back to the grand canyon/sympathetic dominance ruins everything.

For about 40 seconds I let the demons loose on Grandview and go flying down a flat part of the trail. I turn a corner and there’s a short climb. My heart already feels like it’s about to explode [and not in the fun trying-really-hard way, but in the my-nervous-system’s-broken-and-can’t-regulate-my-heart-rate way]. I know I’ve pushed it too much already. I want to go further, and I want to go faster, and while giving in this little bit by hiking three miles into the Grand Canyon feels like it quenches my thirst a little, it probably made me more thirsty overall, like that water Dumbledore has to drink in Harry Potter six. And I’ll pay for it tomorrow, and for several more days with bad vitals. Because that’s right, I have a device now that measures my heart rate variability, heart rate, basal temp, movement, sleep, and respiratory rate every second 24 hours a day now. I love it and fear it.

Grand view from Grandview

The Grandview trail is somewhat controversial in history and I had a vendetta, not against it, but with my failure related to it, left over from last year. See, it’s the only trail you can’t get to by bus and so last year, I really wanted to do it but put it off heinously until my second to last day in the park. Then, because I felt tragic about driving all the way there, I attempted to ride my bike, based solely off of the information I had gleaned from riding a few miles down the USFS road I was camped on. There was a sign that said, “Grandview 13 miles.” I said, 13 miles sounds good to me! And packed up.

blindly following a sign that says 13 miles with no other preparation and no maps will get you here, to a fire tower and the AZ trail, which is also labeled Grandview here?

13 miles later, I arrived at a fire overlook tower, still alongside of the dirt road. I climbed the tower for some reason. I don’t have a fear of heights generally, but the dumb thing was basically a ladder made of that metal mesh that’s see through, which is sometimes cool but also the whole tower swayed and it was hard to see where you were putting your feet since it was see through. I continued riding the road, and saw 14 miles, 15 miles, 16, 17. Suddenly, I was on the paved park road! I made a guess and turned left? 18, and 19. Then I gave up and turned around. When I arrived back in camp, I looked at my map on Strava and saw that I was so close to the trailhead when I turned around, it had to have been a half mile or less. Oh well. The very last day in the canyon was reserved for one more Kaibab to the river and back, so Grandview wasn’t to be in 2019.

Check out training plans for first timers to run or hike the Grand Canyon double crossing on my coaching website or Training Peaks.

So here we are in 2020, and I’ve just learned somehow that OTS is actually a small, unusual, and severe category of the Sympathetic Dominance umbrella. How did it take so long for me to find this? Because unlike OTS, sympathetic dominance is a hot topic on the internet, and lots of people are on its spectrum. The internet tells me that I should stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system by doing reflexology on my feet, eating in such a way that might help balance too much copper in my body, and exercise should be limited to activities like restorative yoga and meditative walking. Because anything at all that activates my sympathetic nervous system will make things worse.

a trail paved in rocks, intentionally.

So Grandview was the first trail in the Grand Canyon. I can’t remember the other stories we’d heard before arriving at the TH, but the TH sign paints a picture of some guy that arrived at the canyon to mine, found the mine to be unproductive, and immediately pivoted to tourism. At the time, tourists from Flagstaff were being stagecoached for 12 hours to view the canyon, and there were photographers to take their photos and some amenities, but nobody was entering the canyon yet. So this guy takes his unproductive mine and builds this totally absurd trail down into the canyon, then collects some mules and lets tourists ride them down it. We’re all used to this feature of the GC by now, but I imagine how absurd the notion would’ve been then.

I’m also wondering about this trail, and how impossible it would’ve been for hooves the way it was built, steeply paved in rocks and with pretty big drops often. But then I think, tourists may not have had Yelp yet, but if this guy was killing people on the regular, word would spread and he’d lose his business right?

If you saw this from the side, you’d see it was a lattice of hundreds of logs that was backfilled with dirt and rocks, and there’s no solid reason it’s still resisting gravity.

It’s also really cool to think about how hard to build this trail would’ve been. In some places, he hauled hundreds of trees to frame out and build a trail that just fully didn’t exist on the cliffside. It certainly takes an interesting and probably the only possible path down, traversing cliffs and winding in and out of other large rock features. He must have really cared about it, because there had to have been easier ways to make money [jobs easier than building this trail include: Alaskan fishing, oil riggers, blood worm hunter, sewer inspector, building the Transcontinental railroad, and those explorers that traversed Antarctica by kite boat].

The GC’s gotten some new signage since the last time I was there. I’ve seen in the news that this was a particularly bad year for rescues. I imagine there are folks whose job it is to go on the offensive and find new ways to prevent stupid people from killing themselves there.

don’t end up here.
reenacting the signage

At this point in recovery, after overdoing it and relapsing so many times, there’s nothing I’m more desperate to do than to run again. But I understand that I need to get better and that there is no other way but to back off and give it time. Naturally, it was nearly impossible to be on this beautiful trail in the canyon thinking, I have to keep my dumb heart rate down. If I do too much today, it’ll set me back. Because then you’re like, I literally don’t care about anything else besides running this trail right now. Screw being pragmatic! How could I give this up?

