It was a no good, very bad day

A friend had graciously volunteered to drop me off and pick me up for some one-way linkups, so we set off from Leadville reasonably early and headed down to BV to start at Cottonwood Creek. The plan was Columbia to Harvard to Pine Creek to Oxford/Belford then down to Missouri Gulch, where we would camp. I thought this would take 8 hours, 12 if I got into trouble. It was forecasted to thunderstorm.

 

The morning was beautiful, I love the basin of Harvard and Columbia, the wildflowers were blooming, CFI was out working on the new and improved Columbia standard route. There were an extraordinary amount of Alpine Spiders out, and especially some really big, wicked looking ones. I made a mental note to look up whether there are any poisonous spiders living in the talus (since that episode on the Sawtooth, I am no longer irrationally afraid of spiders, but I’d still like to know if they can kill me). (If you’re wondering, my research didn’t uncover much. According to the internets, black widows, brown recluses, and “hobo” spiders are the only poisonous spiders in CO that are a threat to humans. While the big black ones I saw in the talus were horrific, they weren’t black widows, so I guess it’s safe?)

 

As we neared the summit of Columbia, I started thinking I saw storm clouds coming FROM THE EAST. Which is impossible, right? I kept an eye on them, carried on, but as I descended the summit onto the shitty crazy gnarly ridge, it was impossible to ignore them and I began the bail into the even shittier, crazier, talus field, all the way into a lush, green valley full of willows to the NE of the ridge. By now, the sky was blanketed in storm clouds, and it was sprinkling, but not storming yet. I began a very long ascent towards the summit of Harvard, thinking that along the way I’d find a crest to cross over down to Pine Creek, without having to summit Harvard in a storm. The North side of Harvard is very cliffy, and of course I couldn’t find a safe place to descend, especially since I had Luna with me. I could see the beautiful tundra-covered North arm that is the Nolan’s route, but the further up we went the more obvious it became that there was no way to get to it besides crossing directly over that rocky summit. As we approached it, I almost slowed down, trying to make the call. Up until now, we weren’t very exposed, but the final talus climb to the precarious summit would leave us extremely exposed to lightning for just a couple minutes. If I did it fast, would it be okay? Then the thunder started. There’s something about thunderstorms above treeline that make you feel like the mountains under your feet and the sky are about to break apart. We ran for our lives, bailing all the way back to the willow basin we had come from. I couldn’t think of another safe solution, so we began to descend East, hoping to come across the Colorado Trail.

 

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lunchtime

At first, this was actually kind of a nice time. I sat down with Lu right around treeline and enjoying the epically beautiful, quiet, isolated valley while having some lunch. It rained off and on, but didn’t pour. Below treeline, things got nasty quickly. The rain picked up, and so did the piles of dead trees making a crazy tangled maze that it was impossible to climb over or under, so we had to wedge ourselves between trees and climb through. I was quite certain I’d come across bears, and spent the whole time yelling, and I also figured I couldn’t escape this without a host of ticks. There were freezing water crossings, more and more tree tangles, and it took hours to make it what had to be only 4-6 miles. When we found the Colorado trail, I thought I might burst into tears, but resisted, because I still had a long, long way to go and losing it is the perfect way to sap your limited energy.

 

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looking back on the ridge we bailed from, NE of Columbia

Maybe 15 minutes after gaining the trail, I saw a person! I asked her if she happened to know how far it was to Clear Creek and county road 390, and she said at least 11 miles. Which might have been disheartening, as that would make about 17 miles to get to my friend at Missouri Gulch, but 17 miles was reasonable on easy trail and road, and it was around 3pm so I figured I could make it before dark. The sky started to clear, and I jogged pretty contentedly. Crossing Pine Creek, I considered what it would take to off trail to Oxford from there, and finish my original route. Then, a trail junction. To ELKHEAD PASS. I took it, and up into the bowels of Pine Creek we went. It’s actually a beautiful area, if not a little creepy and very isolated. There are a ton of fairly intact mining buildings, with windows and padlocked doors. As we approached the southern slopes of Oxford, the thunderstorms rolled in again, so we continued on the trail to Elkhead Pass. I kept thinking we were going too far, that it didn’t make much sense. But as the sun began to set, I didn’t feel quite up to off trail route finding in a place that was unfamiliar, and I wished I had just ascended Oxford because at least I’d know where I was. After miles of going southwest, we suddenly wrapped around and headed North, and I understood that the trail had taken us several miles out of the way, only to bring us back around up through a valley we would ascend NE to the pass. It was one of the most beautiful basins I had ever seen. My knees had just about had it, the bail off the Columbia ridge had destroyed them and each subsequent mile was taxing too much. My nervous system was fried. I had been hoping and hoping that I could just make it back before dark, but darkness was coming too fast and I was moving too slow, and still had so many miles to go.

 

Gaining Elkhead Pass was another moment that I wanted to burst into tears. What a relief, after all the off trail, all the route finding and wondering, the bailing from storms, that I was on a trail that I knew. The thunderstorms raged over the mountains around me as the last bits of light dissipated. I got out my headlamp, the batteries needed replaced and I happened to have packed new batteries, but I couldn’t see well enough to change them. I descended as fast as I could, it still probably took over an hour from Elkhead Pass to Missouri Gulch parking lot as I arrived about 10pm. There I burst into tears, finally safe and sound. 35 miles, 11k gain, 15 hours.

