Gabriel Small remembers the glory almost as acutely as he remembers the gory.
He remembers the nerves when he got on the bus to the start of last year’s Steamboat Marathon and the thrill four miles in when he dumped even the race’s best runners, striding out to an enormous 19-minute lead.
And he remembers the pain that set in as the race wore on, how his incredible mile splits began to grow first by a few seconds, then by huge chunks of time. He remembers how one, then two racers caught and passed him, how much he wanted to quit and how hard even the last mile, a jaunt down Steamboat Springs’ main street, was on his body.
He remembers it all, and now the 25-year-old Boulder runner, who still harbors dreams of a great career in the sport, hopes to create a new memory in the daunting hills above Steamboat Springs that nearly destroyed him a year ago.
Small and a huge field of other runners begin their assault on the Steamboat Marathon at 7:30 a.m. Sunday in the 30th annual running of the signature Yampa Valley event.
“I’d like to win,” Small said simply.
Race Director Paul Sachs said the Steamboat Marathon returns this year as healthy as ever, registration numbers surging to pull almost exactly even with those from last year. The 26.2-mile marathon, which starts at Steamboat Lake and tumbles down Routt County Road 129, has about 440 competitors. The half-marathon, which begins halfway up C.R. 129 at Moon Hill, is bulging with 1,100, and the 10-kilometer race, which weaves through downtown Steamboat, into Strawberry Park and back to the finish line for all races, in front of the downtown Routt County Courthouse, will have about 500.
“It’s a great race, and it’s a testament to the community that we’re able to keep it going this long,” said Sachs, serving as director for the 11th consecutive year.
He said the race has matured a great deal in his time, from a disorganized affair a decade ago that left organizing volunteers scrambling to prepare until 4 a.m. some nights to a well-oiled machine that brings thousands to Steamboat Springs and is the unofficial start to summer in the valley.
Sachs said 100 athletes took part in the first race 30 years ago. More than 2,000 are expected this year.
“I always thought of it as my way of giving back for all the races I participated in,” Sachs said. “It’s a fun weekend. I like seeing a lot of the same people every year, and I like seeing the people who are trying to do something that is so challenging for them.”
Small will be among the tremendous number trying something challenging.
He’ll a lot smarter this year, he explained. He entered last year’s race an accomplished collegiate runner, earning all-conference honors in track and a bid to the national championships in cross-country at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Steamboat’s, however, was his first marathon.
He came into the race on a whim and without any specific training. Now, despite working as a track coach at Fairview High School in Boulder, he has focused on logging much longer runs.
“I used to go out and do trail runs just for fun,” Small said. “Now I’ve put in many, many more miles on hard surfaces. I did a lot on the creek path in Boulder. I ran the entire length of that concrete path, up and down.”
It’s more than training, however. It’s remembering.
He crashed at the 20-mile mark last year. He started out the race running 6 minute, 30 second miles, hanging with the field’s best. He ramped it up to 5:30 miles for much of the middle part of the race, when he built his huge lead, but struggled to get his last two miles under nine minutes as he stumbled down Lincoln Ave. toward the finish line.
He ended up third, but crushed.
“It was devastating. It was really tough to finish,” Small said. “That was brutal. Truly brutal.”
He has high hopes for running, hoping to tackle the Chicago Marathon later this summer and even listing the Olympic Trials as a goal down the line.
On Sunday, though, he’ll be focused on remembering the lessons from a year ago, hoping that devastation can turn his second career marathon into his first 26.2-mile victory.
“I ran like a fool,” he said. “I took control last year too early. I don’t want to go nuts as soon as I hit the downhill section. I want to hit 6:00 miles and hold that and see how I feel when I get to Mile 20.
“I know it’s going to hurt, and I accept that.”
There will be traffic delays on Lincoln Avenue and detours on Routt County Road 129 on Sunday because of the Steamboat Marathon. There will be one lane of traffic in each direction on Lincoln Avenue downtown during the race. Traffic on C.R. 129/Elk River Road southbound will detour onto C.R. 44. Northbound traffic will not be affected. The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association encourages people to walk, bike or use Steamboat Springs Transit. See page 1A of Sunday’s Steamboat Pilot & Today for a map of affected roads downtown.
Race packet pick-up and registration
■ Racer packets can be picked up from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at Olympian Hall at the base of Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs.
■ Registration is still available at packet pick-up.
■ On the day of the race, buses are only picking participants up downtown, and not at the Gondola Transit Center.
Where to watch
Most of the full and half-marathon will take place on Routt County Road 129, which goes north out of the west end Steamboat Springs. Much of the road will have traffic delays for the day, however, making it a bad place to watch the race. Better ideas include:
■ Downtown. All of the races finish in front of the old Routt County Courthouse on Lincoln Avenue in downtown Steamboat Springs. The lawn in front of the courthouse will be buzzing all day with activity, including an 11:45 a.m. Honey Stinger Fun Run for children 5 years and older.
■ Cullen’s Corner. Routt County Road 44 offers a way around the mostly closed C.R. 129, and spectators can park at Cullen’s Corner, where 44 intersects with 129 and the Elk River. The road breaks left off of 129 1.5 miles north of the 129 and U.S. Highway 40 intersection, just past Steamboat Springs Airport.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com