Running & Cycling Guide to Whitney Portal/Lone Pine, California

This is a great place to run. There’s a local coffee shop with Wifi, decent coffee, and excellent donuts, a small but reasonably priced grocery store, lots of hiking/mountaineering stores, and tons of food options in town (WAY more than you’d expect from a town the size of Leadville). Expect rattlesnakes in the valley and bears in the mountains.

The Whitney Trail to Lone Pine Lake: Mountain/Trail Running 5.5mi RT, 1700ft

You can take the paved road all the way to the Mt. Whitney Trailhead. The trail is very switchbacked and low grade, so it’s very runnable, and you can go all the way to Lone Pine lake and back without needing a permit. There’s even a store at the TH if you forgot snacks or want a post-run Coke.

If you do have a lottery permit, or if you’ve managed to snag a last minute one due to a cancellation (if you go to recreation.gov and search Mt. Whitney, then select day use or backpacking, you’ll be able to see if there are any available permits due to cancellations), you can take the Whitney Trail as high as you like, maybe even up to the summit. The trail was buried in snow when I did it, but I am to understand that the whole thing is quite runnable in the summer months, and you’ll secure 6,300ft or so from the TH. Dogs are allowed all the way to Trail Crest, the rest of the route is in Sequoia National Park. I’ve heard folks have taken their dogs to the summit, but this area is heavily patrolled and I wouldn’t want to risk the fine, or getting kicked out.

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Whitney Portal National Recreation Trail: Mountain/Trail Running 8mi RT, 2,200ft

My favorite run here was the combination of this trail, then adding the above Whitney trail to Lone Pine Lake. You can drive or ride your bike to the Lone Pine campground, which is just under the Portal road’s giant switchback, there’s day use parking, bathrooms, and water available here. From the TH to the Mt. Whitney TH is 4 miles and about 2,200 feet. The first 3 miles or so aren’t very heavily trafficked and have stunning views. The last mile winds through the campgrounds. Dogs are fine.

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Meysan Lakes Trail: Mountain Running 10.8mi RT, 3,700ft [if you go all the way to Meysan Lake]

This is another one that you can do on its own or link up to the Whitney Portal NRT. The front end of this trail is also a heavily switchbacked, non technical trail so it’s easy to run. There was a ton of snow here in late May still, but like the Whitney Trail, it’ll clear up by mid summer. The last couple miles can be tricky to find, especially if there’s snow, as the trail gets grown over and isn’t well maintained so adventure at your will.

If you’ve taken the Portal NRT trail up, you’ll make a left at the first campground road intersection where there’s a sign for Meysan Lakes and follow the signs through the campground to the actual trail. Dogs are fine.

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Cerro Gordo Mine: Mountain Running/MTB 15mi RT, 4,600ft

This is a 13 mile drive from Lone Pine to Keeling, but I definitely found it to be worth it. Since it climbs almost 5,000 feet in just over 7 miles and is well maintained, you get excellent climbing but at a low enough grade that it’s very runnable and it was snow free much earlier than the Sierras. Be sure to read the historical sign when you park at the beginning of the road, and there’s a ghost town up top if you make it there (although some folks bought it in 2018 and have put up rather aggressive no trespassing signs so be careful about that). Unfortunately, this is a also a well used road for ATVers, so I don’t highly recommend going on a weekend (which I did, and it was still fine, but dusty and noisy).

Mountain bikers with legs of steel could totally bike this road, or as much of it as they want to. Dogs are fine, but because of the traffic you’ll want them on a leash and note that there’s no water on route. Once you drive to Keeling, on the other side of “town” the Cerro Gordo rd will be your first left and you can park anywhere you’d like.

https://www.strava.com/activities/2400364216

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Mobius Arch & Alabama Hills: Trail Running/MTB .5 miles to infinity

The Alabama Hills are comprised of a vast network of dirt roads, both maintained and unmaintained, with tons of interesting rock formations that you could climb or boulder (Goal Zero was here shooting their athletes climbing the shark’s fin, which was like 1000 feet from my campsite), and one trailhead, which is Mobius Arch. The Mobius Arch trail itself is a .5 mile rolling, super fun loop with the Arch and other cool rock formations, but there’s also an unsigned mountain bike trail that branches off of it to the left that goes on for miles (I went out four miles and could still see it going on and on in the distance). Combined with the network of Jeep roads that don’t have that much traffic, there are vast possibilities here to rack up miles on foot or bike, just without much gain to speak of. Dogs are fine, but there’s no water.

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Horseshoe Meadows Rd: Road Biking/Road Running 46mi RT from Lone Pine, 39mi RT from Whitney Portal Rd/Horseshoe Meadows Rd JCT, less if you drive HM rd a bit and park in any of the pullouts. From Lone Pine, you’d climb a little over 6,000ft.

I was heartbroken to find out this road was paved, but on the flip slide, road runners and cyclists will be stoked for the opportunity to ride 10 paved miles with 5,000ft of gain (that’s if you parked in one of the pullouts just before the climbing starts, if you rode Horseshoe Meadows road in its entirety from the Whitney Portal Road or even from Lone Pine, you could have a big mileage day). At the top of this road are some (paid) camping options and the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead.

 

Cottonwood Pass: Mountainish Trail Running 7mi RT, 1,200ft

You’ve already driven (or ridden your bike) a lot of the gain to get here, so there’s not a ton more to do but you are at altitude in mountain conditions, and there are vast options for linking up to do some bushwacking, climb a mountain (like Mt. Langley, route directions here https://www.summitpost.org/mount-langley/150246), or join up with the PCT.

In the height of the summer months, you need to stop at the Ranger’s office in Lone Pine and pick up a free permit, as there is a daily quota in place, even for day use. As you do pretty much everywhere in the SIerras, you also need a permit to backpack up here (there’s also a USFS campground), if you were inclined. Dogs are fine, but if you’re linking up, know that dogs aren’t allowed in the National Parks.