 

The aftermath of that day has made me question what I’m doing with my life. I don’t ever want a day like that again. I didn’t even want to continue to pursue Nolan’s, as it will inevitably be a lot of the same isolation, loneliness, miserable off trail, painful gully descents that defy you to break all your bones. It’s hard to get past all that. The net gain of that day was, a week later, I realized that I don’t have to finish Nolan’s. Yeah, that doesn’t seem that novel. But I’ve always thought of it as a do-or-die situation, and it’s just not. I have to attempt Nolan’s, otherwise I’ll never be able to move on with my life. I can finally see, though, that days like this are the net gain of Nolan’s. You will get lost, you will find the way. You will be miserable, hopeless, and desperate, but you will be alive and you will be happy again eventually. You will run for your life, you may get hurt, but when it’s over, you will understand the value you place on your own life. The two years that I’ve been up here, training and route finding, planning and talking about it, running free in the mountains: that’s the glory of Nolan’s. I’ll have it forever no matter what happens in August. Maybe I’ll finish, or maybe I’ll call it hallway due to thunderstorms or a busted knee or whatever. Maybe I’ll finish in 66 hours. That stuff doesn’t matter. People say it’s the journey and not the destination, right? The journey is nearly over, and it has been the greatest of my life.

 

 

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Mt Princeton (who’s the boss?)

Mt Princeton (14,204) is generally believed to be the crux of the Nolan’s route. Its long approach, almost entirely off trail ascent and descent, and the fact that it generally falls overnight in most people’s attempts have led me to believe that if Nolan’s were Super Mario, Princeton is the big boss. Once I make it past Princeton, nothing will stop me from finishing.

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It was incidental that last summer, as I hammered down every part of the Nolan’s route, I tread nearly every piece of Princeton except the summit. I spent 3 days route-finding from the Avalanche Gulch trail, putting tons of miles in figuring out the [long] way up off trail on the NE arm. I spent a day in Grouse Gulch, learning the descent. But I didn’t summit. Princeton was the only Nolan’s mountain that I did not stand on top of all year.

As I considered my winter training, I knew that I’d have to push harder on winter ascents this year (no matter how miserable! I would prevail), especially since I planned/am planning an ambitious July attempt (if you don’t remember from last year, there was still waist-deep snow in the mountains at the end of May, summer doesn’t generally start until the end of June). I knew that I had to do Princeton in the winter.

When I drove to Arizona in February, I hadn’t yet managed to do more than Elbert, Massive, and La Plata (I was busy skiing I guess). Passing Princeton as I drive through BV, gracefully and commandingly taking up the sky, I thought “Princeton is such a boss, I have to get up there.” (I not only thought this but texted a running buddy, who was not thrilled like I was).

After AZ, I came back injured and spent a month trying to get back on my feet. One week ago, I went out for my first long(ish) run. Basking in the glow of Princeton on the East side of BV, I resolved to get up there. Another friend asked if I wanted to run together, I suggested Princeton, and ultimately plans fell through.

It’s not that Princeton (or any Sawatch Range winter ascents) is inherently dangerous or harrowing or even difficult.. just long, somewhat miserable slogs. Which is why I was hoping for company (because good company can make even the longest of drags fun) but I guess it wasn’t in the cards. Despite a lousy forecast, I headed up Princeton on Friday. The weather was beautiful when I got there, clear and sunny and warm, but turned terrible about 6 miles in. I got this picture just before it started snowing and visibility was totally lost (and my phone turned off because it wasn’t willing to suffer the new frigid wind),

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Terrible weather in the winter doesn’t scare me or even affect me that much (as long as I know the route well enough). It’s even kind of appropriate, because it’s slow and miserable to begin with so the weather’s like “hey, why not take away your view, too?” (“Bwahahaha”, because I think the weather should be personified). Someone asked me after if it felt good to be in the mountains again, and I didn’t really know what to say…it felt normal. It wasn’t “fun” and there wasn’t the thrill of standing on a summit (conditions were so bad you could have been standing anywhere and just seen gray). I had kind of forgotten just a little what it feels like to endure…so at least I still had that sort of toughness to push on.

The truth is, some days I’m so pumped to get back to climbing mountains and running again, and other days I don’t even want to go outside let alone spend another full day dragging my legs through the snow. I heard a team went up the Maroon Bells, and at first I was inspired, then it faded to meh…fuck that. As does everything eventually, I think this whole thing boils down to GOOD VS INTERESTING. Would you rather your life be good or interesting? Most people say good. If you read that question and thought “why would you ask a question like that?” Or “why can’t it be both?” That’s ok, I get it. Sometimes I admire you, a lot of times actually. I’ve come to realize during this time off that I can’t just read and watch TV, or study yoga or design or whatever I get into. I need the full spectrum of pain, the challenge, the risk, the fear, the incredible doubt. I choose interesting, and I don’t care at all if it’s good. Good is such a relative term. When someone asks you how you are, you say “good.” I don’t want easy, and as much as I sometimes regret moving up here because it is quite the POLAR opposite of easy, I know that this is where I’m meant to be.

It’s hard being 29 for a lot of reasons. There’s the cultural/societal pressure around 30, and there’s this “return of saturn” business that I would have never believed in except that I’ve been having rolling emotional/life crises for months. Sometimes I think “how the fuck did I get here?” Or “what have I DONE in the past 10 years!?” But I will never measure success by my job or my house, my friends, my bank account. At least I don’t ever feel like “why aren’t I married?” It’s more like “WHY haven’t I been to Banff!??”