Then I kept seeing points I wanted to go to. I wanted to see what it looked like from there, and then from there. What’s down there? I needed to know. But every step down is more steps up and more damage and slower recovery. I just listened to the Rich Roll episode with Apollo Ohno, one, that guy is amazing. Two, he raves about how there’s just nothing better than being a full time athlete. It is the most beautiful thing in a human existence. What are we without it? Wins and losses, boring grown up stuff. When you’re training, nothing exists but the act of bettering yourself every single day.

from last year, I didn’t get this close to the river this year

He also discusses this new documentary he’s in, The Weight of Gold, about the mental health of Olympic level athletes in the US, and how for him he’s 10 years into a journey of having to work on every single day being okay with not being an Olympic athlete anymore. I’ll never understand his level, but I do get it when every day I think about how badly I want to be there again. Being in the GC, too, it just reminds me how fit I was last time I was there. To maximize your potential, to be your absolute best every single day, to rip technical descents, fly past the tourists, and burn the ascents, to jump in the river. God, to see the fucking river! To sprint the bridges. There’s nothing else.

Here’s the trailer for that docu, which sounds awesome but it’s on HBO so who knows when I’ll get to see it. Great trailer though, it’s three minutes long and I cried. Five stars.

Ouray & Silverton: does sleeping in your truck make you feel like a badass?

Last year I started a new tradition of mountaining for my birthday, continuing this year in the beautiful (and relatively remote) towns of Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. Of course, in true Sarah’s birthday tradition, there was snow. And mountains! And coffee.

trail to ice lakes, near Silverton

trail to ice lakes, near Silverton

I had been dreaming this trip up for months; I hadn’t yet been to Silverton (my planned trip was postponed in favor of going to Lake City to meet up with my badass runner friend Trish) and basically I’ve been wanting to get back to Ouray ever since the last time I was there in March. In sharp contrast to my usual running trips, I had wild designs to stock up on all sorts of pre-made food from Whole Foods, so I might eat like a queen on the road. With a full cooler, piles of sleeping bags and blankets, and a new playlist, I + dogs left Leadville on the morning of my birthday for the 4.5 hour drive to Silverton.

I make a lot of jokes about how I live in the middle of nowhere, but the truth is Silverton is the middle of nowhere. It’s a tiny, ragged town (both tinier AND more ragged than Leadville, which is apparently possible) situated so deep in the middle of the mountains that it’s only accessible by gnarly mountain passes. Red Mountain Pass, from Ouray, is so gnarly in fact that it’s closed nearly every day now for construction because the outer lane is falling off and they’re trying to blast deeper into the mountain so the future pass can be more than one single lane. Red Mountain Pass (also called the Million Dollar Highway, which is great because I think at this point they’ve spent WELL over a million dollars on this road and it makes me think of Dr. Evil saying “one MILLION dollars”) is named for the iron oxide in the slopes of the surrounding San Juans (it’s true, they’re really red, the San Juans of Silverton and Lake City are extremely large piles of red dirt). I just found an amazing article (http://www.durangoherald.com/article/20140624/NEWS01/140629751/Highway-to-hell-) that says not only is Highway 550 one of the 12 most dangerous roads in the world, but also that it is notorious for having the highest avalanche danger per mile, and this beautiful piece of prose “the narrow road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.” In fact, there are no guardrails because it would be too hard to push the snow off, and let me tell you, the stories of snowplow driver deaths are so harrowing that I can’t even fathom how much that job pays at this point.

the red mountains of this area of San Juans, from Red Cloud

the red mountains of this area of San Juans, from Red Cloud

Anyway, I rolled into Silverton, was amazed by the decrepit and tiny town I found, then promptly drove up a Jeep road looking for a campsite. What I stumbled upon was EPIC. Up on a hillside, miles into the wilderness, waterfall in proximity, spectacular mountain views. “Welcome to Silverton, Sarah, please enjoy this, the best campsite of all time, in honor of your birthday.” I almost considered setting up a tent and making a campfire, but chose instead to bunk down in the back of Hooptie in a cozy, warm nest, and read until I fell asleep.

the view from the best campsite of all time.  Not pictured is the waterfall to the right of this view, best night of sleep ever!

the view from the best campsite of all time. Not pictured is the waterfall to the right of this view, best night of sleep ever!