 

The Whitney Portal Road Itself: Road Biking/Road Running 13.5mi and 4,600ft one way from Lone Pine, less starting in Alabama Hills

Is a truly excellent bike ride from Alabama Hills or Lone Pine. I ran it a couple times to the Lone Pine Campground to meet up with the Portal NRT (approximately 5 miles and 1,500ft depending on where you’re starting in AH), which was fine because it’s not that heavily trafficked, but pavement is pavement. I wouldn’t run it above the Lone Pine Campground because it gets narrow at the switchbacks and all the cars driving it are overheating their brakes so it reeks, and why would you when you have the opportunity to go up the trail instead? This downhill on a bike is the most perfect downhill grade of a paved road, plus it’s been recently repaved.

 

The East Side: Scrambling/Bushwacking 

There are [often overlooked] mountains to the east of Lone Pine. While they don’t have any good developed trails, there are a bunch of abandoned, unmaintained mining roads that you can find and mix with some off trailing and scrambling if you’re feeling intrepid and want to do a little exploring. I took the Long John Canyon abandoned mining road up till it ended, and found a delightful cairned social trail above the Beveridge mine ghost town, and also scrambled up a random ridge. Chances are you won’t see any people at all, and you have pretty much unlimited opportunity for elevation gain if you don’t mind bushwacking. In the late summer, there won’t be water available anymore.

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Mt. Elbert: until my heart explodes, until my legs collapse, I will love you.

It’s evening, I timed it so I’d finish at twilight, so I’m alone. My legs are blazing and my lungs are burning like fireworks and it gets steeper, the pain of being above lactate threshold at altitude is extraordinary, and I feel like more than anything I want to stop moving. Instead, I bare my teeth like a wolf, dig the balls of my feet in, and go improbably faster, out of love, overdrive, and my heart rages so hard in there it’s hard to believe something as frivolous as bones could hold it. Okay, okay, let’s start at the beginning.

I’ve been meaning to write this since, I don’t know, June? And especially again in September. But I wasn’t ready. This past Sunday, I was trying to get 4,000ft in in a blizzard and I had this really vivid flashback of a stormy day at 14,200 or so in November a few years ago. It was a major breakthrough for me, one of so many I had up there, but there’s not much to the story besides me screaming, “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!?” at the top of my lungs. “I’M NOT GOING TO STOP.”

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Anyway, I knew then that it was time to revisit this, one of the most important relationships of my life. I met Mt. Elbert on a trip to Half Moon with my friend Mark. We did Massive the previous afternoon, then Elbert in the morning and we were proud that we managed both in 24 hours. I remember, in between the second false and the summit ridge, I said I was going to run to the summit. I laid down my pack and tried, and fell apart in like a hundred feet. Actually, I just realized this story starts much earlier than that.

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I have so many Elbert photos, rather than dig up relevant photos, this post will instead be all Elbert photos.

Okay, when I was 12, my aunt took me to Alaska to visit my grandparents and we traveled all over the great white north. We even saw Denali, in its full glory, despite how rare that is, but it didn’t have a major effect. On the fourth of July, we found ourselves in Seward watching the Mt. Marathon race. A couple years ago, Salomon made it super famous with this video. But then, it was this little known wild, brutal short distance mountain race up Mt. Marathon. We did some of the trail, it’s fucking hard. So the participants line up in town and run to the top of Mt. Marathon and back, but the trail is so steep it’s often class 3 and 4 rock, and it’s wet and foggy, so when the runners are coming back, their legs were torn to shreds and covered in blood. The whole thing was so badass, it became my definition of it. I didn’t live in the mountains then, but that’s the story of how I started running. I believed that when I was 18, I would go back and do it. Which didn’t happen, because teenagers don’t understand how expensive plane tickets to Alaska are, and eventually I forgot (until three years ago when I started entering the lottery, but have yet to get a spot).

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When I chose to move to Colorado, it wasn’t for the mountains. Then my dad visited and asked if I wanted to hike Grays and Torreys, and of course I did, and we dragged our miserable butts up there in a full day sufferfest with lots of breaks for Whole Foods raspberry trail mix, And lo and behold, we were fortunate to spot one of those rare creatures, a mountain runner. She just casually ran past us. I was in awe. I thought, I want to be that strong. I want to run up and down mountains. Now that is the whole story of how things began, and we can go back to Mt. Elbert.

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I’ve summited Mt. Elbert 273 times. I know, because I kept this super professional record:

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It was my first night ascent, my first climb with literally all of the mountain running friends I’ve ever had, my first being-followed-by-a-mountain-lion, my first off trail summit. I’ve climbed it by 5 routes, three in calendar winter. My second winter in Leadville was back when conditions were too harsh for tourists to come up and pack down the S Elbert route for us, so I packed that trail down myself in snowshoes after every storm so that I could maintain a trail to run on over the winter (that’s actually when I racked up a lot of those tally marks). I remember, I met one guy on my trail that winter, he was from Arizona or California or something. In the parking lot, he told me he comes out every year and tries, but it’s so frustrating because it always works out to be during bad conditions and he has to turn back. I thought, bad conditions? That’s what it’s like every day. If you want decent conditions, come back in July.

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I managed to find a few of me-with-friends-on-Elbert, here’s Beth and I

On Mt. Elbert was the first time I realized that I would give all of myself to a mountain, and it was also where I learned that if you grind your heart and soul off, rip yourself to shreds, empty everything out, giving all of yourself up to it, the mountain will fill you up again, and you will be home.

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Bryan and I

 

Dear Mt. Elbert,

I remember one time, I was alone, and I told you that I understood about the earth and the sky. When I run hard sometimes, when I really burn on the ascent, and I taste the blood in my mouth and I think that I won’t be able to keep going, I can feel it. And I stand on the summit and it feels as though the wind moves through me, and I am a part of you. As if the sheer force of the space between earth and sky is too much for the atoms that make up my body to hold themselves together. And then I descend, my feet barely touching the ground, like I’m flying, so fast that I think the slightest misstep will kill me. But instead it feels as though I might evaporate into the sky.

I know it doesn’t matter to you what my watch says, but I know a fast time isn’t an award, it’s not for publicity. A lot of people think that’s what matters, that they set records for validation. I think it’s important because of the sacrifice. An ascent, a descent, is perfect when you give yourself wholly to it. There are lots of people who can run fast, but it doesn’t seem like as many do it out of love. Sometimes I forget, I’m imperfect, but I know it’s all about intention. Kripa, divine grace, means that I will honor you with my body, with my intentions, and attention. I will run so hard, I can’t believe I can continue. I will love you until my heart explodes, until my lungs collapse, until my legs fail.