I guess the point of all of this is, I climbed Princeton and it didn’t feel like epic or harrowing or victorious. I just quietly surpassed my recent (injury-induced) doubt and accepted that this is who I am. Some days I am NOT okay with it, and I wish I could stay at home and eat pizza and watch TV all day…and sometimes I do (and whether you know about chakras or believe in them, let me tell you when I stay home it physically hurts beneath my sternum and in my solar plexus). And sometimes I go out and run mountains.

AZ (can you see the end?) pt 2

The day before the race I went to the finish line so I could visualize it when things got rough. I packed a drop bag for the first time that would wait for me at mile 37. I filled my vest with the same things I had been eating on my runs all week: cucumber slices, blueberries, avocado, and Larabars. My legs felt tired. I hoped a good night of sleep would change that.

At 4:45 I boarded a bus that would take us to the start in Mayer. It was full of runners, and you guys, sometimes I’m disparaging about runners but it’s because most (not all) of us are self absorbed assholes. Mostly they were posturing; talking PR’s and saying things like “a marathon is a really honest distance” and comparing toenails lost (which, ok, that is a fun pastime among us). There was a lot of buzz before the start, and especially at the start line, which has always been one of my favorite things about racing.

The very moment I started running, both of my calf muscles seized up (gastrocnemius, if you’re wondering), and not only would they stay that way, but my other leg muscles would follow suit over the course of the very long day. I don’t race much, but I have cultivated a long practice of staying rational when shit goes wrong, and this was no different. I Scott Jureked the sitch: what is wrong? My calf muscles hurt and are barely working. What can I do about it? Run anyway. I put myself in a solid 5mph pace and stayed there.

I’ve heard other runners say they race to experience community, which is missing from our long training runs, even when we’re out with a running buddy. But I’ve said it before, runners are assholes, and they will literally push you off the trail if you don’t let them pass you quickly enough, and nobody spoke a word to each other besides “on your left” for almost the entire day.

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There was a 4 mile stretch or so that my legs started to feel strong between mile 23 and 27, but that was the only 4 miles that I loved running that day. My hip flexors began spasming, which sucks (besides being painful) because if they’re not working well it’s very hard to climb. My thighs seized. By the time I made it to the 37 mile aid, running on my legs had escalated to the worst pain I had ever been in. I’ve never had problems with my legs cramping, and this was so far beyond cramping. I have no explanation other than putting in too many miles that week. While I was getting some food in me and repacking, a girl was checked out by the medic, complaining of dizziness and nausea. The runner next to me leaned over and said: “dizzy? Nauseous? Welcome to ultras.” I checked the time, I was still looking at 5mph, and if I had managed this far, I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t keep it up. I was still eating and drinking fine. I looked at my phone. My dad had texted “Sarah take it up a notch, you can do this.” I tried, and I did.

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The 9 mile stretch to the next aid station contained the biggest climb of the day. I powerhoused up it, ascents being my strength, and when my hip flexors failed I pulled my legs up by my pants with my hands. My left knee had been hurting on descents for a while, but now my right knee started throbbing in the PCL area on ascents. I didn’t see anyone for a long time. And I thought, human relationships and support are good, but I must be able to overcome the worst by myself. The worst pain, the worst fear, the worst day of my life. Nobody can be in my head and fix this but me. Then the nausea started, and let me tell you, once you start vomiting the fun don’t stop (I had a lot of time to think about what I did wrong and I’m going to go ahead and bet it was the salt tabs someone suggested for the cramping). I finally staggered into the remote aid station just as twilight gave way to full dark.

And what a motley crew I found there. Nearly everyone at mile 46-47 was miserable, and while the wonderful girls working tried to bolster our spirits and pump me full of ginger, we all discussed dropping. “I’ve just been so miserable for so long, I don’t remember what it was like to be happy” which sounds melodramatic NOW, but at the time we all thought “that’s exactly how I feel!” It was 4.5 miles to the next aid station, 5 of us set out with the hopes and dreams of dropping if we could just make it there.

It’s funny (or terrible) how misery makes you so apathetic. Earlier in the day, I would not have considered dropping. I was thinking, Sarah if you can just make it to the finish you never have to run again. But suddenly, I couldn’t bring myself to care about finishing (or anything), I just wanted this terrible day to be over. We staggered in to aid, mile 51.2. Here again was an unbelievably supportive staff, rushing around trying to help us as much as possible. Two of my dropping compatriots had a mental turn around and set out on the last 11 miles. I sat next to a 4th. Finally, I asked the crew what the process was to drop. They weren’t hearing it, and said all sorts of encouraging things, including lies about how far the next aid was. They lent me a jacket (as I had forgotten mine 14 miles back), and just as I was gearing up our 5th came in, shouting “I’m done! I’m dropping! Enough!” I left, and the 4th not too far behind me.

Very soon I realized, I had gotten my feet wet after dark and they were starting to burn. My spare shoes were back at mile 37 with my jacket, neither of which I needed at the time, in the daylight my feet had dried quickly. The burning intensified into crazy sharp pains: the formation of about 40 blisters (that is not an exaggeration). On the tops of my toes, between my toes, all around the perimeter of my feet, all over my heels. I don’t generally get blisters, so I faced another new but major problem that I didn’t know what to do about. At about mile 55, the weeping started, and by 58 I had
a. Gotten slightly lost
b. brushed a cactus that stabbed my foot with spires (which are like FISHING HOOKS) that sliced right through my shoes and deep into my feet
c. Taken more than one weeping break

I wasn’t vomiting anymore, but I hadn’t eaten in 20 miles and my body felt like very painful metal. Rather than pass me, a very nice man convinced me to pick up the pace and stay with him, and having company pulled me just enough out if my misery to keep on.

