova, Justin Green, John T. Unger (me) and Cindra London. More area runners followed, including Laura Devor, Aimee Quadri, Dr. Jonathan Osorio and Dan Quigley.

Rounding out our valley’s local runners who finished were Lori Lambeth (who crossed the finish line simultaneously with Jan Peart), Laurie Williams, John Birge and Caryl Brown.

This year’s race started in 55-degree temperatures, with very little wind and in good racing conditions. Four hours into the race, the heat of the day began taking its toll on many runners, combined with the loose rock on the road descending through the ghost town ruins of the Tomboy mine and on into the San Miguel valley. Perfectly ripe peaches from western Colorado, by the hundreds, made an impression on the runners and the 170 volunteers who worked the aid stations.

These volunteers spent more time on the mountain course that day than did most of the runners themselves and their efforts exemplify the high level of community spirit and camaraderie in our corner of the Rockies. When asked, they happily poured water into my bottle and water down my head and back.

John T. Unger is a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with an active practice in Montrose. He is grateful to have completed this as his 28th Imogene Pass Run. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at sportsdocunger.com.

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