You taught me so many things, to be strong, to never give up, to have faith in something. I’ve been thinking lately that toughness is a thing you never lose, but it is a thing that is extremely hard earned. It is beaten in by deprivation, struggle, the elements, the misery. You made me resilient. You gave me something to believe in, to fight for. You made me feel humble and shared your bigness at the same time. I’ve always believed that I could do anything, because I have such great parents, but you proved it. You let me prove it. You taught me about postholing, about what cold and wind really feel like. It was on your slopes that when my feet and hands were numb, I learned to start the clock. You made me a mountain runner.

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I don’t often share all of this stuff. I think it’s because I don’t know that people will understand if they haven’t felt it. I’m continually surprised that the thousands of people that climb Mt. Elbert every year don’t give up everything, move to Leadville, and do it every day like I did. I mean, how can you go back to normal life after that? Once you feel the bigness, you touch the sky? I don’t know, but they do. Which means that even people who should understand this stuff don’t. The reason I haven’t written this yet is two fold: one, it is not easy emotionally, because this summer I left my Mountains to explore new ones, and two, I knew I would have to be really honest about my relationship with mountains, my unusual beliefs, and that scares the fuck out of me.

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The Nakoda people, of the First Nation of Canada, inhabited the mountains where Banff is now. They recognized that God is in the mountains, and they believed they had a relationship with them. They knew if they had a loving and reverent intention toward their mountains, that their mountains would protect them. I learned about these people in a course about mountains, and my heart grew three sizes, knowing it wasn’t just me, even reading that other people had these beliefs. I learned everything I could, because I have never come across an organized belief system that so closely matched my own.

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Anyway. I had it in my mind that I would say a proper goodbye to you when I left town at the beginning of the summer, by running up and down as hard as I could, because that’s how you honor a mountain, a line. Unfortunately, it was another super crowded day, and to make matters worse, CFI was doing trail work. With all the distractions, people dodging, and Pippa being weird about all of the people dodging, it was not the perfect, fast, free run I expected. I knew I had to come back at the end of the summer to empty out my storage unit, so I thought I’d give it another go then.

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While I was in Jackson, I did a race to the top of Jackson Hole, the Rendezvous. It was six miles and 4,200 feet gain (sound familiar? Elbert from Half Moon is somewhere between 4200 and 4300 and 4.5 miles). I finished that race in 1h25m, which meant that if I kept up that training and maybe tweaked it a little with more speedwork, I could go under two hours round trip on Elbert. Unfortunately, my time in the Tetons exhausted me on a higher level than I might have ever been before, and I was pretty much done running by the time I left and headed to Leadville. (I remember saying “I don’t want to think about running, I don’t want to talk about running, I’m definitely not fucking running.”) I ran a couple mountains half heartedly.

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Matt, E Dag, and I (and Luna)

It became obvious very quickly that this was not the goodbye that I wanted to have, like I was fighting something, or out to prove something. The amazing run I knew we both deserved, where I laid down my body for my mountain. I would give it everything, because I am so grateful for all that its given me. So I let that other crap go, because this was so much bigger than that. It’s evening, I timed it so I’d finish at twilight, so I’m alone. My legs are blazing and my lungs are burning like fireworks and it gets steeper, the pain of being above lactate threshold at altitude is extraordinary, and I feel like more than anything I want to stop moving. Instead, I bare my teeth like a wolf, dig the balls of my feet in, and go improbably faster, out of love, overdrive, and my heart rages so hard in there it’s hard to believe something as frivolous as bones could hold it. Heart beat and breath are the only things constant in your life. And I can no longer focus on anything else; single point of focus, single minded devotion. And I do not have to break open my ribs like Hanuman to prove to you that my heart beats for this.

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The summit is the buzzy existential margin of all possibilities; the space between earth and sky tugs the atoms that make up this finely tuned body that I am so lucky to wield, and I will never be able to describe the feeling of being infinitely humbled and infinitely powerful at the same time. I say I’m not going to cry, because it was Mt. Elbert that taught me to stay calm until it’s over, because crying is a waste of energy you might need. But I cry anyway, at 14,440, where the earth meets the sky and the air tastes sweeter and there are electrical storms you can’t see from below. I wipe my tears, and I nod, as if something is finished. (Is it finished?) Descending at 12mph, feet just barely brush the rocks and it seems like I’m flying, but the slightest misstep on this technical, high consequence terrain might kill me. But I don’t misstep, I’m sure because of my commitment to honor the environment I run in with my focused steps. Kripa, divine grace. The rocks, the dirt, the trees, the sky; all of it is made of protons and electrons, just like me, and sometimes I honestly believe I might evaporate into it and all of that validates itself. I am in love with this. 

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The only photo in this post that’s not taken from the summit

It was everything I wanted, the perfect run, the best run of my life, I touched the sky. The blood taste, the burning, the feeling that if you don’t stop you might die, the lightness, the flying, the bigness, the feeling protected. I didn’t go under two hours that day, but I can see how possible it is and I intend to. Actually, I don’t think it’s outrageous to go after the men’s record of 1h42. I stopped my watch, and I deleted the file. Because that run wasn’t for anybody else, it’s just between me and my mountain. It’s not that I’ll never go back again, but now I know it was time to move on.

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Totally aside, if you’ve made it this far, you must be interested in mountains. So here’s where I’ll shamelessly promote my new Threadless store, where you can find fun mountain themed graphics that I designed and photographs I took, and Threadless will put them on mugs and stickers and baby onesies for you! I’m really insecure about whether or not anybody’s going to like my stuff so please check it out!

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MOAB (running for freedom)

I went to Moab because I had forgotten why I love running. Training has become a miserable chore that I have to force myself to do, leading me to constantly bash my own self discipline and question pretty much my entire life (including and especially living in Leadville, and pursuing a serious race season this year). I had 3 days off coming up, and what could solve my problems better than a run trip?

