Cirque Series: A-Basin (Arapahoe Basin) Sky Race Report – Samantha Giordano

Photo: Julie Urbanski

Race: Cirque Series: A-Basin (Arapahoe Basin) Sky

Runner: Samantha Giordano

Race Date: 09/04/2021

Location: Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort – Colorado

Results: 1:57:01

Strava Activity Link:

3 Bests – What aspects of the race did you like the most?

  • The community – such an awesome, high energy, super passionate and NICE community of runners. The post-race party was so much fun too.
  • The views – as intimidating as it was for me, this was a jaw dropping experience
  • Coach Matt & family came out – such a highlight of the race!!
  • Important to note is the awards ceremony that they hold to honor not just first place finishers in each division but “middle of the pack” for the person who finishes dead-middle, as well as MVP of the race (the person who embodies the spirit of cirque series). I love that the emphasis is on the community and the spirit, not just the competition.

Not so much – Aspects of the race that didn’t do it for you

  • Ridge walking – without any experience of mountain running / ridge walking, this was a bit terrifying
  • Altitude – coming from sea level, and then starting a race at 11,000 feet was obviously super challenging

Weird factor – What’s the weirdest thing about this race?

Going into the race thinking it was 6.7 miles then finding out they changed the route, lengthened it to 7.5, and didn’t tell the runners. Gah!!!

Highlights of your race – What did you do well and enjoy about your race in particular?

  • The downhills – since it is a mountain race, going up is tough, but coming down is allllll fun. I enjoyed bombing downhill like Coach Matt told me to.
  • Finishing – I’ve never been so happy to finish a race. I wanted to kiss the ground, I was so happy to be off the peak!
  • Faced some major fear – after the first aid station, there was quite a bit of an ascent to the peak, and I was really starting to feel my lungs burn at this point. I was lightheaded, and felt wobbly. I wasn’t sure it was SMART to try to get to the top, I was honestly afraid of falling off the side of a mountain! I guess I’m proud that I faced the challenge, and did it at my own pace and on my own terms.

Lessons for others – Share your pro-tips on the race to help the next runner

If you don’t come from altitude:

  • Get out to altitude once to experience running and pushing your cardiovascular system (especially if you haven’t before – IE skiing at altitude isn’t the same as running for 2 hours at altitude). I wish I had come out (as I had wanted to) for a few days to run at altitude – I would have been less worried / stressed had I already experienced it.
  • Simulate hard running conditions (IE running in DC humidity helped understand how difficult it would be to run during altitude; tread hiking indoors with a mask on also helped)
  • Try to at least get out 1x every few weeks on a similar uphill climb (I wish I had done more LONG climbs!)
  • Pro tip: there is a big difference between trail race and mountain / sky races. I learned this the hard way – the day before race day when Julie said the words “sky race” and then explained what sky races meant….

Lessons you learned that will help you next time around

Ask all the questions (what will the weather be like – it was monsoon season in Keystone apparently which caused a lot of stormy weather)
Lean on people who have done it before (ask them about their experiences, what they packed, wore, fueled with, etc)

Most important course specific knowledge to know about the race

  • Single track uphill with crossover from the runners coming down from the summit – can be intimidating to step aside and let them pass (especially when the pros are bounding downhill).
  • Most of the ascent is hard trail with the final ascent being the main exception. The ski lift before Little Lenawee peak is your last “base” before the final summit – the final summit is all loose (large) rock, and the runners look like “ants on a hill”. (It’s easy to feel like you might lose your balance.) I went down on my butt so as not to lose balance!
  • On the descent on the North Fork Argentine trail, it’s pretty shaded and covered but it’s VERY technical, especially around mile 5 – a lot more than I expected. A lot of rocky steps downhill, a couple streams, and it’s rooty / rocky. It’s single track so you’ll need to heed to other runners behind / in front of you (and shout out if you want to pass).
  • Distance – this was supposed to be 6.7 miles and turned out to be 7.3 miles (a change in distance we weren’t aware of until the actual race was taking place)

Aesthetics – Is it a pretty course?

It’s stunning – I wish I wasn’t so terrified or I would have enjoyed the views a lot more. You’re walking up the third highest ski-able mountains in North America (at 13k feet) and every twist and turn brings another landscape vantage point that you could never imagine. You get all the flora and fauna of the mountains, and all the landscape colors – the red / clay / dirt, the soil and green tree-lined trails. It’s one of the most incredible visually-stimulating experiences I’ve ever had.