When I staggered across the finish line, I just wanted this day to be over. Another very nice man, the official finish line greeter and hugger, congratulated me with great enthusiasm and sincerity. He hugged me and said “you did it! You finished! You did a great job!” And I realized, I DID finish. It wasn’t how I thought it was going to go, but I DID do a great job. I sat down with my new friends, 4/5, and we talked about how we would have dropped if it weren’t for the rest of us and those wonderful aid station crews. And some insane number like 100 did drop. As we were eating our finish pizza, number 5 crossed the finish line. All 5 of us had picked ourselves up and carried on to finish. I was so miserable that I wouldn’t have been ashamed to end it by dropping. But it wouldn’t have been me.

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I couldn’t have imagined how bad the recovery was going to be. It subsided after several days, at which time it became obvious that something is actually wrong with my left knee. It’s a repetitive motion injury, probably from the cumulative week of overdoing it (including the race, I ran at least 130 miles). I’ve wondered over and over, when is enough, enough? Sometimes I’m psyched to get back into training and redeem myself. Mostly, I think it’s time to give it up. Long distance is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. I’ve justified pushing my body so hard because I believed I was making it stronger. But am I? Really? Naysayers tell us we are destroying our bodies. Are they right?

In Kilian’s book he says you have make running your whole life. Every other part of you has to work together to support it. I know I can do this right.

Obviously it is not time to give up yet.
I identify as a runner not because I have nothing else, but because I know it’s who I am.

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Night Ascents (are you afraid of the dark?)

If you type “why are humans” into Google, the third option that comes up is “why are humans afraid of the dark?” Mostly, the internet says that fear of the dark is an evolutionary response-built into us over 100’s of years of big cats prowling the Savannah at night much like our fear reactions to snakes, spiders, and fires. This supposedly also explains why most of us are afraid of the dark and not of cars or saturated fat (mountain lions kill less than one person/year on average in the US and Canada, spiders average 2/year (from allergic reactions), while 610,000 die of heart disease in the US per year and 32,000 die in car accidents in the US).

I’ve said before that I’m most afraid of navigating in the dark on Nolan’s. The last time I was in the mountains in the dark was towards the end of last summer when I had that big 5 summit day and came down Harvard in the dark in a storm. I was so afraid of what lie past the edges of “safety” ie the light of my headlamp that I sang Sanskrit devotional songs at the top of my lungs, comforting myself and hoping to stave off the hungry, evil predators that were sure to be waiting just on the edge of the dark. I didn’t know then that mountain lions don’t even kill one person every year, but I don’t think that makes it seem less scary when your headlamp is reflecting on felled trees and you’re sure you’re seeing things that go bump in the night.

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Things that go bump in the night here in Colorado:
Rattlesnakes (there are 7-8,000 venomous snakebites in the US/year, and 5-6 fatalities)
Black Bears (2-3 fatalities in the US/year)
Mountain Lions (2 attacks in the US/year and .8 fatalities)
Lynx (I could not find statistics, I assume that speaks to how common deaths are)
Grizzly Bears (are not believed to exist in Colorado, which means there have been no attacks or fatalities in a loooong time here)
Wolves (there’s proof this year that they’re back in CO, but no attacks or fatalities in years either)

So all of this means I’m 610,000 times more likely to die from Mozzarella sticks than a mountain lion, and 6,400 times more likely to die in the car on the way to the trailhead than from a rattlesnake bite. WHAT ARE WE SO AFRAID OF!?

This whole time I’ve been in Leadville, I haven’t run with a buddy one single time. Incidentally, I finally met another female mountain runner here and she asks me if I’d be interested in a night ascent. How serendipitous, since Nolan’s is coming up fast and that’s the one thing I haven’t been willing to face (the other night on the phone I said “No I’m sure not going to practice running at night, I’m only willing to take that risk ONCE and it’ll be during Nolan’s and never again”). The very next night, at 11pm after work I find myself driving Half Moon Rd to the TH.

And let me tell you, not only was I not scared at any moment during our run, but it was incredible and fun. Even living up here, at high altitude and in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I’ve never seen the stars glowing quite like they did above treeline. There was a lightning storm maybe 30 miles in the distance. We couldn’t figure out what was causing so much lightning but it was so incredibly beautiful-and just for us, because who else was up high enough to see it in the middle of a Sunday night? The felled trees reflected in our headlamps weren’t mountain lions at all, they were felled trees. And I only fell a couple times which isn’t really even above average for me…(and I expected closer to 50).

Now that I know how not-scary-at-all it is with a friend, I wonder if I’ll go right back to terrified next time I’m alone…or if I’ve faced the things that go bump in the night and overcome my fear of the dark.

DOUBT

I ran my first ultra distance race, and it was so much harder than I expected (what was it that I expected exactly?? I don’t seem to remember anymore) (also, I didn’t want to do a recap but I did finish, 50 miles and 12,000ft gain, just so you’re caught up).

Then I scoped out the off trail parts of Nolan’s and who knew that the miles BETWEEN the mountains would be the most terrifying and dangerous. And I feel like I’m in over my head (and maybe a little post ultra depression).