The area that would become Moab was first populated by settlers attempting to cross the Colorado River between 1829 and 1855, when it became a trading post of Latter-Day Saints. Another group settled there in 1878 and Moab was established as a city in 1902. The name Moab is either biblical, referring to “the far county” that’s populated by sinners apparently (because of which the city dwellers have petitioned to change the name unsuccessfully multiple times) or the Paiute word for mosquito, maopa. Moab has about 5k permanent residents, boasts millions of tourists, is home to an incredible amount of restaurants that are mostly closed, and has weather that’s generally better than forecasted. [in the course of the extensive Moab research I just did, I saw a statement that the Potash mine near Moab dyes the water in its evaporation pools blue to speed the rate of evaporation, is that a thing? Does it even make sense? If you understand why, please leave me an explanation in the comments]

Friday morning the sky was dumping snow over my mountains so hard it was challenging even to get out of the high Rockies at all, it took over 5 hours to drive to Moab. But it had stopped snowing by the time we hit Utah, and by the hwy 191 exit to Moab it was sunny and getting warmer in spades. I drove straight to the Hidden Valley TH, jumped out of Hooptie, and started running up. The Hidden Valley trail goes up to a pass that marks a gateway to the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area, something like 50,000 acres of un-trailed wild desert.

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At the top of the pass, you could go straight to remain on the Hidden Valley trail down to the mesa, or you could go right. Going right was rewarded by walls covered in petroglyphs.

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Petroglyphs are rock art carved or otherwise scraped on (as opposed to pictographs that are painted on). Apparently there’s some evidence as to the period the petroglyphs represent, but they can’t be geologically dated, and the best guess is that they were made by the Anasazi Indians, who lived in Utah between 200 and 1200.

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The social trail I was on descended and connected back to the HV trail, that ends when it meets the Moab Rim Road. West from that connection is desert as far as you can see. The downside of desert running is the sand and the cacti, but the upside is the vegetation is sparse and allows you to run easily wherever you want without a trail. I kept a close eye on the landmarks of the pass from when I came, but was overcome by the thrill and fear of going nowhere as fast as possible, how easy it would be to get lost, and that scarce possibility of what if I don’t make it back? It’s been a long time it seems like since I’ve felt that thrill.

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After dark (since I had indeed made it out of the desert safely) I took Hooptie West of Moab, a ways down an access road bordering the CO river to a parking lot along the Poison Spider 4×4 road, to sleep where I would run in the morning. Eat, sleep, wake up, eat, run. On the network of 4×4 roads in this area, you could run all day easily over sandstone and past arches, caves, and all kinds of interesting terrain without seeing a single person. You can stick to the roads or you can wander off in any direction, hoping you can figure out the way back (which takes a surprising amount of time and energy to think and worry about, thereby pushing any other problems you’d been worrying about straight out of your mind). Safely returning to Hooptie again just before dark, I headed to the south side of the Kane Creek Canyon, past all the TH parking lots, stopping at an overlook to eat and sleep.

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I woke but didn’t run where I was, by Hurrah Pass, I drove back to town (for coffee) then East to the Sand Flats to run the famous Slick Rock Trail. Running on sandstone for 3 days was starting to get a little rough, but something turned over and I picked up speed, flying over technical for 12 miles up and down rock formations wild and free. The previous 2 days, and the previous 3 months or so, had caught up with me, and I was finally free of all of it. I continued on a 4×4 road called Fins N Things (I know, I know), but at the end I just wasn’t done running.

I went back to the canyon I’d slept in the night before, already 22 miles in or so, and went flying down the Amassa back road at almost 10 miles an hour (which is really fucking fast for me) and continued that ridiculous pace for over an hour.

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Past the point when your muscles can’t keep up and you’re out of breath, past the soreness of joints worn from 3 days of impact, past the achilles tendon pain and tightness I’ve been dealing with for a few weeks. Past the questions of success, age, choices. Past fear. There was no question of where I was (I had gone so far I had no idea) or if I would get back. My feet didn’t stumble over obstacles, they landed softly and in perfect balance; just brushing the ground and rocks that technically anchored me to the earth. I’ve tried to explain what long distance running feels like over and over, both because I’ve been asked and because I want co-conspirators to share in this extraordinary adventure. It’s like this: suddenly you feel very light, and it’s as if the molecules that make up your body and spirit evaporate into the environment around you. Simultaneously, the molecules of the terrain and the sky are evaporating into you. And you know that you are inextricably linked to the earth and the sky, as the smallest piece of a vast working universe, but every tiny atom of you exactly the same and just as important as every other atom that exists now or has ever existed. It is freedom and joy that are hard to find in the world that we’ve built where we work and buy things and interact with each other in strange ways, with little community and a lot of dishonesty.

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I remembered why I run. Why I’ve made the choices I have and how I’ve come to be here. It doesn’t happen like that every time, to be sure, but every time it does I remember how important it is to live honestly, to bare my passions and dreams, to take risks. It’s time for positive change.

ICE MOUNTAIN (what doesn’t break both your legs makes you stronger)

I realized today what it means to find comfort in discomfort (and it only took me 29 years to understand). I was climbing Mt. Elbert from the south, and after 2 hours of mind- and foot-numbing post holing, I was above treeline where intense wind and below 0 temps made a usually mellow mountain into a harrowing summit bid, which is the best time to think about my life. And I remembered the miserable day I spent on Ice Mountain probably two months ago.

It was one of those days where I was ready to give up mountaining and get a real job, but it started out lovely; clear, sunny skies, even decently warm. First you drive nearly to the middle of nowhere on a Jeep road, then you park in an empty TH parking lot and run a handful of miles. You scramble up this very long and unstable talus field (and hope nothing worse happens than a few rolled ankles and smashed fingers and toes as the rocks you’re putting your weight on slip and slide and rock disturbingly beneath you) then begin ascending a gully.

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Ice Mountain is one of the three Apostles (in the middle above). Three beautiful, jagged, sheer, and rocky peaks all rated class 3 and with only one logical route to ascend any of them. I’ve never been told this by someone who’s done it, but I had thought for quite some time that it sounded like a fun day of scrambling and I finally managed a day to do it before the weather turned [into winter]. I began the ascent to the gully, which was supposedly the crux of the route, and thought it was iffy at best. I actually felt a little silly for being annoyed with the instability of the talus field before it, because this gully defied logic. Had I not been sure I was on the route (there is no alternative, just sheer rock faces and this one gully) I would have been sure that there just was no safe route up this mountain. It was extremely steep, and mostly comprised of loose, slippery clay topped with smatterings of pebbles and frequently featuring loose boulders that threatened to dislodge themselves at any moment.