Difficulty – Is it a tough course?

  • This was the hardest (and scariest) thing I’ve ever done in my life. I would sooner swim a million open water stormy bull-shark swims than do this course. Coming from sea level especially, I could feel my body sending all the warning signs. Heavy breathing, heart pumping, lightheadedness – coupled with the trembling and shaking from fear, it made even the easiest of routes really nerve wracking.
  • It’s not the toughest course in the series, but it’s the highest altitude (starts at ~11k and gains ~2k feet in vert) so by default that makes it really difficult.
  • The ascent isn’t “tough” because it’s a packed / hard trail, it’s just steep. The descent, which you think will be easy because you’re finally going downhill, gets technical in certain places, and then when you think you’re done with the climbs, an uphill comes out of nowhere (“I THOUGHT THIS WAS DOWNHILL!?!”).
  • I was excited at the idea of the downhill being as smooth / packed as the uphill, but then it was more technical rooty and rocky and not as easy as I anticipated.

Organized and well run – Did it feel like a well-oiled machine or were they flying by the seat of their pants?

Aside from the change in distance, it was really well organized. The website has all the course videos from the last year, they post course previews on their Instagram, bib pickup was really easy the morning of (and they offer a day-before option). The course was really well marked as well and there were ample aid stations, with lots of course officials along the way (and photographers)!.

Competition – Is there a strong field?

Yes! The top male finisher finished in about 52 mins, top female in about 1:02. Mostly local runners at this one, but Grayson Murphy (the top mountain runner in the country) was at the recent Utah race. It’s definitely growing in terms of competition.

Logistics – Does it require a special handshake, registration a year in advance, hotels all booked? Give us the low down on the nuts and bolts of making the race happen.

  • This was a post-covid race so I’m not sure how it has been in years past, but I’ve heard that it is a very in-demand race. I think because this race was during Labor Day Weekend, it did not sell out as quickly, but others in the series were sold out weeks prior to race day.
  • In terms of lodging, there were plenty of options (caveat again for just post-COVID). I stayed at Keystone resort, a huge ski resort with A LOT of summertime lodging options. Specifically, we stayed in the River Run village which is the heart of keystone. Really accessible but also a bit noisy with weddings and events. I slept fine, but I was worried on Thursday evening (when there was a lot of noise outside) that I’d have a hard time on Friday (but with the help of some fans, airpods, and white noise, I was fine and slept well).
  • Getting to Keystone was about 1 hour & 40 minutes from Denver and we drove through Loveland Pass. Since it’s monsoon season, that meant some stormy weather which at times meant hail and light snow. Scary for non-locals (especially coming from Sea Level!) who are at the same time climbing at altitude. DEFINITELY GET A 6 CYLINDER VEHICLE TO CLIMB UP THOSE MOUNTAINS!

Aid Stations – Standard fare or anything special to know about the aid stations in terms of what’s available or when?

There were 2 aid stations on the way up (one mid mountain, one just before the summit, which you also passed on the way down). They had gels, electrolytes, and water (in cups).

Weather and typical race conditions

The weather turned out to be beautiful for race day, but in the days prior it wasn’t clear how race day might be – again, due to monsoon season. Other races in the series experienced hail storms at the top! We couldn’t have had a better day – a true bluebird day. Started out mid 50s and maybe peaked in the 60s, with lots of sun.

Gear – Did you need anything special or is there anything you’d recommend for the next runner?

The pros/ experts didn’t have any kind of vest or hydration system, but everyone else did. Since I was on the course for 2 hours, and since I trained with my Salomon vest, I was happy I had mine for the race. It was more a safety blanket than anything else. I saw some runners with non-trail shoes, but I wouldn’t recommend that.

Spectators – Is this a friendly course for your friends?

Yes – the lifts are open and you can take the lift up to the aid stations to cheer. Again, post-covid so spectating was discouraged, but I did see some folks out and about. The race “village” is also really fun and energized and seemed to be a good spot for fans and friends to hang out and wait! They can see you going up the initial ascent as well as when you’re coming back down.

How’s the Swag?

Swag is fine depending on how you rate swag. You get a cirque hat, and at packet pickup there are a ton of things to choose from (nutritional gels, muscle soreness products, coffee, stickers, pins, etc).

The Overall Score – How many stars do you give this race and do you recommend that others run it?

5, I totally recommend it, but not to a newbie trail runner and definitely not if you’re afraid of heights.