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Rio Frio Ice Fest 2016

Course Preview - Previewing the 3.1 mile Rio Frio Ice Fest course the evening before, with the sun setting on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, light winds, and temps in the upper 30s, made running a wonderful experience. Knowing the course certainly gave me no advantage as the surface, though flat, made each footfall unique. Part slippy, crunchy, and beachy. There were several inches of snow on the ice surface, channels of flowing water on part of the river, and strange funky ice from previous footprints of humans, deer, dogs, and other creatures of the night that venture onto the frozen waterway. I met part of the Adams State cross country team on a training run, four tame deer, plus several people enjoying a walk and play session with their dogs. I was having such a good time on my run I added an additional mile and half as I was about to have a pre-race meal washed down with a couple of local Colorado beers for carbo-loading purposes.

Running a river generally brings images to mind of being in a kayak, canoe, or raft and gently floating downstream or, surging through turbulent rapids, with waves roaring and crashing and white water flying in sheets and spray. Not so for the Rio Frio... We are running on a frozen river! Historically, the Rio has been a winter highway for Native Americans and explorers.

Assembling the runners - The starting line begins at the North end of Cole Park near the pedestrian bridge. A starting tent on the river with blue automatic timing mats beside it, is where we gather. I say hello to a number of racers who are dressed in all sorts of attire, from shorts, to Star Wars theme costumes, to being bundled up like penguins in lots of clothes. I am somewhere in between with two layers of Under Armour shirts, my precious down vest, thick warm ski socks, a layer of Hot Chiles and North Face Running pants. My lid is a St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat. One Cub fan gives me some playful grief about that.

Race director Jeff gives us directions about the course, warns us about the open water areas and points upstream to Alamosa's finest water rescue team, dressed in red wet suits just in case... He hands the bull horn over to the guest starter who gives the 'ready, set, go' signal and off we run. My goal is to take the run a bit more casual, maybe even stop to take a few pics, look around, chat with fellow runners, but who am I kidding? The competition nerve takes over, though my only competition these days is myself and that thing called a time clock. I started in the middle of the pack and found myself having to weave in and out of other runners across strange snow conditions to settle into my pace. Within a quarter mile I find my space and place in the running ranks. ATV tracks on the course made for the best packed consistent surface, but even that surface was strangely uneven and felt like running in loose beach sand. From the chatter, I knew that everyone was having a tough time trying to settle into their own comfort running zone.

Flashbacks - Years ago, my brother and I enjoyed running on frozen creek bottoms through stands of deciduous forests. These creeks were waterways for farmland runoff to find their way to the Mississippi River. Those creek runs were the closest thing we had to adventure and exercise during Midwest winters. As I study the loose snow underfoot now in 2016 on the Rio Grande, with ice as thick as 14 inches in places, it reminds me of running the 2 mile (BM = before metric) during a small college track meet on a thick, black, crunchy cinder track. All of 39 years ago! Quite the contrast to the white snow and ice now, but quite similar in texture. How did I handle that surface? Memory served! I remembered having to shorten my stride and quicken my gait. It worked then so maybe... The change begins working as my footfalls propel me forward with less slippage. I am able to settle into a pace, though I do continue to pay attention to where my feet are landing.

The Run - After a cold start, my body's exercise heat gain warms my 'engine.' I enter a nice comfort zone and though I am breathing hard, because running at 7,600 feet makes that happen, I start enjoying myself. Soon, I am running under a bridge where volunteers had spread a mixture of sand and dirt on otherwise glare ice, which during my preview run, I found to be incredibly slick. From there, the Rio Grande headed northwest with views of the San Juan Mountains. Levees run along both sides of the river, each with their own trails. People are on those levees and cheering on their friends. Below the levees, along the edge of the river are marshlands, with tan and brown cattails and other vegetation sporting their winter colors.

The boys who bolted out of the starting line are now on the return so I am close to the halfway point. Followed by a strong female runner also. I hit another bend in the river, now flowing north, and there is the 'turn around pylon', which happens to be the Easter Bunny! I do a quick shuffle dance around him and head back to the finish directly into the strong morning sun. Wow, so nice and warm on my face, yet blinding if I were not wearing sunglasses. I know I am working hard as I feel a drop of perspiration, originating in my scalp, sliding down between my left eye and ear and stop abruptly mid cheek, evaporating in the warm sun and dry altitude air. I pass many runners and walkers and we all exchange pleasant greetings as the course out and course back are side by side, separated by small blue flags. Many smiles and a couple of high fives here and there. Suffering a bit from pushing my pace, I back off, and actually look up to enjoy more of the distant views of Mt. Blanca to the East. What a big hunk of rock towering over the valley! I make my last turn to the south and there it is - the finish. I cross and bend over in the classic runners pose with hands on knees. It's called recovering. I hear my name called over the bull horn for finishing and after a minute, I can stand up.

Post-race for me is walking back up the course, snapping a few pictures, and talking to other runners and asking them about the race. The strange footing was the major topic but it did not keep anyone from having fun. Post run refreshments, awards, and then it was time to go get my feet and fingers warm. An incoming storm was beginning to make the mountains disappear in the clouds but the donut hole that is the San Luis Valley remained nice and sunny for the day.

A warm before the storm day, downtown Alamosa in the afternoon for the Rio Frio Ice

Fest was busy with people checking out the ice sculptures and visiting selected businesses in downtown. The last weekend in January will come again next year... If you're not doing anything... Riofrioice.com

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