Ascending terrain like this sucks, but more importantly on anything so unstable is HOW THE FUCK WILL I GET DOWN? About halfway up I was suddenly pissed, because I felt insecure about my situation, and I wanted to blame it on everyone who’s ever climbed this mountain (which is the kind of excellent logic of a girl who knows she’s about to get injured, deep in the middle of nowhere). Meanwhile, the weather took a sudden turn and the dark sky looked like it might break all hell loose upon the Apostles any moment.

So why did I keep going? I was thinking about that a lot today. What makes anybody keep going when they want to turn around? I’ve finally realized the things that make me miserable (for example: snowshoe running, unstable gullies, climbing at night) aren’t inherently bad. To be home in the mountains, you have to be supremely comfortable, up, down and sideways. I’m just not that comfortable with all of it yet. It doesn’t seem mindblowing, but it blew my mind.

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Today, on Elbert, I discovered that there’s horrible, excruciating pain on the other side of numbness (and I wondered if it was the early stages of frostbite). It was so bad that I thought all the bones in my feet were simultaneously breaking. But I kept going. The wind became so harsh above the first false that I sometimes had to bear down so it didn’t push me back down the mountain, and meanwhile my eyes were starting to freeze shut (is it a thing to wear goggles when it’s this cold? I feel like I should, but I’d feel silly kind of). But I kept going. It only barely occurred to me that I maybe should turn around and come back when the weather was better.

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I kept going because I don’t want to be comfortable all the time. People who never face fear (in all of its manifestations-especially pain, misery, doubt) are so afraid that it controls their lives. I don’t want to climb unstable gullies because I’m afraid of [the very real possibility of] rock slides. If I had turned around that day, then I wouldn’t have made it safely up and down, thereby gaining a new [small] shred of comfort. There’s more than just our big fears to face, there’s dozens of smaller discomforts that we can’t keep avoiding. Discomfort is not the reason to turn around (or to stay home, as Dan’s mom famously said on our snowy Capitol attempt last year). That’s what it means to find comfort in discomfort: you experience discomfort, you own it, you accept it…it would be easy to turn away or avoid it but you don’t. You spend time is discomfort. You face all of its sides and angles. You sit in it (and climb and run and go about your business in it). Once you surpass fear, then you’re at home in the mountains.

WINTER ASCENTS (how to fight despair and darkness)

My sister and I were texting this morning and I finished the conversation with something like “you’ll always have to fight despair and darkness, no matter how happy you are or how well things are going. With gratitude, imagination, and enthusiasm for the present moment.”

Immediately thereafter, I left my cozy house to ascend La Plata. It’s been winter here for a while now, much longer than most of the country. I spent the first few weeks transitioning, I took a few trips down to Boulder for long runs (where winter is mild at worst) and things really started looking up when I picked up alpine touring (a sadistic form of skiing where one puts on a full but specialized downhill ski setup, then adds “skins”- long strips of rubber that have glue on one side and fake fur on the other side- in order to first ski uphill before removing the skins and skiing down) which is nowhere near as fun as mountain running, but is at least 75% more fun than running in the snow. AT is very popular amongst runners (in fact what put the idea in my head in the first place was an article about Rob Krar coming off a season of AT to win Western States with little distance running) but I had a nagging feeling that I know I need to be on the Nolan’s course this winter regardless.

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Some of you might remember what I might refer to as a “4-part series on the challenges of winter” last year, but was really 4 posts in a row of my relentless bitching and misery. In the last couple weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my attitude towards the weather, the mountains, and particularly the snow. How to run with it instead of against it. Having a sense of humor about the challenges, finding fun in there somewhere, becoming tougher. Acclimating to my environment, until it feels comfortable (instead of avoiding discomfort at all costs). I thought I was making good progress.

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Today I arrived at La Plata TH and noticed dozens of tracks heading back from the parking lot, which I took to be an overwhelmingly good sign, and which caused me to leave my snowshoes behind. I pulled on my new “booties”- tall neoprene sleeves with a thick sole and miniature crampons built into the sole, Kahtoola’s answer to Salomon’s Snocross I think-then realized my gaiters wouldnt fit over them and left those in Hooptie as well (there’s two big mistakes already, if you’re counting).

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Within the first mile, all of those promising tracks disappeared except one lone set of snowshoes. By the end of the second mile, the trail reaches a section prone to slides and drifting where the snow gets deep and the trail becomes harder to locate, and it so happens that the lone snowshoer turned around here-when the going got tough. The first time I post holed to my upper thigh I tried to think of it like “here’s where the tough get going” but after an hour of glorified swimming it became harder and harder to stay positive.

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I lost the trail, but found it again. I stumbled over rocks underneath deep snow that I couldn’t see. I tripped and fell and floundered a few times. There is a profound difference between snow that is less than mid-thigh deep and it’s evil, painful counterpart. It’s the difference between post-holing and “swimming”; post-holing sucks, but swimming is 1000x worse. I don’t know what compelled me to keep going. I kept thinking “basically anything else would be better training for Nolan’s” and “I’m wasting an entire day”. Because the only thing post-holing and snow swimming are good training for is more of the same. After hours of misery, I ultimately put down 7 miles and 1500ft gain if I was lucky. I turned around once I’d lost the trail for the 3rd or 4th time, after it had become clear that the snow would never get better and even the dogs were over it.

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After turning around, I almost immediately caught a rock with my spikes and fell face first into the deep snow. After righting myself, I burst into tears that quickly froze to my face and I shouted “WHAT IS HAPPENING!?!” I wish the sky had opened and spoken to me, “IT’S FUCKING WINTER SARAH, AND YOU’RE CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT??” But the sky didn’t say anything at all, and neither did the snow or the trees. And in the complete silence of the mountains in winter I remembered what I had just told my little sister: you’ll always have to fight despair and darkness, no matter how happy you are or how well things are going. I struggled to remember in that hopeless moment what the tools are for overcoming it: gratitude. Imagination. Enthusiasm for the present.