This is literally the route from the summit of Huron to Missouri.  It's reminiscent of jumping off a cliff, then you might notice there are several miles of other mountains between here and there.  Just saying.

This is literally the route from the summit of Huron to Missouri. It’s reminiscent of jumping off a cliff, then you might notice there are several miles of other mountains between here and there. Just saying.

DOUBT.

All week I’ve faced the decision over and over again: am I really going to do this? It’s on a level of hard that’s beyond what I could have believed, let alone what I’m equipped to face. If I’m going to do this I have so much to do. So much to do. So so so much to do.

The last time I was going through a crisis like this I taped up notes all over my house, as is my tradition. “timshel-this is the ladder to climb to the stars” and “THIS IS YOUR LIFE!” They’re still there and sometimes they motivate me and sometimes they mock me. During the race I said to myself more than once STOP MAKING EXCUSES AND MOVE YOUR FUCKING FEET and I think that deserves a new sign on my door.

I searched on the internet about how to overcome self doubt and pretty much all the internets has to say about it is about acceptance. I feel like that’s one of those things that sounds all very nice but is much different in practice. I think I read something too about using the fear and doubt to fuel you. HOW DO YOU DO THAT?!

this is the only picture I took during the Pike's Peak Ultra, from the summit of Mt. Rosa

this is the only picture I took during the Pike’s Peak Ultra, from the summit of Mt. Rosa

I realized I don’t think I’ve had to deal with self doubt of this kind before…I was raised with a solid belief that I can do anything at all, and most of my endeavors (though some very challenging) I’ve seen within the scope of my capabilities. Even the 50 mile race- I was very confident going in and that turn was very hard for my self esteem to take.

Doubt is fear based, obviously. I’ve faced my fears so many times and different ways that I wouldn’t say I’m fearless but I’d say my perspective is a lot different than it used to be (how about the time I slipped and almost fell off the Sawtooth ridge and conquered my fear of spiders, the time I was charged by a bear, when we started an avalanche, or one of multiple times I was lost in the winter on Pike’s). But doubt is such a different kind of fear. I’m used to risking my body or my well being. But what about trying when you don’t believe you’ll do anything but fail? Gosh seeing that on screen brings tears to my eyes. I’ve given up everything else in my life to move here for Nolan’s, basically, it’s about time that I admit that it’s why I moved here. And if I can’t do it? What will my life be then?

See, now we’ve gotten to the heart of darkness here. Not only have I spent the last NINE MONTHS with the single point of focus of training for Nolan’s, but I’ve made it my life, too. Can I really not look back on all the thousands of hours of training and say that I had fun? That I suffered but I also felt the greatest joy? I struggled, I fought, I believed; I saw the most beautiful places, I touched the sky, and I triumphed. The highest highs and the lowest of lows. Is the trial of miles really just about the end point? No. I’m underestimating and devaluing myself. It’s the miles and miles of trials. If I finish Nolan’s it will be the greatest moment of my life. But if I don’t, it’s not as if I don’t have so many smaller triumphs to look back on. To be proud of. I RUN MOUNTAINS. I mean I run mountains, 14,000ft mountains. I am stronger and tougher than I ever have been. As rough as it was, I crossed the 50 mile finish line running strong. I’ve earned every piece of these accomplishments.

glorious fucking summits.  I am mad in love with summits.

glorious fucking summits. I am mad in love with summits.

The thing that I love about long distance running (that I think is also the hardest for people that don’t do it to understand) is when you have nothing left to give, you wish you could lay down and die rather than keep going, and you dig into the deepest bits of yourself…that’s when you see who you are, what you’re made of. When I’m there, in the lowest of soul crushing lows, and I see what’s really in there, it’s I WILL NEVER GIVE UP. I see now that that’s what really matters. The finish line is a great moment for anyone, but it’s not the only moment, and the finish of Nolan’s is not my life. Every piece, every minute, every new friend, every brutal climb, every perfect blue sky, every painful struggle and every summit that brought me this far-THAT is my life.

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just another day in paradise

just another day in paradise

Nolan’s 14 (can you ever be ready?)

All this week I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I know it’s because I’m so scared of what’s coming. I’ve spent the last 8 months or so fully dedicated to training for Nolan’s. I don’t know that there’s anything that can fully prepare you for real adventure.

Here’s two words that I think are constantly misused:

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You know I just read that feeling AWE strengthens your immune system? I’ll never get sick again!

Fear is a big part of this game. I’m starting to understand what a big role it plays. My boss said it sounds like Nolan’s is “type 3 fun”- it’s not fun to talk about before, it’s not fun to do, but maybe’s it’s fun to talk about after” but I don’t think that is true to what it means to me either. It is the hardest, scariest, most brutal, riskiest thing I have ever tried to do. When I finish, it will be my moment- not because it’s fun, but because overcoming all of that will be the highest of highs. Rising above fear-that’s the triumph of the human spirit. The ladder to the stars.

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This weekend is my first ultra distance race. I didn’t think I was going to race this year, but I suddenly wanted to get one in before the season’s over. I’m worried about it, I’ve never raced more than 8 miles. I am hoping that it will be a kind of fun. Then Sunday I’m heading out for my practice run of the Nolan’s route. Doing it backwards because it makes the most sense ride-wise to get dropped off by Salida so I’m closer to home when I finish. Last week’s bushwacking was just a little peek at how wild it’s going to be. I’ve got 4.5 days to do it, cross your fingers for me. If I’m strong enough and brave enough, I’ll touch the sky.

