PIONEER MOUNTAINS, Idaho • Apparently Nick Gaitan can walk on water.
The 25-year-old from Salt Lake City strolled to a first-place finish at the inaugural Standhope 60K ultramarathon Saturday. He ran 35.5 miles through the rugged Pioneer Mountains in seven hours, nine minutes and 44 seconds.
But perhaps Gaitan’s greatest feat was fooling second-place finisher Kelly Lance into thinking he had the lead. On the way to Betty Lake, Lance said, he saw no signs of a phantom runner ahead.
“I didn’t see any water on the trail after the creek crossings,” the Pocatello runner said.
At the time, third-place finisher John Hart, of Missoula, Mont., knew he was second behind Gaitan. He wanted to make the podium but was a little hesitant about the run’s final descent into Broad Canyon.
“Then Kelly just came ripping by me,” he said gasping for air. “I’m glad he came by me because he showed me how much faster I could be going downhill.”
Lance, voice breaking with emotion, said he found the courage to “kill” the descents thanks to AC/DC’s “Runaway Train.” Lance, 45, finished just two minutes behind Gaitan — a near photo finish in the world of ultramarathons.
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Coming across the finish line, he let fly a primal scream among the sounds of cowbells and applause. It was a stark contrast to Gaitan’s sly finish, which took the crowd by surprise.
“That guy can do more,” Gaitan remarked.
“I don’t even know what I did,” Lance said. “Did I shout? Might have been my wife.”
Of the 47 runners who registered for the race, 36 finished. The other 11 either started the race early and were not counted or dropped from the course, race director Ben Blessing said.
In its first year, the race took runners from the Park Creek campground, along the base of The Devil’s Bedstead, across Kane Creek, up Wildhorse Canyon and down along Fall Creek before sending them up 4,000 feet to the area near Standhope Peak and Betty Lake — elevation 11,000 feet — before descending into Broad Canyon.
The race originally was planned to start with a grueling stretch near Phi Kappa Mountain, but it was rerouted after Blessing and others found it to be too tough. Few runners complained about the switch.
Between three peaks, runners climbed a total of 10,000 feet in elevation. The lowest altitude runners saw was 7,200 feet, Blessing said.
“Dude, it is a really gnarly mountain run,” Blessing said. “It is probably, on a scale of one to 10, it would be an eight or a nine.”
Boise runner Brian Snyder, who helped Blessing tag and mark the trail, said the race’s final climb nearly made him throw up.
“The altitude of Standhope Pass, when I was only doing it after 8 miles it felt fine, but after 20-some odd miles it is all you can do to remember to breathe,” said Snyder, who finished sixth. “You start feeling sick and you start spinning. Good stuff.”
Runners immediately began drawing comparisons between Standhope 60K and other famous ultramarathons.
“Hardrock has nothing on this,” Hart said, referring to a famous 100-mile race through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
“Yes!” Blessing said, throwing his arms in the air.
“It was unbelievable, beautiful, killer and that last climb? Oh, you just had to dig for that too,” Hart said, sweat rolling down his nose. “It’s a great course, it’ll challenge anybody. Let’s get (superstar ultramarathoner) Kilian Jornet out here and punish him on this course.”
Gaitan said he finished the Leadville Silver Rush 50 in Colorado and ranked Standhope on par with that terrain. The Leadville 100 ranks as one of the toughest ultramarathons in the sport.
“Just the sheer up and down was intense,” he said.
Blessing said he plans to make the race an annual event but may move the date to better accommodate Idaho’s other summer races.
“It seems like everybody is pretty thrilled about the course and everybody looks like they are pretty wiped out at the finish,” he said, smiling.