Waking up in the morning in your truck in the middle of nowhere, there’s not a lot to distract you. You get your chameleon cold brew out of the cooler, throw some nutella on a tortilla, and put your running shoes on. I’m not gonna lie, you guys, I rarely even change clothes for the duration of a running trip. Who’s going to care? The mountain? Then you run all day, sleep all night. You’re limited to the food you brought with you (plus the Snickers and Coke you’ll inevitably buy when you go into town later), so I pretty much eat Nutella and tortillas, pb&j’s, and on this particular trip chips and (fancy) buffalo fake chicken wraps (for the two days they lasted). And I don’t even care. At home I wouldn’t touch a pb&j at this point I’m so sick of them, but sitting on the tailgate between trails it’s pb&j mow time. Read by headlamp, fall asleep. The next day is much the same: wake up, drink cold brew, eat Nutella and tortilla, put on yer shoes. Run mountains, come back for lunch, run more mountains, go into town. Snickers and Coke. Find a new camping spot.

flannel lined nest in the back of Hooptie

flannel lined nest in the back of Hooptie

Then I was in OURAY. I fucking love Ouray. Headed up to Mt. Sneffels (I know.) it’s immediately obvious that there’s a whole lot of snow above 12k. Sneffels, from Ridgeway to the West, actually has incredible vertical prominence (7,200) for the Colorado Rockies, and as this section of the San Juans have very distinct jaggedness and striped ridges, she was named for a volcano in Iceland, Snaefell, that appears in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Apart from some silly Kansas tourists who don’t know the number one rule of Jeep roads (if you can’t drive faster than you can walk, then you or your car don’t belong) the drive in to Yankee Boy Basin was absolutely spectacular and fully otherworldly. I parked a ways below the basin for the extra mileage and headed out, woefully under prepared (while I suspected I would come across snow, I didn’t manage to bring spikes, wool socks, or gaiters). The trail up Sneffels crosses the basin, heading to Blue Lake Pass, then you take a sharp right to climb a crazy steep gully all the way to the ridge. It was actively snowing pretty good, and near the sharp right I ran into a guy hiking with his dog. “I was heading to Blue Lake Pass but there’s blizzard conditions! Where are you going?” I smiled awkwardly and lied through my teeth, “Oh, just hiking until I feel like turning around.” He accepted my terrible lies and went on his way, and I took the sharp right and started climbing the gully full of two feet of wet snow.

this was taken in the basin.  up the gully and on the ridge we gained FEET of snow!  and as you can see, I was woefully underprepared

this was taken in the basin. up the gully and on the ridge we gained FEET of snow! and as you can see, I was woefully underprepared

The climb made me question my sanity, as usual, because when you’re climbing so steep that you can barely ascend in the snow, how do you think you’re going to get down? And as usual, I relegated that question for later thought and powered up. The ridge boasted stupidly hard gusts of wind, and I thought about the TH sign that warned of the wildly high winds (up to 200 MPH!!) one might find on the Sneffels ridge. I pulled my buff over my face and carried on. By the time we made it to the summit, Lu was coated in wet snow (and a little pissed) and I was trying to remember how long it had been since I felt my feet. We paused long enough to turn my phone on and hope that it would stay on despite the cold for the 15 seconds to take this selfie:

the black at the bottom is Lu

the black at the bottom is Lu

then turned around. Tramping through the thigh deep snow on the ridge was cold but fine, and an excellent preview of winter. Descending the gully was about as I expected (not possible without spikes) so I took advantage of the lack of exposure and excellently slippery wet snow and glissaded almost the entire way. When we were back in the basin, Lu gave me the familiar “you can’t be serious, we’re going back already?!?” look and I wish you could argue with dogs sometimes because it was very different than the “you can’t be serious, why the fuck are we up here!?!” look that she had on no less than an hour ago. The basin offered stunning Northerly-ish views that I hadn’t noticed on the way in:

an entirely different world

an entirely different world

Descending to where we parked took us below snow altitude and apparently out of the storm going on in and around the basin; it was sunny and hot and I had to strip all the winter gear in a hurry. Back in Ouray it was nearly summer again. We ran the Ouray Perimeter trail and it further and further cemented my mad love for this teeny tiny town. Also, this is great, I found a campground on the edge of the city

really.

really.

My speculation is that because you can drive your rv’s and trailers into Ouray from the North, but to camp anywhere you’d have to take them up on Red Mountain Pass or on one of the various Jeep roads (towards Sneffels or Imogene Pass or off of Auditorium), the alternative is to park in town I guess. Get a Coke in town, pb&j, find a place to camp, read by headlamp until you fall asleep. Wake up, drink cold brew, nutella on a tortilla, put on yer running shoes. Find a mountain, run up it. Pb&j. Repeat. Coke in town, find a place to camp, read by headlamp, fall asleep.

Ouray

Ouray

What all of this means is: I love the simplicity. There’s no distractions. I always bring my journal but I almost never write in it, unless it’s to record one of my profound breakthroughs during a run (here’s one from Silverton, it’s fucking gold: we’re not looking for anything, we’re trying to find ways to sacrifice more and pay the price of freedom-for it is steep. Sometimes you have to break the things you love, and sometimes you have to love the things you fear; most often both). I run all day, I don’t have to think about what I’m going to eat, it’s just fuel. I don’t have to do work around the house, or go to work. I rarely talk to anybody, and I never, ever feel lonely on these trips, despite that I spend all of my time completely alone. I come back glowing, and it’s because I’m completely rejuvenated. When people say “no worries or cares” I think what worries most people isn’t even the worries-it’s the constant process of making the 3,000 decisions that go into your daily life. Those constant decisions are there in most vacations, too. The simplicity of a running trip…I think I’m onto something.

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