As frustrated as I was, I gained some perspective, because at least I had a strong body to take into the mountains in the winter. I remembered these mountains are my playground and my home; they are neither the enemy nor the source of my suffering. The source of my suffering is myself, and my expectations that the mountains in winter should be anything else. I choose to be here. Amongst the mountains, the sky, the forest, and the snow that blankets the scene with the most peaceful kind of quiet, that is complete without being deafening or lonely.

Maybe I’ll always struggle with this. Maybe I’ll move past it onto the next challenge. In retrospect I am so grateful for the opportunity to be challenged so forcefully and painfully sometimes, to struggle and ultimately learn and grow. It’s getting easier all the time, I know it is. Sometimes you really have to face it though, like today; to cry and yell at it, to really fight the darkness. Always coming out stronger.

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So I actually made up my race schedule for 2016 finally, and I’m really jazzed although there are a couple contingencies to be discussed in the future. My first race of the season will be in February in Arizona to get my hands dirty and take a break from winter (the Black Canyon 100k). Nolan’s is going to be the first week of July, the absolute earliest I can go after the snow’s run off. That’s all I’m going to say for now.

Leadville (or, how I moved to the middle of nowhere)

I haven’t posted in a while and it’s because this all happened last December in the two weeks after my last post. Let’s catch up.

So I’m not really sure when it started. The 28 was kind of a catalyst and a game changer that infiltrated my life in a whole bunch of ways, but very slowly so I barely noticed. I had been thinking a fair amount about how frustrating it was to pay this high rent and you’re always broke anyway. The American Dream Cycle: work more to pay more. When it occurred to me that my exorbitant-rent lease was going to be up in January I thought, where do I want to move? I looked at all the areas in Denver. Something centrally located but safe but still reasonably affordable and also decently sized that happens to allow pets…classic city problems. Somehow, my craiglist search suddenly arrived on High Rockies instead of Denver Area. At first, it was just a little light browsing on apartments/housing. Then I was looking at jobs. Then I was scouring rooms/shares and temporary/sublets and all the other housing categories. Then I applied for jobs. Suddenly I was taking my training up to Leadville and incidentally checking out houses. I interviewed for jobs.

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The whole thing felt very surreal-like it wasn't actually happening and I wasn't committing to anything and it wasn't crazy at all. [side note: this was exactly how I felt when I got my cats…I have experience with this magical process]

I told my dad on the phone that I was thinking about moving to the mountains on a Friday…and on Monday I accepted a job. A job that I started on Tuesday. That is exactly how fast it went from casually browsing craiglist to REALLY fucking moving to the mountains. All said and done, the whole thing was less than two weeks.

I also thought I'd be going back and forth for a while. Taking my time moving, seeing friends, teaching my classes. But once I started moving to Leadville, I didn't want to leave.

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I’m blocks-BLOCKS!-away from miles of wilderness. Not to mention the two tallest mountains in Colorado.

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Sometimes, on casual dog walks in the woods near the house, you come across large dead animal carcasses.

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Then your roommate goes out to find them and hang them on your shed.

Here in Leadville, we go to bed when it’s too cold (or sometimes just when it’s dark). I was a little worried that when I lost the internet and Netflix, I’d fall back on dvds and spend evenings bingeing on Sex and the City. I didn’t. I do yoga and read Sherlock Holmes. And I spend nearly all the daylight hours snowboarding, running, and snowshoeing.

Here’s what amazed me the most: so now I spend hours upon hours every day wandering around in the wilderness. And the backcountry in winter is especially lovely because with all that snow people see a barrier and leave it alone. There is nowhere more quiet than miles into the national forest when they’re sunk in more than 5ft of snow. So it seems like everywhere you go you’re blazing the trail (and I totally think PIONEERS O PIONEERS even when it’s an established trail that’s covered in snow). But here’s the sweetest thing, when you’re blazing trail, there’s not really a destination. Piles and piles of things go wrong, they slow you down, and eventually you stop expecting to get anywhere at all. You don’t need to. The longer you’re just out there you become an integrated piece of the stillness. It’s perfect freedom. Paradise.

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Winter Camping (taking misery to new heights)

If you’ve ever wanted to do extensive research on hypothermia and frostbite, not to mention crunching the numbers on temperatures, the gear you’re bringing, and the length of exposure, you should probably go winter camping.

If you’ve ever wanted to see icicles grow off of your dog’s coat, you should go winter camping.

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If you’ve ever wanted to restrict your meals to 4 minutes or less because standing still or sitting for longer will freeze you to death, you should go winter camping.

If you’re curious about game trails and very clear large animal prints, or if you’d like to know how easy it is to wake a bear up out of torpor (because their hibernation is SO LIGHT it’s not actually considered hibernation by most scientists), you should go winter camping.

I’m not going to mention going to the bathroom. Or the large frozen blood chunks in the snow. Okay, maybe we’ll talk about one of those. What I’m really not going to talk about is the LYNX tracks.

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So I told you, internet, that I had been fantasizing a lot about Nolan’s 14 and I briefly considered what it might be like to attempt a winter FKT, which as far as I know hasn’t been done. I also had high hopes for several day backcountry snowboarding trips this winter. Mark had some vacation time coming up and I was high off of the very exciting Capitol trip, and I wildly suggested a 3-day foray into winter camping to test the waters. And by waters, I mean several feet of frozen water.

Day one: We didn't hate our lives or the universe yet here

Day one: We didn’t hate our lives or the universe yet here

The day before I managed to use my excellent new knot tying skills and several feet of paracord to attach not one, but TWO sleeping bags to my pack. A nice 15 degree bag and an outrageously heavy outer bag made of flannel, some kind of vinyl or something, and probably filled with lead that I lovingly named BIG MAMA and cursed about 90 times during the trip, except while we were sleeping of course because Big Mama stood between me and death. Packed full of food and in every piece of winter gear I own, we drove 6ish miles west of Aspen on one of many “creek” roads where we parked and headed out into the wild.

And this is what my "pack" looked like.  By the end of the trip, I very strongly considered dumping most of my gear.  Upon arrival to the truck at the end, I dropped everything, laid down on top of it, and cried harder than I have in a very long time.

And this is what my “pack” looked like. By the end of the trip, I very strongly considered dumping most of my gear. Upon arrival to the truck at the end, I dropped everything, laid down on top of it, and cried harder than I have in a very long time.

