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Tough 10K rewards with stunning scenery

What started a decade ago as one woman’s dream has grown into one of the must-attend events for serious, and even not-so-serious, trail runners.

The Taos Ski Valley Up & Over 10-kilometer race is an excruciating charge up the flanks of Kachina Peak and back down in a circular course that starts at an elevation of 9,207 feet and climbs a breath-sucking 2,612 feet in the first three miles.

“Rose Strabel started the race 10 years ago as a labor of love,” said this year’s race director, Courtney Tucker. “She loved training in the mountains with all the high alpine beauty and wanted to share it with other runners.”

This year’s run on Saturday is expected to top 200 runners, far more than last year’s 150 participants, Tucker said.

Organizers are hoping eventually to make the event the centerpiece of a weekend full of fun, she said.

Already there is a race-eve movie event of an inspirational nature.

“It’s a fun night for the runners to get them inspired,” Tucker said. “We want them to feel that connection to the mountain. Right now, it’s hard to come by that connection to the mountains with all the digital devices. Hopefully that film festival will inspire that connection.”

And there’s a proposal in the works to add a “vertical kilometer” race that would likely be run on Sunday.

“It’s about having an experience of the area,” Tucker said. “We want to have a film fest and a lot of activities, make it two or three days’ worth of activities would be the goal. We feel that, if you’re going to travel here for the race, you might as well have a lot of fun things to do.”

Participants are also encouraged to take advantage of the area’s other amenities, like a post-race cooking class that delivers the secrets of healthy New Mexican cooking, or soaking in the hot springs of Ojo Caliente or taking advantage of one of the coupons in the well-stuffed goodie bag that runners receive to take the family on a horseback outing in the mountains.

But all the surrounding attractions aside, the course is the real star in this show, participants said.

Aura Garver of Taos will be tackling the race for the first time and recently ran it to see what it was like.

Garver is running alongside her 67-year-old father, Barry Cook of Questa.

“We went up and did the route just for fun,” Garver said. “We loved it. We got excited about taking on a new challenge and, because it is in our backyard, it’s easier.”

Winding through pine forests and meandering through open meadows filled with wildflowers, the course bursts into the upper high country with stunning views of Kachina and Wheeler peaks.

“It’s challenging. It’s steep,” Garver said. “The footing is tricky because we had a lot of rain. But it’s stunning, absolutely gorgeous. Mountain air. The views are absolutely incredible.”

Hayden Janssen, a former local resident who now lives in Wyoming, said he ran the race in 2014, combining it with a vacation to see area friends.

A regular mountain trail runner, Janssen said he has a previous commitment this year, but has already scheduled a return in 2016.

“I thought it was a great challenge for the distance that it is,” he said. “I think the appeal is the uniqueness that is compelling to the Taos Ski Valley area.”

Although many participants, like Gail Kennedy of Taos, powerwalk their way to the top, there are big-time runners who cruised through the event. Last year’s winners, Will Marquardt and Petra Mcdowell, barely had a sheen of sweat after finishing in 56 minutes, 27 seconds and 1:06:39, respectively.

But Kennedy and many others appreciate a more leisurely approach, at least on the three-mile climb.

“My advice for first-timers is to just enjoy it,” she said. “I don’t run the uphill – rather I powerwalk it, so anyone who likes hiking can participate.”

Likewise, Garver and her dad plan to enjoy the trip.

“For us, it’s the journey,” she said. “We made an agreement that we want to finish healthy and happy. We want to finish with a big smile on our faces. We’re trying to get it done in a respectable amount of time and not create too much hardship.”