Hot air balloons and mountain scenery provided a relaxing backdrop for Sarah Walker as she settled into her pace during Sunday's Mountain Madness Half Marathon.
And then she hit the climb.
The climb, otherwise known as the steep, ongoing ascent through Dakota Ridge, dominated much of the post-race talk for the participants who competed in the 26th annual event that began and ended near the base of Howelsen Hill.
For Walker, the female winner of the half marathon, the happy distractions of a sky full of balloons and rolling mountain ridges were quickly swept away by the uphill mount.
"Everything past that uphill was a little foggy," Walker said, referring to her memory. "I was pretty tired after that. It was brutal."
Still, the 23-year-old from Greeley was able to capture the women's division, finishing in a time of 1 hour, 35 minutes and four seconds. Abby Reichley finished second in a time of 1 hour, 42 minutes and 20 seconds, and Karen Nelson finished third in a time of 1 hour, 42 minutes and 27 seconds.
Mike Knutson claimed his second victory in the Steamboat Springs Running Series this year, finishing the half marathon in a time of 1 hour, 19 minutes and 53 seconds. He won the Spring Creek Memorial in late June.
Knutson said he also struggled with the extended climb.
"The run through Dakota Ridge is a bit challenging," said the 24-year-old part-time resident of Steamboat. "The climb is very long. It's just relentless."
But like other runners Sunday, Knutson said he enjoyed the course -- and the scenery.
"The course is great," he said. Knutson called the running series "a great opportunity for the running community here in Steamboat. It also gives visitors a feel for what it's like to run in the Yampa Valley."
Sunday's event also featured a 10K and a two-mile fun run.
Melissa Short, Knutson's fiancee, claimed victory in the women's 10K race with a time of 44 minutes and seven seconds. The male winner was 16-year-old Mike Maugans of Estes Park.
Christy Sports, the race organizer, plans to donate all race proceeds to Humble Ranch, a Steamboat therapeutic and educational ranch specialized for adults and children with mental, physical and emotional disabilities.
"None of the races make a ton of money," said Dave Krats, manager of Christy Sports' Central Park Plaza store. "If we're able to give them $250 to $500 it would be a huge success."
More important than the money, Krats said, is giving Humble Ranch recognition for the services it provides to the community.
More than 120 racers competed in Sunday's events. The race was the seventh in the 14-event running series.
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