The racers squinted into the sun, which was just peeking over the peaks at 10 a.m., and wondered how much snow Saturday’s storm had deposited atop the pass. They questioned aloud their sanity as they snapped into their bike pedals and edged their toes up to the official “Start” line, nothing more than a streak scraped across the frost plastering Ophir Road.
Then, with the ceremonious flutter of a Rasta flag, the people rode and ran. Dogs circled and barked and were run into. Spectators cheered. And thus commenced the Ophir Pass Hill Climb, a race for the people, by the people.
Ophir Pass Hill Climb people are mountain people. They race up steep mountain passes coated in snow, not for fame and certainly not for fortune, but because that’s just what they do on chilly Sunday mornings in October. The Hill Climb is a race that is anti-ordeal, for athletes that are fanfare-defiant. No bibs touting race numbers. No aid stations. No one waiting at the finish line, stopwatch in hand.
As first-time Ophir Pass Hill Climb runner Corie Chandler put it, it’s nothing like the Imogene Pass Run. And that’s the beauty of it: the Ophir Pass Hill Climb doesn’t seek to be anything more than what it is – which is a bunch of locals who either spank or get spanked by Ophir Pass… usually a bit of both. Then, they hang out in Ophir and have a keg party.
Thanks to what turned out to be a significant amount of snow burying the final third of the racecourse, this year’s OPHC was a runner’s race. In clearer, drier years, the first to the top is typically a cyclist, usually one of the Paragon Racing Team ones you hear about. But this year, the six to eight inches of winter spread like mashed potato icing across the final three switchbacks of Ophir Pass made biking up it understandably difficult. Even for race organizer and local cycling extraordinaire Pete Dahl, who usually gets to the top of the pass just in time to turn into the official race timer. This year, he was the fourth person to cross the snow-covered Ophir Pass finish line, elevation 11,800 or so feet. Three runners – Glenn Steckler (runner of the ultra-butt kicking Leadville 100), Daniel Murray (yes, the cyclist Daniel Murray, who exhibited his good sense in ditching his bike on Sunday,) and Kari Distefano (legendary local runner and perennial IPR contender) – broke trail for the rest and were first to crest the Ophir Pass summit on Sunday. Steckler did it in 49-and-a-half minutes, Murray in just over 51, and Distefano in 51-and-a-half.
Dahl and Chris Brennan then lurched their bikes to the finish, in just under 53 minutes. Birthday boy Matt Beaudin, who had been charging lower on the course and had made a bid at celebrating a birthday OPHC win, finished second for the cyclists with a time of 54:30. Esteban Roberts was the third cyclist, cresting a few seconds past the 55-minute mark.
Abby Paulsen was the eighth runner and second female to finish, in 55:34, followed by 10th-place runner and third-place female Karen Brown.
Summer Colt was the first lady to push her bike through the snow and to the top, followed by the beautiful biking Lisas – Ball and Chism, who took second and third.
Notwithstanding Sunday’s heroic conditions, and despite the fact that the race was a week later than planned due to last weekend’s equally squirrelly weather, the 2008 event boasted a bigger-than-ever roster: A whopping 45 (or so – keeping in character, the OPHC is anti-exact.)
“It was the best yet, snow and all,” Dahl said after Sunday’s event, admitting that the only glitch was a poorly working tap for the post-race party’s keg. “It’s impressive that so many people can come out here and get psyched to do something like this, under such conditions… I think it speaks to the San Juan community, and how they make themselves at home in the mountains.”