The nearly 1,500 racers registered for the 33rd Annual Imogene Pass Run were perhaps dismayed upon awakening Saturday morning to discover that much of the upper IPR course, which crests at a lofty height of 13,114 feet, was under a foot of snow. Racers' consternation was for the most part short-lived, however, as race director John Jett and his capable volunteer crew put into motion a never-before-used contingency plan that allowed the legendary race to go on despite the ill-timed snow showers.
For the first time in its history, the Imogene Pass Run course did not bring runners up to the top of Imogene Pass from Ouray and then down the well-worn switchbacks into the town of Telluride. Instead, runners followed a 15.25-mile course that started and finished in Ouray, climbing nearly 3,000 feet up to the Upper Camp Bird Mine aide station.
Explained Jett of this year's course: "[The IPR Board] spent quite a bit of time many years ago creating a contingency plan so that we would be prepared if something like this ever happened. This year we pulled that plan out of the file cabinet, dusted it off and went with it."
Safety was the major deciding factor in altering the traditional IPR course. When San Miguel County Search and Rescue Operations Commander Eric Berg had difficulty reaching the summit on Friday in a 4x4 rescue vehicle equipped with chains on all four tires it became apparent that transporting the required supplies and support crew to the 13,000-plus foot summit would be out of the question this year.
"What it ultimately came down to was securing the safety of our participants and our volunteers," said Berg, "which is paramount. It just isn't worth risking the safety of one person up there, much less a thousand."
That contingency plan called for a "lollipop loop" style course that followed the Imogene Pass jeep trail up to the private Camp Bird Mine property. Rather than continuing on the regular route to the top of Imogene Pass from Upper Camp Bird, the contingency course veered right into Yankee Boy Basin then connected back with the Imogene Pass jeep road on its way back down into the town of Ouray.
Despite the non-traditional course, IPR runners were by-and-large supportive of the situation, Jett said.
"For the most part people were very understanding of what was going on and the reasons why we had to change the course," he said. "A lot of people were happy that we had an alternate plan, as opposed to just canceling the event. I know that we made the right call, and people still got a great race."
All in all, 1,069 finishers completed the altered IPR circuit to finish in Ouray Town Park Saturday afternoon. Fort Collins's Zach Crandall completed the more than 15-mile course in 1:38:59, coming in first overall and beating previous years' IPR winner Bernie Boettcher of Silt, Colo. by just over two minutes. Boettcher placed third, behind Theo Martin of Page, Ariz., who finished the race in 1:39:20 to take second.
On the female side, Alaska native Najeeby Quinn lived up to her reputation as the fastest female on the high country course by finishing first for the females and 23rd overall, taking her third IPR title with a time of 1:53:36.
As always, Telluride runners comprised much of the top-finishing contingent. Giorgio Compagnoni was the first local to cross the finish line, just 12 runners behind winner Crandall with a time of 1:50:29 and taking first place for his age class. Telluride ultra-runner Ricky Denesik and local athlete Glenn Steckler were hot on Compagnoni's heels, finishing 14th and 15th overall. Paul Reich cruised into the top 25 overall finishers with his blazing fast time of 1:54:20, to take 24th.
Kari Distefano represented the local lady contingent with her 1:56:47 finish time, which put her at fourth for the women and 35th overall. Kristin Patterson came in at 65th place among overall finishers, taking seventh for the women and placing first in her age class.
Ridgway's Sara Ballantyne landed in the top 20 for the women, crossing the line in 2:11:48, just ahead of Robin Pekkala, Gabby Antsey-McDonald and Lisa Andrews, all local runners who finished in the top 100 of nearly 700 female racers.
According to female winner Quinn, the modified course was more challenging than expected.
From Jett's perspective, holding the event on a weekend that also highlighted close to twelve inches of snow in the high country was a commendable feat.
"It really was good to know that the plans we had developed were feasible," he said, "logistically things worked out well, and people had a good run."
He explained that while the race has never been cancelled due to weather, there have been years when the weather proved quite challenging for runners. While large amounts of snow have not entered into the race program in recent years, the skyrocketing numbers of participants have changed the face of the race and led to a more careful race approach.
"Our average racer is a little older, and not as serious an athlete from the average racer a decade ago," said Jett. "Most of the people out there are the ones coming to have a well-supported trip through the backcountry, which is something they wouldn't likely be able to experience on their own."
There were, however, approximately 47 runners who did make the push to go up and over the summit assuring that there were at least a few runners pursuing the IPR tradition.
In the post-race awards ceremony, long-time IPR supporter Jim Looney received the honor of "Volunteer of the Year" from the Telluride side, while Ouray's Shanna Syme took the title for the Ouray volunteer side.
Volunteers were truly key to this year's IPR success, Jett said. "The Ouray volunteers really stepped up with providing the double-duty aide stations over there, while our Telluride volunteers went above the call of duty to travel to Ouray when they were expecting to be working in Telluride," he said, adding an overall thank you to all the participants for recognizing and understanding that, in the mountains, "you never know what's going to happen."