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TRAINING ALL THE TIME (and now I’m also addicted to exercise videos)

I’ve gone through brief periods in my life where I got REALLY SERIOUS about a particular sport [climbing, cycling, roller derby]. And in the first weeks of excitement, I over did training so hard and so much that I’ve had to adjust my diet to procure proper fuel, I’ve been obsessive about my sleep schedule, and I’ve had to take constant epsom salt baths and self massage like crazy to rehabilitate between training sessions.

For the first time, this is happening in a long term and sustainable way. I’ve been training long distance mountain running for quite some time now and while there are blips (like January when I accidentally lost 10 lbs which is a ton on my small frame, or May when I did absolutely nothing for a week and a half) this commitment is rounding out nicely. I’ve adjusted diet-wise, I have routines outside of training to take good care of myself, and I’m keeping it all balanced to prevent injury. I recently re-committed to my goals this year and have been steadily increasing mileage, general time on my feet, and time in the saddle. I’m never sore, because I’ve been progressing steadily and consistently and not in bursts.

Until now. So my recent schedule is this: I wake up around 8a, drink coffee, make breakfast, and watch TV until 10. Then I finally get out for 3-6 hours of running or cycling, and round it off with yoga. The reason I don’t go out first thing in the morning is two-fold- I rarely want to jump in first thing, and it’s still winter here overnight and in the morning until the sun warms it up. I’m not going to lie though, it feels like a big chunk of wasted time; even worse, if there’s bad weather during the day then I never get out (like those gnarly thunderstorms last weekend).

Suddenly, I had a totally brilliant plan. No more TV in the mornings, instead I can do a workout video or yoga. Workout videos aren’t the best or most relevant training…obviously. But currently, it’s time that’s wasted in my day that will now be replaced by time on my feet.

The madness started on Thursday I think. I did all the workouts on the Jackie Warner DVD twice before my run. On Friday, I ran in the morning because I knew a storm was coming, then after did a Jillian Michaels DVD twice, then just kept on doing squats and mountain climbers all night. By Saturday I had totally lost it, and did four discs of P90x (it was raining again) and when it cleared up I finally got to run. I did yoga for like two hours trying to restore my body to normal working order. I’ll randomly finding myself stopping, dropping, and doing bicycles or super planks.

What I’m saying is by Sunday I could barely walk, despite how much yoga I did. At this point, I had done like 800 wide leg squats, thousands of lunges, and countless timed plyometric intervals. My core was so tight I could barely do upward facing dog. My muscles felt like metal. After my Sunday morning run, all I could do was some yoga then to the tub.

It’s like a test of how addictive my personality is.

But let me tell you. I wasn’t mainly looking for SUPER CHALLENGING workouts when I started with the DVDs, I just wanted a fun way to spend my down time on my feet. But now I’m obsessed with super hard HIIT and plyo workouts at home, and there is a shortage of such (I suppose people who work out at home aren’t the type to get REALLY SERIOUS about workouts but there aren’t any gyms here). I know plenty if I wanted to come up with my own high intensity at-home workouts, but I like the variety and support of working out with a DVD. In the entire P90x collection there’s only one that’s actually hard (60 minutes of plyometrics) and that’s only if you take all of the advanced variations and continue the last exercise through the breaks.

Does anyone know of any crazy hard workout dvds? Now that I’m in, I’m in. And now that I’ve been in for a few days, I’m not sore anymore! Get your protein shakes ready, it’s MAX HIIT INTERVAL TABATA TIME!!! Whooo!!!

*not* training (what is your definition of laziness?)

When I first read East of Eden (Steinbeck) I was obsessed with the part about Timshel. Without dragging it out forever [because it is a huge topic], they say that these scholars have been studying Hebrew to better understand the bible and they’ve realized that the word Timshel has been mistranslated to English as ‘do thou’ and ‘thou shalt’ but really it means more like ‘thou mayest’, then it goes on to explain the significance:

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘thou shalt’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel-‘thou mayest’-that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘thou mayest not’…It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of a deity, saying ‘I couldn’t help it, the way was set.’ But think of the glory of choice! That makes a man a man…This is a ladder to climb to the stars. You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

It’s a long excerpt but I tried to cut out the non-essential parts and backstory. I posted some version of this on my bedroom door so it would be the first thing I saw every day for years. When I didn’t feel like doing something, I’d think of it. If thou mayest, it is also true that thou mayest not. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness. It has certainly been inspirational, but I’m starting to think it has contributed to lots of disappointment in myself.

do I run a lot?  Well if by "running" you mean drag my soaked and freezing legs through the snow then yeah, I do it all day every day.

do I run a lot? Well if by “running” you mean drag my soaked and freezing legs through the snow then yeah, I do it all day every day.

I’ve been struggling this week to get out and train. Mainly because of our god-awful weather up here. It’s stormed every single day multiple times, and there’s nowhere that you can go more than a couple miles on a trail before you hit the inevitable snow. [what I’m missing right now is why the fuck isn’t the rain melting the snow?!]

the rivers in Denver are flooded from all of our mountain storms

the rivers in Denver are flooded from all of our mountain storms

Every day I have good intentions, I wait for it to warm up a little [if you’ve forgotten, the climate up here in the high rockies is called “high desert” and it means that there’s so little humidity and the air is so thin that we warm up quick with the sun but as soon as it sets the temperature drops 30 degrees at least]. I go out to run, and 3 miles in I’m wading through snow [at this point in most places the snow is ankle-knee deep now, but some places like Mt. Massive it’s still hip-waist] and it’s suddenly thunderstorming again. So I turn back, go home, and hope that I can wait it out and go back out after it clears up. It then clears up for a half hour and as soon as I get out again it’s snowing and 20 degrees suddenly.