Lu on her way in, just after we arrived

Lu on her way in, just after we arrived

So there were some foot tracks in just a little ways, the mystery of that is why would you bother to get there and start hiking in only for about 400 feet…but to each his own. What was worse was amongst these tracks was not just a little, but an incredible amount of frozen blood underneath a foot or so of snow. We speculated a bit but not that much…there wasn’t really an answer that’s not terribly disturbing I think.

Lu breaks trail

Lu breaks trail

Hypothermia. The body must maintain 97.7-99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. As the limbs decrease in temperature, heat from the core goes outward to replenish and if the core can’t keep it up from there things start going downhill. There are four stages:

Stage 1: awake and shivering 90-95 degrees
Stage 2: drowsy and not shivering 82-90 degrees
Stage 3: unconscious, not shivering 68-82 degrees
Stage 4: no vital signs less than 68 degrees

1500 people die in the US every year of hypothermia. Then, there’s the other cold related problems, frostbite and frostnip. I don’t really even want to talk about Chillblains. You know a little girl in Sweden was revived after a body temperature of 54 degrees!? Did you see that movie about the mountaineer ice climbers that made the first ascent of some giant mountain in Peru or somewhere and there was an accident and anyway they were out there for a couple days and their skin was made up with all sorts of creepy sores? I’m thinking they were supposed to be Chillblains now that I know about them, and that’s all I have to say about Chillblains.

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I had a pretty interesting moment while climbing through extensive brush in order to fill up Nalgenes from the river (and btw, did you know that backcountry mountain water in the winter is THE MOST refreshing water that exists in the world? true story, it tastes nothing like the bottled water that is claimed to come from mountain springs either) because I realized that if *I* were a bear, I would most definitely hibernate in very thick brush by the river and since bears don’t officially hibernate they can be woken up at the drop of a hat (or by the brush breaking over them). I’m unsure how they can just pop up and attack you, since their body temperature drops to 5 degrees fahrenheit and their heart rate to 8-12 beats per minute. But what’s impressive is that mama bears go under pregnant and pop out cubs during. Also, by some miracle of supposed science their muscles don’t atrophy.

Getting water- a wonderful high point, especially since I wasn't mauled by 5 degree bears

Getting water- a wonderful high point, especially since I wasn’t mauled by 5 degree bears

I’m not really sure what else to say about the fateful trip. You don’t sleep, then after hours of not sleeping you get suddenly warm enough to sleep for 30 minutes and you wake up freezing again. The forecasted high temperature does not apply to the mountains, even if it’s forecasted for the mountains. Even worse, there’s hardly any sun (it’s obscured by MOUNTAINS). Baked beans that were boiling are amazingly cold in less than three minutes. We still don’t know if it’s better or much worse to clear the snow below the tent (don’t worry, before winter’s out I will be able to build a snow cave and I’ll tell you about it). You can’t put up a tent in your giant snow mittens so you have to do it with bare hands and they FREEZE, so bring a second pair of less-warm-but-more-workable gloves. I thought I was a bigger badass for some reason, but the backcountry reminded me what hardcore means. What is miserable suddenly becomes less miserable once you admit you’re miserable.

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Oh- and snow covered mountains and icy rivers are gorgeous and epic.

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Mt Lindsey (will I EVER finish the 28?)

Decisions made in the mountains are so different than in the real world. There’s also something to be said from beginning any endeavor with a “it’s in the bag” mentality.

from the meadow just after the TH

from the meadow just after the TH

After the Capitol attempt, I felt really good about the 28…basically like that chapter was almost closed, and it was just a matter of finalizing it. I knew I wouldn’t head back to the Elks again until I do Av training and buy an ice axe, so I estimated that the official 28th would be Mt. Lindsey. I put it off a couple weeks so that I could go with Mark, and celebrate proper. The day before, we were texting things like “finally finishing the 28th!” “28 is in the bag!” the weather was forecasted to be clear, sunny, high of 42, 10mph winds. Not bad, not bad at all. The round trip was 8.25, all class 2, and aside from some snow and ice it was in pretty good condition.

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We even didn’t plan to leave until 6:30a because we weren’t worried about getting an early start. And we went to Slohi, where the people are very sweet but it takes a very long time for them to make your drinks (do they realize how funny that is?) It was a four hour drive from Denver, there’s a long network of forest service access roads that will be totally impassible come winter. We started off at the TH at like 11am. The hike in was nice. We got mildly lost when the snow blocked a twist in the trail, but we found it again. Arriving at the saddle, the wind picked up. The route seemed obvious, we took a dip down from the ridge on the snowy side and it was a little tricky with the ice but definitely okay. When we got to the point where we could see the gully we’d be ascending, it was very icy and long. We chose to ascend early, climbing the rocks in a rockier, less snowy part and heading to the ridge. I knew there was a ridge route so I thought we’d be able to summit from the ridge. I was route finding.

from the saddle

from the saddle

On the ridge, things were definitely a little dicey. Lu was okay, but I was getting a little worried about her. The wind was picking up quickly, making the climbing feel unsteady. I saw what was ahead and stopped suddenly. Mark caught up and said “I don’t know about this” and I was strangely optimistic. I kicked my foot out on a ledge to the left to see better, and saw what was below me (nothing). It was like a mini version of the knife edge. And on the other side was the crux wall of the ridge route. I was enamored by it, but I couldn’t think of any safe way to get Lu to the other side. The wind was whipping at this point, throwing bits of ice into our eyes (10mph my ass). We decided to head back, and almost immediately regretted taking the ridge back, trying to down climb on the ice. Lu couldn’t find the way that we got down one part and she spent the better part of 5 minutes pacing back and forth and whining, freaking out. She could get down fine, but she just didn’t see the way down. It was terrible, poor girl.

Mark, descending the ridge.  Things were too gnarly to stop and take pictures before now!

Mark, descending the ridge. Things were too gnarly to stop and take pictures before now!

We found a way down from the ridge back to the trail, and headed back out towards the saddle. Arriving at the saddle, we estimated if we should go back and try the route the way we were supposed to, going up the gully. The wind I’d estimate was nearing 50mph, as I could lean into it 45 degrees and be held up. We agreed to call it and headed down the saddle as fast as possible (by that I mean we glissaded on the ice! Or rather, I did). It wouldn’t have been that hard or taken that long to finish it. I’m not actually sure why we gave up and headed back.

