Running the Rio Frio 2015

It all started with over 200 'crazies' aka runners/walkers who slipped, stumbled, and slid ten feet down the embankment to the Rio Grande River and the starting line of the annual Alamosa Ice Fest Rio Frio 5k. Two other perils were the three inches of slurpy slush which made for cold wet feet and the cones which indicated several thin ice or open water spots. Not a good day for a swim. Imagine being Jeff Owsley, the race director, having to drill a thousand holes (his guestimate) into the ice on the river to make sure there was enough depth to the ice everywhere to ensure a safe race. A thousand holes on any other race course might be considered an act of vandalistic sabotage! We were given instructions to stay away from the orange cones indicating thin spots. Rivers do not freeze consistently over their surfaces like ponds and lakes because of the flowing waters under the ice.

Mother Nature cooperated with 30 degrees (balmy for Alamosa winters), overcast skies, light winds, and enough flurries flying to set an appropriate mood for Ice Fest. Forty-five minutes prior to the start, I ran a warmup lap on the course finding the slush to make for an interesting and uneven running surface. Unavoidably, my feet were instantly wet and cold. However, I had my secret weapon in my cold weather bag in the car. Neoprene socks over ski socks act like a wetsuit for your feet and toes. They get wet but stay somewhat insulated against the cold. How do you think I knew to bring them?


We were given directions on the course for the turnarounds, which side of the course marking frozen balloons and flags to run, and cautioned to avoid the cone areas where thin ice or open water lurked. After an 'on your mark, get set, go!' we all took off. As crazy runners are on crazy runs/walks, numerous costumes from tutus, to a penguin, to a high school 'Team Unibrow,' the Adams State University girls' athletic teams, a number of dogs, and babies in their parent's kid carriers. The heroine of the day was Tara B. in her wheelchair, who successfully navigated the hundreds of partially frozen footprints. Though her feet were off the surface, she was not immune to the cold wet splashing of the slush as she told several of us afterward.

As oxygen deprivation took over my brain on the run, especially at Alamosa's altitude of 7,700 feet, a song came into my head. Tina Turner was singing 'Runnin,' runnin,' runnin' on the river!' Then, two other perils materialized. There was one short section where one or several horses had to have been on the river. It was especially wet and the horse dung made for several sloppy green spots. It wasn't split pea soup. As I made the turn at the bridge for the homestretch, where it was slick ice underneath and caution was required, I began running on the wrong side of the cones. It took several times to register when someone behind me kept saying 'the other side of the cones!' I realized he was talking to me. I shifted over and as he came along side me, he told me that he had made the same mistake on the first lap and he started seeing open water holes and he had almost fallen through. Saved me from perhaps a polar bear plunge, though safety was not far away, as the Alamosa Fire Department had their finest on the embankments just in case.

A special thank you to the volunteers for the cheers and encouragement that helped keep everyone going. And also for the 'embankment and bridge galleries' of spectators who hung out along the Rio or above it and cheered us on and making the Ice Fest festive!


Being a left handed right brained scientist there are other twisted thoughts that come to mind while running on the river. The slush beneath our feet, the solid surface of the river, and the water flowing beneath it are mega trillions of molecules. What will be their fate? Without this river in the valley and the water it provides, life could not happen here. Will these molecules evaporate and head east in the atmosphere? Will they go into an irrigation ditch in a few months and help things grow or quench the thirst of coyote and other wildlife and pasteurized domestic animals? After the race I looked down upon the empty ice and realize as we face another low snowpack year, that we do have to honor and respect our precious water sources in our high mountain valleys, celebrate their existence, and use them wisely.

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