This was the story of my whole fucking week. I never got more than a few miles in, and I didn’t get out on the bike at all because the storms made the path slippery and I also don’t like my gorgeous new bike to be ruined like all of my previous commuting bikes.

In other news, I got a library card. And I re-read the entire Millenium Series [it’s the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if you don’t know, and that’s a total of about 1,500 pages]. That’s basically what I accomplished in this entire week. So I’ve weeble wobbled back and forth about how I feel about it. Because when I don’t get out and do epic shit every day, I feel like I’m wasting my life and I’m wholly disappointed in myself because TIMSHEL. I have the choice and that word cuts the feet from under my laziness and I still chose to sit around anyway. Then I’d think-I don’t fucking feel like running in 30 degrees and pouring rain. I don’t feel like wading through the snow it is NOT FUN ANYMORE. And isn’t that the point? It’s starting to feel like a job that I hate. Usually, days where it storms are occasional and those lousy training days are balanced out by all the amazing gorgeous mountain-climbing sweeping vista views days. But suddenly storms are every single day.

it wasn't the worst day on La Plata Peak

it wasn’t the worst day on La Plata Peak

I finally went out yesterday to La Plata (particularly because the weather was forecasted to be decent for once) and although it looked like serious storm clouds I headed out on the trail, hoping the clouds would pass. It rained lightly but not bad and started clearing up. However, as per usual, only 1 or 2 miles in the snow drifts started and not only do you have to wade through them which is bad enough but they often camouflage the location of the trail. There’s usually tracks where other people who know the route have passed, so it’s generally okay. But after the river crossing, the snow suddenly gets knee-deep (plus) and the tracks disperse in 3 complete different directions then stop entirely. It’s sort of a field that heads uphill and goes back into the forest, and you could see the bushes sticking up out of the snow so I couldn’t see anywhere that there was a break in the bushes. I’ve done this trail in the summer [and attempted once this winter but didn’t make it much further, even with the route instructions in hand] but nothing looked particularly familiar. I’d like to take this opportunity to mention that should the Forest Service or whoever’s in charge like a free helper to mark these fucking trails so we can all stop wandering around like helpless idiots, I’m volunteering.

water stops for no one and nothing (on La Plata)

water stops for no one and nothing (on La Plata)

I wallowed for a while yesterday, because I thought I was finally going to get on track with the la plata ascent and it turned out all wrong, just like everything else in the past week or two. And I’m really struggling with this idea-am I just lazy or do I have the right to say I don’t want to do this right now? Is that okay? I’m so far behind in my Nolan’s training because the snow and the weather are 1,000x worse than I could have imagined and even on good days I can’t physically move fast enough through the snow to get the mileage and gain in that I should be at this point. As a longtime practitioner and teacher of yoga, I feel like I’m listening to myself and choosing to do what I need, even when it means staying home and reading instead. But on the other hand, if I’m going to achieve my dream of Nolan’s then when I need is to be out there all the time, despite all obstacles. What is the difference between laziness and choosing to do what I want?

The second the rain let up yesterday I was out on my bike. I rode hard and fast for 24 miles, until it was raining so hard I couldn’t see the path in front of me and my face was burning from being slapped by the raindrops(/hail, we rarely get away with rain that’s *just* rain). I wondered if it was punishment for my laziness or that the fire I’ve been smothering staying inside just needed to blaze.

storms...so dark you can barely see the picture even after I lightened it as much as possible

storms…so dark you can barely see the picture even after I lightened it as much as possible

I know I’m supposed to learn something from this terrible clash with mama nature, but every time I think I understand it gets so much worse. It stormed all the rest of the day yesterday, and instead of letting up last night it turned to snow and dumped 6”. It’s still snowing right now as I write this. [update: I wrote this on Tuesday and now that I’m posting this it is snowing AGAIN and I’m thinking I’ll go home and watch Cool Runnings which I picked up with my handy library card]

“This is a ladder to climb to the stars.” But where are the stars?

MOTHER NATURE (and how I learned about expectations

Mother Nature exposed and made light of my weaknesses by dumping foot after foot after foot of fresh snow on my mountains; they that were so near to being clear.

When it started snowing on Wednesday I was annoyed. When it continued snowing on Thursday I was already pissed. I thought after work I would run all day. I adjusted said plan to spend the afternoon swimming laps instead, but when I arrived at the pool the sun was coming out and I cut my swim short to run Ptarmigan…only to find the sun immediately replaced by another snowstorm. And how it stormed. Friday I woke up to a full foot of new snow, and to put this in perspective that’s enough snow that I couldn’t open the back door to let Lu out in the morning. I shoveled the foot of snow off of my car and went to work, only to return to another FOOT OF SNOW in the afternoon; so much snow you couldn’t even see the dent in the driveway from the foot of snow I took with me in the morning (I totally got stuck in my street). Saturday it snowed, and Sunday it was occasionally sunny but it also snowed.