Mark and I, over the icy river

Mark and I, over the icy river

It was a nice trip back. I didn’t feel that bad about not summiting, it was a gorgeous day in the mountains. I would like to finish the 28. It’s been an epic journey and now that I’ve done 98% of TWO 28 attempts, it’s going to be nice to call it closed. I’ve talked a lot before about how good I feel in the mountains, how I want to be a better person. How just existing there is enough. Then we go back to the city…it’s enough to make me move out there…

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In other news, I’ve been training for the next adventure. I’m about ready to make it official.

kitchari cleanse (total mindf**k)

So a teacher friend and I decided to start a spending freeze challenge for one month (our rule is that the one exception is produce). We had a couple weeks to prepare for it, I stocked up on food essentials and made a few purchases that I knew I’d need for climbing and SAR training. Like two days before we were scheduled to start, she texts me “I think I’m going to start the spending challenge with a cleanse” and I was like “oh?” [I’ve never cleansed and never wanted to. I have no interest in fasts, particularly]. But, she tells me about it (kitchari is basically rice, mung beans, ayurvedic spices that agree with you, veggies that you digest easily) and I was like “HEY, I can totally do that. And it sounds like a decent idea.” It’s not fasting, you eat as much as you want, except you’re restricted to not eating until after you poo in the morning, and stopping eating 2-3hrs before bed. But it covers all the good food groups, and you drink tea (but not coffee. goddamn it. not coffee.) And I knew it would be good for me to cut sugar and caffeine and flour.

So I was in. For a cleanse. In addition to our spending freeze. Then I also decided I would cleanse from Facebook and Netflix/TV in general.

I don’t know if you’ve cleansed before. But a monodiet gets intense FAST.

Day one: I wanted to eat everything in the entire world but kitchari. But the end of the day, I couldn’t even stomach eating more kitchari.

Day two: I’ve never hated anything in the world like I hate Coriander. I fucking hate coriander. I’d rather die than eat any more coriander.

Day three: me “I’m suddenly tired, like, my eyebrows and fingertips are tired” my friend “ah! I see you’ve reached the detoxing stage. Your energy will come back. In a day or a few.” The most interesting thing about this day was, I became incredibly motivated to get rid of old clothes. I just had this fuck it mentality, I don’t need this shit! This shit either! It all goes!

Day four: things got better. At this point, I was craving things I don’t even want to eat, and never do eat (boxed mac and cheese, what the hell?) Although, by the end of the day I did just stop eating, which was bad. But it was only one night. This led me to eat an entire avocado plain.

Day five: I had to skip a training run because I was too tired. I made banana bread for the weekend intensive backcountry training and I couldn’t even lick my fingers (yeah, I mix things with my hands. so what). Things were a little rough because of those two things. But, overall it wasn’t too bad. By the end of the day, I was eating plain rice because I couldn’t stomach the spices or the beans anymore. Interesting, making the banana bread was a project in health…I adjusted the recipe to make it gluten free and cut nearly all of the sugar out because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stomach it.

After the cleanse: so I had two full days of backcountry training right after, I brought a bunch of healthy food with me. The interesting thing was, though, that I felt like I should still be eating kitchari. As much as I thought I’d make a big breakfast feast on Saturday morning, I made plain oatmeal and added peanut butter but nothing else. I actually made some kitchari after the weekend was over. Even weirder than wanting to eat kitchari even when I don’t have to is, I feel like I’ve made some progress psychologically about the way that I eat and think about food. I don’t think of myself as someone that emotionally eats but I realize that to a certain extent I do. When I’m tired after a long day of training or teaching, I daydream about the things I’m going to make to eat. Now, I’m planning ahead better and having things already made. I’m making slightly better choices in terms of nourishing my body than what just sounds good. It was a great look into why I do things, and why I think about food the way that I do.

Up next: what is the NEXT ADVENTURE?! It’s a big one, I’m telling you. The biggest of all time.

beast mode/couch mode (the space between?)

On Friday Mark and I ran the Flatirons and the first time up the first Flatiron I was dragging. I have this brilliant theory that I’m good after 4 miles…and in this instance we were tackling badass elevation gain very early, so I could use that as an excuse. But man, do you ever have that run that you just want to stop with every single step. Ugh! Then right at the end it turned, and I beast moded the rest of it. BM is how we do epic shit right? I pride myself on my ability to beast mode elevation gain, in races but more importantly the real world. I get “can’t stop/won’t stop” in my head and just blast right past where I think my edge is. It seems to have environmental factors (and by that I mean COMPETITION), but there has to be some way to trigger it just any time. Right!?

Flatirons are so sleepy you can't even see them

Flatirons are so sleepy you can’t even see them

I was thinking during this run how much I’ve changed. Even from that moment in a spin class I was teaching when I thought about BASELINE (is your baseline sitting on the couch watching Netflix?) and I was already training then. Powering through the mountains has changed everything. Beast mode is now rocking 1000ft gain/mile. But there’s always so far to go.

I scheduled the rest of the 28 fourteeners. It’s pretty surreal; last January 20 seemed like an insane number. A month ago 28 seemed improbable. I’ll finish the remaining Collegiates (and the rest of the Sawatch range) next week. Up next is the Long’s trip. I’ll be riding the 82 miles to the trailhead, running the 14 miles to and from the summit of Long’s Peak, and riding home to Denver, hopefully in less than 20 hours (bagging one peak the long way). Last week of September Mark and I are going back for the Mosquito Range peaks we missed the last time around (due to ice and Luna’s cut foot). Then, it’s Capitol Peak with the boys. Colorado’s most technically difficult fourteener, and the #5 most dangerous (happy birthday to me!).

braking for pull ups on the way to Evergreen on my new bike, Blow

braking for pull ups on the way to Evergreen on my new bike, Blow

Monday was the Columbia ascent 11.5 miles and 4200ft gain
Tuesday off
Wednesday 42 miles on the bike
Thursday 6mi city
Friday 5mi 3000ft gain at the Flatirons
Saturday 15mi bike
Sunday 14mi Mesa Trail (NO BEARS!!!)