You may remember that I was recently thrilled about the amount of exposed trail up here, and the impending spring and summer when I would get to run on the ground again. I can’t even dredge up hope for that dream anymore, and here’s why:

So yesterday I looked at conditions reports on the southern Sawatch, and as recently as 8 days ago someone was on Mt Yale reporting that the first couple MILES were dirt, and there wasn’t enough snow anywhere to ski. The weather was reporting 50’s and sunny in Buena Vista, so I thought good enough, let’s go. Lu and I drove to BV in the mid-morning, coffee-in-hand, and arrived at the Denny Creek TH parking lot that had been thoroughly plowed and sunned and was perfectly empty at 10am. It was sunny and relatively warm. I did Yale towards the end of last summer but I was racking my brain trying to remember where the TH actually was from the parking lot, and boy I wish I had taken a picture because it was comical when I realized that it was so thoroughly buried with snow that you couldn’t see the sign, and there were no tracks to speak of.

I’ve gotten used to this common mountain scenario since I’ve moved here: there’s a baselayer of snow, someone makes tracks on it, when it snows again you still have the packed snow beneath it. Well. This was much different. There was no baselayer and no previous tracks, just the dirt trail. Like this was the first snow there ever was. And it was three. fucking. feet.

I dug out my snowshoes and sighed.

Luna doesn't care if she's buried or not

Luna doesn’t care if she’s buried or not

An hour later, we had lost the trail and the sun and it had begun to snow. We arrived at a river crossing and I nearly fell in. Each sluggish step in the wet snow dragging each snowshoe miserably. Yeah, I was totally angry. I know it’s not right, but I’m just done with winter and I’m so mad it snowed again [and hey, guess what! This is the usual for the high Rockies. Silver Lake, Colorado holds TWO U.S. records for snowfall-the most snow in 24hours (76”) and the biggest continuous snowfall (100” in 85hours) and it was a late April storm]. The reality is, our snowfall was really light this year and we NEEDED this huge storm so we have water this summer; okay, I totally get it! But it doesn’t make me feel better about the current state of dragging ass in the cold woods [especially when I tasted summer in that glorious weekend I spent running the front range]

this water.  was delicious.  and the coldest water that exists in the world.

this water. was delicious. and the coldest water that exists in the world.

It gave me a lot to think about. When I was still teaching yoga full time I did a 5-week series about expectations. How and why we have them and their effects on our lives and well being. Others expectations of us. What it boils down to is something we all already know-expectations set us up for disappointment. I’ve been dreaming so hard of summer and the weather was good so I expected it to stay that way and get better. It took moving up here to realize that you can never rely on anything when it comes to weather. I know, I know, in your part of the country the weather is CRAZY and unpredictable and you can have all four seasons in the same day (are you realizing for the first time that you’ve totally said that, because EVERYBODY thinks that about where they live? Is your mind blown!?)

But here’s the thing about the high country. It goes from 50 and sunny to 0 and storming in less than five minutes, and I’m not exaggerating for effect. I counted (for the first time) and it went from sunny/clear/warm to FULL ON SNOWSTORM and back 7 times today. SEVEN. It might be 60 degrees and sunny for two weeks, then it drops the biggest storm of the year on you and pummels you for days with January temperatures. It’s also not unusual for this to happen once summer is in full swing; in fact, it’s likely to happen several times this summer that we get sudden snowstorms. Plus, at high altitude (I’m at 10,200) the sun feels hotter and it warms us (people, land, air, whatever) up faster, and the thin air doesn’t hold heat very well, so the temperature swings can be truly incredible.

My weakness this past week has been my expectations. But I’m not going to get anywhere training for Nolan’s holding a grudge or staying inside to avoid snow because I was ready for summer. I could let every step be wretched, feeding the anger and frustration. Or every step fuels the fire that burns out my weaknesses. Self discipline through austerity-and once that garbage is burned off I won’t even notice the snow, excepting the lightness of burdens being lifted.

fresh tracks

fresh tracks

Winter Blues (over it.)

So I had a solid, pretty fun run today on S. Elbert despite the impending storm (and let me be clear-we’re on day SEVEN of constant snowstorms). At first I was frustrated for a bunch of reasons. I thought the weather looked better finally, but when I got to the TH it was already snowing and I somehow drove all the way to Twin Lakes without emergency gear.

this is Twin Lakes, but clearly not on the day I'm describing.  On that day there was no view, just cloudy crap.

this is Twin Lakes, but clearly not on the day I’m describing. On that day there was no view, just cloudy crap.

I resigned myself not to go further than 4 miles out from my car for safety reasons and set out. The first section had good pack from crosscountry skiers and I optimistically put on microspikes. A half mile in, there was not another sign of human existence and things went from optimism to bummertown.

Luna looks out on the ridge by Mt. Elbert

Luna looks out on the ridge by Mt. Elbert

On we went, though. Determined to get 8 miles in, at least. And something shifted. Is it possible I hadn’t realized how much I considered the snow to be a barrier. To my speed. To my training in general. To my well being. I started to flow in a slidey, crazy kind of way. Along with the snow. Finally free to be with the snow, and I hadn’t realized how hard I had been fighting it until that moment. All of the extra work dragging myself through fresh powder and wet, heavy slush. The frantic sliding and painful postholing. And all of the falls.

storms.

storms.

It all suddenly felt like all of those things were silly extra parts of winter running. No longer obstacles, it was even exciting. Did that magical feeling last forever? Oh god no. It wasn’t even half of my mileage that I was working with the snow, by the end of my run I was furious with the snow again (as per usual) but it was the first time I felt even a momentary freedom from the snow-devil-burden. That little bit of relief was more than enough to give me hope.

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